Saturday, December 04, 2010

Married to Rock: Rock 'n' Roll Wives Star in New Reality Series

Well, I knew it was bound to happen one day. After years of ignoring reality TV shows (or watching small clips for writing assignments), I have joined the ranks of otherwise intelligent women who turn into cackling hens when discussing the exploits of botoxed reality show housewives.

It all started when my BFF told me I should make an exception to my reality show ban and watch something called  Married to Rock. “You’ll like it,” she said, “it’s about rock stars and their wives.” She then proceeded to tell me she liked the most outrageous, big-boobed wife on the show. “The other wives make fun of her, but she’s got a cute personality,” my friend said.  “Uh-huh,” I responded, visualizing the wife of some third-tier metal guy or a bimbo married to a guy from a bland and allegedly popular group like Nickelback or The Fray. “So who are the rock stars?” I asked, disinterested.  She then managed to remember one of the names – Steve Stevens. “He is Billy Idol’s guitarist,” I said, dumbfounded. Upon further interrogation, I discovered that the rest of the cast consisted of  Duff McKagan (Guns ‘N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver) and his wife Susan, an ex-model and swimwear designer, Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction) and his wife Etty, one of  the band’s former backup dancers,  Steve Stevens and his wife Josie (the aforementioned big-boobed wife with a cute personality) and most perplexing to me, Billy Duffy of the Cult and his girlfriend, a VIP hostess named AJ Celi. (I’m a big Cult fan, and I always got the impression Billy was a guy who wanted to keep his offstage life private). None of these couples seemed to fulfill the normal “brain-dead and obnoxious” template for reality show couples. My curiosity piqued, I checked out some highlights.

-Josie has a “love doll” made of herself and sends it to Steve on tour.
-  AJ attempts to cook dinner for Billy (with her Dad’s assistance) and fails miserably.
-  Etty auditions dancers to find her replacement for the Jane’s Addiction tour.
-   The girls take Susan to Trashy Lingerie to get her to dress sluttier.

Not exactly the A-1 primo catfights we’ve come to expect from reality TV housewives. I actually found all the couples to be likable, which doesn’t normally guarantee ratings gold for reality shows. Since the show debuted on E! in early November, the full verdict isn’t in on ratings and viewer commentary yet. However, I rather like the fact that a group of reality show women are portrayed as friends more than “frenemies” to be refreshing.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

CD Review: The Like: Release Me

I first saw  L.A. girlgroup The Like perform at a Christmas shindig thrown by Indie 1031 in 2005 . At that time, their songs were well-constructed and had catchy melodies, but there wasn’t much else to distinguish them from the crop of  indie-pop bands battling for airplay in the mid-2000s.

The Like‘s first CD  Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? gained some airplay on Indie1031 and other alt-rock outlets. The female trio consisted of singer Z Berg , drummer Tennessee Thomas  and original bass player Charlotte Froom. Rock critics made a point of noting that the young women, barely out of their teens,, were the daughters of music industry bigwigs. Their paternal connections may have helped the band get their bearings, but their songs proved they had the raw talent to make it on their own.

Five years have passed and the band has reinvented itself. Bassist Charlotte Froom left, and was replaced by Laena Geronimo. They bulked up their sound by adding organ player Annie Monroe. The line-up changes aren’t the only difference. On the Like’s second album, Release Me,  the band has turned things up to 11 and redefined their mission by implementing a retro 60s pop sound. It comes complete with pitch-perfect Ronettes’ harmonies, Vox organ flourishes, and feisty lyrics about cheating boyfriends and one-night stands. 

Producer Mark Ronson, who guided Amy Winehouse to success on Back to Black, helped transform The Like from a so-so alt-pop band to a gutsy garage-rock outfit. Think of an updated, all-female version of the Easybeats or the Zombies. The lyrics on Release Me, much like the lyrics on Winehouse’s  Back in Black show a maturity unusual for the frothy four minute mod pop. From “Narcissus in a Red Dress" - “One minute, she's your best friend/Then you watch her take your place/I guess that taught them all the same/You clever little charlatans/Ambition gleams in overdrive”  

Songs run the gamut from the gauzy arrangement of “Narcissus in a Red Dress” to the roaring, Donnas-influenced rock of “Wishing He Was Dead.” “Why When Love is Gone” sounds like a soulful Dusty Springfield number, with a sturdy but subtle rhythm section guilelessly carrying the song.

 Release Me packs a retro 60s Mod punch, but the band also delivers live. Clips of their show from the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London demonstrate a newfound onstage confidence. Z Berg now has her own take on the sassy rock ‘n’ roll girl who don’t take no b.s. With her short blonde bob, eyeliner and heavy fake eyelashes she mimics “60s model Twiggy, but her vocals are part Shangri-La attitude, part smooth Bangles-era Susanna Hoffs.

Drummer Tennessee Thomas provides the vigorous backbeat, and has a blast doing it..the girls have matured and added the right touches to their initial indie-pop formula, spicing it up with Vox organ, girl-group harmonies and grown-up storylines. And they’ve traded Are You Thinking’s  PG-rated version of kinderwhore waif dresses to geometric print mini-dresses completing the transition from alt-pop princesses to retro-60s rock divas. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Music Review: Cowboy Junkies - Renmin Park: (The Nomad Series: Volume 1)

Renmin Park, the first of four concept albums in the Cowboy Junkies “Nomad” series, is based on songwriter/guitarist Michael Timmins’ visit to China. He and his family adopted two Chinese children, and spent time taking in the culture and music of the country. The title refers to a public park in Zhengzhou, a city in the Henan province.

The Cowboy Junkie’s signature bluesy alt-folk sound blends with lyrics about everyday life and history of China. The album’s intro veers from sounds of a parade into the acoustic title track. Michael's sister, Margo Timmins, lends pensive vocals to bring the lyrics, a description of daily activities in “Renmin Park” to life. There are unusual sound bits through the entire CD. The improbably titled “Sir Francis Bacon at the Net” has snippets of a badminton game underscoring Michael Timmins' psychedelic-flavored but-folky vocals. “A Few Bags of Grain” is a world-weary tale of man recently released from a labor camp and his introduction to “A world gone insane.”

Hazy, sparse keyboards and a judiciously-used string quartet, add the finishing touch to this ambient slice of alt-rock meets Chinese culture. Renmin Park is nice to listen to in small increments, but it’s got that bluesy introspection and the backdrop of Chinese oppression and change don’t make for a toe-tapping time. The downbeat mood does change with “Stranger Here”. It has a hummable melody that would fit right in beside any mainstream rock tune. The lyrics describe a man’s spiritual struggle, “And I could tell you about the evening/that I was out drinking/and fell asleep by the well/I am the righteous man/the one you’re looking for/I am a stranger here”

Renmin Park features a reworking of two Chinese pop song. Composer Xu Wei’s tale of long-distance heartbreak. The lilting "My Fall” translates well into the Junkies’misty, melancholy style. Zuoxiao Zuzhou ‘s “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side” combines haunting piano work throughout, a hint of native Chinese instrumentation, and a crescendo of electric guitar near the end to portray a tale of intrigue and murder. “Little Dark Heart “is a lullaby to loneliness, beginning with the lyrics “It’s a funny start / but I have no home / I have no name / I have no one / Except this little dark heart.” In the hands of a less accomplished band, it would be sorrowful overkill, but the Timmons siblings make it work. The confident strut of “(You’ve Got to Get) a Good Heart” provides a respite from Renmin Park’s mostly pensive tunes for 4 minutes and 27 seconds.

A musical journey to China that meshes well with the Cowboy Junkie’s normal modus operandi, Renmin Park is one of the band’s most ambitious projects to date.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bad Music Programming Killed the Radio Star – But the Internet (and Jonesy’s Jukebox) Pick Up the Slack

Terrestrial radio is now pretty much relegated to teenie-bopper nonsense, bad hip-hop, and talk shows dedicated to  political bickering. So where can a bona fide rock music connoisseur go to escape the overexposed and lowest common denominator sounds of Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga? Why, to the Internet – and to KROQ-FM  - at least on Sunday nights for the reconstituted Jonesy’s Jukebox.

Jonesy is back on KROQ and it's kinda ironic since his former station, Indie 1031, was supposed to knock KROQ out on its butt five years ago. Indie's ascent didn't last, however, and the company's owner, Entravision, pulled the plug on the punk/alt rock format in 2009.   The terrestrial station continues on FM in a Spanish-language format, while the punk/hip alt rock music still flows freely on the Internet. 

Jonesy’s new  Jukebox is on KROQ on Sunday nights 7 p. m. to 9 p.m. Pacific Time. His old partner-in-crime, Mr. Shovel, joins him as producer. The playlist so far lacks the quirky novelty songs and obscure 1970s glam rock of  the old Indie shows. It concentrates on electronica and post-2000 indie rock, like Julian Casablancas, Daft Punk, the Duke Spirit and Black Keys. But there’s the occasional local L.A. band find (Fitz & the Tantrums), and songs by Jonesy favorites like Eno and Primal Scream.

Another respite from the mostly non-existent rock radio landscape can be found on Internet radio oasis ErrorFM. You can find any kind of music here (just like Sirius/XM Satellite Radio), but you don’t have to shell out money to listen. DJs include ex KMET and KLOS staff announcer Larry Woodside, Alan Lohr (BuddhaMan, as mentioned in the previous post on Dolly Rocker Movement) formerly of KROQ. The specialty shows on ErrorFM run the gamut from Pod Zepplin and Floydian Slip to Electrique (electonica) and Donthink ( trip-hop). Every type of music you can think of (and some you haven’t) are offered by freelance DJs from all over the world.

One of the most popular shows on ErrorFM is Cyril’s Hollywood Jukebox, hosted by Cyril A. Ruth, one of the founding members of New Orleans punk band the Normals.  The two-hour show is streamed live on ErrorFM’s Channel 2 on Thursday nights from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. A recent show featured New York glam, garage, punk and psychedelic bands of the past and present, including the New York Dolls, Fleshtones and new bands London Egg, The Choke and The Above. One of the highlights of the show is a weekly mini-concert featuring a 15-20 minute segment of a live concert. The New York show featured The Chesterfield Kings.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dolly Rocker Movement : Trippy Psych-Pop with Panache

Originally from Sydney, Australia, the home of many kickin’ garage rock and psychedelic rock bands, the Dolly Rocker Movement imported its layered  psychedelia to America via a recent stint in Hollywood. (The band played the International Pop Overthrow in August). Lead singer/songwriter Daniel Darling formed the band in 2002. Since then, they’ve released three full-length albums and 2 EPs, (with more on the way). Darling recently appeared on the Internet radio station ErrorFM, playing live tunes on the“Buddhaman  International Experience” show., including the new tunes I Drive a Mustang and A Corner Conversation.

The Dolly Rocker Movement builds on retro psych pop with harpsichords, trippy, feather-light, female vocals, synthesizers, folk-oriented acoustic guitars and twangy surfer-rock riffs. DRM’s well-constructed songs experiment with different tempos & vocal presentations, veering from Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd  orchestrations to straightforward fuzzy-guitar rockers.  I’ll be reviewing their CDs in a future post.

You can read an interview with Daniel on Ripple Music. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Crazy Squeeze - Glam & Punk Rock from the Heart of Hollywood

The members of Hollywood glam-punk band The Crazy Squeeze logged time with Teenage Frames (Frankie Delmane, guitar/vocals/keyboards), the Stitches (Johnny Witmer, guitar/vocals), Superbees, ( Johnny Sleeper, drums/vocals) and Richmond Sluts (Chris Beltran, bass). Judging by that resumé, you know the band has the chops to deliver some badass rock.  From the crunchy chords that begin All Lies to the catchy power-pop melody of With A Girl Like That, every song is an upbeat slice of sleazy, '70s glam rock influences and gritty punk. A fun live band that will keep you moving on the club floor, Crazy Squeeze’s sound is part Slade, part Dolls and all attitude. The band’s currently in the studio recording their debut CD.

The Crazy Squeeze plays The Redwood Bar in downtown L.A. on November 20th with The Red Roses and The Commotion.

Single available from Rapid Pulse Records

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Fave Local L.A. Bands - The Ruby Friedman Orchestra

When you take a skilled female vocalist and back her up with talented rock musicians, that combo can get lost in crowd if it’s not peppered with that “something extra.” After all, how many hotel lounge bands and “American Idol” contestants have trained voices, good back-up musicians, and no pizzazz?

The L.A. based Ruby Friedman Orchestra takes the above-mentioned formula and shakes ‘n’ bakes it into a bluesy rock spectacle. There are a few things that differentiate redheaded sparkler Ruby from the current crop of “technically adept” female vocalists. Ruby has a sharp sense of humor and quirky intelligence that comes through in her songwriting and live performances.  (Some of her songs concern subjects as diverse as transcendental meditation and suicide.) Ruby draws from a variety of musical influences. Bessie Smith is one of her vocal idols. And one of  RFO’s show-stoppers in concert is a soulful cover of the Beatles  “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

RFO plays L.A. haunts like the Hotel Café, the Mint , and the Echo, where Ruby’s voice alone seems too big for the venue. Bigger things are on the horizon, though.  The band’s song “Shooting Stars” was prominently featured on this year’s promos for the TV show “America’s Got Talent.” A fave of legendary DJ  Rodney Bingenheimer, RFO’s song “Burning Skies” has also rated highly with listeners of KROQ’s “Locals Only” show.  The band’s currently recording a full-length CD.

The Ruby Friedman Orchestra plays Friday, November 12, 2010 at the Sunset Room (behind Amoeba Records) in Hollywood.

CD Review: Reunited by The Jazz Passengers

The Jazz Passengers first came to prominence in the mid-1990s when they released In Love and Individually Twisted with Debbie Harry contributing vocals on certain cuts.  But they’re more than a backing band for a punk chanteuse. The band formed in New York City in 1987 with a mission to make jazz fun without compromising form or musicianship. Debbie’s guesting with the band again on Reunited, their first album since 1997’s Live in Spain.

The CD opens with Elvis Costello singing an original composition by the Passengers’ Roy Nathanson called “Wind Walked By.” It  begins with a conventional jazz vocal, then unfastens into a lazy, discordant vibe that frazzles the listener with a cacophony of horns only a freeform lover can truly appreciate. The lyrics reference “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and echo current economic woes with lines like “Time’s is hard now/I lost my home.” The back and forth bohemian approach is the Jazz Passengers trademark. If their goal is to make jazz music interesting and unpredictable, they’ve achieved it. Really, most modern vocal jazz music is nothing more than a skilled vocalist singing torch songs with piano and an occasional horn section.

The cover of Peaches and Herb’s disco hit “Reunited” is barely recognizable until the chorus, between the plucky strings and hush-hush vocals. (And was that a dj scratching a vinyl record in there somewhere?) with discordant horns thrown here and there for good measure. This is the antithesis of the smooth disco original. Vocalist/ sax player Roy Nathanson and Passengers’ trombonist Curtis Fowlkes trade wry, half-sung, half-spoken vocals. It’s the musical equivalent of a Cubist painting, taking elements and rearranging them in unusual and sometimes grating juxtapositions.

Debbie Harry’s contributions close out the CD. She lends a smooth and straightforward vocal interpretation to “Think of Me”, the most mainstream cut on Reunited. Her second song  is a hit-or-miss reworking of “One Way or Another” that starts out strong, but gets too “busy” near the end.

The bulk of this CD can be truly enjoyed only by avant-garde jazz aficionados. Reunited has a modern Beatnik vibe, like an Uptown ode to Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald. You can almost hear Jack Kerouac reading from “On the Road” over some of the instrumental interludes. Those unaccustomed to Bohemian jazz may find it amusing here and there, but it’s too “all over the place” for casual listeners- unless you live in a West Village apartment with bongos and a fireplace.

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Monday, November 08, 2010

DVD Review: Anything Boys Can Do: A Music Documentary by Ethan Minsker


Anything Boys Can Do, is a gritty portrait of female punk and alternative musicians in 1990s New York City. Released in 1996 by filmmaker Ethan Minkser of the Antagonist Arts Movement, the young women in this film infiltrate the Lower East Side and other artsy haunts of Manhattan with performances that are way beyond underground. Even the band names (except for the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black)  might be unknown to anyone but New York scenesters of the time. The NYC alternative punk girls of the ‘90s were known for extremes in message and looks. They weren’t family or celebrity friendly like today’s “punks.” 

The girls from “Thrust” perform what looks like a “secret” show in a parking lot, playing thrashy music and simulating sex acts while partially clothed. Tribe 8 plays rough pro-lesbian, pro-feminist grunge, Sexpod, perhaps the most musically adept band in the documentary, has a lazy, bluesy tinge to their songs. Kembra  Pfahler of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black performs topless in her signature horror movie make-up and body paint, growling/screeching/singing and engaging in all types of antics. She does a headstand while a member of her troupe cracks an egg over her vulva. By the time this happens, we’re so immune to the noise and nudity it’s neither shocking nor titillating. It’s just part of the show. Actually, I think I’d be shocked if I ever saw Kembra onstage with her breasts fully covered. This 71-minute film delves deeply into the aspects of the bands' struggles with making it in the male-dominated music world  as well as some of their personal struggles. This isn’t documentary “lite” – it really gets under its subjects’ skin.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

CD Review - King of Power Pop by Paul Collins

King of Power Pop
Paul Collins
Alive/Natural Sound Records

Paul Collins revisits the fun and frisky sounds of the Nerves and the Beat with a CD of (mostly) new material  on King of Power Pop. You can’t find fault with the title after listening to songs that alternatively bring to mind The Beatles, The Beach Boys and the best tunes from Collins’ groundbreaking power pop bands.

The CD starts off, appropriately, with C’mon Let’s Go, a raspy garage rock anthem with a. modicum of Brit invasion phrasing. Nikki Corvette adds sass with her backing vocals.

The Ramones-y intro  to Doin’ It for the Ladies pulls you into the song immediately. It’s purely reminiscent of the Beat, and the .bon vivant man about town storyline has a clever twist. Hurting’s On My Side, a reflective ballad with harmonies that echoes the first few Beatles albums, has a slight country twang to the guitar.

Collins’ crisp guitar drives the fast-paced songs. The Romantics’ Wally Palmar on harmonica, Collins’ longtime lead guitar player Eric Blakely and drummer Dave Shettler (from Detroit garage rock band the Sights) round out the sound.

Many Roads to Follow, a beefed-up remake of the Nerves tune, is a heartbreaking slice of pop truth with a Wall of Sound lurking in the background. This is America, is a veritable rock ‘n’ roll travelogue compressed into into 3 minutes and 40 seconds. It’s  a flashback to Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America”, updated with namechecks from Chuck E. Cheese to James Brown. There’s an evocative, raspy-voiced cover of The Letter. Collins salutes influential pre-glam, pre-punk band Flamin’ Groovies with a cover of You Tore Me Down.

Collins’ crisp guitar drives the fast-paced songs. The Romantics’ Wally Palmar on harmonica, Collins’ longtime lead guitar player Eric Blakely and drummer Dave Shettler (from Detroit garage rock band the Sights) round out the sound.

King of Power Pop sounds fresh..It’s compulsively listenable, just like the Nerves and the Paul Collins Beat. There’s no "old rocker tries to recapture past inspiration.” vibe. Judging by the tunes on King of Power Pop, Collins never lost it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Interview: Larry Harris, Author of "And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records "

Casablanca Records was synonymous with the excesses of the music business in the 1970s. Rumors about the label’s heyday and it’s exuberant president, the late Neil Bogart, have abounded for years, but no official history existed until the 2009 publication of And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records.

Penned by Casablanca co-founder Larry Harris (with Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs), the book traces the controversial company’s rise and fall in no holds barred detail. All the major players are here, from Casablanca’s exuberant president Neil Bogart to Kiss, Donna Summer, the Village People, and all the behind the scenes managers and promotion people that made Casablanca the most infamous record company in music biz history.

I recently interviewed Harris via phone and here are some of his reflections about those halcyon days of sex, drugs, disco, and rock ‘n’ roll.

On Seeing Kiss for the First Time

It was shocking. It was like “Oh my God! What’s going on here? Where did these guys come from”? You get a feeling that it’s really cool but to know that its going to be really big. When You know how hard it is out there for artists. We did know that we had something we could use as a hook, which worked in their favor and against them, was the makeup. The show that we saw was in a tiny studio and there were no special effects of any kind. So it wasn’t what it wound up being.

The Critics' Initial Response

Well, they brought it to the next level. A lot of critics hated them.A few critics thought it was okay. Lester Bangs, one of the most famous rock critics ever, was in their court, as were the people at Creem and Circus. In those days, even Rolling Stone thought they were terrible.

Their First Tour

Once the word got it was impossible. We had to spend so much money and go into hoc They had to go out on the road and perform that was their strong point.Their music wasn’t the best. There were better musicians, but when it came to a stage show there was nothing really better out there.

Donna Summer

We had a picture of her from Germany that was very heavily airbrushed. That’s all we had, one little picture of her, a headshot. "Love to Love You, Baby" that was the only song we had to listen to. Neil and Joyce, Neil’s wife, wound up managing Donna and developed her persona. I known that Donna said she was uncomfortable with being pushed as a sex symbol. She has since obviously changed but she does have an incredible voice. And she’s written some hit songs that are wonderful. “She Works Hard for the Money” is a great song.

Village People

To be totally frank with you, they were one of the easiest bands that I ever promoted. One of the easiest bands that I ever promoted. “YMCA” came out, boom!. “Macho Man” came out, boom! We hardly had to ask anybody to play it. It was like almost overnight they just jumped on the record. For a long time nobody noticed that the guy who did it add was gay and wanted to expose more of that lifestyle to the world and have some fun with it,-which he accomplished. And the music was infectious. How many people you know who don’t jump up and down at “YMCA?”

George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic

George was a definite “character” (in quotes). He was one of those people you meet and you never forget. He brought funk to the world and all the hip-hop musician’s were sampling him and still do. In those days they (Parliament) sold as many records as Kiss or Donna or The Village People. They sold a lot of records. And they held stadium shows. They’d play in front of 40,000 or 50,000 people.


Their show was not wonderful. It was not something a lot of rock fans could rock out to. After awhile, I think Greg Giuffria’s influence in using so many keyboards was too much. How many Emerson, Lake and Palmers do you need? I think the keyboard sound was probably too much for everybody. They didn’t write any great hit singles that would propel them to the next level in those days.

The rumor is that Spinal Tap used Angel screwing up on their pods as some kind of background for that. Whether that’s true or not we’ll have to ask whoever wrote the screenplay.


At Casablanca, we branded the company. We wanted people to know about the company.

It helped that we were so big in the disco genre that people would come into record stores and ask for Casablanca, not even (the individual) artists, but just what was new. We consciously took had Casablanca’s name on it. Today if you look at record ads, you don’t even known what label they’re on. They don’t say Sony, they don’t say EMI — they just don’t, and I don’t know why. I don’t understand it.

I think that’s what some of the problem has been with the music business. They’re not going out there and helping careers anymore. They certainly missed the boat on the Internet. They should have embraced it. It’s easy to look back. In hindsight, they lost the battle.

Old School Record Company Execs

There were still a lot of guys who brought themselves up on the streets running record companies, guys who started out as musicians or disc jockeys like Joe Smith from Warner Brothers. These people were entrepreneurs who really believed in the music. They tried to work as best they could with the artists. Some artists were easier to work with than others and there was more experimentation going on. Yeah, they wanted to make money but I don’t think anybody was going into it to be a superstar like they are today. I think they were going into it because of love of the music. Or just “I wanna have fun while I’m young”, and it was the whole period. Vietnam had ended in the mid-'70s, the women’s liberation movement, The Pill, Martin Luther King, civil rights — there were all these other things going on in the culture. It never happened before in America and that added to it all. It was like, “Well, the old people did a bad job. We’re not going to listen to anything they tell us — and now we find ourselves as the old people!

Drugs and Payola

We all did coke. We all smoked grass. We all did Quaaludes, to be honest, and I know about the company’s reputation. We didn’t do any more than any other company did. We didn’t hide it. For some reason, we weren’t really afraid of getting arrested. Lawyers and bankers for huge banks were doing them — really strait-laced looking bankers from huge banks were doing them with us. I talk about it in the book; during my first few days in L.A. the first person I smoked a joint with was David Janssen, “The Fugitive,” and that was a trip! Who would ever think — the Fugitive! It was part of the culture at the time especially in the music business. As for shady deals, there was payola going on all that stuff and again we weren’t the only ones doing it. Everyone in the business was doing it.

The Music Business Today

Albums sales are down. Concert sales are down. Things are changing. There’s too much for people to do. You have video games, the Internet, there are eight million things you can do with the iPhone and 200-300 TV stations. There used to be five. There are too many choices. It’s harder to get a niche into something. You got to really stand out like a Lady Gaga.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Film Review: Mahler on the Couch


Barbara Romaner and  Johannes Silberschneider star in Mahler on the Couch

The new film by father/son directing team Percy and Felix Adlon, Mahler on the Couch depicts a therapy session between the founder of modern psychotherapy and the famous composer. From the moniker, you’d think Freud’s psychoanalysis of Mahler makes up the heart of the film. Not so. The composer’s visit to see Freud is a framing device that ties together the story of Mahler’s marital difficulties with his vivacious young wife Alma. Still, the actor (Karl Markovics) who plays Siggie lends panache and a sense of humor to his limited screen time. Alma suffers a breakdown and recovers in a sanatorium while having an affair with architect Walter Groupius (Friedrich Mucke). This affair leads Mahler to consult Freud.

Johannes Silberschneider plays Mahler with a multilayered intensity. Gustav is one-third cloistered genius, one-third hardened businessman and one-third hopeless romantic. The obvious star of the film, however, is first time film actress Barbara Romaner. Her performance as a flirtatious muse builds momentum slowly , but captures the viewer’s imagination. We can see why she inspired Mahler and other creative geniuses like artist Gustav Klimt and novelist Franz Werfel.

The Adlons use the “fourth wall” technique throughout the film. Talking directly to the camera, secondary characters, including Alma’s mother Anna Moll (Eva Mattes) and Mahler’s sister Justine Mahler-Rose (Lena Stolze) dispense humorous tidbits about the couple’s situation. This might seem jarring at first, given the film’s dramatic premise, but it works well and gives context to the relationships without being unwieldy. As the film unravels, we see Alma subjugate her musical career to raise their family and help him with his work.The panoramic shots of Mahler’s estate gives us a sense of both emotional and physical scope. The sprawling estate is both Alma’s home and her prison.

Mahler on the Couch is a vibrant character study. It's more about Alma and Gustav than Gustav and Siggie, but the combination does make for a charming and occasionally silly look into the characters in Vienna society around the turn of the 20th century. Like Percy Adlon's Bagdad Cafe, it takes a potentially bleak premise and turns it upright. Ultimately, though, Mahler on the Couch's blend of comedy, romance and feminist parable may be too fragmented for most viewers. The film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 24.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kiss the Cup..The Stanley Cup, That Is

Ho-hum. Another Lakers' championship, another riot. The first thing I thought of a few nights ago when the Lakers beat the Celtics was “So, how many bonfires do you think they’ll be around the Staples Center tonight?” To be fair, the riots weren’t caused by fans, but  by local thugs out to make trouble.

The L.A. “fans” celebration was a far cry from Chicagoans celebrating the Black Hawk’s Stanley Cup victory last week.There was a big parade in the Loop, lotsa bar-hopping for the team and the Stanley Cup-and the Cup is still on “tour” around Chicago. There are pics of drunk yuppies cavorting around it, and rumors of scantily clad girls drinking from, kissing or sitting in the cup. And one can only imagine what beer-soaked male fans have done to it. They'll have to fumigate that thing before it goes to the next winner.

This is the first time I’ve paid attention to the Black Hawks since the early 1970s. The 1971 Black Hawks were the team that shoulda, coulda, woulda  won--Tony Esposito, Keith Magnuson, Phil Russell, Pit Martin, Stan Mikita (he doesn’t really own a doughnut shop), and Dennis Hull. I remember when my Aunt Theresa got me an autographed picture of Keith Magnuson. He worked for 7 Up Bottling in the off-season, and my Aunt knew someone who worked for them.(Yes, back then athletes had to take a side job to make ends meet when not working their “day” job, and I don’t mean as pitchmen for  sneakers). I was thrilled to get the 8 by 10 glossy and it held a coveted place above my dresser.

Keith was famous for his pugilistic pursuits on ice. I looked forward to watching game highlights on the local morning kids' show, Ray Rayner and Friends. Ray would show hockey fight highlights, with the dainty Danube Waltz as the soundtrack. You try doing that on a kids' show today, you’d get booted off the air by tsk-tsking child psychologists for glorifying violence. To a kid in 1970s Chicago, hockey fights were just good clean fun. Imagine my shock when I did a Google search a few months ago and discovered that Keith had died in a car crash en route from another player’s funeral in 2003.

Living in Los Angeles severely  limits one’s interaction with reality, so in between trips to New York and Chicago  for an in-person wake up call, I listen to NYC and Chicago radio stations and read the Chicago Tribune and New York Post newspaper websites. Since September, I’ve listened to Steve Dahl’s podcast.  Steve was Chicago’s original shock jock and the vinyl bashing DJ behind Disco Demolition night at White Sox Park in 1979. (In a way, he has atoned for this event. He's now a White Sox season ticket holder).Unceremoniously dumped by his terrestrial radio station last year, Dahl now hosts an hilarious daily podcast. After listening to Steve and his staff talk about the Black Hawks team and the players’ exploits on and off the ice, I started listening to Hawks games on the WGN radio website. When the team made the Stanley Cup finals, I could finally watch them on TV.  Then when they won the Cup, I was relegated to texting, Facebooking and emailing my joy to friends and family in Chicago. There was no one to share it with in L.A. At least I got to hoist a shot glass of Grand Marnier to the occasion since there was no beer in the apartment. Just remind me when I get to Chitown to have a PBR and some Home Run Inn pizza for a belated celebration.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

EP Review: All Here Now: The New Fidelity

Last summer, an indie film called We Are the Mods made the rounds on the film festival circuit. The film, based on the current L.A. mod revival. Yes, there’s a Mod revival in LA-and everywhere else, musically and fashion-wise. Hey, when guys with moptop hair and Chelsea boots are spotted in plane cockpits, you know it’s no joke. (This actually happened.)  Would you want your pilot to look like Ringo a member of the Dave Clark Five?

Long Beach , Ca. based The New Fidelity appeared in a club scene in the aforementioned film, and they sure fit the part. They’ve gigged throughout Southern California regularly since the early '00s, and gained kudos from Rodney Bingenheimer and KCRW’s Nic Harcourt.  Their 2009 EP, All Here Now, brings back some of that 1960s Who & Small Faces on Shindig vibe, with liberal does of powerpop and Jam influenced punk sprinkled throughout.

The EP begins with Simple Things, a playful song about enjoying the first moments of a budding relationship. Setting Sun, with catchy keyboards throughout, echoes the harder-edged garage rock sound of Music Machine and their Swingin' 60s cohorts. The lyrics are a contemplative contrast to the music. “I don’t wanna live my life like the setting sun no more”, vocalist Dan Perkins declares. Best Time To Say Goodbye kicks off with a bouncy adrenaline rush. I instantly thought of the Wonders (aka Fountains of Wayne) and That Thing You Do. Dark Eyes is a little quieter and well, darker than the previous tunes, the love ballad on the EP, if you will. All my soul is New Fi’s stab at blue-eyed soul. Native Son, has that "driving down Sunset" feel with melody intact. The adjective “dirty” is mentioned a lot in the lyrics, but in a complimentary way. You have to be an L.A. resident to understand that. It’s a tribute to the city by someone who moves here but loves it despite its fault. “We’re all here now and this is all our home.”

All Here Now is available as a free download on the band’s website , with their previous efforts for sale on CD Baby .

New Fidelity MySpace

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Book Review: Foxy: My Life in Three Acts: A Memoir By Pam Grier (with Andrea Cagan)

Foxy: My Life in Three Acts: A Memoir
By Pam Grier (with Andrea Cagan)
Hachette Book Group $16.49

Iconic actress Pam Grier is famous for her roles as tough, ass-kicking Coffy, Foxy Brown and for her comeback film role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The road to those iconic performance was hard and involved lots of hard work, sacrifice and heartache. Grier ‘s autobiography “Foxy-My Life in Three Acts (co-written with Andrea Cagan), exposes the back-story that lead to her career.

An Air Force brat, Grier’s family lived in Colorado, where dealing with prejudice was a daily occurrence. When officers found out that her father, a light skinned African-American, was Caucasian, her family was relegated to living in cheaper quarters and riding public transportation (when the driver would stop to pick them up). While Grier had a supportive and loving network of relatives, problems bubbled underneath the surface. One of her aunts was a closet alcoholic, and her father left her mother and remarried, unable to accept the fact that Pam’s mother earned more money than he did. Left alone in the house one day, at six years old, a group of local boys raped Grier. After that, she went out of her way to disguise her good looks and developed a stutter. She was raped again at 18, by a family friend, and retreated further into her shell.

While working part-time at a radio station, one of her co-workers suggested she enter a local beauty pageant. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Los Angeles, working several jobs while hoping to break into acting and film. She met the first of her famous boyfriends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, and their relationship blosommed-untol he converted to Islam. Unsure of the way his new religion treated women, Pam wavered on accepting his marriage proposals. He eventually married a Muslim woman who had been chosen for him.

Pam was flown to the Philippines for her  first B-movie role in The Big Doll House to fight and tousle with other actresses  in a “caged heat” type movie. This lead to a string of  exploitation roles like Black Mama White Mama and Coffy, which began her reign as queen of blaxplotation films.

She dated two of the biggest and most troubled comedians of the 1970s, Richard Pyror and Freddie Prinze Sr. Freddie was “a great love of my life” she writes. After meeting him when they appeared together on the Irv Kupcinet show in Chicago, they began dating and had a whirlwind courtship. Once Freddie’s fame escalated, so did his ego and cocaine use, and Pam broke up with him after disagreements about whether or not she should get pregnant. She lived with Richard Pryor, hoping to help him get off drugs, but that relationship ended soon after a gynecologist told her she had a buildup of cocaine on her cervix due to his drug use.

While her love life faltered , Pam’s career flourished, with her signature role as Foxy Brown and a supporting role in the miniseries Roots. She hung out with John Lennon and Harry Nilsson during John’s infamous “Lost Weekend” in Hollywood, co-starred in Fort Apache, the Bronx with Paul Newman and guest starred on Miami Vice.

Grier’s dedication to the acting craft is demonstrated in her audition for the role of a drug-addicted hooker in Fort Apache. Using tips learned from her favorite book The Actor Prepares by Constantine Stanislavski, she arrived at the audition for the role of crack whore Charlotte in character, dressed in a dirty Mickey Mouse satin jacket, with greasy hair and a healthy dose of “motherfucker” sprinkled in her speech. She got the part.

 Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Pam had supporting roles in several movies and TV shows and acted in Sam Shepard’s play Fool for Love in Los Angeles. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and successfully battled it with the help of Chinese medicine. Her acting career was revived after Jackie Brown. She enjoyed full-fledged success on the Showtime series The L Word as nightclub owner Kit Porter. After enduring the deaths of family members, her good friend Minnie Ripperton, and a few more ill-fated relationships, she now lives in Colorado and operates a non-profit organization, the Pam Grier Legacy Fund, to benefit women, children and animals. 

Foxy is more than a typical Hollywood autobiography. It’s the story of a strong-willed woman who overcame several obstacles that would have permanently roadblocked weaker females. There are some great lessons in Foxy for young women starting out in their careers, and even for older women who are going through rough times.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book Review: Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer

This 627 page bio of Clash frontman Joe Strummer seems like a daunting undertaking even for a loyal fan, but it's actually an easy to read  if you have the time. Author Chris Salewicz, a friend of Strummer's, wrote Joe's obituary for The Independent, and spent the next few years writing and researching Redemption Song. The book answers lots of questions about him and humanizes a complex man. Certain punk legends like John Lydon, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith , Joey Ramone, et al, could be encapsulated in a phrase or blurb. One could sum up their personas as combative, ice queen, poet, heroic misfit, and so on. Despite all the information in Redemption Song, Strummer still remains somewhat of an enigma, so it's hard to pinpoint a phrase to describe him even after finishing this hefty book.

We learn that that his father was a diplomat and the family lived in several different countries, including Egypt, and that his brother committed suicide as a teen-ager and Joe found his body. There are lots of anecdotes to pique the memories of older punk fans (Paul Simonon was married to Pearl Harbor of & Explosions fame, for example). There's a pic of a crude drawing of a chord chart Joe used when he first learned to play the guitar, and an account of the first time he saw the Pistols play at the Nashville. (They opened for the 101ers). And there's pesky Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, alternatively guiding the band and undermining them. There's no strategically placed denouncement or rush to christen Strummer with a label. Written by a friend without an agenda, the book is void of pretension.

Redemption Song, along with the Julien Temple documentary The Future Is Unwritten, gives us an incredible amount of material on Strummer's life. Redemption Song draws a picture of a complicated man, neither cartoon or tragic figure, who just happened to be one of the icons of the punk rock era.

(This review first appeared on the Punk Rock Demonstration website in September 2007).

Friday, May 21, 2010

DVD Review: The Judy Garland Show 3

Infinity Entertainment Group continues its DVD releases of rarely seen but beloved TV variety shows with The Judy Garland Show, Volume 3. The two shows on the DVD, from the critically acclaimed show’s only (1963-64) season, features Judy singing with Tony Bennett and Lena Horne and performing standards on her own. Brit fixture Terry-Thomas and Dick Shawn, along with show regular Jerry Van Dyke, provide comic relief.

Twenty-six episodes aired before CBS canceled the show due to low ratings. (It ran opposite Bonanza on Sunday nights.) The variety show had a controversial run, with the firing of musical director Mel Torme and several changes in format during its brief tenure. He even wrote a book about it , the controversial The Other Side of the Rainbow, which was denounced as inaccurate by many others who worked with Garland.

The first episode on The Judy Garland Show, Volume 3 stars the late Lena Horne and the gap-toothed Terry-Thomas ( It’s a Mad Mad Mad World, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines). Lena and Judy, in matching outfits, sing "Day In, Day Out" to kick off the festivities. Lena has a solo number, "I Want To Be Happy," and sits with Judy for some dueling divas vocals on "Meet Me in St. Louis," "Honeysuckle Rose," and other standards.

Later in the show, Thomas joins them for Noel Coward’s "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." It’s one of those kitschy musical comedy number that’s more curiosity than humor.

Despite all the negative publicity that surrounded Garland at this stage of her career, she still performs with her trademark authority and charisma, even during an awkward “Tea for Two” interview segment with Thomas.

The second show, which aired on December 15, 1963, featured guests Tony Bennett and Dick Shawn. Capri-clad dancers with I Dream of Jeannie ponytails and their beatnik male counterparts join Judy, Tony, and Dick for the gospel-tinged version of "Yes, Indeed." It’s a finger-snapping tune, the kind of beatnik/show biz hybrid that filled up variety show musical segments before the Beatles and AM style pop artists rendered them obsolete.

There’s a pseudo-Elvis rock ‘n’ roll skit with Shawn teaching Van Dyke how to gyrate for the girls. Shawn has an appealing insouciance. And this bit, though dated, still conjures up a few laughs. Both show ends with Garland sitting behind a set of trunks, relating show biz tales to the audience in a folksy manner before capping off the show with a song.

Digitally restored from the original print, the black and white picture is razor sharp.The sound, remixed to 5.1 surround, is crisp and unmistakable. (Purists can choose mono from the set-up menu to relive early Zenith B & W memories.) There are no extras included on the DVD, just the original shows with chapter selection. Infinity has just released the fourth DVD in the Judy Garland Show series (with Chita Rivera and Ethel Merman). There’s no word as yet on future reissues.

Read more:


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Interview with Terry Stamp and Jim Avery of Proto-Punk Band Third World War

(This interview was conducted via email in November 2005 )

England's Third World War released two albums in the early 1970s. The combination of radical, left wing lyrics (I'd Rather Cut Cane For Castro is one of their song titles) and Terry Stamp's choppy, beyond heavy metal guitar style confused some listeners, beguiled others (including a young John Lydon, ) but bypassed most. Now, some thirty-odd years later, the band is getting some recognition from the press, webzines and music biz folk like Steve Albini. I recently conducted e-mail interviews with vocalist/guitarist Terry Stamp (who has lived in Southern California since 1976) and bassist Jim Avery, who still resides in England.

Interview With Terry Stamp

1-How did you meet John Fenton, who gave Third World War its first break?

Answer: John Fenton got a job for a New York publishing outfit called Schroeder Music as manager of their London office in Berkeley Street, must have been around 1968ish, (I was around 22 years old, Fenton, in his early thirties). At the same time a friend had dropped off a demo of mine at the Schroeder office called Heaven and Hell. I got a phone call from the office, asking me to come and see them, which I did. I did the usual "wait", sitting across from a secretary, when a door opened and John Fenton greeted me, big smile, arm's open, beads around his neck swinging, he was kinda half hippy like. He acted like we knew each other in some other twisted life, which was probably true. He took me into his office and said he had listened to "Heaven and Hell" and that this is what he thought of it, he then thru the demo out of the window and told me to get out of his office, to stop wasting his time, to rewrite the song and bring it back to him as soon as possible. That was Fenton for yer's, of course treatment like that can be upsetting, when I left the office and got out into the street, I actually looked around to see if I could spot any remnants of my demo, back then demo's where made of that same material they made the old 78 records from and where very fragile, I stood there in Berkeley Street looking around and chewing over Fenton's behavior, then I figured OK, I would do what he asked, rewrite the song and take it back, but old John had thrown up a flag to me, how'd that old blues song go, "Your time now, My time after a while", yer, if I had half the chance, I was goner play this cat and guess what, my chance came up, big time.

P.S. I did rewrite the song Heaven and Hell and Fenton placed the song with a number of artist's of that time, the best version being by a band called "Harsh Reality".

P.S.S At that time TWW was not even on the horizon, the TWW name came from John Fenton after Jim Avery and myself came up with a number of the songs for the first TWW album, probably late 1969, also if you look at the first TWW album cover, you will notice that there are three "r"s in red, within the TWW name, John said that stands for "reading, w'riting and a'rithmetic".

2-What was it like playing the Oz Police Ball? (Benefit for counterculture zine Oz )

Answer: I do not remember playing the Oz ball thing, we played quite a few gigs, usually which turned into mayhem, so I was in the habit of getting out and onto the street as soon as possible and not giving a damn who the gig was for, there were gigs we had to literally fight our way out of, a lot of years have gone down, but I have always held this snapshot, in my head, of Jim Avery fighting his way thru a crowd of extremely pissed off "students" and saying to me something like "Ahhh, the rock and roll life", cracks me up to this day. I think that gig was at the London Polytechnic. Thinking about it, the gig that may have been the Oz thing, could have been held at a London club called Bumpers, the only way in was by freight elevator, as I recall. I remember we shared a dressing room with about six transvestites, who seemed to all be dressing up like Marilyn Monroe (which John Fenton had probably arranged, he would have got a charge out of that, all of us in with a roomful of transvestites). We were the first band on, the place was just jammed with people, as I got up onto the stage, they had this kind of black and white, on and off strobe light going, which made any physical movement look staggered. Around the walls of the club, there was all kinds of group porno being projected, but kinda sped up somehow. I went into my "verbal greeting", and opened with Ascension Day. Looking down in front of the stage and staring at me, with his arm around a woman I did not recognize, was John Fenton He looked like he'd thown a wad into his pants. He was in heaven, maybe he was tripping, who knows, but his "vision" was now top of the London Underground scene, at that point (1971?) there was no UK band close to doing what we were doing.

3- What sort of audience did your live shows attract?

Answer: I think, for the most part, they were people looking for something outside of the mainstream popmusic of that time, like Steve Albini said in an article he did for the Melody Maker in the 90s, "it's a mindset", you either have it, or you don't."

4- You wrote overtly political lyrics before punk rock and after the folk rock/flower power fad. How were the lyrics received by fans and the press?

Answer: I never heard anything, I guess the press just backed off, in fact the whole UK music business backed off. I think the TWW did what John Fenton really wanted and that was to throw a wrench into where the UK music biz was at, at that time. Why bother writing about a deaf, dumb and blind kid called Tommy, when you have a chance to tell it like it is/was, back then. I read a piece someplace about how The Clash got their name, they just looked in the London newspapers and here was the word "clash", clash here, clash there. That was the same for us, just look at the news, and there it all was.

5- What did you think about Dana Gillespie's cover of Stardom Road?

Answer: Never heard it. I believe Dana and Mick Liber (he played on the TWW track) were friends, hence Mick knew the counter chording and riffs in that song and I guess recorded it with Dana. When I put the vocal on that song for TWW, I thought they were getting a sound balance on my voice, I was halfway thru the song before I realized, "Oh, they must be recording this",. Stardom Road is not an easy song to sing or play. I met Dana once, back then, she was one of the best a lovely lady.

6-Who designed the 3WW album covers? They are quite affecting, in a stark way.

I don't know too much about them, the baby's face cover was by an American feller, living in London, Jim Avery probably knows more info. On the second TWW cover, man, that ink work was obviously by a genius, it is of me and Jim, me on the left and Jim on the right, I can tell by our different body shapes. I kinda recall that the guy was living in Rome, again Jim may know more info.

7-It's said that Third World War was the first punk band. Jello Biafra, John Lydon and the late Joe Strummer were fans of your music. What did you think of the punk scene that started shortly after 3WW disbanded? Did you follow the scene at all?

Answer: I had left England for the states, directly after finishing the "Fatsticks" album for A&M Records, around June 1975, so I missed out on all the UK fun. TWW was thru in 1972, I was back driving a truck until Roger Cook pulled the "Fatsticks" thing together.

8-Tell me about your CD, Bootlace Johnnie & The 99s.There's an interesting story on your website Stardom Road about how you met up with Alistair Murphy, who produced that CD.

Answer: Alistair contacted me by email a few years back and is a TWW admirer, especially the Stardom Road track. He turned out to be an arranger who had a studio in his home (in the UK). It kinda just escalated, I sent him some basic demo's that I thought would never see the light of day and he has the talent and golden touch to give them another dimension, unbelievable really. I spoke to him a few weeks back and apparently he is working on Bootlace Johnnie Two. I think he was maybe a little worried where it would all take him, but Bootlace has got good reviews,

9. You've continued to make music since moving to L.A. in 1976, playing live with The L.A. Rockmotor and your rockabilly trio. You've also recorded several albums through the years vial GSL Music, a few of them with former bandmate Jim Avery. Which ones are your favorites?

Answer: Bootlace Johnnie and the 99s (Burning Shed BSHED0404). The Complete Chicago Recordings (GSL Music GSLMCD023) Jim Avery's Seven Angels Of Dust (GSL Music GSLMCD030) See WWW.GSLMUSIC.COM I have recently put all the Los Angeles Rockmotor material onto five CDs, having every cut we recorded from rehearsals, recordings, sound checks, etc.

Interview with Jim Avery

1 Re Oz Ball

Sure great gig - all underground revolutionaries - thought revolution was going to happen - vive la revolution!

2 Audience

Revolutionaries - would be revolutionaries - people who wanted to make a change.

3  Punk Scene

Followed the scene - breath of fresth air - good news for me - Track records wanted me back - because of the emerging Punk scene - punks roaming around Track Records - Track handling Punk - Hired me to co-ordinate punks as they did not know what to do with them - I was on the same wave length ( Re Third World War) - The Who were considered respectable at that time. I was as hired as a Music Liaison Officer - handled Siouxsie and the Banshees - Sid Vicious was around he was not with the Sex Pistols in the early days - In fact he borrowed Terry Stamps Hagstrom Guiter - not to be seen again .

4 Memorable Experiences

Bomb scare in Germany - on tour with Golden Earings - Barry one of the band receiveing a electric shock via the lips and being blown 20 feet across the stage.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Review: The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science

Women populate the business and political scenes worldwide in a way that would do early feminists proud. If you think it was hard for a woman to become a mayor or CEO in the first half of the 20th century, imagine what it was like for female physicist or chemist.

Julie Des Jardins’ book, The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, records the experiences of females who entered and excelled in the cloistered, male-oriented world of science. All school kids know about Madame Curie, but how many people have heard of Nobel prize winning physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who researched the shell model of the atom’s nucleus? Or Annie Jump Cannon, an astronomer who classified stars while working at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, along with other female catalogers known as “Pickering’s women”?

Even though the idea of a woman scientist may conjure a stereotype similar to that of the straitlaced librarian, the women of The Madame Curie Complex are interesting characters who endured initial resistance from male co-workers, juggled family life and long days in the lab without bitterness or complaints. There is a lot of emphasis placed on how childrearing and duty to husband and hearth shared time with scientific work.

One of the busiest ladies chronicled in The Madame Curie Complex, Lillian Gilbreth,  was branded the first lady of modern management. She developed the forerunner to the “flow chart” used by businesses to define company organization and work processes, along with her husband Frank. The couple had 12 children, and their family life was made into the movie Cheaper by the Dozen. Lillian was responsible for designing the first advertising campaign for Modess Sanitary Napkins. Prior to that, the males in charge at were at a loss about how to pitch the product.

In a chapter titled “The Lady Trimates," Des Jardins examines modern primatologists Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Germany’s Birute Galdikas. Fossey had a hard life and was murdered (allegedly by poachers) in 1985.  Goodall, a vivacious Englishwoman, became a National Geographic cover girl and media darling.  All were protégés of Louis Leaky, who welcomed them into his circle without hesitation. The studying of primates, and indeed all of zoology, seems a more welcoming branch of science for females. It's that motherly nurturing instinct, Des Jardins supposes.

Meticulously researched and peppered with anecdotes that bring its subjects to life, both as people and scientific heroines, The Madame Curie Complex is a must-read for anyone curious about the role of women in science.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Film Review-The Runaways

Floria Sigismondi’s film The Runaways, is an accessible, mainstream version of the short-lived career of the groundbreaking all-girl rock band. Lead singer Cherie Currie and guitarist Joan Jett are the focal points of the film, which traces their first meeting at a glamrock club for underage kids to the unraveling of the band a few years later.

Kristen Stewart channels Joan Jett in this film. Not only does she look like Joan, she has Jett’s posture, walk, and budding tough girl bravura down pat. Dakota Fanning likewise plays Cherie Currie’s doppelganger, whether she's strutting onstage in her infamous molded white corset or maneuvering between the sleazy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and her troubled family.  The 2010 faux Runaways performing Cherry Bomb will leave even older fans doing a double take before realizing it’s not the real band. The lead actresses were coached extensively by Jett and Currie prior to filming , and it shows in their realistic performances.

The other band members are represented in recording and performance scenes and little else. Stella Maeve as drummer Sandy West shares a few pivotal scenes near the film’s beginning with Stewart and Fanning. Scout Taylor Compton as Lita Ford has one major blow-up scene and little else; composite bass player Robin (Alia Shawkat) has no dialogue.

But Michael Shannon as creepy manager/Svengali Kim Fowley steals the show. There’s no telling whether we’ll laugh, groan or be grossed out by his antics. Fowley uses such endearing terms as “dogcunt” while addressing the girls. In the film, has a bunch of local boys throw dogshit at the girls to teach them how to handle hecklers (This was an exaggeration. They only got tomatoes toilet papers rolls, et al thrown at them in real life.) The allegations of sexual abuse hinted at in Cherie’s autobiography and in Vicki Tischler-Blue’s Runaways documentary Edgeplay are left out of The Runaways.

First time feature film director Floria Sigismondi cut her teeth making bizarre videos for Marilyn Manson at the height of his popularity in the 1990s. “The Runaways” bears little resemblance to Sigismondi’s past efforts. It’s crisp, linear storytelling that compacts several years of plot in an hour forty five minutes. Sigismondi takes no real liberties here. She changed a few things like the exact time of Cherie leaving the band. The facts remain basically unscathed.

If you want the hard, unvarnished reality of the band’s history, check out Edgeplay, a documentary directed by former bass player Vicki Tischler-Blue. Edgeplay expands on a lot of the All the major players in the Runaways saga expect Joan were interviewed for the film, including Kim Fowley and Kari Krome, but Joan was noticeably absent from the documentary except for archival footage. (Joan and her manager Kenny Laguna were The Runaways’ executive producers.)

Rock ‘n’ roll shenanigans abound in The Runaways. After a bunch of nasty, longhaired hippie musicians insult the girls, Joan goes into their dressing room and pisses on one of their guitars. Joan teaches Cherie how to masturbate (to a picture of Farrah Fawcett). There’s a sense of fun and discovery to Joan and Cherie's relationship even when they’re snorting coke in an airplane bathroom. It’s not sordid business as usual (as it seems to be for teenagers today) its fun, it’s experimentation. The much-ballyhooed lesbian scene between Cherie and Joan is more sweet than prurient, starting out with a kiss in a strobe-lit roller rink.

There’s a subplot involving Cherie’s alcoholic father, and another one involving all the media attention focused on her Brigitte Bardot like sex kitten image. Fowley arranges for a photographer to take a slew of racy pics of Cherie, unbeknownst to the other girls in the band. Needless to say, this causes an insurmountable rift in band dynamics.

I bought the Runaways' debut album at a record store in Chicago’s Ford City Shopping Mall the day it was released in 1976. The Runaways framed album cover is hanging up on my wall above my workspace. Most of my other 1970s albums are long gone, left behind, thrown out, or scratched beyond repair. But that original vinyl pressing of The Runaways survived almost 35 years of cross-country moves and wear and tear.

The Runaways is great entertainment, whether you’re familiar with the band’s history or not. Hopefully, it will pique younger viewers' curiosity about the band and send them to their computers to download some Runaways MP3 albums, and do some more exploring about the founding females of hard rock.

This review is based on a screening of the film at the L.A. Film School, 3/9/10 for the Rock & Roll Camp for Girls

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Through The Looking Glass: Brett Smiley's Long, Strange Journey

This is a repost of phone interviews I conducted with Brett Smiley and Nina Antonia in  February 2005, shortly before the publication of Nina's book, The Prettiest Star. 

Through The Looking Glass:
Brett Smiley's Long, Strange Journey

Glam rocker Brett Smiley recorded his sole album Breathlessly Brett in 1973. Smiley was touted as a wunderkind by his producer, the legendary Andrew Loog Oldham. After the single "Va Va Va Voom" proved a minor success on the UK charts, Smiley and the unreleased album disappeared til author Nina Antonia and music historian Phil King unearthed the long forgotten gem in 2003. The album, now available from RPM Records has received somewhat of an underground buzz, being played on KXLU and Indie1031 in Los Angeles, London's Resonance FM and WFMU in New Jersey. I recently interviewed Antonia and Smiley about those heady glam days of the early '70s, and their collaboration on the book The Prettiest Star, Smiley's bio/glam memoir.

Interview with Nina Antonia 2/16/05

Author Nina Antonia is a child of glam. Raised in London, in a dysfunctional household, she grew up in the early '70s Glam boys like the New York Dolls and Brett Smiley left an indelible impression on her. Antonia eventually forged a career as a music journalist, penning biographies of Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls and Peter Perret of the UK phenomenon the Only Ones. Her latest undertaking is The Prettiest Star, a bio of "junkglam" rocker Brett Smiley. I spoke with Nina about meeting Brett, the idea behind "The Prettiest Star" and glam rock in general.

For The Prettiest Star, Antonia wanted to employ a more personal, emotional approach to the subject than her previous biographies. "The last book I wrote, in 1998,"Antonia says, "was the New York Dolls biography. After I wrote that book I wanted to keep writing about the music experience and my heroes, but I wanted to write about it in a less biographical way and The Prettiest Star is actually like split screen, juxtaposing between my life and Brett's life. It's really about searching for a lost pop idol."

Antonia wanted to approach the book in a more emotional way than most music bios, which tend to detail only the most glamorous and debauched images of fame. "It doesn't explain why people become fans of things and ways that it might become a problem I had a very dysfunctional family so music gave me as it did for thousands of people another dimension. But I just wanted to explore that. I don't know what it's like in the States, but over here the pop or the rock experience is male dominated. You don't have as many women talking about why they got into music hundreds of books testifying why men got into the rock scene. We have books written about the rock experience by guys but we really don't have any by women, so I wanted to try and do that." The road to The Prettiest Star was not an easy one. "I ambled along trying to find things out about Brett from 1974 onwards and, eventually, I sort of gave up. It seemed too difficult, especially long distance. Then Antonia went to a gallery opening for a Marc Bolan photo exhibit. "I met a guy, Danny, who was well versed in glam. I hadn't asked anybody about Brett Smiley and he said a friend of mine got in touch with him through the Internet and I was really shocked." Danny's friend was Phil King, who helped compile the Glitterbest and Glitter From the Litterbin glam collections. (King also played bass in Lush and Jesus and Mary Chain.) "Between the two of us we worked on getting in touch with Brett and getting the CD Breathlessly Brett out. I called Brett one night and we just got to talking. I told him that I had his single as a teen-ager and his picture on the wall.

"It took me about 3 years to finish the book." Says Antonia. " I'm not interested in superstars. I'm interested different aspects of the popular music experience other than the typical mainstream. I wanted to explore the glam days and make them live again. So it was like a journey into the past for him and for me."

"The crux of the book deals with stardom, music and its effect not only on the performer, but on the fan. When I was 14 and saw him on the show you think people on TV are having this fantastic life and he looked particularly glamorous. So you daydream they sort of live on the stars and you live on earth, so I liked writing about that. Just the daydream about wanting to be a star. The thing the crux when I was Brett was on the Russell Harty Show (a talk show in England that featured an eclectic variety of guests) you think, "what a fantastic life." It looks glamorous. They live in the stars and you live on earth. It's about that and it's also about. the daydream about wanting to be a star. What happened to him was far from starry, but it was a nice fantasy."

I mention that I know many teenage kids today who seemed consumed by images of the 1960s and 1970s and eschew the current MTV culture crammed in their faces. "It's a search for free space," Antonia comments, "It's not sponsored by this or taken over by that. It's freer . You take an active part It's not homogenized, not something you can find in a shopping mall. It's important to young people to be unique in some way."

The first half of the book deals with childhood and Brett's life up to the making of Breathlessly Brett. "They were difficult years for both of us in completely different ways. What Brett and I both shared even though we were growing up millions of miles away was the desire for escape and transformation through music." The Prettiest Star, Antonia adds, is also about how you perceive stardom. It's looking through the looking glass and what do you find?"

Interview With Brett Smiley 2/17/05

Brett Smiley was involved in show biz practically from birth. A precocious child, he made his onstage debut as a tot. The youngest of four children, Brett insisted on singing in a local revue his sisters and brother were in, "I went up to the woman who was directing it and said 'I wanna sing" and stole the show from my sisters and brother." Some of his fondest memories are of his move to New York and debut on the Broadway stage as a child star in Oliver!

" I spent 4-5 years in Lionel Bart's "Oliver" on Broadway and in the touring company. "My sister (actress Brenda Smiley, who stared on Broadway with Jerry Orbach in "Scuba Duba.") was here in New York, studying acting and saw in the trades they needed boys who could sing. I was very young and they were concerned about my age, but I could sing and was really cute." Smiley was still new to the show and observing from the sidelines when the cast of Oliver was on the Ed Sullivan Show-- the same night as the Beatles "We were on the elevator about a dozen kids with long hair and scrappy clothes, except for me, I was still observing. We were all talking about who had long hair first." While on tour with "Oliver", Smiley and some of the other cast members put together a band called the Bedbugs. (One of Smiley's castmates, Davey Jones, left to join the Monkees.) "Growing up in the theatre, it's a different sensibility I didn't much like the idea of acting at that time. It was sex, drugs and rock n roll." He moved to California in the summer of love. The girls in California were much more open about sexuality than (the ones in) New York at that time. I was amazed at the difference between New York and California." While in California, Brett cut school to play guitar with his friends. While there, he encountered Russ Gibb, a. promoter looking for bands to produce. "He heard me play and really liked me."

Gibb represented the band Sky, Doug (The Knack) Fieger's first band. "Doug and I are friends now," says Smiley. "Doug kept announcing he was quitting," Smiley recalls, "He was a prima donna. We all were prima donnas, c'mon." Brett got his big break when Gibb finally let Fieger leave Sky. "Russ Gibb said, 'OK, quit the band.' They were going to England and he took me along. I said, 'How am I going to learn, I don't even play bass!' I went to England with Sky and Russ Gibb, who eventually took me back to Detroit." Smiley met Andrew Loog Oldham in Detroit when Oldham was producing records for Motown. "I sang my songs and played him my demo tapes. Andrew said, 'I want to record you.' In keeping with the spirit of the times, alcohol and drugs flowed freely "I was doing a lot of drinking and a lot of drugs. I could handle it then." It took three years to record the album. "It took a lot of perseverance on my part. I'd been to Seattle and L.A. I was always trying to get something going." The deal Oldham secured for Smiley was bigger than the recordbreaking deal Jerry Brandt had gotten for New York art rocker Jobriath. Today, Oldham and Smiley are on good terms; they even recorded some songs in New York in 1986. "I spoke to him last week," Smiley says, "He is a DJ on Sirius radio. He's not much into recording anymore and is writing books."

As if the delayed recording of  Breathlessly Brett wasn't enough, its release was soon in jeopardy. "I started not trusting Andrew, he started not trusting the label. Bands usually get to go out and do something first before that conflict comes up. Then I split to Los Angeles and I kept wanting to know what's the delay? There was a lot of disillusionment. I believe drugs had a lot to do with it, not just my use but Andrews' and everybody else's use." When Columbia Records decided to focus their attention on a band called Ace who had the nondescript hit song "How Long," Breathlessly Brett was shelved.

In the "lost" years that followed, Smiley went to hell and back. The whirlwind of drugs and drinking took their toll. Eventually, Smiley was admitted to UCLA Neuropsychiatry Center "Iggy Pop had gone there so it was ok," Smiley jokes. After years of drug use and jail time in Florida , Smiley found out he had HIV. Smiley's long-time girlfriend, B movie actress Cheryl Smith ("someone who I think about to this day," Smiley says), died of complications due to hepatitis in 2002. Smiley had survivor guilt. "I questioned it. I did as many drugs and drank as much as she did….. I'm very lucky to be alive." What was the rehab process like? "Rehab? I've been given 30 years of rehab," Smiley says. "When I got clean and stayed clean it was about living outside of rehab. Anybody can stay clean in rehab or jail."

Working on The Prettiest Star with Antonia forced Smiley to confront some painful memories. "I worked with Nina on the book for a couple years. She'd call me every few weekends and we'd talk over the phone. I went England three times last year and we met up. Actually, the best interview was when went out to a café. There was a lot of noise in the background, but it was where I was able to open up to her the most. I read what she got out of it, and in my opinion it was the best interview of all."

It's been a long, sometimes treacherous journey, but Brett Smiley is a survivor and is now doing quite well. He lives in Brooklyn, and is studying to be an acting teacher, and has recently played live shows on the East Coast and in London. A new song," Our Lady of the Barren Trees" will appear on a UK compilation CD later this year.

And he's grown his hair long again. "Everybody's got such groomed hair now. I've got to be different.," he laughs. And what are Smiley's future plans? "I'm crossing the bridges as I get to them," he says.