Friday, May 15, 2020

Prince Hal Exits the Scene: Deceased Artiste Hal Willner

The New York City free summer concert series are already cancelling their seasons. This isn’t a surprise, given the tenor of the times and the fact that 2020 as a whole will most surely be sunk through the fall (at least) by the pandemic. Even when the world returns to “normal” the summer concerts will never be the same, because a major presence in the programming and production of some of the most memorable of those shows is now gone. His name was Willner (when introducing himself to audiences he tended to leave out the first name) and I had taken to calling him (pardon me, Willie the Shake) “Prince Hal” on this blog.

The records that Willner produced will live on, but the simply stunningly wonderful concerts he put on are now just memories – memories and random photos (and yes, some bits of video and audio generated by fans). Great articles like this one and especially this one found his collaborators attesting to the intensity of Willner’s fandom for (and knowledge of) music — from traditional folk and country to rock, pop, and his beloved jazz. His talent for blending artists with material in both a series of tribute albums and tribute concerts was his supreme contribution over the past four decades.

His obits discussed his very well-loved (and well-reviewed) tribute albums. His concerts were discussed, but the sheer *volume* of these shows was left out of most obits, which needed (for audience recognition) to focus on his friendships with certain music legends and his work on “Saturday Night Live.” The latter earned him a solid, stable paycheck and allowed him to do all the other labor of love projects, so it had its purpose, but it was not where Willner’s art lie. That can be found on the albums and most definitely in the array of musicians and performers he recruited for the concerts he produced.

To illustrate, Willner put together sublime rosters of talent for tribute albums dedicated to these musical legends: Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, Walt Disney (music  for the studios films), Charles Mingus, Harold Arlen, Leonard Cohen, Harry Smith (from the Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Smith), and (forthcoming) Marc Bolan/T. Rex. (And let's not forget the spoken-word album where folks such as Marianne Faithfull, Christopher Walken, Iggy Pop, Jeff Buckley, and Dr. John read Poe stories and poems!)

The mad scientist in his laboratory.
(Photo by Marc Urselli; the script being read
is from the Basil Rathbone "Co-Star" LP!)
He did live tributes to the names above, but the amazing live concerts he produced also included tributes (over a period of nearly 30 years) to: Tim Buckley, Doc Pomus, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Bill Withers, Joel Dorn (productions), Tuli Kupferberg, Shel Silverstein, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Allan Sherman, Lou Reed, George Martin (productions), and Bob Dylan. And, in the spoken-word arena, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, the Firesign Theater, Arch Oboler, Ken Nordine, Del Close, Terry Southern, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Marquis De Sade (!).

Those of us who followed his work tried to see any concert that he had anything to do with — as the years went on some had to be missed for monetary or personal reasons, but the best part of being a Willner fan was that the initial problem was negated in so many sublime cases, since Hal worked in tandem with all three of the main NYC summer festivals at different times, and when it was a labor of love show, the admission fee was ridiculously low (10 or under) for evenings that (no hyperbole) you might well remember for the rest of your life.

I charted my love of Willner’s concerts on these blogs beginning in 2008, but had been trying to catch as many of his shows for the seven years preceding that. (I now know that I was a decade late for the picnic, but that never mattered — there was always something new.) I reviewed a bunch of his shows here because I had been so dazzled by what I saw — but also as a sort of aide-memoire, because Willner liked to put surprises in his shows.
The door to Willner's studio.
(photo by the terrific singer-
songwriter Mary Lee Kortes)

Not the usual ones you find at a concert (“wow, that music legend just came out to join the musical legend we came to see!”), but more sneaky, subtle ones that you would remember even longer and for better reasons — like the fact that a music legend was doing such a beautiful job covering a song, that a duet was occurring that had to be processed before it could even be understood (check out the episodes of Hal’s “Night Music” on YouTube for examples of these sort of musical fusions both weird and miraculous), and the single most sublime mindfuck, the introduction of a new performer who *must* be remembered. I would include among these the first time I heard and saw Antony (now Anohni) perform at a Willner show (the Leonard Cohen tribute) and any number of songs done by the devoted instrumentalists and vocalists who made up his “ensemble” for his live shows.

I didn’t write here about the last two Willner shows I saw because they were reviewed in the New York Times and were in essence more “organized” — although there was still an unpredictable strain in them, best exemplified by Chloe Webb wearing a horse’s head wandering throughout Town Hall in one (a Hunter S. Thompson tribute) and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog doing a cover of a folk standard in another (a salute to Dylan’s 1963 set at Town Hall).

The Willner shows I did write up here were these:

– Two tribute shows: for Joel Dorn, at Lincoln Center and for Bill Withers, Prospect Park, Aug 2008

– The marathon benefit for Tuli Kupferberg at St. Ann’s Feb 2010

– A panel on Andy Kaufman’s musical obsessions (with guest panelist Willner and an assortment of his friends) June 2013

– Four shows from his first residency at the Stone, Sept 2014

– Four shows from his second residency at the Stone, June 2016

– Lou Reed daylong celebration at Lincoln Center, Aug 2016

There are memories I have of other Willner shows, but I think the best way one can find out about Hal’s work is to visit a newly published website that stands as a tribute to his work. Engineer-producer-mixer-sound designer Marc Urselli, who worked side-by-side with Willner for more than a decade, has done great work in putting together people’s memories of the man, plus a discography of the albums he produced (each represented with a Spotify playlist) and a detailed list of the concerts Willner produced. The homepage for the site is here.

Full disclosure: I prepared the concert list, working from a number of sources (including contemporary reviews, the performers’ own websites, the archived records of certain venues, and even the above-mentioned blog entries). I never knew Willner — I had two short conversations with him, in which I simply asked him a few questions and thanked him for all the shows of his that I had seen. (He was nice enough in private Facebook chat to thank me for the blog entries on the Stone shows.)

The assemblage of this list was my concrete thank-you to a producer who didn’t just mount a bunch of really cool concerts — he opened his viewers up to new artists, gave us renewed respect for old ones, and when putting on shows in much smaller venues, got to spread his infectious sense of fandom and his utterly apt knack for mixing talents both young and old with the most amazing material. (From the initial information that has surfaced about it and the debut track by Nick Cave, his last project, the long-gestating tribute double album “AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs Of Marc Bolan and T. Rex,” will continue in this vein. It will be released in September.)
A younger Willner,
with Milla J., Robbie R.,
and Bono. (circa 2000)

The only downside to any of this was that I’ve been curious for years if Willner was recording the live shows he produced for some future release project. The answer is, very sadly, no. There were some concerts recorded – some venues do it as a matter of practice and there were some that were organized with eventual DVDs in mind. In the latter category, we do have the documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man and the box set of The Harry Smith Project concerts (and the solo performer shows, like Marianne Faithfull’s Blazing Away and Lou Reed’s Berlin). But for the most part, the copyright issues, possible contractual problems, and even the small sizes of some of the venues made it unfeasible to record the shows.

As a neat bonus to this discussion I point you toward a video clip that was posted after Willner’s passing by videographer Sebastian Sharples. The vid shows how Hal went about figuring out in what order the performers would appear, in this case for the first of the “Harry Smith Project” shows, which took place at the South Bank Centre in London for the July 1999 Meltdown Festival. We see Hal assigning index cards to each act and the song they will do, and then sitting on the floor and moving the cards around until he gets the order he likes. Having seen his shows, I can tell you — he liked changing moods (putting something upbeat after something sad) and also throwing surprises in the middle of shows rather than the obvious place (the end). He did it all masterfully.

We also see him watching footage of the older Harry Smith (an unusually eccentric gent who was an immensely talented filmmaker and archivist) and sitting with the Meltdown guest director for that year, Nick Cave.

And so the shows will remain a memory to those who saw them. And we do have the photos and those bits of audio and video that fans chose to snag. If the list (link below) of the performers who participated in the Willner shows was spelled out (if those hundreds and hundreds of names could even be verified), the resulting roster would testify to the depth and breadth of Willner’s musical knowledge and his many, many enthusiasms. 

Willner with one of the many super-talented folks
he paid tribute to. He's your man...

For the time being, there is this list, which I’m proud to have worked on. If you spot any shows produced by Willner that were left out, write to me at the Funhouse email address (found on the Funhouse site) and I’ll send on the information to Marc. (Please supply particulars of the show— theme/performer. venue, city, and month/year)

The loss of Willner is a very big one to the music community (and fans, for he was a giant one himself, of so many things). But the music he gave us will continue, both in the grooves and in our memories.

