August 20, 2017 § Leave a comment
Quentin Tarantino is charming, just like you thought he would be. This charm is in part due to his lack of pretension, his infectious enthusiasm and an innate goofiness that sets anyone – fans, casts, journalists – instantly at ease. Tarantino is charming because he is happy, a man totally comfortable with himself and totally at home in the world.
At 52, he is both America’s premiere auteur and yet still somehow the giddy, childlike video store clerk, the boy with the encyclopedic knowledge of cinema whom, through sheer force of will – got to live out his dream of making movies. And after all these years, that original awe and initial passion – remains, Quentin still the acolyte, offering sacred adoration at the altar of the silver screen.
Today, amid the chaos of a Beverly Hills press junket Tarantino is holding kinetic, excitable court. He talks feverishly about his newest film, The Hateful Eight, with the same exuberance he once displayed for his first stunning, unexpected feature debut. With 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino did nothing less than reignite genre filmmaking, inspiring a generation to get behind the camera or into a theater seat – or better yet, both.
Now, he’s reshaped the Western into a studied, suspenseful, densely layered take on race in America. Set not long after the Civil War, the film takes eight characters with disparate politics and agendas – white and black, Confederate, Union and renegade – and forces them to put aside assumption and prejudice in an attempt to vanquish a greater evil. With a first draft leaked, (much to Tarantino’s dismay), in early 2014, and a staged reading performed soon after, The Hateful Eight’s political undercurrent has taken on more gravity in the long months since it’s initial inception.
There have been the growing tensions between black and white, in Ferguson and beyond, and Tarantino himself, misquoted, vilified, and suddenly at the center of the conversation, angry conservatives vowing to picket the film’s premiere. But any press, even bad press, as they say – is good. And the recent furor has only succeeded in making his eighth film highly anticipated, hotly debated, and ablaze with even more than the usual “Tarantino” buzz.
The fact is the film is subtle (for Quentin), brooding, mature. Filmed on the very rare, complicated to project, 70mm Ultra stock and weighing in at a hefty 3 hours plus, The Hateful Eight is a movie that demands to be watched with careful and quiet attention.
Tarantino is asking us, amid the flurry of the digital age, to go out and experience an old school road show, a movie with an intermission, (an overture even!), a movie that demands a few boxes of popcorn and a wide, expansive screen. He is asking us to ease into the world he’s created, to push ourselves a little, to open up and shut up and to acclimate – to tone, to subtexts, to details.
Tarantino is asking us to go to the movies, with him, in a way we haven’t been asked in quite awhile. And it’s hard not to find that charming.
I spoke to Quentin about The Hateful Eight, the dream of cinema and quitting while he’s ahead.
Q: When watching The Hateful Eight, like any of your films, the viewer really gets the sense that you absolutely love what you do. You can feel that viscerally as an audience. Is there a part of the filmmaking process that you love the most? Or are you at your happiest from the initial idea through to the final stages of edit?
A: Well let me first say that’s a really flattering and kind observation. I am glad that feeling comes through. In this regards, I guess I’m very lucky. Especially since I’m a writer/director. I really do love the writing and the making of the movie and the editing of the movie. I love each of those processes equally, in particularly when I am in the act of actually doing them.
Q: There’s no point where you’re thinking, “I wish this part was over!”?
A: I literally get sick of each part, right at the end. Right around the time where I have just about had enough and feel it is time to wrap it up, whether it’s wrapping up the writing or the shooting or the editing, when I’m feeling like, ‘Okay, I’m done with this now!’ I move on to the next thing, which is invigorating. It’s ideal. And like I said I am lucky. I truly love what I do. When I’m in the middle of writing a film – that is me at my happiest. When I’m in the middle of making a film – that is me at my happiest. And when I’m in the middle of editing a film – that is me at my happiest.
Q: Given how much you love what you do, don’t you think you’re going to have a hard time sticking with your claim that you are only going to do ten films then retire? You’re billing Hateful Eight as your eighth film – are you still holding to that idea of only making ten films?
A: That is the idea. It usually takes me about three years to make a movie anyway, so you’re talking about almost a decade left.
Q: What about television, does that count?
A: I might do a TV thing in between and that wouldn’t be part of the ten.
Q: So other than TV, we really only have two more Tarantino projects to look forward to?
Q: Well, when I said that before, I don’t think I fully took into account what that would mean. What I meant, was – that I just don’t want to be a guy that’s doing this forever. There should be an end. And there should be a taking a responsibility for that end. And I’ve gotten more solid on that idea. And in being more solid about it, it’s made me more reflective on it. I think a lot of directors, most directors, if not all directors, think they have more time than they actually do. By tome I mean either mortality, changes in of fortune in the business, changes in the fortune in the industry itself. You just never know what will happen. And so I think every director walks around, thinking, even when they have only one more movie to go, that they have six more movies to go.
Q: Do you feel by putting a limit on your creative output it makes the ideas that remain., the ones have not yet been manifested more precious, more important?
A: Absolutely. Maybe story-wise I have four and half stories right now as far as my ‘brain incubator’ is concerned. To say that I am only going to do two of them – I think that sharpens the arrow. I think that makes them much more vital than thinking that, ‘well, there is always going to be time. I’ll get around to all of them’. Instead, it becomes my artistic last will and testament in some ways. What is it I want to say? Do I want to go deeper in what I’ve said before or do I want to say something I’ve never said before? Is it about this literary track I’ve taken with the last few films or should I go back to more visceral films? I think that those are all really profound questions that would be wonderful to explore at the twilight of your career.
Q: So you have to hone those ideas down and only execute the most important ones.
A: Exactly. And if you think about these limitations than the reasons for making the film becomes sharper. There is not a movie being made to pay for your alimony or for your second house. You don’t make a movie just because ‘blah blah blah’ wants to work with you and it would be nice to work with ‘blah blah blah’.
Q: I would also imagine it helps you from becoming cynical, or bitter, to set those limitations for yourself as a filmmaker.
A: I guess the whole part and parcel of where I’m coming from when saying something like ‘I’m going to only make ten films’, is an attempt to be a vital artist from beginning to end, as opposed to an artist that goes through stages. Or an artist that now maybe has a kind of lifestyle developed and what they do artistically is now part of that lifestyle. Not that there is anything wrong with any of that per se. However I do like the idea of only ten films. And if I can pull it off – and pulling it off is the trick here – I do like the idea of there being an umbilical cord from the first movie to the last movie – where you can look at them as a whole and see ‘this is what I have to say’ and the statement that those films make together, is unbroken. Keeps it on the integrity tip.
Q: Speaking of integrity, and the idea of integrity in cinema – let’s talk a bit about you shooting this newest film in the rare format of 70mm Ultra and the fact that there is a musical overture to introduce the film and an intermission, etc. It is very much a film meant to be experienced in a theater, in a slow, old school road show kind of way.
A: Yes, I’m doing a big giant cinematic thing with this that can wow you into submission. And yes, I’ll call that forward – that is what we meant to do. I don’t like watching movies on a laptop. But at the same time I watch movies all the time on the TV and I think about all the great movies I have only seen on television and I love. There are a whole lot of great movies I’ve only seen on TV. The fact is, I should be able to take a pan and scan version so this movie, put it on video tape and makes 4 generation of copies and you should be able to watch it and enjoy it and get caught up in it and like it – as it’s own story. I wanted a road show experience, but you can’t that precious about it, or ultimately your movie doesn’t work. The story should stand on it’s own. The story is what is most important.
Q: In The Hateful Eight, the story is key. It is almost a theater piece, a play rather than an action film.
A: One of the things I learned with this film is violence being a tone, that carries through the entire story, that hangs over the characters’ heads, like their own sword of Damocles. You don’t know when it’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to happen. And you are just waiting for it to happen. The trick was extending that for the entire movie. If the movie works, then it should be suspenseful. There is a long, long build up, as I put my chess pieces in place. I am playing chess and I have got to put them all in the right spot before I start killing them off and I am asking you for some patience. But hopefully the suspense that I’m giving you is making it all worth it.
Q: With the story within this specific film, you’re dealing with some very current themes. Let’s talk about dealing with issue of race in America, particularly in this time period, just after the Civil War. What made you decide you wanted to explore this topic, when you sat down to write the script, years ago?
A: One of the things that has been interesting about this film is, as distressed as I was about that first draft of the Hateful Eight getting out there a while back – one good thing about that happening, is that I am record for having written this material long before the recent events in the news which completely conspired to make this film as relevant as it now is. Now if you talk to someone in a black neighborhood in America they’ll tell you this conversation has been relevant for the last 20 years. But as far the purchase it’s had in the mainstream press as something that ‘must be dealt with’ – that really has happened since we’ve been making the movie.
Q: And what initially made you want to embed those issues, of race in America, inside a Western?
A: If you go through the history of Westerns, the Western genre has been pretty precise as far as dealing, in this glancing blow way, with the decades in which they were made. Westerns were probably most popular in the 1950s and they definitely represented an Eisenhower view of America. Not only that, but they definitely represented American exceptionalism, ‘we won the West, we forged the railroads, we won World War 2’ , that is where that was coming from in those films. And the Westerns of the counter-culture era, from the late 1960s moving into the 1970s, both Vietnam and Watergate hang over all the Westerns that came out during that era. I am big fan of those Westerns. They were cynical to their very core. All that is to say, you can’t help deal with some degree, with America and the American Zeitgeist of a specific moment, when you’re making a Western. More, importantly ten or twenty years from now – hopefully you’ll be able to look at The Hateful Eight and get a good picture of the concerns of America at this given time.
Q: Do you feel it’s the most political film you’ve done?
A: Yes. But when I first started writing this, I did not know it would be my most political film. I didn’t approach it from a political polemic. But because of the theatrical nature of the story – when you take a bunch of characters and trap them in a room – the only way you can express your thoughts is through diving in to the depths of their expression and consequently your expression through them. Because of that you can bring a lot of the ocean floor to the surface, because your characters have little else to do – but to go deep. And it started to become my most political film. And even when I finished the script, I didn’t know how much, until society started kind of catching up with it. I’ve dealt with race, in terms of black and white, in a lot of my movies, every other movie, to some degree or another. But I actually do think that dealing with black and white in America and the racial conflicts I think that is something I have to add to the Western genre that has not been dealt with – at least not in a meaningful way. I do think that’s something I have to add.
Q: You’ve done two Westerns now and explored quite a few other genres – if you only have two movies left to do in your career, what other types of films do you want to explore?
A: You’re right. For the most part, in my career so far, I tend to move on from one genre to the next. I taught myself how to make a martial arts movie and then I never made one again. I taught myself how to do car chases and I never did one again. In the case of Django I taught myself how to do a Western and deal with the horses and the wranglers and then I realized, much to my surprise I realized I wasn’t done, so I did The Hateful Eight. I don’t know what genre is next, to be honest. There is not a genre left where I have that same burning desire, that I had to do a WW 2 movie, or the burning desire I had to do a Western or the burning desire to a martial arts movie. I think maybe the one genre that is left might be a Thirties gangster movie, that kind of Dillinger kind of thing, that time period. I’m definitely interested in doing something contemporary, where I can have a character that gets in a car, turns on the radio and I can have a cool driving montage. And if I had all the time in the world, I would love to make a really, really scary horror film, like The Exorcist. But I don’t really know if me taking my sense of humor and putting it in the backseat just to hit a tone of dread from beginning to end, is the best use of my talents or my time.
Q: You’re right. Through all your films, there is always what is now a trademark “Tarantino” violence, and there is always humor. Humor is key in all your films and that humor is really part of that joy that we all sense in your work.
A: And I don’t know if I could let go of that humor and be able to do an Exorcist and keep that tone of dread, all the way through the film. Although a case could be made that The Hateful Eight is the closest I’ve ever come to a horror film. And more than any other Western, the film that influenced this movie the most is John Carpenter’s The Thing, way beyond working with Ennio Morricone and Kurt Russell. The Thing also hugely influenced by Reservoir Dogs of course. And in it’s own way, The Hateful Eight is also influenced by Reservoir Dogs. So you could say everything is already starting to come full circle, and that umbilical cord is there , linking my eight film back to my first.
Originally published in TIME OUT: London in June of 2016
March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
For “Weird Al” Yankovic, life is certainly good. He’s got a happy marriage, a beautiful daughter, and after 13 albums, and 30 years in the business of musical satire, the bestselling record of his career. It’s not exactly what the 14-year old Alfred Matthew, writing goofy ditties on the accordion in his Downey bedroom back in the mid-1970s, might have imagined.
“As a kid, I certainly never thought that I would get to spend my life doing something fun,” reflects Mr. Yankovic, sitting amid the sleek, glass-walled splendor of his Hollywood Hills home, “I was very serious and adult-minded and practical and pragmatic. I was straight A student and really into doing the ‘right thing’. I think I just assumed that I would grow up and have a real job and do something…I don’t know…useful.”
Instead, at the urging of his high school pals, Al submitted a tape to the hugely popular Dr. Demento radio show. Hosted by musicologist Barret Hansen (AKA “Dr. Demento) the eclectic program features fringe and comic classics, as well as the occasional home recording.
“I had made these joke songs on an old tape machine,” remember Yankovic, “onto a bunch of crappy tapes I’d get for ‘3 for a dollar’ at Thrifty’s. And they were horrible songs, poorly recorded, primitive in every definition of the word. But for some reason, Dr. Demento decided to play them on the radio.”
“What I noticed first was the accordion,” remember Hansen, who still hosts his radio show on www.drdemento.com, “Accordions were as un-hip as you could get in 1976. But with Al, it didn’t seem to matter. Of course it crossed my mind that he might be related to the Polka King, Frankie Yankovic (he’s not, of course).
As I listened to that first song, I noticed how very good he was at what he did. The lyrics were funny, and they fit the music perfectly. Most neophytes don’t get that part right, and a lot of people never do. And the song got funnier as it went along, another thing most beginners can’t manage. The recording was crude but plenty good enough.”
Good enough for Hansen to continue to feature a series of Al’s early song attempts on the air, despite the fact the comic/musician was still in his teens.
“Dr. Demento obviously had a huge impact on my life,” admits Yankovic, “my whole life would have taken a much different trajectory had he never existed. “
With the mentorship of the good Doctor, and enthusiastic feedback from Demento show fans, Al eventually transformed himself into, “Weird Al”. Clad in an array of gaudy Hawaiian shirts, with his halo of curls and his wire-rimmed nerd glasses, Al set about to skewing pop hits with clever lyricism and remarkable natural musicianship.
Since his first hit in 1979, an exploration of luncheon meat entitled “My Bologna” (to the tune of The Knacks’, “My Sharona”), Weird Al has been taking popular culture and turning it inside out, regurgitating the Billboard charts and spewing out hilarious takes on Top 40 hits that are simultaneously sly, silly…and smart.
There was “Another One Rides the Bus”, (based on Queen’s hit “Another One Bites The Dust”), the infamous “Eat It” (based on “Beat It”), “Like a Surgeon”, (“Like a Virgin), “Fat” (“Bad”) and of course, the beloved, “White And Nerdy” (a brilliant parody of the hip hop track, “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone, which became a hit on his acclaimed 1996 album, Straight Outta Lynnwood.
“It was tough prior to Michael Jackson,” admit Yankovic, when explaining the challenges of his particular oeuvre, “It was a rough time with the first album, difficult to get phone calls returned. But Michael Jackson really turned the key for me in a lot of ways. Once he gave me the permission for ‘Eat It’, it really opened the door for me. And when we did the video for “Eat It”, which went into heavy rotation on MTV… I mean, people talk about overnight fame, but it was pretty literal for me. That video played on MTV and the next day people were pointing at me on the streets and saying, ‘Look! It’s that, ‘Eat It’ guy!”
A true Song and Dance (and acting and writing etc.) Man, Weird Al, over the last three decades, has – in addition to winning 3 Grammys and creating 31 gold and platinum singles – also toured the world, hosted a TV show, (The Weird Al Show) starred in his own movie (UHF), directed a themed attraction (Al’s Brain: A 3-D Journey through the Human Brain), headlined the popular alt-music fest, All Tomorrows Parties, written a best-selling children’s book, (When I Grow Up published by HarperCollins and available as an Iphone app) and starred in a Comedy Central special documenting his current live tour.
He also has 2 million Twitter followers.
“Over the years, for all my projects, the process has remained more or less the same,” says Yankovic, whose look has now evolved to include contact lenses and lush, flowing locks reminiscent of Kenny G’s. “I just like to think I’ve gotten better at it since I was 14 years old. As with most things, if you practice long enough at it, you’re likely to get better at it. I spend more time on my work and my thought process has probably gotten more efficient. “
For Yankovic, that process includes intense inundation of contemporary hit songs, followed by a solitary period of methodical research and list making.
“I’m very analytical, I’m very precise. I make charts of songs that are good candidates, good targets, so to speak. Then I try to come up with ideas for parodies, some weird tangent or turning the concept upside down. And 99% of those ideas are horrible. I don’t censor myself at that point. But every once in awhile I come with an idea and I think, ‘Mmmm. That just might work.’ And if the next morning it still seems like a good idea, then those are the ideas I try flesh out.”
“He brings us songs that are totally evolved,” says Yankovic’s drummer and archivist Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, who has been playing with Weird Al since the two met on Dr. Demento in 1980, “he does all the concepting, all the writing. He knows what he wants and he’s very, very, specific.”
“Al is extremely detail-oriented,” agrees Barret Hansen, “He’ll work on a lyric for weeks until every line is perfect, and funnier than the one before it. He’s the biggest workaholic I know, with the possible exception of the late Frank Zappa. Al’s success is truly 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration.”
“Maybe I’m duping myself, but I like to think that every album I put out is better than the one before,” says Yankovic of his own career, “And that’s one of the reasons why it takes me longer between albums now, because I feel a lot of internal pressure. I do what I can to make them better and also do what I can – not to repeat myself. I’m on my 13th album now, and it’s hard not to rely on the same tropes and memes, so that’s always challenge as well.”
Yankovic’s newest, Alpocalypse, which includes a hilarious take on the classic sound of The Doors, (with Ray Manzarek on keyboards!), has been a bestseller in large part to a highly publicized management snafu in regards to the album’s Lady Gaga parody, “Perform This Way”. Although the pop star’s people initially refused Yankovic permission to cover the song, the Lady herself was apparently never asked.
When she got wind of the mix-up, Gaga immediately gave her blessing – telling Rolling Stone;
“I love Weird Al. It’s sort of a rite of passage to the next level of your career when Weird Al performs one of your songs. And although he was parodying the song, he’s also standing up for me as well.”
Here Gaga hits something key to Yankovic’s longstanding success. Despite the sharpness of his satire, Weird Al is never cruel. And it’s exactly this sweetness at the center of his comedy that makes him so unique, and so continually relevant.
“Al’s music is timeless,” says Barret Hansen, “he designs it that way. He’s happy to let other people do songs about Charlie Sheen or the Kardashians that will be forgotten in a week or two.”
In other words, in an era of easy targets, it’s Weird Al’s inherent goodhearted-ness, (as well as his hard work, fearless self-invention and an uncanny knack for parody), that has enabled him to evolve from a novelty act, into a beloved and enduring comedic icon.
“I think what all the artists really realize is that what I’m doing is never meant to be mean-spirited,” says Yankovic, gazing out over his home’s stunning view of the Los Angeles basin. “Even when I’m poking fun at an artist like Nirvana or Lady Gaga, they realize it’s done with respect and I’m not trying to step on their toes. I won’t say I’ve never made jokes at someone else’s expense, but I do try to make jokes without throwing people under the bus. “
“I like to say what I do is more like a poke in the ribs – than a kick in the face.”
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times
July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
I love Ween. They just broke up, but they were one of the best of the best. Long live the Boognish. – JH 2012
It is 1984, an 8th grade typing class in rural New Hope, Pennsylvania. Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman are ignoring the lesson, preferring instead to reflect upon the inherent merits of The Beatles and Prince and Syd Barrett. This discussion results in an impromptu jam session, Aaron on vocals, Mickey on guitar, both preternaturally proficient for their age, tearing through Led Zeppelin covers with a primal frenzy.
And it feels good. In fact, it feels like destiny… like family, as if the two had been birthed from loins of the same blazing rocknroll god – an entity they will eventually dub; “The Boognish”. And, so, that fateful afternoon, in The Great Boognish’s honor, Aaron and Mickey decide to become blood brothers. Clasping hand over heart, they pledge allegiance to the power of the power chord, renaming and reinventing themselves – no longer Aaron and Mickey now, but transformed into the unstoppable duo; “Gene and Dean Ween”.
27 years, thousands of home-recordings, 17 albums, and countless live shows later, Ween are still making good on that vow. This coming Saturday they will play to a sell out crowd at the Wiltern, their utterly unique brand of musical weirdness – part chameleonic virtuosity, part 1970s shredder showmanship – still garnering unprecedented audience adoration.
When Ween released their first official record, in 1990, a double album entitled GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, there were those who dismissed them as a gag act, a stoner joke band who sang songs about burritos and bongs. But Ween’s astounding endurance is inarguable proof that their work runs far deeper then critics first might have expected. Yes, they might have penned such classics as “Poop Ship Destroyer” and “Squelch the Weasel” (one of many Ween tracks featuring the weasel as a lyrical component), but Ween is not a joke band.
Their humor, sly and good-natured, is couched – not in irony, parody, or satire – but in awed homage. They are less Weird Al and more Frank Zappa (without the politics), dedicated audiophiles culling inspiration from a wide variety of genres and filtering it through their own incredible technical prowess. There is no doubt that Gene is one of the finest singers of his generation, boasting stunning range and clarity. And Dean’s prowess at the guitar is more or less unrivaled. They may be writing about weasels, but it’s the most incredible song about weasels you’ve ever heard in your life.
“We love what we do,” says Mickey/Dean from his home in New Hope, where the duo still lives, “and we do it with dedication and honesty and total commitment. And that’s never changed.”
“Well, we’re both 40 and we both have families, so in that respect, some things have changed,” adds Aaron/Gene, “ but Dean’s right. We still adhere to the same ethics, the same philosophy of; ‘a good song is a good song’”.
And Ween has written a multitude of good songs over their expansive career. And they show no signs of stopping. At the moment, a run in with black mold at their farmhouse studio has hindered recording a new album, but the two continue to write and play prolifically. Their expansive back catalogue boasts an endless array of the wonderfully strange, sounds which finds their muse in everything from glam rock and folk (1991’s The Pod) pop, punk, and soul (1992’s Pure Guava), raucous sea shanties (1997’s The Mollusk) and classic country (1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats).
“I love music of every dynamic. I love Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington and Slayer,” explains Dean “we like to explore when we write and not be tied down to a genre. So now we have over 200 songs and even that’s not enough, because you want to be challenging yourself, always. There’s nothing wrong with being in a comfort zone, but you want to keep pushing yourself. “
It’s exactly that dedication that has resulted in Ween’s massive fan base, an ever-evolving network of music freaks who find solace in the band’s disregard for convention and embrace of fine musicianship. And in an era of one hit youtube wonders, Ween are still the same 4-track heroes they always where, committed to crafting obscure concept albums and mind-blowing live shows.
“A rocknroll band should drink, do drugs, act obnoxious and cheap, because that’s what it’s all about, “ enthuses Dean, “ but at the risk of sounding like a bitter old man, nowadays you have someone playing a toy piano and or something and that’s supposed to be music. We played festivals this summer and there wasn’t any distortion or loud guitars. It’s not like we’re Ted Nugent or something, but geez. I think people miss rock with balls.”
“I’m still struggling to find our role, our place in the music industry in 2011. It’s a strange time. I mean, we’re playing to more people on this tour than we ever have and we don’t have a new record out. I’m not sure people care about records any more. And while, it’s great that the internet has created a level playing field, there’s an awful lot of crap to wade through. But then again, there’s the idea that the cream always rises to the top…and that’s where I keep my hope.”
In the meantime, we keep our hope in Ween, in the power of the power chord and in brotherhood and The Boognish and in music that is funny, innovative, moving, and whacked out – all at once.
“I didn’t think I would be doing this when we started in 1984,” admits Gene, “but then again, I didn’t have any other ideas of what I was going to do instead. I think one of the reasons we’ve lasted so long is that we’ve always done our own thing. It’s a matter of two people getting together and playing together and it is what we make of it. It’s as simple as that. I liken it to more of a marriage between two people than a band. And with that comes its ups and downs and its times of intimacy and distance and miscommunication. But as long as we’re still walking on the earth. Ween will still be there.”
Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times
April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
There are few album covers as strange and eerily foreboding as the one Charlie and Ira Louvin created for Satan Is Real, and few album’s boasting tracks as enduring. Satan Is Real was created at the height of the duo’s career, when hopes were high and demons were in submission. Yet there seems to be a premonition of things to come in the album’s artwork and songwriting, a secret dread of dark days up ahead, a plaintive sincerity that belies a soul wanting badly to be saved.
The Louvin Brothers were a product of a place and time that allowed for high emotion and passionate spiritual devotion. It was a naïve and raw America, the deep South Alabama they called home still dictated by the slow beat of farm life, the up at dawn, hands in the dirt labor their daddy did each day.
The Louvins were two sons amid seven children, raised on rich land where their family tilled the soil, growing, as Charlie remembers, “cane, cotton, watermelons. Anything that would sell – you grew it.”
Music was as much a fabric of the day-to-day as canning beans or baking bread, their Mama singing praise to the Lord in a sweet, smooth voice that she passed along to her children.
“They could all sing, but the girls screwed up and got married when they was 13 or 14. By the time they got 18 or 19, and really knew what they wanted to do in life, they had three or four children. You don’t run off and leave a house full of children, for somebody else to care for.”
Charlie and Ira, however, kept the rings off their fingers long enough to keep on singing, right through adolescence and on into a burgeoning career on the gospel circuit.
“We would crawl under Mama’s and Papa’s bed, which was about 16″ off the floor,” Charlie reminisced in an interview for Raised Country magazine in 2009, “We’d put our hind ends together and we would sing a song. That’s how we learned to phrase together without lookin’ at each other, without steppin’ on each other’s toes, or winking at each other. It just come natural.”
“If the song was gonna get too high for me to sing the lead on, at that instant Ira would take the high lead, and I would come under him with low harmony. We learned it that way, and it that kinda mystified other duets who were tryin’ to figure out who was doin’ the tenor and who was who was doin’ the lead.”
The two brothers could sing with a deep gut belief in whatever words happened to be spilling from their mouths. And their voices together, Charlie’s rich lower notes under Ira’s heaven-sent, high 5th tenor, were like a miracle – enough proof of God to make a nonbeliever raise their arms up high. The boys had been born Baptist, their family dug in to the Church just about as deep as you could get.
“Salvation was as important as the food you eat or the clothes you wear or the shelter on your house. It was that important. It didn’t make any difference what we did on Saturday night. You didn’t have to ask, ‘Are we going to church tomorrow?’ You knew you were. And our folks never sent us to church. They carried us.”
Sweltering summer and bone cold winter, Ira and Charlie were wrapped up in the Word, blanketed by religion from the cradle on out. Their subsequent affinity for the high and the Holy would help get the Brothers signed to Decca in the early 1940s and make them a popular touring act, but it would be their move to secular music that would finally make the Louvin Brothers stars.
“We wanted to do Secular music. Don’t forsake the Gospel; we’d still cut it also. We got a lot of resistance from the label, ‘cause they knew how much money they could take to the bank on the Gospel stuff. And they were afraid that we would offend the Gospel fan. But we had to take that chance, because we were working in too narrow of a place, and we were willing to take the gamble.”
It was a gamble that paid off, but not without a price. Their first stab at the secular, “The Get Acquainted Waltz”, was recorded with Chet Atkins and earned the Brothers a minor hit. The Louvins were drawing inspiration from country and bluegrass acts like the Delmore and Monroe Brothers and The Blue Sky Boys, but there was something uniquely effective about not only Ira’s elegant mandolin playing, but also the Brothers’ interlaced, soulful and soaring harmonies.
Eventually, other, bigger, hits followed, “Cash on the Barrelhead”, “When I Stop Dreaming”. Ira would write lyrics at a lightening pace, (“as quick as you’d write a note to your wife to buy milk”, Charlie once said) while his younger brother kept things steady with simple guitar melodies and underlying harmony. By 1955, the brothers had earned a place in the Grand Ole Opry, winning legions of new fans with each show.
Back home, their family stood proud.
“They were thrilled as we were with it. My father would go in a cafe where The Louvin Brothers was on the jukebox, and he would go play it. And he’d tell the cashier, ‘Those are my boys’.”
When they weren’t in Nashville, the boys were touring in the manner of the era, nonstop and full throttle, sometimes nearly 356 days a year, back and forth, back and forth, across wide and open roads. There was a thrill in fame of course, in hearing your voice crackle on the radio – but in the end, selling music on the road was nearly the same as selling shoes, requiring the same grueling traveling salesman schedule and lack of domestic luxuries.
And it was on the road where the first jagged cracks began to show, a shadow brewing beneath Ira Louvin’s smooth as silk exterior.
By August of 1958, the Louvins were running full throttle. They were riding high on numerous hit songs and had just settled with produced Ken Nelson to record a series of aching, tormented numbers, hellfire and brimstone forewarnings that were to become Satan Is Real.
Ira was the older of the brothers, as well as the taller, nearly full 12 inches between his six feet and Charlie’s five. He was slick, he was charming and by the time the two recorded, Satan is Real, fully sure of his talents as a mandolin player and songwriter and of his unchallenged title as one of the greatest tenor singers in the history of country music.
Ira was, by all accounts, kind, funny and filled with love for his little brother, but when he took to drink, something in him turned black. Whiskey, beer – it didn’t much matter the poison – pour some in and Ira turned to the devil – full of spit and ire, prone to violent outbursts and a totally unreliable onstage presence.
Recording session for the Louvins were anything but relaxed affairs. They moved at lightening pace, laying down song after song in marathon studio runs. Satan Is Real was recorded in a mere three days, a furious pace that would add to the dark, chaotic river of emotion flowing just under the boys’ angelic melodies. The album was a mix of covers and originals, made a cohesive whole by Louvin’s uniquely plaintive vocal style and more than a hint of religious fervor.
There was Hazel Housers’ “The River Jordan”, the traditional hyme “Dying from Home and Lost”, and the Carter Family’s “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea”. Then there were the tracks the Louvins wrote themselves, among them the classic, “Christian Life”, later championed by Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and The Byrds, to the soaring elation of “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night” and “There’s a Higher Power”, to the dire foreboding of “Are You Afraid to Die?”.
Ira himself had penned the album’s title track and it pretty much summed up the question then burning in his guts – if God was real, didn’t that mean Satan had to be real too?
“Satan is real,” he sang, “ Working with power / He can tempt you and lead you astray.”
Ira’s words chilled to the bone, pushing a sore spot on his own soul, on a truth about himself that he wasn’t quite ready to admit.
The album’s artwork, it’s surreal details dreamed up by Ira, featured an enormous, blood red, crossed eyed, bucktoothed Devil, the Brothers beneath, both clad in virgin white. The wooden Satan stands astride a flaming pyre, the end of his pitchfork pointing directly at the top of Ira’s bare head, as if to point out exactly whom the Devil would be choosing.
“We were poor folks back then,” remembers Charlie, of the album’s photo shoot, “my son had a Lionel train on a 4×8 sheet of 3/4″ plywood. So we removed his train, and split the 4×8 right up the middle. It made the devil 16 feet tall. My brother made horns for him, and a pitchfork. And that’s kind of the way that we were raised to think that the ‘booga’ man looked like.”
“it was in an old rock quarry, was where we set the setting up. Had car tires, and they were full of kerosene, coal oil we called it then. And so when we actually got ready, we lit the fires, and when the fires were high, it just started to sprinkle rain. And Capitol Records had sent a photographer all the way from California to do this photo, he said, ‘Boys it’s raining, we’re gonna have to put this off.’. I said, ‘If we can stand out here in these white suits, surely it’s not gonna hurt your camera. So it’s either now or never.’ So he went ahead and took the pictures.”
The resulting image has haunted record hounds around the world for decades, the potent weirdness of the Louvins, smiling gleefully, arms spread in welcome – and the leering, myopic, plywood Satan, threatening to strike Ira down – is now a nearly mythic image in album cover lore.
But it wasn’t just the cover that was unforgettable. The music within would be the Louvins at their most raw – a document of glorious, cathartic and committed revelations – for both the listener and the Louvin’s themselves. In the end Satan is Real was both a struggle with, and glorification of, their God.
When it was finally released by Capitol, in November of 1959, the album would be met with wide acclaim. The Louvins would continue to ride high, at least musically, for the next few years. But the demon was hot on Ira’s trail. His drinking, carousing and bad temper would result in numerous fisticuffs, cancelled gigs, smashed mandolins… and three failed marriages. During a particularly nasty domestic spat, Ira’s the third wife shot him – but didn’t succeed in killing him.
The chaos was quickly dismantling the world around Ira and by association, Charlie’s world as well.
Then there was Elvis, his hip swing sexuality thrusting rocknroll to the forefront. The girls swooned, the boys strutted and suddenly the Louvin Brothers’ sweet, spiritual harmonies seemed out of step with the times.
“We were doing quite well. Then Elvis came along. That hurt country music a lot – it changed all music. And it made my brother drink more.”
Finally Charlie had enough.
“In ’63, it got … I just didn’t know how to deal with a drinker, and still don’t today.
If someone came to the Louvin Brothers and said, “When you go to this particular date, you’d better do a good one, because so-and-so is going to be there, and this booker’s going to be there,” … just as sure as they said that, Ira would drink, and it would turn out to be the worst show we’d ever done.”
“Then the news got around. First thing ya know, one promoter would tell another promoter, “If you want to BUY problems, get the Louvin Brothers.”
“If you’re in the music business, and you’re a brother team, both of ya gets judged by what either one of you does. So, it was the Louvin Brothers that was undependable. It hurt money-wise, and date-wise. I knew that someone had to leave.”
“I was told 100 times (by Ira), ‘When we get back off of this trip, I’m out of this rotten business.’ So, finally, on Aug. 18th, 1963, we did a show with Ray Price in Watseka, IL. He started in talkin’ about quitin’. And I said, ‘Well, you’re right. I’ve never said this (myself), but I’ve heard it (from you) 1000′s of times. But you’re right. We’ve just worked the last date we’ll ever work together, because I’m quitting.’ And I did.”
“So, that was that. It never came to the point where you’d fight on stage, but the tension was more than you would want to put up with.”
Charlie went onward and upwards, remaining, to this day, one of the most beloved country icons of all time. Ira, well…Ira fought the devil and he fought him hard.
He tried at a fourth marriage, to a talented singer named Anne Florence, and for a while – it seemed to stick. The couple toured together, but without Charlie, ever dependable, around to smooth out the edges, Ira struggled to find gigs. He soon burned through his money, as well as his friends. And eventually, his drinking would eat away at him, turn him bitter and finally – take everything he had.
In 1965, at age 41, Ira, his pretty wife, and four others would be dead in a violent car crash, a brutal head-on collison on a dark country road, just outside Williamsburg, Missouri.
A few years earlier the Louvins had cut a song called ‘Wreck on the Highway’, “I heard the crash on the highway,” sang Ira, “but I didn’t hear nobody pray.”
The black irony about Ira’s death, was that – despite the fact that he had a warrant out for his arrest on a DUI charge, it was the driver in the other vehicle who was drunk, and blind drunk at that. The papers reported an autopsy that revealed the presence of alcohol, nine times over the legal limit.
This fact, however did little to soothe Charlie Louvin, who remains devastated by his brother’s death to this day.
“He was told by thousands of people that whiskey was gonna kill him, and anyway you look at it, eventually, it did.”
What remains, however, of Ira and Charlie’s potent musical partnership, is a enduring legacy that continues to evolve as time passes. Their music was admired and embraced, both by their peers, by the generation who followed directly in their steps and onwards… You can hear the Brothers in harmonies of the Everly Brothers, in the country rock sway of The Byrds and Gram Parsons, in the honey-voiced songs of Emmylou Harris… and later…in the gut wrench earnestness of Wilco and Will Oldham and in the Southern Gothic darkness of The White Stripes.
And you can be sure we’ll be hearing that elating, unforgettable sound, inspiring many more great songwriters yet to come.
Charlie himself has become the gracious guardian of the Louvin legacy, still writing, singing, touring and paying homage to the sound he was so instrumental in creating.
At this writing, Charlie is about undergo surgery in a fight against pancreatic cancer, but he’s facing that enemy with same wry wit and fearless swagger that have guided him through a lifetime of musical adventures.
About the Louvin-penned Satan is Real track “Afraid to Die”, Charlie has this to say.
“I’m really not afraid to die. Seriously. There’s gotta be better places. I think one of these days I’m gonna find out.”
As we all will.
But in the meantime, let’s count our blessings, kiss our loved ones, put the needle down….and praise the Good Word of Ira and Charlie Louvin.
Dear Reader: Charlie passed away on January 26, 2011. I was lucky enough to speak to him just before he moved on. The above was originally published as liner notes for the wonderful Louvin Brothers releases from Light in The Attic. See here for more info – http://lightintheattic.net/
February 28, 2012 § Leave a comment
I was fortunate enough to speak with the late Jeff Buckley just 6 months before his death (of accidently drowning) in late May of 1997. This interview was conducted in Boston, during a brief concert stop for the album “Grace”.
Jeff was only 30 years old when he passed away, but he left us some truly transcendent music. Read on for a bit of insight into one of the great musicians of the 1990s.
Q: There’s a huge line outside.
A: It’s strange how all this is happening because I never, ever gave a demo anyone. I never shopped a deal and I never brought my work to anyone “official”. It would have been wrong somehow, wrong for the music. It needs to have a real sacred setting for people to understand it. You’ve got to start things off with friends who are like-minded or even strangers that are like-minded. Sending your music to established artists or labels or magazine, I mean there is something to be said for tenacity, for trying to pursue recognition that way, but it just doesn’t make sense for the best work. And if you do make an amazing work, it’s sometimes not the best way to be heard. You have to get on a sacred space, like a stage, and do your testifying that way.
Q: Is that how things happened then, playing at Sinee Café in New York, being a regular act there and word spreading in an organic way from people who came to those shows?
A: Yes. I had a friend, Daniel, who got me the gig there. Someone else had opted out of Monday nights so Daniel took two and I took two and then there were a slew of Monday nights open and I just went on and on. And then I started playing a lot of little places around there, around the Lower East Side and a little bit uptown, just anything I could get, I took.
Q: How long were you doing that?
A: Two and a half years.
Q: Because you, and the music, seem to have emerged fully matured.
A: It was never like that before and it’s still not, really. It’s still kind of half-baked. You’ll see with the next album, it’s always kind of evolving. I just get to things kind of late. I have a sort of shy self-esteem – meaning it’s shy of healthy.
Q: What were you doing before this?
A: Oh, I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been a janitor. I’ve been a burger flipper. I’ve been an electrician’s apprentice. I’ve been cheap construction labor. I’ve worked in a clothing store, a hotel. Been in all sorts of bands. Scuffled.
Q: So a whole slew of shit jobs.
A: Everybody in the working class – works. That ethic still hasn’t dissolved. But there was a real message inside that that I had to stop doing things that were taking energy away from what I felt would really fulfill me. So I had to organize my life.
Q: Are you a regimented person, is that how you work?
A: No. Look at me, I’m a mess! No now more than ever I have to regiment myself, which is very hard. My bunk is full of shit. I never sleep in my bunk, I just pack it full of shit. But I do feel that regimented people do better work, longer.
Q: I have your solo ep and I saw you at the Sinee and I’ve also seen you with the band. Do you have a preference?
A: They are both different. Different disciplines. Different things are possible. I’m able to move from place to place quicker, to more extreme places dynamically and material-wise – when I’m alone. Because it’s just me. But I prefer the band situation. I prefer the relationship. Music is meant to be that way. It’s meant to be interdependent. It all sort of happened backwards for me in a way. I was playing solo in order to find the right band. But before that happened I got signed. But I was still staving off working on anything until I found the band. So I would go to the label and say, “oh yeah, I’ve got these great guys” – but they didn’t exist. I didn’t want the label to pick a band for me and I sure as hell didn’t want any session players, because then it would just be dead. I wanted a band that would last and eventually form a creative organism. Because that’s what a band should be. That’s what bands are for.
Q: How did you eventually find them?
A: Mick, the bass player came to a show and he was attracted and that was the first. Michael, was the last to join. We’d been friends for three years or so and he’d seem most of my shows and he knew where I was coming from. And Matt met with Mick and I one night and we played as a trio and immediately came up with music – the music for “Dream Brother”. So I asked them all, please stay through this album and then, if you want to stay, stay. And they did.
Q: Are there any other bands right now that you’re drawn to? That you feel are doing something interesting or innovative?
A: Yes, The Grifters are the real thing. A band people should listen to. I met them once and immediately fell in love with them. The Dambuilders are also great – it was a total epiphany when I met that band. Shudder to Think, definitely a band to listen to. The Melvins. Those are bands I feel are real positive forces. Helium are great. This is the thing – if you ask any music journalist expert guy he’ll tell you – “it’s all bankrupt. There’s nothing out there.” But it’s not true. There is a tremendous amount of soul in America, there are great bands. But it’s all underground. You ain’t gonna find it if you expect MTV to feed it to you. Now is the time to go out and get music for yourself. And those bands I just mentioned are the types of people you’ll find and they are fierce! Serious songwriters, writing great songs. The quality is in their sense of melody and their sense of the impact and sound and lyrics. It’s really a ballsy thing to be a melodic artist rather than just having some writing that you sing over. It’s hard to explain why certain music is good. It’s something that gets inside you, uncomplicated, direct, romantic, and melodic. The way the words get into you.
Q: You’re describing your own music in a way.
A: I try. My favorite kind of music is the stuff that stops time. You put something on to sit there and let an experience go through you. The process is not something to glaze over. You constantly draw attention to yourself as a songwriter. It’s a very scary thing to illustrate. To look at yourself clearly through a song. It’s true of all art, all mediums, but for some reason music has a direct line straight into people.
Q: Favorite book, favorite film?
A: I don’t read half as much as I should. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I mean, anything about rootless family life gets to me. Geek Love is about the family and a little about the evils of evangelism through the character of Arturo. But mostly, it’s about family. And as far as films – anything by Elia Kazan. I like cinematic art that is doesn’t have to include violence as the main meat of emotion. Now, excellence in cinema is based on murder, guns. Tarantino bores me. Even though he is very appealing and very facile about putting elements of pop culture into his work. But it kinds of dates it, right? I like East of Eden, Cinema Paradiso, Last Tango in Paris. It takes a real artist to do films like that and not rely on a 45 Magnum to create action. Boring. I like My Own Private Idaho. Despite Keanu.
Q: Did you play a large part in the making of your video?
A: Yes, I got two friends – Mary who takes all the pictures – to do home movies in Brooklyn. And my friend John, who directs plays – to direct. They got it. I didn’t have enough time though. I never have enough time to do anything right. But it will be different next year.
Q: What are you doing next year?
A: I’m going to disappear. Disappear until I come back with ample material.
Q: Are you going to record in Bearsville again?
A: Never. $2000 a day? Fuck that shit.
Q: How was it working with Andy Wallace?
A: That part was good. But I don’t know, I think just by judging at the way the last two songs we’ve recorded sound – we can get the sound ourselves. I can produce it myself. All we need is an engineer. Bearsville was beautiful, we stayed in cabins. The town itself is sleepy, friendly. A lot of reggae shows and young white hippies – all Birkenstock quasi-dread noseringed collegiate potcuppers. It’s a friendly community, but me being a New Yorker – I went insane having nothing to do in my little cabin. The axe murderer cabin I was staying in. The “writer’s cabin” which for some reason had cable TV. Wrong thing to put in a writer’s cabin. But the studios themselves are really good and easy to work in and beautiful. But next time? When and where – I won’t tell a soul. I’ll just show up with the master tapes and say “yup. It’s done, we made it. It’s great.” I’d really love to sneak away and do it that way.
Q: What’s next?
A: To Europe for a tour, but first to New York to shoot yet another video. One thing that I’m kind of disturbed at is actually being on the television, acting, being in something that’s mainstream. And having that whole pirate article in People Magazine (Ed. Buckley was listed as one of the “100 Most Beautiful People”). They didn’t even ask me. It’s cheesy and crappy and I hate it. There are some people on that list who are just unproductive mannequins. And it caters to a certain type of person. Really, a large part of their readership wouldn’t usually have anything to do with me – so fuck them. People Magazine is dirty and cheap and shallow.
Q: Has that article attracted any obsessive fans?
A: You’re joking, but that’s actually happened! There are a few religious fanatics that correlate the songs and the lyrics to passages in the Bible. They just write me incessantly though and have yet to show up with a weapon or anything. Knock on Formica.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be religious?
A: Yes. But I don’t believe in any human organization of God. It just doesn’t work.
Q: You’re spiritual.
A: I don’t know anyone who isn’t.
January 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Jane Birkin is speaking on the phone from Paris, sounding exactly like you might expect – breathy, sensual, and girlish. It is still voice of a young woman on the other end of the line, despite Birkin’s 65 years. She speaks her native English with an upper class lilt and her French – flawlessly. This is in large part due to 40 years spent in France, 13 of them immersed in a now legendary romance with the country’s beloved pop star, the late Serge Gainsbourg.
The couple was the Brad and Angelina of their day, their partnership fuel for the 1960s tabloids and intercontinental nightclub gossip. When they met on the set of the film, “Slogan” in 1968, Birkin was a doe-eyed 22 year old model/actress, Gainsbourg a hard drinking 40 year old madman. Their relationship would be both prolific and volatile.
The two ultimately had one child, (the contemporary actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg), but it was their musical output that kept the press at their door. Birkin and Gainsbourg produced numerous tracks together, such as 1969 single “Je taime…moi non plus.
(“I love you… me neither”) and 1971’s, Histoire de Melody Nelson, a concept album detailing the exploits of a middle-age man’s affair with a teen-age nymphet.
“It’s funny because these songs are not very scandalous when you listen now,” says Birkin from her Paris apartment, “they are actually rather charming and sweet. When I think of when I would take the needle off certain parts of the record so my mother wouldn’t hear the heavy breathing, I laugh now. But at the time it was considered music you only played after midnight and many of the songs were banned.”
Throughout their relationship, Gainsbourg found poetic inspiration in Birkin, the result being an unprecedented series of wry, catchy and often playfully obscene songs, all written expressly for his young lover. The process for the two was simple. Serge was the songwriter – Jane was the muse.
“He would play me songs that he had written for me on the tape recorder and I would pick the prettiest,” says Birkin now of their collaborations, “I always thought he wrote the songs for me that expressed what was his feminine side. It freed him to write these lyrics, it meant somehow that he was a complete person – that he could be fragile. I asked him once if he thought that was the case, that I was expressing the feminine side of himself, and he said yes, he thought that was true.
“He was always 20 years ahead of his time,” continues Birkin, “and he’s remembered for that but also because he also wrote some very good, very catchy tunes. He was very prolific. With me, he was very clear about what he wanted. When, later in life, I began performing live, he told me I could do his songs, or do the standards. He told me once that if I was going to do a song that wasn’t his, it had to be written by an American and they had to be dead!”
Gainsbourg continued to write songs for and about Birkin, even after she left him in 1980 for the director Jacques Doillon. Yet even as their relationship changed, so did the lyrical and emotional import of Gainsbourg’s compositions.
“There were songs that he wrote for me when we were together, songs that I see now were written for the baby doll, innocent sort of person he wanted me to be” says Birkin, “and those songs were cute and sexy and flirtatious. But later in life, after I had left him, he continued to write songs for me and they were deeper. I felt wasn’t singing me, I was singing him. I was singing his feelings, his curiosity, his pain and difficulty in life”.
These included tracks from the 1983 album, “Baby alone in Babylone”, which included songs like “Baby Lou”, which Gainsbourg wrote about Birkin’s third child with Doillon.
“Serge was very much in my life, always,” Birkin says of the later years of their relationship, “He was my chum. He was best friend. He would turn up at any time of the night, and he had his room in our house. I would make him dinner or a cup of tea and just sit down and gossip. I was very lucky that way, because I never really lost Serge. He was always my friend. It was more fun with him later in life, to have him as an extraordinary, eloquent, loyal friend.”
Since Gainsbourg’s death in 1991, Birkin has spent much of her time keeping his legacy alive, not only in France, but also abroad.
“Serge is still very much alive and relevant,” she says, “When “Je T’aime” came out, that was such a scandal in 1968, and I think some of that curiosity remains. I think when I tour now; it is that curiosity that draws people to the show. And I like taking Serge around; I like reminding people of his songs.
“Although he doesn’t need me any more,” she adds quietly, “When Serge first died, I think people discarded him at first. In part, because they felt like he was someone who drank too much and smoked too much and was sort of a dandy. But over the years that has changed. They’ve come to love him again.”