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doorsixteen_newyorktimes_peteseeger
Photo by Sam Falk/The New York Times

And a hero has gone. May we all try to live with even a fraction of the dignity, compassion, spirit and mindfulness that he did, and may we all carry his music in our hearts along the way. Goodnight, Pete.

Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94

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My father gave me this record when I was about 3 or 4 years old, and some of my earliest memories are of listening to it on the stereo in his studio—and, of course, singing along. When I was a little older, maybe 6, we listened more to Pete’s political songs like “Little Boxes” and “What Did You Learn in School Today,” and Dad explained to me what the words were all about. I learned what activism is. Big lessons for a little kid, but Pete (and Dad) made a huge impact on me and started to shape my social, political and ethical beliefs at a very early age. We’d go to see him play down by the Hudson River at the annual Clearwater Festivals, and later on, when Evan and I moved to Beacon, Pete became our neighbor. I’d see him at the train station all the time, and he kept on playing at local benefits in Beacon and Newburgh well into his 90s. The last time I saw him play was a few years ago in front of a small group of captivated children on the dock of the Hudson River, surrounded by the mountains and with his beloved Toshi nearby. I’ll miss you, Pete. Sorry to see you go.

If you have memories of Pete Seeger, whether from growing up in the Hudson Valley or from being a part of the political folk movement yourself or just from listening to his records, I’d love to hear them. Please feel free to share.

“I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
Pete Seeger, speaking before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1955)

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I just came across illustrator and graphic designer Butcher Billy’s “Post-Punk + New Wave Super Friends” series, and I’m not going to be able to resist ordering at least a couple of prints for my walls. Butcher Billy has applied the concept of a superhero to his heroes — the pop culture icons who influenced him as a kid. As he explains it…

As a child of the ’80s I was heavily influenced by everything from Saturday morning cartoons on TV to the music coming from the radio. Ian Curtis or Johnny Rotten are as iconic to me as Superman or Batman. Real people or imaginary characters, the incorruptible ideals of perfect superheroes or the human flaws and desires sometimes so desperately depicted in song lyrics — all of those influences affect us to the point of defining our character and personality, career paths and life choices.

Well, shoot. That just about says it, right? I totally agree, and it looks like Billy and I have a lot of the same heroes.

You can order any of Butcher Billy’s Post-Punk and New Wave Super Friends designs as prints or on t-shirts, iPhone cases and other items through his shop at Society6. View the entire series of posters at Behance.

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All images © Butcher Billy / Available for sale through Society6 / Found via Slicing Up Eyeballs


Both photographs © The Beastie Boys

A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite groups was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I have a strong dislike for awards and certifications and ceremonies and that kind of thing, but I took a moment on Twitter to give love and congratulations to the Beastie Boys, because really—they deserved to be there. It was satisfying to see a group I grew up loving (and still love now and never stopped loving) honored for their contributions to rock music. If any group cannot be pigeon-holed into a single genre, it’s the Beastie Boys. So let’s just go ahead and recognize them everywhere. Hip Hop Honors, Rock and Roll, Walk of Fame, Grand Old Opry…go for it.

When I found out that Adam Yauch—MCA, he’s got a license to kill—wasn’t going to be able to attend the ceremony because he was too ill, my heart sank. I knew he’d been diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, because the Beasties had to cancel their tour and postpone their album. Somehow, though, once the incredible Hot Sauce Committee was finally released last year, the general assumption was that Yauch was alright. That he was going to be OK. He even directed the video for “Make Some Noise.”

And now he’s gone. I’m glad that induction ceremony happened when it did.

I blogged about that video just over a year ago, and I said this about it: “The new Beastie Boys video reminds me of how deeply satisfying it is to have been their fan for about 27 years now. They just never disappoint!” That’s the truth. I was lucky enough to see the Beastie Boys live a few times over the course of those 27 years in various stages of their career, and they were awesome. Life and energy and power and happiness and FUN.

I’ve had the “Who’s your favorite Beastie?” discussion many times with many people, and the general consensus always seems to wind up being all of them. But if you break it down, you do it a little like the Beatles—and Yauch was the George Harrison of the Beasties. Maybe you wanted to date Ad-Rock and party with Mike D, but MCA is the one you wanted to get deep with. He’s the one you wanted to philosophize about life with over a nice vegan dinner. He’s the one you wanted to talk to about art and New York and basketball and Buddhism. MCA, what up?

Two big things happened in my musical world in 1989: The Cure released Disintegration, and the Beastie Boys put out Paul’s Boutique. I have never listened to two records more than I did those over the next few years. 23 years later, they are both in my top five all-time favorite albums. The Beastie Boys never have never had a low point, but they have had a high—and that was it. Paul’s Boutique moved the bar for progressive, innovative rap music so high that I don’t think anyone can ever top it. Even Miles Davis called it the greatest album ever made. By anyone. Ever.

Even though there’s no video, I have to include the “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” here. It’s the greatest 12 minutes in the entire history of hip hop. MCA has the coolest part, of course—the “Year and a Day” section that kicks in at the 3-minute mark.

