Saturday, March 30, 2019

The new Meat Puppets album: an appreciation, buried in a long-winded essay about commercial radio and punk rock

There is a joke that one of my favourite university professors, Tirthankar Bose, told once in class that I remember well. He told it about Bengalis, because he was from Bengal, and thus allowed to crack a joke at his own group's expense, but it could as easily apply to any group that you want to target.

Since I identify still, sort of, as a punk - at least an old one - I will tell his joke, but repurpose it to be  about punks:
A man (nevermind why) is being treated to a tour of hell. (In my mind, as Dr. Bose told his version of the joke, I imagined the man and the Devil in a sort of golf cart-like vehicle, driving through red-hued caverns). Satan, serving as guide, is pointing out different fates people are suffering: drowning in feces, roasting in flames, hanging from hooks, that sort of thing. Most are shackled; all are miserable. Then suddenly they pass enormous vats of boiling oil with no lids on them, and you can see the arms and legs of the condemned splashing around at the top. The man looks to Satan and says, "hey, everyone else here is shackled, but they seem to be free to try to escape; why are there no lids on that pot?" 
Satan grins: "oh, they're punks. As soon as any of them start to climb out, the others pull them back."
...which brings us to my wife Erika, and a step closer to my writing about the Meat Puppets' new album (I'll get there eventually). Whenever Erika has to listen to me rant about the shittiness of this hit song or that, or the bafflingly persistent lameness and conservatism of commercial FM radio (the only place in the world where Aldo Nova's "Fantasy" is still relevant or remembered), I know (or suspect) that part of her is judging my crankiness skeptically. Because for her - as an outsider to the subculture, exposed mostly only to it through the filter of, uh, me - punks are hairshirt-wearing weirdos, who disguise powerful and important messages in perversely inaccessible packages. Compare, say, Drum and Bell Tower's version of "Pride and Prejudice" to the Rebel Spell's original - or compare, say, Crass to Jeffrey Lewis doing covers of the same: she'll vastly prefer the folkier, more accessible, more-listener friendly version, and has been heard to say things like: "If you have a message that powerful and meaningful, wouldn't you want to package it in a form that has the widest appeal imaginable, to get your message out there? By making it so aggressive, strident, and noisy you're limiting your message to just a narrow club, aren't you? It's like they want to be heard, but only by people who are already part of the club."

I'm paraphrasing, but of course, she has a point. I do see it. I generally rebuff it a little, saying that the noisiness and aggression of punk are best understood as a reaction against bloated, self-indulgent "Comfortably Numb" bombast of classic rock radio, on the one hand, and the sort of perverse mutations of popular music that happen in radio land - which I think of as a sort of bizarre parasitic tributary (if you don't mind some badly mixed metaphors) off to one side of the enormous flows of human creativity and music.

It wasn't always that way, for me. Like, I think, Erika, I used to think of the world of music as being some sort of subcategory, some sort of function or subset of, the world of the radio. Radio was the primary source, the umbrella overhead, the "heaven" from which the angels of song descended, if you will. A generous host, it offered you a range of options, and you chose among them: and that was the world of popular music. I think some people - maybe mostly people who came of age before the internet - still think that way, which – I think - is why when "straight" friends of mine hear some fantastic song that they've never heard before, by a band they've never heard of before, their reaction is (sometimes) “why isn’t this on the radio?”

The answer, I suspect, reveals some degree of confusion on their part. It isn’t on the radio because the radio is not a benign monarch over the realm of music, is not a hallowed hall of learning and beneficence, devoted to offering its listeners the widest possible range of musical knowledge. It can be that, in its more public-spirited forms, but most generally, speaking specifically of commercial radio: it’s not about “playing good music” at all, at present. Radio as we know it now is closer to being a parasitic growth off one tiny limb of the realm of popular music. Over time, the parasite has developed an odd symbiosis with the host organism. Both have mutated, and mutated each other, while striving further to mutate those – the third party to the symbiosis – who enter into the sort of trust relationship, as listeners, with them, accepting the radio’s confirmation of their identity and values, and being soothed by it. You have to accept the range of options offered – you have to agree to the deal, which may come at a cost - but if you do, the radio will serve to bolster your limited choices and affirm that they are right at all turns by offering you nothing that challenges them. You will belong. You will be able to answer phone-in trivia questions about all the same bands, and feel yourself superior to people who can't answer them. You will, if you phone in to request a song, have the good sense to request a song that is already on the radio, and not one from "outside;" don't waste the DJ's time by requesting Big Star or some other band that has been written out of radio history, because no matter how pretty or poppy the song is, it's not going to get get airplay. Instead, you will accept that Aldo Nova's "Fantasy" is still relevant, and maybe request it, or perhaps some Billy Squier. In turn, the radio will cater to your tastes: you will hear nothing offensive – nothing too noisy or abrasive, nothing too political or outspoken, nothing too foreign or thought-provoking. You will be guarded over by Bob Seger and Corey Hart and Aldo Nova and Bon Jovi and Nickelback, who will set an outer limit on your tastes and expectations; you might get the odd bit of classic rock, maybe even a few songs from back in the day when real music actually made it onto the radio, but not so much to keep you from hearing the Police sing “Every Breath You Take” on a weekly basis. As long as you streamline your tastes to fit within the radio's parameters, as long as you accept its conditioning, it will affirm, celebrate and nourish those tastes. You will belong, you will fit, you will have a comforting sense of fellowship with everyone else who listens to the radio along with you, and erase all other genres, bands, and music fans from your field of vision. You will never, ever know what you're missing - because if you do, you might jump ship.  

