Sunday, December 30, 2012

THREE A-GRADE FILMS TO LET YOU KNOW ABOUT

It's a season for staying home sick, layed up with a pile of films to watch, and a season for leaving the house, too, spending $12 at the multiplex because the weather's so bad there's nothing else to do. With that in mind, I thought I'd catch you up with a film and 2 documentaries I've consumed in the past week. Each was outstanding, and earn Hedonist Jive's much-coveted "A" grade. I'd encourage you to see each of them immediately if not sooner - but please read my short reviews first.

DJANGO UNCHAINED - I may be in minor company here, but it's my belief that Quentin Tarantino was in a 15-year directing slump from the time he finished "Pulp Fiction". "Inglourious Basterds" brought back the director that blew me away with his first two films, and now "Django Unchained" keeps his new 2-film winning streak going. Nearly 3 hours, this does for American slavery what "Basterds" did for the Jews of WWII Europe. At no point was I even a little bit bored or anything less than fully entertained and gripped by what is at turns a funny, comically violent (of course) and tense drama in which the good guys win and the bad guys get their brains & guts splattered against the wall. The dialogue, as in "Basterds", is extremely comic, and yet is not comedy in a we're-gonna-make-you-laugh-at-our-jokes sense. You know Tarantino's style - this is him at his very best, doing his thing as well as he did in "Reservoir Dogs", "Pulp Fiction" and "Inglourious Basterds". The other ones can take a friggin' hike. (Oh, and I'm posting a picture of Samuel L. Jackson because he's the best thing in a film crammed with great performances). A.

BALLPLAYER (PELOTERO) - Let me say right up front: this is not just for baseball fans. A near-perfect documentary about teenage would-be ballplayers in the Dominican Republic, and the Major League Baseball ecosystem of money and fame that corrupts and yet drives them. When you hear about Dominicans in the MLB who lie about their ages, take steroids and so on, watch this film. You may not approve, but you'll understand a bit more about the grinding poverty of the country and the pride of its many amazing ballplayers who are dying to get to the big show in the USA. The filmmakers who set out to put this documentary together may not have known it at the time, but the 2 players they chose to focus on were just note-perfect in stitching together the broader themes of corruption, ego, poverty and greed. It makes me want to closely follow the careers of these guys and frankly anyone coming out of the Dominican - which is, get this, 1 in 5 major leaguers....! A.

MY PERESTROIKA - The very same night I watched "Ballplayer" I was also fortunate to also see this amazing documentary, a meditative rumination on the current lives of 5 1970s-era Soviet Union classmates in modern Russia. Not only does it exist as an elegant film about choices made when growing into middle age, regardless of the country it was made in, it's an eye-opening first-person look into how people who were brought up in the Communist Soviet era adapted in the 1990s and 2000s to first Yeltsin- and then Putin-era Russia. Several are very happy with their lot; several are not. All seem to loathe what Russia has become under Putin. It's not a "political" film; it is instead a close look at the social attitudes, mores and proverbial dashed hopes and future dreams of some ordinary people who've lived through some pretty "interesting times". One of the best documentaries I've seen in years. A.

Friday, December 28, 2012

PRETTY SURE I'M GETTING INTO SOCCER

If you follow the sporting life in the United States, you may have noticed that football aka soccer seems to have clicked a notch or two higher than ever before in American consciousness. Denigrated as an effete sport for "the rest of the word" during most of my lifetime, or dismissed as ponderously impenetrable or out-and-out boring by everyone else, there's still always been that hope that soccer could "take off" beyond the thousands of youth leagues around this country and actually have a professional class of athletes and a citizenry who truly care about the outcomes of games. The last two World Cups were a start; the Women's World Cup in 2011 also generated a ton of coverage and interest (as well it should have - those were some of the most tense and dramatic sporting events I've ever seen), but it seems like this past year we might have seen a slow tipping point, in which the US of A finally admits that soccer, aka original recipe football, is actually a pretty spectacular game.

Like any frontrunner, I'm right there with 'em. It also has something to do with hockey being on strike, and the slow-in-coming realization that the NBA is virtually meaningless until the playoffs start, what with 16 teams, several with sub-.500 records, getting in. Any hey, it's not like I just discovered the sport. As a card-carrying 45-year-old, I can attest to having attended NASL professional matches back in the late 70s. San Jose Earthquakes vs. the Tulsa Roughnecks, anyone? I was there. I got swept into the US's quickie enthusiasm for Pele and this league for a year or two, and when that evaporated, I barely paid attention to professional soccer again until this past decade. (In the US, there really wasn't much to pay attention to - and before the internet, trying to follow the English Premiere League was for hardcore soccer freaks or expats only).

In the internet era, I've had several false starts in trying to get into the game. About five years ago I swore I'd learn everything I could about the sport - not just rules, but history, strategy, players' names, all the teams and so on. I reckoned I'd focus on the English premier league, because that's where the majority of the world's great players are (a little less true now than it was even a half-decade ago). I needed a team. Having learned a little bit about Tottenham Hotspur on a trip to the UK in 2000, and understanding from having read "Fever Pitch" that they were the perennial London underdog to cross-city arch-rival Arsenal, I cast my lot in with them. That lasted about two weeks, when I got busy at work or something and forgot to check the standings for a few games. I concluded that my heart wasn't in it, and since the games weren't on TV anyway, I went back to the NHL and NBA for my non-baseball sports fix.

Things have changed pretty intensely the past few years. While I've been able to go deep during the World Cup every four years, having watched at least 10-12 games each in 2002, 2006 and 2010, it's only the past few years that ESPN has regularly shown English Premiere League games on their main channel, the one I get, albeit usually at 6 in the morning where I live. That's OK - that's what TiVo's for - and it ain't like I've got a dozen pals who are going to text me smack-talk about the Everton vs. Stoke City game. The US league, the MLS, is growing rapidly and seems to have finally found financial stability. Some of the markets - Kansas City, Seattle and Portland in particular - have a large and absolutely rabid fanbase, easily as intense and devoted as the fans of virtually any NHL or NBA team.

The MLS "game" is admittedly minor-league stuff, years behind its EPL counterpart across the pond in developing and recruiting top talent. I watched some of this year's playoffs, and was not only frustrated with the dumb rules (you play 2 games against your opponent, and whomever has the most goals across both games in total advances), I found the play a sad shadow of the English (and Spanish, and Italian, and German) league. Yet it's a start. There's a whole infrastructure of soccer resources I'm discovering to feed my growing mania for the sport. Dozens of websites, obviously; the Fox Soccer Channel (I don't get it, but their mobile app is pretty sweet); ESPN's weekly live games from England (more on the Watch ESPN app); a SiriusXM radio station devoted to 24/7 coverage and talk about the sport; and tons of podcasts and blogs. I'm soaking it all up and paying an inordinate amount of attention to the sport these last few months.

On that last note, I need to make a particular callout to the Men In Blazers podcast, SiriusXM radio show and blog. These guys - Rog and Dave-o - are British expats living in the US, on a mission to bring football/soccer mania to Americans in the manner they grew up in back in the UK. They're extremely cutting, funny, quick-witted and full of weirdo in-jokes that you need to be a GFOP (Good Friend of the Pod) to understand. It's done a great deal to stoke my new soccer fandom, and I thank them profusely for it. 

So now all I need is a team. There's no way I'm going to go for one of the sheik- or conglomerate-owned powerhouses like Manchester United (who are OMG amazing to watch, however) or Chelsea or Manchester City. Arsenal is too storied and popular. Tottenham, maybe. But what about some upstart whom I can grab onto now while they're decent enough, and ride all the way to glory when they get better? Someone like West Ham, or Aston Villa, or Fulham or even a team lurking in the Championship league (the minor league one step below the Premiership)? I'm still working on it. If you've got any ideas, let me know.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"THE IMPOSSIBLE"

One of my big cinematic frustrations this time of year is that I don't live in New York or LA, but being a "cinephile" of sorts, I keep up on all the December new releases that sneak out in order to get in under the wire for Oscar consideration. Unlike in years past, say a decade ago, the indie or foreign films that I actually want to see are only in those two cities, where the critics are. San Francisco, one of the more literate and disposable income-heavy cities, totally gets the shaft - as does Seattle, Chicago, Boston, DC and so on - to say nothing of other places, where it's a holiday season toss-up between going to see "The Hobbit" or "This is 40". No thanks.

I had a tailor-made afternoon to go to the movies - family otherwise occupied, rain pouring down - so I did that best I could last weekend and went to see Juan Antonio Bayona's family-caught-in-a-tsunami-thriller "THE IMPOSSIBLE". All things considered, it was a pretty right-on choice. "Based on a true story", and certainly modeled on the horrific 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami that killed 250,000 people (!!), it tracks an English family who come to Thailand for a Christmas holiday vacation and get literally and figuratively swept away and apart by the tsunami. I'm sure you've heard the scenes of the family and everyone around them getting swallowed and sucked for miles by a wall of water are quite intense, and they certainly are. Yet to the film's credit, the panic and confusion and psychic pain continue the entire rest of the way, as the family tries to recover from wounds and reunite in the midst of absolute death, destruction and chaos.

I've had a low-grade adoration for Naomi Watts on many levels and for many years, and she's the glue that holds the film together. She's the mom, in case you were wondering, and she gets the worst of it: torn in multiple bodily places by the tsunami, and clinging to life for at least half the movie. She and her oldest son are separated from her husband, who just happens to be Ewan McGregor, and their young twin boys. I'd venture to guess that the film's pretty realistic in its portrayal of how people attempted to heal their own battered bodies and find the dead and injured in the days after this catastrophe, and the film definitely has a nice you-are-there perspective that kept me pretty wrapped up and tightly-wound for nearly two hours. Watts puts in a very strong performance as a mom trying to play both the role of the mother/protector and the victim/protected at the same time, and letting her injuries dictate which one she's able to actually accomplish.

The only criticism I read of "THE IMPOSSIBLE" before I saw it was that it focused on the ordeal of the white tourists, and not of the many dead and hurt Thai people around them. This is true to an extent, but it didn't bother me in the least. The film clearly centered its lens early on on one resort, one family in that resort, and far be it for me to know for sure, but I'll bet that there are a lot of wealthy white people in Thailand's resorts at Christmastime - and therefore a lot of who got hurt or killed on its beaches. (Dead and injured Thai people are in fact part of this film, by the way, as well as Thai doctors and nurses and Thai villagers who help everyone around them).

It's a little maudlin, sure, and when the family reunites and the strings soar, you'll either be dripping silent tears or doing your tough-guy/gal best not to. It may not be one of the big 2012 Oscar contenders, and I'm not arguing it should be, but it was an excellent use of $8 in rainy day matinee bucks and I'm glad I saw it on the jumbo screen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

"SLEEPWALK WITH ME"

It's hard not to like the comedian and monologist Mike Birbiglia, though I wouldn't be surprised if he totally sets plenty of people off who are rubbed wrong by his child-like innocent doofus act. I've enjoyed his stuff on "This American Life" over the years; grew to like him when he broke bread with Mark Maron on the latter's "WTF" podcast; and then even paid to see his stage show (read: standup act) "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" a year or two ago. Then I hear that Ira Glass of This American Life made it his personal crusade a couple years ago to get Birbiglia's most renown monologue, "Sleepwalk With Me", about his comic-scary struggles with a sleeping disorder and adult human relationships, made into a film. I marked the calendar, waited until it came onto DVD and streaming after a brief run in the theaters, and then watched it - for you - to see if they pulled it off.

I know people were kind of split on this one. It's certainly a "lite" film, definitely in the quirky-indie-comedy with a dollop-of-romance and a heavy-dose-of-angst camp. When deeper truths are reached, they'll force no epiphany in how you think about your life. But I liked it, more than I think many people did, including my cinematic partner for life, aka my wife, who watched it with me. Essentially it's about an amateur stand-up comedian (who's terrible at what he does) who is also in a long-term, but stagnant live-in relationship with a trusting, patient girlfriend (played by Lauren Ambrose, whom you of course remember for her flaming red ginger hair and for playing Claire on "Six Feet Under"). He - Birbiglia, now transformed into "Matt Pandamiglio" - also has this increasingly disruptive sleepwalking disorder, which causes him to take his sleep-world dreams into the real world, where he acts them out at considering physical expense to himself.

The film moves quickly from one sort-of gag to the next, always charming and suffused with material for guffaws, chortles and even some bellylaughs. Pandamiglio continues to blow every opportunity he's given to settle into life with his girlfriend, but has a deep current of anxiety about it that manifests itself in his crazy sleepwalking events. Yet as he changes his performance approach from stand-up comedy to monologues, he starts experiencing some minor success and an actual paycheck, yet this only ups his existential terror of life and of growing up all the more. It's a short movie and very easily digestible. You might not remember much of it in 2013, but it's sort of the perfect weeknight DVD rental/stream and a solid "B" sort of indie-comedy film, not too cloying and not too dumb but almost just about right.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE RADIO #2

DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE RADIO PODCAST #2
Here’s the second edition of my phony radio show, turned into a podcast, with all sorts of music from the hitmakers of today, yesterday and tomorrow. Download it now and you’ll get 70 minutes of music from the likes of The Morlocks, Freelove Fenner, The In/Out, Die Kruezen, The Huns, Honeysuck, The Junior Chemists, The Long Blondes, Meat Puppets and much….much…..more.
Track listing:
LONG BLONDES - Darts
PARQUET COURTS - Light Up Gold II
HACKAMORE BRICK - Oh! Those Sweet Bananas
THE MAX BLOCK - Sonic Blur
TELEVISION - Friction (1974 demo)
FREELOVE FENNER - Workshop
2x4s - Zipperheads
LOVE IS ALL- Motorboat
KEEL HER - Riot Girl
THE MAYFAIR SET – Desert Fun
HONEYSUCK - Sleepaway Camp
DIE KRUEZEN - Don’t Say Please
PETTY CRIME - Mathematics
MEAT PUPPETS - Foreign Lawns
BUD & KATHY - Hang It Out To Dry
THE MORLOCKS - In The Cellar
THE MAKERS - Little Piece of Action
THE HUNS - Destination Lonely
JUNIOR CHEMISTS - Building a Fort
XYX - Sobrenada
NUMBERS - Intercom
THE IN/OUT - Club Blackout
HOUSEHOLD - Our Song
THE NIGHTS AND DAYS - These Days
USELESS EATERS- Year 11 
THE WHINES - Straybird
If you missed the first edition of Dynamite Hemorrhage Radio, which I posted last week, you can download that here.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

ACTUALLY, I DO WANT TO TAKE AWAY YOUR GUNS

Let's take a break from our various cultural, literary and underground obsessions to turn to something a bit more topical and important, OK? Like everyone, I'm of course horrified by Friday's hideous, sickening mass murder in Connecticut. This morning, I read four brief stories - news from just yesterday - that underscore the United States' orgiastic obsession with guns and the tipping point that's been reached in our ability to tolerate that obsession in a healthy society:

- "...An Oklahoma high school student was in custody on Saturday on charges that he plotted to shoot students at Bartlesville High School on the same day 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School..."

