Thursday, December 27, 2012

You Can't Get It on DVD : Made for TV Edition : The Neon Ceiling

Most made for TV movies in the early 1970s were either kooky romances ( The Feminist and the Fuzz, The Girl Who Came Gift Wrapped), or horror/suspense (Trilogy of Terror, When a Stranger Calls) , but an occasional slice of life drama/social commentary made its way onto the ABC Movie of the Week. The Neon Ceiling, a drama/romance about a woman escaping a bad marriage, starred Lee Grant and Gig Young and received good reviews when it was broadcast in 1971.

Carrie Miller (Lee Grant) is a sensitive, free-spirited housewife married to a humorless dentist (William Smithers). Their precocious 12 year old daughter Paula (Denise Nickerson) carries around a book on relationship advice for married couples, and is constantly quoting it and asking questions far too advanced for her tender years. Her father is able to deal with Paula’s rambunctious attitude, but not her frail mother, who is unable to keep her mind on cooking dinner properly, much less sparring with a smart-mouthed pre-teen.  Her husband pours out his dissatisfaction about their marriage to Carrie one night, but concludes, “I can’t divorce you. You don’t know how to take care of yourself.”

After the Doctor falls asleep, Carrie wakes Paula up, and they get in the car and ride out into the desert, toward no destination in particular. Later in the film, we discover that this isn’t the first time Carrie and Paula have taken an impromptu road trip.  Away from the confines of suburbia, mother and daughter talk a lot more, though it’s apparent that Paula’s strong will and Carrie’s “hothouse flower” personality don’t mesh. Carrie’s persona is similar to that of Mabel in Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, although Carrie stifles her pain rather than act out as Mabel does. 

The car sputters out by desert diner/filling station inhabited by   Jones (Gig Young), a grizzled loner who lets Carrie & Paula take up residence in the diner. (He sleeps in a trailer on the property.) The trio become friends/verbal sparring partners. Nickerson (who later went on to play Violet in Willy Wonka) steals the movie in the pivotal role as Paula. Jones teaches her how to drive his truck, and she zooms all over the property while Jones and Carrie watch. The adults begin a friendship that slowly develops into something deeper, as the outgoing Jones draws Carrie out of her shell.

The neon ceiling referred to in the title is a collection of road signs and neon art  in the diner basement. Jones has collected and fashioned these signs through the years. Carrie and Paula are enchanted by the neon, and stay in the desert for several weeks. Paula even talks the way into working as a waitress in the diner while her mother develops a joy for living she lacked back home.

Directed by Frank Pierson ( who wrote Dog Day Afternoon and Cool Hand Luke ) and written by Carol Sobieski based on one of her short stories, The Neon Ceiling is one of those blink and you miss it movies that lives only in the memory of those who watched it in its initial TV run. Viewers have fond, nostalgic memories of it; there are several positive user reviews on IMDB from mostly female viewers who remember it vividly from its original airing. That’s unusual for a TV movie that hasn’t been screened anywhere (to my knowledge) since the early 1970s.

Lee Grant won an Emmy for her portrayal of Carrie Miller. Gig Young was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and the film was also nominated for Best Editing and Cinematography. The Neon Ceiling is a good time capsule of the social and moral climate of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  Some the dialogue is wince-worthy in 2012, though, such as the scene where a family doctor wonders why Carrie and her hubby only have one child. The film isn’t a good candidate for DVD release, but it’s currently available on YouTube (see video below), along with other ABC Movies of the Week.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

CD Review: The Crazy Squeeze

The 13 songs on The Crazy Squeeze self-titled debut CD (Vinyl Dog) are pure and rowdy rock ‘n’ roll  This L.A. band blasts its way through  a blend of glam and punk, alternatively drawing inspiration from Eddie and the Hot Rods, the New York Dolls, Mott the Hoople and the Boys.

Boozy rockers like Little Girl, All Lies and Outta My Head are on tap here from start to finish. Younger Girl and C’mon and Dance bring to mind the buoyant pop sounds of ‘60s AM radio hits. Every song on this CD is a winner, right down to covers of the Boys' Terminal Love and Cock Sparrer’s I Need a Witness For great glampunk songs with swagger & personality, check out The Crazy Squeeze.

The lineup: Johnny Witmer (Stitches, guitars/vocals), Frankie Delmane (ex-Teenage Frames, guitar/vocals) Johnny Sleeper (ex-Superbees, drums/vocals)  Bass on the album provided by Chris B – the current live band features Dat Ngo on bass.

The Crazy Squeeze is also available on vinyl from Wanda Records (Germany) and Vinyl Dog (U.S.)
Order CD here

Friday, December 21, 2012

Music Review: Chaotic Reasoning, Vol. 2

And now we return  to present-day L.A. for a few year-end music reviews....

Chaotic Reasoning ,Volume Two (Kaos Records), a compilation of Southern California punk and hardcore tracks, features a slew of lesser-known bands peculiar to venues  like the Cathay de Grande, Chain Reaction  and  Cuckoo’s Nest.

