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Repo Man: And Yet, I Blame Society

At the height of the Reagan era, the 1984 movie Repo Man offered a character, Otto (played by a young Emilio Estevez), that embodied all the anger-fueled angst of the period’s idiot youth, a term I use not in insult but rather in honor of the confused, narcissistic life phase I think most all of us pass through.  During that phase – which it appears from recent events not all of us outgrow unfortunately – everybody outside our narrow clique is viewed as de facto stupid and either owing us something or needing to get the fuck out of our way.  It is dire stuff… and it is easily one of the funniest films made in my lifetime.  It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought and I still consider it a must-own.

Repo Man (movie poster)

The movie makes little attempt to follow a cogent plot – something about dangerous decaying alien bodies smuggled off of a secret government base in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu – and instead simply proceeds to put Otto and his fellow oddballs into a series of one-off scenes in which they spout magnificently-crafted odes to cynicism, pessimism, and human foible.  An internet search will show that almost every line of dialogue in the film has been deemed quotable out of context.  Harry Dean Stanton especially, as Otto’s mentor and keeper of the Repo Man code, utters golden nugget after golden nugget.  It is one of my never-to-be-acted-upon fantasies to be insolent, boorish, and brave enough to speak like Harry Dean does in this movie.

But this isn’t a movie review, it’s a soundtrack review, and the Repo Man soundtrack is as wonderfully foul, crude, and filled with unfocused energy as is the movie.  It was my introduction to the West Coast punk scene of the early 1980s, a scene dedicated to finding, isolating and surgically removing the hidden “cerebralism” from the late-70s punk of the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, and the Slits in order to focus more intently on the nihilism and the bile.  As you can imagine, it’s gloriously jaunty stuff.  Let’s dive in:

Repo Man (soundtrack)

Iggy Pop: “Repo Man” – By no means a great Iggy Pop song, I’d nonetheless deem it a good one.  The movie uses it twice, once without lyrics during the opening credits and again at the end, this time with Iggy’s inimitable voice.  Only the version with vocals is included on the soundtrack album, but I think the instrumental is actually more important to the film itself.  Its wholesale usurpation of the “Peter Gunn” riff sets the tone for the movie, evoking urban decay surrounded by vast empty desert.  I most like this song for one lyric however, a line I always remember but seldom can place until I hear it and am again reminded where it comes from:  “I’m looking for the joke with a microscope.”  In context, the song implies the search is doomed to fail.  The sentiment fit the Reagan era well, and it fits again now, 30-plus years later.

Circle Jerks: “Coup d’Etat” – In the movie, this song soundtracks a street mosh made up of angry suburban kids.  Its relentless energy, driving rhythm and shouted vocals are perfect for the scene.  The naiveté of the lyrics, seemingly jumping back and forth between describing a right-wing military takeover and a leftist anarchic people power uprising, is priceless.  The anti-idealism of the song’s non-politics deftly encapsulates the nihilism of the early 80’s punk movement… and the breakneck riff is freaking awesome!  “Attack their embassy” indeed …

Circle Jerks – Coup d’Etat (1983):

Suicidal Tendencies: “Institutionalized” – This is probably the most widely known song on the soundtrack and its evocation of young white alienation certainly captures the film’s mood.  That said, the song barely registers during the actual movie.  As such, I’m going to set aside review of the song itself to share a related personal story:  Back in the mid-1980s, even we Utah-bred youngsters who recognized our ignorance of the broader world always took solace in the idea that we were way less sheltered than our neighbors to the north, the backwards Idahoans.  Even so, I duly embraced for years a story told me in 1984 in Peru by a fellow missionary who hailed from Boise.  Elder Rick wowed me with the tale of a band called Joy Division whose vocalist had killed himself, leaving his remaining bandmates to reform under the “Suicidal Tendencies” moniker.  The story was perfect, with a twist of the sardonic that really appealed.  It would be near 20 years before the intrusion of the internet would steal that fantastic musical anecdote from me.

Black Flag: “TV Party” – First, this song rocks.  The listener has no choice but to get pumped.  In the movie, protagonist Otto has just lost his job and girlfriend and is sitting on the curb feeling put upon, but once he begins to sing this song to himself he has no choice but to get up, punch the air, and invite the universe to “suck my ass.” Beautiful.  I like to think Henry Rollins and Black Flag penned this masterpiece as simultaneously a biting criticism and a euphoric celebration of the clueless aimlessness of their angry white suburban fan base.  I’d argue that, even three decades later, this on-its-face jokey tune still perfectly captures the uninformed anxiety of those majority middle-America youth who inhabit the hundreds of in-between non-rural, non-urban midsize towns speckling the U.S. map.  Judge for yourself:

Black Flag – TV Party (1981)

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We’re gonna have a TV party, all right, tonight!

We’ve got nothing better to do, than watch TV and have a couple of brews.

We sit glued to the TV set all night, and every night / Why go into the outside world at all, it’s such a fright

TV news shows what it’s like out there, it’s a scare / You can go out if you want, we wouldn’t dare

I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day, or even a minute / I don’t even bother to use my brain any more, there’s nothing left in it

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Circle Jerks: “When the Shit Hits the Fan” – The “lounge” version of this song on the soundtrack pales in comparison to the original angry version on the Jerks’ 1983 album Golden Shower of Hits, but it allows for the best inside joke of the whole film as Otto reacts to the band’s live rendition during one scene with the mumbled, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.”  As an economics major and son of an economics professor, this song really spoke to me with its invocation of unemployment lines, a sluggish economy, and waning social security.  There’s a huge nostalgia pull for me too as I clearly remember my grandmother standing in line to bring home those government giveaway “five pound blocks of cheese” about which the CJs croon.

A few final notes:

— The version of “Pablo Picasso” here by something called Burning Sensations is colossally lame in comparison to the original by The Modern Lovers.  That said, it was here that I first heard the song and I cannot deny my then youthful pleasure at its bold leveraging of the word “asshole.”

— The songs by LA-based Latino punk band The Plugz are excellent, and it was a thrill to me personally, being just back from Peru and exercising my newly-acquired bilingual skills, to hear good-time rock and roll sung in Spanish.

— Beyond that novelty however, the Plugz’ original instrumental background music written and recorded for Repo Man, and which is only sampled as the song “Reel Ten” on the soundtrack album, is brilliant.  Unmistakably influenced by Ennio Morricone, the Plugz evoke a vast parched desert with just enough shiny suburban pop sheen on top to relocate the arid featurelessness to the western Anytown in which the movie is set.  I would go in big-time for an entire album offering up that atmosphere.  I wonder where the Plugz are now …

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film-soundtrack-festival

This post is part of the Film (Soundtrack) Festivalthe big-hearted brainchild of Bruce at Vinyl Connection.  You are cordially invited to check out all the entries here.

Not Much to Say Today

 

(if the video doesn’t work):

The Real World Fades to Black

Last night I dreamed of waking up.  I awoke calmly, responding to external stimuli rather than internal volition.  It was the sound of a hyper-agitated dog, actually more wolf than dog, clawing spastically from the other side of the wall behind my headboard that had stirred me from sleep.  I felt comfortable and safe in my ground-floor bedroom, with its dark wood-paneled walls and dull red color scheme.  I inherently grasped an atmosphere of danger in the sparse surrounding rural landscape and knew that I would not open the curtains to look.  The wolf-dog trying to scratch its way in was one of many and I had an awareness of the predatory canines routinely and viciously tearing into some species of rodent that inhabited the “out there.”  It was too early to get up so I briefly considered putting on the headphones that lay next to my pillow and listening to some music to ease my way back into needed sleep.  Even as the thought came though, I knew it was unnecessary as I would easily fall deep asleep as soon as I closed my eyes.

The closing of my dream eyes and tranquil drift back into figment sleep was exactly and oppositely matched by the opening of my flesh eyes and a gentle, genuine wakening.  I felt comfortable and safe in my sixth-floor bedroom, with its plaster walls and off-white color scheme, but I was nonetheless deeply confused.  My mind could not reconcile the sparse, rodent-filled plains and middle-eastern urban landscape I knew to dually exist on the other side of the curtain-covered window.  I wondered why I could no longer hear the wolf-dog’s clawing even as I questioned why I was thinking about wolf-dogs at all.  It was too early to rise so I briefly considered putting on the headphones that lay next to my pillow and listening to some music to ease my way back into needed sleep.  Just as my thoughts coalesced on a specific album but before I could act, my eyes closed and sleep returned.

This morning, I awoke with a strong desire to hear the latest album by Bloody Hammers, Lovely Sort of Death, which I had just received in the mail yesterday.  I read of the gothic rock / doom metal band only recently and have quite enjoyed some of their earlier recordings I’ve been background streaming at work.  I fixed some French toast and watched last evening’s PBS Newshour online while I ate, but the album kept infiltrating my thoughts.  So, comfortably fed and updated on ongoing catastrophes both natural and political back home, I grabbed the iPod and headphones and headed for the elliptical.

Lovely Sort of Death

As first track “Bloodletting on the Kiss” begins, I get an immediate Type O Negative feel — a vibe that carries through the entire album — but also find the mid-80s new wave of Simple Minds repeatedly coming to mind.  The Simple Minds free association continues with “Lights Come Alive,” but third track “The Reaper Comes” conjures instead thoughts of Gary Numan’s dystopian coldness, a sense that proves to permeate the subsequent tracks as well.  While the pace of the album is generally slow, even verging on sluggish early on, things pick up as you go deeper into the tracklist.  In fact, “Infinite Gaze to the Sun” and “Astral Traveler” offer legitimate headbanging opportunities.

This is not warm music.  It is cold and calculated, giving off no feel of having been played by a collaborating set of musicians.  The sense of separate recording of each instrument and vocal is stark, although the impression of an expert hand in the careful, deliberate layering of the individual parts to engender the whole is also clear.  The stratified notes and beats that bind together to form each song give the album a potent, doom-laden heft.  Accomplished in composition but simple in the playing, this music seems crafted in black and white.  Any addition of color would sound out of place, so look for no guitar solos or drum breaks as the songscapes unfold.

I rate this LP highly but imagine it being more for the recoiling rodents out there than for the stirred-up wolf-dogs.  It evokes dim bars sparsely inhabited by moody locals rather than neon-lit clubs filled with enthusiastic partyers.  I’d confidently recommend it to anyone who stoically hopes for happier times to come but doesn’t truly expect them in their heart of hearts.  If you strive to keep hidden a deep sense of cosmic aloneness and regularly find yourself irrationally mired in your own dispiriting thoughts, I think you’d like this one.  On the other hand, if you are generally content with your life and its path, I suspect you may find Lovely Sort of Death somewhat plodding and hard to connect with.

Despite the old-timey horror show look of Bloody Hammers’ Anders Manga and Devallia (above), the mood of their music is less the demented carney violence of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and more the alone-in-the woods anxious dread of The Blair Witch Project.

Despite the old-timey horror show look of Bloody Hammers’ Anders Manga and Devallia (above), the mood of their music is less the demented carney violence of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and more the alone-in-the woods anxious dread of The Blair Witch Project.

 

 

You Send Me: Mom, Steve Miller and Sam Cooke

I didn’t know who this guy was and I certainly had no interest in being forced to extend feigned cordiality to his interloping ass.  My recently divorced mother had been set up with him by friends and had apparently found much to like.  He was someone with whom she thought there could be a deeper connection and so for this, his first visit to our house to pick Mom up for dinner and a movie, she hoped for a mutually positive first impression with us kids.  Before he came, Mom took 14-year-old me aside – possibly doing the same with my 12-year-old sister – and admitted to liking the gentleman, expressing her wish that I would like him too.  Regardless, she asked me to be polite when he arrived.

With a surly attitude attributable to normal adolescent contrarianism but exacerbated by the then personally unrecognized yet nonetheless real hurt and jealousy roiling within a confused child of a breaking home, it was all I could do to stand there and shake the 30-something intruder’s hand and mumble a “Nice to meet you too.”  Having complied with the letter, if most certainly not the spirit of my mother’s request, I quickly exited the uncomfortable scene for the reassuring refuge of my room and my music.  I placed side two of Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle LP on the turntable and sought to escape from whatever incomprehensible bullshit was occurring upstairs.

Two songs in and after six or seven minutes of much friendlier exchange with my 8-year-old youngest sister and her visiting playmate, Mom came downstairs to open my door and say they were headed out.  I don’t recall my exact response but am sure that today’s teenage equivalent would be along the lines of, “Fine, whatever.”   As she headed back upstairs leaving my bedroom door open, Steve Miller’s version of “You Send Me” drifted out of the speakers.  Just before they left, I overheard the stranger say something to my mom like “Do you think he has any idea where that song comes from?”  As the front door closed, I heard Mom reply in a tone of sincere pride, “Oh, he knows.  He knows everything there is to know about music.”

Nearly 40 years later I still remember the feeling Mom’s words spurred in me as if it were happening right now.  My mommy understood me, was proud of me, and was not leaving me.  I don’t know how I would have described it then but the sense of relief flowed over me like a warm wave.  I may have even shed a few tears.  Somehow in those few words offered to someone else, Mom had managed to reassure me that she would remain my protector and advocate even as our lives changed drastically and against my will.  There would still be plenty of rocky road ahead to traverse, but from that fleeting moment forward, I never doubted that Mom would be there to support me through it.

THANKS MOMMY!!

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Now, the dark, hidden truth about the above is that I actually had no freaking idea where “You Send Me” came from.  To the extent I thought about it at all, I figured it for a Steve Miller original.  Oops.

There was no question that I needed to make Mom’s words true post-haste.  Even in those pre-cellular, pre-internet days, it didn’t take long to uncover that Sam Cooke had composed and first recorded the song back in the late 50s.  So, when just a few weeks later I spotted a used copy of the Cooke’s Tour album at a local thrift store, I enthusiastically handed over my 25 cents.  The record didn’t include “You Send Me” but I felt confident that my owning it would forever preclude any doubt about my musical knowledge should I be tested on my mother’s matter-of-fact assertion.

In the end, no such challenge ever came.  The interloper became my step-father before the year was out, staggeringly within one day of another invader, this one allowed in by my father, being declared my new step-mother.  In hindsight, I can happily affirm that, for all the bumps, things turned out well.  In fact, where most poor buggers have to make do with at best two parents to assist, love, and guide them into adulthood, I was blessed with four.  And throughout all of it, music continued, and continues, to magically provide escape, embrace, and enlightenment just when I most need it.

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Steve_Miller_Band_Fly_Like_an_Eagle

 

A quick note on Fly Like an Eagle:  The cover of this excellent album from 1976 has to be among the most misleading ever when it comes to giving a sense of what’s inside.  The gale-force electric guitar histrionics promised by the cover photo of Mr. Miller are nowhere to be found on the LP.  Instead, Steve’s brilliance is demonstrated mainly in acoustic – and acoustic-style electric – playing on a set of grooving rockers, spacey interludes and emotive ballads, all of which evoke a warm, breezy California feeling for me.  To be honest, the somewhat vanilla version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” is probably the album’s least-impressive moment, although the acoustic guitar accompaniment still rates it a winner in my book.  As the big hits “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Take the Money and Run,” and “Rock’n Me” are well known and widely loved, I’d draw new listeners’ attention to “Serenade,” an acoustic-driven, mid-tempo melodic rocker with unique harmonized vocals that conjures a campfire-lit beach under a vast, star-filled sky.

Steve Miller Band – Serenade

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Sam_Cooke_-_Cooke's_Tour

 

A quick note on Cooke’s Tour:  Sam’s first record for RCA Victor after a string of solo hits on Keen Records, this 1960 album has much more of a 1940s Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole traditional pop/orchestral feel than the soul/R&B of his late 50s hits.  Marketed as an “adventurous travelogue,” the LP offers the singer’s take on a series of “international” songs such as “Under Paris Skies,” “Bali Ha’i,” “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way),” and “Galway Bay.”  Despite the shift in style, there’s no mistaking Sam’s stunningly beautiful voice as he makes these far-flung songs very much his own.  I’m especially fond of “Jamaica Farewell” with its softened (diluted?) Caribbean rhythm and Sam’s lilting vocal, which together wonderfully evince longing for a lost love.  Best of all however is the album’s American offering, “The House I Live In,” which carries a message we statesiders would do well to remember in this divisive electoral year:

The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
And the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races, all religions
That’s America to me

The place I work in
The worker at my side
The little town or city
Where my people lived and died
The howdy and the handshake
The air of feeling free
The right to speak my mind out
That’s America to me

Sam Cooke – The House I Live In

Curved Air Live: Treasure for Your Pleasure

I sat in my driveway in awe after arriving home as the album played the rest of the way through.  What I was hearing was a revelation; I had no choice but to defer everything else and keep listening.  I’d known the band Curved Air for a few years and, in the right mood, considered myself a fan of their early 70s output of folk-tinged progressive rock.  But what was coming out of the speakers was something different.  The songs were familiar, but were altogether sharper, more alive, and seemed to just plain rock harder.  They were filled with zeal, anger, and raw energy, words that I would never have used to describe the Curved Air I had previously known.  I was experiencing 1975’s Curved Air Live for the first time and the experience was good.

Recorded during a late 1974 tour that the original band members had been compelled to undertake following two years of separation in order to pay off a tax bill, Curved Air Live was not the sound of a joyful group reunion but rather of five supremely talented artists working out their Curved Air Live (front)individual issues together on stage.  The reunion would last only for the tour and album release, but what a statement they would leave behind in this record.

That this is not your hippy uncle’s Curved Air of old is made clear from first track “It Happened Today” as it opens with tight, amplified keyboards replacing the piano flourish of the studio version and biting electric guitar and grooving bass brought far forward in the mix.  When Sonja Kristina’s vocal kicks in at the half-minute mark, it carries none of the twee quaintness of the original.  Instead we hear the slightly-gargled rasp of a woman on the verge, all antagonism and fury, and wonderfully so.  Wikipedia cites Kristina as explaining that, at the time of this recording, she was in a distraught emotional state following the breakup of her first marriage, and this had provoked wild, raw singing.  While sorry at the cause, I enthusiastically celebrate the result.

Second track “Marie Antoinette” probably represents the greatest, and most stirring, change in tone and feel from its studio version.  The original is a fantastic progressive folk rock song that tells the tale of the French revolution over theCurved Air Live (back) top of some excellent bluesy electric guitar wailing by Francis Monkman.  It looks back on a momentous historical event and imagines it from afar.  The live take here casts off the sense of the past and instead transports the listener directly into the scene.  The words are the same, but rawness and wrath now replace stoic storytelling.  One feels the “anger, born of hunger” viscerally, no longer just listening in but shouting along:

“We are the people of France, we demand that the
Elegant blue-blooded leeches that bleed us
Are taught what it means to grow fat and not feed us
We are the people of France, you must heed us!”

The mainly instrumental “Propositions” is another one that becomes something new here.  From Kristina’s gravel-voiced introductory shriek to the extended, echo-laden guitar and synth solos that double its run-time as compared to the original, this version leaves its earthbound, rollercoaster feel behind to launch itself into orbit on a Hawkwind-like rocket ride.

Curved Air’s best-known song, “Vivaldi,” is likewise transformed.  The opening bombast is turned up tenfold, and leads into a hootenanny-worthy fiddle workout by Darryl Way in lieu of the classical violin of the studio version.  This is followed by an extended, spacey electronic excursion in multiple parts, occasionally punctuated by hoarse yelping from Kristina and Way’s staccato violin bursts.  Awesome!

 

Curved Air

 

The overall musicianship demonstrated on Curved Air Live is exceptional.  In setting aside the focus on harmony and gloriously pompous crescendos, diminuendos and other prog/folk affectations that characterize their early studio albums, the band members are free to truly fly as instrumentalists here.  Monkman lets escape the inner guitar hero that we always knew was lurking in the wings, with violinist/keyboardist Way and drummer/percussionist Florian Pilkington-Miksa also allowed ample space to shine.  It is vocalist Sonja Kristina however who best takes advantage of the on-stage freedom to demonstrate her range, the precious chanteuse of the studio replaced by a take-no-prisoners woman with attitude.

The “folk” side of Curved Air is not to be found in this outlier offering.  This is progressive hard rock.  I’d recommend this even as a one-off exploration for rockers put off by the artifice and pretense of early 70s “art rock.”  As for those who only know Curved Air from their studio output, prepare to spend some time dumbstruck in your driveway.

 

Marie Antoinette (live):