Sunday, November 30, 2008

DVD Of The Week: The Life And Music Of Ronnie Lane: The Passing Show

This is an example of renting a music-bio DVD not so much because I was a huge fan of the artist in question as because I was curious about someone I had only sketchy knowledge about. As a teenager I was a fan of the Faces during their heyday (really, was there ever any other setting where Rod Stewart ever made the slightest bit of sense?) and like a good rock geek quickly traced them back to the Small Faces and their rich, magnificent catalog. But when Lane walked out on the Faces, leaving Ron Wood free to play eternal kid brother to Keith in the Stones and Rod Stewart free to become the thing that he became afterwards, I never managed to investigate any of his subsequent activities for whatever reason, though my sister actually had a copy of the Lane/Pete Townshend collaboation Rough Mix (Why, I wonder? I must have recommended it to her) [UPDATE: No, she was a big Faces fan at one point, I recall now] and I remember liking the song "April Fool" a lot. Then punk comes along and I couldn't care less anymore, until I find out that he died in the 90s after suffering from multiple sclerosis for nearly two decades. So here is an opportunity to get some answers to the question, who was this Ronnie Lane, anyway?

The movie begins in familiar territory with young Ronnie growing up working class in the East End of London, learning guitar, getting into the Mod scene, switching to bass, meeting Steve Marriott, and forming the Small Faces. There is an absolutely riveting performance of "Whatcha Gonna Do About It?" here that knocked my socks off: pure, high-energy garage-punk Motown pastiche, Marriott flinging himself around the stage, shouting soul, and spitting out Townshend-like chords like a little demon. You get little snippets of classics like "Tin Soldier" and "Itchykoo Park", as well as bits of Ogden's Nut Gone Flake material like an intense rendition of "Mad John" and a grungy "Rollin' Over" that previews Marriott's future leading the boring arena-boogie band Humble Pie. (Like Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott achieved greater fame while plummeting to the depths of suck musically when he parted company with Lane.)

Fun also are the bits of Faces footage. The Faces jumped in at just the moment when the Rolling Stones were beginning to lose the plot, taking a similar sound and adding drunken knockabout humor (and leading the way for the Replacements, the Pogues, the Cat Heads, and others) to deliver something joyous, ridiculous and life-affirming. (Not that there weren't quieter moments; there's a great version of "Richmond" with the two Ronnies on acoustic slide guitar and Rod Stewart plunking a stand-up bass to the side) If they had any shortcomings, it was a lack of consistent material (though Lane's contributions like "Debris", "Love Lives Here" or "Tell Everyone" tended to be the highlights of their albums) and the way the band's lovable rogue image sometimes crossed the line into pure misogyny, often in some of their best songs like "Stay With Me" (which Lane had nothing to do with) or "Ooh La La" (which he co-wrote with Ron Wood---a beautiful, wistful song whose lyrics are basically about a sad old grandfather telling his grandson that women will ruin your life, so watch out). Well, it WAS the early 70s; you might as well comment that the sky was blue, I suppose.

Meanwhile Ronnie, energized and inspired by a new relationship (with a woman he met in the Meher Baba community who, like him, was married to someone else when they met), undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming obsessed with rural life. He invests his money in a van containing a mobile recording studio, quits the band, and does the "getting it together in the country" thing. Having grown up on a farm myself, I was always amused by the phenomenon of urban hippies getting carried away with romantic notions of life on the farm. (It's the perfect example of "the grass is greener" thinking; "life on the farm" for me was synonymous with boredom and drudgery, and I ran off to the city as soon as I had the chance.) Running a farm is hard work and requires dedication, and the Lanes' qualifications for the task were pretty questionable; the music that emerged as a result of all this was more promising, though.

