A Review of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas

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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 sensationalize the mischief as evidence of gang activity—an exaggeration that fills local news and justifies a curfew. This is when the adventure really begins, as Bread8, with casual subversiveness, plumbs the background of the mayor’s powerful family. They unearth an obscure, 1970s documentary (note this is pre-Internet research; they use the library!) about migrant workers in the Brandt family’s onion fields, that includes footage of a young Copal Brandt’s racist proclamation that Mexicans, as a people, are satisfied with deprivation. Naturally, gleefully, Bread8 uses the recording at their next performance. When the budding controversy comes to the notice of Brandt’s mayoral challenger, the band finds themselves joining an unaccustomed practical effort—fighting the good-ol’-boy oligarchy by promoting voter registration among their own disaffected kind: young adults. Although the outcome is foiled by corruption, Bread8’s impact endures—as much in the promise of eventual political reform as in this lasting artifact: the media repeatedly announces the band’s name, a literal translation of “panocho”—a male vagina, in Spanish slang. The idiomatic clash must linger in residents’ memory, like the recent thrill of hearing news anchor Diane Sawyer repeat the words “Pussy Riot” when reporting on the Russian protest band.

Flores tells these stories in a tone that’s by turns lyrical, ponderous, as if relaying the legends of a forgotten people, self-parodying, and itself punkrock—full of bitterness, joy, and abandon. When Bread8’s efforts are foiled, they’re “so angry they smoked cigarettes outside.” On field trips “[m]ore than a few times they even had some drinks in Mexico and allowed themselves to act and behave rock and roll.” Another band optimistically sets aside “100 records, vials of each member’s blood, and . . . special instructions for the screenprinting of band shirts, in case they ended up popular in their posterity.” At the same time, “deep down, [they] knew it to be bullshit, too.”

In its further extremes, “Death to the Bullshit Artists . . .” reflects a vast array of influences. “The Swear Junction” gets fully psychedelic, bordering on the surrealism of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Elsewhere, character names like The Mechanic’s Son, the Single Mother’s Son, evoke The Canterbury Tales (the Wife of Bath, the Man of Law). And the penultimate story, “The Performances of Liliana Krauze,” finally lays bare intellectual bases that undergird the whole story-cycle. For her fledging avant-garde performance art, the protagonist explores Herodotus up to Jean Genet, Bataille to Diane Arbus and the early movie star Lupe Vèlez. For her highly abstract, first performance, she splices together gaps of silence from Montgomery Clift movies into a thirty-minute loop.

Flores’s specialty is a facile interweaving of seeming opposites (academics and dropouts; high art and fuck-ups), which lends a punk song the hypnotic quality of William Blake:

“You look familiar, you’re not

From California are you?

You have a twin in California

Oh well, you made that choice . . .

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry eyes

And I hope you don’t mind

Me coming home late

Believe me I won’t mind

Your tousled up hair, bleeding nails

Twitching me away

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry eyes

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry-cherry eyes”

Bands play for hours in a garage, with no plans, no audience, even, and undergo personal transformation (“They were like time travelers or a pack of wolves.”), however fleeting. They’ll never forget the experience, no matter if they stay in their dishwashing or bottom-rung jobs for the next twenty years. Art is both communal and personal, owned by everyone, equally—performers and fans and passers-by. In this outlook, only four people on the planet having experienced a legend makes it no less legendary.

In that sense, these stories serve as epitaphs, without implying grief; they are celebrations of the irrepressible, creative spirit that bridles inside shithole towns throughout history. “No songs were ever recorded nor did they ever gig—the only people who ever saw them play were the in-and-outs getting stoned at that garage in Donna [Texas].” In a quote worth repeating—“once imagining something to the point of becoming a real thing it is harder to get rid of, harder to unimagine.”