Saturday, April 30, 2016

Scorsese Then and Now

It’s a deceptive title, really, because I’m not a film critic nor a fan of any director. But Martin Scorsese was the one who had the smarts, the interest and the resources to make two concert films 30 years apart, THE LAST WALTZ (1978) and SHINE A LIGHT (2008). In 1976, the post Vietnam era in the States, Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson managed to record on film (the first concert movie shot in 35mm) the farewell concert of the Band in the venue where they first appeared as The Band, the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel were leaving the road after sixteen years. In an interview Robbie says he couldn’t imagine doing it for twenty years. The Last Waltz was called “the end of an era”. At the time Scorsese was directing New York, New York, a big expensive production, but he had cut his edting teeth in the Woodstock film and learned what not to do there. He took some time off from the New York, New York project and filmed The Last Waltz in a weekend, put it almost all together in a week and a few months later, filmed three songs on a Hollywood sound stage. It grew from Robbie Robertson’s idea, a not for profit enterprise with no budget to an important cultural event, done by the seat of its pants, almost an afterthought, and ultimately, the concert movie by which all others are judged. Thirty years later, after Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas and all the awards for No DIRECTION HOME (2005), a documentary on Dylan’s early career, Scorsese filmed a Rolling Stones concert. Shine A Light presents the best of the Stones’ Beacon Theatre concerts on their A Bigger Bang Tour on Oct 29 and Nov 1, 2006 in New York city mixed with interviews of the band from long ago (mostly in black and white) and in present time The backstage segments were the first time Scorsese used digital cinematography. Ronnie Wood appears in both films; in out takes of a jam in The Last Waltz, more prominently in Shine a Light. THIS MOVIE SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD! appears on the screen before The Last Waltz starts. A sign of the times in 1978. The movie begins with Rick Danko telling Scorsese that the game is “Cutthroat” and a loud cracking of the pool balls as he breaks. Shine a Light nods to that opening as it starts with Ronnie Wood taking a pool shot in a game with Keith Richards. The Band returns to the stage for an encore. They play “Don’t Do It” and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar places the viewer in a beat up neighborhood of San Francisco on the way to the Winterland Ballroom where crowds are lining up and the huge vertical sign above the entrance has half of its lights burnt out. ‘The Rolling Stones’ appears on a marquee between two rows of lights above the entrance of The Beacon Theatre. Scorsese appreciates the balconies and huge space he has to work with and organizes the tracked moving cameras. Shine a Light will be filmed in a beautifully appointed theatre. A young couple waltzes gracefully across the screen against the backdrop of the The Last Waltz logo to the music of The Last Waltz theme song, written by Robbie Robertson, as the names of the guest performers appear: Dr John, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood. The huge variety of styles to which The Band adapted and the energy they injected into the songs made for a memorable performance. They were a perfect backup band as well as the stars of the show. The concert itself is a mixture of Band originals beginning with Cripple Creek interwoven with guests who play one song each and interviews of all the members of the Band and some friends. Ronnie Hawkins tells the story of each band member as he was brought into The Hawks, Ronnie’s backup band which became Dylan’s backup band and then The Band. The commentaries of the director, musicians and others who were involved in the project which is played over the concert performances in the Special Features section is fascinating. As each person appears, someone talks about them. There is a hilarious description of Van Morrison’s sequined outfit as he steals the show with a striking performance of Caravan and an equally funny description of Dylan’s preparations for the show. The actual filming was done for free by world renowned cinematographers who did it as a favour to Scorsese using seven cameras. Ideas like Boris Leven’s of filling the Winterland Ballroom with chandeliers had to be cut back because they could only afford three. Boris Leven, a personal friend of Scorsese and his set designer on New York, New York as well as The Sound of Music and West Side Story, thought of renting the set of La Traviata from the San Francisco opera company to spruce up the old Winterland. He designed the sets upon which Scorsese shot The Weight, Evangeline and The Last Waltz theme song on a Hollywood sound stage. The songs featured the Band, the Staples and Emmy Lou Harris. One of the great contrasts of the films is the reference to lighting. An assistant tells Scorsese in Shine a Light that one of the lighting effects will literally cause Mick to burst into flames if he stands near it for more than 18 seconds. Scorsese says firmly “We can’t burn Mick Jagger. Very simply. We want the effect but we can’t burn Mick” When Paul Butterfield does his solo in The Last Waltz, there is a general panic among the crew when they lose all power to the lights except the one spot on Butterfield and Levon. The problem is fixed in time for the next song and Robbie comments that it turned out to be a perfect shot for the harp player and the drummer. Camera shots preoccupy directors obviously but Scorsese didn’t seem any more relaxed while discussing them with Mick thirty years after his assistant in The Last Waltz had to negotiate every camera movement with Bill Graham who held the rights to the Winterland stage and insisted that nothing impair the sight lines of the live audience. When Mick mentions the audience inconvenience to Scorsese, the director opts for the swooping in motion cameras anyway. He knows the value of a historical document. He did it thirty years ago. The Special Features section of The Last Waltz dvd contains a Last Waltz Revisited segment in which Scorsese and others talk about the experience 25 years later, Perhaps the biggest contrast between the two films is that a connection to the Beats plays prominently in the Last Waltz when Michael McClure, the poet, appears on stage in a spotlight, recites a short piece of The Canterbury Tales in Olde English, smiles and walks off. Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears at the end of the show, just before Dylan, recites a quick, cool poem and exits. Thirty years later the subjects of Scorsese’s concert film are meeting the President of the USA and the ex president of Poland backstage. In fact, as Clinton announces in his brief introduction, he’s opening for them. The Stones concerts benefitted the Clinton Foundation and the band received a visit from The President himself as well as his wife and their entourage. One of the funny parts of Shine a Light is Charlie’s response to an assistant reminding him that the meet’n greet is at 6:00. He says “I thought we just done it.” To which the assistant replies, “No, you just met the president, he’s got thirty guests coming”. The Stones play Jumpin Jack Flash, Shattered, She Was Hot, All Down the Line, Loving Cup with Jack White111, As Tears Go By, Some Girls, Just My Imagination, Far Away Eyes, Champagne and Reefer with Buddy Guy, Tumbling Dice, You Got the Silver, Connection, Sympathy for the Devil, Live With Me with Christina Aguilera, Start Me Up, Brown Sugar. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and Shine a Light. Undercover of the Night, Paint It Black, Little T&A and I’m Free are included as a bonus special. At first I liked The Last Waltz more because of the in depth interviews and the commentaries and its good natured, humourous attitude. But with a budget of one million dollars and the high pressure atmosphere of recording a Stones concert, it makes you wonder what else could Scorsese do? There was really no room for long interviews with the musicians so he threw in clips of past press conferences and interviews where the early days of scandal and infamy were covered and the question which seemed to obsess everyone was “How long are you going to do this?” A young Mick Jagger says he thinks the Stones will last at least another year when they are two years old and then without hesitation says “Yeah” when Dick Cavett asks him if he could see himself doing it in his sixties. An old Keith Richard attributes his longevity to coming from good stock and a younger one tells an interviewer his luck hasn’t run out when he’s questioned about surviving for so long. In The Last Waltz Robbie Robertson contemplates recent deaths of musicians like Janis and Jimi and the high risk lifestyle. He says simply, “You can push your luck”. As Robertson talks over Muddy Water’s performance in the commentaries expressing how honoured The Band was to have him in the show, he names some of the musicians influenced by Muddy and mentions The Rolling Stones being named after a Muddy Song. Scorsese looks like the older, respectable director he is in Shine a Light compared to the hungry young man in The Last Waltz. In Shine a Light when a lighting effect test stops the group he is in from talking, shocked at the flash, Scorsese remarks “Hmm. That cleared my sinuses” and smiles with the same mischievous sense of fun the viewer sees in The Last Waltz as he follows Rick Danko on a tour of Shangrila, the ex bordello which has been turned into a clubhouse and studio. It’s just the difference in times, part of the 60's and 70's vs the first decade of the new century. But there can only be a difference, a comparison, a contrast, because Martin Scorsese had the vision to see rock music in a historical context. At the risk of sounding too Canadian, I think that both concert movies are well worth watching.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Henry and Me

I first heard of Henry Miller, perhaps fittingly, when I lived with two other guys in East Vancouver. One of the guys had a friend who was a postman, the other guy was having an affair with the postman’s wife. There were a few awkward moments when he snuck her in for a night or an afternoon quickie, but, all in all, things went well and I saw a book which the postman had lent to his buddy, my housemate. It was a compilation of the letters between Henry and Lawrence Durrell. I became interested and then obsessed with Miller’s writing, read everything of his I could get my hands on. I still have a worn copy of Tropic of Cancer by my bedside along with Flann O’Brien’s, The Poor Mouth. For some reason which I don’t want to analyze, both books are places of refuge for me when I just want to relax and enjoy the language. At times like that I don’t think as much about the content of what I’m reading as much as how the words are strung together. Finding Henry’s writing was like the moment when Shakespeare made sense to me in high school: a light bulb shone. In all my travels after that I kept a sharp eye open when books by Henry were displayed. Krishnamurti, Durrell, Arthur Rimbaud, Anais Nin and others were introduced to me by Henry’s writing and their books were ones I watched for too. Of course, I was watching for cheap versions of their works. When my friend, Robin, arrived to visit me in Crete he brought a copy of The Colossus of Maroussi, written when Henry visited Lawrence Durrell and his wife in Corfu. Surviving in a tiny room in Paris on croque monsieurs, cheese, baguettes and red wine, I planned a novel using the Paris metro map as structure. Needless to say, the novel became as confusing and mixed up as my understanding of the Paris subway system and was abandoned. I made a pilgrimage to the street where Anais Nin lived when she and Henry were having their affair. Their conviction that analysis was necessary and their visits to Otto Rank, a student of Freud, revealed the notion that psychoses are the products of frustrated or blocked creativity. Frustrated writers can take comfort in the idea that writing is at least healthy if not profitable. By the time I was there, the bars mentioned in his books were too expensive for me to patronise but I lingered outside the Coupole and the Dome. I walked endlessly around Paris, imagined what it was like then, wondered why Henry was never mentioned in the list of writers who lived in the city in the 30's. There was irony in the thought of him existing from meal to meal as he worked on Tropic in the arts capital of the Western world, poor, reviled and rejected. I didn’t know then that he and Anais Nin wrote pornography for the money of their rich patrons but I knew there had been an overwhelming rejection of him in the States and that he was involved in the debate about pornography and obscenity. It looks like the descendants of those moral Americans who banned his books for so long have, seventy or eighty years later, taken over the government of the USA. He described his trip across the states in The Air Conditioned Nightmare. The title pretty well demonstrated Henry’s attitude toward the system. It gave me hope. Here was a man with great curiosity about the world and other people and sex who ignored all the warnings and temptations which were placed before him and followed a singular path of his own. It led him to another continent, through years of poverty and piles of rejection slips. But he kept going and kept laughing. “Always cheery and bright” was his motto and the most depressing situations could be changed for the better just by reading his books. I know that a generation who thinks the 60's is ancient history has a hard time understanding his relevance now, but then he was like a beacon. He personified the rebelliousness and questioning which was rumbling underground. I often wonder what he would have made of this internet, instant world. I like to think he’d revel in it. It would be so much easier to spread his subversive ideas and plead for sanity. A literary website reminded me of him when they put out a call for submissions on “money”. He had written Money and How It Got That Way years ago though I don’t know where I saw it. He would enjoy, as Kurt Vonnegutt Jr put it, “Poisoning them with a little humanity”. Henry believed that the best education it was possible to get was available to anyone with a library card at the same time as he relished the quote ,“When I hear the word Kultur, I pick up my pistol”. Henry wasn’t published until he was almost forty and that was always a prod for me when I started feeling sorry for myself. He’s been called racist and misogynist but, in my opinion, almost always by someone with an axe to grind. After all, Anais Nin’s lover must have been more than just a male chauvinist pig. The worst was online when a critic (critics are paid to criticize, we shouldn’t forget that) said he was boring. Of course, the critic, who seems to be trying to make a name for himself by attacking famous writers, used much of the language which Henry and others like him forced into literary acceptability. He couldn’t express himself without those words but he seemed to have no idea that the very words he used were allowed in the English writing world because of legal battles fought over Henry’s books. I don’t know what the penalty was for getting caught with a Tropic or a Rosy Crucifixion book in the 60's but that there was a penalty at all seems ridiculous. As ridiculous as excoriating Elvis, The Beatles and The Dixie Chicks. Sex was the same then. It hasn’t and hadn’t changed. He had the audacity to describe the act itself and men and women’s bodies without apology and, many times, with great humour. He didn’t gloss over the sweaty, intimate details which weren’t supposed to be mentioned in polite society. It’s not just that Henry wrote about sex like no one else. He described it in the first person often and didn’t avoid branching off into other personal thoughts which occurred to him while he was engaged. His style of using his own personal experiences for the creation of fiction and nonfiction became the roots of my travel writing. Henry seemed to be painfully honest even when he was making things up. I was working on the rigs in Alberta, living in Edmonton, when Henry died. I happened to be in town and not in the bush on that occasion and made my way to the nearest hotel. The bars in Alberta are huge and busy. Others at the table had no idea who Henry was and why I should be there to drink a farewell toast to him on the occasion of his death. I did the same at the same bar when John Lennon was shot. They didn’t know, any more than I did, that I would carry around his books and lean on his inspiration for many years. Here is Henry’s description of one of the many jobs he took to survive in France. “Here was I, supposedly to spread the gospel of Franco-American amity- the emissary of a corpse who, after he had plundered right and left, after he had caused untold suffering and misery, dreamed of establishing universal peace. Ffui! What did they expect me to talk about, I wonder? About LEAVES OF GRASS, about the tariff walls, about the Declaration of Independence, about the latest gang war? What? Just what, I’d like to know. Well, I’ll tell you-I never mentioned these things. I started right off the bat with a lesson on the physiology of love. How the elephants make love-that was it! It caught like wildfire. After the first day there were no more empty benches. After that first lesson in English they were standing at the door waiting for me. We got along swell together. They asked all sorts of questions, as though they had never learned a damned thing. I let them fire away. I taught them to ask more ticklish questions. Ask anything!- that was my motto. I’m here as a plenipotentiary from the realm of free spirits. I’m here to create a fever and a ferment. ‘In some ways’ says an eminent astronomer, ‘the universe appears to be passing away like a tale that is told, dissolving into nothingness like a vision’. That seems to be the general feeling underlying the empty breadbasket of learning. Myself, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe a fucking thing these bastards try to shove down our throats.” Tropic of Cancer

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Back when Syd Barrett led Pink Floyd , the band recorded its first album at Abbey Road Studio at the same time as The Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s there and The Pretty Things were recording S F Sorrow. They called it, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Flash forward to this century and a habit I picked up in Amsterdam and can’t seem to shake. The habit is listening to the World Service on the radio all night. It’s the CBC All Night Radio here, the BBC World Service there (I think). A lot of countries contribute reports to the World Service. I don’t really understand how it works but there’s nothing quite like laying snug in your bed, free to fall asleep or listen to Holland, Sweden, Korea or Poland talk about their news. For instance, the other night there was a report from somewhere near Alice Springs, Australia about a race they held between honey bees and homing pigeons. The bees won. Of course, it you’re tired and working and need to get up early in the morning, it’s unwise to indulge this habit. You lose too much sleep. At the moment, though, I am indulging this habit and the other night I must have dozed off and awoke to a female voice with an English accent declaring that the seventh chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows proved his hidden but genuine pantheism. Kenneth Grahame was born in Scotland and spent all of his working life in a bank in London. According to Wikipedia he died in 1932 and The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908. As I rolled around in the dark, it occurred to me that Van Morrison had included a song on The Healing Game cd called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The chorus is “The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn”. And Fred Armstrong out in Newfoundland actually talked on CBC radio about The Wind in the Willows. It was his opinion that the book was not a children’s book at all, that it was really written for adults. There was no script for the show but he said he went over the top a little when he called it, “Shakespeare with fur”. It’s probably the combination of poetry and music in Van Morrison’s song that appeals to me so much. When I actually read chapter seven which is called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Grahame’s book, I discovered poetic language there too. In fact, Van used several phrases verbatim from the book or almost verbatim. When Grahame uses “the daybreak not so very far off”, Morrison uses “the daybreak not so very far away” and when Grahame writes “the light grew steadily stronger”, Morrison sings “grew steadily strong”. And Fred, an old friend and veteran reporter (30 years) just published his first fictional novel, Happiness of Fish (Jesperson Publishing., 2007) in St John’s. He’s a creative soul, one who never gives up on his dreams. If he was interested in the book, there must be something to it. So I asked him and here’s what he said, “Wind in the Willows is a deep little book about a rather Taoist bunch of beasties sitting around writing poems and banqueting between adventures....” “Opinion seems to be split on the Pan chapter of WIW. People love it or hate it.... I think WIW is a comfortably sentimental look at nature as deity. I think anyone who has been scared at sea or lost in the woods and come home can handle the balance between a nature that creates us and takes us away or maybe doesn’t. There’s also something appealing about a deity that performs a Men in Black mind wipe after you trip over him. Ratty and Mole don’t remember him when it’s all over. They take the little otter off to breakfast rather than sitting down and writing the Book of Revelation.” The words in Van’s writing which are taken straight out of chapter seven are:” heavenly music” and “song-dream” though one doesn’t have a dash connecting them and the other does. Graham writes “when the vision had vanished” and Morrison writes “vision vanished” a difference in tense only. Here is the description of Pan in Wikipedia: ‘Pan: in Greek religion and mythology, is the god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music. His name originates from the word paein, meaning to pasture. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr. He is recognized as the god of fields, groves, and wooded glens; because of this, Pan is connected to fertility and the season of Spring. The wikipedia article goes on to say that “accounts of Pan’s geneology are so varied that it must lie buried deep in mythic time.” and that “panic” is derived from his name. The story recounted in Chapter seven of Wind in the Willows is a simple one: Mole and Ratty search for the lost Portly, son of Otter, and find him safe and saved by Pan after they are led there in their rowboat by his magical piping. Van Morrison uses words like “awe”, “wonder”, enchanted” and “spellbound” to describe the characters’ state as they follow Pan’s music to find little Portly. Grahame emphasizes Pan’s insistence that the wild creatures’ experience with him will be forgotten when it’s over. Like hypnotism, “You will awake and remember nothing” Wikipedia includes all kinds of interesting facts like, “Pan is famous for his sexual powers and is often depicted with an erect phallus.” and “Pan’s greatest conquest was that of the moon goddess, Selene.” along with references to the symbolism of Satan, Romanticism and Neopaganism and “A modern account of several purported meetings with Pan is given by R. Ogilvie Crombie in the books, The Findhorn Garden (Harper and Rowe, 1975) and The Magic of Findhorn (Harper and Rowe, 1975).” Pan is not named in the book, just described, but in the song Morrison calls him “the great god, Pan” when he echoes Grahame’s insistence that the animals were not afraid of him despite his reputation. It is the only song on The Healing Game (1997) which has no percussion in it. Just Van’s vocals as he plays acoustic guitar with a dobro (which I can’t hear probably because of the quality of my sound system), and a piano with Brian Kennedy’s vocal backings and Paddy Maloney on Uilleann pipes and whistle. The Uilleann Pipes, a type of Irish bagpipe, aren’t apparently related to the Pan Pipes but their effect in the song is an ethereal, delicate one. When you see the innocent willow leaves on the cover and the cartoon characters with which it’s illustrated, the same impression is left by the book as when you see Van Morrison’s black and white picture on the cover of the cd with a black fedora and shades, a black over coat and white shirt buttoned up to the neck. Neither give any hint of Pan’s magic. They bring to mind an old Willie Dixon song, You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.