Documentary Spotlight: Once in a Lifetime, The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

Soccer may be the world’s most popular spectator sport, but it always had a dickens of a time establishing itself as more than a niche attraction in the United States. In recent years that has changed a bit with the localized success of many Major League Soccer franchises. But for a brief shining moment in the mid to late 1970s, it seemed like the sport was set to go gangbusters. In maneuverings that reached all the way to the White House, the New York Cosmos of the struggling North American Soccer League secured the services of Pele, the world’s reigning futbol superstar, for a reported (and then-unheard-of) $5 million for three years. A gaggle of top international players soon followed, and for the next few years the Cosmos were the toast of the city, selling out Giants Stadium, hobnobbing with stars of stage and screen, and achieving VIP status at Studio 54 at the height of the freewheeling disco era. The fact that the team’s towering success soon collapsed under the weight of its own excesses and mismanagement gives it a classic story arc that should appeal to a larger audience than its core constituency of soccer fans. Once in a Lifetime is as light on its feet as the great man himself: moving this tall tale forward with zippy editing and bemused good humor, providing some classic game highlights, and setting it all to an ingeniously chosen soundtrack of period R&B, rock, and dance music.

All this would not have been possible if not for the curious devotion to soccer of Warner Communications CEO Steve Ross. With a plate already filled with his company’s movie, music, and TV interests, Ross in 1971 threw himself headlong into the role of team owner and had Atlantic Records legend Ahmet Ertegun and his brother running day-to-day operations. In an amusing call-and-response of competing recollections, the since-deceased Ertegun, Warner VP Jay Emmett, Cosmos general manager Clive Toye, and others rehash the tactics used to try and cajole the semi-retired Pele away from Brazil to play for a team that couldn’t claim a permanent home venue. The Brazilian government had by that time designated Pele as a “national treasure,” and the Cosmos ended up needing the help of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had played the game as a youngster back in his native Germany, to convince officials in Brasilia that it would be a boon for relations between the two countries.

The directors spend close to a third of the film on the pursuit and eventual arrival of Pele in 1975, but it is time well spent as it’s impossible to imagine anything as loosey-goosey happening with today’s media-savvy sports franchises. Before Pele, the most press “exposure” the Cosmos got was when goalkeeper Shep Messing posed nude for Viva magazine; now the international spotlight was suddenly thrust upon this ragtag group of semi-pros. Recovered period footage reveals the strange sight of history’s most famous soccer player, star of three winning World Cup teams, being escorted to Randall’s Island in the East River, where bald patches on the field of ramshackle Downey Stadium had been covered with green spray paint. But Pele played the part of the good trooper, and Steve Ross’s checkbook remained open to import a bevy of overseas stars. Other teams followed suit, leading to a league top-heavy with talent that was able to draw big crowds—for a time, anyway.


Pele lining up in front of his teammate/nemesis Giorgio Chinaglia.

Pele, who declined to be interviewed, remains a legendary presence in Once in a Lifetime. But Crowder and Dower bag a lot of the Cosmos’ big names: Franz Beckenbauer, the stolid captain of a West German World Cup winner; Pele’s Brazilian national side teammate Carlos Alberto; and the flamboyant, high-scoring Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia. It is Chinaglia who nearly steals the film (a montage of his vainglorious goal celebrations is one of the best things in it) and is unapologetic as the ingratiating schemer who got under the skin of the emotional Pele. When the Brazilian left after his three-year contract—characteristically, he went out as a champion—Chinaglia nearly hijacked the franchise, attaching himself to Steve Ross, getting coaches fired, and nearly running the club from his locker, where he kept his ever-present bottle of Chivas Regal.


Chinaglia celebrates the wonder of himself after scoring in inclement weather.

Although this Wild West atmosphere played a part in the league’s ignominious folding in 1984, the directors take pains to show that the groundwork had been laid for future successes. Although the free-flowing, low-scoring game remains a tough sell with many Americans, they point to the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 1994 (a dream of Ross’, though he died in 1992) and the establishment of the NASL’s better-adjusted successor, Major League Soccer. Of course, the glittery temptations of yore have not been totally denied—witness the MSL’s spike in attendance when modern-day icon David Beckham signed with their Los Angeles team in 2007.

(True-blue soccer buffs will want to get the DVD version that as an extra feature shows extended highlights of three matches broadcast by ABC Sports. The first is Pele’s 1977 farewell game where he scores on a howitzer of a free kick after backing up about eight paces. The other two are championship games featuring the post-Pele Cosmos: the 1980 and ’81 Soccer Bowl ).

Make Mine a Double #7: The Kinks’ “Everybody’s in Showbiz” (1972)

“God Save the Kinks” read the buttons and the wall graffiti of a long-ago age. Few other bands earned such a loyal and dogged fan base or needed as much saving (if only from themselves) as did the group from North London led by singer-writer Ray Davies and his lead-guitarist brother Dave. Bursting onto the scene in 1964 with their world-beating power chord prototype “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks went on to produce an impressive string of hits in their homeland while morphing from beat-heavy rockers into piquant social commentators. But the group became almost as well known for their intense in-fighting as they were for songs like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Days,” considered among the most beautiful in the pop cannon. During that late Sixties creative peak, the band were all but forgotten in America while they waited out a four-year ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians after a rancorous1965 tour. Everybody’s in Showbiz was a sort of culmination of their early 70s stateside comeback that started with the #5 hit “Lola” and carried through to this double album. One disc captured their current live act with a Carnegie Hall concert excerpt while the studio half pondered life on the road and negotiated the tricky intersection of celebrity and identity and featured “Celluloid Heroes,” the latest “Kink Klassic” and one of their first explicitly American-themed tunes.

Ray Davies, as the compassionate, ornery and nostalgia-prone leader, had guided the band into adopting a quintessentially English persona, often based on music-hall traditions and a yearning for a pre-industrial age. But as with most British bands, the oversized aura of America’s musical heritage (and vast legions of rock-loving youths) was alluring and inescapable. A couple of years of touring the States was enough to remove the Kinks from the splendid isolation that produced obscure masterworks like Village Green Preservation Society, prompting a new set of lyrical concerns on this album’s studio tracks. Showbiz opens with the restless rocker “Here Comes Yet Another Day” the umpteenth song of that era describing the downside of hectic touring schedules even though Ray can employ his unique descriptive wit to describe just how bad it can get (“no time to comb my hair or even change my underwear”). The theme continues with “Maximum Consumption” wherein the modern musician is likened to a machine-like “high-grade performer” fueled by roadside cuisine—cataloged right down to the anchovies on the pizza and the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie. We’re enlightened to the dubious thrills of “Motorway” living (“never thought I’d travel so far to work”) and go backstage to meet the hangers-on and industry types in “Unreal Reality.” Even Dave, in his sole songwriting contribution here, taps into the same paradox, acknowledging the anonymity sitting just below the surface of stardom in “You Don’t Know My Name.”

The above material, while enjoyable enough, paled in comparison to the group’s recent work and the unfashionable vaudevillian atmosphere (they recently added an old-timey horn section) was just enough to save them from any more mass adulation to contend with. But luckily the studio set also contained a couple of saving graces. The tender depiction of the star qualities of everyday people and the fragile personalities of Hollywood icons in “Celluloid Heroes” was the type of ruminative songwriting that would elevate the group’s status in years to come. At that time, however, RCA didn’t even release it as a single (due in part to its six-minute length) opting instead for the droll utopian escape of “Supersonic Rocket Ship”.


