Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mainstream Women

Text and photo © Robert Barry Francos
Videos from the Internet

Anyone who has read my columns or blog knows that I often rail against mainstream music and labels, and almost always write about independent music, or those who have not been promoted well and fallen under the radar.

For this column, I would like to discuss some artists that were on the majors; some have been in the top leagues, some well regarded, and then there is the cult musician who didn’t really get the recognition she deserves. Again, these are in no particular order.

Jennifer WarnesJennifer Warnes
Jennifer WarnesFamous Blue Raincoat
When Jennifer Warnes was a regular on The Smothers Brothers Show, known only as “Jennifer,” honestly, she never raised a blip to me, and I didn’t remember her. Hey, I was a kid. She entered my radar, however, when she performed on a Smothers Brothers reunion show in the early ‘70s. Soon as I heard her voice, my jaw dropped. Simply beautiful. When I mentioned her to Bernie Kugel, he showed me two Mason Williams albums on which she had done either some background or co-singing, and it took about 5 years for me to give them back (after I had replaced them in my collection; I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Mason in a future blog). During the mid-‘70s, I bought her first few albums in thrift and used shops, including I Can Remember Everything, See Me Feel Me Touch Me Heal Me, and Jennifer (produced by John Cale). To promote her then-latest song, “Right Time of the Night” (from her self-titled album), she played the Bottom Line in New York (4/8/77, with Jonathan Edwards opening), which is the only time I saw her live (I took some really dark instamatic slides, as it was about a month before I had a real camera). Jennifer Warnes stayed on my turntable for a long time, especially the killer version of “Love Hurts,” “Mama,” “Don’t Lead Me On,” and especially “I’m Dreaming.” In fact, there really isn’t a filler track on the entire collection. The same can be true for arguably her most popular collection, Famous Blue Raincoat, which is her interpretation of Leonard Cohen songs; she had been backing him for years on some of his best albums (e.g., Various Positions). Jennifer is, of course, also known for her film song collaborations, including, “Up Where We Belong” (Officer & a Gentleman) and “Time Of My Life” (Dirty Dancing).

Lisa LoebFirecracker
Truly, I don’t remember who gave me the CD, and it was a while before I started playing the thing. But the more I heard it, the more I wanted to play it. I’d take notice of her first song, “Stay,” and thought it was okay, but this release was different. With few exceptions, nearly every song on Firecracker is filled with break-ups and bitterness, but at the same time there was a strength to the protagonist of the song, where you just knew no matter what, she was going to come out of it. While every cut is a gem, and I mean that sincerely, the closest to a hit she had from the CD is “I Do,” which is a perfect example when she quietly purrs, “I’m starting to ignore you.” She follows this up with some great songs in this theme, including “Truthfully,” “How,” and “Furious Rose.” I also enjoy the sheer tenseness and angst of “Wishing Heart” (“I was restless… / I just want this to be good… / But you don’t understand / You don’t understand me / And I want to be understood”), and the lyrical play of “Dance With the Angels” (“But you want to fall fashionably in love with a woman / In love with a life you’ll adore”). The one happy, peppy song is “Truthfully,” which was written for a film but never used. After this CD, she released a few more, and made some bizarre reality television choices, but I mostly enjoyed her work on MadTV singing the theme of – and appearing in – a hilarious sketch, Pretty White Kids with Problems.

Maria McKeeMaria McKee
First coming to the public’s eye in the band Lone Justice (with whom she recorded the brilliant “I Found Love”), she broke out with this eponymous titled solo release. But what made me notice her was a performance of “Breathe” she did on a late night music show called Night Music. It was jaw droppingly beautiful, as she swayed with her arms hanging in the air and her eyes closed and fluttering. Shortly, I went out and bought the CD, and it was a good choice. Another one of those every song is great collections. This is a woman who is not afraid to look at the dark side of living, as evidenced by songs like “Panic Beach,” “This Property is Condemned,” and “Drinkin’ In My Sunday Dress” (the latter only available on the CD, not the cassette). She is great in a rave up, such as the latter song I just listed, and the gospel-inspired “More Than a Heart Can Hold,” but it is the aching ballad that grabs my heart, such as the opener “I’ve Forgotten What It Was In You (That Put the Need in Me),” “To Miss Someone,” “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way),” and one of my favorite cuts, the heartbreaking “Has He Got a Friend For Me.” The cover photo of the release, a plain sepia-textured photo of Maria, eyes filled with longing and a hint of hope, is just beautiful.

Kimm RogersSoundtrack of My Life
Probably the least known of the batch here, Kimm Rogers is a singer-songwriter whom I know so little about her. Hell, I am not even sure how I came across the CD, but it wasn’t long before I fell in love with her unique voice. The title of this is totally accurate as she tells stories of her life, starting with “My Dear Mama,” feeling “Desperate” (“Nobody loves you / When you’re desperate”), “On the Street,” the wonderful “Just Like a Seed” (actually, again, I like all the cuts on the collection), and the catchiest, and closest she’s had to a hit that I know of, “Right By You” (“I wanna be right by you / I wanna be left in your mind”). Kimm has a very sharp way with words that say exactly what she means, and yet does not lose any of its poetic leanings. Sometimes, her songs sound like diary entries, such as “A Lot on My Mind,” the title cut, and the looking ahead “2-0-19.” As far as I know, this San Diego-based singer has two full releases (yes, I own them both), and I would love to hear more.
Note that Universal will not let the video be copied so you’ll have to go here:

The MurmursThe Murmurs
Some time in the very early ‘90s, I was walking with Alan Abramowitz around Chinatown, near Wooster Street, when we heard this beautiful live singing being blasted through a PA. We followed the sound, and came across a blocked off street, and saw two women with guitars on a high platform with a large crowd around them. Asking around, we found out they were the Murmurs, consisting of Heather Grody and Leisha Hailey. We stood there enamored of them. After seeing them another time, Alan arranged for them to be interviewed on his cable access show, Videowave, and I was lucky enough to be the cameraperson for it (actually, thanks to the MTA I was late, and you can hear me entering during the first part of the shoot). The last time I saw them, again with Alan, was at the CBGB art gallery, next door (upstairs). They had just signed with their major label then. The Murmurs had great unique voices and a special harmony; plus, being a couple at the time, sometimes they would gently bicker onstage, such as what to sing next. Also, they had a great relationship with their audience, and their performances would come off almost as an intimate gathering. After a while, the Murmurs became a foursome, and then changed their name to Gush, though for me, their best work was as a duo. Eventually, they broke up when Leisha and Heather separated. Since then Leisha has gone on to other fame as a star of the ensemble show The L Word, and co-star of all those “It’s so good that…” yogurt commercials.

The BanglesGreatest Hits
During 1981, I received a 45 in the mail called “Getting Out of Hand,” and there was a handwritten note inside asking me to review it for FFanzeen, signed by the singer, Susanna Hoffs. The trio was called the Bangs, and would (for legal reasons) soon change their name to the Bangles. Most likely there is no more to the story I need to go into about the band itself, considering its huge string of hits. The Saw Doctors have a song called, “I’d Love to Kiss the Bangles,” he which the singer chants, “I’d love to have it off / With Susanna Hoffs,” interrupting himself to say, “Err, my favorite’s Vicky, actually.” Well, I’ve always had a soft spot for bassists, and Michael Steele is no exception (yeah, I know…). This is proven in her ballad, “Following,” my favorite song here, and arguably the least known from this collection.

