Wednesday, June 12th

{ONE} A FEW THINGS ABOUT MARTIN SCORSESE’S NETFLIX FILM, “ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY
“It was more fun than the law allows, by a long shot. There were genius writers everywhere. It was a bus full of musicians and singers and painters hurtling through the night fueled by White Russians and other things, making a movie, writing songs and playing – on those evenings when we got the mixture right – some of the most incendiary, intense and inspired rock’ n’ roll, before or since. For evidence, please see the version of “Isis.” Check out Dylan’s reading of, “If you want me to, yes.” That was about it for me. That “yes” encapsulated all of it. The joy, the shock, the anger, the lust, the mirth, the bewilderment, the almost derangement of the whole ride.”
– T-Bone Burnett, one of the Revue guitarists

Watch it, it’s a hoot – brilliant and funny, and you can believe what you want to. Think back to Dylan’s playful press conferences – even now he has the ability to wrong-foot or con the audience, he’s just doing it here with Scorsese’s help. It makes no difference if the Sharon Stone bit is invented, or the Argentinian filmmaker doesn’t really exist. If you remember Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s political mockumentary, Tanner ’88, then the politician interviewed about Dylan’s closeness to President Jimmy Carter won’t be a surprise. It’s safe to say that no conventional film studio would have gone for this, but that’s what Netflix brings to the table. So here are a few great moments from Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.

1 “Isis”. Scarlet Rivera’s limo driver says that he’d never really been to a rock show, before noting that the relationship between those on the stage and those in the audience was like “one battery charging another”, a neat way of conveying the excitement felt by the audience at being in such intimate spaces seeming to spur on the performers to reach some kind of ecstasy. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the mighty performance of “Isis” captured here, transformed from a rather plain, loping, piano-driven tune to an excessive, expressive romp. With no guitar (a Patti Smith inspired move) Dylan in white-face makeup gives it the full David Bowie (while, amusingly, Mick Ronson struts and solos behind him).

2 Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg went from being part of the first shows to being bumped off-stage as the running time needed to be cut, by a lot. He continues on tour, hilariously reading Kaddish to a group of mahjong-playing women, who just happened to be in the same hotel as the Revue (they’re then treated to Dylan and band romping through “Simple Twist of Fate” in an almost “Pub Singer” style). What’s great about Ginsberg is that when the camera alights on him, he sums up what’s happening and what it may mean, in gorgeous poetic sentences.

3 “Like stations in some relay…” Among the extraordinary Bob performances nestles something equally stunning. We’re at Gordon Lightfoot’s house in Toronto, walking up darkened stairs before being ushered into a living room. Seated with guitars are Roger McGuinn, Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Joni proceeds to teach them the chords sequence that she wants them to play. When she’s satisfied that they’re not going to fuck it up, she starts… “No regrets, Coyote / We just come from such different sets of circumstances / I’m up all night in the studios / And you’re up early on your ranch…”

She delivers it drop-dead perfectly. She’s just written it about Sam Shepherd, who’s along for the ride to write a film that’s being shot as the tour winds its way up the Northeast coast of America. He’d was invited to join up, so he dropped what he was doing (setting up a horse ranch in California) and caught a train (won’t fly, not since “Mexico, 1963”) to New York. If you like the film, his Rolling Thunder Logbook is a great companion piece.

4 Turning 180º from the big-boned performances and the blustering stadiums of Tour ’74, where even the acoustic performances are bellowed, here, in the gipsy caravan of RTR, “Mister Tambourine Man” is given a beautiful reading, every line caressed and shaped and caught in amazing close-up by David Myers’ lens.

5 The whipcrack of Howie Wyeth’s snare in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”. Wyeth and bassist Rob Stoner (the MD of the whole shebang) are the MVPs of the Revue, providing a brilliant rhythmic and melodic platform for everyone to swan-dive off. Stoner does outrageous melodic walks up and down the neck while never missing an accent or a root note to anchor everything again. Wyeth, a student of orchestral percussion, plays the songs, commenting on the lyrics as he goes. In Sam Shepherd’s words, “Wyeth’s jackhammer drums are splitting the four-four time into smithereens. He has a right hand that’s not to be believed. It comes down on the accent and then plays half a dozen little cluster strokes in between striking two or three cymbals for added color. A drummer like this usually goes totally unnoticed, since he lacks the obvious flash of the more athletic types – Howie sits there like he’s driving a ’58 Impala, cruising down the highway.” Joni Mitchell intended to visit for one show, but stayed for the remaining 15, partly because, she said, “Howie Wyeth’s soul is so beautiful.”

The end titles list every gig, by years, that Dylan has played since the Revue’s tours. It’s astonishing…

{TWO} EAZY DOES IT
It seems that the Eazy-E bench in Newhaven [for the earlier story go here] is not an unalloyed hit. But it has produced a classic local paper story. The Argus reports.

One angry resident said he was “truly shocked and outraged” by the decision to allow the bench. William Bartoli told the council: “You are all responsible for polluting our cherished town. I would have applauded Guy Stevens’ interest, and hard work in raising the funds, until I discovered it was a shrine to a drug-dealing rapper whose many song titles included ‘F*** the Police’.” He raged: “Would I get permission to have a memorial bench for Jimmy Savile? I think not.”

In response, Councillor Pinky McLean said that the bench was “a project of passion from a local taxpayer. Although we may not agree with lyrics that this American man wrote, there are many music legends who have not lived a truly wholesome life and recorded songs and lyrics that offend. But they are just humans. Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright was too. He was just a man who has been remembered on a bench and, while not everyone’s cup of tea, made many, many people happy.”

Mr Stevens, who campaigned for the bench, said: “I’d encourage everyone to get a bench of a dead rapper in their town.” Unveiling the bench, Town Mayor Amy said: “I would like to see a John Lennon bench – that was more my era. After looking up Eazy -E on the internet, I am now an expert on gangster rap. His LP Straight Outta Compton was rated as one of the best ever made, and for me, that’s fascinating, because I didn’t have a clue who he was.”


{THREE} LEE KRASNER
Thanks to Caroline and Bill, we went to the opening of Lee Krasner: Living Colour. “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.” It’s a great show, especially the early-to-mid work that the brutalist Barbican space really suits. When MoMa had an exhibition of the paintings of her husband, Jackson Pollock in 1998, they released a CD of music drawn from the Jazz 78s found in his studio. As it’s 2019, The Barbican has made a Spotify playlist for Lee, and it’s very cool.


{FOUR} THERE’S A LOT OF TALENT OUT THERE…

The ingenuity of folk knows no bounds – here’s four people with a strange band name (Walk off the Earth), some loose change, drinking glasses and giant handbells, playing my new favourite song, Lil Nas’ “Old Town Road.”


{FIVE} B.B. KING – LIFE OF RILEY
A sombre, serious portrait that ends up being less celebratory than it could be, and more melancholy. It’s on Netflix now, and beautifully directed by Jon Brewer, but I felt it needed less of the talking heads and a few more of B.B.’s milestone performances. One nugget, though, was an interesting story about his aversion to playing acoustic guitars. Eric Clapton had asked B.B. to make an album with him (2000’s Riding With the King)…

Eric Clapton: I thought the best thing to do – we’ll go into the room with a couple of guitars and see what comes out…
B.B. King: I said, “Whatever you think is good we’ll try it”, and we did, and he was right, except trying to make me play acoustic – I didn’t like that… [laughs] I had been cut all to pieces by a guy called Alexis Korner. Alexis Korner said, “B, I got two Martin guitars, acoustic guitars and I got an idea for something called “Alexis Boogie”, so let’s try it…” Boy, when we started recording, he just cut me to pieces. I said, I’ll never play another [acoustic] as long as you’re alive [laugh] and I didn’t! I promised I wouldn’t do it again, but now Alexis is dead I’ll try it. And Eric did the same thing, cut me to pieces!

Thursday, May 23rd

It was a week where part of a newspaper headline, “Guardiola’s Thirst”, prompted Steve Way to text me that it would be a perfect name for a Prog Rock Band (spot on!) and Bruce Springsteen gave us the bizarre “There Goes my Miracle”, sounding for all the world like one of the Righteous Brothers or, even, Englebert Humperdink. Which seems appropriate in Eurovision week. Also, we rewatched Diner and were struck by how much it must have influenced Tarantino, whose new film looks, uh, worrying and interesting in equal measure…

{ONE} HOW TO BE AFRAID 24 HOURS A DAY
The Design Museum’s Kubrick show is an extraordinary assemblage of materials, from camera lenses and costumes to pre-Excel shooting planners that are detailed and obsessive enough to induce mild panic. One of the captions talked of his use of music:

“Music, according to Kubrick, is one of the most effective ways of preparing an audience and reinforcing points that you wish to impose. The correct use of music, and this includes the non-use of music, is one of the great weapons that the film-maker has at his disposal. He scoured Billboard’s American hit parade from 1962 to 1968, adding authenticity to the soundtrack of Full Metal Jacket by using hits such as Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking”, Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully” and the Trashmen’s “Surfin Bird”. Despite his reputation for historical accuracy, Kubrick used music by Franz Schubert for Barry Lyndon even though it was composed in 1828 – half a century after the events depicted in the film. “I must have listened to every album you can buy of 18th-century music,” he explained. “One of the problems which soon became apparent is that there are no tragic love themes in 18th-century music.” Kubrick also used music to provoke emotion in his actors. For Lolita, Kubrick played Irma la Douce to bring tears to James Mason’s eyes, while West Side Story had the same effect on Shelley Winters.”

The quote in the headline was an unused tagline for Dr Strangelove, by the way.

“Weird electronic music / non-dancing music”. “To Mother & Dad…” “Her soft mouth was the road to sin-smeared violence!”

{TWO} SOMETHING I FOUND INTERESTING ABOUT BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (AND IT WASN’T THE FILM…)
A dismal script and lacklustre direction hobbled Bohemian Rhapsody for me, but the Live Aid concert recreation at the film’s climax was pretty impressive. There’s an amusing split-screen (real/film) here… and The Hollywood Reporter had this fascinating insight into the lengths a movie production will go to get the sound right.

“Bohemian Rhapsody wraps up with a nearly 20-minute concert performance, revisiting Queen’s iconic 1985 Live Aid turn at London’s Wembley Stadium. The filmmakers worked tirelessly to re-create the sound of that day… it began with the original material from Queen’s performance. Then, recording and music mixer Paul Massey worked toward creating “an acoustic stadium feel” but not just through electronic means. When Queen (with frontman Adam Lambert) played London’s O2 Arena in July, he managed to get two hours with no audience to have the songs played through the Queen PA at full level. “We mic’d all around the stadium.”

He also was able to use that concert to finesse the crowd sounds. “Brian May stopped the concert at one point and said, ‘Who’d like to be in the film?’ So we had 10,000 people doing a single clap and then another and another.” Then Massey was thrown a curveball when he was told the film’s October world premiere would be at the SSE Arena at Wembley in London. “It’s 12,000 seats,” says Massey, who realized he’d have to take out all the stadium effects he had so carefully added to the mix. “Otherwise, it would just be a big reverb wash going on because we’d be playing back something that was including stadium reverb and then the stadium itself was going to create its own reverb.” He went back and mixed a drier version of the film – the only time that mix was played for an audience was at the world premiere. “One time only,” says Massey…

{THREE} MORE COUNTRY NEWS

I love it when someone creates a phenomenon and the world goes for something it didn’t realise it wanted the day before. And what it wanted this spring was Hip Hop Country, in the shape of the earworm that is Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”. There was a period, after the great Southern Soul years when a couple of great black artists made country albums (of course, Brother Ray got there first in 1962), notably Bobby Womack and Millie Jackson, with BW Goes C&W (1976) and Just A Lil’ Bit Country (1981) respectively. But who knew that the current generation would match up the urban with the suburban like this, with a brilliantly conceived video featuring Chris Rock and Billy Ray Cyrus to boot…

There’s a cute piece at Rolling Stone by Josh Eells about Lil Nas X’s journey to the top of the streams: “Nas posted a few more songs, but they didn’t get much traction. “I could post a funny tweet and it would get 2,000 retweets,” he says. “Then I’d post a song and it would hit, like, 10.” One night around Halloween, he was browsing beats on YouTube when he found one by a 19-year-old in the Netherlands called YoungKio. Something about the track — built around an uncleared banjo sample from a Nine Inch Nails song — spoke to him. “I was picturing, like, a loner cowboy runaway,” he says. “Basically what I was going through, but in another lens.” Nas paid $30 to lease the beat, then spent all of November writing and rewriting his lyrics. He wasn’t too familiar with cowboy culture: While he’d worn Wranglers growing up (“It’s Georgia, everybody wore Wranglers”), he had to Google other Western lingo. He chose the title “Old Town Road” because “it sounded like a real country place. I was surprised it hadn’t been used before.”

{FOUR} I SAW THE LIGHT
This is fantastic – Leafcutter John making music against the clock with tiny torches. I once saw him playing a laptop with Polar Bear – absolutely riveting. From FACTmagazine: “For the past 20 years, John Burton – aka Leafcutter John – has been at the forefront of experimental composition, constructing his own technological systems out of hardware and software to make ornate, complex electronica. Ahead of the release of his seventh album on Border Community this week, we visited Burton at his studio to see what he could create with his one-of-a-kind setup in just 10 minutes, using Max, a home-made light interface and modular system to manipulate a collection of field recordings. The result – beautiful chaos.”

{FIVE} ALL THEY WILL CALL YOU…
Todd Austin made a terrific documentary on Woody Guthrie, Three Chords and the Truth. The segment on Guthrie’s song, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” was possibly the most resonant part – he wrote it in response to the fact that radio and newspaper coverage of the crash, while naming the aircrew, did not give the passengers’ names, but instead referred to them merely as “deportees”. There was a clip of possibly the finest version of the song, Bob Dylan’s powerful Rolling Thunder performance with Joan Baez. And the film also pointed up the fact that for two years, Fred Trump was the Guthrie family’s landlord, at Beach Haven near Coney Island. Woody wasn’t too impressed with Old Man Trump – there’s an excellent Amanda Petrusich piece at the New Yorker for a fuller telling of the story, and of the song that Guthrie wrote about him.


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