The Cure – Bestival Live Review

This four-piece edition of The Robert Smith Band pulls off a tight performance in front of a festival crowd, but the mix that was released on the CD sometimes, like Best Buy, just doesn’t deliver.  A few of the songs on the first disc come off as a little dry. The drums, especially, though well-played by Jason Cooper, sound a bit like dry cardboard.  Smith’s approach is to present the sound as raw and live as it was recorded, but I would have forgiven him for sweetening the sound of some of the tracks with a little reverb.

Disc Two starts off strong, but as it hits the more complex tracks from later albums, the pared down line-up and the dry mix again shows signs of weakness. Roger O’Donnell, returned to the line-up (a plus), saves the day a few times with nice layers of ambient synth over the sparse, repetitive guitars and it all eventually comes together again with Lullaby, from their recently remastered and reissued album Disintegration.

Besides the main Isle of Weight show recorded on 9/10/11, the show features a generous twelve songs between two encores. On the first encore, Smith & Co. pull out the more clownish, pop selections with Lovecats, Caterpillar and Hot! Hot! Hot!, to the crowd’s delight – 50,000 singing along. The foursome enter jazz combo territory at one point, a testament to their musical prowess.  Throughout the two disc set, the group alternates fluidly from sheer goth drone to happy-go-lucky pop to minimalist modern rock with impressive ease. Close To Me, particularly comes off as a gem, with Smith throwing in an improv guitar solo.  Clearly, Smith has a good time at this show.

Other Show Highlights: The Walk, A Forest, Primary, Head on the Door, 10:15 Saturday Night, and especially The Hungry Ghost, which initially appeared on their last studio album, 4:13 Dream and was never released as a single but is presented here in what I now consider its definitive form.

Not So Great: Plainsong, Inbetween Days, End, Why Can’t I Be You… again, it’s more mixing than the performance but there is also some songs that simply lack the instrumentation for a full-on performance… the loss of second guitar player Lol Tolhurst is felt especially in the latter two songs.  Smith is a more than competent guitar player but it’s tough to weave a double-stitch with just one thread (whatever the hell that means – but you get the idea).

Pet Peeve: Smith changes the lyrics and title of “Killing An Arab” to “Killing Another”. I guess no matter how many times it’s explained that the song is a reference to Albert Camus’ absurdist novel ‘The Stranger’, people will still take the song at face value. Shame. It’s censorship.  I guess, though, if it was called “Killing A Jew” or any other Western ethnicity the song would have never been released, so I guess some would see the change as a sign of progress towards better understanding across the spectrum of belief systems. (Though, if he had called it “Killing An Atheist,” apparently to a lot of people that would be just fine.)

Summary:  It’s been three years since the last new Cure release and although there are no new songs, as a career retrospective the two discs do manage to breathe new life into their pop classics as well as long-time fan favorites while providing a fresh take on their newer material.  Initially there was to be a follow-up, ‘darker’ album of songs recorded during the 4:13 sessions, but that project seems scrapped, so Cure fans take what you can get.  Plus, all profits benefit the Isle of Wight Youth Trust, so it’s not just the usual rock ‘n roll cash grab.  For more info. on that charity, check out http://www.iowyouthtrust.co.uk/.

Note:  I have taken the liberty of  ‘remastering’ the first track of this collection, Plainsong, to fix what I think are the major problems in the mix and final results.  Contact me at thesilencebureau at gmail.com if you are interested in listening to something like what should have been released.

Naming The Band

The Year was 1989.  I was in college and like many ‘artsy’ types, I was a refugee of the ‘Greek’ system and joined my roommates in starting a post-punk, quasi-goth band.  The lineup:

Joe – (Vocals, bass) Never mind that he later married my sister.  At the time, he was the cool guy from California, who knew all about Gary Numan, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Devo. He studied art and psychology and brought the impetus (and lyrics) for most of our songs.

Jeff (Guitar) – A computer geek just before computers were everywhere. He worked for NASA on his breaks. When I met him Freshman Year, he was living in the dorm room just across from mine and had posters of Metallica and Iron Maiden.  He also had spent time in California and knew the music of the Dead Milkmen and Suicidal Tendencies.  Listening to my keyboard playing (on the infamous ‘Cheesemaster 1000’) he once told me I sounded like Ray Manzarek of the Doors, which I thought was cool. He remains one of my best friends.

Mark (Drums) – Trained in jazz, but with a love for thrash-metal/hardcore, we met Mark at a Baptist Student Union picnic (this was just before the fundamentalists took over). He had been in a band called Rabid Animals.  I was born in Baltimore and he was from the suburbs there in Maryland so I felt at least a geographic kindredness with Mark, though he and I were probably the furthest apart musically.

Myself – (Keyboard and vocals) A Southern Baptist preacher’s kid who grew up in church choir, listening to American Top 40 on the radio.  Favorite albums of the time:  Thomas Dolby’s ‘Golden Age of Wireless’, U2’s ‘Under a Blood Red Sky’, and Depeche Mode’s ‘Some Great Reward’.  I had also stumbled upon ‘In No Sense? Nonsense!’ by Art of Noise, which began my love for sampling and experimental music.

Later, we added Mick, who not only had his own Tascam 4-track machine, which introduced me to underground recording, but he was a prolific songwriter and virtuoso guitar player. He joined our Senior year and I remember being very impressed with his synth-guitar rig, which, of course, allows the guitar play a whole spectrum of sound, long before Matthew Bellamy thought of his bag of tricks.

But, rewind a notch.  When we first started out our Sophomore year, we had one amp, one guitar, and a cheap mic.  We would rehearse in Joe and Jeff’s dorm room, with me on vocals singing out of a dictionary and trying to remember the words to Roadrunner as sung by The Sex Pistols.  We called ourselves ‘Stranger Tones’, which sounded suitably new wave.  Apparently, though, by Junior year, we had tired of the name and decided we would call ourselves ‘Surrender Dorothy’ from the often overlooked Martin Scorsese film ‘After Hours’ (a film Jeff introduced me to).

But, somehow that didn’t stick either and so, one afternoon in the dining hall, we circulated a questionnaire.  On loose-leaf, lined, three-hole punched paper we asked the question: ‘In 5 Words or Less, If you have to name a rock group, what would you you [sic] name it.’ I believe either a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend wrote up the questionnaire so I’m not sure why the extra ‘you’ was there, but no one seemed to notice.

Here, for posterity, are the answers (names of the contributors were included, but for privacy I will simply list their first name):

Pagan Girls of the Basilica (Ricky)

Paisley Jello Sunset* (Anne)

Nuns ‘n Moses (Scott)

Cinnamon Elevator (Cynthia)

Perilous Waters of the Mind (Linnea)

The Burpin’ Bee-Bops (Roxanne)

The Snug Nightbugs (Sally)

Rockin’ (Judy)

Ilio Cremora (Amy)

Minimal Expectations (Lauren)

Aftershock, Anticipating Fallout (Sandy)

The Un-Rock Group (Timbah)

The Nema-Toods or Earthophiles (Tim)

Keith Eddy and The Islanders (Vann)

The Song of the Whipperwill (John)

Nuns in Poses / Dying Artists (Rob)

Rooty Kazooty (Ken)

Smash Hit (Tom)

Lights Out! (Cathy)

Gophers at Split Enz (Andy)

…Cowboys (Bucky)

Sniglets in Drag (Murray)

*later showed up as a track name on one of my demo tracks

I also remember Joe’s love interest at the time, Joli, suggesting ‘Joe and the Arizona Boys’, which we always regret not using.  It had no connection, thematically with our sound, but the irony was the thing.

My own contribution was actually a rigged effort, since while the questionnaire was circulating, the principal band members and a member of the college soccer team were discussing the name conundrum and somehow the result came up to be ‘The Starke Option’.  Now, I had originally thought ‘The Stark Option’ (notice the lack of an ‘e’ at the end of the word ‘Stark’) would work, sounding a lot more ‘post punk’, even minimalistic.  I had just been exposed to Bauhaus, Joy Division, and Severed Heads.  But, no – the story behind the use of ‘Starke’ (with the ‘e’) came from the last name of an infamous member of our outer circle of friends, who was a perpetual student. His method for going through school was 1) no classes before noon 2) no more than two or three classes per semester 3) a generally relaxed attitude towards the whole academic thing.  Thus, this was ‘The Starke Option’.

No, we were not a Grateful Dead cover band.  Instead we had songs like ‘State of Decay’, a doomsday song about society in disarray, long before the Tea Party and 2012 Mayan doomsday theories.  We had a song about ‘The Persistence of Memory’, the Dali painting.  In our version, there are no dripping clocks, just a monotony of sound and words about the detachment of personality in a mechanized world.  We had a song called ‘Oligarchy’, a pop song about the ruling elite.  Joe had even designed a logo, which was a peace sign overlapping an anarchy symbol.  The ‘peace-anarchy’ concept has since been adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement all these years later.

We had several songs written for other particular personalities on campus: K.P., Big Dog, and Little Girls.  K.P. did not stand for ‘Kitchen Patrol’.  I’ll let the reader guess what it was all about.  ‘Big Dog’ ended up being a dance song for people who don’t dance.  ‘Little Girls’ was about creepy guys who hang out in all the wrong places.  It was meant to be funny, but in the age of internet predators, in retrospect, it seems simply like bad taste. Still, the music was catchy.

We also had a series of joke songs.  Strangely enough, I was the one who ended up writing and singing these.  One was simply a punk version of The Addams Family Theme Song, with added (and ruder) lyrics.  I also wrote a song called ‘Get Standing Twisting Louie Off My Wild Bamba Cloud’, which despite the joke was our one true attempt at a traditional rock song. It was based on an idea by Joe’s brother, Floyd (who infamously was known simply as ‘The Floyd’).  It was, just as you would suspect, an amalgam of every three chord gem from the history of rock.  Joe added to the concept.  So, by the time we had performed it three or four times it had expanded to include snippets of ‘Paradise City’ by Guns n’ Roses, R.E.M.’s ‘Stand’, and the Who’s ‘Can’t Explain’.

We also had a cover of ‘Surfing Cow’ and a parody of U2’s ‘With or Without You’ called ‘With or Without Shoes’, which documents a fictitious trip to the mall with a girlfriend who stands in line too long to buy shoes.  ‘I can live with or without shoes,’ is the key line in that one.

I did write some serious songs for the band back then.  Besides a rip-off of The Cure’s ‘Lovecats’ called ‘Fifty Million Love Songs’, there was a strange, almost ambient track called ‘The Red Truck’.  Rather than pay any attention in my Calculus class, one day I simply wrote out my extrapolation of the clear yet mysterious attributes of this weird, unmarked, and totally red truck that showed up on campus from time to time, moving stuff from building to building.  It was a truck with ‘powerful frame’ and ‘inside source’.  Somehow this song seemed to pair well with ‘Oligarchy’.  But it was a little too abstract to be accessible.  There was also a jam version of it that the band wrote together.  I also wrote a song called ‘Pieces of You’, which is just about the typical thing – a frayed relationship gone horribly wrong.  I thought this was our strongest track.  Unfortunately, it came later in the life of the band.  Even better songs were written by Joe and Mick together (a true musical powerhouse) in latter-day Starke gems – ‘Application’ and ‘Cold’.

We played local clubs in Richmond – the Metro, Kahootz – as well as on campus at The Pier. Over the break, we recorded a demo, which we named ‘Eskimo’, after the movie Heathers (see the last entry) in a studio up in Maryland.  We used all the money we made playing out to record the demo.  The only other recordings were of the Kahootz show, and both shows at The Pier.  There was an ill-fated attempt at a demo also made at The Pier.  The sound man, however, didn’t know what he was doing.

By time we played The Pier the second time, we were a multimedia and art show band, with a gothic paper mache keyboard stand, prepared videos for key songs.  We were also theatrical; sometimes, in an unplanned way.  After the sound man (the same one that messed up our first demo) got drunk and was messing up the second set of our show, I got pissed during ‘The Addams Family’ and kicked one of the monitors off the stage.  For that, I was rewarded with a broken toe, a week of crutches, and the sound man stopped the show and kicked us out.  It was our last show as a five piece.

Senior year was a time of mammoth transition.  College bands cannot logically continue. Everyone has invested so much time into the academic side of the college experience, with an eye on a job, a career and it is only an accident of fate if any two members end up in the same city, in the same state after college.  Jeff and I reformed years later when he moved back to Richmond and had a brief project called ‘Alex’.  I had been recording my own 4-track gems for years and brought him into the mix.  We never played out, but did record an album of four-track underground tracks, including covers of Gary Numan’s ‘I Die: You Die’, Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ and Joy Division’s ‘Twenty-Four Hours’.  We would later join up with a true punk vocalist with a three piece called ‘Stahl Tippen Der Vecker’ which loosely translated means ‘Steel Toe Alarm Clock’, or so said a girl I once met on Yahoo chat (back when that was actually an interesting thing to do).  This was a more regressive, primitive punk group, with none of the nuances or graces of ‘art’.  Our lead singer was the real deal – a six-foot plus skinhead type with ink.  He had ‘Strength to Endure’ sprawled across his back and flames up one wrist.  Going through some old files just today, I found a playlist on a pocket-sized spiral notebook which included covers of the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ as well as covers of their covers ‘Stepping Stone’ and, old standby, ‘Roadrunner’.  We also did The Clash’s ‘London Calling’.  All of our originals were penned, lyrically, by myself, with music by Jeff and me (I played bass).  Brad, the singer, also contributed a few.  We had illustrious tracks such as ‘Crack Whore’ and ‘Shithead’ and ‘My Country Pissed On Me’.  We also had more erudite fare, such as songs ‘Belong,’ ‘Blizzard of Lies’, and ‘Battle for your Brain’.  At one point, we even tried out a drummer.  But, eventually it fizzled out due to, well… life.  I got married and wanted to start a family.  Brad did the same.

And so it goes.

 

 

 

Heathers – 22 Years Later

“Society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.”

‘Heathers’ (1989) is a surreal horror film, a dark romance cum black comedy that is a nihilistic kaleidoscope shedding its own unusual light on the usual high school issues of fitting in, cliques, sexuality, and popularity while hitting on deeper issues of the way people deal with death.

In tone, it’s the missing link between The Breakfast Club and Natural Born Killers. To get a sense of its underlying vibe, though, you have to first watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and then A Clockwork Orange (yes, in that order). While the filmmaking is clearly not on par with Kubrick, in the 22 years since its release it’s become a classic of ‘dark comedy,’  a ‘cult’ film that attempts to make high art out of tragedy and humor out of the grotesque.  It’s a passive-aggressive art piece for the outcasts.

Full disclosure: My band in college used the ‘Eskimo’ line from this movie as the title for our first album. I remember howling in laughter when I originally saw this film. For a young person, this film seems amazingly transgressive and raw. Seeing it many years later, I have a little different take on it.

I won’t say this film is naive, but from one point of view, Heathers could seem like a flick that purports to solve all of the world’s problems through the metaphor of a high school, envisioning a world where different social classes can somehow, in the end, get along.  But from another point of view, it’s a revenge flick, evening the score for all the real and perceived sins incurred through the awkward adolescent years.

The film fixates, philosophically, on a young Christian Slater as J.D., the son of a heartless construction magnate. He’s been moved around from city to city. The Mom is out of the picture. Now he’s a loner, a bad boy motorcycle hound who scares the bullying jocks in the lunchroom by pulling a gun. It’s one of those scenes as in Crocodile Dundee when he pulls a machete on the would-be robbers and utters the line, “Now, THIS is a knife.”

The film intends J.D. to be a hero. These days, of course, he would’ve been pulled from school or jailed, but in this reality, there are no consequences. The school administration are buffoonish authoritarians save the stereotypical “hippy” bleeding heart teacher who just wants everyone to emote and get in touch with their feelings. These are Charlie Brown cartoon adults, just missing the “whaaa whaa whaaaa wha wah” non-dialogue.

The dialogue present, though, generally speaking, is the film’s strength. While the plot spins out of control by the second act, writer Dan Waters crafts witty interjections and one-liners that resonate from scene to scene creating an alternate reality of kids too cool for school.

Unfortunately, few of the characters have the depth for their quips to be anything more than throwaway lines. And, as the characters start dying one by one (in reality and dream sequences), like all horror films, we begin to care less and less as we follow the film from the eyes of the killer.

Through the entire first act, J.D. leads Veronica, played by Winona Ryder, on a series of killings based on juvenile grudges just as shallow as anything J.D. is railing against. We are meant to cheer him on because the characters getting killed are the ‘bad guys’ or, in some cases, the ‘mean girls’. But because we are set up to care about J.D., we are looking for a real rhyme or reason to J.D.’s homicidal impulses.  He stood up for himself against more clearly defined villains (the typical bully jocks).  He gets the girl, the heroine of the film.  So what makes him tick?

There are only hints that his transient childhood and lack of maternal presence may have made him grow up too fast.  Maybe his penchant for killing is his reaction to not understanding any of the half-baked religion and philosophy he’s been reading. His ability to woo Veronica, however, gives us the impression that he has some redeeming features. Few handsome leading men end the film quite the way J.D. does here.

At first, the romance between J.D. and Veronica seems genuine, but it doesn’t take long before we (and, finally, Veronica) see that J.D. is, in fact, a deranged, egomaniacal lunatic. During the second act, Veronica spends her time wisely pushing him away. Then, in the finale, although she has to fight J.D. to a bloody climax, she seems to have a strange affinity for his cause. She relishes in his final act of senseless rebellion, a suicide bombing in front of the school.  It’s a shocking end to an otherwise senseless film.

Strangely enough, Waters’ original ending was supposedly rejected by the film company for being “too dark”, which is odd considering the ending that made the film. Veronica literally lights her cigarette in the flames of J.D.’s exploding carcass. The original ending, never filmed, has Veronica seeming to blow herself up after killing J.D., followed by a prom in Heaven where all the characters reunite in eternal bliss.

Why the prom idea wasn’t used is puzzling, since it seems like an upbeat ending. There was certainly nothing to cheer at in J.D.’s suicide, but nothing to be sad about either. It plays now as sort of a terrorism tactic with no real targets and no real value (the school is left standing). (This is clearly not a film that could have been made after September 11, 2001).

The weak ending is really the final crazy loose strings of a plot that began to unravel just after the first victim, Heather #1 is killed in a staged suicide.  It’s unclear whether the film is trying to be for or against homophobia when J.D. kills his next victims, with a duped Victoria’s help. What she thinks is going to be accomplished by helping him in his plans against the two bullying jocks are puzzling. These are the same two hapless fellows who J.D. already scared in the cafeteria. Now he’s finishing them off.

For a teen with an above average IQ, Victoria seems easily led and confused. Maybe it’s the filmmaker’s keen recognition of how teens can easily fall to peer pressure, of their emotional vulnerability despite budding intellectual prowess. But, we don’t see enough of Veronica’s intelligent side to get this idea. Instead, there’s just a brief mention of how she was considered for early promotion to high school.  The rest is my own speculation.

At the end, J.D. says he’s blowing up the school because “nobody loves me and I feel so alone” while also trying to make it sound like he’s trying to bring everyone closer together by having them congregate in the afterlife. But, by this time in the movie, his avenging, dark angel schtick has degenerated into a mish mash of hachneyed apocalyptic bullshit. He’s alienated Veronica as a result of his violent impulses, so it’s a little late to say he wasn’t loved. She loved him until he started insisting on shooting everything in sight and plotting to kill everyone she knows.

He says, “Let’s face it, the only place different social types can genuinely get along with each another is in heaven.” Really? It’s the only point in the movie where the dialogue is clearly apropos of teenaged mixed-up emotional nonsense and not chock full of comedic dark irony (ala’ the famous “fuck me gently with a chainsaw” line delivered by Kim Walker as Heather #1). But J.D.’s martyrdom belies the fact that he is a cold-blooded killer. His theory that this small town Ohio high school somehow embodies all of what’s wrong with society as a whole is dim, at best.

Depending on your point of view, ‘Heathers’ is about being kind to those who are different. The overweight, unpopular girl is befriends by Veronica at the end.  Some, though, will see the film and get the impression that the core message is ‘there is power in killing’. It’s clearly what J.D. believes. Yet if we call this film a ‘black comedy’ we can say that it’s all in fun. It’s a joke. Just the normally beleaguered artsy types blowing off steam.

But there’s not enough slapstick.  Not enough true humor.  The world created here is recognizable – cruel high school kids.  But then it goes one step further – a cruel anti-hero who doesn’t really care who he hurts.  That’s not funny.

It’s worth mentioning that, in the 30-minute documentary, ‘Swatch Dogs and Diet Cokeheads’, about the making of the film, Shannen Doherty, who plays Heather Duke, says she never knew it was supposed to be a comedy until seeing the final cut of the film.

Comedy? Dark romance? Whatever it’s genre, Heathers’ slim redeeming message arrives there on the legs of remorseless violence. Even Veronica, at the end, shows no guilt for her part in the killings that occur.  In the end, the film’s overall philosophy is best expressed through its theme song, ‘Que Sera Sera’ (which appears in two different version, one by Sly and The Family Stone, the other by Syd Straw): “Whatever will be, will be.”

SUMMARY

The Good: Memorable dialogue, Winona Ryder’s compelling performance, Christian Slater’s Jack Nicholson impression. Cool soundtrack.

The Bad: A weak plot and weak characterization. Vague platitudes about social class and human kindness supported by inane death and violence with ultimately, a nihilistic philosophy hinting at religion as its source.

Best Viewed By: Students of Film and Philosophy.

Pet Peeve: Rampant encouragement of smoking.

Film’s Hidden Message: Don’t commit suicide at once. Do it through the slow, agonizing progression of lung cancer.