Here is the full(est) list of the concerts Willner produced — 33 years of a master-producer’s life.

Friday, May 1, 2020

What's in a Name? Deceased Artiste Allen Goorwitz (aka Allen Garfield)

His face rings bells for anyone who watches (and reveres) the great American cinema of the early Seventies, now a long-gone phenomenon. (Q: Was Hollywood ever that grown-up and intelligent afterward? A: No.) He was a scene-stealer in films by De Palma, Downey Sr, Coppola, Altman, Friedkin, and Wilder (and in countless TV shows from the Seventies to the Nineties); his presence could brighten up a film was otherwise a dud. He was Allen Garfield, born Goorwitz  and later to use both names as a film actor.

Garfield died last week at 80 of Covid-19 after living for the last 15 or so years in an actor’s home, as a result of a stroke he had in his mid-Sixties. For those of us who loved his work, it presented a chance to review his wonderful supporting performances in countless movies and TV show. The best remembered include De Palma’s Greetings and Hi Mom!, Coppola’s The Conversation, and Altman’s Nashville.

The film that was absent from his obits and other tributes was Wim Wenders’ The State of Things (1982). The picture was a sort of fantasia/commentary on having worked with Coppola in Zoetrope mode on Hammett. (Which, it was later revealed by Andrew Sarris from remarks by Peter Boyle, contains quite a lot of scenes shot by Coppola himself; Boyle noted he worked exclusively in the Coppola-shot scenes).

State of Things begins with a cerebral sci-fi film shoot in Portugal, which is interrupted by the crew (including the great Sam Fuller, playing the cinematographer) running out of film stock. The German director of the piece (which may or may not have foreshadowed Wenders’ own epic 1991 sci-fi film Until the End of the World) is played by Patrick Bauchau. He ventures back to California to see his American producer, Gordon (Goorwitz), who is hiding out from loan sharks in a mobile home, wandering up and down the boulevards in Hollywood.

Goorwitz gives the type of film-stealing supporting performance that should’ve netted him an Oscar in a just world (but the Oscars have little to do with supreme quality). He makes Gordon a sympathetic figure who loves art for art’s sake but is also clearly a con man who is on the run from those who are more corrupt than he (and they probably don’t even know who starred in They Drive By Night  a debate that happens in the dialogue in the scene).

A word about his last name: He was indeed born Allen Goorwitz on Nov. 22, 1939. He changed his name professionally to Garfield, according to an article in The New York Times, for his first play after seeing John Garfield in Body and Soul (notice the Garfield namecheck in State of Things). He changed his last name back to Goorwitz in 1978 as ''something to replenish my spirit because my parents had passed away.''

He found, though, that he was typecast when he used his own, ethnic-sounding name. “It was as if there was an unspoken thing: now that he's Goorwitz he can only do Goorwitz roles,'' he told the NYT. (“What that meant was nothing but Italian or Jewish ethnic parts,” they added for those of us who are slow on the uptake.) So, after losing 100 pounds through Overeaters Anonymous, he took back his fake name in 1984 and became Garfield again, through the rest of his screen/TV career.

For me, the scene below is the essence is what made Allen G. a great character person  he embodied his characters fully, made them both seedy and charming, and also did just completely steal whatever scenes he was in. And yes, he wrote the little song he sings to himself in this scene, about Hollywood. (Click the words "Watch on Odnoklassniki" in the embed and watch on the site housing the clip.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

‘All Together, We’re All Alone’: Deceased Artiste John Prine

The back cover of the "Lost Dogs
and Mixed Blessings" CD booklet.
There are generally three types of singer-songwriters, in my estimation. The first are the ones who are so trite and tired in their sentiments and songwriting that they clamor to be ignored. The second are the genius wordsmiths — at their pinnacle is, of course, Bob Dylan, the man who, according to many, put poetry into pop/rock, and still astounds and amazes those who are paying attention. But Bob is a cold fish whose songs lack emotional resonance — that was evident even when he was at his peak in the Sixties.

The third category of singer-songwriter is made up of the people who put themselves into the music and weren’t/aren’t afraid to let emotion run through their words and not just be smitten with the poetry of it all. They are the ones who have brought a tear to my eye, and while I’m still impressed by their craft (as I am with Cold Old Bob), I find it far more valuable as I age disgracefully to emotionally connect with music than to be marveling at someone’s deft verbiage.

That third list of people includes those who created lifetimes of great music, but thankfully have made only a select number of albums to contrast with the many cranked out by both Dylan and McCartney, who, when they fell from grace, fell hard. (Paul Simon has made a select amount of albums, but it’s been absolute torture since the Eighties.)

Some of that incredible group are the “not long for this world” artists who had pristine voices and were not going to be around very long. In that lineage is the beautiful work of Phil Ochs, Steve Goodman, Harry Nilsson, Townes Van Zandt, Harry Chapin, and Nick Drake, among the men; Laura Nyro and Judee Sill among the women (with honorable mention to the voices that were also “not long for this world” in their melancholy sound — from Billie Holiday to Karen Carpenter to Amy Winehouse). And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind — there were others.

Prine and his good friend Steve Goodman
back in the day.
In the top level of singer-songwriters who got to be seniors are Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits (with Randy Newman right behind). Also in that class was the now late, and always great, John Prine.

Prine was an artist who is spoken about as having emerged out of the “Chicago folk scene” and yet his early albums are all riddled with pedal-steel guitar and beautiful country-sounding tunes. I used to find his records in both the country and folk slots in stores — vendors and his first record company seemed to hype him equally to both audiences. (And, yes, he did get the “next Dylan” label in the early Seventies, which was usually a kiss of death for someone with talent.)

His songs sold well when covered by other artists, but his personal appeal was “cult” in the Seventies and Eighties, and then began to grow and grow in the last thirty years, thanks to influential country artists singing his tunes (often with him), his being featured on the talk shows that like to showcase great talent (for about 10 minutes max – and let’s not get too deep into talking, whaddya say?), and the fact that his kind of talent still exists, but it’s apparent that anyone with musical talent these days has to give their work away for free over the Internet and then (hopefully) make money off their music via live gigs and crowdfunding. (Prine realized this many years before the Internet and thus began his own record company, Oh Boy Records)

The most impressive thing about Prine, and the thing that put him in with Waits, but not Leonard and Joni, was that he moved effortlessly between brilliant humorous songwriting and exquisite ballads. His first album alone contained four country songs that still amaze in their maturity and eloquence about age and despair — “Sam Stone,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Paradise,” and “Hello In There” — and three absolutely wonderful humorous songs — “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipe dreams,” and “Pretty Good” — while also offering us a piece of timely reflection (“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”) and his first killer précis of a relationship that’s failed (“Donald and Lydia”).

It’s an incredible debut LP. What was more incredible, of course, was that a young man (a Chicago mailman, among other jobs he held before he got the record contract) wrote lines in his early 20s like the chorus of “Hello In There”: “You know that old trees just grow stronger,/And old rivers grow wilder ev'ry day./Old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”

Kris Kristofferson’s liner notes summed it up beautifully:
“… Then [John] started singing, and by the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene (in fact Al Aronowitz said the same thing a few weeks later hearing John do a guest set at the Bitter End). One of those rare, great times when it all seems worth it, like when the Vision would rise upon Blake’s ‘weary eyes. Even in this Dungeon, & this Iron Mill.’

“He sang about a dozen songs, and had to do a dozen more before it was over. Unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Sam Stone. Donald & Lydia. The one about the Old Folks. Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty. I don’t know where he comes from, but I’ve got a good idea where he’s going. We went away believers, reminded how goddamned good it feels to be turned on by a real Creative Imagination.”

Looking back and re-listening to all of Prine’s studio work (there have been six legally released live albums, so far) that contained original songs, one finds that he experienced a fascinating and all-too-common phenomenon for great artists: a burst of incredible material, then a few good but not perfect albums, a bad bout of writer’s block, two returns in the Nineties with stunning albums, then more writer’s block, health problems that could’ve ended his career (and life), a spate of duet and live albums with no original songs (save one), and two “return” albums that showed him still capable of beautiful songwriting and evocative singing (with, obviously, a different voice with a different range).

The years between the last four albums of original material were very long for fans (from five to four to ten to thirteen), but Prine’s talent and the great songs from the early period (and the return to form in the Nineties) were so stunningly strong that the last two albums were great, but pretty much the cherry on top of a songbook that was already filled with unforgettable couplets, characters, and wry looks at daily life.

If I had to recommend some of the albums, I’d say you’d be best off starting with the anthology Great Days if you can find it (2 CDs or 2 tapes). As for the 16 studio albums (which can all currently be heard on YouTube in their entirety, both uploaded by fans and legally by Oh Boy on YouTube here), there are five that are just sublime: John Prine, Sweet Revenge, Bruised Orange, The Missing Years, and Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings.

So many “10 best” listicles have appeared about Prine since his death last week that I know I’m adding yet another “playlist” into the Internet ether, but some of these songs were ignored, and some just can’t be left out. For instance, one of his finest from that initial burst of stunningly mature work from a guy in his 20s. His version of one of the two songs of his that were most covered (the other was “Angel From Montgomery”), from a very early (and unnecessarily psychedelic) TV appearance in 1972:

And because every time he wrote what Waits calls a “bawler” (read: a song you can’t help but cry listening to), John would write another song that was just ridiculous on purpose — and catchy as hell. Also from his first LP:

Prine’s life and work were tied up with his good friend Steve Goodman — another guy who sang and wrote both very funny songs and absolute heartbreakers. Here he is playing guitar and singing along to the best song from John’s second album, Diamonds in the Rough, “Souvenirs” (followed by Steve alone singing one of his own songs — that voice!):

Prine’s third album contained another bunch of perennial fan favorites, including “Dear Abby”:

So far, I haven’t touched on the rockin’ side of Prine’s work. This is a great example, the beautifully titled “Often Is a Word I Seldom Use,” played live later in the Seventies.

The fourth album, Common Sense, has another batch of terrific songs. One that’s been lost in the shuffle is this touching tribute to a dead friend, “He Was in Heaven Before He Died.” Again, a memorably catchy melody, but the lyrics… oh, the lyrics… “The sun can play tricks/With your eyes on the highway/The moon can lay sideways/Till the ocean stands still./But a person can't tell/His best friend he loves him/Till time has stopped breathing/You're alone on the hill.

“And I smiled on the Wabash/The last time I passed it./Yes, I gave her a wink./From the passenger side/And my foot fell asleep/As I swallowed my candy/Knowing he was in heaven/Before he died.”

Bruised Orange, Prine’s fifth album is a fan favorite (produced by Steve Goodman), which has delightful ear worms like “Fish and Whistle,” which is impossible to forget:

And a song that lays bare the utter sadness of show-biz promotion.

By the Pink Cadillac album in 1979 he was still trying to put out an album a year, but the songs were not as sterling as they had been a few years earlier. (How could they be?)  He started adding covers and got harder into the rock area for his melodies. But there were still some nice “odes” like this one.

Storm Windows (1980) was another album that had its moments — John’s middling material was better than other artists “masterworks.” The terrific title track:

Another fun humorous song that got buried in the more serious “songwriter’s songwriter” obits is this beauty about a horrible family vacation on Aimless Love. It starts at 6:00 into this video (great solo acoustic performance!).

After a five-year break from recording, Prine came back in 1991 with The Missing Years, which contains a raft of beautifully written songs, including the title track, a spoken-word piece about what Jesus did in the years between his childhood and his preaching: “Jesus was a good guy/he didn't need this shit./So he took a pill with a bag of peanuts and/a Coca-Cola and he swallowed it./He discovered the Beatles/And he recorded with the Stones/Once He even opened up a three-way package/In Southern California for old George Jones.”

One song spawned John’s first official music video (with Tom Petty):

The blissful “All the Best” (live on TV in 1992):

One of his best-ever openings appears in “The Sins of Memphisto” on this album: “Sally used to play with her hula hoops/Now she tells her problems to therapy groups/Grampa's on the front lawn staring at a rake/Wondering if his marriage was a terrible mistake.

“I'm sitting on the front steps/drinking orange crush/Wondering if it's possible/if I could still blush/Uh huh, oh yeah.”

"Memphisto" ends with a line that makes no sense. When asked about it, Prine admitted it was a placeholder, just a nonsense rhyme. Can you imagine if Dylan ever admitted that a line he chose meant nothing in particular, it was just something that struck his fancy at the moment? (Pretty much all of his new “Murder Most Foul” sounds that way….)

His next album, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, is definitely another high-water mark for Prine the performer and Prine the songwriter. His finest spoken-word song (there were only a few), and one of his most haunting songs ever, is “Lake Marie” from this album. It’s a very fascinating creation — a first verse recounting a Native American legend, a second verse discussing a failed marriage, and the third describing the TV news coverage of a murder. The whole song is excellent, but the lines that have haunted me since the album came out are “You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows, shadows! That’s what it looks like...”

Two other songs from this album must be spotlighted. The first because it’s one of my personal favorites. “We Are the Lonely” is a masterstroke, combining a spoof of personal ads with a very real commentary on solitude and loneliness. It also rocks out, thanks to a catchy-as-fuck chorus and featuring John at his raspy best. It’s a song he seemed to not perform in concert that much, but I think it’s an absolute gem.

“Down the hall upstairs from me/There's a girl I swear I never see./I hear the ringing of her phone/She must live up there all alone/She hangs her clothes out on the line/They're hanging there right next to mine/And if the wind should blow just right,/she could be in my arms tonight.

“We are the lonely all together/All together, we're all alone./We are the lonely all together/All together, we're all alone.”

And, on a timely note, here’s John duetting with Marianne Faithfull on a “Mad Dogs...” song. Hopefully, we will be allowed to keep her for a while longer – as I write this, she is in the hospital, afflicted with COVID-19.

Following from that tune, we move to his duets with women singers. His sentimental rasp and wry vocal style worked particularly well with women. The first of his three duet albums, “In Spite of Ourselves,” was named for the title tune, one of his rare compositions in the period from 1995 to 2005. It’s a wonderful song that encapsulates a cockeyed romance — as noted in the clip below, he wrote it for a movie few people saw (but is indeed floating around on the Net), Daddy and Them (2001), a Billy Bob Thornton film, in which John was cast as Billy Bob’s brother.

Prine had two bouts with the cancer, the first in 1998 and the second in 2013. The first one altered his singing style and the second altered his face. During this period, his music was still being discovered regularly by younger artists and younger listeners, so by the point he released a “comeback” to songwriting in 2005 with “Fair & Square,” he had become a sort of living legend.

What’s most interesting about the album is not only that it definitely is the work of a “survivor” but that two of the strongest songs were political in nature. There are wistful love songs on the record and also a great rockin’ cover of the Carter Family’s “Bear Creek Blues,” but for the first time since his debut LP, Prine directed his attention to politics. “Some Humans Ain’t Human” is a summation of what was happening at the time, with then-President W. Bush qualifying as one of the humans who ain’t human at all…

The other political song was “lost” in the shuffle of a limited edition release of “Fair & Square,” which included an EP of other songs that were left off of the album proper (and are available now only as official downloads and YT uploads, since the vinyl version that contained the songs is out of print and the EP is a collector’s item). Of the four songs, the best one is “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” with its stark lyrics about U.S. politics in the 21st century:

“Padlock the door and board the windows/Put the people in the street/‘It's just my job,’ he says./‘I'm sorry.’/And draws a check, goes home to eat./But at night he tells his woman./‘I know I hide behind the laws.’/She says, ‘You're only taking orders.’/That's how every empire falls.”

John continued to cover great old songs in the time between “Fair & Square” and the 2018 release that turned out to be his last album. Here he covers the old country chestnut “Old Shep” in 2017. The song is pure backwoods hokum, but Prine believed in it and gives it a terrific reading:

John’s last album, “The Trip to Forgiveness,” was something he didn’t exactly want to do — as chronicled in a great new Rolling Stone piece about his death. He was encouraged to finish off some unfinished songs and return to songwriting, so we did get a “final John Prine album” that even closes out with his meditation on his death, and what he’d like to see in the afterlife.

There’s a beautiful tearjerker on the record, “Summer’s End” (which has an equally sweet and sad music video), but the sheer delight comes with the upbeat country tune, “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door.”

And, yes, it may not be “Blackstar” or Leonard’s “You Want It Darker” in terms of a mediation on death, but if you gotta go out, you might as well go out with a smile ... especially if you were John Prine.

I’ll close out with one of my favorite covers of his work. Nanci Griffith is a wonderfully talented singer-songwriter herself, but she shone when doing a cover of this Prine song (from the album “German Afternoons,” which I left out of the chronology above).

The song itself is a beauty, but the video directed by Rocky Schenck was the cherry on the top of the cake. A beautiful b&w item with Nanci playing a variation on Bruno Ganz’s “new angel” character in Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Prine (who sang harmony and played guitar on the original track) playing the Peter Falk “old angel” role. In this case it’s “The Sky over Nashville” (the original German title of Wings was “The Sky over Berlin”). The image of Prine as a world-weary, black-clad angel is just lovely.

Friday, March 13, 2020

On Spike Milligan, Ken Russell, and ‘the Richard Lester style’

The Milligan in his prime.
When I interviewed Unkle Ken Russell (his chosen social media handle) in 2008, I asked him a question that couldn’t be “illustrated” by the film in question, because it was under lock and key at that time on the BFI website. That film, the 1959 TV short “Portrait of a Goon” with Spike Milligan, is now available in various places online, and so I can return to the discussion about Unkle Ken, “the Richard Lester style,” and the one and only Spike Milligan.

Let me preface this discussion by noting my deep admiration for Lester — the two Beatles films, The Knack..., The Bed Sitting Room (a dazzlingly, wonderfully weird end-of-the-world comedy based on a Milligan play), and Petulia are all seminal films of the Sixties. Although his visual/editing style, which is credited as being the “beginning of the modern music video” (since Soundies were probably the first Golden Age music videos), was not as original as it seemed in 1964. Tracing influences is something I love to do on the Funhouse TV show and on this blog, so I once again want to “follow the trail” of a style back to its inception.

The Goons: Sellers, Milligan, Secombe
The “Richard Lester style” seemed to appear on the scene full-blown in the Beatles’ big-screen debut, the comedy A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Lester was not unfamiliar with madcap anarchy— his first big-screen comedy was the 1959 short “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film,” starring two of the three stars of the milestone radio comedy show, “The Goon Show,” Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. The film was scripted by Milligan, Sellers, Mario Fabrizi, and “Dick” Lester, and is now credited as being directed by Lester and Sellers, along with the performance artist-inventor Bruce Lacey (who was profiled in a short made in 1962 called “The Preservation Man” by none other than… Unkle Ken!).

John Lennon was reportedly very happy Lester got the assignment to direct the Fabs’ first feature, because of his love of the Goons and his familiarity with Lester’s short. One other, sorta important figure in the Beatles’ career had an intersection with the Goons — their 1962 LP “Bridge on the River Wye” was produced by some guy named George Martin. (The cast on the LP included two younger Goon fans, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook.)

Brian Epstein, Richard Lester, producer Walter Shenson,
and four likely lads.
Lester’s approach in Hard Day’s Night was what was later called “an inventory of effects” (in another context, by Marshall McLuhan). Jumpcuts, oblique angles, sped-up and slowed-down action, breaking the axis (and the fourth wall). He certainly would’ve been familiar with silent comedy (the wellspring for visual invention), avant-garde shorts, Golden Age cartoons (esp. the Looney Tunes ones), and chaotic features like Hellzapoppin’ (1941).

“… Standing Still Film” has a much simpler approach. All the bits take place in a field and are filmed in long shot. The only two disjunctive techniques used are speeding up the film (from silent comedy; often confused with the way the films look when shown at sound speed) and a soundtrack that clashed with what is happening onscreen (loud bird chirping noises especially seem to have come out of the avant-garde playbook). The paucity of means — the film was made for just 75 pounds — surely led to the simple, anarchic (yet simplistic on a visual level) style of the short.

There is one element that connects this rather “flatly” shot short to the full-blown flowerings of the Lester style with the Beatles, namely the wild imagination (and surprisingly tight scripting) of Spike Milligan, who was cited by all the important U.K. comedians of the Sixties (and many of the Seventies) as a key influence. And yes, Spike was admired and loved by hoards of British musicians as well.

The setting of moments like the "Can't Buy Me Love" scene
—an open field — retains the "foolish behavior in open spaces" concept of "Standing Still." This concept was openly stolen by "Laugh-In," which, in its earliest episodes, actually had recreations of "Standing Still" gags, including a character being summoned to the camera, whereupon he is punched in the face by a hand in a boxing glove.

Milligan was one of two comedians who suffered for his brilliance by being “put away” for a time (the other being Jonathan Winters). At its best, his humor was absurd, non-linear and, most important, it was fast — to the extent that, even if it was scripted, it seemed ad-libbed. It’s no wonder that any filmmaker who tried to adapt his work for film and television felt they had to work in a similar groove.

To provide some background for the Lester/Goon connection, here is one of the surviving episodes of the TV series “A Show Called Fred” from 1956, which starred Sellers and Milligan among others (for whatever reason, the third Goon, Harry Secombe, was not included in any of the non-Goon-titled endeavors by Spike and Peter; contracts reportedly held him back, since he was a professional singer when not Goon-ing). The show is directed by one “Dick” Lester. (Born in Philly in 1932, he moved to England in 1953.)

The cast of "A Show Called Fred." (with a bearded Spike.)

“Fred” isn’t as miraculously weird as “The Goon Show,” but it does show Spike and company crafting a program that plays with the medium. The camera pulls back to reveal the studio during certain sketches, with other BBC cameras in view and crew members standing around. At one point (starting at 14:25) a sketch called “The Count of Monte Carlo” explodes into a weird journey one character takes off the set and around the studio, ending up in a BBC cafeteria (or a set intended to be a cafeteria).

To provide some context for this weirdness, we should note that other experimental humor was being presented at this time, but it was independent of Spike and he was independent of it. In America, Ernie Kovacs had been playing with the medium for several years by ’56 (but none of his work was seen in the U.K.). A closer (geographically) connection was that the Theater of the Absurd (which “A Show Named Fred” is very close to, in terms of its constant commenting on itself) had begun in earnest in 1950 France (with Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano).

Waiting for Godot premiered in England in 1955, but Spike’s cousin in surreal absurdity, Eugene Ionesco, didn’t have a breakthrough on the British stage until 1960, when Orson Welles staged Rhinoceros with Olivier in the lead.

Here is Spike’s Cathode Ray of the Absurd:

Back to Lester and the Goons: “Running Jumping...” was first shown in the U.S. in November 1959. A month later, on Dec. 6, another Milligan movie appeared, Unkle Ken’s promotional short “Portrait of a Goon,” produced for the culture program “Monitor.” The proximity of the projects makes it unlikely that either director saw the other’s work, and yet both films have an identical pace and rhythm (that of the Milligan).

Russell’s short was made to promote Spike’s book Silly Verse for Kids. The film is a fascinating glimpse into Spike’s mind, as the carefree, jumpcut-riddled comic sequences (narrated by Spike) frame what is, essentially, a serious interview in which Spike speaks about humor and childhood quite eloquently. He laments the loss of childhood silliness and notes that humorists are different than the average person in that they realize that “in this moment of tragedy, half an hour from now, lots of us will be laughing at it. But right now the snobs won’t laugh at it. But they will laugh at it later on when it’s been rewritten by somebody else like me.” Around such declarations are images of Spike cavorting in a park in what look like ad-libbed moments.

The most interesting thing about comparing the Russell short and Hard Day’s Night is that they both contain jumpcuts, a technical “mistake” that became de rigueur in modernist cinema after Godard’s Breathless (1960) hit cinemas. Russell couldn’t have seen the film when he made his short. (Godard’s debut feature was released in December of 1960 in the U.K.) Certainly Ken had seen the “trick films” that grew out of Melies’ work, though, where magical images were achieved via jarring edits that severed the rules of continuity in time and space. (For his part, Lester used some of Godard’s techniques in his 1965 comedy The Knack and How to Get It.)

When I interviewed Unkle Ken, he was directing the off-off-Broadway show Mindgame by Anthony Horowitz at the SoHo Playhouse. At one point the Playhouse had been the Thalia Soho, which had screened a program of Russell shorts, including “Portrait of a Goon.” I was thus inspired to ask him about the short and “the Richard Lester style.”

I am very happy that the BFI finally took the short out from under lock and key and put it on their social media accounts, which led to a fan posting it on YouTube.

So, on the list of things comedic that Spike had a hand in originating, let us now add the “Richard Lester style.”