Archive for December, 2009

Nothing to do over the year-end break, so I watched movies, listened to CDs and read a book

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Movie reviews:

Anvil! The Story of Anvil – I heard this movie was very very good – and the trailer certainly leads you to believe this would be so too – but I was still completely unprepared for the emotional roller coaster I was about to experience. Watching Lips and Robb travel the rocky road of life for 90 minutes was way more intimate than any other rock documentary that I’ve ever seen. I’m still a bit teary-eyed, nearly three hours after watching it.  Hearing these mountains of praise for the band from band members of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax as well as Slash was really something. “Everybody ripped them off and left them for dead,” says Slash, voicing an idea which could have easily been the title of the film. Ultimately, the love and emotion between these guys for their cause, and their art, is unconquerable, even if you do get a major laugh at Robb’s painting to “The Megalithic Anvil Monument”, you can see that the spirit is just that huge (Robb’s paintings are really very good, including the one of the drumkit, and the one that hangs at the top of his staircase, which will fetch millions on auction some day). On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie gets a 98% approval rating, which means that out of 123 reviews there cannot be more then two that are negative, making it just about the highest-ever rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is well deserved. I’d watch the movie again, but I don’t know if I’m ready to have my heart put through the wringer again so soon.

After I watched the movie, I went and read everything I could find out about the band. The story about Sacha Gervasi, and how he had been their roadie at 16, went off and done all sorts of incredible things, and then re-entered their lives to make this movie, is amazing. His touching personal note at the movie’s website is also something amazing to read. I bought a signed DVD with extras for $20 on their website, I’m sure it’s going to be well worth it.
The band’s classic album, “Metal on Metal”, was released in 1982, and I remember hearing several songs from it on the radio, including the title track and “Stop Me.” Great tunes. That year Slash was 17, Lars Ulrich of Metallica and Scott Ian of Anthrax were 19 and Tom Araya of Slayer was 21. Now, 27 years later, people are still talking about it. Amazing.
This is by far the best movie I’ve seen this year. Don’t watch “Avatar”, watch “Anvil”!

The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – I once tried to read a Douglas Adams book. Like so many other much-loved cult favourites I’ve tried to read but just couldn’t (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Confederacy of Dunces, Infinte Jest, Tom Robbins, Dave Barry, so many more…), I read a bit before I found it just plain silly and dull and I never finished it. Somehow, I thought that the film would offer me a clue to why Douglas Adams’ sense of humour appeals to so many people; sadly, it didn’t. The film opens with a very boring 15 minute sequence that introduces the hapless Arthur Dent, played forgetably by dull everyman Martin Freeman, who wears a bathrobe throughout the film(?!?). The movie takes a Pink Floyd-like turn (Adams was a friend of David Gilmour) when the repulsive and officious Vogons show up and destroy Earth. Alan Rickman voices Marvin the Paranoid Android (nice), Sam Rockwell plays the president of the universe (good manic performance by an actor I like, but also ultimately a bit annoying), and John Malkovich very appropriately plays a super-creepy alien cult leader whose head, arms and upper torso roams around on little mechanical legs. After many absurd and improbable misadventures, I lost interest permanently and forget how the movie ended, except that it has a point-of-view gun, rodent overlords, and Bill Nighy in an understated performance.

The Last Waltz – Great movie, I watched it and all of the extras and spent a bunch of time reading up on the band and their albums. But I still don’t have an answer to the question that has been plaguing me: so many people are seen playing Fender Stratocasters in the film (Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ron Wood), why do they picture a Fender Telecaster as the main symbol on the cover? Maybe we’ll never know. The film was directed by Martin Scorsese and shows The Band playing a gala “final” concert (they reformed without Robbie Robertson a few years later anyway) that marked a long break from touring and recording. The party was held in San Francisco, they served a turkey dinner since it was Thanksgiving, and they had actual waltzing. The bands played from 8:00PM to 2:30AM. While The Band can come off as a bit dull, old-worldly on the recordings, watching them is great because they all really look like they’re having a great time. Levon Helm, the drummer, you get to see how he holds his drumsticks with the traditional grip, but the left-hand drumstick grip-outward. Robbie Robertson, well-known from his later career, is the only Bandmember  who doesn’t sing, despite the fine, raspy singing voice we all know him to possess. Garth Hudson, nutty and classical-trained, is not seen often. The editing of the film is strange, with the last number of the evening played first, interspersed with interview dialogue, and then non-concert bits, such as “The Weight” recorded with the Staples Singers (great, great, great), and “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris (great, great, great).  While the musical add-ons are fantastic, you would wonder why non-concert bits are included in a film document about a concert. Great scene with The Band, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, the Canadian music mafia, singing Young’s “Helpless”, a song about “a town in north Ontario.”  That’s Ontario in Canada, not Ontario in California.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny – I watched this film last year over the Christmas break and remember being underwhelmed. These guys are funny, and they have a rock ‘n’ roll attitude, why is it that they can’t make a movie on their own that is better than “School of Rock”?  Outside of a few good lines (“Your training begins tomorrow at the crack of noon!”  “Patience, young Grass-smoker.” “I’ve had this birthmark since I was born.”) and a few good bits (the spread-legs guitar that Kyle plays is pretty absurd), there’s not too much there.  Okay, Dave Grohl is pretty hilarious as the Devil, and Tim Robbins as the Mysterious/Weird Stranger is okay too, but otherwise – yawwwwwwwwnnnn…

Big  Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin: Nine Hundred Nights – One of an interminable string of documentaries about San Francisco and the hippy scene, this one documents the formation of an eccentric psychedelic rock band Big Brother And The Holding Company and some of the work that they did putting together a sloppy, soulful rock unit that eventually hooked up with a young singer from Texas called Janis Joplin, a gifted singer who had once been called “the ugliest man on campus” at her university. They put out two albums and started getting some attention. Then they played the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where they hung out with Los Angeles pop musicians like the Mamas and the Papas, as well as Jim Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Showing San Francisco music to the country for the first time, the band made a bad career move by refusing to sign away film permission for free and lost their place in history; Janis, however, did sign, and the film is only of her, making it look like Big Brother And The Holding Company were really only her backup band. Well… she probably was the most talented member of the band, as evidenced by the fact that none of the other members went on to make much of a mark after the band broke up later that year. To mark the point, the surviving members of the band talk about recording “Cheap Thrills”, the band’s second album, for a big studio and with a proper recording budget, and how the band would sweat for hours to lay down a basic track, only to watch Janis  stroll in and do her vocals in one or two takes.

The documentary is quite good, covering a lot of history and emotions, and the extras are really great too. There are four full performances from three parts of the band’s career, a photo gallery, and interview outtakes with the four surviving members of the band, New York rock critic Ellen Willis, rock historian (and guitarist for the Patty Smith Group) Lenny Kaye, as well as Nick Gravenites, who wrote songs for Janis and also appeared in Big Brother and the Holding Company. Seeing interviews with the four surviving members of Big Brother and the Holding company is interesting. You get to appreciate the intelligence of drummer David Getz, who came off as a bit of a dummy in the historical footage, and the aloofness of “star” guitarist James Gurley, whose star had been outshone by Joplin when she joined the band (Gurley died last week, on December 20th, after having survived the heroin overdose death of his wife in 1970 and years of hard rock ‘n’ roll living). All members are asked “where were you when you heard that Janis had died?”  It seems like they all heard from the same roadie, and they reacted in different ways, with Gurley being quite cool about it; no one was surprised, but only Sam Andrew – the rhythm guitarist who left Big Brother And The Holding Company with Janis to be part of her new Kozmic Blues Band – showed any real emotion.

Lenny Kaye’s interviews are the best in the collection, and he talks about the band with great reverence, as they seemed like the San Francisco band that he was most interested in seeing when he travelled across the country to join the scene in 1967. He had interesting tales to tell about his cross-country trip, about the scene, and the balance of male and female elements in the band, an important point considering his role in the Patty Smith Group.

ABBA the movie – an interesting document that shows the ABBAmania of the Swedish pop group’s tour of Australia in 1976. Although the film is directed by famous director Lasse Holstrom, as a concert film it is inferior to “ABBA In Concert”, which documented their final tour and their six sold out nights playing London’s Wembley Stadium. The film also makes the mistaken assumption that it would benefit from a “plot”, in this case one involving a hapless Australian reporter seeking an interview with the band – as if filmgoers would not want to watch 90 minutes of ABBA onstage.

Okay, the plot: the wold’s worst reporter travels to ABBA’s various Australian dates to seek an interview the band; without his press pass, however, he is refused access to ABBA again and again. Without access to the band, he films little kids, asking them why they like ABBA. He also interviews adults, who like ABBA for their clean look (yes, ABBA did not look or sound like Black sABBAth). He also has a dream that he is ABBA’s best friend (awwwww) and that he’s successful and well-liked.  Well – one can dream. The most interesting thing about the guy is watching him splice together the various soundbites of the reel, but this is hardly a reason to watch “ABBA the movie”.

Concert footage is okay, although not at all better than “ABBA in Concert.” Of some interest is a remnant of the band’s burlesque show of that tour, which features “Get On The Carousel”, an ABBA song that is only available in this movie.

A Scanner Darkly – I watched Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” ages ago; I don’t remember much, since I kept falling asleep. “A Scanner Darkly” didn’t have that effect on me, I was somehow engrossed in the story, watching along as Keanu Reeves went through some mind-tripping counter agent narc activities. It wasn’t quite as intense as “Rush”, but the mind-trippiness was engaging for a while. Ultimately, however, the plotline was a bit too jerky for me to be really satisfied; the onscreen chemistry between Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson was decent, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Keanu Reeves as wooden. Wynona Ryder, however, was hotter than ever as a digital chick who does too much coke. Robert Downey Jr may be famous now as Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, but in those days he was still a bit in the hinterlands, and his quirky acting here is quite reminiscent of his work in “Too Much Sun,” a bizarre “comedy” directed by his dad, Robert Downey Sr.

More interesting to me was to read the background of the book, and what Philip K. Dick was going through when it was written and why it was written, and how it was basically an autobiographical work. A story about people engaged in massive drug use by someone who had been engaged in massive drug use would make you think of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but this is another, alternate creation.

The film is dedicated to those who either didn’t make it, and to those who were permanently scarred, such as Dick himself.

This page originally had a review of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. That review can now be read at My big bad Rolling Stones page.

Let the Right One in – A film about sacrifices. While everyone who has seen the trailer will know that this is the story of a small snow-bound Swedish town haunted by a vampire, what is truly awesome about it is the fragility of each character, and how they all crumble in one way or another. Eli’s sacrifices, Oskar’s sacrificies, Virginia’s sacrifice, HÃ¥kan’s sacrifice…  The film is beautiful and minimal, and we care about all of the characters. The love story between two 12-year-olds is somehow quite believable. The theme of bullyism is a bit clumsy, and provides a bit of non-vampire action. The book, apparently, also deals with alcoholism, drug use, and pedophilia – wow, pack it all in between the vampirism and murder.

Inglourious Basterds – The trailer says it all; and yet, watching it in full doesn’t provide too much more, except for the occasional weird (and, in once instance, very touching) plot twists. A film of long dialogue-intensive scenes (very long – the opener, especially, lasts forever, as does the long “basement bar” scene); it really could have done with some trimming. But… apparently, there were deleted scenes and new characters aplenty, including one created for Maggie Cheung!  (Huh?! How could you get Maggie Cheung to be in your film and then not use the footage?!?)

Nice use of German and French and Italian, which is welcome for people who are not monolingual, but the film lacks a main character. Who is the film’s protagonist? It’s not Brad Pitt, nor any of the people on the movie poster. If anything, it’s Shosanna Dreyfus, who is central to the opening scene as well as the main plot, but she doesn’t have much screen time. Sure, the Basterds are busy striking fear in the Nazi’s heart, but do we really care?

What is interesting about the film itself is how two circumstantial plots come together to ensure the outcome, which I don’t think I’ve seen in a film before. The other thing that is interesting is that the film appears to be leading to a sequel; I would think that part two could be more interesting than part one. Altogether it’s a bit of a rarity – a film with a good plot/ending that doesn’t do a great job establishing (most of) the characters.

Black Dynamite – Definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Sure, the trailer gives you 75% of the good stuff from the movie, but in a world where so many trailers are better than the films themselves, this is really saying something. Black Dynamite (he never has any other name throughout the whole film) is riveting in nearly every scene he’s in, and there were at least two laugh-out-loud funny scenes for me.

The film is also full of great lines:

- “You’re doing alright for yourself. Look at this place – you must have an 8-track in every room.”

- “I get off in 15 minutes.”   – “You’re right about that.”

- “How did you get in here?”  – “I walked in.”

- “I’m spending more on bail money than I’m gettin’ in tail money.”

- “I will not hesitate to lay the hammer down, on any clown, that comes around.”

Yes, there’s lots of rhymin’ jive in the movie, not to forget all the gratuitous mention of whiteys, Uncle Toms, crackers, and every other black cliche. The little things are really funny too, like the Captain Kangaroo Pimp, or the “Chili and Donuts” fast food joint. The sexy zodiac animation, as well as the over-the-top closing credits animationare also a nice touch. The “seventies effects” run throughout the film, such as the crazy driving scenes, and the “Bruce Lee’s deadliest duel” daily workout is pretty outrageous.

The storyline gets ridiculous at one point, and the “nefarious plot” bit really outstays its welcome, but when it goes to the level of “Enter the Dragon” and then takes it one level higher, it really goes off the wall. I wonder if this one will become a cult classic on the level of “The Big Lebowski.”

The Osbournes – Season One – The misadventures of a premier show business family. Watch Ozzy take out the garbage. Watch Sharon fight with the neighbours. Watch Kelly fret about losing daddy’s gold card (it was under the seat in the car). Watch Jack walk around in his army getup. See the doggies shit and piss on the floor, couch and carpet. Watch Ozzy and Sharon fuss over the cats and dogs. Observe Ozzy doodling and colouring. Check out Ozzy doing videos wearing a bat jacket, or Moulin Rouge lingerie getups. Watch Ozzy dance with a mechanical James Brown doll. Watch Ozzy have problems with the home entertainment system, then see him get impatient when the microwave popcorn doesn’t rise. Occasionally – very occasionally – see Zakk Wilde (who you need earplugs for, because apparently he “plays louder than Satan”), Mike Bordin, Robert Trujillo from his band (Bordin is famous from being in Faith No More, Trujillo is a bass legend well-known for his work with Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves). Musically, there’s plenty of Pat Boone, and just the odd metal riffs.  Episode five is good, because it shows tour preparations for the “Merry Mayhem” tour. Weird to think that this family just had cameras around the house all that time. But it’s all worth it just to hear Ozzy say “I’m not proud of having a poor education; I’m not proud of being dyslexic and having attention deficit disorder; I’m not proud of being a drug addict/alcoholic. I’m not proud about biting the head off a bat; I’m not proud of a lot of things. But I’m a real guy, with real feelings. That kind of scares me sometimes, you know – to be Ozzy Osbourne. It could be worse… I could be Sting.”

The Osbournes – Season Two – The second season of The Osbournes starts off with an episode that is better than any in the whole first season, demonstrating (perhaps) the power of having a hit “reality” show behind you. Ozzy and Sharon go to the White House and hang out at a massive dinner party with George Bush Jr, who utters the words “What a fantastic audience we have tonight: Washington power brokers, celebrities, Hollywood stars… Ozzy Osbourne.” The look of joy on Ozzy’s face after that was pure magic, although do you… sometimes… have to… wonder… why George Bush Jr? Then there’s Kelly’s “Papa Don’t Preach” solo career (did that go anywhere?), and Jack’s experiments with spraying water at unwelcome visitors. Jack does surfing. Ozzy has phone problems. Ozzy expresses his love for Sharon: “I had this plan that I’d die before she did – my plan didn’t work out. She’s my whole world. She’s the best lover I’ve ever had; the best friend I’ve ever had; the worst friend I’ve ever had. It’s like bread and butter – Sharon and Ozzy.”
CD reviews:

Leonard Cohen, “Live at the Isle of Wight, 1970″ – This came with a CD and a DVD. I love Leonard Cohen so much, I didn’t know how to take a new artifact from his musical work that included both a CD and a DVD.  Should I listen to him first, or should I watch him? Out of necessity, I listened to him first – it was probably the right thing to do. All but three of the songs he played at this festival are from his first two albums, and as a total aspect it was just like listening to Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits as I remember it, with wonderful new inter-song poetry as we have heard on other, later Leonard Cohen live pieces. It was not the full-on live stage concert spectacle, it was Leonard Cohen as he was in 1970, and people in those days understood him and what he was saying, he was one of them. It’s amazing how we wander on and wander apart, and how people like Leonard Cohen only matter at certain, brief moments in history. Cohen has 11 studio albums and five live releases (of which I have three). This is the oldest one, although “Live Songs” has material that reaches back to 1970 as well; “Field Commander Cohen”, from 1979, is a polished affair of polite applause, with a crack band and a groovy bass player (not to mention the violin, oud and clainet), but it is also a bit too speedy for the Cohen groove. I have not yet heard “Cohen Live” (recorded in 1988 and 1993) or “Live in London” (recorded in 2008).

The CD was recorded on August 30th, 1970 and is nearly 80 minutes long and contains 14 songs (with five sections of pre-song banter, all in the first half of the concert, that last from 16 seconds to nearly three minutes). It was the last day of the five day long festival, with the last night rounded off by Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix following her at midnight, and Cohen following Hendrix (he was the second-last artist to perform at the festival, which was closed by Richie Havens, who played “Here Comes The Sun” as the first rays of dawn hit). It is presented “warts and all”, with a few incidents of onstage voltage as people fiddle with equipment, most notable in Suzanne, one of Cohen’s mellowest songs, not to mention his most famous.

The recording starts off with Cohen’s voice, “Are you guys ready? Is everybody ready?” Then the announcer comes on the PA saying “Our next artist is a novelist, a poet, an author, a singer and an album recorder.  He’s been trying to get here since 10:30 yesterday morning… won’t you welcome Leonard Cohen and his Army.”  Like all Cohen live recordings, there is plenty of cryptic between-song banter, and here Cohen starts off with a story of the circus and an appeal to the audience to hold up matches so that he could see them “sparkle like fireflies, each of you at your different heights,” he sounds elated, but he also notes “a lot of people without matches” (halfway through the concert again, he jibes “oh, we’re sorely in need for matches”). He then launches into a shambolic impromptu song “Oh it’s good to be here in front of 300,000 peopleeeee”, then a very slow, sombre version of “Bird On A Wire,” that is mostly him and his guitar, but also has some bass, a bit of keyboard, and some background singers.

For the most part, the songs sound like they’re Cohen playing alone, even though he has two backup singers, a bassist and three seated guitarists up onstage with him (no drummer – Cohen’s not about percussion).  The sound quality of the recording is excellent, and the production is top notch – the songs, except where Cohen improvises, sound like they did on the albums, and they are superb to listen to. “So Long Marianne”, “You Know Who I Am”, “Lady Midnight”, “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”, “The Stranger Song”, “Tonight Will Be Fine”, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, “Diamonds In The Mine”, “Suzanne”, “Sing Another Song, Boys”, “The Partisan”, “Famous Blue Raincoat” and one of my favourites, “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” to end the evening.

The intro to “You Know Who I Am” has a short impromptu ditty called “Let’s Renew Ourselves Now” that might be considered a unique new Leonard Cohen song – it is about 50 seconds long and starts with some Spanish guitar plucking, then the lyrics “I know it has been cold, and I know it has been damp/I know you’ve been sitting all night long”; the tempo of the song then picks up, and he says “Let’s renew ourselves now, let’s renew ourselves now, let’s renew ourselves now,” then going directly into “You Know Who I Am.” Most of these songs came from his first two albums, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “Songs From A Room”; the three from his not-yet-released album of 1971, “Songs of Love And Hate”, are “Diamonds In The Mine”, “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Sing Another Song, Boys” – in fact, the version of “Sing Another Song, Boys” on that album was recorded at this concert, so this is technically the second time it appears on a Leonard Cohen album (oddly enough, the tracking puts the famous “Let’s sing another song boys, this one has grown old and bit-ter” intro at the end of the preceding track, “Suzanne”; this is a mistake, as it is clearly an important part of the song). The song got resounding applause, something which is cut off of the version on “Songs of Love and Hate”, which fades it out quickly after his last “la-la-la-la-la-la-LA-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaaaaaaaw”.

One of the highlights of the concert comes before “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong – one of his cornier songs, which he says he wrote in a peeling room in the Chelsea Hotel as he was coming off amphetamines and was pursuing a blonde lady whom he met in a Nazi poster, the courtship of which he describes even more cryptically – when he recites some poems: “As for the political situation: They locked up a man who wanted to rule the world/ The fools, they locked up the wrong man,” and “A man who eats meat wants to get his teeth into something/ A man who does not eat meat wants to get his teeth into something else/ If these thoughts interest you even for a moment you are lost.” He gets heckled once, to which he replies “Are you calling me a fascist pig again?”

Besides a bit of organ and backing from the two female singers, the concert is relatively restrained – “The Stranger Song” seems to be just Cohen and his guitar – until the second bar of “Tonight Will Be Fine”, more than halfway through the concert, when The Army really kicks out the jams and all the members saw away, including the banjo player – Cohen just wails and wails !! (Incidentally, this recording of “Tonight Will Be Fine” also appears on “Leonard Cohen Live”, which contains bits of his 1970 and 1972 live performances.) It is followed by a mellow version of “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, but then comes an impromptu intro “They gave me some money for my sad and famous song/ They said ‘the crowd is waiting, hurry up or they’ll be gone’/ But I could not change my style, and I guess I never will/ So I sing this song for the poison snakes on Devastation Hill/ And there are no letters in the mailbox…”, which goes into a blistering version of “Diamonds In The Mine,” a song that the audience would not have heard until then. It is very similar to the album version, although I suppose a keen ear will hear different lyrics.

Another interesting moment is when, just as he’s playing the guitar into to “The Partisan”, he says “I’d like to dedicate this song to “Joan Baez and the work she’s doing.” The second-last song is “Famous Blue Raincoat,” another song that the audience wouldn’t have heard yet, which Cohen introduces with the words “It’s not that I want to be coy standing out here, you know, but I know that it’s late and… I don’t know, maybe this is good music to make love to. This song was written in the East Side, the east end of New York; It’s four in the morning…”

For his last song, he says “(to the audience) my guitar has been heisted… (to the band) yeah, the song about Nancy, that’s a good idea. (to the audience again) I want to sing this song for Nancy; it was in 1961, she went into the bathroom and blew her head off with her brother’s shotgun. And, in those days there was not this kind of horizontal support, and she was right where all of you are, but there was no one around – to light their matches.” He starts off with his solo voice and guitar, the bass comes in, then the voices drift in very subtly, some keyboard sounds, “Nancy wore green stockings, and she slept with everyone,” background vocals come in stronger, “we told her she was beautiful, we told her she was free/ But none of us would meet her in the House of Mystery, the House of Mystery…” And that’s it.

The DVD is 64 minutes long and was produced and directed by Murray Lerner, who made his name filming the Newport Folk Festival form 1963-1965, and the three days of the Isle of Wight (with iconic full-length concerts from The Who and Jimi Hendrix).

If you want to get the concert in its chronological sequence, you really need to listen to the CD, because the DVD shatters it and scatters it all around (which makes it even the more interesting to get the two packaged side-by-side). The DVD starts off with a snippet of “Diamonds In The Mine”, the concert’s most engaging (and engaged) piece, before moving into grandiose factoids of the concert, presented in a slideshow format, as well as some interviews with kids at the shot: “It’s like going to Bethlehem, where they go to see the baby Jesus, [but] we go to see Leonard Cohen” (and somebody blurts in “Pink Floyd”). But, of course, you always wonder about duplicity from the filmmakers, especially with their memories addled by nearly 40 years of living – they say that he sang “It’s four in the morning, the end of September” at four in the morning at the end of August, but was it four in the morning?  Were the audience shots of hippies captured in rapture even filmed during Leonard Cohen’s spot, or were they blissing out to Hendrix?  I guess we’ll never know.

The DVD has several interesting interviews. One of them is with Bob Johnston, a Southerner who ended up producing three Leonard Cohen albums (although only one at the time of the concert – “Songs From A Room”; he later did “Songs Of Love And Hate” and “Live Songs” with Cohen), but who also produced six Bob Dylan releases and seven Johnny Cash releases, all from the 1965-1971 – busy guy. He talks about how he was shanghaied into being a keyboardist for the release, but also how the show went down, giving the quote “I think Leonard Cohen is the best performer in the world, he bought poetry into music” (hey – is that a dig at Bob Dylan?). Kris Kristofferson, who battled the militant and unforgiving audience at the show, talks about how Cohen commanded the stage throughout, and there are a few scenes to prove it of Kris’ nervous performance – gosh, he looked young without a beard in 1970. Joan Baez talks about the era, and Judy Collins gushes about Leonard and “Suzanne”, a song that she sorta made famous, spouting “God bless Leonard Cohen and his muse.” This bit, and to some extent Baez’s bit, are shoved into the edit, as they really don’t have a lot to add to the concert itself.

For the most part, the concert footage is on Leonard Cohen’s face, with the occasional wander to the angelic backup singers (the only three people besides Cohen, incidentally, who  stand throughout the show), with brief sections where you see the band and the whole stage (they look really bored while Cohen does “The Stranger Song” totally solo… some Army) – and a few shots where you see the band from behind, with the amps marked WHO displayed prominently. While it’s not interesting to constantly watch Cohen’s face as he sings his songs, it is interesting to see and hear him do the hand whistle of “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”, which I’ve heard a billion times but never knew it was done by Cohen himself, blowing through his fingers.

Happily, “Tonight Will Be Fine” is shown in its entirety, including the part where Charlie Daniels stands up and plays the fiddle next to him, as is the “They’ve surrounded the island; one of these days we’re going to have this land for our own,” to which there is tremendous (canned?) applause. But this how it appears on the album, so… Appearing in its entirety is also the illustrious “Sing Another Song Boys”, which showed up in its entirety on his next studio album “Songs Of Love And Hate”, although the wigged out “Diamonds In The Mine” is not on the DVD for some reason (except for a brief excerpt of the beginning bit at the start of the DVD).

Cohen dedicates “The Partisan” to Joan Baez, and here we get a chance to see images from her press conference at the time, a bit of her live show, a snapshot of Jimi Hendrix’s set as viewed from the audience (to avoid copyright hassles?), and ultimately the 2009 interview with the lady herself.

Just a bit of deception – the last song in the movie is “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” and it is presented as if it were an encore; listening to the CD, though, I’m not sure it was.

Big Star: “Keep an Eye on the Sky” – Finally, the long-awaited Big Star box, with four CDs containing 98 songs, 52 of them unreleased. The set is named after a lyric from “Stroke It Noel”, a song from their their third studio release, and contains album tracks, demos, alternate mixes/lyrics/versions, as well as a full live concert from January 1973 (with the band performing as a three-piece soon after founding member Chris Bell had left the band out of frustration over their first album’s poor distribution and lousy sales). The first three discs include the songs of and follow the three studio albums in sequence, including tracks from those albums, along with other material from the same timeframe; the fourth CD is the live concert in its entirety. In one form or another, the set includes all of the 43 songs from their three studio releases, so it’s a good document to have just for that, not to mention the live set and the demos and alternate mixes of some of their most memorable songs (“Back Of A Car”, “The Ballad Of El Goodo”, “In The Street”, “The India Song”, “O My Soul”, “She’s A Mover” and “Try Again” each appear three times). The fourth disc includes a promotional video for the song “Thirteen”, billed as the only existing video document of the band in action, which is a grainy home movie that looks like it was captured on a standard Super 8 home video recorder from the time. The video has a lot of cheezy establishing shots, like kids walking home from school, a jet taking off, and images of the guys in the studio. Of particular interest are the images of Chris Bell, who died in a car crash in 1978. The video, set to a different song (“Thank You Friends”) can be seen here.

Big Star is revered by dozens of bands, including The Replacements (who wrote a song called “Alex Chilton” for the band’s main singer/songwriter/guitarist), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Petty’s nasal vocal delivery clearly apes Chilton’s), the Bangles, and many others. Alex Chilton came to the group with some experience, having been the singer for the Box Tops (check out a great video of the band irreverently playing for the cameras to a recording of their #1 hit “The Letter” – Chilton, in those days, had more of a bluesy, raspy John Fogerty/Rod Stewart/Eric Burden delivery). I have the first two Big Star albums already, so a lot of the material is familiar to me, but I had never heard the third album, which turns out to be very different from the jangly power pop of the first two records as it is a combination of acoustic guitars and strings(!), as well as other odd sounds. The set also includes several ex-Big Star contributions from the various members, including three solo songs by Chris Bell (one pre-band inclusion called “Psychedelic Stuff” from 1969) as well as his “I am the Cosmos” single from 1975 and its b-side; there is also one song from his Icewater project, and two from his Rock City project. The set also includes an Alex Chilton solo song from 1969. The collection has 17 demos of 16 songs (“Big Black Car” gets two demos), which are often just Alex Chilton solo on the guitar; these versions are almost always superior to the produced songs, as the voice is clearer in the mix – in fact, a CD release of just these songs would be a treasure on its own, as it is probably the best “solo” work that Alex Chilton has ever done. The live album is also interesting, perhaps more interesting than any other live material I’ve heard – partly because of its rarity, but also because of how tight the band were. The recording quality is great, and the murmur of voices in the bar as the audience waits for headlining act Archie Bell & the Drells (who?) to hit the stage; Chilton’s dejected announcement that the Drells will be up next is in itself heartbreaking.

The box is about the size of a 45-inch single slip cover, and comes with a folding box to hold the four CDs, as well as a superb booklet that is full of pictures of the band and comes with a warm foreword from John Fry, who owns Ardent Records where the band recorded and was one of their biggest supporters – the fifth Big Star, if you will.  At 100 pages, this is probably one of the more generous box set booklets around, and it contains three well-written essays by rock critics Robert Gordon, Bob Mehr and Alex Palao. Interesting to see these handsome young men, somewhat dandified and tidily-dressed with their jackets and shirts buttoned at the cuffs and leather shoes, and big mops of shoulder-length hair. Not very rock ‘n’ roll, not very hippy, but very Big Star.  One minor complaint – there are no lyric sheets, making it harder to make sense of what changes there are “The Ballad of El Goodo”, which comes in the original version and one with alternate lyrics, but considering that there are over 80 songs on this set it would have made the package much thicker and expensive (and I’m not really one to pore over lyric sheets anyway; actually, if you really need them they are readily available online).

The opening song of the set is “Psychedelic Stuff”, a mish-mash of Beatles-esque motifs (including back-tracked stuff) with some vocals, showing off Chris Bell’s studio craftsmanship, as well as the superb capabilities of Ardent Records. “All I See Is You” by Bell’s IceWater, could be a Beatles song, especially “Dig A Pony” with its “All I want is you” lyric (he repeats this theme endlessly, by the way). Chilton’s “Every Day As We Grow Closer” sounds more like a Big Star song, with the addition of some cheezy keyboards. Ditto for “Try Again” by Bell’s Rock City, with its country guitar sounds; Big Star did the song on their first album and in their live set, making this is the only proto-Big Star song to appear on a Big Star album. The early Chris Bell version is a bit different, but not overly so.

In addition to the proto-Big Star songs, disc one has all of the original songs of the first release, the optimistically-titled “#1 Record” (although in some cases the original song is left off in deference to the “alternate mix”). The album is one of the best debuts ever, full of fantastic songwriting, great guitar work and wonderful vocal harmonies – some critics call it “power pop” – with frantic rockers like “Feel”, wailing, Petty-esque thumpers like “In The Street”, trippy, experimental songs like the wonderful “The India Song” (one of only two that bassist Andy Hummel composed; the other is the similarly-themed, but inferior, “Way Out West”), as well as gorgeous, aching songs like “Thirteen” (which has been covered by artists such as Elliott Smith, Evan Dando, Garbage, Mary Lou Lord, Wilco and others) or “Watch The Sunrise.” It also has several demos for songs that would appear on the second album, “Radio City.”  But there are also several other previously-unissued nuggets. Chris Bell’s Beatles-esque “The Preacher” is briefly excerpted here, as are two other songs that were intended for the first album, namely “Gone With The Light” and “Motel Blues”, a Loudon Wainright III cover (there is also a demo for this song). The former, played solo by Alex Chilton, is an acoustic ballad, sad, folksy somewhat Celtic-sounding acoustic ballad with a multi-tracked harmony voices that very much sounds like an extension of “Try Again”, while the latter starts off with some engineer PA voice and gets into a sad story about being a rock ‘n’ roll star on the road. The disc also has “I Got Kinda Lost,” a Chris Bell demo that didn’t appear on any Big Star studio album, but makes a re-appearance here when it is performed live on disc four. It’s a punchy, simple spooky song with very repetitive verses. Disc one has the most varied songwriting credits (as with the live tracks of disc four, of course, which on its 20 tracks sources 10 from the first album, which only had 12 songs to begin with), while two and three are largely represented by Alex Chilton; it has only one cover tune. Four of the album’s songs are drumless, as is the unused song “Gone With The Light.”  With the alternate versions, it’s hard to tell the difference, but “In The Street” definitely has a different pre-intro, and “The India Song” is a bit faster (it is therefore also 14 seconds shorter). One of the oddities of disc one is “Country Morn”, which is an alternate version of “Watch The Sunrise”, with Chris Bell’s lyrics and vocals. The first disc also has a demo for “Back Of A Car”, which was a track on “Radio City,” the second release which is the focus of the second CD.

