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Materialistic Fetishism Reconsidered

I’ve been spending most of my spare time recently figuring out how to get rid of crap, and sifting what’s left into clusters of relative importance — what I can take if I have to leave the country with 30-minute, 24-hour, or two-week notice. It’s a constant struggle to avoid giving in to my twin senses of historic archival responsibility and regular consumer lust. The great thing about the holiday gift-giving season is that, by permitting me to purchase cool shit for the less enlightened, it affords me vicarious consumer thrills without actually messing with the austere feng shui of my live/work space. Here’s a compendium of this year’s most idiosyncratic must-give items.

First things first: I would like to formally nominate San Francisco electronics geek Mitch Altman for sainthood for the invention of TV-B-Gone, the universal keychain-size OFF remote control, and sole product of his company, Cornfield Electronics Inc. — "dedicated to the use of technology for something useful." This is an item I have dreamed of for many years as I sat in an empty bar or waiting room, bombarded with the inane babble of Babylon cranked up to 11. If some jillionaire would please distribute 200 million of these and an equal number of those shades from They Live, our species might stand a chance ($15 from www.TVBGone.com).

If you must watch TV, please watch cable access. If you don’t get cable access, go to www.publicaccesshollywood.com and order a $12 postage-paid copy of this year’s most underappreciated documentary, Public Access Hollywood, featuring local legend Francine Dancer (performing her should-be hit Pizza Box), Christian Scientific Ventriloquist David Hart, postmodern psychedelic deconstructionists the Three Geniuses and other auteurs of the last frontier of American free expression. The Cartoon Network’s late-night Atlanta-based "Adult Swim" programming block is also an acceptable broadcast choice, and I’m constantly amazed at how many of my friends have never seen the dysfunctional fast-food meal Aqua Teen Hunger Force or the dysfunctional marine-research team Sealab 2021, both of which have new DVD collections out at fine stores everywhere. Help your teenage relatives prepare to navigate a jarring, discontinuous hallucinatory media landscape with the full set. If you really want to see the cutting edge of lo-fi animation, though, seek out Pick a Winner, a DVD (+ CD) compilation featuring a cluster of amazing sort-of computer animations by some of the intrepid tripsters from Rhode Island who produce the great comix in Paper Rodeo and Paper Rad and the neopsychedelic overload art installations of the Dearraindrop collective ($16 from www.loadrecords.com).

My new favorite small record label is called Sublime Frequencies. It was started a year or two back by Alan Bishop, lead oud player and bassist for the unclassifiable Sun City Girls, as an outlet for his and his friends’ extremely non-traditional recordings of world music. Ranging from the fragmentary broadcast collage of discs like Radio Palestine and Radio Java to the pop-ephemera salvage operations of Cambodian Cassette Archives and Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma), the label offers a startlingly fresh and creative approach to ethnomusicological documentation, embracing the subjectivity of the compiler’s attention and taste, as well as the chance sound events that define actual environments. Providing a much-needed corrective to the cartoonish caricatures and pious history lessons that make up our current picture of Islam, these audio encounters with mostly Muslim Southern Asia and North Africa also happen to be riddled with breathtaking musical gems. But you’re just as likely to find yourself immersed in shortwave static, the cries of street merchants, honking traffic, or droning cicadas. Most titles $14 from www.sublimefrequencies.com. I’d be remiss not to mention the new album from the Thai Elephant Orchestra, Elephonic Rhapsodies, which amends their first record’s delicate random avant-gardisms with a number of pachyderm/human collaborations, including amazing renditions of the Hank Williams classic Kaw-liga, and Beethoven’s Pastorale.

Seasonal outsider musical offerings include the soundtrack to A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant ($15 from www.sh-k-boom.com), which, although not actually referencing any of the various solstice-marking rituals now occurring around us, is permeated with a pernicious sense of renewal entirely in keeping with miraculous self-replenishing oil reserves and other joyful mythologies. Those who recently enjoyed the play at Santa Monica’s Powerhouse will be pleased by the expanded version on CD, including new answers to the recurring onstage question What does the L. [in L. Ron Hubbard] stand for?: "The L stands for Health, the L stands for Hope, the L stands for Teach us how to cope!" Amen. Even if you missed it last year, The American Song-Poem Christmas (www.bar-none.com) offers choice song-factory productions of would-be hitmakers’ songwriting efforts, including such looking-glass classics as Santa Came on a Nuclear Missile and the classic Rodd Keith cut Santa Claus Goes Modern — possibly the most enervated yuletide single ever cut. From an adjacent parallel universe, Dust-to-Digital (the label responsible for last year’s amazing rickety gospel box set Goodbye Babylon) has compiled Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, an eclectic gumbo of vintage roots recordings ranging from the alien vocalise of the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers to the early calypso of Lord Beginner’s Christmas Morning the Rum Had Me Yawning ($15 from www.dust-digital.com).

Regular readers of the sardonic gutter-glam lifestyle magazine Vice flip first to the fashion Do’s and Don’ts: incredibly mean-spirited surrealist commentary on street snapshots of hapless poseurs, Renaissance Faire escapees, anti-corporate protesters, homeless veterans and innocent little babies. The vitriol can put you off at first, but upon extended exposure several mitigating points become clear. First, writer Gavin McInnes reserves his only consistent animus for one category: sandaled men. Otherwise he is an equal-opportunity hater. Second, as his real criteria emerge, they turn out to be actually based on the fundamental truth about dressing up, being cool or any other creative act: not trying. Most important, this is the best writing being published anywhere. Warner Books’ Do’s & Don’ts: 10 Years of Vice Magazine’s Street Fashion Critiques not only provides more laugh-out-loud reading than even the mighty Chuck Shepherd News of the Weird collections, it’s also the best poetry outside of those spam e-mails for penis enlargement that assert things like "It takes a real guardian angel to traffic light of cleavage." Even if some of the photos do look like downloaded thumbnails. Just don’t leave it by the toilet if you ever want to get in there again.

The only other two books that I’m planning to give as gifts are long-awaited offerings from two of the best comix artists to emerge in the ’80s. Mark Beyer’s relentlessly nightmarish, obstinately primitive weekly strip Amy and Jordan graced this very newsweekly (and a handful of others) for a few years. Finally collected in a nice inexpensive hardbound edition from Pantheon, this innovative exercise in graphic narrative uses its tremendous anxiety about physical vulnerability and the mutability of reality to fuel a fierce existential slapstick and an obsessively inventive visual design. While it’s never clear how much of Beyer’s outsider draftsmanship is put on, it’s always been apparent that Gary Panter’s pen was capable of just about anything. The former L.A. punk artiste, whose art-world cachet is finally beginning to grow, has produced a new work of enormous visual and literary complexity in the lavish oversize Fantagraphics hardcover Jimbo in Purgatory, a continuation of his adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy begun in his ’90s Jimbo comic book.

If all this content isn’t your cup of poison, and you want something soft and adorable representing you in the world, go to www.giantmicrobes.com and check out the 1-million-times-actual-size plushy Giant Microbes. Since I found a couple of these delightful furry bacteria at the Science Center Gift Shop, they’ve become a mainstay at baby showers and toddlers’ birthdays, but are equally appropriate as stocking stuffers or tokens of romantic esteem. Choose between innocuous entities like the Bookworm or the lovely teal-colored halitosis-causing Porphorymonas gingivalis, the slightly more sinister Orthomyoxvirus (flu) and Streptococcus pneumoniae (earache, meningitis), or hardcore killers like Ebola and my personal favorite, the Plague. If you root around enough on the Web site, you can also find the HIV plushy, though it and the flesh-eating-disease models are marred by embroidered areas (depicting an AIDS ribbon and a knife and fork respectively) that disrupt their sculptural purity. Save a few dollars by buying the "Maladies or Calamities" four-packs and spread the seasonal spirit far and wide!

Oh yes, and if you missed the annual holiday open house and sale at the ECF Art Center (www.ecfartcenter.com) — L.A.’s premier facility for artists with developmental disabilities — you can still drop by its Baldwin Hills workshop just east of the Magic Johnson Theaters on King Boulevard and pick up some of the most remarkable and affordable artworks being made in the city.


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