Older hardcore fans will recognize Love Canal and White Flag, two bands that played the Cathay and other crusty clubs, in the ‘80s. Both bands are still together, in various incarnations, today. The delightfully-named Vagina Den Tata (another Cathay band. I actually saw them in ’83), featuring Michelle Gerber Bell and Pat Smear, contributes Creep Street. Ron Emory (TSOL), False Alarm (featuring Cheetah Chrome) and Peligro are other familiar old-school names on this compilation.

New punk bands aren’t neglected on this collection. Barb Wire Dolls, fronted by dynamic singer Isis Queen, are included with their rallying cry, Street Generation. Other featured bands include The Detours, False Alarm, Section 242 and Corrupted Youth, who win the best song title award with Beer for Breakfast.

Chaotic Reasoning is non-stop hardcore/punk with no breather. It’s not for the faint of heart. A release party for the CD will take place Jan. 19th at the Vex in East L.A , with live performances by Shattered Faith, the Detours and others. Ex-Germ Don Bolles is slated to emcee.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Unearthed Musical Memories: Why Can’t I Touch You? by Ronnie Dyson

Forget about the user posts and comments on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Plus unless you want to read about someone’s lunch, self-published book or horrible ex-boyfriend. YouTube is the best social media site for finding more than an occasional literate or heartfelt comment. Sure, there are political comments and spam scattered underneath most YouTube videos , but some of the comments underneath  many  music videos/ uploads  of songs from the 1950s  through the 1980s are rather touching and heartfelt. You’ll often see a comment not about the song, but the memories it evokes for the listener. -of brothers and sisters and parents who passed away, or dedications to a lost or unrequited love from 30 years ago. It’s amazing  how raw and honest some people become when using a silly YouTube screen name.

I guess we all have songs that we haven’t heard since we were kids and  have totally forgotten about   – once we rediscover them, they pique  memories of  old classmates, the head shop at the local mall, or the seashells  on Grandma's  tchotchke shelf.

If You Let Me Make Love to You (Why Can’t I Touch You), a hit for soul singer Ronnie Dyson in 1970, awakens dormant memories for me - memories of buying Blue Moon ice cream at Zayre, setting off sparklers and Roman Candles on the front lawn on the Fourth of July,   going to Santa’s Village on summer Sundays with my parents and brothers. I remember hearing Why Can’t I Touch You over and over on my three favorite radio stations - WCFL 1000 and WLS 890  on the AM dial, with soul station WGRT  in the middle. Sometimes the stations would bleed into each others, the songs commingling til I  adjusted the dial to make the best song come in clearly. There were so many good songs on AM radio in the early ‘70s, I was constantly flipping from station to station every two minutes to find an even better song than the one I was currently listening to – a symptom of musical ADHD. Why Can't I Touch You?, with it's whirling rhythm and dash of marimba, was danceable but bittersweet, and it sounded so good crackling out of a red plastic transistor radio.

At 17, Ronnie Dyson was cast in the lead part in the original Broadway  production of Hair. sharing the stage with  Paul Jabara and,Melba Moore, among others.  After his success in Hair, Dyson signed with Columbia Records , working with producer Thom Bell (Spinners, Stylistics). Dyson’s smooth, tenor voice had hint of vulnerability,  and Why Can’t I Touch You?, adapted from the off-Broadway musical Salvation, hit #8 on the Billboard Top 100 charts in 1970.

A string of lesser hits followed Why Can’t I Touch You? Dyson  reached #28 on the pop charts with 1973’s One Man Band (Plays All Alone), from the album One Man Band. It contained some of Dyson’s best work, including When You Get Right Down to It  and Just Don’t Wanna Be Lonely. Dyson’s version of Just Don’t Wanna Be Lonely  reached #30 on the Billboard R and B charts, in 1973. (Main Ingredient‘s version charted at #8 in 1974.)

Dyson’s songs fused  the upbeat sound of commercial R and B with  dreamy pop feel of  artists like Johnny Mathis, but  he never attained the success he deserved. The R and B field in the early ‘70s, was crowded with  memorable acts. You had Al Wilson, Al Green Lou Rawls Clarence Carter, Brook Benton, Billy Paul and vocal groups including the O‘Jays, Blue Magic, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Delfonics, Chairmen of the Board, etc., so it’s not surprising Dyson’s music got lost in the mix.

Dyson passed away  from a heart attack in 1990 at age 40.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Music Review: Micky Dolenz: Remember

RoboRecords/Universal Music) is


Micky always had one of the best pop voices of the 1960s, equally adapt at ballads and bouncy pop. On Remember, Micky’s voice sounds better than ever, strengthened by his years in musical theater. Dolenz has appeared several musicals since 2004, with roles in Aida, Pippin and and the UK touring company of Hairspray.

Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Bob Birch on bass. The CD booklet features photos by longtime Monkees photographer Henry Diltz.  Kudos to  producer David Harris, whose arrangements really bring out the nuances in Micky’s voice. Remember is a great audio time capsule of songs from the 1960s and 1970s. It

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

You Can't Get It on DVD - Light of Day

Light of Day combines the unlikely bedfellows of family drama and a struggling bar band with poignant but occasionally melodramatic results. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, this 1987 film starred Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett as siblings battling to keep their family - and their band - from falling apart.

Joe Rasnick (Michael J. Fox) and a few of his bandmates ( including Bu Montgomery, played by Michael McKean) work in a factory during the day  and play in local bars at night for the love of rock ‘n’ roll. Joe’s sister Patti sings and plays guitar by night, and is a single Mom raising her son Benji (Billy Sullivan) when she’s not playing music. Jeanette Rasnick (Gena Rowlands) , Patti and Joe’s mother, rules over the family in a passive-aggressive way, although she makes no secret of her disdain for Patti.

Films about rock bands usually mean drugs, sex, booze, fighting, general decadence and the resulting fallout, but the bar band portrayed in Light of Day has to deal with  less glamorous situations.  They travel in a van, stay in cheap motels and steal food to survive on the road.

The world Light of Day depicts is all too real, from the dives the Barbusters play to the small, ranch-style house that serves as the setting for all the family drama. Patti’s the family black sheep while Joe is the peacemaker. Joe is a loving uncle to Benji while Patti goes on tour with a metal band called the Hunzz. Patti’s impassioned speech to Joe about living for music, about the nitty-gritty of performing music for the love of it, exposes music as her motivation - and her escape from family turmoil.  The camaraderie between Fox and Jett is believable; yes you’d buy them as a brother and sister act.. This film was made in the midst of  the popularity of Family Ties and Back to the Future, and it was fashionable for  hipsters of the time to bash Michael J. Fox for trying serious roles, but he was quite good in this film, Bright Lights, Big City and Causalities of War.

Jeanette’s health deteriorates; she and Patti have their final meeting in a hospital room. Jett holds her own in an emotional performance playing off seasoned actress Rowlands. It makes you wonder how she would have fared in other demanding acting roles.

There’s a blink and you’ll miss it performance by Trent Reznor  as a member of a fictional local band. Trent was in a real Cleveland band called the Exotic Birds at the time. Jason Miller appears in a few scenes as Patti and Joe’s dad, Benjamin, a quiet man who has long acquiesced family reigns to his strong-willed wife.   

If you want gritty, depressing rock ‘n’ roll unreality, try Hardcore Logo. Light of Day is an authentic story of two mutually exclusive worlds – family and rock ‘n’ roll - that mix well in Schrader’s script and the performances of Rowlands and its two young stars.

Schrader didn’t seem to think Jett fit in with the rest of the cast..In a quote from the book Schrader on Schrader and Other Writings, the auteur notes that “although she gave a good performance, Jett’s casting …”did not work.” It’s interesting to note that Schrader is said to have renounced Blue Collar, another one of his directorial efforts that’s currently unavailable on DVD.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Film Review - Jobriath A.D.

Jobriath album cover, Times Square billboard, 1973
Jobriath A.D.
Music Documentary
Written and Directed by Kieran Turner
Narrated by Henry Rollins
Screened at Cinefamily’s “Don’t Knock the Rock Festival”
L.A., August 9, 2012

Kieran Turner’s documentary Jobriath, A.D. gives us a long-overdue glimpse into the life of one of rock 'n' roll’s most enigmatic characters. Jobriath, aka Bruce Wayne Campbell  aka Cole Berlin, went from through  many chameleon-like career changes in his 36 years,. from musical theater star to glam rock also-ran to cabaret singer.  Like Klaus Nomi, Jobriath was gay in an era when mainstream culture only accepted gay rock stars who hid or downplayed their sexual orientation.  Unlike Nomi, who was a vocalist/performance artist, Jobriath was an accomplished musician and songwriter. He was an adolescent piano prodigy who dropped out of college, joined the military, went AWOL, joined the L.A. cast of Hair, performed with hippie-rock band Pidgeon, spent time in a mental institution –and then things really got interesting.

Regardless of your musical (or sexual) preference, Jobriath A.D. has elements that will capture the interest of most viewers. It’s a story of an artist way before his time, the victim of an over-the-top publicity campaign, an unsophisticated public and a fickle press. Even in photos from a recording session with some of his Hair cast members, Jobriath emitted a cool, charismatic androgyny, long before any of the glam rock trapping appeared. His talent was undeniable, as he churned out song after song. As writer and activist Jim Fouratt, one of the film’s interviewees, notes, “He was one of those people who had talent that transcended his sexual orientation..”  Jobriath kept an extremely low profile about his real-life sexuality, despite his pronouncements to the press about being a “true fairy.”

