Amanda Ayala-Fairey’s black pug, George, fidgets in my lap while her husband, Shepard, sporting a Bad Brains T-shirt, talks a mile a minute about his plans to dethrone that other, equally pugnacious George from the White House. The walls of the conference room inside Studio Number One — the design firm that pays the bills for his gallery space Subliminal Projects, as well as his Obey street-art project — are lined with Warholian head shots of rappers Slick Rick, L.L. Cool J and Tupac Shakur screen-printed onto wood in shades of red, white, blue and gold. Absent, though, is Andre the Giant’s mug — strange, considering that Fairey’s rendering of the 7-foot-4-inch, 500-pound wrestling sensation has over the last decade and a half been plastered worldwide. Perhaps the icon’s absence signals the artist’s subtle shift away from his bread and butter: the appropriation of pop culture for the propagation of pop culture.
Fairey shows me sticker versions of the anti-Bush poster he created for a joint project with graffiti muralist Mear One (an acronym for Manifest Energy And Radiate, One as in “the One”) and agitprop postering king (and L.A. Weekly contributor) Robbie Conal, whose Ronald Reagan caricature bearing the header “Contra” and footer “Diction” Fairey acknowledges was influential in helping him integrate his own pop and political sensibilities. Elizabeth Ai and John Orlando, founders of Post Gen, a burgeoning art collective born out of the “Beat” and “lost” generations — “I wanted to start my own generation,” Ai says — conceived the posters as a way to publicly call Bush to task. Dubbed BE THE REVOLUTION, it’s essentially the same-old-same-old guerrilla-postering-in-the-dark-or-light-no-matter-so-long-as-it’s-done-surreptitiously-and-carefully-enough-that-no-one-gets-caught-by-the-cops-and-thrown-in-jail-or-worse-falls-from-a-precarious-ledge-and-breaks-a-leg campaign out of which Fairey and Conal and, by extension, Mear One have made careers.
After plastering Los Angeles, the trio plus Ai and Orlando — who will play documentary filmmakers along the way — aim to overwhelm walls, poles, and other neglected surfaces in Boston and New York City during the upcoming national conventions. “These posters will act as distractions from the real advertisements,” Fairey says. In deference to Noam Chomsky’s notion of a “spectator democracy,” which draws from Walter Lippmann’s theory that propaganda enlightens the general public about issues they otherwise might not consider, Fairey regards these posters as catalysts for awakening the apathetic. “I’m interested in improving the system rather than just saying fuck the system.”
Ghost in the Drum Machine
John Wood’s eyes scan the crowd in front of Amoeba, the massive Hollywood record store at the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga. Teenagers stand on the corner, waiting for rides. A weather-beaten man sells incense next to the bike rack, and a hot-dog cart is parked around the corner. There’s a small scene here each weekend, though people are mostly on their way into the store, so it stays fluid. Wood has to work fast if he’s going to sell any of his bumper stickers tonight.
A pair of twin brothers dressed in hooded sweatshirts make their way across Sunset, and he catches their eyes with his wares. “Drum Machines Have No Soul,” reads his sticker. The twins pause to read the message. One reaches for the sticker saying, “You better believe it!”
“It’s a common-sense call for better music,” says Wood. “They cost a dollar each.”
On first impression Wood is a gregarious crackpot. He wears a hat announcing his “Drum Machines” slogan and a mauve dress jacket over a checkered button-up shirt. His glasses are large and plastic, his sneakers white and scuffed. Once he’s made eye contact with a potential customer, his sticker pitch — “It’s a common-sense call for better music” — is not far behind. A mussy-haired mod and his girlfriend stop and dig in their pockets for change.
When I approach him, Wood immediately launches into a polemic on music and social revolution, citing George Orwell and warning that “rampant technology will leach the meaning from life and relieve untold millions of their livelihoods.” After this proclamation he tells me that our interview is over. His one-man organization — the Society for the Rehumanization of American Music — is going to be bigger than Beatlemania. But it’s too early for him to talk to the press.
The interview isn’t really over though because Wood — a 53-year-old pianist — keeps talking. He tells me that his father is Randy Wood, founder of the old-school soul, gospel and rock & roll label Dot Records, an early home of Pat Boone. Then he tells me that he — John — ran the Studio Masters recording studio here in Hollywood for 25 years. Most important, he tells me that multitrack recording — the process by which members of a band record their music separately in the studio — is killing music as we know it.
Despite the rise in sightings of his sticker on record-store walls, lampposts and hipster bumpers, Wood is a less-than-convincing evangelist. When challenged, he insists that the statement on the sticker is not an argument but an objective fact. When I decline his offer to collaborate with me on writing this article, he asks if I am threatening him.
“This is my life,” he tells me as we pace the pavement. “If I’m going to talk to somebody about these things, I’d like you to understand it. But this is all grinding to a halt here.” Then he gets into his Volvo station wagon and drives off.
“Drum Machines Have No Soul” is nothing new. Wood’s concern with the purity of art echoes the sentiments of cultural critics such as Walter Benjamin, as well as pro-vinyl didacts Neil Young and Steve Albini. But there’s something brokenhearted about Wood that gives pathos to his tired nostalgia trip. So much so that when he calls me 30 minutes later, I scribble down the instructions to his apartment without hesitation.
An off-white 1929 Steinway piano dominates the single that Wood rents in a turn-of-the-century South Los Angeles house. A heavy blue punching bag sits nearby. Records are stacked on the floor next to an old two-track analog tape machine. Wood is divorced, and there’s a photograph of his two sons balanced on a speaker.
He’s much more relaxed here, though his message is no more flexible. He walks around the space, pausing to punch me on the shoulder as he holds forth on the value of old-school recording techniques. He says that modern pop music is to pre-’70s pop music as pro wrestling is to professional boxing. “LL Cool J is not Marvin Haggler,” he says. “LL Cool J is Hulk Hogan.”
It’s all just more nostalgia until he sits down at his piano and starts to play. “That’s what I do,” he says after improvising a tune. “I’m a musician.” He’s so earnest it makes me want to cry, despite his claim that OutKast doesn’t count as “important music.” He then shows me several of the albums he’s recorded over the last 30 years. My questions about what he is doing hawking bumper stickers get me more platitudes about “making people happy” and instigating social revolution. He soon lapses into what the world would be like if his manifesto were to come to fruition. Billboards honoring Art Blakey and Duke Ellington figure large in this fantasy.
You really miss those times, don’t you? I ask him.
“I think we all do,” he says. “Though a lot of people who are most excited about the bumper sticker are young guys with baseball hats going sideways and skateboards.”
What does the sticker mean to them?
“They just want to hear some real playing. It’s not complicated.”
Under the watch of security cameras and roaming prison guards, Roberta Spanne sat at a heavy white picnic table in the visiting area of the Central California Women’s Facility
near Fresno imparting some maternal wisdom to her two children over hot dogs and ice cream bars.
“See these women in here?” Spanne said, nodding her head at the others on the patio who, like her, wore blue-sleeved softball shirts and denim pants. “They are so gay. Eighty percent of the women in here got girlfriends. Everything you see on TV, it’s true.”
“Really?” said Spanne’s 15-year-old daughter, trying to see without staring.
It was the first time Spanne’s daughter and 12-year-old son had seen her since she began a three-year sentence almost two years ago for stealing a bottle of liquor. The kids live in La Verne with Spanne’s mother, whose car can’t handle the drive.
“See my friend over there, J.D.?” Spanne kept going. “She’s the first woman to get three strikes, so she’s here for life. She used to be gay, then she went to church. Now she grew her hair out and goes by Joyce.”
“That’s your friend?” asked Spanne’s daughter, whom I will call Lisa.
Lisa leaned forward and whispered stagily into her mother’s ear: “Mom . . .”
“No!” Spanne said spiritedly when Lisa was done. She shook her head.
“You promise, Mom? Dicks, not chicks, right?”
“Yup, dicks not chicks, that’s right,” Spanne nodded. “I’m getting another soda.”
“She’s freakin’ me out,” Lisa said.
Spanne’s daughter and son were visiting today thanks to the zealous organizing of a Los Angeles nun named Sister Suzanne Jabro. Five years ago Jabro learned that many women in prison never see their children during their incarceration. California’s two largest women’s prisons are near Chowchilla, four or five hours from Los Angeles County, where three-quarters of the women prisoners come from. Many of the grandparents, dads and foster parents who are often poor and overwhelmed by the demands of holding the family together can’t manage that long drive.
In 2000, Jabro and a group of Catholic and secular organizations arranged for a bus to take children from L.A. to see their mothers in prison on Mother’s Day. The families loved it, and the program grew. This year, almost 250 children took chartered buses from all over the state to converge on the two women’s prisons. I rode up on the bus from Watts. The visiting areas were crowded with families like the Spannes.
Around the cement patio and the fenced-in grass next to it, women in identical jerseys, pants and brown boots chased toddlers, rocked babies, played cards and board games, introduced their families to each other and gave piggyback rides.
“He went through puberty!” a woman named Loretta cried out gleefully, pointing at her 13-year-old son, who shrank in mortification. “His voice changed, got a little fuzz going on his mustache!”
“His hair sure grew,” observed another woman, poking at her son’s towering Afro.
The women were only allowed the visits if they had no disciplinary problems; one teenage girl’s mother was denied a visit, but the girl came anyway. Prison guards allowed the two to speak on phones through a glass window in the corner of the room. The girl pressed her prom pictures to the glass.
Five minutes before 3, a guard called out, “Visiting is terminated!” Toys were packed and families held each other in group hugs around the room.
“I wore waterproof makeup, ’cause I knew I was going to cry,” Spanne said. She clutched both her children to her. “I love you,” she said, as she kissed the tops of their heads. Tears ran down their faces.
Slowly the room reorganized: Softball-jerseyed women lined up on one side, families on the other. One or two at a time, the women were ushered behind a door with a heavy glass pane. While they waited, they called to each other.
“Mom! Mom!” “I love you.” “Stay cool, sister.” “Bye, Mom.” Spanne waved, and her kids waved back. The heavy door opened and Spanne walked through. She turned and pointed at herself, crossed her arms over her chest and then pointed at her family. “I love you,” she told them in sign language. And then she was gone.