Friday, October 30, 2015

X O X: We Had a Date [1980]

Text by Doris Kiely © FFanzeen, 1980
Introductory text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015

I have never seen X play live, I’m sorry to say. Yeah, I saw them a number of times performing on TV on shows like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and a couple of those late-night in concert kinds of shows, but never when I was in the same room.

Early on, I gravitated towards Excene Cervenka’s voice, as the female tones have always appealed to me, but over time I came to appreciate just how amazing John Doe actually was at the time. The guitar work of Billy Zoom has always been a stand-out, but I’m hardly the first one to notice that; same with drummer DJ Bonebrake. The whole band body politic of their personal and sexual relationships seem odd to me, but it’s nice that they’ve pretty much stayed together as X. Also, Excene and Doe have their equally worth hearing Americana side-project, the Knitters (sort of a mix of X and the Blasters members).  Doe and Excene have also released a duet collection.

While Doe has had a pretty decent on-and-off acting career over the years, sadly Excene has slipped into a right-wing conspiracy nut (check out her YouTube channel), and I have seen her referred to as “the Victoria Jackson of punk.” Sigh.

To be honest, quite embarrassingly, I don’t remember Doris Kiely, who wrote this piece, which was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #6, dated Year-End 1980. It’s an interesting, poetical stream of consciousness piece. Doris, feel free to contact me!  – RBF, 2015

You don’t like anything to be called New Wave. You didn’t mind so much when it was called punk. Greill Marcus wrote, “X is the band that has defined LA’s punk scene.” In NY, their hard-edge is an anomaly in the lapping curls of the New Wave night clubs. Sid’s dead, fashion changes, this apartment is too small for me and the cat and the laundry. You say apartments are cheaper in LA. You say you’ll go uptown to 80s [Club] with me.

The shop is closing, metal gate half across the door. The guy was nice, showing me old jewelry, each piece a talisman with a mysterious history. Walking, there was something I wanted to write. Ringing your doorbell I forgot what it was. No weekly papers, no coffee or booze. Before going out we watch TV.

X spray-painted on a wall about to collapse. Prisoners pushing against it trying to get free. Suffocating, they have fortitude left to make rough sounds, dreary, vertical songs. What am I thinking? Nothing. This is music about loathing and death. People are dancing to it.

Excene wears chains, charms, medallions. Holds her head like she’s drunk, trying not to vomit. Her voice is bratty, a net John Does get caught in, writhing. He’s pensive, a charismatic bassist-singer. Billy Zoom, guitarist, grins sadistically, unrelentingly. I’m on a chair that’s an oasis. X is fast and constant.

You say, “Jane was in a good mood today, she said she was OK.”
I say, “Did you ask her how many pills she took?”
She told you she thinks I’m jaded.

Critics on both coasts invoked X with hyperbolic claims. In NY, R. Meltzer was “gratuitously grandiose” in his critique of them, and R. Palmer referred to their “sheer musical excellence.” Robert Hilburn of the LA Times called X the American answer to “the rock challenge raised by the Sex Pistols and Clash.” The expectation which accompanied X to New York was so great that much of the audience was unduly disappointed. No surf-punks here diving off the stage.

X’s malevolent lyrics are two horrified consciousnesses streaming. Excene bends beneath the microphone, screamed, “Get Out.” It’s not just about a girl who has to leave Los Angeles. “Get Out,” I would curse silently at my girlfriend’s brother, repeating it till he left us alone. “The days change at night/change in an instant,” sounds perfect. I can read their minds. They’re on stage letting me. X is so in pain, they’re lovable. They look rather like misshapen freaks. The drummer, DJ Bonebrake, is hidden.

“I’d slap that bitch,” you say. The women in the ladies room at 3 just got there. They missed the sacerdotal offering, X’s melancholy pastiche of corpses. You say they’re monotonous. You don’t have the record Los Angeles, on Slash [Records]. Its coarse texture is soothing, emotional facets, serious music; a miasma of dust and opiates which is a city. The music sounds like traffic, litter on a hot beach, and rock’n’roll at a high school dance.

X remains a tradition the Sex Pistols initiated. Even so, they exert a powerful originality, and alter our preconception of the laid-back California mentality. The audacity of their non-innovation is entertaining. You say you hung the poster from the Beatles’ white album over your bed for two weeks. Instead of fleshing New Wave romance, X presents skeletons and boney sounds. The songs are narrative, literal, immediate; they make us privy to the band’s disgust. This incites a certain opposition and alarm, which makes them repugnant to some listeners.

X’s tidings of grief are ginormous. They signify intelligence in the face of emptiness. “Thanks a lot,” repeats Billy. “They’ll make a movie called Rock’n’Roll College. It’s hot tonight, isn’t it?” you say. I remember Help carved in crooked letters on a school desk.






Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began: Essays, by Joe Bonomo

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet
This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began: Essays
By Joe Bonomo
Orphan Press (Cordova, TN), 2013
249 pages; USD $15.00
ISBN: 978-0-615-75545-8

It can be ordered HERE
Joe Bonomo is a name that is definitely becoming better known in the music historian field. He’s had, in part, books published about the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, AC/DC (for the prestigious 33-1/3 series), and the definitive biography (okay, the only one) of the Fleshtones. I’ve read and reviewed just about everything he’s written (just search this blog), and Joe’s the real deal.
This book, however, takes a autobiographical non-fiction (yes that is a genre, though I prefer the term creative non-fiction) look at his life, in a semi-chronological approach. Rather than a series of anecdotes or a deep analysis of what things mean, this is an artistic look at what makes him tick; not about music, but his formation into what it is he has become.
Over the years, Bonomo has been published in numerous creative writing journals, such as the prestigious The Fiddleback, Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and New Ohio Review. These pieces have been collected (and updated; i.e., re-edited) into this anthology of his work; he is certainly not a One Topic Pony, even within the autobiographical framework.
From discovering girls as a youth in a strict Catholic school through becoming an academic at Northern Illinois University, Bonomo bars no topic of internal conversation, but rather with fluidly and prose language examines key moments, often unsentimentally but rather as facts, as they are true to his memory, and the formation of himself.
While topics such as lost friendships, substances (e.g. booze) and first crushes are clearly and sharply displayed, as he gets older and previous events start to build, that’s when you start to connect the dots and see seminal events in his life, both small and writ large. Not all of it, of course, is fresh and pretty. For example, a discussion on male gaze – especially his own – is strongly evident as he attended strip clubs as a young man:

But as the clothes come off a different cloak is draped. Witness the growing bulge of the strippers G-string – nothing less than her money belt – as she pockets more and more control flowing from these men’s wallets. The sign remains the same for strippers of either gender, the body’s topography cunningly similar to value: for a male stripper, a bulge signifies power, masculinity, control, domination; for a female stripper, a bulge signifies power control, domination – and so, masculinity. … (pp. 91-92).
It isn’t until near the end that specific music show up at all, such as a mention of the use of Gary Glitter and the Ramones at ball games, though in “Student Killed by Freight Train,” he talks right up my Media Theory mindset:
“I wonder if before the invention of movies we heard sentimental orchestral strings in our minds when we read sad passages in novels, or a wave of triumphant music when, say, little Sylvia perched atop a fir tree first spotted the prized heron’s nest. In 1793 while a dying man gazed far ahead or far back in his imagination, did the edges of his perception grow poignantly fuzzy in a cinematic dreamscape?” (p. 183).
We are taken through parts of his life in New York, Maryland, Washington, DC and finally Illinois, where he is currently a professor. In fact, Bonomo almost uses places as a substitute for music as the axes of his life. He will talk about a topic, and pin it to the map by mentioning not only the location, but the building, e.g., such and such a store on this particular street. It’s more than a memory; it gives a stranger a foundation, and someone familiar with the local a mental pinpoint equivalent to a smell that brings back a memory.
Location, by fixing it so precisely, presents a form of the cycle of eternity, showing how some things change, but others become both fixed in time and only in memory, so even if they are no longer there, on some level they linger in mind, so they exist yet. He addresses this head-on in “Colonizing the Past”:

In autobiographical nonfiction, place is elastic, no firmer than smoke. Nostalgia carries with it the desire to return and memory its own mindfulness, less the urge to go back than the desire to stay put and try to understand… Google Maps allows me now to fly over my hometown, to revisit in three dimensions an atlas precision the places I’ve rebuilt (or halted the growth of) in my heady imagination. We don’t yet know the effects of this on the culture value of memory: the dream-engine that hovers over the past now competes with digital bits of verifiable information, cartographic certainties, calendar truths.” (pp. 134-135)
One of the focal points is Bonomo’s Roman Catholic upbringing, and what one could argue are the sins that normalize into nearly everyone’s life. In the case of Bonomo, including as I mentioned, there is girls and then women (lust), neighbors (envy in some cases, perhaps), self (pride), drink (could be gluttony), and prayer (I might argue as sloth, as in asking for another – God – to do for you rather than earning).
Covering both small moments that change one’s perspective and larger events, Bonomo meditates on not just the what, but the wonder of it. For example, in one of my favorite moments, in a piece called “Into the Fable,” he contemplates on a moment in his life where an acquaintance does a questionable, yet not normally memorable thing as a child, but Bonomo ponders why that moment has stuck with him for his whole life, and “why I can’t shake it. John has entered the fable. He’s become a literary figure. He’s become fabled. Does that mean that I invented him? He’s now fabulous. He’s now somewhere, not thinking of me” (p. 234). If I may be so presumptuous, we’ve all had moments like that, where certain events become like a television rerun playing inside our heads, for reasons that shake the internal head of reason. He does kind of answer that earlier in “There Was the Occasional Disruption,” where he states, “What begins as rumor can never circle back to fact, instead moves inevitably toward myth.” (p. 175)
Not just because we both worked at a Baskin-Robbins at one point in our lives, I feel a kinship of some kind. Bonomo has lived a very different existence than mine, but there are so many moments that were aha flashes of understanding and on occasional level clear identification. For example, he mentions that “…entering a church, I always felt as if I were entering a movie in the middle. It was a story I felt left out of many times.” (208) This is often how I felt going to synagogue as a youth, and something just didn’t jibe to me; I especially feel it now when I regularly take a relative to a Lutheran church. And don’t get me started on “Spying on the Petries,” a treatise on one of my favorite shows growing up (in repeat form), The Dick Van Dyke Show.
While being a non-poetic form of prose, Bonomo tells stories and thoughts without getting overly philosophical, rather staying within the realm of thought and more often than not, the marvel about his life and the events that brought him to the present. The book is an enjoyable read that is exceedingly accessibly without talking down to its reader; both fun and thought-provoking. In short, it’s a good read.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Vanity Plate No. 6: Interviewed by Gary Pig Gold for various blogs

Text © Gary Pig Gold
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015

I was friends with Gary Pig Gold way before I actually met him. He had his Pig Paper fanzine out of Mississauga and Hamilton that started in 1973, and I had my ‘zine, whose first date was 7/7/77. We quickly started exchanging ‘zines and stories. He published some of my articles, and I had his highly regarded “Pigshit” column in mine.

A part of the indie music history most people don’t know is that when I received copies of albums by the cult Texan musician Jandek, they came in twos, so I sent a bunch of the doubles off to Gary. In turn, Gary (who enjoyed them way more than I did, honestly) lent them to a radio DJ named Bruce “Mole” Mowat (also now a friend), who played them on the air, creating a Canadian tidal wave of fans.

Gary is also a phenomenal musician, as well as studio engineer, and I had a chance to see him play a couple of times in New York: once in the Country/Beach Boys themed Ghost Rockets, and another when he performed with The Cheepskates’ Shane Faubert, who backed up the legendary Dave Rave DesRoches at an International Pop Overthrow show in 2007 (HERE).

An internationally known rock historian with his writing appearing in many blogs Gary interviewed me via email and this one showed up in a number of them around 2008. It is part of a series of "Eight Questions" Gary did over the years. 

Check out Gary's site at:  – RBF, 2015

Gary Pig Gold Has Eight Questions for Robert Barry Francos
By Gary Pig Gold

Robert first walked into CBGBs circa Spring of 1975 with the Good / Mystic Eyes founder Bernie Kugel, a high school chum, to watch (along with about a dozen other prescient folk) Talking Heads open for the Ramones. Now since Bernie and he were so straight-edged they went for the music rather than the imbibing (nursing a single beer though a twelve-hour show, much to the chagrin and ire of a certain CBGB's waitress) they were able to peruse the scene from an almost objective, outside view. Consequently, RBF tried to write about his tastes and musical preferences for various college papers, but they wouldn't hear of it (being much too disco and Billy Joel-focused). So in the ultra-DIY Spirit of '76 he just started his own fanzine, which he called FFanzeen. Why? As the man himself says, "I figured to name the publication after its very genre, so I chose Fanzine. But Bernie Kugel suggested that I call it Francos Fanzine. While I thought that was too egotistical, I did like the double-F at the beginning, since FF is the sign for fortissimo, or "faster and louder." Then another friend, Alan Abramowitz, who produces a cable access show, suggested I change the spelling of the end part, a la Monkees, Byrds, So FFanzeen was born." See? Simple! It ran a wonderful run from 1977 to 1988. Throughout that entire period, Robert also took many photographs of many good bands, and continues to do so, plus since FFanzeen's demise Robert's continued to work the pen for such over the counter fanzines as Shredding Paper and Oculus. That didn't stop him, however, from revealing to us all today--

1. "Munsters" or "Addams Family": Which one's for you, and Why?
Tough choice, but in the long run, I'd have to go for the Munsters because they had The Standells on the show once. In fact, that whole episode, with the Beat poetry, was a gasser.

2. Who in the world, living or dead, would you most like to play a game of "Twister" with?
Easy. Either 1963-67 Ann-Margret, or 1966-70 Pamela Franklin (how's that for opposites?)

3. How many Sid King & The Five Strings records do you own?
None. But I have this great EP (7-inch, 33-1/3 rpm) of a doctor describing problems of the heart, with sound effects. Picked it up at a Sally Ann (no one in the US of A seems to know what Sally Ann means). In pride, I went to Buffalo, took it with me, and played it for Bernie Kugel. He reached over and pulled out a sister EP with respiratory problems. Who knew there was a series?

4. If you had been working the front gate at The Dakota that night back in 1980 when nasty Mark David Chapman showed up, pistol in hand, to avenge the Chief Beatle for his "Bigger than Jesus" wisecrack, what would you have done?
Well, let me start off by stating that Mark David Chapman and I were born on the same day. Not just the same date, but the same day, May 10, 1955. Of course, on December 8 (also, my brother's birthday) 1980, I would not have known that fact, so after rumination about it, I've come to an answer:

Being a native New Yorker, used to many weird and strange things, I honestly think I would have shat my pants.

5. "Ginger" or "Mary-Ann": Which one's for you, and for How Long?
Easy. Definitely Mary-Ann. Not only is Dawn Wells a cutie, but she STAYED a cutie. Tina Louise is too testy. Got to see Dawn Wells in a dinner theatre production of a Neil Simon play in Calgary.

My spouse even bought me tickets for my birthday!

