Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Conspiracies and curses: the Blue Öyster Cult's The Symbol Remains, reviewed track-by-track

I've been excited for months about the promise of a new Blue Öyster Cult album, which should be hitting shelves this week; if you haven't already pre-ordered it, you can do so it here. I am happy to report that I love it, as you will see, though (as is the case with every single Blue Öyster Cult album ever), I don't love every song equally. Even when I was a "first three albums" snob - I refer to the concept below, but it's someone who confers near-legendary status on the BÖC up to 1974's Secret Treaties, then gets unduly fussy about the rest of their catalogue - I thought that some songs were better than others. For instance, even though I hold to this day that Secret Treaties is their greatest overall accomplishment, I am not wild about every song on it. I mean, "Cagey Cretins" is fun enough, for example - especially the line about it being so lonely in the state of Maine, which I'd place good money on being Stephen King's favourite BÖC lyric -  but it's not on the same level as "Astronomy" or "ME262," the two masterpieces of rock songcraft on that album, nor as personally appealing to me, say, as "Flaming Telepaths," to pick one of the less popular songs on the album. Their next album, Agents of Fortune, despite being their breakthrough and home to their biggest hits, fares even worse; while "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is on it, and tried-and-true crowd pleasers like "ETI," "Tattoo Vampire," and "This Ain't the Summer of Love," I am vastly less drawn to the rest of the album, which overall - those hits aside - is less coherent, less powerful than, say, The Symbol Remains. 

Yes, folks, I did just say that: I like The Symbol Remains overall more than Agents of Fortune. Not saying that there are songs on it better than the band's biggest all-time hit, but overall, it's a more solid, consistent, and flat-out rockin' LP than that one. 

More on that later. Meantime, here's my song-by-song consideration of The Symbol Remains

That Was Me”: Well that is one heavy riff. Have the BÖC ever sounded this heavy (or bassy)? The depths and darkness at hand make me think of the uncharacteristically “metal” riffage on “See You in Black” (the opening cut on their neglected post-Columbia album Heaven Forbid) or maybe Imaginos – both of which took a while to grow on me –  but in terms of songcraft and lyrics, this is great stuff, a smart lead single/ opening cut, and I am particularly glad that Eric sometimes breaks out of the past tense to say that “is me” or “is still me,” because I am nowhere near ready to think of the BÖC as a thing of the past. Alas, there are a couple of signs here – also including the legacy-minded album title and the final song, which ends on the suggestion to turn out the lights – that that’s how the band is conceiving things. Still, this album does NOT sound like a band on its last legs, even if the key members (Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser) are now in their 70’s... 

As always, Buck and Eric trade off vocals from song to song, but there are some key differences on this album, where background vocals are more a choral affair than in the past, and there’s a new vocalist and songwriter in the mix, Richie Castellano, who impressed the hell out of me as a guitar player when I caught the current lineup live and who contributes one of the album’s strongest songs, "The Alchemist," adapted from a HP Lovecraft story.  

More on that later, though – back to “That Was Me.” Eric Bloom is in great voice here, and has plenty of his showmanship and charisma on display in the video. It's pleasing to see, because - having caught the band last year at at Ambleside last year - it seems like Buck sings a lot more of the songs these days, live, compared to Eric, and has become the "star" of the band (not just the hitmaker), which was not always the case. The setlist for my one previous live experience of the band is less than complete, but if Extraterrestrial Live, recorded during that 1982 tour, is any index, Buck has tripled his vocal contributions onstage, singing six songs in 2019 compared to two in 1982. That's not a bad thing in any way, but it makes me happy that the lead single off the album showcases Eric so effectively, and that he is such a strong, powerful presence throughout The Symbol Remains. Nice, too, that Buck lets Richie Castellano take the lead solo on their first single! And John Shirley’s lyrics are witty and enjoyable, even if my wife found a sassy, but probably unintentional, double-entendre in the line about seeing a “slowly spreading crack.” MY mind went straight away to a windshield, or maybe a sheet of ice you’re standing on, but hers went… somewhere more anatomical, if you get me...

And hey, is there a bit of reggae creeping in on the bridge? Have I ever heard the BÖC do anything remotely reggaelike before?  Hm. (Note: I have interviewed Eric Bloom since I started writing this, and he points out "Showtime" as also having a reggae edge. Duly noted!)

The second single, and indeed the album’s second cut, “Box in My Head,” has been more contentious with fans – some comments on Youtube have been negative - but it’s plenty fun if you don’t take it all that seriously, and I’m liking it more each time I play it, for the propulsive rhythm guitars, the swirling synths, and the background vocals – which overall seem to be a more pleasurable feature of this particular BÖC album than any other I recall (even songs I don’t like as much on the album are improved when the background chorus rises up). Here, in particular, there are places where the chorus sings just plain ol’ “box!” – which is plenty funny, in a subtle, silly, very-BÖC kinda way, since this is a band that have never seemed much limited by the concept of what makes a “normal” song. "Box in My Head"'could be at home on Mirrors or Spectres or Buck’s solo album – it’s of that era – but it might seem a weird pick for a second single; surely this is not Buck’s strongest song on the album?

The answer to that question is that, no, in fact, it is not Buck’s strongest song here (nor is it John Shirley’s best lyric, which I think I’m gonna give to “That Was Me,” “Florida Man” or “Nightmare Epiphany” – haven’t decided yet), but Buck’s strongest songs on the album are far weirder and more demanding, in a very good, very BÖC kinda way, than this one, and it may have made Frontiers nervous to lead with them. Rest assured, though - if you are at first non-plussed by "Box in My Head," give it time...

It is also true that “Tainted Blood” might grow on me –but  I think it’s safe to say that at the moment it is my least favourite song on the album. Written by Eric and Richie, its a power ballad, and while I guess the band deserves credit for doing something unexpected, I'm really just not a power ballad kind of person. It's a good power ballad, I guess, and has interesting lyrics, with a vampire pleading to be killed after the loss of his vampire love, and I like the background vocals and solos just fine, but power ballads in general are often just a bit on the obvious side, musically: I just don't groove on'em. It's not like I'm gonna ever skip this song when the album plays, unless maybe somehow my life experiences make it easier for me to identify with the feelings at hand here (but I sure hope that doesn't happen!) 

By sharp contrast, “Nightmare Epiphany” – with music by Buck Dharma and lyrics by John Shirley – obliterates in its opening riffs any fear that anything “obvious” is at hand, and lyrically marks the return to that hallmark of vintage BÖC: deliberate and perverse lyrical obscurantism. Shirley - whose novels are mostly unknown to me, but who wrote one hell of an entertaining novelization for the Constantine movie - packs surreal one-liners together with a sort of whimsical darkness, achieving images as weird as anything Richard Meltzer or Sandy Pearlman ever cooked up. I mean, “There were leeches that were spiders and spiders that were flies?” What the sanctified, multi-tentacled fuck is he talking about? While the cascading insanity of the lyrics reminds me somewhat irrelevantly of the Cramps’ much goofier (but more trivial) “Wet Nightmare,” it still makes for a very fun song, which really does have the quality of a dream-narrative to it. And there’s an up-tempo oddness to the song structure, particularly a rockabilly-cum-surf guitar twangy bit that precedes the choruses that will immediately catch your ear. Much nuttier than “Box in My Head,” maybe the sonic equivalent of a David Wong novel, this is a song that I *think* will appeal to those “first three albums” snobs out there, reformed or otherwise, and the second best song on the album so far, after “That Was Me.” (Overall it will prove to be my fourth favourite song on the album, with “The Alchemist,” “Train True (Lenny’s Song)” vying for top spot, and “That Was Me” in third – but these things tend to change the deeper you get into a BÖC album, so who knows where we will be in a week).

Oh, and the solos. I mean, nevermind the actual-official solo itself: magnificent as it is, almost every second line in the song has giddy, tuneful, complex and weird-ass little runs on the guitar, presumably all by Buck. Damn, do I enjoy his playing. (And Richie’s, too, I guess, since I haven’t yet managed to consistently tell’em apart. I am sure there are people out there who will snub me for this failing!).

