Sunday, February 01, 2009

Origins of a Film Critic

Me (third from left) with the Mirror staff, photographed on the ground floor of the then-under-construction new building of Norwood High School in 1971. Click to embiggen.

These have been very interesting times for me: I've been unexpectedly reunited with a long-lost friend from high school, now a successful and well-travelled artist. This has led to a vigorous, fulfilling correspondence and a lot of restimulated memories from thirty-odd years ago, some good and some not-so-good. My friend evidently lost a lot of her old personal photos along the way, and she asked if I might send her some high school pics, which led me and my digital camera back to my long-packed-away yearbooks from Norwood High School. While rifling through the pages of the 1971 and '72 Silhouettes in search of her, I also took a digital snap of this personal shot, which shows me as part of the staff of the school paper, The Mirror. This is where I was first published as a film critic.

Introducing the Mirror staff from left to right: Sharon Nolte, Gary Larrison, yours truly, Jeff Wilkerson, assistant editor Joan Peters, editor Randall Parsons, Rod Best and faculty advisor Miss Danea White. (Not pictured: Bill Howard and Nadine Hoover. Nadine was a sweetie, and I hope she's happy and thriving, whatever her current circumstances may be.)

Randy Parsons was the president of the 1971 senior class, the fellow who spoke to us clueless frosh on Orientation Day, telling us about the school and the innate superiority of upperclassmen while also encouraging us to pursue extracurricular activities. I responded by following him out of the auditorium, calling "Mr. Parsons!" down the hall, and offering my services to The Mirror as film critic then and there. I'd already had some reviews accepted by CINEFANTASTIQUE, not yet published, which gave me this then-unusual measure of courage.

My chores on The Mirror, where I worked through my freshman and sophomore years, consisted of reviewing films and records and also writing/drawing a serial comic strip, Captain Norwood. Unfortunately, only two samples of the strip survive in my archive: the first and the very last, published toward the end of my freshman year. The final strip became a huge cause celebre at NHS when Captain Norwood was finally unmasked and revealed to be the school janitor, Fred Burnett, who became an overnight star. There's a picture in the 1971 Yearbook of Fred surrounded by a gaggle of prom girls, the poor man looking like a deer caught in the headlights of teenage sex. That picture is the success of Captain Norwood in a nutshell. I don't know why I didn't continue the strip in my sophomore year, when Mrs. Janet Fealy took over as faculty advisor. Possibly she wanted the paper to become a little less irreverent, or maybe I decided not to continue with it. I liked Mrs. Fealy; she was remarkably forgiving of my various crimes, like blasting The Mothers of Invention's "Billy the Mountain" on the paper office's turntable when I had no idea that she was sitting in the outer room, grading papers. The look she shot me as I emerged from the room with the record under my arm -- followed by a slow, head-shaking, half-complicit smile -- is one of my sweetest memories of high school.

Some other interesting folks here. I'm the only freshman in the picture. Gary Larrison, the senior standing to the left of me, was the first novelist I ever met. I remember him working on an original novel called THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, undertaken for Independent Study, in the paper office. I was astonished by the ambition of his project and I asked him about it with great interest; it turned out to be my first glimpse of my own future life. Sharon Nolte, who looks remarkably like Donna looked when we first met two years later, was a nice girl, one of two (the other being Nadine) who cared enough to check on me at home during an extended absence after the 1972 suicide of my best friend, Mike Hennel.

Danea White was the most important teacher I ever had, though I never had the pleasure of taking one of her classes. In addition to being the paper's advisor, she became a personal friend and mentor, and there were a few times when she, her boyfriend (and later husband) John and I used my theater passes to go to the movies together. It was a great time for movies and we saw things like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and EL TOPO, which I then reviewed for the school paper, though I doubt even my senior editor Randy was old enough at the time to be admitted to them. One day, Miss White and John surprised me by inviting me to lunch in that off-limits haven, the teacher's cafeteria, where my presence drew the codfish-eye from a few other teachers who regarded me as something of a ne'er-do-well. I credit Danea's interest in my talent and well-being with keeping me alive during a difficult period and with encouraging me to finally forsake my art interests to become a writer. My only regret is that we're standing so far apart in this picture, the only one ever taken of us together.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Throat Sprockets Cult

Pierre Olivier-Templier's cover art for the French edition of my novel THROAT SPROCKETS.

It has now been more than twenty years since I first published anything bearing the title THROAT SPROCKETS. It first appeared as a 12-page story in the premiere issue of Steve Bissette's horror anthology TABOO, published in the Fall of 1988. The initial tale was conceived as the first chapter of a graphic novel; it was illustrated in remarkable photo-realistic style by Mike Hoffman and garnered a lot of favorable attention. TABOO's debut issue also featured the work of comics royalty like Alan Moore, Steve himself, Eddie Campbell and Charles Burns, but many reviewers singled out "Throat Sprockets" -- my very first published work in comics -- as the collection's best story. I've never forgotten how, while attending an Ohio comics convention with Steve around that time, someone I knew locally (who had never really given me much of the time of day before) came up to the table where we were signing, clasped my hand in both of his, shook it vigorously, and congratulated me with all the earnestness of a priest. His sincere appreciation of the story was my first glimmer of the impact THROAT SPROCKETS would have on certain people.

I'd like to say "people" in general, rather than "certain people," because that would mean the initial positive reaction went on to become more widespread. Alas, while TABOO went on to introduce other developing graphic novels (like Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL and Moore & Melinda Gebbie's LOST GIRLS), the graphic version of THROAT SPROCKETS was stillborn, never completed. This was partly due to the fact that Mike's photo-realistic style required so much time to execute, and also because my comics scripts -- possibly as a result from the Alan Moore SWAMP THING scripts that Steve used to school me in the technique -- were becoming not only more detailed and more complex, but untenably long. The second chapter, "Transylvania mon amour" in TABOO #3 (1989) ran a full 30 pages. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the graphic-novel-in-progress was crying out to become the traditional novel I eventually wrote. It was Steve who encouraged me to do this, and it took some doing because I had already written, and failed to sell, numerous other literary novels. But I knew I couldn't continue with the way things were going: my working relationship with Mike Hoffman worsened after we met, and my only contact with his successor David Lloyd (V FOR VENDETTA) -- who ultimately did a splendid job of illustrating the third story, "The Disaster Area" for TABOO #8 (June 1995) -- was a belligerent note he fired off to me on an Edward G. Robinson postcard, when I suggested adding a single panel to a page I had scripted. The three issues of TABOO in which the THROAT SPROCKETS arc appear -- numbers 1, 3 and 8, respectively -- are long out-of-print, but Steve makes a dwindling number of personal stash copies available at SR Bissette's Online Emporium. If you're at all interested, order now because the supply is just about gone.

I would never have proceeded with the novel without the support of a literary agent. My first agent, an enthusiastic young woman named Cathy Mahar, took on the project -- then, in a preview of things to come, decided to quit agenting just as things started happening. Cathy did give me the lead that got me accepted as a client by agent Lori Perkins, and Cathy and I kept in sporadic touch until I received the tragic news of her death, from a brain aneurysm, just weeks after she had sent me a congratulatory letter on the book's acceptance by editor Jeanne Cavelos at Dell. THROAT SPROCKETS was originally acquired by Jeanne to be part of her Abyss horror series, but because the manuscript was considered to be literary noir than traditional horror, it was held back from release a full year and finally issued in September 1994 as the first original novel under the new Cutting Edge imprint. It was preceded by the first softcover edition of Patrick McCabe's THE BUTCHER BOY (which featured an ad for THROAT SPROCKETS on its closing page), which had already appeared in hardcover from another company.

Despite a front cover endorsement by Bret Easton Ellis, a sexed-up subtitle I had nothing to do with ("A novel of erotic obsession"), and unanimous rave reviews, Dell's lack of promotional support (made worse by Jeanne's departure from the company and her replacement by a chilly editorial contact who, I was told, found my book offensive) killed it in its crib. Though Ellen Datlow called it the year's best first novel, THROAT SPROCKETS went unnominated in any of the fiction categories for literary horror awards. It was subsequently published in Great Britain by 4th Estate, who gave it lovely hardcover and softcover editions, and it fared somewhat better overseas than here. It was later translated into French by Simon Lhopiteau as SALLES OBSCURES ("Darkened Theatres") for Pocket Books' Terreur line in Paris. The cover of the French edition (pictured above, a painting by Pierre Olivier-Templier) is my personal favorite, one of the most extraordinary covers I've seen on any book. I so wish I owned the original.

THROAT SPROCKETS, the novel, has been named as one of the best horror novels by at least two reference books compiling such lists, and RUE MORGUE recently included it in a list of essential progressive horror fiction. Despite this continuing interest and support, the book has now been out of print for thirteen years, and there is no sign of it being reprinted and given a chance for broader recognition. With internet booksellers offering used copies at a lower price than it costs to mail it, I can easily understand, especially in this economy, why publishing companies might not see the wisdom of throwing new money in its direction. Though I make no profit from these used copies, they are like seedlings, continuing to bring me new readers brave enough to read fiction by someone principally known for writing non-fiction.

In the very first sentence of the first review of my book I ever read, a wonderful write-up in FANGORIA, Linda Marotta called THROAT SPROCKETS "the kind of novel around which cults are formed." The enthusiasm of her review braced me for imminent fame and fortune, which didn't come, but she was prophetic in that she foresaw a cult for the book.

If you type the words "throat sprockets" into the search engine at, you will be taken to a page that not only shows the various editions of my novel, but lists other works of fiction that, uncannily, pay it tribute. A story by VW's Kim Newman -- called "Castle in the Desert" in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR 12 and "The Other Side of Midnight" in VAMPIRE SEXTETTE -- namechecks the imaginary film in my novel as a real one, and a vivid character I mentioned only in passing, porn director Debbie W. Griffith, is discussed as though a real person. For all I know, today she may well be... it would sit well beside the fact that a 1996 horror novel, ESCARDY GAP by Peter Crowder and James Lovegrove, features a Nurse Sprocket (possibly a nod to my novel's "Once Upon a Time in the West" chapter, set in a hospital) and refers on page 252 to the "throat sprockets" of an old projector in a movie theater. Last year, Rayo Casablanca's novel 6 SICK HIPSTERS placed a copy of THROAT SPROCKETS in a character's apartment as a sign of their good taste. To my even greater surprise, two different books about music make reference to THROAT SPROCKETS, citing its depiction of cinemania as reflective of the masculine record collecting impulse.

Which brings us to this curious turn of events. As of last week, when you type "throat sprockets" into the search engine, my book is no longer the first thing you see. The newest THROAT SPROCKETS on the block is the debut CD (pictured) of an inventive and energetic band from Glendale, California, who call themselves, with my blessing, Throat Sprockets. The 14-track album on Cat Sandwich Records is available from both Amazon and also makes it available as an mp3 download.

The lead singer of the group, who goes by the name Miss Lonelyhearts, sent me a copy of the disc for my thoughts. It's one of the most intimidating review duties I've ever had to face, because I feel a paternal connection to these fans of my book who wanted to carry its banner, so to speak. (Miss Lonelyhearts told me "It's the best band name since Led Zeppelin!") But what if I didn't care for what they produced under the auspices of my title? Would I want to withdraw my permission? Could I?

Fortunately, I need no longer fret over such questions because, having listened to THROAT SPROCKETS a few times, I do like it. It's noisy, quirky, clever and unpredictable. Like most debut independent releases, it finds the band still in the process of discovering their group identity, their group sound, but the search itself takes them through a series of interesting mutations. It's a map of their musical interests and ranges rather than a focused statement, and its presentation is so cryptic -- no personnel listing, no explanation for the front or back cover illustrations, and the album's opening and closing guitar notes are in Morse code -- that it conveys the feel of a message launched in a bottle, sent out in search of the right ears eager to listen.

"The Bruiser" is probably the most commercial and fully realized track of the bunch, but I find myself most attracted to the more lyrical "Small Potatoes" (really lovely) and "Violent Kisses," which I think feature the best singing on the album. Several songs have a strong melodic sense and, at the same time, a quirky experimental edge; the sound of Throat Sprockets is a slippery, busy, noodly sound, at different times whimsically juvenile, brashly teenage and emotionally armored young adult, veering somewhere between instrumental virtuosity and André Gide's admonition "Do not understand me too quickly." Sometimes the music and lyric are willfully contradictory. For example, "Each and Every Day" might have been the standout, but the bluesy gravitas of the lyric seems to belong to a different song, the accompaniment so contrary as to deny the emotions the words express. Miss Lonelyhearts, whose voice I file mentally between Joan Jett and Belinda Carlisle, alternates vocals with an unnamed male bandmember, but his tracks don't particularly grab me. I suspect the more melodic inclinations of the band will guide them to a unique group sound before their thrash numbers will, but it's the band's call, of course -- and everything depends on what they add to these building blocks. I'm told they have already moved on creatively from here, and will start recording their second album shortly.

Bottom line: Though I found the THROAT SPROCKETS album too scattershot to pin down as a whole, it held my interest throughout with its constant edge of invention, and it kept my foot tapping. It is engaging, and I'm proud to be reached by this latest ripple from the book I cast on the waters all those years ago.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Gone, or Updike Underground

The great American novelist John Updike has died, a lung cancer victim, at the age of 76.. As a stylist, he was certainly comparable to his great hero Vladimir Nabokov. A few of his novels (like THE CENTAUR) and most of his poetry I found insufferably precious, but the Rabbit books, his stories about the disintegrating Maple family, and even the Bech comedies are remarkable core samples of their times; I can remember images and turns of phrase from RABBIT REDUX, which I read more than 20 years ago, as vividly as I remember anything I saw with my own two eyes in the 1960s. Updike was also one of the great literary critics and essayists of our time, and the enormous books he published collecting this material -- PICKED-UP PIECES, HUGGING THE SHORE and ODD JOBS, for example -- are eminently worthwhile. He wrote especially well about nature, money, the realities of business and middle age, illicit sexual relationships and Herman Melville. I also loved the way he stuck with Alfred J. Knopf as his publisher from, I believe, his second book on -- the hardcovers under the dust wrappers forming a rainbow-hued uniform edition of his collected works. My title may seem irreverent, but remembering his own proclivities for alliteration and rhyme, I feel it is very close to the title he would have selected for his own obit.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Criterion's WHITE DOG reviewed

... by me, in the current February 2009 issue of SIGHT AND SOUND... and also here on their website.

Not Yvonne Craig!

Yvonne Craig responds:

"I don't know who it is - Anne Helm and I used to resemble one another, but these aren't my legs or Anne's, so I don't know who it is. Sorry!"

What a disappointment!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Yvonne Craig, the Early Years?

Yesterday, Tom Sutpen's essential photo blog If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger,There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats posted the above 1958 album cover as part of their ongoing series "The Art of Pop." There was no comment posted about it, so I simply looked at it, smiled, and continued to scroll through the latest additions. However, seeing the album cover a second time today, I did a double take and thought to myself, "Wait a minute... that's Yvonne Craig!"
Yvonne's autobiography FROM BALLET TO THE BATCAVE AND BEYOND makes no mention of posing for this album cover, but that's understandable: it would have been no more than a day's modelling work for her and thus imminently forgettable. Also, she had just left the Ballet Russe and made her first picture, Republic's EIGHTEEN AND ANXIOUS, so this album cover would hardly have been considered a résumé highlight even at the time. But what a fascinating curio! I've written to her, care of her website, and sent the pic to a couple of friends who also might be able to ask her about it, just to get official confirmation. Assuming it is her, however she may feel about it, it strikes me as cute and cool... and automatically worth four times whatever it was worth before as a collectable.
Update: It's not her.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Good Night, Stacey Tendeter

Stacey Tendeter as the uncompromising Muriel, embraced by Jean-Pierre Léaud, in François Truffaut's TWO ENGLISH GIRLS.

I was drawn tonight to refresh my memory of François Truffaut's TWO ENGLISH GIRLS [Les deux Anglaises, 1972]. It gave me a knot in my stomach, as I suppose its intense yet restrained emotions always have. Afterwards, I decided to surf the net and see what its two lead actresses, Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter, were up to these days -- we don't hear much about them here in the States. Happily, Kika (who played Ann, the sculptress) is still active onstage and in films and television, but I was disappointed to see that Stacey (who played Muriel, the sister with the eye problems) hadn't been in active in films since 1988 and that the IMDb had no personal information about her at all, not even a birth date. Further research uncovered the unhappy news that Stacey died last October 26 at the age of 59, a victim of breast cancer. I don't recall reading about this tragedy anywhere at the time; not even the website dedicated to her has yet broken the news, still referring interested casting directors to her agent. Sad.

I think TWO ENGLISH GIRLS is one of Truffaut's masterpieces, and his most wrenching. It's a tribute to the intimacy he made me feel with so many of his performers that I always feel a unique shade of sadness when one of his stars leaves the world stage. Now I'm off to bed, feeling it once again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I've Been Dardosed

Pierre Fournier, the mastermind behind the wonderfully obsessive Frankensteinia blog, kindly wrote the other day to inform me that I'd been chosen as one of his five tag-ees for the Dardos blogging Award. I'm not sure where the Dardos Award originated because I'm pretty far down the line of recipients, as far as I can tell, but here's the legend behind it:

"The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

"The rules are: 1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog. 2) Pass the award to another 5 blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award."

I thank Pierre for his thoughtful consideration, as expressed here, which moves me on to Condition #2. I can't guarantee that any of these bloggers haven't already been recognized by Dardos and the spreaders of its happy contagion, but the object of this exercise is to help get the word out about people doing quality blogging. With that in mind, I hearby Dardose...

Stephen R. Bissette's Myrant. Even if there was a tin cup attached to his blog, Steve would give you way, way more than your money's worth. An unpredictable mixture of personal diary, sketchpad, auction house and burning Bush screeds, it also presents some of the most insightful essays on horror and cult cinema found anywhere online. In addition to everything else he does, I blame him for inspiring me to start Video WatchBlog.

Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running. Glenn says His Lovely Wife is a fan of mine, so it's the least I can do. Just kidding. This infectiously readable blog was set up overnight in response to Glenn's sudden firing as PREMIERE's film blogger sometime near the outset of the Great Film Critics Massacre of 2008, and I've been part of his daily audience ever since. I was about to blog in memory of Kathleen Byron the other day, till I saw this and realized I couldn't possibly improve on it. Here he proves himself a master of saying a lot in very few words -- must be that PREMIERE training. Plus he loves import discs and other filmo-fetishistic weirdness. And when Glenn writes about music, I'm always gasterflabbed by how many other interests we have in common. The only non-VW contributor among my choices, though not by conscious design.

Maitland McDonagh's Miss FlickChick. Maitland, the author of MOVIE LUST, FILMMAKING ON THE FRINGE, THE 50 MOST EROTIC FILMS OF ALL TIME and the ever popular BROKEN MIRRORS/BROKEN MINDS: THE DARK DREAMS OF DARIO ARGENTO -- was another casualty of the Massacre, forfeiting her position as TV GUIDE's senior movies editor after 13 years of solid service. Since last October, she's been steadily blogging, mostly about scary movies, always in her uniquely smart, uniquely alluring way. Even her account of a day trip to the Bronx Zoo captured something of her trademark vibe: "Suffice it to say that the highlight of my day was having a hissing cockroach crawl across my hand and hiss in my ear."

Richard Harland Smith of Movie Morlocks. For my money, RHS is, hands-down, one of the most talented and original writers about genre film working today -- and sometimes he actually does this for my money. In a saner world, he'd have a lucrative job as one of the nation's leading opinion-makers. As it is, he's one of a revolving group of bloggers at TCM's Movie Morlocks, and his remarkably candid, personal reading of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN is a recent advertisement of his uncompromising ability.

Sam Umland's 60x50. I often think I need to stop visiting the film blogs I frequent and start tracking down more music blogs. Sam explains that his 60x50 is "an experiment in invention and discovery, inspired by an observation made by William Stafford in WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL. The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate Stafford's insight that a writer 'is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.'" Prompted randomly by the date on the calendar, Sam not only writes short thematic essays on popular music, but excavates meaning from obtuse rock lyrics, explores commonly misheard lyrics, and is always coming up with something insightful and rewarding.

Just click on the italicized blog titles, and you'll be taken right there.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Happy Birthday to John Charles!

VIDEO WATCHDOG's un-pho-to-graphable associate editor John Paul Charles turns (cough, cough) years old today, and is no doubt celebrating with a movie. It's bound to be either Asian in origin or very, very bad. If he's really living it up today, it might even be both.

A resident of Guelph, Ontario and the author of the authoritative THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY 1977-1997 (McFarland and Company), John first appeared in VW in the Letterbox of our third issue, adding some valuable information to our coverage of Wes Craven's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. He then addressed himself to the task of making it impossible to work without him and, by our 12th issue, he had ascended to the position of full-fledged contributor. Amazingly, though we have been working closely together for the past (gulp) 18 years, John and Donna and I have never met. (I'm still hoping to meet Donna someday... Just kidding! But when we're in the midst of working on a new issue, like now, it's kind of close-to-the-truth kidding.) The one time when we were in John's neck of the woods, back in 2000, turned out to be one of the rare times he had to be somewhere else. Hopefully, we'll be able to thank him in person someday for all that he's given to VW over the years.

After a period when he wasn't able to contribute as a writer as often as he would have liked, John is turning in more and more reviews these days, so stay tuned to forthcoming issues for his takes on different movies. In the meantime, visit his Hong Kong Digital site, which you can reach over there >>>> on my list of permanent links.

I'm happy to report that John's HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY is finally due to be published in softcover by McFarland in March. You can pre-order your copy here. If you can't wait or prefer the hardcover edition, this is where you want to go.

Saluting Miss Stacia

Miss Stacia (Blake), stage dancer with the rock band Hawkwind (1971-75).

"She was a bookbinder by profession, and then she had an uncontrollable urge one night to take all her clothes off and paint herself blue! It was probably a throwback to the Roman invasion of Britain -- you think 'woad,' y'know?... She was great, blowin' bubbles onstage and shit. She was an impressive woman... six foot two with a 52-inch bust... An overwhelming sight for the youngsters in the crowd."

So remembered Lemmy (bass, vocals), when interviewed for the 2007 BBC Four documentary HAWKWIND: DO NOT PANIC, directed by Simon Chu. The entire program is accessible at YouTube in nine segments; the segment specifically relevant to Miss Stacia is Part 5 (0:24-2:02), though she does appear briefly elsewhere.

A 1974 PENTHOUSE interview with Stacia, who often danced topless and sometimes completely unclothed, gave her true Amazonian proportions as 42-28-39. Nevertheless, surviving film footage leaves no doubt that she was a staggering, opulent apparition in action and the perfect visual complement to Hawkwind's boistrous, chugging brand of sci-fi rock (some of which featured the collaboration of novelist Michael Moorcock). The fans who knew Hawkwind only from records and those who saw them live certainly have different tales to tell. To the best of my knowledge, no footage from Stacia's fondly remembered tenure with the group (which included the legendary "Space Ritual" tour) has ever been released on tape or disc.

Today, Stacia Blake lives in Ireland where she pursues a career as a fine artist. She maintains a website with a gallery of her acrylics and watercolors, some of which are available for purchase. More information (and speculation) can be found on her Wikipedia page here.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Just To Prove Life's Not All About Death

... I'm still thinking about Myriem Roussel, all these weeks later. And the fact seems to amuse her.

Secondly, a trés Joyeux Anniversaire to Françoise Hardy, who turns 65 today. Listen and sing along. And for the Francophobes in my audience, here's one just for you.

For Your Oscar Consideration

Best Supporting Actress: The Monkey from Dario Argento's MOTHER OF TEARS.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Farewell to Richard Seaver

Another important recent death which has escaped general notice, at least in the blogging worlds I frequent, is that of American editor, publisher and translator Richard Seaver. He died last Monday at the age of 82.

You can read a full NEW YORK TIMES obit here, but Mr. Seaver was invaluable to my literary upbringing and consciousness as the editor-in-chief at Grove Press during their 1960s heyday. During those years, he approved or perpetuated Grove's sponsorship of such writers as Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Henry Miller, Marguerite Duras, Hubert Selby Jr., and even the Marquis de Sade (whose works he personally translated). He also translated many books for the company, notably THE STORY OF O by the pseudonymous Pauline Réàge, which he pseudonymously translated under the alluring name Sabine d'Estrée. When he left Grove to become an editor at Viking Press, with his own subimprint ("A Richard Seaver Book"), he took Burroughs with him; it was at Viking that Burroughs published the important trilogy of works that began with CITIES OF THE RED NIGHT. Seaver was also responsible for a valiant attempt to find an American audience for the great Irish comic novelist Flann O'Brien. He later founded Arcade Publishing. According to the NEW YORK TIMES, he completed a memoir of his life in publishing shortly before his death.

Richard Seaver was one of progressive publishing's great brand names, perhaps its last great brand name. Anything that bore his byline or endorsement was certain to be challenging, elevating and pleasurable, always well worth reading.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Prisoner Escapes

If any actor's death deserves the full treatment here at Video WatchBlog, it's the death of actor-producer-writer-director Patrick McGoohan, which unfortunately has been reported today by the Associated Press and other news sources. Unfortunately, I'm too occupied with various work at present to eulogize him now as he deserves.

I've written quite a bit about McGoohan recently, though, while he was still among us. There was my cover story on THE PRISONER for VIDEO WATCHDOG #142, and my review of his early film THE QUARE FELLOW for last month's SIGHT AND SOUND; his Disney serial DOCTOR SYN - THE SCARECROW is in my "to review" stack for VW; and his performance in Disney's haunting cat fantasy THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA has been on my mind the last couple of weeks (I need to watch that one again). As everyone else is saying, McGoohan was THE PRISONER and, as not enough people are saying, he was also John Drake in the greatest espionage series ever, DANGER MAN aka SECRET AGENT.

He was a brittle, charming, mysterious, ruthless, deeply principled actor, capable of turning from kindly to harsh in the steely flash of an eye. His early work shows him in the Richard Attenborough mold (he must have studied BRIGHTON ROCK closely as a young man) but he quickly took charge of his own career and succeeded in shattering those perimeters to become his Own Man. What is left to be said? At his best, he was unbelievably compelling; even at his worst, he was endlessly fascinating -- his audience would delight in constructing theories about why he was off. You would think the abundance of quality work he left behind would satiate us, but he leaves us standing, applauding, wanting more. That, young actors everywhere, is how it's done.

A giant.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Redmond, Maitland and Cave

I've been remiss in announcing that VIDEO WATCHDOG #146 was mailed to our subscribers just before the holidays and is now on newsstands everywhere. The cover feature is the first-ever interview with 99-year-old Harry Redmond, Jr., whose long special effects career extended from RKO's classic features of the 1930s (THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, KING KONG, SHE, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII) to TV's THE OUTER LIMITS in the 1960s. Remarkably, Mr. Redmond appears to be the only worker on the original KING KONG still among us, thereby earning the interview's striking title: "Last Survivor of Skull Island." THE DINOSAUR FILMOGRAPHY author Mark F. Berry, who interviewed Judi Bowker for us in VW #135, adds another feather to his cap with this important career overview, which has already been suggested for a Rondo Best Article Award over on the Classic Horror Film Boards. You can find out more about the issue and its contents, and even order your copy, on the VIDEO WATCHDOG website.

Donna and I are only now starting to work on VIDEO WATCHDOG #147. The feature article in this issue will be another of our popular Round Table Discussions, this one devoted to Dario Argento's THE MOTHER OF TEARS, one of the more controversial horror releases of recent years. In this case, our round table is composed of , including input from Kim Newman, Richard Harland Smith, Brad Stevens, yours truly and -- happily making her first VW appearance since our 8th issue, back in 1991 -- BROKEN MIRRORS/BROKEN MINDS author Maitland McDonagh!

On a more personal note... I've been preoccupied over the past four months with writing a short story for an anthology of fiction based on the music of Nick Cave. I've never had much luck with writing short stories, and I guess this still holds true, since this one ultimately swelled into a novelette of five chapters, running close to 17,000 words -- just a couple of pages shy of novella status. I loved working on it and feel very pleased with the result, and am now contending with the usual post-partum depression though my nest is anything but empty. I've sent the story to the anthology's editor and will tell you more about it if and when it's accepted.

Mr. Lonely

Why, it's easy to join Facebook! Just reach out and click!

In the past couple of weeks, my daily e-mail arrivals have dropped from an average of 40-50 per day to maybe 10. I blame Facebook.

I don't think Don Siegel would have approved of Facebook.

Him! He's not my Facebook Friend!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ron Asheton: The Coltrane of Psych Guitar

"C'mon, Ron... I say, c'mon, Ron... C'mon and tell 'em how I feel!"

So pleads Iggy Pop at the height of the Stooges' classic punk rant "No Fun," from their 1969 self-titled debut release -- because there comes a point in this song when even Iggy Pop can't express with voice, dance, exposed genitals or peanut butter what he feels. For that, he needed guitarist Ron Asheton. For the first 2:43 of the song, Asheton anchors the song with steady, distorted, rhythmic riffing from the right channel -- and just when we think we've heard everything this anthem to teenage boredom has up its patched denim sleeve, Iggy's pleas prompt Asheton to launch into the fuzziest, dirtiest, squiggliest, squealingest, noodly guitar solo ever heard, absolutely merciless in its full-on drilling against the hard stone walls of ennui.
"Well, come on! Well, come ON! Well, COME on! Well, COME ON!"
THE STOOGES was produced by ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale at a time when multi-track recording was already a couple of years removed from extreme stereo separation, but Cale went ahead and placed Ron's separately recorded solo in the left channel only, which made its sonic attack more focused and insistent, with the added bonus of embodying an especially excruciating "fuck you" to any hippie stoner of the era who might attempt listening to the record through stereo headphones. I once made the mistake of listening to the album this way, cranked way up, and the solo drilled straight into one of my molars and loosened a filling.
So minimal that any kid with access to two strings can play it, "No Fun" has become a standard of its genre, covered by many different (well, other) artists, but none of the cover versions can compare to the original because Asheton's solo is actually thematic, starting out with lazy, unfocused, mondo-distorto notes that gradually find focus and fire, only to succumb once again to boredom -- bee bee boop BLEEEEEEEEEER, bee bee boop BLLLLLEEEEEEEEEEEER -- as if he's too bored to continue being one of the hands-down-greatest psych guitarists ever to wear a shoulder strap and iron cross.
"Yeaaaaaaah, my MAN!" Iggy congratulates him, right there on the record. As always with the Stooges, it was when they were least brilliant that they were most brilliant.

And today comes the ultimate bore: the news that Ron Asheton was found dead today in his Ann Arbor home at the age of 60. The victim of a likely heart attack, no foul play suspected. He died alone, discovered by police notified by concerned neighbors who hadn't seen him in a few days.
More than just introducing "No Fun" to the world, THE STOOGES opens with "1969" and "I Want to Be Your Dog" -- already two inarguable petitions for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Every year that self-styled church of music locks the Stooges out, they flaunt their ignorance of their own gods.) Throughout the record, Ron Asheton (who, on the cover, looks like the real Max Frost) takes the late Sixties gimmick that was the Vox wah-wah pedal and wields it like Jackson Pollack wielded paint, ladling its molten liquidity over ballads and trances and odes to teenage solipsism.
The group's next album, 1970's FUN HOUSE, produced by Don Gallucci, has at various times been called The Greatest Rock Album of all time by Joey Ramone, Lester Bangs, Jack White and yours truly. I actually bought the first two Stooges albums without having heard them, except in my mind's ear as I read Lester Bangs' "Of Pop and Pies and Fun" essay in the pages of CREEM magazine (reprinted in the PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG collection). The music more than lived up to its promise: "one of those rare albums that never sits still long enough to actually solidify into what it previously seemed," Bangs wrote in one of his most inspired insights. Lester hated FUN HOUSE on his first listen, but having gone through his process with him in print, I loved it on mine. It's a descent into the maelstrom that drops you down on the street where the faces shine, drags you through the dirt, and leaves you standing in the midst of Los Angeles in flames. (I hadn't thought about it till just this minute, but in some ways, FUN HOUSE is, or might as well be, a rock opera based on Susan Strasberg's STP freakout scene in PSYCH-OUT.) Ron's guitar sound on the album is enormous, silvery, modal, oceanic, godly -- but, during the epic ballad "Dirt," with the taint of human emotion.
One of my proudest possessions is THE FUN HOUSE SESSIONS, a delirious Rhino Handmade limited edition box set that collects every second of music laid down by the Stooges during their week-long recording sessions for the album, with one entire disc turned over to take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take of "T.V. Eye," a song that surely features one of hard rock's top twenty-five power riffs. Of course I took the dare, the plunge, or whatever it was, and I may damn well take it again later today.
When Iggy brought guitar wiz James Williamson into the band, Ron was demoted to bass guitar, the instrument formerly played in the Stooges by Dave Alexander (who died in 1975). Their third album, RAW POWER, credited to Iggy and the Stooges, is a classic in its own right, despite the curiously shrill and tinny mix given it by David Bowie for its 1973 release. It was remixed in the 1990s by Iggy, who showed how important Ron's thunder was to the overall sound -- the remix never fails to make me run to the volume control to turn the sucker down. This is an album that wants to trash your house.
The audio document of the last Stooges concert, METALLIC K.O., is the Altamont of vinyl -- less compelling as music than as a sociology documentary/thriller combination, as Iggy taunts and insults an audience of abusive bikers. MKO was all it took for me to become a compulsive collector of Stooges bootlegs, and I know that I was not alone in my habit as countless releases began emanating from Skydog, Bomp and other indy labels to drain my vinyl budget. It was an expensive but worthwhile indulgence, bringing to my attention lost live and studio gems like "I've Got a Right", "Gimme Some Skin", "Open Up and Bleed", "Rubber Legs", "Shake Appeal", "Heavy Liquid" and the unspeakably wonderful "I'm Sick of You."

Cool portrait of Ron Asheton by Rick Chesshire, found in the Caricatures slideshow here.
The original lineup of the Stooges reformed (with Minuteman Mike Watt now on bass) in 2003 after a nearly 30-year hiatus, during which time Ron had toiled in bands like Destroy All Monsters, The New Order and New Race, and also did some acting in minor league horror movies (one of his pet enthusiasms) like MOSQUITO, FROSTBITER: WRATH OF THE WENDIGO and LEGION OF THE NIGHT. Asheton went right back to playing Stooges guitar as if none of the intermediary years had passed, maintaining a tight steer on the shows as Iggy went his own dionysian way.
The group's only reunion album, 2007's THE WEIRDNESS, is as lyrically stupid and musically monotonous as the first two Stooges albums, but producer Steve Albini emphasizes the heavy-handed rhythm side of the band, downplaying Ron's ingenuity as a soloist, and unlike the classic albums, there's not much musical variety. There are no ballads, and too many of the songs share the same kick-off, the same key, the same shtick. Nevertheless, in live concert, the reunited Stooges -- the original members now at least pushing 60 -- continued to cook like eternal teenagers, Iggy continuing to dismantle the traditional boundaries separating artist and audience by diving into the mosh pits and inviting ticket buyers to come onstage and share his microphone, while Ron stayed by the amps as designated band driver, standing zen-still as he continued to perfect his searching squall.
When I call Ron Asheton the Coltrane of Psych Guitar, I'm not being colorful or facetious. The two musicians, one uber-respected and the other uber-unpretentious, one a musical maestro and the other an autodidact who came to guitar from the accordion, actually have a great deal in common -- in their modal approaches to soloing, their brave explorations of the glory of noise, even the ways in which they made a spirit of love spurt like paydirt from music under the hard drill of probing persisitence. It doesn't take exceptional ears to hear glimpses of "A Love Supreme" in "We Will Fall" from THE STOOGES, and in the course of my own bass-ackwards musical education, I first heard music that fit the description "sheets of sound" on FUN HOUSE, courtesy of Ron's dense soloing, years before I discovered Coltrane.
A few years ago, Elektra/Rhino Records reissued the first two Stooges albums in deluxe editions that incorporated additional discs of alternate and extended takes. Anyone craving a superdose of what made Ron Asheton so special need look no further than the previously unreleased "full versions" of "Ann" (7:52!) and "No Fun" (6:49!) appearing on THE STOOGES' second disc -- and we can also share in how misunderstood and undervalued he often was when his sizzling extended lead on the end of an alternate "Real Cool Time" is followed by producer John Cale drolly asking, "Can we cut that off at 2:20?"
Stranger things have happened (The Who touring minus the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle, hello?), but I would imagine the Stooges are behind us now. Iggy Pop is Iggy Pop, but goddamn the past tense, Ron Asheton was the Stooges. We might think our teenage years, when the Stooges' music was most relevant to us, are behind us too, but as modern life conspires to make us spend our adulthood in rooms with computers, texting each other, craving human interaction, hating to be alone and having to troll on Facebook for friends, their music continues to speak to us more directly than we may be willing to admit.
Another year with nothin' to do.
Don't let me be alone.
Ain't no wall.
Can I come over 2night?