I had a chance to meet the young actor Brady Corbet during this year’s Miami International Film Festival (Actor Brady Corbet praises 35mm ahead of rare screening of ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ at MIFF). We stayed in touch, which made it easy to get him to answer some questions about his new movie Simon Killer, a stylized thriller that relies on a meek protagonist who seems lost in a downward spiral of heartache after breaking up with a girlfriend.
The suspense relies a lot on Corbet’s subtle performance of a repressed, unstable young man who corners himself with his own lies about the world around him. Director Antonio Campos adds a languorous style that highlights the performance with some rather inventive use of camera tricks that transition several scenes. There’s also a hip soundtrack that includes a cover of Miike Snow’s “Animal” you probably never heard. Then there is a brilliantly staged scene at a disco featuring the opening of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” that captures the titular character’s fearsome instability.
I sent Corbet an email to ask for a chat. He was in Paris, so we did it via email. The resulting Q&A can be read on the blog “Cultist” from the “Miami New Times.” Jump through the logo for the blog to read it:
Simon Killer runs 101 minutes and is unrated (Corbet says it would have probably received an NC-17 rating should it have been submitted to the MPAA). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 17, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this story. The film also opens in South Florida at the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, the same day.The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).
In the second part of my conversation with filmmaker Whit Stillman (this is continued from: A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’), we touch on context and ways of approaching his last film, Damsels in Distress, as well as one particularly good review by a local colleague and another completely wrong review, which was not mine. I was quite critical about the film (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding), and he was game to talk about it while he visited Miami as a juror for the Miami International Film Festival, this past March.
In this part of our conversation, we also touch on where I come from as a film critic, something that I have noticed people like about my reviews but, at the same time, also seems to narrow my vision (I’m working on it): my approach to cinema as an art. Not to discredit my criticism or any film criticism for that matter, but there are many factors to consider outside a movie besides the work itself when it comes to criticism. Any work of art resides in the perceived reality of the viewer. Whatever baggage a viewer brings to a work can affect how the work is received, from whether the viewer watches a film in the morning or at night to the mood they bring with them into the theater to the amount of knowledge and life experience they interpret the movie with.
I try to look at technical things but also consider zeitgeist and theory from filmmaking to literature to psychology as well as anything distinct about the filmmakers involved in the making of a movie. Still, my own experiences and biases also inform my reviews. There are times when I do have a chance to mull things over for a month before writing. For my review of Moonrise Kingdom, which was positive (‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film) I had a month. My initial reaction was that the film felt cartoonish, distant and over-stylized. But with time, I later considered it the most innocent and honest film of Wes Anderson’s career. It turned out to be one of the most popular reviews on my blog, which says something about my final opinion.
With Damsels, I knew the film had some value, as I had written a review that was more mixed than negative. I was prepared to see it again in the theater, but never found the time to do so. Stillman told me it was in and out at the only multiplex showing it in Miami in about a week. I had even felt it worthy of recommending to my wife who, much to my delight, came to admire Stillman’s work after I had introduced her to his earlier films. As I had expected, she enjoyed Damsels much more than I did.
After I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in the theater, I left confused and unsure of what I had experienced, but I knew the film was trying to say something profound. I now consider it one of Kubrick’s most underrated and misunderstood masterpieces after more than 20 re-viewings later and a seminar paper on the film, which I used to illustrate Lacanian theory during my Master’s studies for an MA in American Literature. With anything, opinions can and do change. It’s happened even more profoundly with music with this writer. Therefore, I have no shame reconsidering any film I critique, much less Stillman’s last film (Terrence Malick, maybe you’ll be next [Film review: With ‘To the Wonder’ Malick loses sight of cinema for message]?). What an opportunity to have the director sit with you and consider your criticisms with an open, curious and civil mind.
Here is the second half of our recorded conversation from about two months back. We went Dutch for coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts off Alton Road in Miami Beach:
Hans Morgenstern: One thing I am wondering about is your intention in the film.
Whit Stillman: There’s a very serious intention in the film.
But I mean, is it a cultural criticism of today?
Of course. All the films are. But I think it’s a kind of life preserver. I think there’s a very serious intention in the film where there is all this kind of romance of suicide, the romance of depression, in college. And the way most people deal with this is to therapize it, take it really seriously and re-dramatize it. And, actually, to get out of those moods for people, when it’s not clinical mental illness, is to distract, to make active, to do these things, and then, with the passage of time, they very often get out of that cast of mind. So the things in the film we presented as a joke, but actually there’s quite a bit of truth. In fact, I think, there’s a quite important practicing psychiatrist from one of the Ivy League schools who saw the film late in its run in New York, which lasted to the 17th week down at the Cinema Village, she came up to me and said, “You know, I think the things they are doing in this film are better than what we do in the university. I think this is better.” So, they’re really depressed, everything is terrible, you know, taking a shower, cleaning up, putting on— for a girl, maybe for a guy— putting on some good scent, dancing, getting out, socializing, cup of coffee, you know, distraction. Distraction activity, hygiene distraction activity, order, work, these sort of things get people out of themselves.
But is distraction really the cure for their problems?
Yeah, it is the cure because time is the cure, and distraction is the entry ramp for time. So I think it’s a movie that’s serious by virtue of its intentions on all kinds of levels, but I can’t announce that because I like things that are not obvious, and people can take it as they want to take it or take it as silly as they want to think it is. It is a very silly film.
Well, that’s the kind of film I usually love because when I walked into the theater…
How’d you see it? Was it a press screening?
It was a press screening at a cinema.
Was [“Miami Herald” film critic] Rene Rodriguez there?
Rene was there.
Rene gave it a really nice review, coz he didn’t like [Last Days of] Disco that much.
We corresponded about it, and he said, if you like the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” you will like this film. Is that a fair comparison?
