I knew Ken [aka Weiner] for many years in NYC, during its – or was it just our – heyday, the 1980s. This mad cartoonist worked a day job as art director of Screw where my first wife, Valerie, worked as assistant art director. Milky Way Prod. was a weirdly grungy no man’s land that still managed to forge a relation between sex, politics, liberation and humor – and profit, a kind of Mad Magazine with genitalia. But it was also an open place that offered those hanging on the margins of culture – writers, artists and illustrators who’d honed their skills on black humor and nothing’s-sacred iconoclasm – a paid gig for their artwork as long as the drawings exuberantly exhibited gruesomely disproportionate sexual apparatuses, took the piss out of its self-flagellating readership, at every turn of the page, and, not to forget, display a healthy disdain for the high and mighty.
I felt our link was based on a deep-seated, dark-twisted sense of humor that, like so many of us at the time, penetrated the daily hypocrisies of official culture and straight society, and found some succor in the fact that we acknowledged the misery of our misguided times.
I particularly envied him and a gaggle of other talented pencil geeks: JD King, Jonathon Rosen, Kaz, David Sandlin, Ned Sonntag, the by-then retired Yossarian [among many others]… And, since I was neither musician nor illustrator-artist, I sometimes tried to replicate their effect via my writing – always a treacherous affair.
I remember Ken documenting the frustrations, social awkwardness, and anger of living as a misfit [in the best sense] in the 1980s, during Reagan’s reign, when people – even unions and poor people – went nuts for Reagan. This, for us, was a sign of the imminent decline of all dollar-spending mankind. That people were SO hoodwinked was difficult to comprehend and it was through art-music-writing that we found expression of our depthless levels of exasperation.
That we were right all along is its own measly reward and has been so often manifested and proven by news and history that it is almost routine: recent manifestations include Ronald Reagan being voted SECOND most popular president of ALL time by Americans. That the crisis of 2008-201? was yet more proof of the pillaging of the poor by the rich seemed to escape the average American who consider history a boring distraction from the business of making maximum profits at all costs – until Occupy Wall Street! That Reagan set in motion many of the forces that led to the 2008 crash and the rise of OWS [finally!] seems to be conveniently ignored by far too many until it could no longer be ignored.
I distinctly remember one of Ken’s tenement parties in Lower Manhattan, always a robust affair of opinions, attitudes, anti-attitude attitudes, anti-elitist elitism and purposeful gonzo idiocy as a response to the times. There was a bathtub filled with ice cubes and cans of reasonable beer [maybe even some rabidly anti-chic working class beer like Keystone or something] and Ken standing near the entrance handing out plastic cups upon which he scrawled your name so that if you abandoned your cup you could always find it again. Was it me or someone else who would mischievously move the cups or alter the name just enough to confuse the partygoers?
Ken [and JD King, BTW] appear in a roman a clef moment in BEER MYSTIC. After a deliriously, heated discussion, punctuated by beer spillages down shirt fronts while plotting the downfall of the hypocrite reps of the Moral Majority [reptilian ancestors of today’s Tea Party Texas Horned Lizards], the chapter ends with a scene inspired by one of Ken’s own strips:
When it was time to leave, none of us wanted to make that move to say good night [from inside our drab smoke-brew-reek clothes, which allowed us to survive our surroundings through sartorial imitation of those gloomy surroundings] because each and every one of us was afraid what the rest would say about him or her after the front door was shut and we could be heard stumbling down the cruel spiral staircase. But I made a daring move because beer had sufficiently bludgeoned me with the regret of squandered idealism. I’d had eight or maybe 12 beers and suddenly had no home. Or rather, EVERYwhere could now be considered home. I could hear Luc Sante talking to Runkle Köln about living in NY: “All of us are still in that stage of youth when your star hasn’t yet risen, but your moment’s the only one on the clock.”
“Clock! Holy shit, reminds me, I gotta get down to the Lost Manuscripts Show. They got open bar from 11 to 12. They got Belgian Palm in bottles.”
“Smooth to tipple, not heavy, full of flavor, opulent aroma.”
“But it’s five of two.”
“I’ll make it. These openings stretch out to sunrise. Got to. Duke & Jill are playin’ live and Furman’s ex is doin’ a limbo strip to reprocessed Les Baxter tapes. Illuminated backdrops by Lady Pink and Lady Bug. Life is short but my dick is long. I gotta run.” And he was gone. And true to form, the cartoonists, true to their stylish and practiced misanthropy spared no all-in-good-fun invective.
“R.K. what a fuckin’ wanker!”
“Can’t write his way out of a shopping bag.”
“And one sloppy fuckin’ drunk! The drool, the drivel!”
I somehow lost Nice and she lost me. This would not be good for my bearings. And from the death of the party [Weiner had a Saturday deadline] I bade Jude a last fruitless good night, licked her arm up into her armpits [“Ewh!”] and around and around, spiraling in ever closer to her nipples. A squeal concealed inside a groan for fear that anyone this side of cool should ever show signs of coming undone by passion. Messy passion was out, period: lush = asshole. I gave L-Dopa my last crumpled fiver toward cab fare and watched him stare down Brat Packer and then watched as Jude’s eyes became black fish doing the dead man’s float across my dreams. I could hear the cruel muffled guffaws from behind the closed door as I headed down the pitiless spiral staircase. The joke being it wasn’t even a spiral staircase.
bp: Ken has been active on the political-environmental front for some years in his adopted Minnesota. I focused on comic books as effective/legitimate tools of political critique… Did you resent having to put so much energy into preventing Michelle Bachman from leading a spiritual putsch, almost hijacking the American soul for purposes that border on insane cult? Or have you made your peace with your sense of commitment since the appearance of your dump Bachmann Book, The Madness of Michelle Bachmann.
KA: A decade ago I began a project to visualize the Twin Cities area after the collapse of the industrial era. That project is called “Bicyclopolis.” I wrote several illustrated stories that came out of that project, most recently in a compilation titled Cifiscape vol. 1 published by Onyx Neon. I began work on a graphic novel titled Bicyclopolis when I volunteered to help activists opposed to highway expansion in South Minneapolis. It became very clear that I had no first-hand knowledge of how the cult of industrialism continues to thrive, as industrialism itself is in decline. Contrary to what I had thought, the evidence of industrial collapse leads to a greater need to pretend it isn’t happening – denial.
bp: That seems totally believable. People are in total denial about their carbon foot/head/body/habit print and still have this almost devout view of progress – witness the cult of the automobile or the long lines of fanatics camping out in front of megastores for the release of the latest game or i-product.
KA: It’s like the cargo cults of the South Pacific that sprung up among indigenous tribes after being suddenly exposed to the industrial way of life in the form of island-hopping military airbases. The reaction of many people to the confusion to being wrenched from living in one paradigm to living in another is to cling to the past with the aid of set of beliefs that attempt to explain everything. The Cargo Cults of the South Pacific had an explanation for the airplanes landing and departing their islands – the airplanes were big birds sent from their ancestors with gifts. But, the crafty white men waylaid the birds and took all the gifts (cargo). Many of these tribes built replicas of landing strips in hopes the big birds would deliver the cargo to the rightful owners.
bp: I did a lecture on cargo cults at the avant garde club, De Player, located in a former brothel in the old sailors district of Rotterdam. The ability of the human mind to manufacture the chemicals to suspend disbelief…
KA: We are starting to see that happening in reverse with the collapse of the industrial paradigm. The declining supply of cheap, easily exploited mineral resources, chiefly petroleum will hasten the end of the mobile consumer culture. The reaction among the cargo cults of suburban America has been to cling even tighter to a myth that there are magic bullets; technological, religious or governmental that can save the shopping malls and sprawling acres of “McMansion” developments.
bp: It makes all those everyone-can-become-a-millionaire pundit-motivational-speaker-barkers seem totally absurd and yet people pay good money to see bad entertainment: these foot soldiers of blameless capital progress never explain that millionaires depend on an exploitable [developing world or desperate first world unemployed blue-collar] underclass.
KA: My introduction to then-State-Senator Michele Bachmann was when I read a 2004 news report that she wrote legislation for and promoted a techno-magic bullet concept called Personal Rapid Transit, (PRT) a wacky pod-on-a-monorail concept, which, back in 2004 was seriously being proposed by Bachmann as a better solution to the chronic transportation woes in the Twin Cities [as an alternative to] light rail. Eva Young, the founder of Dump Bachmann asked me to contribute to the blog in 2005.
PRT is just one of the bizarre concepts and people that Bachmann has ascribed to over the years. Bachmann is also connected to the $3.8 billion Ponzi scam run by Tom Petters – I covered his trial for the local weekly City Pages.
When Bachmann announced she was running for President, we were suddenly experts on all the crazy stuff Bachmann has said and done. Now, we have a book called The Madness of Michele Bachmann (Wiley) coming out in December. Hopefully, our book will help bring an end to Bachmann’s political career. The experience has left me feeling sadder and wiser like the wedding guest in “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”. I think the research I’ve done will make Bicyclopolis a much better book.
bp: How have things changed for you now that Bachmann has dropped out of the presidential race? She was apparently just not insane enough for the Far Right middle-of-the-road fringe or she just couldn’t keep the story straight and simplistic enough…
KA: I’m not blogging/writing/researching as much about Bachmann. She is still a US Congresswoman. We will still keep the blog going until she is out of office. I am also paying less attention to politics in general. I am returning to long-postponed art projects.
bp: How can graphic storytelling [comics] reach a different or wider audience than say more ordinary stories? I know that in poorer countries activists often funnel their activist message of engaging the locals through popular comic book personages.
KA: I don’t know about the audience… I don’t have an easy time writing. I have an easier time describing stuff in words and pictures – that’s what I do with comics, illustrations and journaling. What I most enjoy doing now is sketching in my journals and in courtrooms. It’s a real challenge.
bp: Tell me more about how your the nascent attitudes that germinated in your 1980s zine ROADKILL have found new expression. I remember I wrote something for your highly opinionated ROADKILL called “Bad Radio”. I think it already harbored some contentious relationship between you and the automobile/progress and I could relate to that then and can still relate to that now [I don’t own a car but we do have 3 bikes + public transport].
KA: Roadkill was a bridge between the sort of work I did for Punk and Screw and the weekly environmental comic I did called Roadkill Bill. The stuff I did in Roadkill was not my best work.
bp: Ah, it was wonderfully grumpy. Besides, my favorite tee shirt design of all time is your Serious Beer Drinker design and when the tee shirt wore out I framed the artwork and it now hangs in our kitchen. How has your vision adjusted since our “heyday” in the mid-1980s? Have you found creative or practical applications for your opinions and comics and drawing talent?
KA: The Internet has changed everything for better or worse. More people can see my work. I write more now. I sketch a lot and keep journals. Much of the stuff I do now is serious. Being serious makes me uncomfortable. I am not an expert or a journalist, but I’ve become both at times on a few obscure subjects. I look forward to just doing comics, sketching and painting again.
bp: I often thought of you as a supremely funny grump. most of my favorite comedians and illustrators are grumps or misanthropes but like angry punk I think that on some level that people who are grumpy about mankind still harbor some hope of changing things through constructive grumpiness. I think this is how i would have described you back then in the later 80s.
KA: Yup, that’s me – grump, curmudgeon, misanthrope. There are rare moments when I am happy.
bp: How did you find constructive purpose for this highly critical standpoint which you had back in the 80s but seemed not yet formulated to the point of being enlisted to actually realize change. How and when did this evolve that you thought you could have an effect of some sort with your voice/art?
KA: For me, it’s a matter of what you do when you are seeing things differently than other people or noticing things that other people don’t see. You can be a crank that just irritates people or you can do something creative; visual or in words or both. I was always crabby about the world around me, but I didn’t exactly know why. After I moved to Minnesota, I began to research why I was a curmudgeon. Part of that process of discovery was sketching the world around me. I learned that simply sketching something that people see all the time, but choose not to notice can be very disturbing – I found that out when somebody called the cops on me when I was sketching a billboard [see Counterpunch].
What people call reality, may not exactly be “real”. The human eye is not like a camera lens – it scans what it sees and assembles a picture in the mind. How that picture is assembled is influenced by what that person thinks about what they see. This is why there are often conflicting eyewitness accounts of disasters and crimes. There is also a moral aspect to art – how does the artist feel about what they see? Sometimes the interior reality is as important or more important than the “objective”, photographic reality – for example, Picasso’s painting of Guernica seems more “real” to me than photographs of the aftermath of the bombing of Guernica.
Sketching for me is often about figuring out how I feel about a subject. It helps to research the subject first to know what to look for. Research gives me the confidence to make a sketch that has the “ring of truth”.
I’ve learned a lot from watching prosecutors argue cases in court. I think art and law have a great deal in common. Art puts reality on trial, the viewer is the jury.
bp: You and wife-partner Roberta go out sketching as the Urban Sketchers, redrawing the psychogeography one neglected site at a time.
When I sketch, it’s like I’m recording a statement about what I see. I don’t hide my point of view, but I try to be accurate and explain as much as possible. I often add text to my sketches to further explain what I am seeing. My journals are a continuous, ongoing process of discovery.
I don’t like to work from photos. I want the sketches in my journals to be an unedited account of how I saw a person, landscape or event. I read a quote in a book yesterday by John Ruskin – “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.”
bp: When did you move out of New York? I moved to Paris for good in 1988, although I returned in 1991 against my will with my partner at the time and then left again for good in 1996. I return annually with family in tow to visit my Paloma’s 2 grandmas in PA and Upstate NY. When I return I can see it through tourist eyes but also marvel at how the city is dominated by commerce or rather movement: transport, by cars and trucks and ALL else must abide the grid that accommodates motor vehicles – you stand still for the second, you upset this flow.
KA: I rarely go back to New York. When I do, It’s a very different place. It’s fun to be a tourist In Manhattan, but I could not afford to live there.
bp: Agreed. The BEER MYSTIC’s Furman Pivo experiences a spiritual disconnect between his hopes, dreams and self. He feels the best slowly being squeezed out of him. This “good” can be repurchased at a price from the very forces that have leached it out of him – the magical formula of commerce I guess… How do you see all of this in the context of then [when we knew each other in NY] and now?
I was always a troublemaker. I’m still a troublemaker. I was utterly clueless [back then] about the environment or anything else that I write or draw about now. I enjoyed drinking beer – good beer and there wasn’t much of that in NYC at that time.
bp: How has life changed since leaving NY?
bp: What Minnesota beers should I look out for?