Sunday, June 8, 2014

DVD Review: Suzanne Vega Live – Solitude Standing

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

 

Suzanne Vega Live: Solitude Standing
Wienerworld / Windrose / Minimum Fax Media
62 minutes, 2014       
www.wienerworld.com
www.mvdvisual.com

Sandwiched between the Phillip Glass and Rosy Parker period in the early-mid ‘80s and Zooey Dashenall of the modern era, singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega was known as what would probably be called today “Williamsburg cool.”

She definitely had “a look” that was as immediately identifiable as Patti Smith’s white shirt and half-opened tie. For Vega it was a long-tail jacket over a plain uncollared-shirt, straight shoulder length hair (sometimes tied in a mini-ponytail) and bangs, pokey ears that held the hair out of her eyes, and those cheekbones and killer dimples. She also has a voice that is idiosyncratic and immediately identifiable. She is everything that Liz Phair was hyped to be that never materialized.

Back in the day, she would perform often around New York City, in hipper, intimate showcases, as well as some of the mid-sized venues, like actors who play in mainstream films to pay for their theater projects. Everything about Vega said cool. If she was born in another era, she probably would have been the darling of the Beat poetry set or the flappers.

Thanks to MTV, she rose above the “in-the-know” crowd and had some major hits on her hands, such as “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.” That gave her the leverage to do what she wanted.

As someone who tours often, she played at the Rome Auditorium in 2003, sharing the stage with electric bassist Mike Visceglia and Italian singer-songwriter Valerio Piccolo.  The gig, presented in its entirety, shows Vega playing her acoustic, and between some songs, she reads short poems that Piccolo translates into Italian.

He also translates Vega’s song descriptions before she sings, and boy, she has not lost a thing over time. She sounds as sharp as ever, and her pieces retain all their punch. One of the themes of Vega’s output is minutitude. Okay, that isn’t really a word, but it’s time it was coined. They are slices of life, but looking at a small moment that effects a lifetime. It could be an event, and emotion, a dream (of caramel and cinnamon), a computer game, almost anything. I would posit it’s sort of a version of chaos theory, but done in a beautiful form. She even describes her own life in this way, in her poem “Anti-Hero,” saying that her voice (i.e., poetry) is a small one but deserves to be heard.

I don’t know how fair this is, and is not meant as a negative but as a descriptor, but I always thought of Vega as the “anti-Laurie Anderson,” or to put it another way, where Anderson is digital, Vega is analog, her voice like a warm blanket, or honey that coats her words as she projects them out to her audience. As you wade through her songs, be it about first love or a battlefield – or, yes, child abuse – she makes you feel like you have wind in your hair and you are floating just a little bit above your seat. Sometimes the contrast between this and the song subjects are more counterpoint than with the grain, which makes them stand out all the more.  “Left of Center” probably says this about her life better than I could, being it’s in her own words, as she puts down her guitar and is backed strongly by the bass.

Along with new songs, such as “Solitaire,” she also does “Gypsy” and, after an audience request, “The Queen and the Soldier.” She seems very comfortable on stage as she goes though the numbers, acknowledging both Piccolo and Visceglia, sometimes checking to see if they are keeping up. Yes, she does her two biggest hits at the end, and while they sound great, I’m sure there will be those who just want to hear them due to familiarity, but I strongly recommend sitting down, and paying attention, as it will be worth your while. Here, I actually prefer this version of “Tom’s Diner,” which is a cappella, with handclaps and whistles as accompaniment. I always though her voice and message became lost in all the stuff going on behind her on the record, for which she deserves better.

There is an interesting 12-minute interview of her by Piccolo in the extras, basically stating she would probably not be comfortable with the beginning of this review, as she does not like people discussing the way she looks. That being said, her appearance is so iconic, one is hard pressed to do otherwise. There are a number of topics covered, and the interview flies by as she talks about her music, her poetry, and her perspective. There is also a repetitive slideshow that lasts less than 4 minutes over the “Tom’s Diner” hit rather than the live one here.

Whether you prefer to describe her as folk, modern folk, singer-songwriter, or hipster goddess, it’s all good. Her messages are worth hearing, and she presents them in a manner that is pleasing to the ear (and, sorry Suzanne, the eye). Get your “doo-do-do-do” on and give a listen.

Song list:
Marlene on a High
How to Make a Poem (poem)
Small Blue Thing
Caramel
Italy in Spring (poem)
Some Journey
Penitent
When Heroes Go Down
Anti-Hero (poem)
Gypsy
Left of Center
Solitaire
The Queen and the Soldier
In Liverpool (poem)
In Liverpool
Luka
Tom’s Diner

 


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4lQJMPoVGg

Friday, May 30, 2014

DVD Review: All Access Edition of Hard Core Logo; Hard Core Logo 2

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

For this “All Access Edition,” the Hard Core Logo film has been joined with its sequel onto a single blu-ray disk. Not having a blu-ray player, it took me a while to get to these, but thanks to my friend Wilf, as they say in the Canadian prairies, I was able to “get ‘er done.”

