The Stash Dauber and I Team Up to Evaluate the Threat in Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges Documentary GIMME DANGER

I have been quiet of late: teaching, reading, and worrying about, then recovering from, the election have kept me plenty occupied. However, a recent visit with my fond friend and fellow music obsessive Ken Shimamoto (aka “The Stash Dauber” on Blogspot) resulted in an idea we had fun with a long while back when the Velvet Underground’s Quine box came out: reviewing something together. That something was Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, a documentary about the legendary Michigan band The Stooges. We both had high hopes (both of us have played–in Ken’s case, still plays–in bands that have covered Stoogesongs, and both of us worship the band’s best work), we both lamped it Saturday night, and we met on the Innertubes yesterday morning, afternoon, and evening to evaluate it. Below, I reproduce his transcript of our conversation, as well as cut in (in segments) the intro I gave for the film at Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri; it is no piece of scholarship–as always, with me in these matters, it is an explosion of enthusiasm–but perhaps worth entertainment and minor enlightenment to you. Thanks to the Ol’ Dauber for keeping us both focused on the light yesterday!

At the end of a week that knocked lots of folks for a loop, my buddy and Missouri teachaholic Phil Overeem and I both had the chance to view Jim Jarmusch’s new Stooges documentary Gimme Danger and put our heads together via intarweb chat to share impressions. Here’s the resultant chinwag.

Ken: I thought Jarmusch did a good job, appropriate to the material. The MC5’s story was a big story with heavy socio-political significance. The Stooges’ was a little story about young guys growing up together through music. Iggy performed the same role in this as Wayne Kramer did in MC5: A True Testimonial, which is appropriate, because Ig’s a good storyteller. I like that Jarmusch stuck to “family,” with no Dave Grohl/Slash commentaries. James Williamson and Kathy Asheton added interesting sidelights. Steve Mackay and Scott Asheton both looked ravaged and didn’t have as much to say (although I found Scott on Dave Alexander particularly poignant), but they belonged in this. I would have liked to have seen more Danny Fields, but he has his own doco now, I guess.

The big question in my mind going into this was what would Jarmusch do visually, given the paucity of footage (James Williamson told me, “Film stock was expensive and not worth wasting on us”). The synced footage from Cincinnati and Goose Lake that everyone has seen on Youtube was used well. There was some better quality vid of a performance from the Ron era without sound, and some B&W footage without sound from the ’73 Academy of Music show in NYC that I didn’t know existed. Jarmusch used a lot of photo montage, and employed animation to illustrate some stories in the same way the Beware of Mr. Baker filmmaker did. I thought the visuals supported the story well.

Phil: I can’t disagree with any of that. Jarmusch had some serious technical limitations as do so many directors trying to do similar things, and I was hoping he’d be a little more imaginative in overcoming them, but the movie seemed to swing metronomically between talking Ig and content, talking Ig and content, talking Ig and content. Plus clip-recycling and animation (which I admit I found amusing), which are like check-boxes. Also, a little light on L.A. And stretching a short story into a novel, so to speak. I enjoyed it, but it dragged a bit. I love your point about the band as family. That was a major strength of the film.

Ken: By L.A., I presume you mean the “death march” time after Raw Power. Some folks, I reckon, are disappointed there’s not more about the drugs and debauchery. I figure they can read Please Kill Me. The story I was interested in was how these absolutely typical American kids went about becoming a band, and what happened after. I liked that Jarmusch started at the end — kind of like Sunset Boulevard with Bill Holden “narrating” the story facedown in the swimming pool.

Phil: Well, I certainly wasn’t craving drugs and debauchery (I know it well), but for a general audience it’s certainly part of the story, right?

Ken: I don’t think they glossed over it. There weren’t a lot of stories, but it was acknowledged in the context of the band’s deterioration.

Phil: It seemed pretty minimal compared to the reality, to me. But not a huge deal-breaker, true. Also, how did you feel about Ig’s discussion of Bowie’s role? That combined with the stock footage of the plane taking off to Europe made an interesting statement.

Ken: I think it was fairly accurate. At that point, Bowie was as manipulated by De Fries as anybody. But he definitely gained cachet from the help he rendered to Lou and Iggy. I think Ig showed nice humility — and perhaps, self-awareness — in allowing them to skip his entahr solo career until the reformation.

Phil: I thought about that. Jarmusch was wise to just jump that (for the most part–there are a few vid clips from that time) for scope’s sake. We are agreeing for the most part on the content; I think my disappointments were technical and structural, though I too like the way he chose to open. I have been struggling with the question, “Well, how would he have done it differently?”

Ken: I’m glad it exists to bring all of that material together in a coherent way (because I hate watching shit on Youtube). And I still have my grainy Nth generation VHS of Cincinnati. I think it was important to do it while as many of the cats were still living as possible. Ron passed relatively early in the filming, but they did get some good material with him. It wouldn’t have been possible to make a great film like MC5: A True Testimonial or The Kids Are Alright because the Stooges just weren’t filmed that much. Prior to 2004 or so, no producer would have countenanced the making of a Stooges doco. Luckily, Ron told his stories lots of times to lots of folks, so his side of the story is well documented.

Phil: That, to me, was so fortunate: to get Ron’s and Scott’s takes. Also, I was very impressed with Williamson. To your last comment: yeah, that’s part of my struggle in trying to suggest a more imaginative approach–it’s just that I have put so many docs under my belt in recent years I found myself calling the next move. BUT the most important thing is to get it all in one place, coherently, with relative artistry. He did that.

Ken: I like that Ig and Scott gave props to Dave Alexander, and I found the bits on the making of the various recs to be useful.

Phil: I suppose he could have, ala Julien Temple, provided more musical context for what they were doing, instead of mostly the IMMEDIATE context of the MC5 and VU and free jazz. What about the crap that made The Stooges such a shock? I also agree pretty completely with you about keeping the commentary in the family, but it might have been nice to have a few more old dogs other than Danny to record what it sounded like fresh. Was expecting more story on the making of Funhouse, but maybe what was said was the main thing.

Ken: It’s a fan’s document, but still a more coherent narrative than The Kids Are Alright. Most of the people who will see this know the story, from Please Kill Me and From the Velvets to the Voidoids. Not to mention the Paul Trynka and Bob Matheu books. The crap — from Fabian to manufactured flower power — was addressed.

Phil: Yeah: a fan’s document. OK, maybe I disagree a little that the film is just FOR the fans. I mean Jarmusch has his own following that might conceivably not know much; there were several such in the audience. I asked for a show of hands. But Fabian was long past and flower power was waning anyway. Confessional singer-songwriters?

Ken: “Marrakesh Express.” I think you’re correct — they focused on main things. It was longer than I expected it to be. To make a movie of viewable length, excessive context is dispensible. They could have made a longer film crammed with more minutiae, but that wouldn’t have served the Stooges or the viewer any better.

Phil: I initially understood your phrase “fan’s document” as meaning “Jarmusch’s document” but you mean more than just that.

Ken: I mean a telling of the legend for people who already love the Stooges.

Phil: Yeah, I think that was what he was doing, but shouldn’t one reach a little further, at least? I am thinking now about what WAS in there that could have been cut…There will be, I am sure, the inevitable bonus material.

Ken: To your comment about going from Ig to visual, I think that’s why the animation was added — to break the monotony. The best use of stock footage I’ve ever seen was in the Howlin’ Wolf doco. But then again, in comparison, Wolf was filmed extensively. Mike Watt was his loquacious self, and reminded me of the Wylde Rattz thing that Ron talked about when I spoke to him in ’99. (BTW, I hated Velvet Goldmine.)

Phil: I couldn’t make it through VELVET GOLDMINE. Watt was a burst of energy into the proceedings, and THAT was a great example of the occasional details that even solid Stooges fans (like me) might not have known–the genesis of the reunion. That might have been widely circulated, but I missed it. Further example: the band’s decision to just stay in one place when they went on stage!!! Another highlight was Iggy serially dismissing claims that the Stooges were “rock,” punk,” etc–they just were. Surprise for me was SO much about the Five in there. I knew it would be there, but not so developed (“big brother – little brother”).

Ken: I’m not sure it’s possible to make a person under 40 understand what it was like before everything was available all the time. Or what the draft was like. It’s like, I’d dig to see a doco about Buddy Bolden that shows his importance, but such is not possible. But I think Jarmusch focused on the universality of their experience, rather than the uniqueness, for that reason. I know the MC5: ATT filmmakers struggled with narrowing the focus. It could have been a ten hour social history of ’60s America. But I think they made good decisions, as did Jarmusch.

Phil: You said, “I’m not sure it’s possible to make a person under 40 understand what it was like before everything was available all the time. Or what the draft was like.” I honestly would have liked to see a stab at at least the former, and how the latter affected their legend. Thanks for giving me more ammunition!

Ken: Part of the point is that while they were “real communists,” they weren’t involved in “causes” like the Five were. And that is addressed.

Phil: Funny Reagan Republic Ig talking about communism!

Ken: The difference between practical and ideological. “If you live in the same house, eat the same food, and share your money, you’re a communist.”

Phil: Hey, I know you hate this, but what grade would you give it? You’ve moved me up to a B+. BTW, I thought the text seemed either eye-rolling (bleeding? well, I get the connection, but we didn’t see much of that) or cheap.

Ken: I don’t have the objectivity to rate this. Although I’m not close friends with these people, this feels like a movie about people I know. My expectations of it were apparently different than yours. I’d be curious to hear what a young person who was aware of the Stooges (or one that wasn’t) thinks about it. I’m glad they included Harry Partch. I knew of his influence from Please Kill Me and Velvets to Voidoids, but still.

Phil: Yeah, the Partch segment was a very pleasant surprise. OK, OK, I am coming around further. A few times I was made to rethink the Stooges music a bit.

Ken: What I loved about the Stooges was their ordinariness. The Who and the Five looked like golden gods. The Stooges looked like me and my bad acting buddies. I could imagine them sitting with us outside the deli, having spitting and farting contests and wondering why the really neat girls wouldn’t go out with us.

Phil: That last sentence connected with part of my intro, where I stole from what you told me about Iggy seeing the other three just being lowlifes and conceiving the Stooges from that. I don’t remember you using “spitting,” but I did…and polishing switchblades, which was a bit much. They looked like bad news.

Ken: The most revealing story is about the hood-type guys Ig was “friends” with coming over to the trailer and goofing on it and his family. An example of how the anger was fueled.

Phil: Also, “25 words or less.”

Ken: Key to the aesthetic. And Johnny Ramone hating the ’70 shows because they didn’t play songs he knew. They never dwelt in the past, even when they scarcely had any material.

Phil: Where do you think GIMME DANGER ranks against similar docs where the directors had similar disadvantages? You mentioned the Wolf doc and The MC5’s.

Ken: I can’t think of one where there was such a paucity of live footage. But again — as I said starting out, I think the scale and scope was right for the story. It was more like listening to a guy telling a story, with illustrations and digressions. Which is what you could do, given the available materials. I liked the voice recordings of the Asheton kids, which Kathy told me were discovered right before her int, but after Ron was gone.

To people of the Millennial generation and younger, the Stooges don’t sound unique because there are a million bands that sound “like that” now. I think the film recognizes that such was not always the case, but I don’t know how more examples or explanation would have made that point more strongly.

Phil: We are not so far apart. One point, though, that I made in my intro was that as easy as the early Stooges’ sound seemed to be to make, even THEY couldn’t replicate it when they reunited. I don’t really hear many bands sounding like them.  I hear bands trying on that attack but it just isn’t as primitive, as id-rock, as natural-sounding. Sidetrack: another of my favorite moments was Iggy’s analysis of how they came to be thought of as nihilistic (kind of related to the 25-words-or-less vow).

Ken: The reason for that is they learned how to play. Scott says the first time they played “Not Right” was the take. They became more skilled players, but they were more creative when they were reaching beyond their grasp.

Phil: Well, YEAH, they learned how to play, but few bands who don’t know how sound anything like they did when they didn’t!

Ken: By the ’70s with SRB, Scott had become more of a four-on-the-floor drummer. On Funhouse, he’s reaching for Clyde Stubblefield and Elvin Jones. Not making it, but doing something unique.

Phil: See, yeah, that’s it. And out of what did that spring?

Ken: I think Iggy might have been the “pusher.”

Phil: The jazz. The Partch. Yeah, the pusher!!!!

Ken: Free jazz was in the wind in Detroit/A2 because of the Five, Sinclair, and people like Charles Moore. As for Partch: Ig worked at Discount Records.

It was quite revealing that they couldn’t get a band take on the first album unless Ig was in the live room, dancing.

Phil: That’s really the secret. The movie tells it, w/o clubbing you over the head. A-….

Ken: They literally learned to play on the road in front of huge festival crowds. Before that, they were…an art project. The reason they sounded the way they did is because they weren’t copying a established sound, they were playing over their heads with a variety of bizarre influences that they couldn’t possibly have replicated. And then they got caught up in the momentum of volume, adrenaline, and endorphin. I like your “not clubbing you over the head” remark. Just tell the story, and if the viewer is engaged she’ll figure it out.

Phil: Nice. I’m a little overmatched here.

Ken: I’ve been obsessed with this music since 1970. But you and I are different kinds of fans/listeners. I’m a “just enough” guy. You’re a “more” guy. It’s not a criticism, just an observation.

Phil: No, I get that. I think it’s related to my tendency to listen as a gestaltist. I do not know where that came from.

Ken: I don’t think more data would have strengthened the case.You studied lit theory? I’m guessing. I listen more…intuitively. Like a monkey who finds a transistor radio. First it’s magic. Then I listen to it all the time. Then it breaks, and I find…something else. That’s an interesting observation, and I guess I do tend to hear parts before the whole, if they are audible.

Phil: Nope. Well, a little [literary theory]. I listen intuitively, too, on a song by song basis. Certainly I respond and write that way. But I don’t think it’s from that. I want the whole to be better. But see that’s why I don’t think we’re so far apart. I don’t necessarily want more data…maybe different…and different structure. But you’ve brought me over.

Ken: Maybe I went knowing the limitations that existed, and so didn’t expect or want anything more. I think it was done coherently and respectfully. I would see it again. I would recommend it to another fan, or a novice.

Phil: Gear-shift: what year was it when you first played a Stooges song live?

Ken: I didn’t play Stooges music until 2004. No one I knew back then dug ’em, although some of the older cats I knew saw them and the Five at Randall’s Island in ’70.

Phil: “I Wanna Be Your Dog” was a staple of my first band (’85) and “Funhouse” the climax point of my second one (’90). ‘Course, I didn’t play, I “sang”–but those were cathartic songs, especially the second. Lou [Reed] was a great model for me to be a non-singer because of his style but mostly for his verbal genius. Iggy was how to do it physically, release the id, plus…25-words-or-less made the song easy to remember.

Ken: The first Stooge song I played was “TV Eye,” sitting in with a band the night the Stooges played Coachella. Two years later, we started the Stoogeband. When we learned those songs, we started with the mistakes. I mentioned before Scott said the first time they played “Not Right” (not “Real Cool Time”) was in the studio. You can hear on the take, he plays through the break after the first verse. They left it in. We learned it. The beginnings of “Loose” and “1970” are chaos that coalesces.

Phil: Which I absolutely love.

Ken: Me too.

Phil: I guess the reason I went down this road was to try to think about how the movie worked for me just from the perspective of having been in a band of semi-reprobates who could not play (except for one guitar player). We weren’t together long enough to have learned much, but we had a reunion (minus one, with a different guitar player) that sounded like the reunited Stooges sounded compared to the original, now that I think about it. The other band: everyone could play (except me), and it was all covers, and I had anger to expel and often was altered. BTW, that reunion was just a few years ago, and the drummer and original guitarist could play very well, and the added guitarist had come out of SRV into garage punk.

Ken: I always say the MC5 worked harder, but the Stooges always won. Not then, but via historical validation. I think the simplicity of Stooge songs has given them more longevity than the Five’s with the exception of “KOTJ.”

Phil: But don’t you think that’s also due to Iggy’s visibility over the last forty years? And his being taken up as an icon? By the youth circa ’90s, I should say. I am thinking that the (for lack of a better term) grunge kids were the ones who first started to bring them up to me when I was teaching. I remember, too, a couple of videos and his Rock The Vote thing with Kate Moss.

Ken: By 2002, though, as he admitted, he was out of ideas and not selling records. The Stooges reunion was many things. One was a tonic to his career. Although I like that he gave the Ashetons a nice victory lap while they were still living.

Phil: Do not disagree. But he stayed in the public eye via the reunion and some movies and constant comparative references in the rock press, don’t you think? (Still trying to explain why the Stooges–though maybe I am just talking Iggy here–trump the Five for other reasons.)

Ken: The Five were better musos, saturated with Chuck Berry and Stones when they started. That made it harder for them to do something new. Their free jazz freakouts, all released in the ’90s, do not stand up to repeated listenings well. The Stooges were barely competent, and invented their music from the ground up as they went.

Phil: Oh, I agree. Especially about that last sentence. But I don’t think THAT’S the main reason the majority of us don’t think of them as much as we do the Stooges, though it ought to be, I think Iggy has in some ways cast shade over THE BAND–another reason for the documentary to exist.

Ken: The Five’s political aspect is harder for people to grasp.

Phil: Oh, I agree with that, too. Hell THEY had trouble grasping it, and sometimes rejected it.

Ken: Too complex. The Stooges were simple. “25 words or less.”

Phil: Hard to believe Iggy is the last man standing of the original group. BUT…BUT…do you think, say, had Iggy OD’d in ’73 we’d still be seeing the Stooges on a more important level? I don’t mean you and me, because we do, I mean rockdom.

Ken: Affirmative.

Phil: I have thoughts about whether the movie illustrates a band-forming process that is no longer common?

Ken: I don’t think that’s changed much in the fundamentals. What’s changed is what they aspire to. There are more roadmaps/templates/models. Musicianship is generally at a higher level.

Phil: Which, ironically, can be a barrier?

Ken: Yeah. If you have a certain level of chops, it’s easier to copy somebody else (cf. our earlier discussion of the Five). There are “Schools of Rock” now. A few years ago, the Stooge band drummer and I went to one to teach a bunch of 10-year-olds how to play “Search and Destroy.” It was innaresting.

Phil: And you can’t go backwards in time.

Ken: Nope.

Phil: The film really does nicely nail that.

Ken: But aesthetics haven’t changed much in the last 40 years. Even forms that were considered extreme now have conventions.

Phil: Indeed. But can you pretend to not be able to play and run smack into something fresh? Anymore?

Ken: “Pretend to not be able to play” is a concept beyond the scope of this inquiry, I think. You have the life experience that’s been dealt to you. You have all the knowledge you’ve acquired that affects your ability to express yourself through whatever medium you choose. You’re influenced by all of that whenever you try to create something.

Phil: Sorry about that! I was just thinking about the odds of really NOT being able to play and innovating. I mean, can’t musicians code switch just like folks do when they talk? Today, I mean.

Ken: A kid born in 1996 can’t pretend to be Ron Asheton in 1967. Nor would he want to be, I don’t think.

Phil: I would think “a kid” might!!!

Ken: It’s kind of like “Can blue men sing the whites?” You are the product of your time and place. You perform or express yourself in a way that mirrors that.

Phil: So you’re making me rethink the early portion of the film. Slowly pushing me to the “A” by demonstrating how MUCH Jarmusch DOES get in…

Ken: Again, I’d say that given the limitations (available resources, human attention), and the scale and scope of the story (small, human, not grand and epic), I’d say he did what needed to be done. There may be other movies about the Stooges, but this will be, um, hard to beat.

Phil: I think, having seen most of his films, I was looking for more of his stamp on it. But he ceded that to getting the story right.

Ken: Like J. Mascis ceding half of his set on the “Fog” tour to Watt (and later Ron) doing Stooge songs.

Phil: And just dealing with the band-doc conventions. Humility begets humility.

Ken: You can’t make it more than what it is.

Phil: And humility is a gateway to truth.

Ken: They were pariahs who were validated by history.

Phil: Well, yeah!

Ken: And historical validation wears the white Stetson.

Note: Please visit The Stash Dauber regularly for music reportage you will not get anywhere else.

Apropos of nothing but The Reaper…a plug for an old, simple George Jones documentary that might stun you.

I can’t shake mortality off my mind. I have been playing the hell out of Hag and Prince; after having recently read a book a piece about Gaye and George Jones, I’ve also been jamming those guys and scoping vids.

I must tell you: if you are a Possum fan and haven’t seen this documentary, which I picked up for $3 at a grocery store VHS sale in the early ’90s, you’re cheating yourself. It’s a very simple production (by Charlie Dick–yeah, that Charlie Dick), with somewhat corny narration, and its packaging does the product no favors. However, it is loaded with treats. Loaded

*Great clips of a happy, healthy George, just hanging out at the hacienda, joyously offering up impromptu versions of gospel (“Lily of the Valley”) and Jones (“No Money in This Deal”!!!–just a couple of lines, but holy shit!) classics on acoustic guit for the director.

*Wizened and oft-hilarious testimony from bizzers like Gabe Tucker and Don Pierce (old Starday hands) and Billy Sherrill (reminiscent of Rip Torn’s Artie on The Larry Sanders Show), and peers like Cash, Jennings, Lynn, Hall, Twitty, and Owens. I was gonna call Cash and Jennings old, but when this video was made they were my age. Or close.

*Fantastic performance clips: Jones knocking “Into My Arms Again” out of the park on The Ozark Jubilee; exchanging Cheshire cat grins with master fiddler Johnny Gimble as he defies mild hoarseness and kills on “Bartender’s Blues” (see below) and “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; winding up for a somewhat disturbing mock punch during the “…as they fight their final round…” line while jocularly dueting with Tammy on “Golden Ring; and totally sticking the landing (as he was so often wont to do on last lines) while craftily moseying his way, in deeply loving fashion, through the greatest version of Hag’s “I’ve Always Been Lucky With You” anyone will ever do.

*Sobering and moving testimony from Jones on the trials and tribulations of booze and drugs, as he recalls dropping to 105 pounds (backed up by a shockingly gaunt, diminished Possum desperately working through “Someday My Day Will Come” on a country show in the mid-Eighties) and 72 points of IQ (backed up by the infamous highway patrol arrest footage you may have already seen).

Sorry to run on–but it is that good. I think I’ve watched it 20-some times. Used to do a music documentary series once a month at the high school I used to teach at. When I screened this, the audience consisted solely of me and this young kid with a special ed diagnosis who wrote and sang Hank Williams-styled songs. We sat together on the front row and didn’t speak or blink for an hour.

 

Good to My Earhole, March 1-9: “Destroyed on The Lathe of Heaven”

Carter

James Carter Organ Trio: LIVE AT THE ST. LOUIS JAZZ BISTRO, MARCH 4-5, 2016 – 10 – First time I’ve got to see a major jazz player multiple nights of a residency, and now I want to do it again. Measured from his explosive entry onto the jazz battlefield, Carter may not now be what every jazz buff must have expected from him by the time he reached his forties, but, I’ll tell you this: he’s really NOT abandoned his core values from his late teens: reverence for multiple traditions (swing, bebop, and freedom), irreverence for reverent stage attitude, a nose for concept. THIS particular concept (one he’s visited before in a wholly different way) was “Django Unchained.” Across our two nights, he didn’t repeat a single tune and, as he was fond of saying, he “dealt with” Reinhardt’s repertoire on tenor, soprano, and alto, without impeding its swing and flourish. Getting to speak to him after the second show, I politely asked him for an Earl Bostic tribute in the future, a request he unsurprisingly ducked. I still hold out hope.

Fats

FATS DOMINO AND THE BIRTH OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL (PBS) – 8.8 – Hard to imagine this warm, sweet, smiling man starting a riot, but ain’t that America? This 54-minute documentary (maybe an hour too short) does a nice job of telling the story of one of the few founding fathers who’s still with us, in the process reminding us to give a man props while he’s living. Some great rare footage, sharp detail from the New Orleans that cradled him, and narration by the man destined to be Morgan Freeman’s heir, Clarke Peters. Watch the film here: http://player.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365676531

720x405-zReplacements_Couch-Alternate-1985_Credit-Deborah-Feingold

Photo above by Deborah Feingold, from the Rolling Stone article linked within the blurb below.

Bob Mehr: TROUBLE BOYS–THE TRUE STORY OF THE REPLACEMENTS – 9 – Mehr’s excellent research provides the only account we’re ever gonna need of the ‘Mats. He isn’t a stylist, but he stays out of the way of his story, and offers hair-raising tales and heart-breaking revelations even the hardcore fan may not ever have encountered. AND: he is fair. Mehr also caused me to wonder what kind of music is being made by today’s kids who are coming out of homes like the one the Stinsons survived. Read an excerpt about their magnificent/disastrous SNL appearance here.

The Replacements: DON’T TELL A SOUL – 8.7 – Just prior to this coming out, I scored a promo poster and put it on my bedroom door (bachelor days); after I heard it, I wrote under the title “…but this album SUCKS!” Held that position until after I was forced to put it in its proper context last week by Mehr’s book (and Mehr does not quite smile upon it himself). I now find it not just moving, but a kind of a quiet triumph in the face of simultaneous disasters. It helps to listen to it without expecting it to be the band’s previous three albums, which, at the time, I could not help doing. Note: if you get the expanded version, you can program it to be a more kick-ass and crazy album, should you desire that. They still had it in ’em.

Mark Turner: LATHE OF HEAVEN – 9 – One of those records the title of which fits perfectly. Turner might be the one jazz tenor saxophonist the beginner who knows all the giants’ names most needs to check out–he’s inventive and subtle, much like what I’d imagine a “free” Lester Young to sound like. However, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and drummer Marcus Gilmore dang near steal the record. From Chuang Tzu misinterpreted beautifully by Ursula K. Le Guin: “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”

THE THREE-SIDED DREAM: A Must-See Film About Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Roland

Blinded as a newborn by hideously incompetent medical personnel, discovering sound possibilities as a youth by blowing through the cut-off end of a garden hose, dreaming of playing multiple horns simultaneously then soon after finding the perfect (and antique!) horns in a pawn shop basement, and, unaccountably, willing himself into one of the most unique and passionate players in jazz during a decade (the Sixties) of abundant uniqueness and passion, Rahsaan Roland Kirk should have been the subject of a feature-length documentary a long, long time ago. True, Dick Fontaine’s 25-minute 1967 documentary Sound??, featuring Kirk and John Cage making a compelling and wryly humorous case for sound as music, is a cult classic–the footage of Kirk serenading wolves at the London Zoo and rocking the hell out of his classic “Three For the Festival” at Ronnie Scott’s can make a benighted viewer a lifelong fan. Rhino’s issue of Kirk’s wonderful 1972 Montreaux concert is also a piece of essential viewing for any jazz freak. But the inspiring and tragically short life of Kirk is one of the most gobsmack-inducing tales in music, and director Alan Kahan has done it proper in The Three Sided Dream. See it as soon as you get the chance; my sources tell me Kahan’s having difficulty finding screenings for it, and that’s a completely unjust situation for him and his film.

Honestly, having been a Kirk fan for many years, seen, heard, and read everything about him I could get my hands on, and experienced a few more unimaginative music documentaries than I would have liked, I walked into the film with, well, meager expectations. That is, I figured I’d see footage I was already familiar with, hear a procession of talking heads retell Kirk’s life story, and miss some important information (likely, I thought, about his politics) that might have made the film and the artist’s portrait more complex. I’m happy to report that Kahan’s film is a major success. Mainly, he invests it with such emotional power, through his handling of Kirk’s struggles with critical misunderstanding, racism, and blindness (the latter, wonderfully, seems the least difficult challenge Kirk faced!) and his integration of Dorthaan Kirk’s home movies of her husband and children, that I–and other viewers–struggled with tears of inspiration throughout the movie. Also, the talking heads here almost always have something insightful and interesting to say, especially trombonist Steve Turre, who played in Kirk’s band after the hornman suffered a stroke that would have ended the career of 99.5% of other musicians but which failed to completely derail Rahsaan. Turre’s sense of humor and wonder, and his trove of concert stories, are a cut above the usual music-doc fare. Mrs. Kirk’s recalling of her life with Rahsaan–especially her reflections on his post-stroke struggles–are also major highlights of the film. Though I had seen roughly half of the footage Kahan unearths for The Three Sided Dream, what I hadn’t seen was often revelatory, especially a full, spectacular performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the story behind which is worth the price of admission–and you will have to pay it to find out. Most important, Kahan lets the voice of Kirk–visionary, witty, angry, playful, the voice of a true old soul–tell most of the story.

I have few quibbles about the film. I initially felt the long, initially-uncredited reminicense/assessment of Kirk by a modern poet that opens the film unnecessarily hindered its momentum; upon reflection, it now seems equivalent to a good theme-setting introduction to a book. One sequence includes Kirk’s famous (and amazing!) combining of “Sentimental Journey” and a segment from Dvorak’s New World Symphony–he plays the melodies simultaneously on different horns and harmonizes them, with spectacular results–but the narration and animation run over the actual performance, so that when we are left alone to hear the music, Kirk’s moved on from his experiment to a new melodic expression. But, as I said, those are mere quibbles.

I cannot overstate how powerful this movie is. It hit me so hard I was still feeling sorrow (along with an overpowering desire to listen to Kirk all of this week, which I will) an hour after I walked after the theater–that Kirk died at 42 is just a cruel theft of (or by?) the cosmos. As well, I felt immense joy and inspiration in beholding a story of titanic artistic and personal accomplishment against towering odds. I cannot quite imagine the impact it will have on open-minded, open-eared music fans who know nothing of Kirk’s life and music. Do your best to seek this film out and see it; consider, as well, the possibility of helping the filmmaker get The Three Sided Dream to a wider audience.

Note: Upon having seen the film–or, perhaps, in preparation for it–read John Kruth’s engrossing Kirk biography Bright Moments, and try these classic Kirk recordings just to get started (there’s more):

We Free Kings  (Mercury)

Rip, Rig, and Panic (Mercury)

I Talk with the Spirits (Verve)

The Inflated Tear (Atlantic)

Volunteered Slavery (Atlantic)