Friday, July 31, 2020

An Interview with CHINGA CHAVIN [1979]

An Interview with Chinga Chavin

Text by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 1979/2020
Live image by Robert Barry Francos 
Other images from the Internet

This interview with Country Porn lead singer Chinga Chavin and the introduction has never been published before. FFanzeen printed an article about Chavin back in 1977, written by Western New York scholar Lincoln D. Kirk, in FFanzeen #2 (which will make it to this blog eventually). At the time of the interview, Chinga Chavin had released two albums, Country Porn and Jet Lag. Years later, he also released Live and Politically Erect, which I have not yet heard as of this publishing.

I don’t remember exactly how I connected to him, but I did the interview in the office of his advertising company in 1979 in promotion for Jet Lag; I had the opportunity to see him play at the Lone Star Café in New York City, and may have approached him then. It was a kind of Country-punk-boogie show even a punk rocker like myself could love, or maybe because of it. Note that this was years before country punk bands like Rank and File and Uncle Fucker.

When reading this again in retrospect, there are some attitudes by myself and Chinga that I find cringeworthy when it comes to discussing certain sexual details, gender bias, or racist terms (inherent or blatant). It’s important to see this in the context of 1979 when I was still a young’n. The wording of my questions are different than ones I would ask today, for certain. My apologies in advance. – RBF, 2020.


Chinga on the left (photo by RBF)

El Paso, Texas, and across the bridge is Juarez, Mexico, the most infamous of all border towns due to its open carnality and perversions in the mid-1950s to mid-’60s. Whatever you wanted was there for a price – and not an expensive one, at that. Sex, drugs, anything.

In this environment grew a not-so-quiet boy named Nick Chavin. By his early teens, he was well indoctrinated into the ways of Juarez, a short distance from where he lived. After hanging out in this town for a few years, he developed his nickname: “Chinga,” which is a Mexican slang word for fuck. Thus was born Chinga Chavin.

Despite the depravity of his youth, he grew up and became, of all things, an English Teacher. Together with his knowledge of the English and Spanish languages and their slang, he added his musical influences of rock’n’roll. Eventually, he quit his schoolwork for the fame and fortune of the stage.

Chinga formed a band, Country Porn, which he fronted. Becoming quite popular in areas of the Southwest and California, he put out an album, titled after the band, Country Porn, sponsored by Penthouse, which sold it through ads in the magazine. On it were such diverse cuts as “Cum Stains on My Pillow (Where Your Sweet Head Used to Lay,” “Four A.M. Jump,” “First Piece O’ Ass Blues,” “Cum Unto Jesus,” “Tit Stop Rock,” and his most famous song, “Asshole from El Paso” [Editor’s Note: the latter was co-written with Chavin’s college roommate, singer and mystery novelist Kinky Friedman – 2020]. Along with this track, his trademark is his guitar, which is made out of a toilet seat.

And now there is his new album, Jet Lag. It is new in both style and song. Some of the songs include “$49 Divorce,” “Hard Love,” “Mechanical Man,” “One More Ride,” and the only cut that sounds anything like the previous album, “Jailbait” [Editor’s Note: at the time, this was a surprisingly common theme, with examples being The Marbles’ “Jailbait” and The Gizmos’ “Jailbait Janet” – 2020.]

I interviewed Chinga Chavin at the beginning of the Autumn of 1979, the day after his first New York appearance. The show was at a Country & Western club on Fifth Avenue in the Village called The Lone Star Café. The audience was enthusiastic and included the likes of Al Goldstein [d. 2013], editor of Screw magazine, and family. It was enjoyed by all.

Chinga is not overly tall, but he is very thin, with a large-ish nose, a mole on his cheek, shoulder-length hair, and a not-too-pronounced Texan accent (due to living in California for so long). His wit is sharp and is a fun person with whom to talk.

The following is the transcript of the time I spent with him, proving him to be one of the few unpretentious musicians I have met. As many times as he as been interviewed and God knows how often he’s had to answer some of the questions I asked, he was enthusiastic – and that made it a lot easier.

* * *

FFanzeen: What’s one of your sets like?
Chinga Chavin: The second set has the finale of “Cum Unto Jesus,” from the Country Porn album, along with “4 A.M. Jump” and a stripping nun. It turns from a nun’s habit to a punk rock outfit. It’s all leather with her breasts sticking out. It’s the erotic environment of Catholicism: I think Catholicism is naturally erotic. Catholicism is the S&M branch of Christianity. That’s part of the whole monologue I do, setting (“Cum Unto Jesus”) up. The sets are hot.

FF: Do you sell out most places you play?
Chinga: In California, yeah. Last week I played my first East Coast performance with Vassar Clements [d. 2005], and it was sold out. I opened for Vassar and they shot the shit out of us. They popped our hemorrhoids. That band is very Christian. The Lone Star Café was reasonably sold out since they wouldn’t let any more people in after the first show. It will take me a while in Manhattan to develop that word of mouth. It depends on where I play. I wouldn’t sell out a 3500 coliseum. Up to five or six hundred seats, I probably could. When I develop a word of mouth type thing and have played a few months in an area or club, that’s when I really start packing people in, because without the massive airplay – even though Jet Lag is an airplayable record – I can’t sell out in the same traditional manner. It has to be word of mouth. It was in New York on WNEW-FM’s playlist, but I didn’t get the promo push since I am not on any major label. Word of mouth is the only thing I have going for me.

