This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
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SXSW 2013 opens with names big and small
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's like Comic Con, but without anything cool."
That early review of South by Southwest came from one of the multitude of hipsters strutting through the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday — the final day of SXSW Interactive and the first day of SXSW Music. This annual conference and festival in the Texas capital has grown into a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 8; the music blares on through March 17.
The relative coolness of what lies ahead remains to be seen, but it's already shaping up to be a typical mix of fresh-faced new bands — the showcasing of which was SXSW's original mission when it began in 1987 — and big-name celebs.
In the latter category, Depeche Mode, Green Day and Dave Grohl's Sound City Players (an assembly of Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Rick Nielsen, Corey Taylor and many more) have booked big performances this week. Other formidable names — Iggy & the Stooges, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — also are among the thousands of artists vying for attention from journalists, record labels and digital media.
The rumor mill, though, is buzzing about two other megastars: Prince and Justin Timberlake. Both taut pop-R&B legends have been floated as possible surprise showcases during SXSW. The Prince gig is just a rumor, with an unnamed source suggesting that His Purpleness will perform with a 22-piece band Saturday night at the cavernous La Zona Rosa club.
Timberlake — whose new album, "The 20/20 Experience," is out Tuesday (read my review) — is scheduled all week on TV's "Lat Night With Jimmy Fallon," but the Austinist site has pieced together clues toward JT's own possible Saturday night show.
Watch this blog for my own reports. My docket includes the big and the small, from seeing how Green Day emerges from their personal crisis to checking out up-and-comers like Foxygen and Lianne La Havas. I'll also be sniffing out the home-cooking that always pervades SXSW, from Chicago's Wild Belle and Chief Keef to the premiere of the blues documentary "Born in Chicago." Stay tuned!
SXSW: Long live Shoes, long live Camper Van Beethoven
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 6:32 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Janice Greenberg actually teared up a bit at the Camper Van Beethoven show.
The 46-year-old mother of two from Sonoma County, Calif., stumbled into the Jr. club Wednesday afternoon, squinting from the bright-to-black transition and her jaw hanging down. The band was running through its well-known 1980s indie-rock standard, "Take the Skinheads Bowling" — but it was, Greenberg discovered to her considerable dismay, their last song.
"I had no idea that they ... are they even ... I didn't know they were here!" she said, close to a wail. "I love Camper!"
Camper eased onto the stage Wednesday afternoon and played a 10-song, career-spanning set that was plenty to justify their status as indie-rock grandfathers. What was extraordinary, though — and somehow I always forget this till I'm faced with it — was the skill of the five players. CVB's music can get complicated, not in a convoluted art-rock sense but in a self-taught virtuoso sense. While singer David Lowery wheezes and whines his weird, grumpy-ol'-stoner tales, you've got Jonathan Segel (elegant on violin, especially during "Sad Lover's Waltz," but also adding swooping third guitar to the new "Too High for the Love-In") and Greg Lisher (braiding melodies and countermelodies throughout like a pro). New songs like "Northern California Girls" — from the recently released new album, "La Costa Perdida" — were refreshing live, while old surprises like "Seven Languages" still packed a punch.
The best part, though, was when Greenberg got the good news: Camper's playing again two hours later, at 7 p.m. right next door at El Sol y La Luna, 600 E 6th St. I'd quote her reaction, but she was off like a shot to secure her spot.
Trusty ol' Shoes
Another legacy act inaugurated SXSW 2013 Wednesday afternoon with a show that was, at least historically, slightly more momentous. Beloved power-pop band Shoes — the lions of Zion, Ill. — played their first concert outside the Chicago area in 18 years.
Shoes, an occasional underground delight since appearing in 1975, reunited last year to record "Ignition," their first new album since 1994. Early Wednesday afternoon, at an annual showcase organized by Chicago native publicist Cary Baker (who shepherded the dB's into their comeback at the same place last year), singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, brother John Murphy on bass and drummer John Richardson blasted through their own career-spanning set.
Shoes is one of those bands with a consistency that's more than a little frightening. I was bobbing my head through most of "Say It Like You Mean It" before I remembered it was one of the new ones.
No one at SXSW has just one gig anymore: Shoes' play again (their official showcase) at 11 p.m. Friday at Maggie Mae's Gibson Room, 512 Trinity St.
SXSW: 'Born in Chicago' explores '60s blues hand-off
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 1:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — A day after it was announced as a featured documentary at next month's annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, "Born in Chicago" had its world premiere here at SXSW on Wednesday afternoon.
The film, directed by John Anderson, chronicles the history and tall tales from the generation of young, affluent white kids who gathered in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s, learning to play the blues from the men who had honed the music on their own. Narration by Marshall Chess (son and nephew of the Chess Records founders) mixes into interviews with Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg (who co-produced the film) and excellent footage of the late Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. On the other side are snatches of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus interviews with Sam Lay and the great Hubert Sumlin.
"Born in Chicago" makes Bloomfield, a wealthy Jewish guitar virtuoso (a fact he presents in a funny bit of old footage), appear something of a valiant crusader for crossing the mid-century racial divide, bearing his instrument. Goldberg relates a templated tale of him and Bloomfield venturing into the South Side one night to sit in with Howlin' Wolf — and the hush that came over the club when two white boys walked in. All that's missing is the record-scratching clip from the Dexter Lake Club in "Animal House."
The film's problematic thesis, though, seems to be that this particular appropriation wasn't like all the other black cultural exploitations by white musicians — because Muddy and Wolf and the gang were apparently so thrilled to be noticed, appreciated and revered by these upper-middle class dilettantes. Chess himself drives the point home about "these white kids treating 'em like stars," and Goldberg assures us that "people recognized the respect we had for their music." Musselwhite — himself the subject of a current generational rediscovery thanks to his recent collaboration with Ben Harper — insists, "These guys ... were so flattered we knew who they were." Just because the original bluesmen welcomed their exploiters, however, does not mean they weren't exploited.
Even Jack White mentions what a "shame" it is that it takes white people to "legitimize" something like this, apparently never stopping to consider that the music previously had been perfectly legitimate for black people. So only when white people — a bunch of Brits, no less, once the Stones showed up at Chess — stamp their approval does a music become 2 legit 2 quit? Same song, umpteenth verse.
Steve Miller probably sums up the reality of the situation better than anyone in the film: "Everybody talks about it like, oh, these white kids. We were competing with Howlin' Wolf for gigs. ... It was business."
Catch "Born in Chicago" at the CIMM fest in Chicago, April 18-21. Four-day passes are on sale now.
SXSW: Chicago's Wild Belle ready for summer
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:15 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW originally was created to showcase music that was new, fresh, creative. Wild Belle returned to the festival Wednesday night boasting all three.
The Chicago-area, brother-sister duo of Elliot and Natalie Bergman kicked off the Wednesday showcases with a packed house at the roomy upstairs Haven club, with lines of eager badge-holders and fans stretching in two directions down the block. Leaning heavily on their new album, "Isles" — released Tuesday on major label Columbia — the Bergmans and their band bounced effortlessly through their reggae-driven pop. It was music for the Austin weather: warm, breezy and revitalizing. That they performed a song about being "bundled up like chickadees" in Chicago seemed almost to taunt the folks back home.
Natalie is a Kittenish creature — capitalized because, while her vocals certainly purr, she sings with a throaty, Eartha Kitt allure. She performs with a sultry confidence belying the fact that "Isles" is the band's debut. Elliot, though, is crucial to the band's unique sound. Puttering about among keyboards, a baritone saxophone and various gizmos, like a thumb piano with an electric pickup attached, he looks like Lazlo Hollyfield and underpins the music with a similarly silent mad genius. Wild Belle's sound is relaxed, summery and always keeps just left of what one might expect them to go. One of those moments where you wish this wasn't a mere 40-minute SXSW showcase.
SXSW: The return of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:39 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Really, no hoots and cheers when Natalie Maines, covering Pink Floyd's "Mother," sang the song's line about running for president?
Maines, the singer for country's Dixie Chicks, returned to the spotlight in a Wednesday night showcase at the Austin City Limits Live theater during SXSW. Once the flashpoint for debate after disparaging President George W. Bush (telling a London audience in 2003, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas"), the Lubbock native was back in Austin a decade later to unveil the new Natalie. Performing the entirety of her new album, "Mother" — her solo debut since the Dixie Chicks went on hiatus in 2007 — Maines appeared stolid and confident.
In fact, in the beginning the set lacked much energy at all, plodding through midtempo numbers without much fanfare or enthusiasm. The Pink Floyd cover — a dark choice, but played capably and arranged for arenas — is part of the reason this is being touted as a "rock" record, and eventually more of her trademark feistiness backed up that perspective. Politics are still foregrounded: "I put this on the album because it reminds me of the West Memphis Three," she said by way of introducing Dan Wilson's "Free Life." But then — backed as she was Ben Harper and his Innocent Criminals band (Harper co-produced Maines' new album) — she put down her own guitar and launched into Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell," unleashing a pent-up Belinda Carlisle kind of frenzy while rooted at the mike. Suddenly the near faux-hawk hairdo was making sense.
"Mother" is due May 7. Incidentally, as Maines pointed out, Patty Griffin also has a new album out the same day.
SXSW: Dave Grohl talks Chicago, inspires the aspiring
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 2:08 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Dave Grohl stepped to the podium Thursday morning to deliver the keynote address at SXSW 2013, rolled up his sleeves, tucked his hair behind his ears — and put on reading glasses.
The move spoke not only to rock's AARP eligibility but to the paternal tone of his address. Largely an autobiography of a lifetime spent pursuing some measure of independence in his music, Grohl's speech aimed not at the media and industry crowding the Austin Convention Center ballroom but at any indie-rock kids who might hear him.
"There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice," he dispensed. "It's your voice. Cherish it, respect it, challenge it ... Everyone's blessed with at least that."
In Austin to hype his new documentary, "Sound City: Real to Reel," Grohl barely mentioned it, largely trying to inspire with his speech rather than merely shill for his flick.
The Foo Fighters leader and former Nirvana drummer began his hourlong talk with the moment of his birth, but wrapped it up by stating hope that his own two daughters will find their own way in the world. His remarks retraced that wayfinding, beginning with a K-tel record. His sister bought it in 1975, and it contained Edgar Winter's instrumental "Frankenstein," which he proceeded to scat for the audience. Hearing the tune was a life-changing moment, he said, adding, "It was the riff. I gave it all up for a f---in' riff."
Much of his tale he has told before, including the other pivotal musical moments he experienced during summer family visits in the Chicago area. He described (somehow) getting into the Cubby Bear to hear local punk legends Naked Raygun ("The most ferocious noise! Bodies were flying everywhere ... piss and puke. I was in heaven!") and making the pilgrimage to Wax Trax! Records to begin stocking up on the requisite punk catalog.
Grohl demonstrated the crude multitracking technique he came up with as a teen. With one tape machine, he recorded a few bars of a guitar riff. He placed that tape into another player and played it back, while recording some drum beats on the body of his guitar. Voila — the new recording contained both sounds!
Grohl's rewind was full of life-changing moments — a political punk show in Washington, D.C., a single question ("Have you heard of Nirvana?"), the death of Kurt Cobain.
"When Kurt died, I was lost. I was numb. The music that I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me. I had no voice. I put away my drums. I turned off the radio. I couldn't bear to hear someone else singing about their own pain or happiness."
He re-emerged with a self-made album, which he labeled the Foo Fighters, which became — as once described by Pitchfork, a media outlet he disparaged midway through his speech — "his generation's answer to Tom Petty — a consistent hit machine pumping out working-class rock."
Grohl's talk about Grohl was a bit thin after recent SXSW keynotes — Bruce Springsteen's rousing music history lesson last year, Bob Geldof's still-poignant pleas for rock's social conscience in 2011 — but it contained nuggets of self-awareness and inspiration for aspiring contemporary musicians.
Repeating a mantra about finding one's individual voice, he confessed, "F--- guilty pleasure! How about just pleasure? ... I can truthfully say out loud that 'Gangnam Style' is one of my favorite f---ing songs of the past year."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players is a temporary supergroup featuring Grohl, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Nielsen and many more. They perform an anticipated showcase later tonight.
SXSW shows off Chicago hip-hop
By Thomas Conner March 15, 2013 9:26 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Late Thursday night, an official showcase of more Chicago rappers — including King Louie, Lil Durk, Lil Mouse, GLC, Katie Got Bandz — stocked the upstairs Club 119 in the shadow of the Texas capitol. MCs and DJs ringed the club's small stage, waiting to be tagged in like pro wrestlers. Vic Spencer worked the crowd, followed by the dynamic and engaging YP, who boasted of his East Side roots and led the crowd chanting the title of "Insane" (alas, no Rockie Fresh cameo). Chance the Rapper was here, too, working his own forceful rhythms despite the tempo of his soothing, soulful tracks. Chance dances like a boxer on stage, and his rhymes (even when not talking about "tabs of acid" in "Brain Cells") get pretty wild and surreal.
And lest you've fallen prey to the notion that all Chicago hip-hop is bleak and violent, Chance shouted with notable ferocity: "Make some noise if you love your mama!"
SXSW: Dave Grohl's Sound City Players rock long
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 10:08 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's gonna be a long f---in' night," Dave Grohl promised at the start of his Thursday set with his live musical collage, the Sound City Players. Then the supergroup — Grohl on bass with his Foo Fighters, led by omnipresent hard-rock maestro Alain Johannes — kicked off a song that found Johannes pleading, "I hope it won't be long."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players are a hodge-podge of recognizable names spanning three generations, a promotional ploy for Grohl's new documentary ("Sound City: Real To Reel," about the legendary Los Angeles recording studio) and its accompanying soundtrack. The group features Grohl and his band with Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Lee Ving (Fear), Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine), Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), Johannes (Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures) and bassist Krist Novoselic (Nirvana).
They've performed a handful of shows since early January in New York, Los Angeles and London. Grohl said at the beginning of Thursday's SXSW concert outdoors at Stubb's BBQ that this one would "probably" be their last. "So we're gonna make it extra long, extra special."
Long we got — close to three-and-a-half hours — and special, too. The result was a rollicking rock and roll revue. Springfield came on for "I've Done Everything for You" and, of course, "Jessie's Girl." Taylor and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins sang Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" and "Surrender," with Grohl on drums and Nielsen on guitar. Fogerty closed the show with Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, including "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising" and trading verses with Grohl on "Fortunate Son." Through it all, Grohl stayed on stage playing with everyone's mini-set (switching between guitar, bass and drums), beaming with obvious glee at having assembled this temporary clubhouse.
Grohl's first guest, however, was the most transformative. After half a dozen songs bashed out with Johannes, Nicks stepped to the mic and proved to be more than up to the task of leading a bashing hard rock band.
She and Grohl pointed at each other as they sang the chorus of "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" (see, Grohl is his generation's Tom Petty!), and Nicks performed Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" with the band and "Landslide" with Grohl alone on guitar. She sang excellent new song from the "Sound City" soundtrack, "You Can't Fix This" -- graceful and tuneful, with a leaning, weaving riff more akin to Waddy Wachtel than Lindsey Buckingham. Swinging her ribboned tambourine and wearing shades, Nicks was in great voice and moving with an ease I've not seen on stage in a long time, particularly when the band began a surreal, clanging opening séance to "Gold Dust Woman," as Nicks waved her scarf with her back to the audience and conjured her old witchy self. With the Foo Fighters cranked to 11, Nicks wailed and howled and raised the dead, holding her own with the muscled band all the way through the cacophonous conclusion.
Forget Grohl's "Sirvana" work with Paul McCartney -- let's have some Fleetwood Fighters!
(Since a couple of people have asked: According to Pee Wee Herman himself via Twitter, the photo on the bass drum head was of Pee Wee, David Lee Roth and Rodney Dangerfield.)
SXSW: Flaming Lips bring 'Yoshimi,' 'The Terror'
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 11:23 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "The new record is probably going to freak some people out," said Wayne Coyne. "It is, on purpose, not a hopeful record."
He's talking about "The Terror," the Flaming Lips' new nine-track album due in late April, and as he does it's easy for him to get a little heavy.
"There are things we have to face as human beings, truths we must explore," Coyne says. "'The Terror' is a certain kind of terror, an uncanny sort of break in nature or your own life. It's not an insane, monster terror. It's the terror of realizing that love isn't the magic bullet. We all wake up with dread of the unknown. It's not about fear of dying, but about the fact that we just don't know what's going to happen anywhere, anytime."
We were sitting in a makeshift green room, a tent in a parking garage behind the venue where the Flaming Lips would perform later Thursday night. Not that parking garage. During SXSW '97 nearly 2,000 people crammed into the second level of a downtown garage to hear Coyne's Car Radio Orchestra, an experiment involving 28 vehicles. Coyne gave each driver a pre-mixed cassette and instructed them to press play and blare the music on cue. Soon, soothing synthesizer parts were swelling from various auto systems, with surreal samples and female orgasm sounds. It was an experiment; one car blew a fuse.
"The cops nearly shut us down," Coyne recalled.
Thursday night the Flaming Lips played a more intimate showcase — no confetti, no costumes, thankfully no big plastic ball — performing the whole of their 2002 album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." The show was packed — so much so there was still a line down the block when it was over.
Friday night, though, they'll be unveiling the new music in a free show at the Auditorium Shores amphitheater here.
"We keep saying this is the most depressing but life-affirming music we've ever done," Coyne said.
Coyne is also in town this week to promote a film, "A Year in the Life of Wayne's Phone," which had its world premiere Wednesday night at SXSW. The film is a collage of clips Coyne shot with his iPhone.
"I didn't do this on purpose," Coyne said. "I take so many videos, and my computer guy is always having to empty them off my computer to make room. One day he said, 'We should a movie of these.'"
Since Coyne shot nearly all the videos in vertical portrait mode rather than the usual horizontal scale, the film features three clips lined up, each running simultaneously. The clips range from interviews, shots of friends (look for Yoko Ono and Rivers Cuomo!), cute animals, the USB skull and Coyne crowdsurfing. The viewer's attention is directed by bringing up the audio on a certain clip, but it's still a disorienting challenge to take it all in.
SXSW: Green Day roars back to life
By Thomas Conner March 16, 2013 11:31 am
AUSTIN, Texas — In the middle of “Stay the Night,” Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong paused at the microphone, stared at the crowd for a moment and sighed, “Ah, welcome back!”
A turnabout of words. No doubt he was happy to see us — a crowd not even close to capacity at the Austin City Limits Live theater, but certainly a welcoming one. This was Green Day’s return to action after Armstrong’s profane meltdown last September at a festival in Las Vegas, complete with tantrum and smashed guitar. Days later, the band announced Armstrong was seeking treatment for substance abuse and a slate of arena dates was postponed.
Friday night at SXSW, though, Armstrong couldn’t have looked more refreshed, reinvigorated and grateful.
After the welcoming comment, he let the crowd sing for moment while he sat on the edge of the drum riser, first gazing back at us with some measure of incredulity, then sitting for a spell with his head in his hands.
There’s a lot of that in a Green Day show nowadays — the poor band vamping, sometimes for quite a long time, while Armstrong wrangles the crowd. He’s a professional motivator, certainly, and obsessed with airborne limbs (“Get your hands up! This ain’t no caf, motherf—ers!”). Thankfully, the band — Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, drummer Tr Cool and their criminally unsung “fourth member,” guitarist Jason White — was plenty exciting without the constant demands for shouts, singalongs and waving arms.
In 24 songs over two hours, Green Day ripped through its catalog, reaching back to the early ’90s and slotting in some requisite newbies from this winter’s album trilogy (“Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tr!”). The hit parade marched along — “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” the excellent “Know Your Enemy” — including some songs that now wear an extra patina of irony, given Armstrong’s recent troubles, such as “Burnout” and “Basket Case.”
Only once did Armstrong allude to his recent woes. During “Stop When the Red Lights Flash,” he had directed the band and the audience into a quiet moment and crouched into the microphone to kick off a climactic explosion — but just before he could whisper to a scream, a roadie darted over and replaced the wireless mic right in front of Armstrong’s mouth. The singer barely missed a beat but couldn’t help chuckle a bit. “And I wasn’t even on drugs,” he quipped.
But while the on-stage comeback was encouraging, SXSW finds Green Day at a possibly crucial juncture. The band also debuted not one but two new documentaries during this festival: “Broadway Idiot,” about the transformation of the 2004 “American Idiot” album into a hit musical, and “Cuatro!” chronicling the making of the recent trilogy.
Each album in that trilogy is, with remarkable consistency, terrible. (I reviewed “Uno!” but couldn’t find the heart to kvetch further about the other two.) So here they are with projects that look backward and forward. If the way forward is merely “Cinco!” then even though the band played the ACL theater like an arena, it may want to prepare itself for such smaller venues. The stoked fire in their bellies on display Friday night either will spark their previously impressive creativity within such a rigid genre, or it simply will warm their evenings as a very entertaining legacy act at the casinos and cruises of the future.
Green Day reboots its postponed tour starting March 28 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
SXSW: The rebirth of Detroit punk trio Death
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2013 12:21 PM
Black musicians did a lot of great things in Detroit in the '60s and '70s. Rock and roll — much less anything that would later be called punk — wasn't always one of them. At SXSW this year, though, a band was on display that defies that notion: Death, a fraternal trio and a rare group that can justly support the claim "best band you've never heard."
Death was born in the east Detroit home of the Hackney family. Brothers Dannis, Bobby and David, like so many boomer-era musicians, started playing in the early 1970s as the Rock Fire Funk Express. But after witnessing concerts by the Who and fellow Detroiter Alice Cooper, the brothers threw their lot with their city's other musical heroes, punk-rock icons like the MC5 and Iggy Pop. The Hackney brothers then began writing taut, propulsive rock 'n' roll — truly great stuff — which, until a slightly miraculous rediscovery a few years ago, was heard by practically no one.
The story of the band's derailed promise and eventual obscurity is told ably in a documentary screening at SXSW, "A Band Called Death." Blessed with a rich tale, director-producer Jeff Howlett basically leans back and lets the golden plot points unfold one after another.
Opening with gushing praise from the likes of Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and — was that Elijah Wood?! — "A Band Called Death" charts the emergence of this family band and the, for the times, unusual shift from R&B to rock and roll.
"Then the Who came to town," Dannis Hackney says, pausing to emphasize some unspoken gravitas of that moment, "and when I saw Alice Cooper, all bets were off. I said, 'If we ain't playing this, then we ain't gonna be having no fun.'"
Singer David Hackney, however, sought to express through the band's new music his own complex cosmology, which included some positive notions about the rebirth and transformation potential in death. Thus, he insisted on the name.
That made Death pretty much dead on arrival.
The band's first producer in Detroit, former Stax musician Don Davis, recalls in the film telling the band: "Have you lost your mind? Nobody is going to buy a song from a group called D-E-A-T-H," spelling out what apparently was still an uncomfortable moniker.
The trio's music caught the ear of hitmaker Clive Davis, who was ready to sign the band to Arista — as long as they changed the name. David refused to budge, insisting (with definitely punkish integrity) that the sacrifice would be a slippery slope. Bobby Hackney, in an earlier interview, recalled, "He said, 'If they make us change our name, then every little thing they see in us they're gonna wanna change — the music, the style, the concept. Once we change that name, we belong to them. Once we give in to that, Death is, well, dead.'"
Credibility intact, Death still died. They did, however, manage to secure the master recordings of what was to be the debut Death album. Attempts to release songs independently failed, and the brothers relocated to Vermont and formed a reggae band. David Hackney died in 2000, after insisting that his brothers hold on to those masters, saying, "One day the world's gonna come looking for this."
Amazingly, that's exactly what happened.
Biafra, a rabid record collector, bought a box of singles several years ago: Death's lone indie 45, "Politicians in My Eyes." He mentioned it in an interview. The writer posted the single online as an mp3. Word began spreading of its awesomeness.
Then the rediscovery came full circle. Bobby Hackney Jr. — clearly still dazed and amazed by this as he relates the story in the film — hears the song, likes it, and has no idea it's his dad until he goes as far as to Google some background. He calls home: "Dad, why didn't you tell me??!!"
This is 2008, and the following year momentum has built enough that Chicago-based label Drag City assists the Hackney brothers in restoring those old masters and finally releasing the debut Death album, titled "...For All the World to See." Another compilation of early demos followed.
This week at SXSW, in addition to the documentary screenings, two bands played showcases: Death, featuring surviving brothers Dannis and Bobby with two extra players, and Rough Francis, a deadly new generation featuring Bobby Hackney Jr., Julian Hackney and Urian Hackney.
Even better: Death will live again on a new record, titled "Relief," in the works now.
SXSW: Justin Timberlake, Prince, Smashing Pumpkins
By Thomas Conner March 17, 2013 9:06 am
The final night of SXSW featured two big legacy acts. OK, from a Chicago perspective it was three.
Justin Timberlake, making good on rumors, blew into town after a week on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” to play an intimate club gig. Here’s a star who will fill Chicago’s Soldier Field this summer, but here in Austin he played the 800-capacity Coppertank Events Center.
(Mind you, this show was only partly about music. Timberlake, now a beer spokesman, was here to promote the newly renovated MySpace web site, of which he’s a major investor, in a concert sponsored by Chevrolet.) Timberlake, backed by a 16-piece band, played for an hour. This writer did not gain admission — I just reviewed his record, and we’ll have plenty of chances to discuss JT further all year long — but there are good reviews here, here and here.
Across town, Prince played the larger club La Zona Rosa, leading a 22-piece band and performing more covers than his own songs. The nearly three-hour show — in which Prince never played guitar (fail) — did bring something to SXSW that is often hard to find: lots of R&B and funk.
"They called our people and said they wanted some funk in Austin,” said Prince, before belting out the last bars of a gentle rendition of “Purple Rain.” At least this show sounds like it was better than his previous Chicago fiascoes.
You won’t see a lot of photos from the Prince show online today, however. Notoriously prickly about photos at his shows, Prince banned all cameras. Even simply using a cell phone got some fans tossed — a biting irony, given that the concert was thrown by Samsung Galaxy and promoters worked the crowd beforehand offering customers fresh phone batteries or device test-drives. But intrepid Chicago photographer Michael Jackson (yup, his real name), shooting for the Sun-Times, landed the image above.
In other news: Today is Billy Corgan’s birthday — happy 46th! — an occasion the Chicago rocker rang in at midnight on stage at SXSW. The Smashing Pumpkins, still busy and ahead of a new world tour, played a set mixed with hits (“Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight”) and newer songs from the excellent “Oceania” album, even a cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Review here, or see the detailed run-down on the Twitter feed from Hipsters United.
SXSW: Wanderings, discoveries, random notes
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2013 12:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — If it's Sunday, that means my notes are full of jottings about a dozen other bands I saw and haven't written about yet in the mad rush that is SXSW. Deep breath, here's a wrap-up of the other tunes worth mentioning ...
Best brand-spanking-new band
CHVRCHES, barely a year old, impressed with a strong batch of electronic pop at several showcases, including a Friday day stage. The Scottish trio's debut album isn't due until September, but singer-synth players Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty bear all the hallmarks of a forceful, creative unit with a single mind — perhaps the meaning of the beautiful current single, "The Mother We Share." Their newness is evident in the fact that they still have a ways to go before making their knob-twiddling something to watch on stage, but the songs are there. I haven't heard synth-driven pop this tight and tuneful since Robyn showed up.
Most hopeful feeling at end of showcase
No one really seems to have demanded this reunion of Chicago's Fall Out Boy, but the band's Friday night showcase — back at SXSW after eight years — at least showed off enough energy and chutzpah to suggest that the comeback is genuinely inspired. Their fans certainly remain adoring, singing along with practically every word that fell from singer Patrick Stump's lips, maybe even his stage banter. The 45-minute slot kept to singles old ("Sugar, We're Going Down," "Dance, Dance") and new ("My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark [Light 'Em Up]"). Stump flexed his own R&B muscles in a recent solo outing, and the new FOB is highlighting that strength. Even the cover of "Beat It" sounded more sincere and natural than one might expect. Definitely whetted the appetite for the new record.
Best stumbled-upon showcase
Field Report, a band led by Christopher Porterfield. Two bits of trivia: First, Field Report is an anagram of Porterfield. Second, Porterfield started out a decade ago in DeYarmond Edison, the band Justin Vernon fronted before creating Bon Iver. On his own, Porterfield is much warmer and far rootsier. At a Saturday SXSW showcase, his six-man band — plenty of plaid shirts and trucker hats, neither of which seemed to be worn with much hipster irony — delivers supple, textural Americana that fit right in with the venue's sponsorship by a home-improvement cable channel (as if his music was in itself an answer to the advertising banners hung around the bar, asking, "What does home mean to you?"). Singing well-written songs about New Mexico and a "bible school choir," Porterfield guided the band up and down various crescendos to achieve maximum emotional impact, all the while maintaining an appropriately pensive expression. "Is everyone drinking enough water?" he asked between songs. Bassist Travis Whitty chided him: "Concerned dad up here." Aw shucks.
Best return on investment in buzz
New York quartet Parquet Courts entered the festival with considerable, though understandably hesitant, buzz. The band's proper debut album, "Light Up Gold," out in January, is a complex chart of steady rhythms, snaking words and clean but often jarring guitars. It's not an album that immediately broadcasts "great stage show!" On stage Saturday night, the band lazed into action, blurring the line between hasty SXSW sound check and actual opening song. Driven by the rhythm section — featuring bassist Sean Yeaton, who spends the show contributing occasional backing vocals with hilariously distended tongue, like a punk Loudon Wainwright III — guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown were free to work at their own pace and inspiration, pulsing their instruments to propel the song or torturing them a bit. The momentum of the Strokes, the late-night "Stoned and Starving" haze of the Dandy Warhols, plus occasional Sonic Youth squall. Adds up to a good time.
Best personal thrill with very little note-taking
A longtime Robyn Hitchcock fan, I wasn't going to miss perennial SXSW performer Robyn Hitchcock's early Saturday show, particularly since it was celebrating his 60th birthday (complete with tarantula-topped cake and red wine, which Hitchcock referred to as "lady petrol"). The British legend was supported by a number of pals — Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5), Bill Rieflin (R.E.M., Ministry, tons), Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn) — and for a moment, with Kelly Hogan on stage and Jon Langford in the wings, it seemed the band might turn into Robyn Hitchcock & the Chicagoans. Langford never materialized on stage with Hitchcock, though. Nor did R.E.M.'s Mike Mills (grinning, looking more content than I've seen him in years), who was at the bar and had played bass behind Stringfellow as the opening act. Nonetheless, Hitchcock told his usual bizarre stories and sang an impressively wide variety of songs — newish ones (the beautiful "Dismal City"), old ones ("Queen Elvis," "Ole Tarantula," "Alright, Yeah") and covers ("Tangled Up in Blue," "Don't Let Me Down") — as well as rapping a bit about the new pope.
Best delayed reaction
Lord Huron was highly recommended to me by friends at last year's SXSW, but I missed their showcase at a cramped little club. Fast forward one year and on Wednesday night they were filling the spacious ACL Live theater, ahead of Natalie Maines' comeback set, with some enchanting folksy harmonies and rhythms. Those harmonies have earned them far too many Fleet Foxes comparisons — and they're sometimes a bit thinner and wispier than that — but when those rhythms crank up they come alive. "Time to Run" does just that, and every band member is armed with some percussion instrument — a shaker, maracas, singer and bandleader Ben Schneider with a small snare. Good tunes when they get up and go.
Best hangover showcase
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell played NPR's Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center. It was Friday morning, and the soft-spoken angel that is Emmylou strolled out in her boots — cue the Janis Ian song — and quipped that everyone here deserved a merit badge just for navigating through the festival. She meant the confusion and enormity of SXSW, but when she and Crowell played Kris Kristopherson's "Chase the Feeling" ("And you got loaded again / Ain't you handsome when you're high") many vacant-eyed attendees were nodding with understanding, not rhythm.
Worst showcase logistics
Foxygen was due to play a half hour set Wednesday night at the Hype Hotel, which they started a half hour late. (Out of all the shows I saw this week, two started on time. That's my main complaint about SXSW's rampant growth. They're starting to lose control of their production.) Foxygen is a great, brassy band that sounds superb on their latest record, "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic," but that interesting sound was completely swallowed up in the ramshackle venue that was the Hype Hotel, an empty commercial cavern hemmed in with sound-eating drywall that appeared to have been nailed up this month. Bummer.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Paul Williams boasts an interesting and compelling life story. Unfortunately, even by the end credits, his documentarian remains somehow unconvinced.
Director Stephen Kessler ("Vegas Vacation") thus delivers a hand-wringing, self-indulgent film that is often trying, dull and, like a rainy Monday, is likely to get you down.
The diminutive Williams was once a giant star. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (his biggest hit and Oscar winner, from "A Star Is Born"), even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on television, guesting on everything from "The Tonight Show" to "Police Woman." By the '80s, though, he'd disappeared into deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.
Like many fair-weather fans, Kessler assumed Williams was dead. The recent discovery of his error reignited a youthful admiration for Williams and his music, so Kessler began pestering his idol about telling his story on camera. For two and a half years he shadowed a clearly reluctant Williams, and the resulting footage was cobbled together for "Paul Williams Still Alive," opening Friday.
Despite being handed a timeless "Behind the Music" narrative arc — unlikely figure becomes huge star, huge star face-plants into addiction, has-been redeems self with indomitable spirit and a continuing career that's, hey, not digging ditches — Kessler early on admits his fan-boy insecurity about the modern marketability of his subject. Unable to see past his own adoration, though, Kessler decides instead to make the film about ... Kessler.
First-person documentary works if you're somewhat daring (Michael Moore) or even remotely likable (Morgan Spurlock). Kessler, however, shows himself to be timid, whiny and paranoid. The chat segments are uncomfortable because Kessler has no facility for interviewing. The daily-life segments are dull because Kessler is frequently shut out of the inner circle and left to twiddle his knobs. A series of gigs in the Philippines are a huge downer not because of what actually happens but because Kessler won't shut up about his own cultural paranoia regarding terrorism in the big bad jungle.
Thus, this film is about many things that never happen. Williams didn't die. Williams refuses to talk much about his past. Williams — despite numerous shameless attempts by Kessler to coerce him to do so — does not break down on camera and weep with shame over his former follies. (Other things that never happen: Williams' involvement with the Muppets is barely mentioned. "Phantom of the Paradise," ignored.)
In fact, it's Williams' defiance that ultimately end-runs around Kessler's meek machinations to illuminate his own story. "He always looks forward, he doesn't look back," Kessler finally realizes about his subject, two and a half years too late. Williams, meanwhile — ever calm, satisfied, radiantly secure — describes the happiness of his current existence and sobriety, then revels gleefully in Kessler's inability to churn it into a standard tell-all.
"The last few years have really f---ed up the end of your movie," he cackles, "and I love that!" There's at least that to love.
'PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE'
Rated PG-13, 87 minutes
Directed by Stephen Kessler
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'CHRIS & DON: A LOVE STORY'
Zeitgeist Films presents a documentary directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara.
Running time: 90 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening today at Landmark Century.
It's tempting to think, midway through the charming documentary "Chris & Don," that the film should instead be titled "Don & Chris." Don Bachardy, after all, is the one half of this love story who's on screen or narrating probably 80 percent of the time. It's Don's life we get the most details from. Or at least, we see more of his emotions, his reactions, hear his decisions discussed. These are the things we want from biography, things we can learn from. Don, surely, should get the first billing.
But to think that would be a tragic (though common) misunderstanding of human relationships, of true love, even of art. Because the story of Don Bachardy is very much the story of the late writer Christopher Isherwood, and vice versa. The two artists were intertwined, affected each other's work, reflected each other in their work. They were utterly in love, and (as the subtitle reminds us) this film is not a document of two noted figures and their artistic legacy, it is a document of a relationship, a marriage. Given the news out of California these days, such an objective look at a gay marriage couldn't have been more serendipitously scheduled.
There's an extra level of "controversy" to this relationship. Chris and Don were not only a gay couple, Chris was 30 years Don's senior. They met on a Los Angeles beach when Don was 16. "Chris & Don" is laden with home-movie footage of the two of them, in the '50s, both looking so fresh and exuberant. Don, though, features more prominently in that footage, clearly the fixation of Chris, the writer who once proclaimed "I am a camera." Don is young and beautiful, his gap-toothed smile gleaming through the grainy images. The film's relatively few talking heads discuss the impact Don had on all Chris' friends and colleagues. It's easy to see.
But therein lies the slippery slope this documentary seeks to reverse, and almost succeeds in doing so. It's tempting to rush to judgment, as we do with relationships in which one partner is significantly older than the other: He corrupted the boy. Don himself frames it in the beginning of the film, describing Chris this way as "the archvillain, warping him to his mold, teaching him wicked things" — before adding, with a devilish grin, "which is exactly what the boy wanted."
"Chris & Don" shows no wickedness at all. It is not whitewashed — the dark times in the relationship are not ignored, such as Don's thoughts of leaving Chris (who died in 1986), arguments, the stress of the age difference, how they were evicted from a house because of it — it's simply objective. There is no Gay Issue and no Age Issue, nor was there in Isherwood's work. To make issues of these things, Isherwood understood, would overpower his narrative and make caricatures of his characters. It would be unrealistic, untrue. The tone of the film is perfectly in line with that of Isherwood's prose and the stylistic declaration of his "I am a camera" quotation from "Berlin Diary" in Goodbye to Berlin (the basis for each incarnation of "Cabaret"), which continues: "... with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking ... someday this will all have to be developed."
And here is the film, developing it. We see that not only did Chris deeply impact the life of young Don, encouraging and fostering the artistic talent that made him a renowned portrait artist, but that Don deeply impacted Chris. The good times in their relationship were Isherwood's inspiration toward that more reportorial, objective style of prose for which he was made famous — turning the "fiction" of Goodbye to Berlin into the autobiographical narrative of Christopher and His Kind, his fastest-selling book. The bad times inspired the successful point-of-view experiment of A Single Man, in which the older Chris struggles to come to terms with his impending mortality and the loss of his life — and the love of his life.
In the end, we have here a very human love story, one reminding us that our own biographies are not our own stories. My story hasn't been mine for nearly 15 years, since I met my partner. It's impossible to evaluate Fitzgerald without considering Zelda. Chris, we now see, couldn't have been Isherwood without Don.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The film is nearly always mentioned with modifiers such as "landmark," "milestone" and "a watershed moment." Fans and academics alike — in surveys such as the book The Celluloid Closet and the film "Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema" — continue to cite it as the single turning point for Hollywood's depiction of homosexuals, a swift and sure abolition of swishy cliches. Retailers specializing in gay cinema are weary from continuous customer requests for the film.
Yet after nearly 40 years, it remains out of print on VHS and unavailable on DVD.
The movie is "The Boys in the Band," a dramatic ensemble play faithfully adapted for the screen in 1970 and starring the complete stage cast, and the first screen success for Chicago-native director William Friedkin ("The Exorcist," "Bug"). It's poignant, it's catty, it's vicious and, as the New York Times described it, it "makes 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' look like a vicarage tea party."
But to see it — or to see it again, in a clear, crisp print with better sound than your ancient, worn-out VHS copy from its last, late-'80s release — set your DVRs for 1:15 a.m. Tuesday (Monday night) on Turner Classic Movies. It airs as part of the cable channel's "Screened Out: Gay Images in Film" series this month — and coinciding with this weekend's gay pride celebrations in Chicago.
"For me, this will be the film's television premiere," says Mart Crowley, "Band's" playwright and screenwriter, from his Los Angeles home (though he's in the process of moving back to New York). "Once upon a time in New York City years ago, five or six years after the film was released, one of those errant channels showed it. The language and such was so that they couldn't broadcast it, and they didn't bother to bleep it — they just cut the frames out in which there was any obscenity. The picture would just jump around. I couldn't watch it."
Thirty-nine years after his play debuted, Crowley is still answering for its impact. "Nobody knew what hit 'em for a while [after it was produced] — not even me," he says. "I was as surprised as anyone else. I was just writing about myself and my friends. I mean, once upon a time it was just referred to as a play. Now it's the 'first gay play' or the 'first out play.' And I still don't even really know what that means."
"The Boys in the Band" was controversial in its day, and remains so still. It's the story of a rather dismal birthday party — or so it becomes — among Michael (Kenneth Nelson), the quick-witted but steel-hearted host, and his fellow gay friends: a flamboyant queen, Emory (Cliff Gorman); a Jewish pothead, Harold (Leonard Frey); a mopey analysis patient, Donald (Frederick Combs); a hustler, "The Cowboy" (Robert LaTourneaux); a dapper black man, Bernard (Reuben Greene); a mysterious old friend, Alan (Peter White), and the couple of Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice).
The first act is all wisecracks, the second act is all barbs. Life in the closet was dreary and desperate, and the self-loathing nearly eats some of these characters alive.
"It's hard for anyone, straight or gay, who grew up post-Stonewall to relate to these poor quivering queers," the New York Post wrote when the film was restored for the Tribeca Film Festival in 1999. "But most will also have compassion for these sad sacks, living in a deforming straitjacket of shame, misery and contempt. 'Boys' is a useful yardstick of how far gay men have come, and how far they have yet to go."
Crowley, to an extent, agrees with these assessments of his work. "I understand why the new movement doesn't want these negative images. They're gay and proud, these boys today, and they don't want to admit that some of us felt miserable at times or that we didn't all arrive at this point in history in a golden chariot. ... We weren't encouraged by anyone's parents or religious leaders or friends. I was a devout Catholic, and I was going to hell. Michael's character reflects that. But now they can see these images and re-evaluate their history. Because it really did start out in a different key."
Today we see Oscar nominations for straight actors in gay roles, but Crowley had a hard time finding actors to take on the challenge of "Boys," which is why he held onto them from the stage to the screen.
Luckinbill's agent, who also represented Crowley, tried to discourage him from the role of semi-macho, bisexual Hank. "She said it would kill my career," Luckinbill said in 2002. "I said, 'It's a great play, and how is being in a great play going to hurt my career?' ... It did everything in reverse of what my agent said, except for one thing: I lost a True cigarettes commercial. They said, 'No fags smoke our fags!' "
A DVD soon?
The film certainly made its mark, at least on gay audiences. TLA Entertainment, a video retailer with a popular gay and lesbian catalog, wishes it had a DVD version to hawk. "Would it sell? Absolutely," says TLA's managing editor, Scott Cranin. "We get requests for it all the time. I get several e-mails asking for 'Boys in the Band' virtually every week."
So does Crowley. "They bug me in the Virgin Megastore, asking, 'When, when, when?' I have a standard form letter to send to people who write and ask about it. I tell them to write letters to CBS [Consumer Products]."
The history of "Band's" ownership is a tortured one. Suffice to say CBS confirmed this week that they do own the film through their partnership with King World.
"CBS maybe just discovered that they own it," Crowley says. "I'm told it'll be showing up on DVD next year, in 1908 ... no, it's 2008!" That would be the 40th anniversary of the play's first production in New York. (Calls to CBS to confirm a DVD were not returned.)
Dominick Dunne was an executive producer on the film. In a letter posted on the "Band" message boards at IMDB.com, Dunne says, "CBS is finally aware that they own the picture and they are releasing a DVD for the 40th anniversary as a two-disc piece with interviews with Mart, me, Billy Friedkin, etc."
In addition, a documentary about Crowley's work is under way, with the working title "The Making of 'The Boys in the Band.' " Filmmaker Crayton Robey, 34, has gathered all kinds of source material and interviews about the play's genesis and the movie's impact. He hopes to release his film independently or include it as an extra feature on the DVD.
He pulls no punches in his assessment of "Band": "It's the most significant cultural creative breakthrough the world saw," he said last week in an interview from his New York home. "It was so important, people don't often realize. It was the 'Brokeback Mountain' of its day."
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Twenty years ago, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas would
not have returned a phone call from a guy called "Weird Al"
Yankovic. Packages bearing such a moniker likely would have
been routed to Skywalker Ranch security.
Today, though, everyone knows "Weird Al." He's famous.
"I've skewered enough famous people that they kind of
know who I am now. Sometimes that helps, sometimes not,"
Yankovic said in a conversation this week. "At least now I
get phone calls returned."
Even with George Lucas,
though, Yankovic was nervous. Just because he's sold more
comedy albums than anyone else didn't mean Lucas would sign
over permission to skewer the context of "The Phantom
Menace," which Yankovic does in the first track on his
latest album, "Running With Scissors." The song, "The Saga
Begins," recounts the tale of young Anakin Skywalker to the
tune of Don McLean's "American Pie" ("So my, my, this poor
Anakin guy / may be Vader someday later / now he's just a
Yankovic recorded the song, set a release date for the
album and booked the tour. Then he sent Lucas a tape of the
song. Fortunately, Lucas loved it.
Song parodies are Yankovic's stock in trade, and over
the last two decades his witty gag covers have established
the largest and longest career for a musical humorist. From
his first parody — turning the Knack's "My Sharona" into "My
Bologna" — to his latest transubtatiation — turning the
Offspring's "Pretty Fly for a White Guy" into "Pretty Fly for
a Rabbi" — you haven't really made it big until "Weird Al"
makes fun of you.
"I've never made fun of the actual performers, though — I
mean, nothing mean-spirited," Yankovic said. "It's all in
fun, and most of the artists are very positive about it.
It's not about them, really." Sometimes the fans of the
artist being parodied don't think so, though.
"Well, there's one letter in a hundred from someone who
completely misses the point. They say, 'How can you make
fun of Michael Jackson or Nirvana?' But they're the ones
who gave me permission to do it, and they think it's very
funny," Yankovic said.
"Weird Al's" passion for parody began when, growing up in
California, he discovered "The Dr. Demento Show," a popular
weekly show of humorous music that just celebrated its 30th
year on the air. Tuning in each week, Yankovic heard the
musical wits of Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg and
Allan Sherman. He was hooked.
"Comedy and music were the two driving forces in my life,"
he said. "To have them together, I thought, would, well,
save a lot of time."
Yankovic saw Dr. Demento as a "kindred spirit," and when
he was 13, Dr. Demento spoke at his school. He was
conducting a song contest at the time, and Yankovic gave
him a tape of his recordings he'd begun at home with
"I didn't win — the stuff was awful — but it was the first
thing I gave him, and I decided to keep sending him tapes.
I got better over the years, and pretty soon we kind of had
a relationship, and he played my songs," Yankovic said.
The first "Weird Al" song Dr. Demento played on his show
was "Belvedere Cruising," a pop song about the family
Plymouth. It was driven by Yankovic's trademark accordion,
and it received great feedback from listeners. The song
that set him up, though, was "My Bologna" in 1979. Not only
did listeners love it, the Knack themselves enjoyed it and
persuaded their record company, Capitol Records, to release
the song as a single.
After that, all chart-toppers were targets. Queen's
"Another One Bites the Dust" became Yankovic's "Another One
Rides the Bus." Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" became
Yankovic's "I Love Rocky Road." Toni Basil's "Mickey" became
"Ricky," satirizing both the hit song and the TV show "I Love
It was the latter song that ensured Yankovic's immense
stardom. The humor of the song could now, in 1983, be
amplified with visuals via the fledgling MTV music video
network. Yankovic's relationship with MTV would become his
main source of success — and excess.
"We've had a symbiotic relationship," Yankovic said. "It's
often difficult for me to get into radio playlists, but MTV
loves to put my videos into rotation, so people have always
known that I've had a new album out. Plus, you get more
dimensions to the humor. Background gags and sight gags
allow you to flesh out the humor a lot."
Since then, Yankovic has resurfaced just in time to
remind us that pop stars are not gods and can be taken down
a peg or two. He's been rewarded for his efforts, too,
winning Grammy awards for his note-for-note (and, in the
videos, scene-for-scene) versions of Michael Jackson hits --
"Eat It" (Jackson's "Beat It") and "I'm Fat" (Jackson's "Bad").
"I've been lucky, but I think what I do is important on
some level. We need satire in the culture to keep balanced
and keep things in perspective."
"Weird Al" Yankovic performs 8 p.m. Thursday at the
Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady St. Tickets are $28 at the
Brady box office and all Dillard outlets. Call 747-0001.
Tulsans remember Al, filming of `UHF'
Tulsans know "Weird Al" Yankovic a bit better than most
Americans because, as his career took off, Yankovic wound
up here filming his first — and, so far, only — feature film,
In 1988, Yankovic shot the bulk of the film in the
then-vacant Kensington Mall on 71st Street (now the
Southern Hills Marriott hotel). The film — about a TV
station owner who tries to keep his UHF channel alive by
programming very off-beat shows — co-starred quirky "Saturday
Night Live" alum Victoria Jackson and was the film debut of
future "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards.
"We got a really good deal on the use of an empty mall
there, so we were able to rent it and set up nearly all of
our soundstages there," Yankovic said. "Almost all of the
interior shots were filmed there, plus we did some exterior
things around town."
Other locations used throughout Tulsa included the
former Joey's Home of the Blues club, where fans of the
fictional station protested, and Woodward Park, where
Yankovic was made up as Rambo for a slapstick fight,
complete with bulging, latex muscles. The First Christian
Church downtown was used as a city hall building. Tulsa
songwriter Jerry Hawkins ("I'd Be in Heaven in a Truck") was
one of the many local extras hired for several scenes in
"UHF." He remembers some of the goofy fun on the sets.
"They had the `Wheel of Fish,' a parody on the `Wheel of
Fortune' (game show)," Hawkins said. "As the show host would
ask the contestants, 'OK, now, which do you prefer — the box
on the table containing some terrific prize or the fish on
the spinning board on the wall?' We, as extras in the
audience, would yell out ... 'The fish! The fish!' It was a
Hawkins also recalled the "incredible amounts of
attention" Yankovic got around town, "and all without saying
much at all and without doing much."
"He was one funny dude," Hawkins said, and "definitely
Yankovic said he's been too busy with the current tour
to think about making another film, but he enjoyed his
Tulsa experience. "I loved it there," he said. "We spent
the whole summer, despite that insane heat."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.