Tag Archives: On Music

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.

SIFF 2009: Telstar ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

It’s weird kismet that I screened Telstar, a new biopic about the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967), just one day after a judge sentenced the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Phil Spector (whose career abruptly ended when he shot actress Lana Clarkson) to a term of 19 years to life.

Similar to his U.S.  counterpart, the British-born Meek also reached his creative peak in the early 60s, and developed a signature studio “sound” that set his song productions apart from virtually everyone else’s. While the two shared an equally unpredictable and mercurial temperament, they were innovative in mutually exclusive ways. Spector’s much-heralded, signature “Wall of Sound” was generated by utilizing elaborate “live” sessions, involving large groups of musicians, state-of-the-art studios and a huge echo chamber.

Meek, on the other hand, recorded piecemeal, and produced most of his legacy in a tiny home studio, set up in a modest London flat. He would isolate musicians in different rooms in order to achieve very specific sounds for each instrument or vocal track, often utilizing overdubbing (SOP these days, but not at that time). Completely untrained (and unskilled) as a musician, his sonic experimentation was fueled by his obsession with outer space and informed by musical tonalities that came from, well, “beyond”; his resulting forays have secured him a place as a pioneer in electronic music.

(OK, now engaging Music Geek Mode). One of my prized CDs is I Hear a New World-which was written, produced and conceived by Joe Meek (and recorded by “Rod Freeman and the Blue Men”) which I described as follows in a 2003 review that I published on Amazon:

Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson drop acid in a recording studio on the dark side of the moon, and the resulting session yields something that sounds very much like this long lost Joe Meek album. “I Hear a New World” was a more literal title than you might think, as the voices in his head were soon to drown out the sounds of the Muse for the tragically doomed Meek… Informed music fans will intuit snippets of templates here and there for the Residents, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or even more recent offerings from Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. The fact that Meek bore a spooky physical resemblance to director David Lynch certainly adds fuel to his already eerie aura.

Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless, flamboyant performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his stage role as the tortured Meek).

In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are infused with a door-slamming exuberance and manic musical energy that I haven’t seen since the memorable opening salvo of Julien Temple’s love letter to London’s late 50s pop scene, Absolute Beginners. Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes are more akin to the denouement in Taxi Driver. Then again, if you are already familiar with the story of Meek’s trajectory into paranoia and madness, you go into this film with the foreknowledge that it is not likely to have a happy ending.

The bulk of the film delves into elements of  Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (that didn’t happen). In fact, one of Meek’s greatest tragedies was how he squandered much of his potential with missed opportunities, unfortunate judgment calls and misdirected energies. For example, Meek once turned down an opportunity to produce some sessions for a certain (then relatively unknown) Merseyside combo managed by a Mr. Brian Epstein.

I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on portraying Meek’s genius in the studio, but you can’t have everything.S till, I got a kick out of the vivid recreations of performances by early 60s rock luminaries like Gene Vincent and Screamin’ Lord Sutch (who was a major influence on Alice Cooper). It’s during those moments (and the sporadic glimpses of Meek working his studio magic) that the film really comes alive. O’Neill’s performance is a real tour-d-force.

Tom Burke is also quite good as the oddball Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and provides some much-needed levity) as Meek’s long-suffering session drummer, Clem Cattini. The ubiquitous Kevin Spacey (who is featured in at least 3 SIFF entries this year) is also on hand in a small but memorable role as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.

Electric Kool-Aid acid reflux: Taking Woodstock ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 5, 2009)

Bob & Carol & Ted &…uh, has anyone seen Alice?

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that  old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

 That summer seemed to last forever
and if I had the choice
Yeah – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

 Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really there, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead ?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

 By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

My point is, there’s always been a disconnect between “Woodstock”  the romanticized representation of a generation, and the actual “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” event that took place near Bethel, New York in August of 1969. In other words, can “anybody” who was of a certain age and mindset in 1969 rightfully claim (like Joni) that they were “there”, in spirit, and that it was a beautiful, groovy thing?

Or, did you have to physically attend the event, parking miles away, slogging through a muddy sea of humanity, with only a slim chance of getting close enough to the stage to identify who was playing?

And in spite of the impression given by Michael Wadleigh in his brilliant rock doc, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (whittled down from over 300 hours of footage into a 4-hour film), the sound system reportedly left much to be desired, and many of the bands (by their own admission) did not give career best performances.

None of the main characters in Taking Woodstock get that close to the stage, either (although some do ingest certain substances, play in the mud and take a figurative wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of 1969). For the most part, Lee doesn’t set out to just reenact the grand canvas of the event as has already been depicted in Wadleigh’s iconic documentary (what would be the point?).

Instead, he has opted for a far more intimate approach, based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber, who helped broker the deal between the producers of the music festival and the Bethel Town Board to hold the event there after the permits were refused for the originally intended location in the nearby  town of Wallkill, N.Y.

Elliot is played by stand-up comic/first time leading man Demetri Martin (a former writer for Conan O’Brien who you will most likely recognize from sporadic appearances on The Daily Show).

In 1969, he is living in the Village in N.Y.C., eking out a living as an interior designer. When it becomes clear that his aging parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are overextending themselves trying to  keep their Catskills motel business afloat as the bank threatens foreclosure, Elliot heads back home upstate to become their Man Friday. Serendipity eventually puts Elliot face-to-face with concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff).

Seeing little more than an opportunity to sell out the motel for a few weeks and give the business some much-needed cash flow, Elliot (having no idea that he is playing a pivotal role in enabling what is destined to become  the high-water mark of the 60s counterculture movement) introduces Lang to a local farmer, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who has some spacious fields that might fit the bill.

