trail of dead behind them

by Art Chantry (

a couple of days ago we lost two giants of american underground culture. don cornelius is the better known of the two names we lost. his pioneering work with the tv show ‘soul train’ inspired a nation and built a rock solid safety zone for an oppressed minority to express THEIR ideas and THEIR culture and THEIR fun out in the open for everybody to see (just like us ‘normal’ people!) american pop culture changed dramatically when it hit the airwaves and still reels from the impact of it today. everybody LOVED IT! and for that enormous contribution, don cornelius is uniquley responsible like few others can claim.

AC:a mike kelley quote: "we (destroy all monsters) were designed to be a "fuck you" to the prevailing popular culture. we wanted to kill James Taylor." sorts sums it all up nicely, eh?

on the darker side of american underground culture, we lost a guy named mike kelley, his passing was announced on the same day as don conrnelius’ death. mike kelley’s work was maybe just as profound an impact on american popular culture as the achievements of don cornelius, but far fewer could actually see him on TV. in 1973, mike kelley got together with fellow ann arbor art kids jim shaw, cary loren and niagara detroit and formed an ad hoc creative ‘collective’ (for lack of a better term) called “destroy all monsters.’ their artwork, stories/writing, assemblages, publications, performance art pieces, sculpture, FILM(!) and other assorted efforts created an underground world that became the playground for the entire punk rock movement. imagine the trashy world of the cramps fucking trent reznor and spawning – what? iggy’s insane twin? genesis p. orridge? what would you call that thing? well, that was destroy all monsters. when they finally picked up their trashwork and started pounding on it, they created a cacophony that was utterly new and weird and novel and beyond influential. they may actually be considered accurately as the birthplace american trash/noise/punk/whatever.

all the members of that collective continued after mike kelley left for work in another city. they replaced mike with other assorted underground superstars of the detroit nexus (like ron ashton) and went on to exist in a nether world of borderline lifestyle of death and visual excess and LOUD volume. without DAM, i wonder if we would have a world quite like the one we all wallow in today. they were EXTREMELY important, but so deeply dark and murderous that they HAD to hide in the shadows to do their work. even today, they’re all still active and doing amazing stuff. go searching and you’ll find a vast documentation of their efforts. this image i posted is a dvd cover of their earliest video work, along with other items and memorabilia and early concert footage (and even later concert footage in seattle in 2000).

i used to remark that the guy who would actually carry the underground american trash culture into the art museums was going to be robert williams. that seemed like an enormously safe thing to say. but (of course) i was wrong. it turned out to be mike kelley. his art work and installations and metaphors and images, etc. have been exhibited throughout the world in the fine art world culture. he has been honored with showings in the whitney and the museum of modern art and in museums and galleries all over the world. he had become one of the biggest names in the late-century avant guard art world and stayed there up until his death. it seems as time goes on, his achievements only get bigger and more profound. sorry rob’t williams, you lost the race before you had a shot at the fine art world. kelley is already there.

strangely, both ron cornelius and mike kelley seemed to have died of suicide. strange isn’t it? we lost both of these giants on the same day the same way – their choice, their despair. makes you wonder what it all means, doesn’t it? just like their entire lives made us wonder.


AC:you can always spot the pioneers by the trail of dead behind them….

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