I mean, I was there once, myself. I know people like that, I remember being - when I was a suburban kid of 12, like that too; and I remember the trauma of discovering (at about age 14) that the radio was not what I thought it was, at all, that it in fact had been betraying me. I remember phoning CFOX, for example – a Vancouver radio station, for those reading this in other cities - back in 1982, to ask why DOA’s War on 45 didn’t get any airplay. The album had just come out, and was fantastic, and I was having to fit my head around why you couldn't buy it at chain record stores (which were all I had access to in the 'burbs), couldn't hear it on the radio, could be forgiven, even, for not knowing the band or the genre it represented even existed (which was the case for me, up until age 14). I earnestly asked whichever DJ answered to explain the situation to me. “It’s great, they’re a local band, they’ve got a lot to say, and the songs are terrific, so why not play it?” The DJ explained (off air, of course) that the music made by independent bands wasn’t up to snuff in terms of production quality; it just didn’t sound good enough to play on the radio. Even at 14, I was pretty sure that that was a crock of shit. War on 45 sounded pretty damn good to me (and you do sometimes hear songs off it on CFOX, now, to boot, if they're having some weird special program that allows for it). The lesson I was learning at the time was that radio wasn’t to be trusted, that it was NOT the benign library of musical knowledge it presented itself as being, and that, in fact the world of music was the larger “umbrella” category, with radio being a tiny subset. I’d mistaken the tributary for the ocean, the parasite for the host. 

In a way, saying of a song, now, "this is great; why isn't it on the radio," seems as na├»ve as suggesting surprise, confronted by a singularly delicious or exotic food, that it is not sold at McDonald’s. The answer is, "because it's McDonald's, stupid." 

The idea that there are market-driven cultural institutions that siphon off, channel, and distort offshoots of the flow of human creativity – however we should call it – has various implications that are begging to be explored. Because T-Bone Burnett’s superb and essential SXSW keynote address is still echoing in my head, I’m inclined to apply this understanding to the internet. Like music before commercial rock radio took its present form, like cinema before network television, the internet WAS once a vast, complex, flowing thing. Various corporations – Burnett calls them “surveillance capitalists” - have found a way to channel and siphon that flow, in ways not dissimilar to the ways that commercial rock radio has channeled and siphoned the flows of human popular music, so the diverted energy – it’s kind of like building a dam, really – can be used to benefit them. As Burnett observes, we’re not even really on the internet anymore, we’re just on Facebook or Google or whatever narrow tributary we've been directed into; the idea of a vast and free realm you can explore and find different information in and connect with different people through - the "ocean" of the internet - has been replaced by these narrow channels, these for-profit corporate websites and apps where we are no longer the kings, but the serfs. And just like with commercial rock radio, the people who have assented to the symbiosis with Facebook and Google and so forth - who grew up with it, without having been jolted to question it - accept that it is a benign sort of “parent,” a given, a fact of life. John Oliver, in a rant about Facebook, noted that in some countries (Burma, I think, is the example he used), "Facebook" is now synonymous with the internet: and really (for me, too), on a de facto level, that's the case everywhere. It's deeply disturbing, and - I agree with Burnett - something needs to be done about it.

That said, I came here to write about the Meat Puppets, and I'm going to. The thing is: when I'm engaging in rants like the above, bashing the radio, in particular, I think that Erika - who listens to the radio vastly more than I do - suspects that I'm one of the punks in the vat of oil, mentioned above. When someone from the world of punk gets signed to a label, modifies (or "commodifies") their sound a bit, and tries for a hit, she thinks my railing against it - my growling about sell outs, commercial compromises, watered-down sound, or whatever - is mostly perversity; I'm grabbing the person climbing over the lip and dragging them back into the vat with me. And it is true, of course, that there are a lot of examples of bands I loved at one point, who began at least with a toe in punk, who changed their sound to get on the radio and please their corporate masters, who I then stopped listening to. I was part of the dogpile on X's Ain't Love Grand,  for example -  not their first album on a big label, but the first that really reached for (and, if I recall, briefly achieved) the brass ring of radio play (I think "Burning House of Love" played on CFOX back in the day). I genuinely liked some of the songwriting on that record - the live version of "Burning House of Love" kicks ass, say -  but I hated the way it sounded. It's not that I was a Manzarek loyalist, because I actually didn't like the production on More Fun in the New World that much, either, in different ways; it's X's masterpiece, in terms of songwriting, but it has a thin, tinny, under-developed quality to it, not fully capturing the liveliness or richness of the music (or so I thought at the time; I'm repeating a feeling I remember from when the album came out, without having really done the work to check if it is still valid, but I suspect strongly it is). And even still, More Fun in the New World still sounded way better than Ain't Love Grand