Ray and Dave in action in the early Seventies.

Just as affecting as “Celluloid Heroes,” and more of a revelation for casual fans, is “Sitting in My Hotel.” Like the former song’s view of Hollywood Blvd. as a place where “success walks hand in hand with failure,” here Davies takes stock of the trappings of fame built around the phrase “if my friends could see me now.” They would what? Be green with envy? No, “they would laugh” and say “it’s not really me.” The fancy limo waiting to take the group to the concert is likened to a “chauffeur-driven jam jar” and the posh seventh-floor suite is merely an outpost from which to gaze down at the sensible everyday world and daydream about sunlit June afternoons in the countryside. With its wistful verses and soaring choruses, “Sitting in My Hotel” is one of the more honest and fully realized looks at this age-old subject. It remains especially relevant in an age where even an ignominious turn in the spotlight—being a contestant on a condescending reality TV show, say—has been fetishized beyond all hope.

Given all this ambivalence to fame and life on the road, one might expect a perfunctory live disc but the Kinks come roaring out the gate with a fully-invested performance, notably on the opener “Top of the Pops.” Powered by the double-time drumming of founding member Mick Avory and Dave’s crunching chords and feedback-laced solos, Ray embraces the vicissitudes of impending success with the right mix of ego and bemusement (“I might even end up a rock and roll god/It might turn into a steady job”). Much had been made of the Kinks’ checkered past onstage (especially in John Mendelsohn’s liner notes to the Kink Kronikles compilation, also released in 1972) with the members’ unstable personal chemistry and supposed inebriation being at issue. But here the band is finding its feet (maybe literally) with an act that mixed high-energy rock with snippets of Ray’s innate Cockney theatricality. By this time the band was a must-see item for the counterculture cognoscenti of the Left and Right coasts and the boys didn’t disappoint. The front row of this Carnegie Hall date featured a number of New York’s famous drag queens (Holly Woodlawn and Jayne County among them) that Ray plays up to with fey repartee and snippets of show tunes like “Mr. Wonderful” and “Baby Face.” He gets the whole crowd howling in response to the dramatic re-figuring of “Alcohol,” gloriously milking the woeful gin-soaked tale about the downfall of a middle-class executive as he goes from a life of “prominence and position” to passed out on Skid Row in three easy verses. If the live half of Showbiz has any problem is that it’s top-heavy with several tracks from Muswell Hillbillies, the critically lauded album from the year before. It’s good stuff, but not the smattering of past classics that newbies to the Kinks camp may have hoped for.


The old demon alcohol claims another victim.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Everybody’s in Showbiz touched off a much-debated phase of the Kinks’ career marked by a series of full-blown theatrical productions. While the Preservation, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace shows are fondly remembered by the hardcore fan base that saw them, it seemed the mixed reception these works received were set to forever relegate the band to cult status. But after signing to Clive Davis’ Arista Records in 1977 and agreeing to a more streamlined approach, the Kinks finally got the arena-sized audiences of their old contemporaries like the Stones and the Who. By that time, many of the lovable quirks of this album were very much part of their concert routine, including rapturous readings of “Celluloid Heroes” and the “Day-O” chants and “Lola” sing-alongs that debuted here. It was “God Save the Kinks” for a whole new generation and a run that lasted until the Davies brothers dissolved the family firm in 1996.

Documentary Spotlight: “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life”

The United States today is a house divided and the ghost of Ayn Rand has driven a bulldozer through the middle of it as a finishing touch. If that seems a bit unfair to say of a writer-philosopher who has been dead since 1982, it isn’t. Rand was fond of saying that “philosophy moves the world” and in her case it’s certainly true. Her two most famous novels—“The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”—have been deliriously influential with everyone from impressionable teenagers to top-ranking Republican lawmakers and right-wing commentators. Rand’s theory of “Objectivism” held that “man’s right to live for his own sake” was so absolute that selfishness was a virtue (her phrase) and altruism became a dirty word.

It was twenty years ago that this 145-minute filibuster of a film was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar. This was an “authorized” (i.e. uncritical) profile and while writer-director Michael Paxton does a creditable job scoping out Rand’s personal story, anyone not already converted to her world view may sense that “A Sense of Life” has only a black hole where its soul should be. After two and a half hours spent in witness to the glorification of self-centeredness, it’s easy to feel that way.

Rand’s belief system was inexorably tied to her biography (probably too much so) and the film delineates this quite well for its own purposes. She was born as Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905 St. Petersburg as Russia was about to go through a series of convulsive political conflicts. Some of these she and her upper middle-class family watched from the windows of their apartment that looked down on the city’s main square. The Rosenbaum clan did not fare well when Lenin’s Bolsheviks eventually seized power; they had to temporarily flee St. Petersburg and Ayn’s beloved father lost his pharmacy to the state. If the headstrong teenager didn’t care for the “hopeless, mystical and obedient” life under the czar, she disliked the iron-handed statism of the Communists even less and dreamt of escaping to America, specifically to California as she had fallen under the spell of glamorous early Hollywood.


You say you want a revolution? St. Petersburg 1917

Right from these opening segments—with its period film clips, family photos and early intellectual musings—there is no doubt of the film’s professionalism. Rand’s story arc has a parallel historical context that serves it well. But after Rand manages her escape to America in 1926 (her first glimpse of glittering Lower Manhattan high-rises in a lifting fog cemented her lifelong skyscraper fetish) the biography goes full speed ahead while the film’s raison d’etre stays stuck in neutral. So for a documentary junkie like me, it was engaging to get some background on Rand’s early days as a Hollywood extra and aspiring screenwriter, like how a chance meeting with famed director Cecil B. DeMille got her a needed career boost.

Rand’s screenplay dreams were never quite fulfilled and she eventually soured of Tinseltown, though not before meeting her future husband (Frank O’Connor, a DeMille B-actor) and securing U.S. citizenship. Having come of age in the early days of Soviet rule, nobody can begrudge her love of America’s “optimistic, can-do” spirit. The other qualities of her adopted country, its “benevolence and common sense”, were soon dropped from her repertoire, starting with her first novel “We the Living”, published in 1936 (“Who can tell me why I should live for anything but for that which I want?”). An ideological love triangle that takes place in post-revolutionary Russia, it takes dead aim at Soviet extremism, but treats it like an absolute evil that sprung up with no context. This tack was continued two years later in her next book “Anthem.” Sure, the draconian application by the Bolsheviks of the communal Marxist idea was an historical cruelty. But did that make it necessary to believe that “the word ‘we’ must never be placed first in my soul (or) it becomes a monster.” And just in case you still thought that pronoun wasn’t so bad, Rand begins the next paragraph by declaring, “’We’ is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it.”

I mean, WTF??? Continue down this road of thinking and pretty soon there is no difference between Mother Theresa and Josef Stalin. Of course, the interviewees in “A Sense of Life” don’t see it that way. The subject’s brilliance is a given according to talking heads like Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger, who are not only Randian scholars but former associates of her as well. Seldom is heard a discouraging word and the value of Objectivism is blindly held up as a paragon of the human race while its alleged polar opposite, Collectivism, is so bad that the use of the word is proof enough. All this despite the fact that a close reading of Rand would lead a truly “objective” person to conclude that she believes the evils of the “C” word range from a Communist re-education camp to the donation of gently-used Clothing to a homeless shelter.

Instead, the documentary focuses on her bio and the success of her 1943 novel “The Fountainhead.” There are several clips from the film version made six years later and starring Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, the vainglorious modern architect who blows up a nearly-completed housing project because “second-handers” altered his design with conventional modifications. This gives the producers a way to let enabling experts hash out Roark’s rapey seduction scene (Cooper’s co-star was Patricia Neal) and glorify his brain-freeze courtroom speech which has got to be history’s most tortured defense of property destruction. (“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life” etc.)

It then moves on to Rand’s magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged,” that giant millstone of 20th century literature that the filmmakers point out was named the second most influential book after the Bible by a 1991 Library of Congress survey. In this tome, all the poor-little rich kid industrialists and innovators of the world, convinced that the human race doesn’t deserve their genius, go on strike. There is a wee step off the pedestal here as the film shows the viciously negative reviews the book got in the days before the “mainstream media” became a dirty word to many on the right. But not all critics came from the left side of the divide. William F. Buckley, in later years, discussed his magazine’s infamous panning of the book with TV host Charlie Rose. The conservative icon said that while he found “The Fountainhead” engaging he thought that “Atlas” was “a thousand pages of ideological fabulism” and added, “I had to flog myself to read it.” By the time the novel ends, with subversive alpha-male inventor John Galt’s skull-imploding 75-page global radio broadcast, you can almost hear the jackboots in the background. But still, millions of people have swallowed this whole. And Rand’s numerous TV appearances in later life didn’t stem the tide of her widespread acceptance. The film shows segments of her sparing with the likes of Phil Donahue, Mike Wallace and Tom Snyder. Sample exchange on the idea of helping others: Donahue: “What’s wrong with that?” Rand: “What’s wrong with suicide?”


Answer: John Oliver’s original “douchebag.”

That is why Buckley’s comment is so telling. He wasn’t afraid at least to see that this magical-thinking mindset was a dead-end street. Rand’s rigorous ideas, though they may have often been short-sighted, did not include any great love for Republicans like Ronald Reagan. But what she begat is even worse: a controlling cabal of GOP leaders (and fanboys) like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz whose lily-livered opportunism led to obscene tax cuts for “persecuted” billionaires and profound disregard for anyone lesser than that. They stood down in the face of the new President (and ultimate Randian monster) Donald Trump, the tawdry narcissist and duplicitous hate-monger of bottomless greed who scammed millions of Americans into voting against their interests. How do I know this? Because Ayn Rand told me so. She warned about the rise of demagogues in a society where many folks have weakened themselves to the point of mental infirmity, saying they “would be anxious to follow anyone because they don’t trust themselves.” You said it, girl.


Soon-to be-ex House Speaker Paul Ryan: the type of man produced after decades of devolved Rand worship

There’s nothing wrong with prosperity, personal confidence, enlightened self-interest or admiring the work of bold architects. But if any human quality gets taken to its extreme end point it is corrupted. And if those faults are intrinsic to any person of great power or influence, chaos and misery follow for everyone, infecting even the perpetrator (Trump gives off the appearance of a hellishly unhappy man). Even the Rand-inspired website The Atlas Society notes that Ayn was “an intelligent, creative woman embittered by circumstances, stand-offish by nature and raised unconnected to any wider community or tradition.” I wished this rubber-stamp documentary had had the guts to likewise challenge itself instead of perpetuating the myth of her assumed greatness. Despite what she may have had us believe Other People Matter and if we start thinking they don’t it is a long downhill slide for the world and one that I fear has already begun, judging from the increase in authoritarian states and weakened democracies. It’s way too late to change Rand’s mind but We The Living should reject her overall philosophy while there is still time.

Rick Ouellette is the author of Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film and Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey.

Make Mine a Double #6: Grand Funk’s “Mark, Don & Mel” (1972)

What separates the names Mark, Don and Mel from those of say, Moses, Cleopatra and Napoleon when it comes to their relative significance in world history? Apparently not much. That’s at least what you would think if you took at face value the shameless audacity of the liner notes to this Grand Funk Railroad compilation album released in 1972. Written by their then-manager Terry Knight, this proclamation, pictured as written on a parchment scroll (!!), was the last salvo in a monomaniacal hype campaign that pitted him in a three-year war of words with America’s rock music press. That Messrs. Farner, Brewer and Schacher should find fame and fortune in the rock and roll business would probably have sat better with the critics if it had just been left at that. The hard-working and hirsute power trio from economically distressed Flint, Michigan was not the most imaginative or technically proficient band to ever come down the chute. But they busted their tails in their emerging arena-tour economy and their manic stage show earned them a large, and largely blue-collar, following. But by constantly stating Grand Funk’s real value in terms of the Most Albums Sold or Quickest Sell Outs practically ensured a backlash by a music press that Knight claimed to be the enemy of the people. The divisive nature of this episode in pop history has some interesting parallels to the socio-political climate that we are dealing with in the U.S. today.


Terry Knight got Capitol Records to fork over $100,000 for this colossal Times Square billboard of Mel, Don and Mark (from left to right).

For this 3-year period, Grand Funk was statistically the #1 band in the USA. During this time, Terry Knight’s leadership was marked by extreme self-absorption, intellectual vacancy, shady business dealings, a distinct persecution complex and the demonization of a press corps who called him out for appealing to the baser instincts of a demographic that had felt neglected. Gee, sound familiar? To get at the full story, let us wind back the parchment scroll a little bit. Knight, who hailed from the Flint area like the three guys he was fated to manage, began his career as a radio DJ but after burning a few bridges in that field tried his hand as a singer in the mid-Sixties. The result was Terry Knight and the Pack, who scored a few regional hits. The biggest of these was his histrionic version of the oft-covered “I (Who Have Nothing).” But soon Knight left performing to concentrate on the business side of things. Some of the Pack people, which now included guitarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer, continued on the club circuit. But a dubious wintertime booking on Cape Cod left them stranded after a major blizzard in Feb. of 1969 (I remember that one well, having grown up on the North Shore of Massachusetts). Fed up, they phoned up Knight and asked him if he would manage them. Knight, who was several years older than Farner and Brewer agreed, so long as they agreed to do exactly as he told them. Mel Schacher, formerly of ? and the Mysterians was added on bass and a record deal with Capitol (for whom Knight was working) was quickly hammered out. Under their new moniker, based on the Midwest’s Grand Trunk Railroad that passes thru Flint, they released their first album, On Time, that August.

But the record, with Knight’s less-than-auspicious production values, sounded a bit tinny—more like heavy aluminum than metal. The first single off it (“Time Machine,” which also kicks off this compilation) was the type of bare-bones blues rock that was decidedly aimed at a lower common denominator in these peak years of Hendrix-Clapton-Who-Stones etc. The critics pounced, decrying this “regressive rock” that was like catnip to an early-teen demographic. These were the hippies’ younger siblings, perusing the record sections of countless department stores and anxious to start attending big concerts. It was an emerging market and Terry Knight was all over it. Under his strict directions, the trio gave a balls-to-the-wall performance at thundering volume every night. Finesse was sacrificed at the altar of frenzy. A nice studio track like “Into the Sun” (included on MD&M) had an instrumental intro whose soundscape was more reminiscent of progressive than regressive rock but on the double Live Album it was extended to twice its original six-minute length and culminated in an ear-splitting crescendo of guitar feedback, the part of the show where the ever-shirtless Farner was obliged to hump his guitar a la Hendrix. The kiddies were sent into a tizzy just as they were during Don Brewer’s earlier 7-minute drum solo, judging from the noise level of howling fans.

This was definitely not the first choice of more discerning rock fans and record reviewers, but the band certainly struck a vein. They toured early and often, building a huge base. They released five studio albums in little over two years, all of them went gold as did the live album, which I was very excited to obtain when I was thirteen—critics and parents be damned. Side Three of Mark, Don & Mel was devoted to this notorious concert document, including the track that contained the drum solo. Listening to some of the more choice cuts on Mark, Don and Mel nowadays, like their turbo-charged remake of the Animals’ “Inside Looking Out,” is a fun throwback to the elemental rock & roll joys of our youth, esp. for those of us just coming of age. For the older peeps of the music press, it was a different story. On the inner paper sleeves of this record, are re-printed articles that paint a less-than flattering portrait of the band. Sample headlines:

“Grand Funk Railroad Finks Out In Concert”
“Hot Group Gets Cold Shoulder At Home”
“E Plurbis Funk, All Others Pay Cash”

or, cutting straight to the chase:
“Grand Funk is Lousy”

It may seem strange to include these clippings in a best-of album whose manager-composed liner notes begin: “From the dawn of recorded history, stemming through the lifetimes of every man, woman and child who ever walked upon the earth, there have been but a handful whose fate it was to become known as Phenomenon.” (Dang, even Spinal Tap would be embarrassed by that). But by the time Terry Knight put pen to parchment his solipsistic reign was nearly over. The band had become more and more suspicious of why they were still on a weekly salary after all their record-breaking exploits and soon enough found the consequences of running all your publishing thru a scheming agent that had been working for the record company you signed with. He was making at least three times as much as the band members and had tied up much of their earnings in tax-shelter investments, some of which were later disallowed by the IRS.

The ugly split came about just around the time of what should have been their crowning achievement: their blockbuster 1971 show at the 55,000-capacity Shea Stadium in New York which they sold out in 72 hours despite the fact that Shea’s box-office windows were the only outlet (the Beatles took several weeks to sell out the same venue in ’65). Albert and David Maysles, the famed documentary-making brothers who were just six months removed from the release of Gimme Shelter, had been hired to make a film of the group. But for Terry Knight, it was a triumph tainted by both his bitterness at the media and the ridiculous self-aggrandizement that he projected onto his charges. (Of course, these two elements fed each other: Knight was livid when he threw a lavish press conference to announce the Shea gig and only six of the 150 invited reporters showed up).


Terry Knight in the studio. “I’m in control from now on, you hear! Now, tell me, how do you work these controls?”

In a released statement, he said that the mega-show was “the next logical step in (Grand Funk’s) now-famous not so logical nose-thumb to the media critics who have been consistently relentless in their outrage at the group’s soaring popularity.” He claimed for his clients’ the mantle of cultural revolutionaries: “An appearance of Grand Funk Railroad does not announce a musical concert. It hails a gathering of people… it is politics, that supersedes music.” Considering the decibel-soaked maelstrom of the group’s live act, deemed “obnoxiously loud” even by their own road manager, the non-believers would at least agree that GFR superseded music… in all the wrong ways.

The end came soon after, during a screening of the Maysles’ Shea footage. According to later interviews with Mark Farner, the guys were wary of Knight from the start but appreciated his music biz connections. The working stiffs touted as gold (record) plated demi-gods had had enough and confronted Knight for the books. In a fit of pique, they fired the manager a short time after, though Knight points out they were only three months away from the end of that contract and could have renegoitated then. “How stupid can you get?” he said of his ex-clients. When you’re dealing with a Terry Knight, it’s a thin line between being a demi-god and a dumb-ass.


As relations between the band and Terry Knight became frayed, funding for what could have been a fascinating film by the Maysles Brothers was cut off. This Shea Stadium clip survives.

So naturally the lawsuits started flying and Grand Funk were eventually able to buy out Knight’s interest at great cost to themselves. But they quickly recovered and in 1973, with new keyboardist Craig Frost and a real producer in tow (Todd Rundgren), they streamlined their sound and scored their first #1 single with “We’re an American Band.” By that time Knight, who had been let go by Capitol Records, was out of show biz. Although interest in GFR waned at the end of the decade (they were a uniquely Seventies “Phenomenon”) they soldiered on, sometimes with different personnel. But by the mid-Nineties they re-formed in their original trio form to make some hay on the classic-rock circuit.


Long live Mark, Don and… Dennis?? Graffiti on a Grand Trunk R.R. overpass in Flint celebrates an Eighties line-up of the city’s favorite sons.

How does the early Seventies Grand Funk craze contain early inklings of Trumplandia?

1. Play to the Base and the Fake News impulse.

Terry Knight saw the growing appeal of the hard-rock power trio and stripped it down for parts to reach as large an audience as possible without striving for aesthetic advancement. Gone were the artful touches of predecessors like Cream. They maxed out the volume and did songs that seemed expressly written to rile up a live audience. Two of these (“Are You Ready” and Footstompin’ Music”) are included on MD&M. When the music press, whose natural role it is to analyze records for potential buyers, noted this more primitive style, Knight played the Fake News card. He suggested that the critics only said that because they were jealous of the band’s (and his) materialistic success. The naysayers then got more personal in their attacks and it just escalated from there.

2. The Rightward Drift of Middle America

Until Knight started harping on the subject, the core of GFR’s fan base probably didn’t even realize it had been shortchanged by the Coastal Elites of Haight-Ashbury, Laurel Canyon and Greenwich Village. Now, this base wasn’t pandered to in the outrageously vulgar and racially-hostile way of a certain current U.S. president during the 2016 presidential campaign. The band had African-American fans and, on the surface anyway, left-of-center views. They were anti-Vietnam and pro-ecology, though songs like “People, Let’s Stop the War” and “Save the Land” didn’t offer much more than their titles. (More admirable, and more unusual for the time, was their anti-hard drug stance). But Trump’s pig-headed avarice is backwards-reflected by Knight’s silly insistence that his group’s music wasn’t nearly as important as “Mark holding his guitar over his head and saying, ‘You see this, Brothers and Sisters, you see me? I’m free. I own this stage, it’s mine and it’s yours.” This has echoes of the long-time Republican propaganda tool that has plebeians feeling like “undiscovered millionaires” and voting against their own interests and in favor of obscene tax cuts for the wealthy because they will be one of then someday, and in the process helping to turn the land of opportunity into one of chronic income inequality. It would not surprise me if a much larger percentage of Grand Funk fans of the Seventies became Trump voters than, say, people whose favorite band was Jefferson Airplane. (Some of this anti-liberal bias was not so latent: in an October ’72 interview Mel Schacher said, “One thing is sure, if McGovern gets elected, they’ll be a depression”).

3. Ignore the Flyover States at Your Own Peril

How fitting that Mark, Don and Mel hailed from Flint in the future swing state of Michigan. The town’s auto plants started closing around the same time that GFR were riding high, leaving the city (and to a greater extent, Detroit) nearly empty shells. The capitalist evacuation of southern Michigan’s dominant industry and the more recent poisoning of Flint’s water supply as a result of cost-cutting by a tax-averse Republican administration, is the stuff of dire legend. But it’s leftie documentarian (and Flint native and GFR fan) Michael Moore, that was out there in 2016 warning complacent liberals who thought there was no way that Trump could beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Hillary’s ill-advised crack that some potential Trump voters were “deplorables” must have rubbed the wrong way not only a lot of undecided voters, but chafed Moore’s working-class roots as well. The current noxious term for Middle America used by some (“flyover states”) has roots in the New Yorker’s famous cover of a Manhattanite’s view of America (a whole lot of nothing between the Hudson River and California) and even in the overstated snobbery of critic John Mendelsohn’s review of Mark, Don & Mel in a June ’72 issue of Rolling Stone, calling the music “worthless rubbish” and the group’s fans “insecure dingbats.” Sure, maybe they were people too prone to seek someone outside the accepted system to blindly idolize (ahem) but they hardly deserved that. Payback is a bitch, even when it takes over four decades to be delivered.

Sure, Grand Funk Railroad will not go down in history as the Einsteins of rock and roll. But they and their fans deserved better but for the lame-brain arrogance of their manager. He invited derision and it deflected off anyone in his orbit. Terry Knight ended up selling ads for a local newspaper in Temple, Texas where he shared an apartment with his adult daughter: it was her boyfriend that murdered Knight in 2004 after a drug argument. The lessons learned have a long reach as we find out in the Mark Farner interview below, where his magnanimity wins out over any hard feelings. So let’s take that to heart. The early Grand Funk anthem “I’m Your Captain” had a subtle anti-war theme that Michael Moore claimed was not lost on the very draft-liable young men of places like Flint, where the proportion of college deferments had to be a lot lower. As Mark repeatedly sings “I’m getting closer to my home” as if it were a mantra (enhanced by strings and oceanic sound effects) it seemed less about a returning veteran and more of a call to return to a larger American home. But over the long years since, that’s become a house ever more divided. To get back closer, it will take a little less certitude and a lot more mutual understanding from all interested parties. Are You Ready?

My latest book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic History, explores the social and musical history of youth culture through the prism of non-fiction film. To find out more, check out a 30-page excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Make Mine a Double #5: Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything (1972)

The latest in an occasional series about the wild woolly world of rock’s double albums.

Todd Rundgren has got to be one of rock history’s great chameleons. He’s gone from a paisley pop wunderkind as leader of the Nazz in the late Sixties, to a sensitive piano balladeer to a guitar-slinging metalloid, prog rocker and blue-eyed soul vocalist. These phases were not necessarily in that order, and a style once adopted could return at a later date and be co-mingled with others. With Rundgren, this never seemed to be a case of following fashion or commercial expediency; he had the air of a protean craftsman, a maverick with many interests. Something/Anything? was a prodigious outpouring of his eclectic talents, Todd’s only outright gold LP. It charted three singles and helped to solidify a loyal cult following that would stick with him through all the sometimes-bewildering career diversions in the decades to come.

The loping rhythm of “I Saw the Light” kicks the album off in elegant, R&B flavored style. “If there’s a single on this album, this is it, so I put it first like at Motown,” writes Rundgren in the first of the pithy comments he prints before each song’s lyric sheet entry. Reaching #16 in May of ’72, Todd’s business acumen doesn’t hide the sensitive side that won him the better measure of his popular appeal. “I Saw the Light” unerringly gleans the first nervous, delicious moments of a romantic affair. Although side one, a self-proclaimed “bouquet of ear-catching melodies” plays to his then-current strength, the restlessness is already leaking through, whether through the frisky rocker “Wolfman Jack” or by the implication that he’s already wary of being pigeonholed as a piano balladeer—even terming the lovely “Cold Morning Light” an “accident.”

Flip the old platter over and you get the “cerebral side.” After a quick audio tour of the studio, we start with the adventurous keyboard instrumental “Breathless,” a little preview of the wild left turn Rundgren would take into progressive rock a couple of years later with his offshoot band, Utopia. Aside from playing nearly all the instruments on his double album, Rundgren also showed off the soundboard skills that would soon make him an in-demand producer. “The Night the Carousel Burnt Down” is a good case in point with its calliope rhythms and shading dissonance dovetailed with a lyric of mixed innocence and foreboding worthy of a Ray Bradbury short story. But overall, the cerebral side isn’t radically different in content from the other three, with occasional genre side trips soon yielding to Todd’s default setting—the slow or mid-tempo number with heart on sleeve and fingers on the ivories.

Side three (“the kid gets heavy”) opens loud-and-proud with “Black Maria,” a prototypical 70s blues-rocker with Rundgren’s nervy lead guitar a highlight. Though the handsome balladry continues here as well (both “One More Day” and “Torch Song” are worthy additions in this crowded category) the side’s other two tracks are album, if not career highlights. This especially goes for the single “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” as perfect a slice of impassioned power pop as was ever recorded, matching anything of the era by the likes of Badfinger and Big Star. From it’s lilting guitar intro, to a vocal that opens on an urgent moment-of-truth (“Keep your head and everything will be cool/You didn’t have to make me feel like a fool/When I try to say I feel the way that I do”) to it’s soaring chorus, it seemed to pre-figure much of the indie rock of following decades, though it only reached #93 as a single. The side closes impressively with the Hendrixesque “Little Red Lights” (a “you know what” to “you know who” Todd quips), a “Crosstown Traffic” doppelganger featuring more six-string exploits.

If there’s a hitch in Rundgren’s professionalism and organic rock ‘n’ roll instincts it’s on Something/Anything’s last quarter. Presented as a “pop operetta,” it begins at the beginning with a hilariously lo-fi snippet of what sounds like one of his first-ever performances, fronting his teenage group, Woody’s Truck Stop. The rest of the side consists of live-take cuts with an ad-hoc studio band, a confounding series of tracks that sound just like their off-color titles: “Piss Aaron”, “You Left Me Sore”, “Slut,” etc. A career on Broadway was not in the offing. Somewhere in the middle of this is Rundgren’s world-beating love song “Hello It’s Me,” a lively remake of the Nazz’s gauzy 1968 single. It became his biggest ever hit, reaching the Top Five over a year after the release of the LP.

Something/Anything itself would be a highwater mark in Rundgren’s popularity, though mere chart success could never be the sole criteria for this singular personality. After its less accessible follow-up (A Wizard, A True Star) failed to catch fire, he blasted off into outer space with Utopia, the dazzling (if esoteric) combo that initially featured three electronic keyboardists in addition to Todd’s rocket-fueled lead guitar. Side two of their debut album was a 30-minute composition, in case any teenyboppers were still hanging about. Although he continued on parallel paths with his solo work and a toned-down Utopia, Rundgren would become just as notable as a studio producer, his bright-surface production stamp benefiting albums for a next wave of artists like Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, XTC and the Psychedelic Furs. Into the 21st century the irrepressible Mr. Rundgren rolled on, still recording and touring, both as a solo act and with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, a re-formed Utopia and even as a Ric Ocasek stand-in with the New Cars. That makes the title of his classic double album sound not so much as a shrug but as a lifelong mission statement.

Documentary Spotlight: No Place for “Big Charity” in the age of none

Big Charity
Directed by Alex Glustrom–2015–63 minutes

The French Quarter may have survived the 2005 devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina, but some of New Orleans’ poorer neighborhoods, like the Lower Ninth Ward, were not so lucky and never fully recovered. The greatest institutional loss for the city, especially for those sections of town, had to be the historic Mercy Hospital. Its last iteration was the handsome and hulking Art Deco behemoth that was located downtown just two blocks from the Superdome. The hospital’s forced closing after sustaining relatively minor damage during Katrina, and the larger social implications of the shutdown, is the story of this thoughtful and quietly indignant film.

A lot can be known about Charity Hospital simply by looking at its name. The 1940 building that now stands abandoned was preceded by several others, dating back to 1736. It was founded by a French shipbuilder who stipulated a beneficent institution for the poor in his will. It kept up that model straight into the early 21st century in the giant 1939 building raised by taxpayer money and operated by the Daughters of Charity in their distinctive cornettes. With its crazy-quilt egalitarian alliances and 2700 beds, Big Charity (as it was commonly known) was not only an invaluable local resource, but the safety net hospital for the whole state of Louisiana. The building featured inspirational phrases inscribed in the lobby (“Where the Unusual Occurs, Miracles Happen”) and idealistic New Deal friezes; even it’s layout, with two extensive projecting wings resembling arms in an embrace, seemed to suggest its ages-old benevolence.

But the ad hoc coalition of community goodwill, government largesse and the nunnery was bound to be strained over a long period of shifting economics and the gradual gentrification of health care. Big Charity was eventually subsumed by the nearby Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. The hospital that stayed afloat through the Antebellum era, the Reconstruction and the advent of modern inner-city poverty, would get sunk by the notion that such places now need to be “destination facilities.” The catalyst for Charity’s demise was Katrina. Director Alex Glustrom excels in mapping out the discouraging chain of events at the hospital during the late August ’05 hurricane and the suspicious aftermath. Katrina was strong enough to shake the gargantuan building but aside from a severely flooded basement it seemingly escaped the worst.

But while Charity may have survived a Category 5 cyclone, it was no match for the institutional power play that came next. While caregivers scrambled to provide critical services without power, evacuation helicopters bypassed Charity, in more ways than one. By alternating the recollections of doctors, nurses and support staff with news footage and home video shot on the scene, Glustrom re-constructs a distressing portrait of the hospital’s sudden and shocking marginalization. Even more saddening, in the bigger picture, is the on-camera testimony of military officers whose men and women then came in and helped with evacuation, pumped out the basement and did a fix-up job on the facilities post-haste. But when they reported to LSU that the building was all ready to be re-booted they were flatly told there were no plans to reopen it.

Charity was shut up tight and its critical services unceremoniously moved to a tent city inside a closed shopping mall (the archival footage making it seem, depressingly, like a Third World scenario). Meanwhile, the old building was mysteriously infiltrated by a group of people who methodically “scuttled” the facilities. When the federal disaster relief payoff came it was a half-billion bucks for a new mega-health center, even though a modern rehab of Mercy Hospital would have cost a fraction of that. And so it goes.

Of course, reasonable people could disagree on whether or not a state-of-the-art new facility would be a better value in the long run. The more crucial issue is the overbearing influence of mega-institutions of the 21st century getting their way in every situation. The contrast between the quiet compassion of the Charity caregivers vs. the bloodless bottom-line certainties of the LSU administration is chilling. At the top of this too-big-too-fail pyramid is the Health Sciences Center chancellor, Dr. Larry Hollier. In a USA drifting towards a you’re-on-your-own default mindset, with a president well-known for his personal perversions and general heartlessness, this is the “nice” face of a screw-you philosophy.

Hollier politely tells us the LSU center is “moving away from indigent care.” as if that will solve the problem of indigence. The bulldozing of several blocks of the adjacent Mid-City neighborhood, to make way for the new complex, is termed an “inconvenience.” (This includes the demolition of many homes rebuilt post-Katrina). While Mercy Hospital remains a giant ghost shell of a building with many tales to tell, its walled-off impersonal replacement is now in place and there was no way it was going to carry over the old name. The word charity nowadays is seen by people as a “stigma” declares Dr. Hollier. Based on what I’ve seen in this moving documentary, I think a clear majority of New Orleans residents would disagree. If the doctor wants to find a person who believes that statement, he can start with a look in the mirror.

“Make Mine a Double” #4: Van Morrison’s “Hymns to the Silence” (1991)

Among those known primarily as solo performers, there are few rock artists who have enjoyed continuous careers as long and as successful/influential as has Van Morrison. A certain Mr. Dylan, whose debut album hit the racks in 1962, is the obvious standard bearer while the post- Buffalo Springfield Neil Young could also named. The Belfast-bred Morrison first came up in the mid-60s with his group Them—their single “Gloria” has since become a rock ‘n’ roll rite of passage for nearly anyone who has ever picked up an electric guitar. Fresh out of the gate as a solo act in 1967, he had a huge pop hit in “Brown-Eyed Girl” but almost as quickly recorded the virtually unclassifiable Astral Weeks, a jazzy/folky improv flight of fancy that pondered his own post-war youth and made his reputation as a great innovator and vocalist, becoming one of rock’s most acclaimed albums ever despite selling almost nothing at the time.

With a personality as ornery as the music was often sublime, Van the Man followed his muse with a singular determination, able to turn out hits on a fairly regular basis while incorporating a wealth of musical idioms and showing a temperament that made him hard to figure. To say he always “enjoyed” his success would be a stretch. Impatient with music-biz types, critics and even at times his own audience, Morrison has not been shy about editorializing in song. He was in just such a mood when he released this record in 1991.


Van spots a music-industry bloke in the front row and prepares his right jab.

Hymns to the Silence is one of those double-disc affairs that comes along not as a career-peak embarrassment of riches (like Blonde on Blonde or Layla) but more of a case of a prolific songwriter having accumulated a backlog of material—and apparently some grudges as well. On the dullish opener called “Professional Jealousy” Morrison says of his chosen trade, “The only requirement is to know what is needed/and then delivering what’s needed on time.” Not the greatest omen at the start of a 94-minute album. The next track, “I’m Not Feeling it Anymore,” with its catchy piano hook and sprightly rhythm, is a considerable improvement but again voices the same doubts: “If this is success then something’s awful wrong/’cause I bought the dream and I had to play along.” Many of the songs that follow settle into blues-based grooves as Morrison yearns for an “Ordinary Life” or at least “Some Peace of Mind.” He does enjoy the company of his simpatico backing group, breaking out his alto sax for the lively roadhouse rumble “So Complicated” while sharing vocals with his keyboardist/bandleader (and fellow Sixties veteran) Georgie Fame. Disc one ends with the nine-minute “Take Me Back” which echoes the form of Astral Weeks with its impassioned vocal incantations and rear-mirror view of an open-souled childhood.

It’s also a great bridge over to the more expansive views to be enjoyed on the second disc where the song titles alone (“By His Grace”, “Be Thou My Vision” and the title cut) indicate there will be less grousing and more of the spiritual searching that many of his fans have come to know and love—and expect. Finding that inner core of contentment may indeed be tricky when the means of reaching it has to be run through the cold mechanisms of the music industry. “We lived where dusk had meaning/And repaired to quiet sleep,” Van sings in “Pagan Streams”, typical of the hard-won satisfactions on Hymn’s second half. Many of these are couched in a Celtic-influenced sonic palette and the Chieftains, with whom he had recently done an album, guest on several cuts. That group’s Erik Bell plays an airy synthesizer accompaniment to Morrison’s spare, ringing guitar on the album’s most accomplished track.


Named for the Belfast location where he grew up, “On Hyndford Street” (a gritty row of brick houses pictured on the back cover) is a high-water mark for the booksmart Morrison, the kind of guy who writes songs with titles like “Rave On, John Dunne.” Morrison’s narration beautifully invokes the spirit of his literary heroes like Dylan Thomas and James Joyce, with a boy’s awakening sense of the wider world fused to a grown man’s photographic memory of long-passed events and place names (“Walking from the end of the lines to the seaside/stopping at Fusco’s for ice cream in the days before rock ‘n’ roll”). That he progressed from these humble beginnings to a status as one that music’s great artists will make some shake their heads at all the sourness of the album’s earlier tracks, even with the knowledge that fame and fortune is rarely achieved at no personal cost. But tracks like “On Hyndford Street” make it all worthwhile and longtime Van fans with certain gaps in their collections will likely find Hymns to the Silence to be a pleasant discovery, while newbies are better directed to his great albums from the late Sixties and early Seventies, or at least to a good compilation.


