Thursday, March 09, 2017

Mark Solotroff - Statement

Mark Solotroff

On February 15, 2017, I was scheduled to perform at Chicago venue The Hideout with my band The Fortieth Day, when a local anti-fascist group, South Side ARA, contacted the venue and questioned why I was playing there, classifying me as a white supremacist. I posted the following statement online, before the show:

“I am absolutely not a white supremacist. I was raised in a Jewish family and I attended Anshe Emet Day School, in the Lakeview neighborhood, connected to the synagogue where I also had my Bar Mitzvah. My wife is from Mexico. My band mate in The Fortieth Day, Isidro Reyes, also my best friend, is Mexican. Lisa Slodki, A.K.A. Noise Crush, the video artist who we perform with, is Jewish. My band mates in BLOODYMINDED include people who are Hispanic, Asian, and Arabic, and we have had gay and female members, to drive home the point that we are an absolutely inclusive band and that I surround myself with family, friends and band mates from all races, religions and sexual orientations, without prejudice.”

About 20 South Side ARA members came to the show to confront me. I spoke with them at length, and I think it was productive. Before performing, I addressed the audience for about 5-minutes, explaining what had happened, and why. This statement incorporates some things discussed that night, with further deliberation and elaboration.

When I attended Chicago’s Anshe Emet Day School, it was the 1970s. Among my teachers were Holocaust survivors and early Israeli settlers. Common for the time, I was profoundly exposed to a frightening, sad and dark part of history. I was shown Holocaust atrocity films that reduced female classmates to tears. I was warned to never forget. A foundation of Holocaust remembrance is the sentiment that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” attributed to the Spanish philosopher Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás. I would encounter this statement again several years later, through the music and marketing of the pioneering industrial band Throbbing Gristle.

In elementary school, I really started becoming passionate about music, but I quickly found out that I was quite alone in my music taste. I grew up in a household listening to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. My mom was from England and my dad moved back to Chicago with her in November 1963. Hold onto that time frame. At Anshe Emet, I learned to provoke and confuse with music. While other kids were listening to The Osmonds and the DeFranco Family, I had my dad’s David Bowie and Roxy Music records to reference.

Through older kids in my apartment building, I delved deep into Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. Discovering Kiss “Alive!” at Rose Records in 1975 was a decisive moment for me. My mom wouldn’t let me see Alice Cooper on his “Welcome to my Nightmare” tour, which started in 1975, as she thought it was too violent, but she let me see Kiss about a year later. I discovered The Stooges in the pages of Creem Magazine and I barely managed to convince my mom to let me keep my copy of “Metallic K.O.” (1976). She just missed the intro to “Rich Bitch” when she came into my room to check up on me, as she always kept close tabs on my LPs. Iggy Pop infamously dedicated that song to all the “Hebrew women in the audience." And it didn’t take long to see a photo of Ron Ashton wearing Nazi regalia.

Before long, I discovered punk. My parents, who were divorced, both traveled back to London, and my dad, in particular, started bringing back records for me. Technically, I think I heard The Damned before I heard the Sex Pistols. I started hunting for magazines and books that documented this exciting movement. The Sex Pistols really caught my attention. Seeing a photo of Sid Vicious with a swastika was about the most shocking thing I could see in elementary school. I saw a similar image of Siouxsie Sioux with a swastika, soon after, but I didn’t know who she was yet.

This was several years before I read any valuable critical writing on punk, so it was a while before I learned about the concept of “exorcising demons by mocking your parents’ oppressors,” which later became a prevailing theory that explained the motives behind such shocking and confusing behavior. I started listening to punk at 12 years old and the social or class politics of those English bands didn’t sink into my brain the same way the basic provocation did. I was still listening to Kiss and Alice Cooper, after all.

In high school, I still wasn’t sharing the popular taste of the day. I saw how a Clash or a Devo concert T-shirt could really set people off. In 1980, I also saw how the Dead Kennedys LP, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” quickly set my mom off. Bear in mind, she moved from London to Chicago less than a month before J.F.K. was assassinated and she told me that she questioned her decision at the time. In high school, I made some quick musical jumps to post-punk and synth-pop, moving from the Sex Pistols to Public Image Limited, then to Magazine, to Soft Cell and The Human League, to Echo & The Bunnymen, to Joy Division, and then to early Cabaret Voltaire. And with them, I had gotten my toes wet in early industrial music.

After a year at Drake, a liberal arts university in Des Moines, Iowa, a bleak place for music in 1982, I transferred to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which was steeped in Marxist and Feminist theory at the time. I had excellent art history and theory teachers who introduced me to both of those systems of thought, as well as to Post-Modernism, Deconstructionist theory, Structuralism and conceptual art. I witnessed the rise of culture jamming. My interest in taboos in music continued, as I discovered death-rock and its correspondingly forward anti-religious themes, as well as its counterpart, early goth. It was a few quick jumps to the big names of early industrial music, including Throbbing Gristle, S.P.K., Einsturzende Neubauten, Test Dept., Swans, who were from a decidedly different scene, and Laibach, the ceaselessly ambiguous Slovenian group.

