Many people know Carol from her work with Monty Python, playing the kind of glamorous roles the boys clearly could not drag up for. Outside of Python she's had a varied and fruitful career on stage and screen. Here, she talks about being directed by the one and only Charlie Chaplin, plus Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando, in an eye witness account of A Countess from Hong Kong.
How did you manage to get the part in A Countess from Hong Kong?
Well I got the call from my agent. I think we were filming at Pinewood Studios. I had been doing some work with studios then, and some TV and film bits, and it was my agent who put me up for the part. Whoever the casting agent was had probably cast me in a number of things, so I think it was them who just cast me, basically, which was nice.
Did you meet Charlie Chaplin before you got on the set?
No, not before I went on set. And I was on set for a while before I did meet him, I remember. I watched from afar what was going on, a lot of technical stuff really when I arrived. Nothing was being filmed. I remember being very disappointed that Marlon Brando wasn't going to be there that day, because I was a tremendous Marlon Brando fan. But I was happy to see Sophia Loren was there. She was going to be in the next scene after ours. And I just watched her from afar. I did not meet her unfortunately. I hoped I was going to be introduced to her. But I watched her being made up and I just remember looking at her and thinking God you are stunningly beautiful. I thought she was gorgeous. So I did manage to see her but not Marlon. I did not see Charlie until we came to do our scene.
What was it like meeting him? Were you in awe or was it just professional for you?
Oh I was, I was in awe! Marlon, Sophia, all of them. After all it was early days in my career and I was always in awe of every film star I got to work with, because most of them were very pleasant. A couple weren't, but I won't go into it. But when he did arrive, he was lovely, Mr Chaplin. Margaret Rutherford had arrived at the same time for our scene together in the film, so they were setting all that up. There was a bit of time waiting around, as there always is. But then we came to the scene with Margaret, and that was very interesting. I did not have a lot to say in the scene, just a few lines as her nurse. But at the end of the day I was quite glad to have had only a few lines actually, because even though I go tot say my lines I was never too sure when and where I was going to be saying them. The scene was rather loosely scripted. I did discover much later on reading about the film, reading one of the reviews, and it said that was actually the way Charlie liked to work. With this particular film anyway, he had a very loose script and he would stand there and go over it with the actors, and then there would be lots of improvising. And when you watch the film I think that becomes quite clear. In this particular scene with Margaret, bless her, there was a lot of fussing and faffing, and mumbling going on. The dear lady. And with Charlie, we ran through the scene a few times and each time it was different, totally different every time. Charlie was quite happy with what we were doing, me and Margaret, so then we went for a break. We had to do it a few times, and as I say it was never quite the same. I never knew quite when she was going to say her lines. I never knew when I was supposed to say mine. It was a very interesting experience. I remember giggling a lot to myself in between takes.
Watching Charlie direct, even though it was loosely structured, was he still in command, having people running around and responding to his orders? Did he seem like that kind of a director?
I think so yes. I mean I was only there for the day, I just saw him doing the scene I was in. Interestingly enough there weren't a lot of people involved. I think there was just one other person involved, the three of us in the scene which was not very long. But as I say he was very calm and relaxed. He came over and basically said let's go through it a couple of times, and then said, fine, let's shoot it. And then it was just a case of faffing the way through the scene.
Was it surreal seeing him come into the room at all? Did it feel like this icon coming in from a different age?
I didn't think of it like that at all really. I was just, as I said, a fan who was delighted to be working with him, having already worked with his son (Sydney). I had had an introduction to the son, so now it was a case of I'm with the dad. And at the time I was more in awe of Marlon and Sophia, to tell you the truth. They were the ones I really wanted to see. But it wasn't until quite a while later that I appreciated how very fortunate I was to be directed by Charlie Chaplin.
Looking back on an experience like this - you are talking about being in a film with Chaplin, Brando and Loren for God's sake - does it ever feel like someone else? As if you ask yourself, was I really there?
I absolutely do look back and ask did I really experience that? Prior to talking to you today I gave this some serious thought and thought, yes, even this morning, gosh I was lucky. I was so lucky to be doing that. I have been fortunate to work with a lot of big stars. Even though I was in awe, I wasn't star struck if you understand what I mean. Being in awe is different to being star struck standing there gawping. I just felt so lucky, and that's how I feel now, even more so actually.
You can get COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG ON DVD.... It is reviewed in my new book on Chaplin, CHARLIE CHAPLIN: THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE, available on Amazon...
Below is a sample from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN: THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE, available now on Amazon...
Possibly the most well known short from Chaplin's earliest years on screen is The Tramp, which although features a similar amount of gags and set ups as its predecessors, sees a drastic shift in the way the Tramp is presented to us. We do not merely laugh along with his antics, we now root for him, genuinely care for his plight. Gradually - or perhaps very gradually, as The Tramp was Chaplin's 42nd film, despite him only being in his third year as a film star - Chaplin made us love the Tramp. One may argue he did it with emotional manipulation, but I feel it's more complicated than that. Let's not forget, Chaplin's Tramp is hardly a valued member of society; he's an outcast in the truest sense, a rough sleeper and a vagrant, basically the kind of person many people today turn away from in the street to avoid eye contact. Chaplin, though, makes the drifter a rounded person, and though he is engaging in unlikely events, ones ensuring a generous helping of kicks up the bottom, the Tramp is a fully formed character, not merely a cartoon. Had Chaplin wanted to win our hearts with manipulation, he would have made the Tramp a more straight forward hero, someone to admire, not pity.
The making of his most important film up to that point came when Chaplin left Essanay's lacklustre studio and embarked on building his own in Los Angeles. He wanted to be back in the city, tiring of what he called the "backwood atmosphere" of Essanay's Niles Studio. At first he set up work at the Bradbury Mansion on North Hill Street, and then moved on to Majestic Studios. Chaplin was under considerable pressure at this point. Essanay, like Keystone before them, knew Chaplin was their biggest draw, and they wanted to milk as much product as they could from their cash cow, their boy wonder. But Chaplin was in no rush to pump out the work, and he wanted to take his time. The Tramp, his sixth picture in three months (a much slower rate than when he was at Keystone), had him taking his time, and the results showed that this time he'd poured attention over it.
The Tramp is a farm worker, though he's pretty useless at the job as one would expect. He does however fend off some thugs who plot to rob the farm, but most of his attention goes towards the farmer's daughter, played by the radiant Edna Purviance. The film combines laughs with pathos, and ends on a note which perfectly summarises Chaplin's appeal and expertise in merging these conflicting emotions. The Tramp, this time at least, does not get the girl, and is crushed by the arrival of her fiancé. In what was once, and maybe still is, the most famous exit in film history, Chaplin walks away down a long country road, battered but not beaten, upset but not crushed. Anyone else would have had the Tramp defeated, head down as he mopes off down the dusty path. Chaplin however, gives it a twist. The Tramp, unexpectedly, suddenly has a spring in his step and walks off jauntily if not happily. He will live to fight another day, and that is the message, for the Tramp can not be kept down by anything, even lost love.
This film would establish the Tramp as Chaplin's go-to character, the vehicle for all his humour and tragedy. Chaplin ingeniously knew that he could apply this persona to any situation, any scenario. By making him a "tramp", as in a drifter going from place to place in search of new opportunities, Chaplin was freed into placing his alter ego into a wide variety of set ups. And the great thing is that we believe each and every one of them. The joy was and still is in watching his journey, observing his struggles and minor victories. The Tramp often lost a lot, such as love and money, but never his dignity, never his pride.
Chaplin's reinvention of the vagabond was not lost on audiences, and it's something which seems more apparent and important as time goes by. The Guardian recently wrote, "The genius of the Tramp's long gestation is that Chaplin created a character who was an everyman before he was identified as an outsider – which is partly how he eventually came to win the audience's sympathy for an unlikely leading man. If you look at American films from around the time of Chaplin's screen debut, tramps are the villains: housebreakers, street muggers and train robbers. It was no mean trick to present a vagrant as a hero, or a lover. And it's no coincidence either that all the while that Chaplin was refining his onscreen identity, his own reputation was under attack. In fact, the Tramp was far more popular than he was."
It was handy for Chaplin to have a persona to hide behind, especially as he was so famous. If he felt uncomfortable in a public situation he could always don the fake moustache, hat and baggy pants to win them over. Even though the character was originally thrown together in a Keystone costume shed, his development as a multi layered, three dimensional person was much more thought out and planned. And in films like The Tramp, it was the details that mattered, both to Chaplin and the viewer.
Leo White, who plays one of the thieves, later recalled the making of the film to a certain Stan Laurel. Laurel himself retold the account: "He said they repeated some gags until the actors felt that if they did it one more time they’d blow their corks. He said the business of the crooks going up the ladder was done so many times and in so many variations that they just couldn’t tell what the hell all the fuss was about. That’s what made Charlie a great creator of comedy. He knew that sometimes you have to do a thing 50 times in slightly different ways until you get the very best. The difference between Charlie and all the rest of us who made comedy was that he absolutely refused to do anything but the best. To get the best he worked harder than anyone I know."
Chaplin's hard work and persistence paid off, for The Tramp is his first true mini masterpiece. True, there had been some wonderful shorts before this, but The Tramp, with its melancholic air, and its healthy amount of slapstick humour, is the first time he pulled off something of a truly higher art form. Indeed, before Chaplin arrived at Essanay, film comedy was disposable, entertainment for the masses, left out to rot within a year. After Chaplin, it became a craft, though no one perfected it quite like him.
Every Chaplin film is covered in the book, CHARLIE CHAPLIN: THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE. Click the image below to purchase it through Amazon...
Here's a Q and A I did with the great MOE TUCKER, drummer for the Velvet Underground, a few years ago. I included it in my small guide book on the Velvets' discography. Printed below is the interview as it appeared in Hound Dawg Magazine Issue 7 (PDF) in May of 2010....
You replaced the eccentric Angus Maclise in the Velvets when you joined back in 1965. Who was it that recruited you and what did you think of the band primarily?
Sterling suggested me because they had a show booked in the high school in Summit New Jersey and they needed a drummer FAST! I was totally enthralled by the music - it was so different from anything I’d heard and I loved it!
How did you develop the famous tribal style of drumming?
I didn’t think a "regular" r & r style fit the music. We did a lot of improvising early on and I would try to match the mood of whatever was going on and to be steady and add to the music rather than interfere with rolls and cymbal crashes!
How did you find Lou’s songs in those early days? I read once that you never really heard the lyrics due to the volume of the music.
I listened most intently to the music, the mood of each song. Sombre? Happy? Angry? Eerie? I couldn’t hear the full lyrics, just words here and there on many songs. In those days there were no monitors!
Early reaction to the band was bad wasn’t it, especially very early on? What was the scariest of the gigs you did that got hostile reaction?
I wouldn’t say reaction was bad but more like “what the hell is this” and certainly not from all listeners! There was never a "scary" reaction. We played places like art galleries when we first were with Andy and the reaction would be more of indifference from many, interest from some, leaving the room from others!
What was it like first meeting Andy Warhol when he took the group under his wing?
It was exciting-- he was a STAR and I was duly impressed!
Of all the Velvet Underground albums which is your favourite?
How did you ease between John Cale (founding member and bassist/viola player) leaving and Doug Yule joining? Do you think it affected things on a grand scale and how did it affect you personally?
I know I was not happy Cale was out but I don’t think I had the sense to realise what a difference it would make musically.
When Lou Reed left after Loaded do you think that would have been the right time to stop?
To be honest I was enjoying playing music and of course I knew the music would be very, very different but wanted to continue playing.
You lasted a year or so before after Lou had left, with the new line up and left the Velvets didn’t you?
I guess it was about a year. I finally left when I realised it wasn’t fun anymore.
How did you feel about Yule carrying on with the Squeeze album?
I was very angry!
You left to raise your family after this. When did you start having an interest in music again?
I hadn’t lost interest in music, just in continuing with things as they were. I started my own band many years later, in 1989, because I found out there would be an interest in my touring in Europe and I could actually make more money in one six week tour over there than I made all year at the job I had at the time.
So, 1993, the band reforms with the original line up. Did you enjoy the Velvets reunion in the 90s?
Very much. It was really, really nice to be together with the four of us. We had some tense moments but 95% was great. Just hanging around with Lou, John and Sterl was sooooooo nice.
How does it feel to know the band you were in all those years ago, who made little impact at the time are now one of the most important bands of all time? I mean, in the last issue of Hound Dawg for instance they were ranked in top 5 bands in our reader’s poll.
I am glad things turned out as they did rather than having more success back then. It’s more important to me to have made an impact rather than to have simply made more money at the time. Also it’s really nice to hear young people say how much they like our music. It’s one thing to have a nostalgic audience but to have an audience that is mostly made up of kids who weren’t even born when we were running around is very, very gratifying!!
Also, as a drummer you have been very influential, especially to women. What advice would you give to women wanting to get into music?
Although Lou has been a far from nice to a lot of people in his time, you were always in his good books. In fact he once said you were the nicest person he had ever met. How do you view Lou now personally and in regards to his legendary status as one of the world’s greatest song writers?
Yes Lou can be quite a grouch but we do have a special friendship which I value very highly and I am thrilled he’s been so successful. Lou has always been extremely supportive both in words and deeds of my attempts at my solo doings and that means a lot to me. I love him, John and Sterl.
What about now Mo, is there any chance of some more musical activity from you soon?
Not really. I’m involved in raising my 8 year old grandson who has high functioning autism and most of my energies are directed towards him. His name is Holden and I’m crazy about him!
My book THE MUSIC OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND is available from Amazon and other online stores....
This article is taken from my book JACK NICHOLSON ON SCREEN, available from Amazon, eBay and other online stores.
The same year he turned down both The Sting and The Godfather (rightly so it has to be said, given that neither films would have suited him; just imagine him, as Michael Corleone, saying "That's my family Kay, not me..."), Jack signed up for another film with Bob Rafelson, a low key and off beat drama that has built up a small cult following down the years, but is nowhere near as acclaimed as it truly deserves to be. The King of Marvin Gardens is one of the least celebrated but most enjoyable films Jack did in the 70s, in that unmatched run of leading roles from 1970 through to 1975. He gives what is possibly his most subtle and measured performance (alongside his work in Antonioni’s The Passenger, but more of that later) in a film which is easy to overlook, given that nothing that remarkable occurs., until the very end. Indeed, there are none of the fireworks Jack would later ignite as RP McMurphy. But the film has a slow, steady charm, and we simply enjoy being in the company of its characters, no matter what might - or might not in this case - be going down.
One of those special personal pictures with a European feel, it follows Jack and Bruce Dern as two brothers. Jack is David, a subdued man running a late night radio talk show (which very few people seem to listen to) who gets a call from Jason, played by Dern, asking him to bail him out of jail. From here on in, he finds himself pulled into the colourful and unsavoury world of his formerly estranged brother, his brother's girlfriend Sally (an explosive Ellen Burstyn) and her step daughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). The movie ends in a devastating climax, which comes like a burst of thunder, totally unexpected and tragic.
Shot in the winter of 71 in Atlantic City, The King of Marvin Gardens has a lightly surreal, bleakly grim, but strangely comforting feel about it, a long lost brother to Five Easy Pieces, but carrying much more misplaced weirdness, the characters even more lost and aimless. Rafelson and Jacob Brackman’s script is a true gem, but as great as the dialogue is (not to mention subtle), it is the performances which last the longest in the psyche. Ellen Burstyn is superb as Dern’s girlfriend, the depressive former hooker, while Dern is wonderfully feral as the loose cannon. Nicholson himself is excellent too, and his opening monologue, delivered in extreme close up and going on for several minutes, is one of the most measured, strange and quietly captivating scenes in the actor’s long history. Who would have though that a story about why a man doesn’t eat fish would be so fascinating? Well Nicholson has you hanging on his every word. Such a scene could be a nightmare in the hands of a lesser actor, but as in the whole film, Jack gives it such a weird detached sense of fatigue that he ensures David Staebler goes down alongside Jake Gittes, RP McMurphy, Buddusky, George Hanson, Bobby Dupea and Jack Torrance in the Nicholson Hall of Fame. His most melancholy performance, and also one of his most appealing in my view.
While many have accused the Monopoly metaphors in the film of being a bit too blatant, I find them very sharp. Marvin Gardens is, of course, a space on the Monopoly board, and it's interesting to note that we first meet Dern when he is in jail (he even makes a reference to not passing go and picking up 200 dollars). For me though, it is in the more surrealistic, dreamy scenes where the film excels; the moment on the beach with both brothers talking while on horseback is particularly brilliant, painting the siblings as classic western-outlaws in a bleak landscape; and the Miss America beauty pageant scene is rather trippy too.
It is also in the little touches that the film transcends its "mini" exterior and small plot. There is one scene where Dern and Bustyn sit by a window, starting to argue over their plight, and in the background one can see a stray bird just hanging around flapping its wings in the grim landscape. The framing of certain scenes is perfect, while Rafelson lingers on shots which are both lonely and haunting, such as the moment when Jack and Bruce pass through a marching parade. Dern and Nicholson's relationship is also rather moving too, particularly in the scene when they embrace each other with genuine warmth. For Jack though, this was proof of what he was capable of. There was almost nothing on the surface here, and Jack is working entirely on the interior mindset - a hard thing to pull off for sure. Yet the pretentions the character harbours (a kind of self importance, as if his recorded speeches are works of art, and he is indeed an artist, albeit one no one appreciates), the glazed eyes and constant feeling of psychological detachment ensure David Staebler remains one of his finest creations.
The cult fandom for The King of Marvin Gardens is growing, and modern indie fans regularly cite it as a major influence. “If you’ve never seen the film,” Indie Wire recently wrote, “which is rarely revived, on a theatre screen, I encourage you to go. It’s not a feel-good movie but it’s one of the more striking pictures from what is now referred to as the Silver Age of American film, the 1970s...”
Here is an interview I did with Ira Ingber, about working with BOB DYLAN in the 1980s. This interview is featured in my book BOB DYLAN IN THE 1980s, as well as my larger anthology of Dylan related writing, BOB DYLAN THROUGH TIME. They are both on Amazon...
Ira is a seasoned LA musician, who has played and worked with such varied artists as Canned Heat, Captain Beefheart, and of course, Bob Dylan. He rehearsed with Bob for a month before frequenting sessions for Empire Burlesque, and also appears on Knocked Out Loaded, and the legendary Brownsville Girl. From up north in the UK, I rang Ira for a chin wag on all things Dylan.
I enjoyed your interviews on the Dylan documentary, Both Ends of the Rainbow.
Well, if you've seen the DVD, they have a whole bunch of people on it, mostly English guys, but some Americans too. They were talking about Bob's music in a very scholarly way.
Yeah I thought there were maybe too many rock critics on it to be honest...
Yeah maybe too many critics, and a little too heady. Not sort of musical enough. As an aside, when we were doing - I can't tell you which one it was - something on Empire Burlesque, but someone from Rolling Stone was covering the session, one of the big guys at the time. I remember they were there for a few days, but I remember reading the interview which was done at the exact same session I was at, I was wondering if he was even at the same session. Because it bore very little resemblance to what I was seeing. But that's they way it is I suppose. Everybody's touching the elephant... But the guys in that documentary though, were guys who were talking about Bob and I was thinking, Gees is this the same guy I know?
Exactly. So I was wondering how you first met Bob and got involved with the making of Empire Burlesque...
What happened was, first of all... to dispel any confusion, those two albums, Knocked Out Loaded and Empire Burlesque, are really one album, from my perspective. They were recorded over the space of two and a half years, there was a lot of overlap. For instance, Brownsville Girl was called New Danville Girl originally, and it evolved, or devolved depending on your perspective, over the course of those couple of years. The beginnings of the recordings was... his manager at the time Gary Shafner was an old school mate of mine. We are still friends. I think his title was Bob's personal manager. He was working with others, but Gary had been travelling with Bob a lot, doing personal stuff. So he called me up and said Bob was recording and he asked if I wanted to put a band together. So I said 'twist my arm enough and I might be able to do it!'
A no brainer really...
Oh yeah. So I called in some buds of mine. The bass player was Carl Sealove, and the keyboard player was Vince Melamed. There was a drummer already on the scene, Charlie Quintana, and Charlie was a friend of Bob's. He was a really good drummer, and they were very familiar with each other. But after a while he had to go off, I guess he had to go on tour or something. So he was replaced by Don Heffington, who I knew. I didn't bring him in, but we all knew each other. So the four us, with Bob that made five... we rehearsed for about a month at Bob's house here in LA, in Malibu where he lived. It was not clear at the time what we were doing, what the goal was. Was he just wanting to play? Was it for gigs? Were we gonna record? We didn't know, because every day was different.
Do you remember the first day well?
Well the first day was just me. I went up there and met with him. Of course, it was intimidating. I mean, come on, it was Bob Dylan!
Yeah, just a bit!
But I had a few things going for me. I mean, we are both from Minnesota. We are both Jewish and from Minnesota for that matter. As it turns out my aunt through marriage is his mother's second or third cousin. When I told him about that later on, his response was, in typical Bob fashion, 'everybody's related to my mother." That was his answer. I though it'd be like, 'Hey, we're related' kind of thing.
(Laughter) Like you'd have some camaraderie...
Yeah. What also helped though, besides the fact I was a personal recommendation from Gary, my brother was produced by Tom Wilson, who of course had produced some of Bob's records. He also produced the Mothers' first album Freak Out, which my brother was on. So there was a lot of familiarity. So Bob saw that I was kind of safe. It wasn't like 'Who is this guy?' I was already an insider. So it helped me. I realised as a musician I had to very quickly forget about who this guy was. He was just a musician I was working with, but if I let the aura of the fame and the Dylan thing that he is and was, if I let it get to me, it wouldn't have served me well. So we got through that very quickly. The first day I was there he showed me a bunch of songs. He had all these song titles printed on this sheet and he asked me if I knew any of them. I said 'Yeah!' So we started playing his songs. It was OK, he could see I knew them. The next day the rest of the guys came up and we started playing. Sometimes we played his stuff, sometimes like weird things. He would play a cassette and ask us what we thought. What was happening was people were sending cassettes of songs, their songs, not his, to record, for him to sing. We thought that was odd, as he wasn't known as a guy who really did covers. He'd say 'What do you think of this?' So we would end up learning whatever Warner Brothers sent him on cassette. But then once in a while he would break into one of his chestnuts. So suddenly we're playing Highway 61 and we are in heaven, you know.
Wow! Must have been amazing.
Oh yeah it was pretty great! Then we would go back to this other stuff, fragments of songs, one of which turned out to be Brownsville Girl, though we didn't know that at the time. We were just playing chords. Even though there was a PA set up, in this compound home place, he had the set up for band rehearsal, but he never sang into the microphone, he sang straight into the boom box recorder, so we never heard him sing. Sometime he would sing right at me, literally about a foot away, but never on a mike. I never understood that. But one very funny incident happened. He started playing Ballad of a Thin Man. Talk about a red cape to a bull, we were all over the thing. He just figured we would know it. So we get to the bridge, and we start playing it. And he stops us and says 'No it doesn't go like that.' (Note: Iga's Dylan impression is uncanny.) I knew how the song went, so we do it again. So we got it to it and he wasn't having any of it. This happened again! He was insistent that this was wrong. We were like 'Honestly Bob, this is how it goes!' He kept saying 'No you guys are playing it wrong.' We tried, but he was not going for it! And that was it, we never got past the bridge. I play it now in my new band, and when we do it in concert I say 'Finally I get to play it all the way through without the interference of the songwriter.' But Bob just would not accept the fact that we were playing it correctly.
What a surreal memory to have!
It was totally out there! We kept saying 'Bob, we're on your side, we're fighting for you, we're rooting for you.' But he wasn't having any of it. But when I look back on it, it could be possible that he had just decided he was gonna do it differently now and say, 'Well, this is how it is!' It's very possible that was what was happening.
Yeah I think so too.
It's hard to know though. One of the maxims we learnt to really guide our time with him was that you never know with Bob. You just never know. You could come in expecting him to turn left and he would turn right. You just never know. But that first stage of rehearsing, maybe longer than a month, that was it. I was so impressed with his work ethic. He showed up at exactly at 1. He was there. No breaks. We would say 'should we have one?' and he would forget about them all together. Everyday it was like 'Can you guys come tomorrow?' Everyday was the like the first day with him. That's a kind of novel way of looking at life.
It's definitely an interesting way isn't it?
Yeah! It was always fresh and new. So we obviously said we would come back. And it got very friendly. No wait a minute, friendly is the wrong word to use. It got very comfortable. It started to sound really good. We rehearsed every day. I mean, you're a musician yourself, so you know. You play, you start to learn the stuff. These guys and I all played together. It became a pretty well oiled machine. And then that was it! We didn't hear anything for a while. Then one day I got a call from Gary and he said 'Can you be at Cherokee recording studio for a session for Bob?' It was like 'Oh, great, OK.'
So how did the recording start?
Well we had no idea what we were gonna record. We just knew we were gonna record. We get in and there's Bob. 'Hi how are you? Nice to see you.' And he produces these cassettes of the rehearsals which he had recorded. 'You remember when we did this?' 'We're gonna record that one now.' We did not know what the songs were, but he went through them, and he decided that he had enough to at least start recording. So we did a bunch of tunes. One of them was Brownsville Girl but I cannot even count the other ones. A lot of stuff that didn't get finished, outtake things. A lot of stuff was just done. Of course it was all analogue. The tape was always running. Something was always running. So there are mountains of recorded material on Bob. When it comes his time there will be 200 years of stuff to dig out. Just an amazing amount of stuff. I mean, a lot of it is just people tuning up.
Yeah, but Bob collectors will even save that stuff, lap it up in fact.
Oh yeah absolutely. In those days, because of the piracy and the leaking on him was famous, I remember that Gary would take the tapes home every night. They are pretty heavy. If you get 10 or 15 of these old tapes, they're gonna make the trunk... or should I say the boot of your car sink pretty low right? So he would carry them out everyday and every night. Yet still some of it got bootlegged. I don't know how it could have happened. I know it did not come from Gary, but somehow - maybe there was a tie line into another room where it was being recorded - but somehow they got bootlegged. Anyway, those sessions were very fruitful. We had some moments, he and I, where we were really starting to see more eye to eye. There was an early one... There was no producer of course, just us, Bob and an engineer. I happened to walk into the studio. We had recorded and Bob was gonna put some vocal on. So I walked in when he was recording. I sat down and I'm listening to him sing and, of course, he's magnificent; he's Bob! And at the very end I heard that he kind of blew a line, I forgot what it was, but something went wrong. So he looks in with his famous squint... which is because he is extremely near sighted. I don't know if you know that about him.
Oh yeah, his glasses are like coke bottles, extremely thick. So that squint, that famous leer... he can't see.
It does work in his favour though, it's pretty cool.
Yeah. John Lennon did it too. He couldn't see a damn thing. So he looks in and says 'How was that?' So I looked at the engineer and I said, 'Well, are you gonna tell him?' He said 'Oh no, I'm not gonna tell him!' And I am the only one in there. I realise in that moment that if I don't tell him that something wasn't right, I'm not really worth my salt. If I do tell him I am gonna lose the gig right now, if he's not happy about it. So I landed on the side of honesty. I said something like, 'Bob it sounded really good, but you probably have a better end line in you.' Silence. Nothing. I thought 'OK, I'll just quietly pack up my stuff and get out of here.' Then I hear him say 'OK, let's do it again.' And I wiped my brow, he does it again, fixes it and asks 'Well how was that?' I say 'It was great! Why don't you come and listen to it?' From that moment, he would ask me what I thought. Nobody... I do not care who you are, you need feedback. So he started to trust me with stuff like that, asking me what we could do. It built up to where we had a pretty good relationship. He would often call me at home on the phone. But he would start a conversation with me as if he had already been having it for ten minutes before he made the call, so whatever I heard was already a ten minute old conversation that I would have to catch up to.
(Lauhgter) That's surreal.
Yeah. So I would have to figure it out. 'Oh that's what he means!' So we would talk about it. Again, very pleasant. I think our commonality of Minnesota helped me and helped him. There is something familiar enough, something very peculiar about the Mid West. Where he was from, Northern Minnesota... it is cold, a lot more bleak, but it's the north of a country.
Sometimes I like that bleakness though, strangely enough.
Yeah, well I think it forces one to see things in a less distracted way. Up there where he was from, Hibbing, there were probably like three street lights when he was up there. There is nothing there. And it's a place you leave; you do not go there, you leave Hibbing. But I think overall, the Minnesota experience really did create a familiar bond. Bond is too strong a word. there was a familiarity which helped us. So those sessions went on for a while. That was it. We figured we did our work, and ended up with a whole bunch of recorded stuff. Then he went off and did a tour with Mick Taylor, Greg Sutton... I assumed we would be going on the road with him. But he wanted a Rolling Stone guitar player and for whatever reason he kept those two worlds separate. Those guys didn't want record with him and we didn't tour with him.
Weird isn't it?
It was weird at the time. I thought it was weird. It was like, 'hey you got yourself a really good band here.' But in retrospect I can see why he did it. Bob has a real.. well, I can't speak for him now, because I haven't spoken to him in years., But he was conscious of what his peers were doing. He would always talk about like, 'Jagger's doing this so I can't do it.' Very conscious of it. It was kind of weird. He would talk about them in a very kind of 'Keeping up with the Joneses way'. There was another weird thing, though everything is weird with Bob as you surely know... One of the songs we were rehearsing, he came in and said 'I wanna do this in a kind of Lou Reed style.' And we all looked at each other and said 'Lou Reed copied you! What are you talking about? He mimics everything you do!' But Bob never saw that. There were parts of him that were kind of Laurel and Hardy-ish. Stan Laurel had this kind of befuddled thing... an amazing man, he played it wonderfully. He was just like 'how did I get here?', that kind of thing. That's kinda like Bob. He's a sort of Mr Magoo character, stumbling through life in a way. Then you realise that everything is actually very contrived and very controlled. It looks a lot more random than it really is.
So you really think it's all calculated a lot more than it seems to be?
Yeah. But in retrospect I certainly didn't know that at the time, but it seems that there were times when he appeared to be just drifting. I think he was and still very much is someone who is restless. And in search of the next thing. He's doing these American songbook things now, which I do not really understand, but for him it's this gold standard. Like if you are a real singer this is what you sing. Like if you go see him live and you want him to do one of the greats, take your pick, and you hear it and think 'Is that the same song?' I mean, that's how he keeps it fresh and I applaud him for that. It's like for the first time, as I was saying earlier, like coming in everyday and saying 'Today's a new day!'
He frustrates his fans but at the same time I think that if he played it safe and ceased to be the enigma that he is, they, and I include myself in this, would be very disappointed too.
Yeah I think he made his mind up pretty early on that he wasn't going to please anybody but himself. Screw it, I'll do what I wanna do.
So anyway, after all that, he hooked up with Tom Petty and his band. Like changing his clothes, he changed bands. What are you gonna say? I had my run. But I was then at a party about a year later after the first sessions, and there's Bob. I hadn't seen him. 'Hey how you doing? I'm gonna be at the studio on Tuesday, why don't you come down?' Had I not run into him though... He said, 'I was hoping I was gonna see you,' which was just not true, but that's fine. He said 'What are you doing Tuesday?'... that's it. I said, 'I dunno Bob, what are you doing?' So he asked me to come down. I went down and it was a whole new crew of people. I was the only guy left from our little group. Al Kooper was there, a big bunch of people. I thought what am I supposed to do here? He said 'Just play.' So I played. I did not hit it off with Al so well, because I think he wanted to come back and be the main Dylan guy. But I mean, come on, look at Al, look what he has done.
I do think you did some great work with him in this time, despite what people say about the mid 80s. My dad always used to play this stuff equally with the classics. I never understood a lot of the harsh criticisms of the 80s stuff. People were always comparing it to the sixties material too much I felt. I like the 80s stuff.
Really? Well, to me it doesn't hold up well, mostly because of the production.
Maybe it's a nostalgia thing, because I heard a lot of it growing up.
Well you're in your early thirties now, so that stuff was quite new. It wasn't like you had to rediscover it, you were introduced to it and it was on an equal footing with, say, Mr Tambourine Man. It was all one big picture. But I can't see it like that. For a lot of people the 80s were his worst period, and I think it's being reassessed as time goes on. So maybe it was not so bad after all. But I had done a lot of touring in the 70s, and by the 80s I wanted to do more studio work and recording. The 80s were a time when analogue was being pushed to its limit. You couldn't do much more with it. There were a lot of excesses and most of them were technology driven. Reverb, overuse of synths obviously. Bob unfortunately feel into it. Those albums sound of a time rather than timeless. Because Brownsville Girl is a perfect example of it. I did a mix of it, and there is no resemblance to what the world later heard. It was more pristine. There's the acoustic, no reverb. We played it for him, all 11 minutes of it. I saw sat at one side of him. I remember thinking it sounded so good. It stopped. He said, 'Hey it sounds too clean, I can hear everything. Sounds like a Lionel Richie record.' And I thought, which I still stand by all these years later, that he liked the idea of things being obscured and muddied. To me he has one of the great voices, period, end of story. But when you hear how it got mixed in that era, it was almost like anything he could do to mess with it, the more he liked it. I get it. I do not think Bob hated the sound of his voice, but he was looking for something new. He has no technological skill, none whosoever. He cannot communicate what he is looking for at all, so he relies on other people. Which is fine, but I do not mind disparaging Arthur Baker, because I do not think he did a good service to those records. They are hard to listen to for me.
I think Knocked Out Loaded is probably a better album than Empire Burlesque, but that's maybe just for Brownsville Girl. Without that one I am not sure how that album would feel.
Hard to say. Hard to say... But I know that when I got the albums, first time I heard them, I was very disappointed that his thing we had worked very hard on just sounded like a bunch of mush. But look, a lot of people liked it, so it wasn't a complete failure.
This essay is from my new book on Dustin Hoffman's classic film performances, available to buy from my website: http://wisdomtwinsbooks.weebly.com/books.html
"What was the Baby Picture?"
Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo
If you take you average actor, the kind who's been yearning for big screen success for years, perhaps close to a decade, then the success of a film like The Graduate would understandably affect and boost the ego. The fame garnered by such a role might be infectious, giving you a certain power, but also facing you with a dilemma, as both an actor trying to keep his integrity, and more importantly, as a human being trying to hang on to who he is. Many actors would have fallen into the predictable trap, taken roles just like The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock in order to milk the fame for all it was worth, playing variations on the same character in order to stay in the headlines for another year or so, before fading back into obscurity, more than likely, uttering the words "It was good while it lasted..."
Of course, Hoffman being Hoffman, he did not go the predictable yet so tempting route. Dustin was offered boat loads of roles after the smash of The Graduate, but he found them too easy, safe and predictable; too Braddock-esque, and mere caricatures portraying the so called lost generation, at odds with their predecessors and looking for a truth of their own. Hoffman wanted to prove he was still the same character actor who'd tread the boards for minimum wage throughout the sixties, a man who took on each part as if it were an extra layer of skin, who lived the character and also wanted to challenge himself. When he accepted and agreed to play Rico "Ratso" Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, many people thought he was making the first big mistake of his professional career. This was it, they thought, he's blown it. He had started his filmography off with a perfect, appealing and quickly iconic role, redefining the rules of what a leading man could be and bringing in a wave of unconventional actors influenced by his awkward yet appealing performance. But here he was, taking an odd ball supporting role that most new stars wouldn't give the time of day.
Mike Nichols was one of the people who told Hoffman he was crazy. "I've given you this chance," he said, rather arrogantly, "and you're blowing it." As Hoffman later said though, the film might have made him a star, but it didn't make him an actor. Indeed, he'd been one of them for a decade, long before The Graduate.
Despite the warnings, Dustin took the second banana to Jon Voight's Midnight Cowboy, illustrating that fame had not gone to his head and he was in this for the work, wanting to be an equal member of the team contributing to a great work of art. And that is what Midnight Cowboy is, a truly great work of art.
"I was getting all these offers and they were all replicas," Dustin recalled. "I went back to the theatre for a bit. Then Midnight Cowboy came along and people tried to talk me out of doing that." Even if Nichols thought he was "undoing" the work he did on The Graduate to become a star, Hoffman was intent on playing Ratso and proving he was no one trick pony.
The plot concerns Joe Buck (a staggeringly good Voight), a naive Texan who heads to New York City to make it as a hustler, a "stud", and rake in the cash as a gigolo to rich New Yorkers. A few days in however, Joe realises New York isn't all he hoped it would be, and his hustling skills aren't quite up to snuff. He meets Ratso, a sleazy con man who hoodwinks Joe for twenty bucks and leaves him out to dry. Later, when Joe loses his apartment and runs out of cash, he begins to drift the streets, homeless, penniless and armed only with his portable radio, which he listens to throughout the film. When he bumps into Ratso again, the latter appears more pathetic, less a seedy hustler and more a sad figure of pity. Ratso convinces Joe to stay at his run down flat in a building which is due to be demolished. Though a crumbling, roach infested dump, it's better, and indeed warmer, than the streets. But Ratso has his sights on Florida, a healthy new life of sunshine and coconut milk, and when he begins to manage Joe's hustling activities, hopes to raise enough money for them both to flee the grimy streets of New York for fresh beginnings. As the two men get closer and their situation becomes more desperate, the dream of a new life together in Florida not only seems more appealing, but sadly, also less likely.
British director John Schlesinger had just come off the huge production of Far from the Madding Crowd and desired a smaller, more intimate project with less complications. Schlesinger certainly got that with Midnight Cowboy, and with his inventive direction gave the film its individual style. He looked at Midnight Cowboy with an outsider's eye, heightening our own sense of fear, dread and awe at this strange, vast city and the many assorted people who inhabit it. While Schlesinger presents us the many sides of New York from an unbiased if often slightly exotic perspective, Voight and Hoffman take us inside the kind of world we have seen in cities countless times, but only rush past rather than take in. They represent the drifters and outsiders existing on the fringes, the kind of people many avoid eye contact with. But in Midnight Cowboy we are plunged into that world, and convinced, quite easily in fact, into seeing them as human beings, complex souls with feelings and yearnings of their own.
The bond formed between Ratso and Joe, at the heart of the picture, is one of the most moving friendships in film history. It begins as a con for Ratso, a survivor cunningly aware that this wide eyed Southern gentleman will be easy to swindle. Joe's initial reaction when he encounters Ratso after the incident (Ratso sends Joe to O' Daniel, a supposed pimp who may be able to get him work, but actually turns out to be a religious nut) is pure rage. He roughs him up and demands his money back. Predictably, Ratso doesn't have it. After this the relationship takes an unexpected turn. When Ratso invites him to his hovel, in a fit of desperation, Joe is initially mistrustful. "You don't look like a fag," he says, wondering why this strange odd ball would think of holding out the hand of friendship. We soon learn however that Ratso is a tragic figure, hopelessly lonely and craving intimacy. Perhaps seeing that Joe is a kind hearted man, he reveals his softer side. Ratso makes him as comfortable as he can, settling him down on a bed and offering coffee, even removing his boots for him while he sleeps. He has been alone in these rough streets for a long time, but he finds his desired connection with Joe, who himself is searching for a relationship of meaning after a bad start in life (alluded to in flashbacks throughout the film). Even his hustling is a masked attempt to connect, to be seen, felt and touched. With Ratso, Joe finds the first deep and fulfilling relationship of his life. Many have raised the issue that there is a veiled homosexual subtext here, but I don't think it's as simple as that.
Homosexuality however, is a constant in the film, which seems appropriate, seeing as Schlesinger himself was a gay man just about to spread his wings and publicly embrace his sexuality. Schlesinger clearly inserted his own fears, insecurities and thoughts about homosexuality, and people's one dimensional perceptions of it, to come to conclusions of some kind with his characters and their predicaments. To use an example, Joe mostly makes his money from paid sex with gay men, most of whom are either repressed or full of shame, in acts which repulse Joe no end. But with Ratso there is a bond on a deeper level, and there's no question of it passing over into the physical. Sex for Joe Buck is a sleazy act, very separate from love and feelings, while primarily being the arena where he thinks he can prove his old fashioned manliness. Ironically, Buck actually struggles in these scenarios. Tellingly perhaps, during his sex with Brenda Vaccaro's character towards the end of the film, he fails to achieve an erection all together. Only when she mocks him, playfully that is, for his inability to rise to the occasion does he become over taken with passion, but it's done more to prove a point than being genuinely out of sexual arousal. The theory that Buck might be gay beneath his Southern machismo is at its most believable here, though it ultimately seems irrelevant to the core of the story.
More vital to Buck, and the whole film for that matter, is the importance of Ratso in his life. When they were making the movie, Hoffman told a journalist rather simplistically that Midnight Cowboy was about two men who love each other but do not engage in a homosexual relationship. Though they are unlikely chums to start with, Ratso's friendship gives him an intimacy that will stay with him long after the film is over and he begins his new life, albeit alone, in Florida.
But Ratso and Joe's relationship is not one dimensional, it's multi layered. At times Ratso comes across as a wife-like figure, even making meals for Joe and then dishing out the food out with the kind of fussiness often evident in a woman feeling unappreciated by her man. At other times, it's simply brotherly, but the kindness is from both sides. One of the most touching scenes comes before Joe and Ratso enter the freak out Warhol-esque party. Ratso, feeling ill, is sweating profusely on the staircase. With genuine gentle care, Joe takes his own shirt and wipes the sweat from Ratso's head, who clings on to Joe like a boy. In a heartbreaking moment, Ratso leans his head off his torso. The relationship has crossed a border; they are now more deeply bonded than it had seemed possible, thrust together in the mean streets of New York, firmly conjoined together against all odds.
Though one must credit Schlesinger's sensitive direction, Waldo Salt's fabulous screenplay and of course James Leo Herlihy for his original book, it's the strength of the acting, making these words and situations seem genuine and spontaneous, which elevates Midnight Cowboy into an immortal tale. Voight is so fresh and vital here that it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. During casting of the film, Hoffman did screen tests with Voight and other Joe Buck hopefuls. When asked who he thought was the best, Hoffman declined to use such a word to describe a fellow performer, but did admit that when he watched the screen tests back of the other actors, he was still watching himself in the scenes. When they rolled the Voight screen test, Hoffman could not keep his eyes off him. And that pretty much sums it up; Voight is contagiously watchable as Buck and one follows his tale with intense interest. He might easily have been a shallow, simple man who we did not care much for, but Voight lends him a sweetness, despite his often unsavoury acts, that ensures we genuinely care to the last frame and beyond.
Hoffman is spellbinding, not just for the obvious reasons, but for the way he shifts our pre-judgements into genuine feelings. Ratso is at first cinema's oiliest, grubbiest con man. Cleverly though, Dustin sheds several layers away to reveal the inner being, and he does it so subtly that we fail to pin point the moment when we began caring for rather than reviling him. The first moment we see there is more to this trickster is in the cafe scene when he removes his shoes to prove he has no change hidden in them, and we see his holey socks, revealing dirty toes. When he takes Buck back to his lair, it's gut wrenchingly sad the way he tries to make him at home, even pulling down the torn, dirty brown curtain to block out the light so Joe can get to sleep. It's in these little moments that Dustin makes Ratso a well rounded creation.
As Ratso becomes more ill, Hoffman the man disappears and only Ratso remains. It's a complete tour de force, from the thick accent and the dodgy mannerisms to the painful cough and quirky limp. Ratso could have easily turned out a mere cartoon, a broad caricature, but Hoffman makes him a human, a sympathetic character we not only grow fond of, but start to genuinely like and understand. When Ratso talks about his childhood and his late father, a shoe shiner whose hands were so dirty he had to be buried with gloves on, we are utterly heartbroken, yet we also grasp that Ratso's fate was forever set in stone. The finale, as heart breaking as it is, is inevitable. In order for Joe Buck the cowboy hustler to fade into the past as the new Joe Buck arrives, fresh faced and positive, Ratso has to die; indeed, with his death is a rebirth.
Hoffman once said an interesting thing in an interview with Charlie Rose. He said that when walking in the street he often gazes at a homeless person or a derelict and wonders "What's the baby picture?" He wonders what happened to make them that way, what changed in their lives to derail them so harshly? Hoffman was clearly thinking the same thing when he played Ratso. Looking at the part as if he was a real man, Dustin could construct a past for him. Why was he on the streets? What happened in his life to make him forever known as Ratso? What could Rico have been?
I believe Midnight Cowboy is not only one of the five best films of Hoffman's career, but one of the finest movies of the past fifty years. It won Best Picture at the Oscars, the first X rated film to do so, and I have to say no film has deserved the plaudit more than this. It made a huge sum at the box office; unexpectedly, given the subject matter and also considering the people behind this film made it for the art, not commercial gain. Today, of course, it's a sad fact that Midnight Cowboy would be put out in a few art house theatres and quickly disappear out of sight.
Notices were strong, but not all reviews were glowing. Some saw the film as a mere series of set ups, with Hoffman and Voight shining despite what they saw as the flaws. Roger Ebert for one was not totally bowled over, though I do believe he got it wrong for once. "Midnight Cowboy comes heartbreakingly close to being the movie we want it to be," he wrote, adding, "The performances have a flat, painful accuracy. The world of Times Square, a world of people without hope and esteem, seems terribly real. Here is America's underbelly and it even smells that way. And seeing these things and reaching to them, we are ready to praise the movie where we found them. And cannot. There has been a failure somewhere in the director's faith in his materials. John Schlesinger has not been brave enough to tell his story and draw his characters with the simplicity they require. He has taken these magnificent performances, and his own careful perception of American society, and dropped them into an offensively trendy, gimmick-ridden, tarted-up, vulgar exercise in fashionable cinema. Trying to get the good out of Midnight Cowboy is like looking at a great painting through six inches of Jell-O. It is there -- the greatness is there -- but unworthy hands have meddled with it almost beyond repair."
Many critics hailed it however, and everybody agreed that the acting was superb. Hoffman earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, plus critical acclaim. He proved, as one reviewer observed, that he was no Mike Nichols invention. Hoffman, at this stage, was capable of anything, and his Ratso is a real showcase, a transformative role that may have been influenced by his own theatrical performances, but quickly overtook any comparisons to his past, or anyone else's for that matter, and became a truly original piece of work. There never was, and has never been again, a performance quite like it.
Though some of the themes may be old fashioned now (the Warhol party is so swinging it's virtually stuck in that era, and views towards homosexuality have thankfully moved on since) the central friendship between Joe and Ratso, two outsiders against the world, fighting for their place, is as moving and powerful as ever.
This article is from my book, THE MUSIC OF LOU REED, available on Amazon...
Coney Island Baby is one of my all time favourite Lou Reed albums, for it features well balanced doses of sleaze, attitude, rock outs and charm, all of the things we came to love in Lou's best music. Written at the time Lou was with his transgender partner Rachel, he sounds happy and content throughout, although he is never resting, remaining edgy every step of the way. It's a miracle that RCA were willing to even release a Lou album after the horrors of Metal Machine Music, but he had the label on his side. It also helped that the album was a proper LP full of fine songs, all of which contained hooks, choruses and nicely played rock and roll. Under the often laid back vibe though was a darker element, a vampiric fang behind the smile.
You are lured into Crazy Feeling, the album's appealing opener, as chunky drums clatter, acoustics jangle and slide guitars suggest it's your standard mid seventies singer-songwriter album. Lou's vocals come in nice and clear, describing someone he feels a special connection with. His vocals are very present, suggesting he wasn't just propped up in the corner as he was on Sally Can't Dance. Here he sounds refreshed, charismatic and full of life. It's a superb song and one of his best openers.
Charley's Girl could almost be the seedier cousin to Walk on the Wild Side... with added cowbell obviously. Lou tells us, in his usual laid back drawl, that you better watch out for Charley's Girl, who's been snitching to the cops about their harmless but still very much illegal activities. It's based on truth of course, when this girlfriend of a chum informed the cops of a drug related party on new year's eve. The music bops along nicely, with an almost ironic "na na na" sing along from the band (perhaps spoofing Wild Side one thinks), loose guitars and a feel good atmosphere. The added bit of edge though comes near the end, when Lou promises that if he ever sees her again, he's gonna punch her face in. Priceless.
She's My Best Friend had been recorded by the Velvets in the late 1960s, only it wasn't a patch on this version, which is slower, moodier and gives more room for Lou to express himself. It's still quite unremarkable in some ways, but it definitely has a cool vibe about it and Lou is enjoying himself reciting the lyrics, which had probably taken on a new meaning for him since meeting Rachel.
The darkest song on the record is Kicks, which has a sleazy Velvet Underground feel about it. On top of a funky rhythm section with battling, dagger-like guitars, Reed recites a monologue about a man who gets his adrenaline flowing by cutting people up. It's like Hubert Selby and Raymond Chandler in song, with the party ambience in the background adding believable bar room dialogue to this urban encounter. Although there's some nice musical improvisation going on, the centre piece of the song is Lou's up front, clear, no frills vocal track. When he went off on his wild vocal riffing, there was no one who could match Lou Reed.
A Gift is hilarious, starting with Lou's declaration that he's God's gift to the female kind. The music is, again, really nicely played, very loose, cool and content. Reed's vocal is effortlessly dazzling too and the backing vocals, whispered in true sex god style, are extremely funny. A great over looked song in Reed's catalogue.
One of my personal favourites is the hard rocking and bluesy Ooh Baby, which has a fantastic Lou vocal alongside groovy piano and scratchy guitars. Lou is really loose here, clearly relishing the feel of the song he's in the middle of (he breaks up into a mini laugh at one point). Nobody's Business is a slight country tinged rock n' roller with a very laid back Lou vocal, rising cymbals and neat guitar work.
The finale is one of Lou's finest and most beautiful ballads, Coney Island Baby itself. With a title taken from the old Excellents' doo wop classic, Lou recites a sweet monologue about wanting to impress the coach, while the band keep it understated and subtle, backing him up and never invading his poetic space. With the straight, calm backing vocals, the music's passionate drive and Lou's heartfelt voice, it's clear that Coney Island Baby is free of ironies or cynicism. It's a sincere ode to the "glory of love" and a chance for Lou to channel his soulful side. It's simply beautiful and one of the man's finest moments. "I wanna send this one out to Lou and Rachael" he says in true clarity.
"From the very end of the bench comes Old Number Nada, the Babylon Zombie, the Bionic Metal Machine, that Coney Island Baby himself — Lou Reed," wrote Rolling Stone, apparently stunned by Lou's return from the dead, his big comeback as a serious contender. "The result is a career-capping touchdown scored so honestly and directly that almost no one can believe it. Coney Island Baby (the song) is the album's masterpiece, an anthem about courage, loss and the high price an outsider pays for his way of living. When Lou Reed talks about "wanting to play football for the coach" and "giving the whole thing up for you," he is expressing the profound dream of the damned - and his loss is given greater intensity because both he and we know that such wishes were impossible from the very beginning. So we reaccept it. And it hurts all over again. You can play on my team any day, Lou."
When you look at music around the time he made Coney Island Baby, Lou was in good company with this so called return to form. But his casual masterpiece differed greatly from the work of his so called contemporaries. Dylan had released Blood on the Tracks not long before Coney Island Baby surfaced, his venomous return from obscurity and self imposed exile. It was a savage affair about the break up of his marriage; unpleasant to listen to but impossible to turn off. Neil Young, another sixties icon, was stunning his audience with the belated release of his dark Tonight's the Night album, all about the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and a roadie named Bruce Berry. Lou Reed, the man who should already have died ten times over, who had seemingly destroyed his own career with an album of feedback, was now on top of the world, putting out a positive, happy, contented record jammed full of crackers. It's as successful as a sincere love album as Berlin was as a tragic-rock opera. Surely, it showed us all what Lou was capable of, the sheer range he had as a songwriter and the control he had over his own music. The message is clear on Coney Island Baby; he's happy, he's feeling good, but his world is still a jungle, full of drugs, shady characters and the unavoidable risks of his chosen lifestyle on the fringes of society. It's a valentine's card with a pill taped to the inside of it. What could have been more honest?
ARCHIVE HOUND DAWG ISSUE: NO. 22, AUG 2016 - MADONNA, NIGEL PLANER, MIKE HERON, NICK FLYNN AND MORE...
Below is a link to the PDF for issue 26 of Hound Dawg. It features interviews with NIGEL PLANER, filmmaker PHILIPPE MORA and MIKE HERON of the INCREDIBLE STRING BAND. There is also a piece on MADONNA in Desperately Seeking Susan and a Q and A with the film's writer. Also, there is a chat with ex ZAPPA bass player SCOTT THUNES and a spotlight on the De Niro film Being Flynn, including a Q and A with the writer NICK FLYNN himself. There's quite a lot to get through, but if you get the chance, do have a browse...
Here is a sample from my new 90 page essay book on Chaplin's Keystone films of 1914. This past focuses on Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle's short comedy "The Rounders"...
Released a week after His New Profession was The Rounders (in September of 1914), which featured two silent comedy giants together, Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle. True, Chaplin and Arbuckle appeared aside each other in other films but this was the only one where they were truly "together" and interacting with one another on a notable level. From the word go they display their own respective skills, Chaplin especially, who seems to have defined his Tramp to a whole new level by September 1914.
The Rounders was a chance for Chaplin to mess around with the more drunken side of the Tramp character, a man far away from the lovably ragged form he would take in later, more seminal films as The Kid. Some have also seen the film as a round up of all Charlie's drunken tricks, as Chaplin biographer David Robinson called it, his "gallery of inebriates". The plot, if one can call it that, involves Chaplin and Arbuckle, drunk as skunks, going home to their wives for a telling off before returning to the streets to see what mischief awaits them. They brew up some bother in a cafe, flee the wives who come looking for them and end up on a boat, which inevitably begins to leak.
I have to say The Rounders is a splendid comedy and it's wonderful to get the opportunity to see Charlie and Roscoe working so well together. Chaplin admired Arbuckle, and Roscoe clearly felt the same, especially if this quote is anything to go by: "I have always regretted having not been his partner in a longer film than these one reelers we made so rapidly. He is a complete comic genius, undoubtedly the only one of our time and he will be the only one who will still be talked about a century from now." Arbuckle's comments are not only touching, they were also rather prophetic. Indeed, Buster Keaton and a small handful aside, Chaplin is the only man from pre-1920s comedy we are still interested in. Sadly, Arbuckle himself is all but forgotten, little more than a side note in film history and usually mentioned in relation to the murder he was wrongly accused of. But Chaplin and Arbuckle make a fine duo, and it's regretful that there aren't more Charlie/Roscoe team ups in the Keystone filmography. There's a certain poetic beauty to this double act, and one wonders whether they could have struck up a Laurel and Hardy type shtick had they stuck together; perhaps, but Chaplin's vision was too singular for that. Still, the final image of the two men asleep, as the water engulfs them, is one of the best from Chaplin's early years (note the way he corpses as the water over takes his face) and I for one would have loved to have seen more in this vein.
As far as directing goes, Chaplin is clearly learning more and more by every film. The framing is tidy, the action is clear and nothing is obscured. He is particularly good with Arbuckle's finer moments, and Charlie doesn't mind sharing the spotlight with his friend. The Rounders is definitely a cut above other Keystone films, being visually more assured and structurally tidier, and could be seen more as a Chaplin movie in its own right as opposed to a Keystone movie that just happens to be directed by Chaplin. Indeed, it feels like a Chaplin film, more so than any of the other Keystone productions that came before it. It also feels like a step forward.
First off, let me say I admire Henry Jaglom so much. For those not in the know, he's a legendary independent filmmaker who's been following his own cinematic path for nearly fifty years. I have spoken to him a few times over the years, we have emailed a lot and he's helped me out on book projects and given me advice on filmmaking. This interview was the first time we spoke, back in 2016, for my book on Dennis Hopper. The film we focused on was TRACKS, the second film Jaglom made, and he spoke at length about working with a manic Hopper in his drug crazed years. This interview is also featured in my mini book on TRACKS, available in my Classic Film Series of titles.
The first time you worked with Dennis was on Easy Rider, when you edited the film. How do you look back on that experience?
How do I look back on Easy Rider? The experience on Easy Rider was sensational. The one in Peru on The Last Movie was a horrible one. I didn't know we were going to talk about that, but Easy Rider was wonderful. That was mainly because Bert Schneider (producer) was so open and had all of our different views to deal with. Jack Nicholson and I were in opposite editing rooms. All he asked me was that he refused to edit his own stuff, so I got to edit Jack's scenes, which for me were some of the best things in the movie. And we had a great time. That's a perfectly happy memory. But Peru was one of the most dreadful memories of my life.
Well the film I am most interested in talking about is your own Tracks. It's one of my favourite films.
Oh! Okay. Tracks was hell on earth because of Dennis. He was so brilliant and so rich, full and collaborative and wonderful, before about 12:30 or 1 in the afternoon. And then by 1 in the afternoon he was not only furious and angry, but loaded and unusable. Couldn't remember a line, just wanted to fight about everything. He was a pain in the ass. Yet in the morning, before he had consumed whatever vast quantities of liquid and the smoking of various things he was doing, he was so open. I thought I got a great performance out of him. But I couldn't push it into even early afternoon. I just let him go for the rest of the day.
So you just had to film the other actors in the afternoon?
Yeah, I had a lot of other stuff to do. So it came to a point where we had 4 or 5 terrific hours every single day. But he would get mean and angry, which was his way of being tired and overloaded, so I said 'just go home and we'll do this other stuff.' So if we got him early enough, he was just spectacular. It was great working with him. There are so many stories. At the beginning of the film he was supposed to be co-starring with a friend of mine, a Canadian girl, very hip, very articulate, charming. Her name was Cayle Chernin. And Dennis decided to break her. Two weeks before the shoot, she went to where he lived and he got her so loaded on whatever he consumed. She had never done any of that before. And then they got into this whole sadomasochistic relationship where she showed up with bruises all the time.
And mentally she was just gone. She had been such a bright, hip young woman. I asked what happened and she said 'I have to prove to him that he's more important to me than this movie, and anything else.' There is one scene with her that is left in the movie, a very early scene. Among the girls who were playing extra parts I found Taryn Power, who was the daughter of Tyrone Power, a very innocent girl who had been brought up in Switzerland in a very protective way. She was just the opposite of the kind of feminist that Chernin had been. Yet she understood at the most basic level of how to deal with Dennis, to lock her door and just say no. And she did that. And he fumed and screamed, and I got a really interesting performance, I think, out of the two of them.
Oh yeah, There is a great dynamic between them both, a weird tension too.
Yeah. Well his remorse every morning helped. Very interesting. Things happen on films that if you are alive to the circumstances and not stuck with the idea you had coming in, terrific things can happen based upon what the characters bring you. She brought an innocence. Dennis had this devilish desire to dominate and actually destroy women, and she wouldn't go for it. It became a lovely sort of dance. The first poor girl was just destroyed by it. She went back to Toronto and never pursued her acting career.
Very dark. This stuff about Dennis, inevitably I suppose, always ends up overshadowing the work he did. The books on Dennis usually seem more interested in his behaviour than the great work he did on the screen.
Yeah, but his work came out from the dark side beautifully, if it wasn't clouded by booze and drugs. So you had to get it right. The trick was very simple. You had to get him early in the morning, way earlier than you yourself liked to get up, let him go at the latest by 1 o'clock, and then do the rest of your work. He was brilliant, alive, spontaneous and I think he gave a brilliant performance in Tracks. I don't know if you know about that last scene when he jumps into the grave...
Yeah, my favourite scene of the film!
Yeah, well I had written for him this most exquisite and articulate seven page speech about the war, the pointlessness and the horror and all of that. He was supposed to read that and then jump into the grave, open the coffin, put on the gear and turn on this town. So I said 'Action' and he had this thing in his hands - if you watch it he's holding the script in his hand, which was my speech. And very gleefully, he looked at me and he tore it up. And instead of all those words that I had written, he just said 'You motherfucker! You motherfucker! You wanna go to 'Nam? I'll take you to 'Nam. I'll take you to 'Nam. You motherfucker! You motherfucker!' It was not my style, but it was so much more correct for the solider he was playing; so much more articulate in his in-articulation, anger and fury. This guy who had been sent to Vietnam with this dream of the innocent America he had heard on all these old World War 2 songs on his tape recorder. He understood something so much fundamental than I did, that this was not a time for a speech. It was a time for rage. We did the scene once. He jumped into the coffin, said to me 'You motherfucker' maybe twenty times, ripped off the American flag, pulled out the gear and turned his coffin into a fox hole. It was his aim of destroying this old town, which is where I froze the frame. I never would have had that with a normal actor, because he would have been reading this wonderfully articulate and impassioned speech about the hell of war, which of course was nonsense compared to what Dennis did. Dennis instinctively understood the pain of this soldier and what he had gone through so much more than my privileged life had ever allowed me to even get near.
So if you are open to the actors and what they can bring to the film...
That is the trick. Orson Welles, when he was watching the edit with me... I told him, 'I am gonna use that instead.' I used it instead of the script I had planned and he said 'but it ruins the whole structure.' I said 'I don't care, all I know is I need the reality for the film.' He was fascinated. He sat with me through a lot of the cutting of Tracks and he sat behind me smoking his cigars... you know, those Monte Cristo cigars, giving me comments and saying 'God this is nuts, look at him, he's crazy!' I said 'Yeah but if I cut him here, the craziness will seem to be about the whole Vietnam thing.' Throwing in the mix... what's his name? The other actor...
Yeah, Dean, who was Dennis's friend and equally mad. I don't mean mad as in angry, I mean nuts but more controlled. I got him to tell me stories about his childhood. He becomes the guy that betrays Dennis. By dealing with their psyches, you know, other than with their scripts, I found a way to deal with those two actors. They gave two of the greatest performances of their lives as some say.
Yeah, I think this is probably Hopper's greatest performance, or is at least up there with the finest work he did.
Yeah, many people now credit it for that and he would be amazed because, of course, I wasn't letting him do anything he wanted to. And then when he finally read that speech and tore it up at the end, stood over the empty grave, started shouting and jumped in, he ended the scene. I said 'Cut, god that was great Dennis.' He looked at me, smirked and walked away. If I wanted to shoot it again he wasn't going to let me. He just walked away, walked out of the movie, walked out of the place and I didn't hear from him for four weeks. If I had more shooting to do with him, which fortunately I had planned not to because I didn't know what was gonna happen, it would have been all gone because he walked off. He had shown me that he didn't need my pages. He had said this terribly moving thing to me once. 'You don't want me, you just want to use me for your political statement.' He was very insecure, terribly charming and brilliant for the first half of the day and totally wrecked the second half. That was every single day. I never met anyone like Dennis in my life, and I really came to love him. We became very close friends. But that didn't stop him from jumping on me with a bottle of ketchup and trying to smash my head because I had looked at his girlfriend at the wrong angle or something. He was very, very complex and seriously disturbed. But also rich and full of joyfulness.
There's this belief though, that after he cleaned up, he wasn't as interesting anymore as an actor. What is your view on that?
I think that is true. I don't wanna say that he was good because of all the drugs, but he had played himself out. Bert Schneider put him in a hospital finally and he was there for a few months. And when he came out he was a Republican. He was suddenly conservative. We'd all come out of the liberal, progressive sixties, so we were all left wing, feeling very strongly and passionate about Vietnam. He became a Bush voter. He was a Republican, explaining to me why I should vote for Bush. I have never forgotten that evening up at Jack Nicholson's house when he started explaining that we'd all been wrong and it was disturbing beyond belief. It was his way of staying sober.
Almost like he had to go completely the other way to stay away from all that stuff.
Apparently. And I don't know how he did it. But he was a completely sober, upstanding Republican citizen for the rest of his life. That scared the shit out of a lot of us! But I never could have got that performance out of him had that turn around happened earlier.
So is it true that Tracks was written for Jack Nicholson originally?
Yes I did. I wrote it for Jack. There's a scene in Five Easy Pieces. Do you know Five Easy Pieces?
There's a scene when Jack is in the cafe and he orders bacon and lettuce or something and the waitress won't give him it. That scene was originally written for him by me for Tracks. He was gonna be the solider in Tracks. He and I had been very close friends, and made a promise to be in each other's films. And he was in my first directorial film, and I was in his... what was that one called?
Drive, He Said.
Yeah! Well, we had similar beliefs and feelings, so we were going to do Tracks. By the time I got to do Tracks he had priced himself so far out from me that I could not make that movie with him. No way. By the time I was ready four years on, Jack was way too big a star to work my way. I mean, with Tracks, we got on the train - Dennis, I, the actors and the crew - and we didn't tell anyone we were making a movie because the insurance was much too expensive. So we hid the cameras and hid the equipment under the individual beds, we'd come out at night after the guys who were serving the food had gone to bed and then shoot the whole thing. We'd have one person on the edge of each train compartment, to warn us if some official came in. And they did. Sometimes they would come and ask for our documentation and shooting permits and insurance, which you needed but I could not afford at all, because the insurance was more than the cost of the whole movie... So, we sent an assistant down twelve cars to a theoretical place where we would say the papers were, in which time all of us, Dennis included and all of the equipment, would get off the train. That is how we managed to get that film made.
Oh my god! So what about the famous nude scene where he runs down the train with all his clothes off? What happened there?
What happened was, that Dennis was a person who liked to take off his clothes at this stage. He was an exhibitionist. So when we were on the train, remembering that - the way I work not totally sticking to the script and trying to create situations from the actors - I said to him, 'I want you to take your clothes off.' He said 'Why?' I said, 'I want you to run through the carriage naked.' He asked why. So I said, 'You're emotionally distressed, you're upset.' So he said 'OK' and so we did this, what I thought was a very interesting scene. And what I remember most of that is when he came back afterwards. All the other people on the train, including people who weren't actors - because he ran through three cars which had real passengers on them - all applauded him. He got applause! So he came back and asked if he should do it again. I said 'No, no, we got it.'
Well I think it's refreshing to see such a wild film, totally wild, and one that surprises you and even shocks you too.
Well I thought a film about the craziness of Vietnam, and what it did to America, the loss of innocence... oh, that's all another story. But I thought it was necessary to have a little bit of crazy fun, bizarre kind of abstract, meaninglessness. The county was falling apart and it felt like the end of the American empire. While we were shooting Tracks, the capital of Vietnam... what's the capital?
Saigon! Imagine that! At that time it was the most important thing in my life, now I can't even remember the name of it. So Saigon fell and we all celebrated. We were all very strongly involved in all of that, which made it all the more strange when Dennis came back years later as a right winger.
That must have been very strange.
It was very strange indeed. He maintained that for the rest of his life. Whenever he saw a flag he would salute it. He was very patriotic.
Jesus... So when Orson Welles eventually saw the final cut, did he like Tracks?
Orson said the best thing that has ever been said to me, and I still do not know if it was a compliment or an insult. He looked at the film, he sat through it all and he said, 'It couldn't be anybody's but yours.' I said 'Did you like it?' He said 'It's not about liking it. It's an experience. It's a true experience. You've made a true experience. But it couldn't be anybody else's but yours.'
I love that, how he said that it wasn't about liking it.
Yeah, well I tried to get him to tell me more, but that was all he would say. He sat behind me however for... Jesus, not everyday, but many days in his wheelchair while I was editing it. He gave me a lot of great advice, commenting. We had become close friends in that period.
You and Dennis had done some filming for Orson's great unreleased film, The Other Side of the Wind, hadn't you? That was before Tracks wasn't it?
Yeah Dennis and I did. My favourite acting scenes are in it. I don't know if it will be released. you'll have to ask Peter Bogdanovich.
Fingers crossed it might turn up!
I would love it. But I dunno why I am cynical about it.
Because you're in the movie business.
There's a good answer. Yeah, I don't need to go much farther than that. You're right.
NOTE: The Other Side of the Wind has since been released by Netflix.
You can read more about TRACKS, in my title, The Classic Film Series: Henry Jaglom's Tracks, available on Amazon...