Thursday, April 20, 2017

Documentary Review: For the Love of Spock

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

For the Love of Spock
Written and directed by Adam Nimoy
455 Films / FilmRise / Gravitas Ventures / MVD Visual
111 minutes, 2016

As I am assuming is true with most people other than die-hard trekkers who are bulletin-boarded to the pulse of all things Star Trek, I first heard about this documentary about Leonard Nimoy, the Prime (first) Spock, from an episode of Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon is interviewed by Leonard’s son, the director Adam Nimoy.

As for Spock and Leonard, I was 11 years old when “Star Trek” first started playing on television. Even though I missed the second season due to being banned from TV for a year thanks to lipping off at my dad, of course over the years I caught up to all the episodes. Back when they were first run, and I was a pipsqueak, I didn’t realize the social implications of the stories (e.g., “I am black on the right side… Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side!” from the “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode), so it was just as enjoyable a sci-fi show as “Lost in Space.” By my mid-teens, I knew better (but still liked both shows).

In 1972, thanks to then-new pal Bernie Kugel, we went to the very first Star Trek convention, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania (then known as the Statler Hotel). The doors were late opening and there was a larger crowd than expected by the organizers jammed in together at the ballroom door, testily held waiting. Bernie, being Bernie, out of nowhere and with lack of context (i.e., bored) turned to me and in a loud voice said, “What do you mean, ‘Nimoy, who?!’” I could see the heads of people turning in my direction with daggers. There was no harm, but I did get sharp glances the whole day. Now I’m completely amused by it, and Bernie remains Bernie and a BFF, I’m happy to say, and yes I still have the convention’s program in a box somewhere.

So, the point is that when I heard about this documentary on Nimoy was in the works, it made me happy. And now I get the chance to review it!

As the film starts, the launching point is Nimoy’s death in 2015, and works its way back to the beginning. A key component is the director placing himself into the story. I find this doesn’t always work in other films, as it tends to misdirect the attention away from the subject in an egotistical way (much like the beginning of this review), but in this case, Leonard is not just a subject that the director is focused on, being his son he is integrated into the story, and so it works.

The early part delves into the start of Nimoy’s career rather than his childhood (a good move), which includes an interview with his brother. Funny thing is, his brother bears a strong resemblance to his Spock friendemy, Dr. McCoy/DeForest Kelley. Most of the family, in fact is represented here, including Adam’s sister (though not Leonard’s widow/second wife).

Y’know, I’m not gonna go into super detail here, because even at nearly two hours, this kept my interest throughout, except for the exceptionally long list of Kickstarter contributors during the final credits, because I have a life, but it still made me smile knowing that so many people wanted to be involved with this project (i.e., hundreds of names).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This incredibly inclusive film has tons of interviews, with previous cast members, writers, etc., of various “Star Trek”/Star Trek releases, from the television shows (including William Shatner, George Takei [aka the great Mr. Meme], Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig) and films (such as Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg and of course Zachary Quinto). There’s also Jason Alexander, who is apparently a “Star Trek” expert!

There are lots of film clips, from public and private speaking engagements, and conventions (including by fans and cos-players). The production also wisely alternatives between the linear and themes, so we learn about how the iconic “Spockisms” came about, such as the eyebrow-raise, the Vulcan neck pinch, the mind meld, and of course the “Live long and prosper” Vee symbol. Also, Adam nicely mixes information of Nimoy the actor and Spock the character, showing how they intertwined.

There is room for another documentary here on things that were mentioned in passing, including his music career, his books (e.g., I am Not Spock; I am Spock; collections of poetry), his photography art (some of his images are shown, but as they are not Spock related, and due to time I’m sure, they are merely glanced upon, again rightfully so).

Personal information about the Nimoys abound that I did not know, such as Leonard being an alcoholic and a sometimes absent father, but by having a gentle and personal touch, Adam makes him out to be a human rather than a monster (see Mommy Dearest, for example of the latter), and is also willing to take some of the distancing between them upon himself.

While Shatner is the central character and lovingly ribbed in modern culture for his line delivery, Spock is arguable the most influential of the roles from the original program, and I certainly believed the most beloved due to his part-alien/part human “Other” nature. This is also well touched on in the documentary, as is his stimulus on some people in the present NASA space program and the likes of scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson (who also appears here).

Extras are legion here, starting with the basic chapters and captioning in multiple languages. Then there are the featurettes. It starts off with the 28:37 “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston,” also produced and directed by Adam. It had been recorded for PBS as part of a series. It’s a really fine annotation to the feature film, because where the main documentary is a bit shy of early pre-Leonard history, this certainly makes up for it in an interesting way. We follow Adam and Leonard as they walk around the city, especially the West End where Leonard was raised, and we see the before neighborhood through pictures, and the after of the urban renewal that just about wiped out the entire area. It’s both a great autobiographical history as well as a lesson on the culture of Boston and what happens when the government uses eminent domain, as New York and Robert Moses did with large sections of the southern Bronx. It was shot four months before Leonard passed.

Next is the 9:15 short “On the Set of ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” which intertwines the post-mortem-Leonard appearance of Adam on the television show. Interviewed are the cast and crew who discuss not only Adam’s role, but the influence of Leonard/Spock on the series writ large. Continuing this theme is the 15:25 “Tribeca Panel,” where Adam, Quinto, “Access Hollywood” producer Scott Mantz and the Nimoy film's executive producer David Zappone appeared for questions at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 after the showing of the documentary. Then there is a 4:24 “Trivia Time with Jason Alexander,” a fun piece of fluff as he answers trivia questions about all things “Trek” from both television and film versions (though mostly the original series).

The 5:54 “Kickstarter Gallery” is a series of pictures of people who contributed to the campaign. Following this are two trailers, for the Tribeca Festival and the Theatrical one. Last is the full-feature-length commentary by Adam, Zappone, and Mantz. It is one of the better commentaries I’ve heard in a while. The three participants are respectful of each other and the topic at hand, never talking over each other or trying to showboat, they discuss anecdotes about both the film and the original television show, talk about the personalities of the actors on the set, and little known trivia (outside of Trekkers, of course).

As a side note, I was noticing how much Leonard looked like David Bowie towards the end of Nimoy’s life, and how one of the songs over the final credits is Bowie’s “Spaceman.”

Adam did an amazing job with this “Spock doc,” as he calls it in the commentary, keeping the interest of the viewer by not sticking on a single style of theme, yet keeping it cohesive and sensible.

Monday, April 10, 2017

PANTHER BURNS Stalk New York [1983]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1983
Introduction and photos by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Videos from the Internet

The music of the Panther Burns was interesting in that it deviated from a formula. In fact, it was the same rockabilly-blues paradigm that the Cramps built on, but the Burns went in another – albeit equally minimalist – way. They used dissonance, changed the rhythm, and included a bunch of “tricks” that would warp the sounds without veering that much away in order to keep it “electric” without it being “electronic.” To give you some idea, past members of the group included Alex Chilton (d. 2010) and Jim Dickinson (d. 2009)  

I saw the Burns play once (though for the life of me I can’t remember where) around the time of this interview (The Ritz perhaps?), and saw Tav Falco once more in 1996 in a solo gig at Mercury Lounge after an interview there for the Videowave cable access show (see at bottom) The rest of the band here also went on to other bands that achieved cult status.

Meanwhile, Falco moved to Europe towards the end of the last century, and continues to front a version of the Burns.

This article / interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #10, dated 1983. It was written by the Managing Editor of the magazine, Julia Masi. – RBF, 2017

The Panther Burns saunter out of a small rehearsal studio on East 8th Street and Avenue A, ready to make their way across town. Just as they begin to pile themselves and their instruments into a friend’s car, lead guitarist Jim Duckworth [who would join the Gun Club - RBF, 2017], the most loquacious and animated Southern gentleman imaginable, announces that he’d rather walk and “get some of that good Greenwich Village, Manhattan air.” A flimsy excuse to pursue his favorite New York pastime, looking for copies of the Panther Burns’ latest, their first big budget 12” EP, Blow Your Top (Animal Records), on the city’s street corners. “I love the adoration,” he calls from afar as he and drummer Jim “Voon” Sclavunos slip off in the direction of St. Mark’s Place.

About a half hour later, Jim and Voon arrive at bassist Ron Miller’s apartment for the interview. Of course, Jim is anxious to relay his experiences: “It was pretty exciting, seeing the record in the street. But the thing to do now is to go to street corners and ask for the Panther Burns’ record.” His voice becomes deeper and he slightly squints one blue eye. “You have the Panther Burns’ EP?” You see, it’s not cool to go into the records store. That is the first thing you do. You wanna see it in the stores. But when you get really hip, you wanna see it on street corners.

“We didn’t really acknowledge that it was us. We just asked him how much he wanted for it. He wanted two dollars for it. But the interesting part of the story is that when we walked back over there, every street corner was sold out of our record! So that’s a really good sign. We’re impressed with that. It’s on the streets. It’s in the stores. It’s even in Memphis. But it’s not on street corners in Memphis. Nobody sells stuff on the street in Memphis. Well, actually, they do, I take that back. They sell those ceramic Elvis busts. And those velveteen tapestries with the ship, always with the ship. And jeans. Jeans all the time. And inflatable frogs. It’s not like it is here (where) they have shoes and things you can use, like Panther Burns’ records.”

 Aside from an infatuation with street hawkers, Jim is slightly less than enchanted with New York City’s Northern hospitality. “I’ve been thrown out of everywhere I’ve ever stayed (in NY). I slept in a Volkswagen seat least night, and I’m not in a very good mood from it. I get to sleep in the Volkswagen again tonight, but then I’m thrown out of there, too,” he laments.

Fortunately, he’s not taking such petty annoyances to heart. Especially not in light of the fates that befell his musical heroes when they relocated to the Big Apple. “All those guys – Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Rogers – died almost on the train goin’ out to Coney Island. They brought him up here to make some last records. They carried him up on a cot. And then he says,” Jim lowers his eyelids, stretches out his arms in a crucifixion pose, his voice a crackling whisper, “’Oh, no-o-o-o-o-o.’ And that was it! He was a goner, Jack!

“Buddy Holly comes up here, and on February 3rd [1959] he dies in an airplane crash.” So why do Southern boys like Duckworth care to flirt with fate and not only play, but record their EP on jinxed turf? One of the lures of the big city was that the band was able to work at Plaza Sound Studio in Radio City Music Hall, which left them only feet away from the space where the legendary Rockettes rehearsed. “I’ve only heard about them all my life,” recalls Jim. In fact, he was so anxious to meet a real live Rockette that he hung up signs around the building saying, “Singers Wanted,” hoping that a hoofer or two would be willing to sing back-up on the EP. His scheme didn’t work out as planned, but he frequently got to see some of the dancers in and around the building.

“I just love tap dancers. They’re just – “he smiles and stares into space. “There are just hardly any left.” A big fan of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (he’s even seen some of Robinson’s videos in slow motion) and Fred Astaire, he and Ron wax nostalgic about the dancers they’ve worked with while touring in jazz bands. “I played a gig with a tap dancer jus last winter, as a matter of fact,” remembers Ron. “There was a tap dance concerto with Honey Coles (one of Jim’s idols), and this girl named Brenda Bufalino. It was an orchestra gig. Morton Gold wrote this thing with a rhythmic tap dance part that’s mainly improvised. And an orchestra.”

“There’s two black guys in Pittsburgh who can’t get nowhere,” sympathizes Jim. “I remember I played with them when I was in the Jazz Workshop All-Stars. I was playing one night in Tunisia, and the next thing I know – these guys were so neat! They just came out on stage, dancin’ like this – “; he gets up and does a pretty impressive shuffle step across the room. “They were just having the greatest time tappin’ and doin’ solos, cuttin’ each other, and doin’ fours! And I remember when they got off, they just tapped off! And I was watchin’ them in the wings, tappin’ and slappin’ each other on the back, and doublin’ over with laughter. I just thought it was wonderful. They’d just been doin’ this for about 40 years. Saxie Williams. And I forget the name of his partner.

“There was a period when all these guys in Pittsburgh would try to tap in the kitchen, late at night, doin’ the timestep.” He confesses that he can’t tap, as he demonstrates his own competent version of the dance. But the dancer of the group is said to be lead singer/guitarist Tav Falco. He’s known in some Southern Arthur Murray Dance Studio circles for his very classy tango.

“This is a studio record,” Jim continues on the original subject. “This thing was done in Plaza Sound. This thing meets the requirements of everybody. The last one was the garage record [the 45 produced by Alex Chilton on Frenzy Records – Ed., 1983]. And the one before that, that was done in the closet.

“We tried to keep a raw sound by recording the rhythm section first, (then) guitar, bass and drums, so, we could have that “feel.” We didn’t want to do it, like, drums, and then puttin’ stuff over it. We wanted it to sound like the group playing.

“I think rock’n’roll is continual,” he explains. “There was rockabilly, then there was another kind of music, and then there was the ‘60s, and it just keeps changing. Anything you do is going to include the whole tradition.”

And tradition, or just a desire to reinforce the roots of rock’n’roll, is one reason why the Panther Burns have chosen to resurrect some of the classics of rockabilly. They bring a fresh, timely originality to the material that they revere. “There are just so many great cover tunes,” answers Jim, when asked why the band doesn’t incorporate more original material in their repertoire. “What’s the difference if it’s a cover tune anyway? We just play the music the way we feel it anyway. Ron makes his own bass parts and we generally change the music around to fit us.”

“Why must performers do original tunes?” asks Tav. “You know, Frank Sinatra didn’t write a lot of the material he did. Yet people didn’t ask him to write songs. ‘Why aren’t you writing songs, Frank?’ It was his voice. He had the voice. And Elvis didn’t write much of his songs. I think that’s a thing from the ‘60s. Buddy Holly was a good songwriter, and there were a lot of singer-songwriters like that. I personally have never concentrated on songwriting. I look at this as a body of work that can be shared. I think rock’n’roll is a genre, and you participate in that body of work. Now, if we contribute something, write a song and something comes out, fine. But personally, I’m not trying to get down and be a songwriter.

“I like working out of a tradition like some of the blues work we’ve done so far. Especially the blues. We’re bringing into the modern world music traditions that we were exposed to, that we grew up with.”

But Jim does think it’s necessary for artists to do original work, “Because that’s what moved the American musical tradition on, the need to write new tunes. Be-bop; they could have reused the harmonic basis of the standard tunes, but they would have lost money, so they wrote these incredible melodies on top of them. So, original music is where all of this stuff comes from. It’s necessary to go in and write original tunes if you have something you want to say. If not, go and do cover tunes. The reason we do so many cover tunes is that there are so many great ones to do. And it’s not a constriction. It’s not black and white: ‘cover tunes are constrictions; originals are freedom.’ Sometimes it’s the opposite.

“Take the first song,” he points to the cover of his EP on the table, “I’m a Rocket. “ “The original was acoustic guitar and voice. This one has all sorts of things happening to it. We gave it an ensemble. The whole group is playing. We have drum parts, bass, guitar parts. It has the same words at the original. It has the same rhythmic feel, but Voon has opened it up a lot. It has feedback and all sorts of stuff.”

“I just think that the music we’re doing is a product of the atomic consciousness of the ‘60s,” offers Tav. “You know, like after 1945 and the atomic bombs that were dropped. Like this song,” he pauses to listen to part of Arthur Pruitt’s “Gonna Dig Myself a Hole,” coming from the stereo in the next room. “When he comes out (of the hole), there won’t be any more wars around. So, in a way, music has a sort of political strata. People think that this music is very primitive. Blues and early rock’n’roll are very primitive. However, there is a subversive quality about it that comes out of the absence of any really strong labor movement in this country. It’s kind of a product of that, because it’s not about joining in. It’s not about filling the American Dream. It’s not about that at all. So, people think this kind of music is very Rightist and a celebration of all the American values, but it’s not. It’s carried on in spite of that.”

Friday, March 31, 2017

DVD Review: Leonard Cohen – The Live Broadcast Sessions 1985-1993

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

Leonard Cohen: The Live Broadcast Sessions 1985-1993
Go Faster Records / MVD Visual
118 minutes, 2016

When Leonard Cohen died in November 2016, he was a Canadian, certified Zen monk and orthodox Jew who often sang songs using Christian symbolism, and he left the world a better place. There are many who call him “Canada’s Bob Dylan,” but honestly I would say it was the other way around, and Dylan was “American’s Cohen,” even though Dylan achieved fame first. Sure, Dylan has a way with words, and he’s now won a Nobel Prize for his songs/poetry, but if there was any justice, Cohen’s poems would be more recognized as they were more striking, lyrical and, structured. Dylan likes to rhyme lots of words together, but Cohen built his words into a tower of song, if you will.

However, one thing they definitely have in common is that their voices could be considered less than – err – culturally standard. Dylan’s is generally high and whiney, where Cohen’s is a low rumble, like a storm coming over the horizon.

I came to be a Cohen fan late, after his seminal Various Positions LP (1984), still my favorite set of his tunes, perhaps rivaled only by his Best of collection. I feel extremely lucky to have had the chance to see him perform live a couple of years ago, during his final tour. Sure I sat towards the rear, and yet it was a magical evening.

For this DVD, they compiled some live footage from European television during three tours. Being the day of VHS (or most likely PAL), the images have been significantly cleaned up (or taken from the master tape), though are still a bit grainy – though better than the clip below – but the sound is clear.

The first four cuts are from June 1985, at the Kalvøyafestivalen (Kalvoya Island Festival), in Sandvika, Norway. The 26-minute section starts off with a doo-wop tune (of all things) called “Memories,” from Death of a Ladies Man (1977). On stage, he is smoking a cigarette, puffing during the musical interludes of the songs. The last few albums were nearly whispered, and I wonder how much of that had to do with his heavy leaning on ciggy-butts at that time, because while his voice may not be the prettiest, he has some strong lung power and hits some notes at full volume. Also interesting is how he uses 1950s wrappings to discuss the possibilities of seeing his date’s naked body, or vice versa. “Heart With No Companion” is from Various Positions, a country-tinged tune (there is more than one on this release), mixed with a militaristic marching rhythm. It’s a tricky song because the verbiage sounds negative (e.g., “I sing this for the captain, whose ship has not been built”), but it’s actually about sending love to those who are suffering.

“The Story of Isaac” is from 1969’s Songs From a Room. It tells the Old Testament story of Abraham taking his son up the mountain to sacrifice to the new God to prove his devotion, but it’s taken from the perspective of the young Isaac. The set ends here, and Cohen leaves the stage to come back for the encore, with the apt “I Tried to Leave You,” from New Skin For the Old Ceremony, in 1974. Thematically it’s similar to Paul Simon’s “Overs,” in that the topic is the failure of a relationship breakup. This song goes on for a meandering 10 minutes as Cohen riffs commentary while introducing the band. Honestly, I was getting impatient after about the halfway point of the intros.

The second set, from May 1988, was also recorded in Norway, this time at the Oslo Konserthus (Oslo Concert House). This section is 50 minutes long, but also intersperses short interview segments; more on that later. This was aired as a complete program titled “Take This Waltz,” and it is shown here complete, including the full end credits, I’m happy to say.

The first cut is the powerful and heavily orchestrated “First We Take Manhattan,” a nice way to start off. It comes from the 1988 I’m Your Man record. The band here is tight, and the two women doing the background vocals are killer synced. This is one of the weirder songs in Cohen’s canon, as it is more opaque than most of his others as far as figuring out just what the significance is, and it has been discussed many times. It’s a great one and oft quotes (well, paraphrased), but I still don’t know what “First we take Manhattan / Then we take Berlin” means.

It’s also worth noting the stark difference between the previous 1985 show and this one. Only three years later and there is a cognitive shift going on. The first is still in the tail end of Cohen’s folk-singer-songwriter phase, but this is a turning point into full tilt mode. He’s mostly put down the guitar and began in earnest his trademark way to grasping the microphone cord; his look is also more stylized (which he would keep to the end, though no hat yet) including the loss of his trademark 5 o’clock shadow; his sound is more honed and pre-arranged, and his use of a wider orchestration is in play.

This is even true with some of the older songs, such as the next, “Joan of Arc,” from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. Here we are presented with an imagined conversation between Joan and the fire that would envelop her. It’s a brilliant piece that I’ve always liked from the first time I heard it. Here he shares the vocals ably with Julie Christensen (of the California alt-country punk band, The Divine Horsemen!), supported by Perla Batella. It’s an odd love song followed by one of an extreme level of lust, “I’m Your Man,” the title track off the 1988 album. Parts of it have the lyrical tone of Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango,” or a list of possibilities like the Temptation’s “Can’t Get Next to You,” but with Cohen’s basso slow burn in sharps and flats with his patterned growl, it’s way more sensual.

Actually, it makes sense that this would be followed by “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” also from I’m Your Man. If I may digress for a second, between each songs are interviews by Vera Kvaal, who hosted the “TopPop” show at the time, from which I believe this was taken. Cohen discusses his writing, his mother, and his life, among topics. While it’s all very interesting, it kind of takes away from the music. For some songs that’s literally true because we only get to see an excerpts, starting while the song is in progress after the interview clip, and then it cuts away a few times after during the tune. Let me say, sighhhh.

Next, since he’s doing love songs, it’s time for an anti-love one, so he picks up his acoustic black Gibson tell does “Chelsea Hotel #2,” from New Skin…, which is about his brief fling with Janis Joplin. It’s a slow, explicit ballad that is touching and sad, like Harry Chapin’s “Taxi,” of a love that never grew beyond the physical. It’s full of remorse and nostalgia.

For the first of two times on the DVD, is his most covered song, “Hallelujah,” from Various Positions. While it’s a great number, for me it’s overplayed to the point where I’m getting a bit weary of it, when played by another than Cohen, surprisingly. Here, though, they only show part of what’s known as the “profane” version of the lyrics. This is followed by the quasi-doo-wop influenced paean to music, “Tower of Song,” from the I’m Your Man collection. With just the vocal back-up and Cohen on Technics electric piano with a pre-set rhythm keeping time, he gives us a love song not to a person, but to what he’s given his soul (music). Well, that’s how I interpret the lyrics, with music being anthropomorphic in a similar way as Chuck Berry did with a car in “Maybellene.” He finishes this segment with “Take This Waltz,” again from I’m Your Man.

The final 43-minute grouping is from May 1993, recorded at the Palau Municipal d’Esports, in Barcelona, Spain. It starts off strong with one of his then-later songs, “Closing Time,” off of his 1992 album, The Future. Again, this is a complete program that aired on Spanish television that they titled after his opening tune. It says something about the man that nearly 10 years later, he is still being backed vocally by Christensen and Batella. As for Cohen, his hair if definitely graying but his voice is still holding strong, with perhaps a bit more bass to it.

While the previous two shows were visually cleaned up digitally, here you can see a bit of the noise of the PAL transfer as lines will occasionally break out here and there. It’s definitely a fuzzier image than the earlier clips, but it’s also pretty clear relatively, especially when the lights are their brightest. Plus all the songs are captioned in Spanish, and the sound is still great.

Next up is the whispy and whispery “The Sisters of Mercy,” from Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967. A tribute to prostitutes, I found the original recorded song a bit “tinny” on the vocals, but here they are quite a bit smoother as his voice has aged. The next tune is also a ballad, from I’m You’re Man, “I Can’t Forget.”

This time when we hear “Hallelujah,” we get most of the song without interruption, in all its (if you’ll pardon the pun) glory. It starts a couple of stanzas in, with “Baby, I’ve been here before…” and I don’t understand why they don’t just play the whole (again the pun) damn thing. His voice definitely has more growl on the powerful parts. Following is the repeated, lovely “I Tried to Leave You.” And again, it’s a long version, as Cohen introduced the band as each member plays a solo.

The final cut is “Democracy,” from The Future. This is a sarcastically timely song at the moment, especially since his death the day before the American election, as the line “Democracy is coming to the USA.” We can only hope that it will return soon, but I digress. This is one of the more powerful songs from his later period, in my opinion, so it is a good choice to close out the collection.

Leonard Cohen is sorely missed. I can honestly say that we own every one of his records (in various forms), though there are some I know better than others. If you are curious to know what you are missing, this is a nice collection through his work (well, until 1992, or course) to give you some idea of why he is mourned so deeply by so many. His death has definitely been a crack in our musical history, but a DVD like this is how the light gets in. RIP, Leonard, and thank you.

1985 Set List:
Heart With No Companion
Story of Isaac
I Tried to Leave You
1988 Set List:
First We Take Manhattan
Joan of Arc
I’m Your Man
Ain’t No Cure For Love (excerpt)
Chelsea Hotel #2
Tower of Song
Take This Waltz
1993 Set List:
Closing Time
Sisters of Mercy
I Can’t Forget
I Tried to Leave You

From the 1988 set in Norway:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Women of Comedy: My Jokes are Up Here! Tour, Broadway Theatre, Saskatoon: March 7, 2016

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos

The  day after the show, March 8, would be International Women's Day, so the My Jokes are Up Here tour that features three Canadian comics put on a fundraiser show for the local YWCA Saskatoon (where I work): Christina Walkinshaw, Jen Grant, and Erica Sigurdson.

I've been a fan of stand-up for as long as I can remember. It may have started when someone gave me the early Jackie Mason I'm The Greatest Comedian In The World Only Nobody Knows It Yet album, or perhaps it was George Carlin's infamous groundbreaking AM and; FM. Then again, it could have been my very early (5 years old) crush on Shari Lewis. Who knows, but I've enjoyed the art form for nearly as long as I can remember. Funny thing is, I haven't seen much of it from an audience, but lots on television, Netflix, and rentals.

The women this night were on fire, and I'm sure it was not just because they were recording it for an album. I may be on it indirectly, as they mentioned "the guy taking photographs." I didn't use a flash, as I know that can be distracting, so the pix tend to be a bit on the fuzzy side; at the end of the show, though, they all posed for me, and I'm proud of that one (at the very bottom here, and yes I used a flash on that one).

Yeah, they were hilarious, and it was a great night.

Christina Walkinshaw

Jen Grant

Erica Sigurdson

Final bows

Posing for my camera

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: 50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary
Directed by Jim Brown
Pop Twist / MVD Visual
78 minutes, 2014 / 2016

Most people I know who arrived at the punk movement came from either a rock (MC5, Stooges, KISS) or artistic (Velvet Underground) music background. For me it was different than most, as I approached from a folkie background (influenced in large part by my cousin Marc when I stayed Summer weeks with my Aunt Elsie and Uncle Al; also the summer camp I attended in the 1960s was an anti-war folk bastion), from the harsher Phil Ochs to the mellower Peter, Paul and Mary. If you think about it – and I’m not the only one who made this observation, though I came to it on my own – punk is ‘60s folk that is just “faster and louder,” as the Dictators might have put it. They are both guitar-based, minimalist, and often had a sharp, politically honed-edge. For example, take Stiff Little Fingers’ “I Don’t Like You” and compare it to Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street.” Or Towns van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Round to Die” and the Heartbreakers’ (or Ramones’) “Chinese Rocks.”

That being said, I still retain my folkie roots, as do a lot of punkers; ever notice how many hardcore singers have come out with singer-songwriter-style solo efforts? I would argue that Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” is a great folk tune.

I’ve never seen Peter, Paul and Mary (PPM) perform live. However, I did see Mary Travers twice at the Bottom Line in a very short time span in the early ‘70s when she was promoting her solo LPs, and a private performance by Peter Yarrow at/for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the late-1990s.

This documentary has been airing on PBS during fundraising periods since it was released, and is a huge draw. I kept missing most of it (due to its lengthy interruptions thanks to the GW Bush administration’s financial raping of the NEA funding, which the present “administration” promises to annihilate…but I sadly digress…), so as  I’ve seen bits of it here and there, I was so happy to be able to finally see it in its entirely.

Just as Judy Collins was a major contributing factor for the success of Leonard Cohen (d. 2016) by covering his music such as “Suzanne” before he was famous, PPM did the same for Dylan by doing his “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are A-Changin’,” among others of Bobby’s works.

The documentary makes quick work of their origins, which happened thanks in large part to their future manager, Albert Grossman (d. 1986), matching them up in the early Greenwich Village folk scene. But Yarrow correctly comments that when they all got together, it was not only a unification of harmony, but each voice stands out on its own personality (as I would posit was equally true of the Mamas and the Papas). This is evidenced in a clip of them performing an incredibly rousing “If I Had My Way,” shortly after the release of their eponymous first album, which went to Number 1 on the folk charts, and hovered around the Top-Ten for the following three years.

After their first three albums, there came a shift in the group that was a cognitive dissonance, or more accurately an awakening of consciousness. Much like Dylan’s pivot at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he went electric, for PPM it was performing at the Civil Rights March on Washington where they performed “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In present culture, they may have been seen as white interlopers on a black movement, but they were accepted then as the march needed to be an inclusive one at that point in time, which changed their direction to social activism, affecting every aspect of the group. Sure, some of it was there already, as it was throughout the folk scene, but it went from part of their sound to the focus (or locus) of it.

This is an unusual documentary in its approach to the subject(s). First of all, with the exception of some background on Mary pre-PPM, there isn’t much about their backstory, or again, even much attention on their formation, for two reasons: first of all, it’s what they accomplished that’s more important than how they first laid their eyes on each other. Yarrows succinct definition of their earliest period in an interview from that time (to which I referred earlier) is all that’s really needed to be said. Also, due to time constraints, this film would either have to sacrifice a bit of story or the music, and I’m grateful they picked to include the music instead.

This brings me to the next point, which is the music, of course. What we get to see are not merely snippets, but rather either most of or all of the songs presented. Occasionally there would be some talking over the instrumental parts, but all the dialog is by the participants, not a narrator. Even though Mary died in 2009, there is a large body of interviews with her on which to draw, so she is well represented. The part of this film that shows her musical memorial is very touching, and one of the guest speakers, Whoopi Goldberg gives a nice and accurate nod to the way she sang, and embodied each lyric.

Most of those interviewed, other than the trio in focus, are the wives (one an ex-), adult kids, and some people who have worked with them, including managers. Even Gloria Steinem makes some pointed notes about how important Mary was as a role model to the folk scene, and even writ large.

The extras are captioning, and five full songs taken from various times in their career.

Not discussed in the film, I have always felt that Peter was the righteous side (he created an anti-bullying campaign this is now worldwide), Paul was the spiritual one (he and his wife travel and sing Christian devotional songs), and Mary was the heart, being the main focus of the group (which is mentioned) because of her sincerity to what she was doing.
My only regret is that the filmmakers didn’t include one of their best later tunes, “Light One Candle” (which happily can be found on YouTube), and if that’s the only negative that crosses my mind, well, that speaks volumes on how I found this to be an excellent documentary, with a glorious mix of interviews, history, and music.