Rock on Film

“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

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

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

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film (Part 2)

Sally Sedition, 1979: “My granny lives up there on the 12th floor and ‘alf the time the lift’s broken. It’s a travesty, that is.”

Text by Rick ouellette/Illustrations by Eric Bornstein

Never underestimate the symbolic value of the hated “tower blocks” of working-class London as rhetorical ammunition for punk rockers in their skirmish with the UK establishment of the late 1970s. On their second LP, This is the Modern World, the Jam posed under the same shadowing underpass as Sally did in the above drawing, with the same applied animus of inhumane council estates. This perceived cattling of the populace was immortalized in songs like the Clash’s “London’s Burning,” Chelsea’s “High-Rise Living” and XTC’s “Towers of London.”

In reality, not a ton of these early punks actually lived in these dreaded high rises, many coming from more outlying London districts or suburbs (the Jam hailed from Woking, 23 miles from the Charing Cross measuring spot). An exception was Clash guitarist Mick Jones, who indeed lived way up off the ground with his granny. The group made a point to be filmed looking out from an outdoor balcony down to the elevated Westway and the city beyond. This footage made it into Julien Temple’s 2007 posthumous docu-pic Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. In that film, Jones is seen on the same balcony and says, “All you have to do is look out there to write a song. It’s all out there.” That “roar of the city” that Jones refers to can be absorbed by anyone who wants to experience and understand it, regardless of their origin. Joe Strummer himself was born in Ankara to a foreign-service family and went to a private boarding school for a while. But he absorbed the street and its varying forms of the human condition to be able to write about like few had done before.


By the time of the Sandinista! album, released in late 1980, the Clash’s critique of high-rise public housing had advanced from rabble-rousing phrases to more of a news editorial bent. “You can’t live in a home which should not have been built/By the bourgeois clerks who bear no guilt” Mick Jones sings The song’s somber eloquence is reflected in the montage of this fan-made video, which includes the band-on-balcony footage mentioned above.

The creative impulse to strike out in anger and protest, an indignation often leavened with raffish humor, is a British tradition dating at least as far back as Jonathan Swift (Johnny Rotten has been likened to a modern-day Artful Dodger). In 1979, Julien Temple showed his debt to radical French director Jean (Zero for Conduct) Vigo when he made the 19-minute short subject Punk Can Take It. He recruited the conversant second-line punk outfit the UK Subs (along with a couple of carryover characters from his filming of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) in creating a cheeky parody of Humphrey Jennings’ acclaimed 1940 newsreel London Can Take It. The wartime documentarian made several skillful morale-boosting works, showing the English population banding together in the face of Luftwaffe attacks. In Temple’s version, the band (and the safety-pinned kids in general) have to withstand the bombardment of an uptight establishment that would suppress and/or co-opt them. The pithy narrator mimics the authoritative tone of Jenning’s source material. He assures us that the big noises we here “are not Hollywood sound effects” as we join the Subs regaling a sweaty, pogo-happy club crowd with such two-minute buzzsaw bursts as “Stranglehold” and “I Live in a Car.”

Sally notes the prominent role played by “poxy politicians” in the attempted demonization of punk, rivaling the role of the tabloid newspapers as they chronicled the “foul-mouthed yobs” and their “rock cult filth.” Notable among these officials was then city-councilor Bernard Brook-Partridge, seen below.

Punk Can Take It hints at a punk purism, dispensing with hippies and even neo-Mods with cartoonish violence. But the new scene was diverse even in the early years of 1976-77. The Jam wore sharp suits and slashed away at their Rickenbackers, evoking mid-Sixties Who and Kinks, but with an extra dose of sneering. In the 2015 doc, The Jam: About the Young Idea, director Bob Smeaton (who also helmed Festival Express) shows how kids from the outlying “satellite towns” embraced an image that was less confrontational than the Kings Road early adopters, who were often marks for bobbies and skinheads. Although the songs of frontman Paul Weller were more thoughtful than many others, the delivery system was just as fierce, as seen in this 1980 version of “Private Hell” from the German music show Rockpalast (the full show is available as a bonus disc on some DVD editions of About the Young Idea).

Most Brit punk documentaries focus on a few of the same elements that gave rise to this new contentious sound that rattled the status quo in Old Blighty. Primary causes were the nation’s social and economic upheavals of the mid-70s, the blandness of mainstream culture and the perceived pomposity of arena-rock groups. Bands like Yes and Pink Floyd came in for a right bashing. As Sally tells it: “Before punk, it was all prog-rock tossers and 20-minute guitar solos. That’s boring, innit?”

Don Letts, who had made the seminal Punk Rock Movie in 1978 (discussed in Part One), joined up with Mick Jones after he left the Clash, forming Big Audio Dynamite. Letts latter returned to film making and produced the excellent wide-view documentary Punk: Attitude in 2005. Instead of slagging off anything that came before the Pistols, Letts see the outrage of the Class of ’77 as part of an evolving struggle against complacency—even a “spiritual thing within,” as Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones puts it. Here, the survey of that attitude stretches back to Woody Guthrie, the Fifties’ rock & roll pioneers and even the war-protesting hippies that the punks were aligned against. Letts has directed several other music docs as well: for the purposes of this post, the 2000 Clash profile Westway to the World is also recommended.

In the 21st century, the punk spirit can be re-lived and hopefully spark new inspiration in younger generations through the flock on related films that have been released in the last two decades. Sometimes they are not documentaries: maybe the two best cinematic depictions of the vibrant Manchester is the brilliant feature film Control (directed by Anton Corbijn, 2007) about the life and tragic death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and the wildly entertaining 24-Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) starring Steve Coogan as the city’s punk-scene impresario Tony Wilson.

Among the newer notable docs is Don’t You Wish We Were Dead, the alternately hilarious and sobering profile of the UK’s irreverent trailblazers, and The Slits: Here to be Heard about the fearless forerunners of riot girl bands. Meanwhile, Julien Temple has gone on to become a virtual Sex Pistols documentary cottage industry. He filmed their 2007 concerts in London to mark the 30th anniversary of their classic Never Mind the Bollocks album. Their pariah status long behind them, they came across like modern English folk heroes, playing their nuts off for a mult-racial and multi-generational crowd for whom the lads’ “God Save the Queen” is now an “alternate national anthem.” Another recent Temple production, Christmas With the Sex Pistols (2013), is even better. Combining his old footage with new interviews with the band and attendees, Temple creates a heartwarming (yes, really) remembrance of the band’s secret holiday party that they threw for the children of striking firefighters on 12/25/1977. Naturally, the kids have no problem getting into the anarchic frame of mind, covering Johnny Rotten’s head in frosted cake, mid-performance.


From the 1980 film “Rude Boy,” the Clash front-line (from l to r, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones) are seen performing at a Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park. The offending tower blocks loom in the background.

The punks’ visceral suspicion towards the concept of public high-rise housing came to a horrifying realization in June 2017 when the 24-story Grenfell Tower in West London erupted into a shocking conflagration that killed 72 people. The shoddy, cut-rate cladding and lax attitudes towards safety regulations and upkeep were major contributing factors to how a simple fridge fire quickly engulfed the entire building. The rhetorical aggression of punk rock pales in comparison to the “passive violence of civilized life” mentioned by the narrator of Punk Can Take It.


The Grenfell Tower inferno, June 14 of 2007.

Few rock songwriters would have understood this better than Joe Strummer, who died suddenly from a congenital heart condition in December of 2002. He and Mick Jones wrote a song for the Clash’s first album called “London’s Burning”. Naturally, it was not a call for mass arson—after all, London was burning with “boredom”—but instead was one of many songs coming from the UK at that time calling for a unity among kids to combat the de-personalizing nature of modern society. Joe, lost late at night in a housing project sings, “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home/I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone.”

In Julien Temple 2007 Strummer doc The Future is Unwritten, the cinematic auteur of British punk, used a repeated motif of having groups of people (bandmates, friends, celebrity fans) sitting around bonfires sharing their stories of Joe and lauding his sense of globalism and social justice. One can only imagine Strummer’s reaction to today’s political climate of nationalism, bigoty, authoritarian rule and the whole Brexit folly. But no matter what the current conditions, it’s always best to remember his parting words from an old taped interview: “You can change anything you want to. People are out there doing bad things to each other because they’ve been de-humanized. It’s time to take humanity back to the center of the ring.”

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Rock Doc spotlight: “Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell at the Isle of Wight 1970”

Directed by Murray Lerner—1970/2018—76 minutes

We are just a few months away from the outpouring of tributes and remembrances marking the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. A lot of that of course will focus on that weekend’s legendary line-up of performers. But what of one artist who didn’t end up on that stage in Bethel, New York, even though she wrote the definitive anthem of the event? Joni Mitchell was scheduled to play for the masses gathered on Max Yasgur’s famous field. But as travel logistics to and from the festival got worse, Joni was held back at the urging (or insistence) of David Geffen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. They wanted to make sure that they had at least one guaranteed performer for a scheduled post-Woodstock edition of the Dick Cavett Show. This left a very disappointed Ms. Mitchell to write her brooding but beatific “Woodstock” after watching news coverage of it from a hotel room.

But Joni would appear at a larger multi-day festival the following summer. The 1970 edition of England’s Isle of Wight event (where attendance topped out at some 600,000), was marked by an acrimonious struggle between radical elements of the audience and what was perceived as greedy owners who cordoned off the grounds and had the audacity to charge admission. Anyone who has seen Murray Lerner’s exemplary documentary of the festival (Message to Love) will know of the fence-busting and the rhetorical fireworks emanating from the stage by both sides. And they would also recall Joni Mitchell’s segment from the film, where she is interrupted by a man trying to borrow her microphone for an impromptu rant.

Both Sides Now faces those troubles head-on, beginning with a sneak preview of Joni doing the famous title intercut with scenes of the general turmoil. The line “it’s life’s illusions I recall” takes on a new meaning here. Symbolically, the 1970 Wight festival was the smudging of the rose-colored lenses thru which Woodstock’s Aquarian ideal was viewed. The commodification of the rock music marketplace, with its vast legions of potential consumers, was well under way. Murray Lerner, who died in 2017, produced several single-artist offshoot videos from his extensive footage, including those of headlining acts like the Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. But this edition, graced with the astute reminisces of Mitchell from a 2003 interview, stands with the best of them both musically and thematically.


Everywhere there was song and celebration… and insurgency? The 1970 Isle of Wight festival as seen from the top of the non-paying section dubbed Desolation Row. Many would try to bust in thru the fencing.

Certainly, fans of Joni should not pass this one by, either by viewing the full set on YouTube or by obtaining the keepsake Blu-ray edition. Right from the top, as she straps on her acoustic guitar and starts into the lovely “Song about the Midway,” you can tell this is some special stuff. At this point, she had three albums worth of her uniquely introspective and romantic songs to draw on and her star was on the rise, her current single (“Big Yellow Taxi”) hitting #11 on the U.K. charts. Mitchell was a seasoned performer, confident enough to do three songs from her future classic album, Blue, which wouldn’t come out until the next summer.


Joni performs “Song about the Midway” and “Gallery.”

Joni, whose father’s ancestry was Norwegian, was famously described as a “Nordic princess” in Sheila Weller’s popular 2008 book Girls Like Us, was a luminous presence in her long flaxen hair, tangerine-colored maxi dress and turquoise necklace. The cameramen, after days of shooting hairy guys in hard-rock bands, couldn’t get enough of her. Even when there’s a flub she makes something out of it; after a couple of verses of “Chelsea Morning” she tells the crowd she doesn’t feel like singing that much, but not before finishing the abbreviated number with an impressive flurry of her distinctive open-tuned guitar stylings.

But playing solo acoustic to such a huge and restive crowd proved a little dicey: in Message to Love we see a glib Kris Kristofferson getting nearly booed off the stage. For Joni, the trouble starts when a man who seems like he’s on a bad acid trip is extracted from the crowd close in front of her. She has sat down at the piano for a couple of tunes, singing about a street musician playing “For Free” while her world consists of limo rides and “velvet curtain calls.” Then she tries in vain to get the crowd to sing “we are stardust, we are golden” in the chorus to “Woodstock.” When a man who had been sitting behind her tries to borrow her mike he is all but wrestled off the stage. With the masses ready to erupt, Mitchell exhorts the crowd (at the 2:00 mark of the video below) to give the musicians “some respect” while the man, freaky as he may seem, tells the organizers at the end of that clip that we are indeed “caught in the devil’s bargain.”


Joni Mitchell SINGS “Woodstock.” Then, though visibly nervous, she confronts the unruly isle of Wight crowd after having her performance interrupted by the head of the Committee to Paint the Fence Invisible.

In the interview segments, Joni reflects on just how unnerving the experience was for her 26 year-old self. She remarks on how the 1970 Wight event was the “Hate-the-Performers Festival” and that some of the stars brought it on themselves by arriving in luxury cars or in custom caravans. The event was running behind the schedule and she agreed to play in the tension-filled afternoon instead of at night, in effect being “fed to the beast.” The trouble was stirred up by a faction (which included a pack of French anarchists) called the “Free Festival Radicals.” They were camped out on the hillside behind the site and spent much of their time trying to tear down the fence. The idea that music is some sort of natural occurrence, like the sun setting over an ocean, instead of the end result of a laborious creative process, was a thing at the time (also evident in the film Festival Express, filmed the same year). It is as galling as the idea of illegal downloading that started with Napster and that has made life nowadays even more difficult for musicians not in the upper echelons.

Also in the interviews, Mitchell explains her revelation that a large audience is like a giant dragon with the first five rows like the head. If you placate that part of it, it will send a calming message back down to the rest. Joni finished the set to a won-over audience and one of the best shots Lerner has is the sight of her running back onto the stage for an encore. Yes, the beast of a mass-market rock ‘n’ roll marketplace was about to take over and Mitchell would be one of its most visible jet-setting stars. But in this case, it’s because her talents were rewarded by paying fans who allowed her to keep doing her thing. In view of the lowest-common-denominator, computer-enhanced pop stars that dominate today’s scene, we have indeed paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Tinseltown Rock #1: “Masked and Anonymous” (2003)

My 2016 book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey was ultimately conceived as a parallel history of pop music thru the prism of documentary film. Before I settled on that I had considered something of broader scope but decided the inclusion of rock-centric fictional feature films was too heavy a load. But that left me with a lot of unused notes, unused that is until now! Here is the first in a series of what I left behind.

“We live in a tawdry and vulgar age,” says an unscrupulous concert promoter looking to stage a charity concert in a Third World country, all to bolster the image of a heavy-handed regime. The planning of this televised benefit gig is the main premise of this loosely-plotted fantasia, directed by Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Borat) starring, and co-written by, Bob Dylan. Masked and Anonymous veers close to vanity project territory and was widely planned on its initial release in 2003. But its entrenched depiction of a dystopic place where the hopelessness of geo-politics meets the implied futility of idealism, is worth a good second look. If things were tawdry and vulgar back then, just look at us now. The absurdities of the Trump Age make it seem like this film was ahead of its time.


“What, another movie critic? I’ll take care of this one, Bob!”

After an opening montage dealing in images of global conflict and protest (set to a cover of Bob’s “My Back Pages” in French) we meet the shady promoter played by John Goodman working well within his wheelhouse. He has promised the ruling regime that he will deliver a star act for the benefit show. Hypocritically, the proceeds are meant for civilian victims of violence in the strife-torn nation. After getting the cold shoulder from the likes of U2, he goes to Plan B and gets living legend/has-been Jack Fate (Dylan) to agree to perform in return for being let out of a near-by jail, where he is being kept for unspecified crimes. Jack then rides in a ramshackle bus thru scenes of hard times in the outskirts of the capital to the soundstage where the event will take place. Ostensibly, the tension of the film lies in the moral dilemma of doing such a gig “for a barbarian that can barely spell his name.” Hmm…

The main problem here is that as an actor and a personality, Dylan is far too wily and inscrutable to make much hay out of this. Granted, he did get a lot of big name Hollywood stars to join in and work for scale, but it’s a mixed bag. Aside from Dylan and Goodman, the main players are Jeff Bridges as cynical but conscientious journalist doing a story on the show and Jessica Lange as the steely network honcho with her eyes set on the bottom line. There are a lot of other big names here, but folks like Penelope Cruz (as Bridges’ ragamuffin girlfriend) and Luke Wilson (as Jack Fate’s musician pal) are underused, while others (Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Christian Slater) are barely noticeable. And until I saw Masked and Anonymous I never imagined that I would be viewing a cinematic love scene between a sexagenarian Bob Dylan and Angela Bassett. But it’s that kind of flick.

On the plus side? Well, the promoter hooks up his star with a Jack Fate (i.e. Dylan) tribute band and the music kicks in with a garage version of “Down in the Flood” from their sideshow stage. There are strong renditions of “I’ll Remember You” and “Cold Irons Bound” as well as a few sweet surprises such a young black girl’s a capella rendition of “The Times They are A-Changing” which raises a half-smile from Uncle Bob. Much of the film is shot inside a hangar-type building, sectioned off into different stage sets, not unlike Frank Zappa’s film vehicle 200 Motels. The carnival ambiance sometimes evokes the feel of such Dylan evergreens as “Desolation Row.” This feel is enhanced by the sharp art direction and evocative location work. When Mr. Fate hops a bus to “Quadrant 4” it looks like it could be bedraggled Venezuela though the whole movie was shot in Los Angeles. Which sort of tells you something right there.

And that is where Masked and Anonymous begins to get under your skin. It’s atmosphere of slow, creeping dread, of being caught up in a dream world of absurdities where heroes are hard to identify,that makes it seem more relevant and relatable now. Dylan himself was one of those heroes for a lot of us growing up but now he looks as bewildered at us moving thru this landscape of “toil and blood, where blackness is a virtue and the road is full of mud.” He may be as sphinx-like as ever but as he meets our gaze as he rides way at the end, we feel he’s at least still there with us on the side of the angels. Long may he mumble.

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: A Punter’s Guide to 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film, Part 1

Illustration by Eric Bornstein

In June of 1977, much of Great Britain was celebrating the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, who had ascended to the throne in 1952. At the same time, the punk rock uprising—which had been a disruptive presence in English society since the previous year—was reaching the apex of its notoriety. The Sex Pistols were certifiable public enemies by that time. They spent Jubilee Night on a hired Thames riverboat, sailing past the Houses of Parliament and railing against what they saw as an artificial figurehead looming over a fractured society and a declining economy. When the boat docked after this open-air shindig, the police were waiting…

Almost as soon as bands stared forming and a scene coalescing, Punk was being filmed. On the riverboat that night, camera in hand, was Julien Temple. While at university he became enamored of the French anarchist filmmaker Jean Vigo and in 1976 befriended the Pistols. Also on the scene in these days, with a newly purchased Super 8mm camera, was Don Letts, the dreadlocked DJ at London’s Roxy club. He filmed many bands during the famous 100-day period in early ’77 when the Roxy was an all-punk venue. This footage included performances by the Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Billy Idol and Generation X, the Clash, Subway Sect, the Slits and also American acts Johnny Thunders and Wayne County. He edited together his best clips of bands and fans at the Roxy as well as on the seminal White Riot Tour and released the endearingly primitive “Punk Rock Movie” in 1978.

The film ends with an electrifying 5-song clip of the Sex Pistols playing at The Screen on the Green in April ’77, their first performance with Sid Vicious. It’s an invaluable depiction of a revolutionary band as yet unburdened by their own infamy or by the Machiavellian manipulations of manager Malcolm McLaren.

Around the same time, a fledgling German filmmaker named Wolfgang Buld set out for London and shot many of the same bands as well as others like the Jam, the Adverts and Chelsea. Buld also paid homage to the first-column punk followers in several scenes, and for contrast ventured into a club chock full of conservative Teddy Boys (1st Ted: “One of them (punks), he had a dog collar on. There’s nothing good about that, is there?” 2nd TED: “That’s why we give them a good hiding every time we see ‘em.”) Buld also captured some bands playing live in their practice spaces, most notably X-Ray Spex and their dynamic singer Poly Styrene.


X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene in a still from “Punk in London”

The resulting “Punk in London” (like “Punk Rock Movie”) closes with an extended sequence of a top-line punk outfit. The Clash rip thru several of their politically-charged numbers on a spacious well-lit hall in Munich, making this one of the better filmed documents of the group’s early years. Both these movies show punk in straight-up mostly cinema verite form. It was a homegrown protest calling out Britain’s faded postwar promise and a raucous reaction against a stale pop music scene.


The Clash, “Garageland” Live in Munich 1977

Punk’s real Days of Rage started December 1st, 1976, when the Pistols where hastily invited to appear on the early-evening “Today Show” when the guys in Queen cancelled. A drunk and condescending host named Bill Grundy questioned the equally soused group and four members of their Bromley Contingent fan group. When one of them, future star Siouxsie Sioux, gets propositioned by Grundy, it’s more than guitarist Steve Jones is willing to take.


Forty-thousand pounds gone “Down the boozer”: The Grundy affair gets hashed out in Julien Temple’s 2000 doc “The Filth and the Fury

The British tabloids went off their nut. The Pistols had just released “Anarchy in the UK” their Molotov cocktail of a debut single and the uproar that followed the “Today” broadcast instantly gained them a national infamy. Glen Matlock, the band’s bassist and songwriting contributor, was soon after replaced by the less talented but more volatile Sid Vicious, born John Beverly and a friend of Rotten’s. This fit well into the game plan of the Pistols’ rakish manager, Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to exploit this growing sensationalism for maximum shock effect and easy money. It worked only too well. By the spring of ’77, Sex Pistol gigs were getting banned in several cities and anxious record companies were signing and then quickly dropping them amid the general moral panic. Their status as media Public Enemies was no joke: both Johnny Rotten and drummer Paul Cook were viciously attacked by London street thugs. What was overshadowed in all this was that the band’s “God Save the Queen” single was a true cultural turning point in UK history.


The semi-fictional propaganda hodgepodge that was “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” was released in 1980 as some sort of twisted Malcolm McLaren testament. Rotten had long left the band and despised the idea of it but the movie (directed, in a sense, by Julien Temple) had its moments, including a couple of nice bits of animation.

Although vilified by the press and misunderstood by large portions of slightly older rock fans, punk did find an early ally of sorts in the person of left-of-center artist/designer/director Derek Jarman. His cult film “Jubilee” was shot in ’77 and released a year later. He used punk singers and personalities like Toyah Wilcox, Jordan, Adam Ant and the Slits alongside players who were more identified with Jarman’s Warholian London art clique.

The film was a dystopian fantasy where Queen Elizabeth I, curious to see what the future holds for her country, is transported by her in-house sorcerer to an England where a social breakdown has left a blighted urban landscape where fascist police battle politically radicalized punk gangs.

At the gang’s dockside they work up militant manifestos but also aspire to be pop stars despite a global media machine as represented by an all-powerful impresario, the cackling Borgia Ginz. “Jubilee” was didactic arthouse fare that was not widely-loved when it came out in 1978. Many punk rockers were pissed off at the film’s implicit idea that they were callous and violent by default, booing at the premiere at a scene of one of the impresario’s hangers-on being tied to a lamppost with barbed wire.


Just another day in the dystopic Docklands of “Jubilee”

Today, Jarman’s movie looks more astute, pre-figuring the divisive Thatcher years and the modern media-industrial complex that marginalizes true rebellion by feeding the general public an “endless movie.” Speaking of which, the establishment got into the game by 1980, most notably with “Breaking Glass.” The script seemed to emanate from the boardroom instead of the street, although the sole credited writer-director was the BBC-trained journeyman Brian Gibson.

It starred the strident vocalist Hazel O’Connor playing a singer whose rise to messianic status defies both logic and musical greatness. Even the solid presence of Phil Daniels as her original manager/love interest doesn’t help much (Gibson, to his credit, would gone on to make two much better fiction films of real iconic female singers: “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Josephine Baker Story”). The year before, Daniels had starred in Franc Rodman’s brilliant screen adaptation of the Who’s rock opera “Quadrophenia.” The film was embraced by the punk community and showed in a way that this new cultural uprising was also part of a longer continuum and would eventually be looked on with the same sort of nostalgia it was then detesting. But more of that in Part Two.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

The Annotated “Rock Docs” Radio Special

by Rick Ouellette

Last month, I was honored to be interviewed by DJ Bob Dubrow of WMBR-FM 88.1 in Cambridge, Mass. to talk about my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Why honored, you ask? Because Bob is not just your average guy blabbing with some local scribbler with a book to peddle. He interviews (on a regular basis) many of your favorite musicians from the Sixties and Seventies, which is the focal point of the “Lost and Found” show which airs on “the Big 88” every weekday from noon-2PM (Bob is usually in the Tuesday slot). Your humble blogger and indie author was preceded the previous week by Bob Cowsill of the famous singing family and was followed by Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) and Paul Rodgers (Free/Bad Company) the next two Tuesdays.

You can click the link below to hear the whole two-hour show or, if you’re pressed for time like most people, I will break it down into sections so you can jump ahead to certain interview segments or songs. Please note, however, that you can’t rewind on this slider. Also, check out Bob’s many great past interviews by visiting his MixCloud page at https://www.mixcloud.com/bob-dubrow/

For about the first four minutes, I get to talk a little bit about myself and how I came to write the book, while you become acclimated to my velvety radio voice 😉. Bob arranged the show to revolve around the work of various directors who have made the filming of rock music subjects a facet of their careers. I thought this was a good idea as it shows that from the beginning of the books timeline (1964) there were serious filmmakers recording performances and depicting real-life events of musical artists that were shaping a major cultural shift of the 20th century.


David (left) and Albert Maysles filming Mick Jagger during the making of Gimme Shelter.

First up, we discuss David and Albert Maysles (at the 5:00 mark) who were hired to film The Beatles First U.S. Visit only a couple of hours before the group’s plane landed in New York in February of 1964. The notion of rock mass-media was so new that the Maysles were giving full-access, sight unseen, by the Beatles management, giving us an up close look at this now-legendary event, which today would have a virtual army of handlers attached to it. The other two parts of rock’s great triumvirate (the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) were also committed to non-fiction celluloid before 1964 was out: the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show and Dylan at the Newport Folk Fest. Director Murray Lerner in fact, filmed at Newport for several years and compiled his highlights in the 1967 doc Festival!

At 14:10, Bob plays Dylan’s very plugged-in version of Maggie’s Farm from Newport 1965 that has gone down in legend (and is seen in the Festival! film). So many rumors have surrounded this watershed Dylan-goes-electric moment—did Pete Seeger try to cut the cord with an axe, was Bobby booed off stage—that Mr. Dubrow’s anecdote he learned from an interview with Newport participant producer Joe Boyd gives an fascinating spin on this famous tale.

Discussion of the work of Murray Lerner continues with his film Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (at 28:45), his outstanding doc of that 1970 event attended by 600,000 people but, because of funding issues, not released until 1997. Bob plays a song not seen in the original film, Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” preceded by some typically esoteric stage banter from the bard of Montreal.


Leonard Cohen at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival

The crucial role of documentary makers in preserving the counterculture experience for posterity—the good, the bad an the ugly—is discussed (at 28:45) in the section about the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, about the Stone’s 1969 US tour that ended in the calamitous Altamont festival. At 32:15, Bob cues up the disheveled version of “Under My Thumb” during which the Hell’s Angels murdered a gun-brandishing audience member.

A discussion of the venerable American documentarian D.A. Pennebaker starts at 38:35. Pennebaker (like the Maysles) was an adherent of the new Direct Cinema and their fly-on-the-wall methods often yielded startling results, like D.A.’s bracing classic Don’t Look Back. At 38:35, Dylan’s defiant version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from his 1966 UK tour (also controversial with the folkie purists).

At 47:30, we discuss another Pennebaker film (and my all-time favorite rockumentary) Monterey Pop and after that Bob Plays a couple of songs from that beatific Summer of Love event, one at 51:27 from Buffalo Springfield (from a DVD extra) and one from the legendary set by Otis Redding (at 54:20). Also, he plays a song from a later Pennebaker film shot in 1973, the title song from the David Bowie concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.


Among the legendary performances captured by Pennebaker at Monterey Pop, the Who’s “smashing” version “My Generation” ranks near the top.

At 1:03:25 the name Peter Whitehead comes up. Though not a household name in the States, Whitehead produced several music videos for the Rolling Stones (as well as the first film about them 1965’s Charlie is MY Darling)
His most lasting effort is probably the free-form Swinging London opus “Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London From that film’s soundtrack we hear the part of a wild live-in-studio jam on “Interstellar Overdrive” by the original Pink Floyd (founder Syd Barrett was a friend of Whitehead).

Another British director, Tony Palmer, met John Lennon when the Beatles visited Cambridge University where he was a student. (Starting at 1:10:30) He ended up at the BBC where he used his Beatle connection to be introduced to many of the rock stars that would appear in his musical-sociological study All My Loving. He would film the final show of one of the bands featured. From Cream: The Farewell Concert Bob plays a great version of their hit “Sunshine of Your Love.”

The next filmmaker on the docket (at 1:27:30) is Michael Lindsay-Hogg, known for capturing England’s two most prominent bands at the end of the Sixties. From the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus we get the one-night-only supergroup The Dirty Macs (with Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards) doing “Yer Blues” (at 1:29:50) and from the Beatles swan-song doc Let it Be Bob plays “I’ve Got a Feeling” from the rooftop concert.


The Beatles in “Let it Be.” Though the film depicts the fraying of the group’s unity that would lead to their breakup, the film is redeemed by the rooftop concert. From the book: Like a pack of squabbling brothers who find themselves in better temper after obeying a parent’s order to “go out and get some fresh air,” the mood of the film brightens as soon as the band emerges from the stairwell onto the rooftop. It may have been a chilly, overcast London afternoon but as soon as they launch into the remonstrative rocker “Get Back” the Beatles seem warmed up to the idea that they are out there to prove themselves. A month’s worth of studio work was not in vain.

Of course, no discussion about classic rock docs can be complete without Woodstock, which made Warner Bros. a ton of money while also being good enough to take the Oscar for Documentary Feature in 1970. It’s true, as Bob points: what hasn’t been said about this iconic film. But I hope, we added a few new insights here and there about these films in general. Hopefully, the time and care I put into making this book more of “journey” through fifty years of music and lives, transcending the (still useful and user-friendly) anthology format. So if interested, click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see the index and the first 20+ pages of the text.

You can check out the excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Rock Doc spotlight: “Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption”

There was once a time and place for a man like the late Boston club owner Richard Rooney, then known as Chet to everyone in the city’s indie rock scene. A local guy from the Charlestown neighborhood, Chet in the early Eighties became the rather unlikely proprietor of a music room above an alleged Mafia bar called the Penalty Box in the nearby North Station area. Although his original idea was for it to be a place for jazz or blues acts, a friend fortuitously suggested he open a punk venue instead. From 1983-87, its open-door booking policy made Chet’s Last Call a virtual clearinghouse for Boston rock at a time when the scene was growing exponentially and hitting a creative peak that nearly matched the glory days of the town’s more famous punk dive, the Rat, back in the second half of the seventies.

Chet was the proverbial gruff-but-goodhearted guy who was a once common staple of older cities. He was a bear of a man usually stationed at the end of the bar, close by the entrance. Although you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side, any beef was usually quickly forgotten. Naturally, the joint wasn’t much to look at: a darkened flight of stairs brought you into a dim, smallish space (capacity was about 175) with orange and gold diagonal wallpaper for a stage backdrop and an incongruous iron railing around the dance floor. Rich Gilbert, guitarist for Human Sexual Response and the Zulus, reminds us that in those days Boston was still a “rough, edgy city” where, in the days before critical-mass gentrification, places like this could be left alone to flourish.


The type of place you didn’t tell your mom about: Chet’s side street entrance is seen next to the fire hydrant. The name of the super-sketchy Penalty Box downstairs bar was inspired by the Big, Bad Bruins who played across the street at the old Boston Garden.

“Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption” is part of a new micro-documentary trend for music films in this age of more accessible equipment and crowd funding. It’s made for and by many people who were there at the time (it was directed by brothers Ted and Dan Vitale, the latter is the singer for long-time local ska-punk band Bim Skala Bim). That Chet was well-loved by the local rock community is pretty obvious from the film’s opening minutes. Boston rock personalities line up to be interviewed and many are seen in performance footage shot at a pair memorial “Chetstock” shows that took place not long after his passing in December of 2015. Veterans of the scene will love to see clips of the Classic Ruins, Pajama Slave Dancers, Harlequin, Bim Skala Bim, Dogmatics and others, as well as the fun interview segments with local rockers like David Minehan, Ed “Moose” Savage, Barrence Whitfield, Xanna Don’t, Linda Viens, and Kenne Highland—not to mention members of Chet’s family and the folks that worked for him.

The premier of “Chet’s Last Call” is on August 3rd at the Woods Hole Film Festival in Falmouth, Mass. Click on the link for ticket info. https://www.goelevent.com/WoodsHoleFilmFest/e/ChetsLastCall


Check out the trailer and see all your favorite Boston rock stars!!

Granted, this will all be a bit much for the uninitiated, even if the place did host the occasional out-of-town breakout act (Husker Du, the Beastie Boys) or have the odd rock-celeb hanging at the bar (Stones producer Jimmy Miller, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry). Chet’s Last Call was a provincial but supportive scene—and a rowdy one as well. “A playpen for drunken adults,” is how Ken Kaiser puts it. Ken is also seen in new footage playing with the other Ken (Highland) with the Hopelessly Obscure, whose defiant name and garage-punk power riffing is classic Boston.

Chet was Boston’s youngest club owner then and a savvy music fan, committed to empowering new bands and giving a platform to more outre acts like the Bentmen with their cultish persona (group member Chris Burbul was also part of the production team). With modest cover charges and a clientele that favored cheap Budweisers, Chet was not destined (or even looking) to make a killing. Neighborhood grousing, as well as the club’s lax ways with underage drinking and drug dealing, likely led to its closing in 1987 after a run of nearly five years. Chet became Richard Rooney again, going into rehab and, after re-emerging clean, he went back to school and became a substance abuse counselor. This problematic aspect of the music scene is not shied away from—several musicians like Al Barr from the Dropkick Murphy’s talk candidly about their own addiction-and-recovery experiences. This later part of Rooney’s life story is quietly inspiring and brings full circle the idea of the Boston music scene’s abiding spirit. It makes “Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption” not just a fine tribute to the man but also to the lasting community he helped foster.

Have you heard about my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey”? It’s an alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll, seen through the prism of non-fiction film, with over 170 titles reviewed. You can check out a 30-page excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Forever Underground At the Rat: The Rise, Fall and Long After-Life of Boston’s Legendary Punk Venue.

Above photo by Wayne Valdez

by Rick Ouellette

In its heyday, the Rathskeller club’s unassuming façade was tucked into a homely jumble of mis-matched stores, restaurants and nightspots in Boston’s Kenmore Square, where the tony Back Bay neighborhood met the Fenway district and Boston University. Once you crossed its perpetually darkened doorway you could head straight to the street level bar (and later, James Ryan’s popular Hoodoo Barbeque) or turn left and head down the stairs to the subterranean music room. Along with cigarette smoke and the vestigial smell of sweat and spilled beer, the dim interior featured black walls, overhanging water pipes, dodgy rest rooms, tilty tables and a low bandstand that was cheek-by-jowl with the narrow dance floor. From 1974 until it closed in 1997, the Rat (as it was universally known) featured untold hundreds of bands, from rock’s living legends to the lowliest also-ran punk combo. That means about 8000 nights of edgy good times where the music was more often than not delivered at fever pitch.

Twenty years to the month after it closed, a Rat reunion show and benefit auction event was held at Kenmore’s Hotel Commonwealth. The supportive vibe that owner Jim Harold provided over the years for so many local groups starting out was a common theme, as it is in the commemorative “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD (more on that in a bit). The event took place in the second floor function area of the hotel whose giant footprint looms over the space where the Rat once stood. On an evening where exclamations of “Long Live the Rat!” were heard more than a few times, this irony was noted by many of folks in attendance.


Willie Alexander and band in front of the Rat’s original backdrop sign. (Photo by author)

Performing that night were a handful of local rock mainstays. Willie “Loco” Alexander, a godfather of Boston punk since the days of his raucous Boom-Boom Band, kicked things off with a mini-set that included the anthemic “At the Rat.” This tune was the lead track of the 1976 compilation double live album of the same name, organized by Harold to promote the local scene (now re-mastered and available on CD). It proved as popular as ever, two decades after the joint was shuttered. “Thanks for being alive,” Willie said in parting. The Nervous Eaters, led by singer-guitarist-writer Steve Cataldo, are another local legend that came up in the Rat’s earlier days; their buzzsaw riffing and unbridled lyrics set the course for many groups that followed. Having long lived down the compromised album they made in 1980 for Elektra, the Eaters reverted to the tough-as-nails sound in subsequent recordings and gigs. Songs like “Last Chance” and “Loretta” are for many people as much of a Boston tradition as the Swan Boats and were welcomed accordingly.


Steve Cataldo (Photo by author)

Emily Grogan and her band were of a later vintage than the two acts that preceded her and her impassioned songwriting and vocals were just as well received. Emily also told a touching anecdote about her early days when she was a bandmate of the late Mr. Butch, the beloved dreadlocked street person who was dubbed the “mayor of Kenmore Square.” Closing out the musical festivities were the Dogmatics. They were a prime example of groups that came into local renown in the mid-80s with a sound now twice re-generated since the 60s when garage-rock royalty Barry and the Remains played the Rathskeller when it was differently configured. Led by Jerry Lehane, the Dogmatics were a popular act not just for the Rat and the similarly downscale Chet’s Last Call, but also for the gig parties they’d have at their Thayer Street loft. At the Rat party they faithfully lived up to their legacy with the punked-up garage riffing and raffish townie humor of such nuggets as “Pussy Whipped” and the Catholic-school testimonial “Sister Serena.” They were joined by another Dorchester-bred favorite, Richie Parsons ex of Unnatural Axe, for a few numbers including the always reliable “Three Chord Rock.”



Emily Grogan (above) and the Dogmatics’ Peter O’Halloran and Jerry Lehane w/ Richie Parsons. Photos by Sara Billingsley.

The night ended sentimentally with a few words from Jim Harold as well as from former Del Fuegos drummer Woody Geissman whose Right Turn addiction treatment center was the charitable recipient of that evening’s fundraising. (I chatted with another Del Fuegos drummer, Joe Donnelly, but if either of the Zanes brothers were there I didn’t see them).

I moved to Boston shortly after the Blizzard of ’78, somehow getting my meager possessions from my hometown of Salem, Mass. to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. I began checking out the notorious Rat as soon as the snow banks started to recede. In the last few months of the apartment me and my older sister shared with rotating cast of third bedroomers (we had moved back there, unimpressed with Ft. Lauderdale where our family had re-located) a few albums had circulated that changed my musical life. I had purchased “Talking Heads ‘77” and Television’s “Marquee Moon” pretty much on the strength of reviews (both were revelations) while a roommate owned the equally eye-opening “Rocket to Russia,” the Ramones third album. Elvis Costello’s debut record was also making the rounds. But the first time I ventured down into the occluded interior of the Rat it was a misfire: it seemed to be an open-amp night for suburban bands whose mountaintop was the first Pat Travers album—-it was like they wanted to send me back from whence I came.


The Talking Heads at the Rat in ’77. By the time I first saw them they had graduated to the Paradise club, which had a higher capacity but less exposed plumbing.

Determined to right this wrong, I went back a few nights later when the Romantics were headlining. These guys, in their pre-red shiny suits day, had a buzz about them esp. after getting a positive notice in Creem magazine’s recent review of the Detroit scene. After a couple of pumped-up power pop numbers (where most everyone stayed seated) the singer presumptuously suggested that this was the place “where all the dancing girls are at.” As soon as they launched into the next song, two sets of young ladies emerged from either end of the bandstand and met in the middle of the dance floor. It was like some vision from a half-remembered rock ‘n’ roll dream. The jig was on: soon after I was going to the Rat every weekend.

I say “half-remembered” because in its original form that what it was all about: the small venues, the dancing, the aspirational groups, the chance encounters. By the time I was old enough to go out to shows, rock music’s economy had changed. My early experiences ranged from the precipitous old Boston Garden down to the 2800-seat Orpheum Theater. But at the Rat (capacity about 300+), the close quarters meant the physical and physic space between performers and audience was reduced or overlapped. I saw dozens of great local groups in this hothouse atmosphere and many of them have remained highly-regarded here even though only a few acts “made it big.” This is evidence of the staying power of a community of outsiders, sort of like why you see Harley-riding guys of Social Security age still riding around in packs.

1983, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — Rock band R.E.M. performs at The Rat in Boston. Band members include, left to right, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and (not pictured) Bill Berry. — Image by © Laura Levine/Corbis

Do Go Back to Rockville: R.E.M. were one of the last of the really big names to play the Rat. Others who came before them included the Ramones, the Runaways, Talking Heads, the Replacements, the Jam, the Police, the Stranglers and the Boston-based Cars. And few who were there will ever forget the Plasmatics’ three-night stand in March of 1979. I deny all rumors that have my hand brushing Wendy O. William’s derriere moments after she put down her chainsaw at the end of their set.

“The Sound of Our Town,” to borrow the title of Brett Milano’s excellent history of Boston-bred pop music, is ably laid out in the “Live at the Rat” album. It was a dynamic scene that was second only to CBGB on the east coast. Willie Alexander is out front with three tracks, leading a line-up that includes frenetic rave-ups by mid-70s staples like the Infliktors and Thundertrain as well as a fistful of bands known for their distinctive front men: Jeff “Monoman” Conolly (of DMZ), John Felice (the Real Kids) and Richard Nolan (Third Rail). These outfits were definitely the type of the times—with razor-edge riffing that would often build to cathartic peaks that sent the kids on the dance floor into a pogoing frenzy. But the three of them were also savvy songwriters, as were people like Frank Rowe of the Classic Ruins, who Milano suggested was the Randy Newman of punk.

This was a direct result of Harold’s policy of giving a chance to most any band that played their own material—or at least it served to unlock a lot of latent talent. Many bands that came along a little later in the late 70s or early 80s (the Neighborhoods, La Peste, Human Sexual Response, Pastiche, etc.) turned out to have quite a knack at evoking the urban milieu of the times. And what was that like for those who weren’t there or whose memory is getting a little hazy at this point? The “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD, produced and directed by David Lefkowitz, does a good job at hashing out that side of the story in the interviews interspersed with the stripped-down performances in the Hotel Commonwealth suite festooned with the club’s memorabilia. Doing songs are the same performers from the Rat party plus John Felice, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, Billie Connors and the good ol’ Dropkick Murphys (worthy youngsters 21CF cover La Peste’s “Spymaster”).


At the Rat reunion party, it was like old times in front of the stage. In the background, “Live at the Rat Suite” is projected on the wall (Brett Milano is interviewing Al Barr of the Dropkick Murphys). Photo by author

It’s great to hear your old faves in this cozy setting but also illuminating are the relaxed conversational segments, conducted by a trio of former Boston Globe music writers (Milano, Jim Sullivan and Steve Morse) along with local radio luminaries Oedipus, Carter Alan and John Laurenti. To Alexander, the supportive management and undemanding surroundings (“We were lucky if there was a door on the bathroom,” notes Willie) left a space that was a focal point where a scene could grow on its own. He says the kids, you know the artsy and non-conformist types you see in most every town, found a place of their own and a symbiotic relationship with the new bands that continues to this day. But while it may have been our clubhouse it was not the excluding type: also in the mix were adventurous suburbanites, post-game Red Sox fans and B.U. students.


The back cover of the DVD shows the partially-demolished Rat, while the front shows the well-meaning Rat-themed suite where you can have an “authentic experience” for several hundred dollars a night.

Ah, yes: Boston University. That’s where our story starts to fall apart. The school was always a convenient whipping boy for hometown rockers, ever since Jonathan Richman, in the early proto-punk days of the Modern Lovers, told his girlfriend to “Put down your cigarette and drop out of B.U.” But the ever-growing institution, under the presidency of the irascible John Silber, bought up large chunks of the Kenmore district. The eventual eviction of unwanted elements, whether it be leather-jacketed rock ‘n’ rollers or the hodgepodge collection of mid-century business, was almost an afterthought to the manifest destiny of outsized colleges, block-long hotels and chain stores (a similar fate has befallen Harvard Square).


Rat owner Jim Harold with some parting words and (on the left) Woody Geissman, whose Right Turn treatment center (“A Creative Place for Recovery”) specializes in the substance abuse issues of performing artists. Photo by author

In the photo at the top of this article, local musician Linda Viens stands in front of the Rathskeller, a quiet moment on a snowy day. A tip of the cap to Wikipedia for making this simple but remarkable shot by Wayne Valdez the featured image for their article on the club. All the loud music and edginess have fallen away, and the Rat’s tiny frontage is squished between a vintage clothing shop, a hairdressing school and the pre-Internet bank of pay phones. Viens’ casual pose suggests a kinship (even protectiveness) with her town’s most famous rock club. But not ownership. There’s less of a place nowadays for a “bon vivant” right-place-right-time proprietor like Jim Harold, who had the knack to know when to let something just happen. And boy did it ever. In the 21st century, the Boston rock scene has moved to nearby cities like Cambridge and Somerville where a vibrant blend of veteran bands and newer acts light up venues like the ONCE Ballroom. (I recently wrote about Linda’s new band Kingdom of Love and that abiding sense of musical community here). It’s the idea of the Rat that lives once the wrecking ball has cleared the way for the monolithic streetscapes of today’s gentrified cities. We plant the flag elsewhere and rock on.


Video by John Doherty

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is the first anthology of non-fiction rock films, covering the years 1964-2014. To see a 30-page excerpt click on the link here or contact me thru the comments section below. http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html