Royal Trux sells out with 'revamped trash-rock aesthetic'

By Noah Lopez

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Royal Trux

Thank You

Virgin Records

Out of all the chaos that ensued when venerable rock deconstructionists Pussy Galore fell apart in the late '80s, nothing could be more surprising than the success of PG splinter group Royal Trux.

Former Pussy Galore members Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty brought their junkie-addled take on early '70s cock rock to Royal Trux in 1988. Since that time, Royal Trux has released four albums and a handful of singles, the critical acclaim of which has brought them to their first major label contract and debut, Thank You.

The surprises attached to the band's first major label signing are many. For one, it's surprising that the band and its chief members are even still around. Hagerty's and Herrema's heroin problems are legendary, as are the conflicts they've created with other labels. The two blew a recording advance from Matador records on smack, and there have been extended periods of time where the two didn't have a living situation to speak of.

Also seeming to stand in the way of major label success is the trash-rock aesthetic, held over from the Pussy Galore days, that has remained ingrained in the Royal Trux sound. In fact, the two other major PG offshoots, Boss Hog and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, have, for the most part, lost most of the noise that at one time marked all the Pussy Galore excursions, and have adopted a more accessible sound. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Royal Trux was the first PG related band to sign to a major, especially considering the more established commercial success that Boss Hog and the Blues Explosion have had.

In the band's press release, Neil Hagerty calls the new album their "first album," insinuating that the work leading up to Thank You was nothing more than demo work. Upon listening to the album, this statement comes across like a bold euphemism. Never before in the annals of modern rock history has a group revamped their sound so deftly as Royal Trux has for their debut album. Perhaps Hagerty should have just uttered the dreaded words that will always perpetuate the fabled indie vs. major label debate "We sold out."

Thank You is a tiring knock off of early '70s Rolling Stones. And while Hagerty played on Pussy Galore's mythical version of the Stones' Exile on Main Street album, he is unable to pull it off here. Thank You never rises above watered down Red Red Meat, its songs full of rock cliches and boredom. It seems that the closest Royal Trux can come to reliving '70s rock is by strutting out bad Urge Overkill attempts at the stadium cock rock of the era. But while UO has a tongue firmly placed in cheek, Royal Trux is sincerely trying to recreate the sound. No song stands out as particularly bad or good, they all just seem to be rammed together in a mediocre mess.

It will still be interesting to see how the mainstream reacts to the infusion of Pussy Galore-related trash-rock. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for the recently- signed-to-Geffen-records Boss Hog or Jon Spencer (who is touring with the Beastie Boys) to find out.

tions. The total cost per person to fund the NEA amounts to less than 65 cents a year.

The same document also estimates that the nonprofit arts community, which relies heavily on federal funding for survival, returns $3.4 billion in tax money to the government every year. The NEA's appropriation is less than the cost of maintaining the U.S. military's marching bands.

Yet since 1989, federal funding of the arts has been questioned on both federal and state levels, targeted as a frivolous use of taxpayer's money, and a gesture of charity to a group of left-wing elitists who promote pornography and political correctness.

"People have strong feelings about what the arts should do," said Alexander in an interview with Steve Proffitt for the L.A. Times. "When certain organizations ... choose to isolate specific works of art they don't find appealing, or find offensive, then it gets picked up by the media, because it excites people," she added.

Senators Robert Byrd and Jesse Helms have even stronger feelings about the subject. Helms once referred to controversial artists who receive federal funding as "human cockroaches who have repeatedly bullied their way into the pocketbooks of Americans who pay taxes."

Historically, government funding of the arts is a relatively recent phenomenon. President Kennedy pushed for a federal advisory agency on the arts as a part of his New Frontier program. Rejected by Congress, Kennedy intended to create the committee by executive order, a plan cut short by his assassination in 1963. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society made Kennedy's dream a reality by establishing a National Council on the Arts in 1964, and calling for direct government support of the arts and humanities.

Public Law 209, signed in 1965, established the NEA and provided funds for "the arts," a category including everything from folk art to industrial design, television to dance. More importantly, the bill subsidized the cost of artwork exhibitions and performances, not just the work of individual artists. Addressing the press after signing the bill, President Johnson said, "We in America have not always been kind to the artists and scholars who are the creators and keepers of our vision. Somehow, the scientists always seem to get the penthouse, and the humanities get the basement ... This bill ... will bring active support to this great national asset."

The NEA and its companion programs, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Institute for Museum Services, and the more recent Corporation for Public Broadcasting, function as general clearinghouses for federal funds. Appropriated funds are distributed to state and local arts commissions for redistribution within communities, usually handled at the county or city level. Less than 5 percent of the funds go to individual artists, with the main bulk going to symphonies and dance companies, museums, and education programs. NEA grants are given on a need-based criteria, to non-profit enterprises or programs that exist as a public service.

"It's seed money," Alexander says. In many cases, federal funding is less than 20 percent of the budget of the organizations it supports. The remaining funds come through private and corporate donations, various grant programs, and public "pledges" such as those solicited by public television and radio. Alexander said "We award grants, and people then have the federal (approval). They can say, 'Look, the NEA believes in us,' and use that to raise money from other sources."

Critics of the NEA contend that federal funds will be replaced by corporate and private donations, and maintained by modern business practices. Don Burgess, General manager of KUAT/KUAZ Radio and Television disagrees."

"Privitizing is a euphemism for commercialism," he said. "The reason for our existence would be erased, because we would have to begin advertising to build revenue," he added, "and that would cause us to lose memberships." Burgess says that most of the programs available on public television would disappear without federal funding. "There's a difference in creating a program for education, and creating one to sell commercial space."

The arts are also under fire from those wanting to trim "soft" social programs. "Talking about the arts leads to quality of life issues, which are hard to quantify," says Laura Tyson, a member of the Arizona Council on the Arts, "and this makes the arts an easy target." She believes that money isn't the issue in question: "Cutting federal funding to the arts will not even begin to solve our problem (the federal deficit). This isn't an argument over money, but over the role of government."

The fundamental question about the NEA and its accompanying programs is whether the government be in the business of promoting the arts.

Early in the history of federal funding of the arts, many organizations were wary of government involvement. Joseph W. Zeigler's book, Arts In Crisis, documents the early days of federal funding. According to Zeigler's research, in 1953, a survey of the members of the American Symphony Orchestra League found that 99 percent of board members were opposed to federal aid. By 1962, that number was down to 43 percent in rural areas, but the board members of large companies were still voting 95 percent against federal aid. Many artists were opposed on the grounds that preferential funding by the government would result in mediocre, non-controversial artworks that kept to a "party line."

By its very nature, the NEA must pick and choose which artists to fund, and which do not deserve funding, a process that has been the source of charges of "censorship" by both the arts communities and their representatives. According to Alexander, there are only two criteria the NEA uses to determine funding: "artistic excellence and merit."

Yet this puts the NEA in a double bind: does controversial work have merit? Who will determine which artists have excellence and merit, and which do not?

The decisions about the conferral of grants take place largely within the arts communities. Local board members are most often artists or people involved in arts education. Disputes often arise when the arts committees fund artwork that conflicts with a community's expectations, such as the conflict over the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1990.

"People want to begin to talk about art," Alexander said. "When they don't understand some kind of new art, it can anger them ... When it's inaccessible, they begin to resent it, and to undervalue art in general."

But Alexander thinks that community involvement in arts funding is important: "I think it's healthy, because it represents a sort of populist movement about art that every citizen can be engaged, can be a participant in the arts in one way or another."

The question remains as to whether the federal government should fund the arts, or leave it up to communities to support their artists.

"The arts are part of the social needs that deserve funding, because of equity issues in government the government should fund all programs that there is a demand for, not just programs that turn a profit." Citing the fact that most grants go to artists just starting out, Alexander contends that federal funds enrich a community in countless ways.

In the period between 1965-1975, The first ten years after the NEA was implemented, the number of professional orchestras doubled, professional dance companies grew in number from 37 to 157, and community arts agencies grew from 175 to 900. There were also dramatic increases in the number of independent presses, professional theaters, state arts agencies, and community cultural centers. These numbers don't necessarily reflect the quality or quantity of art being produced, but they do reflect a trend toward increased levels of public access to the arts.

Federal funding of social programs has been controversial since the writing of the constitution, and funding of the arts will always generate controversy and dissent. Alexander and the supporters of the NEA feel that the cost of one can of soda, and occasional controversy, are small prices to pay for the huge flowering of the American arts community that resulted from federal funding. In a time of tightening budgets and an increasingly conservative, streamlined government, federal funding of the arts will continue to be under fire.

This is the first article in a two-part series about federal funding of the arts. The next installment will appear in next week's alterNation.

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