Monday, May 31, 2010

DVD Reviews: Final 24: Janis Joplin and Keith Moon

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

Janis Joplin: Her Final Hours
Season 2, Episode 4
Directed by Paul Kilback

Cineflix International, 2007
60 minutes, USD $14.95

Keith Moon: His Final Hours
Season 2, Episode 5
Directed by Peter St. Laurent

Cineflix International, 2007
60 minutes, USD $14.95

I had never heard of the Canadian television series (a joint Ontario / Quebec venture) Final 24: A Dramatization, but I want to see the whole series now. It’s a hoot.

Actually, this is a fine mixture of first person interviews, actual footage and photos of the artist, and actors dramatizing the last day in b-roll format (silent under the narration). Through it all is British narrator Danny Wallace (though IMDB states it as Dave McRae) leads us on the journey in flat tones that sound like Neil Innes doing a roving news reporter. The dialog he reads is somber and unintentionally cringe-worthy, with lines like “Little did Janis know that she had just bought the drugs that would kill her in only so-and-so hours.”

But that is part of the charm of this two-season series (here is the list of the people covered: Yes, I realize I’m using humorous terms about the tragic death of humans, but really, after all the media attention over the past 30-plus years, their lives have become more iconic than real; whether this is a good thing or bad, it’s up to the individual to decide.

The last-day vignettes are performed mostly as silent plays (in rare occasion a word or two will break through, such as Keith Moon’s lover screaming “No!” when she discovers him). The actors playing the main roles are interesting choices. Sara Hennessey is an Ontario-based actress and comedian, who plays Janis slinking along in a stupor, mostly, and actually shows some of her own personality, as well as Janis’s. A little lithe and perhaps too pretty for being Janis, she still does an excellent job embodying her, as well as can be done as essentially a mime.

Keith Moon is portrayed by Michael Rode, who is actually miscast. Nothing against the fine acting job he does, but unlike Sara, he looks nothing like Moon: he’s too tall, too thin (remember, this is the last day, so it was Moon at his most bloated, as the film clips and stills attest), and looks too young (even in the narration, it’s posited that all the substance abuse had made him look older than his years).

So that is the entertaining part of the show, but lets get to some meat here: what really makes the program is not necessarily the last 24 hours, which is nicely dissected in increments of events with a digital clock showing how much time the subject has left to live (which is constantly reminded to us by the narration), but the overview of the person’s life. Each of these have present day (relatively) interviews with people who were prominent in the person’s life. For example, in the Janis Joplin episode, some of the musicians that backed her up over the years remember her, including from Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band, and the Full Tilt Boogie Band. There’s also road managers and other acquaintances, including a gushing high school classmate and a somewhat bitter take from her brother Michael. There is no commentary by her sister Laura, though, who wrote a book about Janis.

For the Keith Moon episode, I found the interviews even more interesting (if possible), from Moon’s live-in lover, the stunning Annette Walter-Lax, who discovered his body, and his daughter, Amanda Moon, who comes across as sad and somewhat angry that she didn’t really get to know her dad. Ironically, there is also an interview with Faces’ drummer (and Moon’s good friend) Kenny Jones, who would go on to replace Moon in the Who (though he could never live up to Moon’s standard – but then again, could anyone?). Walter-Lax easily comes across as the most sympathetic, even to this day.

There is also a level of salaciousness that goes through the tone of the pieces, added to by the creepy writing and narration. “In just 10 hours, s/he will be dead,” we are reminded often. There is a large focus on the negatives for the protagonists, whether it’s Janis’s drug intake (though trying to clean up and pointedly failing), easy manner with both men and women, mistreatment back in Ft. Arthur – including her ill-fated attempt to return a star – and her unhappiness with her first two bands. Oh, and then there is the quickie engagement and fight with her boyfriend the night of…well, you know.

With Moon, it’s excess of escapade, the accidental running over and killing of his friend / driver Neil Boland (and the depression that followed), the constant threat of being kicked out of the Who, and the large volume of drink and pharmaceuticals he ingested (though trying to clean up and pointedly failing). The DVD covers state, “These are psychological detective stories attempting to uncover the mystery of why the celebrity died.”

This is the video equivalent of a celebrity magazine, where all the faults are highlighted in yellow, and yet one can’t take their eyes away. I want what I say here to be taken the tongue-in-cheek way I mean it: the Final 24 series is like fast food, but like that fine eating, it is addicting, enjoyable, and you just want more. I’m hoping to get to see the whole series at some point.

Bonus videos:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Road Trip to See the Ghosts, Vol 7: Robsart

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos, 2010

This April, fellow photographer John Penner and I went on a two-day road trip through southwestern Saskatchewan in search of ghost towns.

Many of the houses were left wide open and ranged from either ransacked at some point, or actually relatively intact. The town of Robsart, as of 2001, had 15 people living in the town, in 11 residences, but the town was larger in its existing form, with most buildings abandoned.

Here is the seventh part a photo journal of the trip, with descriptions. There was so much to see in this town, Robsart will be broken up into two blogs. The images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Robsart, Saskatchewan,_Saskatchewan

The Robsart Community Club. It is an interesting looking building, despite its box shape.

Two houses across the street from the Club, and the start of the residential part of the deserted end of town.

The fence falling down in front of the white house (next image).

The white house, in need of a good painting.

Inside the white house. The kitchen still had groceries in the pantry, including a bag of Robin Hood flour, and lots of bug sprays.

The red-and-white striped house.

The fence and bushes to the r-a-w house.

Dead car behind the deceased r-a-w house.

The brown house, stripped of paint.

Car behind the brown house.

Main street of Robsart from the edge of town.

This is the biggest house in town, right at the far edge. It was stripped down to nearly it's roots, with the inner walls exposed. It was kind of scary going in, but the view from the top floor alone was worth it. All that was left in it was a stove and some electrical wiring leftovers.

The view of the town down the main street from the upper floor of the big house.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tom Dickie and the Desires (1980)

Text by Nancy Foster
Opening comments by Robert Barry Francos, 2010
Interview © 1980 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following article about Boston rockers Tom Dickie and the Desires was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #6, in 1980. It was written by Nancy Foster (aka Nancy Neon).

Tom Dickie and the Desires released two albums in their short history:
Competition (1981) and Eleventh Hour (1982), both on Mercury (though Jon Macey has hinted that there is enough recorded material to release another). After their separation, Tom Dickie moved to California and is not in music with any major presence, except for the occasional recording. Jon Macey has had much better luck with the seminal Fox Pass (still existing) and Macey’s Parade.

I saw Macey perform a couple of years ago in Boston with Fox Pass bandmate Steve Gilligan, and have recently reviewed Fox Pass’ latest release,
Intemporel (2009). – RBF, 2010

I was lucky enough to receive Dickie’s demo tape a few months ago. Tom and his combo have recently “pacted” with Phonogram-Mercury and are managed by Tommy Mottola. But never mind that, rock’n’roll is the main issue here.

When I first heard the balladic “Maybe Next Time,” I was impressed with Dickie’s ability to sing at once smoothly and melodically, and still be aggressive and intense – like a romantic Elvis Costello. In fact, the group’s ability to rock-out without sacrificing melody sets them apart from much of the competition.

All songs are co-written by Tom Dickie and Jon Macey (bass). The emotionalism of the lyrics is enhanced by Dickie’s knowledge of phrasing. The music is full of subtleties and creates a wistful tone in “Maybe Next Time.” That one, along with “Twisted Years,” “Change Your Mind,” “Count on You,” “So Sad,” and “I’m the One,” are my personal favorites on the demo tape.

“5x5,” though, instrumentally paints an ominous tableau. Tom Dickie and the Desires often open shows with this ballsy wave to the Stones. However, with a songwriting team as articulate as Dickie / Macey, and a singer as superb as Dickie, to have no lyrics / vocals seem like a waste of microfilm!

