The lingering presence of Bob Ross in the collective cultural memory is a funny thing. That PBS video, the Auto-Tuned one, turned up all over the place in my Facebook feed last month. People have a real fondness for the guy; to a certain extent, I do, too. I watched as much early-morning PBS during the Reagan Administration as anyone in my generation.
However, the twenty-something me (pictured above performing some “art” in 2003 or so; note the hip affectation of wearing bowling shoes) had a much different opinion of the man and his work, and the lingering aftertaste is one that is much harder to shake. From 1999 until 2004, at the tail end of the Golden Age of Independent Retail, when all you needed to make your rent was a slight attitude and a willingness to stand behind the counter of your local record shop, bookstore, copy shop or coffeehouse, I worked as an art materials retail associate.
That young retailer wouldn’t have been amused with the Bob Ross remix video. Or the hagiographic Google doodle.
The thing is, I took my job as an art materials retailer seriously, in the relatively humorless way that only people in their early twenties can appreciate. No matter how pleasant or inspirational he may seem now, Bob Ross was still the guy that made bossy, unpleasant suburbanites want to take up oil painting. And when they did, they would only buy the Bob Ross-branded kits, which used inferior materials and some sort of weird, proprietary formula for the paints themselves. When I’d try to steer them to superior paints, such as those made by M. Graham & Co. or Robert Gamblin — the art material equivalent of trying to tell someone who’d come in for a Kings of Leon CD that they’d be better off with a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion LP — they’d tell me, “no, I only want to the Bob Ross brand.” My sense of pride in my work was wounded deeply every time.
This wasn’t the worst part, though. The worst part about assisting these suburbanites is that it took valuable time away from the truly important work of being an art materials sales associate, which was assisting college girl customers that were really into Gerhard Richter and Blonde Redhead. All those lost hours! If it weren’t for Bob Ross, I would probably have at least three or four more really awesome ex-girlfriends from that era. Think of all the early 20s relationship misadventures I could relate to you in a lightly humorous but vaguely pathetic way on this very blog. The loss is incalculable. Thanks a lot, Bob Ross.
It’s not really accurate to say The Simpsons has been a continuous cultural influence for all of the past 22 years. Though they still churn out new episodes, I haven’t really followed the show for at least a few years. I don’t really know anyone else that does, either — even my most Simpsons-obsessed friends gave up on it years ago. As far as I am concerned, they really could have stopped making new episodes around 2004, and I wouldn’t have noticed. Most fans would even consider 2004 pretty late, but one of my all-time favorite episodes, “I’m Spelling As Fast As I Can,” the one with George Plimpton and the Ribwich, was from 2003. So I was still watching it and enjoying it regularly as late as 2003.
The first episode I ever watched was “Some Enchanted Evening,” which is the one where Bart is kidnapped by an evil babysitter played by Penny Marshall. Wikipedia tells me it premiered May 13, 1990. That means from age 10 through about 24 or so, I watched The Simpsons at least once a week. Actually, probably more, since I watched it in syndication once or twice a day (usually at 5 or 6 on the local UPN or FOX affiliate) well into college and actually into 2007 or ‘08, when I got rid of my TV. That has to be more one-on-one time spent than with any other television show, movie, book, piece of music, or most people.
If you were born after 1985 or so, I think it’s hard to understand just how massive an influence The Simpsons was on day-to-day life for a pretty long time. Just in the way people talked to each other. In the early ’00s, I dated a succession of girls where a large percentage of our spoken communication was made up of Simpsons lines thrown back and forth at each other. Or in the music world, where I spent my entire early 20s, the influence was pervasive. Obviously, there an endless number of bands named for Simpsons lines (the ones I remember best were the Pointy Kitties, the Kung-Fu Hippies, and of course, Monorail, who actually opened their shows with the song of the same name). And despite the fact that many bands I knew held rehearsals on Sunday nights, you never heard of a band rehearsing at 8 p.m. EST. My own band observed this rule; we rehearsed from 6:30 or so until 8:00, and then always stopped to watch The Simpsons. One of the markers of the show’s declining quality, around 2001, was when we stopped breaking to watch, and just rehearsed through that half-hour block. Such a thing would have been unthinkable a few years earlier.
At some point, the show will go off the air, and who knows how old I will be then? Probably in my thirties; possibly even my forties. I may even have kids at that time that are the same age I was when I started watching. Maybe I’ll watch the series finale with them. Imagine how meaningful that will seem.
The show has still turned up at interesting times, even well after its heyday. When the I-35W bridge collapsed on August 1, 2007, at around 6 p.m., I was sitting a few blocks away at the Aster Cafe next door to the theater at St. Anthony Main, waiting to go see The SimpsonsMovie, which started at 7:30 or so. In the panic and noise that followed, I couldn’t decide whether to actually see the movie as planned or not; what’s the appropriate response to a situation that enormous, that close by? In the end, I decided to go see it anyway, since I couldn’t get back across the river to South Minneapolis, cell phone service was shut down, and there was nothing to do but sit in the bar next door and get drunk watching the TV reports, which seemed unproductive. It seems weirdly incongruous, looking back, but it was really comforting to be able to sit in that theater for an hour-and-a-half and spend time with characters I knew.
Since I haven’t used this space for much else recently, I figure it’s time for you to hear another boring story from my youth. I spent the weekend in Louisville, my hometown, and on Saturday, my brother Danny lent me a bicycle. I took Saturday afternoon to bicycle around the coffee shops and bookstores of the Highlands, where I lived in my early 20s. This boring story from my youth in particular is prompted by the large concentration of tattoo parlors in my old neighborhood.
On September 20, 2002, Kentucky Governor Paul Patton held a press conference admitting to an extramarital affair with a nursing home operator that he may or may not have bestowed with political favors. He had spent the past several weeks denying the affair after the Louisville Courier-Journal broke the story, but finally came clean, and came clean in a manner befitting the hammy, overwrought quality of politics in the South: with big, fat tears streaming down his face. The next day, the Courier-Journal ran a half-page, full-color photograph by AP photographer Ed Reinke on the front page of Governor Patton’s tear-streaked visage. Here it is:
I remember the glistening in the nostrils quite vividly.
The next morning, I saw the photograph (online? or in a physical newspaper? I don’t remember). I immediately thought what any heartless 22-year-old painter would think: wow, this would make a great painting.
(A pre-Sheperd Fairey side note: now that I think about it, at no point did it occur to me to credit Ed Reinke, or even significantly alter the image, though I used his exact cropping in the finished piece. I don’t know what you were learning in art school in the early 2000s, but I sure never heard a word about copyright and fair use until my schooling was well over. Then again, maybe you went to a better art school than I did.)
Working fast, in order to keep up with breaking events, I stretched a 4’x4’ canvas, gridded the drawing on top of it, and then impasto’d the hell out of a bunch of cadmium reds and yellows and zinc whites until I had a messy, meaty sub-Francis Bacon portrait of the governor’s tear-drenched face completed. I carried the enormous painting from my apartment on Gaulbert Avenue to my school’s art studio on foot. The whole way, cars stopped on the street to honk and people shouted their approval. It felt great, though also quite weird, as I wasn’t sure what, precisely, passers-by were approving so vocally. Presumably they just approved of the bloodsport of the whole thing.
The painting went over well with the art school crowd, and was subsequently forgotten as I forged ahead in my work and began painting series of cigarette butts and coffee stains. It languished in storage until I graduated a few semesters later, in early 2004, where I transferred it the studio I was renting in Butchertown (so named for the nearby hog butchering plants that made the rents in the neighborhood so affordable — at night you could literally hear thousands of pigs screaming as they were sent to their deaths a few blocks away).
It was in Butchertown a fellow visiting the studio saw the painting and decided he had to buy it. Amazingly, Patton had refused to resign, and remained governor until 2003, so the following year, memories of his scandal were still fresh in people’s minds. This fellow, like most Kentuckians, would still immediately recognize the image. He contacted me, expressed his interest in purchasing the piece, and asked for a price.
Besides not learning about fair use, another thing I didn’t learn in undergrad was how to price work. Honestly, the problem with painting as a medium is that you’re stuck with them if you don’t sell them, and 4’x4’ paintings take up a great deal of space. So I was happy to move this one to what seemed to be a good home. I gave him an arbitrary number: $500. Five-hundred dollars in that place and time would have covered my studio rent for almost half a year.
He didn’t blink at the number — it is a fair price, and in fact, a little on the low side, which I believe he knew. The problem was, my patron didn’t have that kind of disposable income. He instead wondered about the possibility of an in-kind trade of some kind. Professional services, perhaps. Labor for art.
My patron was the proprietor of a well-respected tattoo parlor. “Do you like tattoos?” he asked me.
“Uh, sure,” I said.
“Do you have any tattoo work?” he asked.
“Uh, no.” I said.
“Well, tell you what,” he told me. “I would like to offer you $500 worth of tattoo work.”
I knew almost nothing about tattoo art at that time. I did know, however, that $500 worth of tattoo work was an enormous amount. A few hours, at least. I believe that’s a sleeve’s worth. Or if not a whole sleeve, a lot of one.
Of course, I accepted. I was mostly just happy someone was interested enough in my work to offer money, goods or services in exchange for it.
The problem now was I had $500 worth of credit at a tattoo parlor I had no idea what to do with. As I told him, I had no tattoos. I didn’t really ever consider it.
Lots of people had ideas for me. My friend Dave wanted me, my brother, and his brother to get four matching tattoos. This seemed like sort of a good idea, but no one could agree on a design. Dave’s idea was to commemorate the neighborhood we grew up in, but the problem with that was the neighborhood we grew up in was quite boring, and I was less eager to commemorate it the more I thought about it. After all, if my parents didn’t still live there, I’d never have a reason to go back. The idea eventually fell away.
The possibility of $500’s worth of fleur-de-lis tattoos for a whole gang of Louisville friends was also floated. A fleur-de-lis tattoo is de rigeur for any Louisville native worth a damn.
My girlfriend at the time told me she thought I should give the credit to her, since I didn’t apparently need it.
“No way,” I told her.
Our relationship was then in its waning days — she was preparing to take a job in a rural part of an adjacent state, and I had no intentions of following her there (nor, frankly, did she have any intentions of inviting me). We would break up within a few weeks.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because,” I said, “I don’t want you to think of me every time you look at your tattoo.” Listen: I don’t have any tattoos, so I really don’t know how they work, emotionally. I figured whenever you looked at your tattoo, you would reflect on the circumstances through which you came to have it. I figured if she got one using the $500 credit, she would think of me whenever she saw it, and feel sad, or angry, or however it is ex-girlfriends feel when they think about me. That seemed unfair and a little creepy.
She was not happy. “That is absolutely ridiculous,” she told me. A few years later, I came across her blog during one of those late-night regret binges and discovered a post making fun of me for selling a painting for $500 worth of tattoo credit, and then not giving it to her, and then justifying that decision in a manner befitting the hammy, overwrought quality of relationship politics in the South. I still think that’s completely ridiculous, but it’s likely she did have a solid point. She would, after all, have a pretty thorough tattoo now if I’d given her the credit, as opposed to no one having the tattoo.
I sat on the patron’s business card, not knowing quite what to do with it. He’d told me to come in anytime to have the work done, and I think for a while I planned to, though I never figured out what exactly I’d have done. About nine months later, I moved to Minneapolis. The business card is long gone, and though I am sure the offer still stands, I don’t remember the fellow’s name, or what the tattoo parlor was, or where it is, or really any other details.
A good deal of your early thirties is spent coming to terms with the questionable behavior of your early twenties. There are a few lessons here, I believe, I’d be wise to reflect on.
First of all, it’s not right to rip off the work of photojournalists. If I owe anyone an apology, it’s AP photographer Ed Reinke. The fact that I did not profit from his work is merely a byproduct of my own inaction, and certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. If anyone deserves the $500 tattoo credit, it’s him. Unfortunately, Ed Reinke passed away just last month in Louisville following an accident sustained covering a motor race.
Secondly, there’s the tattoo artist, to whom I also probably owe an apology. If he still owns the paintings and has it hanging somewhere and looks at it, he must feel pangs of guilt, knowing he obtained it without compensating the artist. And not even as a result of his own actions! He tried to compensate me! I inadvertently undervalued his work by not taking him up on his offer, which seems almost like a slap in the face. I still am not sure what would have been the best course of action here: should I refused to take compensation, knowing well I’d likely not have use for that amount of tattoo work? Or should I have gotten the tattoo, using the opportunity to do something I might not have otherwise? I don’t know where that painting would be if he’d not come into possession of it. Probably at my parents’ house, in the basement, in that neighborhood I didn’t want immortalized in ink on my forearm.
I wonder what the tattoo artist’s guests make of the painting now: ten years on, the Patton scandal and its subsequent tears are a little-remembered footnote in Kentucky political history. I wonder how many remember the story. I’d only remembered it biking around this weekend, and seeing a plaque on a building commemorating the former governor.
Maybe, all things considered, the girlfriend was right. Perhaps I should have just given her the credit as a gift and let her do as she wanted with it. Perhaps tattoos don’t work that way, emotionally — perhaps at some point the tattoo’s origin is divorced from the tattoo itself. My patron willed a $500 tattoo into existence when he purchased my painting, a tattoo that does not exist anywhere. All would be better, perhaps, if it did exist somewhere. As it stands now, all that remains is a 4’x4’ painting hanging somewhere, the meaty impasto teardrops reminding all who see them of the painful emotional economies of artmaking in the Upper South in the waning days of the Patton administration.
There was a short interview with me in City Pages this week, and they asked for some childhood influences. One of them:
Another thing was the Scholastic New Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia, which my parents bought from an honest-to-god traveling door-to-door salesman in the early 1980s; he was the last of his kind, I’m sure. Those kept me occupied for hours.
Prompting this email from my mom:
You are absolutely right. A door-to-door guy came by the house on Erin Way and instilled in us (with a little arm-twisting) the necessity of having a set of encyclopedias for bettering the minds of our young sons. So we got our little coupon book and made payments on them for about two years. They were well worth it. They kept you busy for hours plus influenced your already artistic self. And Nate liked reading them as well. I remember spending many summers of my youth with my old Collier Encyclopedias, so it wasn’t really a hard sell for me. I’ve still got them.
Another thing that you may not remember: ever since you were very little, 18 months or so, you were a very busy little guy. So when we had to wait in an office or for an appointment, or even at home, I would keep you busy by showing you how to draw letters and then simple drawings. Of course, you had to have the aptitude to be satisfied doing that.
On the subject of encyclopedias, you will find this excerpt on Wikipedia under “List_of_things_that_made_Andy_mist_up_at_his_desk_at_work.”
Here’s a photo my friend Andrew took last year, when I was in Louisville. That is me and Nate, standing inside a Buffalo Wild Wings on Bardstown Road.
The Buffalo Wild Wings is located inside the shell of an old theater that once housed the Bardstown Road Youth Community Center, known as the BRYCC House. The BRYCC House was an all-ages venue in which me and Nate and our noisy post-adolescent rock band played about two dozen shows between 2000 and 2002, alongside many other soon-to-be-forgotten noisy post-adolescent rock bands with names like Lowercase O, Ayin, the Blue Goat War, Grand Prix, the Pointy Kitties (the early ’00s were a golden age for bands named for obscure Simpsons references), Monorail (see?) and Totally Ointment.
The BRYCC House closed sometime in 2004. Maybe earlier. After that, it became a carpet warehouse. Then, it became a Buffalo Wild Wings.
Nate and I are pictured here gazing wistfully at the shattered remains of our youth. The shattered remains of our youth have been slathered with Spicy Garlic, Asian Zing, Caribbean Jerk, and Mango Habanero-flavored barbecue sauce and served in a fast casual dining atmosphere.
They did have a jukebox, so we thought we ought to punch in a few appropriate numbers as a sad elegy while we creepily hung around and refused to be seated for beers and wings (it was a weekday afternoon and totally empty, so no one on the waitstaff seemed to care). There were no selections on the jukebox by Sleater-Kinney, the Raincoats, Gene Defcon or Richard Hell & the Voidoids, for some reason. So instead we played a few songs from the first Strokes record, which seemed to be the closest in spirit. The interior of the building looked very much the same as it did then, except with flat-screen televisions and neon signs for popular American and Dutch beers on the walls.
Do Nate and I look out of place? We totally look out of place.
Oh, youth. I believe it was Glenn Danzig that was once described by Henry Rollins as being “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax.” I rarely feel that way myself, but if I ever begin to, I am reminded of the fact that anywhere important to you at the age of 21 will eventually be turned into a Buffalo Wild Wings.
Friendster’s closing down this week. Head on over, and use the exporter to preserve your 2003-era profile (including photos and “testimonials”) in amber before it vanishes into the pre-Zuckerburg mists of time. Then, weep for the desiccated remains of your lost youth!
Here is a “testimonial” from my old Louisville art supply store chum Ted Nathanson from 2005, that period when I was still in transition between lives and spending a lot of time driving up and down 90, 94, 35 and 65 (and drinking in bars in Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis). I find Ted’s comments here at least halfway prophetic, from the vantage point of my mid American early thirties.
Be My Guest, Conrad Hilton’s autobiography, published 1957. Apparently, they have a copy of this in every Hilton hotel room, like the Gideon Bible.
This was one of my dad’s favorite sayings growing up. When I’d ask him permission to do something and the answer was yes — like, “Dad, can I stay up to watch The Dukes of Hazzard tonight?” — he’d look at me and say, “You know what Conrad Hilton says. [dramatic pause] Be my guest.”
In fact, I still say this to myself all the time, when asking myself permission to do things. It’s a good line. Many of my dad’s good lines were borrowed from 1960s television programs (I was almost 22 before I realized how much he quoted from The Prisoner), but I think this one is an original.
I guess I should read the book someday. I guess I should stay at a Hilton someday.
This may just be one of those things I dreamt, but I don’t think so. In the earlier part of this past decade, in 2003 or so, J. showed me a VHS documentary on the Athens, Georgia music scene from the late 1980s. It was a very good film and I remember quite a bit about it — there was a scene where Howard Finster was playing guitar with Dexter Romweber — but specifically, I clearly remember a scene where Michael Stipe looks at the camera and claims that he was the first person ever to use Christmas lights as everyday art-punk indoor house decoration. The first person, ever. In the late 1970s, he claimed. Before that, no one had ever strung up Christmas lights for decoration off-season. I may be misremembering this. But the reason I think I remember it so clearly is that I think J. and I watched the movie on that tiny TV-VCR I had in my bedroom on Gaulbert Avenue — a bedroom that was itself decorated with Christmas lights. I remember looking at Michael Stipe onscreen, and then looking at the Christmas lights, and then thinking, “wow, there is a direct correlation here.”
What a bold statement, Michael Stipe. If indeed he did make this statement, is it true? I had Christmas lights up in every apartment I lived in between 2000 and 2005. Around the windows, strung across the ceiling, over doors, around the perimeters of the ceiling. White ones, mostly, but I had a few blinking ones at various points, as well as the tube-style lights. I even once had purple Halloween-themed Christmas lights (I guess they would be called “Halloween lights”) that cast a ghostly purple light over the tiny one-bedroom apartment I had at Highland and Bardstown. It made everything that happened in that space seem important and cinematic and a little bit surreal.
Fifteen years after Michael Stipe first strung up Christmas lights in his Athens, Georgia art-punk house, it was still de rigeur to decorate your art-punk house Christmas lights. As far as I know, it still is, ten years after that.
I tried to confirm this with a Google Books search, but it’s not very helpful. There is no record I can find of Michael Stipe making such a claim. References to “Christmas lights” on Google Books first appear in print in the 1950s, from what I can tell. Wikipedia backs that up: “It would take until the mid 1950s for the use of such lights to be adopted by average households…Over a period of time, strings of Christmas lights found their way into use in places other than Christmas trees. Soon, strings of lights adorned mantles and doorways inside homes, and ran along the rafters, roof lines, and porch railings of homes and businesses.” It makes sense that it might take two decades for someone to figure out that they could be used to adorn mantles and doorways during the off-season. It makes sense that the person to figure that out might be Michael Stipe. Young, twenty-year-old Michael Stipe, in Athens, Georgia. Here I guess one could point out that Christmas lights create, in a room, an abstract sense of that room, not fully illuminated but filtered through a blur, in a similar way to how Stipe mumbles the lyrics to his songs, how he abstracts and blurs the words. One could point that out, but come on, let’s not get carried away.