Disc two starts off with three demos, the 12 songs of the band’s second studio album, “Radio City”, as well as alternative mixes, alternate versions, a rehearsal version, Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos” single with its b-side “You And Your Sister”, and is rounded out by six more demos for one song that appears on “Radio City” as well as five songs that appear on “3rd”, including one for The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” “There Is A Life” is the only previously-unheard song on this disc, it is by Chris Bell but sung by Alex Chilton in this demo form and it sounds very much like a Gram Parsons song. Since Bell left the band after the first release (where he had made songwriting contributions to every song except “The India Song”), this is only one of three ex-”#1 Record” Bell contributions to the box (if you include “Country Morn”, which is a bizarre alternate version of “Watch The Sunrise”). But despite Chris Bell’s absence, “Radio City” is a fantastic follow-up, with great rockers like “O My Soul” and “Mod Lang,” mid-level moody pieces like “Back Of A Car” and “Daisy Glaze”, as well as the band’s most famous song “September Gurls.”  It also has my favourite Big Star song, the achingly beautiful “What’s Going Ahn.” Sure, there are a few shambling, experimental clunkers like “You Get What You Deserve”, “She’s A Mover” and “Life Is White”; The alternate version of “Mod Lang” has a pretty funky intro with studio chat, it’s a nutty rocker already and this makes it even nuttier. The alternate version for “O My Soul”, however, is a much longer number, and has a very different – longer and less sophisticated – intro (1:29, compared with 0:47 for the album version). Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos” is a short song, starting out with the broad chords you’d expect from a Big Star song, but the whiny vocals are extra-squeezed and multi-tracked, the “yeah, yeah, yeah”s extra-languid. Great George Harrison solo right in the middle of it. Despite the whininess – not to mention the grandiose title – it is still some how tight and appealing. The b-side “You And Your Sister” is a simple, plaintive ditty with guitar, voice and bass, that appeals to the listener “All I want to do is to spend some time with you/So I can hold you, hold you” (to match the a-side’s pleading “I’d really like to see you again”), that later also develops its touches of orchestration and studio freakout. And that, besides a handful of Big Star songs, was Chris Bell.

Disc three, which contains the band’s third release, entitled “3rd”, has the 19 songs that were on “3rd” (15 originals and four covers – The Velvet Underground, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Kinks, and eden ahmez), three unused songs, as well as five demos. Again, the beautiful and tenderly voiced Alex Chilton demos are usually more interesting than the songs, in particular “Thank You Friends”, which includes jazzy background singers on the studio version that clutter up the production. “Take Care”, which is practically a lullaby, opens with violins that smother Alex Chilton and his beautiful melodies. “Nighttime”, the studio track, starts off very much like the acoustic demo, but adds in tambourine, slide guitar, and eventually those inescapable strings. The better album cuts are the ones that have the least orchestration; these include the rockin’ “Kizza Me”, the sorrowful “Big Black Car”, and the four covers. Disc three has the most cover versions of any of the studio discs: Big Star’s take on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (rockin!), The Kinks’ “‘Till The End Of The Day” (also rockin!!), The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” (Alex Chilton does a good job stepping into the Nico role here, its a lovely version), and a very nice “Nature Boy”. Among the unused songs, “Manana” is a mere snippet that sounds like it was meant to be played at a turn-of-the-20th-century puppet show (I can understand why it was unused – it doesn’t sound one bit like Big Star, and is quite annoying to boot), while “Lovely Day” is just that – lovely. “Woke up in the middle of the day/Sun streaming in/No one there to take my time away.” The demo is great, the “finished” version is still okay although the guitar and the voice are further back in the mix, and there is harmonizing and drums – and then the  string section comes in, sawing away. Yuck. Many of the other songs on “3rd” tend to be shamboling, experimental, and acoustic ballads that are textured with strings. But it also has some of the best tracks, in particular demos for “Blue Moon” and “What’s Going Ahn.”
The final disc contains the 20 tracks of Big Star’s January 1973 Lafayette’s Music Room live concert opening up for Archie Dell and the Drells in the band’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. On the set list are 10 of the songs from “#1 Record”, which had just been released (left off are the rockin’ opening number “Feel” and the ballad “Give Me Another Chance”), four from the not-yet-released “Radio City”, four covers (Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #2″, T. Rex’s “Baby Strange”, Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” and the Kinks’ “Come On Now”), as well as two songs that have never appeared on a studo album, “I Got Kinda Lost” and “There Was A Light.” The songs are tight and rockin’, if a bit shamboling, especially the Gram Parson’s track. Near the end of the set, the band plays a version of “ST 100/6″ that is nearly four minutes long – the album and  alternate mix are about one minute long – playing stripped-down guitar parts marching languidly through the four lines of the song’s only verse and adding a vocal bridge (or a second verse, depending how you look at it), before starting an impromptu guitar jam, and another two verses of four lines (in true pop song tradition, the fourth is, of course, a repeat of the first), and some sort of a crazy Motown drum shakeout and then another solo. So this is what the whole song was supposed to sound like! “Thank you, Archie Dell and the Drells are next. Good night” are the last sounds you hear on the project.  Finis.

For a full review of these releases, please see My Big Bad Spitz Page.

Book Review:

World War Z, by Max Brooks – I had heard about this book and was intrigued; I’m not really very into zombies, but this book somehow sounded like a lot of fun, the way it is described in reviews as somewhat of a “rewriting future history” that you’d get in a political thriller about World War III, conspiracies to start a nuclear war, etc etc etc, except with 30% more zombies. But it wasn’t at first – the first 100 pages, with a series of episodes that are mostly 3-10 pages long (although some are longer – one of the best is 22 pages long), tells dozens of stories of encroaching horror, and then the eventual human massacre at the hands of howling zombies.

The whole book is a series of “oral accounts”, as if they were TV documentary interviews with survivors of the Zombie War, that discuss their experiences. The interviews cover top politicians and businessmen, army brass, military grunts, survivalists, average people, and in once case a recovered feral child (i.e. an orphan who regressed into primitive savagery in order to survive). The chapters recount the rise of the zombies, how they nearly overwhelmed humanity, and how the nations fought their way back from near-extinction. The way the novel is organised like an academic text tells it all: Introduction – Warnings – Blame – The Great Panic – Turning the Tide – Home Front USA – Around the World, and Above – Total War – Good-byes. The story roams from early detections in China, human transporters smuggling infected people into other countries, barricades in Greece and the Ukraine, early cases in Brazil, escaping zombie swarms in South Africa, Israeli academics’ early recognition of the scourge and the resulting solution, the CIA reaction, short-term solutions, Anatarctic holdouts for troubled billionaires, middle-American fortifications, the scene of massive tragedies in India, background to a limited nuclear exchange, the mutiny of a nuclear sub, the sacrifice of space station occupants working to keep satellite technology together, adventures in the Russian army and the way of the new Holy Russian Empire, mercenaries paid by billionaires for protection, the US Army’s first disaster in Yonkers and the German armed forces’ rout in Hamburg, South Africa and a strategic solution, the disastrous northern trail (when zombies freeze, the cold becomes a protection of sorts), a military resurgence in the US, how Hollywood filmmakers were put to work, mid-crisis politics, urban zombie cleansing, surviving “behind the lines”, European castles and sieges, the setting up of global information networks and ultimate geopolitics, Korea’s zombie DMZ, a Japanese otaku zombie killer, a Japanese Zatoichi zombie killer, psychological warfare, using dogs against zombies, the first successful campaigns and zombie massacres, and cleansing remaining zombie hordes in the oceans and seas (where they don’t fester) and in the Paris catacombs. There are many very good episodes, with the best being the ones from Japan, the nuclear sub story, as well as the ones describing political phenomena, economic shifts, and general psychology of fighting a totally new kind of war.

Thinking about the book like an academic text is useful, since Brooks goes into the processes of understanding the threat, the inevitable instance of profiteering from the fear caused by the zombie scourge when it was still little-understood, the psychology of those involved in bringing humanity back from the brink – where it teetered before the sudden, exponentially monstrous zombie assault – and finally triumphing by rescuing it from extinction. It’s no secret that the humans, whose chances were not even 50:50 at one point in the book, did mop up the zombies (also called Zs, Zack and Zed-heads, or Gs – as in ghouls) in the end. The book couldn’t have been written if the zombies had triumphed, as there would have been no one left to write it; but write it Brooks did. while there is yet no hint of a Second World War Z, there are already spin-offs aplenty in the form of The Zombie Survival Guide, The Zombie Survival Guide – Recorded Attacks, and surely many more to come. And a film, of course, since so very many scenes of the book are perfectly suited to the cinema; personally, I can’t wait to watch the US Army slaughtering zombies to the tune of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” like it’s described on page 278 of my copy of the book. Rock ‘n’ roll!

Hangin’ out… Merry Christmas

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

What a month December was. Those 80 hour weeks, those 16-hour days, those workin’ weekends, just to get a magazine out. Naoko and Zen weren’t here the whole time, hanging out with mum ‘n’ dad, it’s all so different. But now it’s concluded. Whew!

I worked the deadline about 36 hours longer than I had initially planned, but it all got wrapped up by noon on the 24th – just in time, because it was Christmas Eve and we were all working a half day. I went off to practice with my band. I got lost trying to find the jam studioy, but I wasn’t the last one to show up either, so it all worked out okay. We did a few great songs, and had a lot of fun. Afterwards, went off to drink beer. I got on a bus, and was at home by 6:30. Had a nice dinner, then went for a walk around the neighbourhood. Got to sleep not too late, exhausted. Weight dropped to 77.4 kilos, whole body was aching.

Christmas Day, spent some time tidying up and writing emails and messages to friends and acquaintances, watched the heavy rain coming down, checked out “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, then wished I hadn’t.

December 26th, woke up, took care of some chores, went off Christmas shopping on Orchard. Hit Swee Lee guitar shop for some strings (and to try out some bass guitar – they only had right-handed basses, so I tried it out that way), then to Grammaphone, then to HMV in the City Link, then to the Esplanade to borrow some DVDs (The Last Waltz, The Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, Big Brother and Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and Abba-The Movie). Took a bus to Wheelock Place and bought some books, then to Toys ‘r’ Us for some… toys, then to Kinokuniya for some books, then to the old HMV at Somerset and the new HMV at Somerset, and then back to the City Link HMV, then by MRT to Clementi; it was raining, and I had just missed my bus, so I took a cab. Bought some tonic water, then headed back, had dinner, watched Abba-The Movie with mum ‘n’ dad, and then watched Tenacious D and The Pick of Destiny. Funny. Interesting. The first five minutes are, of course, the best part of the movie.

Here we are, in Black Dynamite style:




Play that funky music, white boy

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Did some music today:

Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” with the finale for “Coming Home (Sanitarium).”

Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, the very short version.