There is some resistance to overcome from grumpy neighboring farmers, as well as consternation from a local Town Board members about the idea of their sleepy hamlet being overrun by a bunch of Dirty Fucking Hippies (this part of the tale takes on a Footloose vibe).

“Dramedies” can be tricky. Too much drama curdles the comedy. Too much comedy can sabotage dramatic tension. Unfortunately, Lee’s film takes a fair stab at both but doesn’t fully succeed at either, leaving you with the cinematic equivalent of tepid dishwater. There are also a few  intriguing backstories hinted at, but never explored.

That being said, there are a couple decent sequences; particularly a protracted vignette in which Elliot,  trying to work his way closer toward the stage, gets waylaid by a mellow couple, camped out in their VW van. The pair, played with doe-eyed blissfulness by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner invite Elliot aboard for a nice little trip (which doesn’t involve any actual driving-wink wink). It’s a very sweet little interlude, beautifully played by all three young actors.

If you are really hell-bent to skinny-dip in nostalgia, you needn’t scratch your head over Taking Woodstock. Dim all the lights, plug in the lava lamp, light up the bong, then “take Woodstock” (the original documentary) off the shelf. All together now:  “Gimme an ‘F’…”

Punk is a feeling: The Gits ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 19, 2008)

 

Viva Zapata: Mia and her fans, circa 1991.

In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP) , a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.

What I didn’t realize until several years following my  7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana, but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.

One of the countless bands that migrated to Seattle during the city’s brief and shining heyday as America’s D.I.Y Mecca was a quartet hailing from Ohio, who called themselves The Gits (in honor of a Monty Python sketch). Led by talented singer-songwriter Mia Zapata, the band mixed the aggressive melodic punch of L.A.’s X with the art-punk lyricism of San Francisco’s Romeo Void. Zapata’s powerful, bluesy Janis Joplin-meets-Exene Cervenka vocal delivery and charismatic stage presence made her a formidable front woman, and the band quickly gained a strong local following.

They also soon gained the attention of local music producers, and were on the verge of being courted by some of the major labels, when it all came crashing to earth with a resounding thud. In the summer of 1993, Mia Zapata was beaten, raped and killed, her body unceremoniously dumped in a vacant lot. Her murder remained unsolved until an astounding break in the case in 2003 helped bring her killer to justice (thanks to advancements in DNA forensics).

Her frighteningly random and brutal murder not only had a profoundly disheartening and long-lasting effect on Seattle’s incestuous music community, but at the time, symbolically represented the beginning of the end for the city’s burgeoning music renaissance; it was sort of the grunge era’s Altamont, if you will.

In their documentary The Gits (available on DVD), super-fans and first time filmmakers Kerri O’Kane (director) and Jessica Bender (producer) have constructed an engrossing, genuinely moving portrait of the band and Zapata’s legacy. When O’Kane and Bender were doing initial research for their project, they began snapping up all the Gits memorabilia they could get their hands on, acquiring much of it via eBay, and mostly through one particular seller.

That person turned out to be the band’s drummer, who was beginning to wonder who these two particularly obsessed fans were. This eventually led to full cooperation from the surviving band members, after they were assured that O’Kane and Bender weren’t a couple of weird stalkers.. This was a legitimate concern due to the fact that Zapata’s killer was then still unknown and presumably still at large. Thus began a six year labor of love for the pair.

The first half  is devoted to Gits’ history, beginning with their formation at Antioch College in Ohio in 1986. By the time they moved to Seattle in 1989, the band had developed a sonic sensibility more simpatico with  punk rock than it was to the trendy “grunge” sound of the time (speaking as an “old school” rock fan, grunge always sounded like warmed-over Blue Cheer or Sabbath to me, while punk was closer to the spirit of The MC5 and The Ramones).

O’Kane does a nice job encapsulating their Seattle years with well-chosen performance clips and archival photos. Interviews with the band, their friends and members of Mia’s family are supplemented by recollections from professional peers like Joan Jett and members of 7 Year Bitch, an all-female Seattle band who were generously mentored by the Gits (and ironically, signed by a major label long before their more musically accomplished mentors were “discovered” themselves). The music business is a harsh mistress.

The second half of the film deals with Zapata’s death. To their credit, the filmmakers don’t exploit the sensationalist aspects of the crime or dwell on all the gory details of the murder itself. Instead, they take the high road and examine the profound effect her loss had on her family, friends, fans and fellow members of the music community.

The sensitive and respectful handling of the latter part of the story ultimately accentuates what lies at the heart of a film that could have been a real downer: an inspiring portrait of a group of close friends truly committed to each other, their music and their fans. With all the soulless pap oozing from the music charts and Stepford Idol marionettes warbling their glorified karaoke at us from our Empty Vee these days, it’s enough to give one a glimmer of hope that, somewhere out there in the ether, there will always be someone making Music That Matters (I can always dream, can’t I?)

O’Kane even manages to find and highlight one bittersweet “positive” (for want of a better word) that resulted from the tragedy, which was the formation of Home Alive, an anti-violence non-profit organization that is perhaps best described by the mission statement posted on their website:

Home Alive is a Seattle based anti-violence non-profit organization that offers affordable self-defense classes and provides public education and awareness. We believe violence prevention is a community responsibility as well as an individual issue. Our work in self-defense encourages everyone to recognize their entitlement to the basic human right to live free from violence and hate. Our goal is to build a cultural and social movement that puts violence in a context of political, economic and social oppression, and frames safety as a human right.

Sounds like a damn fine plan to me. Now, if we just could convince the rest of the world to start acting so…punk rock.