Cool Things

Friday, December 7, 2018

Stop, Look, Listen: Friedberg Germany Gives the King a Go

Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2018 at 2:04 PM

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Sure, turning your two Mississippi River bridges into a nightly light-show is awesome; all the cool cities are doing that sort of thing, and it's something Elvis would have wanted, I'm almost certain. But Friedberg, Germany, where Sergeant Presley was stationed from October 1958 to March 1960, has taken advantage of a more subtle lighting opportunity that out-Memphises Memphis.

Check it out.

Elvis Presley Platz (Elvis Presley Square) in Friedberg, has been equipped with Elvis-themed pedestrian traffic lights. Green dancing Elvis means go; red singing Elvis means stop.

Wouldn't it be nice to see some of these downtown with Rufus Thomas in caution yellow showing us how to "Push & Pull?"

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Roll Local with Memphis Made Comic, Stoned Ninja

Posted By on Wed, Nov 21, 2018 at 11:43 AM

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Gabriel DeRanzo and Greg Cravens seem like unlikely partners. Cravens is a veteran illustrator, cartoonist, and comic strip creator. DeRanzo has a sterling reputation as a bartender, but when he and Cravens met at 901 Comics in a networking session for artists interested in contributing to Bad Dog comics first Memphis-made anthology of graphic fiction, he had no idea what he was doing. What did the inexperienced DeRanzo possess that nobody else had? A completed script. According to Cravens, who's been around the block a time or two, that made all the difference.

“Other people may have had ideas,” Cravens says, explaining why he gravitated toward DeRanzo. “But he had a completed 5-page script.” According to all involved, it wasn’t a very good 5-page script, but it was a spark — a beginning. There were plots to be hammered out and characters to develop. There was also an ethos to explore: The weed should be freed — and it would be too if not for those meddling, “Pharmaceutical companies, the alcohol industry, and organized crime," and money spent on “politicians to keep it illegal.”

Enter the Stoned Ninja. 

The meet-up where DeRanzo and Cravens first teamed up is part of the origin story for 901’s house brand, Bad Dog Comics, which published its second anthology earlier this month. Bad Dog will soon publish the second installment of DeRanzo and Cravens’ Stoned Ninja, which is currently receiving its finishing touches. Meanwhile, the creators continue to produce t-shirts and other fun, useful merchandise that, if things go according to plan, may ultimately position Stoned Ninja for wider distribution than most indie comics ever see. What has Stoned Ninja got that other indie comics don't? Its own brand of ninja-approved, 100 percent hemp rolling papers, that's what. 
Samples from 901 Comics Anthology Vol. 2
  • Samples from 901 Comics Anthology Vol. 2

“When I was a kid, comics were in every grocery store and quickie mart in the country, and they aren’t anymore,” Cravens says explaining the potential for head shops to expand comic distribution. “The market has narrowed down to where you have to go hard target search for a comic shop to go get comics,” he says. “What we’ve got is something we can sell in another store to another targeted audience. So, that’s the pitch when we approach larger publishers. There are potentially 25,000 more shops you can put your comic into, if you’ll just pay attention.”

“Given the content of the comic I figured there was no reason to go less than 100% pure hemp,” DeRanzo says of Stoned Ninja rolling papers. “So it’s as good a quality paper as anything out there and we’re offering fun packaging. On the inside flap there’s a comic and we’re going to change that flap every time we put in a new order. So Stoned Ninja will be like Bazooka Joe Bubble gum.”
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Stoned Ninja was originally inspired by the classic Kung Fu comedy Drunken Master, and developed as a means to explore pot culture beyond the usual burnout stereotypes.

“So I asked myself, if there can be a Drunken Master, why can’t there be a Stoned Ninja?” DeRanzo says.


Don’t anticipate kung fu Cheech and Chong, or Jackie Chan-inspired antics, even. Stoned Ninja is packed with fun stuff. Pizza boxes (featuring DeRanzo’s face) make cameos. The hero, Japanese American college student Kazunori Takagi, appears and disappears in clouds of dank smelling smoke. But, for being the story of a young man granted ninja superpowers by toking on a special strain of marijuana, the narrative content is fairly straight-faced.

For 10-years DeRanzo daydreamed about Stoned Ninja while he tended bar. “I had this insane amount of story content for movie ideas,” he says says. Comics weren’t in the plan so when Shannon Merritt from 901 said he wanted to start making comics DeRanzu said, “That’s great, I will buy your comics!”

“No,” Merritt answered. “I want you to help me make these comics.”

One problem: DeRanzo couldn’t draw. Okay, two problems: He had no experience writing either. But the characters were there. And after a decade of thinking about it, the stories were there too. So DeRanzo leaned on Cravens’ experience in graphic storytelling, and Cravens trusted DeRanzo’s vision. Inker Josh Lindsey has since joined the team.

“I drew the knives all wrong,” Cravens says, admitting a learning curve of his own. DeRanzo gave his illustrator some sharp examples as a gift. “I nearly cut my toe off twice,” Cravens says of his sample cutlery experience. But now his knives are proper.
Samples from Stoned Ninja
  • Samples from Stoned Ninja


"Right now we're trying to build the first six issue story arc at a pace that lets us be normal people. Once it's done we plan to release it on a monthly schedule. Ideally going mass distribution," DeRanzo says.

For the completely appropriate price of $4.20, comics are available locally at 901 Comics, Whatever stores, The Wild Hare smoke shop, Tobacco Zone, and Memphis Made Brewery. Stoned Ninja starter packs, which include a comic book, a t-shirt, and a pack of Stoned Ninja rolling papers are available online at stonedninjacomics.com.
DeRanzo, Cravens, Lindsey
  • DeRanzo, Cravens, Lindsey

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

What’s Kids in the Hall Co-Founder Kevin McDonald Doing in Memphis?

Kevin the Kid

Posted By on Thu, Nov 15, 2018 at 10:42 AM

Kevin McDonald
  • Kevin McDonald
If Monty Python are the Beatles of TV sketch comedy, The Kids in the Hall are Duran Duran. I borrowed that line from Kids co-founder Kevin McDonald, who’s been known to use it in his standup routine. It’s a great gag because it’s a terrible metaphor. If we’re being honest, The Kids are more like The Zit Remedy of comedy. Or maybe the Triumph of comedy. The point is, they were Canadian. Like Loverboy. They were also smart, savage, and over-the-top.

If the first season of SNL is the Citizen Kane of sketch comedy, Kids in the Hall is American Psycho (but Canadian); full of dark fantasy, cutting satire, satirical cutting. Etc.


Critics were mean to Brain Candy, but the Kids only feature film looks pretty good in hindsight. What’s not to appreciate about an evil Pharma company’s mad, mad, (mad, mad, mad) rush to commodify health, market an untested happy pill, and warehouse a nation? It’s a dark, borderline cynical fable of success and corruption that, for being implausibly white, pairs beautifully with Boots Riley’s surreal romp, Sorry to Bother You. Both are comic book-style journeys to the dark heart of the Winning class — A tour through the gilded rooms where the real party (inside the party) never stops and things are always weirder, dumber, and way more evil than you’d ever expect. But mostly dumber.

Local comedy fans have good reason to be excited. McDonald is on his way to town to lead a pair of workshops and perform an intimate program of comedy three ways: Standup, sketch, and an improv jam with Memphis’ own Bluff City Liars. Here’s what McDonald told The Flyer about being a Kid, teaching comedy to people who are terrible at comedy, and whether or not super dreamy TV host Darcy Pennell ever got to roll with The Hell Riders. (Spoiler alert: SHE DID!!!)



Memphis Flyer: Okay, I’ve been waiting 25-years at least to ask this question.

Kevin McDonald: Okay.

MF: Darcy Pennell. Did she ever finally get to roll with The Hell Riders?

KM: Sure. It’s my imagination, sure she did. She did a story. It was supposed to be a story for one weekend but she fell in love with Ace, the second in command which was frustrating because his name was Ace, so you’d think he’d be in command. But he was second in command. And she fell in love with him and they stayed together a year and then he broke her heart and she went back to the TV business. There, I made that up.

