We’ve All Gone Solo #15 (Paul Kossoff)

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The lasting mystique of the late proto-heavy lead guitarist Paul Kossoff can be at least anecdotally explained by something I witnessed many years back. I was waiting for a train on the Green Line platform of Boston’s Government Center subway station. As a D Line trolley groaned its way around a tight curve into the station, I noticed a young guy with a guitar case and another in a jean jacket a few feet away. The three of us boarded by the same door without much room to move further in.

Then it starts. Jean Jacket asks the first guy what kind of guitar he has. A Gibson SG. “That’s the model that Pete Townshend played at Woodstock,” Jean Jacket says, a bit too loudly. JJ turns out to be one of those music fans with a nerd streak a mile wide: long on enthusiasm and short on reading social cues. For three stops and several long minutes, he regaled the polite guitar guy (and by extension, everyone else) with a variety of cross-cutting and volume-intensive opinions on a whole range of classic-rock guitar greats.

Sometimes these opinions canceled each other out (“Obviously, Eric Clapton is THE MAN, but Jeff Beck is the BEST guitarist the Yardbirds ever had”). He also engaged in a futile self-debate on the relative merits of Ritchie Blackmore vs. Jimmy Page and gushed about Ozzie Osbourne’s doomed axeman, Randy Rhoads.

Me and the rest of the passengers bonded in a group cringe. Finally, as the train whined its way into Arlington Street station where he would mercifully disembark, Jean Jacket says, “But my all-time favorite guitarist is—and I shouldn’t say this too loudly…”

An older man behind me piped up. “That hasn’t stopped you so far!” Jean Jacket, slightly abashed, looked around as if just noticing there were other people around. But it didn’t stop him from providing the answer: Tommy Bolin.

Pysche!! You thought he was going to say Paul Kossoff, am I right? Not to worry. The lead guitarist of Free was one of the names glowingly (if artlessly) mentioned. Looking back, JJ had summoned up a previously unrecognized “25 Club” of martyred hard rock guitarists as Kossoff, Rhoads and Bolin (who had played in the James Gang and Deep Purple) all died at that age. But it’s Kossoff who stands out both for his skill and his tragic story arc.

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Paul was born in 1950 in the Hampstead district of London, son of screen actor David Kossoff. His music-loving son caught the blues bug like many others back then and was something of a prodigy: at age 15 he helped start a band (Black Cat Bones) that would eventually be opening for Fleetwood Mac. But it was his second band, formed with BCB drummer Simon Kirke that really took off at made him a star by age 20. Together with singer Paul Rodgers and bassist Andy Fraser, the group Free was in the vanguard of the “heavy rock” sound, though they were lighter on their feet than most in the genre. The rhythm section was supple, making the bed for Rodgers’ distinctively gruff and masculine vocals. And almost every song would feature a notable guitar lead from Kossoff, not necessarily showy but full of dramatic sustain and bent notes that never failed to grab the listener’s attention. His style was very influential even among his older contemporaries and Clapton himself petitioned Paul to show him his vibrato technique.

When Free hit their stride on their third LP (Fire and Water) they were poised for the big time. They had a huge transatlantic hit (“All Right Now”) and in the UK were rapturously received by crowds at their dynamic live performances, including a slot at the 1970 Isle of Wight in front of 600,000. But as with so many groups, relations between group members were fraught, sometimes remarkably so. This was especially so between Rodgers and Fraser, who started out as writing partners and quickly progressed to bitter adversaries. Fraser boldly assumed most of the band decision making and it caused deep resentment with both Rodgers and Kossoff, the guitarist saying “in the studio I felt like a sound or a technique to be used—the guitar man rather than myself.” Moreover, Kossoff was one of those prototypical show-biz types who had large reserves of both talent and insecurity, exacerbated in an age when hard drugs were plentiful and there was little stigma attached to its use. Paul’s addiction problems soon became intractable. Free broke up in 1971, but Kossoff was sent into such a downward emotional spiral that the group reformed for his sake but could not regain their momentum and Kossoff’s dependence on heroin and Mandrax continued apace.

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Kossoff and Paul Rodgers, back when they were Free.

Of course, Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke would go on to form Bad Company. Kossoff did some session work for Jim Capaldi and others and issued his first solo album, Back Street Crawler, in 1973. Despite the health problems brought on by his drug dependency, this is a remarkably vital album in many ways and shows what could have been a great way forward for him. The opener “Tuesday Morning” starts out with a fairly standard blooze-rock riff and you sort of prepare for a gruff male vocal to kick in. But this is in fact a 17-minute extemporaneous instrumental and a surprisingly deft one at that. Backed by Yes drummer Alan White, bassist Trevor Burton, and keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick, the jam runs through several intriguing sections, early on developing as a Allman Brothers-style up-tempo vamp where the leader dishes out stinging guitar runs over a jazzy rhythm. At about the 5:30 mark it downshifts and a ruminative guitar figure laps with Rabbit’s circular piano fills. Soon the quartet is back on the high rockin’ plateau until at about 13:40 there is a dissolve into churchy organ and a slow beat that is a soft cushio for some lyrical Kossoff leads and an almost prog rock feel, the same goes for the drifting coda.

For those who still have attention spans, this is heady stuff. And maybe a promising career direction. As soulful and expressive a vocalist as Paul Rodgers was, there was already an established lyrical conceit among such bands that was all about proprietary males and “devil’s daughter” stereotypical women. Kossoff was communicating much more on his Les Paul and this carried thru onto side two with a great instrumental guitar duet with John Martyn called “Time Away.” When the original Free line-up appeared for one song, Rodgers sang the Kossoff-penned “Molten Gold,” foreshadowing some of Bad Company’s more sensitized material like “Seagull” and “Silver, Blue and Gold.”

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Man, Guitar, Amp. If only it were that easy.

But while B.C. soared to superstardom, Kossoff languished and remained in poor physical and mental shape. Back Street Crawler became a band name and he would record two albums with them, the second one in 1976. That would be the same year where, on March 19, Paul Kossoff died of the dreaded drug-induced heart failure while on a flight from L.A. to New York. Soon after, his father David started a foundation in his son’s named to educate children about the dangers of drug addiction and he even developed a one-man stage show about Paul’s death and the effect it had on his loved ones. Today, in appreciation of his talents and that certain lingering sadness for a person who helped fill your life with great music then died young, Kossoff’s name and music lives on in the Internet age. In fact, you don’t have to scroll too far down below one of his posted songs before someone will invariably say “best guitarist ever.” Agree or disagree, but it’s better than having it declared to you on a crowded subway car from a kid whose voice is cranked up to 11.

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Reel and Rock at 100–Best of and Beyond

After three years and two months, I’ve reached my 100th post–a hundred fun-filled articles on music, film, pop culture and an occasional eerie side trip to the mysterious world of closed asylums and their multi-layered histories (a new postscript on that subject is at the bottom). To some bloggers, 100 postings in 38 months may not seem like a lot–it amounts to about 2.6 per month. But looking back at my directory while choosing ten a milestone samplings, I am amazed that I ever found the time and energy to write even half of these magazine-style pieces. Not an easy task, as my fellow bloggers would attest to. The frequency of postings has decreased as I get closer to finishing my second self-published book (“Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinematic Journey”) and once that’s out the excerpting of it will give me a much needed breather. In the meantime, a little laurel-resting:

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Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead. My first-ever post, in early March of 2013, was simply finding a home for a piece that I originally tried to sell to Relix magazine. “The Strange, Forgotten History of the Medicine Ball Caravan” is still by far my most viewed piece, maybe having something to do with being an obscure subject I have somewhat to myself and well as for its tangential link to the ever-popular Grateful Dead. Read it here

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A lot of my blogging ideas fell neatly into a three-part format, sometimes inspired by things I had collected over the years, building a series from three of the many Top 30 surveys I had kept from a local AM station that played a key role in the development of my musical sensibilities. See Part One of Transistor Heaven here:

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A recent year-end survey type post, with an obvious tie to the subject of my forthcoming book: Rock Doc Round-Up for 2015 can be seen here:

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Although most of my film reviews here tend to be of non-fiction films, I also do occasionally feature-film articles, esp. if it’s a long-time favorite director of mine, as with Stanley Kubrick. “Barry Lyndon” at 40: The Scourge of the 1%, Then & Now, my 40-year anniversary look back at his 18th-century epic (with its echoes of today’s economic insecurities) is here:

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The last part of my masthead description for this site describes “related adventures on pop culture’s time-and-place continuum.” Writing about music from an angle which closely ties in personal experiences and localities connected with the song’s initial release is a favorite theme, most pronounced in my paean to a certain formative year in Between Patchouli and Punk: In Praise of 1973. Hop in the Way-Back Machine here.

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Although I’m a tireless advocate of documentary filmmaking, I’m no pushover either. Here I wax unenthusiastic (if not downright indignant) over “Beyoncé: Life is But a Dream”, an entry from my Dubious Documentaries series. The haters can hate by clicking here

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The middle entry of my Books That Rock trilogy is my favorite, but if you love music books as much as I do, scan thru them all and you might find one you haven’t considered before. Click thusly

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The Documentary Spotlight category is unsurprisingly my most populated one with 28 posts. I like to pick titles that relate to certain timely societal trends if I can. That was certainly the case with “Best of Enemies,” last year’s vivid look back at the heated exchanges by commentators Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that was part of the TV coverage of the 1968 conventions, an early indicator of today’s hothouse political dialogues in a more “advanced” technological age. Seen here.

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Science fiction films are another side interest of mine that occasionally inspires a post, like when I did a 50th anniversary look back at Jean-Luc Goddard’s futuristic gumshoe adventure in Age Against the Machine: “Alphaville” at 50. It’s back-to-the-future time here.

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A viewing of the urban-legend boogeyman documentary “Cropsey” (also in the Documentary Spotlight category) led to my 3-part series The Pale Beyond about the long, complicated—and often scandalous—history of large state-run asylums, most of them now closed. It’s a subject that holds a certain fascination in the public imagination and these abandoned fortress-like institutions are primary destinations for the urban explorer subculture.

The first installment can be seen here. Part 2 focused in part on the very first of these institutions, the Fernald Center (founded in 1848 as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded). I lived in Waltham, Mass. across the road from Fernald in its last years (it officially closed in 2014) and the photos above and below I took recently as twenty of the non-historical buildings on its sprawling campus face demolition. (The state sold back the land to the city of Waltham at a deep discount). Here’s a clip of a TV interview with Boston-area filmmaker W.C. Rogers (aka Bill Rogers) about his 2007 PBS doc “Front Wards, back Wards” with excerpts shown. Rogers’ companion piece to this, “My Uncle Joe” is available in full on You Tube.

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If you enjoy this blog and would like to connect with me on Facebook, please send me a friend request (I’m the Rick Ouellette in Bedford, Mass.) and/or join my FB group Rock Docs. Thanks for reading!

Documentary Spotlight: You’ve Been Trumped

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You’ve Been Trumped
Directed by Anthony Baxter–2011–95 minutes

We are obliged to live in a world with a multitude of political opinions, social attitudes and lifestyle choices. This naturally causes all sorts of random discontents when different values knock against each other. But I always thought there was one thing people all across the spectrum could agree on: that the junior sociopaths that roamed the hallways and recess yards of elementary schools everywhere—calling you humiliating nicknames with no provocation, ridiculing you for being in the bathroom too long, pushing you down in gym class when the teacher had his back turned—would recede from your life by high school at the latest and be recalled with the utmost disdain in adult life if even thought of at all. Boy, am I naïve. Just give this same asshole a trust fund and a tawdry reality TV show and, in an age of celebrity overlords and toxic conservative talk shows, you get people voting for (and even worshipping) the same pathologically insecure bully that would have once pummeled them for the milk money. And for President of the United States!! I don’t believe there’s nearly enough bamboozled voters to elect Donald Trump. But I was also wrong in thinking that nobody would ever pull a lever for a candidate that calls them “stupid” to their face, just like he would have if he knew them in 5th grade.

So the title You’ve Been Trumped neatly sums up this blood-boiling 2011 documentary directed by Anthony Baxter and produced and co-written by Richard Phinney. It’s a gritty, ground-level film witness to Trump’s vulgar tactics on a smaller scale (but blessedly without the misdirected popular support we now see in the States) as we experience Trump pushing through plans to build an enormous jet-set golf resort near a pristine stretch of coastline north of Aberdeen, Scotland. The filmmaker’s sympathies are clear as a group of local residents, who have the audacity to own humble properties in the path of the tycoon’s grandiose scheme, refuse to budge—even in the face of a government Compulsory Purchase Order (eminent domain). The starry-eyed deferment to fame and fortune in its modern media-age manifestation provides the film’s rich subtext.

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The Aberdeenshire regional council at first rejects the plan but after the Scottish Parliament “calls in” that decision, the project is approved, despite the site’s official designation as a grade-one conservation area. Baxter shoots a scene at a Trump-attended groundbreaking event, where fawning local officials and business people realize that their lives are being touched by an actual Celebrity, and one ready to throw a lot of money around. A nearby college, not to be outdone, desperately bestows Trump with an honorary degree even as credible experts warn of the steep environmental cost.

Throughout You’ve Been Trumped Baxter inserts scenes from Bill Forsyth’s amiable (and analogous) 1983 fiction film Local Hero. There, the plans of an American oil baron (Burt Lancaster) to buy out a coastal enclave on Scotland’s west coast and replace it with a refinery are complicated when the hotshot executive he sends there as an advance party (Peter Riegert) is lured by the charms of the village’s slow-lane lifestyle. How quaint. Nowadays, a guy like “The Donald” doesn’t have to waste his time courting skeptical residents. According to him, the property of Michael Forbes, the flinty old-school farmer who’s at the forefront of local resistance, is “slum-like and disgusting” and the man “lives like a pig.” Trump has always liked to come on like a streetwise New Yorker (despite his silver spoon) and his blustering reputation precedes him by a country mile. This kick-out-the-poor attitude is less objectionable nowadays where (notably in the U.S.) a certain obsessive fixation on wealth and fame has elevated the likes of him to an iconic status that often “trumps” any solidarity one may have once felt with the general population.

With the skids greased by the city fathers, who seem to have imported this mindset, Trump quickly moves in. His earthmovers are soon moving “biblical” amounts of sand to make way for the two 18-hole golf courses, depositing one of Britain’s largest sand dune systems next to the homes of those who don’t like him and encroaching on their property lines. In one of the film’s more telling scenes, the local police arrest Baxter (and rather roughly at that) for filming an interview with project opponent Susan Munro, in her own driveway.

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It’s true that for certain socio-political types (like those partial to muckraking documentaries) a figure like Trump will remain an easy target of scorn. He’s the conceited blowhard whose bloated, self-titled building projects blight the old majesty of Manhattan, the condescending candidate whose first (short-lived) run for the American presidency rested on the despicable “birther” platform, the TV host of “Celebrity Apprentice” who gets his jollies watching washed-up stars like Gary Busey and Meatloaf grovel from the other side of a mahogany conference table. To a person like Susan Munro, Trump is no more than someone “with a few pounds in his pocket and a bit of a name.” The question coursing through the film is whether her outlook, serving as a great leveler when multiplied across the body politic, will win out or will more people imagine that they are just a lottery win or reality-show appearance or viral video away from joining Donald in the gentrified ranks of the 1%.

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While the intrepid Baxter is tracking down Trump at press conferences and parliamentary hearings, the opponents attract a group of sympathizers who flock to a protest march and to a Trump-mocking art show held in a barn on Forbes’ farm. One of them is Mickey Foote, who in another lifetime was producer of the Clash’s first album. Now living near-by, Foote speaks knowingly about the limits of Forbes’ newfound local celebrity vs. Trump’s international stature and to what’s being lost in the deal (“a fantastic open space within reach of ordinary people.”) These scenes of citizen camaraderie may be seen as gratifying but one can only be left thinking what the future holds in an age of gaping income inequality that forms the broader background of this theme. While Trump gloats about the few hundred service-sector positions available at his resort, we’re seemingly left with an untouchable upper class run amuck in a return to a medieval-style oligarchy, with government and law enforcement in their pocket. You’ve Been Trumped smartly played out this disheartening scenario in miniature, now a more frightening version is being played out on a much bigger scale.

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Books That Rock, Part 3: In Memoriam Perpetuam

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David Bowie, Paul Kanter, Maurice White, Lemmy Kilmister, Keith Emerson, Glen Frey, George Martin… these are some of the notable pop music figures that have died over the last few months—and those are just the ones off the top of my head. We have come to the age where social media tributes to our fallen rock heroes seem to be taking over from the perpetuation of the artform in practice. It’s almost like we’ve become the modern equivalent of the old-timers who always turn first to the obituary section of the local newspaper.

It’s no secret: rock ‘n’ roll as defined by that name in the mid-1950s, and hitting its popular and creative critical mass in the Sixties and Seventies, is getting a little long in the tooth. With so many of our heroes from the classic-rock era now creeping into their seventies, this passing of an era thru the passing of its great practitioners is only going to be felt more acutely the farther we get down the road. Oh sure, there’s still lots of rock to be had. “Legacy artists” tour the summer sheds each year, there are CD re-issues and vinyl to be hunted down in funky little shops, thriving local scenes and even a fair number of younger bands who have picked up the baton—though I’m not sure if I’ll be up for Tame Impala’s 30th Anniversary Tour, due in 2037.

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Lemmy prepares to blast his way thru the pearly gates

Of course, it’s not just the slow and steady march of time that is at issue when it comes to pop music and mortality. Ever since February 3, 1958—the day we lost Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper but gained a Don McLean epic—who shuffles off the mortal rock coil and how has been a big part of the music’s culture. In 1971, Boston-based Fusion magazine, who also dabbled in publishing, placed a back cover ad for three books they were releasing (Ok, I’ve been going thru my old magazine collection again). One of them was called “No One Waved Good-bye” (where “some of your favorites write about the taste for death in the pop palette”) and I was able to find it for short money at alibris.com. This slim paperback is a fascinating look back to the early days of rock fans’ folkloric attitudes towards mortality. It stands in sharp contrast to Jeremy Simmonds’ 2006 tome “The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars,” a 600-page cataloguing of deceased demi-gods and laid-to-rest lesser-knowns.

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“No One Waved Good-bye” came out so early in the game that the book has as its primary focus only four figures: Janis, Jimi and two Brians, Jones and Epstein. This is a more-steely eyed review than one would expect now and generally written in a discursive style more uncommon in our less literate, what’s-the-takeaway age. Edited by Fusion chief Robert Somma, contributors include rock scribe pack-leaders like Jon Landau, Lillian Roxon, Richard Meltzer and Al Aronowitz. Lou Reed also chips in with a piece and there is a probing two-way interview between Danny Fields and educator Jeff Nesin. “Ten years ago, dying was a faraway place, something that happened to other people,” Somma writes in the introduction to the earlier book, pointing out rock’s relative youth (Jim Morrison hadn’t even died yet!). Many of the writers here are reckoning with the effects of the scene’s wayward drug-and-drink overindulgences and the eternal paradoxes of fame.

Some detour off that now well-worn path and offer novel takes on the subject. Australian writer Craig McGregor notes the “intolerable pressures” on artists when “the media revolution force-feeds 20th century art to an early maturity” (comparing pop’s progress to the hyperdrive developments in mid-century jazz) and observes that talented but less emotionally stable practitioners are sometimes “crushed in the compression chamber.” The high-spirited Lillian Roxon, author of the seminal “Encyclopedia of Rock” and only two years away from her own sudden demise from a severe asthma attack, pays tribute to Janis in terms of her wayward sexual liberation and beauty-salon-denying, gypsy fashion sense (“Can you imagine going to Woodstock in a pantygirdle or taking hair curlers? If you didn’t look like Janis when you got there, you sure as hell looked like her by the time you left”).

This is a 1970 photo of rock singer Janis Joplin. (AP Photo)

This is a 1970 photo of rock singer Janis Joplin. (AP Photo)

Elsewhere, one gets a fresh sense of a more rigorous analytical style much less given to today’s lionizing. “There was clearly and blankly no real music left in Janis,” opines Neil Louison. Lou Reed dissects Jimi Hendrix’s dilemma about how to get his audience to move beyond the trippy theatrics that may have attracted them in the first place: “The lover demands consistency, and unless you’ve established variance as your norm a priori you will be called an adulterer.” Roger that.
Of course, Lou would live long enough to be elevated in an age of Rock Elders where long past aberrations are more easily overlooked or celebrated—yes, I’m looking at you, “Metal Machine Music.” He was still around for the 2006 publication of “The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars” (a 2nd edition came out in 2008). But there are plenty of names, both legendary and not so much, to fill out this volume and if a third edition were released today it would likely be the size of a cinder block. In his opening chapter, author Jeremy Simmonds kicks things off in the intro with a recounting, as best he can given the murky circumstances, of the death-by-poisoning of blues legend Robert Johnson back in 1938.

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Early inklings of the dreaded “27 Club” of which Robert Johnson was a charter member

The mystery and untimeliness behind Johnson’s death sets the tone for the roll call to follow, which begins in earnest in 1965 (chronological by demise date). One repeated and unfortunate theme is the general unsavory nature of so many star deaths: the “justifiable homicide” of Sam Cooke, the unsolved killings of people like Bobby Fuller and Jamaican dub pioneer King Tubby, or barely punished ones like the shooting death of Felix Pappalardi by his wife, not to mention the many drug overdoses and high-speed accidents.

Each name starts with a brief bio and the high profile deaths are given lengthy entries. This will give the reader all they want to know and more about the unhappy, unusual or just plain sordid circumstances surrounding the last moments of everyone from Dennis Wilson to Sid Vicious to Gram Parsons to Kurt Cobain and so many others. In view of this, Simmonds’ books acts better as a reference work than something to read front to back. There are lots of interesting facts to be learned or reminded of (I didn’t realize there were some 60 copycat suicides in the wake of Cobain’s death) and even some of the more obscure entries can be at least instructional. Not many outside of the Jethro Tull fan base may care to read about their late 70s bassist John Glascock but the entry acts as “a stern warning to those who ignore dental problems” as a neglected tooth abscess led to a fatal heart infection.

