Thursday, August 25, 2011

DVD Review: Johnny Winter Live at Rockpalast

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Johnny Winter Live at Rockpalast 1979
Directed by Unknown
MVD Visual, 1979 / 2011
90 minutes, USD $19.95

This April 1979 oft-bootlegged show has finally been released on DVD, thanks to the good people at MVD Visual. Broadcast live on German television, it was filmed at Grugahalle, in Essen, Deutschland.

Previously to the show, and after having been raised in the swampy sounds of Delta blues in Texas, Johnny Winter made his name playing blues rock in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. After a famous bout in rehab to get rid of an addiction, Winter basically used that fulcrum to find his way back to the blues, which expressed the internal frustration that was most likely raging side. He understood the blues and was feeling it strongly, so it seems apropos. As shown here, he tries to get away from rock’n’roll somewhat, but they keep pulling him back in.

For this concert, Winter is part of a power trio. On bass is afro’d Jon Paris, who has worked with the likes of Elvis (on Roots Revolution), Dylan, Robert Gordon, Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh (not to mention his own solo releases). He seems to be having a blast here, as he has a wide open smile almost throughout, and he gets to play both harmonica and, for two songs, lead guitar and vox. On drums – many, many drums, including a double floor bass set – is Bobby Caldwell, who has played in (or with) the likes of Captain Beyond, Armageddon, Rich Derringer, and (as has Paris) Johnny Winter during some of his rock period. He plays okay (not magnificently), sometimes in a slashing motion, but seems out of place for a blues show with his complex kit, spandex sleeveless red shirt, and red silk boxer shorts (aka, a rock drummer clothing cliché).

The song list of blues is pretty strong, including Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” Junior Wells’ “Messin’ With the Kid,” and Willie Brown’s “Mississippi Blues.” He sets (figuratively) fire to his Gibson Firebird as he floats around the stage, or plays sitting on a stool. Truthfully, he’s looking pretty frail, his wispy frame moving around the stage like a corn stalk blowing in a wind. His long, thin fingers snake over the neck with a passion, whatever it is he is playing. Actually, he looks like hell, his teeth gray and his albino skin looking more sallow than usual. And is it me, or is he a bit testy, as well? He seems to have a few words for Jon Paris here and there (both of whom ignore Caldwell until the very end), though Jon’s joy of what he is playing never seems to wan.

But then again, Winter is also self-deprecating in his brief comments between songs, as well as perhaps a bit condescending to his audience who want to rock. More than once, he comments to the audience that he knows they’re expecting rock’n’roll, but he’s going to play the blues, if it’s “okay” with them, while extolling the virtues of the genre.

Meanwhile, there are some songs he plays in the middle that border (or perhaps overlap) on rock, such as “Divine Duck” and the staple, “Suzie Q.” At this point, for some reason, Jon Paris takes over the guitar and vocals for some ole time rock and roll and rockabilly with Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready,” which he starts with a solid Chuck Berry-sounding guitar riff, followed by Johnny Burnette’s “Rockabilly Boogie.” No wonder he played with Elvis. While he is riffing away decently, Winter is relegated to the bass, which he plays without much flaunting. However, there is one brief shining moment where both Paris and Winter seem to be enjoying playing each other’s instrument (now, now…).

As a partial digression here, the original program was two hours long rather than the 90 minutes here, and included a cover of Berry’s “Johnny Be Goode,” and a Caldwell drum solo with a soon-to-be-retired Patti Smith, of all people, on clarinet! I’ve read some reviews that complain that these two numbers could have (or should have) been substituted for the Paris-led ones. I admit I agree, even though I enjoyed the Paris performance. Heck, why wasn’t it all here?

After these ‘50s rock and roll throwbacks, Winter comes back to the lead with a unyielding and seamless blues medley of “Stones in My Passway” (Robert Johnson), “Leaving Blues” (Leadbelly), and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (Muddy Waters), which you can see he is totally enjoying as he sits on the stool and marinates in the sound, some of which is played with a slide on his pinkie.

The audience seems a bit bewildered by the blues stuff, albeit they seem to be getting pleasure from it. Paris comes over and says something to Winter, obviously to encourage / cajole him, and Winter unwillingly concedes (note: author Sean McDevitt stated that it is “best to think of this offering as a reward, not a concession”), saying “If you don’t dig quality, at least you’ll get off on volume. Here we go!”, and then breaks into the last song, the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which the audience eats up. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable actually, even though he played the shit out of it. The reason? Winter starts rocking – nay, mocking – the whole rock star on-stage image with the grimaces and false bravado he obviously isn’t feeling. In fact, at one point he changes the line from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash / It’s a gas” to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash / It’s a fuckin’ drag.” I do have to comment that he shows why he was considered such a strong rocker as he wails away at the guitar.

Considering when it took place, this concert was most likely taped in European PAL format, and then transferred and adapted to the North American NTSC system. The image is not bad, considering its age and the technology at the time, though when in the right light, there are thin horizontal lines that appear from time to time, but I didn’t find it much distracting. Perhaps I’m old enough to remember just how crappy some video was back then. The sound, however, is pretty crisp and in full stereo, making it enjoyable to give a listen. If the visual are off-putting to the viewer, this is also available in CD. For me, no matter how this is played, hearing Johnny sing and growl is a joy. His lateral “S” lisp works well with the style.

Johnny Winter is a delight to listen to, and for me, also to watch, as he wrings the neck of the guitar, twisting out sounds and bending the notes. The camera wisely focuses on him and often on his playing in long enough shots to actually see what he is doing (as opposed to much modern concert footage where, in MTV mode, the editing doesn’t allow the eye to rest on the fingerwork).

The blues is what Winter needed to be playing that night after a grueling period of his life, and while he had the opportunity to express it, it truly is a celebration of his talent and love of the blues.

