It was a madhouse, bloated and bursting with young hipsters, dressed to impress and eager to be seen. I edged my way through a stagnant and heavily inked crowd toward the much-touted “new work” (singular), attempting to glimpse the art, willing myself to grasp the Mark Ryden–as–Outsider Art God phenomenon.
“Excuse me,” I squeaked as I slid past giggling goth girls and cell phone–toting poseurs. The sheer density of the unlikely crush of people at the Pasadena Museum of Californa Art consumed personal buffer zones and made exposed insteps fair game. I excused myself repeatedly as I attempted to glean a better look, only to be assaulted by a lumbering oaf, who snarled, “Watch yourself,” and threw his elbow into my solar plexus as he shoved his way past. He now stood with his saggy, Gap-clad ass mere centimeters from me, a diminutive, bespectacled Jewess, traveling alone and just trying to make sense of the hype.
I made eye contact as I jimmied my way toward the front.
“I did say excuse me.”
He turned to his date-for-hire and snorted, “She must be from New York,” as though I were not in fact right next to him and in full possession of working eardrums.
“No, I’m from L.A.,” I said, and went back to contemplating Ryden’s work.
As a fanatical champion of the Outsider Art movement and card-carrying Juxtapoz subscriber, I have always been suspicious and admittedly envious of Ryden’s overwhelming success. While his talent is enormous and his technique superb, I remain dumbfounded when it comes to decoding the numbers and symbols interspersed between recurring images of Christina Ricci and Colonel Sanders. I have spent countless hours, both stoned and sober, in front of his paintings, begging them to explain themselves to me. But the knife-wielding butcher bunnies are surprisingly terse, leaving me to conclude that either I am stupid or that Ryden is full of shit.
Is it merely the aesthetic that sucks his fans in? Press on Ryden is generally relegated to the fluffy ass-kissing reverence of the Outsider glossies. He is barely given a glance by the established art publications, which would rather ignore the phenomenon and hope it goes away, holding tightly to their stronghold on the threadbare and decaying art snobbery that maintains the illusion that art is for the rich, the educated, the refined — the dull and the superior, the sissies and the snots. But, as far as I know, no one has ever asked Ryden what the fuck he’s trying to express. I mean, seriously, man, what’s with the Lincoln heads?
I remained where I was, transfixed by the image in front of me — the numbers of pi adorning the figure’s belt, the dinosaurs in the background, the nautilus and the astrology, the DNA strands climbing up her gown, the mysterious and seemingly infinite space between her legs. Then, the lumbering oaf broke my reverie.
“You wanna get out of here?” he said to his date.
As they strutted past me, he thrust his elbow into the small of my back and dragged it along the width of my torso with aggressive intention. Every atom in my body screamed, “ASSHOLE!!!!!!!!!!,” but before I could toss a silver-plated ninja star at his jugular, I was hit with a white burst of comprehension.
I got it. The oaf’s elbow was like the alchemist’s secret ingredient that transformed my confusion into a gut-deep golden knowing. I got the knives and the Lincolns and the wide-eyed little girls and the starfish. I got that no matter how much you are enjoying an art opening, nothing is going to stop some overfed, slack-jawed jackass from assaulting you. That no matter how pretty it all seems, there is a violent and murderous underbelly to the entirety of this material existence, and no matter how many fluffy pink bunnies you choose to surround yourself with, there are still sharp knives and creepy crawlies and horrible atrocities going on all around you. And this is why we put our faith in the mystery — in pi and in planets and in the quantum field and the Mayan calendar and the Sefir Yetzirah and the Holy Trinity — and that these concepts — Santa Claus, Abe Lincoln, beauty and nature and cosmology and math — these are the things that comfort us when our mountains slide into the ocean and our vertebrae are severed, but when it comes down to it, they are meaningless and arbitrary, and that statue of Jesus you have on your dashboard isn’t going to save you any more than that Colonel Sanders figure you have perched atop your halogen-illumed cubicle. Wasps sting rich people, too.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and there’s a lazy stream of customers walking into Retail Slut, that mainstay of Melrose fashion and music with the tabloid-style headlines (“I Was Bigfoot’s Love Slave,” “Elvis Sighted at Gay Pride Festival”) painted on its façade. Peter Thomas, who owns the rights to the Retail Slut name and owned the store itself for 10 years after he took over from founder Helen Bed in 1993, stops a customer carrying a black shirt and offers, “I’ll make you a good deal on that — 15 bucks.”
Everything in the store — fitted Bad Brains T-shirts, New Kids on the Block trading cards, skull-shaped toilet-bowl cleaners — is a deal today. After 22 years, Retail Slut is closing up shop at the end of the month.
A group of business-looking men, including one wearing an SBC company shirt, asks in a panic, “But you’re not closing for good, right?”
Thomas gives a halfhearted “yes.” Current store owner Jeff Rasul is considering reincarnating the place in — where else? — Silver Lake, and much of the merchandise will still be available on its Web site, www.retailslut.com, which Thomas runs. But the Melrose store will soon be history. Besides soaring rent (the building’s owner is asking for $6,000) and no nighttime parking, Thomas partly blames what he thinks is a dwindling club scene, one that doesn’t support a store like this anymore. These days Melrose has little more to show for itself than a lot of hooker boutiques that reek of incense and takeout, and sell clothes too small even for Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua. As for the Retail Slut aesthetic — it went mainstream long before anyone heard of Hot Topic. If it’s plaid, checkered, zippered, safety-pinned or painstakingly torn, it can be found in any mall. Even Thomas admits, “You can buy a studded belt at Target for $5.”
