Friday, March 10, 2023

Documentary Review: Pieces of Us

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2023
Images from the Internet

Pieces of Us
Directed by Cheryl Allison
Wow Films; EEC! Productions; Blue Door Films II; Freestyle Digital Media
92 minutes, 2021 /2023

Originally, I was going to say something about how this is a challenging time to be openly gay, what with the rise of Republican autocratic Christianity, and while that is definitely true, I cannot think of a time after, say, the Stonewall Riots of 1969, where is has been safe to be LGBTQetc. Sure, the arrests have gone down (for now) and there is more of a presence on media, but uncalled for and unnecessary violence towards the community continues, if not recently increasing due to hateful pundit right-wing talking points.

I have to admit, growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, I had my own biases for most of my early life because I did not know better, but through education and working at a Baskin-Robbins a block away from the Stonewall, I quickly became a proud ally, and have marched in a number of Pride events. That’s me; but it is time to discuss this documentary.

While LGBTQetc. violence is a social problem, it most effects those who has had direct contact with this force. It is the post-violence that is the focus of this film, telling the story of five particular people. What is important to acknowledge is that though these subjects have had horrendous things done to them, it is not these actions that are the main focus, in a woe-in-me fashion, but is rather centered on coming through on the other side, with love and support around them. Despite the pain, this is a positive project.

JP Masterson aka Jipster

The film starts in earnest when we meet Jipster (JP Masterson), a white rapper who works as a middle school psychologist in Brooklyn; he was beaten in a New York subway station - West 4th Street, of all places, the heart of the city’s gay community – for holding hands with Peter, his partner. Interestingly, we see the local television news story about the incident to launch the topic. Masterson is an engaging talker (as a rapper, one would hope). We get to meet his school’s principal, Dakota Keyes, and even some students, who fully support him.

Mykel's flag dance

Flag dance performance artist Mykel picked someone up and brought him home, where he was attacked and beaten. Back in the mid-1980s, I worked with a man named Glen who had a great sarcastic sense of humor, who was murdered by someone he brought home, so I can empathize with the event. While being afraid of reporting this incident to the NYPD, he reaches out to Beverly Tillery, who is the Executive Director of the New York Anti-Violence Project (AVP). She is also interviewed, giving a lifeline for those who may need her services. The person who counseled Mykel was transgender icon, Victoria Cruz.

Victoria Cruz, Mykel

Victoria was at the Stonewall riots in 1969 (as was musician Jayne County), becoming a crisis counselor at AVP, literally saving lives with her generosity of spirit (e.g., to paraphrase, “Don’t say ‘victim,’ say ‘survivor’”). Dressed in Native American paraphernalia, she meets with Mykel at a Brooklyn beach and they talk. I am not ashamed to say I was teary at one point.


Thus, the viewer is introduced to Leia. She is a single mother from Denver, whose 9-year-old son, Jamel, committed suicide after being bullied. In my opinion, this is being fostered by right-leaning hate speech that is flooding the media. To me, outlets like FoxNews is as much to blame as his classmates that bullied him until he could not take it anymore. This is the desired future of the Republican party, while they hypocritically scream “save the children.”

Leia was counseled by members of local and national organization PFLAG, here represented by Bianca and Brett, who explain their services. It is really smart filmmaking to not only show the problems that the people who were attacked went through, and their journeys back to their lives, but also to focus on the organizations that are there to support people in those situations. I respect that a lot. Another example, which is focused on here is the first Straight-Gay Alliance advocacy group, The Swish Ally Fund, founded by Sue Sena, who is also featured.

Prince Manvendra Singh-Gohil

The centerpiece of the film is Prince Manvendra Singh-Gohil, the “world’s first openly gay prince,” who is from India. Of course, he received numerous death threats and abandoned by his family, which led him and his husband, Duke DeAndre, to become global ambassadors to LGBTQetc. rights. We meet him in India at a compound set up as a safe place for the LGBTQetc. community in that country. As he visits New York, they touch on the importance of Stonewall, and we see the triangular Christopher Street Park (a place I have been many times), directly across from the Stonewall. Nearly everyone in the film comes together for the coda at the World Pride Parade there (if I may digress, if you have the chance to get to a New York Gay Pride Parade, do it!). It is truly a joyous moment.

The director of this documentary, Cheryl Allison, is an actor, producer, and a filmmaker focused in on sexual-based injustices (e.g., Shatter the Silence in 2019). She does a magnificent job here getting the point across. One aspect of this I particularly liked is that she takes each case study and shows them individually, rarely cross-cutting back and forth between them until further on, when you realize all of the subjects intertwine in their lives one way or another. And yet, they roll from story to story, organically growing as one introduces the other and the effects they had on their lives. This gives a better picture of “flow,” from hurt to healing for each individual, since everyone had their own pathway through PTSD into health.

This film is mostly New York-centric, a “Blue” city in a “Blue” state, where generally being LGBTQetc. is not only broadly recognized, but mostly accepted. And, yet, even in this melting pot, there is a unfounded hatred for the “Other,” be it due to various religious beliefs or just being afraid to come out of the closet (e.g., Republicans like American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, who is currently accused to sexually assaulting a male driver during Hershel Walker’s failed campaign). What I would like to see, going forward, is this film become a series, because once one gets below the Mason-Dixon, I am willing to assume that the violence level would increase exponentially, and it needs to be addressed to be able to heal as a country.

This is a powerful testament to love that arises like a phoenix from violence, giving voice to advocacy and positiveness, rather than negativity. It manages to be emotional, inspiring, and pointed, without being maudlin, sappy nor sensationalistic. It is a powerful piece of work. This should be shown in schools across the country, especially in Red states like Florida and Texas, where homophobia is rampant.

The documentary is available on Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, DirectTV, and Spectrum, among others.

IMDB listing HERE

Sunday, March 5, 2023

THE VIPERS Interview: The Pure Sound of Marac’n’Roll (1985)

© Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 1985/2023
Images from the Internet unless indicated

During the early 1980s, The Vipers were among the garage revival elite from New York, including the likes of The Mosquitoes, The Chesterfield Kings, The A-Bones, The Fuzztones, and The Tryfles. The each had their own niche, be it rockabilly, voodoobilly, or fandom. The Vipers leaned mor towards the pop spectrum of the garage sound.

This was originally published in FFanzeen No. 13, dated 1985. – RBF, 2023

The Vipers: The Pure Sound of Marac’n’Roll (1985)

Vipers. A name that sticks terror in your heart? Nah, not if you’re involved with the local revival of the ‘60s sound here in New York.

And what’s a better place to see and meet a Viper than in a cave? A CaveStomp! that is. For those uninformed, the Dive is a club where the psychedelic crowd meet, and every once in a while, Thursdays belong to the Vipers in what has become known as the CaveStomp!, where the elite get to their feet.

The Vipers are Jon Weiss (lead vox/saxophone/percussion), Paul Martin (lead guitar/vox), Graham May  (bass/vox), Pat Brown (drummer and possibly ex-governor of California), and David Mann (guitar/keyboard/harmonica/vox).

I had been trying to interview the band for a while now, but we never seemed to be at a convenient spot. Well, the first Thursday in September, before their return to the CaveStomp! at the Dive, I connected with Jon, Paul, and Graham.

(ffoto by Robert Barry Francos)

FFanzeen: The Dive gave you back your Thursday night.
Jon Weiss: They forced it back on us – by popular demand.
Paul  Martin: This time it’s only going to be four weeks. Every Thursday in August. In September, the album will be released. We produced the album, and Nadroj Wolrat helped us produce it.

FFanzeen: What’s the name of the album?
Jon: It’s called Outta the Nest!

FFanzeen: “Outta” is a popular –
Graham May: – Eastern drawl.
Jon: The Nest is the name of our studio where we rehearse and we do our four-tracks, so most things are conceived there.
Graham: That’s where we recorded our single [“Never Alone” b/w “Left Your Hold on Me,” on Midnight Records – RBF, 1985].
Paul: We also recorded “Nothing’s From Today” out on Bomp!’s Battle of the Garages, Vol. II there.

FFanzeen: Where do your recordings go from here, after Outta the Nest?
Jon: We have a  lot of new tunes we gotta do.
Paul: We want to do a second album right away. We already got the first song in the band and we will be on the road by October or November.
Jon: We’ll be on the road, playing other dives.

FFanzeen: Why doesn’t any of your recordings sound like you do live?
Paul: We use chintzy recording equipment. It doesn’t sound much like anything.

FFanzeen: It sound a lot pop-ier.
Jon: I think it’s because the conditions are a little more ideal in the studio. Also, live, we rip it up. We go a little too nutty; we get a little manic. Things get a little rougher than in the studio.
Paul: There’s more time for contemplation in the studio.
Graham: You can go over any part you don’t like in the studio.
Jon: They’ve yet to make a tape that can capture the true Vipers sound. It’ll always come out sounding a little more pop-ier until we do a live album. ‘Til then, it cannot be captured!

FFanzeen: You’ve sort of been lumped together with the psychedelic scene, but  I really don’t think you’re psychedelic at all.
Jon: I agree.
Graham: And garage, too.
Jon: I think we’re a garage band. I would like to be termed as a garage band. I think that’s truer.
Paul: More than a psych band.

FFanzeen: Think you’ll make it on a Nuggets 1995?
Jon: I think when we evolve, maybe we’ll end up a psychedelic band. [Laughs]

FFanzeen: The first time I saw you, I thought you sounded more like you were leaning towards a Dick Dale (d. 2019)  and the Del-Tones sound, than to, say, the Standells or Chocolate Watchband.
Paul: We do have a couple of Dick Dale-esque type numbers. We’re probably going to whip them out on the public after the album comes out.
Graham: We’re thinking of using a bit more saxophone-oriented instrumental-type songs, along with the hot numbers we’re doing.
Paul: Do you think we have those leanings?

FFanzeen: Not so much the surf sound, but towards that pop sound.
Jon: What kind of pop would you compare it to?

FFanzeen: I would say more toward (Paul Revere and) the Raiders, or the Monkees.
Jon: We put an emphasis on melody. That’s something that we do do. And yet, it’s very guitar-oriented.

FFanzeen: Not keyboard up front, like most psych bands.
Jon: That’s true. We’re a guitar band, professionally.
Paul: But some of our new stuff is gritty, and not just strictly pop. It’s getting a lot grittier now. Some of our older recordings – we did “Medication” and a couple of other tracks – they were more poppy sounding than what we’re doing now.
Jon: We’re all taking hormone shots. We have put up some pretty wimpy stuff, but as we’ve been around longer, we start to get more confident, and we actually start sacrificing melody for more emotion. A lot of times you can hide behind some pretty nice sounds, and they just sort of gloss over what you’re trying to say.
Paul: Or you try so hard getting it to perfection you never get to lash out.
Jon: That’s something Paul is really against. Like in rehearsal, I’ll say, “Let’s do it again and again,” and he’ll flip, ‘cause it can make it just too sterile; too nice. And now, as we get more confident, we do things on a much rougher scale.
Paul: It’s more comfortable getting hell-bend and going over the edge with it. Having a lot of fun and raunching it up. And it does have that real impact. If you know it well enough to pull it off well, but at the same time not having refined it by going over it note by note – it’s kind of neat to just get up on stage and just raunch out a few numbers.

FFanzeen: Yeah, I think you’re in that period of music that most people forget, between the Dick Dale guitar and the psychedelic Farfisa, which is still garage sounding. I call it maracas music. Most of the garage sound seems to lie in this period.
Jon: Marac’n’roll.
Graham: Like Davy Jones of the Monkees (d. 2012).
Jon: I think why that exists is that a lot of lead singers are front men and can’t play anything, and they need something up there. Like with Davy Jones, well that doesn’t need an explanation.

(ffoto by Robert Barry Francos)

FFanzeen: Well, he always had the tambourine for back-up!
Jon: You need something to play with.
Paul: It’s cute, anyway, seeing this furry little creature playing a tambourine on stage.
Jon: You see, when we stop doing these songs, they’re going to continue. It’s really good, because there are so many bands now, springing up in New York, that have no place to play. This place (the Dive) is cool; this place is real. It’s a place to work out your stuff. Look, here comes Pat Brown, or drummer! Sit down, Pat!

FFanzeen: I’m doing an interview of the band, of which you’re now part.
Jon: Pat’s different than most drummers.
Pat Brown: You might call me a team drummer.
Jon: He’s a primitive stick-and-stone man.

FFanzeen: What’s the most obscure song you guys do?
Pat: “Surprise Surprise” by the Loved Ones. 

FFanzeen: That’s with Gary Pig Gold, one of our occasional columnists.
Jon: Do you have the record?

FFanzeen: No, I don’t have that one. How about something easy now, like how did the band get started?
Paul: Pretty much out of apathy for anything else that’s going on. We wrote half a dozen songs and decided to put it together.
Jon: The fact is that all of us disliked all this music. We said, “Shit, someone’s got to do what we like.” We were all friends in the beginning anyhow; we all shared the same likings. It was the only way to go, since we all played music.

FFanzeen: Do you ever get any negative press because you do so many originals?
Paul: We get very little negative press.
Jon: Most of our press has been pretty good, the small  amount we’ve received. A lot of people seem to take our strong point as the fact that we’re songwriters. That’s the thing that sets us apart, that we do originals. That we write some pretty good ones.
Graham: We love to play old songs, though, too, so we generally give people who really want those old tunes a lot of that, too; so, it’s not that much of a negative response coming back to us.
Jon: But we’d be cheating ourselves out of a blast if we didn’t play our songs.

FFanzeen: There seems to be a contingent of people who belie that garage bands should be playing these more and more obscure songs.
Paul: If you’re not really into it that much, it’s hard to really get a hold of these things, and to research all of the material that does exist.

FFanzeen: That mentality –
Jon: I understand what you are saying. “First of all, there are very strict rules to be a garage band. Do not make innovations. Do not change the sound.  Go out of your way to get the right fuzz Vox and the right fuzz note setting. Go out of your way to get it no matter how much it costs.” The reason this gets so much bad press is because you have to have the money for the clothes, you have to have the money for the records, and for the instruments. But I think those boundaries are open enough to write just as good a song and to cover those songs, because they’re great, so there’s nothing wrong with it.
Graham: We wouldn’t be able to write them if we didn’t play them. We wouldn’t dare take an original song or an idea for a song and use it to our extremes without having been able to play so many covers exactly the way they were played.
Jon: You might say it’s almost fanatical, to really like something to that point, and a lot of the people who like the sound are  collectors. It’s the last thing that they own. This is the last sound that we own that hasn’t been screwed over by disco. It’s the last thing that has not been screwed up by the guy wearing a dress telling us to dance [Boy George – RBF, 2023]. This is something you can’t let go. We just won’t let it go. The people who like this sound, they get really pissed, and I don’t blame them, if the sound gets too blah. It’s not an exercise. It’s not difficult for us at all, what we do. Other bands seem contrived or seem to work too hard at being a ‘60s band, and that’s not true. It’s the most second-nature, natural thing to do. I do not think anyone who listens to this music resents original tunes. I think they resent tunes that are complete rip-offs, or else they just don’t compare. The only songs they know are the really good ones. And only the really, really good ones make it on the compilations, not the bad ones.

FFanzeen: It seems a lot of people play this game of” Let’s see who can play the most obscure tune.” Sort of like a competition.
Jon: That’s true. We don’t like that. But it’s not done with any malice.  It’s not done, like, “We’re in this club and you can’t join.” They just go in these, like, warehouses and search; and it’s a gas when you finally find something. Some of our best times on the road and stuff is to hit the local record shop, beat the guy silly, and go down to the basement and go through all their records.

FFanzeen: I like to go out on weekends to the suburbs and hit –
Paul: – Tag sales.
Jon: You get little old ladies with stacks that have been sitting in closets for years. Records and clothes. right, Pat? Looking for the perfect shirt?

FFanzeen: And you play music to support your habit, right?
Jon: And a few others.

FFanzeen: As far as collectors go, I’ve been, like, snubbed by a few of these people because, say, I didn’t know every Yardbirds song ever done. “You’re not worth talking to –“
Jon: Oh, man! That’s part of the whole  underlying attitude of this scene going on. People are, “What’s that?” “What’s that?” Passing cassettes around and stuff, but there’s  so much being resurfaced, there’s even less emphasis on that now. I think. Except for the hardcore people; the collectors.
Paul: With us, it’s a matter of sharing, ‘cause we can get up there and do it. DJs are like that, too. They like playing their collections for people.

FFanzeen: To me, collecting records is not paying $35 for an obscure single, it’s going to a garage sale and finding it for a dime. If  someone comes up to me and says, “I’ve got so-and-so by the Hurd,” and I ask “How much did you pay for it?” and he says “$35,” I say, who gives a  shit. Anyone can get it for that money.
Paul: Well, there’s different levels of being a collector, too. You go through that phase of practically having everything, and then you make a list of things you don’t have. Or if you have a double in your collection, you might trade it for something else. But that’s the upper echelon collector.

FFanzeen: But that’s business-like. I do it for fun.
Graham: It’s like, to be able to turn people on to a sound, of when there was a naivete in rock’n’roll, and stuff like that.
Jon: Yeah! Every once in a while, someone will send us a tape of good music. We don’t care if it’s on tape.

FFanzeen: I prefer vinyl because it melts down better to be shot straight into the arm of a true vinyl junkie!
Jon: We’re just enthusiasts.

(ffoto by Robert Barry Francos)

Jon continued to be an enthusiast. He took the CaveStomp! into the new century (I saw one at CBGBs with ? and the Mysterians, the Lyres, etc.), that brought out the newer garage bands, as well as those classic performers. Little Steven (of the E Street Band and now has a podcast) picked up the financial slack and put a large part of himself into the movement that, hopefully, will not die. And while the second Vipers album did not come out, and the band is gone into the ether, what they were striving for, hopefully survives.