Category Archives: Behind the Music

Nothing without its meaning: Mali Blues ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

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“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”              

-H.L. Mencken

African women live through too much hell and suffering                               We should look again at our ancestral beliefs and assess them               Keep what’s good for us, and reject all that harms us                               African women live through too much hell and suffering                            They cut it…stop female circumcision!                                                           Mother, it hurts so much                                                                                                    It hurts so much

-from “Boloko”, by Fatoumata Diawara

Needless to say, self-taught Mali guitarist-singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara does not make her living churning out moon-June pop tunes. She is a creative artist who is fiercely and fearlessly dedicated to speaking truth to power. That’s the kind of stance that makes you a lightning rod anywhere in the world (especially if you are a woman), but it borders on suicidal in an impoverished West African nation where Islamic militants have declared war on music and musicians. From a 2012 Guardian article by Andy Morgan:

The pickup halted in Kidal, the far-flung Malian desert town that is home to members of the Grammy award-winning band Tinariwen. Seven AK47-toting militiamen got out and marched to the family home of a local musician. He wasn’t home, but the message delivered to his sister was chilling: “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”

The gang then removed guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and a drum kit from the house, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. In northern Mali, religious war has been declared on music.

When a rabble of different Islamist groups took control of the region in April there were fears that its rich culture would suffer. But no one imagined that music would almost cease to exist – not in Mali, a country that has become internationally renowned for its sound.

“Culture is our petrol,” says Toumani Diabaté, the Malian kora player who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Björk, to name but a few. “Music is our mineral wealth. There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”

“Music regulates the life of every Malian,” adds Cheich Tidiane Seck, a prolific Malian musician and producer. “From the cradle to the grave. From ancient times right up to today. A Mali without music? No … I mean … give me another one!”

In his new documentary, Mali Blues, Lutz Gregor follows popular world music artist Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares for her appearance at the 2015 Festival of the Niger. Originally born in Ivory Coast to Malian parents and currently living in France, Diawara has not been back to Mali since she left at age 19. That is why her participation in the festival has profound personal significance; it signals Diawara’s first performance in her home country since achieving international recognition and success.

Several of Diawara’s fellow Malian musicians also appearing at the festival are also profiled, including Taureg guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi, rapper Master Soumy, and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. As a guitar player, I was particularly taken with Kouyate’s mastery of his instrument…he’s like the Hendrix of the ngoni. I have never seen anyone play an electrified ngoni before; much less with pedal effects (like a wah-wah). To just look at this oddly rectangular, 4-string banjo-like instrument, you’d never imagine one could wriggle such a broad spectrum of power, beauty and spacious tonality out of it.

Beautifully photographed and edited, with no voice-over to take you out of the frame, Gregor’s documentary plays like a meditative narrative film. In the film’s most bittersweet scene, Diawara performs “Boloko” (her song about the draconian practice of female circumcision) for a small audience of women and girls in a Mali village where she spent her formative years. After a moment of silence following the performance, the women begin to ruminate.

“A song is nothing without its meaning,” one woman says to Diawara, continuing, “You are good and courageous.” And, as this extraordinary film illustrates, a culture is nothing without its music…or its poetry, literature, or art for that matter. Those who would destroy it will never hold a candle to the good and courageous.

SIFF 2017: A Life in Waves ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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While her name isn’t a household word, Suzanne Ciani is a musical polymath whose work has been heard by millions…from New Age fans to pinball enthusiasts. Brett Whitcomb’s film is an inspirational portrait of this innovative artist’s 40-year career. An early electronica pioneer, the classically-trained Ciani was in one respect too ahead of her time, because she hit the glass ceiling fairly quickly (the late 60s synth scene was a boy’s club). Undaunted, she reinvented herself as a “sound designer”, making a ton of loot devising ad jingles (and effects, like the Coca-Cola “pop and pour” sound), theme songs, game sound effects, you name it. She kept composing, eventually founding her own New Age record label and becoming a genre star. A fascinating look at a creative genius who’s managed to ride the wave at the crest between art and commerce.

SIFF 2017: Bill Frisell: A Portrait ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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He doesn’t “shred” or do windmills on stage. In fact, he looks more like a college professor who drives a 1972 Volvo than a peer-revered guitar slinger that most people have never heard of. I will confess that even I (an alleged music geek) couldn’t name one Bill Frisell song. Yet, this unassuming Seattle-based virtuoso has 35 solo albums and scores of sessions with more well-known artists to his credit. He’s also tough to nail down; All Music Guide files him under a dozen genres, including Modern Creative, Post-Bop, New Acoustic, World Fusion, and Progressive Folk. Emma Franz’s film, while perhaps just a smidgen overlong for anyone but a super-fan, nicely conveys the joy of creating, and as its title infers-delivers an amiable portrait of an inventive player.

