Category Archives: Film

Top Ten Rock Documentaries of 2016

Interesting rock documentaries continue to appear, but there aren’t as many of them as there are notable rock history books, or rock reissues. In part that’s because a film is much harder to finance, complete, and distribute than a book or album. The movies on this list range from superb to adequate, but I did have to take some liberties to push the list to ten items, including listing a few 2015 releases I didn’t see until this past year; putting on a DVD that’s been out for more than half a decade, but didn’t get released in the US until 2016; and even ending the list with a doc about an actor who made a few poorly received records. DVD labels are noted when the films are available in that format.

1. Bang: The Bert Berns Story. Although his name isn’t especially well known to most rock fans, Berns was an important and colorful figure in 1960s rock and soul. He wrote and/or produced numerous classic hits, from “Twist and Shout” and “Hang on Sloopy” to “Here Comes the Night” and “Brown Eyed Girl.” Co-directed by his son Brett, this fast-paced documentary has insightful, often funny, and often sad comments by an amazing assortment of people he worked with or influenced, including his widow, Solomon Burke, Ron Isley, Ben E. King, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, one of Bert’s Mafia buddies, and, in a coup, Van Morrison, who is surprisingly forthright and detailed in his recollections. Indeed, almost everybody of note is represented (though some by archive interview clips rather than ones done specifically for this feature). Neil Diamond is the most notable absentee, and the McCoys’ Rick Derringer and Lulu would have been nice to have too, but considering you can never have everyone, the batting average is amazingly high. My only complaint is one that speaks well of the quality of the film and the fascination of its subject: I wish there were more comments from many of the interviewees, which hopefully might be included on the DVD edition (scheduled for spring release).

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2. Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (Capitol). I was skeptical that Ron Howard’s documentary on the Beatles’ live performances (centering on the 1963-66 Beatlemania era) was overhyped, and/or wouldn’t offer much that hadn’t been covered elsewhere. Its position on this list lets you know quickly that my suspicions weren’t confirmed. No, it doesn’t have a great deal of footage that hasn’t been previously unearthed, though there are some rare or unfamiliar clips (and some of the familiar ones are in color instead of black and white, and occasionally use shots not in the standard versions). It is odd that a few (not many) of the clips are in notably inferior quality to how they appear on some official and unofficial releases, almost making you wonder if they were deliberately fuzzed-up to look older.

But the film puts their story as a popular live act together smoothly, in a fashion so entertaining as to be time well spent even for snobs like me who’ve already seen a great deal of it. The done-for-the-doc interview inserts with Paul McCartney are succinct and insightful, his best quote being about Brian Epstein: “It was clear he had a vision of us that was beyond the vision we had of ourselves.” If the ones with Ringo Starr aren’t as notable, they’re still worthwhile. A dozen or so others interviewed in the film (usually with no direct association with the ‘60s Beatles)—including Elvis Costello and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as non-celebrities like Ed Freeman, a roadie on their final US tour—offer observations that are more interesting than you might expect. Crucially, those are kept—unlike in so many other documentaries—brief and to the point, with none of them getting more time then they merit, even if they’re famous.

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If you were able to see this in theaters, a half-hour short of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium followed the main feature. This too exceeded my expectations, as the image quality was visibly cleaned-up from copies of the TV documentary for which the footage was shot that are in circulation. Also, this half-hour (unlike the hour-long original TV documentary) focuses solely on the Beatles’ performance, and doesn’t have voiceover narration that obscured parts of a few of the songs.

Unfortunately the Shea Stadium short isn’t on the DVD, even on the two-disc special edition. That special edition does have more than 100 minutes of bonus material on the second disc. None of it’s too extraordinary, but it does have complete clips of five different songs from various sources in 1963-65, along with several short mini-docs on their songwriting, Liverpool, shooting A Day’s Night, and their visits to Australia and Japan, among other subjects. Some of the people interviewed for this range from insiders like Peter Asher to figures not often heard from, like Ronnie Spector and Leslie Whitehead, who filmed the first sound clip of the Beatles (doing “Some Other Guy” in the Cavern in August 1962).

3. Gimme Danger. I’m not a Stooges fan, which is about the most unpopular opinion a rock critic can offer. But I liked this documentary, which might put me back in the graces of all those readers who were about to unsubscribe from this blog after reading the previous sentence. Although there isn’t much footage from the band’s prime in the late 1960s and early 1970s, esteemed director Jim Jarmusch does a fine job in combining what archive clips are available (mostly silent, other than for their 21st-century reunions) with a wealth of photos and, most crucially, a lot of first-hand interviews with the surviving Stooges. Well, the ones that were surviving when filming was done; drummer Scott Asheton and saxophonist Steve Mackay have since passed on.

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The lion’s share of the interviews are done with Iggy Pop, a great asset to the filmmaker, as he’s a good storyteller (my favorite being how Moe Howard of the Three Stooges was asked for permission to use the name “the Stooges”). The effects of the stroke Scott Asheton suffered a few years before his death are evident, yet though he speaks slowly, he’s quite articulate. Guitarist James Williamson, one of the minority of vintage Stooges to enjoy good health and relative wealth in his middle age, amusingly recalls how delusional the Stooges were in thinking what they were doing could be popular. In fact they were doing what they liked, not necessarily what the masses liked—a crucial difference.

It’s true, as some have pointed out, that a few surviving voices who played interesting roles in the Stooges’ story aren’t heard from, like Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman, John Cale (who produced their first LP), manager-for-a-time Tony Defries, and David Bowie. It’s also true that the Raw Power album, and Bowie’s role in it, should have been covered with more clarity and depth. It’s a still a good achievement that avoids the pitfalls of many docs on musicians of the era, such as spending too much time on reunions or figures from later generations and/or rock critics babbling about how great these guys were.

4. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words. Since an artist isn’t (and can’t be) the most objective judge of his or her own work, I wondered how effective this documentary-of-sorts would be upon learning that it relied almost wholly on interview material with Zappa. It’s not only interview material, as some vintage performance footage is mixed in, but the extensive interviews are only with Frank. My wariness to the contrary, it does work pretty well, in large part because Zappa was a very well spoken and entertaining interview subject. That’s not to say I, or most anyone (even Zappa fanatics), would agree with everything he says. His putdowns of people who only like his early music with the Mothers of Invention (a group that includes me) are on the snide side, and his critiques of American cultural and political priorities can be unfair and narrow-minded.

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Much of the time, however, his observations are right-on, and funny, if often delivered with a deadpan sarcasm that carries a hint of smugness. The breadth of archival interviews drawn upon by director Thorsten Schütte is breathtaking, ranging from the late 1960s to very shortly before his death. To break up all the talk, there are also quite a few vintage performance clips spanning the same period (throwing in some of his now-famous 1963 appearance “playing” a bicycle on the Steve Allen Show), some of which I had no idea existed, let alone actually seen. The rare archival material alone makes this worth seeing for the Zappa fan. But its presentation of Zappa as an iconoclastic cynic constantly puncturing holes in American hypocrisy also makes this worthwhile for anyone interested in popular culture.

5. The Peter Green Story: Man of the World (MVD Visual). I’ve written about this 2009 documentary before, giving it a lengthy full-length review in issue #1 (spring 2012) of Flashback magazine. So what’s a 2009 documentary doing here? Well, besides performing the all-important function of filling out a Top Ten list so that it will actually contain ten items, this excellent two-hour documentary on the mysterious original Fleetwood Mac frontman seems to have finally been issued in the US in 2016. There’s no date on the back cover, but the unexpected appearance of a promo copy at my door in late 2016 seems to indicate that’s when it came out here.

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There are plenty of excerpts from vintage Mac clips and, more importantly, interviews with almost all of the key surviving players in the drama. That includes not just a been-through-the-grinder Green himself, but also Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, and, most remarkably, Jeremy Spencer, at one time considered to have been as much of a casualty of the era as Green was. To its credit, the documentary neither sensationalizes nor soft-pedals Green’s problems (which are evident enough, truth to tell, in the rambling, not-too-coherent interviews he gave specifically for this film). There are also interviews with associates like producer Mike Vernon, John Mayall, Carlos Santana (who credits Green as a key influence, way beyond Santana having covered “Black Magic Woman”), ex-girlfriend Sandra Elsdon (an inspiration for “Black Magic Woman,” though her name is misspelled as Elsen here), and controversial ex-Fleetwood Mac manager Clifford Adams.

Note that in a rare case of underselling the product, the back cover incorrectly lists the running time as 90 minutes. Actually it’s two full hours, not even including the DVD extras, which are as marginal and inessential as many such items are. I might have ranked this #4 or #3 on this list, incidentally, had it not been already available for years outside the US, and not that hard to find through unofficial channels in the US.

The next three entries are 2015 releases that I didn’t see until the past year:

6. Keith Richards: Under the Influence (Netflix, 2015). Only available through Netflix, this documentary mixes scenes of Richards working on his 2015 solo album Crosseyed Heart with archive footage/photos and interviews in which he discusses his influences. Guess which part is most interesting?

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7. Watch the Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Netflix, 2015). Even if you’re not a Deadhead, you’ll probably be able to sit through this Netflix documentary. I know that remark will offend Deadheads, but I mean it as genuine praise, given how hard it can be for the unconverted to take Grateful Dead-related projects in greater than limited doses. Weir was not the most famous or colorful member of the Dead (Jerry Garcia was), but as second guitarist and second banana of sorts, he made major contributions to the band. Spanning his whole career, but jumping back and forth from the past to the present (as is the unfortunate wont of many documentaries these days), the best parts are those in which he tells interesting stories of the band’s rise and fall, with the help of good archive clips. There are the expected less enlightening sections on his recent projects and settlement into contented family life. But in the interviews with Weir that form the heart of the film, he comes across as a likable humble fellow, and doesn’t flinch from recounting some of the excesses and consequences of his band’s lifestyle.

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8. All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (FilmRise, 2015). I have the feeling I’m going to be in the minority in this assessment, but I found the premise of this documentary, at least as I perceived it—that Tower was a great institution whose passing should be lamented—baffling. Tower Records was a chain, and not somewhere I’d buy records unless I couldn’t find what I was looking for anywhere else. The prices were usually higher than they were in the best indie stores, and the selection missing a lot of specialized items you could find in those best indie stores. The staff were usually indifferent, and the atmosphere antiseptic. Sure, living in the Bay Area, I had access to a great many more quality indie stores than I could have patronized almost anywhere else in the world. But my attitude was: why should I go to Tower, when I can support better non-chain stores? And my Tower experience is not limited to the Bay Area; I visited numerous other cities that had Towers. This film romanticizes Tower as a great place oozing with character, which I simply did not find to be the case, even given I didn’t go to one until the early 1980s (as I didn’t grow up in California, where Towers were initially based).

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Getting beyond my grumblings and into the film itself, it’s an adequate history of the formation of a chain that eventually grew to monstrous global proportions from its relatively modest beginnings in Sacramento. There are plenty of interviews with founder Russ Solomon and key staff members, as well as some testimonials from famous musicians, though the best stories seem to come from the 1970s and its most famous store on Sunset Boulevard. (There are no interviews with disgruntled employees who, dissatisfied with crummy working conditions, routinely stole a lot of product, according to what an ex-employee told me.) The business-oriented sections on expansion, operation setup, and financial glories and problems that led to its early twenty-first-century demise will, I think, not be of too much interest to general music fans, though record industry insiders (who will probably comprise a good percentage of those interested in viewing this film) might find them absorbing. There are colorful anecdotes here and there about relatively wild and crazy times during the store’s multi-decade run as a successful enterprise. I feel these might resonate more strongly with those who grew up with Tower in the 1960s and 1970s, or for whom Tower was the only place to access a wide selection of product, than for music enthusiasts who’ve gone out of their way to look for records in many outlets.

9. 50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary (MVD Visual). An unspectacular 80-minute documentary that aired on PBS, this makes the list not just to help push it to ten entries, but also because it has some good vintage film clips of the trio in the ‘60s. Some of these are rarely seen (such as their performance of their Gene McCarthy campaign song “If You Love Your Country,” only issued on a rare 45), and there are some brief but interesting vintage interview segments too. Otherwise this gives rather bare outlines of their career, including latter-day interviews with Mary Travers, Noel Stookey, and Peter Yarrow, as well as a few with friends, family, and associates. About half of this is devoted to their post-early-‘70s years, and while their intentions remained as noble as ever, the music frankly wasn’t nearly as interesting. If you’re looking for some penetrating coverage of their career arc—like more about manager Albert Grossman, their studio recordings, and their role in popularizing Bob Dylan songs—there’s disappointingly little about such matters here. Nor will you find it in the recent coffee table book Peter Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life, sadly.

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10. For the Love of Spock (Gravitas Ventures). Even as someone who’s more a fan of the original Star Trek series than a Trekkie, I couldn’t say I found out a lot about Leonard Nimoy that I didn’t know in this documentary of the man who played Spock. It was directed by his son Adam, and so has some details about his family that aren’t familiar to the average Star Trek viewer, ranging from interesting stories of his long years of pre-Star Trek struggle to mundane reconnections with relatives in the final years of his life. Still, it’s a reasonably entertaining ride through his career and off-screen experiences, including interviews with fellow Star Trek cast members that are both expected and among the more worthwhile parts of the film. How does this qualify for a rock documentary list, you’re asking? Well, Nimoy did make some infamous records in his croaking voice, some of which skirted novelty—like his tribute to a famous hobbit in “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” which he’s seen performing on TV here. In the absence of another obvious #10 pick, that’s enough to put this film on the bottom of this list.

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Top Ten Rock Documentaries of 2015

There are a lot of music documentaries these days. Like reissues and rock history books (and my best-of-2015 lists for those are coming up in the next couple days), there are not just more being made than there were when the music they document was actually being made. There are more being made than anyone thought imaginable in the twentieth century, on subjects that no one would have thought would be of any interest to the moviegoing audience. Jobriath, the Cowsills, and Death are three very different acts, for instance, who’ve been the subject of recent rockumentaries.

My selection for the top music documentary of 2015.

My selection for the top music documentary of 2015.

The proliferation of music docs does mean it’s pretty hard to see them all, even if you go to film festivals and art houses, or catch up with them later on DVD (in part because not all of them make it to DVD, or even to film festivals and art houses). I haven’t seen the ones on Jobriath and the Cowsills, for instance, though I’ve heard about them. I’m sure I missed a bunch of 2015 music documentaries, whether I’ve heard about them or have yet to be aware they exist.

That explains, in part, why this list barely makes it to ten documentaries. I had to put a couple 2014 releases that were barely screened that year (and still haven’t been widely screened) to make sure there were ten selections. Maybe if I do a best-of-2016 list, I’ll have a few from 2015 to add at the end as a supplement, as I’ve done for my reissue and rock history book best-ofs. All of the following 2015 releases, however, deserve a mention, ranging from excellent to okay in quality. DVD labels are noted when available.

1. What Happened, Miss Simone? Nina Simone had one of the most unclassifiable discographies of all time, flitting between and combining jazz, soul, and pop, blending in some gospel, rock, world music, novelty, classical, and more. She also had a stormy personal life, getting into African-American activism as her career progressed, moving to Africa at one point, and displaying some quite erratic behavior. It’s a challenge to weave this into one documentary film, and no two-hour-or-so movie can cover all the bases of her life. But this does a good job with its subject, drawing upon some passionate first-hand interviews with close surviving family and associates. There are also excerpts from a wealth of archival performance clips, most of which are so good and exciting that you wish there was a multi-volume set of the complete versions. (However, the absence of her explosive 1969 performance of “Four Women” in Central Park—included in the DVD part of the CD/DVD release The Soul of Nina Simone—is surprising, as it’s one of the greatest performances filmed by anyone.)

Most impressive to me, however, were the numerous revealing personal letters and documents that are shown and partially recited, relaying valuable information and perspectives that were previously unearthed. There’s hardly any coverage of her post-1970s years (although she lived until 2003), which, to be heartless, is absolutely the correct decision, as her career wasn’t all that interesting for her last quarter-century or so. Just as there’s no room for sentiment in big business, there’s no room for sentiment in documentaries, or at least not so much that they should distract from or dilute what’s most important.

A biography of Nina Simone with the same title as the film is scheduled to come out in February 2016.

A biography of Nina Simone with the same title as the film is scheduled to come out in February 2016.

2. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Cambodia had an active and fairly vibrant rock scene. This was curtailed—a word that’s far too mild for the brutality that took place—when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power in the last half of the 1970s. This film’s significance extends far beyond the parameters of the usual rockumentary, illustrating how many careers, and quite a few lives, were ended (and otherwise damaged) by the new regime’s virtual banning of entertainment that reminded people of the pre-Khmer Rouge days in the slightest. Interviews with numerous surviving musicians, their families, and friends evoke both the joyful, relatively carefree heyday of Cambodian rock and the horrors of its virtual disappearance in the wake of the Khmer Rouge’s clampdown. To its credit, the film also examines some of the abuses and weaknesses of the dictatorial government preceding the Khmer Rouge.

I have just a couple criticisms of what is overall a commendable portrait of a scene that was nearly totally unknown in the US and Europe (and remains little known now, though there are now a few reissues of vintage Cambodian rock). There is virtually no actual archive footage of Cambodian rock; my guess is that virtually none exists. More critically, I wish somewhat more attention had been paid to the music itself, in addition to the social context. Cambodian rock is, to Western ears at least, a very unusual hybrid of indigenous Cambodian music and Western forms like surf, Merseybeat, girl group, soul, and psychedelia, often delivered with twangy guitars, cheesy organs, and stratospherically high female vocals. There’s little discussion of what makes Cambodian rock unique, or at least distinct from the Western rock by which it was so strongly influenced. You do hear a lot of it on the soundtrack, which is available on the CD compilation of the same name on the Dust-to-Digital label. (Technically this film is a 2014 release, but it did not make it to much of the festival/art house circuit until this year.)

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3. The Wrecking Crew! (Magnolia Pictures). Forever-in-the-works documentary on Hollywood rock session players of the 1960s and early 1970s culls from interviews done with a wealth of instrumentalists, producers, arrangers, engineers, and artists (including some real big ones, like Brian Wilson, Nancy Sinatra, and Cher). This could have become a mess considering how many pieces of the story needed to be assembled. But it’s ordered and edited in a way that both touches on the important aspects of the scene and can be enjoyed by both ‘60s rock aficionados and more general rock fans. A number of the musicians (who were often jazz players) give the sense that they were doing this just for the money and felt that lending their chops to mere rock sessions by other artists was beneath them. While that’s a bit of a drag for the many millions who cherish many of the records on which they played, this at least didn’t keep them from doing their best and making memorable contributions to many classics, even if some thought they were dumbing down their playing.

The DVD has a lot more extras than most such releases – more than six hours, in fact, of interviews that didn’t make the film, often with people barely or not represented in the final cut. These deleted scenes range from fascinating behind-the-scenes stories to dull recounts that are hard to sit through, but increase the production’s value as an important archive of oral history. Note too that a good coffee table paperback, also titled The Wrecking Crew!, was issued in 2015 in conjunction with the documentary.

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4. Lambert & Stamp (Sony). Documentary on the Who’s managers in their mid-‘60s to mid-‘70s prime, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. Being a big fan of the Who during this time, and even having written a book about their early-‘70s work, it could be expected that my interest in this subject would be strong. And I did like the film, but feel like it impressed some other Who fans more than it impressed me, for some snobbish reasons. Although there’s a great deal of archive footage, I’d already seen virtually all of it through my fandom and research. There are colorful interviews, most notably extensive ones with the late Chris Stamp, which are interesting in that he was the lower-profile part of the Lambert-Stamp duo. Yet these often recycle stories that I and other committed Who fans have already heard (sometimes several times over), albeit in a pretty entertaining fashion. Some of the bang-bang editing and montages were flashier than they needed to be, as well. These criticisms might give you a less positive impression of the film than it deserves: it’s largely informative, and very enjoyable. But I did feel like it was more apt to blow away non-Who obsessives, or people just learning about the group, than those who’ve followed them closely for a long time.

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5. Janis: Little Girl Blue. Straightforward hour-and-45-minute documentary on Janis Joplin. Are there major revelations in this? No. Are there notable gaps that are filled in by books on Janis and her scene? Yes. But y’know what? That doesn’t matter too much, because snobbish comments like “they should have talked more about Albert Grossman” or “they should have examined how Cheap Thrills had to be pieced together from agonizing recording sessions and live performances” aside, it’s a well-done and entertaining overview of her life and career. For snobs like me who’ve read a great deal about her and seen about all there is to see of her performance footage, the most significant aspects are interviews with quite a few of her associates (including members of Big Brother and her post-Big Brother bands, as well as her sister and brother), as well as numerous little-seen photos (especially from her early years). But regardless of how much you know about Joplin, it covers most of the major bases in a respectful fashion, mixing in lots of 1967-70 performance and interview clips. If this didn’t come to your town to play in theaters or only played in your town briefly, don’t despair; it will be broadcast on PBS next year as part of their American Masters series.

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6. The Beatles: 1+ (Apple). Not exactly a music documentary, this two-DVD/one-CD set includes fifty short films featuring the Beatles. One DVD has one film for each of the 27 songs on the CD (which repackages their greatest-hits compilation 1); the other DVD has 23 more films, some of them for songs on the CD, some of them for songs not on the CD. That’s the basic dry information, but the important thing to know is that the majority of the fifty short films are promotional films the Beatles made back in the 1960s, all (with the exception of “A Day in the Life”) for A-sides and B-sides of singles. In other cases, some vintage live or mimed clips that weren’t specifically made as promo films are used; in the least interesting cases, there are way-after-the-fact DVD-age videos that were constructed specifically for repromotional use. But the main attractions are those promo films, which have never before been officially issued together in a DVD package (though some are seen in part or full in the Anthology documentary).

Almost ten years ago, I wrote in The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film: “While a two-DVD set of every single promo film, all multiple versions included, would not make for the most exciting Beatles archival video release, it would certainly be a pleasant and valuable one…numerous bootleg DVD releases conveniently assembl[e] copies of most or all of them into a single package, though it would be far better to have an anthology that mastered the films from the best available sources.” Now, to my surprise, it’s here. Did they read my book and take my suggestion?

This being a Beatles archive release, of course it isn’t perfect or complete. It’s still missing some of the multiple versions of promos they did for some songs, and some of the recently devised films for songs that never got promos are hokey. “Eight Days a Week” is a compilation of footage built around their 1965 Shea Stadium concert, for instance, though they didn’t perform “Eight Days a Week” there. “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love” date from the 1990s, as they were recorded by the three surviving Beatles in association with the Anthology projects.

Commentary tracks by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are unexpected bonuses, though as it turns out they only comment on a very few of the clips, and Ringo’s “introductions” (as they’re termed) are exceptionally awkward. As some compensation, the bound-in mini-book of liner notes is more comprehensive than expected, including some fairly obscure information about the filming of the promo videos in particular. As expected, the videos look better than they do on most bootlegs, though the difference between most of these and most bootlegs featuring the material actually isn’t that great.

So – is this a winner? Yeah, basically, though I’m not as big a fan of mimed promo films as many Beatles fans are. Most of them are mimed in artificial circumstances, or have the Beatles just walking around or doing silly activities while music plays on the soundtrack, in common with many music videos then and now. Still, it’s a big chunk of their video history, and now it’s largely represented on an above-board compilation. The absence of some of those multiple versions does mean that the missing promos will continue to circulate on bootleg or other media indefinitely. It also means this isn’t quite definitive, and while the addition of all those multiple versions would have made for tough watching all at once, there was room for them on these discs. And it’s overpriced, especially for those many of us who already have all 27 famous songs on the CD, and don’t need them in yet another format.

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7. Danny Says. From around the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s, Danny Fields was in the middle of a lot of action as a journalist, publicist, record company employee, and manager. In those capacities, he played minor-to-major roles in the careers of the Doors, the Velvet Underground, the MC5, the Stooges, Linda McCartney, and the Ramones, among others. That doesn’t mean he’s as interesting as any of those artists, but he has a lot of interesting stories, and he’s a good storyteller. That’s the foundation of this documentary, which is embellished by many vintage still photos, snippets of interviews he conducted, and first-hand on-camera interviews with those he worked with, though interviews with Fields are at the core. This is probably only going to appeal to a pretty specialized rock fanatic, not a general audience, which is not a criticism: fans with a wide knowledge of this time and the scenes in which Fields was immersed will enjoy this. There’s virtually nothing about his life after the ‘70s (though he’s still around), but like the similar approach used in the Nina Simone documentary, it’s wise and appropriate to focus on his truly significant years.

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8. The Seeds: Pushin’ Too HardI admit, as with the Residents documentary (see #10), this might have ranked higher if I were more of a fan of the documented act. Still, it’s quite a feat to get a nearly two-hour film out of the story of a band for whom not many archive clips survive. This is done by interviewing quite a few people in the band or with some association with the group, along with quite a few  still photos. Fortunately two of the people interviewed were the two surviving members of the Seeds’ primary lineup, keyboardist Daryl Hooper and guitarist Jan Savage. They’re the guys who carry this film, much of whose main narrative rests on the short time in which they were a hot L.A. mid-’60s garage/psychedelic band, known best for “Pushin’  Too Hard” and “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” Those would have charted higher nationally had they taken off in more markets at once, and the band themselves would have had a better chance of making it bigger had lead singer Sky Saxon been more stable. There are some gaps in this documentary (especially in the period in the late-’60s when there was some turnover in personnel as they headed toward their demise), but many of those are filmed by film producer Alec Palao’s liner notes for recent Seeds reissues on the British Ace label.  Like Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, this is technically a 2014 release, but was seldom screened before this year, when it continues to make rounds on the rep circuit.

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9. Sing Out! Icons of Folk (S’More). An odd, almost-hour long collection of vintage folk and folk-rock performance clips spanning 1952 (the Weavers) to 1977 (Loudon Wainwright III, who also hosts this program with brief spoken intros). The other footage mixes folk revival clips predating folk-rock (most notably Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”) with folk-rock by the Mamas & the Papas, Byrds, and the Stone Poneys (with Linda Ronstadt); mid-to-late-‘60s folk by Phil Ochs, Chad Mitchell, and Peter, Paul & Mary; and even some soul-folk (the Staple Singers), country-folk (June Carter & Johnny Cash), and early singer-songwriter performances (James Taylor, Arlo Guthrie). The audiovisual quality of the clips, oddly, is sub-YouTube, though this was broadcast on public television. What truly makes this more of a folk revival DVD than a folk-rock one (and a more worthwhile DVD overall) are the 17 bonus clips, which—far from being extraneous—comprise some of the rarest and most interesting material on the disc. These include early-to-mid-‘60s performances by Judy Collins, Judy Henske (“High Flying Bird”), Pete Seeger, Gale Garnett, the Rooftop Singers, and Ian & Sylvia, along with some less notable wholesome folk revival combos.

SingOut

10. Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents. It’s a little tough reviewing, even in capsule best-of forms, films you know might deserve a more enthusiastic recommendation or higher placement on the list based on the cinematic quality. Not being too much of a Residents fan—interested enough to see this with some friends, but not so much to avidly seek it out on my own—I kind of feel this way about this entry. It does tell you a lot about the avant-rockmakers’ odd career, with quite a bit of footage, some rare, and quite a few interviews, as well as some coverage of how their canny merchandising has sustained interest in this most uncommercial group for decades.

How do you have interviews with or about a group that famously has never revealed the identity of their members, you ask? Well, that ties into something about the documentary that didn’t entirely please me: the feeling that some of the Residents associates being interviewed might be band members, or know more about the musicians than they’re letting on, but coyly fall short of divulging as much hard information as they could. The chronological sequencing of the film is haphazard, and there are too many extended clips of theatrical sequences from recent concerts, leaving me feeling by the end that the film had gone on too long, or at least was exhausting my patience. Residents fans, however, might find those attributes virtues rather than drawbacks. Quite a few Residents cultists are visible and/or interviewed in the film, too, which is likely to both appeal strongly to the converted and make some of the unconverted wonder why there’s so much fuss.

Residents

For those of you reading the day this was posted: tomorrow I’ll post a list of my top rock books of 2015, and on Thursday, December 31, I’ll post a list of my top rock reissues of 2015. For those of you not reading the day this was posted — just click on the links that I’m putting in the previous sentence at the end of that week.

Star Trek and ’60s Rock

In some ways, Star Trek seemed part of the zeitgeist that fueled so much warp-drive change in music, the arts, and society in the last half of the ‘60s. Here was a TV program that, to quote its opening voiceover, went “where no man has gone before,” just as rock music was going into wholly unexpected and even unsuspected territory. There were stories that, overtly or subtly, slipped in messages about pacifism, multicultural diversity, tolerance, and greater social roles for women, though these were often diluted or compromised by the need to stage television action drama. There was even some sex and drugs, at least by the standards of late-‘60s network television. But not, alas, much rock and roll.

Spock jams with space hippie on "The Way to Eden"

Spock jams with space hippie on “The Way to Eden”

Perhaps wisely, very little actual rock music was heard on Star Trek. (This post, to be clear, only refers to the original series’ 79 episodes as broadcast between 1966 and 1969, not the numerous movies and spin-off series from subsequent decades.) It was hard enough to predict what technological advances would be made, and how men and women would act, a few hundred years in the future. Had anyone tried to predict the rock of just ten years into the future in 1966 and 1967, they would have gotten it miserably wrong.

The one exception to the non-use of rock in Star Trek, and a notorious one, is the third-season episode “The Way to Eden.” In that installment space hippies, under the direction of a cult-like fanatic, come perilously close to taking over The Enterprise. The necessary distraction is supplied by an honest-to-god “space jam” between Spock and one of the hippies, played by Deborah Downey:

Another angle on the space jam.

Another angle on the space jam.

Listen to/watch the clip (you’ll know where to find it, even if fans aren’t supposed to post it), with Spock on Vulcan lute and Downey on what looks and sounds like a psychedelic bicycle wheel. Brief and purely instrumental, if it has any parallel in the world of psychedelic rock, it’s to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s pioneering 13-minute 1966 instrumental “East West,” with soaring guitar solos by both Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop.

"East West" was the title track of this 1966 Paul Butterfield Blues Band LP.

“East West” was the title track of this 1966 Paul Butterfield Blues Band LP.

The rhythm and choked chording to whatever Spock and his friend (and Spock was the crew member who communicated best with the visitors) are playing is a little similar to the riffs that—if as an underlying bed rather than up front—open and run throughout “East West.” Rock criticism is filled with pundits complaining that whites ripped off blacks to reap a greater share of rock’n’roll glory than they deserved. Here, if Spock knowingly “arranged” “East West” for his own purposes (and his knowledge of Earth history and culture was quite deep), we have a little-acknowledged instance of Vulcans ripping off Earthlings for their own artistic advantage, without proper credit.

The space hippies perform a few hippie folk vocal numbers in “The Way to Eden” which have been justly chastised as pretty dire, epitomizing the stereotypes of the worst actual hippie folk music in their clumsy, self-consciously hip naïveté. Interestingly, at least some of this material was written by some of the actors playing the hippies, Charles Napier and Deborah Downey. Downey even put one of the songs, “The Way to Eden,” on an album of hers titled Painting Pictures, though I haven’t been able to hear any of the record, or even find an image of the cover.

There were, as even some casual Star Trek fans know, spin-off records by a few of the series’ stars. Leonard Nimoy did most of these, voicing some of the tracks in the Spock character; others were frivolous novelties, one particularly amusing clip surviving of Nimoy (not in Spock makeup) performing the Hobbit-inspired “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” William Shatner’s scenery-chewing Shakespearean readings of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” are, of course, notorious from their broadcast on Dr. Demento episodes and inclusion on compilations of celebrity novelty discs.

Leonard Nimoy sings "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" on TV, late 1960s.

Leonard Nimoy sings “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” on TV, late 1960s.

Nichelle Nichols, who besides playing Lt. Uhura occasionally actually sang in Star Trek episodes, did an album while the series was on the air, Down to Earth, which was disappointingly middle-of-the-road jazzy fare. Spock, incidentally, did sing (and not just play his Vulcan harp) on the series, just once, when he croaked his bizarre self-penned medievalesque ballad “Maiden Wine,” aka “Bitter Dregs,” in the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode. Performed only under manipulation from aliens with super-powers in this fictional scenario, it was actually released on Nimoy’s 1969 LP The Touch of Leonard Nimoy. I haven’t listened to all of Nimoy’s records by any means, but I don’t know whether it’s a compliment or insult to say this is the best track of his I’ve been able to hear.

Spock sings "Maiden Wine" in the "Plato's Stepchildren" episode.

Spock sings “Maiden Wine” in the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode.

"Maiden Wine" was included on Leonard Nimoy's "The Touch of Leonard Nimoy" LP.

“Maiden Wine” was included on Leonard Nimoy’s “The Touch of Leonard Nimoy” LP.

There was very little rock or soul in any of these cast members’ records; they were a bit older than the ‘60s rock generation, and not really in tune with the counterculture, as much as some may read some anti-establishment sentiment (often engineered by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) into some of the series’ scripts. There were, however, two very direct connections to major figures in ‘60s rock and the era’s counterculture that I was unaware of until reading Marc Cushman’s recent three-volume book series These Are the Voyages. Huge in scope (running more than 1500 pages in all), these are something of the Star Trek equivalent to Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles tomes, with Cushman’s access to original memos, scripts, and production notes yielding incredibly thorough behind-the-scenes documentation of the 79 episodes from the original series. Among these accounts are the stories of their guest stars, which yielded this pair of surprising revelations:

Chekov’s love interest in “Spectre of the Gun,” in which several regulars from Star Trek’s bridge find themselves forced to re-enact the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, is played by Bonnie Beecher. That’s the same Bonnie Beecher who hung out with Dylan in Minneapolis in the early 1960s, before he went to New York to become a folk star. Some sources have it that she was the inspiration for one of his first standout compositions, “Girl from the North Country.” It was in her home that some of Dylan’s first decent-sounding recordings (taped in Minneapolis in 1961, and long bootlegged, though dates for these vary according to the source consulted) were made; one of his Minneapolis tapes from the time includes a song in which she’s specifically named, “Bonnie, Why’d You Cut My Hair?” Another early Dylan composition, “Song to Bonny” (sic) (for which a manuscript survives, though no recording), was a number that, as Clinton Heylin wrote in Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973, “appears to be Dylan’s first serious attempt to put a real girl into one of his own songs.”

Bob Dylan bootleg bills this material as having been recorded in Bonnie Beecher's apartment in December 1961.

Bob Dylan bootleg bills this material as having been recorded in Bonnie Beecher’s apartment in December 1961.

Unlike some of Dylan’s other early muses, there’s footage of the woman herself, not on some obscure bootleg DVD, but in a widely viewed network TV series. And it wasn’t the only series in which she appeared; she also had been on Gunsmoke, Peyton Place, and The Fugitive. She didn’t continue with her acting career after Star Trek, however, marrying comedian/activist Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy.

Bonnie Beecher with Ensign Chekov (played by Walter Koenig) in the Star Trek episode "The Spectre of the Gun."

Bonnie Beecher with Ensign Chekov (played by Walter Koenig) in the Star Trek episode “The Spectre of the Gun.”

The other Star Trek guest star with a connection to ‘60s rock, though a bit less direct, was Sabrina Scharf. She plays the woman Captain Kirk marries—though only after he’s suffered amnesia on a planet inhabited by Native American-like residents—on “The Paradise Syndrome.” The match didn’t last, though not for lack of love; Kirk regains his memory around the same time Scharf, playing the character Miramanee, suffers fatal wounds in a stoning.

Sabrina Scharf with William Shatner in the Star Trek episode "The Paradise Syndrome."

Sabrina Scharf with William Shatner in the Star Trek episode “The Paradise Syndrome.”

You wouldn’t guess it from watching the episode, but Scharf also plays the woman who hooks up with Peter Fonda (named Sarah) in the commune in the 1969 movie Easy Rider, filmed around the same time she co-starred with Shatner in “The Paradise Syndrome.” Did Scharf sing, in either Star Trek or Easy Rider? No. Was Peter Fonda a rock star (though he did issue an obscure 1967 single, “November Night,” written by a then-obscure Gram Parsons)? No. But Easy Rider was the first film to effectively use a soundtrack of contemporary rock recordings by artists not in the movie itself, including songs by Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds, the Band, the Holy Modal Rounders, and others. It was also one of the first films to reflect the actual hippie counterculture—much more so than Star Trek (even on “The Way to Eden”). And Scharf was a part of both. Who knew?

Sabrina Scharf with Peter Fonda in one of the commune scenes in "Easy Rider."

Sabrina Scharf with Peter Fonda in one of the commune scenes in “Easy Rider.”

A couple years after I posted this, another connection between Star Trek and ’60s rock came to my attention that’s been surprisingly overlooked, considering it invovles a musician with a huge cult following. One of the most popular, and notorious, early Star Trek episodes was Mudd’s Women, memorably described in These Are the Voyages: TOS Season One as about a “rascally space trader who, in reality, is a pimp traveling through the cosmos with a cargo of prostitutes.” One of the beauties boarding the Enterprise in this episode was Maggie Thrett, who was just nineteen when it was filmed in June 1966.

Maggie Thrett with Spock and Captain Kirk on the set of Mudd's Women.

Maggie Thrett with Spock and Captain Kirk on the set of Mudd’s Women.

Besides having already appeared in TV and film productions, Thrett had also issued a rock’n’roll single on Bob Crewe’s Dynovoice label in May 1965. Most famous for producing and co-writing the Four Seasons’ biggest hits (with Bob Gaudio of the Seasons), Crewe also worked on hits by Mitch Ryder, Diane Renay, and Freddie Cannon. He produced and co-wrote Thrett’s sole 45, “Soupy”/”Put a Little Time Away.” It was arranged by Charlie Calello, who would arrange and produce Laura Nyro’s classic second album, 1968’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.

Soupy

For all the big names involved, however, “Soupy” isn’t that good. It’s a generic rock/R&B dance number, Thrett yelp-singing the novelty lyrics with considerable stridency. I haven’t heard the B-side, “Put a Little Time Away.” But Thrett’s role in rock history wasn’t quite done.

In 1970, Gram Parsons—then in the Flying Burrito Brothers—was in a serious motorcycle accident in Bel Air, and injured so badly the Burritos had to cancel a visit to London. Riding in the motorcycle ahead of him was John Phillips, late of the Mamas & the Papas, and Phillips’s future wife Genevieve Waite. Riding with Parsons was—Maggie Thrett, who managed to escape unharmed.

Gram Parsons (right) in the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Gram Parsons (right) in the Flying Burrito Brothers.

John Fahey Documentary Review

Just as the last couple decades have seen more music reissued than anyone expected, so have the last few years seen documentaries that no one could have predicted on cult artists of all stripes. Like John Fahey, for instance. For all the respect he’s given throughout the alternative music spectrum, he wasn’t filmed or interviewed all that much, which must make constructing a full-length feature a challenge.

The new documentary on John Fahey.

The new documentary on John Fahey.

The hour-long In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey has actually been out a year and a half, and I have to admit I missed it the first time it passed through the San Francisco Bay Area for the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival. Fortunately it screened at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater last night (July 9), and here’s guessing there aren’t many other cities that could draw 75 or so paying customers to a Fahey documentary (shown with a doc of similar length on Bill Callahan).

It speaks well of a documentary, I suppose, when it leaves you thirsting for more. While some people unfamiliar with Fahey might think an hour’s plenty of time to cover a guy who never sold many records, actually his achievements were diverse enough, and his character so quirky, that you want the music and stories to keep on flowing. That’s especially the case because the movie’s well done, interviewing several associates and critics — including Barry Hansen (aka Dr. Demento, who met Fahey when both were studying ethnomusicology at UCLA), fellow guitar virtuoso Stefan Grossman, third wife Melody, and Nancy McLean (who plays flute on his early track “The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill”) — who are interesting figures in their own right. Star power’s supplied by Fahey fan Pete Townshend, a testament to how far up the pop ladder Fahey’s impact reached on occasion.

There’s not much vintage Fahey performance footage to draw from, but a few clips from various phases of his career are quite entertaining. The excerpts from a 1969 TV show hosted by one Laura Weber showcase some spectacularly skilled pieces. I know little about Weber, but she seems rather straight-laced and out of her comfort zone with John, especially when he explains the real-life origin of the title of “The Death of the Clayton Peacock.” After Fahey goes into the actual death of the slain peacock in more detail than Weber probably wished, the host observes what a sad incident it was; Fahey then quips, with no apparent remorse, that the creature’s expiration made for a good song title.

Five Fahey performances from the 1969 program "Guitar, Guitar," hosted by Laura Weber, are on the DVD In Concert and Interviews 1969 and 1996.

Five Fahey performances from the 1969 program “Guitar, Guitar,” hosted by Laura Weber, are on the DVD “In Concert and Interviews 1969 and 1996.”

Renowned for his enigmatic, at times surreal humor (especially as manifested in his song titles), Fahey could be acerbic as well as funny. One of the lower-fi concert clips captures him likening Stefan Grossman’s playing to that of a dainty lady with long fingers — and the jibe doesn’t seem entirely complimentary. John even titled one of his tunes “The Assassination of Stephan Grossman,” managing to misspell his rival’s first name in the process; Grossman responded by naming one of his compositions “The Assassination of John Fahey.”

As feuds go it’s not exactly up there with the Hatfields and McCoys (or even the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground), and the animosity doesn’t seem to have run that deep, since they even planned a tour capitalizing on the assassinations. Unfortunately Grossman couldn’t do the tour for health reasons, and was hapless to prevent Fahey from claiming he’d actually assassinated Stefan when fans asked why the other guitarist wasn’t around.

A kinder side of Fahey is praised by Townshend, who remembers with fondness how John bothered to write him a letter (shown onscreen in the documentary) after hearing Tommy. Alas, according to the Who guitarist, it was obvious Fahey wasn’t a Who fan. I’m not so sure about that; Fahey was more open-minded to contemporary rock than some might guess, praising Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Country Joe McDonald, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper in a 1967 interview first published in Dust-to-Digital’s awesomely packaged five-CD Fahey box set Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years [1958-1965].

This box set features the rare recordings Fahey made for the Fonotone label between the late 1950s and mid-1960s.

This box set features the rare recordings Fahey made for the Fonotone label between the late 1950s and mid-1960s.

For all his oddness, Fahey took a lot of things seriously, and they’re treated with appropriate respect by the documentary. He was one of the first white fans to delve seriously into early blues recordings, and even helped track down one of the great country bluesmen who’d fallen off the radar, Bukka White, in the 1960s. He, along with similar free spirits like dedicated collector Joe Bussard (the first figure to record and release Fahey discs, and also interviewed in the film), even went door-to-door in black Southern neighborhoods to offer money for used records. As another interviewee points out, there was a real risk of getting roughed up or worse for doing that at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, when segregation was severe and their hunger for rare records could have been misinterpreted as something far more threatening or devious.

Too, the financial and health problems Fahey weathered near the end of his life were no laughing matter. A motel room he ended up living in is remembered by a visitor as “a dump”; he wouldn’t even bother to scrape off pennies that stuck to his back when he rolled over in his bed. He retains some intelligence and humor in snippets of interviews conducted in his latter years, at one point observing how his music somehow got categorized as “gothic industrial ambience.” The way he enunciates the term projects both amusement and faint incredulity, and perhaps a whiff of disgust as well.

For all its merits, In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey could have been more comprehensive. I would have liked more on how he founded and ran the Takoma label, which issued both his own best work and notable records by other adventurous acoustic guitarists like Robbie Basho. His pioneering DIY ethic is properly lauded — if Fahey wasn’t the first musician to do things entirely himself in the name of art above all else, he was certainly one of the earliest and most influential such innovators — but it would have been good to detail some of his major-label ventures as well. Some notable associates, like ED [sic] Denson, fellow Takoma acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke, and producer/manager Denny Bruce, were not among the interviewees. [Since I first posted this, Bruce told me that the filmmakers were planning to interview him, but canceled it when they ran out of money to do more filming.]

Hopefully some gaps are filled in by the new biography Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, which I hope to read soon. I also want to see In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey on DVD, as according to the film’s website, it “includes extra performances and interviews with Fahey, Townshend, [Chris] Funk of the Decemberists] & more.” If nothing else, I want to be able to freeze-frame those shots of the letter Fahey wrote to Pete Townshend, which zoom by too quickly to digest in the theater.

The new John Fahey biography, just issued by Chicago Review Press.

The new John Fahey biography, just issued by Chicago Review Press.

Postscript: A few weeks after I put up this post, I did see the  DVD. As is sometimes the case with extras, they’re actually not too extensive or vital.  There are just two songs performed by Fahey, though those clips are okay. The extended extract from the Pete Townshend interview holds some interest, but — not too surprisingly — Townshend often talks more about himself than Fahey, sometimes in a way that strays from the question or the documentary’s actual subject.

 

No No: Not a Rockumentary, But a Dockumentary

There aren’t many documentaries about individual baseball players, at least if you don’t count the ones I don’t see that probably air on cable TV. No No: A Dockumentary is a recent theatrical release, but probably won’t be seen by a whole lot of people due to its niche subject matter, detailing the life of one of the most colorful players of the 1970s, Dock Ellis. I saw it last night at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it does a pretty good job of covering the mercurial career of a good-but-not-great pitcher who’s still most notorious for proclaiming he threw a no-hitter under the influence of LSD.

Dock Ellis, as he looked around the time he threw a no-hitter in 1970.

Dock Ellis, as he looked around the time he threw a no-hitter in 1970.

The highlights of Dock’s career – that 1970 no-hitter, his unabashed use of drugs and drink, wearing curlers in his hair on the field, getting into conflicts with the baseball establishment for his outspoken opinions on racial injustice, starting the 1971 All-Star game for the National League, and his post-baseball life as a drug counselor – are fairly well known to serious baseball fans. They’re decently Doc-umented in No No (with a good soundtrack of obscure vintage soul-funk), so this post will focus on some of the more surprising things that cropped up in my viewing.

With the passage of decades since Dock’s heyday, other players from the era are also becoming frank about the widespread drug use within the game. Fans already knew it existed after pitcher Jim Bouton wrote about the ingestion of amphetamines, known within baseball as “greenies,” in his classic Ball Four diary of the 1969 season. That was one of many things about the book that infuriated the baseball establishment, but in retrospect, it seems that if anything, Bouton might have toned down the reality of the situation. After all, he felt their benefits were limited, making you think as though you had better stuff than you did, and didn’t quite state that virtually every player used them.

But in No No, a number of other players (and quite a few, interestingly, are interviewed throughout the film) from Dock’s time do. They even give percentages. One, pitcher Scipio Spinks (one of the great baseball names) — a very promising hurler who won just seven games in a career cut short by injury — even put the percentage of users at 95 or 96 percent. There’s been much outrage over steroid use by ballplayers (and other athletes) in the early twenty-first century, but this reminds us that the history of drug use in the sport far predates our own era, and was not just present, but prevalent.

Scipio Spinks, owner of one of professional sport's greatest names, though not one of baseball's greatest lifetime records (7 wins, 11 losses).

Scipio Spinks, owner of one of professional sport’s greatest names, though not one of baseball’s greatest lifetime records (7 wins, 11 losses).

Ellis, however, was an outsize drug user even by these standards. He claimed to have even taken sixteen or seventeen pills at once. No harm done if he wasn’t a pusher, some might say; his two wives, both victims of horrifying instances of domestic abuse, would say otherwise. When he was on these substances, observes one of his spouses, “I think he thought he was taking them over, but it was the other way around” — one of the most concise, on-target summaries of drug abuse I’ve ever heard.

Despite and sometimes because of his excesses, Dock was generally beloved by his teammates, friends, and family. The early-to-mid-1970s Oakland A’s are generally remembered as the most colorful of the period’s major league teams, but this movie also reminds us that the Pittsburgh Pirates gave them a run for their money. Pitcher Bruce Kison even goes as far as to remark that Pirates hated getting traded away because it was so boring being on other teams. (For a good portrait of the young Kison – speeding to his wedding just hours after helping the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, Santana blasting on the car stereo – see the chapter on Bruce in Pat Jordan’s fine book The Suitors of Spring.)

Pat Jordan's first book, The Suitors of Spring, collected profiles of various major and minor league players and coaches, mostly pitchers.

Pat Jordan’s 1972 The Suitors of Spring collected profiles of various major and minor league players and coaches, mostly pitchers, including a young Bruce Kison.

The Pirates were also notable for not just featuring more blacks than most teams, but fielding the first all-black lineup in major league baseball history on September 1, 1971. A few of the Pirates remember the occasion in No No, one of them claiming that the Buccos fell behind 7-0 in the first inning, not even thinking about the all-black personnel as they needed all their focus to pull out a 9-7 win. That wasn’t quite how it happened: they did fall behind to the Phillies (with Ellis on the mound) 2-0 and 6-5 in the early innings, but did indeed win 10-7. And they won the World Series the next month, though Ellis was sidelined by an arm injury after losing the first game.

Not everyone was as enamored of Ellis as his fellow Pirates, all of whom (including Kison, Steve Blass, Al Oliver, Gene Clines, and Dave Cash) speak of him in glowing terms in No No. Texas Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg’s impression of Ellis when the pitcher was on other teams: “I don’t want to meet him in an alleyway.” After Ellis was traded to the Rangers, Sundberg, who did not indulge in drug use, kept their relationship strictly professional.

The mid-‘70s Cincinnati Reds probably held no great love for Dock either. In an incident almost notorious as his LSD no-hitter, he began the first inning of a May 1, 1974 game against the Big Red Machine by intentionally hitting the first three batters. Joe Morgan, it’s remembered, thought Ellis wouldn’t hit him because Morgan was a “brother.” On the mound, though, all opponents were equal, Ellis plunking Morgan when the Hall of Famer took his turn at bat. Dock went on to walk Tony Perez with the bases loaded before getting removed from the game.

As an aside, one of the oddest things about No No is its use of clips from a way-obscure promo film of the early 1980s, Dugout. Though it’s hard to tell from the brief excerpts, it seems to have been a short designed to scare Little Leaguers away from drugs. Ellis doesn’t appear in it, but, even more unexpectedly, Bo Belinsky — another talented pitcher who threw a no-hitter early in his career — does. Unlike Ellis, Belinsky never had much other success in the big leagues, finishing with a 28-51 lifetime record. Despite that 1962 no-hitter for the Los Angeles Angels (as they were called then), Belinsky was regarded as never fulfilling his potential, largely in part not to drug use, but to being a playboy, dating Mamie Van Doren (to whom he was briefly engaged), Ann-Margret, Connie Stevens, and Tina Louise, as well as marrying Playboy Playmate of the Year Jo Collins.

Bo Belinsky, a better playboy than a pitcher.

Bo Belinsky, a better playboy than a pitcher.

From what little we see of Belinsky in the excerpts from Dugout used in No No, he seems to be warning kids away from drugs, in the wooden manner common to charismatic non-actor celebrities. The kids seem to be taking his cautions seriously, but here’s betting that no one could successfully warn aspiring big leaguers to stay away from the likes of Ann-Margret and Tina Louise. As it happens, Pat Jordan’s The Suitors of Spring also has a fascinating profile of Belinsky, who seemed to living it up just as hard right after getting out of the big leagues as he did in his brief peak.

Like Ellis, Belinsky would become a counselor (for alcohol abuse). One of Ellis’s clients, if that’s the right word, came as a surprise to me. Texas Rangers owner Brad Corbett, Sr., as his son reveals in the movie, was an alcoholic. Ellis remained friendly with Corbett after his brief time in Rangers uniform, and helped Corbett with his drink problem, Dock spending (according to at least one account in the film) almost all of his post-baseball life sober before his death in 2008.

It was a productive comeback of sorts considering how poorly Ellis, like many athletes, handled the sudden loss of his skills and end of his career. I’d forgotten that Dock briefly returned to the Pirates to finish his career at the end of 1979. The Pirates were fighting for a playoff spot (which they got, going on to win the World Series), and picked up Ellis with just a week or so to go in the season. He didn’t pitch too badly in his three games and seven innings, going four frames and getting a no-decision in the one game he did start, the second game of a September 24 doubleheader. (I’m guessing that doubleheader is probably the reason he got picked up, to make an emergency start to help out a heavily worked staff.) He confessed to Bruce Kison, however, that his arm was shot, and never appeared in a big league game after the regular schedule was over, being ineligible for the postseason roster. A five-hour session of abusing his second wife — including holding a gun in her mouth, and afterward demanding she have sex with him — was, she says in the film, fallout from his anger over getting released shortly afterward.

Lots of athletes have similarly ugly falls from grace when the cheering stops, even in a time when high salaries would seem to make post-career financial security a given. Not many athletes make something from themselves after the worst of it, as Ellis did, judging from that documentary. Which might have been the greatest saving grace of a man who, in another of the film’s surprises, received a letter of admiration from Jackie Robinson shortly before Robinson’s early-‘70s death. In many respects, Robinson was not nearly as controversial a figure; he was not a substance abuser, did not call attention to himself with antics like wearing hair curlers on the field, and even supported the Republican Party after his playing days had finished. In those ways, they weren’t kindred spirits. But in refusing to back down against a world in which racial discrimination was too prevalent, they were very much united.

1972-topps-dock-ellis-ia

Inside Inside Llewyn Davis

I’m not a great guy to see music biopics with, as it’s kind of like seeing a courtroom drama with a lawyer. I’m always finding all the things they’re getting wrong about a musician or band’s career, much like real lawyers can tell you why a certain defense would never fly. So when I heard the Coen Brothers were doing a movie based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir (The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which is very good, though he didn’t finish it before his death), I was dubious. Would they really be either faithful to his story, or capture something of his spirit even if he was more a prototype for a fictional movie?

InsideDavis

Well, I’m glad to report two surprises. One was that I liked the movie a lot, though it wasn’t perfect. The second is that, though the pre-release hype I came across (which went on for quite some time) did play up the Van Ronk connection, there really isn’t too much of Van Ronk in the movie’s story or main character. The Van Ronk book (co-written by Elijah Wald) continues to be cited as a source for the film in some media reports, which I find misleading.

Not a rival movie or biopic, but a 1964 album by Dave Van Ronk.

Not a rival movie or biopic, but a 1964 album by Dave Van Ronk.

Not that I’m too annoyed; the film probably wouldn’t have been as good if it had tried to re-create the story of Van Ronk, or another early-‘60s Greenwich Village folkie. But as far as much resemblance between Van Ronk and the movie’s protagonist, let’s be serious here. Van Ronk had a gravelly, bluesy voice that marked him as one of the earthiest and best performers in the scene. Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) sings rather unremarkable material that’s neither as bland as the most whitebread folk revival-ish stuff nor as cutting and keening as Van Ronk (or early Bob Dylan, who’s portrayed with a cameo near the very end). Some people like his tunes in the film; I found them neither here nor there, though they were close enough to the early-‘60s folk revival sound that they fit into the storyline okay. Van Ronk (along with his wife of the time, Terri Thal) was a respected part of the scene who did his part to help other musicians, including Dylan (who took his arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” from Van Ronk’s). Davis is on the margins, on the verge of dropping out of the profession altogether, and alienating everybody, from girlfriends and managers to family and folkies.

Inside Llewyn Davis is more a solid story of a troubled young man than it is a reflection of Van Ronk’s musical and personal life. I didn’t observe the Greenwich Village scene firsthand (I wasn’t even born yet, actually), but the settings in the film do seem reasonably accurate from what a fan like me can glean from the available history. And the film does use some archetypes that have at least some basis in real-life early-‘60s folkies, managers, clubowners, promoters, and well-meaning if unhip liberal academic benefactors. Here are a few that might escape viewers with a casual-to-nonexistent knowledge of the folk revival (which, I emphasize, is no impediment to appreciating the movie):

The wholesome fellow from the military who sleeps on “Jim & Jean”’s floor near the beginning seems to me based on Tom Paxton. Paxton, despite his rabid anti-war views, did serve in the military before his career took off, and has steered entirely clear of controversy since he rose to prominence as a singer-songwriter in the mid-1960s, though the “Troy Nelson” figure in the movie seems more All-American and whitebread.

Paxton

You don’t have to be a genius to know that “Bud Grossman,” the Chicago clubowner/manager who tells Davis he doesn’t hear enough money in Llewyn’s music, is based in part on Albert Grossman. Grossman also ran a club in Chicago, the Gate of Horn. It was one of the most popular folk clubs in the US, in fact, and was instrumental to the career of early (if largely forgotten) folk revival performer Bob Gibson, as well as a teenaged Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, who learned a lot of his folk chops there before going on to accompany folk stars and co-found the Byrds. Grossman soon became the most powerful folk manager with Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Ian & Sylvia, and others on his client roster. (Later he’d become a big force in rock too, managing Janis Joplin, the Band, and others.)

Getting back to “Bud Grossman,” his suggestion in the movie that Davis sing as part of a trio Grossman’s forming also has some grounding in real-life events. It took some time for Peter, Paul & Mary to solidify their personnel. Van Ronk was considered for one of the two male slots, though it’s hard to imagine him fitting into the smooth harmonies in which they specialized. So was Bob Gibson.

Though Davis is a solo act in the film, it’s clear he’s recorded and performed earlier as part of a duo with another guy, now dead. There were a good if not overwhelming number of male folk duos, like Bud & Travis, Barry & Barry (one of whom was Barry McGuire of later “Eve of Destruction” fame), and (for a while) Bob Gibson and Bob Camp. Gibson and Camp recorded a live album at the Gate of Horn, and Grossman had considered teaming them with a woman singer before Peter, Paul & Mary were finalized. “Bob Camp” later became Hamilton Camp, most known for writing and recording the original version of “Pride of Man,” later made famous in a rock version by Quicksilver Messenger Service.

GateofHorn

The smooth, urbane Columbia Records executive in the scene where Davis stumbles into a part as a session musician for the novelty “Please Mr. Kennedy” is obviously based on John Hammond. The legendary producer had played a big role in the careers of jazz giants like Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, and Benny Goodman. He’d be the force behind signing Bob Dylan to a recording contract in late 1961, also producing Dylan’s earliest Columbia sessions. He became aware of Dylan through Bob’s participation (as harmonica player) in a session by another Columbia folk artist he was producing, Carolyn Hester. It’s not clear from the film whether Davis’s role in “Please Mr. Kennedy” will lead to a similar break, however.

The Carolyn Hester album, with Bob Dylan on harmonica, that was produced by Columbia Records' John Hammond, who'd soon sign Dylan.

The Carolyn Hester album, with Bob Dylan on harmonica, that was produced by Columbia Records’ John Hammond, who’d soon sign Dylan.

The ineffectual, elderly manager whom Davis accuses of failing to promote his career in an early scene rings true, as there were (and are) many such figures who don’t make their clients rich. One possible model is Harold Leventhal, who handled the career of Pete Seeger and the Weavers (and, later, Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie). But he was respected, efficent, and successful, not the bumbler with the antiquated office portrayed in Inside Llewyn Davis. I’ve heard Folkways boss Moe Asch suggested as a model for this character too, but while Asch might have scraped at the financial margins of the record industry, I’d think he was much tougher and sharper.

The hapless, frumpy Appalachian-type folk singer Davis heckles at a club performance could be based in part on any number of musicians who started their career before the 1960s; played a particularly reverent, striving-to-be-authentic strain of folk music; and who are rarely noted today, in part because the over-reverence of their approach has made them more dated than early Dylan (or, for that matter, Van Ronk). Probably the highest-profile such musician, however, was Jean Ritchie, the dulcimer player from Kentucky who made her first records in the early 1950s, and is still alive at the age of 91. Ritchie’s music might strike some as prim, but it was livelier and more dignified than what little we hear of the woman in this scene.

Ritchie

The Irish singers are, naturally, based on the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, very popular Greenwich Village folk performers, and good friends of Bob Dylan.

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Finally, we come to two of the highest-ranking supporting roles in the film, those of “Jim” and “Jean.” There was indeed a duo named Jim & Jean on the ‘60s New York folk scene, and their first album is indeed of the kind of innocuous, traditional-based folk they played in the movie:

Jim&Jean

But Jim & Jean were more musically interesting than the movie, or that LP, might have you believe. Jim Glover was a close early friend of Phil Ochs, with whom he was part of a folk duo, the Sundowners, before hooking up with Jean Ray. In 1966, Jim & Jean did a good early folk-rock album, Changes, with off-the-beaten-track compositions (some yet to be recorded by their authors) by Ochs, Dylan, David Blue, and Eric Andersen. After a poppier, more elaborately produced third album, they ended their career, though Jean Ray helped inspire two famous songs by Neil Young, “Cinammon Girl” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Full disclosure: I did the liner notes for a CD reissue combining their second and third LPs (for which I interviewed Jean Ray, who died in 2007), which can be read here.

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Does Inside Llewyn Davis accurately capture these characters, even in caricature? I wouldn’t say so, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s a story set in the early-‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene, not a biopic, though some of the movie’s publicity seemed to be prepping viewers for one. It’s got gallows humor and tragedy that doesn’t descend into pathos, and is recommended whether you’re a folk fan or not. And if you are a folk fan and want to hear the real deal, here’s some more shameless self-promotion. Check out the new two-CD compilation Greenwich Village in the ‘60s on Warner Brothers Australia, which collects several dozen vintage recordings from the folk revival, for which I also did the liner notes:

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