May 16, 2010

Like a Rainbow in the Dark

Too many greats are passing in short succession. Last week it was Frank Frazetta, now it’s Ronnie James Dio, -whose name should have probably appeared in bold gothic caps on his birth certificate accompanied by flames. Such was the scale of this physically unprepossessing, diminutive man who sang with a powerful, outsized voice.

Ronald James Padavona, or “Ronnie James Dio” to reformed, or “lapsed” skids like me was born on July 10, 1942. He was a singer-songwriter in a type of Rock n’ Roll that many still insist contains no singing or songwriting in it, and it’s really for those who don’t like Heavy Metal at all that I write this appreciation of one of the last true gentlemen in 20th century popular music.

Along his career, Dio performed with bands with names like “Elf,” “Rainbow,” “Black Sabbath,” “Heaven & Hell,” and of course “Dio.” While all Heavy Metal necessarily sounds the same to those who are “deaf” to it, Dio was known for principally operating within the artistic sub-genre known as “Power Metal.” According to documentary filmmaker Sam Dunn, “Think Swords and sorcery” and you have a superficial but legitimate understanding of its lyrical content at least.

People have asked me, an avid listener of music whose fanatical tastes still range across the boards from folk music (Bob Dylan), to Country (Johnny Cash, The Cramps), to so-called lounge singers (Bill Henderson), to Garage bands, 70s punk, Ska (all eras) 80s Hardcore, Hip Hop and so on; What the hell do I see (hear) in Heavy Metal? While I could use an oft-recited but still inarguable cop-out like “who has a single reason for liking anything?” I choose to answer the question directly to people who hate this kind of music:
-Heavy Metal offers the world that dreams only imply.

...and you can quote me on that, friend.

All of the power and sex, adventure, horror, excitement and violence of our longing is made manifest in Heavy Metal music. This is why it appeals principally to adolescents, young adults and secondarily to people who feel a need to keep in touch with their youth and see an importance in remaining connected to the turmoil of their coming of age.

A few years back, Robert Halford, an aesthetic fellow traveler of Dio’s, came out of the closet, revealing himself to a notoriously homophobic audience and culture that he was and always had been, Gay. While many of us who grew up listening to Judas Priest weren’t surprised (Halford’s stage persona and mode of dress seemed straight out of New York’s leather-clad West Village culture in the 1980s) it was an unprecedented disclosure. While people argued about whether this changed everything or whether it even meant anything at all, I can remember thinking to myself: “Who better than a longtime closeted Gay man to speak to the youth of the world about anger, oppression and rebellion?” And that’s the singular, central thing about Heavy Metal, unlike any other of kind of Rock n’ Roll: It tells the listener to come on in and absorb some power, some courage, and some voltage. Dio and other singer songwriters in the Power Metal sub genre invited, excited and assured you, -whatever you’d been told, “there’s nothing wrong with you that is actually important,” -a necessary assurance amongst all the judgment, exclusion and nonsense of life in modern society.

Ronnie James Dio was not good looking. He was short. He was perpetually balding. None of this mattered to anyone. Ronnie James Dio showed and proved to me and the world that there’s more than meets the eye.
Sometimes you just have to listen.

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May 13, 2010

Frank Frazetta Didn’t Paint Heroes

I can’t say exactly when I first saw a Frank Frazetta cover, but I’m pretty sure those were the earliest works I was exposed to, -his covers. For artists of my generation, he was always there, part of the squad of old master-like forbearers in popular illustration like Frank Paul, James Bama, and Alex Raymond except Frazetta’s work was darker and it was otherworldly in just about every calculable respect.

Frazetta’s Conan is still the definitive characterization of the barbarian: Always a brutal, homicidal would be-king at rest. Frazetta didn’t paint heroes; his sensibilities were too sophisticated and “knowing” for that. Frazetta had no innocence about him as an artist; it seemed he was barely holding back all the sex, fury and violence that were not allowed in the actual pulp novels, comic books and movies he was commissioned for. Frazetta painted protagonists; That in and of itself was a radical proposition and a welcome relief from the commercially established smooth-edged imagery that had at its core an insistence on clear, absolute differentiation between good and evil or the hero and the villain. Frazetta’s work was too nuanced and cavernous to entertain naive distinctions like those. His work was called “adult” at a time when maturity was not the number of an age, but the indication of certain knowledge of the world and oneself. Frazetta’s paintings and imagery demanded that one consider the world inside of his pictures. In a very real sense, he was asking viewers to step forth and meet his world and he made no attempt to make it a safe trip for anyone. Frazetta’s work didn’t reach out; -it asked that you make the effort to walk in.

He had an incredible ability to seduce and frighten with his imagery simultaneously. If you dreamed about running your hands along the body of some voluptuous princess in one of his paintings, you had to contend with the idea that you didn’t actually want to be where she was standing. Some of his paintings appeal vigorously to our erotic longings, -but all of them scare.

For illustrators however, Frazetta posed another type of terror: mediocrity.

I grew up in an era of explosive virtuosity among comic book artists. This was in the aftermath of the aesthetic contributions of Neal Adams and in the wake of the various innovations that he brought to comic book illustration. After Adams, the late 1970s and early 80s became an era of extreme accomplishment in pure draftsmanship exemplified by artists like Brian Bolland, George Perez, John Byrne, Milo Manara, Marshall Rogers, Michael Kaluta, Jim Aparo, Arthur Adams, John Buscema, Michael Golden, Walt Simonson and a few others working in mainstream comics. As an adolescent trying to investigate work that would offer useful examples to learn from, the greatness of these artists was strangely demoralizing. Some of these artists were better story tellers than others, some had strong cinematic sensibilities, while others could express a speed and violence that rattled the pages in your hands, -still others gave you an extraordinarily authentic sense of time and place, as did John Byrne whenever he showed us midtown Manhattan. But all of them were incredible masters at their individual style of execution, and on their own terms, they were arguably perfect... Unless you compared them to Frank Frazetta.

Frazetta was not classically trained, -but classically minded. While there were always gifted painters in the fantasy genre in the time of my youth and earlier, (scores of them shuttling between the world of commercial advertising on Madison avenue, like my personal favorite Basil Gogos) only Frazetta maintained a sustained and unique presence, expressing that haunting sensibility that communicated the disquieting notion that sex, fear, love, power, death, hunger, regret are all present, at all times whether we want them all there souring a “fantasy” or not. The living darkness in Frazetta’s imagery and his skill at moving paint were but the invitation, the psychological world within was the destination.

In my teens, as I wondered in frustration at the work of George Perez who could make debris and wreckage look beautiful, and John Byrne who had figured out how to draw liquid metal, and especially at Brian Bolland who drew so decisively and precisely it made me angry... There was always Frazetta. Even my gods, had a god it seemed, and that made me feel better. On Monday, Frank Frazetta died at age 82.

Frank Frazetta, who was still untouchable by greats like Boris Vallejo, Richard Corben or Gaetano Liberatore, always sat in some distant hall of heroes in my mind, working ever harder, year after year, sending us all turbulent dispatches from his imagination, until his mortal body and health began to betray him.

If Lovecraft, Blake, Donatello, and Rembrandt could have sired a child…

And so it goes. Another master of the fantastic leaves us to join his creations, ascending into a place in our imagination.


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May 10, 2010