Category Archives: Rock In Film

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

There’s a commonly held belief that successful people are all assholes. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I judge the guy sitting next to me in traffic in his fancy BMW: man, that guy must be jerk to have so much money. And while the world certainly has no short supply of Gordon Gecko-wannabes climbing the ladder of success by stabbing people in the back, it is possible to be a tremendous success without being a terrible person. Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is a documentary about a guy who made a lot of people rich and famous—but he did by being nice.

Now, I’m sure you  have two questions right now:

1. What is a “Supermensch”?

and

2. Who the hell is Shep Gordon?

Mensch is a Yiddish word that means “a person of integrity and honor.” A Supermensch is someone with an almost super-human level of goodness. Shep Gordon is a talent manager who rose to fame after moving to California in the late 1960’s and essentially helped break Alice Cooper into the popular consciousness. He also managed to create the celebrity chef, overthrow the unfair practice of not paying black music acts for live appearances/concerts, help start one of the first independent film companies (the first to be headed by a woman), and make friends with the Dalai Lama.

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The early days of Gordon’s career are probably the most fascinating parts of the documentary. He moves to California to be a parole officer in 1968. After promptly quitting (he was a “longhair” and didn’t fit in) he almost immediately meets Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. It was Hendrix who suggests that Gordon become a manager (for no reason other than the fact that Shep’s Jewish). He becomes a drug dealer to the some of the 1960’s most famous musical acts before opting to leave the danger behind and manage Alice Cooper. The philosophy Gordon employed to make Alice Cooper a household name is both genius and a bit nuts. Gordon cultivated negative press for the band. Why would he do that? Well, Gordon knew that if he could make parents hate Alice Cooper the kids listening to rock music would love Alice Cooper. From rigging a mobile billboard to “breakdown” in the middle of London’s busiest intersection at rush hour, to tossing a live chicken on stage (RIP that chicken)—Gordon learned to become a master manipulator.  Soon parents were up in arms over Alice Cooper, and Gordon was laughing all the way to the bank.

Turns out the story behind the rise of Alice Cooper is full of really funny stories. I think the best early Alice Cooper story was the time a promoter wanted a female folk act and booked Alice Cooper. Ever the savvy businessman, Gordon went along with the mistake! I think I’d pay almost anything to see the look on those peaceful hippie faces when the freakish Alice Cooper took the stage at that concert. Once the Alice Cooper band took off, Gordon had to fight Frank Zappa (of all people) to get their first album out. All of this Alice Cooper stuff is really interesting, and I kinda wish the documentary was just about those early days.

Gordon with Alice Cooper.

Gordon with Alice Cooper.

Once Alice Cooper gains infamy and riches, Gordon tries his hand at managing other acts. Supermensch delves into Gordon’s relationship with R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass and how he helped the world’s best chefs become overnight millionaires by hawking spices and Tupperware. Gordon’s had an impressive run and it’s interesting to learn that the guy who helped invent Alice Cooper also “invented” Emeril Lagasse. He uses the same nice guy tactics to make everyone he touches into success.

What’s so menschy about Gordon? His business philosophy seems to be that everyone should walk away from the table a winner. He does whatever it takes to promote his artists, but always in an honorable way (unless you are a chicken). A good example is the motel rooms used by the fledgling Alice Cooper band. In the early days, the band was trying to relocate from LA to Detroit and on the way the band played concerts. Because they were unknowns, the band had no money for motels, so Gordon paid with bad checks. As soon as the band took off and made money, Gordon went back and re-paid all the motels they’d screwed over.

I was surprised to learn that Supermensch was directed by Mike Myers. Yes, that Mike Myers. The SNL alumni fell on hard times after his film The Love Guru tanked at the box office and in a deep depression, the comedian ended up spending two months at Gordon’s house in Hawaii. So while I think Shep Gordon is probably a genuinely nice guy…I do think the film veers a bit too far into hero worship. There’s some dark stuff in the film, but it’s largely glossed over. That’s a bit disappointing, but makes sense when you learn that the man behind the camera probably owes his sanity (maybe even his life) to the film’s subject.

Overall, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of the entertainment industry and a great way to kill an hour and thirty minutes.  Supermensch is currently streaming on Netflix and is available on iTunes.

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BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME

Big Star is one of those bands that prove that life isn’t fair.  We like to tell ourselves, especially here in the United States, that the cream always rises to the top.  The deck may not always be stacked in our favor, but with a little hard work and talent you’ll always succeed. Wrong.  Sometimes the best and brightest, the most talented people on the planet are ignored.  When this happens we search for a reason, a why that fits with our grand vision of an inherently fair universe.  English rockers XTC are a good example.  They didn’t get famous because their lead singer developed crippling stage anxiety, right?  Well that didn’t stop Brian Wilson, who stuck to the studio and still managed to find success. The truth is not everyone with big talent winds up a big star.

I happened upon Big Star the way most people do: by reading album reviews.  Once I got into indie bands, I started reading reviews in which critics compared bands to The Beatles and Big Star, always it seemed it was those two bands.  The first band I knew pretty well and so I was able to make the connection the critical shorthand was conveying.  But what the heck was Big Star?  Bands that I thought sounded a bit like Cheap Trick were often said to be “Big Star-ish.”  At a certain point, I got tired of being out of the loop and I ordered a copy of #1 ALBUM/RADIO CITY.  That this disc was actually a bastardization of two albums was something I only learned later.  By fusing the band’s first two albums together, Big Star’s current corporate owners created the single greatest dollar-per-song ratio of any album I’ve ever purchased.  For video game fans, #1 ALBUM/RADIO CITY is the musical equivalent of Valve’s Orange Box.  The damn thing is basically a Greatest Hits record.

Except, there were no hits.   I didn’t understand what happened, or why, until I sat down and watched Drew DeNicola’s documentary NOTHING CAN HURT ME.  The answers aren’t as simple as the band didn’t sell albums because “X” happened.  The band formed in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1970’s and got hooked up with the floundering STAX records.  Known more for soul/R&B music, STAX and its demise are a large part of the reason Big Star remained unknown for so very long.  But just blaming a label is an oversimplification.  The truth, which NOTHING CAN HURT ME explores, is more complex.

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Lead singer Alex Chilton and singer/guitarist Chris Bell formed a fragile, Lennon-McCartney relationship that produced the confidently-titled #1 RECORD. The album failed to connect with rock fans despite a frustratingly large amount of critical acclaim.  Dejected, Bell left the band and sort of lost his mind.  This is where Big Star started to fall apart.  A second album RADIO CITY, was produced, and was met with even greater critical acclaim and even less commercial success. Part of the album’s failure certainly had to do with the aforementioned STAX going belly-up after years of mis-management.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME follows Chilton and Bell as they spend the rest of their post RADIO CITY-lives in a stunned dazed wondering how had something so good gone unrecognized?  Bell winds up working at a fast food restaurant where fans eventually find him and track him down.  Chilton, who stayed in the public eye by remaining in music, became the target of ire because he chose to step away from the power-pop of Big Star and record avante-garde punk.

The film does a good job of charting the band’s rise.  In fact, it does such a good job that when the band’s albums fail to make an impact I found myself a little surprised, even though I knew the band’s history.  I also appreciated the interviews with Bell’s sister near the end, who is both bitter about how the music industry had so deeply hurt her brother and amazed that fans now make pilgrimages to his old home.  There were very few startling revelations in the film, with one notable exception.  As someone that got on the Big Star bandwagon very late (but then again, aren’t we all?) I was shocked to learn that Big Star was really Bell’s band and not Chilton’s.  Listening to Bell’s posthumously released solo album, I AM THE COSMOS (which I hadn’t even known existed), it becomes apparent where the bulk of the Big Star magic originated.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME while worth watching, isn’t perfect.  The documentary doesn’t feature any interviews with either Bell or Chilton because, sadly, they’re both dead.  Bell died tragically at age 27 and Chilton a few years before the 2012 documentary was shot.  Their absence from the film is glaring and the unfortunate result of the band’s delayed fame.  Another glaring omission, in my opinion, is a proper explanation of  Big Star’s legend and how the band’s cult following grew over the years.  This should be the heart of the documentary but instead is glossed over.  I’d have liked for NOTHING CAN HURT ME to show me how this obscure Memphis band appreciated over time until I had no choice but to seek out their albums just so I’d know what everyone was talking about.   Alas, the documentary choses to focus on the sad trajectory of Chris Bell’s life rather than explore how Big Star got so much underground notoriety.

Overall, I enjoyed NOTHING CAN HURT ME, but I still feel like there’s a better Big Star documentary out there somewhere.  Or at least, one that’s a more definitive look at the band’s life and resurrection.  Of course, without Bell and Chilton, that’s probably not true.  I’d recommend the film, but only after you’ve listened to #1 RECORD and RADIO CITY a few times.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME is available now on Netflix’s US instant-streaming service.

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Crossfire Hurricane & Becoming A Better Stones Fan

I love documentaries.  I really love them.  I don’t think I’ve seen a bad documentary, per say.  I subscribe to the theory that at the very least, a documentary will tell or show you something you didn’t know, and thus it wasn’t a complete waste of time.  Some are better than others.  The Martin Scorsese film on Bob Dylan, for example, is a damn good documentary.  Recently, I sat down and watched HBO’s Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, which while not as good as Scorsese’s No Direction Home, was entertaining.

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And how could anything about the Rolling Stones not be entertaining? As far as legendary bands go, the Stones are tops when it comes to drugs, debauchery, death, and deceit.  All the makings of a compelling documentary, right?  Well Crossfire Hurricane covers all the major points in the band’s storied career, but doesn’t really dig in very deep.  Some of it felt rushed and major chapters in the band’s career are glossed over. It wasn’t until the credits started to roll (and I thought, “That’s it?”) that I saw what the problem was: the band were the producers.

So Crossfire Hurricane is really the whitewashed version of the Stones as told by the Stones. If you’re super-fan, you’re not going to necessarily gain any new insights, but the backstage/behind-the-scenes footage is worth seeing.  We see the Stones at the height of their success doing drugs and running around half (or totally) naked backstage.  It’s all very cheeky and fun.

I really wanted to recommend Crossfire Hurricane as THE Stones documentary to see…but it’s not.  The real story is what happened after the credits had rolled: the next morning, all I could think about were the tunes.  I fired up Spotify and started skipping around in the band’s massive back catalogue. And then a funny thing happened: I discovered my all-time favorite Stones song.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

I was listening to STICKY FINGERS while doing my laundry, when I heard “Bitch.”  I’d of course heard it before, but I didn’t hear it until this week.  The cocky, self-assured Jagger vocals, the brilliant Keef guitar lick…it was your standard-issue Stones song until the horns kicked in.  Holy shit, the horns take “Bitch” from good to fantastic. It was like hearing “Satisfaction” for the first time: I was blown away.

Which got me thinking, if a great never-played-on-the-radio song like “Bitch” could hit me like a bolt of lightning—what other astoundingly great Stones songs am I missing out on? Suddenly being a more causal Stones fan doesn’t seem so cool.  There is only one course of action: I must listen to everything by the Stones to ensure that I’m not missing out on any other gems.

To be fair, “Bitch” was a B-side to “Brown Sugar” so it wasn’t cast off into complete obscurity, but with B-sides like this who knows what awesome deep-cuts I’m missing out on.  These are the problems of a true music-nerd.  There are too many great bands with too many great songs left undiscovered.  Whenever I find a blank spot on my musical map, I try to fill it in.  That a band like the Rolling Stones has so many blank spots on my map is embarrassing, to be sure.  So even though I’m pretty sure I could die a happy rock-enthusiast without hearing the entirety of the Rolling Stones 80’s output—I’m gonna listen to it all.  Just knowing the singles and key albums is good, but the odds ‘n sods/deep-cuts are what keep me going, both as a fan and as a human being.

That endless quest for my next favorite song, that’s the very essence of what DEFENDING AXL ROSE is all about.  In the coming days, weeks, and months, I’ll post more about my travels in the Stones back catalogue.

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That Time The Ramones (And Clint Howard!) Blew-Up A High School

What do you get when you take B-Movie King Roger Corman, Clint Howard (Ron’s awesomely-fugly brother), and punk legends The Ramones? You get ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. I recently saw this movie for the first time thanks to Netflix, who have added it to their instant-streaming service (at least for now). The movie came out in the summer of 1979 but is set in 1980. Going in I didn’t know much about the movie except that The Ramones were in it and at the end (SPOILER) they blow-up a high school. The film had been on my “to-see” list for a while, but because it was a low-budget B-movie and a bit obscure, getting my hands on it proved difficult.

You could do a lot worse…I’m looking at you ROCK OF AGES.

Apparently the film was quite popular in the early days of MTV and was often used to supplement the fledgling channels lack of content. Anyway, the movie is about some teens at Vince Lombardi High (school motto: Winning is better than losing) who get this new hardass principal. Like all 80’s movies, this principal is a total nutcase hell-bent on keeping the students away from *gasp* ROCK ‘N ROLL and it’s evil influences. Though it was set in 1980, the film seems at times to be ripped from the late 1950’s or early 1960’s as far as it’s depiction of teen culture (“Rave on?” Seriously?). This is most likely because the film was produced by Roger Corman, who at the time was trying to recapture the glory of his rebellious-teen flicks from the previous decades. I’ve read that the project was originally to be-titled DISCO HIGH, that should tell you just how out-of-touch (some of) the creators of this movie were. Thankfully, the film got a re-write and The Ramones were added. Speaking of writing, the story is credited to Allan Arkush and Joe Dante. Yes, that Joe Dante (of GREMLINS fame).

The Ramones, while in the film (a lot) are not the protagonists of the film, which kinda surprised me. Instead, the movie is about this girl who wants to write songs for The Ramones, and of course is in love with Joey (‘natch). Her attempt to score tickets for the big Ramones concert lands her afoul of the school’s new principal, which sets off a series of high-jinks. Overall the movie was “cute” but not “funny.” There were a few scenes that really made me laugh, but overall the film’s jokes ended up coming off a bit corny. Clint Howard (!) steals the show as a “fixer” who runs an illicit business in the men’s room. There’s a great scene where he’s teaching two “square” students how to “neck.” It’s pretty much as awesome as it sounds. I also found it weird seeing Howard with a full head of hair, so if you’ve wondered what Clint Howard looked like as a younger man you need to check this movie out. The Ramones themselves, while obviously not actors, come off pretty cool in the movie though I couldn’t help but notice that The Ramones basically act like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (only in a punk band). One of the best scenes of the movie has then cramming pizza into their mouths after a gig. Well, all of them except for Joey, who’s forced to eat alfalfa and wheatgerm by their bizarre manager.

Joey Ramone was not known as the world’s best substitute.

The movie’s chief flaw is it’s rather schizophrenic tone. At one point it seems like a coming of age story, then it’s a raunchy Porky’s-esque sex farce, at a few points it’s a wacky-slapstick comedy, and then it flirts with being a musical. Actually, now that I think about it, ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL reminded me a bit of John Hughes excellent film WEIRD SCIENCE. Both feature lovable losers getting some “special” help, instead of Kelly LeBrock the teens get The Ramones. Both also have bizarre over-the-top moments, though ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL’s are fewer than WEIRD SCIENCE. But there’s a running gag throughout the film about exploding mice that could have probably fit nicely into Hughes’ film.

As a rock ‘n roll relic/curiosity ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL doesn’t disappoint. There are better 80’s teen comedies to be sure, but none that feature The Ramones. The soundtrack is pretty varied, too. I was shocked when I started watching the film because the first song played is NOT The Ramones but rather Paul McCartney!!! In addition to the former Beatle, Alice Cooper, Brownsville Station, Chuck Berry, and (awesomely enough) Nick Lowe are also included in the soundtrack. Oh, yeah and at the end The Ramones help blow-up the high school.

ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is as cheesy as the pizza The Ramones eat after their concert–and that’s a good thing.

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