But with its glib undertow, tipped off by the groan-inducing subtitle “Heroin, Handguns and Ham Sandwiches,” this book kind of buys into that “taste for death in the pop palette” a bit much for my tastes. Perhaps the morbid fascination with how it all ends for our pop heroes is part and parcel of the fan devotion and why we loved them in the first place. “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse” was never one of my favorite sayings, but at the rate we’re going the only alternative left will be the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home. At least the doctors won’t have to wonder why we’re all hard of hearing.

We’ve All Gone Solo #14 (Spooner Oldham)

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Dewey Lindon “Spooner” Oldham may have been born in Center Star, Alabama but the name of his hometown does not indicate the nature of his otherwise successful musical career. A studio session keyboardist, songwriter and sideman par excellence, Spooner’s unassuming, personable and adaptable instincts have stood him in good stead when playing alongside those destined to be more famous. Established as an organist in the house band at the world-renowned FAME studios in Muscle Shoals while barely in his twenties, he would play and/or write songs for the likes of Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops and the Everly Brothers. Starting in the Seventies, he branched out as a collaborator and live sideman with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dickie Betts etc. and right up to now with peeps like Cat Power and alt-Southern rockers the Drive-by Truckers.

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Look out, Spooner, Mr. Pickett is sneaking up on y’all

“Luckily, I was born with a creative mind,” Oldham told Uncut magazine in its Dec. 2015 issue, admitting he dislikes to practice. Instead, he relies on an uncanny ability to come up quick with just the right touch to add to whatever song is being cut. That could be the excitable glissando at the end of each verse of Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” or the stately church-like organ on Percy Sledge’s classic romance sermon “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Also luckily for Oldham, he found early on a compatible writing partner in fellow Alabaman Dan Penn. They went on to pen a follow-up smash for Sledge (“It Tears Me Up”) as well as a number of other hits, notably the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” and “I’m Your Puppet” for the Florida cousin duo James and Bobby Purify.

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With chops like these, no one would begrudge Spooner trying to steal some more of the spotlight for himself. In fact, as early as 1965 he had cut a 45 credited to Spooner and the Spoons. By 1972, he had moved to L.A. and was part of another studio house band, when a brief break in an otherwise busy recording slate led to his solo album, Pot Luck. This is an LP that played to his strengths in two ways: Side One is an admirable collection of original material and Side Two is dominated by an extended (mostly) instrumental medley that re-works many of the classic tunes he played on in the previous decade. The first side originals like “Julie Brown’s Forest,” “Easy Listening” and “The Lord Loves a Rolling Stone” are sterling examples of how deeply Spooner has absorbed the essence of classic Southern soul, adding in a taste of the Band in their more reflective moments. As it turned out, this fine album was recorded for a small label that went bust soon after, making it a rare collector’s item, though it was recently released on CD.

Oldham, who tellingly admitted in the Uncut interview that he was uncomfortable as the main attraction, went back to doing what came natural. When the demand for in-house studio bands waned later in the 70s, he started hitting the road as sought-after sideman, a notable early example of this was as Bob Dylan’s keyboardist during Zimmy’s mixed-reaction tour during his period as an evangelical convert. His rich legacy as a key part of the Muscle Shoals sound kept his name known to newer generations of astute musicians. Drive-by Truckers’ frontman Patterson Hood, son of FAME studio bassist David Hood, took up Oldham’s offer of help, tendered when Patterson was first starting out in high school bands, and Spooner ended playing both on the band’s stalwart 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and its ensuing tour. And that the way’s you feel it will always be with Oldham, now 72. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a year later, reading from two pages of thrice-folded note paper, there was typically no attention drawn to himself, only gratitude for what he was able to contribute to some of the best popular music of a golden era, and a typically modest declaration to keep on making great music in the finest spirit of collaboration.

Documentary Spotlight: Hands on a Hard Body

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Hands on a Hard Body
Directed by S.R. Bindler—1997—94 minutes

It’s hard not to enjoy an earnest indie doc about aspirational Americans and I would be hard pressed to find anything objectionable on the surface of 1997’s “Hands on a Hard Body.” This film about an East Texas endurance contest, in which the last person standing with one hand on a Nissan pickup truck wins the vehicle, won an audience award at the L.A. Film Festival the year it came out and was later made into a musical co-written by Trey Anatasio. That play eventually made it onto Broadway for a month and garnered three Tony nominations.

I had long been interested in this cult film, whose scant availability on home video kept it from inclusion in my reference book “Documentary 101.” I recently chanced upon a DVD of it for a dollar at a library book sale, making me glad I was far too sensible to ever shell out they $84 they were asking on Amazon. I must admit to a bit of an inner smirk when I saw the printed legend on the box that read “You lose the contest when you lose your mind,” presumably a quote from one of the competitors. My initial reaction to an event I would consider inherently demeaning would be more like “You lose your mind when you enter the contest.” Below that quote, critic Todd McCarthy enthused “A classic piece of Americana… produces gales of laughter.” While I don’t remember laughing once, I did come away from the film with much respect for the contestants while still bemoaning the chronic fragility of an American economic system that would make such a contest viable.

Movie fans of a certain age may well recall Sydney Pollack’s 1969 feature “The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” based on the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy. It depicts a particularly humiliating Depression-era dance marathon as dramatized by McCoy, who had worked as a bouncer at such events. Flash forward six decades later and while there may not be a widespread depression, there are still people who will go to great lengths either to win badly-needed money or a commodity they could otherwise not afford. Gone are the up-front exploitations of the callous marathon MC played by Gig Young in “They Shoot Horses.” In fact, the folks at the Jack Long Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas couldn’t be any nicer and the co-sponsoring radio station plays it up as a wholesome community event.

And it gives every indication of being so. The contestants don’t feel they are being played and it would be an ungenerous viewer who would begrudge them for being there. It’s easy for me to be all high-minded and say to myself that I would rather walk to work for the next hundred years than to be there. But many for the 22 people lined up around the pickup at the start, this here is for real. Not having to make payments on a vehicle can mean the difference of not having to get a second job or whether or not you can afford night classes. Moreover, in workaday East Texas, “cars don’t make money, trucks make money” a worthy observation that is fleshed out in the video clip from the musical at the end of the post.

So the willing participants gamely join in for a few days of sleep deprivation, boredom, back strain, mosquitoes and, eventually, contagious laughter and delirium. But through it all, they keep their spirits positive and graciously answer the questions of the filmmakers, while either at the truck or during the breaks (five minutes an hour, thirty minutes every six hours). An intrepid few keep their stamina up to last past the 75-hour mark. By this time, whoever is left has earned much respect and those who had to drop out are not bitter but have found a valuable takeaway. Paul, one of the older entrants for whom this can be particularly difficult says the contest showed him that “you don’t pay attention to who’s right beside you (in life) and that they could be your good friend.” After a recuperative sleep, he’s back the next day to support the remaining standers.

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It’s too bad that this magnanimous outlook can’t extend to the greater economic and social framework, as the hardbody contest betrays a harsher reality where everyone “wants the same thing but only one can have it.” Instead, that system only seems to abide to an increasingly dumbed-down blame game full of “welfare cheats” and “one-percenters.” This is a worthy film but it doesn’t really drill down to the deeper implications at hand. Interestingly, no less a director than Robert Altman had plans to make “Hands on a Hard Body” into a feature film before his death in 2006. With his great skill at ensemble casts and keen sense of American discontents, that would have been a highly interesting project. Instead we are left with a likable document and an appreciation of its persevering subjects. I still wouldn’t enter the contest, though.

We’ve All Gone Solo #13 (Chris Squire)

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Yes in the early 70s was the very embodiment of progressive rock’s heyday. Taking the stage while the majestic finale of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” poured out through the PA system, they had the whole package: the capes, the dry ice, the keyboard arsenal and, of course, the ten and fifteen minute songs full of second-wave Aquarian mysticism backed by bravura musicianship. They could fill arenas and sell albums by the bushel in Europe, North America and down under, have their praises sung in Rolling Stone (the Fragile album was lauded as “a powerful and moving emotional experience”) and even have a hit single or two like “Roundabout” and “All Good People.” Of course, the backlash would hit soon enough. There were legions of critics who seemed to decide all at once that they would forfeit whatever street cred they possessed if they got caught liking anything without a blues-based framework and hence blackballed most prog rock as sterile or pretentious. A lot of Yes fans remained though and so did the band, adapting to shifts in musical culture and countless line-up changes. Sometime in the 1990s it became safe to go back to being themselves, now as a “legacy act.” Not that that stopped the revolving-door personnel shifts.

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The one constant in the Yes lineup from their debut record in 1969 until his death in June of 2015 was bassist Chris Squire. The London-born Squire also sang back-up and co-wrote a lot of the band’s material. But what he’ll be remembered for is his work on the signature Rickenbacker 4001 four-string, an influential player who was prominent in the band’s instrumental scheme of things. No longer would the bass guitarist have to be relegated to the back of the stage aside the drummer. His style was melodic and fluid but formidable, the Rickenbacker sound was somehow both trebly and thunderous, as he made clever use of his instrument’s two pickups. In the classic heyday configuration, with vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and either Bill Bruford or Alan White on drums, Squire stood as tall as anyone in a role often viewed as negligible, a central figure in an Olympian instrumental framework.

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Chris takes a quick look at the keyboard encampment to make sure he and Rick Wakeman are not wearing the same cape.

But who was Chris Squire anyway? With a few notable exceptions (Peter Gabriel in the original Genesis, for one) progressive rock was not really known for single predominant personalities; they were more like amped-up chamber ensembles. Chris always seemed accommodating and thoughtful in interviews; a writer for the defunct Rock magazine in 1972 jump-started a discussion by telling Squire he had recently heard the single “Grounded” by his earlier band, the paisley-pop combo called the Syn. He was amused and maybe a little abashed, after all his new band was now writing rock songs in sonata form, but came across as the most amiable of the Yes men. There wasn’t exactly a lot of dirty laundry to hang on the line with this crew: for a while there Wakeman was the only imbibing and meat-eating member and Jon Anderson was well known for writing epic verse about missing his wife while on tour—check out side four of Tales from Topographic Oceans if you need a reference on that.

It was really was all about the music and for Chris this included his solo showcase “The Fish,” which was also the nickname of this Pisces. When it first appeared on Fragile (where each member took a brief solo turn) this piece was an instrumental add-on to “Long-Distance Runaround” and demurely bowed out after 150 seconds. But on the triple live album Yessongs it becomes a volcanic ten-minute powerhouse jam, the other four members popping in and out with accompaniment while Chris, fingers flying over the fretboard and egged on by the decibel-crazed punters at London’s Rainbow Theatre, builds it up to a roof-raising conclusion. They don’t make ‘em like this no more no how.

Squire’s 1975 solo album Fish out of Water came during a brief band hiatus after the release of the Relayer album, where Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz had temporarily replaced Wakeman after a falling out over the envelope-pushing Topographic Oceans. Squire assembled a neat little studio group of Moraz, Bruford, ex-King Crimson man Mel Collins on sax and Caravan’s Jimmy Hastings on flute. An orchestra was part of the picture but used sparingly and along with his foregrounded bass, Squire sprinkled in some lead guitar. It’s a glossy and attractive piece of work that dispenses with the clattering tendencies of his regular band and dials down the pseudo-philosophizing while retaining the same general presentation. Squire began his musical days in a school choir and has a similar (if slightly lower) voice to Jon Anderson’s, so the vocal element (often a drawback in the solo work of non-frontmen) is fine. The first two songs, “Hold Out Your Hand” and “You By My Side” have romantic lyrics and sprightly, almost danceable rhythms, and seem to point the way to Yes’ more radio-friendly turn in the early 80s, when they had their sole #1 hit with ”Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

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But all that could wait. This is still the mid-70s, bro, and when you staked your claim you did it in songs that went double digit in minutes. There are two here: the questing “Silently Falling” which clocks in at 11:26 and features a long, brooding and elegant outro and the 15-minute closer “Safe (Canon Song)” which has delightful hints of Gershwin in its orchestration and whose bass-driven arrangement ends in stately fashion. Though well-loved by Yes fans, this album lived up to its title as Squire quickly dove back into the Yes stream, a rock-solid band guy to the last. He would only have one more official solo release, a 2007 Christmas album. When I saw Yes two summers back it was on one of their last American swings with the one guy left to stretch back all the way to the starting line: in this umpteenth line-up you had Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White but the estranged Jon Anderson was replaced by a young singer (Jon Davison) and the keyboards were handled by ex-Buggle Geoff Downes, who had had a cup of coffee with Yes in 1979. No matter: even with progressive rock forever remaining the ill-regarded stepchild in critical circles (which has helped keep this greatly successful group out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) it was no issue to the enthusiastic and generationally-mixed crowd in the outdoor venue. This included many twenty-somethings who were bouncing in the aisles during the exalted finale of “Starship Trooper,” with Squire holding down the center one more time before being called to “shine your wings forward to the sun.”


Classic Yes, live at the Rainbow Theatre December 1972. (From the 1973 “Yessongs” film).

Rock Doc Round-Up for 2015

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The Damned, seen in their early incarnation as a barbershop quartet.

It’s been no secret that for many years now rock ‘n’ roll has been in love with its own history. Whether it be in books, box set liner notes, social media chatter or at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, pop fans can’t get enough of the personalities and stories behind the music, almost as much as tunes themselves. Especially notable in this phenomenon is the role of the rock documentary. While working on my soon-to-be-released second book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I had a close-up look at just how varied a field this can be. It can encompass concert movies, festival flicks, genre profiles, band histories or posthumous tributes to beloved stars.

Since the “50 year journey” of my book’s subtitle ends in 2104, this past year was the first one beyond its timeline. It was another good year for non-fiction films on rock subjects and as eclectic as ever. Since most rockumentaries are not blockbusters but smaller titles that are usually seen (initially, anyway) in indie theaters or on the festival circuit, I’m limiting this to a Top Five with some honorable mentions. Some notable titles I missed first time around and may just be getting around to online release or on DVD. I’ve got some catching up to do!

Amy (Directed by Asif Kapadia).

Only a year after Amy Winehouse death, film director Asif Kapadia was approached by her father Mitchell and her record company (Universal Music UK) to make a legacy documentary of the North London-bred retro soul singer whose “Back to Black” won five Grammys and sold in the millions. Kapadia was given use of Amy’s music and other materials but he was wary of being led into producing a “whitewash” film and crucially asked for (and was granted) complete creative control. Kapadia went out and made a film full of the soul-searching that should have taken place by gravy-train-riding parents and businesspeople while the talented but troubled Winehouse was still alive. Kapadia was greatly helped by the participation of two of Winehouse’s best girlfriends from her youth and esp. by Nick Shymansky, her first manager but also a teenage companion of hers: it’s Shymansky’s many camcorder clips that show a young, ebullient and astute singer-songwriter before she was caught up by her own demons and by the strangulating grip of modern society’s obsessive media machine, which began (as always) with an embrace.


My review was titled “Rehab Needed for Fame-Addicted Society,” which also seems to be the angle for this alternate trailer.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll (Directed by John Pirozzi)

The freedom to live out a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, taken for granted by several decades worth of young people in Western nations, may never be regarded so lightly again after viewing John Pirozzi’s mesmerizing documentary. Whether or not the viewer realizes beforehand that Cambodia had a vibrant pop music scene in the 60s and early 70s will hardly matter once he or she is drawn into the film’s orbit. What most will know going in is that this thriving youth movement was destined to be crushed, along with all else, when the homicidal Khmer Rouge forces took over the country in a terrible offshoot of the Vietnam War. Using interviews with survivors, evocative period footage and vintage vinyl, Pirozzi conjures up a regenerative tale despite the historical horrors. It’s a case of mankind’s better nature, here in the form of musical enrichment, persevering even in the face of the worst fanatical impulses this sorry world has to offer.


Available to download now.

The Wrecking Crew (Directed by Denny Tedesco).

There have been several documentaries in recent years—like “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” or “Twenty Feet from Stardom”—that have told the tales of unheralded musicians and vocalists. “The Wrecking Crew” (which played at festivals in 2008 but didn’t get a proper release until last year) is one of the more high-spirited of this group. Whereas many of the principals in those other two films were ripped off and/or forgotten, the L.A. studio musicians here look back fondly at their heyday, when they provided the expert backing tracks for some of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Names like Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine and Tommy Tedesco may not be household brands but they were well-compensated session pros (often with families to support) whose enthusiasm in explaining how they helped make musical history is intoxicating. Still, the old star-centric ways are hard to nudge and this film’s own theatrical poster only mentions the artists the Crew supported (the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel etc.) as well as one of their number (Glen Campbell) who went on to a high-profile solo career.


A nice clip from “The Wrecking Crew” featuring bassist Carol Kaye

The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (Directed by Wes Orshoski).

As early as 1972, there was a book out called “No One Waved Good-Bye: A Casualty Report on Rock and Roll” with pieces by the likes of Lilian Roxon and Richard Meltzer. Early martyrdom is held in especially high esteem and 2015 saw the releases of several such remembrance films like the ones on “27 Club” inductees Kurt Cobain (“Montage of Heck”) and Janis Joplin (“Little Girl Blue”). Leave it to the irreverent British punk pioneers The Damned to gang tackle this issue and even name it out in the title of their very own rockumentary. Director Wes Orshoski—who previously made the excellent “Lemmy” about the Motorhead metal icon who, alas, died last month—seems to relish ornery, hell-raising characters and he’s got a handful here with Capt. Sensible, Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies and Brian James. The Damned had a gift for being both shambolic and crafty, and they were releasing records and touring the States before their more famous contemporaries in the Clash or Sex Pistols. One of the more entertaining band bios of recent years, “Don’t You Wish” is a giddy succession of archival hijinks, concert clips both past and present, interviews and memory-lane walkabouts, like when the Captain hilariously (and scatologically) revisits the site of his old job as a washroom attendant. It’s not all Knees-Up-Mother-Brown as the film does not shy away from the long Scabies-Sensible feud or the difficulties of musicians in survival mode long after their career highwater mark. A fitting tribute to a group of fearless originals, even if they still feel that their legend would have been more lucrative if one of them had just croaked along the way.


Let the F-bombs commence.

Lambert & Stamp (Directed by James D. Cooper).

Even with the most well-known bands, there seems to be this determination to find a fresh angle. A couple of years back it was the delightful insider’s-look “Good Ol’ Freda” about the previously unsung Beatles’ secretary and fan club president. In 2015, we got a new perspective on the Who via this appealing and incisive profile of their original managers. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were an unlikely duo: the former was the Oxford-schooled son of composer Constant Lambert and the latter grew up in London’s gritty East End and was brother of actor Terrence Stamp. They originally hooked up with the scruffy and still-unsigned band led by Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey so they could appear in a New Wave-style film on Mods that the pair wanted to produce. But after that was shelved they ended up being the group’s seat-of-the-pants managerial team, and their differing backgrounds helped develop that deft blend of high art and street sense that is the band’s enduring ethos. Cooper’s skillful debut film is a great mix of (often rare) period footage and extremely candid present day interviews, bringing back alive a world less rigidly corporate where such a group of disparate but highly creative individuals could help re-invent popular culture. Lambert died in 1981 and isn’t here to speak for himself but Stamp is interviewed (though he passed away shortly after filming) and Pete and Roger also get in their three pennies worth each and, in a segment where they sit down together, actually come to closure on a couple of contentious points that they seemingly haven’t brought up in decades. Don’t close those history books just yet.

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Honorable Mentions, Subjects For Further Study, etc.

A special mention goes out to the riveting The Case of the Three-Sided Dream about jazz shaman Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It came out in 2014 but I didn’t see it until a screening at the all-doc Salem (Mass.) Film Festival last March. At the Q&A, older attendees were much impressed that the young director, Adam Kahan, should choose as his subject a musician who lived from 1935 to 1977. He replied that when he came of age, it just occurred to him that he should start expanding his cultural IQ and in this process being enamored of Kirk. A nice reminder that learning and being smart is fun and that the knowledge gained does not discriminate about what’s old or new, that it’s all one long continuum for all to partake in.

Another film about a jazz maverick, What Happened, Miss Simone has been getting super reviews but unfortunately I haven’t got around to it yet. Both it and “Amy” have been short-listed in the Oscar documentary feature category and it’s quite possible that one of them may win. If so, it would make three popular music documentaries in the last four years to win that category, after 2013’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom” and 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man.” Before that, the only other rock doc to win was “Woodstock” way back in 1970.

Musical non-fiction films have really come of age and it’s only getting better. My catching up this week includes Janis: Little Girl Blue, The Revenge of the Mekons and hopefully, if I can get out that night, the new Elvis Costello concert film, Detour–Live at Philharmonic Hall. If there is any films in this category that I haven’t mentioned and that caught your eyes and ears in 2015, please let me know.

My new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, will be released in spring 2016.
–Rick Ouellette

Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” at 40: The Scourge of the 1%, Then & Now

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Forty years ago this month, when your now world-weary blogger was but a whipper-snapper of a high school senior, I arrived early one day into my two-day-a-week journalism class and told the teacher how much I had enjoyed seeing Barry Lyndon, which had recently opened at the local multiplex. “Oh, I saw it, too—it was boring.” The she added, “You’re just saying that because it’s Stanley Kubrick.” I came up with a less-than-sparkling comeback about how she must have missed Kubrick’s cutting critique of 18th-century class structures but she was having none of it. Instead, she compared the film, about an Irish bounder who rises to the top of Georgian high society before his inevitable downfall, to a special issue of National Geographic, featuring photos of European estates that are brought (slightly) to life.

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Maybe I had tipped my hand a couple of months earlier by enthusing about 2001 (within earshot) to a friend in the same class. At any rate, what I had meant to say to her was: “You should have been smart enough to realize that Kubrick is using a 1700s template to warn us a time quickly approaching when all good people of the land will be threatened by a new oligarchy. This will be a ruthless pack of clever little rich bastards who will try to trick us into thinking that we could all be just like them while shredding the social safety net and squashing the once robust middle class that previously served as a buffer against those very same people who want to hold all the money and power.” OK, that’s my 2015 self thinking that, with video “highlights” of the latest Republican debate still festering in my brain.

How White My Shirts Can Be

Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick’s 180-minute, slow-lane cinematic spectacular premiered in December of 1975 and I have re-visited the film many times since, most recently in glorious Blu-ray. It didn’t long for me to find updated symbolism—–well, it did take a while because it really hit home in the movie’s second act, especially in the last of its many dueling scenes. Halfway through film the former Irish villager Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) had reached, in the narrator’s words, the “pitch of prosperity” by marrying the beautiful young widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) or, more accurately, her vast fortune. This doesn’t sit well with her young son, the moody sperm-lottery winner Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), setting off a vicious rivalry that many years later culminates in a pistol duel. Bullingdon wins a coin toss and gets to first shot, but his gun misfires. Told he must hold his ground before receiving a new pistol, Barry fires into the ground (a practice called “deloping” in the arcane world of dueling) and the seconds hopefully ask Bullingdon if he has received “satisfaction.” (This is kind of a hoot, since Vitali bears a strong resemblance to a young Mick Jagger). But of course he hasn’t and with the next shot he essentially blows his stepfather’s leg off—while also symbolically maiming the 99% (thought I to myself). I mean, really?? Shooting your opponent after a deloping was seen as especially vicious back then, even for Bullingdon’s class of people. For fuck’s sake, all he had to say was, “How much is it going to cost me to make this problem—you, namely—go away?” Which is exactly what happens anyway, but only after making his rival a cripple.

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Stanley Kubrick in windbreaker, on location in Ireland.

More on that later, but first a little backstory. This whole confrontation originated from the day when Bullingdon interrupted a music recital with Lady Lyndon at the harpsichord to ripely insult both the commoner Redmond Barry and his mother for taking “this upstart Irishman into your bed.” Well, I could think of at least a few snappy comebacks that would have put Lord Sourpuss back in his place but that just wasn’t done and the vaporous Lady Lyndon (after all, a consenting adult free to marry who she wishes) stays silent while Barry responds with a vicious punch to the small of the back and, in the handheld-camera donnybrook that follows, closes the door on ever getting in with the upper crust, a distinct long shot to begin with. The game is rigged, of course, but Barry had a pretty good run.

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Mad magazine’s take on the recital room brawl and Ryan O’Neal’s unrelenting good looks.

It doesn’t take long for Kubrick to get the machinery of fate kicking into gear. In the opening scene there’s a rainy-day card game with his fetching cousin Nora. While the Chieftains’ exquisite “Woman of Ireland” plays on the soundtrack, the lad is obliged to retrieve a ribbon from the depths of her downy décolletage. His ensuing crush becomes most inconvenient when Nora is subsequently courted by a priggish English army captain who could bring 1500 a year into the struggling family. In several scenes played out in lush scenery beneath the Wicklow Mountains, the still-guileless Redmond (the first phase of Ryan O’Neal’s finely nuanced performance) makes it clear that it’s either him or the flustering blowhard Quinn for Nora’s hand (Quinn is deliciously played by Leonard Rossiter, who also had a brief role in 2001 as the Russian scientist who grills Heywood Floyd).

But money always gets the last word and after his family rigs the inevitable duel Redmond is set up with twenty guineas and a horse (the cost of doing business when we’re talking 1500 a year) and told to go to Dublin “’til matters blow over.” But after an encounter with a captain of a different stripe—-the noted highwayman Capt. Feeney—-he is divested of that sum and is soon enlisted in the army and shipped off to the Seven Year’s War, an aristocratic conflict ever in need of cannon fodder drawn from the lower classes. Against a series of eye-wateringly beautiful backdrops, Redmond Barry’s life plays out in a strangely pre-destined sort of way, an object lesson of being impoverished by a disillusioned and disaffected effort to survive and prosper. The aggressively picturesque estates, country lanes and battlefields dovetailed nicely with my own developing aesthetic preferences, especially as they mirrored certain progressive rock reference points (did you catch my “All Good People” reference from earlier?).

Break the Etiquette

In not-so-quick succession, Redmond ingratiates himself while a soldier in both the British and Prussian armies, lands a job as a spy with the Berlin police, and while at the job goes turncoat, joining up with a fellow Irishman he is supposed to be investigating for cheating at cards with Prussian royalty. After sneaking across the border, the two of them continue card-sharking noblemen in neighboring countries. In these hellish-red gambling rooms (lit only by candlelight for authenticity and filmed with specially-manufactured Carl Zeiss lens), populated with grotesqueries in powdered wigs and beauty spots, there’s no sense of “sticking it to The Man” or anything else subversive, it’s just what they do to get along. When our boy Redmond Barry gets tired of that he makes the key mistake of setting his sights on the lovely cipher who is Lady Lyndon and entering into a world full of people corrupt to the core and uncaring (or even unaware) of the world outside their opulent but suffocating rooms. This inert, closed-shop of privilege is studiously re-created by Kubrick almost to a fault: its deadening disconnect is so realistic that the emptiness is seen to be in the technique and not in the theme.


In this fun, fan-made trailer, Barry is recast as a 18th Century bad-ass taking on the aristocracy single-handed.

Barry Lyndon opened in December of 1975 to the usual mixed critical cacophony that greeted any new film by the maximalist Bronx-born director, who had long since moved to England. “A three-hour slide show for art history majors,” sniffed inveterate Kubrick-hater Pauline Kael, who wasn’t the only one to complain about the film’s languid pace. There were also many writers who admired it and the film’s original trailer protested this praise a bit heavily, knowing that it would be a hard sell for those more used to the glad-handing nature of more conventional Hollywood fare.

What everyone did agree on was the movie’s gorgeous visuals. Barry Lyndon may remain the most formally beautiful film ever, and in early 1976 it won Oscars for cinematography (John Alcott) as well as for Art Direction, Costume Design and Musical Score, while being nominated for Best Picture and Director “Kubrick’s message is that is that people are disgusting, but things are lovely,” Kael continued, the sort of quippy reductionism that seemed to earn her a lot of followers at the time. It should have been at least somewhat obvious that it was the class system that was disgusting and was (or so it seemed) about to be relegated to the dustbin of history by a revealing detail in the film’s drawn-out final scene.

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There are unconfirmed reports that while filming this scene, Stanley Kubrick called out, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of Pauline Kael’s eyes.”

You Say You Want a Revolution

It’s been many years since the spendthrift Barry Lyndon has been out of the family’s life. The terms: an annuity of 500 guineas a year and the understanding that he never return to England. At a desk in the middle of an impossibly large hall that passes for a room, Lady Lyndon sits at a desk with her checkbook out, with Bullingdon and two retainers at her side. Reprised on the soundtrack is the award-winning adaptation of Schubert’s Piano Trio, the stately metronomic keyboard theme counterpointed by the violin which seeks to pull at any heartstrings available. When it comes time to sign her name to the check written out to her banished husband, there is a pause in the music as well as in Lady Lyndon. She stares out in the space as if to wonder what might have been, while Bullingdon looks on cautiously. But it’s only a false alarm and the march-of-time piano starts up again and the stultifying rhythms of aristocratic life continue—at least for the moment: the date on the check is December 1789 and the French Revolution is in full swing just across the English Channel.

Yes, it is a subtle touch by Kubrick and one maybe he thought to enhance with the closing intertitle which notes that the persons you have watched all lived two hundred years ago and that “They are all equal now.” Some commentators thought this was a bit simplistic (Death as the great leveler) or worse that Stanley doesn’t think there is any distinction between his characters. But four months after the newly-empowered French National Assembly passed both the “Decrees Abolishing the Feudal System” and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” maybe there was a different idea behind it: that there was a new equality that would provide for a world where one could make a comfortable life without paying manorial obligations (it is fitting that location where the climatic duel was filmed had been a tithe barn) and that people like Redmond Barry could use their skill sets more productively rather than worming their way into an all-powerful an unaccountable upper upper class that would just as soon have your leg off.

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Barry and his mother (Marie Kean) in a scene filmed at Stourhead estate. In my re-boot, they hatch a plan to feed all the hungry children in England by making off with Lady Lyndon’s petty cash box.

Although things got better with the subsequent development of Western democracies, it seems like history has spent the last quarter of a millennium trying to tack back the other way. When the people on the Forbes 400 list have combined wealth exceeding that of the bottom 60% of American households, and when a handful of individuals can, post-Citizens United, openly seek to control the political process, one wonders if the pendulum hasn’t swung back almost all the way back to the days of flintlocks and twenty paces. Oh sure, there’s no formal feudal system preventing clever folks from gaining their fortune and any citizen over 35 can run for president. But at the top it looks a lot like the old government for the aristocracy by the aristocracy. Even Barry Lyndon as the re-imagined pistol-packing, sword-flashing, back-punching, countess-seducing superhero could hardly hope to defeat it. But even with the odds, the historical record of the 1% shows that to end up on the side of the angels, it’s better to fight them than to join them. Kubrick’s deterministic epic may not exactly raise that banner itself, but it will remain one of filmdom’s most exceptional illustrations at just how ugly it can get at the top—-despite all the surface beauty.

We’ve All Gone Solo #12 (Sandy Denny)

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“I’ve always lived in a mansion on the other side of the moon,” Sandy Denny sings in the last verse of the leadoff track to her 1974 solo album, Like an Old-fashioned Waltz, indicating the innate remoteness that may lie very close to the core of the British folk-rock singer’s appeal. But nothing was ever clear cut with Denny. She continues, “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune,” making a winking fairyland reference before closing the couplet with a claim that even the most ardent fans of her band Fairport Convention would contest after hearing their freewheeling live album “A Moveable Feast” that was released the same year. But this song, ostensibly about the many comings and goings in the Fairport line-up, extends to a certain peculiar and universal pain. “I can’t communicate with you and I guess I never will/We’ve all gone solo,” she sings to no one and everyone and with the lead guitar of Richard Thompson (who had just delivered a piercing solo a minute before) chiming in, delivers the plaintive rhetorical cry of “Ain’t life a solo?” in the crystal-clear upper register that would be known to millions of rock ‘n’ rollers even if they never followed her solo career.


Please ignore the YouTuber’s cheesy slide show, this is a feast for the ears, not the eyes.

For those millions Sandy Denny will be remembered for her soaring, call-and-response duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin IV’s “Battle of Evermore,” the great Celtic-flavored song that served as a table setter for the magnum opus “Stairway to Heaven.” By that time, Sandy had made her mark after joining Fairport for their second album, playing a large part in the development of the English folk-rock genre.

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Early days yet. Sandy in a publicity shot from 1967.

Born in London in 1947, she had classical training on the piano and was likely influenced by a Scottish grandmother who was a singer of traditional tunes. When Denny auditioned for the then Jefferson Airplane-influenced group in 1968 after the departure of Judy Dyble, Fairport guitarist Simon Nicol said her effervescence and musical skills made her stand out like “a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes.” It was Denny’s traditional repertoire, already well-honed in folk clubs, that influenced the group to play the age-old material of their homeland (and original material in a similar style) in an amped-up style that culminated in the landmark Liege and Lief album, which hit #17 in the UK charts.

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Like many English bands of the day, Fairport Convention moved to the country to “get it together.”

Denny had become friends with Zeppelin when Fairport had shared concert bills with them but by1971 she had left the Convention and put out her first proper solo album (recordings she had made in 1967 had been only haphazardly released). With unimpeachable vocal strengths, a deft hand at songwriting and her soft-featured good looks, Denny seemed poised for great success, perhaps an Anglicized Joni Mitchell. But there was never that breakout. Though revered by listeners in her core constituency, a persistent melancholy seemed to pervade her sound (despite her rep in Fairport as a bit of a hell-raiser) and her elliptical lyrics kept more casual listeners at arm’s length.

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By the time of her third album, recorded in the middle of 1973 but not released until ’74, there appeared to be an effort (of which Sandy was part) to broaden her appeal. With her boyfriend (and Fotheringay bandmate) Trevor Lucas co-producing, Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz had a bright surface but a brooding interior. Art directors took the nostalgic title tune a bit too much to heart, putting Denny’s trademark long blond hair up in a bun for a prim Edwardian-style portrait that likely didn’t do much for impulse purchases. Still, it was a lovely collection of songs even if none of the originals can quite match the masterful “Solo.” Songs like “Carnival” and “Dark the Night” have their own counter-intuitive uplift and the Joni-esque closer “No End” has a slow-building majesty sure to please the base. Less appealing is the incongruous addition of two jazz standards (“Whispering Grass” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”) whose lounge-lizard production values break the quiet spell of the original material.

By the time LAOFW was released to little effect in the summer of ’74, Denny had re-joined the Fairport with her now-husband Trevor Lucas on vocals and lead guitarist Jerry Donahue replacing Richard Thompson, sort of a package deal trade as all three came over from the side project Fotheringay. What followed was the Rising for the Moon studio LP and the aforementioned Moveable Feast live album from the subsequent tour, re-packaged as Convention Live in the CD era. Here was Sandy in a more natural habitat, fronting a spirited band and delivering fiery vocals on both traditionals (“Matty Groves”) and her own material (“John the Gun”). But that edition of F.C. was not fated to last and there was on last solo album (1977’s Rendezvous) before her tragic death in 1978. Here Denny was figured as a pop chanteuse with covers of “Candle in the Wind” and “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” almost crowding out some fine originals like the all-too-fitting closer, “No More Sad Refrains.”

Sandy Denny died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1978, a few weeks after sustaining a head injury in a fall down a flight of stairs. One wonders if things would have been different in today’s world, where we are better versed in mental health awareness, and to have interceded with someone known to have body image and substance abuse issues, as well as depressive tendencies. Denny continued using alcohol and drugs during and after the birth of her daughter Georgia and became estranged from her husband after the accident, with Lucas—fearing for the safety of the child—even taking her back to his native Australia.

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Richard Thompson and Sandy’s daughter, Georgia Lucas, in 2006

When we wheel back from those awful circumstances and look at this remarkably talented and ill-fated woman, the clues almost seem to be staring right at us in some many of her tunes (“Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” indeed) and we are left with the aching consolation of what was accomplished during the all too brief time she was here, going solo or not.