Wednesday, April 29, 2020

1988's 8mm Concerts: Butthole Surfers, Half Japanese & Alex Chilton

Somewhere in the back of your closet buried among cassette mix tapes and the Frankie Say shirt you're embarrassed to have ever worn but secretly love might be 8mm film footage that you should've digitized decades ago. It's the kind of millstone you'll never divest yourself of, but which will take an act of god before you put the pieces in motion to do something about. In my case it's an astonishing trifecta of my childhood home burning down, a global pandemic and surgery on a broken toe that opened up vast swaths of unlimited time for sit-down projects. That and winning the high bid on a Wolverine Pro 8mm film scanner.

Presented here for you to poke with a stick is the product of that trifecta: vintage digitized 8mm film footage of the Butthole Surfers, Half Japanese and Alex Chilton all filmed over the waning months of 1988.

Butthole Surfers at Numbers, Houston April 27th 1988

Looking at this from the perspective of 2020s technology it seems absurd that one can now hold aloft a Hershey bar sized 4k / 60 frames per second low-light video camera that's also a phone and think nothing of it. Back then I borrowed a camera from the university A/V department and spent money I definitely didn't have on Super8 Kodak film and captured these shows on two 50ft reels. The limitations of the film are enormous: slow ISO speed, hard to focus in the dim viewfinder, can't set proper apertures in strobe lights, etc. Yet here it is.

Half Japanese at Tipitina's, New Orleans Dec 9th 1988

Chances are the film does have sound - but the Wolverine Pro film scanner doesn't do sound, so I'll link to someone's fantastic recording of the Butthole Surfers concert for full effect. Some lovely savant also enshrined the Half Japanese setlist here - obviously a giant among men. Another lovely act of generosity tells us that Alex Chilton played at Hal and Mal's, Jackson, Mississippi May 19th, 1989 but alas there's no setlist. Happily there's now a grainy 8mm film commemorating a night on Earth.

I'm an alumni of Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, a tiny oasis of culture in a vast cultural wasteland of churches, pastures and soy farms. If I wanted to see a good show that meant up to a 600+ mile roundtrip to New Orleans, Houston or Dallas. Being broke meant carpooling. The Butthole Surfers show in Houston was a road trip with Michael Donaldson, Les Jordan myself and others. The venue was DIY punk ethos personified, Houston's Numbers club, a dilapidated warehouse in an apocalyptic industrial district straight out of Repo Man. (I could be wrong on the venue and would love comments from anyone in the know.)

Cameras were not welcome but I'd prepared a laughably unlikely ruse to bring my 8mm film and still cameras in: a laminated card that simply stated "PRESS" which I tucked into the front band of a very cliche felt fedora I found at Goodwill ... which worked. Once inside it was mayhem and insanity as the show had started. Some was filmed from the pit where being moshed upon was a risk so I decided to try my luck carting my gear backstage to film from the side. A bouncer guarding the stairs glanced at my dumb hat and unbelievably waved me up but took great exception to the guy behind me emboldened at my success who tried to follow but instead got a brutal shove well back into the crowd.

What cultural gems are lurking in your closet?

Thursday, April 16, 2020

10 Sublime Movies + Film Critics I Loathe and Love

Before I indulge myself with this polemic on movies that have most informed or entertained me in my half century of existing, let me be clear: I'm not "qualified" to review cinema nor am I a "film critic". Despite that, a lack of talent in this realm doesn't stop some film critics from achieving that very thing as a paid vocation. I have strong opinions on cinema but might lack the industry lingo to adequately elucidate why I believe what I believe. A good reviewer could conjure up the minutia of Federico Fellini's entire oeuvre with a smattering of references to Ingmar Bergman, Dogme-95 and concepts more obscure in a simple review of an Adam Sandler movie. Me? I can barely smash the buttons on my laptop to form cohesive sentences. Yet here we are: I'm about to make my opinion on a difficult subject concrete.

But before I do that, let me discuss arguably untalented film reviewers, guys who somehow were anointed by respectable newspapers with the aegis of smearing their opinion upon the cinematic crafts. There's two with whom I've had the misfortune of crossing paths, one a miserable Disney flack and mediocre grifter and the other a man who'd buy your girlfriend an unwanted drink at the bar while you're off putting money in the parking meter: respectively former Orlando Sentinel writer Jay Boyar and The Austin Chronicle's Marc Savlov.

I 'lived' in Orlando from 1989-91 and used cinema as an avenue of escape from the dreary reality of attending the painfully mediocre University of Central Florida, a school I accidentally transferred to from a far superior university. The only easily acquired film reviews to determine if a movie merited my pauper's patronage was The Orlando Sentinel. If the director was someone familiar like Hal Hartley or Wim Wenders I could skip the research, otherwise I'd scan my local paper and count the stars next to the film's name. Their primary critic Jay Boyar in particular earned my ire for his blatant sycophancy of Disney and to a lesser degree Universal Studios, understandable given that they own Orlando and their payola must've been legendary. I'd literally look for the movies Boyar panned and regard it as an endorsement.

