Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Graphically Speaking: Giraffes in My Hair



Words: Jared Gniewek

Giraffes in My Hair: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Life is a memoir that chronicles Bruce Paley’s life from his teenage wandering hippie days in the late sixties through the end of the seventies, living in a squat on the lower east side. It is a trough of information…of impressions of a world we who grew up in the counterculture of the nineties can barely understand. Every generation must struggle to create that which is taken for granted by the following one. Being a hippie or a punk nowadays, for example, is as easy as a self proclamation and a trip to a shopping mall. Being a hippie or a punk got guys my age beaten up in high school, it got guys Bruce’s age dead.

The book is deeply personal but doesn’t get bogged down with self service or making a Titan out of a man. I love that here we have a view of some of the seedier sides of counterculture that doesn’t have an agenda beyond the act of sharing…of storytelling. It feels like a recounting, almost a journalistic telling of the facts of his personal history. But it also feels like you’re having a great dinner with an old friend.

The moral center isn’t immediately visible, I’m happy to say, although many of the stories do have a moral at the ending. We can learn through Bruce’s triumphs and mistakes, but it doesn’t feel didactic. I don’t think he wants to share life lessons with us as much as share the way the life lessons he puzzled out affected his own growth as a man.
The book begins with a young wandering Bruce on the road and sleeping in cars while avoiding the draft (in a sad and inspirational bit of storytelling where I felt “sold” on this book) and ends with him having clinical depressing sex with a prostitute while living as a recovering heroin addict on the lower east side in Manhattan.

We are seeing a narrative which explores the ways in which we are educated about ourselves. Part of living a rock ‘n’ roll life is the surrendering of yourself to the act of experimentation, be it drugs, music, or sex… I mean isn’t that the phrase? Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The book doesn’t disappoint in any of these regards. To those of us who feel more spiritual about rock music than religion this book is a soul-swelling revival.

This type of book can stray pretty easily into Forrest Gump territory. Where Bruce would be at every event that the Baby Boomer generation would deem important and all would have the gilding of nostalgia to it. I have nothing against nostalgia, it's good to be aware of it as an influencing agent, however, and I felt that attempts were made to keep it to a minimum. It’s certainly there but it doesn’t detract at any point from the stories. I never once noticed rose colored glasses but rather an open honesty about his present day feelings about the events and people involved. The chapter chronicling Bruce in Chicago before the Democratic National Convention and going home after seeing the guns and plans of a local Black Panthers chapter, as well as the chapter regarding Johnny Thunders was as close as it got. And even then it was minimal. I never got the sense reading this that it was a love letter to a generation that has already spent quite a bit of time in the sun dictating public tastes.

I like that Bruce is constantly questioning himself. He wonders when he will give in and get a button-down job. It hovers over him like an inevitable. It’s like a social suicide. When it all gets to be too much you can always run into a cubicle or an office and rot inside your computerized coffin. He refers to this option several times throughout the book and it is a spectre which haunts him. Too often, we see the unrepentant or overly repentant in drama. Bruce strikes a good balance.
In the end, the book chronicles a life. He is born on the roads. Educated by himself through encounters, hobos, Kerouac, mistakes, and successes. Childhood doesn’t matter. His family doesn’t matter. He is given up to a stepmother at nineteen but there is nothing in the book that leads one to believe that his familial relationships were at all important to him before this point. His “rock ‘n’ roll life” begins and ends with this book.

As a graphic novel it is very strong. Carol Swain’s rough-layered pencils are distinct and complex with texture. The pacing sticks mainly to simple grids and has a very smooth rollicking rhythm (like rock ‘n’ roll itself). The sharp angles can get pretty extreme for the subject matter, but having such a transparent narrative voice creates a need for art that matches suit. Less evocative, straight storytelling art simply wouldn’t serve the pieces. It needs to be a little rough around the edges and a little wild in its approach. It works.

Giraffes achieves a fusion of art and story where each serves the other in a mutually empowering way. An ideal comic. It is sharp and witty visual commentary on sharp and witty writing. There is a great eye for details at play with Swain’s artwork. Some of it is downright whimsical, the ending of the story where a hash deal goes bad has a wonderful three panel progression of focusing in on first a facsimile of a drug smuggling stuffed animal and then Bruce himself facing and beneath it in the composition.

It is as though the story and memory of the story are more important than the teller himself. Brilliant.


Jared Gniewek has worked in the music industry as a back line technician, performer, and promoter. He has also been a freelance writer whose work can be seen in the recent re-launch of Tales from the Crypt and heard on The Dark Sense, an audio anthology of the macabre for which he is also the story editor. Jared’s blog, Die By The Pen, outlines his philosophies and personal quest as a writer.