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“Rock Docs” Sampler #1

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey traces rock history through its depiction in documentary film. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a strong visual medium and movies based around it, like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Rock Around the Clock” and others with the “R” word in its title, were all the rage by as early as 1956. But it wasn’t really until 1964, with the Beatles’ seismic impact on the entertainment world, that this music started being committed to film by documentary producers. In the first of five themed samplers from the book, I look at those early days, accompanied by related video clips.

If you are interested in purchasing Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, please click on the image of the book cover in the right-hand column,it links to my BookLocker author page which contains a longer excerpt. Also, feel free to join my “Rock Docs” Facebook page. Thanks, Rick

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It was only ten weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. With the pall of national tragedy still in the air that winter, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles got a call from Granada Television in England saying a musical group named the Beatles were arriving in New York in a couple of hours and asking if they would mind heading down and maybe getting some footage? They arrived just in time to record that famous moment when John, Paul, George, and Ringo hesitated a moment at the top of the steps while leaving their plane, realizing that the hordes of people lining the balcony of the terminal were there for them and not some head of state as they first thought. And just like that, the Maysles brothers found themselves in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural moments.

From The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (1964/1991)

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Produced by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham reportedly to get his rising stars used to the idea of film, Charlie is My Darling was the first documentary about the Rolling Stones. Back in the screaming-teenager epoch of the mid-1960s, the boys are whisked off to Ireland for a quickie tour hastily arranged to capitalize on the recent smash hit “Satisfaction.” It’s a bit of a revelation here to see the Stones in the first flush of their youthful success. They were already well known for the riotous audiences they attracted and by the end of the third number in Dublin the stage invasion is in full stride, memorably captured by Peter Whitehead’s in-the-wings camera.

From The Rolling Stones: Charlie is My Darling (1965)

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It’s been described as the ultimate Battle of the Bands—James Brown and the Famous Flames vs. the Rolling Stones. It definitely helped that both still had a lot to gain at this point in their careers. Brown coveted the crossover audience that so far eluded him and the Stones were fighting to crack into the American pop marketplace. Though Brown wanted to close the show the producers opted for a British Invasion finale. It hardly mattered: The Flames’ eighteen-minute set is justly hailed as one of the more thrilling concert sequences of the rock era. This in turn made the Stones step up their game and during all this the audience makes the final transformation from excitable to certifiable.

From The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

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Although blues great Son House has been seen doing an electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and going over well with it) it’s another story when Bob Dylan plugs in with the same guys and launches into “Maggie’s Farm,” complete with a searing guitar solo by Mike Bloomfield. The reception is actually mixed, in contrast to the legend of him being booed off the stage. He is coaxed into coming back with his acoustic guitar, but the die has been cast. The authenticity claimed by folk fans earlier mentioned has shaded into defensive orthodoxy and Dylan, seeing the similarly gifted Beatles already becoming worldwide icons, was off to chart a new course.

From Festival! (Murray Lerner’s compilation film of the Newport Folk festival 1963-66)

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Cream was one of the first media-ordained supergroups and their final show, at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November ’68, was one of rock’s first self-consciously grand events. There was an imperative to capture the talented but fractious band on film before the split. The non-concert segments have an oddly defensive tone, with the power trio’s music having to be compared to the “traditional arts” by the BBC narrator. Back then, the thought of a longhair band and their scruffy fans taking over the august Albert Hall was probably still a bit controversial. Even if they had “almost single-handedly given rock an authority which only the deaf cannot acknowledge”!!

From: Cream: Farewell Concert (1968)

“Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” Available Now!

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The T.A.M.I. Show. Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop. Woodstock. Gimme Shelter. Let it Be.
The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.

This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please click on the link below for my author page at BookLocker.com. The link also has a click-through where you can view a 30-page excerpt.

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

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At Peace in the Land of “The Electric Pencil”: A Book Review from the Pale Beyond

During the course of my three-part series “The Pale Beyond,” the focus of the text gradually shifted. It moved from the scarifying aspects of the giant closed asylums which dot the American landscape (and the related “urban explorer” subculture that goes with it), to ruminations on the lives of those unfortunate people who were fated to be patients there while they were still open. But a lot of that was merely speculation. Seldom has a class of people been so under-represented, if not downright anonymous. Many of them spent much of their adult lives in these looming Victorian complexes that were designed with the best of intentions but invariably became inhumane warehouses of lost souls.

The story of one of these patients, James Edward Deeds Jr., has come to light with the recent publication of the remarkable picture book “The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3.” The book displays the 283 enchanting and enigmatic drawings done by Deeds in pen, pencil and crayons while he was committed to an asylum in the town of Nevada, Missouri between 1936 and 1973. His subjects formed a fanciful and orderly alternate world of riverboats, trains, factories, gardens, animals and dozens of well-dressed men and women with large and almost hypnotized eyes. Deed’s drawings have a keen draftsman’s precision and a calming, nostalgic view of an era just before his own birth in 1908.

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Behind all this is the story of Deeds’ troubled life and the improbable events that led to the discovery of his art. James Edward Deeds was the eldest child of a large farming family in southwest Missouri. He was likely autistic and, unable and/or unwilling to help much on the farm, was physically abused by a cruel father. After threatening a younger brother with an axe—an act which may have been a prank—he was sent to the nearby State School for the Feeble Minded. Later, he was classified insane and committed to State Hospital #3.

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“It was as if the Victoria and Albert Museum (in London) had been set down on the outskirts of a small town in western Missouri,” Richard Goodman writes in the book’s engaging introduction. Built in 1887, it was the largest structure west of the Mississippi River at the time it was completed. By the time of Deeds’ confinement many of the ideals of this Thomas Kirkbride-designed complex—the Quaker physician-reformer envisioned spacious and therapeutic facilities built to take full advantage of sunlight and even the “prevailing summer breezes”—had gone by the wayside. Deed’s art therapy was self-directed and little known outside of his visiting siblings and his mother, who kept him in pens and crayons. In a rather poignant touch, most of his drawings were made on the pages of a discarded State Hospital #3 ledger book.

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After Deeds stopped drawing due to arthritis, probably in the mid-60s, he gave the unsigned binder to his mother, who in turn handed it over to one of his brothers. But when the brother re-located in 1970, it was mistakenly placed in the trash by movers. A passing teenage boy spotted it and took it home. Goodman speculates why. “Was it that he knew somehow that this was a person’s life effort, a world that had been created with deliberation, care and skill, and that leaving it there would be wrong?” The boy (eventually man) would hold onto the book for all of 36 years, finally offering it for sale while retaining his anonymity. The drawings in The Electric Pencil changed hands a couple of times before ending up in the possession of sculptor/art collector Harris Diamant, who wrote the book’s foreword.

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Certainly many people could relate to Deeds’ creating his peaceable kingdom as a psychic escape from the bleak reality of his life within State Hospital #3. Even in the lives of those of us much more fortunate, there is a constant mental and spiritual need to find our own “happy place” in a very uncertain world. But just beneath the placid surface of these illustrations lies the despairing world that James Edward Deeds lived in. For too many years his “treatment” consisted of alternate applications of sedatives and shock therapy. Diamant took to calling the unknown artist “The Electric Pencil” before Deeds was eventually identified when his niece saw one of the notices that the collector ran in Missouri newspapers. That nickname derives from drawing #197 where the seemingly dyslexic Deeds wrote the word “ectlectric” next to a pencil. But the letters ECT (used by staff for the phrase “electro-convulsive therapy”) would show up on other pages as well. Saddest of all may be the image of a man casting a nervous sidelong glance under which Deeds wrote “Why Doctor.”

