Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Eels

[This feature ran in NME in 2000]

Welcome to the Hotel California (such a lovely place), a swanky Parisian hotel minutes from the Champs Elysees. Up on the seventh-floor landing, a pint-sized pooch wearing a collar studded with diamonds scampers between the legs of a soft-spoken but sharp-witted fella perched on an antique chaise lounges. It is clear that the dog, ostentatiously bejewelled and scurrying down the hall after its owner, fits in with the Hotel California’s similarly ostentatious d├ęcor (paintings and objets d’art cluttering every hallway and staircase), just as it is clear that the man, in cowboy shirt and blue jeans, doesn’t quite. The man is Mark Everett, better known as E from the band Eels, and he is used to not quite fitting in.

Dave, NME’s snapper, flashes away as E jokes about his jeans, which are gathering at the crotch and looking as if the immaculately-rendered oil nude hanging on the wall has him somewhat aroused. Jade, E’s make-up artist for the shoot, scurries over and straightens his trousers, as Dave tells E, who has been chatting about the controversial new John Lennon biography, that he looks very ‘Lennon-esque’.

“What, Lennon as he looks now?” snickers E, cracking what must be his fifth joke in as many minutes. “All decayed and rotten and stuff?” He coughs, and deadpans: “These dead-John Lennon jokes never go down well, why is that?”

This isn’t, perhaps, how you imagined E to be. Not the E whose sister committed suicide after years of mental illness, who nursed his mother through four years of terminal cancer, who chronicled these tragic events on the 1998 album ‘Electro Shock Blues’. Whither the dour Charlie Brown of post-Beck pop E is always painted as?

But then, for all the tragedy strewn across its sometimes-bleak tracks, ‘Electro Shock Blues’ is ultimately as poignant and uplifting as anything pop-music has achieved so far. And this tendency to write E off as some one-dimensional caricature of loss is evidence of a pop-cultural dumbing-down that Eels, along with kindred-spirits like The Flaming Lips, seem to be fighting a valiant, doomed battle against.

Sometimes E is happy. Sometimes E is sad. He’s a real person, and pop seems to have little stomach for real people anymore. Better the anaesthetised Friends-lite zombies currently choking music to death.

Yeah, E’s a funny motherfucker. As a brilliantly surreal interview with French station Radio Inter that afternoon proves (E using hilarious abstract nonsense to counter such thrilling questions as “What are your influencezzzzzzz”), he’s a dab hand at the kind of neurotic, self-parodising quick-wit Woody Allen exercised on his ‘earlier, funny’ movies. Indeed, his wisecracking is so constant that, if I were some amateur hack psychiatrist, I might suggest E used humour to hide his emotions.

E, who has spent much time and money on professional hack psychiatrists, agrees, to a degree.

“It’s a defence thing,” he admits, on the Eurostar taking us to London and the next stop on Eels’ promotional tour for recent album, ‘Daisies Of The Galaxy’. “But I do see the humour in so many things, in how ridiculous so many things are.”

Right now, life’s ridiculousness is providing plenty of material for E’s humour. Smothering it, even. “The fun’s gone. The music industry sucks,” he spits, and it’s easy to see how his ambitions to make music with a resonance beyond gurning “Hooray for boobies” might lead to frustration. “There are very limited possibilities for a band like us at the moment. Its all ‘date-rape’ rock, Limp Bizkit and bands like that, angry white 17-year olds. It all seems pretty silly to me. We played Lollapalooza a few years back, we’d tell all the kids waiting to see Korn to go dance with each other.”

We’re supposed to be talking about ‘Daisies Of The Galaxy’ – Eels’ excellent latest album – yet the conversation can’t help but return to ‘Electro-Shock Blues’. Not least because its reception by the listening public – confusing at least as many as it seduced – speaks so much about E’s dissatisfaction with the pop industry and an audience whose attention spans are shrinking along with their emotional investment in music.

“I don’t think I’ll ever make a more uplifting record,” he reasons, “I guess that’s the opposite of what most people think it to be. It’s a sign of the times we’re living in, there’s no time to get into something as thoroughly as you’d need to, to ‘get’ ‘Electro-Shock...’. There’s so much information thrown at you now, we’ve all got such a capacity for trivial facts, but nobody can get into anything that’s deeper than that.”

Thing is, if you approach taboos like cancer and death with anything other than a po-faced seriousness, you confuse people. They don’t know if they should laugh at the jokes, if you’ve compromised the tragedy.

“Well, I’m from the ‘Nothing Is Sacred’ school of humour, to some degree. The song ‘Something Is Sacred’, on the new album, is about how you have to get to a point where something is sacred to you, but joking about dying is not sacred to me. If you know someone who’s dying of cancer, chances are they’ll joke about dying of cancer. Dressing up as undertakers for the ‘Electro-Shock...’ tour, printing tombstones on the sleeve reading ‘sing along at home’... It was so important for me to have fun with it, have that outlet, try and turn the whole experience into something beautiful.”

Such neutering concepts of ‘good-taste’ are an anathema to E, evidence of the trends currently demolishing what little integrity pop has left. Take the hypocrisy surrounding ‘It’s A Motherfucker’, off ‘Daisies...’. It’s E’s finest moment so far, a perfect 2-minutes of heartbreaking piano and musing on the pain of absence, a song E deadpans “Whitney Houston should cover”. But even NME can’t name it without ‘bleeping’ out some ‘offending’ letters.

“I don’t trust people who don’t use profanity. Everybody says ‘motherfucker’, but we all have to pretend we don’t. Fuck that! It’s a sweet song, a very real song, something that a lot of people can identify with, and maybe get some comfort from, but everyone’s upset about it. And no one blinks an eye about Britney Spears singing ‘I Was Born To Make You Happy’. That’s not such a great message for a little girl: ‘I was put on Earth to serve you’.”

And E takes a pretty Bill Hicks-ian view of musicians who sell their songs to advertising companies...

“It’s pretty much impossible to be an artist in the music industry, this is a terrible time for it. Look at how accepted it is to sell your songs to TV commercials. My job is to be an artist, not a car salesman. And the main reason bands put their music in commercials is to get heard, because you can’t get your songs on the radio or on MTV anymore. I get offers every week to use my songs in commercials, and my life would be a lot easier if I did. But I’ve got a fundamental problem with it. If it became a choice between singing about Taco Bell or working at Taco Bell, then maybe things would be different, but I can afford to pay my rent right now.

“A car company wanted to use ‘Mr E’s Beautiful Blues’,” laughs E, shaking his head in incredulity. “The first verse is about pollution! People aren’t thinking, and they’re certainly not listening.”

‘Daisies Of The Galaxies’ marks a fistful of fresh starts for E. He’s sold up his late mother’s house. He’s moved to Silverlake, East LA, just up the road from Elliott Smith. And, through therapy, he’s beginning to understand the tensions that have destroyed his family.

“It was all so English, in so many ways,” he reflects. “Very repressed, no-one said anything direct to each other that ever meant anything. My mother could never say ‘I love you’. And once my sister died, my mother started saying ‘I love you’ when she’d get off the ‘phone to me. It was a really hard, awkward thing for her to do, but it was very touching that she realised this was an important thing. Can you imagine your child committing suicide, and feeling ‘I should have said more’? It was terrible. But its never too late to try and make things better for those who are still alive.”

Once he had finished recording ‘Daisies Of The Galaxy’, E found himself totally alone in his new house with nothing to do for 3 months. He found himself flicking through a copy of Derek Humphry’s 1991 textbook, ‘Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide For The Dying’. Light reading, then?

“I was cleaning out my mother’s house,” remembers E, “and this book, describing the most painless ways to end your life, was one of the last things I came across. I’d never seen it before, I guess she’d asked someone to get it for her, in case the pain got too bad. I took the book with me, thought it might come in handy [laughs]. Soon after, I was feeling real depressed. I started looking through the book...

He coughs. “I was, y’know interested in what it had to say... And I saw this writing in the margins, and I realised, it was my sister’s handwriting. So I realised it was my sister’s book which my mother must’ve found, and it all came crashing down on me, how awful my whole family experience has been.”

Do you still have the book?

“Yeah, it’s in my bookcase at home. Like some fucked-up family heirloom; I’ll pass it on to my kids.”

The day E sold his dead mother’s house, he says, he finally felt like a man. “It was an amazing responsibility,” he marvels, “and a horrible thing to have to do. But now I know I can deal with something like that, survive it, ‘though I’m not always sure.

“The dust was settling, I’d closed up the house, what are my choices?” he remembers asking himself, that day. “I can either stay depressed, give up and become bitter, like a lot of people do. Or I can try and be more positive and look ahead, enjoy the few years I’ve got left before I die.” He chose the latter. Where, for so long, keeping it together for the immediate future was his only thought, he’s now looking further ahead, working on a movie soundtrack, wanting to record a ‘rock’ album.

“I hope you like all the extra material I gave you today,” he grins, as we clamber off the Eurostar at Waterloo. “It’ll give you plenty to write about in the obituary, after I’ve killed myself.” And then he flashes that familiar nerd-y grin. The joke’s in poor taste, sure. But that doesn’t stop us laughing like drains.

(c) Stevie Chick 2000

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The White Stripes, 100 Club, 2001

[This review apperared in the NME in the April (i guess...?) of 2001. It was later read out on air on the Radio 4 Today programme, and reprinted across the UK's mainstream media, as evidence of the growing White Stripes phenomenon]

He’s the don of Detroit, the God of garage, the man reclaiming rock’n’roll from false-hearted cheats and whining, hollow charlatans. An all-singing, guitar-toting bolt of raging fire and restless electricity (not to mention an audacious slab of talent), Jack White and his drumming sister/wife Meg (still not sure ourselves) tear apart the hype and expectation surrounding what is arguably the hottest ‘underground’ rock band in the States right now - the band the Americans are creaming over while Britain raves about the Strokes - with the grimiest garage noise, the sweetest pop knack, the purest ‘soul’ music. If this is deliverance, we should all be true believers.

Like the White Stripes themselves, let’s cut straight to the fucking bone here: tonight, we saw rock’n’roll born again, stripped back to its barest elements, dipped in dirt and sex and explosive passion, and sent reeling into the future. Without any of the tacky technology and zeitgeist-desperation that too often seems to prove that rock is, indeed, dead. No; to save rock’n’roll, The White Stripes went back to the roots.

Nothing unique there, of course; The Strokes’ fetishisation of 70s NYC punk is just evidence of their impeccable taste (just as their beautiful rock’n’roll, equalling its sources, proves their brilliance). But The White Stripes are different. Like the garage bands swarming about their hometown (The Dirtbombs, The Von Bondies, The Paybacks - check the recent Jack White-produced Sympathetic Sounds Of Detroit album for evidence) they’re not slaves to history; they use it as a catalyst, a guide to the future.

Tonight, in many ways, is like the destruction of years of culture Alec Empire promised, only Jack White just burns away the reams of unnecessary history that chain rock’n’roll in the past, reclaiming the culture itself. Their cover of an ancient Son House blues tune, ‘Death Letter’, feels so alive, so contemporary, because Jack plays it straight and raw, the searing slide-guitar riff budgeoning the crowd like the full-on assault of At The Drive-In. A blues that could well and truly fuck Eric Clapton’s shit up.

For onstage charisma, and outrageously-apparent talent, Jack White recalls the Jeff Buckley of his fabled early London shows. He’s not yet swaggering (he’s wordless between the songs all night), but there’s an audacity to the way he tears between his two mics while slamming all manner of gorgeous, chaotic noise from his guitar on ‘Hello Operator’, and a confidence in the way he delivers the sweet ‘We’re Going To Be Friends’ so unironically. Anything’s possible, reads the subtext. Everything’s within Jack White’s grasp.

And if you’re thinking The White Stripes to be all flash and no substance, there’s a churning, revolutionary ire burning throughout. Jack writes some of the starkest, most truthful love songs - the chilling ‘Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise’, or the bittersweet ‘Apple Blossom’ - but there’s a fury that flows through his ‘protest’ songs striking deeper than a million manifesto-proferring indie-rock whelps. When White snarls “Well I’m sorry, I’m not interested in gold mines” in ‘The Union Forever’, his righteousness is unimpeachable, intoxicating. And the vitriolic, baroque ‘I Smell A Rat’ is a nailbomb of palpable disgust, an anthem for the marginalised.

From a derelict corner of the USA this stunning resurrection of rock’n’roll is surging. Colossal, bone-simple riffage and similarly uncluttered pop songs, The White Stripes’ reclamation of rock’n’roll’s vital essence, their stripping away of its fatal clutter, their utter intolerance for any kind of bullshit, is nothing short of a punk-rock miracle. Ask Jack White and he’ll bashfully deny that he’s the future of rock’n’roll.

Go make a liar of him.

(c) Stevie Chick 2001

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Velvet Revolver

[this piece ran as a cover story in Kerrang!, late 2004]



The ribald rock’n’roll spirit of Guns’n’Roses and their ilk has long since evaporated into the smog. Once they owned Sunset, roaring up the strip in outlandish automobiles, yelling and brawling and fucking on these very streets. The vogue was always for excess, in all manners and guises. But no more.

Its 9pm Saturday Night, and we’re at the Mondrian, a classy hotel just opposite the infamous Hyatt ‘Riot House’ Hotel. It boasts LA’s hottest nightspot, a poolside outdoor cocktail lounge by the name of the Sky Bar. But there’s no bandana-sporting hellions here raising a ruckus. A sleepless night on Sunset Strip nowadays is more likely to be the fault of coked-up Trustafarians straight out of The OC, blaring Death Cab For Cutie till the wee smalls, than the noisy arrival of Nicki Sixx and a harem of strippers. This is a landscape dominated by an illuminated, 30 storey Gap ad featuring preening tosser and fake-rock star Lenny Kravitz grinning inanely, flaunting his Personal Trainer-honed pectorals at his plastic disciples all over the city. Right now, it feels as barren as the desert this city was built upon.

Drive for about an hour across the wrong side of the tracks, to a deserted business park in Burbank, and you’ll find Lavish Studios, a deceptively-modest cubby-hole hidden amidst these wastelands. The crib of one Scott Weiland, it’s a messy collision of club-house and recording studio: musical gear is littered everywhere, the walls are furnished with exotic rugs (lending the room a bohemian, bacchanalian feel) and Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver Platinum disks (the gong for his appearance on Limp Bizkit’s ‘Significant Other’, fittingly, sits in the toilet, perhaps to keep Scott humble). Memorabilia abounds, from framed screen-printed Coop and Jermaine Rogers gig posters, to the megaphone Weiland wailed Sex Type Thing through.

Sweeping away early accusations of grunge-bandwagoneering and developing his Stone Temple Pilots into one of the most fascinating and flamboyant rock bands of the era, tussling with personal problems in a very public arena, even hooking up with a motley crew of ex-Guns for Velvet Revolver, none of this could’ve prepared us for the sight Weiland greeted audiences with at the first Revolver shows. Described within these pages as resembling a “Nazi rent-boy” and a “gay fashion designer”, Weiland fronted this band chock-full-of-frontmen, cladding his bone-brutal body in slutty skintight rock gear, topped off with a Fuhrer’s cap for more evil, authoritarian cool, commandeering the audience, toppling teasingly into them, dancing a chainsaw stadium-ballet that no-one who ever saw it would ever forget.

Here is a rock’n’roll frontman, he seemed to be baying, a man to follow the footsteps of Ozzy, of Iggy, of Bowie, in the preening, messianic, blood-stained rock-star stakes. Finally, someone who could own the very stages he trod.

And yet here, ultimately, is a man, all his mortal frailties on display. Peer through the fogged window he spray-painted ‘Fucking Fuck!!!!!!’ upon in spray-paints one wild night, into the control room, and you’ll find Weiland, rail-thin and sporting a skintight maroon Velvet Revolver tee and corduroy hipsters that hang around razor-sharp bones. He got here a little late but all is forgiven, the delay being not a fix or some trouble with the police, as it might once have been, but a late-running birthday party in the park for one of his son Noah’s friends. You can tell, given the choice, Weiland would still be at the party, spending time with his family; he’s only just won them back, after his problems with chemicals and the law, and still keenly remembers how their loss felt.

Its one of the most charming things about Scott Weiland, this sense of gratitude for the second chance he’s been given and embraced, a tale he tells with the sincere fervour of a Born-Again. The passion with which he declares his love for his wife and children is positively molten. Funnily enough, Kerrang! undertook this interview on the understanding Weiland’s private life would be off-limits for discussion, but Scott offers these tales of heartache and redemption himself, seemingly gaining an empowerment from the retelling. Certainly, it would seem there’s a grand distance between Weiland the man, and Weiland the Rock God, the Imp Perverse prowling the stage.

“I always looked at myself as an artist in the studio, and a performer onstage, the dark clown playing out dark theatre,” he explains, launching into the first of a sequence of extensive responses, many of which answer the bulk of my questions before they’re asked. “It’s performance art. If I can’t be taken over by that character, then there’s no use in doing it at all. I’m not myself onstage, it’s another person who I allow to take over the person you’re speaking to

“That guy up onstage is the person I used to be… I used to get confused, though, and that’s why I used to have so many problems getting loaded all the time. I used to get confused about who I really was. I’ve been diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder for years, and if I was perfectly medicated, I would be the most boring songwriter ever. My wife says, ‘Thank God our relationship isn’t perfect because otherwise you wouldn’t have any songs anymore.’”

He grins, but you can sense the tension, the pain, underneath his words. None of this, you guess, is easy.

“When I’m writing songs for a record, I start tearing apart my soul, digging up journals, napkins, dredging up a year’s worth of therapy, locked up with a needle in my arm… When I started writing the record, I had to make sure I was tightening my shit up and getting my family back together. So I had to leave that person behind, the person who was the inspiration for this record, and prepare myself to go on the road and be strong enough to handle this whole media thing that’s happened.

“Where I’m at, my whole thing was, was I ever really a man? No, I don’t think I ever really was. I think every musician gets to the point where you realise being Peter Pan for your entire life only works for a little while. My chief goal was to achieve a rapid emotional puberty, or I wouldn’t have been able to get my family back.”

Is it frightening to reconnect with this Mr Hyde-type alter-ego up onstage?

“No, the music takes over. When I’m actually recording the song, that’s when I’m close to the emotional content. Live, it’s a primordial thing, a sensual thing. It’s about the beat, it’s sexual and violent. That’s what I’m attracted to, at that moment, onstage.”

How conscious are you of what’s going when you’re out onstage?

“It depends upon what mood I’m in before I hit the stage. The best gigs are the ones where there’s something that absolutely infuriates me before I go onstage, something that causes me to have a psychiatric meltdown up there. I’ll throw a full-metal wobbler. But that will inspire the most majestic performance. I think what really gives Velvet Revolver their impact is this sense that anything could happen. It’s that Evel Kenievel element, there could be a trainwreck at any moment.

“There are some big egos in this band, there’s some tension. But it’s that tension which creates absolute brilliance: it’s the tension that means everybody’s feeling it, everyone’s testosterone is at boiling point, and everyone’s hair’s standing up on the back of their neck, playing with complete intensity and complete passion. Nobody’s falling asleep onstage.”

Weiland’s not in the mood for holding anything back. Certainly, this is a man rudely acquainted with how live performances, and life itself, can collapse into the ugliest, most exhilarating trainwrecks when you’re least expecting. But he’s right; Velvet Revolver teeter every night between majesty and misery, chasing a mercurial promise of rock’n’roll nirvana, but hasn’t this High-Wire act always been the stuff of great rock’n’roll?

“There’s two sides to me as a performer; there’s the theatrical side, and then there’s the side of me that is willing to be torn apart and leave the stage bloodied, beaten and gorged. True and real rock’n’roll is a perfect marriage of sex and violence. And that’s where the energy has always been created, it’s been that way since the ‘50s. Rock’n’roll inspires you to do one of two things, and that’s to fight or fuck. Or both.”

Oddly enough, this confirmed Arena Rocker says he “sorta missed out on Arena Rock, cuz I never had an older brother to take me to the shows. The first show I ever played was at a club called Radio City. We weren’t even an actual punk-rock band, we were more of a post-punk band, nancy boys, all doom and gloom with eyeliner and big fringes. My first show was playing in front of fifteen people. I felt like I was already a rock star.”

Young Weiland must’ve been quite a sight. Though he grew up singing in the choir in church – “They always made me sing the solos, and I remember it being horrifying because, when you’re little, all the other little kids out there would snicker and laugh at you, but music was everything I ever wanted to do.” – by the time he hit 8th Grade, his heroes were David Bowie, The Sweet, and Johnny Rotten.

“When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time dressing up in costumes. I always used to spend a lot of time pretending I’m somebody else. My mother and father thought I’d become an actor, and in a sense that’s what I do when I’m on stage. I would make costumes out of anything really. In fourth grade, when the whole Glam thing was going on, I came back from staying with my Dad in California with a pair of skin-tight angel-flight pants, made of polyester. When I got back to Ohio, I was trying to put together the right look, so I got this silky blouse of my mother’s, and I wore it unbuttoned to my navel. My grandmother, who was visiting, had a pair of platform shoes, but they were women’s platform shoes, about an inch and a half on the sole, and the heel was three inches. I wore it all to school one day. The whole outfit. Needless to say, that was the only day I wore the outfit. It didn’t go over so well in fourth grade. The teachers might’ve thought it was cute, but the other kids… I was probably trying to get a reaction from the chicks, but I didn’t get the reaction I was looking for.

“I had a friend in seventh grade, John Wild, who came back from Summer vacation in Europe with punk-rock records. He had the Plasmatics, he had Sex Pistols, he had the Ramones. He was the one guy in my smalltown of Chagrin Falls, OH, who actually knew about punk-rock. The jocks in high school used to look down at my friends and I for being skinny make-up-wearing pussies; ‘art-fags’, they used to call us. It’s funny, because a lot of them were friends with us at school, when they weren’t drunk. But when they got drunk at parties, they would give us hassle. Once those kinda guys drank too much cheap beer they’d get kinda violent. You’ll see these exact same guys rocking their fists in the air at shows, especially in the Midwest, when I’m wearing a black patent leather corset, singing Sex Type Thing. It’s quite a turnaround. That’s my revenge.”

Ironically, the night before we meet up with Weiland, he’s been out rocking the LA nightlife at a Camp Freddie show.

Camp Freddie is a cover band where a bunch of friends,” explains Weiland, “A bunch of rock star celebrities get together and play together. Last night was my first show with them… Everyone was there: Dave Navarro, Matt Sorum, Steve Jones. Billy Duffy was there, Courtney Love sang. I sang David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, and I sang ‘Bodies’ with Steve Jones. And ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’.”

As he’s explained, in the past Weiland has struggled with the contradictions inherent in being a Globally Recognised Rock’n’Roll Star and “A father of two beautiful children, a husband who takes care of his wife, who provides for his wife, who fucks his wife whenever she’s willing to ‘put out’.” Are there similar contradictions inherent in playing such a grand, theatrical ‘character’ onstage with Velvet Revolver when the lyric sheet – new single ‘Falling To Pieces’ in particular – is so rooted in his own, real-life and down-to-earth confllicts?

“I kinda struggle with that myself, to tell the truth,” he answers. “I cannot make a record with just one flavour, I’m not just feeling one way all the time. There are so many different emotions on this record. I went through the worst, most depressing period of my life. I didn’t think I was gonna get my family back but, at the same time, I was filled with so much venom towards her because, in my mind, I thought she was fucking someone else. She wasn’t, but in my mind I thought she was. I wanted to fuckin’ have her killed, that’s how I felt sometimes. But other times, I would remember everything we’d done together, and experiences that we’d had, look at our wedding video. I would just break down.

“There’s so many different emotions, running the gamut from A to Z. It’s not a black album, it’s not a white album; it’s everything. It’s not a completely depressing, poor-me fuckin’ album, like some of the earlier STP records were. You wanna know why? Because I won’t sit there and say ‘Pardon me’ anymore, I’m a fuckin’ man and I’ll own up to what I’ve done now. I’ve made my mistakes and I’ll fuckin’ own up to them, if you fuck me then I’ll fuck you. That’s the way it is. If I’m hurt, then I will say, yeah, I’m hurt. I’ll admit that too. All those emotions are on that record.

“A lot of times, on certain songs, the riff and the beat inspired me to write music that’s pretty fucken sleazy and dirty and, for lack of a better term, music that girls and guys should fuck to. It’s good stripper-fuckin’ music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You know why? People should spend more time fuckin’, and a lot less time… worrying about…”

He’s struggling to finish his sentence, so he cuts to the chase.

“You know what? Everybody should just spend more time fuckin’. I’ll tell you why, when my wife and I are having a lot of sex, the relationship’s healthier, happier. When we’re having less sex, we don’t get along as well. It’s the fuckin’ truth. If you’re having more sex, aren’t you getting along better with your chick? Sexual energy, between two people – not just a guy and a girl, whatever – it’s so fuckin’ important.”

Of course, alongside the stripper-fuckin’ music, Velvet Revolver’s debut album harbours a potent power-ballad, the epic and dark ‘Falling To Pieces’. Telling Weiland’s recent history in the plainest, most poetic language, it’s the subject of one of the more chilling, poignant, powerful music videos on television now, dramatising the recent flashpoints in Weiland’s turbulent marriage, and his relationship with illicit and dangerous chemicals. Weiland and his wife, Mary, play out a number of these scenes, against a backdrop of seedy backstage areas, overdose-cramped emergency rooms, their own rapidly-crumbling dream-home. It could have been mawkish trash. In practice, it’s a three-minute rollercoaster that’ll leave you chilled, disturbed, but mostly moved.

“I’ll tell ya, for me, it was pretty heavy,” remembers Weiland. “But it was the only way to go about doing it. I was pretty scared when I made the decision to actually tell the real story. Because it could’ve gone either way – either it’d turn out amazing, and would have a huge impact, on a real emotional level, or it could’ve ended up really cheesy. I’ve really never done any real acting like that before. There weren’t any actual lines to say, it was more intense than that: I couldn’t hide behind any dialogue. I had to get everything across, all the emotion was non-verbal. Everyone had to dig deep inside of themselves, if it wasn’t going to be convincing it would be a complete pile of fucking bullshit.

“I didn’t even watch MTV or VH1 for the first couple of weeks, I didn’t want to hear any feedback on it at all. But I’m happy about it, the feedback has been great. That song is the pivotal point on the album, that was where it all started changing, for me and for the band. That song was written the day after I was arrested, and if things hadn’t changed there, then the band couldn’t have worked. I don’t even know if I’d be talking to you now. That song really tells the story of what happened over the year leading up to that event, and really, in a sense, tells the story of what’s happening now, by telling the story of what happened leading up to that day.

“If it hadn’t have been such a powerful song, on a musical level, I wouldn’t have been moved to write those lyrics, that melody. That song was the exact moment where I realised that Slash and I could really be one of those classic songwriting teams.”

It’s been an hour, and its time for Weiland to return home. He offers, kindly, to answer more questions on the phone later, but – understandably, even commendably – nothing’s going to interrupt this next appointment, a quiet evening in with Mary and the kids.

One last quick question, Scott. What does Noah think, when he sees Velvet Revolver up there onstage? Does he see Scott Weiland, Nazi Rentboy frontman, or does he just see Daddy?

“My son thinks he’s in the band,” he laughs. “He is completely intrigued by what I do for a living. We’re very similar. When he comes to the shows, we have to put a little mic-stand right on the side of the stage, by the monitor boards, so he can sing and dance along. If it’s not set up, he throws a bit of a fit.”

That sounds like great rock-star training…

“Exactly,” he laughs. “Throwing a fit is definitely great rock-star training.”

(c) 2004 Stevie Chick

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Erykah Badu

[This piece ran in the first issue of Loose Lips Sink Ships]

“‘Freakquency’ is born and neo-soul is dead. Are you afraid of change?”

- sleeve for Erykah Badu’s ‘Worldwide Underground’ EP

I love art because its only limits are those which you place on yourself. I’m old enough to know what a rarity such freedom is, young enough to remember how delicious it tastes.

Erykah Badu is Erykah Badu, from the wispiest top licks of her globular ‘fro, to the tip of the twig of incense smoulderin’ out her mouth like a posh white lady’s cigarette-holder, to the ragged sleeves of her utilitarian revolutionary’s overcoat, to the velveteen swishes of the stunning green gown she sleekly hides ‘neath. There are blurs and echoes of other artists crunched nugget-sized in there too (and how off the mark does that glib ‘Hip-Hop Billie Holliday’ soubriquet she was initially saddled with seem today?), but, truly, she’s her own creation now. Three albums (four if you count 1997’s candescent, majestic live album, two if you disallow it and last year’s sprawling hour-long ‘EP’ ‘Worldwide Underground’) into her recording career, she remains maverick and unpredictable, no matter how many killjoy crits wanna slay her with some bewilderingly negatory Neo-Soul tag, just because she isn’t shacking up with Neptunes for her every release (which makes me wonder, how is harking back to an era of militant and free-thinking album-orientated soul artists of the 1970s vintage like Stevie Wonder, or Betty Davis, or Minnie Riperton, or Donna Summer, or ‘Emergency Ward!’-era Nina Simone (not that Badu sounds necessarily like any of these, we’re talking mindsets as opposed to simple mimicry) any more reactionary or retro than returning to the 1960s dynamic of black female singers as primarily singles artists, artistically beholden and secondary to their producers?). It’s a tag which plain doesn’t even fit her anymore, given how her last two albums tore up the classic souljazz blueprint of ‘Baduism’ in favour of a freeform template that hotwires melting Rhodes electric pianos to airless 80s synthdrums, juddering titanic hip-hop scratches over flickering 1930s torchsongs, and all manner of exquisitely glitched soultronica, synchronising archaic elements and rudimentary futurism, rehumanising tired passages of heartbreak in genuinely moving ways and preaching some fusion of new-age spiritualism and functional feminism and radicalised Afrocentrism. But that’s enough of this -ism jism.

I first really got deep into Badu shortly after the death of Jeff Buckley, oddly enough. Jonesing for another unique voice to sing me songs that’d break my heart, I figured Badu would fit the bill. And what a voice she has; in an era when quivering uber-vibrato through every octave known and unknown is all an overblown karaoke maven needs to claim stardom, Badu is a revelation. Sure, she could match ‘em for the flashy verbal pyrotechnics, but, like any artist worth anything, the key is not what she can do, but what she chooses to do (and, implicitly, what she chooses not to), the flashes of perversity, the rerouting of traditions, the flavour and candour of her voice. Not to mention those moments when she just soars off into planes of unguarded ecstasy, like the closing moments of ‘Bag Lady’, or that note she held in Brixton in December, halfway through ‘Other Side Of The Game’, that rang out, radiant, full of sorrow and truth and beauty and courage, just a bolt of pure and unabashed emotion that anyone’s words would fail to truly convey, because its spectral magic circumnavigates literal logic.

Like ‘I Want You’ off ‘Worldwide Underground’, eleven minutes of gorgeous monotony, a treatise on funk-as-water-torture. It opens with around two minutes of Badu stuttering “I… I… I… I… I…” like a stuck record, before she slurs “…want…you…you…you…you…” on&on again&again, and initially the temptation is to write off this slab of indigestible soul-concrete as some tedious pretension. Until the payoff hits, the one-note stutter morphing from its stasis into some minimal synth-splash and fatback groove, Badu piecing together a brittle diorama of The-Perfect-Love-That-Is-Also-The-Relationship-That-Can’t-Ever-Work (a staple of her lyric book, cf. ‘Time’s A Wasting’, ‘Next Lifetime’) for a verse, before the track lapses back into this heartskip stammer, lissom wails of “What we gonna do?” hanging dolorously in the air, the sheer world-flattening tragedy of this essential conflict in Badu’s soul – what she wants vs what she can have – articulated via the track’s conjoined hooks (“I… Want… You…” and “What we gonna do?”) melding into some throbbing wall of noise, obliterating everything else on the track. It’s pretty fucken heavy.

In moments like these, Badu operates like the cipher in hip-hop; she’s a lightning rod for woe, and that’s what you feel at an Erykah Badu concert: like this is a communal space where such feelings are shared wordlessly, and expunged, with Badu’s siren, imbued with pain but also dignity, serving as a shared catharsis, not unlike the effect Gil Scott-Heron sang of on ‘Lady Day & John Coltrane’ (guess that Billie Holliday reference makes a little more sense now).

Not that this is her only mode or mood. At last year’s Brixton date (she could’ve sold the venue out several times over, but is reluctant to perform anywhere else in London, which, allied to her self-imposed media-blackout of late, attests to her belief in the Worldwide Underground – a belief the audience she deserves should/will find her without mercenary marketing campaigns; she spent what passed for her ‘aftershow’ hanging with fans in her dressing room for several hours, doubtless discussing music and what incense is best for listening to specific Badu songs, a glimpse into the traffic on the messageboard on www.erykahbadu.com), towards the end of the set, she approached a weird, retrofuturistic-looking thingummajig onstage and started pounding out freakbeat rhythms on this oddball drum machine for ten minutes or so, like some stoner’s momentary obsession, only it sounded pretty amazing, her tapping in this symphony of weird glitch explosions, grin plastered across her face. Its indulgent more than self-indulgent, because there’s no doubt this kind of eccentricity is definitely what many of us in her audience ask of her – that she teeter between the acknowledged poles of sublime and ridiculous, and that her every gesture swing violently in one direction or other, while still retaining a morsel of its opposite.

Like Indigo, from Ntozake Shange’s wonderful novel, ‘Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo’ (Picador USA) – the girl with “too much of the south in her”, mapping the changes in her body and her burgeoning womanhood to a metaphysical concept of magic, imagining the cures for every ill hidden in weird recipes and esoteric spells, and believing that her music enchants, can heal, can bring her dolls to life – she’s possessed of a wonderful naivety, ploughing through the realms of what shouldn’t be done in pursuit of what hasn’t yet been done. So she can play stardusted hippy chick, Black Pantheress, street feminist, new age sensualist, hip-hop queen, Earth mother, moonchild, modern woman livin’ just enuff for the city, all of these, because in her mind any contradictions these might suggest simply don’t exist, and the energy, creativity and vivacity of her art are so forceful as to convince us of that, too, in the heat of musical contact. And afterwards, those contradictions compose merely another layer of idiosyncracy for us to affectionately sort through, the intrigue amongst this abundancy of ecstasy.

I love Erykah Badu, because she is Erykah Badu every precious moment that she sings. May her feet never touch the ground.


(c) Stevie Chick 2004

The Darkness

[this piece ran as a cover story in Kerrang! in 2003]

You’d not imagine rock’n’roll abounding in the cold, bare environs of West London’s Sanctuary photographic studio. Stark and sparse, its a blank canvas littered with scruffily paint-splattered step-ladders, ominously-humming power-points, and a strangely antiseptic dressing room with illuminated mirrors like you might imagine a pantomime Widow Twankey using to apply his/her make-up. Funnily enough, our subjects this afternoon are practitioners of a similarly camp and particularly English brand of showbiz.

The Darkness stroll in, at once at odds with any accepted sense of ‘cool’ and yet exceedingly, utterly rock’n’roll, a seemingly-contrary stance they wear well. There’s drummer Ed Graham, sad-eyes painted with mascara, his hulking, skin-pummeling frame jarring sweetly with the girlishness of his make-up. There’s Frankie Poullain, jaunty mustache, bandana and golden earring suggesting he was a pirate on the open waves in a previous life.

And then there are the Hawkins brothers, guitarist Dan and singer/guitarist Justin. Dan exudes easy rock cool, in his audaciously flared cords, skinny torso, long golden hair. Justin’s like a slightly more awkward echo, a comedian’s faux-clumsiness lurking within his swagger, but he too looks utterly ‘rock’n’roll’ – in an antique, faded Aerosmith baseball tee, cut short so it finishes an inch or so above his unbelievably tight blue jeans, neatly showing off the neon plumes of fire flickering in tattooist’s ink up his lean, tanned abdomen.

All four men look striking, pleasingly odd – like they’ve been carved in some forgotten rock-god’s image, when those who struck instruments and wailed into the night sky seemed like another species altogether, before punk-rock made stars of scruffy mortals with a couple of chords at their fingertips. Offstage, they seem strangely earthbound, like they’re ill-at-ease without guitars strapped to them, without their animal-print catsuits or several trillion decibels of raw metallic noise to soothe their spirits. But onstage… well. That’s a very different story.

They’re still kicking triumphant traces of Donnington Download mud from their cowboy boots as they walk in, copies of Kerrang! proudly folded open to the festival review. “We’re described as lanky, but I’ve got really short legs,” notes Justin. “I’m the shortest member of the band, 5’11”.”

“We’re one of the tallest bands in rock history,” grins Dan, continuing. “Ed’s six foot. Frankie’s six two and a half.”

“I don’t think of us in terms of height, but width. Girth,” leers Frankie, filthily. “That was one of our rejected album titles, ‘Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Girth’. ‘Short Fat Cock’, that was another one.”

“People who are shorter tend to adopt a certain ‘Napoleon’ complex,” reasons Justin, a man who bullshits with flair and passion, amid a din of guffaws. “The prima donnas tend to be the shorter stars, the Princes, the Jon Bon Jovis… That’s why they yearn to be onstage, to extend their perceived manhood. As it were. But, as you can see, it’s not something we have to worry about.”

Indeed. Their brilliant debut album more reasonably titled ‘Permission To Land’ and readied for release, their live show entering the orbit of the enormodome, their helium-huffing and preposterous, platinum rock songs… The Darkness are about to become Very Big Indeed, and it’s not something they – or you – need worry about whatsoever.

In the beginning, there was The Darkness…

Well, no, of course there wasn’t. In the beginning, there was the uncool, the painful prehistory before the Hawkins brothers’ nascent dreams of rock stardom made any sense or semblance of ever coming true.

“Before this band, Dan and I couldn’t see eye to eye with each other over anything,” remembers Justin. “We certainly couldn’t have played together in a band. I was a bit of a geeky rocker. Dan’s always had a bit more of a ‘cool’-ness about him. He probably had no desire to be in a band with me because I was such a twat. I think those are the same reasons its working so well now, but in the past, we couldn’t even communicate.”

There’s a likeable, typically-British awkwardness to Justin. He’s hyper and glam like Dave Lee Roth, but with a little Basil Fawlty and Goon Show eccentricity in there too. If Dan is a natural rock’n’roll star in the Keef Richards, unimpeachably-cool mode, Justin’s naturally, irresistibly comical, given to bursts of naughty toilet humour when it suits him; you don’t doubt stashed somewhere in his house is, say, the full set of Bottom videos (“You could use the Big Bang theory if you like, but its more like a long slow emission of gas which eventually explodes,” he says, of their success). He’s a misfit, always has been, and is comfortably proud of it.

“Ever since I was at school, I’ve always chosen to listen to stuff that everyone else thought wasn’t cool,” he continues. “It feels a bit more personal to me. I was listening to Aerosmith, Van Halen and AC/DC, wearing my Steve Tyler scarves; everyone else thought I was a twat or a ‘Greb’. I was not actually a popular child. I think one of the reasons I’ve become such a shit-hot guitar player is not having the option of sitting under the pier and taking drugs with the cool kids; I was in my bedroom playing guitar like a motherfucker. It’s worked out for me now, so I’m not bitter in any way. But I think that goes some way to explaining who I am.”

For all their star-gazing flamboyance, The Darkness are a fearsomely-driven band. When other groups would mosey down to the pub, they rehearse. They’re always writing new material, honing their stagecraft, planning their next step. They’re also at least as fearless as they are shameless (have you seen some of Justin’s costumes?).

“I think the ‘balls’ element is key here,” says Dan. “Justin and I did fantastically at school; at GCSES, we got straight As. Justin did one year of A-Levels, was a straight A student. Halfway through his course, he just said ‘Fuck this, I’m off’. He buggered off to Huddersfield to knock around a studio up there for a year or too. At that point, I was about to leave school. I just thought, fuck this, my grades are all really good but I don’t want to do this anymore. Luckily my parents were understanding enough to let us try for what we wanted…”

The interaction between these two brothers is, in fact, very sweet, despite whatever tensions Justin alludes to. While Dan’s definitely not the type to suffer fools gladly, inherently practical and no-nonsense in outlook, he seems deeply fond of his brother’s eccentricities and comedic bent. Justin might gladly fool around, gadding about the studio later in a variety of costumes playing the good-natured clown while Dan, dressed in black shirt and trousers, merely riffs and solos on his guitar, but there’s also a sense that Dan looks up to his elder brother (“By three months,” winks Justin). He made the first blind leap towards his dreams all those years ago, and Dan obviously still draws strength from his brother’s fearlessness.

The Hawkins house in Lowestoft was a hive of keen music enthusiasts. Ma and Pa Hawkins kept their boys pumped full of great music, a menu that included, according to Justin, “Queen, Fleetwood Mac, and a helluva lotta reggae!” Of course, the Darkness’s glammed-up and hook-laden fruits haven’t fallen far from the classic-rock tree, but they’re not blind in their love for their idols.

“A lot of my guitar style is influenced by Brian May,” offers Justin, “but the way he’s butchered the Queen back catalogue would make Freddie wince.”

Have you seen the play?

“No,” he answers. “I will not see… that. Ben Elton’s got fuck all to do with music. If he did that to my songs, I’d come and haunt him, I’d come back from the grave and fuck him in the eye.

“I blame Brian, whether it was his decision or not. He allows people like 5ive to cover ‘We Will Rock You’. That’s wrong, for a start. And then Brian said, ‘Well, instead of having one fantastic singer, we’ve now got five fantastic singers!’ Fuck off, Brian.”

What about when he stood on top of Buckingham Palace for the Jubilee last year?

“I’ve got to say, that fucking kicked arse,” interrupts Dan. “That’s what he’s here for, fucking standing on top of fucking Buckingham Palace, playing a wicked fucking solo with half the world watching. Fucking genius. He just makes very poor business decisions, and he’s ruining his fucking catalogue. Sorry Brian.

“It’s weird, people think we’ve got our heads perpetually stuck in rock biographies, that we’re in awe of these people. I couldn’t give a flying fuck. It’s the music that I’m into. There’s nothing more fun than playing guitar in front of a shitload of Marshals, playing enormous riffs. People think we actually plan the way we sound, that there’s some kind of preconceived agenda. There so isn’t, we just get together and do what the fuck we want. Like, you’re not allowed to play ‘Smoke On The Water’ in a guitar shop, which is always the first fucking thing I do when I try a guitar out. It turns us on, doing stuff we’re not allowed to do.”

The ‘stuff we’re not allowed to do’ Dan is referring to there is, presumably, The Darkness’s penchant for rocking hard without descending into angsty posturing, making them glorious misfits in a rock landscape which has, since the Year Zero that was Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, chosen misery over the kind of celebratory sounds reverberating through ‘Permission To Land’. Think of the lineage of rock figureheads since Kurt tragically left this world, and you’ll come up with a slew of lesser complaint-rock bards all venting their tortured souls and tempered tantrums, evidence of a seismic shift in a music that was once all about dumb, heady celebration but now lingers in a morbid earthbound gloom. Fret not, though; The Darkness have come to deliver us from, uh, the darkness.

The first rumblings came last year, with their ludicrously brilliant, and brilliantly ludicrous ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ single, a deliciously addictive blast of metallic soprano that packed all the glitter and pizzazz of their swiftly-legendary live shows into its four minutes of poperatic madness. Then, the controversial ten-page feature in style mag Dazed & Confused, which the band are still, of a fashion, living down.

“The whole point of that feature was, don’t forget there are people like these who will probably never make it, but that’s not gonna stop ‘em from toiling,” grins Justin, relaxing with is bandmates out in the sun-bathed parking bay beside the studio.

Their flamboyance, their choice of influences and their brilliant stageplay (early shows saw Justin hurling his sweaty tee shirts to fans; “It makes it special for one person every night,” he explains) saw them written off as an ironic joke by a music industry grown fat off the gloom-rock cashcow. “We’ve given up trying to understand that, to be honest,” puzzles Justin. “We’ve chalked it up to jealousy, sexual inadequacy, all sorts of things, really.”

But when their second single, ‘Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman Motherfucker’, scored chart success despite no marketing or promotional push and, obviously, scant radioplay, the industry belatedly began to take notice. Frankie takes great pleasure quoting the backtracking of various big-name insiders on the issue of The Darkness’s burgeoning stardom, and you get the impression The Darkness are going to savour their last laugh. Now they rock out on kids’ Saturday morning TV shows, the new single ‘Growing On Me’ clings to the radiowaves like catsuit-clad bunting, and all kinds of high-profile festival slots are planned for the summer.

They’ve swiftly become a byword for rock’n’roll done right; “At Brighton, this woman brought her ten your old son up afterwards and told us she wanted his first rock show to be a proper one. ‘I wanted you to pop his rock cherry’, she said,” laughs Justin. “‘You’re the best men for the job!’”

Later, dressed in his leopard-print catsuit (he has several, and can choose between the different catskins like an experienced furrier), Justin will sprawl in an utterly lascivious fashion on the floor before his band, illuminated by camera-flash and shutter-whirr, springing back up intermittently and rubbing the calves twisted in agony by his posing, but returning every time to his unnatural and – to anyone not gifted with so balletic a form – unattainable stance. He’s like an old-school showbiz trouper, and no stretch is too far to make his rock’n’roll dreams come true. It’s hard work, they admit, but they enjoy every minute of it, and the larger this thing gets, the more it seems to suit them. Rock’n’roll, they insist, isn’t just better than ‘real’ life; it’s easier too.

“Coming off tour is probably the worst thing about being in a band,” sighs Dan.

“Because at that point you have to remember how to cross roads and use public transport and everything like that,” adds Justin, dripping Freddie Mercury camp. “You don’t have somebody doing everything for you and wiping your arse for you.”

“Also, you haven’t got a rider,” continues Dan, sweetly useless in that way only true rock’n’roll stars can pull off. “You have to fill that fridge up yourself, and life begins to get really expensive.”

And that about sums up the extent of the bitching within The Darkness camp, bemoaning the endless hours until their next taste of the road, of the stage. They’re definite entertainers, in the old-school sense; they see their job each night to uplift and thrill their audiences. Crucially, they love it. It’s these qualities that make them something of an anomaly in the 21st Century Rock World. You don’t get taken seriously in rock now, unless your noise somehow plugs in to the communal sorrow and hormonal riot of overwrought teens. Luckily, The Darkness clearly have no interest in being taken ‘seriously’.

“A lot of songwriters feel really sorry for themselves, all their songs are, essentially, ‘why meeee??!’,” muses Frankie.

“We’re not about death, we’re about life,” adds Dan. “There’s too many bands out there that are all about death. Kurt Cobain killing himself has made it seem like something cool, almost…”

“Some people find the ‘concept’ of The Darkness offensive, they think our ethos of flamboyancy and stagecraft and having a great time is some cynical ‘angle’,” continues Justin. “How is that more cynical than The Vines screaming ‘I am the next Kurt Cobain, please listen to my music before I kill myself’? I’ve always thought that if I played my guitar as bad as Craig Nicholls does, I’d probably feel sorry for myself and pull all those faces.”

Is there no darkness at the heart of The Darkness?

“I think when we hit the stage, there is no darkness whatsoever,” offers Dan. “On the album, elements of darkness creep in there.”

He’s referring, of course, to ‘Givin’ Up’, an explicit heroin addiction song (‘My mamma wants to know where I’m spending all my dough, all she does is nagnagnag / but I won’t apologise, I’ll inject into my eyes, if there was nowhere else to stick my jag’) that’s not autobiographical, but does deal with the experience of someone close to Justin and Dan who was a junkie. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to approach the subject in a mature, adult way, or being cryptic,” falters Justin, careful not to reveal the subject of the song but willing to discuss it. “If you take everything at face value then you, sir, are an idiot. You have to be prepared to glean from it whatever you can. I wouldn’t be comfortable with anything else.”

“None of us are kind of manic depressives or anything like that,” states Dan, getting the conversation back on topic.

“Well, we are a bit,” avers Ed. “But we don’t want on dwell on it. People who play moaning music, I find it quite hard to believe they’re actually depressed people.”

“The ones who can’t vocalise, communicate depressed feelings,” says Justin, “They’re the ones you need to worry about.”

“Our advice is, if you are feeling that way then come along to a Darkness show and we’ll cheer you up,” concludes Frankie, brightly but seriously.

For the record, The Darkness are great fans of Nirvana, they just hate all the derivative trash that’s come along since. They hate the cult of the ‘boy next door’, rock stars who don’t look like rock stars, who lack any iconic flair.

“Rock’n’roll used to be about heightened reality,” says Frankie. “Ever since grunge, it hasn’t been like that. We’ve broken the rules; I think. There’s gonna be a lot of post-The Darkness bands coming through in our wake.”

“Zoe Ball is doing a campaign for girls to send in their knickers and make an outfit out of those donated knickers,” adds Justin, mischievous twinkle in his eye. “The first pair came in, and they’re Courtney Love’s. Which kind of brings the whole Nirvana thing full-circle, doesn’t it?”

Hours have passed, and so the magic of showbiz has decorated this stark white box of a room with a very Darkness brand of stardust. Now heavy red velvet curtains billow behind the band’s gear, and the boys start plugging in their instruments, the objects that make gods of these mere mortals, for the photo shoot.

Dan’s instrument of choice is a pristine new Gretsch guitar that he’s just taken delivery of; at £3,000, the signature Elliot Easton (lead guitarist with 70s pop-rockers The Cars) axe is one of his first extravagant Rock Star gestures but, typically, he’s not remotely precious about the guitar, teaching K! Art Editor Caroline Fish the deathless chords to ‘Smoke On The Water’ and strumming along to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ and The Cult’s ‘Electric’ album in its entirety, playing on the stereo as K! snapper Paul Harries flashes away.

But you can see Ed itching to hammer his kit, powerchords forming at Dan’s fingertips, anticipation of that moment, that electrifying noise The Darkness are only ever a gesture or two away from. Their natural element. As Justin walks into the shot, resplendent in a lurid Ringmaster’s costume, every bit the heavy metal dandy of his most fevered daydreams, the band flick the switch and their glorious neon rock’n’roll explodes forth. It feels good, sinfully good.

“We get guys in bands telling us what we do is kind of what they do at the end of their session when they’re just pissing around, having a great time,” laughs Justin, later, as Dan struggles helping to remove his ringmaster jodphurs. “They wish, in some ways, that they had the balls to come and do what we do. Because the riffs we play are the sort that make your balls feel big, the kind of stuff you long to be able to get away with.”

And that’s the thing; The Darkness are getting away with this, making gloriously addictive pop-metal hewn from the classic lineage of AC/DC’s killer riffage, Queen’s lunatic licentiousness, producer Mutt Lange’s alchemical transformation of brickie-rockers Def Leppard into sculptors of sublime metallic sunshine. Making their dreams come true, because they have the talent, the fever, the balls to do so.

You’ve a choice to make; moping in your bedroom listening to fratboys in mansions picking at their emotional scabs and flexing your angst, or giving yourselves over to a deeper, truer Darkness, a band with the guts to actually be or do something.

It’s a bit of a no-brainer really, isn’t it?


(c) Stevie Chick 2003

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Richard Pryor

[This profile first appeared in Sleazenation magazine's Cult Heroes section back in early 2001]


“They useta have that on the news every now and then, that I was dead. Y’know, it’s a bitch if you be watching the news, and motherfucker talking ‘bout you be dead... My accountant called me up and said, ‘I heard you were dead.’ Well I ain’t dead. I wanna check my books, too...”




The delivery, if a little shaky, is unmistakable, much like the smart, streetwise humour. It comes from ‘M.S.’, the final track of And It’s Deep Too, a box-set retrospective of Richard Pryor’s comedy albums. The skit was recorded on Pryor’s final stand-up tour, undertaken by Richard late 1992, almost a year after he publicly admitted that he was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system, and which left him so debilitated he ultimately had to cut short the tour.

For ten minutes, Pryor casts his bullshit-annihilating eye over the realities of his condition, doctors blaming the disease on his drug-abuse (“He said, ‘Maybe it’s because you did that two ounces that time’. I said, ‘Man, I fuckin’ did two ounces every time!’”); muscle spasms that women think are flirtatious advances; bouts of incontinence that scupper any potential romances. It’s some angry, beautiful, wise, painful, hilarious shit, akin and equal to anything else in the box; prime Pryor, facing up to the fucked-up shit-storm of reality armed with nothing but the right questions and a quicksilver wit, and returning, not with answers, but something much more valuable: the truth.

It’s a method Pryor employed throughout his stand-up career, the meat of Richard Pryor’s art. Forget the movies; aside from the odd gem (the script for Blazing Saddles, a brilliant cameo in Car Wash, Paul Shrader’s drama Blue Collar), Hollwood Pryor is mostly a diluted shadow of his full-flavoured genius.

Fact is, Pryor scared the shit out of Hollywood. That’s why the suits wouldn’t let him star in Blazing Saddles (Cleavon Little took Pryor’s role instead), why they refused to let him present the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live (he hosted the fourth episode, broadcast on a 5-second delay in case a stray “mother-fucker” should escape Pryor’s lips), why his ground-breaking 1977 series The Richard Pryor Show was beset by network interference over content, scheduled opposite Happy Days (the #1 rated show of the time), and cancelled after four episodes.

And, fact also is, Pryor gave the suits plenty to be afraid of. Here was a man who went through life snorting and fucking whatever he pleased, a walking (self-inflicted) apocalypse with a fine line in partying and disastrous relationships, compounding his bad behaviour by working it into his act, messily demolishing the barrier between his onstage and offstage personae. As his fame and self-confidence increased, nothing in his troubled private life would prove too personal or embarrassing to be used as material. When, in 1978, a drink’n’drugs crazed Pryor was arrested for shooting his Mercedes-Benz full of holes to spite third wife Deboragh McGuire, the widely-publicised episode was worked into the routine ‘New Year’. “It seemed fair to kill my car to me,” he revealed, “Cuz my wife was goin’ to leave my ass, and I said, ‘Not in this motherfucker you ain’t! If you leave, you be drivin’ those hush-puppies you got on there... Cuz I’m gonna kill this motherfucker right here!’”

It was classic Pryor, playing the storyteller - with room for a little bar-room philosophising in there too - letting the tall tale unravel in a manner loose enough for the humour to mingle comfortably with a knowing sense of self-rapproachment. Pryor’s stand-up catalogue is littered with such moments; they were heart of his comedy, the reason why this motherfucker was so funny, and yet struck so deep too. He attacked his womanising, his drug-abuse (and it slipped beyond use to abuse every time), his essential fucked-up-ness with a brutal frankness, tempered with a reasoning insightfulness - let’s call his approach simple, plain honesty - that meant he zeroed straight in on the emotional meat of the matter while never suffocating the innate hilarity. He didn’t tell jokes, he told stories that just happened to be uproariously funny, not a little wise, and, more often than not, the absolute fucking truth. It probably helped that Pryor himself was a nakedly sensitive soul, even if that keen sensitivity was probably also why he spent so much time trying to annihilate himself, to white-out that searing pain at the heart of his comedy.

He wasn’t always that way. When Richard Pryor started out on the stand-up circuit, he was just another ribald black comedian, much in the vein of Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley and other such profane stand-ups whose ‘Party Records’ made them figureheads for an under-the-counter culture of Black comics guaranteed to rile uptight prudes. A frustrated Pryor worked the ‘Blackbelt’ - the black comedy circuit - for a few years, fucking female dancers and club-owners and getting thrown in jail for scrapes with the law and generally achieving little, until he read a Time magazine cover-piece on Bill Cosby. Cosby was the black-comic crossover sensation that white folks loved to watch, not least since his act was so tame, so pale, he could’ve passed for a white comedian anyways. “I decided that’s who I was going to be from then on,” reminisced Pryor in his autobiography, Pryor Convictions, “Bill Cosby. If my material wasn’t exactly Bill’s, the delivery was. I went for the bucks.”

The move was, initially and financially at least, a successful one. Pryor appeared on the important TV variety shows of the time, played the big halls, even Vegas. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that this success was a shuck, that he wasn’t funny, and that he was, at best, a bargain basement Cosby knock-off. His self-loathing grew as fast as mainstream acclaim for this neutered-Pryor. At a show in Vegas in September of 1967, Pryor walked onstage before an audience including Dean Martin, and suffered a nervous breakdown. He froze at the mic, uttered the words “What the fuck am I doing here?”, and walked straight back off. When he returned to the stage, a year or so later, it would be as a completely different comedian. It would be as Richard Pryor.

“I knew my days of pretending to be as slick and colourless as Cosby were finished,” he wrote in Pryor Convictions. “I had thoughts of my own to dispense. There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming inside my head, trying to be heard.” And the voices of this peculiar menagerie would pour forth, purely and unadulterated, through Pryor’s comedy. He knew those voices well; he’d grown up with them, after all.

Pryor was born to a prostitute mother and a boxer father, and was brought up in a series of whorehouses in Peoria, Illinois, run by his grandmother, Marie Carter Pryor Bryant. Molested by an older boy when he was aged seven, and surrounded by sex as an act of commerce not love, the dysfunctional outlook Pryor developed is pretty easy to understand. And, had he not happened upon the Carver Community Center or, more specifically, drama instructor Juliette Whittaker, the pain and bitterness would’ve just festered inside of him. Whittaker recognised Pryor’s nascent talent, cast him in his first play, and became his mentor; years later, Pryor would give Whittaker the emmy award he won for a performance on a 1974 Lily Tomlin Special, in recognition of her influence on his life and career.

The recurring character of Mudbone, the philosophical alcoholic bum featured in pieces like ‘Wino Vs Junkie’ and ‘Mudbone Goes To Hollywood’, served as a figure of ghetto wisdom, of human weakness and hypocrisy. Mudbone, along with the corrupt black minister portrayed in routines like ‘Bicentennial Prayer’, were painfully honest and hilarious characters drawn straight from the streets of Peoria, voices from a black America unrepresented by the colourless observational comedy of Cosby or the cerebral political humour of Dick Gregory. Pryor’s comedy tackled racism with a phosphorent candour, and the potency of his routines endure. ‘Niggers Vs The Police’, off 1974’s breakthrough That Nigger’s Crazy, was a dangerous, sharp attack on police brutality that presaged the Rodney King beatings by 18 years. “Cops put a hurting on your ass, man, they really degrade you,” began Pryor. “White folks get a ticket, they pull over, ‘Hello officer, glad to be of help...’ Black folks gotta be, like, ‘I AM REACHING INTO MY POCKET FOR MY LICENSE. CUZ I DON’T WANNA BE NO MOTHERFUCKING ‘ACCIDENT’!’” 25 years after the routine was recorded, DJ Babu would cut it into a series of hip-hop instrumentals running through The Unbound Project, a compilation dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The message still searingly potent.

Pryor’s insightful explorations of the differences between white folks and black folks were light-years beyond the stereotypes of geeky white poindexters and hip black dudes lesser comedians would later exploit for cheap laffs. Pryor’s routines were infinitely more complex, sensitive, pricking the super-macho black male pride, as much as uptight whiteness. They were truer, and also infinitely funnier. Pryor also got much comedic mileage from the differences between black and white women, and he was quite the expert. In Pryor Convictions, he confesses that he suffered from “white women disease”, and his inter-racial relations enraged many who saw it as a flaw in this great figurehead for black creativity and power. Jennifer Lee, once and now, again, his wife, was one such conquest; Pryor recalled an encounter where black actress Lonette McKee attacked Lee for dating him. Afterwards, he consoled Lee, saying “I don’t see colors. I don’t believe in prejudice. We’re all people, y’know? That’s hard enough.” He’d just summed up the troubled soul of his comedy.

The 80s was the decade when all Pryor’s chickens came home to roost, his karmic debts all overdue.

It was a period of painful transition. 1982’s ‘Live On The Sunset Strip’ movie is universally hailed as, if not Pryor’s funniest moment, certainly his most personal and honest. ‘Africa’ chronicled his revelatory journey to the motherland, a moving experience which caused him to renounce his controversial use of the word ‘nigger’. “It made me cry” he whispered, “I thought, ‘Aw shit, all the acts I been doing as a comedian, trying to say something, and I been saying ‘Nigger’, and that’s a devastating fuckin’ word. And it’s got nothing to do with us.’”

Closer to home, ‘Freebase’ dealt with Pryor’s horrific experience of the previous year. Wired on cocaine, Pryor had poured rum over himself and set himself on fire. His Aunt Dee attempted to smother the flames, but Pryor leapt through a window and ran up the street, eventually caught by Dee and a couple of policemen, but not before the flames had left him with third-degree burns over the entire top-half of his body. He hovered close to death for two weeks. After copious skin grafts, Pryor returned to the public eye, laughing off the incident as an accident, not the suicide attempt it truly was; similarly fraudulent were the claims of “never again” that cloaked the revelations: Pryor was back freebasing by the time he recorded ‘Live On The Sunset Strip’.

‘Live On The Sunset Strip’ would prove to be Pryor’s last flash of sustained brilliance. One further concert movie/album, ‘Here & Now’, followed a year later, but it lacked the spirit, the rage, the anger of previous albums. Something was wrong, seriously wrong with Richard Pryor.

As the decade progressed, so Pryor’s life and career unraveled. Pryor’s self-directed attempt at a semi-autobiographical dramatic movie, the brave if flawed Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, was a critical and commercial failure. Pryor couldn’t make a drama of the life he had been reaping rich comedy from for years, and Jennifer Lee publicly took Pryor to task over a lack of honesty.

His health had been failing him, too. His chronic cocaine abuse resulted in a serious of near-fatal heart attacks. Then, in 1986, after noticing a deterioration in his muscular co-ordination and his eyesight, Pryor booked himself in for a medical examination. Pryor kept the diagnosis, Multiple Sclerosis, a secret for five years, until his shockingly gaunt appearance in his final collaboration with Gene Wilder, 1990’s Another You, had Hollywood whispering that the comedian was about to succumb to AIDS. The announcement of his condition served as an unspoken declaration of retirement.

Given the seriousness of his condition, it’s highly Richard Pryor will ever be able to reach the heights of his early days again; certainly, the rigours of a modern comedy tour seem beyond his frail body, and public appearances have been minimal in recent years. And, given the de-odourised cultural climate we currently live in, it’s even more unlikely we’ll see his like again... These aren’t liberated enough times that a man who openly celebrates his own colossal fucked-up-ness for the wisdom it yields could expect anything other than condemnation. Fact is, Richard Pryor is the product of a deeply fucked-up society, and the honesty of his art puts that society to shame. The essential truths of his work cut too close to the bone. His comedy is too damned painful, powerful, beautiful to be saleable today. And that’s fucking depressing.

But...

But...

But Pryor’s back catalogue, comedy records and concert movies endure. As a body of work nailing the human existence in all its hilarious, horrific permutations, it rivals anything you might like to offer. The truth, motherfucker. Told pure, uncut, but with a little humour that’ll soften the blow, and deepen the impact.

Cherish it.

(c) Stevie Chick 2001

The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players


[This piece first appeared in the Eye section of The Times back in May 2004]

“Stoosh over, daddy!”

“I am stooshing! I’m stooshed over as far as I can… I don’t have any more room to stoosh!”

As familial rock’n’roll arguments run, it’s hardly Noel and Liam Gallagher duffing each other up over the last can of backstage lager, but then, this is hardly your typical rock’n’roll act. Indeed, you could say that The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players – daddy Jason Trachtenburg on keyboards and vocals, 10 year old daughter Rachel on the drums, and mummy Tina Pina Trachtenburg manning a rickety, unreliable slide-projector – are unique. Like the Wombles before them, they make good use of the things everyday folk leave behind, combing estate sales and garage sales across the United States for cobwebby boxes of photographic slides, later piecing those discarded holiday snaps together into lackadaisical narratives, soundtracked by their hilarious songs.

The Trachtenburgs’ legendary live show has tracked the length and breadth of America these past four years, building the band an impressive following (it visits Great Britain this summer, starting with a show at London’s ICA on July 8th , following a UK release for their debut album, ‘Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Volume One’ on May 17th). Already beloved of the American press and late night chat show circuit, their slideshows take in 1950s vacations to Japan, the booze-fuelled exploits of middle-aged spinsters, and the pre-Powerpoint promotional materials of 1970s corporate motivational speakers. But there’s many a mirthful killer twist – the holiday-makers in Japan who are obsessed with photographing graveyards and public executions, or the middle-aged spinsters indulging in the odd topless photograph!

“The concept of using slides and music together hasn’t been tried before, this is new territory for art!” declares Jason Trachtenburg, ‘stooshed’ over on one side of an armchair he’s uncomfortably sharing with Rachel. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Rick Moranis, had he been rummaging about in Austin Powers’ wardrobe – the family are all wearing their lurid home-made stage gear today, a look that’s very much Honey I Shrunk The Tourbus – and with Woody Allen’s nervy, sharp Jewish wit, Trachtenburg is one of those rare Americans gifted with a sense of irony, given to ludicrous, knowing exaggerations of the Family’s success and importance – at one point he describes the initial reaction to the Slideshows as “Like Beatlemania, it really was!” – which suggest his own bemusement at the Family’s journey so far.

It’s this sense of humour, this dextrous irony, that informs the wonderful ‘Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Volume One’, a suite of wry tunes in the American Vaudeville tradition – suffering only slightly from the absence of its visual accompaniment – that mixes semi-serious social commentary with giddily silly lyricism, betraying Jason’s past as a singer-songwriter affiliated with New York’s ‘anti-folk’ scene (which also gave us The Moldy Peaches), and previous work with legendary Texan eccentric Daniel Johnston.

It was while living in Seattle that the Trachtenburgs first happened upon the Slideshow concept. The Trachtenburgs ran a dog-walking service by day, Jason writing songs and Tina working with textiles in their spare time. “It sustained the family, and it gave us the freedom to continue creating art,” remembers Tina, absent-mindedly stitching together a Rachel doll – just one item of a range of home-made Trachtenburg merchandise designed by Tina – as she chats; indeed, Rachel is stitching too, as are Grandma and Grandpa Pina, along to babysit Rachel while her parents maintain the business-side of their enterprise.

“I had had an idea that we could take photographs and, using a slide-projector, choreograph them to Jason’s already-written songs,” continues Tina. “He thought it was a really bad idea, but I bought a projector for five bucks at a garage sale anyway, along with a box of slides marked ‘Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959’. One night Jason was up late, goofing around with the slides; he was so desperate for me to see this slide of an execution. He was shouting, ‘These people were obsessed with graveyards and hangings!’ And then he added, ‘Also, I wrote this song. Go through the slides, and I’ll sing along.’

“And it was genius, as my gay friends say,” she beams. “It touched me so, on so many different levels, that I knew immediately that this was it. And I said that: I said, ‘This is it. This is what we’ll do.’”

“At first I thought it was just another regular song,” adds Jason. “But Tina was convinced we had something intriguing, saying we had to submit it to talent shows before someone else stole the idea.” He laughs, and then deadpans, “Like our 78 year old neighbour is going to steal it.”

But the couple won a slew of local talent competitions with their song/slideshow composition, and Jason took to playing it as the closing number at his regular gigs. “I’d never achieved any notoriety whatsoever with my art before, it was ridiculous! People kept asking, ‘Are you gonna do the slide song? That’s all we wanna see.’”

Taking the name The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, Jason recruited Tina to operate the projector, while a six year old Rachel played harmonica, “Not for any cute factor,” argues Jason. “And she played perfectly; I taught her: you blow in, you blow out, all the classic stuff you learn from being in a band…”

Rachel is the Trachtenburgs’ secret weapon, with the dead-eyed wit and world-weary sarcasm of Joan Rivers, trapped in the body of a sweet ten year-old. When Jason, visibly taken aback by the opulence of the Omni hotel in Austin, Texas where the interview is taking place, notes that the Family are staying at the somewhat more modest ‘Quality Inn’ she snaps “They should call it the ‘Low Quality Inn’.” Rachel doesn’t think her life on the road is weird because it’s all she’s known; sometimes she plays bass (her favourite instrument) for legendary New York oddball rockers King Missile, who once scored a minor hit with ‘Detatchable Penis’, two years before she was born. She favours American candy Sugar Daddies as a pre-gig pick-me-up, and, of the Family’s competitors in the crazy topsy-turvy world of rock’n’roll, she sighs wearily and says, “They’re boring, they all dress in black and they don’t really care about their music.” She’s a superstar.

As are her parents. “Nobody would come to my shows before, I could barely get Tina to come,” remembers Jason, of his pre-Slideshow career. “Soon, we got as far as we could in Seattle and flew to New York, to make our record. The press loved us, they thought we were the best thing ever!”

A key element of the Trachtenburgs’ appeal is the semi-serious edge lurking beneath their scandalously funny folk-art. The juxtaposition of the slides forms a subtle, satirical commentary on American culture through 1950s-1970s, Jason’s lyrics critiquing the excesses of consumerism (‘Let’s Not Have The Same Weight In 1978 – Let’s Have More!’, set to liberated slides from a McDonald’s Restaurants conference), along with darker subjects (the aforementioned executions in ‘Mountain Trip…’).

“My songs come from social realities, the human condition, political causes, so putting songs to these slides made complete sense,” explains Jason. “How did things get to be the way they are now, with the United States and consumerism as these joint controlling forces? The story can be told through the lives of these anonymous Americans, and our take on their reality, pinpointing little details and nuances in their slides that can only be gathered from close examination. And a good rhyming scheme.”

Browsing incognito, The Trachtenburgs’ will tell people selling slides at garage sales that they’re being used for an ‘Art Project’; “We prefer not to explain that we’re going to make fun of their relatives now that they’re dead, because their family might not sell them to me,” says Jason. Ultimately, however, the Slideshows are an extension of a venerable family tradition.

“Way back when,” explains Jason, “Families would gather around the slide projector, and the nutty uncle would break out the slides and start showing them, resulting in the inevitable miscues – slides would be upside down, backwards. And that would often be the funniest part.”

“They still occur in our show,” adds Tina.

“Yeah, people shout, ‘It’s in backwards!’ No! You’re backwards! This is art! That’s the whole nature of our act, it’s a kooky family act.”

“We’re incredibly fortunate,” offers Tina. “I’ve had lots of people in bands tell me, ‘Oh, I miss my kids so much, I wish I could do what you’re doing’.”

“We get to travel and be together constantly, we get to have a lifelong family vacation, basically, and make our living from it,” continues Jason. “If we keep going in the same direction and making smart moves, we’ll be able to do this forever.”

And with that, Jason Trachtenburg beams a most natural and genuine smile. He knows exactly how great his Slideshow Players are, and how good they’ve got it. They’ve conquered the hearts of America; now it’s Britain’s turn to stoosh over and let the Trachtenburgs in.

(c) Stevie Chick 2004