                            
Hard Core Logo
Directed by Bruce McDonald  
Video Services Corp.                            
92 minutes, 1996 / 2012
www.videoservicescorp.com      
www.MVDvisual.com

It’s been well over 10 years since I’ve seen this film, and I had forgotten how brilliant it is. Yeah, I’m showing my hand at the beginning.

For those who have not seen it, and you really must without seeing too many clips and ruin it, I guarantee you will be impressed on so many levels. This is a fake documentary (not a “mockumentary” because it does not make fun of these characters, it explores them) about a Vancouver hardcore band called, well, Hard Core Logo. They’re on tour heading through the Rockies to play Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and finally Edmonton. Like Henry Rollins’ book Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag (1994), or Joey “Shithead” Keithley’s  I, Shithead: A Life in Punk (2003), the film explores their lives playing and traveling on the tour.

There is a lot of tension within this group, who had broken up and have reformed just for this tour of duty. They all have their own issues (anger, hope, drugs and schizophrenia [aka lack of drugs]), and we get to know each one intimately, and even with their fucked up personality tics, we care about them, as they are framed in director Bruce McDonald’s vision, who plays himself as the director of this meta feature.

The acting is simply superb from beginning to end. There is no wondering if this band is real, like in Josie and the Pussycats, these guys bring it. The main focus of the story is on the lead singer/guitarist Joe Dick, a rough and tumble punker with a Mohawk, played by Hugh Dilon, nearly unrecognizable in his later and award winning role as the bald cop on the television series, Flashpoint.  It’s not surprising he brings such reality to the role as he actually fronted a hardcore band called the Headstones, who released six albums. Making Dick fearsome and also adding some pathos is worth applauding.

Dick started the band with lead guitarist Billy Tallent, engagingly played by Callum Keith Rennie, who would go on to many, many credits, including regular stints in Battlestar Gallactica and Californication. The love and tension felt between these two is palpable, and they keep dancing between keeping the band going and disbanding again.

John Pyper-Furgeson is soulful as the twitchy and poet bassist, John Oxenberger (the only one without a nom de band), and Bernie Coulson plays Pipefitter, a drummer so in Keith Moon territory that he no longer remembers his real name. Both of these characters are on the edge in different ways for opposite reasons, but they are given life by these two actors so that they are not support roles, but rather presented equally by McDonald.

One of my favorite characters is Dick’s mentor, Bucky Haight (get it?), chilling presented by Julian Richings. With all the strong characters in this film, Richings’ unusual looks and sheer strength makes him stand out even among a cast of this caliber.

How good is everyone in this film? All one needs to do is check out the sheer girth of the actor’s credits, which in itself speaks in volumes. Sure it’s a nearly all boys film (other than a groupie with a possible secret past and a couple of girlfriends who barely last a scene), but… punk rawk!! Sorry, I panicked.

McDonald doesn’t use stereotypical and cliché shots of the band, he lets his imagination go wild and has four frames with the band members talking at once, he sneaks around, and he even breaks documentary protocol and becomes a key part of the narrative at once point, sort of like the “crew” of the fake Belgian documentary Man Bites Dog (Belgian; also worth seeing, FYI), as he gets swept up in the band’s personae.

I didn’t get a chance to see the extras, unfortunately, but they include a commentary track by McDonald, music video and an obscure trailer. I couldn’t really tell the difference between blu-ray and – er – regular ray, but that should not stop you for a second from choosing to see this.

From beginning to shocking end, this is a beautiful film, easily one of the best rock’n’roll fiction films to date (though there are some real musicians, such as Joey Ramone, and bands, such as D.O.A., in the film as themselves). Even if you’re not into hardcore, this is a fascinating study of a band of, well, not exactly brothers. And yes, that is a cover of the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" at the end of the trailer.

 
Hard Core Logo 2
Directed by Bruce McDonald  
Video Services Corp.                            
100 minutes, 2010 / 2012
www.videoservicescorp.com      
www.MVDvisual.com

Whatever wonders director Bruce McDonald picked up from making Hard Core Logo, apparently somewhere in the 15 years between that and this sequel, he apparently has if not lost it, then certainly had it misplaced.

Actually, it might have been traded for his ego. You see, even though this supposed documentary is about an actual band from Toronto called Die Mannequin, fronted by Caroline “Care Failure” Kawa, who play themselves within the framework of the film, they don’t seem to be in it much. The fiction part is that Failure believes herself to be possessed by the spirit of Joe Dick.

For the film, McDonald joins up with fictional filmmaker and Wiccan nut Liz Moore (Shannon Jardine) and heads out to film Die Mannequin as they record an album at Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan (at a town called Watrous), a place I’ve been to a few times. We see the hot springs (a truly wonderful, if sulfuric smelling and tasting place), and the infamous Dancehall, where most of the “action” takes place.

The key problem is that whereas with the previous release, we get to know and care about each of the four members of the band Hard Core Logo, now the key character of the film is McDonald himself, and personally, I couldn’t care less about him.  This premise was handled better in the true documentary, It’s About You (2010), where filmmaker Kurt Marcus becomes the locus of his following a super rock star, thankfully making it more interesting than its subject, the overrated John Mellencamp.  I was more interested in Die Mannequin than the person behind – and too often in front of – the camera in this case.

