THE FINE ART OF FIRECRACKERS

This piece was originally published July 1st, 2013.

Uncle Sam IconGrowing up in the Mystery Box-land that is Providence, RI, it has always been a special treat to await the festivities that are annually celebrated on one larger than life day here in the United States, Independence Day.

The Fourth of July.

I grew up near a beach, so in actuality it was the eve of the Fourth, on the night of the Third of July that was the real party, with everyone making bonfires along the beach, and lighting more illegal fireworks than could be imagined.

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Nothing goes better with fireworks than liquor and bonfires on a beach

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The actual day of the Fourth was always reserved more for cookouts, seafood boils, parades and hangovers, with fireworks generally relegated to the larger displays by the local municipalities or baseball stadiums, and whatever scant few firecrackers were still unlit from the night before by the plebeians were casually used—making for an occasional pop and crack here and there throughout the day and night.

Fireworks in RI and MA were illegal. You needed to have someone run a trip up to New Hampshire and fill the trunk of their car, a flatbed, or the back of their truck with enough to satisfy families, friends and seemingly, entire neighborhoods. I can’t recall anyone ever being arrested for using fireworks, as it seemed that unless you really put folks in harm’s way, the local law enforcement looked the other way and enjoyed the spectacle like everyone else. Oh, and did I forget to mention that we had a family friend who was a policeman, and he usually supplied us with loads of firework every year.

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Get your illegal fireworks here!

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The laws for firework use in the United States has always been a touchy mess of a state by state thing. Sort of like marijuana. I remember that sparklers, black snakes and poppers were always fine to have around, but in many states, for anything larger strict local approval was needed.

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Sparklers are fun until you discover the good stuff…

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Speaking of black snakes, after you lit them, the payoff was always highly disappointing. Instead of what the artwork depicted you would unleash upon a terrified crowd: a long, fierce and venomous, creepy snake-like object, you usually ended up with a short, harmlessly ineffective, grey turd.

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State by state, the sale of fireworks for consumer use dwindled to fewer and fewer states, realizing that the extra taxes and profits to be made outweighed any safety concerns.

Then in June of 2010, the ban was lifted in RI, as it had been in so many states before, and fireworks were made legal to sell and use by consumers.

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Rhode Island joins in the Fourth Of July spirit by legalizing fireworks in 2010
(photo  © Bob Thayer / Providence Journal )

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Stores large and small throughout the state scrambled to stock fireworks for the oncoming 4th, and everywhere you saw hand-made signs happily supplying the punters willing to shell out a few clams, all manner of exploding thrill.

A glorious time was to be had for all—except of course for the sensitive ears of babies, pets and anyone else who had a particular disdain for this incendiary nastiness.

Me, I have always been drawn to the sparkle and boom of the tiny joy of individual gunpowder delights.

I even lit packs of them off many times while appearing onstage in a band!

Having had many a small firecracker blow off in my fingers, I was as comfortable with firecrackers as I was reading comic books. It was not a pleasant experience for the fingers, but seemed to be a one of the rituals of growing up.

 

A typical pack of firecrackers, still wrapped

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We called even the smallest of firecrackers “salutes,” especially the small ones that came in packs, but in actually, the term is usually used more for the larger devices that we also often obtained—and believe me, these were not something you want to have explode near your fingers, head or body: cherry bombs, M-80s, quarter sticks, half sticks, and though you would now be getting into serious dynamite territory, full sticks.

I think about it now I have to say I was extremely lucky that nothing serious ever happened, so please—don’t do what I did!

The earliest use of fireworks are attributed to the Chinese during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.)  who had discovered that the air pockets in bamboo would explode when thrown into a fire and left for a length of time.

The Chinese name for firecracker is Baozhu, which means “exploding bamboo”.

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Ancient Chinese bamboo firework

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The Chinese retained this name because once you had the invention of gunpowder and used it for a rolled up firecracker, you still had something that looked like a small bamboo-like object. The use of them originally was for scaring off evil spirits.

Tied packs of these small firecrackers were then introduced, and for the most part until the 80′s, were still handmade low tech devices using black powder, and later flash powder, for the explosive part.

Much of the appeal for myself, was always the artwork on a pack of firecrackers, calling me to a world of strange enchantment filled with danger or exotic travels, with the most famous of all firecracker art being theBlack Cat brand.

 
 

Here then, are small few of my favorite jewels of the pyrotechnics industry.

This is a tiny fraction of the number I could easily share with you. These are mostly of the vintage variety, but some, as you can see, are more recent styles, and the images should speak for themselves.

So, as you enjoy this delirious art of the “big bang,”  please sit back and raise a glass of celebration to the multitude of fireworks workers that have toiled since the 7th century, all for our simple fun and merry joy.

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Have a happy and safe Fourth Of July everyone!

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BOB PEAK: American Illustrator Superstar

This piece was originally published June 1&th, 2013

Bob Peak Icon TemplateThere are times here at Mystery Box H.Q. when I set out to write about a subject that I feel is so undeniably a legend, so incredibly talented beyond mere words, and such a large influential part of the fabric of popular culture, that I start to feel…to say it in two words— humbly intimidated.

Bob Peak is one of those subjects.

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SURF ROCK GOES “TOO FAR” WITH THE RETURN OF SUSAN SURFTONE

This piece was originally published June 3rd, 2013.

Susan Surftone Too Far Icon TemplateAh, it’s almost Summertime again my friends.

Nothing goes better in these warm, delightful days of the Sun, than a few road trip adventures motoring off to a little seaside vista accompanied by some wild and woolly instrumental surf rock.

Simply put, well played surf rock never goes out of style.

Like many fans of the surf rock genre, I have never actually surfed, but since I was a child, the early Beach Boys records made an indelible impression. Like many other “Kooks,” I too have been catching that mythical wave and mentally “getting barreled” for years.

More recently, I have been digging a superb practitioner of this music, Susan Surftone. She is easily one of the best boss gals to ever sling a guitar and create her own wonderful surf rock sounds.

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THE MUSEUM OF BAD ART

This piece was originally published May 20th, 2013.

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“An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”

— Andy Warhol

 

“Most people in America think Art is a man’s name.”

— Andy Warhol

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You’ve heard of Night Gallery? The Rod Serling television series that was his brilliant follow up to The Twilight Zone and featured a gallery of horrific and nightmarish paintings tied into each episodes’ plot that still resound with an eerie intensity with viewers decades after the show’s original airing.

Well this is more a case of welcome to a world of art that one might say is best viewed with the lights out at night…

 

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John Currin’s 1991 painting Bea Arthur Naked recently sold for 1.9 million dollars at Christie’s auction house.

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Remembering SEAN HARTTER: Awesome Across The Universe(s)

This piece was originally published May 6th, 2013.

SH Post TemplateI still find this difficult to believe and am writing this piece while still in a state of grief and sadness.

On Friday April 27th, 2013 without warning, the world lost illustrator/comic book artist Sean Hartter at the early age of 39.

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Yazoo Records delivers us THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF

This post was originally published April 22nd, 2013.

Robert Crumb Blues Icon TemplateWhen I think of the most obsessively fanatical collectors that populate our planet, I have to give the prize to record collectors.  Even well beyond folks that seek out rare comic books, watches, autographs or toys, it is the passion of music enthusiasts seeking out that rare vinyl LP, forgotten release, or long thought lost recording, that can turn many an individual into a deviously sneaky, frothing at the mouth, crazed addict.

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As evidenced by this past weekend’s annual holiday for the record collecting fan, Record Store Day, turnouts around the world were huge, as independent music shops celebrated what has become their biggest retail day of the year.

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Folks swarmed shops everywhere in an attempt to purchase the many exclusive limited edition vinyl titles that record labels the world over released on this special day.

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Music fans are still crazy for vinyl, and the demand for LP’s and singles is increasing by the year.

Some things never change.

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THE ROLLING STONES: SOME GIRLS Live in Texas ’78

This piece was originally published April 8th, 2013.

Some Girls still stCharlie Watts Some Girls Icon Templateands today as one of The Rolling Stones last incredible album masterpieces.

While they certainly made some outstanding albums afterwards—Tattoo You and Undercover are both high points—there were none that would be so perfectly complete as Some Girls.

Released in 1978 and quickly becoming a #1 album, it is hailed as an across the board classic, and one of their all time best selling studio albums.

Recorded in ’77 & early ’78, the writing and sessions were done amidst a time of even more internal turmoil than usual for The Stones, with Keith Richards’ looming Toronto drug bust a concern as to whether he could be imprisoned for years, and the challenge of responding to punk rock’s ground zero takedown of the dinosaurs of many of rock and roll’s giants.

 

The original cover art (there was also another color variant cover) to the 
Some Girls album, spoofing a wig ad is brilliant. The cover was quickly changed 
when copyright issues came up regarding the various female celebrities depicted.

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THE UNDERGROUND X-RAY RECORDS OF THE SOVIET UNION

This piece was originally published March 25th, 2013.

Soviet X Ray Records IconIt’s easy to take entertainment for granted.

In our present day we have the ability to purchase and enjoy so many recreational items: play a video game, listen to whatever it is we want, watch whatever we want, and, though there are still many folks out there who wish they could control our choices, read any books we can find.

Folks happily embrace the technology that has made obtaining our selections quick, simple and affordable, and we think nothing now of versions that exist only on the ether, or rather—on a cloud.

Still others, myself included, like to seek out older formats and what some will call obsolete mediums.

Some of these formats such as the vinyl LP have actually increased in their yearly sales and there are constantly new purveyors now marketing records, both for new album releases and reissuing older releases.

The annual April celebration event for small independent record shops around the world, Record Store Day, has increased popularity and made it a huge success. For many of these brick and mortar stores and the independent record labels that send exclusive items for sale on that day, it is their best retail day of the year.

Long thought dead formats such as 78 r.p.m. records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, VHS tapes and laser discs, still have numerous aficionados and collectors that will readily discuss at great length their obsessions and collections. In fact, there are even record labels, bands and filmmakers that choose to only release their output on some of these “antique” formats.

It wasn’t always this easy though…

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Bryan Ferry’s THE JAZZ AGE: A Masterpiece In Mono

This piece was originally published February 25th, 2013.

The 1920′s was a time not that unlike the 1960′s in that it was a period when new fashions, new music and new freedoms were celebrated with a youthful exuberance that sought to shake off those of the older established mainstream.

It was a time of partying and cheering for the end of the previous dark period of World War I, a time where women’s suffrage was peaking and was subsequently celebrated with the rise of the independently-minded, adventurously daring Flappers.

Most notably, it was a glorious time for a musical genre called Jazz that had seen its birth in the African American communities of New Orleans, and was now seen as the dance band choice of the young and young-minded everywhere.


Image of Bryan Ferry Orchestra


With radio broadcasts playing a large part in spreading the zest of Jazz, as well as folks flocking to dance-halls to see the bands themselves, Jazz became the rebellious music.

Bryan Ferry is no stranger to rebellion. Beginning as a part-time art teacher, his band Roxy Music released their stunningly original self-titled debut album in 1972.

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BEWARE OF MR. BAKER: GINGER BAKER VS. HIMSELF

This piece was originally published February 11th, 2013.

Even when I thought I knew just about everything creative, compulsive and crazed when it came to tales of the man and his music, I saw this film and realized my knowledge was only a small part of a wilder story.

  Beware of Mr. Baker is a documentary on the life of the legendary British rock drummer with a mane of flame and the eyes of a madman, Ginger Baker.

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