Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Documentary Review: Here to be Heard – The Story of the Slits

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

Here to be Heard: The Story of the Slits
Written, photographed, directed and edited by William E. Badgley
Head Gear Films / Molasses Manifesto /
Moviehouse Entertainment / MVD Entertainment Group
86 minutes, 2017

Long before there was Pussy Riot in Russia, there was the British band, the Slits. The Spice Girls may have been cutesy talking about “Girl Power,” but it was the sheer force of art-meets-anger that fueled the members of the British punk outfit, the Slits. Even before there was the raucous and sexualized-yet-strong-female-focused riot grrrls groups like Hole, there was the Slits.

As with most bands, there were some personnel changes in the Slits, especially as they rose out of the notorious group Flowers of Romance, but they definitely started off strong more because of the timing of their emergence than their musical acumen. Please note that this is not any kind of insult, as there were a lot of great bands back then where were musically miniscule (e.g., most British punk groups at the time), but were both culturally important and enjoyable to those in the right frame of mind (e.g., and again, most British punk groups at the time).

Unlike in much of the US press, the British music press quickly joined the fray and focused on the punk scene, be it negative or positive (an example of the latter being Caroline Coon). With Palmolive, who was the Slits’ initiator and bassist at the time, having been a flat mate of Woody of the underrated 101ers – who became Joe Strummer – it is no surprise they joined the early “White Riot” tour of the Clash (when the Clash still mattered, i.e., pre-Sandinista; but I digress…).

Like most biographical films about bands, there’s a heavy dose of chronology, but this one takes a wise turn. It starts and continues with the theme or spine of original bassist Tessa Pollitt going through her band scrapbook, and using that as a motif to launch into both events in the Slits trajectory, and also philosophical “rear view mirror” looking at the cultural environment into which the group was immersed.

The obvious road taken, though not the only one, is addressing the Feminist standpoint, which I actually agree with: I remember the time in the 1970s when even male musicians I liked were not kind to women (or other races), such as Johnny Thunders’ song “Who Needs Girls.” While there actually were female members in some of the early punk bands (Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, for example), it was rare to find them as in-your-face as they were in the British punk scene. That they seemed to mostly disappear during the New Romantics ‘80s is another story, but for this nascent scene, the Slits were a powerful role model that gave rise to many others, such as the Raincoats, X-Ray Specs, and arguably Siouxie and the Banshees (also from remnants of Flowers of Romance), who followed a more rhythmically bottom-driven sound.

It was important than Don Letts (who is understatedly described as merely “filmmaker” here) lends his voice, as he was such a strong influence on the Slits members’ – and especially Ari Up’s – musical influence with his spinning of reggae at the clubs in London in the mid-to-late 1970s, introducing the sound to the likes of the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, and the Pistols (Lydon’s PiL would be bent in that direction). Letts impact led the Slits to arguable create their own subgenre, punk worldbeat, or perhaps atonal worldbeat. They definitely shattered both the punk and worldbeat stereotypes by synergistically combining them into this new hybrid sound, for which they definitely deserve the credit.

The Slits also introduced musicians who would go on to their own heightened careers that arguably superseded theirs, such as Neneh Cherry and Budgie (Peter Clarke), one of their drummers who performed on their first LP Cut, who went on to play for Siouxie and the Banshees.

What I liked about the interviews here is that nearly everyone had a direct connection to the band, rather than second-hand press. The one possible exception is Vivien Goldman, who is described as “New York University’s punk professor” (first of all, she’s British, so she may have actually been there to see the band, but it’s not clear; second, she is not “the” punk professor there, as I know others, such as Dr. Brian Cogan, who wrote The Encyclopedia of Punk Rock, but I digress again…).

One person who is talked about only momentarily is Ari’s mother, Nora Forster, who was one of their later managers (and who is credited here offhandedly as part of the reason they initially broke up), and famously married the much younger John Lydon in 1979 (they are still wed). What surprises me, though, is that neither Nora nor Lydon are part of the interviews presented. But on the other hand, from what I’ve seen of Lydon and the fact that they are raising Ari’s three kids, perhaps they didn’t want to be involved.

Before she passed on in 2010 at age 46 of breast cancer, Ari stated she wanted this documentary completed, and both Tessa and Viv were strong proponents of her wishes being fulfilled. That being said, nearly all members of the band through its original run in 1976 through 1982, and then it’s revival with Ari and Tessa being the only original members from 2005 to 2010, are represented here, including Budgie.

One of the best thing about this film is how well it mixes newer footage and interviews with archival ones of the band both on stage and off, often on tour. It’s beautifully seamless and well handled.

The documentary focuses a lot on Ari’s nonconventional attitudes and behavior, and how the other members were drawn into that bright light; it shifts back and forth between what good friends they all were to how they would fight a lot on the road. The footage of the tours, which were recorded for a film they were going to make at Ari’s insistence, however, definitely show camaraderie.

While there are some holes in the history (e.g., Ari reportedly refusing chemo because she would lose her hair, and what some of the later-version Slits members are currently doing as this seems to focus more on the original line-up), this is still extremely well done at capturing what the band was trying to do, what they achieved, and a bit of their legacy (although this is another area I would have liked to see expressed more).

And to complete the first paragraph, I feel compelled to posit: before there was all that was the Slits, there was the boom boom of the proto-punk Shangri-Las from Long Island, New Yawk. I’m just sayin’…

Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: 24 x 36: A Movie About Movie Posters

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

24 x 36: A Movie About Movie Posters
Directed by Kevin Burke
Post No Joes Productions / Snowfort Films / FilmRise / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2017

Hopefully, this is past the Statue of Limitations: when I was in my late teens, I worked as an usher in a cinema palace in Brooklyn that has now been razed. It was one of the big ones with only one screen then, a balcony and two aisles that were split into three sections (smoking on the right side, only). My boss hated me, but that’s neither here nor there. In back of the ticket booth, there was a stack of previous film posters that the boss would not give out to us¸ saying its company property; however, when the stack got too high, he chucked them into the trash bin out back. So, I starting sifting them off the bottom, never taking enough to be obvious, only enough of them to have a nice stack after a year. Some include O! Lucky Man and American Graffiti. And yes, I still have them.

Film posters, back then, were exciting. It wasn’t merely photos of the stars dressed in costumes layered on top of each other with the film’s name underneath, they were luscious artwork that was full of imagination and talent. Horror and Sci-Fi were especially attractive. I still remember seeing the poster for The Masque of the Red Death in the theater as a very young kid and being impressed by it. While the film was pretty bad, the poster still stands as great art.

This documentary combines artists, collectors, directors and movie poster shop owners, and weaves a series of ideas about the history of the poster on many different aspects, from the very beginning of graphic art that was used in the silent era.

Broken into chapters, we learn that poster artists were not generally compensated well, nor were they allowed to sign their work until at least the 1970s or ‘80s. Despite that, the documentary correctly posits that the poster showed a possibility of what was in the film being shown. Even The Goonies, in its goofy way, posited a type of adventure. But over time, as actors’ agents and the players themselves became more powerful, the poster became dominated more by an image of the star than what the film was about. There’s a close-up of the face of Tom Cruise, or Will Smith, with no context to the actual story. With Photoshop and egos, the posters became, as I said before, a series of interchangeable pictures of the stars.

As a digression that I think is relevant, I recently went into a bookstore and saw three different magazines that had covers about the Avengers movie that just opened. Each of them had the exact same five photos of its stars in costume, but in a different order, obviously thrown together. I once argued that technology killed rock and roll for a while when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s, and then that happened with the poster world.

During an interview segment, artist David Byrd (who gives some of the best quotes here) states that the computer, while scary, is just a technological tool, much like the invention of the paint brush. He’s right, and perhaps one day film historians will look back and talk about how amazing the poster art of the 21 Century was compared to whenever they are doing their research. That being said, this film shows just how cut and paste – and unimaginative – modern posters are by showing a series of them side-by-side that are nearly identical in form, but tell nothing about the film it’s supposed to promote. They give a great example of a dozen or so Johnny Depp films where the posters are nearly duplicated.

To change gears for a sec, just so you know, I’m giving sort of a titles version of the film, not really disclosing much, because the interviews are the thing, and there is a lot of information throughout. For example, and I hadn’t thought of this before, the pictures of the cast needs to be large sometimes because with all the Internet streaming services, the posters are mostly thumbnails and the pic needs to be larger and simpler to make it out.

Marshall McLuhan once said that when a technology is replaced, it comes back as art. This is also true of art. Much as the Ramones arguably brought back rock’n’roll to the mainstream after Sgt. Peppers, a group of fans in Austin, TX, started a company called Mondo that started bringing back original art silk screened art movie posters to some popularity. Most of the collective, which includes some major artists, are shown and interviewed here, which of course, inflamed the opening of newer start-up poster companies. Fascinating stuff.

It’s also interesting that a large majority of the new wave of posters focuses on fantasy, horror, noir, sci-fi and cult films; I’m surprised there aren’t more musicals, because that is so open for splashes of bright colors and design, but it does makes sense for me for the genres that are popular to be so, as they are also based on imaginative machinations.

One of the “chapters” is dedicated to all the new artists that are coming up, and there are lots of interviews and examples of their work. And natch, there’s a second on the collectors and how they approach the direct market as opposed to the secondary market (e.g., eBay). A chapter I found really interesting, though, was about licensing, as artists and marketers discuss the positives and negatives of getting permission to use images from copyrighted films (the same arguments can be made for downloading films).

Another point brought up a couple of times, once in detail, is that the expectation now in mainstream films is that if the poster is artwork, the assumption is that it is an animated feature. What isn’t mentioned is that it is most likely (in my opinion) a result of the relatively recent rise of Pixar (and hence Disney) and the re-emergence of popularity of animated films. Every positive has a negative, and the modern movie poster – or the expectations of it – reflects that.

Considering this is Kevin Burke’s directorial debut, it’s an impressive output. He takes the talking head concept and keeps it interesting throughout, adding in some really nice animation around the posters that is fun to watch. While this is hardly the first documentary to use animation to liven up the imagery, he uses it effectively in a way that makes the viewer keep watching the screen, rather than just listening. But of course, movie poster art really is an art form, and deserves the attention on its own right. Burke punches it up to a nice level.

The way to look at this film is to equate it to comic books, as it is a symbiotic collecting field and buying/trading mode. In comparison, this film would be more about modern comics than the Golden and Silver Ages, or the Comix period.

That being said, as much as I enjoyed the film, I would like to see a second one that digs significantly deeper, perhaps how the earlier posters effected culture for example, or how the art was used to send a specific message to the audience on both a conscious and subconscious level, such World War II imagery to promote the war effort at that time. They’ve done well scratching the surface; now let’s talk about the bigger picture and go into the deep end of the poster pool.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

LENNY KAYE’s Connection [1981]

Text by Carolyn Lee Boyd / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction and live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Video from the Internet
Lenny Kaye solo at the FIX (W)PIX benefit (pic: RBF)

This article was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981, by Carolyn Lee Boyd, a bard who often went by the nom de poem Tarantula.

Carolyn was a big fan of the Lenny Kaye Connection, as was I. This band was formed after Patti Smith famously retired at the height of her punkitude period, running off to Detroit to marry guitarist Fred Smith and to raise her brood. With a well-underappreciated LP, I’ve Got a Right, the Lenny Kaye Connection often played at CBGBs among other places, and Carolyn and I would often go to see them. At the time, she lived a block away from the infamous Binibon Restaurant,  and I’d pick her up and off we’d go.

Beyond Lenny, part of the focus of the band was an electric piano, which can be heard especially in their political song, “I’ve Got a Right,” which is as relevant today – or more so – as when it was released during the Reagan administration (see video below). The Connection was also the back-up for Jim Carroll’s [d. 2009] album, Catholic Boy, including his biggest hit, “People Who Died.” Often, Jim would jump up on stage and sing the song with the Connection. Carolyn would inevitably get mad at me, because I would boo him. I had read Carroll’s autobiographical The Basketball Diaries, and I hated how much he made taking heroin and stealing sound cool in a day when the drug was such a prevalent negative force in the music I was listening to at the time.

Whenever Lenny would play something off the Connection’s only album, however, I’d be happy, including his cover of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renée.” Sometimes their long reggae riffs would be a bit much for me, but in all, the band was great fun and I have Carolyn to thank for introducing me to that. – RBF, 2018.
Lenny Kaye Connection: Lenny and Patrick, CBGBs (pic: RBF)
The time is 10:02 PM. The place is Max’s Kansas City. The fabulous Lenny Kaye Connection is topping the bill, and the Faithful Activist Neanderthal Society (FANS) is coming to order (so to speak). For those who have not been exposed to recent national and international journals, magazines, newspapers or broadcast programs, and haven’t heard of the FANS, it is a secret society dedicated solely to the Presleyan Theory of Evolution, that all life began at the invention of the electric guitar, and all history before that is a mass hallucination. Obsessive? Bizarre? Anti-social? Know thy enemy!

Winner of the “Conceptual Art Barstool” for “Drink Until You Only Think You Have Passed Out” competition and the honorable, venerable, and redeemable at your local grocer curator of the Museum of New Jersey Rock Stars Except Bruce Springsteen and President of the Lenny Kaye Clone Association is Victor. A microphone sticking out of his lapel and a movie camera up his sleeve, he plans to record the whole show and next time save the cover charge by playing the tape and film, and just pretending he is at the show. Victor is from the Bronx.

At Victor’s sides are Reta and Shorty Cookie (the Laverne & Shirley of New York rock’n’roll), 10 days off the Lear jet from death-defying Detroit. Reta is struggling and starving out the long years until super-stardom: charging it to Mom and Dad at Bloomingdale’s, crashing elite parties (it’s all in how you dress), and wearing $1200 worth of second-hand clothing. Shorty Cookie is working on her rock star crush #4968. She’s grown out of dead stars, media stars, and is now concentrating on a member of the band. Fortunately, the band is half blond and half brunet, in case she switches types between the first and second set.

Fashionably late, Renaldo, celebrated rock’n’roll magazine entrepreneur, journaliste and Man-About-Town, fait son entrée, dressed in a purple pirate outfit with red sash and plumes, and accompanied by his cowering entourage of writers, artists, and other flunkies, who are rolling out a red carpet saying, “Mr. Big is here.” He is on the cover of this week’s National Enquirer in a story about “The Terrible Secret He Hides” – he has met Doris Day, Faye Wray and Murray the K, but never the Big Boombah from New Brunswick. He just can’t face tight, black leather pants ever since his mother made him wear them to school in the first grade and all the other children laughed. (And even if he could, he’d just use his influence to welch a copy of the “Child Bride” single.)

Who says rock’n’roll isn’t high-class entertainment? Take Lenny’s opening band – please! After paying the standard cover of $6 (“You didn’t really want open heart surgery, did you, Ma? Great! See you tomorrow!”), the most that FANS (being basically cheap) can muster for the bound and gagged Cleveland art band, banging on its pots and blowing into saxophones, is light clapping. They are polite in case the band is friends of Lenny’s. Victor unobtrusively sets up his two-storey soundboard, while club patrons pace back and forth peering – is it really Lenny or is it Memorex? Reta’s antenna bleeps away – It’s Cheetah Chrome showing metal! Keef picked with Jack Daniels! Bob Dylan blowin’ in the wind! Shorty Cookie chairs a meeting of the Yours-For-A-Song Society in the Ladies Room. Renaldo’s beeper goes off – a reminder from his secretary that it’s time to go to some trendy club that doesn’t advertise, in order to get back in time for Lenny’s opening chord.

It’s common knowledge that right before the first show is the best time to catch Lenny backstage (except now that everyone knows who’s read this, it won’t be true anymore). Victor is always at the head of the line with something to autograph (having wallpapered his apartment with Lenny autographs, he is now plugging up the holes in his walls) or a photo of the band to give Lenny (as if he doesn’t know what they look like). Abandoning their fearless leader of his fate, three-quarters of the Connection creep down to the bar, deserted now that all the customers are backstage, for five minutes of peace and privacy. Reta and the sobbing Shorty Cookie, her face pale and Hawaiian-print mini-skirt wrinkled, smash against the wall as HE passes, staring blankly, not realizing she is his fate, his destiny, or doom. So, oblivious to the obvious, he orders a beer as if nothing had happened between them at all.

Twelve midnight and each FANS scrambles to the front row that s/he always sits in. The band walks on, in order: Patrick O’Connor on bass, a Robert Redford look-alike and the band’s compass and big brother figure. He’s steeped in more affection than he knows (the FANS plan to take him out to dinner, if they can figure out which Patrick O’Connor he is in the phone book); Lenny Kaye – you all know Lenny Kaye, and his address and phone number too; drummer David Donen, Keith Moon talent and teen idol charm, he is an extreme example of Einsteinian energy, and none of the FANS spend less than half the show watching him; newest and leftist (on stage) is that gorgeous Prince of Staten Island, that classy King of the Keyboards, Jan Mulaney, sitting quietly and extraordinarily in his little corner playing his heart out, the fourth member in the winning combination.

Halfway through the first song, Shorty Cookie grabs the set list for the Connection collection and is charged by a 300 lb. roadie around the stage until she jumps back to the seat. The band begins “Giving It All Up (For Love Again),” a rocker Patti Smith would love.

Lenny (minus a set list) has just done the bathroom humor intro to “Passin’ Through” (try it backwards), a melodious and melancholy, egalitarian Lenny love song. No connection set would be complete without a nugget-if-you-duggit, and my favorite is “Party Doll” which, as usual, sounds a lot dirtier when Lenny sings it than on the original [by Buddy Knox – RBF, 2018]. Then the experimental rhythm track over the time-travelling verbal avalanche of “Beast Language.” “Child Bride” is the band’s registered trademark and rumor has it that Lenny was up to 4 AM autographing mail order copies of the single. Prehistoric or future tense, rocking or tear-jerking, first show tight or second show loose, the Lenny Kaye Connection is a fun band on the verge of going to places I don’t think even they knew they were aiming for.

One AM. Time to run after a cab, split the fare, and go home to dream each FANS’ special dream. For Victor, it is to own that one unique, cosmic, ultimate and most rare of Lenny Kaye relics in the world, to put into the museum. For Reta, it’s to appear on Tom Snyder in front of an audience of her own screaming FANS after a sell-out show at the Palladium, and have her face on Rolling Stone and People. All Shorty Cookie wants is one amused inkling of recognition from HIM. For Renaldo, it’s for Lenny Kaye to ask to interview him.

All the FANS share the same nightmare: success for the Lenny Kaye Connection. Well, not success, but success – Shea Stadium, no backstage passes, Bianca Jagger, losing the band to big-time hype success. Horror after horror – Lenny goes to Washington to be Special Advisor on Cultural Affairs and Liver and Onions; Jan Mulaney, 16 Magazine “Hunk of the Month”; a new Clairol hair color named “Patrick O’Connor Red”; David Donen guest-hosting “The Tonight Show”… where will it end?

So remember, when you go to a Lenny Kaye Connection show, you are on FANS turf; you are an intruder, outsider and contagion. Show some respect. You have been warned!