Even though the members of Die Mannequin are its actual musicians, we learn almost nothing about them, including its supposed center and front person, Care Bea…I mean Failure. As the (lack of) action happens, we hear McDonald’s narrative and it ignores what the film is supposed to be about. There was a level of excitement and danger in the first film, but here we get to see the drummer get annoyed because he has to go get Care out of her rented cabin. Ooooooo. More attention is paid to Anthony “Useless” Bleed, the (real) bassist who, in the story here, has left the band, than to the other “current” members. There is a shot of him in a kitchen of what is hinted to be Saskatoon’s infamous Amigos Cantina (where I saw D.O.A. play a couple of years ago), though none of the film is actually shot in that city. None of this is the fault of Die Mannequin, but rests squarely on the shoulders of the ego-burdened director.
 
Oh, as a sidebar, why would the band fly into Regina and drive two-and-a-half hours up to Watrous, when they could have flown into Saskatoon, which is only 45 minutes away, especially in the dead of winter?

Another annoying element of the film is its heightened religious undertone, though not for or against. You have the aforementioned Wiccans, a Christian television show that McDonald directs (with a nod to Gary Glitter), Bleed wearing a tee-shirt for a non-defunct Canadian Christian-based puppet show, and Failure is always wearing numerous crosses (which she apparently does in real life, as well). This all was a major distraction to the story, what ridiculously little there was of it.

There was little of the amazing camerawork and editing of the first film, no tension whatsoever, and such a total misdirection, that even the only resurrection from the previous release, other than McDonald and interspersed clips, Julian Richings as Bucky Haight, is lost and wasted. As we watched it, we kept waiting for something-anything to happen. To give you an example of the lack of imagination present, the last shot of Failure and Bleed is of them leaning against a large dumpster that is almost identical to the iconic shot from the film Sid and Nancy (1986). The entire ending of this film is a groaner and cop-out.

At the end of the credits for the film, there is a notice about how the film was funded by the province of Saskatchewan film board. The current premier of the province has cancelled this, coarsely constricting any future large-scale film industry. Reminding me of that got me more agitated than the entire rest of the 100 minutes that had just passed..

After watching the original Hard Core Logo, I can understand why someone would want to see the supposed sequel, but I have to say, it won’t be worth it. Also, I will not put up the trailer for this film because it has too many spoilers in it for both films. Even that was a failure. Instead, I will put up a clip of Die Mannequin, which is not related this film at all.

 

Bonus Clip:

 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

DVD Review: Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet


Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony
Directed by Laurent Malaquais
87 minutes, 2013    
www.broniedoc.com
www.mvdvisual.com

You know, we live in pretty amazing times. I remember going to the first ever Star Trek convention at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, back in the early 1970s. I’ve been to comic cons, rock cons, and horror cons. I’ve always been amazed at the dedication of fans for a particular topic.

As time has passed, the subject of cons has become more focused, including anime, porn (yep, the AVN in Las Vegas, and no, I’ve never been), and I have a cousin and aunt who used to go from Edmonton to New York to attend a con for a soap opera.

These kinds of cons are similar to trade shows and in some ways use them as a model. There are products to be tested and bought, meet with people in the same industry (or same interest), and make some backroom deals (I’ve saw an interesting mass buy of bootlegs in years gone by in the rooms, though for the life of me I can’t remember who was involved 30 years later). The difference is there is a larger element of talent. For example, at a plumbing show, they may hire a Kardashian to get the guys sweaty, but for a con, it’s more artistic and people who are actually associated in some aspect with product (for example, at a Beatles con, I saw a presentation by their limo driver, Alf Bicknell).

One socially interesting aspect of these cons I find is that most of the ones I’ve been to started out as mostly male fan boys, and as time went on, more and more women joined in (with the exception of the Beatles and Monkees cons run by Charles F. Rosenay!!! [sic] in Connecticut, which has always been pretty even). Sort of like how Penny is starting to quote Star Trek more on Big Bang Theory.

A more recent fixation that has laser focused into the form of conference loci is a show meant for the demographics of young girls, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. However, the die-hard fans of this show seem to be male, ranging from teens to full grown adults. And that is the focus of the film.

Right off the bat, the director, Laurent Malaquais, wisely addresses the core issues by presenting visual soundbites of people being interviewed who are not fans of the show, stating how if men like the series, they must be pedophiles, gay, or mentally ill.

It is on this question that we are introduced to a collection of Bronies (that’s a mixture of Bro and ponies, so it’s pronounced broh-nies not brown-nees) from all over the world, including the US (Maine and North Carolina), Germany, Holland and even Israel. We meet these guys (and in one case a girlfriend equally devoted to the show) and their families, who occasionally struggle to understand just what is the male fascination of a tween girl show.

It is interesting to see how these guys are outsiders who have found a single thing to be fascinated by that is just outside the accepted norm (remember when punk was like that before the jocks joined?). The most noteworthy to me is the gender blending. A question that is raised in the film at nearly the half-way point, which is the most germane to me, is that wonder of what it is about males enjoying a female show that other members of society find so scary; would it be the same if a girl would be fascinated by, say, GI Joe?

As for the female fans? This, too, is addressed in the documentary, in My Little Pony adapted cartoon form, stating that even though ‘bro” is used at the beginning of the term brony, it also applies to female fans, as well, and is not proprietary. Good to know.

Personally, I find the whole idea of this level of this type of obsession interesting. I mean, I have my own, which are varied (just look though this blog), but even my devotions pale in comparison. There are, of course, unhealthy fixations when something becomes too much of power thing (jingoism, some religious zeal, some sports fanaticism, the occasional star fandom), and then there are healthier ones that become outlets. In the case of the Bronies, their focus – at least the people in this documentary – is the same as the show: friendship can conquer anything, positive triumphs over the  negative, and the like. For some who are lonely, or are in need of something in their lives, this positive message is important, no matter where it comes from, and if it’s accompanied by music (remember the psalms?), it can go a longer way. When you are feeling like a misfit, a kinship is also an opiate of the masses. This can also work in other ways within culture, such as music.

The star of this documentary, and yes it does have one, is John De Lancie. You know, the guy who played Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Apparently, as a once forgotten gig, he voiced Discord, the “evil” character that is defeated by the positive energy of the ponies. Since then, he has been embraced by the Bronies (One of us! One of us!) and has taken the role as a symbol of the movement, helping to mentor the younger ones. Here, he comforts a conservative dad to help him see that being a Brony doesn’t mean his 16 year old son is not a man.

Most of the other voice actors are interviewed individually, but the main focus is on Lauren Faust, who created the show, and Tara Strong (landsman!), the Canadian who voices the central character. They swirl around the Bronies at the New York Brony Con, lighting up faces along with Lancie, who really seems to be enjoying himself. He even voices the animated wraparound musical pieces of this film.

But the New York con is not the only one we take a boo on. There’s also one in Manchester, and another in Stuttgart. The theme to all of them is peace, harmony, being good to one another. And buying plushies and posters.

The third act of the documentary is also about focusing outward, as well as in. We see how one of the aims of the cons is to raise money for charities, and to promote original art and music (with a Ponies theme). The viewer meets musicians, laser artists, and some with the talent to draw the Ponies in ways that make others very, very happy. People dance, they jump, they fist bump and hug, and mostly they let everyone be themselves, including the 60 or so Bronies from the US Armed Forces. In other words, everything Robert Bly was trying to accomplish in the 1980s.

The two extras are interviews with voice talents and an overview of the BUCK con in the U.K. (6 min.) and the Galacon in Germany (10 min.) Both are well paced and varied enough to keep it going.

While it may be a bit of a head scratcher as to why, especially as I am not a Brony myself (is there a My Little Ramonie?), this is definitely a feel good film from beginning to end. Yes, it could have been a bit shorter, but love is all around, and watching this may make you 20% cooler.

 
 

 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dive! Dive!

My apologies for the delay in new reviews, etc. My hard drive crashed and I am in the process of getting the recovered.  And, may I say sincerely, siiiiiiigh.


I'll get back to ya!

Monday, March 10, 2014

DVD Review: Lou Reed Tribute: The DVD Collection * 3 Disc Set

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010-2014
Images from the Internet

 
                            
Lou Reed Tribute: The DVD Collection * 3 Disc Set
Chrome Dreams
279 minutes, 2014
www.Chromedreams.co.uk
www.MVDvisual.com

To those who are unaware, if there is anyone left, Lou Reed passed away on October 27, 2013. The good British folks who bring numerous and well-done independent documentaries about musicians and groups in the rock era, Chrome Dreams, have compiled three of their Lou Reed-related releases and put them into a three-disc box set. Cashing in? Perhaps, but the topic is important enough and of interest enough for me to say “thanks.” I had previously reviewed the final one in the set, so I am reprinting it here at the bottom.
 

The Velvet Underground: Under Review – An Independent Critical Analysis
Directed, produced and narrated by Tom Barbor-Might                       
Sexy Intellectual
85 minutes, 2006

Wow, this is definitely the Cole Notes (Classics Illustrated?) version of the story of the Velvet Underground (VU). Three minutes in Nico is being introduced to the band, as explained in an interview with Factory photographer and archivist, Billy Name, who was easily as influential on the scene as Warhol, though not as present in the public cultural zeitgeist. By seven minutes in, the first album is being recorded and drummer Maureen Tucker is describing the experience.

Mind you, I am not complaining about any of this. I mean, it’s easy enough to find a multitude of histories of every member of the VU. I probably have 5 or 6 on my bookshelf (I highly recommend Richie Unterberger’s 2009 White Light/White Heat). What makes this particular one special, to me is hearing from the people who were there, like Name and Tucker, so early on in this telling.

Besides, this isn’t a history of the Velvets, it’s a “critical analysis,” so unlike most of the amazing Chrome Dream catalog, it makes sense that a majority of those discussing the band are writers and critics who tell their opinions rather than second-hand anecdotes. The DVD starts going into depth, in fact, upon discussion of The Velvet Underground & Nico recording. The place is proper for Clinton Heyln, who wrote the book From the Velvets to the Voidoids (2005) to opinionate that “Venus in Furs” is the most important rock song since “Heartbreak Hotel.”