Yeah, well, Aubrey [Plaza] is the same in “Parks and Recreation,” has nice spirit. It’s not a show I follow, but, from what I’ve seen, it’s OK.
Maybe I did come at it too cynical. The thing I know is that when I was finishing considering it, which was probably too soon, was that, yeah, I do want to see it again, I do want to recommend this to my wife, and she did see it, and she loved it. So what I predicted about it was right.
And she just saw it this past week?
A few weeks ago.
Before we met up? Oh, cool. Interesting. Because it had been on the Starz thing? Do you feel your blog affects attendance?
Yeah, insofar as it is shared. Miami Beach Cinematheque shares my reviews. So he’s a big champion of my blog, and so is [The Miami International Film Festival Director] Jaie [Laplante]. In fact, this year, the director of Bonsai, which was a big award winner last year, is at the festival to give a seminar, and I loved Bonsai. In fact, Jaie said my review was his favorite review the film had received.
What’s Bonsai like?
Bonsai is actually based on a pretty famous Chilean novel, and it’s about this down and out writer who decides to take up a job to write this novel for this famous writer, and he ends up incorporating his own personal relationship into the book, and it jumps between the writing of that book, and his memories as a college kid, so there’s this great sort of self-actualization in writing going on there (Read the review: Film Review: ‘Bonsai’ breathes life into art).
Sounds great. I have a feeling your taste may be more art film than mine.
Yeah, I tend to get that.
Which is good. Someone has to do it (laughs).
I am part of that whole group, the Florida Film Critics Circle, with Rene and Connie [Ogle] at “the Herald.” They know I have this small blog but that I’m covering something different in cinema.
Rene, his review— thank God we got that— it was great. It was syndicated all over the place. That review appears all over the place, and he wrote a nice review. It’s a solid review and a kind of way-in review that tells people how to get into the film. One review that kinda annoyed me, and it’s kinda important, is this one guy who always, always attacks my films. I don’t know what his problem is. But he started this whole thing making a big deal about two posters that are on the walls. He said, the director was telling us, because he has the Lola Montes poster in the girls’ room and the Grand Illusion poster in the other thing [Xavier’s apartment],
he’s telling us this and he’s telling us that and his intention is this and his intention is that and all this hogwash. The thing is, there’s so many things you can say about a film. Why presume or state something that’s not knowable by him because I had no intention with those posters at all. I have no feeling for those films, none. It’s just that we were really hard up for posters and any art that looked non-ridiculous. No one would give us posters for free, coz we’re not going to pay for posters in a low-budget film. I mean, it’s advertising. They should want it up. So for the suicide center, I went to a place, and I had a contact, I had a connection, so I asked for, you know, the big old-fashioned musicals like Showboat, Guys and Dolls…
We asked for the right to use the posters in the Suicide Center, and they said, “Oh, no, we’ll charge you a purchasing fee of $1,000.” We’re not gonna spend a cent. If we have to, we’ll pay the $10 and put it up on a poster board, but that’s about it, and so I was stuck. From my old illustration agency we got some stuff, and then we were stuck for other things, and then, by accident, I ran into the guy from Criterion at a party, and I asked him about the posters. He said, “Yes, but you’ll also need permission from Studio Canal and Rialto.” This is the way it always is, “Yes, but.” But, the thing is, I knew they were brother and sister, the Halperns, who I know really well, so I just sent them quick emails, and within a day I had permission and Criterion sent us all these posters. And there are more posters than that up. The guy didn’t see the Godard poster that was up. It wasn’t a very good-looking poster, so we just had it in the background in Xavier’s apartment. And I go into the set and the art department has put up the Grand Illusion poster, and I wasn’t very happy about that. I didn’t want it that present.
It really draws your eye. I do remember seeing the Grand Illusion poster.
That one really draws your eye. The Lola Montes thing he mentioned, you practically can’t see that. Only someone who studied the Criterion artwork would have noticed that because it’s only half of the image. I love the artist who did the image. In fact, I was thinking when it came to do the poster for the film, I was over at the Criterion art department trying to get their ideas. I just love that guy’s work. But [lowers voice] there’s no intention at all. I was thinking, well, it’s plausible… could the character have this on his wall? Well, yeah, he could have that on his wall. It’s possible.
But it’s background. It’s nothing to the theme of your film, right?
Nothing on the walls is supposed to be focal. For instance, my university daughter still hasn’t got her posters back because I took all her posters from her wall because she had to decamp from her room and so the posters were in my apartment, and they were by an artist friend who I had represented, and so I just took her posters and gave them to the art department and said, “Put these in the girls’ room.” And, anyway, he built this whole review about my pretentiousness in my references.
Well, you see, that’s wrong. And they were just these two quick background images?
It’s wrong on so many levels. It’s wrong on so many levels, and then he pounds us in this really important review. He pounds us through the whole thing. Why kill a film based on a presumption out of thin air?
I hope you didn’t get the idea that my review was all negative.
No, your review was not bad. I had remembered it when you first mentioned it to me, but I went back and looked at it. I kind of enjoyed that I didn’t know where it was going to go. I kinda enjoyed the A, B, C thing. I, of course, I thought “A” right away: not older but definitely more cynical.
A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’
May 6, 2013
During the couple of times I met with film director Whit Stillman at this past Miami International Film Festival, something has bothered me about how to present our meetings. He told me he hates those stories concerned with details about what the subject orders at a meal or what he/she chooses to wear. That’s fine. I could care less about that stuff myself. But what I found charming about this man when we met at the Italian restaurant around the corner of one of the screening venues on Miami Beach following one of his jury meetings, was his suggestion that we make the meal a “Dutch treat,” as he did not want to influence me. “That wouldn’t be ethical,” he said. I had never heard anyone use the original, full term of “going Dutch” until that moment. We agreed on a salad to start the meal and when the waitress asked if we wanted the salad with the entrée, which we literally split, Stillman said, “Well, isn’t the salad supposed to come first?” He wasn’t being a dick. He wanted the right experience. He did not want to rush this experience because when does a director have a chance to pick the brain of a critic who panned his last film, Damsels in Distress? (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding).
We first met a few nights earlier, as noted in an early post covering one day in my week at the Miami International Film Festival (Underwhelming films but overwhelming schmoozing on Day 3 of MIFF). I was sitting with actress Lena Olin and her husband, director Lasse Hallström at a bar during an after-party of Hallström’s career achievement screening. I had interviewed him for “the Miami Herald” ahead of this event (read the article). Stillman came over and introduced himself to Hallström, who seemed to have no idea who the man saying he was an independent filmmaker was. I felt compelled to jump in and sing the praises for Stillman’s work. I then introduced myself as a film critic to Stillman, and he asked me if I had ever panned one of his films. I said, “Well… the last one,” and he made an exaggerated taken aback gesture. I quickly informed him that I am still a fan and quite interested in his work and suggested a meal one day since he was at the festival all the way through as a juror for the Knight Ibero-American Competition. I was impressed that he agreed, and he shared his email so we might coordinate.
I think it says a lot about this director’s humble nature to sit with this local writer/film critic to learn as much about me and my experience with film in general rather than get one-sided and defensive about his work. We turned out having a nice, leisurely lunch that final Friday afternoon of the MIFF. He asked about the title of my blog (I got it from something director Kelly Reichardt had written about filmmaking) and he took down my recommendation to check out Chloë Sevigny’s surreal work in Olivier Assay’s Demonlover. He really wanted to understand where I came from as much as explain where he was coming from with his last film, and it was an interesting two-way conversation. After the lunch, which I did not document, as I wanted it as a warm-up for our talk about Damsels, we walked over to Dunkin Donuts for a coffee. If you have listened to his commentary on the Damsels blu-ray, as I did before our meeting, you already know Stillman’s preference for Dunkin coffee over the dark roast hyped by a famous competing chain.
It was there, with pop radio blasting out classic hits by Michael Jackson and the like that I hit the record button on my digital voice recorder, and we got to the review I so brazenly titled “Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding.” We spoke about some of the statements I made about his movie, the stylized world of Damsels, how the two leads are left more open to interpretation than Stillman might have liked and how technology dates movies. Here is a transcription of the first half of our half-hour chat, slightly trimmed for clarity and cohesion. We began with my lead:
Hans Morgenstern: So I put in the article “either A) I have grown too old and cynical…”
Whit Stillman: Oh, yeah, I was going to say A (laughs).
Of course, it has to be my first choice, because of course you haven’t lost your knack for smart writing, which was option B.
But you don’t think Millennials are too dumb to speak the same language as the generation before them, which was C?
I didn’t quite get that point. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t quite get it.
So, let’s go back to the ‘90s, think Richard Linklater. That was another very smart peer of yours during the rise of ‘ 90s indie film. I came of age in college watching these films. So when I think of those characters, I feel they seem as intelligent as I had felt, whereas the characters in Damsels don’t seem as bright.
Well, I do think they’re bright, except the ones who are dumb. You go with what you love, and I love Fitzgerald and Salinger as writers, but I also love the comedy of Will Ferrell and the comedy of Animal House. What the people at the Dublin Film Festival said about the film, which is really on, is that it’s Jane Austen meets Animal House, and that’s combining things you like. So, yes, some characters are dumb, but I hope it ends up being intelligent with the line of jokes with the guy and the colors, and the rainbow and all that. But I think that Violet is as intelligent a character as we had in previous films. I mean, I felt that where we went astray… there’s certain things that are flaws as far as audience comprehension or acceptance, but I wouldn’t want to necessarily say that they are intrinsic, sort of aesthetic flaws in the film. It just means that the acceptance of the film is going to be limited on the short term, but over the long term, it might make the film more interesting for people to see it a second time or chance on it again. Because, as far as entertainment terms, I probably blundered by having the first five minutes of the film. Because, the way it’s introduced, a lot of people think these three girls are probably the mean girls, well dressed, all the sort of things we associate with being superficial people, and then there’s this girl who’s nice, the sweet character. They think she’s supposed to be the character we judge the others by. I didn’t realize how strong that would be. Because I thought that we made it pretty clear early on that it’s really about Violet [Greta Gerwig]. So I don’t see Violet as a freak. I see her as someone very appealing and, through her point of view, very interesting. And Lily [Analeigh Tipton] is sort of subverted because Lily was supposed to be a real knockout but kinda cold and superficial, and then all the guys like her. But Violet’s way better and more interesting but doesn’t have those killer looks that Lily’s supposed to have. But then, an actress comes in to audition, and she’s very good and very real, and it’s really good, what she’s doing, but it’s not really what it’s supposed to do. But I feel that my idea is a little bit clichéd, having this easily identifiable negative character and to have it less easy to identify her as a negative character, who’d make the film better and more interesting. But it just throws so many people for a loop.
It happens late in the film, as well.
They constantly see the film as being Lily’s film, not Violet’s film. They still have an uncomfortable time to find that line.
And the actress who played Lily, did you see her on “America’s Next Top Model”?
No. I didn’t see anyone. I might have seen Aubrey Plaza in something before. Maybe I crossed paths with her visually. But it’s all through casting. I mean, yes, once I knew she was good, I went back and looked at “America’s Next Top Model” and that kind of stuff.
So you never even knew she aspired to be a model?
She’s not a model, and that’s a good thing.
I mean, she was never a model. She’s an aspiring filmmaker, writer, actress who got a gig on a reality show playing someone who was trying to be a model, but she’s not a model.