Ah, but that poster-clad ceiling. From below, it’s a sky twinkling with heavenly rock bodies — Suburban Lawns, Killing Joke, Abba, Front 242, Peter Murphy, Redd Kross, the Sugar Cubes, the Cramps (“Someone offered me $800 for that,” Thomas says), the Plasmatics at the Hammersmith Odeon, a naked Charo covering herself with a guitar, Faith No More in their skivvies, and a topless Jane Wiedlin, signed “From One Slut to Another.” They’re one-of-a-kind, in imperfect condition and not for sale.
Neither is the collection of fliers advertising everything from a Ramones in-store at Vinyl Fetish to a Circle Jerks show with the Misfits and Angry Samoans at the Goleta Valley Community Center in 1983, not to mention old set lists from the Go-Go’s, X and the Stooges, and some of the store’s original hand-drawn ads featuring a then-unknown Bret Michaels. What about that pair of black briefs belonging to Steve Jones, or the pink panties signed by Angelyne, Nina Hagen’s cigarette butt, or two paintings by Dee Dee Ramone? Yup, Thomas is keeping those too — they’re all part of his personal memorabilia collection.
Still, the glass case holding the Angelyne panties is going for $172 (it came from one of Melrose’s original punk stores, Poseur), and the life-size velvet bat once used as a prop during Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon tour went for a couple hundred. Shopping through the erosion of another hip and historic Hollywood hub is almost the postpunk rock equivalent of walking away with a piece of the Berlin Wall.
“Val Kilmer came here and drank beer with us at 11 a.m.,” says Thomas, whose stories about his years at Retail Slut — he started there in 1991 — flow as easily as the beer he holds in his hand. Meryl Streep bought a top hat. The clothes in Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” video were all bought here. Rozz Williams of Christian Death, Wall of Voodoo’s Bruce Moreland, Faster Pussycat’s Taime Downe and actress Leelee Sobieski all manned the register at one time or another.
“If these walls could talk,” Thomas says of the Good and Evil dressing rooms. “There’s been a lot of fornicating in these rooms. In fact . . .” he confesses and grimaces, gently patting the swinging doors. But that’s all he divulges. The office/kitchen is a graveyard of plastic limbs from mannequins used in the window displays; Thomas grabs a 38DD plastic boob, and one customer walks in and carries off an Asian-dressed mannequin they call “one-armed Yoko.” Since this used to be a gay-porn theater, Thomas heads outside and points to the gay bathhouse just down the street. That explains the “I’ll see you at the bathhouse” quote bubble coming out of an Erik Estrada cutout picture.
But what will become of Ty, one of the store’s favorite crazy bums, whose name is lovingly markered on a baseball bat (more for playing than for beating) kept behind the counter? Even after reading the sign, above all the handouts and local rags, that warns, in proper punk rock fashion, “No fucking rave-house-hip-hop-tribal-beat-trance shitty-ass fliers or posters. They will be thrown in the god damn garbage. Thank You,” it’s hard to imagine this place ever having turned anyone away.
I learned of Hunter Thompson’s death when a reporter for Associated Press phoned to ask what my reaction was. As he would write it: “ ‘I’m stunned,’ said Krassner, who was nearly speechless for several minutes after hearing the news. ‘It’s hard to believe I’m referring to him in the past tense.’ ” Bear in mind that this was on the Sunday evening of a three-day holiday weekend.
I don’t know who else or how many others the reporter called before or after me, but apparently I was the only one who happened to be accessible at the time. As a result, after that AP report was dispatched, I was deluged with interviews by print, radio and TV correspondents. Each time I found myself uttering some new observation, if only to keep myself from getting jaded.
Once I said, “Hunter was larger than life, sort of like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float” and, on the next call, added, “Except that it was filled with nitrous oxide.”
Years ago, after Abbie Hoffman’s suicide, his picture shared the front page of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner with Lucille Ball, who was about to undergo serious surgery. That evening, I had dinner at a Hollywood restaurant with Steve Allen. CNN’s entertainment reporter had made an appointment to meet Steve at the restaurant, and he interviewed him outside — twice — once for his response if Lucille Ball survived the operation, and again for his response if she didn’t. Although the practicality of such foresight was understandable, it was also somehow offensive.
Sure enough, the next day, there was Steve Allen on CNN, standing outside the restaurant and saying, “We all hope Lucy will pull through. There have been many success stories in the history of television, and yet the affection that millions of Americans hold for Lucille Ball is unique.” She died a week later, and CNN featured Steve Allen again in front of the same restaurant, saying, “Lucy will be greatly missed.”
One of the interviews I gave for Hunter Thompson was on NPR’s All Things Considered. After it was broadcast, according to a source at NPR, I was considered “big enough now” to merit an advance obituary, and radio journalist Jon Kalish was given the assignment to put me “in the can.” I don’t take it personally. This is a purely pragmatic process. I’ll be right in there with Charlie Manson, who is certainly a high achiever in his own field of endeavor. My personal definition of success is simply to try and do the appropriate thing every moment.
As Ken Kesey once told me, “My energy is what I do. My image is what other people think I do.”