Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride; by Curt Weiss

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Video from the Internet unless indicated

Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride – A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock
Written by Curt Weiss; forward by Chris Stein
Backbeat Books; Hal Leonard LLC
294 pages, 2017
ISBN: 9781495050817

In my opinion, the punk rock that is generally acknowledged by the mainstream as Punk Rock officially started with the Ramones. However, the role of both the proto-punk New York Dolls and paradigm-changer the Heartbreakers cannot be under-appreciated for bands like the Ramones to have existed, and more importantly, to succeed.

The first time I saw the Dolls play, it was just after guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan had left the band, I’m sorry to say (I started in the scene in Spring of 1975). For me, my love affair of the music of Johnny and Jerry started at CBGBs in early ‘76, at the premiere of Amos Poe’s film, Blank Generation. The band that opened that night, with the tiny stage still on the left side of the club, was the Heartbreakers, when the “lead” was still Richard Hell. I found the musicianship kind of rattling and lovingly sloppy. Johnny style of guitar and Hell’s bass playing was all over the map, but they could do that because of the consistency of Jerry’s drumming.

After Hell was ousted, I saw Jerry in many different incarnations, including the revamped Heartbreakers with Thunders and Walter Lure up front (probably the band I’ve seen live more than any other), the Rockats, and the final time at Johnny Thunders’ memorial just a few short months before it was Jerry’s turn to join Johnny one more time.

Johnny and Jerry,
pic (c) Robert Barry Francos
It’s true that Johnny received more relative fame than Jerry. Hell, Walter was technically a better guitarist and just as enjoyable onstage as Johnny, but Johnny had that danger element that Walter lacked (not meant as an insult; I’m looking forward to someone doing a book about him as I find Walter fascinating), and Jerry was so consistent and excellent, that it almost worked against him for standing out. However, other musicians knew how good he was, including the author of this book, Curt Weiss, a drummer in his own right.

There are definitely some themes that flow through the Jerry Nolan story, such as style, women, music, temperament, and especially drugs. It’s hard to underestimate just what a lynchpin hard drugs were to the New York scene on the Lower East Side, which is one of the reasons why I would go see these bands and write about them, but did not hang out with them very much; they scared the shit out of me. This book does not shy away from it, and rightfully so.

Depending on whom you talk to, Jerry Nolan was either a really nice guy or a complete self-absorbed shit. Johnny had a reputation of being more on the asshole side, but Jerry could be either, depending on what his needs were, what he could get out of you, or what condition his state of fix was in at the moment.

The term “Wild Ride” is appropriate for Jerry’s life, and there was so much about him I did not know, such as his being a member of the Suzi Quatro band early on (I saw them in 1975, after Jerry left, opening for Alice Cooper at Madison Square Garden), his relationship with Bette Midler, and that’s only the tip of the story.

Told in mostly chronological order, right from birth, Curt manages to avoid many of the traps of biographies (and autobiographies) that seem to follow the same path: troubled youth, find an instrument, bunch of bands, hit the big time, and then fun and trouble brings it all down. Yeah, there is some of all of that here, but it’s kept interesting. I like how rather than quoting people by saying “Joe Blow recalls that…” and similar passages, Weiss breaks it down to simple “Joe Blow: quote”. It may not be as literary, but it’s certainly more effective. My one complaint about this, though, is that after the person is quoted later, even if it’s dozens of pages than being introduced, he just uses the first name. As someone familiar with the scene, I usually knew who he was quoting, but a casual follower, with this many people interviewed, it’s easy to get lost in the names of who is who. My rule of thumb would have been if the person isn’t mentioned in 10 pages, give both names as a reminder. Perhaps I’m nitpicking?

Still, the book and especially the story kept me drawn all the way through. There is no doubt in my mind, and Weiss also makes this pretty clear that he holds the same belief, that Jerry tended to blame others for his own lack of success, but that falls straight into his own lap. Or vein, anyway. Jerry hated sloppy drug users, but he did not see past his own blinders. Sure, he could play under the influence better than, well, just about anyone in his bands, but that does not mean when he wasn’t on stage he wasn’t sabotaging himself at every turn. That’s why managers of his bands always warned other managers about him, another consistent theme in the book.

