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4 Stars Movies Music

Lou Reed and John Cale work through their complex feelings for Andy Warhol in Songs for Drella

When I was a dumb teenager that didn’t know anything about anything, or could tell The Factory from a factory, I first heard Lou Reed through his Transformer and New York albums — the former via the David Bowie connection, and the latter through a Greenpeace benefit compilation popular at the time.

I would shortly discover that these two albums represented a more accessible side of his sometimes challenging or confrontational discography — for my next purchase was Songs for Drella. Good thing I didn’t pick up Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music at that point, or I really would have stopped there. Luckily I think I heard Magic and Loss next, and was back on track.

Lou Reed and John Cale: Songs for Drella
Detail from the Songs for Drella album cover; which really ought to have clued me in that it was not going to be a rock ‘n’ roll album.

I didn’t know what to make about a drumless song cycle, co-credited with a name new to me at the time, John Cale, and all about an artist I was only vaguely aware of, Andy Warhol. You can excuse a rural kid at the beginning of the ’90s for knowing only one fact about Warhol: he was that one weird artist that screen-printed countless images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup cans.

I’ve come to appreciate the Songs for Drella album more over the years, coincident with learning more about Warhol and The Velvet Underground. Warhol had died only a few years earlier, and Reed & Cale’s songs feel very immediate and personal, and not at all hagiographic. They were in a unique position to have known Warhol better than many who might presume to have opinions about him or his work. They evidently retained complex feelings about him, for it’s right there in the title: “Drella” was a derogatory nickname (Dracula + Cinderella) that Warhol didn’t appreciate.

John Cale and Lou Reed: Songs for Drella
Detail from the original VHS/laserdisc cover. “I love images worth repeating and repeating and repeating”.

Many of the songs channel his voice in the first person, about the mundane (perceived slights at an MTV event), to the cataclysmic (his attempted assassination by Valerie Solanis — who herself would be the subject of a dramatic depiction in the film I Shot Andy Warhol a few years later). Lest this all sound too artsy fartsy, some of the tunes are real bangers, like the stomping “Work”.

A live performance in December 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was filmed by Ed Lachman, and a new 4K restoration is currently screening on The Criterion Channel. It was fortunately shot on film, not SD video, so it looks and sounds great. I listened to part of it through headphones, and the audio is notably clear and intimate. You can hear in the stereo mix when Reed or Cale even slightly turn their heads while singing.

I strongly recommend the film for anyone with more than a passing interest in Cale, Reed, or Warhol, and who either doesn’t know the Songs for Drella album, or for whom it never clicked. Those with a mental image of Reed from his glam Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal period, or the cool tough guy downtown poet of the New York era, might be a little surprised to see him looking so studious here. The always-dapper Cale, with an excellent haircut, looks in his element. Watching a live performance of the whole song cycle straight through, with the two legendary musicians sitting opposite each other like a proper hoity-toity music recital, really suits the material.

“Work”, from Songs for Drella. The full film is available in much better quality on The Criterion Channel.
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2 Stars Movies Music

The genesis of Genesis in the documentary Together and Apart

This feature-length BBC documentary on the band Genesis comes with more asterisks than a typical rockumentary. First is the lack of occasion — there being no significant milestone in 2014, unless the band’s 47th-ish anniversary means something to somebody. Only further confusing things, the doc was released in different regions as Together and Apart or Sum of the Parts, accompanied by the hits compilation R-Kive, a trifecta of inexplicably terrible names.

Unlike previous reunion projects in 1983 (a one-off live performance), 1998-99 (a Behind the Music documentary and re-recordings of “The Carpet Crawlers” and “It”), and 2007-08 (individual interviews for a complete catalogue reissue), the only new material on offer here is a new on-camera simultaneous interview with core members Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Mike Rutherford.

Genesis 1974
The classic Genesis quintet lineup circa 1974: Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Phil Collins

The other main selling point is a smattering of rare or apparently unseen live footage, including at least one new to me: a tantalizing glimpse of the very young band live at The Atomic Sunrise Festival, at the groovy London venue The Roundhouse in 1970, where they shared a bill with David Bowie. Much of the rest the live footage will probably be familiar to any fan with access to YouTube. Looking back at all this vintage footage now, how much do you think Collins wishes he could have told his younger self to sit up straight while playing, considering his later back and nerve damage?

The only footage released so far from The Atomic Sunrise Festival, at London’s Roundhouse in 1970, featuring Genesis, David Bowie, and others

Compared to many of their infamously dysfunctional peers, Genesis has a relatively boring back story, with no salacious deaths, lawsuits, or arrests to whip up an exciting narrative. Well, with the exception of — trigger warning — self-aggrandizing original manager (and convicted sex offender) Jonathan King, granted a minute or two here to inflate his role in the band’s first recordings.

The story of a few driven young men who form a band, work hard, succeed, then retire, isn’t in and of itself very thrilling. This documentary plays up the drama by emphasizing the comings and goings of members as more earth-shattering than even they themselves seem to think. That said, the new group interview does reveal some lingering bad vibes and resentment. Banks speaks with warmth towards original guitarist Anthony Phillips, but still reacts with real negativity to the topic of Gabriel and Hackett attempting to assert themselves within Genesis in the mid-70s. In Banks’ defense, it must have been difficult to accept his school friend Gabriel simultaneously seizing the creative reins while also retreating into family life around the time of the ambitious The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album and tour.

But Banks’ attitude towards Hackett seems out of proportion to the situation. Long story short, it seems Hackett had been presenting a number of compositions that the band vetoed, so he used much of it on a solo album. Shortly thereafter, when the other members didn’t have enough material to shape into a new Genesis album, they were pissed that he didn’t have anything. From the outside perspective of a fan, it sounds to me like Hackett was wronged. Especially so, as he is the one currently carrying the torch for classic Genesis material while still creating original new music on his own.

Banks also snipes at Collins’ ubiquity in the mid-80s, but in this case he does seem to be joking (to paraphrase, he laughingly says something like “he was our friend and we wanted him to succeed, but not too much”). Gabriel seems the most diplomatic and positive, and the most relaxed and jocular during the group interview. Perhaps for him this is all ancient history after his rich and varied solo career, whereas Genesis was more of a lifelong investment for the others.

Genesis 2014
Genesis reconvened in 2014 for the documentary Together and Apart (aka Sum of the Parts): Phil Collins, Steve Hackett, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Peter Gabriel

As a longtime fan, I have certain strongly held opinions that don’t seem to completely align with fan consensus or the bands’ own self-estimation. Genesis is long-misunderstood and due for a reevaluation, but I’m not sure this was the right documentary at the right time. It pushes Hackett to the edges (sometimes literally cropping him out of frame), and leaves other significant members like Ray Wilson totally unmentioned.

I also think it does a disservice by not placing the band in context; some influences are mentioned (particularly Gabriel’s love of Otis Redding and Collins’ appreciation of Grandmaster Flash), but it would have helped illustrate Genesis’ significance by showing how they fused the nascent progressive rock movement (I suspect King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and The Moody Blues loomed large in their minds when working on the Trespass album) with a real pop sensibility. Their aptitude for concise hit singles in the 80s is treated as an unexpected metamorphosis, when to my ears it’s the natural culmination of everything they were building towards since their earliest 1967 pop songs.

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Music

Songs That Broke My Heart: U2’s Running to Stand Still

Moreso than most of their peers, U2 is so strongly associated with its hometown that “U2” and “Dublin” are rarely not mentioned in the same breath, often Bono’s own. He and Larry Mullen Jr. were born and raised in Dublin, Adam Clayton and The Edge grew up there, and most importantly, it’s where the four undertook the hard work of establishing the band.

Decades of fame, wealth, philanthropy, activism, and regularly circumnavigating the globe have long since transformed U2 from local success into world citizens, but they never ceased tying their self-identity to their Dublin roots. Perhaps in the rarified world of the world’s top celebrities, it’s psychologically necessary to cling to a point on the map to call home.

Their hometown pride never precluded them from addressing Dublin’s seedier side. Its persistent heroin epidemic in particular directly inspired the songs “Wire”, “Bad”, and “Running to Stand Still”. The latter originally appeared on the 1987 album The Joshua Tree, a period during which the band’s unusual combination of heart-on-sleeve earnestness, political consciousness, and overt Christian faith landed them on the cover of Time Magazine. It includes some of Bono’s most impressionistic lyrics, evoking spikes piercing bloodstreams under surging storm clouds. The lines “I see seven towers / but I only see one way out” allude directly to the desolate Ballymun residential tower blocks in Dublin, close to where Bono grew up.

