“In a Dream of Strange Cities” sneak peak

The familiar turns fantastical as “sleep voyager” Swain roams through fractured cities and societies, while meeting people bent on creating an enlightened breakaway state.

That’s my one-sentence blurb. What do you think?

From the chapter “Cthonic Days”

“In a Dream of Strange Cities” is an in-progress illustrated novel composed of several actual dream-state narratives, overlaid with a fictional framework. These loosely connected stories probe personal life transitions and societal shifts that arise from an autonomous subconscious. The text and illustrations will draw from themes of contemporary folklore, urban exploration and psychogeography.

I have just completed the draft text and have a nice handful of concept illustrations by Indonesian artist Ipan. A sample chapter will be posted soon. For more info, follow this blog or leave a message below.

Thanks, Rick Ouellette

The Relevance of Past Futures: “Voices From the Radium Age”

by Rick Ouellette

This is a great collection of early 20th century science fiction, and it has plenty to say to us early 21st century readers. It is part of the revelatory “Radium Age” series from MIT Press that includes several novels; all are graced with eye-catching retro-style covers courtesy of the Canadian graphic artist Seth. This era is labeled as such by the editors for the discovery of radium by Madam Curie in 1898, which symbolically launched us into the volatile new century. It can be considered the second great phase of futuristic fiction, the writers here (many are household names) building on the 19th century foundation put in place by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne.

The highlight for me was re-reading the astounding novelette “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster from 1909. He wrote it in between “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End” but this is something else altogether. Maybe it takes 100 years of foregrounding to so accurately see into our dysfunctional world of all-pervasive interconnecting technology. Here, the world’s population now lives one-to-a-room and entirely underground, due to environmental catastrophe (naturally). All human needs and instantaneous communications are provided uniformly by the all-pervasive Machine. Many people pass their days on the proto-Internet, subjecting each other to banal informational forums under the guise of being “Lecturers” (today better known as “influencers”). This includes the main character Vashti, a middle-aged woman whose son is one of the few rebelling against the dull homogeneity.  Vashti does not have time for her son’s desire for corporeal adventuring, after all she is a popular lecturer and “knew several thousand people.” Mr. Forster delivers a sick burn from the past by adding, “In certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.” A sort of eerie singularity has been “achieved,” and mankind has forgotten that it invented the Machine so is now subservient to it— hence totally helpless in the event of the major malfunction promised by the title.

A poster from one of the many theatrical productions of Forster’s masterwork in recent years.

 There a few other standouts among the seven longish stories that make up “Voices From the Radium Age”: “The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1913), is an early bi-plane super adventure, not unlike Poe’s tall tales of hot-air balloon exploits, where a daring (if unlucky) aeronaut finds an unwelcoming “air jungle” in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It’s a fascinating new look at the Sherlock Holmes author and another volume from this series features two dinosaur-populated novellas featuring his Professor Challenger character, “The Lost World” and “The Poison Belt.”

Another riveting entry is “The Comet” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1920). It is taken from a book by the African-American author and NAACP co-founder called “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil” which combined personal essays with fantasy fiction. His protagonist Jim is a low-ranking employee from Harlem who works at a bank on the corner of Wall St. and Broadway. He is asked to retrieve some records from a vault far beneath the ground, since going down there “was too dangerous for more valuable men.” Just then, a comet spewing a deadly gas passes over Manhattan and when Jim emerges on ground level everyone he can see is dead. He makes a grim journey thru the city until finding what he thinks is the only other survivor: a wealthy white woman from the Upper East Side. Will this be the unlikely couple to restart the human race? Considered a blueprint example of the Afro-Futurist genre, Du Bois’ astringent viewpoint also has the moral backbone (and twist ending) of a great lost “Twilight Zone” episode. (Also in this series is the 1903 novel “Of One Blood” by Boston-based writer Pauline Hopkins, a visionary tale of a uncolonized, high-tech African nation visited by a mixed-race Harvard student).

W.E.B Du Bois (left) and Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

In a further gambit to move “Voices From the Radium Age” beyond sf’s usual white male perspective, editor Joshua Glen opens this collection with the table-turning fable “Sultana’s Dream” by Bengali author-educator-activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1905). Her title character is transported to Ladyland, a sustainable Eden where green technology is more advanced than we see today, and where it’s the menfolk (survivors of a calamitous war) who are now kept inside to do the (solar-powered) cooking. This feminist wish-fulfillment, although penned with a light touch, struck deep for Begum Rokeya (as she was posthumously known) who swam against a heavy tide for women’s rights in India, and who established the first girl’s school in Calcutta. (Another Radium-Age book that also explores this theme is “A World of Women” by J.D. Beresford, first published in 1913).

Far less enlightened, but still well worth a look, is “The Red One” by Jack London (1918). One of London’s South Seas tales, a researcher and (mis)adventurer lands on Guadalcanal after hitching a ride on a “blackbirder” (just one class below a straight-up slave ship). He is soon enraptured by a periodic, all-encompassing, haunting, heavenly sound. He takes an ill-considered trip to the inhospitable interior of the island, all the while denigrating the native population (esp. his female guide) with racist language that is appalling even for its era. There’s not enough discernible separation between the author and his character to let Jack off the hook here. Too bad, because the intrigue of the premise, sort of a tropical equivalent of the Monolith-on-Moon scenes in “2001,” is promising. Kudos to the editor and publisher for exposing London’s transgressions but not “cancelling” a story that merits inclusion but not admiration.

The complete (for now) Radium Age collection from MIT Press

Two other stories round out this collection. William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” from 1907 (with it’s all-too-modern strains of a runaway virus and isolation), and 1931’s “The Jameson Satellite” by “Amazing Stories” icon Neil R. Jones (the first of his many Professor Jameson tales, with the unfrozen title teacher living in a far, far-off future) also have their moments of forewarning. Perhaps my big takeaway from this book, a must-have sf fans ready to cast a wide net, is that one need not be a Nostradamus for far-reaching prognostications like the ones found between the covers here. Evidence of the past AND future is all around us (Poe, in his side gig as a science reporter, wrote about global warming in the 1840s). Human knowledge is a great long continuum where people’s imagination and principles can often out-run the times, just as historians find novel nuances in past events. And that maybe we need that perspective from the past to better come to terms with our own present predicaments.

Books That Rock: “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968” by Ryan H. Walsh

The chaotic and convoluted process that would yield one of pop music’s most revolutionary and acclaimed albums is the story that anchors this captivating 2018 work by Ryan H. Walsh. Van Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland where he first came to prominence with the group Them. By 1968, in the aftermath of his surprise solo hit “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Morrison was living in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts not far from Harvard Square. That year saw a whole host of decade-defining events and personalities criss-crossing each other in the greater Boston area. Walsh uses the making of Van’s cerebral classic as a philosophical thread that stitches them together.

There have been many good-to-great music books in recent years that focus on one particular year of the Sixties or Seventies. These books generally use one of two marketing strategies: superlatives (“1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music”) or the promise of esoteric information (“Fire and Rain: The Lost Story of 1970”). “Astral Weeks” goes the second route and one can assume the “secret history” is what Walsh determines it is. But that’s all good for people pre-disposed to the subjects at hand. This is an obsessively researched book with a Holy Grail-type quest at its center: Walsh’s search for a rumored tape recording of a Boston nightclub gig where much of “Astral Weeks” was played a month before the iconic album was cut in New York City.

Van Morrison performing on Boston Common, April 1968

Walsh casts a pretty wide net here, so Van fans should be forewarned. Also central to his story is the twisted tale of the cultish commune led by the mysterious Mel Lyman, a guy who went from a humble harmonica player in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band to a messianic figurehead of a community who owned a block of houses on Boston’s Fort Hill, topped by a water tower made to look like a fairy-tale tower. There are detailed anecdotes of student antiwar protests (esp. at Boston University) and about Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (nee, Richard Alpert), whose exploits in the promotion of psychedelics at Harvard was national news. But many of the offshoot topics here concern music. For pop history completists, there is a deep-dive retelling of MGM Record’s ill-fated “Bosstown Sound” hype, many pages devoted to the Velvet Underground for whom Boston clubs were a home-away-from-home (fifteen trips up from NYC in ’68), and the momentous concert James Brown gave at the old Boston Garden on the same night as Martin Luther King’s assassination: an event that the new mayor, Kevin White, arranged to have televised live to keep potential rioting at bay (it worked).

By 1971, Mel Lyman was notorious enough to warrant a cover story in Rolling Stone.

One thing that does join together many of these disparate elements is an overarching spiritual quest that informed much of the late Sixties. But in a related takeaway, we see that this process is not all sweetness and light. Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” is practically rock’s Exhibit A when it comes to enlightenment-seeking. Not surprisingly, this crusade didn’t exactly translate into everyday life: a choice Van anecdote is him drinking in the admiration of L.A. hitmakers The Association after a gig on Cape Cod, then calling them a bunch of “faggots” as soon as they were out of earshot. Morrison does have a long history of epic crankiness, though he did make a friend in Peter Wolf, singer for the local band Hallucinations (and later, of course, with J. Geils) and he invited Morrison to come up on stage to sing with him at the city’s premier rock club, the Boston Tea Party.

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.” The title (and lead-off) track to Morrison’s soul-searching testament.

The venue was housed in a building that was built in 1870 to commemorate the Rev. Theodore Parker, the noted Transcendentalist, social reformer and abolitionist who believed that Spiritualism was going to become the “religion of America.” Maybe not, but the Tea Party did become a “cathedral of the hippie era.” Those angel vibes certainly must have been conducive to the spirit of the age. Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed, more known for his streetwise lyrics, was an avid follower of New Age pioneer author Alice Bailey. In fact, Reed, who has a reputation as being ornery as Van, comes across very well here. The story of how he and the Velvets mentored singer-songwriter/local hero Jonathan Richman (then a suburban teenager) is one of Walsh’s more likable side stories. Richman would later form the proto-punk Modern Lovers, who would go on to make the Boston-rock anthem “Roadrunner” and, interestingly, “Astral Plane.”

The Velvets at the Boston Tea Party in Dec. of 1968 and a very raw version of “White Light/White Heat.” It’s a song said to be influenced by Reed’s devotion to the book “A Treatise on White Magic” by theosophist Alice Bailey. Accompanied by film images by Andy Warhol & Co.

And then on the lowest end of the spectrum is Mel Lyman, the kind of two-bit scumbag that often found themselves elevated in the well-meaning but not always wised-up Sixties. As a musician, his biggest claim to fame was playing a soothing 30-minute harmonica solo to the passed-over folkies who had just booed Bob Dylan for playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Lyman tapped into that reactionary energy to become the megalomaniac leader of his ultra-conservative commune. It was a scene marked by bullying, misogyny and an upfront volatility that ol’ Mel had no problem with (more than a few visitors were threatened at gunpoint). The best thing you could say about Lyman’s “family” is that they didn’t lapse into wholesale butchery like the Mansons. After Mel did everyone a favor by croaking in 1978, the commune developed their building/design business and to this day a now-multigenerational group still live behind the walls of their Fort Hill compound.

Walsh, to his credit, gives a fair definitive accounting of the Lyman gang and how they were intertwined with the area’s counterculture. He ends “Astral Days” with an impassioned overview of that album’s lasting influence on everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Martin Scorsese. Considering his great admiration for Morrison’s piece de resistance (and to the great early-to-mid 70s titles that followed) it’s probably a blessing that the book came out before Van’s recent descent into extreme anti-vax and conspiracy phase of the last few years. What a long, strange trip (as they say) and classic-rock music fans and students of Sixties culture should enjoy this novel and absorbing look at the weird, wonderful year that was 1968.

The Original New Green Deal: “Soylent” Comes of Age

It’s Earth Day 2022, the same year that was the future setting of the iconic (and oft-parodied) 1973 science-fiction film “Soylent Green.” So it’s the perfect time to look back at the cinematic world presented therein. The whole planet is besieged by overpopulation, economic meltdown and by an ecological Armageddon. The particular setting is an overwhelmed New York City of 40 million inhabitants (half of them unemployed) most of whom have little to eat except the sickly-green wafers of the title.

Of course, it’s not much of a spoiler anymore to mention what SG is made from (it’s PEOPLE!!!). The big reveal here is just as well-known as the twist ending of the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” (it’s a COOKBOOK!!!). It’s still a good watch, a vintage 70s potboiler starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, and Chuck Connors, along with several notable actors in smaller roles. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, using Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel “Make Room! Make Room!” as its source material. The film’s opening montage–a visual timeline that moves from a 19th century idyll to our present day problems of pollution, runaway mass consumption, poverty and strife–sets the table pretty convincingly.

Bad news for the hipsters: That’s not avocado toast we’re looking at.

But don’t go in expecting a lot of prophetic material. “Soylent Green” is at heart a future-set police procedural with Heston as Detective Thorn who, while investigating the murder of a wealthy man, finds out he has much more than a simple homicide on his hands. Food as we still know it today is the preserve of the very wealthy, along with other luxuries like running water, soap, and linens. This is income equality on steroids.

Thorn seeks to even the score a bit when he goes to investigate at the luxury apartment of the murdered man—the Soylent Corp. executive played by Joseph Cotten before he was unceremoniously dispatched. While still questioning the man’s assigned concubine or “furniture” named Shirl (played by the doe-eyed beauty Taylor-Young) he grabs a silk pillowcase from the bedroom and, with no pretext, fills it with food, liquor and a bar of that soap. Thorn returns to the small bare-bones apartment he shares with Sol (Edward G. Robinson), the old-timer intellectual (or “book”) with whom he works on cases.

The scene where the two man luxuriate over real food and good bourbon is a humorous highlight of this often bleak film. Robinson is very good here as the wise old man who discovers the Soylent Secret from company books Thorn found in the dead man’s flat. It was EGR’s 101st and last screen role and he died twelve days after shooting wrapped, making his famous scene at the euthanasia center all the more poignant. Heston obviously loves working with him and Robinson’s influence gives Heston’s usual granite presence some needed soft edges.

But there’s still a world-gone-berserk out there to deal with, which brings us to “Soylent Green’s” notorious food-riot centerpiece. When the SG supply runs out one day the crowd gets very unhappy very quickly, and the riot control front-end loaders are brought in post-haste. This spectacle, hyped-up due to the illustrated exaggeration in the movie’s poster, has many non-believers. Gene Siskel, in his one-and-a-half star review, warned viewers they “may never stop laughing.” (to be fair, his future TV partner Roger Ebert gave the movie 3 stars). The fact that most people caught in the shovel just don’t jump back to the ground shows that believability was sacrificed for cost considerations and thematic point-scoring.

Because let’s face it, this is not a big-budget production. Instead of a truly horrifying people scooper, they just used whatever public-works truck was available. And although there are a few good forbidding futurescapes, most of the exterior shots used the same old Manhattan/brownstone “streets” that Hollywood had been utilizing on their backlots since the Forties. So while “Soylent Green” wants to be taken seriously it often lacks both the monetary and cerebral heft to do so.

But you get some good B-movie action–the chases and shootouts and the bedroom scene with Heston and Taylor-Young–and a cast worth watching. There’s Chuck “Rifleman” Connors as the shady bodyguard, Whit “Time Tunnel” Bissell as the corrupt governor, veteran character actress Celia Lovsky as Sol’s librarian colleague and, as Thorn’s superior back at the precinct, we have Brock Peters who, a decade before, played the doomed Tom Robinson in the famous film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

So, a lot to look at here if you’re considering a re-look or if you’re a young one approaching “Soylent Green” for the first time—just don’t expect a lot of Nostradamus action. Sure, the scarifying opening montage still holds weight but our world of woes is still destined to suffer the death of a thousand little cuts instead of this film’s Gotterdammerung. I guess we can be grateful that the masses aren’t being used for mass-produced food: at least not yet. However, I did recently notice that there is now an actual “meal replacement” product named Soylent (check it out on Wikipedia). So who knows, maybe 2022 is later than we think.

“Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” Available Now!

The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.

This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please leave a message in the comments. The book is only $12 including mailing within the U.S.

Also, if interested join my “Rock Docs” Facebook group.

Click on the link below to see the first “Rock Docs” book sampler.

The Calliope Crashed to the Ground: Whatever Happened to the Asbury Park Casino?

Text and above photo by Rick Ouellette

Opened in 1929 and designed by the same architects who conceived of Grand Central station in New York (Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore), the Asbury Park Casino was a monumental Beaux Arts complex that spread out over both sides of the boardwalk in what was then one of New Jersey’s premier oceanside resorts. Behind its ornamental limestone and concrete façade was a concert hall, a cinema, and indoor ice-skating rink, arcades, restaurants, and even year-round accommodations.

In the antique postcard world, the complex looked the very ideal of City Beautiful movement.

The Casino (so defined here as a place of entertainment, not gambling) anchored the southern end of the Asbury beachfront. The northern end featured another immense structure that straddled the boardwalk: the equally grand Convention Center and Paramount Theater. In between were all sorts of amusements, rides, and eateries. Asbury Park along with other similarly structured cities on the Jersey Shore, had their heyday in the simpler times of 50 to 100+ years ago, when the living was more modest and long-distance vacation destinations far less accessible.

Boarded but unbowed. The Casino in the mid-Nineties. Photo by author.

While places like Atlantic City and Wildwood still hold forth to a greater or lesser degree, Asbury Park took a massive body blow that has been especially hard to come back from. And it wasn’t just shifting societal trends or superhighways and jumbo jets that caused this decline. Mass riots in the city that broke out on July 4th, 1970 and raged for days. When it was over, the main business avenue of the city’s African-American neighborhood burned down, most of it was never rebuilt.

Looking out at the AP boardwalk from what remains of the Casino’s portal, 2017. Photo by author.

The windswept boardwalk started looking like a ghost town, but at the same time a tightly-knit (and racially integrated) community of rock ‘n’ roll and soul musicians started making a big noise in local nightclubs like the Stone Pony and Upstage. Chief among them, of course, was a young, determined and ambitious Bruce Springsteen, who hailed from nearby Freehold. A postcard of the city would adorn the cover of his debut album, 1973’s “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” Though there are no direct references to the town (there would be plenty on his next album’s standout ballad “Sandy”), there is a more subtle and symbolic allusion. In the first verse of the first song, the classic word-drunk rave-up “Blinded by the Light,” Bruce is “trippin’ the merry-go-round” between adolescence and young adulthood with a colorful cast of characters. But the background scenery is not as fresh with promise—by the end of the verse “the calliope crashed to the ground.”

The Carousel House still retains much of its exterior charm, including grotesques giving you the side-eye!

And so it would be for the Casino. The building lost favor and deteriorated, attractions closed and the painted ponies were auctioned off. On my first visit to AP in 1995, the circular Carousel House now was a games arcade, the rest of the complex was shuttered. In the back corner of the arcade, you could see what remained of the skating hall (see top photo) giving some idea of the great interior scale of the place. At that time, the beachside part of the Casino was still standing. But disinvestment and the ravages of time and tide and storms would eventually lead to demolition.

The Casino’s boardwalk passageway, then and now, Bottom photo by author.

My second visit to Asbury Park, in 2017, saw half of it gone, the walk-thru was thrashed, enlivened only by the bright and sensuous mermaid murals. The Carousel House is still the only part of it that’s open, nowadays used as an indoor skateboard park.

A renovation of what is left looks unlikely, although it is on the city’s wish list. But Asbury Park is a funny place: it seems to be in a tug-of-war between decay and rejuvenation. The town has a strong arts and LGBQT community, condos are going up, and the music scene is still a factor.

The Paramount Theater today, Convention Center in backgroud (Wikipedia photo)

At this late date it is hard to see how AP could ever sustain two large-scale complexes, especially given the lofty architectural standards of a bygone era. The Convention Center and Paramount are in good shape, a new restaurant has taken over the great old space-age Howard Johnson’s and further up the boardwalk is the wonderful Silverball Retro Arcade and the fortune-telling booth of Bruce’s late friend Madam Marie: still run by her family. So there is still plenty of life left in Asbury Park. But for the Casino, it may be a case of the bigger they come they harder they fall or, in the best case, the smaller they’ll be if ever re-habbed.

Candy Floss and Catastrophe: The Peculiar Case of West Pier

Text and above photo by Rick Ouellette

It was one of the most celebrated of the 85 pleasure piers built during England’s Victorian era. In 1870, a visiting Napoleon III called it “Britain’s finest structure.” It’s grand 1600-foot oriental profile could be regarded as the people’s answer to the nearby John Nash-designed Royal Pavilion, the exotic getaway built for the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) that had been completed about four decades earlier. In its 109 years of operation (1866-1975), Brighton, England’s West Pier was a topmost playground for everyday folk on their seaside holidays. It was one described as a “luxury liner that never left its mooring” and where the anyone could have first-class accommodations for a small entrance fee. Today, however, only a small portion of the pier’s steel superstructure rises above the chilly Channel waters off the beach. West Pier’s story is one of extremes in pleasure and and calamity.

During its century-plus in operation, the pier variously featured a huge games pavilion and a concert venue with a house orchestra, amusement park rides, slot machines, ballrooms and tea rooms, pubs, and eateries. It was also known for the sale of candy floss (cotton candy) and its signature “Brighton Rock” crystal confection. Author Graham Greene used the locale and the Brighton Rock name for the title of his totemic 1938 novel of crime and Catholicism. West Pier also serves as a backdrop for the Who’s stormy 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia.” (The band’s earlier hit “Pinball Wizard” is sung from the point of view of a lad who loses to Tommy despite knowing every machine “from Soho down to Brighton”).

Jimmy the Mod walks in front to West Pier in the photo booklet from the Who’s 1973 “Quadrophenia” album

But in the end, West Pier was just as unlucky as it was celebrated. While the Brighton Pavilion and its sister promenade Palace Pier, remain popular local landmarks, the West Pier couldn’t sustain it’s boast of being “the best pier.” Much of its central decking was removed in 1944 to prevent enemy landings. Its popularity declined in the post-war era, and more downscale amusements superseded the grand concert hall and the fashionable boardwalk deck. Structural decay commenced with dis-investment and the pierhead was closed in 1970. Maintenance costs for such an ambitious structure scared away potential new owners and the whole place was off limits five years later.

In 1994, West Pier flounders while Palace Pier flourishes. Photos by author.

West Pier became a sort of plebeian version of the old romantic ruined castle. The 1982 book “Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archaeology of Tomorrow,” by photographer Manfred Hamm and writer Rolf Steinberg was in the vanguard of an aesthetic that would spur the urban exploration phenomenon. It featured several sad but alluring photos of West Pier, placing it in the same obsolescent class as a graveyard for old steam-powered trains and the abandoned launching pads of the Apollo space program. It attracted trespassers and vandals and by 1994, when I visited Brighton the foot of the pier had been cut off from the land in an attempt (ultimately unsuccessful) to stop further damage.

West Pier sun deck by “Dead Tech” photographer Manfred Hamm

This beached leviathan was destined for a series of indignities that would all but wipe it off the map while other English piers from Blackpool down to Southend-on-Sea would continue to thrive. The cyclonic Great Storm of 1987 caused a partial collapse. Another severe weather event in 2002 caused the concert hall to cave in. Two major fires delivered the knockout punch in 2003. Both were considered of suspicious origin; I would love to hear any story of how arsonists accomplished this wicked feat, considering the pier was cut off from land and only accessible from structurally unsound steel supports.

The first of the 2003 fires. Photo by Mark Harris

Even in the skeletal shell form it was reduced to, West Pier continues to fascinate. It’s been used for a giant laser light show and the 2003 fires are re-lived in singer Nick Cave’s novel “The Death of Bunny Munro.” Most notably for me, the fictional 1970 collapse of West Pier is the basis of writer Mark Haddon’s astonishing lead story in his 2016 collection “The Pier Falls.” In remarkably precise, present-tense detail, Haddon creates an immense, harrowing and heartbreaking disaster out of thin air, after four introductory paragraphs of a normal day out in Brighton. But why? Hasn’t it suffered enough? There must be an aura hanging over West Pier’s skeleton that makes it a subconscious marker of the mortality that awaits even the most powerful of persons or things. It’s that ineffable quality that makes our modern ruins so irresistible to ponder.

The cover of Mark Haddon’s book shows the pier as it looks today.
Today, the 530-foot i360 observation tower stands on the site of the old West Pier entrance. Photo by Arild Vagen

Make Mine a Double #24: The A-Listers

When I started this series on rock’s double albums a few years back I began at the beginning, with Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” Over the course of about two dozen posts I’ve looked back on both the famous four-siders and ones that have maybe flown under the radar with the passage of time. As I was recently looking over the list at double albums, I noticed several milestone titles that are yet unchecked. I wondered: do I have anything new to say about the “White Album” or Exile on Main St. at this late date?

Well, I can give it a shot or at least dig up a little factoid or two that may be interesting. And if one of your favorite A-List double albums is not here, it may be because I’ve already covered it or will do a full review in the future, that second category could include records like Electric Ladyland and The River which I hope to get to in 2022.

The Beatles “White Album” (1968)

The Beatles’ double-decker is the first and last word in rock eclecticism. I can’t think of another double album that leaps from tree to stylistic tree with such abandon and sticking the landing much more often than not. The one drawback that one usually hears is that the bulk of the album’s 30 tracks sound like solo songs with the other three as sidemen (if they even appear at all). There’s truth to that; more than half the songs originated during the band’s extended stay with the Maharishi in India earlier in 1968. The only Western instrument they had there was an acoustic guitar, giving the record a singer-songwriter feel at times.

My only beef is that the album is just too varied at times and could have been maybe better programmed. The excellent opening trio of “Back in the USSR/Dear Prudence/Glass Onion” has nice cross-fades and lead-ins. But when “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” kicks in, all bets are off. Paul’s music-hall indulgences (“Honey Pie” is another example) and John’s eight-minute tape collage “Revolution 9” are the most divisive parts of the “White Album” but there’s plenty of good stuff elsewhere, even if the pell-mell formatting of the album practically begs the listener to make their own playlist. I made a 45-minute mix-tape years ago, including a smoother transition of the soft/loud material, three of the four George numbers and Ringo’s closing lullaby “Good Night.” It’s still a favorite way to listen to the core of this great but untidy late period work by the Fabs.

Tommy–The Who (1969)

Of course, this one is so much more than just a double album. Being rock’s first popular rock opera and a touchstone of the late Sixties, it took on a life of its own. It variously got re-made into a symphonic album with a roster of guest pop singers, a Seattle Opera production, a delirious Ken Russell film version that nearly drowned Ann Margaret in baked beans, and a hit Broadway musical, among other iterations. The original album’s rep has maybe suffered a bit over time, due to the polite production values and the rather vague storyline. For me, the best way to sample Tommy is to check out the concert artifacts from 1969-70 when the Who were including plenty of material from their deaf-dumb-and-blind-kid epic in their live show. The 14-minute extension of “My Generation” on their raucous Live at Leeds LP featured bits of “See Me/Feel Me/Listening to You” and an earthquake-force excerpt from “Underture.” The 1995 CD expansion threw in a thunderous version of “Amazing Journey/Sparks.” Also, to get a full feel of Tommy’s power potential, one can check out the filmed segments of Pete and Co. at Woodstock and at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, where the “Listening to You” finale electrifies the crowd.

Exile on Main St.–Rolling Stones (1972)

The Stones’ legendary double LP from their time as tax exiles living in the South of France is definitely one of those “we-never-knew-how-good-we-had-it” albums. In an age when great rock records were coming at you from every direction, this sprawling 18-song collection had it’s critical detractors, esp. in the aftermath of note-perfect Sticky Fingers. But as Keith Richards later noted, “within a few years the people who had written the reviews saying it was a piece of crap were extolling it as the best frigging album in the world.” I didn’t own Exile at the time but “Tumbling Dice,” “All Down the Line” and Keith’s “Happy” lit up the summer of ’72 via the radio, just like the previous album’s hits (“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”) did the summer before. Nowadays, I love the four quieter songs on the old Side Two (“Torn and Frayed” has become a latter-day fave) and though things slip a little during Side Three (“Turd on the Run”??), the two closing numbers (“Shine a Light” and “Soul Survivor”) epitomize the defiant pride and staying power of this scrappy, world-weary classic.

“Songs in the Key of Life”–Stevie Wonder (1976)

If anyone was ready to foist a double album on the listening public, it was Stevie Wonder in the mid-70s. His previous album (Fufillingness’ First Finale) was his first #1 on the U.S. pop charts and he spent the first half of the decade recording an amazing string of hit singles. His creative cup was still running over but Motown head Berry Gordy was at first skeptical when Stevie first asked him about recording a four-sider. (Gordy was also notoriously skeptical about Marvin Gaye making What’s Going On, another one that turned out to be a masterwork). But after getting the go-ahead, Wonder went to town. He would sometimes spend 48 hours straight in the studio and played many of the instruments himself. Although it was more than two years between albums SITKOL was an enormous critical and commercial success, spending 14 (non-consecutive) weeks at #1 and winning four Grammies. The first disc is all but perfect, Featuring timeless hits like “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Pastime Paradise” (later adapted by Coolio and parodied by Weird Al) as well as indelible tracks like the majestic opener “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the thrilling Return to Forever-like fusion jam “Contusion” and the baroque-sounding message song “Village Ghetto Land.” The second disc, where five of the seven tracks are over six minutes, may feel a little padded out but tunes like “Isn’t She Lovely” have not lost any of their initial appeal. It would prove to be Wonder’s creative mountaintop, as deeply personal as it is profoundly universal. Stevie even treated his fans with a 2014 tour in which he performed his magnum opus in its entirety.

London Calling–the Clash (1979)

Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a varied art form, esp. since the post-Beatles era. Still, each genre has its own ideas and arguments about what elements make their sound true to form. This was certainly true in the early days of British punk rock, where the hard-and-fast sonics of entrenched protest was a bit of an orthodoxy. The in December of 1979 the Clash, after two albums of incandescent rock rebellion, released the multi-faceted London Calling. Here, the straight-ahead rockers had to share the spotlight with the adapted strains of ska, rockabilly, reggae and even lounge jazz. Sure, there was still plenty of the righteous anger their fans loved, but there were also songs about being “Lost in the Supermarket.”

It was a great leap forward for the band, but also took some time getting used to. One early reviewer professed that the powerful opening title track, an epic doom-scroll of its time, was so good that the rest of double album could never measure up (!!). I eagerly bought London Calling (which the principled band insisted be budget priced) the first week it came out. But I admit I winced the first time I heard songs like the blotto barroom ballad “Jimmy Jazz.” But London Calling would soon reveal itself as what it was. Its 19 songs are a varied and vital record of human experience and emotion in many forms and moods. These range from quiet reflection (“Supermarket”) to bristling indignation (“Clampdown” and “Guns of Brixton”), to the historical (“Spanish Bombs”) to the overarching (“Death and Glory”). And of course it also has “Train in Vain,” the “hidden” track that was included at the last minute and not listed on early pressings; it turned out be one of their biggest songs.

The willful eclecticism of the Clash would become accepted (and even expected) in later strains of popular music. I will leave you with one of London Calling’s great and simple pleasures—a party-ready dance number whose chorus extols the virtues of “drinking brew for breakfast.”

So until next time, Make Mine a Double—-Rick Ouellette

Go Placidly While You Still Have the Chance: A Pop History of the “Desiderata”

A certain little inspirational prose poem, which was born (if not completed) 100 years ago, has a few fascinating backstories. Authored by the Indiana writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) “Desiderata” been a touchstone of plain-spoken revelation for untold thousands, if not millions, of folks worldwide. Much of its popularity comes from the 1971 hit recording narrated by Les Crane (more on him in a minute) and featuring a soaring choir that assured one “You are a child of the universe.”

Even the origin of this famous work was once shrouded in a mystery born of a misunderstanding. In 1927, Ehrmann registered his poem for copyright but only included the first phrase “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste” adding only an “etc.” Although there would be further attempts to secure a proper copyright (esp. by Max’s widow after his death), there were lapses along the way and the “Desiderata” (in Latin, “things desired”) fell into the public domain around 1960. That is about the same time that St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore included it (unattributed) in a booklet of inspirational works. Someone took the listed date of the church’s founding, 1692, as the date of composition, suddenly giving the 35 year-old work the gravity of an newly discovered masterpiece of the early Enlightenment. This may also be why so many of the “Desiderata” posters that adorned college dorm walls used Gothic-type fonts.

A Desiderata mis-attribution on a radio survey from October of ’71. Still, it would prove way more popular than the other two new releases.

Of course, the poem’s popularity skyrocketed with the hit record in ’71. In a way, Les Crane may have been an odd MC for the record’s proto-New Age platitudes, asking us to “remember what peace there may be in silence.” He made his name in 1963-64, as a semi-controversial late-night TV host, being one of the first to try and go up against Johnny Carson. His show featured risk-taking political debates, unusual guests (Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother) and his signature shotgun microphone which he used to get hot takes from people in the audience. He was also a civil-rights advocate, respectfully interviewed both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and had one of the first openly gay guests on TV (Randy Wicker). To cap off his Sixties’ bona fides, Crane was also married at the time to actress Tina Louise, who played Ginger on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Les Crane on his TV show in 1964.

With Crane’s portentous, deep-toned narration and the unsubtle female chorus, “Desiderata” may sound a little hokey 50 years on, but Ehrmann’s sensible, Middle-American wisdom is needed now more ever. Many may think that given the events of recent history it is all but impossible to “avoid loud and aggressive persons” who “are vexations to the spirit.” And while I am personally referring to an orange-haired monstrosity who was until very recently the U.S. president, there is good advice here on both sides of the political aisle. People who loathed Trump are aghast at his followers who have distressed themselves with “dark imaginings.” Yet they may also try and understand that “many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness” and not just react to this phenomenon with the same rigid animosity that it unleashed. As hard as it my be in the deafening world of 24/7 news cycles and ubiquitous social-media indulgences, I believe it is still of great importance to try to “speak one’s truth quietly and clearly, and to listen to others.”

Crane’s record reached as high as #8 on the singles chart and won a Grammy in the Spoken word category. Les had thought, as did many back then, that the words had been passed down thru antiquity. When he found out otherwise, Crane (who died in 2008) did the right thing and paid royalties to the Ehrmann estate.

Given the record’s grandiose arrangement, it should be of no surprise that a “Desiderata” parody would follow, and a year later the incorrigible cast of characters at National Lampoon happily obliged with “Deteriorata” from their pop-culture spoof album called “Radio Dinner.” These two records together should convince a thin-skinned world that it is both possible to have ideals and a good subversive laugh in the same lifetime. The Lampooners (the female singer is a young Melissa Manchester, a year before her fist solo LP) let us in on a little secret right off the top: “You are a fluke of the universe/You have no right to be here.” The music (arranged by future Spinal Tap member Christopher Guest) clings stickily to the original and they scored a coup by getting famed actor/announcer Norman “Voice of God” Rose to play the baritone announcer. In the parlance of today, wicked parodists like NL may be seen as “haters” but “Deteriorata” is also sprinkled with helpful life-coaching (“rotate your tires” and “know what to kiss, and when”) and bright-side thinking: “Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment, there is always a future in computer maintenance.”

Not surprisingly, the Lampooners lose the plot for a moment along the way (“For a good time call 606-4311… ask for Ken”) but soon get back on track, assuring us that “whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee.”

Now don’t that make you feel better? So while it is increasingly difficult to “Go placidly amid the noise and haste” it’s not impossible. And whether you prefer earnest inspiration or wicked satirical humor, use what you need to get there. Because even if (as NL would have it) “the universe is laughing behind your back” there is no reason why you can’t turn around and laugh right back.

Rock Docs Spotlight: “The Terry Kath Experience”

Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience

Directed by Michelle Kath Sinclair–2016–80 minutes

A few weeks ago, I did a retrospective review of Chicago Transit Authority, the debut long player by Chicago, as part of my ongoing series of rock’s notable double albums. A good portion of that piece focused on their renowned guitarist Terry Kath, who died tragically in 1978. Kath is the Chicago member of choice for rock geeks, not just for his musical achievements but for the might-have-beens. Chicago started out as an adventurous jazz-rock ensemble that had softened its edges by the time of Terry’s passing and would soon become all but a MOR yacht-rock ensemble by the Eighties, whose soppy love ballads are easy objects of derision.

“The Terry Kath Experience” gets its title early on in a comment about how a power trio of that proposed name led by Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarist may have been quite the ticket had Kath left the chart-topping septet (he was in the process of forming such a “TKE” group just before he died). But this affecting documentary also give proper due to the man himself. Directed by none other than his daughter how could it not be? Michelle Kath Sinclair was but a toddler when her dad passed, and the film takes the form of a personal quest to know him better (and retrieve a cherished guitar of his) as well as exploring his career. She visits with all six of the others in the original band as well as their manager/producer James William Guercio and his widow Alicia Kath.

The quest to retrieve Kath’s many-stickered Telecaster becomes a subplot of the film.

Kath was a largely self-taught prodigy who would sit in with future Chicago bandmates at DePaul Univ. music school in the Windy City. Many local players like them were serving time in “show bands” at local night clubs. His former colleagues attest that it was “renegade” Terry who began pushing for the band to be more themselves after acts like Cream and the Yardbirds started blowing thru town. It was Kath who wrote the mission-statement song “Introduction” that kicked off their bold first album, released in 1969. A remarkable piece of writing that managed to be both accessible and complex, Kath had to describe it from his head for a bandmate to transcribe. Chicago were on to a winning combination with their punchy horn section, accomplished playing and the keen pop sense that went with it (esp. of keyboardist Robert Lamm) in the early days. Kath’s husky vocals and fierce but passionate guitar solos were the feature of many of their hits, with “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” being maybe the most notable.

His daughter is an appealing presence and a natural for putting his surviving bandmates at ease in front of the camera. Drummer Danny Seraphine is esp. notable in his mix of fondness and regret when looking back on Terry’s role in the band. Kath was set to try his own luck in Los Angeles before deciding to see the band thru to its early success. The whole outfit did move to L.A. in the wake of international success and Kath was the one leading the way to camaraderie, good times and fruitful recording at the Caribou Ranch, the Rocky Mountain studio and home-away-from home built by Guercio in 1972. It was here that Kath and his wife Alicia spent much time in the early years of their marriage.

In relaxed interviews with Terry’s brother Rodney and Alicia, the pair speak to their niece and daughter of a big, amiable bear of a man. He grew up with annual vacations in the country and thrived in the company of friends and bandmates at the wide-open Colorado ranch/studio. There is ample home-movie footage, and even excerpts from a television special filmed, to attest to this.

Spoiler alert: director Michelle Kath Sinclair finds her dad’s prized Telecaster at a relative’s house in Florida.

Eventually, a darker side reveals itself. (“The trappings of success trapped him,” Seraphine says). There are not-uncommon tales of drink and drug abuse and then there’s Kath’s obsession with firearms. For the life of me I’ll never understand this widespread American fixation, esp. with someone like Kath who appears to be an unviolent man. But his favorite movie was “Taxi Driver” and he often imitated Robert De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene.

The end came in January of 1978 when Kath repaired to his place with a member of the group’s road crew after a long night of substance intake. His companion became alarmed when the guitarist started fooling around with a handgun. Moments later, Kath accidentally shot himself in the head after removing the clip but forgetting the one bullet in the chamber.

But moving beyond this needless death, there is plenty of good stuff for fans and guitar geeks here. There are lots of great live clips (several from Chicago’s great gig at Tanglewood, Mass. in summer 1970), a discussion of his boundary-pushing “Free-Form Guitar” from the first album (recorded several months before Hendrix’ famous Woodstock finale), and the guitar quest thru several homes of friends and family that will delight fans and six-string collectors all over. (Streaming now for free “with ads” on YouTube).

—Rick Ouellette

I am the author of “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey.” To look at a 30-page excerpt, please click on the book cover image above.