Monday, February 20, 2017


Wilson Picket; stop and kick it
by Don Stradley
Though author Tony Fletcher's description of Wilson Pickett as "a man who turned screaming into an art form," is spot on, a few other soul singers and rock 'n' rollers could lay claim to doing the same. Little Richard, for sure. James Brown, who competed with Pickett on many levels, could certainly fit the same description. So could Brit rockers Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey. And don't forget Janis Joplin. Still, if you were to design the perfect soul singer and wanted to be sure his scream could kill man at 50 paces, you could do a lot worse than fitting him with the vocal cords of Pickett. But as we learn in Fletcher's rich new biography, you might leave Pickett's personal life aside for some re-tuning. 

Fletcher's telling of the Pickett story is as detailed and evenhanded as a reader could want, but even though Pickett is depicted as a genuine artist and a key figure of sixties soul, it's hard to disassociate the man onstage with the vile person he was at home. Fletcher points out that some of the stories about Pickett are exaggerations, but there are enough living people from Pickett's circle who will attest that he never met a promoter he couldn't berate, or a woman he couldn't turn into a punching bag.

Pickett's penchant for violence (he once attacked a female companion with a metal folding chair and beat her senseless) seemed embedded in his psyche from an early age. His mother, Lena, was especially vicious; she once responded to Pickett's refusal to do his chores by breaking his arm with a log. Pickett's brother Maxwell puts a forgiving spin on such brutal child-rearing when he tells Fletcher that black families in the South "were under so much would just release, in fits of rage and anger."

In between whippings, Pickett discovered a love for gospel music. He sang regularly at Jericho Baptist in his hometown of Prattville, Alabama,  astonishing congregations with his already well-developed lung power. At the age of 15 Pickett  joined the Great Migration of southern blacks, landing in Detroit to live with his father and new step-mother. Pickett soon had his own wife and child to support (and whoop on). Fortunately, the music business was thriving in Detroit, and young Pickett figured singing for money was better than going back to Alabama to pick cotton. "Wilson was so aggressive," said Eddy Floyd, whose group the Falcons soon hired Pickett, "he wasn't gonna be denied."

He jumped from group to group, from  city to city, sticking with one combo for a while but always sneaking out to do solo gigs on the side. He was creating a unique style, which cut through the do-wop and Elvis imitators of the period, by blending his gospel background with some heated up rhythm and blues. He was no balladeer, and he didn't  give a whack about being the next Nat King Cole. He was out to make his name, and he wanted to crush anyone in his path. His screaming style was a way of challenging any pretenders to what he imagined was his throne. The 1960s saw the hits pouring out of him like lava: "In The Midnight Hour," "Land of 1,000 Dances," "Funky Broadway," "Mustang Sally," and even a volcanic cover of The Beatles' "Hey Jude" with Duane Allman on guitar. His touch was so sure that he could even cover the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and make it sound like a dangerous piece of funk. Still, the guy was never satisfied. By the 1980s he was known more for his alcohol and cocaine binges, not to mention his ever present handgun, than his string of unforgettable soul hits.

Fletcher, who has written some very fine biographies, shows us the good, the bad, and the hideous. When Picket wasn't beating up the women in his life - a practice he continued until he was too old and sickly to make a fist - he was boiling over with drug-induced paranoia, and waving his gun around like a lunatic. Of course, various people remember him as a sweetheart and a musical genius, a handsome man with perfect teeth, but it's telling that one of the best parts of the book is when  bassist  Kevin Walker grows tired of Pickett's bullying and hits him in the face with a metal towel rack, sending "Wicked Pickett" to the hospital with permanent eye damage. You may cheer for Walker to hit Pickett again.

Pickett had a bit of a comeback - these stories always feature the return from the ashes  - and was occasionally featured in a documentary, or on Late Night with David Letterman, or would be called upon by Dan Aykroyd for some sort of Blues Brothers revival. He got a little boost when an actor portrayed him in Alan Parker's excellent 1991 film, The Commitments, but when his Grammy nominated 2000 album It's Harder Now  lost to a Barry White collection, he sabotaged what could've been a career resurgence by sulking and going into seclusion.

Pickett's main problem was drug addiction. Despite some jail terms and time in rehab, he never completely straightened out. He tempered his drinking to a degree, but  missed his own induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame because he was too loaded to show up, denying Bruce Springsteen the chance of a duet on "Mustang Sally." 

Fletcher rolls out the whole story, and even stops to tell us about seemingly every musician and recording engineer Pickett ever knew. Granted, a lot of Pickett's sidemen went on to have great careers and cut some interesting singles -  some, including guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts, played on the Isley Brothers' epic funk anthem, "It's Your Thing"- but Fletcher occasionally overdoes it.

"Who are you writing about?" Pickett might ask, holding a gun to Fletcher's ear.  "Me, or a bunch of keyboard players?"

Fletcher, a UK writer whose book on Keith Moon is one of the great rock biographies of the past 30 years, seems a little too eager to prove himself a completist. Blow by blow breakdowns of every Pickett album become tiresome, especially when the quotes he uses from Pickett are so succinct and on target. "Baby, I am a mean motherfucker," Pickett said to an interviewer in 1981. "Don't be writing nothing nice, 'cause you be jivin' people."

Fletcher is at his best when he's writing about the high-water moments in Pickett's career, such as the memorable trip to Africa where frenzied concertgoers in Lagos "stared upward at Wilson Pickett as if in the presence of a deity." Or when he recreates the studio session where Pickett recorded "In The Midnight Hour," a song that 50 years later "remains impervious to the thought of improvement." Or when he describes Allman's "intensely pitched licks that exploded like musical firecrackers."

Even so, it's the Wicked Pickett himself who hits the bulls-eye every time, like in the diatribe about disco that he gave to UK writer Nick Kent in 1979: "It's a wretched, puny form of music, but it's the contemporary sound, dig?"

I was intrigued when In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett landed on my desk. My first instinct was Cool, I like him, he died in a plane crash, sang "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," and all that. But one page into it I realized I was actually thinking of Otis Redding. Still, the two were linked in that Pickett followed Redding's example and headed south to Muscles Shoals to record with a bunch of white musicians who loved soul music. By doing that, Pickett created the songs that still sound riveting today, and sent a message to his audience that white people had soul, too.

Pickett never comes off as likeable in Fletcher's book, but he was one of the first soul stars to play with an integrated band. As he toured the South and introduced black audiences to white musicians, at a time when concert halls were often segregated by seating blacks on one side and whites on the other, he was doing something important. He deserves a biography and a man like Fletcher to write it.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Bleak Street Movie Review

From the very first moments of Bleak Street, we know we're not in for a carnival ride. It tells a story of doomed people in such a downbeat way that we're not especially moved by the tragedy, but are simply relieved when it's over. Though the movie is marked by stunning camera work and fine acting, it's a bit of an endurance test. It's about two over-the-hill Mexican prostitutes, Adela and Dora, and two pint-sized masked wrestlers, "Little Death" and "Little AK 47," and how the four come together. Their story takes place on the appropriately named Bleak Street, which seems like a stylized version of a real place. It's as if James M. Cain had set one of his morbid noir stories in the bowels of Mexico City and populated it with the dregs of society.

Bleak Street, allegedly based on a true incident, is about Mexicans of the lowest strata, the poorest of people who are only trying to survive and maintain some dignity, even as they have sex in alleys, or wear masks to hide their identities. Adela and Dora are not the wisecracking hookers you might see in an American movie; they're tired and running out of resilience. When we first see Adela, she's rinsing her mouth in a public fountain after being with a client. Adela and Dora's problems include ungrateful daughters, gay husbands, and encroaching poverty.

One of the intriguing things about the film is the way it shows the daily lives of these characters. The story is told gradually; first one thing happens, then another. We see the dilemmas play out.

The movie begins with our introduction to Little Death and Little AK47. They're identical twin brothers who have found success by playing the diminutive sidekicks of two much larger masked wrestlers. Little Death has a chip on his shoulder; he treats his wife roughly, and is resentful of the wrestler he is supposed to shadow. Though he's making money, he's too broke to buy quality material for his wrestling costume.

The twins keep their masks on all the time for business reasons. We see them walking through the dank streets, smoking cigarettes, training in the ring, and visiting their mother to be blessed before a contest. We can't see their faces so we don't know exactly how they feel. The masks have a dehumanizing effect; the pair seem less like men and more like stunted representations of men, or little phantoms.

The first part of the film is solely theirs, but we're soon acquainted with Adela (Patricia Reyes Spindola) and Dora (Nora Velazquez). If the wrestlers are bitter about their lots in life, the prostitutes have hit a sort of rock-bottom desperation. Adela has an elderly woman living with her; Adela sends her out daily to beg for money. The neighbors threaten to report her for elderly abuse. Meanwhile, Dora catches her husband having sex with a young man. She's mostly mad because her hubby (Alejandro Suarez) was wearing her clothes, stretching them out.

Eventually we learn that Adela and Dora used to give their clients knockout drops and rob them. How they got away with this in such a small, enclosed neighborhood is unclear, but it's part of the fable that's being unveiled. The two women then focus on the wrestlers, who have become minor celebrities in the area. The women plan to drug them and make a big score. But because the wrestlers are small, the dose is fatal. The movie then becomes a story of hookers on the run. Not surprisingly, they don't get very far, as if their bleak neighborhood is a kind of vortex from which they can't escape.

Bleak Street won some minor acclaim last year on the international festival route, and played in New York for the blink of an eye. Kino Lorber's new DVD is quite welcome, for the movie has an undeniable visual power. The approach is grimly poetic, with a kind of prickly existentialism at every corner. No one can win on Bleak Street.

Cinematographer Alejandro CantĂș shoots the movie in black and white, giving it a steely, silvery sheen. There seems to be no difference between night and day, for the characters are shown in perpetual grayness. And there's something touching about the closeness of the characters; the twins are always together, patting each other on the back, one calming the other down. Adela and Dora share a closeness, too. When Adela worries that she's losing her looks, Dora tells her she still has cheekbones like Dolores Del Rio, the great Mexican actress of the 1930s and '40s. It's the kind of thing teenage girls might say to each other; it's doubly touching when a 60-year-old whore says it.

The movie was directed by Mexico's Arturo Ripstein, who has been creating complex, challenging movies since the 1960s. At 73, he still makes daring, uncomfortable art.

Saturday, February 4, 2017


The Beast of Boleskine Begats another Biography
by Don Stradley

Aleister Crowley always puts me in mind of those shaggy young guys I see working in comic book shops or, more likely, stores that specialize in Tarot cards and ceremonial candles. You'll see them at the register, reading about the occult and Wicca; they wear eyeliner and live on a diet of Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken; they usually have a chubby, tattooed girlfriend with a nose piercing (slightly red from infection). Get to know them, and there's often an allusion to an alternative lifestyle, usually including some stale bondage gimmick. These people, with their fetish gear and arcane interests, are distant echoes of The Great Beast, made insipid by growing up in the generation of YouTube and X-Box and Swedish death metal. In Gary Lachman's rich new biography of wicked Aleister, he inadvertently captures the vibe of these outliers when he describes the young Crowley, "waving his magic wand in front of his magic mirror, and perfecting an imperturbable stare." The look, you understand, was all important; however, Crowley at least put his money where his mouth was, along with hashish, scorpions, and feces.

 In Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, And The Wickedest Man In The World, we're shown Crowley in all of his gory glory, and also advised on how to take him. "Nothing would be easier than to dismiss Crowley as an opportunistic fake," Lachman writes, "or to take him at face value as the champion of human liberation." Crowley was, Lachman suggests, "a frustrating confusion of the two." And he did, according to Lachman,  have flashes of brilliance, enough to inspire Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to call him "the great misunderstood genius of the twentieth century." Part of the problem was Crowley's reliance on the trappings of a second-rate bogeyman. One acquaintance described him as a "nursery imp  masquerading as Mephistopheles." Still, Lachman boldly compares Crowley to Adolph Hitler. Both, we're told, "fantasized about some master race, lording it over the masses, and both were enamored of the abyss of irrationality that lay latent in the western soul, and wanted to release it."

Crowley's reputation benefits from the number of nervous breakdowns, suicides, and mysterious deaths in his wake. I'm not sure if he really conjured up demons or communicated with astral beings, but it surely was  bad luck to be around him. One of his followers, an unfortunate chap  named Neuburg, was subjected to an especially sadistic ritual as Crowley "scourged Neuburg's buttocks, cut a cross over his heart, and bound his forehead with a chain." All of this because Crowley was...what? An unhappy child of the Victorian era?  A guilt-ridden  homosexual who assuaged himself by torturing his lackeys? Lachman theorizes that Crowley suffered "from a kind of autism" and describes him as "a colossal example of arrested development." Once, in a fit of pique, Crowley crucified a frog. And ate it.

Lachman has had an enviable career arc. He played bass in Blondie (under the nom de punk: Gary Valentine) and has carved out a respectable niche as an expert on the occult and magical subjects. He closes the show here with a thoughtful chapter on Crowley's seeping influence on the pop culture, which includes much more than an appearance on the cover of a Beatles album. Still, the fact that Jay Z and Lady Gaga use occult symbols in their videos isn't quite as compelling as the chapters on Crowley's final days as a repulsive old drug addict. It's a bizarre picture, an aging and decrepit Crowley in his tweeds, shambling around London during the war years, cheering the German bombers. Despite some magical ability, which Lachman suggests were legit, Crowley couldn't manifest any money; he died broke in Hastings in 1947. And like most Crowley biographers, Lachman is fascinated by the Beast's weird sex life, like the time Crowley was so inspired by an encounter with a Mexican prostitute  that he spent the next 67 hours trying to rewrite Wagner's Tannhauset. One wonders if these glorious Mexican whores exist today, not necessarily for the magicians among us, but for those wanting to take their own crack at Wagner.