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A Few Frames Of Public Access Art

A Few Frames Of Public Access Art
Skip Heller By

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Music and television have always worked together, and through the history of the medium, apocolypses have happened because the world was tuned in together. Language quickly becomes hyperbole when people recall Elvis Presley or The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Ricky Nelson's fantastic weekly performances on his parents' show (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet), any number of jazz artists on the old Steve Allen show, Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live (although Devo was better), or Michael Jackson moonwalking on the Motown 25 special.

Growing up in Philly in the 1970s, "big" music televison was (for me) Soul Train, Don Kirchner's Rock Concert and Midnight Special. But also—and no less important—there were the Saturday night syndicated 30 minute low budget country shows that featured guests playing live with a house band. Nobody lipsynched on The Wilburn Brothers Show, Pop Goes The Country and The Porter Wagoner Show. Or Hee Haw. And those crews knew how to shoot musicians.

The best, coolest show ever was Art Fein's Poker Party, a music talk show that ran from 1984 through 2008 on Los Angeles public access cable. A real live Wayne's World, shot at local LA public access studios for $35 an episode. Art Fein—author, journalist, self-taught historian, promotor, record company employee, band manager (the Cramps), Bluzblasters)—hosted 1200+ 30 minute episodes, and the guest list is staggering, including Joe Strummer, Dwight Yoakum, Brian Wilson, Alison Krauss, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Bluzblasters, Ike Turner, Dr Demento, Brian Setzer and many other similarly famous figures. The behind-the-scenes stars were just as prominent—producers, engineers, managers and songwriters. The atmosphere of the show was always informal and chatty, even Runyonesque. It was a table full of rock'n'roll wiseguys. Except these guys talked about Phil Spector, not Joe Louis. The show also featured some exquisite live stripped down acoustic performances years before anyone at MTV unplugged anything. Art Fein figured out how to get the musicmakers on TV, informally telling their stories, playing the songs, and just being who they were. At 1200 thirty minute episodes. It is an archive that rivals that of Alan Lomax.

It could only have happened here. This is where so many of the musicmakers settled, and where so many of the evolutions—not just in musical style, but in technology and attitude as well—took place. And the guys who helped make it happen love to talk about their respective roles. So Art Fein got them talking about their hits and misses, what happened and what they wished had happened. Watching them speak brings to mind what Carey McWilliams wrote in his 1946 masterpiece Southern California: An Island On The Land: "This land is not merely a testing ground, it is also a forcing ground, a place where ideas, practices, and customs must prove their worth or be discarded."

Art Fein did not design his show to be a major archival document. I am being diplomatic.

"I had a weekly card game, and nobody could really play cards," Art said as we watched video of Jerry Lee Lewis in his study, "So I just went to the public access studio and had my card game on camera. I am not a public speaker or an emcee, so the format of the show was just like you and I now, talking about music, except with a couple of cameramen. The first show was that, all the shows were pretty much that.

"We (the creators of the shows) were just sort of disdained by everybody who worked at the public access studios. A lot of the shows were just boring people acting kind of dumb on camera. Nobody wanted to see it, so I thought, 'Why not?' and just started doing the show."

Word of the show spread beyond Los Angeles. Andy Warhol's Interview magazine even ran a small piece about it, and VHS copies started finding their way into the hands of collectors all over the country, often with fans in other cities renting time on their local public access stations to air the show in their own town. There was something of a fan network emerging in those pre-internet days, and Art serviced these folks almost as if they were paying subscribers, sending out copies (dubbed in real time on a home-rigged system of several VHS machines wired together), often by the boxload. Art Fein had carved out a place as a credible historian by the time Faber & Faber published his 1990 book, The L.A. Musical History Tour.


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