The new band, Slim Chance, was a largely acoustic group, a loose-knit backdrop for Ronnie's new musical aesthetic, which brought in fiddles, accordions, and at one point, a black father-and-son sax section. Very much a Basement Tapes sound, showcasing Lane's likeable voice and knack for instantly catchy tunes that served him so well in his previous bands. They put out a lot of music, indulging in interesting ideas like running cords from the mobile studio van and recording a whole record literally outdoors, and later attempting to tour with tents and generators like a traveling circus. Everything they tried was a resounding failure, financially and popularly, and the band broke up in exhaustion. A few of their songs cracked the British charts and the TV clips of the time show a large, loose folk group having a lot of fun. They didn't fit in with 70s butt-rock or the punk scene that rose in reaction to it, and they didn't make it to America in time to take advatage of the singer-songwriter boom. Too eccentric to have fit in with the smug mellowness of LA big-label folk-rock of the time, yet not eccentric enough to be embraced by today's freak-folk scene, Ronnie Lane really was an artist who never found a simpatico audience. Some of the songs you get a taste of in this video are quite enticing though; "The Poacher" is an odd Celtic/country-western/baroque thing that I really want to hear more of. And Lane's voice has an incredibly warm appeal, a rough, nasally melodic Dylan/Richards croon that's very inviting. Must hear more.

But then Ronnie got sick.

What a horrible diease multiple sclerosis is, slowly robbing a sufferer's mental and physical faculties while leaving them all too aware of what they're losing, plus inflicting excruciating pain in the process. Ronnie's mother had it, and by the end of the 70s, it had hit him as well. The 80s saw him recruiting his old rock star friends to do benefit concerts for an organization he founded to fight MS; then, later it was discovered that the woman he put in charge had embezzled most of the funds they collected. What a disgrace. The movie doesn't indicate how he felt about it, but he must have been devastated.

Towards the end of his life, Ronnie married yet another woman who stayed with him until the end. The couple moved to Austin, where his particular brand of rock/country/folk fit perfectly with the local aesthetic and he was treated like a king by his fellow musicians. There are clips of him in a wheelchair or on a stool, bellowing out old favorites in the best voice he can muster. A terrible irony occurs when his old bandmate Ian MacLagan moves to Austin just when the Lanes split for Colorado because Ronnie can't stand the Texas heat anymore. At the time of his eventual passing in 1997, he was a forgotten footnote in musical history, something this movie seeks to change.

So who was Ronnie Lane then? From this evidence, a modestly talented songwriter but a brilliant catalyst who could create magic with the right collaborators. A curious fellow who followed whatever path interested him, and a sometimes flaky, sometimes difficult but ultimately sweet and decent guy who kept a positive spirit under the most brutal and disappointing circumstances. That sense of cheerful stoicism may be what drew him to folk, country, and blues: all working class musical forms that thrive with that same upful-in-the-face-of-hell mentality. I was convinced enough to want to look for a good Slim Chance/solo Lane compilation sometime soon. RIP Ronnie.

Getting closer...

The Experimental Bunnies' second album, BIOLOGY AND PHYSICS, is due in about six weeks. J Neo just completed an improved mix of the song "Waiting For A Bad Idea To Die", and uploaded the ten finished tracks to Tunecore. We have taken advantage of our distributor's special offer of a free single release for every album completed by midnight tonight! Watch this space for a special one-song digital single from The Blame, in which we take a big sour lemon and turn it into a tall glass of the most refreshing lemonade you have ever tasted! (That's just a teaser...we'll be following with more details in the next week or two.)

In other news, we have ordered a big bag of Ear Candle Radio buttons from our Cafe Press shop (we encourage you to mosey on over there for a Christmas T-shirt or mug!), which we will be distributing to any artists who make it onto our monthly Top 20. (Applies to artists who are alive and/or reachable, so stay in touch and stay healthy!) If you are a band or soloist who knows you have a song on our playlist, now (or any time, for that matter) is the time to cast your votes, get your button, and get heard. Cheers!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

DVD of the week: The Weather Underground

Now that the Republican noise machine's attempt to portray Bill Ayers as The Scariest Man In America has failed so resoundingly, this movie is a good one to re-examine. (The Rude Pundit has the best take on Ayers himself that I've seen so far...don't worry, it's far less rude than usual.)

The movie places us in the late Sixties and early Seventies without using any music of the era (an effectively alienating decision); instead the predominant theme is an eerie drone piece (possibly courtesy of San Francisco experimental band Tarantel, who show up in the end credits) that creates an underlying tension that suits the story. We are assaulted with gruesome Vietnam War footage fairly quickly, just to remind us of the violent context that gave rise to the whole question of violent vs. nonviolent resistance. Unlike now, where the general public is relatively shielded from the reality of a war their own country has been embroiled in for years, this sort of stuff was on every TV, which may have made some difference. When people think of the Sixties, they invariably think of hippies, the Beatles, peace and love, etc. What can get forgotten is that all this went on during a nasty little war on the other side of the world that was being resisted by a steadily growing portion of the population. (By the same token, why do you suppose there are so many classic reggae songs about peace and love? Because the slums of Jamaica are so horrendously violent.)

The Weather Underground were the stars of the SDS, the most visible, charismatic members of a large and increasingly influential anti-war youth organization who, enraged and frustrated with what they saw as the ineffectiveness of non-violent resistance, broke away and started their own, more militant faction. They were young, magnetic, sexy, committed, and self-serious. As the movie traces their history, there's a palpable sense of envy that these privileged white kids can't hide for their peers in the Black Panther Party. I kept thinking of the old Clash lyric:
White riot, I wanna riot!
White riot, a riot of my own!

In a piece of vintage news footage, one Panther coolly dismisses the Weathermen (as they called themselves in the beginning before the more gender-inclusive name was a group with an intense, dominant personality like Bernardine Dohrn speaking for them could ever have given themselves a name with the word "men" in it in the first place is beyond me but those were different times), labeling their actions as "folly" and labeling the group "Custeristic", going on to explain that "Custeristic" means irresponsibly leading others into life-threatening situations for their own egos. (Good word...I must remember it; thank you, Mr. Anonymous Uncredited Panther.) The Custeristic tag certainly manifested itself in the WU's first big action, the Days Of Rage. Oh yeah, I can just see this: it's 1969, a year after the 1968 Democratic Convention fiasco, and somebody decides it'd be a great idea to get as many young people as possible to descend on Chicago, go wild, and mess with the cops. Remember, these are Chicago cops we're talking about. Yeah right. Had I been a young activist then, I probably would have been tempted to respond, "hmmmm, nice idea, good luck with that, I think I'll be washing my hair that night though."

Bill Ayers himself recalls the event (in a slightly cutesy move on the part of the filmmakers, he is shown in his present incarnation as a mild-mannered middle-aged academic, retracing the route of the demonstration with a baseball bat in his hand), saying that they had been assured that there'd be hundreds of thousands of kids there, but it turned out to be more like 150. So they made the best of it, rampaging through a rich Chicago neighborhood, breaking windows and fighting with cops. The film is vague about how they managed to get away with this. The whole escapade comes off as a nice cathartic political tantrum, but ultimately pointless and having zero impact on the war or the power structure, and probably even playing right into Richard Nixon's hands by strengthening public support for "law and order". Custeristic folly indeed.

The expressed desire was to "bring the war back home", to make the average American feel the visceral impact of a faraway, unjust, and deceitful war more directly so that they would be forced to take a stand one way or another. But the fantasy of a spontaneous, violent mass uprising was a failure. The attempt at shock therapy only made them another piece of the spectacle. Former SDS comrades (like Todd Gitlin, now a liberal pundit who contributes to Talking Points Memo and gets a lot of face time here as the Designated Critical Voice) started trashing them publicly for their "kindergarten" ideas of revolution.

Needless to say, our protagonists were undeterred by such talk, but reacted to the less-than-overwhelming response to their attempted mass uprising by concluding that America as a whole was a lost cause, and therefore it was time to step up the violence and make as many ordinary citizens as possible feel the pain that their government was causing other innocents in faraway corners of the world. Call it divine intervention if you want, but this near-turn towards outright terrorism (and there really isn't another word for it, my dear angry punk rock friends) was thwarted when a New York townhouse occupied by a particularly militant faction of the WU was blown to bits by an accidentally premature detonation of a bomb that was meant to be set off at a dance on a military base, killing three members of the group. The tragic accident may well have prevented them from pulling off something really stupid...or, if the New York faction's plan had been pulled off, would it have set a whole different chain of events in motion? A real revolution? Martial law? A quicker end to the war, or internment camps for dissenters all over the US? One has to wonder.

Oh yeah, we have to stop for a moment and ponder the whole "revolutionary" concept. Here is a small collection of people, maybe 20 or 30 strong, who (in Mark Rudd's words) fancied themselves as a "Communist cadre", whose goal was the violent overthrow of the US government. Delusional much? How exactly was this supposed to work anyway? And what exactly, IF all the odds had somehow been defied and this little group had actually succeeded in their goal, what would they actually have DONE NEXT? I can't stop thinking about the old joke about the dog who can't stop chasing cars and the burning question: if said dog actually caught one of the cars it was chasing, would it have the slightest idea what to do with it? OK, here you are, a group of starry-eyed hippies who've read a couple of Marx books, now in charge of a nation of a couple hundred million people, most of whom are less than enchanted with your views. Now what? Now that you're on top, how do you deal with the inevitable dissenting voices of the hundreds of millions of people you looked down on, whom you're now in charge of? Custeristic folly, anyone?

Not to mention the "Communist" thing. At one moment the filmmakers give us a montage of revolutionary unrest happening simultaneously all over the world. Conspicuously absent is the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, though the Chinese Cultural Revolution is shown, as if one could draw equivalencies between a top-down authoritarian manipulation of youth with the uprisings in Paris or Mexico City. As a recovering anarchist turned intensely anti-authoritarian but social-program-supporting liberal Democrat, I don't have much patience with or regard for anyone gullible enough to idealize the old state-capitalist systems of the defunct Iron Curtain; I recommend the history of 20th century Spain or Volume 2 of Emma Goldman's autobiography for anyone who still harbors the fantasy that hardline Communists should ever be trusted, and when Rudd and company start talking Communism (not long after Soviet tanks have rolled into Czechoslovakia), my own personal bullshit detector hits 11. As if the dinosaurs of the Soviet regime would have had any tolerance for these free-love acid-head libertines. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend, dumbasses.

So their ultimate goal was unattainable and ethically questionable nonsense; what fascinates us about the Weather Underground anyway? Perhaps it's their sheer audacity and boldness; here we are, several years into an even stupider, less justified, less popular, and dirtier war, and where are the strong voices that dare to really fuck shit up, who dare to say, "this is enough, and if things don't change NOW, THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES"? Part of the surreal feeling of watching this movie is the thought that "nobody would do this now". Of course, now we have an even weaker Constitution, we have the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, no-fly lists, "First Amendment Zones" for anti-war ain't the same. On the other hand, the internet has altered the whole concept of mass communication; information is being shared in ways that weren't possible then. It's a different world now, for better or worse; we have the possibility of more access to what's really going on, but can we do anything more than watch it all on our screens?

Back to our story. The stated goal of bringing the war back home through indiscriminate carnage was scuttled after the New York explosion. Here's where things get interesting. The survivors convene, debate, argue, and most of them come to the conclusion that they must ensure that their violence is only against property, and actual human beings should be warned and protected from any harm as much as possible. At this point, the Weather Underground truly goes underground, dropping out and assuming new identities, while their activities become a sort of exploding performance art piece. Public statements are made that a relevant and related building will be bombed as a response to a particular injustice, authorities are informed that the premises must be cleared, BOOM. Sort of a non-violent approach to violence, or is it a violent approach to non-violence? Whatever it is, statements are made, material damage is done, but no casualties ensue. This sort of kinder, gentler terrorism goes on for a few years, and the Weatherfolks' romantic outlaws-with-a-cause stature continues. Some rich acidheads give them a pile of money to bust Timothy Leary out of jail, and they pull it off! You can't say these guys and gals did not know their stuff. (Leary looks especially foolish in this footage, clearly in over his head in Algeria with Eldridge Cleaver, mouthing revolutionary slogans less than enthusiastically. What a weird time this was.)

Again, the Vietnam War clips aid tremendously in the context, keeping the viewer focused on what these crazy people were so upset about. Accordingly, the resignation of Nixon and the end of the war sucks the wind out of everyone's sails. Suddenly, the scattered, hidden would-be revolutionaries are starting to feel irrelevant, even though the end of the war did not suddenly make everything better or leave America without any serious issues to argue about. But the war was clearly the main focusing issue for this group. The social dynamic falls apart gradually. Individuals are isolated, only connecting at designated meetings; when a member dissents against the group, they suddenly stop being told when the next meeting is scheduled, and the group dissipates further. By the 80s, most of them get sick of it all and turn themselves in. Many of them end up going free because the FBI conducted themselves so ineptly and illegally that their evidence against them is inadmissible. Other members, like David Gilbert, who is interviewed in prison, ally themselves with even more militant groups and get in far worse trouble. (Gilbert's nose is quite noticeably crooked, as if it has been broken. Who knows from where?)

Most of the interviewees seem dazed, yet sure that they were fighting for a just cause, though many are less sanguine about their own tactics. It's amusingly ironic that so many of these former college students who were so desperate to divest themselves of their bourgeois privilege have reverted to the academic life, but in the case of the Right's would-be betes noires Ayers and Dohrn, it seems appropriate that their obvious intellect and social conscience be channeled into something more constructive and influential now. From all accounts, they are big players in the Illinois educational system who have earned their place there, and only the hysterical inverse-Stalinists of our current nutcase Right could be afraid of them now. Mark Rudd, another former leader and a particularly strong voice of the group, looks emotional and a bit embarrassed towards the end as he cops to his "mixed feelings" about the whole experience. Naomi Jaffe says she would do it all again, but do it "better". Gilbert, in prison, has no doubt that they were doing the right thing.

One of the most affecting characters is Brian Flanagan, all working class New York gruffness (a left-wing Archie Bunker!), now the owner of his own bar. As he tells his story, Flanagan gives an air of older-but-wiser cynicism ("Oh God, they used to go on all night got a little too cult-like") still maintains his conviction about what he and his friends stood for, but takes a jaundiced view at their tactics. Fiercely loyal to the end, he will not give too many details about specific things they did, proudly sloughing it off, saying "I just can't do that." No matter what he's talking about at that moment though, in every scene his eyes are haunted in spite of himself, as if he knows things that he can never tell that traumatize him to this day, but he'll be damned if he ever tells you what they are. He is shown staring at the rebuilt townhouse where his old friends blew themselves up in the process of working to blow up somebody else. The pain in his eyes is clear, then he collects himself and turns away with a little resigned grin.

We've just passed through a time when the country teetered even closer to fascism, with an even more incoherent war and an even more malicious and dishonest administration in charge. Maybe it's because the focus was on the phantom of "terrorism" itself that nothing like the Weather Underground managed to emerge. Maybe we're better off for that, because it could be argued that they really were not very helpful. On the other hand, maybe we'd have been better off with some crazy Quixotic, Custeristic radicals out there on the fringe helping to move that old Overton Window over to a more sensible position.

Each time I watched this movie though (and I ended up watching it about six times trying to work out what on earth I was going to say about it), I couldn't help wondering if the excesses of the Weather Underground were part of the reason that, by the time I entered adulthood in the mid-70s, eager to find some sort of living, vibrant counterculture I could align with, the hippie generation seemed prematurely old, tired, and drained of all their blood, nerve and boldness, with little tolerance for the rude, unruly punk rock scene erupting all around them. Perhaps those oddly uptight longhaired fuddy-duddies I rebelled against so vehemently back then were nursing the same post-traumatic stress disorder that poor Brian Flanagan can't hide in this movie.

And maybe what seemed like apathy in more recent times is more a product of those years..."well, non-violent demonstrations don't work, but violence really doesn't work...what the hell does work?" I like to think that our new interactive media forms are beginning to make a difference---certainly they had everything to do with this new President (and yeah, now that the election is over, I feel perfectly free to say that some ex-Weathermen may have had an influence on him, AND THAT IS PROBABLY A GOOD THING)---and that everything from YouTube to Noodlebrain has had an impact on our evolution, which may be frustratingly slow, but may be ultimately more trustworthy than naive revolutionary fantasies which, given the unending potential craziness of the American psyche, are probably better not messed with, however much we may be tempted to court the notion.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fun stuff to stumble on whilst poking through Wikipedia

How awesome is the small Welsh town of Aberystwyth? Awesome enough to have had both former Incredible String Band bassist Rose Simpson and Sue Jones-Davies, who played Judith in Monty Python's Life Of Brian, serve as mayor there.