6. What single song, living or dead, do you most wish you'd written-- and Why Didn't You?
The song would probably change, or I'd want it piece-meal. I love the keyboard on Del Shannon's "Runaway." Then there's almost any early Simon & Garfunkel (yes, the secret is out, I'm a S&G fan). But then there's most of Ellie Greenwich's catalog (best American pop songwriter, bar none). Then there's some stuff by a Winnipeg native named James Keeleghan whose songs can make me cry. Etc.

And the reason I haven't is simple: I'm not talented -- that way.

7. Whose guitar kit would you most like to be reincarnated as?
See number 2.

8. In 2000 words or less, Your Hopes, Aspirations and Goals, musical and otherwise, for your life and your country?
Not to have to listen to any more disco, techno, rap (as a wise Canadian I know once said, "Remember, rap is three-quarters of the word crap"), hip-hop, boy-band, Britney-Christina-Pink-Eve-etc., etc.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

30 Questions I’ve Always Wanted to Ask JOHN MENDELSSOHN: Big Star Fanzine Reprint [1977]

Text by Bernie Kugel / Big Star fanzine, 1977
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally printed in Big Star fanzine, issue #2, dated August-September-October 1977. It was written by its publisher, Buffalo (NY) Musician Hall of Fame Inductee Bernie Kugel, who kindly and granted permission for this reprint.

John Mendelssohn  is a well-known and respect music and culture critic. At the time of this article, he was gaining name for both is snarky and funny album reviews, and for his two bands, Christopher Milk and then The Pits. He also released some solo recordings, such as Sorry We’re Open (2010) with pop sounds that belied a history of insecurity and depression (as most writers will attest to about themselves). He often writes about that history now, which is quite evident in this interview.

Over time, as the recordings dwindled, he focused more on his writing, including a number of non-fiction books (such as the much lauded Kinks Kronikles and Waiting for Kate Bush) and a blog. He has made some serious moves over the years, living in such diverse areas as SoCal, England, Germany and Upstate New York, some of which revolved around marriages.

Like Lester Bangs, who was arguably better known, Mendelssohn’s contribution to rock writing cannot be underplayed, as he was part of a voice in the very late ‘sixties and well into the ‘seventies, helping create a form of creative non-fiction that influences the way people discuss the entertainment world at large even today.

Click on these links to check out his informative and fun BLOG called Mendel Illness, WRITING SAMPLES from his earlier days, some of his MUSIC, FICTION, and VIDEO AND MOTION GRAPHICS.

Two things to note are that Mendelsson also has been known to spell is name with a single “s” so don’t let that mislead  you, and that anything in [brackets] was added by me in 2015. – RBF, 2015
Christopher Milk publicity shot: John is second from right

John Mendelssohn’s been making unique, personal, great pop music for some years now with only some of the best of it surfacing on records like his old band Christopher Milk’s great Some People Will Drink Anything [Reprise Records, 1972 – RBF, 2015] LP and his new band the Fits’ fine debut EP on Bomp! Records. But there are other fine John Mendelssohn compositions that have as yet not seen the light of day. Incredible stuff too, like the amazing “Bring Back the Sixties” and the simply majestic “Prepared to Love” among the hours of unreleased Mendelssohn songs.

We’ve been very fortunate to be in contact with John the past few months, and he’s been kind enough to send along some of his unreleased tapes which will be covered in upcoming Big Stars in great detail. But for now, we thought we’d satisfy all you die-hard Mendelssohn freaks out there with this little by-mail exchange I had with him recently. But hang on, ‘cause there’s lots more Mendelssohn-Milt-Fits fax-n-pix comin’ your way soon. And remember, before you decide to move out west, Hollywood can be cruel. Now, Milk on…

1. Did you have aspirations for rock superstardom as a kid?
Up until the time I saw Hard Day’s Night, I dreamed not of rock stardom, but of a career as a professional baseball or basketball player, in spite of the fact that I never exactly excelled at either. (I was very small up until the age of seventeen, which had a little to do with it.)

2. What were your earliest attempts at bands like? What were your earliest original compositions like?
The Fogmen (Santa Monica High School, 1965), The Rubber Souls (winter, 1965) were both Beatles imitations in velour turtlenecks and Thom McCann boots. The Consouls (summer, 1965) was run by three older geezers and played soul music, very poorly. The 1930 Four played English stuff, jazz and a couple of Ray Charles things, and won the Battle of the Bands sponsored by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce in 1966. I was thrown out in May 1967. My earliest compositions were lame imitations of my favorite records.

3. What were the early days of C. Milk like? How did the group come together?
Hectic, silly, young and innocent, induplicable [sic] fun. Ralph [Oswald] and I began playing together in April 1968. The Kiddo joined in April 1970, with Mr. Twister. Forgive me if I don’t get more into it, but I’s boring to get so detailed about a group that no longer exists, and hasn’t for nearly four years.

4. Were you satisfied with the first [self-titled 1971] Milk EP when it came out (and the reaction towards it)?
No, but explaining why would take too long and ultimately prove not worth the trouble so far as I can see.

5. Why didn’t Mr. Twister ever appear on vinyl?
Because he couldn’t carry a tune to save his life and was used sort of as comic relief on stage only.

6. Were you happy with the release of the first album? What did you think of the generally negative reaction it got from “critics”?
No. If we’d spend one-tenth the time on the vocals that we did overdubbing seventy-five thousand guitar parts I might be able to listen to it today without cringing. Since most of Warners either hated us or were embarrassed by our presence on the label, it was doomed from the beginning. Also, I think Chris Thomas is a horrible producer [Thomas has produced, among others, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen, Roxy Music, Badfinger, The Pretenders, and The Sex Pistols), although he was at that time of the sessions a very dear friend. I’ve come to believe that it deserved the reaction it got. (Essentially, C. Mil’s biggest problem was that ours – or, more accurately, Ralph’s – ambitions far exceeded our abilities as musicians. Of course, I didn’t realize this fully until much later.)

7. Do you have favorite songs off the first LP?
“Tiger,” “A Second Hard Viola” (which I still think Rod Stewart ought to record) (that’s me on drums), the last part of “[The] Babyshoes [Bittersuite Sad Songs That She Inspired].” (If Ralph’s techniques equalled his melodic inventiveness he’d be the best guitarist in rock.)

8. What were the final “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” [1973] single sessions like and did the band immediately break up after being dropped from Warners?
Great fun for everyone save The Kiddo, who disliked the way I recorded and mixed he bass (I produced, but didn’t give myself credit because my work as a critic had made us so many powerful enemies). We broke up almost immediately after the single flopped, having no manager, no label, no agency, no gigs, few fans.

9. Did ya go solo and record things solo before the invention of the Pits, and how did that band come about?
I began working on my own stuff a couple of months before the Milk officially called it quits. The Pits came about because I realized that my trying to synthesize everything on an ARP Odyssey [analog synthesizer] wasn’t’ working.

10. If you had to choose a few songs which have influenced your writing of songs the most, which would you choose?
“Here, There and Everywhere,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “For No One,” “Tattoo,” and so on far into the night. I’ve always been the soft to succumb unhesitatingly to a beautiful melody and a poignant or amusing bunch of lyrics. “For No One’s” my all-time fave.

11. What’s the normal day of John Mendelssohn like today?
Wake up, get out of bed, have a bowl of Team [cereal], some apple juice, several cups of coffee, re-read the LA Times’ Sports Section 85 times, go in den/studio and brood, make lunch, go back into den to sulk until mid-afternoon, go run mile as fast as possible and play basketball or tennis at Fairfax High School (alma mater of Phil Spector), come home, sulk until Marie comes home from work, eat dinner, get high, make love, watch TV or brook some more (or sometimes work on prose or new song), wonder why it’s taking so long to put new Pits line-up together, go to sleep.

12. If you had to briefly characterize your songs what would you say they’re about?
All manner of things, whimsical and wondrous. People are forever comparing me to Sparks, which I detest with a passion.

13. How many songs have you written in your life and which are your favorites?
Around forty. Favorites: “Prepared to Love,” “Autumn Approaching,” “Where’s My Jane?”

14. Do you have a favorite and least favorite rock critic?
Favorite: Lester Bangs, even though he no longer returns my calls. All-time least favorite: Ed Ward [at the time, writing for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and Creem].

15. What do you think you’ll be doing at age sixty?

16. Why aren’t you singing on the new Pits recordings?
I’m very insecure – with good reason – about my voice. But I am getting better.

17. If you had to choose between journalism and songwriting, which would you choose?
Not between songwriting and journalism, but between music and prose. (Sitting at my Hohner String Vox [electric keyboard] for hours on end trying to make a song work isn’t the fun part: recording and performing are infinitely more enjoyable.) I’d take music.

18. Do you envision a day when the Pits will play Dodger and Yankee Stadiums?
I’d settle for the Santa Monica Civic.

19. Do you think superstardom will change you?
Probably a little. In this regard, one couldn’t do better than Bev Bevan [English drummer for the likes of The Move, ELO and Black Sabbath], who’s remained one of the nicest guys and best friends in the world in spite of everything.

20. Do you regret anything you’ve done in this life?
To be honest, there aren’t a lot of things I don’t regret. I’m not one of nature’s happier sorts as a general rule. (When it comes to finding a way to be miserable, even when it appears that everything’s coming up roses, I’m topped only by Chris Thomas.)

21. What would you like written on your grave when you have to go to the popstar heaven in the sky?
Here lies John Mendelssohn.

22. What advice would you have for rock journalist types and somewhat saner folks who want to pursue the road to being a superstar?
I’m the last person anyone in his right mind would come to for advice.

23. Are you generally cheerful or optimistic would you say?
Not hardly.

24. Why haven’t there been more live appearances by the Mendelssohn bands?
We couldn’t get bookings. God knows we rehearsed enough.

25. If you had to put your lifetime goals in twenty-five words or less, what would they be?
I’d like one day to be very happy.

26. What do you think of the (formal) education you’ve had?
Roughly 95% of the teachers and professors I had over the course of sixteen years of schooling ought to be shot, or at least allowed never again to open their stupid yaps within hearing of impressionable youngsters.

27. If you could live in another decade than this one, is there any particular one you’d choose?
I think I could learn to love the present century’s ‘forties and ‘sixties (and probably ‘twenties) in perpetuity.

28. What would you do if there was no rock-n-roll?
Not play quite so loud.

29. Do you have favorite books and authors and films and TV shows and foods?
Authors: Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, Frederick Exley. TV: “Saturday Night Life” with Tony Kaufman (who with Albert Brooks is one of the two funniest men in America), “M*A*S*H,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “60 Minutes.” (I used to be dedicated to “All in the Family,” which I know longer enjoy, to the point at which I once came off stage in Irvine at 7:20 and was back in my favorite chair in my house in Laurel Canyon some 62 mile away in time to watch, having broken every possible traffic law in-between. Incidentally, a corner of said chair is visible in one of the photographs of me on the back of the Milk album, taken a few houses after I had my wisdom teeth extracted.) Food: Marie’s world-famous (ask Mr. and Mrs. B. Bevan of Birmingham, England, if you don’t believe me) fried fish, Marie’s world-famous chef salad, just about anything at Au Petit CafĂ© on Vine in Hollywood.

30. Do you have any final word to your fans across the world?
Some day

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Memorial: Writer Wes Funk, Feb 2, 1969-Oct 10, 2015

Text and images © Robert Barry Francos, 2015

When I heard about Saskatoon writer Wes Funk passing suddenly in his sleep at the age of 46, it came as a deep shock to me, the local writing community, and to his many fans around the world.

I first became aware of Wes when my partner bought me his first novel, Dead Rock Stars, when I first moved to Saskatoon from Brooklyn in 2009. It was an interesting story about a gay man who lives in this city, goes home to rural Saskatchewan to visit his religious family, and yet still manages to possibly find some happiness along the way. Like his character, Wes was a fan of classic rock, hence the title, and even had a tattoo of the Nirvana logo on one arm, and the Carpenters’ logo on the other.

When I saw that Wes was having a book signing at the local McNally-Robinson bookstore in 2010, I brought my copy and had him sign it. As fates would have it, he was alone at the table which gave us time for a very nice chat about music and life. We talked about getting together again for coffee at some point.

LIT Happens: Wes interviews Anthony Bidulka
After a few more conversations, Wes invited me to come on down to his Shaw Cable television show that focused on writers, called LIT Happens; some of them can be found online. Shaw played the episodes between films. I took my camera along, and was also interviewed for the show. It gave me the chance to give him a copy of a coffee table book about AC/DC which featured photos by me. As far as I know, I am still the only blogger he ever queried on the show. Afterwards, he drove us from the studio in the North End to the then-new downtown Tim Hortons, where we continued our talk.

His next book was Baggage, the story of, yes, a gay man looking for love in Saskatoon, who opens a shop in the area across the street from where Wes actually lived at the time, at the top of the Broadway Bridge. While Dead Rock Stars was a good book, I found this one an even better read. His writing was improving substantially, and he was no slouch to start. His third book was Cherry Blossoms, which was told from a woman’s perspective. It was a critical success, and for an independent release, sold quite well.

Hafford Summer Sizzle: Wes and his parents
Over the years, I would see Wes frequently at events, such as Word on the Street, PRIDE, and even the 2012 Hafford Summer Sizzle (close to where Wes grew up), where I would take his picture. He was quite proficient at promoting himself and his work, and always had a smile for anyone who would approach him. When he made the cover of the first issue of Bridges, a weekly magazine produced by the Saskatoon StarPhoenix daily newspaper, it was a nice nod.

After getting quite a few shots of him, I gathered a bunch of my photos together onto a disk, and gave it to him, which he thanked me by mentioning me into the acknowledgements of his next book, a memoir wittily titled A Wes Side Story. I told him I was going to buy a copy, but he insisted he wanted to give it to me, instead. But he never had the chance.

Likewise I had some rock music-focused books I wanted to give him, but a bad back and health issues always managed to come in the way. Still, we talked via IM on Facebook from time to time. His announcement of moving to Edmonton recently took me by surprise, but kind of made sense as it is definitely a bigger market.

Yesterday, I heard the news of his passing in his sleep. He recently had back surgery, and was in constant pain. The most common belief among his fans and friends is that he may have overmedicated himself.

While his loves of comic books and music, and his authorship is what most people will remember, and rightfully so, what will stick for me is his smile, his sense of humor, and his outgoing and friendly attitude. He was a good man, with a big heart, and his passing will affect many, including me.

Sleep well, Wes. Your stories will live on.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Two Documentary Films About Bob Dylan and The Band: Down in the Flood; After the Crash '66-'78

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

The reason I put these two reviews together is because they both deal with different perspectives of the same group of people in overlapping time periods, essentially from 1966 through 1978. Though both have different viewpoints and distribution companies, they really are companions as both are British release documentaries from the same parent enterprise and have an Executive Producer in common. The second DVD listed here actually was released first, but I reviewed them in the order I watched them.

Bob Dylan and the Band: Down in the Flood – Associations and Collaborations
(aka Down in the Flood: Bob Dylan, The Band & The Basement Tapes)
Executive Producer Rob Johnstone

Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Prism Films / Chrome Dreams Media
114 minutes, 2012

The title of this documentary is a bit misleading as it focuses not so much on the Zimmer-Man as much as the group that would first become famous backing him up, The Band. Actually, the documentary’s narrator, Thomas Arnold, vocalizes the “elevator pitch” of just what this DVD is about in one sentence: “This is the story of the relationship between Dylan and the Hawks, their reinvention of American Music at the close of the ‘60s, and the legendary amateur recordings they made together in Woodstock: The Basement Tapes.”

It all starts in the mysterious Deep South of the early ‘60s when rockabilly rebel Ronnie Hawkins gathered a band together and called them The Hawks. The Beatles were breaking and rockabilly was fading fast. That is when the call came from Toronto and Hawkins and the Hawks move to our friendly neighbor to the north. With attrition (and probably some work visa issues), the band is replaced one by one by Canadians, with the exception of the drummer, some guy named Levon Helm (d. 2012). Perhaps you’ve heard of him? The rest of the new group consisted of Rick Danko (bass; d. 1999), Garth Hudson (keyboard / sax), Richard Manuel (piano; d. 1986), and Robbie Robertson (guitar).

When The Hawks outgrew Hawkins’ rockabilly sound and struck out on their own just a couple of years later, they would eventually rename themselves The Band, outshining Hawkins with their own illustrious career.

Hooking up with Bob Dylan after his motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan talked the Hawks into moving to Woodstock, NY (a very lovely, quaint and New Age-y town that is miles from where the so-called Woodstock Festival was held). They all moved into a house with pink exterior which they dubbed The Big Pink, which would eventually be the name of The Band’s first solo record after Dylan abandoned them once he got what he wanted. To date, 138 of their sessions, taped by Hudson, would emerge and be called The Basement Tapes, for obvious reasons. Decades before the release was official, the Tapes were floating around as a 2-LP bootleg. I still remember listening to it in a friend’s house in the early ‘70s. It was in a plain white cover with a stamp that read Great White Wonder. I recall the quality of the records not being that good, as it was probably several generations down the road.

Dylan does play a recurring role in the story of The Band, but that’s pretty much it. He used the group to help get him figure out the direction he wanted, and then dropped them to record his next LP, John Wesley Harding, and using studio musicians in their stead, without the people who had just spent all that time with him. This would apparently become a pattern with Bobby, using The Band as his touring group, and then dropping them before reaching the studio. On the other hand, this kind of forced The Band to strike out on their own, borrowing what they learned in that basement, and releasing their seminal first folk rock album, The Big Pink. It also contained their first – and one of their biggest – hits, “The Weight” (a song I really do not like, but I digress…).

The Big Pink would quickly be considered a classic album, a trendsetter in Americana roots rock (hence the “reinvention of American Music” comment above), and blast them into the A-list. While “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was also a huge hit, they never really came up to the level of Big Pink status again.

As happens with most bands, a power struggle emerges, in this case between Robertson and Helm, along with a few deaths here and there, and The Band dissolves into history not as much with a whimper but a bang, thanks in part to the release of the Martin Scorsese-directed final The Band concert, The Last Waltz, as infamous for its guest musicians (e.g., Dylan, Joni, Neil, Ronnie) as for the group’s last hurrah. All in all, the life and death of The Band really never touched me, as I always found them kind of uninteresting, even while recognizing their talent as musicians.

As with most of the prodigious series of documentaries put out by the Chrome Dream company (there’s over a dozen of just Dylan alone), the film is not just a collection of comments: there are multiple clips, both live (including arenas with Dylan and by themselves, their appearances on Saturday Night Live, and clips from The Last Waltz) and commentaries by various writers and critics (many of them British), musicians and technicians, with both first and second hand anecdotes and theories. Of course, it’s the first-hand anecdotes that attracted the most of my attention, such as Hawkins, Mickey Jones (who played drums during their 1968 world tour), The Band’s early producer John Simon, Nashville session guitarist Charley McCoy (Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline), and the one who interested me the most, Garth Hudson, who was known for both recording The Basement Tapes and also credited for giving The Band their sound. As is common with Chrome Dreams releases, there are few women who are questioned, making this a testosterone-driven doc; this is a comment I’ve made before, and I’m sadly probably going to posit again.

While I’ll never be a fan of the Band, it’s still good to get a history of them that’s somewhat thorough, and that’s one thing about this series, they really tend do delve into minutia through clips, interviews and theory. I’m glad they’re keeping track.

Bob Dylan: After the Crash 1966-1978 (Special Edition 2 Disc Set)
Executive Producers Rob Johnstone and Andy Cleland
Narrated by Mandy O’Neale

Pride Films / Chrome Dreams Media
DVD: Disc 1: 118 minutes, 2005 / 2013
CD: Disc 2: 50 minutes 1971 / 2013
This DVD is especially interesting to watch after the one above, because even though they cover essentially the same timeframe, and have in some respects the same format, the focus is incredibly different.

Again we approach Dylan after his motorcycle crash in 1966, but this time we hear some skepticism about whether it even happened the way Dylan explained by his friend, Al Aronowitz (d. 2005; I had the opportunity to meet Al once a year or two before he passed at an Andy Pratt / Moogy Klingman [d. 2011] show in New York City the night I got kicked out of a Starbucks; but I digress…). Either way, it infamously led to Dylan holing himself in a house in Woodstock, NY with a group of guys called the Hawks who would soon change their name to The Band.

Funny thing is, in this story, the equally infamous Basement Tapes that came out of that are just a blip in this telling of the story. The Band gets little shrift here, even when they are backing him on tours, the exception of which is towards the end when they show a clip of Dylan and the Band playing the group’s last show in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1975); it’s the same clip from the other DVD, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.”

The story here follows Dylan through his Nashville albums, such as John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, the latter in 1969. This is accompanied by a clip of Dylan singing a duet of “Girl from the North Country” with Johnny Cash on Cash’s ABC television show (which is also shown in the other DVD).

One major difference between this DVD and many of the others from this label is that there are a remarkably fewer musical clips here, and a lot more talking head interviews. As this one originally came out a few years earlier, perhaps they were still developing the “formula” for this series? While hearing the music is great, it also can see seen as padding to make these longer, and at near two hours, I’ll take the info and be as happy as if there were snippets of songs (they never ever play full numbers, just 10-30 seconds each).

One thing I also like about the Chrome Dream series is that while they’re happy to lionize the artist in focus, there is also a level of honesty, even on the negative side. For example, for Dylan’s show with the Band at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, Aronowitz tells a story of why Dylan was an hour late due to a sound system issue; this is contrasted by Ray Foulk, the Festival’s organizer who blames the Band for playing too long and that it was only starting an hour later than scheduled. Much like the folkies not expecting Dylan to go electric, the Festival fans were not expecting his new country style, leading to bad reviews from press there.

Another example of this frankness is British music journalist Nigel Williamson (he appears regularly on Chrome Dream documentaries), who plainly states about Dylan’s Self Portrait LP, “It’s almost as if he deliberately set out to make an album that everyone would hate.” For New Morning, Nigel calls it a “good rather than great” album.

Around this time in the story, we are introduced to AJ Weberman, a fan who claims he was Dylan’s friend that searched Dylan’s garbage trying to find clues about song meanings. This led to some angry (and both pathetic and funny at the same time) phone calls in 1971 from Dylan asking Weberman to cease and desist. At some point Dylan physically beat Weberman up, something that would have been all over the television now; then again, Weberman couldn’t do what he did (harassment) either.

The phone calls, which Weberman recorded, have been available as bootlegs for decades, and are collected here in an accompanying CD, licensed to the documentary directly from Weberman. I found it fascinating to listen to Weberman, who is interviewed (probably part of the deal of the rights, as he comes across as a strange yet narcissistic man). This is part of the story of Dylan that has fascinated me, so it’s nice to actually see Weberman in the (digital) flesh, as he humorously claims he is starting the Bob Dylan Liberation Front against Dylan’s newer styles. I find it curious that in all the information that is flowing through this DVD, there is no mention of Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman (d. 1986), a usually sore topic for Weberman.

There is some digging into Dylan’s only Asylum Records release Planet Waves (after pressure from David Geffen), a 1974 tour after 8 years off the road, the more successful Blood on the Tracks in 1975, and his Desire LP in the film, but it feels more informational and chronological that delving. For the deeper look, they discuss Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which was Dylan’s first acting role (and the first and only film I ever saw stoned on weed). The film is looked at critically, but we see no clips other than the trailer, which has a brief shot of Dylan. In other words, for all the talking, there is very little imagery other than concerning the accompanying album. Weirdly, no verbal mention or musical clip is made of the biggest hit on the soundtrack (and one of my fave songs of later-day Dylan), “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

The next big piece in the story detailed here is the Rolling Thunder Review, a tour that started out successfully and fell under the weight of its own success and Dylan’s boredom. We see it through the eyes of Dylan’s band leader for the show, Rob Stoner (nee Rothstein; I still have a couple of his solo albums). He’s a good storyteller of what it was like to work with Dylan in both the studio and on tour, and though he left midway through the second RTR tour, he still has good words to say about Bob. What I felt was his most intriguing comment is that Phil Ochs was turned down for the RTR, and soon after took his own life in 1976, so Stoner wonders if there is a correlation. This segment is followed by the Bob Dylan directed disaster of a film, Renaldo & Clara, which all the critics interviewed here say essentially that the live footage was good, but as a piece of cinema, as a whole, it was not a success.

Towards the end of the story here, Dylan gets a bigger band, and records and releases the Street Legal album, which is well-received everywhere except on his home turf of the US. The end of this DVD comes in November 1978, when Dylan becomes a Born Again Christian.

Again, with the Chrome Dream collection, there are lots of interviews, here more than usual, consisting of writers, journalists, and some of the people who were integral to the period, such as Weberman, Stoner, Aronowitz, Foulk, as well as Ron Cornelius (guitarist on Self Portrait and New Morning), Bruce Langhorne (guitarist for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Eric Weissberg (guitarist on the New York session of Blood on the Tracks), Kevin Odegard (guitarist for the Minnesota sessions of Blood on the Tracks; Jacques Levy (d. 2004; playwright and lyric collaborator on Desire), and Paul Colby (d. 2014; owner of the Bitter End). And finally, giving a strong female voice to the boys club is violinist Scarlet Rivera (Desire, Rolling Thunder Review).

The information here is both direct stories and second-hand journalism by professional writers in the field, but it flushing out pretty well, which is just what I expect from the Chrome Dream team.