Monday, November 17, 2014

American Heritage Brands- Timeless Style and Function in Yer Face!

We don't make a lot of things in this country anymore. Big corporations discovered long ago that it was cheaper to move operations to countries like Korea and China, where workers are paid peanuts(sometimes literally, I'd imagine)and working conditions are not supportive of healthy human life. The fact that this takes jobs away from U.S. citizens, exploits workers from other lands, hurts the U.S. economy in the long run, and reduces the quality of their product does not ever seem to have phased these people, when there was more money to be made. More, more, more. More to the point of gluttony, more to the point of over saturation. That is how most modern business men have interpreted the American Dream.

But it wasn't always that way, was it? America, this great rugged land of ours, was once a place of innovation, and quality, and pride. Pull up a chair, crack open a beer and let me tell you about some cool-ass stuff you can still get made here in North America that isn't (always) mass produced cookie cutter crap.

Irving Schott was the son of Russian immigrants. In the early 1900's, he started working in pattern making for various clothing manufacturers in NYC. In 1913, he and his brother Jack decided to open their own factory and leather company in a run down basement in the slum that was then Manhattan's lower east side. Schott Bros first product was a sheepskin lined raincoat, which they sold by literally going door to door. They started attaching their fancy new "Perfecto"label to their finest coats. The label itself was inspired by the logo on boxes of Irving's favorite cigars.
Irving and Jack were not bikers or car racers, in fact Irving never even learned to drive. Motorcycles were brand new technology in the early 1900's, but the name Schott would become forever tied to images of bikers, punk rockers, outlaws, rockabillies, and daredevils. Irving had a friend, who was part of the Beck family, who had become one of the nation's largest distributors of Harley Davidson products.At the time, since the motorcycle was a new invention, there was no clothing made for riding specifically. At Beck's behest, Irving and Jack began to make rough, thick leather jackets for cyclists, with a zipper (zippers were also brand new tech at the time) on one side of the jacket, rather than down the middle, to make it easier for riders to unzip the jacket with one hand while steering with the other. Irving was the first person to put a zipper on a commercially available piece of clothing.
In 1928, the garment that we now universally recognize as the motorcycle jacket was officially born. The Schott Perfecto. It cost $5.50 then, and will now run you around $600.
Over the years, the Perfecto has become an icon. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Sid Vicious, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen, the Stray Cats, the Ramones...the list of icons who have famously donned a Schott Perfecto is long and star studded. The list of companies who copy the Perfecto is five times as long as that. I've had many of the copies, and now that I own the real thing (I have a Perfecto that was produced between 1968 and 1970, and I found it in a vintage store for a very reasonable price. And you can, too!) I can tell you that there is nothing like a real Schott. Save up for one, it is worth it.
MOST (but not all) Schott leather jackets are still made in America (and the somewhat shockingly high price reflects that), they are still made from hand cut pieces of leather, and the machines used to put them together are run by human beings. They are the same machines from the old Schott factory, dating back to the turn of the (19th-20th) century. Yes, they are beyond the reach of most people financially. As I said though, you can find gorgeously broken in used ones on eBay and in thrift stores. Sometimes these can be had for around $200.My Schott Perfecto is magical. I found it by accident, it's around the same age as I am, it fits perfectly, and I got it for under $250. Get a Schott, I'm telling you. Just get one.

At Right: Here's the author and his beloved late '60s/early '70s Perfecto. I don't ride bikes, but I do fall down a lot.

In the early 1990's, when the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" appeared in a UK TV advert for Levi's jeans, a lot of old punks bristled at the inclusion of a tune by one of the iconic anti-establishment punk bands in a commercial selling blue jeans. This was kind of silly, of course, because the Clash were signed to one of the biggest corporations in the world (CBS/Sony) and had always ridden the line between selling out and rebelling, like all "rebel" bands do once they get big. Mick Jones, the Clash's guitarist and one of my fave people ever, simply had this to say about the furor: "Everybody's got a pair of Levi's. They're alright."
Alright, indeed.
Levi Strauss invented the bluejean in the late 1800s. Again, like the Schott company, it was a family affair, run by Levi and his two brothers, all Bavarian immigrants. Along with Jacob Davis, they introduced the Levis bluejean, which would become known (after several design mutations) as the 501, in 1890. As most people know this story, I'm not gonna waste time by repeating more detail. Instead here is a fantastic video about Levi's history and a very pleasant-seeming woman who has the coolest job in the world.

