Friday, July 29, 2016

Pit Stop, Open Windows, plus Colossal (2016)

Two very different, and in their own ways delightful, Blu's consumed this week: Arrow Video's Pit Stop - a somewhat lesser-known Jack Hill film from 1967 - and Nacho Vigalondo's 2014 film Open Windows, which I've seen mostly get negative reviews - provoking me to take the opposite stance, though my enjoyment of it may have something to do with having found a Blu of it at Dollarama for $3, something that almost always improves a film for me.


First, Pit Stop. I don't know my Jack Hill like some folks do. His uncredited contributions to 1960's Roger Corman films aside, I've only seen Spider Baby, Coffy, and Foxy Brown, and loved all three, though Coffy is, as I recall, far stronger a film, a politically-pointed Pam Grier blaxploitation/ sexploitation vehicle. I must here confess that I became aware of Ms. Grier via Quentin Tarantino, so - impressed by her charisma and authority, and taking her seriously as an actress, as she deserves to be taken - I wasn't actually expecting her, when I first watched either of those earlier films, to undress. Both Coffy and Foxy Brown get a bit lecherous in their groping gaze, however; she's got a fullsome top half and it dominates the screen at times. It was a bit disappointing to see that she ever had to "go" there - kinda like it might feel to someone who knows Uma Thurman from her recent work to go back to Dangerous Liaisons, where she also has a nude scene, as gratuitous and exploitative as Grier's - but I must admit that I'm not entirely ungrateful for having seen her undressed, and both films make an ass-kicking heroine of her, potent and surprising, even with her breasts prominently displayed.

Anyhow, setting aside Pam Grier's breasts for the time being, Pit Stop - entirely nudeless, though there is some light titillation in it - is one of a sampling of Blu-Ray/DVD combos coming out from Arrow in Canada, region 1 friendly and relatively affordable, and is the first Arrow I've actually seen (there's also the American Horror Project, Mark of the Devil, Society, and The Mutilator on the shelf at the Robson HMV, and one or two others; there's even a spaghetti western with Lee Van Cleef, Day of Anger, that I've thus far missed and am most looking forward to).


Turns out the rep of Arrow is well-deserved, if my one experience of them is anything to go by, because there's lots to love about Pit Stop, simple as it is. The story is admittedly somewhat formulaic: a young, ambitious racer (Brian Donlevy) enters the world of figure-eight stock car racing, just this side of a smash-up derby, with cars colliding into each other routinely at the intersection of the eight. He challenges an extroverted champ (a young Sid Haig), incurs his animosity, and then (of course) ultimately befriends him. Some of the things that ring strongest about the film remind you of other films: Donlevy's dismissive attitude towards love, as standing in his way towards success, seems ported over from Robert Rossen's 1961 film The Hustler, but what a great film to steal from. So too is Nick Ray's The Lusty Men - a film about competitive rodeo riding that has female characters quite a bit more world-weary and mature than the gotta-be-boys male leads who care only about their chosen sport. The women in Pit Stop include a young Ellen Burstyn, from before she took that name, and Spider Baby's Beverly Washburn - who also appeared in the Star Trek episode "The Deadly Years" and has a long career elsewise, still ongoing. Their characters both understand and feel deeply the cost of their men's obsessions. They're somewhat marginalized in the story - just like women tend to be in real life - but somehow manage to provide the film a moral compass to which the men of the movie pay no heed; it's an interesting trick, to have us follow the men down the wrong road, while our hearts stay with the women they've walked away from...

Based on this, no matter how much female nudity you find in Hill's filmography - I expect there's plenty in The Big Bird Cage, too - it's hard not to wonder if maybe there really is an argument for identifying Hill as some sort of feminist (I haven't seen Switchblade Sisters, also his film, so I can't speak to that, though it seems like it might be germaine). Regardless, Pit Stop is a treat to watch, mostly because of the gripping, gritty locations - including scrapyards and a real-life figure eight track, with races filmed with a documentary sensibility. It's shot in black and white - which Sid Haig explains in a featurette was due to budgetary limitations; black and white was all they could manage and stay under budget, given what they could afford to do with lighting of the track, where they mostly were doing night shoots. But this is just perfect; black and white looks great for a film like this, highlights the compositions nicely. About my only budget-related quibble is that these were the days of rear-projecting driving scenes, so the close ups of the drivers are obviously not being done - a dune buggy sequence notwithstanding - with the drivers actually in moving cars. If that mild bit of hokeyness doesn't unsettle you - if you're comfortable with the look and feel of a low budget movie from the time - there's a lot of charm on hand here, and a lot more craft than one might normally expect from a car racing movie.


And Sid Haig! My God, what a treasure Sid Haig is. I've seen him as a bearded heavy in a few 70's blaxploitation films, I've seen his films with Rob Zombie and his recent, amply uglified, Slim-Pickens-like bit part in Bone Tomahawk, but  I've never quite seen him like this before: it's a real treat seeing him grinning and leaping around as Hawk Sidney, an expressive, irrepressible show-off and braggart with a nasty temper. He has no facial hair, looks a bit like a young Edward James Olmos; it's nice to see him in a role that calls for grinning and shouting and boasting, and not just glowering and griping. I bought the Blu in part based on Sid Haig's prominent role alone; though he is not the main character, he gets plenty of screen time, and fans of Haig's will not be disappointed.


Remarkably different - but perfectly timed, for Vancouverites, coming after the Vancity Theatre's superb Brian De Palma retrospective - is Open Windows. It's a gamey film - not in the sense that it tastes like wild meat, but in the sense that it plays with as many formal gimmicks as it can bring to bear, making De Palma's split screens seem positively tame. There are often four or five different laptop windows open on the film's screen at one time, with the entire narrative unfolding through Skype-style chat windows, surveillance cameras, dashboard cameras, and so forth; I don't believe there are any shots in the film that are not mediated through the eye of a camera within the narrative, making it an odd film for Elijah Wood to pop up in, no pun intended, after having made the Maniac remake (which is also very aware of the eye it is seen through). There's also a lot of the "who-is-the-author" game playing that will please fans of Hitchcock and give film studies students and professors plenty to write papers on, even if mainstream audiences are mostly put off by how self-conscious and demanding the movie is.


The setup is like this, though there's stuff that cannot be told: an internet geek - Elijah Wood - who runs a fan site dedicated to a particular actress - is told he will win a dinner with her. He has checked into the hotel where she's staying, believing that it is part of his prize; suddenly, as he sits down to his laptop, a pop up window appears with a call from an anonymous man, obviously lying about his identity, who quickly manipulates his way into controlling the geek's evening. The anonymous man - who quickly proves dangerous and untrustworthy - is on some level a cipher for the filmmaker, manipulating the audience; this cements our identification with Wood, who is the manipulator's victim as much as we are the filmmaker's. Whether any of this amounts to anything - or if it is a tale that really needs to be told, after Rear Window and Peeping Tom and a host of other game-playing self-reflexive films before it - is anyone's guess, but people who enjoy trying to sort out how a film is working and what it means will probably be more engaged than people just hoping for a well-told story (ie., I liked it better than Erika did). Also thrown into the mix are a master hacker, who may or may not be a) Elijah Wood b) the manipulator; or c) the manipulator's first victim. There's also a France-based (but not metric-system using: oops) hacker group trying to get in touch with their hero, who get enlisted by an increasingly desperate Wood to help, and a few peripheral characters - men in the woman's life, police, etc. It's all entertainingly done, and the Vancity Theatre's Tom Charity - who was recently talking on Facebook about De Palma's use of split screen, and how odd it is that so few other filmmakers have really taken advantage of the technique - should probably see it. I'm not actually sure about anyone else, but it's better made, more interesting, and more formally accomplished than it is being given credit for being, so if you find it at Dollarama too...

One thing they do that I've seen before is the gimmick of having a website that will kill people the more people log in. I think I've seen that a few times now; the first time, I think, was Gregory Hoblit's 2008 thriller Untraceable, though doubtlessly it pops up in a Saw film and maybe even in that Indonesian-Japanese co-production Killers that I liked so much a few months ago. Vigalondo obviously knows it's been done before, because he only briefly employs the idea. Vigalondo is best known for the Spanish film Timecrimes, unseen by me, and the short film "Parallel Monsters," which was probably the best segment of V/H/S: Viral, the disappointing third installment in the V/H/S franchise. Like fellow Spaniards Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows and some pretty good Liam Neeson thrillers - see last month for more - and Jaume Balagueró i Bernat (REC franchise and the creepy, great Spanish thriller Sleep Tight), Vigalondo has made a promising crossover into American genre cinema. He has a new film coming up, Colossal, filmed in Vancouver; it was, I gather from IMDB, hit by a lawsuit during pre-production, claiming it had similarities to Godzilla; God knows why, based on the posters below, but I'm all for it, because I'd love to see Vancouver eaten by a giant monster.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Noirs, neo-noirs, plus seats and sound: notes on the Cinematheque's summer programme

The Cinematheque (1131 Howe) has been doing some significant and welcome upgrades, for those who haven't been in awhile. The most obvious one is the seats; it's the second Total Seat Refurbishment at that cinema in recent memory, and this is the one that deserves to stick. Those who recall the seats before the previous seats - the dread original Cinematheque seats, which were an exercise in austerity and a good reason to pack a pillow, if attending a double bill - know that when last they upgraded, the Cinematheque went from seats that scored 4/10 for comfort to maybe 6/10 at best, seats that were indeed an improvement over the previous but not in themselves all that comfortable, especially compared to, say, International Village and the then-newly-opened Vancity Theatre. The Vancity still has the most comfortable theatre seats anywhere in Vancouver by far, but the new seats at the Cinematheque are definitely catching up, are now at least scoring 8/10 as far as cinema seats go. The seats are no longer an issue - even for my girlfriend, who has demurred on attending a couple of double bills there because the seats were simply too uncomfortable; double bills are now back on the menu.
But there's another improvement: the sound at the Cinematheque has been upgraded to a brand new 7.1 Dolby Surround. To celebrate, the Cinematheque will be playing three very sonically-interesting digital restorations. Two are in 5.1 mixes, The Conversation  and Apocalypse Now. The former is a grim, great Gene Hackman vehicle, directed by Francis Ford Coppola at his peak, with editing and sound design from Walter Murch. Sound is key to the plot: Hackman plays a guilt-ridden wiretapper who becomes convinced his recordings of a young couple foreshadow a murder that is about to take place. Besides owing a little bit to Antonioni's Blow Up, with Hackman teasing out missing bits of audio with obsessive tweakings of his tapes in much the same way that David Hemmings enlarges pictures - there is a strong streak of Catholicism to this film that places it in interesting proximity to the early works of Coppola's peer, Martin Scorsese, particularly Who's That Knocking At My Door, in which the near-deification of the female image leads a confused young man to make a very significant mistake. But I don't want to say more. I bet Stanley Kubrick - who often had scenes of horror take place in or in proximity to toilets - loved the commode scenes in this movie. Somehow, toilets have never really been a locus of horror for me, at least not cinematically, but this film definitely has one of the most disturbing toilet moments ever (not the one pictured below).
Apocalypse Now, meanwhile, is one of those great (if morally and politically questionable) achievements of cinema that I am kind of done with, was kind of getting sick of even in my twenties, when friends who considered it the greatest movie ever made insisted on watching it again and again and again. There was a time when I welcomed the opportunity, and I must have seen it thirty times or more in my life, and thanks to that Redux version of it was compelled to revisit it just a few years ago. It's up there with Blade Runner and the works of Kubrick as films that break through the barrier between serious and popular consumption of cinema, such that people with a very, very limited knowledge of film are overwhelmed with its accomplishments and feel themselves free to proclaim it the greatest thing that's ever existed, kind of like someone who has only ever eaten hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza getting all excited about the discovery of Chinese food, or someone proclaiming Robert Johnson the greatest bluesman who has ever lived, without ever even having heard of Charley Patton or Son House or Bukka White or Skip James or... It doesn't mean that Chinese food and Robert Johnson are bad things, it's just that the valorization of Apocalypse Now has more to do with the limited ways things came to mainstream acceptance back in the 1970's, 1980's, and 1990's, when the channels information flowed through were so much narrower, than it does with its actual place in world cinema.
The film's accomplishments are real nonetheless, however, and it IS a unique film in the history of cinema; if Heaven's Gate marked the greatest failure, from the time when Hollywood auteurs went overboard with the carte blanche they had been given, Apocalypse Now surely is the greatest success. I kind of agree with the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and Robin Wood that it's a morally and politically questionable film, mind you, rather obscenely using an actual war in the service of a nihilistic, possibly immoral message, rewriting the actual suffering of the people of Viet Nam (and the American soldiers pressed into service there) with a sort of adolescent existential posturing (there's a Leonard Cohen line about a "heart of darkness alibi/ that his money hides behind" that comes to mind). By the climax, you're invited to embrace what seems a positively pro-murder point of view, essentially calling in the airstrike on the human race. Maybe we're meant to be horrified, but I'm pretty sure my friends back in the day were reveling in the darkness of the "kill'em all, let God sort'em out" vibe that prevails when all the madness culminates in murder... I'm not sure even Joseph Conrad would find it acceptable. Still, the sound design (and editing), again by Walter Murch, truly are up there near the top of the list in terms of what the film achieves, and it's visually stunning and compelling as we go up the river. Cheers to the Cinematheque for projecting the original theatrical cut, vastly superior to the Redux version, which, for all its interesting bits, bogs down in the French plantation scene, simply gets too talky and digressive to sustain the narrative. The original cut has always been my preferred, and this is a brand-new digital restoration of it.
Most piquant in the three sound-series films, however, is the 7.1 restoration of Steven Spielberg's Jaws - a great summer movie for misanthropes, and probably one of Spielberg's most honest expressions. For all his respectability these days, Spielberg's greatest accomplishments are, by me, his most sadistic and exploitative, where children are menaced by things with teeth (though I'm also a great admirer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind). There is a brilliance to how revolting Spielberg manages to make all the beach flesh on display in this film - how much he stokes your desire to see shark teeth sinking into people - while not making his protagonists, through whose eyes we mostly see things, seem particularly misanthropic at all; the subtext of the film probably has something to do with the struggle to keep caring about other people in a world where stupidity and corruption run rampant, but by keeping the darkness and cynicism and despair of its protagonists mostly off the screen, we can like them and accept them (and can find no way to project and release our own misanthropy on them, much as the film stokes it). More interesting than just kill'em all, anyhow. I actually have no idea what a 7.1 mix of Jaws  would sound like; I kind of wish I hadn't played it for my girl in recent memory, because this is the film, of the three, that I have the greatest fondness for, and I can't recall ever having seen it on the big screen. Plus Jaws has such great performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, and Robert Shaw!

There's quite a few other inspired programming choices this summer. Blood Simple still might be the best of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, one of the films appearing in the neo-noir "sidebars" to the Cinematheque's summer noir programme.  It's a comedy so black that it isn't at all funny, the first time through; in fact, until you discover that the film has a bonafide punchline, it may not seem like a comedy at all. A lifelong favourite, it's probably the best film that any of the actors in it are associated with (sure, John Getz was in The Fly, but his character in that film is pretty one-dimensional, compared to this one, and by god are Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, and Frances McDormand fantastic here). Mistrust, betrayal, misunderstanding, sleazy deals and murder, with a positively sweaty visual sensibility perfect for a hot summer night, if we ever actually get any. A great film. I'm annoyed that the Coen's trimmed a couple of minutes for their director's cut, seemingly for the simple perversity of releasing a director's cut that was shorter than the original theatrical version, but I must admit, the last time I saw it, I had to strain to recall what was missing. I saw this almost as often in my teens and twenties as I saw Apocalypse Now. I watch it less now, but my love for it has diminished not one whit.

To Live and Die in LA, while perhaps not dripping with quite as much sweat as the Texas-set Blood Simple, is probably the sunniest noir ever made, and a worthy film to revisit if you're a William Friedkin fan. I am, and I like William L. Petersen, John Pankow, and Willem Dafoe, the principals, a lot, but it's one of those films - stylish and gripping - that somehow doesn't manage to linger long in the memory, which for me is the true hallmark of a film with more style than substance. A few moments aside - Dafoe burning his artwork, say, or a violent moment in a men's room, or a wrong-way-street carchase ("we're only going one way!") - what mostly lingers in the memory is the bright colours and daylight exteriors and general, somewhat excessive visual flare of the film. There's nothing much of the story that manages to stick, which in a way keeps it fresh: it's a film I have to revisit every few years just to remember what happens in it. Worth a watch, though! 

I have nothing at all to say about Seconds or Point Blank, the "psychedelic" neo-noir sidebar that also accompanies the noir program; both are films that, believe it or not, I've only seen once, and that years ago, so I can't write much on them. I am a fan of the Richard Stark Parker books, but recall finding Point Blank a little too tricksy as an adaptation of a novel in that very, very straightforward, stripped down series; I prefer The Outfit or even the director's cut of Payback as being truer in spirit to the source texts, though there's no question that Point Blank is the greater accomplishment cinematically or that Lee Marvin is fantastic as the Parker figure (then not allowed to be called Parker, but he's far more Parker than Jason Statham will ever, could ever be). I like the idea of doing neo-noir sidebars, however. It would be interesting to do a Euro-noir sidebar sometime, maybe with films like Revanche, Red Road, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, or Jerichow, for example, or maybe even some of Fassbinder's noiry works?
My favourite unsung neo-noir, meanwhile - NOT playing at the Cinematheque - is a terrific Elias Koteas vehicle called Hit Me, directed by Steven Shainberg (Secretary, Fur, the upcoming Rupture). It's an under-rated, un-sung film, adapted from Jim Thompson's A Swell Looking Babe. It likely isn't going to show up on any Cinematheque programs anytime soon, though. Shainberg talks about the film here. Koteas fans should seek this film out; it's by far not the best film he's been in, but it's definitely his biggest, meatiest role that I've encountered (bearing in mind that I've missed the entirety of his TV work).
As for the actual noir programme, this has become quite a welcome summer ritual; I'm always eager to see what films the Cinematheque has picked. Kiss of Death, with a great Richard Widmark villain, and the rather politically intriguing Thieves Highway - about courage and corruption among long-haul truckers - are my favourites of the ones I know. I can't recall for sure if I've seen Where the Sidewalk Ends, but Otto Preminger has made some of my favourite noirs ever (especially Angel Face and Anatomy of a Murder). Of those I don't know, I'm most curious about Johnny O'Clock, because I love Robert Rossen's The Hustler so much, but have seen few of his other films; and The Reckless Moment, because I like James Mason. Turns out I have nothing much to say about any of these films, however, except yay, the summer noir season is upon us
For those seeking cheerier, brighter film fare, the much beloved early Miyazaki film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, will be screening in late August. I have loved this film since I saw the mutilated American VHS version, Warriors of the Wind, in the 1980's. It's a hero's journey variation with a female protagonist, an environmentalist message, and some of Miyazaki's most stunning imagery; much as I love his other films, this is the one that I call my favourite, to this day. It's too bad they're only playing the English-dubbed version, which will be friendlier to English-speaking children in the audience, perhaps, but makes it a harder film for me to pitch at the Japanese students I teach. Maybe I can sell them on the idea of seeing a favourite film in an English-language version, as a way of practicing their listening skills?

Avant-garde wise, there's also a very welcome program of Tony Conrad film works. I met Conrad once, saw him play, and eulogized him not long ago. I might try to do something else on this. People with an interest in experimental cinema and/ or drone should take note.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Adrian Mack on Rude Boy, the Clash, and England

Adrian Mack was one of the first editors I ever worked with as a music journalist, back when I interviewed Terry Riley, around 2005, for the Nerve Magazine.  Besides being one of the most sensitive editors I've encountered, and a very talented and witty writer himself, Mack has always fascinated me as a person. He has a style that is both intensely appealing and charismatic - I mean, he drums for Rich Hope, fergodsake, you gotta have some self-confidence to do that - and yet somehow self-deprecating, self-mocking, and slightly edgy, like someone who probably shouldn't drink too much coffee. And while his tastes in film and music don't always overlap with mine, I take pretty much anything he has to say into consideration (which is something, because I very seldom even notice what the people around me are talking about).  He can run circles around me in discussing country and roots music, and doubtlessly other forms I only feel like I have a passing knowledge of; his top ten lists, year end at the Straight, always offer fascinating discoveries in all manner of genres (I'd never even heard of the Sleaford Mods, say, before Mack). Further, he's generally my go-to person to have relaxed, between-friends conversations about any number of topics that you just don't get to talk about very often, from dissociative identity disorder to alien abduction to Satanic ritual abuse to anything involving the work of people like Mike Ruppert, Gary Webb, or... well, you get the idea. He follows an interesting pattern of speaking up for, or at least extending sympathy towards, the underdog, socially, which sort of correlates nicely, if you think about it, with his finding a wealth of knowledge and inspiration in somewhat unusual and sometimes disreputable cultural corners. I hadn't seen a Jean Rollin film until Mack pointed me that way (and this only a few years ago); I hadn't even considered watching a Jess Franco, and I had no interest whatsoever in Ed Wood. Actually, my interest in Ed Wood is still pretty precarious, but I totally respect Mack's enthusiasm about him.

Anyhow, I had been aware of the possibility of Adrian doing a Cinema Salon for some time, but was kind of shocked when he picked Rude Boy as his film. The more I read about it - including Mack's own interview with co-director Jack Hazan - the more I think it's a brilliant choice for a screening, and the more excited I get to go to it. Suddenly I'm really, really glad not to have even tried to watch the DVD I own of Rude Boy (which has sat on my shelf for some five years or more; I haven't attempted the film since I saw it on VHS in the 1980's, when my finger may well have lingered near the fast forward button to get to concert scenes). I'm very, very curious to see this film again.

Adrian Mack presents Rude Boy at the Vancity Theatre on Tuesday, July 19th, at 7:30 PM. An interview follows!



Allan: What's your history with the Clash? (Their records/ their live shows/ encounters with members of the band/ interesting anecdotes?). 

Adrian: First I heard of the Clash was when “Tommy Gun” came out just after my family moved back to the UK in 1978. Bands like the Buzzcocks were making it into the top 20. It was mindblowing. This is what you listened to over breakfast on Radio 1 as you got ready for school, programmed in with all the 10cc and John Travolta/Olivia Newton John. I saw Sham 69 on Top of the Pops probably within hours of arriving in Britain and X Ray Spex on a show called Revolver about a day later. Imagine how that felt to an 11-year-old whose diet prior to this was Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, and Dan Hill. The Clash were very special, and my friends and I knew it. Time went on and I lost my religion about a lot punk bands, but the Clash mystique continued to grow, even if (or maybe because) I was often baffled by them. I’ll always remember wondering what the hell I was listening to when “Magnificent 7” debuted on Radio 1. Joe was heroically strange, which definitely counted for something. We thought they were very funny. They had unbelievable style, but also depth. They could outrun everyone else. In the Combat Rock period I was sophisticated enough to think that “Straight to Hell” was their greatest ever moment and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was their lowest (I had the double A-side single). I saw the fake Clash that toured the album we pretend they never made, I saw Big Audio Dynamite at the PNE in Vancouver—like I can put those two shows together and say “I saw the Clash” or something—and I prefer not to mention the time my friend Simon begged me to skip school for a day to see the Clash in Birmingham on the Combat Rock tour and I wimped out.

What are your peak Clash-related moments?


It’s maybe not the answer you’re expecting, but playing Clash covers a couple of Halloweens ago was fantastic for enhancing my already enormous appreciation of that band. They were very clever songwriters and musicians, which is glaringly obvious if you give “Rudie Can’t Fail” one pass with a close reading of the arrangement. We didn’t do that one, by the way, and thank God. I should give a shout out to my bandmates Billy Bones, Rich Hope, Steve Matheson, and Darryl Havers (our Mickey Gallagher).

Does
Rude Boy in any way speak to your time and experiences in England? Would you be picking it if you hadn't lived there? 

Yes, it speaks to my experiences in England. On one level, I was asked to choose a favourite or meaningful film, and I have warm memories of finally seeing Rude Boy on VHS one summer in the ‘80s with a bunch of friends. But that could have happened in Canada, and I might not have ever cared about it again. Back then, in England, everybody had to get their politics in order. It didn’t matter that we were 14. We lived in a seaside resort town, so it was hardly Brixton, but it was still absolutely obvious that the UK was run by a bunch of evil maniacs who were vicious in their loathing of the poor. The lines were drawn very clearly back then, but the working class was also in terrible turmoil. Rude Boy takes me right back.


What shows do you most cherish having seen from your time in England? 

I love to tell people that my first ever gig was SLF at the Tower Theatre in Hull, in (I think) 1982. Again, maybe not the answer you’re expecting, but the shows that really stand out for me include the Lyres opening for REM at the Lyceum (at the time of On Fyre), the Long Ryders at the Warehouse in Leeds—that was the night Sid Griffin was kind of a dick to me—Bobby Womack at the Hammersmith Odeon, the Cramps in Birmingham, the Smiths in Nottingham before their first album was released, Richard Thompson in an empty pub in Cleethorpes, the Pogues when they were still Pogue Mahone, Waylon Jennings at Wembley… I could go on. We could all go on! True story: at Wembley, I talked my way backstage at a Buck Owens show and ended up sitting with him in his limo pretending to be a journalist. This would be more of a testament to the confidence-boosting powers of very good Ecstasy than it is to my talents as a con-man.

What do you kick yourself for missing? (I saw Haino Keiji in Japan but wasted a billion opportunities to see Fushitsusha... I had a chance to see a concert in Tokyo by 3/4s of Can, including Michael Karoli, who died soon thereafter... had a chance to see John Fahey, too, who also died soon thereafter. Seeing the Mecaleros twice in Tokyo was pretty great, though...


Jesus, I kick myself for missing everything. I lived in London for five years; you can’t imagine what I didn’t see. I’ll just narrow it down to Towns Van Zandt at Dingwalls (I think it was Dingwalls.)

So is
Rude Boy actually a good movie? Did you feel that way from the outset? I haven't seen it in years, and my dim memory was boredom-boredom-boredom-boredom-THE CLASH!!!-boredom-boredom-THE CLASH!!!-boredom-boredom. But I thought Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue was a self-indulgent, dull mess back then, too, and I sure was wrong about that, so...

No, I don’t think it’s a particularly good movie, whatever that means. It’s technically a mess, a lot of it really doesn’t work. But I think maybe what was boring to a kid in Maple Ridge was pretty riveting to a kid in the North of England, so I forgive it for the attempts at social realism or whatever the hell they were trying to do.

Is there anything interesting from the interview you did with Jack Hazan that you couldn't work into the Straight article?


Yes, he told me a great story about Vanessa Redgrave visiting his office in Soho in the late 70s or early 80s and trying to sell him a copy of the Socialist Workers Party paper. He said she walked back downstairs and left in a chauffeur driven Rolls. I wish I could have found a way to include a quote about Julien Temple. “He’s in love with his subject and it’s a bit cloying, isn’t it?” It was also hard and a bit painful for me to choose from all the variations on “Joe wasn’t real.” I think Rude Boy was largely an unhappy experience for Jack.
 
I am under the impression that, contrary to myth, your son Topper is NOT actually named after Topper Headon, but based on an inspired choice of Sadie's. Is there truth in this or is it not a matter of either/or? 


It’s true: she just blurted it out while we were talking about names for her unborn brother. She had no idea on Earth that there was a Topper Headon at that point, but the education began immediately.

Is Sadie a big Clash fan now? Has Topper heard them?


So, yes. Sadie loves the Clash, with special emphasis on “Bankrobber”, “London Calling”, and “I Fought the Law”—which she reworked into “I fought my mom and my mom won” on one particularly inspired occasion. Topper thinks it’s great that he shares his name with the drummer in the Clash, and he likes the Clash, but Topper is a six-year-old boy so he likes everything.

What exactly is a Rude Boy, man? I've never really known what "Rudie Can't Fail" is about, can you decode it for me?

Rude boys were a subculture of sharply dressed and often very naughty youths in Kingston in the 60s. The style was exported to the UK where it had a big influence on skinheads and Mods. Marcus Gray does a wonderful job of unpacking “Rudie” in Route 19 Revisited, but it’s been a while since I read it. I think in general you can understand it as an appreciation of the Jamaican culture all around the Clash at the time, which I’m sure must have been unspeakably exciting and attractive as a model of resistance, and endlessly fertile as a source of inspiration. The famous line about “drinking brew for breakfast” refers to Carlsberg Special Brew, which tasted like vomit and would get you absolutely plastered after one can. There’s some dispute about who was drinking Special Brew for breakfast at the time. Some insist that it was Rude Boy “star” Ray Gange. I experimented with Special Brew as a breakfast item towards the end of the 80s, like they programmed it into me.

How did you get approached for Cinema Salon? Did they ask you to present a shortlist of films you'd be interested in showing, for instance? 

Melanie Friesen sent me a very nice email and I did a spit take as I flashed on the kind of people she usually asks to do Cinema Salon. I gave her a shortlist. I think she asked for three at first, but I sent a whole bunch of goofy suggestions. The less goofy ones were Stalker, Phantom of the Paradise, Wise Blood, Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May. I’m pretty sure I put Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To in there.

Anything else to say about the screening? Details about the print? 

It just so happens that Melanie is great friends with Jack Hazan and was planning a trip to London as we began our discussions. We actually went after the Mike Leigh film first, and then tracked down a print of Wise Blood when that didn’t pan out. But between the trip to London and the way my heart was leaning—not to mention the notion that we might bring a decent crowd to the Vancity—we decided on Rude Boy. Amazingly, Jack handed a hard drive to Melanie containing a pristine version of the film. “Better than the Blu-ray,” he promises me.

Adrian Mack will present Rude Boy at the Vancity Theatre this Tuesday, 7:30pm. 

More on Scarface, plus a dream

I had to revisit it again to find out how I felt about it, but Scarface - which screened last night at the Vancity Theatre - may well be the greatest picture ever made about the American dream: about the psychotic zeal and aggression required to succeed, about the people most likely to buy into it, and about the ultimate hollowness and ugliness of "success" once you get to the top.
I was ambivalent about watching the film again, having seen Tony Montana transformed into a sort of hero by a hip hop culture that apparently misunderstands that Montana's tale is a cautionary one. I didn't know what sort of audience it would draw, how they would behave; indeed, at least one person laughed inappropriately and loudly throughout the film yesterday, so it was a reasonable concern. I also know there are people out there who still accuse De Palma of "wallowing" in ugliness in this film. I think he does anything but; it's as quintessentially American a movie as Citizen Kane - and a much, much more enjoyable film to watch, by me. Might be De Palma's masterpiece. It screens again July 29th at the Rio Theatre.

Meantime, I had an odd dream last night that actually relates to my classic "recurring dream" structure, in which I am lost in an unfamiliar place, trying to find someone for whom I am responsible, who is in great danger. In the typical pattern, I keep getting distracted - either by other requests for help or by the appearance of a record or bookstore or such. It always ends in despair: not only can I not find out where this person is, but I can barely keep the goal of my initial quest in my head. I wake up in failure every time. Last  night, it was a bit of a different story: I was leaving a late meeting at the ESL school where I've been once again working (as in reality), trying to get to a Kid Congo Powers concert somewhere in Vancouver. On the way, I have a brief detour at a magazine stand, chatting with the owner, finding a copy of the new issue of Big Takeover which (once again, as in reality) has the first part of my big Kid Congo interview in it. I get on a bus, but the address - 3835 Scotia, which appears to be, in reality, somewhere in the vicinity of Kingsgate Mall - is unfamiliar to me; the bus driver doesn't know where it is; a young passenger who I ask just teases my befuddlement; and my cellphone proves no help, no matter what I do. I'm on the bus heading past the Burrard Inlet towards Port Moody, frustrated and lost, and it's getting on 11:30; I've been looking for the venue since 10pm, and surely at this point the concert is almost over? Around this time in the dream, I give an enormous, sputtering, multi-tiered fart onto the thigh of the kid who had mocked me - him yelling in disgust at me, me feeling satisfied at my revenge. It was loud enough and long enough that when I woke up beside Erika, still sleep-fogged, one of my first questions was, "did I just give a really long, loud fart?"

Never found Kid Congo, never got him the magazine. It kind of interests me how the dream changes elements of the classic pattern I experience. It's the first time in recent memory - in years, really - since I've had a dream with this structure, at least so that I can recall it. But here, no one is in danger, and the idea of "responsibility," of having to rescue a fragile person who depends upon me - has been greatly diminished. I'm just a guy trying to bring a magazine to a rock concert, and my failure is of no great consequence.

It's a little depressing, actually. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Tickled: WTF? Plus the gayness of wrestling

 I used to wrestle in high school, a little. I sucked at most sports - and in fact lost out the one fight in the one inter-school wrestling tournament I attended, to someone stronger and more aggressive than me, because wrestling a total stranger was too disconcerting (and because he was a better wrestler, of course). But among my classmates, among people I knew and had relationships with, I felt comfortable letting my aggression out, and it was really, really fun to try and pin them, or to refuse to be pinned myself. These guys could kick my ass in soccer, kick my ass in football, kick my ass in any ball sport, where for most of my years in high school I was reconciled to being the guy who got picked last (or second last) to be on the team - a regular humiliating ritual that I bet some idiot thought would motivate unfit kids to get stronger, but in fact just sent the message to us that we were unwanted and unworthy (I wonder if they still do that in high school?). But get me on the wrestling mat and something happened. Part of it was the release of aggression, part of it was being able to use my size to my advantage, and part of it was being able to show these guys that I wasn't such a wimp after all - but - I remember thinking this while ON the mat, my mouth pressed into some dude's armpit as we rolled about - part of it also may have been sublimated sexuality. It was very, very physical - flesh to flesh, grunting, straining, bodies twined around each other, pushing into each other, working...  Since I retained my virginity well into my 20's, this was as close to sex as I got. No doubt a lot of the guys on the team were in the same position. So maybe there was something just a little bit gay about wrestling? Just a little...?
Tickled, opening this week at the Vancity Theatre - website and trailer here - deals with a New Zealand journalist, who happens to be gay, who enters a very strange, dark, and initially hilarious-seeming rabbithole when he begins investigating the world of Competitive Endurance Tickling. The trailer has a very, very funny line in it, where - shocked at the rather homophobic-seeming response to his query to the organization behind the sport - he quips (over images of muscular young men being tickled) that he finds their reaction funny, because there's something quite gay about the whole idea. I've seen the trailer twice now, going to Brian De Palma films at the Vancity Theatre, and both times, the trailer itself has drawn laughs at this moment; but it also promises entry into a very dark and disturbing world, where fit young men are drawn into this odd new sport and then - or so it is said - are strongly discouraged to leave (one of the quotes from the press shown on screen says how no one is laughing by the time Tickled is over). The film looks like Michael-Moore-ish guerrilla journalism tactics were employed, looks like the tickling people were pretty hostile to being filmed; apparently there have been odd legal repercussions, too, people trying to stop the film from being shown.
Suddenly I'm fascinated, and must know more.  There are three more screenings at the Vancity. I must go to one. Even overheard some guys at Videomatica yesterday saying that there have apparently been incidents of "tickle people" showing up at theatres trying to disrupt screenings... Part of me wonders if there's an element of hoax in all this - I didn't believe the whole Catfish thing, for instance, thought that particular documentary was fake through and through - but I don't mind: I have to check this film out. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones (with Cousin Harley): a Full Meal Musical Deal, July 14, 2016

Wow, last night was amazing. Paul Pigat's band Cousin Harley tore it up, and there was one of those weird moments of musical serendipity where I kept thinking how cool it would be if they did Johnny Horton's "I'm Coming Home," right up until the point where they actually did it. I take no credit (it's not like I was calling out for it, plus it's on their new album, The Dutch Sessions, too, and is apparently a staple of their live set, though I knew none of that). It was a treat no less, since it's one of my favourite Johnny Horton songs, trumping his cheesier historically-themed hits by far (now that I'm allegedly a grownup I like Johnny Horton a lot better when he's singing about honky tonks and women than going to Alaska, fighting in New Orleans, or sinking the Bismark). Pigat also covered a Ray Condo tune, inviting the audience to cheer Condo's name, and getting far too small a reply, the insufficiency of which he remarked upon (Note, Paul: I was the guy cheering late, because, sorry, I was kissing my girlfriend when you asked us how many of us knew Condo's music, and missed the cue; you're right, more people should have applauded). I can see why the Reverend Horton Heat loves this guy, and why Petunia got him on board for a recent album. I could also see that it would take a very, very confident band to invite anyone THIS good to open for them.
Cousin Harley by Erika Lax

Sad that the venue was half-empty for Cousin Harley's set! A lot of people seemed not to realize it was a bit of an early show (all was finished around 11:20, which is a very reasonable time indeed for working people). Then again, the one guy who I know didn't mean to come late was also talking about how he almost pissed in the Imperial men's room sink, mistaking it for a Glasgow-pub-styled tile piss-wall. He's got a point, actually, but if you have to catch yourself from pissing in the sink, it's no surprise you're going to come late for a show... anyhow, Cousin Harley's Keith Picot looked like a rockabilly bassist might if there were a rockabilly bassist in a David Lynch movie, was alternately ebullient and menacing as he slapped his bass with fingers as long and dextrous as Greg Cohen's. Jesse Cahill, the drummer, had a cute rockabilly haircut and sleeves full of tattoos. I feel like I've seen his name on albums by other bands I've heard but I don't know which, and I don't have a thing to say about his playing, since I wasn't exactly takin' notes; you can't be in a trio like this and NOT be great, though, so he was, obviously, great. And it turns out Pigat - the least flashy in appearance, looking like a 1950's science nerd in a short sleeved shirt and glasses - had hot lick after hot lick for us, plus he sings (which came as a surprise to me at least since the one album I've heard by Cousin Harley was instrumental). I'd see these guys again any day, and I think so would Erika.
Phil Alvin, Dave Alvin, and a Guilty One by Allan MacInnis

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones, meanwhile, won us all over before brother Phil even took the stage. Dave's solo during "Abilene" was one of the most moving I've heard in years - I might want to hunt down Blackjack David, the 1998 album it appears on, because it's one great piece of storytelling/ songwriting. So was "Harlan County Line," another song that came early in the set. Kickass band, including a drummer from Alvin's Guilty Women days,  Lisa Pankratz, who wore a green dress, cowboy boots and fishnets. There's an article profiling her online here, tho' I haven't read it yet... Don't recall a female drummer ('cept Stepha) who played with such passion and power. Actually, other than Stepha and Pankratz, I don't think I can recall a female drummer. (Oh, there's Yoshimi, but I barely remember her playing, been a long time since I've seen her with the Boredoms and the one time I caught OOiOO, I thought they were kinda disappointing live, actually, serving to prove mostly that most of their magic happens in studio).
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones with Phil Alvin, by Erika Lax

Anyhow, all of the Guilty Ones cooked - and it was nice that bassist Brad Fordham got a couple solos, and Chris Miller held his own against Dave Alvin, doing a few solos himself during the night, and taking on slide duties (he seemed a bit loud in the mix, at times, but I was standing right in front of his amp, so it might have been down to that). The treat was, of course, hearing Dave and Phil together, once Phil took the stage, about four songs in. The majority of the set consisted of Big Joe Turner and Big Bill Broonzy covers, with a few Dave Alvin originals, like his song about the death of Johnny Ace, which I'd only read about from Nick Tosches. Naively trusting, I had taken Tosches as gospel - that at the very least Ace's death was a suicide, or perhaps a possible murder, which Tosches hints at the end of Ace's chapter in the Unsung Heroes book that he can't print the truth of lest he get sued - so I assumed while he was singing it that Alvin's song, involving dark doings backstage with Big Mama Thornton and her band, was a fictional elaboration on what happened. Afterwards, reading more on it - about Ace's fondness for Russian roulette, and the presence of witnesses who saw him point the gun at his head - it makes it seem that the "elaborator" was Tosches, and that the most likely verdict was that Ace's death was a tragic accident. I guess given a choice between musicians and journalists one should trust the musicians...
There were plenty of other anecdotes in between songs, too, about the young Alvins sneaking into shows as teenagers and their love for the songs they were singing. Dave - grinning and swigging from a bottle of beer - was actually a pretty chatty guy, dedicating Oscar Brown Jrs "Mister Kicks" - the opening track on the new Alvin brothers album, Lost Time - to the guys in the alley behind the venue, and dedicating "American Music," the pre-encore closer, to a list of American musicians who died in 2016, including Lonnie Mack, Guy Clark, Prince, and, most pointedly, Merle Haggard, whose "Mama Tried" the band rendered briefly near the end of that tune. He also told the story of Phil's death-and-revival by way of an entertaining introduction to the Blasters "Marie Marie"  (other Blasters tunes included "Border Radio" and an instrumental riff on "So Long Baby Goodbye" at the very end, with Phil using harmonica instead of his voice). The two Alvins had a great deal of fun passing compliments and other adjectives describing the other back and forth during a song about people's interest in their relationship, "What's Up With Your Brother," which seems to have been written by Dave before he and Phil got back together. Dave namechecked a bunch of colourful brothers in musical history at the start of the song, but the song got me thinkin' mostly about Ray and Dave Davies, who remain unreconciled, as far as I know...
I never much thought I'd get to see the Alvin brothers together in any form, y'know? I missed a couple of Blasters shows because I didn't really want to see the Blasters without Dave. I missed a couple of Dave Alvin shows because I didn't really want to see Dave without Phil. I don't really know what kept them apart for so long, but it was kind of a dream come true to be dancing to both of them performing "Marie Marie." It was a wholly satisfying night, a full meal musical deal if there ever was one, and I'd go again to see the Alvins if I ever am lucky enough to get the chance. See if you can spot me in the pic below; I think this is from about when Dave was pointing out people in the audience, identifying them by single nouns; maybe he spotted my Flesheaters t-shirt from afar, from the recent show he did with them in Seattle, but he picked me to illustrate the word "hustlers." Clearly he knows me well.
If there was anything that posed a cause for concern during the evening, it was this: to be absolutely honest, it wasn't entirely clear how much Phil was enjoying himself up there; he's a bit stoic, a bit of a hard guy to read, and doesn't move around all that much (which might have something to do with his health issues, I don't know). He got a few laughs describing Dave as "vociferous" and "well-hatted" during "What's Up With Your Brother," and he cracked the odd grin, but didn't have a lot else to say between songs, stood pretty stiffly in fact, and sometimes his face seemed a bit strained. Maybe he was just listening hard, though? But Dave was far more visibly having a good time, cracking big grins and showin' off a bit. Still, a delight to see these two together again, and Phil did do an acoustic guitar solo of his own at one point (during a segue into "Fly Me to the Moon," of all things). Also, Phil impressively kept his long leather coat on throughout the night, in a venue that was pretty damned hot by the end of things; I wonder if Lisa has to pour sweat out of her boots at the end?
 I shot no video, sorry. I saw that other folks did but none of it's uploaded as yet. You really just should just have been there! (There weren't many people I recognized, though I think that was the Nervous Fellas Shaun Butch Murphy talking with Jon Card near the end of the night, and the Furies Taylor Little and Zulu's Grant McDonagh were both on hand). Great, great night. One more show scratched off the bucket list! Hope Dave and Phil keep working together for a long time to come...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones - plus Paul Pigat, this Thursday

Haven't seen many posters around town for this, but Dave and Phil Alvin are playing at the Imperial on Thursday, and the opening band is Paul Pigat's trio, Cousin Harley. I've wanted to catch the Blasters for years, and never have; this isn't that, but it's the Alvin brothers, so I'll take it. And everyone from Petunia to the Reverend Horton Heat praises Paul Pigat, whom I've never seen live. The Imperial is a plenty nice space (if a bit expensive, boozewise!), and there are still tickets available, so I'm looking forward to it. Only misgiving is that, because it's an early show, I'll be missing De Palma's Blow Out, which I really wanted to see on the screen, but I'll have a chance to catch it on Friday, so...

Monday, July 11, 2016

Joey Only, the Jolts, and Adstock 2016

After having done a big interview with Rickshaw proprietor Mo Tarmohamed for the Straight, I missed out on Pickwick and No Sinner on Friday; a full week back at work had me exhausted, plus I'd had a long day that very day. Did get to see the Joey Only Outlaw Band there on Saturday, who were very fun! In lieu of words, I will direct you to a cellphone video that I shot (or my interview with him from a couple of weeks ago). Joey has scary eyes when he wants to - he kinda reminds me of Chris Penn at the end of Reservoir Dogs, below - but seems like a super-nice guy; looking forward to his return in October for an album release gig (which may be held up due to a typhoon in Taiwan, which amusingly enough also affected a friend of mine who has gone to teach over there). Nice to check in with Jeff Andrew at the gig, too, but he didn't really have any news... he climbed the Chief in Squamish...
Glad to have caught the Jolts in Maple Ridge at Adstock 2016. They're a great band, who I've been under-appreciating for some time (and more to come on them really soon, actually). I had a hand in suggesting them for the lineup, since I'd caught via Facebook that they were looking for different places to tour and pointed organizer Adam Rayburn at them. But I'm pressed for time, so I'm just going to direct you, again, to a video (who needs music writing, anyhow, when you can just go over to Youtube and check out bands directly?). I'm glad a few people seemed to get into it - for the first couple of songs everyone but me kinda stood back, but (as you'll see in the vid) there were at least a few enthusiastic participants, if not exactly a moshpit. Still: a great set, and the new material (especially "Best One Yet" and "Blasters") was just killer.
Also caught God Said Kill at Adstock, just prior to the Jolts. They prove decisively there's life in nu metal yet, though I gather they identify with metalcore more, or "tech death metal;" hell, I dunno, it didn't seem much like what I think of as death metal, of any sort. In fact, one of the singers had the moves and at least some of the clothes of a rapper, and wouldn't have been out of place sporting gold chains over his soccer duds (actually it looks like he is wearing chains of some sort in the pic below but I don't think it's gold. That's a band shirt he's wearing, too, styled after a sports jersey).
I thought metal was all about brutality and Satan these days (or marijuana and slow heavy blues-wanks, at the other, Sabbathy end of the spectrum), so it was a bit surprising to see this guy bouncing up and down to the music and pumping his arms and mike in the air. My first thought was something like, What is this, Limp Bizkit? But they knew how to get the energy up, and drew an enthusiastic and eager moshpit - including a kid in a Slipknot t-shirt and blue shorts who seemed the very incarnation of their fanbase, and whose enthusiasm through their set made me feel absurdly good (he was one of the three or four moshers in the Jolts clip, too). In many ways, that one kid and how much fun he had were the high point of Adstock for me this year; here's wishing him a kinder future world than I think he's gonna grow up into. And as for God Said Kill, even if their style of metal kind of surprised me, they sure can play; they sounded great, like they should have (or at least could have) been playing a stadium show instead of an open air festival in the sticks. I doubt the way the biz is these days that they'll get their due, but they deserve respect. So: respect.
The strangest bit of the weekend for me involved Space Chimp. I'd seen them on Saturday with the Joey Only Outlaw Band, with their mandolin player having his dreads tied back. "Isn't that the guy from Cornshed?" I thought, whom I always used to watch and think, "Isn't that the guy from the Dreadnoughts?" Then when I arrived at Adstock, they were onstage again, and his dreads were down, and I didn't recognize him at all. "Is this the same band I saw last night?" They sounded the same - a sort of odd cross pollination of American roots music and reggae - but they told me over at the merch table that they'd heard there are are two bands called Space Chimp, which led me to wonder if I might be seeing TWO different bands called Space Chimp, on two different nights, both with a mandolin player. No, it was the same Space Chimp all along, and mandolinist Drew Sexsmith was still Drew Sexsmith, and he was in Cornshed and IS still in the Dreadnoughts. But check this out: Cornshed had played the night before as well, and were missing both Drew and the fiddler that I'd seen at a past Adstock - Tegan Ceschi-Smith - who were the two star players, back then!
I actually had to get Drew to sort me out after their set on all the above. In fact - as was announced at the Rickshaw - Cornshed is going to change their name to reflect their very noticeably different lineup (a fourpiece with vocals and no fiddle at all). I had been excited to show my girl the Cornshed I remembered, but you can't go home again... though Drew says he and Tegan have a new project called Tunesmiths, so there's that...

Really enjoyed Devil in the Woodshack's set at the Joey Only gig, too - very high energy stuff. But it was a couple days ago and I had a couple of rye and 7's and wasn't really thinking too clearly about writing a review later so I got no intelligent things to say about their music. Good to finally have seen them, been wanting to since having written my Westender article on them...

I don't know how many more Adstocks I have in me - my connection to Maple Ridge is pretty tenuous now. But I was glad to go this time. Photo of Tegan from Adstock 2012   (I brought Mom out to that one!).

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Pickwick interview, plus the Death of Sam Cooke

I didn't know a damn thing about the death of Sam Cooke until this week. I've listened to his music for years, never very devotedly - although "Sad Mood" is playing on vinyl as I type this, based on a recent record store find. He's got some very, very enjoyable songs ("Saturday Night," "Chain Gang," "Wonderful World"), but I know nothing of the man himself. I only just got motivated to read up on him when I discovered that Pickwick's "Hacienda Motel" - also a fantastic song - draws on conspiracy theories around his death, which I also knew nothing of.
The part of the story that people agree on is interesting and unusual enough as it is: that Sam Cooke took a woman to a motel; that at some point, she ran out with his clothes and all his money; that he confronted another woman, who was working the desk at the hotel, in a rage demanding to know where the woman he had been with had gone, and that, after an altercation, said hotel clerk shot him dead. Oh, and Cooke was apparently pretty much naked at the time, wearing only a jacket and one shoe; and his last words were, "You shot me, lady." That's the official story. Cooke's death was eventually ruled a justifiable homicide; people who subscribe to this view also believe he had tried to rape the woman he picked up; that she only took his clothes (and money) because she was in a rush to get out of the room, seizing the opportunity when he went to use the washroom; and that he was intoxicated or high when he burst naked in on the hotel clerk.

It's not entirely implausible, I suppose - though the detail that Cooke's money was stolen by accident kind of stretches things a bit. But there are other details that don't add up: for instance, singer Etta James, who viewed Sam's body before his funeral, apparently reported that his body was beaten far in excess of what a tussle with a female hotel clerk would likely be able to inflict. His head, for instance, was apparently nearly removed from his body (an image referenced in the Pickwick song). It seems entirely plausible that Cooke was lured to the hotel and beaten as part of a conspiracy to rob him, and that the clerk was in on it; perhaps there was a pimp or other conspirator involved. There are people who go further with their conspiracy theories, as well, implicating Allen Klein, Sam's manager, and Cooke's wife, Barbara.

I have no idea about any of that, but I can say this decisively: this is the most interesting music-related story I've encountered lately, and I might never have read about it if it hadn't been for Pickwick (who play Friday at the Rickshaw, coming up here from their home base of Seattle). The song is great even if you don't know what it's about, but definitely gets more interesting when you do. I kind of love that about songs, songs that inspire you to do research; it brought back fond memories of my fourteen year old self, poring over lyric sheets, trying to make sense of the world through music.

It's been awhile since I felt that way, so thanks, Pickwick.
Below is an email interview with Pickwick vocalist Galen Disston. See also my interview with Rickshaw proprietor Mo Tarmohamed, further below; Mo actually helped out a bit on this one, since I don't really know my Pickwick all that well, and he suggested a couple of very helpful questions.


Allan: Are you a vinyl collector? What were the first singles or albums that you bought? Was the label Pickwick important to you, or were there other reasons you chose it as your band name? 

Galen: Yes. Also watches. I can't really afford either. I have that collector's tick. The first 7" single I bought was Richard Swift's "Buildings in America". But my dad's copies of Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Grateful Dead's American Beauty were always around growing up. My parents bought me a combo CD/ tape/ vinyl player from Amway. Anytime you buy an all-in-one anything you know the quality is "top shelf". While we were touring in support of Can't Talk Medicine I bought a "Monster Mash" 45 in Kansas. 

I've been playing under the name Pickwick since 2005 when I moved to Seattle after college. Lou Reed was a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, and I was impressed by his strange output during his tenure there. 
Is there a lot of soul and R&B in Seattle happening at present? 

I'm not sure. I've heard of Grace Love, and she fits into that genre. But the thing I like about Seattle is people just do what they do, regardless of genre. In Pickwick we try to follow our curiosity while allowing for as much creativity as possible. That's true of most of the Seattle musicians I know. 

Were into soul and R&B  and such from the outset, as a music fan, or was that a taste you developed later?

I guess I was into R/B bands like the Animals, Stones or Spencer Davis Group first. I didn't develop the taste for soul till I heard undeniable voices like Percy Sledge, the Supremes and O.V. Wright. But that was after Pickwick had started with its R&B leanings. I knew my voice had more capability than the folky Pickwick allowed, because I would sing loud in the car driving home from work. Currently I'm enjoying 70s output from soul luminaries like Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye. Their voices had reached a level by the 70s where you can't hear them working anymore. It's effortless and undeniably chill as fuck. 

Wikipedia mentions that there was a shift in your sound, after a 2008 tour of California, from folk music to the current R&B/ soul/ garage influences... what happened in California?

We played shows with friends Sandy's (San Fransisco) and Mount Holly (Los Angeles) and it scared the megachurch right outta me. I was blown away by their songwriting capabilities and intensity. I returned to Seattle determined to get in touch with whatever artistic source my friends had found. 


You mention in an interview for the Stranger that Sharon Van Etten's brother met you guys in Montreal and connected you... can you go into a bit more detail?

He was an early fan and came to our show there. When we asked her to sing on the track I think his familiarity with our band is what sealed the deal. She was very open to the song and timidly played around with it at first. It was amazing to watch her confidently interpret it by the end. I feel lucky to have witnessed that process by an artist I respect so much.  
The "Lady Luck" video is a fun little movie - as a bearded dude, I was totally identifying with the realism of bits of hair on the sink, but got taken off guard by what followed, which goes a bit further than I tend to in the shaving department. Who made it?

Tyler Kahlberg has made all our videos up to this point.
What's in the suitcase? 

The suitcase is full of gender specific restroom signs.
Besides "Lady Luck," do you do/ have you done other cover tunes in your live set?

Yeah, the Primitive's "The Ostrich", Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph" and AC/DC's "Big Balls." [Nope, I don't know if Galen is joking either].

"Hacienda Motel" seems to subscribe to the idea that there was a conspiracy around Sam Cooke's death, but what do you believe happened? Is "the widow hides her face" line an indication that you think Barbara Cooke was complicit? How about Allen Klein?

I think Sam Cooke was becoming too powerful of a businessman. The fictional two men in the song who "hardly make a sound" are the conspirators overseeing the funeral in a silent victory lap.

Was Etta James a big influence on you? 
No, I prefer Nina Simone. 

Any singers you really admire? 

Marvin Gaye. His version of "I Heard it Through The Grapevine" is the work of a young vocal master, but "Inner City Blues" is transcendent. 

Mo at the Rickshaw was mentioning a darkness in your lyrics, including references to mental illness... he was wondering where that comes from? 

It comes from my fascination with the creation of art, and the often blurred lines of sanity present in those who create it. I've never done psychedelics, or allowed my narcissism to flare up and take over, but I tend to glamorize the possibility of crossing over into the realm of mental illness. It's probably fucking awful. I should be thankful I have a choice.
A lot of the music venues in Vancouver end up in the "bad" part of town - especially smaller, more off-the-grid ones, but also the Rickshaw and others - so there's a lot of interaction between the arts scene and the disenfranchised, and a lot of mental illness and drug addiction visible on the street just outside the venue... there are a few people who straddle both communities (Mr. Chi Pig of SNFU has had his issues with mental health, drug addiction, and homelessness, though he continues to tour and record). Is there a similar thing in Seattle - areas like East Hastings, where these worlds overlap? Does this play any part in Pickwick's history or songs? 

Our times loading in and out while in East Hastings have always been eventful: Wraiths jumping in front of our van and zombies tearing up dumpster phone books and wielding 2x4s. But Mo took me aside once before a show and assured me each of them is on an individual trip. Thanks to Vancouver's progressive safe houses for addicts, I've never felt threatened walking to the store across the street to get Canadian candy to bring home to my kids. 

Unfortunately Seattle's jungles of homelessness and addiction don't really overlap anymore with music venues. In the 11 years I've lived in Seattle the cultural trend of paving over anything unsightly yet interesting seems to be winning. Pickwick started up after Seattle's historic seediness had started to dry up, but I feel fortunate to have been able to start a band in a city that supports musicians. I hope Seattle continues to not only be a place that fosters the artists that make it interesting, but also has enough interesting stuff going on to inspire those artists. Wealthy lines of code and entitled youth ride sharing have not been sources of inspiration for me historically, but maybe I need to broaden my artistic horizons. 

 Are there new songs in the set for the show at the Rickshaw? Any word on the follow up to Can't Talk Medicine? Will it continue in the same vein as that album? 

Yes, we'll play a few new songs at the Rickshaw from our forthcoming record. We didn't limit ourselves to any genre or expectation while writing and recording, so I think people will be surprised by parts of the record.
 Any thoughts or stories on Vancouver, or other things you want to say about the gig?  

One time after we opened for the New Pornographers I had a mean lemon crepe. We look forward to coming back to Vancouver and the Rickshaw; a place with so many positive associations, and positive crepes.