Jonathan Demme has died.

Jonathan Demme’s life is rightly noted for his versatile and diverse talents and interests, though his love of music seems to be the unifying connection between his genre films, documentaries, blockbusters, and humanitarian work. I liked much of his oeuvre, maybe not as passionately as some, but I admired his restless and generous life. And when I heard the news I thought of this, as I’m sure did many:

World Premier: The Public image is Rotten

My buddy Rael was going to be in town on Friday, and the Tribeca Film Festival was premiering a new movie about PiL and Johnny Rotten. Neither of us were big PiL fans, but this seemed like a fun date. I bought tickets.

Fast forward a few weeks, and Rael is sick. He can’t come into town. So I call my musically adventurous friend Julie. I know she is not a PiL fan, not a Sex Pistols fan, but I’ll have fun with her in any case. Plus, it turns out, there will be a discussion with Lydon/Rotten after the screening. More show biz!

We both order fish and chips at the venerable Tribeca institution, Walkers, and the fish is great, the cole slaw is fine, and the chips are very tasty. That’s a win.

Here’s the deal on the movie, in a few short bites:

If you love PiL you will chew this movie up with delight. It not only fetishises each version of the band, it exalts the Rotten process. Your taste is reified.

If you come from a more historical perspective, the movie does a pretty fine tick tock of the whys wheres and wayfores of the band over a long career.

If you enjoy watching John Lydon sing PiL songs, there’s lots here for you.

If you enjoy watching John Lydon talk about his life, there’s a good amount of that for you.

If you were an observer of PiL, and not a fan of the music, I think you might find a lot of fun in the music. More than you might expect. Less in Lydon’s memorable vocals than Wobble’s bass, Levene’s skronky guitar, and the similarly discordant and yet powerful music all the iterations of this band made.

So, there’s lots to like about the movie, but when you think about it as a movie, it starts to pale. This is a movie that seems to get Johnny Rotten talking emotionally and revealingly about his life. It’s a movie that chronicles many internecine wars among the various configurations of PiL. And it is, most tellingly, a movie that buys John Lydon’s version of the story.

Lydon’s version is a good story, but all the other voices in the film have other stories. And they’re allowed to tell them up to a point. That’s the point where Lydon/Rotten decides to drown them out.

What I’m describing is not an indictment. Rotten/Lydon, in the post-screening chat, talks about how he aspires to be a valued songwriter. He is saying he doesn’t think he’s there yet. He’s right about that, and wonderfully honest to admit it.

But the history of PiL the film describes is the arc of moving from talented and disorganized non-professionals to, over 20 years, the hiring of professional musicians who can actually play. And then marvelling at how everything got better.

And in many ways it did, but what seems to me most revealing is how all the aesthetic challenges disappeared once the band was competent. And this idea of competent musicians versus energetic amateurs is an invigorating discussion for everyone, but the movie glides over the issues.

It’s easy to see why, but without a discussion about talent, expression, experience, professionalism, talent and creativity, plus other stuff, I’m not sure how much what they produced matters.

I love PiL, I went to the screening tonight, because of this appearance I saw one morning in 1980 on American Bandstand:

Nuff said.

 

 

Ella Fitzgerald Was Born 100 Years Ago

The centenary is a big one, and Ella’s is coming up next week. She’s perhaps the greatest of jazz singers, without a doubt in that conversation and most likely on top of the heap, but rooting around in her discography yesterday I came up with a record called Sunshine of Your Love, which was recorded in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel in 1968.

It isn’t a rock album, but it takes it’s title from Cream’s classic rock song.

I find the cover of Hey Jude, which precedes this on the elpee, to be the worst of rock-jazz fusions, but this is different and pretty hot. Not Cream, but rockin’. I can just imagine the hep cats in their Nehru jackets at the Venetian Room, waving their cigarettes over their Scotch on the rocks as they listen in time.

Oddly, thinking about jazz and rock and what can work across the genres got me thinking about Anything Goes, an old Cole Porter chestnut that happened to be a hit single for a band called Harpers Bazaar in 1967. Ella covered it in 1956, and unlike the willful nostalgia of the insipid Harpers Bazaar version, and other cute stage versions of the tune, her version is absolutely adult and knowing. An acknowledgement of the ways and passions of the grown ups in the room.

This doesn’t make the music rock, the song is an 80-year-old show tune, but it connects the tune to the emotional directness and honesty that grew out of jazz and soul and r&b in the 50s into much of the best rock songwriting of the 60s and 70s. The singer does that, with the help of a crack band.

Happy birthday, Ella!

J. Geils Blues Band Loses J. Geils

John Miller came into the lunch room at Smithtown Central and said something like, I’ve got the new Rolling Stones. What he meant was he’d heard the J. Geils Band’s first album.

It turns out that the J. Geils Band wasn’t the new Stones, the Stones themselves were just escalating into an incredible streak of great music, but the J. Geils Band was great fun. Especially before they became sexy hitmakers. Good for them to make the money, but the love was in those early cuts, like this one.

The Definite Article

There is a quiz today at Slate called Does This Band’s Name Start With The?

I did very badly on the quiz, but got the last question right, which led to this band that I’d heard of but had never listened to.

This is a San Francisco band from the 90s that I think still mittens on. This clip is the entirety of their seventh elpee, which I’m listening to as I type, and which I’m liking quite a bit. Retro, but also fresh. Good rockin’ sounds that could spiral into dancey camp, like the B-52s, but don’t. Unfortunately cute name, however.

Melvins, The Man Down There

So, looking into the Sonny Boy Williamson/Elmore James/Whoever song, One Way Out, I came across this single by a band called Melvins from Sweden in 1965, derived from the old song. This isn’t blues, it melds Coasters/Platters gimmickry to an old narrative, with a touch of the Mersey beat. Chances are when you listen you’ll be one of fewer than 700 who have heard this in recent times. Pretty cool!

Allman Brothers, One Way Out

Sonny Boy Williamson wrote this song, or maybe he wrote it with Elmore James. Or they wrote it together with another guy, too. Someone knows the story, and he’s probably gone.

This cut is live, comes from the Fillmore East but was from the last show ever at the Fillmore East, in 1971, not at the other shows in which the band made their bones at that place.

It’s a remarkable cut. Berry Oakley is percolating and that great rhythm section is propulsive. The guitars are sweet, and Gregg sings. You taught me good. This band was great at getting jazzy and improving and turning meh lyrics into musical profundity, but given this piece of meat they come back concise, energetic, and unbeatable. In other words, with the best.

Hey Kids, All That is Old is Not Good.

I was casting about in my memory palace today for rock bands that had an impact on me when I was in high school, but didn’t endure. The name Uriah Heep bubbled up to the top. These were, in my memory, Celtic progressive rockers like Jethro Tull, who similarly took the name of a mythological figure (correction: well, a character from David Copperfield), and who rocked.

Or something like that.

I’m sure Jethro Tull has some down moments, but most of them are at least agreeable, and many of them are  pretty damn good.

Uriah Heep? I’m sure I’m missing something good, there was a reason they were on the radio, but this is awful! Or is it just me? You decide.

The Little Bits, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)

The version of this song you may know, by the Four Seasons, is a gorgeous slow burn, though a version by the Walker Brothers that has a touch of Merseybeat baked in was a bigger hit.

This version was recorded first, and it punks it up, as Gene might say, in a Spectorish way. The common denominator is Bob Crewe, who wrote the song with Bob Guadio, and whose record labels released both versions.