Nevertheless, like Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (particularly in its heart-rending rendition by Johnny Cash), Bono’s lyrics are oblique enough to be interpreted in less literal terms than a mere drugs-will-ruin-you message. Remember, this was the “just say no” 1980s, before pop culture began to increasingly treat addiction with sympathy, complexity, and even ambivalence — a more complex picture than moralistic outright condemnation. This was years before the scandalous impact of the novel and film Trainspotting (set in neighboring Scotland), which, while unsparing in its portrayal of the cataclysmically ill effects of drug addiction, also dared to bluntly state a reason many addicts start doing drugs in the first place: because it feels good.

For a musician with such Christian, leftist, and activist leanings to have achieved mass popularity, Bono had long ago figured out how to speak to audiences on multiple levels. “Running to Stand Still” evidences his signature hat trick: come for the rock anthems, stay for the message of compassion. The lyrics are subtle enough that many relate to it for its universal expression of an individual feeling trapped, and needn’t necessarily be conscious of the poverty and societal decay Bono saw in his childhood neighborhood.

The fairly subdued studio version was arranged in live performances to punch up the scat-sung “ha la la la de day” coda into a rousing audience singalong. Here’s U2 performing the song in the 1988 concert film Rattle and Hum:

The coda further evolved on later tours into a “hallelujah” mantra, adding an element of hope to the grim scenario. This 1993 performance from the ZooTV/Zooropa tour includes especially dramatic staging and lighting:

U2 hand-picked the English band Elbow to cover it for the War Child charity compilation album Heroes in 2009. Here’s lead singer Guy Garvey on the honor:

When the band first met each other aged 17, Mark and Craig’s father Gareth would lend us his Volvo to get our gear around. It seemed that for a year and a half all that we listened to in that car was Rattle and Hum. I remember the excitement every time a U2 album was released, we just loved them. The first song we ever covered together before we had enough of our own songs to do a performance was “Running To Stand Still”. For Heroes we’ve changed the order of things but kept every musical theme in the song. We wrote it with the members of U2 in mind.

Guy Garvey, ExploreMusic

While no one would ever accuse Bono of pulling an emotional punch, Elbow’s rendition cranks the intensity knob up to 11. Anchored by a muted pulse, it suddenly explodes with an audaciously loud guitar line, as if the guitar slider on the mixing board was pushed all the way to the top. As idiosyncratic as their arrangement is, it does eschew U2’s later “hallelujah” code for the original “ha la la la de day”, and echoes the original’s guitar/harmonica interplay. Elbow pulls these various threads together into a dramatic climax, in a way that cuts right to my core.

For me, it’s one of the rare cases where a cover version has an edge over its original.


You’re reading an entry in our ongoing blog mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right into the whole pool of sorrow. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

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Music

Massive Attack to reissue Mezzanine as DNA-infused spray paint, and Banksy is certainly not in the band why would you even ask

Our dystopian Black Mirror future is here, too soon. Should we be concerned that, not only is it now possible to encode digital files in DNA, but that it is also already so trivial that it can be commodified by the music industry as a deluxe collectible tchotchke? I’m calling this 2021 Pitchfork headline now: “Streaming revenues decline, as CRISPR releases soar”

Massive Attack‘s 1998 Trip hop masterpiece Mezzanine is an astonishing 20 years old this year. Dark, dense, and paranoid, it was not only a defining statement by the band but also arguably captured the international mood at the time. It’s one of those rare albums that still sounds ageless, and not for nothing are its tracks still to this day used in TV and movie soundtracks (in everything from The Matrix to House). Pitchfork lauded it with a 9.3/10 and explicated its significance well in this short documentary:

As is typical for landmark twentysomething albums beloved by aging music fans with more cash-at-hand than they had in the 90s, it is to be remastered and reissued as a luxe $100-ish triple-LP and art book edition, and slightly downmarket but still very cool double black CD. Because, you know, it’s dark. But there’s a twist:

In collaboration with Dr. Robert Grass of ETH Zurich / Turbobeads, a compressed MP3 version of the audio has been converted to DNA. No doubt audiophiles will be upset that this meticulously produced audio is presented in this lossy format, but hey, it’s only 2018, give the scientific community a little time before we can inject music straight into our brains.

But even this technical feat pales in comparison to the next plot twist: the DNA version of the album has been infused with paint, and will be sold in limited edition aerosol spray paint cans, each reportedly containing millions of copies. Here’s a fun glimpse of the dirty technical details from ETH Zürich:

Each of the ten vials contained between 11.8 and 21.8 micrograms of DNA (80 µl). 1 µl was taken from each vial, and diluted 1:10 with water. A first qPCR test was performed for each vial to test the amplifiability of the DNA. For this 1µl of the diluted DNA was mixed with 7 µl water, appropriate DNA primers (1 µl, 10 µM each), and 10 µl qPCR master-?mix. Due to the slight differences in initial DNA concentrations, and amplfication yield of the individual tubes, a second qPCR experiment was performed, in which varying amounts of DNA of every tube (0.5 µl – 2 µl) were individually amplified with the same primers and master mix, yielding a CT cycle of 10.1 +- 0.62.

ETH Zürich

Each individual canister will reportedly contain millions of copies of the album, which will cause headaches for the number crunchers responsible for the Billboard’s Digital Music Chart. But what if the digital info actually decodes as a low-kbps MP3 of a Massive Attack remix of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”? Let there now be no doubt that Robert “3D” Del Naja is definitely Banksy, as collaborator Goldie may have let slip last year. Or, perhaps, one of the collective that is Banksy.

via The A.V. Club

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3 Stars Movies Music

Radiohead: Meeting People is Easy…

…but being invited to your own party is hard.

I remember liking Grant Gee’s Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy when I first saw it in the late nineties, but now it just looks like a simplistic feature-length exposé of how music journos are twits that ruin everything.

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Music

Songs That Broke My Heart: Hallelujah by John Cale

Conventional wisdom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” better than Jeff Buckley. The few who disagree are likely of the opinion that nothing beats the original. Here’s a third opinion: the person who transformed Cohen’s song into the modern standard it is today was John Cale.

As I started to compile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself noting more than a few cover versions I found “sadder” than the originals. Maybe some songs have more pain embedded in them than their original creators realized, or were capable of expressing. Perhaps the original artists purposefully obscured the darker themes for the listener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.

The now-iconic song “Hallelujah” has a complicated lineage. Leonard Cohen’s original was released on the album Various Positions in 1984, and has since been overshadowed by a seemingly endless parade of cover versions. Former Velvet Underground member John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recitation for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s version about as much as Cohen’s original, but it’s still the template influencing nearly every subsequent rendition.

The most idiosyncratic take came from U2’s Bono on yet another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song (1995). It now sounds very dated, from the brief-lived moment in the mid-to-late nineties when the trance and electronica genres flirted with the mainstream. Jeff Buckley and K.D. Lang each scored hits based on Cale’s version, and numerous amateur performances on American Idol finally broke the song into the mainstream consciousness (relive some of them here, if you can bear it). The song is now a cliche, but retains its ability to push emotional buttons even when performed robotically by Justin Timberlake on the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon in 2010 and by K.D. Lang again at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

The worst abuse of all, however, was when director Zack Snyder misappropriated Cohen’s original recording for a preposterous sex scene in the superhero psychodrama Watchmen. Granted, it must be said that Cohen deliberately crafted his lyrics to be flexible, and has himself performed different variations over the years. Buckley’s version found a markedly sexual interpretation, and were he still with us, he might have approved of the song’s use in Watchmen. Cohen himself told the Guardian in 2009:

“I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”

Leonard Cohen

With such a wide variety of renditions, it’s clear the beauty is all in the particular vocalist’s delivery. Too many, however, bury any real human emotion under mountains of overproduced strings and histrionics, or in Bono’s case, trance beats and an ill-advised falsetto. For me, John Cale’s elegantly minimalist interpretation is the one for the ages, perhaps even moreso than Cohen’s original.

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Music

Albums That Broke My Heart: Sea Change by Beck

You could throw darts at the tracklist from Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change and each song you hit would be sadder than the last. Hence this deviation in format from our ongoing playlist of Songs That Broke My Heart; call it an Album That Broke My Heart.

Beck had always been equal parts folk (Mutations) and weird (Odelay), and perhaps at his best when he combined the two. Although his sense of humor and absurdism usually dominates, a pronounced darkness is often present. All of these tendencies were on display on his breakthrough single “Loser”, which, together with the roughly contemporaneous “Creep” by Radiohead, was part of a groundswell of indie rock self-loathing in the mid 1990s.

Perhaps wary of being typecast as the dude with the emotionally detached and quirkily abstract lyrics (walking, one might say, in the Talking Heads’ shoes), and of being too closely associated with the production techniques of The Dust Brothers and the videos of Spike Jonze, Beck took an unexpected genre swerve in 2002. Sea Change was an album-length outpouring of anxiety, grief, and loneliness. Its low-key emotional honesty was probably alienating to most of his fans, and its morose mood no doubt not very attractive to new listeners.

After listening to only a few songs from the album, you wouldn’t need to consult Wikipedia to find out if these songs were the result of somebody breaking up with him. But if you did, you’d learn that this batch of songs dates from when he discovered his longtime fiancee was cheating on him.

Standout tracks for me are “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Lost Cause”:

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Music

Songs That Broke My Heart: Days in the Trees (Reich) by No-Man

Any playlist of sad songs I might compile must include No-Man, but it was no easy task to select only one piece from a songbook positively chock full of them. To make my job a bit easier, I went back to the band’s beginnings.

Similar in style to their first breakout single “Colours” (a dramatic reimagining of Donovan’s mid-60s folk-pop hit), “Days in the Trees” is very much an artifact of early 90s minimalist art-pop. Despite its superficially dated production, the song is quintessential No-Man: Tim Bowness’ melancholy vocals hovering over Steven Wilson’s looped breakbeat, accompanied by Ben Coleman’s dramatic violin and very little else.

I found myself drawn to a relatively obscure alternate version subtitled “Reich”, first released in 1992 on the virtually impossible to find original EP and the subsequent mini-album Lovesighs – An Entertainment, and now available on the retrospective anthology All the Blue Changes. In a personal reassessment, Bowness expresses reservations about the mix and performances in the released version, but concedes that “Reich is a piece I still love”.

Utterly unlike a prototypically unimaginative remix in which rigid disco beats are bolted onto scraps of a song, this version has only the most tenuous of connections to its source material. It omits Bowness’ vocals entirely, in favor of a gently repeating keyboard arpeggio. The title alludes to composer Steve Reich’s brand of systems music, which reached its hypnotic apotheosis in Music for 18 Musicians. A generation of electronic musicians expanded upon Reich’s interlocking patterns, and Reich himself later completed the circle by experimenting with electronica and remixing on his 1999 album Reich Remixed.

The stark ambient soundscape of “Days in the Trees (Reich)” provides an atmosphere for an astonishing soliloquy extracted from David Lynch’s seminal TV series Twin Peaks. Donna (Laura Flynn Boyle) is a teenager disillusioned by unsavory revelations regarding her best friend Laura’s drug abuse and sexual misadventures. Over the course of the series, she is exposed to even greater depths of corruption and depravity in her seemingly idyllic small American town.

Laura Flynn Boyle as Donna in Twin Peaks
“It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

While pursuing information on her own, Donna finds it necessary to ingratiate herself to a lonely male stranger. The mode of seduction she chooses is to recount the story of her first kiss. Her ploy quickly becomes a real confession, even an uncomfortably intimate flirtation. It’s an ostensibly happy memory, but her state of bliss over an event in the distant past is shot through with melancholy over a sublime moment long gone. Forced to confront the profound darkness festering in her community, this young woman prematurely mourns simpler times forever out of reach. Her tale portrays herself as a girl just beginning to sense that sexuality was a dangerous force her friend had already embraced but she couldn’t yet harness.

Boyle may not be one of the world’s most celebrated actors, but her performance in this scene is nothing less than stunning. Bowness and Wilson edited and condensed her monologue, but opted to leave in the sound effects of a cigarette lighter and her exhalation, effectively providing an audio vérité percussion track. Here is a full transcript of the truncated version that appears in “Days in the Trees (Reich)”:

“This is from a long time ago, is that ok? I was about thirteen years old, fourteen maybe. We were going to the Roadhouse to meet boys. They’re about twenty years old. And they’re nice to us. And they make us feel like we’re older. Rick asks if we wanna go party and Laura says ‘yes’, and all of a sudden I feel this knot building up in my stomach. But when Laura gets in the truck with Rick, I go anyway. A stream in the woods, and when I think, it’s pale and light out. Laura starts to dance around the boys. She begins to move her hips back and forth. And we take off our clothes. I know the boys are watching. Laura starts to kiss Josh and Rick. I don’t know what to do, so I swim away. I feel like I want to run, but I don’t. He kisses my hand and then me. I can still feel that kiss. His lips are warm and sweet. My heart jumps. He’s talking but I can’t hear him. It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

Donna, Twin Peaks

The brief song drifts away on her last word.


Further reading:


You’re reading an entry in our ongoing mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right in. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

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Music

The Songs That Broke My Heart

Rock ‘n’ roll is not an everyday conversation topic around our family table, but the improbable longevity of The Rolling Stones was remarkable enough to come up once during dinner. I had recently listened to “Sympathy for the Devil” for the first time in a while, and remarked upon how surprisingly dark and intense it was, so much so that it gave me chills. My grandmother asked why, then, would I deliberately listen to something that unsettled me?

She had a point. Upon reflection, I’ve found that most of the music I hold dear is chilling (like the aforementioned ode to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), chilly (like some of the more academic, brainy music by Brian Eno or Philip Reich), or just plain cold (pretty much everything else). Some have subject matter that makes you want to jump out a window, some just sound like they do, and some may not be sad per se, but are rather so painfully beautiful I almost can’t bear listening to them.

How on earth did incurable sad sacks like The Cure, Nick Drake, or Kurt Cobain become pop stars? Why do we listen to the likes of “Hallelujah”, “Mad World”, or “Hurt” for fun? The answer is simple, but opens a can of worms: prehistoric humans almost didn’t invent music for entertainment or personal expression, but rather as a component to ritual, spirituality, and community.

To think of music as merely entertaining or escapist is to belittle an entire art form with limitless capabilities. Even at its best, it can be dissonant and ugly (such as György Ligeti’s Requiem, which still sounds alien today in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) just as easily as it can be pretty and moving (Johan Pachelbel’s Canon in D, so lovely it has passed into cliche and back again). It’s possible to make the same point about other oft belittled media, such as comics — where the uninitiated may be unable or unwilling to accept that the same format that stars Ziggy and Superman can also be as trenchant as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury or as literary as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Hence this new series of short essays exclusively: The Songs That Broke My Heart, in effect a playlist of melancholy, misery, and loneliness. It is not meant to be an objective list of the saddest songs of all time, but rather a personal compilation of songs that create an emotional response in me now, at this time in my life. But first, I’m going to start with something slightly more esoteric. Watch this space for my thoughts on No-Man’s “Days in the Trees (Reich)”.

The Songs That Broke My Heart:

  1. No-Man: Days in the Trees (Reich)
  2. Beck: Sea Change
  3. John Cale: Hallelujah
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3 Stars Movies Music

Hey Man, It’s Your Trip: Michael Wedleigh’s Woodstock Documentary

The classic feature documentary Woodstock captures the full experience of the near-mythical 1969 festival of the same name, from septic tanks to traffic jams to brown acid. It remains an important record of one of the most peaceful spontaneous gatherings in human history, not to mention the brief-lived spirit of the hippie movement as a whole.

The original version directed by Michael Wedleigh, with a young Martin Scorsese as assistant director and editor and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, was released the following year and played continuously in theaters for years. Oddly, it is the only film that the last surviving human on earth (Charlton Heston) chooses to watch repeatedly in The Omega Man. A Director’s Cut added 40 minutes of additional footage in 1994, but the new 40th Anniversary edition is a whopping four hours long, “Interfuckingmission” included. It’s unclear whether or not Scorsese and Schoonmaker were involved in either of the expanded editions.

The film is experimental in format, extending even to the aspect ratio. Nearly the first ten minutes are windowpaned, leading me at first to suspect something was wrong with the DVD. But the movie then alternates from windowpane to widescreen to splitscreen. The only other movie I can think of off the top of my head that played as loose with aspect ratios is the opening sequence to Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.

Jimi Hendrix in Woodstock

With a leisurely four hours to fill, the first full 25 minutes concern the arrival of early fans while the stage is still being constructed. A surely ironic mural on one of the famously psychedelic caravan buses reads “even God loves America.” One of the festival’s most iconic images — a pair of nuns flashing a peace sign to camera — may have been in fact partially staged (as alleged in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock). Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, Lee’s film goes on to tell a conflicting, largely discounted, version of events in which a small town misfit midwifes the festival, which in turn frees his identity and transforms his family.

The first performance footage in Woodstock is an extended unbroken close-up of Richie Havens’ intense solo performance. Finally, the cameras turn the other way around and look out at the staggeringly huge crowd. Indeed, as later scenes make clear, so many people arrived that the earliest arrivals couldn’t physically leave.

Everybody knows the tale of the gargantuan crowd, but I underestimated the scale of the concert itself. In my mind, I always pictured a tiny stage dwarfed by throngs of hippies, but in actuality, the festival itself would have been a large production even if the crowds hadn’t materialized. Before simple logic forced the organizers to waive the ticket fee, the festival had a multi-million-dollar budget footing a massive stage, huge towers, power, food, lighting, and sound system.

Not all the acts would necessarily be known to later generations watching the documentary, but there is some surprising variety in genre; Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie’s folk, Sly and the Family Stone’s funk, and Sha-Na-Na’s retro pop went a long way towards breaking up the sometimes tedious stretches of blues-rock jamming. Some key performances either weren’t filmed (such as The Band, at their request) or shot but excluded from the film (particularly The Grateful Dead, whose performance was compromised by heavy rain and technical issues), and some of the era’s top acts were absent altogether (most notably The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones — but Scorsese would later catch up with all three of them in his own documentaries Living In the Material World, No Direction Home, and Shine a Light).

Woodstock

Personally, I most liked seeing The Who and Jimi Hendrix at the height of their powers, and was pleasantly surprised by an obviously nervous Crosby, Stills and Nash. CSN claimed it was only their second gig, and they seemed visibly relieved to receive applause. Each act was allotted only 1-2 songs each, even in the extended version of the film, which for many of these artists is not enough. I would have liked to see more Who footage, especially the famous moment where the often tempestuous Pete Townshend famously booted countercultural icon Abbie Hoffman offstage: “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!”

Interviews with audience members during the concert demonstrate that they were already self-mythologizing the event as it was occurring around them. A legend quickly spread that the gathering was the equivalent of a spontaneous city. Not quite, but the actual total of 500,000 people was nothing to sneeze at. But they were all correct that it was nothing less than a miracle that that many people could gather in one place and survive a massive storm on the second day, all without violence. That is, aside from Townshend again: “The next fuckin’ person that walks across this stage is gonna get fuckin’ killed!”

The film includes co-organizer Michael Lang and concertgoers facing hostile interviewers determined to express their bias that rock music is empty and meaningless. Scorsese emphasized similar confrontations in No Direction Home, where Dylan is dogged by condescending reporters determined to undermine his political and social import.

Wedleigh’s camera often seeks out nude young women. The blatant scopophilia misses the point of the burgeoning equality between the sexes by the late 60s — not only are the hippies embracing free love, they’re also obviously comfortable enough in each other’s company to bathe together like children in a bathtub. I can’t believe I’m complaining about the sight of naked girls, but Wedleigh’s camera is often just plain lustful.

Aside from free love and unashamed nudity, the next most alien aspect for contemporary post-War-on-Drugs viewers is the pragmatic attitude towards controlled substances. One of the first people seen brandishing a joint onscreen is none other than Jerry Garcia, despite his band not appearing in the performance footage. Everybody’s heard about the infamously dodgy brown acid, but dig this eminently pragmatic announcement issued from the stage: “Hey man, it’s your trip, don’t let me stop you, but if you feel like experimenting, try half a tab.” In contrast, we see a huge crowd practicing Kundalini yoga, which the guru espouses as an alternative to drugs.

One of the most striking sequences is when the documentary steps back from the proceedings to take in another angle that wouldn’t ordinary be covered in a typical concert documentary. Wedleigh takes the time to meet a Port-O-San maintainer with one son attending the festival and another flying helicopters in the Vietnam DMZ.

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