A Reel and Rock Summer Break

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

https://www.facebook.com/groups/rockdocumentary/

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

Rick Ouellette

We’ve All Gone Solo #9 (Mick Ronson)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Help!
Directed by Richard Lester–1965–92 minutes

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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Amy
Directed by Asif Kapadia–2015–120 minutes

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

Only a year after her death, film director Asif Kapadia was approached by her father (Mitchell Winehouse) and her record company (Universal Music UK) to make a legacy documentary of the North London-bred retro soul singer whose “Back to Black” won five Grammys and sold in the millions. Kapadia was given use of Amy’s music and other materials but he was wary of being led into producing a “whitewash” film and asked for (and was granted) complete creative control. Kapadia went out and made a soul-searching film that looks way beyond the default image left behind of the soused, smoky-voiced singer with the beehive hairdo, tattoos and heavy mascara. He was helped by the participation of two of Winehouse’s best girlfriends from her youth and esp. by Nick Shymansky, her first manager but also a teenage companion of hers: it’s Shymansky’s many camcorder clips that show a young and astute singer-songwriter with sharp influences (Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett) and an ebullient personality. But she was also a girl troubled by her parents’ divorce, diagnosed with depression by age 13 and, crucially, admitted to being bulimic. Little was done about it, especially after success beckoned.

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

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Amy with her dubious dad

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

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

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

Transistor Heaven III: School’s Out Completely

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Alice Cooper’s intransigent anthem was of course well-timed with its release date coming in the late spring of 1972. Zipping up twelve spaces this week some 43 long-ass years ago, it signaled the “blessed” end to eight years of parochial school. After a white-sky summer where I suddenly turned agnostic, September would lead me gratefully into the rebel-held territory of public-school hallways. On the last day at St. John’s I imagined myself poised to push the bar on the exit door, calling out over my shoulder to any nun within earshot: “If that don’t suit ya, that’s a drag!”

I was still collecting the WMEX weekly surveys at the record dept. of my local Lechmere (the Massachusetts pre-equivalent of Best Buy), another music-mad kid like so many others at the time. My collection of these brightly-colored snapshots of pop history that survived as one of the few remaining physical items from boyhood (and unlost through a dozen moves as an adult) would drop off as summer waned. I’m not sure if they stopped printing them or if I was putting aside childish things. At the very least, there was an inkling of the young adulthood to come. Several of the songs on this Top 30 I always relate to the events of the 4th of July on Juniper Point where friends of my parents were throwing a BBQ. That part of Salem Neck was mostly residents by then but still held vestiges of its summer colony identity. We, meaning us younger kids, quickly caught on to the news that this was a “hippie house” a couple of blocks away.

There was this narrow walkway between two tall houses and an open door leading out to it. A little child in our group half wanders into it. A fortyish guy in a bathing suit is coming up the other way. “Don’t let her go in there, she’ll never come out the same way.” Cool. We’ve already heard the reports of emanating marijuana smoke. The walkway leads to a large rocky outcropping from which you could take a dip in the “refreshing” waters of this Atlantic inlet. Straights and freaks and kids all congregate there in the late afternoon sun and someone brings out a radio. It was playing my beloved WMEX, still cool enough (as a “progressive” AM station) for the twentysomethings and plenty hip for the young teens. “Layla” plays, as does David Bowie’s “Starman” and we bob our heads, the kids and the bearded guys sitting next to girlfriends with silky middle-parted hair, as straight and long as yardsticks. When the ballad “I Need You” plays, one dude says to his buddy, “Oh yeah, man. I saw America play in upstate New York last year so when the album came out I got it right away.” The independent rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle beckons, I felt like I already had one foot in the door.

“It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now” Cornelius Bros. and Sister Rose. Swooshing into the #1 spot on a cushion of silky strings, the second (and last) big pop hit for the soulful family-act from south Florida. Like their first (“Treat Her Like a Lady”) this had the close harmonies and the good-advice lyrics but also a sweet mid-tempo grooves that always associates positively with the early 70s. “Nice to Be With You” Gallery. By contrast, songs like this by Detroit soft-rockers Gallery would one day be representative of the type earning the second-hand scorn of later generations, associating the age with the Brady Bunch and sidewalk-sweeping bell bottoms. But with its era-typical unpretentious optimism (and delightful pedal steel solo) we knew what we liked. May it ever be thus. “Sylvia’s Mother” Dr. Hook. Before their successful gambit to get on the “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, the Hooksters had a pretty decent hit with this melodramatic payphone ballad about some unlucky guy who just wants to say farewell to his former girlfriend who’s marrying some “fella down Galveston way” but he can’t get past her ball-busting mom. A little overwrought maybe, but us old-timers from the pre-cellular age know the particular agony of that “forty cents more for the next three minutes” refrain. “Conquistador” Procol Harum. The only other Top 40 hit for the “Whiter Shade of Pale” band. When PH did this re-engineered version live with an orchestra, only vocalist-pianist Gary Brooker and drummer BJ Wilson remained from the 1967 studio original. “Hold Your Head Up” Argent. Another proggy song to round out the top five, ex-Zombie Rod Argent found he could really stretch out on the keyboards in this day and age, though MEX were likely playing the single edit.

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“Candy Man” Sammi Davis, Jr. The Revenge of the Rat Pack? Those crazy rock ‘n’ roll sounds had been dominating the charts for almost a decade now, but Rat Packer Sammi was representing the old guard with this “Willy Wonka” teeth-grinder. At first reluctant to do the song, Davis had a change of heart when it revived his career (#1 Billboard) and after that sang the sickly-sweet lyrics with grateful gusto. “School’s Out” Alice Cooper. Now quickly back to the rock ‘n’ roll. “Brandy” Looking Glass. Eternal one-hit-wonder (over 10 million hits on YouTube), it seems the world will never tire of this finely-crafted tune with its slightly archaic lyric of a dishy barmaid pining away for some sailor dude whose real “love and lady is the sea.” His loss. “Where is the Love” Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. The Marvin & Tami of the 70s? This velvety duet also has had major staying power in compilations, soundtracks and a re-tooled version by the Black-Eyed Peas. “How Do You Do” Mouth & MacNeal. OK, sometimes the Seventies did stink. Exhibit A, this insidious earworm foisted on the world by the zany Dutch duo whose legend lasted a lunchtime, just like the Rutles. “Oh Girl” the Chi-Lites. More smooth soul, this time for the Chicago vocal group that had been together in some form since the late Fifties. Their long-deserved first national #1 followed the even more brokenhearted “Have You Seen Her” which hit #3 late in 1971.

“In a Broken Dream” Python Lee Jackson. A real anomaly of a hit, this Aussie rock band had re-located to the UK in the late 60s and used a still relatively-unknown singer named Rod Stewart for three lead vocals. But these did not see wide release until three years later when this powerful number was sent out to compete head-to-head with Rod’s own “You Wear it Well.” Not sure why classic rock radio stations don’t trot this out more often. “Layla” Derek and the Dominos. Well, this one has no problem staying in classic rock rotations. “Day by Day” Godspell cast. Thanks to the good folks at St. John’s, I had my first live theater experience in spring of ’72, and the original cast LP dominated our Music Appreciation class. As to the continued cultural revelance of “Day by Day,” please refer to the first “Meet the Parents” movie. “Song Sung Blue” Neil Diamond. “Song sung blue/everybody knows one”? For proof of that, Meet The Parents again.

“I Need You” America. Oh yeah, maann. “Take it Easy” the Eagles. I better plan that rock ‘n’ roll field trip to Winslow, Arizona. After all, I’m not getting any younger. “We’re on Our Way” Chris Hodge. Mr. Hodge was a bit of a protégé of Ringo Starr (they shared a common interest in UFO theories) and released two decent pseudo-glam singles on Apple before returning to obscurity (in a flying saucer?). “Lean on Me” Bill Withers. Wait, there are two songs at #18? This evergreen soul hymn to abiding friendship will remain a strong reminder of an age when such sentiments were still valid for lyric ideas. It also didn’t hurt that royalties earned here allowed early-retiree Bill to enjoy a future relaxing at home and watching “Judge Judy” as he let us know at his recent Hall of Fame induction. “Small Beginning” Flash. Another great proggy hit, this time by a Yes spin-off band with their original guitarist Peter banks as leader.

“I Can Feel You. The Addrisi Brothers. When is someone going to make an Addrisi Brothers biopic? OK, they weren’t that famous, probably best remembered for writing the smash “Never My Love” for the Association, which would become one of the most valuable song copyrights ever with over 300 cover versions. But they were born in Winthrop, Mass. where the jets fly right over the house on their way to/from the adjacent Logan Airport (making for a great opening scene) and their family were trapeze artists for f**k’s sake. But brothers Don and Dick were musical naturals and were helped into the business by Lenny Bruce. I know, right? With groovy songs sporting titles like “I Can Feel You” and “We’ve Got to Get it on Again” I see a “Boogie Nights” vibe when we get to the Seventies. Unfortunately, their career as a vocal duo was cut short when Dick died at age 45 in 1984. Fade to black.

“Alone Again, Naturally” Gilbert O’Sullivan. The impish Irishman, whose sub-Peter Noone warblings delighted and dismayed radio listeners the world over, debuted this week at #21 with this suicide-contemplation anthem that would go on to be #1 both on WMEX and nationwide. I was never sure what the countdown meant when it said PICK in the “weeks on list” column. In this case, it might have meant that Gilbert couldn’t decide whether to PICK jumping off a building or drinking poison. “If I Were a Carpenter” Bob Seger. By 1972 you might think that this standard was a bit played out. Yet this soulful version by the future “Night Moves” man is one of the better versions I’ve heard. “War Song” Neil Young & Graham Nash. This anti-Nixon screed, credited to “Young & Mash” by the mistake-prone employee who typed up these surveys, was said to have been timed to give a boost to George McGovern’s campaign just ahead of the Democratic convention. A lost cause but a cool lost single from Neil’s discography. “Daddy Don’t Walk So Fast” Wayne Newton. Yeah, Dad. Don’t walk so fast or you may rush by a washed-up lounge singer without recognizing him. “Tramp” Sugar Bus. I don’t recall this one and the combination of those three words has proven to be Google-proof. Can anything in this day and age really remain a mystery? If anyone knows this song, please comment below.

“Starman” David Bowie. Not the first thing I had heard from D.B. as there had been “Changes” and “Space Oddity” but when my cross-the-way buddy got the Ziggy Stardust album it was a whole new ballgame, led by this single which was not just an earworm, but a mindworm as well. “I’m Comin’ Home” the Stories. If all one knows by them is “Brother Louie” than a little deep-diving is in order. Great tune. “Sealed With a Kiss” Bobby Vinton. Dang, this is a sweet-sounding classic but it sounds like it was made ten years before, and may even be a re-release. At any rate, the Old Guard wasn’t giving up easy and that’s OK. “Cat’s Eye in the Window” Tommy James. Well, this one is not a classic, but still has that trademark T.J. sound. It might be the era when he was sneaking in Christian themes but damned if I can tell. “Troglodyte” Jimmy Castor Bunch. It’s the last song on the survey and the last typo. This knuckle-dragging funk workout by Jimmy “Castpr” should be high up in an imagined book called “1001 Novelty Songs You Must Hear before You Die.” Especially so considering that this has apparently been much sampled in dance clubs and hip-hop parties thru the years. Evidence enough of the future and past push-pull of these great surveys at such a fertile time in pop history.

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And naturally there was a lot more to come that summer by looking at the “1st on 1510” section, with new entries on the way by The Who, Tower of Power, Stevie Wonder—as well as the immortal “Motorcycle Mama” by Sailcat. The Top 15 Albums? Well, about half of them I would put down as Rock all-timers, starting with “Exile on Main Street” in the #1 spot. By I’m also glad to see the “Godspell” cast album hanging tough at #12. I wouldn’t want to burn my bridges that quickly.

By the spring of ‘73, I’d have my own stash and an almost girlfriend and the times of the first countdown in this 3-part series (summer of ’71) were starting to seem far off. City life and punk rock was only five years away, and a whole other zeitgeist to replace these halcyon days—then many years after that, my own family and the inexorable creep back to the suburbs. But through it all, I always owned a transistor radio and they went with me as far afield as Europe on two occasions. There were five Replacement songs in a row as I got ready to go out and see them at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and the Pogues’ “Sally MacLennane” played in my room after hitting the pubs in Dublin. Nowadays I own two—when I heard that Radio Shack was in trouble I got a spare just in case. Happy listening in all the days ahead.

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Sex and Sensibility: “The Girl-Getters” is the Lost Classic of British Beat Cinema

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The Girl-Getters (a.k.a. “The System”)
Directed by Michael Winner—1964—93 minutes
Starring Oliver Reed, David Hemmings, Jane Merrow, Barbara Ferris, Julia Foster & Harry Andrews

The under-recognized Michael Winner film “The System” represents a great lost missing link in the evolution of British cinema. Re-named “The Girl-Getters” for the American market and released just three months after “A Hard Day’s Night,” it rings out with the ascendant spirit of the youth films just coming into vogue. But it still owed a debt to the so-called “kitchen sink” dramas of the late 50s and early 60s, those gritty films like “A Taste of Honey,” “This Sporting Life” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” that featured characters hemmed in by class boundaries, societal expectations and (more often than not) unexpected pregnancies. A 26 year-old Oliver Reed stars as Tinker, a wily beach photographer and ladies’ man in a seaside holiday town on England’s south coast. He heads up a gaggle of young men who have developed “The System” to maximize their success rate in the time-honored British endeavor known as “pulling the birds.”

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The gang take inventory of the “finches.”

Right out of the gate, “The Girl-Getters” is a movie to savor. The shimmering B&W cinematography is by a talented up-and-comer named Nicolas Roeg. To the nifty uptempo strains of the Searcher’s theme song, we watch the guys speeding around in their roofless, backfiring jalopy. They drive to a neighboring train station to drop off a couple of their number so the incoming young ladies can be chatted up on the train before it even arrives in town. (“Get into the System” the Searchers sing, or at the end of the line “you’re alone”). Over the last two weeks of August, the gang and a rotating cast of the fairer sex will play out the summertime rituals on the bright-white promenade, in the shadows under the pleasure pier and inside the dancehalls and snack bars—as well up in Tinker’s attic loft. Although it’s not hard to guess that narrative complications will scratch up the film’s carefree surface, “The Girl-Getters” never gets as low as the often-embittered kitchen sinkers. Realistic rites of passage have replaced tragic pitfalls on the road to adulthood.

A lot of credit to the film’s success goes to Mr. Reed’s finely-tuned performance as the rakish but astute (even philosophical) Tinker. With none of the coarse mannerisms that sometimes dragged down future roles, Reed’s broad, handsome face and piercing bright eyes are at the center of most every scene. He meets his match in level-headed society girl Nicola (Jane Merrow), a stunning brunette fashion model who’s in town to check in with her aristocratic father and have some fun between assignments. Many movies would exxagerate the unlikely pairing: Nicola is all that: she’s got the looks, personality, money and use of her dad’s Buick Riviera. Tinker may be boss of the boardwalk but it’s a short season and the specter of a long, lean winter hangs over the locals whose credo is (according to him) “take what you can from the visitors, gather nuts against the hard winter.” But Winner’s naturalistic direction and Peter Draper’s clear-eyed script won’t allow for easy clichés. The pair’s bubble-blowing interlude and demure way of asking each other’s age hint at their relative innocence even as adult experiences beckon. They see in each other a possible way forward: for Tinker, Nicola may be a catalyst to get out of his provincial rut and better himself professionally in London; in Tinker, Nicola sees a native intelligence perhaps preferable to the entitled snobbery of her male friends back at the palm court.

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It was not all marketing hot air when posters for “The Girl-Getters” proclaimed it was “an adult film for teenagers and a teenage film for adults.” Maybe that’s because the cast, brimming with the youthful energy typified by the rise of the Beatles, fell neatly in between those two broad demographics. A fresh-faced David Hemmings, as the newest addition to the boy’s club, is introduced to the ways of the “grockles” (tourists) and the inner workings of The System, but by end is planning on ways of improving it. Barbara Ferris does a sympathetic turn as the local would-be girlfriend of Tinker and the wonderful Julia Foster makes a brief but winning appearance as a party girl all too ready to offer Tinker the dreaded domestic arrangement offer after a brief fling. (I was a little young for this film during its brief American theatrical run, but developed a mad crush on Julia three years later in 1967 when she was the female lead in the Tommy Steele musical “Half a Sixpence.”) Veteran British hard-guy actor Harry Andrews steps up as the “Establishment” figure, playing Tinker’s boss, the no-nonsense proprietor of the Sunny Snaps photo lab.

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A grockle’s eye view of Tinker

Michael Winner certainly deserves credit for organizing this excellent cast and script into a time-tested end product that totally avoids the silliness that infected slightly later swinging British Beat Cinema entries like “The Knack” and “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” But Winner (who died in 2013) was more of a journeyman director probably most remembered for the indefensible “Death Wish” series he would do with Charles Bronson. The real production star is Nicolas Roeg. His photography during Tinker and Nicola’s romantic idyll on a remote cliff-backed beach is one of my favorite things ever by him, comparable to Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 young-love classic “Summer with Monika.” It is on this same scenic beachfront (with its abandoned hamlet) where the film ends. One of Tinker’s men has gotten himself married (as usual in these films, a pregnancy is involved) and the young locals combine an end-of-the-season bonfire with a strange, primal ritual involving bridge-and-groom effigies and scarifying masks. Instead, of the hopeless undertow that pulls down supposedly “carefree” movies like “Georgy Girl,” this group looks like they are smoking out the demons and putting trust in their collective friendship. The morning after, as Tinker gives Nicola a “bye-for-now” wave and joins his pals (both male and female) for one last frolic on the sand, you are given hope in a sensible implied outcome. These young people may have shaken off the shackles of confining post-war British mores, but neither do they look like they are going to be bamboozled by the illusions of a totally-liberated Sixties mindset. You expect that they’ll be working a sensible middle path to a place where things will end up just fine.

My next book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” (1964-2014) will be released later this year.

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. See the link below to see a list of the other 90 amazing entries spanning the eras from the beginning of cinema up to 1975…

http://aurorasginjoint.com/2015/06/27/the-classic-movie-history-project-presents-the-golden-age/

blogathon

A “Pale Beyond” Postscript: The Haunting and Humane Photography of Christopher Payne

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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
Photographs by Christopher Payne, Essay by Oliver Sacks (The MIT Press, 2009)

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Breezeway, Taunton State Hospital, Mass.

(All photos in this post are copyright to Christopher Payne, used under “fair use” provisions)

I felt very lucky to have had a chance last winter to see a nearby gallery show of the extraordinary work of New York-based Christopher Payne, maybe America’s foremost photographer of “disappearing histories” as the headline of a recent Payne interview called it. I was already familiar with his work via “Asylum”, since the coffee table book with its austere cover shot of a white straitjacket hanging on a pale blue wall caught my eye in Barnes & Noble a few years back. Payne shoots in traditional large-format film and makes digital C-prints from there. These sensitively-rendered images of eerily abandoned state hospitals are plenty impressive in the book but mind-blowing in a gallery, where some of the vertical prints were some four feet high.

Fascination with shuttered asylums, as well as the urban-explorer impulse with which it overlaps, has really taken off in the Internet Age, a phenomena I explored in my 3-part “The Pale Beyond” series (see it in the “Categories” section to the right or in “Related Posts” below). There are many different, and often excellent, websites featuring the work of people braver than myself who find their way into these abandoned buildings and come away with evocative photos that earn gushing praise from followers and lots of “oh-wow-that’s-creepy” reactions on the comments scroll.

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Danvers State Hospital in panorama

All that is fine. We’re a society in love with the macabre and the mysterious, and many of these buildings fit the bill. A lot of them were built in the Victorian era, with gothic spires that came to seem sinister once conditions there deteriorated. But Payne’s approach to this subject is different and refreshing. He was trained as an architect and had never visited a state hospital before 2002, when a friend who knew of his interest in industrial archaeology told him about Pilgrim State on Long Island, a 10,000-bed asylum on a 1,000-acre campus. By that date, Pilgrim was operating to a tiny fraction of its original capacity (while hundreds of others had fully closed). Payne in his foreword admits to being “dumbstruck” by the monumental scale and the landscaped setting; it was the start of a six-year project that would eventually lead him to dozens of these mammoth institutions.

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Weston State Hospital, West Virginia. If it weren’t for the bars on the window, you could almost mistake it for Downton Abbey. Payne’s methods did not generally include trespassing. Instead, he went through official channels and found that once he showed a sincere interest in the architecture and history of these properties, he was usually granted full access.

But Payne saw beyond “the superstitions and third-hand horror stories” that these places inspire and using his trained eye noted their “outward similarity to great resort hotels of the era.” A verdant setting and dignified atmosphere, along with occupational therapy and the arts, figured prominently in the planning of the early hospitals built in the latter part of the 1800s. Such institutions were often proudly self-sustaining and Payne has numerous views of on-site farms, greenhouses, vocational workshops, a fish hatchery, etc. There’s even a shot of a kitchen in Pennsylvania’s Danville State with five enormous vats that were solely used for making sauerkraut. This original idea of the therapeutic value of work and culture, and its palliative effect on mental illness, later when out of fashion.

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Noble Hall theater, Connecticut Valley State Hospital

Eventually psychotropic drugs came onto the scene, but as author/neurologist Oliver Sacks asserts in the book’s introduction, a well-intentioned notion of patient’s rights replaced the “normalizing” effect of the work that was now seen as exploitation and left them with little more to do than to watch television. The resulting warehouse effect left us with the “snakepit” image that most associate with state hospitals. Sacks’ essay, while certainly astute and filled with first-hand knowledge (he worked at Bronx State Hospital for 25 years), does seem a little rosy at time—for instance, there is no mention of the controversial (over)use of electroshock therapy. Still, the idea of these grand old asylums being a place where one could be both “mad and safe” is compelling considering the hasty deinstitutionalization that started in the 70s and 80s. The lack of sufficient transitional services—and medication that controlled the worst impulses of serious mental illness but left users unmotivated—burdened the U.S. with a large homeless population that later economic problems only exacerbated.

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The self-contained skyline of Danvers State at sundown: the day of wrecking ball was not far off.

The melancholy beauty of Payne’s photography, and his ability to sense the unlucky lives that played out there, are masterful from the first page to the poignant postscript of this amazing book. That closing section is a Payne-penned text and photographic record of the 2006 demolition of the iconic Danvers State Hospital, the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium and later the Arkham Asylum of the Batman universe. (Only the façade of the main administration building was saved for the subsequent condo complex). Readers of the previous installments know of my focus on DSH—I grew up three miles away—and it turns out that Payne has a personal connection as well. He grew up in Boston and had relatives in Danvers. Whenever visiting them, he saw its hilltop profile as an “ancient, far-away castle” from the window of the family car driving down I-95. (The parallel and closer U.S. Route One passed directly below the slope of the hospital’s perimeter farmland). Payne writes of his reluctance to speak regretfully of the demolition to workers but they were not unsympathetic: they realize they are knocking down a historic and unique structure, one to be succeeded by “a place, just like any other.” As Payne puts it, “How ironic it was that so much care and effort was put into a structure intended solely for society’s outcasts.” Even keeping in mind the mistakes that followed, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a return to that kind of commitment to the more unfortunate among us anytime soon, if ever.

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Also recommended by Christopher Payne is North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City. Sitting amid strong East River cross-currents near Riker’s Island and Hell Gate, the island was long a site for hospitals and infirmaries (its most famous patient was Typhoid Mary)as well as the infamous 1904 General Slocum steamboat disaster, when a combination burning/sinking killed 1000 people. Payne’s vivid photographs of this long-uninhabited spit of land, depicts a sort of slow-motion battle between nature and the built environment.

North Brother Island

North Brother Island

“Archie’s Betty”: In search of the real Riverdale

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Archie’s Betty
Written and directed by Gerald Peary–2015–69 minutes

Love of popular culture runs deep and a great example is this fun and ultimately moving new documentary. Boston-area journalist, critic and film-studies professor Gerald Peary seeks out the possible and probable real-life inspirations for the characters of the ever-popular “Archie” comic books. In the process, he reveals a hidden human dimension behind the iconic faces of Archie Andrews, his dueling love interests Betty and Veronica, and others like Jughead, Reggie and Moose.

This is a project that actually dates back to 1988 when Peary, who had been a big Archie fan since his boyhood in West Virginia, wrote an article in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that positioned Haverhill, MA as the inspiration for the comic’s fictional Riverdale. Archie’s original artist, Bob Montana, had attended Haverhill High School in the 1930s and Geary’s scrutinizing of early issues (the first Archie appeared in 1941) reveals named local landmarks were later fictionalized, like the gang’s beloved Chock’lit Shoppe. Geary tracked down several of Montana’s old classmates that could have been prototypes for the major characters and had himself a nice feature story.

But an urge to further explore this subject eventually led Peary to make this, his second film (the first was the 2009 doc about the art of film criticism called “For the Love of Movies”). He revisits many of the Haverhill classmates and locations while partnering with amateur comics historian Shaun Clancy, who became the film’s co-producer. It was Clancy who suggests that Betty—the blonde girl-next-door who’s always playing second fiddle to affluent Veronica for Archie’s affections—was not based on Montana’s Haverhill prom date but an actual woman named Betty that he dated in his twenties after he had moved to New York City and was already a working cartoonist. The film sweetly concludes with the two of them visiting the 90 year-old Betty at her assisted living facility in New Jersey where she proves to be every bit as plucky and personable as her illustrated namesake.

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The eyes have it: The world’s favorite love triangle

“Archie’s Betty” is an engaging blend of archival visuals, firsthand recollections, expert viewpoints and Peary’s own personal angle. His empathy for the inner connections people make with fictional characters and settings, and how they can develop from simple childhood escapism to something more profound with the passage of time, is the thread that will make his film appeal to viewers far beyond the ranks of Archie fanatics.

(“Archie’s Betty” had its premiere at a film festival in Buenos Aires, South America being a hotbed for all things Archie, according to Mr. Peary. For area readers, it will have two more showings at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art on June 14th. Other than that, I’m not sure though it was suggested that it may soon be available on DVD. More at the Archie’s Betty Facebook page and at bigsleepfilms.com)

We’ve All Gone Solo #8 (Keith and Donna Godchaux)

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We’ve all gone duo? Since Keith and Donna Godchaux, the husband-and-wife package deal who were members of the Grateful Dead for the better part of the Seventies, are almost always thought of as one, I figured they’d qualify. Certainly they fit the underdog ethos of this series. There is a lot of attention on the Dead this summer, with a high-profile series of 50th anniversary shows at Chicago’s Soldiers Field stadium on the July 4th weekend, and all the various magazine cover stories, video tributes, memorabilia etc. I have a feeling not a lot this will figure in the Godchauxes, even though I’m sure they are fondly remembered by many Deadheads. Their story is a bit unusual, even with the “long, strange trip” aura that surrounds the band. In the more accessible days of the early 70s, the couple basically talked their way into the group (see the Donna G. interview clip below) even if the two of them did not appear as naturals to join. The Alabama-born Donna was a former Muscle Shoals backup singer who moved to San Francisco but was unimpressed on first hearing the “druggie” records of Jerry Garcia and Co. but became a convert after seeing a particularly great show at the Winterland ballroom. Her new husband was also reluctant at first. Keith was a Bill Evans-inspired jazz pianist who didn’t go much for the rock epoch of the day. But he came around as well after agreeing to go to a Dead concert with his “old lady” and some friends.

The couple’s timing was fortuitous. Founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who played organ as well as harmonica while singing the Dead’s blues numbers, was in poor health (he died in 1973) and unable to keep up with the band’s rigorous touring schedule.
In ’73, Keith and Donna first appeared on a Dead studio album. “Wake of the Flood” was one of their most musically rich outings and the fluid keyboards and feminine vocal backdrop provided by the couple were a key part. But it was clear that they were in a supporting role. Keith’s only songwriting credit and lead vocal in the band was on that album’s “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” while Donna had to wait until 1977’s “Terrapin Station” LP for her turn in the spotlight, with the song “Sunrise.”

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So it was not unusual that the we-got-our-own-album-to-do bug hit them during one of the Dead’s sabbaticals. The group had their own label by then (Round Records) and the Godchauxes, who had a baby son named Zion, turned part of their Stinson Beach house into a temporary studio. Garcia, who lived around the way, played all the guitar parts and in return the couple helped him out on some subsequent dates with the Jerry Garcia Band. There are a lot of Dead-related solo records and side projects out there and unfortunately this one quickly got lost in the shuffle. It’s not exactly the second coming of “Beggars Banquet” but it’s a likable helping of Marin County Mellow, undermined by a lightweight production and a couple of programming lapses. It opens with Donna’s too-deferential version of “River Deep, Mountain High” but once she finds her comfort (like on the Muscle Shoals-style zinger “When You Start to Move”) things pick up in a hurry. Keith, who never had a great singing voice, generally sticks to the keyboards, otherwise they could have more closely approached the Delaney and Bonnie brand of soulful rock. The album wraps up nicely with the six-minute plus “The Song I Sing” which gives Jerry a little room to stretch out on lead guitar.

In the latter half of the Seventies, things started going south for the couple. Keith’s hard drug use and their domestic troubles were part of it, and stylistically they were not fitting in as well as before. Donna’s vocals, so strong in her FAME Studio’s framework, became, in the modern parlance, “a little pitchy” when trying to keep up with the Dead’s higher-flying excursions. They mutually parted ways in early 1979. Brent Mydland replaced Keith; Donna was destined to remain the only woman member in the band’s history.

Before the couple could fully re-group, Keith died in a car accident in July 1980 at age 32. Donna is still performing while Zion, whose adorably scowling infant self appears on the “Keith and Donna” LP, currently plays in the band BoomBox. This album has never appeared on CD and was uploaded to YouTube 8 months ago by Tony Sclafani, an author of a Grateful Dead book, and has received 1260 views as of this writing. I’d say it deserves better.

We’ve All Gone Solo #7 (Ronnie Wood)

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Is Ronnie Wood rock music’s ultimate wingman? Born in 1947 in an outlying district in London, he’s a guitar-playing guy who came into the world at just the right time. After knocking around a bit in the capitol’s hothouse music scene, he got a gig in 1967 playing bass for the Jeff Beck Group and never looked back.

When the restless Beck dissolved that version of JBG, Wood and vocalist Rod Stewart quickly joined forces with Ronnie Lane, Ian MacLagan and Kenny Jones from the beloved Small Faces whose own frontman, Steve Marriott, had left to form Humble Pie. With the Faces, Wood went back to shouldering a six-string and took up his stage right position, dishing out his buzzing riffs and slide guitar fills through several notable albums (and co-writing such great tunes as “Stay With Me” and “Ooh La La”) and high-spirited tours with that archetypal group of working-class blokes made good. Oh, and since the mid-70s he’s been a Rolling Stone.

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So life’s been good for this son of a long line of river barge operators—he’s been rock royalty for over four decades without ever seeming to hog the spotlight. Employing the time-tested tricks of the trade (rooster haircut, low-slung guitar, dangling cigarette) Wood’s been a reliable foil to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in rock history’s most durable top-line act. He’s also played with Bob Dylan at Live Aid, represented the Stones at the Last Waltz concert, had an affair with rock super-muse Patti Boyd Harrison, been in and out of rehab several times and was twice married to models—the second one divorced him several years back after he had a fling with a barely-legal Russian girl. I think that about takes care of the checklist.

And when it was time to do his first solo record in 1974, he came up with the perfect title. (I was going to name this blog series I’ve Got My Own Album to Do before choosing the more compact title I nicked from the chorus of “Solo,” the Sandy Denny song about the comings and goings of Fairport Convention alumni). Naturally, Wood had no trouble rounding up some mates to help him out. The credits are full of Faces and Stones (both Mick and Rod the Mod help out on vocals), not to mention the great rhythm section of bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Andy Newmark. This album is a real corker, as they say across the pond. You expect ol’ Ron to be chuffing away on the bluesy rockers that were the calling card of his various groups, but there is also some impressive variety in the songwriting. There’s the very nice “Far East Man” with George Harrison (who co-wrote it) on slide guitar and harmonies, plus a few songs (“Mystifies Me,” “Cancel Everything”) that channel that sweet melancholic vibe associated with his Faces songwriting partner Ronnie Lane. These slowies are especially well-suited to Wood’s slightly raspy, Everyman voice. But whether the mood of an individual song is sad or sassy, the overall ambience recalls a fun night out with the lads and it all ends with a loose, funky instrumental jam called “Crotch Music.”

This wouldn’t be Ronnie Wood’s only solo LP. His most successful one in the States would come in 1979 with Gimme Some Neck, which led to the short-lived semi-supergroup with Keith Richards called the New Barbarians. But mostly, life with the Stones has kept him pretty busy over the years, with occasional solo outings to fill the gaps and keep him (mostly) out of the tabloids. When you’re this high up in the court of the Royal Rock Stars, it is good to be The Wingman.


From the 2007 concert film “Shine A Light.”

My next book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey will be released later in 2015.