Track Listing:
Messin’ With the Kid
Walking By Myself
Mississippi Blues
Divin’ Duck
Suzie Q
I’m Ready
Rockabilly Boogie
Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Monday, August 22, 2011

DVD Reviews: Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie
Directed by Diana Dilworth
Bazillion Points, 2009
80 minutes, USD $24.95

While the name of this documentary is clever, it is actually a misnomer as the film covers not only the Mellotron, from Britain, but equally its precursor and competitor, the Chamberlain, invented in the United States by its namesake, Harry Chamberlain.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about the Mellotron or Chamberlain, as it has been used for both good and evil in music, much like the AutoTune. While present in such great tunes as the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” and the Moody Blues’ “Night in White Satin,” it has also been the basis of many a prog band, a genre that I have never learned to appreciate, though I’ve tried.

Let’s get to basics first. The Chamberlain / Mellotron looks like a stand-up organ, but behind each key is 8 seconds worth of magnetic tape on which one can record anything, so when you play it like a synthesizer, it can sound like a flute, a wind instrument, or a car horn. As put here, it’s the “first instrument to replicate the sounds of other instruments.” But no matter what is played, it produces a very distinct sound of its own. As is pointed out a number of times here by various musicians and producers, this was the first use of sampling, and again, the Faustian bargain comes into play of positives and negatives.

Harry Chamberlain invented the instrument in the late 1940s, but it did not really come into popularity until the ‘60s, where it was adopted by a number of rock and roll bands. The key to its true success lies in a negative act, where the key salesman of the Chamberlain took the plans over to England, presented them as his own, and the Mellotron becomes a reality, with adapted additional features not on the original. Which one is better is like someone arguing between the Harley Davidson and the Indian motorcycles, the beta or VHS, or the Mac and the PC: it’s a matter to personal preference. The Mellotron was arguably more popular, though, as it was adopted by British prog musicians more than the few Americans who participated in its usage.

Actually, the event made the Mellotron famous was the Beatles using it on “Strawberry Fields,” to give it that swirling sound. Also, the guitar opening of “Bungalow Bill” is not George or John, but what is packaged for the bottom key of the Mellotron.

After that, many bands are listed on a timeline here that used the instrument, decade by decade, including the Stones, Kinks, Bowie, Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Big Star, Roxy Music, Elton John, Lou Reed (on Berlin), T-Rex, Abba, Kraftwerk, Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, Elliot Smith, Nine Inch Nails, U2, ex-Bernie Kugel bandmate Vincent Gallo, Johnny Cash, and even through Kanye West (would he be “bad” or “bore”?). The list is much longer, and I only touched on those presented on this documentary.

There are a number of presentations of facts here that keep the pace of the story going, and interesting. For example, along with the many photos of Harry and the dastardly salesman, Bill Franson, Director Dianna Dilworth employs animation (such as timelines), song clips, and one of my favorites, side by side comparisons of the Chamberlain and the Mellotron, sometimes employing split screens.

However, the fulcrum that keeps the story going is the use of interviews for the film, such as Harry’s son, Richard Chamberlain (not the actor). Many musicians who used the contraptions are presented, such as singer-songwriter Michael Penn, Rod Argent (The Zombies; Argent), Ric Neilsen (Cheap Trick), Ian McDonald (King Crimson), Tony Banks (Genesis), Al Kooper (session musician extraordinaire), Patrick Moraz (Moody Blues; Yes), Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), Matthew Sweet, and the master of the studio himself, Brian Wilson (do you need to ask?). There are also studio engineers, collectors, and historians included. Two interesting choices for interviews that raised eyebrows in excitement for me were Claudio Simonetti (composer for the group Goblin) and Fabio Frizzi, who used the Mellotron’s spooky aspects for their work with the Italian masters of horror, Dario Argento and Leo Fulci, respectively. Yes, that eerie sound that raised the hairs on the back of your neck was the Mellotron. In this case, the shrill, weird, almost electro-Theremin sound of the instrument is truly a case of the medium being the message.

Speaking of McLuhan, he once also stated that when a technology is replaced, it comes back again eventually as art. This is true of both the Mellotron and Chamberlain, which have become collectors’ items over the years, since they stopped being produced in the 1980s. That coda topic is covered here as well.

Along with the trailer, the extras include 16 shorts, which consist of either extended interviews, or deleted ones. All of them are equally interesting.

Whether you believe the instruments are a force for good, evil, or both (I’m for the latter), the Mellotron and Chamberlain have their rightful place in rock and roll (and giallo films), and I am grateful to learn more about them in such a delightful and fascinating fashion.

Bonus videos:

Monday, August 15, 2011

DVD Review: Here We Are in the Years: Neil Young’s Music Box

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Here We Are in the Years: Neil Young’s Music Box
Produced and directed by Alex Westbrook
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Sexy Intellectual
120 minutes, USD $19.95

I can’t remember now, as it’s been years, if I read it or some musician told me directly that when someone wants to interview him/her, first the reporter gets asked what they think of Neil Young. If the potential interviewer is not a fan, the Q&A doesn’t happen because obviously they are just not knowledgeable, or cool enough.

To be honest, before the mid-1980s, I would not have been on the interviewer list. All I knew of Young, essentially, was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and I put them in the same category of boring as Kansas, Rush, and any of those other guitar-meandering Classic Rockers. Hey, I was a punk, and I liked my music short and brash, with some exceptions (usually produced by Phil Spector, Brian Wilson or George Martin). Then someone at work gave me a copy of CSNY’s Greatest Hits. While I still found the first couple of songs meh, starting with “Teach Your Children,” I found that I selectively liked them. Of course, from there, the trail led to Buffalo Springfield and Crazy Horse, and I found myself a Young fan. It’s true, rust never sleeps.

To the casual listener, Neil Young may seem like an auteur, but the man has been changing to different styles and genres every decade or so, along the lines of a Frank Zappa, the Who to some extent, or, if you’ll pardon the connection, Madonna. His career has been multi-faceted, to say the least, and this British documentary is out to show his path.

From Toronto, Neil Young (not to be confused with Yonge St.) was born in 1945, being just the right age of around 10 at the birth of rock and roll. Clips of Chuck, Little R and Elvis (singing “Tutti Frutti”!) are used as examples of what Young was seeing. But it was Roy Orbison’s pure vocals and style that touched Young. Later Young would write “The Birds,” which has an Orbison-esque tone, and contains the lyrics, “It’s over / It’s over.”

Having moved to Winnipeg when he was 16, he started being influenced by the surf instrumentals of the likes of the Ventures, Link Wray, and the Tornados, as he became more and more obsessed with the guitar. Around this time, he started his first band, the Squires. And then Mersey Beat hit. Being Canadian, he probably had better access to the early British sounds than those in the US, and like everyone else, he drawn into the new variations, especially the double guitar attack of The Stones’ Brian Jones and Keef.

And that is just the start of this two-hour look at Young’s life and career (mostly the latter). As usual in this series, there is more focus of thoughts, beliefs and opinions by music writers and historians than the actual musicians who played with Young, though two of his early band mates tell some tales: Ken Smyth (The Squires) and George Tomsco (The Fireballs). Along with this series’ usual suspects and critics, the likes of Anthony Curtis (Rolling Stone mag), Johnny Rogan (Neil Young: Zero to Sixty), and the ever present Nigel Williamson (Neil Young: Stories Behind the Songs), joining them is one of my favorite musicologists, Richie Unterberger, who wrote amazing books about the Velvet Underground and The Who, among others. It is so good to see him get his own thoughts in.

The subtitle of the DVD is accurate, as there are many great points about Young’s music and especially influences, sometimes played right after each other. Among those people and styles who had sway in his styles presented here include Randy Bachman (pre-Guess Who / BTO), Bob Dylan / Ian & Sylvia / Joni Mitchell, punk, Devo’s electronic bent, and neo-punk like Pearl Jam, who appeared with him on MTV Video Music Awards in 1993.

Of course, he also had an even larger influence on others, mostly good, but occasionally icky, such as Kurt Cobain’s suicide note quoting one of his lyrics. But that is all part of the mythos that is Neil Young.

Young, as Anthony Curtis states, “Can’t be written off.” He is still touring, still writing, and still recording. And possibly grumpy as ever.

The extras include a seven-minute-plus interview with one of his earliest band members, Ken Smyth, in a piece titled, “A Brief History of the Squires.” This includes a number of rare still photos of the band, shown under Smyth’s narration. His story of how they broke up gave me a smile.

There is also a collection of contributor bios, giving some back-up to the many critics and historians who appear within the DVD, but as with most of the series, the text is too small to read on the small screen (I have a 19”); not everyone has a large plasma, y’know.

If you’re a die-hard Young fan, odds are there may not be much new information, other than opinions and conjecture that you haven’t heard before, but I find it positive, because for casual fans there is a lot of new material and insights, presented in a measured yet enjoyable way.

Most of this series concerns British music (next up for me is about Robert Plant), and a slice of American rockers, but this is one of the few Canadian acts I’ve seen them cover. Nice. Meanwhile, I’ve heard that there is a town in north Ontario…

Bonus Videos:

Friday, August 12, 2011

DVD Review: The Death of Andy Kaufman

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

The Death of Andy Kaufman
Produced, written and directed by Christopher Maloney
Wild Eye, 2011
80 minutes, USD $15.95

As with so many of others of my g-g-generation, I found out about Andy Kaufman from watching early Saturday Night Live broadcasts. The rest of the world would discover him as Latka Gravas, on Taxi, but for us college students, it was his regular appearances on late Saturday night. Therefore, it seems appropriate that what starts off this documentary directed by Christopher Maloney is a full clip from that show where Kaufman gets audience members on stage to lip sync to Billy Williams and His Cowboy Rangers’ “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” It would also have worked If Maloney had shown clips of Mighty Mouse lip sync, the Foreign Man (who would develop into Latka) doing imitations, including a killer Elvis, or any of a dozen other of his early oddball bits.

After the opening bit (obviously from an old VHS tape), Maloney takes us to Andy’s grave at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, NY (just east of the Queens border), clearing the snow off the stone to clearly ready the name. For the next while, Maloney takes the viewer on a ride on the life of Andy Kaufman, from his rise, to his bizarre performance art (can one really call it stand-up?) where he either naps in a sleeping bag on stage, or eats cereal for his entire allotted time, to his in-your-face misogynist wrestling period where his popularity plummeted. Kicked off SNL and out of his Transcendental Meditation group (so much for peace, love and understanding), having Taxi cancelled, and an audience that was so confused by what he was doing that they couldn’t find the humor any more, he faced a questionable future.

By the time he announced he was diagnosed with cancer, either his fans didn’t believe him, or his ex-audience seemed to no longer care. Oh, that Andy! His truly had been a life of “Cry Wolf.”

Maloney clearly shows how Andy had thought about faking his death before he actually loosened the coil. In fact, he had met with Alan Abel, famed hoaxer extraordinaire who actually did manage to convince the media he had died, and they printed his obit - just to have him show up a week later. Tah-dah! Andy believed this was brilliant, and questioned him about it. By the time he did come down with a rare form of cancer, one he had already ascribed to his character Tony Clifton, it seemed that it was one more shtick. This reminds me of two stories: one is when actor Dick Shawn was performing on stage, he had a heart attack, and everyone laughed as he collapsed; by the time people realized what was going on, it was too late. Similarly with Jackie Wilson, he used to do a twirl and collapse while singing, and one time he did it, the audience didn’t know he was having a stroke, and again a delayed reaction caused him to be mentally handicapped and hospitalized the rest of his life due to lack of oxygen to his brain.

While in the middle of radiation treatments, Andy went to the Philippines to try to get some psychic healer to help, who was charlatan. Pictures circulated, and in 1984, in a hospital under the assumed name of Nathan McCoy, Andy died surrounded by family and loved ones. I had heard at the time that comic Elaine Boozler - his ex-girlfriend and long-time friend - was there, but haven’t seen any reference to it since, including on this DVD. I am still waiting to hear her talk about it (she did discuss it in an issue of Esquire back then), and she would have been a nice coup to get for the documentary.

Faced with Kaufman’s past as a derisive and trickster Loki character, Maloney went on a personal journey to find out some truth on whether Andy had faked his own death or not. He started with a collection of questions which were decent, but some I knew the answer to beforehand [in brackets below], which didn’t really solve the bigger mystery. For example, photos of him at the time have him bald from radiation treatments, but he still has eyebrows and chest hair. Another is that even though he had a Jewish burial, he had an open casket [while the tradition is to have it closed, it is not unheard of for there to be an open one, and I have been to a couple like that]. Thirdly, why does the tombstone say “Andy” rather than the usual full name of “Andrew” [you can put anything you want on a tombstone; Elvis Aron Presley’s stone says Elvis Aaron Presley, for example]. Then there is why he was in a room assigned to the aforementioned Nathan McCoy [my guess it was his “travel” name for privacy, such as Paul McCartney registering under the name Ramone, which is how the Ramones got their name].

Meanwhile, we are presented with many partial clips, interviews, and video examples of Andy’s career, and photos of his illness and funeral.

The third chapter of this story is a rare interview with Andy’s brother, Michael Kaufman, who explains some of the answers to Maloney’s questions, and is open about what he believes happened (I won’t give it away). This is one of the pieces that make this documentary so strong.

As a character / narrator, Maloney is passable. He has a droning kind of voice (probably trying to match the seriousness of the topic) which gets tiresome, but the subject matter definitely pops and keeps the viewers’ interest right to the end. Taped in 2008, this was released a couple of years later.

After the feature, there is an 11 minute Q&A short by Robert Hauschild recorded in 2011, titled “Chasing the Little Ghost: The Making of The Death of Andy Kaufman.” With title card questions, a now short-haired Maloney answers about his own motives and findings, having had a decent period to process all the information he collected and presented in the documentary, which makes the short also worth viewing.

Bonus Video:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Club Flyers and Invites from 1970s and 1980s: Part 3

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos, 2011
Images are owned by the artists
Also, images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

As stated in an earlier blog, throughout the years I have collected flyers, especially from the 1970s and '80s. Many were sent to me directly by the bands while I was publishing FFanzeen. Below are some scans I made from my personal collection, in no particular order. I did see many of them, but not all, and I will comment on them from time to time. Note that I do not financially profit off of publishing them, but only do so to honor the work that was involved, and for archival purposes.

The Fuzztones and the Vipers were two great bands from the psychedelic revival movement of the early 1980s, but they were both so different in sound. The 'Tones had that Rolling Stones sense of danger with Rudi Protrudi on vox guitar and vocals, and Deb O'Nair on keyboards doing mostly back-ups and if I remember correctly, an occasional lead. At the time, she was an embodiment of Nancy Sinatra in her biker flicks days. The band is still around and putting out records, albeit it is based in Germany, and Deb's spot is filled with Lana Loveland, who has her own eponymous band worth checking out, as well. As for the Vipers, they were more poppy, but sharp as a tack. Their song "Cheated and Lied" remains one of my favorites from the period. Last time I saw vocalist / maracas shaker Jon Weiss, he was emceeing a garage theme show at the Acme Underground a few years ago. I had the pleasure of interviewing both bands, at different times.

Geek Maggot Bingo was a bizarre film staring Richard Hell and blues belle Brenda Bergman. This invite was for the opening showing and party at Danceteria.

The Cynics run the Get Hip label out of a Pittsburgh suburb. They are an odd yet compelling mix of psychedelic, metal and pop, and had a video of their song "Girl You're On My Mind" (written by Bernie Kugel of Mystic Eyes, who were on Get Hip) that appeared on MTV for about a second. Worth seeking out the YouTube of it.

This is definitely a show I wish I had seen. I mean, Joan Jett and Darlene Love? Wow.

Along with the psych revival, New York was also diving into the deep end with hardcore. The False Prophets were one of the big ones.

At one point, Binky was the guitarist for a fun New York band called the Planets. They would sometimes play Top 10 (aka disco) songs totally rocked out. I specifically remember them blowing the roof off of "Boogie Fever" one night at Max's Kansas City. Plus, Binky also was one of the cool guys to talk to behind the counter at Sounds, on St. Mark's Place.

I only saw Suicide play once, and that was at CBGB. It was a totally intense experience that lives with me even now. Plus, their song "Frankie Teardrop" still works at getting under my skin. Minimalist heaven, it is the only synth band I can listen to, even now.

Robert Poss lead Tot Rocket, before Band of Susans. He played around a lot in the 1980s, and I have many fliers he sent me to prove it. A really good band (both, actually).

The Mosquitoes were more than just the writers for the last hit song by the Monkees during their 1986 reunion. They reminded me of a psych version of Gerry and the Pacemakers.

The Comateens were a cult band then, and remain so now. But their fans will tell you how good they were.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Twelfth MEA Convention, University of Alberta, Edmonton, June 23-26, 2011

Text and photos © Robert Francos
Click on links for many additional photos

One of the highlights of every summer for is getting to go to the Media Ecology Association Convention. While the organization is based in New York, the conferences have brought me to Mexico City, Boston, Saint Louis, Long Island, and Santa Clara (California), for example.

Last year, for the first time, I missed my first one, held in Maine, because I had immigrated to Canada, and had not yet received permission to crisscross the border. This year, however, it was held just a six hour drive away, at the University of Alberta, from June 23 to 26, 2011.

I have been involved with Media Ecology since starting the graduate program at New York University’s School of Education, in 1991, under the direction of Dr. Neil Postman. Quite quickly, I became both the department’s - and now the Association’s - unofficial official photographer (but not the only one; over the last few years, Octavio Islas, of Technologico de Monterrey, has also done an outstanding job).

The Media Ecology Association group of cross-disciplinary academics and like-minded people gather literally from all over the world, and when we all get together, it’s sort of like Thanksgiving. Yes, there are occasionally squabbles here and there, but it really is one big, ever-growing family.

As in St. Louis where we honored Fr. Walter Ong, who had taught there, this year we were in the birthplace of Herbert Marshall McLuhan for the centennial of his birth (a few days past the convention). For that reason, the name and theme of the convention was Space, Place, and the McLuhan Legacy.

Usually there are two choices for accommodations: the local hotel a bit further away, and the Spartan dorm rooms on-campus. I always go for the dorms, because, well, the price difference is a deal-breaker. This time, the hotel was directly across the street from the campus’ TELUS Centre where the convention was being held, and the dorms were a few blocks away. But it’s summer, so who cares. I had arrived with a friend and neighbor, soundscape artist Ellen Moffat (she presented on Saturday) on Wednesday evening, the night before the conference. We checked in and dropped off our stuff in our respective rooms and we headed over to Earls Restaurant, across from the where conference would be held (always good to learn the way there before, so you don’t get lost and miss any sessions). There we ran into a few MEA conventioneers that I knew, including James Morrison and one of the organizers, Catherine Adams. Their table was full, so we had dinner on our own. Scattered around were others I figured may be kindred spirits, but was unsure.

Below are some links to many photos of each day’s conference. Preceding each link are very brief thoughts and descriptions of the event. If there are any photos of which you would like hi-rez versions, please let me know at; likewise, if there is an image of yourself here that you want taken off, also inform me.

Day 1: Thursday, June 23, 2011

The day started off sluggish. As always, I arrived bright and early (seems about a half hour too early; I mis-remembered the time, probably in anticipation). They were still getting the registration table organized, and breakfast (muffins, pastry, coffee and tea) was only just arriving, ready to be set up.

Sometimes one of the joys of arriving early, especially the first day, is to see who are among the first comers. In this case, it was Robert Logan, of the University of Toronto (he worked with McLuhan). When he saw breakfast wasn’t ready, off he went to the Mac’s (the Canadian equivalent of 7-11) across the street and bought a container of OJ. He sat outside on the curb drinking it, while waiting for everything to open. I do admire him for that.

Slowly, people started to wander in as the time approached, including many people I was happy to see again. Thursday tends to be the second less-attended day, but this year even that day had a nice presence.

Some of the sessions I attended were titled “Gaming, Storytelling and Environments,” “Media Literacy,” one panel titled “Illusionary Freedom: False promises of cyberspace,” and another called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: Reflections on digital technology and cognition.”

A highlight of the day took place in the afternoon where a group of us rode the subway and bus to the Highland area of Edmonton, and had a too-short walking tour (necessarily, though) of the neighborhood, including the homes of the original designers of the vicinity.

Of course, the whole point of this was that we visited the childhood home of Marshall McLuhan (where he lived in his pre-teen years). The woman who now owns the modest home did not know its historical significance when she purchased it, but over the years, she has become a wonderful tour guide, explaining what small parts of the house are still like it was when the McLuhan’s inhabited the space (such as a living room glass light fixture). What was his bedroom is now a bathroom. We later learned that the city is going to buy the house and restore it to as it was when he lived there. I’m sure the neighbors are delighted.

The woman who led the neighborhood tour is a volunteer, and is quite enthused (and knowledgeable). She was perky and a joy to listen to as she told tales, holding up a British-flag umbrella for us to follow.

We all rushed off to find out we had just missed the bus to the university’s downtown campus at Enterprise Square, and had a 20-minute wait. It was hot and we were all soaking from the walk and standing in the sun; of course, the bus was also a bit late. Finally, the bus came and met the rest of the group in a classroom. There we heard a talk by the same Robert Logan on “McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the record straight.” There was a nice debate going for a while about McLuhan’s importance in the present.

By the end of the session, everyone was hungry, so we headed to the next event, which was a gallery opening for a show called Spaces&Places:VisioningMcLuhan@100. It was a public opening, and the place was packed. The hors d’ouevres were gone to the crowd by the time I got to the table, and I wasn’t interested in the cash bar.

Ellen Moffat was a like-minded soul in search of food, so we decided to find some place to sit down and have an actual meal in relative quiet. We hooked up with two students from Wheaton College named Ruth and Ben, and we searched high and low for an affordable restaurant. We ended up at a Boston Pizza; we chowed down and had some nice conversations. After, we took the train back to the campus, and got there just before a big rainfall, ready for sleep and the next day.

Day 1 Photos:

Day 2: Friday, June 24, 2011

As the day started, it was pretty obvious I was having problems with my camera. It kept turning itself off and then on again. So I would turn it on (whirrrr) and couple of second it went off (whirrrr), then on (whirrrr), then off (whirrrr). Sometimes it would do this a dozen times or more, or it would wait until I lifted the camera to my eye, and then turn itself off and on. Very annoying to me, and I’m pretty sure many around me as they had to listen to that distracting noise in a relatively quiet classroom. And I can imagine what the speakers thought of it, especially since I was sitting close to get an unobstructed view (also helps to get a full view of the room the end when I turn around during questions).