Then I started digging deeper into the complex and more extreme power-electronics subgenre, discovering Whitehouse, who I first saw live in 1984, Sutcliffe Jugend, Consumer Electronics, Ramleh, M.B., Esplendor Geometrico, LXSS, and Mauthausen Orchestra, to name a few early bands. This was an eye and ear-opening period of time. There were also the associated record and cassette labels. Let’s start with Industrial Records, the in-house label of Throbbing Gristle. Their logo was allegedly a chimney at Auschwitz and they advertised “Entertainment through pain.” That tagline certainly stuck with me. I dug into the leading underground power-electronics labels of the day, including Come Organization, Broken Flag, Iphar, Produktion, and Aquilifer Sodality. They all seemed to flirt with extremely taboo images and themes.

I began recording my own music in 1984, at the age of 20. I quickly launched my first band, Intrinsic Action, initially with my recently acquired step-brother, who had similar taste in music to me. Our first recordings focused on metal-percussion, feedback and dark atmospheres. We released a demo tape and gave copies to a few close friends. The title was “Anti-Klan Action.” Hold that thought. We released our first two full-length cassettes in 1986 and 1987. Early themes we explored included religion, sex, violence, nihilism and existentialism.

Following my earlier music heroes, as well as what I discovered in the industrial scene, I was immediately interested in pursuing shock tactics, in transgression, in offending, in provoking, in crossing the line, in causing discomfort, in delving into any and all taboo subjects and themes. I recognized the power from way back. Intrinsic Action started playing live in late 1986. We debuted at a prominent Chicago club called Cabaret Metro. We used videos in our show, which were projected on two large 12’ x 12’ screens on the stage and viewed on monitors throughout the large venue. The imagery included rough gay sex porn, clips from the film “Cruising,” Pentecostal snake handlers, clips of Alice Cooper with his snake, German scatology porn, clips from anti-vivisection videos sourced from PETA, the trip scene from “Easy Rider,” etc. Even at what was advertised as an underground industrial music show, some people were offended. The club owner wasn’t amused and he threatened to cancel our next show if we used similar video clips. We promised we wouldn’t. We played there again, a month or so later, opening for Wiseblood, a band signed to local label Wax Trax! that featured early industrial hero Jim Thirwell (AKA Foetus). There was a big crowd. We did it again.

We were banned from Metro for about a year, so we started booking shows in diverse venues around the city. We dropped the video. We started developing our stage presence further. We wore lots of black leather. Rock and roll. Over the years, some people thought the band was made up of gay leather boys. We would never confirm or deny it. Why should we? Regardless of the topic or theme, I never saw a point in declaring allegiance or objection to what we sang about. I simply wanted to put these themes out there. Explore them. Read about them. Write about them. Sing about them. Let people make their own decisions about what they saw and heard. Our new songs and releases covered topics including serial killers, leather sex, outlaw bikers, prostitution, werewolves, vampires and misogyny.

I had already started conceiving of a next step during school, and now I was thinking about how I could put my newly minted training in conceptual art to good use? What would be an explosive hoax to perpetrate within our tiny underground music scene? What was the ultimate taboo to tackle? What line could be crossed that would make people’s heads explode? Flashback to Iggy’s “Rich Bitch” and Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux with swastikas. Flashback to everything that I learned at Anshe Emet.

I began by crafting a fake three-person band that took elements of the power-electronics scene and grafted it with increasingly prevalent skinhead imagery. I needed a name for the band and I was aware that the controversial South African nationalist Eugene Terreblanche was in the news a lot at the time. This pretend band was dubbed Terre Blanche. The simple back story was that the band leader, M. Sanderson, Sandy for short, was from Hazard Kentucky, moved to Chicago and got into power-electronics.

I recorded a cassette called “The New Slavery,” which had no lyrics, but which referenced Chicago’s recently deceased first African American mayor. I had proudly voted for Harold Washington in the mayoral election in April 1983. It was the first election I was able to participate in and it was an exciting moment for me and for Chicago. I set up a correspondingly fake record label to release the cassette in 1988. It was called AWB Recording, a name was derived from Eugene TerreBlanche’s Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) party, and it was “run” by Sandy.
I created a logo for the band that was meant to send very mixed signals. It was a swastika made up of four Letraset question marks. I thought that would be obvious. My primary interest was in seeing what the reaction would be. In causing a shock wave in the scene. Would people get it? It was by no means a mature artistic statement and it wasn’t an original or intelligent thing to do. It was the work of a 24 year old artist who frequently did and made things to freak out people, using everything I had access to. Some people abhorred it and some people accepted it, taking it in stride, within a nuanced scene with a strong history of provocation.

I’ll clarify here that in no way did I, or do I, advocate or support the platform, politics or beliefs that I was toying with, much like I never endorsed the various themes I touched on with Intrinsic Action. I never cared much for politics in art or music. Going back to 1983-84, I loved and still love early Discharge records. They wrote some of the darkest and most violent hardcore punk songs that I had ever heard. I certainly wasn’t persuaded in any way by the anti-nuclear war theme. For me, they just made brilliant, brutal music. I even appropriated the typewriter lettering on their records for Intrinsic Action. As I do now, I was listening to a lot of anarcho-punk at the time, like Crass, Flux of Pink Indians, Poison Girls, Annie Anxiety, D&V, Conflict and Rudimentary Peni. Fascinatingly, a number of these artists were tied into the industrial scene. I was drawn to their provocation, their dark themes. Less so, to the heavy-handed political stances. I was also quite intrigued by artists and musicians who kept their intentions hidden or ambiguous.

I will say that I didn’t expect people to latch onto Terre Blanche the way they did. Bear in mind that releases in those days were limited to 50 or 100 copies, so very few people, internationally, ever got their hands on a copy. I saw the power of this provocation and I decided to use AWB Recording as a platform to promote Intrinsic Action. I also started releasing music by other bands and artists with diverse subjects and themes, within power-electronics and post-industrial scene. AWB wasn’t planned as a label that focused on any one theme or subject and it never did.

I once placed an advertisement in an underground music fanzine and the lead statement was that “AWB Recording artists were racists, sadists and occultists.” It advertised three very diverse 7-inch singles from Terre Blanche, Intrinsic Action and Sigillum S. I included a large, stylized version of the question mark swastika. I will say that I really thought the advertisement was the most transparent statement of satire I had come up with, to date. I couldn’t imagine that people would take it seriously. Around that time, one prominent member of the scene who I do understand was on the far right, and who knew I was behind Terre Blanche and AWB, made it clear that he thought I was a total asshole for mocking the skinhead scene, and that he disapproved of a Jewish guy playing with irony the way that I was. I thought that was a bit of a coup.

Less than 25 recordings were released on AWB, from 1988-94. The majority were released by 1991. Terre Blanche activity was over by 1991. I officially took over the label in 1992, before I moved to Brooklyn. And no, I never publicly admitted to launching either the label or Terre Blanche. That was the point. It was meant to be mysterious. It was meant to be scandalous. That said, I thought I left a lot of clues from the beginning, for those who were paying attention, that all wasn’t as it seemed. Maybe it was more subtle than I believed it to be. But many people knew. And they let me know it. Others were in on it from the very beginning. When I terminated the label, I launched BloodLust! in 1994. It became a vehicle for my next band BLOODYMINDED. I was and I am still very interested in a host of dark themes and subjects. I believe my writing and my creativity have matured a great deal since then. BloodLust! has released music by diverse bands from around the world and it continues to this day.

What about Terre Blanche and AWB Recording? I really haven’t thought about it for years. What’s my take on it now, after recently being confronted? I know that I definitely meant for it to be offensive but I believed I was performing this hoax within a very small and very closed scene. There was no Internet. There were very few zines. I couldn’t conceive that it would live on, online, so many years later. It was meant to have an expiration date. It probably dragged on for too long. I meant to cause people to question the band and the music and the scene it existed in. To think. To react. To discuss. I think some people find the greater problem to be my silence.

I apologize to anyone who was victimized by this prank and I would deeply regret it if I discovered that real harm had been caused by the music or the subject matter in the handful of Terre Blanche releases I created. I know that they were fake. If anyone looks at those releases as something to celebrate, as one antifa member suggested might be the case, then hopefully they will soon discover that it was an art project and a hoax.

I’m not a white supremacist. I never was. I abhor racism. Just as I’m not a serial killer, even though I recorded songs about John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. Just as I don’t practice or advocate self-harm, even though I wrote the song “Pro-Ana.” Just as I don’t practice or advocate animal cruelty, even though I showed PETA films in the context of a concert that dwelled in the darkest of themes. Just as I’m not a Satanist, for showing religious themes in a questioning or anti-Christian light. Just as I’m not a Voodoo or Santeria practitioner, even though I once acted out a ritual influenced by those beliefs during a live performance. Just as I’m not a misogynist and do not advocate that type of behavior, even though I wrote lyrics that portrayed characters in that light.

Would I employ the theme of racism again in music? I haven’t done so in over 25 years and I don’t see a need to again. But as an artist, I reserve the right to explore any topic that piques my interest. It was a concept tied to a specific moment in time. And I’m busy enough dealing with racism in real life, particularly in our current political climate. And I’m not particularly interested in being a political artist. By that, I mean expressing my personal political views through my art. I’ll do that as a responsible member of adult society. Through voting, as I continue do. Through protesting things I see as unjust, as I do. Through donating to organizations that fight discrimination. I’ll reiterate that I never had an interest in glorifying or condemning a specific topic or theme in the music I made. I will close by stating that I absolutely condemn white supremacy, racism, bigotry, chauvinism, sexism, homophobia and other oppressive beliefs. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my narrative and I appreciate those people who take the time to read it and think about it.