My entire adult life has been spent as an unrepentant fan of Glenn Danzig’s musical ventures, providing no end of amusement for my chums and pals; after all, Danzig is a patently ludicrous figure– the so-called “Evil Elvis,” a five-foot-four New Jersey cockrocker with a propensity for losing fights and keeping bricks on his front lawn. I’ve never denied that Danzig has made an endless series of questionable choices which only reinforce his perceived status as a goon: the last time that I saw him live was in 1999, at Lupo’s in Providence with my pal Dave Asselin, and a good deal of the set was performed whilst Danzig modeled a vinyl battle-vest.
There are two dominant cultural narratives of Danzig; the first is of the dumb rocker guy who sang “Mother,” a song that now resonates at sporting events coast-to-coast. The other, amongst those who care about such things, is that of the Punker Who Fell from Grace; the dude who wrote all of the Misfits’ music, invented at least two sub-genres and was the backbone of one of the most influential bands of the last 30 years (and now, given the prevalence of AFI and My Chemical Romance, might we not argue that Samhain has become as influential, if not more so, as the Misfits?) and then threw it all away to disappear in a haze of testosterone and strippers dressed like cats.
The curious thing is not the wrongness of these narratives. The curious thing is that they exist.
Pop quiz: name one American punk figure other than Henry Rollins who has immediate name recognition in the mass culture. A variation: name one post-1986 Metal Figure (and I do mean metal– no Axl, no Slash, no Marilyn) with an immediate brand recognition. Another pop quiz: when was the last time that you were able to leave the god damned house without seeing the Crimson Ghost on someone’s chest? Now, contrast and compare: how often do you see the Dead Kennedys logo, arguably the second most iconic image of American punk? Final question: how many people maintain a career in music for three years, let alone thirty?
These rhetorical questions hint at what has been a slowly dawning idea: that Danzig is best understood as a unique figure in American culture, with a remarkable persistence of musical prescence, and that, furthermore, his impact as a graphic designer and visual artist has been both considerable and virtually ignored. And it’s important, too, to realize that unlike Rollins (from the punk world) or even Ozzy (from the Grog Hall of Darkest Metal) Danzig’s recognition was achieved without ever transcending the various musical ghettos in which he dwells. There have been no spoken word tours and no shows on MTV or IFC.
The work itself (by which I mean: 85% of the Misfits catalog, Samhain and Danzig 1, 2, half of 3, 4p, Circle of Snakes and much of Lost Tracks) presents a surface level difficulty– the persistence of vision has revolved around a relatively simplistic musical approach (how many times can one man rewrite “Twist of Cain” and how many Misfits songs are reducible to Whoa-Oh-Whoah-Oh-Oh?) with an exceptionally thin lyrical palette. Put it this way: there are roughly 250 songs in total and 98% of them are about skulls, fire, demons, death and wicked, anthropomorphic she-beasts. Danzig’s easily dismissed personal appearance and choices only complicate matters. The dude who wrote “Attitude” was always going to be his own worst enemy, but something about the move to Los Angeles bloated his ego, and the New York/New Jersey visual edge of the Misfits/Samhain period became this:
In short: the man went Hollywood, and going Hollywood has always meant too much money.
The Misfits and Samhain were homegrown affairs, with Danzig designing the materials himself and never having the cash to afford a video, let alone one with a reasonably sized production budget. And thank God for that kindness, as we’ve seen exactly what we would have gotten: four dudes in black jeans invading Jumbo’s Clown Room and a red-headed ass show intercut with tight close-ups of Danzig’s own undulating face. (Note that he bears a odd resemblance to Paul Giamatti sporting the same haircut as one of my ex-girlfriends on her MySpace profile in 2006.)
By contrast, here are a few of the Misfits/Samhain fliers:
The last image– from the Die, Die, My Darling EP– is a less famous example of Danzig’s approach from the New York days, which revolved around a near-obsessive sampling of pulp media. The song is titled after the US release of a 1965 Hammer film; the band’s name comes from Monroe’s last film, and the EP features the best known Misfits logo– the letters of which were taken from Forest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland. The central image of the cover was copied from Harvey Comics’ Chamber of Chills #19, which bears the not insignificant copy: “Here’s Looking at You Darling… On Our Happy Anniversary!”
Many will disagree, but I find no enormous disparity between the sound of the Misfits period and the early Danzig albums; there’s a certain amount of growth and slowing down, and The Voice becomes hugely apparent, but lyrically and musically the sound is not particularly changed. (Samhain is often considered the bridge between the two, but the issue of where Samhain ended and Danzig began is a non-starter. The final Samhain lineup was identical to the lineup of the first five Danzig releases. Different names, same band.)
I would argue that the perceived change had nothing to do with the music and everything to do with visual aesthetics; here are the original covers of the first four Danzig releases:
Let’s linger over the self-titled first release. Here’s the original gatefold LP all opened up:
Okay, so: this is a great piece of design, and it demonstrates just how completely bizarre Danzig was; 1988 may be known for many things, but two-tone minimalist cover art is not amongst them. This is, sadly, one of the last gasps of Danzig’s New York design sense; immediately after we move into (more!) weird close-ups and when your record label is giving you enough money to license the artwork of H.R. Giger for your third album, you know it’s gone to shit and then you’re getting Simon Bisley to draw big evil demons and there’s no point of return. (Except there was, sort of: Danzig 4p, the fifth release, had artwork designed by Danzig. It’s great but afterwards everything immediately goes to shit and never comes back.)
The lettering for the Danzig logo on this cover comes from another pulp source– the film poster for The Giant Gila Monster– and the Skull, also used for Samhain, and which seems so prototypically metal, was stolen from the most ridiculous source of all Danzig’s sampling: Michael Golden’s cover to an obscure Marvel comic called Crystar.
It’s the same damn thing. Musically, visually; it’s all the same until money corrupts the enterprise and gives the dude too many cameras and lick-whipping strippers. (The two most recent Danzig offerings– Circle of Snakes and Lost Tracks– were self-released. Both, musically anyway, are vastly superior to the previous 10 years of crap. It’s all come full circle.)
The “Evil Elvis” moniker becomes an enormously useful metric. While I’m in no way arguing that Danzig’s cultural position is any way commensurate with that of Presley in terms of influence or importance, it bears remembering that Presley was a major artist and musical force whose late career choices effectively destroyed his achievements.
Some of the best Presley songs were recorded in the early-to-mid 70s period, but they remain hard to hear. The visuals of the period– the sequins and the jumpsuits and the fat– are overpowering. By the end of the 70s, Elvis’s aesthetic choices had done enough damage that Greil Marcus had to write Mystery Train to remind people of the revolutionary music from the 50s and 60s.
Presley was and continues to be discussed like an idiot, as if the multi-decade career was a mistake into which a country bumpkin had wandered; replace Memphis with Lodi, New Jersey and you’ll see the same kind of dismissal of Danzig. But if the 20th Century taught us anything, it’s this: anyone can get a record deal, but the only people who survived were the ones that knew what they wanted and understood what they were doing.
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