It seemed absolutely fitting that the Los Van Van concert took place during the same week that the Justice Department finally released the 1948 grand jury testimony of Richard Nixon's crusade against Alger Hiss, an event that had served as a catalyst for the McCarthy era's anti-communism hysteria. After all, the Los Van Van fracas recalled nothing so much as that dark period's dueling bouts of civil-liberty-destroying redbaiting and surreal comedy. The former is what comes to mind after Mayor Alex Penelas jumped on the anti-Van Van bandwagon (can you say "cowardly ploy for re-election?"), but the latter -- laughter -- is the only proper response when it comes to dealing with a character like Willy Chirino, salsero poster boy for the cultural commissars of the Cuban-exile community. How else to view the "startling admission" that Chirino, a scion of the exile's boycott against Cuba, once actually performed with the heathen musicians in Los Van Van? As the exile's own thought police gasped for breath and plotted their next tactical move, one could clearly see McCarthy's ghost in the background, taking fatal aim at those army generals. Meanwhile the obedient spin-doctors at the Herald went into action, revising Chirino's history as a man who had always supported cultural exchanges with Cuba-based artists, even welcoming them into his home when they visited Miami for concerts. Hold on. Isn't this the same Willy Chirino who made a point of appearing on Juana's Children, an NBC television special that aired during the MIDEM music convention this past June, wherein he led a host of exile musicians in decrying the Miami appearance of Cuban performers such as Pedro Luis Ferrer, Compay Segundo, and Barbarito Torres? Oh, how quickly we forget.
Of course this two-faced nature is not unique to "Slick" Willy. Many Miami-based exile artists sing a different tune when they're away from the eyes and ears of South Florida. Saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, for one, has been spotted at European music festivals acting chummy backstage with Los Van Van. Back in Miami, however, D'Rivera begins foaming at the mouth about those dreaded communist agents and "cultural insensitivity," offensively playing the Holocaust card and likening the local appearance of Cuban bands to that of a Nazi orchestra traveling to Israel. Even more of a shallow act is the insistence on the part of people such as Chirino and D'Rivera that exile musicians are barred from performing in Cuba. The island's premier jazzman, Chucho Valdés, has publicly extended a standing invitation to Gloria Estefan to visit Havana for a concert, an invitation that Estefan has so far declined. Then again, her decision to keep her treacly pop confined to the United States may be a blessing in disguise: Haven't the Cuban people suffered enough?
Prince came out of reclusion for a live set at the Fontainebleau Hilton hotel on Saturday, October 9, and had the performance come on any other evening, it might have been impressive. But only an hour after Los Van Van and the Cuban-exile spectacle wrapped up downtown, it was hard to view Prince's preening and strutting as anything more than a solid demonstration of the great pop machine in action. It was all certainly entertaining. His Purple majesty enacted a tightly scripted audience invasion of the stage, launched into some J.B.'s-esque chicken-scratch guitar play, and then oversaw a barrage of Godzilla-like sonic bombs courtesy of bassist Larry Graham -- reminding everyone just how crucial Graham's contributions to Sly and the Family Stone were.
The occasion for all this pomp was the Billboard and Airplay Monitor Radio Awards dinner, a nationwide gathering of heavyweight Top 40 radio programmers, precisely the crowd Prince's new label, Arista, is hoping to woo back to the Purple One's camp after many years of lackluster record sales. Postshow, however, several of the radio bigwigs seemed less than impressed ("Can't they make him play his hits?" sighed one), preferring to spend their time in the valet-parking line gossiping about Arista Records president Clive Davis.
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You know the proliferation of cell phones is getting out of hand when no less a figure than Fidel Castro is annoyed. Or as the Great Communicator exclaimed to a reporter in Havana last month: "Some believe they are very important because they carry one of those little phones." Amen, brother.
A similar spirit of contempt for the telecommunications revolution is at work within the music of The Spacewürm, who uses a modified police scanner to eavesdrop on cellular and cordless phone calls, recording the conversations he snatches from the ether, using them to anchor ambient soundscapes. Illegal? Yes. Endlessly fascinating? Oh yeah. In I Listen: A Document of Digital Voyeurism. The Spacewürm ditches the audio and issues the cream of his phone recordings in book form. It's a collection that ranges from the hilarious to the downright odd, ranging from drug deals, wife swaps, and extramarital affairs in progress, to two police officers complaining about a "masseuse" dressed like "snake-a-saurus" who keeps requesting ride-alongs with the male officers in their department. "She said she was interested in law enforcement, but she was wearing a halter top.... She was more interested in, I dunno, maybe finding a husband."
Flash back if you will to a distant time, an era in which the "independent" prefix in music and film wasn't a chic signifier but simply an admission that you were broke and your work of little interest to a mass audience; army/navy and thrift store duds were actually purchased at bona fide army/navy and thrift stores, instead of brightly lit boutiques selling designer versions of said items. Let's call that bygone period the mid-Eighties, a now-hazy spell before Madison Avenue decreed everyone hip and the tinge of suburban weirdness was still grounds for a good ass-kicking courtesy of the Camaro-driving set. Kim Hastreiter, co-publisher and co-editor of New York's style-chronicling Paper magazine, certainly remembers those halcyon days.
"Keith Haring was just starting out, Basquiat was drawing in the subways, New York was a hotbed of crisscrossing culture," she warmly recalls. And now? "That moment has been gentrified out of existence.... I was just in Milan, and the catwalk there was punk. Dolce & Gabbana and John Bartlett did punk, but it was punk made out of cashmere." Hastreiter laughs and adds, "The older you get, you just laugh about it -- and look for new subversive things. Culture eats itself and then moves on."
That societal munching is detailed in From AbFab to Zen, a coffee-table tome for the downtown crowd assembled by Hastreiter and fellow Paper head David Hershkovits. The book's glossy pages begin their story in 1984 (the year of Paper's birth) and travel to the present, pitting dramatic fashion photography against pithy encyclopedic references dissecting the past two decades of pop culture. It's a breezy tour with some excellent one-liners ("celebutots": children of the rich and famous whose media spotlight is due solely to their parental genetic code), some inadvertently disturbing juxtapositions (the black feminist theorist bell hooks, Pee-wee Herman, and heroin chic all appear on the same page -- you connect the dots), and the end realization that shock, that hallmark trait of '80s underground culture, just isn't that shocking anymore. Indeed what does it mean that in 1998, filmmaker John Waters (once a boho patron saint) produced Pecker, a "naif-artist-in-the-big-bad-city tale" worthy of Frank Capra, while There s Something About Mary mined Water's own gross-out territory and emerged as one of that year's top box-office successes? You can pester Hastreiter and Hershkovits (not a law firm) yourself, when the duo appears in the flesh Friday, October 22, at 8:00 p.m. at Books & Books on Lincoln Road, reading from and signing copies of From AbFab to Zen. Be sure to ask why Muammar Qaddafi made the cut to appear in the book, but not Saddam Hussein. Was it the mustache?
Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail email@example.com
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