Monday, January 16, 2012

Art with No Regrets: An Interview with Annie E. Existence

Three years and as many months ago, I started this blog, imagining it as a blue guitar: an "aquamarine ark, spaceship, brave vessel of verse and bliss[, a] glorious palimpsest." I just love the notion of a blue guitar . . . I have a bright blue 5-string electric bass as well as a 4-string midnight blue bass (inset image, top left, next to the blog title), and a Kashmir blue classical guitar.

My blog title Man with the Blue Guitar I nicked from Wallace Stevens's well-known poem with the same title: within the poem, a guitarist is interrogated by others curious why his music does not "'play things as they are.' / The man replied, 'Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.'" That's how Stevens dramatized imagination, as a device or conduit or construction that changes the world, that (re)renders the world in its own fashion, separate and different from — here do air quotes — reality, creating and displaying its own inner transcendence.

Stevens himself nicked the title (or at least the image) from Pablo Picasso's 1903 Blue Period painting "The Old Guitarist" (at right), Stevens's inspiration or trigger for the poem. Picasso pioneered Expressionism with this image, dramatizing on canvas his grieving for a close friend dead from suicide, emblematizing through paint his sorrow — so say art historians and critics — visually evoking the feeling one might find in music in a momentary twinge like the "blue note" of the Blues.

Recently, in the online artists' community, I found a splendid and gorgeous digital painting that's based on the "The Old Guitarist" but transforms Picasso's image by playing and replaying it on Stevens's blue guitar of the imagination, so to speak, transmuting its sorrowful feeling into a more joyful yet equally blue (an altered and luminous blue) beauty. Here it is at left: "The Blue Guitarist" by Annie E. Existence.

In my bio for the blog (look all the way left, top), I say, "my favorite color is blue, in all its dynamic shades and flavors: cobalt, electric, royal, robin's-egg, navy, cerulean, teal, indigo, sky." This painting rocks several of those flavors of blue, especially (to my eye, or on my screen) teal and sky. Her painting expresses for me the intimate and sometimes heartbreaking, throat-catching loveliness of playing music on the guitar (the real, material guitar, that is). Annie renders the instrument in muted browns like Picasso's and then uplifts the woman playing it, transfigured and made luminescent by the music she's performing: her skin and hair are illuminated by — no, are — a kind of cool fire, a lambent flame like malleable metal that's nonetheless fleshy and soft.

Annie E. Existence is the pseudonym of a fine artist in Lafayette, Lousiana, now specializing in tattoo art after completing her studio art BA at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. I had the great pleasure recently of interviewing Annie — completely via facebook — and now I'm honored and glad to present that interview.

Remember: click on any image to see a larger version.

Vince Annie, would you tell me about your background in art? Did you maybe melt crayons as a kid and smear multi-color soup on walls?

Annie I was always creative as a kid . . . kinda weird though . . . I used to shave the heads of my Barbie dolls, wrap them in torn-up towels like mummies, and make death masks out of construction paper for them. I was always into Egyptian history. It always fascinated me. But I've been drawing and writing for as long as I can remember.

Vince Wow . . . Barbie-mummies. That's way better than melting crayons! What about after you grew up?

Annie In May [2011], I graduated from UL [University of Louisiana at Lafayette] for printmaking. I also did a lot of casting and other metalworking while I was there and I enjoyed that more than anything. There is something very personal about sculpting something out of wax and casting them. I always ended up with these intimate size sculptures that people wanted to hold and move around in their hands, which was the point. I want to get people reconnected with art instead of the look, don't touch culture we're living in now.

I recently completed my tattoo certifications and sent off to the state to get my commercial body art license . . . when I get that, I'll be able to tattoo full time at Bizarre Ink where I've been apprenticing. I suppose that's one obvious way to connect people to art in the literal sense. The shop is on downtown Jefferson Street where all the bars are [in Lafayette, Louisiana]. I've struggled a lot getting the customers to care about the art on their bodies instead of just wanting some cursive font with the name of their boyfriend.

Vince Tell me more about your tattoo art. How did you get into that?