You can go home again. On the occasion of his 70th birthday (8/31/2015), Van sings/recites “On Hyndford Street” in this beautifully-filmed concert clip from a location he made famous, Cypress Avenue in Belfast.

“Books That Rock” spotlight: Arne Bellstorf’s “Baby’s in Black”

Rock and roll subjects have not exactly been excluded from the exploding popularity of indie comics over the last few decades, but they have not been a consistent point of reference either. Maybe the fact that you can’t hear a comic book is one factor. But with a band as universally popular as the Beatles, that would hardly seem to matter. As early as 1978, Marvel released a special edition “Story of the Beatles, overseen by Stan Lee. In the late 80s and early 90s, Rock N Roll Comics released a string of cartoon band bios, everyone from the Grateful Dead to AC/DC, but these have been criticized for being too skimpy and/or clichéd.

With the growing sophistication of the art-comic genre, it’s time to expect more. In 2014, German artist-writer Arne Bellstorf made a big move in the right direction with this 196-page graphic novelization of the Beatles’ early days as the house band at various Hamburg clubs. “Baby’s in Black” hones in on the romance between the group’s then-bassist Stu Sutcliffe and local photographer Astrid Kirchherr. She was part of the city’s bohemian art crowd (also included was her friend Klaus Voormann was another) that befriended the group. This was a natural angle for Bellstorf, who also hails from Hamburg.

Not only does romance sell, but this story has a tragic dénouement. As many baby-boomer rock fans already know, Sutcliffe left the band to devote more time to his primary passion (painting) while also getting engaged to Kirchherr. Then he died unexpectedly in April of 1962, likely due to a congenital brain condition that caused a fatal hemorrhage. The Beatles first hit record (“Love Me Do”) came out six months later.

So this early slice of pop history, played out in the rollicking red-light districts and quiet residential streets of Germany’s second largest city, has potentially a lot to offer on the developmental days of what would become rock and roll’s most famous band. But finding the right balance between these two main story elements is not always smooth going for Bellstorf.

His pencil and ink style is fetching and fairly naturalistic; it is especially good in his spatial reproductions of the infamous Reeperbahn with its elaborate signage and other landmarks, like Hamburg’s central train station. But his odd way with a human visage: black marble eyes, tiny mouths and limited expression, give the book an almost naïve look that can grow unsettling. This is accentuated by his habit of filling in backgrounds and clothing with what look to be gray crayon squiggles.

So yeah, I wanted to like “Baby’s in Black” a bit more than I did, though some of it may not be due to Bellstorf. The rather flat dialogue may have been partially caused by the English translation and I guess one can only surmise so much about what these folks were actually saying back then, especially considering that some of them (Kirchherr, Voorman and Paul McCartney) are still very much alive. There remains a lot to appreciate here. The scenes where Astrid—with her trusty Rolleicord camera—arranges her famous outdoor photo shoot with the boys is a revelation on the humble origins of what became the band’s legendarily photogenic aura. Also, the narrative does (lightly) chart the progress of the Beatles as they ascend from the dingier Reeperbahn dives to more high-profile clubs and make their first record, backing up singer Tony Sheridan. Towards the end, there are several image-only pages (which include wordless speech balloons) that convey Sutcliffe’s terrible fate with much eloquence.

I do hope that rock and roll graphic novels, produced with the sensitivity that Bellstorf displays here, do become more of a thing. The pop stories of our musical heroes have been hashed over in various media formats over the years, but graphic novels, with their combination of fiction writing’s interiority and cinema’s visceral immediacy, seems like a great forum in which to re-experience pop history.

But apparently this may be a case of be careful what you wish for. Yesterday I read a news item announcing the imminent arrival (in late March) of a 464-page book called “Tales of the Smiths: A Graphic Biography.” That’s a whole lotta Morrissey! I think I have the early front-runner for the Feel-Bad Book of the Year award…

On a more positive note, you can check out Klaus Voormann’s own coffee-table sized graphic novel, “Birth of an Icon: Revolver 50,” based around the making of his totemic Beatles’ album cover in 1966.

Make Mine A Double #3: Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” (1969)

The third entry in my series on the wild and wondrous world of rock’s double albums.
by Rick Ouellette

Pink Floyd at the end of the Sixties was very much the band in flux. In 1968, singer-guitarist and founding visionary Syd Barrett left the band and after an abbreviated solo career was hardly seen in public before his death in 2006. Barrett’s fanciful compositions had dominated their classic ’67 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but he barely appeared on the follow-up (A Saucerful of Secrets) and soon retreated from London to the group’s original home base of Cambridge. Beset by mental health problems complicated by prodigious LSD use and unwilling/unable to play the rock-star card for more than a few hands, the secluded Barrett would become one of music’s most fabled figureheads. Few at the time would have doubted the talents of his bandmates: bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason or guitarist David Gilmour, a boyhood friend of Barrett who joined the band shortly before Syd exited. But absent the primary writer of one of rock’s psychedelic masterworks, Pink Floyd struggled for a revised identity. After producing the soundtrack for the French hippie film More, Floyd ended the decade with the double LP Ummagumma, the type of project that would defy release today. Exploiting the era’s trend towards heavy acid jams (on its live disc) and openness to experimentation (in the studio half), Ummagumma was popular enough (#5 in the UK) to keep the band’s profile high before they hit their stride and became rock music titans with their all-world headphone classic, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon.

On Piper, Barrett’s delectable mix of childlike whimsy and foreboding fairytales had been balanced out by two seminal excursions into what would be called space rock. One of youth music’s first extended pieces, the nine-minute “Interstellar Overdrive” was well-explained by it’s title. The other, “Astronomy Domine”, starts the live disc in an expanded version that ably states the new line-up’s mode of attack. The increased amplification of the instrumental excursions and Roger Waters’ eerie replication of Syd’s planetary roll call emanating from “icy waters underground” upped the ante of the original for the tuned-in provincial punters in the audience. “Careful With The Axe, Eugene” is transformed into a real horror show of tension-and-release, with its stalking build-up yielding to Waters’ ungodly screaming and Gilmour’s slasher guitar work. The live disc is rounded out by “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and the title track from Saucerful, now a 13-minute ramble through a psychedelic funhouse led by Nick Mason’s propulsive drumming.

Giving each band member a half-side to go freeform in the studio was an early example of the self-important tendencies of ambitious acts, or maybe it was just lack of new material. The underrated keyboardist Richard Wright contributes “Sysyphus Parts 1-4” an effectively doomy piece of program music that depicts the hapless mythological character, usually spelled Sisyphus. He, of course, is fated to forever push the same boulder up a hill—probably the exact feeling Floyd roadies got during the mammoth tours in the decades to follow (the album’s back cover shows two of them with the band’s gear spread out on an airport runway).


Abandon ye all hope, the road crew that enters here.

David Gilmour’s folksy acoustic guitar on “The Narrow Way” prefigures what Jimmy Page soon was getting at on Led Zeppelin III and the vocal part that follows presages the musical heights later attained on “Comfortably Numb”. Nick Mason never had a songwriting credit before Ummagumma and after hearing his aimless percussion workout, one could be forgiven for wondering where the writing was in this case. The only track that sinks lower is “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” a Roger Waters’ toss-off that sounds just like its title, which should be warning enough.


Less than the sum of its “parts”?: The back of the CD 2 breaks down the multi-sectional nature of the studio disc.

Luckily, he also offers up “Grantchester Meadows,” a lovely pastoral number named after a real greensward in the band’s hometown. One of the greatest of Floyd’s lesser-known numbers, simple acoustic guitar and looped sound effects of bird tweets cushion Waters’ softly sung boyhood idyll that’s tempered by the realization that this a memory recalled from the confinement of his “city room.” The profound disatisfaction with the vicissitudes of a cold modern society, merely hinted at here, would become the primary aspect of Pink Floyd’s art in the decade to come, culminating in their other double album, 1979’s The Wall, where the confined character is not just shut off in a solitary flat, but in an enormous brick prison of his own making.

If you like the in-depth writing of rock music, both on record and on celluloid, please check out my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey now available. You can sample a 30-page excerpt by clicking on the book cover image at the top right of this page.

Which way to the secret hipster street in the sky?

The shops at Mill No. 5 at closing time. (Photos by author unless indicated otherwise)

by Rick Ouellette

Jack Kerouac is fixed in the public imagination, or at least in what remains of it, with the broad vistas of cross-the-country America and of a declarative personal freedom. But the Beat icon, who was born and raised in the Massachusetts mill town of Lowell, often chafed against that image, preferring to think of himself as a “Catholic mystic” instead. He set six of his novels in his hometown, creating a microcosmic society that in its exacting detail felt as universal as James Joyce’s Dublin and, for me at least, is more impressive than the hedonistic “road books.”

Of course, Jack’s Lowell has changed pretty significantly since the era he was writing about, namely his childhood and adolescence in the Twenties and Thirties. His family was part and parcel of a large French-Canadian migration of mill workers from Quebec to New England, of which Lowell once had a large concentration. Traces of this remain today: the Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union even has a new building and how could I not mention the Ouelette Bridge? But old cities like this are known for their successive waves of immigrants and in recent decades this has meant that Cambodian-Americans have replaced the old “Canucks.” It has also been the scene of a couple of other modern trends: college expansionism (the ever-growing UMass Lowell) and the influx of hipsters and artists from bigger and more expensive cities. For this latter group, the town—bisected by the Merrimac River rapids which powered the mills where so many toiled—is now for many a destination instead of a place to escape.


The Moody Street Bridge may not be called that anymore–the road is now called University Avenue—but the old name fit so much better. It took on such a mysterious aura in Kerouac’s Lowell books that it may as well have spanned the River Styx instead of the Merrimac. In the right background is another oft-mentioned location: the yellow-brick Textile Institute trade college which has been subsumed by the local UMass campus.

Kerouac’s Lowell was an acutely-recalled place of murky canals, forbidding factories, lunch wagons, pool halls and late-night taxi stands. After a grueling day working the roaring textile machinery, men in fedora hats might stop for “another cup of coffee and another piece of pie” in the face of their Depression-era blues.(“The tenemental cold north night of desolation,” as J.K. once put it). While the mills may now be typically converted to condos with an art gallery on the first floor, and the textiles replaced by tech and those tiny diners superseded by health-food cafes, a question remains: where does one go to find that solace that Kerouac always seemed to be grasping at, but was too often just out of reach?

For Jack, it could take temporary form as a meditation in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest or, more prosaically, that self-described moment where he has one arm around a girl and the other raising a tall glass of beer while listening to a transcendent saxophone solo. Nowadays we refer to an important “third place,” neither home nor work, which can be a refuge from both, with all their related concerns and burdens. I recently stumbled upon a very noveau version of this on the 4th floor of 250 Jackson Street, one of those converted red brick mill buildings which are numerous in Lowell. I was looking for a used record store and found not only that but a whole tucked-away hipster shopping arcade in the sky. The way in was curious: into a musty archway then an outdoor wait for a single extremely slow elevator. There seems to be nothing on the 2nd or 3rd floor or at least nobody has pressed those buttons in any of my subsequent visits (there are apartments in a different part of this typically vast mill complex but that place has its own lift). This unpromising approach is in direct opposition to the trendy and popular gathering place called Mill No. 5, an elevated oasis pitched above the streets of a downtown that often seems as rough-hewn as it must have been in Kerouac’s day.


One of the more impressive aspects of Mill No. 5 is the adaptive re-use style of the developer who used salvaged building materials to make a crazy-quilt indoor street where one place may be a Tudor half-timber and the next may be Victorian parlor or a retro movie palace.

There’s a coffee shop, an eccentric bookstore the size of a walk-in closet, a photography studio with old-timey cameras on display, a vintage clothing shop, a farm-to-table café and various artsy boutiques. Best of all is the comfy Luna Theater with its eclectic movie programming and occasional live events. They have a free movie night called Weirdo Wednesdays; the catch is you don’t know what the feature presentation is going to be. So of course I took the bait. I have sworn off hardcore horror in recent years (too many nightmares in the real world and all that) so I kind of braced myself a bit when the opening credits revealed “The Brood,” David Cronenberg’s 1979 envelope-pushing cult horror classic.


“You think RICK is scared? How do you figure I’m feeling right about now!!!”(Still from “The Brood”)

Funny, I had never seen it but made a mental note recently that I should check it out someday, but probably wouldn’t have if the issue wasn’t forced on me. Naturally, I loved it. Even if I got too scared I could have retreated to the upper lobby, where there is a clutch of vintage video arcade games set to free play. Have I finally found my Happy Place? Admittedly, this neighborhood refugee is a bit more low-key than the type of comparable place that Kerouac wrote about. (“The Pawtucketville Social Club, an organization intended to be some kind of meeting place for speeches about Franco-American matters, was just a huge roaring saloon and bowling alley and pool table with a meeting room always locked”).

My first time at the Coffee and Cotton café, I settled into a quiet corner with a cup of single-sourced java and opened my book of E.M. Forster short stories, keeping one observant eye on my surroundings. Predictably, most of the young patrons (average age about 25 tops) were gazing into smart phones and laptops, even in company. These young ‘uns are well-traveled in the four corners of the cyber-universe. As I picked the bookmark out of my Forster volume, I convinced myself that “They may have the youth, but I have the wisdom.” I was pushing 60 and will have succeeded in pushing it over the line by the time this is posted. Lately I feel like I’m doing more “reeling” than “rocking” but then consider that I’ve already lived 13 more years than poor Jack (1922-1969).



The Lady of Lourdes Grotto, behind the old Franco-American School in Lowell, figured prominently in the novel “Dr. Sax.” It was here that the nefarious title character stalked Jack’s boyhood self and his mother, lurking behind the praying stations near the elevated Northern Canal.

I was reading Forster’s amazingly predictive 1909 story “The Machine Stops,” where the world’s population lives underground, each one in an individual chamber, where an all-encompassing technological entity provides each (isolated) individual with all material needs a source for instant “communication.” In an American age where the socio-political discourse is so frightening and vicious that it makes “The Brood” look like a Halloween prank, it’s understandable to want to sail away forever on the wings of our unlimited access and convenience. But when “the machine stops,” as it does in the story… well, you can guess the rest. As for me, well I may pause long enough for another cup of fair-trade coffee and another piece of vegan pie, but then I am walking away, intent to never stop investigating the solid realm of what makes it our world in the first place, in all its empirical pain and pleasure. As Kerouac might say: “Step softly, ghost.”

Find out more at millno5.com
Recommended Lowell novels by Jack Kerouac: Visions of Gerard, Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy.