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

Make Mine a Double #8: The Minutemen’s “Double Nickels on the Dime” (1984)

Double Nickels on the Dime is a landmark post-punk album that was reportedly inspired by another brilliant two record set, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, recorded earlier that year. The Minutemen, a trio that proudly hailed from the working-class San Pedro area of Los Angeles, were an aptly named group—-both for the brevity of their songs and their readiness to confront the forces of oppression with the chosen weapons of their day. On Double Nickels, singer/guitarist D. Boon rails against government malfeasance and media brainwashing as if on a set schedule. But the group’s dry sense of humor never abandons them through these four dynamic sides and the overall feel is more conspiratorial than preachy. This is an album treasured by a considerable number of 1980s indie/underground rock fans and is essential for younger listeners of a similar bent. Besides, it’s hard not to love a record with such song titles as “There Ain’t Shit on TV Tonight”, “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”, “The Roar of the Masses Could be Farts” and “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”

The Minutemen directly followed the first column of punk rockers and they give shout-outs to Joe Strummer, Richard Hell and X’s John Doe in “History Lesson-Part II,” perhaps the most well-known song here. But they are no back-to-basics purists. Boon’s fleet-fingered fretwork is as skillful as many of the Sixties’ axe heroes and the versatile rhythm section of bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley are as adept at swinging as they are at pile driving.

There were forty-five tracks on the original vinyl, though CD editions usually omit a couple to shoehorn it onto one disc. Only one cut was more than three minutes long and most were under two, meaning more than the usual amount of opportunities for double-album stretching out. There’s a countryish song, an acoustic guitar interlude, passages that resemble free-form jazz and several numbers of slam-poetry-with-musical-backing featuring acute social commentary, often emanating from the pen of Mike Watt.


The album’s much-loved cover photo (and its title) was a snarky reference to the recent Sammy Hagar hit “I Can’t Drive 55.” It shows Mike Watt driving his VW Beetles at exactly 55 MPH, heading for the San Pedro off-ramp.

Casual listeners may be put off by what seems more like underdeveloped sketches than full-bodied songs. But the Minutemen’s minimalist mindset reveals its skewed genius gradually, whether it is the hazardous intersection of romance, religion and workplace politics depicted in “Jesus and Tequila” or the great deadpan cover of Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu.” The symbolically charged year of 1984 saw President Ronald Reagan get reelected and the deep discontent of the creative underclass with that topdog-loving society infuses much of the material here. This is made crystal clear in the fantastic video the band did for the fist-pumping anthem “This Ain’t No Picnic.” Footage of Reagan the actor as a World War II fighter pilot is used to make it look like he’s strafing the band with machine-gun fire. He finally resorts to bombing but our rock heroes emerge from the rubble, little the worse for wear and still shouting the chorus.

“Our band could be your life,” the opening line from the autobiographical “History Lesson-Part II” (and later used by author Michael Azerrad as the title for his great book about that musical era), at first pass sounds like a boast but stands as a message of solidarity to all those who would come after them. And though the Minutemen would prove to be influential, their own career would come to an end with the tragic death of D. Boon in a van accident just before Christmas 1985. A depressed Watt and Hurley thought about leaving music but were encouraged to return, forming the well-regarded fIREHOSE. Mike Watt in particular has remained active over the next two decades and eventually joined the re-united Stooges in 2003. He’s dedicated every project he’s been involved with to the memory of his childhood friend from San Pedro, where he still resides.

For those who want to see the story of the Minutemen on film, I would recommend the excellent documentary We Jam Econo. I also would, as usual, recommend my own book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above to see a 30-page excerpt.

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ray and Dave in action in the early Seventies.

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

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


The old demon alcohol claims another victim.

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

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

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

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

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


You say you want a revolution? St. Petersburg 1917

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

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

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

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

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


Answer: John Oliver’s original “douchebag.”

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

2. The Rightward Drift of Middle America

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

3. Ignore the Flyover States at Your Own Peril

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Charity
Directed by Alex Glustrom–2015–63 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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