Thursday, September 30, 2010

DVD Review: “Pearl Jam: Under Review”

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images from the Internet

Pearl Jam: Under Review
Directed by Alan Westbrook
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Sexy Intellectual, 2010
90 minutes, USD $19.95

To tell the truth, grunge never did much for me. Yeah, I’ve liked bits here and there, but as a movement it just sounded like rehashed navel-gazing soft metal rock (nascent emo?). To me, the real balls of the 1990s Seattle music scene was with the women, like Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill. But they were given a different name, Riot Grrrls, so they were historically segregated (even if the term came from them).

That being said, I was looking forward to watching this British documentary. Pearl Jam’s been around for 20 years and I’ve never followed them, so I wanted to learn what was going on. And I sorta found out.

What I mean by “sorta” is I have a bunch of issues with the talking head experts (no women, even though they did much of the writing about the local scene in fanzines back then) picked for this particular video. Usually director Alan Westbrook does a great job, but here he chose mostly mainstream music writers from around the country, contributors to - and editors of - publications such as Rolling Stone, Spin, and The Village Voice; there is a local Seattle writer that has published some grunge-based books, and all of them seem to be knowledgeable, but they are incredible sycophantic to the band and don’t just dabble in hyperbole, but immerse in it. Some quotes I pulled include: “[Pearl Jam are] holding the torch for good old rock’n’roll,” “There is probably no band in America more respected by fans and by other musicians, certainly,” and “Pearl Jam is one of the most important bands of the last two decades in American Music.” Really?

A bunch of Seattle bands are mentioned, such as Nirvana (duh), Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Mother Love Bone. Again, no women, not even Hole. Anyway, after the death of Mother Love Bone’s lead singer Andy Wood via OD on the cusp of their album being released (talk about bad timing, eh wot?), the band splintered and then took on some new members. With Eddie Vedder moving up from So. Cal to become lead vox, they transformed, after another name change, into Pearl Jam. Vedder himself is interviewed about the band in a couple of clips shown from 1996.

Ignoring local labels like the groundbreaking SubPop (not being critical about that; I have no problem with a band signing to a major), they broke nationally with their first album, Ten. As big as their first release was, their second, Vs. was even larger, selling over a million copies the first week (breaking a record). This was their first (and wise) association with producer Brendan O’Brien, who made their sound rougher, much to the glee of the critics on this film.

One area addressed on Under Review is the supposed feud between Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Vedder, and it’s pretty much trashed (Kurt started it by calling Pearl Jam “careerists”), with the blame going to the media who was looking to start a fight between the only major bands from the same town.

Their third release, Vitalogy is described by one critic here as better than the Who. Nah, don’t buy it. The Who were four incredible lead musicians; with Pearl Jam, and this is actually something I had a problem with in this documentary, pretty much all the viewer hears about is Eddie Vedder. The moody Vedder did this; the introspective Vedder wrote that. This is Pearl Jam, not Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam. I was interested in hearing about the band as a whole, not the 99.9% devoted to its lead singer and songwriter. I couldn’t tell you one person who was in the band, as each is usually mentioned by name once in the 90 minutes once they form as PJ.

The seclusion for their noble tout at the windmill called Ticketmaster is a key part of the center of the study, and rightfully so. I was so rooting for PJ on this, but even at the time I was not convinced it was going to succeed. If more bands would have stood by and taken the same stance, possibly, but no single band, no matter how big, could have stopped the money-grabbing monster that is TM, who set the model for all other ticket scam-artists – I mean sellers (and government officials, such as the dubious Mayor of New York, Mike "Buy the Election" Bloomburg, made ticket-scalping fees legal).

All the "official" Pearl Jam albums are covered in some detail (including comments by two of their studio engineers), but what interested me was their 120+ “bootleg” releases of every show on a particular tour, which was a brilliant idea; unfortunately, it is only lightly talked about here. This was a groundbreaking concept, and I wanted to learn about how it came about and how successful it actually was, but other than mentioning it happened in a passing moment, that was it for this DVD.

Now Pearl Jam have their own label (Monkeywrench) on which they released their last album, Backspacer. There are a bunch of side projects the band members have been working on, like Vedder’s solo Into the Wild, but not much is talked about there.

Twenty years after their first album, they are the only “grunge” band still around from that place at that time, and still selling out showplaces. Great for them, truly. What I came away with from this documentary is less than I was hoping, and it is certainly less critical than most of this British series (even with the albums that those here say were not as powerful as the earlier ones, such as No Code).

If you’re a fan of the band, well, there’s much to get off on, including a lot of live performance clips and some from their early videos (before they stopped making them, apparently), and detailed descriptions of Vedder’s role in society and to his followers, but I found it a little hollow, and a bit disingenuous due to the glorification of Vedder-er-er-er (supposed to sound like an echo).

The extras are slim, being the contributor bios and an only fair-quality audio interview with Vedder and drummer Matt Cameron (who does most of the talking, natch) while they were on tour in Berlin in 2009.

Well, one thing this documentary did do is inspire me to go to a video sharing site and check out some of their music. That's something.



Tuesday, September 28, 2010

DVD Review: “The Rolling Stones, 1969-1974: The Mick Taylor Years”

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The Rolling Stones, 1969-1974: The Mick Taylor Years (Limited Collector’s Edition)
Directed by Alex Westbrook
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Sexy Intellectual, 2010
99 minutes, USD $19.95

The Rolling Stones are a three-act play, all positioned around lead guitar: The first was the Brian Jones early period (1962-1969), the middle were the Mick Taylor years of growth (1969-1974), and then there is the Ronnie Wood time of pop malaise and decline (1974-present). Obviously, from the title, this British telley documentary deals with the center portion.

