Sunday, December 20, 2020

You Are What You Eat: Questionable Cultural Cuisine

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet
Recipes included in the hyperlinks

You Are What You Eat: Questionable Cultural Cuisine

When I was a whippet of a man, I worked in a theater as an usher. One of the films to play during my tenure was Lucille Ball’s oddly musical film version of the play, Mame (1974). There is a scene in it where Mame invites her nephew’s fiancée and parents to dinner to kinda get revenge for an uncomfortable meal with her racist family. During the dinner, one of the foods that is brought out is, if I remember correctly as I have not seen the movie since, monkey brains (shades of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust). The nephew eats it with no problem as he grew up with it, while the fiancée is disgusted. This planted a thought in my head, which is as follows:

Every culture has at least one food that just about every other culture will find to be gross.

For example, I grew up in a middle-class Jewish household, where a regular staple was a cold cut that was made from cows’ tongue – also known as beef tongue – though we just called it tongue. It was delicious, and I was shocked to find out that the Italian kids at school were completely taken aback by it. I did not understand, as it was yummy on a sandwich with some mustard spread upon it.

Over the years, there were other foods that I would eat regularly that made people cringe, such as schmaltz, or rendered (clarified, or melted) chicken fat that was refrigerated and then used as a spread in the same way as salted butter. This is what was originally meant by a schmear, before it was appropriated as a description of spreading cream cheese. Mel Brooks once proclaimed, I believe it was on the “Tonight Show,” the number one killer of Jews is the food they eat.” This is an example why. In the old shtetl days, Jews ate chickens every Friday night for the Sabbath, and it was natural to use whatever they could, so schmaltz was used on bread. A friend of mine in college was repulsed by the idea of it, so I brought it in on a slice of bread, which she hesitantly ate, and her eyes grew big and she said, “Wow, this is amazing!”

My mother was well aware of the lack of healthiness of the product, which she would make herself, and we almost exclusively had it the week of Passover. My favorite way to eat schmaltz was if you quickly wet a matzo sheet, give it a schmear, and then spread some course salt (also known as koshering salt) over it. Man, as a kid I could eat that all day. As I grew older, I probably have not eaten it since the early ‘70s, but still remember the taste.


What surprised me was how reviled gefilte fish was outside of the Jewish household. All it contains is ground deboned carp, whitefish, and/or pike. We would eat it with horseradish, starting with the red kind, moving up to the stronger white as we got older and our tastebuds matured a bit.


Going in the other direction, speaking of fish, I never understood the appeal of the Norwegian (mostly) dish called Lutefisk. As Wikipedia  accurately describes it, “Lutefisk is dried whitefish. It is made from aged stockfish, or dried and salted cod, pickled in lye. It is gelatinous in texture after being rehydrated for days prior to eating.” It is then either boiled or baked and is usually served around Christmastime. I had it a couple of times, and could not get past the gelatinous texture. I had to have some bread to force it down. Not because of the taste, but the consistency. To be fair, I also revile the gelatin that forms in the jars of refrigerated gefilte fish, which my parents loved. Yet I like gelatin pudding. Go figure.


There are a couple of easy ones, the foremost being that Scottish mainstay Haggis.  And what exactly is Haggis? It is sheep’s lungs, liver, and heart, mixed with beef, and encased in a sheep’s stomach, and then cooked. It is one of the rare foods that is actually illegal to import to the United States, though it’s fine to make it on your own. From what I understand, it is a bit hard and time consuming to make (have you ever tried cutting up a heart? They are tough, man). I have had haggis a couple of times – I believe it was a North American abbreviated version – and it wasn’t too bad; I actually liked it, but it was a tough chew if I remember correctly. I have eaten beef heart before (not fond of it because, again, of its tough texture), and I love liver; lungs are something for which I am not familiar.

No recipe for this one: in parts of Asia, it is common to eat household pets like dogs and cats. Cats are more for “medicinal” reasons, but dogs are regularly served. In fact, just in August of 2020, Kim Jong-un of Korea ordered citizens to hand over their pet dogs to be used for food. Obviously, there is no PETA in that country. When I was a teen, there was a local Asian take-out restaurant (86 Street and 21 Avenue, in Brooklyn) that was shut down for selling “pet meat.” They used strays for beef substitutes to unknowing patrons, in order to save money, a theme right out of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (“What I call enterprise / Popping pussies in pies / Wouldn’t do in my shop / Just the thought of it’s enough to make you sick / And I’m telling you them pussy cats is quick”). To be honest, I never ate from there.


Southwestern North America has its own variety of food that makes people from elsewhere wince, namely prairie oysters (also known as Rocky Mountain oysters). For those who do not know, these are the castrated testicles of bulls. They were ordinary around a cow pie fire in the old West while moving herds, but it’s less common now, but still considered a delicacy in certain parts of the country. In fact there is even a recipe collection by Ljubomir Erovic called The Testicle Cookbook. Apparently there are lots of different ways to cook them if you have the – er – balls. Never had them but I may if they are the deep-fried versions.

There are plenty of other what some may consider strange foods from around the world, including mealy worms, chocolate covered ants and grasshoppers, deep fried butterfly wings and shark fin soup. I have never tried any of these, but my uncle once brought my brother and I a can of the chocolate covered bugs (both kinds) when we were tykes. We opened the cans, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat them.


What cultural foods that others are turned off by that you love? Perhaps the dreaded Canadian-invented pineapple pizza? For me, for example, I love pizza Napoli (with anchovy). Feel free to add your own in the blog comments.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Book Review: Saving Grace, by DM Barr

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


Saving Grace
Written by DM Barr
Black Rose Writing (Texas)
243 pages, 2020

Murder mysteries are a genre that has always been popular, but one needs to dig deeper, as they also can be broken down into subgenres: there’s the Noir/hard-bitten detective who at some point will mention the dirty city; there’s more of a police procedural, like those written by Sue Grafton; and then there is the category that Saving Grace could be included.

This falls more in line with the Agatha Christie / Murder She Wrote / Monk kind of almost artistic straightforwardness that makes it a bit more palpable for the average reader. That does not mean there won’t be blood and murder, it is just a stylistic choice that I personally enjoy. It’s certainly not a comedy, but it is a lighter shade of dark. Just from the name/word pun of the title, you know this is going to be a fun ride.

For those who don’t know, DM Barr is a celebrated writer with a few books under her belt now, and quite a number of awards. In the full disclosure department, I have known Barr in my life a while back, though I haven’t seen her since around 1990, when she was a magazine writer, but well before she was a published book author.

Most reviewers have referred to Saving Grace as a psychological thriller, and rightfully so. The central and titular character is a woman with a history of paranoia, and so now in her middle age, living with her husband and two teenaged sons, she has spent a large amount of her time under the thumb of numerous medications that keep her less than clear-headed. But she is going to change that by cold turkey-ing the drugs and go on with her life.

This leads to a nice line of “what is real and what is imagined?” Is Grace’s middle management husband, Eliot, a lothario who is only sticking around until Grace’s estranged rich father passes on and leaves her, his only living relative, his loot? And is Eliot’s plan to do away with Grace once that happens? She’s becoming more convinced by things that may or may not be true; she is living in a world of delusional circumstantial evidence fed by mental strain and a lack of medicines, and the prospect of being gaslit. But as a woman of a certain age, Grace indicates in the novel, “Life without meds overflowed with possibility” (p. 7).

It doesn’t help that between Grace’s passive-aggressive husband’s condescending and her two young teen sons’ lack of respect, she is living in a world of toxic masculinity, seeing her for what she can give them, rather than helping in a substantial way. This is just part of the reason she is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Everyone around Grace can see it, but her. The question is, what is real?

Grace is well read, as her only outlet for cathartic emotion, and Barr nicely uses characters of other novels to have her express how she is feeling, such as “She felt as trapped as Henri Charrière in Papillon, doomed forever to imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Except unlike him, she had no ally to help her escape” (p. 17). Barr never talks down to the audience, using language that is lush and languid, occasionally scattered with words like prophylactic homicide and uxoricidal (look it up; I did).

There are also quite an engaging ancillary cast of characters, such as her daddy, Barrington (I can so see Ray Wise in the role), who is a mean, nasty and elderly Trump-type who likes to belittle and name-call, and his mistress Caprice, who is more than a decade less Grace’s age. A third wheel in the relationships between Grace and Eliot, and also Grace and Barrington, is Grace’s psychologist, Dr. Emma Leighmann, who has been treating her since she was a child. It’s debateable whose best interest she has in mind, since Barrington’s long fingers have a financial hold on her. Another is Sheryl, Eliot’s over-ambitious secretary, willing to do what it takes to make her boss rise in the ranks, planning that he will take her with him, be it in the office or, as Grace fears, to replace her. Then there’s the toxicologist Grace befriends, Tom Druthers (as opposed to Smothers). You know something is up when Grace thinks, “Neither hand bore a wedding ring. It made sense—no self-respecting wife would let her husband leave the house in such a state.” Sure that’s a heteronormative comment, but in context it is dripping with possibilities. Speaking of which, of course the more the secondary characters, the better both the possible body count and, arguably even more importantly, the red herrings.

