Author: Rick Ouellette

I'm a freelance writer and published my second book in November 2016. It's called "Rock Docs: A Fifty Year Cinematic Journey." My first, "Documentary 101: A Viewer's Guide to Non-Fiction Film," was released in 2013. My other activities, like photography, bicycling and a little urban exploring also tie into the content of this blog, which is dedicated to the celebrating the rich history of rock music, film and popular culture.

Make Mine a Double #15: Notorious B.I.G.’s “Life After Death” (1997)

“You walk down the street, you get shot.” Donald Trump’s one-sentence summation of America’s inner cities, derived from equal parts of heartless manipulation and baleful ignorance, was a well-known refrain from 2016’s soul-killing presidential race. Yet the cheapening of public discourse through self-centered exaggeration is hardly the domain of one man. Republicans have pedaled racial animosity and anti-altruism while soft-soaping lower-income whites with the everybody-can-be-a-billionaire canard to justify massive tax cuts for the few who actually are. The last thing I would think they needed was help from the same people they are targeting.

But that’s what came to mind recently when I became re-acquainted with rapper Notorious B.I.G’s double-album Life After Death, when I chose it for my latest entry in this ongoing series on pop music’s most notable double albums. It was released in 1997, just two weeks after he was killed in a Los Angeles drive-by shooting, a still-unsolved homicide that took place in the midst of the infamous East Coast-West Coast hip hop feud. In the aftermath of this tragedy, his sophomore effort became an instant milestone of rap and sold nearly 700,000 copies in the first week it was out. The title always seemed less tragically ironic and more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that seems a little harsh, it also seems self-evident on an even casual listening.


A haunting outtake from photographer Michael Lavine’s night shoot for the album cover, taken at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill Cemetery

The Brooklyn-raised Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls but born Christopher Wallace) is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee this year. He was a foremost proponent of smooth-flow East Coast style that was rife with lyrics depicting gang violence both real and imagined. For Biggie, who may have never outgrown his earlier days as a drug dealer, this world was more real than it was for others and was not overcome easily and only seemed to get more dangerous once he started selling boatloads of records (Biggie’s first CD, Ready to Die, was already double platinum by the time he was working on this follow-up). Paranoia, retribution and excessive braggadocio mixed with fatalism dominate these 24 tracks and despite the talent and ambition behind it my one big takeaway from Life After Death was, “You walk down the street you get shot.”

You know what you’re in for right from the front-cover photo of the unsmiling and physically imposing Biggie leaning against a hearse. Like many sweeping double albums before it, Life After Death begins with a prologue. It’s like a movie that shows a bit of the final scene before jumping back to the chronological start: our protagonist is in an emergency room, an EKG machine ominously beeping, as a friend encourages him to try and pull through. You hardly have time to ponder the disheartening real-life parallels before you’re right in the thick of it as the first song has him typically declaring “If I gotta die, you gotta die.” Things lighten up a bit with the hit single “Hypnotize” with its playful girl-group refrain. And you got to give props to his randy duet with R. Kelly. It features the Notorious chorus “I’m f#$%ing you tonight,” which finally just comes out and says what thousands of pop songs through the decades have only broadly hinted at.

Beyond that, it’s mostly “American Carnage” time (if I may borrow a charming catchphrase from Trump’s Nazi-lite inauguration speech), with endless recriminations followed by gun violence. The mayhem, to my ears anyway, is redundant and dulling when it’s supposed to be visceral and shocking. Over the album’s two hours there are more dead bodies left in its wake than a spaghetti western. But after all the implied castrations, anal rapes and murdering people in front of their screaming children, the fundamental disconnect of Life After Death is this: the complete and utter vacuum that exists in this world between poverty and excess.


It’s easy to fall under the sway of Biggie’s dexterous rhymes and silky rhythms. “Miss U” sounds like a classic soul jam from the 70s (elsewhere he name-checks the O’Jays and Stylistics) except for the part where a half-dozen bullets rip thru the side of his car, killing his (hopefully) fictional girlfriend. Still, it shows a more humane approach on an album often lacking in basic empathy.

In Biggie’s worldview, going from the mean streets of Brooklyn to a self-defined state of materialistic supremacy is the only thing that matters: there’s nothing between that Point A and B, least of all an African-American middle class. This observation may seem too trite, too white and altogether immaterial to his biggest fans, but any other mention of it might be helpful. Instead, this album has received almost unanimous, reflexive praise across the spectrum of the music press—look up the “Professional Ratings” on its Wikipedia page. I would hate to sound like the type of “Playa Hater” so disparaged in the lyrics. But Biggie’s perpetuation of lose-lose income disparity, between hopeless poverty and perilous success, ill-serves his target demographic in the worst way, even if it’s subliminal. Words matter, and these are not the “best words.” The overweening cartoon consumerism is seen by Biggie himself as its own ball-and-chain (see: “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems”), creating a bunker mentality caused by jealous enemies. It’s a dangerous game that is a literal dead end (“You’re Nobody Til Somebody Kills You”).

Of course, not every rap act is required to mine the social consciousness that informs the work of, say, Public Enemy or Wu Tang Clan. As with rock music, for every thoughtful performer like Bruce Springsteen there’s a bunch of nitwits like Motley Crue. Except Christopher Wallace was no dummy, and was in fact an English prodigy in his schoolboy days. This makes his constant victimizer/victim spiral so confounding and depressing. Christopher Wallace, the real man behind this persona, must have been smart enough to realize that the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats is the one true way out of this fatal game that he witnessed from both ends of the ladder. It would have been interesting to see how he would have evolved as an artist—hopefully moving way beyond the woeful narcissism and dangerous rhetoric our current president will drag with him into his own grave. Hopefully, I said, because there’s precious little hope to be found on this record.
—Rick Ouellette

This Way to Vestigial Horrors: On the Road with Alt-Tourist H.P. Lovecraft

“From the Light into the Darkness”: Who’s ready for a campus tour?

H.P. Lovecraft: He should be as October as Pumpkin Spice Oreos and sexy-Wednesday Addams costumes. In a way he is. His most famous creation, the monstrous cosmic entity Cthulhu, has its own video game and merchandise line, even a campaign for President (sample slogans: “No Lives Matter” and “Why Settle for the Lesser Evil”). But Lovecraft himself has a harder time gaining traction. His influential horror tales are encased in baroque prose that is a hard sell nowadays (many head straight for “Call of Cthulhu” on their PlayStations instead) and his latent xenophobia is a very bad look in our Woke age.
But in the details of his adjective-rich and dread-filled stories written by this baleful bard of Providence, as well as in aspects of his generally somber life, are a whole host of fab facts, fun ideas and teachable moments that just may raise your Halloween to a new level.


Bust of Lovercraft, Providence Atheneaum

No Dunwich, No Horror

Was Howard Philips Lovercraft the first alt-tourist? True, he didn’t travel very broadly, though by the time he died in 1937 (at age 46), he had made it as far south as Key West and as far north as Quebec City. He regretted that he never made it over to Europe. But when it came to granular, near-home expeditions, he was top notch.

In 1928 Lovecraft toured north-central Massachusetts, visiting a few friends and, as was his wont, wandering around a bit. He was forever inspecting local landmarks, taking stock of fading architectural remnants of earlier eras and conjuring up what hidden horrors may lie beneath the surface of topographical features. All of this would be grist for the mill in the tales he would publish in Weird Tales magazine and which would be anthologized beyond his wildest imaginings after his passing. Over-arching existential terrors don’t happen without a setting and whatever Lovecraft saw in that relatively non-descript region was configured into the opening three paragraphs of “The Dunwich Horror” which would end up being one of his most enduring tales. A tour-de-force of fictional scene-setting, Lovecraft tells of what you will encounter should you ever make a wrong turn on the Aylesbury Pike.

