Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From Weasel to Everyman

Warren Oates, a big screen, ultimate everyman, was unquestionably one of the all-time definitive character actors. Born in Kentucky, after time in the marines and college, he starting out by mostly playing lean and mean, sniveling, weasely, cowardly supporting roles, particularly in westerns as the old third gun to the left type, and as his career progressed and he started to age and fill out he easily progressed to supporting roles of substance, and made a go of it playing an intriguing series of oily charmers, thin-skinned gunsels, and snake-eyed killers. Somehow, during the wild and wooly advent of 70’s American cinema he managed the unlikliest of rises, to the occasional starring movie role and a batch of pivotal second-billed parts. He also left, outside of his many, many early and small, but often memorable, appearances in both movies and in television, a truly lasting impression in a series of quintessential easy rider/raging bull era movies: The Wild Bunch (69), Two-Lane Blacktop (’71), The Hired Hand (‘71) The Man who Came to Dinner (’73), Dillinger (’73), Kid Blue (’73),White Dawn (’74), Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (’74), and 92 in the Shade (75).
All this comes to mind after finally viewing one of Oates most discussed (at least among Oates aficionados) but least seen efforts, 1974’s Cockfighter. Helmed by Two-Lane Blacktop cult director Monte Hellman it’s a taut, slice-of-life that follows Oates as Frank Mansfield, a middle-aged drifter bent on winning The Cockfighter of the Year medal, self-sworn to silence after blowing his earlier chances through drinking and his own big mouth. Frank trains and fights cocks, oblivious to all else, including home, romance, and his own nomadic means of existence. Surrounded by a boatload of minor character etches (Richard B. Schull, Millie Perkins, Troy Donahue, Laurie Bird, Steve Railsback, and Harry Dean Stanton), and peppered with all sorts of real folk (one of the strongest seventies filmic conventions), and, yep, some slo-mo actual cockfighting (replete with blood-letting, flying feathers, outta-the-eyes-life-fleeing), the mostly non-speaking Oates holds the screen with his mercurial commonality—a character actor truly blending into (yet subtly standing outside of) the verite mosaic he’s part of .
Cockfighter is certainly a film molded from its times, attenuated and laid back and undeniably resonant, never burrowing towards some sorta true meaning or big reveal. Oates is near perfect, his squint functioning as substitute for verbosity, his mouth perpetually frozen between smile and sneer, a portrait of fatalism rendered with a cocky walk, weathered features, a hat worn just right, and an overwhelming aura of sad and sorry wisdom. His early death in 1982 (don’t miss the 1993 Oates documentary Across the Border, one of the DVD featurettes) deprived the big screen of something special—nothing particularly iconic or mass audience jewelry-rattling—but the continued cinematic image of one of us, ragtag and bereft, yet also spirited and coiled for action, another lone American individualist just trying to get by, not bent.

Friday, April 24, 2009

I Don't Need a Drink, I Need a Time Machine

I’ve always liked retro man Chris Isaak, with his matinee idol looks, self-depreciating wit, cool daddy wardrobe, Roy Orbison croon, and his catchy, sultry throwback ballads. His early eye-winking cable show, The Chris Isaak Show, ran from 2001-2004, and in 47 quirky but extremely laid back episodes he essentially played himself, a low-key working musician, beset by the usual trivial money, romance, and people problems. Isaak has new talk/performance show, The Chris Isaak Hour on the Bio Channel, where he banters, discuss career and musical choices, and trades both licks and vocals with a weirdly varied, eclectic, and often blatantly uncool batch of guests, which so far have included Trisha Yearwood, Stevie Nicks, Michale Buble, Chicago, Glen Campbell, Smashing Pumpkins, Jewel, and Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens.
It’s an easy hour, peppered with Isaak’s genuine charm and neo-Ricky Nelson persona, but watching the soft parade of well-worn circus dogs and well-scrubbed newbies it brought me back to a time when I first became enraptured by pop music, well before I went through self-hip ionization and started dividing musical acts into uncool, too cool, and oh-so-cool categories, when the FM dial was a wide open, forever beckoning and constantly swinging door, and my listening partner-brother and I just gobbled it all up, no rhyme nor reason, no differentiating genres, no all-abiding rules governing taste and consumption, no clue or concern to what was perceived as hip or the real deal.
Every once in a while, I click onto 3WK Classic Underground Radio, and trip back into a time when we bussed ourselves down (or hoofed it) to the local record shop, and bought lps ranging from the Velvets to The Firesign Theatre, from The Flaming Groovies to Quicksilver Messenger Service, from Andy Pratt to Mose Allison, from Garland Jeffreys to Curtis Mayfield , from Traffic to Grin, from The Fugs to The Mothers of Invention, from Humble Pie to Captain Beefheart.

By the way, here’s a recent quick trip into the wayback machine, courtesy of the one and only Prince. You gotta love the guy...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

SXSW 2009: The Inside Scoop

After much cajoling and a little trickery, much like pulling teeth, I managed to get a brief, straight-up insiders report on this year's South by Southwest Conference and Festival from our own main man, "Mr. Insider", aka "The Indian", Missouri born, New Orleans bred, RI adoptee, ex-Red Rocker and ex-Raindog,and the current Man Behind the Curtain for Paul Westerberg and Roky Erickson, Darren Hill:

This year was much different for me than past years. We had just finished up most of the new Roky/Okkervil River record and took advantage of having all the label folks (what's left of them) in town - had them come down to the studio at various times to hear rough mixes. I kept having to run across town for that. Meanwhile, I was more interested in the business side of things this year than the music. I spent most of my days at the panels and in meetings, rather than at the day parties hearing bands and drinking beer.
The biz is upside down and I'm trying to get a handle on where things are heading now that we're over the cliff. My panel turned out to be entertaining. Kid Rock's manager kept it lively - picking fights with a couple of the other managers.
I did see some good shit this year, but nothing really worth reporting on. It's truly overwhelming - 1900 official bands showcasing, probably another 1000 on top of that. Every band plays multiple shows. It's not as easy as it used to be to jump around from show to show, so you really have to set an agenda. I had little interest in the "surprise" appearances by Metallica, Kayne West, Jane's Addiction. Saw Devo with my buddy Josh playing drums. The Sonics sounded great but are tough to look at. Did I tell you they're trying to get me to manage them? Little Steven's interview/rant was pretty cool.
Roky's Ice Cream Social was a hit again this year. I got name checked by the editor of Mojo in his report and I saw a bunch of "buzz" bands that I didn't understand.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Let it Bleed

Once upon a time part of the allure of exploring rock and roll and it’s ancillary byways and dusty highways was getting the chance to stumble towards the nether regions and back alleys that the popular music seemed to leave in it’s often putrid, rotting, yet fertile wake. Josh Alan Friedman (a journalist/musician/author) is a hell of a beady-eyed guide, laying it out in his book Tell the Truth until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll(2008, Backbeat Books, 262 peps, 2008.) A lean and mean collection of fifteen cautionary tales, with a majority set in the Texas music scene, many reporting weirdly similar showbiz rise and falls (and hanging-in-theres), dotted with waterlogged recording tapes, ripped-off songwriters, junkie antics, music biz backstabbing, self-immolating artistic visions, midnight boogies, dashed dreams, riches gained and lost, opportunities messed-up and circumvented, aging wise men, hardened arteries and perceptions, the shards of fame and loss, and, most of all, the siren call of songs, sounds, and magical one-night stands that reverberate far past mere career trajectories or chart listings. Friedman talks to and profiles kingpins (Dr. John, Jerry Leiber), one-of-a-kinders (Doc Pomus, Mose Allison), lost sidemen (Tommy Shannon, Cornell Dupree) record bizzers (Joel Dorn), regional obscurities (Ricky Sikes and the Rhythm Rebels) and even includes a truly hilarious chapter (“Mr. Nobody”) with himself as a brief paramour of one of pop music’s true Queens, Ronnie Spector. A snap and crackle read, brimming with bad juju, empty pockets, and the echo of some of the songs you can only hear when yer stranded on Lonely Avenue.

Monday, April 6, 2009


The following column is reprinted from the April issue of Providence Monthly.

By Scott Duhamel

In the simplest of pop culture mutations comic strips begat comic books that begat graphic novels, the current high-art form of the genre. It seems that graphic novels have also become a sort of holy grail for movie-makers—the next best thing to a cinematic blueprint that comes along with a hugely potential built-in fan base, as evidenced by just a few of fairly recent movie projects based on The Road to Perdition, 300, Sin City, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, A History of Violence, From Hell, Persepolis, and the long awaited, recently released Rosetta stone, Watchmen.
Way back, some 35-40 years ago, in the splendid dawn of my pop-culture obsessed teenage years, I was a comic book maven (largely a Marvel comics fan), and we so-very-refined comic readers used to squeal aloud at the purely cinematic parade of colorized images and movie-like to-and-fro plotting of our favorite titles, nodding to each other in total groovy understanding that wacky Italian director Federico Fellini (a certified artiste) was rumored to be soon undertaking a go at one of the major superhero characters, all the while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that Hollywood just couldn’t seem to get a comic-into-movie feature done right, or even done at all.
It wasn’t until Richard Donner crafted Superman in 1978, with the perfectly cast Christopher Reeves, that a comic book film received a true seal of approval, from fanboys, critics, and audiences, although in retrospect, the movie itself seems a rather well-executed but hollow joyride. Of course, dozens of comic book films have since sprung forth, some out and out duds, some cult fave raves, and more than a few pure box office boffo. Strangely enough, when turned into a commercial movie, the graphic novel, a seemingly more refined pop art form, brings with it a few inherent drawbacks. Most graphic novels (Watchmen being a truly preeminent example) self-consciously display their own cinematic and filmic qualities, more often than not sublimely declaring themselves as a sort of print-driven movie, with artist and writers foisting themselves unto their readership as meta-screenwriters and directors, hipster filmmakers charting their oh-so-original visions, which of course (uh-huh) are steeped in the elements and mythologies of comics and movies past.
I’m purty sure heat-seeking director/adapter Zack Snyder, of mucho 300 fame and fortune, was more than aware of the popcult bear-trap he was sprinting into, and of the equally full-barrel x-ray scrutiny that would be directed by all-of-those-who-know-inside-their-hearts-that-Watchmen-created by Alan Moore and David Gibbons-was-the-greatest-graphic novel-evuuuhh, as they examined every pre-release artifact from casting to screenwriters to trailers. After all, that just part of the landscape, Snyder’s Watchmen, is (catch your collective breath you keepers of the graphic flame) scrupulously adherent to its origins, containing many frame-by-frame re-creations, and at moments it achieves a spellbinding visual opulence and an undeniable filmmaking proficiency. Alas, that does not add up to a great, or even special movie. Snyder (as he did with the extremely-to me-off-putting 300) doesn’t seem to have the overall vision or narrative skills to get past the razzle-dazzle of his Day-Glo-meets-noir imagery.
Set in 1985, during Richard Nixon’s fifth term (get it?), when costumed crime fighters or “Masks”, have been banned since 1977 from doing their street-fighting thang, the movie begins to play out as a twisted private dick tale, complete with hardboiled/existential voiceover. The movie’s narrator is Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley), a tweaking mini psychopath with a bandage-covered face on which inky blotches change and reshape themselves, who discovers the murder of a fellow costumed vigilante and makes the rounds to check in with the other existing decked-out and checked-out crime busters, including Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a naked and blue 200 foot omnipotent guy with the properly proportioned appendage swinging in the wind, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman, whose so-called acting may make audiences pine for the comeback of Pia Zadora), all bust and legs squeezed into a Vampirella-splashed-with-crayons costume. All the gravely dysfunctional superheroes come with a portentous back-story, and the move whips through each of them as it weighs down just about every bit of its overwrought and largely incoherent 161 minutes.
Moore and Gibbons’ original graphic novel offered all of this material and more, yet on the flat page it seemed larger, sharper, and multi-layered, a dexterously crafted universe brimming with narrative and thematic density, and, yes, a razor-like satirical subtext. The movie, as written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, and virtually conducted by Snyder, seems largely sensational, whipped up and curdled, filled with collegiate connections to the usual conspiracies and governmental big brotherhood, yet another piece of virtuoso dystopian pie. It’s also disturbingly lurid, and resoundingly vulgar, almost a big budget version of the pummel-till-you-crack slice-and-dice revenge assaults that serve as the appetizer, main course, and tart desserts for those never ending parade of horror porn movies.
Ironically, the movie opens with a streamlined opening credit sequence, encapsulating the story from the forties to the eighties, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, with the presence of many masked interlopers easily charging up the fast-moving imagery as we careen through some familiar cultural and political signposts of modern day America. The rub, and what a rub-a-dub-dub, is that the exceedingly facile and cinematically exquisite opening is probably the only moment of the film that Maestro Snyder was free to go for a little self-invention, which means that deep inside his hollow popcorn heart and demolition derby head may indeed lie the soul of a true filmmaker. Watchmen just ain’t the place you are gonna find it.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Dr. Hackenbush Springs Out of the Bushes

Dr. Hackenbush, aka Jim Celenza, always welcome in the lair of the culture vulture, is back again, teetering down his own his internal warpath:

today another bday like and anvil dropped onyr
broken heart\and they to dragged me to
a bistro to fathom the intircate brilinace of my brain:
so I gave them the speech:

If I were King subways, trams, buses, trains, wine, beer
Figs and pizza would all be free,
Gasoline, ipods, parking and cellphones would be priced to what they cost
people in Nigeria and Indonesia and China
the ave work week everywhere would be three and a half days.
And pubs would never have TVs
No daylite savings, just saving for the night
Workers in the laundry and housekeeping would make 90 thousand a week
CEOS and lawyers would have to wash
latrines in India and Africa
Movies would be free; plays too: with mandatory nudity in each.

If I were King I would organize monthly film festivals
Wim Wenders, Scorsese, Bunuel. Kieslowski
Orson, Gong Li, Truffault, Goddard, Altman.
Laura Linney, Hitchcock and Wilder.
If I was crowned imperial king Lena Olin would be my Queen,
And after the divorce, Roseanna Arquette
And then after that divorce… Merisa Tomie.
And after her departure (inconsolable)
learn to live alone in a deep darkmine

If I were coroneted in a robin crested sweet blueberry
Spring day
all those who left me here alone to drift
Across the river stinx in this immense indifferent dark
Would still be here
sharing the wine and the figs and the cheese
and the gossip and the BBC

If I were king my court would include Steve Buscieme, Bruno GAnz, Sade, Fred, (a plastic replica of Hunter Thompson).
Ammie Mann, Cat Stevens, Stephan Hawking, Paul Farmer,
N Mandela, Robbie Robertson, Bill Murray, the Coens, Kate Winslet, Dennis Hopper,
There would be a standing order for all
Citizens and subjects
Those with burn wounds, palsy, and the chronically lonely
Digging in dumpsters
will be driven in style to attend a play by Beckett and Pinter once a yr
All radio and TV and Internet sites would begin each broadcast day
with Howling Wolf
schools would not pledge to anything or anyone but begin each crisp brilliant morning
Over the load speaker
With a reading (by Flannery O’Connor. Issac Babel, Primo Levi, Chekhov

If I were fuckin KING
There would a way to get back to the magic
And, were I king everyone would have a
Sweetly scented Guiding light
to take them safely home.
were I king..................

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Keep on (Red) Rockin'

Politics and art, politics and rock and roll, they just don't do the boogie-woogie as much as we would expect, or even as much as they once did in this land is our land. Here's an unexpected treat, a Huffington Post bit delivered by music industry guy Howie Klein, wherein our good bud Darren (ex-Raindogs and current Paul Westerberg guru)Hill's original band New Orleans-based The Red Rockers is both referenced and depicted in a little self-done protest video also contributed by Klein.(Haveta mention that Darren looks young and "cute" enough in the vid's stills that I had to resist the urge to print one out and pin it right up on my bedroom wall.)