dallas and american extreme: grassy knoll design

by Art Chantry ( art@artchantry.com)

the first time i visited dallas, texas, was a miserable trip. i’d been invited down there to give one of my little ‘talks’ (show slides of my work, cuss a lot). i’d not bargained on how conservative and nasty that city is. basically, it calls itself the ‘buckle on the bible belt’ and the cultural power structure there has a stick up it’s butt that is really stuck there. my lecture ended up clearing out half of the audience. now, often, in a situation like this, there are really frustrated cool hip people lurking under the rocks who have developed their own alternative world to cope with the oppression of the mainstream. but, in dallas, they were dug in so deep that they couldn’t be found. it’s like they were scared to death down there. they were like nails that stuck up and they had just plain been pounded down so many times that they couldn’t wiggle loose anymore.

---AC: i only met the guy once. but, man, what an impact he made on me. he also impacted many many others, but he never knew it. like i said, his little book sort of inspired grunge culture to become what it was. at least that's what i witnessed.

to give you one small example of what i’m talking about, my ‘host’ (the guy assigned to meet me at the airport and tote me around) was this incredible uptight anal twit in a starched white shirt buttoned all the way up to choking level and slender black tie knotted tight and sassy (and the required le corbusier glasses). the kicker was that this was the height of summer and it was around 100 degrees outside. he drove a late model beamer that was spotless and even the children’s toys on the back seat were carefully arranged ‘just so.’ the weirdest part was that he kept talking about he and i were “exactly the same” and that he was the ‘wild and crazy” guy in dallas because he’d done the graphics for the westlake square shopping mall in downtown seattle (thus ‘hip’).

we had an hour to kill before the talk, so, he asked me (since this was my first time to dallas) if there was anything i’d like to see real quick. i immediately said “the grassy knoll.” i mean, it’s one of those places that everybody in america should check out – sorta like las vegas or mt. rushmore. the host immediately froze up and then tried really really hard to talk me out of going there. he really hated the place. it was just so “touristy” (as he put it.) but, i really wanted to see the fabled location of the JFK assassination. so, he very very reluctantly drove to the site and then refused to leave the car. i went and checked it all out on my own while he waited behind, soaking up the place and trying to understand it. eventually i walked back to the car and (i swear i saw this) the guy had HIDDEN down below the dashboard so that no-one he knew would see he was parked there. it was an amazingly twitty thing to do.

so, that’s what dallas was like the first time i was there.

the second time i was there, this mad photographer guy decided that i needed to finally meet all the cool people in dallas. basically, he took it upon himself to educate me. so, we made a tour of all 5 cool people in dallas. and YES! they were really cool – and deeply hidden to the point you’d never know they were there. but, they WERE there (so, i thank that crazy photo dude.) the main ‘cool guy’, though, that i remember was this older guy named “buffalo” george toomer. he lived in this weird old beater house in the middle of the city surrounded by his illustration work, his collections and (for some reason) bevies of beautiful womenfolk hanging on his every whim. george toomer was maybe one of the coolest guys i ever met.

i won’t get into everything that was cool about him (no space here). but, one thing that blew me away was his amazing collections of stuff. he’d been collecting exotic american underground culture since the 1950′s. he had the best of the best and he had it first. for instance, in one cluttered dusty room off his studio, he had a bin of 78 rpm records. i looked at one and sorta choked up. his comment was, “yeah, that’s a complete set of excello label 78′s i put together years ago.” a complete set of excello??? that’s impossible!! OMG!!!!

then he showed me what he was REALLY into: beat literature. he had a wall of exotic and extremely rare publications by all the beat writers (and even included lenny bruce’s routines.) i mean, these were first editions, signed and in mint mint uncirculated condition. these were handwritten lenny bruce scripts. these were unpublished typescripts by kerouac. this was an EXTENSIVE collection that covered a big wall floor to ceiling. as an example, he pulled out a little plastic baggie/packet with a number of mimeographed chap books that was william burroughs’ very first published work. then he said something like, “there were a dozen of them printed. that’s 11 of them.” uhhhhh…..

he pulled out little toy metal tanks. he had sets of postcards and pillow cases from ww2. his house was like the greatest museum of americana i’d ever seen in my life. he even pulled out about 4 of these amazing scrapbooks – filled to massive overflowing levels. they were drag queen scrap books form the 1940′s/50′s. basically, these scrap books were the personal photos and cocktail napkins and matchbooks and swizzle sticks and menus and handbills and invites from a drag queen’s underground social life. it was his/her’s documentation of his buried hidden life as a female impersonator. and george had FOUR of them – all from different drag queens! i’d never seen anything so extraordinary or so amazing before. he kept them shoved under a couch.

so, i gave george a copy of my book. then, he dug around and gave me a copy of HIS book. this cover i show you is “buffalo” george toomer’s “american extremes”. i was flabberghasted when he put this in my hands, because i KNEW this book! this was the hipster bible in the late 80′

n underground bohemian culture in seattle. when this book hit the stores in around 1988, it blew the socks off all my weirdo pals living on the fringes of reason in the moldy reaches of the northwest. these kids read it from cover to cover and began to imitate what they saw inside. basically, george toomer’s ‘amercian extremes” was the “how to” book for grunge. it’s true.

inside these covers, he tackles everything from “the bizarre world of tattooed people”, “new age rip-offs”, “elvismania souvenirs”, “religious gimmicks and celestial scams”, “big wheel trucks, power tractors, lo-riders and weird cars”, “habits, houses and goofy art”, “phone sex, strange sexual habits and ‘dressing funny’”, “punkers, skinheads and hair freaks”, and “biker lifestyle and artistic culture” (or so he lists on the back cover.) basically, it’s a compendium and appreciation of all the piercing, tattoos, artcars, cults, music, fashion, fetishes, celebrity imitators, body builders, drag queens, sicko politics and crackpot culture that he loved to study. all my underground arty pals in the late 80′s devoured this book and fell in love with all of it. if george hadn’t written this little book, i would NOT have tattoos covering my body right now. it’s GEORGE’S FAULT!

the best part was that he had no idea the impact his book had created. living in culturally isolated seclusion in dallas, texas, had blinded him to what he had wrought in the hipster community of seattle cool. i tried to explain to him what an a-bomb his work had been in the seattle scene, but he shrugged. “didn’t sell very well.” was pretty much all he said.

so, yeah, dallas only had five cool people living there. but, man, what COOL people!

…it’s a weird place. a black hole. a psychic vampire bite. i picked up a rock from the grassy knoll and gave it to my girlfriend. she added it to her john wayne gacy painting and her ‘chunk of cement from the foundation’ from ed gein’s garage….

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