MF: Fantastic. Good for Darcy.

KM: Darcy Pennell was based on a local Toronto host of a TV talk show named Dini Petty.

MF: I didn’t know the character was inspired by one person. I’d assumed it was an amalgamation.

KM: Well, the name was. She sort of acted kind of forceful and strong. I can never do impressions, so I took this one aspect of her show that I really found interesting and I put it in Darcy Pennell.

MF: Nice. Can you tell me a little about the thing you’re doing in Memphis with Bluff City Liars? They said you’d reached out and found them. Is this a thing you do regularly? Find regional improv groups and then do workshops and a show with area comics?

KM: Yeah. I’ve been going around North America and doing that for the past four or five years. I spend weekends and I go to theaters with improv troupes and I teach them the Kids in the Hall method during the day. When I’m not doing cartoons or shooting stuff or doing my big podcast Kevin McDonald’s Kevin McDonald Show — I’ve got one coming out with Weird Al Yankovic and Tim and Eric.

MF: Oh, cool. I just saw he’s on tour and coming to The Orpheum in Memphis. Weird Al. Not Tim or Eric.

KM: He won’t be there this weekend will he?

MF: No, I don’t think. I think that’s a 2019 date. I just saw the announcement.

KM: It would be amazing if he was. He’s the nicest guy in the world. He sorta looks like he’d be the nicest guy in the world, and he is the nicest guy in the world. Anyway, I spend my weekends teaching and performing like I will Sunday night.


MF: It’s a cool thing. Gives comics and writers access to your process. To a Kids in the Hall experience. And also we get a chance to see you perform. What’s the origin story for this project.

KM: Well, I moved to Winnipeg. And I thought I wouldn’t get as much TV and film work as I’d been getting. I still get a lot, but I have to fly to places. So I had to think of something else. So, I have these boring theories about sketch comedy that I’ve been bring people for years with at cocktail parties. And I was performing at Toronto Comedy Fest with Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall, and they asked if I could teach. And I said I could throw something together. And I kinda liked it. And then I developed this thing. I guess it’s been six years, actually.

MF: I remember one time hearing you talk about the writing process with Kids in the Hall. About how you really thought the writing was the strong suit. Is that a focus of the workshops?

KM: Yeah. I think writing was sort of our strength. I think we’re all really good performers, so that gets into the writing. I teach the students writing through improv. So writing and performing are the same thing. But it all starts with the idea. And I think we were all very good with the idea. Then we learned how to go from an idea to a whole sketch through improv. Then when we got the TV show we had to actually write them down. Then we became like writer-writers. And we had to be performer-performers.


MF: I don’t want to say dark, that’s kind of an attitude, but there was a tone. I was watching some old sketches today and thought they were funnier than I did the first go-round. And prescient.


KM: Funny you say that. There are some things about the show that if I watch today by accident I’ll be like, “Oh, why was I complaining about that scene? That’s a really good scene?”

MF: Funny that way. And the film Brain Candy, looking back from 2018 it’s like you were looking into a crystal ball. I know you were just responding to the advent of Prozac and drug marketing…

KM: Yeah, exactly, it was. It was Prozac, but that was like the beginning of all of it, wasn’t it?

MF: There’s that line after your character has been invited to the secret VIP party inside the VIP party and wakes up with two women in bed. They’re called over to sign legal waiver saying the night never happened.

KM: It’s nice of you to say that. I don’t know if it’s a fluke or…

MF: It’s anachronistic, I know...

KM: But I’m very proud of the movie. It’s not just a good comedy movie, it’s sort of a good movie movie. It is sketchy, but we wanted to do a movie that was a whole movie but had great parts because we were a sketch troupe. And by whole I mean W-H-O-L-E not H-O-L-E.

MF: Yeah, that would be awkward.

KM: Bad plan.

MF: When you go out and work with troupes are the ideas they bring in already kind of Kids in the Hally?

KM: I don’t think so. Maybe I’m to close to it. Sometimes it’s an idea that reminds me of an old idea of ours and they don’t know it. But a lot of times it’s more Saturday Night Live or Key and Peele. And a lot of times it’s just bad because a lot of them are just starting out on sketches and I know my first hundred were probably horrible.

MF: That’s the learning curve. But what do you do with that, just rip the Band Aid: “You’re horrible, let’s work on that.”

KM: At first I didn’t know what to do, but now I know how to work with lots of things. What we do is, on the first day I break everybody up into groups and we improvise. Then that afternoon we work on turning those improvs into sketches. But then they get homework. The have to bring in a comedy premise on Sunday. I pick my five favorites and we work on that all day. Sometimes there’s a lot of good ones.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Happy Halloween: A Tribute to Sivad and Fantastic Features

Posted By on Wed, Oct 31, 2018 at 12:02 PM

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Every now and then Fly on the Wall likes to publish something "From the Morgue," which, in newspaper jargon, means an article we published some time in the past that's been filed away. But in this case the expression's especially fitting. It's late October — time to remember Memphis' original horror host Sivad. All links have been updated, so readers should be able to sample some of the movies that made Fantastic Features so fantastic. 

The horror first took control of Memphis television sets at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 29, 1962. It began with a grainy clip of black-and-white film showing an ornate horse-drawn hearse moving silently through a misty stretch of Overton Park. Weird music screeched and swelled, helping to set the scene. A fanged man in a top hat and cape dismounted. His skin was creased, corpse-like. He looked over his shoulder once, then dragged a crude, wooden coffin from the back of the hearse. His white-gloved hand opened the lid, releasing a plume of thick fog and revealing the bloody logo of Fantastic Features. 

"Ah. Goooood eeeevening. I am Sivad, your monster of ceremonies," the caped figure drawled, in an accent that existed nowhere else on planet Earth. Think: redneck Romanian.

"Please try and pay attention," he continued, "as we present for your enjoyment and edification, a lively one from our monumental morgue of monstrous motion pictures."


In that moment, a Mid-South television legend was born. For the next decade, Sivad, the ghoulish character created by Watson Davis, made bad puns, told painfully bad jokes, and introduced Memphians to films like Gorgo...


The Brain That Wouldn't Die
...


and Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent.

via GIPHY


Watson Davis' wisecracking monster wasn't unique. He was one of many comically inclined horror hosts who became popular regional TV personalities from the '50s through the '70s. According to John Hudgens, who directed American Scary, a documentary about the horror-host phenomenon, it all began with "Vampira," a pale-skinned gorgon immortalized by Ed Wood in his infamously incompetent film Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Although a Chicago-area host calling himself "The Swami" may have been the first costumed character regularly introducing scary movies on television, the big bang of horror hosting happened in 1954, when the wasp-wasted actress Maila Nurmi introduced her campy, Morticia Adams-inspired character on The Vampira Show, which aired in Los Angeles.


In 1957, Screen Gems released a package of 52 classic horror films from Universal studios. The "Shock Theater" package, as it was called, created an opportunity for every market to have its own horror host. "Part of that package encouraged stations to use some kind of ghoulish host," Hudgens explains. "Local television was pretty much live or had some kind of host on everything back then."

Overnight, horror hosts such as New York's "Zacherly" and Cleveland's "Ghoulardi" developed huge cult followings. "TV was different in those days," Hudgens says. "There weren't a lot of channels to choose from, and the hosts could reach a lot more people quickly. Ghoulardi was so popular that the Cleveland police actually maintained that the crime rate went down when his show was on the air, and they asked him to do more shows."
Dr. Lucifer
  • Dr. Lucifer

Tennessee's first horror host was "Dr. Lucifer," a dapper, eyepatch-wearing man of mystery who hit the Nashville airwaves in 1957. Since Fantastic Features didn't air until the fall of 1962, Sivad was something of a latecomer to the creep-show party. But unlike most other horror hosts, Davis didn't have a background in broadcasting. He'd been a movie promoter, working for Memphis-based Malco theaters. His Sivad character existed before he appeared on television. At live events, he combined elements of the classic spook show with an over-the-top style of event-oriented marketing called ballyhoo. So Davis' vampire, while still nameless, was already well known to local audiences before Fantastic Features premiered.

"You've got to understand, things were very different back then," Elton Holland told the Memphis Flyer in a 2010 interview. "Downtown Memphis was a hub for shopping, and going out to the movies was an event. And back then, Malco was in competition with the other downtown theaters, so when you came to see a movie, we made it special.”


To make things special Holland, Davis, and Malco vice president Dick Lightman became masters of promotion and special events. Davis and Holland were neighbors who lived in Arkansas and car-pooled into Memphis every day. During those drives, Davis would float ideas for how to promote the films coming to town.

The studios only provided movie theaters with limited marketing materials. Theater businesses had in-house art departments that created everything else. What the art department couldn't make, Davis built himself in the theater's basement. When 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea came to town, he built a giant squid so large it had to be cut in half to get it up the stairs. He constructed a huge King Kong puppet that towered over the lower seats. For the film Dinosaurus, he built a Tyrannosaurus rex that was 20 feet tall and 45 feet long. It sat in the lobby, roaring and moving its tail.

"All movies were sold through exploitation," Holland explained. "And horror movies were the best ones to exploit. ... I remember when Watson first told me he wanted to be a monster. He was thinking vaudeville. He wanted to put on a show."

Davis' plan to create a scary show wasn't original. The "spook show" was a sideshow con dating back to when 19th-century snake-oil vendors traveled the country hawking their wares. Slick-talking performers would hop from town to town promising entertainment-deprived audiences the chance to see a giant, man-eating monster, so terrible it had to be experienced to be believed. Once the tickets were sold, it was loudly announced that the monster had broken free and was on a bloody rampage. The idea was to cause panic and create a confusing cover for the performers to make off with the loot.
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In the early 20th century, the spook show evolved, and traveling magicians exploited the public's growing fascination with spiritualism by conjuring ghosts and spirits. By mid-century, they developed into semi-comical "monster shows" that were almost always held in theaters. Today's "hell houses" and haunted mansions are recent permutations of the spook show.

When England's Hammer Films started producing horror movies that were, as Holland says, "a cut above," he, Davis, and Lightman took the old spook-show concept and adapted it sell movie tickets. They went to Memphis State's drama department and to the Little Theatre [now Theatre Memphis] looking for actors so they could put a monster on a flatbed truck in front of the Malco.

Davis dressed as Dracula, Holland was the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and another Malco exec played Frankenstein. The company also included a wolfman and a mad doctor.

Davis sometimes joined Lightman on inspection tours of other Malco properties. On one of those tours, the men saw an antique horse-drawn hearse for sale on the side of the road. They bought the hearse that appears in the Fantastic Features title sequence for $500. It also appeared in various monster skits and was regularly parked in front of Malco theaters to promote horror movies.

"One time we had this actor made up like a wild man," Holland said, recalling a skit that was just a little too effective. "While Watson did his spiel about the horror that was going to happen, the chained wild man broke loose and pretended like he was attacking this girl. He was going to jerk her blouse and dress off, and she had on a swimsuit underneath." One 6'-3", 300-pound, ex-military Malco employee wasn't in on the joke and thought the actor had actually gone wild. He took the chain away, wrapped it around the wild man's neck, and choked him until the two were pulled apart. The proliferation of television eventually killed ballyhoo promotions and all the wild antics used to promote movies. At about that time, the studios started "going wide" with film distribution, opening the same film in many theaters at one time instead of just one theater in every region. This practice made location-specific promotions obsolete. By then, the Shock Theater package had made regional stars out of horror hosts all across the country. WHBQ approached Davis and offered him the job of "monster of ceremonies" on its Fantastic Features show. The show found an audience instantly and became so popular that a second weekly show was eventually added. Memphis viewers apparently couldn't get enough of films like Teenage Caveman...


And Mutiny in Outer Space...

 
Joe Bob Briggs, cable TV's schlock theater aficionado who hosted TNT's Monster Vision fro m 1996 to 2000, says that "corny" humor was the key to any horror host's success or failure. "Comedy and horror have only rarely been successfully mixed in film — although we have great examples like Return of the Living Dead, Briggs says. "But comedy surrounding horror on television was a winning formula from day one. In fact, it's essential. If you try to do straight hosting on horror films, the audiences will hate you."

In 1958, Dick Clark invited New York horror host Zacherly to appear on American Bandstand. "This wasn't the year for the comedians, this was the year for the spooks and the goblins and the ghosts," Clark said, introducing "Dinner With Drac," the first hit novelty song about monsters. Four years later, Bobby "Boris" Puckett took "Monster Mash" to the top of the charts. In the summer of 1963, Memphis' favorite horror host hopped on the pop-song monster bandwagon by recording the "Sivad Buries Rock and Roll/Dicky Drackeller" single.


Novelty songs such as "What Made Wyatt Earp" became a staple on Fantastic Features, and Sivad began to book shows with the King Lears, a popular Memphis garage band that influenced contemporary musicians like Greg Cartwright, who played in the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers before forming the Reigning Sound. Although "Sivad Buries Rock and Roll" never charted, Goldsmith's department store hosted a promotional record-signing event, and 2,000 fans showed up to buy a copy.

In 1972, Fantastic Features was canceled. And though Davis was frequently asked to bring the character back, he never did. Horror movies were changing, becoming bloodier and more sexually explicit in a way that made them a poor fit for Sivad's family-friendly fright-fest. In 1978, Commercial Appeal reporter Joseph Shapiro unsuccessfully tried to interview Davis. He received a letter containing what he called a cryptic message: "Sivad is gone forever" is all it said.

Davis, who borrowed his name-reversing trick from Dracula, Bram Stoker's blood-sucking fiend who introduced himself as Count Alucard, died of cancer in March 2005. He was 92 years old.
sivad.jpg

* A version of this article appeared in the Memphis Flyer in 2010 —- but without all the nifty links and embeds. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Talking T.A.M.I. Show & '68 Comeback with Blossoms Vocalist Darlene Love

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2018 at 3:28 PM

Darlene Love plays The Guest House at Graceland Monday, August 14
  • Darlene Love plays The Guest House at Graceland Monday, August 14
Darlene Love is one of the great voices of rock and roll. She may also be one of the great, under-tapped experts on 20th-century pop, having observed the biggest acts in rock and soul from 20-feet away.

As a member of The Blossoms, Love was a regular on the seminal '60s era TV show Shindig. But the group made their career as studio support, and backing vocalists for artists like The Crystals, and The Righteous Brothers

"Monster Mash," anybody?

They also performed alongside Elvis in his '68 Comeback TV Special.

Love's coming to Memphis Monday, August 13th to celebrate 50 years of the '68 Comeback Special. She'll be performing at Graceland's Guest House. Here's what she had to say about being a Blossom and performing with Elvis.

Memphis Flyer: The Blossoms were already a group when you joined up, right?

Darlene Love: I met The Blossoms when I was in the 12th grade, the last year of high school. That's when I say I professionally started singing, because that's when they started paying me. Even if it was only $15 to buy gas for the car. Gasoline was only $0.22 a gallon.The Blossoms were a group already. They were getting ready to record for Capitol Records and needed a replacement right away. They just happened to be in a wedding party, and I was singing. And that's how I met them.

I thought it was something like that. I didn't think y'all had gone to school together.

The Blossoms did go to school together. But I was a little younger than them, and came along behind. They already had a manager and a singing coach. We used to practice everyday like going to school or going to a job. They already had a contract with Capitol Records. And they were getting ready to record. So it was lucky that we met and that I fit in the group. So we went from there to singing back-up. It's like we were thrown into that. Not even really knowing what we were doing. We knew we could sing, but we weren't sure about the session work.


But you start doing that almost right away, right?


We worked our first session I think back in 1958.

I know you guys were trying to make it as recording artists in your own right, but show business is tough and, while I know there were many downsides too, I'm guessing the session work created stability a lot of young artists trying to make it don't have. Is that accurate?

