Singer Martha High Keeps Alive the Legacy of James Brown and Cincinnati’s King Records

“I feel that Mr. Brown was like a father to me,” High says.

By Steven Rosen/Cincinnati CityBeat on Thu, Sep 8, 2022 at 5:02 am

Photo: provided by Ropeadope Records

Should there come a time in the not-too-distant future when Cincinnati’s King Records studio has been restored as a historic site, Martha High wants to be at the opening ceremony.

“All you have to do is make a call and I’ll come running,” she tells CityBeat during a Zoom interview from her fiancé’s home in the Netherlands.

You may be thinking, “That’s nice, but who is Martha High?

That’s understandable. Although High was born in Virginia and raised in Washington, D.C., she’s better known in Europe than the United States But High is perhaps the strongest active link to the Original Funky Divas associated with James Brown, arguably King’s most successful recording artist. These women performed as lead vocalists, background singers or both during Brown’s exciting stage shows, which also featured superb performances from the band and Brown’s own virtuosic singing and dancing. High joined Brown’s retinue in 1966 and stayed with him for 32 years, with only a few breaks.

Their work together included Brown’s massive hits for King, his funk classics on the Polydor label and his final hits on Scotti Brothers Records, including “Living in America.”

Brown died in 2006 at age 73. After his death, High sang lead female vocals for the touring Original James Brown Band and performed with Brown’s saxophonist Maceo Parker before starting a career in Europe as a headlining singer rooted in soul and funk. She’s still going strong at age 77.

One thing that might help her American profile is the Sept. 2 U.S. release of Soul Brother Where Art Thou? Vol. 2 on the Ropeadope label. High is the credited artist and sings lead on super-hot versions of seven Brown songs, accompanied by stalwarts and standouts from his band with background vocals from the Bittersweets. Selections include “It’s Too Funky in Here,” “There It Is,” “Prisoner of Love” and “Get It Together.”

Greg Hester produced these and other tracks shortly after Brown’s death and released the first volume of Soul Brother Where Art Thou under his own name in 2015. High did not sing on the earlier album.

High views Soul Brother Where Art Thou? Vol. 2 as her tribute to a great artist.

“I feel that Mr. Brown was like a father to me,” she says. “A father, brother, friend, mentor and my boss. He created music that can never be forgotten.”

High became a professional singer in the early 1960s, when she joined the Jewels, a Washington, D.C.-based “girl group” of the day. Recording for Dimension Records, which had been created to showcase songs written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the Jewels had a regional hit in 1964 with a song by other writers, “Opportunity.” Touring behind the record, the group met Brown and signed up as singers in his touring show.

Brown had a reputation for being a very bossy boss — a taskmaster who could micromanage the singers and players working for him.

“He was a hard man to work for,” High explains. “Shoes had to be shined, nails had to be right, your hair, everything. We found ourselves dressing the way he wanted us. As ladies, we couldn’t wear jeans on the show. But that didn’t bother me because I felt I was on a higher level now that I’m with James Brown.”

Brown’s control even extended to telling her to change her surname to High (it previously was Harvin). And while she had not been a lead vocalist with the Jewels, Brown said he wanted her to take the female lead for him occasionally.

“A little after that was when the other girls from the Jewels decided they wanted to go home,” High says. “But I wasn’t ready. I was thrilled to travel and see other places. We went everywhere; we even had a chance to go to Paris with him.” (While with Brown, the group did release one single on King and another on the King-affiliated Federal label.)

Still, High primarily saw herself as a background singer. So when the archival James Brown’s Original Funky Divas came out in 1998, it was a surprise — maybe even a revelation — that the album ended with her duet with Brown on “Summertime.” The standout track had debuted on his 1977 ecology-themed Mutha’s Nature.

The pair’s funk version of George Gershwin’s 1934 classic starts with Brown intoning, “You’re my beautiful sister and I love you.” High replies, “I’ve been with you a long time and you’ve seen me grow up and become who I am.” The vocals that follow are tremendously moving.

High recalls that around the time of the recording, she also traveled with Brown as a hairstylist; he wanted one with him at all times, even in the studio when recording “Summertime.” High mimics Brown’s gravelly voice when explaining the duet’s origins. “‘Come into the booth; I want you to do the song with me.’ I said, ‘Mr. Brown, I don’t know “Summertime.’” He says, ‘Everybody knows “Summertime.” Come on.’ And we did the song — I was not expecting that.”

High moved to France in 2004 and lived there for much of the aughts. Eventually, she moved back to the United States to take care of her parents, who are now deceased. But then she moved to Spain in 2017 to resume work in Europe. She came back to Augusta, Georgia, when the pandemic stopped the touring business, but she’s been busy again now that tours have resumed. Next year, once she marries a Dutch man she first met during her years with Brown, she’ll settle into their home outside Amsterdam. It will be her third marriage; she has a daughter and two sons are deceased.

High is full of energy and excitement about her future, personally and professionally. She hopes it includes a U.S. tour as a headliner with a band of Brown alumni.

“I really hope so,” she says. “I’m praying that I will get the chance to tour in the States and perform with some of the original guys who know Mr. Brown’s music.”

“I don’t want his music to ever not be known. I would like the people to know the history of Mr. Brown and where he came from. It was what I was raised up with. I have my own style, and pray to God I was able to find my own way and my own sound, but I still love to do Mr. Brown’s music.”

(Purchase Martha High’s Soul Brother Where Art Thou? Vol. 2 and watch for upcoming tour dates at ropeadope.com.)

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Brian Eno Faces Our Impending Doom

Assessing the legendary producer’s first vocal album in 17 years

  Steven Rosen/ Rock & Roll Globe

Brian Eno (Image: Verve Records)

In a famous interview, Talking Heads’ bassist Tina Weymouth talked in 1981 about how the band’s guiding light, David Byrne, had become infatuated with the musical interests of Brian Eno.

The band’s Eno-produced art-rock album, Remain in Light, had been a recent creative breakthrough and Byrne and Eno had gone on to release My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, for which they taped and repurposed the radio sermonizing of preachers.

“They’re like two 14-year-old boys making an impression on each other,” Weymouth said. Her take, at the time, came off like she was knocking the two for being immature boys. But with time, it sounds increasingly endearing. As she saw it, they were letting their enthusiasm for music, and for life, run rampant. Ah, sweet youth!


Artist: Brian Eno

Album: FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE 

Label: Verve

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 


That was decades ago. Now, Brian Eno has a new album, FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (or FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE). It’s his first in six years and marks his return to making a record with songs that substantially feature his voice. (The last was 2005’s Another Day on Earth.) He produces and writes or co-writes everything here, quite an achievement. Oh, if only he could now somehow still be the life-enthused 14-year-old boy that Weymouth once imagined. Not for our sake, or for the quality of his art. But for his happiness. Alas, he now knows too much.

FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE is, first of all, a masterful and mature creative statement from Eno, one that should be heard and considered by an audience. He has explained in press notes that the album’s genesis is a 2021 concert that he and brother Roger gave at the Acropolis in Greece, while wildfires were burning outside the city. “I thought, here we are at the birthplace of Western civilization probably witnessing the end of it,” he said. (For that performance, he had written two songs that are included here — “There Were Bells” and “Garden of Stars.”)

Brian Eno FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE, Opal/Verve Music Group 2022

That was not a lightning-bolt revelation for him. He’s long been concerned with how we can preserve and acknowledge the importance of earth and our place on it. In the mid-2000s, I attended a talk he gave in Los Angeles about the Clock of the Long Now, a project to build and store a clock at a place where it could safely, securely keep time for 10,000 years. And more recently, he’s participated in a Serpentine Galleries project called Back to Earth that prompts visual artists (Eno is one) to address climate change. 

On this album, Eno comes off as a seer. He knows where we’re going, and it’s not good, and he can express his haunting visions in a sometimes-cryptically poetic — maybe even mystically religious — way. 

Here’s an example, from “There Were Bells.” It begins with birds chirping and eventually Eno’s voice, surprisingly high and inviting, enters with such vulnerable clarity and sincerity that you can imagine him a choir boy. But could a choir sing these words? 

There were bells above that rang the whole day through
And the sky was shot with light and gazing blue
Early days up with the sun, all the days turn into one
All the sirens beckoning the groove

There were horns as loud as war that tore apart the sky
There were storms and floods of blood of human life
Never mind, my love, let’s wait for the dawn
Fly back to tell us there is a haven showing night

There were those who ran away
There were those who had to stay
Let me in to your way, the segue

It’s abstract enough to make you work at its meaning, but the overall vibe is clear enough to make you shudder. While his words beckon, and sometimes beg for deciphering, his melodies carefully walk a tightrope between solemn melancholy and expansive uplift.

Yet, throughout the record, you can also be awed by the beauty of the music. There are so many gorgeous touches!  “Garden of Stars” has droning strings, short stabs of electronic pings and has a clangorously climactic passage that’s a bit like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” On “These Small Voices” (co-written with Jon Hopkins) Clodagh Simonds offers some dramatic, declarative singing that could be something from a Kurt Weill composition. 

“We Let It In” starts with some noticeable breathing and Darla Eno, his daughter and co-writer, intoning the occasional words “deep” and “sun” while a female voice sometimes also beguiles the listener with tuneful wordless singing. But Eno’s words demand attention — I imagine the “it” to be the arriving doom of global warming, but I’m not sure: 

The soul of it is running gay
With open arms through golden fields
And even though the corn is high
And sometimes harsh against the heels

We open to the blinding sky
And let it in, and let it in

With open hearts through burning fields
The soul of it in gorgeous flame
The whole of it in gorgeous flame

But at other times his voice falls into a very resonate, lower-register solemnity that is sorrowful but gripping, like Nick Cave on his great song “Hollywood,” which with its compassionate solemnity could fit in easily here. 

VIDEO: Brian Eno “There Were Bells”

His pristine production, arrangements and use of sound can be modernist, but there is also his use of classically minimalist, trance-inducing droning. And his voice can also be digitally manipulated to give him an echoing effect. Were he ever to perform this live on tour, I’d expect to see the show in a museum, symphony orchestra hall, or at the Rothko Chapel. Overall, this is an album of art-songs by an assured composer.

I hope it achieves some measure of popularity. The world could use his contribution to spur the rising awareness over climate change. And it’s a grave message that he brings message. While he loves earth’s beauty, he worries that he — we — won’t be seeing it for long. Unless…

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1fsGRseH9xCUSiO1MDSB7W?si=_ez04myDQ2-y7chOcVybxA&utm_source=oembed

Steven Rosen

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.

Radical Architect Comes Home to University of Cincinnati

Cincinnati CityBeat

By Steven Rosen on Wed, May 6, 2009 at 2:06 pm

(Michael Reynolds; still from Garbage Warrior film, 2007

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.

The Delines: Two If By Sea

Willy Vlautin and Amy Boone overcome the odds to create their best album with The Sea Drift

  Steven Rosen, Rock and Roll Globe

The Delines 2022 (Image: The Delines)

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. 

The Delines The Sea Drift, New West Records 2022

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.”

Willy Vlautin and Amy Boone (Image: The Delines)

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.”

VIDEO: The Delines “Little Earl”

Steven Rosen

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.

Don Poynter Built a Novelty Empire as One of Cincinnati’s First Makers

By Steven Rosen/Cincinnati Magazine/June 14, 2019

(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.

Judge’s response to Beatles lives on in Internet age

Steven Rosen/Cincinnati Enquirer/Aug. 25, 2014

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

Tickets: $10, at box offices and movietickets.com.

Justin Sullivan’s Army of One

Justin Sullivan’s Army Of One

The West Yorkshire folk-punk great and New Model Army frontman emerges from the pandemic with a brilliant new solo album Rock and Roll Globe Steven Rosen 

Justin Sullivan (Art: Ron Hart)

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. 

Justin Sullivan Surrounded, Attack Attack Records 2021

“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

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.

On the Impact of the Contemporary Arts Center’s Departing Director, Raphaela Platow

By STEVE ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / JULY 6, 2021

Raphaela Platow Photograph By Tina Gutierrez Arts Photography 60ca36a537079Raphaela 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

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(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 DeadBaby 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)

Reflections on the Impact of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’

BY STEVEN ROSEN/ PASTE MAGAZINE/ JULY 20, 2015

(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.