Roughly 10 years ago, artist Jonathan Blum was sunning on a beach in Massachusetts. “I remember asking myself,” he says, “‘Will I be drawing Bert for the rest of my life?’”
Blum, now 33, had been drawing a single-panel comic strip featuring the top part of a head; he used the enlarged area between the eyebrows and the hairline as a space for words. Soon, he began rendering his vision on a larger scale, rarely averting his gaze from the forehead regionalthough in later years that region has become more loosely defined, encompassing basically the whole head except for the chin. The walls and tabletops of Blum’s Capitol Hill studio-home are littered with what he calls his “cropped portraits”of family members; of Beethoven, whom he’s made bald just for the hell of it; and of a pensive, downward-glancing rabbi which has become one of the non-practicing Jew’s more prominent subjects of late.
“People get so bombarded with information and images,” says Blum, a District native, “and I think it’s important to limit yourself. I’m a forehead specialist.”
But the forehead of Bert, the iconic puppet, preoccupies a good part of Blum’s oeuvre. The artist holds a monoprint of his most famous subject. “Bert’s just so interesting,” he says of the Sesame Street character. “I’ve painted Ernie before, but it’s just not the same.”
With the possible exception of Ernie, the artist is perhaps our foremost expert on Bert’s headthe very vertical, elongated skull, the monobrow, the tuft of hair that resembles a slightly sinister goatee grown in the wrong place. A Sesame Street bedsheet serves as a curtain in Blum’s studio, but he claims no abnormal fascination with the children’s show. Instead, he calls Bert his “alter ego.” He’s painted the puppet’s image into a variety of contexts over the years: Sometimes Bert’s the main subject, other times Bert merely makes a cameo in the corner of a landscape.
While Blum says that Bert is present in only 10 percent of his work, the character is certainly his most popular muse. Blum’s shown his work several times overseas”They love Bert in other countries,” he saysbut mostly he peddles his wares at Eastern Market, where Bert’s become a semi-famous presence over the past six years. This Friday, when the Market celebrates its 125th anniversary and the Market 5 Gallery celebrates its 25th, Blum will unveil Bert Leaves Eastern Market, which is, essentially, the puppet’s swan song.
“I’ve been feeling sort of confined by Bert for a while now,” Blum admits, “and I feel like I need to force a change.” In the final painting, priced at $5,000, Bert looks sad and just a little worrieda fair representation of how Blum feels about sending the character into retirement. Consciously or not, the end has been foreshadowed in Blum’s other work: The Rise and Fall of Bert as a Color Study comes to mind. But Blum harbors no regrets. “People keep asking me why I’m doing this. My mom’s like, ‘Why are you giving up Bert?’ For me, it’s sort of like breaking up with a girlfriend. It’s something that I feel I need to do.”Brett Anderson
Back in January ’58, Billy Poore, a seventh-grader at St. Francis de Sales Catholic School in Northeast D.C., had a revelation that had nothing to do with religion: Like always, he had scampered home from class to catch Milt Grant’s TV dance show, but when he saw female rocker Jo Anne Campbell on the screen, young Billy was slain and forever changed: “She came on that old TV screen with a guitar slung around her neck, wearin’ a skin-tight one-piece spangled toreador pants outfit that glittered,” he writes in his new memoir, RockABilly: A 40 Year Journey.
“It wasn’t just that outfit and them good looks. It was also what she was doin’. I knew even back then she was lip-synchin’ to her rockin’ song, but it didn’t matter, ’cause the way she rocked, shook, bumped, and moved while playin’ and slingin’ her guitar around, as well as turnin’ sideways and pointin’ it atcha with a pout on her face while she was growlin’ out this rockabilly tune I’d never heard, was just a killer memory that’s lasted a whole lifetime for me.”
It wasn’t long before Poore became a dancer on The Milt Grant Show, where he met Campbell and all the other stars of the popular D.C. program. Years later, even as Poore got into the music biz as a promoter and later as a songwriter and producer, he has remained, above all, a fansome would argue the world’s most rabid rockabilly fan.
In the talkin’ prose style of his articles for Kicks and other fanzines, Poore’s new book culminates four decades chasing the ghost of Eddie Cochran, one of the few rockabilly legends Poore never got a chance to meet: “I didn’t want to call it a history, ’cause you’ll leave somebody out,” he says by phone from Linden, Tenn., where he’s lived since the early ’90s. “This is everybody in the genre who I ever met or came in contact with or bought a record by.” RockABilly runs the gamut from such obscurities as Campbellbilled as the “Blond Bombshell”to such icons as Charlie Feathers and Elvis, who, in his final years, befriended Poore.
For Poore, RockABilly further proves that his favorite music has somehow managed to survive, despite setbacks like the British Invasion (“fuckin’ Freddie and the Dreamers,” sneers Poore) and later fraudulent revivalists the Stray Cats. “Rockabilly never died,” says Poore. “It went into the fuckin’ firehalls and the Moose Lodges. Rockabilly and the people who love it were always there.”
If RockAbilly’s secret hero is cult figure Feathers (a family friend of Poore’s until his death two months ago), then its villain is American Bandstand’s Dick Clark. Poore is still miffed that the publishers censored some of his Dick-bashing: “That goddam Dick Clark is a ruthless money-mongererhe never cared about the artists,” says Poore. “He let Jackie Wilson die up there in New Jerseyhe was playing the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill on a Dick Clark oldies show, had the stroke, and he was in a coma for nine fuckin’ years and died penniless, and that fart Dick Clark didn’t give a shit, but they wouldn’t let me get that in the damn book.”
Poore has also released a companion CD to the book, Renegade Rockabilly, featuring songs he produced for his indie label over the past three decades. The 25-track compilationall but three never before releasedis a fine document of Washington’s once-burgeoning rockabilly scene: Highlights include Tex Rubinowitz’s “Rockabilly Rules” (allegedly swiped, without credit, by Brian Setzer), recorded in ’89 at the Severna Park Elks Lodge, one of the much-missed Rubinowitz final shows; Evan Johns and the Good Humor Band’s “30 Miles Outside of Richmond”; and a rare Charlie Feathers solo acoustic number, “It’s Just That Song,” Poore’s favorite on the collection. “To me, that’s not rockabilly,” he says of the mournful song, recorded in Memphis in ’77, just as Feathers was being championed in Europe. “That’s about as soulful sounding Delta hillbilly as you can get.”Eddie Dean
Billy Poore will sign copies of his book and CD at 2 p.m. Saturday at Tower Records in Rockville.