Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Memories Are Made of This": Deceased Artiste Rosel Zech

Rosel Zech, who died a few weeks back at the age of 69, had a solid theatrical career and was a well-known TV actress in Germany, but will forever be known by film buffs outside Germany for playing the lead in Veronica Voss (1982), the second in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “BRD Trilogy” (in the scheme of the trilogy it was second, but it was shot and released third).

Zech entered the theater in the early Sixties and continued to work steadily in plays until her death. She was mentored by the noted director Peter Zadel (who has a small role in Veronica Voss) and was best known in the last decade for her role as a nun in the German TV show For Heaven’s Sake. She had an extremely full career without Fassbinder, but her fateful meeting with him occurred when she appeared in A Tenderness of Wolves (1973; directed by Ulli Lommel, written by Kurt Raab, and produced by RWF).

He cast her in a supporting part in Lola (1981), and then gave her the starring role in Veronica Voss. He made one movie (Querelle) after that, and then died at the age of 37, leaving a body of work that will be enjoyed and analyzed for a long time to come. I talked to Ms. Zech for the briefest time at the 1997 MOMA Fassbinder gala performance, asking her to sign a book on RWF that contained pictures of all of his stars. I have a very strong and fond memory of where she sat in the first row because, by decision rather than by assignment, she and the other two “BRD” women sat in a row: Zech ("Veronica Voss"), Barbara Sukowa ("Lola"), and Hanna Schygulla ("Maria Braun").

All three women were riveted by a documentary that was shown at the gala, featuring a lengthy interview with RWF. The mood was strange but charming, since the three women seemed like schoolgirls, chuckling and whispering to each other while RWF was onscreen. Throughout that evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd the seating had turned out to be, since for me (and a good deal of the male members of the audience, including a German diplomat who spoke at the event and talked about how important Ms. Schygulla had been to his youth), they were the “poster girls” for Fassbinder’s cinema.

The only sad note was that another MAJOR star of RWF’s work, the immensely talented Margit Carstensen (who was “Petra von Kant”!), was sitting across the aisle on her own, not in the schoolgirl circle of adoring Rainer fans. It was a strange and unforgettable evening….

Zech’s other notable U.S. arthouse release was Salmonberries (1991) by Percy Adlon. The film plays like a variant on his Bagdad Café, but is best known for the fact that it features the acting debut of k.d. lang (who does a quick and bizarre nude sequence) and featured her vocals on the soundtrack. I couldn’t find Zech featured in the trailer or promotional clips on YT, but she is present in this fan-made music-video (that doesn’t use a lang tune).

The last time I saw Zech onscreen was in Juliane Lorenz’s documentary Life, Love & Celluloid (1998). The docu includes a sort of fictional subplot in which a Fassbinder fan contacts MOMA and gets Zech’s address. He then flies to Germany and dances with her. The set-up for the situation is definitely odd — would a museum ever pass on an actress’s private contact information? — but the dance sequence is touching.

Zech’s website remains online and has been updated to include links to the nicest obits (the site is in German, and is mostly an online “portfolio”/resume of her work), but the ONLY way I can finish off this D.A. tribute is to embed Zech’s most memorable moment, her Dietrich-esque rendition of “Memories Are Made of This” from Veronica Voss.

The song was of course a No. 1 hit in America in 1956 for Dean Martin and was written by his backup singers, a trio called “the Easy Riders.” The song was also a massive hit in Germany, selling 8 million copies for singer Freddy Quinn as “Heimweh” (Homesickness).

Fassbinder chose to have Zech sing the Dean Martin original, though, in this indelible sequence that is Voss’s fantasy of the perfect “farewell” (the character is a drug-addicted, washed-up movie star that RWF modeled on the real-life actress Sybille Schmitz). It’s an incredibly good sequence with which to say farewell to her.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The coolest old men in the world (1): Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen turned 77 years old this week. In celebration, it was announced that a CD box set is planned of all of his albums to date — with much previously released live material, but no rare studio tracks, none of the poetry readings from radio and onstage appearances, and none of the many songs he’s sung or spoken on tribute albums (and the poems recited for the Philip Glass Book of Longing song cycle).

So a birthday is celebrated with a CD box set. The truth is that Leonard’s entire discography (like that of all major musicians) is available online with a few magic clicks, but one can easily go beyond and beneath the 11 studio albums — seven or eight of which are immaculate, and the other three are pretty good as well. The joy of a sporadic recording artist like Leonard is that, in comparison to a more prolific singer-songwriter (say… Dylan), you’re left with a small, sublime body of work, instead of a canon that contains very many crappy albums in between the masterworks.

In celebration of Leonard’s remaining with us for another year, I wanted to present ten clips that represent my favorite aspects of Cohen’s work. In terms of aging, though, I should note that I thoroughly agree with the eternally sublime free-form radio DJ Vin Scelsa, who has maintained for the last few years that Cohen is the very model of growing old gracefully — he’s stylish, smart, and (something Dylan never has done, and never would do) knows well how to mock and deflate himself.

Although he is now a senior (as was shown unfortunately by the too-tight-close-ups in Lian Lunson’s docu I’m Your Man, where he wound up looking like Georgie Jessel), Leonard is the height of sophistication (as the wildly overpriced shirts and bags being sold on his last tour said, “It’s all about the hat… Leonard Cohen”). He’s also a supremely talented artist whose written works I hope will last as long as his recorded ones. But now on to the clips!

Like most movie buffs, my introduction to Cohen’s music (which was never played on the top 40-ish radio stations I listened to as a kid — “Suzanne” by Judy Collins excepted) was the soundtrack to McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Robert Altman — who remains for me the best modern American filmmaker, all naysayers be damned — used three songs from Leonard’s debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen in beautiful ways in the film.

Altman had gotten hooked on the album when he was in Canada shooting the long-out-of-print psychodrama That Cold Day in the Park with Sandy Dennis. Here is the officially released Warner Bros trailer for the film, available on the DVD. I have very fond memories, though, of a different trailer that I used to see at the old Thalia theater on the Upper West Side that concluded with a voiceover intoning the film’s tagline: “McCabe and Mrs. Miller — Name your poison” (one of the best taglines ever, especially when you’ve seen the film):

Here is a well-distributed documentary about Leonard before he went into music full-time, and was a noted Canadian poet and novelist. The film, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965) is enlightening, in that Cohen is about 30 years old at the time of filming, but still has a strikingly adolescent goofiness about him. He is assured when reciting his poetry or reading fragments from his first novel The Favorite Game, but otherwise he’s affecting the pose of the “unpretentious artist type” in this portrait, done while he was back visiting his homeland (he lived on the Greek island of Hydra for a few years in the Sixties).

The National Film Board of Canada has placed the whole film on YouTube, but there’s a clearer version of it on their website:

I wasn’t sure what kind of gigs he had in NYC while he was better known as an author than as a singer-songwriter. Well, here is audio from one, at the 92nd St. YMHA. He reads two poems and sings a rather jagged acoustic version of “The Stranger Song,” made famous in McCabe…:

Another bit of verbal wonderment, Leonard reading “How to speak poetry”:

I recently read both of Cohen’s novels, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers. They are incredibly evocative, well-written books (I wish he had written more) that have elements that link them to both the “black humor” movement of the Sixties and the Beat poets’ fuel-driven remodeling of fiction. It’s an absolute delight to read fiction written by a poet, as the sense of language is always immersive and oddly playful (as was the case with my utter fave Richard Brautigan). Cohen had his own voice as a writer, a very strong one, and you can hear it in this fragment he reads from Beautiful Losers:

I will avoid any links to Leonard’s original, or any cover versions, of “Hallelujah,” as that song has been done and redone to distraction in recent years — he himself noted in an interview that there should possibly be an embargo on the song for a while (especially, I guess, after it appeared in Shrek).

Instead, I will offer you one of his most pointed comments on politics, in a spoken rendition he did for the United States of Poetry project. “Democracy is coming/to the U.S.A.” indeed. But will it ever get here? (We’ll have to settle for the military-obsessed republic/oligarchy we have in the meantime.)

Leonard jokingly titled the album he did that was produced by Phil Spector (who, yes, pulled a gun on him!) Death of a Ladies Man. He has a major reputation avec les femmes, and can only offer the rest of us an object lesson in how to behave. Here he is performing his perfect poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep”:

A beautiful YouTube discovery, Leonard hanging out in a documentary about an old friend from Montreal, the troubled writer Philip Tétrault. The film is another Film Board of Canada production, made by Philip’s brother Pierre, called This Beggar’s Description (2006). Hanging out with Leonard on a park bench is every fan’s dream, and here it is:

I had to opt for just one or two songs to link to, and I will go first for a well-known one, but one that I think is just absolutely perfect lyrically and melodically. (I also love this seriously “unplugged” rendition by Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano .)

I will end on the song that Leonard himself has pointed to as one that he’s particularly proud of, called “Anthem.” First, some odd live variants that have surfaced on YT, then the best one I found:
live at the Beacon in NYC, where Leonard lists all the anti-depressants he’s taken, and then says he turned to “a study of the religions and philosophies, but — cheerfulness kept breaking through…”;

—the second-oddest booking he’s ever had (the first was what looked to be a water-park, as seen on a YT vid from a few years back), at Caesar’s Palace in La Vegas, where he comments on the oddness of him being there; and

in Israel, where he did a benefit for The Parents Circle, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization (after several interested folks asked him not to play in Israel because of the Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza).

Those are the most interesting, but badly video’d versions; here he is, back in his homeland (in Vancouver), in an uncommonly steady and good-sounding fan-vid, wherein he responds to a British critic who says he “is a boring old drone and should go the fuck back to Canada” (he’s cool with the old drone part — again, just imagine Dylan ever being that personable with an audience….). Then, on to the song, which contains the sublime chorus “There is a crack in everything/that’s where the light gets in…”

The talent and humanity are there in spades, but yes, Leonard, it is all about the hat….

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A short lesson in filmmaking from George Kuchar

To follow up on my last post, I thought I would offer up two pages from the way-out-of-print autobiography by the Kuchar brothers, Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool (1997). I realized that my Deceased Artiste tribute didn’t mention George’s facility for language — his notes for the Kuchar screenings were always wonderfully, wildly written, in a kind of hyperventilating sleazy paperback prose that was a joy to read.

Thus, I offer only two pages from this OOP classic (if the copyright holders, whoever they be, wish them removed from the Net, all they need to do is contact me — it will be done). In the meantime, I picked these two pages because they are the close of a particularly useful chapter wherein George offers his rules for filmmaking. The passage I wanted to share starts with the italicized text on the first page.

He was both a lurid writer (”You will be beneath contempt and can therefore work unimpeded in the lower depths while the self-inflated egos of Eros and Ektachrome drift above the surface of mortal existence, dangling their poisonous tentacles in your direction.”) and one who taught well and simply (“Learn what wires go where and why!”). So take a lesson from a master on how to craft your own “gossamer garbage.” (Stating the obvious, instruction-wise: Click the image to enlarge it, save it, and then zoom in to read with whatever image viewer you use.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Color Him Lurid: Deceased Artiste George Kuchar

George Kuchar never, ever sold out. In fact, like any good and true underground filmmaker (and George and his twin brother Mike were making narrative 8mm movies before that term ever existed), George wouldn’t’ve known how to sell out, even if he’d been offered the additional dough. His films and videos were homemade productions from the first to the last, and they had more identity, authenticity, emotion, thought, and, yes, pure insanity, than anything the major studios would ever, and will ever, put out.

George died this week at the age of 69, and his death greatly saddened both those who knew him personally and those like myself who felt they knew him well from hours spent viewing his voluminous “diary” videos. I had one cordial encounter in person with the gentleman, at a gallery exhibit of his work last year, and, in response to my pitch for an interview for the Funhouse TV show, he not only wrote an extremely polite e-mail a day or two later, explaining he had no spare time during a short trip to NYC, but also left an equally polite and friendly voicemail saying he’d be back this way soon and we’d talk then, and “look me up if you ever get to Frisco — I’m in the book!”

George’s politeness surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. After I interviewed his brother Mike, I got the nicest single note I’ve ever received from a Funhouse guest. Meeting them confirmed that both brothers' films and videos were indeed 100% genuine. Given their friendliness, the newcomer might've thought that the brothers — yes, they are twins and have the same speaking voice, and fucking awesome Nu Yawk accent — are naïve, silly dreamers who just happened to acquire a reputation because their 8mm and 16mm films were liked by the right people at the right time.

Actually, after watching even a few of the brothers’ joint and solo works, one can easily see that while the gentlemen are extremely polite, they also knew exactly what they were after onscreen. I’ve been told of how George videotaped you while you videotaped him — much like I get the sense that Mike is constantly conjuring visions in his head as he’s talking to you (during our interview, his eyes were often closed when he was intent on making a point).

As young men, both brothers developed into addictive “imagists” (my phrase, not theirs) for whom everything they saw and experienced was grist for the mill; thus, the very personal nature of what they were doing. Sure, George’s projects with his students at the San Francisco Art Institute are completely “out there” (that’s an expression whose time has come and gone), and seem on first glance to be just fun filmmaking games for his classes.

However, those films and videos, while not being near his video diaries and his solo 16mm and mini-DV work in terms of brilliance, still have their moments, as can be seen in the video “Butterball.” The video can’t be embedded on this blog because, in the 2000s, George was still doing what he did with Mike back in the late Fifties and early Sixties — using “found music” for his soundtracks (read: breaking out CDs from his own collection or that of a friend). Included here are different versions of the old song “My Love Has Two Faces,” and instrumental versions of a song by the Police and what I *think* is “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”

To salute George I want to move backwards in this post through the films of his that are online; those unfamiliar with George’s work should jump right down to the two modern classics linked to at the bottom, or check out the commercially available documentary It Came From Kuchar, made by one of George’s former students, Jennifer Kroot.

Since, for the most part, both brothers’ films and videos (Mike has made dozens and dozens; George easily made a few hundred in total) aren’t available anywhere online or on DVD, the documentary serves as a good “101” for those who want to be exposed to the wonderful world of Kuchar.

In terms of official releases of Kuchar pics, there have been only two in the 35 years that home-entertainment media have existed: the British VHS of four shorts by George called Color Me Lurid (the contents of which can be found in various places on the Net), and the DVD of three 16mm shorts by Mike entitled Sins of the Fleshopoids, which also keeps surfacing on YT.

New Yorkers have been very lucky, in that the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, David Schwartz, is an unabashed admirer of underground cinema and has programmed entire festivals of it (my first major dose of George and Mike’s work was ingested out at the MMI).

Also, the city’s most important repertory theater, the Anthology Film Archives, has presented new and vintage works by the Kuchars every few months, allowing NYC residents to be introduced to their work, as well as that of nearly every significant filmmaker from the silent era on, at the lowest prices in Manhattan (!). The AFA is the only NYC theater brave enough to show the uncut and still surprisingly shocking Thundercrack! (above), scripted by and starring George, since the heyday of rep back in the Seventies and Eighties.

The reasons that the Kuchars’ work hasn’t surfaced on DVD are many: lack of “consumer interest” (read: mainstream appeal for idiots); music clearance rights (particularly important for the early, jointly made 8mm films that are awash in cuts from old singles and LPs); and, perhaps most importantly, an evident lack of interest from the brothers themselves.

Let’s face it, to be an independent filmmaker these days requires an inordinate amount of self-promotion and the selling of one’s work, something the Kuchars have never done (to their own credit). One of the most notable fan/students of the Kuchar brothers’ work, John Waters, has turned himself into a very familiar brand, both as a filmmaker and as a media celebrity, lecturer/standup, and talk show guest. I was in fact introduced to the Kuchars’ style of filmmaking through my discovery of the wonderful early Waters features. Waters admirably is always very forthright about crediting the brothers for influencing his work — although (grumble!) his list of important indie filmmakers in Cecil B. Demented included such non-Kucharian, non-Kenneth Angered, folks as Otto Preminger and Spike Lee!

The thing that the Kuchars gave to Waters, Rosa von Praunheim, Guy Maddin, and a very LONG list of other micro-budgeted filmmakers, was a blissful sense of kitsch and camp that melded the melodrama of mainstream Hollywood with the “otherness” of low-budget sci-fi and thriller movies. What first strikes you upon watching the Kuchars' movies and videos is the insanely bright and eye-catching color schemes they used (drawn from both Technicolor melodramas and the comic books they read as kids).

In the last twenty years, as they both have edited their mini-DV productions using digital effects, they have duplicated that color scheme in an even trippier fashion. Some might see this as a “sell-out” of one kind or another, but the brothers’ works have still been made with nearly non-existent budgets (even the videos made for George’s classes were done on a very thin shoestring), and the effects that they’ve used are in fact from earlier generations of computer-editing programs (as well as completely offline digital editing boards) and, most importantly, are being used by older men with the same kind of joy and inventiveness with which they used 8mm back in the late Fifties.

Before I discuss the clips that are online, let me add one aspect: the fact that both gentlemen have resided in San Francisco now for years (George moved there in the mid-1970s), but retained their spectacular NYC accents. Born and raised in the Bronx, they have been celebrated all over the world, but when they talk, the cityspeak pours out of their mouths. I loved hearing Mike rhapsodize about the movies the brothers loved when they were young, and I never tire of George musing on literally everything and anything in his video diaries.

I myself don’t really care about the weather one way or the other (unless I’m caught without an umbrella). Listening to George go on and on about storms and natural catastrophes, as well as the “men in black” and Bigfoot and other paranormal phenomena, was riveting, though. Samples of George talking at length about his pictures can be found here and here.

And what are we left with then, from George’s prodigious output and groundbreaking work with NO goddamned budgets? A sense that anything is indeed possible on film and video, and the fact that the man possessed a very sharp, funny, and ridiculous sense of humor. George and Mike belong on any short list of great underground filmmakers — a Mount Rushmore containing Anger, Deren, Brakhage, Mekas, Jacobs, Markopoulos, Snow, and oh yeah, I guess that Warhol guy and his crew.

What distinguished them from their colleagues was that their movies were always so much fun to watch. The images were just as radical and jarring as those found in the work of the other pioneers, but their sense of humor— and brilliant ability to craft an alternate world out of household objects found in NYC and San Francisco apartments — was always a constant.

Watching a multiplex movie may give you that Spielbergian emotional “tug” or a quick laugh at a fart joke (and yes, in the Sixties the Kuchar brothers were the ones who delivered the very first bad-taste moments onscreen, inspiring young Waters). But the Kuchars’ movies and videos convince you that it can all be done with no budget, and done very beautifully at that.

Moving backward in time through George’s work, I’ll first mention that you can watch one of the films made with his SF Art Institute students here. It is called “Dynasty of Depravity” — has it taken me this long to mention what an unmitigated delight the titles of the Kuchar movies are? When you start out with “I Was a Teenage Rumpot,” it’s hard get better, but they did, on an annual basis.

George also used to diarize his meetings with people he thought were interesting. Examples of that kind of video can be found here and also here (the latter starring Christopher Coppola in the home of his brother Nicholas Cage).

These are only recommended for those who’ve seen George’s best works, but if you need an idea of what that type of production looks like, here is a very joyful micro-budgeted (toys, Egyptian gods, Santa, and dinosaurs!) music video for a song by Andy Ditzler celebrating the winter solstice, directed by George (much like Kenneth Anger, the Kuchars were unintentionally designing “music videos” in their work from the very beginning):

The Kuchars had a beloved dog that figured heavily in their films when a pet was needed (he is the pooch taking a very scary crap in Mike’s The Craven Sluck; see below). George did a filmic ode to the dog with his The Mongreloid in 1978:

As noted above, George was obsessed by extreme weather and would travel to a small city in Oklahoma on an annual basis to record their rainy season. One of his “weather diaries” can be found on the Ubuweb site (they of the seemingly bottomless bandwidth — how DO they do it, and how can *I* do it?). For a nice impressionistic view of his obsession with weather, go no further than this pretty and strange piece called Wild Night in El Reno from 1977:

Certainly the strangest item from George that can be found online is I, An Actress (1977). Intended as a demo reel for an aspiring young actress, instead it becomes a chance to watch George coach her in how to overact for the camera (he was a master at assuming the melodramatic “mood” and stealing a scene). I’m assuming she never submitted it as her “reel” at auditions:

One of the Kuchar features I’ve never seen but would love to is The Devil’s Cleavage from 1975. Some generous poster has put up a party scene from the film. It demonstrates George’s facility with “found music,” especially odd items like a track from the late and "incredibly strange" Mrs. Miller:

The strangest-ever film that George was involved in was one he didn’t direct. Thundercrack! was directed by his friend and protégé Curt McDowell in 1975, and it is still a surprisingly “shocking” movie for many viewers, in that its mega-melodramatic action stops every so often for a graphic sexual interlude (guy/girl, girl/girl, guy/guy).

George wrote the wonderfully overwrought dialogue (it really provides a great lesson in how to mock the melodramatic dialogue found in old Hollywood films, and even in contemporary television dramas), and stars as the circus trainer of a gorilla who is getting far too close to his charge. A helpful YT poster has attempted to upload most of the movie’s non-sex sequences (which is more than half the film), but I’m tellin’ ya, it’s a far weirder picture with those scenes intact:

Although George produced video diaries on a regular basis in the last three decades, he rarely talked about his personal relationships on-camera; thus, there not many direct references to his being gay in the films and videos.

His film Pagan Rhapsody (1970) contains a gay seduction scene, though, and the wonderful inclusion of the Zombies’ “Care of Cell 44” on the soundtrack (go to 14:45; the film is already wonderful, but the Zombies tune, one of their best, BRIGHTENS the pic incredibly). The interesting thing about the way that George and Mike used pop music was that they used *snippets* of songs, rather than playing the whole thing, as with Kenneth Anger or John Waters. As a result you have that snippet bouncing around your head for days, and can’t forget the images attached to it:

Speaking of Mike, here’s one of his 16mm features, The Craven Sluck (1967). George gives a great performance as a seducer who lures away the married Floraine Connors:

George beautifully established his filmmaking style in the mid-Sixties, as did Mike — definitely a function of their splitting up as collaborators and each embarking on his own directorial path. Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967) is pure, undiluted George K: torrid melodrama, Catholic guilt, wonderfully over-the-top performances by Kuchar family friends, gay longing, amazing apartment-dweller kitsch, and sublime use of “found music” [RECOMMENDED]:

I close out with one of George’s first solo 16mm features, the utterly, utterly sublime Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966). There is too much I could write about this film, but suffice it to say it’s brilliant on several levels:
—as a record of a filmmaker salvaging a project that went into the crapper (his lead actress bailed during filming);
—as a beautiful combination of the overwrought and the touching in George’s work;
—as a wonderful bird’s-eye-view of apartment life in the NYC in the Sixties;
—as the film that in my mind has the series of cuts (go to 7:40!) that inspired the opening of the credit sequence in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. (Scorsese’s Film Foundation has restored the early 8mms made by George and Mike.) George may not have seemed in his diary videos like the kind of guy who could rock out, but check out his use of rock music in his films, and, I’m telling you, you’re seeing the blueprint for how it was used by those who followed. I could watch that Four Seasons moment in Hold Me… over and over again. And have. [HEAVILY RECOMMENDED]:

You should see as many of George’s movies and videos as you can, but his mid-Sixties work, particularly Hold Me… explains why, in fourteen quick and crazy minutes, he will never be forgotten.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Whatever happened to the protest and the rage?": Deceased Artiste Gil Scott-Heron

One of the most significant deaths in the arts community this summer was the poet-singer-songwriter-activist Gil Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron died several weeks ago at this point, but I wanted to wait to pay tribute to him until I could get it right.

Gil’s death was not unexpected — he had battled drug addiction and various other health crises (including, most recently, HIV) for several decades, but to make matters more poignant, he left us after having a low-key but triumphant comeback in 2010 with the haunting album I’m New Here. His talent as a writer and a musician can’t be overstated — he remained true to his principles and brought a searing intelligence and deep passion for his fellow man to the world of “popular music.”

What strikes one when listening to all of his recorded work in a short span of time is not only how radical his poems and lyrics were, but also how he clung to the small joys found in daily life. Those who know him only from works like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” will be surprised to hear the pretty and extremely serene jazz ballads he wrote and performed during the same period.

In addition to his writing and musical talent, he also was an engaging performer, as is evidenced by the films and videos of his concerts, where he did both poems and comedy routines in between songs.

So GSH was a “militant” artist who could also be extremely funny; a polemicist who also crafted mellow music that is relaxing and refreshing; and a gifted, literary (that is a compliment, not an insult) writer who never lost the common touch in his “voice.”

His obits celebrated his achievements, but also naturally focused on the tragedy of his drug use. It’s clear that, like many artists, he saw all too clearly what the world is like and needed to dull his senses so that he wouldn’t be sucked in too deeply. The fact that he produced precise and unsparing accounts of addiction (“Home is Where the Hatred Is,” “The Bottle”) when he himself was presumably only beginning to fall victim to it reflects how deeply he understood the mindset of the addict and the allure of the “escape hatch.”

The other aspect of Gil’s legacy that was spoken about in every obit and tribute on the Internet was his status as one of the principal “godfathers of rap.” The quote of his that was most repeated was “don’t blame me for that," but the more important statement he made about contemporary hiphop in general was his reminder that he had worked on becoming a honed musician before he became a performer.

His main collaborator, Brian Jackson, is rightly given credit for the sound of Gil’s best albums, up to and including 1980; in many cases the records were credited to both of them. But Gil was himself a musician who knew his craft and took no easy ways out — thus the fact that he cultivated a dedicated following in America and was widely appreciated in Europe and the UK, where jazz is much more warmly received.

How did Scott-Heron differ from the mainstream rap stars of today, many of who claim him as an influence?
—His compositions were always his own original material. He covered songs by Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers, among others, but he didn’t lay his lyrics on the “bed” of another artist’s melody.
—His looks. He was a good looking guy when he was younger, but was never a heartthrob.
—He was a poet, first and foremost. His concentration as a writer was not strictly on the rhymes (although he produced some gems), but on the message being communicated and the tone of the words.
—He was, above all, a moralist (a streetsmart one) who wrote with a sense of purpose and was, in fact, very hard on himself in his writing. No self-aggrandizing “gangsta” behavior for him.
-And, yes, the musicianship. Though they contain some topical lyrics, his best albums are evocative and timeless jazz records.

In the British TV series All Back to Mine (see below), when asked to pick his favorite music he made certain to put Chuck D/Public Enemy and Michael Franti in the company of John Coltrane (his hero) and Marvin Gaye. He definitely knew the good stuff when he heard it.

The details of his life and the geographical moves that shaped his worldview were also quickly reviewed in his obits. Born in Chicago to a librarian and a Jamaican soccer star who was a key player for a Scottish team (!), he was cared for as a child by his grandmother in Tennessee. In adolescence he was moved to the Bronx. He interrupted his college undergrad studies to write and publish a novel (The Vulture), then wound up getting a master’s in literature from John Hopkins when he was already a recording artist in the early Seventies.

He described himself as a “bluesologist,” since he remained fascinated by the roots of African-American popular music throughout his life. The drug addiction that wrecked his health apparently kicked in badly in the mid-Eighties, as his productivity as a singer-songwriter pretty much ceased at that point, with only two studio albums and certain select tours after that.

His last 25 years were fallow in terms of work, but the concentration of genius he betrayed in his prolific period, plus the brilliance of the two “comeback” albums, qualify him as a major artist who, true to the American way of entertainment, was better known and more beloved overseas than he was over here….

On a related note, Gil did live through two years of the Obama presidency (the two years squandered on the quest for “bipartisanship”), but I haven’t seen or read any comments from him about the President. Since Obama has kept America’s military commitment ramped up (while the country is falling apart at home), one can only assume that the artist whose motto was “Work for Peace” (see below) would not be pleased with another U.S. President with unnecessary blood on his hands.


I can rhapsodize about Scott-Heron’s work, but he should always have the last word. Let me start off the clips with the best GSH interviews, all done by British fans/journalists. First an interview done for the BBC when he was preparing his last album, and then a really terrific documentary, a GSH “101” called The Revolution Will Not Televised:

Then the British show All Back to Mine in 2000. Gil speaks about his musical influences and those who followed him [RECOMMENDED]:

Scott-Heron’s first album is a potent collection of spoken word pieces with musical backing called Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (he does sing “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul?”). This piece was resurrected by Kanye West and inserted into a new piece he called “Who Will Survive in America?” (which is basically Gil’s vocal with a new musical backing).

A song that wound up having a lot of personal meaning to Gil was “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” off his second album Pieces of a Man (1971). The song talks about drug addiction, and he later reworked it for his first comeback album in 1994, after he had had been having drug problems for a while. It’s a no-nonsense song that isn’t preachy, it just provides a first-person perspective:

The thing that impresses me about the most about GSH is his versatility. Above you have a political poem and a “cry from the heart” as they call it. And here, from some intrepid YT poster, are three of his most beautiful vocals, with the first two being particular favorites of mine, “Save the Children” and “I Think I’ll Call It Morning” (from Pieces…). The third song is “Peace Go With You, Brother” from his album with Brian Jackson, Winter in America [HIGHLY RECOMMENDED]:

Yet another truly mellow tune that reflected GSH’s upbeat side is his ode to two of his greatest influences, “Lady Day and John Coltrane.” I also love his spoken word piece “The Ghetto Code (Dot Dot Dit Dit Dot Dot Dash)” that functions as both a cautionary tale and a standup routine; the most interesting thing is his note that “there’s something wrong with February,” which, of course, was later chosen to be Black History month, despite its being the shortest month in the year.

For a visual example of his comfortable stage presence, here is a great bit taken from the Robert Mugge’s terrific GSH documentary Black Wax (1983):

Three-quarters of Black Wax can be found on YT currently. The first section, in which Gil discusses his being a “bluesologist,” is here. A large, 40-minute chunk of the film, starting with Scott-Heron doing an awesome version of his poem “Whitey on the Moon,” is here [HIGHLY RECOMMENDED]:

A nod to Brian Jackson, Gil’s finest collaborator. Their albums together are among Scott-Heron’s best, and songs like “First Minute of a New Day” (1976) underscore Jackson’s terrific arranging and production. Their album Winter in America (1974) is considered the high point of their collaboration (along with their group, "the Midnight Band”):

Gil’s biggest hit on “the charts” was this awesome blend of a serious message and a very catchy melody, “The Bottle” [RECOMMENDED]:

The first time I saw Gil was on Saturday Night Live singing his anthemic "Johannesburg," which predated the whole Sun City by a decade. It’s still a killer song:

Scott-Heron was on the right side of a lot of issues in the Seventies and early Eighties. He opposed the use of nuclear energy with the unforgettable “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Here is a live version from 1990:

Gil’s satirical pieces on “the Great Communicator,” Ronald Raygun (as Scott-Heron called him), were nothing short of brilliant. Here is the first one, which serves as a great history lesson about what was really going on at the turn of the Eighties [RECOMMENDED]:

As if “B-Movie” wasn’t brutal enough, the funkified “Re-Ron” lays down the case for the danger and stupidity of Reagan in an even clearer fashion:

Gil’s personal problems consumed him after the early Eighties, but in 1994 he came back with his first dynamite “comeback” album, Spirits. He was profiled as “the godfather of rap” in interview segments like this one and crafted a brilliant “Message to the Messengers” to speak to the new generation of hiphop stars:

The Spirits album is terrific on the whole, but one of its spoken-word pieces still hits home today. “Work for Peace” is Gil’s recognition that the “military and the monetary” run America. Here he performs the piece on the MTV Unplugged poetry special. This piece, again, should be mandatory listening for the President. It probably wouldn’t change anything he’s currently thinking, but it would so sweet if it could [HIGHLY RECOMMENDED]:

Sadly, following Spirits, Gil’s drug problems increased. He did continue to do live gigs and expressed himself eloquently as always in interviews like this one. His second “comeback” occurred last year with the excellent album I’m New Here. The haunting and deeply menacing song “Me and the Devil” (which was perhaps his most deeply personal, most anguished composition) was illustrated by a suitably menacing menacing music video (check out the amazing spoken-word piece at the close).

The album has some great tunes, including the superb “New York Is Killing Me,” but the most valuable piece of video to emerge from the production was a live, acoustic version of the title tune. Here Gil finally did become a bluesman — he had spoken of his love for the blues since the early Seventies, but his music had never sounded as bluesy as here [RECOMMENDED]:

There is an undeniable majesty to Scott-Heron on the I’m New Here (his knowledge and experience seeps out of every track), but the song I have to close this entry out with is his most famous, the one that has been copied endlessly and still packs a punch 41 years after he first recorded it (as a spoken word piece on Small Talk…) and 40 years after he recorded this indelible musical version (the whole thing is perfect, but the flute has always made it for me).

Here is an interview in which Gil discusses the song. If you’re going to have one creation to be remembered by, this is one hell of an achievement. I wish all rap (and rock and even “fast folk”) sounded more like this, and betrayed this level of intelligence. Rest well, poet.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

He’s still welcome here: MDA pitches from Jerry, 57 years apart

My last post about Jerry Lewis’s ouster from the MDA telethon summarizes my feelings about the event quite clearly, but I thought I’d share two of the clips that I showed last night on the Funhouse TV show in my annual Labor Day Jerry tribute episode. The first clip is from the second telethon Martin and Lewis hosted, and the first that was entirely devoted to MDA, on Thanksgiving Eve in 1953. The second clip is from the 2010 telethon, the last Jerry was ever to host (which of course we, and he, never knew was to be his swan song).

The interesting thing about contrasting the clips is noting Jerry’s approach — in the first he is mellow, and 57 years later he is frenzied (to the point of anger it seems) and sincerely impassioned about the cause. I present these as a sort of testament to a loooong time spent working for one charity.

Also, notice his emphasis on finding a cure. It’s seemed to me in the past few years that he is the one who has pushed that aspect of the MDA fund drive — he has spoken about a cure now for 57 years (note that back in 1953 he gave an amount of time, three months, in which the disease could be cured if the funds came in). Whereas the other spokespeople for the MDA seem to stress research and aid for those who are afflicted by the neuromuscular diseases.

Whatever the case may be, he certainly has given the organization a lotta his time and energy (discussions about his motivations can take place elsewhere — and already have). Since we are denied his company this evening as a host (and thus denied the last functional old-fashioned TV variety show), I thought I would share just a little of my Funhouse tribute here: