We’ve All Gone Solo #12 (Sandy Denny)


“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.

“Extraordinary Tales” and Dream Geographies: The animated Poe and Beyond


Extraordinary Tales
Directed by Raul Garcia–2015–73 minutes

The delectable new animation anthology “Extraordinary Tales,” where five of Edgar Allan Poe’s most notable stories each receive a distinctly different visual treatment, came along at just the right time and place. I had been scoping around for a suitable seasonal post but was at a loss until I heard of the film’s release. I would have settled for a straight review. Then I realized just how fitting that this limited-release title landed at the AMC Loews Boston Common. This 3-story, ersatz movie palace may be home of the $6.50 small popcorn but at least the downtown multiplex has returned movie-going to the center of the city after so many cinema closings there in recent decades. It also overlooks Poe’s hated Frog Pond in Boston’s famous public park across the street and is less than two blocks from the recently-installed Poe statue close to his birthplace. But I had a notion that the geographical connections went deeper than that (often to the point of being subterranean) and all-in-all made for an interesting night out at the pictures. But more on that later; I almost forgot about the film.


“Extraordinary Tales” was directed by Spanish filmmaker/animator Raul Garcia and produced under the auspices of Film Fund Luxembourg (don’t laugh: little Luxy is a hotbed of animation team-building, check out “Song of the Sea” or “A Town Called Panic” for starters). Each story is boiled down to its core element of terror and dread and narratively speaking the film is a little thin. I imagine that’s to be expected given 21st century attention spans as well the density of 19th century expository writing. (Exhibit A: the 60-word opening sentence of “The Fall of the House of Usher”).


And it is “Usher” which kicks things off after we are introduced to the framing device. This has the spirit of Edgar in the form of the famous Raven ruminating over his literary legacy with various female-figure statues in a curiously beautiful pastel graveyard. The sharp-lined antique-y style of “Usher” suits the grim tale of a family’s doomed bloodline as that old self-imploding greathouse is practically the main character. Christopher Lee’s great portentous narration here turned out to be his last film part before his passing last June.

The next narrator also sweeps in form the pale beyond as a scratchy period recording of Bela Lugosi reciting “The Tell-Tale Heart” is matched to stark B&W imagery in homage to Argentine comics artist Alberto Breccia. Ben-Day dots and colored overlays define the look of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” wherein an exercise in applied hypnotics goes way off the rails. The old warhorse “The Pit and the Pendulum” gets the quasi-realist look of an Xbox game and a Guillermo del Toro narration, the mechanics of the pendulum are especially well represented.

The concluding “Masque of the Red Death” may be the cream of the crop. The vibrant hues of its oil-on-canvas style (with visible brush strokes) are a feast for the eyes. The literal feasting—and dancing, card-playing and sexual byplay—of the royal partygoers, who cannot keep the Black Death at bay is portrayed without narration or (except for a couple of lines voiced by Roger Corman) dialogue. The slightly overexcited (universal) desire to partake of life’s rich pageant before death (Black or otherwise) comes a-calling was understandable enough without words.



When these cinematic pleasantries concluded, I stepped out to a clear late October night and crossed into the Common, with Poe’s repeated motif of falling or being trapped underneath fresh in my mind. There’s the Usher mansion collapsing into an abyss, the prisoner imagining a drop into a bottomless pit before facing the pendulum and the master with the dodgy eyeball getting sectioned off below the floorboards in “Tell-Tale Heart.” As Tom Waits once had it “There’s a world going on underground.” Between the Poe plaque at the corner of Boylston St. and what was once the top of Poe-birthplace Carver St. (now a service alley named Poe Way) and the AMC Loews there are several places that would make great locales for this man’s stories. There’s the trench-like row of crypts in the Central Burying Ground (a one-stop shop for all you “Premature Burial” needs!), Steinert Hall, a recital auditorium four stories below the Steinway store (built by the piano-making clan in 1896 but closed to the public since 1942) and an urban-legend pedestrian tunnel from the tiny Boylston subway station possibly up to the Schubert theater two blocks away.



It was Edgar Allan Poe’s literary successor H.P. Lovecraft that really put this macabre Ley-line notion into sharp relief. He once said that “there are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths.” While in real life this is not very comforting to acknowledge, in the aesthetic world it is super cool. In Lovecraft’s short story “Pickman’s Model,” the titular painter is banished from the upper-crust Boston Arts Club when his subject matter gets a little too hairy for the “Beacon St. tea-table” crowd. To wit: “There was a study called “Subway Accidents” in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.” (And you thought the T was bad nowadays). Those monsters, who may not be imaginary in the context of the tale, supposedly roam around in an extensive network of tunnels that fan out under central Boston from an opening in Pickman’s decrepit North End building, from where the artist muses, “these ancient places are dreaming gorgeously and overflowing with wonder and terror and escapes from the commonplace.” No kidding, right?

The dreaming part of that statement certainly resonates with me. I can look at that block of Tremont St. and see the AMC Loews and a vestige of the façade of the wax museum that used to be next door and the great hulk of the Masonic Temple on the corner of Boylston (I’d love to get a look at their sub-basement!) but a shade behind it all is a reoccurring dream landscape that I have visited periodically for decades. This REM wonderland is a densely-packed district of curio shops, chop suey stalls, burlesque theaters, pinball parlors and Art Deco shopping arcades–an urban archetype of the collective unconscious. Maybe writing about will bring it back because I haven’t landed there in over a year.

Walking back to my car, I passed by the Poe statue again, the morbid and magnificent author seemingly striding as quick as he can out of town (with his trusty Raven by his side) a cold shoulder turned to the dreaded “Frog-Pondians” of the city of his birth. In the “Extraordinary Tales” postscript he petitions for immortality in view of the six-foot hole. Mission Accomplished. Nowadays, our Subterranean Homesick Edgar is as iconic and indispensable in October as Charles Dickens is in December with “A Christmas Carol.” We can almost walk along beside him, dreaming gorgeously, one step ahead of the black zone at all times.


We’ve All Gone Solo #11 (Danny Kirwan)


To millions of music fans, Fleetwood Mac means Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, along with the founding rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and recently rejoined singer-keyboardist Christine McVie. It’s not hard to see why. They were the most commercially successful incarnation of the band (remember a little record called Rumours?) and for the last forty years, the only incarnation. But before rock music’s timeline became so stretched out, there were of course two earlier stages of the band. The psychedelic blues combo fronted by guitar legend Peter Green and, after Green left in 1970, a transitional period in the early Seventies that saw the addition of Christine and, for a while, Bob Welch. Straddling those two periods was Danny Kirwan, who was born in South London in 1950 and joined Mac as an 18 year-old guitar prodigy in ’68. By the time he left in 1972, Kirwan was the de facto leader of the band, but was let go amid tales of alcohol abuse and erratic behavior.

danny kirwan

Someone like Kirwan, who developed mental health issues and was out of the music business by the late 70s, is an easily forgotten by the average pop fan. But for the passionate baby-boomer music buff, who have big record collections and read legacy rock magazines like Mojo and Uncut, a guy like Danny is often revered beyond what would normally be expected. And that’s how it should be. With the earlier version of FM, he was part of a formidable three-guitar formation (the third axe played by Jeremy Spencer) who carved out indelible rock classics like “Oh Well,” “Albatross,” “The Green Manalishi” and “Black Magic Woman.” In the post-Green years, the band developed a more ethereal and at times folk-rockish sound and, with the addition of Christine McVie, developed a feminine mystique that would that would really broaden their appeal a few years down the road.


With a front line of Kirwan, C. McVie and Welch, the group made two excellent albums (1971’s Future Games and 72’s Bare Trees) that certainly set the table for that mega-success to come. Kirwan had a hand in composing about half the material on those records and his maturing writing style on songs like “Woman of 1000 Years” and “Dust” was central to their aesthetic appeal. But like a lot of the people I’ve profiled in this series, Kirwan’s step up from role player to nominal leader didn’t seem a good fit. There were stories of it being a stressful arrangement and Kirwan’s developed a serious drinking problem, leading to bad behavior which alienated him from band members. In the end, Mick Fleetwood was the only one he was still on speaking terms with, if only to let the guitarist know he was out of the band.

Kirwan’s first solo album wasn’t released until 1975, when his Second Chapter came out around the same as Fleetwod Mac, the curiously eponymous LP that was the first to feature the Buckingham-Nicks team. In some ways, Kirwan’s offering was a continuation of his more low-key offerings with his former outfit: thoughtful, melodic, attractively folkish if a tad under-produced. “Ram Jam City” is a sprightly uptempo number to kick things off, but not nearly as driving as its tittle may suggest. The rest of the old side one is an enjoyable set of songs analogous to Nilsson or early 70s Paul McCartney. It’s on the second half that the record deepens and Kirwan’s engaging voice and nimble guitar work are put to best use on songs like “Lovely Days” and “Silver Streams.” An air of melancholy like a premonition has already edged in by the time we get to the beautiful closer “Cascades.”

Danny Kirwan’s second chapter would be an abbreviated one. There would be a few more undervalued solo LPs to follow, while his old band, mining a similar musical vein but with more of that ineffable “It Factor” went mega-platinum. Many have said that if Kirwan’s issues could have been worked out, that his talents would have contributed greatly to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup, even if it would have been a crowded stage. But the vicissitudes of a pop musician’s life are many and often fall unkindly on the more deserving. Kirwan would spend part of the 80s and 90s homeless in London, occasionally being shadowed by tabloid reporters who on at least one occasion made fun of his alcoholism in a news story. Things may have improved some since then but tentative talks about a one-off reunion of early edition Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer who, despite life problems of their own, are musically active) don’t hold out much hope that Kirwan can be included. Never say never, but in the meantime, astute and sensitive fans still have Second Chapter as a great Sunday morning listen while wondering what could have been.

Books That Rock, Part 2

viv keith mick
Just Kids, London division: Viv Albertine, Keith Levene and Mick Jones in 1975.

In this concluding installment, there’s a decided emphasis on the Seventies. I guess we always gravitate to our coming-of-age period. As opposed to the canard that writing about music is a suspect endeavor (which I knocked around a bit in Part One) there seems to be interesting books coming out all the time, esp. by women rockers. New books by Chrissie Hynde and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon are on my eventual to-do list (but after this, I want to get back to some fiction reading) and “M Train,” Patti Smith’s follow-up to her celebrated “Just Kids” is due in October along with an author tour. One such book that I have read, and couldn’t recommend enough, leads off here.

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“Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys” by Viv Albertine (2014)

“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a little bit of both.” That has got to go down as one of my all-time favorite opening lines for this type of book. Out of seemingly nowhere, Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine has hit the stores with this live-wire memoir of growing up in Sixties England and being at ground zero for London’s mid-70s punk rock revolution. Her prose is as frank, unsentimental and dryly humorous as the music of the cutting-edge all-girl band she joined shortly after picking up a guitar for the first time at 22. Viv is not especially famous (the Slits only made two albums in their 70s incarnation) but this works in the narrative’s favor. Her scene-making and (eventually) music-making exploits come up the years in a virtual timeline of street-level Brit-rock history. The talking points are many: discovering the Beatles on her babysitter’s record player (“I feel as if I’ve jammed my finger into an electricity socket, every part of me is fizzing”), being a barmaid in the pub-rock era, spending the long hot summer of 1976 criss-crossing London with pal Sid Vicious, being the girlfriend of the Clash’s Mick Jones (“Train in Vain” was about her) and, of course, finding her “voice” as the guitarist in a seminal band. This punks-as-pedestrians angle is a novel take on a much-traveled subject. It uncovers the inner workings of a relatively small group of people who shook up the pop music world with fierce commitment in an analogue age—imagine arranging practice sessions when members live in various squats without even a landline, never mind a cell phone or email. Albertine is also spot-on in her recollections (honest but never disrespectful) of her fellow travelers, like the pre-Spungen Sid Vicious and the dynamic Slits singer, the late Ari Up. Of course, there’s a long second act after she left the music biz following the dispiriting break-up of her band. From aerobics instructor to TV producer to wife and mother, to major health problems (she is a cervical cancer survivor) to divorce and then a long climb back to music-making as a solo artist. What burns through all of it is Albertine’s lifelong belief in the lasting value of creative non-conformity in spite of all the obstacles life throws your way. Inspirational.

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What You Want Is in the Limo—Michael Walker (2013)

Michael Walker, the L.A.-based author whose previous pop-history tome was “Laurel Canyon”, investigates a key transitional year in rock music with his second book. The pivotal but under-appreciated year of 1973 is a subject near and dear to me and my own post on the subject (“Between Patchouli and Punk”) can be accessed from the “Rock on Record” category on the right. Walker calls this “The Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Roc k Star was Born” as he vividly re-lives the recording of three huge albums and the Dionysian U.S. tours that followed them—Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies”, the Who’s “Quadrophenia” and Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy.” Here in spades are the tales of debauchery and superstar privilege, the dawning of the age of the single-headliner stadium shows in place of the collective ballroom or festival experience of the 60s, and a shifting business model where savvy acts were now raking in the dough alongside the promoters, managers and record companies. Much to his credit, Walker also perceives the social gradation when younger baby boomers came into their own “wishing only to continue the Sixties hootenanny of which they are given a tantalizing glimpse… they saunter into high schools trailing pot smoke and wan entitlement, the first postwar generation not to have to register for the draft.” A high-school sophomore in ’73, I was wishing for a little more of that to go with the piled-on anecdotes of rented jetliners, groupies, hotel room thrashings and wayward substance intake like Alice’s daily consumption of uncountable cans of Budweiser and shots of VO whiskey. But even here Walker’s even-handed instincts notes that the record companies, not yet under the yoke of their “corporate overlords” still spent money on artist development, even if that led to the coked-out excesses of the later 70s. Each of the three bands claimed a martyr to that everything-all-the-time period—drummers Keith Moon and John Bonham were gone by the end of the decade and Cooper band guitarist Glenn Buxton (so fried by the 1973 tour that there was a backup guy playing most of his parts) died in 1997. But a survey of ‘73s top records, seen in this book and in my aforementioned post, confirms it as one of rock’s most invigorating times and Walker brings it back most admirably.

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“Who I Am” by Pete Townshend (2012)

I’m not usually one for reading hefty rock-star memoirs, but it was hard to pass this one up with the hardcover marked down to seven bucks (from a list of $32.50) on the Former Bestsellers table at Barnes & Noble. The Who are one of my favorite groups and leader Pete Townshend is well known as one of pop music’s more articulate and introspective figures, with a self-effacing streak that can usually counter the well-known excesses that come with the territory. The early chapters are rich with post-war London anecdotes but take a darker turn when young Pete is shunted off to stay for some months with his eccentrically unpleasant grandmother. Half-formed memories of cruel behavior (and possible sexual abuse by one or more of her “gentleman” callers) would haunt him and ironically lead to charges of downloading child porn almost a half-century later. When it comes to the Who, the familiar arc of their story is naturally enhanced by the first-person recollections. Townshend, as both an aesthete and a gearhead of the first order, gives a great accounting of both the ideas and the recording of grand works like “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” and even clarifies the concept behind the super-ambitious (and never completed) “Lifehouse” project. As far as rock-star hijinks go, married-with-children Pete admits to being a vaguely envious side-glancer to the many exploits of bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle, but he and Roger Daltrey managed to avoid much of the druggy excesses that helped claim them both. “Prudish” with groupies, his main weakness (aside from his eventual serious drinking problem) was as a “fantasist” who succumbed to the charms of several women he met in his personal and business dealings, leading to long estrangements from his wife Karen Astley, from whom he eventually got divorced. His 2003 arraignment on child-porn downloading is a fascinating read, if only because it is refreshing to hear a side of the story that only seemed to invite knee-jerk condemnation of him at the time. Townshend had already funded a research group to combat this scourge (still haunted by his childhood half-memories) and he did it as an aggressive but ill-advised ploy to bring the problem to light. At 500 pages, “Who I Am” may be a bit too piled high with rock-geek details and anecdotes for general interest, but a rewarding read for Who fans and music history buffs.

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“Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” by Will Hermes (2011)

Sub-titled “Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever,” Will Hermes’ wide-ranging and irresistible book surveys the “multiple creative frequencies” that beamed throughout the city from 1973-77. Although it takes its title from the Talking Heads’ first single, this means more than just rock ‘n’ roll, though the New York Dolls, Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Springsteen and others are all present and accounted for. But it was also a time of intense activity in other genres, and developments in salsa, loft jazz, disco, avant-garde and early hip-hop are also traced closely. But these are alternating timeline stories so a reader who is not altogether taken with the struggles of Philip Glass to stage a production of “Einstein on the Beach” (as interesting as that may be) can skip ahead until he or she comes across the next appearance of the words “Richard Hell.” Naturally, socio-political trends and events (the city’s brush with bankruptcy, Son of Sam, the ’77 blackout) are weaved in but despite the Big Apple’s many struggles in that era, for the musicians and their followers it is “less about escaping the nastiness of the city than reveling in it, amping it up to a cinematic scale, drawing a narrative in which (they) could wage heroic battle.” Hermes, a senior critic at Rolling Stone, fills his tome who who-knew anecdotes (“The summer was exceptionally hot. It gave Laurie Anderson the idea to hitchhike to the North Pole”) and is especially well-researched though I’m not sure if we need to know the exact address of every recording studio, dive club and crash pad. Still, “Buildings on Fire” is no mere good-old-days exercise. Hermes, who grew up in Queens but was a little young to partake in the original CBGB scene, sees musical culture a as continuum and in a generous epilogue concludes by both catching up with his Seventies’ cast of characters and looking at today’s scene as well. Despite what us Boomers may think, these kids feel the same sense of possibility as Hermes and his music-obsessed friends did back in the mid-70s, standing on the roof of a Queens apartment building gazing at the dazzling lights of Manhattan. “We were ready to fly to them.”

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The New York Dolls in a New Years show at Mercer Arts Center. Photo by Bob Gruen in the earliest hours of 1973.

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“Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island” edited by Greil Marcus (1979)

Released in 1979, “Stranded” may still stand as the ne plus ultra when it comes to rock-geek literature. Editor and music-critic dean Greil Marcus set up a nifty little parlor genre: if you were stuck on a desert island with only one album to listen to, what would it be? He sent that out to a would-be Hall of Fame of fellow rock scribes (Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis, Tom Carson, Janet Maslin, Nick Tosches, Ariel Swartley, Dave Marsh etc.) and got predictably fascinating and idiosyncratic results. Many of these twenty writers struggle with the core futility of the premise: Tosches duly notes that “being marooned somewhere with neither whiskey nor Jewish girls troubles me greatly” (before settling on “Sticky Fingers”) and Marsh is so flummoxed by the whole aloneness thing that he comes up with an imagined compilation record called “Onan’s Greatest Hits” and if you think that the Who’s “Pictures of Lilly” is included in that you are correct. Some choices are a bit strange—John Rockwell is so intent on finding a universal pop common denominator that he finds himself defending Linda Ronstadt’s “Living in the USA” for thirty pages!! But most of this is great as in Carson’s astute celebration of the Ramones’ “Rocket to Russia” (“the kind of deadly serious fun that rock and roll, and America, couldn’t live without”), Lester Bangs’ passionate dissertation of “Astral Weeks,” and the heartfelt and headstrong advocacy of both “The Velvet Underground and Nico” by Ellen Willis and the New York Dolls’ debut by Robert Christgau are strong statements about the value of music in one’s life in general. Also, Marcus’ extensive “Treasure Island” discography at the end will keep me discovering new platters until my time is called and I sail off to that island clutching a copy of “The Kink Kronikles.”

My new book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be coming out by early 2016 (or so I’ve heard!)

Documentary Spotlight: “Best of Enemies”


Best of Enemies
Directed by Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville—2015—88 minutes

Amid hurled epithets like “crypto-Nazi” and “queer”, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal dragged TV-talk politics kicking and screaming into the modern age with a series of ten live debates on ABC during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Sharp-tongued scions of a now-faded Eastern Establishment, the conservative stalwart Buckley and the left-leaning author Vidal were playing for keeps in an age where “the fault lines of the country were split open.”

The absorbing new documentary “Best of Enemies” is a vivid look back at the pivotal 1968 election cycle. ABC News was a distant third in the ratings behind CBS (with the esteemed Walter Cronkite as anchor) and NBC (with the successful teaming of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley). With the conventions approaching, ABC figured they would need a little more than the genteel but unexciting Howard K. Smith and the still-green Sam Donaldson.

Back then the three networks, without cable competition or the Internet, were usually in the business of hewing to the great American middle ground but that was blown open at ABC when they came up with the idea of staging these one-on-one debates (five at each convention) between Buckley and Gore. They were both intellectually self-assured patricians, but that’s about where the similarities ended. The two men were well acquainted and detested each other. Buckley, as editor of the National Review and host of the PBS show Firing Line, was an unapologetic and archly witty defender of old money and an overlord business class, as well as a spearhead in the nascent culture wars. Vidal was certain that what Buckley stood for was the perpetuation of power for those who already held it at the expense of a growing underclass and the suppression of new freedoms. Buckley in turn saw Vidal, who had recently published the bestselling novel “Myra Breckenridge” with its transgender protagonist, as a dangerous precursor of a non-religious society full of moral compromises.

“Best of Enemies” zips by in succession of clips from the combustible head-to-head encounters and adds contemporary commentators on media history as well as those who can breakdown debating as a “blood sport.” The recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, race riots in several major cities and escalating protests of a disastrous war in Vietnam were all on the front burner. Both men were more than willing to hash out the issues from their side of the schism in a debate that one talking head contends boiled down to a contest to prove “who was the better person” in a proxy war over two ways of life in an increasingly divided America.


Their aristocratic accents and erudite point-scoring can’t disguise the philosophical loathing each had for the other. The suave and unflappable Vidal, who came better prepared for the opening rounds at the Republican confab in Miami, is incredulous that Buckley won’t see a problem with the so-what assertion that “Freedom breeds inequality” and pins him down with certifiable quotes that Buckley advocated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. Buckley was a supporter of the law-and-order ways of eventual GOP nominee Richard Nixon as well as Ronald Reagan (in his first presidential run) and extends that to include screenwriter Vidal’s alliance with a new libertine Hollywood industry leading the country astray. The bad blood between them really came to a boil in the last debate during the rancorous Democratic convention in Chicago, where Mayor Daley’s brutish police force was indiscriminately clubbing anti-war demonstrators in the street. With some ten million viewers looking on, Vidal calmly played his ace in the hole. Not taking kindly to Buckley’s assertion that the protestors were asking for it, he called his counterpart “a pro- or crypto-Nazi.” Buckley’s face contorted as he half-rose from his seat, calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to punch his lights out. (Vidal’s homosexuality was not quite an open secret at the time). Howard K. Smith quickly cut in from his booth to end it.

Although they don’t overplay the angle, co-directors and writers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (the latter won an Oscar for his film “20 Feet from Stardom”) tie all this in to the relentless partisan rhetoric and bickering we see on cable news and the Internet nowadays, not to mention the often-stalemated state of affairs in Washington and the general red-state-blue-state fissure. But 1968 was still an age where intellect counted for something (even on TV!) and things were much less monolithic. It would hard to imagine an opportunistic blowhard like Rush Limbaugh engaging with Woody Allen and Mohamed Ali, like we see Buckley doing here on old Firing Line clips. (Buckley could also break with Republican orthodoxy, supporting President Carter on the Panama Canal Treaty). He and Vidal knew they were playing the mass media game (Gore once quipped that the two things you should never pass up is sex and a television appearance) but also held out that the marketplace of ideas were real and meant something. I have a feeling that we won’t be seeing a whole lot of that in this current election cycle so it may be a good time to take a break from the partisan echo chambers and see “Best of Enemies” to re-visit an age before (as Buckley later put it) what is “highly viewable” overwhelmed that which is “highly illuminating.”

We’ve All Gone Solo #10 (Jerry Harrison)

jerry casual gods

There must be plenty of people out there who dig the Talking Heads who couldn’t tell you the first thing about Jerry Harrison, except that he was the handsome, curly-haired guy who switched off between guitar and keyboards. But that’s OK. Harrison is the music equivalent of a versatile utility baseball player who could play any infield position and maybe even fill in at catcher. He comes off the bench to hit a 2-run double during a World Series that his team wins, and is forever fondly recalled by hometown fans. And so it is sometimes with rock ‘n’ roll.

Jerry Harrison was born in Milwaukee in 1949 and moved to the Boston area to study architecture at Harvard. There he met Danny Fields and the journalist and future punk impresario introduced him to Jonathan Richman. He joined Richman’s group the Modern Lovers in 1971 and played keys on their seminal debut album (recorded the next year but not released until ’76). After Jonathan turned to a quieter and more naïve performing style, Jerry left but the legacy of that first record—with its streetwise but brainy aesthetic—was not lost on the groups in the emerging New York scene centered around CBGBs. When the Talking Heads, then a trio with singer-guitarist David Byrne and the husband-wife rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, were looking for a fourth member to fill out their sound, Harrison was recommended to them by mutual acquaintance Andy Paley.


He went to New York to meet the band and audition and they were impressed with his versatility. Harrison, in a move sure to be appreciated by parents everywhere, agreed to join the group so long as he could finish his last semester at Harvard. The Heads’ success, with Harrison as the group’s valuable middle man, is well known. But when tensions between dominant frontman Byrne and the Weymouth-Frantz axis came to a head in the late 80s, the group went on a long-term hiatus, before officially breaking up in 1991. Harrison didn’t waste much time getting in the solo game, releasing “Casual Gods” in 1988, the same year as the Heads’ last studio album. Jerry had also put out a solo disc in 1981 (“The Red and the Black”) but with the band’s future in doubt, this perhaps was made with more of a sense of urgency to it.
From the opener “Rev it Up” you get the sense of a consummate pro at work. Led by Harrison’s signature trebly, funky rhythm guitar, the song is a suave booty-shaker that is not dissimilar to his old band in the “Stop Making Sense” period.

Certainly, the overall sound, with the glossy production values and world-music overlay, is of its time but in a good way. Harrison has a nice mid-range voice even if he is not the most expressive of vocalists. And while as a lyricist he is not as willfully eccentric as David Byrne (few are) he can be just as striking upon closer inspection (“I feel there’s a time coming when we are all angels… a time when nothing will be new”). The standout track of “Casual Gods” has got to be “Man With a Gun” an ineffably touching tune about the mysteries of love that also comes with a stylish video.

“Casual Gods” was an impressive album (even if it did get a little samey towards the end of side two) and seemed to promise that there would be more to come. There was a follow-up album a couple of years later (“Walk on Water”) but that was his last solo effort to date. As is the case with many of the musicians profiled in this series, some people are just born to supporting roles. While watching the “Stop Making Sense” concert film, for instance, it’s a little hard to imagine a low-key dude like Jerry Harrison climbing into that giant white suit to claim the spotlight like David Byrne does so memorably. We all have our roles to play and for Jerry it would mostly be as producer or in-house player, working with the Violent Femmes, General Public, Crash Test Dummies, the BoDeans, Black 47 and many others. And say what you will about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, at least it gets warring bands back together one more time and for the Talking Heads it happened in 2002, with Jerry looking just as boyish as ever.

(The anecdote about Harrison joining the Talking Heads was taken from Will Hermes’ great book “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” which takes its title from the Heads’ first single (before J.H. was in the group). More on that tome in my upcoming post “Books That Rock, Part 2.” Coming soon!)

A Reel and Rock Summer Break

Lord of the Ry's

It’s blog break time. When I return, I’ll have Part 2 of my “Books That Rock” article, a re-consideration of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” on its 40th anniversary and more of my “We’ve All Gone Solo” series, among other items. For those readers interested in music documentaries, a pretty hashed-over subject on this blog, feel free to visit my Facebook group called “Rock Docs” and join up if so inclined. Here is the link:


Currently, I have posted a clip from Penny Woolcock’s 2012 documentary “From the Sea to the Land Beyond” not a rock doc per se, but with a excellent soundtrack by the band British Sea Power. This compilation of early English documentary footage with that music makes a beautiful tribute to late summer. Until then… happy viewing and listening from Reel and Rock.

Rick Ouellette

We’ve All Gone Solo #9 (Mick Ronson)


The curious case of Mick Ronson is a great example of why I like doing this series so much. Rock fans can be a sentimental lot and Ronson, who came to prominence as David Bowie’s right-hand man in the heady days of Ziggy Stardust, is still greatly admired long after his untimely death in 1993 at age 46. A classically-trained musician from the craggy port city of Hull, England, Ronson did not find much success in London with his late 60s rock outfit called The Rats. He eventually left the capital, not knowing he had recently attracted the attention of Bowie. Although he had had a hit with “Space Oddity” (considered a bit of a novelty record at the time), Bowie harbored plans to achieve pop immortality via some transformative concept.

As the story goes, one of Mick’s ex-drummers found the guitarist back up in Hull, marking out the end lines on a rugby field, part of his job in the city’s parks dept. Convinced to give London another try, Ronson got the gig as Bowie’s guitarist on the two albums (The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory) leading up to the world-beating The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. By the time of Bowie’s alter-ego masterstroke, Ronson was more than just the flashy lead guitarist in the singer’s gender-bender, sci-fi alternate universe. Ronno, as he was now known, was a principal player in the album’s cinematic sweep, as arranger and keyboardist in addition to his incandescent guitar work—not to mention his role as Bowie’s onstage foil when the Ziggy show went on the road.

ronson bowie2

Obliged to dress in the glittery style of the leader, as did drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder, those were special times for Ronson as the top Spider. But as revolutionary as the look and sound was, pointing the way to both the punk era and the image-conscious 80s pop, Bowie was not a guy to stay in one bag for very long. Though Ronson was still an integral part of the Ziggy follow-up Aladdin Sane and the covers album Pinups, he was soon out of the silver suit and would only play with David on a couple of occasions after that.

His first solo LP, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, arrived soon after in Feb. of 1974 and made #9 on the UK charts. This is an album that still gets a lot of love, sometimes to a strange degree. On the extreme fringe, one online true believer, states that Tenth Avenue is the greatest rock music ever produced, with the exception of Jimi Hendrix. Really, even better than Ziggy Stardust? This is obviously the work of a very talented musician but it also gives every indication of being a toe-dipper in the solo-artist waters. Mick makes a very debatable decision opening the record with a version of “Love Me Tender.” Starting off with a soft-serve Elvis cover does not exactly indicate a forward charge up to the rock ‘n’ roll Acropolis. Elsewhere, there are three tunes that David Bowie had a hand in writing, all well sung and played by Ronson in the moonage-daydream style of recent vintage. (The best of the three, “Growing Up and I’m Fine,” is heard above). Most intriguing is the title cut as Ronno delivers a sterling rockist rendition of a Richard Rogers dance piece he loved since the days of his youthful music lessons—the cabaret-style piano and the long line of dramatic sustained guitar notes does justify the hype of the man’s eager-beaver followers.

Like a lot of the folks featured in the series, Ronson found his greatest market value in a support role or behind the scenes. In between this album and his solo follow-up (Play Don’t Worry, #29 UK) he was in the final line-up of Mott the Hoople. Ronson would go on to form a partnership with Mott frontman Ian Hunter that would last for several albums and tours. Later he would appear with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue while producing and/or playing on records from a diverse list of artists that included Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Ellen Foley, the Rich Kids, T-Bone Burnett, Morrissey and even David Cassidy. In 1992, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, he appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert where he was re-united with both Bowie and Hunter. Despite never being as famous as those he helped support (or partly because of it), the secondary spotlight shining on Ronson still burns plenty bright.

Today, “Top of the Pops,” Tomorrow the World!

“Help!” at 50: The Birth of Pop Modernism or Middling James Bond Spoof? Why Not Both?


Directed by Richard Lester–1965–92 minutes

The Beatles’ first film, “A Hard Day’s Night”, gets the lion’s share of love when it comes to the Fab Four on the big screen. And why not? It arrived during the highwater mark of Beatlemania and gave it back to fans as the fully-formed global sensation it was: fresh, frantic, witty and full of promise for the grand new youth culture to come. Its B&W pseudo-documentary style, under the self-confident direction of American expat director Richard Lester, gave it a look that impressed more neutral viewers and critics alike (“The Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals,” Andrew Sarris famously proclaimed in the Village Voice.) Insatiable demand promised that another Beatle movie would soon follow.

Almost exactly a year later, along came “Help!” The two most noticeable differences, of course, was the vivid color photography and the conceit of having the boys being on the business end of comic villainy in a light satire of the Bondian action-spy flicks then coming into vogue. The latter element is often held up as to why this entry will never match up to “Hard Day’s Night” and that’s fair enough. Lester, who “got” the Beatles and had a good working relationship with the four, was on board for the follow-up and was not keen to repeat himself. Also, after a couple of world tours where they found themselves sequestered in hotel rooms as protection against ever-increasing hordes of Beatlemaniac girls, the band were not eager to reprise scenes of being chased through train stations by roving packs of delirious teenagers. (In fact, for greater realism, Lester let some of these scenes happen on location instead of staging them, leaving the band unamused). In fact, the only “fans” we really see come right at the band’s first appearance (not counting the filmed title song) where the boys are seen entering a rowhouse by four adjacent doors and a pair of admiring middle-aged housewives wave at them, agreeing that “Adoration hasn’t gone to their heads one jot.”

When the Beatles enter the house (which is a large one-room communal apartment) a viewer first gets a sense of a new mod era taking hold. The monochrome “Hard Day’s Night” still has the look of gritty post-war England but this way-out bachelor pad is something altogether different. John has a recessed bed area, George has an indoor mini-lawn and employs a gardener who uses a set of false teeth for mowing, Ringo has a row of vending machines and Paul has a console organ that rises up from the basement—with comic books on the stand instead of sheet music. It’s in and around this place that the band’s adversaries, a bizarre religious sect with claims to a gaudy red gemstone ring worn by Ringo, first show up. This pan-Asiatic cult needs this particular piece of jewelry as part of their regular ritual of sacrificing humans. They are joined in the bad guy department by an inept mad scientist who knows of the ring’s mysterious powers and wants to use it to “dare I say it, rule the world.” The plotline that follows is sketchy and fairly ridiculous, mainly consisting of implausible and elaborate attempts to capture the Beatles humble drummer. All of these attempts fail with remarkable precision. But the threat does get the band out of the house and into scenic locations like Salisbury Plain, the Alps and the Bahamas—the latter two places also doubled as brief R&R trips for the overworked quartet.

Dick Lester and actress Eleanor Bron look back in this recent making-of clip.

Though the film still gets its share of nitpicking and lukewarm reviews, after a half century you have to wonder why. Much of “Help!” is pretty hilarious on its own terms. Sure, the over-busy action mechanics make it sometime feel (as Lennon suggested) that the Beatles were supporting players in their own film. But it’s a great group to be occasionally overshadowed by. The great Aussie actor Leo McKern plays cult leader Clang and the exotic but personable Eleanor Bron is also good as the cult’s turncoat femme fatale. Victor Spinetti, the put-upon TV producer in “Hard Day’s Night” returns as the mad scientist and is well-teamed with Lester regular Roy Kinnear as the bumbling assistant.

The seven new songs here show that the still-zany onscreen Beatles were showing more emotional depth in their writing as they eased into their rewarding middle period, a satisfying sweet spot between teenybopper rock and psychedelia. In the urgent title song, the formerly self-assured narrator sees that his “independence seems to vanish in the haze.” The romantic resignation of John’s folky “You Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the stately but somber pop of George’s “I Need You” betray this more mature songwriting trend. More upbeat is the Alpine setting for “Ticket to Ride” which utilized real footage of the group taking a ski lesson, while also placing a grand piano on a mountain ridge at sunset, one of many examples of Lester’s wry directorial style. These visual set pieces, often using reflected light and colored filters, have long been celebrated for paving the way for the modern music video. In a special-features interview for a recent DVD release, Lester says he was once sent a letter from the Music Television network (on a parchment scroll, no less) declaring that he was the father of MTV. The ever-clever Lester says he “immediately cabled back and demanded a blood test.”

Cinematographer David Watkins and others discussing the film’s look.

In the end, it’s the native wit of Lester and the Beatles (along with the music, of course) that is lasting takeaway from “Help!” The blend of the silly and subversive had already been honed by Lester in his previous work with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, which brought him to the attention of the band in the first place. The playful wordsmithing of screenwriter Charles Wood was also influential and a repeat viewing reveals certain naughty nuances we may not have noticed as kids. (When the baddies try to saw under Ringo’s drum kit during a recording session, the engineer asks, “Boys, are you buzzing?” John’s reply: “No thanks, I’ve got the car”). The “So this is the famous Beatles/So this is the famous Scotland Yard” routine with Patrick Cargill as the Inspector also shows the insurgent younger generation was not going to take authority at face value any longer. This may be saying a lot for a movie that ends with a chaotic melee on a beach that is barely worthy of the Keystone Cops, but what happened in later years bear it out. Lester would go on to make Sixties signpost films like “Petulia” and “How I Won the War” (the latter starring Lennon). And “Help’s” crowish humor, stream-of-consciousness and extravagant visual gags seem to lead the way to the success of the Monty Python TV series, which debuted four years later. George Harrison, who would later help finance the Python film “Life of Brian” thought of Python as a continuation of the Fab Four and the influence of both appear to be inexhaustible. And up against later Bond-parodies like the Austin Powers series, “Help!” will remain irresistibly shagedelic for many years to come.

beatles help

Rehab Needed for Fame-Addicted Society: Between the Lines of “Amy”

amy one

Directed by Asif Kapadia–2015–120 minutes

I never really got into Amy Winehouse that much while she was alive and it wasn’t because I didn’t recognize her talent as a vocalist and songwriter. It was just that the aura surrounding her was already that of a tabloid train wreck by the time I caught on and I didn’t want to be party to the plan. I wasn’t exactly predicting that it would all end in tears, but it did give the appearance of being the latest variation on the all-too-familiar narrative of rock ‘n’ roll self-destruction. By 2011, Winehouse was dead of alcohol toxicity, joining the dreaded (and sometimes romanticized) “27 Club” along with Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones, to name just the most famous of those musicians who died at that age. Will this never end?

Only a year after her death, film director Asif Kapadia was approached by her father (Mitchell Winehouse) 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 asked for (and was granted) complete creative control. Kapadia went out and made a soul-searching film that looks way beyond the default image left behind of the soused, smoky-voiced singer with the beehive hairdo, tattoos and heavy mascara. He was 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 and astute singer-songwriter with sharp influences (Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett) and an ebullient personality. But she was also a girl troubled by her parents’ divorce, diagnosed with depression by age 13 and, crucially, admitted to being bulimic. Little was done about it, especially after success beckoned.

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The soul-searching for this poor woman needed to arrive a lot sooner than this film. The problem of pop stars with too much fame too soon, combined with psychological issues, their own lack of impulse control and too many enablers crowding onto the gravy train is world famous. Where was the help? In an early video clip, Winehouse says “I don’t think I could handle it (fame), I’d go mad” and later sings “my destructive side has grown a mile wide.” Unsurprisingly, Mitchell Winehouse has disowned the film, specifically for saying of his daughter “She doesn’t need to go to rehab,” claiming the director cut out the last three words “at this time.” But it was precisely at that point (on the cusp of the big time, before she was stalked by a voracious media machine) that would have been the best chance for her. And bringing up her own refusal to go, in the famous “No, no, no” refrain of her mega-hit “Rehab” just doesn’t wash. All the song proves is her cleverness as a writer; it is a perfect balance between a brag and a cry for help (“I don’t ever wanna drink again/I just need a friend”).

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Amy with her dubious dad

Winehouse’s popularity soon snowballed into obsessive fan and media attention, the kind of which less well-adjusted people have big problems with. Already a party girl, her substance abuse soared, especially after marrying the indefensible Blake Fielder, who had so thoughtfully introduced her to hard drugs. True, Amy was doing herself no favors but neither was there much selfless support. She is clearly heard in old recordings hoping for some guidance from her father. Even when she goes off to St. Lucia to get away from the cameras and the cocaine, her dad shows up with a TV crew, doing a reality show about HIMSELF.

Kapadia gradually and masterfully traces this sad story as the situation of everyone’s making spins out of control. That because someone is a good singer they can’t leave the house without being chased or assaulted with countless camera flashes going, speaks of an immature society that can’t help being bamboozled by fame and suffocate those who have achieved it. And sometimes the result of this unhealthy dynamic is what you see towards the end of this unflinching documentary: the horrific site of Amy Winehouse being carried out of her Camden Town house in a body bag, her frail frame, emaciated from an eating disorder, done in by alcohol poisoning. But the game goes on, even with the crushing finality of that scene. Leaving the theater I saw the tone-deaf blurb on an “Amy” lobby poster: “A star is born all over again!”
Will it never end?

My new book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be released later this year.