Komar & Melamid Will Put Us out of Business with The RBS Gazette

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Art News


A few months
ago, Alex Melamid, one half of the genius Russian art team Komar & Melamid,
called to warn me that they were starting a new newspaper that was going to
put New York Press out of business. I thought it was gentlemanly of him
to let me know. More recently, Erin Franzman, a New York Press alumna,
called to tell me that she also was going to put us out of business with her
new paper. I’d be paranoid if it weren’t so pleasant out here in the
pasture just chewing my cud, the only hint of trouble coming when the breeze
shifts and I get a whiff of the glue factory beyond those trees.

Since Melamid
was also calling to invite me to contribute, I’m assuming he was joking
about putting me out of business. I’ll have to wait and see about Franzman.

from the look of Komar & Melamid’s The RBS Gazette, Vol. 1 No.
1 (collector’s item! act now!), I don’t think New York Press
has a lot to worry about. The lead headline is

King Pyrrhus Fights
a Hydra

“RBS” stands for the Rubber Band Society.
Back when we first spoke about this, I asked Melamid what that meant and he
told me he didn’t know. The banner promises that the paper will be “published
every fifty five days.” Melamid told me they thought that sounded better than
“every two months.”

The Gazette
is a newsprint broadsheet—very broad—and this first issue is six pages.
Besides the look of it, there’s not much about it that’s newspapery.
It’s more of a literary exercise, with Komar & Melamid’s signature
sense of humor, deadpan yet playful, running through it. It’s a thoroughly
straight-faced spoof but also a functioning, and delightful, publication; in
that sense, the Gazette is to “real” newspapers what Los Angeles’
brilliant Museum of Jurassic Technology is to “real” natural history museums.

That lead
story does turn out to be a straightforward little history lesson, by Brian
Deimling, describing Pyrrhus’ invasion of southern Italy in the summer
of 280 BC. It shares the front page with an equally straight-seeming piece by
Simon Davis, a “zoo-archaeologist.” “Zoo-archaeology is a relatively new branch
of human sciences. Essentially, it is the study of the leftovers of what people
used to eat. We are, in other words, ‘into garbage.’” And there’s
a funny first installment of something called “The Cursing Mommy Cookbook,”
by Ian Frazier. In this episode, Cursing Mommy prepares chili. (“Goddamn fucking
shit! Why doesn’t anybody fucking tell me when we’re fucking out of
fucking chili powder?”)

An obit
for Chief Justice Rehnquist explains that he died when a safe filled with semi-automatic
weapons fell on his head as he was standing outside the East Capitol Street
Car Barn. The obit describes in great detail the safe, the car barn, Rehnquist’s
limo and traffic in DC, and hardly gets around to talking about Rehnquist’s
life or career. Joe Filisko contributes a scholarly disquisition, complete with
charts, entitled “The Secret of Harmonica Train Imitations: An In Depth Analysis,”
with the marvelous subhed, “The Paradox of a Small Instrument Mimicing a Large
Steam Engine Train.”

Name contributors
include The New Yorker’s Lawrence Weschler (who, not so coincidentally,
wrote that book I didn’t much like about the Jurassic), Amy Fusselman
of McSweeney’s, Art Spiegelman, David Greenberger still mining
his Duplex Planet files for stories, Rick Moody and Jamaica Kincaid.
That’s a lot for six, albeit very broad, pages. (Disclosure: I’m not
in this issue, but I have contributed and hope to be in a future one.)

An editorial
statement sent along to me by associate publisher David Adler explains that
the Gazette’s apparent mishmash of content actually adheres to a
principle of “Contextualism.” “The RBS Gazette is trying to make sense
of [the] lack of context in magazines by physically forcing otherwise
unrelated articles onto one page to unite them.” Maybe that’s where the
Rubber Band comes in, something about binding all this material together. It
says here that the Gazette should be available in “St. Mark’s Books,
Dia Bookshop [and] pretentious giftshops” by this Saturday, Bastille Day, which,
appropriately, is Melamid’s birthday. The cover price is $3.

continue with the name-dropping: A couple of weekends ago we had
the legendary John Sinclair (manager of the MC5; pot bust; John & Yoko and
“Free John Sinclair”; Guitar Army; Ann Arbor Jazz & Blues Festival;
currently New Orleans radio hero and poet) for a houseguest. He’d kindly
come up from New Orleans for my book launch party, where he performed a couple
of his jazzy-bluesy poetry numbers backed by the fabulous Senders, one of the
best bar boogie bands in the world, and long criminally neglected by the record
industry. (Have one of your people call me, Clive, and I’ll put you right
in touch with them.)

my party, Sinclair performed at Lakeside Lounge and the Internet Cafe that weekend.
We caught the Internet show, where he was backed by an amazing quartet of Ayler-ish
avant-jazzmen. Owner Arthur Perley told me it was the last night of live music
at the Cafe, at least for a while, because he’s been threatened with the
kinds of fines that have been ruining Manhattan for music venues throughout
Giuliani’s tenure. The “cabaret” harassment problem goes back well before
Giuliani, of course, but the Savonarola of Manhattan certainly exacerbated it.

he first became famous as a rock revolutionary back when he was managing Detroit’s
MC5, for years now the grownup Sinclair has been best known as a master jazzologist
and bluesologist. He can still name young Detroit rock bands he likes—he’s
friends with the White Stripes and the Detroit Cobras—but if you really
want to get him going you ask him for stories about Coltrane or Louis Armstrong
or Mezz Mezzrow. In his best performance pieces he becomes a kind of hepcat
griot, channeling jazz or blues history and weaving tales in and out of his
backing band’s vamping and jamming. On a good night the hoodoo spirit of
the music descends upon the room just as the spirit of the King will come down
upon a really inspired Elvis impersonator. Sinclair does two radio shows in
New Orleans, one of New Orleans music and one on the blues, and has been voted
the city’s favorite radio personality three years running.