- "...A man opened fire Saturday at a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, wounding a police officer and two employees...."


- "...A man fatally shot a woman and then killed himself at the Excalibur hotel-casino on the Las Vegas strip, sending many patrons fleeing in fear...."


- "...Alabama police shot and killed an assailant armed with an AK-47 assault rifle at the end of a pursuit Saturday that began after three males were fatally shot at a trailer home...."


I keep hearing commentators who are nominally in favor of gun control doing their mealy-mouthed equivocal best to kowtow to the middle ground by saying things like, "Oh no no no, no one is advocating taking away Americans' right to own a gun". You know what? I actually do want to take away your right to own a gun. I'd like to take it away tomorrow if I could. I don't believe I'm alone by any means. I want everyone to wake up from our centuries-long stupor to ask themselves what sort of society they want to live in, and what sort of "rights" you want to demand as an individual: the right to own more guns that were manufactured with the express purpose of killing human beings? Or the right to be protected from them, and to live your life more free from worry that you'll be mass-executed at the movies, at school or at the mall?

Just as the founders and builders of this country believed at various times that women weren't truly citizens and that non-whites were virtually subhuman, they also believed that the right to own a gun was sacrosanct in the nascent, oppressor-fighting United States of the late 1700s. We shake our heads a how unevolved we were then with regard to human rights, but guns? We really still believe, with the history of this country's violence unspooled before us over the past 200+ years (to say nothing of 2012's many atrocities), that we're better off as a people with guns everywhere rather than nowhere?

My libertarian philosophies say, and have always said: Your freedoms end where mine begin, and vice versa. I have the right to live my life in peace and without fear, and so do you. Our communities and children are not better off with legal guns than they'd be without them. I'm firmly convinced that we as a people could survive the transition to a gun-free society quite easily, even if it happened tomorrow morning, and only the intellectually stunted would wring their hands and gnash their teeth over the loss of the hot steel that boosts their testosterone and bolsters their fragile egos. 

When people say that guns are necessary to protect themselves in the event of an intruder, I say bullshit. Your gun may in theory protect you from being shot and killed when each and every circumstance aligns in perfect harmony, and no doubt that even happens from time to time. Yet it has been proven time and again, and makes absolute logical sense, that a house with a gun in it is a more dangerous household than one without one. I recommend that you read this short article. Money quote: "Most gun murders at home are perpetrated not by an intruder but by a member of the family or an acquaintance. One only has to ponder for a minute to realize that a squabble is more likely to be resolved by discussion and compromise if there is no gun available to end it quickly."

There's also the mental health fallacy. While I absolutely support rapid breakthroughs and discoveries in the science and practice of treating mental health issues, I reject the "early intervention" red herring that's getting so much play by people desperately looking to change the subject. It doesn't take much to imagine how this desired "early intervention" in the lives of the depressed or troubled plays out in practice, vis-a-vis preventing the next massacre. It's too easy for overzealous mental health professionals, backed by the power of the state, to label a sullen teen or a quiet loner a menace to society, and to curtail their freedom of movement accordingly. Better science and non-coercive treatment, yes. More aggressive labeling and ostracism, no. Is it really too much to ask to simply make it impossible for them to buy a gun? And while we're at it, not let you or me buy one either?

Americans have proven by our recent history that we cannot, by and large, be trusted with easily-available firearms that were manufactured with the express purpose of maiming and killing other human beings - as opposed to, say, deer hunting rifles. Because politics is the art of the possible, and no one will let me ban all guns from the United States tomorrow morning (the way I'd like to), we'll have to focus on expending energies on everything we can possibly get away with. Ban assault rifles. Ban and enforce unlicensed dealers. Ban open market-bazaar gun shows. Shame and humiliate NRA-sucking political toadies. Embrace and encourage politicians willing to be brave enough to effect change (even if you disagree with them on other things). Mount every possible legal and political challenge to the absurd "strict-constitutionalist" 1700s reading of the Second Amendment. Mock and humiliate gun lovers in Freudian terms and tell 'em that their guns are substitute phalluses (just for fun). 

And please - don't let Friday's atrocity fade from consciousness. There will be more, maybe even this week at the rate we're on - and just as America evolved and strengthened (or is working on evolving) around civil rights, gay rights and so on, so we can evolve around the right to not be violently murdered in first grade or at the midnight showing of Batman.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE RADIO #1

Well, that wasn’t so difficult. I’ve created the first of what will hopefully a regular series of 60-minute “radio shows” under the DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE brand name - that's my music blog, which you can start reading over here if you haven't already - and all things considered (like, I had zero idea how to use the GarageBand software I created this in last night even 24 hours ago), it turned out pretty much all right.

Download DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE RADIO #1

My aim with this thing is to create playlists of music that I like & that you wanna hear; you might just not know it yet. You’ll find clusters of music that slot loosely into underground pop; classic punk; weird psych/noise; 60s garage, pop and girls-in-the-garage; proto-punk; bedroom DIY recordings and even a little undie rock.

I personally have not hosted a radio show in which I talk, “back announce” etc. in over 22 years – proving not only how ancient I am personally, but how rusty my on-mic skills are, which is all too apparent in this first radio show/podcast. You’ll even hear the local dogs barking in the neighbor’s backyard during one segment. My goal is to keep these to a digestible hour in length when I make them, and to not worry so much about flubs & various vocal tics and bad habits that make up my radio persona. In other words, the first take will always be the only take, and I’ll try to do better next show, OK?

With that in mind, let me state for the record that the band Bette Davis & The Balconettes were a late 90s band, not a late 80s act as claimed on Dynamite Hemorrhage Radio #1.

Dynamite Hemorrhage Radio #1 Tracks:

Rondelles – Indication
Hank Wood and the Hammerheads– It’s Murder
King Tuff – Bad Thing
Tea Cozies – Muchos Dracula
Red Cross – Tatum O’Tot and The Fried Vegetables
Desperate Bicycles – Handlebars
Pups – P.E.I.
Sally Skull – Mean Woman
The Yummy Fur – Car Park
Feral Beat – Canned Heat
Bette Davis and the Balconettes – 0898
Constant Mongrel – Reflex
XYX – Tal
Spray Paint –
Pro Knife
The Lamps – An Irrational Fear of Sailors
White Fence – Swagger Vets & Double Moon
Pink Floyd – Candy and a Currant Bun
The Minders – Right as Rain
Times New Viking – Y2K2
Chapter 24 – Spindle
Freelove Fenner – Vicky’s Day


You can also stream the full show on Soundcloud if you prefer.

Drop me a line at thejayhinman(at)gmail(dot com) if you’ve got any feedback, suggestions, corrections or pure, unadulterated hate – and enjoy….!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"THE LONG GOODBYE"

"THE LONG GOODBYE" was Robert Altman's weirdo 1973 take on the Raymond Chandler noir novel, made as Altman was truly at the height of his improvisational, experimental powers. When I watch films he made in this era like "California Split" and "3 Women", I still have trouble believing that they were financially backed by major studios. They're so "of the auteur" and so personal, abstract and unusual - and yet hugely entertaining, funny and engrossing - they truly point to a moment in time (the 70s) justly celebrated for this type of cinematic creativity. Friends of mine have said this one is their favorite of all Altman films. I won't go that far, but after finally checking the box on it, I'll say it's a singularly unique achievement and right up there with his best. I'm going to watch it at least another two or three times and pick it apart some more before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

As you may know, Altman let his actors and actresses take his rough script and plot outlines and go almost anywhere they wanted to with them. While not as wild and verbose as he was in "California Split", the excellent Elliott Gould (private Los Angeles detective Phillip Marlowe) is a motormouth mumbler who talks to himself, to his cat, and has some trouble having normal, intelligible conversations with the people around him - though Altman portrays all the strange dialogue in this film as "normal". This was also at the height of Altman's "everyone talk at once" phase, so the scenes of the beautiful hippie nudist yoga women on their balcony as they talk to their neighbor Marlowe, and each other, are as jarring and otherworldly as anything in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller". Combine that with his gauzy technicolor style and the filters he put on his lenses, and you've got something that definitely exists in its own world.

However, it is a fairly straightforward noir/detective adaptation at its core. I saw the name "Jim Bouton" in the opening credits and thought, ha, that's funny, same name as the Seattle Pilots baseball player who wrote the 1969 tell-all book "Ball Four" that was one of my fave books as a teenager. Turns out it is Bouton, in his only film role ever, as Terry Lennox, the man whom Marlowe unwittingly shuttles down to Mexico to escape from killing his wife and stealing a big load of money from drug dealers, an act that sets some - not all - of the film in motion. Sterling Hayden, as the alcoholic writer Roger Wade, is amazing and a real site to behold - a stumbling, staggering Popeye brute of a man who looks ready to pop anyone & everyone in the mouth at any time, and who literally walks into the sea to end his life in the course of the film.

Gould is on camera the entire film, pretty much. Marlowe is a restless, hunch-driven, seat-of-his-pants sort of detective, and at no point do you ever get any sense that he's exceptional or has prior success at his job. That said, he solves this case in a big way. A cigarette is in his mouth at virtually all moments in the film, and he appears nervous and yet composed and confident at the same time. He gathers some clues and flirts a bit with Eileen Wade, played by Nina Van Pallandt, and as mentioned previously, runs into her crazy drunk of a husband in several classic scenes. It's clear that Altman's deconstructing the "private eye movie" and Chandler's work, and pulling it all into a worldview that only he and a generation of film studies studies might be able to explain. I can't. I just know when it ended I laughed out loud, the way I do when I've seen something wholly original and wild.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"THE WOODMANS"

Last year I saw the 1975-81 photographs of Francesca Woodman for the first time when they came through San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, and was suitably blown away. Forget for a moment that she took most of her staged photos of herself, nude and ghostly, when she was still a teenager. Forget as well that she killed herself at the age of 22. Her work, as was posthumously discovered, and which Woodman herself knew from an early age, speaks for itself as innovative, confrontational and abstractly weird and way ahead of its time. When I learned that a documentary had been made in 2010 on her life, legacy, and how her artistic family helped shape who she became - for better and for worse - I figured I should probably check it out.

"THE WOODMANS", directed by Scott Willis, is a moderately decent documentary that nonetheless falls well short of explaining this complex woman and the forces that shaped her. The reason I enjoyed watching it is because it shows Francesca Woodman's photographs and videos over and over again, and her limited body of work is still incredibly stunning to behold. We learn that she was so driven and tormented by her own talent that she worked at it up to 24 hours a day - wrapping herself in wallpaper; posing on the floor in flour and then removing herself, as in at a crime scene outline; covering her arms with white birch and photographing them next to white birch trees, and so on. She shows how the truly gifted artist is just born with it. Her artistic temperament and talents eclipsed even those of her parents by the time she was a teenager, yet she veered off into a semi-disturbing vain exploration of sexuality and gothic themes, all with herself as her own muse.

Her parents, Betty and George, were and remain very talented in their own rights, and though reasonable people can disagree, I don't think they had a whole lot to do with the death of what I believe was probably a manic-depressive daughter in an age before well-tuned medication. I'm glad the film didn't go down the path of portraying them as overbearing, flighty/artsy parents who forced her into the life she chose. That said, they themselves are actually not all that interesting as people. Their explanations of "their art", as good as it is, and of "the artist's temperament", are trite and dull. The film lingers on their tentative, cautious statements as if they're being handed down on high from the Oracle of Delphi, and what follows out of their mouths is barely coherent or interesting. These are visual, not verbal, people.

Certainly I wish we could have learned more about Francesca while she was around, but she was reduced to taking fashion photos for a big photography house, when, as the head of that house realizes later, "We had one of the great artists of the 20th century working alongside us all along and didn't know it". This documentary is decent enough and a good introduction to Francesca Woodman's work, but is very flawed as a film and definitely deep in a third tier of documentary craft.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"YOUR SISTER'S SISTER"

Even if she'd never made another film again, I'd always be culturally indebted to filmmaker Lynn Shelton for her 2009 comedy "HUMPDAY", one of the best comedies and studies of humanity I've ever seen. Ostensibly about two straight male pals who make a drunken, boastful pact to enter an an amateur porn-making contest in which they have sex with each other - and then have to live with the sobering consequences of their public boasts - it's also a terrific study of male bonding rituals, friendship, and the difficulty for many of easing from a bohemian, alternative lifestyle into something more stable. It was an instant classic, and it starred Mark Duplass, who might just be my favorite actor going these days and certainly one of my Top-10 directors.

Took me a while to see it, but Shelton came right back with a film every bit the equal of her first, with Duplass again by her side in the unsettled man-child role, with "YOUR SISTER'S SISTER". In the Hedonist Jive Oscars, these two would be taking home some serious hardware year after year; as it is, I don't see this film on anyone's critical radar for these sorts of awards, which is a goddamn shame. This film is a crazy, personal three-way of emotion and cover-ups and hurt feelings, all delivered through ham-handed comedy, drunken admissions and, ultimately, breakthroughs of truth and honesty.

Duplass is an embittered drifter named Jack who's struggling with the year-old death of his brother, who used to date Iris (Emily Blunt, always in our hearts for the amazing "My Summer Of Love"). Iris, whom we learn is Jack's best friend, sends him off to her parents' cabin in the Washington coast wilderness - I'm assuming it's the San Juan Islands - for a bit of solo, contemplative me-time. There he stumbles onto Iris' sister Hannah, who too is fleeing from life's troubles and is trying to gather her wits at the cabin by herself. Hannah, who is played by Rosemarie Dewitt, had us going "we know her! We know her!" for about twenty minutes before it hit us - the junkie artist "Midge" from Mad Men, Don Draper's first mistress at the very start of Season One. Dewitt puts in perhaps the finest performance in the entire film - she's fantastic as a desperate, ungrounded but ultimately sweet and vulnerable child-desiring lesbian on the wrong side of 35.

It doesn't take long for the needy and lonely Jack and Hannah to land in bed together - and yeah, I just told you she's a lesbian, and no, it's not desire that drives her to sex with him. Iris then surprises everyone by showing up - and - well - complications ensue. They involve, among other things, suppressed love, inability to communicate and a leaky condom. Duplass, as always, is superb. He can play this guy over and over (and he does - this character dresses and acts the same as the one he played in "Safety Not Guaranteed") and it's absolutely fine with me. No actor can see-saw between comedy and emotionally-fraught drama as well as this guy can.

I think my big three films this year, heading into the final weeks of December, are "Beasts of the Southern Wild", "A Separation" (technically from last year) and "Your Sister's Sister". Make sure you see all three, and please report your findings back to me when you get a chance.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "WE GOT POWER: HARDCORE PUNK SCENES FROM 1980s SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA" by David Markey & Jordan Schwartz

Now that the late 1970s Masque punk scene has been so fully mined in literary form by numerous books of photos and prose (examples are here, here, here, here and here – all worth your $$$), I believe that posterity will now begin recognizing the outsized musical and cultural contributions made in Los Angeles by the immediate children of the late 70s scene: the hardcore punks, the paisley underground, the gothcore weirdos, the experimental free-music freaks and the SST crew – among many others. Now that I think about it, that documentation is already well underway, with Black Flag and Paisley Underground books and films about The Minutemen and so on all having come out the past decade.

Hardcore punk left an indelible stamp on Southern California in the early 1980s. I continue to be supremely jealous of my friends who came of age in this location at a time when fast/hard/raging punk rock music was played on commercial radio every night at 8pm; when being a "punker" might expose you to some high school ridicule but also put you in a well-defined and exploding subculture of thousands of local kids; and where amazing records came out nearly every month. If you were a little more enterprising and clued in, you could tap into the over-21 scene and take a peek at what was going on with the Gun Club, Flesh Eaters, Dream Syndicate, Bangs, Green on Red camps, and so on. As Dave Markey and Jordan Schwartz's "WE GOT POWER" photo and essay book makes clear, there was considerable overlap between the prime movers of these scenes as well.

These two enterprising latchkey kids gathered up their cameras & skateboards and used their love of the exploding punk scene to begin documenting and living it in every way, shape and form. They started WE GOT POWER fanzine, a hand-written, somewhat silly magazine with photo collages that nonetheless captures the essence of the day exceptionally well, at least from the partyin' hardcore punk's perspective. Their definition of what was rad was expansive enough to include and celebrate The Minutemen, Red Cross, Saccharine Trust, 45 Grave and other heroes of mine, as well as a big reliance on and friendship with the bands who  had their own gangs: Circle One and, later, Suicidal Tendencies. As Markey helpfully explains why they befriended many of the lunkheads who formed their own punk armies, "You know that Beach Boys song 'I Get Around' - 'The bad guys know us, and they leave us alone'?"

This book's a big cut above most punk rock photo books because it's at almost a snapshot level. By that I mean, rather than focus solely on bands posing or jumping in the air, there are a lot of candid photos of punk parties, graffitied locations, people lounging around at Oki-Dog and the like. The book provides a rather bounteous picture of what it was like to be a 16-year-old punk rocker in 1982 Southern California, lying to your parents about a sleepover at a friend's house so you could see Circle One, Sin 34 and RF7 at The Fleetwood on a Friday night. The best photos are ones of bored skate punks hanging out in front of drugstores, or trying to make a makeshift ramp, or getting wasted at some 3am party in Pico Rivera or Downey or Canoga Park.

Markey himself drummed in Sin 34, which is barely mentioned in the book despite numerous photos of the band hanging out and getting drunk. I always thought that We Got Power was Schwartz's thing and his alone, not realizing until now the contributions of his sister Jennifer (from the Love Dolls, and who overlapped with me at school in the 80s at UC-Santa Barbara), of Kim Pilkington (who sounds like a legendary piece of work) and the guy whose name escapes me now and whose dorm address was listed on the first two issues, but who's persona non grata in the book itself. Their collective looked to be a pretty tight unit, and they were obviously out and about at least 4 times per week, wherever the shows and the parties happened to be.

"WE GOT POWER"
is a collection of over a dozen essays by folks close to the beating core of the 'core. Henry Rollins, the McDonald brothers of Red Cross/Kross, Mike Watt, Keith Morris, Janet Housdon, Chuck Dukowski and more. There are a few interesting and surprising takes on the scene that capture the excitement certain bands generated for a few months, like Jula Bell's essay on the wacky Nip Drivers. Most folks aren't too snotty or bitter about their teenage and early twenties involvement in this ephemeral scene, except for Jeff & Steve McDonald, who, rather than coming off as the funny and insightful pop culture punks they were in their youth, are actually still sort of angry about the motley collection of junkies, alcoholics and intolerant jocks whom they used to pal around with and who came to their shows. I suppose that, to me, hardcore is "funny" is many ways, when it's not still exhilarating and still a blast to listen to. Even if my tastes had greatly evolved from those I had at 16 – and I believe that they have – I'd be somewhat proud to have caught, ridden and helped to define this low-culture wave when it was at its peak & blowing suburban minds all over the Los Angeles basin. I was surprised to see them get the last word, and for it to be a dismissive one at that.

I figured the best way to experience my review of this book would be to listen to some crazy-ass SoCal hardcore while you read it. So here are a couple of my favorites that aren't the usual 'Flag, 'Jerks, 'Men etc.

Listen to Sin 34 - "Nuclear War"
 


Listen to Circle One - "Destroy Exxon"

Friday, November 30, 2012

"A SEPARATION"

This is a gripping and emotionally fraught Iranian film from last year that is as taut and tightly wound as a thriller, but that deals with societal and familial breakdown on many levels. I'd been led to believe from my usual review-skimming that "A SEPARATION" was simply about an unhappy couple struggling to get divorced in Iran's mullah-ruled justice system, yet that's truly only the opening scene of the film - and it too is wonderful, as is the entire movie. Take the frustration and worry generated by that one scene, and then let it build and fold into multiple bizarre and overlapping prisoner's-dilemma scenarios over two hours, and you've got this outstanding film.

Director Asghar Farhadi has much to say about Iranian society, government, religion and morals, and surprisingly, he is able to say them all quite freely in his film. There are numerous schisms present in the film - between men and women, between moderately comfortable (I won't say rich, but perhaps so by Tehran standards) and poor, between the pious and the presumably secular, between rulers and ruled, and between old and young. These schisms prevent plain truths from being told, and prevent fairly simple matters of love, free movement and earning a living from happening in a natural and "human" manner. The Iran we are asked to look at here, while more advanced and varied than many might imagine, is portrayed as a cluster of lies and injustices that only deepens the many schisms.

The two arguing leads, Nader and Simin, are unable to file for their desired (sort of, we think) divorce because he won't leave the country for America with her, as Nader has his Alzheimers-ridden father to take care of, and Simin won't leave on her own out of love for her 11-year-old daughter, whom we're led to believe wants to stay in Iran with her dad. Nader hires a poor, ultra-religious, chador-wearing, pregnant housekeeper to watch over his elderly, incapacitated father while he's away at work. This does not go so well, to say the least. When Nader physically pushes her out the door in an attempt to fire her for neglect, and she later miscarries her baby and accuses him of killing it, the square wheels of justice start to clunk onward, and the layers of lies and deceipt begin to pile on.

The initial "unneeded" separation of the couple - Simin goes to live at her mom's house in another part of Tehran - is the accusation thrown at this mother for why everything happened as it did, which is patently unfair and true at the same time. Their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, is perhaps the best part of the film - a quiet, watchful presence who is absorbing all sorts of life lessons, good and bad, from her quarreling parents and from her dysfunctional society. Her ability to cry on queue is one of those things expected of great actors and actresses, but which is nonetheless amazing when you see it done so easily on film. Termeh is truly the sole force of good in the film, though even with all of the frustrations and lies elaborated upon in Farhadi's film, it's clear that he wants us to know that there are good, honest people, and perhaps a few functional parts left in Iranian society.

"A Separation" has one of those powerful cliffhanger endings that remains deliberately unresolved, which is I tactic I loved (the film plays on in one's mind with two different outcomes) and my wife disliked (though she loved the film otherwise). It was Iran's entry to last year's Academy Awards, which it won, and it's absolutely one of the most powerful and compelling foreign films of the last year.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

TWO E-BOOKS THAT HEDONIST JIVE READ

I want you to pay attention to what I'm about to tell you because it is an important lesson about technology. You may have heard about "e-books". An e-book is an ELECTRONIC book. An electronic book is a book you read on a computer, such as an Apple Macintosh or a Hewlett-Packard. As I understand it, some of these computers are mobile these days, and can be taken outside of the house! Electronic books have become quite popular as of late. Hedonist Jive even invested in a "Kindle" some time back. Now it appears that there are authors writing short works of nonfiction and fiction solely and exclusively for consumption on these mobile computers. In an effort to figure it all out for you, we downloaded a couple of them and read 'em. They're about sports. You like sports, don't you?

First up was Nick Hornby's "PRAY – NOTES ON THE 2011/2012 FOOTBALL SEASON". Please note – this is English football, aka "soccer". Hornby wrote one of my first introductions to the wild world of UK football mania and devotion, the excellent "FEVER PITCH", back in 1992. His fingernail-chewing devotion to Arsenal, to dissecting the English love of the game, and to explaining its uniqueness and the sport's many weird foibles made that book a terrific read. He hadn't really returned to football/soccer writing since then, but after the English Premiere League 2011-12 season – one of the craziest of all time, with a final season-ending day for the ages – he was sucked back into writing about the sport, albeit in quick form. You can digest this one in an hour or so – think of it as a really long article, such that you'd find in two parts in The New Yorker or something. Hornby again captures the pathos of loving and hating your team when they win and lose, and does a great job revisiting the state of English football now that massive amounts of money have poured into the sport. If you've got slightly more than a passing interest in the game – and for whatever reason, my personal soccer fandom is off the charts this year, now that baseball season's over and hockey's on strike – this is well worth a few bucks and sixty minutes.

I also spent about an hour with "A DRIVE INTO THE GAP" by Kevin Guilfoile. Guilfoile is primarily an author of fiction, but he has the distinction of having grown up in a baseball-soaked world, with his father having been an executive at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY and an exec with the Pittsburgh Pirates. At first blush, the book looks to be a meditation on his dad's current Alzheimer's disease and a collection of memories from earlier times in the baseball world. Guilfoile does not wring cheap maudlin sentiment out of his dad's condition, and if anything, he plays it for non-tacky, non-malicious humor. He also relates what it was like as a younger man to work for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the clubhouse, helping the players get to their promotional photo commitments and to sign autographs before games. He says, without a doubt, the worst human being he ever encountered in any baseball capacity, ever, was Barry Bonds – and then proceeds to relay, in hilarious but sad detail, how Bonds acted when it came time to do anything for anyone else. It's abundantly clear why my San Francisco Giants want nothing to do with this clown anymore.

The book, though, turns into a big of a mystery midway through - namely, does Guilfoile unwittingly own the actual bat that Roberto Clemente used for his milestone 3,000th hit – the unfortunate last of his career? Turns out there are several versions of this bat, each claimed to be the one that Clemente used, which would make them priceless (and/or make someone a little bit rich). The book turns into investigative journalism to find out which one is the "real" one, and whether Guilfoile actually has had this thing in his possession since 1971 without even knowing it. I'll let you find out what happened. Also a very good read, though if pressed I'd recommend Hornby's e-book to you first.

Monday, November 26, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS" by Peter Biskind

This one's a good 15 years old and has been on my 70s-film-education reading list for some time. It's likely the most popular and perhaps well-regarded of all 1970s film histories as well, though let's be right up front about the fact that this is more a gossip book than a serious work of hardcore film criticism. Peter Biskind has (had?) been a longtime player at Premiere Magazine and must have spent a good chunk of the 1990s interviewing the surviving members of the American auteur pack and many of the writers, executives and wives who supported them. He certainly grabbed as much salacious content as must have been out there, as the book is full of drugs, sex, booze and megalomania. It's also a fairly well-done rise-and-fall story of "The New Hollywood", and in its way, it tells the story in a much more entertaining manner than a mountain's worth of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris essays ever could.

Biskind triggers the rise of the personal American cinema and the deification of the director with the machinations that brought both Arthur Penn's "Bonnie & Clyde" and Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper/Terry Southern's "Easy Rider" to the screen. Both barely got made, and both were assumed to be trash cinema that would quickly vanish even by most of the people who worked on them. Biskind trains the early part of the book on the executives who arrived in Hollywood and, with some cunning and lies and much foresight, found ways to get unusual, European-style cinema made by the larger American studios. It's clear that Euro films were a revelation for many and had been since the early 1960s. The directors we now associate with the wonders of 1970s filmmaking – Scorcese, Friedkin, Altman, Cassavetes et al – were already well-schooled in their Italian, French, Swedish and Japanese predecessors, and had been marinating in their films in student film clubs and art houses for quite some time before the studio system allowed them to try their hand at their own versions.

The excitement with which audiences greeted the loosening of scripts and mores on film is captured very well here. The system had a hard time adjusting to the new director-led cinema, but the directors had strong allies in film critics like Kael, who wielded considerable power with her reviews in this time before the web, home video and cable TV. After "Easy Rider" and "Bonnie & Clyde" showed that real money could be made catering to the new film audience of twentysomethings weaned in the wild 1960s, the floodgates opened, and experimental, political, character-based and raw, emotional cinema could be made and funded.

Robert Altman could make a film that mocked the Vietnam war while the war was still being fought ("MASH") and reap both critical and audience acclaim, setting him up to make classics like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", "Nashville" and "3 Women". Martin Scorcese could ride the critical acclaim from "Mean Streets" to make dark and disturbing hits like "Taxi Driver" and later, "Raging Bull". Dennis Hopper, of all people (he's portrayed as an absolute psychotic moron), could get money to make his unwatchable "The Last Movie".

The book definitely has its share of dolts and dupes and deadbeats. Bert Schneider, a producer and studio champion of many important 70s works like "Five Easy Pieces", "Easy Rider" and "The Last Detail", was the ultimate Hollywood left-wing creep, shepherding Huey Newton around the world and cheating on his wife with anything that moved. Director Paul Schrader (directed "Blue Collar"; wrote "Taxi Driver") was a suicidal, schizophrenic drug machine. William Friedkin was a egomaniac bully and blowhard. Peter Bogdonovich gets raked over the coals by many for his massive ego and the personal lives he ruined, with loads of schadenfreude dished out once he bombed with films like "At Long Last Love". Francis Ford Coppola is a central character in the book, also coming off as a first-class jerk totally lacking in adult self-control. Robert Evans is made to be a idiotic boob of legendary proportions. I could go on. Biskind certainly did.


"EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS" skimps on portrayals of actors, training its eye on the directors and writers for the most part. Some of them – Robert Towne is a great example, who gets a ton of play in the book – are fascinating studies of 70s excess and sometimes harnessed, sometimes lost talent. The book has a hard time coherently and consistently extolling a what-did-it-all-mean theme. When it comes, it comes in fits and starts; there's a great passage in which George Lucas convincingly argues that films like his "Star Wars" made so much money and opportunity for the film industry that it paved the way for the 1990s boom in great American independent cinema. Then someone like Altman comes in and almost convincingly argues that everything died in 1979, and that film has been running on fumes since then.

Biskind had a really hard time ending the book, and for some reason chooses the depressing death of relatively minor (comparitively speaking) director Hal Ashby ("Shampoo", "Coming Home") as the end point for the narrative. I have no idea why. He had plenty of opportunities to crash the narrative on the slick rocks of the 1980s, widely acknowledged as the worst decade ever for good film, but misses the mark except for a few asides here and there. My other complaint is just how much energy he expends to details who was sleeping with whom and when. After about 100 pages it was clear that in Hollywood at this time, getting laid was about the easiest thing in the world, even for looks-challenged, nerdish directors and writers who were married to their longtime sweethearts. Once established, it just gets boring after that. The drug tales are pretty great, though. Robert Evans in particular was just a wreck, as readers/viewers of "The Kid Stays In The Picture" already know.

The book certainly re-nurtured in me a desire to see every great American film of the 70s, starting right now. After more than three decades of close study, I still have some major gaps in my resume that I need to close, including "Night Moves", "Images", "The Parallax View" and "The King of Marvin Gardens". I'd certainly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this era of film, as it's a terrific if sometimes infuriating supplement to true academic "film school" writing (much of which is dreadful, which is why I avoid most of it). Read it and watch the long version of "A Decade Under The Influence", and I'll bet you'll have that Netflix queue tipping hard toward 1974 in a matter of hours.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"OSLO, AUGUST 31st"

Joachim Trier made one of my favorite little-seen foreign films in 2006, a dramatically rich and intense Norwegian film of mental illness and friendship called "REPRISE". Saw it twice, in fact. It was Trier's first film, and it took a while to be seen and then to be distributed in the United States. Outside of the awful phony comedy-punk band who make a quick couple of appearances in it, "Reprise" is a sledgehammer of an emotional head trip, and I recommend it highly. Trier's second film is "OSLO, AUGUST 31st", and it was quite a bit easier to see than his last one, which was a film festival thing with a token blink-you-missed-it 1-week run in big cities. I watched it on Netflix, in fact, and you can too.

Anders Danielsen Lie, who was so terrific as the coming-unglued writer in "Reprise", has 100% screen time in this one. He's a handsome, vaguely threatening-looking guy who plays nice but unhinged men very well. The film takes place over 24 hours or so, with an early opening scene of Anders (his eponymous character) silently attempting suicide with the 'ol rocks-in-the-pockets while you jump in a lake trick. It doesn't work, and it's never referred to again except for in a very clever and jarring visual montage that ends the film. Anders is staying in a detox center outside of Oslo after 8 months of being sober from heroin and all the other intoxicant demons that have fed the majority of his youth (he's assumed to be in his early 30s here). He gets a pass from the center into the city for a job interview, full freedom for a guy not used to it or even wanting it. Self-sabatoge and pathos await.

Anders is unfortunately a shattered man. We get a sense that he was once happy and in love, and that Oslo, rather than representing demons and temptation, was a place of possibility for him and his youth cohort. His self-confidence has taken a huge blow, with the love of his life having left him during the ravages of stealing and lies that accompanied his heroin use, and is now living in New York. So even when Anders interviews for his literary magazine job, and proves himself to be intelligent and well-read, he admits to having been an addict and walks out – even though it's clear that the editor probably doesn't care all that much. Anders has a large collection of "missing years" in his life history, so whenever he turns up around old Oslo friends or enemies, it's obvious that he's still painfully reckoning with those years inside himself, even if they've moved on.

The pressure of being in Oslo, alone and miserable, leads Anders to break. We're not entirely sure until the very end of the film if he's really going to – there's an element of him that seems strong, and fit, and despite his torment, able to somehow withstand the psychic pain. That final shot I referred to is pretty cool – it's places we've visited in the film with Anders, which are shown in the here and now without him as he self-immolates. On the whole, I'd call this a very worthy successor to "Reprise" and a signal that thirtysomething Trier is going to be one of our more interesting and inventive filmmakers for some time to come.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

LET'S GO RECORD SHOPPING IN 1981 BERKELEY

The nostalgic mythology we reserve for life-changing events and places in our lives exerts a powerful pull that only grows greater the older we become. Clich̩, right? Of course it is. Well, right up there with the birth of children, weddings, family moves and baby's first teeth are cultural touchstones, particularly for those who've defined a large portion of their life by their relationship to the "culture" or "art" of their choice. My first rock and roll show РThe Police at Oakland Stadium! Рwasn't particularly memorable or nostalgic, but, as I've written about before in other blogs, my youthful trips to record stores in other cities a few years before that had an absolutely mind-blowing effect on my psyche and my cultural development. I'm still frequently revisiting the crate-flipping sensations I got from those explorations at age 13 in dreams today, over thirty years later.

Last year I wrote a piece about my sacred pilgrimages to Los Angeles record stores in the late 1980s. As fruitful and "plenteous" as those many journeys were, they were also, at their core, simply fun trips to buy new records. My record store visits to Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, starting in 1981, were something way more mentally massive. They changed the way I consumed my culture of choice – rock music – for all time. Let me put it into some context for you. First, there's me. I turned 13 in October of 1980. I lived in San Jose, California with my parents and sister; while a big city now and a medium-sized one then, San Jose was and remains suburban and bland to its core, forever and always in the shadow of San Francisco, one hour to its north. My grandparents lived in El Cerrito, right next door to Berkeley, and we'd frequently stay with them for a week at a time and look for things to do together all over the Bay Area that might be cooler than what we could do in San Jose (and in case it's not clear: that was just about everything).

They started taking us to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for lunch & store-browsing. This is the main drag next to the UC-Berkeley campus, and a legendary countercultural hotspot from the 1960s onward. Head shops, pizza places, comic stores, t-shirt shops, bookstores, and most powerful of all for me: Record Stores. Telegraph's street scene in the early 80s was punk rock to the max. Colored mohawks – the real UK-style "liberty spike" look – were actually displayed by multiple peacocking boys and girls without irony. Not retro - this was real-time. This was a little intimidating for a suburban 13-year–old, but my grandpa was a calming presence, and someone who loved people – especially unusual people – and wasted no opportunity to walk up to some sneering punk and quickly disarm them with a, "How are you there today, young fella??". Telegraph was a real hangout spot, the sort of street where kids would come from all corners of the Bay Area in the morning, loiter all day, and leave late at night. To some extent, it still is, but its best days are way behind it.

I was in thrall to new wave and punk music by that first time I visited the Telegraph record stores in '81. I was pulling in a college radio station, KFJC, at my house, and they played everything from Adam and the Ants, to weirdo import 45s from England, to early US hardcore. I was trying to figure it all out, knowing that this stuff was so much better than the milquetoast Top 40 and disco I was raised on (and was equally obsessive about, from about 1975 to 1979). I would sit by the radio with a pen and paper, and write down the DJ's back-announce as quickly as I could, frequently muffing things up myself when the DJ himself hadn't. I discovered Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Devo and The B-52s this way, and would read about current bands from England that sounded even cooler than those.

OK, so that's a little context. Now let's talk about the stores themselves. From 1981 to about 1984, there were four that I visited every time we went to Berkeley: Rasputin's Records, Universal Records, Leopold's Records, and Tower Records. We can dispense with the last one first. If you consumed recorded music up until the early 00's, you certainly know what Tower Records is. Berkeley had one, and it had a great magazine section and many of the newest imports. It was usually an afterthought on these visits – I'd hit the three indie stores first, walk them up and down for hours, and only then go to Tower, mostly because it was just part of the established routine.

Rasputin Records – also known as Rasputin's, and currently known as Rasputin Music (and still on Telegraph, albeit in a different location), was the big mecca of the 4 stores. It was an absolute epicenter for new independent music from England and from small labels across the USA. The images from my first moments in the store are forever burned into my psyche. On the lefthand wall, a long row of 45s. Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Visage (!), Adam and the Ants, X, the Au Pairs, The Cramps and many more. To the right, more in the center of the store, were the LPs that the store wanted to feature. I remember my jaw dropping that first time when I saw this one


Everything unique and groundbreaking about punk and postpunk – music, sleeve design, band names, fashion, politics - had converged and was on display in this one store, at this one time, and I'll never forget how my horizons exploded in a few short hours. I would flip through these records multiple times (especially the singles, because I could afford them), staring at sleeves, reading liner notes, and carrying armloads of stuff around all afternoon until it was time to check out because my grandpa was going to pick me up outside the store.

Being a kid, and therefore having limited allowance money to spend, I bought two 45s that first day that I'd been hearing on KFJC: "Antmusic", by Adam and the Ants (yeah!), and X's "White Girl". Such was my musical cognitive dissonance at the time, though I suppose it's not as far a leap as it might once have seemed. Trouble was, I thought when I bought "White Girl" that I was actually buying a frantic, female-fronted punk rock song I'd heard on the radio once before, which was "100% White Girl" by San Francisco punk band THE VKTMS. Expecting that song, and instead getting Exene's whiny, nasally voice and the methodical pace of the original "White Girl", I was thoroughly bummed as I listened to it late that night, after my grandparents had gone to bed, of course. When you only have $6 to spend, and you "waste" $3 of it on one of the best days of your young life, it can be pretty crushing. Of course, now I love X's song, and I wish I'd held onto the Slash Records 45. Never did end up buying the Vktms record, either.

On later visits I bought Bauhaus' 12" single "Bela Lugosi's Dead"; the complete early Simple Minds collection (pre-stardom; this was when they were a futuristic dance band of sorts); the Surf Punks LP; Au Pairs' "Playing With a Different Sex" LP; the Human League's "Being Boiled", and a variety of new wave singles I've forgotten about now. This is likely for the better. I laughed at records by "Surgical Penis Klinik" and the Meat Puppets. I saw a lot of records that are undoubtedly paying for children's college educations now.

Practically next door to Rasputin's was Universal Records. I think they may have closed well before I left for college in 1985; I seem to remember them disappearing around 1983. This was the punk store. Cluttered, dirty, and with loud UK punk like Discharge and The Exploited blasting at top volume, it took all of my teenage courage to shop here and look cool. Actually, though, the pimpled punker behind the counter was totally friendly to me every time I came in – answering questions and steering me to new purchases. His punk name was Rob Noxious. There were many dudes with variants of that name back in the day, including Bob Noxious, singer for San Francisco's Fuck-Ups. This guy, I later learned, was the singer of a hardcore band called Intensified Chaos. He prodded me to buy my VICE SQUAD "Stand Strong, Stand Proud" record, and patted me on the back when I sold him my novelty Surf Punks record back in order to help afford it. My memories of this store are full of "Punk & Disorderly" record covers, Crass, Anti-Pasti, "Oi Oi That's Yer Lot" and so on.

Finally, there was Leopold's Records. This was a two-story store, housed next to Tower Records and both above and to the left of LaVal's Pizza, which itself was a must-visit on every trip (two slices for $2 or something like that – remember though that this is 1980s money. That's like $174 today). Leopold's would later gain notoriety for being a phenomenal store for underground hip-hop as that scene was exploding; I remember it as another place for British imports. I got the early Kate Bush records there! There were rows and rows of records in plastic polyvinyl sleeves (classy) - prog-rock from the 70s and 80s seemed to be something in high traffic there. Either that or the Gentle Giant and Marillion records were right next to the areas I would frequently browse. As amazing as this store was, it was a distant third for me to the glory that was Rasputin's and the eye-opening head trip that was Universal. I still made it a point to spend an hour here each time, however.

My trips to Berkeley continued even in college and afterward a bit, especially when Amoeba Records – the very first one – opened there in 1990. By then, Rasputin's was trying to be all things to all people (instead of an imports/punk/used vinyl kind of store), and went through a bit of a crisis in competition with Amoeba and almost closed. It's now a gargantuan store again, right there on Telegraph, in a new location, with a cool "history of Berkeley punk and metal" photo exhibit on the outside of the store today, right at street level. Leopold's is long gone. Tower is long gone. The great bookstore of the avenue, Cody's, is long gone, though Moe's hangs on for dear life. Berkeley was subsequently supplanted by San Francisco, and later by the internet, as the best location to shop for records from far corners of the underground. 


I miss that wide-eyed feeling of discovery I would get there, when "everything was totally new" and now-legendary 80s subcultures were still ripe for exploration. I was trying on a teenage mental identity, as every teenager does, and this was the perfect place to experiment. More to the point, it was the best place in the world (that I knew of) to buy some totally rad records. I wish I could somehow capture that frenzied, electric, worlds-of-possibility brain rush again.