University of Cincinnati and good architecture have long gone together, both because of the College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning’s (DAAP) graduate and undergraduate programs and the “signature” architects who have designed new campus buildings
But one of the strongest connections between UC and architecture, especially in this age of sustainability, is Michael Reynolds. A 1969 DAAP graduate, he immediately became an advocate of using recyclable materials (quite often trash) in new-home construction. Reynolds came back to DAAP to speak and show slides for Earth Day two weeks ago.
His interests have led him far off the grid. He has designed sustainable, radical-looking “earthship” homes near Taos, N.M. Solar-powered and built with old bottles, tires and other environmentally friendly material, using recycled water for multiple household uses, they were visionary. He has become environmentalism’s Buckminster Fuller.
But at first he was ahead of his time. Many people saw the homes (and Reynolds) as leftovers of the hippie commune movement, which was especially strong in northern New Mexico. He had a history of scraps with legal and bureaucratic authorities, which wanted his homes connected to utility hookups and treated like subdivisions. He even gave up his architect license at one point in a dispute.
But the new emphasis on sustainability has slowly been turning Reynolds into, as Wikipedia calls him, “the graying prophet of the green movement.” He is the subject of a recent documentary, Garbage Warrior. He’s still going strong in Taos, where he’s developing an earthshiphome community with local governmental cooperation. His earthships have become attractions — eco-tourists rent them out for a night.
And his influence is branching out. He’s been called upon to build his homes for the needy in post-tsunami Indonesia and in Jamaica. They can be constructed quickly, from available material by local unskilled workers aided by Reynolds’ own dedicated crew. Devotees have built earthships elsewhere, including Scotland and even in Philo, Ohio, near Zanesville.
He also raised some good, thoughtful points. The tires are used for structural rather than aesthetic reasons — packed with dirt, they become a powerful “rammed-earth” foundation that is then covered with adobe. Non-structural walls, however, use glass and plastic bottles for the beauty of the material. It’s especially important to find a reuse for plastic bottles, which are rapidly covering the planet, he says. Reynolds also said he’s hoping Habitat for Humanity, which quickly builds homes for the needy, would look at more ways to use “green” architecture.
He was funniest when recalling his experiments with one home’s faulty solar-powered toilet that left a “primordial stew” of muck. He solved the problem by setting the goop afire, which inadvertently caused a house blaze that brought the fire department. Solar toilets need more research to be practical, he said.
It’d be great if UC would consider Reynolds for an honorary degree or, even better, to design campus housing — maybe involving students and local residents with the construction process. But hold the solar toilets, at least for now.
Willy Vlautin has become an increasingly celebrated novelist since his first book, The Motel Life, was published in 2006.
His territory is dramatically gripping, sometimes tough but also tender stories about those struggling to adapt to the modern, changing American west. His work has won accolades from such acclaimed peers as Richard Russo (Mohawk), Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone) and detective fiction virtuoso George Pelecanos. Two of Vlautin’s novels — Motel Life and 2010’s Lean on Pete — have been adapted for films.
AUDIO: Willy Vlautin reads Little Joe
This would seem to mean Vlautin has successfully left his original career choice–music–behind him to become an author. From 1994-2016, he was the singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Portland, Ore.-based Richmond Fontaine.
That band’s music, with its influences of pedal-steel driven Americana/alt-country and punk, was heralded by those who saw them on tours and/or bought their records. And Vlautin’s lyrics, which often mirrored his novels’ concerns and settings, won attention, too.
But there were just never enough fans in the United States for success as a recording and touring band. “In Richmond Fontaine, we lost a lot of people money over the years,” Vlautin says now, in a phone interview from his home in Portland.
But, in truth, he has not given up on music. Far from it. Just this month [February], his newer band, the Delines, released their third studio album since 2014, The Sea Drift. These songs, which he wrote, are as finely crafted as short stories, and conjure noirish images of lovers, losers and strivers adrift along the towns of Gulf Coast Texas. (There is an actual Texas town called Seadrift.) The band is a quintet that augments its studio sound with session players. This record features, besides traditional rock instrumentation, prominent keyboards, trumpet, saxophone and strings.
And its vocalist is not Vlautin, but rather the remarkable Amy Boone. Her singing has a wistful country-soul presence, a jazzy clarity that convinces with a lived-and-learned honesty that calls to mind Bobbie Gentry or the Sammi Smith of “Help Me Make it Through the Night” fame. Boone had been in Austin’s Damnations before touring with Richmond Fontaine and then agreed to become a key part of this new band.
Vlautin acknowledges there is an overlap of subject matter between his novels and songs. The atmosphere of The Sea Drift’s 11 songs (two are instrumentals not composed by Vlautin) is usually ruminative and downbeat, moody in their balladic or midtempo pacing. (There are exceptions; “Kid Codeine” has a jaunty, celebratory feel.) The lyrics are cinematic in the way they conjure specific times and mysterious places. The opener, “Little Earl,” maps out the terrain immediately and seductively:
Little Earl’s brother is bleeding in the backseat
It’s been twenty miles and he can’t stop crying
Passing the houses on stilts on Holly Beach
The A/C don’t work and Earl’s sick in the Gulf Coast heat
But the Delines are more than a musical adjunct of the worldview delineated in Vlautin’s novels. And Boone is the reason.
“Although it is the same world, I’m now trying to write for Amy,” Vlautin says. “Generally, when I write for Amy, I just listen to her. She’s really fun to talk to, she’s really cool, and I just take mental notes when I listen to the things she’s interested in. Then I try to write more romantic than I probably would for myself. But I do stick in tragedy in the more story-oriented vein, from the kind of beat-up world that I’m from. But she’s from that world, too.”
In that world, love and romance are possible — sometimes, Vlautin’s characters cry out for it. But it don’t come easy. The woman whose viewpoint frames the starkly ominous “Surfers in Twilight,” and whose story is given voice by Boone, discovers that to stand by her man she must risk confrontation with the cops:
Flashing lights, flashing lights
As my man walks toward me
Patrol cars stop, police rush out and
Throw my man against a wall
In a seaside town with tourists all around
My man handcuffed on the sidewalk street
Vlautin is particularly proud of the standout “Hold Me Slow,” an achingly gorgeous song that lets Boone convey a woman optimistic about love amid life’s hardships, but nonetheless nervous about it:
Open up a bottle and I’ll close the shades
Put on something that sways and
Kiss my neck that way
But go slow, I’ve been so tired and alone
I want you here but you gotta know
Hold me slow.
“She (Boone) said, ‘Can you write me a romantic one?” Vlautin says. “If she can get behind it, I write stories wrapped around those ideas I think would make sense to her.”
Boone should clearly be able to authoritatively interpret a song in which a woman — anyone, really — has been through a lot, which happens often on The Sea Drift. In 2016, while still living in Austin (she has since moved to Portland), she was the victim of a horrific, freakish auto-pedestrian accident. Richmond Fontaine was doing a last tour when the members got the news.
“Her life just completely stopped for almost three years,” Vlautin says. “She was walking on a sidewalk and a lady got her foot caught on the accelerator, driving with a cast. And (the car) ran Amy into a lava rock wall. It was brutal. The broken bones I think she recovered from fairly quickly, but there were a lot of skin grafts, a lot of surgeries. The whole time, you’re just worried about her and hoping she gets her life back.
“We’re all friends, and we all care about her so much that the band didn’t mean anything compared to her being able to walk again,” he continues. “And if she decided she never wanted to play music again, that would have been great as long as she could walk and get her life back.
“It was big struggle for her,” Vlautin says. “But the second she could use a walker kind of cane, she flew up to Portland and finished The Imperial. (Much of that album, released in 2019 as the Delines’ second, had been recorded before the accident.)
