Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It Turned Me 'Round

I'd read a few reviews about the flick, and since it's about one of my favorite bands, I saw Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me last night.

My attitude towards this documentary, having read a lot about the band and listened to their three 1970's releases - especially Third - was anticipatory in an arrogant manner born out of possessing just enough knowledge to be dangerous. What can this film tell me that's new about the band, I thought, and how will it re-present what I already know? It's an attitude that can make or break the success of band documentaries meant for the big screen, and a common consideration for anybody undertaking a history of any beloved musician(s). Big Star's story presents some unique challenges, too, as it is probably one of the most lauded bands on the planet this side of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Nothing Can Hurt Me drove a few things home that will be revelatory to all but hardcore fans, folks like Robert Gordon and Rob Jovanovic, and the people directly involved in Big Star's story, a lot of whom participated in the documentary. Until this film, with the exception of an Oxford American article about Big Star co-founder Chris Bell, the focus has largely been on Alex Chilton's role in the band and his life after it, which is only logical: due to his pre-Big Star Box Tops experience and his fairly public de- and re-construction of musical genres, personas, and roles on his own, he likely figured his part in it spoke for itself without further participation in this documentary. There is a more balanced approach that (hopefully) would have been there even with Chilton's cooperation: interviews with band members, art directors, PR people, Ardent Studios engineers and producers, surviving family members, critics, and members of Memphis' early '70's music and art scene abound. The distribution of Big Star's music fell through some huge cracks in the industry's operations as they were then, and the fallout from that makes for some sad, sad moments.

Perhaps it was simply hearing people like the late Andy Hummel, last Big Star man standing Jody Stephens, engineer and Ardent Studios founder John Fry, and Tav Falco speak, but Nothing Can Hurt Me also hit me between the eyes with how southern Big Star and many of the people who tried hard to get their sound beyond Memphis are.* There was something comforting and amazing about that to me that I'm still trying to figure out. For whatever reason, a bizarre mélange of entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and good dose of individuality made something incredible in Big Star's sound that shouts, screams, whimpers, and wails across the decades still - a good chunk of which could well be a last gasp of what had been a southern way of life that was ending fairly violently. It puts the tragedy that was Chris Bell's life and posthumously-celebrated musical genius into even greater relief, in a way.

Director Drew DeNicola addressed an observation after the film was shown, agreeing that the people who seem to appreciate Memphis the most, culturally speaking, are outsiders. Perhaps another four decades will pass and then the role early-mid '70's Memphis played in rock and soul will have its own clubs and museums. 'Til then, we've got Nothing Can Hurt Me...which ain't half bad.

Update, 8/1: Seems there are a number of music documentaries out right now that are studies of the triumph of the music industry's mighty boot extinguishing some small yet bright creative flames. DeNicola did mention Memphis being a "downer" town drug-wise (quaaludes out the wazoo), but 'ludes sometimes can't hold a candle to the combination of corporations and creative efforts.


*I heard some of my late Knoxville, TN, granddaddy in John Fry - that courtliness combined with an engineer's precision. Though my granddaddy was an electrical engineer & Fry is largely concerned with sound, there are some common traits. Also, seems Chris Bell was at UT in Knoxville around the same time my mother attended the school. Knowing how Knoxville was in the early '70's, it's no wonder he dropped out and went back to Memphis.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Oscar Brown Jr. On Citizenship

"What you mean we, white man?"

There's no point in (black people) trying to ingratiate ourselves with these people because we're not...we didn't come here right. We're not in the situation in the right way. We came as a degraded race and were held that way. Even when we were told we were citizens it was not with the freedom that everybody else became citizens. Everybody else who wanted to be a citizen, came, and was naturalized and bought into it. We were just declared citizens by edict, which meant that the slaves had to cast their political lot with the masters!

...My grandfather was born in 1860 in Hines County, Mississippi; he was not considered a person. In 1865, they decided he was a person, and that person was a member of this political organization and all his descendants would then be likewise, if they remained here. Well...that's crap. We're kidnap victims. We were brought here; the country acts like it didn't affront us at all. They act like they owe us no apology and that they bear no blame - that we actually benefited from having been dragged here in chains and having the shit beat out of us. We have been bred to go along with it - we have been bred to be afraid.

-James Porter interview with Oscar Brown Jr., Roctober 1996.

Sadly, with verdicts like the one in the Trayvon Martin case tonight, this looks to be as true now as it was then.

We've still got a long way to go to change this. All of us.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Carrying On Through It All

At 16, I'd hit a strange crisis. Nearly always the too-sensitive misfit all through grade school, I'd managed to make it to high school and reinvent things for myself - new friends, an eye on an actual career in the arts, happiness through music - and then my parents dropped the m-bomb.

"We're moving," my mom said. And it wasn't an across-Houston move like it had been when I was in second grade. It was an epic move, a culture shock move, a move that couldn't have come at a worse time for me. From huge Texas metropolis to...a tiny central Pennsylvania town. Just before my junior year of high school.

The cons: being ripped out of a circle of friends I'd amassed, a school I actually liked, and a city I was getting to know. The pros were difficult to get a handle on at first, but one of them came via that new-to-us portal to the world: pay TV. Though I'd gotten doses of MTV and other channels via my friends' access to cable in Houston (and I was getting earfuls of my mom jumping up and down about "full frontal nudity of men AND women!" on late-night Cinemax among our new bonanza of channels), the true revelations were through MTV I'd watch late into the night the summer before my first day of high school in a new town. Monty Python episodes. Old Monkees episodes. Comedy hosted by Mario Joyner. 120 Minutes. MTV News. That was 1989.

The real music explosion didn't happen for me until I went to a pre-college art program in Providence, Rhode Island, the following summer. Making up for lost time and a lack of diploma-worthy credits made for a year without any art classes that left me antsy and anguished, so my family sprung for six weeks on the side of College Hill. Along with the 2D, 3D, and drawing classes came proximity to music clubs (which were off-limits to us, as we were underage - not that I didn't try to go), and easier access to recorded music. Even the college bookstore sold tapes. I was in heaven.

Trying to pinpoint exactly when I'd heard of The Stone Roses is tricky. Chances are I'd read a blurb about them in Rolling Stone (or maybe it was this one), saw The Stone Roses cassette for sale in the school store, and picked it up as part of my continuing musical self-education. They were being touted as the band of the rave scene coming out of England at the time, but their sound was bigger than that - especially this classic on the album:

The album was amazing, and I kept coming back to it, all through the Happy Mondays twisting melons, Stereo MC's elevating minds, and Jesus Jones being right there right then...but waiting for the Roses to play in America, or to release new material, proved to be a real-life exercise in waiting for Godot. I resigned myself to listening to the album on my Walkman whenever I could, playing the tape some (but not too much) on the stereo in the glass shop at college as I gathered and worked hot glass, and assuming their edgy glory had dissolved into drug-addled obscurity, their talents having burned so hot they were consumed in the flames.

It's taken one weekend for me to get back to high school and the Roses. One book at a different college bookstore has brought it all back and changed how I think about the band. That debut album The Stone Roses, a rock shot in the dark for a teenager like me, was actually a major bridge between The Smiths' melancholy and the explosion of Britpop as embodied by Oasis and Blur, yet it more than stands on its own. What I've learned so far from Simon Spence's The Stone Roses: War And Peace, however, is that it's incredible how much damage the wrong manager can do to a band...but there's a degree to which the band did it to themselves. The book gets so lost in the court cases the band was involved in concerning one of the worst recording contracts in history, one considers it a miracle any of the Roses lived to tell the tale and to reunite in 2011. Spence's book also assumes its primary readers will be British - for instance, one not in the know is left to fill in the holes about how momentous the Roses' Spike Island performance really was.

What the book has readers like me doing is going back to the music that started it all. Though Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani, and Reni are likely taking their reunion one gig at a time, they seem to be doing pretty well with it thus far, even exhibiting some feistiness to the press. Hopefully, we here on this side of the pond will finally welcome them sometime in the next year. 'Til then, I'll be giving the songs a bunch more listens online - I can't trust my cassette-eating tape deck with the old tape.

Update, 7/13: Seems they did actually come to America around the time they were imploding (check the dates in May '95). Unfortunately, their disintegration came through in the shows, which culminated in what was arguably one of the worst gigs of all time back in England. Ouch.

They also DID make it to the U.S. this year, apparently playing to a much smaller crowd than they'd get in the UK, Australia, or Japan. My apologies for not looking into this further; having to maneuver around family outings is a little tough right now. By the time some more American dates are added, there should be more people who know who they are.