THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE VIDEOFREEX FROM MARS. We now take for granted YouTube’s ability to birth DIY performers who eventually acquire large followings and of course, video cameras built into smart phones and tablets have become ubiquitous. But just as DARPA was crafting the notion of an interconnected network of computers in the late 1960s, portable DIY video technology was also being birthed during that period, as authors Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad write near the beginning of their 1985 book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. Without Sony’s invention, “It’s possible that the underground [comedy movement, which SNL creator Lorne Michaels tapped into for his first stars and writers] might have bypassed television altogether had it not been for the Sony Corporation’s introduction in the late 1960s of portable video cameras and recorders that were affordable by the public at large:”
That technology spawned a movement known as guerrilla television, which was populated by hundreds of long-hairs carrying Porta-Pak units, nascent auteurs who’d previously had no access to the mechanisms of television production and who set out to invent their own kind of programs. One such guerrilla remembers showing up with his partner at the house of a famous Hollywood writer, hoping to tell him some of their ideas. They were laden with gear, their hair hung well past their shoulders, and they wore fatigue jackets and pants. The memory of the Manson murders was still strong at the time, and the writer’s wife, answering the door and seeing the equipment they were carrying, thought it was some kind of machine gun and ran screaming back inside.
In his latest film review at NRO, Armond White explores the Videofreex, one of the leftwing underground groups producing guerrilla television in the years that preceded SNL, the subject of a new documentary Here Come the Videofreex:
Entitlement is quite different from “Civil Rights,” and Here Come the Videofreex helps us understand how the two things became closely linked and then were tied in with the self-satisfaction of media domination. Directors Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin observe those Sixties youth who felt that through the then-new video technology they could more accurately address the proletariat — a sense of righteous free expression like the social networking of cell phones, Twitter, and innumerable blogs. They were eventually crushed by corporate media’s ultimate indifference. CBS sacked the Videofreex but let them keep the “worthless” technology, which led to the Videofreex’ brief pirate TV enterprise.
It’s amazing to see this all laid out in an indie documentary while we currently contend with the bewildering, flip-flopping propaganda of MSNBC, Fox Cable News, and the shamelessly pandering CNN — all 21st-century videofreaks with small regard for reporting or objectivity. Their “news” cycles merely exploit American politics.
Co-director Raskin had worked on the 2013 Our Nixon, the most compassionate of all Watergate documentaries, which most reviewers misunderstood — seemingly deliberately. Today’s media politics all result from class privilege: Millionaire newsreaders follow the dictates of their behind-the-scenes tycoon bosses (broadcasters committed to the status quo and partisan politricks). They’re determined to influence the voting and polling patterns of viewers and readers. This is what the now-aged provocateurs of Here Come the Videofreex teach us. Parry Teasdale, Davidson Gigliotti, Skip Blumberg, Chuck Kennedy, Carol Vontobel, Ann Woodward, Bart Friedman, and others recall their pasts without guile, even as they lament their inability to fully “democratize” the U.S. media.
And note this: “When a veteran hippie mused, ‘Turning people on to video was like turning them on to grass,’ it seems stunningly naïve. It’s also au courant.”
Which dovetails well with an encomium to a man who also seemed to singlehandedly craft his own culture during the early 1970s, David Bowie. As Nick Gillespie writes in the latest issue of Reason, “David Bowie Was a Time Traveler from Our Hyper-Personalized Future — The star who made it cool to be a freak,” though a very different “freak” from the Videofreex, needless to say:
In 1987, he returned to West Berlin, where he had made an exceptional set of records in the late 1970s, including several with his muse and protégé Iggy Pop. There he played a concert so loud it could be heard in communist East Berlin. The Internet abounds with footage from the show, which is capped by an absolutely brilliant version of “Heroes,” his ballad of doomed lovers who literally meet in the shadow of the Berlin Wall to steal a moment (“I can remember standing by the wall, and the guns shot above our heads”).
Just days after the concert, President Ronald Reagan also performed in Berlin, delivering one of his most memorable lines: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Who’s to say that the example of Bowie, who personified not only the freedom of expression but the sybaritic desire that the Communists had unsuccessfully tried to stamp out, wasn’t as important to the Wall’s destruction as the arms race? The day after his death, the German government tweeted, “Good-bye, David Bowie…Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.”
Bowie was exceptionally well-read (his list of 100 favorite books ranges from Madame Bovary to The Gnostic Gospels) and was renowned for his knowledge of blues, folk, jazz, and experimental music. (He introduced U.S. audiences to the German avant garde perfomer Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live, of all venues.) Yet only fools look to celebrities and artists—especially rock stars—for moral instruction and political programs. We’re wiser to seek artists for inspiration and ideas on how we might expand our own horizons and think about our own possibilities.
It’s in this sense that Bowie was a time traveler from our own future, where we all feel more comfortable not just being who we are but in trying out different things to see whom we might want to become. Certainly, an entire species of performer, from U2 to Madonna to Lady Gaga to Jay-Z (who sampled “Fame” in his 2001 track “Takeover”) were influenced by him.
And unlike many rock stars, Bowie created continuity with earlier forms of popular music, not only by covering various old songs (“Wild Is the Wind” is a memorable instance) but by incongruously appearing with Bing Crosby on der Bingle’s 1977 Merrie Olde Christmas TV Special, which gave birth to Crosby and Bowie’s enduringly beautiful and strange duet of “Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.”
Back in 2007, I wrote a piece for the Rand-themed New Individualist magazine titled “Welcome to My.Culture — How Emerging Technologies Allow Anyone to Create His Own Culture.” (Somehow, when the piece went to the Web, the subhead replaced the editor’s original title from the print edition, unfortunately):
Through television, newspapers, radio, and advertising, the mass culture of the twentieth century created easily understandable points of reference for virtually everyone. Often, these were low and crude and coarse. But everyone knew who Ralph Cramden was. Who Batman was. Who Vince Lombardi was. You might not have known who Gene Roddenberry was, but you knew that NBC had a show starring a guy with pointed ears.
Today, however, we’re looking at that shared culture in the rearview mirror, and with mixed emotions. In fact, we’re witnessing the death throes of mass culture. It’s being replaced, not by the elder President Bush’s “thousand points of light,” but by a thousand fractured micro-cultures, each of which knows only a little bit about what’s going on in the next micro-culture thriving on the website next door.
As James Lileks of Lileks.com and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Buzz.mn told me a couple of years ago: “Take a basically divided populace—the old red and blue paradigm—and then shove that through a prism which splinters it into millions of different individual demographics, each of which have their own music channel, their own website, their own Blogosphere, their own porn preferences delivered daily by email solicitations. I mean, it’s hard to say whether or not there will eventually be a common culture for which we can have sport, other than making fun of the fact that we really lack a common culture.”
This trend has both good and bad aspects. But before we turn our attention to that—and what it may bode for our future—it might be useful first to review how we got here.
Though I have no doubt that I’ll be repulsed by their reactionary socialist-anarchist message, I’m looking forward to seeing the Videofreex documentary, at least when it comes to Amazon Prime or Netflix. Decades before YouTube, iPhones and GoPros, their taking advantage of the first portable video technology was itself the real revolution (a textbook example of McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” aphorism). Gillespie makes a very good case that Bowie was a similar sort of revolutionary — and the recording studio technology he (and his frequent producers Tony Visconti and Nile Rodgers) mastered is similarly now available inside of a reasonably-equipped PC. And as old media continues to be an even vaster version of the vast wasteland that JFK’s FCC Chairman Newton Minnow infamously described, making your own culture as an alternative seems more important than ever. Think of it as the Nockian Remnant with iPhones.