Cool As Ice: so astonishingly bad that it circles back around to being good?

One turkey film I purposely attended out of an incomprehensible depth of loathing and disgust for the lead man was Vanilla Ice's fall from grace: Cool as Ice. It was as beautifully horrifying as I'd hoped it to be, a cinematic catastrophe. I recall that after seeing it Jay Boyar gave it 2.5 stars out of four. 2.5! That it could even move the meter was a staggering admission, but 2.5 out of four? Inconceivable! If before I'd considered Jay to be a flack, now I regarded him as the enemy.

And so it was that I found myself in a financially strapped, stunningly cold budget theater and sat upon hard and unergonomic seats awaiting the latest from Peter Greenaway: Prospero's Books. Provisionally I'm a Greenaway fan and loved all his films so my expectations were high. As the lights dimmed I noticed a man a few rows ahead of us sitting solo and scribbling in a notebook with a penlight which continued apace and it dawned on me "the balding head, the notebook ... it's my nemesis Jay Boyar"! This is the point where my girlfriend and I began discreetly tossing popcorn at the back of his head. He'd whirl around hoping to identify his antagonist but there were too many potential culprits. In retrospect that was the best part of Prospero's Books, my Waterloo for Greenaway. I read just now that it's 109 minutes long but my recollection was a film that staunchly refused to end, mocking our attention spans, our discomfited butts and leaving us nearly frost bitten, but even the worst Greenaway film has to be better than the crap Boyar lavished praise upon. Somehow Jay persevered to the end and glared at everyone on his way up the aisle. His review a few days later in the Sentinel perhaps reflected his popcorn pelting: 1.5 stars. He ranked a Peter Greenaway film below a Vanilla Ice film. Am I to blame? Nope. That was classic Boyar.

Jump forward seven-ish years and I'm now an Austinite and The Austin Chronicle is my go-to newspaper for both urbane op-eds and movie criticism and again I have found a nemesis and allies in the fight for honest film criticism. I, like many of you count The Blues Brothers among the finest films made, it's a sublime rollick and the prospect of a good sequel from John Landis was at that moment in time a believable proposition. And so it was that I read Marc Savlov's 3.5 of 5 stars review of Blues Brothers 2000 and cast doubts aside and spent my dosh and time on an unmitigated, despicable turkey of a film. Life being short and time being valuable, I took his misdirection personally and was quite motivated to pen an angry missive to the paper that found its way into print the following week:
Dear Editor:
Landis and his cronies should be stood up against a wall for desecrating the memory of the original film [Blues Brothers 2000]. I haven't been so appalled by a film since I saw Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice at the dollar cinema years ago - and I went to that just so I could celebrate awfulness in full bloom. And damned if I didn't enjoy Cool as Ice just for that very reason. But Blues Brothers 2000 is undeserving of the barely restrained accolades your reviewer gave it. The 10-year-old Buster Blues was worse than I could have imagined, the musical numbers were arbitrarily thrown in and lacked all relevance to the movie, and the audience sat mute through the movie hoping something/anything funny would happen.
Your reviewer wrote, "...its heart and soul and sense of unbridled fun is so on-target that it doesn't matter..." Heart and soul? Unbridled fun? Did that reviewer accidentally sit in John Turturro's Brain Donors or the Cohen Brother's Raising Arizona? Then the description might apply. Otherwise the film is dreck, pimping the good name of the original for undeserved pocket change. Your reviewer should hang his or her head in shame for misleading me into throwing my money away. I haven't been so upset with a film reviewer since I lived in Orlando and regularly read Jay Boyar's movie reviews in the Orlando Sentinel, but only because he's the most idiotic person ever to put words on paper and is always consistently wrong. If you'd like a primer on how not to write film reviews, go to this site and read some of his reviews (URL), you'll reel backwards in horror in much the same way that I did at the execrable BB2000.
So please, print a retraction, and give BB2000 the La Bomba it earned. Or else bring me the head of that anonymous reviewer.
David Sanborn
[Ed. note: Mark Savlov wrote the review. His initials are signed at the end of the review.]

Savlov did make the smallest effort replying to my vitriol, noting in a later missive (that I sadly now cannot find despite my best efforts) that he was very much stoned when he watched BB2000 which accounted for his ... optimistic 3.5 star rating.

Maybe don't get stoned while doing your "job"?

Later that year our pal Michael Donaldson aka Q-Burns Abstract Message was in town for a gig at a SXSW venue and gave a couple artist passes to me and my girlfriend. We went to a swanky downtown bar hosting an industry event and hobnobbed with local celebrities and saw the mayor there. At some point I realized I had to go pay our parking attendant and left for a few minutes. When I returned I found my girlfriend uncharacteristically sipping a flamboyant cocktail at the bar. She smiled and said "you'll never guess who tried to pick me up" and pointed at a guy across the bar. Yep: Savlov. She really appreciated it too. Thanks!

So that I'm on record as being capable of praise, let me affirm that AusChron film critics Kimberley Jones and Marjorie Baumgarten were my touchstones back then: if they gave a movie more than three stars then I'd like it, guaranteed. If they rated a film four or higher then clear a path motherfuckers I'm going to the movies. But Marc Savlov was a wildcard unlike Jay Boyar. Sometimes he liked good films (unlike Jay who reliably disliked anything good). Savlov gave 3.5 stars to Chicken Run, a film that extremely underwhelmed me and pushed my buttons for its egregious, cliched portrayal of Americans as loudmouthed blowhards with that character being played by an Australian no less. The horror! I penned a perhaps unnecessarily vitriolic reply and for the most part, I still stand by it, though in retrospect I might've been channeling some disdain from the bar incident. Who knows?

Anyway! On to my protracted 10 Best Films According To Me segment that this has been leading up to, hey ho! So here they are in no particular order other than Withnail & I being first and Henry Fool a very, very close second depending on my mood:

  1. Withnail & I (1987): a film I randomly saw on a rainy Seal Beach California day in 1987. We ducked into an arts cinema to escape the deluge and I saw a film destined to change my life and the way I look at cinema. This film is sublime and beautiful and tragic and darkly hilarious. I have a signed Richard Griffiths casting photo on my coffee table to prove it. It put dialog like "I mean to have you even if it must be burglary!" into my repertoire forever. 
  2. Henry Fool (1997): Hal Hartley was godlike before I saw this film. It's the perfect story of broken egos, fallibility, hope, insecurity and everything that makes us flawed.
  3. Rubin & Ed (1991): My wife Jennifer and I once had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Crispin Glover and chatting. Literally ALL I wanted to talk about was his appearance on Letterman to promote Rubin & Ed. Trust me, this cat can eat an entire watermelon. That writer & director Trent Harris could corral his stars into making this unlikely comedy boggles my mind.
  4. Barfly (1987): Gritty and uncompromising look at what motivates an artist. This is what made me hate "obviousness" and what it represents for the rest of my life. 
  5. Dr Strangelove (1964): I grew up convinced that at any moment I could be incinerated in a blinding atomic blast. This film illustrates everything wrong with how the military and governments work.
  6. Cross of Iron (1977): It's a Sam Peckinpah film starring James Coburn so I have to love it. Criminally overlooked too. Again, this is a film that exposes our military as being the crass, nepotistic ass-kissing fraud you suspected it was. Never mind that it's the German military here, they're all bad.
  7. Betty Blue (1986): Quintessentially French, the French-est film ever made. A fiery love affair destined to implode, mental illness, an amazing score and featuring a relationship I swear I was once trapped in.
  8. Hanabi (1997): It's astonishing that Kitano "Beat" Takeshi got his start as a stand up comedian, but then again only a master of the darkest humor could write, direct and star in a film this nuanced. I genuinely love this film. The ending chokes me up. 
  9. Dark Star (1974): This is the 1st 'art' film that I saw. I was reeling from the pain of freshly installed braces and was 13 years old. This film just happened to be on Tampa Bay's channel 44 and I sat transfixed by it, all pain temporarily forgotten. Honestly, I can't watch this without wondering what I've done with my life. This was John Carpenter's film school project for Chrissakes. 
  10. Kelly's Heroes (1971): I could note the very famous stars or the director or the premise or the amazing score by Lalo Schifrin but I'll dispense with that. This is the best war film ever made if your yardstick is based on dark humor. 

Honorable mentions: 
  1. The Waitress (2007): Adrienne Shelly's only film before being stolen from us by an act of unspeakable evil. Hal Hartley cast her in his early movies and I like to think she was channeling him when she wrote, directed and played a bit role in this amazingly beautiful polemic on struggle and attaining happiness.
  2. Winter's Bone (2010): directed by Debra Granik and starred Jennifer Lawrence, no film better illustrates the quiet desperation of rural America. I've been in many communities like the one depicted here and I'll attest it's dire and murderous. 
  3. Repo Man (1984): Possibly the most quotable film ever made. Alex Cox at his finest. I lived in Los Angeles in the mid 80's and yep, that's what it looked like. I'd buy punk rock at Zed's Records in Long Beach and skate and work shitty jobs there just like the protagonists in the movie. I'm astonished that Alex then filmed the horrible Straight To Hell. As it stands, anyone making a film that bad can't be entirely trusted. 
  4. Space Station 76 (2014): This is sci-fi done right. It's campy yet somehow gripping and poignant. Fans of Todd Rundgren won't believe their fortune. 
  5. Catch-22 (1970): The Joseph Heller book was as good as a book can be. Somehow the movie is better. Similar to Kelly's Heroes, the all star cast of this dark comedy will amaze you. If you still want to enlist in the military after watching this farce then god bless your tiny heart.
A sad and happy footnote: after penning this polemic on films and their critics I realized that Jay Boyar passed away in mid-2019. I would be doing him a disservice to edit my criticism of his writings as either way, dead or alive, that's the legacy he left. I do sense a sad vacuum where he once existed and I'm sure that he brought joy to people's lives, especially those who enjoy the most mediocre of Hollywood's commercial offerings. He'll be missed.

Happily, I just Bing'ed Kimberley Jones, a film critic I revered and noted to my happiness that she's the goddamned Editor in Chief of the Austin Chronicle now. Mazel Tov Kimberley! Marjorie Baumgarten meanwhile still plies her trade as a wordsmith and critic of immense talent: huzzah Marjorie: you two mean the world to me, carry on!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Kraftwerk Sky-Dancer: She said "wouldn't it be funny if ..." and I said YES!

Sometimes an audacious idea pops into your head and you mull it over and then ... do it. For example, I jokingly suggested to my best friend and wife Jennifer that we should have a Kraftwerk themed wedding ... and without a pause she said SURE!  Point being: you should pursue the flashes of brilliance you're occasionally blessed with and also be the positive influence and enabler in someone else's life who needs that little push to make it happen. To wit, the creation Jennifer has crafted known as the Wild Wacky Wiggly Wolfgang.

Wolfgang Flür's face - from the Dentaku 7"

Constructed of ripstop nylon bought from eBay and with a few back of a paper bag measurements of existing Sky Dancers, Jennifer plunged into this project without being sure if it would even work properly. Red, black and a kind of eggshell color were the settled upon choices, but not before ordering many color swatches and fabric samples so she would have a clue as the fabric's pliability, color suitability and hue.

Also initially purchased but found to be unsuitable were a 12 volt automotive radiator fan and high amperage 110v ac to 12v dc converter. This experiment was to hopefully make our Sky Dancer portable but in reality would only inflate our Wolfgang without the wiggle we desired.

$100 down an interesting drain.

On the other hand, it did inflate our Wild Wacky Wiggly Wolfgang for his inaugural moment in our back yard, late at night. To the chagrin of our very middling neighbors.

First inflation looks good!
For reference, here's the Big Bear 3/4 hp blower we found locally for a fair price. Maybe this could be done cheaper but not without some expensive and failed experimentation.
"Big Bear" 3/4 HP Skydancer Vortex Fan Blower
For anyone wondering what our Kraftwerk Air Dancer looks like in real time and not projected backwards in time ...

Some fans collect autographs. We make artifacts and memories. This artifact is in honor of our friend Wolfgang and all our friends both in Kraftwerk (hello Fritz!) and the fans of Kraftwerk (hello John Shilcock, Paul Wilkinson, Thilo Schölpen, Rudiger Esch, Rob Keene & many more!). 

Stay tuned for our Hazeltine 1500 computer terminal restoration (as seen on the cover of Computer World) and a review of Kraftwerk's discography on floppy disk.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Rev. Fred Lane: Icepick To The Moon

Tim Reed aka Rev. Fred Lane with Icepick To The Moon
director Skizz Cyzyk at its Tampa premier March 2019
There's a magic, shining moment in Fred Lane's jazzy "White Woman" that (lyrics aside) has put a demented smile on my face for three decades now. It's a moment so symbolic and such a poke to the eye of convention that it stands out like a billboard in a desert. Any fan of jazz understands the language: pick a key, choose a thematic melody and tempo then ... go.

Each instrument gets a moment to riff as the band members hand off solos through a combination of telepathy and subtle cues. Thus it is that one must sit through the horrifying cacophony of the saxophone solo in White Woman, ears ringing from its icepick stabs to sensibility when finally it's over and a tremulous and polite flute solo briefly bows in with promises to undo the harm - then the saxophone, defying every convention, barges back in and stomps the flute solo into the ground.


Totally a real album that exists.

This moment is the penultimate summary of Rev. Fred Lane's oeuvre - taking everything you know and expect and turning it on its head. He's a demented Dean Martin exuberantly answering the question "what if Marcel Duchamp was from Alabama and played jazz" and then answering it with a backstory so opaque that further questioning is not possible. The Duchamp comparison isn't too far out of bounds either: The Rev. Fred Lane is the alias and absurd alter-ego of Tim Reed who was a member of the Raudelunas collective, a Dada inspired cabal of University of Alabama students who were willing to live for their art in the midst of a city dominated by football and greek fraternity culture.

Anyone who has ever studied the back cover of Car Radio Jerome has marveled at the astonishing musical catalog depicted there of Fred Lane recordings, albums with titles like "Abdul Ben Camel and the Anatolian Rave Ups", "Stand Up and be Counted Sherlton Welley", "Colonic Olfactory Cartel", "The Dog who Loved my Leg", "Fred Land Live at First Baptist Federal Prison", "The Hit" or any of the other thirty five depicted there know that it hinted at an unbelievably deep well of music, if only any of those LP's were to be found. Which they could not. Only two were released: 1983's "From the One that Cut You" and 1988's "Car Radio Jerome", both on Kramer's Shimmy Disc label.

Thirty three of these albums are as real as the set of fictional encyclopedias from Jorge Borges' short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" - another beautiful speculative fiction of enormous proportions. And so it is that I unabashedly compare Fred Lane to titans of Dada and literature. I could go on at length about Fred Lane but my pals over at Dangerous Minds already wrote a short and illuminating piece on the man and his legacy so I'll leave it to you to check that out. For those unfamiliar with the music, give this a listen, and don't weep overly much for the flute solo cut down in its prime:

Nope, not real.

Not real either.

Totally a great LP if it existed, which it doesn't.

Some of the best jazz I've never heard.

For those of us who have spent the last few decades wondering whether these albums might exist or about the man behind the madness, fear not as a film documentarian improbably named Skizz Cyzyk has already spent two of those decades asking these burning questions. His debut effort "Icepick to the Moon" has touched down after an astounding two decades of halting production. It's a sampling of the evolution of digital video from the pixellated potato days of the late 90's to the 4k resolutions today as the technology evolved during production, yet this mixture of video qualities is natural if quirky. Mr. Cyzyk admits he learned the art of documentary film making by osmosis as his vocation is traveling to facilitate film festivals and has viewed thousands of films and documentaries. A recent job that thankfully involved far less traveling allowed him the desk time to learn Adobe After Effects to create the lovely animations that are peppered throughout and begin the process of editing footage into something cohesive. It was worth the two decade wait: lost footage was unearthed from the mid 70's and people came out of obscurity to talk on the subject who'd otherwise have been omitted had Skizz been a more hurried auteur.

Your humble narrator would rather meet this guy than the Pope or Mick Jagger:
The University of Tampa screened the documentary in the Cass center's theater and promised a "special guest".  Initially we were concerned that no one would show up as it didn't seem to have been properly announced. Doors opened at 7:30 for an 8:30 showing and we sat alone in the dim listening to the banter of the three Radio-TV students who were sullenly assigned the task of operating the equipment. I felt sorry for them, having no idea as the significance of this documentary. It wasn't until well after eight that people began filtering in and before long all seats were occupied and I could breathe a sigh of relief. The fans looked like I expected: over 40, marching to the beat of a different drummer and proud to be a part of this. I was grateful to see a millennial couple behind us and upon introductions it was revealed that one is Tim Reed's nephew William - cool!

Peering further into the dimness behind us revealed a familiar figure at the back row. Our special guest was indeed special: band aids on his face, a dapper hat, chunky eyeglasses and white van dyke facial hair ... jackpot! There are times that warrant being a gushing, foolishly grinning fan-boy and this was one. I walked back and sat by him with a dumb smile plastered across my face and told him fan-boy stuff and he smiled back and was very gracious and appreciative to hear it. I told him about how he helped me embrace my southern heritage, that it was people like him and Flannery O'Connor, the Butthole Surfers, Wayne White, William S. Burroughs, The Residents or Truman Capote that could only have been forged in the crucible of the deep south to such great effect. I basically blathered, but I meant all of it from the bottom of my heart. Then I asked if he could sign the Icepick posters that the RTV department had thoughtfully given me, which he did.

Icepick to the Moon answered many questions for me, like what cauldron of the absurd could've cooked up a being as unlikely as Fred Lane and how did the very creepy song "From The One That Cut You" come about ... and why? That's a story best explained by the documentary, let's just say that it's based on something found in a derelict panel van ...

The kind of note you don't want to find in a panel van.
The Q & A after the movie was enlightening though the audience was shy about asking questions. I felt obligated to again chip in my two cents about the deep south being a crucible from which some amazingly offbeat talents have been forged. Here it is in its entirety:

I'd like to leave you with this: you too can own a piece of Tim Reed, so to speak. His focus lately has been on kinetic sculptures; things that whirl about in the wind and inspire whimsy, or as he puts it, "unusual kinetic sculptures for people who have nothing better to do with their money". I'm down with that. I must have a Booley in my yard STAT.

Tim Reed's contact info:
172 North Crest Road
Chattanooga TN 37404

Jennifer Huber hearts Tim Reed!

Addendum from the Rev. Fred Lane (Tim Reed) himself:
The stage show of FTOTCY was originally produced November 13,1976. The recordings Fun in the Fundus & Oatmeal are both from this production. Rubber Room was recorded in 1978 in anticipation of the Recommended Records sampler. This was delayed because of that label’s objection to the song’s content (literal minded maybe). They finally released I Talk to My Haircut (Why is this song’s subject matter less objectionable?)
Any how, the remainder of the tunes were recorded in 1981 at the Northport, AL chamber of commerce. We always used whatever space we could get away with.
The  record was at long last released on my fake label Say Day Bew records in 1983, seven years after it should have been and since I was young it seemed like forever. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Düsseldorf: Past is Prologue

We wanted to do this documentary months ago but didn't know where to start so finally Jennifer just ... started. This trip was life changing; we met a personal hero of ours, Kraftwerk's Wolfgang Flür, toured the formerly top secret Kling Klang Studio and even made it onto a nationwide German news program ... but more importantly we left with a coterie of new friends that we admire.

Thanks to Rudi Esch for your magnanimous donation of time and energy and loaning your mother to Marshall so that he could perfect his Rhineland dialect! All joking aside - our pal Marshall learned to speak German watching watching war films so any softer, more thoughtful tutors are welcome.

Jan Wiefels: our impetus for going. It's amazing that a person we don't know / have never met would put two tickets to a sold-out show aside for us. We came this close --> <-- to not going before you stepped in! Thorsten Schaar was our other motivator: your intriguing proposition of being in a Tour de France press junket and city tour cemented the deal.

Thanks to Memo Torfilli for making a positive 1st impression of the city and for hanging out with the odd Americans. Also your Mod Lord fashion shop is on point.

The journalists we met were all singularly awesome, no big egos or bloviators, just salt of the earth talent like Mark Roland, Andy Pietrasik, Tobias Rüther and Kevin Pocklington

Plus the colorful denizens of Düsseldorf: Fender Rhodes maestro Thilo Schölpen, edm crushinators Rob Keane (WATT!) and Daniel Fassbender, Wiebke Keane, Christina Hooper (Munich but whatever!), Frank Soentjens (Belgium but whatever!) and Wim Wenders who sadly wasn't there. Props also to Les & Hilde for meeting us and enjoying a concert by a band not named Die Toten Hosen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Kraftwerk Aren't What You Think They Are And That's Okay

Wolfgang Flür is sitting across the bar table from us in Düsseldorf's posh me and all hotel's penthouse lounge. He's small in stature despite my mental image of him as a musical titan and rather fetching for someone knocking on 70. Flanked by floor to ceiling windows looking out over a Rhineland cityscape preparing for the 2017 Tour de France Grand Depart I steel myself to ask an illuminating question or two from the one member of the band that I in years past found most compelling in their cryptic band and album photos. Wolfgang always seemed the most beatific, to the point of having a resting smile-face.

Kraftwerk Robot Wolfgang Flür & Former Propaganda
Chanteuse Claudia Brücken at Me And All Hotel, Düsseldorf

At the moment he's animatedly splitting his time talking to a lovely post-Propaganda Claudia Brücken as well as former Die Krupps member and Düsseldorf documentarian author Rudi Esch about ... I haven't a clue. My collegiate German skills withered on the vine the day my degree was handed to me. Then he turns to me, pushing a vintage 90's cd walkman across the table and asks if I'd like to hear the latest project he's working on. 

My journey to this point was an unusual one. Only a few years earlier I'd held an entirely different view about Kraftwerk, one carefully cultivated by both my ignorance and the shiny veneer created by founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider of the aloof inscrutability of four teutonic men working together towards a common goal. When I did read about the band it was typically breathless proclamations of More Influential Than the Beatles or The World's Most Influential Band with the usual boilerplate brimming with superlatives of having invented electronic music and made hip hop possible. Who was I to argue? 

Indeed Kraftwerk were my first musical love, having been gifted at age twelve a cassette of Man Machine from an older brother who found it trite but my instant and fanatical love for their music made them the most influential band ... in my world. Growing up in the pre-internet blue collar cultural wasteland of Florida's Baptist churches and cheap tourists eschewing the more expensive hotels near Disney World, that cassette represented a lifeline to a better place and signified a world of possibilities with its lovingly crafted soundscapes. Like many youth of the era waiting at a bus stop and feigning interest in Van Halen or Michael Jackson to their peers  I knew I'd likely wind up eating that tape if they realized an alien was in their midst. Bands like Kraftwerk, Devo or The Residents gave the quirky youth of that time a sign that being a Beautiful Freak was indeed okay even if one had to be circumspect about their love for them.

It was at this point I constructed my Kraftwerk time machine. Years came and went at a rapid rate; Reagan promised an economic reach-around for America, I graduated high school, Electric Cafe was released and a Space Shuttle exploded. I got a degree, opened a record store, the wall fell, Klaus Kinski got uglier, The Mix debuted and another Space Shuttle exploded. I taught English in Japan, got married/divorced and a really cool black man became president. It was a dizzying trip and it's surprising I survived the fast 1:1 ratio of time travel (only limitation: no reverse). It felt at times like riding a toboggan down a ski jump. So I get out of my device and stand there blinking uncomprehendingly at 2014's Moogfest Kraftwerk show and realize that there have been developments as Ralf Hütter and ... three blokes I completely don't recognize take the stage and positively knock my socks off with a nearly orgasmic musical experience.

Ralf & Friends land at 2014's Moogfest in Asheville NC

It's perfectly reasonable to believe that Kraftwerk = Ralf, Florian, Karl and Wolfgang. It's emotionally etched in stone, like John, Paul, George and Ringo. Or Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy. It's what I was sold as a kid, they couldn't possibly have seemed more cohesive, like a married couple (or two couples) who finish each other's sentences. Yet I was now conflicted like the protagonist in The Crying Game and trying to make sense of this curve ball.

Ralf, Henning, Fritz and Falk: this is the new reality. How did we get here?

Wolfgang's book just got a redux
Wolfgang has written at length in his tell-all 1999 autobiography Kraftwerk: I Was A Robot about his split from the band in 1987 and the acrimony that followed, shining a spotlight on their dysfunctional relationship and prompting a lawsuit from his former bandmates (minus Karl who quit in 1991). His story is enlightening, at times riveting and laugh out loud funny but its core theme is one of alienation and loss: his name was expunged from some album credits, Ralf and Florian patented the drum pad that he designed, Wolfgang and Karl were shunted into cheap hotels separate from the founding members on tours and a litany of other slights and grievances.

Most astonishing was the idea that he and Karl were considered merely as employees ... earning a wage. The immense frustration he experienced peaks during the years that Ralf and Florian focused on cycling to the detriment of touring or recording new material: he didn't get paid for riding a bike. The founding members both came from wealth and had financial safety nets but Wolfgang and Karl had to seek outside work to stay afloat with Wolfgang once posing nude for a men's magazine, though knowing his outgoing nature he'd probably have taken that gig regardless.

Inarguably the most creative and productive years of Kraftwerk coincided with Karl and Wolfgang's ~15 year "employment" with little substantially new conceptual material or albums produced since their departure. Indeed, Wolfgang had a hand in every album spanning from 1974's Autobahn to Electric Café in 1986 after which he bid his bandmates auf Wiedersehen. Every release since has consisted of remixed or reworked material with only 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks debuting new material alongside reworked versions of their 1983 hit ep Tour de France.

It's too bad that the employees in this scenario didn't have better union representation.

Then there's the counterpoint: if Kraftwerk were truly a two person band with Ralf and Florian at the helm (Florian later bowed out in 2008) it's not so surprising that they maintained such an iconic air of evolution and teutonic perfection for the outside observer. It's nearly impossible to maintain high creative standards when work is filtered through a committee, usually there's an alpha figure navigating towards a goal that only they fully understand. Even the legendary Klaus Dinger (who went on to found Neu!) was booted out of an early iteration of Kraftwerk for wanting (among other reasons) his name emblazoned on a red neon light rather than the blue of his bandmates. An apt automotive analogy would be that brilliant designers working solo like Harley Earl, Giorgetto Giugiaro and Bill Mitchell respectively designed the '59 Cadillac, VW Golf and Corvette Sting Ray. A committee designed the universally reviled Pontiac Aztek.

It's important to not downplay Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz's recent-ish Kraftwerk contributions as they've been with the band for more than two decades now and had a hand in some of the original studio recordings as sound engineers and programmers before that (Falk Grieffenhagen is the on-stage video technician). Time moves on and bands evolve. The perception that I carried for so many years of Kraftwerk as a monolithic entity was false. Music, like sausage, is often a production that is best left unobserved.

Review of 3-D The Catalogue LP & Blu-Ray

And so the world spins on with Ralf gifting us one more jewel of a collection, this year's 3-D: The Catalogue, a curated nine lp / eight cd box set retrospective of all albums since Autobahn recorded binaurally for an immersive audio experience and a companion four disk Dolby Atmos mixed blu-ray box set for those fans with 3-D capable televisions.

In its defense, the 3-D box set's quality and documentation is fanatical, yet it's no surprise that Ralf's most popular question when interviewed is "when will a new album be released" to which his standard reply is “when it’s finished”. I suspect the Space Shuttle has nothing to worry about.

So I'm sitting across from Wolfgang (someone pinch me!) and put his headphones on, marveling for a moment at this cd Walkman relic from the 90's then hit play. After a studio fade and introductory motif I'm experiencing a good piece of electronic pop music with Claudia Brücken contributing her dulcet and subtle vocals to the track. I nurse one of Düsseldorf's famous Altbiers and try to savor all four minutes of the moment. It sounds reminiscent of his 1996 Yamo album "Time Pie", a perfectly serviceable if somewhat ephemeral bit of techno-pop. Existing fans will certainly shell out for it.

Headphones off, he asks what I think. I'm nonspecific but upbeat, choosing words I hope don't sound parsed. My love of electronica has always veered into the abyss from Severed Heads and Throbbing Gristle to modern artists like dark folk-electronica Tunng and the quirky Felix Laband so it's a struggle to review music that's intentionally crafted for mass appeal (take this with a grain of salt as I know I'm the minority here). Appeased, he says it's an homage to England's Birmingham, an industrial city of "brutal loud sounds" with factories and noisy steel mills and clarifies "My new pal Peter Duggal formerly known as Moonraider is my partner in music production. He's originally from Birmingham and comes from a film music and soundtrack background and invited me to Hebden Bridge to play the famous Trades Club. It was one of the best shows we ever did, it was crowded and the people went crazy about my music! That was the day we became friends and I was interested in his music ... we fit very well together."

Another artist with a very similar oeuvre is Wolfgang's pal Karl Bartos. For this trip I'd packed a copy of Bartos' Off The Record which was in my rucksack in the hopes that we'd cross paths. Again, it's a good album suffused with the overt melancholy of hope that lightning might strike twice, repeating most of the tropes and themes of Kraftwerk with a major clue being the album cover: Karl's Kraftwerk-era mannequin head. I'd bet on the wrong horse bringing this but it did lead to me asking a painfully obvious question to Wolfgang. I knew from his book that he's a sensitive man who doesn't tolerate awkwardness or ambiguity well. True to my nature, I made it awkward.   

"As Kraftwerk have failed to put out new material for so long," I offer, "and knowing that your fans love your solo work as well as your former bandmate Karl's ... why haven't you two collaborated on any projects that would show the world what they're missing?" 

He doesn't pause to think, responding reflexively, "Many fans and journalists have asked me that. The reason is we are developing in two different directions musically. I think we are great friends but musically we are too different." I'm sure I wore a sour expression as I wasn't buying it.

Knowing that people don't like being contradicted I plow ahead and say, "It's not like you're klezmer and he's gangsta. You're not that different, pretty similar actually within the world of electro-pop at least from my point of view..."

Wolfgang scrutinizes me and I fear I've made a horrible gaffe. One never knows what emotional cyclone exists within our fellow humans. Then his demeanor softens and he quite sincerely states, "Ask Karl. I would be open to it. I think I'm more open to it than he is. We've discussed it a lot of times but he always has an excuse for anything else. I think the main reason for it is that Karl seems to be still too close to the whole Kraftwerk sound and themes and I ... I am not. I have developed into the story teller and other things."

The excellent me and all hotel düsseldorf lounge (yes, it's lowercase) is crowded with journalists and some of Düsseldorf's musical luminaries like Rob Keane, Daniel Fassbender and some journalists who'd make a far bigger story than me so I thank Wolfgang and return to my table to contemplate my jet lag and excitement at having met someone I'd previously assumed to be a pop cultural chimera. There's still a full week ahead for our visit to Düsseldorf and the Tour de France's Grand Depart, but it still feels like we might've peaked too soon; this was only our first evening in one of Europe's most metropolitan and artistic cities.

Epilogue: I wrote this for Electronic Beats magazine but failed to see it published with no explanation from their managing editor. My hypothesis on it being spiked is it's not entirely a positive piece about the band - a band that's notoriously fickle with the press. Perhaps they felt this might jeopardize future opportunities for band interviews or promotional items? A follow up story was planned about visiting the historic Kling Klang studios and the Düsseldorf music community in case anyone wonders about the abrupt ending of this piece.

August 1st 2017 marked the long-awaited publishing of Karl Bartos' autobiography Der Klang Der Maschine. How Karl will approach the conundrum of telling the story of a band that historically prefers anonymity remains to be seen (for me), at least until there's an English translation. I wish him well at walking the fine line between Man and Maschine.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Kraftwerk Superfans In Düsseldorf + 3-D Catalogue Box Set Review

Review of 3-D Catalogue & Düsseldorf

Greetings germs, Germans and everyone else. We're here today to yack at you about topics near and dear to us - specifically us in Düsseldorf for Kraftwerk's July 1 2017 Tour de France concert. That and the just-released 3-D The Catalogue box set that will put a dent in your bank account and a smile on your face assuming that you can still smile after the dent. And what a dent it is ... especially if you're a superfan and must have all the formats. For those with OCD completist compulsions you'll be on the hook for:

3-D The Catalogue on Blu Ray $170
3-D The Catalogue on Vinyl $100
3-D The Catalogue on CD $45
Kraftwerk Panties $10

Be thankful that you didn't brave the merchandise lines at the concert to buy these. The vinyl box set there was €160 which when converted to our paltry dollars is $190. I know this because our pal Les was at the show and was 100% sure that the box set was €60 - so we braved the crushing merch line in which everyone pressed forward into a compounded crowd-smash which provided great insight into why there's so many crowd-crushing fatalities at European kick-ball matches.

I'm going to wildly generalize here and say that European people at concerts and sports matches are quite sociable and love a good dogpile so any excuse to jam up against another person is welcomed. From the perspective of anti-social Americans it's as confusing as the French's love of limburger cheese and explains why we rarely have crowd crushing deaths: we fundamentally don't like each other very much. But I digress.  We got to the sales counter only to discover Les somehow couldn't see the 1 in front of the 60 but I did experience the thrill of a middle aged man grinding on my backside for a few minutes so there's that.

Jennifer and I reviewed the Blu-Ray and LP box sets - or mostly did. This is part one, the unboxing and the chatting and the anecdotes about the unexpected competitive nature of the title Worrrrrld's Biggest Kraftwerk Fans - which we aren't. Watch and learn.

Stay tuned for specifics on what it's like to be granted entry to the former Kling Klang Studios, the thrill of knocking back Killepitsch Kräuterlikör with Kraftwerk's Wolfgang Flür and our attempt to make Tampa Florida look like a possible sister-city pairing for Düsseldorf.

Bonus topic for those who watched the video (above): who is nicer Canadians or Germans? Your vote can be placed with the widget at the top - right corner of this blog.

Until then - buy the 3-D Catalogue Box Set!

The former Kling Klang Studio's intercom.

Not Fritz - this is another superfan wearing a product of his wife's immense sewing skills.

As an aside - if $100 for the Kraftwerk vinyl box set is too spendy to justify or you already have it, why don't you buy this drop-dead lovely NASA Voyager Golden Record Box Set for about the same amount of your rapidly depreciating currency? Isn't it nice to have options?