Saturday, December 17, 2011

CD Review: The Green Lady Killers: Just Fine

                      Green Lady Killers live at L.A.'s Redwood Bar

The Green Lady Killers, an all female trio from L.A, channel the Cramps, Joan Jett and the Breeders and wrap it their own special brand of black leather swagger.  The band, originally formed in Phoenix, AZ, consists of lead vocalist/guitarist Lady Van Buren, drummer Cherrybomb and bassist/vocalist Ivy Rose.  Their first full-length album, Just Fine, is now available from Rusty Knuckles Music as a CD or iTunes download.

The 12 tunes on Just Fine blast AC/DC style rock with a hint of psychobilly; fast and furious but with a sexy side. “Power” brings to mind the metal thrash of Betty Blowtorch, while the single “My .45” has a ferocity that could put many supposedly tough male bands to shame. “Another Place in Time” relates the lust and longing of a young rock femme fatale, as does the thrashy “Time Bomb.”  “Dance Floor” boasts a steady groove that proves you can shake your booty and then some to hard-edged music. Singer Lady Van Buren sounds  like Tanya Donnelly when she mellows a bit, like on the intro to “Linger On.” She can sing ballsy rock, but can also deliver melodic, heartfelt vocals when the lyric calls for it.

 The Green Lady Killers play club gigs throughout the  West Coast and Southwest Their résumé includes performances on the Shiragirl Stage at the Vans Warped Tour in 2005 and gigs with bands as diverse as Missing Persons and the Nekromantix. GLK snagged the Best Power Trio title at the 2010 L.A. Music Awards, and they showcased at SXSW with other Rusty Knuckles bands this year.

Green Lady Killers Facebook Page

Friday, December 09, 2011

You Can't Get It on DVD- FM

FM is the type of movie you discover in the afterhours graveyard of a cable channel when you suffer from insomnia at 3 a.m. It’s amusing when you’re sleep-deprived, but doesn’t pack the same punch when you’re wide awake. This quirky 1978 comedy is set in the offices of fictional L.A. radio station Q-SKY. The station’s program director Jeff Dugan (played by Michael Brandon) oversees a bunch of  wacky, Morning Zoo type radio personalities and battles with unhip station management.

The kooky DJ characters include Martin Mull as free-spirited DJ Eric Swan,  who cavorts with groupies and suffers for his art, Eileen Brennan as Mother, the husky-voiced nighttime DJ, Cleavon Little as the hip  Venus Flytrap clone, “The Prince of Darkness” and ex-footballer Alex Karras as the low-rated midday DJ.  These zany personalities and their subplots, along with the ‘70s time capsule music soundtrack, give the film its appeal. Kids who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s will relate to the quirky DJs and their loyal fans. Every city had a radio station like Q-SKY in the '70s and '80s.

FM plays like the feature film version of WKRP in Cincinnati, except that clueless owner  Mr. Carlson and plaid-suited Herb Tarlek have been replaced by a front office with a profits before music agenda. The film’s serious main plot is that old evergreen – big business versus creative peons. The evil owner and sales guy want the DJs to play pro-military commercials and other conservative nonsense. The DJs stage a strike/sit-in and commandeer the station, refusing to give in until the cops come to bash down the doors with a tow truck. The DJs dedication impresses the station owner, and in fairy tale fashion, all is forgiven and the DJs are allowed to run Q-SKY their way.

Unlike the film, the FM soundtrack is easily accessible online, and it mimics what was played on the more laidback FM stations of the time. The soundtrack  - and the film itself- make it seem like the Stones, David Bowie and Aerosmith didn't exist in the late ‘70s, much less the Sex Pistols, the Dammed and Iggy Pop. Save for Queen’s We Will Rock You and Steely Dan’s title track, it’s all snooze-inducing mainstream  rock that was even at the saturation point by the time the film was released, like the Doobie Brothers, Outlaws, Linda Ronstadt and Foreigner.

An amusing film with a lite retro look at the radio biz, FM may bring back pleasant memories of drinking Boone's Farm wine and smoking pot in the school bleachers for the 45 and over crowd. Anchor Bay released a DVD version in 2000, and it has since been discontinued. 

WLUP "The Loop" was Chicago's version of the radio station in "FM". Here is their infamous TV commercial.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Circus, Creem and Hit Parader - Three Great Rock Magazines of the '70s and '80s

                    The first copy of Creem I ever bought, August 1973

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," Frank Zappa once said. Or was it Martin Mull –or maybe Elvis Costello? Internet pundits have varying opinions on this matter. However, we do know that Frank told a journalist ,"Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read."

Frank’s quote may actually apply more to current Interweb music news items on Yahoo and AOL than the old-style print mags that inspired his comment. Do we really need constant blog posts about X Factor contestants and American Idol losers flubbing the National Anthem at football games?  It makes me pine for the heyday of my three favorite rock magazines- Circus, Creem, and Hit Parader


Circus combined mainstream newspaper-type journalism with behind-the-scenes interviews and reportage about rock bands. They weren’t gossipy or dirty. They gave fans straightforward news without much pontificating. The magazine was first published in 1966 under the name Hullabalo, but most people equate it with 1970s and 1980s hard rock and new wave. The weekly magazine covered everything Kiss, Aerosmith, Queen, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin oriented in the 1970s. Of course, the aforementioned bands shared column inches with any band that had a buzz at a given time. Circus didn’t discriminate based on genre. They were an equal opportunity mag. The March 16, 1978 cover featured Ted Nugent, but prominent articles on the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were also included. It wasn’t unusual to find an eclectic pop culture mish-mash edition with articles  about Dan Fogelberg or Linda Ronstadt, popular comedians and TV shows (Steve Martin, Mork and Mindy, etc.) and controversial movies du jour like The China Syndrome sharing space with the obligatory Kiss article. And this mag had the best posters and full-page photos. After I finished scavenging my favorite articles for pin-ups, there was barely anything left in the mag. This explains why I don’t have any intact copies left to sell on eBay. The magazine folded in 2006 after focusing exclusively on heavy metal and hard rock since the mid-1980s.


Creem was a great magazine for suburban teens in the 1970s  It looked like a music magazine, but  it had a lot more than pretty pictures and music reviews. It had dirty words, sexual terms you hadn’t learned yet, semi-nudity, Lester Bangs and drug references. The music reviews read like a combo of Naked Lunch, a pulp men’s mag  and Roget’s Thesaurus. You had to be intellectual and perverted to understand what was going on – a perfect combo for me.  Also, what was that exactly on the June 1976 cover, hmmm? (See above pic.) I don’t think the proprietors of  the local drugstore in Hometown, Ill. where I bought it even noticed it. I hardly knew what it was, but pot and peppermint schnapps were the hardest stuff for a junior high kid in the ‘burbs back then. I learned a lot from Creem, and not all of it music-related. I first discovered  the existence of absinthe, cock rings and bondage gear from Creem. But I first read about the Runaways, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls and T-Rex from Creem while everyone in the neighborhood was listening to Donny and Marie. I read Pamela Des Barres’ column, Miss Eleganza, Creem Profiles, Confessions of a Film Fox and learned all about Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. (Even at 12, I was the resident neighborhood weirdo.) I convinced my babysitter to watch the New York Dolls on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert one Friday, after reading about them in Creem. When I saw her again Monday morning, she was thoroughly befuddled by the performance. “When you said “New York Dolls”, I thought you were talking about a bunch of weird ladies.”

The first copy of Creem I ever bought in 1973 had articles about Androgeny In Rock, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Jeff Beck and plenty of pics of glam-era David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Marc Bolan and Iggy Pop. One of the first record reviews I read was by Patti Smith. I couldn’t tell you what band she reviewed, but I sure did like the way she wrote about them. A few years ago, one of my friends showed me an old stack of Creems from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I looked through ‘em, but somehow they didn’t pack the same forbidden punch as they did when I was twelve. By the late ‘70s Debbie Harry ,the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were common subjects, along with lesser-known punk bands that Circus and Hit Parader neglected. (Destroy All Monsters, the Dictators, etc.) Creem may or may not exist today. This New York Times article details the struggle to revive the magazine. Creem’s archives, however, are up and running.

Hit Parader

Hit Parader, first published in 1942, printed popular song lyrics of the day. Even when pop music styles changed to rock, punk and new wave, the mag still published lyrics. Alice Cooper lyrics were far removed from “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”, but fans still wanted to sing along. One of the first  Hit Paraders I bought –in ’74 or ’75, had a great interview with John Lennon conducted by Lisa Robinson, one of the most prolific rock scribes of the time.

The photos weren’t as glossy as the ones in Circus, but I still plastered the walls with them, especially in the early ‘80s, when the magazine’s articles seemed to get shorter-only a page or two-with short to non-existent interviews. Like Circus, Hit Parader didn’t take musical sides back then- one month Van Halen was on the cover; the next month, the Clash. It wasn’t a “punk” versus “metal” culture then. It was all good. Once the mid-1980s rolled around, the magazine changed format to heavy metal/hard rock exclusively. It’s the only one of the three mags  that still exists today, with a “none more black” website design and cover stories on Slipknot and similar bands.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

You Can't Get It On DVD-The Sterile Cuckoo

When you hear the name “Liza Minnelli, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Cabaret, Liza with a “Z”,  the original Arthur or her mother, iconic performer Judy Garland? Chances are one of her first films, The Sterile Cuckoo, won’t ring a bell. Liza received her first Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of quirky college freshman Pookie Adams in the film version of John Nichols’ novel, The Sterile Cuckoo. The 1969 film received critical raves and  earned BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for Minnelli in addition to the Oscar nod. A VHS version was released in 1998, but it has yet to appear on DVD or Blu-Ray.

Not many people are familiar with Liza’s pre-Cabaret film appearances. Liza played the mistress of successful writer Charlie Bubbles (played by Albert Finney) in the film of the same name. But her second film appearance in The Sterile Cuckoo proved that Liza had her famous mother’s onscreen acting chops.

First published in 1965, the novel Sterile Cuckoo dealt with the “first-love” relationship between  reserved college student Jerry Payne and Pookie Adams, a quirky but troubled young woman he meets at a bus stop.  The novel is narrated by Jerry’s character, but the focus is on Pookie, whose non-stop chattering and kooky demeanor hide a lonely soul.

The film version, which co-starred Wendell Burton as Jerry, was shot at Hamilton College in upstate New York in 1968. Director Alan J.Pakula produced several films, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Up the Down Staircase before serving as both director and producer for Sterile Cuckoo. Pakula would go on to direct Klute, Sophie's Choice and All the President's Men.

Intrigued by the complex character of Pookie Adams, Minnelli agreed to the role. By the time her film career began, she had already won a Tony for her role as struggling fashion designer Flora Mezaros in Flora, the Red Menace.

  Liza Minnelli as Pookie Adams in The Sterile Cuckoo

The Sterile Cuckoo is first and foremost a character study. While Jerry has a fleeting relationship with his college roomies, Pookie only has disdain for the girls in her dorm, constantly referring to them as “weirdos.” Pookie’s father appears only once, when he drops her off at the bus stop at the beginning of the film. While cavorting with Jerry in a graveyard on a windy day, Pookie reveals that her mother died giving birth to her. Even as a college freshman, Pookie has no friends or relatives to help her pass the time. She’s either alone or with Jerry. During a school break, she pretends to go off to see her father, but she is actually still on campus, by herself. Still, she has a exuberant spirit about her, and this entices Jerry. He falls in love with her, despite her needy, neurotic tendencies. Pookie takes the lead when the couple first trysts in a rustic motel. Jerry’s so shy he can’t even bring himself to undress her. Later, Jerry naively responds to Pookie’s revelation that she might be pregnant and offers, rather unromantically, to marry her. In the end, Pookie’s overwhelming need for affection and assurance -and her self-absorption - drive Jerry away.

The easy-listening song Come Saturday Morning by the Sandpipers underscores several “lovers-romping in the meadows” scenes. It’s charming the first time you hear it, but after the third time those lilting vocals crop up, it’s cringe-inducing. A film of this caliber didn’t need it, and even reviewers at the time, including Roger Ebert, noted this faux pas.

The film's tale of doomed first love on a bucolic college campus compressed the novel’s storyline into a year instead of the three years covered in the book, but there’s no inkling that anything has been “left out” of the film version. Even though there are a few romantic comedy type moments (Cue Come Saturday Morning), The Sterile Cuckoo is a bittersweet account of first love. But isn’t first love always bittersweet?

As of November 2011, there’s no word on a DVD or Blu-Ray release. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

From the Archives: CD Review: William Shatner - Has Been

Has Been
William Shatner (with Ben Folds)
Shout Factory

Review first published in early 2004 on Suite101com

The Transformed Man, William Shatner's first album, was recorded in 1968 during his first tenure as Star Trek's Captain Kirk. Like the original TV series, The Transformed Man, with its kitschy covers of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", has remained a pop culture touchstone. Unfortunately, Shatner's first foray into music/spoken word has fueled many jibes from comedians and DJs over the years, while Captain Kirk is an accepted part of American, if not universal, folklore. Shatner's second album, Has Been, produced and co-authored by pianist/songwriter Ben Folds, is a bona fide CD, consisting of ten original compositions and populated with guest artists like Brad Paisley, Henry Rollins and Joe Jackson. Has Been tells the story of a man who has traveled through 73 years of ups and downs with self-deprecating clarity.

Has Been blossomed into a full-fledged project when Garson and Richard Foos, contacted Shatner and asked him to do an album for Shout Factory. Folds happened to be on the other line, and signed up as producer. Folds and Shatner first collaborated on on Folds' Fear of Pop, Volume 1. Shatner lent his spoken word soliloquy to the song In Love.

Blasting off with a cover of Pulp's "Common People", Shatner's spoken delivery lends crisp and humorous air to the original's premise. Joe Jackson's vocals interspersed with Shatner's wryly observant phrasing emphasize the lyrics about a rich girl slumming with a poor bloke It's catchy in the way that any good rock song is, and bridges the gap between novelty and a "real" rock song. "I Can't Get Behind That" is an absolutely hilarious Beatnik rant set against a wall of percussion. Layers of timbales, bongos, cymbals crash and burn as Shatner and Henry Rollins trade hilarious rants about SUV drivers on cell phone, bad English and the price of oil. Shades of a madcap version of Bill Holden in Network -- "I'm mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore."

The song "Has Been", an amusing put-down of the armchair quarterbacks who spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing famous people. Inspired after Shatner read a National Enquirer story that referred to him a "has been." But Has Been is not all guffaws and wry observations. "That's Me Trying", written by Folds and High Fidelity author Nick Hornsby, concerns an absentee father attempting to reconnect with his grown daughters. Many "confessional " songs written by younger artists come off sounding overly dramatic or downright whiny, but the personal songs on Has Been benefit from a more mature perspective. "What Have You Done?", a short song about the death of Shatner's third wife, Nerine, is almost embarrassingly painful, while "It Hasn't Happened Yet" has the quiet dignity of a prose poem. Given Shatner's curriculum vitae, Has Been is a powerful, droll, and sometimes somber retrospective of a life lived to the fullest.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The 20th Anniversary of U2’s Achtung Baby: The Songs, the Mythology and the $469 Deluxe Box Set

It’s been 20 years since the release of U2’s landmark album, Achtung, Baby, and Q Magazine is commemorating the event with a tribute CD. The October 26th  edition of the UK music mag includes a bonus CD, populated with covers by Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, the Killers, Garbage, Depeche Mode, Snow Patrol….and U2. (It’s actually a Jacques Le Cont remix of “Even Better than the Real Thing”.)

The tribute CD starts with NIN’s version of “Zoo Station.” Sounds like a great idea, but its slow, whispered build-up doesn’t lead to the crunchy wall of sound we’ve come to expect from Trent. The Killers take a piano ballad approach to “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”,  but, but it fizzles out near the end. Jack White’s take on “Love is Blindness” fares better. Its mired in intensity and the blues and drenched with pain. (Perhaps Jack is trying to atone for his ICP collaboration. )The tribute CD is a hit or miss affair, but its nice to see so many respected alt-rock artist cover U2 songs.

U2, being the money-making machine it is, offers fans many ways to celebrate this milestone, and not all of them are cheap! Bono’s net worth as of this writing, is $900 million dollars (You read that right.), including his share in Facebook. U2 is run like a corporation, not just a rock group, and ya gotta give Bono props in that regard. Let’s be a rock star and compete with the members of the Forbes 400 at their own game.

So U2 are in the top one half of the one percent. OCCUPY DUBLIN…or the South of France. If you’re at the bottom of the 99%, you can buy an anniversary Achtung CD for $13.95. If you’re a little bit closer to the 1%, you could spring for the $469 multi-media box set. Sound preposterous? If U2 fans shell out $350 for concert tickets and $50 a year for “special access” to the U2 website, I’m sure they’ll be plenty of takers for the uber-deluxe box set. For a small fortune, you get six CDs, (with Achtung, Zooropa, and unreleased tracks), 16 art prints based on the album cover, various DVDs (including the Zoo TV concert DVD and the new documentary From the Sky Down) a hardcover book, stickers and, of course, a pair of “Fly” sunglasses. If you can devour all that without your head spinning, you need to get out of the house more.

All the songs from the Zoo TV era (including Achtung’s follow-up Zooropa), put the do-gooder anthems of Joshua Tree on the back burner. They were now replaced by European electronica, distorted guitars and raw emotion, the brazen, show-biz side of U2 had emerged.

Achtung and Zooropa turned out to be the only dark-tinged, pure alt- rock albums the band produced. Well, er, technically, I guess Popmart was alt-rock. It’s accompanying tour did turn out to be an unintended parody of the ZooTV  tour. Since Bono was in character as The Fly and Mr. Macphisto, he could pull off the rock star shtick. He was always a little too Catholic, married and politically earnest to emit a dark, dangerous vibe without going undercover. The Zoo TV tour ushered in a new image for the band. They were funny, dark, sexual and subtly political. Bono sang while words flashing across the TV screens did the proselytizing for him. The Zoo TV tour was technically awesome (for the time), and dizzying in its scope. Zoo TV, along with the endless Guns ‘N’ Roses Illusions tour, epitomized the last great era of arena rock excess by actual rock bands. Today’s music industry foists high-tech strip shows by Britney Spears and Rihanna on kids and calls them concerts.

“One”, “Mysterious Ways and “Even Better than the Real Thing”, the albums hits, aren’t Achtung’s most ingenious tracks. Three other tracks really caught my ear. “Acrobat” veers from expressing incredible venom to a hopeful ending. "Zoo Station's" distorted electronica made me look for more of the same. But “The Fly” was my favorite song by far. Starting with Edge’s sonic blast riff, the song barrels through the senses like aural speed. It hit number 1 in the UK. The song's scenario (a crank call from Hell, according to Bono) and lyrics like “Every artist is a cannibal/ Every poet is a thief” and beat-heavy industrial rock soundscape didn’t attract the same response in the U.S., however, and it only got up to number 61 on the “Hot 100” charts.

Some albums attain perfection. Achtung Baby is one of them. You can dissect it like a novel or listen to it for enjoyment. Either way, it works. Like another masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, much of Achtung Baby was inspired by a divorce, in this case, Edge’s breakup with his first wife. If you’re in an emotional frame of mind, the lyrics will hit you like the proverbial ton of bricks. If you want to learn more about Achtung, Baby, the documentary, From the Sky Down chronicles the making of the album in Berlin. You can watch the film on Showtime if you don’t have the dosh for the uber-deluxe box set.

U2 performs "Even Better than the Real Thing" at the 1992 MTV Music Awards with Garth (Dana Carvey) assisting on drums.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Actors Wanna Sing : Hollywood Stars as Musical Artistes

Some people may remember the old adage, “Actors want to sing and singers want to act.” Well, that’s certainly true today, with thespians like Jeff Bridges, Billy Bob Thornton, Taylor Momsen and Scarlett Johansson crafting highly-produced and polished albums.

In the 1960s, TV and movie stars often branched out into the music biz with mixed and often unintentionally comical results. Who could forget William Shatner’s classic interpretations of Mr. Tambourine Man and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds?   During the 1970s, teen TV heartthrobs like Anson “Potsie” Williams and John “Barbarino” Travolta released solo albums to capitalize on their popularly with teenage girls. These albums are remembered now mostly as pop culture time capsules.

Today’s actors turned musicians are in it for creative expression and respect, not just kitsch value and a quick buck. Jeff Bridges performance in Crazy Heart as down-on his luck country singer Bad Blake surely inspired his second real-life turn as a country vocalist/songwriter. (His first album, Be Here Soon, was released in 2000.) The self-titled album, contains 11 original songs that evoke   With longtime friend and legend T-Bone Burnett producing, Roseanne Cash helping out on vocals and a cadre of notable Nashville sidemen, Bridges’ authentic, amiable voice evokes Gordon Lightfoot crossed with a gritty, seen-it -all-but- kept-on-going Americana charm. The album shines on hopeful cuts like the Stephen Bruton penned What a Little Bit of Love Can Do.

Billy Bob Thornton began making music in junior high and played in several local bands in Texas and Arkansas before hitting in big in Hollywood as an actor/screenwriter with Sling Blade. Thornton rekindled his music career in 2001, with a solo album Private Radio. Three more solo albums followed, as well as session work on albums by Earl Scruggs and Warren Zevon. The Boxmasters, Billy Bob’s Americana /rockabilly band   released their self-titled debut CD in 2008, followed by a Christmas album later that year. The rowdy two-disc set Modbilly followed in 2009

Zooey Deschanel branched out into indie music via her role in the 2007 film, The Go-Getter. After recording a cover of  the Linda and Richard Thompson song, When I Get to the Border with musician M.Ward for the soundtrack, she and Ward  began working together on some of her original songs. The project resulted in the duo’s ongoing indie-pop band, She and Him, has garnered positive reviews from critics for its breezy, Mamas & Papas influenced retro sound.

Former Gossip Girl Taylor Momsem set the celebrity sites ablaze with her recent revelation that she was quitting acting to devote time to her music career. While some might chalk this move up to youthful experimentation, Taylor is only 16, but her band’s music has been compared to Led Zepplin with a female singer. Taylor wails like a grunge-era Courtney Love with ‘80s Goth thrown in for good measure. She has a strong, rock ‘n’ roll voice, not a trained theatrical voice like a lot of young actors, and one could never mistake her for an actress moonlighting as a :rock star.” Pretty Reckless formed in 2009, and Interscope Records signed them in 2010.  The band’s first album Light Me Up was just released, with the band playing tour dates in Australia, England, Germany and the U.S. They even played the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland this past July. Her route is similar to that of quirky actress turned hard-rocker Juliette Lewis, whose female Iggy Pop music and stage persona seemed almost a natural extension of her roles in Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers.

Boasting a marquee name can lead fans to listen, but won’t necessarily make them-or critics-approve. Anywhere I Lay My Head, Scarlett Johansson’s ambitious album of Tom Waits covers, featured guest appearances by David Bowie and members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but even musical star power and lush orchestrations couldn’t set the project on a winning course with fans, and the album faded away. Johansson’s subsequent musical project, Break Up, with indie musician Pete Yorn, fared better. Yorn enlisted Scarlett to play the modern-day Brigette Bardott  to his updated version of French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, and the result is a melancholy tale of  a sputtering romance  told by two soon to be ex-lovers.

Of course, this is just a partial listing of recent singing actors. Minnie Driver has a country singing career;  Nicole Kidman did a duet of Something Stupid with Robbie Williams, and so on and so on. Most of the celebrity albums are well-produced and have some artistic merit. Whether their musical efforts will resonate emotionally with fans as much as their dramatic performances is an open question. Fans have fond memories of the musical blips by Potsie and Barbarino, if only for the camp value  Will today’s thespian musical releases be remembered by fans in a few decades-or even a few months? Only time will tell. 

Milla Jovovich channels Maya Deren in the video for Gentleman Who Fell, 1994

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture On The Brink by Mark Dery

(The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium was published in December 1999, before 9/11, the economic meltdown, reality TV, etc. I would love to see an updated version of this book. This review was originally published on January 27, 2001.)

In his book, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture On The Brink (Grove Press), social critic Mark Dery, a contributor to The Village Voice, as well as numerous e-zines, deconstructs and filters the excesses of post millennial America. He explores the once seamy underbelly of media and culture that has now become mainstream. One perusal of this book, and I can hear my dearly departed grandpa say "I told ya!! World's going to hell in a handbasket!"

Dery examines the whos, whats and most importantly, the whys of America's current freak show climate. The best chapter is "The Cotton Candy Autopsy" which focuses on evil clowns, deciphering all the scary critters from Ronald Mcdonald to John Wayne Gacy, but with no mention of the "Evil Clown" CD store in Chicago, a personal favorite. Taking this way of thinking a bit further, another chapter focuses on freaks of nature as the norm, most noticeably the cornucopia of breast implants and plastic surgery as common as Clairol, and the transference of body image into something unnatural.(The porno industry would have you think there's nothing strange about a 110 pound woman with 40 FFF breasts.) The cluttering of nature by the surgeon's scalpel is further explored in a chapter about cloning and childbirth without women. Who needs to have a baby the old fashioned way. "1984" and "Brave New World" are here in starkest detail - for good or naught hasn't been determined yet. The Unabomber took umbrage at such scientific progress, though, and destroyed many innocent lives, thanks to his lack of participation in sports as a child, inability to get a girlfriend, and hatred of technology (Chapter 13).

Living freaks aren't the only ones gaining popularity-witness "Formaldehyde and the New Grotesque"(Chapter 7) introduced to the layman by the Nine Inch Nails "Closer" video. Joel - Peter Witkin and his contemporaries, most noticeably the Mutter Medical Museum and their collection of medical oddities, are part of a whole subgenre of artists re-creating and photographing malformed child skulls and conjoined twins. It's a different, artier way to capitalize on side of human nature that gawks at car wrecks.

Personally, the subdued grotesqurie ensconced in a tiny chapter about Home Shopping's Gallery of Dolls brings all this weirdness to a shuddering reality for me. I worked for a doll collector magazine a few years ago and talk about a freaky world. Like the clowns, there's a nasty underside to those sweet-faced little Angelique dollies and the blue - haired old ladies with life sized recreations of real children in their homes.
(It's no surprise Anne Rice is a big doll collector.) Hey, did you hear the one about the 60-year old doll designer hawking her creations on HSN's Gallery of Dolls with her 30-year old boy toy beside her wearing Peter Pan tights. THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

But fear not, there's a lot of sprucing up on the horizon.  In our Disneyfied suburban homes (see Chapter 8, re the clean-up and packaging of everything from Times Square to suburban neighborhoods by Disney and their peers), we can indulge in all this voyeurism of the hideous & riveting in our den on Mickey Mouse Lane while our teen-age kids tattoo their ankles with the Nike corporate swoosh. Fringe elements are now mainstream, bloodsports and piercings and Satanism are featured on the Five O' Clock News. This is now a fringeless society. What's left in the underground if serial killers and psycho clowns are joke fodder for DJs in Dubuque? If there's anything that Dery's essays, read one right after the other, indicate, it's that the world in general has turned into a one big freak show, with "normalcy" being the exception. Is it really a brave new world, or merely an empty, soulless one?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Front & Baker's Pink: Two Overlooked Bands from the '90s

Back in my New York rock critic days, I received a monthly shopping bag filled with review CDs and cassettes (yes, cassettes - it was a long time ago) from my editor. I’d listen to most of ‘em once and then sell them or give them away.  Occasionally, though, I’d find a gem that I’d keep and play over and over again.  One such cassette was by a  Kansas City quintet called The Front, who had signed to Columbia Records in 1989. I kept playing my freebie cassette over and over one night. At about one in the morning, my roommate admonished me. “What hell are you doing? You have to get up at six o clock to go to work!” Well, I was kinda sleepy in the office the next day, but it was worth it.

The Front’s self-titled album got lost in the avalanche of bands signed by the major labels at end of the hair metal craze.  The band’s sound alternated between Love- era cult, blues rock and paisley revival with a dark side. Singer Michael Franano looked like Michael Hutchence or Jim Morrison, depending on your preference. And the band dressed in a style that could best be described as “hippie glam”, a refreshing change from the spandex and black leather jackets of the time. Every song on the album was a winner-there was no fluff or filler on this baby. The tour de force Violent World, the 60s retro-pop Sunshine Girl, the brooding Sin and the sensual strutting of Le Motion deserved more airplay than they got back in the day.

The band did the whole hard rock concert circuit, opening for Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, and Lenny Kravitz, and shot a few videos. Still, the Front never achieved substantial success despite having Doc McGhee of Motley Crue fame as a manager. Even glowing press from music mags couldn’t stir up widespread interest. 

By 1993, the band had a new record company and a new name – Baker’s Pink. The songs on their second album had a harder, trippier edge to them, as though the sound had been fine-tuned to fit in better with the suddenly popular grunge and alt-rock movement. Still, songs like Watercolours and Burn On retained singer Franano’s signature swagger. Unfortunately, the timing was off once again, and Baker’s Pink faded into obscurity just like The Front. 

Franano went on to work on music for film and TV, including Woody Allen’s Celebrity, Melrose Place and Party of Five. In 1998, he reinvented himself as Michael Moon and released a solo album. In a 2010 interview in Sugarbuzz Magazine, Michael mentioned that he is working on a new website and hopes to include live recordings from Baker’s Pink and The Front, as well as some new material, on the site. 

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Who Knows Where the Time Goes? : Frances Bean and Lourdes are All Grown Up

Frances Bean Cobain as photographed by Hedi Slimane

Celebrity offspring of the digital age, like Suri Cruise and the Jolie/Pitt brood, seem destined to be photographed from cradle to grave with barely a moment of privacy. But the daughters of two controversial music celebrity Moms spent their childhoods without constant pre-planned photo-ops, emerging to the world in their early teens without any of the visible emotional problems associated with famous kids. I’m referring to Lourdes “Lola” Ciccone Leon and Frances Bean Cobain.  

When Lourdes was born, VH-1 played Madonna videos all day to celebrate the Material Baby’s birth. Madonna was a big deal even in 1996, having just starred in the film version of the musical Evita.. Coincidentally, Courtney portrayed Althea Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt that year. Can you imagine what would have happened if they had both received Oscar nominations? What a mess that would have been! (Madge did win the Golden Globe for Evita.) Lola posed with Madge for Vanity Fair when she was a baby, but we only saw sporadic paparazzi shots of her until recently.

Courtney also had the sense not to parade Frances for the paparazzi every two seconds. She was obviously very protective of her daughter, yet a victim of her own demons, Courtney spoke lovingly of Frances, and yet non-sequiturs surrounded many of these maternal statements.

We saw very little of Frances from the time Kurt died up until her interview with Teen Vogue in 2005 at the age of thirteen. A restraining order was issued in 2009 forbidding Courtney from having even indirect contact with Frances.

Lourdes is just fourteen, so she’s not really all grown-up yet. Lourdes doesn’t look much different than any NYC schoolgirl when not doing PR with Madge. She’s appeared in some of her Mom’s videos, and helps out with Madonna’s Material Girl clothing line for Macy’s. Lourdes blogs about fashion for the Material Girl Collection. (Please note when compiling Christmas gift lists-she does NOT like Gladiator sandals).
Material Girl clothes are cute, reasonably priced clothes for girls who want to dress like their Moms, or in some cases, Grandmas, did in the 70s and 80s! 

Lourdes "Lola" Maria Ciccone Leon

Lola deals with her Mom’s need for attention admirably, taking it in stride when Madge has to show her barely-camouflaged butt for the photogs on the Red Carpet. She attends the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, aka the high school in the movie “Fame, when not playing junior fashionista. Will Lourdes strike out completely on her own once she turns 18 or stay closely under her mom’s tutelage? It’s too soon to tell.

In a way, Frances and Lourdes are following the artsy trajectories of their famous Moms. Lourdes seems to be having a blast with her Mom’s fashion line and public appearances.  Frances Bean has that zig-zag approach common to many teens. She’s going to college in the East, but her home is on the West Coast. She’s dabbled in painting, modeling, singing and interned at Rolling Stone. Although she’s estranged from Courtney, Frances has remained close to her paternal grandmother and aunt.

It’ll be interesting to see if these famous offspring eventually eschew the limelight.  Frances might not choose a public life, given her parents’ travails. She doesn’t seem destined for the gossipy, mainstream lifestyle her mother craved. Frances seems more suited for the occasional bohemian appearance at an art gallery or a more cerebral type of creative career. Lola may take to the celeb life; after all she was raised by the queen of self-promotion.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More Beer than Money: Zine Culture of the 1990s

  Shockbox, Nashua, NH. 1994

 Analogue Bubblebath, Machine-Gun Weilding Zebras from Hell and Baby Sue.  No, those aren’t names of trust-fund indie rock bands from Silverlake. Those creatively perverse monikers belonged to zines from the heyday of underground DIY publishing in the 1990s. Sure, people carry on the print zine tradition today despite websites, e-zines and P.OD. publishers. You can find proof through the popular We Make Zines site. But  in the 1990s, print zines were the only game in town.

Before desktop publishing became the norm, putting a zine together was hard work. But there was something fulfilling about cutting and pasting crude drawings and various photos from disparate magazine and mashing them together.  Photocopying, stapling and snail-mailing a print zine was a ”get your hands dirty” personal thing. It had a whole gestation process. You had to grab paper, ruler, scissors, ink, colored pencils-whatever- and create your masterpiece in a very tactile way, often with friends assisting. Drunken parties often ensued. Quite different from typing solo on a computer screen, hitting “submit” and sending your poems out into the ether with  hardly a breath expelled.  Alas, there was money involved in assembling a print zine as well, but what dedicated, beer-guzzling ‘90s zinester had any of that?  Lots of people got in trouble for using the photocopier at work to churn out copies of their zines about hairy women (this was a real zine), hairy men, communist theory or even fluffy puppies!

One notable example of someone copying zines for free was Mike Diana of Boiled Angel infamy. He was fired from his job as a school janitor when he left some of his notorious zines at work. In 1996, he was the first American zine artist to be convicted of creating and distributing obscene material.  He was sentenced to community service and forbade to “draw for his personal use.” Collections of his work are now for sale (with no age-restriction) on Amazon. Time marches on. Although, from the descriptions I read in zine round-up Factsheet 5 and in some zine collections, there were homemade publications just as bad - or worse - that didn’t get popped by the authorities! Zinester Jim Goad, who published the incendiary, politically incorrect Answer Me, got in legal trouble around the same time as Diana. Zines have served as a springboard to bigger fame for some of their creators. Chip Rowe (Chip’s Closet Cleaner) eventually worked for Playboy.  Lisa Carver (Suckdog), Kim Cooper (Scram) and others got book deals and went on to work in mainstream publishing and media. 

 Short Fuse, Santa Barbara, Ca. 1998

I used to buy all my zines from St. Mark's original location. I got lots of stuff there, including my first copy of  Maximum Rock and Roll. Zines are great fun because they are obviously done for the love of it, not for money, fame or good reviews from other zinesters. The creators are free to be themselves, with no edicts from some jerk-in-chief behind a desk. If you liked collecting glass shoe figurines, there was a zine for that, if you wanted to print a poetry zine dedicated to the “f” word, or whatever, you could do that. Of course, serial killers were big news in the ‘90s, so we had zines called Bukowski and Serial Killers, Murder Can Be Fun, etc....

Some pop culture zines looked like mainstream mags, but contained zine-quality snarkiness between the covers. Lollipop, a music zine out of Boston, was all glossy and professional-looking, but its contents, even the record reviews, were offbeat in a highbrow kinda way. (Think of early Creem magazine.)  Popsmear, another glossy  rock mag, seemed to be a one-man operation, but it was sold on NY newsstands for awhile. Due to their idiosyncratic writing styles and subject matter, these mags had more in common with zines than other four-color magazines next to them on the newsstand. 

But for all the music/ politics/nonfiction/sex zines, poetry and literature still reigned supreme in hearts and minds of zinesters.  Here are some of the zines that published my poems (under the name Marianne Moro) between 1992 and 2000.

Fritz, San Francisco, 1993

Poetry Motel
Simple Vows
Radio Void
Lucid Moon
Driver’s Side Airbag
Sink Full of Dishes
Alpha Beat Soup
Mysterious Wysteria
Brownbag Press
Dancing Rose
Short Fuse

Some of the other poets whose work seemed to be in every issue of these and/or other DIY zines were Catfish McDaris, Lyn Lifshin, Cheryl Townsend, Belinda Subraman, Oberc, Shannon Frach, Michael Estabrook, Todd Moore and Bukowski pal Gerald Locklin.

 For more info on zine culture, now and then, go to


Sunday, September 18, 2011

EP Review: Kate Crash: My Zombie Nation

Kate Crash’s colorful persona is well-known to underground Hollywood scenesters. She was pegged as one of the ten most eccentric characters in L.A.’s nightlife scene by the Weekly’s Nightranger column this February.  Honing her creative vibe as a street performer in Tokyo, Crash transferred her flashy modus operandi to L.A. a few years ago. A singer/performance artist/poet and fashion designer (she has her own DIY clothing line, Crashion), Crash has played gigs at the Three of Clubs, Cheetahs and opened for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts at Taste of Newport in Newport Beach.

Crash’s latest EP, My Zombie Nation, is her first release on Joan Jett’s Blackheart label. The EP is spunky rock with just a hint of poetry. Ain’t Got Much features Kate relating some real-life tales Patti Smith style, underscored by dirty, straight-ahead guitar-slinging. The playful old-style synth motifs of Yumi and the Sound amplify the song’s playful, shout-along ambiance.

Produced by Nick Launay (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Arcade Fire), this four-song EP translates Crash’s bubbly onstage personality onto her recordings ; the tunes are all good fun, championing a blend of glitter rock and street beats. Bonus: If you get a chance, check out the video for Generation of the Bored on the Blackheart website. It’s a kinetic splash of neon poking fun at reality stars like Paris Hilton and their influence on today’s tween girls.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Whatever Happened to Donnie Dacus?

In some ways, this is a companion piece to my article about guitarist Gary Richrath, who seemed to drop off the face of the earth after leaving REO Speedwagon in the late 1980s. Another long-haired guitarist of the late 1970s/early 1980s, Donnie Dacus, who appeared in the film version of Hair and replaced Terry Kath in Chicago for two albums, suffered the same fate. By the mid-1980s, he had dropped off the radar. Dacus’s sudden disappearance is a little perplexing, since his musical pedigree indicated he was much more than a flash-in-the pan talent. He played in several garage bands in his native Texas and later in L.A,. including the The Shux, the Yellow Payges and the psych/folk/pop band Odyssey.  His big break came as a guitarist for Chris Hillman, followed by work for Crosby, Stills and Nash and co-writing credits on Stephen Stills’ Illegal Stills album.

Shortly after working with Stills, Dacus was cast as Woof in the film version of Hair and he became somewhat of a teen idol overnight, appearing on the cover of Circus Magazine in May 1979. Around the time he starred in Hair, Dacus was chosen as Terry Kath’s replacement in Chicago. The flashy, Peter Frampton-tressed Dacus didn’t fit in with the jazz-rock band’s image at all, and after Hot Streets and Chicago 13, he was dropped by the band. Drummer Danny Seraphine later noted in an interview with Review Revue that “He was let go because he really didn’t fit into the band, never did, it was a mistake in the first place. It wasn’t his fault either, he was a good guy, he just didn’t fit in with the mix. I know it really hurt him to be let go like that, believe me now I know how that feels.”

After leaving Chicago, Dacus resurfaced as the touring guitarist for Badfinger in 1982. You can read more about that at singer Reed Kailing’s website. Also, according to Kailing, Dacus played guitar during a recording session for John Lennon’s Rock ‘N’ Roll album. There’s no verification as to what track he played on or if his work was featured on the released version of the album.

But Dacus wasn’t the only Hair alumni to exit show biz shortly after the film wrapped. Cheryl Barnes, who played Hud’s nameless fiancée, sang an emotional rendition of Easy to Be Hard during a scene in Washington Square Park.  Barnes, who was working as a hotel maid, earned the role after attending an open casting call for the film in New York. Prior to that, she’d performed as a singer with the band Eve’s Garden, opening for the Classics IV and other pop/rock bands. Her powerful version of Easy to Be Hard was allegedly filmed in one take. After the film’s release, Barnes sang Love and Passion on the American Gigolo soundtrack. Then she dropped out of the entertainment business, although, according to her Wikipedia page, she remained friends with Hair director Milos Forman.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Musical Guilty Pleasures – A Star Is Born Soundtrack (Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson)

The year was 1976 - America’s Bicentennial. We had pet rocks and mood rings in the shopping mall, Charlie’s Angels on the small screen, and on the big screen at General Cinemas theater – A Star is Born, version 3, with Barbra Streisand. (Now there’s a fourth, R & B version on the table starring Beyonce slated for 2013.) The movie's soundtrack album shared time on my turntable with T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, the Sweet, the Stones and the Runaways. But then again, I'd always liked Streisand's music. Her first album is one of my favorites. Ya know, back when she wasn't so damn serious and political and she sang stuff like Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking and A Sleepin' Bee

A Star is Born, featuring Babs as up-and-coming rock (!?) singer Esther Hoffman –Howard and Kris Kristofferson as fading star John Norman Howard, hit the local mall in December 1976. Musically, it spawned the award-winning hit Evergreen and a soundtrack album filled with effortless tracks penned by Streisand and many famous songwriters of the time, including Rupert Holmes, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Leon Russell, Donna Weiss and Paul Williams.

The soundtrack's hit, Evergreen, turned out to be, well, evergreen. It was one of the five songs Williams penned for the soundtrack. He wrote tunes for many top pop icons in the mid-1970s, from the Carpenters to the Muppets. But MOR songwriting wasn’t his only skill. He fit right in with wackos Brett Somers and Charles Nelson-Reilly during a few guest appearances on the Match Game. For bonus hip cred points, he played Swan in Brian De Palma’s rock fantasy, Phantom of the Paradise, and he continues to act in guest TV and movie roles today.

Female empowerment seemed to be the underlying theme of Esther/Barbra’s songs. (Of course, in those days, it was called Women’s Lib.) These Women’s Lib lounge tunes are excellent as Broadway-style pop, but they're not particularly made for hitting the replay button. I Believe in Love (co-written by Kenny Loggins) has a fast, pumping rhythm, and the soulful, story-song, Queen Bee, gives examples of powerful women throughout history, courtesy of songwriter Rupert “Pina Colada” Holmes. Everything drives home the Superwoman point once again, with a quieter pace.

Kristofferson didn’t write any of the tunes he sang in the movie, and none of them are as memorable as Barbra’s. Onscreen, Kris looked good in a sleazy sort of way. “”His body!! Oh my God!!” my 16-year old girlfriends and I chorused when we first watched the film. Kris’ grizzled whiskey - soaked voice on Crippled Crow is too sad (sniffle sniffle) to listen to in context of the film’s plot. The opening song by the “John Norman Howard Speedway”, Watch Closely Now, sung again by Babs at the film’s end, seemed strangely out of place even with the rock arrangement. Hellacious Acres was the keeper. The song was about an amusement park with patrons like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden - (“admission's free/ you pay to get out”). Written by Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams, it's a rock song placed in a blender with a show tune. The song works, but you need a quirky palate to enjoy it

Streisand's finale, With One More Look at You/Watch Closely Now is about as dramatic as a pop song can get. The way it zooms from heartbreak to despair to self-realization to confidence that borders on hubris is quite an emotional roller coaster ride. (“When they’re breaking your back/bring the last straw to me/I turn straw into gold”) This is not background music; it’s potent stuff. I tend to listen to it now only when I’m in a bottled-up emotional state and need to vent-or for creative inspiration. Barbra could always imbue even the simplest sentiment with dramatic flair; here she embellishes already powerful lyrics with her performance.

The movie accompanying the soundtrack doesn’t hold up well at all. I fast forwarded through the film recently, only stopping at the musical numbers. This was one film where the scant storyline was merely filler for the music, not the other way around.

A few interesting side notes about the film –Streisand wanted Elvis Presley to play John Norman Howard, but Colonel Tom nixed the deal; the car John Norman totals was a Ferrari GTS/4 Daytona Spyder, one of the most revered sports cars of the 1970s, and Sammy Hagar’s pre-VH band, Montrose, warmed up the Sun Devil Stadium crowd before Kris filmed a concert scene. Unsurprisingly, discord reigned supreme on the set, as director Frank Pierson didn’t get along with either of his stars. Kristofferson later noted., “Filming with Streisand is an experience which may have cured me of the movies."

Friday, August 19, 2011

CD Mini-Review: Baby Scream: Secret Place

Prolific Argentinean songwriter/guitarist Juan Pablo Mazzola and Baby Scream follow up their self-titled CD (reviewed here) with Secret Place, recently released on the Eternal Sunday label. Secret Place brims with sonic gems like Cold Weather Reggae, which channels Jamaican tempos through a Beatles-esque filter, and  The Atmosphere, a wistful folk-glam tune. The single Hit and Run has a dream-like quality similar to some of John Lennon’s early solo work. It's backed with a cover of Marc Bolan’s 20th Century Baby. Secret Place is available through iTunes and other digital music stores.