Bigger on the Inside

Amanda Palmer was an artist that I was only somewhat acquainted with through her first band, The Dresden Dolls. Somehow her solo work after that band had escaped me until she scheduled a show at the large music venue I work at. I should have already been a huge fan, as I have always been drawn to the strong, politically active, feminist singer-songwriters. I have seen Tori Amos in concert more than any other artist, and collected her concert bootlegs like an obsessed acolyte tending to their preacher. I’m a huge fan of Ani DiFranco, buying each album as it was released and seeing her live as much as possible. I am one day older than Ani, which probably means something astrologically, but I have no idea what exactly. I attended Lilith Fair for several years, soaking in the songs of Sarah McLachlan. As a kid I bought vinyl records from The Pretenders, Pat Benatar, and Blondie. Later I got deep into the lush goth tapestries of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance. Suffice to say, strong women who rock have always held a special place in my heart.

Amanda Palmer is certainly a very unique artist and performer. She primarily plays piano, keyboards, and ukulele; with extremely personal lyrics that feel like you are listening to someone read their most private unfiltered thoughts out of their diary. In a world where trite pop music and vapid dance songs seem to dominate our aural landscape, her songs actually have something meaningful to say. Her lyrics are definitely gorgeous poems put into songs. If you haven’t listened to her, please listen to the song “Not the Killing Type.’ Seriously, stop reading this and go watch the video for that song. You’ll know exactly what she is about after watching it, and I think it’s the best music video of the last decade. I’ll link it at the end of this chapter. From the first moments of her quirky faces and mouth movements, to her interesting phrasing and singing cadence, you know she isn’t like most singers. The video moves from mesmerizing to disturbing, and is a powerful cinematic vision. You may be familiar with her husband, Neil Gaiman, a pretty famous wordsmith of his own. I can only imagine the deep literary conversations these two creative geniuses must regularly have around the house over a glass of wine.

But Amanda Palmer’s show came with special requests in her rider, which unfortunately rubbed some staff people the wrong way. This was the final American show of her There Will be No Intermission Tour before heading to Europe. Her concert was to be an intimate show of just her onstage playing songs and telling stories and interacting with the audience. Previous shows have gone on for 4 hours. This would be more of a spoken word confessional like you might find in a theater production, and not a music venue. So the tour manager requested things to make the show as quiet and intimate as possible. They requested that we all wear earpieces on our radios, so the constant squawking about irrelevant behind-the-scenes issues wouldn’t interrupt and distract from the show. I always wear an earpiece up at the stage, so that was a non issue for me. They also requested that the bartenders try to be as quiet as they could, limiting loud conversations and, I think, only selling drinks in cups to avoid the clatter of bottles and the explosions of beer cans opening. She discusses empowerment, bisexuality, rape, and abortions; inviting members of the audience to disclose their personal tales as well. Experiences involving homophobia and transphobia will be shared. There was likely going to be sadness and rage and crying with the exchange of these very personal life stories. Since Amanda Palmer was trying to create a safe space for women to gather and share, they requested that no male security staff be in the concert hall.

This is where some of the staff blustered and, in my opinion, took that request the wrong way. First of all, at that time we only had a handful of female staff, so it was impossible to meet that request. There just weren’t enough women on staff to make that happen. Secondly, it was a request if possible, not a mandatory demand that would result in the show not happening if it could not be staffed that way. They asked, we couldn’t meet the request, the show must go on. You certainly wouldn’t want a male staff there who is ogling the women in the crowd, rolling his eyes and scoffing, or who happened to resemble a woman’s rapist. I’m no stranger to emotional heartfelt concerts. The local bands I was in would sometimes tell the crowd to go talk to any security staff if anything made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable in the venue that night. Creating a small bubble of safety and acceptance in a world filled with hate, sexism, racism, and predators is the right thing to do. Amanda Palmer was just trying to do this on a larger scale. Requesting females to staff a feminist-themed event is on par. It just meant that the men who would end up staffing the event should be aware of this, and sensitive to it. There wasn’t any intention coming from a place of man-hating or ‘reverse sexism’ (that’s ridiculous.) The patriarchy obviously dominates most facets of our society, so asking to tip the scales of gender at a delicate event is reasonable and understandable. So, of course, I was chosen to be in the hall near the stage to assist if needed.

I always love being at the stage, but I felt especially honored to be there for this show. Some people just have the gift of being a performer and riveting their audience. I don’t know that many people who could command an audience’s attention alone onstage for four hours doing anything. I was moved and thrilled by her songs and her stories. So much so that I went to the merch table and bought her memoir called The Art of Asking. Being an avid reader, I devoured this book the next day. It proudly sits on the shelf next to memoirs by Ani DiFranco (No Walls and the Recurring Dream), Tori Amos (Piece by Piece, Resistance), Debbie Harry (Face it), Pat Benatar (Between a Heart and a Rock Place), and Chrissie Hyde (Reckless: My Life as a Pretender). That is, when I haven’t loaned these books out to my friends to read. And Siouxsie, I’m still eagerly awaiting your memoir.

So the show was indeed about three and a half hours long and went off without a hitch. Amanda sat at a gorgeous grand piano singing and talking to the crowd. The audience loved her and was in tears several times. There were discussions and disclosures about rape, incest, sexual abuse, and abortions. There was even a political discussion that got a bit heated, but Amanda handled it well. Overall the fans got a very special show and got to interact with the artist in a way that never happens at a large music venue. Hell, I’m a straight white CIS male and I even felt empowered afterwards.

One of the most powerful stories she told was about her first time. She was making out with her boyfriend and things were moving towards having sex. He tied her up and she went along with it. Then things turned dark. He left the room and came back with a friend, who’s birthday it was. He offered Amanda to him, tied up on the bed, as a birthday gift. Thankfully, the friend didn’t want to have sex with somebody’s girlfriend who was bound and restrained, so her untied her and everyone left, each of them irrevocably changed. This disturbing near-rape would, of course, damage your ability to trust others and forever haunt you. But instead of focusing on how sinister the first man was, she focused on how the second man refused to participate and released her. She talked about more men needing to stand up against wrongs like this, instead of giving in to peer pressure and rape culture. She called on men to be more trustworthy and interrupt or intervene when they see other men doing wrong. She was thankful that her first sexual experience wasn’t a rape, but reminded us how many women’s first times are rapes.

As you can imagine, during this story and others, the venue was so quiet that you really could have heard a pin drop. Deeply personal stories, harrowing retellings of abuse, and disturbing disclosures are supposed to make you uncomfortable and shake you up. In sharing our pain, we can achieve catharsis for ourselves and resonance for others. The human experience is riddled with suffering and pain, but building from it and learning from it is essential.

Since she had to get on a plane to Europe the next day, she wrapped up the concert ‘early’ by not being onstage for the full four hours. I was standing at an access point by the stairs simply to be ready in case anything happened, and to prevent fans from entering a restricted area. Some fans are so rabid for contact with their musical idol that they forget basic rules. As the audience applauded, Amanda walked behind me towards the stairs leading to her green room. But instead of just walking down, she course-corrected and walked over to me. I thought perhaps she had a request for me to allow a family member into the green room or something. I was wrong. She put one hand on my shoulder and with her other hand she grabbed my forearm and squeezed it, looking in my eyes with her intense gaze and famous eyebrows. She just held onto my arm and said, “Thank you. Thank you for being here.” We smiled at each other and I thanked her for being here as well. She released my arm and walked off, still smiling. I’m not sure why she did that. Maybe she saw my smiling face throughout the performance, or maybe she just knew that if I was in the hall working then I must be a trustworthy man.

I always appreciate when really famous people don’t just ignore the staff helping to make their show go well. Just a ten second interaction like this one forever endeared her to me, and made me want to support her by purchasing her book and her music. I also defended her and the tour manager when some coworkers tried to malign her or complain about the gender staffing request. Her concert was one of the best I’ve ever seen, made even better by the fact that I got to work it and have an honest human moment of shared gratitude with her. Tonight’s show was all about immediacy, vulnerability, and connection. Live concerts sometimes elevate to being something more than just entertainment. They can provide safety and affirmations and belonging. They can help with networking and community-building. They can be educational and inspiring. They can heal you and even change your life.

because the thing about things
is that they can start meaning things nobody actually said
and if you’re not allowed to love people alive
then you learn how to love people dead

Anatomy of a Scene: Jennifer 8

Sometimes one scene in a film is so impeccably done that it elevates a routine film into greatness; an actor’s state of bliss. Jennifer 8 is a 1992 police procedural film involving the hunt for a serial killer. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, it has a solid cast of Uma Thurman, Andy Garcia, Lance Henriksen, and John Malkovich. John Malkovich’s short performance is what takes this standard police detective movie to an entirely sublime level.

John Malkovich’s character enters the film at the 82 minute mark, which is when most average-length films are beginning to wrap things up and race to the climax. Malkovich’s part is essentially a cameo as an FBI interrogator. He only has two scenes, but they are what I remember from this movie and keep going back to enjoy. We’ve all seen the interrogation room scene before in countless detective films and TV series. It is a trope of the genre, and hard to do anything new with it. And it’s a lengthy dialogue scene with characters sitting in chairs. But Malkovich and Garcia take this opportunity to really shine and suck us into the cat-and-mouse game of seeking information and strategically revealing information.

John Malkovich absolutely steals the entire film away from the other actors, competent and entertaining as they all are. Watch Malkovich observe and analyze Garcia while he tries to get a reaction from him. He does everything in the book to antagonize and unnerve him during these scenes. Listen to his cadence and his pause; I think it is his delivery of the lines that is so memorable. And watch his face as he fiddles with pencils, lights a cigarette, or blows his nose. Malkovich pauses to actually write comments on his legal pad, making Garcia and the audience wait. He smirks. He looks up at the ceiling as if contemplating some difficult scenario, in disbelief of the story being told to him. He gets right in Garcia’s face to whisper certain accusations and reveal a card or two in his deck. He repeats statements Garcia made with malice as he spins it to confirm his own narrative and bolster his case against him.

The first scene is Malkovich beginning the interrogation. He uses classic techniques of asking the Garcia character’s permission to do things, smiling like he is on his side, and making sympathetic and understanding reflections of his testimony. He asks a hundred clarifying questions. He makes bland small talk, appears somewhat neutral and bored, tries to build rapport, all the usual tactics. He does a lot of great things with his hand gestures. He rests his face on his fist as if these games are tedious and cliche to him. This scene is about 7 minutes long, but absolutely flies by. The viewer is locked on their every word. And honestly, Andy Garcia does a fantastic job as well. These two actors playing off each other in this tit-for-tat is endlessly entertaining.

“You don’t like Sergeant Taylor, do you?”

“Like?”

“You want me to use another word?”

“I am indifferent to Sergeant Taylor.”

“You don’t blame him in any way for the situation you find yourself in?”

“His motive for exposing my witness was malicious.”

“So you don’t like him?”

“No, I don’t like him.”

“You….. (checks his notes and quotes him) wish him ill?”

Garcia scoffs and nods, understanding the interrogator’s intention to use his own words, out of context, against him.

“Do you want a lawyer, Sergeant?”

“Oh there you go, another game question. ‘Do I want a lawyer, Sergeant?’ What would I want a lawyer for if I’ve got nothing to hide?”

“Don’t you?”

“You know I don’t. So why don’t we quit the bullshit and get down to it? What’s your angle, Mr. St. Anne?”

There is a quick cutaway to the Uma Thurman character, then we are back in the interrogation room, presumably the next day. We see Garcia’s character seated in a chair, then the Malkovich character moves into the frame as if on a dolly. It’s both magical and unnerving. A dramatic entrance explained by his character silently rolling his office chair over to Garcia while he outlines what he thinks happened. He rolls right up to the side of Garcia and ends up just behind him, whispering into his ear.

“This guy’s got a 12 gauge Winchester up your nose. And he’s drunk, and you’re dizzy. Your eye’s full of blood. And you ain’t thinking good, and you’re seeing worse, and –WOW!–(claps his hands together behind Garcia’s ears to startle him) it just went off. You just put him down.”

This scene ends with both men sitting next to each other, looking into their reflection in the two-way mirror with other law enforcement officers behind it watching the interrogation. Almost as if they are watching a television show of their own existence; or in Malkovich’s case, knowingly giving a performance for the men behind the mirror. The audience watches these two characters on a movie screen, and inside of that the characters are watching themselves on a mirrored screen.

The second interrogation scene is over 9 minutes long, and this one is where things get more intense. Not only does Malkovich become angrier and more confrontational with Garcia, but he had a cold in real life on the day of filming. But he pushed through and gave an even more intimidating performance than the previous one. He is so congested during this scene, you honestly feel for the actor. But he uses that to his advantage and it only adds to the realism. Who among us hasn’t had to go to work when we had a cold and just tough it out? And weren’t we a bit more on edge, curt, or quick to bark at people? Malkovich gets to fuss with a roll of toilet paper on his desk to dab his nose with it. I think some directors might have juggled the filming order around if an actor had a bad head cold. Since this was a cameo, I’m assuming Malkovich was flown in for maybe 1 or 2 days of shooting. They may not have had other shooting options since he is a minor character. Whatever the reason, Malkovich delivering his dialogue while being severely congested pushes the scene over into the legendary category.

The scene begins with Malkovich using an electric pencil sharpener to irritate the weary and dejected Garcia. Malkovich is great as using props, similar to Christopher Walken. Cigarettes, pencils, legal pads, toilet paper, notepads, evidence bags, etc. Like a verbal boxing match, Malkovich pushes Garcia up against the ropes until he breaks. He goads Garcia to snapping by mocking his ambition and motivation, bringing up his marital problems as well. He even puts his fingers in his mouth like a child would during this mocking monologue:

“Maybe he thought you were making it up. Cause you wanted to be top cop. Isn’t that why you went running up that garbage dump? So everyone could stand in awe of top cop? Isn’t that why you came up here, cause you couldn’t make it in L.A.? So you got a pissy little degree and you come up here so you can be top guy. Right? But Ross was top guy, wasn’t he? Always would be top guy. And you know what? He did it without even trying. Everybody loved him. He had everything you wanted, didn’t he? Great marriage. Great kid. Everything that you couldn’t have. And you wanted it all to go away. Cause you had a lousy life. With a lousy wife. Who was fucking everyone, wasn’t she? Is that why you need to pick on this little blind girl? Cause you can control her, control who she’s fucking?”

At this point the Garcia character finally snaps and grabs Malkovich around his neck in anger. Malkovich, getting what he wanted, says quietly and calmly, “Come on John. You wanna lose your temper with me? You’re good at losing your temper. Come on, lose your temper with me.” Nose to nose, the two men consider what is next. Malkovich smiles as he would love nothing more than to provoke Garcia into assaulting him on camera, adding to his case against him. It’s the emotional climax of the scene, and my favorite part of the entire movie.

Malkovich only has a total of 16 minutes onscreen, but he absolutely owns the entire film. Interestingly, this is the exact amount of time Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal character is onscreen in Silence of the Lambs. But you feel his presence throughout, as if he was in the entire movie. Most people are shocked to learn that Hopkins has such little screen time in that movie. But Jennifer 8 is different because Malkovich’s agent is unknown to us for almost the first hour and a half of the run time. Nobody is talking about him, retelling terrifying stories, reading letters, acknowledging his character’s importance, etc. Malkovich comes in long past the time where new characters usually get introduced, and he is equally as stunning as Hopkin’s Hannibal Lector character. The gravity he brings to this movie is powerful and undeniable.

“John, I’m running out of questions and you’re running out of lies.”

Sometimes after watching a mediocre movie, I’m motivated to watch a scene of classic acting where everything just came together perfectly. These interrogation scenes in Jennifer 8 are one of my go-to cinema scenes that I’ll watch by itself. I am in awe of John Malkovich’s performance in this film, and how he inhabits the small role with everything he has. While I consciously know that he is an actor that was paid to perform this role in a movie, I never think that while watching him. I completely believe that he is that character; a seasoned FBI interrogator who has been in hundreds of rooms like this trying to suss out information from a suspect. He could be worn out and bored by it all, but he revels in it instead. Interrogating people is his greatest skill; his art. He takes this lengthy dialogue scene that is, perhaps, generic on paper and makes it the absolute highlight of the film.

Jennifer 8 is available on DVD and BluRay, but as of this writing they are both out of print and somewhat expensive. Unless you’re lucky like me and have a physical copy of this movie, your best bet is to rent or purchase it on Amazon Prime.

I Will Bring You the Head of Alfredo Garcia

One could say that I’m a long-time disciple of Sam Peckinpah. His movies have spoken to me in a way that other movies have not. I have read numerous biographies about the man, and for some reason can list all of his filmography in the order of release. His films mean a lot to me. Several of his films remain firmly on my top 10 lists of all time. His films deal with outlaw characters, and themes of men out of time, trying to finish something in a world that has moved on. Honor among thieves. He was definitely a troubled soul that fought lots of personal demons, but sometimes he took that darkness and angst and put amazing beauty on the screen.

Perhaps his purest vision is the 1974 film Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I have previously written about his 1977 WW2 film Cross of Iron, but I have wanted to delve into this dark masterpiece for a while now.  But much like any journey into the heart of darkness, you have to be equipped and mentally ready for it. 

Some brief background info for the layman first. There are many great books written about the man, so I’ll just give you some basics here. I’ll list my favorite books about him at the end of this article. Peckinpah is primarily known for his western films. He made a name as a solid director on series such as The Rifleman and The Westerner before moving into film. He was known for working with amazing actors and getting unique and powerful performances out of them. A short list of actors who shined under Sam’s tutelage includes Charlton Heston, Jason Robards, William Holden, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, James Coburn and Warren Oates.  Peckinpah worked with Steve McQueen twice in the same year, releasing Junior Bonner and The Getaway in 1972. Sam was fired from the 1965 Steve McQueen gambling film The Cincinnati Kid. I often wonder if both men had lived longer and not pissed off the wrong people what they could have done together. The independent, macho, strong silent type of character that both men were drawn to could have given us a long lasting working relationship akin to Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah filming THE GETAWAY

Sam was also known for pushing the envelope of on screen violence, so much so that his primary nickname is Bloody Sam. Another innovation that Sam made his trademark was the slow-motion montage action shot. He used slow motion, multi-camera coverage, innovative shot editing, and even the variable speed camera. His style was hugely influential, to the point of virtually every action director that followed him using these techniques. Sam loved the poetry of violence, the dance of death. And using slow motion can warp time, elongating the moment of death. 

He also loved to fight against the perceived authority of the studio executives. He pissed off so many producers that he lost many great films that were planned for him to direct. He would go over budget and fight with the bigwigs that in many cases, his films were taken away from him and edited together by other people, or important scenes would be cut against Sam’s wishes. This resulted in several of his movies being released in highly edited forms that didn’t do well at the box office. Major Dundee and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are prime examples. It is no surprise that after the debacle of Pat Garrett, Sam made this angry, no-holds-barred film. 

Of all of his great films, Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the only film of his that he had final cut on. This means that whatever he filmed and edited together stayed intact without any tampering from studio executives. So, for better or for worse, this movie is exactly what Sam wanted, done his way. This is interesting to keep in mind as you watch it, for it is so gritty and bleak. 

The setup of this movie is pretty simple. A powerful Mexican land baron puts a large bounty on the man that impregnated his daughter. One million dollars for his head. Warren Oates plays Bennie, the quintessential anti-hero. He finds out that Alfredo is already dead from a car crash. So he and his girlfriend Elita go to find his grave and remove his head to turn it in for the cash. Of course, this dark plan gets much darker and many things go wrong. 

“I’ve killed people.
And worse, a whole lot worse.”

This film is Warren Oates’ film all the way. He carries the whole thing and is in almost every scene. It’s a tour de force. Peckinpah had worked with Oates for a long time, and obviously saw something in him. A gifted character actor, this movie might be his most successful starring role. Sam had previously worked with Warren in The Westerner and The Rifleman, then he cast him in his films Ride the High CountryMajor DundeeThe Wild Bunch, and gave him the lead in Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Oates decided to just do an impression of Sam Peckinpah for the character, even dressing like him and borrowing his sunglasses. Sam liked it and went with it. 

I feel like Sam was challenging us with this movie from the first 5 minutes. It opens with a poetic beautiful shot of a young pregnant woman resting by a pond full of swimming ducks and dappling sunshine. Then she is brought inside and interrogated by her father. He asks who the baby’s father is and she refuses to name him. Her own father then has his two henchmen strip off her shirt, exposing her breasts to everyone in the room. He continues to ask her and she refuses, so he gestures for the henchman to twist her arms in a pain-compliance hold. She cries out in pain and hunches over. He gestures to continue and we hear the sound of her arm breaking and her screaming. If this isn’t the kind of film you would want to continue watching, this is your exit point. It is a cruel scene that sets the tone for the journey to follow. 

Some dialogue exchanges also give you an idea of the type of nihilistic film you are in for. This is from the early scene with Bennie playing piano and accepting the mission from the two assassins paying him to do their dirty work for them.

Bennie: “Don’t worry, if he’s alive I’ll find him.”
Sappensly: “Alive isn’t our problem.”
Bennie: “Well, How bout dead or alive? How about that?
Quill: “Dead. Just dead.”

Later when Bennie meets with his girlfriend Elita at her workplace, he orders a drink like a true antihero would:

Bennie: “Gimmie a double bourbon and a champagne back and none of
your tejano bullshit. Now shove off.”

After a shootout where Bennie emerges the victor, he goes over to a henchman lying in the dust. Bennie already shot him twice, so he is either already dead or dying. But Bennie shoots him two additional times, executing him for certain.  He then says:

“Why? Because it feels so goddammed good.”

Here’s what you’ll remember about this movie: sweat, dust, flies, grime, nudity, blood, and bullet wounds. There are scenes that make us nervous and uncomfortable, and only a master director like Peckinpah can do that so effectively. He intentionally doesn’t explain some things, leaving the viewer to struggle with how to interpret it. I’m primarily referring to the almost-rape scene that jars everyone that watches it. Many essays have been written about that scene alone. There is much examination of masculinity, insecurity, jealousy, and gender role expectations. Sam even made the two main assassins homosexual, back in 1974. Bennie, and his character arc (or descent) is obviously the focus of this film, but his character is troubled at best. As the main character, he is seedy and lost and immoral, the definition of an anti-hero. The viewer wants him to succeed in this morbid mission, even at the peril of his soul. 

One of my favorite pieces of dialogue is when Bennie and Elita are discussing digging up the body of Alfredo to remove his head.

Elita: But you want me to desecrate a grave!
Bennie: Don’t give me that crap.
There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground
Or a man that’s in it.
Or you.
Or me.

I’ve watched Alfredo Garcia countless times and I still keep noticing new things. That’s the sign of a well-constructed film. On this last viewing, I spotted an uncredited cameo from Richard Bright. He is most famous for portraying mafia henchman Al Neri in all three Godfather films. Sam also cast Bright in small roles in The Getaway and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. 

I heard a nice sound cue this time around. When the two company assassins show Bennie a photo of Alfredo Garcia, there is an added sound effect of a car screeching and crashing into something. I assumed that this was a subtle bit of audio foreshadowing, since later in the film Bennie and Elita kiss while driving and bump a passing bus as they screech out of the way. However, it is actually a plot point flashback of sorts. We learn later that Alfredo died in a car accident, so this added sound effect when we look at his photo is a nice connection.

Another detail I had previously missed was during a scene with Bennie driving around in his red Impala with Alfredo’s head in a sack.  He gets out of his car carrying the package with him to go get some ice. Files have been buzzing around the inside of the car, and the stench must be incredible. He needs some ice to try to keep the head from rotting any further. As he walks into a little side of the road restaurant, there is a pig’s head hanging from a hook behind him. A decapitated pig’s head acting as a talisman of bad luck to a man with a decapitated human head in a sack. 

Sam put in a couple of subtle homages to his own films. At one point, Bennie is suggesting that his employers do not need to know that Garcia was already killed. He tells Elita, “In this house, we know nothing.” I was instantly reminded of a similar famous line from Sam’s film Ride the High Country. In that great film, Joel McCrea’s character says, “All I want is to enter my house justified.” Another film also references the house as an important character. Dustin Hoffman’s character in 1971’s Straw Dogs says to his wife, “I will not allow violence against this house.” Peckinpah wrote or co-wrote all three of those movies, so it’s no wonder that dialogue repetitions would reappear. 

Sam also references his previous film, the 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. During the third shootout, in the hotel suite, Bennie runs around the corner and a bad guy shoots at him. His bullets hit the TV, and several hit the mirror showing Bennie’s reflection. The cracked glass patterns appear over Bennie’s face and torso exactly how they did over James Coburn in the climax of Pat Garrett. In that film he was the shooter, so he was shooting himself. This symbolized the death of his soul, as he was about to murder his best friend, Billy. And this scene, and the whole film, was about the two men being two sides of the same coin. If Garrett kills Billy he would be killing the original, outlaw version of himself, now that he is on the side of the law. In Garcia, the image of Benny is being further distorted and damaged, much like his body and mind. It’s a well-crafted reflection of the previous film.

Mirrors are all over the set in this film. Many of the quieter dialogue scenes play out in a reflection. A shot of Bennie entering a hotel is shot all in a huge mirror reflection and looks like a painting. At first nothing in the mirror reflection is moving, and the border around it definitely looks like a frame of a painting. Then Warren Oates moves into the field inside the mirror and we know it is reality–or that his character is walking into an artistic rendition of reality.

A final similarity between this film and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is turkey shooting. In this film, Bennie fires at some turkeys on the side of the road in a spontaneous show of excitement. He tells Elita that he wasn’t trying to hit any of them. That’s an interesting thing to put in this film that seems random. Peckinpah got a lot of heat from animal rights groups for actually shooting off the heads of turkeys in the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid target shooting scene. Could this be a veiled apology from Sam? Not likely. Maybe he just hates turkeys.

Another echo of a previous Peckinpah film is when Bennie says to the bag containing Alfredo’s head, “All right Al. Let’s go.” Anyone that has seen The Wild Bunch remembers William Holden’s character Pike saying “Let’s go.” It is ranked as one of the greatest movie lines of all time. Warren Oates, who plays Lyle Gorch in that film, laughs and says, “Why not?” Instead of a big speech explaining why the group needs to march back into an occupied city and face almost certain death by the army there, their communication is simplified into facial expressions, locking eyes, and these two words. Hearing Warren Oates this time say the first part of the famous line is deeply satisfying. And just like in The Wild Bunch, the main character says “Let’s go” as he decides to wade into the final bloodshed when he could easily just escape to safety.

Anecdotally, Warren Oates was the focus of a double feature I saw a few years ago in my city of Portland, Oregon. A group called BAM (Beer and Movies) put on a Warren Oates double feature at the Hollywood Theater. The two films were The Wild Bunch and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. This was, perhaps, the greatest double feature that I’ve ever seen. Four and a half hours of Peckinpah bliss on the big screen, as well as the Jerry Fielding soundtracks.

One of the most memorable shots is with Bennie sitting outside the shower with Elita. She is vulnerable and naked sitting in the water stream crying. Her hair is wet and reminds me of the mythological goddess Hecate. Interestingly, Hecate is known as the protector of the household and associated with crossroads. She is associated with boundaries, and therefore the underworld. I found this quite interesting in relation to the previous quotes about houses in Sam’s films, and since this film feels like a descent into the underworld. Oates looks right into the camera for the only time in the film and says, “I love you.” The expressions on his face are myriad.  This had to be a hand held camera shot, and it does feel like he is looking into a mirror, and that we are him. It is a striking and emotional shot.

The final 45 minutes of this movie is a gonzo roller coaster ride of Bennie’s descent into meaningless death and destruction. It’s a fever-dream with Bennie talking to himself, and talking to the decapitated head in a bag. Flies buzz and patter against the inside of the car windows. Bennie takes a pull of tequila, pours some directly on the bag saying, “Take a drink, Al.” This road trip movie is far off course and headed straight to hell. Many, many people die. We get four separate gunfights and it’s difficult to keep track of how many people are killed. Bennie has almost lost it all, and is definitely losing his mind. It is reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones at the finale of Rolling Thunder. They all go into the final act ready to die, even expecting to die, so nothing really matters. The bleak nihilism of all three films is striking. In The Wild Bunch, the group is at least finally standing for something–brotherhood and doing the right thing. They go back into the Mexican town to rescue Angel, their captured gang member. They are so outnumbered that we know they are doomed. But dying for a cause, dying for some honorable reason is better than becoming obsolete, or wasting away in an old folks home. In Alfredo Garcia, our main character isn’t really doing it for anything but money. This morphs into revenge and punishing all the villains–every single one. We want Bennie to ‘win’ since we have seen all he has been through and lost to get here. The sacrifices made were staggeringly high. As he says early in the film, “Nobody loses all the time.”

One of the greatest moments in this film, and Warren Oates’ career, comes late in the film. Bennie has returned to his cheap apartment with the ice and Alfredo’s head. He is preparing to chip apart the ice to pack around the head when he approaches the mirror. He takes a pull of tequila, removes his sunglasses and looks at himself in the reflection momentarily. After all the loss and killing, he can barely look at himself at all. He looks so haggard and beaten down, his sad red eyes look shocked and soulless. He puts his glasses back on and gets back to his job. 

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not
become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss
will gaze back into you.   –Nietzsche

Something else I was stricken by was Sam’s attention to background action and details that flesh out the scene, making it seem real. I think Sam likes kids, he puts in a lot of them playing in his films. In this movie young kids sit on the hood of Bennie’s Impala as he slowly drives through town. He even playfully makes shooting gestures at them with his hands, which certainly foreshadows all the actual shooting to come later. There are many shots of groups of kids playing ball, food vendors on the side of the road, bands playing music, herds of animals, lines of hanging laundry, and sweaty mustached faces. After one shootout, a young child is seen grabbing a revolver out of a dead man’s hand, then dropping it. When Bennie and Elita reach the cemetery where Alfredo is buried, there is a funeral procession for a child. A small wooden coffin is being carried by mourners, which made me think of the death of innocence.

The end of this film is done so well, I just can’t get it out of my head. Bennie finally delivers the head of Alfredo to the Mexican baron, El Jefe. He arrives on the day of the baptism of Alfredo’s son. A shot of the prized head being identified and placed back in the ice-packed picnic basket by the guards is juxtaposed with the baby’s head being baptized with holy water. Absolute genius. There are dozens of family members around, and El Jefe is celebrating the birth of his grandson. Family members outside are lighting off fireworks, which would ostensibly cover the sound of gunfire from inside this hall. The constant pops reminded me of the beginning of Cross of Iron with the sounds of the mortar explosions getting closer and louder. 

Bennie presents the bounty of the decapitated head to El Jefe and defiantly pulls out huge chunks of ice and drops them on the desk as he says, “16 people are dead because of him, and you and….and me.” Nobody knew or expected him to have stashed his pistol in the picnic basket. Bennie pulls it out and thus starts the final shootout, full of slow-motion gunfire and blood squibs. Bennie yells, “NOOOOOOO” as he fires, and his voice is as loud as the gunshots. He is yelling at the injustice of all these people dying for this twisted treasure hunt. Screaming for all he has lost on this journey. Screaming that they aren’t going to keep getting away with it, and keep holding all the cards. No more. Once all of the guards are blown away, Bennie aims the gun at El Jefe, shakes his head slightly with a nervous grin, and growls “Nooooo” like an animal. It’s like the sound that a tiger death bringer would make. It’s a great audio mix boost. I won’t spoil what happens next, but it’s a killer ending to a batshit crazy movie. 

This film is a must-see for Peckinpah fans. If you haven’t seen any of his films, I don’t recommend starting with this one. Build up to this one by watching The Getaway, The Wild Bunch, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid first. This is a grimy dark movie that comes from a place of desperation and anger. It’s part road movie, part love story, part action film, part drama, with elements of a horror movie. But it’s all Sam. 

“Look at me with your goddam fucking eyes.

Come out and tackle me, you bastards.
I’m gonna nail ya. Somewhere I’m gonna nail ya.
You’re up there. You’re up there you son of…
I’m gonna find you.
Damn your eyes.”

Nobody Touches the Priest

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A PRAYER FOR THE DYING (1987) – Mickey Rourke

Another film that slipped through the cracks at the time, A Prayer for the Dying is a great drama that needs to be re-appreciated.

This film was released in 1987 as a star vehicle for Mickey Rourke, who was on fire in the 80s. It is the second film of his to come out in 1987, with the first being the amazing detective noir-horror film Angel Heart.

Just to recap, Mickey Rourke in the 80s was a huge rising star. I’m not going to delve into his later years of taking any film that came along, or quitting acting to become a boxer and thereby changing or ruining his good looks. Mickey Rourke started receiving much acclaim in the 80s and was even called that era’s potential new Marlon Brando. Even when he only had a small part in a film, he was the actor you remembered. His acting style draws you in and makes you believe him in any role. His emotions are telegraphed perfectly just by his face and his eyes. His delivery of powerful lines puts him a notch above most other actors in the 80s.

One of the first rated R double features I was able to see in theaters was the 1985 Michael Cimino crime epic Year of the Dragon. Strangely, the other film on this double feature was John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest. Both really good films, but not connected in the slightest thematically or genre-wise. Oliver Stone wrote a hell of a script for Dragon, just a couple years after writing Scarface. I used to wear my Dad’s army jacket, similar to Stanley White’s in the film, while playing adventure time in my backyard. I had a toy handgun and would imagine I was running around fighting the triad in Chinatown. I still love Year of the Dragon and re-watch it often. I have a similar love for Alan Parker’s 1987 masterpiece Angel Heart. Seeing that in theaters changed my life. But that’s a topic for another essay.

Mickey’s run of great films made by great directors is quite impressive. I think people forget just how big of a star he was, and how he was considered one of the greatest male actors of the time. He was handsome, charming, naturalistic and mesmerizing on screen.

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Mickey’s select 80s filmography:

Heaven’s Gate, Michal Cimino 1980
Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan 1981
Diner, Barry Levinson 1982
Eureka, Nicholas Roeg 1983
Rumblefish, Francis Ford Coppola, 1983
The Pope of Greenwich Village, Stuart Rosenberg 1984
Year of the Dragon, Michael Cimino, 1985
9 1/2 Weeks, Adrian Lyne 1986
Angel Heart, Alan Parker 1987
A Prayer for the Dying, Mike Hodges 1987
Barfly, Barbet Schroeder 1987

That is quite a strong list of famous directors for any resume.

Clearly, every director wanted to work with Mickey. Cimino obviously found something he loved in working with him, perhaps planning a long-term working relationship similar to Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. He cast Mickey in Heaven’s Gate, Year of the Dragon, and Desperate Hours (1990). I truly wish we could have seen more Cimino-Rourke collaborations.

The greatest and most prolific year for Mickey Rourke was obviously 1987. Three powerful films were released this year, with each of them showcasing his stellar acting and command of the screen. He played the grimy 1940s New Orleans detective in Angel Heart, the haunted IRA terrorist in A Prayer for the Dying, and the alcoholic Charles Bukowski character in Barfly. If you were to only watch three Rourke performances, I would say this is the holy trifecta of where to start.

A Prayer for the Dying is now one of my favorite Rourke performances. I rented this in the late 80s and didn’t love it. I think it’s because it was mis-promoted as an action movie when it is more of a dramatic meditation on guilt and religion. Also at that time I probably wanted it to be a violent action film like Charles Bronson would have made, since it dealt with an IRA terrorist killing mafia targets. Death Wish in Ireland. Watching the preview confirms this, as they show each and every action scene of gunfire paired with heroic action movie music (none of which is even used in the film). The original composer left the project and was replaced by Bill Conti, who gives us an amazing soundtrack. Pretty sure that music on the preview was from the original composer. I am so glad that they went with Conti. I would buy this soundtrack easily.

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Mike Hodges directed this film based on the book from Jack Higgins. Mike Hodges slammed onto the scene in 1971 with the gritty crime movie Get Carter. People my age may also remember him as the director of the classic 1980 camp sci-fi movie Flash Gordon. He had a bit of a comeback with the films Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. He’s a great director for this kind of story.

Rourke plays Martin Fallon, an IRA terrorist sporting a sawed-off shotgun, red hair and sideburns, and what I found to be a very convincing Irish accent. He looks weary and defeated for most of the film, because he is. The movie starts with a botched attempt on military vehicles that results in a school bus full of kids being blown up. He wants out, but the powers that be won’t let him out until he does one last hit (and because he knows too much). With promises of a passport and 50 thousand dollars, he reluctantly agrees.

He assassinates the mafia target in a cemetery but is seen by a priest, Father De Costa, played by Bob Hoskins. For the first time in his career, he does not eliminate the witness. Instead, he does a very interesting thing. He later visits the priest and confesses the murder to him, thereby insuring that the priest cannot tell the police about it. Whatever is said in confessional is strictly between the priest, the confessor, and God himself.

De Costa cannot understand why Fallon let him live, and uses that as a sign that there is still good in him and a chance to save him.

Martin Fallon:

I could’ve closed your mouth with a bullet.

Father De Costa:

Well why didn’t you?

Martin Fallon:

There’s been enough killin’

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Watching the interplay between these two great actors is one of the many pleasures of this film. The priest takes him on as his project to try to redeem him, and the terrorist wants to keep the priest safe and debate religion and forgiveness. I think his character wants to do something good as penance for the murders he has committed. A clunkier title for this movie could have been Absolution for a Hit Man. It becomes an existential discourse on the nature of religion and redemption, between a man of the cloth (with a violent past), and a man of the gun.

One of my favorite exchanges is when the two reverse their roles by the priest sitting in his own church pew and the terrorist standing behind the pulpit giving an anti-sermon.

Father Da Costa:

Have you something to say?

Martin Fallon:

We are fundamentally alone.

Nothing lasts. There’s no purpose to any of it.

Father Da Costa:

That’s a bit of a statement. Can you explain it to God?

Martin Fallon:

No, Father. Wrong way around. Can he explain it to me?

Can he explain my lost faith and how I lost it?

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Another interesting scene is where the priest loses his temper after a group of teenagers vandalize his church. They reveal that some men at the corner bar paid them to destroy his church. De Costa goes to the bar, called COURAGE, and confronts the familiar mafia villains. He then viciously beats the three gangsters with his fists and a garbage can lid, which seems to be homage to Sonny Corleone beating up Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather. The shot is framed so only certain letters of the big neon sign are visible, just the four letters R A G E. Hoskins does a great job in this scene, showing his disappointment in himself reverting back to anger and violence. He and Fallon are just two sides of the same coin.

The rest of the cast is just as great. Liam Neeson is another IRA terrorist and good friend of Fallon. Alison Doody, later to be cast in the third Indiana Jones film, gives a solid performance as Neeson’s teammate. Alan Bates relishes his role as the mafia villain. He and his brother run a funeral home, with Bates enjoying doing the mortician duties himself.  Having the main villain also working as the embalmer was an interesting touch I hadn’t seen before. It was reminiscent of Norman Bates’ interest in taxidermy in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho.

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Rourke’s character spends time around the church with De Costa and his blind niece, Anna. In an inspired scene, Fallon tries to help Anna tune the huge church pipe organ. We have no idea of his background besides being a terrorist. A police detective arrives to question the priest and takes an interest in Fallon’s presence. Rourke plays innocent and tries to pass himself off as the organ tuner. He is sitting on the piano bench facing away from everyone, but looking at them in a mirror on the organ. The detective doesn’t believe him and pushes him to play a song. Rourke’s face shows a mix of distracted innocence and the tension is built as he just hits some random discordant notes. Then, when we fear the detective is about to arrest him for questioning, Fallon proceeds to play a beautiful somber fugue by Bach. The director lets the song play out and Rourke smirks and smiles with satisfaction.

De Costa’s blind niece, of course, finds herself in peril late in the film. She is terrorized by a bad character in a way that made me think of Terence Young’s 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark. Her character might be the weakest link in the story. Having her be blind almost felt like a gimmick to make her as vulnerable as possible. The actor does a fine job, she just has some pretty obvious lines and serves as a superfluous and somewhat unbelievable love interest. I suppose her character represents purity and virginity in a film about Catholic guilt and repression.

Certain shots might hold symbolism I didn’t catch when I first watched this movie over 30 years ago. The religious iconography is plentiful. Having the church be under reconstruction with scaffolding is unusual. That could represent the church trying to give itself a makeover to continue to exist in a modern society with changing priorities or disinterest. In another scene a huge statue of a crucified Jesus falls to the ground and a large cloud of dust puffs off of it. The ancient history of religion literally dusting itself off to reinvent itself anew. When a character is shot in a cemetery, a statue of a saint is spattered in blood, in a reverse baptism at the point of death.

There are many great acting moments from Rourke in this movie, but the best has to be this speech between his character and Liam Neeson in the tree park. His delivery and facial expressions truly show his pain and remorse. The camera holds in tight close-up on Mickey and we are gifted this short monologue about his suffering and loss of himself.

Martin Fallon:

Listen, I don’t want to keep waking up every night hearing the screams of young children. I lost something a long time ago, Malachy. Everything. Everything got very black, like dried blood. And something started to stink. Every day it got worse, sometimes so bad I couldn’t get out of my bed. I sat there in the dark like a wee scared boy, not being able to breathe or speak my name. I saw myself lying in the street, dying, not wanting to die. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

 

This somber film is full of great performances, music, and direction. Please track it down and give it a watch. I recommend the Twilight Time Limited Edition BluRay. And if anybody needs help curating a Mickey Rourke film festival, I’m your man.

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The Demon Alcohol

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I had already clocked out and was hanging outside the entrance of the venue talking with my coworker, who was closing by himself tonight. Almost all of the patrons were gone, and the bartenders were doing their closing cleaning duties. Two males exited the venue and wobbled off to wherever they were going. Now that we live in a time of cheap and convenient Uber and Lyft drivers, there is literally no reason to ever get a DUI. There never really was to begin with, but you get my point. Cabs regularly park outside our venue and wait for some easy fares. People stand on the sidewalk watching their Lyft or Uber driver’s progress on their smart phone’s map. Within minutes, they are safely picked up and transported home.

But tonight a female bartender came outside in a panic and yelled to us, “Those guys are hammered. We cut them off and they were talking about driving home. STOP THEM!” Immediately the adrenaline shot into my system and I kicked back into work mode. We ran around the corner and sure enough, saw the more-drunk of the two men opening up his car door.

We sprinted over to the car yelling at the men. I went to the driver’s side door where the man was already sitting, keys in hand looking for the ignition. All of his windows were down. My coworker was on the other side of the car talking to the other man. I started trying to talk the man out of it. “Sir, you are not going to drive home tonight. You have had too much to drink and you’ve gotta stay.” He mumbled some drunk-speak about being fine and he was going to drive. “Nope. You can pick up your car tomorrow. Let’s get some coffee in you and call you a cab.” He kept mumbling his protests. “My friend, this isn’t worth going to jail and losing your license. Or hurting somebody. I just want you to get home safely.” All of this sound logic would have worked on a sober person. But you just can’t reason with drunk people. My coworker and the man’s friend were on the sidewalk pleading with him to give me the keys. I finally said, “Hey look over there, your friend is talking to you.” The driver glanced over and I reached inside the car window and snatched the keys out of his hand.

The man looked like I had just stolen all of his retirement money. He nodded to himself bewilderedly and smiled. I walked away to the sidewalk with his keys. It turns out the less-drunk friend had a hotel room at the hotel directly behind us. He offered to let the driver stay in his room that night. I gave the keys to the more sober friend. We thanked him and watched them stagger over to the hotel room, open the door, and go inside.

My coworker said, “Damn man, you oughtta clock back in. You just saved somebody’s life tonight.”

* * * *

Some thoughts on alcohol. Without it I wouldn’t have a job. If you take a macro view of what I do, my job is essentially to confirm that you are old enough to drink alcohol, and then kick you out when you’ve had too much of it. That’s it. It’s a legal drug that kills more people than all other drugs combined. And yet, it is tolerated, promoted, pushed, advertised, and worshipped by our entire culture. At least here in the United States. It is potentially a part of every family celebration, rite of passage, and life event. It is the most popular social lubricant or anxiety crutch.

I work around alcohol and deal with intoxicated patrons all the time, yet I barely drink at all myself. I’ll occasionally accept a free shot after work, commonly called a ‘shift drink.’ When I do drink I choose hard cider that I’m drinking for the taste, not to get buzzed or drunk. The last time I was drunk was at Burning Man in 2005, and that probably qualified as alcohol poisoning. I just can’t tolerate the hangover and the headache the day after being drunk. And I’m not 21 anymore, either. In college I could drink a bunch and snap back pretty well the next day. Now that I’m substantially older I would need the entire next day to nap and recover and be miserable and in pain. Screw all that, it’s just not worth it. I suppose I would actually make a great bartender since I don’t crave the product at all. I could never work as a chocolatier though. I would eat my weight in chocolate and be fired after one shift. I’m reminded of something somebody probably said in some western film I can’t recall the title of. “Alcohol? Oh it’s the devil’s drink. I ain’t got much use for the stuff myself….but I sure do make a livin’ off of it.”

One behavior that I don’t  particularly understand is this: Getting off work but staying at the bar you work at drinking with your coworkers. Some people hurry up so that they can clock out and run a block or two away to another bar. This is where their friends work, so they can get a drink or two in there before they stop serving. I suppose that if you really like alcohol, it must be a kind of torture to handle it, pour it, and serve it all shift when you can’t have any. Then when you’re done all you want is a shot and a beer back. Me? I just want to go home and chill out after work, where I could have a drink in peace and solitude. I’ve already been around people all night and I don’t have the bandwidth to put on the social mask and engage in small-talk with anybody. And drunken small-talk is even worse. I’m not single, so I’m not interested in flirting with anybody. And I’ve already been here for too many hours, so staying longer just doesn’t appeal to me. Blowing my cash tips that I was just given on overpriced drinks seems like a complete waste. I know I sound like a boring old miser, but I’ll save my money by not remaining in the bar giving my tip money right back to the business. I have a Tupperware container hidden away at home that I put all my tips in so I won’t spend them on impulse purchases. I even have a secondary envelope full of tips I get specifically from working private rental events or catering jobs. This envelope is beginning to look like something you would see in a crime movie when somebody is making a payout after robbing a bank. My Tupperware tips and thick cash envelope will hopefully allow me to take my family on a vacation somewhere without puddles of rainwater.

I’ve had a couple girlfriends who would definitely qualify as alcoholics. Functional alcoholics. Binge drinkers. But still alcoholics. That certainly contributed to the eventual demise of those relationships. I also used to throw epic parties out at my house in the country. Since the parties would go for three days, everybody would just stay and camp. That way nobody had to worry about driving home after drinking on dark curvy country roads. I’d put out a huge bowl and people would put their keys in there. But, accidents do happen and I always felt like I had to maintain sobriety in case I needed to drive anyone to the ER. So even though you’d see me walking about with a drink in my hand tending the bonfire, I was nursing the same drink for six hours. Reminds me of stories of Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin pounding back an entire fifth of Jack Daniels while performing onstage. He later admitted that the bottle was full of apple juice.

I can’t say that I didn’t experiment with alcohol. Friends of mine from high school and college might remember stories of me drinking too much in the dorms or a friend’s house. Luckily, that was decades ago and minimal evidence exists to prove our intoxicated excesses. In my thirties I did develop a taste for mango cognac, which I would deliver to guests at my parties in tall shot glasses. Nobody refused mango cognac. “You cannot possess mango.” I also liked drinking absinthe. I really liked the ritual of preparing this anise-flavored spirit. You pour absinthe into a special glass, then slowly drip iced water over a sugar cube on the slotted spoon set across the glass. When this drips down into the green absinthe and the cloud of sugar swirls around, it is called ‘the louche’ or releasing the green fairy. This was from the time where the psychoactive ingredients wormwood and thujone were still present in absinthe. Much rumor and confusion any mythology accompanies the story of absinthe. Absinthe was finally legalized in America in 2007, and it is commonly available in nightclubs and bars. Today’s absinthe is just an unusual tasty drink with much history, that appeals to those who like the taste of licorice.

My parents never had any problems with alcohol, but there were many alcoholics in their family. They did sit me down and talk about alcoholism at one point when I was a little kid, years before I would ever have even been thinking of trying alcohol. They said that, due to my heritage of being Irish and German, I should be very cautious when drinking alcohol. They said that many family members have struggled with alcoholism, and that I may be potentially more prone to react poorly to it, or to even become an alcoholic. The idea was that I may carry around a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. This warning lodged itself deep into my brain and I never forgot it.

I did indeed have an uncle who was an alcoholic. He almost died before I was born. He was drinking with his friend and they attempted to drive home. His friend was driving drunk without any insurance, and my uncle wasn’t even wearing a seat belt. They lost control and drove straight into a building storefront. My uncle went through the windshield of the car, and then crashed through the store window. He was in the hospital for three months recovering from that accident, and had to have his jaw wired shut. I never forgot this story of his completely preventable accident caused by drunk driving. When he would visit at family events I would secretly examine his face for any scars or evidence of his jaw being wired shut. As a little kid, I didn’t really comprehend what that entailed. But as an adult, I never got into a car with a driver who had been drinking, I always wear a seat belt, and I have never driven drunk.

I was also deeply affected by the loss of several of my musical heroes due to alcoholism. One of my favorite bands of all time, Led Zeppelin, broke up when drummer John Bonham died. He died from choking on his own vomit after drinking the equivalent of 40 vodka shots. Jimi Hendrix died the same way, but from a barbiturate overdose. Not only did I love Zeppelin beyond measure, but I was a budding young drummer myself, so I felt like this was a warning I shouldn’t ignore. When I started learning to play drums at age 16, I put on Led Zeppelin IV and attempted to play along with Bonzo. Keith Moon of The Who also died due to alcoholism, along with Bon Scott of AC/DC and Jim Morrison of The Doors. So many great talents self-destructed due to their abuse of alcohol. It seemed like the accursed trifecta of things to avoid as a musician were alcohol, heroin, and airplanes.

In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn
All I want for you to do is take my body home

When I do spend a few minutes at the bar after a long shift, I’m usually decompressing over a non-alcoholic beverage just watching people. Most people there are talking loud and saying nothing, to quote James Brown. They clumsily flirt and ogle one another, trying to glean some confidence from their friends around the pool table. They are spending far more money than they should be on unhealthy bar food and alcohol in an effort to treat themselves, celebrate some accomplishment, or let off steam. On the good side, they are creating memories with friends. On the bad side, they are getting sloppy drunk in public. Now that I’m clocked out, they aren’t my problem anymore. The problem is, I’m still in uniform, and being a bouncer isn’t something I can turn off easily.

I think mainly of the missed potential when seeing people getting drunk in a bar. Instead of regressing to a cro-magnon level, these people could be home creating something or achieving their goals. I think of all the dreams and projects that people in the bar might have while watching them smoke cigarettes and drink beer. I bet these people have projects that they are procrastinating. I bet they would normally be writing music for their band, working on writing their book, or studying for their college coursework. They could be working out by lifting weights or running, building their own business plan, or finishing their screenplay. Or even just the more simple act of spending time with their partners, parents, or kids — creating those good memories. There’s nothing but squandered potential in here during the wee hours. Very rarely, there are people who can get amazing things done while drunk. I’m thinking of the famous painters and writers who reportedly would create masterpieces while drinking. But that is the exception, there can only be one Charles Bukowski. That cantankerous old bastard wrote more amazing lines while he was drunk than I’ll ever write in my sober lifetime.

I have theorized with my coworkers that a certain very popular television sit-com has affected all of our lives in this industry. Cheers was one of the most popular shows ever made and concerned the lives on and off shift of bartenders. This show won numerous awards, ran for 11 years, had spin-off series, and started the careers of many beloved actors. Most of my coworkers are around the same age group, so we watched this show as it aired, or later in syndication. The idea of your neighborhood bar being your safe haven and sanctuary started with us all watching this show. No matter how bad your day was, you can walk into the bar and everybody yells, “NORM!” The neighborhood bar is the great decompression center with your friends. I think we internalized the themes of having work mentors/coaches, friends/therapists, lovers, and people you see more than your family becoming your family. No, I never consciously thought I would grow up and work in a bar. But somewhere in my childhood those archetypes and characters and relationships making a home and a family in a bar embedded themselves deeply. And decades later, here we are.
We all just wanna go where everybody knows our name.

I don’t think most people like drunk people. Intoxicated people become rude, boisterous (loud), selfish, cocky, demanding, and really repetitive. They can’t control their bodily functions well and might vomit, or trip and hurt themselves. Property damage is also a concern. Or they want to fight people, or put their hands on people without consent. And I would guarantee that alcohol has involvement in a majority of rapes and sexual assaults. Then, to compound things, the usual verbal de-escalation techniques or verbal judo that I typically employ are rendered ineffective. It’s like they put up a +10 Shield of Unreasonable. Because you just can’t reason with drunk people. Honestly, I really hate drunks. The irony isn’t lost on me that I hate drunk people, yet I have chosen a career that literally manufactures drunk people. We are producing the very problem that we then have to handle. Job security at it’s finest.

So at the end of the night, I’ve clocked out and am sitting at the bar. I’m tired and drained and sweaty. I’m not drinking alcohol, obviously. I’m drinking soda water with about four squeezed lemon slices in it. I’m texting my wife goodnight and telling her what time I will probably get home and quietly crawl into bed with her. I hear the manic sirens of an approaching emergency vehicle. Instead of rubbernecking to see if it’s police, fire, or an ambulance, I just look up at the rows of glasses hanging upside down above the bar in front of me. The red and blue lights from the police car reflect and glitter inside all of the glasses, lighting them up like a string of Christmas lights. I stir my drink slowly, wondering if they are responding to another drunk driver wreck, and hoping that nobody went through the windshield.

The Purple One

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I love Prince and I always have. I stuck with him through all of his different personas, albums, and musical phases. He was one of the most talented musicians and songwriters of my, or any other, generation. Whatever mood I am in, there is a Prince song to go with it. I can’t believe that he has left us already. I needed to take some time after his passing to process that loss before writing this piece. So almost four years later, here are my thoughts about Prince and my life-long experience with his music.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life

I was probably about 10 years old when I first started hearing Prince songs. I would have seen the Solid Gold dancers do their sultry routines to his music as the show charted what number in the top 10 he reached this week. American Bandstand also was playing his songs for the youth to dance to on camera. I finally got a compilation record from
K-Tel called NEON NIGHTS. They just put together some of the biggest hits of the day on one record and made money selling it. This was the precursor to the mix tape that you recorded and gave to somebody you liked in the 80s, the burned CD of music in the 90s, and the internet and YouTube mixes after that. I still have this album on vinyl. It turned me on to lots of funk and soul that my little white middle-class suburban upbringing wouldn’t have typically known about. The standout songs were “Whip It” from the Dazz Band, “Superfreak” by Rick James, “Get Down on it” by Kool and the Gang, and “Controversy” by Prince. Guess which song I played the most?

Prior to MTV launching in 1981, watching music videos was a difficult task. I lucked out and was able to watch a locally-produced show called simply Video Music Channel. There was no host, it just showed music videos from all genres. And honestly, since there weren’t that many music videos being produced yet, if a band had a video they got played. Pure scarcity created the popular bands of the day. Lots of them were culled from a live concert that the band already had. Only a few were specifically created for use as a marketing tool, or had an actual storyline. Some were staged live videos; where they rented out a hall and filled it with their friends dancing while the band lip-since the song onstage, replicating a live concert. Or just setting up in a garage or abandoned warehouse and performing the song to the camera with minimal edits. This is how I first got turned on to artists like Pat Benatar, Kate Bush, The Specials, Elvis Costello, The Police, The Pretenders, and Fishbone. And this is probably why I still have such a strong love for these artists. Their music and imagery were burned into my brain lobes at a very impressionable age. I owned albums from all of these artists first on cassette, then vinyl, then compact disc. Luckily I still have crates full of these records from decades ago.

The beautiful ones always smash the picture. Always, every time.

The early videos from Prince are so fun to watch. The earliest one I saw would have been for the 1979 song, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” This was the first video that he ever put out, so it was most people’s first exposure to the man. He’s doing everything in the video. Prince is singing and dancing, but also you see him play the drums, bass, keyboards, and guitar. Some of the shots are close up so you don’t see his face, but some aren’t and you can see that it is all him. It’s almost like there are five different Princes, which is a very interesting idea.

In the 1980 video for the title song from “Dirty Mind”, Prince is starting to figure out what his image is. He is now starting to wear eyeliner, thigh-high socks with heels, and a tan trenchcoat with some heavy metal studs stitched onto it. He also is either wearing a g-string, thong, or women’s bikini underwear. He isn’t wearing a shirt, so his abs are on full display. He’s dancing around with amazing confidence and stage presence, doing the splits and jumping off the drum riser.

The lyrics to the 1981 title song “Controversy” may have been the first time a song made me think about sexuality, racism, and religion/athiesm. Prior to entering puberty I just listened to songs for entertainment and nothing more. Prince’s sexy yet ambiguous appearance shocked and confused people in the late 70’s. Wearing eye makeup and high heel boots while presenting as male wasn’t new (David Bowie, The New York Dolls), but Prince took it to a whole new level by wearing thigh-high kink boots and chaps (note that I didn’t say assless chaps, because all chaps are assless). He also was addressing prejudice from the perspective of being a light-skinned African American man. These lyrics can be seen as the groundwork for my adult interest in gay rights, feminism, equality, and alternatives to anachronistic guilt-based religions.

I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?
Some people want to die so they can be free
I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same, do you want to play?
 

In 1982 his album 1999 was released with the accompanying videos. By now music videos were essential, and any major album release needed mandatory videos of the singles. We got glimpses of Prince’s command of the stage, dance moves, and burgeoning confidence. We also got to see more of his backing band, including the two keyboard players Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones. They would both play the same keyboard standing very close to each other wearing revealing clothing and garish makeup. They would move in sensual unison while vamping and looking right into the camera. Their gyrating and pouting in close proximity made us all think they were lesbian lovers off-camera, which was by design. You can see them both in the videos for “1999” and “Automatic”, and then just Lisa in the video for ‘Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.”  While Lisa had been in Prince’s band for years, Jill was Prince’s new girlfriend and was used as a backup singer on a few songs on the 1999 album.

Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours

The video for “Automatic” shows a young man becoming an icon. This is where he started adopting purple as his chosen visual motif. Most of the first half is just Prince on stage hitting different poses with dramatic lighting showing him mostly in silhouette. He dances, grabs his hat, and seriously strikes the pose. But he can do a lot with just his body posture and stance. Watch how he pivots and sticks his heels, puts out an elbow perfectly with a percussion accent, and works his fingers amidst all the stage lights and fog. He graduated to being a pop music superstar in this video. Yet MTV refused to show this video at all. For one thing it’s eight minutes long, which doesn’t fit with their 3.5 minute song format. But also it got a little too hot. In the second half of the video, a guy with aircraft marshaling batons guides a king bed out onto center stage. Prince appears to be knocked back onto the bed by the power of the music. Lisa and Jill sit down and join Prince on it. They remove his gloves and shirt, tie his hands to the metal bedpost, and Lisa then removes her belt. Instead of the threesome that you expect to happen next, Lisa starts whipping Prince’s naked chest with her belt. She tortures him for the remainder of the song, along with the moaning and crying sounds from the original track. In 1982, MTV wasn’t much for kink.

Is the water warm enough? Yes, Lisa.

At this point I must admit that 12 year old me developed a huge crush on Lisa Coleman. She had been in Prince’s band and videos since 1980’s Dirty Mind, but was woefully underutilized. Sometimes she would get a brief eight second shot of her playing keyboards while every other band member received all the focus. I watched the ‘1999’ music video often, since MTV played that gem about once every 30 minutes. Lisa is (finally) heavily featured in this video, as she is one of the main singers. I vividly recall her purple dress with large openings at her waist, the purple dress gloves she wore, and her big hair flipped up off to the side. The holes in her dress were perfectly positioned so that, if you were dancing with her, your hands would naturally land there. She also starred in the film Purple Rain as herself. I wisely put on my headphones and listened to the salacious pornographic lyrics of songs like “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”, “Lady Cab Driver”, and “International Lover.” Lisa was also featured earlier on the super funky and lyrically scandalous song from Dirty Mind called “Head”, which is about what you think it’s about. Lisa softly speaks lines like, “I’m just a virgin, and I’m on my way to be wed.”
“I must confess, I wanna get undressed and go to bed.”

The catchy chorus is:

Now morning, noon, and night
I give you head till you’re burning up
Head till you get enough
Head till your love is red
Head, love you till you’re dead

With all these sexy videos and graphic lyrics coinciding with puberty, it’s no wonder that I credit Lisa Coleman with leading me by the hand down the purple velvet-curtained hallway of adolescence.

Isn’t it a shame this ain’t a movieThen U could rewrite my every line.

One thing that I loved about Prince is that although he could, and often did, play every instrument on some albums, he didn’t hesitate to give the spotlight to his bandmates. On  the song “1999”, arguably one of his biggest hits, he shares vocals with Lisa Coleman, Dez Dickerson, and Jill Jones. Also the album cuts were often extended versions with additional verses, instrumental jams, or spoken word portions. He was smart to always release a 3:30 minute long radio friendly version of the singles, then reward the fans with an 8 minute version of the same song on the album.

Related to that, Prince enjoyed taking young artists or bands under his wing. He loved to be a mentor to others. With his tutelage, numerous bands benefitted from at least a gifted song he wrote, a spot performing on his tour, an appearance in one of his films, or him performing/producing their albums. Bands that got vetted by Prince, or were associated with him or his label Paisley Park, include: The Time, Jesse Johnson, The Family, Vanity 6/Appolonia Kotero, Sheila E., Carmen Electra, Sheena Easton, The Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Martika, Wendy and Lisa, Janelle Monae.

One example of his amazing silent contributions is regarding the funk band The Time. Morris Day was their singer, but on their debut album every single instrument is played by Prince. He wrote the songs and sang backup for this record (you can totally recognize his voice on several songs), yet his name is not anywhere on the album. He used one of his stage names, Jamie Starr. There are band photos including the other members that joined later, including Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jesse Johnson, Jerome Benton, and Monte Moir. But the album is all Prince. I reveled in the huge raging guitar solos, overly sexual lyrics, and catchy funk songs. Listen to the blazing guitar solo Prince gives us on the song “Get it Up.” It’s almost two full minutes of pure power, with intensity reminiscent of some heavy metal guitar solos. I spent many a teenage afternoon playing air guitar along to this particular song.

Prince cast the members of The Time as themselves in his huge 1984 film Purple Rain. They were his competitors in the club scene, and their two featured songs were ‘The Bird” and “Jungle Love.” For a while I loved The Time almost as much as Prince. I wonder why. Their debut record could reasonably be considered an alternative Prince album, since he did everything on it except record the lead vocals.

Dig if you will, the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss

Purple Rain was amazing. This had to be one of the first R-rated films that I was allowed to see. The live concert footage is still staggeringly good today. This was most people’s only idea of what Prince was like in concert. I was too young to go see concerts, and the internet didn’t exist yet. So the only way we knew what the shows looked like were fan magazines, the few live performance music videos he released early on, and then the film Purple Rain. This album is still one of my favorite and most listened to albums. Every single track is genius. That album deservedly went 25X Platinum, which means that 25 million people purchased it. Buying this album was a rite of passage, a zeitgeist moment, a turning point, a shared musical experience.

I got this album on vinyl when it came out in 1984, and still have this and many other Prince records in my collection today. I upgraded to CDs for just about all of them, but the vinyl holds a special place for me. In high school I was a Disc Jockey on our radio station. I remember bringing in Purple Rain on vinyl to discover what the backwards message was at the end of the song “Darling Nikki.” Played forward it sounds like a bizarre alien chorale. When an artist records something and then reverses it in the studio it’s called backwards masking. Today you could just take a moment to get the music software needed and reverse the track. But back in the 80’s, you had to work harder. You need to put it on a turntable, change the motor to neutral, then put your finger on the matrix of the record (the part after the last song where there is no music) and push it around counterclockwise. You had to try to keep your finger pushing the record around at about the same speed to get it to sound the best. Only by doing this could we hear these harmonized lines:

Hello. How are you? I’m fine. Because I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon.

I’m sure everyone remembers the huge hit “When Doves Cry.” It was the top-selling single of 1984. The distinctive video for the song was directed by Prince himself. An interesting bit of trivia that blew me away when I first had it pointed out to me is that there is no bass line in the song. This is likely the only pop/dance song of the 80s with no bass at all. There was actually a bass track recorded but Prince decided to remove it. I like to imagine him defying all of the industry logic and advice of label executives by saying, “I’m motherfucking Prince, I don’t have to have a bass line if I don’t want to.” What’s fun about this is that the Prince tribute bands that cover this song get to make up their own bass line. I’ve seen a few bands take on this song, and having a bass player drastically changes the feel. I’ll often try humming along a bass line that I make up when I play it in my truck. But this only confirms to me that Prince was right to take it out.

When I bought my first CD player somewhere around 1985 the first CD that I purchased was 1999. The other first CDs that I bought were Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome,” and the soundtrack to the film 1984 by The Eurythmics. All three are amazing albums that I still listen to. Prince’s 1999 was missing the great song “DMSR” due to length restrictions of CDs back then. You just couldn’t fit all of Prince’s sweet funk on one disc. On subsequent CD releases of this 1982 classic, technology changed and they were able to make room to add the song back in. I played this album endlessly and loved deciphering the lyrics. Lyrically, this was probably the most sexual album that I had ever heard. All of the songs (except perhaps two) are explicitly about having sex. There was a photo of Prince laying provocatively on a bed with purple sheets with his ass exposed.

She had the cutest ass he’d ever seenHe did 2, they were meant 2 be

When his double album “Sign O’ The Times” was released in 1987, I rode my trusty ten-speed bike all the way downtown to The Record Garden to buy it on the day it came out. Riding back home, I felt like I had a coveted prize in my backpack that needed safe delivery back to the cave. A record release was a bigger deal back then. You really wanted to get a physical copy in your hands and listen to it before all your friends did. Sometimes you’d buy a new album and call your friends (on a rotary phone) to come over and listen to it together. The first listening session for a new album from a beloved artist was a serious matter. Almost holy in it’s reverence. There was no talking allowed, and no stopping after a song or repeating a song. You dropped the needle on the record and laid down and closed your eyes to absorb it all in one listen. Or you poured over the record sleeve looking at photos or album art, and if you’re lucky, a lyric sheet. It was a magical thing, listening to a vinyl record from your favorite performer for the first time. I didn’t understand how a needle dragged through a groove on a vinyl platter could transmit music through a stereo. Hell, I still don’t really understand that. I’m just sticking with the idea that it’s magic.

This double album was the first release after The Revolution disbanded. Amazing drummer Sheila E. was brought onboard, who Prince mentored and dated. This album has so many great songs on it. It was also the debut of Prince’s androgynous alter ego, Camille. Certain songs were sung in a female-sounding voice and sped up in the studio to sound different. These tracks are “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, “Strange Relationship”, “Housequake”, and “U Got the Look.” I could listen to this album every day of my life. Thirty years after this album came out, my kids and I will sing “Starfish and Coffee” in the kitchen in the morning. And that’s one of the only songs from this album I would feel comfortable hearing them sing.

Starfish and coffeeMaple syrup and jam.
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine and a side order of ham

I was such a Prince fan that I found a copy of the infamous unreleased Black Album. This album was scheduled to come out after Sign o’ The Times in 1987. But at the last minute Prince changed his mind and held it back, releasing Lovesexy instead in 1988. The Black Album didn’t officially come out until 1994. Honestly all the hype and mystery of the album eclipsed the album itself. While the scant 8 songs are fun, it honestly isn’t nearly as scandalous or different from his previous ten releases. Prince sings to supermodel Cindy Crawford, raps in an affected voice, and digitally lowered his voice for the spoken word experiment “Bob George.” Had he just released it as a regular album on the timeline that he intended, it would have been a decent album (with some B-sides thrown in to flesh it out). I think that “When 2 R In Love” is the best song on this album. But like most Prince devotees, we accept all of his varied output with affection. Even a mediocre album from Prince still towers over a lot of other artists’ most respected records.

Every time I comb my hair thoughts of you get in my eyes

I only got to see Prince perform in concert once. But it truly was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life, still to this day. He performed at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon on September 28th, 1997 with Chaka Khan opening up for him. This was his Jam of the Year tour. My birthday was just a few days prior, so this was a big birthday present for me. I was giddy to finally see the man who wrote the soundtrack to my adolescence performing up on the stage. He wore all white and played a white grand piano that said the word BEAUTIFUL across it. He would often climb up on top of the piano and sing standing up there. He may have even done the splits on top of that Steinway. I couldn’t see this at the time, but looking at photos later he was singing with a specialized mic. He had the pistol grip of a revolver attached to the mic, making the microphone the barrel of the gun. When he held the mic using this gun grip, it looked like he was aiming a gun at his mouth.

He performed almost all the songs that I hoped and expected him to play, plus songs I didn’t even recognize. One highlight was Prince covering James Brown’s “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.” He played a portion of his big huge epic song “Purple Rain” near the start; maybe the fourth song of the set. Most of us assumed he would wait until the encore for that one. He played certain songs that made me lose my shit due to their imprinting on my brain. Super sexy songs like “Do Me, Baby”, “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, “Erotic City” and “Sexy Motherfucker” gave me Princegasms all night. He worked in pieces of songs like “The Glamorous Life” by Sheila E., and then played the entire Joni Mitchell classic “A Case of You.” A highlight was when he brought out Chaka Khan to perform a duet of the huge hit from Joan Osbourne, “One of Us.”  He did a solo set on the piano where he played stripped-down versions of “Girls and Boys” and “The Beautiful Ones.” He played a beautiful solo acoustic guitar version of “When You Were Mine.” Strangely, he did not play his huge hit, “Kiss.” But he did it all, flying around the stage, hanging out with all of his band members giving them time to shine. He sang, danced, played guitar, and played piano, all with equal mastery. And he made it look easy. I believe he was even wearing heels. I was in awe of the man’s talent, he had such a gift.

Prince was infamous for playing afterparties after the concert ended, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. Some tiny warehouse/venue in Portland got Prince to have his afterparty there. If memory serves, this space became an all-ages music venue called Meow Meow for a few years in the 2000s. We bought tickets to this special afterparty, hoping to see a second, more private show from him. We got in and immediately saw the mighty (but diminutive) Purple One hanging out in a roped-off area with his entourage and security team. I’m pretty sure that cameras weren’t allowed, so I don’t have any photos of this event. We ended up just dancing with the crowd for a long time, as Prince did not feel compelled to grab any instruments and start performing. He would, however, stand up and raise his glass cane to ‘direct’ the crowd during songs that he really liked. The whole place would freak out and cheer each and every time he did this, especially when he danced along at his table. I still remember vividly that he had a great smile. Bodyguards were all around him, offering no chance to even get near him, let alone talk to him. He wasn’t there to sign autographs or be fawned over by fans. Since he did get up and dance to certain songs, I can kind of say that I hung out at an afterparty and danced, with Prince.

You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on

In 2019, Prince’s most famous backing band, The Revolution, went on tour and came through Portland to perform at the venue I work at. Some people had a negative opinion of the whole idea, thinking that they were somehow merely trying to capitalize on his legacy after his death. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In my position I often have the opportunity to meet and chat with the artists. We are, of course, instructed not to ever ask for an autograph or intrude on them in any way. We are just supposed to treat them like any normal person and not to be a fanboy at all, ever. But sometimes, the artists want to reach out and talk to the staff.

After soundcheck, the drummer Bobby Z was walking around near the green rooms and struck up a conversation with me. He was a tall good-looking guy that I easily recognized from all the Prince videos from the 80s. He would have been 63 at the time but looked much younger. We had a good chat about the Minneapolis sound that Prince is credited with starting. Bands like Prince, The Time, The Family, and early Janet Jackson. We also touched on Bob Mould from Husker Du, and Paul Westerberg from The Replacements. Bobby Z was Prince’s original drummer, and he started talking about drums and warming up his hands. He had no idea that I also was a drummer, the conversation just organically went there. I tried to ask intelligent questions related to drums and bands from Minneapolis, and I hope I succeeded. I think he appreciated talking to staff people who were in the music world, but weren’t gushing fans that only asked about Prince stories. I asked him how previous nights of the tour were, wished him good luck, and told him how excited I was to see them perform tonight. I fought the temptation to ask him to introduce me to Lisa Coleman, even though it entered my mind about a dozen times during our chat.

During the show I was posted right up at the stage where I usually am. I am there for crowd control and to respond to any emergencies or issues that come up during the show. The band moves right by me to walk onstage, and I’ll light up the steps with my flashlight for them as I’m calling over the security radio that the headliner is starting their set. Bobby Z recognized me from our earlier conversation and smiled at me and clapped me on the shoulder as he walked by and up the steps to the stage.

The crowd absolutely loved The Revolution, and it was great to finally see them in concert. I was too young to go see big concerts when The Revolution toured with Prince from 1979 to 1986. All of the musicians have been playing for decades now, and were at home and happy onstage. You could tell from their faces and their short stories that they were honored to still be playing the music of Prince. They still loved him deeply. The whole night had a feeling of a respectful tribute and celebration. When they finally played “Purple Rain” and the purple lights cascaded raindrops down the walls, the whole crowd, as one, lost it. The emotion in the hall was palpable and many people in the crowd were crying. Even though I had seen Prince in concert once in 1997, I had never seen The Revolution at all until now. So I had been waiting decades to actually see them perform in concert. It was one of the most meaningful and emotional shows that I’ve ever seen.

Wendy and Lisa were both located on stage left, which is where I was stationed. So I got to watch them closely during the show. They were in a romantic relationship for years, and put out albums together after The Revolution disbanded. Wendy seems to be the spokesperson of the band now, as she talked the most over the mic. Lisa remained near the back behind her keyboards, just like in the videos. I have to admit, I spent a substantial amount of the show watching her. I mean, I’ve had a crush on her since the early 80s.

As the show ended the group came off the stage and walked down the steps right behind me. I called over the radio that the show was over and the house lights were up. The crowd was still roaring, hoping for another encore. I kept looking straight out into the crowd when I felt someone grab my forearm. I turned around expecting to see the stage manager or another member of the security team. Instead I was looking directly into the face of Lisa Coleman. She was smiling at me. She kept one hand on my forearm and grabbed my shoulder with her other hand. She smiled wider and her eyes sparkled as she said, “Thank you.”

I smiled back at her and said, “You’re welcome.” I felt both of her hands release my arm, then she and the rest of the band sauntered away to the green rooms. At that moment I swear I felt 14 years old again, all awkward and not knowing what to say to a pretty girl. If, somehow, she would have grabbed my arm back in 1983, I likely would have just exploded. I have no idea why she came over and thanked me, but it was a highlight of my year. Maybe she saw me watching her during the show and mouthing along most of the lyrics. Maybe she saw a deep history of appreciation for her, the music, and Prince. Maybe she’s just a super-nice person and likes to thank the venue staff. Or perhaps she saw an expression of a little boy in awe peeking out of the face of a middle aged man.

I love you more than I did when you were mine

One of the music venues I work at had a Prince Tribute dance party where they played music videos on big screens all over the room. But what’s great about Prince is the current availability of so many songs and different versions of his songs. Instead of just playing all the videos that we’ve seen a thousand times from Prince, they delved deep into the internet and found lots of rare live footage that even I had never seen before. Songs from his concert film Sign O’ the Times, live television appearances, and live concert footage from unknown sources were played. Not only that, but any artist that was associated with Prince was mixed into the playlist that night as well. So the crowd got tons of Prince songs along with The Time and Sheila E. If there wasn’t a video to go with the song, they would just show a collage of great photos of Prince. Even if the patrons weren’t dancing, they were still glued to the screens watching this tribute to him.

I loved working this event, and I would have attended it if I wasn’t working it. I loved seeing people coming together to enjoy the music that Prince gave us over the decades. If you were alive in the 80s, Prince songs left a mark on you and undoubtedly accompanied some great memories. For me, he created the soundtrack to some of the best years of my young life.

The most moving part of the night was when they played the music video to “Let’s Go Crazy.” This video is just footage from the film Purple Rain. No new content was created, it’s really just a commercial to get you to go see the movie. But that movie contains some of the most electrifying live footage of Prince and the Revolution. The four-minute song comes to a screeching halt at about the three-minute mark, when Prince plays a blistering guitar solo. He climbs up on the piano and digs into his guitar like Jimi Hendrix. All the other musicians stop and the entire spotlight is on Prince soloing. We are shown a montage of Prince playing guitar in every outfit from different songs in the film. And he dances and rubs his hands all over his hair, stomach, and groin. An interesting thing happened in the crowd at this point. Since there is no longer a beat in the song, you literally cannot dance to this part of it. So the hundreds of people who were previously jumping all over, abruptly stopped along with the song. Everybody was just watching the video screens absorbing the immeasurable talent of this man who recently left us. They wanted to soak in every frame of this video. Nobody was texting on their smartphones, ordering a drink, or even having a conversation. Everyone froze. There is a quick shot of the Appolonia character watching Prince from the crowd with awe and lust, which is honestly how we all were looking at the screens as well. People put their arms around each other and leaned their heads onto each other’s shoulders in a mixture of sadness and amazement. Like good friends standing around a bonfire after a memorial wake, deep in thought. Everybody slightly leaned in towards the video screens to get closer to this moment. Whether people had seen this movie before or not, it was as if we all were watching it for the first time. With Prince gone, none of us will ever have the chance to see him play like this again. So these videos are to be even more appreciated as a document and a testament to his magic and talent. The song ended and everybody applauded and cheered as if they were at a live concert and not a video dance party. I saw some tears in the crowd, and if anybody had looked back towards me, they would have seen mine.

 
4 all time I am with U
U are with me
(until the end of time)
U are with me, U are with me

The eyes, Chico

The eyes, Chico.
They never lie.

These lines were spoken by Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s 1983 crime epic Scarface. They apply to every performance ever given by the great Al Pacino, and have special resonance in the film that they made together a decade later, Carlito’s Way.

Al Pacino has always been one of the most revered male actors in American cinema. I grew up watching him on television in the big films like The Godfather, The Godfather part 2, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico. Later on, with the convenience of VHS tape rental stores, I went back and found the lesser-known gems like Scarecrow and The Panic in Needle Park. I then saw any film of his that I could in theaters. Pacino can make a poor or mediocre film worth watching, just for his performance. It has been said of his acting that if he is on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Some actors just have this gift.

THE GODFATHER (1972)

Pacino can do more with his eyes than most other actors can do with their entire body. Recall the tense scene from the first Godfather film where he sits with Sollozzo and the Police Chief at the restaurant table after grabbing the gun from the bathroom. He was instructed to come out shooting, but instead he sits down and considers/stalls the actual descent into becoming a killer. His eyes dart around nervously and the audience agonizes along with him as he teeters on the edge of the businessman/criminal dichotomy. At this point he could fall back into normalcy or cross the line into murder that can never be uncrossed. This is one of those major character-defining moments. We then watch through all three Godfather films as Michael Corelone embraces the killer’s cold heart while still trying to appear as a businessman.

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The Godfather’s famous climax juxtaposes the images of Michael’s son being baptized with the heads of the other five families being assassinated, all to the soundtrack of some relatively ominous church chamber music. It is a genius scene where Pacino only says things in response to the priest like, “I do.” But his eyes are amazing. While he is trying to be present and participate in one of the milestones of his life, his mind is elsewhere wondering if all five hits are going successfully. As the priest asks him if he renounces Satan and all of his works, Pacino’s eyes look conspiratorial and evil as he affirms the baptismal statements. It’s one of the greatest montages in all cinema. And Pacino’s eyes are the windows into his now-blackened soul.

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The Godfather part 2 ends with a slow zoom in on Pacino’s face after making several decisions that have forever changed him. His hand covers his mouth as he contemplates recent deaths and betrayals, leaving only his eyes visible. I’ve watched this movie probably 30 times, and each time I see a different emotion in his eyes in this scene. Regret, sadness, self-hate, isolation, emptiness, loneliness, stubbornness, justification, shame, and doubt. This powerful ending is where Michael won what he wanted, but completely lost his soul. His eyes contain it all, and show us everything he is thinking as he counts the costs.

The Godfather #9

SCARFACE (1983)

In Scarface, Pacino plays a character whose soul is already gone. Tony Montana is pure violent ambition and machismo, out for financial success whatever the cost. He is an assassin, drug user, thief, and drug dealer. Tony is a narcissist, an egomaniac, selfish, and exceptionally jealous. He is responsible for getting everyone close to him killed, including his sister and his best friend (who he actually kills himself). He achieves everything his wants only to then lose it all, making mistake after mistake and going out in a hail of bullets.

Pacino has said in interviews that of all the characters he has played, Tony Montana was the most fun. Perhaps he wanted the challenge of playing a despicable character in such a way that we still like him and root for him. Most actors enjoy playing the villain more than the good guy, and Tony is pure bad in this one. But let that sink in for a moment. The actor who has played Michael Corleone (Godfather trilogy), Sonny (Dog Day Afternoon), Vincent Hanna (Heat), Lefty (Donnie Brasco), Ricky Roma (Glengarry Glenn Ross) and the Devil himself (Devil’s Advocate) cites Tony Montana (Scarface) as his favorite character of his career. You can see why, as he gets to go batshit crazy. De Palma must have at one point said something like, “Al, I trust you, turn it up to 11 if you want to.”

An infamous scene in Scarface is the chainsaw scene. During a drug deal with Columbian drug dealers in hotel room, the Columbians take Tony and his gang hostage and decide to kill them all with a chainsaw. This is the scene that initially got the film an X rating. Honestly, De Palma doesn’t show you much, and when he does it’s just blood splattering on the shower curtain, the chainsaw, or Pacino’s face. But it’s what your mind imagines with the sound effects and horror of the scene that makes it so unforgettable.

During this scene, the leader of the gang, Hector the Frog, wants Tony to watch as he uses the chainsaw on his friend Angel. He hopes that Tony will tell him where he hid the money. As he begins murdering Angel, Tony understandably tries to turn away from the carnage. Another gang member pushes a gun into Tony’s face and moves his head back to witness the carnage. I feel like this is symbolic of De Palma himself making the audience watch this violent scene. And it’s all about Pacino’s eyes. He is being forced to watch the violence just like De Palma is forcing the audience to watch it in the movie.

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CARLITO’S WAY (1993)

Carlito’s Way is the spiritual sequel to Scarface. I always felt that it was an alternate universe continuation of the Tony Montana character had he somehow survived the events at the finale of Scarface. If you played the Scarface video game (like I did), you remember that was exactly the whole premise. But, unlike in the game, Carlito isn’t trying to gain all of his territories and power back and get revenge, he’s trying to stay straight and retire on a tropical island with his lady.

Made a decade later, the similarities are too many to overlook. Not only do you have the lead actor and director reunited, but the story is quite similar. It involves the character arc of a criminal going after what he wants and inevitably failing. Any crime film with De Palma directing Pacino will feel like a ripple or echo of Scarface. Some lines are even repeated in both films. In Scarface, Pacino memorably calls someone a ‘fucking cock-a-roach.’ While in Carlito’s Way when Pacino says that someone is a friend of his, Frankie says, “He’s a fucking cockroach.’

Two important supporting actors appear in both films. Actor Angel Salazar played Chi Chi, a member of Tony’s gang in Scarface. He also appears in Carlito’s Way as Walberto. Actor Al Israel played Hector the Toad in Scarface. He was the Colombian drug dealer who took a chainsaw to Tony’s friend. He appears in Carlito’s Way as Rolando. Both of these characters died in Scarface, but whether we consciously remember them or not, our unconscious registers their faces. Their return into the life of the Tony/Carlito character feels like ghosts from the past haunting him. This is no random accident of casting. De Palma knew exactly what he was doing by adding them to the cast.

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There is extensive use of mirror images in this film that I won’t get too deep into here. But briefly, there are many shots that are exact mirror images of each other. The close up of Pacino’s face nose to nose juxtaposed with with Benny from the Bronx, the arrogant younger version of himself. A double reflection can symbolize the duality of man, the good and evil, the young and the old. Carlito struggles with his two sides all throughout this film. His criminal past versus his dreams of the future. His old violent ways versus forgiveness. The use of the mirrored sunglasses of the bad guy in the pool hall. He shoots the main villain in front of a mirror. Carlito escapes into the bathroom of the pool hall after the shootout and we see his reflection in the mirror as he taunts the remaining villains outside. It happens of frequently it makes me think of him being haunted by his own ghost. The scene with Carlito and Gail in the mirror, that Pacino ends up smashing in anger, distorting the image of himself just as is happening in the story.

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But his eyes….the great emotive Pacino eyes. Two scenes in particular have always stuck in my head from this film. The first scene is in the pool hall as he realizes something is wrong with the simple pick up that his cousin asked him to come along for. Carlito is leaning back against the red bricks and calculating a way to gain access to a weapon and trying to save his cousin and himself. His eyes dart around again, similar to in The Godfather, as he thinks under pressure of a way to gain control of the situation. No need for narration. His eyes are expressing the fear, panic he is trying to conceal, and a smart criminal mind figuring out a way out. Then he peels himself off of the wall and moves to engage the group and gain control by entertaining them with the distraction of a pool trick.

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The second scene is where Carlito opens the safe in his nightclub and found his money missing. He figures out who likely took it and walks through the club to find and confront him. At this point in the film everything is falling apart, and any character is expendable, so we expect Carlito to murder Ron right in front of a full capacity crowd in the club. Pacino storms out across the floor and De Palma has a hand-held camera right in front of him so we can see his rage building. His anger is palpable in his walk and his glare. Pacino’s eyes are communicating everything, and it’s a scene that you cannot look away from.

In writing this Pacino piece, I realized that each of the major films I discussed have a pretty memorable scene that happens in the bathroom. In The Godfather, Michael goes into the bathroom to get the gun left there for him. The sound of the elevated traincar outside rumbles loudly, intensifying his upcoming moment of murder. In Scarface, Tony and his gang are brought into the bathroom where the chainsaw murder occurs. And in Carlito’s Way he runs into the bathroom and yells out various bluffs, remembering how to be the tough guy he once was, even with an empty gun.

I love Al Pacino and hope that we get to keep looking into his eyes for a long time to come.

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Some favorite Al Pacino films of mine:

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK
THE GODFATHER
SERPICO
SCARECROW
THE GODFATHER PART 2
DOG DAY AFTERNOON
SCARFACE
SEA OF LOVE
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
CARLITO’S WAY
HEAT
THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE
DONNIE BRASCO
INSOMNIA
THE IRISHMAN

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Van Halen – Diver Down (1982)

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Van Halen. Van-Fucking-Halen. This rock band took me from being a little boy to being a young man. For others that band was Led Zeppelin or Kiss. But for me, Van Halen did it all. Diluted down to its most basic truth, early Van Halen is classic, raw, original, massively influential, and timeless. Later-era Van Halen is uninspired, cheesy, ballad-heavy crap. In my humble opinion, the departure of front-man David Lee Roth took the band from being firmly in the rock genre to being demoted to the pop genre.

Those first six Van Halen records rock harder than most current rock acts. They show more musical proficiency and virtuoso soloing than any band currently on the radio. This albums are: VAN HALEN (1978), VAN HALEN II (1979), WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST (1980), FAIR WARNING (1981), DIVER DOWN (1982), and 1984 (1984). It was a perfect combo of the showmanship of David Lee Roth, the trend-setting guitar wizardry of Edward Van Halen, the impressive polyrhythmic poundings of Alex Van Halen, and the mediocre-at-best bass lines of Michael Anthony. Ok, you can’t have everything.

As with most young males who grew up in the 70’s, the first time that I heard “Eruption” changed my life. Eddie Van Halen redefined rock guitar solos with this 1:42 minute blistering aural assault. I had been listening to the big hits of the day on the radio. These were disco songs from Abba, The Bee Gees, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. But then this one short song by a new rock band took us all by the balls. Eddie introduced us to the notion of tapping on the guitar frets with both hands, playing with incredible speed without sacrificing melody, pick-rakes, pick-scrapes, and mastery of guitar tone and distortion. Thousands of young air guitar artists practiced along to this song, as did hordes of real guitarists as well.

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I was but a wee young lad when Van Halen’s debut album was released in 1978. I have vivid memories of standing up on the wooden box of my waterbed air-guitaring along to “Eruption.” If I was really feeling it, I would jump on the waterbed itself, starting a small tsunami wave in the bed, then jump off onto the orange shag carpet at the song’s conclusion. It’s amazing that waterbed survived. Of course, I was still too young to understand all of the sexual lyrical content in their songs. I actually thought that “Ice Cream Man” was simply about David Lee Roth’s summer job. But I do recall thinking that sex must be pretty great since this band was obsessed with singing about it. I would wager that 90% of the songs on the first six Van Halen albums are about sex or some permutation thereof. Who can forget the blond babes in the video for “Hot for Teacher?” We could discuss how Van Halen videos initiated many a boy into the world of masturbation, but some things don’t need to be dredged up.

The year I that I really got into Van Halen was 1982 with the release of their album DIVER DOWN. I had recently seen the music video for the song “Hear About it Later” from their album FAIR WARNING (1981). I was basically in love with that song. The video is a live performance that’s different from the album version. It’s a simple live video of them playing in front of towers of amps onstage. Don’t be distracted by David Lee Roth’s package in white spandex. I loved how the song was slightly unconventional and Eddie added lots of tasty guitar flourishes not on the recorded version. This probably surprised me at first and introduced me to the idea of songs morphing and expanding when played live. The whole song pretty much stops and changes for the amazing guitar solo break. It’s a perfect melding of vocal melody, guitar phrasing, and feel-good rock and roll. “Hear About it Later” is an underrated masterpiece.

Here is the video if you want to give it a watch:
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Then DIVER DOWN came out and I was completely hooked. This album was unusual because not every song was a radio cut that fit with all of the other songs. This is definitely their most diverse record. They put on five cover songs, which is quite unusual and goes against musical industry wisdom. I can’t think of another album with more than two cover songs on it. Not only is the album unique for having five covers, but it also has two instrumentals and an amusing a cappella outro of the classic cowboy song “Happy Trails.” Their hard rock versions of “Pretty Woman” and “Dancing in the Street” were quite successful, and I will always associate them with being a pre-teen and beginning my love of rock music. I really like the weird bubbly Pac-Man sounds in “Dancing in the Street.”

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There are some heavy rock songs like “Hang ‘Em High” and “The Full Bug.” I loved Clint Eastwood westerns so “Hang ‘Em High” connected western films and rock music.  Catchy pop tunes like the opening track, the Kinks cover “Where Have all the Good Times Gone?” And a groovy, laid-back summer song in “Secrets.” But for me the apex of the album is “Little Guitars.” The acoustic guitar intro from Eddie is gorgeous and leads perfectly into the actual song. The staccato guitar verses, quiet mellow interlude, optimistic lyrics, and sing-along chorus makes this one a distinctive and catchy-as-hell rocker. The inclusion of the ragtime cover song “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now) was a bold choice. I am sure that most die-hard heshers skip this song consistently. An interesting note is that their father Jan Van Halen plays the clarinet on this track. The beautiful instrumental “Cathedral” is just Eddie, a delay, and his volume knob, but he makes his guitar sound like a classical synthesizer. The other instrumental, “Intruder”, is wonderful tension-filled noise blending into the Roy Orbison cover.

When I bought the DIVER DOWN record on vinyl I immediately came home and recorded it onto a cassette tape so I could go mobile with it. Prior to the record being released, I just had to have a blank tape ready in the stereo and cued up waiting for that new Van Halen song to come on. Then cursing the DJ for talking over the song. I would have to listen to his lame attempts to sound cool every time I played the song. I brought my boom box out into my driveway and played it as loud as it could go. My little skateboarding buddies and I would practice skateboarding in my driveway as “Intruder” blasted my quiet Eugene, Oregon neighborhood. We were so little that my driveway seemed like a huge and very dangerous hill. If we rode down my driveway, across the street, and up the neighbor’s driveway we felt like we conquered the half-pipe.

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The famous Van Halen triangle logo with the wings coming off of it decorated all of my school binders through middle school and high school. A Van Halen pin was properly positioned on my Levis jean jacket as well. I loved this album so much that I went to a scuba diving store to buy a bumper sticker of the red and white diagonal stripe that was used for the album cover. It is, of course, the loge that scuba divers used. But I put it on the back bumper of my 1976 Chevy Impala to show the world how much that Van Halen album meant to me. When the clerk asked me if I was a scuba diver I said, “Nope. Not once. But have you heard of Van Halen?”

As a young boy, I took dance classes at my parent’s suggestion. At first I thought it was cool because there was loud music on a great stereo system, I got to run around, and there were girls there. I was the only boy. Since I refused to participate in sports, dance was my exercise activity. But once I hit puberty, I got into rock music and realized this whole dance scene was not for me. I used to dread that anyone from my school might actually see me dancing at a recital around town. I didn’t tell anyone that I danced. While we danced to Broadway tunes, The Pointer Sisters, and Michael Jackson, I wore a Van Halen shirt with the baby smoking a cigarette from their album 1984. Sometimes I wore a Judas Priest shirt, just to throw in the question of heavy metal Satanism. It was my small way of revolution. Telling the world that I wasn’t really into this and that there was somewhere else I would rather be. Waiting for a dance recital to begin, sitting by myself with my geeky glasses on, I would hum to myself the Phil Collins song. “I’ve got better things to do with my time. I don’t care anymore. No more. No more.” Small as it was, those little Van Halen and Judas Priest rebellions got me through. I quit dance lessons soon thereafter and started taking drum lessons instead.

Flash forward to 1986. The new Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar was about to be played on the radio for the first time. I had my blank cassette tap all ready to record. I’d been a pretty big fan of Hagar’s solo stuff like STANDING HAMPTON and THREE LOCK BOX, so I was beyond excited that he would be joining up with the great Van Halen. “Three Lock Box”, “Bad. Motor Scooter”, “Heavy Metal”, and “Inside Lookin’ In” were great songs. I thought it would be a perfect match. But when I first heard the synthesizer intro to “Why Can’t This Be Love” I grew uneasy. My brow furrowed. There weren’t any guitars. Years later I had a similar reaction when I first heard Metallica’s ballad, “Nothing Else Matters.” I kept recording the broadcast of the 5150 album, but my spirits were a little crushed. I knew that an era was over. Van Halen pop had arrived.

I continued to see Van Halen live in concert, knowing that they would always put on a kick ass show and always play the old classics. I saw them headline the Monsters of Rock tour in 1988 with Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, and Kingdom Come. Alex Van Halen does an incredible drum solo live. And, of course, Eddie rules. They still were very entertaining performers onstage, but they missed that certain something without Diamond Dave. I’m truly sad that I never got to see them with that classic line-up.

Their studio albums became progressively more top 40 and ballad-oriented, with predictable sophomore lyrics and simplistic song arrangements. They just didn’t have that unique spice that David Lee Roth clearly brought to the band. Even the album titles show the decline. OU812 and F.U.C.K. are the worst examples. These are album titles of cheesy juvenile sex-oriented high school bands, not the great and powerful Van Halen. It got to the point where I stopped buying their albums, which I never thought would happen. I didn’t even give phase 3 a chance. This was where they kicked out Sammy Hagar and replaced him with the lead singer of Extreme. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

But the great thing about music is that it lives on forever, and you can always relive your initial engagement and excitement with the songs. I have the first 6 Van Halen albums on vinyl from when I was a kid, and also on CD from later. DIVER DOWN went 4X Platinum, selling over four million copies. If somehow you haven’t heard this album you must check it out. I’m listening to it as I write this piece with headphones on. The power of music is truly amazing. As “Intruder” comes on I am transported to my driveway in Eugene 36 years ago. I can remember the goofy stickers on the underside of my skateboard. The sun is shining and I’m full of dreams of where rock music can take me. All of my great accomplishments are still ahead of me. I haven’t even kissed a girl yet. Nostalgia is a helluva drug.

A funny thing happened on the way to Mars

It’s all one huge conspiracy

The mission was a sham. The murders were real.
-Tagline from Capricorn One

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For me there’s nothing quite like a conspiracy theory film made in the 70’s. If you’ve read my other film pieces, or spoken to me in person about movies at all, you know that I consider the 70’s to be the best decade for all genres of film. Films in the 70’s finally addressed the malaise and distrust of our government after the fall of President Nixon, the failure of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and countless political assassinations. Camelot was no more. The MPAA was created, and various film codes changed, allowing more realistic language, violence, and nudity in films. Add in subject matter that was previously taboo. Independent young filmmakers were able to do things they never could do before, and could work outside of the Hollywood studio system. But this is honestly a topic for another piece.

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite conspiracy films of the 70’s, Peter Hyam’s CAPRICORN ONE. This film came out in 1978 and concerns NASA deciding to fake a Mars landing with the three astronauts scheduled to fly the actual mission. In order to retain funding for NASA by not admitting to a fatal mistake in the onboard life-support system, administrators plan to fake a Mars landing and broadcast it to the world. They threaten the three astronaut’s wives in order to ensure their cooperation. Once the unmanned ship is returning to earth another error involving the heat shield makes the ship burn up in the atmosphere. The astronauts figure out that now they are expendable and a liability and will need to be eliminated. They escape from their isolated desert base and hijack a small plane, but they crash-land when the plane runs out of fuel. They separate and make desperate run for civilization to alert the media and the world to the hoax before they are killed. A reporter catches on to the hoax and investigates, at much risk to his own life. The three astronauts try their best, but government helicopters are searching for them and the adventure pushes towards an exciting climax.

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I don’t think my parents took me to see this one in the theater, but I saw it on TV countless times, and rented the VHS tape repeatedly once that technology surfaced. If they would have made action figures of the 3 astronauts along with a jet plane playset, you best believe that I would have asked my parents to buy it for me. It would have been mixed in with my Star Wars action figures and toys. I would have had the astronauts from Capricorn One being ambushed by Tusken Raiders and Jawas in the desert. The James Brolin action figure would have climbed onto a land speeder instead of a biplane to escape on Tatooine. What young boy isn’t fascinated with space exploration and astronauts? I certainly was. I even tracked down the movie novelization by Ron Goulart and read that, searching for further details that the film didn’t show. I was honestly probably a little young to appreciate all of the sinister governmental machinations at the time, and I just liked the sci-fi action elements. But I feel that this film certainly started a life-long interest in conspiracies, secret government actions, black ops, cover-ups, and mysteries. I certainly thought of this movie in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

My core list of great conspiracy films of the 70’s includes THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), THE CONVERSATION (1974), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), CAPRICORN ONE (1978), THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979), and WINTER KILLS (1979). You could also make a good argument for classics like CHINATOWN (1974), MARATHON MAN (1976), and NETWORK (1976) counting as conspiracy films of the 70’s. And all of these followed in the daunting footsteps of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1969). One of my all-time favorite is Brian De Palma’s 1981 film BLOW OUT, but I can’t put it on this list because it was released in 1981. Not surprisingly, most of these movies appear of my best of lists, and I continue to rewatch them to this day. Some are actually more relevant and less fantastical in today’s unbelievably bizarro political climate.

The music and the cast make the movie

One factor that elevates this film above others is the truly energizing soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith. He did so many soundtracks in the 70’s and 80’s. Some great ones include CHINATOWN, THE OMEN, ALIEN, FIRST BLOOD, PLANET OF THE APES, PAPILLON, PATTON, POLTERGEIST, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, OUTLAND,  L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and literally dozens and dozens of other films you’ve seen. He was prolific and uniquely talented. His soundtrack to CAPRICORN ONE is stunningly good. So good that back in the day, as a young boy, I held up my boombox to the TV and recorded the theme song onto a cassette tape. The music is almost of a fanfare style. It is muscular in its feel. There are lots of tympani drums and bass horns. Later trumpets and strings come in to add tension. It communicates urgency and excitement. Listening to this song feels like I’m about to go on an adventure. There is a strong similarity to the Basil Poledouris soundtrack to John Milius’ fantasy epic CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). There is very similar instrumentation, percussion, and excitement in both. A brief love theme even breaks up the dramatic music in both songs. Please listen to ‘Anvil of Crom’ from CONAN back to back with ‘Main Title’ from CAPRICORN ONE. You will hear how similar they are, almost interchangeable even. And talk about masculine music, this defines it. Today I own a CD of two of Goldsmith’s best soundtracks, and coincidentally two of my favorite films. CAPRICORN ONE and OUTLAND. I recommend this soundtrack music to everyone. I’m listening to it as I write this piece and I can’t type as fast as I am driven to by this music.

Peter Hyams put together an all-star ensemble cast for this one and it reads like a who’s who of 1970’s actors. Hal Holbrook, Elliot Gould, James Brolin, Karen Black, Telly Savalas, Sam Waterston, Brenda Vaccaro, and OJ Simpson. Let’s address that for a moment. It is indeed hard to watch his role and not be reminded of the grisly 1994 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. But it really isn’t that odd that he was cast in a major motion picture in 1978. Burt Reynolds was another football player-turned actor. He gave a stellar performance in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE (1972) and THE LONGEST YARD (1974), and had just starred in one of the biggest films of the 70’s, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977). All of these were box-office hits, as were WHITE LIGHTNING, SHAMUS, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING (all 1973), and GATOR (1976). So the idea of casting a rugged football player in movies probably seemed like a decent idea at the time. Much like Reynolds, Simpson had been acting in TV series in the 60’s. He has moved to film in the 70’s and had starred in THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974),  THE KLANSMAN (1974), THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976), and THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES (1976). He starred with Telly Savalas in THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES and CAPRICORN ONE. But in CAPRICORN ONE Simpson honestly isn’t given too much screen time or lines, but I thought he did a decent job in his role. Certainly that character could have been played by any other actor, but what an interesting piece of pop-culture casting we are given here.

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And look for two other small parts played by great character actors in this one. David Huddleston stars as congressmen Hollis Peaker. He has one of the best exchanges in the film with the Vice President.

Vice President Price: Hollis, there are a number of people who feel that we have problems right here on Earth that merit our attention before we spend billions on outer space.

Congressman Hollis Peaker: There are a number of people who feel that there are no more pressing problems than our declining position in world leadership.

You will likely recognize David Huddleston from his most memorable role 20 years after CAPRICORN ONE. He starred in 1998’s classic Coen Brothers film THE BIG LEBOWSKI. He plays The Big Lebowski. While watching CAPRICORN ONE I really wanted his character to blurt out something like, “Are you employed, sir?” Or “Strong men also cry….strong men also cry.”

The other small part played by a recognizable actor is David Doyle. He has only a brief two scenes in CAPRICORN ONE, but they are both memorable and surprisingly funny. Doyle starred in pretty much every television series in the 60’s and 70’s. But I remember him as John Bosley, the boss of the female agents in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS show on network TV from 1976 to 1981. In CAPRICORN ONE he is the newspaper editor that Elliot Gould works for, and he perfectly embodies the jaded, impatient, snarky and sarcastic ass that is finished tolerating Gould’s lack of results. His character basically just gets to be a complete asshole to Elliot Gould’s character, which allows for some much-needed levity during this dark story.

Walter Loughlin: Listen to me and listen good. I don’t like you, Caulfield. You’re ambitious. You think the way to get ahead is to come up with the scoop of the century. Woodward and Bernstein were good reporters, that’s how they did it. Not by telling me they’ve located Patty Hearst three times like you did, or that brilliant piece of investigative journalism you pulled off by finding an eye-witness to the second gunman in the Kennedy assassination. The small fact that the man had been in a mental institution at the time never deterred you, not ‘scoop’ Caulfield.

Interesting how this one humorous line references not one, but two of history’s greatest conspiracies. The two Watergate incident reporters that unseated President Richard Nixon, and the lone gunman theory of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Speeches and my favorite scenes

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the NASA official Dr. Kelloway explains the situation to the three astronauts. Kelloway is played by the great actor Hal Holbrook and given the longest monologue in the film. Yet another thing that I love about 70’s films is that the pacing is slower, and the directors often would let the actors act out a scene without many (or any) cuts. Seeing actors actually act off of each other’s reactions and performances is much more preferable to me. Rather than a cut every three seconds to show the reaction shot, the line delivery, the reaction shot, etc.

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So this scene needs to convince us of the outlandish scenario and why a huge corporation would even attempt a cover-up of this magnitude. Holbrook is perfect at playing the everyman. I had only seen him in the Dirty Harry sequel MAGNUM FORCE, and as the infamous character Deep Throat in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. He has played Abraham Lincoln possibly more times than any other actor, therefore his gravitas is well used in any movie. He gets a four-minute long monologue where he tries to convince the astronauts, and probably himself, that this is the best thing to do. He desperately tries to use his history of his friendship with Brubaker (James Brolin) to gain their trust and convince them to go along. He talks about the waning interest in the space program, the money involved, and their bonding over big life moments like Brubaker’s getting married, having a son, and watching the moon landing together.

Kelloway: And then suddenly everybody started talking about how much everything cost. Was it really worth twenty billion to go to another planet? What about cancer? What about the slums? How much does it cost? How much does any dream cost? Since when is there an accountant for ideas?

I love when characters debate a problem like real people in actual stressful situations. I think of William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in THE WILD BUNCH debating the value of giving your word and who you give it to. Mark Walhberg and Ben Foster debating what to do with the captured Afghani goat farmers in LONE SURVIVOR. Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel arguing about motivations and reactions to the bank heist in RESERVOIR DOGS. Tom Hanks and his squad arguing about the reasoning behind risking all of their lives for just one soldier in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. In CAPRICORN ONE we have a riveting debate about going along with a lie and being true to yourself. They move into the sound stage with the fake lander on a fake surface of red Mars. Huge stage lights illuminate this tableau. The lights are so hot that they are sputtering and smoking, making a popping bonfire sound in the background.
The following exchange has always stuck with me:

Brubaker: This is really wonderful. If we go along with you and lie our asses off, the world of truth and ideals is, er, protected. But if we don’t want to take part in some giant rip-off of yours then somehow or other we’re managing to ruin the country. You’re pretty good, Jim. I’ll give you that.

Kelloway: No, no, no. You’re twisting my words.

Brubaker: Don’t sell yourself short.

Kelloway: Don’t sell the program short.

Brubaker: Don’t oversell it. I’m not so sure that canceling a flight, or cutting off appropriations means that America folds up.

Kelloway: It’s not as simple as that and you know it. 

Brubaker: I don’t know it.
If the only way to keep something alive is to become everything I hate….
I don’t know if it’s worth keeping it alive.

As the conversation gets more heated Kelloway mentions their families and they react strongly. In one long shot James Brolin moves to Hal Holbrook and grabs him by his shirt.  The camera ever so slowly zooms into the two men, much like Coppola does in his Godfather films and The Conversation. There are no cuts at all in this scene as the threat to their wives is outlined specifically for them. This is the “You have to help” speech.

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Kelloway: Your families.

Brubaker: What about our families?

Kelloway: Please, you have to help.

Brubaker: What about our families?

Kelloway: You *have* to help. Shit, this thing is outta my hands. You think it’s all a couple of looney scientists, it’s not. It’s bigger. There are people out there, *forces* out there, who have a lot to lose. They’re grown ups. It’s gotten too big, it’s in the hands of grown ups.

Brubaker: What about our families?

Kelloway: They’re flying back from the Cape to Houston, they’re all together on the plane.

Brubaker: No…you’re not serious.

Kelloway: Please. Bru…don’t make me.

Brubaker: You son of a bitch, tell me!

Kelloway: They’re on the plane together, goddammit! You want it in writing? There’s a device, it’s on the plane too. There’s some people, if I don’t give them the all clear signal they’ll explode it. Don’t you understand? It doesn’t have to be like this. You have to help. It’s gotten out of control. It’s too big.

Brubaker: You wouldn’t. Tell me you wouldn’t.

Kelloway: I can’t tell you that, Bru.

My other favorite scene was used in one of the trailers of the film. Once we have learned about the forced cover-up, and the three astronauts have agreed (under duress) to fake scenes of a Mars landing, they film the integral landing on the sound stage. The astronauts plant the American flag, just like we did when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. The scene starts with a close-up of one of the astronaut’s helmets as we listen to the pre-recorded Presidential address to the crew. The images of the lander and the other astronaut can be seen in the reflection on the plexiglass faceplate, curved and distorted. The camera slowly pulls away from the astronauts for over a minute, showing us more of the scene with every moment. A classic pull-back shot reveal.

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We see the two astronauts standing on the surface of Mars with the lander behind them, the American flag proudly planted in the ground. A small camera that the astronauts placed on a tripod stands among the rocks. We pull back to see that the Mars sky looks like a painted backdrop, because it is. We see the exposed set’s ceiling and work lights high above. We see huge stage lights with orange gels in front of them aimed at our actors. We see television studio technicians and directors standing around watching the scene unfold. We are witness to the huge fakery of this live broadcast. The mis-en-scene of this is perfect. The scene begins with the astronaut seeing Mars through the lens of his faceplate. It moves back to what the television audience would see through the lens of the tripod camera. It moves back further to show what only the secret cabal of crew members would see. And we, the viewer, see the theater of it all.

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The ironic Presidential message about hope and pride and truth lands false and makes us question every other thing our government and television studios and news sources have ever fed us. Like the astronauts being forced to sell a lie to the eager public, we feel empty and defeated watching this scene. How many moments in history were distorted, fudged, obfuscated, reframed, or flat-out faked? False flag operations are when countries organize attacks on themselves and make the attacks appear to be by enemy nations or terrorists, thus giving the nation that was supposedly attacked a pretext for domestic repression and foreign military aggression. The possibilities are endless. Thoughts of patriotism, great achievements, sacrifices, deception, lies, and what men will do to prevent those lies from ever surfacing. It is a brilliant scene bringing us through numerous emotions. This is a perfect rendition of a political speech meant to unite a country. But hearing it in this context of corruption, cover-ups, deception, and impending murders blackens our souls.

The President: We will never be the same. For this moment more than any moment in our history, has made all of the people in the world realize that we are part of the planet, that is part of the system, that is part of the universe. We are a small energetic species, capable of pettiness, yet capable of brilliance. We know how bad we can be. Now you, the men of Capricorn One, have shown us how wonderful we can be. By showing us how high we can reach. You have crossed the last great frontier and you have shown us what we are: people. Of different colors and religions and ideologies. However, a single people. You are the basic truth in us. You are the reality. We will never let you down. And we will always be grateful.

The desert run

“A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes.”
-Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro, CASINO

The second half of the film ramps up the excitement as the astronauts realize that they must be killed for the story to work and the secret to be kept. So they escape from the base by stealing an airplane, but they soon crash-land when it runs out of fuel. The rest of their story takes place in the desert.

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The three men split up and start walking across the punishing desert with barely any supplies. The only dialogue is of the characters muttering to themselves or telling themselves jokes. They become deydrated and must survive the elements, animal threats, and govenrment agents trying to eliminate them. I am reminded of the first 45 minutes of PLANET OF THE APES as the astronauts travel across an empty post-apocalyptic desert terrain. Coincidentally, Jerry Goldsmith did the music for both films.

Meanwhile, government agents are hunting them in two helicopters. Peter Hyams made a sly directorial choice with these helicopters scenes. He never shows you the pilots inside the cabins and we never hear them talk. The helicopters have huge plexiglass windows that appear like insect eyes. We don’t hear the pilots talk to each other on the radio, or respond to calls from Kelloway. The helicopters are shot as if they are large metal dragonflies. In several scenes, they actually turn to face each other as if communicating. I’m not a pilot, but I would imagine that helicopter pilots would not need to turn the vehicles nose to nose to communicate. They could glance over at each other through the huge windows, and would simply communicate over radio headsets. But Hyams has the helicopters hover, turn to face each other, and then turn and fly away.  In one scene he cuts between Kelloway asking them questions about the crashed plane, and the hovering helicopters. When the shot focuses on the helicopters we expect to hear the pilots answering him, but all we hear are the rotors. We just hear half of the conversation. It’s a great personification technique. We start to see the helicopters as their own autonomous insectoid creatures hunting our heroes. The machines face each other in silence as they suss out what to do and then agree on what direction to travel next. Even in the one brief scene where we do see the helicopter pilots, they are outside of the vehicles walking around. And they are wearing their huge helmets with visors covering their faces, making them appear robotic and bug-like. In one scene a character is dehydrated and hallucinating that he sees vultures flying above. The vultures turn into the two helicopters that have found him. To this day I still get anxious when I see helicopters….

 

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The film races to the climax involving the two helicopters chasing several characters in a biplane. Machine gun fire and dramatic evasive flying techniques make this a riveting scene even today. In fact, this scene was used in several TV shows. I remember watching The Fall Guy and seeing the exact footage from this aerial chase edited in to their episode. It worked because it’s hard to see the faces of the characters in the biplane, so it could be the characters in any story, as long as you involve 2 helicopters and a biplane.

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Capricorn One is a fun movie that makes you think. It isn’t perfect, I can list numerous plot holes and things that needed more work. But with a little suspension of disbelief it will entertain you and get you thinking about issues that have become more relevant over time. It has one of the best soundtracks and best casts of that decade. It is a great example of 70’s conspiracy theory cinema. And hell, maybe Stanley Kubrick did actually film the moon landing.

Horror Cinema

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I’ve been a fan of horror cinema for as long as I can remember. I thought that this Halloween would be a good time to compile my list of favorite horror films. My only criteria was how many times I’ve seen the movie. I figure if I’ve seen a film 30 times, it must be my favorite. Not worried about critical acclaim, uniqueness, box office success, level of gore, actors, directors, etc. As you can see by my list I don’t particularly like slasher films or torture porn. I also didn’t list the comedy horror films, even though some of those are great. I also lean towards horror of the 70s and 80s, probably because that is when I was first introduced to horror as a teenager. I spent the 80’s pouring over the vast horror selection of VHS tapes in my neighborhood video store, and I rented every single one.

I have listed the films by decade and by chronological order, because I’m a geek like that.
Enjoy.

1960s

PSYCHO (1960)

BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

THE BIRDS (1963)

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

1970s

THE EXORCIST (1973)

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)

JAWS (1975)

THE OMEN (1976)

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)

SUSPIRIA (1977)

HALLOWEEN (1978)

ALIEN (1979)

ZOMBIE (1979)

1980s

THE SHINING (1980)

THE FOG (1980)

THE BEYOND (1981)

THE BURNING (1981)

THE EVIL DEAD (1981)

HALLOWEEN II (1981)

THE THING (1982)

POLTERGEIST (1982)

TENEBRAE (1982)

CHRISTINE (1983)

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

LIFEFORCE (1985)

HELLRAISER (1987)

ANGEL HEART (1987)

NEAR DARK (1987)

PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988)

1990s

THE EXORCIST III (1990)

JACOB’S LADDER (1990)

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)

2000s

THE DESCENT (2005)

TRICK R TREAT (2007)

THE MIST (2007)

HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)

2010s

THE CRAZIES (2010)

LORDS OF SALEM (2012)

THE VVITCH (2015)

IT (2017)

COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)

BONUS:

Some of my favorite horror films that are often not considered horror:

THE TERMINATOR (1984)

THE HITCHER (1986)

HARDWARE (1990)

SE7EN (1995)