Beware of Mr. Baker: Give the Drummer Some Slack?

“Bonham had technique, but he couldn’t swing a sack of shit,” says great drummer and sack of shit Ginger Baker to interviewer Jay Bulger. This is one of many aperçus in Bulger’s documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, which he began to shoot after a successful 2009 profile of Baker for Rolling Stone magazine.

Raised in London during the Blitz, Baker, who first distinguished himself as a jazz drummer, became a member of many hugely influential ’60s Brit rock acts, including the Graham Bond Organisation, Cream, and Blind Faith; this period is represented with copious vintage footage in which Baker appears behind the traps, a carrottop with a mad, Mephistophelean grin (or tumbling off his stool during the nadir of his long heroin addiction). Although he still prefers to be regarded as a jazzman, Baker’s influential syncopated double-bass drumming has sometimes singled him out as a father of heavy metal—an honor he declines. “The birth of heavy metal should have been aborted,” Baker says shortly after recollecting the botched abortion of his first child.

Breaking away—from families, from countries, from bands—is Baker’s signature move, made viable by his unique, tempestuous talent. When Bulger asks Baker if he regretted leaving people behind in his move to Nigeria in the 1970s, Baker responds, “What people I’d left behind?” Yet that move allowed Baker to play with Fela Kuti and set up the first 16-track studio in Lagos—giving some credence to Cyril Connolly’s dictum that “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” With his shark-like restlessness, Baker displays “the questing spirit of a true artist,” as Rush’s Neil Peart says, one of a gallery of celebrity drummers—including Lars Ulrich—who stop in to give their two bits so that Baker won’t be the worst person in his movie.

Inasmuch as there is an attempt to explain Baker’s fecklessness, it’s attributed to the death of his father in World War II, leading Ginger to seek father figures—and acceptance—in great jazz drummers. Bulger, who first appears taking a poke in the nose from cranky Baker’s cane, often appears interested in indulging an inscribed audience who enjoy vicarious thrill at rock-‘n’-roll recklessness, his tsk-tsk “That’s our Ginger” attitude epitomized in the chuckling way in which he refers to “the indomitable Mr. Baker” in his voiceover or in the interstitial cartoons that visualize Ginger’s ramblings as the voyage of a pillaging Viking ship, leaving flames in its wake from England to Nigeria to Italy to the States and finally to South Africa, where during the time of Bulger’s shooting Baker is residing with his fourth wife and her children. The film’s prologue, 18 months later, informs us that Baker, his fortune exhausted for the -nth time by his passion for breeding polo ponies, has sold his South African property and returned to touring. There is no word on his family.

In spite of Bulger’s errors of tone, the movie stands as an engaging tussle with the question of what is permissible with the excuse of art. One former collaborator of Baker’s, John Lydon (a/k/a Rotten), comes up with the most eloquent absolution: “I cannot question anyone with end results that perfect.”



On Clear Heart Full Eyes, Craig Finn’s recently released solo debut, the Hold Steady frontman celebrates the same world that provides the setting for albums such as Boys and Girls in America—one where “Jesus isn’t getting through,” so Freddie Mercury and Johnny Rotten become idols, and the kids drink booze ’cuz they’re dead on the inside. The difference? This time, he finds it in Tennessee and Austin rather than the pit at a horse race or the “chill-out tent” of some festival. If you don’t mind the sound of steel guitar or scaled-back hooks, it’s still a good listen, and it should be fun to hear live tonight at Mercury Lounge

Wed., Feb. 29, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2012



“I’ve got more holes in my mouth than Swiss cheese,” John Lydon/Johnny Rotten told the Voice‘s Sharyn Jackson last month, shortly before he led Public Image Ltd. on their first North American tour in 18 years. He wasn’t speaking metaphorically—the “Rotten” surname lives on from his ’70s Sex Pistols frontman days for very good reason—but Lydon’s only more of a punk for ignoring the aesthetics. After all, he rose Public Image Ltd. from the muddy grave of the Sex Pistols into one of the first, best post-punk band of the early ’80s. Cheers to him—and to his dentist, who certainly isn’t “Happy?” right now.

Tue., May 18, 8 p.m., 2010


Wilderness’ (k)no(w)here Unleashes a Madcap Urban-Pastoral Cacophony

For a band named Wilderness, the Baltimore quartet make dissonant art-rock that’s distinctly urban, full of throat in a way that develops when you’re shouting to be heard in cities that never break or breathe. They specialize in a kind of crescendo minimalism: Through two albums of often shapeless cacophony (featuring thick, intertwined guitars and tom-and-kick drumming), they’ve crafted long-form songs that, though patient and deep-lunged, rely on the anthemic bursts to which they lead. At the fore but not the center, then, there’s lead singer James Johnson, whose slurred vocal style’s been compared to figures like John Lydon and David Byrne. But within such minor tempests, he’s not a frontman per se: His warbling disconnects from the words issued and becomes just another instrument, his lyrics broken down into simple repeated cries and chants that rise above the band’s shapely chaos, a further element of their dim but aspirant atmospheres.

For their third album, (k)no(w)here, Wilderness set out to compose a single piece that could be split into “tracks” only in that they’d appear that way on your iPod. The record moves with an ear toward its broader gains as one song diced into eight, another crafty epic that takes its theme from this year’s headlines. But Johnson’s language is one of urgency, the meanings made by volume, the words lost in William Goode’s muscular tom-tom patterns. When the drums barge in over a dense guitar bed on “Strand the Test of Time,” Johnson recites, “Here comes the new law merchant” like it’s the last remembered phrase from a hobo’s brighter days. “Silver Gene” rings out a strange bedhead alarm, its clamoring guitars and clunky rhythms giving Johnson the nervous backdrop he needs to wail about the tongue-tieds and confused souls that populate his “songs.” “Chinese Whisperers,” the centerpiece of a sort, reveals the band’s talent for delaying gratification, elevating two minutes of repetitious guitar stabs and cymbal-ticks into a propulsive sweep of, well, the same parts set into frenetic motion, a jumbled din that makes perfect (non)sense behind Johnson’s madcap litany.


Dandy in the Underworld: Super-Plastic Profound

While devouring the ultra-readable Dandy in the Underworld, I was convinced it was a modern-day Tristram Shandy, a satirical work of fiction posing as a racy, breathless retelling of truth. This supposed memoir of a bisexual-artist-slash-thrill-seeker is just too witty, juicy, and full of surreally complex experiences and twisty relationships to have actually happened. Even during the occasional dull patches, when the named author, Sebastian Horsley, seems to think that every single thought in his noggin is worth relaying, he’s way more interesting than most drunks and tell-all celebrities. And as Horsley plunges into hopeless degradation on every variety of narcotic, you hate him because he’s so adept at describing his horror with zingy wordplay that illuminates as it tickles.

“Father was more interested in penetrating orifices than penetrating insights,” he asserts early on. “Drinking when he wasn’t thirsty and screwing regardless of season—that was all there was to distinguish father from other mammals.” And that’s just Pops. Mother, stepfather, and everyone else Horsley’s ever met are also picked apart like chicken wings, and so is the vain but self-lacerating Horsley himself, who, when considering the possibility of life after death, admits, “I don’t believe in life before death.”

But I’m assured that Horsley is a real person who has indeed had an actual life. A Google search reveals that he wrote for the British paper The Observer, often about his own ridiculous exploits—from nailing over 1,000 prosties in a genital rampage to being nailed on a crucifix in the Philippines, without anaesthesia. (“Now, the one time I actually needed drugs, I declined.”)

Born as a failed abortion, the now 45-year-old Londoner escaped his mirthless childhood by deciding to be a girl—for a while, anyway—then grew up to adore glam rocker Marc Bolan, who was “super-plastic profound,” and later Johnny Rotten, who he decided was an “extraordinary poet” with “moral conviction.” Horsley tried becoming a rock star himself but failed, instead finding success as a drug user and equal-opportunity sex partner while wondering: “How can you make love with your excremental organs? It was so naughty of God to put the chocolate machine in the playground.”

That certainly didn’t stop him from poking around a couple of apertures and using his willy as a fleshy ice-cream cone. He ended up torn between Scottish-gangster-turned-artist Jimmy Boyle (who I’m not convinced existed either; Damon Runyon must still be alive and gone gay and druggy) and a girlfriend named Ev (who does sound banal enough to be real; under Horsley’s scalpel, she comes off like an unenlightened whiner and no fun at all). Horsley married the latter—though “I was more interested in having outlaws than in-laws”—only to find that Boyle had been shagging Ev for ages. Even more damagingly, Boyle was an egomaniac who only wanted to talk about himself. This irked Horsley, who’s such an attention whore that he was stunned when his fellow AA members weren’t thrilled he wanted a camera crew to follow him around at meetings!

Dotting his picaresque quest for fame and adulation are both defeated gestures (suicide attempts) and restorative ones (rehab visits), with Horsley feeling most alive when dancing on a precipice, halfway between life and extinction. Memorably, a boyfriend once put Horsley’s head in a toilet, then pushed it down with his stiletto heel, and Horsley loved it! (I still can’t figure out if he’s gay or just European.) But even when shoved into titillating submiss-ion, he never loses his unabashed love of language, dabbling in reversals (“I thought I was drinking because I was unhappy. It didn’t occur to me that I was unhappy because I was drinking”) and aphorisms that would have tickled his dandy idol, the frilly Quentin Crisp. (“Homosexuality,” writes Horsley, “is God’s way of ensuring that the truly gifted aren’t burdened with brats.” Unless they live in Park Slope, I guess.)

When all the yin/yang zingers verge on becoming oppressive, our harrowing hero aims for a more sober tone, especially when he spends his birthday hanging out at Auschwitz—mainly so he could talk about it—and when he undergoes that ritualized crucifixion that makes him re-evaluate everything, then come out just as superficial. So superficial that I started thinking maybe he is real.

A professional poseur, Horsley seems to understand that life is meaningless, but must be attacked with gusto—and with good clothes, too. “I believe in nothing,” he writes in conclusion, “but with as much style as I can.” The man certainly knows how to dress up his despair. His lifelong dandification, he says, shields him from suffering while using artificiality to reveal the truth—”and the truth is that we are what we pretend to be.” I guess Horsley is super-plastic profound: His combination of self-flagellation and megalomania is surprisingly delightful. He’s nailed it.


Die! Die! Die!’s Promises, Promises

“So much for blue skies! What about the future?” Thus New Zealand’s young punks, Die! Die! Die!, fling exhortations back at a preacher who’s told them, “You must believe!” They aren’t really asking, but they also aren’t echoing Johnny Rotten, that cunning London Irish drop-out, caterwauling “No-o-o/Fu-u-t-yahh” in a faux-cockney parody of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer a quarter-century before 9/11. No, it’s not quite the same, because outrages and disasters do take their places in the landscape. So even Die! Die! Die!, with their shrieky little name and shrieky little songs (tattooed in ears by the phonograph needles of Andrew Wilson’s voice and guitar), find themselves pausing long enough to explain, quite reasonably, “Well sir, this winter, I cannot believe.” “Blue Skies” is the last song on Die! Die! Die!’s second album, Promises, Promises. Last year’s Steve Albini–recorded, self-titled debut’s flying shards of impulsive/compulsive encounters were caught by walls thrown up, of tracks tightened till they imploded (10 songs, in just over 20 minutes). But now, on the Shayne Carter–produced Promises, walls are pushed out as inner space-junk expands; shards reappear as pieces of Wilson’s personal blue skies, of old hopes and dreams. Shattered, scattered voice and guitar can’t help planting some bizarre memory garden of l-u-v. But the eloquent guts of Lachlan Anderson’s bass will never digest such seeds so easily, and drummer Michael Prain’s Keith Moon-style soloing-as-accompaniment dents craters in an everyday maze, where Wilson and “You!” grapple in reflective gear.

Die! Die! Die! play the Music Hall of Williamsburg March 29 and Highline Ballroom March 30.


Traipsing Around Toy Fair 2008

The vast flag rippling miles above my head reads “Toy Fair 2008: Inspiring Growth” in bilious green, the color of kelp and algae and sad little sprouts; the comp tote bag they give you when you register features the same noxious hue and says, “Iddy biddy steps for a greener world.”

Even before I enter the Crystal Room of the Javits Center, I begin to suspect what I’m in for: a lot of preachy dolls and opinionated stuffed animals lecturing me on soy ink, organic rubberwood, the polar ice cap, global warming, bilateral disarmament, and a bunch of other topics that are about as festive as a nuclear winter.

And indeed, as I troll the aisles of this huge trade show, I gaze glassy-eyed at booth after booth offering miniature looms for making potholders and educational rugs brandishing potsy courts (what does that teach you exactly? To count to 10?) and even stuffed blobs meant to represent fat cells and earaches, magnified 10,000 times and kitted out with cute little eyes. (I think I already know what a fat cell looks like, and it ain’t cute.) The only firearm I see is a lone confetti gun—kids who want to kill each other will have to make do with the anemic selection of medieval swords.

Minding my own business, I am accosted by a puppet who commands that I guess what he (she? it?) is. “A platypus?” I offer wanly. “What? No! A harbor seal!” It takes only a few minutes to realize that the plentiful array of stuffed toys in the house features a preponderance of seals, dolphins, penguins, and, above all, polar bears—if these species ever do vanish from the earth, toy companies will be stuck with millions of extinct animals on their shelves.

My faith in human nature is restored at the TY booth, where a Girlz doll, sporting ripped jeans and a tight spangled sweater, wears the petulant fuck-you expression first made popular by the iconic Bratz. Heartened by the appearance of this young lady, who looks like she could pass for one of the working girlz who used to ply the streets of the West Side before the Javits Center was built, I seek out more hard-plastic harlots.

Alas, there is no Amy Winehouse doll, but at the enormous stand operated by Madame Alexander, there’s a wall of Eloises, each wearing her own pre-adolescent version of a petulant fuck-you expression, and seemingly unaware that her old digs, the Plaza Hotel, have been converted into condos and she will forthwith have to be home-schooled elsewhere. At a booth called Fashion Angels, the dolls are promisingly shallow and self-absorbed, what with their humongous wardrobes and red-carpet obsession. Unfortunately, these PC-safe Fashion Angels are idiots, spouting that their “package can be used for additional purposes”—unlike what, another box that can’t be used for something else?

But worse is yet to come. “Bonjour!” shrieks a tiny voice next to me. “I’m Fancy Nancy! I just like to be really fancy! My family is not as fancy! I try to teach them to be fancy! Here are my puzzles! You can feel the glitter! My dog is Frenchie, my doll is Maribelle Lavinia Chandelier! This is my other puzzle!” I look at the small person hectoring me, who is wearing a tutu and a tiara, and ask uncertainly how old she is. “I’m five!” she shrieks, which is surprising, because two minutes later she is prattling about her book’s status on the New York Times best-seller list and I notice that she presents the secondary sex characteristics of an adult.

I run from this homunculus into the comparative safety of BillyBob’s Teeth, where a gray-ponytailed guy in a leather jacket, accompanied by a younger Johnny Rotten wannabe (piercings, shaved head, the kind of bondage pants they still sell on St. Marks Place, if nowhere else) is telling the vendor, “I want your best sellers. Give me the vampire.” “Ya wanna go heavy on skulls?” the BillyBob’s Teeth representative asks. “Yeah, but no devils.”

BillyBob’s chompers may be off-putting, but they are nothing compared with the wares at Stuffin’ Party, a booth that attracts me initially because of its revolting name. The party entails a hand-cranked machine on which the carcass of an eviscerated stuffed animal, limp as an empty condom, is impaled, while you turn a handle that fills your new best friend with fluff. When I ask if this procedure doesn’t in fact horrify the kiddies (it certainly makes me queasy), I am assured by Annette, a company rep, that Build a Bear Workshop, the author of this grisly technique, has by now succeeded in achieving “intense awareness of the concept” and that in fact stuffing an animal yourself means “you bond with it in a deeper way.” As her co-worker shoves a dog on the stick and commences cranking, I grab my tail and scamper away,

Unfortunately, I flee right into the arms of Bindi, the famously pimped-out daughter, to coin a phrase, of the late naturalist Steve Irwin, who was killed when his chest was pierced by a stingray barb. Despite the fact that her father died a horrible death and her four-year-old brother was recently bitten by a boa constrictor, this Bindi is unstoppable, claiming, on a big poster, that “it’s a play date with the planet—we are putting smiles on the faces of the Earth!” and offering junk like a shrink-wrapped kit called Bindi’s Aquatic Adventure containing a Bindi doll in a wetsuit, a surfboard, and yet another tiresome dolphin.

It’s a relief to visit a booth called Accoutrements, which carries rubber chickens, paste-on mustaches made of, I am sure, some deeply unbiodegradable substance, and that most transgressive of playthings, the toy cigarette pack, available as a squirter or filled with bubble gum. One pack bears the brand name Black Lung, if, as the salesman puts it, “your store is really edgy.”

Emboldened by my exposure to candy coffin nails, I ask a guy in a booth with bloodshot-eyeball spectacles if he has anything really disgusting. He shakes his head sadly. “For that, you have to go to the Halloween show in Vegas in three weeks,” he says. “They have things like a guy in an electric chair for $10,000.”

But then something really disgusting does happen, in a booth run by Gund, which advertises its merchandise as “the world’s most huggable.” I’m met at the door by a woman with a steely smile who asks me what business I’m in. When I tell her I’m a journalist, she says the pathetic flack employed to bullshit journalists (OK, that isn’t exactly what she says) is gone for the day, and then she refuses to let me examine their stock of dolphins and penguins and polar bears and in fact boots me out of the booth! Me!

It’s enough to make me want to go get a confetti gun.


Björking For The Weekend

Doing Ecstasy: A Sprite Sings Wordly Vespers to Astroland

At Coney Island’s Keyspan Park, the procession of freaks began early Friday evening, all closing out summer with the high priestess of eclecticism. We were there, walking among the pagans, the redheaded women, the gay glamour-boys, the smattering of blacks (us). Despite the pending ceremony, the homestead of the Cyclones was inelegant as usual. There were kickass pistachio Italian ices, pretzels, beer, and a dude hawking Cracker Jacks. When the draft ran dry, the concessionaires poured red wine into large beer cups. When night fell, Deno’s Wonder Wheel blazed pink and white, and this was somehow right for the ageless pixie Björk.

A barrage of fireworks announced the Icelander’s arrival. She looked exquisitely ridiculous. There were no flamingos, just a black dress with a fuchsia star blooming from the side. Björk jerked awkwardly across the stage, beautiful and Bob Marley-like. Then her eight-piece string section whined the opening notes to “Joga.” Every time she wailed “state of emergency,” flame shot up in jets from in front of the stage. Bombs from the tip of the world exploded again. But her big voice outstripped the pyrotechnics, expanding out over the park. A baby began to cry. Some dude clutching an empty beer bottle and the handles of a stroller produced tiny earplugs.

Bah, the kid would have gotten over it. Who could have resisted the mighty litany Björk unfurled that evening: the vindictive “5 years,” the wistful “Heirloom,” the ascending “All Is Full of Love”? Or the unlikely ensemble she pulled together—a harpist, string section, and a dude triggering the programmed drums.

Her best rendition was of the worst song on her best album, Homogenic‘s “Pluto.” Those drums always feel like icicles at your ears, but on Friday they sent the crowd into a panicked rapture. My girl started hopping up and down like the white girls we used to laugh at. I wanted to hop around like a white girl too, but the song I hate had become hypnotic. This should have been her last number, but the crowd enticed her into an encore. We were grateful to have her back for three more songs. Even without explicitly howling that she was “no fucking Buddhist,” she still left her pagans ecstatically restless. —Ta-Nehesi Coates

Critic Attends a Sex Pistols Concert, Does Not Feel Cheated

A sunburned Johnny Rotten, clad in coppery clamdiggers and a sleeveless tee, sauntered onstage warning that “fucking immi-gration” hassles had left no time for rehearsals. Beaming a pop-eyed, gap-toothed grin, he waggled his rump, and the Sex Pistols lashed into “Bodies,” hands-down the best raver ever written about a bloody abortion. Amid hunchback seizures and wanking staggers, he flashed his own seedy body. “We may be near 50,” he shouted into the Jones Beach night last Thursday, “but the rest are 50 years behind!”

Rhythm section Glen Matlock and Paul Cook betrayed no loss of drive, while relentless guitarist Steve Jones—and a multigenerational crowd roaring every word— helped out the bemused frontman after he fumbled the lyrics to “God Save the Queen.” This gaffe only confirmed that Never Mind the Bollocks, the ’77 album that accounted for most of the set, is an indestructible corpus. With soaring hooks and lyrics that simultaneously evoke despair and ecstasy (“Anarchy in the U.K.” ‘s “Don’t know what I want/ But I know how to get it!“), Bollocks is the music NASA should’ve etched in gold and flung at the cosmos. Visceral performances evoking paroxysms of savage joy are a worthy calling card from humanity.

A turd on conformity’s doorstep, Rotten loves the unloved, the unwashed who have “No-oo-oo Future!” He answered some atavistic gobbing from the crowd by hocking into a T-shirt and tossing it back: “That’s a Johnny Rotten booger—that’s worth a fortune on eBay.” The Pistols are hilarious, but they’ve never been a joke. Unlike past bogeymen Little Richard or Elvis, mass culture can’t digest the Pistols; the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame has snubbed them, and you won’t hear “Pretty Va-cunt” selling Minis. But that’s all right—Johnny and the lads’ve already torn down more monuments than could ever be erected to them. —R.C. Baker


Seventeen Liar Bodies

Devout popular-music scholar and anything-goes sociologist, Greil Marcus only connects—and when that fails, only projects. For him, one throwaway couplet in a radio hit can hopelessly tangle the threads of rock genealogy; one squall of feedback can summon ancestral specters from far-flung mediums, cultures, and vernaculars. The idea of pop song as secret sharer glints off the titles of his books: Mystery Train; Invisible Republic; and perhaps his quintessential work, Lipstick Traces, in which the Sex Pistols’ brief, riotous holiday in the sun marks the starting line for stream-of-consciousness yo-yo anthropology. Johnny Rotten, et al., become collaborative players in Marcus’s totalizing, mutable history play; the Rude Mechs company literalize the conceit with a fast and furious staging of Lipstick Traces, a hilarious, unexpectedly haunted compression of the cult tome.

In this case, acting about rock criticism doesn’t amount to dancing about architecture. Hosted by nervous hipster Dr. Narrator (Lana Lesley) and smug fop Malcolm McLaren (David Greenspan), Lipstick Traces isn’t plotless so much as simply omnidirectional. Chronology dissolves; prophecies happen in reverse. McLaren, the latter-day Situationist, rubs shoulders with real-deal Guy Debord (James Urbaniak). German heretic John of Leyden (Ean Sheehy)—who decided that he was king of the New Jerusalem, Münster, four centuries before John Lydon (Jason Liebrecht) proclaimed himself the Antichrist—sits alongside his coincidental namesake during the infamous Bill Grundy interview. A cacophonous, gloriously deranged Cabaret Voltaire performance (with Urbaniak as Hugo Ball, Sheehy as Tristan Tzara, and the extraordinary T. Ryder Smith as Richard Huelsenbeck) establishes a precedent for Rotten’s storied Pistols audition, where he stalks, barks, gargles, and peacocks his way through a song he barely knows (Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen”). But somehow, the Dada trio, directed for maximum Keystone Kop kinesis by Shawn Sides, seems retroactively influenced by the Ministry of Silly Walks. (Marcus dedicated Lipstick Traces in part to Monty Python.)

The comedy, like the proscenium, often fades to black; the play defies time, and yet it’s clouded over by a sense of impending doom. Matching the macabre photograph of Rotten that takes up a page of the book, the actors are harshly illuminated from below, shadows hollowing their eyes to sockets. They often break character or switch roles; when they exit the stage, Dr. Narrator not only thanks them but addresses them by their real names. The rueful Brechtian maneuvering (admittedly strained at times) negates Pete Townshend’s encomium, “When you listen to the Sex Pistols . . . what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening“—and so does putting Townshend’s words in the mouth of their flamboyantly cynical manager. (McLaren/Greenspan poses his cigarette at such an ostentatiously awkward angle that it’s a distancing gesture in itself.) When some mute bloke dressed as Dada Death first arrives, he’s just another cheeky freak blowing raspberries at the Silver Jubilee. The longer he sticks around, though, the more he takes on the menacing air of a silent inquisitor. No future for you.

The Sex Pistols, at least as far as McLaren was concerned, were an eight-legged readymade. He claimed it didn’t matter who you got to be in your band, so long as they hated each other and they couldn’t play. Julien Temple took this posture to its logical extreme in his pseudo-documentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, where a parade of Johnnys-on-the-spot grab the mic in place of the departed lead singer. All the same, Liebrecht faces a tough task as the inimitable destroyer of passersby, but he nails Rotten’s wet-cat vulnerability and smirking rage. And if Rotten/Liebrecht’s larynx-scraping redefines sound poetry, then Smith seems to channel it (this is actually happening) with his Huelsenbeck interpretation: a tour de force of howling gibberish that articulates a panic and despair beyond speech, a noise alternately subhuman and supernatural.

If you listen closely, you can hear that same noise on Never Mind the Bollocks. When Rotten auditions in Lipstick Traces, Dr. Narrator leaps up to analyze the performance: “The desire this voice embodies is patent and simple! It begins with the demand to live not as an object but as a subject of history!” The absurdist juxtaposition wittily points up pop music as the raw material for the listener’s own invisible republic of personal obsessions and reference points—a liberating form of autobiography. Toward the evening’s end, Dr. Narrator barrels through what she calls “the 20th century in four minutes and 30 seconds.” As the actors throw off flash cards like Dylan in Don’t Look Back, she auction-calls a hundred years, fitting her mom’s birth in with World War II and linking her split with her first boyfriend to the breakup of the Dadaists after Zurich. As much as Lipstick Traces is the thrilling, bottomless story of how a Situation became a band (and vice versa), it’s also the story of how a fan becomes a disciple. Plus it name-checks Hüsker Dü’s “Never Talking to You Again” and the Lettrists International in nearly the same breath. A little no and a big Yes.


Work in Progress

Claire Denis is a sensational filmmaker—with all that implies. Her Beau Travail, opening this week after its well-received local premiere at the New York Film Festival, is a movie so tactile in its cinematography, inventive in its camera placement, and sensuous in its editing that the purposefully oblique and languid narrative is all but eclipsed.

“I’ve found an idea for a novel,” a Godard character once announced. “Not to write the life of a man, but only life, life itself. What there is between people, space . . . sound and colors.” His words might serve as Denis’s manifesto. Her transposition of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd to a French Foreign Legion post on the Horn of Africa is a mosaic of pulverized shards. Every cut in Beau Travail is a small, gorgeously explosive shock.

Denis’s main principle is kinesthetic immersion. A former French colonial who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, she introduces her material with a pan along a crumbling wall mural, accompanied by the legionnaire anthem; this is followed by close-ups of the soldiers dancing with their sultry African dream girls—a vision of sexual glory accentuated by the flashing Christmas lights that constitute the minimalist disco decor—and then by images of the shirtless recruits exercising in the heat of the day to excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd oratorio.

The filmmaker’s style is naturally hieroglyphic. There is little dialogue, and although Beau Travail feels present-tense, it is actually an extended first-person flashback. Denis puts her version of the Melville tale of the “handsome sailor” martyred by an evil superior in the villain’s mouth. The movie is narrated by the ex-sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), after he has been expelled from the Legion for his mistreatment of the popular and gung-ho recruit Sentain (Grégorie Colin). Short and bandy-legged, with odd aquatic features and a face like a Tom Waits song, Lavant’s Galoup is a figure of pathos. The Legion, if not the legionnaire, he loved is lost to him.

Time drifts, memories flicker. Beau Travail is the recollection of elemental pleasure. The recruits drill under the sun or scramble around the empty fort, when they are not skin diving or performing tai chi. The heat, the disco, the golden beaches, and the turquoise sea suggest a weird sort of Club Med. Apparently crucial to their basic training is the ability to iron a perfect uniform crease. Forestier (Michel Subor), the commanding officer, is fond of chewing the local narcotic, qat. “If it wasn’t for fornication and blood we wouldn’t be here,” he tells someone.

Sentain rescues a downed helicopter pilot and Forestier takes a liking to him, further feeding Galoup’s jealousy. The sergeant orchestrates a situation to destroy Sentain, bringing the recruits to a barren strip of the coast for some character-building convict work, digging a purposeless road or doing their exercises at high noon. (The locals impassively watch these peculiar antics, modernistic hug-fests that might have been choreographed by Martha Graham.) The movie turns wildly homoerotic. Egged on by Galoup, and Britten’s incantatory music, these legionnaires are exalted in their minds. Finally, but without overt cause, Galoup and Sentain stage a one-on-one bare-chested face-off, circling each other on a rocky coast with Britten’s oratorio soaring.

In its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras—Galoup always has time to scribble his obsessions in a diary. As in Billy Budd, the sergeant suckers the enlisted man into the fatal mistake of slugging him. (Typically, the filmmaker handles this crucial incident in four quick shots.) But, unlike Melville, Denis has no particular interest in Christian allegory. She distills Melville’s story to its existential essence. A final visit to the disco finds Galoup flailing out against the prison of self, dancing alone to the Europop rhythm of the night.

Like Denis’s previous films, I Can’t Sleep and Nénette and Boni, her latest is a mysterious mix of artful deliberation and documentary spontaneity. To watch it is to wonder about the process. Are her often elaborate shots generated by the scenes she’s set up? Does she find her structure in the editing room? One thing’s for sure, along with her regular cinematographer, Agnes Godard, Denis always opts for beauty. Beau Travail indeed.

Denis’s fluid impressionism recalls the virtuoso short films—Castro Street and Valentin de las Sierras—made by California avant-gardist Bruce Baillie in the late ’60s. The master of such lyrical montage is, of course, Stan Brakhage, who, after a number of years of painting on film and having apparently recovered from a serious illness, premieres his first long, fully photographic work since the early ’90s this Saturday at Millennium.

The return to photography brings with it a return, however painterly, to narrative. The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him takes the form of a short sea voyage to some scarcely populated land. There are mountains visible in a flat Chinese perspective, but Brakhage never gets very far from the beach. For the better part of an hour, his camera contemplates a range of floating organisms—from seaweed and leaves to seals and (distant) kayaks—or, more often, the rolling surf. The film has a slight stutter-step progression, a reminder perhaps that memory is integral to perception.

Brakhage is always rediscovering creation. His main interest here is the quality of light reflected on water. Some shots manage a half-dozen distinct shades of blue. Others show the surface of the sea as a startling Monet-like pattern of purple and pink. There are no superimpositions and only one brief passage involving a distorting lens. When Brakhage wants to break the spell he introduces a sudden abstracting effect—a full-frame burst of bright red leaves or the striated symmetry produced by rapid panning.

The film’s title (taken from David Copperfield) and Brakhage’s notes suggest that it is a melancholy reverie on mortality; the result, however, is quietly ecstatic.

Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury feels familiar and it is—the third feature-length documentary on the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols (in addition to Alex Cox’s estimable Sid Vicious biopic Sid and Nancy) and the second by Temple. The filmmaker might be accused of preaching to the choir were the story not so compelling and the performances so strong. Twenty-three years have scarcely dulled the frisson of Johnny Rotten’s “Anarchy in the U.K.”

Alternating between appreciation and analysis, Temple links the advent of British punk rock to the prole confusion of the mid ’70s, using urban riot footage to set the scene: “The Sex Pistols should have happened and did,” the voiceover announces. Managed by the self-proclaimed Situationist Malcolm McLaren, the band inspired more public antipathy in less time than any act in pop history. The movie’s title is taken from the tabloid headline the morning after their fabulously profane and insulting debut on British TV.

The Filth and the Fury has a proudly cruddy look, and it’s filled with what the Situationists called détournement (“the integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction”). Temple incorporates grainy Super-8 performance footage as well as cartoons from The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle and American concert material from Lech Kowalski’s still scary D.O.A. Repeatedly, he juxtaposes Johnny Rotten with images of Laurence Olivier’s over-the-top Richard III. Suddenly, Rotten’s hunchback stance and hilarious wide-eyed smirk have a classical pedigree.

Temple also places the Sex Pistols in the context of low comics like Norman Wisdom and Benny Hill. “There’s a sense of comedy in the English,” the present-day former Rotten muses. True enough, although more might have been made of the singer’s Irish background. The gleeful glint of madness in Rotten’s taunting performances goes well beyond vulgar pratfall—as does his sometimes sentimental moralizing. Indeed, he all but delivers a punk version of “Danny Boy” when, tearfully recalling the pathetic tale of Sid Vicious, he tells Temple that “only the fakes survive.”