Anatomy of an Album Cover
I had been driving by the Carson Refinery for years and always felt drawn to it as an image. I find the superimposition of the gigantic American flag beneath three billowing smokestacks to be a flagrant Fascist middle finger to all living creatures who breathe air.
In the latter half of the ‘00s, I played guitar for a female-fronted punk rock band called Bull Lee. I originally wanted to shoot a video in front of the refinery, with the band rocking out and the hideous symbol of everything that’s wrong with America as the backdrop. Despite the fact that our bass player was a film director, we never did a video. And knowing what I know now, I realize that it never would have been possible to shoot one in front of the Carson Refinery.
When I started writing songs for a solo concept album dealing with perpetual war and the loss of liberties in post-9/11 America, I knew that the Carson Refinery had to be on the cover. And there was no one more suited to do the photography than my good friend, Kate McGray.
Kate had been the honorary “fifth member” of Bull Lee. She went to more of our gigs than not, and shot hundreds of live-action photos of us on stage each time. One of the best things about playing those shows was looking at the photos the next day (we often weren’t playing for very big audiences, but Kate being there with her camera made it all worthwhile). She helped us step our game up. Every show we did, we’d try to make it so the photos topped the one before.
A few years ago, Kate made a trip to Cuba. Before she went, I made sure to arrange a meeting between her and my good friend Hector Feirreiro (who also just happens to be the bass player on the album I’m writing about here). Hector was born and raised in Cuba. In the late 1990s, he, his father and brother escaped the island on a raft and spent six months in Guantanamo after being picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. They were eventually admitted to the U.S. and have been here ever since.
I wanted Kate to meet Hector before her trip because he had often told me about how when Americans go to Cuba, they don’t see the true conditions of the country, and many times return with idealistic exaggerations of a “socialist paradise”. He told her that if she wanted to see the real Cuba, she needed to sneak out of the tourist areas, and mingle with the peasant population (which is as illegal as it is for the peasants to go into the tourist spots). He warned her not to do this alone, but she did it anyway. When she returned, Kate told me that based on her experience, she believed that the island of Cuba is indeed a prison.
Anyway, tying all this together, one of Kate’s many adventures in Cuba was having her camera taken by a policeman who saw her shooting photographs in a park. She convinced him to give it back to her, but he made her delete the photos she had taken.
As Kate and I parked in a restaurant parking lot across the street from the refinery that sunny Saturday in July, I had a gut feeling that we would not be alone for long, and that we’d better get the photos done ASAP. She wasn’t very worried about it, but I told her that America was a lot more like Cuba than she might think these days. Minutes later, as she started snapping photos, I noticed a white-haired man come out of the restaurant and make a call on a cell phone as he looked in our direction. Somehow I knew he was calling the police.
Then sure enough, after taking maybe a half-dozen photos, a police car pulled up and the officer who got out of the car wanted to know why we were taking photos. The following is my best recollection of the conversation:
Officer: What are you guys doing here today?
Kate: Taking pictures
Kate: Because it’s fun
Officer: What are you going to do with them?
Kate: Nothing, it’s just fun
Officer: You must be doing this for a reason
Me: No, just look at that thing, it’s amazing
Officer: Well it’s a bit sketchy these days taking photos of industrial structures, you’d better skidaddle…
The officer made it clear to us by rolling his eyes that he had no choice but to force us to leave. He followed us out of the parking lot to be sure we didn’t come back.
I researched the Carson Refinery after I got home that day. It was owned by British Petroleum before it was sold earlier this year. The thought that Americans are not allowed to take photographs of a long-time foreign-owned landmark in an American city that pollutes American air, with a giant American flag on it – the supposed symbol of the very freedoms that are being violated – is extremely offensive to me.
Yet, the experience only strengthens the case for making this album about the new American police-state that more and more of us are waking up to. It turns out the cover idea is more appropriate than I could have imagined (thanks to Kate and artist, Joey Mann for making it a reality). Please support this project while you can. I am not sure how much longer we will be able to tell the truth in America, artistically or otherwise.
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