“Twisted Years” has that raw, basic Stones bar band feel with psychoanalytic lyrics. The musical dynamics as the verse builds to the chorus are exhilarating. Michael Roy’s guitar work is colorful and tastefully executed. The harmonies are fine and embellish the song as well.

Though “Add Up the Ad Girls” is sarcastic – a piss-take on vacuous fashion models – Dickie’s voice still sounds too polished and sophisticated to convincingly play the male whose mind is boggled by the media whirlpool of pretty, precise images. Hearing the tape alone, one would think it inappropriate for a man of street nobility like Dickie. Yet, live it is a rave-up. Similarly, though, “On the Other Side” seems heavy-handed and a bit plodding on the tape. Live, it kicks with that signature Tom and the Desires’ emphatic punch. Vocally, “On the Other Side” is a virtuoso performance.

“Change Your Mind” is a hit for sure, highlighting sensuous singing, sensitive lyrics, and an obsessive melody. “Burning Up” features the most artistic and probing lyrics. It is reminiscent of a young McCartney in one of those rare moments when he was aggressive and rocked.

“Count On You” and “So Sad” sound especially fabulous back-to-back, like a double A-side! Both are romantic songs with unhappy endings. Still, the melodies and riffs are catchy. These two, along with “Change Your Mind,” would be my picks for singles.

On “Count On You,” Dickie’s vocal pacing and phrasing are perfect. Phrasing is even used with expertise in the graceful musical breaks. Dickie’s voice is wracked with emotion at the end of the song.

“So Sad” is more intense and analytical than “Count On You.” The bridge is beautiful. Once again, Roy’s lead guitar work is elegant and poetic. “Don’t Wait Forever” has cabaret overtones and is philosophic.

During a visit to NYC, Dickie invited me to one of the group’s rehearsals. The Dickie / Macey team was making impressive progress. The new songs are even better than the ones I enjoyed on the demo.

The newer tunes include the authoritative, commanding, even majestic “You’ve Lost,” the smooth, sensuous “She’s a Desire,” and a frocking, bouncy “Downtown Talk.”

“Waiting Waiting” is a disconcerting, explosive rocker on which Macey sings lead currently:

All the women I ever loved
Are waiting in the road
See their faces out there
They will haunt you like a ghost

Macey’s demeanor convinces you that he is truly tormented by specters from this past. The piece de resistance live was “This Song’s About You,” which Dickie belted out with immense passion. It may have been just a rehearsal, but he was giving 500%. Of the new songs, my picks for a (thematic) single would be “You’re Lying to Yourself” and “All Those Lies.” Both have the “melodic and punch” trademark.

Tom Dickie and the Desires should be playing out again soon. They are currently breaking in a new drummer and a keyboard player, both of who are enthusiastic and do justice to the supreme songwriting of Dickie and Macey. See them and have your faith in music restored!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Road Trip to See the Ghosts, Spring 2010: West of Eastend

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos, 2010

This April, fellow photographer John Penner and I went on a two-day road trip through southwestern Saskatchewan in search of ghost towns.

After staying overnight at the infamous town of Eastend (pop. under 600), in the heart of the grasslands, and a trip to the T.rex Discovery Centre, we continued on.

Here is the Sixth part a photo journal of the trip, with descriptions. The images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Outside Eastend, Saskatchewan

Heading westward, we were not on the road very long - and in fact still technically in Eastend - when we cross a small bridge over the Frenchman's River, surrounded by the hills that were filled with Hereford cattle. Quite breathtaking, we decided to snap some shots, and came across the following plaque. It seems that after Little Big Horn, infamous chief Sitting Bull and his camp came to Canada to escape revenge by the Calvary. The following are taken from that bridge (the plaque is beside it).

Highway 13, west of Eastend

As we passed over the snaking Frenchman's River again, we pulled off the side of the road once more, because of the beautiful scenery, and the Angus cattle (which we saw often).

Next in this series, we get back to ghost towns, proper.