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

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Art News

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

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

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

King Pyrrhus Fights a Hydra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who's the Boss?

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

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

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

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

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

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