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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Rock Doc Round-Up for 2015

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

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

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

Amy (Directed by Asif Kapadia).

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


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

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

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


Available to download now.

The Wrecking Crew (Directed by Denny Tedesco).

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


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

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

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


Let the F-bombs commence.

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

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

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Honorable Mentions, Subjects For Further Study, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How White My Shirts Can Be

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

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Stanley Kubrick in windbreaker, on location in Ireland.

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

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

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

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

Break the Etiquette

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


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

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

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

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

You Say You Want a Revolution

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

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

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

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

We’ve All Gone Solo #12 (Sandy Denny)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Extraordinary Tales
Directed by Raul Garcia–2015–73 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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DREAM GEOGRAPHIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books That Rock, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Who I Am” by Pete Townshend (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documentary Spotlight: “Best of Enemies”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jerry-harrison-talking

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

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

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

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

A Reel and Rock Summer Break

Lord of the Ry's

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

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