One of the more powerful and interesting motifs here is the relationship between Jerry and Johnny. Someone mentions near the end of the book how they were like an old married couple, and that’s pretty accurate. Johnny was always his best when he was backed by Jerry – but I want to add that Johnny was especially effective when he shared a stage with Walter more than anyone else, in my opinion; their verbal putdown exchanges were part of the reason to go see them perform. With Jerry and Johnny though, it was more their between gigs interactions that made them the best of friends and the worst of enemies, sometimes at the same time. Walter has told stories about how Jerry would beat the hell out of Johnny if he was acting up or sloppy-drugged. Yet, it was obvious when they worked together in front of any crowd, it was a bond that was hard to break. Even at times when they despised each other, they would still find a way to play. And it was a joy to watch.

As enjoyable as the book is, there is some controversy about it, such as questions about the means Weiss used to get some of the information. He made some of the people mentioned and quoted in the book not too happy, one in particular threatening to take legal actions. The question here is one of whether the ends justify the means. I’m not going to judge one way or another.

My other issue with the book is that there is a certainly level of assumptions, with Weiss stating things like “Jerry felt that…” or “Jerry thought that…” That’s solid Victor Bockis territory. Second hand “feelings” are untrustworthy, and I would have preferred if he had more often used the style on page 231, where he has the direct source of Swedish musician Hank Eriksson quoting Jerry saying, “Don’t worry about it. It’s rock ‘n’ roll.” Other people quoting him is not the same as assuming what Jerry was thinking or feeling, unless a direct source is given.

Jerry at Johnny's memorial concert,
pic (c) Robert Barry Francos
Towards the end of Jerry’s life – and the book – is where Weiss makes the most assumptions, mostly about his relationships and his means of death. I’m not saying Weiss is right or wrong, I don’t know as I do not have the direct sources, but in this case when he states on page 256, “There was no doubt…”, it is still an assumption on his part, unless someone in the medical field or someone close to him told him directly, and he can use that person as a citation.

To be fair, I have read an “Advance Uncorrected Reader’s Proof,” so I’m not sure what has been changed between this and the final printing. Heck, I don’t even know if there are photos added. What I do know is despite all the possibly rightful controversy over this biography of arguably one of the best drummers to every hit the rock’n’roll skins, it is an enjoyable read, and an important piece about someone, under different circumstances, would (and should) be on everyone’s list of important musicians in his field.

Monday, February 5, 2018

HAZEL O’CONNOR: She’s No Dummy [1981]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1981
Introduction text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet*

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981, by Managing Editor Julia Masi. – Robert Barry Francos, 2018.

She has the smooth, clear voice of a 1940s chanteuse, the guts of a hard rocker, and the theatrical presence of Marcel Marceau. Scurrying about the stage, her pale skin is made whiter by make-up. With hair a strikingly unnatural shade of red, she is the perfect mime, creating characters to personify her songs. But Hazel O’Connor refuses to be manipulated.

On her own since the age of 16 when she left home in Coventry, England, Hazel has traveled from Beirut to Tokyo, working odd jobs as a singer, painter, dancer, and actress. Once penniless in the Sahara Desert, she is now a movie star on two continents, thanks to her portrayal of Kate in Breaking Glass [see film trailer below – RBF, 2018]. And now, she is embarking on a recording and concert career.

Sitting in her room at the Iroquois Hotel on an afternoon before her New York City debut last April, Hazel sipped tea, toyed with her corned-beef sandwich, and speculated about her career, her album Sons and Lovers on A&M Records, and the music scene.

“Singing is what I want to do. For me, that’s my major form of expression. It makes me feel the most.” She claims to have started her career with a “poxie Minnie Mouse voice,” but soon learned to sing with her guts when she found situations that she wanted to sing about. She learned the piano from an old boyfriend, who wrote the notes on the keyboard with a felt-tipped pen. Then she learned “a bit of guitar,” and asked her brother Neil to teach her to write songs.

“The first songs I wrote were about this girl, Montana Wildhack. She was the porno star in Slaughterhouse Five who gets kidnapped from Beverly Hills to mate with Billy Pilgrim. I have about three songs on her because of that book.” But her first single, “E-I-Addio,” was inspired by the fights her parents had before they broke up. And the 13 songs she wrote for the Breaking Glass soundtrack were laced with political overtones.

“I would never want to be a politician,” she admits. “I hate people pushing a point down at me in a too obvious way. I write about what I see around me, what I feel. People can make what they like out of my observations; like, people get meaning out of an artist painting pictures. I try to see lyrics in double images. My lyrics are quite pointed. They have their meanings underlying, of what I want to say, for anyone who wants to dig deeper. Sometimes, it starts with the obvious on the top level, and goes to the less obvious, with an underneath level, which a lot of people don’t bother to find out unless they listen.”

Influenced by the Velvet Underground and the Small Faces, she follows a definite formula when writing music: “Both of those groups have very structured ideas as far as songs are concerned, even though they played very loose. It was always verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Or possibly, middle eight or solo, finish on a chorus, or stop; end of song. I like that cos I’m one of those people who works well around a structure. If you put limits around what you’re doing, you can go past your limits and set new limits. I haven’t got past my first set of limits.”

Sons and Lovers is a reaction to what she has seen on the European music scene. After the release of Breaking Glass, Hazel was invited to all the “in, clique-y dos.” While making public appearances at clubs and discotheques, Hazel tried to stay out of the limelight and just drink in what was happening around her.

“In those days (1979), it was sort of a new regime where fashion hadn’t really been established. It was a cabaret-like setting with everyone coming up and wriggling around. It reminded me of Berlin back in World War days, with people watching other people and getting their rocks off.”

The passions of love and war are the central theme of her album, which includes an unusual cover of the traditional Irish song, “Danny Boy.” “I just imagined this smoky desolate field that had been a battleground forever, which was, like, in Ireland in the days of the Revolution, and always picking up arms against the oppressor, with this girl who’s singing about her lover. And gradually you change the coin, and you’ve got this lovely, lilting tune, then suddenly it goes, ‘Par-rump-par-rump,’” she started to imitate the drum and sings, “’Oh, Danny Boy…,’ because they gave people lively songs to make them march better.

“People are redundant. Whenever there’s economic declines, people start looking for scapegoats and that’s the first problem. And we have all these fuckin’ arms problem. And Big Money. Who needs it? They’re living life in true rock’n’roll fashion; let’s all destroy ourselves. I’m not interested in the destruction of the planet. People get so small-minded about what politics is about. Politics is about living together as people with feelings, and it’s been institutionalized to the point where my music comes in, because I really believe in feelings. It’s been said that I’m a ‘silly girl who’ll probably never hurt anybody but myself,’ but I don’t really care, if that’s the point.”

But what Hazel does care about is conveying her kaleidoscopic visions to her audience. By combining her theatrical talents with rock’n’roll, she had come up with a rowdy, regimented stage show.

“As big a love as I have of racing around on stage, I have a love of old-time cabaret. Not musical cabaret, but that sometimes seedier side of life that I know from being a dancer and stuff like that. I’d like to be able to stand up there with a piano, or even without anything, and be able to sing. I think that must be a great feeling.

“In England, my medium is mostly rock’n’roll concerts, but in France, we had a hit with ‘Will You,’ off the Breaking Glass album.” Naturally, having a hit song meant that Hazel had to make personal appearances and do a barrage of French rock’n’roll television shows. “And because everybody is so penny-pinching, all they wanted was just me to go over and mime to a tape. I at least waned to take my keyboard player. So me and Roots went over and he played piano and I sang it live. It was real good fun, cos that’s like another part of me.

“I really love stuff like old-fashioned jazz. I love Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf. Women singers like that mean more to me than Grace Slick or Janis Joplin any day. I listened to the heavy rock scene. I liked Nico. She was maybe the first one I liked, but she didn’t go up there and sing and try to be a man. After that, I like all my contemporary girl singers that are happening now. I think they’re far more exciting than in the ‘60s, like Siouxie from the Banshees. And Debbie Harry; I like what she does.”

Kate, Hazel’s cinematic alter-ego, seems to be a composite of all her contemporaries, but with a few similarities to the real-life O’Connor: “I’m not going to disown my character. A lot of this that happen to (Kate) happened to me later, like going a bit nuts in the end. But some of the reasons I felt like going nuts were totally different. The real reason why people go nuts in any artistic sense is that people never recognize them for what they want to be recognized for; I just was not getting much recognition for being a musician, or being a writer. I was being recognized for being a puppet and a dummy.”

Hazel, who sees herself as “resilient and stable,” diagnoses the death of the punk movement: “The media has made bands inaccessible. They just started off on one track and finished up on another. Like the Clash started out as a street band, and eventually they had to give into commerciality to make money. That is classed in some people’s opinion as ‘selling out.’ I don’t see it that way. They’ve just become inaccessible. I understand how that happens. I used to see Mick Jones hanging out a lot. It gets to be difficult. I still think they make good music; it’s just that things are not the same anymore. Things can’t stay the same.

“We did this pop show, ‘Top of the Pops,’ when Breaking Glass was in its height. I’d been taken there in some old mini-cab; when we came out to be met, in what we thought would be our cab, there was a bloody Bentley waiting for us. I’d never felt so embarrassed in all my life, as getting into that Bentley. The record company had sent it as a present to sort of cheer me up. All I could think was, ‘Oh, no! What am I going to do with this thing?’ When we got to the gates of the television studio, there were loads of kids waiting for the stars to come out. And I remember physically sliding down in my seat and saying, ‘Oh, no!’ But that’s not fair to the kids, so I kind of popped up again and went, ‘Oh, hello!’” She demonstrated by sitting straight up with a stiff, toothy smile on her face.

“See, I believe in a certain commercial process. There’s two ways of looking at it: being absolutely against the media; then you shouldn’t do interviews. You should do nothing. You should just stick to your guns, if that’s what you believe in. Or, you believe in the art of commerciality. And I think there is a certain art to it. I think publicity is a very interesting phenomenon and I think media happenings are great to get involved in. I know I’m not a product, and I’m not going to be told I am by anybody.”

Video (c) Gareth Lewis:

* Please note that I make no financial gain from any image, as I do not have any advertising on this site.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review: Act & Punishment – The Pussy Riot Trials

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials
Produced, written and directed by Evgeny Mitta
Cleopatra Entertainment / 2Plan2 / Paperworks / MVD Visual
90 minutes, 2018

You say you want a revolution…

Pussy Riot is now more than just a band, they are the symbols of a social movement that have spawned a few documentaries. Unlike the United States, in many countries it’s the art students that are on the forefront of revolution. They see an imaginative vision of what is possible and what is needed through eyes of those who have studied philosophy, art history, and culture, and have the education to extrapolate from what is to what can be. This scares a lot of politicians.

This documentary wisely starts off with this theme, interviewing painters and art historians, and showing how the “artist” has been at the forefront of activism, even in the time of Ivan the Terrible. This motif is picked up repeatedly as a subtopic throughout the film. When we first meet our heroes, however, they are at trial, stating their names, places of birth, etc., to the judge.

Once we get to know identify the trio that make up the core of Pussy Riot (PR), we “meet” see them individually, talking to the director on camera, discussing how they came to where they met, and from there forward. Present are some consistent themes, such as politics, art, and especially Feminism. Some might call them post-Feminists (a term of which I am not fond), as they are seen in feminine make-up and wearing fine dresses, as opposed to the stereotypical gear (plaid shirts, overalls, etc.). To me, PR is more punk rock Feminism, by taking on the oppressive image of sexualized women and reclaiming it as something else. This is the empowerment that spawned PR.

PR played a post-punk rock sound music reminiscent musically of the likes of Black Flag’s “Rise Above,” spitting out lines of protest like bullets, but spiritually they are closer to the riot grrrls of the mid-1990s (aka the better half of grunge), and ideologically leaning toward anti-capitalists like the Crass. In a few impromptu performances, they played guerrilla style in places like on top of a bus in a terminal, or in front of a prison. However, it was an attempted show which was shut down before they could even play that got them arrested for “hooliganism,” which was in the main Russian Orthodox Church – the equivalent of St. Peter’s in Vatican City – whose congregation includes Putin. The head priest had come out in favor as Putin for President, and this was PR’s comment on that. Before they could even play, they were overwhelmed by a bunch of men, and shortly were arrested.

It was at this point PR became a meta-symbol for revolutionary vision and tactics as art. The video posted of them went viral and the music actually became secondary to what they stood for, which is, in my opinion, unfortunate. Movements can come and go, but the message of the music will remain afterwards. But I’m adding to what is beyond the scope of the documentary.

It’s very well put together in a mostly chronological order, mixed with post-event interviews with the trio of PR (Nadia, Masha, Katia; though up to 11 others have been in and out of the band over time), as well as thought-out placements of art-as-activism, as I mentioned. The whole she-bang is in Russian, of course, and there are subtitles throughout.

By switching back and forth between PR and art-proper, the interest in both is kept at high levels, never sinking to overexposure of people nor ideology.

An interesting aspect for me is how what is going on in Russia in this documentary is echoed in current United States under a Republic president, House and Senate. The assumption of power, the use of religious symbolism by the government (here it’s Evangelicals, there Russian Orthodox), and having an emboldened right wing – err – wing that uses force to smash their counterparts in a cowardice of indirect contact by officials; in the film, we see muscular men destroying peaceful protests by kicking down tents, and assaulting people who they deem as threats. Charlottesville, anyone?

My one complaint about the whole PR movement, and this documentary in particular, is that as a punk rocker, I am interested in the music, as well as the activism. Talking about, say, the SoCal scene without hearing “Holiday in Cambodia,” for example, sort of confuses the point, and takes out a key factor of both why and especially how the protests work.

There’s lots of footage of various marches of protest both in support of PR (mostly outside Russia), and those who oppose (the largest segment inside Russia). An interesting one that is massive is led by the Church, full of women in traditional babushka headgear reminiscent of the hijab, or sheitels. It’s almost like religion does not want women to have hair. But I digress…

In a very short time, Pussy Riot went from relative obscurity to them and their crude woolen hats turned into hood-type balaclavas becoming iconic to the 2010s (arguably replaced in culture by the anti-Trump pussy hats); that is the political cache of PR. And yet, the name Pussy Riot immediately gets a nod from everyone. Yet, very few in the West know what they look like, what they actually stand for, and what is their musical direction. That’s part of why this documentary is so important on the world stage. It humanizes both the movement and who is behind it.

This is especially necessary in today’s political environment, where societies in general are becoming more isolated and reactionary, and religious fanaticism (in the guise of fiscal conservativism) threatens the fabric of modern culture and the social bonds. As much as I appreciate and respect the real #metoo movement, I’m glad this came before it, otherwise it would just most likely be lumped into a single wheelhouse.

With Madonna
The movement is worldwide, but the focus is on Russia here, with protesters, and bands like Faith No More (“We Care a Lot”) playing in Moscow while wearing PR-inspired woolen headgear. When PR are sentence to prison in Russia, the worldwide protests are compiled into a powerful montage while we hear the song “Free Pussy Riot” by Peaches and Simonne Jones.

The extras are English subtitles, chapters, a 2:00 photo slideshow (mostly taken from the film proper), over the “Free Pussy Riot” song, and the trailer. I would have liked to have had a couple (at least) of their music videos included, if possible).

The documentary ends at the same time as the trial does in 2011, which is not surprising considering the film’s title. What happened after, well, I’m guessing that may just be a sequel, which I will also look forward to seeing.

Extra Videos: