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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Damn The Darkness

Last month I was in Las Vegas and visited the much heralded Kiss miniature golf course. Prior to going there I fantasized of being in a cool, fun miniature golf course filled with crazy rock & roll props and stuff. It was a little bit like that, but then again…

The KISS miniature golf course can be found at the end of a completely empty strip mall, and unlike many mini golf courses, is indoors. Inside the walls are all painted black with paintings of the band and other images (‘70s hookers) in either blacklight or fluorescent paint. The images are painted with a heavy hand by a man who was probably blind in both eyes.

There are some interesting statues, like a big Gene Simmons head (no pun intended) with an enormous protruding tongue you need to tee your golf ball into. There are lots of fake amplifiers and giant phallic guitars to putt your way through.

The music piped through the PA is largely composed of material spanning the band’s entire career, solo albums and non-makeup period, as well. When a Paul McCartney & Wings track played over the PA it was met like an unwelcome intruder, so yes, there’s some scattered vintage rock tunes programmed in addition to the KISS songbook. By the way, it’s very hard to play below par to “Beth”.

The golf course also had a rock & roll party lounge roped off from us slobs, a fully stocked bar, as well as a KISS souvenir shop. The people who worked there were pretty nice so I don’t want them to feel like I’m fucking with them, but nevertheless, it had a low budget ghetto vibe about it.

I suppose it could’ve been worse: imagine an Oasis or a Smiths golf course. Yeah, a KISS golf course suddenly sounds pretty good.


While I was standing in line at Amoeba Records yesterday the store played a video of Donny Darko, the Magna Carta to all Emo kids the world over, on the monitors. The film raised a multiple series of questions about mortality and other major life issues, but the grim attitude it shipped is what struck me the most.

Every cool person in the movie is pale skinned and glum and all the smiling, happy people came off looking like idiots. Well, fuck us happy people! I was also amused at the myopic view given towards Graham Greene’s story “The Destructors”. Donny interpreted the story of a bunch of street kids mindlessly destroying an old man’s carefully constructed house as “creativity through destruction”. There’s no reference made whatsoever to the story being written shortly after World War II, and that it’s more likely about the brutal bombing of London.

I remembered how ten years ago I threw all my black clothes away and began wearing more bright colored clothes. As ridiculous as it may sound, doing that was more subversive than wearing flat, empty black.

I also discarded that fey hipster negativity, my new mantra being “Damn The Darkness”. It’s too easy to embrace the dark and the grim. It’s not fatalistic; it’s passive acceptance of a grotesque, ugly, horrible world without creating an alternative. You don’t have to wear a stupid pink sweatshirt screaming “CHOOSE LIFE”, but you’re going to have to do more than just frown and say “Everything sucks”. Putting shit down all the time doesn’t make you cool.

Illustration by Yuki Ramaro


Several plateaus are reached when you work on a novel. The first one is obviously getting all that insanity down on paper and the third plateau is putting the final touches to your work. Right now I’m reaching the middle plateau, doing rewrites of all the things banged out for the first draft. Wow!

If you’re a serious writer you’ll know how great rewrites are. You get to read the whole novel back to yourself and keep all the good parts and fix all the shitty, jacked-up sentences and paragraphs, etc. etc. You also get to beef up all the parts that you kicked out so quickly you neglected to fill in with enough details.

The joy of rewrites is being able to step back and fix an already exciting project you’re working on. It’s not unlike Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film “The Mystery of Picasso” where the great master steps back, looks at a brilliant section of his painting, you’re thinking “That’s so brilliant”, and then he literally paints something else right over that section! Picasso’s approach can be applied to all artists. That’s rewriting for you: your novel might read really cool, but you can always make it even better.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

RIP Ornette Coleman

Innovation is no stranger to jazz, but fewer people made a radical difference in sound as Ornette Coleman did. Coleman created new approaches to music and the way we heard it in much the same way Picasso did. The road to innovation is a rocky one, guaranteed to upset the most-minded purists, and in Coleman’s case it turned violent on more than several occasions.

On the first Coleman album I heard he dispensed with the dominant piano in a quartet setting, letting the horns lead the band. And what horns they were! Ornette played a Grafton plastic alto saxophone, and his playing style was a mixture of hardcore fifties rhythm & blues and free jazz. If the stretched out jazz alienated you he would return to some bluesy swing on his horn, bringing it all back home.

But that album cover was punk rock personified via free jazz. An intense Ornette in a beat, threadbare sweater with unkempt hair blasting atonal skronk on a white plastic saxophone, as iconic an image in music as any I've ever seen, prompting me to pick up my Conn Mark IV tenor and howl along to the album. Yeah, that's something else! I wanted to be just like that awesome wild man on the album cover. It was all magick and musick, and as a teenager Ornette set me on fire.

I first heard about Ornette Coleman from interviews with Captain Beefheart, who wished all his fans “drank from the drinking pond as Ornette”. Robert Palmer, jazz critic for Rolling Stone Magazine also stated that Coleman was one of the leading innovators in jazz, no small credit given that in the early Seventies jazz was at its peak in creativity.

With that information in mind I sought out Science Fiction, Coleman’s first release for Columbia Records. The music was super-charged and intense, fueled by a driving rhythm section largely manned by Charlie Haden and Charles Blackwell. The trumpets, either played by Don Cherry or Bobby Bradford were strong and angry, and Dewey Redman’s tenor sax playing was from a whole different dimension. It was the jazz version of punk rock: fast and furious.

Of course, no one album by Ornette tells the whole story, there’s The Empty Foxhole with his then 6-year old son Denardo playing drums and Ornette occasionally playing violin and trumpet, too. There were more albums letting us know we were in for something new and unexpected: titles like Change of The Century, Tomorrow Is The Question, The Shape of Jazz To Come, Free Jazz, and many more.

Speaking of The Empty Foxhole, I just wanted to call attention to Denardo's great drumming on that track. With Ornette playing a dirgey trumpet, Denardo hits his snare conjuring up nightmarish images of a burnt-out soldier marching through a bombed out battlefield. I think the album was a great father & son experience. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case with my father and I. The album irritated him like crazy and every time I put it on he'd start yelling at me. He also hated The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny by The Mothers of Invention but even that creeped me out. The Empty Foxhole was an apt soundtrack for many father & son arguments one summer.

The most startling change in a career of startling changes was the 1977 release Dancing In Your Head, an album which introduced his theory of harmolodics, which very simply put, is a system where every musician can play freely at the same time in a band while supporting the other musicians. The result was an album that sounded like the soul sister to Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica album.

Dancing In Your Head had such a profound influence on my friends and I that we added Theme From A Symphony to our band Arthur J. And The Goldcups' set. The pinnacle, however, was finding the promotional 45 RPM single of Theme From A Symphony on A&M/Horizon Records for only 10 cents. Both sides naturally had abridged versions of that bombastic masterpiece. I still treasure my copy of that behemoth single to this day.

I remember seeing Ornette playing with his harmolodic electric band at The Westwood Playhouse in 1982 and it was a pretty wild show. There were twin electric guitarists, bassists and drummers going at it non-stop with Ornette heading the charge. It was one of those jazz concerts you remember for a long time after.

Ornette passed away on June 11 at age 85, a life filled with sounds still seldomely heard, but still inspiring and influential to this day. I still look up to him as one of the biggest influences on my saxophone playing. I also consider his humble attitude and philosophy to be a big part of my musical education.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Psychotic Films of Elizabeth Taylor

The biggest obsession I’ve had this year is checking out every wacked out Elizabeth Taylor film ever made, and she never stopped delivering the goods. In fact she may go down in my personal history as the coolest actress of all time.

Say what you will about Liz Taylor as a sex symbol, movie star, etc, no actress of her stature took more risks and gambled more with their career than she did. The list of wild, risky movies she made like Reflections In A Golden Eye, Boom!, Secret Ceremony, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to name a few are some of the most intense films ever made and she always stood up to the challenge and blew our minds in the process.

Listed below are a small handful of films starring the great Liz Taylor that you may want to add to your must-see list if you haven’t caught them yet:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols,1966): Taylor teams up with husband Richard Burton in Edward Albee’s play about an angry, unhappy married couple reduced to playing condescending mind games with the new professor (George Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis). Each game is more demeaning than the last one, and the energy level is so insanely high you won’t be able to stop watching.

Taylor really chews up the scenery harder than anyone else aboard, which is quite an astonishing feat. I remember people being shocked by the rough language (“Hump The Hostess”) and unglamorous look at the normally glamorous couple when this movie came out. It really rocked the film world at the time.

Reflections In A Golden Eye (John Huston, 1967): Liz plays a Southern belle Marine officer’s wife to Marlon Brando while carrying on an illicit affair with his buddy, Brian Keith. She mocks his impotency by marching around the house stark naked and emphasizing that her beloved horse “is a STALLION”. But is he impotent or just a closet homosexual?

Issues of homosexuality in various guises, whether it be from a fey Filipino houseboy or a G.I. Joe enlisted man riding around in the buff, make this film a bizarre piece of sexual surrealism that has to be seen to be believed.

Boom! (Joseph Losey, 1968): Another play filmed with Richard Burton, this time by Tennessee Williams, it’s the story of agoraphobic millionairess Cissy Goforth who has trespassers and the local peasants shot. She lives in decadent splendor and each outfit worn is more Paco Rabanne – Pierre Cardin crazy with each histrionic scene in spite of her stifling allergies. Liz dictates her memoirs over a loudspeaker when she’s not screaming at the hired help.

Finally Dick barges onto her property as sculptor Chris Flanders, clothes in tatters from guard dogs that have attacked him. He’s outfitted in a samurai warrior’s outfit (complete with sword). Noel Coward, an unwelcome guest at Goforth’s home, tells her that Flanders has been nicknamed by friends as “The Angel of Death”. Liz does a lot of cool yelling in this one, but Burton displays enough charm to keep you watching him through the picture. I think Liz takes “Virginia Woolf” but Dick takes this one. P.S. This can be viewed FOR FREE on You Tube.

Secret Ceremony (Joseph Losey, 1968): Another creepy Losey film about a crazy girl played by Mia Farrow attaching herself to a middle-aged prostitute played by Liz. Mia’s just lost her mother, who bears a passing resemblance to Liz, and since Liz recently lost her daughter, who resembles Mia, they engage in some sick role-playing. Liz plays Mommy and Mia plays the daughter, completely cloistered in a stuffy English mansion. Everything’s perversely rosy until “Dad” (Robert Mitchum) shows up to tear up the Mother & Daughter nest.

Mia’s really amped up the nymph factor here (Woody must have seen this and got smitten), but Liz gives an amazing performance as a woman trying to sort out the sanity in an insane family arrangement. Everybody’s on their game here, and this would be great on a double bill with Robert Altman’s “Three Women”.

The Driver’s Seat (Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, 1974): Filmed right after Liz split with Dick for the last time, this might very well be the female equivalent to “Last Tango In Paris”. Based on Muriel Spark’s novel, it’s the story of a plain spinster named Lise (hmmmm….) who gives herself an outrageous makeover. Her hair flying around her head like some modern day Medusa and resplendent with loud, gaudy clothes, Liz once again screams at every woman in her path like a demoness. The men, however, are another story; they’re stared at with an insane predatory hunger that’s hysterical to watch. Later on in the movie there’s a pretty stark scene where Taylor’s masturbating in bed.

I think Liz is showing us she can get as tough as her colleague Marlon did in “Tango”. Lise travels to Italy to find a romantic lover who will kill her after she’s made steamy, passionate love. The guy she ends up with, though, is a whole other story. Legend has it this film was so shattering when screened at the Cannes Film Festival that at the end the audience fell silent, a reaction more extreme than booing or applause. Well done! P.S. This can also be viewed FOR FREE on You Tube.

There were other strange Liz films I never got around to seeing, like X,Y and Zee, and I won’t even mention that bomb she did with Warren Beatty (yes, he tried picking her up during the filming and fell flat on his face). But the bottom line is that few movie stars took as many risks as Elizabeth Taylor and still came out looking absolutely amazing. Watch and believe!