I’ve been embroiled in trying to meet a couple of deadlines this week, so here’s another entry in a similar vein to the one about the Caretaker. Have you checked that one out? Because The Caretaker’s stuff is amazing.
Govi was an enigma to me for at least ten years. Maybe fourteen or fifteen, even. I realize calling him an “enigma” is appropriate, since he and Michael Cretu are both German-bred zen-seeking musicians with a flair for making music that suburban moms did crossword puzzles to in the nineties. Also, they both had ridiculous hair/general appearances while at their commercial peaks: Cretu looking more or less like you’d expect the person who made “Return to Innocence” to look, and Govi in full Alan Jackson cosplay on the cover of Cuchama, his third album and likely his first to be named for an indigenous holy site in the California desert. Because it was 1993 and fans of schitzophonic world music weren’t much for buying vinyl (it’s hard to flip the record over with wet clay all over your hands), the label Real Music (out of Sausalito, why not?) released it solely on CD.
Here’s a video somebody made for the song “Torero” accompanied by footage that appears to be taken from a Made-for-TV prequel to “The Prince of Tides.”
Now, I’ve never seen “The Prince of Tides,” and I have no idea what it’s about, but I think horses running on a beach wouldn’t be out of place in there. Here’s my story about why I love this song.
In June of 2000, I returned home from a coming-of-age trip to Spain with about 35 of my high school classmates. After sleeping off my first bout of jet lag, I went straight to the Napster-equipped family computer (possibly KaZaa, if it was after Lars Ulrich and his rich buddies detonated Napster) and searched for Flamenco music. One of the tracks that come up on the server just said “Govi-Flamenco.Mp3.” It had a very high usage rate on the network, which meant it would probably download in fewer than 3 hours. I double-clicked, and within a few minutes, I had a 5-minute long dream that transported me back to the whitewashed houses of Andalucía and the parched landscape on the outskirts of Segovia (my favorite place on that trip, and to this day one of my favorite cities on Earth).
The Mp3 lived on the hard drive of whatever computer I was using for years. I had a Compaq Presario laptop through my four years of college and into my first year living in DC. I burned it to mix CDs I would use for studying or really anything that required an ethereal Flamenco gypsy experience (so, you know…anything). Even as Wikipedia expanded into hegemony, it never occurred to me to seek out this recording’s origin story.
One day last year, I was on YouTube, streaming music in my office when I wound up on some post-rock channel. Every now and again, I’ll decide that my work mode requires some This Will Destroy You (whose music, ironically, has the opposite effect on me). I listened to The Best Pessimist’s “Walking with Happiness,” an beautiful instrumental track that’s as great as its title is terrible. YouTube, in its quest to make you listen to the same VEVO artist 35 times per day, slid me over into world-music territory on its algorithm. I clicked over to ensure that “Return to Innocence” wasn’t the next song in my queue, and I saw a few tracks by Govi lined up on the right column. I hadn’t thought of that name in ages, but I started stumbling through YouTube trying to remember what that song was called.
After a few false starts, I landed on one video with that unmistakable Flamenco guitar intro. This was it! It was called “Torero.” It certainly lent more credence to my idea that this was just some Spanish guitar guy backed by studio musicians. I didn’t expect, though, for Govi to look as vanilla as he did. After some light googling, I found out he wasn’t Spanish at all. He may have well been trying to fool people into thinking he was; he had an album called “AndalucÍan Nights,” for crying out loud. This would put him in league with Martin Denny, whose successful 1950’s Exotica records went to excessive lengths to put listeners in an Hawaiian frame of mind, despite being recorded by non-Islanders in New York City.
Speaking of Hawaii, guess who is based there now. Govi. He is German by birth (born Werner Monka in 1949), played in various bands describable as “classic” rock in his early twenties, then went full-on New Age and moved to India. He adopted the name Govinda, which he shortened to Govi – how conveniently vaguely Spanish. I have no idea how well his albums have sold, but I guess he wouldn’t keep making them if nobody was buying them. He looks perfectly happy now at age 69, somehow looking younger with all of the gray hair and wrinkles than he did with the mustache and fluff-mullet thirty years ago when he put out his first album of pure moods. Speaking of which, it took long enough, but they included him on the fourth one.
Of course, Govi has an official website with his authorized bio, if you want to check that out. I struggle to think of any other “mystery artists” I have, which is what makes me somewhat sad that the mystery of Govi has been solved. It doesn’t effect my enjoyment of “Torero,” but knowing what he looks like and his life story does strip the song of some of its power for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten older and less imaginative, but when I hear the track, I don’t think as much about Southern Spain as I do about what Govi would look like playing it in some studio. This was at the root of the evil behind the cinematography of any novel, as well as MTV, open-access encyclopedias and streaming media: “We codify the image so you don’t need your own anymore.” Mystery is important, sometimes.
Texas punk cartoonist Ben Snakepit told a great story in his zine (it might be in the Tales from the Crapt zine; not sure) about once when he was a kid, he bought a Dead Milkmen tape at the mall. The cassette had a much more chaotic and abrasive band recorded onto it. Years later, working in a record shop, he heard the mystery band and all the memories of that moment, listening to this surprise recording in his room and being confused, came rushing back to him. That’s the first thing I thought about while writing this.
Alright, back to editing. If you have a similar “mystery band discovery” story, I would love for you to share it in the comments.
It’s been almost six weeks since I’ve posted anything here, which I can fairly blame on dissertation revisions and my teaching schedule. Also, to be fair, I have been accumulating posts in my drafts folder that I haven’t had any time to complete. This is/was one of them, which in the interest of getting some new material out there, I’ll post in it’s relatively raw form.
Everyone has their favorite mechanism of procrastination, and here’s mine. My colleague’s husband, who happens to be a prominent local techno DJ and producer, clued me in to a phone app that helps catalog your record collection. How I hadn’t foraged for an app like that already after over a decade of accumulating records is beyond me. So, in between stretches of writing, editing, and self-doubting, I’ve taken to updating my collection on Discogs. In the process I’ve rediscovered a few great pieces that I’d either forgotten I had or just hadn’t listened to in a while.
One such 7″ was a single called ‘New Orleans (USA)‘ by the Wool Town Jazz Band (site in Dutch/auto-plays music). I think I may have actually bought the record in New Orleans in a dollar bin somewhere. It looked interesting. The band pictured on the back were clearly not from New Orleans (or, for that matter, the United States), but they obviously wanted to give the impression that their sound and style were authentic. I found this odd, since New Orleans is the city classically associated with jazz, but traditional jazz has somewhat gotten away from the city. In the century-plus since the genre’s big bang, jazz has quantum-leaped to other urban bases like Chicago and Paris (1920’s), Tokyo and Jakarta (1950’s) and over the past few decades, the farthest reaches of Scandinavia and more.
When I rediscovered this record, I decided to do some light research to see if they were still around. Impressively, they still are! They originated in Tilburg, the 6th largest city in the Netherlands and named after the city’s historic claim to fame, wool (hence the nickname Wooltown). I found their website (linked above), and sent an email to their general contact inquiring about the band’s status and if they remember how the ‘New Orleans (USA)’ record got made. It bounced back. Undeterred, I quickly found an email listed for Annet Verkuil, their vocalist. She forwarded my message along to Frans van de Camp, the band’s original drummer (who recently rejoined after a decades-long absence!). Frans wrote me back with a fairly extensive state-of-the-union on the Wool Town Jazz Band, which I thought I would share here. His message is slightly edited.
Thanks for your interest in our band and music.
I received your email through our singer Annet. I was part of the Wooltown Jazz Band in earlier times, from 1971 till 1976 and rejoined The Wooltown Jazz Band 2 years ago, I play the drums.
The Wooltown Jazz Band celebrated its 60 years jubilee a year ago. The band has a strong local following but the number of gigs has decreased, and, unfortunately, so has the interest of the public in jazz in general. In the Netherlands the focus of the public has shifted towards more popular music such as pop music. Apart from modern jazz, which is also only played by very few bands but has its own niche in the market, New Orleans Jazz is no longer in the limelight to the extend that it used to which is regrettable.
There are still many old style jazz bands in our country but they all have only very few gigs a year. Moreover the average age of the players gets higher every year and the youth associates jazz with old people, which doesn’t do much to raise interest in this music as well. There are very few younger players that take an interest in jazz, although jazz is taught at the music schools and conservatories. Unfortunately jazz isn’t hot anymore.
The great European Jazz Bands have a hard time to get by. Mister Acker Bilk’s jazz band has stopped after his death, the famous band of Kenny Ball continues with his son, but they don’t play in the big concert halls anymore. There are only very few really famous jazz bands in Europe still around, one of them is the British Big Chris Barber Band. I’ve been a keen follower of this band since the early 70’s and attended nearly 100 concerts. Chris has been a great example to me and with the great musicians in his band he shows how this music was meant to be played. It sounds awesome but Chris Barber will turn 87 next april so how long will he continue? There is no follow-up. In our country we still have the Dutch Swing Collage Band which started in the last year of the second world war. I think it might be the oldest jazz band in the world still playing. Of course the personnel has changed during the years but this band, too, consists mostly of elderly players. They play very well of course, but they don’t appeal to the younger generation as they used to and, unfortunately, our band is in the same boat.
But we try to keep this old style jazz music alive as much as we can and still have a lot of fun playing it.
I know the Wooltown Jazz Band played in New Orleans some years ago. How has New Orleans recovered since this terrible storm Katrina and has the city been able to revive its musical tradition? We saw the heart braking images of the devastating effects of the catastrophe on TV. In Europe New Orleans has long been considered the place to be if you are a jazz musician but since Katrina you don’t hear that a lot. I think that’s because New Orleans has been associated with old style jazz.
I know Chris Barber played there and devoted an LP to it which sounds nice. He also toured with Wendell Brunius, a famous trumpeter from New Orleans.
I’m sorry I can’t give you any more positive news but that’s how it is at the moment.
I think the Wooltown Jazz Band would like to play in New Orleans but it would take some organizing as many of the band’s players play in other bands as well.
It was not as enthusiastic as I’d been expecting (if I’d been expecting a reply at all; I had no idea if the email addresses I’d found were up-to-date). That being said, from my own conversations with music fans in Paris and elsewhere abroad, it doesn’t seem that jazz is really going anywhere. It may be true that traditional/dixieland-style jazz is in a lull right now in the Low Countries, though. It’s always sad when talented musicians need to slow down, but it’s a welcome change when somebody like Frans is able to pick his sticks back up after so many years away from the group. Even if they need to retire the band soon, they’ll be able to look back on their incredibly long run with quite a sense of accomplishment.
Also, on a more personal note, seeing Wendell Brunious’ name brought back some great memories from around the first time I visited New Orleans in 1998. An old friend of mine, who went all-state with trumpet, got to meet and perform with Brunious. From what I remember, he had a private meeting/lesson with him on a Youth Jazz trip, but my memory could be faulty there. It was how I first discovered Wendell, who is still based in New Orleans and still the real deal.
Thanks again to Frans and the rest of the Wool Town Jazz Band, and congrats on still being around after 62 (62!!) years. For anyone who understands Dutch (or has a lot of patience and is decent with translation bots), here is a comprehensive-looking history.
Okay, back to the grindstone; talk to you all soon.
Well, this looks interesting, doesn’t it? The international emotional geographies conference finally comes to the US, and it’s happening at my alma mater. Of course, it’s not that big of a surprise; it’s being co-produced by my friend and former adviser Deborah Thien along with her fellow human geography star Stuart Aitken (SDSU). I’m copying and pasting the information from the EmoGeo (easily a contender with DOPE for best conference shorthand in North America) page on the CSULB website, which from what I can tell also uses WordPress based on how cleanly it copied. Hope you find this interesting and feel free to pass it along! – Tyler
The 6th International Emotional Geographies conference will be held in the USA for the first time.
Co-hosted by Dr. Deborah Thien, CSULB, and Dr. Stuart Aitken, SDSU, with support from Emotion, Space and Society. We look forward to a wealth of interdisciplinary presentations, presenters and attendees, in Long Beach, California, June 14-16, 2017.
We encourage sessions, papers, panels and posters that investigate the emotional intersections between people and places including examinations of feelings and affect in various spatial and social contexts, environments and landscapes. Questions of emotion are relevant to several different disciplines – we seek considerations of the multiplicity of spaces and places that produce and are produced by emotional and affective life, representing an inclusive range of theoretical and methodological engagements with emotion as a social, cultural and spatial phenomenon.
MARK: You guys are too much. Hey, are you running Bay to Breakers this year? JOHNNY: I am, sure. PETER: Not doing it this year. JOHNNY: Hehe, chicken, Peter, you’re just a little chicken. Cheep cheep cheeeeeep [unidentifiable high-pitched noises] PETER: Who you calling a chicken? I just don’t like all the weirdos. There’s… too many weirdos there.
I transcribed the above dialogue as accurately as possible from one scene from Tommy Wiseau’s self-produced 2003 film The Room. In it, two of the film’s main characters, Mark (Greg Sestero) and Johnny (Wiseau) share a moment with their psychologist(?) friend Peter (Kyle Vogt) in Johnny’s living room. Wiseau, who also wrote the script and directed the film, seems to have little grasp on (1) how “guys” talk when they hang out or (2) editing. The script goes out of its way to mention the Bay to Breakers run, a San Francisco institution that began in 1912, throwing yet another local-ism onto a haphazard pile of ways through which Wiseau “places” his film.
The Room is, by some measures, up there with Vertigo (1958),The Rock (1996), and Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco (1996) as quintessential ‘San Francisco’ films, which is ironic for multiple reasons. Most obviously, outside of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, none of those films are regarded as AFI-level cases of cinematic genius. The Rock, for one, is a loud, stupid and incredibly fun Bay/Bruckheimer film that reinvented Alcatraz and gave us the greatest piece Elton John-related dialogue in cinema history. The Homeward Bound films were family-friendly crowd-pleasers that starred adorable, wisecracking pets. The Room, however, is its own beast. Despite being, by many measures, one of the worst (or at least surreally stupid) films ever made, it demonstrates how valuable poorly-made films can be in understanding representation of urban landscape.
Film and Urban Geography
Cities provide ample inspiration to artists of all media, and in turn become drawn, filmed, sang about, and ultimately interpreted based upon their art. This phenomenon has been well-documented among cultural geographers. In film, Chris Lukinbeal has published numerous pieces about the multi-faceted geographies of the film industry, both part and parcel of Los Angeles and how other landscapes are interpreted through cinema. Many geographers have expounded upon the relationship between music and place, and Lily Kong wrapped many early examples into her 1995 call for greater involvement of music in geography. Steve Hoelscher has dedicated much of his recent work to the Magnum photography archive and even examined the effect of photography on historical urban geopolitics. Creating a comprehensive catalog of literature here would be a herculean task.
Back to The Room. Like most who attempt to break down its threadbare plot, pointless characters, and insanely counter-intuitive production values, I struggle at explaining just how bad it is. Cult audiences equally celebrate its awfulness as the worst film ever made as they do flock at a chance to see it in a communal (often intoxicated) environment and engage in a culturally-circulated set of practices that go with the screening. Audience members scream along with silly lines of dialogue, shadow-cast questionably useful scenes with the main characters tossing footballs to one another, and even shower the screen with plastic spoons at various specific cues. Film scholars like Matt Foy have gone into great detail about these sub-cultural rituals, even in cases, succinctly (as possible) explaining what the movie is about:
In addition to Johnny, Lisa, and Mark, the key players include Denny (Philip Haldiman), a good-natured but awkward man-child who lives next to Johnny (Johnny pays his college tuition) and seems to lack basic social skills (early in the film, he joins Johnny and Lisa in bed pre-coitus to “watch them” but seems unaware of the sensitive nature of his request), and Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), Lisa’s mother who simultaneously praises Johnny while encouraging Lisa to exploit him financially because she cannot support herself. Other characters meander in and out without affecting the plot, mostly as foils to establish Johnny’s pristine character or Lisa’s manipulative heartlessness. The result is a film so earnest yet strange that it attracts audiences through morbid revulsion (Foy 2012, 5).
I’ve written previously (for a course on Global Soundtracks) about how The Room reinforces the importance of bad movies in the conversation on film music. Where great films with iconic and/or Oscar-winning scores have been teaching young filmmakers and cinema scholars the “do’s” of film music, bad films could be equally valuable in teaching the “don’ts.” This dynamic applies equally in understanding how films reflect and represent urban spaces, particularly in the United States, and even more particularly in San Francisco. Where Vertigo demonstrated how Hollywood films can work with, and flourish through, urban iconography, The Room provides a beacon of trying too hard to do so, and looking silly in the process.
Tommy Wiseau’s San Francisco
Though Los Angeles is well regarded as “the world’s most photographed city” (cf. Thom Anderson’s brilliant Los Angeles Plays Itself), San Francisco is definitely among the top runners-up in that category, as well as among the most mythologized and laid-bare in its iconography. The Golden Gate is probably North America’s most iconic and grandiose bridge outside of Brooklyn, Alcatraz is among her most storied and infamous small islands (and prisons), and the Painted Ladies row of houses has embedded itself into our national subconscious both through films featuring Robin Williams in drag and through sitcoms featuring Bob Saget working clean. Rice-a-Roni commercials carved such a hegemony in the 1980s and 1990s that cable car operators could not avoid mentioning it to over-zealous, jingle-singing tourists on their routes.
It is through these cinematic representations of his adopted hometown that Tommy Wiseau weaves his overbearing establishing shots. Where most filmmakers implement one or two establishing landscape shots of the city setting, Wiseau inserts at least twenty. The first two minutes of the film become a veritable catalog of cliche’d imagery of the Bay Area. The viewer sees, interspersed with the opening credits, a wide shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bucolic fishing dock on the North Bay, another wide shot of Alcatraz Island, a shot that tilts up from the Bay to a San Francisco skyline silhouetted through fog, a (slightly) tighter shot of a cruise boat passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, a shot that slowly pans across the Palace of Fine Arts (the site of a dramatic scene in The Rock), a shot that tilts down Nob Hill, a shot that tilts down with the Painted Ladies houses in the background of Alamo Square Park, a shot of a cable car (with our hero on it… a true man of the people) passing in front of the Grace Cathedral, and ultimately, the often-recycled exterior shot of Johnny’s condo.
To the Western viewer, any one of those shots might be sufficient in establishing where the movie takes place, but Tommy Wiseau doesn’t know the meaning of cinematic restraint. (Seriously, he may literally not know the meaning of the term). He removes any doubt whatsoever of where we are, and despite having an ‘insider’ knowledge of San Francisco, he runs lovingly into the arms of cinematic cliche and reinforces the most mainstream, ‘outsider’ perspectives of that city’s icons.
Taken as a whole, these are examples of how filmmakers (both talented and less so) conflate the “real” with the “reel.” The “real” here is the fully extant city of San Francisco, which is a living, functioning, and constantly changing city that millions of people pass through each day. The “reel” in this case is a socially accepted and publicly ascribed cinematic landscape that completely disregard’s the city’s hinterland and even most of its forward-facing public sphere. In real life, Tommy Wiseau grew a minor clothing empire, accumulating enough independent wealth to purchase a building not far from the tourist Mecca of the Marina District and Pier 39. In reel life, Johnny (no apparent last name) makes good money working some nondescript job in a bank and lives in a nondescript condominium.
Wiseau’s script (the incongruity of which could probably formulate its own MFA thesis) often conflates the real and reel. For example, in another selection from the inane dialogue bullpen, Mark tells Johnny about a girl he knew who had been abused to the point of winding up “in a hospital on Guerrero Street.” Wiseau, for reasons only known to him, either used this line as a cute way to work Guerrero Street into the script, or he just could not think of any other street than the ones he had previously lived on. In the real San Francisco, there has never been a hospital anywhere on Guerrero Street, but because of Wiseau, there is one in reel San Francisco.
HA HA HA, What a connection, Tyler!
As with this apocryphal hospital and the superfluous conversation about Bay to Breakers, Wiseau takes special care to “place” his film in San Francisco, going out of the way with incorporating verbal/contextual representations of the city as much as he does with tired visual representations. Where the common mantra implores artists to “show, not tell,” Wiseau has managed, with his city, to show AND tell in a manner that is as overbearing as much as lacking in self-awareness. Granted, his motivation to do so renders these indiscretions marginally understandable.
The “Roof” and a Distorted Skyline
As the story (specifically, Sestero’s believable version) goes, the duo met in an acting class in the late 1990’s. Wiseau decided that he wanted to break into Hollywood, so he wrote The Room and decided to shoot it himself when he (for some reason) couldn’t find a major studio to produce it. They did all the principal filming in Los Angeles between a sound stage that played their condo, one that played a basketball court, and a couple of exterior shots in an alley near the lot where their camp set up. A number of the movie’s most popular scenes (e.g. the “WHAT KIND OF MONEY?” scene involving Denny’s near-deadly run-in with completely incongruous Armenian-American gangster Chris-R; the aforementioned Guerrero Street conversation; a stoned Mark nearly throwing Peter to his death when confronted about his affair with Lisa) took place on the condo’s roof.
This “roof” was actually played by a ground-level scene set built in front of a poorly-lit outdoor green-screen that, as Sestero explained, rendered these scenes with an otherworldly, unsettling glow. The San Francisco skyline digitally placed behind the actors, manipulated liberally, may constitute one of the film’s greatest “crimes against geography.” Though these rooftop scenes purported to “place” the film among the San Francisco skyline, they only confuse the viewer trying to obtain some sense of the condo’s location (real or reel). If this were a real location, either the building would have had to rotate or the buildings would have had to flip locations around them. Perceiving the reel location, however, accounts for the appropriate suspension of disbelief.
“That’s Meeee”: Forays into the Real San Francisco
Once the principal filming in Los Angeles had wrapped, a skeleton crew including Wiseau and Sestero (who also line-produced the movie, because why not) went up to the Bay to shoot these scenes that would reinforce the viewers’ imagined geography of The Room. These included all of the establishing shots from the beginning of the film as well as those used for scene transitions, many of which were filmed at varying levels of legality. Three of these scenes included dialogue between Johnny and Mark, two of which are both deeply carved into the “best worst movie” canon.
One of these three only features cursory, dubbed dialogue of the two running together around Golden Gate park, ultimately tossing a football and tackling one another homo-erotically. The two others include one confusing scene (“anyway, how’s your sex life?”) filmed in a cafe and another filmed in a Flower shop. Before I discuss the Flower Shop scene, please take a 6-minute break to listen to this amazing excerpt of Greg Sestero reading his account of how the scene came to be, and then watch it here:
I’ve gone on record saying that one could probably write a whole peer-reviewed academic paper about everything that’s wrong with this scene (my favorite assessment being Roadtrippers’ dubbing it a “black hole of human interaction” on their page of The Room locations). That being said, the Flower Shop scene provides one of few moments throughout the movie where the reel and real converge.
While the scene exists primarily to reinforce Wiseau’s narrative that Johnny is a perfect person (he is the florist’s favorite customer, after all), the location coheres both inside the shop and outside at the establishing shot on the corner of 16th and Dehon Street. While the Flower Shop scene may be one of the most terribly crafted scenes in one of the most terribly crafted narrative movies, it is the most geographically honest moment in The Room. The exterior shot was real, the interior of the shop was the real interior, the owners were the real proprietors, and that old pug on the counter (“Hi, doggie!”) was an authentic fixture of the shop as well. Only the skeleton crew’s makeup artist (seen looking at cards near the register) and Wiseau are pure fabrications of the reel.
Despite the film’s shocking $6 Million budget, The Room‘s stripped-down construction of place is a great tool for teaching these fundamental aspects of cinematic geography. Whereas other movies like Homeward Bound: Lost in San Francisco (much of which was filmed in Vancouver, a city known for playing everywhere but itself in Hollywood films) provide a cursory glance at the discrepancy between the reel and the real, Wiseau’s inept production hits you over the head with this contrast. The establishing iconic landscape shots, while themselves intended as a manifestation of Wiseau’s love of San Francisco, are so overdone, cult screening audiences often take to call-and-response screaming of “WHERE ARE WE? / SAN FRANCISCO!” and “GO! GO! GO!” as the camera slowly and clumsily pans across the Golden Gate Bridge.
None of this, of course, fazes Wiseau. As Sestero wrote in his book’s introduction:
The magic of The Room derives from one thing: no one interprets the world the way Tommy Wiseau does. He is the key to The Room’s mystery as well as the engine of its success. Tommy had always predicted his film would become a classic, embraced worldwide – a notion that could not have seemed less likely. Yet he was right. The Room became every bit the blockbuster that Tommy had envisioned, though not, of course, in the way he envisioned… Tommy continues to believe that his is the greatest film of all time” (2013, xv).
Similarly, this relationship between this great terrible movie and San Francisco only reinforces my enjoyment of The Room. Throughout my last two years living in Washington, DC, my friends and I would attend monthly midnight screenings at E Street Cinema, often dragging unsuspecting friends into the fold. The first time I went to see it, I invited a friend who had just been through a rough time in her life. Within months, she was organizing outings to the screening, even celebrating her following birthday at a screening. In July 2010, Wiseau and Sestero visited a screening there. Two of my friends, both wondering what the hell was going on, wound up sitting next to each other. They exchanged numbers, and six years later, are newly married. It does take a certain kind of appreciation of the surreal and the absurd to enjoy this movie, and the people I grew to enjoy it alongside became some of my best friends from my life in DC. Now, as I begin a career teaching cultural geography, I’ve found surprisingly relevant ways through which this great horrible movie has informed my research. Though Stefan Popescu (2013) may be correct that “the best worst movie” craze may not be sustainable, but as a singularly charming flagship of that movement to the media scholar, The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s demented gift that keeps on giving.
One of the (dis)advantages of focusing my music research in a juggernaut of a tourist trap city like Washington, DC has been watching post-punk music seep through the cracks in the collective imaginary of place. DC (like Paris, my other city of focus) doesn’t need to lean on music to attract visitors, so on the rare instances when it includes music in the conversation, it’s noteworthy.
I was thinking about this today as I started hacking away at the summer writing process when this CityLab article came through on my twitter feed. Few (if any) post-punk bands have encapsulated “Sheffield” better than Pulp, not only because Jarvis Cocker started the band in 1978 during the “big bang” of the post-punk era in the UK. Geographers like Philip Long (2014) have placed Cocker’s music front-and-center in discussions about collective identity of that city, and now the city’s transit authority are literally inscribing his voice into their urban infrastructure. They are inserting Jarvis into the quotidian machinations of Sheffield, regardless of whether those riding the tram are his fans.
This whole thing seems like both 1) a city retroactively owning one of her most talented and influential sons as well as 2) a statement about the value of the music that would eventually evolve into the easily collectivized and nationally homogenized Britpop of the 90’s (which would catapult Pulp into international fame). This genre and scene were a bit slower to gain officially-sanctioned civic immortality than the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Long mentions that the Sheffield Public Library has published a walking tour about Def Leppard; also pretty cool), but two decades isn’t really that brutal of a lag. It doesn’t seem like Jarvis was ever in it for the transit voice-over career.
At any rate, these are the little things that earn a quality mention in the dissertation.
Long, Philip. “Popular Music, Psychogeography, Place Identity and Tourism: The Case of Sheffield.” Tourist Studies 14.1 (2014): 48-65.
I’m excited to announce here that I’ll be teaching Geography 320, our department’s core upper-level cultural geography course, this coming fall. This class has no prerequisite, though general proficiency in global geography (GEO 101, for example) is recommended. I’d be happy to have students from other disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, and ethnomusicology, especially those who haven’t been able to take a geography course yet while at UT-Knoxville.
Cultural Geography, like culture itself, is incredibly fluid. But with this course, I’m aiming to focus on how the relationship between people and place is interpreted through media, popular culture, religion, and public memory. By the end of this course, students should be able to understand and describe the effects of nature of culture, and vice versa.
East TN music historian Shane Rhyne delivering a guest lecture in my GEO 101 class, October 23, 2014.
Similar to how I connected with the East Tennessee History Center’s “Made in Tennessee” exhibit in my GEO 101 curriculum last year, I’d like to continue that collaboration with their new “Come to Make Records” exhibit. This is one of a handful of interactive projects I’m looking forward to pursuing with this course, in addition to some great guest speakers and elements that students will be pleasantly surprised to find in a geography course. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach it while working on my dissertation.
The syllabus will be a work in progress over the summer, but if you’d like a preview of a some material I look forward to incorporating, check out (1) Duncan Light’s entertaining and informative 2014 piece on place names and (2) this article about Steven Lee Beeber’s research on punk rock’s manifestation of Jewish New York. Hopefully you enjoy this tip of the iceberg; if not, there is plenty more well outside of both those subjects. If you’re a UTK undergraduate student and interested in attending the course, don’t hesitate to write me and ask any questions at SonicGeography[at]gmail[dot]com.
In the decades of my life which I’ve spent (as millions have) in eager anticipation of this date, I never expected when it finally arrived to be in the middle of my third year of PhD study, preparing for my comprehensive exams, starting to turn the gears on a dissertation about the undercurrent between DC and Parisian punk, a series of personal pursuits and projects around Knoxville (where I never suspected I’d be living)… and working on co-editing a book about the Geography of Back to the Future. When my friends David, Teresa, and I started the early iteration of this project in 2012, we had grand ambitions to have it out by today, but life, the academic publishing vortex, school, and more life got in the way. However, I am pleased to report the project is still alive, and in the wake of a fantastic panel at AAG in Chicago earlier this year, we have a great, creative crew of writers assembled with contributions. I look forward to having more news to report in the spring. For now, I need to get back to reviewing, writing, planning, and a bunch of other things that aren’t quite as fun as discussing Hoverboards, flying cars, and Marty McFly (though I have written a chapter draft about his home town).
Happy Back to the Future Day, everyone. As much as the production team may have gotten wrong about 2015 (we still need roads), the Bobs probably never anticipated just how excited they would make us all to be here.
Now that it’s the summertime (academically, at least), I have a little bit of time to clean house and post some material that I’ve been gathering for the past few months. Thank you to those of you who’ve been following these postings for any longer than that. I wouldn’t have chosen geography if I wasn’t highly passionate about it outside of school in the first place, and this site gives me a chance to explain just why I am, in however many words. Occasionally (actually, surprisingly often, which I love) I get opportunities to dig into subjects like music, film, and the pale of popular culture to highlight geography’s relevance within the context of teaching it. Other than the fantastic ‘Back to the Future’ panel we had on Saturday, one of the highlights to this year’s AAG meeting was the first annual GeoSlam, an open-ended session where geographers of all stripes were invited and encouraged to share just what it was that drove them into the field. This came as a much-expected breath of fresh air in an environment that discourages us from injecting the subjective into our work. Until a certain point that our elders easily remember, the mere inclusion of an “I” would subject an article to rejection (this may still apply to some journals; thankfully, I couldn’t name them off the top of my head).
For my first two semesters teaching Geography 101, I assigned a paper about regionalism in music. My instructions are rather thorough; students are to select any song, from anywhere, that pick apart the geographic references inherent. What does the song teach us about that region? What about the songwriter influenced the regionalism in the song?Today, some argue that music is losing its sense of place. I argue that sense of place in music is more important than ever precisely because it’s perpetually easier for music to be placeless if it wants to be. I don’t begrudge bands for “Brooklynizing” (or, if we’re going to be blunt, watering down) their sound if they can still make a decent record.
This was hardly the first time music had been used to teach entry-level geography, and not even the first time a paper of this nature had been assigned (see Sarah Smiley and Chris Post’s excellent pedagogy article on “Using Popular Music to Teach the Geography of the United States and Canada” in Journal of Geography 113: 238–246). But I wanted to pose this question to students in Knoxville for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I wanted to give my students the opportunity to explore the geography of their own tastes through a relatively open-ended, laid back assignment to counterpoint the excessive stress of the end of the semester. Geography can be everywhere, even in ostensibly mindless lyrics to your favorite song on the radio. The only restriction was (initially) no “Rocky Top” and no “Wagon Wheel.” I understand that these songs are overloaded with localisms pertinent to where we all sit, but I want students to step out of their comfort zone a bit. Also, the TA’s and I don’t want to have to read 100 papers about the same songs. I invited students to use other songs by Dolly Parton or the Oak Ridge Boys (whose name is a very literal regionalism in itself) if they would prefer. My mistake here, though, did not consider just how many students would turn in papers on Marc Cohen’s 1991 aural cardboard “Walking in Memphis.” That song did become a fun running joke among my staff and I, but I did add it to the ‘banned’ list for the spring semester, mainly because it’s a terrible song, but also because it misrepresents Memphis in all sorts of ways I need not go into here. A few other songs made their way onto multiple papers (e.g. “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle, “Crazy Town” by Kenny Chesney, and various Alabama songs), but none quite offensive enough to warrant any restriction.
What I did do in the spring semester was provide a list of optional songs (several of which I’d be surprised if your typical college-age student today knew terribly well) that are packed with enough blatant regionalisms to become veritable rabbit-holes of material to pry open. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a song every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a bit of its geographic context. I’ll include in this series of posts the song I used in class to extract and demonstrate regionalisms: “Science Fiction” by Radon (the band I spoke about at GeoSlam) sometime in the following couple weeks.
As expected, I returned from Chicago with a seemingly insurmountable pile of work backlogged from the week away. I imagine this is commonplace, as the AAG meeting typically falls late in the spring semester. I cannot move any deadlines or life events that have delayed it, but better late than never, here are some photos and highlights from the first-ever Back to the Future panel! Before I delve into it, I wanted to add that my paper session on Tuesday morning and the first annual GeoSlam (also on Tuesday) were both successful and a lot of fun. Thanks to RJ Rowley and Pamela Sertzen, respectively, for organizing those. Pam and I were already chatting about next year’s AAG GeoSlam, possibly in a SF jazz club? Lawrence Ferlinghetti will probably be too old to join us, but we can always dream.
Anyway, back to Back to the Future…
RJ and I bumped into each other in the hallway outside of Skyway 282, the hatbox room we had been assigned for the session. Considering this was going to be at 4pm on Saturday (when a majority of AAG’s participants have usually left the event), we looked forward to the panel with cautious optimism. Even in a worst-case scenario, we would have a fun group discussion by which to end our AAG meeting. Maybe a small handful of curious conference-goers would find their way to it. We did not get preeminent about the proceedings; we were not expecting a big crowd.
We were so wrong. Even before any of the other chapter authors filtered in, we had a pair of strangers come in and sit down. As 4pm approached, the small room slowly filled up. My colleague Matt Cook, always helpful, went next door and even grabbed a few more chairs to fit into the entryway for the additional people who came in (unless he was violating a fire code, in which case I’m kidding about everything I’ve said in this sentence).
Co-Editor RJ Rowley introduces his chapter to a tightly packed crowd at the “Geographies of Back to the Future” Panel. Notice the packed entryway, including onlookers sitting on the floor. Julian Barr and Lydia Hou, co-authors of another chapter, sit next to RJ and look on.
It wasn’t enough. By 4:30pm, we had one longtime follower of the project sitting on the floor, poetry-slam-style in front of us, the room already oriented for a circle discussion. Every seat in there was full, and everybody was at complete attention to each of our presenters. One by one, Greg Pagett, Dr. Chris Dando, Stacie Townsend, Ashley Allen, Dr. RJ Rowley, Dr. Rich Waugh, Julian Barr, Lydia Hou, and myself brought a different idea to the table which the franchise had inspired.
Drs. Robert Winstanley-Chesters and Torsten Wissman look on as I, Greg Pagett, and Dr. Christina Dando share a laugh with some attendees. (Matthew Cook photo)
After we all went around and introduced our chapters, Dr. Dando presented a brilliant and concise discussion of the panel which will undoubtedly inform our book proposal moving forward. We then opened the floor up to discussion from attendees. A pair of geographers actually thanked us for helping them understand just what Back to the Future has to contribute to the geographic literature and theory. When they said that, it felt incredibly grateful that our discussion struck so many chords across several subdisciplines.
My personal favorite anecdote came from Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters of Leeds University, who shared his experience as an immigrant to suburban New Jersey in 1984. His father, a visiting professor at a major NJ institution, was able to enroll him in an expensive private school that year. One of his lasting memories of that school were the three DeLoreans he saw in the parking lot every day. For most BTTF fans, the films represent this fantasy of mid-1980s America; in a strange way, they represented Robert’s reality. I hadn’t laughed that hard since… RJ and Greg engaged in an argument over who was the bigger film nerd about one hour prior to that. Needless to say, we had more fun than anyone would predict at an AAG panel.
Another highlight came after we adjourned; two attendees introduced themselves and said they had driven up that day from Champaign (over an hour) just for the panel. They said it was worth it, and I was incredibly humbled. Checking the twitter account and seeing positive comments like this certainly didn’t hurt, either:
Thanks again to all the contributors, participants, and even curious bystanders who craned their necks to hear the proceedings from the hallway, who reminded us all that “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to keep tabs on “Save the Clocktower!” at our Facebook page and on Twitter. More updates soon!
For those of you who were not connected to me during my time at CSU-Long Beach, my friends Bret Hartt, Abel Santana, and I co-founded a podcast and weekly radio show called “The Casual Geographer.” We produced over thirty episodes, most of which were posted at our original blogspot site here (the audio links no longer work, but the descriptions and graphics are still there, and if I may say so, delightful). Each episode tackled a different subject and explained how geography enveloped said subject. It lasted most of the two years I spent in Long Beach, and we had a lot of fun.
This week, in a seminar on tourism geography, my colleagues and I discussed a wonderful article by Duncan Light on the commodification and consumption of place names. I found it interesting, as a musically-inclined geographer, how he used examples such as AC/DC (seriously, why is there no lightning bolt key?) Street in Melbourne as ways in which cities and regions place and focus what John Urry legendarily called “the tourist gaze.” In particular, Light (2014, 145*) wrote:
…It is the marker – the signage – that is important in affirming and validating the visit. As such the place-name signage (the most commonplace and banal of objects) becomes the principal focus of tourist interest and the setting for a range of activities and performances.
Unsurprisingly, my mind immediately leaped to the corner of Fountain and Fairfax, where I drove by upon moving to the Los Angeles area, motivated by The Afghan Whigs’ dramatic 1993 song of that title**. My mind then immediately jumped to Episode 3 of The Casual Geographer, where we discussed whatever background information we could find on a handful of songs named after street intersections. These included “53rd and 3rd” (NYC) by the Ramones, “Fountain and Fairfax” (Los Angeles) by the Afghan Whigs, “Queen and John” (Toronto) by Good Riddance, “9th and Hennepin” (Minneapolis) by Tom Waits, and “13th and Euclid” (DC) by the Dismemberment Plan. Thanks to Russ Rankin for his gracious email reply telling us the story of “Queen and John” (which I read during the episode), as well as Travis Morrison for his brief explanation of what happened at a gas station near 13th and Euclid (as well as giving me the go-ahead to use “The Face of the Earth” as a theme song for the show).
I’ll gradually work on wrenching more of these recordings from my archives. For now, have a listen to this episode and I hope you enjoy it. This was an early episode, and the production quality improved from here, I promise.
* Light, D. (2014). Tourism and toponymy: commodifying and consuming place names. Tourism Geographies, 16(1), 141-156.
** If you’re at all familiar with the Afghan Whigs or the greater spate of work by Greg Dulli, using the word “dramatic” to describe any of their songs could seem pretty redundant, I realize.