Pink Floyd wall2

A Tale of Two Walls: Looking Back in Anger at Pink Floyd’s Cinematic Sick Joke

Pink Floyd: The Wall
Directed by Alan Parker—1982—95 minutes

You see this: a political rally with a bellowing, puffed-up party leader and a chanting audience. There’s a primal impulse for all to do the same salute. The leader suggests that his followers can show support for his cause by weeding out minorities and other “undesirables” and he is only too happy to point some out in the crowd. They are promptly roughed up. Is this a Donald Trump event from earlier this year? No, silly—it’s a key scene from Alan Parker’s grim 1982 film version of Pink Floyd’s 1979 sourpuss double album The Wall. But really, what’s the difference? OK, given what we know of frontman Roger Waters’ politics (which includes environmentalism and work for the anti-poverty group Millennium Promise) it’s probably safe to say he’s not supportive of that sort of thing. The problem as I see it is more subtle and complex. We arrive at that scene after the protagonist (a rock star named Pink played by Bob Geldof) has spent about 80 minutes in a state of catatonic self-pity. Despite his success, he is unable to shake off childhood memories of cruel headmasters, a smothering mother and, crucially, a father killed in action in World War II. Though I am not insensitive to that fact (Waters father died in the Anzio campaign), the adult character’s complete unwillingness or inability to see that sacrifice in any other terms than his own lingering pain is bewildering at best. Especially so, when the ensuing mental stress leads to an indulgence in the fascist fantasies described above—in effect, identifying with the same horrible political force that his beloved dad died trying to defeat.

Pink Floyd wall4
“So you thought you might like to go to the show…” No thanks, I’m good.

I realize that The Wall is only one piece of work but all art matters when added in to the great scheme of things. Roger Waters wrote most of the album and is listed as the screenwriter here, so most of the blame game I am about to play is directed at him. When I recently watched this for the third time since ’82, I found it rather more inane than detestable. But in the context of the times, it now seems even more unsettling. Pink Floyd The Wall is just a little too indicative of the narcissism and low-information grievances that have led to recent political instabilities; in addition it has over the years been a flashpoint for some racist groups that have adopted bits of the film’s visual iconography. Nowadays, it’s hard for me to look at this film as anything but one of rock history’s great moral failings.


A montage set to the hit single made up the 1982 trailer, “The memories, the madness,” indeed.

Please don’t get me wrong: I like Pink Floyd. My musical coming-of-age was in the first half of the Seventies so you know I know. At age 13 I heard them for the first time, lying around after school when my local FM station played “Fearless” from 1971’s Meddle. I was swept up in its atmospheric daydream of a melody bookended by opening and closing sections of a stadium full of people mysteriously chanting and singing. A few years later I was pulled into the lunar orbit of a certain multi-platinum album, headphones clamped on tight, a slowly fading cloud of hashish smoke up near the rec room ceiling as a friend nodded sagely from his seat in a bean bag nearby. Not long after that we were grooving on Wish You Were Here and learning about ill-starred group founder Syd Barrett; we would get into Floyd’s early work in retrospect.

But those of us coming of age in that era, encouraging each other to Question Authority, often didn’t apply that to pedestal-sitting pop icons the way we did to the likes of Richard Nixon. When Pink Floyd’s songwriter, bassist and co-lead singer Roger Waters became disenchanted with the paying plebes in the audience during the group’s 1977 tour, he envisioned how much of an improvement it would be if he could play for them from behind a wall. To me, that kind of bunker mentality would be a clear sign that the artist in question needs to retire—or at least take a few years off to get his priorities straight. Instead, Waters insisted on using this feeling to create a humorless rock opera about a dissolute, navel-gazing rock star whose fame and fortune is negated by painful memories of himself as “the little boy that Santa Claus forgot.” Since this was 1979 and I was well into punk by then, I was only too happy to give The Wall a polite see-you-later after one listen, satisfied that its one undeniably great song (“Comfortably Numb”) would be on steady FM rotation until the end of time.

The Wall Movie 1

But a few years later I was compelled by a roommate and a couple of his friends to hit the local multiplex to view Alan Parker’s film adaptation. As they oh-wowed their way through its grotesque and wrong-headed 90+ minutes, I sat there utterly appalled. This gut-level reaction has been reinforced many times over when you really look between the lines of even the most user-friendly scenes. Take “Another Brick in the Wall.” Please. Sure, it’s a catchy number with the children’s chorus and David Gilmour’s funky guitar riff but “we don’t need no education”? That’s fine, because I can match you up with a demagogue candidate who “loves the poorly educated.” I know it’s not pleasant to get whacked on the knuckles in class. But in the parochial school I went to, where we ate “dark sarcasm” for breakfast, the nuns could be cruel but you moved on and later saw it as a lesson in intestinal fortitude, not as a vision of you and your classmates walking off a ledge into a meat grinder. The sequences between the boy Pink and his overweight and overprotective mum also is clunky in its overstatement. The queasy Oedipal undertones in the song “Mother” are unintentionally telling as well. “Mother, should I build the wall/Mother, should I run for President?” Yes, you go right ahead, Donald—-er, I mean Pink.

pink floyd wall3
Maybe it’s not too late to transfer to a Montessori school.

One would have to give credit for Alan Parker for the expertly lensed WW2-era scenes and the animation sequences, such as the famous goose-stepping crossed hammers. These segments are vivid if consistently downbeat. Worst is the scene where the British population is depicted as a cretinous coward in the face of the Nazi bombing of England, a merciless 8-month campaign that instead of breaking the country’s will, dealt Hitler his first strategic setback of the war. Details, details. By the end, the dictator is revealed to be not Pink but a pathological imposter (a prank not all would appreciate) yet our troubled hero is promptly put on trial. Many would argue for leniency (say, mental health counseling and a suspended sentence) but by that point I’d wish for the lot of them—defendant, judge and witnesses—to be packed into a rocket and blasted off for a permanent vacation on the dark side of the moon.

Pink floyd wall5
The stoic solidarity of the English citizenry during The Blitz helped plant the seed that Nazi Germany was not invincible, despite this ill-considered scene.

Oh, I know—it’s just a movie. Or is it? There are many different factors that make up the universal public dialogue and within that Pink Floyd: The Wall is more of a black hole than a shining star. It advances a notion that a perfunctory look inside one’s own psyche permits that person to position themselves at the center of the world. This in turn excuses a profound inability to be stoical or to relate in any meaningful way to the general population. When the citizens’ isolated impatience with global challenges and dangers, even incipient anger with incremental and imperfect democracies, turns into the politics of mutual hostility and extremism, then we’re all in trouble. No, the wall on the Mexican border is not going to solve your problems and neither will millionaire rock stars pandering to the worst sort of baby boomer self-centeredness, becoming the sort of thing we first set out to oppose.

Sure, Pink Floyd: The Wall was successful in a conventional way. Parker’s visuals were a good bet to lure stoned audiences who liked the #1 album, whether it was the trippy animation or its “cool” rock-star trappings: the smashed-up hotel rooms, the groupies, the uptight manager, the suicidal singer floating in a pool, etc. It continues to benefit from notable grade inflation from die-hard fans. Just listen to these glowing reviews from Rotten Tomatoes: “whiny, pretentious, muddled” (four stars), “uneven, hard to understand” (three and a half stars). But it carried its own sort of bad karma with it. The falling-out of Waters and Gilmour started with the film and the next year’s The Final Cut, essentially sides five and six of The Wall. That was the last LP with the two of them together as this concept ended up running Pink Floyd into the ground. Waters would go on to an undistinguished solo stint before taking The Wall on the road every few years in different and ever-bigger stage shows, while thankfully shifting the focus to an anti-tyranny theme and less of a bias towards “poor little Roger” (Waters’ own words). So people continue to pay good money to see it and, I’m certain, to sing or nod along to it’s curiously defeatist stanzas. Sorry, Roger, but I’m not another dumb-ass brick in the wall, so I’ll take a pass. Instead, I’ll think back to the first time I ever heard your old band and was lifted up by the rather more thoughtful strains of “Fearless.” Twenty years later, when I developed an interest in international soccer, I finally found out that the mysterious stadium chanting at the intro and outro of the song were fans of Liverpool F.C. singing the old Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which would become the official team song. I’ll sing along to that anytime, especially when the modern-world alternative seems to be walking around in isolation while carrying a chip on the shoulder the size of the wall of our own making.

My new book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be released in Sept. 2016

I am everyday “People on Sunday”: Berlin 1929 and the Dawn of the Youth Film

POS poster

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)
Directed by Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer/Screenplay by Billy Wilder–1930–74 minutes

The leisurely and lovely “People on Sunday” is considered an early classic of German cinema by many film scholars, critics and lay viewers lucky enough to have come across it. However, this 1930 work (“a film without actors” we are told off the top) has never gained the wider cache of other inter-war films from that country, like “Metropolis” or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It’s not for a lack of pedigree. It was scripted by a 23 year-old Billy Wilder with help from Curt Siodmak and directed by Robert Siodmak, brothers who would also move to America and produce a number of notable thriller and sci-fi movies. The same distinction also holds true for its Austrian-born producer Edgar G. Ulmer, who would go on to make “The Black Cat” and “The Man from Planet X.” The cinematographer was Fred Zinneman, who one day would direct such Hollywood classics like “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity” and “A Man for All Seasons.” This quintet, all in their early to mid-20s, were joined by five equally young non-professionals to act as versions of themselves and shot “People on Sunday” pretty much DIY style over the course of several weekends in Berlin over the summer of 1929. Together, they perhaps unwittingly conjured up the first indie-style “youth” movie, a languid ode to those threshold years where childhood is still close in the rearview mirror but adulthood has not yet been beset by burdening responsibilities (an angle further emphasized by the viewer’s retrospective knowledge of what will happen in Germany in a few years). But all that fades as soon as one is drawn into the film’s gentle orbit. It’s no wonder that an online trailer for the Criterion DVD, where they always give “3 Reasons” as to why you see this release, lists “The timelessness of twenty-somethings” as the first.

“People on Sunday” was not the first time that feature films had centered on the colorful vicissitudes of young adulthood. Silent comedy greats Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton had both recently starred in campus comedies (“The Freshman” and “College,” respectively) but their setting was just a different playing field for the usual hilarious antics and aspirational storylines. The novice filmmakers in the cultural hothouse that was Weimar-era Berlin were coming at things from quite a different angle: they were influenced by both the avant-garde “city symphony” movement of the Twenties as well as the emphasis on naturalism popular then among many artistic types in the capital. Central Berlin, as well as its outlying districts, plays almost as big a role as the people cited in the film’s title, a lovingly and luminously photographed bustling world city of four million souls of which five are singled out. In the opening moments, the film’s nominal lead character (Christl, identified as a real-life film extra) waits somewhat anxiously outside the giant Banhof Zoo Station, perhaps expecting someone who may not show. She is circled by a confident-seeming young man in breeches named Wolfgang, a wine trader by trade. Wolf, as he will fittingly become known, eventually draws her away with an offer to buy her an ice cream. The cute but moody brunette doesn’t take kindly to Wolf’s initial line of questioning (“Nobody stands me up!” Christl declares, wanting to believe it) but soon the two are planning a different rendezvous: a double date of sorts with the two pairs of friends to meet at a recreational area in Berlin’s lake district the next day: Sunday, of course. Christl and Wolfgang part ways with a charming series of awkward handshakes.

We quickly meet the other players in sharp establishing vignettes. Christl’s friend Brigitte is a soulful-looking blonde (a bit of a ringer for “Lost in Translation”-era Scarlet Johansson) who is introduced to us outside her place of work, the Electrola record and music store. She is directing the finishing touches on a window display and is said to have recently sold 150 copies of a 1929 jam called “In a Small Pastry Shop.” Wolf’s pal Erwin is a husky taxi driver who is the only one of the four who is attached: he shares a small apartment with his girlfriend Annie. As opposed to the more lively Erwin, fashion model Annie is a persistent recliner who seemingly only stands to go from the divan to the bed. This is a stalemated couple—-Annie is keen to see the latest Greta Garbo film but is reminded it’s playing until Tuesday—and when she can’t shake her self awake the next morning he takes up Wolf’s offer of a day out.

POS trio

Sunday arrives on the wings of an extended montage that owes much to Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 classic “Berlin: Symphony of a City.” The well-dressed day trippers are out in force as pedestrians and transport riders, their comings and goings a whirlwind of trains, cars, omnibuses, grand avenues and signs or advertising hoardings in handsome old-timey fonts. The two pairs meet at Nikolassee station (the girls a bit bashful, the guys pseudo-cocky), a gateway to the lakeside recreation area in Berlin’s expansive semi-rural outskirts. Once they make their way down to the water, and find a place to demurely change into their bathing suits in the tall beach grass, the rest of “People on Sunday” unfolds like a lost dream of summer. The frolicking, the flirting, the lolling about, the music (Brigitte has brought along her portable phonograph), the petty cruelties quickly forgotten—-it’s all here and lovingly rendered by the budding talents behind the camera. During the splashing around, Wolf (unsurprisingly) gets a little forward with Christl, who quickly shows she’s pretty handy with a slap upside the head. Soon after, he turns his attention to Brigitte and the new couple shares a dalliance (and maybe more) in a near-by woodlot while the camera does an artful 360-degree pan of the treetops above them.

POS trio2

But even this reversal of fortune doesn’t weigh down the overall sunny vibe and almost as much time is spent in a semi-documentary snapshot-in-time of pleasure-seeking folks with whom the quartet circulate. It’s fascinating and awful to consider that in five years Hitler would have full dictatorial powers. Who among the many faces we see at the Nikolassee would want that? The film is not clairvoyant—-in fact, “POS” has a pretty sparse screenplay from Billy Wilder (with few dialogue title cards) especially coming from a guy who would go on to direct and co-write such fully-scripted gems like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like it Hot.” But it does have acute observational instincts and it’s hard to discern here how the economic insecurities and shame of defeat in World War I, so exploited by the future Fuhrer, are bothering these people on that Sunday. The only hint may be a cryptic sequence where a solitary man sits and pensively stares at a war memorial.

POS guy

A better guess might be that the vast majority of people (on Sunday or otherwise) would prefer to go about their business and otherwise be left the hell alone. (At the end of the film, the principals claim nothing more than an anticipating look forward to the next weekend). That autocratic sociopaths and manipulative power structures that spend so much energy exploiting citizens’ fears, self-doubts and prejudices instead of appealing to their better natures is a universal historical problem and not within the scope of this film’s intentions. But it’s a problem that reaches into even the most supposedly secure democracies, as we see today in the country where the producers of “People of Sunday” emigrated to to help build the world’s most iconic movie industry. The youth culture that would take hold about ten years after WW2 can be seen in embryonic form here. And while “POS” may not be a direct predecessor to all that came later (whether it be “Beach Blanket Bongo” or “Dazed and Confused” or “Reality Bites” or whatever) it certainly was among the first to tap into the spirit of those romanticized and restless years, and did so in such enduring style that you could easily expect to meet these people on the streets of Berlin today.

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

kossoff bsc

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.

kossoff pub

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.

Kossoff and rodgers
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.”

Kossoff amps
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.

img096

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:

The_hog_farm_bus

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

————————————————————

img850

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:

————————————————————

damned2

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:

————————————————————

barry-lyndon 4

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:

————————————————————

220px-JethroTullAPassionPlay

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.

————————————————————

bey concert

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

————————————————————

books rock 1

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

————————————————————

best_of_enemies-011

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.

————————————————————-

Alphaville-quad-1080x675

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.

————————————————————

Fernald Pan2

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.

Fernald 1

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

trump1

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.

trump6jpg

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.

TRUMP5

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%.

trump7

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.

books rock9

Books That Rock, Part 3: In Memoriam Perpetuam

books rock9

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.

booksrock8
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.

books rock6

“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.

booksrock7
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)

spooner 1

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.

spooner 2
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.

spooner 3

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

hands-on2

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.

hands-on3

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)

squire cover

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.

squire b&w

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.

squire cape
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.”

Squire old

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

damned2
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.

**********************************

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