A couple
of years ago he became managing editor of Blues Access, a glossy quarterly
for blues aficionados, published by Cary Wolfson out of Boulder for roughly
11 years now. I’d never seen it until he left me a few recent issues. I
like reading fan magazines on subjects I’m not terribly well-versed in—steam
engines, bondage and discipline, surfing and skateboarding, whatever. It’s
like eavesdropping. I got into Blues Access on that level. I mean, I
know my basic blues history as well as anybody, but these folks are deep
into it. This is also for people who need to be kept up a lot more than I do
on current acts, currently available disks, the schedules of all those summer
blues festivals around the country, that sort of crucial fans’ information.

For me,
the best part is the interviews, priceless stuff with both big names and more
obscure or local talents. Like Sam Lay, who’s played drums behind everyone
from Howlin’ Wolf to Willie Dixon to, interestingly, Bob Dylan. (My pal
Gilbert also tells me it was while staying with Lay that a young James Osterberg
realized he’d never be a competent blues drummer; he went on to recreate
himself as Iggy Pop.) When not playing, Lay has spent his life casually filming
the panoply of great blues and roots musicians, compiling hours and hours of
what sounds like fascinating footage.

“We watch
Jimmy Reed dance drunkenly around a club while Sonny Boy sits talking with James
Cotton at a table nearby,” writes Mark Hoffman. “Little Walter briefly walks
into view, pockets money from the club owner, and scurries away. We watch Lloyd
Price in 1963 and Sam says, ‘It cost 50 cents to get into that show.’
Bob Dylan sits with Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop at Big
John’s. Bob doesn’t look happy to have Sam’s bright lights blasting
away on him, but Sam says, ‘Bob is a wonderful guy.’

“We see
John Lee Hooker at Big John’s, and it’s a revelation to remember that
John Lee once looked so young. Sam says, ‘John Lee Hooker is almost 1200
years old now. He’s the oldest man in the world!’” (This was in the
Spring 2001 issue.) “Sam tells about playing a gig in California where John
Lee’s limousine pulled up backstage. ‘About 500 young women jump out
with Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes and throw them in the garbage,’ Sam laughs…
In one clip, we see [Chicago bluesman] Taildragger singing onstage. In front
of him, heckling, is Boston Blackie—the man Taildragger killed in 1993.”

the kernel of a great blues song in those last two sentences.

A year’s
subscription (four issues) is $15. (Blues Access, 1455 Chestnut Pl., Boulder,
CO 80304; 800-211-2961.)

the Boss?

to Inside.com were snickering the week before last at a mass e-mail sent out
on June 27 by new owner Steve Brill. (Well, maybe not so mass. If you believe
the worst tales, like the ones told by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker,
Inside.com never had more than 1200 subscribers.) With virtually all of its
original editorial staff, including the star writers, now gone, Inside.com has
been a rather pale ghost of what was—editorially if not financially—a
robust online publication. It’s still getting the inside-media stories,
but the fizz has gone out of its soda; to stick with a blues theme, the buzz
is gone.

e-mail read less like a communique from a serious publisher than a come-on from
Publishers Clearing House. “…I’m delighted to announce the new Inside.com
Basic Subscription program,” it said, and went on to ballyhoo various bells
and whistles and new “premium” services before arriving at the nub: “This new
program, we hope, will also allow us to grow our subscriber base dramatically
and allow us to make a thriving business of our own business. As part of this
program, we are reducing the annual subscription cost to Inside.com from $199
to $39 per year.

“I realize
that when you signed up for Inside.com, you paid a rate much higher than our
new annual rate. I want to make sure that you realize the full value that you
are owed as part of your newly-priced Inside.com subscription. So, for the remainder
of your current annual subscription to Inside.com, you have the opportunity
to receive one of the many Media Central premium information products at no
additional cost.”

Well, thanks
Steve, but I bet most of us would just like to have the old Inside.com back.
Any chance of that happening?

now common wisdom—in an industry that has not so far proven itself terribly
wise—that some version of subscriptions-with-“premium”-services or else
a pay-per-view model will be the salvation of content sites, ranging from newspapers’
sites charging a fee per downloaded article to these complicated tiered-payment
systems being jury-rigged by Brill and Salon. Internet history would
suggest otherwise. And even if they really have begun to break down users’
resistance to being dinged a nickel every time they log on, this latest plan
for wringing dollars from online magazine publishing strikes me as a Hail Mary
pass late in the fourth quarter for any content sites that aren’t backed
by giant sponsors like Microsoft or AOL-TW.