Artifacts of the Old World: I Need That Record

For some people, music is just another thing. A distraction. But, for others (like myself), music means a hell of a lot more. At some point, there was that one song, that one band that transformed everything. The one that made them want to be part of it in some way. Music for them is like what sports or politics or any other obsession is to other people. It informs everything about them. Conversations, friends, fashion, values. Whatever.

When I was a lowly teenager in Orlando in the mid-90s, my friends and I were heavily into punk and its offshoots. There were still a handful of independent music stores around at the time that catered to our tastes and one that we spent a lot of time at was called D.I.Y. Records. The store clerks there were basically like us, except older. They dyed their hair and knew the music and joked around with the people that wandered into the small space they rented in a strip mall down the highway from the state university. I used to go out there to put out copies of my zine and pick up copies of others’. On weekends, they opened up the backroom for local bands to play all-ages shows. We’d go and watch our friends perform and see kids around that we’d see at every show in town we could get into. We were young and music was a big deal to us and so, D.I.Y. Records became a kind of second home.

Brendan Toller’s 2008 documentary, I Need That Record: The Death (Or Possible Survival of) the Independent Record Store, would say that D.I.Y. Records helped forge a community. Music may have brought people there, but it was more than just a music store. Its local roots and that scene that we identified with gave us kids a sense of place, one that we never would have found (or will find again) had we done our shopping in giant, homogeneous chains. Not that we would have found what we were looking for on the shelves of a major retailer, anyways. Most of the stuff we loved listening to wasn’t played on commercial radio. And it sure as shit didn’t rate on any charts.

D.I.Y. Records closed not longer after that, and they say it was because of the rampant shoplifting. But, rather than go out of business entirely, they switched to an online and mail-order operation. And, rather ironically, the store became a Spanish church. And the community that the little record store (that could) fostered had been displaced, if it wasn’t killed off altogether since a lot of other shops closed probably within one or two years after that.

The story of D.I.Y. Records is a lot like the independent music stores spotlighted in I Need That Record are shown to be undergoing the same fate, closing their doors after some twenty or thirty years in the business. These were neighborhood staples that served as small sanctuaries for oddballs, weirdos, and fanatics that make up the universe of music junkies. With collections that spanned in the thousands, they were a place to make those beloved rare discoveries.

But sympathize as I might, it’s a little uncomfortable watching the owners as they’re at a loss for words, and some on the verge of tears, reminiscing and wondering what the hell they’re going to do next. Of those screwed by lease agreements, it’s not clear why the owners didn’t attempt to relocate. The customers, too, kind of ham it up, shaking a fist at big chains (more so than any other culprit in this changing business), and likewise, wonder where they’ll turn to for their music now, especially the ones who dig vinyl. Sure, you could say the Internet, but ex-Minuteman Mike Watt (who looked high during the interview) and ex-Patti Smith collaborator, Lenny Kaye, would say it just doesn’t hold the same sense of community. Although, the kids born and bred on the Internet might disagree.

So basically the question comes down to, what’s killing off the indies? These places that made it easy for kids to wander into and find this whole other world of music (it still is a little harder to do on the Internet, because you already have to know where to look), and three thousand of them shut down in the last decade. But, it soon becomes apparent that sales of hard media (not just CDs, but things like books and movies, too) have been on the decline for quite a while, forcing even major retailers like Tower, Borders, and Blockbusters out of business. What we were witnessing was basically a dramatic change in business models because of changing technology. I Need That Record attributes a lot of the answer to music’s digital conversion, providing a little history of the inventions along the way that really revolutionized the game like the creation of mp3 file format and the release of the first iPod. And, while the litigation battles over piracy and peer-to-peer networks are discussed, they thankfully don’t overshadow the entire history as is usually the tendency. But, it’s also important not to overlook the fact that, digital conversion wasn’t everything. The Internet gave people a way to find even hard copy media at a much cheaper price.


Last Laughs: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Graffiti has come along way since the 70s. Once an art form (or vandalism and public nuisance to some) typified by exotic tags on a canvas of urban decay, experimentalists and pioneers have broken boundaries in both content and medium. Freeform gave way to stencils. Stencils to prints. Prints to three-dimensional forms. And so forth. Graffiti has always been subversive, posing that looming threat of unregulated public voice. But lately, structures of an otherwise tame and guarded environment have been seized for overt politics and amusing mockery as graffiti artists expose, even in the most simplest forms, oppression and contradiction. Unfortunately, as the art becomes simplified and more accessible than the elaborate typography that once dominated, it has become easily co-opted and commercialized. Such is the fate of subversive culture.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a mix of documentary and possible sham, one engineered by the immensely popular, but cleverly elusive  master of public mockery: stencil graffiti artist, Banksy.  The film was supposedly borne out of French shop owner, Thierry Guetta’s obsessive compulsiveness and attraction to the grandiose. Getting his hands on a video camera, he began to record everything, no matter how mundane the event. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died, he claimed the new found hobby satisfied his compulsion to hold on to the life around him. Soon, all this filming leads him to a new objective: a documentary about street artists.


With a Hall Pass in Hand: American Teen

American Teen was immediately criticized as it began generating attention at Sundance in 2008. The original promotional material featured the five teenagers at the heart of Nanette Burstein’s documentary in poses and costume nearly identical to those in the Breakfast Club. The previews even pre-defined their roles: The Geek, The Princess, The Jock, The Hearthrob and The Rebel, arousing suspicions that this reduced these people’s stories to palatable, packaged frames, symbolic of a disingenuous adult view of teenage life.

Generally, film-goers tend to hold documentarians to a level of scrutiny that assumes them to be objective observers of their subject. This is not a pure documentary in that sense, and in fact it might be better described as a pop documentary. The filmmaker’s placement does shape environment, and in all stages of production, there are deliberate choices of what to focus on. And for Burstein, it is the concept of the modern American teenager.

Early on, there were criticisms about lacking authenticity in a different regard. Namely, the noticeable lack of variety in the town’s residents, making a film who’s sociological importance could only be generalized to middle-class white American suburbia. In American Teen, there is only one non-white high school school student featured. And every other seemingly “taboo” subject from homosexuality to promiscuous sex to divorce is muted. The sprinkling of teenage drama in the briskly edited montage that made up the trailers suggested a “documentary” that sanitized taboo realities, only to fill the gap with sexier sensationalism.


The Zephyr Chronicles: Revolutionaries on the Blacktop

Although skateboarding had been around since the 1960s, it has fluctuated in both popularity and marketability up until the mid-1990s when it finally became a seemingly stabilized industry. Even former Bones Brigade rider turned one-man commercial empire, Tony Hawk, admitted in his autobiography the fear of being able to survive on meager royalty checks in the early 90s, taking side jobs in video editing to make ends meet.

But, what began in the 1960s as a mini-surfboard shaped deck on wheels to be used by young, adept surfers in the afternoon when the waves were low quickly faded from view as a kiddie pastime. Manufactured boards started disappearing and by the primitive planks of carved plywood and clay wheels from disassembled roller skates became the substitute for the remaining loyalists who never gave up skating.  It was a combination of nature (surfing technique and the drought made pool surfing popular), responsive architecture (the embankments of California’s schoolyard playgrounds), engineering (development of Urethane wheels and kick tails), publicity (the Dogtown articles), and marketing that turned the primitive youth exploit into a million and billion dollar industry (eventually).

Former pro skater and skate company co-founder, Stacey Peralta’s fine documentary,  Dogtown and z-boys, followed by the narrow-minded Hollywood dramatization of the tale, Lords of Dogtown, the story of Dogtown’s Z-Boys is no longer a legend reserved to skateboarding’s inner circle. The story of the teenage tyrants out of 1970s Venice Beach whose low-to-the-ground style of skating inspired by pro surfer Larry Birdlman forced the sport from its 1960s paradigm of nosewheelies and headstands is a now highly publicized one that at least youngsters outside of skateboarding may be able to recite because they saw that documentary about it, or that movie with Heath Ledger.

Unfortunately, the Zephyr story tends to dominate the retrospectives on skateboarding’s history. About as close as it’s come are the several documentaries on the born again former glory boys Christian Hosoi, who served time on drug charges, and Vision skater, Mark “Gator” Ragowski, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder. Those offered some background on skateboarding’s’ evolution in the 1980s as vertical gave way to street skating. Any other really extensive history of skateboarding could be found through books, and particularly Michael Brooke’s The Concrete Wave and Jocko Weyland’s very excellent The Answer is Never.

Mass commercialism and mass media really homogenized skateboarding. The tricks all got names. They all became standards. The prominent players aren’t really distinguishable in technique, except the ones that can pull off something amazingly difficult like Tony Hawk’s 900. There is no small group that really influences skateboarding anymore the way that the Zephyr did. Even later notable skaters like Rodney Mullen who’s skating is grounded in years of now defunct-freestyle. That emphasis on “style” that’s so frequently repeated in Dogtown and Z-boys documentary might mean something to skaters from that era. But probably not to young skaters of today. The flowery documentary Freewheelin‘ made in the late 1970s follows Stacey Peralta and his friends (including Tom Logan, founder of Logan Earth & Ski) as they travel to various locations for afternoon skate sessions. The group hailed from very different athletic backgrounds. One was a professional skier, another, a longboard surfer. This had an impact on the way they maneuvered their boards. Even Peralta, who was a surfer first, had a self-tailored technique that was most evident in his slalom. Freewheelin’ really gave meaning to that loose abstract, “style.”But unfortunately, it is a uniqueness that likewise appears lost in the age of mass-everything and generic representation.

Where there lacks more extensive histories of a sport that began four decades back, a review of the Dogtown and Z-boys, which offers insight on both the pre-commercial and post-commercial developments (whereas Lords of Dogtown is saturated with focus on the latter) reveals that the core of the legend is that major shifts in the sport can be synthesized to a simple event: neighborhood surfers emulated their favorite pro surfers on a pavement playground. On a concrete wave. That is the beginning of the Dogtown story. The histories tennd to understate the fact that skateboarding became what it became because of the unadulterated spirit of its the people who did it for fun, and stuck with, making sure that skateboarding, even in it’s darkest days, never completely disappeared. They existed all along. Dana Brown, son of Endless Summer director Bruce Brown, may have been one of the few to really capture that perpetual essence, but in the surfing world, with his documentary, Step Into Liquid. It focused on various sects of die-hard surfers and their own definitions of the perfect wave. They may buy factory-produced surfboards and wetsuits, but when it comes to running out in the cold ripples of Wisconsin’s waters (yes… Wisconsin), the brand of board or the logo on the wetsuit doesn’t matter one damn because the enjoyment, that purest thrill, stems from the emotional, the mental, the physical, and the spiritual connection to the activity. Skaters are the same. It’s those moments when the fact that pro surfer Kelly Slater won a world championship title or that skateboarder Geoff Rowley has a signature shoe doesn’t mean jack shit.