Thursday, November 20, 2014

Women of Power CD Reviews: Laura Cheadle and Kimm Rogers

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

Where the strong women singers start their albums with the same few words...

 Kimm Rogers
Where the Pavement Grows

I’m not sure how I first became aware of Kimm Rogers, but I know it was when her first Island Records release, Soundtrack of My Life, was out in 1990. I fell in love it with it, and it’s one of the few song collections I own in more than two formats (LP, cassette, CD). First I gave a copy of it to my then girlfriend (now spouse), then passed it on to others as well; we all became fans. The video that came out of it was “Right By You.” Honestly, to me, it could have been a dartboard choice because every cut on it was worthy. They self-examine her place in life, both in a small focus and writ large.

One more full release on Island in 1992, Two Sides, also had a powerful video attached, ”Will Work For Food,” a political piece about the impoverished lives seen strewn around major cities.

And what do I enjoy and appreciate about Kimm? Many reasons, but essentially it’s that she has her own, unique voice, both figuratively and literally. Her vocals are distinctive, and is easily identifiable as hers, such as with the likes of Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams or Emmylou Harris. What’s more, she has a slightly different way of enunciation, with the push of certain syllables, and her songs bend in ways that are her own.   

Twenty-two years later, she has once again put her heart on the line with her latest, self-released Where the Pavement Grows.  Fortunately, as usual, all the songs here are her originals. There is a definite growth in song writing here, yet without losing anything that is what I have come to like about the singer-songwriter. A good example is “Twenty-Three,” which is sort of a mirror refection look back to the song “2-0-19,” from her first album. In the earlier, she wonders what life will look like in the future compared to the time, and in the more recent, she thinks back from today compared to when she was younger. This is just one of a number of up-beat numbers that will both have you thinking and tapping your foot. Even her mushy love ballads, such as “Rain,” and “Gravity” (the latter of which would make a great film theme song) keep your heart warm.  

Jazz and Rock musician Julian Coryell does magnificently in keeping Kimm’s voice in the front without losing any of the sounds backing her, many of which are played by himself. It’s crisp and the vocals are clear. Still, the big sounding “Eventually,” full of memorable lines like “I’m not killing time it’s killing me / I’ll end up where I’m supposed to be / Eventually,” never loses itself into excesses.

This is a very measured, seasoned release, taken from a different perspective from her earlier life, though obviously through the same eyes / style. There is growth, maturity in both lyrics and fluidity, even when looking at the harder aspects of existence, such as the title cut or the doubts of “Valentine’s Day.”

It may have taken over two decades for this to reach its present form, but it was worth the wait.  Check out the video below as a sample and then head on to her Website. Meanwhile, I’ll hope she’ll tour so I can finally get to see her perform live.

Laura Cheadle
Where the Blues Hangs Out
Bloozy Toonz Records

Another artist I have not yet had the opportunity to see live but am bidding my time is the luxuriously sounding Laura Cheadle. Don’t let the pictures of this young, white thang fool you; she can both blast the blues and R&B (and I mean the real stuff).

How do you know she’s solid? Well, for starts, she writes most of her own material, along with the Cheadle family who usually support her both in the formation and performing aspects. And yet you can imagine the likes of Ella or Bessie feeling at home with these tunes.

Then there is that voice. Not the gravel of, say, Janis, but more of a sexiness, late-night lovin’ vibe that relies strongly on her powerful vox, various keyboards and hot electric Northern Blues guitar style (Chicago/Detroit). Oh, and there is the occasional use of 20 Feet From Fame type backing boys or gals. Despite being a “home-grown” South Jersey recording, the production is slick without being slick, if ya know what I mean.

Many of Laura’s songs deal with love and loving, and her voice wanders the R&B scales without being a show-off about it (e.g., Mariah and Xtina, who I find boring for that reason despite their talent, unlike Laura). Whether she’s purring like on “The Best That It Could Feel,” shimmering as with “This Life Is Made to Dance,” or shattering on “Blue Sky” and the title cut opener, she will keep your attention.

Then there are numbers where she does it all, like the cover of Lil’ Son Jackson’s “Rock Me Baby” that would have fit on the stage of the Fillmore, both East and West (see video below). Her choice of covers is smart, such as a live version of T-Bone Walker’s “Call It Stormy Monday,” or the Gershwin/Howard standard, “Summertime.” The latter is done is a deep tone making it just sizzle, as it was meant to be. Sometimes in previous recordings she leans towards the sexual, but here she’s waist deep in the sensual.

Cheadle constantly pleases, with a voice that’s a mixture of honey and velvet, with a touch of vinegar. It’s also a bit timeless. I could imagine her singing in just about any era in the last 80 years or so. On the stage of the Cotton Club, the Apollo, the Blue Note, any jazz festival, or even Woodstock, she could find a place to be comfortable. That’s quite the range. For someone who is as prolific as she has been over the past few years, the quality of her work seems to be still on the incline. And I’m grateful.

Kimm Rogers:

Laura Cheadle:


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

DVD Review: Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders

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

Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders
Written and directed by Danny Garcia
Jungle Records
Chip Baker Films
98 minutes, 2014

A week before his first album was released, I became embroiled in an argument with Tom Petty over the use of the name “The Heartbreakers.” He insisted that he checked the New York band out and they weren’t going anywhere, and no one would care. Petty was both right and wrong. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers out sold Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers probably a million to one. But I have never seen a Tom Petty bootleg; there are hundreds of Johnny Thunders. I have never heard a guitarist say, “Man, I heard Petty play, and just wanted to form a band.” You would be hard pressed to find a guitarist these days who would not call Thunders’ an influence. How does one judge success?

For me, I saw Petty play twice (CBGBs and the Bottom Line). The Heartbreakers out of New York, in various forms, is probably the band I have seen more than anyone else (even more than the Ramones!). Most of the time it was at Max’s, and usually with Nancy Foster / Suzie Q / Nancy New Age / Nancy Neon (among her many handles), my musical sister if ever I had one, across the table.

Most of the shows Thunders was on fire (as was the rest of the band, but this film is about Johnny, so I’ll stick with him as the focus for now), flowing from song to song without stopping between, roaming the stage and spitting glances. Honestly, I’ve also seen some terrible shows; one that comes to mind is an Irving Plaza gig where he was so out of it that he couldn’t find the direction of the audience and had to be shown by underrated bandmate Walter Lure (the last surviving Heartbreakers member) which direction to face. Johnny couldn’t work his hands until a band member gave him something up his nose while on stage, and then he could either strum or finger the chords on his guitar, but not both. I saw more than one person in the audience literally cry that night.

The memorial for him in 1992 in New York was a blast. It was a gala affair with the likes of Lenny Kaye, Cheetah Chrome, Spacely, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, and many other New York crème de la crème of the scene on stage and in attendance. I still have the tee-shirt from that night.

Today, the born in 1986 son of a good friend is a huge Thunders fan, and for him Johnny was the model of how to play. It doesn’t matter that there are those that are reviled by his questionable usage behavior or some of his off-stage antics. He was an on-stage role model, and that is why, in my opinion, that he has such a multitude of fans, both from the day and even now years after his controversial New Orleans demise in 1991.

At the halfway point of the film, we’ve met many of the main characters in both flashback and talking heads mode. There’s Actress, the New York Dolls and both versions of the Heartbreakers (Richard Hell and after, when they were at their “height”). Lots of notables who were around the scene at the time, and I kept thinking, damn, I’m glad they made this when they did. So many had already left this earth, including Billy Mercia (1971), Jerry Nolan (1992; last time I saw him play was at the Thunders memorial that same year), Arthur “Killer” Kane (2004; there is a great documentary about him as well, New York Doll), and Malcolm McLaren (2010; who is heard in voice interviews); and just as notable, too many died after being filmed for it, such as the great Billy Rath (2014), Marty Thau (2014) and ever lovable photographer and Heartbreakers’ manager Leee Black Childers (2014).

It is also noteworthy to see who doesn’t appear, such as David Johansen, Max Blatt, his kids, Richard Hell, and Patti Palladin.

But now let’s focus more on what the film has rather than lacks: the likes of musicians Lenny Kaye, Walter Lure (amusingly looking his most corporate and sounding his least deprecating; not meant as any kind of insult), Andy Shernoff (nee Adny) of the Dictators (other members of this also great group despised Thunders), Cynthia Ross (of the underrated B-Girls, and girlfriend of Stiv Bators), Bob Gruen (photographer who has some of the most biting and insightful comments about Thunders’ drug use) and other musicians who have played and worked with him across the globe.

Essentially this is a standard biography, chronologically following a musicians life, but Thunders loomed so large in the New York music scene, that he oozes out of every frame, making this his own in the same way he shared the stage with incredible musicians, such as Lure and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, and each one of those groups are known as “Johnny Thunders and…” or “Johnny Thunders in…” He led an amazingly charmed albeit drug-addled career. The stories weaved by these (and other) musicians, friends and relatives are fascinating, and that’s what is the center focus of the tale.

While I enjoyed the first half of the film, it is at the center that it really starts to pick up for me. I mean, there are so many books and films about the Dolls that bleed into the Heartbreakers that I sat there enjoying the story, but it felt more like, “And…?” But after the break-up of the Heartbreakers, well, for me that’s where it becomes new and exciting; more films and interviews that I’ve never seen, including during his residency in Sweden, France and Germany.

At first I was annoyed that there was little mention about what a dick Thunders could be (Howie Pyro, who is interviewed here, has a great story in the deleted scenes about how he met Johnny), especially about money, but that is covered in this second part. Being the non-drug user I am, I was nervous about hanging around him and never did, but I loved being in the audience when he played, even the odd gigs like Girls Nite Out at the Ritz, or the Save PIX benefit at Irving Plaza.

The film touches on the mysteries surrounding his death, but thankfully doesn’t belabor it, because Thunders’ importance is music first, and then possibly fashion, and solid personality. There are no definitive answers about the circumstances around his demise, so the focus on his life feels more important. What made him tick, you might say, not what made him stop. I would rather hear about his short film career than what happened in New Orleans. That, it seems, should be a different film for another time.

In all, this is a loving but honest film about a troubled musician’s life, seen through the eyes of his friends, videos, performances, and conversations with the man, himself. If one were to look at just three albums from each phase of his life, the Dolls’ first release, The Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F., and the solo So Alone, one could stop and be satisfied, but there is so much more.

I remember standing in the kitchen of Boston musician and publicist Joe Viglione in the first half of the 1980s, and talking to music producing legend Jimmy Miller (a Brooklyn boy, FYI) about working with Thunders for the French label, Red Rose Records. I could have asked him about the Stones, but Thunders was my interest. That says a lot.

The extras are pretty good from end to end. They include a Behind the Scenes, which is mostly a radio interview with the director on a New Orleans radio station mixed with some deleted scenes, which is about 9 minutes long. This shouldn’t be confused with the actual 20-minute Deleted Scenes, all of which is interviews that didn’t make the final cut, but which are all interesting and worth a view. There are two live songs including the Heartbreakers doing the Lure classic “All By Myself,” and a bluesy music video by ex-Oddballs (a band he was in with Thunders) Stevie Klasson called, well, “Looking for Johnny.” Along with the trailer, there is a short film about a guitar-maker who designs Thunders-modeled electrics.

This is an excellent documentary, and does really well in placing the importance of Johnny Thunders on an international stage, in a wider expanse than one would normally envision for a kid from Queens. Take that, Tom Petty.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

DVD Reviews: Two Joel Gilbert Films on that Commie, Obama

Taken at a market in Xi'an, China (pic: Robert Barry Francos)
Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet (unless indicated)
Highway 61 Entertainment

Dreams From My Real Father: A Story of Reds and Deception
Written, produced and directed by Joel Gilbert
95 minutes, 2012

Have you ever seen a Joel Gilbert Film before? I’ve had the opportunity to experience three of them: one is Elvis Found Alive (2012) [Reviewed HERE] and another is Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison (2010) [Reviewed HERE]. Needless to say, most of the time Gilbert is full of shit in an enjoyable way. Now, these two fake documentaries are interesting and fun, especially if you already know the history to pick out the mistakes (and some are doozies). He also did a Dylan documentary with his own twist with Dylan Revealed (2010) [reviewed HERE].

Essentially, Gilbert’s shtick is to have someone verbally impersonate the person who is the subject of the film, and then tell the story as first person. Of course, what the impersonator is saying is not the person of topic’s words, but Gilbert’s. This could be amusing, and I have found it usually is. His Elvis impersonator was right on, but his George Harrison was cartoonish. Honestly, I can’t even remember how the Dylan sounded.

This leads us to this so-called documentary of the early life of President Barak Hussein Obama, who took over after the destruction of the economy by his predecessor. The film plays into all the fears of the Republican non-think points, of how Obama is associated with communists, home-grown terrorists, and socialists to bring down the country. Okay, this doesn’t align with the “birther” twits, though it does claim he was born in Washington State rather than Hawaii.

Using his familiar style, Gilbert has the voice over, breaks the film into “chapters,” and uses snippets (sometimes only playing the part of a sentence that furthers his pre-fabricated case), newsreels and stock footage. He doesn’t, however, actually interview anyone himself, but rather uses conjecture that furthers his point. My issue is that he has the data to support his conclusion, rather than arriving at the conclusion from the data. This can be foolhardy; FOXNews level dangerous, as they use the same method.

Using Obama’s own book, Dreams From My Father as a launch pad, the film posits that Obama’s real father was African-American communist poet / journalist Frank Marshall Davis (d. 1987). We “hear” a narrator that is supposed to be quoting Obama but sounds nothing like him (by Ed Law) describe the political life of Marshall and his attraction to communism, and attributes a large amount of the ‘50s “red scare” to Marshall’s group. We also hear how Obama’s maternal grandfather worked for the CIA (in the real Obama book, he says he was a furniture salesman), so when Mama Obama supposedly gets “in that way” by Marshall, a Kenyan college student funded by the CIA to study in Hawaii and fight communists agrees to marry Obama’s mother on the condition he gets some moolah and has no responsibility. Of course, Obama grows up and hangs out with Marshall, adopting his politics, according to this theory.

One aspect the film focuses in on at this point is the “Red” part, but ignores the “Scare” section. Driven by Republican paranoia (led by Senator Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon), people were seeing anything it imagines as communist or socialist leanings as the destruction of the moral fabric of America (sound familiar?). Let me state here that I am neither a communist nor a socialist, though I believe in many social programs. In the same way black integration in schools and the introduction of rock and roll were vilified by right wing pundits, they put the fear of change (or even the possibility of a hint of it) as the destruction of life as we knew it. I still remember drills in school where we had to hide under our desks in case we in Brooklyn were bombed, or stand in the hallway for the possibility it was a nuclear attack. Robert Klein has a funny routine about his on his Child of the ‘50s album, but I digress…

One moment that made me laugh is Obama goes to Chicago, and is associated by locale to Saul Alinsky’s (d. 1972; misspelled in the film as “Alinksy”) book, Rules for Radicals, where he connects “change” with “socialism.” Of course, Obama’s theme for his first run at the presidency was Change, so obviously he must have meant socialism. Now look, when I was an undergrad, as well as being in the Hillel club, a Jewish organization for which I barely attended, I also joined the strongly Christian based Newman Club, because there were some very cute coeds in it (not that it did me any good). Because of my dual affiliation, though not based in any real devotion, the Jews for Jesus club hounded me to join. I understand that just because you are around something does not mean you are associated with that belief. The Blank Generation days were filled with substance abuse, but I nursed a bottle of Bud from 10 pm to 3 am. There were people who assumed I was on drugs because I was so thin, but again, that had nothing to do with reality [HERE]. Similarly, whether or not people such as Bill Ayres, Alinsky or Reverend Wright were around Obama, does not mean that he agrees with their philosophies. Or maybe it does. I don’t know Obama personally to say.

One of the points hammered home is Obama’s association with far left politicians, questionable business people, and “patrons.” Try and find someone in politics that is not associated with those who are using politicians for their own means (can you say Cheney and Halliburton?). Even Republican shill and icon (who was a joke at the time but lauded now) Ronnie Reagan was surrounded by those who were out to destroy democracy for their own vision of capitalism. But because it’s “capitalism” and not “socialism,” it must be for the good, right? Remember when the Reagan administration union busted and fired the airport workers (and then, ironically, had an airport named after him)? If you want to see how this all works, check out the Robert Redford film The Candidate (1972; trailer HERE).

This film is obviously flawed because it comes from a conclusion of paranoia and Republican wrongheadedness. Gilbert’s early films about music subjects were harmless and amusing. I found this to be less so, because of the level of fear mongering about Obama specifically and Democrats in general that make the points made here less than benign. If this had come out after the next presidential election when it had no bite, that would be fine, but I am not impressed by the timing (cashing in?) of this.

What amazes me (not in a good way) about this film is that everything they are claiming about Obama – bankrupting the country, taking away retirement funds, making the middle class disappear, etc. – has already been tried… by the Republicans since Ronnie, and especially under little Georgie W.

It’s kind of devious and almost subliminal how every time Davis is mentioned, it is emphasized not as “my father,” but “my real father.” Also, even more subtly, very often when there is an image of Obama, it is split-screened with Davis in a similar pose, as if to say, “see!?!?” No, I don’t think he looks like Davis nor Obama Sr. He looks like his mother, with a mixture of African-American features that could be either. For example, yes, he has eyes that are similar to Davis, but he also has lips that are similar to Obama Sr. But if you put his picture next to his mother, you can tell the family resemblance.

With the “immigrant” fear (Gilbert has them referred to as “illegals” here, something Obama would never do), there is a strong level of racism here. “Obama” even refers to himself as “the first Affirmative Action president.” Really, Joel? That shows your true colors (pun intended) more than anything I can add.

So, again, unlike the Harrison and Elvis predecessors, this film takes conjecture for fact (as opposed to fantasy), which makes it an opinion piece rather than a historical document. What makes it dangerous is that there are a host of people who believe this crap. Did you know that most people in the South who were polled said that Obama was to blame for the result of Katrina? FOXNews is out to dupe the world into thinking Right wing ideology is the only belief system, but ignorance is not bliss, it’s damaging.

There’s No Place Like Utopia
Written, produced and directed by Joel Gilbert
110 minutes, 2014

In his latest film and slam-a at Obama, director Joel Gilbert takes a different route for once, and does a Michael Moore by making himself the central character of the piece. Well, perhaps a reverse of Moore, since he is a renowned Leftie, and Gilbert shows himself on the extreme Right.

Using the framework of Oz being an Utopia, Gilbert fashions the charlatan Wizard of Oz as Barak Obama, who promises us an impossible dream (i.e., philosophers say there can be no such place as Utopia, literally translated as “no place”).

The entire opening sequence, where Gilbert walks around the Hollywood and Vine area asking star impersonators “Why did Dorothy go to Oz?” is, well, a waste. Okay, we get the premise, so put your ego back in your pants, and get on with it, dude. You don’t like Obama, you envision him as the Wiz and “his” America as a Utopia much like Oz, we get it; now explain why. And what is this subtly equating Michelle with the Wicked Witch of the West by juxtapositioning her with an image of the 1961 television cartoon version of the Baum story, Tales of the Wizard of Oz?

One aspect that Gilbert seems blind to is that every leader, including Ronnie, promises a Utopia (“Tear down that wall!!”), not only for here, but for everywhere. Remember Georgie W.’s promise to bring “democracy” to Iraq? Why doesn’t Gilbert consider that a promise of Utopia? Oh, yeah, it’s not Obama.

What most Republicans – especially the poor ones – don’t seem to understand is that so many grew up within the Red Scare or influenced by those who were, that the very thought of a socialistic program designed to help even them seems un-American and anti-Capitalist. Well, here’s a shock for you: unabated capitalism is potentially more dangerous to the average person than either socialism or communism. Think monopolies and how unregulated corporations will do their best to strip you of everything you own or are. Some of the richest corporations (e.g., Walmart, Best Buy) complain about paying a decent wage so many workers are still forced on social programs, but put much of their money in off-shore accounts to keep from paying taxes. And those who pulled the lever for the Red rather than the Blue in central areas of this fine country are voting against their own self interests in their fear of America possibly helping those who need it. Yes, there will always be those who abuse the system, but the majority are desperate and cannot survive without some assistance. There is a strong current of xenophobia also present, as “Hispanics” = “illegals” who are supposedly paid off to vote for Obama. There is no positive message here about African-Americans nor Latinos.

In a move of complete hypocrisy, Gilbert goes to the Martin Luther King memorial, as if to say, see, there are good Black people who have ideals. But if you do your research, you will find that King was anti-capitalist, and was considered a socialist in his day. No mention of that, just a way to say “some of my best friends are…, so I’m not…”

When interviewing Chinese college student near the White House, he mocks the name Beijing Normal University. There are many Normal schools even in the United States. If he had done his homework rather than jumping on something he doesn’t understand, he would find out that a Normal school is where they instruct people how to be teachers. It’s common term around the world. I had the pleasure this past summer to teach a class in Media Theory (Gilbert would be the perfect example of a Monopoly of Power as he only shows one side of any argument) at Shaanxi Normal University, in Xi’an. Asking someone from China to say something publicly against the government is just plain ridiculous. China, Russia, and other countries that are “Socialist” or “Communist” play by their own rules, and asking someone to go against that endangers them, which is hardly fair to them to make your own point. For example, I would not ask a Palestinian to make a comment against Gaza on the air, or someone who is returning to Iran to comment on their leaders.

Gilbert gleefully finds people who live here who are willing to speak out against the governments of China and Russia, and even a dissident against Obama’s policies. You can do that in America. Comparing us to anyone else, even Canada, is a big mistake. Policy is another story. Obama is trying to get health care like Canada, and meanwhile the Right leaning Canadian government is trying to privatize their health care system like the Americans, so corporate health care cannot just strive, but can afford to PAC their politicians.

Gilbert comments how Mao let 50 million of his citizens die of starvation. Well, capitalist America did the same thing to the American Indians/First Nations population. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, making it seem like it happened in China and Russia because they were communist. No, they were power mad (ego), not ideological. And Gilbert talks about labor camps in those countries, but does he mention about how the capitalist US starting with Tricky Dickey industrialized the prison system to keep a cheap labor force, earning less than a dollar an hour? No. Any mention of the Georgie W. led depression of 2008 where people lost both jobs and homes? No. He shows the poverty of African-Americans in Detroit and South Chicago. Does he mention that majority of people who are on welfare and food stamps are actually white people below the Mason-Dixon? And that many people who work for some of the richest companies of the world need to be on sustenance to survive because their low wages are not enough, and this is pure capitalism? No. He only interviews (or is interviewed by) people who are Tea Party leaners, with no comment from anyone who might disagree with him. Did I mention Monopolies of Power?

Gilbert takes us to the slums of Detroit, which one pundit here calls “the perfect Democrat city.” While interviewing a resident, the interviewee comments that it was a vibrant area until the factories closed down. Gilbert fails to mention that part of the reason they closed down was because unregulated capitalism (aka free capitalism) sent the factories overseas to find cheaper labor, giving a larger profit to the rich and taking the neighborhood away from the working class. Even so, did you know that if you earn more than $20,000 a year, in the rest of the world you are part of the 1%? Scary. Gilbert does not mention that.

Here it is in a nutshell that I have been aware of since I was a teen: capitalism, socialism and communism all have one aspect in common, and that is there is no such thing as a perfect system, and the larger the population, the more this is true.

Meanwhile, while Gilbert is talking about how “Socialistic” Obama is out to destroy America, the stock market is better than ever and continually breaking records, unemployment is way down, people have health care, and the country is better off than it even was for Clinton. Damn that America-destroying Obama for getting us out of the hole the Republicans put us into! He’s not a capitalist? Explain the “don’t touch Monsanto” rulings, dude.

Towards the end of the film, one ex-business owner from Detroit says the reason for the problems there is due to the EPA changing the regulations so “what was legal became illegal.” Excuse me, but lowering emissions was the right way to go. Have you ever been to New Delhi? Beijing? You can’t see more than a few years ahead because, in part, of poor emissions standards. I don’t need to see my air, thank you. And some Russian émigré claims that socialists are less productive than capitalists, while images of the Obamas on the cover of magazines and golfing are splayed. Now remind me again of how many days Barak took vacation vs. his predecessor? Who’s not productive again?

At a visit at a Newark public city council meeting, it is posited that if you have a dissenting voice, you are silenced. The film makes it seem like this is an Obama-ism. Actually, Obama takes questions from any- and everyone. To interview George W., you had to be invited, and he only let in those who agreed with him. As for Newark, well, it’s Newark. Talk to Gov. Christie about that, if you can. Also, I love that they talk about Obama’s “voting fraud” by getting people registered to vote. Georgie Bush stole an election by rigging it and denying many voters at the polls, and Obama is wrong for getting people to the polls. Unbelievable.

The second biggest problem with this film (the first being its misguided message, of course), and this would be true no matter what Gilbert’s leaning, is that as much as he’s trying to be a response to Michael Moore, he just can’t cut it. He does not have the – er – large personality of Moore, nor the balls to stand up to those who disagree with him, something present in all Moore’s releases. With the exception of going to the Ayres house and leaving a DVD by the door when no one answers the bell, and giving Michelle’s mom a copy at well at her modest home in Chicago (we never actually see her), Gilbert mostly gravitates towards those who agree with his rhetoric. This is by no means fair and balanced.

One impressive thing Gilbert has done was to find a woman who famously enthused about Obama on a newscast at an Obama speech, and asked her opinions now, which have obviously changed (why else would she be here?).

My big question that one that no one can truthfully answer because it is impossible: “Do you honestly believe it would have been better under Romney?!” My answer is hell, no.

I’m hoping he has this out of his system now, and will go back to music mockumentaries. To use Joel Gilbert’s own analogy, this film was a Toto.


Bonus video:


Saturday, October 11, 2014

CD Review: Gallagher: I Am Who I Pretend to Be

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

Gallagher: I Am Who I Pretend to Be
Produced by David Drozen
Uproar Entertainment
70 minutes, 2014

In case you are wondering who (Leo) Gallagher is, I don’t think it would be an understatement to say he was as influential in the stand-up world as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams. Arguably, you could even add George Carlin. Was he as funny as them? Well, that’s a matter of the style of humor you enjoy, but it was Gallagher that almost single-handedly brought the stand-up series of specials to cable television, 14 shows over the years that had millions of viewers each. Some say the existence of the Comedy Channel in some part was created due to Gallagher’s on-air popularity.

I have to say, I found him extremely funny. I viewed probably about 5 of those specials, and saw him a number of times on the likes of Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. He was outrageous without being overly shocking (profanity is in his cable shows, but not his mainstream presentations). He had a unique style, using his own creative props that were inventive on the level of engineering, and unlike some other prop comics like, say, Carrot Top, Gallagher was not manic (though he screamed a lot) and was actually enjoyable.

From North Carolina, he had a bit of a twang and a unique way of phrasing things, often using some colloquialisms, such as saying “them people.” Considering how much of the use of language a key part of his act is, I’m not sure if this was an in-bred way of patter, or was part of his stage persona. I don’t ever remember seeing him talk off the stage.

The reason I use past tense in this piece is because this show is part of Gallagher’s retirement tour. After serious health issues, he has decided to professionally call it quits.

When the CD starts, honestly, it doesn’t sound like him. He has a particular way to talking and it takes a while before I can “recognize” his voice. But that’s okay. I also wondered about a vocal-only recording, because he usually is quite visual, including using a sledge hammer on a watermelon (yeah, that’s the guy). That is probably why he has all these television shows and only one other vocal recording from the beginning of his career.

One of the things that appeals to me about Gallagher is the way he has a slight twisted way of looking at life that seems to make sense until you really think about it. For example, he often posits (including here) that they ought to give deaf people houses by the airport. Or that that they should make Jehovah Witnesses mail carriers because they’re going to come to your door anyway (not included). Illogical logic?

In the hour-plus of this CD, I did notice something that I had not realized before, but has been a consistent theme of his act, and that is he promotes cultural gender-normative stereotypes. Sort of a “You know what you guys do?” “You know what you ‘girls’ do?” Then comes out the controlling image of women who love to go shopping, and men who are slackers around the house who don’t do much tidying, and how both drive each other crazy. He’s been focusing in on these for thirty years now, and honestly, the timer is up on it. It’s a dated notion that is okay to acknowledge that times have changed. More men work around the house, and more women are in the workforce. That being said, I thought the line about a version of Playboy for married men that has the same centerfold model in each issue was pretty funny. Okay, I’m done with that cultural rant.

Gallagher has always been a bit of an American jingoist, but tends not to be overly obnoxious about it, like Ted Nugent, for example. He loves “Amurrka” (as he pronounces it) and hates to see foreign interests changing the landscape, as it were. Is his material racist? Well, there is definitely singling out some cultures, such as Mexicanos, but it’s not nasty any more than his pointing out gender norms. I did cringe, however, the one time when he used the expression “that is so gay.”

Once you get beyond those, and he finally gets fired up, as he does here, his two strong suits come out. The first one is pointing out the sheer ridiculousness of our culture, and how we look at things. He would make a powerful General Semanticist. It could be how we may be viewed by aliens (stating how from space telescopes we have to look up to the stars find any kind of intelligence, rather than back at Earth), weirdness about how people view the Bible, and how crazy is our justice system. His analysis using a spork (spoon-fork a la KFC) as a springboard is quite smart.

Then his second strong point comes out that is my favorite, which is Carlin-esque in how he points out the randomness of grammar and language. In this particular case he looks at the “enemy” of the English language, the French, and how their mother tongue has influenced us in nearly a poetic rant.

The bonus track, “Words of Wisdom,” is a bit I’ve heard before, and in fact there is a smattering of repeating here and there (this is true of many comics, including Robin Williams, with his Mr. Happy bits).

Yeah, he’s still sharp and witty, and considering his heart situation, he’s definitely still Gallagher. That’s something that’s worth a listen.
Bonus video from the ‘80s (unrelated to this CD):

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hoyt Axton: Half Folkie, Half Hippie, Half Okie (Guest Article)

For the more than a decade that I’ve known Brian Dickson, his fandom of the multi-talented Hoyt Axton has been evident. If Hoyt had been younger, it’s possible he could have been called country punk, along with the likes of Rank & File, but he was more of the generation of Townes van Zandt and the hyper-realistic country that was both harsh and beautiful. This, in part, is why I asked Brian to write something about Hoyt, since little is known about him these days, and he deserves the credit he can get. Besides, feeding a musical obsession is something I will usually stand behind, especially if the subject is as worthwhile as Axton. – Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014

By Brian Dickson, 2014
Images from the Internet

I was pleasantly surprised when Robert dropped me a line and asked if I would like to write a piece on Hoyt Axton for this blog, but I had to ask him: “Are you sure Axton fits the bill for ‘Rock n’ Roll Attitude with Integrity’?” Robert's reply: “Hoyt was as punk as Johnny Cash or Townes Van Zandt, as far as I’m concerned.” Which I believe is true in several ways. Hoyt enjoyed a long, colorful career that included not only music composition and performance, but acting, record production and commercial voice-over work. But part of my fascination with the man, I think, is that his musical approach always eluded definition. He could never be bracketed into one genre or another.

Hoyt Wayne Axton. If you don’t know the name, chances are you’d recognize him from films and TV. “Bonanza.“ Smoky (1966). The Black Stallion (1979). “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Heart Like A Wheel (1983). Gremlins (1984) [He played the dad who gave his son the Gremlin – RBF]. We’re No Angels (1989). A slew of others. But if you can’t place the face, chances are you know the voice. Extoller of the Big Mac, Pizza Hut, and Busch beer. And of course, writer and singer of some truly great songs.

Born in Duncan, Oklahoma, in 1938, and raised in Comanche; the eldest son of John T. Axton and Mae Boren (Mae, later known as ”The Queen Mother of Nashville,“ co-wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis). He served a brief stint in the U.S. Navy after attending Oklahoma State University on a football scholarship. His career in music began in West Coast coffee houses and folk clubs in the early sixties.

I’ll admit I’m showing up at the party pretty late here. I was born in ’73; by that year Axton had recorded ten albums for six different labels. Nineteen sixty-nine saw the release of My Griffin Is Gone on Columbia Records, followed by two on Capitol Records in 1971 (Joy to the World, and the lesser known Country Anthem). In ’73 came Less Than the Song on A&M, the first of four albums on that label, which is widely recognized as Hoyt’s creative peak: Song in ’73, Life Machine (1974), Southbound (1975) and Fearless (1976).

But being an ‘80’s kid, I became aware of Hoyt not through his music, but by seeing him in movies - Gremlins, primarily - and on television, namely, “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” In tenth grade it became a daily routine after walking home from school to catch a re-run of “WKRP” at 4. I fondly recall that classic first-season episode entitled, “I Do, I Do…For Now.” Hoyt, playing the imposing “T.J. Watson from Rockthrow, West Virginia,” arrives at the station to reclaim his childhood sweetheart, Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), who hastily pretends to be married to Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman). Hoyt sings “Jealous Man” to a captive and terrified Fever in the station lobby (“You got the knife, I got the gun / c’mon boy, we’re gonna have a little fun…”). He proceeds to tell a story about his dear ol’ pappy. And how the woman his pappy loved – his mama – was already married to another man by the name of Jenkins. But Jenkins didn’t wanna give his mama up. So his pappy - bein’ the man he was - went down to see Jenkins…and called him out. “Called him out?” Fever replies nervously. That’s right, T.J. says – called…him…out. Fever (hope diminishing): “To talk.” Hoyt: Uh-huh. Then he shot him.” This is one of my favorite scenes in all of TV history.

It wasn’t until a road trip in the first car I ever owned – an ‘85 Plymouth Turismo, paid $650 cash – that I found Hoyt on a purely musical level. This was a solo run from Ottawa to my home province of New Brunswick, Canada, in 1999. I had been browsing CDs in a music store a couple of days prior, and stumbled across the two-disc A&M Years package, which contains Axton’s four albums released on A&M Records from 1973-76. I remember thinking, “Well, looky here. Hoyt Axton.” On that trip I cranked up songs on that old Duster’s player like “Peacemaker,” “Life Machine,” “Idol of the Band,” “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” and “No No Song.” I discovered Hoyt’s music with road tunes from Southbound and Fearless on the highway outside of Montreal that morning, which made me realize what an underrated figure the man was and is, to this day.

Hoyt is generally considered a country artist, particularly from his musical bend in the mid-to-late ‘70s and on. But let’s go back to the beginning: 1963. Consider his first folk recordings on Horizon Records: Greenback Dollar, Thunder’n Lightnin,’ Saturday’s Child. Bob Dylan broke down the door, and Axton moseyed through – not with the same lyrical prowess as Dylan, but with attitude, groove, and a voice like no other.

The following year saw Hoyt “explode”! Released by Vee-Jay in ’64, Hoyt Axton Explodes! is a mid-‘60s curio that might be loosely described as “garage folk-rock.” If Axton has a blues record, it would be Sings Bessie Smith (1965). My Griffin Is Gone (1969) is a lesser inclusion among the pantheon of classic albums of the period, but an atmospheric gem of that era, nonetheless. And Joy to the World is a rock album. A rock album with folky ballads making up half of each side, though. Folk n’ roll? Listen to the title track and “Never Been to Spain” (big hits for Three Dog Night). Regard others like “The Pusher” (big hit for Steppenwolf), “California Women,” or that classic party song, “Lightning Bar Blues.” Also a tune called “Captain America” from 1973. These are rock songs. His aforementioned albums on A&M from 1973-76 started with a somewhat experimental, progressive folk/blues oddity (Less Than the Song), but which somehow…wasn’t. The albums Life Machine, Southbound and Fearless were “country-rock,” but…weren’t. Hoyt’s other albums for MCA and the ones on his own Jeremiah label appeared to be country, but also quietly defied categorization. For the most part, his music encompassed folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and country simultaneously. Michael Curtis, co-writer of the Crosby, Stills & Nash hit “Southern Cross,” said of Axton: “Hoyt had his own way of writing. He didn't exactly break the rules of songwriting, but he would often ignore them. He taught me a lot.” [Quote from HERE]

Hoyt: I'm one of those fringe dudes -- Half folkie, half hippie, half Okie. My input has been very eclectic. I was always surrounded by all kinds of music as my family moved around the country: jazz, classical, gospel, whatever. The influences enter from a lot of directions. [Quote from HERE]

Hoyt died of heart failure in Victor, Montana, in October of 1999, at the age of 61. I never had the opportunity to meet him, or see him in concert. But from what I’ve read in recent years (and learned from members of my Facebook tribute group Fans of Hoyt [HERE] who actually knew him or met him), he was a genuinely nice fella. In a People magazine article published shortly after his death, his third wife, Donna Axton, said, “He used to throw twenty-dollar bills out the car window and say, 'That will make someone happy.’” Look at almost anything autographed by him and he will have written, “Joy to you, Hoyt.” “Joy” was his watchword.

I realize my observations here may be a bit biased because I am such a devotee. After unearthing The A&M Years on that trip down home in ‘99, I have since sought out every Axton album, and I am continually trying to catch his movie and television appearances; my research is ongoing. Hoyt’s daughter, April, is a member of Fans of Hoyt, and last year thanked me and the members of the group on his birthday for “keeping his spirit soaring” (it’s a pleasure, April!). But c’mon – have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like Axton’s music (if they’ve heard anything beyond “Boney Fingers” or “Della and the Dealer,” that is), or the likable characters he’s played in movies and on TV? As with Cash or TVZ, the old cliché applies: A man for all seasons. But what I also dig about him is this: Hoyt did his own thing. You could never button-hole the guy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

DVD Review: East End Babylon: The Story of the Cockney Rejects

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


East End Babylon: The Story of the Cockney Rejects
Produced and directed by Richard England
Cadiz Music / Custom House
101 minutes, 2013             

The Cockney Rejects were not one of the British bands that excited me in the way that others did in those early days, as with the Adverts or even John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett. They were more of the football hooligan types like the Hammersmith Gorillas that were just a bit too idiosyncratic and locally topical for me. This film gives me the chance to explore what was going on about them, and see if I was missing out on anything.

One way to judge a “foreign language” film like this, whose focus is a band I don’t know anything about, is will it keep my attention. Early verdict is in, and yes, it did a bang-up job straight through. Oh sure, the very thick East Ham (London’s poor East End shipyards neighborhood) kept my ears peeled as it were, and there were the occasional parts I had to replay to figure out the hell they were talking about, but it was worth the watch.

Part of what makes this successful is the mixture of not only period live footage of the band and current interviews, but the splicing of newsreels from World War II while the neighborhood was devastated by German bombings and home movies of band members. What I especially appreciated is how a topic is introduced and then a clip of the band playing the song about it is shown.

This kind of British punk, which members of the Rejects claim they invented in a backyard shed, is different than, say, the Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned. It is more driven, being closer to what would become SoCal hardcore than just anarchy.  It’s beer – a lot of it – and football, rowdiness and history (more than politics), and totally East Ham working class loci perspectives.

As is described early on, the area was a breeding ground for bank robbers and the rolling of drunk sailors. A dangerous part of town where it was safer to know everybody than to not know anyone, even if you were just walking about, this is the breeding ground for their particular form of anger. They would right soon start a fight with you as buy you a pint or seven.

They are sort of like the Brit versions of the Tony Maneros that I was used to dealing with every day growing up in Bensonhurst. Oh, speaking of Otway (whose name briefly appears on a marquee in a film clip), he did a song about this sort, called “Headbutt.” But again, if you get on the good side, you had a better chance of not getting beaten up again. Their shows were, at times, outrageous and contentious.

As much as this film is about the band, it seems to be a history lesson of East Ham, from its longshoreman days through the closing of the docks in the 1970s (if I understood correctly, they blame it on the unions). As one of them posits, “There were only three ways out of the East End: football, boxing and rock’n’roll.” He apparently didn’t mention the fourth and fifth, which is prison or death, but I digress…   

This early chapter is also about the Greggus family in the middle of all that history. This is hardly surprising as it is produced by the guitarist, Micky Greggus. Not as much an ego trip, however, as you may imagine, it shows how they were part of the East End, and uses the East End to explain its effect on the family, rather than the other way around. It’s actually a good vision for the film, and it works.

The boxing part introduces Jeff Turner, the strapping singer of the band. He started out as a pugilist, and then helped co-found the Rejects. He brought his boxer moves to the stage, which he rightfully justifies as his stage style, much as other singers have their own, identifiable flair.

An aspect I also found interesting is how they conned their way into their first recording studio. You could call that punk, but I see it as year of being desperation-taught survival skills, even though they were around 15 years old at the time. With the help of Jimmy Pursey (Sham 69) in the studio as producer, they released a song, and used that to get their way into their first gig. Again, to me, this is more than just a punk story, but a sociological behavior that made that forlorn environment work for them. A little bit of luck, a smattering of chicanery and fast talk, and they’re at their first gig after recording at Polydor Records. Backtracking a bit, they even wrote their first songs after they found out they would be in the studio.

All this led to a signing with EMI (did I mention they were 15?) and a couple of hits that got them on Top of the Pops more than once. A drunken appearance, however, led to “phase two” of the band. Going full steam into the football realm (of West Ham, natch), the band’s music became more anthemic, raising them to a core leader of oi. This leads to epic fights, a gig in Manchester that is infamous, and a battle with Brit Nazi punks that is legendary, all of which is explained in detail, for which I’m grateful.  After that… aw, mate, stitch that, I’m not gonna give away the whole documentary. Besides, I’m on page three in this Word doc already.

Most documentaries I’ve seen recently regarding music has people talking with a stack of books and records behind them, as they yammer on.  Here, we see the Rejects in various places around the Ham, such as their mum’s house (she’s interviewed as well), along the Thames, in pubs, gymnasiums (boxing, remember?), and various places, keeping it fluid and moving. By not focusing only on the band, but on the times both past and, well, further past, as well as the present, the story doesn’t get claustrophobic. It’s always moving, always interesting. Perhaps it could have been a little shorter, but it still kept my attention. They are natural storytellers.

Which brings me to the one thing I would like to change: there are various language captions available, but the one I needed, English, was sorely lacking. The accents are so thick, sometimes things got lost in the translation (e.g., one I knew was claret = blood).  An English caption choice would have been welcome. But, hey, if that’s the worst I could find, that’s pretty damn good.

The extras are definitely worth the view: eleven shorts lasting between ten and fifteen minutes apiece that vary greatly from a live acoustic set, Jeff giving an inspirational talk, some of their recordings, their love for reggae, and stuff that didn’t make it into the film (enjoyable, but rightfully so).  There is also a very nice glossy multi-page booklet with photos and some text.

The most important thing this doc does is give you the opportunity to like these guys, both on a musical and personal level. Do yerseff a favor, mate, and give a peek.



Bonus video: