What it Means to be a Man
Until the relatively recent rise of MMA, boxing was the world’s blood sport of choice. And before all the Don King style bullshit made the sport start to look like professional wrestling, the public revered successful boxers as near gods.
It still happens occasionally today, but it’s the exception. Up to the mid-eighties it was the rule. It didn’t hurt that most, if not all of the people who took to the sport and rose to the top started out dirt poor. Every single champion was a rags to riches story built on hard work, sweat and a final test that saw them exert their will over an equally skilled and determined opponent.
When you think of the giants of the sport you think of Ali, Sugar Ray and Jake LaMotta, not Emile Griffith. But in many ways his star deserves to shine much brighter than all of them.
Not only was he a champion in the sixties and seventies, but he fought more title fight rounds than any other fighter, ever, and he was gay. Oh, and he was the first boxer to kill an opponent on live TV, an opponent who had taunted him about being gay. And it haunted him for the rest of his life.
This is a well made and well rounded documentary that tackles a complex subject about a complex man respectfully and insightfully. You don’t have to be a fan of boxing to enjoy this, you just have to be a fan of humanity.
Fuck it, let’s just be fabulous
There’s an old cliché that says ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. Screw that noise, when life gives me lemons I mope in the corner and use it as an excuse to go on a bender.
So what happens if life makes you poor AND black AND gay in 1980s New York? Why you make a frock and invent a dance that gets picked up by the biggest star of the time and turned into a huge cultural phenomenon.
Paris is Burning is all about the underground black, gay, ball scene that spawned Madonna’s hit song Vogue. Don’t get me wrong, I hate that song, but what I love is seeing people say ‘fuck it’ and make something all their own from the shitty scraps society tosses them.
There’s a lot to love about this documentary - flamboyant, likable characters; triumph against adversity; pathos; love; conflict; the works. But as wild as this story is, it gets wilder – after the documentary was shown, some of the main characters shot to stardom, some of them sank into darkness, most of them died horribly, and one of them even died with the mummified remains of a man in her closet. Seriously, you could not make this shit up.
Years ago, when I was going through one of my regular ‘what am I doing with my life?’ crises, I applied for and was accepted into the Navy as an officer. Most people who knew me at the time couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the idea. In hindsight it probably didn’t help my case that I’d announced it to them all after ingesting a sizable amount of mushrooms at a party one night. But that’s another story.
Needless to say I didn’t end up joining, but for as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the people who join the military. Who joins, why do they join, and what are their lives like when they do?
These are the questions that are answered in this surprisingly excellent documentary series. Filmed in 2005 it follows the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier as it deploys to the Persian Gulf for a six-month tour of duty supporting the war in Iraq.
Don’t be fooled, this isn’t Maverick and Iceman exchanging homoerotic banter in between volleyball matches and blasting bad guys from the cockpit of their fighter planes. Instead this takes a surprisingly candid look at the day-to-day lives of the everyday people who serve aboard. And it doesn’t shy away from the grittier issues. Among other things it covers homosexuality (when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was still in effect), sexual assault, racism, religion, dealing with long distance relationships, and perhaps most surprisingly of all – questions about the validity of the war in Iraq itself.
Even if you have no interest in the military I highly recommend this series, because it’s not about the machinery of war, it’s about the ordinary, fallible humans who’s job it is to make it work. There are ten episodes, but I guarantee, once you start watching you’ll be hooked.
All Hands (by PBS)
Controlled Chaos (by PBS)
Super Secrets (by PBS)
Squared Away (by PBS)
Show of Force (by PBS)
Groundhog Day (by PBS)
Rites of Passage (by PBS)
True Believers (by PBS)
Get Home-itis (by PBS)
Full Circle (by PBS)
Go (Insane) Your Own Way
My love of seventies cocaine era Fleetwood Mac is well documented, but up until now my knowledge of the band’s early history, prior to Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham joining, was virtually nil.
I knew that they’d formed as some kind of blues band in the sixties and had had a couple of line up changes, but that was about it. Hating the blues, I was happy to leave it there. That is until I found this documentary about the band’s original leader, Peter Green.
While the music for the most part is just as dull as I’d imagined it would be (at one point Peter is compared to the most boring guitarist on earth, Eric Clapton), the story of Peter and the band’s formation is not.
Without giving too much away, Peter wrote a bunch of really well known songs you’ll probably be surprised to learn were recorded by Fleetwood Mac, got famous, got almost rich, threw it all away and then went bat shit crazy. Along the way you get to see the metamorphosis of the band from a bunch of boring, weed smoking hippies into the coke-vacuuming juggernaut they became.
AND, last but far from least - you get to learn the story behind that giant pair of balls Mick Fleetwood is sporting on the cover of Rumours.
Show us yer tatts
And he’s right. When every second dipshit sport star and soccer mum is proudly flaunting half and even full sleeves, you pretty much know that all the rebellion has been sucked out of that particular pastime. These days it’s right up there with wearing a bathing suit that reveals your knees - it doesn’t even warrant a second look.
But it wasn’t always like that. Back in the day, tattoos were badass and being a tattooists was about as badass as it comes.
Anyone with even a passing interest in tattoos will be familiar with Sailor Jerry. This guy is one of the big daddies of the scene. And it’s no exaggeration to say the things he was doing in the forties, fifties and sixties is pretty much responsible for most of what’s cool today.
But more than that, the guy was a stone cold loon who packed more adventure, travel and general fuckin’-shit-up into his 60-odd years than most people would fit into 60-odd lives.
For that fact alone this documentary deserves an hour of your time.
But he wasn’t the only one. A while ago I saw another great documentary about an old-timey tattooist called Stoney St. Clair, called Stoney Knows How. Now as if his awesome rock star name wasn’t enough, this guy had actually been confined to a wheelchair from the age of 4 due to rheumatoid arthritis AND first learnt to tattoo when he was a sword swallower with a travelling circus.
Unfortunately the full version has been removed from YouTube, but you can still watch the first and third parts. But if you have any interest in either tattooing, or top-shelf individuals who manage to stay positive and succeed at life despite the thoroughly shitty hand they’ve been dealt, I suggest you try and track it down.
Cocaine and Heartbreak’s a Hell of a Drug
Ask me to name my top 5 albums of all-time and without a doubt, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours would be pretty freakin’ close to the top.
I’ve told this to a lot of people over the years and more often than not they just look at me and shake their heads. Don’t worry, I did exactly the same thing the first time someone tried to tell me. What I would say to you is exactly what that person said to me – sit down and listen to the thing front to back. Just once, that’s all I’m asking. For extra points flip it on at your next party. I guarantee you’ll have the whole place singing and swaying along – half of them not even realising they knew the words.
What you’ll find is an album that’s filled with some of the most ball-tearing songs about breaking up and falling in love that you’ll ever hear. And they flat out rock. The production is so deep and rich you could just about get lost in it and the tracks fit together tighter than a tranny’s tuck.
Then, if you really want to have your mind blown – watch this documentary. Because the truly amazing thing about this album is that it was ever made. You see, while they were recording it all of the members of the band (which included two sets of spouses) where watching their relationships with one another meltdown spectacularly AND doing a shit-tonne of cocaine. Anyone who’s ever done any one of these things can imagine what a Chernobyl-like hot mess that would create.
But enough talk. Listen. Watch. Marvel.
Going So Low
I read an article recently that said writers are on average twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the population. Apart from this cheery glimpse into my future, it also went on to say that doctors now believe there is a fairly strong correlation between mental illness and creativity.
But while they drew links to the relative benefits of autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, not much was said about depression. So it got me thinking – what kind of creativity could stem from an illness as unrelentingly crushing and grim as that?
One answer it would seem is One Man Metal, or more specifically One Man Black Metal.
This bleak but fascinating documentary follows three guys, two in the US and one in Tasmania, who record and release their own extremely dark records seemingly without ever leaving their own bedrooms.
Music + Drugs = Good
As anyone who’s ever smoked a blunt and sunk back into a bean bag with the stereo set to stun; or dunked a pill at an outdoor festival and danced like a goon with a bunch of strangers; or done, well almost anything involving drugs and music will tell you – it’s generally a pretty solid guarantee of a good time.
Originally I was going to link to this as part of my previous Pink Floyd post, but I think it actually deserves a post of its own. Despite the seriously uncreative title and the liberal use of beard stroking eggheads inserted to lend ‘science’ to the topic, it’s actually a pretty cool little exploration of the nexus between two of the most important drivers in youth culture over the past 60 or more years.
Oh, and here’s Jefferson Airplane performing just about the best song about drugs. Ever.. It also doesn’t hurt that Grace Slick is a stone fox either.
Or How I Learned to Chill Out and Love the Pink
My earliest memories of Pink Floyd are of thinking – this band sucks.
I think I was about 10 the first time I actually became aware of them while surfing channels on my TV and landing on The Wall. I watched it for about 5 minutes, got bored, then went back to looking for a late night movie with boobs in it. Even back then I remember thinking how self-indulgent it all seemed and how really, really uncool whoever made it must have been.
After that, for the longest time my only experience with the band, other than occasionally stumbling back across The Wall on TV, was hearing all those really boring late seventies / early eighties songs of theirs like Money and that shitty We Don’t Need No Education turd. And what’s worse, every time you’d see them playing live, they were dressed in slacks with their shirts tucked in. As far as I was concerned they were pretty much the exact opposite of good.
Then a funny thing happened. Much, much later in life, when I’d started listening to songs that went for longer than 3 minutes, I stumbled across a clip of Pink Floyd playing One of These Days, Live at Pompeii. And it Blew. My. Mind.
Not only did they not look like dads, but the music was raw and exciting and trippy as hell. So shelving my prejudices I dived into their back catalogue. And discovered that I actually liked it. A lot.
Their story is actually really interesting too – from their early days with Syd Barrett at the forefront of the psychedelic explosion in swinging sixties London, through their changes of leadership, break ups and finally their rise into meteoric (and then mediocre) superstardom.
And while I still don’t dig The Wall and I still think they look like a bunch of accountants today – I now appreciate that their ability to rule remains undiminished.
And if you dug that, eat a fist full of paper and mong out to their stupidly awesome Live At Pompeii set here.
Man, prison would suck; and I’m not just talking about the ass-rapey, you belong to me bit. The idea of having all of your freedoms removed and being forced to remain in a state of almost suspended animation while your life dribbles away must feel like a horrific form of slow motion Chinese water torture.
Add this to the fact that you’re stuck in a box 24/7, living cheek by jowl with a cross section of the worst human headlines and horror stories society has seen fit to cough up, and you’ve pretty much got my idea of a living hell.
But despite the crawling revulsion I feel for ever having to spend any time there, I’ve got to admit that it kind of fascinates me too.
Because within the restrictions of the imposed system the inmates still manage to create their own little twisted version of a society. A society with its own rules and requirements, that exists completely independent of, but parallel to, the rules enforced by the guards and officials.
And that’s why I like this doco. Louis Theroux’s particular style of disingenuous naivety allows him to bypass a lot of the bullshit and front put up by both the guards and the inmates to reveal just a little of how things really work in there. As fucked up and dysfunctional as that may be.
If you like the first episode, check out the second one here.
God, Guns, Drugs and Wives
Anyone paying even the most cursory attention to what’s going on in Mexico right now knows that place is in serious trouble.
During the 6 years of the government’s War on Drugs, more than 50,000 people have been murdered. To put that figure into perspective, in the 11 years of NATO’s War on Terror in Afghanistan, the coalition have lost 3,200 people to date.
Much of the violence is associated with the rival cartels fighting for control over the lucrative smuggling routes into the US who, as it turns out, are the ones who pressured the Mexican government to start the ‘war’ in the first place. They’re also the ones who continue to demand the policy be upheld – regardless of the cost to the Mexican people.
So with the US elections heading into terminal velocity it’s interesting to note that one of the candidates – Mitt Romney, has more of a connection to what’s going on there than most.
It turns out that his father was actually born in Mexico, in a community of Mormons who went down there in the 1880’s when the US government told them it wasn’t cool to have more than one wife anymore.
Descendants of these nutbags still live down there today – including relations of Mitt’s, and because of their relative prosperity, it seems they’re getting dragged into the violence too.
Great stuff courtesy of those weirdos at Vice.
Possessed To Skate
I grew up in the eighties in a shitty little town in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere populated by meatheads and the teenage mothers who chased them for child support.
I hated sport, I hated the terrible top forty music the local FM radio station played, and I was a long way from getting laid.
Aside from going down to the train tracks to smash empty beer bottles and smoke cigarettes stolen from friend’s parents, my one source of pleasure came from shoplifting magazines from the local newsagent.
One day, I went down there and what I found to shove up the front of my t-shirt was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It literally looked like it had come from another planet. It was Thrasher Magazine.
What I found in those pages was not only a sport that celebrated individuality instead of suppressing it, like all of the team sports I’d been exposed to up until then, but it had a look and an attitude unlike anything I’d experienced before.
And while I well and truly sucked as a skater, it turned me on to all sorts of important things like punk rock, hip hop and the fact that there was a much bigger world out there, beyond where the town limits turned into scrub bush.
Now there’s been a few good docos about skating during the eighties and even a couple about skaters going off the rails after the fame dried up – but nothing quite compares to the story of Mark ‘Gator’ Rogowski.
If you’re not familiar with the story then I won’t spoil it for you, but as a record of that time and a cautionary tale about fame, it takes some beating. And, if you’re anything like me, it’ll take you back too.
To get you in the mood here’s a classic jam from the period.
Variations on a Theme
From the distant bong-smoke shrouded past to the equally bong-smoke shrouded (not quite) present day it seems appropriate to take a look at just where Sabbath’s influence has led.
Since its early days, Metal has spawned, mutated and divided into more sub-genres that you could poke a wizard’s staff at. But unfortunately most of what the casual listener will hear is absolute crap. So it’s no wonder that when you mention Metal to most people they dismiss it off hand as at best a cliché and at worst a joke.
But delve a little deeper and, as with most music genres, you’re likely to find something a little more interesting.
Such Hawks, Such Hounds takes the viewer into the American underground of Stoner, Psychedelic, Drone and Doom Metal from its roots in bands like Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer to present day personal favourites like OM, Sunn O))), Earthless, Dead Meadow and the almighty Sleep.
So turn down the treble, turn up the bass and let this almighty slab of raw riffage bombard your brain.
And, if you enjoyed this, you might also want to keep an eye out for Slow Southern Steel, I don’t know where you can see it yet, or even if it’s been released, but it looks like an absolute ball-tearer.
The Origins of Evil
Black Sabbath are the tits. There is no point even trying to argue otherwise.
Not only did they record a collection of albums in the early seventies (we’re talking classic line-up Sabbath here) that are basically masterpieces and still referenced and ripped off today, but they pretty much singlehandedly invented Metal.
So just how did four working class blokes from Birmingham (home to what is arguably the silliest accent in a country famous for silly accents) go from being a bunch of blues based Beatles fans to patient zero of music’s most evil genre?
Well, this excellent episode from the equally excellent Classic Albums series goes a long way towards explaining that.
Talking to each of the four original members and the album’s engineer as well as high profile fans, the documentary looks at just what went into making this such a ball tearer of an album.
So, whether you’re a hardcore fan or simply a devoted dilettante, charge thy goblet (or bong if thy prefer) and raise thy horns in celebration of the mighty SABBATH!
And when you’re done with that, check out this excellent live concert of the band absolutely slaying Paris in 1970 around the time that Paranoid was released.