Here is a short story from my book, THREE CURIOUS TALES, out today....
Hope you like it...
THE SINGING SPIRIT
Looking back is an odd thing. It can bring up feelings of nostalgia, often misguided, a sense that one might be gazing into the past with rose tinted spectacles. We are all guilty of recalling the old days and focusing primarily on the good times, the laughs, and ignoring the darkness. For this recollection, against my own character I am forced to bring to attention something that is not exactly dark, but so alien and unexplainable that it fills me with unease. I also feel rather stupid recounting the event, but as this is the way I remember it, there is not much I can do to make logical an occurrence that seems to be so irrational.
As I write this account of the experience I went through, and still cannot believe I really did, my life has transformed into something so different and unrecognisable from how it was that it feels as if I am writing about the account of another person. I'm at my desk here, typing away on something, as images of Marlene Dietrich, as always lit from above, play on the television with no sound. It's the day time, cold but sunny. From where I sit I can see a sleeping cat sprawled on the sofa beside me; outside I see the face of a rabbit, enclosed in his hutch, sipping water fiendishly from his suspended bottle, paws clinging to the metallic grids before him. The rest of the room is dimly lit, but the corner where I type away is illuminated by a lamp which hangs from a wire on the ceiling. As it swings very slightly, eerily so, the light shines through its multi coloured crystals and paints the wall behind it in a rainbow of strange warped patterns.
I am writing now about my present state, a cosy and complacent life with a wife and child in a pleasant home. The time I am looking back to seems like a hell in comparison, some dark cloud I was temporarily trapped in, and seeing as though I could not see through the fog, I was convinced I would remain shrouded in it forever. In those days I lived in a damp, rather grotty basement flat. There was a living room and kitchen in one, with one small window overlooking the yard which belonged to my landlady who lived above me. Strangely, I spent many a day hearing her clumsy foot steps above me, thuds of varying volume depending on the time of day and level of her inebriation. She held the controls to the heating in my poky flat, and as she was a skin flint of the strictest order, she insisted on keeping the radiators off. This meant many a strange night was spent in foisty bath robes, hunched on the sofa which had seen better days decades ago, with a blanket and a hot drink as the TV flickered away in the ever dim room. Even with the lights on, or by the rather pathetic glow of the one lamp I had in the corner, it was a gloomy, rather miserable place to live. In the winter the pipes often froze, and oh so cold it became in December and January. It felt almost like a Dickensian life, living alone in that dank basement.
The living room led its way into a bedroom which felt unsuitable for human slumber. There was a bed in the corner which hid half rotting walls, green at the bottom with mold; over it, a small, almost pointless window, over which hung a veil, yellowing with age. The view from that 12 by 12 square of glass was pitiful at best. From my basement I stood on the bed and gazed through at the streets outside on ground level, but shoes of varying size, colour and type were all one could hope to see. I rarely saw a face but at least kept up with foot wear fashions throughout the time I lived, or should I say existed, in those depressing lodgings.
I rarely had visitors, save for my dad who remained the one anchor to reality, and maybe a friend or two. I lived alone in a kind of state of denial; a denial of loneliness, denial of hopelessness, a denial of the fact I was living a meaningless life. In the winter the place was hopelessly drab. As it was dark by four, I found myself alone surrounded by blackness. Out front, the one street light illuminated the street. All to be seen were the bodiless feet which occasionally, but less frequently as the night went on, passed me by, the only sounds being of creaking leather and steps which echoed eerily off the pavement. Out my kitchen window, over which hung a lacy red curtain which really belonged in a sleazy bordello, I saw nothing but a pitch black world. The back garden had no lighting in it, and for all I knew there could have been an army of faces peering in through the window, breathing their dank, unwanted pants of desperation on the glass. One night I heard a noise and went out, only to see a figure fleeing into the darkness. I did not see their face, but saw their back, hunched over in the night, their feet tapping as they left down the winding snicket which led to my somewhat pathetic home.
It was often a very unsettling place to live. Bangs could be heard upstairs when my landlady was not in. As her work often took her out of town for days on end, and she had other properties to tend to, she was infrequently there... which made the sounds from upstairs even more odd. Once when I heard a rather loud bang, I ran outside to go round front and see if there were intruders upstairs. I was shocked to see there wasn't. The lights were off, the windows closed and the front door locked tight. What made life there even weirder was the fact that there was a staircase leading from her house to my basement flat, a locked door separating both at the top, which wasn't lit and was only covered by a flimsy curtain. Often, unsettlingly so, the door would open and when I pulled the curtain back, I would be faced with the sight of my landlady's kitchen... with no on inside it. Who then, I asked myself, was opening the door?
One night, a long and seemingly endless night of which there were many, there was a knock on my door. I sat still and eventually turned my head. There was a silence; then another knock. I stood up cautiously and stepped across the room. Eventually I plucked up the courage to open the door, my hand shaking as I did so. Who was this? Was this the end of my life? Did some crowbar toting thug stand in the night, ready to knock me out cold and empty my flat of the hoarded video cassettes and old crockery, leaving me on the floor with a cracked skull. My imagination had run wild of course and I needn't have feared, for it was my land lady; though one could argue that for any tenant the arrival of the landlady is more terrifying than any intruder could ever be. No, but here she was, looking rather glum, her features lit up by next door's kitchen light which shone from their window and on to her rigid, angular, prominent chinned, almost witch like face.
"Hi," I said, whimpering slightly, "Is everything OK?"
She wasn't here to talk about the heating, the pipes or, god forbid, the rent, but in fact was informing me of the tragic news of the death of her father. I said I was sorry and put my hand on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her. After a moment of exchanging words, me of sympathy, she of fond recollection, she asked if I would be able to nip upstairs for a moment. As his funeral was already planned out, she wondered if I might log on to her laptop to download some of her dad’s favourite old songs, which, of course, were to be played at his funeral. Immediately I said yes and followed her up the sharp staircase outside, with the black sky overhead, towards the back door, at the top of which led to her kitchen.
We passed through into her living room, where a Picasso imitation dominated a whole wall. It was a portrait, maybe of Dora Maar, but I recall those sharp eyes staring at me as I took a seat and she made me a cup of tea in the kitchen. Putting the lap top on my knee, she asked me to get the music she desired. The song and singer in question had in fact been her father’s favourite. I wish I remembered the name of both, but they have slipped into time; I do know it was a popular crooner from the 1930s and 40s. I logged in and began a search on iTunes. Much to her delight and surprise, in a matter of moments I had found it, the exact version she'd been after. We clicked on the preview switch and made double sure it was the right song. It was, and she was so pleased she almost wept. She passed me a hot tea and as I sipped it I began the download. There was a silence, and in the time it took to get the song on her lap top she told me her dad loved to sing this song when she was a child. He even recorded himself on cassette crooning along, much to the household's collective embarrassment.
Finally, it downloaded. She was delighted.
"Let's give it a listen," I said. I pressed play and the song began to whimper, rather meekly, from the lap top. I put it down to the size of the tiny little built in speaker, but I do recall it sounded extremely odd. I can't quite describe it really; very tinny, quite bad quality really for an MP3, and sounding as if someone had just put a microphone to a Hi-Fi speaker and recorded the sound on to tape. The voice singing over the muffled backing track was much too loud too, almost unsettling and unfitting to the sounds. I thought nothing of it at the time, putting it down to a bad quality recording from its vintage era and turned it off.
"There you go," I said, or something to that effect, as I sipped the rest of my tea and placed the cup on the table by my side. My landlady had gone rather quiet, but I shrugged off her pale silence. I presumed she was feeling emotional, hearing her father's favourite song and thinking that she would never see him again. As a younger man, I felt uncomfortable and didn't do much to ease her upset. These days I like to think I'd have more of an idea what to do in such a situation, but my reaction back then was to sigh, get up and prepare myself to leave her to her grief.
"Right," I said, walking away.
"Thanks for that," she said, rather blankly, distracted.
Without another word, and feeling slightly unsettled, I left her house and closed the door behind me. As I descended the staircase to the garden, I peered in through the window and saw my landlady. She was standing still in the same spot, as if frozen, and the sight of her sent a shiver up my spine. Quickly I speeded down the stairs. I could easily have fallen as nothing was lighting them, but thankfully I made it to bottom, when I rushed inside my flat and locked my door behind me.
That night I recall feeling rather odd. I kept thinking of her haunted face, those distant eyes gazing into nothing. I thought of the strange, other worldly music, the distant feel of the crooner. Something about the whole situation unsettled me. Eventually I drifted to sleep on the sofa, my TV on in the background to fill the undesired silence of another long night.
It doesn't end there though. I awoke the next day and had forgotten about the strange incident, and went about my life, as it were. A night or two later, my land lady knocked on my door once again and asked me to come back up to see if I could burn the song on to a disc so she could show me it on the big speakers. There was a look in her eye, almost scheming. I couldn't put my finger on it, but she had a knowing about her. It was as if she was in on some private joke and I had yet to be told about it.
I followed her once again up the staircase, only this time it was the middle of the day, so I was not haunted by unseen faces that may or may not have gazed at me from behind the overgrown ivy which made its way up and around the garden shed. I followed her in and took out a blank disc, on which I burned, quite speedily, the song for her father's funeral.
"Here we are," I said, holding it up with a forced smile.
She stared back at me.
"Put it in the Hi Fi," she said, half smiling. The atmosphere felt strangely sinister. Stiffly I turned around and placed the CD into the player. Then the music sounded up. There, once again, was that ill fitting voice balling over the music. It had sounded odd before, but came across as even more bizarre through the large speakers. Something didn't make sense. I looked to the land lady and saw her warm smile. She looked off into the distance, as if recalling a cherished memory. I was soon to discover what the memory was.
Much to my surprise, my land lady began to explain that the voice I could hear jarringly singing over the track was none other than her father’s. As she had told me a few night's previously, when he was younger he had a habit of recording himself singing over his favourite songs on to cassettes. Now I don’t know how this happened, but somewhere in the process of me downloading the track and getting it on to her hard drive, her father’s voice had inserted itself within. We could not explain it. It didn’t scare me as such as I knew he meant no harm, if it indeed was he that did it, and was probably finding a way to send a message to his daughter. Also, the smile on her face showed me that the supernatural, if one believes in it, is not always to be feared. If that is truly what this experience was, a message from beyond the grave, then there was no reason for my land lady to be spooked; or me, for that matter. But if I were to say it wasn't strange, perhaps the most baffling experience of my life, then I would be lying.
Slightly unsettled I have to say, I returned down stairs to my flat and couldn't help but feel glad she had invited me up in the day time, and not waited until the gloomy dark night before revealing the audible visitation from her father. Still, something about hearing such a macabre recording in the afternoon seemed even stranger. One expects chills and scares to occur in the blackness and stillness of the night, for it seems the ideal atmosphere for such goings on. One does not suspect such an occurrence could happen by day light. The rays of sun make it more dreamlike.
A matter of weeks later, my land lady apparently met a spiritual medium. Right away, the medium said:
“Your father is here.”
My land lady expressed comfort that he was present.
“He’s laughing,” said the medium.
“Why?” asked my land lady.
“Because of that song the other week," she replied. "It really scared that young lad..."
If I had been unsettled in that flat before this incident, I was even more uncomfortable after it. I often had nightmares of faces peering through the windows, of her father walking around upstairs, or descending the dark staircase behind the curtain in the corner of my room. I have to say I never saw or heard anything unexplainable there again, but for me, that experience was enough to convince me that, yes, there is something beyond our understanding, and frustratingly so, it will remain just that....
It also convinced me that finding somewhere else to live was a very good idea.
Federico Fellini's next cinematic outing after the staggering La Dolce Vita came with the anthology film Boccaccio 70 (1962), a lively and hilarious comedy in the style of writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio, which also featured stories by Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica and Mario Monicelli. The latter's contribution to the film was only included in the Italian version, meaning Fellini's tale was first up in the worldwide release. Some objected to the underrated Monicelli's segment being omitted, and sadly today the major version available in the UK is the one with three stories rather than four. That said, the three included are all worthy of mini classic status.
Fellini's first-up vibrant tale features a gigantic Anita Ekberg terrorising a middle aged doctor who preaches about the vulgarisation of Rome. It begins by showing the prig's pursuits to purify Rome, stopping couples in cars who are unmarried, slapping women who sit outside restaurants with cleavages on display. While awarding some boy scouts for their bravery one day, he is horrified to see the erection of a huge billboard advertising milk, the glass of it being held by a buxom Anita Ekberg who lies, with cleavage on display, across a bed in a revealing dress. A crowd gathers and a typically Felllini-esque party begins as the sign, in all its glory, goes up. The man, outraged, hopes to remove the sign, but his aims are quashed when she comes out of the poster and terrorises him.
Ekberg, two years after La Dolce Vita, and here playing herself, is womanhood personified, her huge bosom, flowing blonde hair and endless legs a testament to free femininity, a celebration of modern sexuality in the face of stiff repression. Her formidable presence and luscious sex appeal make the point alone. Fellini always had a fondness, or perhaps obsessive infatuation, with large bosoms, seeing all women as a mother and desirable goddess. Ekberg fits the bill perfectly, the milk being symbolic too, and she is the very embodiment of sex appeal rampaging through decadent Rome.
Fellini's instalment in the film may well be a direct reply to the stiff and priggish reactions to La Dolce Vita, a film which was essentially about Rome's hedonism. This was a picture which, though successful, also sparked a national backlash in his homeland. Here, as if to slap the doubters in the face, Fellini goes one further, winding up his critics with a gigantic, Godzilla sized Anita, large breasted, flashing her feminine charm at all times. It is almost the ultimate joke, and is the most excessive story in Boccaccio 70 by far.
Many would see Fellini's part of the film as its highlight, but in my view it has stiff competition from De Sica's part. The neorealist icon's story is La Riffa, featuring Sophia Loren as a beautiful and sexy fairground worker called Zoe who sees herself become the main prize in a sordid raffle where the winner will get to the spend the night with her. But Zoe is no push over, no man can own her, and she has an alternative to her objectification.
De Sica's instalment is full of life, and so infectiously good natured that the mob of sex hungry men marching towards Sophia like starving hounds, who would be threatening in other surroundings, come across as loveable rogues rather than the sexist relics they really are. In the face of their collective desperation however Sophia is empowered, a beautiful, statuesque woman who knows that even a glimpse of her leg will send them into a wild frenzy. But she cannot be owned or had for any amount of money.
Visconti's tale is also worthy of praise, but it is in the wild and wonderful tales of De Sica and Fellini that the film really comes alive. Boccaccio 70 is playful and wonderfully over the top, with each Italian master relishing the opportunity to throw away subtlety and inhibitions all together. That said, this is not Fellini's finest work of course, but a light breather which separates La Dolce Vita from his next iconic moment as the world's greatest filmmaker, 8 1/2.
It should also be noted, essentially, that Boccaccio 70 is Fellini's first released film to be shot in colour. Explaining this fact, Fellini said, "For the episode in Boccaccio ’70, the choice wasn’t mine. It was an episodic or anthology film, and the producers decided that it was to be in colour. I didn’t object at all. The playful air of the whole undertaking and the brief form of the episode seemed just right for an experiment with colour without too great a commitment on my part. I didn’t think about the problem very seriously; I didn’t go into it deeply."
Fellini chose to shoot in black and white right after Boccaccio 70 for 8 1/2, obviously finding a lack of colour more fitting to Guido's strange and fantastical journey. But from then on Fellini went full colour, diving headlong into its magic, knowing it was more conducive to mind bending imagery, fantastical and expansive, but also too aware it could distract the viewer from the purity of the image as intended.
Here is a piece I wrote about Madonna's underrated and some say not very good Body of Evidence. It was included in a book I wrote on the Body... and Dangerous Game... I know it isn't the greatest film ever made, but it is fun, interesting and, perhaps, an underrated camp spoof.
"We are told by one witness that sex with the Madonna character is intense. It turns out later he's not a very reliable witness."
- Roger Ebert in his review for Body of Evidence
It's 1992, and a certain erotic thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven is causing a huge stir all over the world. Its star, Sharon Stone, has become the new naughty sex symbol for the 1990s, a woman whose carnal power and command has gripped moviegoers from every corner of the globe. Verhoeven had used Stone's seductive power two years earlier, to mess with Arnold Schwarzenegger's head in the mad action sci-fi hit Total Recall, and knew that she had it in her to properly portray Trammell's wicked ways.
The plot itself seems so- so today in the light of subsequent copyists and clones. Stone plays Catherine Trammell, a successful writer accused of the murder of her boyfriend. She winds Michael Douglas (Detective Curran) up to the point of near madness and utter obsession, finally relieving the volcanic pressure in their epic sex scene together. The fact she clearly is the killer and gets away with it is the most chilling thing of all. Worse still, Curran is in bed with her again in the final scene as she reaches for the ice pick. She hesitates and moves her hand away, suggesting that perhaps the black widow has settled down...
Of course, the moment that attracted most interest and outrage was the leg crossing scene. As memorable as it is, I feel it undermines the rest of the film and gives those who perhaps haven't seen it the completely wrong idea about what a deeply thrilling story it is. The sexual element, although at times admittedly explicit, is just a tool in Trammell's method of beating the police, distracting and belittling them in their own environment.
Almost 25 years on, some of Basic Instinct's former sexiness looks dated and at times a bit creaky. The main sex scene in particular is overcooked so much that it isn't even sexy anymore, if it ever truly was, with Douglas' rigid chin and Stone's exaggerated moans and howls. It's a prime example of how sometimes less is , and in this case they went for the complete opposite. Still, in the context of this slightly over the top film, it works, even if it isn't anywhere near as steamy as it thinks it is. The build up is genuinely well done though, as Stone teases him, tortuous in her sexually manipulative ways. In this case, the chase was better than the catch.
Even though it was such a huge hit, it still attracted its fair share of negative criticism. Gay and Lesbian rights protestors found it offensive and boycotted the film, claiming Trammell uses her bisexual tastes to manipulate Douglas' character. Basic Instinct "won" numerous awards at the alternative Oscars, The Razzies. Even Sharon herself won the Worst New Star Award, which is odd in itself, seeing as she also earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work in this picture. Hollywood is indeed full of baffling contradictions.
Importantly, it made a boat load of money at the box office, and Hollywood had its latest, most lucrative formula all ready in place; the steamy erotic thriller with explicit sex scenes and a female lead that no man can resist. A simple premise, but one which would be repeated over and over again through the 1990s and up to modern day. If Basic Instinct seems a little over the top now, you still cannot deny its cinematic influence.
A film which surfaced only a year after Basic Instinct has gone down in history as one of the most ridiculed and panned movies of the genre, or of any genre for that matter. Body of Evidence was written by Brad Mirman and directed by Uli Edel. Edel had shot several movies before this, but it was the adaptation of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn which won him the job for this Dino De Laurentis production.
The plot concerns the death of an aging millionaire, who passed away due to erotic asphyxiation. The suspect in the case is Rebecca Carlson, who is being defended by lawyer Frank Dulaney. During the trial, Frank gets reeled in by Carlson's sexual tractor beam, and the pair descend into an erotic and sadomasochistic relationship beyond the court scenes, and behind Dulaney's wife's back.
Against all odds and likelihoods, Madonna was cast as Rebecca Carlson, a decision which stunned critics and movie observers. Filling the role of the lawyer was none other than Willem Defoe, an intense actor known for his attention to detail and intense method approach to roles. When Empire Magazine asked him why he decided to take on such a "dodgy movie" (their words in the May 1993 issue), Defoe replied, "Lots of reasons. Madonna became attached to it, then Uli Edel and then they proposed it to me. I read the script which wasn't perfect, but there were many things I wanted to do. I see courtroom stuff... I see I wear a suit - that'll be fun. The erotic scenes - that'll be interesting. It appeals to my sense of adventure., Then you look who you're working with, and Madonna... I knew she could fill this bad girl persona perfectly."
The Bad Girl persona, as Defoe calls it, was something Madonna could do perfectly indeed. In December of 1991, she recorded a song called Bad Girl, a song eventually released on her Erotica album in 1992, then as a single in February of 1993. The song describes a chain smoking, heavy drinking woman who goes from one man to another. In the video, she is a well dressed business woman, waking up in a different bed each morning, all the while being observed by her guardian angel, played by Christopher Walken. In the end, he gives her the kiss of death, and subsequently one of her one nighters strangles her to death. She is set free. In the very cinematic video (directed by none other than David Fincher, he of Seven and Fight Club), Madonna projected how hedonistic life choices can lead to negative, and eventually devastating results. Here, she reflected on the self destructive nature of someone with so little self respect. On other songs on her classic Erotica album, she had celebrated sexuality, especially on the likes of Where Life Begins, her ode to oral sex, and the title track, where she adopted another role, that of Dita, the record's erotic host and conceptual compère. With Bad Girl, she saw the pitfalls of the sexually obsessed, someone who uses sex in an almost bored fashion, to fill the void of emptiness within. While Rebecca isn't bored by sex, she is driven by it, and is so in tune with her control of all things erotic, that she uses it to get whatever she wants in life.
Clearly, Madonna had explored so many sides of passion and sexuality in the last couple of years before this that Rebecca seemed like just another obstacle to overcome, another puzzle to solve in getting tot he core of what sex is, and how it can be perceived, carried and used. This femme fatale was to be totally different from the Bad Girl of Erotica, though still harbouring self destructive tendencies. She is a gold digger, and clearly used her sexual prowess to drive her aging lover to the grave, safe in the knowledge she would inherit a substantial amount of money. As her past lovers reveal, she is a dominating sexual partner who can push things a little too far. One previous partaker in her erotic games, another wealthy man, cut off their union when he ended up needing heart surgery due to her rough sex.
Dulaney finds out for himself that Rebecca is indeed a very intense lover. After one stressful day in court, they go for a meal, and he gives her a lift home. When she walks towards the door of her lavish apartment, Defoe waits and watches. When she leaves the door open, he knows it's his cue to enter. The long white, thin curtains blow in the breeze, beckoning to him in the night. In entering her door, he is also taking his first real step into her world. Dulaney then finds himself entangled in a passionate sexual odyssey where fears and desires become blurred. She opens sensual opportunities previously unthought-of, pain and pleasure combining to an intense mix.
Madonna's Rebecca is intent, as she says during their sex scene, on doing things her way. In truth, though it's not her dialogue, she sounds exactly like her Dita character from Erotica, who tells the listener to give it up, do as she says and let her have her way. "I don't think you know what pain is," she considers, "I don't think you've gone that way." So if Body of Evidence is a visual accompaniment to Erotica, then the receptacle of her erotic dialogue on the album certainly gets to experience it "that way" during the film's most intense moments. Is Body of Evidence attempting to be everything that Erotica promised, suggested, and skirted round on an audible level? If so, it didn't entirely succeed. Body... is jus too camp to be taken totally seriously, but none of this is Madonna's fault. (More of this later.)
Building up to the film's release, it was clear that the focal point of the whole film was Madonna, undoubtedly one of the most well known women on the planet. She would have killed to get the Trammell role in Basic Instinct, but Rebecca Carlson was her chance to out-do the previous year's big steamy hit. If Stone, Verhoeven and Douglas did it to 10, then she'd turn it up to 11. If they partook in a bit of light bondage (with Stone tying Douglas to the bed), then she was going to go one further; even burn her lover with candle wax if need be.
As you would expect, given the way she takes on any project, Madonna took her role very seriously indeed. Julianne Moore, who plays Defoe's deceived wife in Body of Evidence, later commented that she thought Madonna went a little "methody" during filming. She also revealed that in the scene when she slaps her after learning of their carnal activities, she was incredibly nervous before shooting. If one thing can be agreed upon, there is an intensity to Madonna's performance. Though many would say the film is almost universally bad, few could say that Madonna herself didn't give the film her all.
"I think I play the shit out of it," Madonna told the Today Show upon the film's release. "There's a lot of other actresses that could have done a good job. I made it mine. She (her character in Body of Evidence) is a very secretive person that doesn't reveal a lot about herself and I am completely the opposite, very forthcoming. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I don't think she does."
In retrospect, the years of 92 and 93 were the great sex obsessed era in Madonna's career, where she explored sexuality from every angle and viewpoint. Never judging or praising the situations she was presenting, critics took the moral high ground and butchered her for revealing everything to the public, whether they wanted to see it or not. In this regard, the Sex book goes hand in hand with Body of Evidence, and compared to that now out of print publication, Body of Evidence was tame stuff.
"I didn't think the script was so great," she said in one TV interview, "and I kind of ignored it. But then Uli and Willem said they were gonna do it, so I became interested. They were going to make it something different. I went to court with Willem and watched murder trials and people who were convicted for murder, how they acted, their facial expression and how they dressed. I watched a lot movies from the 40s, film noir, court room dramas, Hitchcock movies."
Madonna took the role seriously as you can tell by her research, and like Defoe, she overlooked the script's flaws, choosing to focus on the more positive aspects of the project. Madonna was getting a lead role here, something she hadn't enjoyed since 1988's Who's That Girl, a film which disappointed fans, critics, and perhaps most importantly, Madonna herself. Body of Evidence was her chance to stand out front and carry a picture on her charisma alone.
Body of Evidence, very quickly though, became something of a joke to many people. The film as a whole was widely panned, mocked even and went down as one of the big turkeys from the erotic thriller revival era of the early to mid 1990s. It was so savagely torn to shreds that it's impossible to find a single good review of the movie in the archives. Even Madonna's biggest fans, though enjoying the camp qualities of it, had to admit it was a misfire.
Roger Ebert gave the film half a star, and was unrelenting in his hatred for the film. "I've seen comedies with fewer laughs than Body of Evidence," he said, "and this is a movie that isn't even trying to be funny. It's an excruciatingly incompetent entry in the Basic Instinct genre, filled with lines that only a screenwriter could love, and burdened with a plot that confuses mystery with confusion. The movie stars Madonna, who after Bloodhounds of Broadway, Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl? now nails down her title as the queen of movies that were bad ideas right from the beginning. She plays a kinky dominatrix involved in ingenious and hazardous sex with an aging millionaire who has a bad heart. He dies after an evening's entertainment, and Madonna is charged with his murder. What about the story here? It has to be seen to be believed - something I do not advise. There's all kinds of murky plot debris involving nasal spray with cocaine in it, ghosts from the past, bizarre sex, and lots of nudity. We are asked to believe that Madonna lives on a luxury houseboat, where she parades in front of the windows naked at all hours, yet somehow doesn't attract a crowd, not even of appreciative lobstermen. What does she dedicate her life to? She answers that question in one of the movie's funniest lines, which unfortunately cannot be printed here. When it comes to eroticism, "Body of Evidence" is like Madonna's new book. It knows the words but not the music. All of the paraphernalia and lore of S & M sexuality are here, but none of the passion or even enjoyment. We are told by one witness that sex with the Madonna character is intense. It turns out later he's not a very reliable witness."
The main issue with the critics seemed to be Madonna. Though they voiced their concerns for other aspects of the film (especially the plot), Madonna seemed to get the brunt of it all. Had she not been Madonna the pop superstar and provocateur, the film might have got bad notices, but could have escaped relatively unscathed. Starring as it did the most famous pop star on the globe, a woman who was and still is adored and detested in equal measures, it was time for a hatchet job. Off with her head seemed to be the main sentiment. The critics had given her due credit on Desperately Seeking Susan, but refused to weaken for any other film, save perhaps for her small turn in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. Now though, they could pin all the flaws in Body of Evidence on Madonna herself.
The critical backlash could be seen as a kind of verbal revenge, for all her supposed crimes against public decency, the youth market, sex, music and literature. It seemed that from here on in, Madonna was the target and cause for all of the world's problems. It sounds over the top, but some of the rubbish thrown at her for the past thirty odd years has been vile. Such hatred for someone who merely pushes a few buttons, and hasn't even hurt anyone, is a symbol of our sexist times. A man like Paul Verhoeven, he of Basic Instinct and Showgirls infamy, the very man who admitted to getting an erection while filming sex scenes, comes away from the 1990s as a controversial movie hero, sailing on the sidelines of the business. Madonna comes away as a damned whore. Clearly, something about this stinks...
"What to do about poor Madonna?" Vincent Canby rather patronisingly pondered in his merciless New York Times review. "After gaining screen credibility with sharp, funny performances in smallish roles in Dick Tracy and A League of Their Own, and as the great mocking Queen Bee in her own documentary, Truth or Dare, she lands back at square one in Body of Evidence, a sluggish courtroom melodrama relieved only by unintenional laughter. Body of Evidence demonstrates the same teasing, rather parochial obsession with sadomasochistic game-playing that dominates the fantasies of Madonna's 1992 best-selling publishing phenomenon, "Sex," though without the book's redeemingly childlike, go-for-broke smuttiness. Body of Evidence is not a star's cannily packaged reveries. It means to be coherent both as a mystery story and as an odyssey of sexual liberation, but works as neither. It's not even blatant as a star vehicle. Body of Evidence is a movie that might actually have been better if the star had been more demanding. Perhaps the camera would have been more kind to her. Perhaps not."
Though Canby comments that Defoe is a good actor, but not a sensual one, he fails to comment on his looks or general appearance. Mirroring a pattern reflected in other reviews of the time however, Madonna's looks are fair game. While criticisms are made of her performance, the main issue seems to be her physical appearance. If Madonna later felt like a victim of rampant sexism, she would have been well observed. Some of Canby's review reeks of despicable sexism and one sidedness. "There's also the matter of Madonna's screen persona," he goes on. "She's neither a great actress nor a ravishing beauty. She's a self-made personality of engagingly naked ambition and real if often raw wit. She has a sense of humour, also a particular gift for defining the camp sensibility. Forced to play more or less straight, she's at a loss. Body of Evidence is the kind of dopey movie that might work only with someone as stunning to look at as Sharon Stone, whose beautiful face in repose is sullen and sexy and not simply blank. The terrible truth: Madonna doesn't look great in Body of Evidence. She's been unflatteringly photographed most of the time. The sometime sex symbol is only evident in one quick scene in which she is lying naked on her stomach, receiving an acupuncture treatment. Spread out in this way, the torso is gorgeous. When she stands up, the torso seems to collapse into itself. The camera makes her appear dwarfish. She isn't helped by frumpy clothes and a hair style that suggests she would be all too at home with Ilsa and the other she-wolves of the SS."
It's a shameful review, and a perfect example of the way critics could get away with blatant sexism in their reviews. In failing to comment on Defoe's looks, the reviewers look like foolish bullies in retrospect.
"The sex? Well it may be juicy for viewers who enjoy getting laid on broken glass and having hot candle-wax dripped on sensitive parts of their anatomy," the Independent scoffed, clearly offended and taking the whole thing a little too seriously. "We see nipple clamps, but not in situ. And, while Basic Instinct was highly ambivalent towards its rapacious heroine, and ended up attracting a strong lesbian and feminist following, this film's oddly puritanical - the revelation of one character's bisexuality is meant to be a real shocker. Even Madonna, rather unconvincingly, looks aghast. Oh yes, Madonna. She's a little too old for the role (during the press show there was much unkind cackling at the repeated, rather desperate- sounding references to her character's youth and beauty). Shooting her through what looks like several jars of orange marmalade doesn't help. And she's hardly a star shrouded in mystery - to be credible as a did-she-didn't-she femme fatale she needs a veil of ambiguity about her. That's why she's best in straight-arrow, bad-girl supporting roles but lacks the depth and complexity to carry a movie. She's all surface. Basic Instinct's Sharon Stone is not exactly a shrinking violet, but she had the advantage of bursting on the scene out of relative obscurity. And Verhoeven used her well - the infamous crotch- flashing scene had surprise and brevity on its side. But when you can have Madonna in Sex, why bother to see her in this movie?"
Though the film is rarely, it ever at all, sexy in the truest sense, the scene involving the infamous candle wax burnings is admittedly quite steamy, and is certainly strong. Much more shocking than conventionally sexy, it's a scene that few people could ever forget once watching it. The way Madonna leads him to the bedroom is darkly alluring, and as they make their way up the stairs, the mounting tension is felt burning off the screen. When she dashes off quickly, Defoe catches her lying on the bed, where she turns to him. Defoe gets close to her, kissing and attempting to do things the traditional way. But Madonna is firm, she pushes him back and says, quite firmly, "My way." And so, Defoe/Dulaney gets to fully experience sex her way. After the teasing candle burning, she straddles him and rides him to a climax. Unlike the ridiculous sex scene in Basic Instinct, with a howling Stone killing any eroticism stone dead, this scene is seen through a silky black curtain. There glimpses of Madonna on top of him, all in one camera angle, as if we are watching from a doorway, peering in at their passionate union. It is by far the most erotic part of the film, and none of the other sex scenes measure up to it, either being too comical (the car park scene in particular) or unsexy all together (the masturbatory scene on the floor for instance). Had things been kept to this minimum level, the passion aspect of the film might have actually worked. Still, it was the script that let the whole thing down.
In defence of the film, though obviously far from perfect, I do believe that many reviewers missed the humour, the camp tongue in cheek aspects which can be picked up on frequently throughout the movie. To take a movie seriously which contains a line such as "I fuck, that's what I do," is a big mistake.
What killed the erotic aspect for some viewers was Madonna's appearance. In their review, Empire were harsh on Madonna's looks and performance. ""While Madonna is presented as a beautiful young woman of mystery, the fact is she looks far from young, far from beautiful and - for anyone who checked out last year's literary offering, Sex - very far from mysterious."
Madonna felt cheated by the film, and especially how the director decided to end the picture. By killing off Rebecca in an almost stuffily old fashioned movie finale, her bulleted corpse floating in the water with lifeless eyes gazing up at the camera, the filmmakers resorted to a predictable conclusion. While in Basic Instinct, the empowered Trammell was allowed the last laugh, bagging her man and beating the rap, Madonna's femme fatale was punished. Though she did plot the death of her rich lover, and deserved of justice, the clichéd ending still jars with the rest of the film to this day. If the ending could be seen as sexist, you could argue that the very feminist and self empowering Madonna didn't get the treatment she truly deserved. Made into a cartoon villain, she becomes the perfect target for all male frustration; the whore goes too far, and she must be punished with death.
The unsatisfactory manner in which her character finished up triggered something in Madonna. In the future, if she could help it of course, she would try and get more control over her roles and the films she was making. Forming Maverick Films that year, she would attempt to do so in her next starring picture, Dangerous Game. Again, she proved that she had to have full control of every aspect of her career. Movies were no exception.
Further down the line, Madonna was still stung by the film's reception. In an interview with Cosmopolitan in 1996 after the release of Evita, they asked her if she might have more control over her movies in the future. Alluding to her past film work, Madonna said, “Until I’ve had more success in films, there’s little I can control. I can try to choose wisely as far as hair and makeup are concerned. But film is a director's medium. In other words: Try not to work with a director who hates women. In my case, that usually means I’ll be photographed badly and end up dead in the end.”
Pressed to say whether she was referring to Body of Evidence and Dangerous Game, Madonna smiled and replied, “Well, I ended up dead as dead can be in both films… Look, it will be a cold day in hell before any director gives me any consideration on something as important as, let’s say, the final cut. I’ll only experience that sort of control when I direct and produce my own movies.” One day of course, Madonna would do that too.
Madonna was not only dissatisfied with how she looked in the movie, but also the tone of the ending. There were two versions to close the film with. “Of course, they went for the misogynistic ending, where I die," Madonna recalled. "But, you know, it’s in the past. I learned from both experiences. And I survived. I mean, if I could survive what was said about me after Body of Evidence and my Sex book…"
I really do feel that Madonna gives a brilliant effort as the icy femme fatale. Out sexing and shocking Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, there is a lot more to the role than straight faced seduction. There is, as if it's a big surprise, a lot of camp humour in here too.
Looking at the other things Madonna was doing around the time Body of Evidence was released does clear the film up a little. This over the top bonk fest was undoubtedly holding its tongue in its cheek throughout, but a lot of critics missed it all. Empire Magazine however, in their year review of 1993, did say the film was quickly becoming a camp classic; which for me, pretty much sums it up.
Even now, twenty odd years on, people seem to recall the sex scenes more than anything. They are handled well, it has to be said, and the director stages them expertly. In my view, the most interesting thing about the bedroom scenes is the way they are shot. Usually in Hollywood, especially around that time, all sex scenes were the same. They were sound tracked by corny saxophone, the pleasure noises all sounded as if they were done by the same two voice over artists, and the angles always showed mere hints of bare flesh. The writhing was often slowed down, paced at an almost balet-like level to ensure every major movie sex scene was the same. There would also be the obligatory slow motion throwing back of the female's hair, the grinding of hips etc. etc. While Basic Instinct shook this formula up, it still was nowhere near as sexy or imaginative as it thought it was.
A look at the epic, central sex scene in Body of Evidence though shows that Edel, Defoe and Madonna were keen on doing something quite different. Note the way the cameras stays stuck on them as they experiment with the wax. It keeps us right in there, not showing us hints of sex, or a montage of wild orgasmic delight (yawn), but something quite outrageous in itself.
"The love scenes were never meant to be like some MTV break," Defoe told Empire, deflated by the fact that some of the sex scenes had been snipped down, "where you get pieces of shoulder and a load of kinetic cuts and titillating images that drive the audience into a frenzy. We shot them fairly matter-of-factly, lingering, so that things transpire in real time. The American version didn't give it time to unfold like that, it was much quicker cut, so the scenes look less like sex, which I guess is the intent. You realise things have been cut for commercial reasons."
Contrary to theories that Madonna was not in control of her situation through the film, the director himself loved working with her, and felt she was her own woman. "When I first met Madonna," Edel told Empire back in 93. "I told her what the erotic scenes would be and she said how ever far we went, she would go a little bit further. We shot all our erotic scenes at the very end when Madonna and Willem knew each other. There was a chemistry between Willem and Madonna, and I think that's the most important thing, that they can trust each other, and that they can trust the director because they cannot control the final image as it appears on screen. We sat down and choreographed them so we knew exactly what we were doing, but there is spontaneity when you know what you're doing. We improvised some of the scenes - the handcuff scene, the wax scene. I always feel very uncomfortable doing sex scenes because you have to repeat the scene. I mean, the audience see it once but the actors have to do it over again. It was more comfortable for Madonna because she knew and liked Willem, and Madonna came up with some ideas - the masturbation scene, that was her idea."
All these years on, you can see the parallels between Body of Evidence and the more famous Basic Instinct, and one can even get to the believable conclusion that Madonna's screw fest is a spoof of Paul Verhoeven's ludicrous hit. At the time, the comparisons were well noted indeed. Rolling Stone wrote a lengthy piece on Madonna's new feature, and frequently compared it to Basic Instinct.
"The Basic Instinct parallels include the Germanic directors and the convenient battles to get an NC-17 rating changed to an R and reap lots of free press," they wrote. "But let's stick to the trailers. Fattal & Collins, no fools they, know that Basic Instinct grossed $330 million world-wide. So they milk the Basic Instinct trailer shamelessly. Stone is a blonde suspected of multiple murder; ditto Madonna. Stone uses a handkerchief for bedtime bondage; Madonna uses handcuffs. Stone seduces Nick (Michael Douglas), the cop who protects her; Madonna seduces Frank, the lawyer who defends her. Douglas has a jealous girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who warns him about Stone; Dafoe has a jealous wife (Julianne Moore) who slaps Madonna in a rage. These femmes fatales even sound alike. Stone: "Have you ever fucked on cocaine, Nick? It's nice." Madonna: "Have you ever seen animals making love, Frank? It's intense." The dialogue is interchangeable. When Dafoe says to Madonna, "I must have been out of my mind to get involved with you," we don't hear her retort. But Stone's line to Douglas in Basic would fit just fine: "Nicky got too close to the flame. Nicky liked it." The Body trailer trades on associations with other hit thrillers that Body would desperately like to be. Anne Archer turns up for a close-up that seems purposeless except to remind viewers that she was the cheated-on wife in Fatal Attraction. Likewise, Moore appeared as the sassy friend in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, for which "Body's" composer, Graeme Revell, did the score. As the images add up — hands being tied, clothes being ripped, the smirking Madonna being forced to act — you have to marvel at the energy being expended to sell the same old sadism. But the job gets done. Anyone who wants to see more of Body of Evidence after this trailer is a glutton for punishment."
Entertainment Weekly were not afraid of voicing the similarities either, writing that Body of Evidence is "a preposterous erotic thriller from the Basic Instinct fingernails-ripped-my-flesh school, Body of Evidence is shamelessly - and on occasion amusingly - unadulterated trash. The movie is studded with sadomasochistic sex scenes that are meant to be daring and outré but that come off as merely frigid (call me a fuddy-duddy, but watching Madonna pour hot candle wax on Willem Dafoe’s genitals didn’t exactly get my pulse racing). Madonna plays Rebecca Carlson, a Portland, Ore., art-gallery owner whose rich, older lover has died of a heart attack following a night of strenuous sex. Dafoe is Frank Dulaney, the hapless defence attorney whom Rebecca introduces to the dark delights of bondage, pain, and sex in abandoned parking garages. In the will, Rebecca is listed as chief beneficiary, and she admits she pushed her lover into wilder and wilder bedroom antics. As a result, she is dragged into court. On what charge? That, among other things, she literally screwed him to death. The whole premise is ludicrous. How could killing somebody through sexual intercourse possibly be illegal?"
Despite all this, the internet reveals pockets of guilty fandom. The writer at Reel Rundown snuck out the confession that, yes, they really liked the film. But not for conventional reasons of course. "Ok, first things first: this is a bad movie. It deserves the Razzies as well as its flop status. Released on January 15, 1993, the movie was made on a $30,000,000 budget and grossed only $13,000,000. It stands at a 6% critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes as I'm writing these lines. However, as a die-hard Madonna fan, I find it strangely entertaining and I watched it probably many more times than I should have. She always has a strong screen presence and I can't help but look at her when she is in a scene. She dominates every frame, just like in her music videos. Also, I can't review this film without mentioning how great she looks in it. She's absolutely gorgeous and is terrific during the sex scenes. Fans of the Erotica-era Madonna might enjoy seeing her create a character that acts as kind of an extension of her Mistress Dita persona from the Sex book and the album."
So then, is that the answer as to why some of us enjoy the film? Is it the same reason why Paul McCartney fans enjoy Give My Regards to Broad Street? Why David Bowie fans love Labyrinth? Perhaps so. As Madonna fans, do we (I shamelessly include myself in this) accept that high camp is guaranteed, that we don't need to take everything totally serious to enjoy it? After all, the term "guilty pleasure" never applied to a film as correctly as fittingly as it does to Body of Evidence.
Even though the film was massacred, and remains to some an embarrassment to this day, Madonna went and made her femme fatale erotic thriller. She acted the shit out of it, as she proclaimed, and though it's no classic, others regard it as an important entry in her artistic output during the early 90s. When Basic Instinct was busy taking itself ultra seriously as an exploration of sexual politics (male castration by power), Body of Evidence camped it up. As she was prone to do so at the time, Madonna made it cheeky, unconventional and funny. Sure, she could have been involved in a more straight forward erotic thriller, with clichés and all, but this was never going to happen. As she says in the film, it had to be "my way", and that is the only way she could have done it.
Here is a sample from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN: THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE, available on Amazon and ebay...
ONE A.M. (1916)
The difficulties in writing about a popular figure, especially when one is a big admirer of the subject, is trying to keep ones opinions as unbiased as possible. When assessing the work of Charlie Chaplin, someone whose work I adore, it is equally challenging not to over enforce my own opinions of each film on the reader. Given that I have my favourites and am not an academic writer, the book, against my efforts, will naturally become clouded by preferences. That said, I need to come out and declare unashamedly that One A.M. is one of my very favourite Chaplin films, either full length or short.
This 27 minute gem has no plot at all, and features, apart from a driver in the first minute or so, only Charlie Chaplin himself for the whole film. The basic premise, as plain and uninteresting as it seems on paper, features Chaplin as a wealthy drunk, arriving home and being unable to get to bed. He firstly struggles to get through his front door, eventually climbing in the window when the door knob becomes too much of a challenge for him. Once inside, there's the tricky matter of the dual staircases to deal with. Chaplin attempts to scale the steps on numerous occasions but repeatedly fails, and even ends up with the carpet wrapped around him. (This minor set back, however, does not prevent him from pouring himself another drink.) There are multiple, seemingly endless set ups for Chaplin here, each one as hilarious as the last. When he gets his cloak caught on the circular table, it becomes a rat race to reach the decanter. When he comes up with the genius idea of getting on the table to ascend the stairwell, he is trapped in a scurry resembling a hamster in its wheel, running wildly on the revolving surface like a drunken clown.
Other stand outs involve Chaplin wrestling with stuffed animals, climbing up the hat stand and falling about the place in increasingly adventurous ways. When Charlie finally makes it upstairs, he has the erratic Murphy bed to deal with, which springs independently up and down, back and forth, making it impossible for the inebriated Chaplin to get down for a proper night's sleep. Eventually, he settles for the bath, using the matt as a cover.
First and foremost, this film is a showcase for Chaplin the physical comedian and is a perfect chance for him to illustrate his genius not only with the props around him, but with his own body. Though heavily padded, it's a miracle he didn't hurt himself repeatedly plummeting down the stairs, but it's a credit to his nimble, balletic movements that he keeps getting back up unscathed for the next pratfall.
We all know how Chaplin suffered in his childhood, but we are also aware that he absorbed a lot of the behaviour of the London characters he saw every day in the streets, particularly the drunkards. Here, clear from the first frame, Chaplin has not only soaked up all those inebriates, but also every drunk scene he had played on stage and screen himself up to that point, first with the Karno act, then with Keystone and Essanay, before joining Mutual, the studio where he would hone his craft. It's an amalgamation of all his finest drunken work, every fall and stumble a mini work of art in itself. Only Chaplin could make being drunk a thing of genius.
As director, with the help of Roland Totheroh, Chaplin was one of the few filmmakers redefining the rules of cinema, thinking up and executing new ways to make the best of a scene. Whether it was a long shot or a half close up, Chaplin seemed to know the right place for each. Though the British technical innovators of late 19th century and early 20th century cinema had toyed with close ups and perspectives, these men were all but forgotten in a matter of years. Chaplin then, along with the likes of D.W. Griffith, was one of the rare breed who was attempting something outside the box. Granted, One A.M. stays near enough at a straight-on perspective, as if we the viewer are seated in a theatre watching a stage performer do his thing; but there are close ups too, such as when Charlie is wrapped in a carpet, and the camera does move and follow him about the stage. We, naturally, are drawn to him, watching his every move in the strange, almost surreal surroundings he is struggling with.
What makes it even funnier is that Chaplin the drunk never gives up. He could, and perhaps should, just flake out and go to sleep there on the ground floor. But he is stubborn, denying there is a problem and seems intent on getting to bed. It's almost out of spite, refusing to lie down and give in. Chaplin himself said as much in a 1918 article for American Magazine: "Even funnier than the man who has been made ridiculous... is the man who, having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity. Perhaps the best example is the intoxicated man who, though his tongue and his walk give him away, attempts in a dignified manner to convince you that he is quite sober... this attempt at dignity is funny."
Chaplin is right, and anyone who has ever been drunk knows all too well the feeling of attempting to keep one's dignity when so inebriated it's a challenge to merely stand straight. That Charlie's "drunk" (as he is credited) still manages to retain his dignity and air of self respect, even when being sprung about on a malfunctioning bed, or wrestling with a stuffed cat, is a credit to his performance, not merely the hilarity of being a drunk in denial.
Funnily enough, for such a well received short, Chaplin thought it was a misfire. In David Robinson's book on Chaplin, Robinson himself comments that the film was a daring display of virtuosity, but also added that Chaplin himself commented, "One more like that and it's goodbye Charlie." What he meant by this is unclear, but it's notable that Chaplin stayed away from sole comedies again, re-employing his supporting players from the next film onwards.
David Thomson wrote an interesting observation on Chaplin, singling out One A.M. for his insistence that Chaplin's wildly out of control ego could have led him to self destruction and isolation. “The worldwide appeal of Chaplin, and his persistent handicap, have lain in the extent to which he always lived in a realm of his own: that of delirious egotism. Is there a more typical or revealing piece of classic Chaplin than One A.M., in which he exists in virtuoso isolation, executing every variation on the drunk-coming-home theme? It is like a dancer at the bar, confronting himself in a mirror."
I wonder if Chaplin knew that a one man show brought too much attention to his self absorption; or maybe secretly he hated bearing the sole responsibility and being the focal point to the millions of viewers all over the world. Reviewers did applaud his efforts, but Photoplay were quick to say, "Come on back Edna", a demand which perhaps caught Charlie's attention. Ego stroking or not, filmed theatre or no-frills cinema, it's early Chaplin at his most inspired, entertaining, and perhaps most importantly of all, funny.
Musician Happy Traum knew Dylan back in the 60s and also recorded exclusive tracks with him for the second volume of his Greatest Hits, released in 1971. Here he shares his thoughts and memories.
Do you remember the first time you met Bob Dylan?
I was first introduced to Bob in 1962 by our mutual friend, Gil Turner. I don't remember precisely, but it's possible that our first meeting was at Gil’s apartment, at a party where we were all sitting around swapping songs. Some underground tapes were made that day that have long been called The Banjo Tapes. I remember Bob singing If I Had to Go It Again I’d Do It All Over You, as well as a song that has since been covered several times, I’m A-Walking Down the Line. Please note that my chronology might be off a little. It’s been a long time…
What are some of the best memories of those early days on the folk scene, duetting with Dylan and recording his Blowin' in the Wind?
The session at which I recorded Blowin' in the Wind, with my group the New World Singers, was a memorable one for me. I was in a professional recording studio for the first time in my life and there, in the same room, were Bob Dylan (aka Blind Boy Grunt), Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, the Freedom Singers, Peter LaFarge, Mark Spoelstra and, of course, the New World Singers. This was early in 1963. Bob had taught our group Blowin' in the Wind and we were singing it at Gerdes Folk City and other venues, but very few people had heard the song at this point. It may have already been published in Broadsides Magazine, but that’s easy to document. In any case, Bob was very happy to have us do the recording, which was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time it ever appeared on record. This was also the session where Bob taught me Let Me Die in My Footsteps. He pulled out a piece of paper with the lyrics at the session, we went into the hallway and practiced it for about 10 minutes, and then we stepped in front of the microphone and played and sang it together. That was a pretty exciting day for me.
You stayed friends with Bob didn't you?
I had moved to Woodstock, NY with my family in 1966 and Bob lived right up the road from where we were staying. He was recuperating from his accident and was keeping a low profile, but he remembered us well from our NYC days so we became reacquainted and good friends. We played music together at his house and at mine, our kids played with his, and we spent quite a bit of family time together.
You ended up recording again with Bob for the Greatest Hits 2 album. How did this come about?
One day, in 1971, he called me and asked me if I would come into New York City with a banjo, a guitar and a bass. So, of course, I took the bus to New York with all my gear and met him at the Columbia Studios. As I remember, Bob and his family had recently moved to the city and he was living on MacDougal Street. It was an evening session. Bob, the sound engineer and I were the only ones in the building. We recorded four tracks, three of which later appeared on his Greatest Hits, Volume 2 album. The fourth one, Only a Hobo, came out just last year, on Bob's Another Self Portrait box set.
How can you describe playing those songs up close like that? What is it like playing with Dylan so intimately?
That studio session was very relaxed and friendly, just as it was when we played together at home. Although I was aware of the potential importance of the sessions, I was able to put that behind me and just have fun. We didn’t do more than two takes of any song, so it was very spontaneous. The only thing that wasn’t live was my bass part on You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, which I overdubbed. I had no idea whether any of those songs would ever see the light of day, so I was really delighted when they actually appeared on his Greatest Hits compilation.
One of them was I Shall be Released, which was already a classic by then because of The Band, Basement Tapes and cover versions. What are your memories of recording it?
I had known this song from The Band’s Big Pink album, as well as from the much rougher Basement Tapes, and I always loved it. Like everything else, Bob put his own stamp on the song, and when we did it in the studio it just came out in a new way. I like to think that I contributed to the feel of it with the way I played my part on the guitar and sang my vocal harmony.
You Ain't Going Nowhere; that version has been one of my favourites since I was a kid.
I have to add that this is one of my all time favourite things I have done in my career. I never get tired of hearing this version of the song and I’m extremely proud of the way it came out. To me, it has a joyous spontaneity and a great groove that just makes you want to tap your feet and sing along. I’m pretty sure Bob likes it too.
You've obviously done so much more aside working with Bob, but how do you feel he sits among the greats?
To me, Bob is on a pinnacle all his own. I can think of more accomplished guitar players, smoother singers, maybe even better pop songwriters, but I can’t think of anyone who comes close to delivering the whole package he has always given us. For me he stirs emotions, especially in his earlier work, that no one else can touch. I’d much rather hear Bob sing his songs than any of the “better” singers who have recorded them. And he’s still putting it out there all these years later!
What are some of the things that come into your mind when you think of Bob?
I still think of him as this young kid, freshly arrived in Greenwich Village, blowing everyone’s minds with his raw talent and unusual take on traditional folk and blues songs. Then, there are the songs he started writing that made his career. One night in 1963, the New World Singers were doing the late set at Gerde’s - around 1 a.m. - and Bob wandered in. There were probably a dozen people in the audience, half of them a little tipsy. We invited him to get on stage and do a couple of songs, so he pulled out his guitar and proceeded to play a new one, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Needless to say, we were all thunderstruck. No had ever written a song so poetic and meaningful, or delivered it with such power and passion. It was an unforgettable experience and I can’t hear that song, even today, without thinking of that first time he sang it for us. It rocked our world.
This interview with Ian Gillan is included in my 2013 book, THE MUSIC OF BLACK SABBATH, available from Amazon now in a new print:
Born Again is perhaps one of the most interesting Sabbath albums to explore for a few reasons, one of course being the presence of the album’s lead singer. With Ronnie James Dio out of the picture, Sabbath needed a new and exciting vocalist to front them. There were a few candidates and likely replacements for Dio (Robert Plant being one, and a young Michael Bolton who sent in an audition tape) but just how many people could have guessed who they would choose?
Ian Gillan was and still is one of rock’s most iconic singers. Fronting Deep Purple through their golden period, his voice could enter whole other realms, dramatic heights never before heard in rock. Take Child in Time for instance, from Purple’s brilliant 1970 In Rock album; when it reaches those ridiculously high screeches, you hear a voice of incredible power that is possibly unrivaled on a technical level to this day. The man is a brilliant vocalist no doubt about it, but was he the right man for Black Sabbath? How would the fans accept him? I asked Ian Gillan himself what he felt fan’s reactions might be to him joining the band.
“I didn’t even know I’d joined the band, let alone think about fans reactions,” he said. “I had a phone call from my manager Phil Banfield the day after a very liquid meeting with Tony and Geezer, a meeting about which I remember nothing apart from the venue…The Bear in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Phil said to me that he thought I should have consulted him before making major career decisions. I asked him what he was talking about and he told me that I had joined Black Sabbath during a meeting with Tony and Geezer. Ah…?! Not that he minded at all and it made sense as I was without a band and Sabbath were without a singer; of course there’s more to it than that but in essence we all signed up for one album and a world tour. It was the longest party I’ve ever been to.”
The album was originally going to be a fresh new project for Iommi and co. but manager Don Arden persuaded them to use the Sabbath name. Recording began in May 1983 at The Manor Studio in Shipton-on-Cherwell, Oxfordshire, with co-production between the band and Robin Black. It’s well reported that the band had a blast while recording the album and some of the adventures even inspired the lyrical content of the songs. Happily, Bill Ward was also back in the band behind the kit, which added another interesting element to the sound.
The album opens with Trashed, a very 80s sounding rocker with a classic Iommi thrashing riff. Gillan instantly makes his presence known with one of his trademark shrieks a few seconds in, and Bill Ward, making a welcome return to the band’s sound, crashes and thumps along solidly. In my view it has a similarity to some of Gillan’s Deep Purple work and almost sounds like something from the Fireball album on acid. The track’s one stand out for me is the brilliant fuzzy solo by Iommi, uncharacteristic of his usual nicely formed style, totally wild and messy. It is also worth noting that considering 1983 was a key year for metal, with the release of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All and the general wide emergence of thrash, it sounds as if Sabbath might be attempting to keep up with the rapid progress of the genre.
“Trashed is my favourite track,” Gillan says. “And it’s based on a true story.” That true story of course involves a pissed Ian Gillan taking Bill’s car and crashing it in a go-cart track near the studio.
Stonehenge is a 2 minute instrumental and could easily have been taken from the soundtrack of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Starting with some unnervingly haunting keyboards from Geoff Nicholls, it develops into an ambient collage of oddity, with dramatic rising cymbals, gusting wind and even a heartbeat pumping away. One pictures the druids circling the ancient stones along to its eeriness.
It leads into the next track on the album, Disturbing the Priest which begins with a great fuzzed out Iommi riff and some hammy cackling laughter from Gillan. Although inspired by amusing consequences (the band were rehearsing near a church and received complaints for noise pollution from the priests), there’s some very sinister sounds circling the listener here. The sliding guitar notes are particularly chilling, and Gillan’s vocal is wonderfully over the top.
The 45 second The Dark is another slightly disturbing short interlude of macabre echoes and indescribable sounds, leading into my personal favourite song from the album, Zero the Hero. Featuring a classic heavy Iommi riff, the song also has some wonderful touches from Nicholls on the keyboards that could have come right from a 1980s sci-fi film. Gillan’s gruff vocals have him at his best on the album and the whole band work excellently together, exploding in unity during the catchy chorus. Surely one of their most underrated songs from the 80s.
Heading off Side 2 is the fast rocker Digital Bitch, with a screeching Tony solo opening the song. Gillan gives it some “Speed Freakish” welly and Geezer’s bass grunts and growls in the background gloriously. The song’s chorus, although daft, is a delight and like much of the album, it’s so camp it sounds a little tongue in cheek, which of course makes it a very enjoyable listen. No wonder the album and its accompanying tour inspired moments from 1984s classic rock spoof This is Spinal Tap (Stonehenge anyone?).
The title track begins with Geezer and Iommi riffing together through wah-wah pedals, with added glossy, elaborate Ward drum fills. Gillan is on very 80s cheese metal form throughout, but also illustrates his brilliant range. The longest cut on the record, for me it’s also the least enjoyable. Hot Line could be vintage Van Halen, with a storming backbeat and meaty Iommi riff driving it along. Geezer chugs away on the bass reliably and although he is lower in the mix than he was in the Ozzy years, his presence is still felt. Gillan is excellent once again, while Tony’s solo is as good as anything he has ever done. A fan of both Sabbath and Purple can surely only enjoy hearing Iommi and Gillan ripping it up together in the same song. Keep It Warm is the album’s closer, another rocker complete with sing-along anthemic chorus and chugging Iommi riff. When the track fades out, you can’t help but feel the album you have just listened to was definitely an enjoyable ride, even if it bears little resemblance to classic Sabbath.
When I first heard the album when I was a kid, I absolutely hated it. I hated the cover (so did everyone else, press and band included, especially Gillan who reportedly vomited when he first saw it), I hated the glossy 80s sound of it, especially the echoing smashing snare drum and I thought Gillan’s screeching vocals were no match for Ozzy’s distinct tones. Nearly 20 years on since I first heard it, I think I get it now. You need to sever yourself from what we all see as typical Sabbath material, and accept that things do move on. The album is a product of its time, but it’s also really fun. Iommi’s guitar playing throughout is exceptional and hearing Gillan with the band is a joy. One can definitely hear the fun that was had during the making of it.
What does Ian remember about making the album?
“A bit like the first meeting – not much; I lived in a tent and got blown up…that was fun.” Asked about how he looked back on the album, Gillan said: “With great affection; I loved working with Tony, Geezer and Bill and the chemistry was evident from day one. I think the material was great and even got to love the cover when it came out.”
The album was a chart success when it came out, getting into the UK Top 5 and into the Top 40 in the US. Although it received some negative reviews at the time, Born Again has aged surprisingly well and has now gained new fandom down the years. At the time however, it wasn’t viewed so positively, especially by some of the band.
“When we first put that line-up together,” Iommi said, looking back on Born Again. “It was only on paper done purely by lawyers. Ian is a great singer, but he’s from a completely different background and it was difficult for him to come in and sing Sabbath material. To be honest, I didn’t like some of the songs on that album and the production was awful. We never had time to test the pressings after it was recorded, and something happened to it by the time it got released.”
After the album was released, Sabbath set out on the road for a worldwide tour. Hating the idea of heading out all over the globe, especially after recovering from his heavy drink problem, Bill Ward quit again and was replaced by ELO drummer Bev Bevan. The tour took in several key performances, such as their headline slot at the 83 Reading Festival.
Thankfully for some, Gillan didn’t stick around for much longer. After the Born Again tour he returned to Deep Purple for a reunion and Bev Bevan also left too. For a year or so, Sabbath floundered around, firstly trying a new singer and even attempting to get Bill Ward back on board. Although Born Again was a fun album, it can hardly be called classic Sabbath material. The music was occasionally good fun but the lyrical content sounded like it was trying too hard to be “satanic” and evil, whereas their best work, i.e. with Geezer-penned lyrics, had much more substance to it. By the mid 1980s, there seemed to be no definite direction and Sabbath had lost that signature sound that had defined them throughout the 1970s.
This interview with acclaimed director Stephen Frears is included in my new film publication, SCENES, in a Lindsay Anderson special with includes other interviews and articles on Anderson's films.
Get the magazine here:
Today, Stephen Frears is recognised across the world as one of the industry's most reliable and consistently brilliant directors. Back in the 1960s however, he was an assistant at the Royal Court before working on if... as Lindsay Anderson's right hand man. I visited Stephen Frears at his London home in mid 2019 to speak to him about Anderson, of whom I was making a modest documentary at the time. According to film journo types, he is known for being a bit tetchy in interviews. I don't know what they are on about frankly. I found Frears warm, friendly, interesting and extremely accommodating. Though I used bits of our chat in the documentary, this is the full interview, albeit a laid back one, in print.
Do you remember first meeting Lindsay Anderson?
I met him in Majorca. He'd gone out to meet Dan Massey to get him to work for him. That was the first time I saw him.
What do you remember from the first meeting?
Not very much! (Laughs) I used to go down from Cambridge to see plays at the Royal Court, and there I realised how brilliant he was.
So when did you become his assistant at the Royal Court?
I finished Cambridge in 63 and I became an assistant in 64. I was really an assistant to Anthony Page. Lindsay wasn't officially at the Court but he was there most days.
What kind of experience did you have with him there?
Well I was really out of my depth at the Court. I was a boy from the country, a boy from the provinces. But you had to have your champion. There were these brilliant men, Bill Gaskell and John Dexter. And Lindsay looked after me. So he was kind. But at the same time also shouty.
But you got on with him quite easy then?
How did you get to be his assistant on if....? Did he just come out and ask you?
No, by then I had become a director. And then I must have been doing nothing. Maybe someone said, Can you come down and help?
So what did you know about if.... before going in?
I remember reading the script. I was working at Memorial Enterprises, Albert Finney's company, and I remember the script coming in. Well, I remember Lindsay bringing it in. First it was called The Crusaders, then Come the Revolution. Then a woman called Daphne Hunter, who'd been Lindsay's secretary at the BFI said, Oh for goodness sake just call it if.... And it stuck. She just got cross and said call it if....
And he added the four dots?
Yes. And I remember at a screening... my then wife who edits the London Review of Books, saying, Should it be three or four dots? Are there four full stops?
She questioned whether it should be four. I think she got a bollocking for that. And also for calling it a movie.
So he had already done This Sporting Life then hadn't he? And all the great shorts too.
Yes but I didn't know them. Gradually I got to know them, but I did see This Sporting Life at the time. This Sporting Life was in a cinema, you could go and see it, whereas Everyday Except Christmas wasn't. I thought all those people were very clever and I liked that whole movement
So what were your jobs on if....?
I used to make those collages that are on the walls. David Wood said Lindsay used to make me rehearse with them or something ghastly. I was just around.
There are pictures of you somewhere doing all kinds of things...
Oh really? Of being useful?
Or pretending to be useful!
Pretending to be useful, yes. (Laughs)
So you were sat cutting the pictures out?
Yes I remember doing those collages. And when he shoots the picture of the Queen or Audrey Hepburn. I remember doing all that.
So you do you remember thinking that it was going to be a powerful film?
Oh yeah - and that it was going to be a very popular film too. I never had a moment's doubt. There's a famous photo of a girl putting a flower down a rifle, which was of that moment. You just knew it was absolutely about what was going on at that instant. I never had a moment's doubt about it.
Some of it was actually filmed at Lindsay's old school wasn't it?
We filmed a lot of it at Cheltenham yes, and in North London. But a large part was done at Cheltenham.
Is it true that he wrote a fake screenplay to give to the headmaster?
Yes I think he did, but if you want my honest opinion I think the headmaster was cleverer than that and knew that it would be very interesting. So I never thought Lindsay had fooled the headmaster, I always thought the headmaster had been clever.
What was it like to watch Lindsay in control of a film like if....?
Well he was very straight forward. One of the problems is that he did not know the language of film. When you work on a film you work with technicians who work for 50 weeks of the year, so they know a hell of a lot more than you do. And because he had long gaps between filmmaking, it didn't come naturally to him in a way. I saw if... quite recently and I think the everyday bits of it are quite awkward. On the other hand the surrealist bits are absolutely brilliant. But he wasn't familiar with the language. And always the crew know far more than you. They just know an enormous amount. Lindsay never fully understood Miroslav (Ondricek, cinematographer of if....) and his use of lenses. He was always quite bewildered by what he was shooting. The thing with Lindsay was he was very much in favour of everybody else, i.e. me, doing any job that was going. They want you to make a cheap thriller, go and make it... everybody except himself!
Do you agree with him? Do you think that's a good bit of advice?
I think it is very good advice. I remember Jack Clayton saying, Don't be like us, don't wait five years to make another film... But I think that if.... is a terrific piece of thinking. I was always less sure about O Lucky Man. I don't think I have seen Britannia Hospital, but O Lucky Man I was always rather dodgy about. I think it kind of peters out. That was what separated the men from the boys.
O Lucky Man is not as punchy is it?
No. And if... was very thought-through and told a good story and everything. There is a wonderful shot of a tall boy looking through a telescope looking at the girl leaning out of a window. And she's waving, you know. Absolutely fantastic.
Was all that kind of stuff all Lindsay's call?
Yes that would have been Lindsay. It is a wonderful shot. The surrealist stuff is terrific, much better than the clunky everyday stuff. He just had a very good mind, Lindsay. I think what he was, really, was a critic, and if.... was a piece of criticism on a very high level... on the country and everything.
Is it daft to ask you what you learned from Lindsay as a director for yourself?
I don't have a clue. I can never answer that question. Lindsay would say, Have you thought about this? He would make you think it all through. A lot of it was that I learned how to cast films. That came out of Miriam Brickman, a good friend of Lindsay's who was a casting director. They made you think it all through.
And trust your gut instinct?
Absolutely. If you haven't got instinct don't even start. Yes.
So then you began directing TV and film yourself, and you hired Lindsay to direct the TV play The Old Crowd, with you producing. That's something we don't get to read much about. What kind of experience was that?
The whole of LWT couldn't believe this man was coming to work with them. They couldn't believe what the implications were. We finished working at three in the morning. God knows how much it cost in the end. Lindsay became enormously entertaining. I will get shot for saying this but it's possible he was more entertaining than the work he was doing. He was very sharp and funny. So the crew just couldn't believe that such a wonderful man had appeared in their midst. He was very dazzling. You see he was a military man, used to being in charge. He was very outrageous. Good for him. He would tell you what he thought. He wouldn't hold his tongue.
Did you stay friends after if.... and beyond?
Yes... the truth is I saw him on and off all through where our lives intersected. I had lunch with him about three weeks before he died. By then I had got to know Alexander McKendrick and he said, Oh I see you described him as a great man. He said, He should have backed us. I think that was something to with the Royal Court in the fifties. So this was in the nineties, forty years later, Lindsay was still feeling the same bitter edge.
The end portrait of Lindsay is often quite a sad one I think. He couldn't get much work in the film world...
You mean Lindsay?
Well, I mean, I can't believe I get to keep on working. Yes. People would hire him knowing he was difficult, then he was difficult and they'd get cross. He would always present himself as being able to do anything, a western or a novel adaption, as if he could do something straight forward. But in the end he was directing plays in the West End. Maybe he could have done those films but they didn't give him the chance. Maybe he would have destroyed the opportunity in some way.
Lindsay used to say filmmakers are either poets or professionals, and he though John Ford was the only one who was both. Did he sometimes make it seem like he could be both too, like John Schlesinger or something?
God he was vicious about John Schlesinger.
I know, that's why I mentioned him!
(Laughs) Watch it! Yes, but actually, distinguishing between poets and professionals... I am not sure about that. It's quite a trite observation for me, that.
Do you have personal favourite memories of if....?
Funnily enough things I remember most were things like Robert Kennedy being shot, hearing it on the radio on the way to work. You knew it was a film about what was going on. I mean, I have hit the zeitgeist now and then. My Beautiful Launderette hit the zeitgeist. But if...., it was very clear, to me at least, that this was absolutely relevant.
It seems Lindsay was a big name back in the 60s and 70s, whereas now...
Yes but that's a separate problem. He has a reputation among people my age. But I would imagine that younger people wouldn't have the first idea who he is. Maybe Lindsay just had a moment where everything worked. Lindsay did a few plays, all by David Storey and they were all magical. And I think if... was made around the same time.
Do you have nice memories of the latter period?
Yes I used to go and have lunch with him. We used to go to a restaurant together, but I would have lunch with him. By then videos had come in so his room was stacked with them. He was a very intelligent man, a brilliant man. I don't know anybody like him now. He was also a provocateur.
Comparing your career with Lindsay though, you've had a brilliant career, and been given so many chances to keep on making films...
But I wasn't difficult.
I was going to say, is it just the difficultness?
Yes maybe. And maybe I have different taste; my taste is more vulgar perhaps. But if you think of if...., for that brief moment he had it, he was able to juggle it all brilliantly. I remember Lindsay saying to me, quite late in life, For a moment I thought I could do it. I understood that. If it's working it should flow easily. Almost invisible actually, in a way Ford could have understood. You make films for people's pleasure, and any artistic importance is incidental. It's about giving pleasure to the audience. So for me there has been times where I have felt it's good fun and what I am doing is the right thing. And then you go round the corner and it's not... So what I am really saying is that at the end of the sixties, everything Lindsay had been working for made sense. Everything came together at that point. Then it won the Palme Dor. Good for him. But you have to be lucky and on if.... he was lucky. I mean, you find Malcolm McDowell and you're lucky. But yes, it all came together. The audience were ready for him and he gave them what they wanted.
You don't think he has a legacy?
No, now he has no legacy. But I'm glad I knew him. In the end, it's the human things that matter.
I like that he wasn't a snob and seemed to be so kind.
Oh yes he was very kind. His flat was always full of people whose lives were wrecked. Jill Bennett and Rachel Roberts... He was like a refuge for them. But to me it always seemed like he was celibate. He had a single bed, a room like a student. Like a sort of monk really. 57 Greencroft Gardens... He did live modestly, and that was how it was after all...
GET SCENES NOW:
This interview with Beefheart drummer Art Tripp is taken from my book on Beefheart, featuring reviews and interviews. Some people seem to think it's a load of balls but I still like it. It isn't meant to be an in depoth biography, it's mainly recollections from people who were there.
Going from Zappa to Beefheart, how did you adapt your musical style to fit Don's music?
More musical styles were required with Zappa, from doo-wop to free-form and everything in between. There was a chamber music feel in some of the pieces. Playing music scores was what I was accustomed to from my conservatory training and symphonic work. Apart from the charted music, it was a great opportunity for me to play anything that I liked - and I usually did. There was plenty of time for improvisation. In those days we never used a set list, so the concerts were always of indeterminate lengths. There were always plenty of stage shenanigans.
There was more intensity required for performing the Beefheart music. With the exception of rock ‘n roll sections in songs like “Alice in Blunderland”, or when Don and I would end the shows with “Spitball Scalped a Baby”, there was no musical improvisation. All the songs were played each time with the same parts.
When I first started playing with Don and the guys, it was on drums. But they wanted me to play in the style of John French’s drumming (Drumbo, who had left the band)on Trout Mask Replica. It was not a style I could easily adapt to, nor did I want to, so John came back in, and I switched to playing marimba. On Decals I played marimba and some drums. Later when John left following The Spotlight Kid, I switched back to drums. Starting with that smaller group I feel that I became a much better performer on drums, in contrast to simply being a good player. I recall one British reviewer who wrote that I was like a caveman, and he believed that my arms were anatomically longer than normal. That’s the image that you want to portray for audience appeal.
How did you get on with Don? How can you describe him to work with?
Don and I got on famously well. We were both only-children, had a strong sense of the absurd, and were closer in age than the other guys. Composing/arranging music with Don was another matter. I had been used to working with trained musicians. Since Don had no understanding of meter, pitch, harmony, phrasing or time, putting together the music was painstaking, circuitous, mysterious and haphazard. It was often surprising but relieving that we all actually got anything completed.
When rehearsing with the full group Don tended to deflect attention from his own anxieties or apprehensions by finding fault with, or blaming others. This not only resulted in a lot of time wasted, but it tended to put everyone on edge. He rarely rehearsed his vocal parts with the band, most often because he had no idea what he was going to sing, or how it was going to be sung with the music. I’m sure this put additional pressure on him as it got closer to recording time. There must have been some serious wood-shedding sessions with certain producers.
Any memories from recording Lick My Decals Off? How was it to record that album?
It was a lot of fun recording Decals. UCR was a first rate studio, and had lots of history behind it. I was used to working with the engineer, Dick Kunc, who had been Zappa’s engineer when we recorded at Apostolic in New York. Dick was rightfully accustomed to working efficiently and economically. He took exception with Don’s tendency to swerve off into psycho-babble interruptions, so there was eventually a big clash, and Dick was fired. Phil Schier came in, who did an admirable job. Phil also engineered Spotlight Kid at the Record Plant.
It still tickles me when I look back, though, that at the time we believed some of that music could become popular. That’ll give you an idea of where we were.
You did a few Beefheart records. Which is your personal favourite? Which was most fun to record?
I enjoyed doing all the albums: Decals, Spotlight Kid, Clear Spot, Unconditionally Guaranteed, and Shiny Beast. It was always nice to come back to L.A. to the studios, and to spend some time at my old haunts (although Shiny Beast was done in San Francisco). L.A. was still fun in the 70’s. It hadn’t yet turned into the totalitarian nightmare that it is today, with the intense overcrowding and the crushing P.C. atmosphere.
Clear Spot was the most professionally produced, with Guaranteed coming in second. Ted Templeman was a pleasure to work with. He was a friendly low key guy who kept Don out of the way so we could get things done. Same with the Andy Dimartino and Guaranteed, although Andy was much more animated.
Decals is probably my favorite in terms of artistry of content and performance. Clear Spot had the most commercial appeal. Guaranteed had the best feel, and had some of the most naturally catchy songs on it. Unfortunately the album was ruined by the mix, which buried the tracks in order to bring out Don’s voice. I actually thought we might chart with that one. But when I first heard the completed package, I was shocked and disgusted.
THE BOOK IS AVAILABLE FROM LULU AND AMAZON NOW.....
In 2015 I did an audiobook with comedian and actor MATT KING (Super Hans). Here's a little thing I wrote about it at the time. Also includes a link to the audiobook.
Even though Dodson and Fogg, my music project, is my main focus, I also like to mix it up with bits of writing, whether it be Hound Dawg (yes, the charming publication you happen to be reading) non fiction books or comedy audiobooks. I've just done one of the latter actually, The Hunt for the Mayor of Smoochyville, a mad comedy about two odd balls who go and track down a feral mayor who has fled the town, tired of the snobbery he is faced with from day to day, The papers are offering a cash reward for his capture, so Smithy and Martin head out, faced with many distractions on the way.
Segments of this comedy were from a few years ago, but I always ended up dumping the stories they were a part of and just keeping my favourite bits. I finally wrote it into this form a few weeks back. In truth, I had one actor's voice in my head for it. I've done this before and it always works out pretty well. In 2010 I wrote Cutey and the Sofaguard with Rik Mayall's voice in my head as a guide, and ended up recording the audio version with him. I did one for surreal comedian Charlie Chuck, and that was a good laugh. This time, I had actor Matt King in my mind. To those unfamiliar with his real name, he plays Super Hans in Peep Show, has appeared in many films such as Bronson, London Boulevard and Rock n' Rolla, as well as TV shows like Dog face and IT Crowd. He's naturally funny and has this marvelous delivery, effortlessly lifting lines up to a new level with his drawl.
We arranged for him to record it where he lives in Indonesia and got the files sent over to me via the wonderful world wide web. I had a chat with him on the phone about characters, but my instructions were simple; just be you!
The resulting audiobook is actually my favourite I have done, save for the work me and my dad did in the past which is definitely brill, mainly because we had such a laugh doing it. But this one has come out really well. Check it out at:
With the news that this lost classic is being restored and re-released, I thought I would post my piece on it which was featured in my book, DENNIS HOPPER THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE. So here it is...
Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue is a nihilistic, anarchic and shocking piece of cinematic destruction, a terrifying deconstruction of the family unit and a buried treasure in cinema history. It's also a definitive stand out from Hopper's own supposed "lost" years. Written initially by Leonard Yakir, who was also due to direct the movie before Hopper stepped into his shoes, it follows a young girl called Cebe (played by Linda Manz), who worships the recently departed Elvis, loves punk rock and insists to everyone she meets that "disco sucks." She's also waiting for her father to come out of prison. Don, played with vile, self involved exuberance by Dennis Hopper, ran his truck into a school bus drunk out of his mind, killed the children on board and served five years in prison for his sins. Cebe lives with her mother, drug addicted floozy Kathy (Sharon Farrell) and both are excited about Don's release, despite the fact he's a drunken mess who can barely hold himself together, let alone a family. Put in the uncomfortable sexual elements, the references to incest and the devastating, violent ending, and it's little wonder that this film was banned, shelved and hidden away upon its original release. All these years on though, the Canadian made psycho drama is actually very interesting, a brave study of adolescence, idolisation, disappointment and the strange other worldly feeling of living in a small town, and heading nowhere slowly.
In an article entitled "Not a Picnic," the Village Voice said wrote that it was "a genuinely alarming miasma of misplaced sexuality and rock ’n’ roll fetishism—Dead Elvis lives! Neil Young mourns!—Out of the Blue is basically a family drama with Dennis the Menace directing himself as the world’s supreme fuckup."
There is something perversely enjoyable about seeing Dennis Hopper direct himself as a down and out alcoholic, seen pouring whiskey over his head, recklessly drink driving even after his five year sentence, stealing dynamite and being a general psychopath. Given that it was made during Hopper's troubled years of drink and drug abuse, there is something darkly ironic about his highly effective performance. In fact, it's rather unsurprising that he gives one of his finest ever efforts, clearly closer to the role than we can possibly imagine.
As Cebe, Linda Manz carries the movie, roaming the haunted town like an aimless, angry ghost, someone who belongs elsewhere; London in 1977 perhaps. In her father's absence, she's taken on his role, manned herself up, and is even slightly paternal to her own mother. The eerie sounds of Neil Young's brilliant Hey Hey, My My echo throughout like the church bells at an impending funeral, the horrific climax, which not only ends the film in a mighty, unforgettable fashion, but also convinces us that this messed up family are much better off dead than alive.
Although the very closing scene does stun you with its abruptness, it's also unforgettable and acts as a perfect end to this most strange, deprived and thoughtless journey through a lost world. While the punk ethos, which was still alive in 1980, is never really used as a direct tool for Manz's anger and alienation, it does act as a good side line to the confusion, dissatisfaction and muddled detachment she has with her family - although to really call it a family is a mistake. This junked up unit has had it from the opening reel of the film, and we know it.
It's funny to think that one of Hopper's seminal directorial efforts didn't even begin as his work. He spoke to Interview Magazine all about it, saying "When I went out to do Out of the Blue, it was initially only to act in the movie. What happened was that Out of the Blue was written by this husband-and-wife writer team, and the guy who was going to direct it had never made a real movie before. So I go to Vancouver to play this father character, and I’m sitting in my trailer ready to work for two-and-a-half weeks, and (my manager) Paul keeps coming to me and saying, 'This guy can’t direct, man. This is awful. There’s no usable footage.' He said, 'You go in there.' So I said, 'I’m not going to go in and fucking intimidate this guy. I’m going to stay here until he wants me to work.' So after two-and-a-half weeks, it’s a Friday, and Paul and I are having dinner and he said, 'I’m closing down production.' So I said, 'What? I haven’t even worked yet!' He said, 'There’s no usable footage.' But, he said, 'You could make it in three-and-a-half weeks. But we’ve got all of these locations. We can’t move them.' I said, 'I’m going to move them all to the centre of Vancouver.' So, it’s like, boom! I move all the locations, rewrite the whole thing, and shoot it all in three-and-a-half weeks. I do it and I get it into competition at Cannes, but Canada refused to put their flag behind it. Then they renounce it as a Dennis Hopper movie. Afterward, we tried to distribute it, but we couldn’t get it out for a wide distribution—it’s about incest, so no one wants to touch it."
OK, let's be honest; technically, Out of the Blue is at times a little shambolic, but this fits perfectly to Hopper's vision of self destruction. The artistic imperfection can also be seen as a metaphor for the family's detachment from reality and their refusal to go along with ordered society; or in this case, ordered film making. In fact, the flaws in the final product only heighten the movie's punch, accentuating their trashy life styles. After all, Hopper is driving through the junk yard while drinking scotch in numerous scenes, surrounded by flocks of flapping birds out to get scraps of food or whatever they can find; he is a man on the rubbish tip of life in more ways than one. Would such a man warrant a cleanly edited, organised movie centred around him? Hopper's slightly disordered handling of Yakir's original film is near to genius, the end product, as ramshackle and ugly as it often is, defining the lost years in the wake of 1960s idealism, through the nothingness of the 1970s, and leading coldly into the vile, selfish greed of the 1980s. Like Easy Rider, Out of the Blue is, as Hopper himself said, something of a time capsule, capturing the end of a culturally empty, desolate decade. The characters can't reach a level of contentment within themselves, with Cebe the girl wanting to be a boy, but still wanting to hang on to her feminine side; to be "a ballerina" as Hopper said. As Easy Rider caught a distinct moment in time, namely the end of the dreamy, idealistic sixties and the start of the harsher, more back to earth realness of the seventies, Out of the Blue leaves the 1970s behind, hand in hand with the anger, tuneless rage and frustrations of punk rock, the death of Elvis and "real" rock and roll. Neil Young's anthemic track from his classic Rust Never Sleeps album is a perfect theme tune (Hopper heard it on the radio one day driving to the set and decided it would be a great movie title), rather fittingly the same song Kurt Cobain quoted in his suicide note. This is a film for the disaffected, for the outsider gazing in longingly, but not really wanting to be a part of anything. Hungry but rejecting an embrace of any kind. It's just a shame that so few people get to see it. But let's face it, selling a film about incest was never going to be easy.
"It's difficult for people to look at things as symbols rather than what's actually going on in the movie," Hopper later commented. "That movie is more symbolic of the society of the time and the place." He later called it his best directorial film, and many agree - for the record, me included.
Although some may struggle with the raw qualities of this movie -"a film of its time - the punk generation" as one interviewer called it when speaking to Hopper - it's essential viewing for anyone interested in cultural movies and Hopper's grander visions of society.