“I’M HAPPY AND I’M SINGING” (2010), a large photorealist drawing by the artist and poet Andy Mister, is based on an appropriated concert photo that can be found on the Last.fm site of the thrash metal band Municipal Waste, but you could never tell this from just looking at the drawing. It strategically crops out a band member who, in a gesture of invitation, is thrusting the microphone at the screaming mouth of the kid in glasses.
In its selective field of vision, the drawing brackets the main attraction to magnify and focus our attention on the pure act of audiential and spectatorial enthusiasm. It reminds us of the etymological linkage between the words “fandom” and “fanatic.”
“I’M HAPPY AND I’M SINGING” generates an interesting tension between, to use Mister’s words, its portrayal of “the inherently superficial and ultimately futile gesture of […] celebrity idolatry” and “the intensity, discipline, and mechanical labor required to create [the drawing].” Moreover, Mister’s ostensible allegiance to a labor-intensive process characteristic of a sober Photorealist work ethic intriguingly contrasts with the hard-partying lifestyle celebrated by Municipal Waste (their 2007 album The Art of Partying contains songs such as “The Inebriator,” “Beer Pressure,” and “Chemically Altered.”)
Indeed, according to Louis K. Meisel, the gallerist and early champion of Photorealism, “Photorealists had to work eight or ten hours a day. They didn’t drink, didn’t smoke or do drugs. They were […] just making work that required stability and seriousness. That may have made them boring to people who expect artists to be troubled and dissolute. Because you go back to the Pop artists, and it was all about the drug culture […] The Photorealists came along, and they weren’t like that. They were just kind of quiet.”
Mister’s recent book Liner Notes captures the intimate texture of a consciousness that interacts with both the boring mundanity of an everyday work routine (“A refrain repeating as I walk home in that post-work mindlessness: Now I have to start thinking again”) and the drug culture that, to some, is associated with an artist’s life (“Each thought was straining to be thought through one Percocet, one Valium, pseudoephedrine, two Heinekens.”)
Sometimes one world sits oddly or uncomfortably beside the other: “Someone at work asks me if I’m stoned. That morning I’d accidentally taken an extra antidepressant […] Later that day, Jeff tells me a story about a friend who took an entire bottle of Prozac after eating half a sheet of acid. He tripped for two months then killed himself.” Suicide is, in fact, one of the book’s most important subjects, which Mister approaches from a range of emotional distances.
In a sequence of approximately 150 brief, carefully plotted paragraphs which alternate between poetic memoir and non-fictional re-reportage, Mister chronicles what he calls “a catalogue of […] mistakes”: the terse retellings of tragic deaths (often by overdose or intentional or accidental suicide) of figures in the music world, such as Nick Drake, Ian Curtis, and Elliott Smith, as well as personal anecdotes that describe unfavorable situations of varying degrees of severity (“Riding my bike home drunk from a party, I wake up in the emergency room.”)
These culminate toward the end of the book with an account of the narrator’s father’s attempted suicide: “On November 7, 1987, John William Mister took an overdose of antidepressants then called his ex-wife on the telephone before passing out unconscious.” And it is here where Mister’s rhetorical energy is, quite fittingly, at its most intense. Two pages later he follows beautiful figures of ellipsis and amplification (“A piece of my father died when he didn’t—that part of him that would not live for me”) with a canny use of apophasis (“I’d like to tell you how death infects our lives, how we are all living with it, but I can only relate how Johnny Ace died.”) Such rhetorical technique is at the heart of this writing’s power and appeal.
In an interview Mister said, “I […] think of the writing I do and the art that I make as separate, even if they share some of the same concerns or subjects.” Like his drawing “I’M HAPPY AND I’M SINGING,” Liner Notes critiques celebrity idolatry and scrutinizes the mythologized and alluring mystique of — to cite Meisel’s terms — the “troubled and dissolute” lifestyle of the artist/musician. It records what happens once the singing stops, once the collective energy of the audience dissipates into loneliness. “Loneliness isn’t something you feel,” Mister writes, “It’s what you are.”
While Mister’s writing is much more personal than his visual art, both of his practices converge through his use of copied and appropriated material. Liner Notes thematizes the allure of found sources — “That’s the beauty of found sound. Beneath each sound there is a story” — and relies on them as well. In another interview he says, “When I began writing Liner Notes, I was working an office job in Oakland. Between making Excel spreadsheets or whatever, I would Google search different rock and roll suicides and paste them into a document. Later I would clean the prose up and add other details from books or articles that I found interesting or totally rewrite them. Stylistically, I didn’t want extraneous sentences. And inside each sentence, I only wanted words that felt necessary.” We can try to get a sense of Mister’s manipulation of these found texts by comparing two passages, the first from a 1991 LA Times article, the second from Liner Notes:
The widow of singer Del Shannon has sued Eli Lilly & Co., claiming an antidepressant drug made by the pharmaceutical giant led to her husband’s suicide … Shannon, born Charles Westover, shot himself Feb. 8, 1990, with a .22-caliber rifle. He had been taking Prozac, prescribed by a psychiatrist, for two weeks.
On February 8, 1990, Del Shannon shot himself with a .22 caliber pistol. A year later, Shannon’s wife filed a lawsuit against Eli Lilly & Co., the makers of Prozac, claiming the drug contributed to his suicide. Shannon had only been taking Prozac for 15 days.
The detail of “a .22-caliber rifle” interestingly becomes “a .22 caliber pistol.” Why this small change in rewriting? On one level Mister might be acknowledging the way that facts about celebrity deaths become contested as truth jostles with legend, as stories morph into rumor as they pass through the grapevine (Mister reports that “[s]ome sources say Johnny Ace died playing Russian roulette, others believe it was a mob hit.” In fact, there is some debate whether Ace shot himself with a .32 pistol or a .22.) But I would like to think that Mister, in his quest for concise and compact writing, embedded a kind of joke here in shrinking the suicide weapon from a rifle to a pistol.
Beyond this factual discrepancy, there are numerous seemingly conflicting statements in Liner Notes. Rather than being flaws, conflict and discrepancy in this context inform the subtle moods and shadings that make up a larger picture of emotional complexity. When I selected Mister’s book for Hyperallergic’s group-authored article “Recommendations of Poetry Published in 2013,” I made the following observation:
“I could never write a memoir,” says Mister in the midst of a memoiristic passage. “No one has a story anymore,” he says in a volume filled with intimate and endearing anecdotes. “Nothing ever happens anyway,” he says just before recounting George Eastman’s suicide. That these negations seem somehow true and fitting in the face of such apparent contradiction attests to the level of Mister’s compositional acumen.
“Everything I say is true if you believe it,” he says. And we do believe him: we believe that no one has stories and everyone has stories; we believe that nothing happens and everything happens; we even believe that a rifle is a pistol. This is because of the simple fact that Mister is a compelling storyteller.
Andy Mister’s Liner Notes (2013) is available from Small Press Distribution.