“So when we got her back, we did a tour and she was using a cane and having trouble going up stairs,” he recalls. “But she’s seriously tough and wanted to keep going. So we were all obviously excited she wanted to keep playing. And now she’s walking. I think you can hear on The Sea Drift her voice has changed a little bit and has aged a bit and is a little wearier, but it also has a confidence to it that I don’t think she’s had before.”
The Delines’ other members also help the band and The Sea Drift achieve their evocative sound. Two, bassist Freddy Trujillo and percussionist Sean Oldham, were in Richmond Fontaine. Keyboardist and trumpeter Cory Gray also handled many of the beautiful string and horn arrangements that provide so much color to these songs, which at times recall the way such arrangements could lift classic “road” songs like Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” (The album’s producer, John Morgan Askew, handled string arrangements on three songs.)
Gray also supplied two instrumentals, both of which feature the kind of strong, slow, pristine and somewhat mournful trumpet playing that recalls Chet Baker. When Vlautin heard one, he named it “Lynette’s Lament.” It’s a reference to the main character in his most recent novel, 2021’s The Night Always Comes. In that book, Lynette—still-young but approaching 30 —is desperate to find money to buy the rundown Portland home she rents with her mother and developmentally disabled brother before the city’s galloping gentrification raises its price beyond her means.
“I asked Cory to write a couple trumpet instrumentals for the record, and he came in with this song,” Vlautin says. “When he was finished playing it, I said that’s music for Lynette, that’s her song. I had never really heard music in this book, and now I finally did.” So Vlautin named it.
“After that, he and I started writing all these songs out of the world of that book,” Vlautin reveals. “There’s a soundtrack that we haven’t put out yet, all inspired by that one song, ‘Lynette’s Lament.’ I found my way into the music of her world through that song of his.”
The Delines’ exposure to American audiences has been limited. The band has yet to extensively tour the U.S., though it has done much performing in Europe, where Richmond Fontaine had been better welcomed than in this country. After postponing some February dates due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the Delines will do two album release events in Portland and then begin a 22-date European tour in Oslo, Norway, on April 19. Why is no U.S. tour planned so far?
“One reason is we toured to varying degrees of failure in the U.S. for years — her with the Damnations and me with Richmond Fontaine,” Vlautin says. “Everyone in the band loves touring Europe. But when you say tour the U.S., no one wants to get in a van. So we kind of just follow where we’re wanted and where everyone wants to go.
“We will be touring more, COVID permitting, but for shorter times just for her health,” he continues. “I don’t think we’re going to become this road dog band, but we will hopefully get a more normal touring cycle, I think. But we’re not going to be this big touring band, that’s for sure.”
Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based writer whose music stories have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, American Songwriter, Paste, Denver Post, Elmore, Blurt, Rock’s Back Pages and other print and online publications. He has worked as an arts writer and critic for Denver Post and as Arts & Entertainment Editor for Cincinnati CityBeat. He has published a fanzine called One Shot: The Magazine of One-Hit Wonders and founded National One Hit Wonder Day (it’s on his birthday, September 25). He is excited about contributing to Rock & Roll Globe.
(Note: September 3, 2021: R.I.P. Don Poynter, who died Aug. 13 at age 96. In 2019, I went with him to the Cincinnati Museum Center to view the collection of his novelty inventions that his family had recently donated. — SR)
THE rising generation of makers knows that success will be a long haul of finding affordable supplies and workspaces, selling at artisan markets and small stores, and building business through word-of-mouth and promotion. But there’s also this to look forward to: Maybe, when they reach old age, they can visit the Cincinnati Museum Center and see their work preserved as part of the city’s manufacturing heritage.
That recently happened to Don Poynter, a spry and good-humored 94-year-old who now lives at Seasons retirement community in Kenwood. From the 1940s into the 2000s, he dreamed up and created humorous, sometimes slightly naughty, occasionally downright bizarre novelty items. Poynter Products had several home bases, most notably a Gest Street warehouse in the West End, and employed as many as 30 people in packaging, assembly, shipping, and national sales. Parts were often imported from overseas, and some specialized manufacturing was contracted out. Poynter himself sold directly to national retailers, including catalog companies.
In 2017, the Museum Center accepted a donation of items from his family, so Poynter recently came to its Geier Collections and Research Center to see them. Registrar Matthew Manninen set out objects with names like Arnold Plumber’s Putter, Jayne Mansfield Hot Water Bottle, Talking Toilet, Mighty Tiny Records, Crooked Dice, and Golfer’s Dream: Hole in One Golf Ball. “That’s just a hole in a golf ball,” Poynter says of the last one, laughing. “A stupid gift.”
Capitalizing on the 1960s TV series The Addams Family, he created The Thing mechanical coin box in which a hand emerged from inside to grab and pull back a coin. It sold 14 million units, he says.
As a child growing up in Westwood—where his father was a portrait painter and photographer—Poynter showed an early propensity for making things. He started creating novelty items in earnest in the 1950s, at a time when Kenner Products made Cincinnati a center for toy manufacturing and Hugh Hefner and others were jazzing up American popular culture. “World War II was over, and people had money and were feeling good,” Poynter says. “They wanted to laugh and have fun.”
At the Geier Center, Poynter inspects his breakthrough novelty item: whiskey-flavored toothpaste. The museum has two different tubes, bourbon and scotch. (He also made a rye version.) While lovingly looking them over, Poynter recalls how he got a $10,000 loan to produce the product from a University of Cincinnati fraternity brother who worked at his father’s bank. “A couple days later, his father asked, ‘What does Poynter want with $10,000? Is he buying a house?’ He says, ‘No, he’s making whiskey-flavored toothpaste.’”
“I’ve had a fascinating life,” he tells Manninen before departing.
The Museum Center will debut a Made in Cincinnati Gallery in 2021 to celebrate notable local manufacturers such as Crosley, Cincinnati Milling Machine (Milacron), and Procter & Gamble as well as smaller companies like Poynter Products. Some objects might also be featured in its new Transportation Gallery next spring.
The Esquire, Mariemont and Kenwood theaters are using a very strange video clip to promote upcoming sing-along screenings of “A Hard Day’s Night” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ invasion of the U.S.
Shown as a coming-attraction preview, it was related to the Beatles’ historic concert at Cincinnati Gardens on Aug. 27, 1964 – 50 years ago Wednesday. But it wasn’t footage of that sold-out show, or of the Fab Four’s whirlwind one-day visit here. Instead it was of an unidentified and well-dressed middle-aged man, standing in front of the Great Seal of Ohio and beside an American flag, decrying the effect of the Beatles on Cincinnati teens – especially girls.
By turns lecturing, pleading and foreboding, he bemoans the event: “These girls went into a coma,” he objects. “They ranted, they fainted. Their eyes were glassy. Some pulled their hair out. Some tore their dresses. They threw notes of a very undesirable nature on stage. Some girls after the performance kissed the stage. Some kissed the very seats in which the Beatles had sat.”
And then he makes this strange analogy: “I believe a dictionary definition of a Beatle is a bug. Of course, bug also means being crazy. I don’t think the Beatles are bugs … (but) I think the parents are bugs to let their children go to a production of this kind…”
And he beseeches his intended audience – presumably parents of teenagers – to not let anything like this happen again. “I think we can all agree the show was not good. Why must we have it?”
The clip, since showing up on YouTube and social media sites a couple years ago, has developed a cult following and elicits lots of comments.
“A friend posted that video on Facebook one day and I couldn’t get over it,” explained Kathy Parsanko, public relations/events director for the two theaters, via email. “This footage shows how upsetting Beatlemania was to some adults. It was such a different era. This video was history in the making.”
The full clip – it’s almost four minutes and is black-and-white – doesn’t identify the speaker. But it is Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Benjamin Schwartz, who held that post from 1957 until his retirement in 1974 and was known for speaking out about problems facing youth. Some of his actions were controversial, but he was also a respected community leader during his tenure. (He died in 1982 at age 78.)
On the YouTube channel AcmeStreamingdotcom, the footage is identified as having been shot on Aug. 28, one day after the concert. And on Aug. 29, the Wilmington (Ohio) News-Journal reported that Schwartz warned about the Beatles at a speech there that same day:
“He also expressed amazement how most parents would refuse to be seen at a burlesque show but freely permit their daughters, ‘the mothers of tomorrow,’ to see the Beatles which, he claims has a considerably worse effect,” the paper reported.
Yet until its emergence in recent years on the Internet, Schwartz’s filmed anti-Beatles tirade was virtually unknown. Enquirer clips (and a Newsdex search) turned up nothing about it at the time.
So there are as many questions as answers about why Schwartz filmed it, but it appears that a defunct Denver company called Barbre Productions was trailing the Beatles 1964 U.S. tour, possibly for a planned (and unauthorized) documentary.
The project turned out badly, according to the book “Way Beyond Compare: The Beatles’ Recorded Legacy Volume One – 1957-1965” by John C. Winn. He tells how the Beatles became fed up with Barbre at the Sept. 12 Jacksonville concert, and their press officer told the crowd the group wouldn’t perform unless its team left. “The bluff worked and the crowd began chanting, ‘Out! Out!'” Winn writes.
A Brooklyn-based company called Historic Films, which licenses commercial use of old footage, acquired the Schwartz clip and other footage about 20 years ago, said Joe Lauro, its president. He said he got it from Haagermaan Productions, but did not provide information about the latter. But other sources, too, somehow have found the old footage. This writer saw some on a collectors-oriented video titled On Tour With the Beatles from LA to Philadelphia: The USA Tour Part Three – 1964 Volume 18.
Historic Films’ website promotes its Schwartz footage this way: “Ohio circuit court judge stands in front of Ohio state seal, says that the Beatles are not bugs but the parents of their fans are! Hilarious! Anti-Beatles.”
Neil Signer disagrees – strongly – that what his grandfather said 50 years ago is “hilarious” today. He doesn’t think it should be used to promote events. After he watched it for the first time (this writer sent him a link), he said this in a follow-up phone interview from Florida, where he lives:
“(This) negates all the good he did for the community,” he said. “It’s who he was at the time but you have to remember what else he did. He was a juvenile judge and was about family values and ethics and morals. As a kid, he and I had a favorite saying. He would start the phrase ‘It’s nice to be great’ and I would finish, ‘It’s greater to be nice.’ That was one of his basic beliefs.”
Among the other Cincinnati Beatles-related footage are interviews with a custodian at Cincinnati Gardens, amused employees of Hill’s Barber Shop at Swifton Shopping Center (about the Beatles’ “moptop”-style haircuts), and a University of Cincinnati psychologist named Howard Lyman who good-naturedly, patiently explained that the Beatles posed no threat to society.
Deceased since 1997, he was the father of David Lyman, a Cincinnati arts critic/writer who today covers theater and dance for The Enquirer. David had no idea the footage existed until contacted.
“It’s nice to hear him be so incredibly reasonable,” David said. “I was proud of his comments. When the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, I watched with my mother, not my dad – he wasn’t a music guy. So it was good to hear him be so reassuring that every generation has moments that seem unreasonable to their elders, but that they will still find their way into adulthood.”
If you go
What: A Hard Day’s Night sing-along screenings
When: Thursday at the Esquire, 10:30 p.m. Friday at the Kenwood and 5 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Mariemont.
Also: Prizes for the best 1960s costumes before each show
Perhaps it will become a new genre of popular music — albums made in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. If so, Justin Sullivan’s new solo record Surrounded should deserve to be considered among the best. It’s available digitally on May 28; vinyl and CD formats follow on July 23.
Sullivan is best known as the singer and most visible member of Great Britain’s New Model Army, a band from the West Yorkshire city of Bradford that for decades has been playing music influenced by forceful hard rock, impassioned punk and post-punk and lyrically searching, even tender, singer-songwriter folk.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Over that time span, one that has seen the band’s musical direction and concerns evolve while their idealistic aura holds firm, they have built a devoted audience in the U.K. and throughout Europe. But while there are fans in the U.S. —indeed, fairly large numbers of them in the bigger and more music-conscious cities — New Model Army has never made much impact on these shores.
The year 2020 was scheduled to be a big one for New Model Army, with a major tour in celebration of their 40th anniversary. (The line-up has changed over the years; as of the last album — 2019’s From Here — it also included Ceri Monger on bass, Michael Dean on drums, Dean White on keyboards and guitar, and Marshall Gill on guitar.)
That triumphant-tour plan changed quickly, however, when COVID-19 struck. The touring world shut down. “I remember at the beginning of lockdown, when I was just here on my own in my little flat and talking to somebody on the phone, they said, ‘you’ll probably make a solo album,’” Sullivan told the Rock and Roll Globe, during a Zoom chat. “I said, ‘No, I’ve got no interest in doing that.’ But I just found myself on this sofa with a guitar and started writing, and then things snowballed.”
Surrounded overall has a quiet, breathtaking beauty — like being alone outside, watching the sky and seeing your place up there. The lyrics are often literary but still personal; their striking imagery giving the songs an afterlife. Sullivan is a rugged, naturalistic singer whose low voice can shift from spoken-word monologue to expressive and compassionate — but still slightly rugged — tunefulness. He sounds tough and sensitive, a rare combination. He also has a gift for melody, capable of finding just the right chord change or strong bridge to add satisfying uplift to a ballad.
This is a long album with 16 titles, but individual songs rarely drag. The songs can be rueful yet hopeful, beautiful to hear but still unsettling. The standout like that is “Clean Horizon,” reminiscent of Nick Cave.
Sullivan keeps notebooks to record ideas for songs, usually for New Model Army. “This time it wasn’t a band album, just me with guitar going, ‘I like that chord and this melody …yeah, yeah, yeah. Now what’s it about?’ ” he says of the writing process.
That led to perusing notebooks for his ideas. But besides that, there’s also some looking through his own past on Surrounded. For instance, the song “Ride” recalls a hitchhiking trip with a companion, seeking refuge from a rainstorm:
“Sat there shivering
just watching the rain
I was so in love with all that romantic stuff
an aching whole inside
all my life I’ve been a fool
what a ride, what a ride.”
“In 1975, when I was kid, I left home at 18 and went to work on the underground in London collecting tickets and sweeping platforms,” Sullivan recalls. “I saved up a bit of money and headed off to North America and spent months hitchhiking, which is where that song comes from.
“And I remember the time very well. It was just after the end of Vietnam and after the whole wave of civil rights movement assassinations and the hippy thing, and everybody in America was going…” (Here Sullivan exhales pronouncedly.) “I remember an atmosphere very well of exhaustion. A time of absolute exhaustion.
“I’m 65, man,” he continues. “You do get to the point of looking back on your life and you have stories to tell. But I didn’t want to tell only my own story; there are lots about other people, too. But yes, this is much more autobiographical than most things I’ve done.”
As an example of how he draws from other sources, there’s the eerily compelling short song, “Riptides”:
“In the swimming currents of the morphine
the room fills with ice up to the ceiling
the crystals forming as you’re watching
and return the words you don’t remember
that love is an ocean with riptides
will carry you away to deep water
you thought they were strong but they are stronger
and it will taste like karma.”
As I listened, I thought maybe it was a reference to an addict, someone who had run out of luck trying to get high. But the morphine reference made me wonder — it’s not so much a drug people use for psychological release as much as it’s for easing pain in a hospital setting. Sullivan is giving us a glimpse of something sinister, but what is it? The answer shows how his mind works.
“A friend of mine told me this story of the time he was in the hospital when he was very ill and filled with morphine and had this vision. Then I started talking about ‘love is an ocean with riptides.’ ” He chuckles a bit here. “Yeah, that’s playing into some personal stories.”
Sullivan long has had a restlessly searching side and an interest in nature’s mysteriousness that compares to, say, British environmental artists Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. He can also relate observations about nature with more personal quests and experiences. “Never Arriving,” from New Model Army’s From Here, is an excellent example; so, too, is one of the band’s most powerful songs, “Green and Gray” from 1989’s Thunder and Consolation.
VIDEO: New Model Army “Green and Grey” Live 1996
It’s there, too, in Surrounded. In the title song, he confesses that:
“We have come so very far to find what we are seeking
it only lasts a moment, but what a moment it has been
as the snow flies from the farthest reach of Eden
we’re surrounded by all the light that I will ever see.”
“That’s always my obsession going,” Sullivan explains of this interest. “There’s nothing better than that sense of ongoing. I’ve never been very interested in arriving. Arriving is a little death, isn’t it? It’s the setting off that’s the interesting bit.”
This album’s arrangements, while subtle, give the songs sonic depth that adds to their pleasure. Sullivan had made an earlier solo album — 2003’s Navigating by the Stars — which had what he describes as “big arrangements.” Pre-pandemic, he had occasionally done well-received solo shows, just himself with guitar, and people suggested a new solo record should sound have the same kind of bare, essential sound.
“When I first started on this, I didn’t have any thoughts about it,” he says. “I just recorded me singing a song with a guitar. But I got bored with that very quickly. So I sent the songs I recorded to various musicians and they sent me their ideas back. From that, I cobbled together some basic arrangements, still keeping it basically singer-songwriter with guitar, but with some other instrumentation. So I was receiving these contributions through email all last year.”
Subsequently, Sullivan took his tracks to Lee Smith, a producer for the last three New Metal Army albums, to use the received musical contributions in a way that still made the album sound predominately acoustic-based.
The primary contributors are John Thorne on bass, Tom Moth of Florence and the Machine (and brother of New Model Army’s Monger) on harp, and string arrangements from composers Tobias Unterberg, Henning Nugel and Shir-Ran Yinon. All male backing vocals are by Sullivan; female are from a Bradford duo. Sullivan multi-tracked those supporting vocals. “I love the sound of them,” he offers. “I don’t think there’s anything better than people singing, really. Looking back, I should have done it more.”
As I write this, it seems like there might be a return to touring in the offing. For Sullivan, that means starting work on the next New Model Army album and planning for live shows.
“I have a possible solo tour in Germany in June,” Sullivan says. “I’m sure I’ll end up doing some solo shows of some kind through the autumn in some countries, depending on COVID. Will I make it to America? Probably not. What am I doing next year? Don’t know. When will the band be back in action? Don’t know.” (New Model Army’s website does list some upcoming band shows.)
New Model Army has, at least overseas, become a model for how to have a long career in Rock and Roll without being, as Sullivan puts it, “a worldwide famous band.”
As he explains, “We’ve got enough of a fan base and we’ve carried them with us. They’re prepared to go with us to wherever we go now. That’s a fantastic privilege, where we can do what we want when we want in the way we want and not be stuck in some kind of circus. Lucky us.”
But what about the U.S.? New Model Army has toured here before, but it’s been more than a decade. (According to concertarchives.org., their last U.S. visit occurred at Brooklyn’s Bell House in 2010. It was a two-night stand that was the only U.S. part of a “tour” that had them playing weekends at major European cities to celebrate their 30th anniversary.https://www.youtube.com/embed/78KukWmsdUo?feature=oembed
“The difficult thing is that if you’re a European band, there are two ways to ‘break’ America,” Sullivan explains. “One is to tour, tour, tour, tour, tour, tour. It’s a big country and you get in a van and drive, month after month after month. Or, number two, you have so much commercial potential that you’ve got this massive weight of money behind you to help you.
“We don’t have number two and never did,” he says. “So the alternative is to get out and drive. But you also have to bear in mind there are only a certain number of cities in the U.S. where we’ve got a big enough audience to pay for the expense of bringing a band in. So we could strip the band down to three pieces and drive and drive and drive. The problem with that is that we’re old. And also, we need to write songs for the next album.
“We did spend quite a lot of money, time, effort and emotional energy trying to do that (have a U.S. breakthrough) back in the day,” he acknowledges. “And eventually we said that at the end of day we were going to break the band on this. Cause so many British bands have broken themselves trying to do America.
“So is it worth it,” he asks, rhetorically. “No. Should we go to America every now and again and play to people that love the band? Yes, we should and we will hopefully be there at some point.”
But touring America himself, behind his new and excellent solo album Surrounded, might be a possibility. “Solo would be much easier,” he declares. “So the chances of me turning up in America with a guitar and playing some small places? That’s quite likely, I hope.”
Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based writer whose music stories have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, American Songwriter, Paste, Denver Post, Elmore, Blurt, Rock’s Back Pages and other print and online publications. He has worked as an arts writer and critic for Denver Post and as Arts & Entertainment Editor for Cincinnati CityBeat. He has published a fanzine called One Shot: The Magazine of One-Hit Wonders and founded National One Hit Wonder Day (it’s on his birthday, September 25). He is excited about contributing to Rock & Roll Globe.
Raphaela PlatowPHOTO: TINA GUTIERREZ ARTS PHOTOGRAPHY
Raphaela Platow, who recently announced her departure after 14 years as director of the Contemporary Arts Center to lead Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, did some of her finest work during the coronavirus pandemic.
This may sound a little strange, as the CAC — like all museums — struggled during 2020 and into this year with the pandemic. It closed for several months when COVID-19 first arrived, and then again for several weeks in December and early January when there were fears of a resurgence. That upended public awareness for an interest in the CAC’s exhibits, including at least one show that was a big deal: the first major U.S. exhibition of work by the Portuguese street artist Vhils. I wish I could tell people what they missed, but I was more or less staying home, too.
During that time, Platow began writing her “Director’s Dispatch,” a column delivered via email to museum members. Platow’s missives not only were good, but also unusual. They were deeply personal, sometimes viscerally so, in communicating how she was processing the challenges of 2020-21 and in how contemporary art could help her with that. I found them enlightening and often moving.
An example is from her April 2021 Director’s Dispatch, about her participation in one of the events at CAC’s performance festival “This Time Tomorrow,” which returned in truncated form this year after a 2020 cancellation. She had attended artist Kate McIntosh’s installation Worktable, which encouraged visitors to smash and break objects and then try to mend them. Platow noted that she chose a small yellow porcelain bird on a white tray, slammed it with a hammer and then worked to repair the harm.
“Destruction and renewal are at the core of McIntosh’s work, and last year epitomized mourning and catharsis for me as we are now one year into the devastating COVID pandemic, racial tensions and social upheaval,” Platow wrote.
“Worktable powerfully shed light for me on how little it takes to destroy and how much time, effort, creativity and resources it takes to build anew,” she continued. “However, the process of rebuilding offers space and opportunity, not just for fixing what has been broken, but to tap into our imagination to envision something better and more useful for our future world. To imagine something not just as it was, or ‘normally’ is, but as it might be — that is the path of true change and the only pathway to a better tomorrow.”
Even the way Platow started this particular newsletter seemed surprisingly forthcoming: “We are back — with caution, we are back. In spite of an incredible loss in revenue, the CAC is back, coming off our performance festival, This Time Tomorrow, and a building full of new exhibitions.”
Being able to get these dispatches made CAC membership worth having during the roughly one-and-a-half years I’ve gone without visiting the building (The CAC is putting the collection of newsletters up on its website soon).
Platow arrived at the CAC after serving as chief curator and acting director of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum and as international curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina. She also has held museum positions in Munich and Berlin in her native country Germany. Her résumé states that she has written extensively about contemporary art, too.
The CAC’s Zaha Hadid-designed building was but four years old when Platow arrived, and figuring out how to use it best was part of her job. During her tenure here there was a 400% increase in attendance and a doubling of the museum’s annual operating budget, The Art Newspaper reports.
As the CAC’s director (officially the Alice & Harris Weston Director), Platow presided over some wonderful shows, sometimes working with now-departed curators Justine Ludwig and Steven Matijcio (I retired as CityBeat Arts Editor in 2018 and am not familiar with the input of current senior curator Amora Antilla).
Some of these exhibits brought to town the work of larger-than-art-world celebrities like Patti Smith, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, JR, Mark Mothersbaugh and the late Keith Haring. The CAC also hosted powerful exhibits by artists who were known within the contemporary art world but not so much outside of it — Tara Donovan, Ugo Rondinone, Glenn Brown, Do Ho Suh, Maria Lassnig, Daniel Arsham, Glenn Kaino, Anne Lindberg and more.
If I had to pick the most important show presented under Platow’s leadership, it would be 2019-20’s Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. It gave a timely overview as well as an understanding of the demanding work of this Black painter, who died in 2009. Platow organized this traveling retrospective that had its first stop at the CAC, and she should be proud of the national attention it received.
The CAC under Platow championed local artists, and at least two of them had especially impactful shows. One, Mark de Jong’s Swing House, highlighted an already existing re-invention of a Camp Washington house into a kind of indoor playground. And Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s Hanging Garden at Mount Adams’ then-abandoned Holy Cross Church featured a live tree surviving atop a dead one, their balancing act seeming to defy nature even while being part of it.
It will be interesting to see how the CAC evolves after Platow. Its current deputy director, Marcus Margerum, will serve as interim director.
At the Speed, Platow will move to an encyclopedic collecting museum which, in recent years, has completed a multi-year project that included renovation of its 1927 Neoclassical building and construction of a new, Modernist North Building. The Speed, too, has shown dedication to presenting politically, socially and environmentally relevant Contemporary art (including cinema). Earlier this year, it presented a show of Black artists responding to last year’s police killing of Louisville medical worker Breonna Taylor. Additionally, it will share ownership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture of a portrait of Taylor by Amy Sherald, who also painted First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.
Looking ahead, the Speed has an August show featuring a recently acquired portfolio by the late Ralph Eugene Meatyard — one of Kentucky’s most important photographers — which includes images taken at Red River Gorge in 1967 to raise support for its then-threatened preservation. And coming in October is an exhibit called Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art. It sounds like quite an interesting museum.
Platow’s last day at CAC will be July 9. She will start in Louisville on Aug. 30.
Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, contemporaryartscenter.org.
Ron Mael discusses new Sparks album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ and reveals details of two upcoming movies involving the duo — an unusual musical and a long-awaited documentary
Posted on June 25, 2021
(Editor/writer’s note June 25, 2021: I wrote this interview with Ron Mael of Sparks year for Rock’s Back Pages, when it looked like 2020 was going to be the duo’s long-awaited “breakout” year. COVID-19 interfered with those plans, but so far it seems like 2021 might actually be the year that the Mael brothers and their fans have long awaited. — SR)
BY STEVEN ROSEN / MAY 15, 2020
When 2020 was still new, it looked to be The Year of Sparks, the beloved cult rock/pop band of brothers — Ron and Russell Mael — that have released 23 studio albums and numerous compilations since 1971. This year could still turn out that way, but COVID-19 has interfered.
The new studio album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip was scheduled early on for May 15 release (digital at first; physical copies July 3), and Sparks began offering previews online. New songs like “One for the Ages,” “I’m Toast,” “Self-Effacing,” “Lawnmower” and “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” showed Sparks still capable of their artful, quirky yet accessible pop songs enlivened by Russell’s theatrically expressive vocals and Ron’s expert keyboard work and lyrics emphasizing humorously sophisticated wordplay or just plainly spoken poignant truth.
That record is still coming out. But the Mael brothers also had announced a European tour with their supporting musicians for October — a prelude to a 2021 world tour. They also revealed that the long in-the-works movie for which they wrote the mostly-sung screenplay — Annette, by French auteurist director Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard — was finished and ready for theatrical release. Further, they said, British director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) feature-length documentary chronicling Sparks’ long career was quickly approaching completion.
What a year to look forward to! But then, the pandemic arrived in Europe and the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world). Public entertainment, such as movie theaters and concerts, pretty much was halted everywhere. The Cannes Film Festival, where Annette was scheduled to appear, was an early casualty.
During a recent telephone interview with Ron, ensconced in his L.A. home, he worried about whether the October tour could happen. And he displayed great anxiety about what the future might hold for Sparks if concerts return at some point with strict social distancing procedures in place. Sparks concerts have played a key role in giving the duo a raison d’etre for continuing. The shows are joyful celebratory events, a chance for close bonding among those devoted to Sparks’ unconventional musical aesthetic. Audiences also boisterously enjoy the brothers’ visual presentation, with the animated, exuberant Russell playing off the studiousness with which Ron plays keyboards, his Charlie Chaplin-ish mustache a longstanding trademark. When (and if) Ron breaks character and dances, everyone goes wild.
That friendly, lively rapport now is at risk. “I try not to dwell on it too much, but it’s so depressing,” Ron says. “It isn’t just a small thing for us. There are bands that don’t enjoy live concerts, but we love doing that. An album is almost an excuse for us to play live. In classical music there is shared experience, but it’s not quite as outwardly passionate as a rock concert or festival. There’s just no substitute for that.”
After the Mael brothers started the band Halfnelson in L.A., producer Todd Rundgren took the five-member group to Albert Grossman’s Woodstock N.Y.-based Bearsville label. When a first album flopped, Grossman — tickled by the brothers’ humor and concerned that Halfnelson wasn’t a good name — suggested Sparks Brothers because it rhymed with Marx Brothers. They compromised on just Sparks. The first album was reissued credited to Sparks and a second album debuted in 1973. Still nothing.
The Mael brothers relocated to England hooked up with Island Records in time for the glam revolution and its love of music with the kind of arty, hip knowingness reflected in the title of that second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing.
Their 1974 British hit (and their first masterpiece) “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” still sounds miraculous today, an operatic pop song with a jittery melodramatic melody, a veritable sound collage of special effects, authoritative rock-guitar licks and Russell’s acrobatic voice reaching high notes worthy of Maria Callas. Their accompanying album, Kimono My House, also was huge. After some further British success, Sparks moved back to L.A. The Mael brothers have continued to compose and record such much-admired songs, to an international following, as 1979’s “The Number One Song in Heaven,” 1980’s “When I’m With You,” 1994’s “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way,’ ” and 2017’s “Hippopotamus.” There have been some detours — Annette and the Swedish public radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman — but general they’ve stalwartly produced pop.
A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, their first studio album since 2017’s Hippopotamus, opens with what may be a surprise to some fans — a heartfelt and straightforwardly emotional composition, “All That.” With a lovely Beatlesque melody and arrangement, driven by acoustic guitar strumming, handclaps and choral vocal effects, Russell sings, “All that we’ve done/we’ve lost/we’ve won/all that, all that and more.”
I asked Ron if this was a statement of purpose for the brothers, a vow of togetherness, considering he and Russell have been together as Sparks for almost 50 years. “I saw it less as an autobiographical thing,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of songs that are love songs, so I felt the challenge of trying to come up with something sincere but not achingly saccharin. I never thought about it as being anything about our working relationship. The two of us are not very sentimental when it comes to (that). We never speak about those things. Neither of us are introspective in those kinds of ways.”
The funny, charming “Self-Effacing” seems more conventionally Sparks-like. It appears a subtle self-referential put-on. After all, how can someone who publicly declares himself or herself “self-effacing” — in a song, no less — actually be so? It’s a contradiction, right?
“You’re right,” Ron at first concedes. “If you were truly self-effacing, you wouldn’t be writing a 4-minute song about it.” But then he begs to politely differ. “But I also just like the idea, with so many songs in pop and rock being so macho and self-assured, of somebody stating so strongly that they’re not that. In general, and I’m sure there are exceptions, we try to be as sincere as possible about things, but because of the way things are phrased, they can come out as, ‘What are you guys really getting at?’ Sometimes we’re not really trying to get to something; things really can be taken at face value.”
Ron and Russell long have harbored hopes of being involved with movies. In the 1970s, the late French director Jacques Tati, a comedy master, wanted them to appear in his Confusion project as American television executives set loose on a television station in rural France. But the film never happened.
Thus, they are particularly proud that a film they wrote some eight years ago, Annette, has been completed. And during the process they seem to have maintained a good relationship with director Carax, whose past films include the critically acclaimed Holy Motors and Pola X. The director actually put in a guest appearance on Sparks’ Hippopotamus album, singing “When You’re a French Director.”
Ron hopes, given the Cannes cancellation, Annette can premiere at another prestige festival later this year, if such festivals can resume. “It’s a story about a standup comedian, a real shock guy played by Adam (Driver), and an opera singer played by Marion (Cotillard), and they have kind of an affair that is unlikely because of the discrepancy between their manners,” he says. “And they have — I can’t go into too many details — a child who has some special talents, and the child’s name is Annette.” (Set in Los Angeles, the movie mostly was filmed on sets in Brussels, with some scenes shot it Germany and L.A.)
“It’s 95 percent sung,” Ron explains. “We actually wanted it all to be sung, but Leos felt some of the scenes could use normal dialogue even if just as a breather. But we’re really proud it’s basically sung from beginning to end.”
Of that music, he says that there are “a lot of pieces you wouldn’t necessarily call pop songs, although there are some of those in it, but it’s more geared to that (pop) stylistically. The only pieces that aren’t occur because Marion is supposed to be an opera singer in the film, so when she’s on stage she’s performing our style of opera in front of audiences.”
Driver, of course, received acclaim last year for singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” as part of his Academy Award-nominated performance in Marriage Story. So he’s going from Sondheim to Sparks. “A lot of times you almost forget he’s singing — it just sounds like Adam Driver acting, but within a musical context,” Ron says. “People really will be surprised. It’s one thing to sing one song, but to do it for 2 hours and 20 minutes, that’s different.”
Meanwhile, there is now a completed three-hour edit of the Sparks documentary that Edgar Wright has been working on. He wanted Ron and Russell to come to London and see it in a theater for the first showing, but they had to cancel once the pandemic struck. “He really likes it, but the plan is to also have a theatrical release,” Ron says. “So he’s trying to figure out how to get down to a two-hour version. We’d prefer to see it for the first time in a theater setting, rather than getting a link to watch it on computer. But if this goes on too much longer, we might have to do it that way.” (They have seen individual sections of the film.)
The Mael brothers think Wright is the right person to make a Sparks documentary. “We’ve had offers in the past to have documentaries done about Sparks and we always turned them down,” Ron says. “But when Edgar approached us we said yes immediately because of our respect for him as a director. He really understood what we’re all about and also has the energy and maybe even the discretion to try to maintain a certain amount of mystique about the band.”
Wright’s plan is to give equal weight to all phases of Sparks’ career. That fits Ron’s vision. “We didn’t want it to just be a nostalgic look,” he says. To highlight the present, Wright accompanied Sparks last year to shows in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Mexico City. “He feels what we’re doing now is as strong as anything we’ve ever done, so he wanted to make sure there is a balance to the whole thing,” Ron says.
Still, Sparks do have a long, colorful career that the film will explore. “He has very capable people working for him and they’re able to get footage we wouldn’t have been able to,” Ron says. “It’s a treat for us in a way. Some of it is slightly embarrassing but also kind of cool, old cooking shows in England in the 70s and all.”
Ron sees A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip as continuation — an advancement, actually — of Sparks’ vision of popular music as capable of having a commercially conventional structure, a fun danceable Big Beat (to quote a previous album’s title), and also be taken seriously for its unpretentious but not accidental artfulness.
Sparks records have been guided by that unifying belief since 1971, and there’s no planned change now even if Ron is 74, Russell is 71 and they’ve just written a movie musical of sorts.
“We think we can be as meaningful in pop music as in any other genre,” Ron says. “That’s why when we’re working on film and go back to working on an album, it’s always exciting for us to see how far we can continue to take that. That’s our first love — pop music. We like seeing what can be done with it that remains within the general area of pop music but is something very, very special. We’re always pleased whenever people notice that at least we’re trying.”
(Photo of new record album from Allsparks.com website)
(I am reposting this on the occasion of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday on May 24, 2021, as his 1965 Top Forty hit “Like a Rolling Stone” represents the moment of his greatest immediate impact on our culture.)
In a recent New York Times profile of the photographer Robert Frank, Nicholas Dawidoff describes the impact of his book The Americans—starting with its opening image—this way.
“The Harvard photography historian Robin Kelsey likens it to the splash of snare drum at the beginning of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ ‘It flaps you right away.’ …That is the miracle of great socially committed art: It addresses our sources of deepest unease, helps us to confront what we cannot organize or explain by making all of it unforgettable.”
That is certainly true of both those works of art and worth considering today, the 50th anniversary of “Like a Rolling Stone” being released as a single. Frank’s Beat Era masterpiece went on the road to see and show us the disaffected Americans not brightened by suburbanization and make us acknowledge “the other;” Dylan’s convention-defying song announced rock ‘n’ roll would become the voice—his voice—for disaffected Boomers out to revolutionize everything they could touch. Including rock ‘n’ roll, itself.
But there was a difference. Frank quietly went on the journey that produced The Americans in 1955 with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. It was a struggle to get the resultant work published—in 1958 in France and 1959 in America. Even then, as Dawidoff point out, its impact was slow. It is still seeping into our awareness today. “(It) would follow the trajectory of experimental American classics like Moby-Dick’ and Citizen Kane—works that grew slowly in stature until it was as if they had always been there,” he writes.
That is where “Like a Rolling Stone”—every bit the “American experimental classic” of those others—is different. From virtually the moment it was released as a single, the culture was ready for it. That’s an understatement. It detonated like a missile.
It was truly radical, as so many writers before have pointed out, especially Greil Marcus in his book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, which details its recording in June 1965.
That startling drumshot of an opening: Al Kooper’s beckoning, carnivalesque Hammond B-3 organ part and Michael Bloomfield’s electric-guitar curlicues run around Dylan’s own determined rhythmic playing. And over which, Dylan’s strange lyrics seem triumphant, yet also full of warning, as his unglamorous voice brimming with attitude, holds onto syllables as if they were gleeful riders on a hurtling-downward roller-coaster. He sings phrases like “Mystery tramp?” “Chrome horse with your diplomat?” “Napoleon in rags?” as if they were a new language, a secret code, masquerading as popular song.
As it went on for just a bit over six minutes, it was both intellectual incitement and a soulful sing-along rocker—Allen Ginsberg’s Howl joined with both sides of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”
After an initial period during which Top 40 radio tried to play a shortened version of the song supplied by Columbia Records, Dylan (and much of the public) forced stations to play the full version.
There was great drama surrounding that at the time. In Cincinnati, where I grew up, there were two Top 40 stations at the time and one played the short version but also programmed Barry McGuire’s doomy yet more familiarly structured folk-rock protest song “Eve of Destruction.” The other banned McGuire as too negative but played “Rolling Stone” the way Dylan intended. And each bragged they had more courage than the other.
Dylan was already a celebrated folk-based songwriter at the time, and his ambition to cross over to electric rock ‘n’ roll as a performer was no secret. But his earlier stab at a hit record, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” seemed derivative (of Chuck Berry, especially) and almost a novelty. Time has altered that view, of course, but at the time it was underwhelming, given the amount of press he was getting as a writer. It had scraped the Top 40 earlier in 1965, and gave no indication of what was to come.
Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart had “Like a Rolling Stone” at No. 91 for the week ending July 24, which means it was it getting sales action even before it was officially available. It was in the Top 40 by Aug. 14, the Top 10 by Aug. 28 and No. 2, just behind the Beatles’ “Help!” and every bit as big a hit by Sept. 4.
Perhaps the most important thing about the song’s impact is that while it was indeed revolutionary art, it was directed straight at teenagers. And by their sheer number, those ages 13-19 in 1965 made the country take notice of them.
In 1946, the start of the Baby Boom that officially ended in 1964, the number of Americans born jumped startlingly to a record-breaking 3.47 million from 2.8 million in 1945. That number stayed at 3.5 million or higher through 1952. They also had their own unified means of communication in Top 40 radio. (Dylan, of course, was not one of them. He was 24 when “Like a Rolling Stone” struck.)
With 50 years of study, it’s easy today to see the song’s surrealistic lyrics for what they were—a knowing retort, but empathetic, to a privileged woman who has had her comeuppance. As such, its attitude and subject matter aren’t the song’s most progressive aspect. Both Dylan and the Top 40 had been there before. In fact, one of the song’s namesakes, the Rolling Stones, had explored the same territory with much less complexity earlier in 1965 with “Play With Fire.”
But that’s not how “Like a Rolling Stone”’s intended audience heard the song. They saw themselves as the subject, the “you,” at the same time they were being shaken by their country’s violence in the mid- to late-1960s. Many were preparing to seek radical change in so many ways, and that idea was both scary and liberating. “Like a Rolling Stone”’s refrain, “How does it feel / To be on your own? / With no direction home,” quickly became prophetic to them. It was a call to liberation.
The ghost of “Like a Rolling Stone” runs through the lyrics of Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which Crosby, Stills & Nash released as a single shortly after National Guard troops killed four students during a 1970 protest at Kent State University: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own.”
Recently, I was having lunch with a friend from high school who had just signed up for Medicare. After explaining the process to me, he said, “Jesus, can you believe we’re 65?”
I answered that, yes, years have passed too quickly, but I felt lucky to have been a teenager in 1965, at the exact time “Like a Rolling Stone” was released and directed right at me. It was a momentous event then, and it still feels that way now.
(Writer’s note — April 19, 2021: Some things have obviously changed since I wrote this story in 2012, but I still think the central premise that the Academy should do more to educate the public about the Oscar-nominated documentaries and “Best International Feature Film” would find a receptive audience. —SR)
Now that Sunday night’s Oscars are over, the Internet is full of catty stories and tweets parsing every last second of televised coverage, from Angelina Jolie’s exposed leg to Adam Sandler’s participation in a taped segment in which actors discussed why they love movies. (If he really loved movies, he’d stop making them, some have said.)
It’s both understandable and sad that the Oscars — and movie-award season in general — ends like this, with far more interest in the telecast’s trivia than in the movies that win awards. Arguably, the news value of this year’s show peaked before it even officially started, when Sacha Baron Cohen, in costume as “The Dictator” for an upcoming movie, spilled an urn of faux human ashes (ostensibly Kim Jong-il’s) on interviewer Ryan Seacrest.
It’s getting worse, too, now that the Internet and 200+-channel cable television have educated us ad nauseam to the nature and inner workings of the Oscar campaign season. We carefully learn how a film builds momentum by moving through all the secondary award ceremonies from critics groups and the Hollywood professional guilds and associations.
As a result, the Academy Awards themselves have become anticlimactic, which partially explains the media devotion to dissecting the telecast. And the attempts by the Motion Picture Academy to build false enthusiasm by allowing up to ten Best Picture nominees have been a disaster, since we all now know how to “read” the nominations to distinguish the real ones (they also have Best Director nods) from the padding. Not all that long ago, few outside Hollywood insiders even knew there was a well-orchestrated “campaign season,” much less how to follow and handicap it.
Convention wisdom, and you hear a lot of it these days, would be to revive the Oscar telecast by de-emphasizing the importance of the awards, themselves. Reduce the number given out on TV, especially the more esoteric or niche ones, in favor of increasing the glitz, spectacle, star power and big production numbers. Do like the Grammys have done, where classical, jazz, folk, blues, opera, international and more are rarely ever presented on the show.
But I think the Academy should go the other way and try to increase public awareness of the importance of Oscar nominations. But maybe not for the Big Four categories – Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, which probably do suffer from overexposure by the time the telecast comes around (although The Artist, this year’s big winner, could use the help since many people have been scared off by the fact it’s a black-and-white silent film).
Click the jump for more on ways the Academy could draw more attention to deserving films such as A Separation, In Darkness, Footnote and Bullhead. —-
In particular, there should be more attention given to two categories that get a short shrift on the telecast, yet for which Oscar nominations are vital – Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary. It would even be a good idea for the Academy to launch a second telecast, on cable, devoted just to introducing these nominees to the public. (The awards could still be given on the main program, and Foreign and Documentary films could still be eligible for the major awards, too.)
Why? First of all, foreign-language films and documentaries are feature-length movies, just like The Artist (which actually was a French movie) or The Descendents. As such, they’re trying to get into theaters and be seen, just like those films. Further, as anyone who really likes movies can tell you, they are often the best feature-length movies out there because they explore subjects that Hollywood overlooks and take risks that scare Hollywood.
Yet, because they rarely if ever have the studio marketing/distribution clout to get into wide national release, they struggle in the marketplace. They even struggle to attract the attention of those who are predisposed to like artier or so-called independent films. Occasionally, a political celebrity like Michael Moore or Al Gore can break through with a documentary, or a foreign-language film like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can combine enough action with artfulness to become a hit. But too often, they don’t get the attention they deserve. one of this year’s foreign-language nominees, Belgium’s tough, harrowing Bullhead, quietly opened at the Esquire last week and I wonder how many people know that much about it. Several of this year’s Best Documentary nominees — Hell and Back Again, If a Tree Fell, Paradise Lost 3 — tell riveting stories about the contemporary American experience but didn’t even get widespread theatrical distribution. The winner, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated, about a struggling Memphis high-school football team, will get a push because it won the Oscar. (The other nominee, Wim Wender’s 3-D look at an avant-garde German dance troupe, Pina, is currently at the Mariemont.)
Distributors often don’t try to really market a documentary or foreign-language film until after the Oscars are over – that’s how dependent they are on an award. So it’d be nice if a second, special Academy’s Oscar telecast gave them more time to introduce and explain themselves.
It could introduce the nominees in depth, show clips from them, offer interviews with the principals and – in the case of the foreign-language nominees – offer insight into the filmmaking industry in their home countries. As for star power, I would bet Hollywood’s top stars and directors would be willing to introduce the segments – heck, Terrence Malick and Woody Allen probably would show up for such a good cause.
Among other things, a show could explain the confusing process by which documentaries and foreign-language films become eligible for Oscar nominations. Maybe the more the public learns about that, the more it will suggest changes. (Why should only foreign-language films officially nominated by their countries be eligible, for instance?)
This is also important because these categories are exciting. The foreign-language one, in particular, is like a mini-United Nations. For those who follow these movies, one of the most meaningful moments at the Oscars occurred when A Separation, written and directed by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, won for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s the first Iranian film to win in this category and opens Friday at the Esquire.
Framed as a thriller, this very contemporary movie about a marriage in trouble daringly, carefully asks questions about the role of women in a male-dominated, religious-dominated society. And Farhadi’s acceptance speech, while hard to understand since English isn’t his primary language, seemed to be a call for understanding, peace and cultural tolerance, as well as to ask that we all separate politics from the social/cultural realm. It seemed to be directed at Iranian authorities as much as anyone else, and the New York Times said the Iranian news agencies had trouble reporting it in a way that would curry its government’s favor. And indeed, the Iranian government has spun the win as a victory over Israel.
That’s because one of the other finalists, Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, also a family drama, is an Israeli film. The Academy on Saturday sponsored an annual symposium for its foreign-film nominees, and it was something that Farhadi would dare appear at the event with Cedar. (He still had to be careful about seeming to be too friendly to him.) Further, one Jewish website (www.jta.org) reported that Farhadi backstage at the Oscars praised the director of another foreign-language nominee — Agnieszka Holland’s Polish drama In Darkness, about Jews hiding from Nazis in Lvov, Poland, during the Holocaust. If true that’s pretty gutsy for him, considering Iran’s political leadership denies the Holocaust happened.
This is exciting, relevant stuff — certainly more substantial than whatever a costumed Cohen does to Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet. But why can’t the Academy do more to let the television-watching public in on the stories behind these films. And if that helps A Separation, In Darkness, Footnote, Bullhead or the fifth nominee, Canada’s Monsieur Lazhar (about an Algerian refugee in Montreal) attract a bigger audience as they start to “go wide” theatrically, we’re all better for it.
And, who knows, if it works for the Oscars, maybe the Grammys can follow suit and have a separate telecast for some of the musical categories it’s now abandoned on its main show.
POP STARS OF disparate ages and musical styles, when forced to share a stage, can be as awkward together as “strangers waiting up and down the boulevard”. They need a song to bring them together – and the one they choose, if it works, can have all the pop-culture portent of a classic TV show’s finale.
There’s no better – or odder – recent example of a musical common bond than the spectacle of seeing Sting, Blondie’s Deborah Harry, hoop-skirted and gray-hair-bewigged Lady Gaga, Elton John, Goldfinger‘s Shirley Bassey and a guitar-strapped Bruce Springsteen on stage in May at Carnegie Hall at the end of a Rainforest Fund benefit. Their unifying hymn? Journey’s 1981 power ballad, ‘Don’t Stop Believin”. The song reached No. 9 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 – by Journey standards, just average – and had faded from pop culture until a comeback in this century’s first decade.
Lady Gaga – the youngest of the sextet and unburdened by being a “rock” legend or interpreter of older show/movie tunes (like Bassey) – seemed a natural for it. But the others? ‘Don’t Stop Believin” used to be thought of, in hip rock circles, as the kind of overly emphatic Top 40 power-ballad – with Steve Perry’s grandiloquent vocals stretching out inspirational catch-phrase lyrics – that Blondie’s and the Police’s New Wave, not to mention Springsteen’s backstreets authenticity, were created to battle. And what’s with that “south Detroit” reference?
But there they were, singing it and looking pretty happy. Maybe not quite as happy, however, as the cast of “Glee,” in this summer’s season finale, where their defiant, fist-pumping version brought a Journey medley to an emotional climax.
‘Don’t Stop Believin” was not Journey’s biggest radio hit. ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Who’s Crying Now’ were bigger and the group had three other songs make the Top Ten. In the immediate decades after the release, it certainly could be heard on classic-rock radio, but it wasn’t considered one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest anthems.
But now, according to Wikipedia, it is the top downloaded pop song – almost four million – of any recorded before the 21st Century. This past summer, Journey’s version was one of iTunes Top Ten most-recorded pop songs. It’s even made Broadway – it’s a showstopper in the hit musical Rock of Ages.
‘Don’t Stop Believin” seems to have been reborn as a heartfelt anthem, an instant evocation of youthful hope and desire for the future. But also one with a film-noir-like dark undercurrent. And both elements appeal to contemporary pop culture.
Though it ends triumphantly, the song opens with Jonathan Cain’s foreboding keyboard signature and then Perry, in a voice choked with melancholy, begins “Just a small town girl/living in a lonely world…” He moves on to describe a scary urban landscape filled with “the smell of wine and cheap perfume,” “shadows searching in the night,” and those “strangers waiting up and down the boulevard”.
It’s the song’s triumphal aspect, no doubt, that has spurred much of its revival – Glee taps into it, as did the Chicago White Sox when they made the song an anthem of their 2005 World Championship season.
But Sopranos creator David Chase tapped into the noir quality when he had Tony Soprano choose it on the restaurant jukebox for the dark, mysterious, final episode of the series. The show stops abruptly right after Perry sings ‘Don’t Stop’ at the fade-out.
Perry, who long ago left the band – and, seemingly, being an active musician although he had a 1984 solo hit, ‘Oh Sherrie’, much bigger initially than ‘Don’t Stop Believin” – addressed the resurgence in an interview earlier this year with Britain’s Planet Rock radio station. He recalled how, even though the song was not that big on radio, it resonated with fans at concerts. That helped him believe in it. “Personally, it’s something that means a lot to me,” he said. “…Everybody has emotional issues and problems, and the song has helped me personally to not give up, and I’m finding a lot of people feel that.”
To this writer, the song’s renewal was most helped by its inclusion in 2003 indie film Monster. (Perry gets a credit as music consultant.) It’s a tough, gripping and ultimately tragic story of Ailenne Wuornos, the Florida prostitute executed in 2002 for killing her johns. The movie wasn’t widely seen, but had a strong impact on the creative community – Charlize Theron won the Oscar for transforming herself into the downtrodden, homely Wuornos. (Theron was also a producer.)
Early in the film, the song plays when Ailenne roller-skates at a rink with a girl (played by Christina Ricci) who finds her attractive. They start kissing on the rink, then passionately embrace outside. For both, this constitutes a bold, public moment of coming out and finding love – and, for a while at least, hope. It makes what follows all the sadder, because we glimpse a different path. Monster gave ‘Don’t Stop Believin” a newfound profundity. It was no longer just nostalgia.
In 2003, I interviewed both Theron and director Patty Jenkins about the song choice. “We shot the scene listening to Journey, and it does so much for the movie because it’s such a great song for the movie when you listen to lyrics,” Theron said. “But we had no money in the budget, so I wrote [Perry] a very nice letter just very truthfully saying we had always dreamed of doing this song. We sent all the band members a tape of the movie to watch. Steve called us back. He really loved the film and said he saw what we were trying to do with the music, and that it was a very authentic moment for us in that film.”
He gave approval, and helped Jenkins with other song choices. And in return, Monster helped ‘Don’t Stop Believin”s path to becoming a monster hit all over again.