While I’m more of a Brian Jones era kinda guy, there is no doubt that the Rolling Stones had a growth spurt under Mick Taylor’s tenure that was bolstered in part by (and not given enough credit for here) producer Jimmy Miller a nice (though drug addled) Brooklyn boy who was very approachable the few times I met him in Joe Viglione’s kitchen in the 1980s.

The difference between the Brian Jones and Mick Taylor phases of the Rolling Stones is sort of like silver-era DC and Marvel Comics, relatively: DC had one issue complete stories with exemplary yet uncomplicated art, while Marvel was into pushing the envelope with story arcs and art by, well, Jack Kirby – the Mick Taylor of comics - at his finest.

During his five-and-a-half years with the Stones, Mick Taylor worked on five albums that ranged from some of the more musically adept the band were to produce to signs of spinning out of control.

Before I jump ahead, I would like to comment that one of the many things I liked about this particular documentary is that when it says it covers the Stones during the Mick Taylor years, it means the focus is on the Stones part, not just the Mick Taylor influence. They use his tenure as a guide rather than a solitary viewing direction. That being said, I recommend watching the extra first here, which is a 6 minute short, hosted by the oft-Chrome Dreams-used writer Alan Clayson and musician extraordinaire, John Mayall, which tells of Taylor’s pre-Stones life, with Clayson handling the beginning, and Mayall describing Taylor’s influence in the Bluesbreakers. This will set the viewer up nicely for the main feature.

As with many of the Alex Westbrook British bios, this one is well researched and the wide use of clips covers the topic well, including bits by the band (here, mostly live cuts) and some of the other music discussed as influences, or that, say, Keith was into at the moment. There are no complete songs, but that’s okay because that’s not what this is all about.

The selection of experts here is well chosen, generally, including the aforementioned Clayson and Mayall, and includes guitarist (of the Only Ones and Pink Fairies) and writer John Perry, some music historians like Nigel Williamson, Robert Greenfield, and Robert “D-“ Christgau, and Exile on Main Street studio musicians Al Parkins (of the Burrito Bros. on steel guitar) and Bill Plummber (bass). Even a puffy Mick Taylor has a recent, if brief interview toward the end of the program(me) concerning his leaving the Stones. What I want to know is where are all the commentary by the women in the Stones’ world? Where’s Marianne Faithful? Anita “pretty-pretty” Pallenberg? Surely there are female authors or experts on the period? There is a lot of testosterone on this documentary.

Okay, getting back to the subject at hand…

The first single Mick Taylor worked on for the Rolling Stones was the killer “Honky Tonk Women.” His fretwork sets fire to it. Taylor’s first live performance with band was the concert two days after Brian Jones’ drowning (recommended reading on Jones’s death: A.E. Hotchner’s 1990 Blown Away). Talk about pressure for the 20 year old guitar wizard.

While recording their LP, Let It Bleed (produced by Jimmy Miller), the first with Mick Taylor and their eighth in total, a lot of the ideas were from previous sessions, and Taylor was as much a session man as a key member. At this point, there is a discussion on the DVD about the influence of both Taylor and Altamont on the band (opposite poles, but both substantial).

Here, the documentary veers away from Taylor specifically and into the life of the band, when they realize that they were broke and kicked out Allen Klein, a lesson the Beatles had already learned. They start their own record company, attached to Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records. Their first release was Sticky Fingers, on which Keith was heavily influenced by U.S. country music via Gram Parsons (e.g., “Wild Horses”), much to Jagger’s dismay, according to this telling. This record also produced their monster hit “Brown Sugar.” Drugs started to make more of an appearance with the likes of “Moonlight Mile.” While Keith’s (and Brian before him) substance abuse is mention frequently in this, everyone else is left untouched. Whether Taylor (or the rest of the band) was imbibing is not a topic mentioned, but I wondered.

Next up was Exile on Main Street (produced by Miller), like the Beatles’ White Album, sort of a conglomeration as much as anything else, created in the studio. It was started in the south of France, with the full band present, but thanks to a drug raid of Keff’s palace (which doubled as their recording studio) and a need to am-scray as ast-fay as ossibe-pay, Keith and Jagger went to L.A. by themselves, and recorded a bulk of the album using studio musicians, such as Parkins and Plummber. The sound ended up being arguably muddy, and many critics were lukewarm to it, but it is still considered by many to be the Stones’ best release. “Tumbling Dice” was the only cut that Taylor was given any writing credit for, on any album, a bone of contention with him (and rightfully so, as any band that has long guitar solos deserves to have the guitarist given writing credit). It’s at this point, also noted here, that the Stones – that is Keith and especially Jagger due in part to his marriage to Bianca Perez Morena de Macias (who is mentioned in passing) – became socialite butterflies who were know for, as they state here, “being famous for being famous” as much as being musicians.

Goat’s Head Soup, the last Miller produced for the band, is acknowledged by some of the critics here as having less soul, and rehashing of old ideas (one claims that “Dancing with Mr. D” is just a follow-up to “Sympathy for the Devil”), leaning more towards pop than rock, or as one critic here posits, “Where it all starts to go wrong.” It was a No. 1 album that had lukewarm critic enthusiasm, and one big hit: “Angie.”

For the It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll LP, Jagger and Richards produced it themselves as the “Glimmer Twins.” Many consider this their last album before they hit the skids, including some of the experts here (or, as one eloquently states, “they peaked”). But driven by lack of appreciation through being ignored for songwriting credit and tensions within the band, Taylor left after it was released to join the Jack Bruce Band (good luck with that!).

There are some good still pictures at this point, including one of Taylor jamming with Hendrix, as the documentary closes up. There lots of good details here, some great live footage of the band, and plenty of anecdotes, that makes this an interesting watch. I was a DC guy, but I – er – Marvel and appreciate what the Stones accomplished at this growth stage. Meanwhile, I think I’m going to go listen to Hot Rocks now…

Friday, September 24, 2010

DVD Review: “Eric Clapton: The 1960s Review”

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images from the Internet

Eric Clapton: The 1960s Review
Directed by Alex Westbrook
Sexy Intellectual, 2010
120 minutes, USD $19.95

When I was in school during the early ‘70s, there was some standard bathroom graffiti, such as “Frodo Lives”, “I Grok Spock,” and “Clapton IS God.” At the time I wasn’t into Middle Earth, being a Stranger in a Strange Land, or music that much (that would start in 1975), so they were all lost on me back then.

Over the years, I have come to understand all of them (and even appreciate some). Which leads me to another anecdote: during the ‘60s, while I was in a 3-week long sleepaway camp as a tyke in the ‘60s, the only record anyone thought to bring was the 45 of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” When we had a social, it was all we played that summer (I don’t remember them ever playing the other side the entire time). When we wanted to slow dance, it was played at 33-1/3. When we wanted to let loose, it was at 78 rpms. For sing-around-the-campfires we vocalized to social justice songs by the likes Phil Ochs (“Draft Dodger Rag”) and Buffy Ste. Marie (“Universal Soldier”), but when we wanted to dance, it was always “Sunshine.”

Eric Clapton was the guitarist in some of the most outstanding bands of the late ‘60s British music scene, which went from being blues based to full-on rock, from the Yardbirds in 1966, to Bluesbreakers, then Cream, and ending the decade with Blind Faith. All of them relied heavily on Clapton’s wicked fretwork. He could do a solo for more than 20 minutes (especially when stoned out of his gourd, as he was frequently toward the later part of the decade).

This two-hour British documentary starts off with his childhood where he discovered American Blues 78s (first acoustic Delta, then electrified Chicago), and quickly learned to play them as a young teen. He joined a loose band of fellow Blues fans known as the “Roosters,” before meeting Giorgio Gomelsky (whom I have met more than once in the 1980s, while working at a recording studio in Manhattan; he was licensing out Yardbirds cuts) and then joining the Yardbirds. Whichever one of the Yardbirds’ three top-notch guitarists you think is best – Clapton, Jeff Beck, or Jimmy Page – Eric started it off. Of course, he quit after recording their biggest hit, “Heart Full of Soul,” as he felt it was not pure enough blues. As time went on into other bands, he would become more commercial sounding, leaning towards pop more than Blues. Thankfully, this documentary addresses that peculiarity (you’ll have to see it to find out which side it comes out on).

The whole “God” thing started, though, when Clapton joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. It’s kind of ironic that he was associated with being a god when he was so influenced during this period by Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the devil (Clapton would later do the song “Crossroads” about Johnson, while in Cream). He left that band due to lack of moneymaking potential. He definitely was ambitious.

My interest in Clapton’s career, for reasons stated above, is in the Cream period, where he had a contentious relationship with his two other band mates, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. While I found this era to be my favorite of his career in general, to me his best song is still “Layla,” but that was in the ‘70s while being in Derek and the Dominos, so it is not covered here (therefore, I digress…). This band would be short lived, though, because they quickly found they just did not get along, even with pharmaceuticals (according to Pattie Boyd’s whiney autobio, Wonderful Tonight, he was often in an alternative state).

One of the more fascinating points in the documentary discusses in some length the relationship between Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, who came to England and jammed on stage with Cream, basically blowing Clapton away. I’ve heard two different versions of Clapton’s feelings about Hendrix, one being jealous and the other being admiring. This documentary leans towards… well, again, you’ll have to see it.

A point of interest in seeing this documentary at this moment comes with the timing of having just read Cheetah Chrome’s new autobio, A Dead Boy’s Tale. Both the Dead Boys’ second LP and much of Clapton’s Cream material were both recorded by the same producer, Felix Pappalardi, with opposite results. The material of Cream was certainly more suited for Pappalardi’s style, as he worked on the likes of “Sunshine” and “Strange Brew.”

By the time Clapton got to Blind Faith, with Steve Winwood, I still found the storyline interesting in the documentary, though musically I found the band to be an utter bore (the Ramones explained to me why). Clapton went from Blues to pop to sheer masturbatory guitar noodling (Jimmy Page would suffer the same fate with Zepp).

Narrator Thomas Arnold takes the viewer along on the ride, and fortunately does so by keeping our interest. As with other Chrome Dream documentaries, there is a lot of pieces of music, so we get to hear Clapton’s changes over time, and there are even a few brief interviews with him, from 1968, 1991, 2005 and 2006.

There are many talking heads explaining just who Clapton was, what he accomplished, and what he was like in person, such as Yardbirds members Top Tophan and Chris Dreja (whom Clapton replaced, and constantly looks like he’s pained by the experience), John Mayall, Manfred Mann’s Tom McGuiness and Paul Jones, and the irascible Neil Innes, who was in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (not to mention the lead Rutle). Other associates include the Cream road manager Ben Palmer and Bill Haverson, the engineer for many of Clapton’s work at the time. Of course, rock journalist Alan Clayson, who not only wrote the bio for Cream and its members, but it seems is on just about every documentary put out by Chrome Dreams. They all paint a picture of the man of that time.

I find some of the people not interviewed kind of interesting, such as the aforementioned Pattie Boyd and Giorgio Gomelsky, Robert Stigwood (who managed Blind Faith), or even Steve Winwood (who I would rather hear talk than play). Also not addressed is his substance abuse (did you see how stoned he was in the film Tommy, singing/stumbling through “Eyesight to the Blind”? Yes, I know, it was the ‘70s again, but it started in the ‘60s).

The two hour length was just the right amount of time, and amazingly I found myself engaged straight through. The balance of clips and interviews kept the pace going nicely, and I definitely learned something about Eric Clapton, and his musical process of the period.

There are three interesting short documentaries as extras. The first one is about the lead up to the Yardbirds backing up one of their idols, Sonny Boy Williams, at the Crawdaddy Club in England. Another is Paul Jones discussing Eric Clapton’s Powerhouse, a studio group formed in 1966 that really deserved more attention as my knowledge of them is pretty limited. The last is engineer Bill Haverson’s amusing tale of a missing guitar foot peddle while recording Cream’s “Badge.”

While not authorized by Eric Clapton, this documentary is fair and seems somewhat comprehensive (other than bits I’ve mentioned above). Certainly he comes across favorably, and as he is a major musical figure of the time, apparently deservedly so.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

DVD Review: “Orlok, the Vampire” in 3D, dir FW Murnau

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images from the Internet

Orlok, the Vampire
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Quality Cheese, 2009
Appx 90 minutes, USD $12.95

It was a mix of cultures and styles, German Expressionist Cinema and British manners, and a legal battle that would be among the first in the burgeoning film business of Europe that resounded worldwide.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922, was more than loosely based on Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula, nine years before Bela Lugosi would portray the villainous vampire on film, and decades before the throat-biters would narrowly be seen meekly as sensitive heartthrobs and adversaries for werewolves (and other, less brooding bloodsuckers).

Stoker’s family sued over the copyright, and won. All known copies were ordered destroyed, and it joined Edison’s Frankenstein as one of the great “lost” early film prints. But as with cinematic dinosaurs, nature finds a way, and prints started turning up over the years. As an ironic note, it was no longer under copyright during the advent of the VCR, so copies of it were everywhere, usually on cheap brands at low rez speed (ELP). I had an 8mm Blackhawk Films 200’-reel (20 minutes) version, and one of the bad VHS dubs.

Thus we come to this new release, retitled Orlok, the Vampire… in 3D, yet! Being an old black & white film, it makes total sense this could use the older technology of green and red separation. Two paper glasses are included, I should add.

All copies I’ve seen of this film over the years are a bit scratchy, and it seems each have a different set of title cards; the character names vary among the original book and the film. For example, the real estate agent in Dracula was Jonathan Harker, and in Nosferatu it was Thomas Hutter, but in this new release, it is Jonathan Hutter, a mixture of both.

It is easy to identify who is who from book to film, and Stoker was right to sue (in subsequent copies, Stoker is listed as writer). There is a bit of a stir-up here, though (as Akira Kurosawa also did with Shakespeare’s plays), such as Hutter’s boss, Knock, turning into a “Renfield,” bug-eating character.

There is no denying that this is a groundbreaking and thoroughly effective, creepy film. Max Schreck, as Graf [Count] Orlok, is even more tall, stiff, hunched, and lanky than Phantasm’s “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm). Schreck presents a precedent-setting evil figure. Many elements of Murnau version have become iconic, such as Orlok’s raising out of his grave from horizontal to vertical while stiff as a board, used in Coppola’s Dracula and the 1979 remake by Werner Herzog; it’s been copied more than Potemkin’s baby carriage step-bounce (just imagine all the scenes that Brian De Palma could have – er – honored if he had made a remake).

There are so many other moments of brilliance in Mureau’s version, such as Orlok face sticking through his busted wooden coffin lid, when he stalks Ellen (Mina) from the window across the courtyard, or when the shadow of Orlok’s hand “grabs” Ellen’s heart. Without the exaggeration common in German Expressionism such as Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari, this film still retains much of its eerie flavor nearly 90 years later.

The print here is decent, though I do dream of a “restored” version (but as far as I know one does not exist). As for the 3D effects, added by Chris Heuer, it should be pointed out that not all of it is in that format, reserved mainly for scenes with the vampire, the title cards, and the occasional bat used for separating acts (though it goes by so fast, it’s hard to tell if it actually is in 3D with the glasses). The new soundtrack is a bit too fluffy and not sinister enough though, and the grunts and noises the characters make are a bit distracting, so I recommend watching it with the sound off, or turned way down.

This film is a classic. It’s still a joy to watch for me, even after a number of viewings over the years. The camera work and editing is revolutionary, and the actors are still sharp (though they do the typical hands-flinging-about emoting that was common in silent films, a throwback from the non-amplified theater stages. Orlok - even in 3D - is worth a see, and re-viewing.

There are limited extras here, and in fact, there are strangely no chapter breaks, so if you stop and start again, you have to zoom to your last spot. However, there are two different versions on the DVD, one with the 3D and one in normal 2D. Also, there is a bizarre introduction by Troma master Lloyd Kaufman, who does what I’m pretty sure is an off-the-cuff spiel that is so ludicrous – and hysterically funny – that he even refers to this 1922 film as a remake of Schindler’s List! Can a 3D Toxie be far behind?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review: “A Dead Boy’s Tale” by Cheetah Chrome

Text and live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen
Book cover image and video from the Internet

A Dead Boy’s Tale: From the Front Lines of Punk Rock
By Cheetah Chrome
MBI Publishing / Voyageur Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2010
368 pages; USD $24.00 / CAN $27.00W
ISBN: 978-0-7603-3773-8

I really don’t know Cheetah Chrome. Yeah, I saw him in the Dead Boys quite a few times, including many shows opening for the Damned, and a couple of the Johnny Blitz benefits at CB’s. Then there was the Skels, when Julia Masi and I interviewed him and hung out with the band for an afternoon, with Julia taking photos of them on St. Mark’s Place. Nancy Foster and I also saw him pair up with John Spacely at the Johnny Thunders memorial in the early ‘90s. It’s been more than a dozen shows, and we’re Facebook friends, but I really don’t know Cheetah Chrome.

Thanks to his new (and hopefully first) autobiography, A Dead Boy’s Tale: From the Front Lines of Punk Rock , just released by Voyageur Press, I have a better idea of the man behind the blazing guitar.

Despite a long history of erratic behavior and substance abuse, Cheetah’s still here… well, in Nashville, anyway. Many of the people discussed in the book are not, such as Stiv Bators, Peter Laughner, Johnny Thunders, Joey Ramone, Hilly Krystal (and his dog Jonathan), Ron Ashton, John Spacely… Fortunately, his synapses survived as well, enough to write an autobiography on his life-thus-far.

The book is dense as he describes growing up in a poor area of Cleveland, as he turns from orange haired tyke to teen, getting in and out of trouble, and one can argue that the detail is perhaps too much (hell, everyone really wants to hear those back stage and road stories, right?), but I argue that Cheetah cleverly sews a solid picture of what he is to be, prefacing his rise to relative prominence by describing his finding of music as a force, his various guitars, and the early hints of indulgences.

[Dead Boys during Blitz Benefit at CBGB's]

On the other hand, I found the last quarter of the book to be a bit thin, without mention of some of his work, like with the Skels (other than in the preface), focusing more on his fighting addiction than making music. Yeah, it’s in there, but as he made music a hobby rather than a career (his description) at one point, for his own health, he talks more about his life off the road than on. Perhaps he thought we would be more interested only in his earlier work? Or maybe the book company gave him a limit of pages? It’s possible that he was zonked out and just doesn’t remember that period well?

But don’t get me wrong, this work keeps the reader interested from beginning to end, and I am hoping that the less detailed spots are just lead-up to the next book (From a Dead Boy to a Live Man, may I suggest as a title, with a firm nudge and smile?). And rather than just whining about his addictions or glorifying them (like Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries), Cheetah’s approach is just to talk as himself, without trying to justify or damn his actions and experiences much. It’s a brave stance, and one that should be applauded.

The key focus of the book is from Rocket From the Tombs, through especially his Dead Boys period in the ‘70s. There is lots of Pete Moon level machismo bravado, destroyed hotel rooms, and sexual hijinks, much of it fuel by, well, you know. Lots of it will make you laugh, some of it will make you wince, and, well, other than the performances, may make you glad to be reading it from a distance of time. I remember being backstage at CBGB’s in 1977, for example, talking to the Dead Boys, and keeping my finger over the mouth of my beer as they were infamous for peeing in any open drink they could find, in good fun of course.

While Cheetah may not have the lyrically poetic background of a Carroll (I’m happy to say), he certainly is a fine writer and a strong wit, while describing his life. He is blunt, takes blame where it is his, rarely makes apologies, and even makes his ex-, the strong-willed Gyda Gash, look favorable despite their famously volatile time together. When he doesn’t like someone, however, he also does not hold back, such as the producer of the Dead Boys’ second LP, a colossal failure, the legendary (and wrong choice) Felix Pappalardi (who was later shot to death 5 years later by his wife).

It is ironic that Slash would supply the quote on the cover, rightfully stating Cheetah’s contribution to rock’n’roll. Their biographies are actually quite similar in thread (though Cheetah’s does not bludgeon the language with numerous repitions, as Slash does with “all things considered…). They are both from rough neighborhoods and family life, found solace in sex and drugs and music (specifically on guitar), are quite frank about their excesses, and have achieved a modicum of success. It’s true that Slash’s star rose higher, but honestly, if I had a choice between “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sonic Reducer,” the latter would win every time. Cheetah intrigues me more and his book is definitely more satisfying (I will keep this one, and have just sold Slash’s hardcover at a garage sale for $1, if that helps give you an idea).

[At the Johnny Thunders memorial]

There are some cool B&W photos throughout (I’ve included a couple of my own here, that are not not in the book, so there), and the pages, well, they just fly by.

This is a joy to read, and I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who is interested in an early view of what would become punk rock and arguably, in the Dead Boys’ case, proto-hardcore. I want to personally thank Cheetah for being so forthcoming, bringing me joyous hours listening to him play, getting the chance to read about his life, and for being true to who he is, whether it’s in a pharmaceutical haze of his early days or his straight living now.

After you finish reading this, get Young, Loud and Snotty and blast it, and check out some of his other contributions (a discography would have been a nice addition, but here is one online:

Finally, I want to add that the forward to the book by Legs McNeil is a fun read not just because he was there and is a punk “name,” but he sets up, through personal experience, a view into Cheetah’s mindset.

And check for Cheetah’s new band, Batusis (with Sylvain Sylvain) who are touring.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Oh, How They Danced...

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Photos from the RBF Archive

This month would have been the 62nd wedding anniversary of my parents, Leo Francos and Helen Rosen Francos. In their honor I present some photo memories...

The 1948 wedding.

The honeymoon in Quebec.

My brother, Richard, a neighbor, and my mom in the very early days of the '50s. I'm not sure where this was taken.

They were known for their parties in the '50s. This is from a Halloween bash. Helen was a socialite, my dad at the other end of the spectrum, a beatnik.
The '60s had the Francos family dressed for a cousin's wedding.
Richard's bar mitzvah in 1965. I'm the big earred kid on the right. Leo and Helen was very happy that day.
The whole family waiting for the crowd to celebrate my bar mitzvah in 1968. My brother had a cool sense of fashion. Dressed up for another cousin's wedding in the early '70s.
They went back to Quebec on a family vacation in 1970, going to Montreal, Quebec City, and Niagara Falls. It was the first time I went to Canada. I took this photo somewhere in Quebec.

Helen passed away on June 25, 1981, and Leo on December 11, 2007.

RIP mom and dad.

Friday, September 17, 2010

DVD Review: “I Need That Record!”

Text and live photos © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen
Film images from the Internet

I Need That Record!: The Death (or Possibly Survival) of the Independent Record Store
Directed, produced and written by Brendan Toller
See of Sound, 2009
77 minutes, USD $14.95

We all know of an indie record store that has closed, such as Jennifer Flynn’s Home of the Hits in Buffalo, NY (nee Play It Again Sam’s) and Friday Night Dave Olka’s Record Mine, in Kenmore, NY. They were places to meet with friends, get a few lessons (be it historical or what was new on the shelves) from fellow collectors and/or lovers of music, or just to spend some time browsing and checking the racks on one’s own. The local stores are suffering and shuttering throughout the land, and this process is the focus of the documentary I Need That Record!, including places in Connecticut, Nashville, Minnesota, Dayton, and Chicago.

Let’s start with form. Using lots of interviews with store owners and workers, musicians, and various fans (mostly male, apparently), director Brendan Toller does quite well in taking the focus off of himself (unlike, say, Michael Moore) and places it squarely on the topic at hand (you only hear his voice as narrator and interviewer). He uses stock footage and animation that tends to be manipulated and animated in quite amusing fashions, as well as original art by Matt Newman; he uses these to presents a ton of facts and numbers, without any of it being preachy or distracting, and more importantly it is never boring. Also flowing throughout is a solid soundtrack, including the DVD title by The Tweeds, a few by the Black Keys (including in-store live footage), and the Kinks’ appropriate “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” the latter clearly geared toward the mentality of the collector.

I took notes during the entire DVD and ended up with a few pages, which I won’t repeat here much, but just know that it’s mind-blowing to see just how manipulated the whole independent record store genre is by the major companies and big box corporations. As a collector states here, the big box stored fought to close the indie stores, and then were shuttered themselves by changes in technology. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The storyline is broken up into various sections. The first shows that with the indie stores closing, what is left are mall stores such as Wal-mart, who carry only top 50 releases. W-m sells 1 out of every 5 CDs sold (they also have a clutch hold on magazines, but I’m digressing again). This process was started by major label’s putting “bean counters,” as Legs McNeil says herein, in charge of the companies, answering to the stockholder’s need for profit, rather than a central company head, or even Board, who will nurture talent. Artist and Development was the first to go, and the performer now is expected to have a hit right off, rather than a steady climb to the top. That’s what happened at Sire, with bands like the Dead Boys and DMZ, or at Warner Bros. with Willie Alexander, even back in the ‘70s. Not selling fast enough? Good-bye. Enter homogenization.

The second section of the documentary deals with the corporate end, including what the record companies are willing to do to promote (or not); for example, Good Charlotte (an overrated band in the so-called mainstream punk vein, like Blink 182 or Green Day…yes, I’m going there) got 250 spins at a station for a payout of $17,000 by Sony. Clinton did a “Reagan” by passing the Telecommunications Act in 1996 (sometimes good guys do bad things), thereby removing the restrictions on the number of outlets owned by a single company. Before the Act, less than 65 radio stations were owned by major corporations, and today, Clear Channel alone owns 99.9% of the top 250 markets. That’s why you will hear crap like Limbaugh, but Air America went under. Lady Caca – I mean Gaga – produces “music” that is banal and thumping, and yet is played on every station, or even Good Charlotte types, rather music with any kind of balls like, say, DOA or Anti-Flag (never mind Monty Love or McRackins). No, Clear Channel stations play the same songs 73% of the time*. I’ve never listened to Justin Bieber (Beiber?) or Lady Caca, and yet I know their music just from walking though malls, emanating from storefronts, passing cars, newscasts, etc. It’s a drowning glut.

The next section contends with the blow to independent music dealt by the launch of MTV in the 1980s. Mike Watt, once of the Minutemen, comments widely on this topic in this film. While he sounds a bit disorientated in his manner, what he is saying is quite smart and is worth paying attention. The selectivity of MTV had a strong effect on what was released; if it couldn’t be played on MTV, it wasn’t supported, i.e., if the band didn’t make a video or it was not accepted on the station, it was not promoted.

Wal-mart leads off the next part. They undermine the indie stores by undercutting them. Music and videos are viewed as loss leader by the chain, to get people into the stores, so if they lose money on the music, they more than make up for it by selling the music player. As Rob Miller, of the indie Bloodshot Records label says here quite well, they are more interested in moving product than defining culture. In some markets, indie stores buy their CDs from big box stores to sell in their own shops, because they can get a better deal from them than with the actual major record companies.

Marketing is another section, describing (in part), how CD prices have been rising, making sheer profit for the labels (it is incredibly less expensive to make CDs over vinyl, but the cost to purchase is so much more). Also explained here is how the computer and MP3s are having a major impact on the larger labels, who sued companies like and Napster into freebie non-existence. Despite that, most historic music is ignored by the bigger labels, as 80% of the market sales are through CDs, and yet more than 50% of recorded music is never put on CD.

Here, the opinion of those interviewed varies. For example, Glenn Branca states he likes the value and selection online and buys most of his music that way, but Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth, calls online buying lonely and boring in comparison to record stores. Lenny Kaye eloquently states that he likes the ease of downloading, but misses the “moment in time” connection of what he is buying. Leg McNeil, in his own “I gotta be different and difficult” manner, states he buys online because he is not interested in “community.”

It is here the “possible survival” part comes in, with major labels not being able to cope (yet) with indie releases being so viral, so presently the only place to get them is on-line or at an indie store. With modern technology, anyone can record themselves and sell it. For example, Anthony Kapfer of Brooklyn has been promoting releases by his own bands, such as Kung Fu Grip, quite well without the help of a label; you’re likely to find his CDs online or at indie stores, because big box chains are not going to deal with his sales level, but that won’t stop him or like-minded musicians like him.

Between these DIY artists and a resurgence in vinyl, which will not be found in big box stores, there will be a need for the chance of an indie store revival. Meanwhile, I have found many of the “community” of collectors meeting haphazardly over boxes of vinyl or CDs at garage sales and flea markets (implied in this film). Collectors will find a way, and hopefully, so will the indie stores. As more and more chains fold, such as Tower and Virgin, this may open a vacuum of need for a way to find those hard to locate bands.

I have only touched a tip of what is expressed in I Need That Record!, a well made release that should serve as a wake-up call to the way music is distributed, and the tributaries surrounding that output.

The extras are quite interesting, consisting of over two hours of longer interview pieces by people who comment throughout the film, such as DIY do-or-die Ian MacKaye (whose comments about listening to the radio are priceless), Mike Watt, Thurston Moore (who comes across as a sweet guy who you would be likely to meet at a record shop talking over tunes), an annoyingly abrasive Leg McNeil, Lenny Kaye (who I feel said the most heartfelt comments), and an appropriately abrasive chain-smoking Glenn Branca (who helped start the No Wave movement in the late ‘70s).

Fortunately, there are still many great indie stores out there hanging on, such as House of Guitars in Irondiquoit, NY, Rockit Scientist and Bleecker Bob’s in Greenwich Village, Turn it Up! In Northampton, MA, and Vinyl Diner, Vinyl Exchange, and Tramps in Saskatoon.

For me, this documentary made me think of some die-hard record collectors I’ve known in my life, such as (in no particular order) Bernie Kugel, Mad Louie the Vinyl Junkie, Friday Night Dave, the Doctor of Madness, Joe Viglione, Mike McDowell, Kenne Highland, Tom Bingham, Jeff Tamarkin, Greg Prevost, Cary Baker, Gary Pig Gold, Bruce Farley Mowat, Joe Bonomo, Richie Unterberger, Miriam Linna and Billy Miller, and so many others. We’re out there, and we will find each other one way or another.

* In the early ‘80s, I got into an argument with talk show host / record company exec Jonathan “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” King about what he considered successful radio, which consisted of just this very commonality and replaying of records over and over. I’m sorry to say it looks like the was ahead of his time, and he won.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

DVD Review: “Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated”

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images from the Internet

Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated
Curated by Mike Schneider, directed by George Romero
Wild Eye, 2009
101 minutes, USD $16.95

Julie Andrews could have sung, if her tastes were more similar to mine, “music and horror and comics and White Castle / These are a few of my favorite things.” Okay, so the first and last of those are not the focus of this review, but the middle two are, with joyous abandon.

The assumption here is that if you’re reading this review, you’ve seen George Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 zombie classic, Night of the Living Dead, most likely more than once, if not more than 10. It’s familiar, comfortable, and still a pleasure with its angular neo-Germanic Expressionism, and black and white images. Remember the first time you saw it? I have a clear memory of cutting high school in the early ‘70s and going by myself to the Walker Theater in Bensonhurst (now a Mandees store). It was a double Halloween bill, but I have no memory of what the first piece of crap was, though I certainly remember the three hood wannabes behind me who kept kicking my chair between loud, open-mouth breathing (in just a couple of years they would probably be wearing polyester and medallions, and hanging out at 2001 Odyssey). By the time NOTLD was over, as the second feature, we were all sitting together.

That was the first time, but hardly the last. There have been a number of remakes, even by the same team, but none have – or can – live up to the original. But like the zombies, it keeps rising up again and again.

Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated takes a new twist on a now old concept. Previously there have been reissues of films where the dialog has been replaced by something totally different, such as Woody Allen’s spectacular What’s Up Tiger Lily?, and serials from the ‘40s being given the treatment by Firesign Theater. Well, Reanimated takes the opposite approach in two directions: first, they use the actual soundtrack and change the image, and second, this is totally respectful and not a spoof at all (though there are moments of humor, such as one zombie looking a bit like GW Bush).

Here is the concept: Mike Schneider sent out word over the ‘Net via horror Websites to artists for their input to animate the film by any means necessary. With contributions of over 150 individual pieces, he took this work and connected it to the original film. There are still images and animated sections, including line drawing, EC-style comics, Ren & Stimpy type caricatures, claymation, Barbie dolls, computer game styles (including Grand Theft Auto and SIMS), stop-motion photography, puppets, and even a few Ferbies thrown into the mix. While this sounds like a hodgepodge from hell, it actually works fantastically, possibly creating a new genre.

For the still pix, the camera rolls over them giving some sense of motion, and there is hardly a moment where your attention is drawn away (no pun intended). The contributed work is all over the map, some of it quite conceptual and abstract, while others are obviously adapted from the actual film frames (a good example of this is the multiple shots of the same frame of Bill Hinzman, the first zombie seen in the opening cemetery scene – he’s coming to get Barbara – at the car window). All these images and styles are put together like a series of museum pieces (which is why Schneider lists himself as “curator”), but in a constant flow.

This is all done for the love of the art and the film, as those who contributed were not paid to do so, but each is given full credit at the end, and often in the bonus features. Speaking of which, this release is chock full of extras, including animated shorts, great obscure trailers (for Wild Eye films), extended unused scenes, an introduction by horror host Count Gore De Vol, a panel from a horror conference with many of those involved with this project, and two very interesting commentary tracks. The first one deals with the film and this version of it in an almost philosophical bent without being anywhere pretentious (the “art” of the art, zombie cinema, etc.), and the second is how it all came to be in this film, and how the production team created the final outcome). I sat through both without being bored at all.

If Reanimated is successful, perhaps there are other public domain films that can be given this treatment. Of course, it would need to be one that has an audience that has seen it numerous times, enough to get what is going on at any particular time… which brings me to one minor quibble about this release. I would have loved an option to be able to turn on the original version of the film in a smaller window, perhaps in a corner, to compare them. But hey, what the hell, it’s a brilliant concept that is put together in a cohesive albeit jumpy way as it goes from style to style, but it is never distracting to the story.

This is a true homage to a classic piece of cinema.

Bonus video: The opening scene

Unrelated bonus video

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Road Trip to Yellowknife, Day 9: Lac La Biche to Saskatoon

Text and images (c) Robert Barry Francos, 2010
Images can be made larger by clicking on them

On our last day of travel, I awoke early at the Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park campgrounds at Lac La Biche, Alberta. The sun was shining, and it was a bit cool, but a lovely morning. As the campground is on a peninsula, I decided to go and explore a bit on my own. The trail was easy to follow down to the beach, where I saw a number of birds, including pelicans. The trail continued along the riverside to another beach. It was a long way, a mix of boardwalk and dirt trails, but the variety of flowers and mushrooms were splendid, and the lake itself was calm, a good sign for the coming day.

When I came back to camp, John and Ian were starting to prepare breakfast and coffee. Ian pointed out he had spent the night with a bug, and it climbed out when he left. He pointed it out on the tent. It was huge, and one I'd never seen before. Later I heard it had quite a bite, so I'm glad Ian was left intact. Looked like something from a '50s radiation drive-in flick.
Starting the final leg of our journey, we continued on Route 55, which temporarily joined with 36 for a few miles, when we hit construction. In fact, we hit road work in spots a lot all the way back. I started taking pictures of the people holding the Stop sign. One saw me do it, and looked really perplexed, like, "wha?"
Back on a solo 55, we stopped off at a Tim's for coffee at Cold Lake (AB). On the east end of town was these sailboat signs. Our side said "Come Again," and on the other side was a welcoming greeting for Cold Lake.

East of the town of Peerless (AB), there was road paving construction.
Even with all the delays, we made it into Saskatchewan in the very early afternoon, and arrived in Meadow Lake (SK).
We stopped for lunch at the Homestead Family Restaurant and we all had, for some reason, pizza. I know you want to ask, so I'll tell you it was no better or worse than could be gotten in Saskatoon, where the consistent "second best pizza" prize tends to go to Pizza Hut. That should put it in perspective. But I digress...

All around the restaurant, I found some interesting things, so I stopped and took some photos, of course. This sign for a fishing store piqued my interest, perhaps for the leeches, or maybe the fireworks (in idea, not practice).
The Waikiki Motel and Inn had a sign on top that make it appear at first like it was the Coke Motel.
Across the street was this storefront, which appears to be the Nifty '50s Diner and Hercules appliance service shop.
Near the "Coke Motel" was the Fidrock Cafe, made to look like a castle, but with stucco on the edifice.
Behind the Waikiki Lounge (I am assuming it is connected in the back to the Waikiki Motel) is this side door to buy beer by "off sale." I'm sure it's legal, but with that door, it looks kinda shady.
Down another road was a string of chain food stores, even more than those that can be seen here. We liked the idea of the local diner, instead.
When we stopped, the car was coated with dead bugs, including a butterfly that had gotten caught in the driver's doorhandle, somehow. When we were eating, we were seated by a window where we could see the car, and could watch the birds have a field day eating the bugs, and thereby cleaning the car. They did a decent job.

Getting back into the car, I saw this sign. There is a strong religious and conservative movement in the prairies. I shuddered at the message.
When we left Meadow Lake, we headed down highway 4, which took up straight south. Along the way we found this attractive place as we drove by.
At the town of Glaslyn (SK), we turned east again, on route 3. The town has a great grain elevator, which has been kept up. Many are falling into need of repair.
Here is what the newer elevators look like, which are replacing the icon ones.
At Willness (SK), we saw one of the unused elevators, which made me kind of sad. They are such beautiful structures. At one point, this must have been a bustling one because it has an addition to it that is as large as the original.
At Shell Lake (SK), we headed south once again, on the major highway that would take us home. It was getting around dinner time, but we did not stop; we were getting relatively close. We estimated our time of arrival would be around 7 or 8 PM.
Route 12 is beautiful, a mix of different types of landscape, and a diverse joining of farms and towns. In fact, Saskatchewan in general is a lovely place.

Off in the distance near Martin's Lake was this decaying barn, surrounded by a field of canola that was behind in its growth due to excessive rain that has been plaguing the province.
Driving down small (though major) roads in farm territory can be interesting at times. This thrasher came by and took up most of the road. We had to pull over onto the shoulder just so it could get around.The road ahead to pointing straight to home...
...but... as the old Yiddish proverb goes, "make a plan and God laughs."
They dropped me off after 10 PM, but not before I had the chance to check the mileage, of course. The day has been 642 kilometers / 400 miles, with a total of 4570 K / 2840 M for the whole trip, door to door (mine... add another mile in total for John and Ian to get home).

Needless to say it was good to see my partner after 9 days, and to have some eats. It was a joy to sleep in my/our own bed.

The journey was wonderful, filled with places I had never seen before, meeting new people, and having a good buddy bonding experience with new friends.

Footnote: Just a week later, John and Ian wanted to know if I was interested in a drive up to Skagway, Alaska, in a couple of weeks. Wow, these guys are motivated, Jack. I had to say no, because I cannot leave the country yet until I receive my proper documents. They still haven't left yet though, so perhaps it was more of a desire; but it is certainly one I can understand. Certainly, more road trips will follow, but perhaps not until next year.