Riff Raff

Morrissey Gets Colored Black on the Outside, Because Black Is How He Feels on the Inside

Morrissey Gets Colored Black on the Outside, Because Black Is How He Feels on the Inside
On Friday, June 4, Brian Brooks woke up and got dressed. He put on one of his favorite T-shirts, the Duran Duran one, the one promoting the band's 1983 album Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Two days later, he did the same thing. Did it on June 12 as well. And June 18. The day before that, however, June 17, was different. That day, he woke up and put on his Def Leppard Hysteria shirt. Does he like Def Leppard? "No, but I think I will someday," he says. Huh? "Life is long," he explains. "And I like a lot of music."

Brian Brooks is 27 years old and lives in Oakland. His T-shirt-wearing habits are amply documented in a book he made, The 21 Most Commonest Shirts Worn by Brian Brooks of the Past Six Months, Vol. 7 (February 13, 1999 - August 13, 1999). Brooks is a graphic designer by trade, and for years he's been making books on the side; by now, he's produced nearly a hundred. Some of them are weird little stories, some are T-shirt catalogs, and some spoof pop-culture figures. All of them are small, black-and-white creations, about 20 to 30 pages long and approximately 3 inches by 4 inches.

And all of them are bizarre -- and hilarious. Especially the ones about rock stars. There's The Baatles, a collection of charcoal drawings of sheep with captions that are puns on Beatles song titles: "I Want to Hold Your Ram," "The Wool on the Hill," "I Want You (Sheeps So Heavy)," "P.S. I Love Ewe," and so forth. An avowed Beatles fan, Brooks has made a series of books devoted to Paul McCartney, including Paul McCartney "Let's Play Sports," which features drawings of the poppy Beatle as a 6-year-old ice skating, jumping hurdles, playing soccer, and pole vaulting.

And then there's the utterly beguiling Yoko Ono Coloring Book, page after page of drawings of Yoko driving trucks: a street sweeper, a snowplow, a delivery van, a backhoe. The truck images come from readily available clip art; Brooks inserts Ono himself. "That one I've never been able to settle down with," Brooks says. "It's the strangest one, and there's really no explanation why she's driving all those trucks. But most coloring books don't really need explanation."

"That clip art's already sitting there," he says, explaining his creative process. "I feel bad for most of the clip art when I look at it, because it's not going to be used for any good purposes." Some of the results are completely absurd: The Frank Zappa Coloring Book simply inserts the late guitar god's mustachioed face onto bodies that are hiking, playing pool, and skiing Or, even better, there's Morrissey Gets a Job, which places the depressive Smiths singer in workplace clip art of employees shuffling through papers, talking in cubicles, staring at charts, or scowling at each other; the captions come from the Smiths tune "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" ("I was looking for a job/ And then I found a job ..."). Queen Baby Coloring Book showcases the band as infants in cribs and strollers, though Freddie Mercury retains his mustache. Earn Enough for Us: XTC Supplementing Their Income 1993-1998 goes a long way toward explaining what the reclusive British band was doing for the past five years or so -- the head of singer Andy Partridge is grafted onto the bodies of a cabbie, a pediatrician, an astronaut, a baker, and a physical therapist.

Brooks' approach calls to mind the French Situationist concept of detournement, in which artists took popular comic strips of the day and reworked them into social commentaries. Brooks listens politely to this suggestion and says, "I don't try to get too philosophical. They're more" -- he pauses, looking for a word -- "fun."

Brooks says he tries to get the books to their subjects whenever possible. He passed the Ono book along to Sean Lennon, with no response, and he claims the McCartney books got him a cease-and-desist order. Grateful Dead management allowed him to continue making and distributing Grateful Dead: Story of the California Gold Rush Coloring Book, which portrays the band members as 1849 country bandits, but he's not allowed to sell it, he says. Brooks also says that the Residents folks loved his Residents: Medieval Coloring Book, and that it was taken on as an official product. However, Hardy Fox of the Cryptic Corp., the Residents' management and licensing arm, says he's never heard of the book.

No matter. Brooks is done with the rock 'n' roll coloring book concept, at least for the time being. "Right now I'm pretty much satisfied. There's gonna be a Nick Lowe one, that's gonna be the next one. Nick Lowe is my all-time favorite. This month." That would seem to suggest that an Elvis Costello book is inevitable. "Probably not for a couple of years," Brooks says. "Nick Lowe's just a little cooler." Regardless, he's looking for other mediums in which to work. "Someday I'm going to get a tattoo of Paul and Yoko on one arm, and John and Linda on the other," he says. "That would be beautiful."

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