There are other cases. From every band (Sonic Youth, say) that made a painless transition to a major label and kept putting out quality material, with little or no appreciable change, there are probably five I can name whose bid for radio success turned their music into watered-down drek. I mean, compare the Payolas' "TNT," for example, to any of their hits. Compare Doug and the Slugs' "Not on the Corner" to the songs of theirs that you'll hear in the waiting room of the dentist's office. But the thing is: that doesn't mean I didn't WANT to hear those bands on the radio, that I didn't want them to have hits and houses and "commercial success;" I just didn't want it to come at the cost of EVERYTHING I LIKED ABOUT THEM. I remember struggling for a whole year to find a way to like the Replacements' Don't Tell a Soul - but it wasn't that they'd gone over to the majors or tried to write songs with some hit potential that was the problem, because they'd done that with Pleased to Meet Me, too, or even Tim, and those are probably my two favourite Replacements records. So the difference isn't the label, it's that Pleased to Meet Me still sounds like the Replacements, whereas Don't Tell a Soul - is like a glass of gin that you've added milk to, to make it easier to digest. It was like after Pleased to Meet Me the band pulled up their suspenders and took stock: "Well, we made our most commercial record to date, and it still didn't get us any airplay. Guess we'll have to start listening to the label, maybe they can make us some money... Maybe we can just compromise a little..."

(Remember that line from Paul Sorvino in The Gambler? "Once you ain't a virgin, you're a whore?")

I mean, when X sings, "Will the last American band to get played on the radio please bring the flag," and namecheck DOA, Black Flag, the Flesh Eaters, the Minutemen and the Big Boys - or when they write a song about punk called "The Unheard Music" - they're not saying they don't want their music heard on the radio; they're not celebrating that they're living in a musical ghetto, saying that the vat of boiling oil is where they belong. They're complaining. They feel like they have every right to have the music they love (and the music they make) heard on mainstream broadcast media, without substantially changing it (as they would eventually do, but no matter). It's not the punks' fault! It's not that they delibrately make inaccessible, poorly produced, noisy music, designed to alienate listeners; I mean, in some cases, that's true - it's not like I'm saying CFOX, say, should play GG Allin or Flipper or such - but there are tons of bands - X included - that make music that is very easy to listen to, that COULD have a mass mainstream audience, if they were given the opportunity, that you'll simply never hear, then as now, on mainstream rock radio, and it's not a matter of the music at all; it's because mainstream rock radio is hopelessly conservative and run by coin counters who won't risk playing anything that could upset their safe little deal. As soon as you start playing real music, you risk breaking the spell of recycling the same old shit over and over. The trance created, the soporific bland safety of Bob Seger's "Against the Wind," is actually a delicate one, that can be broken, and radio execs know this. I mean, I remember liking that song myself, when I was 12. I owned the single. I believed. Two years later, I discovered punk, and never looked back, and wince that I still hear that fucking shitty song playing on radio stations in public. 

Anyhoo, let's come to the point, shall we? No band I love, associated with punk, has had as complex or strange a history regarding making music with commercial appeal as the Meat Puppets. While it is no surprise that their first album didn't get them much commercial radio airplay, or even, masterpieces that they are, their second or third, starting with 1987's Mirage, the band began an on-again-off-again romance with the idea of making music that at least could have commercial appeal. (When Curt Kirkwood sings on Rise To Your Knees about stupid stars that kept getting in his eyes, that's what I've always taken him to be referring to). Mirage is a quantum leap from the trippy, tingling, southern-fried acid folk of Up on the Sun towards polished, glistening psychedelia, of a kind unrelated to other musics usually described as psychedelic (except maybe some of the more countrified output of the Grateful Dead, but even that’s not quite right). I've never fully been able to embrace the album - it is too clean, too polished, and I'm glad they took a step backwards with the follow up, Huevos, towards something rougher and rawer and more in keeping with their live sound. But I never regarded Mirage as a "sell out" or anything. It was more polished and mainstream-sounding than their previous output, sure, but it didn't really seem like the band was compromising its vision, since it was still plentifully weird and unique, enough so that there was never much threat that it would get radio play. Without that possibility - reinforced by the fact that they were still signed to SST at that point, when everyone knew independent labels like that just couldn't get their stuff on the radio, no matter how good it was - it seems more of a conscious experiment with a cleaner sound than it does a dilution of vision. Their songwriting is preserved, and the cleanness and crispness of the production is actually in keeping with the band's MO of reinventing itself every few years, since no two Meat Puppets albums ever sound exactly alike, anyhow. 

No, the album of the Meat Puppets that seems to show them starting to compromise their presentation a little is Forbidden Places, their 1991 major label debut, which, while still remaining weird - I mean, there wasn't much threat of "Sam" getting on the radio - does seem like they're deliberately digging into classic rock roots at time. The monster riffing on "Nail It Down" makes it sound like it was written after a marathon session of listening to ZZ Top, Aerosmith and Skynyrd and drinking tequila. It sounds like rednecks in a pickup truck could blast it on their way to the construction site - like it would fit right in on a mixtape between "Walk this Way" and "Just Got Paid." It's about the furthest, to that point, the band had gone in that direction, and while it's still enjoyable, I have to admit that I struggled with Forbidden Places. There are some giddily great moments on it, but in 1991, it raised questions about integrity and direction. Were the Meat Puppets on the cusp of selling out? Would their next album do to their legacy what, in 1992, Soul Asylum's Grave Dancer's Union - the shittiest of all the major label/ radio hit sellout albums, and ironically maybe the most commercially successful - did with Soul Asylum, and retroactively sully the band's entire back catalogue? (It took me 20 years before I could listen to Soul Asylum again after Grave Dancer's Union, and I'm not talking about their "new material," but albums of theirs I actually had loved previously. "Runaway Train" suddenly managed to travel back in time and taint "Cartoon," which was one of my favourite songs when it first came out: oh, is THIS what the band was aiming at? Suddenly I could hear things in "Cartoon" that I hadn't noticed before, the "incipient sellout," percolating under the surface. What have I been party to? Guhhh....

