Monday, April 24, 2006

Wreckless Eric Takes Vancouver, plus the rest of the Big Smash Festival

The Big Smash festival is still pretty fresh in my memory, but I'm willing to venture that, looking back from some random future date, the most memorable moment (of a very memorable festival!) is going to prove to be the Wreckless Eric show at the Railway Club Sunday night. From an earlier vantage point, I didn’t really expect that would have been the case – I certainly was in no way as excited about it as I was about the Daniel Johnston, Albert Ayler, and Minutemen documentaries, or the chance to see Peter Watkins’ PRIVILEGE... Mr. Goulden has managed to usurp my sense of how I thought things would be, for which I am quite grateful (and a bit humbled). I also didn’t expect I’d end up buying his new CD – thought I might snag a greatest hits thing, if anything at all, for nostalgia purposes, which is all I figured he’d really be good for. He’s proven me wrong on a few counts, actually… Mea culpa…

I’ve already written quite a bit about THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, below. One thing to add is that it’s interesting that Kier-la seems to have woven a thread of madness and death through the festival. Daniel Johnston at the start, Roky Erickson at the end, and Klaus Beyer in the middle (to say nothing of Tadashi – what exactly the hell was that, anyhow? Assumedly this is the same Tadashi described as Cinemuerte 6's "most retarded fan"), and an abundance of docs on dead musicians, often focusing on their last days – Jeff Buckley, Joe Strummer, D. Boon of the Minutemen, Esquivel, Nina Simone, Albert Ayler, Ronnie Lane (the last being the only show I missed – I needed a nap to be able to handle the Wreckless Eric gig, which started late). Her I WAS A TEENAGE QUINCY PUNK features an episode that circles tongue-cluckingly around the corpse of a dead punk rocker; PAYDAY ends in death; and STUNT ROCK is all about its defiance. Even the cartoon about the drunk being half-sodomized by a dog (click to view it!) has a bit of a dark side to it, really… (Insert arty-weird pseudophilosophical musings on the relationship between sodomy and death, namedropping Leo Bersani, here). Perhaps this is all coincidental, something emerging by chance from the selection of films; there’s something in the ephemeral quality of music – what was that Eric Dolphy quote, you know the one – that perhaps places it in relation to death, makes us aware that our celebration of life is transitory, fragile, like music. Maybe, tho’, Kier-la is the sort to plot things out in subtly buried themes… I’m somehow shy about pinning her down for an interview – or else I just prefer trying to second-guess her – but will be watching closely to see if any themes emerge at future festivals (BECAUSE THERE WILL BE MORE OF THESE, RIGHT? By the way, note that a chat with BJ at the merch table reveals that as of yet no one is taking up the Cinemuerte reins, not even Mr. Bougie of Cinema Sewer. Alas. Actually, it's kinda scary that Kier-la is ending the festival with a film called YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME. Maybe she's trying to convince the film geeks of Vancouver to move to Austin...).

Some reactions to films:

PRIVILEGE was an interesting experience, but I gotta admit, given my high expectations and current level of Peter Watkins interest, somewhat of a disappointment. It's kind of heavy-handed -- it comes across as a bunch of "filmed ideas," where each character represents their social role and little more -- and despite some very striking images and the odd effective moment, it tends to work on a fairly obvious, clichéd level: the Church, Big Business, and the Government want you to CONFORM and they conspire to manipulate the media to make you do it. (The film is obvious enough in its treatment of this that at a Christian rally one of the priests instructs the crowd, when he cues them, to shout WE WILL CONFORM en mass. Subtle, wot?). That a pop star is the "agent of conformity" and not the agent of nonconformity, as they seem to often consider themselves, was somewhat more interesting -- but the dramatization of the idea wasn't, very, nor was the character, who is entirely a pawn of the "system" (which is referred to monolithically, just so: "the System"); and the relationship between “nonconformity” and consumer capitalism really requires a more complex treatment to hold ones attention these days (see the very interesting book, THE REBEL SELL, for more of that – particularly the chapter “I Hate Myself and Want to Buy”). “Asserting one’s individuality” is in fact absolutely in harmony with consumer capitalism -- which thrives far more on nonconformity than conformity, as long as you're seeking your identity out there in the marketplace -- and the film ultimately doesn’t get there; it treats individuality as something that needs to be pursued AWAY from the marketplace, by rejecting it, as if capitalism strives to make us all the same...

And yet it did have its good bits, and was visually very striking. My favourite scene in the film is actually the first, when anticipation was still beating out disappointment -- a dramatic, operatic set-piece where the pop star central to the film enacts his suffering and desire to be liberated -- as policemen onstage beat and imprison him -- to the tunes of a song that Patti Smith would later cover as "Privilege/Set Me Free" (with slightly modified lyrics), on her album, EASTER. I'd always taken it to be a Smith original. Penelope of DISCORDER, in attendance, said the sequence brought to mind the description of public executions in Foucault’s DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH, which productively had me thinking of Foucault when watching the Klaus Beyer documentary on Saturday night. If PRIVILEGE was in some ways the disappointment of the festival (sorry, Mr. Watkins! I love your films! Everyone should come to my May 30th screening of PUNISHMENT PARK at Blim) -- THE OTHER UNIVERSE OF KLAUS BEYER was the unexpected treat.

Beyer is only “mildly” retarded – “mildly” being a word Kier-la added to her pre-screening description of the film, but omitted from the festival program (which strangely makes a point of saying that there is “no kinder way of saying it,” which clearly isn’t true. In fact, he seemed very nearly normal, if eccentric, to me – I’d be curious what evidence there is for mental deficiency, or if it’s just something people say based on his strangeness and apparent naïveté…). He’s obsessed with the Beatles, and likes to re-record their songs with him singing the lyrics in German, often making animated “rock videos” of his performances. He also does things like take photographs of himself in odd poses, cut out the images, and decorate objects in his home, such that he can be seen on the mantelpiece, riding a decorative elephant, or straddling the volume knob of the radio. This seems in keeping with his filmmaking and singing, which also have him inserting himself into his environment. His films often have him as the star – a typical moment being in his Germanized version of “I am the Walrus,” which has his face appearing on an egg as he sings “I am the eggman," and whatever the German equivalent of "goo goo g'joob" is. He seems to have a transparent, innocent need to see himself participating in the landscape of art and music that affects him, to be a star. It’s my theory that the popularity of Beyer has something to do with our own innocent desires to participate in the mediasphere; by celebrating him, we can cheer on our own vulnerable need to be important, to participate, to be seen – which we all have to be a little bit protective of. Karaoke buffs notwithstanding – and who among us has not thrown the odd rock at them? – most of us would find it embarrassing to get up on stage and do what Beyer does; his unselfconsciousness about it comes as a sort of gift and an affirmation of our own desires… Beyer admits that he finds it depressing when people laugh at him when he’s not trying to be funny, but I suspect that a great number of his fans – and he does have a following, as the film shows – greatly like him and feel protective of him and are actually getting something they NEED out of the transaction (as I think is also the case with Daniel Johnston). (There DID something to be a tad "ironic" about the cigarette lighters some were waving in the air during a live performance of his, tho'...).

Foucault comes into all this again in regard his book MADNESS AND CIVILIZATION. It’s been a long time since I (partially) read it (and even then only partially understood it), but one of the thrusts of the book is to follow the thread of madness through the development of modern civilization, from a time when the insane and the “different” were allowed to wander the streets as village idiots and holy fools. Just as in DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH we see a progress from public executions to intensely private, secretive ones, Foucault shows how the development of the modern condition has involved a sequestering away of madness, of placing the insane and different at a safe remove from the rest of us, such that we can no longer learn anything from them, no longer interact with them, no longer look in their mirror. I guess my current theory of Outsider Music is that what we’re seeing is a return of these repressed aspects of the human condition. It seems, in fact, quite a natural development, and not at all unhealthy. The democratization of information technology means that more and more marginalized figures will eventually claim their turf in the mediasphere. Beyer, Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, et alia are the pointmen for the movement…

(As a side note, there are a few other theories we could assert about the current Outsider Music thing. The Minimalist Jug Band, in a conversation at the bookstore that we both work at, has been pondering matters and opined that one of the reasons people might be drawn to such odd forms of music is as a sort of consumer rebellion against the stuff the big corporations want to stuff down our throat. "You want me to listen to THAT? To hell with you -- I'm gonna listen to THIS!" Certainly Daniel Johnston, Klaus Beyer, et alia exist on the far, far end of whatever pop spectrum Britney Spears is on... This fits nicely with one of the pet theories Irwin Chusid seems to nurse in his liner notes for the New Creation CD -- Kier-la, if you're reading this, you would love it -- that music geeks are using Outsider Music as a way of one-upping each other, seeking deeper and deeper vats of obscurity to plunge into to prove their all-knowingness and hipper-than-though savvy. Penelope at Discorder is a bit blunter, suggesting there's a "freak factor" here, a desire to see difference, weirdness, and so forth, which our praising artists like Daniel Johnston as a "genius" is a subtle compensation for, a way of letting ourselves off the hook... Everyone seems to have their own take on Outsider Art).

In any event, the Beyer documentary was the perfect second-course follow up to the Johnston one, and I’m very curious how the Roky Erickson film tomorrow will cap things off.

Some brief reactions to other films:

Re: Jeff Buckley: though the film was not terrible by a long stroke, and would be of interest to Jeff Buckley fans, recall that I said about last month’s Shane MacGowan film at the Cinematheque that I’m tired of the let-us-now-praise-great-men documentaries that indulge in a breathless hero worship and manage to say almost nothing, except that our heroes are great and we are great too for knowing this…? Not only was there such an abundance of effusive blather about Buckley in this film, but it didn’t stop praising Buckley long enough to really either get a sense of him as a man or to let us hear a single one of his songs to completion (a brief clip would play, interrupted by a talking head saying generally very obvious things about how cool Jeff Buckley was.) The interviews DID contain lots of snippets of Buckley talking -- the most interesting point for me was of his signing to Columbia just because of the musical associations the label had -- Dylan, Miles, etc -- even tho' he knew they weren't at all the same company now. Still, these too were cut down to soundbite size. The film also didn’t once mention his father, whose music was far more original and suffers even greater neglect than his son’s (tho’ Kier-la compensated for this a bit by playing footage of the elder Buckley singing “Song to the Siren” -- the only thing remotely classifiable as a love song that would make a shortlist of my favourite tunes, unless Bob Dylan's "Dirge" and Townes van Zandt's "The Hole" count -- before the documentary ran). In my opinion, the filmmakers greatly OVERESTIMATED Jeff’s talent, which I think is sort of a vice that his admirers fall into, perhaps as a way of compensating for the fact that he wasn’t a big star. There was a sort of self-conscious attraction to celebrity in Buckley, though – in the way he posed himself, styled his hair, and worked so hard to succeed, which the film didn’t really do justice to, wanting instead to repeat clichés about musical integrity, which was minor compared to that of certain artists who are far less famous, and make far more challenging music. I do LIKE his music, mind you, but, I rather would have watched an hour-long performance at Sin-E than this talky, unconvincing bit of film. (It almost feels like it could have been made by "professionals...").

Dick Rude did a better job at Joe Strummer worship; he had the sense to let a number of Strummer’s songs play out in full, and to let Strummer speak for himself (I don’t believe there was a single post-mortem interview with anyone about Joe in the film, though Mr. Rude – who gave a friendly video introduction to the film and shared his cats with us – had the advantage of being able to interview him in person, before his death). Having seen Strummer perform with the Mescaleros twice in Tokyo, it was great fun to see footage shot there, of him backstage (not, I believe, at either of the gigs I was at.) It was depressing to see how humble Joe was forced to be, during his last phase – we hear him tell that ROCK ART AND THE X RAY STYLE, which was one of my favourite rock albums of 1999, didn’t even break even, and there are many scenes where he’s obliged, in requesting interviews or trying to promote his show, to explain who he is. He seemed like a really sweet guy, though, and didn’t seem to let any of this bother him; one gets a sense of Strummer as a very down-to-earth fellow, with few pretensions (tho’ more interesting things could have been said about how what I think is a subtle utopianism in his later music, a mixing and matching of musical traditions worldwide and blending them into a celebration of daily life, where we can all find union).

The Minutemen documentary was similar; if you like these guys, you’ll love the film, even tho’ the vast number of talking heads in the movie don’t say a whole lot that’s new. (They’re all pretty cool heads, tho’ – I’d rather hear Thurston Moore or Ian Mackaye tell a Minutemen anecdote than someone I’ve never heard of talk about Jeff Buckley). Still: tons of performance footage, and interviews with all three bandmembers back in the day (plus interviews with Watt and Hurley now). Mike Watt – who, producer Keith Schieron told us in the post-show Q&A, is “a bit of a chatterbox” – toured the filmmakers around San Pedro in his van and talked without needing to be asked a question -- I remember reading Henry Rollins, in one of this vast number of old tour diaries, bitching about how Watt just wouldn't shut up -- but I kind of like hearing him speak (and was pleased to briefly meet him after his last performance here; he seems like a really nice guy, very open and personable). Apparently the DVD, when its released, will be a 2-disc set with some complete concerts of the Minutemen’s on the second disc – a must have, sounds like.

Strangely, the Albert Ayler documentary left me wanting more. The interviews are much more focused in the case of this film – Ayler’s surviving family and a few musicians, most notably Sunny Murray – and Ayler’s music is well used, as are some very interesting recorded comments from Ayler – his voice is softer and gentler and younger-sounding than one would expect and it seems very strange indeed to hear it, like something ghostly is transpiring. Still, the performance footage the film uses is generally interrupted after a minute or two; some aspects of his career are left out, perhaps because they’re too painful – there’s only a very brief treatment of Ayler’s embarrassingly wrong-headed attempts to gain a rock crossover audience, which are made to seem like they were his idea, which one hopes/prays they weren't; no footage of Mary Parks singing those FUCKIN’ WEIRD songs she did with him (check out "A Man is Like a Tree" sometime -- what universe is SHE from, anyhow?), and no commentary on the apparent bitterness of song titles like “Drudgery,” as attached to a routine blues number on MUSIC IS THE HEALING FORCE OF THE UNIVERSE, and apparently signifying an ironic protest on someone's part -- probably Ayler's -- that his music was being used in such a context. Though there is mention of the neglect Ayler’s music received in America, there’s nothing much like criticism of the music industry or its role in Ayler’s demise, and it seems like Impulse! are let off the hook a bit more than they could have been – the film acknowledges that they were probably going to “not renew his contract” prior to his death, but that’s about it – contrast it with Peter Brotzmann’s liner notes for the first DIE LIKE A DOG quartet release. Some tougher questions could have been asked of his family and friends, too – about the state of Ayler’s mind leading up to his suicide, if that’s what it was; if whether drugs played any role in his music or in the odd religious tenor to his later career (he speaks of being a “prophet,” and we’re told that he had taken up an ancient Egyptian practice of staring into the sun in pursuit of illumination); and so forth… Still, the things that the film does are pretty important, and I’d recommend the film to any Ayler fan. It would be impossible to make an entirely bad documentary, given the material the filmmakers had at their disposal (eg, footage of Ayler's father looking for his son's grave, to lay flowers on it; it’s very strange to discover that Ayler’s father is still alive, and to see him talking about the life and death of a son gone some 35 years). The most interesting anecdote of the film: Ayler talks about how he, on hearing that Coltrane had requested him to be one of the musicians to play at his funeral, thought “How could I do that? How could I play crying?”

Free promotional MY NAME IS ALBERT AYLER postcards were graciously made available by the distributor, as well as posters, which I bought two of. I don't know who I'll give the other postcards to, but I immediately mailed one to Eugene Chadbourne.

I don’t have a whole lot more to add about the festival’s films. PAYDAY is a good film and worth seeking out (it’s directed by Vancouverite Daryl Duke, who also made THE SILENT PARTNER; Duke’s wife attended as a special guest and introduced the movie); I don't have a whole lot to say about it but I really liked what it did. STUNT ROCK was not really as bad enough to be funny enough for me to enjoy it, which raises interesting questions of just how bad a film has to be... Maybe I actually had EXPECTATIONS of the film, though, having seen it previewed at the final Cinemuerte, in which case the fault is probably mine. TV PARTY had a little bit too much talking-head stuff at the beginning, and wasted some opportunities to hear some pretty fucked up performances by stoned NY hipsters of yore – many of whom (DNA, John Lurie, Debbie Harry, Jean Michel Basquiat, and a list far too long to do justice to) are only shown in a fragmentary, hurried way, teasing us with the potential of the footage and making us wish we had a video library of every damn TV PARTY to air; but it ended up really being a delight to watch, no less, and by the end even the talking heads were holding my attention (I am not referring to the brief David Byrne performance shown in the film, tho' that was charming, too). The show's host, Glenn O'Brien, gets the Quote of the Festival Award for his suavely stoned quip, "Socialism begins with socializing")...

What else? Nina Simone seemed like a pretty weird person and a bit of a diva (she is seen ordering an audience member to sit down before she continues a song she’s begun) but she did say she was “half-high” during the performance and that can explain a lot, including, perhaps, why this film is rarely seen. Great music, though. I liked the David Chance documentary, but have nothing to say about it, and I skipped THE MUPPET MOVIE – I just wasn't in the mood.
THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is an amazing film and that Paul Williams looked great. I wish I'd had the guts to ask about the Winnepeg connection -- something offered to those In-the-Know, among whom I am clearly not numbered -- but what the fuck, I can always look it up on the internet. I guess this film counts as the "pleasant surprise/relief" of the festival. Having been recently disappointed greatly by SISTERS, which in no way merits the praise Robin Wood gives it (emphasizing its interesting ideas and ignoring just how clumsily they are translated onto the screen), I was kind of worried, but this appears to in fact be Brian de Palma's first masterpiece -- not to say anything against GREETINGS and HI, MOM, of course. (And I haven't seen all his early films -- maybe GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT would blow me away, I dunno). The Roky Erickson documentary is also a masterpiece of sorts. I'm not gonna say very much about it, save that it's a must-view for anyone concerned with psychedelic rock, abnormal psychology, the hell which is family, and healing: the film managed to convince me that grown men skipping in a circle in a sort of New Age-y, inner child-healing psychotherapy is IN FACT HEALTHIER and more productive than just wallowing in one's own illness... which is no mean feat.

One final note on the movies: to my surprise, one of the most promising of the filmmakers represented in the fest was festival organizer Kier-la Janisse herself. I was really interested in the Krautrock documentary she played a bit of between films, and I WAS A TEENAGE QUINCY PUNK was a most entertaining archival feat – a compendium of bad TV representations of punk rock. (Kier-la, if I forget to mention it, you know that SNFU wrote a song called "Real Men Don't Watch Quincy," right? It would make a great postscript to the film, having them perform it – “the punks respond”). I think she’s got a career as a documentarian, if she wants it – it would be easier than organizing festivals in distant cities! (And I mean it: you give me a way of buying a copy and I’d love to see the Krautrock documentary in full).

On to the main event, then:

I imagine that it’s only a fairly small percentage of people in Vancouver who remember Wreckless Eric, as I did (having owned his LP, BIG SMASH, which gave the festival its name, and, I think, having had “Semaphore Signals” on a tape I made off Co-op radio). Even those of us who do remember him from his late 70’s-early-80’s “punk/pop” days probably had no idea that he was still active – that he’s written a book, has a new album out (BUNGALOW HI), and has “matured” (I think given his self-descriptions and the richness of his current music, he won’t object to my categorizing BIG SMASH and such as “immature,” delightful as they may be; whereas early recordings by him are pretty much straightforward popsongs, BUNGALOW HI features a few very interesting instrumental assemblages of samples, and some very edgy, insightful lyrics -- using a torn Durex packet found under a bed as a signifier o' memories of a failed relationship is brilliant). With apologies to Eric – he seems sensitive (cranky?) about people being “condescending” in their approach to him, and/or regarding him as a sort of zombie, a pop failure too dumb to just lay down and die – I gotta admit that I approached him, the other day, as a sort of has-been; I’d read that he’d had problems with alcoholism and had been briefly institutionalized. While this fit with the odd aforementioned “theme” – or was it a subtext? – of the rest of the festival, I figured that he was someone Kier-la had unearthed from near-total obscurity, whose day was more or less done, not someone passionately still engaged in making music. (A chat with Kier-la reveals that when she started considering having him come down, she was of a similar mind as me -- it seems like I'm not alone in my path of rediscovering this man). I’d seen him wandering about the Cinematheque, not really seeming to be enjoying himself, looking vaguely disconnected from the people around him (which I know well is an easy feeling to cultivate in this city, where everyone seems nervous about crossing boundaries and protective of their own circles of comfort and/or cliques). Feeling vaguely sorry for him -- and having enjoyed his witty introduction to SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL ("being a British musician there's a lot I have to be grateful to the Rolling Stones for, and a lot I have to despise them for"), I went up and told him that I’d owned BIG SMASH and liked it when I was younger. He didn’t seem that excited by what I intended as praise. Having seen him perform – even tho’ I arrived late, since the show began much earlier than its listed 11:30 start time – I now understand why.

It was one of the odder gigs I’ve seen – the venue, the Railway Club – wanted him off the stage, so they could close down – due to regulations? Acrimony? Lazy stupid owners? I dunno. He refused to get off the stage, did about five songs after they told him (or, rather, Kier-la, standing up front with Adrian of THE NERVE MAGAZINE) to stop, and was seeming to really get OFF on the anger/defiance – the last number he actually kinda started shouting at the Railway people – “You can cut me off, I don’t care! You can’t cut a man down when he’s up this high! Go ahead!” – inviting cheers from the crowd and deepening the intensity of his playing. It was fiercely ALIVE music, and a couple of the songs on the new disc (“33s and 45s” and “Local”) which he played are as strong as anything I’ve heard a “rock” musician do – strong enough that I bought the disc, when I wasn’t planning to buy anything. He had the sort of fierce integrity that I associate with the New Model Army, actually, though his recent songs were far quirkier than that would suggest. He also read a passage from his book, A DYSFUNCTIONAL SUCCESS, which Kier-la recommends (tho' it doesn't deal much with his Stiff days, she says -- he doesn't much like writing about that). His website has a ton of writing on it, and is worth exploring – he’s a performer who deserves a LOT more credit than he gets… He has my salutations and my apologies if I too seemed to have been condescending to him… I didn’t understand…

Anyhow, it’s been a very fun few days, even tho’ my ass has gotten quite sore from sitting in the Cinematheque for such an extended period, which sitting in front of the computer now is doing nothing for. Cheers and salutations to Kier-la Janisse and Eric Goulden and everyone else involved in making this festival happen – I really enjoyed myself. I pray that there will be future festivals. Losing Kier-la would be akin to losing the jazz fest or the VIFF to me -- if anyone wants to buy my left testicle for the $10,000 she'd need to do it all again, I'd gladly give it -- assuming a sterile, anesthetized operation. If she screens a nice print of Timothy Carey's THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER I'll consider throwing in one kidney, too.

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