Archive for August 2010
Had me a birthday a week ago, figured a mention at least was in order. This day grows more unexhilarating with each passing year and every surplus pound – although, in all honesty, growing old definitely has its perks, what one loses in general enthusiasm is regained in a certain secure sagacity …
And having celebrants helps, especially those into tightey-whities with fancy erm, lifting technology.
An afterthought: here are some of the talented, the tempting and the just plain notorious who happen to share this special day with me.
So, when I made the momentous transition from cassette to compact way back in the Jurassic Age – a.k.a. the early 1990s – the very first CD I purchased was a copy of the Grease soundtrack. As everyone knows, the 50s revival band Sha Na Na was a major contributor to the album, even appearing in the film as Johnny Casino & the Gamblers (albeit for a very brief instant). What I didn’t know then was that this bunch of uber foxy greaser wannabes actually had their own TV show, which ran from 1977 to 1981, on which they performed various comedy sketches and musical numbers with their inimitable mix of sultriness and satire, rhythm and rambunctiousness. (“Here they are, all greased up and ready to sing their brains out – Sha Na Na !!!”)
These guys RAWKED.
Now, nearly two decades later, I find myself reconnecting with my musical roots – courtesy of Youtube and a couple of very dedicated fans. Thanks, girls (and guys) !
These doo-wopping dreamboats started out as an acapella collective at Columbia University (?!) dubbed the Kingsmen. Fame outside of their home institution arrived in the form of a 40-minute performance at the legendary Woodstock festival on 18th August 1969, where apparently they preceded Jimi Hendrix, and other good things soon followed: a record deal; appearances on the 60s game show Trivia; signing on with the William Morris Agency; their very own television program; Grease. The initial line-up consisted of mostly Columbia students, including a number who left soon after the group’s early success but have since gone on to pretty distinguished careers in academia, medicine and showbiz (e.g. Jewish scholar Alan Cooper, and Elliot Cahn, one-time manager of Green Day). In any case, by the advent of their TV show in the late 70s, Sha Na Na consisted of 10 individuals:
Front row (from right to left): Screaming Scott, Jocko, Chico, Johnny Contardo
Back row (standing, from R to L): Denny, Donny, Bowzer, Lenny, Danny (leaning forward), Santini
Donald ‘Donny’ York: Founding member and heartthrob Numero Uno. <squeal!!> He’s the guy in sunshades and the cut-off striped top … Nummy, int he ? Still plays with the band. Last seen fraternizing with the Republican set though, pity.
Scott ‘Santini’ Powell: Founding member, an orthopedic doc in California these days.
Frederick ‘Denny’ Greene: Founding member. Went on to law school and an academic career. Watch him discussing the band’s early days, and his own multi-faceted life, here.
John ‘Jocko’ Marcellino: Founding member, and the band’s dummer. One of the originals still with Sha Na Na today. Watch him in a short clip here.
Dave ‘Chico’ Ryan: The bass player, and a real sweetie-pie. Frequently yo-yo-ed and roller-skated on TV. Sadly, he passed away in 1998; there’s a tribute site up.
Johnny ‘the Kid’ Contardo: He of the amazing vocal cords, I’m not kidding. See the Runaway vid below. He maintains a personal site these days.
Lenny Baker: Played the sax and sang. Great on both counts. He leads on “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” (below). I love Lennie.
Jon “Bowzer” Bauman: Vocalist. His TV persona scares the bejeezuz outta me – but one of the best-known of the group.
“Screaming” Scott Simon: Joined the group soon after Woodstock, and played keyboards and even penned a song for the Grease album (“Sandy”).
‘Dirty’ Dan Mcbride: The group’s guitarist. Passed away last year.
This is how one rock historian characterizes the impact of Sha Na Na:
In addition to prefiguring punk’s desire to return to a pre-1960s version of rock, Sha Na Na anticipated glam. Their costumes–including black leather “greaser” outfits and gold lamé Elvis suits–and preening stage poses were as self-consciously constructed as any of Bowie’s identities. Bowie, Bolan, and other glam rockers troubled conventional notions of male gender identity by embodying a fey androgyny undergirded by heterosexual machismo. As a group, Sha Na Na presented a catalogue of similarly ambiguous masculine gender stereotypes as refracted through rock and roll and 1950s fashions. Those in the group who embraced the “greaser” pose embodied masculine bravado and aggression, but also a preoccupation with grooming (“grease”) and the moment-by-moment condition of their hair, addressed by the frequent application of pocket combs. Like Elvis himself, the gold-suited members of Sha Na Na juxtaposed an almost feminine version of male beauty with masculine sexual aggression. The distance from the male types represented by Sha Na Na and those staged some years later and in a completely different musical context by the Village People is not as great as it may initially seem, and the connective tissue between them is surely provided by glam rock.
(See the essay on glam rock by Philip Auslander here.)
That depiction of Sha Na Na – as a self-consciously canny and tongue-in-cheek send-up of early rock ‘n’ roll culture colliding happily with the glittery decadence of the 1970s – doesn’t seem far off the mark. During their run on TV at least, the outré costumes (the body-hugging gold lamé and purposively butch greaser gear), the synchronized vocalizing, twirling, gyrating and on-stage preening in general, all point towards a perfected sense of the performative, as Auslander notes above. And yet, amidst all the mass-media dazzle and razzmatazz, its easy to lose sight of just how cutting-edge and dynamic these guys were when they first started out in 1969. It may not seem like it now, especially since the 50s nostalgia industry that they helped introduce has become something of a wince-worthy phenomenon, but Sha Na Na was absolutely ahead of its time. Rob Leonard, then a 19 yr-old college kid, helped found the Kingsmen with his brother George; in his own words, there weren’t too many people then doing what they did :
My brother George, who was also a student at Columbia University in New York at the time – this was all his idea. We had a group called the Columbia Kingsmen – we were playing the 50s songs but didn’t really have the concept of Sha Na Na itself. He said, ‘Rob, call the boys!’ George choreographed us, and Sha Na Na was born. The ’50s were super-avant-garde at the moment. We didn’t have Happy Days or Grease. Frank Zappa called us the freakiest group he had ever seen.
(See the full interview with Rob, a professor of linguistics at Hofstra University these days, here.)
Indeed, that ‘super-avant-garde’ aesthetic, at its inception, was already imbued with a healthy dose of parody and riotous fun, as an article that recounts the birth of the group and the various influences that George Leonard brought to bear on their particular sensibility, makes even clearer:
Before the Columbia Kingsmen went into rock’n'roll, there were no oldies radio stations and no “theater rock:” white rock groups still stood on stage like the Beatles and sang their album, though a lead singer might cavort like Jagger. Above all, there were no “Fifties.” The Fifties were unregretted, still accurately remembered for the Bomb-fearing, Commie-hunting, money grubbing era they were: the Eighties without the glamor. The Beats dropped out, Jules Feiffer got “sick, sick, sick.” …… George Leonard’s daily dining room handouts and twice-weekly Spectator ads revised the Fifties into a pre-political teenage Eden: “Jocks! Freaks! ROTC! SDS! Let there be a truce! Bury the hatchet (not in each other)! Remember when we were all little greaseballs together watching the eighth-grade girls for pick-ups?” …… Sha Na Na grew out of the unique midnight bull-session atmosphere of the Columbia dorms. When George was a junior on the Fifth Floor Jay, Ed Goodgold and his pals used to play a game in the hall that Ed (with Dan Carlinsky) soon boosted into a national institution: “Trivia.” George, meanwhile, banded floor members into an underground film company: basketball great Jim McMillian played the heavy. Then, for Ed’s and Dan’s fist All-Ivy Trivia Contest, the Kingsmen prepared “Little Darlin’.” They wore blazers and stood in a semicircle; but when Rob Leonard did the spoken solo, the audience reaction was so intense that George (already studying choreography) had his vision of a group that would sing only Fifties rock and perform dances like the Busby Berkely films Susan Sontag had taught George to love.
(Read the full article, archived on George Leonard’s personal website, here.)
And there’s no better index of just how rock ‘n roll these faux-50s rock ‘n roll-ers were than their Woodstock gig. The slick choreography and seamless harmonizing of the TV years is perhaps less conspicuous there than the sheer chaotic energy of the performance, closer in spirit to, say, the guitar-smashing hijinks of The Who than the smoother-than-silk vocals of classic doo-wop. Below are glimpses of Sha Na Na at their early best: howling, hooting, cavorting, hamming it up, and just having the time of their lives — on the very same stage that Jimi Hendrix was soon to appear on.
Welcome once again to 1969.
Sha Na Na at Woodstock
Rob Leonard – with the unmistakable shock of brunette hair – is the lead on this one. Watch out for when the camera cuts away to catch reactions from the audience: some of the expressions are priceless ..
The superbly mickey-moused montage at the end, which finishes with a shot of Donny slicking his hair back – a trademark gesture – is beyond awesome.
“Duke of Earl”. The moustachioed chap jerking around at the mic is just gorgeous; haven’t figured out who he is though ..
Over a mushroom risotto dinner last week at Jones the Grocer (along with one too many glasses of wine), I accused an ex of “hanging on to stuff.” (Which sounds a lot harsher here than it really was ..) Well, you know the old saying: point a finger at someone and the other four are gesturing back at you. Only too true in this case. Ran into a ghost from the past just the other day, snogging someone else this time. I suppose he must have made an impression, if one wants to be brutally honest. This is an individual with whom I have a brief fling a year and a half ago, with zero contact since, and yet he lingers on still …
… but no one should get to live rent-free in your head, hmm ? (@Nicolette: No copyright infringement intended.) If I could exorcise even the peskiest of ‘em all, I think I’m good for emotional autonomy.
That’s the great thing about old age, you just don’t give a damn half the time.
And now on to the real business of this post. A while ago when I swung by the SAM to see the Ming Wong exhibition I also caught “The Story of Yeh Chi Wei”. Going up the stairs to the galleries on the second floor was really sort of an afterthought, but, boy, was I surprised – ever.
The Yeh show commemorates and recuperates a once-dynamic figure in the annals of 20th century SE Asian art. It presents a pretty thorough look at an oeuvre the greater part of which has sadly been lost to time and/or poor preservation, although thankfully some key works survive, including a goodish number of paintings from Yeh’s travels with the Ten Men group in the 60s and 70s – apparently the stuff of legend – which really are the most interesting of the bunch. For those of you unfamiliar with the name (and I certainly wasn’t before this), here’s a quick biographical rundown*: Yeh was born in Fujian province, China, in 1913, and after clocking in some time as a child in Sibu, Sarawak, received formal training in Western art at a Shanghai academy. After the outbreak of hostilities between China and Japan, however, he returned to SE Asia. He spent the better part of the next decade or two teaching art at various schools throughout Malaysia and Singapore, and fell in with a loose collective of local artists who later came to be known as the Ten Men Group (eventually growing into the Southeast Asian Art Association in 1970). These guys made working trips to various destinations around the region, including Sumatra, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Vietnam. These painting expeditions yielded some of Yeh’s most radical works to date, coming as it did at a time when the artist was beginning to abandon his earlier mode of realism for a less figurative idiom (see Portrait of Low Ing Sing , below). His brand of abstraction might not look terribly avant-garde in the context of the 1960s – the era of say, Yves Klein’s blue canvases or Rauschenberg’s Combines – but it has to be remembered that Singapore then was essentially far removed from the artistic ferment of NYC.** Set against the backdrop of a fairly conservative local art scene – the experiments of the Nanyang School folk, such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Georgette Chen and Chen Wen Hsi being the best-known and most cutting-edge examples of the period, though still beholden to Western modernism of an earlier epoch – Yeh’s stuff that came out of this period holds its own against the best of them, in my opinion (see The Dayak [c. 1969], below). At the height of his success, however, for reasons that remain unclear, Yeh chose to retire with his wife to a rural farmstead in Johor, passing away there in 1981.
*Low Sze Wee’s essay in the exhibition catalogue, “Rediscovering Yeh Chi Wei”, does a bang-up job of recounting Yeh’s life and assessing his importance. Many of the details here are indebted to Low. The catalogue is available at Select Books and – for a slight discount – at TNAG’s webshop.
** This claim probably needs a qualifier. When artists like Yeh and the others of the Ten Men group were active, a nascent avant-garde sensibility – more or less contemporaneous with developments in the West – was already emergent among local artists. Cheo Chai-Hiang, for instance, who was at art school in Birmingham in the late 60s and early 70s, submitted a piece to the 1972 exposition of the Modern Art Society entitled 5′ x 5′ (Singapore River). Consisting simply of instructions to draw a 5″ x 5″ square on the wall and on the floor – in the Fluxus fashion of George Brecht’s scores or Yoko Ono’s instructional paintings – it was rejected on the grounds of lacking aesthetic merit. While they certainly existed, conceptual art and its partisans like Cheo, however, were still definitely in the minority at this time. (See Russell Storer’s essay, “Making Space: Historical Contexts of Contemporary Art in Singapore” in Nadarajan, Storer & Tan, Contemporary Art in Singapore [Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, 2007].)
The Ten Men group at their exhibition in 1961.
Now what I really enjoyed about Yeh was his sometime habit of smearing thick gobs of paint on his canvases with a palette knife – rather than using a paintbrush – resulting in a dense, highly textured surface a la Van Gogh or Monet. Two views of his Untitled (Angkor Thom) (1963, below) should illustrate this: a frontal vantage point renders the painting flat and two-dimensional, but a worm’s-eye view, with the light at the right angle, brings out the conspicuousness of the impasto, which does literally jump out at you (something unfortunately lost in reproductions). Yeh may have been trying to highlight the almost-lacelike arabesques of little motifs one frequently finds above the visage on Angkor statuary (below), but the why of it is less interesting for me than the sheer visual pleasure one gets from these calloused, plastic, tactile surfaces. He also had the tendency to paint over existing works, which further caused cracking and cupping of the paint layers, plainly visible in works like Drummer (c. 1965; below), where the black areas resemble a web of lines and indentations. Yeh owned a collection of tribal artifacts, ranging from wooden busts to native textiles, from which he took inspiration, and these objects seem to have influenced his paintings in more than just a motific sense: the rough, grainy texture of the wood, for one, or the warp and weft of the fabrics look like something Yeh may perhaps have been trying to recreate on the canvas.
Detail of Yeh Chi Wei, Drummer (1965)
All this is by way of broaching one of my favourite subjects: haptics. Viennese art historian Alois Riegl, who popularized the idea of haptic and optic modes of vision with respect to antique relief sculpture, thought of the haptic as a delineation of a figure on its ground by “a distinct sculptural contour, treated as an isolated body in space, and, as such, perceived by the beholder as a tactile and individualized entity.” He formulated the dichotomy as one of long-distance, disembodied vision (optic) and close-range tactile perception (haptic). Riegl’s association of the haptic gaze with tactility was not, of course, to claim that the operation of each individual sense modality could be isolated in practice, but to raise the potentiality of encoding the sense of the tactile in the visual register – a form of looking that he deemed close to the phenomenon of “normal”, or everyday, vision, Normalsicht. The process of an intimate scrutiny of textural complexity, akin to the experience of running one’s hand over a surface, distinguishing every bump and indentation, is central to this notion of a mode of visuality that is able to conjure the sensation of touch:
Optical visuality depends on a separation between the viewing subject and the object. Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. It is more inclined to graze than to gaze.
(Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses [Duke U. Press, 2000], 162)
Yeh’s painterly gestures, resulting in staunchly material presences that move towards the non-figural and a-referential, can be said to evoke a response beyond the purely visual – i.e. his paintings draw attention not simply to their forms, but to the almost tangible qualities of their surface texture. It should be noted that the haptic entails more than just an appeal to tactility via the mechanism of sight, but implicates the entire sensorium in a synaesthetic act of looking as well. To quote Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of embodied, multisensory experience: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel” (The Phenomenology of Perception). Or, in the words of performance artist Carolee Schneemann (on her own practice): “Vision is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations.”
Gallery view, The Story of Yeh Chi Wei