It gets especially interesting when they discuss the centerpiece of the album, “Heroin.” Norman Dolph, line producer of the album, discusses what the atmosphere was like being in the studio during the taping, and then Joe Harvard, who wrote the 33-1/3 Series book on the record, does a really nice analysis of not only what the song is saying lyrically, but musically. Tucker also tells a great story about her essential drumming/pounding on the song. Included is a live clip of the band playing it live.

Each song is dissected without being hypercritical and academically analytical, thankfully, placed in a context of fandom, so “Waiting for My Man” is explained in its Dylan influence, the subway sound of its rhythm (Robert Christgau here gives Mo her props), and the differences between the earlier “Ludlow Tapes” and the final product.

Sadly, the only Nico song discussed is “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and I would have loved to have heard them discuss “European Son,” which needs to be broken down.

After the departure of Nico, there is a segment about them playing at the Boston Tea Party in, well, Boston, discussed by the manager who booked them, Steve Nelson. This makes a nice separation between discussing their first release and their White Light/White Heat.

This second LP, according to some of the critics here, is what influenced the punk scene more than the first, as they flash images of the Stooges (who were actually contemporaries of the VU, not followers), the New York Dolls, Suicide, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie over the title song. Personally, I don’t believe it was any one album that led to the punk movement, but it was definitely part of the brick in the CB’s/Max’s wall.

Of course, they focus mainly on “Sister Ray,” described as the “centerpiece” of the album. There is definitely not as detailed an analysis as the firs release, which is a shame, since I know the first so much better than the second. I was interested, and it wasn’t there.

To me, though, the one real flaw is the mostly unidirectional discussion of influence during the recordings. What I mean by that is that they talk a lot about how other musicians were influenced by the VU, but other than a brief mention of Reed’s Dylan fixation on “Waiting For My Man” and Cale’s non-traditional jazz origin, there is no explanation of why the second VU album is so markedly different than the first, or who they were listening to at the time. I believe that VU were made of the exact same influences as the Stooges and the MC5, but used the filter of different loci scenes. It isn’t until the third album that we see a discussion of where the foundations lay.

Little over half a year after the album’s release, Cale left (or as Mo smilingly describes him, the “lunatic”), which changed the direction, minus the drone and screech. They became “melodic,” especially with the addition of Doug Yule. It’s great that Yule is interviewed about his tenure here, which included their self-titled LP from 1969 (aka “The Grey Album”).

Discussed from it is the quality and origin of the guitar solo from “What Goes On.” I like the photo of Yue putting the bass under his chin like Cale’s violin. Another song discussed is how Doug sang “Candy Says” (the song, of course, is about Candy Darling), and how he didn’t know Candy’s back story. Mo talks about recording her vocals on “After Hours,” with Doug adding his thoughts. By this time, the discussion is more about the recording process than about the content.

They do finally get around to Sterling Morrison (d. 1995) and how underrated he was as a guitarist, after an hour in to the whole she-bang. Sadly, we don’t’ get to hear Mo talk about him much, which is strange since they were the rhythm section for the entire tenure of the VU (not counting Yules solo release using the VU name, which is summarily and rightfully dismissed here). There is some talk of the mysterious “missing” LP (eventually released decades later) and Live at Max’s Kansas City, with Doug’s brother Billy replacing a pregnant Mo on drums, but the analysis has just about disappeared and it’s become less of a critical discussion as a “what happened,” documentary, which in itself is interesting, but not what was promised.

The last real VU album was Loaded, again which Mo could not play on, and Doug goes on record saying that they should have waited for her; Mo says unwaveringly that she wishes she could have done the song “Ocean.” Rightfully noted on the DVD, however, that even although the band was in the process of falling apart, it did impact two of the band’s well known songs, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll.” Christgau here posits that they are the most important songs the VU ever recorded.

There is a brief discussion by Mo and Doug about their initial reactions at the time to Lou leaving, and little further after that, but they are right in saying that music today would not be the same without the Velvets. There is no doubt that the Velvet Underground was a turning point in music, and I certainly enjoy their output, but I must add that while they changed the face of culture, so did many others.

Extras are “The Hardest Velvet’s Quiz in the World Ever” (I stopped after No. 5, having gotten them all correct), contributor bios, and a 15-minute short called “Velvet Reflections” (aka additional interviews not used in the DVD).

While I think the box is a bit over the top with its descriptor “…it is the finest film on the band ever to emerge,” it definitely kept my interest throughout, and I would recommend it both for the fan and also those who are interested in music history.


Punk Revolution NYC: The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls & the CBGBs Set – Part One 1966-1974
Directed by Unknown
Pride DVD
87 minutes, 2011

Of the three films, this is the one I was most looking forward to seeing, so I saw it last, of course… punk rawk! Most of the others were before my musical time (which for me began on June 20, 1975, my first time at CBGBs, seeing Talking Heads (their first show) opening for the Ramones. While I know of some of the people in the others, in this documentary, I have been in a room and shared conversations with most, and have physically seen the rest, including on stage.

The film posits that after the arrival of the Beatles, most of the new music in the US was from California, with the Byrds being the touchstone. That would change when John Cale met Lou Reed and they formed the Velvet Underground. A good point made here is that even though Reed was the central figure, without Cale’s avant-garde influence and Warhol’s push toward art, the VU probably would never have been so powerful a cultural force.

One important piece that they more dance around in the large VU history segment is that the band did not create a scene, but were part of the art collective. It was actually their legacy (i.e., recordings) that were picked up later in the cut-off bins for a buck or less after the band no longer existed that truly was influential to help create that scene half a decade later, when that was added to the likes of the Stooges, and MC5. But the New York CBGB’s scene as they’re calling it here – why was Max’s not included in the title, I wonder, as it features prominently here – was also an anti-movement, exploding as much against corporate/classic rock as for its influences. The black hole was as important as the primordial soup in this case, for the growth of punk rock. But I get ahead of myself…

However, there was a progression from Warhol to the scene, as they explain, as many of the “superstars” or near-super were from the indie theater (e.g., The Theater of the Ridiculous), including those who would foster the nascent scene, such as Jayne County, Elda Gentile (aka Elda Stiletto) – both interviewed here – Patti Smith, Cherry Vanilla, David Johansen, Debbie Harry, and Eric Emerson.

The doc veers a bit into how the Warhol crowd influenced Bowie (after all, this is a British film) before veering back to Emerson and his band the Magic Tramps being a catalyst to the opening of the Mercer Arts Center in New York to bands. This was what opened up a space for the true link between the Velvets and what was to come in 1974 with CBGBs, and the New York Dolls (who are still not in the corporatized Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum because they never made enough money for the record companies; don’t get me started). Stunningly, and rightfully so, this film also gives almost equal credit as the Dolls to the duo of Suicide (who, they point out, were arguably the first to use the term punk music in the very early ‘70s). Jayne County refers to them perfectly: “Suicide were so genius they went over everyone’s head.”

From there, of course, they jump to Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, joining musically as well as poetic frienemies, with Richard Lloyd to form Television. The story is infamous now about how they approached Hilly Kristal to open up CBGBs to new music, as is related here by Hell and Lloyd (though not together, of course). Television brought their own opening act, the Stilettos, which would implode and, with a shake-up, become Blondie.

With the rise of CBGBs (and apparently the disappearance of Max’s since the showcase, which became even more amazing after the Warhol crowd abandoned it, is unfairly barely mentioned again), came the overshadowing of the Dolls, and thus ends Part I. No mention of the Ramones or the Heartbreakers, dammit.

It amuses me how they keep bringing Britain into the whole shebang (Warhol crowd goes to London! Bowie calls Television original!), yet they never once mention how Malcolm McLaren was hanging around and getting / borrowing ideas for his own British store and scene.

There are a couple of oversimplifications and a bit over crediting, but generally this is a nicely handled overview of the sex leading up to the birth of the New York Scene. What is really remarkable is some of the talent they get to speak up for it. Usually there’s an overabundance of writers who comment on the scene (though it’s right that Robert Christgau be represented, though he would eventually turn his back on the NY scene and focus on the British end of it in his columns), but here, the partial list of interviewees include Jayne County (who tends to be undercredited for her role), photographer Roberta Baley, the ever-great storyteller and photographer Leee Black Childers, Danny Fields, Elda Gentile, David Johansen (for a sec), Alan Vega, and Richard Lloyd.

Along with the contributor bios, the main extra is an 8-minute featurette called “Anarchy in the UK – The New Yorkers Cross the Atlantic.” There has always been the chicken-and-egg argument of who got to where first. Here, Richard Hell states that they got it from us. British author Tony Fletcher states that we got it from them when we crossed the ocean and saw what they were doing. I think Jayne County, once again, gets it closer, where she states that outside NYC, bands didn’t do well, but in much smaller and densely populated England, where there is numerous weekly music newspapers, the NY bands were treated like royalty and gained a reputation. What no one else is mentioning is that when the relatively popular British bands came here, they entered a vacuum. I remember Eddie & the Hot Rods playing Max’s to a half filled, non-dancing crowd (which upset them). Even the Troggs played Max’s in ’77 to a well received, but not packed audience. When I saw the Police and the Vapors (“Turning Japanese”) play, it was in the basement of a Hotel on 43 St, and it was hardly crowded, and this was after “Roxanne” had been out.

Now I really want to see Part II…
 

The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou, 1971-1973
Directed by Alec Lindsell
Narrated by Thomas Arnold                      
Sexy Intellectual
107 minutes, 2010
[Reprinted from the FFanzeen blog, October 31, 2010]

Let’s get right down to it:

This is a British documentary, so you know which one of the three is getting the main focus. Okay, picture two pyramids next to each other. The one on the left is Lou Reed and the one on the right is Iggy. Balancing between them is a line connecting the two (that is Marc Bolan, mentioned often but not in detail). And finally there is the third pyramid of the “sacred” triangle, David Bowie, on top of it all. That is the vision presented here. Okay, I’m done. Naw, not really, as this is still an interesting – albeit somewhat skewed – vision of the three.

Let me quickly add here that I am totally impressed by the choice of interviews that have been selected for this doc, which is so much better than the Pearl Jam one in this series. But more on the talking heads later.

There’s no doubt that Bowie was influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, but that’s nothing new. Just listen to David Jones’ singing style around the Ziggy Stardust period, and it’s easy to see the progression from his earlier works. Personally, I’d rather listen to Reed’s take, but that’s just me walkin’ on the wild side on a Sunday morning when comes the dawning.

There’s plenty of clips here of the Velvets; well, as much as there really is, which is limited, and taken by the Warhol crowd “artfully” (i.e., in fast speed) while in Exploding Plastic Inevitable mode (Gerard and his whip dance is often present). Bowie was still in folkie / cutsie mode when he first heard “Waitin’ for My Man,” and (rightfully) became a huge VU fan. An example given here is his “Toy Soldier,” which is such a – er – homage to “Venus in Furs,” it even quotes it in a few place, such as the line “bleed for me.” The video for the song has someone dancing with whips. And on “Black County Rock,” as explained in this doc, Bowie even imitates Bolan. MainMan publicist and photographer Leee Black Childers, who would later manage Iggy and then the Heartbreakers, states here that Bowie’s true talent is to know what to steal. In fact he said this and many of other the other bon mots he posits in a FFanzeen interview conducted by our own Nancy Foster (aka Nancy Neon) back in 1982. [HERE]

Andy Warhol is shown as possibly as big an influence as the VU, and to talk about the theatrics of the Factory and its influence on Bowie are the likes of the very wound up VU biographer Victor Bockris, the fabulous aforementioned Childers (who used to have one of the coolest motorcycle jackets ever, with an image of Gene Vincent painted on its back), the equally extraordinary Jayne County, smartly dressed in bright red Little Red Riding Hood mode (she even matches the couch!), 16 Magazine publisher (early on) and Ramones manager Danny Fields, and the Psychotic Frog himself, Jimi LaLumia. They paint a vivid picture of Lou and Andy’s influence on not only Bowie, but music in general. But Bowie is the main focus here, and in this case almost rightfully so, as Lee, Jayne, and Jimi were all hired by the Bow-ster to work with Tony DeFries and help run his production company, MainMan. One person seriously missing from the interview call list, though, is Cherry Vanilla, which is a serious deficit.

But the person of interest for me here, interview wise, is definitely Angela Bowie. A while back I found her kind of abrasive, but I must say that my opinion has totally changed, and I now see her as incredibly refreshing. She holds nothing back, and will tell the most intimate details at top volume. My apologies to you, for any negative thoughts I may have had in the past. But I digress…

Other interviewees include writers Paul Tryoka and Dave Thompson, and musician John Harlsen, who was a drummer on the Bowie-produced Lou Reed first popular solo effort, Transformer (as well as being Barry Womble, of the Rutles), which included his hits “Satellite of Love” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” They all paint a very detailed portrait of Bowie, and what effect Reed and Iggy had on him, and how Bowie had affected them. Also included are some short interviews (more likely called clips) with the key artists involved, such as Bowie (from 2001 and 2007), Lou Reed (1986), Iggy (1988), and just as importantly, Mick Ronson (looking extremely frail shortly before his death in 1993). There would arguably be no Bowie to the scale he achieved without Ronson as a musical driving force (rather than an influence, like Reed and Pop), I’m convinced.

Possibly one of Warhol’s biggest influences (and he really is as big as either Lou or Iggy in the David Jones pantheon) is the idea that “You’re a Star!” and if you act like it, people will come to believe and expect it. Even before the money, there was the wardrobe, the limos, the expense accounts, and all the trappings. LaLumia states it quite well when he relates that Bowie claimed that “I’m an actor. I’m not a musician. I’m portraying a rock star.” I can’t argue with that, as I’ve always found that Lou Reed was true to what he believed, as was Iggy totally committed to what he was doing, but Bowie was posing, rather than being. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never found him to be someone I’ve looked up to musically, especially in the reality of the punk days of the Ramones and the ilk.

While Iggy’s role in the Bowie history (and vice-versa) is more commonly known, there is much less about Iggy here than either Reed or especially Warhol. Bowie famously helped Pop both get off drugs and revive his career. For me, Bowie major force was in the studio as a producer, more than a vocalist, or especially as an innovator, as he was a series of influences creatively recast. Angela probably had as much to do with Bowie’s success as did David or Ronson – or even DeFries. And I won’t even detail Cherry Vanilla’s outreach program.

The added feature to the DVD is a seven-minute documentary called “The Nico Connection,” which shows how she had touched the lives of all three musicians that are the focus of the main feature. There is a bio for each of the contributors, and it put a smile on my face to see my pals the She Wolves given a shout out by Jayne County, as they’ve worked together over the past few years.

As a last note, I would like to add that after viewing this DVD, check out The Velvet Goldmine, which will then make so much more sense.

Friday, March 7, 2014

DVD Review: DEVO: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

                                                      
DEVO: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution
MVD Visual
70 minutes, 1993 / 2014
www.MVDvisual.com

Looking back, the Dada-inspired band Devo represents everything I would come to hate about the ‘80s onward, i.e., electronica and arty theatrical music. And yet, they hold a bit of a special place in my musical history, even though I never saw them live.

I remember buying the original “Jocko Homo” single on Booji Boy Records (their own imprint) on 8th Street at Disc-O-File when it was first released; yes I still have it. It definitely sounds stronger than the album version that was turned into a hit song/video on MTV not much later. Singer/creator Mark Mothersbaugh’s voice was sharp as a razor on the catch phrase “Are we not MEN!?” But then again, there was no sideways dancing as he would do on the video that attracted so many other fans. I remember seeing people dancing like that when they played the song on the PA at the Peppermint Lounge.

 The basic premise of this DVD is a collection of 20 of the band’s videos over the years (listed below). I’ll comment on some of them, as the odds are you’ve seen them at some point or another if you – er – wanted your MTV.

 While not as disturbing as the Resident’s version of the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Devo cover is probably among the best well known. The spastic British second wave punk dancer flipping himself over in the occasional shot has become iconic of the early 1980s video days. As for the song, well, they certainly made it their own and it truly is an ear worm that is enjoyable.

If you’re like me, there are three things you remember about the “Come Back Jonee” video/song is (a) the cowboy outfits, (b) the repetitive rhythm (a Devo hallmark), and (c) the girl dancing by the keyboard. ‘Nuff said.

By the time they reached the “Whip It” stage, Devo sort of said everything they were going to say musically, but this is a band that wasn’t just oral, they were also optical. Their work in early digital video technology pushed its limits, using the medium as a palate of art, through color, effects, animation and experimentation. To me, that is one of the more important legacies of the band. Also, as far as I remember, they were among the pioneers of having videos that went beyond the song, and often had prologs and / or epilogs, making the songs into mini-movies, especially in the earlier ones, a wave that Michael Jackson would successfully jump on for Thriller.

Speaking of “Whip It,” watching it in retrospect, as this is the uncut version, it really does go into the whole promotion of rape culture. One woman’s clothes are violently and literally “whipped” off, while a cross-eyed woman is sexually assaulted by a rancher while his girlfriend yells (via caption scrawl) “Ride ‘em cowboy.” And, of course, the victim in this case is shown as willing (where is Tex Antoine when you need him). But at least the song is catchy, right? They do address it in the commentary, explaining, in part, that the cowboys represent the Reagan Republicans. Still…

An interesting aspect about watching these videos in a row is that you can notice themes, such as many of the songs are about individuality (e.g., “Freedom of Choice.” “Through Being Cool,’ and “Peek-A-Boo”), but the images promote getting it by being like everyone else. Reminds me of when Culture Club was first popular, in New York they had a Boy George lookalike contest (teenage girls showed up), and when questioned why they were dressing that way, one girl said, “Boy George is unique, and I want to be unique just like him” (shades of the crowd scene in Life of Brian). Uniformity is not unique; even within subcultures (e.g., hardcore and suspenders, grunge and plaid). Even when one is trying to be an individual, to fit into an ostracized group you must be recognizable to that collective. Devo seem to promote that. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, as it’s natural, I’m just pointing it out.

There is also a surprisingly large amount of images of violence, “Whip It” is the easy choice, but people are shooting others with ray-gun (usually to transform them into uni-bots), stabbings, electrocutions, and the like. Yes, it’s also used as social commentary in “Beautiful World,” but just check out “Love Without Anger.” Even in the later “Post-Post Modern Man” someone shoots the band’s name into a wall with a machine gun.

Sadly, by the end of these videos, they had gone from New Wave to jumping on the post-disco wave (much like the Clash). Meh.

To call this merely a collection of videos, though, is a major understatement because it extras are clearly as numerous and as historically important. In part, as there are too many to mention here, there is a collection of live footage from throughout the band’s tenure, including some crude b&w video from their very first performance at Kent State in – are you ready for this? – 1972. Even then, you can see what was coming, though they weren’t there yet. Humorously, there are a lot of empty seats in the theater. There are also commercials, shorts, a brief interview with the director their first video (“Secret Agent Man”), Chuck Statler, and the obligatory yet consistently interesting commentary track by band co-founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casale.

The only thing missing was the spoof, "Dare to Be Stupid" by Weird Al Yankovic.

Song List:
Devo Corporate Anthem
Secret Agent Man
Jocko Homo
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Come Back Jonee
The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise
Worried Man
Whip It
Girl U Want
Freedom of Choice
Through Being Cool
Love Without Anger
Beautiful World
Time Out For Fun
Peek-A-Boo
That’s Good
Theme from Dr. Detroit
Disco Dancer
Post-Post Modern Man
Post-Post Modern Man (Remix)
 
 Jocko Homo (LP version):

 
BONUS VIDEOS:


 
Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid”