Saturday, December 26, 2009
True, Portsmouth weren't great, but there was a spell during the first 30 minutes of the second half where they threatened the West Ham goal, and on another day, might have scored. Bad thing: Mark Noble went off injured. Good things: Scott Parker was immense again, Kovac had a good game (and scored a goal) and the defence looked more solid than it has in recent weeks. So, all West Ham fans must be hoping that the bankrupt bank which owns West Ham doesn't feel the need to raise funds by selling Parker or Green in January.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Banksy is a batty boy. Banksy is an art school middle class twat. Banksy is the Pop idol of those who gobble what is fed to them and put under their nose.
Why? Because last weekend, the London-based, Bristol-bred street artist did a painting under the Camden Road bridge on the Regent’s Canal in North London, appropriating the work of the graffiti writer Robbo, which had – according to the people calling Banksy these names – survived for 25 years. But now the great Robbo has become the punchline of a Banksy joke. In the new work, a painter-and-decorator in overalls is pasting rolls of his graffiti on the bridge wall.
The new piece – let’s call it Pop Wallpaper - is a riff Banksy has played before. In one of his most accomplished works, at the Cans Festival, a council operative was pictured whitewashing stone-age graffiti. In another image, displayed at the Banksy vs Bristol Museum exhibition, a Banksy rat ran a whitewash roller over a Damien Hirst spot painting.
In recent times, Banksy pieces have been targeted by other, less proficient vandals. His ‘Large Graffiti Slogan’ image in Croydon – in which a punk was seen struggling to assemble an IKEA (actually, IEAK) DIY graffiti kit – was quickly obliterated. His B-boy in Dalston’s Gillet Square was defaced within days, as was ‘Last Graffiti Before Motorway’, which waved motorists onto the M1 at Henlys Corner.
This didn’t used to happen. Previously, when Banksy images disappeared, it was because they had been buffed by council operatives. In those far-off times, before Banksy became an internationally-recognised artist (always described in news reports as having been collected by Angelina Jolie, though no one has ever produced convincing evidence of this calumny), councils felt able to remove graffiti indiscriminately, without worrying whether it might be of lasting cultural significance or financial value.
True, there were exceptions. The site on the corner of Old Street housed two versions of Banksy’s Pulp Fiction image (with John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson turned, latterly, into bananas) before being appropriated by the graffiti writer Ozone. This caused some peevishness amongst Banksy aficionados, but Banksy himself didn’t seem to mind. When Ozone was tragically killed by a train, Banksy dedicated the space to him, painting an angel in a flak jacket contemplating a skull. Banksy’s website published the tribute “When we lost Ozone we lost a fearless writer and, as it turns out, a pretty perceptive art critic. Rest in piece.” In case that was all getting a bit too cosy, this tribute was then defaced by graffiti writers 10Foot, Tox, and Cut, and appended with the slogan “Say No To Art Fags”.
Is Banksy an art fag? Well, that depends what an art fag is. He is a street artist who has achieved an uncommon degree of notoriety. He sells a great many books. He is, most likely, reasonably well-off. He sells a lot of prints, and his original works go for fair amounts at auction (but he’s still a lot cheaper than Damien Hirst.) His fame is peculiar, in that he has refused to fill the void. He is famous for being anonymous.
In which case, being an art fag can be translated as being too popular: in punk terms, a sell-out. And even the most committed follower of Banksy’s work would agree that, recently, he has shown signs of trading on past glories. Artistically, he has struggled to top the audacity of his giant ‘One Nation Under CCTV’ mural, off Oxford Street. As a creative hub, he’ll do well to match the impact of the Cans Festival, which brought dozens of street artists to broader public notice. And as a stunt, he’s unlikely to recreate the frenzy of the Bristol Museum one-man show, which generated an estimated £10m for the local economy in the summer of 2009.
So, instead, he’s gone back to basics, while also offering an ironic commentary on his own situation. The Croydon punk with his IKEA graffiti kit was a joke about the mainstreaming of street art, given a second layer of irony when it was removed by the owners of the fence on which it was painted, to be restored, and sold. We can only speculate, but Banksy’s works, and his occasional outbursts of gnomic philosophy, suggest that he would probably prefer his work to be vandalised, dogged, or randomly obliterated rather than see it removed from its context and offered for sale in a Notting Hill art gallery.
With the Camden Road piece, he’ll probably get his wish. Friends of Robbo have suggested that Banksy’s image will be gone by the weekend. That, apparently, is what happens to the work of art fags. How odd, then, that it’s the old school graffiti writers who are now arguing from behind a fog of insult and homophobia that Robbo’s work should have been preserved behind Perspex. That would be a bit faggy, surely?
Thursday, December 17, 2009
"We Really Wanted To Not Sound Like 1983." The story of REM, Reckoning, and the Birth of the Paisley Underground
Steve Wynn was familiar with REM before his band, Dream Syndicate joined them on the Reckoning tour in 1984. He had bonded with Peter Buck after a “wild, drunken night”, ending at 6am on a San Francisco beach, and established that they much in common. They were enthusiastic souls who talked quickly, and both were avid readers. More importantly, their taste in music was identical. “We liked Big Star and Soft Boys and the dBs and the Feelies. These were bands that were really exciting, but they were all way below the radar. Peter was checking out stuff like that; I was, and probably Paul Westerberg was, all in our little corners of the US, getting hip to this really obscure music. So when I heard Murmur, when I heard the Replacements’ Stink, that’s the music that made sense to me.”
But still, Wynn hadn’t seen REM perform live until the first night of the tour, in Fresno, California. And, like many whose impression of the group had been shaped by the blurry restraint of their debut album, Murmur, he was blown away. “They were ferocious,” he recalls. “I think they felt they had something to prove at that point. It was almost like a crusade.”
The title of REM’s second album reflected their determination. In the band’s eyes, it was time to put-up or shut-up. It was a reckoning. “We were as famous as it gets in Athens, Georgia,” says Peter Buck. “There isn’t really a fame culture there, so the fact that we were playing to three or four hundred people, that was it – we were the big band.
“In the South, we would get 600-800 people coming to the shows; New York was good, Los Angeles was pretty good, but then you’d play Albuquerque and get 20 people.”
“There really wasn’t a road map on how to be a band like they were,” argues Wynn. “What became indie rock, what became a brand, didn’t exist back then. We were all just figuring it out as we went along.
“Here’s an example. On that tour, we went and played Boise, Idaho. Bear in mind, REM had already been in the Top 40, and Dream Syndicate had already been in every magazine around. We pull into town and pick up the newspaper, and the headline is: ‘New Wave comes to Boise’. New wave, in 1984!? It was already a senior citizen. But in Boise, Idaho they probably thought we had safety pins in our noses.
“Even in 1984, we’d talk to people about what we were doing and it was all the same. REM could have been Devo could have been Tom Petty. To a lot of the country, it was still this weird music.”
Apart from the band themselves, REM’s manager Bertis Downs is perhaps the most qualified person to talk about the roots of Reckoning. He was employed as an occasional legal adviser by the band in 1984, but his friendship with Bill Berry and Peter Buck pre-dated the formation of the group. “Athens is a college town,” says Downs, “and I knew Bill from the university union. I knew Peter from the record store. We were both big Neil Young fans, and he knew a lot more about Neil Young than I did, so he advised me which bootlegs were worth buying. Peter was my official advisor on all things Neil Young, That was ’79, ’80.
“They played a show on April 5 in ’80. I did not go to that. That was a birthday party, I heard about it from mutual friends who said ‘Bill’s band is really good’. So I went two weeks later when they played a place called the Koffee Klub in downtown Athens at about 1.30 in the morning. I didn’t know which songs were covers and which songs were theirs. They all sounded good.”
It didn’t take long for REM to build a reputation in their hometown. “There was a buzz about them from the beginning,” says Downs. “There was this one famous place in Athens called Tyrone’s that they played typically at the end of every month, because the rent was due. And literally, every time they played, Tyrone’s would have to knock down another wall to become bigger. It was a shell of a building, and you’d see that Tyrone’s was 50 people bigger because they’d knocked that wall out. There was like another 12 foot square area that people could pile into. At the end of the day it probably held 400 or 500.”
“In Athens all of our friends were like Pylon, the Method Actors or Love Tractor,” says Buck, “and you might describe them as not commercial, so we were the most commercial of the bunch. We would think that we were a really commercial pop band, and then we would go on the road and we were the weirdest band we played with. We’d be on the road and everyone would think we were just completely odd. We just weren’t like anyone else, in a good way. We were really fully-formed and didn’t sound like anything at the time, which was kind of what were aiming for.”
Reckoning was produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who also did Murmur. REM’s first two records, the Chronic Town EP, and Radio Free Europe, which came out as a single in 1981, were recorded in Easter’s garage studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“The South was definitely guitar territory,” says Easter. “You just didn’t have many bands that were not guitar bands here. But the idea of the soloist and the hotshot guitar player, the guy that took a really long solo, that got silly. So certain types of guitar were meant to automatically show that you were like a metal guy or something.
“My band, Let’s Active, did some tours with REM pretty early on and we saw all of that. They played in some places where the audience was just plain hostile. And then there would be like these four girls who were just in love with them. You could see the tide turning. It was pretty great.
“One show I always remember was out in Lubbock, Texas. The reaction was just like, ‘We know you’re up to no good.’ It was like that from the minute REM opened their guitar cases. It was hilarious.”
Easter vividly remembers the first time he set eyes on REM. “Even before I heard anything out them I thought ‘these guys are cool’. They stayed at my house. They arrived the night before and seeing them walk up the sidewalk, I thought, ‘Oh, this might be good.’ It just looked like, hey, these guys are obviously the band. It was like that thing where you’d see pictures of these ’60s bands, and it was always four guys of about the same age.
“They were of the time and not of the time in this perfect way. Maybe they were right for the USA. This place has a lot more roots in that barroom beer-drinking scene that ZZ Top tapped into. The really fluky bands could come out here and do well, but REM could transcend that and do well everywhere. At the same time, the kids that were looking for something else could spot that they had it. They were really snotty in that sort of correct way. They thought everything was terrible except for three or four things. And they totally had that down. Pete Buck was just a master of the dismissive comment. He could dismiss giant swathes of the world in this perfect way.
“It’s very useful. You have Mike Mills who always seems really sunny, and you can have Pete Buck taking care of the other business. They never seemed like they didn’t know what they were doing.”
“Part of what was going on in that era was that there was a new way of doing things,” says Buck. “I worked in record stores and I sold plenty of double live records from everyone from Aerosmith to Ted Nugent to Peter Frampton, and there was a sense that this was a new era. And as much as most of the new stuff was garbage, it gave you a way to look at playing that wasn’t informed by the clichés of the time.
“When you look at the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, it’s not as if that was totally rock’n’roll. It wasn’t that kind of that kind of ’70s rock with a ‘w’. it seemed to me that punk rock and the last years of the ’70s were kind of a waste, musically, and all of us, all the bands from America, were just trying to step aside from it and try and invent a way of making rock’n’roll less of a showbiz thing.
“The whole punk thing was: it’s Year Zero so you gotta start over. When that happened, a lot of people just reinvented the same clichés. But a lot of the music that we were listened to at the time, whether it was the Gang of Four, the Fall or The Psychedelic Furs kind of found a way to reinvigorate a form that was considered clichéd. And it was great, because it did allow a lot of us to start over
“From my point of view as a guitar player, the big cliché was the huge Marshall stack and the fuzzy tone, and no matter how rock our songs are, they don’t have that ’70s guitar, or the punk rock guitar sound. I was trying to go for something that was very tense and clean. I didn’t have a fuzz pedal until probably 1985.”
Murmur had been an understated, enigmatic record. For Reckoning, REM wanted something that more closely-resembled their live sound.
“They had this attitude that what they did onstage was what they wanted to put on the record,” says Easter. “Along with the idea that they had to be talked into on Murmur that you had to snazzy it up a little sometimes for a record, otherwise it just sounds like a demo tape.”
“We really wanted to not sound like 1983,” says Buck. “That was a really horrible sound for a couple of years – you had the whole digital delay thing on the drums. New wave, as much as it was kind of fun, most of it was crap. Our influences were older than that. But we spent a lot of the two years in a row that we were on the road with the Gang of Four and the Beat. It wasn’t just the music, they had political agendas; they were basically socialist as far as to the way credit and money was split. That was an influence on us.”
“REM had this aesthetic set of rules that we figured out early on,” says Easter. “They figured them out on Murmur. On Reckoning it wasn’t even a discussion. We just started from where we left off.”
Reckoning was recorded in a little over two weeks, at Reflection Sound, in Charlotte, North Carolina. “People think Reflection is some backwoods gospel studio,” says co-producer Don Dixon, “but it’s a very high-end multi-room that would have been quite at home in London or New York.” The studio was also the recording base of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
“Michael met Tammy Faye Bakker,” says Buck. “He fascinated by her, and introduced himself. I think she gave him an autograph. He said she was really nice. He was like: ‘Wow! We’re making this big record in the same studio as Tammy Faye Bakker. Cool!’”
Most of the songs for Reckoning were written in an intense rehearsal period in the summer of 1983, prior to the autumn tour. “We rehearsed for eight or ten days,” says Buck “I think we were still rehearsing in Mike’s bedroom at that point – and we just knocked them all out.
“It wasn’t like we were jamming. We’d write songs and Michael would hum along and think about words he liked. I remember we went into a place – I think it was called the Agora in Atlanta. We rented it for two days to play onstage in front of the crew. We were trying to rehearse through all of the nine or 10 new songs. It was just like we’d written them that week, and here they were.
“We also constantly talked about how we didn’t want to write songs about love, or cars, or girls, or all the stuff that people write about. Michael was finding his footing as a lyricist. By the Reckoning period, if the songs aren’t super-direct, they’re definitely more direct than the first record. There’s a million ways to tell a story, and his way is slightly more oblique than the stuff that you’d hear on the radio; but all to the good, I think.”
The album was recorded one track at a time, with Dixon driving Stipe to the studio at around noon to do his vocals, and the band arriving around two. He remembers Stipe being in a fragile state.
“They had done this long, gruelling, irritating tour opening for the Police, and it was really hard on all of them. They weren’t used to playing huge places like that and they weren’t used to being ignored, and they found themselves in the middle of it and they had to grind it out.
“It took a while to recover from that. Plus Michael was just fighting some illness… not illness but exhaustion. He was trying to find ways to cope with this monster that he had brought on himself. You gotta be careful what you wish for. And if you want to be a successful band, and you’re out playing all the time, it’s a horrible life. It’s no life at all, except for the moments you have onstage. I think Michael was trying to cope with that. He just was withdrawn, some. I believe that during the course of making that record he totally came out of that. And by the time the record was over the whole band was regaining its energy.”
“Michael was very shy on and off stage,” says Wynn. “I remember we played a show in another of those crazy non-hipster places, Salt Lake City. After the show he just didn’t want to deal with the throng of people; I was standing backstage, and he grabbed me and said ‘Let’s go out in the park.’ We just stood out there and talked, and watched the people leave the show. I think he felt more comfortable doing that then having to talk to people about what went down.”
“Michael’s extremely sensitive and very smart,” says Dixon, “so that’s a very tough combination. A lot of the sensitive smart people who became rock stars died. And he didn’t. He gets a huge tip of the hat for not only maintaining his integrity through all this – but also for not succumbing to the easy way out.”
“Camera that was about a friend of Michael’s that had died, and I think he was upset,” says Easter, but I don’t remember him breaking down or having any trouble doing his thing. It’s very easy to see him as an extremely weird guy, but he wasn’t a weird guy to me at all. He was just an art student. One of the first times I met him he had all these little bits of metal with melted enamel stuff on it that he was showing me. He was really into that sort of stuff. Whereas the other guys were a little bit more like your rock’n’roll type dudes.
“Michael was slightly different from the rest of them and he was eating very strange pasty food out of Tupperware containers, and he loved this electric typewriter they had in the studio and was always typing things on it. But they were all busy happy fellows.”
“It was overwhelming in a lot of ways for all of us,” says Buck. “But we did the work. There was a couple of years where it was really hard and stressful and it was a matter of learning how to deal with this stuff.
“As songwriters and musicians we knew what we were doing. But we were from Athens, Georgia. You would go to New York and it was bewildering – in a good way. All the bands that we were playing with, they did have images. They had new clothing. Our booking agent would pull us aside and say, ‘Guys, you gotta cut your hair and buy some clothes with zippers.’ And we would say, ‘Well really that’s not what we’re all about.’”
“On that tour, Michael was very shy,” says Wynn. “Peter and Mike were the cirque du soleil. They were the ones doing all the moving. Michael stood there and sang, and that was enough. It was almost like the Who where you had all this excitement all around you. He just stood, and the voice did the work.”
“They all had a very funny attitude in the studio,” says Easter. “Not Luddite exactly. But their version of punk rock was to reject recording studio conventions, more than any social stance. It basically had to do with the idea like, ‘What’s wrong with this really awesome 1967 single I’ve got here? It didn’t have any of that crap on it.’ It wasn’t really too fancy but they were right. They had an identity, they weren’t groping around for what to do at all – they were incredibly single-minded in this efficient way. They just didn’t sweat it.”
The sessions went so efficiently, that REM were able to take a couple of nights off. One night involved a trip to the cinema, to see a low-budget film, Strange Invaders. “The producers had called up IRS and said, ‘We want a new wave kind of band, but we don’t want to have to pay any money,’ says Buck. “So we licensed something off of the Chronic Town EP. We were just eight people in the studio watching this film. Our song’s in it for 30 seconds in a scene where the lead guy pours a beer for his dog. And the dog drinks the beer. We were like, ‘All right, we’re in a movie!
“We didn’t get a lot of offers in those days. We went to see one of those horror movies, about Freddy, the killer guy, and Johnny Depp’s lying on his bed, and behind him there’s a Reckoning poster. They didn’t have to ask permission, but someone went to see it at the local cinema, and said ‘Man, there’s this huge scene where your poster’s above Johnny Depp’s head in bed. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.”
Reckoning was released at a time when the excesses of 1980s pop production were at their height, and if it was a slow-burner commercially, the accompanying tour provided more evidence that something was afoot. “We played Chicago,” says Wynn. “The show was over and we went to the Cubby Bear club in town, and saw the Replacements with Del Fuegos opening. It was like, there is something happening here.”
“We always loved this band,” says Dixon, “but did we think they were going to be the number one band in the world and on the cover of Rolling Stone? No. We thought they were a band that was a little too quirky to reach that level of success.”
“There was definitely the feeling from everyone that if we would just play the game a little more we could sell a lot of records,” says Buck. “I always felt that if we didn’t play the game, and we were whatever band we were, then things would work out better for us. We’d go to clubs at the end of the week, and the music was bullshit. No names, but all those horrible records by those bands that had two hits – that was the crap that was playing in the clubs back then. We just thought, ‘We’re miles above that, and if people don’t understand it, then fuck ’em.”
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Finding a quiet place to talk in the Roundhouse wasn’t so simple. First Byrne led me to the bar, which was empty, apart from the man drilling holes in the counter. Then he suggested we sit outside at a table, except that the rain was falling through the umbrellas. Byrne examined the cloudburst, then ambled back into the belly of the building, where two men were fiddling with a keyboard in the middle of the floor. He led me to a dressing room door, which he tried to open with a swipe card three times before it yielded. The room was tiny, windowless, and smelled strongly of perfume. There were folding chairs, so we sat down, facing the wall. “Mmm,” Byrne said. “This is cosy.”
Byrne’s familiarity with the Roundhouse should not have been a surprise. He appeared there in 1976 with his band Talking Heads, on a bill with the Ramones and the Stranglers. It was Talking Heads’ first show in London. His abiding memory is of “gobbing.” The show took place at the height of punk, when spitting was in vogue. “I’m glad it’s gone out of fashion,” he says drily.
Byrne’s fortunes have fluctuated over the last 30 years, but his reputation now is higher than at any time since Talking Heads split. Earlier this week, the live show celebrating his on-off musical collaborations with Brian Eno made its second visit to London, this time at the Barbican, where the after-show meet-and-greet attracted Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who was delighted to meet Byrne’s girlfriend, photographer Cindy Sherman. (“I guess from his art school days, she was (is) an icon of sorts,” Byrne wrote in his online journal.) I asked Byrne whether his relationship with Sherman had affected his art. “Wow!” he replied. “I don’t know. Our tastes overlap quite a bit. Which is good! Not 100%, but that’s’ helpful.
“But our ways of working are miles apart. That just amazes me too. She doesn’t work for a long period; maybe collects bits and pieces of things, then thinks about it – and then has a burst of activity, really focused, and boom! It’s done.
“I’ll go from a music project to a book to an installation. Everything moves along at its own pace incrementally.”
And has she influenced him? “Yeah,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know how. It’s not like she says, ‘Let’s play dress-up.’”
Byrne is at the Roundhouse to install Playing The Building, which turns the fabric of the former locomotive turning shed into an (un)musical instrument. He has done it before, in Stockholm and New York, but the Roundhouse brings its own challenges.
The fabric of the building is wired to an old organ, and as the keys are played, the building groans in response. “You can’t change it radically. It changes a little bit, depending on what girders there are, or how much ping you get out of the pillars. But buildings from this era all have very similar elements – cast iron pillars, cast metal girder supports, some old plumbing.”
Since the Roundhouse’s expensive refit, gobbing is no longer encouraged, but perhaps the management should be wary. In a sense, this is punk art.
“I like that it kicks away some of the preciousness of art. I thought people might be more timid. Once one person starts, and they see that nobody’s better at it than anybody else, then they jump right in.”
Byrne’s other business in the capital is the launch of Bicycle Diaries, an intellectual travelogue recording the in-between moments of his travels, which he crams with visits to galleries and discussions with interesting people. The London chapter includes a cycle ride to Whitechapel to meet curator Iwona Blazwick, and he also finds time to admire the eccentricities of the hairy potter, Grayson Perry.
Byrne seems well-informed about BritArt, and is diplomatic about the talents of that other punk artist, Damien Hirst, calling him clever. “Maybe not great art, but it’s great something-or-other else.
“I once went to the Pharmacy restaurant, which was incredible. It was really perfect and clever and witty. I don’t know if it was art. It was the sort of thing that a great designer could do as well.”
This visit to the capital has been no less productive. He and Sherman cycled to the V&A to see the design exhibition Telling Tales (a qualified thumbs up), and yesterday (Thursday) they biked to Southwark to see Roger Hiorns’ Seizure, in which a council house has been coated in copper sulphate. “It’s like the JG Ballard story where everything turns to crystal. The whole ceiling, doors walls – everything’s covered with pretty sizable crystals – pretty amazing! Pretty amazing! And finding it was not easy at all.”
And this, really, is the essence of David Byrne. He could, we may assume, afford to take a taxi, but, armed with his free maps from the London Cycle Campaign, he chooses to bike it, even when his journey involves an encounter with the Elephant and Castle roundabout.
“Oh my God! Yes. I’ve heard that roundabouts are good for traffic, better than stoplights. Some guy [Tom Vanderbilt] has a book out called Traffic; there was a study, and there are fewer accidents on roundabouts than traffic lights because on roundabouts, it’s so precarious, you have to really be aware, and stop texting on your cellphone. Whereas with stoplights, people feel like the light does the job for them. So they’ll pull out when it turns green, and not think that someone else may have missed the light.”
Byrne eschews Lycra, and has been known to tie a raccoon tail to his helmet, but he is a serious cyclist. He has been an effective campaigner in New York: the city adopted his half-serious proposal for bespoke bicycle racks (dollar-bill shaped for Wall Street, bottle-shaped for The Bowery).
Much of his thinking about cycling has been influenced by the visionary approach of Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, in Colombia. Peñalosa brought his city centre back to life by maximising public transport and returning the streets to pedestrians and cyclists. He also stated that unless a cycle lane is safe for an eight year-old, it isn’t a cycle lane. So what does Byrne think about London?
“Cycling in London is kinda weird. There’s a group I contacted a year or so ago, the Warrington Cycle Campaign. They have pictures of poor urban planning where the bike lane goes straight into a wall, or steers you into traffic. I thought, maybe that’s the suburbs. But, I have to say, London has its share of that too - look how many of these bike lanes only last 10 metres. You’ll think, ‘Oh good, it’s going my way,’ and the next thing you know, it’s gone.”
It was Sherman who pointed out to him that, unlike New York, London comprises a collection of villages. “You really sense that when you’re cycling around. Cars and taxis will tend to take the big, busy streets. When you’re cycling you take little back roads, and you really get a sense of this being one village and then it’s a transition and you’re in another village – where people really identify with working or living in that place.”
This emphasis on community is one of the underlying themes in Byrne’s journal. He’s never happier than when cycling through a mixed community full of mom-and-pop stores, with no sign of corporate chains. (His Baltimore childhood memories predate the arrival of malls). But while the book gives a good account of his thinking, there are only a few fragments of significant autobiography.
One is that in the early 1970s, Byrne headed to California to follow the hippie dream. “That’s hard to imagine,” he agrees, “but it was The Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand version of hippiedom, that was more into computers and that sort of thing, as opposed to the ‘let’s get fucked up’ side. This was more about ‘let’s build a little utopia with some new technology that we can use.’ That was really attractive, but not as attractive as New York.”
I suggest to him that now, in his mid-fifties, on his bicycle, or rigging up his steampunk organ, he’s back on that road, pursuing a modest utopia.
“There’s definitely a link to that,” he says. “Maybe now I’ve found a part of all that that seems like it might actually happen, or where people are ready for some sort of change, whereas nobody was really ready to move out of their flats into bubble-shaped homes.”
He lead me back out into the heart of the Roundhouse, where the rain drums on the glass roof, and the kling-klang of the girders grows increasingly anguished. It doesn’t sound like music at all. It sounds like the end of industry.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
In one of the stranger moments of the American presidential election campaign, a reporter from the Las Vegas Sun asked Barack Obama to name his favourite television programme. Without hesitation, he mentioned The Wire, which was understandable because, a) David Simon’s drama is almost monotonously described as the best television show ever and, b) it shows life in the blue-collar city of Baltimore in all its tough reality. But Obama went further, suggesting also that his favourite character was Omar Little. “He’s not my favourite person,” Obama said, prompting some nervous chuckling from his interviewer, “but he’s a fascinating character. He’s this gay gangster who only robs drug dealers, and then gives back.” Omar, said the future President, was “sort of a Robin Hood. And he’s the toughest, baddest guy on this show.”
It says something about The Wire, and something more about Barack Obama, that this remark was not considered a gaffe. But Omar is an interesting character, not least because Simon is a journalist who bases his dramas in reality. And Omar is modelled on Donnie Andrews, a Baltimore stick-up man whose real-life story of redemption made the court pages of the New York Times in August 2007, when he married Fran Boyd, a former heroin addict, whose life had been the basis of an earlier David Simon HBO drama, The Corner, the book of which has just been published by Canongate.
Knowing all of this, meeting Fran and Donnie in the bar of the Groucho Club in London is a slightly disconcerting experience, not least because Lenny Henry is seated in another corner of the club, looking conspicuous. The couple are quite wary at first, and apparently shy, offering small-talk about their weekend activities: trips to see Buckingham Palace, photos of Big Ben, and on to Leicester Square to watch Drag Me To Hell. (“It had me jumping,” Donnie confesses. Fran kept her eyes shut.)
“The first Omar was in NYPD Blue,” Donnie explains in a low drawl, flashing a gold-toothed smile. “Giancarlo Esposito played him, in an episode called Hollie and the Goldfish. He did a thing where I had robbed some Cubans.”
“Did you rob some Cubans?” Fran asks. Her smile is also punctuated by gold.
“Yeah,” says Donnie. “And I told David. That was an episode he wrote. But he killed off Esposito. He had AIDS, but he got shot.”
Omar was reborn as one of The Wire’s core characters; a robber armed with an almost supernatural survival instinct. “The first time I knew it was Donnie,” says Fran, “I was watching an episode; there were three drug dealers in a house. They had trash bags full of money and drugs, and Omar walks up to the house with a shotgun, knocking on the door. And the guy peeps out, whispering, ‘Hey man, Omar’s here.’ And they’re sitting in there, wondering what they’re gonna do. And Omar turns his back and says ‘I’m giving you all 10 seconds’. These people in the house have guns, all they have to do is come through the window and blow his brains out; the next thing you know, these bags come flying out the window. It clicked, because I remembered Donnie telling me that story. I said: ‘David, the motherfucker!’ And I jumped on the phone and I said, ‘David, is Omar really Donnie?’ He said ‘No, that’s not Donnie, what you talking about?’ I said; ‘You’re a damn liar.’ He finally broke down and told me it was Donnie.”
The curious fairytale of Fran Boyd, Donnie Andrews, and the amoral Robin Hood called Omar, begins in Baltimore, sometime in 1993, when reporter David Simon pitches up with former homicide cop Ed Burns to tell the story of the junction between the city’s West Fayette Street and Monroe Street, which operated as a drug market in a dying neighbourhood.
Simon and Burns’s style is a novelistic brand of journalism. When they make television, it feels like cinema, infused with the manners of documentary. Their stories are a kind of truth, and a sort of art. Before The Corner, there was Homicide, a book which became the naturalistic television drama Homicide: Life on the Street, which made Hill Street Blues look Hamish Macbeth. In their joint projects, Burns uses the instincts he gained during a 20-year career as a detective, while Simon employs his journalistic training. For The Corner, they studied the neighbourhood for a year, with the intention of depicting the failure, and the consequences, of the US War on Drugs.
“When they started writing The Corner,” Fran recalls, “David and Ed had met my son’s father, then they met my son. They put the connection together, and they wanted a story based around one family. They knew they had to find the mother. Which I didn’t want nothing to do with. Every time they’d come around, I’d cuss ’em out: ‘Get away from my door!’, you know? I just knew they were the po-lice. Then one day David came around he brought me a paperback of Homicide, and it still wasn’t convincing enough to me. I said, ‘OK, so you wrote a book. I still think you’re police.’”
Some time later, Fran began to notice that, although Simon and Burns had been in the neighbourhood for a while, nobody had been arrested. “My game plan was: all right, so these white people want my story, well they’re gonna pay me. Ed wasn’t all that happy. So what I had to try to do was get David by himself. David didn’t have a clue what was going on. But Ed was always there to snatch David back: ‘No you can’t go down there by yourself.’ But if I could get David by hisself, I could get anything I wanted.”
Fran’s descent into heroin addiction had been slow and tragic. “Oh man,” she says, laughing sardonically, “it’s a family tradition. My mother didn’t use [drugs], but my father was an abusive alcoholic. I can remember hitting the drink as early as five years old. Back then, parents used to give children beer. ‘Look at ’em acting crazy, ain’t they cute?’ Keeping me and my three sisters up, giving us beer, making us dance all night. And we had to go to school the next day. We were so afraid of them that we did it. So I think that was the beginning of my addiction.
“Then as I became a teenager the marijuana came in, and taking acid and sniffing glue, pills, stuff like that. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I first tried heroin. It was the night that we buried my older sister. She got burnt up in a fire that was started by my brother, who was high off of heroin. He dropped a cigarette, which burned the house down, and on the night of her funeral one of my brother’s friends gave me some heroin. First time I’d tried it, and I didn’t know that what he was doing was making me a customer. I thought he was just being nice.
“So he came past three days in a row, and it was good. As a matter of fact, the first time I had heroin, everything else I was doing, I automatically stopped doing. It seemed that this was something I had been looking for a long time. It took everything away. I forgot about my sister’s funeral. That’s how good I felt. But after the third day he didn’t come around anymore, so I went looking for him. That’s when I realised he was making me just another customer.”
Donnie, meanwhile was in prison, serving three life sentences. His recollection of the whys and the wherefores of his past life is blurrier. If Fran has the clarity of a reformed addict, Donnie’s stories are shaped like parables. The most brutal fact in his story is that on September 23, 1986, he was ordered by one drug dealer to kill another. At the time, he was able to reason that it was part of the job. The story has subsequently been reinterpreted in the soft light of redemption, and he finds himself focusing on the moment when his gun jammed, and the target, a man called Zach Roach, looked up at him and asked ‘Why?’”
There is, of course, a whole life of tragedy before that moment. To explain how it started, Donnie tells me a story from when he was nine or 10 years old, and was sent with his younger brother to the Laundromat at 2am.
“They used to have a wino watching the machines. Me and my brother go in there, and we’re washing clothes. Three guys come in, and they ask the wino for 15 cents so they can catch the bus. He was drunk, he had his Wild Irish Rover bottle in his hand, and he said ‘15 cents? I ain’t got no goddamn 15 cents! You punks better get the fuck outta my face, I give you 15 seconds to get the fuck outta here.’
“He got to cussin’ ’em off. He reached in his pocket, and said ‘I got 15 cents, but I wouldn’t give you the sweat off my balls.’ Next thing you know, I hear something go boom, and all the change flies everywhere, and they beat this guy. They beat him with the bottle, the chairs, the trash can. They killed him. And me and my brother was trapped, cos the back door had a big padlock on it. So once they finished beating him, they looked up and they walked back towards us, and they said ‘Shorty, gimme 15 cents.’ I said, ‘I ain’t got no 15 cents. This is my mother’s money. Back then, people respected the mother. Once you said it was your mother’s money, they were like, ‘All right, but if you had 15 cents., you’d give me it?’
“They left, and we had to crawl over the top of the washing machines and jump down on the fence to keep from jumping in the blood. And as I was going out the door, the guy let out a deep breath and one of those starting-gun farts. I looked down, and laying right by his head was a nickel and a dime. Fifteen cents. I made a vow to myself, that night, that that would never happen to me. I would never be a victim. So even after I did some stuff I shouldn’t have done, I’d go back and sit down and think about it, and go ‘fuck it’.”
Donnie laughs long enough for me to remember Omar’s saying, “You come at the king, you better not miss.” Or, as the character also put it, “Omar don’t scare.” Those, though, are Simon’s words. Donnie is more prosaic, suggesting he was merely looking after himself. “But then again, I just liked the excitement.”
Donnie was some way towards rehabilitation – if not freedom – when Simon and Burns decided to put him in touch with Fran. “Once I did start talking to David and Ed, I still wasn’t given them the information that they wanted,” says Fran. “They thought I was too hard, and they said, ‘OK, we got somebody that can calm you down.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ So they gave Donnie my phone number, and when Donnie called, I’m like, ‘Hell, who is this? What you calling me for?’ I was still trying to put on this hard image.
“The thing that got me was he wouldn’t give in to my arguments. It was like Donnie found good in anything that I did. Even though what I was doing was wrong, he would tell me how I could turn it around.”
Fran talked to Donnie for four or five months before she found out why he was in prison. She assumed he was serving time for drug-related offences. Eventually, Simon showed her a newspaper article he had written about Donnie. “I was crying, thinking, ‘No this can’t be the same man.’ It just didn’t seem like this was the same person. That’s when I really wanted to change. Because I saw where he came from, and I was like, ‘Shit, what I’m doing ain’t nothing.’”
Fran’s heroin use went on for 17 years. She says she took the drug for ten years before admitting she had a habit. At first, her tolerance was high, and she didn’t use every day. She never got sick. She had enough money. “I used to look at the things that women were doing to get drugs; I didn’t do that. I looked at how they were dressed; I wasn’t dressed like that.
“Somewhere in the back of your mind you know you have a problem, but you don’t want to put yourself in that category. To me, that was ‘those people’.”
There was, she says, a moment when everything became clear. “I found myself with a little TV sitting on a milk crate, a mattress on the floor, and my two children; all of us in this one little room. Coming from owning a cathedral home, driving a Mercedes-Benz, wearing business suits; this was how far down I went.
“It’s like you get to a point where you just don’t care anymore. But I can remember one day sitting in the middle of the floor, wondering, ‘How in the hell did I get here?”
Donnie called Fran on the phone every day, 365 days a year, at 4pm. Over time, her feelings grew stronger, “which is what I didn’t want. This man had triple-life, and I didn’t want to sit at home waiting for him.”
“When Ed told me he had somebody he wanted me to talk to, it was a challenge,” says Donnie. “And I’m always up for a challenge. Even back in the day when I was out there sticking up and a guy come boosting, and tries to stick me up, boom boom, I’m looking at him going, ‘Well, just give it to me then.’
“And when I called her there was something in her voice that was crying out for help. I heard it and I just couldn’t turn my back to her. We talked for four or five hours and it was like we knew each other for all our lives. The more I talked to her, the more I felt like I could help her.
“I never judged her, because of my past. To this day I judge nobody. Because of what I done, I can’t judge nobody.”
Donnie won Fran’s trust by asking Simon to help out: delivering a Playstation for her son after Christmas, and sending groceries when she had no food, so Fran began to accept that Donnie wasn’t going to be a burden. They talked for four years before meeting face-to-face, and then struggled through three disappointments with the parole board before his eventual release in 2004, after 18 years inside.
Looking at them now, they seem well-matched. Fran is the more talkative, but as she speaks, Donnie looks on with obvious affection. When he speaks, he has a habit of separating his life into then and now, sometimes referring to his previous self as “Omar”.
“It worries me when I see his mind wandering back,” Fran says. “I don’t know what he’s thinking, but to me it’s like he’s always back there. I’m like, ‘Where you at? Come back – wherever you going I’m going with you.’ And he’ll get mad, but it takes him out of where he’s at. The things that Donnie’s been through, it takes a lot of time to just try to have a normal day. So I try my best to just keep him in the now.
“Then there’s the part of him gettin’ mad and thinking it’s funny. Donnie told me this story when he was in jail, and I always said when he comes home I’m gonna watch out for his smile. I’m gonna see if I can separate the happy smile from the bad smile. Because he would always say that the smile he gave you could be the same smile that he’d kill you with. He was telling me that he could be mad at you, but he’d still smile. I promised myself I don’t want to see that smile.”
“Where I come from, you never show your emotions,” says Donnie. “You always got to hide that part of you. I will get mad, and I cannot do anything mad. I can’t think - I’ll make mistakes.” He says that just as Omar whistles to cool himself down, he used to sing songs. “I still do – when I get upset about something I just start singing.”
“I might stop sometimes and look at him,” says Fran, “and try to picture him in the Seventies or the Eighties, and I can’t see it. I can see him maybe fighting somebody, but to get to that space, of what he went to prison for, or that lifestyle, I still can’t see it.
“It just don’t seem like that was his character. But it was, and I just try to keep it resting.”
These days, Fran and Donnie work in Baltimore trying to help in the community. Donnie works with gang members, trying to dissuade them from a life of violence, and Fran has plans to establish Fran’s House Of Joy, to care for women with HIV. But funds are scarce, and Fran wistfully suggests that they may not be able to achieve their aims until they have made money of their own. Whoever got rich from The Wire, it wasn’t them, but Donnie is working on a memoir, and David Simon is working on the film of his life story.
“Omar is Donnie’s past life,” Fran says. “It’s probably easier for him to accept it now, and know that it’s not him anymore. It’s like a different person. I think if Donnie was still Omar and David came up with that, David would probably have hell on his hands.”
“It’s like he’s buried,” Donnie says. “And I keep him there.”
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
If the strange brilliance of John Samson’s career as a filmmaker could be reduced to one scene, it would be a sequence from his 1977 documentary, Dressing For Pleasure. The scene would involve Jordan – the original Jordan, the suburban punk with the beehive and the kohl-slash eyes – squeezing the ample milkiness of her hourglass frame into a rubber twin set and stockings, a buttock here, a breast there, while talking sweetly about silliness of wearing latex during a heatwave. Or, it would be the scene involving Jordan, Malcolm McLaren, and an inflatable helmet: the Sex Pistols’ manager is fully-enclosed inside the pneumatic outfit, looking like a perverted deep sea diver, as Jordan squeezes the pump. Soon enough, McLaren is transformed into a Year Zero Michelin man.
Certainly, these are the most widely-seen moments of Samson’s oeuvre. When Vivienne Westwood had her 2004 career retrospective, Dressing For Pleasure ran on a loop at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as a record of Westwood and McLaren’s punk boutique Sex. And Julien Temple included the sequence in his Pistols’ documentary The Filth And The Fury. “It was a very powerful illustration of Malcolm’s vision of that shop at the time,” Temple says.
Watching these sequences today is a matter of nostalgia, but they are no less peculiar now than they seemed in 1977. Back then, McLaren and Westwood were exploiting subcultures to make a point; or possibly just blow raspberries in the direction of British hypocrisy about sex. It was an act of mischief, designed to annoy as much as it stimulated. As a rubber nun observes in Dressing For Pleasure, it was “queer material.” But observe it now, sniff the elastomer, and what you inhale is the spent jet-fuel of an accelerated culture. The 1970s now look like the 1950s – a drab decade struggling to emerge from the shadow of the war. There’s something charming, too, about Jordan, the Sex shopgirl. For all her kinkiness, she seems wedded to a very British tradition of titillation. What was branded then as anarchy, now seems close to being something of a Carry On.
“It wasn’t fetishism,” says Temple. “It was a provocative art statement, which people like Jordan were very much into. I don’t think she would have considered herself a rubber-club type person. It was approaching it with a wilder sense of fun.”
If Samson had done nothing else, Dressing For Pleasure would earned him a worthy footnote in the annals of punk. But gradually, posthumously – he died in 2004 - the Scottish filmmaker’s reputation is beginning to emerge from decades of neglect. Last year, a Hoxton gallery showed his work as an art installation, which led to Samson being selected for a retrospective at the 2009 London International Documentary Festival. As well as Dressing For Pleasure, the festival will show Arrows, his brilliant study of the darts player Eric Bristow; Tattoo, which investigates the cult of body decoration; Britannia – The First And Last, which documents the activities of stream railway preservationists; and The Skin Horse, a more traditional documentary from the early years of Channel 4, which explores attitudes to disability in collaboration with Nigel Evans.
Samson didn’t start out as a filmmaker. Born in Ayrshire in 1946, he grew up in Paisley, and left school to become an apprentice in the Clyde shipyards. He was quickly politicised, and acted as the spokesman for the first Glasgow apprentices’ strike. He became involved with the Anarchist movement and the Committee of 100, which advocated civil disobedience against the establishment of the US nuclear base at the Holy Loch in 1961. Anarchist activist Stuart Christie – later jailed for an assassination attempt on General Franco - encountered Samson around that time. “Remember you’re talking about a time, especially in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we thought the whole world was going to be destroyed – it was a countdown to the cataclysm.
“It was just part of the radical milieu. It was a time where you were encouraged to use your imagination.”
There is a photograph of Christie and Samson in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, on the famous day – May Day 1962 - when Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell was confronted by anti-nuclear protestors, and responded by saying: “Let them go to the Kremlin and tell Mr. Khrushchev to ban his bomb. Go and march with the goose-stepping Nazis in East Germany.”
“The whole audience erupted, says Christie, “and we ran to storm the platform and try to drag him off. It was absolute pandemonium. I’m convinced it triggered the death of Gaitskell a year later.”
Samson’s life also changed in 1963, when he met his wife Linda. “He worked in Easterhouse as a social worker after he left the shipyards,” says his producer, Mike Wallington. “Somewhere in there Linda met him. He was highly politicised. He had seen films all his life, and comics and popular music, but I don’t think he’d seen what you get away with in the art game. Linda was studying at the Glasgow School of Art. So he chose photography.”
Samson fell in with a crowd which included Alasdair Gray. “Both John and Linda were friendly with a very beautiful woman who I was very keen on,” Gray recalls. “She was used to having a certain effect on men, and wasn’t particularly interested in being anything more of a friend.”
Gray drew the woman, and John and Linda, and wasn’t surprised when Samson’s creativity found an outlet in film. His first short, Charlie, was made for a BBC competition in 1973. From the start, the principles of Samson’s filmmaking were in place. The subject, Charlie Williamson, was a Glasgow busker.
“He was somebody who had given up a married life,” says Gray, “and the film was basically him speaking of the life he led. John wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who condescends by taking a character and trying to expose him. He let the man speak for himself, and that was what was so interesting and good about it.”
Mike Wallington recalls that although Charlie came second in the contest, one of the judges, director Joseph Losey, advised Samson to call Colin Young, the founding head of the new National Film School. Samson had no qualifications, but was admitted on the strength of Charlie. Tattoo and Dressing For Pleasure were made with Wallington at Beaconsfield.
“It wasn’t a period of celebrity,” says Wallington. “What we developed was a style of documentary filmmaking that didn’t use voiceover or commentary.”
Temple was younger than Samson, but remembers him from film school. “He was a bit of an enigma to me. He certainly wasn’t a punk – he was older, with longer hair. He had a perspective that was different, but understood the curiosity and the impact that punk went on to have before other people did.”
Film school, says Temple, was documentary-oriented because of Young’s influence. “They had the usual TV documentary guys teaching, which seemed very boring to me, and John seemed not to be part of that school at all.
“I always had this sense that he stood apart and had a cooler, less didactic approach to telling documentary stories, and he had visual flair as well. Dressing For Pleasure was beautifully-lit. There’s an almost Kenneth Anger-like feel to it.”
Actually, time has done a strange thing to Samson’s documentaries. He was, according to Wallington, uninterested in nostalgia, but the cumulative effect of his films is wistful. They capture the unreported margins of a Britain that was about to be destroyed – she would say transformed – by Margaret Thatcher. Sometimes, the symbolism is overt. Britannia splices excitable footage of the launch of the steam train Britannia in 1951 (a voiceover boasts that “Britain still leads the world with the steam locomotive”) against the efforts of enthusiasts to restore the rusting hulk of the train. It is more John Betjeman than Kenneth Anger, but Samson’s hands-off style conceals a deep concern for the decline of a skilled trade.
“John never looked back,” says Wallington. “But his idea of a really great time would be to sit down in the pub next to someone he’d never met before and find out that they were a piemaker. He really used to go on about the end of the apprenticeship system, where working class people could no longer even hand their sons and daughters their trade; which at least kept a lot of self-respect alive. We used to talk about how in all these working men’s clubs where we filmed Arrows, they’d have huge libraries. That’s the nostalgia – for an uncompromised working class that was willing to fight.”
Punk is actually just a sidebar in Dressing For Pleasure. The film presents rubberists and leatherists, and those to whom very heaven was the suggestive rustle of a belted Mackintosh, as quiet types who enhanced their lives with fantasy.
“There was a certain friendly boyish brightness about John,” says Gray. “A kind of guileless openness. You’d a feeling that he found life in general quite an interesting adventure. He’d sympathy for folk who might be regarded as eccentrics.”
“The whole thing is so well-judged,” says Wallington. “That’s John for you, because it could have gone another way. And don’t forget that fetishists don’t talk to each other. A rubberist has nothing in common with a leatherist! And the sado-masochists never talk to each other, because of the contractual basis of what they’re into. Yet we got them to share a stage. We mixed the Mackintosh brigade with the leather guys, and amongst the leather guys you’ve got the motorcycle guys, you’ve got the transvestites, and the more straightforward power thing where if you put the leather on it gives you added status and ties you into a master-slave relationship. They all mixed so well with the guy from the BBC, with the all-over rubber suits with the gas masks. He was remarkable – he had dozens and dozens of those kits. It was like he was a comic book superhero in each one.”
Tattoo is similarly egalitarian, observing no hierarchy between Britain’s Most Tattooed Lady (an oddly pragmatic and unassuming woman) and a chap with an erect penis etched in his armpit. The film has the poetic choreography of a dance, treating its subjects as still sculptures to be observed in a mood of curious contemplation. An element of sex is unavoidable, but when the camera zooms slowly towards a tattooed butterfly above a pair of breasts, the gaze is anatomical, with not a hint of Suicide Girls. The participants are so studied and polite, and presented with such an absence of sensation, that they resemble the waking dreams of Gilbert and George, except that Gilbert and George tend to make normalcy seem strange. Samson’s camera makes strangeness normal.
Arrows is a more conventional piece, following Eric Bristow on a winding tour of working men’s clubs on the road to being anointed the first superstar of darts. The sense of period is intoxicating, from Simon shirts to pub carpets, and Bristow’s rise – which has yet to take him out of a modest terraced house – is accompanied by the distinct sense that Britain is flushing down the pan. Even so, there is an odd majesty about it, and the quirks of realism – the can of McEwan’s Export on the train, the “star” mirror with three lightbulbs - are spliced between artistic shots of darts being released from nicotine-stained fingers. The film is a slow-motion bullseye.
It was the start of a brilliant career for Bristow, and it might have been for Samson. Instead, he and Wallington embarked to Paris, where they made “frivolous” propaganda films for Iran (not long before the fall of the Shah) and Libya, which was easier, as anti-imperialism came as second-nature.
The coming of Channel 4, with its hunger for the marginal, should have been a god-send, but Samson’s contribution was limited to his work on The Skin Horse, and a lengthy list of unmade great films. A plan to film Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam came to nothing, as did the film about a bare knuckle boxer, and the documentary on Oor Wullie. There was talk of collaborating with Alasdair Gray, and grand plans for a film exploring the sex lives of the disabled. In the late 1990s, Samson and Wallington made a documentary about people living in the London Underground, but it never got beyond a rough cut.
Aside from the Iranian and Libyan adventures, there is one completed short film missing from Samson and Wallington’s catalogue – a spin-off from Dressing For Pleasure, which investigated the subculture of genital appendages. It was shown once, then disappeared. The broader tragedy is that the style of documentary embraced by Samson and Wallington – poetic and without commentary - has been lost too, replaced by talking heads and celebrity presenters.
“John was visionary, very visual, and yet he had the common touch,” says Wallington. “People liked him, so he could get close to them, and at the same time draw back and put them into a metaphor.
“I thought we had changed something back there in the 1970s, but it proved to be a golden age. Commentary’s easy, and weak, and pernicious. Finally, if one really wanted to put a word on it, it’s authoritarian and almost fascist. And it’s the given aesthetic mode in 2009.”
Originally published in Product magazine. Samson’s films can be seen on Stuart Christie’s website: www.christiebooks.com
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
I asked Patti Smith to talk about the time she worked with Bob Dylan. This is what she said.
I had finished Gone Again in memory of Fred [‘Sonic’ Smith, her late husband], and I really didn’t think about touring at all, since my children were in school, but I heard from Dylan in 1995, and he asked whether I wanted to do a series of East coast dates with him. And because they were very local I could easily take my kids or just be away for a night, so I decided to do that. It was my first tour in 16 years. We had my band, and Michael Stipe came with us to give us some moral support, because I hadn’t performed in so long I was a bit nervous. But Bob and I also had a mutual friend in Allen Ginsberg, who also encouraged me to go out to the world and get strong and receive the people’s energy, because I was at a very low point in my life.
Bob and I spoke privately and I thanked him for giving me the opportunity, and he really encouraged me to come back into the fold. He said the people would be happy to see me. I truthfully wasn’t certain how I would be received, or what I should do, and being encouraged by him was very important to me. I mean, Bob – the man I know – is a man of few words, but the words are always meaningful. And so that was very important. He was very encouraging to me about my place in the community of rock’n’roll.
Also, he gave me the opportunity to choose any song from his catalogue and we could do it together. So I looked through his lyric book, and I realised what a profound opportunity this was. This was somebody that I had adored and admired since I was 15 years old, giving me the opportunity to sing any one of his songs with him. So I chose Dark Eyes, and Bob and I sang it for the next several days. Ending, I believe, in Philadelphia, where I’m from.
It was really one of the great experiences of my life, singing the song with him. The people were so electric, and the concentration of the two of us on this very beautiful song under very hot lights – the sweat was dripping from our noses – and he’s so charismatic; he has so much mental and physical energy that performing with him is very special.
We didn’t rehearse. We just went over the song quickly in his dressing room, just to find a key. We just sort of did it on stage. We mapped it out, and he said ‘I’ll come in, and I’ll do a little guitar break, and come back in.’ On the last night, I doubled the end of the last chorus, without saying anything to him. And he looked at me, and said [sardonically] ‘good ending’.
I chose Dark Eyes because its one of his lesser known songs, and I just think the lyrics are very beautiful. They’re sort of in the tradition of Milton and Blake; the lyrics stand as a poem. Also, it’s a good song for my voice. It’s tonally dark. It would have been very obvious to do Highway 61 or something, or Like A Rolling Stone. It would have been fun, but I wanted to experience doing something beautiful with him. And it was beautiful.
I saw him occasionally on tour. He’s very private on the road and his organisation works very different to mine. I only have five band people and four crew, and we’re all a brotherhood. We all have the same tour-bus, we use the same dressing room. So our situation is a lot different than his, where there are a lot of rules, and people have their duties and their place, and it’s very complex and exact.
When you’re opening for any band, doesn’t matter who it is, I always respect the ground rules of the headlining person. But I saw him occasionally. We spoke when we needed to speak, and it was always a pleasure, and then we toured again in Australia, which was also a pleasure.
I saw him play most nights on the tour. I’m not much of a spectator, and after you perform you have a lot of adrenaline, but I watched a lot of his shows. He’s a charismatic performer. I mean, I saw Bob in 1963, with Joan Baez. I’ve seen him in many incarnations. I saw him in ’65, I’ve seen him many times, and he’s always interesting.
He changes his set each night, and he often changes the key or the rhythm of a song. He’s a singer-songwriter … I mean, he has a lot of magnetism, but we’re not similar in the way that we perform. I perform directly to the people and interact with the people, and he more concentrates on the music. And because he concentrates on the music, he’ll take a song, and in the same week, he’ll do it two or three different ways, because he’s highly creative and always restless. He doesn’t like the repetition of his own things. He often changes them up or finds a different way to present them. He doesn’t do the shows by rote. He shifts his set list. The people are interested anyway, and his other task is to keep things interesting for himself.
One of my favourite records he’s ever done is World Gone Wrong, which he did right before we toured. In fact I told him that his acoustic guitar playing on World Gone Wrong was just as good as anybody. The authenticity and the clarity of his playing, and the choice of songs, were beautiful. So, I love that album as much as I’ve love John Wesley Harding.
Friday, February 20, 2009
But still, Rourke looks like a visitor to unfamiliar shores. How changed is he? Well, not entirely. He shifts uncomfortably on the soft furnishings before telling the story of a recent night out in London, to illustrate how “there always going to be that little mad hatter inside of me with the axe.”
It is a long tale, and he tells it slowly, relishing the confessional tone. He was out, he says, with his two minders, one of whom (“a big black hulk of a man”) is waiting in the other room of Rourke’s suite. The other, an East End geezer, “who can handle himself ”, has presumably been given the day off. So, the three of them are standing in the street, when a man walks past with his girlfriend. The man, says Rourke, is “real flash, and he says ‘Excuse me ladies’. Now, ten years ago, I woulda hit ’im right on the chin for saying something like that. Because then I did not deal with consequences. The world that I lived in, there were no rules. He would have been missing nine teeth for what he said.
“So, I said to the boys, ‘he got a pass’. But I watched him all the way down the block, wishing he would come back. You know what? He turned around. I’m watching him walk up the street, and I took off my jacket so I just had a vest on, so I could move, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do him right now.’ And there’s a part of me that’s going…” - he starts whispering – “‘it’s still there, goddamit’, and he comes walking up, and I turned my back right in front of him. And he said: ‘Excuse me. Do you know where such and such a place is, and he was really polite. I said, ‘No, ma’am, I don’t know where it is.’ And he walked along the kerb and left.”
Rourke takes a moment to enjoy his moment of restraint. He removes his glasses, and cleans them pensively. “I mean, there was no point to him saying: ‘Excuse me, ladies’. I wouldn’t say it to the guy I was standing with, much less a stranger. But there’s always going to be the jerk-off that tries it. So I gotta work at it all the time. Also, I kinda knew I was going to give him a pass, because he wasn’t a hard man, he was just an arrogant rich asshole.”
This, then, is the new Mickey Rourke. And it’s his good fortune to have found a filmmaker (Darren Aronofsky) and a film (The Wrestler) to dramatise the struggles that derailed his career.
The Wrestler is no Citizen Kane, but thanks to Rourke, it works. It is a film about old age and decrepitude in which a once pretty actor is portrayed as a battered, emotionally-constipated wreck. Aronofksy employs the manners of a horror movie, taking an age to reveal the monster – so that when the camera finally does take cognisance of Rourke’s bruised potato face, the moment is played for shock. It’s not a deep film, but the shallows are heavily pebbled, not least by the suggestion that show-business – represented here by wrestling – is just another version of prostitution, in which the wrestler, Rourke, is a one-trick pony trapped in the dark alley of his own limitations.
“I’m an old broken down piece of meat and I’m alone, and I deserve to be alone,” Rourke says, as Randy the Ram. “I just don’t need you to hate me.”
It helps when you know that Rourke rewrote his dialogue: the sense that this is autobiography is no accident. Rourke based Randy on a retired wrestler called Magic, who lived in a bus outside Gold’s gym in Los Angeles, but the film is about the actor. And it works, because in a world of identikit stars with perfect teeth, he is a survivor from more interesting times.
Partly, this is a matter of style. He wears a red pinstriped jacket over a grey undershirt which struggles to cover his stomach. There are two turquoise rings on his left hand, and a tattoo on the middle finger of his right. His hair is streaked; there is a moustache, and a rumour of a goatee. He wears studious glasses, and golden shoes. He looks like a bohemian from another planet. Or Johnny Depp’s dad.
I suggest to Rourke that the film is more about loneliness than wrestling. Was that what he was thinking of?
“Not thinking of. Existing in for many years. I wasn’t a little bit bad, I was horrible for 15, 16 years. I was out of control, I was out of my mind. I had to lose my house, my wife, my money, my career, everything, for me to fall all the way down to the bottom. And somebody advised me I needed to talk to somebody. I resisted, but I went, because everything was gone.”
In the 1980s, in films such as 9 ½ Weeks, Rumblefish and Angel Heart, Rourke sparred on equal terms with De Niro and Pacino. But in 1991, he returned to his first career as a boxer, before edging back into acting in the 2000s. He says he made more than $1m in 5 ½ years of fighting, “but a million dollars isn’t really a million dollars anymore.” He had no job, and was living in a $500 a month room in Venice Beach, with Loki and five other dogs. He ate by selling off his motorcycles, and was down to his last bike when Sylvester Stallone gave him a part in the remake of Get Carter, and paid over the odds, encouraging Rourke to contemplate a comeback.
He says his acting was improved by his 5 ½ years as a boxer. “Because one of the qualities I lacked as an actor was focus and concentration. But in boxing, when the bell rang, I had to be right there. You can’t say, ‘Hold on I need a minute’. When you hear the bell, you gotta go. Also, when you’re hurt, you learn to survive by being defensive. When you’re fighting a guy that’s much stronger than you, you don’t go to war, you let him shoot his load, and weaken, and then you get him later with angles and speed.
“Of course, I regret that I had to leave everything and fall so far from grace, but I needed to change, and I have. When I was little I was really quiet and shy and all the other boys were very tough in the neighbourhood, so I thought ‘I gotta be like that’. I was about 11 when some bully was beating me up in the schoolyard, and I finally got up and beat the piss out of him. From that day on, I noticed I got treated a different way.”
Rourke says that his recovery is due to seven years of therapy, in which he ran up a debt of $60,000. “I needed to go three times a week or I was going to suck on a bullet.” He came to understand that he had thrown his acting career away because he felt that he didn’t deserve his success.
“I came from a very violent background. I let go of that when I was a student, but when I started to be really successful, it came back again. It came back because I resented the fact that people treated me special for being in movies. I’d go to a restaurant that was very expensive, and they wouldn’t let me pay the bill – they’d throw people out of tables to give me a seat, or I’d go to a shop and some guy wouldn’t even let me pay for a coat. I’d think, fuck, I remember when I washed dishes; I collected money for gamblers, and I did security in whorehouses, and transvestite bars. I worked my whole ass off my whole life, and now I couldn’t even pay for something, and I had money. I had a big house, and pussy and anything anybody could want. And people treated me different, and kissed my ass. I wound up getting really upset about it and I just didn’t want any of it.
“I had some shit happen when I was little, that I was terribly ashamed of, and I had issues of physical abuse and abandonment issues, that made me feel very insignificant and very small. I masked that by becoming hard. That was where the change had to take place, because I had to come to terms with these people - authority figures, producers, or anybody that looked at me crooked – it wasn’t this man that was kicking the fuck out of me and my little brother. So I had to say, wait a minute, I can’t blame the rest of the world for something one guy did, and my mother allowed him to do, when I was this big.
“I didn’t have the knowledge to fix what was broke. I needed to talk to somebody that knew what makes one go mad.”
I ask whether the violent man was his father. He checks himself, saying this is not something he wants to talk about. “It wasn’t my dad, it was somebody else. I only met my dad once, in a bar. I introduced myself to him when I was 25.” (The New York Times attributed unspecified abuse to Rourke’s stepfather, who denied it).
Rourke is, he admits, a work in progress, and it remains to be seen how he will react to a second shot at success.
“But it’s new now. It’s almost like I never really had a career before. And let’s face it, my career was over almost before it began.
“I was ashamed I lost my wife [Wild Orchid co-star Carre Otis] more than anything else. Not the money. It’s the other things that come along when you become a failure, because you self-destruct.”
Whatever happens, the love of Rourke’s life won’t be around to congratulate him. Loki died on Tuesday.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, But The Coup Attempt May Be Sexed Up: The Trouble With Filming Chavez
Watching Chavez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised unspool, what emerges at first is a fairly traditional, slightly romantic portrait of a Latin American revolutionary leader. Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s film casts a benign light on the president of Venezuela. There’s less soft-soap involved than there was in Oliver Stone’s Fidel Castro fanzine, Comandante, but very little that would startle your average tango-dancing Euro-leftist.
As with Stone and Castro, there are glimpses into the politician’s romantic self-regard, such as the interview in which he tells the story about how his grandmother had told him he had “murderer’s blood in him”, a genetic gift from his grandfather, who would arrive in a village and decapitate everyone with machetes. In Chavez’s reworking of this dire parable, he investigates his grandfather’s life, and discovers he was a revolutionary who fought with a poncho on his shoulders and a fur cobijo on his head.
And then dear Hugo turns poetic. This was no psycho with a machete! His grandfather had a revolver and an ammunition belt. There was, he notes atmospherically, a “cloud of tobacco, and clouds overhead. Horses neighing, and herons could be heard. Milk drops from the sky at night. That’s the rain. The rebel horsemen. Songs, silence and song.”
So Chavez decides that his grandfather wasn’t a murderer after all. He was a fighter who had been given a bad rap.
All of which is interesting, if only partially illuminating. It displays a magical realist turn of phrase which would be unimaginable, and probably ruinous, in a British politician. And it works as a piece of self-serving mythology. It’s hard not to be moved when even the sky is weeping lactic tears.
The documentary opens in September 2001, three years after Chavez won a landslide election victory. It begins by sketching the president’s plans to cast himself as the reincarnation of Simón Bolívar, the 19th Century liberator of Venezuela. His plan is to free the country, and the region, from the domination of Washington and the market. There is, says Chavez, an argument about globalisation: the neo-liberals, who claim to support this idea, are actually anti-global, and it’s they who are destroying the world. He draws his support from the poor, and promises to redistribute wealth and engage the people in the political process. “The oil wealth never reached the campesinos,” he notes, and those same peasants are invited to call him on his weekly television show, Alo Presidente, and chew the fat.
He tells his lieutenants they must communicate on television and radio, to negate the influence of Venezuela’s hostile private TV stations. “Get up early,” Chavez commands. “Talk about the revolution – communicate.” This being September 2001, one of the things Chavez communicates about is 9/11 and the War on Terror. “We support the fight against terrorism – but not just carte blanche to do anything”. He says this while holding up photographs of children killed in Afghanistan by American bombs.
There are, you may have noticed, milky clouds forming in the sky of this narrative. And true enough, the private TV stations start comparing Chavez to Hitler and Mussolini, and the CIA hovers ominously; aware, no doubt, of the strategic importance of Venezuela’s oil. The film show anxious white people in the oil-rich suburbs of Caracas learning how to shoot, and being urged to keep an eye on their servants. And lo, an opposition march is heading towards the presidential palace to confront a pro-Chavez demonstration. The two crowds meet, snipers pick out innocent demonstrators. The deaths are blamed on Chavez, and when the president’s people attempt to communicate their version of events on the state TV channel, the signal is cut. A coup is underway, and Chavez is ousted from the Palacio de Miraflores.
The camera is inside the palace as the coup unfolds. It catches Chavez being marched out, and when a counter-coup takes place, it shows the triumphant Chavistas marching back in. It is, by any standards, a remarkable piece of cinema. It won many awards, including best documentary at the Chicago film festival and best current affairs programme at the Banff television festival in Canada.
Then the trouble started. A petition of 11,000 signatures denounced the film in Venezuela. It was withdrawn from an Amnesty International film festival in November 2003, after threats towards Amnesty staff in Caracas.
The complaints were many and various. Essentially, the film’s detractors saw it as pro-Chavez propaganda. The chronology was questioned, as was the use of archive film. The scene in which upper-middle-class women were shown learning self-defence was presented as part of the build up to the coup, but had actually been filmed months later. The film’s assertion that Chavez never resigned is doubted, and the key sequence in which pro-Chavez demonstrators on a bridge were said to be defending themselves from a sniper attack (and not, as was claimed on Venezuelan TV, shooting at anti-Chavez demonstrators) was subjected to the kind of analysis usually practised by moon-landing sceptics. This was no longer a question of truth – it was about shadows on the ground. The film may have been vérité, but was it true?
Rod Stoneman, the film’s executive producer, has now examined the case against the film, and his book, Chavez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, broadly absolves the filmmakers. (Firstly, he has to clarify that his billing as executive producer was a grace and favour title: he was head of the Irish film board).
“There were some relatively small examples of slippage in the grammar of the piece, but overall the film was made with honesty and integrity. Of the 18 objections made, 15, if not 17, were wrong. The filmmakers spent a long time assembling evidence to show why they’d done what they’d done in the film and mostly it’s true.”
Stoneman’s book is a work of film studies rather than politics, but it does illuminate some points about documentary filmmaking which might be surprising to casual viewers. The film’s editor Angel Hernandez Zoido explains the process of whittling 200 hours of footage into a digestible film by saying: “To me there’s no difference between fiction and documentary. When I’m editing a film I never forget that it’s entertainment.” And O’Briain notes that the decision to opt for cinema vérité was a response to the kind of material the filmmakers had: “To argue for vérité is not to suggest that it’s more truthful; really it’s more direct, a more powerful short circuit to the emotional.”
Venezuelan film director Jonathan Jakubowicz, whose 2005 film Secuestro Express angered Chavez with its depiction of corruption and kidnap in Venezuela - is considerably less charitable. “I’ve seen the film. It’s definitely a propaganda masterpiece. But I wouldn’t call it a documentary. Any shootout looks completely different from one side than it does from the other. A real documentary would show both sides with fairness. These guys, following the Leni Riefenstahl school, only show the beauty of the revolution. And like The Jew Süss, they portray the opposition to their beloved leader as gritty, rich, selfish and power thirsty.
“Our society is complicated to understand even for Venezuelans, I’m not surprised how hard it was to grasp by a group of talented Irish filmmakers.”
Jakubowicz’s first film, Ships of Hope, was a documentary about the exodus of Jewish refugees to Venezuela, but the fictional Secuestro Express offered a more direct and populist evocation of life in Caracas, making a dramatic thrill-ride from the social inequalities in the country. Even so, it began with a montage of news footage, including the sequence which was central to the coup attempt, of Rafael Cabrices firing from a road bridge. The pro-coup media’s interpretation of this footage was accepted without question by the world’s media during the first hours of the coup. But subsequent analysis has tended to favour what is now the reverse view: that the Chavez supporters were defending themselves against sniper fire designed to provoke a reaction which would give impetus to the coup attempt.
Jakubowicz’s use of the footage angered Cabrices, who sued, claiming Secuestro Express offended his dignity, but he died before the case could be heard. At his funeral, Venezuela’s vice-president Jose Vicente Rangel condemned Jakubowicz’s “miserable film” and the director was charged with showing the authorities in a negative light. Chavez accused him of “undermining our revolution, and our soldiers”. So while Jakubowicz has his reasons for disliking Chavez, his comparison of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised to a notorious Nazi propaganda film gives some indication of the heat inside this argument.
On one level, this is an argument about the impossibility of objectivity, and since the directors of the Irish documentary are aspiring only to tell the truth of what they witnessed, rather than an overall truth about the politics of Venezuela, they are, to an extent, immune from many of the attacks made on them.
“It’s also true that the film doesn’t actually explain what Chavez has done with his oil money or his mission schemes,” says Stoneman. “Because it’s cinéma vérité it is quite an emotional journey. If you want to look at Chavez politically, probably reading a book is a better way to do it.”
Of course, critics would probably question the suitability of Stoneman as judge and jury on the merits of the film. He was involved in the production at an early stage, and argued against the inclusion of material offering a broader political context. In an early cut, the filmmakers had included a series of “witness statements”. He persuaded them to drop them, because “other people can make historical documentaries. These are filmmakers who were there at the time – they didn’t need to get other people to talk about it.”
Stoneman also takes issues with the BBC’s response to the controversy surrounding the documentary, saying they “dropped it like a hot potato” after articles in the Columbia Journalism Review and the Sunday Times criticised it journalistically.
“They were quite wary about it, but I can understand that,” Stoneman says. “Part of my angle of approach is having my formative years in early Channel 4, which had an open notion of hearing from people and trying to get different versions of a story; and all that’s dropped away again now.
“It’s a climate change. The BBC has a defensive tone which comes from being battered a lot, all the time, and that’s why they overreact.”
Of course, the controversy over the Chavez film coincided with the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly and the “sexed-up” dossiers which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the Corporation was in a cautious mood.
Stoneman quotes Kim Bartley saying that Nick Fraser, the editor of the BBC’s documentary strand, Storyville, requested a more sceptical tone be added to the voiceover, “to put the boot into Chavez”. After the veracity of the film was questioned, Fraser suspended further screenings on the BBC until an investigation was completed, noting his disappointment with its dubious chronology. Fraser says now he was not influenced by the campaign against the film, even though the BBC received 4000 emails asking for him to be fired. “The film was very good in many respects, but also misleading,” says Fraser. “They thought Chavez was a right-on person; but having written a book about Peronism, I didn’t.
“But I don’t think the film qualifies as propaganda, though it was used for propagandistic purposes in Venezuelan embassies. We at the BBC changed the title: it was called Inside The Coup, because I didn’t find all the TV stuff as interesting as they did. I liked the filmmakers, and expect to work with lefties anyhow. My quarrel is with the ignorant middle-aged [media professionals], who should know better, or in fact do and won’t come clean. I exclude professional naifs like Rod.
“I still think it’s a good film, because of the coup sequence. It should be seen as a Venezuelan West Wing - biased, of course, but highly entertaining. Should I have told the film-makers to include at least one interview with someone not a Chavez supporter? Well, I did. However, as the Rolling Stones said, you can’t always get what you want.”
Fraser’s critique of the film’s concentration on the importance of media in the coup – particularly the role of privately-owned television stations – highlights a key problem. It may be acceptable within an argument about filmmaking to argue that documentary is just another kind of storytelling, and it may even be true, but it leaves the uninformed viewer in a bewildering position.
Jakubowicz says the British edit of the film is “more effective” than the Venezuelan cut. “It’s also a lot more manipulative, which is why it can’t be shown at home, since many of us were there. Even the subtitles are manipulated in the British version.
“The piece does have amazing footage and they had truly privileged access to key figures. But if you see, for example, how Lucas Rincón Romero, the General who announces that Chavez has resigned, ended up being Minister of Defence for Chavez for three years after the coup, it’s not hard to realise that something is up: the reality is not as simple as it is portrayed in the flick.”
Still, there is something undeniably alluring about the film’s proximity to the sex and violence of power, and it’s hard not to be moved by the triumphant scenes of Chavez’s return from exile. At 2.30am on April 1, 2002, his helicopter touches down on the roof of the presidential palace, apparently in the midst of a carnival. Chavez is pulled through the crowds like a weary pugilist being led back into the ring, his left arm aloft, his fist clenched. He is wearing a striped top.
Moments later, he is in the corridor of the palace, bearing down on the camera, his charisma on full-beam. “Show me the video of the night they took me away,” he says. “I couldn’t talk to you that night, but I knew we’d be back.”
In this scene, he has changed clothes. He wears army green now.
[A version of this article is published in the current issue of Product magazine]