“Edge of the World:” Richie Castellano gets full credit for music and lyrics on this one, but Eric Bloom sings the lead, and it works much better than “Tainted Blood;” I mean, he’s original lead vocalist Eric Bloom, which is always gonna count for something, and his voice has a bit more character than Richie's. But Castellano’s lyrics are really intriguing on this one, and fit the band’s identity perfectly. While the Blue Öyster Cult have always had an element of conspiracy laced throughout their songwriting, be it conspiracy to commit murder (“The Last Days of May”) to Sandy Pearlman’s The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, which interprets everything from Frankenstein to World War II as the fruit of an ages old secret history involving extraterrestrials, secret societies, immortals, and Öysterboys, this is (I think) the first time I’ve seen the band actually sing, overtly, about conspiracy theory itself, or use the word “conspiracy” in their lyrics… which further prove that it’s not just John Shirley who can come up with witty one-liners: if you find me a UFO novel that begins with an image as compelling as Castellano’s, “The second time I was abducted,” I’ll want to read it. (I love how Eric phrases that). Kinda takes us back to the days of “Take Me Away,” but with a more sombre countenance. 

Intriguingly, the chorus and lead vocal here seem to take a counterpoint with each other, like skeptics and conspiracy theorists singing at each other, creating a tension that I think all of us feel (especially on social media) these days: “Trusting everything you read/ Lost in your conspiracies,” the choral skeptics sing disapprovingly in tandem, to which Eric retorts, “I want to believe!” Not quite sure what the edge of the world is – some social-media-driven apocalypse? The death of truth? The complete collapse of civilization? But suffice it so say, I like this a lot better than “Tainted Blood,” and have caught myself humming it around the apartment, somewhat to my surprise.  

And what’s that I hear: is that a cowbell? (The press materials I've seen do not mention if it is Albert playing it, but I’d love it if it were).

Next track: “The Machine.” For a few years, I had Pere Ubu’s “On the Surface” set as my ringtone, not realizing that it meant that whenever I would hear that song come up on a playlist, I would reach for my phone. Here, the BÖC kicks things off with an actual, generic ringtone, which may well have the same effect on people, illustrating what it means to be a “slave to the machine.” (I wanted to reach for MY phone when I first heard it, even though it doesn’t remotely sound like my actual ringtone at present).While I do not generally turn to the BÖC for cultural commentary – I want of them horror stories, scary bikers, UFO’s, conspiracies, occultism and vaguely antisocial  high weirdness – I like this well enough, in a very meat-and-potatoes rock song way (again, the chorus is more fun than the verses). Doesn’t really sound much like what I think of as the Blue Öyster Cult, but I've found myself humming it around the apartment, which weirdly enough I haven't done - haven't been able to do - with the album's more demanding high points. It will be really fun seeing people in a live show – if we ever get their chance – holding up their phones to record this song; and fans with a really fine sense of irony can set this song as their ringtone so that the ringtone that begins it becomes, like, their ringtone, if you see what I mean: a meta-level ringtone joke!

No one will do this, of course.

And what’s that I hear, more cowbell? While I was never really big on that whole silly SNL skit, and even vaguely regret that it may have influenced the band to add a cowbell part here, I really, really hope that there will be a credit, when the vinyl arrives, of “Albert Bouchard – cowbell.” (Incidentally, if any of you missed this or don’t know, Albert Bouchard is the original BÖC drummer, the man who played the cowbell on “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” the guy with the cowbell who materializes during the “That Was Me” video and the mastermind of the ill-fated but highly rewarding and ambitious Imaginos album. He’s presently working on a revised version of his Imaginos demos, called ReImaginos - first single here - and has been selling a deluxe package with a signed cowbell included: ha! The Bouchard version of that album, which also existed as a bootlegged demo at one point, has a more linear, logical song sequence compared to the full band's 1988 reworking of the album, and a few tunes not included on the 1988 album. The Bouchard version makes Pearlman’s grand-scale conspiracy theory more complete and coherent, if still really quite weird. Lotta good deep-dive net reading on Imaginos and the occult/ extraterrestrial conspiracy theories therein...

Now it is time for one of the two best songs on the album. I am not sure if “Train True (Lennie’s Song)”  will ultimately claim title over Castellano’s “The Alchemist” as the masterpiece on the album, but it will delight people who revel in the sheer oddness of Blue Öyster Cult deep cuts like “Before the Kiss, a Redcap,” and accomplishes the feat of not only evoking classic BÖC, but also Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone” (near the beginning) and, weirdly, the Reverend Horton Heat (in the delivery of the couplet “you gotta have a brain/ when you’re working for the train” – maybe it’s just me, but I can so hear Jim Heath singing that). Delightful that this has lyrics written by Buck’s son, Zeke Roeser, who is a trial lawyer, we gather (!), but I have no idea what “workin’ for the train” means, to say nothing of the song as a whole. It feels like some sort of urban slang – presumably not “pulling a train,” which is what Google leads me to. But you know, I never understood “Before the Kiss, a Redcap” either, until I started reading Martin Popoff's book on the band. For people who think that that song is maybe the greatest thing that the Blue Öyster Cult ever did – which opinion I have held at different times, myself, especially back in the days of first-three-albums-snobbery – “Train True (Lennie’s Song)” will be a really satisfying experience. 

(I am glad I got beyond my former “first three albums” snobbery, by the by. I have come to like almost every Blue Öyster Cult album ever. I still have some problems with some songs on The Revolution By Night – from whence the title of The Symbol Remains comes, btw, on the song “The Shadow of California” - and I am only half-sold on Club Ninja, but Spectres? Mirrors? Heaven Forbid? Ignored by me for decades, I’ve now fallen in love with them and these days listen to them MORE than Secret Treaties, which I still regard as their pinnacle, but have listened to far too often and now must protect and listen to selectively, lest I start to take it for granted... I never want to be lose the thrill of “ME262,” you know?).

And here’s Richie again, singing “The Return of St. Cecilia,” with lyrics by Richard Meltzer, hearkening back to the band’s Stalk-Forrest Group days – though this is not an updated version of the ethereal pop of the original song, “St. Cecilia,” who, I gather, is known as the patron saint of music, because she was singing shortly before she was martyred, or something. I know nothing of St. Cecilia besides what a cursory glance at Wikipedia has netted me, and probably need to do some homework before I can really dig what’s going on here, but the lyrics are nowhere near as cryptic-seeming as Meltzer usually is. Bears further investigation, I s’pose – tho’ again, the riffage is more generic heavy metal than I want of the BÖC. it’s catchy enough, and the background vocals and solos elevate things mightily. Apparently Meltzer provided this to them as a new lyric - it's not something that has been sitting around in a box since the Soft White Underbelly days...

Moving briskly on: is it weird that “Stand and Fight” could be an Amon Amarth song, or is just me? I mean, I generally go to Amon Amarth for all my Amon Amarth needs – because, face it, no one can Amon Amarth like Amon Amarth - but what the hell, it is curious seeing the BÖC diversifying in the direction of what I take for Viking metal (because even if it doesn’t specifically mention Vikings, it’s a fight song, and the word “north” is in it, and it has a very we're-goin'-to-Valhalla-boys vibe to it, so that’s where I’m locating it). Eric sings it well, and again, if the dark heavy riffage is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the stuff I most love on this album, there’s nothing wrong with it. I personally don’t want to bang my head to the Blue Öyster Cult, or, really, ever – it’s just not my thing; I don’t even bang my head to Amon Amarth! But it’s good to know that if you WANT to bang your head, this album will not disappoint. Maybe some crossover Amon Amarth fans will be drawn here by it? I am sure they will be warmly welcomed.   

“Florida Man” is the “Harvest Moon” of this album – one of the high points on Heaven Forbid, which also speaks of a place in the US suffering from a vaguely Lovecraftian ancient curse, but “Florida Man” narrows things down geographically and has more fun with its conceit, with a curse bestowed on the whole state of Florida by a vengeful Seminole shaman. After that internet game of Googling and posting news stories that begin with “Florida Man” – and as I write this, I see on the news that a Florida man will paint the portrait of the alligator that attacked him, and that a Florida man falsely reported a dead body “to get a ride home” – I guess someone had to write a song called “Florida Man,” and I for one am glad it’s the Blue Öyster Cult. Peak perversity from John Shirley, for this album, anyhow: “High on meth/ there’s little Beth/ The neighbour’s cat is on her breath.” At first I thought, wait, did she EAT the cat? (Blood and fur on her teeth, like). And then I thought, oh, jeez, maybe she, like, ate the cat, like, one might eat, a, like, pussy, as in, a cat’s pussy. Ewww! So there’s two images you don’t want in your head for the price of one; here's hoping Shirley is makin' this shit up, and not drawing from actual Florida Man news stories, because, well, yikes. The song - which I gather Buck suggested he write - ends on a somewhat reflective and compassionate note, all things considered. And yes, it’s true – I too have had my “Florida Man” moments now and then. If only Harry Crews had lived to dig this song. Fifth favourite song on the album? Maybe!

