Friday, January 15, 2021

The Place of No Words: Love in the Face of Death


Midway through The Place of No Words, the movie's 5-year-old protagonist, Bodhi asks his dying father why people have to die.

His father responds, "It's part of life."

Bodhi replies, "Then I don't like life. I don't like life."

It's a perfectly logical response. 

At almost the same age, I stared at my bedspread and contemplated the implications of all I knew about death. Everyone I knew was going to die, and I was too. I remember that moment like I'd been let in on a cruel joke. In Bodhi, I can feel the hurt I felt that first time. It wasn't the last time I felt that way, and I assume I'm not alone in having such thoughts. That's one reason this movie is so important.

Very little culture and very few movies focus on that part of life we call dying, the actual process, and The Place of No Words would be remarkable if only for keeping that process in focus over the entirety of its 94 minutes. 

It's a movie about quiet moments, a movie about being, and that's the perfect fit for Webber's lingering mise-en-scene direction. We have quiet moments with Bodhi and his parents, when he breaks into tears over their laughter at something he said; when they struggle to make him feel better, explaining why they laughed. 

In such moments, in virtually every scene, the film captures love. The particulars may change. The father grows sad while cherishing the final moments he has with his son. The mother grieves silently and stoically, admitting to a friend that she is only pretending to accept what's going on. Both parents engage with the child's imagination, following angelic guides through otherworldly adventures and fighting robots from outer space. The movie commits to that child's-eye-view, unconcerned with the difference in the fantastic and the realistic bits. These are the things that Bodhi sees, and Bodhi's vision is why life matters.

He may not like life at times, but that's only because he loves it enough to engage in it with every aspect of his being. His parents, loving him, play along. Life would be dreadful if it were only defined by death, and this movie repeatedly illustrates just how enormously the fact of death is counterbalanced with rich possibility, an infinity in each moment.

40-year-old Webber has acted in about 50 movies, including The Laramie Project, Broken Flowers and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, but the 5 films he's directed deserve distinct recognition. His previous movies (Explicit Ills, The End of Love, The Ever After and Flesh and Blood) blend pieces of memoir with fictional storytelling in ways that defy separation. The magic realism of Bodhi's perspective--making up adventures with his family even as they gather around his father's death bed--perfectly suits Webber's approach. It allows the magic of life to bounce up against its finality, and it lets the little eternities every child knows (and parents glimpse in their best moments) fill and hold the screen. 

For all of these reasons, including the quiet pain in the performance by Teresa (Palmer, star of Warm Bodies and A Discovery of Witches), The Place of No Worlds is an inspiring film about why (despite it's cruelty) life is worth living. Little Bodhi gives and receives love, growing through the process. 

In the final scenes, Paul Kelly's "I'm Not Afraid of the Dark Anymore" speaks for the light just ahead of little Bodhi and everyone else watching the movie, the process of dying teaching us all how to better live. Paul Kelly, "I'm Not Afraid of the Dark Anymore" 

Teresa Palmer and Mark Webber 

Note: Mark Webber's clear-eyed vision comes in some large part from his childhood growing up battling homelessness with his mother Cheri Honkala. A wonderful way to honor this movie is to give to her organization, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. Donate here to the Poor People's Army

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Remain in Love: Chris Frantz's Wonder-Filled Tribute to Collectivity and Commitment


Recalling a moment when (the rest of the band itching for solo projects) he and wife Tina Weymouth started thinking up Tom Tom Club, Chris Frantz makes a distinction central to Remain in Love. Frantz and Weymouth didn’t want to work solo but with a collective. “We felt by definition every band was a collective, including Talking Heads.”

And Talking Heads certainly was that. Most of the songs on their records were the product of jam sessions. Half of the lyrics of their first song “Psycho Killer,” including the French lyrics, were written by Weymouth who then volunteered that bassline (she said elsewhere was inspired by Bernard Hermann’s score to the movie Psycho).

Fellow Rhode Island School of Design student, artist Michael Zieve suggested that his friends call their band “Talking Heads.” Weymouth made a couple of t-shirts, and the couple wore them around to road test the name. They figured out how to make the band work as one of the greatest live bands of the rock and soul era at CBGB’s, on a stage built by the band Television.

Throughout the band’s story, Weymouth’s contribution was key. Though she read music and had background on acoustic guitar and flute, she saw the bass’s role with a visual artist’s eye, as a structural element in the composition. Her distinctive take on the instrument anchored that original three piece and played a key role in developing the band’s singular sound. In a trio that was essentially all rhythm players, her parts (like that "Psycho Killer" riff or the one in "Take Me to the River") offered broad strokes of color. 

Also, her presence as a woman in that original trio (before Jerry Harrison joined) made the band stand out, at least symbolically if superficially. Johnny Thunders asked them if they were a feminist band, and Lou Reed and Andy Warhol both took an active interest in the band, Reed making the unsurprisingly self-centered observation, “It’s, like, cool you have a chick in the band. Wonder where you got that idea.” Of course the Velvet Underground’s woman player was drummer Maureen Tucker, but Weymouth's blond chic also no doubt drew comparisons to the band's famous collaboration with singer Nico. (Years later, Tom Tom Club would perform the Underground’s great “Femme Fatale” with Weymouth on lead and Reed singing backing vocals.) 

The mix of artistic impulses that make up Talking Heads also reveals the collective. Weymouth and Byrne took those Polaroids for the More Songs about Buildings and Food cover, and they arranged them on the roof of Weymouth and Frantz's loft where the album was recorded. Weymouth's brother’s architectural designs led Jerry Harrison to create that manhole-like pattern on Fear of Music. When Brian Eno, who all but wrecked Fear of Music in the mixing stage (salvaged by the remixing of Rod O’Brien), kicked the husband and wife rhythm section out of the studio so he could once again tinker with their mixes, they designed the famous red-masks and airplanes album cover for Remain in Light

Frantz spills anecdote after anecdote, inside and outside of the studio, to give a dizzying sense of the potlach of creativity at the heart of the Talking Heads’ story. Eno gets plenty of credit for his positive influence, including the idea of playing their set staple "Take Me to the River," " as slowly as we possibly could without losing the groove" for the single. The fact that Gary Kurfirst (who had managed reggae greats such as Bob Marley’s Wailers and Toots and the Maytals) took on Talking Heads helped the band’s remarkable trajectory from minimalist R&B to world music. After Byrne and Eno made My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and both thought they were done with the band, Frantz and Weymouth began to work with Kurfirst’s friend Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who produced their friends the B-52s’ first two great records and helped Frantz and Weymouth pull together Tom Tom Club.

The Tom Tom Club story is fascinating for many reasons starting with its reverse crossover hit “Genius of Love,” landing its highest chart position at #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Now chart position doesn't mean much by itself, but it does show the music connecting with a new audience. That kind of chart success wouldn’t be rivaled by a Talking Heads record until 1983’s “Burning Down the House,” which went to #2 on the Dance charts. As Frantz notes, that cut was inspired by Frantz and Weymouth’s then-recent experience at a Madison Square Garden P-Funk, Bootsy Collins and Brides of Funkenstein show. Before that, Tom Tom Club’s biggest single would be inspired by a Zapp record, “More Bounce to the Ounce,” produced by P-Funkers Bootsy Collins and Roger Troutman (who fronted Zapp). 

Working on a series of musical ideas that would become Remain in Light (at a point when Frantz and Weymouth held things together by building grooves in order to coax Byrne and Eno into the studio to play with them), they met bass player Busta Jones, who would help them put together the Big Band which would tour behind the album and create the live album The Name of this Band Is Talking Heads. That band would include Bernie Worrell from P-Funk and the great back-up singer Dolette McDonald who Jones had met cutting disco in New York. By the 1984 Jonathan Demme concert film Stop Making Sense, which captures a version of this band, Talking Heads would also include Bride of Funkenstein Lynn Mabrey.

If you saw that band on that The Name of This Band tour, as I did, you couldn’t escape a series of revelations regarding the grandeur of a band as a collective. Equal to the original four members of the Heads, P-Funk’s Worrell commanded that stage as a sort of elder statesman from the funk Mothership, and so did Dolette McDonald, percussionist Steve Scales and guitarist Alex Weir. Part of the wonder of that show was its explosive enthusiasm and warmth. That absentee quality in David Byrne’s persona worked well to decenter the show, allowing everyone else to shine all the brighter.

That concert was one-of-a-kind. An ecstatic celebration of punk and funk--two genres seemingly from different worlds but fitting together in tight, multi-colored grooves--sounds informed by everyone from James Brown to Bob Marley, the Velvet Underground to King Sunny Ade. A child-like wonder would break out on band members' faces, and there was something metaphorical in how that played off the serenity of a 6-months pregnant bass player, as always holding everything together with her husband, and a manic frontman who simply began to run laps around the stage through “Life During Wartime.” In that moment, there was a family onstage, exploding with excitement and possibility.

It was so much more than we could have expected, the carload of record store friends of mine (I believe my girlfriend and I were the only ones who didn’t work at Sound Warehouse) who drove down to Oklahoma City from Stillwater that day. We’d all seen great bands do exciting sets. But this was something that truly felt like it could have never happened before that moment, and we all felt a part of something bigger during that show.

Perhaps not surprisingly, reading Frantz’s book, I’m shown my own musical discoveries from a new perspective. Each page offers so many obscured and perhaps only half-appreciated (by anyone outside of the bands) connections taking place in that late 70s rock and roll insurgency. Touring with the Ramones, XTC, and Dire Straits, the Talking Heads story is a story of how various 70s rock and roll revival collectives carved out space in new radio and touring markets. Working separately and together, these collectives formed a multi-pronged cultural movement that gave kids like this writer a sense of his own role in the story. 

I certainly get a strong taste of that connection when Frantz tells how he played Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” for Byrne while they were struggling for lyrical ideas for a bridge in “Cross-Eyed and Painless.” The first time I heard “The Breaks” and a brand new record by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, “The Message,” was on that trip down to see Talking Heads in Oklahoma City. 

Before that day, rap had seemed smaller somehow—the novelty of “Rapper’s Delight” or the city beats and rhymes echoed back at us by bands like The Clash. From hearing that huge pair of records in the car, to seeing one of my all-time favorite bands transform into something no one had ever seen before by adding funk and soul players and tearing at the segregation between genres, I think I had a eureka moment that started my own role as a music writer. Three years later, my first published piece, on the “Sun City” protest single--featuring Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five alongside everyone from The Who to Bob Dylan to Darlene Love--focused on the way music strove to counter the racism in the music industry and on my college campus.

Little did I know that same day in that car, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s new album featured “It’s Nasty” built around the sounds of Frantz and Weymouth’s collective The Tom Tom Club. All of these musicians were having important conversations at that time, and we were all benefiting from the results. 

The cross-pollination of those musical conversations is central to what Chris Frantz’s Remain in Love celebrates, and it does so (so rock and roll) with a love song at its heart. As Chekov once said, all great stories have at their heart a polarity, an animus and anima. This is certainly a long, gorgeous love letter to Tina Weymouth. But to celebrate Weymouth is to celebrate an ethos that repeatedly chooses  the collective over the individual vision.

Though Western culture (and as Lou Reed notes here, the music industry) may like to pluck away the individualist icon in the band and call that character’s story the story that matters (as too many breathless interviews with David Byrne do), the real story of any music is the interplay among the musicians, those behind the scenes and those in the audience. (I love that the B-52s first show up here as some kids at an Atlanta gig.) Without all of these participants in play, that thing we love about music doesn’t happen—worse than that, it doesn’t much matter. 

By contrast, Remain in Love is a book focused on why we love music, and, by maintaining that focus, it locks in on all the things that matter most. In that sense, it’s a book that tells all our stories, how we go about building the things we build and how we hold each other together as much as possible as long as we can. It's a book about the long haul, and that in and of itself is reason for celebration.



Friday, December 18, 2020

Before the Dust Settles: My 2020

This has been a strange year for everyone, and, as with many others, it called for me to think about changes in direction.

It's been a year when I've all but let go of the idea of myself as a music journalist, yet I started the year with two personal favorites from that work. Thank you Chris Lester and Michelle Bacon for giving me the chance to write about two albums and bands that changed my life:

The Clash, who played as big a role as anyone in giving me a sense of my own time and place in the world, and that band's great album London Calling--

And the Pedaljets, who, in 1987, were the first KC band who sent me sprawling for pencil and paper and whose 33 year long friendship has served to keep me asking all of the essential questions over and over again in reference to their work--

Quarantine brought on a lot of reflection, captured in two different interviews, a long video-taped talk with the great poet Matt Sedillo, whose compelling book Mowing Leaves of Grass I'm still processing--

And then an enormously in-depth dialogue with the wonderful Chinese reporter Rong Zhou. No one's ever gotten me to talk so freely about so much--

Finally, in October, I got the chance to reflect with my college on the book that first told me I had to write--

I did some good work in an effort to support the most on-time/exciting local organization I've ever seen, KC Tenants, particularly through the outlet of the movement paper The People's Tribune, which allowed me to profile my hero Tiana Caldwell--

As well as celebrate the life of one of the first hard losses (for me personally) to COVID-19--

I spent most of my time collectivizing the thought and experience of members of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, putting out half a dozen copies of our paper Rally Comrades and 26 weekly articles highlighting a "Ray of Light Inside the Pandemic"--

Meanwhile, I made a series of pandemic playlists, that started off as an assessment of things past that I needed to hear right now and evolved into the 2020 singles that most speak to the moment for me. I've written about only four of those here, but I will return over the holidays.

I worry a great deal about my mother, who has been alone and quarantined for most of  her 84th year; my brother, who looks after her and, despite his own high-risk status, works in public schools helping the kids who most need that one-on-one help at a time like this. I worry about all my dear friends in the schools and hospitals facing this threat head-on every day.

And I also juggle worry and pride thinking about my eldest daughter, who not only fought on the front lines in an assisted living facility throughout the year but also managed to become a Licensed Practical Nurse during this time. 

Both of my daughters inspire me every day, as do my friends. (Everyone says this, but I do have the best friends in the world.) So, though I'm not done with this year, I go into 2021 with a renewed sense of priorities, and though they certainly involve writing, they rest upon my love and appreciation for all of the wonderful people in my life and all of the wonderful work going on around me. In this unluckiest of times, I know I have boundless gifts to be thankful for, starting with anyone who would bother reading this post, and culminating in the opportunity to do more and better work in the year ahead.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Songs 2020 #4, "I Can't Breathe" H.E.R.

Dedicated to Jenay Manley, who (alongside Dominique Walker of Moms for Housing; Nicole McCormick of West Virginia United Caucus; and Maria Estrada, President of Southern California League of United Latin American Citizens) delivered an incredibly moving speech at a national women's leadership forum yesterday, and to all of the KC Tenants, who have inspired me endlessly in 2020, most recently fighting week in and week out to keep people from being thrown into the streets during this pandemic.

H.E.R.'s "I Can't Breathe" is 4 minutes and 47 seconds of claustrophobic struggle that stands as a singular musical statement for 2020. 

Yes, it's a direct response to the George Floyd murder and the moment when 26 million Americans hit the streets in protest against police brutality and the white supremacy that too often instigates and justifies it. But it's also a record that musically ties together all of the killings in the current pandemic. It works on multiple levels because it's clear on "black lives matter" as a call for human liberation.

"I Can't Breathe" grabs your attention with an echoed percussive slapping of guitar strings, like a straining heartbeat, and then H.E.R. (Gabriella Wilson) launches a harmony vocal riding that slow, steady beat, her unsung breaths caught in the close-walled mix. 

The layers of the mix grow into a suffocating wall of sound. Ghostly voices, many (perhaps mostly) Wilson's own and occasional cries of pain that sing out on and around that original bass melody she initiated at the start. Her lead vocal strikes high, insistent, trying to make sense of a head-spinning set of contradictions:

"Starting a war screaming peace at the same time...."

"Always a problem if we do or we don't fight...."

"The protector and the killer is wearing the same uniform...."

"We breathe the same, and we bleed the same, but still we don't see the same."

A low, harmony vocal offers loving support--when Wilson asks for "empathy," knowing she's been labeled the "enemy." And the sympathetic harmony strokes reassurance again.

The song doesn't reach a resolution, but it hits a spoken word bridge that lays out the fundamental contradictions of the American dream and reality since Day One. The summation is part Baldwin's The Fire Next Time as a warning. "Be thankful we are god-fearing," she begins a series of conclusions, "because we don't seek revenge, we seek justice."

Then Wilson demands, "Do not say you don't see color!"

"When you see us, SEE US."

"We can't breathe," she concludes and sighs.

The wall of voices, slightly muffled as if muted by a veil, grows as loud and strong as it can, begging to be heard. It's the ghosts of those we've lost and those who've lost their friends, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and significant others, from Eric Garner to George Floyd to all those brutalized in other ways, including those forced out of their homes, and those who may well find themselves, in a best case scenario, fighting to survive on a ventilator.

She hopes against hope that she might be heard, but every aspect of this record shows H.E.R. knows what she's up against: "This is the American Pride: it's justifying a genocide." 

"I Can't Breathe" (Official Video)