Neverminding that Forbidden Places actually came out before Soul Asylum's sell-out, I was very afraid that if I stayed with the Meat Puppets, if I let myself accept "Nail It Down," I would be participating in a process of dilution and diminishment, and that, if they followed the album up with a commercial sell-out, I would have been somehow complicit in the process, and feel even more disgusted with them and with myself. I didn't want to ever lose respect or love for the Meat Puppets, and Forbidden Places made me nervous that someday I would... it worried me, even though I liked a lot of the songs on it.

It was never that I didn't want the Meat Puppets to succeed, though - to climb out of the vat. It was that I didn't want them to succeed by substantially compromising their values. It's a different thing, and the proof I can offer is that Too High to Die, their next album, is actually even more of a commercial-sounding, radio-friendly record than Forbidden Places, and yet it's actually a kind of masterpiece. If I were doing a Mark Prindle survey on Facebook about the most successful attempt (artistically, not commercially - we're not talking about Nevermind, here) by an underground band to reframe their sensibilities, in order to court a more mainstream audience (including radio play), I think I'd pick Too High to Die as the album (after which I'd probably give a nod to the Butthole Surfers for Electric Larryland, which in a way is more impressive, because it's so much more unlikely). While I am not wild about every song on it (I've somehow never gotten into "Violet Eyes") on a whole, the popcraft on Too High to Die is so engaging and charming (and still so true to the band's quirky aesthetic) that, had it somehow worked to get them noticed - and it sort of did; it got them closer than they've ever been before or since, I think - I would have been overjoyed. I mean, the single "Backwater" is one of the least interesting songs on the album, but I was delighted to hear it on the radio occasionally and see the video on MuchMusic, and when, shortly thereafter, Kurt Cobain brought the Kirkwoods onstage for "Oh Me," "Plateau," and "Lake of Fire," I was really, really, really happy for them, and really pleased with Kurt; I was no fan of Nevermind by that point and had sort of tuned Nirvana out, but I thought that was a stellar, and really touching, use of his celebrity stature. It was fun to hear "Lake of Fire" on the radio, even if it wasn't one of the Pups' recordings of it. (There are two - one on II, and a hidden track after "Comin' Down" on Too High To Die, which I'm guessing the band deeply regretted not listing on the back cover, once Kurt made it an unexpected hit). 

Things got complicated after that, of course. Cris developed his drug problem, the band put out an album (No Joke) that I somehow never bothered with, then kind of fell apart and reformed in a very different lineup in 2000 for another album, Golden Lies, which I ignored at the time and am only just now getting into. It seems a pretty odd, ambitious record, incorporating even elements of rap; I've read Chris Walter, also a huge Pups fan, saying on Facebook that it's his favourite Pups album, and that has perked me up to check it out. It didn't capture my attention back in the day, but I was in a weird place, musically, at that point, living in Japan and dividing my listening between avant garde jazz and noise, on the one hand, and reggae, and, as far as punk went, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I probably would have ignored whatever the Meat Puppets did, but it didn't mean I didn't like it; I just wasn't in the mood.  

No: the real return to full on pups obsessiveness began with Rise to Your Knees - the CD that reunited the Kirkwood brothers, even if Derrick Bostrom wasn't on board anymore. I love that album, and reviewed it when it came out for the Nerve Magazine thus. I was feistier then, bit of a cunt, really, but I'll stand by it. This is the long version, that never saw print: 
Meat Puppets: Rise to Your Knees (Anodyne)  
In the name of love for what is great, let’s be ruthless, shall we? The Meat Puppets, before now, in their whole sizeable catalogue, have put out two AND ONLY TWO great albums, Meat Puppets II and Up On the Sun, on which their entire importance hinges (I’d be prepared to concede Meat Puppets I has greatness in it, for all its sludgy singular sputter, but, uh, great meals generally have to be cooked, and it ain’t, so I leave it off the list). Yes, there are other moments in their back catalogue that I am fond of. I’d be willing to concede in a minute that “Forbidden Places” or “Evil Love” or “Look at the Rain” or “Liquefied” or “Not Swimming Ground” or so forth are damn good rock songs, if the competition is Nickelback or, say, your standard advertising jingle; but if you compare them to Meat Puppets II and Up On the Sun (and mebbe Meat Puppets I), you’ve got (on the one hand, like) great vital people’s culture, raw and authentic and heartfelt and worthy of the attention of a 22nd century Harry Smith; and then, spread like pieces of silver across the other hand – the one you jerk off with, perhaps – you’ve got some stuff that mighta shoulda coulda been on FM radio, almost, or, say, the Left of the Dial compilation. Which you’re free to like or not, and sometimes I do, and silver is nice, and I jerk off too, but in the long view, who fuckin’ cares? If it weren’t for mebbe I and cert. II and Up, I wouldn’t, probably. Whether it hurts to admit it or not, most of the Pups later discs are, face it, TAINTED BY THE MARKETPLACE, period. They are Ain’t Love Grant compared to Wild Gift – or, sigh, Three Way Tie (for Last) compared to Double Nickels; they ain’t toxic, but they ain’t that great, either. Judged by recorded document alone, it’s the gargantuan undisputable greatness of their second two albums that, up til now, have made the band worth noticing at all.
 Now: my great joy that Cris Kirkwood has cleaned up and reunited with his brother PROBABLY biases me, dig? I’m a sentimental schlub at heart, and I don’t 100% trust my own judgment on this’un: BUT it sure does seem like the reunited (if Bostromless) Pups, having actually LEARNED FROM EXPERIENCE – a joyous but impossibly painful thing, as anyone who has “risen to their knees” will affirm - and having taken similar stock of the situation, decided they really don’t give a fuck about that ever-promised commercial breakthrough that never quite happened, blown a whole bunch of shit out their asses and, revitalized and rejuvenated and ten pounds lighter and grateful as hell that they can make music again, have recorded a third (or fourth, if you count I) great album, perhaps as good as or (yes, I’m willing to say it) maybe even better than those others. The album is Huevos-direct (no endless fuckin’ around with songs to polish’em up), but with better sound and better songs; and the lyrics have that epic Blakean quality that sometimes taps so deep it makes you wanna weep. In "Island," Curt sings, “you’re the grass, you’re the trees/ you’re the thing that makes the wind/ you’re the roots of the sky (?), you’re an island;" there are other songs about spitting into the wind and such that seem to put more on their sleeves than their crypto-mystical lyrical tendencies normally allow for, which may account for the slightly melancholy tone of much of this disc. The solos are spacy psyched-out desert-scorched journeys; and the general feel is like somethin’ you might hear comin’ out of Mescalito’s ghetto blaster as he dances around a cactus, with his genitals out, kinda like the strange prehistoric bird ref’d in Zabriskie Point, soaring through the canyons o’ yr. soul. I bought it (only $11.99!), and I stuck it in my Discman, and I listened to nothin’ else for four whole days; when I finally gave it a breather, it was to put in a different Pups disc for the purposes of taking stock, and now I’m goin’ back to Rise and being staggered all over again. The Meat Puppets have, as they sing, taken the “stupid stars” from their eyes, and, doors of perception righteously cleansed, are staring out at you with this album, completely open and accessible and THEMSELVES, man, makin’ music from their cacti-fed souls. Whether the world is brave enough to meet their gaze remains to be seen, but I sure hope so, because I LOVE THIS ALBUM, full stop. I am so happy. It is better than anything you were expecting, and maybe even better than anything you were hoping for.
 It’d be a happy irony if THIS were their breakthrough, eh? 
That commercial breakthrough never happened; the album was probably a bit too artful and odd and demanding to ever have much of a chance. While I don't listen to it as often as I do than Too High to Die (which I weirdly don't even mention in that review), it's still a near perfect album. It kinda reminds me of my favourite Neil Young album, Zuma, actually - seems of that era, that sensibility. And if it's maybe a bit to blame - by setting the bar a bit too high - for the fact that it didn't "break" the band - that is not true for anything they've done since. Sewn Together, Lollipop, Rat Farm, and now Dusty Notes are all beautiful records, worthy of vastly more notice than they've gotten, carrying forth the torch of 70's rock and roll in an intelligent, rich, creative, and playful way (with maybe a smidgen of roots and country music creeping in around the edges, not that that's anything new for the band). It no longer feels like the Pups are consciously trying to get on the radio with any of these records, so they're, none of them, remotely describable as "sell outs;" it feels like they've accepted their lot and have resolved to just be the best Meat Puppets they can be, but (especially with Dusty Notes) they're now (apparently effortlessly) crafting stuff that COULD be on mainstream rock radio, or in some cases mainstream country radio, without diminishing their identity in the slightest. They've learned exactly the perfect balance of elements, and they SHOULD be filling arenas with music this good. 

The ongoing neglect of this band - the degree of divergence between critical esteem (and actual stellar musical accomplishment), on the one hand, and commercial neglect and listener indifference on the other - continues to astound me, but none of it is the fault of the Meat Puppets. And as often is the case, I find myself cheerleading wholeheartedly, with Dusty Notes: maybe THIS time, the mix of elements will be right, the stars will line up, and suddenly the Meat Puppets will be elevated to superstar status, and get the payoff (and comfy retirement) they so richly deserve? 

I mean, to hell with the vat joke, I'd be delighted if that came to pass, especially if it happened around an album this good. Dusty Notes captures pretty much the entire range of the Pups' musical expression; from the delightful, bouncy twang of the opening rock tune, "Warranty" to the Hal David/ Paul Hampton cover of "Sea of Heartbreak" - the best "country" song on the album, which mostly faithfully captures the flavour of Don Gibson's original (which is actually several magnitudes weirder than what the Pups do),  there's not a remotely compromised moment on the record, and only one song that is actually probably too heavy for radio play ("Vampyr's Winged Fantasy," which, after a Crime of the Century-esque keyboard intro from new member Ron Stabinsky - goes full on "Attacked by Monsters" or something, giving the album its sole trip to the land of heavy riffage). Other favourites include "Nine Pins," with Cris on banjo, and the mellow, Dead-like "The Great Awakening," "Nightcap," and "Outflow," which almost sounds like some sort of traditional folk song, so effortlessly perfect are its rhymes and choruses. There's an ethereal, noisy, plateauing grandeur to the Curt's solos, too, that takes me right back to Rise to Your Knees. There is so much sheer pleasure to be had from this album - even if it's a bit mellow and melancholic at times, and maybe gives a hint that the band are getting, like all of us, older - that it deserves every ounce of commercial notice that it gets, and probably quite a bit more than that, too. 

And DERRICK BOSTROM is back! He left the Meat Puppets for the longest time, even ran a competing website; I never really got to the bottom of why that was, but he's amply welcome back in the fold (and I'd like to thank him for having the sense not to grow a beard to rival the Kirkwoods; it would just be too much hair for one band, if he did).

Anyhow, there are a few great rock records out now for old punks like me - the Flesh Eaters' I Used to Be Pretty and Bob Mould's Sunshine Rock are two others that I've been enjoying. But the band I'd most like to see get notice is the Meat Puppets. It's long past time for them to be widely regarded as one of the greatest American rock bands of the last four decades. If you've somehow missed out their recorded output (or if you've been neglecting them for the last while) starting (anew) with Dusty Notes would not be the worst move you could make. And if you like the Meat Puppets, you'll probably agree: this is one of their best-ever albums - maybe not up there with those aforementioned landmarks, but at least in the top five albums they've recorded (II, Up on the Sun, Too High to Die, and Rise being the others, by me, though the exact order I'd stack them in depends on my mood of the moment).

Now all we need is a Vancouver show...

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Shane Burzynski's Fun and Games, this weekend at the Badass Film Festival, plus Amazon Hot Box and Lesbian Anilingus and more!

So: I acted in a movie!

A short movie, mind you - Fun and Games, directed by Shane Burzynski of the Northwest Horror Show. It's playing in the North American shorts program of the Badass Film Festival, this Saturday afternoon at the Vancity Theatre. Adrian Mack has given me a nice plug on the Straight website. (Does their rendering of "anilingus" seem right to you? It seems more like it should be "analingus" to me, but that also seems a bit wrong, since it makes me want to read it in a way rhythmically similar to "analogous," stressing the second syllable. Actually, I am not sure there is an established spelling convention for the word; Wikipedia offers both, and a diagram, if you're at all confused as the nature of the practice. [Why do they use lesbians for that diagram, I wonder?])

I should note: the anilingus/ analingus is in a different film - Amazon Hot Box, an homage to Women in Prison films of yore, also playing at the Badass. Come to think of it, that anilingus is probably of a lesbian variety, too, as is the analingus in Jess Franco's Wanda, the Wicked Warden, which the film is presumably riffing on - though note, as with all WIP films, these are the lesbians of the horny straight male imagination, who bear little resemblance to the real deal, many of whom I am sure are sick of/ offended by these cheap caricatures; I wonder if Amazon Hot Box addresses any of these issues, by having less cartoonish, more developed, less villainous lesbians? (The poster, below, makes me think, "no"). Lesbian-friendly or not, Amazon Hot Box stars Vancouver's own Tristan Risk, and is apparently a lot of fun if you're a WIP fan; I have not yet seen it (and am not a huge WIP fan; my favourite film in the subgenre is a serious 1955 noir called Women's Prison, with Ida Lupino, and that film doesn't even have a shower scene, so that tells you where my head's at; though I am game to try this).

As for Fun and Games (where no asses are licked, lesbian or otherwise), I play a father whose badly-secured handgun is found by his young son, Anthony (played by a terrific local child actor named Jaden Oehr, who is also in Riverdale). Anthony treats the gun like a toy, and runs off to show it to his buddy (Julien Rayne Delong), with neither of them seeming to realize just how dangerous it is. You can see the trailer here - it's a pretty great trailer, actually, though you don't see me in it. The t-shirt I am wearing in the film belonged, in fact, to my own father (it's an "I've Fallen and I Can't Reach My Beer" shirt). The film has a great premise - the centrepiece of the film, two children playing with a loaded gun, is so inspired that I can't believe I've never seen its like before.

So with no further fuss, here's a brief interview with the director, Shane Burzynski, who will be at the screening (as will I). See you Saturday?

 (Julien Rayne Delong)

Where did you come up with the premise for Fun and Games

The idea for the film actually came from a scene in Ingmar Bergman's The Silence. There's a scene in the movie where a little boy is running around a hotel with his cap gun and has a moment where he stares down an employee who's changing a lightbulb and pretends to shoot him. It just sort of made me think "what if the gun were real" and then I just thought that a child with a gun could be an interesting premise for a short film. After that the idea for the ending came to me and it all just fell into place after that. Its the only script I've ever written with ease!

How did you find your cast?

Casting calls were set up by a friend of mine who was set to produce this short originally. Unfortunately she had to bail out just after we set up the casting call, but she posted on several groups. For your part I just had you in mind from the beginning as I thought that you had a look close to what I wanted for the father.

Your director of photography, Turner Stewart - (who I see also worked on an upcoming horror film with Larry Fessenden!] has a fantastic eye, and really did great work making the film look stellar. Where did you find him?

I know Turner through Vince (D'Amato) and what used to be Shivers Film Society, he and Dionne (Copland) were helping Vince with Cinemafantastique and the rest of their screenings and we just became friends through that. We both have similar tastes and want to make movies so it all just made sense.

All three other crew members [also including First AD Tonjia Atomic, director of Manos Returns, and Jordan Barnes-Crouse on sound] are award-winning filmmakers themselves with a decent amount of stuff under their belts.

(Jaden Oehr)

Do you have any experience with guns? Do you know anyone who is pro-gun? Are you worried about reactions from "the gun people" out there?

I actually really like going shooting! Guns can be fun and I enjoy going to the gun range but not *everyone* should have guns like so many people down south like to think they should. A part of me is a little worried about potential backlash and I have already started making my social media accounts private just in case, they can get childishly defensive (offensive) with people who criticize their ways.

As I recall, there was talk of Trump on set - my character is a Trump supporter, I gather. Are you concerned about the film getting tagged as anti-American?

I wouldn't really call it anti-American so much as anti-NRA/Conservative "Patriot". It makes me sick to my stomach how far some of these idiots take their "culture", like how you can open carry an assault rifle to a vigil filled with children uniting against gun violence. That's a point where you should really be re evaluating your life as far as I'm concerned. Its why I wanted to make them look as foolish as possible in this short.    

(Isabelle Bottin as the neighbour)

Were there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories from the shoot? Any lucky accidents? Any near disasters? What was the hardest part of putting the film together?

Surprisingly, shooting was when things actually got easy! Wrangling everything else together to GET to shooting was the true test of my patience. People were dropping out left and right for all sorts of reasons and it was hard to find the locations when we couldn't pay for them or for permits. I was truly amazed that we managed to pull off a shoot with two kids wielding a realistic gun inside the city limits with zero hassle from anyone. 

Anything else to say about
Fun and Games, or Badass?

Overall Fun and Games is the first project I can say I'm satisfied with. There's still some little tweaks that I need to make like erasing some things off the gun but in terms of story and direction is definitely my proudest work. I'm really glad that we have Badass and that David and Marc are keeping things going so well and giving these films a chance to be shown on the big screen. Hopefully we'll have some more stuff for next year as well.

More information on the Badass Film Festival, starting tomorrow at the Vancity Theatre and ending Sunday at the Rio, is online here (VIFF) or here (VBAFF). Facebook page for Fun and Games here

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Am I looking forward to the new Tarantino? Um...

Mixed feelings about the prospect of a new Quentin Tarantino film. Mixed feelings about even wasting time writing about such things, actually, when time and energy for writing are so limited of late. I mean, there are horrible things going on in the world, important things going on, and none of them involve a discussion of the new movie by Quentin Tarantino. But it's on my mind, and I want to clear some cobwebs from my head, since I have more serious writing to do this week, so...

There was a time when I loved a couple of Tarantino's films - namely, Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown. I respected and enjoyed other projects he was involved with, too - From Dusk til Dawn, say - but I loved those two films enough that I developed an investment in the idea of liking him, and for years, I really looked forward to his new project, whatever it might be. In the case of the films of his I have not enjoyed or respected much on first run - including Pulp Fiction, which initially struck me as trivial and disappointing - I have watched most of them multiple times, figuring I might learn to appreciate them more, or decide on reconsideration that my lack of appreciation for them might be blamed on me, not him. To that end, I believe I have tried Inglourious Basterds four times now, taking it on faith that surely people - peers, respected critics, film studies professors - who were proclaiming it a masterpiece (and taking it seriously, to boot!) - actually saw something I didn't ("it must be my fault; I'll give it another shot.") I even saw Death Proof twice, and last night marks my first viewing, since the opening weekend, of Django Unchained (I despised it the first time through). Truth is, on second viewing, all of these films get more enjoyable and interesting, once I have gotten over the disappointment and dismay and in some cases the anger which marked my initial reactions to them. Approached with high hopes and expectations, they had pissed me off; but approached again months later, with sufficiently lowered expectations, I had to admit in each case that there were likable and interesting things in all his films...

...although I have yet to attempt The Hateful Eight a second time, and may not, ever, because by the time of that film, my fondness for Tarantino, the time of my regarding him as a filmmaker I cared at all about, had waned; and also because it is the film of his I've found the least to enjoy about, the first time through. Even Django Unchained, the film of his I responded to most badly on initial viewing, had entertaining and effective moments on first viewing - best use of a Jim Croce song in a film, say - that made me willing to go back and give it another chance, but the impression The Hateful Eight left of plodding, pretentious, pompously overwritten dullness, punctuated with brutality, self-indulgence, and punches to Jennifer Jason Leigh's face, make it seem uninviting to revisit. I am not saying I didn't respect the film - it was, in a way, his most "writerly" film in a long time, as I said in a review. I just didn't find it much fun to watch.

I have, I think, two main issues with Tarantino, now: the first is that he plays with serious themes in a trivial and sensationalistic way, and the second is that, talented as he may be, he's just so goddamn full of himself. To speak to the first issue: Django Unchained features horrific violence and depictions of brutal racism in the context of what essentially is a cute, white-saviour buddy movie with a smartass happy ending and enough humour throughout that it plays mostly as a comedy. Like the severed female leg rolling down the road in Death Proof, the film has moments that disturb far more than the theme or story justifies, such as escaped slaves being torn apart by dogs, or the testicles of Jamie Foxx on display, as he hangs upside-down in the "castration" scene. It's kin to Africa Addio or something, raising serious issues while cavorting in the realms of rank exploitation, where the former end up ultimately in service to the latter. Even the so-called blaxploitation cinema of the 1970's had a higher moral purpose than Django Unchained. I thought, revisiting it, of Roger Ebert's review of Betrayed, a Costa Gavras film about neo-Nazis that may also not have the moral gravity or seriousness to properly house some of the horrific, race-related images in it. Ebert writes of "a particularly disgusting and violent scene in which Berenger and his right-wing buddies capture a black man and then stage a 'hunt' in which they chase him through the forest at night and finally kill him." In the context of a not entirely negative review, he nonetheless concludes of that scene:
It is reprehensible to put a sequence like that in a film intended as entertainment, no matter what the motives of the characters or the alleged importance to the plot. This sequence is as disturbing and cynical as anything I’ve seen in a long time - a breach of standards so disturbing that it brings the film to a halt from which it barely recovers. I imagine that Costa-Gavras, whose left-wing credentials are impeccable, saw this scene as necessary to his indictment of the racist underworld he was exposing. But Betrayed is not a small, brave political statement like Z, it is a Hollywood entertainment with big stars, and vile racist manhunts have no place in it.

I'm not sure that Django Unchained really even knows what to do with its black characters. It gives the majority of its speaking time to Christophe Waltz's main character - the white saviour who literally liberates Django from slavery and teaches him how to be a bounty hunter - and the second-largest share to a racist plantation owner, who is allowed to discourse freely about phrenology and racism and given attractive qualities perhaps beyond what the narrative requires. The most fully-developed black character is a smart but servile "house negro" played by Samuel L. Jackson, who, you come to understand, is the real brains of the plantation; but the main relationship in the film, the one that sets the action in motion, between Django and Hildegard, is almost totally undeveloped - she's basically a McGuffin, with very few lines of dialogue indeed. It is important that a film that presumes to depict the deepest horrors of racism not participate in it, but the fact that Django and Hilde's relationship gets less screen time and less dialogue than the "education" of Django by his white liberator, the contest between the white liberator and the white racist plantation owner, and the relationship between the plantation owner and his most valued servant, is telling and troubling. Django and Hildy are supporting characters in their own movie. Why thoughtful people bought into the film puzzles me; about the only way to enjoy it seems to be to completely turn off ones brain and passively accept it as an entertainment, without asking questions of how brutal it gets, how ultimately uninterested it seems to be in its main black characters, and how little it actually really amounts to. It does work fairly well if you do that, mind you - if you approach it with a truly lowest-common-denominator, "here-we-are-now-entertain-us" vacuous grin - but it's not really what one would call a thinking person's movie. I wonder what Armond White made of it?

None of that is the most annoying thing about Tarantino, though. The thing that pisses one off the most is that his awareness of people's esteem for him went to his head a long time ago. There was a time when film geeks talked about "the new film by Quentin Tarantino," but you don't have to do that anymore, because that kind of phrase has practically become his celebrity tagline, his directorial "I'll be back" catchphrase, written in huge letters at the start of his trailers. They even presume to count down his works for us, in case we've stopped bothering: "the eleventh film by Quentin Tarantino," I believe the trailer I saw for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood declares. There's a bombast to this that suggests Tarantino has been caught in a kind of feedback loop, as a film geek who knows how film geeks think and who wants the esteem of fellow film geeks: he will now geek out about his own movies for you, in case you've lost the desire.

You remember that trashy, cruel article that circulated online about Tarantino's foot fetish? The moment that stands out is when Tarantino describes Kill Bill as one of his "seminal works," and the author, Beejoli Shah, quips that it should be someone else who describes a filmmaker's work as "seminal." In a way, that seems exactly the point. Tarantino has lost all humility before his texts, apparently, and all sense that cinema should serve some sort of high moral purpose. I can't imagine a movie about movie making with a Manson family subplot will deliver him (or us) of this tendency. I want to be excited about it - I haven't fully lost the desire to like his films - but I suspect I will go and be, at best, pissed off, and then maybe watch it three more times on DVD, trying to see what other people missed.


Monday, March 04, 2019

Spear of Destiny last night

I didn't even bother linking the Straight piece I did with Kirk Brandon, but I did do one - a quick email interview to plug the show. Kirk told me last night that he thought the Vancouver show was the best of the tour so far. It was pretty amazing - you know that feeling when you stumble onto something great you've completely neglected? I shot a couple of clips from later in the night...