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OF DESPERATE TIMES AND VISUAL VOCABULARIES
July 24th, 2015 by Clark Humphrey

desperate times cover

I know I’ve been taking however many of you are reading this back to memory lane a lot lately. But indulge me a few more times, please, including this time.

This time, it’s back to a weekend day in June 1981.

I went straight from my UW commencement ceremony, still possessing my cap and gown, and went to a planning meeting in a Wallingford rental house.

Also there were Daina Darzin, Maire Masco, and Dennis White.

We were starting a punk rock zine, to overcome what we all thought was The Rocket’s excessive commercialism. (Yeah, I know.)

The result was called Desperate Times.

It lasted for six tabloid issues, before Darzin effectively ended it by returning to New York, where she’d previously lived.

(And yes, like so many New Yorkers, she absolutely KNEW how everyone ought to think and behave. And if they thought or behaved in a non-New Yorkish way, then that thought or behavior automatically sucked.)

I had at least one piece in each of the six issues. The most affecting, albeit in a very indirect way, was in the first issue. I asked readers to write in mentioning the band they hated the most. (A cheap “comment bait” trick, it would now be called.)

It got a response all right.

That response came from one Mark McLaughlin, then a student at Bellevue Christian High School. He wrote that he loved the simple repetitive music of Philip Glass, and hated Mr. Epp and the Calculations. (“Pure grunge. Pure shit.”)

This, I continue to insist, was the first documented use of that six-letter word to describe a Seattle punk band.

And it was the first print mention of Mr. Epp, McLaughlin’s own band (of course).

One night shortly after that, Masco found McLaughlin on the streets downtown, pasting up flyers for a fictional gig by Mr. Epp, which at the time was mostly a fictional band (named after a favorite math teacher). Masco persuaded McLaughlin to stage real gigs.

For the next three nearly three years, Darren “Mor-X” Morray, Jeff “Jo Smitty” Smith, and Mark “Arm” McLaughlin gigged and recorded under the Mr. Epp name.

Arm, of course, went on to Green River and then to Mudhoney, famously performing on top of the Space Needle for Sub Pop’s 25th anniversary in 2013.

Darzin became a scribe for Billboard and other high falutin’ rags.

White and Masco started the short-lived Pravda Records label (not the Chicago firm of the same name).

White now runs another indie music label, “dadastic! sounds.”

Masco took a long hiatus from “creative” endeavors.

But now she’s back with a book collecting every issue of Desperate Times, from full-size high-quality digital scans.

Some thoughts on looking at these pages nearly 3.5 decades later:

The music discussed, well a large part of it anyway, still stands up.

The writing and the graphic design are of their time and of the milieu. That is to say, they’re brash, un-slick, and occasionally immature. But that was part of the whole aesthetic of the period. This was before “desktop publishing.” The text was created on typewriters. The headlines were created with press-type lettering. It was DIY Or Die, and it expresses the emotional states of its content better than anything in Adobe InDesign ever could.

Masco is selling the book online and at a few select local shops.

 

 

chantry speaks cover

Masco’s been living in Tacoma in recent years, with a guy who knows a thing or two about graphic design, and who’s not shy about sharing what he knows.

I’ve written several times in the past about Art Chantry. How he played a critical role in creating my book Loser (itself coming back later this year). How he did most of the grunt work in bringing “punk rock graphics” and poster art beyond the deliberately “amateur” style seen in Desperate Times and toward something that was “professional” but NOT corporate. He took his obsessive research into design schticks high and lowbrow, industrial and “artistic,” and created a whole new visual vocabulary.

In recent years, Chantry’s been spreading his vast knowledge and sharp opinions about the design profession (actually, he thinks of it as more of a “trade”) on his Facebook feed.

Now he’s collected some 50 of these essays in the book Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design.

The format of self-contained short essays, on different but related topics, works well with the disparate roots of Chantry’s visual aesthetic and career philosophy.

He finds inspiration in everything from monster-movie magazines to industrial-supply catalogs, from trade magazines to Broadway show posters, from hot-rod customizers to girlie magazines.

Unlike the late Andy Warhol (to whom he dedicates a praise-filled chapter), Chantry appreciates commercial design without feeling the need to dress it up in “fine art” trappings.

Indeed, Chantry openly and repeatedly scoffs at such trappings.

He upends the “official” history of graphic design, which treats it as a top-down profession dominated by Manhattan designers and ad agencies.

Instead, he sees it as a bottom-up, working-stiffs’ trade, originating with sign painters, printers, and other craftspeople. It’s a living tradition, re-created and adapted everywhere. It’s something that’s both populist and commercial at once. It expresses social and individual values, even as it overtly tries to sell stuff (products, politicians, religions, etc).

And, just as American pop/rock music absorbed and mutated everything that came before it, Chantry’s personal aesthetic absorbed and mutated everything he’d learned to love in the various arts of visual/verbal persuasion.

You won’t find any images of Chantry’s own works in Art Chantry Speaks. For that, look up Some People Can’t Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry, written in 2001 by Julie Lasky. There, you’ll see his famous posters for bands, film screenings, and condom-awareness campaigns; his cover art for The Rocket; and his many record covers and band/label logos.

But, just as there are now drinking-age people who weren’t alive when Nirvana last performed, many of the various production techniques Chantry’s essays discuss have become lost to time, from the lead-cast “hot type” of letterpress to the photo-strip “cold type” of manual pasteup pages.

And much printed ephemera itself (magazines, newspapers, cheap paperbacks, recorded music on physical media, etc.) has declined or disappeared in the digital age.

But Chantry’s observations are still important in our current era, when even web page design is considered an obsolete line of work.

Typography, illustration, color theory, and layout are all part of the visual vocabulary of our world. There are reasons why all these arts developed the way they did.

And, just as many young adults have discovered the great music of the 1980s and ’90s Chantry’s idiosyncratic views about these can teach timeless principles about how things look (or ought to look).


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