Tag Archives: On Music

That’s entertainment: The Jam: About the Young Idea ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 3, 2015)

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When former British PM Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, Digby did a great post about how the populist backlash against Thatcherism provided fertile ground for the Agit Punk movement in the UK (I wrote a companion piece on Thatcherism’s likewise effect on film makers). One of the best bands of that era was The Jam. Formed in 1976, the three lads from Woking (guitarist/lead vocalist Paul Weller, bassist/vocalist Bruce Foxton, and drummer Rick Buckler) exploded onto the scene with their seminal album, In the City. The eponymous single became their signature tune and remains a punk pop anthem. While initially lumped in with contemporaries like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, the band was operating in a different sphere; specifically regarding their musical influences.

What set Weller and his band mates apart was their open adulation of The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces and the Motown sound. At the time, this was heresy; as astutely pointed out in The Jam: About the Young Idea (a rockumentary that premiered on Showtime this week), you had to dismiss any music released prior to 1976, if you wished to retain your punk cred. In the film, Weller recalls having a conversation with Joe Strummer of The Clash, who told him (in effect) that all of Chuck Berry’s music was crap. “Oh Joe…you don’t really mean that,” Weller replies rhetorically into the camera.

Also on hand are Foxton and Buckler, who still register palpable sadness while recalling their reaction to Weller’s unexpected announcement to them in 1982 (at the height of their greatest chart success) that he was quitting the band to pursue new musical avenues. Weller is philosophical; he argues it’s always best to go out on top (as Neil Young said, it’s better to burn out than fade away). Director Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology) does a marvelous job telling the band’s story, sustaining a positive energy throughout by mixing in a generous helping of vintage performance clips. This is a must-see for fans.

I saw Fear in the People’s Temple: The Decline Trilogy arrives on Blu-ray

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 8, 2015)

I saw Fear in the People’s Temple. Sounds poetic, but I’m being quite literal. In 1980, I saw Fear (the L.A. punk band) perform in the People’s Temple (1839 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco). And yes, this was the People’s Temple, as in the former home ministry for Jim Jones and his congregation. For a brief period from 1979 to 1980, the church was leased as a performance space for punk bands (unsettling in retrospect, but par for the course in the heady days of California’s early 80s punk scene). I don’t remember much about the 4 or 5 acts who preceded them, but Fear certainly left an impression, opening with their signature “hello” song, “I Don’t Care About You”.

I’ve seen an old man                                                                                                         Have a heart attack in Manhattan                                                                            Well, he died while we just stood there lookin’ at him                                        Ain’t he cute?

I don’t care about you                                                                                                     Fuck you!                                                                                                                                      I don’t care about you

So much for all that “We hope that you’ll enjoy the show” Sgt. Pepper peace’ n’ love shit!

It was also a brief set, as I recall. As if the opening tune wasn’t alienating enough, lead singer Lee Ving continued baiting the punters with a barrage of insults (witnessing the crowd’s reaction, I soon grokked why the beer was served up in plastic cups). After 4 or 5 2-minute songs, Ving haughtily announced that the show was over, citing the audience’s hostility. It was obviously ironic shtick; half the audience got it (like me, they were laughing their asses off) the other half truly did look like they were ready to murder the band. I suspect Fear’s influences were more Andy Kaufman than Ramones.

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Things seem so much different now, the scene has died away                            I haven’t got a steady job, and I’ve got no place to stay                                    Well it’s a futuristic modern world, but things aren’t what they seem       Someday you’d better wake up, from this stupid fantasy  

 -from “Bloodstains”, by Agent Orange (1980)

As we entered the 1980s, music was in a weird space. The first surge of punk had died away, and was already being homogenized by the marketing boys into a more commercially palatable genre tagged “New Wave”. The remnants of disco and funk had loosened a tenacious grip on the pop charts, yet had not yet acquiesced to the burgeoning hip hop/rap scene as the club music du jour.

What would soon become known as Hair Metal was still in its infancy; and the inevitable merger of “headphone” prog and bloated stadium rock sealed the deal with Pink Floyd’s cynical yet mega-successful 2-LP “fuck you” to the music business, The Wall (the hit single, “Another Brick in the Wall”, was the #2 song on Billboard’s chart for 1980, sandwiched between Blondie’s “Call Me” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”). Clearly, the conditions were ripe for a new paradigm.

Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk                                                                      It’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me.

 -from “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me”, by Billy Joel (1980)

In 1981 (the year MTV signed on), The Decline of Western Civilization was released. Filmed in 1979, Penelope Spheeris’ documentary was a “lightning in a bottle” capture of the L.A. punk scene, (to quote Hunter S. Thompson) right at that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. That “new paradigm” may in fact have already arrived on the cusp of the decade, as a scenester named Eugene explains in the film’s opening: “Well, I like that (punk) is something new, and it’s just reviving, like the old rock ’n’ roll. It’s raw again, it’s for real, and it’s fun. It’s not bullshit…there’s no rock stars, man.”

Spheeris mixes fan and musician interviews with well-shot performance footage of some of the seminal L.A. punk bands of that era, like Black Flag, X, The Germs, The Circle Jerks and Fear. While every bit as arch and unconventional as its subject, you’ll notice touches (like providing subtitles for the song lyrics) that subtly position the film as more anthropological study than rockumentary. And indeed, this once “shocking” film has since gained much cachet as a serious historical document; it is now shown in museums.

The film has been tough to track down for a number of years, as the only previous home video version was a long-out-of-print VHS release. Spheeris (who reached a commercial pinnacle with Wayne’s World) has been promising a restored print on DVD to her clamoring (and frustrated) fans for some time; apparently she kept getting sidetracked (or something). The wait ended June 30 with Shout! Factory’s DVD/Blu-ray releases of the film and its two sequels, packaged as The Decline of Western Civilization Collection set.

For her 1988 sequel, The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years Spheeris once again parsed her subject through a socio-cultural lens; fans are given equal face time with the musicians to paint a full picture of L.A.’s late 80s metal scene. What a difference a decade makes; while the concept of a “rock star” was anathema in the first film, it’s catnip for this crowd. It seems that everybody in II (whether musician, fan, or passer-by) wants to be (to quote Dirk Diggler) a big, bright, shining star. Well, almost everybody.

The film’s most famous (and disturbing) scene, wherein W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes is interviewed floating in a pool (clothed) and downing what looks to be a lethal amount of vodka while Mom looks on in bemusement, is like a lost reel from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (he must have got treatment…I just Googled him and he’s still alive).

While it’s certainly a thrill to finally have pristine prints of I and II on the home shelf, the real revelation is the inclusion of The Decline of Western Civilization III, which I had never had a chance to see until now (it played at several film festivals in 1998, but never got picked up for wide distribution). The film departs from its two predecessors, in that it feels more like an act of real social compassion, rather than mere historical preservation.

The setting remains Los Angeles. It is actually a more direct “sequel” to the first film, because “punk” is invoked once again. This time, it’s not so much “punk” in the sense of a music genre, or scene, but as the ethos of a specific lifestyle; in this case a subculture of street kids dubbed as “gutter punks”. Music is still an element, and several bands are profiled, but it’s the gutter punks who tell the real story here.

Sadly, it’s an ongoing story, which is the story of America’s homeless. It’s all the more heartbreaking when you realize that these really are only kids, who due to fate and/or deeply dysfunctional upbringings, feel compelled to reject “normal” society and take their chances tenuously living by their wits. The film reminded me of the 1984 documentary Streetwise (strongly recommended, if you have never seen it), which profiled a group of Seattle street kids.

The box set includes a bonus disc, chockablock with extras. Taken as a triptych, this collection rates as essential viewing, and gets my vote for best reissue of 2015 (so far).

You upset me, BB

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 15, 2015)

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Today, Lucille is a widow. Is there any guitar player of the past 60 years who hasn’t been influenced by him? He had a deceptively simple playing style…but just try to reproduce that tone (and that vibrato…Jesus, that vibrato). God knows, I’ve tried (and I’ve been playing for 40 years). With his innate and effortless stage cool, he made it look natural and easy; but each one of those smooth, economical lead lines were plucked directly from his blue, blue soul. His interpretation was singular and elemental. Long live the King…

Thoughts on a Beatles anniversary & a new (-ish) documentary (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2014)

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Digby has invited me to share my memories and thoughts about the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago today (CBS is airing a 2 hour tribute special tonight-Paul and Ringo are doing a couple numbers!). Truth be told, that “memory” is a little fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was all of 7 years old; a tad on the young side to fully grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad would come to define any rock’n’roll he might overhear wafting from my room throughout my formative years).

Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet flights). And weekly programs like Sullivan were, well, one week late. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles 50 years ago… next Sunday.

My true “discovery” of the Beatles occurred soon after I turned 11, during the summer of 1967, when my best pal George (who was 2 years my senior) practically browbeat me into blowing a month’s worth of allowance to pick up a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s, assuring me that it would change my life. He was right. Sgt. Pepper turned out to be my gateway drug to all the music (from psychedelic and garage to metal and prog and punk and new wave and everything in between) that has become a crucial element of my life to this day.

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I’ve done a few posts in the past about the Beatles on film, and figured I had covered most angles. But the funny thing about Beatles-related movies and documentaries is that, like the band’s legacy itself, it’s a gift that seems to keep on giving. Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, there’s Something New (hey…that would make a cool album title). A few weeks ago, I was perusing the bins of a music and video store here in Seattle, and stumbled upon a straight-to-DVD documentary from the UK with an intriguing (if unwieldy) title called Going Underground: Paul McCartney, The Beatles and the UK counter-culture.

Focusing on a specific period of London’s underground scene, it connects the dots between the American Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac & co.), the social, sexual and aesthetic sea change in the UK during the early to mid-60s, and analyzes its subsequent influence on the Beatles (one word: acid). As one interviewee observes, “They were probably the most avant-garde group in Britain, but also the most commercial.” Actually the Beatles don’t enter the narrative until about halfway through, but it’s still an absorbing watch.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Beatle songs/clips (and a perfect example of that avant-garde/commercial dichotomy). BTW this is also the song I always play for those wizards who claim that Ringo was only a so-so drummer…listen to that mother go!

Blu-ray review: Jeff Beck Live in Tokyo ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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Jeff Beck Live in Tokyo – Eagle Vision Blu-ray

Who’s the coolest 70 year-old on the planet? My vote is for guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck, who just keeps improving with age. I’ve been playing guitar for over 40 years, and no matter how closely I study the man’s fingers, I am absolutely stymied as to how he wrestles those sounds from his axe. It’s some kind of alchemy that is beyond my ken. Eagle Vision’s Blu-ray captures a dynamic performance at the Tokyo Dome City Hall from April 2014. Beck glides effortlessly between genres, proving equally adept at blues, metal, fusion, jazz and funk (sometimes all within the same number). He also shows off his newest band, all chops players (as you would expect). It’s interesting to see him playing off a second guitarist (classical-leaning Nicolas Meier), which he hasn’t done in some time. Highlights include “A Day in the Life”, “Stratus”, and the achingly beautiful “Where Were You”. The disc has exemplary image and sound.

Blame it on the boogie: The Secret Disco Revolution **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)

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Remember the disco era? I try not to. Yeah, I was one of those long-haired rocker dudes walking around brandishing a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt and turning his nose up at anything that smelled of Bee Gee or polyester back in the day. What can I say? I was going through my tribal phase (I think it’s commonly referred to as “being in your early 20s”). Now, that being said, I sure loved me some hard funk back in the mid 70s. A bit of the Isley Brothers, War, Mandrill, Funkadelic, etc. oeuvre managed to infiltrate my record collection at the time (in betwixt the King Crimson, Bowie, Who and Budgie).

But I had to draw the battle lines somewhere around the release (and non-stop radio airplay) of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (ironically, I love the film itself). In retrospect, I think what offended my (oh so rarified) sense of music aesthetic was that while “disco” plundered R&B, funk, soul (and even elements of rock’n’roll) it somehow managed to expunge everything that was righteous and organic about those genres; codifying them into a robotic, repetitive, and formulaic wash. But hey, the kids could dance to it, right?

Now, I am extrapolating here about disco music itself, as one would reference “blues” or “jazz”; not “disco” as a cultural phenomenon or political movement. What did he say? “Political movement”?! Actually, I didn’t say. Director Jamie Kastner is the person who puts forth this proposition in his sketchy yet mildly engaging documentary (mockumentary?) The Secret Disco Revolution. I think he’s being serious when he posits that the disco phenomenon was not (as the conventional wisdom holds) simply an excuse for the Me Generation to boogie, snort and fuck themselves silly thru the latter half of the 70s, but a significant political milestone for women’s lib, gay lib and African American culture.

He carries the revisionism a step further, suggesting that the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” riot (ignited by Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl’s 1979 publicity stunt, in which a crate of disco LPs was blown up at Comiskey Park in front of 50,000 cheering fans) was nothing less than a raging mob of racists, homophobes and misogynists. Hmm.

Kastner uses the aforementioned 1979 incident as the bookend to disco’s golden era (kind of like how writers and filmmakers have used Altamont as a metaphor for the death of 1960s hippie idealism). For the other end of his historic timeline, he (correctly) traces disco’s roots back to early 1970s gay club culture.

How disco morphed from a relatively ghettoized urban hipster scene to arrhythmic middle-American suburbanites striking their best Travolta pose is actually the most fascinating aspect of the documentary; although I wish he’d gone a little more in depth on the history rather than digging so furiously for a sociopolitical subtext in a place where one barely ever existed.

Kastner mixes archival footage with present day ruminations from some of the key artists, producers and club owners who flourished during the era. The “mockumentary” aspect I mentioned earlier is in the form of three actors (suspiciously resembling the Mod Squad) who represent shadowy puppet masters who may have orchestrated this “revolution” (it’s clearly designed to be humorous but it’s a distracting device that quickly wears out its welcome).

So was disco a political statement? When Kastner poses the question to genre superstars like Thelma Houston, Gloria Gaynor and Evelyn King, they look at him like he just took a shit in the punch bowl. Hell, he can’t even get any of the guys from the Village People to acknowledge that their wild success represented a subversive incursion of gay culture into the mainstream (they’re likely toying with him because he’s belaboring the obvious…”The Village People were camp?! I’m shocked! Stop the presses!”).

Well, here’s how I look at it. Dion singing “Abraham, Martin and John”? That’s a political statement. James Brown singing “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud”? That’s a political statement. Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman”? Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay”? Those are political statements. KC and the Sunshine Band singing “Get Down Tonight”? Not so much. And as for Kastner’s assertion that anyone who wore a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt back in the day (ahem) was obviously racist, homophobic and misogynistic, I would say this: I have never particularly cared for country music, either…so what does that make me in your book, Mr. Smarty Pants?

In search of the lost chord: Pianomania ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2011)

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Tuner sandwich: Stefan Knupfer at work in Pianomania

“It looks like you’re just poking around in there,” observes a young woman. “Yes,” replies Stefan Knupfer, with a shrug and a laugh, “…that’s exactly what I’m doing.” On one level, he is in fact just “poking around” the innards of an immense concert grand piano. However, as we come to learn from watching Pianomania, a new documentary from Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Herr Knupfer is being somewhat modest. He is actually engaging in a much more complex and esoteric endeavor: the art of piano tuning.

Cibis and Franck offer up a “year of the life” portrait of the affable Austrian piano technician, tagging along as he dashes around Europe in a company van (doggie in tow) to service Steinways for a bevy of world-class performers (including Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo). I admit that I had doubts going in regarding the subject matter (“That note sounds flat-can he tweak it to A-440 in time for the big concert? I’m on the edge of my seat!”). However, as it turns out, this pursuit of tonal perfection holds the dramatic elements of a classic “quest” narrative.

Knupfer must prepare two pianos (beginning nearly a year in advance) which will be used by Aimard for a recorded performance of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”. The fastidious Aimard isn’t asking for much…only that Knupfer adjust his instruments in such a way that affords him the option to call up the tonality of a clavichord, an organ and a harpsichord at will. The two artists (for the film bears out that the tuner is just as much an ‘artist’ as the performer) ensconce themselves onto the stage of Vienna’s Konzerthaus and set to work like a pair of mad scientists sweating over a formula.

Nothing fazes the cheerful Knupfer, with exception of a horrifying realization that his new hammerheads are off-size by 0.7 millimeter (prompting an uncharacteristic cry of “Shist!” from our intrepid hero). Knupfer is so empathetic with his client’s vision that when the performer makes a nebulous request like “less air!” he knows exactly what Aimard means (even if we don’t).

Knupfer’s infectious enthusiasm for his gig is a documentarian’s dream; especially when the camera is there for his frequent moments of creative inspiration. While helping Richard Hyung-Ki Joo and violinist Aleksey Igudesma brainstorm visual gags for one of their comedic performances, he comes up with an idea to replace a piano leg with a cheap yet still fully functional violin (in a very funny scene, Knupfer calls an instrument dealer and says he is looking for a violin that costs “like five Euros or something”, to which the dealer instinctively responds, “Do you want to smash it?”) Even the more serious work that he does inside the music box greatly benefits from his ability to constantly think outside the box, as it were (like bouncing tennis balls to temper the strings, for example).

I’m not a keyboard player, or frankly much of a classical piano fan (more of a guitar guy) yet I still found this film to be absorbing and entertaining . As credits rolled, I realized  I previously had no clue as to what a piano tuner  does; like a lot of folks I’ve always assumed it to be more on the technical, rather than creative side of the music.

I can relate to Knupfer’s obsessive nature; I’ve been known to zone out for two or three hours at a time “poking around” with pedal settings and amp adjustments in search of the “perfect” guitar tone. Some viewers may cry foul  that the filmmakers seem to have made a conscious decision not to reveal too much about Knupfer’s personal life. However, the pursuit of excellence and perfection in any field is an admirable endeavor, and  at the end of the day that’s really what the film is about. Sometimes, it not the music-it’s how you play it.

Confessions of a Beatle Fan, pt. 1: Living in the Material World ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 15, 2011)

In the Summer of ’67, I discovered two things that changed my life. As much as I would like to be able to tell you that it was body painting, and sex on acid…I can’t. Mainly because I had only recently turned 11. The first thing I discovered was Mad magazine (which undoubtedly explains a lot, to long-time readers). The second thing was record collecting. I still remember my very first vinyl purchase, blowing at least three months’ worth of allowance at the JCPenney in Fairbanks, Alaska. I purchased two LPs (at the whopping price of $3.98 each), and one 45 single. The LPs were Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the 45 was “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever”…all by that band that, you know… Paul McCartney used to be in before Wings.

Flash-forward about 35 years or so. I was enjoying my first visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. At the Beatles exhibit, I happened upon a glass case that contained some weathered pieces of paper with scribbles. I lingered over one in particular, which was initially tough to decipher, with all the crossed-out words and such:

But you know I know when it’s a bean”? Huh? It still wasn’t really registering as to what I was looking at (the mind plays funny tricks sometimes). However, when I got to: “I think I know I mean-er-yes, but it’s all wrong. That is I think I disagree” I realized, Oh.My.(Rock) God. This is John Lennon’s original handwritten draft of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I am bearing witness to the genesis of one my favorite songs. Here I stand, head in hand, with my eyes but inches away from a tangible manifestation of pure inspiration and genius. Suddenly, I panicked. Was I worthy enough to keep looking? Was my face going to melt, like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Belloq lifts the lid of the Sacred Object? “Don’t look at it, Marion!” I exclaimed, to no one in particular. At any rate, I was overcome; there was something profoundly moving about this experience.

