Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Frankie Venom Statue

There has been a bit of a brouhaha in my neighbourhood recently. Namely $200,000 of tax payer money for a statue of Frankie “Venom” Kerr, lead singer of Hamilton punk rock band Teenage Head.

A lot of people were not thrilled about this. Myself included.

Besides the considerable amount of money for a statue of someone not a particularly well known or popular figure, many felt the process was rather heavy handed, with little to no public consultation. The usually dependable Brian McHattie, the ward councillor, had been approached by local musician Tom Wilson about the idea, and had run with it.

After considerable public backlash, a meeting was convened. I made sure to attend. 

The whole thing just feels contrived to me, and like historical revisionism. Attempts to portray him as a popular entertainer of the people are fanciful at best. Having been a participant in the punk scene in London, Ontario 30+ years ago, I can tell you that it was an outsider art form. There was no mainstream media interest, massive crowds didn’t come to the shows, average people didn’t recognize musicians on the street and ask for autographs. If anything, being punk rock meant there was a good chance some assholes might try to beat you up. If nothing else, you were subjected to verbal harassment, discriminated against, and generally made to feel unwelcome in many places.

I also have some serious doubts about any real, lasting cultural relevance he or his band had. I question whether they were all that influential. Sorry, I don’t think Teenage Head was ever that interesting. Bands like Crass presented an articulate and consistent political message. I might not necessarily agree with it, but it was far more profound than the seeming “let’s get wasted and party” aesthetic that a band like Teenage Head espoused. And I don’t think punk of the late 70s, early 80s was meant to be a lot more than an ephemeral art form. It wasn’t meant to be fawned over and mythologized years later by people who weren’t even there. 

Wilson and his daughter Madeline got up and stated that the statue was tied into an effort to create a health insurance plan for musicians. (Something that like most everything else about this was not communicated.) I guess in an attempt to make people care about this. Their efforts to draw some kind of connection between the two disparate issues just left a vast chasm of “huh?” for everyone in the audience. It seems like a fanciful pipe dream at this point, and one doesn’t follow from the other.

I guess it’s all for naught anyway. His family withdrew their permission for his likeness to be used. They felt as though his legacy had been dragged through the mud, and felt it best to put a stop to it all.

An argument might also be made that there is no statue of Sir Alan Napier MacNab. MacNab may have been a corrupt bastard, but if there was one person who helped build Hamilton into what it is today, it’s him. If anyone from this neighbourhood has real lasting cultural and/or historical import, it’s him.

One of the things that was said about this whole boondoggle was that it was meant to promote the arts.

I don’t think tax dollars should fund the arts. But if they are going to spend that money, and the stated aim is helping artists, be they visual or musical, I don’t think a $200,000 statue (of which the city would suck up $70,000 anyway) is the way to go.

The point I raised is that in some areas there is a really vibrant poster culture. This doesn’t seem to exist here. If you really wanted to do something that could benefit illustrators and designers, silk screeners and printers and musicians (and by extension, the venues), put that money into posters.

Rather than the usual begging on Kijiji for someone to do up a CD cover and/or poster and/or T-shirt design in exchange for a copy of the CD, admission to the release show and some drink tickets, and “exposure”, how about a sum of money that makes it actually worth some creatives time? A large letterpress or silk screened full colour poster could be sent to venues to promote an upcoming tour, and be sold by the band. Both of those things have a demonstrable benefit for an act. Printing it would benefit a business. Hanging it up where the band will play, has a benefit for the venue.

The other point I raised is that my nephew is getting into music, learning to play a few different instruments and showing a fair bit of aptitude. He is fortunate that his parents are capable of purchasing those instruments and paying for lessons. Many people in this city are not so well positioned. If there is a fifth of a million dollars to spend, I would rather see that money go towards buying instruments and lessons for underprivileged kids. Or a practice space for them to come and learn and maybe meet others interested in making music. This seems like a far more worthwhile way to inspire and foment a future generation of music makers than a statue.

If the stated aim is to promote music, how about something that benefits people now and to come, not mythologize someone from the past. 
Oh look. It’s the back of my head.

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