Saturday, November 2, 2013


The Cape Ann Cinema of Gloucester kicked off its 6th annual film festival last night. The place struggles mightily to be "hip," and I suppose it's hip in the way a fat guy showing off his Star Wars figurines is hip. Still, the dingy room with its overstuffed sofas was packed last night with what passes for hipsters in this neck of the woods. The occasion was a performance by Thomas Dolby, the MTV icon of yore who is in the middle of a 20-city tour promoting The Invisible Lighthouse, a film project about that most delicate of subjects: childhood memories.
The film, a documentary made in the best DIY manner, revolves around the impending demolition of a beloved lighthouse near Dolby's home in East Anglia. He weaves a number of themes throughout the short piece, including memories of boarding school, and his early days as a pop star, and ties them to memories of this particular light house, which sits on a beach once used by the British military to test bombs.

As happens with many documentaries, The Invisible Lighthouse is partly about the making of the film itself. In some hands this is an annoying technique, but Dolby has a sly humor and a sense of nostalgia that works for this particular doc. When he contacts the authorities to suggest a possible film, he's met with resistance. But the old science geek has more grit than we might've imagined from watching his old videos. He buys a boat and goes in guerrilla style at dawn, using a remote control spy camera. The effect is like watching a man invade his own dreams while wearing night vision goggles.
The film is complimented by Dolby's presence on stage, where he provides narration, plays snippets of music, and with help from inventive sideman Blake Leyh, creates a gentle wall of sound to accompany the action. It's an interesting evening of what could be called "performance art." It varies in execution from one city to the next, but I'm sure it remains more or less the same. Last night he sat down for a lengthy Q&A with the audience, where he talked about buying his equipment on eBay, joked about new technology in comparison to what he had in the 1980s, and expressed the challenges of being Thomas Dolby in 2013, when practically everyone owns a smart phone capable of technology unheard of a dozen years ago. How can one be cutting edge when everyone is armed with the same tools? And if we all have access to such technical marvels, doesn't that make our efforts a dime a dozen? I'm not sure, and I don't think Dolby is sure, either. He mentioned something about creating things that are personal to him as a way to stay fresh and unique, but the idea of an entire planet indulging in DIY films is a bit wearisome.
"I am quite impressed with the number of DIY films I've seen at festivals," he said. "Although it seems most of them are about zombies."
What most filmmakers don't have is a backlog of pop hits to perform after showing their film, which Dolby did last night. He performed several of the old favorites, including 'One of Our Submarines,' and 'She Blinded Me With Science.'  A local jazz singer, Amanda Carr, joined for a duet of 'The Ability to Swing.' A newer tune, 'Evil Twin Brother,' was brilliant, a kind of film noir story that was enhanced by a chorus best described as "power disco." Is there such a thing? Perhaps Dolby invented it.  The little crowd seemed pleased, especially by the older hits, and some of the women rose from their seats to dance.  Dolby received a standing ovation at the evening's end. It was well deserved. He is, among other things, a master entertainer.
Strangely, I'm not always uplifted by hearing the oldies. Sometimes an old song reminds me of bad times, of mistakes I've made, of  sitting in bars where I didn't belong, and the amount of energy I once spent pursuing women I should've ignored. Hearing 'Science' reminded me of nights at The Silhouette Lounge in Allston, where misery flourished, and friends gathered to discuss their latest disasters, and nights ended with that long walk home, slightly loosened up by alcohol, but still realizing there was something absolutely horrible about being young, in a town where the traffic snarled all night, and angry immigrants stared at you from the windows of their dark, unheated apartments. Dolby, through no fault of his own, had provided the soundtrack for some of the worst nights of my life, nights where I was broke and didn't look forward to the future.
But have my memories of Allston been somehow amplified, as Dolby suggests his own memories of his East Anglia childhood were distorted by the passage of time? If I could go back and revisit those days in Allston, were they really as bad as all that? Or are my shitty memories are just another form of vanity? I can't say for sure.
Regardless, it had never been cool to like Dolby, not for my crowd of rock & roll purists and roughnecks. Sure, we might have shouted along with "Science!" but he represented all that was bad with music in those days, nothing but sound effects and MTV posturing and silliness. He wasn't a rocker. He wasn't pounding out riffs on a guitar. He was noodling on that most dreadful of inventions, an electronic synth. Somehow, he won awards and developed a huge cult following. I never got it. Guys like Graham Parker and Joe Jackson were being prematurely flushed down the toilet, and Dolby was grabbing the success that should've been theirs. It felt unfair, another music business trend gone amok.
I'm glad I saw Dolby last night, though. My negative nostalgia was fleeting, I quickly forgot those deadly nights in Allston, and the power of his music worked its way into me. I was able, finally, to appreciate him. He really is a sort of pocket genius, and his songs are mini-masterpieces. They work as dance music, and they're also intelligent, and witty, and sometimes melancholy. Working by himself, Dolby created a kind of one man Euro-trash spectacle. In some ways, and I don't know why it's taken me so long to realize this, Dolby is the same sort of storyteller as the late Warren Zevon, a fellow I've always liked. 'She Blinded me With Science' is Dolby's 'Werewolves of London.'
Unfortunately, the night was slightly marred by technical difficulties, as Dolby's crew constantly ran around the theater to adjust the lighting. More than once Dolby seemed to have trouble with both the movie onscreen and the programmed music coming out of his keyboard. "While you're waiting," he said, "You might take this moment to text your friends. Tell them about the wonderful time you're having." 

These problems, however, allowed for the most transfixing moment of the night, as Dolby re-programmed, on the spot, an ad-libbed drum track, timing it perfectly. Watching him recreate this drum track was thrilling in a small way, a display of rhythm and high tech, tossed off casually as if he did this sort of thing every night. (And there is the possibility that he does it every night, as just another part of his patter. By the way, did you know he  once met Buzz Aldrin? If you see him on this tour, he might tell you about it.)
I wonder who is next for the Cape Ann Cinema. Gary Numan? Men Without Hats? I have a lot of catching up to do. Maybe the '80s weren't so bad, after all.


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