Acid daze: Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 4, 2017)

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Hard to believe that it was 50 years ago today (well, officially, as of June 1st) that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play around with vari-speeding, track bouncing and ambiophonics. Eh…wot?

Considering the relative limitations of recording technology at the time, the sonic wizardry and hardware MacGyvering that resulted in The Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band continues to amaze and fascinate musicians, studio engineers and music fans. For that matter, I bet any Beatle fan would happily buzz in through the bathroom window to have been a fly on the wall at any Beatles session, for any of their albums. Perhaps that’s not the best analogy.

That imagery aside, there is a “next best thing”, thanks to composer and musicologist Scott Freiman, who has created a series of multimedia and film presentations called Deconstructing the Beatles. His latest exploration focuses on the Sgt. Pepper song cycle. Some engagements are personal appearances; others limited-run film versions of the lecture. My review is based on the filmed version, which ran here in Seattle last weekend (you can find upcoming cities/dates here).

Freiman kicks off with deep background on the February 1967 release of the double ‘A’ sided 45 “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” (although he doesn’t deconstruct the recording sessions as he does for the Sgt. Pepper tracks). I think this is a perfect choice for a launching pad, as those two songs were not only crucial signifiers of the band’s continuing progression from the (seemingly) hard-to-top Revolver, but originally intended to be included as part of Sgt. Pepper.

The remaining three-quarters of the film is a track-by-track journey through the album (in original running order, of course). By playing snippets of isolated audio tracks and subtly stacking them until they transmogrify into their familiar finished form, as well as supplementing with archival photos and flow charts annotating how tracks were reduced and mixed down, Freiman is able to give the viewer a fairly good peek into the unique creative process that went into the Sgt. Pepper sessions. Freiman’s running commentary hits the sweet spot between scholarly and entertaining.

I was a little disappointed that he gives my two favorite cuts, “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” short shrift; especially when compared to the amount of time he spends fixating on three cuts in particular: “She’s Leaving Home”, “Within You, Without You”, and “A Day in the Life”. Not that those aren’t all classics, but you can’t have everything. After all, art is subjective, right?

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Freiman doing one of his presentations in-person; I imagine it’s more dynamic and engaging than watching what is essentially a filmed lecture (think An Inconvenient Truth). If you’re expecting something along the lines of The Beatles Anthology, this may not be for you. Still, the Fab force is strong in this one, and he obviously holds a genuine affection for the music, which keeps the proceedings from sinking into an academic snooze fest.

Side 2: It was a very good year

While Sgt. Pepper certainly deserves the accolades it has received over the last 5 decades, 1967 was a watershed year for a lot of bands; there was definitely something in the air (or the punch).

Here are 10 more fabulous albums that are blowing out 50 candles this year (goddam, I’m old…).

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CreamDisraeli Gears…Clapton’s psych-blues zenith, Bruce and Baker’s dangerous rhythms, Pete Brown’s batshit crazy lyrics, lorded over by producer/future Mountain man Felix Pappalardi. Best cuts: “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Swlabr” (fuck you, Spellcheck), and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”.

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The DoorsThe Doors…“He took a face, from the ancient gallery. And he walked on down the hall.” And music would never be the same. Best cuts: All of them.

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Jefferson AirplaneSurrealistic Pillow…Luv ‘n’ Haight. Remember, I want you to toss the radio into the bathtub when “White Rabbit” peaks. Get it? Got it? Good! Best cuts: “Somebody to Love”, “White Rabbit”, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”.

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Jimi Hendrix ExperienceAre You Experienced?…Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful. There ain’t no life, nowhere. And you will never hear surf music, again. Best cuts: “Purple Haze”, “Love or Confusion”, “May This Be Love”, “I Don’t Live Today”, “Third Stone From the Sun”, and “Are You Experienced?”.

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The KinksSomething Else by the Kinks…The genius of Ray Davies cannot be overstated. Every song is an immersive picture postcard of the traditional English life. Brilliant. Best cuts: “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lazy Old Sun”, “Death of a Clown”, “David Watts”, “Afternoon Tea”.

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The Moody BluesDays of Future Passed…Mellotrons R Us. Symphonic rock before anyone thought it was even possible. A thing of beauty. Best cuts: “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin”.

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Pink FloydThe Piper at the Gates of Dawn…Syd Barrett, before the drugs kicked in for keeps. He’s got a bike, you can ride it if you like. Space rock, ominous dirges and proto prog supreme. Best cuts: “Astronomy Domine”, “Flaming”, “Interstellar Overdrive”, and “Bike”.

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Procol HarumProcol Harum…Gary Brooker’s distinctive voice, Robin Trower’s peerless fretwork, Matthew Fisher’s signature organ riffs and Keith Reid’s wry and literate lyrics made for a heady, proggy brew that didn’t quite sound like anyone else at the time. Still doesn’t, actually. Best cuts: “Conquistador”, “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence”, and “Repent, Walpurgis”.

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The Velvet UndergroundThe Velvet Underground and Nico…In which Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Nico, and Moe Tucker invited the flower children to attend New York art school. However, no one enrolled until about 10 years later, when it came to be called punk rock. Best cuts: “I’m Waiting For the Man”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Heroin”, and “Femme Fatale”.

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The WhoThe Who Sell Out…A kind of warm-up for Tommy, The Who’s concept album was constructed to simulate a pirate radio station, with interstitial spoof ads and station jingles linking the cuts together. A very strong song cycle for Pete Townshend. Best cuts: “Armenia City in the Sky”, “Tattoo”, “I Can See For Miles”, “Our Love Was”, “I Can’t Reach You”, and “Sunrise”.

BONUS TRACK!

There were also a lot of memorable hit singles on the pop charts that year. Here’s one of my favorites from the summer of 1967:

Blu-ray reissue: Eight Days a Week ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years – Apple Deluxe Edition Blu-ray

I missed the theatrical run of Ron Howard’s 2016 Beatles documentary because I was sidelined by knee replacement surgery, but happily the powers-that-be have expedited its release to home video just in time for Christmas. As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Howard’s film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened) by what he’s managed to put together here.

The title pretty much says it all; this is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun. The Deluxe Edition is worth the investment for fans; in fact, I found the bonus features more interesting than the main film! The 64-page booklet caps this set off nicely.

Iggy Popcorn: Gimme Danger *** & Danny Says **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 19, 2016)

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Well it’s 1969 OK, all across the USA

It’s another year for me and you

Another year with nuthin’ to do,

Last year I was 21, I didn’t have a lot of fun

And now I’m gonna be 22

I say oh my, and a boo-hoo

-from “1969” by The Stooges

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, perhaps best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? That’s one of the revelations in Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s cinematic fan letter to one of his idols.

Jarmusch dutifully traces the history of Iggy and the Stooges, from Iggy’s initial foray as a drummer, to the Stooges’ 1967 debut (then billing themselves as “The Psychedelic Stooges”), to their signing with Elektra Records the following year (which yielded two seminal proto-punk albums before the label unceremoniously dropped them in 1971) to the association with David Bowie that gave birth to 1973’s Raw Power, up to the present.

While LP sales were less than stellar (and forget about radio exposure, outside of free-form and underground FM formats), the band’s legend was largely built on their gigs. From day one, Iggy was a live wire on stage; unpredictable, dangerous, possessed. Whether smearing peanut butter (or blood) on his chest while growling out songs, undulating his weirdly flexible body into gymnastic contortions, or impulsively flinging himself into the crowd (he invented the “stage dive”), Iggy Pop was anything but boring.

Keep in mind, this was a decade before Sid Vicious was to engage in similar stage antics. The peace ‘n’ love ethos was still lingering in the air when the Stooges stormed onstage, undoubtedly scaring the shit out of a lot of hippies. However, once they hitched their wagon to fellow Detroit music rebels/agitprop pioneers the MC5 (their manifesto: “Loud rock ‘n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets!”) they began to build a solid fan base, which became rabid. Unfortunately, film footage from this period is scant; but Jarmusch manages to dig up enough clips to give us a rough idea of what the vibe was at the time.

Jarmusch is a bit nebulous regarding the breakups, reunions, and shuffling of personnel that ensued during the band’s heyday (1967-1974), but that may not be so much his conscious choice as it is acquiescing to (present day) Iggy’s selective recollections (Iggy does admit drugs were a factor). While Jarmusch also interviews original Stooges Ron Asheton (guitar), and his brother Scott Asheton (drums), their footage is sparse (sadly, both have since passed away). Bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975, is relegated to archival interviews. Guitarist James Williamson (who played on Raw Power) and alt-rock Renaissance man Mike Watt (the latter-day Stooges bassist) contribute anecdotes as well.

Many might assume, judging purely by the simple riffs, minimal lyrics and primal stage persona that there wouldn’t be much going on upstairs with the Ig…but that would be a highly inaccurate assumption. To the contrary, Iggy is much smarter than you think he is; a surprisingly erudite raconteur who is highly self-aware and actually quite thoughtful when it comes to his art. It might surprise you to learn that one of his earliest creative influences (aside from space-jazz maestro Sun Ra and, erm, Soupy Sales) was American avant-garde composer Harry Partch, who utilized instruments made out of found objects.

A few nitpicks aside, this is the most comprehensive retrospective to date regarding this truly influential band; it was enough to make this long-time fan happy, and to perhaps enlighten casual fans, or the curious. As for the rest of you, I say: Oh my, and a boo hoo!

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Interestingly, Iggy pops up in another new documentary. In fact, there is much cross-pollination between Gimme Danger and Danny Says (on PPV), Brendan Toller’s uneven yet quaffable portrait of NYC scenester/music publicist/DJ/fanzine editor Danny Fields.

Fields was the talent scout/A&R guy/whatever (his job title is never made 100% clear…more on that in a moment) who “discovered” The Stooges while on assignment from Elektra Records to scope out the Detroit music scene in 1968. While the record company was primarily interested in the MC5, Fields convinced the suits to tack the Stooges on as a “two-fer” signing deal: $20,000 for the MC5 + $5,000 for the Stooges (!)

That’s jumping a bit ahead in Fields’ involvement with the music biz, which appears (according to Toller’s film) to have been attributable to a series of happy accidents, which begins with him falling into a managing editor position with the teenybopper fanzine Datebook in 1966. Within months of landing the gig, Fields found himself at the center of the infamous John Lennon “bigger than Jesus” controversy, stemming from a highlighted quote in a Datebook interview (his editorial decision). The consequences? Death threats against the band, Beatle record bonfires in the Deep South, universal condemnation by church leaders…essentially putting the kibosh on touring for the Fabs.

Whoops. I think we all owe Yoko an apology.

Thanks to his music journalist cred, he soon gains entree with the Warhol Factory crowd, which leads to his association with The Velvet Underground and a long-time friendship with Lou Reed, Nico, et al. This essentially plants him perennially thereafter at the epicenter of the New York arts scene, where, like a rock ‘n’ roll Forrest Gump, he manages to pal around with everybody who’s anybody from the late 60s ‘til now. He did publicity for The Doors, “discovered” and co-managed The Ramones, did windows, etc.

So why haven’t most people on the planet heard of him? I like to think of myself as a rock ‘n’ roll geek, with an encyclopedic brain full of worthless music trivia…and even I was blissfully unaware of this person until I stumbled across the film on cable the other night. So I am going to have to take all of the gushing interviewees’ word for it that Fields was a “punk pioneer” and essentially the musical taste-maker of the last 5 decades.

Fields proves a raconteur of sorts (the one about a meeting he arranged between Jim Morrison and Nico is amusing) but many anecdotes lead nowhere. For someone allegedly at the vanguard of the music scene for 50 years, he offers little insight. Most of Fields’ reminiscences are variations on “Well, I thought these guys were kinda cute, and I liked their music, so I told so-and-so about them, then I introduced these guys to some other famous guys.” For the most part, it adds up to 104 minutes of glorified name-dropping.

Still, the film is perfectly serviceable as a loose historical chronicle of the NYC music scene during its richest period (via numerous snippets of archival footage), and nostalgic boomers will likely find cameos by the likes of Alice Cooper, Judy Collins, Lenny Kaye, Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Jonathan Richman, Iggy Pop, etc. to be enough to hold their interest (although again, more context and/or insight would have sweetened the pot).

The film reminded me of another rock documentary, George Hickenlooper’s The Mayor of Sunset Strip (my review), which profiled L.A. scenester/club manager/DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who, like Danny Fields, managed to stumble into the midst of every major music sea change from the 1960s onward, rubbing shoulders with any rock ‘n’ roll luminary you’d care to name. Which begs the same question regarding Fields that I posed of Bingenheimer: Is he a true music “impresario”, or merely a lottery-winning super fan?

Funny how: Can We Take a Joke? *** & Eat That Question ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” – George Carlin

In my recent review of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, I noted an observation by actress Joann Lumley (one of the film’s co-stars), excerpted from a Stylist interview:

[… ] And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in [the 1990s] were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything.

To which I added my 2 cents worth:

I’m going to risk crucifixion here (won’t be the first time) and heartily concur with [Joann Lumley’s] point regarding the intersection of P.C. and Funny these days. Now, I’m a card-carryin’, tree-huggin’, NPR-listenin’ pinko lib’rul, and I fully understand the subjective nature of humor. But speaking as a lifelong comedy fan (and ex-standup performer myself), I remain a firm believer in the credo that in comedy, nothing is sacred. I don’t always agree with Bill Maher, but I’m with him 100% on his crusade to counter a new Bizarro World Hays Code from segments of the Left that has even forced mainstream fixtures like Jerry Seinfeld to swear off playing college gigs.

Life is hard out on the streets for professional funny people. But don’t feel singled out, fellow liberals…for The Uptight Brigade is a non-partisan club, with members hailing from Left, Right, and Center. All you need to join is a sense of moral superiority and an active Twitter account. Consider the hot water that self-deprecating comic Jim Gaffigan got into in 2013 with a fairly benign “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” tweet:

(from Gawker)

So yesterday, stand-up-comedian-slash-fat dad Jim Gaffigan decided to make what he thought was a mostly harmless joke about women and their nails.

“Ladies I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices you got them done,” Gaffigan tweeted to his 1.6 million followers.

Ha! Women be getting their nails done, am I right fellas?

Anyway, commence TOTAL MELTDOWN:

“If you think I make my nails pretty for anyone other than myself, you are a fool,” replied @gesa “or maybe some women do things not to impress other people,” offered @oceana roll. “you’re such an asshole,” @phaserstostun. And the tweets kept coming. Dozens every minute.

“If you think people are overreacting to my edgy ‘nails done’ post here,” Gaffigan followed up a short while ago, “you have to see the anger on my Tumblr.”

And sure enough, since the joke was posted there yesterday, it has racked up over 100,000 notes, most of them far less subtle than those being made on Twitter. […]

For his part, Gaffigan did issue a worrying apology, telling those who were offended by his “edgy ‘nails done’ joke’ that he’s sorry and he’ll “attempt to be more sensitive in the future.”

Do people get irony anymore? Obviously (well, to me) he was making a point about how self-centered and clueless men are. Gaffigan got the last laugh, using the incident as fuel for one of this current season of The Jim Gaffigan Show’s best episodes. In “The Trial”, Gaffigan (who plays ‘himself’, a la Seinfeld, Louis, and Maron) is in a Kafkaesque alternate reality where he gets tossed into Social Outrage Jail (his cellmate Carrot Top has been doing time “since the mid-90s”) and tried in The Court of Public Opinion (presiding judge: comic Judy Gold) as a result of his offensive nail tweet. Jim is saved by the bell when shocking news arrives that Ricky Gervais just tweeted ‘Miley Cyrus has a dad bod’. Pitchforks are issued immediately, a mob forms and the courtroom empties out.

(*sigh*)

August 3rd marked the 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death; in my tribute, I wrote:

For years following his passing, he was arguably more famous for the suffering he endured for his art, rather than the visionary nature of it.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2003, after years of lobbying by members of the entertainment industry and free speech advocates, that New York governor George Pataki issued Bruce an official posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction. It is worth noting that no comedians have been jailed in America for telling jokes to roomfuls of drunks since Bruce died. […]

Of course by now everybody has jumped on the bandwagon and acknowledges the man’s genius and the groundbreaking nature of his material. But I can’t help but wonder how Lenny would have fared in the age of social media, or in front of a modern college audience (oy).

I’m not alone in that speculation, as evidenced by a new documentary called Can We Take a Joke? (available on VOD), throughout which Lenny Bruce frequently serves as a touchstone. Writer-director Ted Balaker’s film examines the impact of “outrage culture” on modern comedy. Balaker assembles a sizable coterie of comics who thrive on pushing the envelope, like Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, and Penn Jillette. He also invites opinions from social observers and free speech advocates.

The film’s underlying thesis (in so many words) boils down to that good old school yard chestnut: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.” As one interviewee puts it, “Along with the right to speak freely, comes a responsibility to have a thick skin. Words can be hurtful, but they are not the same as violence; and they can be countered with other words. And that’s our responsibility…the responsibility to put up with being offended.”

Balaker offers anecdotal evidence that seems to indicate not only that America’s skin is stretching ever thinner, but suggests something more threatening is occurring as a result. One of the interviewees offers this tidbit: “There was this huge study that’s done every year; and they ask citizens whether or not they think the First Amendment went too far. 47% of people between the ages of 18 and 30 said that the First Amendment goes too far. This is terrifying to those of us who care about free speech and the future of free speech.”

Is he just concern trolling? Consider this further observation: “One of the first things you know when a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

One of the more notable examples cited regarding this creeping trend of “chilling speech” occurred at the WSU campus in Pullman, Washington (where, oddly enough, I once did a comedy gig). African-American student Chris Lee created a satirical play (“Passion of the Musical”), which he admitted was designed “to offend everybody.” It caused such a ruckus that he earned the nickname “Black Hitler”. But that’s not the disturbing part, which is that WSU administrators comped students who wanted to attend for the sole purpose to disrupt it.

Again, is this a tempest in a teapot? How bad can it get? Two words: Charlie Hebdo. The Hebdo massacre is mentioned in the film, but only in passing; this is one avenue that the film glosses over. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity, especially in light of what’s happening in our current political climate, which begs some glaring questions. Namely, is there in fact, despite what the great George Carlin said, a “line” no one should dare cross?

Amy Goodman featured a rare interview with political satirist Garry Trudeau just this week on her Democracy Now radio program. She brought up a controversial piece he wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, called “The Abuse of Satire”. It’s a great read, and presents a flipside view to the thrust of Can We Take a Joke? Here’s a pertinent excerpt:

I, and most of my colleagues, have spent a lot of time discussing red lines since [the Charlie Hebdo massacre]. As you know, the Muhammad cartoon controversy began eight years ago in Denmark, as a protest against “self-censorship,” one editor’s call to arms against what she felt was a suffocating political correctness. […]

And now we are adrift in an even wider sea of pain. Ironically, Charlie Hebdo, which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. This is a bitter harvest. […]

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. […]

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

I’m aware that I make these observations from a special position, one of safety. In America, no one goes into cartooning for the adrenaline. As Jon Stewart said in the aftermath of the killings, comedy in a free society shouldn’t take courage.

There’s another twisty corollary that the film misses, concerning certain political candidates who cynically conflate themselves as if they were colleagues of professional humorists (as opposed to possible future leaders of the Free World, who should be choosing their words much more carefully). How many times now has Donald Trump gotten away with tweeting something incredibly offensive by backpedaling afterwards that “it was meant as a joke, folks”… thereby (disingenuously) positioning himself as a  ‘victim’ of the P.C. police?

Clearly, there are equally viable arguments for both camps of First Amendment interpretation (i.e., the constitutional “right” for offenders to offend and for the offended to condemn). But as Garry Trudeau cautioned in his piece in The Atlantic , “Freedom should always be discussed in the context of responsibility.” Can We Take a Joke?won’t break the impasse,  but it does succeed in prompting a dialog.

As Jim Norton notes in the film: “Everyone says ‘I love free speech, I love free thought, I love free expression’…but deep down they’re going: ‘Except for when, except for when.’ There’s always that little asterisk: ‘But that doesn’t apply here.’” So you see? Cracking wise is more complex than it is, erm, cracked up to be…especially in this current  political climate. As Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean (allegedly) said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

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“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.”      –Frank Zappa

If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art as a free citizen, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s new documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (in limited release).

Despite his massive catalog (62 albums released in his lifetime, 43 posthumously), Zappa, like Bruce, is probably remembered more for his fights against censorship, rather than for the actual material in question (which includes some pretty hummable stuff, I must say). Most famously, he took on Tipper Gore and the Parents Resource Music Center in 1985, joining fellow musicians Dee Snider (from Twisted Sister) and John Denver (!) to testify at a Senate hearing over the “Parental Advisory” sticker controversy.

One of the highlights of the film is a clip from a 1986 appearance Zappa made on CNN’s Crossfire. In an observation that now seems quite prescient, Zappa opines, “The biggest threat to America today is not Communism, its moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened under the Reagan administration is steering us down that pipe.” Of course now, I almost long for those “good old days”, when the Republican Party was but a tool for the Religious Right-in lieu of, uh, whatever it is now.

That said, I should point out that Zappa was not an artist who went out of his way seeking dragons to slay; it’s just that somehow, the dragons had a tendency to seek him out. While he definitely leaned Libertarian when it came to freedom of expression, he was otherwise politically…fluid. Through the course of the film (culled from archival interview/performance footage and contextualized via Schutte’s editing choices), Zappa dumps on the Left, the Right, Hippies, politicians, religion, pop music, record companies, consumer culture (his pet rant), corporate America, and even on his own most rabid fans.

As far as those rabid fans were concerned, the more curmudgeonly and autocratic Zappa’s stance became (regardless of whether or not it was just  show biz shtick), the more they loved him (in that narrow context, there’s a weird parallel with Donald Trump…the obvious difference being that Trump has never really created anything that is of  value to anyone but himself). Zappa was kind of an asshole, but in that Mozart kind of way, as he was an extremely gifted and prolific asshole (was Tipper his secret Salieri? Discuss). Like Picasso, he kept experimenting and creating until he expired (after a long battle, Zappa succumbed to cancer at 52 in 1993).

Let me be up front…this documentary will play best for members of the choir (guilty!). If you’ve never been much of a Zappa fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. This impressionistic approach can still paint a compelling portrait; if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb (consider 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which remains my favorite biopic, despite the fact that I had never even heard of him when I first saw it, and I still don’t own any of his albums).

There is genuine poignancy as well. In a Today Show interview, an obviously gravely ill Zappa is asked how he wants to be remembered. “It’s not important to even be remembered.” After an awkward silence that implies his interviewer did not see that one coming, he continues, “The people who worry about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush…these people want to be remembered, and they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is just terrific.” “And for Frank Zappa?” she presses. Without missing a beat, he replies “Don’t care.” Back to you, Katie.

I suspect you really did care, Frank. But I know if I ask, I’ll end up eating that question.

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In case you’ve forgotten what a lyrical player he was (when he chose to be)

SIFF 2016: Red Gringo ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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I’m sure you’re familiar with Warren Beatty’s 1981 biopic Reds, which is the tale of how American journalist-turned-political activist Jack Reed ended up buried with honors in the Kremlin? Miguel Angel Vidaurre’s documentary concerns another American who underwent a similar metamorphosis. Dean Reed (no relation) was a Colorado-born musician-turned-political activist who also ended up a Communist icon. Reed, a middling singing talent graced by teen-idol looks, landed a contract with Capitol Records in the early 60s. Virtually ignored in the U.S., he somehow caught fire in South America, where he became a huge pop idol and movie star. During a tour of Chile, he had an unanticipated political epiphany; sparking an entree into Marxism that switched his musical proclivities from bubblegum to agitpop. He eventually settled in East Germany where he met his untimely (and shadowy) end. Fascinating and absorbing.

Sketches of pain: Born to Be Blue ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2016)

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My pebble on the beach is gettin’ washed away                                                       I’ve given everything that was mine to give                                                              And now I’ll turn around and find                                                                               That there’s no time to live

-from “No Time to Live” by Traffic (Winwood/Capaldi)

The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide. There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died).

Baker has a mystique that has inspired filmmakers over the years. Jess Franco’s 1969 cult film Venus in Furs  (my review) was seeded by a  conversation the director once had with Baker (the protagonist is a haunted jazz trumpeter, who falls in love with a woman who may or may not exist). Bruce Weber’s beautifully photographed 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost is a heartbreaking portrait of Baker toward the end of his life. Which brings us to writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue (limited release and pay-per-view).

Budreau’s film is a highly stylized “re-imagining” of the jazzman’s slow, painful professional comeback that followed in the wake of the beating that virtually destroyed his embouchure. In a super-meta opening scene, Chet (Ethan Hawke) is on a movie set, working out a scene for a biopic about himself, with his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo). An off camera romance ensues, with Jane pulling triple duty as lover, muse and drug counselor; trying to keep him off the junk as he struggles against the odds to regain his playing chops with a fractured jaw. Along the way, the couple takes a road trip to Chet’s boyhood home in Oklahoma, where he introduces Jane to his parents (Janet Laine-Green and Stephen McHattie) and feebly attempts to patch things up with his estranged father.

Jane isn’t the only person in Chet’s orbit who find themselves fulfilling a caretaker’s role; his long-time manager (Callum Keith Rennie), musical mentor Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard), and his parole officer (Tony Nappo), continue to prop him up, against their better judgement (you know what they say: “Never trust a junkie.”). How much of this aspect of Baker’s life is being “re-imagined” here is up for debate; but it’s interesting to observe that in Weber’s 1988 documentary, even Baker himself admits (in so many words) that he knew he was a natural-born charmer, and he was never afraid to exploit it.

While the “junkie/alcoholic (musician, artist, writer, or poet) with God-given talent and a maddening gift for self-destruction” narrative is a cliché, Budreau’s film is bolstered by a very strong performance from Hawke; it’s an immersive portrayal that ranks among his best. Supporting performances are excellent as well. Overall, the film is moody, highly atmospheric, and evocative of the time period, with striking cinematography (by Steve Cosens). The dearth of original Baker music is glaring (copyright issues?), but Kevin Turcotte’s faux-Chet trumpet provides a reasonable facsimile thereof. Hawke does his own singing; very convincingly capturing Chet Baker’s essence (if not his exact tonality).

Too Rolling Stoned: A top 5 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 26, 2016)

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“I think that, finally, the times are changing. No?”

-Mick Jagger, addressing 450,000 fans at the 2016 Havana concert

It’s been quite a groundbreaking week for Cuba, kicking off with the first official U.S. presidential visit since 1928, and closing out with last night’s free Rolling Stones concert at the Ciudad Deportiva stadium in Havana. While it marked the first Cuba appearance for the Stones, the boys have seen many moons since their first-ever gig, 54 years ago (!) at London’s Marquee Club. The fledgling band wore their influences on their sleeves that night (July 12, 1962) with a covers-only set that included songs by Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. And despite the odd foray into chamber pop, psychedelia, country-rock and disco over time, they haven’t really strayed too awfully far from those roots. They simply remain…The Stones (it’s only rock ’n’ roll).

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In honor of their contribution to helping thaw out the last vestiges of the Cold War, here are my top 5 picks of films featuring the Rolling Stones (in alphabetical order, as usual).

Charlie is My Darling – The Rolling Stones did a few dates in Ireland in 1965, and filmmaker Peter Whitehead tagged along, resulting in this somewhat short (60 minute) but historically vital cinema verite-style documentary. We see a ridiculously young Stones at a time when they were still feeling their way through their own version of Beatlemania (although it’s interesting to note that it’s primarily the lads in the audience who are seen crying hysterically and rushing the stage!). In a hotel room scene, Jagger and Richards work out lyrics and chord changes for the song “Sittin’ on a Fence” (which wouldn’t appear until a couple years later on the Flowers album). The concert footage captures the band in all of its early career “rave up” glory (including a wild onstage riot). The film recalls P.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (filmed the same year), which similarly followed Bob Dylan around while he was in London to perform several shows.

Gimme Shelter – I sincerely hope that the Stones’ historic 2016 free concert at the Havana sports stadium went much smoother than their infamous 1969 free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show). It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly “known” for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the incident, because those scant seconds of its running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the finest “rockumentaries” ever made. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.

Let’s Spend the Night Together– By the time I finally had an opportunity to catch the Stones live back in 1981 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Brian Jones was 12 years in the grave and the band was already being called “dinosaurs”. Still, it was one those “bucket list” items that I felt obliged to fulfill (it turns out there was really no rush…who knew that Mick would still be prancing around in front of massive crowds like a rooster on acid 35 years later…and counting?). At any rate, the late great Hal Ashby directed this 1983 concert film, documenting performances from that very same 1981 North American tour. Unadorned cinematically, but that’s a good thing, as Ashby wisely steps back to let the performances shine through (unlike the distracting flash-cutting and vertigo-inducing, perpetual motion camera work that made Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light unwatchable). The set list spans their career, from “Time Is on My Side” to the 1981 hit “Start Me Up”.

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus– Originally intended to air as a TV special, this 1968 film was shelved and “lost” for nearly 30 years, until its belated restoration and home video release in the mid-90s. Presaging “mini concert” programs like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that would flourish in the 70s, the idea was to assemble a sort of “dream bill” of artists performing in an intimate, small theater setting. Since it was their idea, the Stones were the headliners (of course!), with an impressive lineup of opening acts including The Who, John & Yoko, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull. The “circus” theme (and the cringingly arrhythmic hippie dancing by the audience members) haven’t dated so well, but the performances are fabulous. Jagger’s alleged reason for keeping the show on ice was that the Stones were displeased by their own performance; the whispered truth over the years is that Mick felt upstaged by the Who (they do a rousing rendition of “A Quick One”). Actually the Stones are good; highlighted by a punky version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and a great “No Expectations” (featuring lovely playing from Brian Jones on slide guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano).

Sympathy for the Devil – Relatively unseen prior to home video release, this 1968 film (aka One plus One) tends to loom at bit larger as a legend in the minds of those who have namechecked it over the years than as a true “classic”. Director Jean-Luc Godard was given permission to film the Stones working on their Beggar’s Banquet sessions. He intercuts with footage featuring Black Panthers expounding on The Revolution, a man reciting passages from Mein Kampf, and awkwardly executed “guerilla theater” vignettes (it was the 60s, man). While we “get” the analogy between the Stones building the layers of the eponymous song in the studio and the seeds of change being sown in the streets, the rhetoric becomes grating. Still, it’s a fascinating curio, and the intimate, beautifully shot footage of the Stones offers us a rare “fly on the wall” peek at their creative process.