Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I Called Him Morgan: Lee Morgan documentary at the Vancity Theatre, plus John Coltrane

Though I have owned and enjoyed a couple of his records in my time, I didn't know anything at all about the life or death of trumpeter Lee Morgan before watching I Called Him Morgan, upcoming in early June at the Vancity Theatre. When I first discovered the film would touch on issues of drug addiction, infidelity, and murder - all, of course, among African-Americans - I confess that I bristled a bit. Understand: both my parents, before they died, used to watch plenty of daytime TV, and between Cops ("white authority figures arrest and lecture poor black people") and various talk shows (I don't know their names but they often involved lie detectors and/or Maury Povich) which seemed bent on proving black men are cheating pieces of shit, I have had more than my fill of seeing people with darker skin degraded in the media. And it's not just daytime TV, either: it seems like every film I've seen about jazzmen has to - almost like it is a genre convention - deal with death, suicide, murder, mental illness, and/or drug addiction, or a combination thereof: there's My Name Is Albert, Bird, Straight No Chaser, the recent Miles biopic (which I haven't seen, but which surely touches on Miles' heroin use)... Hell, there's even plenty of infidelity, drug abuse, and a suicide in Let's Get Lost, about Chet Baker - and he was white! I've yet to see a movie, documentary or otherwise, made about a jazzman who ended up successful and comfortable in later life, maybe mellowing out their later years by playing prestigious festivals and making a bit of extra coin hawking stereos on late night infomercials, or something. It's like we don't want to tell stories about jazz players unless they end in sensationalistic darkness and despair, like jazz has to be something that comes at a heavy price - how dare you display your virutosity so blatantly? Maybe films about it need work as cautionary tales to keep us from resenting the players, or heading down the dangerous road of jazz ourselves...?

Thankfully, my fears that I was going to be taken on a tawdry ride proved groundless. I Called Him Morgan is a very well-made documentary, which takes what could have been a sensationalistic story and makes something profound and touching out of it, without exploiting its subject matter in the least. It has an incredible amount of respect for the musicians interviewed, and everyone comes across as articulate, reflective, and genuine - about as far from the hystrionic blaxploitation of daytime TV as you can get. (I felt an equally uncomfortable white liberal relief at how civilized everyone was, in fact, which is another matter altogether - but I enjoyed the film, and was even moved to tears at one surprising point). One of the great strengths of the film is that - I'm guessing - to make up for scanty footage of Morgan (who died at age 33, in 1972) the film draws on a huge archive of black and white photos taken during sessions at Blue Note, where most of his most famous recordings took place. They're gorgeous to look at, illustrating the spoken testimony of Morgan's contemporaries like Albert Tootie Heath, Bennie Maupin, Wayne Shorter and other bandmates. We hear stories of Morgan's rise, his time with Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and his eventual common law marriage to Helen More - Helen Morgan - who "rescued" him from his heroin addiction and later, we learn early in the film, shot him to death. They don't explain why, when they first tell us this, and we're kept in suspense as to the circumstances until near the end, hoping that the story will make sense of the act, which it does. Most remarkable of the people called on to testify is Helen Morgan herself, who - having served her time for killing her man and gone home to North Carolina - was interviewed by teacher and jazz radio host Larry Reni Thomas shortly before her death of old age in the mid-1990's. The cat - and by "cat" I mean the literal cat, trying to sleep in the living room while I previewed the film - could have done without some of the screechy noise that accompany the playing of Thomas' cassettes (but only when the cassette is being shown onscreen; they mercifully edit it out otherwise). But it was the only sonic irritant in the film: when not listening to Morgan's peers tell stories, we're listening to Morgan's playing, mostly from the very peak years of the Blue Note sound, which is easy jazz to listen to indeed, with a distinct blend of the sonic sophistication that marked that label through the 1950's and 60's, with a populist leaning towards warm, playful, engaging, and tuneful jazz (even at times just slightly funky, though not like, say, a Stanley Turrentine record, if you see what I mean). It's a great doc, describing a profound, quiet tragedy, and you may find yourself - so skillfully crafted is the film - sympathizing as much with Helen Morgan as her late husband; maybe even moreso.
For those who crave more difficult jazz, also ongoing at the Vancity Theatre is Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, which (even without having seen a minute of it) you might feel mayyyybe stretches the "celebrity testimony" thing a bit far. I mean, okay, Denzel Washington, who narrates, played a character whom I'm guessing was at least partially inspired by Coltrane in Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues (certainly "A Love Supreme" is all over the soundtrack to that film, where Denzel plays a tenor saxophone player). Carlos Santana might raise eyebrows, but he belongs, too, because he and Coltrane's wife and collaborator Alice Coltrane both recorded together after Coltrane's death and, along with John McLaughlin, shared a guru, Sri Chinmoy, during the early 1970's. I was even ready to roll with John Densmore, and had no trouble at all, obviously, with the inclusion of Wayne Shorter (again) or Sonny Rollins. But BILL CLINTON? I mean, yeah, Bill plays saxophone, sure, but WHAT THE HOLY HELL DOES BILL CLINTON HAVE TO DO WITH JOHN COLTRANE, man?

But I haven't actually sat down to the Coltrane doc, and I'm not going to get a chance to - it's playing now at the Vancity Theatre. Who knows, maybe Clinton is well used? Certainly the title sequence - a trippy excursion to music into interstellar space - seems promising. I suspect the people who need to see it are going to go regardless of what I write here...

Rodney DeCroo: On Guns, Crows, and Redemption (and his time at Monroeville Mall)

I've been aware of Rodney DeCroo for a long time, but I have never done him justice. I know my higher ups at the Straight respect him up and down, and I have dim memories of sitting at the (original) Railway Club with Rodney and (I think) Adrian Mack talking about life, music and writing, maybe from as far back as the days of the Nerve Magazine, where Mack was my editor (the Nerve, for those who don't know it, was a smart local music paper - kind of the Beat Route of its day, but edgier - that folded around 2006 or 2007). I've heard a few of DeCroo's tunes, watched Flick Harrison's compelling, surveillance-themed video for "War Torn Man", and I might have even been somewhere doing something else while DeCroo was onstage, but mostly my relationship with DeCroo has been one of neglect, so much so that, listening to a press download of Old Tenement Man, his new album, my reaction is one of embarrassment (at having arrived so late to the party) and shock: holy shit this guy is great! And... what the hell, he rocks! 

Turns out that's partially about sequencing. The album begins with two extremely - and atypically - heavy and dark songs: "Jack Taylor,' sung from the point of view of a young man that murdered his father, and "Jacob's Well," about finding respite from darkness and pain in, yep, drugs and alcohol. There's distortion, there's an oppressively heavy drumbeat, there's a stoned evil menace to both songs that puts them on a spectrum, for me, between Nick Cave's Let Love In and the second LP by Black Mountain, maybe. Folk music they ain't. I suspect that it might be possible even for people who know DeCroo's other albums well - Mike Usinger recaps them in this week's Straight feature - to be going, "Holy shit, this is Rodney DeCroo?"

Anyhow, that was my reaction. I was both relieved and a bit disappointed to discover that the album calms down after those two numbers, ventures into more redemptive, even at times upbeat territory, introducing some light to the darkness; why I was salivating at the prospect of a journey through hell I cannot say. But it's a very strong, compelling album. I know nothing of the backstory besides what is in Mike's article - nothing about Mark Evans, a friend and neighbour of DeCroo's on Commercial Drive who inspired the album, nothing of PTSD, and nothing at all about DeCroo's book of poetry besides the title, Next Door to the Butcher Shop. But DeCroo will be playing songs from the album, and reading some of his poetry, at the Cultch this Wednesday, so we managed to do a quick email interview - meant as an adjuct to Mike Usinger's piece (so do read that first, eh? Among other things, it contains some information DeCroo's painful background, growing up in Pittsburgh, which will inform some of his answers here...).

Rodney DeCroo by Rebecca Blissett

Allan: It suits the more "rock" aspect of the album, but "Jack Taylor" is a hell of a place to start the journey. Is Jack Taylor a fictional character, based on a real person...? Where did the song come from, and why put it as the first track? (Is prison part of your experience? I kinda thought of Steve Earle's songs about executions while listening to this...)

Rodney: Honestly Allan, sequencing is something I struggle with. My impulses always seem to go against the conventional wisdom. I played my original Old Tenement Man sequence for my friend Rob Malowany and he said Rodney, you're doing your contrarian thing again, you're placing the best songs near the end of the album. For example originally I started the album with "Ariel" and "Jack Taylor" was close to the end. So, Rob and I sat down and sequenced it together. He recommended that the album start strong, hence "Jack Taylor," "Jacob's Well." etc. "Jack Taylor" is based on someone I knew growing up. But the actual crime he committed was grotesque. His father was brutal, a terror of a man who abused his wife and children horribly. Sadly the boy I knew grew up to become an abuser as well and was sent to prison for many years. In memory of the boy I knew as opposed to the man, I wrote a song that still results in a brutal crime, but it's committed for arguably noble reasons. No, prison isn't part of my story though my biological father is rumored to have died in prison in California, but I don't know if that is true.

Do you have favourite examples of other writers or songwriters who manage to have compassion for the brutalized, dangerous and degraded?

When I was 12 I found a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. It devastated me. I was a patriot. I wanted to be a Marine like my Vietnam vet ( step) father. I read books about Paul Revere, George Washington, the American Revolution. I believed in the fairy tale of America as the champion of freedom. My childhood was steeped in trauma, violence, sexual abuse, addiction / alcoholism, bigotry and religious mania. My patriotic fantasy gave my life some crude form of dignity, purpose, a higher calling. I thought George Custer was a tragic American hero! Then I read that book and I couldn't make sense of it. It destroyed my fantasy. I was surrounded by far right Christian zealots and bigots so no one would answer my questions. No book has ever impacted me like that since, though Howard Zinn's A People's History of America is right up there for me. I can't say it was a "favorite" because there was nothing entertaining about it, but it decimated my patriotism and made question everything I thought I knew.

Mike's feature says the title of "I've Got a Mirror, I've Got a Gun" is "pretty much self-explanatory" but I went somewhere totally wrong with it before the song started playing: Travis Bickle ("You talkin' to me?" - I mean, he had a mirror and a gun, right?). Seems to me that it's actually about choices - between reflection or other-directed violence - but I could imagine different readings of the song... Where did it come from? Any unusual interpretations so far?

I'm not sure where it came from. The line "I've got a mirror, I've got a gun" came to me one night and I sat down and the song poured out of me. Yes, it would seem to be a choice between reflection,- in my case songwriting, poetry- or other-directed violence. Of course I've done both and still face those choices. But as the chorus implies maybe it's not that simple. I mean, I've gone to some pretty dark places in my drive to create. Maybe all roads in the end lead to the gun, for me.

There are actually a fair number of guns in your lyrics, at least on this album. Were guns part of growing up in Pittsburgh? How do you feel around them?

I was surrounded by guns. I hunted a lot all through my early and late teens. But hunting rifles and shotguns were a mundane part of life, a kind of tool. However hand guns were a different story. I stole a handgun from a hardware store when I was fifteen. I got caught but before I was grabbed by the manager, when I got that gun in my hand, the surge of excitement, the sense of power, was exhilarating and terrifying. I felt like Billy the fucking Kid. Guns are potent symbols for me. They have a dark, seductive, violent aura. They terrify me and fascinate me. In short, I'm an American.

The Biblical Jacob comes up a couple times on the album (and fittingly enough I actually first read the title as "Old Testament Man.") So do you have a religious background? Where did the Jacob story resonate for you? (I actually don't know my scripture well enough to know what's important or isn't, here - I'm trying to do a refresher on Wikipedia but I'm just getting lost and overwhelmed. Jacob actually sounds like a piece of shit, buying his brother's birthright and then lying to his father to get a blessing... it's not exactly a heroic beginning for a patriarch!).

My family were Fundamentalist Christians of the Jesus Camp variety and Southern Baptists. I didn't like the Biblical stories of Jacob when I was a kid, my sympathies were with Esau, I felt a connection to him. It's funny but I felt way more connected to the bad guys and rejects in the Bible. I felt for Cain, for Saul, for Absalom, for Judas etc. I hated the biblical heroes like David. In the story of Jacob and the Angel, Jacob fights the Angel all night and they fight to a draw. But then the Angel wounds Jacob's hip socket. For the rest of his life Jacob walks with a limp. He is maimed by God, but he is also given a blessing. However the character in the song "Like Jacob When He Felt The Angel's Touch" is eternally defiant toward God, like Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost. He views God as an oppressor, a tormentor and he longs for revenge against him. I initially thought of calling the album Old Testament Man but it just didn't ring right for me and some people would have misinterpreted my intentions. Old Tenement Man is meant to "echo" the other while saying a lot more.

 I confess, I am not a big "poetry" guy - and I actually grinned at the line about poetry in "Jacob's Well" about it being "such a fuckin' bore." What's your history with poetry? (Bukowski was a poet who was pretty cranky about other poets, come to think of it - though again, Mike goes somewhere else with this line, that you're speaking in another voice to address yourself, not other poets...)

Yeah that line is directed both at myself and at other poets. Frankly a lot of poets are academics. They're not poets. I have what I think is a healthy dose of contempt towards them but I also find my poet as class warrior attitude a bit tedious at times. The launch at the Cultch is both a CD release as well as a launch for my second collection of poetry Next Door to the Butcher Shop with Nightwood Editions. My poetry is written out of my life. I'm not an academic.

The second "Jacob" song (and here I meant "Like Jacob When He Felt the Angel's Touch", which appears second of the two songs that mention Jacob, but Rodney seems to have taken me to mean "Jacob's Well," which is the second song on the album) got me thinking on Nick Cave's
Let Love In - the arrangements, more than the lyrics, though he'd doubtlessly approve of the religious referent. Got me thinking of the Rolling Stone interview where Cave tells high school students to read the Bible, not Bukowski. But when it comes to compassion for the poor, it seems to me that someone can read BOTH the Bible and Bukowski. What do you think of Bukowski? Cave? Was Let Love In at all a touchstone, here, or...?

In my twenties I wanted to be Bukowski. I don't think much of his poetry now. It's just not that good though some of it is quite funny. I think as a writer his real achievement is his novels. I have to keep Nick Cave at a distance or else he'd overwhelm me as a songwriter. I am deeply impacted by his work but I try come to it solely as a listener, to be taken up, but not as a writer, or I'd end up just poorly imitating him. But I'm sure Let Love In has impacted me as a songwriter. How could it not? But not directly, in terms of "Jacob's Well." I would say it's more of a spiritual referent rather than religious in "Jacob's Well." When it comes to the Bible for me it's always about the poetry never dogma or religious practice.

Also wondering about a gamut of other songwriters who might have influenced you but... Art Bergmann has been on my mind lately. Is he someone you feel any affinity for? He also has a lot of darkness in his songs...

Yes, Art Bergmann is a songwriter I admire and listen to. I saw it as a good sign that he hired Lorrie Matheson to produce his last album. That was kind of what sealed the deal for me in my decision to have Lorrie produce Old Tenement Man. As far as songwriters who have impacted me, it's all the names you'd expect and some others you wouldn't. How's that for vague?

Was the album designed for vinyl? Because there seems to be a "side one/ side two" thing going on here, with the emotional arc of side one ending on the rather redemptive and forgiving "Radio," and then a fresh start with "Like Jacob When He Felt the Angel's Touch." Am I reading that right? Are you a vinyl guy vs. CD? Are you happy with the resurgence?

I knew the songs added up to an actual album, that they were of a piece. I guess in the back of my mind I was thinking in terms of vinyl but more because that's the format that shaped my idea of what an album is. I guess I prefer vinyl. I mean, CDs are fucking ugly, they're so disposable. Vinyl, the cover, everything about it is something that you want to engage with and keep around.

I pretty much love any song I've heard that has crows in it. Did "Half Blind Crow" take its inspiration from an actual crow? Any favourite crow songs?

A crow landed on the windowsill of my apartment. Half its face was burnt off and the other half was normal, black feathered and the other side was all white scar tissue, no feathers, there was no eye, it was just a burnt mass of scar tissue. Freaked me out. I thought it was an omen. Caused me to do some soul searching. Like Cash says "God's Gonna Cut You Down." "Half Blind Crow" is a similar type of song.

Any stories about Mark Evans that didn't make the Straight article? Are there moments on the album that reference your friendship with him that might not be so obvious to an outsider?

There are but I disguised them and they're going to stay that way.I feel that honors him more.

Not only have I paid far too little attention to you over the years, I have paid even LESS attention to Geoff Berner, a guy I know gets TONS of respect as a songwriter but whom I've never seen live, never listened to a full song of). Do you have any history with Geoff? Favourite moments in his catalogue? Have you collaborated?

I've never collaborated with Geoff. I pretty much like everything he's done.

Finally, a dumb, irrelevant question that  you're free to skip, but if I had grown up in Pittsburgh - growing up misanthropic and in love with George A. Romero - I would have spent tons of time at the Monroeville Mall. (The main mall in Maple Ridge always took me right back to Dawn of the Dead and it's nothing like the mall in that movie, except spiritually). Any Monroeville/ Romero stories?

I don't have any Romero stories, but Monroeville Mall was only about a 15 drive from where I lived. It was largest mall at the time in the area. My parents lost me when I was three in Monroeville Mall. I wandered off. Eventually a security guard found me. I skipped school once and took a bus there to meet a girl I had a teenage crush on - I'd met her at summer Bible camp- but she never showed. I was heart broken.

See Rodney DeCroo (with guests Geoff Berner and Fraser McKenzie) at the Cultch this Wednesday (note that it is an early show, eh?). 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Art Bergmann and I: a reflection on troubled fandom, and notes on the last electric show

Art Bergmann at the Rickshaw, May 19, 2017, by the great bev davies, not to be reused without permission, please! All live photos of Art below by bev...

Note: I have added a couple italicized comments based on an interview I just did with Art, as yet untranscribed... more on that later]

I am not entirely sure what happened with me and Art Bergmann, in terms of my fandom. It has been a very rocky road! There are other artists I've tried to walk away, unsuccessfully, from at various points in my life - from Daniel Johnson to David Cronenberg - but not other Vancouver musicians. I'm presently back "on" in terms of my fandom, but I kinda feel like exploring my history with the man and his music, maybe in more detail than you want or is wise...

I didn't really get him, early on. I had the Poisoned EP, when it first came out back in 1985 - buying it off Grant Shankaruk, maybe on his recommendation even, back when Grant worked at Collectors RPM. My seventeen year old music geek self back then was aware of the critical buzz around him, but that EP - it might have been the first thing I ever heard of his - didn't really connect with me, truth be known. I enjoyed the Young Canadians' EPs, also acquired early on, around the same time maybe, but even they took awhile for me to fully appreciate, because I was an outsider to the scene when I bought them, a few years after they were current. The context of, say, "No Escape" to a suburban kid like me was pretty remote and mysterious back then; I had never even been to a gig at the Smilin' Buddha, though I knew it by rep, and had glimpsed it from bus windows on the way back and forth from Maple Ridge; I wasn't old enough to get in, and even if I had been, didn't have a car to get me home from gigs, or even a friend with a car who had the same level of interest in what was going on there. I recall, as a kid, liking the more "trivial" songs on the Young Canadians discs, like Jim Bescott's playful "Just a Loser." Nowadays, "No Escape" is probably my favourite song ever about police violence directed at punks, MAYBE with some competition from the Dicks "Pigs Run Wild," though the context of that is a very different scene than Vancouver's, so it seems a bit less relevant. "No Escape" seems brave, anthemic, and brilliant, and I've made a stab or two at transcribing the lyrics (without full success; not even his fansite has'em). I still don't really know what the Cold War-themed "Data Redux" is about, exactly - spies, sure, but what about 'em? - but those are the two greatest early songs by Art, far as I can see. (The K-Tel's "I Hate Music" also came across my radar early on, and was also pretty great, though how many artists have ever MADE a statement like that, admitted fundamental ambivalence to their own art form? It's a pretty interesting thing to do!).

...but the Poisoned EP, when I first got it, as a teenager on a diet of mostly American hardcore, just sounded like some sort of badly produced mainstream album, like "weak Lou Reed," or something, and even the edgiest moments didn't connect, though I tried to make them to with repeat playings, figuring that the problem was with me, not it. I like it better nowadays - I can see things in it that I sure couldn't then. Part of the problem may be that I've never had the remotest curiosity about heroin, let alone experience with it, save that it helped destroy one friendship I had, when a buddy got way deeper into it than he should have; it also has killed a few people I looked up to, which also wasn't great advertising for it. So "Guns and Heroin," which seems the obvious "best song" on the EP. the one that makes it a classic, like "Cortez the Killer" does with Neil Young's Zuma, was always kind of located between "meaningless" and "disturbing" to me, which is not a great spectrum for art appreciation to take place in: at best you admit you don't get it, at worst you judge it and walk away.

The next album I bought by Art, later on, was 1988's Crawl With Me, which was supposed to break Art bigtime across Canada, back in the days of Much Music and Jane Siberry and a genuine interest across the country in our hearing our own music, which seems to have lessened a bit since (The Tragically Hip notwithstanding, of course).  Even Art Bergmann admits that album fails, thanks to John Cale's limp, Artificial Intelligence/ "recovering addict" production (Art needed Sabotage-era Cale, steeped in alcohol and anger, and it ain't what he got; there's stories of him breaking down in tears when he heard the finished product). There were glimmers of greatness you could detect in the songwriting - the title track, say - but overall it seemed weak, nowhere worse than during Cale's saccharine "la-la-la" backup vocals on the incest-themed single, "Our Little Secret," which seem to completely misunderstand just how dark the song is. In fairness to Cale, I guess it does set the bar a bit high to try to market a song about trying to have a relationship with someone who was sexually abused by her father, as the lead single on a pop album; presumably that that's neither Cale's nor Bergmann's fault, but Duke Street Records, who I presume made the decisions here. (The rock video for it is fucking godawful, too; no wonder Art has a bitter streak!). I bought it on vinyl, back at A&A records on Granville I think, and got rid of it quickly. I'm not even sure I still have it in my collection these days. I almost felt like it was unfair to judge Art by it; word from the start was the demos were way better, which I had no trouble at all believing.

Sexual Roulette I liked way better - and the gritty album cover shows that Duke Street had a far better understanding of what they were trying to sell - but it was only decades later when I began to appreciate how horrifying "The Hospital Song" or "Dirge No. 1" are, or how rich. "Dirge No. 1" - about drugs and racially motivated violence in an unnamed  city - was actually the climax of the show the other night at the Rickshaw, with Art changing a couple of the lyrics: his friend was going out to kill every white man he saw, not every black man. Besides being politically timely and maybe expedient, this alteration fit Art's constant exhortations through the evening for "white folks" to dance, or his references to "Dumbfuckistan" - which seemed to be a mostly white country, maybe the USA, or maybe somewhere inside the province of rock'n'roll, or maybe even the home country (in Art's eyes?) of most of the audience at any given rock show. He has a sort of sporadic, sneering mistrust of the audience that was very much present at the last show I saw him at, at the WISE, and which I can't really blame him for; I feel much the same way, in fact, though it's shocking to see someone DISPLAY that mistrust so openly onstage, where most artists seem to just adopt a shit-eating grin and go "how y'all doin'?" (Art has something in common with Gord Downie, on that front, come to think of it - the one time I saw the Hip, at the Commodore on the World Container tour, Downie seemed to spend most of the show pretending to shoot members of the audience with a finger gun, then hiding behind his band members, like his fans were scary, dangerous things, which kinda seems to be the case). I really am not sure where "Dirge No. 1" came from, if it's mostly fictional, inspired by Art's readings, or what, since there is almost no white-on-black/ black-on-white violence in Vancouver that *I* have noticed (though the line about the chicken blood running in the gutter and stinking always takes me to the north end of Commercial Drive, on a summer day; I have had a few friends live in the ARC building, and the reek from the nearby chicken rendering plant is palpable indeed [talking to Art since clarifies that it was written about the Kensington Market in Toronto). Whoever's life, whoever's city informs that song, it rings very true and brutally honest - and surely there are plenty of people in Vancouver who "died along the way/ having fun." (A moment that, since I seem to be including every aside comes to mind, reminds me whenever I hear it of Philip K. Dick's mournful afterword to A Scanner Darkly - about people who were punished far too much for the crime of trying to enjoy themselves).

As for "The Hospital Song," I have had people argue at some length with me about the content, denying that it's about spousal abuse, sung from the point of view of the abuser, but, you know, I've also had people tell me that Kiss's "Lick It Up" and Judas Priest's "Love Bites" have nothing to do with oral sex; learning not to argue with the citizens of Dumbfuckistan is a valuable skill to acquire.

[And holy shit - Art also completely adjusted the parameters on that song: it's about putting your girl in the hospital with an accidental drug overdose, not violence. Wow. Totally shifted my sense of the song; it's still dark as hell but a lot less evil]

Anyhow, I could appreciate that Sexual Roulette was a good album, but when it came out - 1990, when I was 22 - I couldn't really understand it, and eventually set it aside, too; I stopped buying Art's records for twenty years after that, since, even if I conceded that they deserved respect, I just didn't figure I'd enjoy them. Somewhere in there I met Art, briefly, at a video store I worked at in Maple Ridge, where I got him to sign our rental copy of Highway 61, but it wasn't REALLY as a position of a fan that I pestered him, more like, "You're famous and respected! I should get you to sign something!" (It was nice of him to indulge me).

Art Bergmann and band by bev davies (Paul Rigby offstage to the left). Not to be reused without permission

Eventually I wandered away from rock music entirely, spent a few years on free jazz and noise and trippy weirdness like Eugene Chadbourne. It didn't really dawn on me to go back to Art until ten years ago, with the release of Lost Art, comprised of those storied Crawl With Me demos, which I'd always been curious about. (It helped that I was writing for local papers at that point and could do the album good by reviewing it from an informed perspective). That's where I finally got to appreciate his craft, though I retained a touch of ambivalence about him and his point of view. I mean, "The Junkie Don't Care" and "My Empty House" are really good songs, but they lean towards a wallowing in darkness that seems morally and aesthetically suspect to me. They're songs of experience, sure, observant and incisive songs of application to the human condition - I debate none of that! - but they're also songs of experience somewhat remote and uncomfortable, with a bitterness and blackness to their humour that I didn't fully buy into. Darkness sometimes can serve as an excuse for other things, a kind of special pleading, a belief that the rules of life, whatever exactly they are, somehow shouldn't apply to oneself, and a rationalization for bad behaviour. To simplify a bit: "Life is shit, pass the drugs." Art seemed to be following a very different idea of the rules of life than I was, and I got the sense that maybe, as a human being, I wouldn't like him very much. But Lost Art was still interesting, and I was glad it existed. Damn right it was better than the Cale album!

A couple of coworkers of mine back then were big Art Bergmann fans, and helped me make my way through my ambivalences over the course of conversations (one of them was in the middle of helping with the construction of Art's fansite, as it happens, around this time; both were present in the audience with me at Art's first comeback gig, awhile later).

Then Susanne Tabata's movie about Vancouver punk came out, and I recall having a conversation with a person of import, who shall remain nameless, about the title, Bloodied But Unbowed, which - while I liked it just fine - wasn't everyone's favourite title, including my friend, who thought it was kind of inappropriate as a summation of the Vancouver scene: "What about Art Bergmann, he's not unbowed!" this person observed. For those who have somehow missed the film, Art seems a very bitter failure in the movie, crippled and broke, avoiding the limelight in Alberta, kinda like Bucky Haight, whom I always presumed was a caricature of him; the early cut of the doc, in particular, becomes a brutal "Bloodied Beaten and Nearly Dead" kind of experience, largely due to the cloud around Art, who seems far from any sort of special pleading, at this point; he just seems heartbreakingly, genuinely sad about his life trajectory, that for all the praise and awards and "stardom" and respect he'd been accorded, he should find himself damaged, broke, isolated and apparently forgotten by all but a few. Your heart just goes out to the guy - it's painful to see, the most sobering stuff in the movie, and Susanne Tabata - with whom I've also had a bit of a rocky relationship - deserves tons of praise for having done the work to do these interviews, in particular; along with Mary of the Modernettes and some very frank talk from Gerry Hannah, Art's scenes make up the heart of the film, make it essential viewing if you care about Vancouver music or the cost of a life in rock or, well, stuff  like that.

(Not that hearing about Zippy Pinhead's large cock isn't entertaining, too, in its own way.)

Anyhow, my friend - the "Art's not unbowed" one - didn't know, at that point, that Art had a show planned for Richards on Richards when we were having that conversation, out at Lougheed Mall. My timeline gets a bit foggy here - I know that I thought that Art's comeback should be included in the film, and believe that it eventually WAS included, in some subsequent version (the one on the DVD), but all I know is, when my friend made that comment, the concert had not yet happened. I fished out my ticket for the Art show and pushed it across the food court table where we were conversing and said, grinning, "Guess what? Art's playing in a couple weeks."

So there! Who you callin' bowed?

That show, at Richards in 2009, while it didn't entirely cohere, even threatened to go off the rails at various points, remains my favourite experience of seeing Art live, the one I was both best and least prepared for. It was obviously difficult for him - he'd undergone surgery not long before, had hands (and bandmates) that wouldn't permit him to play guitar - but there were tons of moments where the intensity of his performance ("Gambol," say) was overwhelming, perfectly captured in what remains one of my favourite latter-day bev davies' images, in terms of capturing the spirit of the show (I think she said she called it "Art Bergmann bites Vancouver," or something like that):

I collected a bunch of "witness testimony" from people who went, and decided at that point that I would count myself a fan, starting to play catch up on Art Bergmann albums I missed. I even briefly owned the Shmorgs LP, a mid-70's pre-punk, pre-K-Tels band he was in, which is interesting if you're exploring Bergmann's history, showing him as having roots in a sort of Stonesy rock music; but it's not that exciting on its own terms, save to the light it shines on his formative years (I still don't know what the Mt. Lehmann Grease Band, his other storied, early project, actually sounded like). My favourite album of the ones I explored was and remains Design Flaw, an acoustic revisitation of the highlights of his catalogue that he did in 1998 with Chris Spedding, where the starkness of both production and delivery push his songwriting to the fore, letting everything else (career ambitions, a desire to get on the radio or Much Music or whatever) fall away. It's brilliant, and it's weird to me that it's not much talked about (due to poor distro?). If I was going to name one essential solo album he'd done, this would be it, at least until recently... It's still a world removed from me - it would take someone with a much more decadent sensibility to really grok where many of these songs come from - but I could say that about a lot of what Townes van Zandt writes, too. It's still a great, great album, a real unsung gem. Turns out you can hear my favourite song on it, "Crawl With Me," here;  and at this moment, anyway. you can buy the CD for a little over $20 US on Discogs, or get it sent from this dude in Campbell River for a bit more. There appear to be only three copies for sale on the internet!

Design Flaw is the reason I'm shedding no tears that the show the other night was billed as Art's last electric appearance; I've been jealous for awhile that Toronto got to see him do an acoustic set, since I imagine - as with Design Flaw - it's in an acoustic context that the real brilliance of Art as a songwriter will be allowed to shine. It's also, sadly, the context where the citizens of Dumbfuckistan are going to be most irritating, as they jabber loudly with their friends while the band is playing and whoop drunkenly at the wrong times and get onstage screaming and calling attention to themselves, as one girl did the other night... It would be nice if audiences were as mature as the artists in this town, but fat chance of that - too many people seem to go to these shows just to be seen where the action is and be social ("it's not about the music," as my friend David M. has repeatedly observed). Who can blame ANYONE for being ambivalent about that?

All the same, you don't really hear artists (Wreckless Eric, maybe) reacting to such things very vocally in Vancouver, so when you see it happen, it kind of takes you aback. I hadn't known what to make of Art wishing everyone "death" at the Khats fest surprise appearance, where he introduced the Pointed Sticks, but I was glad he was back on the scene. Actually, that reminds me - at that fest, he made a slight bit of fun of me in my zombie attire (muttering "play Misty for me" when I introduced myself afterwards, like clearly, all zombied up, I must have been just another total nutjob in his fandom; it was kind of offensive to me, actually, but, I mean, what can you do when someone treats you like a lunatic, if you're dressed like a fucking zombie?)

Later I wrote him some fan mail and sent him a package, via a friend, of about ten unopened Vultura Freeway CDs that I found at a thrift store, since I figured he could sell them for merch. I never heard back, but I hadn't really expected to.

My next experience with Art, I don't know what happened. I wrote a review for the Straight that got me in a fair bit of hot water. I have run out of excuses for that review, and have actually eaten humble to a few of the people who gave me shit in the comments section (including Aaron Chapman and Jim Cummins, who have both apparently forgiven me). What can I say? I was pissed off that night that a girl I liked, who KNEW I was into her, spent part of that gig, at the WISE, telling me about her boyfriend problems, which connected me to bitter feelings and memories of my own (I was a "high school loser who never made it with the ladies", who girls wanted to be "friends" with, you know? I got a free ticket back to a time I'd hoped I'd left in the past, that evening - which was hardly Art's fault). Add to that that I was there WITH a woman I'd been previously intimate with, whose pants I suddenly wasn't able to get into anymore, and that I was a bit high, and that my life was slowly falling apart in other ways, with illness and job worries and so forth circling around me; my mindset wasn't great, and I took it out on Art a little - maybe feeling just a bit pissed off at him for indulging his darkness, when I was trying at that point to escape my own, which had absolutely nothing to do with anything I invited or cultivated in my own life. And Art really did seem fucked up to me that evening, mopping his face with beer-soaked towels and letting between song interludes drone on interminably, sometimes while demanding that the band wouldn't play again until drinks were brought to the stage... I concede now that he may not have been drunk, as I asserted that he appeared to be. Still, somewhere, thinking about what I'd seen that night, before writing the review, I decided that Art had a very, very destructive muse, and I wanted to take him to task for it. I still don't fully understand why I wrote what I did - I actually meant it to be a kind of positive review, as I said in my defense in the deluge of comments that followed, about how, special pleading or no, Art had pulled a strong, solid, powerful show - if slightly audience-torturing - out of the jaws of a potential trainwreck, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor. But I kind of came to accept that the shit that fell on heaven from me afterwards, from every direction but maybe a couple of friends, was totally deserved by me. I slunk away shamed, like I'd written an editorial defending cultural appropriation or something.

Whatever it was, I stopped being able to listen to Art Bergmann, or go to his shows, for a few years after that. I hadn't meant to do that to myself. Part of it was not wanting anyone to get hostile with me in PERSON, which seemed more than possible, given how hostile people got online; but part of it was, somehow, in my own writing, I'd wrecked my appreciation for the guy's music, which I'd only recently acquired. Maybe my own guilt got the better of me? I missed his Commdore show, his Fox show, didn't buy his two new albums; I was glad he made them, just as I had been delighted to welcome him back to performing after the Richards on Richards gig, but now, thanks to my own assholish writeup, I suddenly I felt like I wasn't welcome in the crowd. (And who needs ditties about spousal-and-substance abuse when life is so full of problems that you DON'T bring on yourself?)

Last night - for complicated reasons involving a difficult friend, and a desire to get OUT of whatever swamp I'd mired myself in, in my own head at least -  I went to see Art Bergmann again at the Rickshaw. I paid to get in, and bought both his new albums - though not the new reissue, since I have the CD already. It was more about atonement than desire: I had to make up for past disrespect.

Turns out the show was really good. I was excited with the opening couple of tracks, like a country-tinged "Message From Paul," off his recent reissue Remember Her Name (I have the 1991 original, though now that I've spun it again, I'm tempted to get the vinyl, too). That was followed by a political number, "Drones for Democracy," which set the tone for a powerful night, with a controlled noise jam stretching out the song that brought the obvious debt to Neil Young and Crazy Horse to the fore. It was a great show; I'd probably have enjoyed it even more if I'd acquainted myself with ANY of Art's new material before the show, but I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about any of it before I went. Paul Rigby did some amazing stuff, switching between mandolin and slide guitar; I missed the other band member's names, but they did a great job keeping up with Art, who was at times alarmingly physical for a guy who had a stool onstage with him (most older artists who start a show seated - I'm thinking of David Thomas and BB King - stay in their seats for the whole night, but not Art, who got pretty physical at times). The tune ups and between-song chaos were minor compared to the WISE gig, and the night climaxed in a great reading of "Dirge No. 1," which I could later be heard singing to myself as I walked home from the Skytrain. (My cancer-surgery-induced lisp actually suits Art's songs quite well).  No band members got throttled, as Tony Walker briefly had when he pissed off Art at Richards. Art did seem to have moments of violent disgust that flickered across his face while performing - I've never seen an artist put so much of his inner life on display while onstage - but he also smiled plenty. He kept his shades on the whole night, remained apparently skeptical about his "comeback success," and at the end of the evening, hilariously and unexpectedly, to fill out the contracted runtime I guess, brought a few audience members onstage - pulling them up himself in a couple of cases, arthritis be damned - to shake shakers and congas and tambourines for a wackily impromptu dance party, with a few extemporaneous bits of, um, "poetry" from Art - which he chuckled at, too, as he delivered it. It was the end of the night, and resulted in nothing remotely resembling a song; Dave Bowes and Mo Tarmohamed both could be seen grinning in delight, commenting to me afterwards how brilliant it was. It was particularly nice to see Jon Card on stage during this segment of the evening; I've worried about him a bit since he lost two close friends and bandmates in short succession, and he didn't look so hot the last time I saw him, briefly getting onstage with Gerry Hannah at the WISE to sing along with "I Got Religion," but he sure looked to be having fun last night, and looked pretty healthy to boot.

Mostly, in deciding to go, I just wanted the WISE gig, tainted as it was by my own cuntishness, not to be my last experience of Art Bergmann. I shot two video clips, here and here...  There's definitely no one else remotely like him in the Canadian music scene - Neil Young maybe comes closest, but I'd actually say in terms of songwriting craft, late Art Bergmann kicks the shit out of late Neil Young (I'd rather hear "Drones for Democracy," on Songs for the Underclass, than ANY of Neil's recent anti-war stuff, which just seems lazy to me, the product of so much success that Young knows he can get away with anything: "I'll write whatever comes to mind over my coffee and those will be the lyrics." That sure ain't how it feels reading Art's lyric sheets).

Art Bergmann live at the Rickshaw, May 19, 2017 by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

Speaking of which, if you haven't heard it yet, and like songs of experience (and don't mind a caustic, bitter edge), The Apostate is turning out to be a fantastic album. I went from feeling like I was enacting an obligation in buying it, forcing myself to shell out $25 I could scarcely afford, to it being the album I'm most excited to listen to, and I've spun it three times through since the show the other night (you're not supposed to play a record more than once every 24 hours, didja know, to avoid wearing out the grooves, or I'd have spun it more often than that).The wit on it is savage as ever: for instance, in two lines, about a song about the experience of settlers, he goes from feeding the women and children first to eating the women and children first; you can't really argue with the truth of it. Paul Rigby is an MVP on it, as on stage. My early favourite tune, "Town Called Mean," is sung from the point of view of a hired gun called in to settle political troubles in a town, and apparently was inspired by Pinkerton-turned-novelist Dashiell Hammett (see video clip two). It has a pleasantly, disturbingly sing-a-long kinda chorus, about how evil has been good to the singer.

As ever, I'm not sure that that's autobiographical, on Art's part - if he actually feels like he HAS been evil in his indulgences or his career choices; or if his comeback success is strong enough that he can un-ironically proclaim that he's getting it good, finally. He might just be taking on a character, I don't know; maybe Donald Trump? But I haven't heard a richer, more interesting, more personally potent album from anyone in a long time, and I'm really glad I bought it. It would have been better if I'd bought it BEFORE the show, of course, so I could have enjoyed these songs more live, but things happened the way they did for a reason, maybe. Important thing is, after a few years away, I'm back to enjoying Art Bergmann's music.

Hope Art doesn't mind my inviting myself back in, here - it's not like he WANTS my attentions, you know? But maybe he'll play Misty for me sometime... or do an acoustic, Design-Flaw type show in Vancouver, hopefully not too long from now, after I've had a chance to digest some of these new songs more fully.

Promising now that I'll be there if he does.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Film roundup: new Kelly Reichardt, Demme Jam, The Transfiguration and more

I have loved some of the films of Kelly Reichardt - Old Joy and Night Moves especially - and respected others (River of Grass, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek's Cutoff). She makes films that are both intensely observant and gentle, that are quiet but rich, that assume left-leaning liberal points of view but also do much to undercut and challenge them -- as with Night Moves, her previous film, which deals with a group of eco-saboteurs who make a horrible mistake, and then have to find a way to live with the repercussions of that; that her characters fuck up and do morally questionable things made the film an uncomfortable experience, perhaps, for people who expected cause-oriented flag waving, but there is nothing particularly simple or uni-dimensional about Reichardt's universe; there are actions, and consequences, and coming to terms with those consequences, which may or may not be possible to do - and which may not happen in the course of the films, which are comfortable with open-ended, unresolved endings. I have tried enough times without success to interview her that I don't try very hard now; she's clearly a woman who prefers to DO the work than talk about it, as her nearly silent commentary track to Old Joy will amply demonstrate. She is not, however, a difficult person, it seems: she has a rep as a tough interview, but she seemed very friendly and personable during the Skype chat with the audience the Cinematheque organized last year. I am not sure why I'm not entirely feelin' it (yet!) around her newest film Certain Women - which I was excited about last year, when I first heard about it during the Cinematheque's Reichardt retrospective, but which took a very long time to actually get any screen presence at all in Vancouver. Maybe I've just had too much else on my mind this year? I'm going to try to make it to the Cinematheque tomorrow to see it, in any case. For some reason, the distributors are being stingy about making screeners available (even though it's already out on DVD!), so I haven't been able to preview it, but I'll try to note reactions ASAP after I catch the first screening. Michelle Williams, whom I've liked in everything I've seen her in, is in it, as is Laura Dern (capable of fine work, but seldom onscreen these days) and Kristen Stewart, who I think is a highly capable, under-rated actress. I don't think I know Lily Gladstone yet, whom the Cinematheque writeup describes as "a revelation;" she has had only one other feature film role to my knowledge, an adaptation of James Welch's novel Winter in the Blood (authentically First Nations, I believe - I don't THINK Welch is a white guy). She has an interesting face, in any case (bottom one on the poster, above).

There is plenty coming up elsewise at the Cinematheque to note - from Sunday's Afternoon with Marv Newland programme this weekend to a chance, not too far off, to see Stephen Chow's delightful, silly Kung Fu Hustle - his follow up to Shaolin Soccer - on screen, as part of a retrospective of Hong Kong cinema. Also coming soon, there's a restored Bogart cult classic I haven't seen, which I believe plays tonight alongside the Reichardt movie, and free screenings of three Canadian films - Atom Egoyan's most self-hating and cringe-inducingly embarrassing film, Calendar; Michael Snow's classic of experimental cinema, Wavelength; and Alanis Obomsawin's documentary about the Oka crisis, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which I might just check out for what it reveals about a favourite film of mine, Clear Cut, informed by events at Oka. Plus the Cinematheque's 24 Hour Movie Marathon is back; I've never attended and doubt I will this time - it's the sort of thing I would have eaten up twenty five years ago, but which sounds daunting now; still it's a hell of a fun-sounding idea (made vastly more appealing by their new, improved seats - which aren't that new anymore, but are still the most comfortable seats the Cinematheque has had since I started going in the 1980's).

Meantime at the Vancity Theatre, there is a documentary of the moment about the housing crisis and homelessness in Vancouver, called Vancouver: No Fixed Address; a pretty unique-sounding animated film called My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea; and - a little further into the future, a tribute to filmmaker Jonathan Demme, Demme Jam, another FREE event, where (I believe the idea is) people will introduce and talk about their favourite clips from Jonathan Demme's films. There are some of Demme's films that I have not yet seen, but based on what I have seen, I think Demme's concert films are where he really shines; you don't realize just how intelligently and beautifully filmed and edited a work like Stop Making Sense - his Talking Heads film - is until you take a look at almost all other concert films and see what a mess people usually make of the form, with zooming cameras and choppy edits which I suppose are designed to imitate the music, but which often make it absolutely impossible to just watch and appreciate the musicians at work. Demme is great at that, however; he has tremendous respect for the performers onstage, knows that people want to watch them and that what they are doing - making music - is inherently interesting on screen, without gimmick or glitz. He mostly stays out of the way of the process, taking a fairly calm, observational approach, while still providing plenty of pleasing details and asides. Storefront Hitchcock, showcasing Robyn Hitchcock, performing in, yes, an empty storefront, is filmed with a slightly different eye from Stop Making Sense, but with just as much restraint and intelligence. (Swimming to Cambodia, if you count that as a concert film, is also an old favourite of mine, though somewhat marred by Spalding Gray's later suicide, which he orchestrated in such a way that his family fretted for some time before his body was found; it's a shitty way to go, not that being found dead in your hotel room is much better).

After that, there are four categories I place Demme's films in - of the ones I've seen; I've missed some of his early Corman productions,  did not see his Wallace Shawn/ Andre Gregory collaboration, A Master Builder, and never got around to Melvin and Howard, which I'm told by a couple of people that I respect is his best film. Of the ones I have seen, there are those that I think are near brilliant (Rachel Getting Married - pictured above - almost arrives at times in Cassavetean territory, depicting familial conflict and awkwardness around a wedding ceremony, and seems his best non-concert film); those that I really would like to like more than I do (his Hitchcockian Last Embrace, with some great work from Roy Scheider and an ending that fails so hard I put it out of my mind every time I see it, which apparently requires me to see it again every now and then to remind myself that he fucks it up); those that I respected and enjoyed, but have no investment in or attachment to, like Philadelphia, Married to the Mob, and Something Wild - all very fun films, but outside my usual areas of passion; and those that annoy me for one reason or another, either because they're too crass (the unsubtle exploitations and hammy Hopkinsisms of Silence of the Lambs), too cute (his trivial remake of Charade, The Truth About Charlie, which ACTUALLY PROPOSES TO REPLACE CARY GRANT WITH MARK WAHLBERG, ferfucksake), or so annoyingly unnecessary and ill-advised that they offend my love of cinema (his remake of The Manchurian Candidate - though now I want to see that again, since it seems Robyn Hitchcock actually acts in it, something I had forgotten about entirely; his brief appearance in Rachel Getting Married just involves him singing songs at the wedding in the film, which isn't exactly a stretch).  A video mix of inspired moments across his catalogue might just be a very fun way to appreciate his work. (RIP Jonathan Demme, by the way, and Chris Cornell and Spalding Gray and anyone else dead - Michael Parks, Powers Boothe, I just don't have time to keep up with obits these days!). 

Finally (for this blogpost, anyhow) there is a moody, smart and I gather ultimately quite horrifying indy vampire film, The Transfiguration, which I think will excite anyone who likes horror movies (but doesn't mind them subdued and reflective). One obvious comparison is to George A. Romero's Martin, since it deals with a contemporary vampire, a young man who has seen Let the Right One In and deems it superior ("more realistic") to either Twilight or True Blood, and whose vampirism is an extension of his growing up alienated and lonely, a way of trying to figure out who he is and where he fits. He happens to be black. The film begins provocatively enough: a man at a public urinal hears sucking sounds coming from a bathroom stall, peeps under the stall door (actually GETS DOWN ON THE BATHROOM FLOOR to do this, something I would really not consider), and presumes when he sees two men inside that something gay is going on. Nope: turns out, as we enter the stall, that it's Milo, our protagonist, who is sucking the blood from the neck of what appears to be a dead white businessman; once he's done, Milo steals the man's money, which he ends up hiding behind his shelf of vampire-themed VHS tapes (he's also a big fan of slaughterhouse documentaries). A whole bunch of flags go up: is this somehow going to use vampirism to show young urban black youth "preying" on whites? Is it going to somehow equate vampirism with homosexuality? Is there going to be - as with the source novel for Let the Right One In - an element of pedophilia here? (Milo is barely a teenager). I tend to respond to the first moments of a movie like they contain a thesis statement, hidden or not, and a few bells were ringing; but quickly I found myself fascinated by Milo, his life, and his relationship to an even lonelier, self-harming white girl who moves into his building. I actually haven't finished the film yet, have managed to keep myself from knowing where it is going, but I think I can already confidently recommend it. It screens one time only at the Vancity Theatre at 10:15 PM tomorrow (Saturday) night. Reichardt fans would probably like it, and will probably be happy to see Larry Fessenden - whom I spoke to last year about his role in Reichardt's River of Grass - popping up in the film (he seems to get his throat cut in most movies he has cameos in lately, so I'm wondering how long he'll last in this one).

Monday, May 01, 2017

Happy Birthday David M! Seeya at the Princeton!

Off to the Princeton tonight for David M.'s birthday show. He's made at least some of his posts on Facebook private, lately, for personal reasons, but people wanting a great FREE set of music tonight should definitely check it out - you're not going to get a better set of music played live for you without payin' a cover charge, and he'll be doing some songs in tribute to the late, great Paul Leahy (that included Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and, if I recall correctly, even Queen covers the last time he did this at the Heritage Grill). Plus there will be guests, and the atmosphere of the Princeton is very congenial ("the new Railway club, with better trains," he's been heard to quip). Here's his vintage poster for the night...

The Evil Within: ESSENTIAL CULT MOVIE, and not just for Michael Berryman fans

I read a very interesting article the other day on Dangerous Minds about a film I had not previously heard or read anything about - but which I had seen on DVD at Walmart about a week ago. It's called The Evil Within - not to be confused with the video game of the same name. They proclaimed it to be a "minor masterpiece," and made it sound interesting indeed.

Today, we had to stop at Walmart again to pick up some meds, so - since it cost a mere $10 - I picked the film up. Ended up snagging it on DVD, as there were no Blu's, and took it home, where I just now finished watching it with Erika. We had previously, having seen a terrific late-career turn by Judy Davis recently in The Dressmaker, settled on Barton Fink for the movie of the evening, but watching the first five minutes of The Evil Within while Erika sorted some fabric in the bedroom convinced me that Barton Fink could wait: we HAD to see the film tonight (or, well, I had to, but she proved quite obliging, and I think she appreciated it, too). I'm very glad we saw it. It's going to become one of those movies that I won't shut up about, I suspect - it is REMARKABLE and ESSENTIAL, a film everyone who cares about cult movies or horror movies needs to see. "Minor masterpiece" may actually be underselling it. It's one of a kind, and probably always will be, the sort of film experience - a deranged vanity project-cum-labour of love - which can never, ever be repeated (especially given that its author is dead).

But I'll get back to the film itself in just a second.

First off, let me admit that it doesn't come in a very promising-looking package (more or less as you see above). I mean, on the one hand, it's absolutely terrific that Michael Berryman is on the box art of a DVD again. Other than The Hills Have Eyes and Cut and Run, I'm unaware of any other films, in cinema history, that have had him on the poster/ box;  so I'm glad that there's a new one. I guess I had presumed, after seeing just how little use Rob Zombie put him to in The Lords of Salem, that his career was very nearly at an end, that maybe he wasn't really able to act anymore, since Zombie didn't really require anything much of him besides waving a torch around (he's one of the puritans in the "witch hunt" sequence of the film - but blink and you'll miss him. Bad film, by the way). Based on that, I hadn't expected to see him in anything more than a cameo ever again; after all, he's 68 years old, and who knows what sort of health he might be in, given his physical irregularities.

But, happy for Berryman though I might have been, it's still not a very promising bit of box art, in terms of making you want to see the movie, because - standing there at Walmart, without having read word one about The Evil Within - my thought process went something like, "if all this film has going for it to market itself is capitalizing on the cult status of Michael Berryman, it must be pretty awful." I mean- sure, the marketing for The Hills Have Eyes capitalizes on Berryman's unusual appearance, too, and The Hills Have Eyes is great, but it's not like the people who were making the posters were trying to trade in people's familiarity with Berryman when they designed the poster, because he was pretty much unknown until that movie came out. No, they just wanted a memorable, menacing-looking face to stare out at the audience. Mission accomplished - it's a great poster, and a real coup for Berryman, especially when you take into account that he isn't even the main bad guy in the movie.

But - especially if his role in The Evil Within was just a cameo (which  - before I'd seen it, looking at the box in Walmart, seemed highly likely), by sticking Berryman on the cover of a DVD now... well, it just seemed a lazy move, a cash in that PROBABLY revealed nothing about the content of the film, which is how these things seem to usually work. It reminded me of those public domain DVDs you see of The Swap or Born to Lose that stick Robert DeNiro's mug on the cover (or did back when DeNiro was actually a hot property; you mostly seem to see him nowadays in direct-to-DVD stuff that you've never heard of until you find it in a thrift store). DeNiro is barely in either film, as I understand it, and fans of his will be sorely disappointed if they expect to see him; it's just a lazy bait and switch, a marketing gimmick, and I presumed this was the same thing. Some Z-grade low budget horror film was made, they gave Berryman a cameo, then stuck him on the box, because they knew that the rest of the film had NOTHING ELSE GOING FOR IT. How could it be anything but terrible? That's why I didn't pick the thing up last week.

My cynicism, while completely reasonable, all things considered, in fact says nothing about this gem of a film. Berryman is merely a cherry on top. While he has far more than a cameo - hell, he has a speaking part! - his being in the film isn't really essential to its merits, any more than the (small but notable) appearance by the late giant Matthew McGrory (also from a Rob Zombie film, as it happens). The film would stand on its own regardless of who they cast in Berryman's role.

That's not to exonerate the marketers; in fact, it kinda demonstrates just how bad a job they've done with this art. It also didn't seem particularly promising that the description of the film on the back of the case listed as one of his claims to fame - besides The Hills Have Eyes - Berryman's appearance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Yes, he's in that film, and yes, it's a film that has name-recognition, even among the unwashed, but as anyone who recalls him in the movie will know, he basically just lies in bed and drools the whole time; I don't think he even has a line of dialogue. It would be like a DVD release of a movie featuring Chris Desjardins listing Lethal Weapon as one of his accomplishments; sure, Chris D. is IN Lethal Weapon (and people know the name of that movie, more than they might know I Pass For Human or Border Radio), but he only appears onscreen for all of a second, and his only role is to be shot in the head and fall down.

Upshot is, I am very, very grateful to Dangerous Minds for doing the job the marketers failed so miserably to do, and pointing me squarely at this movie. I've always been impressed with their articles, but here, they've done the whole horror/ cult movie world a big favour by advocating for this very weird, very potent, very memorable movie.

But that's about all I'm going to say for now. This film is the most exciting cult movie  I've encountered since Donnie Darko or Beyond the Black Rainbow (or,  um, maybe Tommy Wiseau's The Room, though it is vastly more accomplished and competent). It has a few moments where its logic breaks down, where it doesn't quite work, attempting things - mostly in the last act - that it fails to explain or properly contextualize, which might provoke some film viewers to reject the movie, but in no way is this a bad film. Made - if I'm recalling the article correctly - as a labour of love over a fifteen year period by a now-deceased, drug-addicted heir to millions, Andrew Getty, it's a thoroughly unique mindfuck, involving a mentally challenged man who has disturbing nightmares, which start to bleed over into his life. It's a film where at various points "real world logic" breaks down to be replaced with a sort of surreal nightmare logic, where you're left wondering in the face of impossible (or improbable) turns of event what ACTUALLY happened, outside the delusions of the main character; you'll never know. It's maybe a flawed film - it appears Getty died before it was wholly finished - though it feels quite complete, and mostly works quite brilliantly, even if it requires a couple of moments of charity on the viewers' parts.

It's surely the most important cult movie in decades - Donnie Darko, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Room and now The Evil Within. Plus it has a remarkable central performance, from Frederick Koehler, whose face is the one that should be staring out from the DVD box. He's great - playing a mentally challenged person so convincingly that you wonder if the actor is in fact mentally challenged, until you meet his alter ego.

My strong suspicion is, because the filmmaker is dead and the people marketing The Evil Within appear not to know what they're doing - having, with their lousy, lazy box art, alienated someone who absolutely LOVED the movie, when he saw it with no thanks to them - that The Evil Within is going to fall between the cracks (it's nice to see Blumhouse is spreading the word, too, though; there is only one review, as I write this, on Rotten Tomatoes. There isn't even a critic's blurb about the film on the box, though no doubt they could have gotten a good one if they weren't so bloody lazy). I feel like it almost by accident that I saw this movie. I had heard no buzz about it besides the Dangerous Minds article. I haven't heard about a midnight movie screening at the Rio. No one I know who knows the sort of movies I like has taken pains to recommend it to me. Word of mouth is what's going to bring this film to light, so it falls on those of us who care to a) see this film! and b) tell people about it!

You will want to. Just trust me, folks - if you like cult horror movies, if you like movies that take you inside a damaged subjectivity, if you want to have a memorable - admittedly somewhat lowbrow, but abundantly thought-provoking cinematic experience that you will want to see more than once, see The Evil Within as soon as possible (and note: probably better off if you DON'T see it on psychotropic drugs, eh? If you're inclined to do that thing, opt for Beyond the Black Rainbow instead, because there's one nightmare scene that will send you screaming out of the room if you catch this in an altered state). It's the most interesting film I've taken in since I saw The Lobster - but that movie didn't need my help to get the word out.

Thanks again, Dangerous Minds!