Annie I was always interested in tattoos and since I've always been a weird kid and an artist, I fell naturally into the underbelly of culture. Just like I'm intrigued by Egyptian history, I find the culture and history of body art to be intriguing as well. But this underbelly is not the most attractive thing in the world. I have to spread my influence from the dregs up. When someone wants to enter the tattoo business, they have to swim through a sea of junkies, thieves, liars and coattail riders. It's so sad but so true. But that's where you separate the real artists from the "I love Miami Ink" wannabes. How much are you willing to put up with to be the best artist you can be? Luckily I'm apprenticing under two artists who have paired up to see me succeed: James Aaron Puckett and Andy Boudoin. It's been a terrifying experience. Simply because normally I can pick up a new art form, manipulate it, and make something beautiful whether I have a lot of experience with that medium or not. It's not like that with skin. I've never picked up an art form and sucked at it . . . until recently. But I'm learning fast and have great mentors. They want to see what I'm capable of. Once I'm given the basics and the right guinea pigs I think I'll be capable of a lot more than what I've been doing.

Vince I'm guessing you also have tattoos, then?

Annie I have several, some of which I will be covering up and redoing. The first I ever got is still my favorite . . . I got f-holes like from a violin on my back to resemble Man Ray's old, famous photomanipulation "Le Violon d'Ingres." I really can't say what it is about this artist that I love so much. Maybe it's the fact that he was a definite beginning to the art that we see modern artists of my age doing today. We just use photoshop now instead of paints.

At left is Man Ray's "Le Violon d'Ingres" (1924), in which he added two f-holes (violin style) to a photograph of his model.

Next to it is a photograph of Annie E. Existence with f-holes tattooed on her back in homage to Man Ray and his work.
Vince Do you have a personal philosophy or whatever about your art? Or as an artist?

Annie I work back and forth between making art for the fun of it and trying to say something with it. I'm really interested in personal relationships and how people treat one another, and how the way someone treats me and vice versa directly affects how I respond to life and myself.

One of my tattoos is on my left hip. It says "Scapegoat" and has goat horns around it. A lot of my art is based on the scapegoat concept. Traditionally the scapegoat was a literal goat that Christian villagers would symbolically place their sins on. They would then take it into the woods and slaughter it almost like a sacrifice. Very pagan in ritual, to be honest.

I have always been the one to work too hard and sacrifice my own well-being so someone else didn't have to feel so bad about their wrongdoing. I hate to go too far into my personal life, but most of my senior thesis in school was based around this man I had fallen in love with. There was something charming and charismatic about him. But he was addicted to pain killers and used my feelings for him as a way to get away with hurting me and the people around me both financially and emotionally. The soft-hearted compassionate artist in me wanted to believe he could change. I guess that's my fault for hoping I could manipulate his disaster of a life like watercolors on a canvas and make something beautiful out of it. I almost slaughtered myself doing this and have tried valiantly since then to not be that person . . . but alas, I guess it's the artist/mother instinct.

Vince Glad you were able to escape that situation. Okay, so how do these ideas interact with "The Blue Guitarist"?

Annie Well, "The Blue Guitarist" falls more into the category of "just for fun." And it's also a tribute piece to Picasso, a thanks for what he has contributed to the art world.

I do portraits of my friends for the same reason. I'm about to start another one. I do a lot of portraits of my artist friends as an appreciation for what they contribute to our local art community. The next piece will be of my friend Cootie Von Ghoul. Obviously that's her artist name and not her real name, but I always call her Cootie. She's a beautiful woman and I won't mind staring at her face while I do it.   ;-)

Vince One thing I find so moving about "The Blue Guitarist" is the shade of blue you used. It's so different from the blue Picasso used in his "Old Guitarist" painting. Can you say more about that color? And how does color affect you as an artist, maybe especially as a tattoo artist?

Annie Well, I think Picasso's version is a little more dreary, and mine, however very blue, is slightly more hopeful. Maybe hopeful isn't a good word for it, but I don't think it invokes the same sad feeling as Picasso's choice of blue. I do enjoy a certain amount of vibrancy in color when I choose to use it. I'm primarily a black and white kind of girl but my color drawings and paintings tend to use really bright colors. As far as tattoo-wise, colors tend to be brighter there and maybe that's why I'm attracted to that. When you're working on flesh, if you're not using just black and grey, you use the most vibrant colors possible. Also, colors don't react the same way over flesh tones as they would over white so you have to choose a more exaggerated color palette. I'm just very prone to using exaggerated color.

Vince In some facebook interchange we had recently, you mentioned being involved in a community of artists where you are. How does that affect your work?

Annie It greatly affects my work, especially since people have their own taste. It's this community of artists that encourages me to pursue my own work and they appreciate it for what it is. My quirky style of art is not offputting to them since they too are rather eccentric with their work.

But the art that sells here, that upper middle-class white housewives want, is fleur-de-lis and swamp scenes and tiger-themed stuff. You know, Cajun culture, the Saints and the French history, and LSU football. Now, I love Cajun culture, but the symbology has become so cliché that I can't bring myself to make it even though I know it would make me money and feed me.

The other artists here just get it and when I'm amongst them I know I can just make art the way I want to make it. Recently I started making Voodoo dolls which has been a more enjoyable way to tap into the old New Orleans culture that is still prevalent today.

Vince Where did your pseudonym "Annie E. Existence" come from?

Annie "Annie" is just the last part of my first name . . . and there is a small part in a song by TOOL which mentions the name "Atrophy Annie," so I took that.

Normally, when a name is written out, formally, the middle name is represented with an initial. The "E" stands for "Enigma," which holds the meaning of mystery, and not knowing what the middle "E" stands for immediately is part of that . . . and I will always be a mystery even to myself because as an artist there a lot of things I am constantly discovering about myself. I've figured out how far my tolerance for abuse from others goes. And by abuse, I mean people taking advantage of my kindness, backstabbing me, or using me as a stepping stone to get something else they want. I've found out I have a high tolerance for these things, but my tolerance for seeing someone else get abused is very low. Also, I've struggled most of my life with depression and anxiety and I didn't discover until recently what these things really meant for me. I was constantly terrified that I would create some sort of social blunder, so I would isolate myself. Once I got old enough to understand these emotions I was able to see an episode (panic attacks or sudden drop in mood) coming. I can't prevent these things for sure but I've been able manage my breathing, calm down my racing heart, and remind myself that it will pass. It's more of a biological problem and I'm not just crazy. This has been the most important revelation for me over the last couple of years. But I'm still learning ways to deal with it.

And "Existence" . . . well, that holds a lot of meaning for me. When I was struggling the hardest, battling constant depression and anxiety, it was hard to find reasons to live. I told myself, "Just exist. That's all I have to do right now."

So when it comes down to it — even when my life is hard and I'm not particularly living for anything — I just have to exist and my purpose will present itself later.

Vince What aspirations do you have for your art? Where do you think it will go in the future? These are clichéd questions, I know, but we all have wants and desires for our work.

Annie I'm focused on being a good tattoo artist right now. Here is my favorite tattoo I've done so far.

I did this on my boyfriend and he was willing to be the guinea pig — bless his heart! I was very pleased with what I was able to do when given the chance. That was the first tattoo of its kind that I was able to do. It was more than just font or small band logos. I'm happy for any work I get but even more so when I get to do something fun and more creative.

Also I want to travel and hit the convention circuits and rub elbows with other artists. That is my chance to make a name for myself and immerse myself in the culture where I can learn from artists from all over the world. It's the greatest opportunity coming my way.

Vince Any last word you want to leave my readers with?

Annie All I can say at this point, is that my future is unknown like everyone else's. All I can do is learn about the people around me and seize opportunities as they come to me. That's what life is all about: overcoming hardships, loving people, learning as much as possible, and jumping at every opportunity with no regrets.

You can see more of Annie E. Existence's artwork on facebook and deviantArt. I'll leave you with one more digital painting by Annie E. Existence, titled "Emily" (2011).

Would you please leave a comment below? I'd love to hear what you think, and so would Annie. Thanks. Ingat.

Sources: (1) Pablo Picasso, "The Old Guitarist," from (2) Annie E. Existence, "The Blue Guitarist," from (3) Annie E. Existence, May 2011 facebook profile picture, used by permission. (4) Man Ray, "Le Violon d'Ingres," from the J. Paul Getty Museum. (5) Annie E. Existence, from facebook art page, Dissident Arte. (6) Annie E. Existence, June 2011 facebook profile picture, used by permission. (7) Annie E. Existence, October 2010 facebook profile picture, used by permission. (8) Annie E. Existence, tattoo, from facebook art page, Dissident Arte. (9) Annie E. Existence, "Emily," from


Sunday, January 8, 2012

In the Cool of the Evening ...

. . . when everything is gettin' kinda spooky.
I was barely 16 when the rock song "Spooky" by the Classics IV came out. An ardent devotee of rock guitar, I immediately started to work out how to play it — no Internet or Google then, you had to work out the chords by ear, meticulously plunking out notes while listening to records over and over. The first chord of "Spooky" was easy: an E minor 7th chord with a cool double note on the two highest strings: D and G. Like this: 020033.
A quick detour here for non-guitarists. The numbers in the symbol above refer to frets used with each string. Left to right, lowest string to highest string: the notes E A D G B E. The "0" means an "open" string, i.e., unfingered. The fingering shown in the symbol above, then: (1) the second lowest string (A) at the second fret (thus, a B note), (2) the second highest string (B) at the third fret (a D note), and (3) the highest string (E) at the third fret (a G note). So the symbol 020033 above stands for the notes E B D G D G . . . hence, Em7. Hope that helps.
The second chord was tougher to identify. I knew it was an A major chord of some kind, but it was hipper than that. I then noticed the presence of an F# note on the high E string. And so, throw that note on top of the A chord: x02222 . . . that is, A (add 13). Beautiful. (Not quite a full-fledged, card-carryin' A13 because the 7th and the 9th are missing. You know, I always loved how those jazz guys pushed us three-chord rockers.)

The "spooky" feeling comes partly from chordal interplay on the highest 2 strings. The Em7's D note on the B string slides down a half step to a C# in the A(add13). And the Em7's G note on the high E string similarly slides down to an F# for the 13 added to the stock A chord. Back and forth, slyly and subtly, back and forth. Brilliant.

But the really brilliant part comes near the end of the pattern when the song goes jangly and dissonant with the third chord, Bb diminished 7th. You can hear this strangely cool chord behind the words "all right" in the opening verse. The Bbdim7 isn't merely a passing or transitional chord, as diminished chords often are. It's used as a main chord in the song. Now that's spooky.

Often a songwriter will quickly resolve the unstable feeling of a diminished chord by following immediately with a chord a half step higher. So one would generally expect the next chord in this song to be some sort of B, major or minor. But that doesn't happen. The song makes you wait three more measures before resolving the whole pattern (not just the diminished weirdness) with the fourth chord, a B minor. Lots of spookiness throughout the song.

Before we go any further, I need to 'fess up. I lied above. Well, a fib, a white lie. I simplified things to make the story (and the chord symbols) smoother. Guitarists love songs in E (major or minor) because the instrument's highest and lowest open strings are tuned to E, predicating the guitar's tonality. Just letting you know, 'cause surely someone among you is saying "Wait, the Classics IV didn't play the song in E minor." Yes, I know it was F minor. Just taking some poetic license. And slingin' a capo on the first fret.

All right, back to the story. The Classics IV version (October 1967) is actually a cover (that is, not the original version). Many people think Dusty Springfield's 1970 version is the original, but it's a cover too. And the lively (and well-known) version by the Atlanta Rhythm Section in 1979 is also a cover. The original "Spooky" was an instrumental by saxophonist Mike Sharpe (nee Shapiro) and Harry Middlebrooks, Jr., released in 1967. Here's a video of Mike Sharpe's cut.
Mike Sharpe, "Spooky" (1967)

Note: if you click on the arrow, the video will play here. The web address below the image will play the video on YouTube, where the screen is larger and high-definition is accessible.
Beautiful, ain't it? Wasn't really that popular, though. Then the Classics IV threw in some appropriately spooky lyrics and that's where the saga begins, for me at least. Listen to this cut below, especially the sax interlude after the second verse . . . pretty sure it's Mike Sharpe playing basically the same improv line as in the version above. The Classics IV version, with words, struck a chord with the public (forgive the pun); the song reached #3 in the US. And did pretty well in the UK too, a counter-salvo of sorts "against" the so-called British Invasion.
Classics IV, "Spooky" (1967)
Fast forward to now . . . "Spooky" has become a cover standard, with versions by many artists of all sorts.
Here's where you come in, O Gentle Reader. I'd really love to know which cover version you like best. The "classic" Classics IV version above? Or one of the covers below? Why? Write me a comment below, please. Deal?
Even someone as mainstream in the '60s as Andy Williams — think Christmas specials and "discoverer" of the Osmonds — got into the act. Check out his version, recorded quite soon after the Classics IV release.
Andy Williams, "Spooky" (1968)
And the folkies too. How much more folk royalty can you get than The Lettermen? This ain't a bad version, either, by the way.
The Lettermen, "Spooky" (1968)
"Spooky" was covered internationally too. The Golden Cups, a "proto-punk," "proto-garage" band from Japan, threw their hats (cups?) into the ring.
The Golden Cups, "Spooky" (1968)
"Spooky" in the vein of the Classics IV was definitely a straight guy's song: "Love is kinda crazy with a spooky little girl like you." The cover artists above followed the Classics IV's masculine lead. That changed with Dusty Springfield's version a couple of years later. Listen how she revises the lyrics below . . . women of that time didn't propose marriage. As a consequence the reference to Halloween was written out and, as my daughter Amanda Gotera has pointed out to me, the projected relationship between the singer-narrator and the spooky lover becomes much more indeterminate and strange.
Dusty Springfield, "Spooky" (1970)
In 1971 some members of the Classics IV formed the Atlanta Rhythm Section and "Spooky" crossed over into Southern rock. Note in ARS's version below how much more guitar-driven and Allman Brothers-ish the song becomes. I love this version. It definitely ROCKS. And there's a Wes Montgomery-style guitar break at 4:08. Hm-hmm.
Atlanta Rhythm Section, "Spooky" (1979)
"Spooky," with the Santana-esque possibilities of its Em / A vamp, lends itself well to bravura soloing, as we saw above with ARS and we'll see below with The Jazz Butcher. (The Santana band never covered "Spooky" as far as I know, though they did an excellent version of the Classics IV song "Stormy.") Okay, now here's The Jazz Butcher.
The Jazz Butcher, "Spooky" (1988)
A decade later, R.E.M. incorporated "Spooky" into their live show. In the video below, Michael Stipe tried to retrieve his lyrics "cheat sheet" from German fans who had snatched it off his music stand. "I don't know the words," Stipe said, having difficulty with the language barrier. (If you want to skip that part, the song starts at 1:23.)
R.E.M., "Spooky" (1998)
Probably the most interesting revision of the words into a female situation is Joan Osborne's. Note her graceful rewriting of the third stanza. Also more than a hint of a lesbian relationship. A smoldering, smokey "Spooky," def.
Joan Osborne, "Spooky" (1999)
Over the years, "Spooky" has been redone, re-envisioned, redecorated, "revisioned" into a variety of musical styles. Here are some samples.

Lydia Lunch . . . No Wave? Experimental? Avant-garde? You got me. Off-key on purpose. A parody of the Classics IV, actually the whole lot of the "Spooky" cover artists.
Lydia Lunch, "Spooky" (1979)
Daniel Ash . . . techno, synth-pop.
Daniel Ash, "Spooky" (2002)
Imogen Heap . . . torch, indie.

(Incidentally, this version was used in the TV show Eastwick, sung by the character Kat, reclining on a piano á là Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys.)
Imogen Heap, "Spooky" (2005)
The Puppini Sisters . . . retro-swing like The Andrews Sisters. A fun, campy version.
The Puppini Sisters, "Spooky" (2007)
Pixie Lott . . . dance-pop.
Pixie Lott, "Spooky" (2010)
Phish . .  psychedelic jam, Grateful Dead-like.
Phish, "Spooky" (2010)
Amateur YouTube renditions have also surfaced. Witness this sultry "Spooky" by the Italian singer Sayaka Alessandra. Note how she pares down the chords to let her voice take center stage.
Sayaka Allesandra, "Spooky" (2010)
I'd like to give the Classics IV the last word here — well, actually, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, descendant of the Classics IV. Here's ARS playing "Spooky" live in concert last year.
Atlanta Rhythm Section, "Spooky" (Live in 2011)
Well, that's it. According to "Wikipedia "Spooky" has also been covered by Martha and the Vandellas, Velvet Monkeys, GoldieLocks, David Sanborn, and others; featured on both big screen and little (the movies Fandango and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People as well as the TV show American Horror Story); and sampled by such artists as The Bloodhound Gang. A great track record for a "spooky little" song.

So . . . which one of the covers above did you like best? A tough choice for me. I'll always have a soft spot for the Classics IV version, but I also love Atlanta Rhythm Section's take. Gotta love Joan Osborne's rendition as well as Imogen Heap's. What's your preference? Please leave me a comment below. Which one? Let's talk about it.
I get confused 'cause I don't know where I stand.
And then you smile . . . and hold my hand.
Hope you've had a great weekend, everyone. And that this post has triggered some fun memories. Good music, at any rate. Even if you don't have a take on which "Spooky" cover rocks your world the most, leave me a comment anyway. See ya below. Take care. Ingat.


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