Judy CollinsFires of Eden
I have to say, during the height of her career, Judy Collins never really got to me, except possibly a duet with Theodore Bikel of “Greenland Whale Fisheries” from the Newport Folk Festival (released by Vanguard). Yes, that includes “Both Sides Now,” Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and “Amazing Grace.” When I heard this release, however, I liked it right off, especially for two songs. First one is the title cut, which has a catchy chorus (“Those fires of Eden / Still burn in this heart of mine”), is upbeat, and shows off her voice. The other one, especially, is “The Blizzard,” a long piece about being stuck in said Colorado blizzard leading to self-redemption after the end of a harsh relationship. Though lengthy, this song tends to fly by for me. The whole album is worthwhile, though it is these two that will remain in the forefront, and that I can listen to numerous times without getting bored.

Bonus video:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sick Songs of the 'Sixties

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

This column was inspired while listening to the true local oldies station, at 1410 AM out of New Jersey (WCBS 101.1 FM has deserted us and is promoting a lie, but that’s for later). I play it while I shower, and attempt to sing along to it.

During the early 1960s, culture was undergoing a revolution. But as the axiom goes, the more things change… Music is usually a strong agent of change, but it can also be reflexive. There are certain hit songs from the ‘60s that are cherished as “golden oldies” but need to be lyrically scrutinized under present sensibilities.

Now, I fully understand that many of the songs that came later are more blatant, and could never have been made back then, such as the Ramones’ “Gonna Kill That Girl” and Anti-Nowhere League’s “So Wot” through whatever is on the dance charts at the moment, including crap like “I Kissed a Girl” or “Circus.”

Below are some songs that, if we looked at with any scrutiny, are of questionable content.

Jimmy SoulIf You Want to be Happy
This is one of the early ska radio hits, along with Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop.” Lyrically, while this was done tongue in cheek, it was also pretty misogynistic. The chorus claims, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life / Never make a pretty woman your wife / If you want my personal point of view / Get an ugly girl to marry you.” The reasoning? Well, they posit, she won’t cheat because no one else would want her. [Sidebar: this is reminiscent of a joke from Abbott & Costello, where Costello claims that he wants to marry an ugly girl because a pretty one may leave him. Abbott states that an ugly one can leave, too, to which Costello explains, “Yeah, but who cares?”] Also, as one person says in the song, “Man, you wife is uuuuugly,” to which the singer responds, “Yeah, but she sure can cook.” Yikes. And yet, the melody of this song is very catchy, and even the semi-harmonious voices get one to sing along. Just don’t sing it in front of you-know-who.

Tom JonesShe’s a Lady
Amazingly, this song has been revitalized in a television commercial. This is basically the exact opposite as the previous song, as Tommy describes in a list what makes the perfect woman, including that, “She’s got style, she’s got grace / And she always knows her place.” To love and obey? Maybe the writer was trying to get a “The Lady is a Tramp” vibe going? Yep, Tommy loves the women. Except Delilah, of course, who he brutally stabs to death after being caught cheating. Guess she wasn’t a “lady.”

Leslie GoreJudy’s Turn to Cry
In this sequel to the popular, “It’s My Party,” Leslie reunites with her lying-ass boyfriend, Johnny, after he socks another guy who Leslie tricks into dancing with her, the poor sap. So let me break this down into themes. First, even though Johnny has been cheating with Judy at Leslie’s own party, without telling her what is happening, Leslie still wants him back. Why? So, to make him jealous, she gets some other poor schmuck to dance with her, leading him on like she’s interested. Leslie, it turns out, is not so nice after all, so maybe they do deserve each other. And when Johnny, who wants his Judy-cake and eat Leslie too, sees her dancing with the mark, he socks him in the eye, and then Johnny and Leslie are reunited. This is a couple headed for premature babies, marriage, trailer park, and divorce. Maybe Judy is crying in relief to be out of the situation?

The CrystalsHe Hit Me and it Felt Like a Kiss
This is an infamous b-side that was only a minor hit on the radio, for obvious reasons. The theme to this is similar to “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” if Johnny had hit Leslie instead of the mook. In this song, because her boyfriend whacked her a good one, it meant he still had feelings for her. Can anyone say “ownership?” A couple with control and boundary issues, at least. Anyone who hits Darlene Love is crazy, anyway. Sighhhhh.

Lou ChristieLightening Strikes
I loved this song growing up, and then one day, I actually listened to the lyrics. Jeez Louise. Lou is a real scumbag in this, as upbeat and cheery as it sounds, musically. “Am I asking too much for you to stick around,” he asks the song’s subject. He’s a horny dude with commitment issues, and expects his girlfriend to stay pure and virginal while he dicks around with anyone he wants, and when he’s good and ready, yeah, he’ll marry her. Lucky her! And not only that, he sees someone else while talking to her, and dumps her right then and there: “When I see lips waitin’ to be kissed / I can’t stop / I can’t stop / Because lightning’s striking again.” Yes, that’s present tense, so that means he leaves her standing there. She, too, should just walk away, Renee. Y’really think this nutsack is ever going to stay loyal?

The Kingston TrioAh Woe, Ah Me
There were a whole series of folk songs that were based on Calypso (i.e., ripped off), sung by white groups trying to cash in on Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O.” Well, white artists ripping off artists of color was certainly nothing new in the music biz (e.g., Pat Boone, Vanilla Ice). The calypso genre was huge in the folk scene, and in fact was made sport of on the A Might Wind soundtrack (The Folksmen’s “Loco Man”). In “Ah Woe, Ah Me,” the problem is poking fun at the lack of morale of Islanders, as a young man is trying to find a wife. It seems every sweetie he brings home, his father brags “The girl is your sister / But your mama don’t know.” And when the son finally rats the father out in desperation, his mother tells him, “Go, man, go / Your papa ain’t your papa / But your papa don’t know.” The singer says the characters’ lines in a bad Jamaican style accent, in a bit of internalized racism that would not become obvious to even the liberals in the folk crowd until years later.

Feel free to add any in the comments you can think of from this time period.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tribute to a Mixed Tape, #2

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Videos from the Internet

I put this cassette together in the 1990s, when people still made mixed tapes. It was for traveling in the car, as it had a cassette player and it seemed I was always going somewhere. Certainly, there was nothing on the radio to which I wanted to listen (and that is still true).

In 2001, I starting making a series of six-hour drives up to western New England, and for that summer I often had my granddaughter with me. At the time she was 8 years old, and was heavily into Britney and the like. I was quite proud of her that summer because she really got into some Bollywood music I had in the car. But that’s another tape, and here is this one. It seems I played the first side a lot around her, but judiciously. Some of her reactions at the time, will be included here, if you wonder why I bring her up.


The CyrkleI Wish You Could Be Here
The Cyrkle were know for a number of things, such as “Turn Down Day,” “Red Rubber Ball,” being the only American band managed by Brian Epstein, and for playing the last gig with the Beatles at Candlestick Park, which was also their own swan song. The reason for the Cyrkle’s split was that their second album tanked. This was a shame, because there were a couple of really great tunes on it, including this one. Played in a dissonant tone, each stanza climbs one scale, and yet Don Danneman’s voice is clear throughout as he misses the woman who recently left him. Sad song yes, but beautiful (“I keep listening for your footsteps / Or your key turn in the door / I sure could use your company / But we’ve been through that before”).

Bugs BunnyI’m Going Cuckoo
This song, which I taped off the television, is from one of the very early cartoons, when Bugs was short and stout, and still sounded like Woody Woodpecker, rather than the iconic look and sound that would crystallize in the just- pre-World War II years. The song is brilliant in its non-sequiter imagery, many of which were played out during the song (such as, “Please pass the ketchup / I think I’ll go to bed / Hoo!”)

Mystic EyesMy Time to Leave
The grand-kinder was impressed that I was a friend of the lead singer of a recorded song, Bernie Kugel. Every time this came on, I would say, “Yay, Bernie!” After a few days, this annoyed her. After a few more, she was doing it with me. This was one of the early tracks of Mystic Eyes, after the demise of Bernie’s previous group, the Good. It is similar to the Cyrkle song in that it is about the break-up, but in this case, the singer is the one leaving (because it is his time, you see…). This is one of Bernie’s strongest early songs, which is saying a lot considering Bernie constructs some killer pop garage tunes. I love the line, “My mind stuck on you like a magnet,” and it is hard to be still during this total beat-fest with a bit of a calliope swirling feel.

Deaf SchoolGolden Showers
I would fast forward over this song when the kid was in the car, for obvious reasons. Not that I thought she would understand the meaning of it back then, but the last thing I needed was her walking around the house singing it (e.g., “A touch of madness in us all they say / But I don’t do this every day / I get relief from stressful hours / I like those golden showers”). Bad enough she was going around singing, at the top of her lungs, “I’m not that innocent!” Scary. Anyway, while I do not imbibe in the practice this song portrays, it is, nevertheless, a great pop tune, full of great beats and a building power.

Fire, IncTonight Is What it Means to Be Young
This is the end theme to the cult film, Streets of Fire (if you haven’t seen it, you should). It is everything I would normally not like in ‘80s music: overproduced and overdramatic; however, it is one of my favorite songs. I must admit, for those who have seen the film, I like the movie version better because the handclapping within the film takes it to a HNL (hole nother level, for we Keegan-Michael Key fans), but as the film fades out there is talking over the end of the song, I chose the soundtrack rendering. The granddaughter fell in love with the song, too, and when the key change happens during one of the musical breaks, we’d both raise our hand (palms down) to indicate its rising, and laugh.

Mike OldfieldFive Miles Out
Oldfield was mostly known for his theme to The Exorcist, “Tubular Bells,” but I also like this piece. A bit overwrought, it is about a flyer that is running on fumes and is trying to make it to the airport while in the eye of a hurricane (“Five miles out / Just hold your head in two”). It is a very theatrical piece, which I became familiar with through its video, but came to love independently.

TrashmenSurfin’ Bird
Papa-Oo-Mow-Mow, indeed! Since everybody knows that the bird is the word, I won’t explain this piece, but here is the meta-story: the kid hated this song, because it was just so stupid, in her words. It would come on, and she would just roll her eyes, annoyed. In the fall of 2008, I showed up for a family visit to celebrate her Sweet 16, and she was all excited. “Did you see Family Guy!? The whole show was about that crazy bird song you used to play! They kept doing it over and over! It was great!” She remembered it after 7 years. Wow, the power of stupid songs, I guess, but I felt like I had done some good in the world.

This was definitely one of the superior versions of the song, and one of the better instrumentals to hit the top 10 (and there were many in the ‘50s and ‘60s). There are plenty of good interpretations, including by Johnny Thunders, but this one takes it. It starts off so subtle with feather-light string picks, which turn into bass rhythms, and the listener is hooked even before the core melody starts. I firmly believe that this song started the surf music craze as much as the Beach Boys and Dick Dale.


Jonathan KingMary, My Love
Despite my disagreeing with King on his musical philosophies (I interviewed him in the early ‘80s), and especially on his troublesome vocation (look it up), he did write some great songs. Yeah, a lot of his work is crap (e.g., a disco version of “Una Poluma Blanca” and “Hooked on a Feeling” with the ooga-cha-kaas, an idea which was stolen by Blue Swede), but I really like this reworking of Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” theme. I have a running disagreement with Boston musician / publicist Joe Viglione on the meaning of the ending (I say she comes to protagonist, Joe says he rejects her); whatever, it is a well-written album cuts from the ‘70s). Yes, that is King in the video, as this is HIS official release.

Grease Broadway SoundtrackAll Shook Up
They screwed up the movie in many ways, one of which was by dropping this song for the tedious and musically out-of-place “One That I Want.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear you out there saying, “But I loved that song!” Fiddlesticks. “All Shook Up” was much better. Barry Bostwick’s Danny was stronger than Revolta, and while I like some of the early work of Newton-John (i.e., her country period), Carole Demas of The Magic Garden was a great Sandy. It felt moving when Bostwick wailed, “Got a fever / 104 Fahrenheit / Need your lovin’ / Can I come over tonight / Feelin’ low down / My equilibrium’s shot / Give me that tranquilizer you got!” As she turns on the “bitch,” Carole was much more believable in this exchange:
Danny: C’mon an’ take my ring, coz you’re my match
Sandy: Well I still think there’s strings attached
D: You’re writin’ my epitaph
S: Well that’s just tough-and-a-half
D: You’re gonna make me die
S: Don’t make me laugh!

David EssexRock On
David’s only hit in the US, this is a spooky, echo-riddled, and cryptic ‘50s homage. While disconnected here, David was associated with the ‘50s a lot in the UK because, in part, to a few films in which he was the lead that took place in that time period (e.g., That Will Be the Day). The song’s beat is hypnotic and the rhythm of the lyric patter with David’s voice makes this a kind of zen-lite experience. Plus, once heard, it’s hard to get out of the head.

Grass RootsBella Linda
While this song was a hit, it is not one of their biggest, and tends to get forgotten. That is a shame. It is sort of a whiney version of “Lightening Strikes” (i.e., I was a screw-up, still am, and may be for a while, so please forgive and wait), while the lyrics plead and cajole, but with great harmony. Mind you, the whiniest song is, arguably, the Seeds’ “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” (another classic, recently used for a TV commercial), but this one is up there. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, much like Robert Klein’s beggar screaming, “Pleeeeeease!” If one looks at a Grass Roots’ greatest hits collection, it is amazing how many times one will go, “Oh, yeah! I love that song!”

Deaf SchoolAll Cued Up
Deaf SchoolI Wanna Be Your Boy
Yes, two in a row. I’m not quite sure why, but Deaf School seemed to be left out of a number of punk histories that focus on England. They were a true egalitarian punk group that started out of pretty bourgeois circumstances. “All Cued Up” is Betty Bright singing about waiting on a line (“I don’t remember a place / I don’t remember a time / When you got what you wanted / Without waiting in line”). However, “I Wanna Be Your Boy” is a white-ska masterpiece, starting off with a slow rhythm, which doubles, then again, and again, repeatedly. And just when you think they can’t go any faster, they double it once more. Killer tune.

Daddy CoolBaby Let Me Bang Your Box
If I remember correctly, Daddy Cool was an Australian band in the ‘80s. Here, they cover a ‘50s doo-wop innuendo-laden tale of playing piano to perk up a boring party (“Baby let me play your 88s / I’m gonna play ‘till the whole house rocks”). Amazing they gave “Louie Louie” such a hard time, when this one was so much more blatant. Seems like the perfect song to end the tape, on an up beat and wanting more.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Small Name Change

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos

When I started FFanzeen in 1977, there were only a handful of print fanzines around. The scene started changing with the input of British punk, and some of the older fanzines either went for it strongly and started putting down the local New York scene as "dead"; or they found a small niche (e.g., post-garage), and declared the scene dead; or...

Some of the top mags at the time were like this, such as The New York Rocker (after Alan Betrock left), which was especially denegrating to the scene of the very city it was named after, issue after issue. In the Village Voice, the bible for the scene at the time, Robert Christegau turned his back on us, going on and on about how great the scene overseas was in comparison or wrote mostly about R&B (my Managing Editor at the time had a button that said Christegau D-).

I swore that I would never do that, and would fold if I found myself losing interest. At that point, FFanzeen's subtitle became "Rock 'n' Roll with Integrity." It was something I stood by. If a band I thought fit into the concept of the magazine, I printed something; if they did not, well, that's why I turned down an interview with Duran Duran. They were everything I was against. I also said no to Steve Forbert and Southside Johnny, who asked me directly if I would want to write something about them. "No, sorry, does not fit into the format." That same Managing Editor quit because I would not publish something about one of her favorite groups, NRBQ, a talented band that I found particularly dull. When one of my writers tried to interview Iggy Pop she was told by his managing company, "Only if he gets the cover." I turned said no because I refused to be dictated to. He finally was interviewd by us in the following issue, and it was without stipulation; he was indeed on the cover, and he should have been, just not by decree.

Well, the years passed. In 1988 I stopped publishing because I ran out of money and time. While I did not realize the last issue was going to be just that until after it came out, it was the right time for me, personally.

Now I have restarted FFanzeen as this blog for the very same reason I started it in the first place: I want a place to put my writing for general consumption. It is something I enjoy, and from the responses I have received both on and off the blog, people seem to be enjoying it. That cheers me up enormously.

However, after all these years, my tastes have broadened, and I am not just writing about rock and roll, but of all things that come to mind. There's music and film, theater and books, academics and philosophy, events in my life, and my views of culture in general. For that reason, as of today, I have changed the subtitle of my blog to "Culture With Integrity." Does that mean that I would now talk to Duran Duran? Nah, I am still so not interested in that kind of pablum, any more than if Christina Agulara asked. However, I would talk to others that would have fallen out of the concept of the print edition.

That's the thing, you see: just what is the concept of FFanzeen as it stands today? Whatever I want it to be. I do not answer to anyone except myself on it. On occasion in the future, I may have guests writing on here, but for now, it is my vision alone.

My hope is that you will be amused, perhaps learn something (and teach me as well by adding in the comments, or even correcting me), or use what I write to promote yourself. And if and when I lose interest, I will disappear rather than disrespect the reader. That's all I can give.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: Detour, NYC’s Premiere Film Noir & Arts Festival, April 16, 2009

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos
Flyer © LOOKpresents

Truly, I tried to get to Detour: NYC’s Premiere Film Noir & Arts Festival on time, but the MTA…well, you know.

Despite getting there 20 minutes past its scheduled 7:30 start, I still had enough time to check out the ambience of the joint, in this case the Galapagos Art Space (16 Main St.), under the DUMBO side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

On the ground floor, there is a generous stage, fronted by a series of four circles of five tables, surrounded by water that has walkways linking all of the circles. Creative, but after all, that is what one would hope from an art space. Looking from the stage, there is a bar in the back on the right. Horseshoeing around the room is the mezzanine (from which I watched the show), lined with small tables with two chairs apiece and an occasional couch, and a bar at the back. Seems wine was flowing more than beer; it was that kind of crowd.

As I entered, the music was great ‘30s-‘50s style jazz (more Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” than, say, Coltrane); like one would hear in a Betty Boop cartoon. On the screen was a short film by Kate Raney called, Love (Hate) You: Mitchum, which had images of Robert Mitchum during his Noir days, and some of his leading ladies (including Jane Russell, and Gloria Graham at her finest), floating in front of a psychedelic haze, repeatedly. Very Pas de Deux (dir. Norman McLauren). This played over and over until 8:30, when the lush red curtain was lowered and the show truly began in earnest.

[The Well Rounded Hoodlum]
Under the scream of sirens and helicopter blade chopping sounds blaring over the PA, the host arrived. Matthew Hendershut, in his dapper guise of the Well Rounded Hoodlum (WRH), was dressed in the Noir fashion of dark suit and tie, and fedora. It was hard to see his face from the balcony because he read the show information from a paper, but he ably fulfilled his duties as master of ceremonies: humorous, short, and to the point.

[Melinda Smart, v1]
First up was Melinda Smart, who did a slow and sultry version of the classic Van Morrison tune, “Moondance.” It was intense, like liquid silk that made the air heavy with anticipation… uh-oh… Splaneisms are catchy, it seems. Anyway, Melinda has a beautiful voice that set the mood for the rest of the evening. Unfortunately, nearly all acts were one song, sung live over pre-recorded music.

[The “cool kids” table]
After leaving the stage, a series of short modern films (i.e., from the last 5 years) created in Noir style or temperament were presented, both Black & White and color, and occasionally animated. This would be a theme of the evening: films bookcased by live acts (or vice versa, depending on how one looks at it). One of the highlights of this block of showings included Night Visitor (dir. Kenneth J. Hall), if merely for the rare (unfortunately) presence of Lynn Lowry, who had a limited career in the ‘70s as a s/exploitation goddess, including the leads in They Came From Within/Shivers, The Crazies, and I Drink Your Blood; she is starting to revive her career, I’m happy to say…but I digress. Another film shown in that segment worthy of attention was Rest Stop For the Rare Individual (dir. Robert Bentivegna), which was successfully creepy with a twist ending that took me by surprise.

[Brooklyn Strip a Go Go]
The next live performance was by Brooklyn Strip a Go Go, featuring two dressed-alike burlesque dancers trussed up in tight ‘50s fashion style, who slowly ripped each other’s clothes off piece by piece while moving to the music, down to garters, underwear and pasties. I’ve never been to a strip club though I have seen scenes on film and television and get the idea, but I have also seen some Bettie Page (RIP) era films, like Hollywood Revels, and burlesque seems a lot more fun that modern stripping, even if less revealing. Following that thought, yes, I enjoyed the Brooklyn Strip a Go Go for what it was more than what it revealed.

More films followed, including the humorous animated Cole Petticoat, PI (dir. Hamilton Craig), though the sound was a bit muddled, and The Look (dirs. Ryan Demler and Matt Fantaci), a film I’d actually wanted to see as it co-stars Ashlie Atkinson, who I had recently seen during a reading of the play Psychomachia (see this blog, dated February 20, 2009).

[Justina Flash, “hula hoop fire goddess”]
After an intermission that gave us a chance to stretch, Justina Flash came to the stage. Continuing in the burlesque edge, Justina does not strip, but exotically twirls a hula-hoop while contorting her body. She is known as the “fire goddess,” but this night (probably for fire safety regulations) she relied on multicolored lights in the hula rather than actual flame. Either way, it was a pleasure to watch her smooth motion while dancing and wiggling her way around and through the hoop while dressed in a corset. Oh, and huge, honkin’ eyelashes.

The last round of films included two that were similar in name, yet diametrically opposed in style and ‘tude, and yet still remained within the Noir genre. Diary of a Hitman (dir. Ary Hernandez) is played for laughs with cartoon violence in the broadest sense of the word. Corny and silly all at the same time, the staging and acting is, well, bad (purposefully, I am assuming), but that makes it all the more fun. The other, which is just barely in the genus, is a rough and gritty piece called Chronicles of a Hitman (Dir. Yuri Alves), in which a Latino hitman hides out from mysterious assassins while on his own “project.” Edge of the seat time.

[Melinda Smart, v2]
The curtain went up on a woman dressed in a corset, tutu and top hat, who was holding a large open umbrella. While swirling around, slowly losing the tutu and hat, the PA played a song I did not recognize, with a beautiful voice. Eventually I realized that it was the second appearance of Melinda Smart, and while she sounded like a recording, it was soon clear that it was actually her singing live. Yes, she’s that clear.

[Katy Gunn]
As another intermission started, I decided that perhaps it would be time to leave, as I had to be at the airport extremely early. I said goodbye to an Asian NYU student I was talking to at the next table, and headed downstairs. As I was passing the main room, the WRH announced the next act. Oh, what the hell, sez I, as I moved to one of the front tables on the main floor. The curtain went up on an actual live group on stage. Surrounded by two men, one on stand-up bass and the other with a small synthesizer, Katy Gunn stood behind a huge electric keyboard. By the number of people taking photos of her, I assume she has a large fan base, though honestly, I am not familiar with her work, yet.

Unlike the wild jazz that had been playing over the PA through the night, Katy plays a much smoother, quieter, more intense jazz of a later day. It was sort of a more ‘60s Noir, perhaps. Sultry vocals, cool looks and a tight group showed why people stayed to listen. It was the first live music of the night, and the first performance that consisted of a “set” rather than a single song. Understandable why this would be true in Katy’s case, and it was a happy choice to have it so.

After about the fourth or fifth song, as much as it was enjoyable, this soft-boiled non-detective decided it was time to beat it to the streets, where men scuttle around in the dark, walking under bridges, looking for…well, the subway. And waiting for the next LOOKpresents production…

Additional info:

LOOKpresents mission statement, in part: Dedicated to organizing thematic based events where creative minds can promote their creative endeavors and foster collaborative relationships. Contact them at the Website listed directly above.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Thoughts on Flying from West Palm Beach to LaGuardia

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos

Written throughout the day of Monday, April 20, 2008.

• I bought my tickets from an online service to save some cost, but they split it on two separate airlines, flying from West Palm Beach (WPB) and switching at Dulles outside Washington, DC, with a four-hour layover. Because it was split that way, Jet Blue would not permit me to switch to a direct flight to LaGuardia (LGA), despite being room in standby. I would have been home in mid-afternoon, hours before my flight was scheduled to arrive. Next time, I only fly with partners.

• At WPB, I'm sitting directly across from the flight to LGA that I was banned from, and they made numerous announcements about the flight boarding, especially since it was a bit late. The doors closed at 11:30 (I had been there since 10:30, my flight at 12:40). At 11:35, a woman about 65-70 years old comes up to the gate and wants to get aboard, yelling that she has been waiting for the flight since 9:30 and didn't hear the announcements, and somehow missed the large crowds lining up to board. She is arguing with the man at the gate (same one that would not let me switch flights), so she apparently is not deaf. Don't know why she was so clueless. The gate people check, but it is too late, the plane bridge is already detatched.

• Cell phones, cell phones, cell phones everywhere, and not an importance to hear.

• Watching the luggage get loaded in WPM through the plane window, wondering why they always slam the luggage down on the conveyor. I'm grateful that I have carry-on.

• Woman across from me at United's gate at Dulles busily using Purell, then rubbing her hands with an alcohol pre-soaked cloth...all the while coughing deeply without covering her mouth.

• I am set to fly out of Dulles at 6:59/18:59, so I went to see if I can get an earlier flight. I'm put on standby (while keeping the original ticket) for a 5:09/17:09-er. Thanks to delays at LGA due to storms, as I write this my standby flight is bumped up to 6:54/18:54, with my original one set to 7:46/19:46. No matter what, I'm going to miss Heroes.

• I write most of the blog about the Detours: NYC's Premiere Film Noir and Arts Festival that I saw on Thursday night, before I left for WPB. I'll finish it tomorrow, but meanwhile, as I wait, I'm reading Travis Nichols' Punk Rock Etiquette: The ultimate how-to guide for DIY, punk, indie, and underground bands (Roaring Brook Press, NY: 2008). He's a musician and cartoonist (for Nickelodeon Magazine). It's a short and funny book on how to start and maintain a band, including recording and going on the road. Far easier to read the book than to focus on the article right now.

• Dulles is a badly laid out airport which has these huge people moving bus vehicles that take you from terminal to terminal. They remind me of the two-legged machines from The Empire Strikes Back, or as I like to call it now, "Something, Something, Something, Dark Side."

• A couple about my age now sitting across from me at Dulles, both dressed in purple: his shirt and her jacket, blouse and pants. He looks a little like Robert Foxworth, she like Maggie Smith. Don't know what led up to it, but he flipped out and violently grabbed something out of her hand and then ripped it up. He sulked for a bit, and then walked off, dragging his luggage and leaving her behind. I was thinking of reaching out to her and asking if she was okay, but he came back, without saying anything at first. Then he opened his carry on suitcase and pulled out something from an amber bottle and took it, and then gave one to her. She hesitantly swallowed it. Prozac? He put his hand on hers and while I couldn't make out much of what he was saying, it was obviously an apology. I did then hear him say that there was a lot he was sorry for in his life. And through his whole long comment, he kept his eyes tightly closed, like one does praying hard. Hmmm. He's getting teary and she is responsive, but stony). Her hand is on top of his patting it as she responds, and she fiddles with the ring on the other hand (looks like fancy wedding band, but on her right). So much drama; meanwhile, the standby flight is still 1-1/2 hours away and I do not know if I'll be on it.

• Well, when I got my standby pass, I was told I was first on the list; now it is 6:20/18:20 and I've just been told that I am 12th because of my low air miles (i.e., I'm not on their "plan"). And my real flight is now scheduled for 10:00/22:00. My chances, so I'm told, are slim. That means I am looking forward to another 4 hours of waiting. Fuck! That will mean 12 hours for a 2-1/2 hour trip.

• Finished Travis' Punk Rock Etiquette book. I'd like to see 2 additions: In the "Packing" and "Roadmance" sections, include condoms. And when staying in other people's houses, do NOT steal!

• So, I didn't make it onto the standby flight. I was number 12, and they let on 4 people. Didn't even come close.

• Starving, as I haven't eaten since 8:30 this morning, I grabbed a burger about 100 yards down the terminal. I come back to find out my 10:00 flight was cancelled. In fact, everything out of Dulles was cancelled for the night. After standing on line at the courtesy desk (which was directly across from the burger place) for an hour, I booked a flight for tomorrow morning. I am staying at a Holiday Inn for $75 (plus tax). Have to check out tomorrow at 6:00. I am writing this on the hotel's Business Suite computer, and am saving it without publishing, which I will do tomorrow. More when I get back home...

Continued the next day, Tuesday, April 21, 2008.

• Fell asleep last night near midnight, waking up with a start at 4:00 AM (had a call set for 5:30), so I scanned the hotel television, including the two music channels. Lady CaCa: Are you serious? People like this? Jamie Foxx: Like T. Pain, he has a good voice that is wasted by electronica vocals. Kelly Clarkson: Reminscent of Celine Dion, as a blaster, but KC has a bit more subtly, though doesn't show it much trying to be a pop rocker. Britney Spears: Congrats on the comeback but go away again now, okay? Pink: I also like her voice, but her style and production values make her uninteresting to me. The same videos are playing on both channels. Wasn't VH1 started to be different? Apparently, I'm not missing much by not "wanting my MTV."

• The Holiday Inn Dulles-Chantilly bill came to $81.75 after tax. Not sure where that will come from. It would have been double that without the United voucher. Because it was weather related, I was lucky to get that.

• They tell me to be at the gate 2 hours before the flight because of what happened last night. When I get there, I'm told I didn't even need to check in because I already had my ticket. What was the point of my early arrival? I could have had my Continental breakfast after all.

• My 8:25 flight is delayed until 8:45 due to clouds over LGA. Didn't they used to fly in rain and clouds, climbing above and landing through? Isn't that what radar is for?

• We board at 8:20, and sit on the tarmac, told the flight had clearance to leave at 9:30; still, we take off at 9:15, and I alpha-sleep most of the way.

• The plane lands at LGA officially 10 minutes late, after a 38 minuite flight. That 38 minutes took me about 20 hours and $81 extra.

• The M-30 bus and N/D trains come quickly. On the train I'm thinking that I used to enjoy riding outside the tunnels and having a view; now I anticipate the tunnels for the silence.

• I walk in my door just about at noon, and my cats are as thrills for me to be home as I am.

• Next time, St. Louis. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Seeing Bands in Ft. Lauderdale - 1982

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Soon, I will be taking a very brief trip to south Florida to visit relatives, many of whom I haven’t seen in a number of years. Needless to say, I am excited about it.

The Majestic Gardens condo

Coincidently, I recently found my journal from the early ‘80s, which includes a visit to these same relatives, who then lived in adult complex called Majestic Gardens, across the street from the Lauderhill Mall. My pal Alan Abramowitz joined me for a few days, and then flew back while I remained at my Aunt’s insistence (not that I had any complaints, mind you). It was between jobs (much as I am now), so I stayed down there for about a month, hitting thrift shops looking for albums (found a ton, which I had shipped back), and seeing films (including Ghost Story, Raiders of the Lost Arc, and the cheesy horror film, The Beast Within).

Back in the ‘80s, South Florida was a minor hotbed of musical action. There were a large number of bars that flowed along the coast from Ft. Lauderdale down through Hollywood and Miami, as it was still one of the Spring Break hotspots. Each place had their own house band and even those groups made their tours of other bars in the area. Some were great, like Charlie Pickett and the Eggs (who I saw at CBGB), but mostly there were cover bands.

I am reprinting, in part, my diary entry for Tuesday, March 16, 1982, which discusses the night before, when I went bar hopping with a relative of a member of the condo complex in which I was staying with my Aunt Elsie. Any comment I have added will be in brackets and italicized, [like this]. For longer commentary, I have used asterisks (*), which will be referenced at the end.

11:20 PM – At Aunt Elsie’s House, Florida

Lauderhill, in relation to Ft. Lauderdale

At 7:00 PM last night, I met Robert (W–, grandson of Chasen) and we drove [From previous day’s journal: He has the car for one night (tonight) so we’re gonna head to downtown Ft. Lauderdale and do a bit of bar-hopping. I’m meeting him…by the pool.] to a bar in Ft. Lauderdale called the Playpen*. They had two bands playing. One was a ‘60s band (members about 35 years old) called, appropriately, The Greasers. They also did early ‘60s surf song, etc. Not bad.

The other band was a rock’n’roll group call The New Society Band**. They were really good. They were doing covers of early ‘sixties stuff like the Who, Beatles, Elvis, etc., along with the occasional Lynyrd Skynyrd (Yeeech), Go-Go’s (“Got the Beat”), and Split Enz songs. During one of the songs, the lead signer points to my Buddy Holly button and goes an “OK” sign. Then shows his Elvis button and I returned the sign.

We went outside to go to another bar and ran into the latter band. The lead singer (Robert, who looks like a young Alice Cooper sans make-up) remembered me because of the button. I told him I liked the band, even though they only did covers. He said that they do originals, but they get paid to do covers to the students in for Spring Break. I gave him my card and told him to get in touch with me if they ever get into NYC. He said he’d subscribe! [To my fanzine, FFanzeen, which was active at the time.]

Ft. Lauderdale

Robert (W.) and I drove around a bit after putting on free Playpen tee shirts (for coming in before 8:00 – it was a $4 cover and one beer at $1.75). We ended up back at the Playpen and saw another set of both groups. The bass player and lead singer Robert waved to me. During the Greasers’ set, we stepped outside and talked for a while with Robert (they are Playpen’s house band it seems, and they work 7 nights a week – he’s 30). He said that he’d include an original, “Middle Class Blues,” for me.

When they were on stage, the bass player waved to me, and when it came time to do the original number, Robert said, “This goes out for Robert. Everybody buy FFanzeen!” I was impressed, even though I doubt there was anyone there who knows what the hell he was talking about. Still, it’s rare a song was dedicated to me (the first being by the Rattlers at Zappas [a long-gone Brooklyn bar and showcase]. We left while they were still on stage (the place, which is also known as the “Pigpen,” is rightfully nicknamed, ‘cause it was a real zoo), and they waved goodbye to us.

After driving around a bit, we ate at a Denny’s on 441 and Oakland (I had a terrible sandwich of dried beef and melted swiss cheese). We got home around 2:15 am. I woke up once at 6:30 for 20 minutes (dreaming of chainsaw murders!) and then Aunt Elsie woke me at 9:30.

There isn’t much of a takeaway from this, but one of the points for my reprinting this is to reinforce something I have stated before: when one goes to see independent bands, one is never certain what will be found, quality wise, but the groups are usually accessible, giving a more personal feel to the music. For example, I was able to walk up to the Cramps at CBGB to ask for an interview in 1977. Getting to hang out with the Ramones backstage/upstairs with the Ramones the day before they left for their infamous first tour of the UK is something I’ll treasure. Perhaps the New Society Band and the Greasers never reached the level of any of the bands they covered, but they were fun and personable. I thank them, and all the up-and-coming (or down-and-coming) bands out there.

* From “Art Stock's Playpen, South Fort Lauderdale, FL – 1981-1987. Great hole in the wall that had 'Heavy Metal Mondays' and free drinks every weeknight from 8p-10p. Cool local bands and even a few national acts from time to time. Hot metal chicks (does anybody remember Ruby?) and great local acts like Diamond Rose, Panic, etc. One Monday night, with my buddy Mark Fenney passed out on a bench outside, I actually met a fella named James Hetfield there, who at the time was the lead singer and rhythm axeman of a little know up and coming band called 'Metallica'! The place became a popular titty bar in the late 80's called 'Pure Platinum' and the memories (but certainly not the mammaries) were gone forever!"

** I am not sure if this Bangor, ME-located band is the same, as I have a slightly different name for the lead singer in the journal, but who knows if I heard right. Also, the style of music they list is similar to the kind played that night, and the age of the band is similar. If this is the same group, great; if not, my apologies:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bad Interviews: Lynyrd Skynyrd and Sparks

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

While Arts editor at my college paper at Kingsborough Community College during early ‘70s, named The Scepter, I have had the opportunity to meet and interview some people who were dreams to interview, and others not as much. Admittedly, sometimes it was my own fault, others not. While I am still glad to have had these experiences, I sometimes look back and think, “Oh, crap.”

One example was a 1976 press conference with Ronnie van Zandt and other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd (supposedly named after Leonard Skinner, their high school teacher who hated them, but I secretly harbor the image that it was actually Leonard Skinner, the kid who got ptomaine poisoning after dinner on Alan Sherman’s “Hello Mudda, Hello Faddah”), who were publicizing their new album, Gimme Back My Bullets (I still have my autographed copy).

Being a college newspaper press conference, we walking into the small interview room at the record label, and Skynyrd came in shortly afterwards, and sat at a long table in front. They were being genial and drinking more Jack D. than I had ever seen before. And yet, they remained coherent through the whole jaunty interchange. I have to admit that I was still deep in the learning stage when it came to music – perhaps even way behind. J.J. Cale wrote one of the album’s songs, “I Got the Same Old Blues.” In my ignorance, I asked a question about it, mistakenly referring to “John” Cale. Ronnie rightfully corrected me quite pointedly and I was very embarrassed. After that experience, I started to do my homework on the bands and the people I was interviewing, whether I was a fan or not.

Being knowledgeable and a fan did not always help, though. I’d enjoyed the work of Russell and Ron Mael, the core of the band Sparks, from the time I had seen them on one of the Friday night concert-type series that proliferated the television airwaves in the early to middle 1970s.

Given the opportunity to interview them at the Essex House hotel in New York, (where they were touring to publicize their new Indiscreet album), across the street from Central Park, I showed up both on time and informed, with an assigned Scepter photographer, Mike Cohen. Mike was a jazz hound and did not have much interest in rock. It was a late Friday afternoon and, unknown to us, we were the last interview the Mael brothers were to give before the concert the next night, after an entire week of publicizing and meeting reporters. And they were exhausted.

I walked into their suite with Mike, quite enthusiastic and definitely up, sitting across from two musicians who meant something to me, which was quite the change from most of the bands I had been interviewing. Wanting to start on a high note, I asked a detailed question that was to convey both that I was a fan, and also knowledgeable about their music. The response I received from Ron was, basically, “Uh hunh.”

It didn’t get much deeper than that from then on. Lead singer Russell didn’t talk much at all, trying to save his voice for the concert as he sucked on some tea. Ron did most of the answering, such as it was. But after a week of answering questions by other larger press, they were shot and just did not want to deal anymore. The bottom line was they just wanted us out of there, and I was too zealous to notice.

Not making the situation any easier for anyone, I would occasionally turn to look at Mike in desperation and perspiration, and whenever I caught his eye, he would silently mouth, “He looks like Hitler!” (referring to Ron’s Chaplin-esque mustache). I was crushed.

A week later, when the publicity machine filled me in how we were the last in a long list, I understood, and never held it against the band (besides, I took the opportunity to see them live at Lincoln Center, with the revamped san Ian Hunter – and terrible – Mott). People in the public eye do not realize that while being interviewed is hard, interviewing is also hard. Sparks were tough, but I still managed to get in 40 minutes of questions. Poor boys. But I still have my autographed 8x10.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Some 1980s Music Worth Revisiting

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Here are a half dozen songs of differing styles that are worthy of remembering, in a period when much of the mainstream music was somewhat lame. They all emerged in the 1980s, either populist somewhere in the world, cult figures, or who-the-hell? Enjoy, and feel free to add some of your own in the comments.

Hayzee FantayzeeShiny Shiny
Honestly, I was not a fan of this style, made more famous by Boy George and his ilk, but HF predates the Jail Boy, who claimed their fashion as his. Led by the exceedingly tall and lanky Jeremy Healy and Kate Garner (I met her once and she was at least a head taller than me), their sound was a mix of pop, reggae and quirk. They also had a hit in their native UK with “John Wayne is Big Leggy,” but I prefer this one, followed by “Sister Friction.” Video prodcer Alan Abramowitz was duly impressed at the time with this particular video and its uise of “wipes,” cutting edge at the time.

Mari WilsonBeware Boyfriend
Mari Wilson is, musically, what Lilly Allen is trying to be, but failing (despite the latter’s success), and her hair, I’m sure, inspired the rattrap of Amy Wino (who also owes a huge debt to Wilson’s vocal style). Wilson’s blousy blue-eyed soul is engaging, making one want to waves their arms in the air along with the song. There is actually a very funny video that does along with this, but this one is the best I could find. Much more appreciated in her native UK at the time, Wilson just had the right sound at the wrong time. She deserves better.

[Richard Barone, of the Bongos, at the Peppermint Lounge]
The BongosNumber with Wings
Out of Hoboken, NJ, and the first band to play at Maxwell’s (in an early incarnation), the Bongos were (and occasionally are during semi-frequent reunions) a pop cult hit, as much as cult bands can be. The two men at the front of the group, Richard Barone and James Mastro, are both still local heroes for both their work in this band and as solo artists. Another member of the group, Rob Norris, had been in a nascent version of the A-Bones called the Zantees (which is where I first became aware of him). I saw the Bongos play a couple of times just before their heyday, and they were a fun band to watch. What is the meaning of this song is anyone’s guess, but I just enjoy it for the ride.

Rachel SweetPlease Mr. Jailer
Rachel SweetThen He Kissed Me/Be My Baby
Even though Rachel Sweet was at one point signed to a couple of major labels, Stiff and Columbia, she definitely was not given the credit due, even though she did have one hit with “Everlasting Love,” co-shared with Rex Smith. Like Brenda Lee, she was short and had a voice one could hear a mile away without a mic. And unlike many belters, such as Celine Dion or Kelly Clarkson, Rachel had subtlety in her unique and beautiful voice. While she did the theme to the John Waters’ film Hairspray and had a minor hit with “Voodoo,” I picked two of my favorites of hers that I feel give a feel to what is so attractive about her style. First, is from another Waters’ film, Cry Baby, where she did a Marnie Nixon for Amy Locane, blasting through this powerful blues number, “Please Mr. Jailer.” The second song actually earlier than “Jailer,” and is a medley cover of the girl group classics “Then He Kissed Me” and “Be My Baby.” While the sound quality of the video is off, it shows the range of her voice from soft and sexy to brash and sexy.

CheepskatesRun Better Run
Without giving any measure to quality or rank of order, during the early ‘80s there were two strata of post-garage bands that would play in New York. The first included bands like the Chesterfield Kings, the Vipers, the Lyres, and the Fuzztones. The second included the likes of the Tryfles, the Outta Place, and the Cheepskates. Of all those bands, the Cheepskates, led by Shane Flaubert, was the most pop-oriented, but lost none of the ‘60s garage sound, thanks to Shane’s excellent farfisa skills. The rest of the band was great, as well. Plus, the drummer then came from my neighborhood and in fact we attended the same high school (but years apart). It was always a pleasure seeing them play. This particular song is arguably their grandest moment. As far as I know, there is no “official” video for it (though the entire song was captured live and shown on Videowave for a garage special, but has not been digitized yet). The clip here is from a later period and well short of complete, but it gives a idea of the strong and hypnotic pull of the song.

[Julie, vocalist of Ja Ja Ja, on the set of Videowave]
Ja Ja JaI Am an Animal
I cannot hope to explain the appeal of this song to me; perhaps it is the indie underdog-ness or the sheer cheesiness, but from the first time I saw this after I met the singer when she was interviewed on Videowave, it has stuck with me. The costumes, the sets, the effects, they all come out like a $3 bad dream, and I won’t even begin to go into the hip-hop middle, but the opening lyrics are enjoyable (“I watch the other animals who think they’re not / They look 2:00 / To know if they’re hungry / They’re acting like robots / And because I’m not / They’re getting angry”), Julie’s voice is childlike in a positive way to me, and, well, it’s just so freakin’ weird! This is the only thing I have every heard by Ja Ja Ja.

X-TeensChange Gotta Come
For an indie band in the early '80s, this video was quite the production. True, the song has absolutely nothing to do with the video, but in those days, the door was wide open and anything was possible. Strongly influenced by films like (and especially) Raiders of the Lost Ark, the band seems to be having a lot of fun acting out some fantasy sequences, searching for the "Speilberg" stone. While I have the album this song came from, I have no idea what happened to the band. One can't help but enjoy this, even with it's hippie-esque, Reagan-era question, "Whatever happened to the love generation?"

Other worthy songs that I would like to add, but cannot find the videos:
Lenny Kaye Connection: I Got a Right
Billy & the Buttons: Whole Fam Damly

This column is dedicated to ‘80's video fan, Alex’s Bookbag.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Subway Stories, Volume 1

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images to come

In one of my favorite moments from All in the Family, Archie comes home disgruntled. Edith asks concernedly, “What’s the matter, Archie?” He snarls out, “On the whole ride home, I got stuck next to some guy talking to his daughter.” Edith, confused, asks, “What’s wrong with that?” He spits out, “She wasn’t there, Edith!” That’s the thing about New York City: no matter who you are, if you ride the subway you are going to have stories. Here are a few of mine…

* * *
In 1976, as I had stated in an earlier blog, I worked in the West Village at a Baskin-Robbins. Many times I would lock up the place at 11:30, and then ride the train home. If I saw a midnight movie at the Waverly (now the IFC Theater), it was much later. Despite hearing some horror stories, including the murder of the son of one of my mother’s co-workers while riding underground, I was never afraid to ride, generally, though there were moments.

One night, after a movie I was riding home, a small, thin man in his mid-thirties or so got on at the Broadway-Lafayette stop. He was a very drunk African-American man who appeared to be derelict. He stood in the middle of the car, swaying with the train’s rhythm, talking to everyone and no one, slurring at the top of his lungs.

“I’m fuckin’ Jesus, man! I’m god! And I love everybody. That’s right, I love every fuckin’ one of you! I’m the fuckin’ god of peace and love. I’m fuckin’ Jesus, man…”

He continued on and on, past Canal Street and over the bridge. Everyone in the semi-empty car just sat there calmly. The Hassidic woman across from me read her paper, never looking up after the first glance to check the situation out. People continued either sleeping, or trying to do so. I was reading my book, amused by it all, as were some of the people down the car. Except…

As we approached Pacific Street (since changed to Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street), from the other end of the car a rhythm was generating, as Patti Smith may have said. A huge white guy with a scowl on his face came over to him and yelled at him: “Hey, stop saying you are Jesus! You are going to burn in hell!”

When the doors opened, the big man grabbed the little one by the collar, and full strength threw him out the door. Stumbling, the drunken guy staggered sideways across the whole length of the platform, and if he hadn’t bounced off the column across the way, the momentum would most likely have sailed him right onto the opposite tracks. Stunned, the little man actually shook himself off, looked around confused, and started walking down the platform, hardly aware of the fate he came so close to reaching.

As the train pulled, the big man, who had everyone’s attention at this point, turned and looked around at his fellow passengers in disgust and distain. “You fuckin’ Jews and Italians,” he said in a thick accent, “You are weak and pathetic cowards. You need us fuckin’ Greeks to protect you, since you won’t stand up for yourselves. We fuckin’ Greeks don’t take that shit like you fuckin’ Jews and Italians…” And so on. [Note that I am totally aware this does not reflect on Greeks in general, but this person specifically.]

The Hassidic woman across from me was following the second guy with her eyes, looking over the edge of her newspaper, hoping not to be noticed, scared by his anti-Jewish (among others) rant. When our eyes met – as I did the same hiding with my book – we gave a “Yikes!” look at each other. He continued on with his rant for the next 30 minutes until I got off at my own station. As I walked home, I realized that these guys were identical in their mythology about themselves as saviors of sorts, but it is the difference that is most telling: while the first man was talking about peace and love, and everyone did not feel threatened in any way, the second one had us all edgy with his threats of violence.

* * *
Sometimes, it is the dialog one cannot help overhearing that keeps me amused. One holiday season I heard this exchange:
Woman 1: Y’know what my favorite Christmas movie is? March of the Wooden Robots.
Woman 2: That’s a good one. Me, myself, I like Miracle on 42nd Street.

However, my all time favorite (that I can think of offhand) was one evening on the way back to Brooklyn, I heard these two guys discussing something, and to emphasize his point, one man coda’d his statement with, “All I’m sayin’ is it goes without sayin’.” Brilliant!

* * *
Sitting by the door and heading into Manhattan, two women boarded at the station after mine. One sat by the window diagonally across from me, and the other sat across the train from her, two seats from me. They started talking to each other very loud across the span. After a stop or two, I turned to the one sitting next to me, and said, “You know, if you sat next to each other, you wouldn’t have to scream across the whole train and make everyone in the car have to listen to you.”

She responded, in a thick Spanish accent, “Why don’t you mind your own business?! We have a right to talk!” I said, calmly, “You have every right to talk, and I have every right to complain about you yelling in my ear. Your right does not include annoying every one else who has to listen to you.”

She angrily moved over next to her friend, and they started talking in Spanish, a language I don’t speak, but it was pretty obvious by the way they were looking at me and tipping their heads in my direction, that I was the focus of their discussion. I didn’t care, since it was now at least quiet enough to read my book.

At 34th Street, they both got off, and as they passed me, the one I had the altercation with said to me, “Ass.” Without even looking up, but seeing her peripherally, I said, “puta,” which means “whore,” one of the few words in Spanish I know (growing up in New York, one learns to curse in many languages). Her head whipped around as she walked out the door, as the realization came to her, mistakenly (though I lead her to believe), that I understood everything she and her friend were saying about me in Spanish. She seemed upset about this by the OMG gesture of putting her hand up to her mouth, and as we pulled out of the station, I smiled to myself.

* * *
As I was sitting on the train going home after work, a woman got on playing a DVD device at full volume and no headsets. I believe it was the film, Are We There Yet?, starring Ice Cube. People started grumbling at her, and she said in a loud voice. “I paid my two dollars! I got a right to play to my personal DVD player if I want to!” Gratefully, she got off a few stations later.

* * *
Feel free to write some of your own stories at the comments area of this blog.