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Why, indeed. It turned my mind back to the untold thousands of others who dwelled in more-or-less total obscurity without the alleviating comfort of artistic aptitude, never mind the posthumous recognition of a New York art gallery show and a handsomely-presented book. (Deeds passed away in 1987, having spent his final fourteen years in a nursing home). Recently, on a third attempt, I found the auxiliary Danvers State patient cemetery that I had heard about at the time I started this series. Not having spotted it from the car, I took to my trusty hybrid this time and biked around the area along the Danvers-Middleton town line where it was purported to be—a curious mixed-use area of farmland, rehabilitation centers, community gardens and a Massachusetts Youth Services detention center.

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After a while I spotted it up on a gentle slope from a low-lying field. It was a mile away from the old façade of the Danvers asylum (the centerpiece of the new condo development there), a pleasantly situated rectangular site off the road. As usual, numbered graves abound, but a recently-dedicated plaque now lists the names of those interred. Since the most recent passed away in 1920, most of these people would have lived in the imagined time frame of Deeds’ graceful drawings. Here they were, at peace in the imagination of the artist as well as within the borders of the rail fencing, even with a pall overhead that the October sunshine didn’t quite burn through.

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The Return of the Boston Rock Opera: The Moon is Back in the 7th House

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Dormant for over ten years after a great run in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Boston Rock Opera company is back in a big way. In August they returned from a long hiatus with a three-part David Bowie tribute show at the ONCE ballroom in Somervile, Mass. and this weekend they are back at the same venue with a full theatrical production. Arriving in the middle of the excruciating endurance contest that is this year’s American presidential election season, the BRO’s upcoming rendition of the evergreen hippie musical “Hair” couldn’t have come at a better time. Even if the play’s zealous love-bead idealism is a little dated at this point (it was first produced almost 50 years ago) the book’s more particular message—a righteous plea for understanding, non-violence and harmony free of racial or gender bias—is more relevant than ever. Watch this space for an upcoming review.

Right from the opening song, with its dreamy astrological pronouncement of a coming utopian age, “Hair” was a whole new ball of wax when it graduated from its off-Broadway beginnings to the Great White Way in 1968. In practical terms, it’s pretty clear that we haven’t reached the “Age of Aquarius.” It doesn’t look like “Peace will guide the planets” anytime soon and that instead of “No more falsehoods and derisions” there are people more ready to dish them than ever before. Boston Rock Opera founder (and “Hair” director) Eleanor Ramsay says the musical “Mirrors many of the same racial and social issues that dominate our discourse today.” All the more reason to bask in the exuberance and irreverence of a work that speaks to our better angels in an age when others try to cynically exploit our fears and prejudices.

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The cast of BRO’s production of “Hair.” Photo by Joshua Pickering

The Boston Rock Opera story began in the early Nineties, after an ad hoc performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Easter weekend at the Middle East nightclub in Cambridge grew into something more. For the next decade, the group amassed a pretty impressive list of conceptual rock productions. There were encore performances of “Superstar” that got ever more professional, culminating in a version that had Gary Cherone, vocalist of Extreme, in the lead role. They also did a full staging of the Pretty Things’ “SF Sorrow,” arguably the very first rock opera, as well as Harry Nilsson’s “The Point” and the Small Faces’ “Happiness Stan.” There were original productions such as Tim Robert’s “Crackpot Notion” and album tribute nights: a particular favorite of mine was “Aqualung vs. Billion Dollar Babies.”

Most impressively for me were BRO’s productions of the Kinks’ sprawling political parable “Preservation.” This Ray Davies creation, unfolding over three discs on two different albums (1973-74), tells the cautionary tale of a gangster-like real estate developer who gains power and lays waste to a once-peaceful land. I know, right? Under the guidance of Eleanor Ramsay and local rocker Mick Maldonado, also starring as the devilish Mr. Flash, “Preservation” grew from a free-wheeling club show at the Middle East to the theater at the Massachusetts College of Art. This fully-realized incarnation, which co-starred Letter to Cleo’s Kay Hanley as Flash’s top “floozy,” got the official stamp of approval from Ray Davies himself when the Kinks leader stopped by a rehearsal and offered some feedback.

Works like “Preservation” were rapturously received by the local music community, so it was naturally disappointing when the Boston Rock Opera went quiet soon after a Tenth Anniversary show in 2003. An outsider can only guess at the difficulties of keeping afloat a rock-theater collective in this age of tightened resources and shiny digital distractions. That’s why it has been such a welcome surprise that this valuable local music resource is back with us. Let the sunshine back in.

More info at http://www.rockopera.com

Documentary Spotlight: Jaco

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JACO
Directed by Paul Marchand & Stephen Kijak—2015—117 minutes

While viewing and reviewing the more than 150 films that are the subject of my upcoming book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey (available this fall), I came across several sad tales of musicians who have struggled with mental health issues while trying to make it in the hothouse business of touring and recording. This documentary about acclaimed jazz-fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius arrived a little late (2015) to fit into the book’s timeline, which is 1964-2014. Yet it follows a trajectory that is somewhat familiar—a talented but sometimes unpredictable person whose illness is slow to develop and hard to reconcile with when fully manifested.

Other musical bios of this ilk—What Happened, Miss Simone? and You’re Going to Miss Me: A Film about Roky Erickson jump to mind—seem to have this hurt and confusion built into their titles. Though this doc is simply called Jaco and is made with the protective approval of his family, it does not totally hide the pain in what is basically a straight tribute to a man who died in 1987. It’s produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who’s also one of the many musicians testifying here for a man much-loved by fans and contemporaries alike. Aside from the praise, Jaco’s story is interesting in and of itself. He grew up in south Florida, a super-energetic kid who played sports and loved music. Like his vocalist father, Pastorius was soon making the rounds as a player on the Ft. Lauderdale-Miami club circuit, first as a drummer then on the electric bass guitar.

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This lesser-known geographical scene is described as a place “with no musical prejudice” and it’s a compelling notion borne out with the recollections of family members and old bandmates telling of an absorption in styles like jazz, rock, Afro-Caribbean and even a little country. From there, two distinct life trajectories take hold. First, Jaco was married and a first-time (but not last time) father while still of high school age. He would be married twice and often described as a family man. There are numerous home videos and snapshots of him with spouse and kids, frolicking on the beach, cartwheeling, playing football or Frisbee. Yet his prodigious talent did not go unnoticed or unexploited. So by age 21, he was in New York working with the likes of Lenny White and Herbie Hancock, even getting some session work on an early solo LP by ex-Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. This exuberant young man was a curious mixture of innocence and arrogance and he casually advertised himself as the “greatest bass player ever.”

Many fans and colleagues would soon agree. His playing style—elastic, expressive and often fierce—proved very popular outside the margins of the more traditional jazz fan base. The tendency to play fleet-fingered runs on his instrument’s upper register and his innate showmanship started drawing rock-audience crowds in 1975 after he joined the fusion band Weather Report with two Miles Davis alumni: keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This electric atmosphere is seen in late 70s concert footage, both in WR band numbers like their signature “Birdland” or in his solo spotlights where both his unique approach to fretless harmonics and his Pete Townshend-like theatrics were given free reign.

But though Pastorius was a key member of Weather Report for seven years (while also releasing a couple of well-received solo records) the informed viewer just knows that there’s trouble a-brewing and it arrives in due course. Jaco and Zawinul are described as “two cobras inside a very small cage” and the bassist as someone who “respected his jazz elders but wasn’t above ruffling their feathers” (Zawinul was almost twenty years older). Likewise, Joni Mitchell, on the lookout for “originals” to help define her widening musical horizons in the late Seventies, says she found a kindred soul in Pastorius but also soon found he could be a bit much to handle. And when you lose that jazz-player balance between individual expression and teamwork, things can go sour in a hurry. Jaco found this out at the Havana Jam in 1979 when he we into “self-destruct mode” for what should have been a sure-thing fusion power-trio jam with drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin.

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Though Pastorius kept up his end for several years in the spotlight—living frugally on the road and sending money home to the family—substance abuse and extremely erratic behavior brought on by lingering mental health issues caught up with him in a big way. He was diagnosed as bipolar in 1982 and spent several weeks at NYC’s Bellevue Hospital. But without much of a support system (at least from reading between the lines here) he was soon busking for spare change in Washington Square and eventually landed back in south Florida, one and off his meds and sleeping in a park. His demise could hardly have been sadder: he died days after being severely beaten by a bouncer for trying to kick his way into a nightclub that his volatile behavior got him banned from. The culprit ended up doing four months in jail.

I’m not suggesting that Trujillo and his two directors should have dwelled on all this overmuch, after all this is a tribute film and a fine one at that. But in the end, the short shrift given to Jaco’s troubled later years is a bit baffling. Maybe after all this time it just seems inevitable that he was one of those destined to leave us early. Pastorius told a friend once that he expected to die at age 34 and ended up being only a year off. So while the testimonials come early and often here (Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Joni, Flea, Sting etc.) the full recognition of the mental health issue here seems lacking. His long-time bandmate Wayne Shorter grapples with this the most of anyone here, rhetorically asking “who’s to say that a chemical imbalance is a fault of nature” and suggesting it “ushers into action” a certain greatness otherwise unattainable. That has proven to be sometimes true but many fans may have traded a little less greatness for a longer life, and much more music-making, from Jaco the man. The legend could wait.

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Rock Band or Law Firm? The Invasion of the Would-Be Supergroups

Jeff Beck, Roger McQuinn, Paul Kantner, Jack Bruce, Keith Emerson, Leslie West. These are a few of the names burned into the pages of rock music history. They made their reputations in iconic bands of the Sixties like the Yardbirds, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain and the Byrds. But bands are invariably fragile entities, from the chart-toppers right down to the local covers group. Think of even your two or three best pals in the world and try to imagine working and travelling with them nearly non-stop for an indefinite period of time—not to mention with other people you may not be nearly as tight with—and you can see where even many of the most successful of groups have pretty limited time spans.

But an advantage of success is that you meet other talented peers and these connections invariably lead to new bands once the bloom is off the rose of your first star-making gig. For every Paul McCartney or Eric Clapton who had the right stuff for lasting solo careers, there were dozens of others more suited to being role players (for more on this check out some of my entries in the “We’ve All Gone Solo” category to the right) or nominal leaders who needed complimentary wingmen. With the surnames of these guys (they were almost exclusively male) already well-known to fans, this re-shuffling of the rock-musician deck led to a number of law-firm or acronym group names throughout the 70s and 80s. While some found even greater fame in this incarnation (notably Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Emerson, Lake and Palmer) many others had just a shining moment or two before splintering again, with others going solo and/or re-forming their more famous band, especially as the classic-rock “legacy act” thing became big starting in the Nineties. Here are nine of the more notable examples of this curious sidebar of pop history.

West, Bruce and Laing

I start with this power trio as perhaps the most natural fit in this category and who seemed most destined for bigger things as a unit. Felix Pappalardi produced most of the records by Cream, maybe the original pre-designated “supergroup.” When he hooked up with fellow New Yorker Leslie West in 1969, they formed Mountain as a sort of Americanized version of Cream, alternating gritty blues-rock (courtesy of West’s gruff vocals and blazing lead guitar) with an almost baroque take on pop songcraft (Pappalardi’s specialty). In 1972, with Mountain winding down and Cream long since broken up, West teamed up with Mountain drummer Corky Laing and Cream’s Jack Bruce, who neatly reprised his role as powerhouse bassist and co-lead singer, also Felix’s part in Mountain.

There was a lot of buzz circling around West, Bruce and Laing, who got a nifty million-dollar, three-album deal after a bidding war. Their first album, Why Dontcha, hit #26 in the U.S. charts and ticket sales were brisk for their concerts. The bloozy rockers dished out by the wrestler-sized West (like “Pleasure” and the title track) were popular with the decibel-crazed longhairs of the era and Bruce’s somewhat softer material balanced them out. In 1973 came the pretty good follow-up Whatever Turns You On but that LP stalled at #87 and rock music’s perennial elephant-in-the-room, hard drug abuse, would lead to bitter in-fighting and WBL never toured again. Their official break-up wasn’t announced until early ’74 around the time an indulgent live album (featuring a bum-blasting 13-minute version of the Stones’ “Play With Fire”) was released to complete the three-album deal. Jack Bruce would move on to his many projects, which in 1993 included the not-dissimilar BBM (with his Cream frenemy Ginger Baker and Irish guitar great Gary Moore) and, in 2005, a one-off Cream reunion. Mountain re-formed for one more studio album and, after Pappalardi’s death in 1983, West and Laing played under the Mountain banner for many years with a rotating cast of bass players.

Beck, Bogert and Appice

As the second of the Yardbird’s three iconic axemen, the mercurial Jeff Beck had a lot to do with the creation of the modern rock guitar sound but with his vast array of squealing, whooshing or stabbing sound effects, he was the most difficult to pin down. Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice were forerunners of the heavy hard-rock engine stokers with their work in Vanilla Fudge and Cactus. Beck had met the package-deal rhythm section as early as 1967 with intentions of getting a thing together but contractual issues and the early edition of the Jeff Beck Group (which launched Rod Stewart) kept this from happening until 1972. The trio did some well-received shows and started working on an album, released in early ’73. I loved the BBA album as a 15 year-old (and still do) and it’s very much an article of its era. Beck’s bracing, sometimes unhinged, guitar solos and brash power chords, Appice’s walloping drum fills and Bogert’s hyperactive bass are well-matched to the slap-happy arrangements of a do-as-you-please era when rock was king. “Livin’ Alone” and “Lady” (with its Who-ish dynamics) are the highlights of the group originals. The group gleefully steamroll over Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” while changing gears completely for a refined remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” with a sensitive vocal from Appice that helped it become a minor hit. But soon, the restless Beck was packing up his white Stratocaster and moving on, and BBA would not complete a second studio LP, though a live album (originally released only in Japan) is now available on the Internet.

The Souther Hillman Furay Band

It wasn’t just the heavy rockers who were getting on the roll-call bandwagon when it came to assembling new “sure-thing” bands. SHF was the idea of David Geffen, who figured that the combo of singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and country-rock stalwarts Chris Hillman (a founding member of both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros.) and Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco) would make a great addition to his roster of artists at Asylum Records. With a supporting cast that included keyboardist Paul Harris, drummer Jim Gordon and pedal steel/dobro master Al Perkins, SHF got off to a promising start with the 1974 hit single “Fallin’ in Love” while the debut album hit #11, meaning there were quite a few copies mixed in with the Jackson Browne and Doobie Brother titles in the record racks of those so inclined. Though a pretty solid entry in that category, the group couldn’t overcome the personal disagreements natural in such inorganic assemblages. SHF did manage to squeeze out a second album in 1975 (Trouble in Paradise) but split up soon after.

Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit

A few months ago, I wrote about Paul Kossoff in the aforementioned “We’ve All Gone Solo” series as one of those deeply sad rock & roll fatalities, a talented and influential lead guitarist who was less than fully equipped to deal with the often callous vicissitudes of the music industry and band dynamics, never mind the wide availability of hard drugs. Free were hard rock pioneers but bad blood (esp. between singer Paul Rodgers and bassist-songwriter Andy Fraser) and Kossoff’s heroin use precipitated an initial break-up in 1972. Kossoff pulled himself together enough to lead up this band with Free drummer Simon Kirke, Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi (later Ronnie Lane’s replacement in the last line-up of the Faces) and future Who sideman John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keys and lead vocals. With its brooding bluesy sound, the KKTF album sometimes seems the lost bridge between Free and Bad Company, fans of either/both groups may find this a pleasant discovery if it flew under their radar first time around. It has many fine examples of Kossoff’s trademark sustain-filled soloing and Rabbit’s fluid keyboard work is a nice added dimension, even if his singing is merely competent when compared to Rodgers. But this was strictly a one-off and soon Free were having another go, though Kossoff’s continued addiction problem (among other factors) derailed that idea in ’73. Rodgers and Kirke soon saw the top of the mountain as half of Bad Co. while Kossoff died in 1976, his drug-damaged heart giving out on a flight from L.A. to New York.

Paice Ashton Lord

Hard rock heavyweights Deep Purple split up in 1976 after which two of their original members, drummer Ian Paice and keyboardist Jon Lord, teamed up with fellow Englishman Tony Ashton. The Blackburn-born Ashton was an accomplished pianist and singer and a bit of a gadfly, having done tons of session work, most notably for Family and John Entwistle. In 1971, he had had a big hit called “Resurrection Shuffle” with another group that sounded like an accounting firm—-Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. Paice, Ashton and Lord kept on with the sound of Ashton’s earlier group, blending in elements of R&B, jazz and rock with Ashton’s extroverted vocals on top. More of an enjoyable side project than an intended supergroup, they would only do the one album (with a live CD added years later). Jon Lord and PAL’s guitarist Bernie Marsden went on to form Whitesnake with singer David Coverdale (Paice was also in the band for a while) while Ashton was a bit out to dry. He re-invented himself in later years as a TV host and painter before dying in 2001. His two PAL bandmates went back to a re-formed Purple in 1984; Lord passed away in 2012.

McQuinn, Clark and Hillman

Let me take this time to give a shout-out to Chris Hillman, one of rock’s great utility players. Never a big star in his own right, he was nevertheless a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Bros. and Stephen Still’s Manassas. Good bands all, and of course in the first case, damn near legendary. Hillman, who was a steady hand at the bass guitar and mandolin as well as a sometime singer and songwriter, had already been down the great re-shuffle road with Souther, Hillman and Furay. In 1979 he agreed to join his more high-profile ex-bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark but he soon found out that while Byrds of a feather may flock together, they don’t always do so in flawless formation. The original line-up already had a brief, middling re-union in 1973 but MCH never even got off the ground artistically. These bona-fide folk musicians, who did so much to kick-start the great folk-rock movement in the mid-Sixties, almost totally abandon that here. Instead of trying to update that sound for a newer audience they settled for an glossy, soulless production style that was grounded in a no-man’s land somewhere between the Little River Band and Firefall (there’e even a semi-disco number). I bet Hillman and McGuinn likely would prefer to forget that debut nowadays, but for the talented but troubled Clark, this is a sadder case. He saw MCH as a boost to a post-Byrds career that never really gelled. But he overcame the production values he so disliked and cut what to my ears sounds like the band’s best song (“Won’t Let You Down”) on their second album though his continued substance abuse issues meant he lost equal billing (1980’s City merely “featured” Clark). It was likely these same drinking/drug problems that contributed to Clark’s premature death in 1991.

KBC Band

For such a group of disparate talents and personalities, Jefferson Airplane maintained their classic line-up from late 1966 to 1970, becoming one of America’s great psychedelic-era bands, augmenting the Aquarian platitudes of the day with tough-minded social and political lyrics. Starting in the early Seventies, the Airplane parts would splinter off into an uncountable number of solo projects, duos and reconfigurations. Of course, from 1974-78 the front line of vocalist-songwriters (Marty Balin, Paul Kanter and Grace Slick) led the evolution into Jefferson Starship and more widespread commercial success than they ever saw in the Sixties. Meanwhile, the band’s formidable guitar-bass pairing (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady) had formed the blues-centric Hot Tuna. By the time of the late 70s, this deck of cards was getting re-shuffled with ever increasing frequency. With Balin’s departure, Starship had recruited the full-throated AOR belter Mickey Thomas and had scored a huge hit with the paint-by-numbers arena rocker “Jane” which was a long way away from the days of “White Rabbit.” In 1984 Kanter, with his idealism and sci-fi sensibilities out of fashion, was eased out of an organization he co-founded almost twenty years before. He soon re-teamed with Balin, the other co-founder in 1965, and added Jack Casady when Hot Tuna went on sabbatical. The group’s self-titled 1986 album turned out to be a solid, sometimes inspired affair that balanced romantic and political themes in a way that recalled the heyday of both the Airplane and Starship. Sure, the closely-miked drums and sax refrains are pure skinny-tie 80s. But Marty and Paul combined to pen two excellent topical numbers here: “Mariel” was inspired by revolutionary Nicaragua (Kanter had visited there with Kris Kristofferson) and the mini-epic “America” which not only did some soul-searching about the home country but also featured shout-outs to everything from the struggle against apartheid to West Germany’s Green Party. This anthem compared favorably to the Starship’s recent laugher “We Built This City” and though not a hit did get considerable FM airplay. As did “It’s Not You, It’s Not Me” which was one of several classy, grown-up romantic tunes by the Balin. But Marty was more reliable in his songwriting than he was in the area of band commitment. When he skipped out on a music video shoot to take an extended Hawaiian vacation, the group dissolved though all three would be on board for a brief Jefferson Airplane re-union some five years later.

GTR

OK, this is cheating a bit as GTR is not an acronym but an abbreviation for “guitar.” The two GTRs in this case are the lead guitarists from the classic lineups of two leading progressive rock bands, Steve Howe of Yes and Steve Hackett of Genesis. By 1986, when this band released their sole album, their old bands had adapted in the post-punk 80s, when the fantasy themes and 18-minute suites of classic prog had fallen from favor. Genesis had become a pop juggernaut when Phil Collins stepped out front after Peter Gabriel opted for a solo career and Yes had recently scored their only #1 single with the new-wavey “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Howe was also a charter member of Asia, the standard bearer of amalgamated post-prog, but GTR was clearly a bridge too far. There’s certainly some fine playing by the two formidable six-string masters but the LP is bogged down by material that is neither fish nor fowl. Slick arrangements and clichéd lyrics trump the occasional instrumental inspiration and the leisure-suit videos didn’t help any (see below). Howe quickly retreated back to alternating his time between Asia and Yes, while Hackett (who has been critical of the project in retrospect) moved on to his many thoughtful solo efforts, earning much respect from both older fans and the younger neo-prog crowd.

Emerson, Lake and Powell

Well, this sort of brings us full circle, as the original ELP(almer) was cited up top as one of those self-named bands that did hit the jackpot, a group emblematic of both prog’s majesty and self-indulgence. Years after that band had run its course, keyboard maestro Keith Emerson and bassist-singer Greg Lake were keen to have another go but by 1985 drummer Carl Palmer was employed as the stickman with (wait for it) Asia. All involved insist that it was mere coincidence that his replacement had the right surname initial to keep the famous acronym going. Cozy Powell was the valued journeyman drummer (Black Sabbath, Robert Plant, Rainbow etc.) who also had a #3 solo hit in England with the Hendrix-influenced instrumental “Dance With the Devil.” ELP2 (as they were sometimes called) was a bit of a return to form considering the later albums of the predecessor band (Love Beach anyone?) with a unified group attack that replaced the solo-spot indulgences of old. It yielded a moderate hit (“Touch and Go”) that added a heady synth hook from Keith to a streamlined 80s arrangement.

Elsewhere, ELP2 built on past success with the “Karn Evil 9” echoes of “The Score” and also included was a mighty classical adaption just like in the good old days-—Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War.” Despite reaching #23 on the U.S. charts, there would be no encore record. Like the work of many of the bands here, this project was a fleeting moment in the vast backlog of pop music. It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, as they say, so when you need something a little off the beaten path after hearing the greatest hits once too often, it’s places like these where you can turn to appreciate as well the ambitions that came up a little short.

Copyright 2016–Rick Ouellette

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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Kossoff and Paul Rodgers, back when they were Free.

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

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

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.

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Reel and Rock at 100–Best of and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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