Update: OK, perhaps not quite so awesome since, due to the influence of the local vicars, Life Of Brian is actually banned in Aberystwyth, despite Mayor Jones-Davies' best efforts. No word at this time whether you can find rare ISB albums at the local shops.

Son Of Update: I didn't even notice when I posted this last night, that one of these mayors is a Simpson, and the other is a Jones. Hmmm, maybe we should move there. Wanna be a Welsh mayor, Davis?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change is now

Party on!

What a relief. So America, one wheel already hanging off the edge of the cliff, turns out to have enough presence of mind to turn off at the last minute. Now we get to see whether Mr. Obama can govern as well as he campaigns, whether there will be any accountability for the criminals who got us in the mess we are in today, whether the economy has a chance (and whether Democrats have the guts to be even one-tenth as radical as the right wing pundits like to pretend they are) and how culture will shift as a result of all this.

Best thing I read all week: an e-mail from my mom.

We have splurged on a bottle of Martinelli Sparkling Cider that will be opened in celebration tomorrow night when Obama wins the election!! It will be so refreshing to have a man of intelligence, morals, and dignity in the White House. Our country and the world's perception of us will change overnite. Don't be surprised--we aren't so stupid as to think McCain would make a decent president, or Heaven Forfend, Palin. What an embarrassment to women and America she is.

Ha ha, funny thing: Our latest mailing from Netflix is The Weather Underground, which I want to watch one more time before I write a review. Now that Bill Ayers is officially a non-issue, I may be a couple weeks too late, but such is life. Here at Ear Candle, we serve no whine before it's time.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ear Candle Radio's Top 20: October 2008

From now on, we'll be posting our charts here on the blog, as well as on the Ear Candle Home page.

The three new artists Davis mentioned previously have all made a fine showing in this month's charts. Congratulations, and happy post-Halloween.

We also have a hot, bubbling organ instrumental by reggae great Jackie Mittoo topping the charts, with a rare vinyl single by Sid Merritt of Weenie Roast, Barbara Manning and Content Providers fame following close behind, and a bittersweet plea from New Orleans' own Irma Thomas coming in third. Elsewhere we have the ultimate Shonen Knife song, "Giant Kitty", a rarity from the little known all-female San Francisco band of the 60s, Ace Of Cups, Sonic Youth's cover of the title song from one of our favorite movies of last year, a sad drugstore cowboy lament from JJ Schulz, and another great track from the incredible solo debut of Jenny Hoyston of Erase Errata.

Keep tuning in to Ear Candle Radio. We are planning an all-new playlist soon!

1. Jackie Mittoo - Oboe - The Keyboard King at Studio One
2. Squirrel Grab - In Love With Barry Manilow - Mediumistic Presents The Golden Tones Of Squirrel Grab
3. Irma Thomas - Wish Someone Would Care - Time Is On My Side
4. Beyond the Fringe - Aftermyth of War - Beyond the Fringe
5. Ana Da Silva - Friend - The Lighthouse
6. Systemwide - Eyupsultan - Pure And Applied
7. Shonen Knife - Giant Kitty - Genki Shock!
8. Marson Ramos - The Halloween Theme - The Halloween Night
9. Takeshi Murata - Decipher - Decipher
10. Liliput/ Kleenex - Turn The Table - Liliput/ Kleenex
11. JJ Schultz - Song Of The Independent Rancher - Bustin' Outa Town
12. Ace Of Cups - Glue - Love Is The Song We Sing (Disc 3)
13. The Rolling Stones - Going Home - Aftermath
14. Phil Manzanera - Frontera - Diamond Head
15. Dean Farnell - Ghost On The Stairs - Ghost On The Stairs
16. Jenny Hoyston - Spell D-O-G - Isle Of
17. Sonic Youth - I'm Not There - I'm Not There Soundtrack
18. The Soft Boys - There's Nobody Like You - Underwater Moonlight
19. Paleface - World Full of Cops - Paleface
20. The Dirtbombs - Ever Lovin' Man - We Have You Surrounded