If the Cure were the soundtrack of my teenage isolation and anger, and Morrissey is the soundtrack of my adult disappointment with life, the Beastie Boys are the ongoing soundtrack to friendship, fun, and good times. They’re the sound of skate parks, hair dye, cool sneakers and cute boys. The Beastie Boys made me want to move to Brooklyn.

When I grieve over the loss of a person like MCA—someone I didn’t know—what I’m really grieving on a personal level is the recognition of lost eras of my life. Friendships that went by the wayside, people I did know who have passed on, and the realization that I’ll probably never feel that way about a group or artist that I might discover as an adult.

Adam Yauch was bigger than just the music, though, and over the next few days there will be lots of tributes to him and the other work he did (creating the Free Tibet Music Festival, directing tons of videos for the Beasties, making a movie about high school basketball players, and so on). This is just about me, really, and about losing another one of my musical heroes and another slice of my personal soundtrack. My heart goes out to Yauch’s wife and daughter, as well as to Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond, who I know must be feeling the loss of their brother in a heavy, heavy way.

Here are a few of my favorite Beastie Boys moments out of so many. And all of these videos were directed by MCA, of course…Nathanial Hörnblowér, Adam Yauch from Brooklyn, Yauch with his fisheye lens, Yauch with his close-ups and his hoodie and his gravely voice and his beard like a billy goat.

Good times, good man. Thank you.

I just watched Chuck Close read a letter to his 14-year-old self. You should watch it too. Sorry about the ad at the beginning—the four minutes that follow are worth it, I promise. I’ll wait…

Good stuff, right?

Chuck Close was the commencement speaker at my graduation from art school. He’d just had a huge retrospective at MoMA earlier that year, and it was very exciting to have him there. Purchase College is divided up into several distinct small schools, each with its own admissions process, its own dean, and its own requirements. The graduation ceremony, however, is all-inclusive. The painters are sitting next to the biology majors are sitting next to the dancers are sitting next to the sociology people are sitting next to the filmmakers are sitting next to the designers.

But Chuck Close was really there to talk to us. The art students. This is part of what he said:

I’d like to say something to the parents of the art majors. This is probably not what you had in mind, you know? You hoped maybe—I don’t know, maybe medical school, maybe a degree in law, but I want to tell you that a life in art can be a wonderful life. Artists live better at near-poverty level income than yuppie bond traders do at much larger income.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of yuppie bond traders out there who are plenty happy with their lives and I certainly don’t deride them for that, but you know…the world is quick to judge someone who makes their living as an artist. The arts are considered expendable and disposable, as if their place in culture and modern society is not one of actual value, but merely something decorative and extraneous. It’s nice to have something to hang above the sofa, sure, but not if it means I’m going to have to pay more taxes! So it’s good to hear something like that from a guy like Chuck Close when you’re about to embark on a career path that will likely always feel a bit tenuous.

(Of course, I was created and raised by two artists who already understood and were actively living this lesson, so I’m pretty sure they did have “this” in mind. Actually, what they had in mind was that their children would become whatever they wanted to. I’d like to think they’d still love me even if I’d become a yuppie bond trader.)

But back to that video! I’ve watched it a number of times now, and I keep dwelling on this:

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.

I’ve heard Chuck Close use that line before, but right now it speaks so directly to how I’ve been feeling about inspiration, appropriation, value, context, and work ethics. Far be it from me to claim to be free from inspiration, but I do think Close is right. If you imagine your creative work as a spectrum, you’d have the finding and saving of the work of others on one end, and “showing up and getting to work” on the other. Life doesn’t have to exist solely within the latter part of the spectrum, of course, but the more time we spend there (and, conversely, the less time we spend poring over “inspiration”), the more we likely we are to produce work that is truly the result of what we set out to do when we decided a life in the arts was what we wanted.

When someone asks me what I’m inspired by (easily my least favorite question), the first answer that always comes to me is EVERYTHING. Or if not every thing, then every possibility of a thing. I’m constantly looking at shapes and patterns and colors, whether in nature or in art or in the way my shoes happen to be sitting in front of the closet door. Every food wrapper is considered. Furniture. Bill envelopes. Music. EVERYTHING. It doesn’t have a start or end!

Because of this, inspirational stimulation can easily become overwhelming for me. I’ve never had an inspiration board/mood board/whatever board—I find them oppressive. Aside from the pressure of influence, I dislike the act of stripping context from another person’s work. And yes, I do do that here on this blog sometimes—but I cannot have it around me when I’m in “design mode.” I show up, and I get to work. OK, most of the time. Sometimes I’m an amateur.

So here are my lessons for artist/designer types, as inspired (oops) by Chuck Close:

Not every decision you make has to be crowdsourced beforehand. Trust your gut and keep it to yourself while you follow through.

It’s OK to strive to accomplish things that may never lead to financial reward. More than OK, actually.

Try to put a limit on the amount of time you spend searching for and cataloging images for the sake of inspiration. Think more about appreciating these things for what they are, and not just how you can apply them to your own work.

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.

And hey, maybe yuppie bond traders can apply these things to their work, too.

Thanks to Kelly at LPP for sharing the video.