Two other individuals are the sister and brother team of Andrea and Hack. She’s a mystery writer who takes Grace under her wing, and he’s a late-teen gonif due to his gambling habit. The two of them are central to the story, though they are not in it, generally, until a third of the novel. Their presence is due to be profound.

The book is thankfully not formulaic, beginning with the murder, and then most of the rest are the events leading up to the moment of execution, as it were. There are also lots of surprises along the way, including the presence of a possible Undzer Shtik (Jewish Mafia), which made me laugh. There is also some serious side commentary on the issues of LGBTQI, conversion therapy, and homeless teens that are noteworthy being important lynchpins in the story without anywhere near being preachy.

A few interjections are also dispersed throughout about the political climate, not really taking a left/right side, but noting the cultural angst, such as one character, an aspiring writer, stating, “I write … Ultra-Cozies… They’re short mysteries with only two or three characters, take place in one location, and have very little action. … They’re for readers so traumatized by the current political climate, they can’t tolerate too much drama” (p. 70). As dire as the basic storyline is, there is levity here and there, such as one aspiring writer character describing her genre: “It’s Yoga romance. My latest, Chakra Full of Nuts, hit number one in the category last week. It’s about two Yogis who fall in love at a cashew farm” (p. 70). Or when Barr, as narrator, states about a tense moment: “The room grew as silent as the second ‘n’ in ‘condemn’” (p. 72). There are also a slew of (translated) Yiddish axioms that are bound to make the reader giggle.

The reason for the mention of writers, Grace decides to write a mystery novel, Salvaging Hope, using her life as the paradigm, hereby pre-emptively securing her safety as her fears are publicly circulated. A pretty brazen yet cool idea for a Marshall McLuhan-esque hot medium; or a one character describes it, “Publishing rather than perishing” (p. 92).

While the body count is not huge, its more realistic number is still relatively lively (pun intended), and the story builds and then explodes in the final third of the book when time catches up to the prologue, and then there are enough people introduced in Team Grace’s to try to figure out the answer. I’m willing to admit that despite the red herrings, I figured out (guessed) who was the central villain about a third in, but even so, was not totally sure until near the end (comes from years of watching shows like Monk and Midsomer Murders).

Chapters are relatively short at a few pages each, making them easier to digest, but considering the storyline, it is harder to put the damn thing down. I’m a relatively slow reader, but it only took me three days to go through it (normally, this would be a week, at least). That speaks to the quality of the story.

DM Barr

While I have not yet read Barr’s other books, Expired Listings (2016) and Slashing Mona Lisa (2018), there is a lot of meta text in here. For example, Barr and Grace are around the same age, both writers of lighter stuff until the novels came, and Barr’s also quite wealthy dad (I have been to his beachfront house in the Hamptons in the 1980s for a Barr pool party, but never met him, so cannot attest to the comparison to Barrington). As the story unfolds, we are also met with a secondary meta-formation, as we learn of Grace’s writing development (such as adding in said secondary characters), and that her first novel was about real estate agents, a field in which Barr has also embraced, showing she’s not beyond using the “write what you know” maxim. All for the better of her readers, I must add.

How did this book make me feel, overall? As Druthers put it, “…happier than a mosquito on the first day of summer” (p. 189).

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Shuck Up – It’s THE PET CLAMS [1981]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet, unless indicated

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981. It was written by our Managing Editor and current philanthropic goddess, Julia Masi.

Yeah, so I saw the Pet Clams, who were previously known as The Big Fat Pet Clams From Outer Space, in both incarnations; at CBGB. It’s not surprising they played there since they were managed by its owner, Hilly Kristal; in fact I once saw them open for the Colors, also managed by Hilly. Honestly, they were an okay fun band, but not one that would stick out in my mind. But then again, they were quirky and played a weird white reggae, so here ya go. The Pet Calms from Outer Space, a name they went back to at some point after this was published, have some CDs available at their website, – RBF, 2020.
Pic (c) Robert Barry Francos
When the Pet Clams landed in CBGBs on a rainy October Saturday for a soundcheck, they were still known as the Big Fat Pet Clams From Outer Space. They said they were experiencing their first interview, but after talking to these guys for about five seconds, it was obvious that they’d say anything to a girl in a tight sweater. For what it’s worth, FFanzeen spent this wet weekend afternoon in 1980 with Richard Glebstein, keyboardist / “lead singer and person who gets yelled at”; Gary Applebaum, guitarist; Dave Anderson, bassist; Al Spero, drummer; and their manager and CBGBs owner Hilly Kristal, in an attempt to find out – who are the Pet Clams?

* * *

Gary Applebaum: We were the Pets. We’d been mentioned in Rolling Stone. But there were a couple of other bands around called the Pets, and we found out that, because of trademark and copyright, we couldn’t use the name Pets. So I said, “Why we call ourselves Clams From Space? I was writing the script for a horror movie, Clams From Space. It was this whole Roger Corman-type thing. So we fooled around with it. We used a different name every night for about two weeks. So one night, we called ourselves the Pet Clams From Outer Space. And when Hilly, our manager, put it in The (Village) Voice, he left a word out by accident. And that’s how we became the Big Fat Pet Clams From Outer Space.

FFanzeen: How long have you been together?
Gary: We’ve been together two years. We started playing together at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, about August of 1978. We played there for about a month, around the Jersey Shore. We mostly played covers. We taped ourselves at a five-hour gig one time, and we played 10 or 15 original songs and 30 to 40 covers. When you play all night, you gotta play about 50 or 60 songs. We listened to the tape the next day and the only things that sounded any good were the original songs. We played the covers as through we just went wild on them. No discipline at all. And Richard has a sort of distinctive voice. You’d never know he’s from California.

FFanzeen: You’re from California?
Richard Glebstein: No. Lakewood, New Jersey.
Hilly Kristal: He has a very exciting voice. It sounds like a moose.

FFanzeen: Describe your music.
Richard: Rock’n’roll, reggae, New Wave. We do it all. People say we have a style.
Gary: We have a lot of different styles.

FFanzeen: Is it true that your single is a political song?
Richard: It depends on which side you listen to.
Gary: We have a couple of political songs, but the one (Hilly) put out as a single is “Gonna Get Fooled Again.” It was written about a year and a half ago. We opened for Squeeze and had about 15-16 shots of Jack Daniels. And I was out in Greenwich Village, driving home with the car doors open, trying to hit parked cars. The next day when I went to work – I was building houses at the time – I fell asleep on a concrete slab in a puddle of water. Everyone was standing around laughing at me and I wrote the lyrics with my carpenter’s pencil on the cement. It’s more or less a statement of tie idiocy of the two-party system. For instance, the two-party system might have some basis in England because the main parties are the Conservatives and the Liberals. They supposedly have different views. In America where they have the two-party system and both parties are essentially the same, it’s really silly to bother having an election. Both parties are the same party. [I whole-heartedly disagree, and believe that is a stance based in ignorance. – RBF, 2020.] We complain that Russia doesn’t have a democracy because they only run one candidate. We run two candidates that say the same thing. What’s the difference?

[Enter bassist Dave Anderson]
Richard: Dave wrote the music to that song. That’s why it’s not that good. We’re actually a brilliant rock’n’roll group.
Gary: He’s paid to say that.
Richard: No, I’m serious. I sat and gave it a lot of thought. We’re really brilliant.

FFanzeen: On Monday, you’re going to record your first album [released on Friday the 13th, in March 1981, titled The Pet Clams]. What will it be like?
Richard: Three reggae songs: “Don’t Get So Upset,” “Things Keep on Changing,” and “Jerusalem,” a very strong song.

FFanzeen: What is it about?
Richard: He was in a suicidal mood, so he said he was walking down the road to Jerusalem.
Gary: It’s more or less the juxtaposition of the end of a relationship and a time of turbulence in the world. Sort of like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, sitting there talking while the whole world is at war around them.

FFanzeen: Besides politics, what else influences you?
Richard: He’s influenced by other carpenters. I’m influenced by students. I’m a Special Education teacher at Lakewood Middle School.

FFanzeen: Do your students like your music?
Richard: My students are all deaf. No, they’re not.
Gary: Pitiful songs on the album.
Richard: “Gonna get Fooled Again” is going to be on the album.
Gary: Is it really?
Richard: Well, it might be. [It is – Ed., 1981]
Gary: One song’s about turning up in CBGBs. It’s called “That’s Showbiz.” And not making any money. They tell you to wait; just wait.
Richard: That’s what everybody does in rock’n’roll, whether they have an album out or not. Everybody waits.

FFanzeen: Back to your histories.
Richard: I used to play alone for a very long time. I was the cult hero of the polyester crowd.

FFanzeen: So what makes this band different from all other bands?
Richard: This band eats unleavened bread.
Gary: We’re the same as everybody, except I’m smarter.
Richard: We used to play at punk weddings and rock bar mitzvahs.
Gary: We’d done original stuff before and failed.
Richard: I didn’t. I was a tremendous success.
Gary: Have you caught his albums as a solo? He made about 10 solo albums in the ‘late ‘60s. He was very famous. His name was Randy Newman then.
Richard: I thought Newman was too Jewish. I like Glebstein.

FFanzeen: Have you ever had to open for a band that incongruous to yours?
Richard: We liked playing with Squeeze and David Johansen.

FFanzeen: How did the audience react to you?
Richard: They hate our guts. We can’t understand why.

FFanzeen: Does this band have a slogan?
Richard: Do bands have slogans?

FFanzeen: Yeah; the Stimulators have “Loud Fast Rules.”
Richard: Let’s get a slogan right now.
Gary: The band is so good it doesn’t need a slogan.
Richard: We don’t have a slogan. We love what we do. It’s hard work and we do it because it’s fun. This is a hobby. Gary’s a carpenter; Al’s a carpenter. You know all the maniac drivers in New Jersey? John taught them all to drive. We’re all very nice people.
Gary: And sexy as hell.

FFanzeen: Don’t lay it on too thick: I’m planning to take pictures.

Monday, November 30, 2020

CD Reviews: November 2020

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

CD Reviews: November 2020

Dalia Davis
Keep a Clean Engine
Teal Power Records /
Davis is a Boston-area veteran singer-songwriter who has released this collection of mostly original multi-genre tunes. When she sings, what she brings up to me is the solo singers from Britain during the 1960s, like Celia Black, Lulu, and a bit of Dusty Springfield. This is especially true for her cover of the standard, “When Sunny Gets Blue,” which is a highlight here, with its lite jazz tones. For some reason, this comes across to me, especially on the bridges. Speaking of which, one of my fave cuts is “Beatles Bridges,” which is exactly what it claims to be, a bunch of bridges from Beatles classics into a bluesy, mostly cohesive song, even though the content is all over the emotional map. She starts of strong with “The Power of One,” sliding into the gospel-tinged “Don’t Give Up the Fight.” The harmony vocals enhance the sounds nicely as they are right up front, often equal to Davis. The title track is a nice, almost Jacque Brel-ish type melody that swirls around the sound, without going dark. Another highlight is the gospel and doo-wop infused “Wash Away.”


Jack Phillips
Night and Day
Magnolia Group Records
Jack has a nice musical sound that is somewhere between Billy Joel and Elton John, as in the opening original “I Love New York,” mixed with a bit of New Orleans jazz, especially on the likes of “The Old Grey Hat,” and maybe even some soft Southern Rock with “No One’s Home.” The second half of the CD (aka “the flip side”) is mostly jazz/standard sounding, such as “Let’s Drink to Us” and “Take Them to Manhattan.” A more commercial rockin’ sound is given in “No More Waitin’,” one of the better cuts here. The album concludes with a I-IV-V instrumental that relies on a ragin’ guitar by Caleb Quaye on “Down in the Jungle Room” (assuming that’s a Graceland reference). Phillips’ voice is a bit rough at times, but it is unique and actually works really well with the styles he brings forward, which I would say is a highly boogie, almost Cajun-focused sound, with a deep southern tone. It’s an enjoyable listen, especially when he gets his soft jazz boots on.

The Boston Rock & Roll Anthology Chapter 21
Valrulven /
Joe Viglione has been putting out compilation albums, generally for bands coming out of the Boston/New England area (although this one is more far reaching), for decades, in various forms, such as his Anthology and The Demos that Got the Deal series. And with this, his documenting rock’n’roll history continues. The 21 tracks start off with heavy rocking duo (guitar and drums) 3D that originated in the 1980s (not to be confused with New York’s 3-D from the same period), with the anti-drug song, “Anything But Peace.” Pamela Ruby Russell’s first cut, “Space and Time,” has almost a hymnal tone with a military-paced back beat that works together beautifully. Her voice is sweet and the overdubbing with itself works, to give it a powerful punch; her second cut shows off her voice even more. Here she has a Judy Collins intonation, which really operates for her. The production is also quite enjoyable, being full without feeling over-kneaded. Working with the likes of Peter Calo and Andy Pratt certainly give her an extra zing. Karmacar – Heidi Jo Hines and Nico’s “As It Is” has a bit of a 1970s New Agey feel to it, though I believe it would have been stronger without the self-overdubbing and just let Heidi’s voice be by itself; their other cut on the CD, “Who’s Foolin’ Who?”, gives a better example of her voice, and is superior of the two, with a catchy melody and improves on the catchy harmonies. On a more esoteric note is the next two cuts – “Downtime” by the Complaints and “Faraday” by Phil DaRosa – which use a bit more electronica to posit their songs, especially the latter, which is kind of long in the tooth at nearly 6 minutes. The former has a mild Beatleseque tone. Kitoto Sunshine Love spreads the smooth ‘70s soul sound in the beautiful “Proud Soul Heritage.” Worth checking out; her second track, “Love You,” is equally as strong and arguably shows off her voice even more than the first cut, which was thoroughly enjoyable. Yeah, I would buy an album by her. Fittingly, Slapback follows with its lite funk “Guardian Angel (Radio Mix)” that is cheerful and fluffy in a good way. Hard rockers Empty County Band have been reviewed on this blog before. Their first track, “Until the End,” is a slow grinder and burner, but the vocals need to be a bit more up front in the mix; “Skeptical” is much stronger all around and a better listen, but both are good. Joe Black leads a guitar-centric metal group that wails with “Blackenstein.” If you like the guitar god sound, this mostly instrumental screamer is for you; for “Monster,” Black is joined on vocals by Jeffrey Baker. This cut is a more traditional rocker that switches between slow burner to a wild ride, which should please any metalhead. The lyrics are a bit silly (especially the chorus), but the guitar makes up for it. Tom Mitch, Jr.’s soulful “Table Scraps” reminds me a bit of Joe Tex, which is a compliment. Harmonious pop rockers Greg Walsh’s New Ghosts presents “Counting Down to Zero (From 1),” which has a late ‘60s sound mixed with early ‘80s echoey production styles. Mad Painter’s exuberant “The Letter” (not to be confused with the Box Tops song) has a bit of a Mod sound mixed with Ian Whitcomb’s bounciness, especially in Alex Gitlan’s vocals. As a note, a personal fave of mine from the Boston scene, my pal Kenne Highland, plays bass. Next up – and rightfully so – is a cut by the man himself, Joe Viglione, with his original “Thought About You.” Backed up by Jay and Scott Couper (who played with Denny Laine in the ‘80s), Joe presents one of the better songs I’ve heard from him in a while (and I like his stuff). It’s light without being sophomoric, and has a harmonious catch that could easily play on the radio and have people singing the chorus with him. Following is Boston musical veteran Dalia Davis, with “Eleven and a Half.” Reminding me of Harriet Shock here, Davis shines in a song about reminiscences. Fire in the Field’s “Bossman,” has a bit of an ‘80s rock sound that works, but somewhat harmless and generic, with harmonies and a cowbell sound. Concluding is “The Ballad of the Rock Star,” by Matty O’. This is a nice way to end, with a smooth Irish rock sound that fits well into the collection. Matty gets a couple of opportunities to show off his voice, which is appealing. Overall? This is a pretty damn decent collection of different styles, from singer-songwriter to heavy metal wailing, and it all works together. You can tell Viglione worked hard on the order of presentation of the songs, and he has a nice flow going so there isn’t an equivalent of a film’s jump cut. Everything flows pretty smoothly, and as a collection, it all meshes well. And if that wasn't enough, there is a really well thought-out glossy booklet that comes with it that is full of artist and song info and nice color pictures. Stunningly done.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Documentary Review: Physical Media Lives

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

Physical Media Lives
Directed by Tony Newton
Tony Newton Productions; Vestra Pictures
130 minutes, 2020

In 2008, I wrote a blog about collecting records (vinyl, CDs, etc.), called “Reflections on Being a Record Collector (HERE)  that is a philosophical look at what it is like to collect records, which I have done in my life. It is also transferable to film aggregation (VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.).

There are also a number of documentaries on the topic of amassing, such as I Need That Record (2010), 24 x 36: A Movie About Movie Posters (2018), Records Collecting Dust (2015) and its sequel (2018), and even the recent The Vinyl Revival: A Film About Why the Tables are Turning Again (2020). Note that all but one of these have been reviewed on this blog if you search for them.

The point is, whether it’s vinyl, posters, fanzines, or in this case physical media (PM) versions of films, it’s a crossover that can be a mixture of addiction, obsession or a personal, physical (adrenaline/dopamine) rush.

This is Part 4 of the VHS Lives documentary series by British horror genre historian Tony Newton, who directed this documentary. Through a series of interviews, collectors of films discuss what it means to them to physically own the objects as opposed to streaming versions, as their collections are proudly displayed behind them, or in one case, as the collector walks around a maze of shelving units that holds both films and CDs. The collecting bug is a strong mistress.

Just as we used to prowl record stores and outlets like the Sally-Ann (aka the Salvation Army), the film collectors will file through flats of cases in stores from high end retail shops to the discount bins at places like Walmart. And yes, Sally-Ann, flea markets and on-line sources (e.g., eBay, Facebook), as well. Film and record collecting are two different sides of the same coin and mindset. In fact, some of the people interviewed here focus on both vinyl and PM.

Informally, the film is broken up into section topics, such as favorite kind of medium, be it VHS, laser disc, etc., varieties of genres (most are horror, which is no surprise), how their collecting habits were initiated (often with showing the film that started it all), and the role of nostalgia.

What I find interesting, and this is also true for LPs as well, the majority of the collectors are male; of the dozens interviewed, two or three are female. The people who share their stories here range from independent cinema directors, actors, vlog reviewers, and pure collectors, including, noteworthily, actors/vloggers Shawn C. Phillips (who also helped produced the documentary) and Dave Parker (aka Mrparka).

Most record collectors I know also accumulated gig flyers, band posters and tee-shirts, and multiple print fanzines. Lord knows I have a basement full of most of these. An interesting aspect for me here is that there is also a spillover for film collectors, usually in toys, such as action figures, prop copies (e.g., Freddy Kruger’s glove, Jason Voorhees hockey masks), and posters (including theatrical art or images of favorite characters, such as the IT clown – both generations – or slasher icons).

Another interesting aspect to me is the discussion between PM and online streaming, and how similar it is to record collectors pining for the LPs where you have the product artwork and literally being able to hold something in your hand, as opposed to it being in the Cloud. One reverse aspect, humorously, is that with record collectors, many like the analog sound of LPs over digital, but with those collecting films, they tend to like the sharpness and clarity of the new media (4K Blu-ray, for example) over the old grainy ones (VHS), with some exceptions, such as those espoused by Newton.

Streaming versus PM is a common topic here. The fear of streaming – and rightfully so – is that anything can happen to the stream, be it the company going under, buffering, or a glitch, and you can lose everything. I lost a lot of images when Webshots went under, for example. Yes, with discs, you own them, but one thing I have learned as a Media Ecologist is that all technology is temporal, and in time, the medium will progress, and old technology will become obsolete. Remember the floppy disc? Try and find a computer that has a slot for it now. It is difficult to find a VHS player these days other than a garage sale because companies have stopped making them.

Pretty soon, DVD players will be swamped under the Blu-ray technology (yes, right now you can play DVDs on Blu-rays, but I’m trying to make a point, so cut me some slack, Jack). Think of all the people, including some here, that state they had the film in DVD and switched them out for Blu-ray. And as someone else here says, who knows what will come after that. Imagine having 4000+ DVDs and Blu-rays, and nothing to play them on. That’s my big fear. It’s hard enough to find a new turntable or stylus that is decent. Yes, sometimes they come back, such as vinyl (as at least one interviewee points out in the film) because, as Marshal McLuhan said, when a technology becomes obsolete, it comes back as art. But it is not the same when it comes to the technology that plays them. In one of the interviews near the very end, Newton discusses this possibility.

Occasionally interspersed among the interviews are some cool commercials and even a trailer for a B-film. That was fun. While the documentary remains interesting throughout, it does feel a bit long at over two hours, with bits that certainly could have been in a DVD/Blu-ray’s “Deleted Scenes” section. Hey, extras mean a lot to these collectors as so many of them mentioned them. Overall, though, it was a thoroughly enjoyable watch.

Physical Media Lives Trailer: TBD

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Review: Picture My Face: The Story of Teenage Head

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

Picture My Face: The Story of Teenage Head
Directed by Douglas Arrowsmith
Felt Film; TVO Films
86 minutes, 2020


Every city’s music scene has a band (or bands) that turned the knob to the next notch. For the Glam-to-Punk phase of the 1970s in New York, it was the New York Dolls. In Boston, it was arguably Willie Loco Alexander and the Boom Boom Band. And for the Toronto-Hamilton area, Ontario, there was Teenage Head, who took their name from an album by a West Coast version of this same principle, the Flamin’ Groovies.

Thanks to then-rock-writer Dawn Eden, a friend who also wrote for my ‘zine, I got to see the Hamilton-based Teenage Head play in a small club called Tramps in New York in the late-1980s, though it was after original lead singer Frankie Venom left the band and was replaced by the effervescent Dave Rave (aka Dave Desroches), who still does the vocals to this day (along with his many other projects) and appears with his ever changing hair length in this documentary on the band.

 It’s hard to explain just how important Teenage Head was to the Toronto metropolitan scene. Without them, there may not have been the Diodes, the Viletones, and so many others (check of Liz Worth’s excellent 2009 oral history of the Toronto scene, Treat Me Like Dirt after you watch this film).

You say you’ve never heard of Teenage Head? Well, first of all, this is your clarion call to go and check out their amazing catalog, including my fave cut, “You’re Tearing Me Apart” (which is not used here). But more importantly, whether directly or indirectly, much like Johnny Thunders, the sound of their influence goes beyond their name, especially for bands in Eastern Canada.

The film opens up with archival footage of the band playing at the Heatwave Festival in the heat of summer of 1980 in Bowmanville, Ontario, just west of Toronto, before delving into the history of the band’s formation. What I like about this approach, is that rather than a series of talking heads (more later), we meet the band as people rather than either super rock stars or seriously flawed humans (think of docs you’ve seen about, say, Janis, Jimi or even Sid V.). The band convenes at late lead singer Frankie Venom Kerr's grave (d. 2008; cancer) as we are introduced to guitarist Gord Lewis, bassist Steve Mahon, and current members vocalist Dave Rave and drummer Gene Champaign.

There is some loose chronology to the documentary, as it follows along their near-fame trajectory that was sidelined first by a highway crash that temporarily paralyzed Gord, which took them out of their touring mode and the recording of their third album, as other bands filled the spot that was meant for them (but not as well).

A large portion of the film deals with Gord’s struggle with depression following Frankie’s passing, the second major hit the band took. This reminded me of the film New York Doll (2005), which focused on Doll’s bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane’s similar issues. The fact that his back was shattered in that crash which caused the band to slip out of momentary prominence I’m sure is part of that as well.

As I said, the film does not glorify the band, nor vilifies them, but rather shows them dealing with adversity while being incredibly talented musicians who just never got the wide-scale recognition they deserved through no direct fault of their own. I believe that this documentary is all the more captivating because it makes it identifiable, not with some pie-in-the-sky lifestyle that most can never achieve, but by bringing it down to both the human scale and the humane.

There are some talking head interviews thrown in, including Nina Antonia who arguably wrote the definitive books on The New York Dolls (Too Much Too Soon, 2005) and Johnny Thunders (In Cold Blood, 1987), and rock writer Jon Savage, author of the British punk history England’s Dreaming (2004). Showing up sporatically is Marky Ramone, who worked with the band on their 2008 CD Teenage Head with Marky Ramone. He states at one point, “Frankie Venom was like Johnny Rotten,” but I respectfully beg to differ, as I feel Frankie was closer in movement and ferocity to Stiv Bators. Rotten would lean into the mic and roam around like an angry bull, but Stiv would be all over the stage and was oft jumping in the air, much like Frankie. Also making an appearance is guitarist Rob Baker of the Kingston band The Tragically Hip, who gives some insights into what it’s like when your lead singer is gone, with the passing of the Hip’s vox-meister Gord Downie in 2017.

As much as this is a film about their history, including some great live footage and archival interviews with Venom, this is also about their reformation 40 years after they started, now with Dave Rave out front (whom I’ve had the honor to know casually over the years), thanks to Warner Bros releasing to some success a collection of lost tapes from when the band was at its peak, Fun Comes Fast, in 2017.

We watch them prep to play at a bar I had always wanted to visit in Hamilton, This Ain’t Hollywood, which closed during the summer of 2020. But as the film begins with the huge Heatwave Festival in 1980, it concludes with the gigantic CFL Labour Day Classic Halftime Show (Hamilton vs. Toronto) in 2019.

This is certainly not the feel-good film of the year as far as the cult of celebrity goes, but it is important. Teenage Head are a band that deserves recognition, both for their sound and also their non-music history. They are four dudes trying to make the best of their lives, and that message is presented in a palpable form that is neither depressing nor exalting, which is the perfect pitch. Great job.