FF: Do your audiences come to see the singer, the songs, or the girls?
Chinga: I’d say the singer and the songs, because I’ve worked without women. A year or a year-and-a-half ago was the first time I started working with women. Okay, the answer to that question: the songs and the idea of using the girls in that way comes from me. So, I think it’s sort of the whole demented approach I use for the stage set. Like, once I used a mannequin on stage. I’ll eat live chickens. I’ll do crazy things on stage. That’s the main catch. I don’t just do a straight set. There are going to be some people coming for the girls, but I use skin in a one-hour show in the last 120 seconds. That’s two minutes of skin in a one-hour show. I mean, I really don’t think it applies to that. Here in Manhattan, you can go see a topless show, or see anything you want, but for five bucks at the door and another five or ten for drinks for two minutes of skin, well, if I thought that were true. I’d leave show business and throw 30 women on stage.

FF: Because of your set, is there any place you’ve been afraid to play?
Chinga: Last week with Vassar Clements, I had serious misgivings. He’s an ex-Klansman and a strong Christian. Yeah, the Palomino Club, I’ve been afraid to play in Los Angeles. It’s getting a little more rock’n’roll there now. I’ve played army bases, service man’s clubs; sex is sort of a common surrogate that cuts through a lot of things. It’s hard to find some place that’s devoid of sex, unless it’s a nunnery or something like that. I’d have a real hard time playing the Vatican. Yeah, the Vatican. It started with a fear of Mexicans, what with using the name “Chinga” and the whole Chicano thing, but Chicanos loved the set. Texans are bananas. I have played in Texas and I usually play at conventions – and they go bananas. There’s a corporation called BWM, Inc. – Blue Water Maintenance, Incorporated – that cleans oil pipelines and refineries, who put on conventions with the oil companies twice a year, and they have us there. We do “Asshole from El Paso” 15 times. Texans are as reasonably chauvinistic about Texas, as I am, having lived there some years. Since a lot of the songs deal with Texas, they love it. The thing I fear more is that since I use some religious stuff in the show, I get more of the people on the religious things. Occasionally, there’ll be a guy with veins popping and he’ll walk out, but basically, in the early days of my shows when I was in a bar band and someone was coming in that bar, and they heard we were Country Porn and they knew we were playing there, with “Dry Humping” and “Cum Stains on my Pillow,” when he was giving his money he knew what he was coming to see. I mean, he’s either bought the record or read about us, so it’s like, we have to live up to his expectations. I play to a following. It’s not massive, but it’s a following. They come specifically to see this thing called Country Porn. That is, unless they mis-read it as Country Prune, or Prawn or Country Prone, that type thing. It would be like going to see Deep Throat and being offended by the sex.

FF: Do you ever get hostile audiences?
Chinga: I know what it’s like to have a hostile audience. Like last night, during the second set, I got some real good response on “Catholic Girls.” During the first set, they were pretty good, but there was one line they didn’t laugh on: “Pornography is just technology’s contribution to jerking off.” I couldn’t believe it . I never knew a West Coast audience not to go bananas over that. And there was no recognition. They just didn’t understand what I was trying to say: that without media, this thing called pornography would not exist. But, I mean, even the thing that the courts call “pornography” is media’s and technology’s slotting in to whacking off. The first caveman that wacked off from a drawing on the wall as opposed to in his mind, I mean, that was it. There is no such thing called pornography. What there is, is masturbation. And that’s why I added sensuality; that’s why I added that rap. And then they started laughing when I said that guys don’t have to apologize to the palm of their hand for cumming too quick.

FF: George Carlin [d. 2008] has a whole bit about masturbation – you know, don’t tell your right hand you’re doing it with your left. It’s called “Teenage Masturbation.” It’s on the Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo album.
Chinga: Oh, no. I didn’t know that. I gotta check some dates ‘cause I played with George Carlin in San Quentin. There’s an article about it in the San Quentin News. That was quite a few years ago and I did that rap. I wonder if that son-of-a-bitch ripped me off. Goddamn! I thought that approach was unique. The line of rap that I go at is psychological. Like, the idea that all connotations that deal with reproduction and excrement are bad. You don’t mind being called an ankle.

FF: Who made up the line the announcer said, that you “put the cunt back in country”?
Chinga: I did. I didn’t like the way the announcer said I was coming on stage for the second time – get it? – a second time. I can make love up to once a night, that’s it. Next question.

FF: Out of pure curiosity, do your friends refer to you as “Nick” or as “Chinga”?
Chinga: Chinga.

FF: What happened when you were supposed to be signed with Motown and they signed Pat Boone instead?
Chinga: Oh, that was years ago. Motown, unbeknownst to me, in those days, was just using my titles and staff. They needed publicity. They wanted a few random notes so they used me. I don’t think they ever really seriously considered signing Country Porn. Not since Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Wife.”

FF: How about when you played at a prison and got locked in overnight?
Chinga: Well, I wasn’t actually locked in. We were just detained there for a while. What happened was I brought in these North Beach strippers, my own side of Sodom and Gomorrah, and they were wearing tops that were see-through, and I got a little carried away and ripped it off one of them. These guys started fighting for a better view and a small riot started. It wasn’t because of what was happening on stage, but this mass fight started. Then there was an investigation and we had to fill out a lot of forms. It took quite a few hours. We just thought we might not be leaving for a while. I have a review of the show at San Quentin that said it went real good.

FF: Have you ever been arrested?
Chinga: I was arrested for indecent exposure in Haywood. This is a couple of years ago. Haywood, California. I used to go on, in those days, in Bermuda shorts that were cut-offs, cowboy boots, and a raincoat or trench coat. It looked like I was naked underneath it so they grabbed me. It was only after taking off my clothes that they could see that I actually wasn’t indecent. I thought it was sort of a paradox situation. Removing clothes to show you’re not indecent.

FF: What’s some of your upcoming unrecorded songs?
Chinga: “Remedial Dancing for Whites.” It’s a comedy disco concept. We did one tape of it already. The music stops with a percussion break, and I say, “Alright we’re all gonna learn to clap right on the beat. We’re going back to basic remedial rhythm.” “I got a Ph.D. in Sociology to clap? Whaddya mean, like this?” “No Debbie, turn your hands over the other way and clap.” Then there’s this spastic arhythmic clapping.

FF: Sounds good.
Chinga: It goes right after the white dancer. I’m becoming sort of a New Wave artist, which is sort of a joke because, my Country Porn album, that’s punk; I mean that pre-dates punk by years. I always considered myself a lot more outrageous. My engineer, who coproduced the album, Ed Stasium, did the Ramones and Talking Heads. The Jet Lag album is pretty New Wave in sound.

FF: Country Porn was basically a mail-order album. Can you buy Jet Lag in the stores?
Chinga: It’s in stores. It’s in New York right now. We set up CP Records, an independent record distributor. You can buy it in Korvettes or Sam Goodys. The first album’s in 49 states. The only state we’re not in is New York. It’s in Alabama, but not New York. I can’t find a major distributor in New York to take Country Porn.

FF: That’s surprising.
Chinga: Yeah. Well, the big distributors like Alpha and Malbern are the main honchos. We got Jet Lag, but we haven’t got Country Porn in New York yet.

FF: I have seen it in some stores in New York, but it sold for list price of $8.95.
Chinga: It does not lose anything off the list price when it hits the used record stores.

FF: How is Jet Lag different from Country Porn in sound?
Chinga: The first album was a humorous look at human sexuality. It’s very innocent and very humorous. Of course, it cannot be played on the radio. [Jet Lag] is look at relationships, a breakdown; from “Jailbait” to “$49 Divorce.” Jet Lag, of course, can be played on the radio. There are no X-rated lyrics though. The first album was fun and no airplay, and the second, treacherous, convoluted – all the airplay you want. The second one’s the obscene album. I had to go obscene to get straight radio play.

FF: The first album was recorded at Quadrophonic Studios in Nashville. Jet Lag, too?
Chinga: No, I did the one with Don Oriolo. I started in Fur Studios in San Francisco and then we finished it in Media (Sound Studios), in New York. I really recorded it in New York.

FF: Is your present Country Porn band new?
Chinga: I brought one guy out. I’m what you might call a bi-coastal band. I have an East Coast band and a West Coast band. John Erokan, my co-writer and guitarist, he and I are the common denominator. Like, I’ll play both East and West Coast gigs with him.

FF: Is the old album getting any airplay?
Chinga: The new album is. The old one gets airplay on certain occasions. A very, very progressive station, and WBCN is playing “Dry Humping” now in Boston. A disc jockey decided to play suicide by playing Country Porn and leaving his job that way.

FF: Oedipus [aka Edward Hyson]?
Chinga: Oedipus, right. He loved Country Porn. It never gets a lot. The new one is getting, though. Radio play is the name of the game.

FF: Are there other Country Porn songs not yet recorded?
Chinga: Yeah, some of them that did not make the album are “Feeling You, Feeling Me”; another song called “Feeling Pornographic Over You,” “Muff Divin’ Man,” “Sado-Masochistic Transvestite,” “Pin-Up Boy,” “Edna’s White Nigger Band,” “Groupie Therapy.” I probably wrote 50 Country Porn songs. “Pity the Lonely Pervert,” which used to be in the show, sounds like “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.” “Pity the Lonely Pervert” was one of my favorites. I wrote it as a straight song, no dirty words. Audience anxiety to that, man, is, well, they don’t know how to take that. You know, you can pity the coal miner, but this is pity the lonely pervert. I found the most effective thing I used to go off the stage with was with this.

FF: Yeah, the way I see it, is to have the girls sing the chorus and then you come back with the trench coat.
Chinga: That’s what I did. That was the whole bit. I really want to do Country Porn II. Another idea I had was the Country Porn Songbook. All music books are sold in music stores, right? I’ll get some photos of some girls and have music, and then pictures, or the song right over the pictures, and it’ll come out on the newsstand. The first songbook ever to make the newsstand. Is that a hot idea or not? I’m going to write some people about it.

FF: Have you ever confronted Merle Haggard [d. 2016]?
Chinga: Yeah, but it’s gonna sound a bit anticlimactic. When Kinky Friedman recorded “Asshole From El Paso,” lawsuits came in; not from Merle Haggard, but from Buck Owens [d. 2006]. You see, Buck Owens owns that song. Merle has no interest in it. We went over to Merle’s house in L.A., and we played “Asshole” for him and he loved it. He loved the shit out of it. But he said, “Hey, I don’t own it.” I’ll show you how treacherous the music business is. Buck gets every penny from that song. Merle Haggard would never have become Merle Haggard if he hadn’t sold out the interest of that song. Personally, I’d welcome a lawsuit.

FF: On the record it says “Buck Owens”?
Chinga: No, I claim it as my own.

FF: No, I don’t mean on your record, I mean on Merle’s.
Chinga: On his, it says that Merle Haggard wrote it, but the publishing company is Buck Owen’s publishing company. In other words, Owens doesn’t claim he wrote it, but anyone who writes a song can write away their writer’s royalty. Merle Haggard had to write away every penny to Buck Owens. Theoretically, I ripped his music and didn’t list his publishing company because I want that lawsuit. Buck Owens is scared and won’t sue Chinga Chavin, man, he won’t. He’d come out mangled if he sued Chinga Chavin. CBS backed down and took it off the record. They still call “Asshole from El Paso” Kinky’s record. Do we want to get sued by Buck Owens? Oh, we’d love it. In court, we’d do “Asshole from El Paso” in choir. I’d get on the wire service. Buck has an attorney, Larry Groene, whose job is nothing more than dealing with litigations suing people for rip-offs.

FF: Are you upset that credit for it always goes to Kinky?
Chinga: Yeah, Kinky fucked me. I mean, he was a college chum. I gave him the name Kinky when we were pledge brothers together.

FF: You were roommates?
Chinga: We were roommates in University of Texas together. I mean, he not only claims he wrote it on the Rolling Thunder Tour, but there’s a book called On the Road with Bob Dylan [Editor’s Note: written by Larry Sloman, with introduction by Kinky Friedman; the “Ratso” character in Friedman’s mystery novels is based on Sloman – 2020] and in it, it reprints “Asshole from El Paso,” and in the front of the book it says, “reprinted with permission of the author, Kinky Friedman.” We wrote to Bantam and Bantam said, “Hey, well, they told us they did it, and sorry, next pressing we’ll print a retraction.” I mean, to go so far as to tell Bantam Books that he wrote it. What am I supposed to do, sue Kinky? I mean, I can’t even prove damages.

FF: Do you ever see him?
Chinga: Yeah, he was there last night. We’re still real good friends. With Kink, it’s like, “Hey I don’t know how it happened.” Now that I’m around, he introduces me as the author of “Asshole from El Paso.” But he, in actuality, pulled a Milton Berle [d. 2002] on me. For me, “Asshole from El Paso” is a second-rate song and a first-rate parody. Like “Dry Humpin’” is a great rock’n’roll song, but not “Asshole.” From the very beginning, when everybody told me to write it up, I said, naw. I never believed in the song from the beginning. It’s a bitch. On the Rolling Thunder Tour, Dylan would do all his heavies, everyone would do their heavies, then Kinky would do “Asshole from El Paso” and upstage everything. I mean, that was done at every performance of the Rolling Thunder Tour, did you know that? And all those people think he wrote it.

FF: Do you consider yourself New Wave or Country?
Chinga: The Country Porn album isn’t really Country. It’s rock’n’roll. “4 A.M. Jump” and “Dry Humpin’” and “Head Boogie” are all straight rock. But the second album, stuff like “Mechanical Man” and “Ain’t No Mommy an’ Daddy No More” and “Jet Lag” are more New Wave. It’s really amazing that Oriolo was ahead of his time with that Jet Lag stuff. The man is a genius – an absolute genius.. The new band is Walter Thompson on drums, Jack Sonni with guitar, Michael Bart on bass, and my own co-writer and musical director and guitarist par excellence, John Erokan. Sweet Johnny Guitar is his stage name. Lyrics class with me, music class with him.

FF: Who were your influences?
Chinga: My influences? Real basic, primal rock’n’roll. I open the show with “Little White Middle Class Rock and Roll,” which is gonna be on our next album. Heavy Chuck Berry [d. 2017], heavy all the rockabilly people, a lot of Rhythm & Blues, Blues, and now I like the Rolling Stones, AC/DC. I like real, raw rock/rock’n’roll. I always sort of liked that, you know; real boogie-woogie type stuff. My comedy influences are Lord Buckley [d. 1960] and Lenny Bruce [d. 1966]. More Lord Buckley than anyone else. I can do a great version of “The Nazz.”
 Originally, I was interested in jazz for a while. But with rock’n’roll, I never really knew how primal it was in my life. Really thumping rock’n’roll. When I was growing up in El Paso, that was real Rockabilly country. Buddy Holly [d. 1959]-Last Picture Show type country. I really like screaming, loud music. I don’t like Country music. The parody of Country was always in my act. You’ll notice that sometimes I talk in a Western accent on stage. I used to do it a lot more. The kind of persona I developed was incarnate parody at the very beginning.

FF: Do you still visit Juarez?
Chinga: I was in El Paso about two years ago to visit and it changed a lot.

FF: In what ways?
Chinga: Well, it smells the same. El Paso has changed less, actually. El Paso is a few years behind the rest of the country. Juarez isn’t the fantastic bed of primal decadence it was when I was growing up there. It was a climate condition created by abject poverty from the largest border city in Mexico. It’s the third largest city in Mexico. Abject poverty suddenly infused with American dollars and two big military bases. What this does is form a perversion stew. I worked at the Club Conquistador as a bartender, in Juarez. Now it’s slicker and more commercialized with rats in the street and potholes. I remember once there was a big rain and I was there at about five in the morning, and I was ready to go home after a night’s work, and there were torrential rains. They have no kind of drainage system so the streets just flood. All the whores were walking down the street with their dresses pulled over their heads because of the waist-high waters. They didn’t want their dresses wet and there’s fuckin’ tits and cunts all over the place. All they wanted was to protect the dresses. It was so funny seeing 50-60 women walking down the street like that.

FF: I wanted to go to the Juarez of the 1950s.
Chinga: God, it was exciting, man. At age 14, you could go across and do anything. I mean, you could eat out a chick while also ass-fucking a goat. Whatever you want. You know, the Federales and cops come in and you give them a big smile and a dollar and everything’s fine. You have to understand Mexicans. What can get you locked up a Juarez jail and never heard from again is peeing on the streets real blatantly and then insulting a cop. Like, they’ve got a weird pride. Money won’t even buy that off. Money and being hostile will not buy you off a Mexican cop. They’ve got a lot of deep-seated hatred. It’s an official thing against the State of Mexico to pee in the middle of the street. The Juarez jail was something else.

FF: What was it like growing up in the Juarez of twenty years ago?
Chinga: Being young, the whole carnal aspect of it was so fucking great. My teenage years were my heavy drinking years. I don’t drink now, but I really got into it. I’m not talking about adulthood; I’m talking about the year after Bar Mitzvah time. That’s when it started. I mean, I could actually do it. I had hooker girlfriends at 15 or 16. Juarez and El Paso join up so I’d leave El Paso High School at lunchtime and drive over to Juarez, rip off a piece of ass, and have a plate of tacos for 20 cents. Then we’d go back to high school drunk; I mean the whole afternoon in high school, I was drunk on my ass. I was in the AZA [Aleph Zadik Aleph], a Jewish youth organization when I was 15, up until the time I brought my hooker girlfriend to a dance. She made a lot of money off those horny young boys. She must have turns 14 tricks. There was another great thing. The Mexican maids there for your house – your mommy’s maid – got about 50 cents an hour. That’s $4.00 for a whole day. We’re talking about in the early ‘60s, back in El Paso, with all the nice, horny little Jewish boys. The trick was to try to talk your mom into hiring a good-looking maid because when mommy was gone and the maid was there, the maid would fuck and it was bang-o city. So we were fucking each other’s maids, and everything. They would come over and they didn’t speak a word of English and it would be like, “Hey, Ira’s mom got a new maid, and she is so fuckin’ good looking.” So mom was paying the maid $4.00 and their sons were screwing her. We never even thought twice about that sort of shit. What we didn’t do was pay heavy attention to the average El Paso white girls, if you were hip then. There were straights, but we would abandon El Paso for Juarez. Our girlfriends, our friends, our contacts were all Mexican. I had this friend, Tommy Hernandez, from one of the very rich families in Mexico. He was vice president of a bank while in high school. I didn’t know him in grammar school, but in grammar school, a famous event happened in the fifth grade: Tommy Hernandez drove to school – himself – in his own Corvette. In the fifth grade! He was in the school yard burning rubber in the fifth grade. He had a valid Mexican driver’s license. These were the guys I hung out with in Juarez. If you killed someone by accident or even on purpose, it cost you 1,000 pesos, if you knew who to pay off.

FF: How much was that?
Chinga: I could get 40 pesos for a $5 bill. Everything was so fantastically corrupt. I used to get drunk and go to the bull fights. It was all tied together. I can’t explain it. It’s the same whirlpool that comes from the American dollar and abject poverty. It was just a spectacle. It may not be apocalypse now but it was apocalypse then. No one got hurt real bad, and so it was okay. If only those Jewish mothers knew that their kids were banging away at whores. And on the other hand, the maids were stealing socks. The whole poverty thing was amazing. I was shocking.

FF: Are you afraid of reaching the point where you are no longer shocking?
Chinga: No, I’m not. Being shocking has always been with me since I was a real little kid. It’s like hearing a mirror image of myself. When George Carlin stepped up, I thought, that’s what I’d be doing if I was doing stand-up. That kind of street jargon. Anyway, I was always a troublemaker/agitator type that shocked people. I worry more about the fact that I want to do that sometimes more than pursue the straight artistic integrity of a project. I worry on the other hand that I’m all shock value. I’m not worried about not being shocking. I worry about the fact that I really love to fucking do it. I love the feeling that the audience is a little bit frightened. Ever since my experience with the Cub Scouts, I’ve been very, very anti-authority and I like being a troublemaker. I was drummed out the Cub Scouts. Did you ever hear of anyone being drummed out? I forgot my parents’ signatures on the electives. I hate authority. That’s not to say I hate bondage or S&M!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Review: Comic Book Junkies

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

Comic Book Junkies
Directed by Lenny Schwartz, Nathan Suher
IM Filmworks
105 minutes, 2020

Note: Please ignore the different sized texts. Blogger/Blogspot is going through a change, and this is an issue in their end. Hopefully they will get it repaired soon.

In the current pandemic crisis, has Zoom become the new artistic toolbox launch-pad, especially in the cinema field? And why is Rhode Island so far ahead of the curve? And will Timmy find his way out of the well? Tune in next week for the answers to this chilling… nah, just keep on reading.

A few weeks ago, Lenny Schwartz and Nathan Suher came up with Far From Perfect: Life Inside a Global Pandemic (reviewed HERE), which serially presented local Providence (and it’s environs) actors and filmmakers talking into their computers via the Zoom software, and compiled it into a nearly two hour narrative that refused to be boring.

Schwartz is a playwright who has a history of giving us theater about comic book originators, such as his production Co-Creator, the story of Bill Finger, who helped bring Batman to life. So Lenny, who is well-versed in all things comics-related, has now given us an original idea that interweaves the fantastical with the everyday, in a comedy superhero low-budget adventure spectacular, co-directed and edited by Suher.

The style of this film is very close to the earlier Far from Perfect in that we are introduced to the cast through a series of Zoom chats, phone video services and mini-cameras, who one-by-one introduce the next one. But rather than discussing the pandemic (though you know it’s coming), the topic at hand at the start in Act 1 is them getting tickets online to the San Diego Comic Con, arguable the comic convention (as a side note, I used to go to comic cons in New York in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s run by Phil Seuling, my high school English teacher who taught a class in, yep, comic books; got to meet Gray Morrow, Jim Steranko, and others that he brought into the classroom).

One of the nice things about this is that the fans are all ages and genders, not just some guys living in their mom’s basement (though there is at least one of those here, too). While there is a lot of inside joking, talking about particular artists like Jack Kirby and filmmaker Joss Whedon, honestly, you don’t have to be a follower of any particular brand or universe (e.g., MCU or DCU) to find the humor in these characters. In fact, not all of those presented are even comic book fans, but are involved with those do are. The palate is quite wide. It’s the level of fanaticism that is the focus, in my opinion. For example one person complains about not caring about the convention because it is silly, but she is just as fervent about water polo (you heard me).

A fun way to watch this is to pay attention to the room behind the person talking, often filled with interesting memorabilia with anything from Batman to Star Wars paraphernalia. It’s even curious when there is an absence of such. It’s like walking by someone’s house after dark and their front window shade is open, and you can see a little bit of their lives. A true mixture of fiction and reality.

The first part of the film spans a few months, from pre-COIVD to the epicenter, with the cancellation of the Comic Con, and the freak-out that follows. This wisely follows the fans’ reaction to the termination, rather than focusing on the misguided and dangerous anti-maskers who deny.

Act 2 starts with, I kid you not – after all, this is about comic books and superhero worship – the Earth being swallowed by some kind of black hole of white light. Now evil aliens are on the prowl. So, who ya gonna call? Since superheroes aren’t real, is it up to the cosplay heroes to defend the earth? Oh, by the way, if you’re wondering, the plotlines I’ve divulged are in the story’s descriptors on IMDB, so I’m not really giving much away. No spoilers that weren’t already spoiled by the filmmakers themselves, okay!?

This dimension is clearly a metaphor for the isolation of distancing, the economy crashing, the lack of governmental oversight and care, and a general mixture of malaise, ennui, and terror of this virus culture. And since there are lots of heroes and hero-wannabes, there are also a number of potential supervillains who side with the darker forces here as well (Samantha Acampura has a funny, over the top moment as a follower of the dark side in what appears to me a Harry Potter cosplay). This evil can be seen as a metaphor for Republicanism, as I see it, and would explain a bit about the storyline as it enters Act 3, which is the transition to post-apis runs the gamut from startingly bad to deliciously hilarious. For example, one person ponders, “I just paid off my 30-year student loan and now space aliens are invading. Just perfect.” In another, an alien states, laughing hysterically, “Not even David Caruso can save you.”

The acting is… well, it’s a bunch of cosplayers, actors, directors, filmmakers, artists and every-day folk so you’re going to have a wide range of skills, but each bit is no more than two minutes, so like they say about the weather in many places, “If you don’t like it, it’ll change in a minute.” The kids near the end tend to dominate the storyline and are great, and there is a wonderful rant by Mr. Troma himself, Lloyd Kaufman (the man is a treasure, I tell ya!). After the credits, wait for a spooky, demonic end piece cameo with Michael Thurber as Mr. Dark.

The film usually respects the characters, even the fanboys of both genders (we need a better, more inclusive term). Yeah, they can be a little wacko, as I have seen first-hand, but mostly it’s a collection of people who have focused in on a single thing with the passion of those ammosexuals, except a comic book isn’t going to discharge a bullet or drive a truck into someone for their beliefs.

This is a bit of a miss-mash and sometimes the storyline is a bit WTF, but it’s inherently and dominantly fun and watchable, even though it touches on something tragic at the same time. I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Elvis Presley: A Visit to Graceland (1997 Reprint)

Text by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet
Photos can be enlarged by selecting them

Elvis Presley: A Visit to Graceland (1997 Reprint)

This article was originally published in a glossy magazine titled A Tribute to Elvis: 20th Anniversary Special!, by C To C Publishing, Inc. Note that there is no advertising on this blog, so there is no profit to be made by my republishing it, other than publicity for myself and the original printing organization. The article appeared on pages 78-81. Note that all values are, obviously, in 1997 USD. I have made some minor edits.

While I found it odd that the “Special” was for the 20-year anniversary of his death, rather than his birth or career, it was a fun piece to write. As everyone probably knows, Graceland is in Memphis, TN. This article was assigned to me by the the magazine's editor, my good friend and rock writer, Mary Anne Cassata.

In the 20 years since Elvis Presley went to his “ranch in the sky” – his home, Graceland, has probably become as popular as he was, and nearly as profitable. With an average of 700,000 visitors per year, Graceland has achieved the status of the second most recognized national home, following the White House. Located in a commercial district, Graceland is a patch of residential splendor surrounded by strip malls, motels, gas stations, fast food chains, and of course, plenty of gift shops, all of which are Elvis-laden.

Graceland is a 14-acre haven on a hill, where both the loyal and the curious come to respectfully meet over Elvis’ gravesite, and to see how he lived. One arrives at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard by parking in a lot across the street from the stately manor (a $2 donation is required). Here, Visitors can choose from a number of options for viewing Graceland, 362 days a year.

The main option is the Mansion Tour (Adults $10, Seniors $9, Children 7-12 $5, and under 6 free). One can visit the gift shops while waiting for the tour to start. Guests can later board a shuttle bus (which departs every 5 minutes) that takes them across the street. With their headsets on, this is where the guided tour starts. The taped tour, which was started in 1995, includes comments by Elvis, Priscilla, various people who knew him, as well as lots of Elvis’ music.

Once across Elvis Presley Boulevard, the bus passes the famous music notes front gates and drives onto Graceland property, up the grass-lined rolling driveway straight to the front porch. Visitors enter the mansion by the front door where a tour guide is in every room that’s open to the public to answer questions (the upper floors which contain the bedrooms are excluded; one of Elvis’ aunts lives upstairs).

Off to the right, through a glass archway lies the music room with a grand piano and a television set (there are plenty of television sets throughout the house). Directly ahead is the off-limits glass-lined staircase, above which hangs a lovely portrait of pre-army Elvis. Opposite is a large dining room, big enough for Elvis’ whole family and his entourage. The décor on this floor is elegant, and yet at the same time very comfortable. Also one can view the huge carpeted functional kitchen filled with appliances. This was where Elvis met with friends and associates, possibly over fried banana sandwiches.

The tour becomes even more fun when visitors go down the multi-mirrored staircase to the basement, which was the recreation area for the Presley clan. At the bottom of the staircase is a large, L-shaped leather couch. Opposite are three televisions; Elvis liked to watch them all at the same time. The décor is in black and yellow, with mirrors on the ceiling. There is also a stereo system and a full bar, stools included.

Past the bar area is the pool room with a full regulation table and a few well-cushioned chairs. This leads to the infamous “jungle” room, which contains couches, a large cozy chair, an odd-shaped wooden table, a few odd knick-knacks, and a working waterfall.

Once outside the Graceland mansion, the tour continues into an office which handles the enormous fan mail. Here a film is shown of a press conference Elvis held after his stint in the army. Following a walk past the swimming pool, racquetball court, firing range, horse pasture, and a work-out room, visitors are then ushered into a special building which houses Elvis’ trophies and other memorabilia. Here one can view his numerous gold records, portraits, jumpsuits, guitars, posters, and other assorted Elvis-related material.

As visitors leave the building – a mere 30 paces away is the Meditation Garden, the final resting place for Elvis, his mother Gladys, his father Vernon, and Vernon’s mother Minnie May. This is by far the most somber part of the tour. Flowers and remembrances are brought by fans to the site on a daily basis.

After a quick shuttle ride and collection of the headsets, visitors are deposited back at the parking lot across the street. While this part of the tour ends, there are other tours where one leaves the bus. First, there is the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum (Adults $5, Seniors $4.50, Children 7-12 $2.50). Many of Elvis’ cars, motorcycles, and three-wheel “supercycles” are here, including the infamous 1955 pink Cadillac he gave his mother. There is also a video shown while visitors sit in a re-creation of a 1950’s style drive in.

At the north end of the Plaza is the Airplane Tour (Adults, $5, Seniors $4, Children 7-12 $2.75), which is located in a replicated airport terminal that shows a video of the historic Elvis planes. The tour includes two of Elvis’ planes: the Hound Dog II Lockheed Jetstar and the Lisa Marie Jet, which visitors are permitted to walk through.

The last paid tour is called Sincerely Elvis (Adults $3.50, Seniors $3.15, Children 7-12 $2.75), where one can view such personal items as candid photos, home movies, furnishings, mementos, and many other off-stage Elvis memorabilia.

If visitors are interested in viewing all the museums, there is a bargain Platinum Tour Package, which includes all the attractions (Adults $18.50, Seniors $16.50, Children 7-17 $11).

Though there is no doubt that Elvis has become a business after his death, Graceland is a suitable icon for a cultural phenomenon – one that may never be seen again. Everyone is welcome to share what Elvis was – “Poor boys and pilgrims with families… are going to Graceland,” as Paul Simon said. So what are you waiting for?

Note: 2020 prices for the Platinum Tour: Adults $69, Seniors $62.70, Children 5-10 $38 – RBF.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Review: The Vinyl Revival: A Film About Why the Tables are Turning Again

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

The Vinyl Revival: A Film About Why the Tables are Turning Again
Directed by Pip Piper
Blue Hippo Media; Wienerworld; MVD Entertainment
43 minutes, 2019 / 2020

Seven years ago, British director Pip Piper released a documentary entitled Last Shop Standing (see review HERE). In it, he opined about the closing of Record Stores in favor of on-line shopping for digital music.

But, as I have stated before, including in the Last Shop Standing review, social philosopher Marshall McLuhan once posited that when a technology becomes obsolete, it comes back again as art (it’s one of my favorite “McLuhanisms”). The revival of the vinyl record is a perfect example of that idiom.

For a while, after the CD explosion in the late 1980s and into the 2000s, digital media overtook the physical LP, largely in part thanks to the greed of the record companies. CDs were much cheaper to produce, but the costs to the consumer were higher so the profit margin was chop-licking good. How did they get a way with it? They would include “bonus tracks” on their CDs that were not available on the 12’-ers, so fans would buy the digital form for the extra material. Then the record companies would say, “See, people want CDs,” and vinyl versions of releases began to disappear.

But the irony is that once music became digital, it was also easier to copy in almost pristine sound to the original. At least there was still the CD cover art and inserts, which were miniscule in relation to the 12-inch jacket. But even that was better than the elusive digital MP3, which was easily shared, stolen, or whatever you want to view it as, and was a standalone without art or liner notes. The appeal of these physical art “extras” had been underestimated by the companies that released the music, though collectors especially were aware.

Graham Jones
A good way to place this film into a context is to see it more as either a companion piece to the original, Last Shop Standing, or better still, considering it is half the length of the previous one, as an addendum, to bring it up to date. Many of the same people are involved, such as Piper and Graham Jones, who wrote the books on which this and the previous documentary is based.

Graham and Pip travel around Britain to independent record shops (no box stores), talking with the owners and workers in their environment. The last film was a bit on the depressing side, but this one has a totally fresh, new, and upbeat attitude which is smile-inducing to those of us (well, me, anyway) who have had a history of record collecting and have stood going through racks of used records until our legs were numb and fingers bruised from flipping.

An interesting point is made early on, and this is something I have pondered for quite a while, and that is the brilliance of Record Store Day. It’s a day where all record stores have gigantic sales at the same time, and people who are generally too busy in their real lives to journey out for their hobbies, will set aside the time and make a day with it (note that comic book stores, also having a revival, do the same thing). To a devotional collector, any day is Record Store Day, but for the casual fan, it’s a genuine celebratory holiday to save for, like Xmas (though the products are usually for oneself). In my heyday of collecting, going to stores like Sounds (St. Mark’s Place, NYC, managed by Binky Phillips), the House of Guitars (aka The HOG, in Rochester, NY, which included a talk with members of the Chesterfield Kings who worked there), and Newbury Comics (Boston), was a given, when the opportunity arose, or on weekends. The people who worked there were chums you talked to, discussing new sounds and old records. I remember no matter where I went, Greg Shaw and his Bomp! Records was always a topic that came up.

I mention this here because that is the vibe you get from the people interviewed by the film crew, that it’s not just the record, it’s the community, but one needs a watering hole, as it were, in the case the record shops. It is also a way for the new artists to get heard with in-store performances. We meet independent bands like the Orielles, a member of the Horrors, and a focus near the end by the trio Cassia, who explain how the relationship between the band, the independent stores, and the fans all work together in ways that go beyond big business record label promotions.

One of the side aspects of films like this, which is quite a favorite to me, is to keep hitting the pause button when they show a wall of records and posters, and see if there are any I recognize. I do this on a lot of documentaries, to see what records (or books) are on the shelf behind the person being interviewed, but it is especially thrilling (yes, I’m going with that word) when it comes to record shop walls. For example, it was fun seeing a sticker for Yo La Tengo, or the Ramones’ End of the Decade LP from 1987, among others.

Another nice aspect is that most of the interviews are in situ, meaning in a store or just outside of it. We get to hear from Nick Mason (Pink Floyd drummer), Philip Selway (Radiohead drummer, etc.), Adrian Utley (Portishead guitarist), and Joel Gion (The Brian Jonestown Massacre tambourinist), but also from Professor of Culture and Philosophy, Barry Taylor (one of his books is Sex, God, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Catastrophes, Epiphanies, and Sacred Anarchies), and the great-named rock and roll cultural historian Dr. Jennifer Otter Bikerdike, author of Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto from Musicians and Fans, among others. Whether you question their tastes or not is irrelevant to what they are saying about the medium.

My favorite interviews, though, as I said, were with the store owners and workers; there isn’t much by people who are just fans without the credentials to explain their love when it isn’t their career. That why I wrote a blog back in 2008 called “Reflections of a Record Collector” (HERE). 

One of the almost subliminal messages this film seems to suggest is that the present record store consumer tends to be mostly in their fifties, or in their twenties, with a gap in-between from the later CD years of the 1990s and early 2000s. I would have liked to have heard some more information about that, and whether that’s real or in my head.

This documentary fills a void just like the record stores are doing, to help explain the psychology of the modern collector, what makes them different from the older ones like me, and to just revel in the joy that is vinyl.

And through this all, I thought of the most fanatical record collector I know, Mad Louis the Vinyl Junkie, in Buffalo, NY, who has never stopped collecting vinyl (and other media), and I dedicate this review to him.