Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Fun with THE JONESES [1988]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1988
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Live photo © Robert Barry Francos, 2019
Other image and videos from the Internet

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen 15, dated 1988, and written by Julia Masi.

What was especially wrong with the Joneses, in my opinion, is that they were pointed in the wrong direction to make it a success. While Julia somewhat correctly lines them up with the energy of the bands from the late ‘70s, their style was more hair metal with a pop flair, and that’s the wave they should have jumped on. Their locus in Hollywood was the center of that scene, so they could easily have been lumped in with Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses, but I believe their marketing was looking backwards rather than forwards.

Are their songs sexist? Yeah, but there was a lot of that kind of stuff going on back then (note that I'm not excusing any of it). Even now, I get music from metal acts that put out material with lyrics that makes me cringe. Musically, their album Keeping Up with the Joneses is really a lot of fun, but I also understand their musical immaturity worked against them more than promoting them. Also thwarting their climb, they don’t sound like they take themselves too seriously, and that may be a factor why the members of the band kept changing, other than Jeff Drake. Of course, it also doesn’t help that some time after this interview, Jeff spent a few years incarcerated thanks to trying to rob a bank. Yep, you read that right. After he got out, the band reformed, as it were (i.e., Jeff and a new back-up), and took another stab at it. Considering how many of you reading this know of them shows their level of non-success.

I met Jeff and Steve at a taping of cable access show “Videowave” (as did Julia), and yeah, they were a bunch of smartasses. The trio of videos they talk about, as far as I can tell, never came to be. Listening to their music now (see links below), I still think they are a “fun” band, but even after all these years, it’s still hard to take them seriously. And there’s the rub. – RBF, 2019
Steve Olson and Jeff Drake on the set of "Videowave"
(photo by Robert Barry Francos)
The Joneses are just average, all-American boys who “rage for fun,” party in cemeteries, write double-entendre songs and aspire to become “The Geraldo Rivera of rock’n’roll.”

Occasionally, the boys are given to clichés, but not always in a negative way. For example, their album, Keeping Up with the Joneses, on Doctor Dream Records, is a rowdy, raunchy collection of material including “She’s So Filthy,” “Look So Bad, Feel So Good,” and “Ms. 714” that fails to find anything serious in the banality of the basic boy/girl relationship.

Fun is the band’s favorite pastime and the only adjective they use to describe their music. Fans agree, but sometimes the people they love most – women – attack them for their tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

Hiding their eyes under black, opaque aviator glasses and wrapped in tight, somewhat shredded jeans, the boys – Jeff Drake (vocals) and Steve (I don’t know his last name; he didn’t’ tell me his last name, but I didn’t’ tell him mine [Steve Olson, who was also a professional skateboarder at the time – RBF, 2019]) – try to look menacing. But smiles to supresses their laughter gives them away.

Jeff is the quiet one (as compared to Steve, that is). He’s a Lakers fan given to saying things like, “A drug-free America comes first in our book!” He could easily be mistaken for a Disney World prototype of a rock’n’roll robot if he didn’t declare, “Women are my favorite sex object” whenever he’s forced to say anything profound.

Steve emerged from the womb searching for the spotlight. He works at throwing female interviewers off-track by asking personal questions. Although you can ask him anything, all of his answers related back to the topic of sex. But so does their music.

“I wanted to put a liner sheet in there,” Jeff explains as a certain reporter throws the album cover as if it were a Frisbee. “But the record company wouldn’t do it. They thought that some of the lyrics might be offensive. I don’t think any of it is offensive. The songs are actually very upbeat, so if you use a little vernacular, it’s okay.”

It seems strange that feminists take their music seriously, or even listen to it in the first place. Of course, that might relate to the title of “Look So Bad, Feel So Good,” but it seems ridiculous that they actually write to the Joneses and give them a hard time. They wrongly accuse the boys of being sexists! (Female readers, please gasp.)

“It really doesn’t bother us,” Jeff continues. “Our songs are written pretty much in the language that we speak, so there’s words in there that might be taken out of context and thought of as that. But if you’re gonna take them apart… I write them I about five minutes and it would take them more than that to pick them apart.”

The bulk of their reviews are favorable. And it did take a considerable amount of digging through clippings to find that one obscure article that labeled them “moronically misogynist.” When asked to defend themselves, they confessed they had no idea what it meant. A quick explanation rendered them speechless and pale. It seemed like a good time to call in the paramedics, until Steve interjected, “I don’t know where they got this information. I am the opposite!” (Female readers: please sigh.)

We are about to take a turn for the worse as the Joneses try to convince me that in addition to sex and romance, Chekov is among their major influences. (Come on, boys! How dumb do I look? No wonder the feminists pick on you.)

“I think they just misinterpret us,” interjects Steve. “We’re just about having fun. Life is fun. Boy meets girl. Boy equals F. Girl equals F. Life is fun. It’s sexist fun.”

And for more sexist fun, the band can dabble in video. They have a trilogy written for “She’s So Filthy,” “Look So Bad, Feel So Good,’ and “Ms. 714” that they were trying to put together in New York at the time of (but not during) this interview.

“We’ve been doing some casting out here,” says Jeff, “getting some models up to the crib for auditions and tryouts. Since it’s “She’s So Filthy,” we want to get some really filthy girls to lend some honesty to the whole thing. It’s gonna be trashy.” And exactly how do the Joneses conduct their little star search? “We say, ‘Show us. Here’s the song. Act it out’,” explains Jeff.

“We want to make it real-to-life. Why cover it up?” asks Steve. They carry out a little repartee about making two versions, one for commercial consumption and the other a home version for limited release.

Trying to get them back to the subject of their music, at this point, is nearly impossible. And it takes the slightly drastic measure of kicking off a spiked-heel shoe in pseudo-feminist mock anger for the boys to get the point. (By the way boys, real feminists wear sensible shoes.)

Quickly changing the subject, Jeff describe the record as “a party album” and winces at comments (no matter how complementary) that it’s a throwback to the good old days of 1977-79, when live bands had raw energy. “If you can overlook the trap they got caught in, then I think they’re really great,” said Steve, referring to the chemical and financial problems that hovered like a black cloud over that scene.

“It comes from the roots of rock’n’roll,” Steve muses. His love of old rock’n’roll is so deep, he used to visit the grave of one of his heroes, Eddie Cochran so frequently that he has dozens of stories of partying on his grave.

When an analogy is made to the way Jeff sometimes mumbles his lyrics and the fact that other bands of their genre frequently condemn commercial success, Steve chides, “That’s because Jeff is afraid of success. He’s really a great singer and he tries to mix it down.” Steve, of course, is fearless in the face of fame. “When I was 17 or 16, I would go up to Hollywood and there was just a very small amount of people into this New Wave thing.

“People like X, and even people who are big now; these people were dressed up and having fun. And it was like everyone was in this little clique. There was one in San Francisco, there was one in L.A., and there was that London scene, with all the prima donnas from England that ripped off America anyway.

“I was having a great time. And I was a very successful kid at a young age. It’s ridiculous to be so narrow-minded.

“Success is what? Just being happy. It isn’t just how much money you have or – If you’re content with yourself, it depends on how you hold success in your eyes.”

As Jeff puts it, “We just want everyone to have a good time and we’ll be the conductors.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Three Important People to Befriend at Work

Three Important People to Befriend at Work
Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen Productions, 2019
Images from the Internet

As one makes their way through a work environment, it is normal to encounter many different levels of people, from management to the custodial staff. Each one of them will, at some point, serve your needs, or require you to attend theirs.

Getting on the good side of coworkers and those in charge is obvious. And as a side-note, always remember to give the credit for work to the right person, and be willing to take the blame for your own mistakes, rather than point at others. This honesty will more often than not reflect positive on you, and endear you to the management. Also, if you’re honest about the little errors you make, when a big one comes along that is not your fault, there is a better chance that they will believe you if you have a history of being truthful. When complemented for your work, do not be embarrassed to ask the person to send an email to your immediate supervisor reflecting this, as it will go into your file for the next evaluation. If I receive an email thank you, I will respond and “CC” my boss.

That being said, there are three people (or groups) to keep companionship with, even if they are not your favorites within the company.

The first is the person at the Front Desk, who is usually the Administrative Assistant. S/he is the hub of everything that goes on in a company, and by being attentive to them, you will get to hear about the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly when it comes to those at the workplace. On some level, they are the hub controlling everything, even if they don’t make the decisions. Most management will rely on that person to do their work for them, because they have their own business to do that usually affects everyone. By befriending the person out front, they most likely are happy to share their frustrations and you can gain insights to the workings of the company, and especially who to seek for mentoring, or to avoid at all costs.

While I have found that most of the Administrative Assistants are quite nice and friendly, which makes this all the easier to accomplish, sometimes they can be withholding and grumpy. I worked for a company where this latter was true, and yet I bought her coffee a couple of times a week, made sure to ask how she was doing, and even make small talk about the weather. Before long, I was her confidant, and I heard all the news about everything and everyone. There were even times I knew who was going to be promoted or fired before they did. This way, I was able to keep my pulse on the going-on in this corporate draconian company.

The second person(s) is whomever is in charge of the mail. While most companies now rely more on email than the physicality of letters, don’t think that they are no longer vital to include in your group. This is important for the two-way direction of mail. For example, one company I worked for, I was able to send any letter/package I wanted without having to go to the post office. I would hang around (at slow times) in the mail room, and somewhere in there be sure to put my letter/package in the bin. They saw it was from me, and they just let it slide. At the time, I was active on an auction site, and was able to mail off what I had put up for sale without having to pay for the postage. This last thing works better in a large corporation than a smaller company.

In the other direction, for a while I was getting packages that were disappearing from my mailbox. Most companies will not let you receive personal mail at work, but I did not have an issue with that, because I hung out in the mailroom occasionally, befriending the people there, especially when they let me know I had something to pick up.

The last person or group is whomever is in charge of IT/Technical Services. The stereotype of the IT person (e.g., think Jimmy Fallon on “SNL”) is someone who is impatient with staff who know less than them, but it’s important to remember that everyone knows less than them. If you have trouble with your computer, especially in a large company, it may take a while until they can get to you to fix the problem. In one company, I became good buddies with the IT person (even beyond the front doors), and he was always quick to answer when I was dealing with issues; I am an end user, but know nothing about the running of the machine. The analogy I tend to use is that I can drive the car but can’t fix the motor. One time, I had an IT person fix my personal laptop that I brought in before he serviced the Vice President’s workstation.

Here’s another small but interesting note in that often, the place where the IT person(s) are stationed is in a faraway room, and often windowless. They get bored being so confined, so tend to be willing for companionship. Also, it’s a good place to hide when you don’t want to be seen and need a break from too much work (most people just go to the bathroom and occupy a stall).

It’s important to remember not to abuse any of these people or situations; for example, don’t spend too long schmoozing because they also need to do their jobs, and may come to find you a distraction more than a friend. It’s a fine line, but one worth exploring.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

DAVID CUNNINGHAM: Systems Pilot of Flying Lizards [1980]

Text by Daryl Licht / FFanzeen 1980
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue 4, dated May/June 1980. It was written by Daryl Licht, whose name was a pseudonym, but for the life of me I can’t remember for certain whose it was (though I have an idea by the references that are made throughout).

The Flying Lizard’s big song was a cover of the first Motown hit, “Money.” Personally, I thought it annoying, but I will totally admit I sold out for printing this extremely long piece since I had met David Cunningham at a cable access show “Videowave” taping, and was sucked into agreeing to it because I believed at that time (being a relative-kid) that it may lead me to getting bigger interviews with bands with whom I was more interested. While in hindsight I guess I don’t mind it being there, afterwards I was a bit more firm (though I did get tricked into putting in a band or two I thought went against the direction of the ‘zine), and turned down a few big names, such as an interview with Duran Duran (I’m still not sorry about that one), rather than go against my focus for the ‘zine.

What I really like about this interview is that while it’s obvious the interviewer knew his stuff and did his homework about Cunningham, he also doesn’t pander to him and asks some really smart and pointed questions. This is hardly a shallow discussion.

David Cunningham went on to be a record producer and has a sporadic solo career. – RBF, 2020

David Cunningham is a 25-year-old record producer and conceptual artist. He is also the man behind the Flying Lizards, a mysterious aggregation that, last year, provided us with two strange minimalist singles in their covers of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues and Berry Gordy’s “Money.” The Lizards (actually Cunningham and some friends having fun in the studio) have recently released an album of songs that are every bit as weird as the previous singles.

The following interview took place in a secluded room in the New York offices of Virgin Records on a rainy Tuesday in February. As the interview was quite long, it was necessary to exclude some of it, but all of the good parts (with the exception of Cunningham physically imitating Thin Lizzy, which the tape missed) are here.
* * *
FFanzeen: First of all, General, Strike and Goldman get writing credits on the Lizards album. Who are these people in relation to the instruments, the album and things in general?
David Cunningham: The structure is one of working with friends. I don’t have a group; don’t have a lot to do with groups as such. I’m not really interested in the idea of having a permanent group. And it seems interesting that the situation can be generated by different people and them involved in something, or a combination of different people together; one uses those people and I have a few friends who are, some of them, excellent musicians, and some, maybe not so excellent, but certainly interesting musicians, and I tend to use them in that way, as a group, writing together and performing together in the studio. Vivian Goldman is a journalist in Melody Maker and also a close friend since before Melody Maker.

FFanzeen: Does she do some of the vocals, like some of the vocals that are sung as opposed to Deborah Evans’ (“Money”) vocals?
David: Yes; she sings on “Her Story” and on “The Window,” the latter of which she wrote, as well.

FFanzeen: “The Window” seems so ominous to me. Is there any particularly interesting story behind that song, or is it something that you just came up with and thought would be interesting to do?
David: No, it was written on the spot. It was in reaction to the situation. We started off with a rhythm tape, then added background voices which, at the time, were the foreground voices. And it was this Joni Mitchell-type thing, just a little tape going on with these voices harmonizing against it. And gradually, we added more and more instruments, and it took the shape it does as a song. It’s just what was obsessing Vivian at the time.

FFanzeen: What do you actually play, instrument-wise? I know you were in a band called Les Cochons Chic. [There is no mention of that band on David’s Wikipedia page. – RBF, 2020.]
David: Yeah, that was a joke group. Well, it wasn’t a joke group; it was a systems group that, very roughly, turned into a joke group as more and more people used to join. The first public performance was a 13-piece group and the whole idea was that there were two musicians’ roles: you were either one of the rhythm people or you created the surface over the rhythm, and everyone who was a surface musician went through a delay thing whereby the music was built up into a very dense texture. At the first gig, the machines broke down and everything went wrong. There were far too many people there.

FFanzeen: Were they musicians and non-musicians?
David: Very much so. It was a horrible, sporadic mess of people and the concert was great; it was a competition and there were all these rock groups who took themselves too seriously coming on and doing two numbers and going off again, and we came on and made this horrible noise for 10 minutes and we went off, and everyone was so pissed off after hearing these horrible groups doing their horrible songs that they cheered us enough to get an encore.

FFanzeen: I got the feeling listening to the Lizards’ album that there was an attitude of contempt for basic rock’n’roll and basic song structure, similar to the feeling I get when listening to some of the Residents’ material.
David: I don’t think it’s facetious like the Residents. I don’t think it’s even conscious, like they obviously are, because if you look at the contents of their first few records, I think there is a facetiousness or self-consciousness there. We were – I was – primarily dealing with the vocabulary of that music. I was using that vocabulary when I needed to. When it seemed I didn’t need to employ that vocabulary to make the thing sound good, then I didn’t use it, so the thing was somewhat stripped down. The joke element perhaps came out of not being able to play very well. But that’s a different matter.

FFanzeen: I felt it was half-and-half. On the one hand, you were using what you could take from it and in a way saying, “I acknowledge that this existed.” For instance, on “TV,” you’re using the I-IV-V progression and the reverb guitars, and it’s really like a late ‘50s girl group type thing where she’s talking about cars…
David: What’s a I-IV-V progression? Is that a musical term? [For example D-A-E-D-A – RBF, 2020.]

FFanzeen: Yes [grinning]. Well, the basic structure of the song reminds me of any early ‘60s kind of rock’n’roll, complete with the lyrical content of cars, sex…
David: [Begins to laugh] Well, that was different; this is most embarrassing.

FFanzeen: Why?
David: Because of what a friend of mine suggested to me before “Money.” He said, “If you cut a record about money, cars or sex, it would be a hit,” so we made “Money” as much to prove him wrong as to have a good time. I like the song. I’ve got the Barrett Strong record and I think it’s great.

FFanzeen: But it even carries over to that; you take “Summertime Blues” and “Money,” two standard rock numbers that so many people have covered.
David: Yeah, the important key words like money, TV, cars, sex are our key words. “Pop Muzikwas a key word; that was a hit song. “Summertime Blues” wasn’t so much a key word; it was a statement of a sort. It struck me as being some sort of political statement. It still is in many ways, depending on what country you’re in of courses, and are 18. You’re nothing until you’re about 21 in some places… I’ve gone through that having summer jobs in factories, the traumas of adolescence. I love the song and the actual mechanism in the song; the words, the statement appeals to me. We were talking about key words. “TV” was actually a conscious attempt to use the “Key Word Theory.” We put as many key word references in it and thought it would be an enormous hit. I can’t quite honestly see why it won’t be some kind of terrific hit.

FFanzeen: Do you think that the sound has just as much to do with it being a hit as far as attracting people’s attention is concerned? The first two singles were minimalistic. You seem to state the barest parts of the melody enough to let people know what the song is.
David: That’s what I said about using as much of the vocabulary as one feels one needs. I think “TV” uses a lot more of that vocabulary. I think you’re probably right. The only thing about “TV” is that I haven’t heard a record that sounded like that in years, and really, there isn’t a record that’s like that. You can look at a few things. I mean, what we stole it from was –

FFanzeen: What you borrowed it from…
David: We didn’t borrow it, we stole it. I won’t say it through. We stole it off a Ska record actually, and changed the rhythm and everything, and it ended up going from one thing to another. I’m not terribly concerned about creating something that is completely new and certainly not creating anything avant-garde. I think it’s being perverse to get out and say I want to make a sound that nobody has ever dreamed of before. You’ll end up with some kind of atonal rubbish.

FFanzeen: But don’t you create new sounds on the album by electronic sound manipulation and alteration?
David: One can alter sound in two ways: by technology and by content. I do it in both ways.

FFanzeen: I actually took this to relate more to the songs on the second side, where you have a sound going on and then another sound is laid on top of it, and then another sound, and then the first sound is removed, leaving the second and third sound, which seems totally different than they did when the first sound was underneath them.
David: I don’t do it very much. Most of it is simple layering. I can’t remember being in a position where I actually needed to take away the original sound and replace it. I’ve always known that the option was there to do that and I’ve tried it out, but there is the thing of just doing something and getting a buzz off that. And what I like is the idea that every time you hear a sound in the studio, putting it on tape you should be excited by that sound on its own. If there’s a particularly strange guitar solo, it supposedly should sound great without the backing track. Not great, but interesting anyway.

FFanzeen: With the backing track, the sound of the guitar – even though it’s the same sound – is altered in the way you hear it.
David: Certainly. It’s a much more complex sort of mixture, but if the song is originally exciting, I think that helps. It probably turns an experimental attitude like that. You talked about imperceptible change, it’s very sudden change. I think that’s what is avant-garde music, and why the Flying Lizards are presumably pop music – not that I think there’s any value judgment going on there.

FFanzeen: As far as pop music is concerned, don’t you think that the music on the album tends to polarize towards one point or another? People who would listen to experimental music should get something out of listening to parts of the album while people who are into more conventional rock’n’roll, or who heard one of the singles and liked it, can’t relate to the other type of music. The album is almost divided up side by side, which may or may not be conscious, or maybe it’s the way I’m hearing it. Some may feel Side One has more of a novelty aspect.
David: This is probably because I listen to both. That’s simply it. I can hear differences, of course. I tend to think they’re all part of the same thing. If you’re not used to listening to rock music at all, it sounds the same anyway. It’s all 4-4.

FFanzeen: Oh, is that a musical term?
David: Yeah, ha-ha. I just think it’s an extension of that way of thinking; that to a Balinese person, all rock music must sound the same. I’m not worried if people do think this is rubbishy music or this is horribly serious music, because if they’re going to think that, there’s very little I can do.

FFanzeen: You put out a song like “TV” as the third single, which has the sound which people associate with the Flying Lizards – her voice – when you could have put out “Russia” as the single – and if that came on the radio, I don’t think people would say, “That’s the Flying Lizards.” There definitely is a breakdown in terms of what’s to be released next.
David: I simply put “TV” out as a single. I didn’t even decide. I asked Virgin (Records) what they wanted and they said “TV,” and the same goes for other things. I don’t want to give them something they don’t want to sell. It did strike me as the commercial track on the album and I wasn’t going to argue with it. The only other thing was “Mandelay Song” [“De Song von Mandelay” – Daryl Licht, 1980]. I would have liked to see that as a single, but probably not in an English-speaking territory.

FFanzeen: “Mandelay” ties in with what I asked before about contempt. I felt that it was in tradition, where you’re taking a song and you’re saying you acknowledge it, but at the same time doing this treatment as if to say you’re not taking it seriously.
David: How can you take a song like that seriously? It’s about this brothel in Mandelay [sic] and sailors are lined up along this pier waiting to get in. They’re all banging on the door and shouting, ‘cause someone’s taking a long time in there and the song goes on to say that love isn’t made in hours and minutes, love is where you find it. I chose it because it’s one of the fastest songs (Bertolt) Brecht wrote, and the words struck me as sort of a little game ‘cause people have trouble with the BBC in Britain. The Gang of Four said “Packets” on one of their albums and it got banned immediately. I think it was “packets,” or it could have been “rubbers” [on the song “At Home He’s a Tourist” – RBF, 2020].

FFanzeen: On “Her Song,” the lyrics say, “But you can still make money singing sweet songs,” and it seems that‘s being said on the album when, ironically, you’ve made money putting out anything but sweet songs. I mean, “Money” is very abrasive.
David: “Sweet songs of love” is the full quote.

FFanzeen: And they then start singing this love song and it seems that if it really was a long song, it wouldn’t have to be stated like that. It’s kind of an order.
David: Well, that song’s about the concept of courtly love as devised in the 11th Century.

FFanzeen: “You Are My Territory”?
David: That’s it, yeah. In a way it’s an anti-love song; it’s kind of a feminist statement. I don’t disagree with the lyrics.

FFanzeen: In “Russia,” you said, “I must explain / I’m not complaining / I’m just having fun.” It seemed to tie in the whole theory for me that while you were setting up something that said, you were not taking everything too seriously – but on the other hand, you didn’t want people to say that. You just wanted to state that you were having a good time also, and not really worry about what was going on.
David: I’m not having a good time when I’m singing. I hate singing.

FFanzeen: But you’re sitting back and saying, “Well.” This is assuming you’re using “TV” to poke fun at those conventions.
David: The song doesn’t refer outside itself. I don’t think any of the songs I’ve dealt with do. I’m very bad with lyrics, as you can tell with the lyrics to “Russia” – they’re mostly the kind of treatment of some (John) Cage work and ended up with bits of lyrics to “Russia”; the part from the phone line. Originally, “Russia” was a song with lots of verses which I wrote years ago in a pub and find them so embarrassing to look at now. I love the tune.

FFanzeen: “Russia” reminds me of “Burning Airlines” on Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain. That guitar…
David: That’s strange, ha-ha. The way I play it is more like Thin Lizzy.

FFanzeen: How much of a hand did you have in designing what appears on the record covers; the art movements and the dates, that nap and the thing that says, “There’s performing music and music you listen to.” Did you choose those images?
David: I chose all the images. The juxtapositions are a system. The Flying Lizard sleeves, the stripes, the stars, struck me as visual symbols that one could use in that kind of shape.

FFanzeen: On the single sleeves, the images seem ambiguous, which seemed to tie in with the music – like on the end of “TV,” where there’s a voice that goes “wah-wah-wah” and sounds like a trombone. It seems that even though it’s a human voice, as to what it really is can be kind of ambiguous, if you listen to it in a certain light.
David: Yeah, its porpoises… in a way it could be porpoises mating or something like that. Well, if ambiguity is there, I won’t attempt to make it literate, to make it plain. I can do that on the other music that I do. As far as I’m concerned, the Flying Lizards present the ambiguity – but explains it later. And then you find out talking to people that it was something else. Like the sleeve of “Money”: Deborah is lying on this dark lawn at night – it looks like a dead body in a canal or something.

FFanzeen: It has that wet feeling.
David: She was soaking wet. We had a hose pipe on her. That was a similar one to the first sleeve where there’s a glass of milk flying up into someone’s face. I had the system with lots and lots of flashes around her; we go up in the balcony and we had a sprinkler. So we were going to get the sprinkler going and freeze the sprinkle with all the flashes so it would look like streamers from rockets, and we had no idea what would happen with it about color or image. The flash blew up. Rich, the photographer, was so drunk that he just messed it all up. So that was that.

FFanzeen: You were talking about systems before and I mentioned Eno. I’d like to know if you can draw up any parallels between you and him, since he’s so interested in systems as well.
David: Same sources: English art college. I think we like the same artist’s work. I don’t know about Eno, but I like Kenneth Tom Phillips, Sol Lewitt, Philip Glass; the systems people generally – Steve Reich. There’s a lot of writing on the theory of that work, and the theory of cybernetics and visual art.

FFanzeen: Before, you were talking about taping a sound and a month later listening to it and it would sound very different. It seems that’s the approach This Heat took to their album [that Cunningham produced – RBF, 2020].
David: Yeah, they did that a long time before they made the album. Most of that stuff was released in 1977. It’s a great pity they were delayed.

FFanzeen: Are you going to work with them in the future?
David: I’m setting them up in such a way that they will be able to make records at their own discretion on a self-generating mechanism.

FFanzeen: Is your power to do that a direct result of your success with your own records?
David: It’s a result of that, and I put their record on my label [Piano Records – Daryl Licht, 1980]. It was a last-gasp desperate bid to recoup some money off the incredibly high studio bill they ran up. The fact that the record sold out in Britain has, to some extent, vindicated me as a person who can float records. And it was that, combined with the Lizards’ “Money” that can put This Heat in a slightly stronger position this time around. I tend to think that each project I’m involved in should be self-subsidising; that I’m not going to make an expensive, silly, avant-garde album simply because I have lots of money. I think if I make one, it will be done under the economic conditions which pertain to that music. A reflection of what it is, it shouldn’t be a self-indulgent exercise, but something quite solid and serious.

FFanzeen: Do you have any other recorded work besides the Flying Lizard’s things?
David: There’s the album Grey Scale, which is an album of system pieces. I put it out on my label in 1977. It was meant to be an album of sketchbook pieces. I’ve done one piece five times on the first side with different groupings and different arrangements – different inputs to the system. The reason behind that was to show a work in progress. I was very interested in having that on record. In fact, that’s what a lot of dub reggae suggests: a work in progress – people actually finding things in the studio and playing with them on the mixing deck. If you’re in the studio with a group and you hear them doing that, it’s quite an interesting process. Dub reggae, to some extent, found that.

FFanzeen: Reggae pops up in “Money B” where the vocals end and this fat bass comes in.
David: Yeah, that’s the result of working on the 4-track. When we ran out of words, there was a track free and I put a bass track on it. I took great enjoyment in doing that really, even though it’s a pretty gross aberration of dub music.

FFanzeen: Where does the name Flying Lizards come from? Is there anything in particular, or was that kind of a name people would remember? It’s a bit absurd.
David: It was absurd in the ‘70s. I think it’s cute in the ‘80s. If you want to be silly about things, if anyone thinks the ‘80s should be any different from the ‘70s, I think cute is the word, and I think things will get pretty or cute for a little while. Pop music will become increasingly trivial.

FFanzeen: Some would say it’s always been trivial.
David: Oh, it really has, yes, but it won’t be as pretentious anymore. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. You know, because the people… like, for instance, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, to some extent, took themselves too seriously. That whole movement was a very profound influence on me and a lot of other people. Here were people coming along and subverting the technology to their own uses. Maybe not in the most distinct and lucid way possible, but it was a very exciting time, and you know that was fashion – and yet again, it wasn’t fashion, it was a real human feeling… and a business.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Review: Room 37 – The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders
Directed by the Cordero Brothers (Fernando and Vicente)
Industrialism Films / Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Entertainment
101 minutes, 2019

When the trailer for this film dropped earlier this year, many Johnny Thunders/The New York Dolls/The Heartbreakers (etc.) fans lost their minds in the loosey-goosey way Thunders was portrayed. Yes, from the trailer. I’m also a fan of Thunders (d. 1991), and saw him play dozens of times.

But here’s the thing about biographic films: they’re nearly all filled with bullshit and inaccuracies. People and events are either omitted or combined, stuff is made up and changed for “dramatic purposes” and so there are going to be those who will see a biopic and cry foul, and others will just enjoy wherever the story leads as long as the soundtrack blasts it just right. Just look at the reactions to these three films released recently: The Dirt (2019; about Motley Crüe), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018; Queen/Freddie Mercury) and Rocketman (2019; Elton John). Love it or hate it, the accuracy level is pretty low or, more precisely, over the top.

Leo Ramsey at the beginning of the film
But there is another level of biopic which is for all practical purposes a separate category, and that’s the flight of fancy. This is easily seen in films like Sid and Nancy (1986; Vicious and Spungen) and especially Velvet Goldmine (1998; David Bowie and Iggy Pop). Here, we take a real person or situation and then take it to the metaphysical fiction. This is where I would place Room 37. It’s not really a biopic about Johnny Thunders (JT), it’s what they call in comic book land, a “what if” story. This is also the way it should have been promoted, in my opinion.

Another issue is the overlapping of the real. What I mean by that is while this is a largely fictionalized version of JT, when he gets a phone call from his ex-New York Dolls co-guitarist, Sylvain Sylvain, the voice – easily recognizable – is definitely Sylvain’s. And the music video that accompanies the film, “Crazy Kids,” is by Walter Lure, JT’s co-guitarist in the Heartbreakers, indicating there is some lukewarm credibility.

So, with that in mind, note that I will be reviewing this as a fantasy, not as a biopic (though with some overlap, of course, as Thunders was a real person, and so was some of his situations presented here). If you want the real deal about the man, check out Danny Garcia’s excellent documentary, Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders

In real life, when JT went to New Orleans to stay at St. Peter’s Guest House, he’d been reportedly clean for a while except for methadone, but was also in the later stages of Leukemia. Here, he is fighting to “get clean.” When he was in The Heartbreakers, they sang “Too Much Junkie Business” (which is also named dropped in the story, along with other Heartbreakers’ tunes) in the place of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” as drugs are like having a monkey on your back, as the saying goes. Another metaphor for getting clean, of course, is going through hell, so this is where the film is leading us. Right from the start, the hints begin with the hotel proprietor (Jimbo Barnett, whose NoLeans accent comes and goes), in his red vest, saying “I’ll be damned if one of our maids haven’t already cleaned it for ya.” The opening hand has been dealt. And room 37 looks about as peaceful as room 237 at the Overlook Hotel; both also deal with the tub being central, but for this film, it is a symbol for death as the original drummer of the New York Dolls, Billy Murcia, died in one.

Here’s some notes about the film’s version of JT as opposed to seeing him in reality; I never did hang out with him (honestly, I was a chickenshit who was intimidated by him and the drug culture around him in general, so I’d go see the bands, have my one drink and nurse it through the night, and then go home to shower before heading off to Queens College without sleep). On stage, you never knew what you were going to get, the on-fire JT who would tear it up, running one song into the next, or the stoned JT who’s tongue would whip around his lips, or be so out of it that he had trouble fingering his chords (I remember one really bad night at Irving Plaza), but the latter was more rare. One of JT’s traits was to whip around the stage especially during the instrumental parts.

Near the beginning of the film, fictional JT performs while the album version of “Born to Lose” from the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. plays on the soundtrack (why didn’t they use one from Live at Max’s instead, like “Let Go”?). Interestingly, the Dolls are often name-dropped, but not the Heartbreakers. When Leo Ramsey impersonates JT onstage, he kinda stays in one spot; JT was a whirler who would own the stage by covering as much of it as possible, sometimes jerking around it (and the chords on the guitar) like a ball in a pinball game. After a swan dive off stage in the film, JT states, “Happens all the time…” Oh, no it didn’t as far as I remember.

Ramsey plays JT as very low key for a big personality; from what I understand, JT could be a sweetheart with a sharp sense of humor or a conniving trickster, depending on mood or need of drugs. Here, he’s fidgety, more like late 1970s-early ‘80s days than near the end, but he’s actually okay as JT… at least a fictionalized version of him.

Devin McGregor Ketko
The cast does well in general, and the camera seems to love to focus on what seems to be the only maid in the entire hotel, Iris (Devin McGregor Ketko, who reminds me of a young Mary Woronov). She also seems to be there more for JT to talk to, as a device for the audience to gain some exposition. On a side note, it’s nice to see Kelly Erin Decker in a cameo as a hospital receptionist.

Lots of names are thrown around here (David, Sylvain, Jerry, Arthur; “The Kids are Back,” “Chinese Rocks,” etc.) that fans would recognize but the average viewer would be perplexed. As someone who knows the backstory, I could smile, especially when I recognized Sylvain’s real and easily-identifiable voice on the phone (though I wonder if he regrets lending it now; and get well, Sylvain!).

As the film progresses and JT spirals down after his money and methadone are stolen. JT’s hair seems perpetually greasy for some reason; as the story progresses JT gets more and more desperate and ragged looking. This may be the filmmaker’s way of indicating the leukemia, which causes sweating, a wan pallor and easy bruising (among other symptoms). JT continues to look more and more like a zombie/living dead creature, with racoon eyes and onion paper skin, stumbling around as he involuntarily detoxes. By the end, he’s looking more like MJ (Michael Jackson) than JT.

The big extras, of course, are the three discs, with the film available in High Definition Blu-ray, DVD, and the soundtrack CD. Other than that, what is offered is the trailer, a slideshow that is based on screen shots alone (while the acoustic version of “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” plays), and a bunch of other cool Cleopatra trailers. As for the soundtrack CD, well, the first six songs are great, but the rest is pretty much filler. Better to pick up the Dolls’ and Heartbreakers’ collections, and JT’s classic So Alone LP.

Leo Ramsey towards the end of the film.
The film tries hard for symbol-ism, and it’s very stylized with a dingy tone thanks to some lens filters. Some have said this is more “horror,” but more likely possibly supposed to be “drug influence” as LSD was found in JT’s system at time of death (no other lethal level of drugs), thanks to a large dosing by someone. And yes, his money was missing when they found him, though the story adds more mystery to it. The filmmakers imply that much of what is happening in the film is part of his hallucinations from the LSD, but does not indicate (wisely) what is due to cinematic reality or within the character’s (JT’s) head. This works pretty well most of the time, though there is a whole hospital sequence that begins the final act that is a bit ridiculous; that being said, a couple of good jump scares are included.

Overall, it’s not a bad film, but not a great one either. I realize a contingent of JT’s fans are boycotting the film, but while I understand that sentiment, I think it’s better to approach this as fiction rather than biographical in any way, as I stated earlier. That being said, the end of the film gives us some title cards about Johnny’s Leukemia and lack of high drug levels during his autopsy as if to atone for the fiction part of the story.

CD Soundtrack Listing:
1. Born to Lose – Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers
2. Stranded in the Jungle (Live Paris 1974) – New York Dolls
3. Alone in a Crowd – Johnny Thunders
4. Crazy Kids – Walter Lure and The Waldos
5. There’s Something Wrong – Sylvain Sylvain
6. You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory (Rare Version) – Johnny Thunders
7. Ms. Alexander – Jürgen Engler
8. Ghost in the Hall – Jürgen Engler
9. Dreaming Within – Jürgen Engler
10. Crow in the Tub – Jürgen Engler
11. The Wheels Under the Door – Jürgen Engler
12. Jimmy’s Blood – Jürgen Engler
13. Eagle’s Lair – Jürgen Engler
14. Bourbon Street – Jürgen Engler
15. Head Phones – Rusted Robot
16. The Guitar – Rusted Robot
17. The Morgue – Rusted Robot
18. Hospital Chase – Rusted Robot
19. Pillow Talk – Rusted Robot
20. Namira – Rusted Robot
21. Give a Man a Mask – Rusted Robot
22. Not Afraid Anymore – Rusted Robot
23. Room 37 – Rusted Robot