Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Documentary Review: Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr.

 Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2022
Images from the Internet

Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr.
Directed by Philipp Virus (aka Philipp Rockenheim)

Rapid Eye Movies; Virus Films; Utopia
82 minutes, 2021 / 2022

An infamous story about the Western Massachusetts-based trio that formed in the early 1980s, is that the band was originally named Dinosaur and had their first album titled as such on the highly influential SST Records label. A classic rock cover band, also called Dinosaur, who never went anywhere, got lawyers involved, and the threesome had to change their name to the new moniker. Dinosaur Jr.

Wikipedia lists Dinosaur Jr. (DJ) as “alternative rock.” While most people would simply put them into the “hardcore” label, it could be that AR is a bit more accurate than hardcore. DJ were different than most of their label mates at the time, such as Black Flag and the Minutemen in that they were often a mix of melodic verses and much more explosive and experimental sounds, especially during the bridges of songs. I would go so far as to say guitarist J. Mascis is as innovative as, say, Johnny Thunders in that the sound is almost undefinable and, for most, unrepeatable.

That is not to say, however, there were not some equally brilliant guitarists that broke the boundaries, such as Greg Ginn (in his post-Black Flag days, such as with his band Gone, for example), Sonic Youth, and Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü), but we are here to discuss power noise trio Dinosaur Jr., consisting of J. Mascis (vox/guitar/songwriter), Lou Barlow (bass), and Murph (aka Patrick Murphy), drums.

Even before I start the documentary, one of the points I am really interested in is that Mascis is known to be quite contentious. I’m not sure if it’s punk anger, ego aggrandizement, or that he’s just an asshole, but (a) there is no argument that he is influential, and (b) I am hoping to find out a bit more about the band beyond the vinyl (yes, I have all of DJ’s early albums in first-pressings LP form).

We are musically introduced to the band right off the bat, with a for-the-documentary music video of one of their early tunes, with a mixture of photos and videos, both archival and present day. When we actually meet the trio in the modern day during their interview stints, the mixture of old and new continues, which makes it truly interesting, especially their early days as a hardcore band called Deep Wound, when they were still in high school. Even at this beginning you can see the rumbling of Mascis’ need for control of every aspect of the band, more than even Johnny Ramone. The amps had to be right, the guitar sound, the songs themselves, etc. It’s hard to please a perfectionist.

One of the highlights – if not the highlight – is the live footage of the band onstage during their early years. Watching Mascis just shred is a sight to see. It is like he is taking all his emotions, frustrations, and anger out in his thrashing.

The band was a bit contentious, and soon found themselves blacklisted from venues in Western Mass. Funny, because these places obviously had no idea about New York bands like Suicide and Red Transistor, who physically assaulted the audience. But they did get on the EVOL release tour opening for Sonic Youth. Both Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore are interviewed (not together; to find out why, read Kim’s book, Girl in a Band), and home movies of the two bands intermingling is fun.

Also interviewed in the doc are some of the band’s friends and relations, Henry Rollins (is there any documentary about the 1980s that he is not in?), Bob Mould, and Frank Black/Black Francis (the Pixies), along with members of other groups.

The second most famous thing about DJ (in my opinion), is the conflicts within the band. Even early on, Mascis and Barlow were going head-to-head. Still, though early on Mascis refers to the band as “family” here, he kicks out Barlow in 1988, and he did not rejoin the band until 2005, but it did give Barlow a chance to form other bands like Sebadoh, and a lengthy solo career. As the rhythm section, Barlow and Murph seemed to get along, and then the relationship with Murph and Mascis proceeded poorly after that. Murph exclaims here, “this band was never fun. It was never about fun. It was always blood, sweat, and fucking tears.” To which he followed by leaving the band to keep his own sanity.

To most people, J. Mascis = Dinosaur Jr., and he even did an DJ album practically by himself. For touring, he picked a revolving door of musicians during the height of their fame in the 1990s, when they signed with Sire Records, and after Nirvana broke everything wide open.

There is a couple of interesting clips of Mascis playing with the Ashton Brothers and Mike Watt, performing Stooges songs. Now, from what I understand, Ron Ashton is similar to Mascis when it comes to attitude and demeaner, and one has to wonder how fire and fire combined. Also, these clips were ones I would have really liked to see completely, as every piece of music is abbreviated for time.

I find it interesting that none of the other members of DJ while Barlow and Murph were gone are interviewed. By the time the original members reformed in 2005, Mascis’ hair is white and Murph is cue-ball bald.

One thing that drove me a bit crazy was that for a man who likes to play as loud as possible, it’s ironic that Mascis’ voice is so rumblingly deep and quiet, it’s was hard for me to hear him onscreen sometimes, and I had to back-up to catch it. Mind you, my ears are affected by live music in clubs since 1975, so it may not all be Mascis’ fault.

Most band documentaries tend to focus on a specific time period, such as the formation, or their rise to fame, but this one is broken up basically into three sections. The first, which is the formation and beginning of their recordings up until Barlow and Murph are gone, the second is the middle period with others filling their spots, and the third is the reformation in 2005 and going forward to the present. Wisely, the focus is on the first and the last, with the Barlow-less and Murph-less DJ given short time. I love how much they spend on the third act, the relative now, showing them backstage, on stage (including their 30-anniversary show in New York City at the Bowery Ballroom in 2015), and more interviews (Murph comes out the most sympathetic). There is not a weak moment in the film, and it is just the right length.

While there are a large number of great both archival and newer footage, interviews and still photos for all the parts, it’s the interviews I found most interesting, getting to know their personalities (well, the public ones anyway), and how they managed to reunite and get along (unlike most of the Ramones who hated each other).

Mascis put it well towards the end of the film: “We’re more like family than friends. A dysfunctional family.”

IMBD Listing HERE 


Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Documentary Review: In Search of Tomorrow: A Journey Through ‘80s Sci-Fi Cinema

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2022
Images from the Internet

In Search of Tomorrow: A Journey Through ‘80s Sci-Fi Cinema
Directed by David A. Weiner

301 minutes, 2022

Science Fiction can run from the sublime, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Silent Running (1972), or it can fall into the B-level category of the likes of The Green Slime (1968) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958; this was the basis for 1979’s Alien, as 1951’s The Thing from Another World was remade as John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982). Despite some well-done classics such as the first two mentioned above, by the mid-1970s, Sci-Fi was a second-rate citizen as a genre, producing mostly cheese with bad effects.

This all changed in 1977, with the release of a little film called Star Wars, which reignited the genre aflame, giving rise to both big budget bonanzas and cheapie imitations, but the spark was set. In a perfect storm, this upswing came right on the advent of the VHS market, further spreading the fever. Please note that I am writing this intro before actually watching the film, so I am not sure it will reflect my sentiments. And so, it’s time to start the show. Cue Bugs and Daffy.

The focus of this all-star documentary is that period in the 1980s when everything exploded like all those ships in the film version of Battlestar Gallactica (1978).

After the initial introduction, which briefly goes as far back as Georges Méliès’ 1902’s A Trip tothe Moon, and various other highlights, with Wil Wheaton explaining how before Star Wars, most sci-fi was nihilistic and was a warning of things to come, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (remember, sci-fi is not about the future or the past, but about the present of when the film was made).

This is followed by a host of hosts: interviews with actors, directors (such as Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, and John Carpenter), writers (both screenplays and critics), production crew, composers, and vloggers, etc. What is really nice is that the documentary does not only talk about the top-tier releases, but also the relatively smaller ones that did not raise as much of a blip as the multimillion-dollar mega-effects bonanzas. Year by year, they focus on film by film, so while there are the obvious ones like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Blade Runner, I was pleased they went into detail about the likes of Saturn 3, Yor, Galaxina (RIP, Dorothy Stratton), and Spaceballs.  

One thing I hadn’t made the connection to before, while watching the segment focusing on Flash Gordon, is that the top effects in that film and many others of that period, are now in-reach and equal to numerous low budget Sci-Fi/horror film genres of the present day. In the less sophisticated CGI of the 1980s, it was a wow factor, but now one sees it compared to what the major studios are putting out, say the superhero releases, this was pretty basic by today’s standards. Sometimes modern films will try to purposefully look like the ‘80s as a “flashback,” but technology for indie and low-budget films have actually caught up to the ‘80s majors in their technology, especially with green screens. This is especially true with animated films discussed here, such as Heavy Metal, Tron, and the amazing anime Akira. I’m rambling a bit, so I hope this makes sense.

Among the looks back at particular films, between each year there are also segments of about 15 minutes each that give some grounding to the genre of the period, such as “Cold War Kids,” which talks about how people of that generation – especially kids – were immersed in the threat of the possibility of a nuclear bomb going off at any moment. As a child, I still remember the drills in elementary school where we would practice getting under our desks to practice in case of a regular bombing attack, and lining up in the hallways and crouching down in case of an atom bomb. Of course, in reality, neither of those would really do anything, but we heard about it all the time, including in the cinemas encased in the messages from the films we watched. Even those like Goldfinger (1964) had a big, scary bomb. Where’s McGruber when you need ‘im, right?

While not inclusive, some of the between-years other segments include how films were marketed in a pre-Internet world, visual effects, creature effects (among two of my favorite topics), and music scores. The last one is about the technological implications of the vision in the movies, very briefly focusing on the whole “the future in the story represents the now.” There should have been more about technological determinism, and perhaps throw in a bit of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death when describing the likes of Cherry 2000.

Another interesting point the documentary more hints at than is explicit, is that Sci-Fi is almost always blended with something else, such as a Western (Outland; Star Wars), horror (Alien), war stories (Aliens, Enemy Mine, Predator), or social commentary (Final Countdown; Alien Nation), for example. I find it especially the latter, and the nuclear aspect or the rise of computers, robots and technological determinism (e.g., The Terminator) as expounded by the likes of Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Ellul. This “layering” is part of what makes Sci-Fi not only effective, but makes the future relatable. As I said, whenever it takes place, it’s about the present.

The only sort of repetition in the film, which is unavoidable and yet still enjoyable, is the number releases of a franchise, each of which are covered individually if they came out in the ‘80s. This includes Superman, Star Trek, and of course, Star Wars. Lot’s of “Return of…”, “Part II,” and “The Wrath…” to deal with, but these films are classic and pleasing to rehash, so it still goes relatively flying by.

Each release covered gets about five to ten minutes, and includes lots of clips of the film itself, backstage footage and bits from the trailer, and interviews, none very long (hey, there are a lot of films here). They switch back and forth between the present-day discussions (no historical interviews, happily) with the likes of Alex Winter, Barry Bostwick, Dee Wallace, Billy Dee Williams, Nancy Allen and multiple dozens of others, that it is easy to keep the viewers’ attention and interest, even over the extended time frame. I know I had to break up watching it over two days, which was no problem as it’s individual segments, rather than a narrative where plot points can easily be forgotten. Many of the anecdotal stories told by the casts and crews are especially compelling and often humorous, such as someone discussing the pomposity of Shatner on the set of Khan.

The film is not afraid to shy away from pointing out the flaws of some of the films, such as Howard the Duck and Dune, and glorifying those that deserve it, like The Fly and Back to the Future. And while the film is joyfully comprehensive, it is not inclusive. There are many films not selected for discussion, and yet clips are shown, such as Heartbeeps and Night of the Comet. But, considering the information presented and the immensity of the time, I find no fault in that regard.

This release is a follow-up to a three-part series of documentaries by the director titled In Search of Darkness (2019), In Search of Darkness Part II (2021), and the obvious In Search of Darkness Part III (2022). I have not seen these yet, but it is interesting that it is broken up into three, rather than one honkin’ five-hour extravaganza.

The whole film is a big, “Oh, yeah,” if you were a fan of the genre back in that timeframe. And seeing the people involved and what they look like now is a lot of fun, as well.  And if you are wondering, yes, I did sit through all five hours of the documentary, and smiled through most of it.

IMBD Listing HERE 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

NERVUS REX – or – “I Was A Caucasian Runner” (1977)

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 1977/2022
Images from the Internet unless indicted

Nervus Rex – or – “I Was A Caucasian Runner”

Very soon after I had published the article on the Cramps in the first issue of FFanzeen, dated 7/777, Miriam Linna left the band as drummer. She next joined up with artist Shaun Brighton (whose father was a famous painter) and Lauren Agnelli (a rock writer for Creem Magazine with the nom de plume of Trixie A. Balm) to form the core of the Nervus Rex. Bassist Lewis Eklund rounded out the group.

[In a sidebar digression with a weird twist, when I mentioned the Nervus Rex and its members to my clique at Queens College at the time, friend and drummer of The Glands (who wrote the insane “Mutants on Motorcycles”) Richie Shapiro said, “Hey, I know Lauren. We used to date in Cardozo High School!”]

Two days before interviewing the Nervus Rex, I saw their first public performance, opening for the Mumps at CBGB. The set was hot and the songs were riveting, relying on more than just love songs. Even the love songs they did had unusual little bends and twists. I fell in love with their material – popish, but with a razor-sharp edge. That they did “She’s Not There” by the Zombies seemed appropriate, since that was the kind of sound they were achieving.

The loft on Mercer Street where I interviewed the band belonged to Shaun’s father, so I had a chance to see a number of his paintings. I remember rows upon rows of them.

I felt very comfortable with the band.

(photo by Robert Barry Francos)

Nervus Rex – or – “I Was A Caucasian Runner”

Do you believe in omens? The first time I interviewed a group in which Miriam Linna was a member (the Cramps, last ish), the weather was lousy, the tape got wet and all I ended up with was five minutes of recording before the sound died. Now Miriam is in a new group called the Nervus Rex and I interviewed them, September 24, 1977. The weather? Increment. The tape, once again getting wet, went out after five minutes. Is Miriam vexing my tape recorder or the weather? Whatever, it is getting very frustrating.

The new group is really good. I caught their very first pubic performance at CBGB September 22. I liked them from the first soundcheck. For a group that has been together for only a few months – since the middle of July – they are amazing.

Actually, the lead singer / guitarist Shaun Brighton, met rhythm guitarist / singer Trixie A. Balm (yes, the Trixie A. Balm, writer for such papers as Creem and The NY Rocker) at CBGB, where they both hung out, about a year ago. Shaun then met bassist Lewis Eklund on the Staten Island Ferry. Trixie, a Cramps fan, interviewed the group and became friendly with Miriam (which, I might add, is not hard). When Miriam took her leave from the Cramps, Trixie asked her if she wanted to drum for her group. Together, although it’s a little over two months, the combo of Shaun, Trixie, Lewis and, of course, Miriam, is a tight one.

As of right now, their repertoire consists of about ten songs, all of which are amazing (most written by Trixie A. and Shaun). The set I saw (remember, it as their first), consisted of “Duplicators,” “Third World,” “Love Affair,” “Dubrule 1250,” “No Regrets – Sort Of,” “I Love You Or Whatever” (my personal favorite), “December Pledge,” “The Index,” “Rachel In Ruins Again” (my second fave), and for an encore, the Zombie’s great “She’s Not There.” They are practicing some Troggs songs and possibly some Flamin’ Groovies stuff, too.

Walking into their loft on Mercer Street forty-five minutes late, I was soaked from the rain. As I mentioned last time, the stereo was blasting out, now with the brand-new released Talking Heads album (Talking Heads 77). Throughout the interview, many records went on, like some early Beatles (both Shaun and Lewis are avid Beatle freaks – meant kindly – and Shaun even collects Beatle memorabilia, along with really old books and material about art and painters; Shaun claims that “most rockers seem to forget about paintings”) and the Velvet Underground. They agree they like Cale a whole lot, but Lou is tops.

Anyway, some of the interview that survived proceeded thusly:


FFanzeen: Have you ever been in any other groups?
Trixie A. Balm: When I was in high school, I was in this group with these guys from Elmont, New York, and we did stuff like, we did Janis Joplin; we did really ridiculous shit, like a Chicago song …

Miriam: [in surprised disgust] You did a Chicago song? A Chicago song!?!
Trixie: One Chicago song.
Miriam: Oh, one Chicago song.
Trixie: It was a pretty bad band. Other than that, I was in this band with Pink Floyd freaks who wanted to do “Astronomy Donomy” and shit like that, and I hated it. No, but off and on in groups in high school. In college I concentrated on writing, but now I’m almost done with college and getting back to music.

FF: Are you going to continue with your writing?
Trixie: Some. Not about music so much, but, you know, fiction and such things.

FF: How long has the group been together?
Trixie: Since July.
Shaun: The middle of July. Trixie and I have been playing together since January.

End of tape.


Once again, Miriam makes it quite clear that she hates “punk rock.” By punk rock, she means assholes with the safety pins who then go home and put on bell-bottomed jeans. If you’re gonna be a punk, claims Miriam, be a punk. (The following is a paraphrase) “I saw some guy at CBGB with safety pins all over him and he had on a leather jacket. He accidentally stepped on someone’s foot and turned around and said something like, ‘Oh, excuse me. I’m sorry.’ If you’re really a punk you don’t care and just say, ‘Get out of my way!’“ It’s sort of Miriam’s way to sayin’ that she don’t like poseurs.

When asked about fave movies, such names as What’s Up Tiger Lily (1966), Horror Hotel (1960, aka The City of the Dead), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and The Twonkey (1953; Miriam’s favorite) were brought up. Fave music turned up such names as, of course, the Troggs, the Zombies, the Velvet Underground, Flamin’ Groovies (Miriam’s top fave), Talking Heads, the Seeds, as well as the Everly Brothers (a Trixie fave), the Stones, the Beatles, and Bach (that’s J.S., by the way). As the group was eager to explain, this is how they feel now. It changes week by week, depending on what they are listening to at the time (isn’t that the way it is for all of us?).

The group is pretty cool looking. Of course, there’s Miriam with those dynamite eyes. She was dressed her usual casual way: sweatshirt, sneakers, et. al. Shaun dresses sort of a David Byrne style. Just as comfy as possible. He wore a tee-shirt with a sheet of iron-on letters ironed on. Just the letters (“I couldn’t think of anything to print”). Trixie, with flamin’ red hair, looks really cool. Lewis is basically a quiet type that absorbs everything. He tells how, for a while, he shut himself off musically to everything except the Stones and the Beatles, and is coming out of it now with just the opposite reaction. He goes to an uptown library and takes out ten of any type albums (except d***o), listens to them and then returns them a week later so he can take out ten more.

All their personalities overlap in such a way that they seem to be very compatible and comfortable with each other, which also makes the music seem that more real. I have to admit that I really enjoy listening to them play. A whole lot. And it seems I’m not the only one. When they did their sound check on that night (“Rachel”), they got a loud round of applause. This caught them a little by surprise. Trixie even exclaimed, pleasantly baffled, “It’s only a soundcheck!” When they finally did play, the place was not yet crowded, since it was the Mumps that was headlining, and they would not be on for a couple of hours at least; but those who were there were not disappointed. Far from it.

Saving this part for last in the interview, I asked Miriam about her break from the Cramps a few months back. She said that she missed some warning signs, like the group telling her to ease off her writing a bit and tone down her fan-manship, regarding some of the other groups, and to pay more attention to her own. Finally, they told her to choose between the two and she left. Unfortunately, the split was not on friendly terms. But time heals wounds. The Cramps have a new drummer and Miriam has the Nervus Rex (and visa versa) and all are happy in their niche. Now the Nervus Rex has nowhere to go but up. Ten to one they have a record out by this time next year – on a major label!

Last, for those interested, Miriam is now prez of the International Flamin’ Groovies Fan Club and has this really terrif fanzine called The Flamin’ Groovies Monthly. Look for Miriam’s article in FFanzeen #3 about the Groovies. It’ll be in unless Miriam’s power has the same effect on my typewriter has she does on my tape recorder.

After the Groovies fanzine, she would co-produce with Billy Miller one of the best fanzines the scene has seen, Kicks!

Some time, not too long after this interview, Miriam left the Nervus Rex to join Billy Miller in the Zantees, who in future incarnations would become the very-roots-rockin’ A-Bones. She would be replaced on drums in the Nervus Rex by Jonathan Gildersleeve. Together, the new band would release a single in 1978 called “Don’t Look,” which was not played on either of the nights I saw them perform (the other being at Max’s Kansas City). Lewis would also depart, with Dianne Athey filling his spot.

Three years after the interview (1980), the band put out an overproduced, eponymous-titled pop album on Mike Chapman’s Dreamland Records that seriously blunted their edge through overproduction, with high gloss and minimum bristle. While a decent, re-recorded version of “Don’t Look” was present, missing were all the songs they had performed that first night at CBGB, lost to the ages. The cover of the LP looked like something out of a John Hughes / Molly Ringwald movie, with cotton candy coloring and a style that was destined to be very shortly out of date.

Shaun changed his name to Shawn, and formed a band called The Puppets, which had a hit dance song “The Way of Life” which, in my opinion, sounds like many British synth bands from the 1980s. He is now an artist and art dealer.

Lauren followed this group with the innovative root rockers The Washington Squares, with Bruce Paskow (d. 1994) and Tom Goodkind (d. 2019 of 9/11-related causes). Ahead of their time by just a twinge, they dissolved when Paskow suddenly passed away, though Agnelli and Goodkind would reunite for occasional gigs. Next up was a stint with Teenage Head and Hamilton, Ontario, heartthrob Dave Rave Des Roches, including the Dave Rave Conspiracy, and Agnelli and Rave. Lauren has also shown up with a collection of torch songs, mostly originals, called Love Always Follows Me on the BongoBeat imprint. She has since become a teacher, in the wilds of New England. She has not lost her spark.