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”


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

jerry casual gods

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

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


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

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

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

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

A Reel and Rock Summer Break

Lord of the Ry's

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

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

Rick Ouellette

We’ve All Gone Solo #9 (Mick Ronson)


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

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

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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?


Directed by Richard Lester–1965–92 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

beatles help

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

amy one

Directed by Asif Kapadia–2015–120 minutes

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

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

amy three

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


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.

schools out

“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.


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.


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


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.”

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.

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…


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

asylum cover

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

north brother cover

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