Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A coupla FILL-UMS
Goshdangit, I'll give this a go.... I rarely ever go to the cinemas to see films. The reasons being: I've had too many bad cinematic experiences involving people who won't shut the fuck up; they're too goddamn expensive; and, in relation to reason #2, there's barely ever a movie showing I would gladly spend $15-16 dollars to go see, wait in line for and then suffer the indignity of sitting through half an hour of lame previews and ads before the main feature comes on. In other words, in this age of convenience, I'll rent the DVD, thank you very much, and watch it in the comfort of my own home, taking piss breaks w/ a pause button whenever I damn well please.
But a few weeks ago, whilst still on holidays, we Melbournians went through a particularly hot spell and I was forced to stay indoors in some sort of capacity for about 5 days. In that time I actually went out and braved humanity head-on and witnessed three contemporary examples of this thing we call "cinema". In the space of three days I saw I Am Legend, No Country For Old Men and Into The Wild. In pecking order, that's from worst to best, if you must know.

Why would one willingly go and see a movie starring cheesedick brother-without-a-soul honky-in-disguise, Will Smith? Two words: Richard Matheson. He's the man responsible for penning the original 1954 novel, I Am Legend, on which this is based, and since it remains one of my all-time fave pieces of literature, I will see any adaption made, no matter what hunk o' no-talent overpaid Hollywood beefcake parades his wares in said film. Now, having said that, I Am Legend is a clunker of 6.5/10 proportions, a piece of barely-interesting celluloid ruined not so much by Will Smith, but by a half-arsed script, crumby CGI effects, nowhere direction and a storyline which bares little resemblance to the original novel. Plot: if you've seen Omega Man (waaay cheesy '70s adaption w/ Charlton Heston - though it's one I like) or read the book, you probably know it: virus wipes mankind from planet except, apparently, for a scientist who possibly holds the key to a cure. At night he is stalked by zombie "survivors" of the plague who have set up their own society. This version is all development and zero punch. You feel like it's building up to something - certain characters and plots are laid out like chess pieces for an action-packed series of sequences which will hopefully pad out a good 45 minutes of screen time - and what happens? NOT MUCH. Will saves the day awfully quick and then the credits roll. This was a dynamite opportunity to make a killer flick which truly honoured the original source material, and they blew it. The rumours are true: Hollywood is fucked.

No Country For Old Men is the new spectacular from the Coen brothers, the film-making duo responsible for some movies I rank as genius (Fargo, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple), and a whole buncha things I slept through (Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). It also has the hipsters jumping, as it's based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, a man popular amongst Nick Cave fans for his brutal noir-ish depiction of contemporary American life in his works. I've tried reading several McCarthy novels and never made my way through any of them. People say I'm missing out, and heck, I probably am, though his stark, minimalist writing style doesn't budge my loins a muscle. The Coen brothers film is made a lot like his novels: minimalist, cold-blooded and little dialogue. But I didn't have to read it, so I enjoyed it.
Javier Bardem's psychopathic hitman schtick is incredibly creepy, so much so it borders on the comical, and I suspect his bowlcut psycho-cowboy look is gonna catch on, big time. Even Josh Brolin, a guy previously known as merely "James Brolin's son and B-movie actor", really hits his stride here, and he's one of the film's few remotely sympathetic characters. Which is where I have a little problem with the story. I mean, should I care whether he lives or dies... or whether anyone on screen lives or dies? Or should I simply kick back and enjoy the spectacle? I opted for the latter, and whilst No Country For Old Men is most certainly not the intense, brutal, take-no-prisoners gorefest I'd been led to believe it to be - friends of mine claim they were on the edge of their seats w/ hands covering their eyes (You kidding?! Such folks were obviously not brought up on a steady diet of zombie flicks and Halloween knock-offs that was par for the course in the Lang household) - it's still a highly engaging revenge flick with a cold-hearted gloss that harkens back to the glory days of '70s bad-ass cinema as typified by the likes of Sam Peckinpah.

And now for something completely different... Sean Penn's Into The Wild ranks as the finest film I've seen in the last 12 months, and of the three movies I'm reviewing here, it's the one you shouldn't miss. Based on the 1995 book by Jon Krakauer, it documents the life of a young, educated, well-heeled, world-at-his-feet college graduate - Chris McCandless - who, upon finishing college in 1990, gave away all his belongings (inc. a $24,000 donation to Oxfam) and hit the road for almost two years, living it up like Woody Guthrie and Henry David Thoreau combined, before his hubris got the better of him and he starved to death on a particularly foolhardy, ill-prepared extended stay in the wilds of Alaska. However, it's the journey there which counts, as he stumbles across and befriends a cross-section of American society along the way, from old hippies living in a van to a lonely ex-serviceman whose life never really got back on track after the death of his wife and only child in a car accident some 30 years before. Sounds like the makings of Forrest Gump, I know, "a snapshot of America" as seen through the eyes of an idealistic young man. Well, it ain't. For one, it's based on fact, as McCandless kept a diary for much of his journey, and Krakauer spent three years researching his journey by conducting hundreds of interviews for his book.
Director Penn has certainly done the source material justice, sticking closely to the story at hand (some of which is possibly open to conjecture), and bringing scenes to the screen which I figured would've been either dreadfully handled when I read the book a few weeks before seeing the film, or perhaps completely ignored. Newcomer Emile Hirsch portrayal of McCandless is note-perfect, and I felt a lot more sympathy for him on screen than on paper. Fact is, upon finishing the book, I figured McCandless to be a spoilt, immature, annoying, self-righteous frat-boy, a guy who reminded me all too much of various people I attended high school with and would then bump into a few years after graduating, them decked out in kaftans, dreadlocks and leather sandles, preaching to me like a religious zealot about the evils of the decadent West and contemporary consumerist society and bragging about how they were going to live up a tree in Mongolia for five years to cleanse their souls. All this whilst just 3-4 years ago they were captaining the school football team and merrily setting themselves up for a lifetime of wholesome, preppie living. McCandless' encounter with the elderly Ron Franz (played by Hal Holbrook) even moved a stone such as myself, and McCandless' recklessness in his adventure (he simply disappeared one day and never contacted his family the whole time he was gone, the parents resorting to hiring private detectives to track him down, which they failed to do) can be seen more as an immature reaction to a dreadful situation in his family (which I won't give away) than the mere stupidity of an asshole who decided to go out and wilfully break the hearts of those who loved him.
My wife saw this a week before me and also loved it, though she warned me of the overbearing soundtrack by everyone's favourite warbler, Eddie Vedder. I awaited that patented moaning as I made myself comfortable in the blissfully empty cinema, though it never really shone through, with most of Vedder's work restrained to acoustic fingerpicking and, yes, the occasional mournful "Oooo-ooo-woooaah-eerrrr" we've all come to expect from The King Of Grunge. Actually, I'll admit it: the soundtrack was good and suited the movie just fine.
It's a bit of a timewarp for an old geezer like me, a film like this. What was this young, fit American doing in late '92, slowly starving himself to death in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness? Why couldn't he just kick back, smoke a bowl, put on some Hammerbox and Blood Circus and get over it. That's what the rest of America was doing! For some, existential angst is a whole lot more difficult to overcome. I wouldn't necessarily recommend Chris McCandless' choices in life to anyone, but I'm glad that Sean Penn made a beautiful and surprisingly understated account of the last two years he lived.

Monday, January 21, 2008

This is a can of worms which perhaps shouldn't be opened. I learnt that the hard way just last Saturday night when I broached this topic in a drunken round-table discussion at a party full of various low-rent rock 'n' roll scenesters. I was sober as a judge - still on the wagon am I - but the booze was a-flowin' and soon voices were raised. I found it hard to find five bands off the top of my head whose careers absolutely disgusted me to no end, though I did manage to throw around a few names. Pretty much everyone present agreed that The Police must surely be mentioned. Their combination of old-hack prog/fusion musicianship, shameless leaping on the New Wave bandwagon, cod-reggae bog-rock and the mere presence of Sting gives them a frontrunner position. I - and others present - would also give special mention to Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, if only for the very special, deeply painful nature of their music and zillions of imitators they have spawned, and that's despite the fact that Flea and John Frusciante seem like pretty OK guys, and Mike Patton runs a label that's released a handful of really great albums (not featuring him, by the way).
But then opinions diverged... One friend and noted "muso" - let's call him "Sven" - thought that Metallica and Queen should be placed in such a list, to which I howled cries of protest. Well, not so much Queen; whilst they're a band I've avidly disliked for most of my life, at this point in time I find their music strangely camp and amusing as opposed to loathsome. But Metallica? That entry strikes me as just goddamn ludicrous, not only because their first three albums are actually really good (actually, they're great and essentially bereft of the negative ingredients which have put me off 99.9% of heavy metal my whole life: rampant machismo/sexism, brainless escapist/fantasy-oriented lyrics and endless displays of virtuosic wankery), but because their musical downfall over the last 10-15 years has been hilariously tragicomical.
I gave as good as I got and shot back w/ a doozy: The Clash. Why? Their almost complete inability to "rock" or write a half-decent tune (and I'll make exceptions for "Tommy Gun" and "Rock The Casbah", both of which I like), their phony-baloney "rad" politics which put them on a par w/ Bono and Sting, and... well, actually, I was playing the devil's advocate. I certainly don't think The Clash are one of the Top 5 Worst Rock Bands Of All Time - they're not even close (even though I don't like them) - though some time you just have to wave a red rag to a room full of bulls.
We didn't even get started regarding the Spin Doctors, Matchbox 20, Hootie and the Blowfish, Candlebox, Primus, Bush, Dread Zeppelin, U2...

Friday, January 18, 2008

More SST ephemera for anyone who cares. Here's an SST TV commercial from 1985/'86(?). Dig "SST spokesman" Mike Watt doing the sales spiel at the end!

Dez-fronted 'Flag at the Mabuhay Gardens January 1981. See it before it disappears!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

AMON DUUL II playing "Between The Eyes" live on TV! Pretty dang hot, I gottsta say.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


I guess I've written about these guys before, some time way back at the start of this blog. But they're worth revisiting, and my revisiting of their first three LPs over the last 3 days has convinced me of one thing: The Grifters, for the first half of the 1990s, were one hell of a great band and have weathered awfully well over the last 15 years. In regards to rock bands I - and few others - seem to really give a damn about, I'd rate them up there w/ the likes of Die Kreuzen, Dog Faced Hermans and Dawson: three other excellent bands from yesteryear who slip by most people's radar. The first three albums - So Happy Together from 1992 (originally released on the now-defunct Chicago label, Sonic Noise), 1993's One Sock Missing and '94's Crappin' You Negative (both released on the Shangri-La label, and still in print) - still cast a great shadow in regards to first-rate American rock music made in the 1990s. I could break it down to the bare essentials and state that the perfectly band encapsulated the white-boy pop sensibilities of fellow Memphis-ites(?) Big Star, the druggy blues churns of Royal Trux and the slightly askew avant-garage twang of prime Fall, and perhaps I just did. But that simplifies the case way too much. The band got all caught up in the "lo-fi" hoo-ha which swept the US just as music journalists across the land were getting sick of typing "grunge" in every second article they wrote on contemporary music for housewife magazines, and thus they will probably be associated w/ such a scene for eternity. Actually, none of this is to imply that nothing of any good came out of such a "scene": I'll state the case that I still own a ton of cassettes, LPs and 7"s on the Shrimper label; have fond memories of listening to Sebadoh up to and including their III magnum opus (and really not liking anything they did thereafter); and Guided By Voices, a band I haven't listened to for over a decade, released two or three albums which stuck in my head for so long there's probably a very good reason why I haven't had to give them a spin in 10 years. But let's put this into perspective: if your friend told you, in 2008, that they were starting up a "lo-fi" band, you'd probably laugh, then cry, then reconsider your friendship. It's a quaint relic from another era, and not someting I'm prone to bandy about at this stage of the game.

But I digress. What still strikes me w/ the Grifters is just how unique and different from each other the first three albums are. The first has a fuzzy, murky sound, as if recorded in a swamp, w/ extraneous noise tracks scattered throughout. The songwriting style, at least when I first reviewed it in 1993, I described as being caught somewhere between Mission of Burma and the Wipers. I guess you could call it "art-punk", though I shudder at such a trite phrase... then consider it to be apt. In other words, it's a rollicking, punkified mess w/ well crafted pop songs underneath the shambles, a songcraft probably informed by years of kicking back in the Memphis heat listening to a lot of prog/psych. The band, after all were hitting their 30s at the dawn of the 90s and had been bumming around the local scene for years in various incarnations before any kind of spotlight hit them.

'93's One Sock Missing saw them tightening the reins in w/ the noise quota, and simply giving an excellent Southern-fried, raw rock 'n' roll disc anyone who's into early '70s 'Stones, Big Star, Royal Trux or Reigning Sound - all bases covered there - should own and play often. This is the album which saw them getting compared to Pavement at the time, and whilst I gotta say that Pavement never budged my musical loins an inch (and by decade's end irked me like practically no other band on the planet), the comparison wasn't just a lazy stab in the dark. The smarty-pants wordplay and sense of each song collapsing on itself then picking up the pieces was something Pavement were indulging in at the time, a trick pretty much stolen from The Fall anyway, so compare all you want! The Grifters were on the same page somewhere.

The Holy Trinity Of Releases ended w/ '94's Crappin' You Negative. All lo-fi tags were dropped at this stage. This platter is clean, bold and not a shambolic performance is noted. And it's good, possibly their best. The band had perfectly honed their craft, and I'd rate the one-two punch of "Bronze Cast" and "Junkie Blood" on side B as their two finest songs, the former released as a single at the time. When the pace slows and your hear the cry, "If I fall asleep, don't photograph me" come in, there's not a dry eye in the house. And I ain't got the faintest idea of what they're talking about.

Other people were obviously listening. They went on to record two fairly poor-selling albums - Ain't My Lookout and Full Blown Possession - on Sub Pop, then bit the dust some time in the late '90s. The Sub Pop albums in question are OK and all that, though I never spin them. I don't even own them anymore. The band had it their peak and was sliding down the slope. But that takes nothing away from those first three LPs. You need 'em. '90s "indie-rock" is probably not something most people reading this blog really want to hear about right now, though the Grifters transcend all limitations you may expect from such a lame genre, if indeed you even want to place them in such a category (and I don't, even though every/any music-reference site on the web will tell you different). The Grifters were a rock 'n' roll band. Simple as that. And they were one of the best at it, too.

The gents from Saccharine Trust have put up some great, old-school LA punk photos on their MySpace page. Check it out here. And check out Dez Cadena above! To think he traded in the Clash(!!) t-shirt just a few years later for long hair, a beard and a Hendrix top!

Jay Hinman couldn't stay away for long, and has once again hit the blogging scene, this time putting finger to keyboard regarding films. Yep, movies, cinema, flix, whatever. It's called Celluloid Hut and you can find it here. Whilst some people may be find the man's mere existence an offence (and quite obviously lose sleep over the fact, mumbling "Must... kill... Jay... Hinman" as they toss and turn under their new Beaver Cleaver dooner cover they just scored on eBay), I'm glad the guy's back on board and waxing lyrical on various films that float his boat. I've been a movie nut since way before I went ga-ga over music (mainly horror flix, thats is), and Jay's middlebrow tastes are pretty much along the same lines as mine. I do not for one second claim to be any kind of expert on film, and most "arthouse" cinema bores the living bejesus outta me. I know for a fact that various friends of mine think my taste in cinema to be unrelentingly dull, whilst in the same breath hailing just about any movie of unrelenting tedium to be a masterpiece that my dilletante brain could never fully comprehend and appreciate. Screw that! Watching a good movie should never be a chore or a slog. For me to even bother with a film beyond its first 20 minutes it must immediately engage and present me with at least a smidgen of narrative thrust. Anything less and I'm outta there. You can check the list of my fave films in my complete profile tab to your right and have a good laugh. Best American director of the last 10 years? That'd be Alexander Payne, for having made Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. He's an acute observer of human behaviour and his films comprise of characters on screen I can actually vaguely relate to. Quite a feat.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Another doozy! The Seeds miming "Pushin' Too Hard" in a TV studio ca. '67. Dig it!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

DON CHERRY live on Italian TV ca. 1976... Damn, this is hot!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Funny I should be thinking about (and playing) these guys again. It's been quite a break indeed. I was fortunate enough to've witnessed some of the Dirty Three's very early gigs when practically no one even knew they existed. And I'll tells ya, that's not because I've necessarily got my ear to the ground w/ everything that's hep 'n' happenin', or because I'm down w/ some in-the-know clique. Nope, it happened by sheer, drunken accident. I was at the Evelyn Hotel on Brunswick Street one evening back at the start of '93, hanging out w/ some friends, when I noticed that the band setting up featured none other than Mick Turner and Jim White. I'd seen Venom P. Stinger play countless times - alas, not w/ the troubled and ousted (and now deceased) Dugald MacKenzie at the helm - and so I staggered up to White and slurred out something dumb along the lines of, "Awright, gonna get some fuckin' Venom P. action tonight, huh?!", to which he politely responded (and it was polite, given my likely asshole-ic demeanour), "Not tonight. We've got a new band going called the Dirty Three. Stick around". That I did, and I liked what I saw. And from then on, from '93-'95, I saw them many, many times.
Some time around late '95 I noticed things had changed... not w/ the band, but their audience. These guys were getting big. Not at the stage of attracting any particular element of douchebaggery to the fold, mind you, but their shows (mainly at the Punter's Club, from memory) were becoming insanely packed and not the intimate affairs I used to enjoy. I was as surprised as anyone that word had caught on so strong. I mean, the band, they were hot, both live and on record, but still so unconventional in their music I was kinda shocked the plebs cared for them. I worked for their distributor from '95-'99 and I can tell you: they sold a lot of records, and I dug them all. Fact is, I was happy for them. Both White and Turner had been playing around in assorted acclaimed (but poorly-selling) punk, post-punk, noise and scunge-rock bands since 1980 and probably never really earned a cent from their given crafts. A buck or two was long overdue.
The last time I saw them play in the 1990s was at the Hi-Fi Bar w/ roughly 800 other people. I distinctly remember two clueless suburbanites in front of me arguing over a burnt dinner or something. I figured I probably wouldn't be catching the band in a live setting from there on. And that's not because I'm a snob - no, wait, of course I am, and if you tell me you're not, I won't believe you - but because I'm just not into the idea of battling crowds to get a good view of a band.

When I went overseas in '99 and had The Great Cull of my LPs/CDs, in an attempt to thin out what I thought to be a bloated collection (didn't work), I foolishly sold my Dirty Three CDs in the process. All I have standing is a Forced Exposure vinyl copy of Sad & Dangerous... and let's be honest. It's actually my wife's, not mine. So, that brings me to this, the new-ish Dirty Three feature-length documentary film from last year, something I was completely unaware of until I stumbled over it in the New Releases section of the local DVD rental store last week. This film is apparently still floating around various film festivals, and if you have a thing about seeing flicks on "the big screen" as opposed to your TV w/ a DVD player attached (I prefer the latter), you might wanna jump on this, pronto.
The Dirty Three has a whole lotta good stuff - footage and background coverage - and a whole lotta stuff missing from the story. It takes you on a fairly basic chronological journey from A to Z: Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White's backgrounds in music, from busking to the Sick Things to People With Chairs Up Their Noses (obscure "little band" people rave about, though I've never heard 'em), and naturally there's some cool footage of Venom P. Stinger and intelligent commentary from the likes of the always-eloquent and verbose Nick Cave (I've been seriously warming to the guy lately), Steve Cross (3RRR/Remote Control man-about-town), who first signed them to Torn & Frayed in the mid '90s, and Dave Graney, who bummed around Europe for a few years when they were in the Moodists together in the early '80s. Then it gives you an album-by-album rundown, complete w/ details by Steve Albini. It's pretty fun and interesting until the film ends at approx. 90 minutes and you realise they didn't cover much else. OK, these famous people love them and they've made some very fine albums... anything else to add? I mean, is the fact that the three members of the band happen to live on three seperate continents not even worth mentioning, or pursuing? Do they make a semi-comfortable living off their music? How long will the band possibly last? How many records have they sold? What do their parents or partners make of it all? What about the Taiwanese shows they played a few years back? I dunno, when the credits rolled, these were the first questions which entered my head, and I felt ripped off that such points were never even brought up. Still, if you just want some basic facts, some great footage and a whole lotta gushing from various famous heads, you'll likely find something of worth. Despite its faults, I can't say I was ever struck w/ boredom. Turner, White and Ellis come across as incredibly humble, down-to-earth guys who are probably as shocked as anyone w/ their enormous success. My brush with fame story? I don't know anyone from the band personally; I can only say that my wife had drinks w/ Jim White's Dad in a country pub a few years back and that Warren Ellis dropped by a record shop I was working at a few times when he was briefly in town around '99/'00 and he was as funny as hell and loved to chat about everything from Eric Dolphy to Stravinsky to Black Flag. My kinda guy!
I am now playing Sad & Dangerous as I write this, after just giving Horse Stories a flogging (okay, I burnt it off a friend the other day... and will probably wind up purchasing the real thing. Don't get me started...), and I sense a very small Revival Of One happening w/ the band known as the Dirty Three in this household. You know, I actually did catch them play in the last 5 years, at the Forum in '04 or so, and they knocked me out. Ellis was his usual histrionic self, though the added combination of Turner's completely deadpan, near-disinterested manner (whilst plucking out incredibly subtle though apt guitar lines) and Jim White's you-gotta-see-him-to-believe-him Sunny Murray/Chick Webb/George Hurley drumming (hardly ever a sweat broken) is still an amazing sight to behold. Fact is, they'd barely changed their basic template in the slightest. When I went home that night, I'm pretty sure I played Sad & Dangerous a bunch of times and called it quits. This time, I promise to re-investigate further.