Devoted Fabs fans may find themselves welling up a bit after viewing a slightly flawed yet still essential documentary from Martin Scorsese called George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which debuted on HBO last week. Clocking in at an epic three and-a-half hours (presented in two parts), it is the most in-depth cinematic portrait to date of “the quiet Beatle”. In fact, Scorsese (who, you may recall, memorably employed Harrison’s “What is Life” for one of the musical cues in Goodfellas) seems to be on a mission to prove otherwise. Harrison, we learn, not only had much to say, but was not shy about speaking his mind; he was no shrinking violet.

Nor did he necessarily spend all of his off-hours steeped in meditative Eastern spiritualism, strumming his sitar. He was, after all, a rock star; along with his three mates one of the most famous rock stars off all time, and wasn’t adverse to fully taking advantage of the perks at his disposal during the heights of Beatlemania. “He was a guy,” Paul McCartney offers coyly (referring to what one would imagine to be a lost decade of revelries that would probably make an ancient Roman blush). Harrison was very spiritual, but like any human being he was not perfect. Scorsese illustrates the dichotomy well, and it’s the most compelling element of his film.

Like its subject, the film is not 100% perfect. While nicely capturing the mood and the spirit of Harrison’s distinct musical eras (via a treasure trove of vintage footage, inter-cut with interviews) there is an occasional disconnect with the historical timeline (the uninitiated may be left craving more contextualization) There’s not too much 60s footage that I haven’t seen before (I’ve seen virtually everything Beatles). Still, Scorsese is such a great filmmaker, he makes what would seem a retread in lesser hands feel fresh and vital.

[Intermission]

Next Week: Top 10 Fab 4 Flicks! (same Beatles time, same Beatles station)

Big Star in heaven: RIP Alex Chilton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 20, 2010)

O My Soul:  Alex Chilton, 1951-2010

In the early to mid 70s, a then yet-to-be-named rock ‘n’ roll subgenre emerged. It was a sound that took chiming Beatlesque harmonies and jangly Roger Mcguinn chord shapes, threw in a dash of The Who, Small Faces and the Kinks, plugged it all into a Marshall stack and said all that it had to say in 3 minutes. Thusly, “power pop” was born. For my money, the Holy Trinity of its first wave was Badfinger, The Raspberries, and Big Star. The latter outfit proved to be the most influential, paving the way for bands like Cheap Trick, The Flamin’ Groovies and Pezband, kicking the door open for early 1980s New Wave power poppers like The Plimsouls, 20/20, The Records, The Shoes and The dBs.

Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton may not be a household name, but to power pop aficionados, he is an icon; I was saddened to hear of his death this week at age 59. I still get a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever a Big Star staple like “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, “September Gurls”, or “Back of a Car” pops up in my mp3 player’s shuffle. Anyone who has heard “The Letter” by his first band, the Boxtops will surely recognize his voice (unbelievably, the owner of those soulful pipes was only 16 at the time).

I once had the pleasure of seeing Chilton perform here in Seattle during a Big Star revival tour, with a lineup that included original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, along with local musicians Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies (one of the better contemporary power pop bands). It was a magical evening, with the 50-ish Chilton demonstrating to the crowd that he still had “it”. Please join me, as we bow our heads for a four-chord salute:

In the loose palace of exile: When You’re Strange ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2010)

Just another band from L.A.

I can still remember the first time I heard “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors. I was all of 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. Even though it wasn’t a movie, it was my introduction to film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes and dangerous rhythms. “There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.”  Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.

I’ll tell you this-it sure as hell didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the time (especially considering that it squeaked in at #99 on Billboard’s Top 100 for 1971, sandwiched between the Fifth Dimension’s “One Less Bell to Answer” and Perry Como’s “It’s Impossible”). Jim Morrison’s vocals really got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick.

By the time “Riders on the Storm” hit the charts, the Doors had begun, for all intents and purpose, to dissolve as a band; Morrison had left the U.S. to embark on an open-ended sabbatical in France. When he was found dead in his Parisian apartment in July of 1971 at age 27, it was no longer a matter of speculation-the Doors, Mk 1 were History.

But what a history-in the 4 ½ years that keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Krieger, drummer John Densmore and lead vocalist Jim Morrison enjoyed an artistic collaboration, they produced six timelessly resonant studio albums and the classic Absolutely Live (which still holds up as one of the best live albums ever by a rock band). They are also one of the first bands to successfully bridge deeply avant-garde sensibilities with popular commercial appeal. It was Blake and Rimbaud…that you could dance to.

There have been a fair number of books about the band over the years; a few in the scholarly vein but chiefly of the “tell-all” variety. Like many Doors fans, my introduction to the Jim Morrison legend came from reading No One Here Gets Out Alive many moons ago. The book was co-authored by journalist Jerry Hopkins and Doors insider Danny Sugarman. In retrospect, it may not be the most objective or insightful overview of what the band was really about, but it is a wildly entertaining read.

That was the same takeaway I got from Oliver Stone’s way over-the-top 1991 biopic, The Doors. Interestingly, I found his film to be nowhere nearly as “cinematic” as the Doors music has always felt to me (Francis Ford Coppola nailed it-it’s all there in the first 10 minutes of Apocalypse Now).

Surprisingly, it has taken until 2010, 45 years (!) after UCLA film students Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek first starting kicking around the idea of forming a band, for a proper full-length documentary feature about The Doors to appear, Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange.

You’ll notice I said, “about The Doors”. Stone’s aforementioned film ultimately lost its way as a true portrait of the band, I believe, because it was too myopically fixated on the Jim Morrison legend; Morrison the Lizard King, the Dionysian rock god, the drunken poet, the shaman. Yes, he was all of that (perhaps more of a showman than a shaman), but he was only 25% of the equation that made The Doors…well, The Doors. That’s what I like about DiCillo’s film; he doesn’t gloss over the contributions of the other three musicians.

In fact, one of the things you learn in the film is that Morrison himself always insisted that all songwriting credits go to “The Doors” as an entity, regardless of which band member may have had the dominant hand in the composition of any particular song (when you consider that Morrison couldn’t read a note, that’s a pragmatic stance for him to take). The band’s signature tune, the #1 hit “Light My Fire” was actually composed by Robbie Krieger-and was allegedly the first song he ever wrote (talk about beginner’s luck). He’s a damn fine guitar player too (he was trained in flamenco, and had only been playing electric for 6 months at the band’s inception).

Manzarek and Densmore were no slouches either; they had a classical and jazz background, respectively. When you piece these snippets together along with Morrison’s interests in poetry, literature, film and improvisational theatre (then sprinkle in a few tabs of acid) you finally begin to get a picture of why this band had such a unique vibe. They’ve been copied, but never equaled.

The film looks to have been a labor of love by the director. Johnny Depp provides the narration, and DiCillo has assembled some great footage; it’s all well-chosen, sensibly sequenced and beautifully edited. Although there are a fair amount of clips and stories that will qualify as old hat to Doors aficionados (the “Light My Fire” performance on the Sullivan Show, the infamous Miami concert “riot”, etc.), there is a treasure trove of rare footage.

One fascinating clip shows the band in the studio constructing the song “Wild Child” during the sessions for The Soft Parade. I would have been happy to watch an entire reel of that; I’m a real sucker for films like Sympathy for the Devil, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii and Let It Be, which offer a glimpse at the actual creative process.

The real revelation is the interwoven excerpts from Morrison’s experimental 1969 film HWY: An American Pastoral, which I’ve never had an opportunity to screen. Although it is basically a bearded Morrison driving around the desert (wearing his trademark leather pants), it’s mesmerizing, surreal footage. DiCillo must have had access to a pristine master print, because it looks like it was shot last week. It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I realized this wasn’t one of those dreaded recreations, utilizing a lookalike. As a matter of fact, Morrison has never appeared so “alive” on film. It’s eerie.