Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The One That Achieves Madness

Mick Jagger reminisces about Hemlock Row in the "Memo from Turner" sequence of PERFORMANCE.

One of my ambitions at the moment is to write a monograph for Continuum Books' impressive "33 1/3" series. Introduced in 2003, the numbered sequence now consists of more than 40 paperbacks, each devoting 25-40,000 words to the in-depth exploration of a single album. (Click on those orange letters for a list.) I personally enjoy reading music criticism more than film criticism and have read twenty or so of these books to date, with the ones devoted to Dusty Springfield's DUSTY IN MEMPHIS, Love's FOREVER CHANGES, The Kinks' THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY, James Brown's LIVE AT THE APOLLO VOLUME 1, and Bob Dylan's HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED being some of my favorites. Though I finally proposed to Continuum's editor a book on a different album, one of the others I was seriously considering was the soundtrack to Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's PERFORMANCE (1970).

I've seen PERFORMANCE now countless times, but the album takes me back to a time when I was 14 years old, still too young to see X-rated films, and could only experience "the wild electric dream" promised in the film's newspaper ads through the annex of its music. Anyone of any age could buy the album, though I confess I did so somewhat self-consciously, feeling more than a twinge of transgression as I meekly handed my shrink-wrapped copy over to the salesgirl. Warner Bros. Records had wisely placed Mick Jagger's lippy puss front and center, wanting the maximum return on the closest thing to a Rolling Stones album they had yet marketed, though the Stones would soon sign with sister company Atlantic Records and get their own label in the bargain. Not knowing what the music contained therein might say, exclaim or scream, I listened to the album for the first time under headphones -- and my prudence was, to an extent, well advised.

Assembled under the musical direction of principal composer Jack Nietsche, the PERFORMANCE soundtrack is not your usual soundtrack album, and this was even truer at the time of its release. Much of the album is devoted to byzantine instrumentals featuring (in all their variety) vocals by "Gimme Shelter" soloist Merry Clayton, Moog synthesizing by Paul Beaver, mouth-bow solos by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Mrs. Nietsche at the time), and bluesy electric bottleneck guitar miniatures played by six-string maestro Ry Cooder. The opening section of one of the Cooder showcases, "Get Away," is blatantly patterned on Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's "Sure 'Nuff 'n' Yes I Do," on which Cooder played but which neither he nor Nietsche had a role in composing. Which brings us to the meat and drink of the album, provided by three vocal tracks: Randy Newman's "Gone Dead Train", The Last Poets' "Wake Up Niggers", and of course, Mick Jagger's "Memo from Turner."

All three of these songs are fairly frightening -- "Gone Dead Train" for Newman's suffering, yelping vocal, "Wake Up Niggers" for its confrontational militant fury, and "Memo from Turner" for its Burroughsian cut-up lyrics, which seem at times to point recursively to imagistic content of the film as well as other lyrical content on the album. ("I was eatin' eggs in Sammy's when the black man there drew his knife...") With its great slide guitar work by Little Feat's Lowell George, it remains, I think inarguably, one of the finest things Jagger has ever recorded; it's as apocalyptic in tenor as "Gimme Shelter" but sports hermaphroditic colors, autobiographic shadings ("the baby's dead, my lady said" reportedly refers to a lost child with Marianne Faithfull), and even a sneering sense of humor. As its music heats up, the blood of its lyrics run cold.

The album's title track and closing track "Turner's Murder," with their ominously sustained low end synthesizer notes, put me very much in the mind of another soundtrack of which I was already aware: Quincy Jones' IN COLD BLOOD. I had seen Richard Brooks' film on my 12th birthday and its cold realism left a powerful impression on me; I hid my eyes during the murder scenes on that first pass, which left my senses entirely in the hands of its music, no less violent in its insinuations. So to hear similar music on the PERFORMANCE album promised an equally overpowering experience, and I listened to it repeatedly to conquer my feelings of dread.

I was especially taken by Side 1's closing "Harry Flowers," in which a sweepingly romantic orchestral piece is gradually infected by a phasing synthesizer effect that blooms into receding white noise. It probably prepared me for The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", now that I think about it.

As I look back over the music I absorbed at an early age as I began to wean myself from Top 40 radio, I find that the PERFORMANCE soundtrack was as significant as any record I ever bought in terms of opening my ears and widening my musical boundaries. The album totals a mere 36:26, yet it encompasses alternative rock, Delta blues, electronica, atonal classical, Indian sitar, early rap, MOR and choral music. It's a marvelous record, an important thing considered separately from the film it scored. (It also warrants a digital remaster, as the flat sound of the current CD -- issued way back in 1991 -- suggests it may have been sourced from vinyl.) But, when push came to shove, I couldn't trust myself to write 25,000 words about it. If the proposal I've submitted to Continuum Books gets accepted, I'll tell you which album I decided to write about instead.

I finally saw PERFORMANCE a year or two later. I don't recall the name of the place, but the theater was in northern Kentucky and it was a small room above a regular theater. It was smaller than some home entertainment constructs are today, consisting of only two rows of maybe eight seats, wedged very close together. It looked like a place where an elite circle of powerful executives might congregate to watch porn or snuff movies. There was only one showing of the film, at 12:00 midnight, and the print was a 16mm rental. There was only one projector too, so there was an intermission. As I recall, Brad Balfour, Joel Zakem and Earl Whitson were there, all of whom had seen the movie before and spoken of it with enthusiasm, to say the least. As the movie unreeled, we quickly realized that something was seriously wrong with the sound, either a fault of the projection, the sound system, or the print itself -- which, considering the vaguely illicit setting, might well have been a dupe. So the first time I saw PERFORMANCE, it was an assault of imagery with not too much dialogue that could be sorted out. I remember "Shut your bleeding hole!" and "I'm normal!" being the only two lines that made themselves clear. We told the theater manager about the problem during the reel change and he kindly refunded our money, though we all insisted on sticking around for the rest of the garbled presentation. (Those were, after all, the days when we would apply aluminum foil to the rabbit ears on our television sets and stand with one leg up, flamingo-like, just to watch the snowy reception of some movie playing on a station in a neighboring city.) When I finally saw a proper 35mm revival of the film some years later, I found its Cockney accents so thick, I still couldn't make out a great deal of the dialogue! All this was vital experience in coming to terms with PERFORMANCE, a film I now understand and love a great deal -- which, by the way, will finally be released on DVD by Warner Home Video on February 13.

This random personal history is my way of plugging a beloved series of books, but also of building up to a plug for my friend David Del Valle's latest exhibit of motion picture stills at the Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles. Following David's popular shows devoted to Mexican horror, Italian sword-and-sandal epics, and Roger Corman's Poe films, "PERFORMANCE: A Photographic Exhibition featuring the work of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg" will have its opening reception this Saturday night, January 20, from 7:00 - 10:00pm.

VIDEO WATCHDOG's own Sam Umland will be in attendance to sign copies of his superb book DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE, and David tells us that THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH stars Buck Henry and Candy Clark will also be present. Among the items in the PERFORMANCE portion of the exhibit are eleven seldom-seen photos taken by the celebrated Cecil Beaton on the set, from Cammell's own collection.

For more information about the exhibit, which runs through February 24, visit the Drkrm Gallery website here.

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