I mean, the good thing is that I didn’t have the prejudice of her being a model. I just saw her as an actress, and then I heard everyone liked her on “America’s Next Top Model.” Had you been aware of her in that?
I can’t remember anyone on that show because they all look alike, slender young women.
I know that the wife and daughter of the lead investor were very excited that it was Analeigh that they liked.
So, for you, it’s really all about Greta Gerwig’s character.
It’s really all about Violet. We had many alternate titles. One was going to be the Ultra Violets, but that would have sort have been misleading, or the Violet Ultras because they’re sort of ultras, those girls.
Sure. Talk about ultra, like Rose’s revelation at the end where she says she talks with a British accent because she just came from London.
I mean the film’s not supposed to be a retro, joking film. It’s the idea that if there are things in the past that we liked, we can bring them back. We can re-create them, and we can build a future with the elements that we like in the past. It’s sort of like when a bird makes its nest, it takes little elements it likes and puts its nest together with those elements. So, in our future, rather than thinking of anything new and having new things that’s never been done before, why not take some things that seem nice from the past, like, let’s say, a style of dressing or a style of music or a style of dancing, and let’s [recuperate] that. I mean, the Renaissance was about, after the dark centuries, looking back at classicism of Greece and Rome and, see, what is this great culture, how can we bring it back? So I think there’s a bit of that in our society. I think, at the same time, there’s been technological progress and material progress and many good things in life and the Internet and cool things like that. There’s also been loss, so you see films from the ‘30s and it seems to me like a higher culture. It seems like these people are more civilized. We’ve lost a lot, but we don’t have to lose it because people are more intelligent and aspirational and have good qualities. And reality is totally checked at the door, so people shouldn’t be judging [Damsels] based on any vérité. There was a French filmmaker who did this film where at the end all these young people come and take over the house, and they’re running all around … and I found it a very cliché version of the youth of today. A lot of the industry films, it’s kind of a cliché, but really there are all kinds of types and none of my daughters are like the cliché version of what today’s youth are like.
So they’re not always texting on the phone?
No, no. I have one daughter who’s immune to all that. I mean, we did have more contemporary signifiers, originally, in the film, but you cut out a scene that has it, and therefore it’s no longer in it, so we do have a cell phone in the film, and we do have her [Violet] saying, people don’t write by hand anymore. But also I’ve seen a lot of films where they’re using whatever the technology of the day is and everything, and it gets very boring, very quickly. It’s all about whatever the latest thing is.
Yeah, it seems kind of conscious.
In Spanish films, the classic scene is someone comes in to their apartment and plays the answering machine and listens to the message on the answering machine, or we have a close-up of the answering machine leaving a message, and that is like tedious cinema. I think now we can do the same sort of thing. It’ll just be some boring thing in the future. Like now, who uses answering machines?
Yeah, and it sort of automatically dates your film. It’s not good in the long run.
Yeah, it’s sort of stupid dating. And also, all the sort of dumb action films, even if they’re good movies and they’re fun to watch, they have tons of stuff with the camera on the computer screen as the person is subverting the terrorists. Like, what is it? The Mission Impossible stuff, so you have the good people typing away at their computer screens, and you have the evil people typing away at their laptops (laughs).
Yeah, and how interesting is that going to be 10 years from now, and how much will it turn the film into some campy joke for future generations?
I did have Adam Brody writing his essay “the Decline of Decadence” on my laptop, but it got cut.
It may have been interesting if he were on a typewriter.
I’m not gonna go there. I’m not sentimental about technology, so that whole thing about people who have to use their manual typewriter.
That was my dad.
I’m not gonna go back to that. But the problem is once the technology goes out, it’s real hard to find. And occasionally to address an envelope or a short letter it would be probably much easier to write on a typewriter, a good IBM Selectric would be good to have now (laughs).
* * *
Our conversation continues here:
April 29, 2013
When Peter Murphy talks about his experience with music, a small part of him fears he is over-intellectualizing. Over the course of our 45-minute chat he occasionally seems to have the tiniest inkling he might be stating things that might go over the heads of readers or may be misunderstood. Toward the end of our conversation, after a rare laugh he says, “It might go over people’s heads, but so what? They’ll get it later, like a hundred years later.”
I spoke with Murphy last Sunday afternoon, as he rode on a tour bus toward the first date of his Mr. Moonlight Tour, which features a set list comprised of only Bauhaus music. After talking about the start and end of the pioneering Gothic rock band and lots in between … much of which you will find noted in my in-depth article on his decision to tour with solely Bauhaus music in the “Crossfade” music blog from the “Miami New Times (jump through the logo below):”
Up-date: the interview was so long, it was broken up into two parts. Here’s is part 2 (that’s a hotlink).
Our conversation also included the subjective experience of art, specifically music. It came from a mutual appreciation of Brian Eno’s 1974 solo album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Bauhaus famously recorded a quite literal cover of that album’s “Third Uncle” during a BBC session, which they released as a single and also used as the opener on its 1982 album the Sky’s Gone Out.
“Those lyrics, they take you with them. Don’t they?” Murphy says of the songs on Eno’s second solo album. “They’re not didactic. They’re not literal in that sense. They open up the creative imagination within the listeners. So it isn’t actually selfish. In a way, the audience is the reason. For music there has to be the listener. Otherwise, the singer or the musician doesn’t matter. It’s a shared experience in a very natural way. That’s not an over-arching idea. But that is art.”
He agrees that some of David Bowie’s most interesting songs come from a decoupage technique popularized by William Burroughs but pioneered by the Dadaists from the turn of the 20th century. “They leave the creativity to the listener, as well,” Murphy notes, who transitioned from solitary poetry composition to Bauhaus frontman in late 1978 when guitarist Daniel Ash introduced him to brothers David J (bass) and Kevin Haskins (drums).
The A-side of the “Third Uncle” track was Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” Murphy notes something very interesting happens when he inhabits that song live, which he plans on playing on this tour. “Songs evoke very personal associations,” he says. “So I have my own experience with Bowie. You could have called me a Bowie fan or whatever, but when I met him I realized it was me creating my own inner world with that music. I was Ziggy Stardust. He’s just some bloke creating some theatrical thing, doing his own thing. It’s not him really. It is, but it’s beyond. It’s me really, hence the idea of doing ‘Ziggy Stardust.’ He just wrote it. We did our version, and we did it how it’s supposed to be done in our minds, and it was brilliant.” He pauses for a chuckle. “That was not a statement against him at all. It’s just the ultimate Bowie fan casualty that was sold. So I still become Ziggy Stardust in that three minutes, that seminal character in music culture, and I’m it.”
Watch the official video:
There was so much more we went over. It was a revelatory conversation. Bauhaus worked from a very primal pool of creativity, relying on their chemistry as musicians. He indulged me in an explanation of how they came up with the brilliant collage track that closes the Sky’s Gone Out: “Exquisite Corpse.” He said it comes from a surrealist game for children. Using a folded piece of paper a group sets out to draw a body but only a small bit of the end of the last drawing is visible to the next illustrator. The result is one exquisite corpse.
The band did something similar during the recording of the song that closes the album on a brilliantly abstract note. After programming a rhythm track, Murphy explained, “We each went in, and we gave ourselves a minute each to write whatever we wanted individually without any of the other members, and then the next person would play from the last five seconds, hearing the last five seconds of the previous person and continue, and then we’d all come in and gathered … and that was the result. So the title, ‘Exquisite Corpse,’ is exquisite. It’s the exercise in letting itself create its own venture.” You can hear the result right here:
Considering, backwards effects, the coughing, the snoring section and other bits, it will certainly make for a difficult, odd song to perform live, so I would not expect to hear it on the tour (did Bauhaus even ever perform this genius little oddity live?).
Only one day until the show (I had tons to transcribe and illness to battle) in Miami at Grand Central. Tuesday, April 30. Doors: 8 p.m. Tickets cost $26 / $60 (VIP) – VIP ticket includes a 7 p.m. pre-show, access to soundcheck, meet-and-greet with Murphy, exclusive edition T-shirt and a signed poster. All ages. There will also be a second post on the Crossfade music blog tomorrow morning, so be sure to check back there tomorrow.
Update 2: Show happened! To read my review click on the picture below by “Miami New Times” photographer Ian Witlen:
For those outside Miami, the tour will proceed as follows across the U.S., into Mexico, then Europe and back to North America:
Wed, May 1 – Tampa FL @ Orpheum Theater
Thu, May 2 – Atlanta GA @ Terminal West
Fri, May 3 – Charlotte NC @ Tremont Music Hall
Sat, May 4 – Washington DC @ U-Music Hall
Sun, May 5 – Boston MA @ Paradise Rock Club
Tue, May 7 – New York City NY @ Webster Hall
Thu, May 9 – Philadelphia PA @ Trocadero
Fri, May 10 – Toronto ON @ Lee’s Palace
Sat, May 11 – Buffalo NY @ Town Ballroom
Sun, May 12 – Pittsburgh PA @ Mr Smalls
Mon, May 13 – Detroit MI @ Magic Stick
Wed, May 15 – Indianapolis IN @ Deluxe at Old National Centre
Thu, May 16 – Chicago IL @ House of Blues
Sun, May 19 – Mexico City, MX @ Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli (to include Peter Murphy solo material, as well!)
Wed, May 22 – Bochum, DE @ Christuskirche
Thu, May 23 – Karlsruhe, DE @ Substage
Fri, May 24 – Zurich, CH @ Komplex Klub
Sun, May 26 – Rome, IT @ Orion
Mon, May 27 – Milan, IT @ Magazzini Generali
Wed, May 29 – Madrid, ES @ Sala Arena
Thu, May 30 – Lisbon, PT @ Coliseum
Sat, June 1 – Barcelona, ES @ Bikini Barcelona
Mon, June 3 – Brussels, BE @ AB
Wed, June 5 – Paris, FR @ Trabendo
Thu, June 6 – Eindhoven, NL @ Effenaar
Fri, June 7 – Hamburg, DE @ Knust
Sat, June 8 – Copenhagen, DK @ Loppen
Mon, June 10 – Stockholm, SE @ Debaser Medis
Wed, June 12 – Helsinki, FI @ Tavastia
Fri, June 14 – Nottingham, UK @ Rescue Rooms
Sat, June 15 – Glasgow, UK @ Oran Mor
Mon, June 17 – Birmingham, UK @ Academy 2
Tue, June 18 – Bristol, UK @ Academy
Wed, June 19 – London, UK @ Islington Academy
NORTH AMERICA II
Sat, July 13 – Phoenix AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
Sun, July 14 – El Paso TX @ Tricky Falls
Tue, July 16 – Denver CO @ Summit Music Hall
Wed, July 17 – Salt Lake City UT @ Urban Lounge
Thu, July 18 – Boise ID @ Visual Arts Collective
Fri, July 19 – Seattle WA @ Showbox Theater
Sat, July 20 – Vancouver BC @ TBA
Sun, July 21 – Portland OR @ Hawthorne Theater
Tue, July 23 – San Francisco CA @ Fillmore Theater
Wed, July 24 – Las Vegas @ LVCS
Sat, July 27 – Los Angeles CA @ Henry Fonda Theatre
Fri, July 28 – San Diego CA @ Belly-up
40 years later: Mike Garson recalls what it was like to record ‘Aladdin Sane’ with David Bowie – an Indie Ethos exclusive
April 20, 2013
Earlier this week, EMI Records reissued a new remaster of David Bowie’s darker-side-of-glitter follow-up to last year’s 40th Anniversary reissue of the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Aladdin Sane’s 40th Anniversary reissue arrives in simpler CD form, with no DVD audio or vinyl equivalent. But it remains a very interesting moment in the evolution of Bowie.
Though riding an increasingly popular wave of stardom at the time, Bowie had begun to tire of splitting his persona between Ziggy and Bowie. The follow-up album’s fractured portrait, with the so-called “Ziggy Bolt” painted over Bowie’s rosy, if somber, face and the play on “A Lad Insane” in the title belied the amped up sound of a talent in top form.
Inspired by his first U.S. tour for Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had embraced the glamour of L.A. and the seediness of New York for much of the album’s inspiration. It gave the interstellar glam rock of Ziggy a grittier, down-to-earth sound. Though still working with the luxuriant guitar blasts of Mick Ronson, Bowie threw in some soulful female vocals. He also picked up New York-based jazz pianist, Mike Garson, who brought one of the most distinctive approaches to the piano ever to a rock record. Garson has since become Bowie’s longest-ever go-to for piano (until this year’s the Next Day).
If there was one musician Bowie has had worked with, besides guitarists, that have come to help define Bowie’s sound over the span of his career, Garson’s touch on piano cannot be ignored (for a comprehensive look at their career together see this series of earlier posts). Despite Bowie’s work with Rick Wakeman of Yes on 1971’s Hunky Dory, Garson’s angular approach to his instrument offered a more distinctive touch. On stage, Garson would never play the same solo twice. It’s ever-shifting quality fascinated the singer who knows so much about changes it has become cliché to call him “the chameleon of rock ‘n’ roll.”
You may just be able to call Garson the chameleon of piano playing, which affords him a kind of distance to his work. When I called him last month to ask him for his thoughts on his first studio album with Bowie, he seemed rather surprised that his solo on the album’s title track has grown into such a big deal. “Now, after fuckin’ 40 years, ‘Aladdin Sane,’” he says of the praise he gets for the minute-and-a-half solo that’s the song’s centerpiece. “People are writing, and I’m seeing these things I’m shocked [about] because I never heard this song for 20, 30 years after I recorded them, people saying things like, ‘It might be one of the best rock solos in history,’ and it’s not even rock playing. But, you know, history sometimes proves things out.”
The title track of the album opens with such a soft touch it feels ethereal. The keys rumble with the reverb of the hollow body of the Bechstein piano at Trident Studios in London, where the album was recorded in the winter of 1973. Garson’s touch is soft and pillowy, as are the light strums of an acoustic guitar by Bowie and murmuring electric guitar accompaniment by Mick Ronson, the soft, elastic plucks by bassist Trevor Bolder and the drum taps by Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. “Watching him dash away … swinging an old bouquet,” Bowie sighs before responding to himself in a higher octave: “dead roses.”
After a false shift where the song may be building to a larger sound, with Bowie turning a sigh to a rat-tat-tat, stuttering pause, the group pulls back for another short verse of easygoing, ghostly quality. Bowie sings the follow-up line similar to the first: “Passionate bright young things … takes him away to war — don’t fake it.” Another stutter, and the song shifts to strident piano and chugging guitar, as Bowie coos, “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane/Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise/Who’ll love Aladdin Sane.”
Again the song falls back to its delicate beginning of delicate touches for one more verse and, at the two-minute mark, makes a leap toward a now irrepressible charge, with a distant saxophone by Ken Fordham howling out a few large, breathy notes. Garson begins to play the hook with more staccato force, trills here and there. The drums and bass pound along below, straight and steady, as Garson grows terse for one moment and squeezes in bits of notes from one range and another while still miraculously keeping the theme intact. He hammers keys here and brushes keys there, teetering on the edge of chaos while always remaining in check. With the echoing howl of the sax returning, Bowie returns with the “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane” chorus, and Garson does not stop his rawboned riffing as Bowie repeats “We’ll love Aladdin Sane” and takes a tangent to growl “Say the lights are oh so bright on Broadway” like some cosmic joke to the tattered jazz that encapsulates this bizarro song. Ronson holds back his guitar so that Garson may tangle with Fordham for a bit, as the song fades.
The fade out of this song should also not be underplayed. Ronson’s guitar becomes apparent here as it sighs a few tiny chords of reverb. Meanwhile, Garson toys around tersely on the higher end, as Fordham seems to sob into his sax for some soft sighing final notes. For a few seconds all that remains is the piano. Garson plays quick, seesaw runs on his right hand, then pumps out a few billowing bass chords with his left. There’s one last all-encompassing chord and a pause for the reverb of the piano, before he ends with one final, sly irrepressible trickle with his right hand. Clearly a mad duel of an orgy of instruments has played out and Garson came out a victor with a little wink at the end.
No one can talk about that song as just a Bowie song, and it has forever been Garson’s shining moment on a Bowie record. As many are quick to praise his frenetic piano on Aladdin Sane’s title track, Garson himself can position himself outside of it and note its magical quality. “The notes found me as much as I found it,” he says of his work on that song. “I wish I could find something comparable … When you have those magic moments, you want to recreate them, but the truth of the matter is you can’t. They have to be what they are, and they have to come in a very organic way, so I can’t force it to happen. I would just like it to happen somehow, naturally, but you can’t force it because they’re bigger than us, when those moments happen. They’re really like spiritual experiences, as far as I’m concerned.”
Garson credits Bowie’s direction during the recording for at least leading him to the result on record. “I considered David the best producer I ever had of anyone that’s ever produced me, and why? On the ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo, I played a blues solo first. He said, no. I played a Latin solo. He said, no. Then he said, ‘Play that avant-garde stuff you told me you played in New York,’ and it was he who pulled it out of me because it wasn’t my first choice. Now, once he said that, it was a take one, but it wasn’t my choice to go there, so I give him big kudos for that.”
Garson does not play on every song on the album, but he does appear on some of its most revered deep cuts. Besides the extraordinary moody journey of the title track, whose long-lost original title included the parenthetical: “(1913-1938-197?)” in reference to the start of the World Wars, he also plays on the album’s most sincerely romantic song: “Lady Grinning Soul.” After a dramatic trilling piano opening by Garson, there’s a pause for silence for a few seconds before Bowie croons, “She’ll come…” unaccompanied, and then the band falls in with a soft swing as Garson provides rapidly trickling finger rolls, and Bowie finishes the opposite end of his sentence: “she’ll go.” The song features quiet, soaring sax and guitar, not to mention dreamy piano work by Garson, as Bowie howls words like, “Touch the fullness of her breast/Feel the love of her caress/She will be your living end.”
“To me, that’s one of his most gorgeous songs,” Garson says. “That’s the David Bowie that I love. That’s just pure, romantic gorgeous voice, beautiful, romantic piano playing, and it doesn’t get better than that for me. I’m not a big rock ‘n’ roll fan when it comes to all the screaming and not singing with a real voice. To me, that’s a crooner. That’s David Bowie. That’s the gift of the man, for me.”
Other songs Garson contributed piano to on Aladdin Sane include “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Watch That Man” and “Time.” He says he recorded most of his parts with the band with the exception of the title track, and there were often few takes. “’Aladdin Sane’ was an overdub,” he notes. “I think I played ‘Time’ with the band, and I think I played ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ with the band. I don’t remember for sure, but I think so, but I think I played ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ with the band.”
He notes that— at least for his part— he took a sort of tongue-in-cheek approach to the last song he mentions, a cover of a 1967 Rolling Stones single. “I just went nuts, personally,” he says. “I don’t even know why I played that crazy beginning, but it just worked. Maybe it was in rebellion or protest or opposite-effect of what Mick Jagger did. Maybe it was just such a contrast and so hilarious because you couldn’t top that vibe that they got, just as a rock band, and what can I add that just turns it upside down? It’s almost borderline humorous.”
He remains humble about his contribution to the album. “It wasn’t just Mike Garson because of ‘Aladdin Sane,’” He says. “It was Mike Garson with Ken Scott with Mick Ronson with David Bowie producing it with the magic of Trident Studios with the magic with of the Bechstein piano, with the fact that the Beatles and Queen recorded there, the whole karmic, historic, archetype magic that the notes found me as much as I found the notes. That’s the real truth. It’s not just Mike Garson. It’s that group effort.”
Superficially, most everyone is drawn to Aladdin Sane for its cover art. That flash of blue and red painted over Bowie’s face overshadowed the teardrop in the man’s clavicle, which hinted at Bowie’s pain of leading a life as a split persona. It’s flashy superficiality overshadowed a grim reality, which was also brilliantly reflected in the resonant music, which carries a subversive depth few acknowledge. The album’s cover became the avatar of the rock star. In the years that followed that flash of face paint has been co-opted by younger music stars like Marilyn Manson in the 1990s and more obviously and recently Lady Gaga, who, like Bowie then, flaunts her bi-sexually as part of her shtick. Like the fleeting magic of what happened inside Trident Studios when they recorded Aladdin Sane, Garson notes that no imitation of the album cover will have the same effect now. “You can’t even hardly recreate it now because it was the ‘70s,” he says. “It was the bi-sexuality. It was the glam rock. It was the look. Right behind me, as I’m talking to you, the poster’s on my wall. My grandkids ask me about it, and it’s amazing. So it’s all those factors, so I was blessed to be able to contribute to that movement.”
Eddie Jobson of U.K. on popular music: “Everything’s been superficialized;” my interview in “New Times” and more
March 23, 2013
After the Cruise to the Edge, aka the “Prog Cruise,” according to Yes drummer Alan White, sails around Cuba (Alan White of ‘Yes’ talks ‘Cruise to the Edge’ and early Yes; my profile in “New Times”), another of the nine bands sailing with Yes will perform in Miami: U.K. I spoke to that band’s leader, Eddie Jobson, and that interview is slated to be published by the “Miami New Times.” next week.
Jobson, who worked with Curved Air, Roxy Music, Frank Zappa and King Crimson before he took part in forming U.K. spoke with me over the phone during rehearsals in Los Angeles with his other band, UKZ. You can read the attempt to scrunch up his history in progressive rock, including the birth of U.K., which was to include (gasp) master guitarist and inventor Robert Fripp, by jumping through the logo of the paper’s music blog “Crossfade,” below (you’ll also find lots of cool retro images and videos):
Jobson recently took the initiative to reform U.K. for a few rare performances with veteran members John Wetton on bass and vocals and Terry Bozzio on drums. Guitarist Alex Machacek, from UKZ, stands in for Allan Holdsworth. They will only play a few scattered dates, including performances at music festivals in Panama and Mexico, besides the cruise. After touring to Jamaica on Yes’ “Cruise to the Edge,” U.K. will host its only U.S. show at Miami’s intimate Grand Central. “This is not only the first gig in Miami of this lineup, it’ll probably be the last,” says Jobson. “This is a one-off tour that we started last year with Bozzio, and this one gig is the only North American show we’re doing now.”
Despite the show being U.K.’s only show in the U.S., Jobson is not wholly surprised the show has yet to sell out and has no pretensions about the state of prog rock in the current popular music scene. “It’s really a nostalgia movement now,” he says. “I think there are two levels of prog rock now. There are the guys like us, who are sort of the originators of the genre, and I think our time is sort of on its last legs, to be honest,” he notes with a laugh before continuing, “The other side of progressive rock is a new wave of younger bands, especially out of England, you know, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson and musicians like that who are kind of tapping into a young, fairly vibrant retro wave … We can’t really tap into that either because they’re younger and retro hip.”
Prog arrived on the music scene in the late ‘60s offering an alternative to pop music, blues, folk and psychedelic hippie rock. But also meddled all those genres and brought in classical music training, elements of jazz and unorthodox song constructs with heavy and obscure lyrical themes that also seemed to demonstrate a literary knack. It was sometimes deridingly called “art rock” (I’ll take it, tough!). It was surprising to think such complex music once led to sold out stadiums. But as the masses’ attention span so easily grows short, popular music has little room for intellectual music, especially now. Jobson touches on one of the distractions: “It strikes me that the focus has really shifted from people appreciating players and people appreciating music to kids just fantasizing about being stars, this whole ‘American Idol,’ ‘Guitar Hero’ game sort of idea.”
One of the ways Jobson currently makes a living, as do many other prog musicians, is by giving lessons. He says these clinics have helped give him a lot of perspective. As a 58-year-old musician with many years of experience in the music industry (he was a regular child prodigy who joined Curved Air at age 16), Jobson has had a lot of time to consider the mind of a popular music consumer. “A lot of our guitar clinics or drum clinics, more people will show up to that than will show up to the concert, even if the concert’s the same day or the next day,” he notes. “People are more interested in trying to learn the tricks of how to become a rock star then to actually get into the music and have the music actually mean something to them because most of the music they’ve been brought up with has been sold to them from the music industry is just so superficial. They never develop that rich context, that richer development of appreciation for more complex rhythms, more complex harmonic structures or anything like that. Everything’s been superficialized, and that’s all they know. That’s why progressive rock can’t really sustain with that audience. That’s why classical music can’t sustain with that audience. It requires too much attention, in a way, too much analysis … That connection only happens if you’ve been sort of brought up with it and you develop that connection between complex harmony and emotional responses. I think it has to be developed in early years, and none of our kids are having it developed unless they’ve been brought up with classical music; very few are these days.”
Let’s hope refined tastes and demands for something more complex never dies out (I must say I found that in bands like Grizzly Bear and Of Montreal, among others). As the Internet grows more niche-oriented and separate, I would hope there are younger people with tastes beyond hipsterdom and superficiality who will seek out blogs such as this. There will always, therefore be some room for more complex music— and film— somewhere in culture, if not at the top of the charts. Anyone reading that agrees, let your voice be heard below.
U.K. performs at Grand Central, 697 North Miami Ave Miami, FL 33136, Saturday, March 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show is all ages. For tickets, jump through this link.
March 21, 2013
While giant music festivals continue to bring in huge crowds to cities like Chicago (Lollapalooza) and even right here in my hometown of Miami (Ultra), more niche acts with dwindling followers who are growing more affluent are taking to the high seas (see my Weezer Cruise coverage). One of the more recent groups of musicians trying out the cruise music festival circuit are a batch of progressive rock bands who both started the genre and followed in their footsteps. The Cruise to the Edge tour sails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida next week, headlined by Yes, the band who produced one of the great early ‘70s prog albums: Close to the Edge.
While my more youthful colleagues at “New Times” covered the hanging asses and same-old beats at Ultra, I had an opportunity to speak to two prog legends who will be on this cruise: Yes drummer Alan White and U.K. bandleader Eddie Jobson. Both have landlocked shows, which I wrote about in the two “New Times” publications that cover South Florida.
We covered a lot of territory on the phone. Including his memory of stepping into Bill Bruford’s shoes, when he left Yes for King Crimson in 1972. He remembers having to learn the early albums quickly. Close to the Edge was the last album Bruford recorded with the band. White came to Yes at just 23 years of age with some high-profile studio experiences with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison. “I had three days to learn the repertoire including the new album they had just recorded,” White told me via phone, from a tour stop in Aspen, Colorado, “so I had to learn a lot of stuff in a few days.”
Up to that point, this was some of the most complex music White had to learn, as Bruford had made a name for himself in prog as one of the genre’s most complex rhythm men. “Bill’s obviously a different drummer than me in certain ways, in certain ways not,” White noted. “I can do the technical stuff, but I can also do the rock ‘n’ roll background. I had my own band that was a rock/jazz type of thing for a long time before I joined Yes, so I was kinda prepared for all the time signatures, and that kind of stuff, which I got into and picked up on, and changed them a bit, to a degree, but kept most of the parts that made the music what it is.”
To read more of my conversation with White, jump through the link above. I plan to attend Yes’ live show and review it for the “New Times.” White said the band plans to play three of Yes’ more important albums from the ‘70s live: the Yes Album (1972), Close to the Edge (1973) and Going for the One (1977). The show will take place at the same venue where I caught the Genesis tribute band the Musical Box, as it re-created that band’s acclaimed 1974 prog masterpiece the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway live (Genesis tribute band The Musical Box’ take on ‘The Lamb,’ and this writer returns to “New Times”). I shall up-date this post with a link to that review when it is published, so, Yes fans, take note and bookmark.
Meanwhile, my interview with Jobson in “Miami New Times” music blog “Crossfade” will also appear shortly, I’ll link here when that post appears. We spoke more in depth about the formation of U.K. and what he considers the last of the ‘70s prog rock groups and the place of prog in the ever-shifting landscape of popular music. He was quite insightful.
Update: Jump to the Jobson interview here (it has a link within it to more of our conversation and lots of vintage images and videos):
Eddie Jobson of U.K. on popular music: “Everything’s been superficialized;” my interview in “New Times” and more
Update 2: Jump through the image below of the band performing at the Hard Rock Live on Sunday night for the live review: