When Bob Dylan was the greatest rock star in America

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I’ve seen Bob Dylan four or five times, but it’s mostly been when he’s been in his 60s and 70s. 

Dylan can be inconsistent as a live performer – at one show every lyric sounded like “muzza muzza BUZZA muzza” and on another, he was an elegant elder statesman who even SMILED at one point. 

But there was a point where Dylan was a blazing fireball on stage, during his mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It’s the subject of a new documentary by Martin Scorsese, and it’s must watching for anyone who thinks Dylan couldn’t sizzle live on stage. The man was fierce. 

In 1975, Dylan hadn’t really toured since his late ‘60s motorcycle accident. He put together a kind of travelling show featuring guests like Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg and more to play smaller, intimate venues. The Rolling Thunder Revue had a theatrical bent – Dylan painted his face white, like a kabuki performer, and added touches like a dazzling electric violinist to his songs. There was a freewheeling electricity to the atmosphere. 

He’s performed thousands of shows over more than 50 years, but I’d argue that for the 50 or so shows of Rolling Thunder, Dylan was never better. Scorsese’s documentary shows him commanding the stage, stalking, staring and singing like his life depends on it. There’s no mumbling here.  He spits every syllable of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with a power that makes this account of a racist murder a harrowing listen. Chestnuts like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” seem revitalised. Then-current songs like “Isis” and “Hurricane” rage when he performs them. 

Clear-eyed and potent, there’s a fierceness to Dylan’s presence that’s remarkable to watch. Sparks fly off him when he enters a room, not in a showy David Bowie or Mick Jagger way, but in a concentrated, smouldering focus. He combines the intensity of young folkie Dylan with the more grizzled maturity of someone in their mid-thirties, and it lends his songs new power. 

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is a great movie, and fitting with Dylan’s mystique there’s a bit of flirting with fiction and masks (let’s just say some of the people interviewed are not what they seem). But in the end it’s a celebration of one of Dylan’s most fertile periods and a reminder that one of the greatest songwriters of all time could throw down with the best of them when he wanted. 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #1: ‘Head’, or how the Monkees blew themselves up

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It took me a little while to warm up to The Monkees. 

They were the pre-fab, ‘reality TV’ Beatles, or so I thought. But eventually, I cottoned on to their easygoing talents, the goofy charms of the TV show, and some of the most ingratiating pop nuggets of all time. 

I’ve seen what’s left of The Monkees twice in the past few years – in 2016, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork did a terrific Monkees revue here in Auckland, and last weekend, Dolenz and the only other surviving Monkee Mike Nesmith took one last turn through town for another nostalgic blast. (Peter Tork died this past February, sadly.) The 2019 show was good fun, although hampered by muddy sound and the ageing limitations of the surviving band (the 2016 show was a lot more energetic, to be honest). I was still really glad to see Nesmith, 76, who’s been in ailing health, because he’s one of the great unsung songwriters of our time. 

movie-poster-for-the-film-head-starring-the-monkeesI’ve seen three of the Monkees live now, and I’m happy to have done so. But there was one last Monkee fan hurdle for me to cross: Their mysterious, controversial 1968 movie “Head,” which is either their finest moment or their nadir, depending on who you ask. 

I’d never seen it until this week. I expected a dated hippie mess. I had no idea it was a dazzling comic horror movie that would fill me with existential dread. 

“Head” is a strange, groundbreaking film that assumes you know who the madcap Monkees are, and then proceeds to tear the ground out from under you. There’s not much of a plot – the movie apes the surreal skit humour of the TV series, but with a jarringly nasty edge. You know you’re not in kiddieville anymore when a song featuring shots of screaming female fans cross-cuts into the infamous images from the execution of a Viet Cong officer – it’s like a Backstreet Boys video suddenly morphing into a Marilyn Manson joint. 

I’ve generally a low tolerance for psychedelic storytelling, which tends to really only work if you’re stoned yourself, but the Jack Nicholson script (yes – THAT Jack Nicholson) to “Head” never gets too completely up its own navel to become incoherent. Despite its scattershot approach, “Head” is about a fictional famous band who are trapped on a treadmill of fame in a world they can’t escape. “Head” frequently breaks the fourth wall to show the sets and cameras the Monkees are forced to perform on, but it never gives us the possibility of escape. It’s “meta” before anyone really even knew what that meant. The movie even rewrites the famous theme song:

maxresdefaultHey, hey, we are The Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies. 

In a world where “Love Island,” “Married At First Sight” and their ilk have overwhelmed commercial TV, it’s still a cutting little blade of a film. It’s a movie that begins with Micky Dolenz’s apparent suicide and ends with the screaming Monkees being stuffed into a featureless black box and driving away into unknown horrors, forced to perform endlessly in a never-ending hell, a scene that is as dark as any ending from a David Lynch film. (Twin Peaks, meet The Monkees!) I can’t imagine how a teenybopper fan of the band would’ve reacted to it in 1968. 

“Head” is weird, funny and fragmented, but it’s also a stunning little rebuttal to the goofy hijinks of the Monkees TV series and a warped meditation on the fame machine. It’s a miracle it ever got made, and it’s no surprise it sank like a stone at the box office, who expected “A Hard Day’s Night” and got something like a Monkees Apocalypse Now. More than 50 years on, it’s a stone cold trip. 

On seeing Prince, two months before he died

1*SOvl-KNc5_L7sZWZiDB7QwPrince would’ve turned 61 today. I saw him for the first and only time just two months before he died in 2016. I wrote this back then, the morning Prince died, mostly for myself:

Dig if you will, a picture.

Prince. The first time I heard him I was 13 or so and he sounded like an alien. “When Doves Cry” slithered out of the FM radio like nothing else out there, the words “animals they strike curious poses” unlocking something deep in my brain.

Thirty years later he played maybe 10 metres in front of me, and he didn’t seem to have aged a day. Prince would live forever.

He took the stage at Auckland’s ASB Theatre for the early show on that balmy February night with a showman’s swagger, orchestral music swelling up and swelling up for long minutes before, with a crash and a flash of light, Prince’s distinctive afro-topped silhouette popped up before the crowd, twice as tall as the real man.

Two months later he’d be gone, and that doesn’t seem possible, surely some kind of stunt like that time he changed his name into a spaghetti-like symbol.

I’m still not over Bowie. I’m weirdly numb about Prince today. He can’t be gone because two months ago I saw him hold 2,000 people in the palm of his hand, and a force like that can’t die in an elevator at Paisley Park at only 57, can it?

You look now for signs, but there weren’t any. At 57, he was lean and sculpted, poised at the piano and eyes twinkling with amusement. Unlike the elaborate hairdos of his heyday, he’d reverted back to a natural afro, which towered over his head. He was a small man, but he was big. A wiggle of his finger or a tiny curve of a smile and 2,000 people at ASB Theatre sat riveted.

1*hwwPz7avqqQB6TKfKAvS9AWhen I heard the Auckland show was Prince solo with a piano and a microphone I was a bit worried – none of those screeching, thunderous guitar solos, no dynamic interplay with the backing band. An “unplugged” Prince conjured up worrying images of a Las Vegas-style revue with the Purple One sipping on sparkling water and turning every song into a Liberace number.

I was wrong. Prince showed us the skeletons and muscle behind the songs, reminding us that while he was flamboyant and eccentric, he was also one of the greatest songwriters of the past 50 years.

They were his first and only New Zealand shows, two tightly planned gigs executed with tremendous precision. Tickets flew out the door in seconds no matter the cost. I dithered for five minutes too long and missed out, spent the next week or so in FOMO funk. Yeah, it was a lot of money, but PRINCE, man. There’s no regrets like those born from chickening out at the last second.

Then the day before the concert, there was a flurry on Twitter over a few last-minute ticket releases for the show. No hesitation. I Would Die 4 U. Click. Ninth row. Nine rows from Prince. Forget the cost.

At ASB theatre, he cracked right in to the distinctive riff of “I Would Die 4 U,” and summed up his appeal for all of us: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” Is it hyperbole to say it felt like we were in the presence of genius? But it feels true.

12734006_10208888189304572_9185663524839450730_nThe Prince on stage at Aotea Centre was at the top of his game, a master at playing the crowd. But he was having FUN as well, something that’s hard to find at that lofty level of fame. He threw a dash of “Charlie Brown” theme music into “Little Red Corvette,” and it was like watching a master painter at work, scribbling tiny doodles in the margins. He recast all the classics, turning “Purple Rain” into a gospel revival, “Kiss” into a funky dance party. More than 30 years into his career, it felt like a victory lap.

“Can I stay for a bit?” he purred at the end of one of several encores. He could do this all night, he was letting us know, but could we handle it?

He’d played Sydney and Melbourne just a day or two before, and the very next day he was off to bloody Perth on the other side of Australia. Then he was going to Oakland, California, right after that. This Prince would play forever!

The crowd stood on its feet for minutes. He basked in applause, raised a hand, waved, and spun, turned, and dashed off the stage in a disarmingly childlike, awkward manner – and that was our last sight of Prince, sliding off into the shadows, his music still ringing in our ears. How could he just leave us standing, alone in a world so cold?

Alex Chilton and the art of falling apart

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The Replacements wrote a song about Alex Chilton during the 1980s, when he was a cult figure who hadn’t quite been rediscovered yet. It reimagined Chilton as the world-conquering pop superstar he only really was at the very start of his career, and never again: ‘Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song.”‘

Chilton had his first #1 hit at the age of 16 with The Box Tops, with “The Letter,” a sneering, propulsive slab of teen pop that stands head and shoulders over a lot of its peers – seriously, look at the video above and check out the star power blooming in that kid.

He then resurfaced in the mid-70s as part of Memphis’ Big Star, one of the most influential power-pop bands of all time, crafting unforgettable anthems like “In The Street” and “September Gurls” before moving on to brittle, beautiful broken gems on the gorgeous Third/Sister-Lovers album. Big Star got ‘rediscovered’ by many of us in the 1990s through some great CD reissues, and their cult only continues to grow decades later – like the Velvet Underground, they became legends only long after they were gone. 

But after Big Star crumbled apart, Chilton’s career from the late ‘70s to his sadly early death at age 59 in 2010 was a strange hopscotch through genres, laced heavily with sardonic wit and a weird irresistible ennui. He spent the rest of his life carefully taking apart all the things he’d built up – perfect pop songs, aching singer-songwriter ballads – creating a kind of ramshackle, slacker troubadour persona where almost every song seems delivered with a wink and a mildly insincere croon. It’s the sound of irony, the art of falling apart.

Yet while I adore Chilton’s tighter, more remembered Big Star and Box Tops work, there’s a strange charm in him crashing his way through tunes like “My Baby Just Cares For Me” that I find unforgettable.  Live albums of him from the period sputter and crackle with devil-may-care slacker pop, but Chilton himself is never less than magnetic. Sometimes you feel him pushing a song just as much as he could before it broke apart. 

Alex Chilton Posed In New YorkIt wasn’t for nothing that one of his best albums is called A Man Called Destruction. He was the spirit of punk rock incarnated in a teen crooner’s body. 

The man wrote some of the great songs of the 1970s, but after that he worked as a dishwasher, a tree-trimmer, a janitor, and a wayfaring gig musician. He moved to New Orleans, where the city’s jazz added a cool, chilled-out vibe to his sound. His sporadic albums mixed loose-limbed originals like “No Sex,” “Bangkok” and “Lost My Job” with out-of-the-box covers of all kinds of ‘50s and ‘60s rarities. He called an album of covers Cliches. He called another one, um, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy.

Sometimes Chilton could get so loose he’s practically in pieces – since his death, we’ve seen a fair bit of barrel-scraping in unreleased music come out, some of it great, some of it unlistenable. 

Do I wish Alex Chilton had written some kind of Pet Sounds-type final masterpiece that had gotten him the acclaim he deserved before the end? Yeah, sort of, but I also appreciate diving into the bits and pieces he left behind, of a man who had nothing to prove and who spent his time scribbling around in the margins and between the lines of the craft he peaked at by age 25. 

Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

The-Chills-For-WebsiteIt all started with a few mixtapes.

mens-black-nz-music-month-2019-teeMy first exposure to New Zealand music was a high school girlfriend, who put Crowded House’s Temple Of Low Men on a tape and hit me right in the feels. My second a few years later was another mix tape, by a Kiwi I’d been pen pals with in the pre-internet days, of “Noisyland Music” that included bands with weird names like The Chills, The Clean, JPSE and The Verlaines. (Dear reader, I married said Kiwi and we’re coming up on our 20th anniversary this year, good god.) 

The Chills were the ones that hooked me. They didn’t sound quite like anything else this Mississippi college student was listening to, spooky and atmospheric and achingly pretty. “Pink Frost” bubbled through the cassette player in my battered VW Rabbit and it sounded like transmissions from another world. 

Songs like “I Love My Leather Jacket,” “Kaleidoscope World” and “Heavenly Pop Hit” were clever and catchy, soaked in that peculiar sense of isolation and grey-skies mysticism that music coming from an island on the bottom of the world has. Pre-internet, NZ could be a lonely, alternately stifling and cozy place, and The Chills more than anything caught that zeitgeist in their music. And that voice – lead singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps really was The Chills, and the gorgeous ache of his voice the heart of their songs. 

Since I heard those crackly mix tapes decades ago, I’ve moved to New Zealand, become a citizen, listened to a couple hundred NZ bands, great to awful, watched our Lorde and saviour take over the music world for a little while, and through it all I’ve always had a soft spot for The Chills. 

Last night we watched a wonderful new documentary, The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps, which told of the ups and downs of this seminal NZ band, and featured both a Q&A and acoustic set by Phillipps afterwards. It was a great night, a full house of people who grew up with the Chills since their Dunedin days and those like me who stumbled across them on the other side of the world. 

The Chills story is that of a million other bands – scrappy beginning, a few minor hits, hard yards of global touring, and then swept up by a record label that doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Cue drugs, drink, label stoushes and a revolving door of more than 30 (!) band members in Phillipps’ orbit over the years. Yet the low-key charm and honesty of Phillipps and the band members keeps the film’s sadly common tale fresh. 

A diagnosis of Hepatitis C might have spelled the end of Phillipps’ story, but the marvellously intimate documentary has some surprises in store. It breezily moves back and forth between the Chills’ rise and fall and Martin Phillipps today, in his cluttered Dunedin home, navigating dreadful hospital visits and still trying to give the band another go. 

Best of all, it was great to see Phillipps after the show chatting with the crowd, happy and healthy after the wilderness years, well into his third act and keeping the Chills as mind-bogglingly cool as ever. He played “Pink Frost,” of course, in a haunting acoustic version, and as the chords warbled throughout the theatre I could close my eyes and almost imagine them playing again on that mix tape, a million years ago and 6,000 miles away. 

Review: Mavis Staples and Tami Neilson, Civic Theatre, April 23, Auckland

I’ve realised in recent years that if you have a chance to see a legend, you see the legend. I saw Prince perform just two months before he died, but I’ll always regret not seeing Leonard Cohen giving his last concert ever in Auckland or missing out on what turned out to be David Bowie’s final tour in 2004. 

mavis-tami-auckland-live-v21133x628So when soul legend Mavis Staples came to town, I made sure to be there because I didn’t want to miss what might be my only chance to see her way down here in NZ.  That may sound a bit morbid, but honestly, Mavis and outstanding opening act Tami Neilson were actually one of the most life-affirming, optimistic shows I’ve been to in ages. In a time when the news seems to bring us down almost every day, you need a little Mavis Staples singing that “love is the only transportation.”

It’s hard to sum up just how awesome Mavis Staples’ career has been. She’s been singing since 1950, when she was just 11 years old, with the family Staple Singers. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Bob Dylan wanted to marry her. She’s worked with everyone from Prince to Jeff Tweedy to Curtis Mayfield. Songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” are part of American history.

IMG_5784Today, Mavis Staples is a few months away from 80 years old, she’s barely five feet tall, and she was obviously nursing a sore throat, but she still tore the roof off the Civic Theatre in Auckland with her soaring voice and inspirational message. 

Backed up by a crack back-up band, for an hour or so she took us through soul and gospel history, covering Funkadelic and the Talking Heads, and hammering home her message of positivity against the odds – “Build a Bridge,” “We Get By,” “No Time For Cryin’” – it’s all about rising up and carrying on. Mavis even joked that she might run for President. I’d vote for her in a second over the current occupant. 

1528670891846Opening for Mavis was the wonderful Tami Neilson, a Canadian/New Zealander country singer I’ve been wanting to see for ages. She didn’t disappoint, nearly managing to actually upstage Mavis Staples with a rip-roaring fierce set of her rockabilly/country anthems. She’s got a stunning stage presence, all retro charm and easygoing charisma. Neilson’s got a voice like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton had a super-charged baby and she let it tear through the Civic. Stragglers who wandered in late because they’re too cool to see an opening act were missing one of the best performances I’ve seen in ages, proud and strong and every way a match for Mavis Staples. If you don’t know Tami Neilson, check her out. I’d say she’s on her way to being a legend, too. 

Scott Walker and the art of mutation

VARIOUSThe artists I admire the most are the chameleons, the mutators and innovators, the ones who never stand still. That’s why the Beatles will always trump the Rolling Stones, David Bowie will always beat Elton John to me.

And the king of chameleons was the late Scott Walker, who flew so far ahead of the farthest stars in his strange career. 

Walker died this week at 76, and it’s been heartening to see this cult artist’s cult artist applauded and recognised from so many corners. The twists of his career outstripped almost every other pop star. “Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen,” wrote a Guardian writer a while back, and that sums it up nicely. 

Born in Ohio, Walker began as a swinging ‘60s teen pop icon with the Walker Brothers (who weren’t actually brothers), belting out classics like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, Scott’s uniquely evocative baritone frequently rising above the banality of their early material. 

But it’s with Walker’s solo career that he really began to find his own voice, moving to the UK and creating increasingly baroque, lonesome pop anthems in a run of four amazing albums from Scott to Scott 4. Then after a few disappointing albums, he sort of vanished. He resurfaced briefly in the late 1970s with Bowie-esque, broody gems like “The Electrician” and then vanished again, releasing only two proper albums between 1978 and 2006. Each time he came back, it was as a different being. 

Scott-Walker-4AD-press-shot-web-optimised-1000-CREDIT-Jamie-HawkesworthBy 2006’s The Drift, Walker had exploded into full-on experimental surrealism, with terrifying drones and waves of sound and a voice that now sounded like the heavens shaking themselves awake. There were no pop anthems here. Legendarily, he hunted for just the right percussion sound on “The Drift” by punching hunks of raw meat. It wasn’t for everyone – indeed, you’ve really got to be in the proper frame of mind for late Scott Walker – but it was a gloriously creative twilight zone he was exploring in. His lyrics became twisted and strange Joycean rambles, his songs willfully avoiding traditional structures.

Imagine William S. Burroughs if he’d been a composer to fully get the clattering, obscure and layered effect of works like The Drift or 2012’s Bish Bosch. Yet there was always a hint of the yearning heartbroken pop singer of his earliest work there in the shadows too, the through line of a career so wilfully independent that a novice would be hard pressed to recognise the work of 1967 Scott Walker and 2016 Scott Walker as being by the same creative, haunting voice. 

Here are four songs to remember him by, each showing a different facet of his yearning sound: (1. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, orchestral pop given a strange, epic sheen by his young yet ancient voice:

(2. His debauched and ecstatic cover of Jacques Brel’s Jacky, as subversive as all get out. Glam rock starts here. 

(3. Nite Flights, sinuous Bowie-esque glamour incarnate from the 1978 Walker Brothers reunion:

(4. Finally, Epizootics!, to give you a taste of just how out-there late-period Walker circa 2012’s Bish Bosch had gotten – stick with it, it’s got a groove that hypnotizes you and this video is like David Lynch’s nightmares unfolding. It’ll either grab you right in the spleen or repulse you deep in places you might not even know you had. How could these four songs be by the same man? It’s a fitting coda to Walker’s career for me – taking you places nobody else could.