Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Raimi-thon Night 3: Spider-Man 2

Note: I have COVID, slept poorly and I'm a bit delirious with it all. Give me some berth, here, okay? A bit of wiggle room. I'm not at peak. 

So as previously posted, in writing about Darkman, I have Sam Raimi on my mind. I'm excited to see his new film! I was, actually, kind of excited by the prospect of seeing Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness before I had even realized it was the new Sam Raimi, the news coming as a happy surprise late in the trailer, which already had me excited, as the previous Dr. Strange movie - along with Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok and Constantine and Hellboy - was one of my most-enjoyed superhero movies ever. 

It is hard for me to write about something so normally beneath my notice, but I guess I should confess at the outset - though it feels like this should be kept secret, like masturbation or an enjoyment of Jim Steinman - that I do have some fondness for Marvel (and the odd DC) superhero movies, if I'm in the right mood. I do sometimes join the unwashed hordes, and sometimes have plenty of fun in so doing. I just don't see every one, nor care for every one I do see.

I have no interest in the Deadpool films, for example - feel about them re: superhero movies the way Ayn Rand did about later James Bond films (or at least the ones after Dr. No - she described them as "bootleg romanticism," a sort of hypocritical, bad-faith romanticism that needs to snigger at its hero, to mock the hero and have him, too). And since I was an eight year old, when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons and actually reading comic books, I've always found Superman a bit too clean, a bit too, uh, "comic book"; I gave Quentin Tarantino credit for his clever ideas about Superman and Clark Kent at the end of the Kill Bill movies, but it didn't make me want to watch Superman movies (I've seen almost none, just that first Christopher Reeve one). I'm well behind on The Avengers, have no interest in the X-Men, and find aspects of Batman distasteful, but primarily because my experience of him has been largely filtered through the not-even-very-crypto-fascism of Christopher Nolan, whose craft I acknowledge but whose sense of responsibility to the real world, in terms of the ways his films interact with the political landscape, I find somewhat lacking (see here - please do not mind the weirdly gigantic picture of Adrian Mack, which is some sort of artifact of a long-ago Blogger template shift). 

In fact, more than the flashy, bold, and busy feel of these films, more than the preponderance of action over thought or character, more than - what was it Scorsese called them, "roller coasters? - the roller coaster aspect, the main reason I don't watch every single entry in every single franchise is that the MCU, in particular, is just too damn prolific. Like Guided by Voices albums, Marvel superhero movies are produced at a pace that makes my keeping up impossible, so much so that I shudder at the prospect; I wouldn't be able to feel truly "up to date and in-the-know" unless I took a year off and listened to nothing but GBV I've missed, or watched nothing but Marvel movies I've let slide by. But I don't WANT to spend a whole year on nothing but GBV albums (or MCU movies), and realize that even if I tried to, at least three more records (or movies) would come out during that year, so I would still be behind regardless: a fool's game!  

So Erika and I just keep up with the characters we most enjoy, like, say, Thor or anything with Mark Ruffalo as Hulk or, because of Erika's own childhood, Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman is to Erika what Carl Kolchak is to me. I shall not judge, and truth be known, I enjoyed the Wonder Woman episodes and movies we watched more than I've enjoyed going back to Kolchak: The Night Stalker). 

...But this gets a bit complicated when there's a new MCU movie we want to see, and I haven't been doing my homework, because one of the problems that MCU movies have that GBV albums don't is that things happen in one franchise that bleed over into others. Characters, concepts, plot points are introduced in an Avengers movie without which you won't fully understand what's happening in the Black Widow movie, that sort of thing. But if you haven't heard Class Clown Spots a UFO, it won't take away from your ability to enjoy How Do You Spell Heaven? (as far as I know - I don't really know either album; but I'm guessing that there are no characters or themes introduced in one that are repeated or expanded upon on the other; even if a new bandmate was introduced on the earlier album, and - quelle surprise! - he's still around on the later one, not knowing the older album won't keep you from understanding what he's doing or where he came from or what his role is supposed to be - unlike the addition of a new character in the MCU). 

And I do want to understand the rules of the multiverse, relevant to the Dr. Strange sequel, and they apparently are laid out and elaborated upon in detail in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Which I haven't seen, having fallen off the Spider-Man train after the first Andrew Garfield movie (it was fine - I'd just had enough, as did many other people, it seems).  

So I have some homework ahead of me. Of course the original Spider-Man franchise, the Tobey Maguire one, was directed by Sam Raimi, so it's not a chore at all; Erika and I are now watching the Spider-Man franchise in toto, beginning with the first Raimi movie, with the thought being we will work through them all up to the present day before attempting Dr. Strange. With me still recovering from COVID, we have a little time to spend before we can go to the theatres, anyhow. 

We watched Spider-Man 2.1 last night - the expanded cut of the second movie, which she'd never seen before in any form. While the first is as enjoyable an origin story as possible, the second one is where things really amp up. Neither film is as packed with Raimi touches as Darkman was, but both are very much his work, and the second in particular gets downright meaty, if you're inclined to analyze films.

Y'see, Spider-Man has troubles with "performance" in the film. He loses his powers - becomes, um, impotent. He even loses the ability to shoot his goo. 

No, no, not that goo. His webbing. But given the context - his crisis of potency - you would have to be, I think, pre-pubescent not to think of the goo as a metaphor. I even found myself remembering those days when, around age 14, I was masturbating frequently enough - I think my record was eight times in a day - that I discovered the more you jerked off, the less goo came out. I remember having dry orgasms - nothing came out at all, because I hadn't given my body a chance to catch up; my mind went exactly there when Spider-Man first started discovering he couldn't get his web to shoot. 

And there's an awful lot of "stuff with hands" in the movie - including hands that "take over" Dr. Octopus, that start to think for him, like a pubescent boy might feel about his own bodily changes, masturbation included. "It's not me, it's my hands, Ma, I swear - they made me do it!"  

I kept up some smartass banter along these lines as Erika and I were watching the film, and even she finally got into the spirit of it, asking, for instance, in the scene where Aunt May is dangling from a long web that Spider-Man has shot from his wrist, "Does this mean she's really hanging from a long strand of his jizz?" She normally kind of mocks the stuff I read into movies, on this level, but I could tell she was entertained by the idea.

I found myself thinking of the rather fascinating Urotsukidoji films - Japanese tentacle porn anime, the stuff I gave Lemmy, in which male adolescence is expressed by images of male bodies erupting tentacles and doing rapey things with them: the engine of the films is a sort of horror of male adolescence, as made for and expressed by other male adolescents (or their adult descendants). The picture of adolescence in Spider-Man 2 is less sexual by far and far kinder, but it still has a person torn between two identities, two orientations, and there is a strong temptation to read his secret identity as a metaphor for something in Peter Parker's life  - masturbation, homosexuality, or even too much  consumption of comic books (or superhero movies, or other childish things) well into childhood: yes, Spider-Man 2 works as a metaphor for the adult consumption of Spider-Man, like Spider-Man himself is a figure for the inability of the geeks in the audience to let go of their childhood and grow up - back when obsessiveness over comic book culture was still being treated as a pathological thing, a failure of socialization, and not a cultural norm. Back then, you dig?:

I won't even attempt a queer reading here, though one does sense there is one to be had, by which it is Spider-Man's complex relationship to the James Franco character, whatever his name is, that is really what's getting in the way of his being with MJ. The very youthfulness of Tobey Maguire lends itself to reading Spider-Man as figuring some aspect of male puberty/ adolescence, in any event - at least as much as Ginger Snaps works as a story about female puberty/ adolescence. However you read it, Parker's devotion to this secret aspect of his identity begins to interfere with his ability to pursue adult relationships, in particular his one with MJ, whom he very nearly loses; and his near loss of her feeds into the loss of his superpowers. Turns out he needs a balance of both in his life to be functional - without MJ, he can't be Spider-Man, but without Spider-Man, he can't be with MJ. (I think I tried to sell Erika on the idea that this is why I need my movies and music and such - that my collecting is my own version of "being Spider-Man" - but I think she was skeptical, there). 

