Societies of Alternate Belonging
This post is the second section of the talk “Diagonal and Self-Possessed: Group-Portrait with Liminal Figures,” which was given as the keynote address at the 2017 Thinking Its Presence conference, hosted by the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
I gained the dubious ability at times to so create a network of alliances as to dodge the sight lines of oppression and the physical or psychic battery of its vengefulness. The ferocity of family prepared me, perversely, for the equally unpredictable violence of system; for the times it has sought to render a body hyper-visible—in the way especially that sex and ethnicity refuse the false solace of categories—or when it (system) prefers the technologies of indifference or disregard. Here, lines by Dodie Bellamy come to my rescue: “I’m alone, thrust upon my own alterity—but who is ever not alone? To me, being queer means doing without the false solace of categories” (Dodie Bellamy, “My Mixed Marriage,” Village Voice). Habit and nuance give way to the presentation of a person—biological inheritance and learned enactments wherein, as in the poem by Robert Duncan, often I am permitted to return, rehearse, regard, and resemble; even as the union of inner weather and outer shell did not always provide the skills to navigate the unrelenting grip of cultural authority and its dismissals. So I came then to see childhood, my own, in images like those by Graciela Iturbide, as inquiries into the division of private and public life in terms of age, into the developing mind and body suspended between the spontaneous life of the imagination and the margins of social constraint.
I saw the image of three boys depicted at a window, pressing their faces behind a curtain—one of them raising a toy pistol to the side of his head—as if to illustrate Walter Benjamin’s observation of how, for children, the home often becomes “an arsenal of masks,” and how “the child hidden behind a curtain himself becomes a blank thing moved by the wind, a ghost (…) enclosed by the material world, [a world] that is tremendously accurate, and approaching him in a way that is ineffable” (Walter Benjamin, Escritos. La literatura infantil, los niños y los jóvenes, author’s translation). The photographer had encapsulated the early fear and fantasy of the inanimate—those diminutive terrors by which child and adult coexist on incommensurable fields of understanding.
In another photograph, Iturbide monumentalized the antagonisms of child and guardian—that is, the line that divides formative identity from those of paternal intent, suspended in the contradiction of vulnerability and victory, of retrospection and the radius needed to calculate the plenitude of experience as ever subject to scale.
I began to seek a society of alternate belonging, the varieties of masculine expression, bodies in public shape, the structures of social appearance—internal and external differences that make a subject distinguishable—and moreover to confirm my liminal status as an outsider-insider. And there were counterforms.
Take this promo poster of the searing punk-pop trio The Plugz: band leader Tito Larriva is flanked by Barry McBride and Chalo Quintana. Commenting on the scene’s appeal for the many Latinos involved, Larriva exclaimed, “I think the ‘fuck you’ attitude of punk was great for Latinos. You could assimilate into a new culture that was evolving without compromising who you were, or having to be segregated.” Sean Carrillo reminds us that “when the L.A. punk scene was born, Latinos were integrally involved, and throughout its lifespan the contributions of Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena of Black Flag… Gerardo Velazquez of Nervous Gender; Joe Ramirez of the Eyes, as well as the Brat [and] the Odd Squad… among others, were an undeniable part of its history and growth” (Sean Carrillo, Forming: The Early Days of L.A. Punk). A list of those others includes Alice Bag (or Alicia Armendariz) of the Bags, Eddie Muñoz and Louie Ramirez of the Plimsouls, Charles Ramirez (aka Chuck Roast) of the Suburban Lawns, and Juan Gomez of the Human Hands.
The idiosyncratic, short-lived quintet from Los Angeles, the Human Hands were, from left to right: Juan Gomez (guitar, bass, vocals), David Wiley (vocals, guitar, saxophone and percussion), Bill Noland (keyboards, coronet, vocals), Dennis Duck (drums & percussion, keyboards, vocals), and Rick Potts (bass guitar, saxophone, saw, and vocals). They might have passed for office clerks, record-store employees, or aerospace engineers who sought the “aural nightmare” of sonic shapes in comic-book colors, unyielding of the climate’s hard edge and in spite of their relish for cartoon logic and the false problem, as in the track titled “Planes vs. Trains”: “Trains can’t fly into the air / Planes can’t swim under the sea / Trains can’t jump over buildings / Planes can’t crawl into tunnels.”
On April 6, 1980, in the Los Angeles Times, writer Terry Atkinson offered the following assessment:
Human Hands is a quintet from Pasadena that has become one of the punk circuit’s leading attractions . . . This despite the fact that the group is hardly a typical hard-core outfit. Instead of spiky hair and black leather jackets, this punk band features an almost aggressively “normal” look: lots of horn-rimmed glasses, haircuts that might have been done by the neighborhood barber, and clothes apparently bought at Sears. Though the group’s music contains its share of slashing punk rhythms, its scope also includes influences like [Brian] Eno, Talking Heads, Wire and even Stockhausen (Terry Atkinson, “‘Hands’: Punk Made Human,” Los Angeles Times).
As if to overcompensate for their ordinary surface of “I tried so hard / To look like myself,” lead singer David Wiley snarls: “But then I look so different / I look like everyone else.” From the song “New Look”: “I’ve got the new look / Does it look good to you? / I’ve got the new look / It’s really nothing new.”
A band’s band further showered with critical favor, in the years they played the circuit, the Human Hands produced a catalog of tracks that never found their home in album format. Time passes and I learn that, after moving back his native Phoenix, David Wiley had died of HIV in 1986. And Juan Gómez went on to other bands (The Romans, among others) while serving also in his parallel life as an esteemed librarian at the Huntington in Pasadena. But from 1978 to 1981, the band engaged in the willful inversion of a punk noir aesthetics of indictment that informed much of punk’s more politically inclined lyrics of the time. They countered outrage with joy by holding tight to desire and to the bodily absurd. In “Go Existential”: “I used a needle and thread / To sew a stitch in my head / My dreams came apart at the seams / Until I took a tailor to bed.”
“An ambitious outfit with lots of good ideas and uncommon influences….” wrote Ira Robbins of Trouser Press, the Human Hands “were capable of disturbing art/jazz angles and fringey experiments . . . [and remain] a neat paragraph to West Coast rock history.” Juan Gomez and Dennis Duck had been responsible for most of the song writing whose tone and theme were in keeping with contemporary Angelino works like the Brothers Hernández’s Love and Rockets, Matt Groening’s Life in Hell or David Lynch’s anti-art comic strip The Angriest Dog. It was keyboardist Bill Noland, however, who penned one track whose lyrics endure and are as fine as any short poem of the moment; certainly one I wish I’d written. It’s a poem about how the world has the potential—as it was in childhood—to terrify and to touch and to edify, a knowledge as enclosed in books, or otherwise curbed, but never entirely containable no matter how long we wait in the shadows in order to trust in the day. It’s called “Lurk.”
Something made me crouch
Like little night noises
That crease electric wires
Hallways and metal rooms
Reach me with their voices
While inside they’ve got shelves with
Bookends of human heads
The heads still live and talk
About the books next door
They compete for your attention
Regardless of what you’re there for
School bus pulls up outside
And we look for a seat
Door seals us in metal room
We get ready for the day
All that I can see
And all that I can hear
Are surrounded by these walls
[Human Hands lyrics reprinted by permission of Juan Gomez, Dennis Mehaffey, and Bill Noland.]
An art historian, curator, and editor specializing in Latino and Latin American art, Roberto Tejada was born in Los Angeles. He earned a BA in comparative literature from New York University and a PhD in interdisciplinary media studies from the English Department at the State University of New York at...