Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Strange Seeing Ways of Steve Allen

The late, great Steve Allen. Look into his eyes. On second thought...

I've been meaning to mention these two incidents here for quite awhile, and it's time I got around to it. I know that what I'm about to tell you stretches the fabric of believability, but I assure you that both incidents actually occurred.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT... On April 11, 1966, I'VE GOT A SECRET host Steve Allen introduced special guest George Segal to the program. Segal walked onstage in the company of six other gentlemen; his secret was that he and these men used to be known as the Red Onion Jazz Band and he was their banjo player. Before the panel's questioning got underway, Allen laughingly referred to the assemblage of dark-suited men standing behind him and Segal as "the St. Valentine's Day Massacre." Oddly enough, Segal's next motion picture would be Roger Corman's THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE, released in June 1967!

BELIEVE IT OR NOT... While questioning challenger Ms. Lucille Bohn ("Police Detective") on the January 1, 1967 broadcast of WHAT'S MY LINE?, panelist Steve Allen inquired "Are you some kind of lovely... meter maid?"
His bizarrely phrased question actually preceded the release of The Beatles' SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND album, featuring the song "Lovely Rita" ("Lovely Rita, meter maid / Where would I be without you?"), by six months. According to Barry Miles' book THE BEATLES: A DIARY, all of the Beatles were in London on the date of the broadcast. Furthermore, the US version of WHAT'S MY LINE? was never shown in the UK. According to Miles, Paul McCartney did not begin working on the song until February 23. Weird, huh?
Did Steve Allen actually peer into the future, or merely influence it? We may never know. In the words of Larry Blamire, "I wonder. Oh, well..."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

SCOTT WALKER 30 CENTURY MAN reviewed

It is truly a shame that, two years after its first public screenings, Stephen Kijak's documentary SCOTT WALKER 30 CENTURY MAN has yet to score a US release. The current word is that the film will receive US theatrical distribution in the fall. But, tired of waiting and being a 21 century man who doesn't have to, I broke down and ordered a copy of Verve Pictures' Region 2 disc from Amazon.co.uk, which streeted about a year ago. The film's own subtext seems to prophesy its lack of (or belated) exposure in America as inevitable, because here in the land of Top 40 radio, artists like Scott Walker are not understood. It's a shame, because as music documentaries go, this one is about as good as they come. Kijak tells a story, one that has elements of mystery and moments of epiphany, and one that stands as a source of great inspiration to anyone toiling in any branch of the arts.

Kijak, whose previous documentary CINEMANIA was a somewhat frightening portrait of New York area moviegoers whose love of film tipped over (or plummeted freely) into signs of psychosis, here turns his attention to what some might view as a similar case. Scott Walker -- born Scott Engel in 1945, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio -- rose to fame in 1965 as one third of The Walker Brothers, an American group of three unrelated young men who adopted a common family name. (The whole idea of The Ramones was a pop historic reference to them.) The Walker Brothers inverted the British Invasion by relocating from the West coast to London, where they recorded three albums (two in the US) and many singles, including a couple of transatlantic hits ("Make It Easy On Yourself", "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"). Somehow, despite chart success, they maintained US anonymity while taking England by storm. Their UK fan club was reportedly bigger than that of The Beatles, and singer Lulu admits to having a terrible crush on Scott, the cute one. "Is he still cute?" she wants to know.

Scott penned a number of the Walkers' increasingly fantastic B-sides and became the breakout star of the group but, behind his dark Foster Grants, he professed having no interest in money; his only interest was in expressing himself musically, wherever that happened to take him -- and being a young man of taste and intelligence, it took him far afield. His interest in European cinema led to an infatuation with the then-scandalous, theatrical songs of Jacques Brel, but during the period when he attempted to become a British chanteur, Scott continued to write his own increasingly abstract songs and honing one of the most distinctive voices ever raised in pop music -- a deep crooner's voice often seemingly at odds with his poetry and the soundscapes he constructed in support of it. Today, that voice sounds archetypally familiar, after decades of its commercial imitation by the likes of Bryan Ferry, David Sylvian and, especially, David Bowie (who repaid some dues by executive producing this film). It was a voice that could have easily gone mainstream and reaped every platinum album ever to fall into the laps of Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdinck, Rod Stewart and Michael Bolton, but that sort of career didn't interest Scott Walker.

His fourth solo album, SCOTT 4, is now regarded as his masterpiece but it heralded the end of his solo success. The movie skirts the issue, but offers lines to be read between about incidents of public drunkenness, no-shows at scheduled concerts, and an increasing discomfort with live performance. A Walker Brothers reunion yielded another Top 10 hit, but their third reunion album coincided with the dissolution of their record company, encouraging Scott to follow his Muse to the end with his contributions to the record. Spacy, adventurous and nonlinear, Scott's contribution to the album NITE FLIGHTS pointed the way to a resuscitated solo career that is second to none in terms of artistic integrity. Looking over the lyrics to one of his older solo compositions, no less than Brian Eno chuckles ruefully, "It's humiliating... after all this time, we [musicians] still haven't moved past this."

Narrated by Sara Kestelman (ZARDOZ), SCOTT WALKER 30 CENTURY MAN skips over some individual albums in telling its story but does paint a compelling portrait of an artist capable of working only on his own terms. In an extraordinary coup, Kijak scored the cooperation of the secretive Walker himself, who is shown in original interviews, on the set of a film directing the live performance of his original score, and in the recording studio during the making of his solo album THE DRIFT. Remarkably for someone whose truly avant garde music has been described as abrasive, inaccessible, abyssal and suicidally dark ("This isn't a funk session," he once cautioned a collaborator in the studio), Scott Walker personally projects an almost wholesome image and still speaks with a Midwestern accent after decades spent overseas; nevertheless, he speaks about his music and his goals for his music with unyielding focus and passion. He admits to suffering from nightmares and outsized emotions, noting that everything in his world seems "big" to him, but unlike some other composers (Brian Wilson leaps to mind), he has never lost control of his vision or been broken by it.

In some ways, Scott Walker's greatest legacy to the greatest number of people will be his approach to career -- his refusal of easy, soulless, pretty-boy pop success and embrace of a more meaningful lifestyle predicated on artistic risk, his willingness to let ten years pass between albums -- rather than his actual music, which is extraordinary but hardly accessible to the average ears. That said, the film also embodies a moving introduction to, of defense of, Scott's music, particularly in a lengthy sequence that shows a number of interview subjects (including David Bowie, Sting, Jarvis Cocker, Marc Almond, Johnny Marr, Alison Goldfrapp and members of Radiohead) intently listening to individual songs and occasionally remarking on them. (These scenes take us to the core of the musician/listener relationship and remind us that this form of intimacy is where music truly lives, not in the charts or the loud car radios of people needing a "soundtrack to their lives.")

This film should be considered required viewing for artists of all kinds for the simple reason that it is so inspirational; it depicts a level of almost monastic consecration to one's craft that is so rare as to be easily mistaken for incipient insanity -- when it is the idea that the value of any music is dictated by the marketplace that is truly mad. French journalist Brian Gascoigne, a longtime devotée of the artist, speaks enviously of those people who have yet to discover Scott Walker's recorded works, and this film will surely seduce a good many viewers into seeking them out.

The 16:9 disc is attractive and features a number of brilliantly animated sequences assembled in illustration of the musical content. The audio is two-channel stereo only. The extras include a director's commentary, a trailer, and bonus interviews (none longer than 5m) with about a dozen people, including Walker's former manager Ed Bicknell, who admits to loaning Scott more money than he ever made from representing him, and that he'd do it all again in a heartbeat. "It's great music to fuck to," he grins -- and, when he says that, something clicks and we realize that this unclassifiable music and funk have something essential in common, after all.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Barbara Steele is Rising from the Grave Again

Good news in today's mail box from David Gregory of Severin Films:

ORIGINAL NEGATIVE OF BARBARA STEELE CLASSIC "NIGHTMARE CASTLE" (aka "THE FACELESS MONSTER") UNEARTHED IN ROME

Gothic horror fans will be delighted to know that Severin Films will be giving the first official DVD release to the 1965 Barbara Steele chiller NIGHTMARE CASTLE/THE FACELESS MONSTER (original title: Amanti d’oltretomba, or "Lovers Beyond The Tomb"). The original negative has recently been discovered in a Rome storage vault and apparently in good condition. We will be doing a new HD transfer in its original aspect ratio, so all those super cheap bootleg DVDs taken from 10th generation TV prints can now be discarded forever. The film was directed by Mario Caiano, a veteran of all the great Italian exploitation genres including Spaghetti Westerns (MMY NAME IS SHANGHAI JOE/BULLETS DON'T ARGUE), Pepla (ULYSSES AGAINST HERCULES/GOLIATH AND THE REBEL SLAVE) and Poliziatesci (Napoli Spara/Milano Violenta). Caiano is still very much with us, and we recently shot a great interview with the 75 year old master at his home just outside of Rome. NIGHTMARE CASTLEe also showcases the very first horror score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and the beautiful black & white cinematography comes courtesy of Enzo Barboni, who would later strike gold as the director of the 'Trinity' westerns starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. We’re very excited to be releasing this uncut, uncensored and unsung hit of Italian horror history, which after years of bootleg abominations will now find its rightful place alongside the other Barbara Steele classics like Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY and Margheriti’s CASTLE OF BLOOD. This is NIGHTMARE CASTLE as it truly has never been seen before.

I'm quite excited about this pending release, which for the record also stars fan favorites Helga Liné and Paul Müller, but its presentation begs some comment. First of all, that MONSTERS AT PLAY quote -- it's not only an unwarranted shot at the Maestro, it's ungrammatical.

More importantly, I think Severin is doing this important release an inadvertent disservice by referring to any restored and uncut version with runamuck titles like NIGHTMARE CASTLE and THE FACELESS MONSTER. NIGHTMARE CASTLE was the abortive US cut of Caiano's film, which was bluntly shortened by a couple of reels; it was the worst, most incoherent importation of any Italian horror film EVER -- so bad, in fact, it ought to be preserved alongside the original cut for posterity's sake. As for THE FACELESS MONSTER, it was the title given to a more complete but still censored version issued in the UK. Retromedia Entertainment attached it to their release of the uncut version, which would have been nice if they hadn't tampered with the audio track, adding new sound effects. So any way you look at them, NIGHTMARE CASTLE and THE FACELESS MONSTER are bad memories.
The uncut export edition of this movie is known as NIGHT OF THE DOOMED, and as a fan who not only remembers but loves this stuff (the audience Severin is courting), my gut reaction is to view any copy bearing the title NIGHTMARE CASTLE with a measure of suspicion. I'm sure it's not warranted in this case, but the people handling these releases need to be sensitive about such things. Nevertheless, I wish Severin Films all the best with what promises to be an exciting new release.
A photo from the film which Barbara inscribed to our late friend Alan Upchurch.
The uncut version, whether you call it Amanti d'oltretomba or NIGHT OF THE DOOMED, is an important title from the Italian Golden Age pantheon, and one of Barbara Steele's best star vehicles. Not a notch on BLACK SUNDAY, of course, but it is significant as the only horror film for which Steele dubbed her own performance (one of her dual roles) -- and the news about the discovery of the original negative element is wonderful. Just to know that people over there are looking for such things is wonderful.

Now where is THE TERROR OF DR. HICHCOCK?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Catching Up with GLIMPSES

Encouraged by my friend David J. Schow (thanks, Dave!), I just read GLIMPSES by Lewis Shiner, a fantasy novel published in 1993.

It's the powerfully imagined story of a stereo repairman and music lover who discovers, while dealing with the fall out from his father's suicide, that he has the ability to imprint music that he has imagined onto recording tape. His fascination with lost and unfinished legendary records prompts him to mentally create a non-existent track from The Beatles' GET BACK sessions, a version of "The Long and Winding Road" played by all four members without Phil Spector's symphonics, which is released as a bootleg single. His partner then sets him to work on other legendary unfinished albums that need recreating: The Doors' CELEBRATION OF THE LIZARD, The Beach Boys' SMILE and Jimi Hendrix's FIRST RAYS OF THE NEW RISING SUN. The chapters in which the protagonist, Ray, "meets" Brian Wilson in 1966 and Jimi Hendrix in 1970 and confides in them that he's a man from the future are actually believable, surprising and incredibly exciting.

This novel remains an absorbing, thoughtful and relevant read, despite the fact that we now live in a world in which FIRST RAYS OF THE RISING SUN and SMILE (as a Brian Wilson solo album) exist -- not to mention LET IT BE - NAKED. The chapters involving Ray's personal life are as believable and captivating as the musical ones, and there's a sex scene so vividly described that it becomes a "you are there" head trip on par with Shriner's imaginings of the classic recording sessions.

My only complaint about the books that the final chapter needed more... or less. As is, it's a paragraph too long; the book's conversational closing lines have no resonance and almost make Ray's closing in on happiness seem an almost unworthy goal. I would still enthusiastically recommend GLIMPSES, particularly to rock fans and fans of my novel THROAT SPROCKETS, which probes some similar venues of obsession -- which, I assume, is the reason why David put it in front of me.

Snooping around online, I found a generous "preview" sampling of GLIMPSES here, and author Lewis Shiner also has a website and a special "Fiction Liberation Front" page where downloadable files of much of his writing have been made freely available.