The second thing we noticed in watching Spider-Man 2, besides Spider-Man seeming to be a metaphor for something, is that, of all the superhero films we have seen - because I think Erika agreed with me on this - Spider-Man 2 genuinely feels like you are consuming a comic book. Rowan Lipkovitz, on Facebook, also pointed out Ang Lee's Hulk film here, and I can see what he means, but the use comic panels and so forth, consciously quoting comic art, is not what I mean, as much as the rhythms of the storytelling. Pushe way the characters behave (Jonah Jameson, especially) is self-consciously broad-stroke archetypal in the way comic book characters are; the way the images are framed to pop is akin to comic book panels; the progression of the story feels like the progression of a story across multiple issues. Raimi, of any of the Marvel filmmakers, seems to really understand what reading a comic book feels like - not just what a comic panel looks like, but how the story progresses. It seems like he might well have grown up reading them obsessively himself, and is better than anyone I've seen at making you feel like you are reading a comic book while watching his film. I don't recall feeling like that, or feeling that as vividly, for any other Marvel film. It's possible, of course, that the only reason I feel this way is because I in fact did read Spider-Man comics as a child, unlike The Avengers, for example, or Iron Man or X-Men or all those other comics I ignored. Mostly my comic consumption involved horror and fantasy comics, or Howard the Duck or, a bit later, Cerebus or Heavy Metal or undergrounds, but I did read a lot of Spider-Man as well, for awhile, such that watching the movie took me right back to my eight year old self, to the little boy who still lives inside me somewhere, that earlier stage of evolution that hopes its host lives long enough to see Stegron make it to the big screen. 

...Stegron being Spider-Man's half-human, half-stegosaurus nemesis, who at one point leads an army of resuscitated dinosaurs in a march on New York, as I recall. Let's not get into it here. The point is, Spider-Man 2 was great to revisit, one of the very best of the Marvel movies - made early enough in the current cycle of superhero fare that it no doubt can be considered, uh, seminal in framing how Marvel handled its properties. It's a very fun way of gearing up for Dr. Strange. I gather Raimi himself has confessed to not thinking much of Spider-Man 3, up next, but I am looking forward to revisiting that one, myself; I strongly recall it being characterized by a giddy excess, which at the time I thought made it the most "Raimilike" of the Spider-Man films.

And yes, again, all of this is somewhat unworthy of my abilities as a writer, a bit trivial. What can I say, I have COVID. Let me entertain myself how I choose. Spider-Man 3, here we come!

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Sick#3: Day Eight, plus weird dreams of taking off my pants.

Went to bed around midnight. Woke up at 1 to pee and cough and blow my nose. Came back to bed for a couple of hours - then, having only half-slept, got out of bed again at 3 or so to pee and cough and blow my nose some more. Went over to the computer and burned away a couple of hours on Facebook, went back to bed eventually (around 5?), unless I'm confused about the night's patterns (I *am* a bit foggy, here). Erika was trying to sleep through all this and I hope she made it. I woke up again around 8, interacted with her as she was showering, but failed to make breakfast or so forth, and ended up back in bed after she left for work. Slept til about noon, then - aided by a meowing cat who wanted treats - woke up to pee and cough and blow my nose, take a Tylenol and an allergy pill, since they seem to help abate some symptoms, then puttered for a few minutes on Facebook, but all I really wanted to do is go back to bed... I did. Woke up again around 2pm. Took Tylenol, had breakfast - bowl of Special K and almond milk. My cough is productive but I have to hold the tissue to the light to see if it's just thin liquid or has any content, because the colour is the same - whitish with maybe a slight yellow tint, none of that grey green stuff. What I'm blowing out my nose is the same. I can inhale through my nose, but it feels rumbly up there, like the air has obstacles to movement.

Had weird dreams where I was scouring a used bookstore that I knew sometimes radically underpriced their books. Found a giant hardcover of an L. Ron Hubbard life of Christ on a shelf, was going to buy it to flip... next thing I remember I had connected with Bob Hanham, who was going to join me for a run for more books after we had a fast lunch. As we were walking past his car, I said, "Hang on a second" and took off my pants, draping them along the back seat, then I continued with him - fully clothed except sans pants - when I realized what I had done. "Did I just take off my pants?" He admitted that he thought it was a bit odd, but hadn't wanted to say anything. We went back to the car and I put my pants back on, telling him, "If I try to do this again, don't let me." 

Somewhere this song was playing, but it wasn't Randy Newman, it was a cover. (Far as I know no covers of the song exist). 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Sam Raimi, Dr. Strange, and Darkman


Are people excited about Sam Raimi’s new movie? 

I realize people are excited about Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Apparently you can even see it in 3D at the Imax. I am home with COVID, so I won’t be hitting the IMAX anytime soon, but a friend went and – while he likes any 3D – was a tad disappointed to see that the 3D had been added in post, that it wasn’t actually filmed as a 3D movie. When it is conceived in 3D from the gitgo, it generally means “things coming out of the screen at you.” (Lots of particulate, too, methinks = flashlights in dusty rooms, that Prometheus thing... you know what I mean). My friend's friends thought the 3D was "ho hum," he reported.

I believe Raimi's last feature as director, Oz the Great and Powerful, was, in fact, filmed as a 3D movie. It didn't really connect with Raimi's fan base, though, I don't think. Wizard of Oz fans might have enjoyed it, or people who like James Franco... there are people out there who do, right? He is very, very James Franco in it. The film itself was inoffensive,  but - having seen it twice - I have decided it really isn't even worthwhile without the 3D. 

To return to the new Dr. Strange, same friend also notes it has “good Sam Raimi input.”

Oh, yeah, if it wasn’t clear, I was creating a false distinction above between the new Sam Raimi and the new Doctor Strange. The new Doctor Strange *is* the new Sam Raimi, as I'm sure some of you recognized. But much as Raimi has his fans, I don't think - for example - that a lot of people flocked to see the Spider-Man trilogy he did, for obvious example, out of an excitement to see "the new movie by Sam Raimi," nor were they expecting that much of his signature style. Similarly, I *think* the brands that are relevant here to most people will be Marvel, Dr. Strange, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Not only will these be the primary draw, they’ll be the key determiners, along with the sheer budget involved, of the eye of the film; Raimi will have some freedom to put some of his distinct signifiers on it, but he won’t be able to pee in every corner of this particular territory (not that he should necessarily need to, but some people LIKE it “in Raimi territory,” the same way they want excess and smashingly surreal imagery from Ken Russell). To put it in terms of DePalma, the new Dr. Strange might be to Raimi's filmography what The Untouchables was for DePalma, distinctly his but not his in the same way that Snake Eyes or Raising Cain are HIS, if you see what I mean. Or to put it in terms of other Raimi - it might be about as Raimi as, say, Spider-Man, but it is unlikely to be much more so - probably not even as Raimi as Spider-Man 3, which gets into some very frequent Raimi territory, like visual and performance excess and characters being confronted by malign doubles. 

But even if there are flourishes here and there, the very nature of Dr. Strange and MCU movies and the stakes at hand will probably require some modulation of the Raimi scale. Dr. Strange will not battle Deadites, for instance. (Does Dr. Strange battle Deadites? Don’t tell me, let it be a surprise.)

A brief consideration of Levels and Degrees of Raimi: The Evil Dead movies all have the Raimi-factor set very high, but one feels it isn’t until the second and third that the, uh, Raiminess has been identified and is being self-consciously cultivated, that Raimi has figured out what makes a film distinctly his and is doing it a LOT. Let’s say that the Raimi is set at 10 for The Evil Dead, and then in the manner of Spinal Tap, set at 11 for Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.

Ash Versus Evil Dead, which does have Raimi’s input, but often is directed by others, dials it back to eight, maybe. Other people attempting to Raimi it up can only achieve so much. 

But of the non-Evil Dead films that Raimi has made, while I enjoy many of them - especially A Simple Plan and The Gift - only three that I have seen (and probably Crimewave, which I haven’t) are very strongly Raimi, and they’re all ones he wrote: Spider-Man 3 is more Raimi-fied than the first two; then Drag Me to Hell, which seems to be Raimi very consciously making a Sam Raimi movie to reward his fans for having stuck by him through his "superhero years"... and one kinda-forgotten gem from 1990, Darkman.

Darkman deserves serious re-evaluation from genre fans and a whole new generation of eyes on it; it’s a cult movie which hasn’t got near as big a cult as it deserves. Has it been released in a loving 4K scan? It should be. We watched it last night (sadly on DVD, which is all I have around; it's definitely one to upgrade) and both thought it was ripe for re-evaluation.

There are lots of reasons people might want to look at it again. It’s Liam Neeson’s first-ever action film, for one thing. It has an early Frances McDormand role - a meaty one, where she's a smart, able co-protagonist. There are a host of cameos for cinema insiders, from Bruce Campbell himself (whose presence in anything increases the Raiminess by a couple notches, even if Raimi is not involved) to William Lustig, the Coen brothers, and John Landis. Jenny Agutter – practically still in her Nurse Price uniform from An American Werewolf in London – is onscreen long enough that her role counts as a role, not a cameo. And there are a host of other genre references – at different points, I found myself thinking of Frankenstein - both doctor and monster; the Phantom of the Opera; the Abominable Dr. Phibes, the Mummy, the Elephant Man, Spider-Man, and Batman. 

Oh, and Robocop, too, a little. 

Plot summary: Neeson plays a badly disfigured scientist given superhuman strength, an insensitivity to pain, and a somewhat unstable temperament by his ordeal, who, like Batman, supplements his meagre superpowers with technology, including what reads now as a prototype 3D printer for genetic materials and a recipe for believable but photosensitive synthetic skin, which melts after an hour and a half in the light, but makes him a short-term master of disguise. There is some doubling in this film, too, though none on the level of Ash having to battle dozens of mini-Ashes in Army of Darkness; but a villain is caught, for example, in a revolving door with his double, each telling the gathered henchmen to shoot the other for being an imposter. Darkman - he really only takes the name at the end of the movie - uses his strength and his tech to battle the people who injured him and help save his wife, McDormand's character, from their clutches; I have not seen the sequels to see if he becomes a flat-out crimefighter, or if it’s always the same people he’s fighting, but he’s basically an all-in-one superhero, mad scientist, and monster.

There is, I admit, an added personal reason to the appeal of Darkman for me. As someone newly disfigured - if my lispy, newly-inarticulate speaking voice doesn't count, then consider the graft-site marks on my wrists - I found the scenes where Darkman awkwardly attempts to reconnect with his wife, wearing his own face as a mask (!), quite poignant, and occasionally turned to Erika (I was wearing a mask at the time, too, but due to my current COVID case, not because of disfigurations) and repeated some of the more pathos-rich lines from the film as Neeson said them. We both got a good laugh out of this; it was not just myself who experienced the relevance. 

If the text that spoke to me most on coming out of surgery was The Island of Dr. MoreauDarkman earns a strong second place. But mostly as a Raimi fan, I enjoyed the very distinctly Raimi-like moments of excess, the giddy, shameless, in-your-face inventiveness of his craft, as when, for example, Darkman is typing with one hand wearing a synthetic flesh glove and the other in a near skeletal state, having been exposed to both fire and acid. The "fake" hand - the one in the fleshglove - is played by a real hand, but the "real" hand (the burned, quasi-skeletal one) is stop motion (you can see a GIF of it here). Who else has ever done such a thing, in the history of cinema - have two hands on a typewriter, one of which is stop motion? It's hilarious. And there's a very old-fashioned Gothic horror feel to Darkman's burned-out lab, where he perfects his masks. One applauds Raimi for not going so far as to have his protagonist be an organ aficionado. 

There is much more visual wigginess in the film - but I've only ever seen it three times, and two of those screenings were back in the 1990's, so forgive me if I can't detail them. I hope it will suffice to note that there are hallucinatory montages of nightmare images that actually do bring Ken Russell to mind. Now THIS is a film that would be fun to see in 3D, or at least in 4K - neither of which formats is it actually available in, alas. 

People steeped in contemporary music will wonder if perhaps Robert Pollard saw Darkman and cribbed the central conceit from "I Am a Scientist" from the film - but again, don't tell me if he didn't. (There is a scene where Neeson talks himself down from a flight of hallucinatory rage and panic with the calming mantra of "I am a scientist," four years before the GBV song was recorded.)

I will get out to see Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness eventually - after I stop testing positive, say. Meantime, the rest of you might want to check out Darkman - especially since there may be a reboot/ sequel underway, which Neeson himself might return to (I have not seen the two direct-to-video sequels to Darkman, but have heard they are not great; neither involve Raimi or Neeson).

Darkman has grown in my estimation since the last time I saw it - a film well worth seeking out. I gather it can be rent or bought for five bucks via Prime; I have no better ideas, but it's very visual and the DVD doesn't look so hot, so I recommend the highest-def version you can access!

Sunday, May 15, 2022

An interview with Heather Haley: Skookum Raven and her new musical project, Pluviophiles (with Keir Nicoll)

Keir Nicoll, left, and Heather Haley: Pluviophiles

Heather Haley - author of The Town Slut's Daughter and singer for the Zellots and the .45s, previously interviewed by me about her Vancouver-to-LA punk rock past here - has a new book, a collection of her poetry called Skookum Raven. A descriptive blurb online explains of it: "There are some rough and wild birds around Howe Sound - West Coast avians like the sharp-shinned hawk, the northern harrier, and the whiskey-jack. Heather Haley, an accomplished mapper of human migration, pair-bonding and predation, takes these feathered frenemies as her starting point in this assured third collection, Skookum Raven."

Haley also has a new musical venture, Pluviophiles, undertaken with fellow rain-lover Keir Nicoll. Their debut performance occurs at the launch of that book, May 17th at Massy Books, so in  respect of that, I fired off a few email interview questions for Heather. Let's get right to it - I'm in italics, and Heather is not. 

What kind of music do Pluviophiles make? Are there samples online of your music? Is any of it similar to what's on Keir's Soundcloud?
No, not yet. We're working toward recording. Everything has happened in baby steps but despite the pandemic and various other setbacks we've persisted. We're pursuing several avenues of funding and hope to be able to accomplish a single or two, or perhaps even an EP this year. "What kind of music do you make?" Why am I always stumped by this question? I suppose because I'm busy making music, don’t have much time to analyze it. Folk? Folk influenced certainly. Neo-folk? Contemporary folk. I think it’s definitely folk but it also rocks. Ugh. Keir said something to the effect of "serenely emotive music" which is fair to say. And no, it's nothing like what he has up on Sound Cloud. Keir pursues many avenues of expression and performs with several other ensembles. Along with guitar and bass he plays piano, saxophone and was a member of The Carnival Band and All Purpose. With our endeavour, I provide him with words, poems which Keir adroitly adapts to chord progressions and the music he composes. Then we hammer out phrasing, melodies and vocal arrangements together.

My friend Julie Vik, of Resin (with Alex Varty) said, "Songwriter folk in the tradition of Robyn Hitchcock or Elliot Smith."

Are you both actually rain lovers, or did you just like the name?

I would say both; that we love the word, the name, and Vancouver's rain; with reservations at times of course. Certainly it can make life challenging but rain also summons melancholy. Beauty. I love the smell and sound of rain, the way it 'cleans' the air and perhaps provides a new beginning. Day. Also, living in Vancouver, if you can't at least tolerate rain, well, you're fucked.

It sounds like the project was entirely borne of the pandemic - true? How have you weathered things, generally? (Have you been going to shows or other public things? Did you or Keir already have COVID?).

No, we were playing together before the pandemic, rather haltingly because when we first started I was still residing on Bowen Island so logistics were an issue. We met when Keir interviewed me for Citrus Magazine and then came to a reading of The Town Slut's Daughter that I did at the Noir at the Bar series in 2017. I can't recall exactly how or when we decided to collaborate. It must have seemed like an obvious conclusion. We just sort of fell into it. Keir says we "fell into a bottomless whole."

I've avoided shows during the pandemic, laid low as much as possible. Keir was working on a food truck, being careful. We also avoided COVID, far as I can tell. After two years I caught something this past December, which I suspect may have been Omicron. I couldn't get tested due to being snowed in and rapid tests weren't available yet.

Do your poems become songs - can you give us an example of a lyric?

Yes, with The Pluviophiles, there is much cross pollination between my poetry and our songs.

Fathers must frown
On all that flags or is soft,
On sentiment and church-dodging,
On dummies.

Dad disapproves of alone moments
No matter how hard it gets.
Extend yourself, Numb Nuts
Be rewarded with stature.

Ample mama frets the fluids,
Alpha Pop declaring:
No stains. No beach. Align yourself
With your brothers. Mask nothing,

Abide. Or I’ll give you something
To cry about. I’ll inflict the day.
Bumps. Loads. Crowing cocks.
A crossroad or two.

This one is fun to perform. Many of our songs are ironic/tongue in cheek. I imagine most people assume by the title that we're referring to the pandemic and current "hard times" but it's actually about teenage boys staining the sheets with uncontrollable erections/lust and their frustrated devoutly religious parents.

Oh, my, I just re-read that with your explanation in mind... But, uh, anything else we should say about the launch/ concert? (Other artists performing? Any notes on the venue...?).

I'm opening the evening with a poetry reading, works from my most recent collection Skookum Raven.

We're sharing the bill with award-winning playwright, poet and spoken word artist Johnny Trinh who will also be emceeing. Rafael Zen and the people at Massy Books have been nothing but kind, encouraging and enthusiastic. I admire the store and their commitment to community. All the deets are here.

A final question, out of curiosity - Susan Musgrave gets mentioned as a kindred spirit in some of the writing about Skookum Raven. Did you ever cross paths with her? Any stories there? (Or do you have other BC poets that you have better ones about/ feel more akin to?).

Yes, I have crossed paths with Susan Musgrave many times. I first bumped into her in Whistler. She had just completed collaborating with Lincoln Clarkes on a short film based on his Heroines book. Since then I've visited her on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii and we've shared bills at several poetry festivals. I've always admired Susan and her work and feel honoured to call her a friend along with BC poets Catherine Owen, Hilary Peach, Jude Neale, Joanne Arnott, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Susan Cormier, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Miranda Pearson and Heidi Greco.

Facebook event page for the May 17th launch here! Pluviophiles Facebook page here: 

Fred Ward and Escape From Alcatraz

When it comes to obituaries, these days, I might post on Facebook, but in the case of people whose death is widely felt and who I have no great personal associations with, I generally don't write about them here. So much as I loved Fred Ward - in Tremors, in Miami Blues, in Southern Comfort, in Thunderheart, basically in any role I saw him in - I had nothing in particular to say about his passing when it was announced this past weekend (he apparently died, at age 79, back on May 8th, but the news didn't break for awhile thereafter). He had an appealingly cynical smile, a gruff but engaging manner, could play a cop or a criminal, a hero or a villain and do it with style. I liked him a lot; I've been sad for awhile that he's been less visible in film than I felt he deserved, and a few years ago, hoping I'd just been missing out on some great performances by him, I tried watching a movie - Exit Speed - specifically because it had a late-phase lead role from him. I was underwhelmed - Fred was fine, but the film was pretty routine. So I was sad to see he had died, but with nothing cool to say, I was going to just say nothing. 

But then last night, I decided to play Escape from Alcatraz for Erika, in part to mark Ward's passing; I couldn't remember him in it - he plays one of two brothers who teams up with the Clint Eastwood character in the film to break out of the famed prison. It's based on a true story. I also don't have that much to say about it - maybe because it's film that itself doesn't have much to say! - but there's an interesting personal realization that I will get to in a minute. It really isn't MUCH of a personal realization, and it's really about me, not Ward, but first I do want to say a couple of things about the movie...

Escape from Alcatraz is an odd film, in that it exists almost entirely on the surface of its story. Most movies out there - even most Clint Eastwood movies! - are about more than they seem to be; the characters represent something larger than themselves, the action of the film works through some sort of thematic struggle, the climax of the film produces some sort of "meaning" or at least a feeling of emotional closure. Even if the filmmakers are not consciously aware of what they're doing - which is definitely possible - there's almost always a subtext to a film, a level on which meaning is produced that can be extracted if you take a minute to think about it (which, granted, a lot of movie viewers never bother to do, but that doesn't mean the meaning isn't there; apples on a tree remain apples, even if no one ever picks them). 

To pick a relevant example, Dirty Harry is not "just" about a cop and a criminal - it's about the antipathy between police and the counterculture at the time of its making, and the pathology of that counterculture, which the film renders in the ugliest terms possible. It revels in the righteousness of the righteous and writhes in disgust at the perversity of the perverse, digging into the hatred of the normal for the aberrant to arrive at a celebration of old-school masculine righteousness over the forces that would constrict, challenge, or undermine it (like having to follow rules or not use racist terms or so forth). I mean, I'm being pretty slapdash here in characterizing it, but there's plenty going on under the surface, which enabled Pauline Kael to describe it as a "fascist" film. If it were just a story about a cop and a killer, if there were nothing below the surface, no wider meanings that it engaged with, that wouldn't be a possible judgment. Of course, you can watch it as if there was nothing more than a cop story going on, but not wanting to think about thematic, political, and psychological aspects to a film doesn't mean that they aren't there - it's kind of an impoverished way to watch a movie. If a story doesn't function beyond its own limitations, doesn't "mean" anything to us, is really and truly "only a story" - why would anyone care about it? 

Far as I can see, Escape from Alcatraz is really, really, really about three guys who escape from, uh, Alcatraz. It is perhaps the most meat-and-potatoes movie I have ever seen, a film that is almost all text and no subtext, all plot and no theme. It tells you in the very title what it's about, and accomplishes almost nothing besides realizing that title. We learn nothing about the characters that makes them signify more than their being men in prison - I suppose because any specifics of their criminal pasts or characters might make some audience members squeamish about identifying with them. Plenty is known about the real men who escaped from Alcatraz in 1962... but all we really ever know about their analogues in the film is that they don't like being in prison.  What do they want to do when they get out? What relationships or desires or inner struggles drive them? Are they a danger to anyone, or to society, if they get free again? ....The film isn't remotely interested. We see exactly enough of their life in Alcatraz to understand why they want to escape it - from the possibility of gay rape to the excesses of authority to the sheer grey monotony and unpleasantness of life inside, none of which requires much subtlety ("cue the cockroach!" "Cue the rat!" "Now in the shower sequence..."). Perhaps there's a little bit of that "racist words don't mean racist feelings" thing that permeates Eastwood's movies, which crystallizes around his character's relationship to the prison librarian, English - terrifically played by Paul Benjamin, of Across 110th Street. But it's not like there's a secret thesis about race relations in America to be teased out of the movie. As far as I can see, there is utterly nothing else going on in the film, besides the story it is telling; it's the rare example where the question, "What's it about?" can almost entirely be answered with, "Just what it says in the title - an escape from Alcatraz."  

Which I'm fine on - once the escape attempt is underway, the film has plenty enough to do just detailing how the men plan to get out, and Siegal keeps things interesting enough visually. But you won't go away with meaty analyses or theories about what it all really means. I mean, I sure didn't, and I'm pretty inclined in that direction.

So what has this all got to do with Fred Ward? Well, the thing is, it was made very early in his career, in 1979. He'd done a bit of TV - was in an episode of Quincy, the year before, which I might have seen as a kid - I liked Quincy! - but otherwise, he'd done nothing else prior that I've seen even to this day. He was in movies called Ginger in the Morning, Tilt, and Hearts of the West, but they remain unviewed by me. He made plenty of films that I saw afterwards - starting with 1980's Southern Comfort, a film I have seen many times and have great love of. But in 1979, he was 27, and just didn't have many films under his belt. 

As I was re-watching the film Escape from Alcatraz last night, I remembered seeing it first run, theatrically, I believe at the no-longer-extant Starlight Cinemas in Maple Ridge. And this brings us to my big reveal, the point such-as-it-is of this piece of writing: I can conclude with utter surety that Escape From Alcatraz is the very first movie I ever saw Fred Ward in. 

I couldn't tell you the first time I saw most other actors I like. I can't even say with certainty that the first time I saw Brian Cox was in Manhunter, because I may have watched, in high school, the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra as part of Henry Bugler's Western Civilization course, and Cox was in it. I think I did see that film as a kid, so then it becomes a question of  the order I saw the films in - and I have no clue. I probably saw Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Tom Skerrit and Ian Holm for the first time in Alien, but all of them had done things I could have seen otherwise on TV as a kid. Even Weaver was in Annie Hall, briefly, and I cannot say with any certainty that I hadn't seen that film on TV before I saw Alien on the big screen (also in 1979, but not at the Starlight). Veronica Cartwright I know I saw before Alien, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made the year before, but had I already seen The Birds, at that point? No idea - maybe; and it's the same with her co-stars Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum - I mean, re: Goldblum, that's certainly the biggest early role I ever caught him in, but am I sure I hadn't seen Death Wish or Nashville or, again, Annie Hall on television prior to seeing Invasion, theatrically? Nope. 

It becomes surprisingly tricky to make these valuations. Probably the first time I saw Sir Alec Guinness in a film was Star Wars, when I was nine, but I also know I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai and Situation Hopeless... but Not Serious (written by Robert Shaw!) and The Quiller Memorandum on TV with my parents, at SOME point in my childhood, and cannot tell you if that took place pre-or-post George Lucas' smash. With almost any other actor whose work I am long familiar with, I cannot say with 100% certainty what the first movie I saw them in is; it would require someone - like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz -  whose work I have very slight exposure to, who acted in a film I saw theatrically at  a very young age - for me to be even remotely sure, and even with Garland - though I do know that I had a very memorable first encounter with The Wizard of Oz, at about age five, also at the Starlight, where my parents had to escort me from the theatre because I saw so traumatized about what those flying monkeys portended for Dorothy -  I remember seeing Judgment At Nuremberg on TV with my parents, when I was too young to really understand it. Can I say with certainty that I didn't see her in that before my parents took me to see The Wizard of Oz

Nope. My wife has an easier time of it, because she wasn't obsessively watching movies on TV as a child - she can say with certainty, for example, that her first exposure to Julie Andrews was Mary Poppins, for example - which she also saw theatrically, at age five, and without the attendant terror of those goddamn flying monkeys. But as deeply as I love cinema - as invested as I have been in it, my whole life - it is actually very, very uncommon for me to be able to say "that first time I saw _______ in a movie, it was __________, in _________." 

Unlike the first time I saw Fred Ward; it was in Escape From Alacatraz, in 1979, at the Starlight Cinemas in Maple Ridge.  

So that's the interesting thing I have here: unlike with almost any other actor you can name, I can pin down my first exposure to Fred Ward, and got to revisit the film last night. Which I enjoyed doing a great deal, even though - or possibly because - it's as meat-and-potatoes as a movie can be.

That's it. RIP, Mr. Ward. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Sick 3: can't sleep

So I'm arguing on Facebook about the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh and the obscene display of force shown by the IDF at her funeral procession, which was captured on video and actually made the CBC... when the Saudis killed Jamal Khashoggi there was at least a bit of international focus on them, so let's hope that there's at least as much heat generated here: which may happen, because I don't think journalists like it much when their own get killed; she was shot in the face while wearing a "press" vest in this case. And if that's not bad enough, letting the IDF attack mourners in a funeral procession for her the very next day... jeezus, how did anyone think that that was a good move? Only people very confident that the eyes of the world are not on them would do something like that, so you should put your eyes on it, if you haven't seen footage yet... 

...but as upset as I am to see this stuff - arguing about a Facebook friend's "whataboutism" in the face of criticisms of the IDF... truly, I'd rather be sleeping. (No reference to DRI lyrics intended, though it's about one of three songs by them that I do like, the others being "Soup Kitchen" and "Nursing Home Blues." Hey, that Dayglos/ Citizen Rage/ Car 87 show is going ahead at the Rickshaw, did you see, even despite the headliner's Canadian tour being cancelled. I am happy for the Dayglos. I hope people turn out in large numbers - their new album, Hate Speech, is the best thing they've done since Guano, and considerably more topical...). Normally I zonk right out these days - especially given that I ate a high CBD cookie before bed. But nope - I feel utterly no inclination towards sleep. Got up to pee and wet my mouth and now I'm marooned at my computer trying to burn off the midnight oils... at 5:22 AM...!

...But it's not the IDF's fault I'm awake - it's COVIDs. It's not that my symptoms are so bad - they're not, in fact; I continued to hack up phlegm through yesterday evening, but I'm HOPING that my symptoms are clearing. No real brainfog, frequent urination slowing down, no longer feel feverish, hurts a bit to swallow but not that much... I find my saliva is excessively ropy when I wake up and it takes awhile to clear it away, because spitting and swallowing are both challenging for me now (no fellatio jokes, please). And besides all that I feel a little congested, feel a bit of pressure behind my eyes, a bit bleary. But it's not so bad. 

Hey, I learned two things that I didn't know today, err, umm, yesterday: there are actually new antivirals - Paxlovid is the best regarded - that can help you if you have severe respiratory conditions or serious co-morbidities. I don't know why it's not prescribed more generally - was told by a doctor today that it would not be appropriate for me, only for people likely to be hospitalized, so I guess I don't need it. But if you have serious respiratory concerns, it might be worth checking out (it should be taken within five days of being symptomatic).

Also, be careful about cough syrups if you come down with COVID. One common ingredient in cough suppressants is called dextromethorphan, and while I gather the studies about it have not been conclusive, indications are that it might actually cause the COVID virus to proliferate. I've intuitively always reached for expectorants, rather than suppressants, and am swigging diluted Nin Jiom as I type this, but my wife had suggested Nyquil the other day, so I did take some of that - actually two nights in a row. It has dextromethorphan in it. I have stopped! 

Soon I will finish my nin jiom, attempt another pee and go back to bed. DOXA winners are going to be announced today, btw. But I'll let y'all sort that out. I hope I can sleep.  

Friday, May 13, 2022

Weird Dreams of Andy Partridge

So in my sickness, I dreamed that Andy Partridge of XTC was doing a signing in Maple Ridge, upstairs at a convenience store on the corner of 222nd and Dewdney - a convenience store that actually exists, that had been a Mac's at one point, then Country Milk, and now... I don't know, but it's a little Korean-run store with groceries and potted plants and porno mags and snacks, half a block from where my Mom and Dad used to live, and only a couple of blocks from where I lived, back when I was taking care of Mom after Dad passed. My parents may have been alive in the dream; their apartment was a feature of the dream. But I don't remember all of the dream, only the key aspects, which were that Andy was doing a signing in this unlikely locale, and I was coming from a trip to Vancouver with a book about XTC for him to sign.

"Ooh, that's a good one," he said when I got to him in line. He signed it and we chatted a bit, long enough that there were murmurs of impatience from behind me in line.

"Will you be here for awhile," I asked him. "Because my XTC records are just down the street... I could go get them. I'd love to have them signed." He said he would, but that if I could, what he would really like was... (I forget, but it was a need I could meet, maybe involving food or drink or something).

I spent the next bit of the dream setting up things for Andy to sign and running around between my parents' apartment and the downstairs "store" segment of the convenience store, arranging some snacks for him (but I had to be careful, because he didn't eat ______ - I forget whether it was meat, dairy or nuts, but I had to make sure any food I brought him was absent this). I also made arrangements with the Koreans downstairs to rent the room above their store, where Andy was staying, which they would let us use for $29.99 a night. Yay! I went upstairs with my XTC vinyl and maybe a poster for him to sign for my friend David M., and broke the news to Andy (who had a bushy, red beard, unlike the real Andy Partridge; my dreams almost always get some things wrong) that he could stay overnight in the room, which was set up like a small apartment. He was very happy, and we were relaxing together, him signing stuff and telling me XTC stories, when he reached out and put a hand on my belly and gave it a little jiggle in a way that clearly indicated he was making a pass at me. (My dream me remembered at that point that Andy was gay; my waking me realizes he is not). 

Oh jeez, I thought in the dream. I'm tempted, but I'm going to have to make sure this is okay with my wife...

That's all I remember of the dream. No known bearing on anything that has happened or is happening - I'm not even really listening to XTC at the moment, not contemplating a tryst with a man, not living in Maple Ridge, none of it, and while I guess I do have a bit of an unrealized "sublimated starfucker" aspect, with my enthusiasm for signatures and interviews, I don't feel particularly drawn to Andy Partridge - certainly not sexually. 

But dreams have their own way...  

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Hathaway Brothers plus Rock Against Racism: a Greg Hathaway interview

Greg Hathaway is a busy guy lately. A lifer on the Vancouver music scene, he plays with the Hathaway Brothers, Mel's Rock Pile (at least once a year!), the Asian Persuasion All Stars, and Roots Roundup (and maybe other bands I don't know about?). With a Hathaway Brothers gig at Central City this weekend, and two of his bands playing at Rock Against Racism at the Rickshaw on June 4th, I shot him a few email interview questions. Greg was juggling work and I'm negotiating COVID, so this is a bit brief, but you'll have a few chances to see him in the next few weeks...!

Note: an earlier version of this piece suggested that Dave Gregg had been in Roots Roundup, but I think I was thinkin' of the Groovaholics or some other band with two O's in their name. Oops!

Allan: What will the Hathaway Brothers be doing at Central City? (What's your brother's musical history? Have you been doing stuff with him fora long time?).

Greg: We're going to be having a good time, that's what we're going to be doing! Playing some rock'n roll, reggae, ska and punk/new wave classics with our honorary Hathaway Brothers Blake Annabel (lead guitar) andMellow Friesen (our brotherette) singing a couple of Bowie songs with us. David and I have been playing together on and off in many different bands since we were 13 & 14 years old. I won't say how old we are now, but suffice to say it's been a long musical history for the both of us!

Tell me about Mellow - how long have you been working with her? What was she wearing at the Bowie Ball - the mask? (A tribute to Orville Peck, perhaps?). Will you be doing "I'm Afraid of Americans" at Central City?

I've been working with Mellow for around 6 or 7 years now, but we've known each other for over 30 years. Mellow and I both had fancy masks for the Bowie Ball this year and mine was definitely inspired by Orville Peck, but Mellow's, I'm not sure... Mellow always shines with her own style and always sports the fanciest outfits for the Bowie Ball! Dang, we weren't planning on doing "I'm Afraid of Americans" at Central City, but you never know... that would be kind of fun in this configuration.

How did you end up in the Asian Persuasion All-Stars? Given the reggae aspect of the band, did Roots Roundup have any history with anti-racist songwriting...? (Was it your tenure in that band that got you invited to join, or some other factor?).

Tony Lee, Eric Lowe and Tim Chan just asked me if I wanted to be a part of it and I was like, sure! My history of playing reggae and ska definitely had something to do with it. I think they were looking for a
little "Greggae" vibe on the rhythm guitar! I'm glad to be part of a specifically anti-racism band and there's really a great bunch of positive, fun and talented people involved!

If someone is sort of a noob to Roots Roundup, where should they start? Is there a song you play at every show, an album you're particularly proud of? What was the highest point in terms of live shows...?

Well, that's hard to say. We put out a handful of albums, many moons ago, and there are definitely songs we play at every show. There's a release called Rootrospective that is a collection of our best known tunes that's available on various online platforms. We've always been a primarily live band, so the best introduction is really to come see us live! As far as a highest point for live shows, there's been so many over the years... we'd sell out the Commodore, weekend nights at theTown Pump, places all over town and were playing sold out shows all across Canada for a few years there. We still (or did recently, before the damnpenic!) play shows at really great music festivals and community halls throughout B.C. and sometimes even venture back to Alberta. I'd have to say that playing the closing slot for the Jazz Festival at David Lam Park on a Saturday evening a few years back was definitely a recent high, or highest point. Also Rogue Fest on the Sunshine Coast in 2019, Denman Island for NYE 2020... can't wait to get out there again!

Has playing with the Asian Persuasion All-Stars opened your eyes to anything you were unaware of, about racism in and around Vancouver, your own attitudes, or so forth? Has it turned you onto any cool music? (Tim Chan seems to have a wealth of musical knowledge, in particular).

I've been very aware of racism since I was a kid growing up in South East Van and am vehemently anti-racist, so I wouldn't say it's opened my eyes to anything, per se. It's always interesting and sometimes astonishing to hear new stories about people's experiences, though.I've supported refugee societies and immigration settlement societies with my music at fundraisers over the years and truly love our multi-cultural society. I will oppose and fight against racism any chance I get. To quote the mighty British poet and songwriter LKJ, "Fascists on the attack, nobody worry 'bout that. Fascists on the attack, we will fight them back". In my own experience, the only trouble I've ever had from neighbours has been with white neighbours! 

Now, Tim Chan... yes, he is a wealth of musical knowledge and an extremely nice fellow, too.

I'm really, really looking forward to the Rock Against Racism show with DOA on June 4th at the Rickshaw. Love Joe, love DOA, love the Rickshaw and support the fundraising. Roots Round Up has a couple of surprises lined up... RRU has played with DOA many times over the years and this one is going to blow the roof off the place. Playing with Asian Persuasion too just doubles my pleasure!

Rock Against Racism is a ways away, but the Hathaway Brothers play Friday at Central City Taphouse (try the sticky date pudding!). 

Sick 2: It's COVID. Plus more on Don "Sugarcane" Harris

So today is day three of definitive symptoms - it was clear I had *something* by late Monday night. Tuesday I was pretty sure it was COVID. Wednesday morning I tested - the kits have a level of stupidity to them, with directions that have too much medical-speak, but are actually easy enough to use: you pour a little liquid in a phial, swab your nostrils, stick the swab in the liquid and swirl it around, then put a cap in the phial and put three drops in the little circle at the bottom of the, uh, thingy. If you have one line - no COVID. If you have two lines - COVID. It takes a few minutes to show. 

The above is my actual test.

So now I've been meandering around singing "So this is COVID" to the tune of that John and Yoko Christmas tune. Mostly I feel weak and achey. There's a bit of a shivery feeling that sets in if I move around. My throat is a little sore - hurts to swallow - and occasionally, but only occasionally, I am wracked by shallow, rapid-fire coughs. My left nostril is a bit runny but the coughing and nose-blowing I do is not particularly productive, are dry. The most notable symptom for me that people do NOT seem to talk about is frequent and voluminous urination; I get the signal to pee and have to race to the toilet, lest it start before I'm ready, and pee huge quantities of nearly clear fluid. I'm assuming this is my immune system's way of fighting the disease, trying to clear it out. The advice to stay hydrated is pretty darn important, then, because I'm losing a lot of liquid this way. 

I have no gastric symptoms (yet). I have no loss of smell or taste (yet). I have no more or less "brain fog" than usual. I've heard people talk about serious lower back pain, but that's not a feature of it for me yet, either. I tend not to sleep very long - I was up at 3 to pee last night - but no doubt I will have no problem with taking a nap later. 

And of course, Erika - who was away for the weekend, which is probably when I caught it, but who has been in close quarters with me since Sunday night, when I really didn't believe I had anything --is now starting to feel like she's not totally well, either, though she tested negative yesterday. I'm guessing if we wait one more day, she will test positive; I'm being told by a friend in healthcare that you need to wait a couple of days before symptoms manifest (the kits are free at pharmacies, btw). 

Ah well. If it doesn't get much worse than this, I'm not going to have many complaints - it's all pretty mild and manageable, considering the hubbub and the potential for serious sickness - but who knows what the next few days hold.

In other news: found something delightful the other day, something which was already in my record collection, but which I had entirely forgotten or at least failed to appreciate when I acquired it. 

I was a big fan, back in the 1980's, of a California band called Tupelo Chain Sex, a jazzy ska-punk unit that had a rep for a great live show, which I consistently missed out on, due to living in Maple Ridge - this was back when there was no transit yoking the 'burbs with the city - as well as my being underage and having no friends who were keen to see them (Maple Ridge was not known for musical adventurousness). I read about them in Discorder, had their albums Ja-Jazz and Spot the Difference, and knew that NO FUN opened for them once, so - as you can find on my blog if you go back a bit - I've been mining David M. for stories, mostly around "Oh To Be on Heroin," a song on Snivel that namechecks fiddler Don "Sugarcane" Harris' prior doo-wop duo, Don and Dewey, because he needed a rhyme for "Louie Louie," "kablooey," "phooey," and so forth. Apparently, David called Harris' attention to the song when Harris and Stumuk - Zappa's carpenter, as I recall - came up front at the Luv-A-Fair (or was it the Arts Club?) to check NO FUN out. I HAD realized, back in the 1980's, from articles I read about them that Harris also had had a history with Zappa, but I didn't really pay great attention to that in my teens and 20's, when I was most enthusiastic about Tupelo Chain Sex. I wasn't in a period of deep Zappa fandom at that point; I had maybe five Zappa albums, including Hot Rats, and may have even registered that the hot electric fiddle on "Willie the Pimp" and "The Gumbo Variations" was Don Harris, but I never really paid attention to his ripping fiddle on those tunes, and never heard Weasels Ripped My Flesh until recently, nor had a clue that Harris sang a song on it. He's also on Burnt Weeny Sandwich, but I didn't ever own that album, either, until recently, or know "Little House I Used to Live In." So while I thought it was cool, even as a teenager, that there was this overlap between Tupelo Chain Sex and Zappa, I wasn't really primed to appreciate it, which changed, sort of, in talking with David, mostly because I thought it was pretty funny that he innocently called Don's attention to a song about heroin, not realizing that Don actually had a problem with that drug.

Anyhow, was gonna spin their best album, Spot the Difference - a ubiquitous item in used record stores, note, one of those great but undersung records that you can usually get for fifteen bucks or less - for Erika the other day. (Kids looking to build vinyl collections are seriously encouraged to check it out!). I don't think I've played in in ten or more years, maybe not since I bought my current copy very early in rebuilding my vinyl collection (I'd long ago sold the copy I bought when it was new back in 1984). I think my current copy was bought at Scratch Records, circa 2007, when the store was on Richards Street, and since I knew it by heart, was simply shelved, unspun. 

And here's the thing that I discovered on taking it out: it's signed. I vaguely remember noticing this back in 2007, but not making much of it, especially since it's not signed by, for example, the frontman Limey Dave, who was kind of the "star" of the band for me back in the 1980s. But there on the back, we see Tupelo Joe, Willie Dredd, and... yep, the neat penmanship of Sugarcane Harris, up at the top. I had no idea I had something signed by him - had completely forgotten. He died over 20 years ago, so this is now a treasured possession, one which I didn't even know I owned.

David tells me I should look through my records more often.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

DOXA 2022: Teresa Alfeld on Doug and the Slugs and Me (an interview )

Teresa Alfeld thus far has three documentaries about Vancouver figures under her belt, including a feature on socialist lawyer and mayoral candidate Harry Rankin, a short on anti-poverty activist and politician Jean Swanson, and - premiering at DOXA on May 15th - on Doug and the Slugs, Doug and the Slugs and Me

But Alfeld did not actually envision herself, early on, as becoming a documentary filmmaker, she explains on a Zoom call.

“My interest in film school was always in narrative, but I was curious about documentary, and it just so happened that a proposal I’d written many years ago about Harry Rankin to the BC Arts Council for a film was one of my first successful funding applications. I always say I fell into documentary.”

You’d never know it. I’ve only previewed three documentaries for DOXA, but Alfeld’s film, Doug and the Slugs and Me, is by far my favourite (best music doc I've seen since Sparks? Probably). Of course, I’ve been listening to Doug and the Slugs since age 12, when I first noticed Cognac & Balogna on the shelf at a Maple Ridge Pay & Save, shortly after its release (I recall being intrigued by the album cover and title from the gitgo). And as an adult, I saw Doug and the Slugs live three times (twice with Doug and no original Slugs, and once with all the original Slugs but no Doug). I interviewed Simon Kendall about one of the band’s post-Doug concerts and got my albums signed backstage at that show by all the members of the band save, obviously, Doug (though I did get his autograph on a 7" I purchased at Neptoon Records, itself a location for some of Alfeld's interviews). I once even had a weird moment with Doug Bennett in a Maple Ridge men’s room, close to the end of his life (I detail the encounter in my obituary from when Bennett passed, at the tragically young age of 52, in 2004, but it's nowhere near the sort of weird men's room moment that Rob Halford describes in Confess, so don't get your hopes up!). 

With that much history with the band, I was predisposed to either love Alfeld’s film, or to find fault with it if she got things wrong. Happy to report that she knocks it out of the park, with tons of stuff I didn’t expect (like Terry David Mulligan having exactly the same assessment of Music for the Hard of Thinking that I do) to Doug himself being tormented, in his journals, by the compromises that began with that record, as the band struggled to break into America and get onto the radio again. There's tons of footage I had not seen, including snippets of the musical Bennett performed in, John Gray's Rock and Roll. Even more surprisingly, there’s also ample music that I flat out did not know about, from the Slugs-without-a-Doug 7” (“Running Around”) to the country album Bennett demo’d, songs from which ended up the Tomcat Records CD Fallen Angel, by Suzanne Gitzi

It takes some doing to school me in Doug and the Slugs, but Alfeld makes it look easy.

Teresa Alfeld interviewing John Burton
It also doesn't hurt that Alfeld and I share a favourite Doug and the Slugs record. "For me, instantly, Wrap It! is the record," she tells me as I grin and nod. "I love all their albums for different reasons; I love Cognac and Bologna, too, which I feel really captures their live show from the late 70's" - she means the spirit of it; it's not a live album - "but with Wrap It! I feel that all of the guys, Doug, John, Simon, Wally, Steve and Rick, are really pushing their sound and they're trying new things. I mean, 'Alibi,' what's that? It's an incredible track. Or 'Wrong Kind of Right.' But for me, my favourite song, the second I heard it, is 'Partly from Pressure.' It's one of those songs that just gets into your system: the soulful quality of the vocal and the arrangement, the mystifying lyrics that I still can't figure out - although I think they allude to a lot of what was going on for Doug at the time... For me, it's a standout, it's truly one of their most incredible tracks."

Fittingly, the film kicks off with "Dangerous," as performed live on Alan Thicke's talk show, so the first track on Wrap It! is the first music you hear. That song is also the last one you hear at the end of Alfeld's previous feature-length doc, The Rankin File. "All the music [for the Harry Rankin film] is Doug and the Slugs," she tells me. "That's how this all sort of came about - I needed a soundtrack for The Rankin File, which is set in 1980's Vancouver - so ooh, Doug and the Slugs! I started working with Simon, and that's how the idea for the film came about. So I ended that film with 'Dangerous,' and I started Doug and the Slugs and Me with 'Dangerous,' which I thought was kind of fun..."

So is Alfeld seeing this as her area, now – to make films about under-sung Vancouver characters? It’s certainly fertile ground, she agrees. “There’s just so many around us, and they never get their due, especially on the national stage. And so it’s been really fun to get to know all these interesting Vancouverites; I’m certainly starting to see common themes that unite people from the west coast.”

As Alfeld and I discuss in our feature interview for Montecristo, Alfeld – who grew up next to the Bennetts and was friends with Shea Bennett, one of Doug’s daughters – had intended to tell the band’s story “with the usual suspects of archival performances and archival photos.” That was until Bennett’s widow, Nancy Hare, entrusted her with a cache of home movies. She also gave the filmmaker access to Bennett’s journals, which span the 1980’s. Both developments are discussed at length in the Montecristo interview, and considerably enrich the documentary.

The journals more or less span the first ten years of Doug and the Slugs existence, but come to an end in 1989. Does Alfeld know why Bennett stopped journaling?

“I have no clear answer,” Alfeld responds. “The family didn’t say that ‘Doug pronounced in 1989 that he was done writing.’ Or, John [Burton, Slugs’ guitarist] or Simon [Kendall, keyboard player] didn’t tell me that Doug had decided to stop writing. They really just peter off. One of the final entries is specifically about Christmas – about how Christmas had been for the family, and how he’d bought some nice new leather pants for Nancy. And then they just end, and I’m left to come to my own conclusions, and the ones that I’ve come to are that the journaling processes – what Doug calls his ‘science project’ – were done with an inkling that the band was about to take off, and by 1989, it was clear to everyone that Doug and the Slugs weren’t going to make in the States, they weren’t going to have that big breakthrough; they would obviously still have a wonderful career into the 1990’s, but Doug and the Slugs were not going to be his main drive anymore. My sense was that he’d become so much more domestic, a family man, and that he didn’t feel right to continue the journals. “

One aspect of Doug and the Slugs not really covered in the film is Bennett's propensity for teasing and torturing audiences. I remember a Facebook friend – sadly, I’ve forgotten who – who reported seeing Doug and the Slugs as a child, and was standing right up at the front, when Doug, seeing the kid had suspenders on (or some other elasticky thing; the deets of the story have faded since I was told it), reached down into the audience, pulled the suspenders (or whatever it was) out from the kid, and then snapped them back, causing a fair bit of pain – which Bennett chuckled merrily at, leaving my Facebook friend fuming that the singer was “a prick” (I believe  that was the term the guy used – he was still mad about the episode years later!).

I never saw anything like that – but I did witness, both times I caught him, Doug speculating which female patrons of bars he was playing in were wearing “falsies;” him teasing audience members that men with hats in bars are invariably bald underneath them. And there are other stories out there: Simon Kendall, in the above-linked Straight interview, relays one of Doug venturing into the audience while the band vamped behind him so he could, on-mike, poke fun at the contents of an older woman’s purse that he set to rummaging through. So did Alfeld find footage of things like that, and leave it out of the film – fearing, perhaps, that it would lose audience sympathies for Bennett?

Not so much. Alfeld never saw anything on the level of aggression as the suspenders-snap story, and as for any off-colour moments in performance footage, “the honest answer is, I didn’t encounter anything that made me really uncomfortable, that I felt like I needed to hide. Moreso there was just obviously evidence in Doug’s final years that his health was declining, in performance footage that I didn’t think needed to be out there.” 

As for teasing audiences, “I certainly heard stories, too. I think that Doug was always walking a line. But I find that interesting and exciting. I haven’t been privy to anything that crossed a line or made me uncomfortable.”

The film has some very fun footage – especially the stuff at Grandview Lanes, more on which in Montecristo – of Alfeld spending time with the Bennett’s as a child. And she was clearly at one of the Ted Okos-fronted, post-Doug gigs at the Commodore, because there's footage from it in the film (I strained, but couldn't spot myself). But it is unclear if she ever saw Doug himself perform live...?

“I have a very faint recollection of seeing him perform one time at the PNE in Vancouver," Alfeld says. "According to my parents, I would have been five or six, very young. I don’t really remember the show; what I remember was that Shea and I were up at the front of the stage, dancing our little five-year-old asses off, and thinking that we were amazing. That’s what I remember thinking: ‘Wow, we’re the best dancers, how are people even going to pay attention to this band?’”

There will be both streamed and theatrical presentations of Doug and the Slugs and Me starting May 14th, with Alfeld and various Slugs on hand for all three theatrical showings. See the DOXA website (and my Montecristo story!) for more.