Archive for September, 2007

Dean Johnson (1,000,000,000 B.C. – 2007 A.D.)

Today I learned that Dean Johnson recently passed away. Johnson was a musician and legendary fixture of the 80’s NYC club scene, who occasionally gleamed up into the mainstream radar, while always staying rooted in underground NYC gay culture. He first gained lurid prominence with his popular downtown band Dean and the Weenies, and their bizarre 1987 club hit “Fuck You” – which got regular play in many clubs throughout the rest of the U.S. and the world, primarily due to it being featured in the trendy 1988 film Mondo New York (the odd footage of which was often shown as a video). After Dean and the Weenies fell apart, he later formed The Velvet Mafia. Their first CD, We Know Where You Live, was released in 1998. The band’s second album – the quite good Cheap But Not Free – was produced by Wharton Tiers, and released in 2002. The confounding details of Johnson’s dealings with record companies throughout his weird career can be found in his hysterical, must-read 1979-2004 diaries, found on The Velvet Mafia’s website. Speaking of his earliest days, Johnson told Next Magazine in 1998:

“I did this song called ‘Fuck You’ in the film Mondo New York. From that I was able to get a recording contract with Island Records. When they realized I was a gay activist and a drag queen, they freaked out and found an excuse to dump me. They released my record in an unmarked brown paper wrapper and said they were dumping me because the album wouldn’t sell. They printed out thousands of CDs of ‘Fuck You’ and then dumped them into a dumpster behind the Island offices. Homeless people pulled them out of the garbage and sold them for a dollar on St. Mark’s and it became a huge phenomenon. That’s how I really established myself as a performer back in 1987.”

Personally, Dean was someone I looked up to long before I ever moved to NYC in 1991. This was particularly because of his song, “Fuck You,” which was a cult hit in some of the wackier nightclubs in Dallas in the late 80’s. Texan DJs played it a lot, and club-goers would always run to the dance floor when it came on because they knew all of it’s bonkers lyrics by heart. Who can forget a room full of 300 Texas hipsters shouting in unison “Fuck…Mary Tyler Moooooore!”? I sure can’t. The song had an absurdly slow tempo for a dance club hit, but the seduction was that it made everyone think of New York – which was where we all secretly wanted to live. Of course, without the visual it might not have reached that status. Video footage of him performing this song, from the film Mondo New York, was often shown on Dallas clubs’ video monitors – whenever the DJ wanted to get the crowd riled up. A gigantic bald man in a jumpsuit-mini, drop earrings, Jackie O sunglasses and lipstick, deadpanning ‘Fuck… Union Carbide!’ while a band lazily played jazzy rock behind him? The whole package was perfectly nuts. It was like something out of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, even if it it wasn’t. For New York in ’88, it was (ahead?) of it’s time. For Dallas in ’88, it was like a lost transmission from Dimension Please Maybe. While still living in Texas, I would often see Dean referred to, photographed (or even parodied) in magazines like Spy, Interview, Egg and the early Details. He subconsciously encapsulated a kind of warped ideal to me.

I finally moved to NYC, and got swallowed up by the whole club scene myself. In the early days, he became one of those people my eyes automatically deflected to in a crowded room as my mind raced; “There he is…don’t stare…don’t stare…” When we did meet, I remember being surprised at how gargantuan he was. He towered over you, but was built like a praying mantis, and had a deep voice. He was like a cross between Andre the Giant and Karen Carpenter, and probably could have killed anyone with his bare hands if he’d wanted. He was incredibly friendly, never a trace of of phoniness. He was always in a sarcastic mood, smiling and deadpanning one-liners no matter how high or low the situation. He was obviously very, very wild, which meant his vulnerability sometimes peeked out. We were never close friends, just acquaintances – and shared a lot of conversations. It’s only now that I realize I can’t recall a single unpleasant memory of him. I remember speaking to him once outside of Webster Hall (around ’92?) when he was working an out-of-control door scene at a Susanne Bartsch Halloween party (or was he just hanging out?), dressed in some bizarre outfit. He was complaining about what a bad gig it was and how he wished he hadn’t agreed to do it, yet while he was telling me this he was laughing. When I left the mobbed club about an hour later, the cops had arrived to try and control the now riot-y crowd. As I walked out, Dean turned and said to me, grinning with bugged eyes through smeared make-up, “Happy fucking Halloween” as Herb Ritts stood two feet behind him angrily screaming at a policeman.

I worked for Dean a few times as a go-go dancer. He had this club called Pubic Hair Club For Men at one point, on the West Side, where the go-go dancers were supposed to get nude and perform for the crowd. I agreed to the gig before knowing this fact. I danced all over town, but never nude! I remember Izora Armstead was performing a solo show at the club, before the dancers were supposed to go on (she’s the non-Martha Wash half of The Weather Girls/Two Tons ‘o Fun – and this was right at the peak of Martha Wash’s early 90’s solo career success). Izora gave a fantastic show for a small crowd, but the little stage she was on was way too tiny and, overdressed in a beaded gown, she was sweating a lot while drunk gays stood around her, half-slurring cheers. She was on the same stage I was supposed to dance on afterwards and, as I nervously watched her exhaustedly wheeze out a version of “It’s Raining Men” as an encore, I was thinking; “Oh God that’s gonna be me in a few minutes, and everyone’s going to expect me to get naked!” After she thanked the crowd I jumped on the stage – terrified – as everyone swarmed around, expecting me to whip it out. I started flailing around really quickly, hoping no one could see what I wasn’t doing and also hoping that Dean wasn’t watching (he was downstairs, actually). After spazzing out for about twenty minutes with every eyeball in the place glued to my still-clothed crotch, I ran off the stage like Lina Lamont at the end of Singing in the Rain, almost in tears. Someone yelled “Boooo!” and I think threw a Corona bottle. I was expecting not to get paid because I’d renegged on the deal. I just knew Dean was going to be like “Get back up there!,” which I knew I wouldn’t. But I really needed the $75 – to go towards rent for my regrettable, dilapidated apartment on 11th Street and Avenue C! When I snuck downstairs, Dean just patted me on the stomach and said “Were you a good boy?” and handed me the cash. He didn’t care. I confessed, and told him it didn’t matter because in a few months a porno magazine was going to come out with me in it. Dean laughed and drolled “Your boner, for the world to see!,” which made me crack up really hard. Then we started talking about homeless people’s hygiene. Dean said that the adorable squatter kids who begged for change on Avenue A would make more money if they just took all of their clothes off. I told him that then they’d have to beg for bail money. He said something like “Hey, it takes a tough chicken to make a tender fowl!”

Years passed, he was always friendly. I’d see him out at the clubs for years, greeting me with “Hi Mark” in that Herman Munster voice of his. Occasionally we’d see each other walking around late in the East Village, which just kept changing, getting less scary and less fun. I caught The Velvet Mafia performing a handful of times. I continued to read about Dean’s exploits in the magazines – but now I knew him. I eventually moved away from the city. The East Village? It was finally zapped off the face of the earth altogether (and some people barely escaped). Thanks Dean, and bye.

An ongoing dialoge about Dean’s passing can be found on the Motherboards Forums, as well as at Dean’s personal MySpace page here. His last band, The Velvet Mafia, has a website here (which includes this must-read).

UPDATE: (10/2/07) As the details begin to come in, Dean Johnson’s death appears to be taking a turn towards the scandalous/mysterious. See today’s New York Post and also Wonkette, and today’s Washington D.C. NBC local news.

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The New Who To Offend When You Want To Get Noticed

I recently sent Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish an email about his post “Culture War Gasoline,” which dealt with The Folsom Street Fair’s specious advertising image (above). He never got back to me about my ideas, personally or on site (he gets zillions a day), but rather than create my own post, I just thought I’d just put the email I sent him here. As a whole, it kind of sums up perfectly everything I felt:

Andrew –

As an avid reader, I was taken aback by your response to the Folsom Street Fair poster, which I thought seemed reactionary and unnecessary. But then I saw the poster was getting a lot of attention in other, similar places – negative attention – and certainly was on people’s minds. While I’m no expert on cultural politics, as a simple observer I find it fascinating how unpredictably some artist’s DIY marketing techniques have changed. Ten or twenty years ago, one could easily create work like this – and then sit back and watch the religious right fall into the trap of drumming up loads of attention for it, by protesting “that’s blasphemous!” Today that can’t always be counted on to work.

However, it seems that today one thing you CAN count on is are middle-aged hipsters and politi-think gays going onto the internet and giving it much, much MORE attention by protesting; “That’s not cool, that’s stupid!” or even “you’re ruining the next election for us!” A tactical shift? Not that I would credit such a tired and played out group as the Folsom Street Fair crowd with being so savvy…oops, did it again.

Ten or twenty years ago, such dissenters on the “left” found themselves alienated and silenced. I don’t know if today they have more of an organized voice, or the group-think as a whole has changed – but it’s created a very different playing field. No?

Mark Allen


Attack of the Killer Prunes / Invasion of the Sleeping Bag People (1981)

click to play:

Attack of the Killer Prunes/Invasion of the Sleeping Bag People, 1981 (titles added 2007). Directed by Mark Allen. Starring Dave Smith, Tim Flannery, William Hatcher. 8-mm; 2 minutes, 48 seconds; color; silent.

As kids, my friends and I used to make a lot of weird little films using my parent’s old 8-mm movie camera (an antique from the early 70’s, I think). This one, made in 1981, is entitled Attack of the Killer Prunes/Invasion of the Sleeping Bag People (a double feature). First, a young man decides to warm up some prunes in the microwave – for some reason. Unattended, the device’s radiation mutates the dried fruits, which grow to enormous size and creep upstairs to claim their victim, culminating in a life-or-death struggle as both are flung over the second story balcony (it was filmed in this house). Then… strange, unexplained sleeping bag monsters invade the Big Lake Park section of Plano, Texas, harassing and frightening park-goers and bike riders (click above to play).

As a double feature, the film was a kind of homage to our unwitting appreciation of the Roger Corman aesthetic. Both films alternately star my childhood friends Dave and Tim, and the second features William (who’s hidden by a prop – we took our cue from Hollywood at the time, most black actors were still marginalized). Also, a friendly bike-riding family in the park unwillingly volunteer as extras. I’m not in either film, as I was behind the camera.

At our age we had no idea how to splice and edit film, so all movies had to be edited “in camera” and shot in chronological order. If we weren’t sure a shot worked out the first time – too bad, that was “scene.” When it came back from the Fotomat, that was our movie! It was bliss. So, not surprisingly, don’t get your hopes up. At just over two minutes long, it’s as crappily homemade as they come; inexplicable, overexposed and often out of focus. And there’s no sound. Copying television actions shows; in one scene we replace Dave’s body (after he’s strangled by a giant prune, and flung over a balcony) with a stuffed, yarn-haired dummy dressed in his clothes (wait, are those the right clothes?). When he hits the ground, we quickly replace it with the real him while pausing the camera. The results are seamless! I haven’t decided if it’s all so charming, or just terrible. But now that it’s on the internet, both classifications are irrelevant; it’s forever – so enjoy! It’s also bit of a time capsule specimen. These days, six year-olds are making off-the-cuff movies with phone cameras that rival Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. But for us, back then we had to REALLY WORK to make something look like this. The titles were obviously added just now, using iMovie. Thanks to my brother Craig for discovering these rolls of film somewhere in my parent’s house, and surprising me one birthday with a videotape transfer of them. There’s a few more on the tape (this isn’t the worst), I’ll post them here periodically.


It’s Been Done

This is the prize-winning “Chisai Benjo” (‘Small Toilet’), by Takahashi Kaito of SSI Nanotechnology, Inc. The object is magnified ~15,000X, using an SMI2050MS2 (of course). It recently won an award at The 49th International Conference on Electron, Ion and Photo Beam Technology and Nanofabrication Bizarre/Beautiful Micrograph Contest, all of which can be seen here.

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Farrah Fawcett’s 1997 David Letterman Appearance

Personally, it’s one of my favorite boob tube moments. Farrah Fawcett’s June 6th, 1997 appearance on The David Letterman Show. Go on over to DDY’s Letterman Video Archives (doesn’t allow hotlinking – scroll down to Farrah’s name and click). Jim and I have viewed my tape of this so many times, we’ve now worked many of her awkward catchphrases from it into our everyday conversation. Watch it all, the best parts come out of nowhere. Her spokespeople later blamed her cringesterical behavior on panic attacks, and a last-second glass of wine backstage (on an obviously empty stomach). I think it’s also safe to assume she probably wasn’t feeling overly self confident when she walked out. Who knows. This batty appearance made the news, and single-handedly landed her a reality show a few years later (which unfortunately aired post-Anna Nicole Smith Show). This classic television un-moment doesn’t even come close to one of Andy Kaufman’s notorious talk show spectacles, but at least Farrah is in the same dimension. Wow, and here’s a whole transcript.


Super-Colossal Spider Lair, Spun Deep in the Heart of Texas, Creeps the Hell Out of World at Large

It appeared without warning – smothering a 200-yard area of land and trees, and eventually creating a kind of tunnel – in a remote area of a state park in Wills Point, Texas. Entomologists claim several species of spider have mysteriously converged to create it, and say the phenomenon is incredibly rare. When she first discovered it, park superintendent Donna Garde claimed it was “fairyland white,” but later became brownish after millions of mosquitoes began collecting in it’s trap. “There are times you can literally hear the screech of millions of mosquitoes caught in those webs.” Garde told the Fort Worth Star Telegram in late August. The natural construction has changed it’s massive shape a few times, and appears to keep regenerating, after being destroyed by weather, and now gawkers. Here is a link to a growing page that keeps up with the spider web’s history, print and TV news stories (video), photos, information, etc.

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