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!

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.

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.

Allman Brothers, Dreams

My old friend Russ and I fashioned ourselves in the mode of Neal and Jack, at least sometimes, living a sort of vagabond life of simple ascetic pleasures traveling the world the way the monks of Tibet once famously did.

That meant hitchhiking after school from St. James to Cold Spring Harbor to try on and sometimes buy Hit Em Hard corderoy work pants, baggy the way they wore them back in the depression. If we found a beer or a J to go along with our Camel cigarettes we would enjoy it, and when we got hungry some yoghurt usually did the trick.

Most days we played basketball in Gaynor Park. There was always a game on the single court there, and we’d rotate in and out, playing full court hard, against our high school friends, and Freddy and Jay and others who had cycled back from Vietnam and brought a steely dark humor and cynicism to our lives.

The hoops court at Gaynor Park was the locus for our social life. This is where you went when you wanted to find your friends, who were either jamming on the court or flopped over the concrete pump house on the other side of the unused tennis courts. I didn’t know how all the boys and girls who spent so much time in that strip of tarmac, grass and concrete ended up there, it all seemed magical, but some part of it was because the Eastman clan, Russ and family, lived catty corner across the avenue.

It was there, at Russ’s house, that we hung out at lunch, and on days when school was shortened for testing. It was there we sat in the yard discovering that granny smith apples and Madeira Rainwater were an incredible combo. It was there that we watched Bogart movies, read Tin Tin (Rich, having colored all the dog images in a book with a yellow marker: “Don’t eat the yellow Snowy.”), and learned what Thai stick was (in the garage, in case it was volatile).

Russ and I also spent many weekends hitchhiking around Long Island, setting some goal (Hey, Southhampton!) and often making it there and back. The adventures weren’t usually dramatic. A dip in the ocean, flirting with some girls who droves us two miles, finding somehow some beer. Not exactly Tibetan simplicity, but basic, elemental, life distilled.

We talked to everyone. Drivers who picked us up, of course, but also road workers, and convenience store clerks. The workers in Army Navy stores and wherever we went to buy Dannon yoghurt as a snack. Local gossip, news, the weather, that downhome chatter was part of a package of values that we developed and shared and which I think has endured. In later years, when we were actually in control of the car, we’d stop and help people whose cars had broken down, Russ making them feel safe as we helped or found help for whatever the problem was.

We often found ourselves, because of our long hair and baggy pants, talking to police officers who assumed we took drugs. I remember a number of times that we chatted up those cops, while holding a joint or two, talked seriously about the problems with Nelson Rockefeller’s increasing penalties for pot possession, and managed to save our hides by good grace and luck and maybe a certain amount of innocent guile.

Until we didn’t, at which point our wanderings and self-inventing become more publicly known at home, and lawyers had to be called. We’ll blame Frank Zappa for that. We ate the yellow snow, metaphorically at least.

Through all of this we listened to a lot of music. And the music that we listened to most was the Allman Brothers. When I heard from Russ’s sister that he’d died this past Saturday I thought about his cancer, and the unrelenting beat of disease that transforms a life of love and devotion into an unrelenting agony and violation of all of that. And I ached, for the many years in between those strange halcyon days Russ and I shared figuring out how to live in the world, and these strange days when whatever script we’ve been given makes the ending seem as inevitable as one of those Bogart movies. And much more terrible because it isn’t just a story.

I started thinking about this Allman’s tune today. It’s from their first album, which for some time was underappreciated, though nobody cares anymore from whence the good stuff came. And this is the good stuff.

So sit with Russ and me on the pump house, with our friends, and argue about Jaimo and Butch, and Duane and Dickey, appreciate Berry’s amazing bass line, and think about motorcycles and eerie coincidences and terribly sad moments. And raise a Stegmaier, please, for Russ. And don’t klunk.

 

Chuck Berry Is On Top

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28740659

Dick Clark introduces an appearance by Berry promoting this album and stumbles over the title, with the audience tittering at the double entendre. Really?

It is 1959, and, as Clark mentions, this is an album that has on it Carol, Maybelline, Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven, Little Queenie and many more.

Those were the days of album oriented rock. Not.

It’s an incredible trove, not a greatest hits album, that the Rolling Stones particularly mined for their early (and later) setlists.

Berry, of course, looks right at home playing along to this other cut, Back in the USA, that is also on Chuck Berry is on Top, with the totally white and polite audience clapping along.

 

 

Jens Lekman, What’s That Perfume You Wear?

Jens has a new elpee out. My first time through I was disappointed. Seemed a little pro forma Euro disco.

But in fact, after a few listens, there are some other great songs here beside Evening Prayer.

I think this is the single. There is a real video. Secretly Canadian is promoting this. Good for them.

Dead Boys, All This And More

One of the thrills of the punk years was the primacy of singles. US bands would launch with a self- or independently pressed 45, looking for enough buzz to get a major label deal. UK bands and labels eased the way into the US market by dropping 45s into the indie record stores, where some people, I was one, would hang out and hear the choicest cuts on the store’s record player.

These singles came, usually, with picture sleeves. Sometimes they came with other gimmicks. I’m sure every punk band wanted a hit single, but most of these weren’t destined for radio play. They were meant as samizdat from the heart of DIY RNR, a beacon looking for similar youths with guitars and loud drums. If you had a single, you had a calling card at least.

One true thing was that there were some great songs released, and another true thing was that many were followed by fairly crappy albums.

The Dead Boys album leads off with their great single, Sonic Reducer, and is followed by a collection that sounded pretty strong in its day. Looking back at it now, what seemed like great energy and clever arrangements then seems today a little obvious and not quite as hard as they should have been. Such is context.

Gene points out, however, that this album should have been on the Rolling Stone Punk Top 40 Albums, and he may be right. It was historic, one of the first true punk albums on the shelves. I’m not sure of that importance as I listen today, but I am nostalgic. See, I actually performed on the album as a musician, of sorts.

The cut is the second track, All This and More. My girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend, Jim, was an assistant engineer on the album for Genya Ravan at Electric Ladyland. One day we were hanging out there, maybe waiting for him to get off work, when he brought us into the studio. It was the weekend, for sure, it wasn’t someplace we could wander in to usually. But on this day we got headphones and instructions to do the hand claps that lead off All This and More. And we did them and are on the record.

I think. Because I’m assuming our hand claps were good enough. I’m assuming that Genya didn’t get some other young people in to do better hand claps. No way to know that now. In any case they’re good claps. Not as good as the hand claps in the Stooges’ No Fun, but good enough for All This and More, which has one of the great weird first lines in all rock songs.

So, Gene reminded me that I probably performed on a record he thought should be in the Top 40 of Punk albums, even if it’s the elpee that displaces Blink 182.

What a joke.

In other words, we didn’t get any royalties or credit. And I haven’t played the record since before it came out, which I guess is why I forgot about this story. Until now. But there it is. History, perhaps.