That's very accurate. Because there weren't really any black groups at the time that we're doing this. It was unheard of for them to be doing session work. Most of the sessions were contracted through our unions AFTRA. And most of the people in AFTRA were white singers. They'd call them and put together three or four girls.  Once we started getting into it we had to join the union. Thank God! Before, if they needed three singers, they booked three singers. But we already had a sound. So they could depend on us to have the sound they wanted. Therefore, we became bigger than life, in doing session work.

I've heard you guys called the West Coast's Sweet Inspirations. But I like to think of The Blossoms as the Wrecking Crew of backing singers.

Yes. Those guys in the Wrecking Crew were already doing sessions. We met them through Phil Spector. He gave them the name Wrecking Crew. We were doing work for everybody. We were at sessions all the time together. It was a minimum of a 2-hour session. Most sessions lasted anywhere between two and five hours. But a minimum of 2 hours. So we became very popular as background vocal group. And the Wrecking Crew became famous, and very wealthy for the recording sessions. They could do many more sessions a week than we could, because we had to use our vocal cords. They were using their instruments.

And the voice can wear out pretty quickly when you use it like that.

Hello? I think that's how I really learned how to take care of my voice. After we had a hard day, like a 10-hour day of singing. Sometimes that's what it was. I'd do nothing. No talking, no singing. That's when I found out your vocal cord were like a muscle. And your muscles get sore after a while. So you have to rest them. I learned all that on my own nobody told me. Well I couldn't afford a doctor! I had to learn it all on my own. But it's paid off over the years.


I know you've told it many times, but can we talk just a little bit about how The Blossoms recorded "He's a Rebel," then Phil Spector put it out as a Crystals record?

We had already been doing background work for two or three years before we met Phil. We were working for Lester Sill. Unbeknownst to us, that it was Phil Spector's partner. That's how we met Phil. Because Phil needed someone to sing "He's a Rebel," so they hired me to do it. As Darlene Love and The Blossoms. But that's not the name it came out under. It was credited to the Crystals. It all came out in 20 Feet from Stardom. I know a lot of minds were opened.


You guys knew it was a going to be a Crystals record though, right?


Oh yeah. We didn't go in there to do it as a group. We went in as a session. And I got paid extra for singing the lead on it. We knew it was going to be a Crystals record. It wasn't a surprise. The surprise was when we signed with Phil, [the next record] was supposed to be my record. But he put that one out under the name of the Crystals too. It got a little confusing for everybody back in those days.

You say it wasn't a surprise for you, but it was a surprise for The Crystals.

A big surprise. They were out on the road working and the record was on the charts.  They didn't even know the record was out. They were on the road with Gene Pitney who wrote the song. And from what I can understand, I talked to Gene Pitney years and years ago, and he said he'd taught them the song on the road. That's how they learned it.

So they were singing it on the road, just not on the record.

None of the crystals were on any of the records we recorded in California. Like to "Doo Run Run," "Sure the Boy I Love." Their lead singer LaLa Brooks was there to do the singing on the Crystal songs. But the Crystals weren't there to do the background on their sessions. We actually did a lot of those kinds of things, but a lot of those other records weren’t hits.  
I'm sure that did get confusing. Especially as you're trying to develop your career.


When I went out, everybody thought Darlene Love was a Crystal. But she was never a Crystal; she just recorded those records with Phil Spector. The Crystals lived in New York. I lived in California. And the Crystals were young girls. I was like 19. They were like 13 and 14.

I knew they were young. I guess I didn't realize they were that young.

Their mothers wouldn't let them fly to California to record. That was one of the big problems. It's well-known today. The Crystals still have a little trouble with it, and I can understand why. They go and do shows today. And they sing "He's a Rebel," and "He's Sure the Boy I Love." I'm sure they gotten to the point where they just don't talk about it anymore. That's water under the bridge.

And, to some extent the public record had been corrected.

The biggest problem I had, when I went out as a solo artist, the producers all wanted to say I was Darlene Love "originally of the Crystals," and I'd said "No no no! You can't say that. I have never been with the Crystals. I had to build a whole new career as Darlene Love. Which took a lot of time and energy. Thank god I was young. There was a time I couldn't even find work. Because the Crystals name is bigger than my name. So of course they could sell tickets on the Crystals, but they couldn't sell tickets on Darlene Love.

I know we're supposed to talk Elvis, but can we talk T.A.M.I. Show first?

We were doing Shindig at the time. And they think the producers of Shindig to let us out for the week to do The T.A.M.I. Show.

I was just talking to director Steve Binder about how intersectional and ahead of its time that show seems to be, conceptually.

It is. You're absolutely right. And it ended up being great, and people love great things. They love to watch wonderful things. It didn't matter to them if it was a male or female singing.

And it still just blows my mind looking at all the talent collected for that thing.

Rock-and-roll was like a stutter at the beginning. Okay here, we go! Oh no we can't! No, now here we go! What they did, they put the right people on The T.A.M.I. Show. My God, the Rolling Stones? Jan and Dean as the emcees? Give me a break, okay? Then, to bust it wide open, they hired James Brown. And he stole the show. I mean the Rolling Stones were going on after James Brown — and they refused to go on at first. They were like, "We're not going on after that!" That was an eye-opener for white people to see James Brown. Before that they didn't know James Brown. James Brown was a black act.

I love the moment when he's exhausted at the edge of the stage and The Blossoms are encouraging him to go back for more.

We were just as excited as the audience. I'd never seen James Brown. I mean, I loved those records. But nobody had ever seen that kind of energy on stage. Not before James Brown. Even Michael Jackson talked about how he stole a little bit of Jackie Wilson, a little bit of James Brown, and Chuck Berry, and I wrapped it all up in Michael Jackson. Then you have, of course, Elvis Presley who came on wiggling and shaking, and they didn't know what to think about that, either. He also took it to a whole other level.


So let's talk about the Comeback. Which, Elvis hated, by the way. Or— the word. He didn't like anybody calling it "the comeback."


I'm sure he didn't. Because it wasn't a comeback. He was getting ready to go to Vegas and he needed something to catapult him into live shows. That was one reason for doing that show. I didn't understand the word either. They call it that now, I guess because they couldn't think of anything else to call it.

Had you ever worked with Elvis before?

No. That was our first time to meet Elvis. But we were in the recording studio, recording all the music. That's where we met Elvis and became friends with him. Especially me, because of my gospel background. Every time he got a moment, he'd go get his guitar and ask, "Do you know this song?" We'd be over in the corner with The Blossoms and Elvis, just having a good time. I think they got a little bit angry with us we're taking all of his time.

And the improv part of the show is inspired by that, and Elvis jamming in his dressing room.

So natural. And they caught that when they did the round circle thing with him the black leather suit. I don't think they realized that was going to be so big. But it was all so natural. And it wasn't planned.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how the improv stuff developed. Not on the show, but in the studio between takes, or dressing room after rehearsal?

What I loved about Elvis: He loved what he called 'the hymns of the church.' Like "Precious Lord Take My Hand." "Amazing Grace." "How Great Thou Art." For us to know those songs, he was like, "Yeah, come on let's do some of those!" He would sing the leads and we’d do the background. He'd go, "Is this key is this alright?" And you know, whatever key it was in was all right with us. And that was the fun we had. And then we found out, years later when he went to Vegas, when they would be breaking down the stage to go home, Elvis and the singers would be sitting around the piano. It brought Elvis down. It was his down time. Like going to your room and watching TV. It takes a while to come down after you've done a show like that. And they would all just sit around and sing gospel songs. Not rhythm and blues or rock and roll. But gospel. Elvis won three Grammys for gospel music. That says a lot. I've been invited to come to Memphis for the 50th anniversary of the special. My group, we're going down to Graceland in August to celebrate the Comeback Special. And most of the show's going to be gospel. Then I've been invited back to go to Bad Nauheim, Germany where Elvis was stationed in the army, and where they have his festival. Last year we went and there were more than 10,000 people there. I said, "Y'all sure Elvis is dead?"

The T.A.M.I. Show 1964 [FULL LENGTH] from Larry Ball on Vimeo.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

The "T" Word: A Memphis Collective Looks at Black Masculinity, Nomenclature

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2018 at 4:34 PM

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In the time honored spirit of the answer song, the mixed-media art exhibition "Thug" was organized to converse with a past exhibit called "Fiber,"  a deep dive into black femininity. "Thug" organizers wanted to give black male artists from diverse backgrounds an opportunity explore the range and role of masculinity in black culture. Curator and photographer Ziggy Mack says The Collective's exhibit showcases experience.

"It looks at black masculinity and how society views it," Mack says. "And it also looks at sexuality within black masculinity.

"In black culture you see this kind of appropriation happen multiple times," Mack says, setting up context for the show's title. "Post-slavery as a people we'd taken the word boy and turned it on its head substituting the word man. Like, 'Hey man! How you doing my man!' That was a response to black men being called boy. And there's the N-word, a more controversial word. But another word we appropriated like taking lemons and making lemonade."

Thug, a similar appropriation, was re-appropriated in white culture where it's become a deracialized stand in for less socially permissible slurs. 

"The collective and I used it because we thought it would make people ask, 'What's this about?" Mack says. "And we used it to turn it on its head again. To turn it into something else. To build a body of art around the word and black masculinity."

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Memphis comic book creators launch Rise of the Golden Dragon

Posted By on Thu, May 3, 2018 at 4:52 PM

I was biking around South Main a few Sundays back when I spied some nifty-looking Afrofuturist art at Art Village Gallery. So I popped in to discover that wasn't the only thing going on. Artists/comic creators John Cooley and Erwin Prasetya were also giving away copies of a new, locally produced comic book titled Rise of the Golden Dragon.
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Who says you can't judge a book by its cover? This issue is cool.

The spreads are generous, thoughtfully broken down and nicely drawn. 
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The action's great. 
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And the details are nice.
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The story, which has a light tone and never takes itself too seriously, is focused around a pair of warrior "dragons" who are rooting out ancient supernatural evil wherever they find it. Think Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, and tracksuit Iron Fist meets John Constantine in an Enter the Dragon remake.

The lightly worn pop-culture references don't stop there. Issue 1/12 was action-packed and full of gags, but still managed to lay the foundations of a sprawling story and establish a compelling set of personalities. And c'mon— Ninja exorcists? That's got all kinds of potential.

The self-published Rise of the Golden Dragon is slated to come out once a month. Find out more about that and other titles at Fanboycomics.com


Friday, April 27, 2018

Dammit Gannett: Fabulous Prizes Edition

Posted By on Fri, Apr 27, 2018 at 9:27 AM

Picking on the Commercial Appeal used to be its own reward, back in the day when they were the big corporate Goliath and we were the little dude with a slingshot. As the paper has continued to decline, it's become a weekly, though not entirely joyless, chore. Still, it's good to feel appreciated. So thanks, Jim Palmer, for this cartoon inspired by Fly on the Wall's regular "Dammit Gannett" feature.
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Jim's a first generation Memphis Flyer vet who contributed illustrations for columns by Lydel Sims. He's the creator of Memphis' own Li'l E and your Pesky Fly's very favorite cartoon about the journalist's life. 
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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ameripolitan Awards, 2018: Winners and Music Clips

Posted By on Wed, Feb 14, 2018 at 5:41 PM

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Everybody who's a fan of honky tonk, western swing and rockabilly wins at Dale Watson's international Ameripolitan Music Awards. Sadly, only a few folks go home with trophies. The Tuesday night awards followed four days of showcases at venues like Loflin Yard, Blues City Cafe and the Guest House at Graceland and performances by dozens of artists like Whitney Rose, The Greenline Travelers, and Watson himself.

In addition to honoring the best new makers of old sounds the 2018 Awards paid tribute to Stray Cat Brian Setzer and, pedal steel wizard Lloyd Green who played on records by Johnny Paycheck, Charley Pride, and other Nashville hit makers. The night's top honoree was Sun studio founder Sam Phillips whose memory was honored with performances by contemporary artists backed by Sun drummers W.S. "Fluke" Holland and James Van Eaton. "She Thinks I Sill Care" songwriter Dickey Lee made an appearance as did the Blackwood Brothers.
And the winners were...

Honky Tonk Female: Brennen Leigh

Honky Tonk Male: Luke Bell
Honky Tonk Group: The Reeves Brothers

Western Swing Female: Sophia Johnson

Western Swing Male: Billy Mata

Western Swing Group: The Carolyn Sills Combo
Rockabilly Female: Bailey Dee

Rockabilly Male: Al Dual
Rockabilly Group: The Go Getters

Outlaw Female: Nikki Lane

Outlaw Male: Cody Jinks

Outlaw Group: Whitey Morgan and the 78’s
Ameripolitan DJ: W.B. Walkers

Ameripolitan Venue: Sportsmen’s Tavern
Ameripolitan Festival: The New England Shakeup-Up

Ameripolitan Musician: Chris Scruggs

Keeper of the Key: Reverend Horton Heat

Founder of the Sound: Lloyd Green

The Master Award: Brian Setzer

The Legend Award: Sam Phillips 

Friday, February 9, 2018

"Elvis Used to Live Here" - Honest Tourism Commercials, Memphis Style

Posted By on Fri, Feb 9, 2018 at 10:53 AM

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If you haven't seen this short parody of Memphis tourism courtesy of Ryan Hailey take a peek.

You can find out more about Ryan's Shorts by clicking here.

Happy Friday!


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Pyramid Dreams: Plans for a 'Mid that Never Made

Posted By on Thu, Dec 7, 2017 at 9:00 AM

That's no Zippin Pippin.
  • That's no Zippin Pippin.
As the Flyer prepares to move offices I've been going through a lot of old band photos, pulling out as many Memphis and Memphis-related images as I can identify, keeping a basic set of interesting stuff and disposing of at least 25 of the newspaper's accumulated 30-lbs of Cowboy Mouth promo photos. While shuffling through pictures of bands with names like BonePony and Bang La' Desh I came across a set of misfiled architectural renderings for a Pyramid that never was. I'll share those momentarily, but first Bang La' Desh.
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Okay, now that that's out of my system, here are plans for Pyramid Harbor and The Pyramid Adventure, an indoor amusement park. I apologize in advance for how terrible the last shot is. I'll try and replace it with a better one later today.
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Fly on the Wall is still holding a grudge because nobody's ever taken our suggestion to add a parking-sphinx seriously.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Paint Memphis: So Much More Than Zombies

Posted By on Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 5:50 PM

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Regardless of what we all may think about Memphis' big silly zombie murals, I think we can all agree on one thing:  The Memphis City Council doesn't really get public art, who makes it, or how. Hopefully most of us can also agree that it's in nobody's best interest to induce Satanic panic or base policy on superstition. 

Right Councilman Joe Brown?
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For better context you can follow the links above, and I promise to write more informatively on this topic later. Right now I just want to share a bunch of pictures and think out loud about my drive South down Willett, beyond all the stately Midtown homes and mansions, into the increasingly dilapidated and largely vacant zone where it hits Lamar. Here there be monsters.
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Murals like the ones currently causing a fuss are designed to have a relatively short shelf life. They are destined to become sun-faded or overwritten by fresh coats of paint. In a perfect world the empty buildings are filled, and freshened up accordingly. That's not a free pass on criticism — far from it. There are good reasons to question things like access, community input, how much may or may not have been done to include neighborhood artists and whether or not it's a good idea to paint a big reanimated corpse on a major thoroughfare. It may also be helpful to look at the entire result and not reduce an enormous project like this one to a single beastie.

Contextually, none of the art — not even the most extreme — seems all that out of place on a stretch of Lamar where skateboarders work out their tricks, graffiti-covered boxcars are parked along the elevated railroad tracks, and abandoned properties have been tagged for decades. Most of the work is positive, celebrating the music and moods of a moody, musical town. Some of it's quirky. Some of it's really lovely.
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As this conversation continues, pay attention to the whole street, and to street-life on a corner dominated by empty properties, a gas station, and a skateboarder's hideaway — just around the corner from a public school for the arts. There are lots of good conversations we can have about access, public input, and so on. But those conversations do need to acknowledge that projects like these are infinitely amendable, and undertaken in the absence of industry. Unlike Memphis' Confederate statues, there's no entrenched zombie agenda working to keep buildings vacant and spookily decorated. As one friend put it, "art's messy." And in this kind of temporary, low-stakes arena there's probably room for mistakes, poor judgment and even bad art. Because — barring some regrettable and reactionary policy — there's going to be a next time, and ample opportunity to listen, learn and do better. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Memphis College of Art in the 1960's-70's

Posted By on Thu, Nov 16, 2017 at 11:33 AM

Artists Ed Perry and Rockne Krebs worked together on numerous - urban-scale installations involving light and lasers. - COURTESY OF ROCKNE KREBS ESTATE
  • Courtesy of Rockne Krebs Estate
  • Artists Ed Perry and Rockne Krebs worked together on numerous urban-scale installations involving light and lasers.

Additional "Art of the Deal" web extras will be more closely related to MCA's closing. But I'd originally wanted to drop the whole story of the school's misfortunes into a bigger history, and look at the relationship between the art college and the city that helped to create and sustain it. It was classic biting off more than I could chew but hopefully unused interviews with Dolph Smith and Veda Reed, collected for this week's cover package, will provide readers with a snapshot of campus life in the 1950's, and as the school transitioned to Overton Park. And maybe this curiosity from from the Flyer's morgue will do double-duty, giving readers a taste of what MCA (still the Academy) was like in the 1960's and 70's — and also what kinds of things were going on more recently at The Nesin Graduate School downtown. It tells the story of Academy grad and art-world nobody Ed Perry, the amazing body of work he left behind, and the friends and former classmates who wanted to make sure he wouldn't be totally forgotten.

It may not capture highlights from the era. You'll have to go here to look at pictures from the time David Bowie showed up. But it's the best I had on hand!

The story originally published August 21, 2014.

The Life and Afterlife of Edward Perry
Who is Edward Hagen Perry, and why is The Memphis College of Art producing two shows of his work?

by Chris Davis

Ed Perry and Rockne Krebs unload one of their urban-scale installations - COURTESY OF ROCKNE KREBS ESTATE
  • Courtesy of Rockne Krebs Estate
  • Ed Perry and Rockne Krebs unload one of their urban-scale installations
Ed Perry isn't famous. He died, a complete unknown, of congestive heart failure in 2007, in the toxic environment of his cluttered home and studio in Stephensport, Kentucky.

"They say he died of congestive heart failure, but there was so much wrong with him you can't keep up with it all," says Memphis songwriter Keith Sykes, who met and became close friends with Perry in the 1960s. "Ed was relentlessly cruel to his body his whole life," Sykes adds.

At the time of his death, Perry's only source of income was a small Social Security check. He died penniless. All he left behind was a mean parrot named Jake, a filthy house overfilled with furniture parts, old wood, and electronics he'd collected for the creation of future projects. He also left an uncommonly unified body of work, much of which had never been exhibited due to Perry's deep mistrust of the commercial art world.
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Although he despised the gallery system, many of the large, meticulously constructed pieces Perry built, mixing painting and sculpture while skirting the boundaries of fine and folk art, were painstakingly labeled, with notes regarding size, weight, construction and, when appropriate, wiring schematics. Many pieces were boxed and stored, as if awaiting their invitation to gallery shows that were never booked. So they sat for decades, gathering mildew and parrot dung, like dirty brides left waiting at a shabby alter.

"Contaminated" is the word Sykes uses to describe his old friend's living environment at the time of his death. "He must have worked for two weeks to just make room for us to move around," he says recalling earlier, happier visits. It fell to Sykes to salvage, store, clean, and painstakingly catalog his friend's work. "If you were sensitive or had any kind of allergies at all, you probably couldn't go in there at all," he says. "We finally got stuff out with masks and gloves on. Because over the years all the nicotine and all the sawdust and all the moisture had conspired together to make it just pretty damn deadly."

So who was Ed Perry? What is it that sets his work apart from so many other artists who collect their MFAs and never exhibit again? And what did this completely unknown artist do to merit two simultaneous shows of his work at the Memphis College of Art (MCA)?
Ed Perry was a Pacifist but became enraged when diplomatic agreements resulted in the destruction of missiles he might have transformed into art supplies. - COURTESY OF MEMPHIS COLLEGE OF ART
  • Courtesy of Memphis College of Art
  • Ed Perry was a Pacifist but became enraged when diplomatic agreements resulted in the destruction of missiles he might have transformed into art supplies.
Judging by his resume and correspondence, Perry self-identified as a "Visual Engineer, MFA," and an "electro-optics engineer," whatever those titles may imply. He was also an abstract painter and an obsessive builder. He was a chain smoker, a self-made scientist, and a 1972 Memphis Academy of Arts graduate. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he trained as a figure skater in Lake Placid, New York, where he met and befriended Olympic medalist Peggy Fleming. He was also a radical pacifist, a drinker of strong libations, and a boundary-defying conceptual artist working with found materials, spray paint, and state-of-the-art lasers.

Ed Perry was a Pacifist but became enraged when diplomatic agreements resulted in the destruction of missiles he might have transformed into art supplies.

Additionally, the man collected in "Ed Perry: Constructions," and "Ed Perry: Between Canvas and Frame," was something of a stock character: the misunderstood genius, pursued by personal demons, uncompromising to the point of being commercially invisible throughout most of his semi-reclusive lifetime.

Perry was highly trained both as an artist and a laser technician. He shared studio space with groundbreaking artists like Sam Gilliam and frequently worked alongside Washington D.C.-based art star and fellow parrot-owner Rockne Krebs, to create massive, urban-scale laser installations. But he was an artworld nobody when he died in 2007. And it's unclear just how much the MCA exhibitions can do to launch an unknown alum's posthumous career, or give his elaborate, mixed-media constructions the happy afterlife Perry's friends think they deserve.

Remy Miller, MCA's dean of academic affairs and the driving force behind both Perry exhibits, thinks it's too easy to sensationalize the lives of troubled artists, and he worries that doing so takes emphasis off of the work. "People tell these horrible stories about a guy who was falling apart and struggling to live," Miller says, specifically referring to accounts of the life of action painter Jackson Pollock. "That's really what you want to talk about in the face of this beautiful work?"

But even Miller succumbs somewhat to the temptation of a good story, comparing Perry to Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch painter whose post-mortem success is partly responsible for the enduring myth that nothing increases the value of an artist's work like a difficult life and untimely death. But the van Gogh story, while relevant in so many ways, isn't an especially realistic impression of how the modern art world works. Perry despised the business side of art-making, and although his resume lists a handful of shows, for the most part he seems to have actively avoided public viewings of his work.

"I asked him if he'd ever thought about making a coffee table book, and what came out of him was another Ed I didn't know and didn't want to know," Sykes says, recalling a past dustup. "I just wanted people to see the stuff. He really hurt my feelings over that."

"I think Ed understood the work was really good," Miller says. "Why else prepare all of that other stuff? Why bother to box it up? Why keep it? Write all those notes on it? I think Ed just couldn't bear to sit through what was going to have to happen next."

Gordon Alexander shared a house with Perry when the two were still students at the Memphis Art Academy (now MCA). He remembers a visit from his friend some years ago, on the night before several larger pieces of Perry's work were scheduled to ship to Memphis' Alice Bingham Gallery for a show. "Ed just says, 'I'm not going to do it,' and he didn't. And that was it." The pieces never shipped; the show never happened.

In some regards, because he has no exhibition history or records of previous gallery sales, Perry might as well not exist. He has no place within the established art world. And even if gallery people find the work compelling, they don't really know what to do with it, because there's no previously established value.

"It's a kind of catch-22," says Ellen Daugherty, the art historian who led an MCA class on Perry and contributed an essay to the exhibit's striking catalog.

Art consultant John Weeden was enlisted to structure a logical value scale for Perry's work. He couldn't discuss the specific rubric, but he gave a general overview of how we might assess the worth of artwork created by a previously unknown artist.
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"Commercial history and provenance are two of the leading factors in determining the general value of an artwork," he says. "In the case of a largely unknown artist, the task becomes one of establishing a framework upon which an initial market for that artist's work may be constructed." Weeden also allows other considerations including the nature of the materials, the style of the pieces, the reputation of the artist, and the level of craftsmanship, labor, and design.

So finally, with two shows, a class, this story, and any other attendant press, Perry the artist finally has a public paper trail. His working relationship as an artistic and technical assistant to Krebs can be affirmed, and too late, maybe, an underappreciated artist gets his overdue recognition.

MCA's Miller doesn't equivocate: "I wouldn't be talking to you right now if I didn't think that this body of work can stand up next to any body of work created in the later half of the 20th century," he says. "I absolutely believe it's as good as any body of that work made by any artist during that time period." Miller's not alone in that belief. Sykes and Alexander, both close to Perry since the 1960s, have made a strong effort to ensure that their old friend's life work doesn't pass unnoticed.

Perry was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was a WWII vet. His brother Bill also went military. Perry, on the other hand, took classes at community college and trained as an ice skater before leaving for art school in Memphis in the fall of 1967. He was riding a Triumph motorcycle and wearing a flak jacket and WWII combat helmet the first time Alexander saw him pulling up to the Memphis Art Academy in Overton Park. The two young artists bonded early, becoming neighbors, first in the Auburndale Apartments, then housemates, when they moved, along with their friend Paul Mitchell, into an old house on Madison Avenue where Overton Square's French Quarter Inn now stands.

By most accounts Perry was a good but not stellar student who worked hard when he was interested and sometimes flummoxed faculty. He would eventually become MCA's student body president.

"I was in New York by then," Alexander says, speculating that his friend must have been drafted into student government. "He hated titles."

Always interested in technology, especially the artistic applications of lasers, Perry also took physics classes at Rhodes College (then Southwestern).

Alexander describes the Memphis Art Academy as being a creatively fertile environment and speculates that Perry was especially influenced by the work of three notable professors: Ted Faiers, who experimented with totemic "Indian Space" painting and 3D painting; Ron Pekar, the original graphic designer for Ardent Studios who worked in neon and designed the logo for Big Star's #1 Record; and acclaimed color theorist Burton Callicott, who painted false shadows in his work and created colorfields that seemed to glow with their own internal light. Because he was exposed to so much 20th-century art, it's difficult to call out specific influences, but it's not difficult to look at Perry's totem-like constructions and imagine all the ways they might be inspired by these mentors.

Alexander describes the house he shared with Perry as a mattress-on-the-floor den for starving artists. Work was always being made by someone somewhere in the house and painters, sculptors, and musicians were always coming and going.

"We didn't even lock the house," Alexander says. "I know it's hard to believe, but it's true." Musician and occasional actor Larry Raspberry was an intermittent visitor. So was Sykes and a young Alex Chilton, who would eventually move in next door. Somebody was always playing music. When they weren't, Alexander, an audiophile and music editor for the then-Dixie Flyer, Memphis' original underground newspaper, was spinning records on the turntable.

It would be years before Sykes would co-write the hit song "Volcano" and hook up with Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band. At this point he hitchhiked, pumped gas, worked the holiday rush at Sears Crosstown, and toured as a Dylan-inspired folkie on the Holiday Inn Circuit. He met Perry and Alexander when they were still living at the Auburndale Apartments and remembers being smitten by Ed's work from the very beginning.

"Once you see an Ed Perry, you'll always know his work," Sykes says.

Like so many great college friends, Sykes and Alexander became separated and immersed in their own families and careers. They lost touch with Perry for 20 years.

Perry took his MFA at the University of Cincinnati, where he subsequently went to work for Leon Goldman, a dermatologist and laser surgery pioneer sometimes referred to as "the father of laser surgery." Perry and Goldman co-created studies on laser surgery and published them in scientific journals. But when it was time to make art again, Perry moved on.

Krebs met Perry in 1974 at a laser safety certification class at the University of Cincinnati and almost immediately hired him as an art assistant with laser-safety training and advanced technical skills. This was the beginning of a decade-long working relationship with Krebs.

Perry eventually moved to D.C., where he kept an apartment and studio on the second floor of a warehouse co-owned by Krebs and noted color field painter Gilliam who, like Faiers, had been painting well beyond the frame.

Krebs had a cranky parrot named Euclid, and Perry acquired a cranky parrot named Jake. Studio visitors sometimes had to use trash can lids as shields to avoid a ferocious pecking.

Heather Krebs, Rockne's daughter, remembers Perry well. She says she had to pass by his studio whenever she visited her father's. "He was always in there working," she says, remembering his creations, like the decorated envelopes he made for her to use, but which she kept instead.

Heather suggests that Perry might have benefitted from his proximity to both her father and Gilliam. Clients coming in and out would have seen his work in Krebs' studio or in his own. She wonders if steady work meant he didn't feel pressured to show.


Ed Perry and Rockne Krebs unload one of their urban-scale installations
Krebs created large-scale laser and solar installations for the Omni International Building, now the CNN Center, and Perry consulted and assisted. "Omni was billed as the greatest premiere in Atlanta since Gone With the Wind," Perry wrote excitedly to Krebs, describing the 1976 opening.

"The stuff shirts oohed when Tony Orlando took the microphone," Perry continued in his letter. "And moaned when he announced he would not sing."

Perry moved back to his parents' farm sometime around 1986, and that is where he either built or completed many of the constructions on display in "Between Canvas and Frame."
Artists Ed Perry and Rockne Krebs worked together on numerous - urban-scale installations involving light and lasers. - COURTESY OF ROCKNE KREBS ESTATE
  • Courtesy of Rockne Krebs Estate
  • Artists Ed Perry and Rockne Krebs worked together on numerous urban-scale installations involving light and lasers.
Ellen Daugherty thinks that, for all of his training and expertise, Perry's work sometimes resembles folk art. "Ed builds this stuff that has a kind of similarity to some folk artists," she says, citing his approach to construction and his use of available, affordable materials like old fence boards and discarded Shaker furniture parts. "But when you look at the stuff, that ain't folk art," she says. "It's highly trained. And extremely visual and abstract."

A laser diffraction photo by Ed Perry given to laser artist Rockne Krebs
The backs of Perry's constructions are often as lively as the fronts. Electronic pieces include a full-sized drawing of the wiring plot. Many pieces include obsessive notes about what kinds of materials have been used, when the canvas was primed, and so on. He also makes diary entries marking everything from Halley's Comet arriving in conjunction with the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to notes about the Mississippi River flood of 1993.

The two Perry shows are the culmination of a sprawling buddy adventure that launched in Midtown in the 1960s and is now coming home to roost.

"In the late 1990s me and Gordon started talking," Sykes says. "We should go see Ed. You know he's going to be like he always was. Not taking care of himself. Working all the time. Forgetting to eat. Forgetting to sleep. If we didn't go see him, we thought we might not ever see him again." So the old friends went to visit their buddy in Stephensport. After the first trip, they continued to visit as often as possible. They helped their friend when they could, and they watched him fall apart.

"He made bird houses that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright designed them," Alexander says. Further blurring the lines between fine art and folk art, he also carved beautiful, realistic duck and fish decoys, and built majestic weather vanes.

Even at his folksiest, Perry never stopped surprising his friends. "We were sitting around one night and it was dark," Sykes recalled. "Ed says, 'Y'all watch this.' And before you knew it, there were laser beams running all around the house. He had mirrors set up here and there, and that light doesn't degrade."

After Perry's death, Sykes took charge of Jake the parrot and as much of the artwork as he could, with a goal of getting it seen. A veterinarian said it was normal for older parrots to be cantankerous, adding that Jake would be fine once he was weaned off the alcohol. Getting the artwork in front of people proved to be trickier, but Mark and Becky Askew loved the work and agreed to show it in the Lakeland offices of A2H architects.

Miller says he initially had no interest in viewing the work. "I figured it would be the couple of good pieces on the invitation and maybe some unicorns," he says. "But I went. And I've never seen anything like this in terms of a body of work. It was just amazing. So consistently good. So complex. So beautiful and so interesting. I immediately started bringing people out to see it." Now, with the two MCA exhibits, he's inviting the rest of Memphis to look.

One big question remains. What would Perry, who took such pains to stay out of the spotlight, think about his posthumous closeup? "Well, for starters, we're not taking a commission," Miller says, addressing one of Perry's primary complaints.

Alexander takes things a little further: "If he was going to be anywhere in the world, Memphis or Spain or wherever. I think he'd want to be at the Art Academy. Back in Memphis, where it all got started."
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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Elvis Week: Deep Cuts Playlist

Posted By on Thu, Aug 10, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Hey, how about an Elvis playlist made entirely of songs that almost never show up near the top of other Elvis playlists? Except for maybe "Little Sister." But I just can't make an Elvis playlist without "Little Sister." That would be wrong.



Thursday, July 6, 2017

All Hail the Voice of Welcome to Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin

Posted By on Thu, Jul 6, 2017 at 11:00 AM

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What in the world is going on in the sky high above the Arby's sign? Who are the mysterious hooded figures milling around in the town dog park? What's the real deal with Carlos, the beautiful — maybe too beautiful — new scientist in town, with his teeth so white and perfect like the gravestones in a military cemetery? And what's up with that glowing cloud moving in from the west? You know, the whistling, glowing, color-shifting cloud that may change in appearance from observer to observer. Perhaps some of these questions will be answered when Welcome to Night Vale, the enormously successful podcast and long-running experiment in dread, brings its touring show "All Hail" to Germantown Performing Arts Center. But probably not.
Welcome to Night Vale is a dark, listener-supported satire of community radio broadcast from a fictional desert town where ghosts, aliens, and all manner of odd characters and conspiracies are just a common part of everyday life. It's a surreal kind of place where math and English might switch names. It's a friendly spot where old woman Josie, who lives out by the car lot, might sell you a burned-out light bulb that was changed by an angel. She'll give you a real good price, too.

The format for "All Hail" is similar to that of a typical Welcome episode. Cecil Baldwin, the dulcet voice of Night Vale community radio reads news and PSAs while tense music builds in the background — hypnotic, terrifying, hilarious. Live shows also feature musical performances, special guest appearances and audience participation, if you dare.

And now, an interview with the voice of Welcome to Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin.

Cecil AKA Cecil.
  • Cecil AKA Cecil.

Fly on the Wall:
I know, for a while, you were doing Welcome to Night Vale and still performing with one of my favorite theater companies, the Neo-Futurists. Now that Night Vale has blown up with all these different components, do you still do both?

Cecil Baldwin: I do. I'm no longer a full-time [Neo-Futurist) company member. The traveling involved with Welcome to Night Vale is too intense to do both jobs simultaneously. But I try to go back whenever I can. I'm actually going back and doing a few shows with them later this summer, but it's more of an informal capacity kind of a drop in drop out thing.

That's such a creative and collaborative group. I know with Night Vale you work primarily as talent. I was wondering what you did these days when you had the urge to write or make something.

The Neo-Futurists is always a great place because you're kind of a writer. performer, and director. I try and do that whenever I can. When I'm back in New York I'm try to work on web series or other podcasts. One of the things I've fallen into doing Night Vale, I started guest hosting on NPR's Ask Me Another which is a lot of fun.

Everything about Night Vale started small. And now it's enormously successful with tours and publishing. Can you just maybe talk a little about the show's evolution?

 Joseph Fink had an idea. He was trying to make it as a writer and he was having a hard time getting published. Then he realized, "well I love podcasts." The threshold for entry is low. And it's low financially. It's like self-publishing you just put it out there. So he needed a narrator and he knew me from the net Neo-Futurists. And he really just started making a show. I think when you're used to working in sort of an off-off-Broadway mentality you just want to do the work. You hope people show up and you just continue to make things hoping something will be seen, some of it will be entertaining, and some of it will—  knock on wood — make you some money eventually. But mostly you just kind of keep plugging away at it and do it for the love of it. We may have gone for a good year-and-a-half before anyone, I think, outside of our friends and family started listening to it. And then it got more popular. And then, one summer, it just snowballed and became this overnight success, even though overnight took a year-and-a-half.
That's actually pretty fast for an overnight success. And so much of the success comes from having these really engaged fans making all this fan art and sharing it. Have you guys found ways to engage and encourage more of that or does it really just continue to happen on its own?

In the beginning it just happened on its own. It's one of those things. The kind of people who really discovered Night Vale were in the Tumblr,and  Reddit online communities, and a lot of those people spend a lot of time online finding things on the Internet and sharing  with their friends. When you're sharing a TV show or a movie or something like that there's a visual component to it already. With Night Vale there's not. So people would share quotes from the Twitter page but with nothing to give visual reference to these weird funny scary things. So people started putting visual components along with it and the best way to do that was to create it themselves. All of a sudden fan art became a thing.  Part of the popularity of the show was related to listening and deciding for yourself what you think of these characters. From there is got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until, by the end of that summer, we were the most downloaded podcast in the world — knocked This American Life off their number one spot for a few weeks, you know.

When you're making something and people express their appreciation by taking all your ideas and making their own responsive art or fiction — and there's so much of it — it seems like it would be really hard for it to not influence the original.

Joseph and Jeffrey specifically don't read fan theories. They don't read fan fiction. I think their point is that's for the fans, it's not for the creators to approve of their fan theories or to go, "Yes that could potentially happen in the world of Night Vale." I love looking at the fan art and I find it very inspiring to know that something I've helped make has inspired other people to, in turn, create their own kinds of art. That's interesting. I feel kind of the same about cosplay. Whenever people send me photos, or I see photos online of people dressing up as Cecil or Carlos going to Comic-Con. That's a kind of an inspiration. You've inspired someone to take a better part of their day to lovingly craft an Eternal Scout uniform from scratch and then go out and share it with the world. I find it very inspiring. 
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With its slow-burning narrative, and relentlessly dreadful, but also often whimsical tone I think Night Vale is kind of a Rorschach blot. People are going to see a lot of different things in it. And lie the glow cloud, it will change from observer to observer. What do you think fans are finding?

There's a lot of different elements at play. I think part of it is the fact that Night Vale is this very dangerous place. It's sort of filled with existential dread — a place where normal things are terrifying and big terrifying things are considered normal. It's almost like Gilbert and Sullivan. In its topsy-turvy kind of way it has its own twisted dream logic. And it's presented with such hope. This is a world where ancient gods are out to kill everyone and where tiny civilizations that live under bowling alleys  attack people. Yet at the same time the people that live in Night Vale have such love for each other, and for their community, and their town. I think in a lot of ways it's very inspiring to people. Especially people who feel disenfranchised — people of color, or people that are gay or transgender etc. etc. etc. People who feel like they're somehow on the outside in the real world. They're like, "Wow, this world I live in is sort of topsy-turvy. We don't always have the best values or our own best interests at heart. But, at the end of the day, I still love the world I live in, and I love my neighbors. It's very inspiring.

We've talked about everything but the show. Which may be different from other shows fans might have seen.

We try to do a unique live show every year we take it as many places as we can and then we put in the vault afterwards. So every time we come back to your town it's a different show every time. This show is "All Hail." It centers around the Glow Cloud. It's one of our more fun shows and we're going to tour it through 2017 and into 2018 and then it will be locked away in the vault never to be seen again.

Which brings us back to the Neo-Futurists who are all about impermanence, and retiring work.

It's very much inspired by the fact that these are live shows. We acknowledge the fact we're in the room performing something live in front of you that cannot be repeated. Even if you do the show 75 times, each one of the shows is going to be different every single time. And I think it's that sort of commitment to the live experience that's very similar to the Neo-Futurists.

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