Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: 50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

Review: Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy

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

Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy
Directed by Danny Garcia                  
Chip Baker Films / MVD Visual
94 minutes, 2016

I’ve certainly been in the same room with Sid and Nancy, especially the latter considering the sheer number of times I’ve seen the Heartbreakers, her band of choice before latching onto Sid. But my strongest connected and contributing memory is coming home from a show (if I remember correctly, the bands were The Fast and Crayola) in the late 70s, after the break-up of the Sex Pistols and before Nancy’s death, and seeing an inebriated and stumbling Sid kicking a guy passed out on the sidewalk on 8th Street, between McDougall and Sixth (Ave of the Americas, to those who don’t know better). Needless to say, I walked on, without talking to him. About a year later, he and Nancy were legends and newspaper fodder.

It makes sense that this documentary was made by the same people/director as the excellent Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders [reviewed HERE], because Thunders and his band the Heartbreakers were a key catalyst in the lives of Sid and Nancy. Y’see, Nancy Spungen was a Heartbreakers’ friendemy/groupie who joined in with the band in its proclivity for hard drugs. These bits of fact, mentioned as raindrops at the beginning, including the elements of the Heartbreakers going to London to tour with the Sex Pistols, thereby opening up an opportunity for Nancy to go to the UK to get herself a Sex Pistol (much in the way the story goes that Linda Eastman did the same with the Beatles, and ended up with Paul).

There is a bit of irony in the whole story of the Pistols and Heartbreakers, as the Pistols famously wrote a derogatory song about the Heartbreakers (or New York Dolls, depending on how you read the lyrics) in a song called “New York” (“You're just a pile of shit / You're coming to this / You poor little faggot / You're sealed with a kiss”) to which the Heartbreakers responded with their own “London Boys” (“You're telling me 'shut your mouth' / If I wasn't kissing, you wouldn't be around / You talk about faggots, little momma's boy / You sit at home, you got a chaperon / You need an escort to take a piss”); you didn’t think in-song insults started with rappers, did you? After all that, Thunders and Vicious became good buds at some point.

The introduction of these elements led to a drug shitstorm that would rock the music scene as the Heartbreakers (and Nancy) introduced the use of heroin to Punk’s British Second Wave. Nancy, of course, latched herself onto Sid, but with all the tenuousness of the violence and mind/physical altering substances of their relationship, it’s hard to argue that they loved/needed/were dependent on each other (much as Linda and Paul were an actual couple beyond how they met). With Nancy holding the needle and the dime, she brought Sid into a world he may never have explored (though that is debated in the film), and eventually to New York.

As the film demonstrates through a large number of oral history interviews with varying memories and opinions about what would happen between the death of Nancy and that of Sid on Feb 3, 1979 (exactly 20 years after the crash that took the life of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. The Big Bopper Richardson). The general consensus seems to be that Sid could be a sweetheart or a terror, depending on the day or what was flowing through his system, but Nancy was just a horrendous human due to mental problems, substance abuse, and a “whiney” voice that could shatter glass. Her mom, Deborah, tried to explain it in a defensive and angry, self-serving auto/biography, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life (the book goes unmentioned, and Debbie is only brought up once).

To get down to the nitty-gritty, the film is extremely well put together with a very limited budget. I have always enjoyed different theories types of documentaries, that doesn’t try to come any real conclusion by itself, or have an answer in mind, and that uses the interviews to support ideas, rather than coming to one on its own. While one of the two trailers included in the extras claims it does, I’m happy to say it doesn’t really. However, it does posit a bunch of credible theories and lets the viewers come to its own possible choice of solution. The latter part of the film sometimes feels more like a murder mystery than a narrative, which I feel is a plus.

There are so many people from the period present, especially in the New York Scene of the 1970s, from fans to musicians, that experienced the Sid/Nancy phenomenon first-hand. Some include Walter Lure, Rockets Redglare, Cynthia Ross, Donna Destri, Lenny Kaye, Andy (Adny) Shernoff, photographer Bob Gruen (who went on the bus with the Pistols for their US tour), the late-great Leee Black Childers (who owned a leather jacket back then I truly envied), Howie Pyro (of The Blessed and D Generation, and who infamously snorted some of Sid’s ashes), Hellin Killer (who was with him the night Sid died), Sylvain Sylvain, and so many others. It also includes the one person I really wanted to hear, which was “Neon” Leon Matthews, a musician and fellow Chelsea Hotel resident that disappeared for a number of years after Sid died (only to resurface decades later in Europe). For a long time it was believed he held the key to the answer to what happened that night, and I am really grateful to be able to hear his side of that night.

Wisely, the interviews are intercut and short, so no one story goes on long enough to become burdensome to anyone who doesn’t really know these people talking about their affiliation to these two desperate and media-legendary victims. Also, the stories themselves are interesting and keep apace. Hearing the differences in opinion and events makes for conversations on what happened with the viewers going after the film ends. My only gripe is that the names are only shown the first time the talker is presented. I knew most of them, but the few I didn’t got lost on me as I heard more of their involvement. Also, it is a pleasure that everyone who talks had some direct action in the events, rather than hearing from journalists who report their indirect opinions on second-hand stories (as I hypocritically do at the end of the review).

As for the budget, well, it’s pretty easy to see the constraints, and I’m saying this as a positive considering the achievement and fascination of the film. For example, we see a B-roll of the Pistols playing live, and the Heartbreakers’ “All By Myself” is playing on the soundtrack. In fact, there is no Pistols music at all, and only a quick live snippet of Sid at Max’s; Sid’s “My Way” and “C’mon Everybody” is mentioned, just not heard. There are some pretty infamous clips though, including the drugged out Sid & Nancy in bed from the film D.O.A. (1980). The big head scratcher for me is that we don’t hear Johnny Thunders’ elegy for Sid, for which this film is named.

Other than the two trailers mentioned previously, there is also a Heartbreakers music video for “Take a Chance” that is linked to the film through clips. But the standout for me is the 18-minute extra of interviews. There are five, and it was right to take them out of the film due to their length and as they don’t really contribute to the story; however they were among my favorite anecdotes, especially the one by Donna Destri. Definitely watch it all of this extra all the way through. And did I mention the DVD comes with a free film poster?

So, yeah, the director/producers certainly achieved what they set out to do, and it makes sense that they preceded this with one about Thunders. I’m really looking forward to what’s next (I’m hoping one about Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys, though I haven’t heard anything about it).

And, for what it’s worth, here is the version of the story as I heard it at the time, though I can vouch for none of the validity: Sid and Nancy were expecting to have a big drug deal go down, and so they gave much of their valuables to friends for safeguarding; Johnny got Sid’s jacket, which he wore from then on, in good faith (i.e., he never sold it for, well, let’s say rent). The drug dealer gave them samples, enough to knock out Sid, and then made a move on Nancy; she rejected him, and he stabbed her. When Sid found out what happened, he felt guilty that he had passed out, and then left her to go to his methadone appointment in the morning, saying to the police, “I killed her,” meaning he didn’t protect her. The cops heard it as a confession (parts of this are echoed in the film).

Who know what would have happened if Sid had cleaned up. Would he be famous rather than infamous? Ponderous thoughts.