Next stop – and we will linger here for awhile – is “The Alchemist.” As you may have already heard, this is the epic on the album, the song that will immediately grip the people who like “Astronomy” or "The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein's Castle at Weisseria" or “7 Screaming Diz-Busters” or such – which locates it in both lyric and sound deep within the belly of the Blue Öyster Cult, even if the new guy wrote it (Congratulations, Richie, for this – and thank you). Again, Eric has the lead vocal – when he sings “I’m the alchemist,” you’ll feel the same chills you get when he sings “hey Lou!” in “7 Screaming Diz-Busters.” “The Alchemist” is based pretty closely on a HP Lovecraft short story, even includes a quote from it, but Castellano inverts the narration of the original story, which is, in fact, told from the point of view not of the alchemist, but the heir to his centuries-old curse. You can read the original story online at that last link, if you like. Any song that makes people want to read HP Lovecraft is all right with me.

Plus maybe, if and when they tour this album, the band will follow it up with their other overtly Lovecraftian number, the magnificent “The Old Gods Return,” which is the song off Curse of the Hidden Mirror – yet another curse-reference! – that I most would like to see played live (it was not on their setlist at Ambleside). May we all survive long enough for that to happen!

Does anyone else think the keyboard part – from Richie, perchance? – kinda perfectly channels the late Allen Lanier? Is it meant to? Nice, if so.

Next up is “Secret Road” – Buck on vocals, John Shirley on lyrics. Mysticism! Okay. Without meaning to be glib (and without intending to get all penile), there is a kind of Blue Öyster Cult song that is a grower, not a shower. “Celestial the Queen” is a perfect example, or “I am the Storm” or “Shadow of California" or such. They’re all beautifully-crafted, enjoyable songs, but they don’t stand out as obvious crowd-pleasers in the band’s catalogue; you might hear people in the audience shouting out for “Godzilla,” but you’re not gonna hear people shouting out for “Celestial the Queen,” I don’t think. Still, sometime around the hundredth time that you listen to Spectres, you realize of "Celestial," “Holy shit, this is a really good song!” and you totally connect with it and fall in love with its songcraft. It just takes some time to grow on you, as does “I am the Storm,” or “Perfect Water” or… anyhow, “Secret Road” is another of those songs – a sort of advice-to-a-young man tune from Buck. Hasn’t quite grown on me yet, ain't humming it around the house, but I’m distracted by the more overt attention-grabbers on the album. Kinda how it goes!

 “There’s a Crime” –Again, a muscular rocker, maybe without as much weirdness as I like of the BÖC, but, like, some of these sortsa songs, like maybe “Damaged” off Heaven Forbid, do put a smile on your face. It’s not gonna be a critic’s favourite, but we “wrist merchants” (as Rob Halford calls us) are overrated, anyhow. Co-written by BÖC drummer Jules Radino and a guitarist named Jeff Denny, who has worked with Radino in other contexts, it boasts another great Eric vocal and, once again, cool choral vocals. Radino’s fills have a particular enthusiasm, too, which I guess makes sense considering he wrote the song!

To return to the idea of contrasting this album with Agents of Fortune. Where the “lesser” cuts on Agents of Fortune ("Debbie Denise," anyone?) are kind of softer-edged, sentimentally sweet, and poppier, compared to the hits, the lesser cuts on The Symbol Remains are total muscle, with very little pop at all. I suspect that people who rate those first three albums way up there, and then maybe Cultosaurus Erectus or Heaven Forbid or Imaginos or such, are going to have an easier time embracing this than people who think the high point is Spectres or Mirrors or Club Ninja, just because of the album's tilt to the heavy side. Go figure, that the BÖC wait until they’re rounding the corner on their sixth decade to make their toughest album.

Which isn’t quite over, because here’s “Fight.” Another Buck Dharma tune, musically, though I have no idea who his co-writers are. J. Wold? I. Rosoff? Dunno. But it’s a good song, gentler, more shimmery, more reflective than most of the other cuts, with lots of texture to the guitars and a compelling lyric and vocal lead from Buck. It’s another tune on the album – fittingly bookending “That Was Me” – that suggests that this may be the final album the band makes, with its observation that “that wasn’t that much of a fight” and the final, rhyming injunction to turn out the light. But that’s gotta all be ironic, because The Symbol Remains actually puts up a pretty goddamn great fight, as have the band as a whole – "on tour forever," neglected by the radio (and the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame), with only a small cadre of loyal true believers standing with them, continuing to make outstanding, thinkin’-persons rock 48 years into their career. I mean, not much of a fight my ass!  

I can’t speak to the rest of the world, but loyal true believers out there are going to fucking LOVE this album, I think. Maybe this time, the rest of the world will catch on, too?

Song by song grades, already re-thought and revised a few times as I listen again and again...

That Was Me: A

Box in My Head: A-

Tainted Blood: B-

Nightmare Epiphany: A+

Edge of the World: A

The Machine: A-

Train True (Lennie’s Song): A+++ (does that even exist?)

The Return of St. Cecilia: B-

Stand and Fight: B

Florida Man: A

The Alchemist: A+++

Secret Road: A-

There’s a Crime: B-

Fight: A

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Rob Halford's Confess: a breezy, funny, eye-opening read

Judas Priest at the Pacific Coliseum, May 28, 1984 (the Metal Conqueror tour, one tour after the one I write about); photo by bev davies - not to be reused without permission

In 1982, at age 14, I saw Judas Priest my one and only time, at the Pacific Coliseum. I had no idea that lead singer Rob Halford was gay - nor would I have been able to tell, as I was pretty naive about homosexuality. Having grown up in the suburbs, when "queer" was still an insult and homosexuality was confusing, taboo, and could possibly get you beaten up, I had little exposure to any actual gay culture. It was pretty much invisible in my environment, which made it a matter of survival to either clamp down on your queerness or, if you couldn't, stay closeted about it. There was a similar conservatism in the media. Billy Crystal in Soap aside, there wasn't much in the way of positive representation of gay culture. You could see the Village People performing on Solid Gold bedecked in their fabulous costumes, but only because most straight people had no idea that they were engaged in a pastiche of queer fashion. I certainly had no idea they were gay, nor Elton John, Freddie Mercury, etc; someone had told be David Bowie was openly bisexual, but as the only person I knew of who was openly gay, it created a mistaken impression of what "looking gay" meant - tall, thin, Gothy, pale, and maybe with some pink highlights in your hair? There was something about which ear you wore an earring in, too, that students in our high school explained to each other. If you had told me at the time that Halford was gay, it would have puzzled the hell out of me. But he's so masculine! He's dressed in leather and screaming for vengeance! Gay people don't do that! 

As a teenager, though still a virgin, I had already gone through enough formative experiences with my sexuality to know that a) I was more interested in girls than boys and that b) to the extent that I did sometimes feel feelings or think thoughts about my male friends, it was not safe and could cause problems for me (and confuse my own feelings about myself and my friends). Back then - and even moreso when I started to dress as a punk - people like me (bookish, arty, odd) would already get homophobic insults shouted at us from the local apes, who would throw bottles at us from their Camaro windows as they passed and occasionally gang up to shitkick us. It was enough that we were different, somehow a threat to their chosen form of being, for us to get beaten up - we didn't actually have to do anything. I can only recall one instance where someone called me a f***** and proceeded to punch me (after I had retorted - smartly, I thought - "asshole!" at him, but his initial verbal attack was wholly unprovoded). If it's the only time I experienced violence, it certainly wasn't the only time I encountered hostility. So if you could get beaten, abused, and called the other f-word even if you weren't gay, actually being gay was obviously out of the question. During my brief foray as a freelancer for Vancouver's Xtra West, I wrote about the few queerish experiences I did have, and about my decision to basically lock that part of myself in the closet, where it has remained pretty much unexamined and un-acted upon, the odd thought or impulse aside, for the rest of my life (I really do like girls better, anyhow). 

Knowing beyond a doubt that he was gay since a teenager, Rob Halford never had a choice, but he also experienced a lot of torment about his sexuality, which he kept secret from his fans and the press as Priest grew more and more visible. And here, in Confess, we have a remarkable document: a memoir of closeted, covert, and at times somewhat desperate sexuality, overlain with the shame not of being gay, but of having to hide and live a lie, written by someone who to all appearances is now completely comfortable with being "out" and pretty much has nothing to lose by being up-front about it. Particularly interesting is a bit of psychologizing Halford engages in about gay men who, having internalized a negative image of being gay, pursue unavailable or straight partners in a bid for some sort of societal approval - a destructive pattern that Halford does appear to have fallen victim to at one stage in his life, though by the end of the book, he's in a happy relationship and at ease with himself. 

Though some of these are pretty serious themes, it's a fun, breezy read, in fact. Rob seems to be a fairly chatty guy, and - though the book covers everything from his bust for public indecency in a men's room he was cruising to kinda shaking hands with the Queen (!) - it is all written with a fairly light tone, like you've got Rob in your living room telling you stories about his life. (There's one bathroom encounter at a truck stop that is too good to ruin in a review; let's hope the person Rob writes about gets his hands on this book, so he can run around telling his friends "that was me," should he, uh, want to disclose that). The tone of the book resembles, in fact, that of another memoir by a metal musician from the same part of the world, Tony Iommi's Iron Man, except with a bit more alcohol than cocaine, and you have to sub out Iommi's countless tales of dangerous pranks with pyrotechnics with things like encounters at the glory hole (one chapter title is, in fact, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory Hole," and if you're naive about how glory holes actually work - how men might signal to the person in the next stall that they are ready and willing to receive - you will be amply enlightened; since you might not want to put your gay friends on the spot and ask them for details, Rob's memoir comes in handy this way). 

Gear confiscated from the audience, May 28, 1984, also by bev davies, also not to be reused without permission

The actual role of Rob's helper in preparing the memoir, Ian Gittins, is unclear, but you come to trust that the voice is Halford's own, and it's warm, witty, and confident, covering all sorts of material besides his tormented sexuality. How did Halford come to "accidentally" quit Priest for a few years? How did the band defend themselves against charges of backmasking-causing-suicide? (I actually laughed aloud at this section of the book, read it more than once, and shared it with my wife, but again, the best bits are too good to repeat here). And while there are plenty of expected stories about encounters within the metal universe, for instance during the times Halford actually subbed in as vocalist for Sabbath, or collaborated with members of Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails on one of his solo side-projects, there's also ample room for Halford's "pop tart" side, with the singer delighting in sharing anecdotes about meeting Lady Gaga and Madonna.  

Halford even talks about times he snuck in queer themes into his lyrics, unbeknownst to most metal fans (who were as naive as I was at age 14, back then). Tesco Vee of the Meatmen and I once joked publicly about such things - about Priest shooting a rock video in a sauna, for example, or having a song titled "Between the Hammer and the Anvil," which Rob doesn't go into. But turns out there is plenty of overt hinting in Priest's catalogue, from songs like "Jawbreaker," which Halford says is about the trepidation involved in going down on a really big cock, to "Raw Deal," about cruising a notorious gay bar in the States which Rob hadn't been anywhere near at the time of writing the song. I forget the exact line but he describes it as kind of coming out to Priest's audience, and having (almost) no one notice. And while Halford denies that his stage costume has anything to do with the kind of sex he likes - he's not a leather bar kinda guy, apparently, is pretty vanilla in fact - he does tell stories about wearing hankies onstage occasionally, with coded meaning for those who know (I thought that was all something invented for the movie Cruising, but no). 

Judas Priest at the Pacific Coliseum, May 28, 1984; photo by bev davies - not to be reused without permission

Confess is eye-opening, funny, and a fast, light read - the sort of book that someone who doesn't have time to read books can blow through in a week, for example. It also makes it clear just how big a relief coming out was to Halford, whose stories of bathroom encounters are often funny and sometimes kind of hot, but always overlaid with shame at having to resort to such things; it clearly suits him far better to be open, comfortable, and accepted, and you end up quite happy for him that that's where his memoir arrives. 

A recommended read! 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

In which I see my last rock concert for awhile and step into a fight in the DTES

"Oops, I Did It Again," as Richard Thompson once sang. I went to a concert. I wore my mask the whole time, except when sticking a straw under it to sip my Jolly Rancher concoction - a tasty beverage that tasted indeed like a Jolly Rancher, and a specialty of Lanalou's ($10 for a double, which was very much worth it). And to tell the truth, it all felt safe enough, with a plastic barrier preventing Dennis Mills from singing moistly onto the audience, a strict limit on the number of people allowed in, most staff wearing masks most of the time (and, as I say, at least one patron), and no mingling of the audience - but, you know, watch and see if I die, I guess. 

Will I regret writing that sentence? Maybe! I gather any indoor spaces run the risk of aerosol transmission of the virus, and that the whole fomite/ surfaces thing is sort of a "spring 2020" way of conceptualizing how the novel coronavirus spreads; anyone wanting to update their understanding of how scientists currently believe the virus can be caught should check out this excellent article... It will see me wearing my mask pretty much anytime I am in a closed space with others, I think, based mostly on this striking paragraph:

A clear example of the benefits of masks is a recent outbreak in South Korea, in which one woman at a Starbucks infected 27 other customers — whom officials assume were not wearing masks because they were eating and drinking — but none of the employees, all of whom were masked the entire time.

A friend also mentioned on FB in passing a study that showed that in fact most new cases of COVID-19 correlated to people who had eaten in restaurants since they started reopening (I don't have a link for that but it makes some sense).  

Truth is, as much as I enjoyed the show - as I would enjoy any show that Shelley Preston (of Preston & Fletcher and EddyD & the Sex Bombs) was doin' background vocals for, I think; Vancouver is lucky that she plays in so many bands! - the main reason why, I think, it was important for me to go was so that I wouldn't WANT to go to other concerts for a long while. I was Jonesin', so I took a hit of rock'n'roll, and now I'm good til maybe 2021? Let me find some wood to knock. With apologies to Dennis Mills, much as I enjoyed myself, the best thing I probably got from the gig was being reminded that I am perfectly able to live without rock concerts, and probably should. I will miss the social/ community aspects the most... 

The dodgy world outside Lanalou's helped fortify that resolve, but to understand my actions in the story that transpired, you gotta understand: I wasn't exactly sober. I had brought a government joint in a difficult-to-open, childproof government container, which I was showin' birthday boy/ Judys drummer Taylor Little outside the venue while he smoked a plain ol' cigarette, observing me as I struggled to pry the fuckin' lid off. (There is clearly a mechanism at work that makes it pop open, but though I have successfully triggered it a few times, as I break out my lone joint for special occasions, I have no idea what that mechanism IS, so I can't actually control how to re-open the package, and tend to stand there like an idiot cursing it, which was behaviour I felt I must explain to Mr. Little, who, incidentally, was celebrating a birthday last night; happy birthday, man!). Anyhow, between a couple hits on my joint and the Jolly Rancher cocktail (and a night of live music!), I felt pretty good as I left the venue to make my way to the Skytrain on Main. I even got to pet an adorable dog - an old, shaggy little fella who looked rather like a mop with eyes - who was being walked by a local. But as I arrived at my stop, the DTES asserted itself with a vengeance. Had I not smoked a bit, and had my double-cocktail, I probably would have been vastly less relaxed about the altercation I witnessed and intervened in. (Yes, folks, I stepped into a fight between two DTES residents, so if you're already thinking I'm an idiot for going to a concert in the midst of a pandemic, I'm gonna validate that theory in spades...). 

I've already posted the story on Facebook. This is how it goes: 

So I am feelin' pretty good leaving Lanalou's, waiting for a bus, when a homeless-looking, but also tough-looking, dude drags his sleeping bag, full with his belongings, around the corner, also waiting for a bus, about to light a smoke. Someone else - another local, but fitter and younger than some - flies across the street with fists flailing, bellowing, "YOU TOOK MY LIGHTER! That's MY lighter! Give it back!"

The startled alleged lighter-thief is taken aback, defensive, shouting in French-accented English - "This ees NOT your lighterrr, is MY lighterrr, I buy just now at store around ze cornerr!"

"Bullshit man! You took my lighter! It was on the ground by my bag and you picked it up! It's GREEN!"

My eyes dart at the lighter held in the other man's hand. It is indeed green, lime green, an everyday Bic lighter. The colour proves nothing, of course.

Variants on their initial altercation ensue, with occasional scuffles wherein the lanky, angry guy tries to grab the lighter. Eventually, I realize that I have a lighter with me. It is a bit nicer than a $1.99 Bic, but I have no great attachment to it. Maybe I could solve this problem?

"Dude!" I say at the tough guy. "Here, take MY lighter, it ain't worth the fight!"

I reach out my hand and he briefly glances over and takes my lighter... But continues to yell at the other guy, and I start to realize, holy shit, I just gave away my lighter for NOTHING. The fight continues for several minutes thereafter (the bus is still on the way) and finally I can't help it, and assert myself (idiotically) again into the fray: "Just trade lighters," I say.

They both pause for a second and CLEARLY consider it, going so far as to briefly extend their hands, then realize that any arrangement of passing lighters might involve one of them running off with both of them. Too late, I add, "Or just give them both to me and I will pass them to you," but it is too late:



So it goes. Felt like I was in a Chris Walter novel for a sec. They were still fighting when the bus arrived, both of them with a lighter, and me with none.

There was actually a bit more to it than that, which I left off FB for brevity - the quarrel continued onto the bus, in fact, with the first guy piling his sleeping bag knapsack onto the bus with his "buddy" in pursuit, yelling through the open door variants on "you took my fuckin' lighter! I'm gonna GET you!" for a few minutes (my former lighter - an eight dollar fancy one that I bought when I bought the joint, to smoke before the last concert I'd gone to, was still clutched in his hand, while they fought over a $2 Bic). Once the bus pulled away, I even had a brief chat with the victim/ lighter thief "That guy crazy, you even give him you lighterrr," he acknowledged at one point. I agreed - "clearly he has some anger issues," and broke out that strangely-officious phrase, "I'm sorry that happened to you" (and made sure, when we arrived at the Skytrain station, that we got on different cars). 

On FB, after I posted it, Chris Walter agreed: it was a "very Chris Walter-esque" moment. 

Anyhow, there. I survived a venture into the DTES, and maybe survived having been indoors with strangers, and satiated my FOMO, which really, at this point, should be smaller than, say, my fear of dying on a ventilator in a crowded and lonely hospital ward. I think I'm gonna quit writing about live music for awhile, so as not to encourage any false sense of security out there, and I think (I think) I am gonna stop going to shows altogether, folks at least for the rest of the year. Playing Russian roulette with live music seems unwise. Those of you who wish to support the scene can still do so, maybe, by donating to this GoFundMe for this friend of the Judys, for whom - I neglected to mention in my interview with Dennis, below - the evening was a benefit. She was in a pretty awful car accident and could use the support; I coughed up (not literally; no coughing was involved) fifty bucks, in addition to writing the piece below and payin' to get into the show, so I've done my bit. 

Now I just need to correct the spelling of Pete Fiend (he's only Feend on FB) and put that link into the interview itself, then I can go back to bed!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Dennis Mills interview: of AKA, Rhythm Mission, the Jazzmanian Devils, Les Goodman, and THE JUDYS, PLAYING THIS WEEKEND!

Okay, so: as far as wildfire smoke goes, we have nearly-breathable air again (for now). We have children in the school playgrounds, shrieking and laughing almost like there is no pandemic afoot (tho' clearly there is, because I'm still working from home and think no more of wearing a mask to go shopping than I do of wearing socks or underwear). But will the Judys CD release scheduled for Saturday at Lanalou's actually take place...? And then there's the eternal question, "Is it safe?" 

AKA, September 1980 at the Arcadian Hall, by Gord McCaw; not to be reused without permission

I will let people weigh their options, here, but one thing is clear: Dennis Mills deserves better! The new Judys EP is pretty durn great, and Mills has had a very long and interesting career on the Vancouver scene, which stretches nearly back to the dawn of the scene (he identifies as being in the "second wave," but 1980 is still early enough that punk was whatever you decided it would be). His debut in Vancouver (and anywhere) was singing and playing sax for AKA, alongside future notables like guitarist/ critic Alex Varty and keyboardist/ slide guitarist Andy Graffiti (the AKA rhythm section of Warren Hunter and Warren Ash were also in Rhythm Mission, Mill's next band, but I don't know their full discography, otherwise). I've felt kinda guilty about not having interviewed Mills about anything, ever, given his contributions to the Vancouver scene. It seems kind of necessary to start at the beginning...

Red Therapy is kind of a crazy EP, packing in several flavours of No Wave, from the abrasive DNA-style gut-punches to spidery, playful aggro-jazz. Like the U-J3RK5, it doesn't make much sense for Vancouver 1980 - seems more like New York 1978 - but holds up plenty well now. AKA started for Mills when he responded to an add from Alex Varty on a message board at Quintessence Records ("Many bands formed in those days from that message board," he tells me by email).  

AKA, September 1980 at the Arcadian Hall, by Gord McCaw; not to be reused without permission

To say no more, an interview follows, which I'll lay out Q&A style. Apologies to all for obvious questions I have missed. Maybe see you Saturday at Lanalou's...?

AM: What were you doing musically before getting involved with AKA? Can you sketch out the early history for us...?

DM: I had jammed previously with Reed Eurchuk , which is recounted on my blog as The Puffy Coat. Reed soon after formed a band called Exxotone with Randy Pandora ( ex-Generators), and the two Warrens - Warren Hunter and Warren Ash. The Exxotone was originally called The Detectives. When the two Warrens were “let go”, they joined Alex and I as The Rejectives (inside joke). There was also a female singer in the first lineup of AKA, Angela Kaya. I still have a button with her face on it, and last saw her at Michael Wonderful’s celebration of life. Classical pianist Tommy Wong joined after that. Our first show was at Pumps Gallery as part of an Erotic Art show. On the way to the show, we were still deciding what our name would be. That first gig we were called The Not. Later it changed to AKA, (also known as). AKA also means Red in Japan, so that is why our first and only record was called Red Therapy

Before my sojourn into Vancouver and music, I had guested once with some high school friends called Estipod in Richmond, where I went to high school. We did a version of "Blank Generation" with Estipod, and it is rumored that there is a super 8 somewhere. Before all that, I had imagined myself an actor, until I was forced to sit in a lighting booth on a technical rehearsal while Patti Smith first played the Commodore. It was missing that show that made me want to form a band. I decided then and there that acting was not my gig. I needed to live life before I could play someone else's life. I was drawn to the punk aesthetic of DYI, where I could be actor, performer, writer and director all in one. The sugar water of the early punk scene drew my "human fly" ego to it, and it has never let go.

AKA by bev davies, Dec. 1980 at Gary Taylor's Rock Room, not to be reused without permission

What were you listening to? James Chance, DNA, that sorta thing, or…? AKA was a bit “out there” for 1980; were you also pretty much into aggressive avant garde, or…?

Yes, I love the No New York record, but earlier influences were Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Pere Ubu, Television, and Talking Heads. AKA was very active for about 3 years. We opened up for Ultravox and for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. We also did a short tour with Doug and the Slugs.

I prefer the more playful/ tuneful stuff on
Red Therapy, like “634 Dog.” Did you write the lyrics? 

I wrote all the lyrics. Warren Ash wrote some lyrics for a Rhythm Mission song, which I reconstructed a bit with the cut-up method. Lyrics are my thing, above all else.

I have no idea what "634 Dog" is about... can you enlighten me?

Most of my lyrics and poetry just come to my blessed pointed head. Lots of stream of consciousness, and wordplay.When I was in AKA, I was 20-23, I was also experimenting with the cut-up method (Burroughs, Gysin).

"634 Dog" – the title came partially from the song "634-5789" - the Wilson Pickett song. The "dog" part is referenced in the song.

The basic song structure came from Warren Hunter. His songs on guitar with AKA are very different from the ones that Alex played on - playful and tuneful as you note" "634" "Dog," "Fear," "Ragged Andys,"

Alex on guitar songs were more angular, short, choppy, jazzy: "God," "City Drugs," "Mental Timebombs," Warren’s playing was very different.

What was working with Alex Varty like? I've only had good experiences with him as a fellow writer...

Alex is on the most knowledgeable and creative people in our little city. I always thought of him as my Bob Quine! He didn’t check all the boxes for punk or new wave fashion, but we wrote some cool, strange music, which was far more interesting work that most of the bands that got all the press.

There was a bit of a divide at one point with the CITR power pop fans, hardcore, and the weird stuff we did. But we played with everybody, DOA, Subhumans ( my favorite), The Rabid, etc. When we released our EP, we later were at CITR, and found the play copy with giant letters written all over the cover, ALEX VARTY PLAYS WITH THESE GUYS, DON’T PLAY THIS!!! We had a laugh, but some people didn’t understand that Alex was a critic, who made some kind of a living from writing. He is one the best, and has mellowed over the years.. AKA had a reunion show in 2015. We had not played in well over 30 years, and in some cases, hadn’t really spoken much. It was so much fun, and interesting to play the weird songs you wrote when you were in your early 20’s, when you were now in your late 50’s. 

Were you with AKA when they opened for Captain Beefheart? Any Beefheart stories? 

Captain Beefheart by bev davies, Commodore, January 1981, not to be reused without permission

Yes, AKA broke up about a month before the Beefheart show, and we then played it. Don Van Vliet was a shaman. He had an incredible memory. I was backstage at the Commodore after we opened, and came by the dressing room ( much different that the ones now). He would be making these oblique statements, and looked at me and said something about Lower and Higher Mathematics. He saw this bouncer and signaled to him. “Century Plaza, 1973 or something like that.” Yeah the guy says. Beefheart remembered a bouncer from about 8 years previous. The next night, Melodic Energy Commission got to the open ( he played two nights) and I got hang out with him backstage. He was in a more contemplative mood that night. He was drawing with felt pens, and made a joke about the fumes. His art looked like a cat but as if the cat was made of glass, and the glass had just shattered. His wife Jan was very carefully guarding him, and you got the sense that she shepherded him through all this music life. 

Captain Beefheart by bev davies, Commodore, January 1981, not to be reused without permission

What was the process of leaving AKA and getting into Rhythm Mission? Did you do anything between, or did the bands overlap, or…?

AKA broke up after a gig in DTES at the Lotus where AKA played with The Modernettes. I did mushrooms that night, and gave out Japanese oranges to the crowd. Alex and I had lived in a communal house, but like sometimes happens, it was too intense. I finished the gig and said it was the end. But we did the Beefheart one after. AKA actually kept going for a few more months with Colin Griffiths replacing Alex. Another interesting anecdote from AKA was the Red Therapy record. AKA at that point was Alex, me, the two Warrens and Andy Graffiti on keyboards and slide guitar. We had the choice of paying for the master tape ( about $400) or renting it. We rented it. The only master is the remaining copies of the EP!

We met Scott Harding at an AKA show at the Laundromat ( soon to be Richards on Richards), and previously The David YH Lui Theatre, where I worked as an usher. He was underage, but we got him into the Commodore for Beefheart. Later we jammed with him and Lee Kelsey (who had been in the Payolas), the two Warrens, and Andy joined later for Rhythm Mission too. We were active from fall of 1981 to 1984 when we broke up briefly. We reformed about a year after, but by then, Scott, Lee and I started Jazzmanian Devils (1983).

Did you like hardcore? It seems like the kind of music AKA was making in 1980 wouldn't have happened if the "orthodoxies" of hardcore had set in, and it seems like Rhythm Mission and Jazzmanian Devils are both kinda reactions against hardcore...?

Not generally a fan of hardcore. That said, I loved the Minutemen, Subs, and Death Sentence, although that was much later.

Rhythm Mission had lots of funk influences and world beat too. Jazzmanian Devils were definitely an idea to take it back. Buddy Selfish and others were bringing back rockabilly, so we went back a bit further to the real father of rock n roll, Louis Jordan.

Was the Mo-Da-Mu label/ scene a thing in Vancouver when Rhythm Mission started? (It looks like the first Animal Slaves EP was released a couple of years before 
Wild Mood Swings, but I don’t know!). How much of a shared vision or politic did the Mo-Da-Mu bands have? Did bands co-ordinate their sound in any way, so that recordings had a recognizable brand to them? (Because I can hear similarities between Wild Mood Swings and Dog Eat Dog, say).

I was living in a housing co-op and a member of East End Food Co-op, later worked at Uprising Breads – a workers coop. I figured a music co-op to put on gigs and put out records was a good idea. I gathered together the folks who started it, but it was my concept. We were all friends and rivals, a healthy competition, and a communal sense of co-operation. Lots of strong egos though. 54-40 started out opening for AKA, we worked with them on Mo-Da-Mu, Tin Twist, Animal Slaves, Work Party. I’m probably forgetting someone important. 

Who did the cover art for Wild Mood Swings? It's pretty crazy!

Jan Wade. She is very cool and a close friend.

Did you interact much with Elizabeth Fischer? Any memorable moments? I kind of loved her way of doing things but gather she was also kinda cranky…

I wrote about Elizabeth on my blog Condensed Milt. We worked together for many years. She went out with Ross from Animal Slaves, and he played with me in Rhythm Mission and Jazzmanian Devils. We had many disagreements over the years, as she wasn’t the easiest person. But she was always an incredible artist (visual) and musically. She even sang a few songs with Jazzmanian Devils!

Also interested in hearing Scott Harding stories…! Did you follow his hip hop stuff? Are you still in touch? I actually forget if any bands you were in participated in that Commodore benefit…?

Yes I helped push the rock that was Hardstock up the hill, with help from about 1000 people. We also did Holy Hardstock at Christ Church Cathedral. I had curated both shows, which caused a bit a fuss with Elizabeth, as she wanted to play at the Commodore, while I wanted her to play Holy Hardstock. She yelled at me and basically told me to fuck off. Again. Oh well, I yelled back. I had this vision of her music in the big cathedral. It would have been beautiful. So many stories there.

I am curious about a series of concerts that Rhythm Mission was involved in: Shindig, back in December 1984. I gather that Red Herring won against the objections of some of the audience – I have heard many people say that the real popular favourites were Rhythm Mission. Any memories of the Shindig event? Did you dig Red Herring? Did you feel like you should have won? (I gather Stephen Nikleva would later sit in with the Jazzmanian Devils, so it sounds like there was no bad blood…).

All the CITR kids were upset that Rhythm Mission applied for Shindig because ….get ready…we were too professional! Anyway it was a lot of fun, and we won a lot, but Red Herring got the nod that night. Red Herring was and is a great band. Great musicians and people. Stephen Nikleva just gave AKA a shout out on YouTube.

Did the Jazzmanian Devils never record? I don’t see any collectibles for sale on Discogs… are you a live band only?

Jazzmanian Devils recorded 2 cassettes ( Let’s Drink and Happy Hour) and a CD called That’s the Groovy Thing. There is a live session at the CBC that Jacek was going to put out on vinyl, although I haven’t heard from him for awhile.  

Jazzmanian Devils by Gord McCaw, not to be reused without permission

Never having been to a Les Goodman After Dark event, I was shamefully confused by you being Les Goodman throughout the last Bowie Ball. Is Les Goodman just a stage name you use for certain projects, or is he anything else? Where did the name come from? (I honestly thought Les Goodman and you were two different people!).

Les Goodman was my name in the Jazzmanian Devils. We were all Goodman brothers. Many people in Vancouver were given Goodman names. Manny Goodman gave me the name Les Goodman, because I was the Last Goodman in town ( see movie, songs, etc) Les Goodman is slippery character. A couple years back some film people were trying to get me to revive it for Much Music. We got as far as contracts, but it didn’t seem right. The concept of Les Goodman After Dark was imitation of a talk show, using the talk show format at a form of entertainment, but in a live context only. The Jazzmanian Devils were the House Band, and Manny and Herschel Goodman were my sidekicks. The joke was we were all about TV, but not on TV. We started that in the late 80’s, early 90’s. I have a collection of them on disc. Some were very funny, and others were just alcoholic. We had a famous show where we invited Art Bergmann to come and do "Bound for Vegas" as a lounge song. He was wasted, and we conducted most of the interview under the table. Very funny. In recent years, we revived it at Lanalous. First I did it with Big Top, then with the new After Dark Band, with Taylor, Scott, Bob Petterson, and Gord Rempel and Ron Kenji. We had a tradition of doing Canada day for three years, or maybe it was two. 

Dennis Mills as Les Goodman, MC'ing the 2020 Bowie Ball with Tony Lee, by Bob Hanham; not to be reused without permission

When did the Judys actually start? Is it the same lineup still…?

The first Judys was a fuck band with me, Dano (keyboards and slide guitar in the Judys) , Keith Porteous, Warren Hunter and a drummer no one remembers. We used to practice with AKA at the Female Hands house in Burnaby, so the drummer was either the guy from Female Hands, or Bobby Herron from the b-sides. I don’t recall a single song that we played, and we only played once at the Railway.

The Judys started with Taylor Little telling me he had always wanted to be in a band with me. He was playing with Dano, and Pete worked with him. I came over to a rehearsal in fall 2014. We then invited Scott Fletcher to bring his righteous riffs, and The Judys were born. One night at Pandoras, they put the bands names up on the white board. I came in and Dano had put The Judys up there. So we became The Judys. Again. We played our first show at Lanalous with all covers on Boxing Day 2014. Our plan was to pick songs we loved from our youth, and Judify them. So we picked "Walk on The Water," and "Revolution Blues," "Radar Love," "So Tired." 

Then once we had created our ‘sound”, we started to write in the Judys style. Our first song was either "Judy’s Got a Big Mouth" or "Freedom 85."   I forget which came first.

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

Unless I’ve missed something, and I probably have, the Judys are the most straight-up rock band you’ve played in – where did the impetus to do something kinda more straightforward come from?

I have always wanted to play in a band like The Judys. Taylor encouraged me to adapt my voice. He claims he taught me how to sing. I will agree he taught me how to sing better. I have always loved Taylor since he played in The Shades with Chris Arnett (of the Furies), Reed Eurchuck, and Mike Raycevik. They were NY sounding, which has always been my favorite. My first experience on-stage was screaming on "Psychotic Reaction" with the Shades at the Buddha. I then fell backwards into the crowd and they caught me.

Where did the name come from? Is there a particular Judy that inspired you?

Original Judys were of course inspired by Judy Kemeny (TinTwist), Judy from Pink Section, and Judy (Ebra) from Tunnel Canary. And of course Judy Garland. Wizard of Oz is my favourite movie.

Did you spend time in New York at any point? “Welcome to New York” seems more inspired by Lou Reed than Richard Hell…

The lyrics to that song started in 2007, on a trip to NY to visit Scott Harding, where I had a heart attack a day later in Atlanta. The heart attack started in NY, then there was the plane ride and then in Atlanta, the hospital.

There is some truth to the song. Especially the part of "Forgot all the Stupid Words."    New York in the song represents that drug state where “you wont be staying here too long”. We liked the idea of 
"another old fashioned drug song”, taking the piss out of old fashioned love song by Three Dog Night. Musically, a very Exile just off Main Street, where we rehearsed for awhile.

I loved both Lou and Richard Hell, so many great memories of both of them.

Did you ever get to meet them, or have any other encounters with your musical heroes?

Warren Hunter and I went to Seattle and saw Richard Hell. This was around the time of his second record. It wasn’t really the Voidoids, and he wasn’t very good.

I saw Lou Reed in 1976. He was doing the Rock 'n Roll Heart tour with the wall of TV sets. During the show, a guy sitting next to us got up to get a drink. His wallet dropped and I noticed, and gave to his girlfriend.

He came back and thanked me with a huge chunk of hash. I thought, wow, this will last a year! He then came back again, and asked if I had eaten it. I said no, I didn’t know you could eat it.

"Yes, just eat it."  

And I did. Midway between driving my buddies back to Richmond in my mother’s car, the hash kicked in. HARD. By the time we went to Tom’s Pizza ( long gone), the pizza was vibrating and I was hallucinating. Somehow, I managed to drive them all home, and went to bed, getting up in morning for my first day at work in teller training for the Royal Bank. 

Ha! On that topic, I can't make out all the lyrics for The Whole World’s on Drugs.” Can you share’m? 

Baby’s got a bucket and she’s putting on some pudge.
She’s got a brand new drug, calls it Tattoo Fudge. 
 You don’t have to go to circus to find yourself a clown
Just put on the tv, see what’s going down. 

The Whole World’s on Drugs. 

You can roll it you can lick you can find it on the ground. 
Some people falling in love some people falling down. 
Some people living on the street, man they’re living on the edge. 
 Some people holding hands when they jump off the ledge. 

The Whole World’s on Drugs

Sugar makes the world go round. 

(Tell it to me Sugar. Sell it to me sugar. )

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

I’m listening to “Something in the Air” and really enjoying the dark, heavy vibe of it. Who wrote the music? Who wrote the lyrics? How were they married together? Between wildfires and COVID it seems like it could have a whole other timely topical verse…

All songs by The Judys. I write the words. We started that song in 2017 after the first two came out. The Very Best of The Judys, and The Very Rest of The Judys. [Not on the bandcamp, but it includes some of the covers mentioned elsewhere, like "Radar Love."]

So we all write them. Taylor is a very compositional drummer. He is a great arranger. Scott provides the killer riffs, Pete the monster bass, and Dano is the special sauce that really makes it Judified. Shelley [Preston, of Preston and Fletcher, whose Fletcher is the Scott, above] has become a part of the band too in the last couple years. Her work on this new record is so good. Check out the pads she does on "Best Before" and [the Tom Waits cover] "Goin Out West."

Were the lyrics of “Another Goddamn Man” written by a man? 

Yes. Guilty as charged. Did you catch my Jesus Christ Superstar reference? [nope - it's been awhile].

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

What are the odds that the Judys concert is going to go ahead under the current COVID restrictions? Anything you want to say about it? The last time I saw the Judys at Lanalou’s, there were female backup singers, including Cass King… not sure if Shelley Preston was there…? Anything else I’m missing?

At this time, it is going on. We will take all precautions. Our last gig was December, so a long time away. Who knows when or if the next one will be. We love Cass, but she was very busy with her own thing. Cass and Shelley and Taylor’s daughter Alex were the Big Mouths on the first records. But Shelley is in the band now. She’s grown up to be a real Judy.

I could go for hours. But I’m sure you have lots. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask.


IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: the show - which I did end up going to! - was actually a benefit for a friend of the Judys who was horribly injured in a car accident, who has a GoFundMe afoot. Dennis gifted me some swag as a result of the above, some of which was quite collectable, so I donated (at his suggestion) fifty bucks to the cause, and encourage anyone else who can do so to do the same. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Burnt Orange Heresy and the nostalgia it inspires...

In the space of three days, I have, by chance, seen two films with Elizabeth Debicki, an Australian actress that you may have also seen in Widows, The Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, or in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. She was also in a recent adaptation of Macbeth that I quite liked (the one with Michael Fassbender). The first film I saw her in, two days ago, was a big-budget theatrical blockbuster, Tenet, which has been so well-written about in the New Yorker that no further words of mine seem necessary, save that I did enjoy Ludwig Göransson's score for the film, a sort of high-energy Tangerine-Dreamy synth-type thingy that sounded really good being played LOUD at Landmark, who, by the way, apparently have dropped that annoying practice I mentioned of dropping sound when the credits roll. The film itself, alas, was not as impressive; it had had trailers that made me believe I might enjoy a Christopher Nolan film again for a change - haven't really liked anything since Memento - but it was not to be. As Adam Nayman of Cinema Scope, observed of Dunkirk"That Nolan and his collaborators... have worked to create something intricate and unique is undeniable. What’s less certain... is whether their structural intervention signifies much beyond its own complexity. The film is impressive, immense, immersive, yes — but is it anything else?" I would say the answer is either no, or perhaps, if there is indeed something to Tenet that I missed, it is not worth the effort of extracting it. (It also doesn't do much with John David Washington, who has none of the effortlessly radiant charm he brought to Ballers). 

The second Elizabeth Debicki film I saw, which I finished on home video just tonight, was an independent/ arthouse film, The Burnt Orange Heresy, which played in Vancouver for, I believe, less than a week - longer than  Jay Baruchel's Random Acts of Violence, which I still haven't seen, and which seemed to get pulled from distribution halfway through its first week; which is still better, say, than Jeff Barnaby's Blood Quantum, which didn't get a theatrical roll-out here at all. Blame it all on COVID, of course. Erika and I had meant to see The Burnt Orange Heresy theatrically, but the night we actually went to Landmark with intent to see it, we discovered that they had changed the showtime from the previous day, when we'd hatched the plan, and - since this was still in the early phases of the reopening, when most screens were filled with things like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark,  there weren't dozens of showtimes to choose from; we would have had to have waited for a couple hours to catch the next screening, so elected to go home instead. Rather a sad, lame rollout for such a good film; it ended up appearing on DVD (not even blu) at Walmart a few weeks later, so I grabbed it, and must say I enjoyed it so much vastly more than I enjoyed Tenet. Even Debicki was better: there is a moment in The Burnt Orange Heresy where she simply pauses and contemplates the landscape, which hints at a richer and more interesting inner life than you will find in the whole of Tenet. She seems, in The Burnt Orange Heresy, like a real person, with thoughts, feelings, ideas, a history - although the film keeps you guessing as to what that might be, and leaves a great deal unstated. She's not exactly the main character of the film, but she's sort of (along, maybe, with Donald Sutherland, as a reclusive artist) the moral center of the film. It's not the sort of movie where the character who is the moral center is likely to fare well, alas, and almost else in the film is some variety of shark - some, like art critic/ lecturer/ freelancer Claes Bang, in the lead role, being better disguised than others. (Mick Jagger's character, meanwhile, might as well be a lizard person). 

There are a lot of reasons why I was predisposed to like The Burnt Orange Heresy. For one, I'm a fan of Patricia Highsmith's character of Tom Ripley, who, in the later novels about him, is deeply involved in art forgery (and murder and upscale European living), and while the novel this film is based on is not by Highsmith, it might well be; the story is very Highsmithian, and forgery and upscale European high life are definitely themes. As a happy fact, though, I am also a fan of the work of the novelist Charles Willeford, who did write the book that this is based on (now in print again, thanks to the film), though I have no way to reconcile the texts I have encountered by him - which also include the novel Pick Up, a fascinating, bleak, hardboiled crime  novel with a helluva twist ending, and two film adaptations of his work, Miami Blues and Cockfighter - with what I have seen here; they all seem very different. Though the film has some very clever and surprising moments, and a story that actually amounts to something, mostly what I found myself liking here was the nostalgia I feel for this KIND of movie, the sophisticated-and-pretty-thriller-aimed-at-an-educated-but-not-prudish-audience. They used to fill the screens at venues like the Royal Centre or command the space dedicated to one-to-three videos on the new arrivals wall of stores like Blockbuster or Rogers Video: smart, small-scale, but very enjoyable "mainstream arthouse" movies like The Comfort of Strangers or Pascali's Island or White Mischief or even the film Ripley's Game (which came out a bit after the Royal Centre years). None of these are necessarily great films (tho' happy to note that Criterion is putting out The Comfort of Strangers soon), but they were a sort of healthy cinematic staple food, at one point, which didn't leave you feeling like the filmmaker has contempt for you or took you for a sucker or a lowbrow, which is what you kinda get from the works of Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay, or any of the Marvel Comics Universe (or DC, for that matter) films... I guess there IS a way to find film fare like this on Netflix, and who knows, maybe that's where The Burnt Orange Heresy will eventually wind up, but the film left me feeling satisfied in a way I haven't for awhile, watching most Netflix fare.

Anyhow, I liked The Burnt Orange Heresy quite a bit. Really all I had to say...

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Tim Chan Interview (apropos of the same Saturday gig I just interviewed EddyD about, below)

    China Syndrome at the 2020 Bowie Ball, photo by Dave Jacklin

I have seen Tim Chan's band, China Syndrome, a dozen times or more, but the last time I saw them - at the 2020 Bowie Ball, which I wrote about, with terrific pictures by Bob Hanham, here - the band was significantly different. They were lacking long-time guitarist Vern Beamish - who, incidentally, is one of a shortlist of guitarists that Pete Campbell, in conspiratorial mode (and talking while his friends were onstage, to boot) has called "the best in Vancouver." Beamish had always presented as the most cerebral member of China Syndrome, and sometimes his introspective onstage demeanor made a striking contrast with the bouncy, ebullient Tim Chan and Mike Chang. 

At a very different end of the introvert/ extrovert gradient, at the Bowie ball, Beamish's replacement - a temporary one, Mark Richardson - rocked out like he was part of a Guns'n Roses cover band or something, almost upstaging Chan and Chang. It was a very different feeling for the band, and a big deal, since Beamish goes back to the beginning, has done plenty of the writing, and often took the lead solos (which, when he and really Chan hooked into each other, as during a particularly potent reading of "One Too Many," in Surrey, there was a real fire generated. That performance didn't end up on Youtube, but this one cooks pretty hard too). It's one of those member changes that, if you follow the band, you're really curious about... what will they sound like as a three piece? If  they find a permanent replacement for Beamish, what energy will that bring to the band? It's an interesting development... 

In the face of COVID, Chan has been granted some time to figure things out. "The Bowie Ball was," Chan reminds me, in fact "the last time China Syndrome played. We had already planned to take a few months off after that and, of course with COVID-19, that's turned into a much longer hiatus. The guitar player filling in for Vern at the Bowie Ball was Mark Richardson. He's an amazing guitar player and has played in several Vancouver bands including the Lumps and Drive By Poets (with Mike Chang of CS) and also has been a mainstay of musical theatre here in town. He currently leads the amazing symphonic metal band Ophelia Falling -- check 'em out here and here. COVID-19 has delayed our decision to add to China Syndrome's lineup at this time. We are carrying on as a three-piece for now, and if we do add another member they do not necessarily have to be a guitarist -- keyboards may be a possibility!"

For his part, Beamish, Chan says, "is laying low and working on completing his music degree program. He is involved with a few choirs in town (he toured South Africa with a local choir in January) and is focusing on his classical guitar chops." He will presumably surface again in Vancouver, but doing his own thing.

So when was the last time Chan did a live solo set? It's somewhat hard for me to imagine what that looks like, though not unprecedented. "I played a solo set at last year's International Pop Overthrow Festival at the Fairview Pub," Chan tells me. "I was a last minute replacement for a band that cancelled that night. So it was pretty impromptu as I did not really practice for it. Here's "My Pal Dan" from that set. My setup will be similar to what you see in the video, just me and electric guitar."

Chan plans a set drawing on both China Syndrome originals and a few covers. Unlike EddyD, interviewed below about the same show, Chan often includes covers in his sets, including a couple of really delightful interpretations of Squeeze; but he's not hinting as to what they'll be, this time - just that most of them are songs "I would not normally play with China Syndrome." 

Pill Squad at the Lou Reed tribute, photo by Sacha Moiseiwitsch

As COVID has ground on, Chan has kept busy, "playing both live with Pill Squad" - who gigged at the Princeton during June and July, and have a new show coming up August 28th, also featuring StrobCam (2/3rds of Coach StrobCam) and Finn Leahy' band Air Radish.   

Chan has also kept active via online video collaborations, which he calls "iso-collaborations," such as  this one with Mike of China Syndrome, reworking China Syndrome's song "Nowhere to Go," off their 2018 album Hide in Plain Sight; or this take on Squeeze's "Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)," with the Vanray's Eric Lowe and Gordon Rempel. (Chan notes that "we were stoked to see Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze commenting on it and liking it on Instagram!"). 64 Funnycars, too, "have also done a few iso-collaborations -- here's one of "Here Comes that Monday Feeling." However, "China Syndrome has decided not to play or practice in person during this time. We'll take things as they come and will definitely reconvene when we all feel comfortable about doing so," probably in three piece form. 

Does Chan have a history with EddyD. or Sinead X. Sanders, also on the bill Saturday?

"I've known Eddy since the 1980s - Eric Lowe introduced me to him back in the day when they played together in the Fabulous Wallys and Chainsaw Running. Of course, we've shared many bills together with our respective bands over the years. And I've been a guest player with Eddy D and the Sexbombs, appearing with them at Bowie Ball 2019. As for Sinead, we've also shared many bills together in the past few years, especially with Pill Squad. We were both part of the Night of Nilsson (tribute to Harry Nilsson) gig last year at LanaLou's and earlier this year, we both participated in the Lou Reed tribute show at the Princeton."

Anything I've missed?  "Nothing much more to add about the gig other than it will be a rare chance to see some performers who usually rock out play a low key, quiet show. Sinead, of course, usually plays solo anyways but she is always fantastic, what a great voice!" 

More information on the gig here. It starts and ends early, so it's a great excuse to go for dinner; note that Lanalou's makes a damn good poutine...