Rock and roll as a named art form is more than sixty years old. For a musical genre made for and by the young (at least originally) it is a little strange to think that the biggest worries in life have gradually gone from being worried that you might get grounded to whether you have enough savings to retire. Plus, categorical mortality has shifted from tragic plane crashes and overdoses to the sad reality that a certain percentage of people will die from various health issues in their 60s and 70s. But before everyone gets depressed let me say that one of the things I came to realize while writing my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is that the youthful energy of classic pop music helps sustain the spirit even as our Social Security years approach or are reached. As Freda Kelly, the Beatles’ secretary and fan club president pictured above says at the end of Good Ol’ Freda, “Although there’s a fifty-year gap since I started, I still like to think that I’m back where I was in the beginning.”
Many of the newer rockumentaries in the book focus on the long trajectory of rock history, from the perspective of musicians, fans and people behind the scenes such as Freda. Below are four related excerpts.
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From the entry on Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Drew Nicola’s film has a certain shadowy quality that sustains Big Star’s mythical essence. The band had friends handy with an SLR or home movie camera so there are some early images that survive like half-remembered dreams. But it’s on disc that their legacy rests and Nicola profiles many of the band’s most beloved songs like “Ballad of El Goodo,” “September Gurls,” “Daisy Glaze” and “In the Street.” It’s the universality of yearning (“Years ago my heart was set to live,” begins “El Goodo”) that in the end is as big a reason as any for Big Star’s durability. So is the patina of tragedy—especially in the case of Chris Bell, who died in a car crash in 1978 at twenty-seven while he was trying to figure a “way into the future” with only one solo single to his name (the exquisite “I Am the Cosmos”). He had been working in the kitchen of his family’s restaurant. Both Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel passed away in 2010. As Lenny Kaye says at another point in Nothing Can Hurt Me: “They were there waiting, like a little jewel in the earth, for me to dig them out.” This sense of personal discovery is central to the rock and roll experience.
From New York Doll
In an age of comforting singer-songwriters and technically-savvy arena acts, the New York Dolls’ raucous flamboyance failed to translate from the demimonde to the heartland. Of course, by the end of the decade, they would be more widely recognized for their trailblazing role but by then the band was defunct. There was no second act for bassist Arthur Kane. When this film opens in the early 2000s, we find Kane working at the Mormon Family History Center in Los Angeles. He joined the Latter-Day Saints after his life bottomed out by the late 80s-early 90s. A failed marriage, a fruitless attempt at an acting career and alcohol abuse was followed by a suicide attempt—a jump from a second story window that left him with minor neural damage. Now he’s a slightly addled fifty-something in white shirt and tie, complaining about the long commute to work caused by an inconvenient bus transfer. Pausing on the street, Kane gets us caught up, explaining that he is single and “eligible to go out on dates.” But he has to be careful now because of his religion (“No more wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am”). It’s no secret that for “Killer” Kane (named after a villain from the old Buck Rogers serial) the fondest memories of his life will be his platform-booted heyday with the New York Dolls. His ride comes along and he takes a seat in the very last row. With a wry smile he confirms that “I’ve been demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus.” Director Greg Whiteley has fashioned an eloquent and bittersweet documentary on Kane’s rise, fall and fleeting redemption in the form of a New York Dolls reunion concert in London. It is one of the leading entries in what has become a mini-genre: films centered on fringe figures floating out there in the vast rock and roll firmament (others would include The Nomi Song, Best of the Beatles and A Band Called Death).
From Standing in the Shadows of Motown
In the middle of this film, musician and author Allan Slutsky tells of meeting Detroit-based guitarist Robert White for dinner in 1993. As they were about to order, the blissful opening guitar lick to the Temptations’ 1965 chart-topper “My Girl” spilled out from the restaurant’s speakers. White’s face lit up and he was about to tell the waiter that that was him playing the guitar, but checked himself. When Slutsky later asked him why he didn’t say it, an abashed White suggested that the server would never have believed a “tired old fool” like himself. Slutsky admits he was floored that a man who played “one of the top five all-time guitar hooks” had “lived for thirty years this close to his dream and yet instead of being inside the dream looking out, he was on the outside of the dream looking in.” This sad anecdote neatly summarizes Standing in the Shadows of Motown, developed from Slutsky’s book of the same name, that profiles the interracial group of instrumentalists (often referred to as the Funk Brothers) who provided the infectious grooves to scores of Top 40 hits for Motown Records but who were largely left behind when the label left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972.
From Good Ol’ Freda
The seventeen-year-old Freda Kelly got to know the Beatles as only one can who was part of the band’s original fan base. She can tell you the best place in the Cavern to watch (second archway on the left), tells sweet anecdotes of Paul walking her to the bus stop and still calls Ringo “Ritchie.” In 1962, the Beatles new manager asked the incredulous teen if she wanted to work for the band. It was a canny move. As both Epstein and Kelly realized, she was a fan but not a fanatic and could directly relate to the band’s famously ardent female supporters, which would grow into numbers unimaginable back then. She held the job for a decade and still dutifully replied (on her own time) to the back log of fan mail even after the band broke up; a process that took some three years. In an archive news clip from around the time of the Beatles breakup, we see Freda Kelly somewhere in between, as a young woman asked what she missed most about the early days. “The closeness,” she says, a reply all the more poignant when we later see the roll call of those involved who have passed on, starting with John, George and Brian Epstein. Approaching seventy years of age, she agreed to be the subject of Ryan White’s cameras so that her grandchildren will grow up knowing who she once was. Although good ol’ Freda would likely be too humble to say so, she was not just a bit player in rock and roll’s greatest success story but a person who was symbolically very near to the heart of it.