A Review of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1: A story cycle by Fernando A. Flores (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), 2014; Hypermodern Editions, a handmade book-series, available in electronic form at cclapcenter.com/bsartists)
by Elizabeth Jackson
Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 reads like a collection of fables recently excavated from under a pile of rocks and a dead coyote. But the subject of these short stories is small-town punk bands in the 1980s and early 90s, who invent their own scrappy mythologies and sooner or later implode. Like poignant, comical figures all the way from Don Quixote to Holden Caulfield to Sid Vicious, these characters—both grandiose and absurd—laugh their way toward extinction.
Bands with names like Crispin Glover Deathwish, A Fish is Not a Bull, Pinbag (whose members all adopt the name “Pin” (Robert Pin, Pamerla Pin, Tom E. Pin)), work in a métier of daily absurdities, like low-budget performance art. With a different set of privileges, these folks would be followers of Dada or its offspring, Fluxus and Joseph Beuys; their idea of art is communal, experiential, expansive—where a transitory act is as valid as any painting at the Louvre. The following quote could as easily be from the drummer for “The House Band for the Hotel Cuerpo de la Paz,” as from the Fluxus Manifesto in 1963: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness . . . and commercialized culture . . . . Promote living art, anti-art . . . to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.”
Flores’s stories track a life-cycle like that of “The First Ever Punk Band in the World (Out of Raymondville),” like a miniature universe—appearing, briefly swirling and dazzling, and expiring—among countless others. The repetition conveys how art and transformation are equally fleeting and endless: “[L]ike the Buddhist belief of the tulpa, once imagining something to the point of becoming a real thing it is harder to get rid of, harder to unimagine.”
Each band in turn assembles a creative microsphere as precious for its short lifespan as for its inventiveness. During their short career, “The House Band for the Hotel Cuerpo de la Paz” takes band field-trips to expand their palette of influences—driving around in the desert, getting high, listening to Miles Davis and Chopin, Selena and War of the Worlds, and visiting local happenings like a Tejano-themed production of Macbeth. They have an omnivorous cultural appetite that predates the ease of perusing YouTube. They have to leave the house; they have to drive around nowhere together; they have to show up places, as they improvise creative outlets in the Valley. Their biggest shows are wedding receptions. But their raw potential fizzles the moment their integrity is threatened by the commercial mindset of a record producer. He constricts them into seven identical takes of a drums track, he directs the singer toward a radio-friendly tone, and in the process extinguishes forever any creative impulse the band ever had. But in the end, regardless of any of it, the band is “like scientists satisfied to have participated in an experiment and somehow having proven something to mankind.”
The centerpiece of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 is “Bread8 v. Copal Brandt (R.),” a wry account of accidental political activism by the punk band Bread8. They would have been a harmless set of McAllen, Texas, malcontents, with no ambitions other than epic drinking at their trailer home and explosive shows at the VFW hall, if not for the saga that began when they kidnapped the mayor, Copal Brandt—that is, threw in the back of their pickup one of the eight-foot tall, hand-waving cutouts posted all over town for his reelection campaign. When they costume the cutout in a Hannibal Lecter mask and use it as a stage prop, it leads to a rash of more sign-swiping. In retaliation, the powers-that-be sensation