The booths that were set up in the lobby were full of interesting books (we were all given a copy of an odd and fascinating 2011 biography of McLuhan by Douglas Coupland, a $26.00 value. Also there was a representative of – and samples by – Intellect Publishing House, who will now be printing the MEA Journal Explorations in Media Ecology (aka EME). Another table was for a kindred organization with close ties, the Institute of General Semantics, including Jackie Rudig and Martin Levinson, two machers of the organization whom I like dearly.

The second day was mostly filled with plenary presentations, such as Douglas Barbour, Elena Lambert and Robert Shields discussing “McLuhan and Artistic Vision in the Wireless City,” Josh Meyrowitz (who wrote the seminal book No Sense of Place on “Media Ecology and the Future of Theory,” and my ex-professor from Queens College, Gary Gumpert, on “Repetitio ad infinitum: From print to sprawl.” The two non-plenary sessions I attended was a panel on “Mobilizing the City as a Classroom: Locative and mobile media for community engagement,” and a talk by ex-MEA president Lance Strate, who discussed “On the Binding Biases of Time.”

Once again, we all gathered en masse and took the subway downtown to the Westin Hotel on 100 Street, as it was there an MEA banquet was held. The food was incredible (I had the salmon), and the company at our round table (among many) of about 10 was interesting. During the meal, Janet Sternberg gave her humorous yet touching MEA President’s Address, “Space, Place and the Media Ecology Association.” Janet was the first person I met when I approached NYU to query about going for my graduate degree. She became my advisor, then my professor for one of my more enjoyable classes, and then my friend. For those who don’t know, her voice is on the satellites Voyager 1 and 2 that were sent out into the universe, saying hello in Portuguese:

After the speech, there was the presentation of the MEA Awards for 2011. A full list can be found on the MEA Website, noted at the end of this blog. This year, a new award was named for NYU professor and co-founder of the Media Ecology Department (along with Neil Postman and Terence Moran), Christine L. Nystrom, who passed away earlier this year. She was both a fierce professor who always spoke her mind, and a dear person. This award was for Career Achievement in Service to the Field of Media Ecology. And its first recipient was, well, me, for all the years of being both a photographer for the group, and a friend to MEA. More details and images of the award can be seen on my blog in late June. I am still touched by this, and am proud to be in the company of the other winners as well.

By the time of the banquet, my camera was acting loony more consistently, and I missed a lot of shots, unfortunately. I couldn’t even give the camera to someone else to get a picture of me getting the award. Luckily, Octavio took one. (

After the banquet, there was a screening at the Art Gallery of Alberta of the film Being in the World, followed by a Q&A by its director, Mark Wrathall. As it was yet another train ride away, a few of us decided we were done for the evening, so we took the subway to the University instead. It was drizzling during the walk home from the station, and later began to rain.

Day 2 Photos:

Day 3: Saturday, June 25, 2011

It was still drizzly on the walk to where the conference was being held. Thankfully, I thought ahead to pack a small umbrella. After yet another solid albeit carbo-heavy breakfast and coffee that I was very grateful for, the convention was on its way, once again. While my camera was still acting up in turning itself on and off, perhaps less frequently than the night before, I realized very quickly that the built-in flash was dead. The photos I would take from this point would definitely be iffy and especially filled with motion echoes. But at least the flash wouldn’t be invasive (I’ve often joked that my second name is He Who Blinds).

I attended two sessions, one a panel called “McLuhan in the Digital Age,” and the other “Sound and Space,” in which my friend Ellen Moffat was a presenter. There were two plenary sessions as well: Richard Cavell, who was interesting but seemed a bit high-strung, posited “Marshall McLuhan as Ec(h)o-Critic.” The second, “Theorizing Culture & Media: McLuhan & Foucault,” was by Mark Poster, which was actually given via Skype projected onto a big screen. Later, I heard a few people talking, saying that they were not impressed by Poster’s comments, which were derivative. I wouldn’t know; however, I have to say that going far away to a conference, with all the time and fees, and then having to just watch the person from their living room, feels like a being cheated. If you can’t be there to present, be listed as absent in fairness to the others who did take the time and expense. There, I said it.

A touching moment is when a bunch of us gathered for an free-flowing, sentimental session called “Reflection on the life and work of Christine Nystrom.” A number of people shared their stories of her personally and professionally, including me. One thing I learned was that she was a salt addict, and would put soy sauce on popcorn.

The evening was left open to explore Edmonton, including an open invitation for dinner at La Boehme in the Highlands district. Instead, a relatively large group of us decided to walk down to Whyte Avenue, sort of the Greenwich Village of the city. The Jazz Festival was going on later that evening, but we were just looking for some food. James Morrison, a Prof I’ve happily known for a number of years now (who will sometimes say, as he is departing, “Jim Morrison has left the building!”), said he knew of a great Thai restaurant, but wasn’t sure how far along the street it was (it goes for miles). We walked and walked, and finally found the King and I Restaurant. They certainly were not expecting to be serving well over a dozen people, and yet they were hospitable, and the food was excellent without being ridiculously priced. One of our group commented that it was the best Thai he’s ever eaten. And for that: .

Along the way, some of our crowd of technology scholars were amazed that there were actual functioning full-size public telephone booths along Whyte Ave. Perhaps Superman was a media ecologist?

Afterwards, a smaller group of us headed over to the bar across the street from the TELUS Centre, Hudsons Canadian Tap House. Many people were heading home early the next day, so for some it meant goodbye until next year’s convention. I had the chance to have a long and enjoyable catch-up talk with Janet Sternberg, between the goings on in the bar, such as a bridal party scavenger hunt. I didn’t take any pictures of the dinner or at the bar, because with the camera acting up, who needed the stress? It was time to relax and enjoy, even without a drink (beyond not being a drinker, I was on a very strict budget).

Day 3 Photos:

Day 4: Sunday, June 26, 2011

This is the final, and least attended day of the conference, but there also tends to be something interesting going on. The session I chose was “Old News, New News,” which dealt with paper and/or newsprint. The session was lively, and nearly everyone who was there was not anxious to run away so fast. However, as I was traveling by car back to Saskatoon with Ellen, we had both agreed to miss the MEA AGM (the annual business meeting and closing remarks). After the session and some lively adieus, we headed back to the dorms, packed the car, returned the keys (just making the check-out time), and an hour later after a small hitch, we were on our way back to our city. It was a drive full of good conversations.

Day 4 Photos:

If you have any questions about the conference, what is Media Ecology or General Semantics, or anything else, contact me at the email given at the beginning of this blog. For those interested in either joining the MEA, connecting up with the ListServ (free), or seeing Octavio’s photos, here is the Media Ecology Association Website:

Next year’s convention will be at Manhattan College in Riversdale, NY (aka Da Bronx), and its theme is The Crossroads of the World. Hope to see you all there.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review: Sheriff McCoy: Outlaw Legend of Hanoi Rocks, by Andy McCoy

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Book cover image and videos from the Internet

Sheriff McCoy: Outlaw Legend of Hanoi Rocks
By Andy McCoy
Bazillion Points Books (Brooklyn)
Original Finnish Printing, 2001; updated edition, 2009
English Translation (by Ike Vil); edited by Polly Watson
190 pages, hardcover; USD $22.95
ISBN: 978-0-9796163-0-3

Watching or reading biographical sources, be it book or DVD, is usually interesting to me, and I will tend go for it, even for artists or bands that I’m not exactly interested in because it’s still appealing to hear about the motivation of what makes an artist tick (though I just turned down a chance to review a career history of ELP; couldn’t care less). And then there’s all the dirt, some times involving musicians I do like.

This is especially true of autobiographies, and ones by the ‘80s hair metal bands seem to be full of excesses of sex, drug, and, of course, rock’n’roll. Well, a variation of r’n’r, anyway. I’ve read Slash’s (Guns ‘N Roses) and the oral history of Mötley Crüe, bands that never meant much to me, but the books were fun reads nonetheless, and had me going to search out the videos in curiosity. They didn’t change my opinions about the sound, but I feel like I know a bit more about the mentality that went behind it.

Another of the bands from this period that meant diddley to me was Hanoi Rocks. I bought the first LP at the time (unlike G’NR or Crüe) because I heard they were “glam” or “punk influenced,” but found instead that they didn’t reach my enjoyment button (though I kept the album). And yet, when the opportunity to read Sheriff McCoy, the autobio by Hanoi Rocks’ guitarist Andy McCoy, I welcomed the chance. The band’s drummer, Razzle, had been killed in a drunk driving incident where Crüe’s vocalist, Vince Neil, was behind the wheel, and I had read Crüe’s take on it, so now I wanted to hear it from a member of Razzle’s crew.

Antti Hulkko (aka Andy) grew up in Sweden and Finland, and had a stereotypical rock kid childhood of love of guitar-focused music, such as rock and blues, forming bands from a young age, at the expense of education. Sex and drugs becomes a staple, relationships suffer, insane band mates and girlfriends come and go, and then fame hits and money comes in the bucketsful, most spent on drugs, rehab, women, cars and toys, and travel. And yet, each story has its own fine points, and Andy makes his story sound intriguing.

His tale is semi-chronological, going though the main points in some order, jumping around a bit here and there, but never to the point of confusion. Some of the Scandi-hoovian names early on can get a bit intimidating and memory-busting, but not enough to make the reader lose interest. I mean, before reading this, I never heard of his first major band, Briard, though I since searched out some of their sounds.

Before I go further, I want to make it clear I enjoyed the book, even if I have any quibbles about it; please read with the sense of humor as I mean it.

The original printing came out in Finland in 2001, and this English translation (by Ike Vil) is from 2009, with updates and a new preface by McCoy. It is a small, quick read hardcover (with jacket), stacked with many black-and-white photos of different stages of McCoy’s life, even if they are not in any chronological order. Most are captioned, and a few are not. There is also a discography at the back, including is post-Hanoi bands like Cherry Bombz, the Suicide Twins (I have these two, too, amazingly enough; might even give them a second listen now), Shooting Gallery, and with Iggy Pop; also listed are comps, guest appearances, and the like. It opens, however, with a class essay he wrote about himself at age 15, and even then, you can see nascent Andy as we come to know him now.

Along with the main crux of the text, there are brief asides on the side of some pages that are more passing thoughts than connected to any one thing in his life story, such as thoughts on everything from spiritual beliefs to capital punishment and the “gift of life.” He also discusses how he sees music in various colors (also known as synesthesia; thank you Julia M for teaching me that factoid). These show a side of Andy that fills in some more foundation.

Having experienced another Scandinavian book translated recently (also on Bazillion Points), the syntax is a bit different and may sound a bit odd and stunted to the American ear; also, many musicians of this period were not proficient in school, so other than writing lyrics, there are some issues, such as the occasional use of double negatives, for example. Here is a paragraph about when Hanoi Rocks went to Asia, and were assaulted by the fervor of the fans there:

“It was just so sick, because they didn’t give two shits if they hurt somebody. They just wanted a piece of us and tried to tear away Mike’s and my hair as a souvenir. Well, they only managed to get one of my earrings; the other was ripped off elsewhere about a year later. I wonder if they sometimes forget that the artist is a human being, too, because these people didn’t seem to think about it at all. I’ve never had a problem giving an autograph if somebody wants it and asks for it, but hell, my body is my own property; it doesn’t belong to anybody else. I think it’s pretty offending when fans get so fanatic that they hurt you, or try to invade your private life however they can. There are a lot of these people around.” [66]

Just a couple of pages later, he goes to some length about the motivation that drove him as opposed to how he views the next musical age that followed (though you could have reprinted this about any generation and it would fit, as Aristotle’s famous quote about “the youth of today” proves:

“I wish that kids today wouldn’t be materialistic like my parents’ generation, like, you gotta have this kind of car, that kind of summer cottage, and blah blah blah. There are some of those idiots in my generation too, I’m sad to say. But at least in Hanoi Rocks we never did anything just for the money. There was so much more behind it. Mike [Monroe, lead singer of Hanoi Rocks] and I formed a band that we would’ve dug ourselves. Later we became rich, and that was something we never dreamed about in the beginning. Nowadays people ask me how much money we made. How much did we make? A fuckin’ lot, I tell you, but we were also very good at spending it, because the money wasn’t as important as it seems to be to some of these guys who save every penny they earn and wait for the interest to grow. What if Razzle had done that? What if he had saved all his money? What good would it do him now that he’s dead, I ask you?” [69]

There are a couple of things I feel I need to point out that stood out for me in a head-scratching way: first, in discussing how a friend was feeling suicidal, he states, “…she tried to crash her car off Mulholland Drive at a spot where there’s a 150-yard drop down a cliff. ... That’s where James Dean and a lot of other people were killed.” Any fact checker will tell you that Dean died on a highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in San Luis Obispo County.

Another thing is his discussion on how Hanoi Rocks got their name. He states that when trying to come up with a band name with Mike Monroe, “Johnny Thunders’ LAMF, ‘Like a Mother Fucker,’ had just come out, and it had a song about heroin called ‘Chinese Rocks’.” Well, anyone who knows me is aware I’m a fan of Thunders, but it was not a “Johnny Thunders” album, but a Heartbreakers release, and Walter Lure, Billy Rath and Jerry Nolan deserve equal credit. And I could also go on about how “Chinese Rocks” was written by DeeDee Ramone…

There is an amusing, “blind” comment that is obviously about Guns ‘N Roses, where he mentions the unnamed singer “…went nuts because of the money.” Actually, from Slash’s book, it comes across as Axl having been suffering through mental problems for a long time, possibly onset by addictions as much as money, though it manifests itself mostly in control issues. After the looooong Chinese Democracy debacle, well, I’m siding with Slash on this one.

Phew, now that that’s out of my system, I will go on.

There’s actually some very nice props given to Thunders (and even the Dolls gets a nod, no pun intended); in fact, McCoy mentions that his wife of many years now, Angela McCoy-Nicoletti, is a cousin of Johnny Genzale Jr (better known as Johnny Thunders).

There are three constants that flow through the book, sometimes overlapping, sometimes in stand-alone projections, but they are the backbone of Andy’s tale.

1. Sheer debauchery. Lots of sex, drugs - including heroin addictions - and violence were part and parcel of Andy’s life throughout the Hanoi Rocks period, and he states this in both factual and bemused ways. It makes for some very entertaining stories.

2. Preachy. As with many who have gone through extended chemical highs, including alcohol, and have then come out the other side, Andy often goes on anti-drugs / booze rants. I’m not an imbiber in either, so I am not offended by any of this, and am not relating this in any kind of complaining way, just that it is present. Congrats on getting clean, Andy, and I mean that.

3. Spirituality. Andy posits that he believes in God, but it’s clear that not in Judeo-Christian formalized and dogmatized tracts. He often discusses the beauty and joy in life he finds now, and how that spirituality is the foundation of that experience.

There is one other major theme that flows throughout Sheriff McCoy, in some way almost as a second character, and that is Andy’s ego. He apparently is affirmed that Hanoi Rocks was one of the most important bands in the history of the 1980s, if not rock and roll entirely, and everyone either loves him or is jealous of him. Actually, there is no one I know that would list either him or Hanoi Rocks as being any kind of foundation of their taste, including a lot of musicians. I’m not saying they don’t have their place in rock history, especially with the hair band genre, but they have never matched either G’NR nor Crüe in popularity (though, again, none of them had any relevance in my life, or anyone I’m close to). For example, he states, “I’ve noticed so many times that wherever I go in the world, I’m recognized. I have no privacy.” You want to not be recognized? Take off the huge, round hat, the big bandana with the hair standing up above it, the mascara and eye shadow, and that ‘80s fashion that no one else wears anymore. As Christine Lavin may have said, he’s a prisoner of his style (just like the Ramones with the bowl cuts, black jackets over tee-shirts and ripped jeans).

As an aside, I did get a smile when Andy mentions the word “bazillion” at some point, indirectly naming the publishing company that put out this book.

On a further good note (as I said, I did like the book), Andy gives some good and helpful advice for bands starting out and about to sign to a major label, discussing percentages, publishing rights vs. recording deal, producing your own recordings, and the like. Good info that’s worth checking out.

In conclusion, despite my shrugs and shirks, this is a good read, and there are hints at the end that there may be a second volume, which I would be interested in reading. The most important thing Andy says, in my opinion, is in the preface, and its words to live by: “This book is only entertainment for entertainment’s sake, for lovers of rock’n’roll history and people who have a taste for the macabre. Anyway, I hope you have a good read and remember: this is my truth, you have your truth, and there is the universal truth. I try to balance between all of them.”
Bonus videos:

Extra Bonus videos: