No one expected much from Frank Sinatra when he started his film career. After all, Elvis managed one without the aid of a well-written script or acting ability. But Sinatra surprised everyone with a nuanced performance as a brainwashed veteran who aims to assassinate a presidential nominee in The Manchurian Candidate. Few musicians, however, really became top-notch thespians, but it sure is nice when they really work at the craft.
We’ve already covered actors who have tried to be musicians ("5 Musical Actors"). We've also covered rock stars who have made random film cameos ("5 Rock Stars Who've Made Surprising Film Cameos"). And next week we'll take a look at musicians who've made surprising TV cameos (8/15), but today we'll take a look at musicians who have fully committed to being actors, and in addition to that, are actually pretty damn good at it. It makes sense, after all, many musicians essentially play a character when they’re on stage anyway.
So, here are 5 musicians who have become surprisingly good actors:
Mos Def got his start in hip-hop, forming the group Black Star with Talib Kweli before moving on to his acclaimed solo albums, Black on Both Sides and The New Danger. He’s also a pretty good actor, having appeared in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, The Woodsman, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Cadillac Records, and on Dexter as the character Brother Sam.
Best known for the song “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.” (YouTube it. It will get stuck in your head. For days.) Yoakam surprised everyone with his portrayal of an abusive alcoholic in 1996’s Sling Blade. Choosing his roles carefully, he’s managed to work with David Fincher in Panic Room and star in Crank 2: High Voltage.
We were surprised that Justin managed a successful solo career, much less winning four Emmys for his acting abilities. While not every role has been great - he was in Mike Meyer’s The Love Guru after all - he’s become the best cast member Saturday Night Live has had in ten years and put in stellar performances in The Social Network and Alpha Dog.
Before starring in Boogie Nights and The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg was once known as Marky Mark, and he employed a Funky Bunch. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch even managed a few hits, such as “Good Vibrations." Side note: before that he once got high on PCP and beat a middle-aged Vietnamese man unconscious. The more you know…
There will be no “getting jiggy with it” jokes in this one. I just want to make that clear. Will Smith got his start playing such brutal, no-holds barred hip-hop songs like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime” before breaking out with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Since then he’s become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, despite starring in 1999’s Wild Wild West.
In our Writers and Music series, authors discuss the music that has either been included in their most recent novel/play or the influence music has had on their work overall. We've talked to dozens of novelists, playwrights, and poets and discovered amazing stories of the unhinged live performances or forgotten B-sides that have inspired their work and kept them writing.
Jason Grote is the author of the plays 1001, Civilization (all you can eat), and Maria/Stuart, among others. He has written for film and TV, including season one of "Smash," and co-hosted The Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU in 2008-09. Visit him at jasongrote.com.
Has a specific song ever influenced one of your scripts?
Much of the time, yes. The most obvious example would be my play 1001, which actually calls for music in the script; when I started writing the play, I was listening to Push The Button, a Chemical Brothers' album, especially the song "Galvanize," which featured rapping by Q-Tip. I think the play was influenced by that song, which featured Muslim chanting, Middle Eastern violins, and a powerful, vaguely revolutionary message.
I also listened to a lot of electronic and hip-hop music coming out of the Middle East in the 90s and 00s, and raï music, which was a kind of Algerian rock-pop (mostly Rachid Taha). Right now I'm writing a play about Shostakovich, so obviously I'm using a lot of that music.
You were a writer for the first season of Smash. What was the biggest challenge writing for a musical series?
TV writing is a whole different animal, but one of the biggest challenges with the show was the contemporary numbers, because you would write something into the script - this wasn't a pitch but an actual finished draft - and then the music people would come back with a different number, based on their expertise, or what they could obtain the rights to, or maybe what they thought they could sell as iTunes downloads.
In and of itself this wasn't such a bad thing, because I have a really spotty knowledge of current Top 40 music and it wouldn't have been so great to have me dropping in, say, Guided by Voices or Clash songs, but it would have been better to have integrated the songs more organically into the scripts. I'm not on Season Two; maybe they'll have changed this by then.
You’ve done a lot of work and fundraising for WFMU. What drew you to that station?
I briefly worked at the Montclair Book Center in 1990, where they played the station all the time. It was a great job, except I was paid less than minimum wage, and I usually took that in used books instead of money so I couldn't pay my rent. For years after that, I would strain to get a signal and listened to it here and there whenever I could, usually in a car, but at some point in the late 1990s I started listening online. It's the best radio station in the world and everyone should listen to it at WFMU.org.
You wrote and produced WFMU’s Acousmatic Theatre Hour.
I loved going down to the station once a week to be on the radio, but honestly I just remembered it being a lot of work. It was hard coming up with something interesting to play on the radio every week (it was a radio play show, and contemporary, interesting radio plays are next to impossible to come by and extremely time-consuming to make), so we'd often play archival material from UbuWeb, PennSound, or the WFMU record library.
It was an important life lesson: I could love WFMU as a listener and volunteer, but I didn't necessarily have to go on the air. But I'm glad I got it out of my system.
What was your best and worst live music experiences?
Hmmmm...best would be tough - I saw Fishbone at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ, in 1987 in a small crowd, and it was pretty incredible, just fantastic, fun energy. My other favorites are all fairly recent: Patti Smith at the Bowery Ballroom on New Years' Eve 2006, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists at McCarren Park Pool in 2007, The Dirtbombs at Southpaw in 2008.
My least favorite included a truly frightening Cro-Mags/Mentors show at City Gardens, also in 1987 (though it was also really memorable), and Porno for Pyros at Roseland Ballroom in 1993. That last one ruined Perry Farrell for me - the crowd was full of moshing jocks (one of the worst things about the 1990s). The band played for 35 minutes, and Farrell ended the show by asking the audience, "How does it feel to be a bunch of cunts?"
In fact, the 1990s was kind of a lost decade for me, musically - I just saw tons of big festival shows like Lollapalooza, and then the Grateful Dead and jam bands. Though I still like The Dead and make no apologies for it.
Your play 1001, a modern retelling of Arabian Nights, has been receiving a steady stream of praise and productions since its 2007 premiere. Why do you think this play has resonated with audiences?
Who knows? I think theaters like that it's epic and ambitious, but maybe it's had a life because it's hopeful in the face of tragedies like 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Civilization has been well-received by theaters because it's my most similarly epic play in years, but it's much more bleak, and it's an explicit criticism of capitalism, which seems to touch a nerve - in DC in particular. The Washington Post loved it, but all these 24-year-old bloggers hated it, like viciously hated it with an unusual level of vitriol. I can only imagine it was because it makes desperate, ambitious people look like assholes. And who's more desperate and ambitious than a 24-year-old blogger in DC?
1001 also went after a much easier target, the neocons who were waging war against the Arab world, even though it felt much riskier at the time. When a liberal Democrat is in power, theater audiences don't want to hear criticisms of power quite so much. It's actually more of a taboo. Though I hear they loved Civilization in Germany!
Is there a musical act you think is criminally underrated?
Love, definitely - Arthur Lee was insane, but they were way better than The Doors, CSN, or any number of other L.A. acts at the time.
I also think there's a huge garage/psych/punk scene that's been going on since the 1980s and is still going strong today, and which deserves attention above and beyond Jack White (though I like Jack White): Dan Melchior, Billy Childish, Holly Golightly, The Dirtbombs, New Bomb Turks, Redd Kross, The Black Hollies, The Ettes, Jay Reatard, Gentleman Jesse, King Khan & The Shrines, Davila 666, The Cynics, Black Lips, Thee Oh Sees...I could keep this up forever. There were some great Boston bands from the 1980s waiting to be rediscovered, like Big Dipper and Volcano Suns.
There's some really fantastic electro/pop/punk coming from Brazil right now, and the internet has allowed for there to be literally thousands of compilations of great forgotten music from every contentent except Antarctica, though there's probably a Love Peace & Poetry: Antarctica compilation in the works that I don't know about.
Do you have any new work coming up?
I'll be reading my short story from the Significant Objects anthology, from Fantagraphics Books, at The Strand on July 10. That's going to be a pretty cool event, not because of me, but the other authors: Luc Sante, Ben Greenman, Shelley Jackson, Annie Nocenti, who wrote the best run on Daredevil in that comic's history (and yes, I'm including Frank Miller).
I just finished the program note for The Wooster Group/Royal Shakespeare Company production of Troilus & Cressida at The Globe in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and I'm very proud of that, even though it's just a program note. Civilization should be coming to
Chicago in 2013. I'm developing some original ideas for TV and film that I can't talk about just yet.
(Elford Alley has had plays produced and read across the United States and his sketch comedy featured in several shows in Chicago. His articles have appeared in cracked.com. He currently resides in Dallas with his wife and daughter.)
In our Writers and Music series, authors discuss the music that has either been included in their most recent novel/play or the influence music has had on their work overall.
Gary Winter’s plays have been seen or heard at The Chocolate Factory; The Flea; HERE; PS 122; The Cherry Lane Alternative; Playwrights Horizons; The Lark; defunkt theatre. His play I Love Neil LaBute was recently published in Shorter, Faster, Funnier: Comic Plays and Monologues (Vintage Books, summer 2011). From 1998 to 2008 Gary volunteered as Literary Manager of the Flea Theater, where he currently helps organize Pataphysics, workshops for playwrights.
Taking matters into one’s own hands
I think one thing that characterized the New York art scene in the 80s was the "DIY" zeitgeist. In that spirit, my friend Scott Lewis & I created the Scott & Gary Show. Inspired by the live dance shows of the 60s, we wanted to produce a TV show with a sense of energy and joy. The concept was simple: Experimental bands performing live.
Some of the bands we had on were the Beastie Boys, the Butthole Surfers, Shockabilly and ½ Japanese. We taped “as live” and friends came down to the studio to dance. I directed and Scott hosted. A reviewer in a music magazine aptly called it “The American Bandstand from hell.” We taped twenty episodes in all, fourteen in NYC and the final six at a public access studio that Jeff Krulik (Heavy Metal Parking Lot), ran in Maryland. (You can find clips of the show on YouTube).
We operated with a team of volunteers and a $135 per show budget. In spite of minimal resources (or because of), we were able to articulate a vision and carry it through. In his book Unbalancing Acts, Richard Foreman clearly articulates what he’s attempting to do, and I think this is one of the most important things a playwright can ask of him/herself. Not everyone is going to connect with your stuff and that’s fine. If a few people are genuinely affected by your work, you’ve done your job.
I’ve had the privilege to be part of 13P, the theater company founded by thirteen playwrights whose mission has been to produce one play by each of its members. Taking control of one’s artistic vision has been our goal, and towards that end each of us has served as artistic director of his/her own show. At the time of my show (AT SAID), I was exploring a way of writing that was new for me, and I needed to see the show sixteen times to figure what did and didn’t work. The process proved invaluable to my learning curve.
I think 13P has been part of a larger movement over the past decade of intrepid artists turning the focus away from relying on the institutional model (away from development and towards production), and putting the focus back on the individual artist. This is not a dig at established theaters or performance venues; it’s a way of saying that when individuals feel empowered, they will make vital work and steer institutions towards a more flexible model. Call it trickle up theory, if you will.
There’s only so much you can control
Five minutes before the Butthole Surfers were scheduled to go on they told me they needed to drop acid. I said fine, just be back in five minutes. You can’t be in control of every contingency, but you can keep a cool head. (They returned in five minutes, and none for the worse. Probably better.)
We taped twenty episodes of Scott & Gary (1984-1987), and then it was time to move on. One more show and 13P implodes. That’s been the plan all along. You’re all invited to the implosion bash this fall (date and place TBA).
Everything ends. Why not end on your own terms?
On May 4, 2012 Adam Yauch, aka MCA, aka Nathanial Hornblower, succumbed to cancer at 47. A great musician, accomplished director, and philanthropist, today we'd like to pay tribute to the late rapper by highlighting five of the many things that make him great.
5. He Wrote an Amazing Letter to the New York Times
In 2004, a New York Times critic wrote a negative review to the Beastie Boys’ music video “Ch-Check It Out." Borrowing the same pseudonym he directs under, Nathanial Hornblower, Yauch responded with a bizarre letter proclaiming his genius and reminding the critic that she owes him a goat after his died en route to deliver his letter from the high cliffs of his remote homeland. It’s definitely worth checking out: (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/20/arts/20MAIL.html).
4. He was a Director
Yauch directed some of the Beastie Boys’ best videos, including “Intergalactic,” “Make Some Noise” and the epic thirty-minute, star-filled "Fight For Your Right (revisited)." Yauch also directed the 2006 Beastie Boys' film “Awesome; I Fucking Shot That” and the 2008 documentary “Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot.”
3. He was a Philanthropist
Yauch was a supporter of the Free Tibet movement. In addition to creating the Milarepa Fund, a non-profit dedicated to Tibetan independence, he organized the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1996, which drew over a 100,000 people. In the wake of 9/11, Yauch helped organize the benefit concert New Yorkers Against violence along with his Beastie Boys cohorts.
2. He Founded Oscilloscope Laboratories
Started in 2002 as a record label, Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories quickly branched out into film. Adam had a vision for his company, selecting a wide variety of films including the Banksy documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop” and the school shooting drama “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” Yauch was a big fan of both films: “I’d say the common thread is really just films that I and other people at the company like…You have to feel like the film has some redeeming quality, feel moved by it for some reason.”
1. He Gave Us The Beastie Boys
You love the Beastie Boys. I love the Beastie Boys. We love the Beastie Boys. Who doesn’t? Adam Yauch co-founded the group when he was just seventeen. They started out as a hardcore punk group before embracing hip-hop and becoming the band that gave the world “No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn” and “Sabotage."
The 19th century French novelist Emile Zola said, "In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it."
In the mid-80s when grunge was percolating in the Pacific Northwest, a recent graduate of the University of Washington was "killing time" by documenting Seattle's local music scene with his camera. For Charles Peterson, his role as chronicler of the grunge movement has been as important as the music itself. By recording and preserving such an influential period in music history, Peterson has given us the opportunity to "see something" and perhaps wax nostalgic over a bygone era.
In the third installment of our "Great Rock Photographer" series, Charles Peterson chats about Kurt Cobain, being pigeonholed as a rock photographer, why he no longer wants to photograph "grimy dudes," Usher's professionalism, his fascination with B-Boy culture, and his recurring dream of Eddie Vedder.
How did you start taking pictures of the grunge scene?
I was just kind of there from the beginning. Mark Arm from Mudhoney was my college roommate in 1983. At that time Green River started up. I was just hanging out with Kim Thayil pre-Soundgarden. We all went to college together. I was introduced to Bruce Pavitt. We were all just kind of buddies. It was a very sort of organic process that happened with us. It wasn’t like I parachuted into the scene to try and take advantage of it or something. It just happened to be that it was what we were all doing to kill time. I couldn’t play an instrument to save my life, and I was pretty good with a camera so that became my role in it.
Is it more challenging to take pictures of friends than people you don’t know?
I think so, to a degree. I think back then it was possibly a little to my detriment because it was too easy to just hang out. You know? And you sort of take it for granted. Especially when you’re so young. It’s like you don’t realize the importance of what you’re doing. It’s just something you’re doing. Knowing what I know now, the way I’ve matured as a photographer...yes I do wish I can turn the clock back sometimes and sort of redo some things (laughs).
I read somewhere that when you were labeled a rock photographer you felt pigeonholed. Was it hard to break free from that label?
Yeah, it was. There were some people who believed in me like Meg Handler at the Village Voice. She assigned me to shoot writers and artists and all this non-music stuff which was really great and refreshing. Within the music publishing industry was where I had the worst time as far as being pigeonholed. I’ll tell you a story.
Spin Magazine approached me about doing a photo of John Ponemon and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop. I think it was the tenth anniversary of the label or something. I met with the photo editor at Spin and she was looking at my portfolio, and I had a few shots in there of your basic portraits against white backdrops. She said something like, “We’re not doing these white backdrop things anymore.” Okay. Whatever. I’ve got a lot of other stuff in there.
I wanted to go pose them in the woods – John with a laptop and Bruce with a chainsaw. I didn’t hear back from them. Then it turns out they flew in a photographer from San Francisco and what do they do? They pose John and Bruce against a white background (laughter). So it’s kind of like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
I also heard somebody would mention me for a job and they’re like, “If we wanted a blurry black and white photo of the band jumping into the drum kit then we’d hire him.” So I got really pigeonholed like I can just shoot this one sort of thing. Which is not true at all.
Do you prefer to shoot musicians?
Well, actually I really dislike shooting music now. Though it really depends. I enjoy shooting music that is sort of outside of what people consider to think what I’d like to shoot. Shooting somebody like Usher is really great.
Weirdly enough one of my favorite photo shoots on [my website] is Usher. This was a number of years ago; I got the job from Vibe to photograph him. I had never heard of him before. Even up until the moment I was in the same room as him, I had no idea who this guy was (laughter). That’s not a rarity with me.
Last week I was photographing Cobra Starship who was playing at Bing. And they were great. I had never heard of them and they started playing and I was like, “Oh, I recognize that song.” But anyway Usher…the job for Vibe was photographing the show and seeing whatever I can get backstage, documentary style, which is what I do best. And he was such a consummate professional. He let me just hang out for like two and a half hours before the show. At one point it was just me and him backstage together. He’s trying on different clothes and stuff, so I was a fly on the wall and the show was not my cup of tea, but I was allowed such access that I got some really, really great shots. Probably some of the better stuff I’ve ever done in my career. It’s all about access. It’s all about what the artists will give you.
On my site there’s a picture of Erykah Badu. (Another musician I had never heard of before she went on stage.) Musically, it’s not really my cup of tea per se, but it’s just like the elegance and the stage show...it gives you a lot more to work with than just four grimy dudes who’ve been living in a van for six months, making fart jokes. I kind of need more than that right now.
I live in the heart of Hipsterville, so I know what you mean.
You know what I mean. I call it Beard Rock.
Beard Rock (laughter). Do your subjects come in with ideas? Has anybody ever come in with an idea that you went with?
Sometimes. I usually discourage that. Record labels are always like, “I’ll send you a copy of the pre-release of the cd and all this press material and stuff.” I’m not a real conceptual photographer. I’m not like Annie Leibovitz or something, so I just kind of take them as they are. I’d much rather just put ‘em anywhere and work with the frame and just keep it natural, loose.
I’m really struck by the diversity of your photographs. I love the James Murphy…the LCD Soundsystem shots. They just pop. I was wondering if you have a favorite.
It’s funny. I really like those shots of James Murphy, and I got to meet him in person about a week and a half ago down at the Bing Bar at Sundance Film festival. I spent a week documenting the whole thing. It’s the second year in a row that I’ve been documenting it. He’s got a new documentary coming out so he dj’d his own private party. It’s a really great way to avoid talking to guests. Spinning records. It was fun to photograph him again. It was really just portraits and him at the turntable. People consider me just for my grunge work.
Who were some of your favorites to shoot at Sundance?
Ice-T was pretty cool. And Spike Lee. Rebecca Hall’s still a major crush. And let’s see, last year there was—I’m trying to think who else I got…Oh, last year there was the whole set of this movie Margin Call, which was like, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, and Simon Baker, and all these dudes---I’ll send you a link so that you can see some of that stuff.
Yeah, that would be cool. Will any of these photos make their way into a book? Do you have plans for a new book?
I do have plans for another book; it’s been in the works. Oh yeah, Florence & The Machine. Yet another band I’d never heard of before, but I kinda looked them up. I was like, "oh who knows, this could be really, really stupid," and it was actually really amazing…and really great to photograph. But yeah, I’d like to—oh! Harry Belafonte. He was fun to photograph too. Yeah, the working title is Negative Creeps.
"Creeps," yeah, as in the Nirvana song but plural. My first intention was to do a portrait book, but I’ve got all this great grunge stuff in the can that’s never been seen, and ostensibly it’s a book of faces. It’s like kinda taking the portrait idea and just sort of pushing the envelope with it.
And then being a little more cross-genre, like throwing in some pictures of Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson or whoever kind of falls under that moniker of the outsider or the negative creep.
I don’t know if Usher falls under that moniker.
Usher? Yeah, yeah, I don’t think so. Yeah (laughs). Put a live picture of Usher next to a live picture of the Butthole Surfers or something.
How did the book Cypher come about?
I’ve always been fascinated with B-Boy culture and hip-hop. I bought the Grandmaster Flash 12 inches practically when they first came out, back in like ’82 and ’83. So, that kinda scene has always been on my radar.
After a show, when we end up at my place, it’s like, “Alright, fuck you people, we’re listening to Public Enemy.” In 2001, I’d been meaning to go out to this B-Boy night club forever, and finally I grabbed my Menina 6 - it’s a camera that you would use for portraiture, or studio, or landscape or something. I just thought, “push the envelope here,” and shot a bunch of rolls of film and got ‘em back, and it was like some of the best stuff I’d shot in years.
The whole scene was super refreshing. It was just people doing their thing, and there’s no industry, no bullshit attitudes, and you pay your five bucks cover and get in and just shoot all you want. The energy was fantastic. Just reminded me of the old days, in a way, of the rock scene. I just started going out to clubs and shooting locally, and then ended up going to some big events in New York and L.A. and talked to my publisher, Powerhouse, showed them some work and they got really interested and spent a year or more, editing and kind of pulling it all together. And yeah, did a book. Sales-wise, did nothing (laughs), did pretty poorly. But I was proud of the work and I mean it’s really, really strong. Doing a photo book without somebody famous in it, is just a really tough sell.
What makes for a successful shoot?
For me it’s capturing those off-moments. It’s the unposed sort of candid moments. It’s pretty easy to just go out there with a long lens and take the close-up money shot of the singer the other eight photographers that are with you are doing as well. Trying to get the shit that uses the space and captures a moment that’s kind of unique speaks not only to the music but to photography as well. I prefer my images to be more iconic in a sense. And so to be able to capture that one sort of iconic photograph is important. And it’s impossible to do that in the first three songs. I actually won’t even shoot a show these days unless I’m allowed full access to it.
How would you describe your style?
I guess the best description is reportage. It’s a French term for it, but fine art documentary is (I think) how that translates. That’s definitely the type of photographers that have inspired me through the years, that whole Magnum School of Photography.
Well, I mean it’s obviously of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In particular, there’s the one photograph of him where he’s got his legs up in the air. You don’t see his face really; he’s still playing the guitar. It’s kind of at a diagonal in the frame. He’s doing a somersault essentially, but it just sort of looks like he’s floating above the stage upside-down.
Just like Mick Rock said, that’s one of those shots that just happened in the blink of an eye. Especially back then when you were shooting film you didn’t know whether you got it or not, or anything, until a day or two later. So, you just kinda took it and maybe filed it to the back of your mind that this is something that happened but just kept on shooting.
The other obviously iconic image is of him [Kurt] sprawled on the drum kit at Raji’s. That’s the middle part of a whole Motor Sports Series of him launching himself, falling into it, and then getting back up off the drum kit and walking out of the frame.
A couple years back, the Seattle Art Museum did a show called Kurt, which is artwork inspired by Kurt Cobain or about, and they commissioned me to blow up that whole Drum Kit Series to like 44 x 66 inch prints, each one, and then they framed it, put it on a wall.
A lot of people thought it was the best part of the show, and it looked really, really great, so I donated it to the museum.
Did I see that photograph in the Who Shot Rock and Roll exhibit?
I don’t know if it was in that one. The one of him upside-down (I think) was in the table of contents and then they ran the MFest crowd shot in the book, and that was actually used as a poster for that show at the Brooklyn Museum. Did you see the book Taking Aim from the EMP?
I don’t think I have.
Yeah, that was a show that was at the Experience Music Project Museum. It was curated by Graham Nash and he included the photo of Kurt Cobain sprawled on the drum kit. And that was a really fun experience ‘cause I got to meet all these famous old-school photographers - Henry Diltz and Joel Bernstein and Jim Marshall. It was like a month before he passed away, so I got to meet him and talk a little bit. So yeah, that was a really, really great experience.
Whether you’re crammed into a subway car, stuck in traffic on the BQE or just lounging around in your underwear on your couch, nothing beats a good read. With that in mind, here are four rockin' books Riffraf thinks you should check out this spring:
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young
Acclaimed poet Kevin Young’s new book takes its title from the DJ Danger Mouse album, itself a smash-up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album. It’s a rambling, fascinating, and at times frustrating look at African-American culture and its place in America. With extensive passages and quotes from musical masters ranging from Duke Ellington to Lauryn Hill, and large sections about hip-hop and its evolution, Young argues that African-American culture and American culture aren’t two different worlds, but one in the same.
Jimi Hendrix: A Brother’s Story by Leon Hendrix and Adam Smith
After years of accusing his family of mismanaging his brother’s legacy, Leon Hendrix is airing grievances and offering a glimpse into his relationship with his older brother, the late Jimi Hendrix. While the passages chronicling his litigious relationship with the rest of his family may not be page turning, Hendrix offers untold anecdotes and stories about the childhood and rise to fame of one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived.
Written during his bout with cancer and published eight years after his death, Commando is John William Cummings' (aka Johnny Ramone) life story and a first person chronicle of The Ramones storied career. Clocking in at 176 pages and filled with rare photos hand-picked by his wife Linda, the book is slim, with no frills, and no apologies, much like the music he left behind.
When I Left Home: My Story by Buddy Guy and David Ritz
To say Buddy Guy is a legend is an understatement. A mainstay of the blues scene since the fifties, Guy got his start playing with Muddy Waters. A veteran of Chess Records, he pioneered the use of distortion, feedback, and brutal, no-holds barred guitar solos. Without him there would be no Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, or Stevie Ray Vaughan. As much as anyone, he’s responsible for the sounds we find in modern blues and rock, and with the help of David Ritz, he’s releasing his autobiography in May.
What rockin' book do you recommend?
(Elford Alley has written plays, sketch comedy, and short stories. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter. Follow Elford on Twitter.)
Why is it that whenever an actor tries his or her hand at music they usually go down in a ball of flames? Some work out, like Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of grizzled country music veteran Otis Blake, which led to the release of two decent albums. But for every Jeff Bridges there are hundreds of Corey Feldmans and Gwyneth Paltrows waiting in the wings.
Here are five random musical actors.
We’ve all heard William Shatner’s bizarre, spoken word version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man," but he truly surprised everyone with his 2004 album Has Been. Produced and arranged by Ben Folds, it was critically acclaimed. Seriously. An album by William “halting cadence” Shatner was critically acclaimed. The album featured a popular cover of Pulp’s “Common People” and the original song “What Have You Done," which deals with his wife’s tragic death in 1999. While he's not the only Star Trek alum to try his hand at a musical career (if you’re brave, google “Leonard Nimoy's Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”), but he’s definitely had the strangest.
This guy went from being a bodyguard who was so renowned he was sought out for assassinations to a punch line relegated to commercials and reality shows. But for a brief moment in 1984, Mr. T was more than a walking cartoon character; he was a walking cartoon character who released two albums, Mr. T’s Commandments and Mr. T’s Be Somebody…or Be Somebody’s Fool. Both of which were meant to inspire kids to stay in school and not do drugs. Eh, still better than anything Nickelback has ever released.
Steven Seagal is a man of many terrible talents. He’s made terrible movies, terrible energy drinks, a terrible reality show about his terrible law enforcement career…so why not throw in some terrible music? Mr. Seagal has two albums, 2005’s Songs From The Crystal Cave, featuring a duet with Stevie Wonder (which means either Mr. Wonder has a great sense of humor or truly, truly hates his fans) and 2006’s Mojo Priest. Seagal’s music is a mix of country, blues, and terrible.
In 1995, Kevin Bacon and his brother Michael formed the folk rock duo, The Bacon Brothers. They’ve released six studio albums, been featured on countless soundtracks, and even performed a charity concert on top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. They’re currently touring and have even released a greatest hits collection. So, while most actors mentioned in this article have burned out in a blaze of failure, Kevin Bacon makes it work.
In 2009, we saw the rap debut of Joaquin Phoenix. At the time most people were pretty sure his music career and retirement from acting were nothing more than an elaborate ruse. And they were right; it was all staged for the mockumentary I’m Still Here. But just think at what a glorious world it could have been, where a disheveled, hoboesque Joaquin is stumbling on stage night after night, sputtering lyrical poetry and fishing bread crumbs from his beard.
That’s just a small sample. The list of actors-turned-musician is seemingly never ending. There’s Eddie Murphy’s disastrous album, Lindsay Lohan’s train wreck of a record, Bruce Willis’ painfully mediocre bar band, Kim Kardashian’s sad, sad attempt at singing, and god help us, even Kevin Costner has taken a stab at it.
(Elford Alley has written plays, sketch comedy, and short stories. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter. Follow Elford on Twitter.)
In the film world it’s an issue that’s brought up every time George Lucas re-releases another slightly tweaked version of Star Wars. While fanboys argue over whether Greedo shot first or Ewoks should blink, the real question is who ultimately owns art? The fans or the artist?
In the liner notes to the 2000 remaster of All Things Must Pass, George Harrison said he found it “difficult to resist remixing every track” to free it from the “Wall of Sound” style that felt dated and over the top. In the end he released the version of All Things Must Pass his fans had known and loved, but what if he had remixed it? What would the reaction be to taking something people feel a connection to and changing it because it no longer suits the artist's changing taste?
Do artists really have a right to alter their work years later as their interest and views change? When musicians put out the newest reissue of a classic album, are they trying to perfect something or merely pull more green from their fans?
Some artists have done just that, and below are five controversial reissues in rock history.
Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails
Sometimes reissues draw the ire of the musicans as much as the fans. In 2010, Trent Reznor and NIN re-released their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, including early singles, covers, and unreleased material. In 2011 their label re-released the album again and Trent Reznor jumped on twitter to warn his fans not to buy it; it was merely the label trying to milk his fans for all they were worth.
Feeler by The Toadies
The Toadies are a one hit wonder known primarily for their 1994 single "Possum Kingdom" on the album Rubberneck. In 1997 they recorded a follow-up album entitled Feeler. Their label, Interscope, was unhappy with the record and shelved it. The band broke up in 2001, but the bootlegs of Feeler lived on among the Toadies oddly devoted fan base. The band reunited years later and in 2010 released a rerecorded version of Feeler. Fans finally had a high quality, digital copy of what is often considered the band’s best album, but some songs had been tweaked slightly, some tracks left off, and the songs not as vibrant and rage-filled as their bootleg predecessors.
Body Count by Body Count
Sometimes controversial reissues have nothing to do with the musicians evolving sounds, but intense pressure from outside sources. In 1992 Body Count released their self-titled debut album, featuring the infamous single “Cop Killer," a protest song against police brutality. The song ushered in a massive protest campaign, denounced by everyone from parent groups to the president of the United States. Believing the song's true message had been lost in the controversy, Ice-T recalled the album and re-released it sans “Cop Killer” and left Warner Bros. the following year. Ice-T has said, “If you believe I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut."
Smile by The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson’s descent into madness is one of rock’s most legendary crack-ups. We’ve all heard the stories: orchestra members forced to dress as firemen, playing piano in a sandbox, and epic drug use. Smile was never completed, but a handful of tracks made it onto The Beach Boys' 1967 record Smiley Smile. Fans assumed they would never hear Smile the way Brian Wilson intended. Then in 2004 a newly sane and rested Brian Wilson hit the studio with an orchestra and finally released Smile. The track list included new versions of classic songs like “Good Vibrations." The new versions were okay; the new material was good; but overall the album sounded like a cover band doing The Beach Boys. Finally in 2011, cobbled together from various Beach Boys' session, Smile was released in the way The Beach Boys intended and the fans wanted.
Let It Be…Naked by The Beatles
Let It Be, both the film and the album, is a somber milestone in The Beatles groundbreaking career. The film is a bitter look at a band’s acrimonious dissolution. The album sounds like nothing else in The Beatles catalogue. At John Lennon’s insistence, the demos were given to Phil Spector, who added his “Wall of Sound” production style to it. The result was an album of female backing vocals, non-sequitor dialogue between tracks, and orchestral overdubs. Paul McCartney hated it. So did George and Ringo. John simply said, "He was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it." So in 2003, Paul finally got his wish and released a newly remastered Phil Spector-less Let It Be, entitled Let It Be…Naked. The sound was crisper, some of the tracks almost having a live feel. While most will agree Let It Be…Naked is a better album, it’s not the album fans had embraced for 33 years.
(Elford Alley has written plays, sketch comedy, and short stories. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter.)
Jim Pace fell in love with music early on and thought they would live happily ever after. When he met film, he was captivated by the flying car, ear slashing grandeur of it all. While studying at NYU, he was faced with an ugly truth; he loved both music and film. To this day he still feels guilty.
Pace is currently directing a new music video and will soon begin preproduction on his first feature film, which he will write and direct. It will be released sometime in 2013. If he had one wish, he would save the Twinkie. It's delicious.
Riffraf: How did you meet Hoodless? What was it like working with them?
Pace: I told a friend I was planning to direct a few videos to try some ideas, next day he sent me an ad the boys had placed, looking for a director. I contacted them. It was great working with them, we complimented each other. I encourage fist fights on the set, they enjoy having them. Everyone's a lot sharper when they know at any moment, they could get jumped.
Riffraf: Are you a fan of their music?
Pace: Yes. I asked them if they did any cover songs, they gave me a dirty look. I became a fan right then.
Riffraf: Did you develop the concept for the video?
Pace: I liked the idea of a band living in their own little world, filled with light and sound, while everything else is happening outside. That's what it's really like when you're in a band. I had some thoughts for the narrative, as did the band. So we bandied about some ideas. It was a collaboration.
Riffraf: What was the biggest challenge of shooting the video?
Pace: Lack of time and budget. It was the first time I had to wear so many hats. Directing, editing, effects, etc. Not enough people to blame. I did bring a DP. So if anything is wrong with the video, it's obviously his fault. A captain goes down with his ship, but I prefer to watch it from the lifeboats.
Riffraf: What are your favorite music videos?
Pace: These stay with me: "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys. The song is great, the video makes it greater. The one that makes directors say, "I wish I made that. "Take On Me" by A-ha. Memorable images. Dated? Nope. "Jump" by Van Halen. Has a video ever reflected a band's personality more than this one? "Free As a Bird" by The Beatles. If you know anything about Beatle songs and their history, this is astounding. "Hurt" by Johnny Cash. Heart wrenching. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" by Bob Dylan. Nothing happens, but try to take your eyes off of it. "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam. Overly dramatic? You bet. Does the end still give me chills? You bet. Oh, and the umbrella bit in "Singing in The Rain" is still the best music video ever made.
Riffraf: Who are your favorite directors?
Pace: Features? I have many. Welles. Ingenious. He went nuclear when he made "Kane." Hitchcock, Brilliant craft. THE Director. Watch his movies, better than film school. Preston Sturges. Underrated and great. Made seven crazy comedies. "The Palm Beach" story contains the single funniest line in movie history. Oh, and his screenplay for "The Power and the Glory" was the prototype for "Citizen Kane." Ernst Lubitsch. Charm. Pure Charm. Vincente Minnelli. Entertainment and Color. Visit one of his movies and you want to stay. Frank Capra. How many times can you watch his best? Over and over again. Charles Barton. He scared us... while making an Abbott and Costello comedy! I don't care if you don't put him in this company! Woody "One take" Van Dyke. Studio hack? Hardly. 75 years later, his "B" movies still hold up. Nicholas Ray. For better or worse, he introduced attitude. Akira Kurosawa. He made us think, and took us on great adventures. A giant. Jean-Luc Godard. Everyone looked so cool. His contribution to the language can't be overstated. Howard Hawks. "The Big Sleep" didn't make sense; it's still great. Quentin Tarantino. He has the Welles' syndrome. One towering achievement and a few close calls. But he reenergized movies for awhile. Spielberg. He knows how to make movies. Raiders is the best ride you'll ever go on. Woody Allen. Like him or hate him, his voice is unique. I like him. Scorcese. He doesn't hit with everything, but when he does, hang on. Also Soderbergh, Woo, Stevens, Proyas, Hughes bros, Zemeckis, Ford, Fincher.
Music Video. Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. These two fuckers are too good.
Riffraf: What are your future plans? More videos?
Pace: I am going to make a couple more before I have to go and make a pilot. I still have some idea's I'm excited about. I'd like to experiment with movement, color, perspective. Get ready for some giant sets! Sorry, I think Michael Bay yelled that from the street. I'd also like explore some uncomfortable themes on this next one, but I'll try to keep it entertaining. I don't want to make anyone cry. Except, you know, people I don't like.