As you walk up this forbidding country road, in the blessed age before GPS, the bordering stone walls seem to inch closer together the more you walk up it. The trees seem abnormally large and “the wild weeds, brambles and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions.” The scattered houses have a uniform appearance of “squalor and dilapidation” and the “gnarled, solitary” figures seen on crumbling doorsteps are best avoided. So you push on without directions, crossing unstable bridges over ravines of “problematical depths,” thru the mostly-abandoned village with its “malign odor” and past the unnaturally-smooth, domed hills topped by tall stone pillars. I don’t doubt Lovecraft when he says the wayward traveler is relieved when the Dunwich road eventually reconnects with the Aylesbury pike.

But let’s face it: curiosity has already got the better of you, am I right? That’s why the reader reads on, to find just what sort of cataclysmic event turned this once respectable New England town into a repellent ruin. I am here to say, what is good for books, is good for life. In this age of urban explorer websites and legal weed, it’s easier than ever to have an adventure off the beaten path (while there are still some that are unbeaten). You just may come away a more enlightened person, if the monster doesn’t get you first.


This book is a good a place to start as any.

Dreams in the Witch House, With 20,000 of Your Closest Friends

Closer to the subject at hand, consider my hometown of Salem, Mass. The roads into town are all blocked up on weekends in October as about 20,000 people crowd on the average Oct. weekend day (don’t even ask about the actual Halloween night) and its costumed crush of humanity. If you’re in you’re in, if you’re an amateur stay clear. Of course, the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 had more to do with the persecution (and in 19 cases, execution) of innocents caught up in a puritanical hysteria of superstition, misogyny and straight-up land grabbing than hook-nosed crones on broomsticks. To be fair to the city, the teachable moment in regard to universal intolerance has been more emphasized in recent years, but there is still money to be chased. The message is sure to be lost on many of the cosplayers and ghouls-for-a-night who discard their fried dough wrappers in the Colonial graveyard adjacent to the food fair and funhouses.


The Witch House in Salem, before they learned how to properly monetize it.

Naturally, Lovecraft was drawn to the Witch City for inspiration, changing the name of Salem to Arkham for his fictional purposes. If your averse to long lines and clueless revelers you may want to wait for a moody, overcast day November to have your own “Dreams in the Witch House.” The historic Crowninshield House was a setting for the gooey and grim “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The Crowninshield is located in an enclave of historic buildings off of Essex Street near the Salem Common. While rich in atmosphere, you can just as easily wander around the Federalist neighborhoods centered around Chestnut St. to soak up some mysterious vibes of long-gone days. The brick sidewalks here are often quite narrow and first-floor windows are sometimes at shoulder level, giving the nocturnal stroller an even chance at catching a glimpse of once aristocratic families fallen on hard times—a favorite jumping-off point for Lovecraft stories.

Cthulhu Origin Story: From the Deepest Darkest Cosmos to 7 Thomas Street

H.P. was himself to the Victorian manor born in 1890. Though his family lineage could be traced back almost to the Mayflower, by the time Howard Philips came around the clan’s star was pretty faded. Both of Lovecraft’s parents spent time in the psychiatric wards at Butler Hospital on the outskirts. Their son was not the most hale and hearty of children, but he did find intellectual nourishment in his grandfather’s attic library at the family manse at 454 Angell Street. The boy was also beset with fantastical nightmares of huge demoniacal beasts and far-off galaxies.


The Fleur-de-lys Studios, part of the Providence Arts Association.

Providence, with its sharp inclines, tightly-packed Colonial districts, eccentric landmarks and moody waterways, provided plenty of great settings for Lovecraft’s later tales of creeping existential dread and imminent monster hegemony. “The Call of Cthulhu” marked the first literary appearance of HP’s big fella, the strange sculpted subject of an unstable artist housed in the colorful and flamboyant Fleur-de-lys Studios on Thomas St. in the College Hill area near Brown (oops, I mean Miskatonic) University. Lovecraft was one of the first authors to divest himself of man’s general anthropocentric notions, that the human race is the central feature of the universe. The overriding futility of this concept plays well into the man’s general xenophobia as well as to his main character’s tendency to succumb to madness. The inscription on Lovecraft’s grave marker, he is buried towards the back of Swan Point Cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Seekonk River, reads “I AM PROVIDENCE.” This has got to be a reference strictly to his hometown, because the defitional meaning (that God is looking out for you) couldn’t have been farther from the author’s way of thinking.

Relevant sites in Providence are many so a good place to get your bearing when in Rhode Island’s capital city is at the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences store inside the Providence Arcade at 65 Weybosset St. downtown. Open daily. Find out more at http://necronomicon-providence.com/store/


Lovecraft’s allusive prose has inspired artists of all types, from painters and illustrators, to musicians, filmmakers and other writers. One of the most famous examples is the adaptation of his Arkham Asylum into the Batman universe. This artist has appropriated the hand-colored style of vintage postcards to offer us this fictional view.

Many genre writers carried on the informal Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, these included Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber and “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard. This trend was likely a boon for various pulp fantasy digests and helped cement the iconic status that Lovecraft, who died as a marginal scribe, enjoys to this day, albeit from beyond the grave. One of my favorite newer entries in the Lovecraft-inspired literary continuum is the 5-part comic book series “Innsmouth” by Massachsetts-based cartoonist-writer Megan James.

James’ greatest source of success is the recognition of the rich vein of humor lying just below the surface of Lovecraft’s writing. If anyone was primed for affectionate parody it’s this guy with his purple prose, his decrepit towns plagued with cosmic inter-breeding and his ready-to-crack narrators. She takes as her locale the shunned village of the title, that dread municipality of “blasphemous abnormality” (HP’s phrase) half-populated by half-fish people in league with the Deep Ones. In his 1931 story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the intrepid (i.e. foolhardy) narrator boards a bus of “extreme decrepitude” in Newburyport, Mass. to the mystery town. Drawn to the town for reasons that only became clear at the end, he is chased out (in one of Lovecraft’s few action scenes) but not before seeing enough blasphemies to tip off Federal agents, who soon burn down half the town.

In James’ contemporary tale, enough of the town (and its cult-like citizenry) has survived to get up to their old shenanigans: that is, enabling sea monsters by identifying “the tear in Eldritch time” that will allow the beasts to end the world as we know it, not knowing (or even caring much) that this apocalypse could include them. (At the Church of the Esoteric Order of Innsmouth, one parishioner objects to the scheduling of End Times because it conflicts with the Potluck Dinner). James is quite in tune to this notion and her lively (if oft misguided) characters and richly-colored settings keep her story–and her message–moving along. When Randolph Higgle, a lowly door-to-door Pocket Necronomicon peddler, becomes the chosen one when claimed by the local eyeball-intensive Shoggoth, conscience leads him to befriend the Miskatonic U. employee guarding the unabridged grimoire. This young woman in a headscarf, a direct descendant of the “Mad Arab” Alhazred, is the kind of canny character that just might help the hapless Higgle save the world from itself. Brilliant stuff from Megan James, let’s hope we see lots more of her work in the future, whether Lovecraft-related or not.
See https://www.meganjamesart.com/innsmouth

The Gentleman Wants to Walk.. A Lot

Although a fair amount is known about Lovecraft in a standard biographical way, he wrote many letters and had numerous professional contacts, it’s always been a bit harder to get the inside personal scoop on the odd, semi-reclusive writer. A great way for fans to get that closer look is check out “The Gentleman from Angell Street” from Fenham Publishing. Fenham is the passion project of Jim Dyer, the grandson of Muriel and C.M. Eddy, Jr. The couple were writers and Providence residents who befriended Lovecraft and were possibly his only regular contacts in town, besides his two aunts who he lived with after his mother passed.

The Eddys were in written communication with Lovecraft for a long time before finally meeting him (Howard eschewed the use of modern devices like the telephone and typewriter). When Lovecraft did agree to meet them, he hoofed it three miles across town in nearly 100 degree heat, dressed in suit and tie and straw hat, yet his handshake was cold and he didn’t appear to be sweating. A peculiar man, yes, but he also turned out to be a very cordial one. Eager to discuss writing and to help others do the same, he was quickly found out to have quite the sweet tooth and to have an affinity or cats (although the couple move to change the subject when their new friend tells how his black feline, called Nigger Man, got lost).

“The Gentleman from Angell Street” consists of Muriel Eddy’s lucid title essay about she and her husband’s long-standing friendship and some of her related poems inspired by same. C.M. Eddy’s main piece here is about the many long walks he took with, many of them nocturnal. (Fenham has also re-printed several volumes of C.M.’s short fiction, he also was a “Weird Tales contributor). Destinations included the aptly-named Poe Street, a dark and distressed corner of town that must have fired Lovecraft’s imagination. They also took a trolley to outlying Chepachet to try and find the Dark Swamp of local legend. Although they didn’t find it, Lovecraft pointed out that a “walk was never wasted.” Good thinking, get out there and make your own adventure! For more, see fenhampublishing.com

–Rick Ouellette

“Going Attractions” and Coming Distractions: The Coney Island Film Festival

Outside of the biggies like Sundance, Toronto and Cannes—with their star power and acquisition deals—film festivals are usually fun but rather sedate affairs. You go and see an indie movie or shorts collection, be supportive during the Q&A afterwards, maybe go to a wine and cheese reception and hobnob a bit. This is the kind of film fest I go to and there are plenty to choose from. But the one I attended in mid-September in Coney Island was a breed apart. It’s even smaller than most; situated in one building on Surf Ave. (parallel to the boardwalk) and run by the non-profit arts organization Coney Island USA. Inside they have two venues: bleacher seating downstairs at Sideshows-by-the-Seashore performance space and upstairs at the Coney Island Museum with seating set up in the main room.


Upstairs at the Coney Island Museum (All photos by author)

The Coney Island Festival emphasizes local filmmakers and this year’s program had many works that took place in the immediate vicinity of the venue itself. Moreover, Coney Island USA integrates the screenings with the larger subculture promoted in their mission statement. That is, to extol and carry on many traditional forms of popular entertainment (as we will see in a minute). It was fitting then that the opening night film was “Going Attractions:The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace.” This documentary is an engaging and thorough look (past, present and future) at the classic American “picture palace” which, at the height of their success in the Twenties and Thirties, were among the most opulent buildings ever constructed for a clientele of the average person coming in off the street.


Click to see the trailer!

These theaters, many of them extraordinary in their scale and richness of architectural detail, once crowded together in the entertainment districts of major urban centers and, in a more solitary fashion, graced the main streets of medium-sized cities and even small towns. Director April Wright has steered this project, obviously a labor of love, with a sure hand. The backstory is presented clearly but not ponderously, with most commentators (from star movie critic Leonard Matlin on down) beginning with personal anecdotes of their first visits to one of these amazing venues. Of course, times change and eventually the movie palace business model declined, post-WW2. Suburbanization and the rise of TV were two big reasons and the scale of these theaters were a big problem, they required big staffs and upkeep costs proved prohibitive.


Renovation or more neglect?: The Everett Sq. Theater in Boston is one of hundreds old movie theaters in limbo.

“Going Attractions” gives significant space to those who have played major roles in saving these now-treasured buildings from neglect and maybe a date with the wrecking ball, several of these good folks can be see in the trailer. Probably the most astounding rescue tale is told by former ballerina turned activist and author Rosemary Novellino-Mearns. It is hard to imagine that Radio City Music Hall, the exquisite Art Deco landmark known for the Rockettes and its stupendously popular holiday shows, was threatened with demolition in 1978. In an inspiring David-and-Goliath story, Rosemary and her future husband started a save-Radio-City campaign with their fellow employees. They attracted publicity and powerful allies in what ended up being a major embarrassment for the Rockefellers, who had to cancel plans for a lucrative office skyscraper on the family-owned site. Novellino-Means was blackballed out of her job as a full-time dancer within a year but in the Q&A afterward unsurprisingly told us she had no regrets.


Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, second from left, standing next to director April Wright after the screening of “Going Attractions.”


Another featured commentator for “Going Attractions” is photographer Matt Lambros. His book “After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater” is a must-have for anybody with an abiding interest in this subject. Lambros has criss-crossed the country photographing the current, usually abandoned, state of these magnificent venues. Their beauty is typically still evident despite years of neglect, via Lambros’ vivid large-format photography. A new volume of “After the Final Curtain” is due out this fall. See his website for more details: https://afterthefinalcurtain.net/books/

Radio City Music Hall had been known for their elaborate dance numbers performed on its enormous stage before the movie. This inter-disciplinary spirit continues in film palaces that were saved (which often double as performing-arts centers) and was also on display at this festival. Vaudeville acts were also popular attractions at the old movie palaces and Coney Island USA has for years fostered this spirit. They put on the crowd-favorite Mermaid Parade on Surf Ave. every June and stage many sideshow-type events, including at the opening night party. For a reasonable fee, you got an open bar (topped by almost topless dancers) a generous buffet and a real live revivalist show, featuring an MC who doubled as a cigarette-swallower, a contortionist, and a few burlesque dancers before I was obliged to catch the Q train back to my Manhattan hotel.


This ain’t your granny’s cine club: Opening night party at the Coney Island Film Fest.


I had to head back to Boston on Sunday that weekend so I couldn’t catch the block of animation shorts. The festival’s local flavor continued here with this half-minute clip of the delightful-looking “Brooklyn Breeze”

The following night, inspired by the film, I took a stroll down that once-notorious stretch of West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. The dense concentration of movie houses and theaters there were mostly pornos before being condemned and transformed into the “Disneyfied” Times Square that people like to complain about today. I’m not sure who really misses those places: I’m not a big fan of the Harry Potter plays, tip-seeking Elmos and distracted/compulsive selfie-takers that dominate now, but the danger and seediness are not exactly to be mourned. I wandered into a couple of multiplexes to see if there were any remnants of the glorious past. At the Regal Cinema, on the old site of the infamous XXX Harem Theater, the new decor features a beautiful retro-Deco mural, a nice surprise. (See detail below).

Across the street I hit the jackpot at the AMC Empire. Over the voluminous lobby of a multiplex, where escalators zipped you up to the latest blockbuster, was a gorgeous old-time dome where Egyptian and classical Greek themes intermingled. People don’t know what they have, it was only after some of them noticed me pointing my Nikon up at the ceiling that they looked themselves. Baby steps. I found out later that the original Empire Theater was located a little further up the street and that the entire cinema was moved 170 feet to its present location, with giant balloon figures of Abbott and Costello made to look like they were tugging it along (the duo performed at the old Empire). The the main part of the theater was pushed up towards the street to be the lobby while the modern multiple screens were built behind. Hey, whatever it takes! I love American ingenuity and American movie palaces. Find out where there is one close to you and support them, keep the tradition alive.
—Rick Ouellette

AMC Empire theater lobby, two details below.


“New Killer Star”: David Bowie’s astute 9/11 testament

9/11/01 “See the great white scar over Battery Park.” So begins “New Killer Star” the outstanding lead-off track to David Bowie’s 2004 Reality album. Reality, indeed. In the wake of history’s worst terrorist attack, musicians naturally jumped into the rhetorical fray soon after the initial wave of shock, anger and profound sadness in the following weeks. These songs ranged from chauvinistic revenge fantasies like Charlie Daniels’ “This Ain’t no Rag, It’s a Flag” (awesome title, huh?) to Neil Young’s Flight 93 re-enactment “Let’s Roll” to the thoughtful human dramas on Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising.

