Friday, February 24, 2012

DVD Review: Iggy and the Stooges: Raw Power Live

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

Iggy and the Stooges: Raw Power Live – In the Hands of the Fans
Directed by Joey Carey and Luis Valdes
MVD Visual, 2011
81 minutes, USD $16.95

I am just going to assume that whoever is reading this is a Stooges fan – as well you should be – and does not need for me to go into a history of the band, other than some comments here and there to explain the DVD. Okay with you? Great, let’s get started.

Apparently the In the Hands of the Fans idea is catching on and it is becoming a series; I know of another one about Dinosaur Jr. playing their album, Bug. The premise is simple enough: hold a contest to find half-a-dozen devotees to send video contributions about themselves in relation to the band via various social media. The winners get to meet the Stooges and do an interview, then are handed cameras and they film the show. The footage is later edited together into a flow.

The DVD starts off with clips of some of the winners’ entries, most of them the nerdy, rock’n’roll obsessed type (i.e., like me). One asked a great question which I’m sure got him in: nearly all of the songs on Raw Power fade out, so what happens after that point, when the songs are played live? From there we go to the concert, filmed at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, held at Kutsher’s Country Club (at one time a center of Jewish Catskills comedy and music) at Monticello, NY, on September 3, 2010.

At this festival, the revamped Stooges (James Williamson continuing as replacement for the late Ron Ashton; Scott Ashton on drums; and ex-Minutemen / fIREHOSE – among others – Mike Watt on bass; with Iggy Pop as always in front) decided to perform their seminal LP, Raw Power all the way through, though not in the same order. However, they don’t end there, and play a number of their other hits, including “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” They even mine some in the early post-Stooges Bomp! years (when Williamson came on board). The set list is below.

Part of what is thrilling about this DVD is that it’s the entire concert, rather than just the songs. With the crisp sound and multiple camera work – even though done by amateurs – the viewer gets a full experience of being at the show. Thanks for that!

[Digression paragraph: I only saw Iggy twice, once at the Palladium, off Union Square, in 1977 (backed by the Hunt Brothers; dad Soupy introduced the band and got as much of an ovation as did the band), and another time in the 1980s playing at the more intimate Brooklyn Zoo, a club for a moment in Sheepshead Bay (the Helen Wheels Band opened, if I remember correctly). During the show, someone threw some ice at the Pop-ster, who stopped mid song and firmly stated, “Don’t throw ice at me, motherfucker. This isn’t a request, it’s a command.” He then started the song over from the beginning. They were both great shows. Okay, I’m back now…]

Bathed in blue and red lights, Iggy still manages to keep the energy level high, even at age 63, bouncing around the stage like a marionette on the strings of someone yanking him around. Yeah, Ewan McGregor did a great impression of him in Velvet Goldmine, but there are very few who can command like Iggy when it comes to stage presence. His voice is still in top form, and he knows how to manipulate the willing audience into a frenzy. Total fun (as opposed to “No…”). He is completely at ease with the crowd, and it is amusing how every once in a while he will leaned into the assembly as if to body surf, and some of the club’s security lean over and pull him back in, sometimes by the belt . The security also does a thorough job making sure no one else takes the stage, with the exception of during the song “Shake Appeal,” where Iggy cajoles, “I want dancers, I want spazzers, I want freaks. Get up on the stage with the fuckin’ Stooges. Let ‘em up! We got a dance number, and we need volunteers.”

Even on some of the slower, mid-speed songs like “Penetration” and “Gimme Danger,” there is a force field that waves out from the band, giving these songs no less power than the faster ones. Of course, the main reason is the singer, but it doesn’t stop there. Williamson remains a powerhouse of a guitarist, and a perfect replacement for Ron. He wields a strong ax and isn’t afraid to flail with it. His solos are so different than, say, Jimmy Page, with more intense and terse sounds that are never boring (as some solos can be, such as by, oh, let’s say Jimmy Page). Scott pounds the skins fiercely. While he is a rhythm drummer rather than a “wildman,” he gives the tunes the backing they need, as does Watt, a way underrated bassist. Despite an injured leg (which one would never know by watching the show), he nearly crouches down and follows Iggy’s every move and command (reminding me of Tina Weymouth, of Talking Heads, back in the ‘70s, as she stared nearly unblinking at David Byrne). His bass strumming is amazing to watch and hear. Joining the band is Steve Mackay on tenor sax, who was also an instrumental part of the Stooges era. He shares an interesting atonal exchange with Watt at the end of “1970 (I Feel Alright).”

The crowd is really into the music, which makes the show all the better (though there is some fool towards the front holding up a clear plastic pint beer cup distracting from the action, and I’m sure annoying the people around him/her).

One of the reasons why the Stooges are considered the godfathers of punk (among others) is that the songs are based on stark chords rather than classically straight melodies, and while appearing simple, are actually quite complex. For example, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” always one of my fave riffs, is played faster than on the record, except for the interlude. Plus, it’s easy to tell that the band is having fun, which is transmitted to the viewers, both at the show and those at home.

After the show, Iggy’s allowed to body surf (see the DVD cover, above), and we are introduced to the camera people and we see which angles are whose in the show, a nice touch indeed.
The extras are quite interesting here. The main part is the interviews the six winners do with the band backstage, in shifts of three. For 43 minutes (additional above the 81-minute concert time) we hear some great - and others bizarre - questions from the group, and Iggy, as always, proves himself to be quite articulate. For example, he explains that the origin of “Death Trip” is actually taken from the much covered chestnut, “Sea Cruise.” Watt does a great talking ramble (always has), and Williamson and Ashton seem like they don’t really seem comfortable, but actually give some great answers anyway.

Also included, of course, are most of the full videos sent in by the winners. Additionally, there is also a promo for the contest hosted by the great Handsome “Dick” Manitoba (hey, how about a Dictators In the Hands of the Fans reunion for Go Girl Crazy? I would so love that).

The liner notes are long, written by Watt in his wonderful meandering style, with insight, humor, and intelligence.

So, if you’re a street walkin’ cheetah who wants to be a dog coz your pretty face is going to hell, you just have get this excellent document. Even if you turn the picture off and just listen to the soundtrack, it’s worth the death trip.

Set List (original album):
Raw Power (Raw Power)
Search and Destroy (Raw Power)
Gimme Danger (Raw Power)
Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell (Raw Power)
Shake Appeal (Raw Power)
I Need Somebody (Raw Power)
Penetration (Raw Power)
Death Trip (Raw Power)
1970 (I Feel Alright) (Fun House)
Night Theme (Kill City)
Beyond the Law (Kill City)
I Got a Right (I Got a Right)
I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges)
Open Up and Bleed (Open Up and Bleed)
Fun House (Fun House)
No Fun (The Stooges)

Rent it here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

DVD Review: From Straight to Bizarre

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

From Straight to Bizarre: Zappa, Beefheart, Alice Cooper and L.A.’s Lunatic Fringe
Executive Producer: Rob Johnstone
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Sexy Intellectual, 2011
161 minutes, USD $19.95

Frank Zappa (RIP, 1993) has always been known as bit of a lunatic, be it his diverse and non-mainstream musical directions, to his meandering anti-censorship rants during the whole ‘80s PMRC debacle led by Tipper Gore (Al’s spouse).

However, it was this borderline behavior that made him able to land a foot on both sides of the line, appealing equally to those in the straight world (i.e., general audiences) and those on the bizarre periphery (i.e., the fringe of culture). Because of this, he became a mediator of the latter to bring them into the former, even if only in the representative form of a 12-inch oil-based black disc with their voices.

As a visionary living in the hills of the Los Angles, Frank attracted groupies (including making them babysitters for then-young son Dweezil and -infant daughter Moon Unit), schizophrenics, control freaks, and rockers trying to find their direction. Obviously, Frank felt a bond with them, as he was usually seen as an “other,” or trickster character on the scene.

After finding some success with his own releases, such as the Mothers of Invention’s seminal Freak Out, Frank managed to get the record label to support his own vanity label, Bizarre, which he started with Herb Cohen; and after they were dismayed by the lack of sales and cancelled it, he started another called Straight (the DVD title has it backwards, y’see), until its collapse in 1973.

To paraphrase a song by the band Sparks, talent wasn’t a needed asset for those who joined in the Zappa stable. Rather, it was a collective of degrees, from very able to those whose personality and oddity weighed in more than culturally classical facility.

Despite being L.A.-focused, their first artist was actually New York singer-songwriter Sandy Hurvitz, who would later go more famously by the moniker Essra Mohawk. According to Mohawk, who is interviewed on this DVD, she had a personal relationship with Frank, which soured, resulting in him leaving her studio tracks unfinished as far as tweaking, and that was the reason for the lack of success of the product. Actually, that becomes the central theme here: Zappa was all gung-ho, something happened between him and the artist(s) with whom he was working, and he bailed on the final work. This was also true for the groupie/dancers-turned-singers collective known as the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously, two of whom are interviewed here including the lovely Miss Pamela DesBarres), the Alice Cooper band, and Captain Beefheart (RIP, 2010), to name a few.

As for Larry “Wild Man” Fischer (RIP, 2011), the crack in their working relationship happened after his release, when he psychotically accused Zappa of not paying him royalties on records that he believed sold better than it actually did (see the recent film about Fischer, DeRailroaded for his entertaining-yet-sad side of the story), which lead to his one Zappa-released album never to be reissued. Due to health reasons, both mental and physical, Fischer was not a part of this documentary.

While Captain Beefheart was a control freak who kept his Magic Band on a very short leash, Zappa (his ex-college roommate, apparently) was equally prickly, which of course makes the story of the Bizarre/Straight labels all the more interesting looking back in the rearview mirror (as Marshall McLuhan may have put it).

Surely, Zappa is the more recognized name, but Cohen also has his cadre of artists that mostly went nowhere, that are also represented on this DVD, such as Tim Buckley (RIP, 1975), Jerry Yester (ex-Lovin’ Spoonful) and his wife Judy Henske, and Harlem-based R&B a cappella group the Persuasions (lead singer Jerry Lawson tells some great anecdotes here), among others.

For nearly three hours, this Chrome Dreams documentary (this is the second by them on Zappa I’ve seen) keeps the attention level high, by relying more on the people who were there and directly affected, rather than only those who reported on it (though it’s always a joy to see and hear music historian Richie Unterberger). While chock full of rare clips of the band – both visual and aural – it is these recent interviews that really put out tales from the past and make it not just academic, but palpably alive. There are two members of the GTOs (the aforementioned Miss Pamela, and Miss Mercy Fontenot, aka Judith Peters), two from the first lineup of the Nazz, aka the Alice Cooper Band (drummer Neal Smith and bassist Dennis Dunaway), two of the Magic Band (drummer John French, aka Drumbo, and guitarist Bill Karkleroad, aka Zoot Horn Rollo), Essra Mohawk, and scenester and ever creepy Kim Fowley. For the historians, along with Unterberger, there are the likes of Zappa biographers Billy James, Barry Miles and Ben Watson, and others who wrote extensively on the Los Angeles music scene.

This is possibly one of the best of the Chrome Dreams series I’ve been fortunate to see, and I’ve seen quite a few now. By wisely focusing on the musicians and those there, and keeping the music biographers / historians / critics as more of a Greek Chorus rather than the core, they have produced a document that is much more first hand reporting, and thereby making the story more than just second-person circumstantial.

There are two extras (along with the usual contributors bios and an online link): First up is “The Art of Persuasion: Jerry Lawson and Frank Zappa After the Straight Label.” During its 5:40 length, Lawson discusses his band’s contribution to the Frank Zappa tribute album, Frank, after his passing. They did “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” which we hear in a clip.

Second is “Hunger!: The Struggles of the Magic Band,” which describes the diets (minimal, mostly veggies, due to lack of funds) forced on the band by Beefheart, and how this resulted in the band getting arrested for stealing food.

Both of these are fun, and just the right length.

Bonus Videos:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of the Jefferson Airplane, by Jeff Tamarkin

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of the Jefferson Airplane
By Jeff Tamarkin
Introduction by Jann Wenner
Forward by Paul Kantner
Atria Books (NY), 2003
408 pages, hardcover; USD $27.00
ISBN: 0-671-03403-0

My bad. I was given this book to review a while back by Joe V., and, well, the book ended up boxed for a while, and then it was a matter of out-of-sights came to the forefront. My apologies.

Jeff Tamarkin

I’ve been a fan of author Jeff Tamarkin for years. So, in a case of better late than never – and the fact that the book deserves to be read – here we go:

It can be argued that the Jefferson Airplane was to the San Francisco scene at the height of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in the mid-‘60s what the Ramones was to the nascent punk scene in New York in the mid-‘70s: not the only band around that deserved notice, but one that helped spearhead a new sound, and a revolutionary subculture that spread throughout the world.

But calling this book one about the Jefferson Airplane is not exactly accurate. Sure, the band is in the forefront of this story, but Tamarkin wisely doesn’t put on blinders by giving a narrow reading of the time, but rather he shows how the Jefferson Airplane (JA) not only brought the scene to the world, it was also formed and shaped by it. Nothing grows in a vacuum, the old chestnut reads, and the JA is no exception. The Kennedy Assassination, Elvis, the Beatles, Viet Nam (or Vietnam, if you prefer), and the explosion of available pharmaceuticals all played a part in what would foster bands like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and JA, and impresarios like the querulous Bill Graham (who at one time managed JA).

Over the years, Tamarkin has had substantial access to the band, including early and later members, and he wisely uses this to plump up the story using quotes in abbreviated “oral history” style, with direct quote callouts from his own personal interviews (i.e., original material). Even though there are many books about the “Summer of Love” period of San Francisco and the music that arose from it, very few focus this much direct light on this important band. While, in history, singer Grace Slick has been the main focus of much of the media attention (thanks in part to her being a wild card, not to mention attractive), Tamarkin focuses equally on all members of the band, including founder and main vocalist Marty Balin (who is once again becoming musically active), guitarists Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner, bassist Jack Casady, and all of the many living drummers who played with the JA.

But just as the JA was part of the milieu that Tamarkin investigates, this book is not only about the JA, but the various other bands that were offshoots of the original, such as Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship, and of course, the band with eventually none of the original JA members left who built this city, Starship.

With the exception of an early manager, it seems like everyone who has either been in the band(s), managed it, worked for it, friends with the members, were scene-makers, or saw them crossing the street one day (I say this whimsically, of course), are quoted. This includes wives/girlfriends, ex-wives/girlfriends, and (now adult) kids. Did I mention that this is thorough?

And with all the personal changes in management and in the band(s), such as (also lovely) original singer Signe Toly Anderson and later singer Mickey Thomas, Tamarkin manages to keep them all straight as they weave in and out of the story, in part by giving histories of most of the members, usually going back to the grandparents! While a large and complex mix, even without a scorecard, the reader can follow along through its many pages.

I must admit, at this point, that with the exception of a few songs, I was never a big JA follower (I have their Surrealistic Pillow album, and the 2-disk 2400 Fulton Street “best of” compilation, but it’s not something that goes on my playlist often. Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna music was around, but I don’t own anything of them, and I’m sure my love affair with the then-contemporary stripped down punk sound is a solid reason for that (though I had forgotten that I liked “Miracles”), and as for Starship, well, everything I heard by them was not just boring, but a clear symbol of everything I hated about ‘80s synth rock (and I’m hardly the only one who feels that). And yet, because of the way Tamarkin describes the music, the scene, and the historical importance of the music, I went back and listened to a much of it (my two sets, and the rest online).

[Sidebar: as the author describes, bassist Casady formed a punk(ish) band named SVT, who recorded a decent single with “Heart of Stone”; I saw them play at the Bottom Line, in New York City… yes, I was on the guest list).]

The fact that Tamarkin can pique my interest to the point of my going back to relistening (and I’m not saying much of my opinion has changed), and kept me riveted throughout, say a lot to both the story, and the way he presents it.

The book has since been released in paperback form (2005), so it may be worthwhile to look into it. Meanwhile, Tamarkin is working with Howard Kaylan (Turtles, Flo & Eddie) on his autobiography, due this year, which I look forward to, as Kaylan is a keystone of the Los Angeles scene of the same period (not to mention having a very sharp tongue).

Bonus Videos:

Marginally-related video: