Sunday, March 31, 2019

Documentary Review: STIV: No Compromise No Regrets

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

STIV: No Compromise No Regrets
Directed by Danny Garcia
Chip Baker Films / MVD Entertainment
80 minutes / 2019

Stiv (photo (c) RBF)
The Dead Boys were an exciting band, to put it mildly. You never knew what to expect, and I firmly believe they were arguably the first hardcore band. Luckily, I got to see them quite a few times, mostly at CBGB, and quite often sharing a bill with the equally wild British punkers, the Damned. Dead Boy performances were exciting gigs, including the one of two nights which I saw that were benefits for their drummer, Johnny Blitz, who had been stabbed 17 times.

Stiv and Cheetah (pic (c) RBF)
The only time I came in close contact with Stiv was when I was with someone who wanted to interview Captain Sensible of the Damned, so we went backstage to where the two bands were sharing a dressing room. Their reputation preceding them, I kept my finger over the top of my beer, as the Boys were known to pee in bottles that were put down temporarily.
It was an exciting time, and Danny Garcia seems to be on a mission to preserve as much as it as possible, having previously directed strong films about the likes of Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and the Clash.

As bios go, with the exception of a bit at the beginning, the film follows the usual chronological order of Stiv’s great march to the East, starting in Ohio (Rocket From the Tombs; Frankenstein), then New York (Dead Boys), to England (Wanderers, Lords of the New Church), and finally to his final days in Paris. These are backed up by many of his musician pals and a girlfriend who do the talking head remembrances. But here’s where this is different, and it’s an important variance: rather than the camera just sitting on the person talking for however long, once the introduction is done, the image we see is of Stiv in both still and video form, while the person continues narrating. This keeps it a lot more interesting.

What’s also in a positive is that Garcia digs pretty deep into the personality of Bators, from his good nature and humorous moods to his darker depressions and drug abuse. This pulls no punches. Stiv was known for some wild actions, such as “surfing” on the top of cars going 70 mph, fitting himself inside the bass drum during the set, or cutting himself Iggy-style on stage.

It’s also important to point out that this film is not about the Dead Boys or any of Stiv’s other bands, per se, but rather about the man, and Garcia never seems to lose track of that. Sure we get stories and anecdotes of life on the road from other band members, but this is definitely focused on the guy whose name is on the film. And that’s great.

Speaking of interviews, while Jimmy Zero (rhythm guitarist and songwriter for the Dead Boys) rightfully gets the most screen time as he tells great stories, all the people present to talk about Stiv give first hand reports, which is much better than “I heard that Stiv did this or that” or “I believe Stiv felt that…” Even the few journalists who get face time, such as John Holstrom and Nina Antonia, were there and give compelling first-person observations.

Two things stand out for me negatively, both of them minor. First, the title cards explaining who is who are shown once, and after that it’s expected the viewer would know who these people are. While I’m a fan of the musician and his bands, I did not know everyone who is interviewed (especially those in France), so repeating the people descriptors would have helped a bit. The other, and I’m sure there is no blame on Garcia, is that it would have been interesting to hear from Cheetah Chrome (lead guitarist of the Dead Boys), and he would have some great tales as well; but I’m willing to bet that his exclusion was his own choice, and I respect that.

When dealing with the life of someone who lived on the edge for as long as Bators did, I kept wanting more, such as his relationship with the Damned, the Johnny Blitz benefit and how the stabbing affected Stiv’s life, more about the contentiousness recording session of the DB’s Young Loud and Snotty (Genya Ravan’s reaction to Stiv’s Nazi fascination), etc. Of course, this would have made the film three hours long, but this is actually a complement to Garcia’s biography, because it kept my interest and I also wanted more.

Danny Garcia makes some compelling documentaries, and I always look forward to seeing them. While I don’t know what will be coming next, I’ll be there to see it. This film is a perfect indicator of why.


Monday, March 25, 2019

Documentary Review: Chet’s Last Call!: A Story of Rock & Redemption

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Live images © Robert Barry Francos
Other images from the Internet

Chet’s Last Call!: A Story of Rock & Redemption
Directed by the Vitale Brothers (Dan Vitale; Ted Vitale)
CPW Filmworks / Lively Entertainment
85 minutes / 2019

Every city had its “own CBGB” (or Max’s Kansas City), a seedy place where rock and roll (and variations) was played loud and made a national name for itself. For Boston, of course, there was the Ratskeller (fondly known as the Rat). And as there must be an (relative) A-level club, there must also be the smaller, lesser known ones, such as Club 82 in New York, or for Boston, there was Chet’s Last Call.

The thing about the smaller, locally known clubs, there was a bond between the bands and the fans that became a kind of family. While it was open to everyone, the regulars all knew each other, and it was a place where many musicians would go to just hang out after gigs, when the other bars were closed by curfew. They were, for their times, places of magic.

I hung around in Boston quite a bit in the first half of the 1980s, and one of the last times I was there, local scene photographer Rocco Cippilone took me to Chet’s to see Salem 66, who do not appear in the documentary, but do in the photos in this review. However, I did get so see a few of the bands that appear here, such as the Neighborhoods and the Dogmatics, albeit in other venues.

Salem 66 at Chet's (pic (c) RBF)
During the 1980s, Chet’s Last Call lasted through most of the decade, closing in the autumn of 1987; it was near the Boston Garden arena where the Bruins play, and above a mafia bar. Chet’s was a seedy, dilapidated and relatively tiny bar, but hosted some of the top bands to come out of Boston in that period. Honestly, I don’t have much memory of the actual place (I saw a lot of bands in a lot of bars in my life), but respect its history.
As important as the club was, this documentary shows that equally important was the man who owned it, larger than life Richard “Chet” Rooney (d. December 2015). There are many descriptions of him, such as intimidating, quick tempered, and extremely friendly. Despite his girth, he was also quite agile at throwing people out the door when need be. He was willing to give nearly any band a chance, and then keep them as regulars if he liked them. As the scene deepened and coalesced into a bonding experience for its regulars, it became a center of drug use – which was quite common in clubs back then – and Chet himself became equally a devotee of that.

I have seen a few documentaries about smaller clubs that became insular, and nearly all of them have similar themes: bar opens, bands play, the regulars bond, and then drugs and/or violence breaks up said scene. Chet’s appears to be no different in that regard, but what they managed to do in that time period is astounding. The level of musicianship and the variety of genres (mostly rock, punk and ska) can be gleaned from this film.

What we are presented with here are a smorgasbord, or buffet of music and musicians from the Boston scene, such as Kenne Highland (the Hopelessly Obscure, a band I helped name and handclapped on their first demo), Rick Barton (cult fave the Outlets; Dropkick Murphys), Dave Minehan (The Neighborhoods; The Replacements), Joe Harvard (d. March 2019), Tim Burton (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones), Ed “Moose” Savage (Moose and the Mudbugs), Billy Cole (The Real Kids), Barrence Whitfiled (Barrence Whitfiled and the Savages), and multiple members of the likes of Pajama Slave Dancers, Harlequin, and the Dogmatics, to name just a few. There were some I was surprised were missing, such as Salem 66 and Willie Alexander.

For the past few years, there has been a yearly concert dubbed Chetstock, where some of the old bands get together and perform. We get to see clips from a bunch of the groups (usually a couple of minutes’ worth) at the last Chetstock, such as Ken Kaiser’s the Beachmasters, the Dogmatics, Pajama Slave Dancers, The Liz Borden Band, Dogzilla, Bim Skala Bim (featuring one of the directors of this release) and the Hopelessly Obscure (doing Kenne’s classic, “Jailbait Janet” from his the Gizmos days).

What interested me as much was some of the classic footage from the period from the likes of the Neighborhoods (who should have been bigger), Scruffy the Cat, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

Salem 66 at Chet's (pic (c) RBF)
What’s equally compelling is much of the staff is also interviewed, including the bouncer, the front door person, the sound guy, and the bartender. Their stories and anecdotes fill in the gaps of what it was like at the place beyond those who came and went, to give a broader picture of what the bar Chet’s was like, and also insights into Chet, the man.
With all the interviews and stories, the Vitale brothers do a really great job in keeping the stories from getting repetitious, and manage the flow going throughout. It was easy to sit through the whole documentary and not lose interest, even with the bands with which I was not familiar (e.g., Xanna Don’t, Chelsea Clutch).

It’s no surprise the club burned hot and relatively fast, considering Chet’s predilection for substance abuse, and also the multitude of infractions with the law (underage drinking, drug use on site, dilapidation of the space, etc.). Who knows, perhaps the old bar beneath was tired of the noise. These factors led to its quick shuttering, which leads to the last chapter of the story, namely the “redemption” part as Chet – now back to Richard – gets his life in order and does good for the last couple of decades of his life helping others. This part is just as interesting.

Chet’s may never be as well-known as some of the other bars at the time, but that does not minimize its importance. Luckily, the Vitale Brothers manage to bring the zeitgeist of the place to beyond its time period, so Chet’s Last Call does not need to be its last notice. Thanks for that.


Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: Band vs Brand

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Band vs Brand
Written and directed by Bob Nalbanian
Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Video
84 minutes; 2018 / 2019

The premise of this film is simple, and explained on the box: “When does a band become a brand?” This refers to when the band name becomes a synergy of its own, until sometimes even the band members themselves have no control. Of course, this is nothing new: for example, there have been groups like the Shangri-Las and the Marvellettes that have been touring for decades with no original members, and it’s a compilation of a pool of “who’s available for this gig?” singers.

But the focus of this documentary is in the metal genre, starting with the post-1992 media ecological age of the Internet with some rear-view mirror thinking, and it’s overarching effect on how music is purchased, downloaded, and how media streaming companies are bypassing the record companies.

Much of the story here is broken up into chapters, separated by titled cards, the first being “Logos and Merchandise,” or as Minutemen’s bassist Mike Watt famously coined it, “Merch.” Usta be in the1960s and ‘70s, independent tee-shirt sellers at venues like Madison Square Garden would flash their wares. Now, that’s pretty much a thing of the past, and the bands themselves sell their own merch with their logos inside the arenas or even clubs. In fact, many make more money of their paraphernalia (stickers, lighters, CDs, bandanas, etc.) than they do on the concert tickets. That’s why you see people with Ramones shirts who never knew they were a band, or were unfamiliar with their music. The brand became as – if not more – important than the band.

I remember right after Guns N’ Roses appeared on some award show, with bassist Duff McKagan wearing a CBGB tee-shirt, and suddenly people were buying them. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal made a small fortune with his logo. This is irony as my first Blank Generation crowd would go out of their way not to wear brands, and then CBGB was the brand.

With “Standing the Test of Time,” the film – and musicians – attests that no one with longevity has the merch power of KISS, with over 10,000 products that they sell. It’s rare for bands to last past a few years, and it almost seems like if they can pass a certain point, they can gather enough attention just from their endurance to become a brand through cultural osmosis.

One of the interesting aspects of sections like “Classic Rock” is listening to the seasoned musicians such as one of Nik Turner’s Hawkwind, discussing how, for example, (and I’m paraphrasing) that the Who would be less legitimate with Daltry and not Towshend than with Townshend and not Daltry. It’s true that bands have a history of being taken over by its singer, such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, or Buddy Holly and the Crickets. It’s not a new situation, but when the musicians themselves start talking about the distaste of that, I find that interesting. There is a moment where Ross the Boss talks about the post-Dictators’ outfit, Dictators NYC, that is close to my heart of the 1970s New York era.

I also find it interesting that the bands that are interviewed tend towards the older side, so when they discuss “Technology & the Internet,” for example, it’s mostly doom and gloom about quality and the anyone can do it attitude, but DIY is solid punk rock mentality because it was put out by the fans and musicians themselves. Certainly I am not arguing with the fact that most of the music now is overproduced, but so was arguable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the products of Yes, ELP, and many of the late ’60 and early ‘70s rock (now called Classic Rock) that needed a whole sea of technicians to set up and play in arenas, as opposed to the plug and play of rock’n’roll.

This rightfully leads to “The Changing Industry,” which, again, is nothing new, but still fascinating. There’s a great book called The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce by Fred Goodman in 1998, that discusses how the music industry went from being sold by music lovers to corporate entities who cared for nothing but the bottom line. Much of this chapter looks at how the fans approach music differently than they used to, which drive the bands to approach their music in dissimilar ways, which also affects the way products (both bands and their music) reach their market.

Not everyone can have the touring power of Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney, so when discussing “Live Performances” this documentary correctly posits that bands have had to change the way they tour, be it package tours with other bands (though I do remember seeing a Foghat / Montrose / Black Oak Arkansas show at the Beacon Theater in NYC in the mid-1970s), or play in casinos, on cruise ships, private corporate shows, or more and smaller venues on a single tour (for example, I saw Johnny Winter play at a college bar in Saskatoon in 2011).

While not in this order, the chapter “Hologram” could easily have followed the “Live Performance” one, perhaps called either the “Dead Performance” or “the Lazy Performance.” This is where a hologram of the artist – dead or alive – is used in the act. The idea of this drives me crazy. ABBA is currently in the process of being digitized as their younger selves and going “on tour.” For me, I’m not paying $100+ a seat to essentially watch HDTV; hell, I’m probably not going to pay that much for an actual live one. To see the two surviving members of the Who for $350 (pre-fees for the ticket processing)? Not going to happen; got to see the full band in the day for $8.50. I’m a fan, but I’m not rich. This has seriously affected my going to live shows, which I used to do quite often. I’ll just watch it on YouTube now, which refers more to the “Branding & the Fans” chapter.

There is no getting around this is a negative topic so it’s hard not to be cynical either watching it as a viewer, or from the musicians’ standpoint onscreen, but director Bob Nalbanian keeps it interesting and flowing. Considering the musicians involved here – and this is just a small touch – from bands such as Dio, Angel (who really do have the coolest logo ever, and the story is included in the documentary), Plasmatics, Megadeth, Slayer, Keel, and Saxon, along with some I’ve mentioned previously (and you can see a bunch in the trailer, below), this is obviously geared to an older demographic who are probably less comfortable with the modern tone of the music biz.

The extra are two of this film’s trailers, and for three other music documentaries, including the Damned.

While it’s sad it’s come down to mere merchandising sometimes more than the music, it’s also been part of the legacy of rock’n’roll from the beginning. It has, however, picked up momentum along the way. Fans of my generation remember ticket prices to big shows being under $10, no glare from cell phones recording the concerts and being distracting (I used to sneak in cassette recorders sometimes), and an excitement level that led to dancing rather than egocentric moshing.

I’m not trying to say this is either good or bad; it’s just the way it was. That it is different now is the point of this documentary, sand Nalbanian presents some of the top veteran musicians in the field to successfully prove his point. Worth the view.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

DAVE THOMAS: The Voice of Pere Ubu [1982]

Text by Stacy Mantel / FFanzeen, 1982
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 1982 and 2019
Images from the Internet

This interview was published in FFanzeen, issue #9, dated 1982, by FFanzeen Managing Editor, Stacy Mantel).

Since the interview, Dave Thomas has had a broad solo career, and despite his comment, has resurrected his proto-punk band, Rocket from the Tombs. Due to the nature of the style of interviewing, which was pretty common back in the day, there was no chance to Stacy to follow up on some the answers, such I would have definitely liked to ask for myself. – Robert Barry Francos, 2019
* * *
Pere Ubu

The following interview with Pere Ubu’s very elusive lead singer David Thomas (aka Crocus Behemoth) was conducted via mail by questions submitted by Stacey. We pick up with Dave’s opening comments. – RBF, 1982
* * *
“I must say that this is a thorough job: paper to answer on and all. I have spent the day catching up on the mail so I don’t know how much I will be able to satisfy your wishes. Your letter, as circumstances would have it, was the bottom letter in the second bag of mail I’ve answered today.”

Rocket From the Tombs; 1970s
FFanzeen: What is the most common misconception people have about Pere Ubu?
Dave Thomas: (A) we like art; (B) we like industrial music; (C) we are organized and follow a plan; (D) we are disorganized and spontaneous.

FFanzeen: Describe your music to someone who has never heard it before.
Dave: It is a modern sort of folk music.

FFanzeen: Does David Thomas still collect bubblegum cards?
Dave: I never collected bubblegum cards, and if I did so as a child, I’ve long forgotten it. Did I once say I did? Or was I once reported as saying I did? Oh, the tangled web we weave when, etc.

FFanzeen:  Is the machinery of Cleveland still a musical inspiration?
Dave: No.

FFanzeen: Why didn’t you move to New York City?
Dave: Nobody wanted to live in NYC. Our families are here. Our homes are here. Both of those are very important things. More important than music or business. Also, we like it here. We live here; I think that is the best summary. Also, the question must be asked in return – why?

FFanzeen: So many groups are inspired by Pere Ubu, but musically do not come close. What is the ingredient they lack most?
Dave: Any answer would be presumptuous. (At this point, as your hopes sink slowly in the Midwest, you may begin to realize that you’re not going to uncover the “real Ubu” by the course of this interview. Don’t panic.)

Pere Ubu at CBGB
FFanzeen: How are the songs usually generated?
Dave: Somebody has an idea; or a piece develops out of a jam. Not a very complicated process, actually.

FFanzeen: What is Dave Thomas’ pre-Pere Ubu background?
Dave: I was a writer for a weekly rock’n’roll/movies, etc., tabloid in Cleveland. I also did layout and production. I was in a pre-Ubu band that was good for about three months over the course of two years [I believe he’s talking about Rocket from the Tombs – RBF, 2019].

FFanzeen: Are band members currently in other groups or working on other projects?
Dave: Mayo Thompson [guitar] leads the Red Krayola, which is still active. Anton Fier [drums] is a member of the Lounge Lizards. Dave Thomas leads the Pedestrians when not working with Ubu. Tony Maimone [bass; currently owns Studio G in Brooklyn - 2019] does solo recording and plays organ with a reggae band in Cleveland. Allen (Ravenstine) [keyboards] plays in the Pedestrians and the Red Crayola.

FFanzeen: What is the group’s view of the Moral Majority?
Dave: Ubu does not have political views. And I certainly do not.

FFanzeen: Do you believe in “zero hour”?
Dave: According to every clock I’ve ever seen, there is no such thing as “zero hour”.

FFanzeen: Are you a “survivalist” or member of the “Ground Zero” club?
Dave: No.

FFanzeen: What is your opinion of the new horror movie genre?
Dave: I detest blood and gore movies and cannot stomach them.

FFanzeen: Can we ever expect a book of poetry or a novel?
Dave: I have thought of getting into the poetry racket but my wife has managed to dissuade me so far. I don’t have the concentration to write a book which is why I do songs: one good line repeated a few times and you’re out.

FFanzeen: What is David Thomas like when he is not David “Pere Ubu” Thomas?
Dave: Huh?

FFanzeen: What makes Dave Thomas so loveable?
Dave: See answer to Q #6.

FFanzeen: We understand that the press can be unsympathetic and really off-target when describing the group.
Dave: Oh, sure. But I can’t remember who or when.

FFanzeen: Whatever happened to the Numbers Band and 15-60-75?
Dave: One and the same band. 15-60-75 plays, still, four or five times a week in Kent and Cleveland.

FFanzeen: At this point, do you think the next album will be looser or tighter, in terms of structure?
Dave: We have begun work on The Song of the Bailing Man, and are very excited by it. The songs are all two minutes or under, so far. The structures are very tight.

FFanzeen: Whose music do you prefer listening to today?
Dave: I find very little in modern music to hold my interest.

FFanzeen: When will you be coming back to New York?
Dave: Maybe November.

Rocket from the Tombs, redux
Dave, post-questions:
“Pretty stunning interview, eh? What can I tell you?

“In May-June, while in the U.K., I recorded a solo LP entitled The Sound of the Sand & Other Songs of the Pedestrian. It was produced by Adam Kidron. It will be released by Rough Trade in mid-September. The musicians who played on it are: Richard Thompson [guitar], Philip Moxham [bass], Anton Fier, Tan-Tan, Allen Ravenstine, Chris Cutler [percussion], Ralph Carney [multi-instrumentalist; d. 2017], John Greaves [bass], Mayo Thompson, Scott Krauss[drums] and others. It is 37 minutes long, but has been mastered and pressed at 45 rpm.

“Oh, yes, we are working on Vol. 2 of Ubu Live, tentatively entitled, Altered for Your Listening Pleasure.

“Stacy, I hope you do not over-romanticize Pere Ubu. We are just entertainers. We are not artists. We take pride in our work, though, and we try to be as entertaining as possible – not appealing, we hope, to the lowest common denominators. Puzzles and games, i.e., chess, are entertaining, aren’t they? Listening to folks talking about years ago is entertaining, isn’t it? Amusing your friends and each other in wholesome activity can be great fun and can also be unbinding and intellectually stimulating. A hundred years ago friends and neighbors would gather together and sing songs at the piano, or go to lectures at the Town Hall on the yellow-breasted titmouse, or the symbolism of 17th Century literature. They didn’t wallow in an atmosphere pervaded by themes of sex, violence and base emotions. They didn’t seek to void real things in a whole-hearted manner. Such things are not entertaining. Self-occupation is not entertainment.

“I must move on now.”