Campbell gave himself the name Jobriath, a contraction of Job and Goliath, shortly before playing Woof in the stage version of Hair. He soon attracted the attention of Jerry Brandt, a flashy (one associate described him as “reptilian”) but successful music impresario. Brandt and Jobriath had a symbiotic relationship; they both wanted fame and fortune, to be “like Colonel Parker and Elvis.” Interviews with Brandt form the core of the documentary. He comes across like a high-end version of the satin-jacketed rock manager Bill Murray portrayed on Saturday Night Live.  By the end of the film, though, it becomes clear that he wasn't Jobriath's manager just for the potential money and gold records. He obviously revered his client's talent. The seemingly bottomless promo budget for Jobriath’s first album fueled a 50-foor square billboard in Times Square, full-page ads in major magazines and ads on London’s bus fleet.

Brandt got Jobriath booked on the pop variety show The Midnight Special, where he performed on the same bill with Gladys Knight and Spooky Tooth. Jobriath’s performance confused most people who watched it that night. They simply ignored him and continued listening to the Doobie Brothers. Despite a few glowing reviews, the music press portrayed him in as a flash-in-the-pan imitation of Bowie, Bolan, et al.

Despite a mixed critical reaction to the album and near zero attention from record-buyers, Brandt and Jobriath forged ahead with new projects, which included  planning a performance at the Paris Opera House. The spectacle, which would put even Lady Gaga to shame, involved King Kong and a replica of the Empire State Building that turns into a large penis – and this was in 1974! The concert never materialized, but  animator Benjamin Nielsen envisions how the project may have turned out in one of  Jobriath A.D.'s cartoon sequences. By the time Jobriath’s second album, Creatures of the Street ,was released in 1974, the marketing campaign had run out of steam, and Jobriath retreated to pyramid apartment on top of the Chelsea Hotel. He reinvented himself as cabaret singer Cole Berlin, and gained a following at piano bars in Manhattan. Jobriath died of AIDs in 1983, one of the first rock musicians to succumb to the disease.

Turner includes interviews with people from the pre-glam part of Jobriath’s life, including his brother, Hair castmate Gloria Jones and the play’s producer, Michael Butler. Other interviewees run the gamut from Jayne County, another trailblazer for the LGBT music community, to Joe Elliot (Def Leppard did a version of Heartbeat on one of their covers albums), Ann Magnuson, Jake Shears of Scissors Sisters, Will Sheff of Okkervil River and Marc Almond. So that’s quite a range of performers who credit Jobriath as a musical influence.  

Director Kieran Turner’s fully-rounded effort doesn’t gloss over any facet of this story or take too long on any one part of this complicated saga; his timing with the material is spot-on.  Turner’s research for the film turned up several gems, including interview footage of Brandt and Jobriath from the Los Angeles. NBC affiliate.  This documentary connects all the obscure Jobriath info floating around the Internet  and elsewhere and fits the puzzle pieces together. Jobriath A.D.  pays homage to a man who broke ground for gay people in rock music, the man some music scribes refer to as “America’s Bowie” 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

From the Archives: Inland Invasion/25 Years Of Punk: Devore CA 9/14/02 : Sex Pistols, X, Buzzcocks, Bad Religion, etc.

 This article originally appeared on in 2002. Since Suite101 has purged most of its older articles, I'm posting it here for hysterical, I mean, historical (??) purposes. It was one of the first articles I wrote after rediscovering punk rock after years as a metalhead.

Inland Invasion/25 Years Of Punk
Devore CA 9/14/02
Sex Pistols, X, Buzzcocks, Bad Religion, etc.

Review first published September 16, 2002.

On September 14th, the much-ballyhooed 25th anniversary of punk concert took place in Devore, CA. The show was not an all-inclusive representation, as it boasted no San Francisco or New York bands. .Most of the featured bands were from SoCal. and a few British innovators, including the best punk rock band ever, the antithesis of humankind … the Sex Pistols.

 My boyfriend and I spent a few hours waiting by will call to get our passes. Plenty of time to at least hear the bands on the second stage and see outlines of dust being  funneled around. I found out later that a few people had been stabbed by the second stage - at least that was the rumor going around. Well, with bands like the Circle Jerks, TSOL, the Adolescents and the Distillers playing, you ain’t gonna get roses thrown at ya. With the exception of Birmingham, England based GBH, all the second stage bands hailed from Southern California.

The parade of  T-shirts on incoming fans was mind-boggling! Everything from all the bands who were playing  to the Ramones, X - Ray Spex, the Minutemen, et al. It was a veritable history of punk via outerwear and of course, they were the requisite Sid Vicious lookalikes to boot. (No Nancy lookalikes, though, thank God.)

 By the time we got to the lawn, we heard Captain Sensible say something  about wanting to shag some Britney clones with free tics. I’m sure, I could almost hear them retort. X played a short, ragged set that wasn’t up to their usual high standards.  The fact that they were playing so early in the day was confusing enough, and the generic sound system didn’t help.

 The Buzzcocks played next – I had forgotten how good their songs were. Their sound is unmistakably a precursor to what we name-tag “pop-punk” today. But their music is intelligent and stylized, unlike many of the younger bands trading in the genre. New Found Glory and Blink 182 were two bands that definitely did not belong on the bill with real punk bands. Their music is neither pop nor punk, it’s just sing-songy froth that a Britney Spears/N’Sync fan would find cutting edge or risque. Blink especially got it bad, as they played after Pennywise practically incited the crowd to riot. And who was stationed outside the lawn mosh pit during this time -- yours truly, always one to seek out adventure. A nice moment occurred when the Pennywise, (hardcore hell-raisers from Hermosa Beach) played snippets of Ramones songs and dedicated it to Deedee and Johnny. The free booklet given out to concert-goers was dedicated to the spirit of  Joey and DeeDee Ramone.

 By the time the sun set  it was time for serious action. Bad Religion and Social Distortion railed against the man, government hypocrisy, and such. Of all the new bands, Offspring fared the best - at least they rocked. As I had suspected, many of the younger fans left after their set. Comments on the packed-like-sardines consumerist midway between shows consisted of variations on “Why the hell did I come here? This is the worst day of my life.” 105 degree temperatures, extreme security measures (no safety pins were allowed. At a punk concert? Gosh, I wonder if they busted the girl who heeded John Lydon's  request for a safety pin during the show.) and heinously overpriced food and souvenirs contributed to these sentiments.

 It took about half an hour for the Pistols to come on. It was nerve wracking. but worth it. The moment that little redhead -well, now a platinum haired freak- hit the stage,it was all worth it.  The first song, Bodies, was enough to wake up a crowd wilting from heat exhaustion and 8.00 beers. It was followed in short order by I Wanna Be Me, New York, Pretty Vacant, and the seldom heard Belsen Was A Gas (with the chorus Oy vey!)

 They played everything from Bollocks except Submission. Steve's guitar playing was excellent - some of the best I've ever heard from him - but I  swear he didn't even acknowledge the audience once. Gone are the spandex stretch pants and blow job requests of the ‘96 reunion tour. We stayed at  the side of the stage for the first song.  It was great to glance out and see a crowd of 50,000  plus cheering for the Pistols. They deserve it

 John wore some kinda silky pajama type outfit and had a few multicolored streaks in his platinum hair. First thing he does is bash the concert sponsors - Levis and radio station KROQ.  Some long-haired dude had one of those dry erase boards with rude comments about the band. I didn't see what he held up during the show, but he was walking around backstage writing dumb shit down on it. Well, John sees it, goes ballistic. “You’re in the wrong decade.” (Can't you just hear that sarcastic English accent of his? It was classic!) Then he added, “Funny, me telling you that.” Later, he was adjusting his pants and said something like "No rapper's got a package like that." Hmm, is that why Nora's so ecstatically happy all the time? During "Stepping Stone" he unbuttoned his shirt, and revealed a flat chest & tummy just like he had in '78.

 For most of the Pistols set my boyfriend and I walked back and forth behind the loge. Security wouldn't let us stay backstage after the first song. We had bought lawn tickets as insurance, but kids were packed in like passengers on a Tokyo subway train. No dif. Not to mention over a dozen bonfires were in full force. Needless to say, we couldn't make it back to the lawn. John also made some comment about "I don't live here (Ca.) for no good reason." I must say that at night with the backdrop of the mountains, the Blockbuster Pavilion venue is utterly gorgeous. But security and prices were prohibitive.($5 for a small soda.) Some guy threw a beer on him and it splattered all over his shirt. John lambasted the hapless fan.. “There's some dopey A***hole whose got more money than sense, if you're gonna buy beers f****ing drink 'em, you wuss.”

 The band ended its set with the one-two punch of God Save The Queen and Anarchy In The UK.A lot of kids were leaving and John goes, “I like this, now all the wankers are going home and we're coming on strong.The teeny boppers have left the building” The lone encore was a cover of Silver Machine, a song by Lemmy’s old band, Hawkwind.. John ended by saying "Thanks to the other bands for letting us play, cheers, and don't let the bastards grind you down." The band was amazingly tight and professional. You have to appreciate Glen’s bass playing.  I must say he is like the punk Paul McCartney - still quite handsome at 45. Cookie was pounding on the drums with his customary energy. Is another tour in the works? I hope so.

Life's A Bitch - Betsy Bitch Still Dominating Female Metal

Speaking of S&M, the bookstore isn't the only place you can find whips and chains in pop culture. Let us return to the days of black leather, Aquanet and the Sunset Strip for awhile to  reminisce about Betsy Bitch, one of the few female vocalists on the Southern California metal scene in the 1980s. Along with her band, Bitch, she provided a small but loyal contingent of L.A. thrill-seekers a dose of crunching metal guitars accompanied by sometimes naughty, sometime laughable S & M theatrics. Such a stage show was  de rigueur for L.A. bands in the hedonistic '80s (WASP, Motley Crue, the Mentors, etc.)

After signing with Metal Blade in the early 1980s, Bitch released an EP, Damnation Alley and a full-length album Be My Slave. The band also made a few videos featuring highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view) from their stage show. Needless to say, these videos never made it into heavy rotation on MTV. They were fun to watch on local L.A. music video shows, way after hours, though.

After an unsuccessful attempt to cash in on the pop-metal bandwagon, with 1987’s The Bitch is Back and 1988’s  Betsy, the band went back to their hard-edged roots with subsequent releases. Bitch toured Europe with the band Anger as Art last year.

You can find out more about Betsy at (an unofficial fan site)  and her official blog

Monday, May 28, 2012

Music Review : The Cult: Choice of Weapon

With their ninth album, Choice of Weapon, The Cult are back with a vengeance. After the lackluster reception to 2007’s Born Into This. With the aid of co-producers Chris Goss and Bob Rock, the band returns to their urgent, fiery best. After all, Rock did produce Sonic Temple. 1994’s The Cult and the criminally under rated Beyond Good and Evil.

Singer Ian Astbury is back at his shamanistic best.  His vocals, now deeper and more controlled, have urgency to them. His lyrics, derived from Native American mythology, Buddhist teachings and plain old life experience have taken on a maturity that alternately soothes and provokes. Billy Duffy’s rousing guitar work is at its blistering, seductive best on tracks like Lucifer and The Wolf.

The adrenaline-pumping rhythm of “Honey from a Knife” starts off the album, abetted by James Edwards’ chugging piano and the background vocal chant “We got the drugs”. Ian channels Jim Morrison in Pale Horse (which reminds me a bit of “King Contrary Man from Electric), and the hopeful poetry of “Elemental Light.” For the Animals, the first single, barrels through your speakers (or iPod) like a force of nature. The driving immediacy of “Amnesia” recalls the Stooges’ Raw Power.

The hallmark of the band has always been the unique chemistry between vocalist Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy. Duffy’s earthy riffs meet Astbury’s pontificating shaman head-on, and the combination has produced some iconic sounds since 1983. And this is one band that’s never fit into a neat little genre. They wore make-up and  sported poufy hair during the Love-era and before, but they were new wave? Nope, not with that guitar sound.  With the Rick Rubin-produced Electric, they were heavy, but not heavy metal –the lyrics were too hippie-ish. Even Sonic Temple, released during the waning days of the hair band era, was too smart to be lumped in with other hard rock albums touted by MTV circa 1990. Fans who’ve stuck with the band for better or worse will find Choice of Weapon as aggressive as Electric and as lyrically thought-provoking as The Cult.

Even younger metal (and punk) fans will appreciate Choice of Weapon’s take-no-prisoners approach.  Against Me and Icarus Line are opening their L.A. show, and the snarling, passionate riffs of Choice of Weapon are just as aggressive as those younger fans are used to. This album has a ramped-up, renovated sound. It’s not hard rock nostalgia for fans who prefer their music in an unaltered state, regardless of the year.

The Cult’s line-up has remained steady since 2007, with John Tempesta on drums, Chris Wyse on bass and touring rhythm guitarist Mike Dimkich. The band’s U.S. tour runs now through June 23rd, with the final “Hometown” show at the Hollywood Palladium. A European tour follows in July and August.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Film Review - God Bless America

A biographer once commented, “We idolize people who we want to imitate,” If that’s the case, mainstream America is worse off than one could ever imagine. Judging by the still-skyrocketing ratings for the Kardashians (they got renewed again) and other trashy reality shows, America is so dumbed down there’s nowhere left to go but down “the road” described in Cormac McCathy’s bleak novel.

Such scenarios have attracted the ire of director Bobcat  Goldthwait, former screechy-voiced standup comedian and director of the cult favorite Shakes the Clown.  With the satire God Bless America, Goldthwait has created another quirky underground film. This one, however, deals with subject matter more serious than inebriated clowns.

Disenfranchised loner Frank (Joel Murray) is divorced from his wife, estranged from his daughter, and has just lost his job at an insurance company   After being diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, Frank sets out to off himself in front of the TV. He sees a My Super Sweet 16 type show  as spoiled brat Chloe bitches at he parents for not buying her an Escalade for her birthday. Frank, disgusted by this arrogant display, and all the oafish behavior he has encountered, snaps, like the blue-collar version of William Holden in Network.  He’s got a reason to live now, and he sets out to rid the world of awful brat Chloe and other boorish types. While offing Chloe, he encounters her droll classmate Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) , and the two set forth on a cross country mission to eradicate a slew of rude and crude poseurs.

Frank and Roxy’s relationship is completely platonic, with Frank even expressing disdain for Nabokov and America’s fascination with slutty teen girls. God Bless America is half thinking man’s film, half bloody black comedy. Under  Goldthwait’s direction, it achieves its objective (despite some uneven pacing) - to make people think. As in his previous directorial efforts, Goldthwait has the nerve to commit certain on-camera atrocities other directors would never consider. Frank confronts his tacky neighbors in a way that will leave you going “Umm, I didn’t just see that, did I?”

God Bless America pursues the same territory as Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, albeit in a real-time setting. The harmless nimrods of Idiocracy have been replaced by an American landscape inhabited by plenty of crass morons, mostly unseen. Frank and Roxy’s conversations are as much a part of the film as the gunplay. Frank attempts to explain the base nature of the American Superstarz show to a brain-dead fellow employee near the film’s beginning. His diatribe goes on too long, but it’s cathartic to hear a film character express the disgust many of us have felt since reality and (no) talent TV shows took over the airwaves.

Frank and Roxy track down another member of their hit list, a conservative radio talk show host,.“Why do you have to be so rude to people?”  Roxy says. The specter of self-absorption and rudeness is the enemy here.  God Bless America isn’t a politically-driven revenge fantasy. Even though a few of Frank and Roxy’s targets are conservative, it’s more about the lack of civility used in expressing the beliefs than the beliefs themselves. Other targets include people who talk on their cell phones in movie theaters, rude drivers, and the Westboro Baptist Church. The body count isn’t as large as you might expect from the ominous pic of the gun-toting duo on the movie's poster.  Frank and Roxy are the smart person’s Bonnie and Clyde. The violence is ultimately balanced by the articulate self-awareness of the lead characters. A slap-happy bloodfest this is not. Isn’t that the behavior the film is protesting? The movie is not without its twists and turns, but I won’t reveal any spoilers here.

After taking umbrage at the way a William Hung type character is being treated on the American Superstarz show, Frank and Roxy head to Hollywood to exact revenge.  This sets up the film’s climax in the belly of the beast where they come face-to face with the faux American Idol’s washed-up judges and hypocritical audience.

God Bless Americas theatrical release is  playing in a handful of art house theaters across the country. It’s playing at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles til May 17th.  God Bless America is a not so gentle reminder that we are in a pop culture Dark Ages. It’s about time more people stand up and actively create a Renaissance - just not with firearms.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Music Review: Sci-Fi Romance: The Ghost of John Henry

The Ghost of John Henry, the second album by L.A. indie-folk band Sci-Fi Romance, is a different listening experience, one that puts your mind, as well your ears, to work.. Singer/songwriter Vance Kotrla has crafted a concept album based on the folk legend of John Henry. The story of the steel-drivin' railroad worker who emerged victorious against a steam hammer, only to die for his efforts, has been recounted by many artists, from Big Bill Broonzy to Johnny Cash, but this is the first steam-folk treatment.

 The ten songs on John Henry combine bare-bones acoustic music and stark imagery to bring the folk tale to life, transforming the legend into a human being on a complex emotional journey. The battle pitting man versus machine is an ongoing one. John Henry’s courageous race against the steam hammer isn’t really that different than modern man’s love/hate relationship with technology.

Sci-Fi Romance's ambitious project colors in the legend with a musical storyline that’s simultaneously humane and ominous. Kotrla’s evocative baritone expresses this torment without becoming overblown. Kurt Bloom’s drumming and Jody Stark’s plaintive cello strike just the right balance with the somber guitar and Johnnie Kotrla's bass.  The rigorous production by Jaron Luksa, engineer for the Dresden Dolls and Amanda Palmer, ties it all together.

This bittersweet concept album may sound monotonous to people weaned only on the jumpy melodies of pop-rock. John Henry is an acquired taste for such folks, but well worth the effort. While the album seems to have been written and recorded to flow as a unified whole, a few of the songs do shine as solo pieces. “We Used to Sing”, the most commercial-sounding of all the tracks, has a lively pace. It's a bit like a Steve Goodman composition, though not quite as spry. In the first “Broken World”, Kotrla sings, "It’s a broken world/But in the cracks, there’s beauty,”  This could serve as the album’s mantra. 

The Ghost of John Henry carries Sci-Fi Romance into new territory.  Kotrla has made it a point to explore challenging subject matter and John Henry is no exception. It will be interesting to see where Sci-Fi Romance goes next.

Listen to the MP3 for Steam Drill Blues here.
Band Website: Sci-Fi Romance
My review of ..and surrender my body to the flames, the first album by Sci-Fi Romance

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

More Sad Songs : 1970s Tearjerkers about Dearly-Departed Pets

If you lived through the mixed-bag that comprised AM radio in the 1970s, you probably remember the following odes to deceased pets. Whether you dismissed ‘em as sappy drek or cried til the grooves wore out on the 45, they will stir up lotsa “Me Decade” memories.

Shannon-Henry Gross

Henry Gross, one of the founding members of Sha-Na-Na, is best known for this 1976 tearjerker. Written about the death of Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s Irish Setter, the song made it to number 6 on the Billboard charts in 1976 and was ubiquitous on AM radio. The song is the catalyst for an infamous outtake from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show. Kasem’s  rant about a “Long Distance Dedication” to a dead dog placed after an up-tempo song has been a viral favorite for years. Click Here to Listen

Wildfire - Michael Martin Murphey

I always loved the piano intro to this 1975 hit song. Even if the lyrics about a doomed, mystical horse are too sappy for you, the haunting music will get to you. Songwriter Michael Martin Murphey  has enjoyed  a long and notable career, recording songs in several musical genres, including country/western, pop, cowboy and folk. His hit songs include  “Still Taking Chances”, “Carolina in the Pines” and “A Long Line of Love.” Murphey also wrote the song, What Am I Doing Hangin' Round for the Monkees.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Queen of the Roller Games - Raquel Welch in "Kansas City Bomber"

Drew Barrymore’s 2009 film Whip It chronicled the tattooed glamor girls of modern roller derby. The real-life counterparts that spawned this movie really skate, block and brawl, but many of them look like retro pinups while doing it. That’s quite different than the infamous stars of the Roller Game of the Week , a syndicated TV show from the late 1960s and early 1970s that featured the Los Angeles Thunderbirds versus an array of unsavory opponents, like the Texas Outlaws and the New York Bombers. A pseudo-sport that combined banked track skating, staged fights and colorful characters ala professional wrestling, roller games blared from many a TV set every weekend. The Los Angeles Thunderbirds were the cornerstone of the league.

The co-ed  T-Birds battled their rivals at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A. This venue is pretty grimey now: I imagine it was even scarier when the T-Birds plied their trade.  Roller Games’ stars included the T-Birds Shirley Hardman, a burly woman with a blonde pony tail who often chased opponents around the rink with a baseball bat; and “Psycho” Ronnie Rains, who was known to wear a  WW II German Kaiser helmet while skating from time to time. It was all part of the shtick, of course and the fans loved it. Play-by play announcer Dick Lane ( the first sports announcer to use the phrase “Whoa, Nelly!!) and Bill "Hoppy" Haupt described the action.  Every Sunday night, my brothers and I gathered around the TV set and rooted for the T-Birds to squash the opposing team. The skaters’ antics got us so riled up we would often throw chairs around the basement in a hyperactive frenzy. Luckily, no one was hurt during the viewing of the program.

Eventually, the Roller Games caught Hollywood’s attention. Raquel Welch starred as the Kansas City Bomber in MGM’s 1972 skating drama. Lacking the poignancy of the The Wrestler, another film about a “staged” sport, or the good-natured girl power of Whip It, 1972’s Kansas City Bomber starred Welch as roller derby skater K.C. Carr, who is booted from  the Kansas City Ramblers after losing a match race with another skater. She is traded to Portland, where the team’s lecherous owner ( Kevin McCarthy) takes a fancy to her. The single Mom of two becomes the team’s reigning diva and a fan favorite. The other female skaters don’t take kindly to this, particularly the eternally soused Jackie Burdette, played by Helena Kallianiotes. Burdette is K.C’s mortal enemy and opponent in the pivotal match race at the end of the film. Kallianiotes earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of the troubled, has-been skater. K.C. befriends a country bumpkin male skater, played by Norman Alden, whose attempts to impress K.C. (and become a more “colorful” skater) end with a violent, on-track meltdown.

The final version of Kansas City Bomber was derived from an original script by UCLA film student Barry Sandler. He wrote the script after watching a T-Birds match at the seedy Olympic Auditorium. His original concept was more complicated than what finally made it to the screen, as he explains in the above-posted YouTube video. The final script, less daunting and adapted for mainstream audiences, debuted in theaters in August 1972.

K.C.’s Mom watches her kids while she travels around the country, skating and brawling with the Roller Games. There’s only one short scene of K.C. with her children (her daughter is played by a young Jodie Foster), which ends with her son  running away from her and her mother berating her lifestyle. The reason for K.C.’s marital status is never fully explained, so we know very little about what brought Welch’s character to this point in her life. Still, Welch plays K.C. with a mixture of independence and vulnerability that  might surprise some viewers who expected  her emoting skills to begin and end with “sex symbol.”

Many  professional Roller Games skaters appeared in the film, including Patti “Moo-Moo” Calvin, John Hall and Judy Arnold, lending it an aura of authenticity. Welch  held her own against the skating pros, even doing some of her own stunts. She suffered a broken wrist after one stunt, which delayed filming for several weeks.

Given the nature of roller games in the 1970s, it’s surprising that there weren’t more movies about it. The subject seemed ripe for the low-budget exploitation craze of the time. Later that year, the American International comedy Unholy Roller was released - aside from that, the roller derby didn't make a big impression on filmmakers at that time.  I’m surprised there wasn’t an ABC Movie of the Week based on Jim Croce’s  song Roller Derby Queen.

Kansas City Bomber
is a engaging movie about a faux sport we’ll never see quite the same way again. It stays true to roller games in all their grungy, bargain basement glory. The everything but the kitchen sink plot takes up time that could have been better spent on more banked track action, but it’s just as entertaining as any other 1970s B movie. But be forewarned, guys, its not as sleazy as you might expect. The DVD release is rated  PG,  as there was only one, non-explicit shower scene and some swearing.