Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween to all. Here’s a rebump of my article on Dennis Stock’s incredible photos of the wonderful Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira, for Magnum photos:

Dennis Stock Maila Nurmi, star of “The Vampira Show.” Hollywood. California. USA. 1954. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos.

Scott Weiland: Belated Birthday

Yesterday was the late musician Scott Weiland’s Birthday. I miss him a lot; miss the contribution to music he made and am grateful for the music he gave us.

Scott Weiland

I’m going to be honest, Velvet Revolver made me a bigger fan of Stone Temple Pilots than I previous was. I loved the two albums VR made (nobody will be surprised to learn I play them all the time). Yet I know not everybody shares my same viewpoint.

For six years and two albums, Velvet Revolver divided the rock community. Some fans and critics loved their brand of hard rock fuelled by sobriety and honed musicianship. In contrast, others found them a divided beast, the product of two much-loved bands with disparate styles (heavy rock rhythm section and a glammy grunge frontman) that did not quite mesh. While their combined history worked with them for the most part, it also brought a slew of comparisons to songs written twenty years prior. Whatever your perceptions of Velvet Revolver, there was no denying that the unity of three (then) former members of Guns N’ Roses and the singer of Stone Temple Pilot made an exciting, enticing combination. 

The story of Velvet Revolver is intriguing. Part organic, part orchestration, they were technically a new band, but the histories of its members ensured that it had a past already built-in, and try as they might, some could never escape their ghosts. While some made friends among them, one succumbed to them, leaving a rock n’ roll trail in their wake. Their debut album, Contraband, was a bold, punky attack on the senses. Even the name made it sound illicit like there was something a bit naughty about the music contained within. They ploughed on and made their more profound, more thoughtful Libertad. It became their unintentional swansong, circled in tragedy, yet presented a band who had found their grove since their debut. It did not fare as well critically, but it was by all accounts a honed beast layered with conflict. 

There would be other ventures, and an ultimate solo career. I often wonder what music Scott would still be making now should tragedy have not intervened. It’s one of those losses that I, personally, felt the most: he could not outrun his former ghosts.

Anyway, here’s to you, Scott, one of the best frontmen I have had the pleasure to see live. Thank you.

Take Me Down To The Paradise City

The Sunset Strip, 1.5 miles stretching from Sunset Boulevard through West Hollywood, has a decades long history of excess and debauchery. Originally situated in a geographically unincorporated area of Los Angeles, the area did not become part of Los Angeles until 1984, the independence and loose regulations serving to heighten the excess of the area. Integrating into the wider, more regulated city, did little to quell the outsider, renegade atmosphere for which the area had become known. Stories abound about the Strip, for which it most affectionately dubbed. Fast-living and degeneracy is baked into the streets, and in the bricks of the buildings which line the mile. 

Photo via /IG: laexplained

During the prohibition of the 1920s, alcohol was illegal in Los Angeles as a city, but not in the LA county. Casinos and nightclubs sprung up on The Strip, all serving alcohol out of their back rooms, away from the prying eyes of the law. In the 1930s and 40s, the movie world and organized crime intertwined, with the Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen were rumoured to have owned establishments, while individuals from the motion picture industry frequented restaurants including Ciro’s, and The Mocambo. By the 1960s, it was all about the music, as movies gave way to counterculture. From the 1960s and into the 1970s also saw the swell of music venues on the Strip, which such historic clubs and Gazzari’s (21 February 1967 – 1995), The Whisky A Go-Go (Janauary 1964 — ), The Roxy (23 September 1973), and Pandora’s Box, a well-liked coffee shop that has gained immortality as the centre of the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots in November 1966, as immortalised by Buffalo Springfield in their song ‘For What It’s Worth.’ While the seventies saw glam rock and the short-lived club Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, the 1980s saw an explosion of fast living, party hard, rock musicians for which the territory became their domain.

Historically, and musically, it is impossible to disconnect The Sunset Strip from the glam metal, hard rock, and ‘hair metal bands’ that came of age during the eighties. LA Guns, Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot — the Strip came to represent rock n’ roll abandon thanks to the bands who took advantage of the venues ‘pay to play’ policy’, toiling their wears and accumulating their loyal attendees through blood, sweat, tears, and masses of drugs and alcohol. I spent some time earlier this year working on two (rejected) pitches concerning bands with more than a prominent association to The Strip, and how this area factored into their lives and music. This may come as a surprise to most of you, but neither of these two pieces were about Guns N’ Roses. And no other band came close to touching the full-on, all-out hedonism quite like their seminal 1987 debut, Appetite For Destruction.

There has never been another band quite like Guns N’ Roses, especially during the 1980s. While the line-up has gone through various rotations over the years — three of the original members are, after years of upheaval, performing together again — I maintain that you cannot touch the combination the of original five and the perfection of Appetite For Destruction, a record that never, in my opinion, becomes tiresome listening. (If you ask someone if they like Guns N’ Roses, most often they will say, yes.) There remains a magic in that album, something both raw yet harmonious, chaotic, energetic, but musically and lyrically electric. Success did not come easy to those five boys, and every moment of toiling away, every drug use, sexual encounter, domestic disturbance, and disregard for authority is captured within those twelve songs. There’s a reason it shattered all records and continues to be listed as one of the best, and best debuts, of all time.

Lately I have found myself struggling to write about what I usually write about (something compounded by freelance stress) as I tie myself in knots seeking work that will, you know, pay my wage. Music has always been a crutch, but never more so than during the past two years. As I have said on Twitter, and in a newsletter from earlier in the year, hard rock has always been at the forefront of my life, very much like film, and even longer than my interest in art history. I never set out to specialise in what I do, which I love, but I think the pandemic and grief have both rewired my brain into clutching at the non-work things that make me incredible happy. Music makes me happy. The Sunset Strip history makes me happy. ’80s era Guns N’ Roses make me so goddam happy — let me find joy as the world crumbles, ok?

So I may use this space to write about this album, this band, and what makes it the band and album for me. I will likely write about other bands. too, and maybe at some point on the newsletter, but I have this space, and I may as well use it, right? Short pieces, long pieces, whatever — I’m amazed I have not done this before. But it’s never too late. And, let’s face it: Anything Goes.

Photo via /IG: thesunsetstrip

FrightFest Review: Red Snow

Director: Sean Nichols Lynch. 
With: Dennice Cisneros, Nico Bellamy, Laura Kennon, Alan Silva, Vernon Wells. 
USA 2021. 80 mins.

Pardon the pun, but I am a sucker for a vampire film. There is something so eternally interesting about these creatures of the undead, especially how their representation in media has changed over the years. From Bela Lugosi’s Dracula hypnotising his victims with his double-jointed fingers, to Christopher Lee in his long cape, to the decadence of Neil Jordan’s interpretation of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire; the beautiful love story between two vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, to love affairs and vampires and mortals in BuffyTwilight, and True Blood, to the hilarity of What We Do In The Shadow (both the film and the superior television series), the undead are constantly being reinterpreted, reinvented, and revaluated. Public consumption for vampires is hardly on the wane, but where do creators go when so many avenues have been explored so effectively?

Fortunately, Red Snow does this very thing; it offers a new interpretation of the vampire and human dynamic and skews the notion of the brooding vampire skulking away in his Romanian castle. Olivia (Dennice Cisneros) is a vampire obsessed struggling novelist holed up in her isolated Lake Tahoe cabin at Christmas with her fang-adorned. Her long-harboured vampire connection comes true when she takes in an injured back who has happened to fly into her window, but who, as luck would have it, turns out to be a vampire called Luke (Nico Bellamy). Soon Olivia and Luke start not so much a love affair but a mentor-student relationship, as Luke offers her advice on making her novel more authentic and dynamic by offering his vamp perspective. Yet, the sexual tension lingers. In Luke, Olivia has found her mentor and her ticket to a successful career. And all appears to be going well until the carnage that subsequently ensues after Luke’s family unexpectedly arrive on the scene to disrupt their unconventional living arrangements, hot-tailed by an organisation called Severon…

Written and directed by award-winner Sean Nichols Lynch, Red Snow’s most potent elements are its biting script, littered with dark satirical humour. Such gems include, ‘vamps aren’t moping around a dusty castle in Eastern Europe,’ as Luke proffers. ‘They go to cool places.’ Then, in an extension of party-hard fun-loving blonde vampires, including Spike from Buffy and Eric from True Blood, he utters what most of us already know about the undead. ‘Being a vampire isn’t sad. It’s awesome. You live forever, every day’s a party, you don’t have to stand in line at the DNV or worry about your f*cking cholesterol.’

The power dynamic between Olivia and Luke is hugely exciting and enjoyable. Utilised and presented through Luke’s costumes (first, his nakedness, and then the novelty shirts that Olivia harbours in her garage), he is practically defanged while in her home. Sure, he could kill her and drain her blood in a heartbeat, but up to a point, she is the one with the greatest control.

While the vampiric energy is solid, certain aspects of Red Snow, including supernatural assassins the Severon organisation, feel a little lacking and not entirely formed. Whether this is due to the eighty-minute run time or time restraints is hard to determine, but this is one area where the film needed a little more meat.

Despite some flaws, Red Snow is a snappy and surprisingly bloody spin on the vampiric love story. While some elements feel a little rushed, the increased pace certainly heightens the energy of the climactic final act. A film for vampire lovers seeking something a little new, Red Snow slowly sinks its fangs into your neck and does not let go until the very end.

Review: We Intend To Cause Havoc (Dir: Gio Arlotta, 2019)

We Intend To Cause Havoc is an understated documentary about the little known but highly influential Zamrock music scene of Zambia in the 1970s and the group who were the nation’s equivalent of The Rolling Stones: Witch.

After the reissue of their albums in 2010, Witch (an acronym of We Intend To Cause Havoc) found a new audience; among them, the filmmaker Gio Arlotta (who has these reissues to thanks for his discovery of the band). In this documentary, Arlotta (who directed the film) travels to Zambia with two young Dutch musicians in tow in a bid to track down the two surviving members. Arlotta wants to learn more about Witch, Zambia’s music history, learn about their music, get a greater sense of who the band were, and why they disappeared. Witch’s music still sounds fresh and prescient today; the bluesy hooks, psychedelic riffs and garage rock energy instantly catchy and make for instant earworms.

The lack of original footage of the band is one of the few parts of the documentary’s downfall, although what is left is utilised to its most total effect. However, in place of this, we do get to see some previously unseen footage of a James Brown concert, which is superbly preserved and wonderful to see. Some may say the documentary relies on a tried and tested formula like that used in 2012’s highly successful Searching for Sugar Man (but without the latter’s polish); however, it works here in many ways. There are a scrappiness to the film and a bristling energy thanks to the music and the boundless energy of frontman Emanyeo “Jagari” Chanda, Zambia’s answer to Mick Jagger. Now a gemstone miner who does backbreaking work to support his family, Chanda takes to the stage after a forty-year hiatus like no time has passed, a born frontman with energy to rival those inspired by him his music. Chanda’s pure natural charisma, combined with fellow Zamrock musician Victor Kasoma, the Zambian Jimmy Hendrix, is terrific and their repartee genuine. Visits to music studios and musician’s homes and lives make for endlessly fascinating viewing, but there’s a little too much on the director’s involvement in the film, rather than the subject’s themselves.

There is a bittersweet tone that lingers throughout the film; the belief that Zamrock should be much better known. “It can’t just end here,” says Chanda. “This is the new beginning.” And if viewers glean anything from We Intend To Cause Havoc (W.I.T.C.H.), hopefully it will be.

Review: Stalker (Dir: Tyler Savage, 2020).

Some films are incredibly unsettling, not because they are scary per se, but because they feel so real; they get under your skin because they are rooted in realism and truth. And let’s be honest; the world is a scary place, as demonstrated in Stalker.

On his first night in Los Angeles, Andy (Vincent Van Horn) meets Sam (Christine Ko) in a bar. Vulnerable from a long-term break-up, Andy has the drive to start fresh in a new city but is still dwelling on the past. Nonetheless, he and Sam hit it off, and at the end of the night, they share a ride back to her place. Their driver is the unnerving Roger (Michael Lee Joplin), who forms a stalker-like attachment to Andy that becomes extremely difficult to shake off. Throughout the film, Roger inserts and infiltrates every aspect of Andy’s life — first by ‘running into Andy at a coffee shop the following day where he forces his number on him with the guise of introducing him to the city, and then never allowing Andy a moment to himself. As Roger attempts to drive a wedge between Andy’s burgeoning relationship with Sam, his motifs become darker, more sinister and more troubling. 

Let me tell the animal lovers that Andy’s sweet dog, Juicebox, is spared any harm in this film (thank goodness; because of the way things were going, I was apprehensive). Instead, the movie plays on the intense psychological mind games people can turn the information you reveal freely to them against you, with disastrous consequences. 

Director Tyler Savage weaves his tight script with some beautiful location shots of the city. Savage smartly plays into the darker angle of Los Angeles history, the flip side to a town known for its movie star golden glamour, by zoning in on stories of newcomers who have become lost in this city where they are striving to be seen. This visibility Andy is seeking is his downfall, as he becomes an easy target, as Savage shows how easy is it for newcomers to cities to be duped by the kindness of strangers when they are lonely and desperate to fit into their new place. While Andy is not necessarily a good person (for reasons that will become clear), he does possess a vulnerability and realism, and we are sympathetic to his plight (while tearing our hair out at his mistakes to ward off Roger). All of this serves to make the film’s tense ending even more affecting.

Stalker reveals how dangerous social media and the internet is when we let down our guard and how easy and free we are with our information. It is a warning not to be careful of the kindness of strangers.

Stalker is out on VOD 21 May 2021.

Newsletter news!

I recently started a newsletter called Love Letters During A Nightmare about all the things I adore. Essentially it’s my musings on women, surrealism, Women Surrealists, and pop culture, usually fortnightly. If you missed it, the first post was on Dorothea Tanning, Eve Babitz, Chess, and The Queen’s Gambit. You can read it here:


Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning play chess in a picture frame. Photo: Bob Towers, Sedona, Arizona (1948).

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning play chess in a picture frame. Photo: Bob Towers, Sedona, Arizona (1948).