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A Poem is a Naked Person: Leon Russell’s New 1974 Documentary

11 Nov

http://www.janusfilms.com/poem/downloads

“I’ll put on a show for you if you put on a show for me” (www.janusfilms.com/poem)

If you can hum “A Song for You,” “Tightrope” or “Superstar,” you already know more about Leon Russell than you’d learn from watching A Poem is a Naked Person. This free-form documentary has been kept out of distribution since it was completed in 1974 due to creative differences between Russell and director Les Blank, who chose to focus less on the musician and more on the crazy quilt of people surrounding him – including the director himself. Following Blank’s death in 2013, Russell relented, and now the film is making the rounds of art houses, including the Detroit Film Theater at the DIA.

Russell was in demand as a session pianist and arranger before he became better known as a songwriter and Joe Cocker’s long-haired bandleader for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen concerts in 1970. In the 1960s, he played behind everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Herb Alpert to the Rolling Stones. Working for Phil Spector, he arranged Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” He toured with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; one such Friend, George Harrison, called him into service to manage the superstar line up playing the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Around that time Russell released his first solo album, featuring “A Song for You” – which is as lovely a love song as ever was written.

poem_poster_smallBy the time Blank showed up in Oklahoma in 1972 with his cameras, Russell had founded the Shelter recording label and was building a studio in rural Tulsa to give a variety of musicians a place to play and develop. But instead of putting Russell center stage in his own documentary – a movie he spent $660,000 to produce – Blank looped in whatever image, sound or message he found interesting (undoubtedly made all the more interesting thanks to the huge quantities of drugs they must have ingested, if the ruby-red eyeballs and twitchy freak outs of Russell’s bandmates are any indication).

For a fan like me who’s eager to see Russell performing in his prime as a headliner rather than a band leader, the film is a frustrating experience. It captures a few moments of musical genius, like clips of Russell’s concert performances and studio sessions for his Hank Wilson’s Back country album, including George Jones singing a heartbreaking solo version of “Take Me.” But Blunt’s penchant for the bizarre overwhelms the impact of the music and the story of the star. In addition to a lot of b-roll of the (often toothless) denizens of Tulsa, the director wastes valuable screen time in order to pontificate about art and capitalism, demonstrated by a boa constrictor killing and swallowing a chick (you read that correctly). You can understand why Russell was less than happy.

Yet it’s not a total loss. Watching Russell play – gray-eyed and steel-haired, his elegant fingers rolling from gospel to honky-tonk to rock and roll – is transporting.  It’s worth the 90 minutes of drug-soaked oddness just to see that.

See you on the flip side …

Bonus Tom Petty trivia! In 1974, Petty and his Mudcrutch bandmates traveled from Florida to Los Angeles with a demo in hand. London Records offered them a record deal the first day they arrived, thanks to a mix of talent and beginner’s luck. Thrilled by the prospect, they went back home to sell everything they owned to relocate. While in rehearsal, they got a call from Leon Russell’s producing partner Denny Cordell, who convinced them to stop in Tulsa on their way to LA to meet him at the studio at Shelter Records. They spent the night, did a session in the studio and decided to sign with Shelter instead … which resulted in the first two albums Petty recorded with the Heartbreakers. 

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Love Is a Losing Game – Amy: The Girl Behind the Name

15 Jul

Amy Winehouse documentaryWhen a gifted genius like Amy Winehouse dies young and horribly, you just want to find someone to blame for the terrible waste of talent and potential. Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy: The Girl Behind the Name, names numerous suspects:

  • Was it her dad, who left the family when Amy was nine and later talked her out of rehab right before stardom made recovery nigh impossible?
  • Maybe it was her mom, who refused to discipline her daughter as a child and did nothing about teenaged Amy’s bulimia, thinking she’d grow out of it.
  • How about her manager, who was also her promoter – hellbent on making her perform even when she was unwell and unwilling?
  • Most definitely Blake Fielder-Civil, her shitbag of a husband, had a hand in it, as he feasted on her insecurities and bank account to support his own drug habit – and expanded her repertory by introducing her to heroin and crack.
  • But so did we, the fans who made her a star and then, when her addictions were getting the best of her, turned her life into a tasteless series of Amy Wino jokes and frightful photos.
  • And let’s face it, Amy’s worst enemy was often Amy herself, as she couldn’t distance herself from alcohol and drugs long enough to save her voice, her career and ultimately, her life.

I knew this film was going to be painful. How could it not be when we all know how she was going to end up? The film is even more of a wrecking ball because Kapadia was given access to a trove of video footage from family and friends to ground the film in Amy’s beginnings as a sassy teenager with a one-in-a-million voice. Amy is rarely out of the picture, as audio interviews with her friends, family and associates fill in the blanks between her performances and interviews. Her songs are used as the libretto of the film, floating over the action to point up how songwriting was her way of processing her life.

And when it gets ugly, Kapadia doesn’t shy away, and your heart breaks a little more with each explosive flash of the paparazzi’s cameras.

Amy’s reaction to winning the Grammy as best new artist, as announced by her idol Tony Bennett, was a perfect example of the clash between who she had become and who she wanted to be:

If only Bennett had been able to work with her earlier in her career, perhaps she’d be alive today, wowing people in jazz clubs across the globe as the next Dinah Washington, instead of being another member of the 27 Club. We’ll never know.

On July 23, 2011, our family was on a road trip back from Boston. I was reading Steven Tyler’s memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? (great title, disappointing book) and came up on his name check of Amy Winehouse as a fellow traveler stumbling off the road to recovery. Within a few minutes of me turning that page, NPR announced she had been found dead in her apartment. It wasn’t a surprise. It was, and still is, a colossal shame, because her limited catalog only shows a small part of what she was capable of as an artist – and her beauty was like no other.

See this film – and if you want even more material, check out her album Live at the BBC to hear more music and enjoy the DVD that comes with the record to see Amy Winehouse at the top of her game.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. I’ll be signing books at the Arts, Books & Brews Pub Crawl on July 29 in beautiful downtown Howell, Michigan. See you there!

From underground obscurity to international phenomenon: “It Came From Detroit”

2 Mar

It Came From DetroitThank goodness I moved to Detroit when I did. If I’d arrived in the 1990s, I probably wouldn’t have been able to hold down a steady job or get any sleep because I would have spent every spare dollar and minute in a scuzzy bar somewhere downtown listening to garage bands.

I know this thanks to a very thoughtful gift from my cousins-in-law: a copy of the 2013 documentary, It Came from Detroit, chronicling the garage scene before, during and after the White Stripes made it big and gave the world a glimpse of the home-grown music scene.

The way the musicians tell it in the film, many of these bands were formed out of boredom by music geeks who clogged the aisles of record stores looking for albums by early 1960s American bands like Bay City’s own ? and the Mysterians. Having no experience playing an instrument wasn’t necessarily a barrier; friends would pick up a guitar or a pair of drum sticks and jump right in. As more bands formed, they took over whatever space was cheap and available (dive bars, bowling alleys, stripper transvestite clubs) to play for whoever would show up. The sound – fuzzed up, fun and really loud – was dubbed “Detroit garage rock.”

The crowds grew, the bands (which often shared or swapped players) got better known around town, and while they weren’t exactly able to quit their day jobs, bands like The Demolition Doll Rods, Electric Six and The Detroit Cobras were able to play rock music their way – as this video from The Gories shows:

 

Then came Jack and Meg White.

Jack had played with a number of Detroit bands like Rocket 455 and the Hentchmen, but once the White Stripes started, they were on a different trajectory. The documentary uses their rise to the top as a line of demarcation between a time when music was just a way for friends to get together by making music, and one in which Detroit bands like the Von Bondies were getting national praise and international exposure … which didn’t last long.

It Came From Detroit took ten years to film and features dozens of interviews and music clips. I’m glad that many of these bands are still playing (I’ve seen a couple recently) and grateful their commitment to having fun onstage hasn’t waned. And as for those that are hiatus or broke up long ago, at least we can experience some of that Motor City magic on screen. As my cousin writes,

Looking back it was by far the most enjoyable job I have ever had. For 9 years 3-4 nights a week my job was to go witness great rock and roll shows, well for the most part at least.

There are lots of stories to go along with all those shows. It did kind of dampen my enthusiasm of seeing national acts in larger venues, knowing that I saw so many great bands that were just as good and many times far better than those big touring bands.

Buy the documentary, spread the word, and share your experiences here. In the meantime, enjoy this clip from Ann Arbor-based The Paybacks:

 

See you on the flip side …

Day tripping at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

8 Jan

Propeller Head Jesus

Propeller Head Jesus

I am a museum geek. Give me admission, and I’ll tool around the galleries until the lights dim. This is enormous fun for me but not so much for my companions. Years ago when my partner and I went to Florence – a city with 72 museums – she humored this behavior for about three days, at which point she put her foot down. “If I have to go to one more museum and see one more painting of Jesus with a propeller on his head, you’re walking back by yourself. To San Francisco.”

It’s a lot like me and rock music. Just mentioning a musician turns on a spigot of trivia, unbidden and unstoppable: “Oh, you like the Black Keys? They’re from Akron, Ohio, you know, the birthplace of Chrissie Hynde, the Waitresses and Devo. You know, Devo was actually a seriously subversive band. The name is short for “de-evolution” reflecting their disillusion with the direction of society. Mark Mothersbaugh, you know, has scored a bunch of Wes Anderson films, and just did The Lego Movie, and … wait, why are you leaving?”

Put rock and roll together with a museum, and it’s my idea of heaven on earth. However, asking others to come with me would usher them into a bowge of hell. So, on the second day of 2015, I drove myself from Detroit to Cleveland to revisit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on my own.

R&R Hall of Fame

Cue the angels singing and the doves flying: at the front door of the Temple of Rock & Roll

The last time I went there was 2011, with my son and younger daughter (then nine years old) in tow. They were great sports, but ultimately they got their fill just as I was getting started. This time, I wanted to be there from open to close, giving myself permission to wallow in whatever I fancied.

As much as I carp about their induction choices, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is well curated, beautifully laid out and engagingly interactive. They make the most of video and audio to augment the collection of instruments, costumes, posters and paraphernalia on display. For instance, the Early Influences listening station near the front of the main gallery features the forefathers and foremothers of the genre, coming from blues, gospel, country and jazz, providing brief biographies, photos and choice examples of their songs.

I got to know a few of these folks better during my visit, including Louis Jordan, who certainly gave Little Richard some ideas …

… and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, whose Texas swing inspired Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” with this song:

After a couple of hours tooling around the exhibition hall in the lower level, I grabbed a sandwich then got comfortable in the Hall of Fame theater showing the video highlighting each year’s inductees through 2013. Given there are more than 304 inductees in the past 29 years, this takes a while, even as they gloss over some of the greats to keep things moving. In my opinion, 2011 was their best year for showcasing artists who run the gamut of what rock music can be. My particular favorites from that year:

Dr. John, who you can see here doing “Iko Iko” in concert with Ringo Starr and some of the best side men of the 1970s: Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh, 2/5 of The Band, Billy Preston … boo howdy!

Tom Waits, who knew he was an acquired taste from early on, as spoofed in his appearance in 1977 on Fernwood 2 Night:

Leon Russell, who played elegantly powerful piano for everyone from Frank Sinatra to George Harrison without losing his Okie weirdness, which is on full display in his Homewood Sessions:

Sorry … the trivia spigot just went full blast again.

More than six hours after I arrived, I was back on the road home, sated after gorging on music all day. And the thing is, if someone would offer to go with me, I’d be back on 75 South to 80 East in a second, to see what more I could explore.

Let me know when you’re up for a road trip. I’ll pay the tolls on the turnpike … although I’ll control the stereo.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Need even more evidence of how great the Class of 2011 was? Tune in at 12:47 in this clip from the 2011 induction broadcast to see Alice Cooper – bloody tux and all – trade verses with Darlene Love on “Da Doo Ron Ron.” How I adore rock and roll!

Joe Cocker and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

22 Dec

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame logo

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2015 was announced recently, and the carping began immediately thereafter.

Here are the inductees, according to category:

  • “Former Upstarts Who Became Mainstream Stars”: Green Day
  • “We’re Embarrassed that Brian Epstein was Inducted Before Him”: Ringo Starr
  • “It’s About Damn Time”: Lou Reed
  • “Wait, He’s Not Already In?”: Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • “Any Other White Blues Guys We Missed?”: Paul Butterfield
  • “Great Voice, but, uh, Why?”: Bill Withers
  • “We Have to Induct a Girl with a Guitar – Who’s Left?”: Joan Jett
  • “Uh, Who?”: The “5” Royales
Kiss Action Figures

Perhaps you’re more likely to get into the Hall of Fame if you have your own action figures

As usual, there were seminal acts on the ballot much worthier than the winners, and even more weren’t even considered who should have been ensconced in Cleveland years ago. You gotta wonder how the induction committee determines who gets in and who doesn’t. Beyond having recording at least 25 years prior to consideration, the criteria is purposely vague:

We shall consider factors such as an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.

For my money, the key phrases here are,”musical influence” and “musical excellence.” Anyone who gets in should have moved the medium forward … which ought to excuse Ms. Jett from consideration in the first place. This would also justify 2014 inductee Kiss, which – despite critics’ deep distaste – inspired numerous (male) musicians at a formative age, ranging from ?uestlove to Rivers Cuomo (as a snippet of tape from his middle school days attests).

Joe CockerWhich brings me to Joe Cocker, who died Dec. 22.

Cocker is not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps he isn’t because he was influenced more than he influences. By his own admission in a documentary I saw a few years ago (was it Across From Midnight?), he idolized Ray Charles so much, he imitated him down to rocking back and forth as if he was playing Ray’s piano. He was also a singer who didn’t play an instrument and rarely sang his own compositions.

But man oh man, how he sang: that’s the definition of “musical excellence” right there.

As much as his appearance at Woodstock cemented his place in rock history, the magnificent Mad Dogs & Englishmen exemplifies his power as a vocalist and musician. Backed by a phenomenal band led by Leon Russell (featuring 20 Feet from Stardom star Claudia Lennear, and saxophonist Bobby Keys, who also died recently), Cocker rolled through tunes by the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and a crushing “Blue Medley,” with the fervor of a revival preacher. Here’s a sample from the documentary of the tour:

 

Cocker had scattered hits later in his career, including the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” but it’s that sweaty, scorching, full-body singing in the late 1960s/early 1970s that was his gift to rock and roll, and to us.

Rest in peace, Joe, and may you be the first name on the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot.

See you on the flip side … and Happy Holidays!

Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth

5 Nov

For those of us who long to be artistic hyphenates, Nick Cave is inspirational. The singer-songwriter-film composer-screenwriter-poet-actor is still going strong decades after dropping out of art school to join a band in Melbourne.

Now in his late fifties, CaveNick Cave 2012 looks like Johnny Cash as designed by Tim Burton: long legs, pointy shoes, jet-black suit and matching hair. He’s known for his literate, sexy and occasionally violent imagery, delivered in a mesmerizing baritone. Being a sucker for Greek mythology, I first started paying close attention to his work when I figured out “More News from Nowhere” from Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! was a retelling of The Odyssey.

Until recently, I had no idea I’d seen him on screen back in 1988. Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds, were the punk musicians at the Berlin club in a pivotal scene in Wings of Desire:

 

I came this close to seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds when they came to town a couple of months back but, lacking a concert buddy as well as the funds after spending umpteen zillion dollars on concerts this year, I took a pass. Thankfully,  I took the opportunity to see Cave’s “autobiographical documentary,” 20,000 Days on Earth, at the Detroit Film Theatre. The quotes are there because this is far from the usual chronological tour through a rock musician’s life story.

 

The film follows Cave on a surreal “typical” day, his 20,000th: from waking up next to his wife to writing threads of lyrics in notebooks and on a manual typewriter, on to therapy and rehearsal and a meal with his longtime musical collaborator Warren Ellis, and eventually onstage both in a club and at the Sydney Opera House, performing the song that began on the page at the beginning of the film. As he drives from appointment to appointment, friends and collaborators (Blixa Bargeld, Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue) appear as passengers to chat about their work, then disappear. At times, his internal narrative sparks a collage of images from his career and/or artistic perspective; his description of the impact of seeing his wife for the first time is illustrated by images ranging from Jacqueline Kennedy in mourning to explosions in space.

The directors – visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard – won World Cinema Documentary awards at Cannes for directing and editing the film. They certainly deserve the praise, for no one could do a better job of chronicling what it’s like to live in an artist’s head as he shifts from husband to musician to father to star.

It’s an extraordinary film because, of course, Cave is extraordinary. He’ll never be on pop radio but he could create the soundtrack for your dreams, be they terrifying or rapturous. As he sings in “Jubilee Street” on his most recent album, Push the Sky Away:

I am transforming

I am vibrating

I am glowing

I am flying

Look at me now

See you on the flip side …

P.S. I’ll be guest blogging soon on Laura Lee’s The Power of Narrative. We met at the Leon & Lulu Books and Authors event a few weeks ago and I’m grateful to her for reaching out to me for the chance to meet her readers. In the meantime, check out her site and her many published works – and tell her I sent you!

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