Levi's, of course, does not produce the bulk of it's product in the USA anymore, to keep costs down. You can buy some very expensive Historic Collection garments (the 1954 501 jean, etc) which painstakingly replicate the historic designs of the past that are made in the USA. These cost two to three times what you would pay for a foreign made pair of Levi's. However, my suggestion is that you do as I do: seek out the garments made in Levi's factory in Mexico. It's still North America, from what I can tell workers are treated fairly, and the product is always of far greater quality than the ones produced elsewhere. Just look inside the jeans for an origin tag, which should say "Made In Mexico", or "Product Of Mexico". Like Fender Guitars' Mexican operation, Levi's Mexico produces higher quality product at a very reasonable price.

THOROGOOD BOOTS, MILWAUKEE- Tough, Stylish, Reasonably Priced, and made in the USA.

Thorogood boots have been made in Wisconsin since 1918 by the Weinbrenner company, which was started in the late 1800's by Albert Weinbrenner, the son of a German immigrant who had a shoe repair business in Milwaukee. During WW2, the factory, by then very successful, dedicated 100% of it's production to the military effort. If you see an old pic of US soldiers in the 40s, chances are they are wearing Thorogood boots. Like the Schott Perfecto and the Levi's 501XX, the basic designs of the boots have changed very little over the years. They are still made in America, they are not as expensive as their biggest (and trendiest) competitor (Red Wing), and the quality is very, very high. These are tough, cool looking, working class boots. Wear them to work, wear them to school, wear them to the punk show, just wear them. Thorogood does make more modern designs, but for my money it's the American Heritage Series that does the trick.

Where a pair of Red Wings will cost you $200.-$300, a very similar pair of Thorogoods will cost you around $150, maybe less if you luck out on eBay. The quality is undeniably the same, but Red Wing has become a trendy name in hipster fashion, where Thorogood is still known mostly to people who need work boots, and people who really like work boots, like me and you, buddy! Comparing with the great guitar companies, if Red Wing is Gibson, and Wolverine is Fender, then Thorogood is probably G&L. If that helps you.
Sadly, I do not own a pair of these beauties yet, but they are most definitely on the ol' Xmas list. Here's a pic of some douchebag who has the boots I want.

GIBSON GUITARS, KALAMAZOO- An Icon Gone Horribly Wrong

The story of Gibson is very similar to the story of Schott, Thorogood, and Levi's. Immigrant comes to America. Forms company that boasts a combination of high quality craftsmanship and innovation. Product becomes wildly popular and changes first American culture, then the world. The difference is, today in 2014/2015, I cannot recommend that you buy a Gibson. In fact, with a few exceptions, I would not advise you to buy a Gibson made after 2005.
Orville Gibson began selling instruments out of his small workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1894. Word got around about the quality of the instruments, especially in the musical hotbeds of Detroit and Chicago, which were both fairly close by. Orville died in 1918, but the company grew and grew. In 1944 it was sold to Chicago Musical Instruments. Gibson was responsible for the first hollow body electric guitar, popularized by Jazz guitar great Charlie Christian. The innovations kept coming, with the birth of the Les Paul line of guitars in the early 1950s, then as the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the ES-335, the Flying V, the Explorer, the Firebird, the SG and more exploded out of Gibson's Kalamazoo factory and into the hands of famous and working class musicians alike, who used these rock solid slabs of mahogany to change pop culture, and the world.
Between 1974 and 1984, production was slowly moved from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, Tennessee. Some people will tell you that this was the beginning of the end, and I agree. However, everyone seems to draw the line at a different place, and I think that the company still continued to make amazing guitars up until very recently.
Recent years have seen Gibson make some very public, and very stupid mistakes. From suing every small guitar company (and some large ones, too) whose guitars had even a slight resemblance to 60 year old Gibson designs, to being raided by the feds for using illegal and endangered woods, to raising prices to absurd levels, to letting quality drop to an unprecedented low, Gibson has been pissing on it's legend for years now. The most recent development is their policies regarding their 2015 line of products. There is an overall price hike, again (whereas Fender's prices have held steady for several years now), and they've announced that ALL Gibson guitars from 2015 onwards will be fitted with the company's latest unnecessary and ridiculous "innovation", the "Robot Tuner" system. This is a strange, awkward looking box mounted to the back of the headstock that tunes the guitar for you, so you don't have to. This piece of crap, which has inspired very little besides derision since it's introduction a couple of years ago, will now be on every guitar Gibson makes, whether you want it or not. In fact, if you don't want it, you'll have to take it to a tech to get it removed, like a mole on your ass. Gibson's 2014 is full of charmless, ugly, and overpriced guitars, and it's 2015 line, while showing a slight return to more traditional designs, is ruined by the "Robot Tuner" fiasco. If the company's decidedly non-rock'n'roll CEOs and owners would recognize that musicians WANT the elegance of Gibson's traditional designs, and stop trying to re-invent the wheel with absurd gizmos and dubiously "fresh" re-designs, I think they'd win our trust back after a couple of years. They'd also need to lower prices, but hey,one step at a time, man.
A lot of people have pointed to 2005 as a loose point in time where quality went to shit, and some would say it was much earlier than that. I can only tell you that I have two Gibsons that I dearly love, pictured below. On the right is my 2003 Melody Maker Junior, also sometimes referred to as the Melody Maker P-90. It's a Melody Maker body and neck with Les Paul Junior pickup and electronics. It's got a thick, chunky "baseball bat" 1950's style neck that feels great. I added a Bigsby to it a few years back, and it is just a fabulous guitar. It was made in Nashville, Tennessee and oozes mojo. A lot of people hated the "satin" or "faded" finishes that Gibson introduced as a cost-cutting method in the late '90s/early 2000s, but I love the way it looks and feels on this guitar. On the left, I have an "SG Junior 60's" model from 2012. While most recent Gibsons I've played have been shoddy to various degrees, I really lucked out with this one. It's design is a combo of a few different 60's era SG designs. It's got a larger late 60s headstock, but the body, pick guard and controls are more similar to the early 1960's models. The volume and tone controls are placed in a straight row, more like an LP Junior than the usual 60's SG control placement. It's got a glossy finish, very nice visible cherry mahogany grain, and a fairly substantial neck. It's a good guitar. To get a good Gibson these days, I'd scour eBay, used guitar stores and pawn shops. That's what I did.

So there you have it...some great American products. Some that are still great, some that have fallen from very lofty heights. All worth your time, and all great inspiration to get you dreamin' about this country's glory days.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

How to Be a Well Dressed Man about Town, Spring 2014 Edition

A few years ago I did a blog entry that ended up being read by over 2,000 people, making it one of my most popular posts. I suppose it could have been one guy reading it 2,000 times. But I don't think so. The piece also got picked up and re-posted on the "Rocker" website for an even larger audience.

The article was about fashion for working class dudes. Especially guys past 30, who want to dress well and stand out in this world of baggy sweat pants, over sized Wal-Mart T shirts and chunky white plastic running shoes.

Now, I must explain that when I say "fashion", I don't mean catwalks and runways and "Zoolander" haircuts. I am not referring to "blue steel" here, folks. Nor am I talking about the skinny-fit, "metrosexual" look. I am talking about timeless, classic clothing for work or play that won't ever go "out of style". I know this because the designs of much of the clothing I'm talking about originated 50 or more years ago, and are still commonly worn today.

(Photo: Anonymous, well dressed middle aged dude found on the internet.No idea who he is, but he "gets it".)

I wanted to do another piece about this, for guys looking to buy some items to wear this Spring (if it ever stops snowing). I wanted to emphasize low cost alternatives to the high end, fancy boutique men's store stuff. There are companies charging huge amounts for their high quality reproductions of classic mid century work wear and casual fashions. Alot of these are great, and they're also made in America, so you are supporting small businesses and helping to provide jobs for Americans.HOWEVER. If you just cannot afford to pay premium prices for these items, don't worry. I will show you how to get the classic, timeless look you want on the cheap.

Before I start, let it be known far and wide that a man does not need a huge closet full of clothes, unless he wants to have that. What most guys need for Spring, really need, is the following:
SIX SHIRTS:3 long sleeve and 3 short.
THREE PAIRS OF PANTS: One blue jean, one black jean, and one dressier pair of slacks.
A PAIR OF GOOD SHOES (sneakers, brogues, what have you)
ONE LEATHER JACKET (with removable lining)
ONE LIGHT SPRING JACKET (such as a Harrington or Eisenhower).
That's all you need. I personally have a drawer full of pants, two leather jackets, three pairs of boots, five or six pairs of sneakers, etc...but I'm just like that, you don't have to be. Now that you know what your basic needs are,let's get specific, gents. We're gonna start at your coconut head and eventually get down to your stinking feet nubs. Are ya with me? Let's go!

BRIXTON HEADWEAR: One thing every guy needs for those colder Spring days is a good hat. My choice is the Brixton Brood newsboy cap. It has a nice retro feel, like the newsboy caps of the 20's, 30's, and 40's. It's rugged and warm, and it goes with almost anything. Brixton has a great website full of good hat options, but remember one thing. Frat boys, "Jersey Shore" meatheads and "Mad Men" wanna bes have ruined the Fedora for everyone. Stay away from the Fedora at all costs.

RAY BAN GLASSES/SUNGLASSES: Whether you are slowly going blind as a bat like me, or you just want to keep the cursed sun out of your eyes, or you'd like to creepily check out girls without them being sure that you are staring, Ray Ban glasses/sunglasses are the way to go. The Ray-Ban Aviator was developed in 1929 to keep the glare from the sun and shiny plane metal out of the eyes of our fighter pilot boys in the skies. The regular Joe on the street wanted to look like the flyboy heroes too, so eventually these iconic shades became available for public purchase. In 1952, the ultimate icon of cool was introduced: The Wayfarer. You've seen these on the noggins of everyone from James Dean to Chet Baker to Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello and Huey Lewis, not to mention every rockabilly and punk rock rocker that ever lived. Ray-Ban recently introduced a "modern" take on the Wayfarer, and although it is usually an absolutely awful idea for iconic companies to "update" their eternally popular,classic designs, these are actually pretty great. Ray Bans tend to be on the expensive side, but check eBay for hundreds of cheaper copies, some of which are probably just as good.

WRANGLER WESTERN SHIRTS: It's Springtime. Some days are warm, some days are cold. You'll need a good short sleeve option as well as a long sleeve. For the long sleeve, go with a Wrangler western shirt. These things have never been trendy. These are American working class icons. They look good on almost everyone. They come in endless variations of colors and patterns. They are inexpensive and will last you for years. If you have the time and patience, look them up on eBay. You can likely pick up five of these used for the price of one new shirt. Now, there are hundreds of companies making shirts like this. Some are very, very cheap and some are ridiculously expensive for a piece of work wear. I'm telling you, go with Wrangler. If you are a larger man, do not tuck these in. If you are very tall and thin, you can tuck them in if you like. If you are of smaller build, like myself, tuck them in. They tend to be very long, so if the shorter fellas leave them untucked, it looks like we're wearing a dress. No dresses allowed here.

WARRIOR BUTTON DOWN SHIRTS: I usually recommend short sleeve shirts by brands like Fred Perry and Ben Sherman for that classic Ivy League springtime look. Those are great items, but they can be quite expensive. As always, check eBay. Many of my FP and BS shirts were purchased that way, for less than half of their original cost. If you want a crisp new shirt that has never known another man's arm pit...go with Warrior. Warrior is a Brit company that makes affordable reproductions of classic '60s button down shirts. Timeless, sharp plaids and checks, with button down collars and really nice details. You can find these in America at Angry Young And Poor, Sourpuss, and other in the know online shops.

NOCONA LEATHER BELTS: So many companies make good, affordable belts. The aforementioned Brixton, for instance, has great belts. But if you, like me, like to incorporate iconic tough guy western items into your wardrobe, please know that it's now safe. Madonna and Brad Pitt have stopped wearing these things, and they are no longer trendy. You may don them once again. I usually go with a brown belt for blue jeans and a black belt with black jeans. For your dressier pants, go with the brown for a dark pair of pants and the black for a lighter pair. If you are only going to have one belt, go with the brown.

LEVIS 501 ORIGINALS: Denim is a huge fetish item for a lot of people. If you start delving into the world of denim, you'll hear terms like "selvedge", "Japanese selvedge", "Neppy", "Vintage cut", and endless discussions of which thickness or weight of denim is the best. Even Levis themselves has gotten into the game of super expensive selvedge denim and re-issues of their iconic jean cuts from the past. That stuff is fun to look at, but you really only need one thing, and it's not expensive. A classic, iconic 501 original jean. This is something I would try to buy new if I were you. Get the raw, dark denim. If you buy the "Shrink To Fit" variety, know that you should buy about two waist sizes bigger than your normal size, and about three inches longer than usual for the inseam. They shrink. Hence the name. The idea is that they conform to your body as they shrink, which they do. But in order to get them to do that, you have to wear them wet. if you don't have that kind of time, simply go with the 501 Originals. Get your regular waist size, and a few inches longer on the inseam, because you will want to cuff them (fold them up) on the bottom. Either go for the chunky three or four inch rockabilly cuff or the sharp, two inch tight 60's style mod/ skinhead cuff. AVOID the modern "skinny jean" look. It is way too trendy these days, and looks terrible on anyone over 25. You want slim, clean lines, yes. You do not want to look like you are wearing denim pantyhose.

DICKIES 873 SLIM STRAIGHT PANTS: Dickies are always great. You can wear them to work, or with a nice button down as dress pants. Just make sure they're clean, dummy. A lot of guys feel that the original Dickies flat front work pant is a very baggy and unflattering cut, and I tend to agree. Again, you don't want anything skin tight. But you also, and I really have to emphasize this, do NOT want to wear baggy clothes. It tends to make a person look sloppy and out of date. My Motto: "Take the Time to Find Shit That FITS". Dickies makes a new "Slim Straight" option, the 873. These are perfect. In the photo I've chosen, the model is wearing a very new, unwashed pair of these, and he is also wearing them a bit long. This is making his pants look a little baggier than you'd want. If you buy a pair with a slightly shorter inseam than you'd normally go for, or cuff them with a nice two inch turn up, they will look great. Dickies also makes a "skinny" trouser for those so inclined, but again, it's not really our thing.

So let's sum up what we've learned so far:
Classic, timeless work and casual wear is ace
There are expensive options, but they are not necessary
SLIM is good, TIGHT is not
BAGGY leaves you saggy

For your jackets, you cannot go wrong with two old standards. 1)The Levi's Trucker Jacket, and 2) The leather bomber jacket. Shoes or boots by Doc Marten and/or Red Wing. The thing to remember is have fun, tailor your personal style to your interests and what appeals to you, and wear it confidently. Ladies be likin' that!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Staring Into Damnation's Hole: The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X!

A few months back, I was clicking through the great wasteland of cinematic detritus that you may know as "Netflix", looking for either something "good" to watch (unlikely) or something that would be horrendously bad enough that I would enjoy it for it's very ridiculousness (possible). I did not expect to find a new movie which I had no previous knowledge of that would instantly take it's place among the very finest of the campy kitchsy classics that I hold so dear. When I found Paul Bunnell's "The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X", I found just that.

I'm tempted here to describe at length the concept of the B Movie and detail the plots of some of the greatest. Having nixed that, as I'm writing a blog not a novel, I started to think I should write about Ed Wood, Roger Corman, other geniuses of the low budget, low production value, trash-schlock film making of the 1950's and 1960's that is an American treasure and an absolute joy to be obsessed with. Again, that would take a year long series of blogs. I'm also going to assume that since you are reading my blog, you are most likely aware of these things already. What I will say is that "The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X" is in the fine, fine, tradition of these cinematic bursts of passion and frivolity. It both epitomizes and lovingly parodies this great underbelly of American cinema in a way that's sure to warm the hearts of anybody who loved movies like "Plan 9 From Outer Space", "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", or even later John Waters stuff like "Cry Baby" and "Hairspray". Much like the great Ed Wood, Paul Bunnell (despite his relatively young age) is a true Golden Age Hollywood Eccentric. Possibly the last of a dying breed.

This movie is an obvious labor of intense love for the genre, and the aesthetics of the 1950's juvenile delinquent era. It was shot rather gorgeously on black and white film...yes, FILM. Just in case you don't know, they don't make movies like that anymore. It was shot, in fact, on the very last of Kodak's B&W "Plus-X" film stock. The film has a thick, stark, black white and grey creamy dreaminess to it, utterly crisp and clear.

The plot is a convoluted and never fully explained Sci-Fi/Juvenile Delinquent coming of age love story, if you get my planetary drift. There is a classic "James Dean vs. neglectful Daddy" situation going on. There is a crazy jump suit that gives it's wearer the power to re-animate the dead. There are leather jackets and cuffed Levi's. There is hair grease and doo-wop. There are 35 year old juvenile delinquents from outer space. There is a mix of 1950's and 1960's automobiles, fashions and music forms. In short, everything that is great in life crammed into one glorious, classic, perfect mess of a movie that looks like it was as much fun to make as it is to watch.

The gang of alien JD's in the movie are called "The Ghastly Ones". When I saw this, I wondered if anyone had approached the legendary California Surf-punk/Horror surf band The Ghastly Ones and asked them either for permission for the use of their name, or for the use of their music. THAT would have made a great movie greater. Alas, there is no Ghastly Ones music in the flick, a missed opportunity if ever there was one. The soundtrack is comprised of orchestral theme music, surf-rock background tunes, and the musical numbers sung and danced to in the movie. The orchestral stuff is awesome. Booming 1930's-1950's Film Noir/Universal Monsters type stuff with a spookily wailing theremin. The surf-inspired backing tunes by the Moon Rays are just OK, and I'm going to have to re-iterate that the (real) Ghastly Ones should have been involved. As for the musical numbers throughout the movie, they're fun, goofy and catchy, but totally not authentic to the '50s period. Sure, I'd prefer to hear these characters singing some authentic rockabilly or '50s R&B, but what we have here is an audience-friendly pastiche that works in the fun spirit of the movie.

There are several minor celebs in the film, mostly in cameo roles, such as 1970's icon Paul williams in the role of smarmy talk show host "Uncle Quilty", Reggie Bannister from the '80s horror classic "Phantasm", and 1950's movie star Kevin McCarthy in what would be the final role before his death. Most impressive though is Creed Bratton (of the American version of "The Office"), who plays washed up 1960's rock'n'roll star turned zombie Mickey O'Flynn. This is a great role for the underrated actor, who imbues this character (who is sort of a mash up of Screamin' Lord Sutch, Alice Cooper and maybe a white, dead Screamin' Jay Hawkins) with a sort of dazed, lost humanity which is both funny and sad. The musical numbers that he sings/performs are some of the best in the movie. The other actors in the film, while being less familiar faces, all deserve a shout out, especially Will Keenan as the angry alien "teen" Johnny X and Deanna Joy Brooks , who is quite alluring as the breathy-voiced femme fatale Bliss.

I could babble on all day about how fun and cool this movie is, but sadly, I have a life. A life which was greatly inproved for a couple of hours by this movie. If you're at all intrigued, get on Netflix and give this baby a spin. Also check out the Youtube clips and reviews, as well as the always kooky and entertaining interviews with director Paul Bunnell and various cast members. It's not every day you find a new classic in a much maligned and much beloved meta-sub-sub-genre like this. I'll leave you with the film's trailer. Enjoy.