Saturday, February 29, 2020

CD Review: Harry Chapin: some more stories live

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

Harry Chapin
some more stories live: Live at Radio Bremen, 11th April 1977
Die Sparkasse Bremen / radiobremen / MIG / MVD Entertainment

Harry Chapin meant a lot to me, starting around 1972 or ’73, when I first heard his song, “Sniper.” Most were drawn to him through “Taxi,” his first hit, but I came from a different place than most folkies (which helps explain my later transition to punk). I saw him play live a number of times, and even had the opportunity to sing with him on stage (HERE). 

Around the time this new release was recorded at the Post-Aula venue for a radio station in Bremen, Germany, in 1977, Chapin’s original live album, Greatest Stories Live was already available, so this is not the “leftovers” from that concert, but a completely different show taped on another continent. There is some overlap between here and the original Stories, but Chapin is one of those singers who does every song a bit differently each time due to his non-technical voice (i.e., unique, like Dylan or Cohen). On the other hand, throughout his career, Chapin’s backing band has been pretty consistent, so you do get a group who is proficient on all the numbers. Plus, the quality of the sound is top notch.

For me, it seems “Shooting Star” is an odd opening for a show, as it is a deep and moving song that seems to come too early, before an audience has a chance to get into the emotional investment needed for Harry’s songs. It tells of a man with some kind of lack of mental agility (perhaps autism?), and the woman who loves him anyway. It’s a beautiful and touching tale.

“W.O.L.D.” was a minor hit for Chapin, and definitely one of his standard live numbers. It’s almost the opposite of “Shooting Star” as the protagonist of the song is an aging disc jockey trying to reconnect with his ex-wife (see video below). It also includes the tale of how he got to where he is today, and subtly why he is in the present situation.

The next cut is titled “Harry Chapin introducing the band,” which is also the prelude to the next number, “Blues Man.” While there is no question Chapin is head of this group, he also has always been open to giving the stage to members of his band, each of whom plays a particular part in the story, especially his bassist, Big John Wallace (who has a five octave vocal range).

Chapin’s specialty – or at least niche – is storytelling, which is not surprising considering his early career was as a film writer and editor. “Corey’s Coming” is a good example of that output, as it’s a story-within-a-story (i.e., meta-story). The song is about a young man listening to a tale told by an old railroad worker, or is it? This is the longer, live version rather than the album release, which is a bit edited (much like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”). It’s a beautiful tune, with a lush chorus that both lulls and is dramatically romantic. And a bit sad. I love the melody, right from the opening riffs.

Off his third to last LP (also the album title) is “Dance Band on the Titanic,” an upbeat psudeo-1920s-style mixture of literal and a more metaphysical look at the situation facing the ill-fated ocean liner. Chapin combines “Nearer My God to Thee” (what the band played as the ship sank) and being a situation that feels like the listener is there.

“Mr. Tanner” is another story song with a sad tone, but is just so beautiful it could bring the listener to tears and you could feel the ache as the titular character (Wallace again singing tenor) goes for the ring, risking it all to follow a dream. The final stanza “Tanner” sings just pangs. Another standard for Chapin and crew.

Rather than just singing one of his biggest hits as the encore, he gives us “Taxi” in mid-stream, which is, what Chapin once referred to as “66 percent truth.” The original release was the first Top-40 song to play at more than 4 minutes. Again, it’s a tad sad but has an interesting back story, while also taking a glance into a possible future. Other than the song that ends this collection, “Taxi” is probably Chapin’s best known number; you might say its theme is a less ego-centric and kinder remembrance than Billy Joel’s cynical “Piano Man.”

Not all of Chapin’s songs are great, and the next one is a good example: we only hear part of “Dirty Old Man,” which as an introduction to the next, and much better song. As I said, Chapin tends to run a bit on the lengthy side, but this is the shortest (thankfully) cut on this collection at just under two minutes.

“If My Mary Were Here” truly is a stupor of a song and one of longing and reminiscence. I think it’s romantic, as the protagonist sits in his cups (not sure from liquid or smoke) aching about a lost love. It’s a soft ballad, but someone I know really does not like this because in a way, the central character is indirectly using the heartbreak to try and connect with someone else. I think of it more as being open to finding the proverbial window/door in s sad way.

“Dreams Go By” opened the original Stories live collection, but here it is buried deeper in the collection, though the opening is similar (I came to find that many of Harry’s “ad libs” were pre-planned, but I’m okay with that since it’s the songs I care about, not their introduction). This ia about how time passes and dreams “go by,” taken over by something else. It’s like the John Lennon line, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” But what this one posits is that rather than it being something that got in the way, it’s more that is the way is was supposed to turn out. Fun song about family and a shrug of the shoulders.

Back to story songs, the sad and dusty “Mail Order Annie,” about a farmer meeting a mail order bride for the first time as she steps off the train in the prairies of the late 19 Century. For some reason, it reminds me “Corey’s Coming,” because of the lonely tone. I loved the tune of this tune from the first time I heard it. The harmonies for the back-up band solidifies the emotion, especially on the bridge of the song.

Harry’s brother Steve comes forward with the “’round the hearth” earthiness of “Let Time Go Lightly,” a ballad of being home with kith and kin. It’s also a beautiful look at enjoying and appreciating what you have. Steve’s voice is a bit more lilting than Harry’s and it works for this one. I sing parts of this one to my partner when I’m feeling cozy in front of the fire.

“30,000 Pounds of Bananas” is also a Chapin standard, but it’s also one of the silliest of his songs (and remember, he has “Dirty Old Man”). It’s a good driving melody and gotta say it’s produced an ear worm more than once that lasted a long time. It’s a sad comedy as the C&W rhythm of it matches the bouncing of the truck carrying the said payload. Except for the tragedy involved with the singer, it could be a children’s story, as it’s a kind of twisted singalong.

The last cut is arguably Chapin’s largest hit – and one of my least favorites of his as it feels like pandering to its audience despite it’s relatively deep message, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” (much like Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” or Melanie’s “Brand New Key”).

There is a really nice booklet added with the CD. It’s also humorous to me that Harry is wearing the same outfit on the cover as he wore on “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert” the year before this was recorded.

And if you'll excuse a private joke between myself and my friend Dennis, "Oh, Colleen..."

Song List:
Shooting Star
Harry Chapin introducing the band
Blues Man
Corey’s Coming
Dance Band on the Titanic
Mr. Tanner
Taxi / Six String Orchestra
Dirty Old Man
If My Mary Were Here
Dreams Go By
Mail Order Annie
Let Time Go Lightly
30,000 Pounds of Bananas
Cat’s in the Cradle

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Review: Melody Makers: The Bible of Rock n’ Roll

Text © Robert Barry Francos / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

Melody Makers: The Bible of Rock n’ Roll (aka Melody Makers: You Should’ve Been There)
Directed by Leslie Ann Coles
2053152 Ontario / Eggplant Picture and Sound; Film PaniK /
LA Coles Fine Art Films / Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Entertainment
78 minutes, 2016 / 2019

During the mid-1960s through ‘80s, if you wanted to learn about music in the States, you had to turn to mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone, which tended to be more corporate (just look at how badly they’ve mishandled the selections for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum over the years). Sure, there was Rock Scene for the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Blondie, and the like – and I’m grateful for that – but it was only in smaller mags like Crawdaddy to cover the newest and upcoming groups. Also, those were monthly. To get info from weeklies like The Village Voice, it was just a small section of the entire issue.

It was different across in England where there were a number of weekly papers focused mainly on music, such as Sounds, New Music Express (NME) or Melody Maker (MM). Many of us picked it up as often as we could to find out the latest and greatest of the obscure and mainstream scenes.

Melody Maker is older than rock and roll, and that’s for certain, first publishing in 1926 and lasting until 2000, when it merged into NME, essentially killing it. But, as usual, I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Essentially, until the mid-1960s, MM was a musician’s trade magazine, listing gig for various types of music (including – gasp – jazz), a place for musicians to find each other to form groups, and musical instrument for sale. This all changed with the inclusion of a cover story about some upstart band called… oh, what was it now?... The Beatles (Paul McCartney, specifically). After that, they introduced a lot of groups or solo artists that are part of the culture now, such as the Rolling Stones, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the like.

One aspect that made MM important was their respect for the musician, and especially the message that they were presenting in their music, to almost a political level. Luckily, in this well-put together documentary, we are introduced to the people who worked there in the “golden age” of the paper, namely the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, when it began its natural decline. But more on that later.

Barrie Wentzell with his final pics of JImi Hendirx
Rather than presenting just talking heads discussing the glory days, we see the staff interviewed now, though mostly we see photographs of various bands in the 1960s and 1970s during their rise to fame and their heydays. Bowie (who is often called “BOW-ie” here, rather than “Bow-IE”), Jimi, and mostly British bands are shown in glorious black and white stills (and the occasional film footage), mostly taken by Barrie Wentzell, who really is the center piece of this film. Why? Simple: he moved to Toronto, and this is actually a Canadian film, so it had to have a certain amount of Canadian content.

Much of the staff is interviewed throughout, such as writer Christopher Welch (who worked there 1964-’79), and editors Christopher Charlesword (1970-’77), Richard Williams (1970-’80), Alan Lewis (1969-’73), and Alan Jones (1974-97). Also contributing are a bunch of musicians from the period, including Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Eric Burdon (Animals), Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention, etc.), Dave Cousins (The Strawbs), Chris Squire (Yes), Rick Buckler (The Jam) and a couple of members of Nazareth. There’s also a bunch of industry types including band managers and record execs, among others.

As you may have noticed, there are not many women represented here, barely even Janis or Diana Ross (Supremes era), other than Sonja Kristina of Curved Air, and photographer / founder of Rockarchive Gallery, Jill Furmanovsky, which seems odd to me considering this is by a woman director. Note that I am not pointing fingers since at the time, this was what it was like: testosterone heavy music and writing (though NME infamously had the great Caroline Coon); that being said, in my own ‘zine which ran from 1977 through ’88, I had more female writers than male.

The point is that all of these accounts are firsthand. I’ve always been annoyed at documentaries that interview writers who have written books and discuss second-hand events. These people lived the moments, and have the stories to back it up. I’m also grateful that the people are often identified by subtitles, rather than just a couple of times. That makes for easier viewing and comprehending, especially when it’s been so many years and people don’t look like they did back when.

But not just stories about musicians, we hear how the internal creation of the paper worked, such as when in meetings it was discussed, “Who’s going to be the main interview of the week?” This was important because whomever was on the cover could help make the band and/or sell a lot of records. They use Genesis as the example, here. It was also amusing to hear that they would occasionally make up sensational stories to sell copies (oh, those Brits!), such as how Springsteen would supposedly open for the Strawbs, or the Beatles were planning to reform (I remember those rumors right until Lennon’s assassination).

The film is loosely broken up into segments, including one I really enjoyed about interactions with musicians and their bands. For example, one of the writers talks about how he was in the recording studio with the Rolling Stones when they all found out about the death of Brian Jones, and what was their reactions. Others include tales of Jimi, Syd Barrett and Bowie.

Now I have said this before about particular local music scenes, how they would start small, blow up to become huge, and that would end up being the death knell of that very scene, drowned in its own success. That was kind of what happened to the MM. As the bands became mega-stars, and the rest of the British press started honing in on them/hounding them, the groups would close ranks and start to bar the very journalists and photographers that helped make their careers in the first place. Around that time, punk started to rise (about 1 hour into the film), and the musical taste of the MM audience began to change, leading to staff leaving (much in a mirrored way they first came in as rock’n’roll was on the rise and the old staff left in the mid-1960s in a huff).

The DVD extras are the trailer for this film, and some other music-related Cleopatra Entertainment coming attractions.

The director (and sometimes actor), Leslie Ann Coles, does a magnificent job in her first full-length feature, keeping the pace fast without quick edits, and lets us see the bands through the eyes of the people who wrote about them, and also those who snapped some pictures that have become iconic. There are also many here that have never been printed before. I’m not a fan of many of the bloated bands that are covered here (e.g., Tull, Nazareth, Zeppelin), but still found it compelling and fascinating to watch. That says a lot.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground

Text © Robert Barry Francos / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground
Directed by Chuck Smith
Juno Films / MVD Entertainment
78 minutes, 2018 / 2019

It is interesting that they used the expression “the Exploding NY Underground” for part of the title of this documentary. I know it falls under the banner of “transgressive.” In cinema, transgression would be the equivalent of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” compared to Frost’s “On a Snowy Evening.” It was stark, sometimes opaque, and didn’t follow narrative rules of the mainstream. Usually names like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern tend to pop up, but it was the women who were the most experimental and interesting, such as Beth B, and especially one of the pioneers, Barbara Rubin.

The title is also quite a nice play on words, considering Rubin’s associations with the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, who often showcased happenings he called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It has been told that it was, in fact, Rubin who introduced the band to the pop artist. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Rubin was a troubled child of the ‘50s who was an early experimenter in drug culture, winding up in the psych ward for a while. When she got out in her late teens, it was pretty obvious that she was not going to be (or possibly capable of) living a “normal” life for that time. Through some connections, she found herself as an apprentice to underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas. It was through him she saw what is now considered a transgressive grandfather of cinema, Jack Smith’s 1963 Flaming Creatures (Mekas was the cinematographer), which could almost be seen as a sexualized interpretation of Stan Brakhage’s works (e.g., Cat’s Cradle in 1959 or possibly Dog Star Man, started in 1962). With that impact, she began her own film, Christmas on Earth (1963), now considered a classic in the non-narrative genre but seen as pornographic at its time (the film focuses on explicit pan-sexual acts projected over closeups of naked vaginas).

This certainly was a door opening to the avant-garde Beat culture for her, where she befriended the likes of poet Allen Ginsberg. In return, she helped introduce him to others. While still considered a filmmaker, she possessed a new role as a matchmaker, or go-between on the scene, introducing Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground to Andy Warhol, whose Factory scene she became not only a part of, but worked for by filming some of his infamous 5-minute “audition” reels. She also appeared in a few of Warhol’s (i.e., Paul Morrissey) films like Chelsea Girls (1966).

She was a mover and a shaker and who knows how the scene would have been less interesting or infamous without her involvement. The problem with this role though, is that some people who are at the beginning of a “scene” find themselves left behind as the movement gains momentum, turning into synergy. This was the case for Barbara, who obviously (though the film doesn’t really deeply focus on this) had some issues to work on, including the mind altering chemicals.

This part of Rubin’s life is pretty well known, and it’s fascinating to see it in more detail and hear her friends of the time talk about what it was like to not only know her and the scene, but her place in it. What I found particularly fascinating is what happened after the honeymoon phase of the Factory, when she discovered her “Jewish” identity through the Kabbalah, the mysterious mysticism end of Judaism that so fascinated/enthralls the likes of Elie Wiesel and – of all people – singer Madonna Louise Ciccone.

After a stint at an Upstate New York commune (I’m assuming in the Catskills) she helped found with a bunch of poets including Ginsberg, after a heartbreak, she had a strong conversion to Orthodox/Hassidic Judaism. As others do when trying to change a direction of a life that feels without purpose and filled with drugs, this is hardly a surprise in the same way people in trouble and filled with angst often come to rely on the Jesus myth.

What I find interesting is that through her entire adult life, Rubin took gender politics roads that previously were expressly open only to men, such as that particular style of filmmaking and the Kabbalah, and essentially blew the hinges off of those doors, and yet here she was subjecting herself to a life of religious servitude to religious men (as is true of all Judeo-Christian-Muslim orthodoxy).

There are only two extras on the DVD, one being the film’s trailer, and the other is a 6-minute documentary centered on Jonas Mekas called “Keep Singing: A Tribute.” Interviewed for this documentary, he passed away at age 97 in 2019.

Of course, decent music is disbursed throughout, including some cuts by Dylan and the Velvet Underground (“Heroin” is played in part twice) of course, and also notably by Melanie Safka and Lee Ranaldo, among others.

Two quick comments about what I wish would have been incorporated. First is more information about her second film, Emunah (1972; the title is translated from Hebrew as “Faith”). There are some clips from it, but unless I missed it, it is not really discussed. Also, I was kind of hoping they would have included the complete Christmas on Earth in the extras section, rather than just clips throughout (which I also appreciate).

The documentary is full of images, especially films, taken by Rubin, or have her in them. There are also tons of stills showing a life full of action and meaning, especially before it essentially passed her by on its own thing. Also, there are recordings and letters by her interspersed throughout, giving a better picture of who Rubin was, both to herself and to others, until her passing in 1980.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Julie Jigsaw? JA JA JA [1984]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1984
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Live photo by Jim Downs; other images from the Internet

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen 12, dated 1984, by Julia Masi.

Julie “Jigsaw” Ashcraft was very sweet when I met her at the same time and place as Julia, during the taping of the Cable Access show “Videowave.” I have never been a fan of hip-hop, but I do find her video and song to be… charming in an absurdist kind of way. A link to Julie’s blog is HERE, though the last time I check it had not been updated since 2013. – RBF, 2019
Julie Jigsaw on "Videowave" (photo by Jim Downs)
Julia Jigsaw is the personification of a kaleidoscope. Her words tumble together with the acceleration and enthusiasm of a game show contestant trying to slip in every last syllable before the buzzer sounds, or more likely before her infectious laughter brings her latest idea to a screeching halt. Decked out in a florescent Day-Glo graffiti dress that she painted especially for an appearance on Cable-TV’s “Videowave,” she flutters around backstage, fidgeting with a collection of plastic dinosaurs that have come to symbolize her band, Ja Ja Ja, and inspired the first cut of their four song EP, “I Am An Animal,” on Cachalot Records.

She appears in their video dressed up as a pale blue money, singing amidst breakdancing dinosaurs and leprechauns. Visually, this song is as adorable as a window display at FAO Schwarz. But through the soft focus you can hear the nard-edge of horror, masked like a penitent. If the analogy is to be recognized, then Julie, as a singer, and Ja Ja Ja as “a real band with real drums and a real bass,” are in danger of extinction in an era when so much of our popular music is created with computers and machines.

“The song is a social statement. It’s important ‘cause in Germany (where the band is based), it’s a lot. And they control each other. They have a way of controlling their behavior that’s very robotic.” She remembers a feeling of alienation as she walked down the streets of Dusseldorf. “The people there act like robots when they’re walking down the street. And they get angry ‘cause I’m not. So I used to say, ‘I am an animal.’ I like to jump and play with dinosaurs and things.”

The small plastic dinosaurs that Julie pins to the shoulders of her shirt and ties, along with plastic food wrap in her hair, were consciously ignored in Germany. In New York, her plastic pets elicit stares or ignite a conversation. “If you show someone your dinosaurs they either act real bored or they get real excited. You can really tell what kind of a person they are just by the way they react to your dinosaurs.

“We don’t want to be too analytical,” she confesses, but she’s always willing to talk at length about the parallels between the extinction of her favorite prehistoric animals and the possible demise of human musicians. She sees dinosaurs as a powerful animal that, in modern times, can only be compared to a machine. And she sees music as a powerful force which is also being replaced by machines. Therefore, one of the goals of Ja Ja Ja is not to be primitive, but to bring a very human touch of emotion to the music.

“The music we do is influenced by the New York street culture. Our new bass player (Billy Grant) is from the Bronx. Our original bass player was really from the New York streets. He slept in Central Park and took showers at the Hare Krishna Center.” Julie was raised in Texas, but now lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Which leaves drummer Frank Sanden as the only member of the band who is actually a German resident.

The band was formed in Dusseldorf, Germany, while Julie was visiting some friends who had a band. Her friends also had a small demo studio and, to amuse themselves, they would make tapes. After a while, Julie began to enjoy singing and recording. “I didn’t have the idea for sure, that I’d make a band,” she recalls. “I had an idea, but these people were jazz-oriented.”

Even though she’s a jazz fan, she also approaches other styles of music, and she wanted her band to reflect a variety of tastes. Her friends introduced her to Frank and a bass player. “It happened by destiny. We started to play gigs and we liked it. We just did it because we liked doing it, and we kept at it. “They’ve built a following in Germany, and recently they’ve begun to book dates in Manhattan. New York audiences are a tough sell, but so far the band hasn’t had any problems. “In New York, everything is tied together, (dance) breaking music, graffiti, rap. A lot of people who do it, do it all. I do, too. I don’t know how to break, yet.”

Julie is particularly interested in graffiti, as the song, “Graffiti Artists International,” off her EP suggests. Given a spray can and a blank wall or clean sweatshirt, she’s been known to exhibit a colorful talent that as stimulating as her songs. “I’ve like graffiti for a long time. I remember I read this book on graffiti by Norman Mailer [The Faith of Graffiti, 1974 – RBF, 2019] when I was 17. I did my first piece of graffiti in Texas in 1979. And I did graffiti in Dusseldorf, too. I did it all on the trains and things. I did it with markers. But now, I’m starting to take cans out. I want to go back and do a train.”

While in Manhattan, Julie’s art work is mostly restricted to clothing, like the jackets she sprayed for the Alan Boys, who hang out on Alan Street, and the sweatshirts she decorates for friends. But her time in New York is a hiatus in which she is gathering strength for when she goes back to Europe. On the band’s next trip abroad, she plans to flood the airwaves with songs from their EP, and give the German subways a vibrant new look.
* * *
Please note that the editors of FFanzeen do not condone the use of graffiti on public transportation or monuments unless under certain conditions, such as commission permission by the City, or with the use of washable paint. Graffiti style is an art form, but it is not when its use is abused. – RBF [1984].