Tag Archives: On Music

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

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 the more soap opera-ish aspects of Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with his protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (the plan didn’t work). 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. The most well-known example is reenacted, which is the time that Meek 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.

Still, 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-de-force, and he is ably supported by some other fine turns, particularly from Tom Burke, who plays the supremely odd and spooky Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve some of those pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and frequently 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 as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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 socio-political commentator trots out that tired 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 (duh!)?”

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 (drum roll please): 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.

I suppose my point is, there’s always been a disconnect between the “Woodstock” that has morphed over the last 40 years into a highly romanticized representation of the ideals of a specific 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 anyone who was of a certain age and shared mindset in 1969 rightfully claim (like Joni) that they were “there”, in spirit, and that it was a beautiful 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 (which was carefully whittled down from over 300 hours of footage into the 4-hour distillation we all know and love), the sound system reportedly left much to be desired, and many of the bands (by their own admission) did not give career best performances (the ingestion of certain substances may have, er, played a role).

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 his 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 to him that his aging parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are overextending themselves trying to singlehandedly keep their flagging 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, who captures his real-life counterpart’s shrewdly manipulative charm and angelic inscrutability to a tee).

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 seen as the high-water mark event of the 60s counterculture movement) introduces Lang to alocal 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). The rest, as they say, is History.

“Dramedies” can be a tricky business. Too much drama can curdle the comedy. Too much comedy can sabotage any dramatic tension in the piece. 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. That being said, there are a couple decent sequences; particularly a protracted scene in which Elliot, wandering the outskirts of the massive crowd and trying to work his way closer toward the distant stage, gets waylaid by a mellow couple who are camped out in their (wait for it) VW van. The couple (played with requisite doe-eyed blissfulness by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) invite Elliot aboard for a nice little trip (which doesn’t involve any actual driving- nudge nudge wink wink). It’s a well staged, very sweet little interlude, beautifully played by all three young actors.

However, one well-executed vignette doth not a great two hour film make (is that proper English, or am I still high?). There are some good supporting performances; Liev Schreiber does an admirable turn in an underwritten role as a cross-dressing ex-Marine (don’t ask-just think John Lithgow in The World According to Garp) and Levy is so engaging as Max Yasgur that I wish they had given him a few more scenes to play . One notable misfire is the casting of the usually dependable Emile Hirsch, whose cliche (and ill-advised) portrayal of a Vietnam vet resurrects the pre-Coming Home movie stereotype of the shell-shocked loon screaming “Incoming!” and hitting the dirt every time a car backfires. There are also a few possible  intriguing dramatic sidebars that are hinted out, but never fully explored.

For example, Lee (and screenwriter James Schamus) take pains to telegraph that Elliot is on the verge of reaching some sort of epiphany about his sexuality, and his own sense of liberation and growing feelings of empowerment as a (gay? bisexual?) man, but then underplay it to the point where you’re left asking questions. Is he about to come out to his parents? Or is he is still struggling with coming out to himself? Elliot is a gay man, living in Greenwich Village in 1969. Surely he was at least cognizant of the Stonewall riots that very summer (not to mention the burgeoning gay lib movement)? Is it even intended that we concern ourselves with this, or is it just incidental to the story? If you are really hell-bent to skinny-dip in 40th anniversary 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 (I know you own a copy, you DFH liberal pinko!). All together now:

Gimme an ‘F’…”

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

By Dennis Hartley

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 this morning? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set off 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 musical tightness and 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 a carefully preserved saliva sample taken from the crime scene and advancements in DNA forensics technology). 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 a new documentary simply entitled 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 serendipity eventually led to the full cooperation of all the surviving band members, after they were fully assured that O’Kane and Bender weren’t a couple of weird stalker fan types. 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 of the film is devoted to the history of the band, 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 that was more simpatico with classic punk rock than it was to the trendy “grunge” sound of the time (speaking strictly 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, some of 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. Much 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.