Bowie, a long-time New York City resident, came out with this lyrically subtle and musically uplifting tribute three years after the fact. It certainly has a carry-on vibe to it (“Let’s face the music and dance”) and a keen sense of the lasting dread in the 9/11 aftermath, reflected in the song title. But its vision its expansive. It touches upon the elusive concept of universal understanding (“I never said I was better than you”) and a look ahead to a time beyond our own (“All the corners of the buildings/Who but we remember these?”). Sure, all this was probably flying over the heads of many in the audience when Bowie and his crackerjack band performed “New Killer Star” on the subsequent tour (the only time I got to see him in concert). But the incremental enlightenment of great art works in mysterious ways, building up over extended periods of time to inspire people to become fully engaged in the world, instead of settling for the unfocused rage and bigotry of the Charlie Daniels’ song, attitudes more recently fermented in your typical Donald Trump rally. As David sings it himself here “I got a better way/Ready, Set, Go!.”

–Rick Ouellette, 9/11/2019

Jack DeJohnette Trio: Musical Heaven on the Harbor

On August 11th, two days after he turned 77 years old, jazz drummer/legend Jack DeJohnette and his trio gave one of the best musical performances I’ve ever seen at the Shalin Liu Center in Rockport, Mass. His two partners here are saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (son of John) and bassist Matt Garrison, son of Coltrane classic-quartet bassist Jimmy Garrison. This inter-generational/progeny combo has been a side project for about five years now and the anticipation was palatable as the veteran drummer-pianist, whose first solo LP (and his appearance on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew) date back a half-century, ambled onstage followed by Ravi with three saxophones strapped to his neck and Matt clutching his five-string electric bass.

The Shalin Liu Center has become quite the marquee venue since it opened in 2010, just as much for its dramatic location as for its exemplary acoustics. The building is squeezed in between the shops and art galleries of this destination seaport and behind the stage is a two-story window overlooking Rockport’s Back Harbor (the main harbor is on the other side of a little peninsula where sits Motif #1). The atmospherics could not have been any greater as the group settled in under an otherworldly green-gray twilight sky. DeJohnette started an extraordinary half-hour suite of songs by sitting down at the house Steinway, playing a soft melody. He ended it an extended and dramatic flourish on his drum kit to climax the group’s dramatic rendition of John Coltrane’s 1963 civil-rights eulogy “Alabama.”

It was a sublime thirty minutes of sensual, exploratory interplay that was as exultant as it was daring. DeJohnette’s sterling reputation precedes him by five decades of course, and his powerful and unique style has not dimmed with the years: the audience got the full complement of his tom-tom smashes, cymbal washes and the geometric patterns and rolls that never seem to land in the same place twice. Before this night I had not been familiar with Matt Garrison (who is also DeJohnette’s godson); he was the group’s link to our technological present. He is an exceptionally nimble player, even a little show-offy a la Jaco Pastorius. His bass guitar was fed into any number of effects thru his onstage laptop and his loops and overlays were a continual source of enjoyment.


Here’s a great 9-minute piece from 2016, promoting the release of the trio’s “In Movement” album but also showing the deep inter-generational connections that has made this project so special. Nice interviews and good snippets of the album, which is not up on YouTube. So buy it!

It was Ravi Coltrane who was the evening’s wild card. He was the only of the three that I had seen live before, as part of an ace quintet led by another John Coltrane alumnus: pianist McCoy Tyner, the only one of that classic quartet that is still with us. I knew Ravi (who looks just like the old man) to be a talented but somewhat subdued saxophonist, as if he were careful not to be seen mimicking his father’s outsized legacy. But all that went out the two-story window that night and he channeled his dad’s intense and passionate playing style that always emanated from a deep spiritual center. Switching throughout the night between tenor, soprano and sopranino, he shined on “In Movement,” gliding over the tune’s metronomic rhythm and he impressively cut loose on “Cop-Out,” the set’s one foray into traditional up-tempo bebop.

Ravi Coltrane (left) performing with Matthew Garrison (center) and Jack DeJohnette (right) in October. Coltrane is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo at the 2017 Grammy Awards for the title track from In Movement, recorded with Garrison and DeJohnette

The cathartic applause by the rather upscale audience (big plus: no up-raised smart phones!) at the end of the first set said a lot about the impact of this music. We repaired to the 3rd floor reception room for drinks and a chance to catch our collective breath. Early on after the intermission, as darkness descended on the Back Harbor backdrop, came another musical peak in an evening filled with them. The trio started into the ethereal Miles Davis ballad “Blue in Green,” from his landmark album Kind of Blue, on which John Coltrane first gained widespread recognition. Here, with DeJohnette back on piano, the band magnified the popular original with a new fluid arrangement over which Ravi blew a magnificently expressive solo on soprano sax, honoring his father’s presence (on tenor sax) from the 1959 original recording. The room seemed to be in a state of suspended animation—to the point where, for a few precious out-of-body moments, I felt I was watching John Coltrane himself (what did they put in my beer?).

After I was eased off the wing of a musical angel and back into my seat the show went on in a slightly more earthbound manner. Matt Garrison got a solo showcase that was giddy with virtuosic excitement and Jack ended the proceedings with a definitive smack on his snare drum that put a full-stop exclamation point on an enchanting ride that had to end somewhere. As the trio stood at center stage, the septuagenarian leader flanked by his two surrogate sons gracefully acknowledging the standing ovation, the whole spirit of this night came together in a late-breaking attestation to the everlasting virtue of both music and family. Not necessarily just kinfolk of course, but as DeJohnette put it in the liner notes to the group’s 2016 album In Movement, “we are connected at a very high and extremely personal level.” And as with all great art, that feeling extends to the beholder of it as well, and to the artist’s contemporaries, too. This is the great paying forward of world culture and is needed now more than ever, in this pitiless planet that grows more uncertain by the day, even hour.

Of course, we all had to walk back into that world after the show, but I tempered that disappointment by picking up In Movement on CD a week later. This is not only a great keepsake of a show that will live well in my memory (yes, their versions of “Blue in Green” and “Alabama” are on it) but for that ineffable spirit I described, of a work that spreads its love around: there are titles like “Lydia” (for DeJohnette’s wife), “Two Jimmys” (Garrison and Hendrix), and “Rashied” for Rashied Ali, Coltrane’s drummer from 1966 until John died the year later (Ravi’s mom, pianist Alice Coltrane, was also in that band). A beautiful album by beautiful people in a time when it is so sorely needed.


A boat’s-eye view of the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Mass.

Rock Docs spotlight: “Woodstock” (1970)

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held fifty years ago this month in upstate New York, was such a monumental event that there is little that hasn’t been said about it at this late date. Each significant anniversary has seen the media gorging on remembrances, reissues and reponderings of history’s most famous rock music festival and its relevance to the social sea change it brought on, or at least reflected. But still, now 50 years later, they have nothing over Michael Wadleigh’s sprawling, indispensable filmed record—a project that almost never got off the ground. Festival promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld initially had no luck finding an investor to fund a camera crew to cover an event that no one thought would draw more than fifty thousand people. The only one willing to take a chance was newly minted Warner Brothers studio executive Fred Weintraub, a New York hipster who had owned the famed Bottom Line nightclub. Over the objections of others at WB, Weintraub advanced one hundred thousand dollars to finance the filming. When the humble “Aquarian Exposition” turned into an epic long weekend that attracted nearly half a million young folks, the demand for the finished film went through the roof. The only rock documentary to ever win an Academy Award (until 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man” and the following year’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom”), “Woodstock” eventually grossed over fifty million dollars in its theatrical release and has enjoyed a long afterlife on home video, especially in the expanded 230-minute director’s cut introduced in 1994.


Premiering nationally on PBS is the excellent “Woodstock: 3 Days That Defined a Generation.” This trailer may lapse into cliche but this new documentary is a fresh look at the long ago events in upstate NY from a more sociological angle, with all the visuals being archival footage from the event, matched with the voices of those who were there (along with a smattering of key musical moments).

Wadleigh and his hastily assembled seventy-man crew, organized by a young assistant director named Martin Scorsese, spread out over the vast scene, diligently covering every aspect of that long weekend. The music and the hippie idealism are in great supply, of course, but as part of a microcosm of a time that sees past the expected clichés that have long since taken hold. Ironically, a lot of those clichés stem from this very film as well as from the soundtrack album with which it often overlaps. It starts with the warning about the brown LSD that’s “not specifically too good” and goes from there. “New York State Thruway is closed, man!” “If you sing really hard, maybe we can stop this rain!” “There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”


“Blind Faith is a groovy group.” A popular clip in the Internet age is the “Emotional Colors” girl, later identified as the late Jeanette McCurdy of Buffalo, NY.

The frequent use of split-screen images showed the multiple perspectives of a situation that the crew saw as an unfolding story that could turn out either way. The “Biblical/epochal” scene described by a joint-rolling Jerry Garcia is established in a twenty-minute prologue before Richie Havens wows the first day crowd with his improvised-on-the-spot anthem “Freedom.” What follows is a steady stream of outstanding (and often career-making) musical performances by the likes of Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, the Who, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and others.

The logistical and crowd scenes that pop up after every three or four songs are every bit as interesting, especially the bravura ten-minute sequence depicting the famous Sunday thunderstorm. It drenched a crowd that had just been galvanized by Cocker’s dramatic recasting of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and thrust the stage crew into the role of reassuring the sea of humanity while simultaneously fretting over the fate of their vulnerable light towers and staving off the possibility of electrocution. When the crowd comes out the other end of this mud-covered crucible with their good spirits intact, their reputation is made.

What is just as impressive is the tolerant, even admiring, attitudes towards the crowd from many “straights” in the surrounding area, especially considering the whole county was brought to a virtual standstill because of the event. There’s the genial portable-toilet cleaning man (“glad to do it for these kids”) speaking fondly of both his son at the festival and the other one in Vietnam; the chief of police pronouncing that the hippies “can’t be questioned as good American citizens;” the visibly moved Max Yasgur proclaiming that the legions camped on his farm “have proven something to the world;” and the middle-aged gentleman who suggests to another that he should care more about the kids dying in ’Nam and lay off criticizing the ones smoking pot and sleeping in the field. These people suggest there was too much emphasis on the generation gap back then and too little on the value of good character, regardless of demographics.

Michael Wadleigh would eventually become disillusioned with the film business, making only one more movie (1981’s Wolfen) and eventually turning to environmental activism. Sensing that these “3 Days of Peace & Music” were destined to be the high water mark of the counterculture, the director picked up a camera on Monday morning and filmed scenes of the muddy, garbage-strewn aftermath that he has said were directly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. Because of the weekend’s many delays, the music was not over: When headliner Jimi Hendrix hits a cataclysmic guitar chord that introduces his decade-defining deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the camera pulls back to reveal that the cheering audience now numbers around thirty thousand.

In an artfully presented sequence, Wadleigh first stays close to Hendrix as he transforms the national anthem into an implied antiwar protest with an astounding series of explosions, shrieks, and moans coaxed out of his white Stratocaster. He sticks with him as he roars through his monster hit “Purple Haze” (“Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”) then switches to the dazed stragglers picking through the debris for the odd scrap of food or a pair of discarded sneakers. Hendrix finishes with an elegiac guitar solo that gives the film its soft landing. This thoughtful and somewhat sober ending underlines the feeling that if Woodstock the music festival was the brightest point of light for the ideals of the 1960s youth generation, Woodstock the film was the greatest advocate of those ideals.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

In a Dream of Strange Cities, Part 3: “Parabolica”

We all stood just inside the door of the long-closed sanctum. Lady Domine took a few steps forward from us. She wore a charcoal floral-print tunic, pale red leggings and stylish hiking shoes; she stood with a regally erect posture. But the way her hands cupped her sides with fingers spread, and the manner in which her right foot was set forward, suggested she was better prepared for a spirited game of hide-and-seek than the more serious matter at hand.

I remembered Crutch’s comment when he first told me about our company’s top benefactor. “She’s sort of stuck somewhere between a duchess and a tomboy.

“Well, one thing is for certain,” she said after a pause of a half-minute, “For this sort of undertaking, the old meeting room of a secret society really fits the bill.”

“Didn’t I tell you, it’s perfect!” Crutch spoke with an eagerness that was a bit out of character.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Charlie Crutchfield. At $90,000 we’re definitely going to buy it.”

I nudged Hannah with my left elbow and nodded. She replied with a discreet thumbs-up.

Domine turned to look at me. “Asbestos?”

“Well, there is some, mostly in the basement. But it’s not a very large building.”

Crutch piped in. “The Parabolic Society was never a large fraternity. More like a watering hole for utopian sky-watchers. Have you heard of them?”

She lifted a little crooked smile that lit up her still largely-unlined face. “Not at all. I always rely on you guys in the Ministry of Dark Tourism for my esoteric learning.”

“I doubt that, but thanks” Crutch said and they walked over towards the apse, with its formal arrangement of three chairs.

Hannah turned to me confidentially. “When she says ‘we’re’ going to buy it, should I take it literally to mean all of us? I don’t exactly have twenty-two grand lying around.”

“Don’t worry, that’s her way of being inclusive. She’ll probably take the $90,000 out of her petty cash drawer.”

Lady Domine approached the chairs and lightly patted the larger one in the middle. A light puff of dust rose up, but she took a seat anyway. Then it occurred to me: who would sit on either side, if anyone? The rough idea was a political rally under the guise of a MODT event featuring a re-creation of a 19th century mesmeric performance. I hoped that my late career switch didn’t turn out to be more than I had bargained for.

She leaned forward in the big chair. “Oh, Crutch, I don’t know. What are we supposed to be doing here? Advocating for the partition by having me do parlor tricks? This town is probably crawling with red-caps. It could even get dangerous.”

Crutch turned to look at us and nodded towards the back area. We stepped on bits of shattered tiles, past the apse and into a hallway. I peeked back and Domine had moved off the chair and was peering thru a cracked Palladian window down at the street. I paused with Hannah to look at some parabolic diagrams that remained on the wall. After a moment I suggested she should check out the old member’s lounge and kitchen. When she did, I lingered in the hall.

“the hopheads won’t bother us,” Crutch was saying. “We’ll put up a sign saying ‘Private Event’ and get Ike’s friend Jason to work the door. You remember Jason—about six-foot eight and two fifty, with fists like pile drivers?”

“That must be the gentleman who checked tickets at our ‘Satan’s Skyline’ fiasco last October,” Domine replied. “Let’s limit alcohol sales for this event.”

“Anyway, let’s have a soft opening. We’ll invite maybe 25 of our best customers for free and maybe a few college kids from the town. See how it goes.”

“Do you want to hear a bit of what I’ve been working on”

Hannah had just poked her head out of the kitchen, probably to show me the double dumbwaiter. Rookie enthusiasm. Instead, I motioned her towards me. Once Lady Domine sat back down in the big chair and started speaking, Crutch waved us back into the main room.

“Now let’s spin back down the years to the autumn of our discontent in 2016. When PFF came to power, it was like a little piece of me died. I’m sure many of you felt the same. And when he met his maker, that piece of me was not re-born, it stayed dead. I can only hope to replace it with a new inspirational spirit derived from a wholly new source…”

Her eyes were wide open and stared straight ahead as if into nothing and everything. The effect reminded of the “Glass-Eyed Goddess of Union Mills” whose visage had recently become the MODT emblem.

The good Lady continued. “There is a new righteous power that is forming behind the scenes of everyday life. Anyone with a good heart can tap into it. But we must be careful with it. The retrogressions of this century have been shocking—the vile and needless hatreds, the bloated ignorance, the flagrant racism and the emptiness of forfeited souls that have led to countless brutalities.

“I know the desire for retribution is great with some in this current political vacuum. But we should never resort to violence in any of its forms: physical, economic, mental or whatever else. Instead, we should smite our enemies with the three Ls: Logic, Learning and Love. And the smite shall feel like a kiss.”

Lady Domine leaned back in the chair and rolled her eyes as if to say “who me?” I realized I had just snapped out of a little trance of my own.

“Well, that’s sort of the end of it. I’ll build up to it.”

After a brief silence, Hannah practically slapped her cheek with her right hand. “Omigod, that was amazing! You’ve got to do it. I know I’m new and have no clout… but if we don’t do this event I’m going to die!”

Domine smiled at her, then turned back to Crutch. “I’m still not sure. Why wouldn’t I just start a pro-partition action fund?”

“Because that’s boring and would fizzle out quickly. We’ve already talked about this—sensational gambits and star power is the only thing that’s works now. We’ll hash out the details at the next staff meeting.”

“I’m not really a mesmerist, you know, but I could wing it and see what happens. Soft opening, yes. Or else I won’t do it. Don’t be putting me down for a definite “yes” just yet. No, I have to do it, just look at this country. Can we have drinks later?”

Hannah gave me a side look. “Huh?”
“Don’t worry. You get used to it after a while.”

Crutch took Lady Domine to see the other rooms, Hannah tagged along. I looked out the front window into the town center, where the light was failing. Down below was a stonework mass of once-proud mercantile buildings, their civic ideals mostly forgotten. Beyond that was the triangular common, with its’ patchy lawn and statue of a Union soldier, standing prematurely at ease. A few guys were gathered around a bench at its far side, next to an old pick-up truck with a flag mounted behind the cab. They had bagged drinks and a couple of them were shin-kicking a third, playfully at first but then not so much.

I exhaled uncomfortably. The place with the drinks was only three doors down so I kept quiet and let it pass. But I knew it couldn’t stay that way forever.

This is an excerpt from an in-progress illustrated or graphic novel called The Ministry of Dark Tourism. If interested, follow this blog to get updated or friend me in Facebook, Rick Ouellette.

“Summer Interlude” (1951): Ingmar Bergman’s Silver Cloud with a Black Lining

It’s no big revelation that summertime, that most celebrated of seasons, can often be a contradictory advantage. Sometimes the reasons can be simple: the weather turns stifling, the beaches get too crowded, the traffic backs up for miles and it always seems a little too fleeting. “Summer’s lease has all too short a date,” as Willie Shakespeare put it. And then there is the more existential angst that can come into play. That nagging feeling that there is something missing despite all the fun that was had—a bittersweet feeling stemming from a sense of lost innocence, of elongated school vacations and the promise, even fulfillment, of first love.


Ingmar Bergman’s background in live theater is evident in the “Swan Lake” excerpts and scenes of backstage life.

Early in his film-making career, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman captured this rueful essence in “Summer Interlude” (translated from “Sommarlek”). This movie centers on a beautiful but detached ballet dancer named Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson). While preparing for a “Swan Lake” dress rehearsal, she receives a package containing the diary of an old flame, sent to her anonymously. When a power failure delays the rehearsal until that evening, Marie, now bundled up against the autumn chill, leaves Stockholm on a ferry to the island of her family’s summer place. This was the scene of the summer romance with the boy in question. In the numerous flashbacks that follow, Nilsson transforms Marie (already world-weary at 28) into a vivacious teenager. A dance prodigy, she has a practice room upstairs in the family manor (her aunt and uncle are the only relations we see) and personal use of a one-room cabin down by the rocky shoreline.


Birger Malmsten as Henrik and Maj-Britt Nilsson as Marie.

It’s on that same ferry some twelve years before that she meets Henrik, a pensive and handsome boy slightly older than herself. Bergman was in his early thirties at the time and young enough to recall the peculiar rapture of young love, as the world soon boils down to Marie and Henrik and his tag-along poodle. The director’s lustrous B&W cinematography aches with a universal nostalgia but with a keen eye to locations well known to him personally. From the glimmering of the water when the sun peeks from behind a cloud, to the dense pine-filled forests looming in the background, to the long-lingering twilights of a far-north summer spent at the 60th parallel, this film is a marvel to behold.

Just as deftly captured is the couple’s fledgling romance (“We’re inside the same bubble,” Marie tells her new beau). Bergman shows the giddy recognition of mutual attraction, the teasing byplay, the long afternoons spent in a bathing suit, and drying out on the rocks while devising the grand declarations of self-serious late adolescence. (Just as easily as Marie states “I’m never going to die,” Henrik confesses to visions of falling into an abyss). These relatable feelings are so finely honed by the two lead actors that when the tragedy we sense coming actually happens, it hits extra hard.

It’s here that the film starts hinting at themes that would later come to dominate Bergman’s work in such arthouse favorites as “Wild Strawberries” and “The Seventh Seal.” These would include the inescapability of the past and questioning the existence of God in an impersonal universe. Back in the present, Marie chances upon her debonair but creepy uncle whose revelation about the diary helps her to leave the island feeling a bit less shackled by her memories and ready to move forward with what is now in front of her.

Although it featured no nudity and only inferences of sex, the sensuous “Summer Interlude” was originally titled “Illicit Interlude in America, playing in slightly shady downtown cinemas before the days of straight-up porn. Otherwise, it became recognized as one of the first major works of a great global director and the first of an informal trilogy with “Summer with Monika” (1953) and “Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). For Bergman himself, it marked the true beginning of of the mastery of his craft. “I suddenly felt that I knew my profession,” he later remarked also noting that it was fun to make it. Like he shows with his two young lovers, there will always be a little magical something in the season where “the days are like pearls and the nights like waking dreams.”
–Rick Ouellette

Make Mine a Double #14: The Prog Years, Part One

This series on rock history’s prominent double albums has shown time and again that the four-sided album (or two-disc CD) is the chosen platform for some of popular music’s most ambitious projects. That is not always the case: a band may have a backlog of unrelated songs or chose to package a studio record and a live one together. But just as often it can be a case of a confident group or solo artist in a self-defined peak, pushing their conceptual prerogatives to the limit. This latter possibility is more likely in the lofty dominion of progressive. Oft-maligned and often misunderstood, these bands, as a longform outgrowth of the psychedelic era, tended to fantasy concepts and extended, often complex, instrumental arrangements. As drummer Bill Buford put it, recalling the time he joined up with King Crimson: “I knew this was not going to be three chords and a pint of Guinness.”

So there will be plenty of ambitious undertakings to review, yet it is interesting to note the changed dynamic of these types of outfits releasing epic works. Back in the Seventies, titles like Tales from Topographic Oceans (Yes), The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis) and The Wall (Pink Floyd) were major releases into the general rock canon. More recently, we have the “neo-prog” groups sometimes releasing several double albums and since, in this Internet age, they are marketing more directly to fans, flying under the radar of most music fans. We’ll look at both kinds since the Prog Years really run from the late Sixties to the present.

Tales from Topographic Oceans—Yes (1973)

The idea that a “lengthy footnote” from a book called Autobiography of a Yogi would inspire one to write an 80-minute song cycle is about as far away as you can get from rock ‘n’ roll’s “let’s party” birthright without sneaking up on it from the other side. But those were the times. The ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford got married in March 1973 and at the reception Yes singer Jon Anderson was told about Paramahansa Yogananda’s famed memoir by King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir. Anderson, like many others of the era, was inspired by Eastern spiritualism. Before a month had passed, he and guitarist Steve Howe were writing the esoteric lyrics. After months of painstaking composing, rehearsing and recording this veritable War and Peace of rock was released in December of that year. (A detail of Roger Dean’s handsome artwork on the cover is seen above).

Like Tolstoy’s epic book, Tales from Topographic Oceans would prove rough sledding even for some pre-disposed to like it. Side one (dauntingly titled “The Revealing Science of God”) starts with a Buddhist-like chant that draws us up from the primeval ocean and resolves into a heraldic 3-note guitar figure. It then unfolds like much of TFTO. It’s a lush instrumental sound that builds up from reflective stanzas of Anderson’s questing poetics through several segueing sections before building to a soaring climax. These up-tempo sections were a highlight for many, led by the galloping rhythm section of bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White, over which would ride Howe’s nervy lead guitar or Rick Wakeman’s bounteous synth fills. To my ears, this plan of attack works best on the exalted second side (“The Remembering”) and while sides three and four (“The Ancient” and “Ritual”) may get a bit bogged down in instrumental excesses, both resolve beautifully: with Howe’s classical acoustic guitar and the stand-alone ballad “Leaves of Green” in the former and the gentle, piano-led paen to home and hearth that closes the album.

As was often the case in progressive rock’s heyday, many of the critics were unabashed in their unkindness and Tales from Topographic Oceans remains a wedge issue to this day with fans in online discussions. But in a 2016 interview, Steve Howe looked back on Tales as “a wonderful project where we went to the end of the earth to do it. There was often a feeling that disaster was about to strike, but we got there in the end.” (In fact, dissension during recording prompted Rick Wakeman after the supporting tour). It could be a sublime listening experience in the days of real stereos and inexpensive weed, dropping the needle on your favorite side. In concert, where the album was played front-to-back in 1974, it could be a patience tester even for the die-hards (sample stage patter: “We’d like to carry on with side three”). It was a long march to the “Roundabout” encore. Circling back to TFTO now—-standing on “hills of long-forgotten yesterdays”—-as the lyrics would have it, it feels like an experiential marvel. In an age of digital dissipation and global polarization, the plea for a spiritual evolution to dispel “cast-iron leaders” and “warland seekers” is a balm. Our common humanity succeeding against all the corrupting forces of the world may sound naive, but it’s also intrinsic to the nature of all good people. When they sing the musical question, “Ours the story, shall we carry on?” the answer is easy: Yes.

Grade: A
Iconic Prog Element: Every good 20-minute song needs a subtitle. From side one to four they are: Dance of the Dawn, High the Memory, Giants Under the Sun and Nous Sommes du Soleil.


Into the Electric Castle—Ayreon (1998)

Are you a lover of classic prog looking for something of more recent vintage? Ayreon, my wayward son. Musical mastermind Arjen Lucassen formed his group project around 1994, in order to “fill a need to create rock operas.” (progarchives.com) The Dutch multi-instrumentalist and vocalist turned out to be an amazingly ambitious songwriter and conceptualist and ever since then he has fulfilled his musical and lyrical visions with an ever-evolving cast of singers and players. His first (but certainly not last) double album is proudly called “A Space Opera” on its front cover. Many classic rock operas, from Tommy on down, tend to be diffuse in their plotting but not this baby. Into the Electric Castle, like most Ayreon albums, has a tightly structured storyline and a cast of characters each voiced by a different guest vocalist. A group of eight archetypes (Knight, Highlander, Barbarian, Roman, Futureman etc.) are led into another dimension by a forbidding deity, in a test of human progress vs. self-destruction. It is melodic, esoteric and ultimately poignant. Ayreon’s prog-metal sound is tempered by a classic 70s flavor with Lucassen dishing out plenty of mini-Moog and mellotron stylings along with his usual stellar guitar and bass work.

Iconic Prog Element: The godfather of Dutch art-rock, Focus frontman Thijs van Leer, shows up to play flute on several tracks.
Grade: A-


Focus III (1973)

Speaking of Focus, the Amsterdam-based quartet had been making a splash in Europe since 1969 (and in the U.S. with their #9 single “Hocus Pocus”) and by the key prog year of 1973 were ready for a twin killing with their third album. The band was a mostly instrumental outfit, with a keen compositional sense that included elements of rock, jazz, folk and classical, sometimes accompanied by the yodeling and scat singing of their ostensible leader, keyboardist/flautist Thijs van Leer. Acclaimed guitarist Jan Akkerman, who could both shred like a demon and pluck a lute like an angel, was also a key component. This was also the classic line-up with the talented rhythm section of bassist Bert Ruiter and drummer Pierre van der Linden, so they could hardly go wrong. The best known song on Focus III is the exuberant “Sylvia” as good a piece of chamber pop that you’re ever likely to hear and their biggest Continental hit, though it stalled out at #89 in the States. Elsewhere, the group show their knack for jaunty workouts like “Carnival Fugue” and “Round Goes the Gossip” as well as for lovely acoustic miniatures, represented here by “Love Remembered” and “Elspeth of Nottingham.” The middle of the album does get a bit long-winded with jam-band marathons, though there are no shortage of highlights mixed in, esp. Akkerman’s searing leads and van Leer’s punchy Hammond organ solo on “Anonymous II.” Focus III would go gold in the U.S., maintaining the band’s American foothold on prog’s momentum waned in the late Seventies.

Grade: B+
Iconic Prog Element: The 27-minute “Anonymous II” is so long it takes up all of side three before spilling onto side four.


Works, Volume 1—Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1977)

Everything Emerson, Lake and Palmer did was big. Their top-selling records featured grandiose fantasy themes and their stage act showcased a revolving drum kit, a piano spinning end over end thirty feet above the stage (with pianist aboard) and dazzling pyrotechnic displays. But by 1977, having spent the better part of a decade coming across as triumphant warriors, ELP were in danger of being conquered by their own egos. Only hubris combined with internal dissension could produce an LP like Works , Volume 1, essentially three twenty minute solo records followed by a side featuring the “band.” Emerson’s contribution is a fully scored piano concerto. Although there is plenty of impressive work on the ivories here, an orchestrated concerto would prove to be an impossibly hard sell to all but the group’s most hardcore fans. In a similar vein, the insertion of an orchestra on drummer Carl Palmer’s “Tank,” a vigorous instrumental showpiece first heard on the group’s maiden album, gave the re-make a distinctly watered-down feel. Past ELP albums were known for having one track devoted to the radio-friendly balladry of singer/bassist/guitarist Greg. Lake. With a whole side of contributions here the results, typified by the gauzy single “C’est La Vie”, are listenable enough but don’t nearly match the artistic and commercial success of past hits like “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning.”

On side four the guys revert to old ways on two extended cuts. First with one of the amped-up classical adaptations that always worked well for them and here the honoree (some might say “victim”) is Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” ELP return to their typically exotic subject for the mini-epic “Pirates,” akin to Procol Harum on steroids. By 1977, with punk rock well and truly arrived, critical opinion of the band hit an all-time low (“Works, but only as a Frisbee,” was Creem magazine’s take) though it still made #12 in the States. Yes, there was a Works Vol. 2, a considerably more concise single album released later that year. But after 1978’s unfortunate Love Beach, ELP broke up and only re-surfaced after classic rock became institutionalized in the Nineties.

Grade: C
Iconic Prog Element: Let’s just say “Piano Concerto No. 1”


Sounds Like This—Nektar (1973)

Nektar were a group of Englishman originally based in Hamburg, led by guitarist-lead singer Roye Albrighton. They established their acid-rock bonafides with a way-out live show; their liquid lightshow guy was a full-time member. A first album in 1971 was called Journey To the Center of the Eye and the second one was suggestively titled A Tab in the Ocean, both were marked by sci-fi themes and lengthy compositions. Nektar gathered in the studio in October ’72 with the rather odd notion of simulating a live show in the studio, complete with improvisational jams. Dissatisfied with much of the results, they went back for a partial do-over in early ’73. They ended up with a double LP where the stretching out (three tracks in the 12-14 minute range) alternated with a clutch of progressive pop songs of more traditional length.

The album opens with its strongest track. “Good Day” should have been a hit in a fair world, with its filigreed guitar hooks and a dramatic buildup to an optimistic sing-along chorus. “New Day Dawning” follows in a similar winning style but side one closes with a hard-rock boogie called “What Ya Gonna Do” which is about as original as its title. From there, the album alternates between jams that sound more like their heavy-hitting contemporaries like Deep Purple or Mountain and the more written-out shorter material, like the ballad “Wings.” I prefer the latter, but the longer cuts are a fun listen. Albrighton was not really known as a guitar-hero type but he certainly is one here, ripping off any number of screaming leads on solo-heavy workouts like “1-2-3-4” (keyboardist Allan Freeman also shines here). In retrospect, Sounds Like This seems like a “let your hair down” diversion and Nektar would revert to form later in 1973 with the accomplished concept album Remember the Future, that gave them their biggest U.S. success (#19). That was short-lived but the group stayed popular in Europe and, despite a few sabbaticals, they continue to record and perform, even after Roye Albrighton’s passing in 2016.

Grade: B-
Iconic Prog Element: Halfway through “New Day Dawning” the band seamlessly shifts into the first verse of “Norwegian Wood” just because they can.


The Astonishing—Dream Theater (2016)

The Long Island-based Dream Theater are one of those prolific and restlessly creative groups that have emerged from the neo-progressive and prog metal movements of the last thirty years or so. (The Flower Kings and Big Big Train are two others that come quickly to mind). This 130-minute behemoth was their second double concept album, coming a full fourteen years after the first, 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. True to its title, that album explored various states of psychological struggles over the course of a half-dozen tracks—one of which, at 42 minutes, took up the whole second disc. Still, the relatively tight focus of Six Degrees stands in sharp contrast to the operatic sci-fi sprawl that is The Astonishing. The cover art shows a squadron of robotic orbs hovering over a futuristic city. After the “Dystopian Overture” we learn that in a distant future music, while not said to be explicitly banned, is something that people have “no time for” anymore. Instead, the orbs (called NOMACS) beam down their dissonant playlist of bleeps, blurps and technological babble. But if there is any oppression here in futureland (how much is not clear) it is challenged by the emergence of Gabriel whose messianic status seems based on the fact that he’s the only left who can carry a tune.

If you detect a note of skepticism here, go to the head of the class. The band’s synopsis of The Astonishing runs a full six paragraphs, but just listening to the album it’s hard to discern any storyline at all. Almost every song is based around general platitudes that could easily make up an album of unrelated tracks. Lead singer James LaBrie has a great set of pipes but lacks the versatility to spread them over several different characters. Before long we are getting sub-Andrew Lloyd Weber “showstoppers” like the soapy “Chosen” (“Against all hope we found a way/And it is all because she trusted me”). It’s too bad—Dream Theater founder-guitarist-lyricist John Petrucci has all the chops and ambitions in the world and the music here is played expertly but without much personal distinction. Yet the band has pulled off this kind of thing before and may well again in the future. The Astonishing, however, hardly lives up to its title: it’s all reach and no grasp.

Grade: C-
Iconic Prog Element: The NOMACS get five brief tracks all to themselves and are often more interesting than the human characters.

Follow this blog and you’ll be notified when Part 2 of this post comes out. Featured will be 2-disc bad boys from Soft Machine, Can, Mike Oldfield, the Flower Kings and others. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

Tinseltown Rock #2: 1956, The Year Rock Hit the Silver Screen

From all the way back to its earliest days, rock ‘n’ roll has been almost as much of a visual medium as an audio one. First, second, and even third generation fans, when asked about the pioneering days, will likely mention Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, Chuck Berry’s duckwalk or Jerry Lee Lewis attacking his piano. Right from the get-go, the look of rock was closely tied to the impact of the music. In the 1950s the “jukebox movies” starting arriving almost as soon as the genre had a name. Rock Around the Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock, Rock Baby Rock It, Rock Rock Rock and Jailhouse Rock all saw release by the end of 1957. These teen movies were usually uneasy alliances of the new youthful spirit of the times and hackneyed Hollywood plot points featuring head-scratching adults. The wild dancing, the Alan Freed cameos and the spotlight performances by everyone from Elvis to Johnny Burnette to LaVern Baker and the Platters, give these films a certain historical value—if you can sit still through the wooden acting and tired show-biz scenarios.

Take Rock Around the Clock. Considered by many the first rock ‘n’ roll hit, it makes sense that Columbia Pictures would build a movie around it, right from the get go. In fact, the song had already played over the opening titles of 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and would later perform the same service for 1973’s American Graffiti and the hit TV series Happy Days. The plot is a very fanciful notion of a rock & roll origin story. Big band manager Steve Hollis (played by Johnny Johnston) is convinced that the music he is promoting is on the way out and he heads back to the big city with his aptly-named sidekick, Corny. They stop in a hick town called Strawberry Springs, where is just so happens that a rock ‘n’ roll subculture (led by the local house band, Bill Haley and His Comets) is taking hold. At first they are flummoxed (“Hey, sister, what’s that exercise you’re getting?”) but soon realize they may be on to the next big thing.

All this looks so squeaky clean, making the scandalized reactions of the town’s old hags even more unintentionally funny. The dancing is energetic but hardly an affront. Everyone’s in evening wear and the action on the dance floor is led by professional partners Lisa Gaye and Earl Barton. It is Gaye’s character who gets romantically involved with Steve Hollis, enraging the Ice Queen NY booking agent who has a thing for Hollis and who is liable to destroy everyone’s chance at rock ‘n’ roll immortality, just for revenge. (Spoiler Alert: Hollis calls in a favor with Alan Freed, playing himself).

While the actors and the dancers in Rock Around the Clock are reliably Caucasian, the roll call of musicians and singers are a welcome mix of white, black and Hispanic performers. They all appear together in a final stage number. This diversity of performers (some of them true rock innovators) is the best legacy of these early pictures, even though they are cobbled together with the studio’s play-it-safe scenarios.


The Platters with their classic “Only You.”

For instance, Rock, Rock, Rock! starts out with two swingin’ numbers. One is over the opening credits where the featured performers are shown (Chuck Berry, La Vern Baker, the Moonglows, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers etc.) and another for a dance scene at the malt shop. But the air quickly goes out of the room (cinematically speaking) when Dori (Tuesday Weld, only 13 at the time) is asked if some boy has asked her to the (middle school?) prom. After replying “not yet” she is quickly compelled to leave her seat and regale us with a soapy ballad. But naturally, the various acts lip-syncing to their hits is the big feature here, a highlight being the two numbers by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, seen below.


Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, introduced by Alan Freed, in “Rock, Rock, Rock!”

And so the formula went. These jukebox pictures made for good business, so were churned out on a set schedule. Don’t Knock the Rock followed in Dec. 1956, still with Bill Haley and the Comets topping the bill (as “The Kings of Rock”) but Little Richard couldn’t help but steal the show with his two numbers towards the end of the flick.


Little Richard lets it rip with “Long Tall Sally.”

Of course, Elvis was the biggest of all back then and Colonel Parker’s scheme to make his client (and himself) rich included making as many movies as possible and Jailhouse Rock, released in fall of 1957, was already his third film vehicle. But it was the first straight-up blockbuster, both with earnings (its box office take was comparable to The Wizard of Oz) and because of its racy subject matter. As jailbird-turned-pop-star Vince Everett, Presley is a punch-happy, manslaughtering, girl-grabbing, ego-driven SOB of an anti-hero. “Cheap, unpleasant, tasteless,” were a few of the reverse compliments it earned from critics. It’s stage performance of the title song is an indelible image of the genre, despite the many far less potent films that would follow. The die had been cast and from here straight thru to Bohemian Rhapsody, the movies have been rocking ever since.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html