Friday, March 04, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: KEEPING THE PROMISE OF MTV

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 4, 2005


Stan Ridgway’s new DVD Holiday in Dirt -- a compilation of video versions of all the songs from his 2002 album of the same name -- is a rewarding visual and audio experience. It also gives a viewer a glimpse at what might have been had MTV lived up to its original promise.


Some of us who probably were too old for rock ‘n’ roll by the early ‘80s but tried o keep up with it anyway saw the birth of MTV as the dawn of some truly exciting possibilities. (Other rockers my age saw MTV as a harrowing sign of the apocalypse -- and they probably were closer to correct. But indulge me here.)

What a wonderful idea, it seemed at the time: Imaginative filmmakers taking off on music and creating strange tales and crazy imagery.

“Music videos” had been around for years, though nobody called them that until MTV.

I still remember watching the “promotional films” for The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” on tv in early 1967. Between the alluring, alien sounds of “Strawberry Fields” and the images of The Beatles jumping around in the blurry, unusual lighting twisted my teenage head off.

Then came David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie,” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Devo’s bizarre manifesto The Truth About Devolution and Michael Nesmith’s Elephant Parts … And gthen the floodgates opened with MTV.

And MTV did show some promise in those early days. Remember the twitchy, bespectacled David Byrne in the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” ? The tacky, but undeniably hilarious special effects of “You Might Think” by The Cars? The Clash wielding huge boom boxes like bazookas, dancing around as images of war, oppression and poverty flash in the video of “Radio Clash” ?

But before the new wore off MTV, the whole concept seemed to turn sour. Videos soon became unimaginative and over-produced as most popular music of the ‘80s. The subversive, avant garde videos of the early days became rarer and rarer as videos became more obviously what the music bizzers intended them to be all along -- advertisements for their products.

Through the years there have been occasional music video masterpieces -- Nirvana’s dark “Heart Shaped Box,” directed by Anton Corjbin comes to mind. And Prince’s recent “Musicology” video with the little kid transformed by his dad’s soul records.

But basically the music video deteriorated into glossy footage of mugging pop stars. Who needs it?

Holiday in Dirt, however shows that there’s hope for the beleaguered artform of the music video. After all, he was there at the beginning. Barbecued iguana was a popular menu item on early MTV, thanks to Ridgway’s old band, Wall of Voodoo and their video of “Mexican Radio.”

Basically what he did was pay various directors $500 each to create videos based on the songs from the album. The project apparently was in the works for a few years, as Ridgway has released another album, Snakebite, since then.

Holiday in Dirt, the album, was itself an odds-and-sods compilation of songs -- outtakes, soundtrack material, B-sides, etc. -- spanning more than a decade. So the different visions of the directors seems natural.

You’ve got the surreal, computer-generated cartoons of Jim Ludtke on “Operator Help Me,” Ridgway’s ode to paranoia and aging. (Ludtke is most famous for his videos of San Francisco avant garde rockers, The Residents.)

Chuck Statler, the director of Devo’s influential first video, does the video for Ridgway’s goofball version of Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” It involves a creepy dummy, an even creepier ventriloquist and a set that looks like the infamous dancing dwarf sequence in Twin Peaks.

There’s a World War I recreation by director Rudi Tuzla on the song “After the Storm”; Steve Hanft’s appropriate film-noirish interpretation of “Bing Can’t Can’t Walk,” a song about a mob bone-breaker; a frightening fashion show by David Moe’s film of the stinging techno-jazz tune “Brand New, Special and Unique” and two different visions of Hollywood decay (by directors Rick Fuller and Phil Harder) in the two version’s “My Beloved Movie Star.”

And you get to see Ridgway and director Carlos Grasso wrestle during an angry confrontation at the end of “End of the Line.”

My favorite one is Katherine Gordon’s sentimental video for the country waltz “Act of Faith.” A depressed looking guy stares at his clothes spinning in the crowded Laundromat dryer and watches them become grainy, badly-colored 8mm home movies of endless highways and a laughing dancing hippie couple. As we return to the man in the laundromat at the end of the song, the man’s yearning and regret is nearly tangible.

Music videos just don’t stir emotions like this any more. I wish more quality musicians would instigate projects like this.


Not recommended:

*Here Come the ABCs
by They Might Be Giants. Granted I’m not really qualified to review this DVD. After all, I’m over five years old.

But these boring songs and not-that-interesting graphics -- including cartoons, puppets and a little live action -- just don’t compare with the standard-setting inspired kiddie craziness of the long lamented Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Back in the ‘80s I’d happily get up at 8 a.m. on Saturdays to watch Pee-wee with my daughter. I can’t imagine any kid of mine trying to wake me up for Here Come the ABCs.

This ABC stuff is slick, safe stuff you can see on "educational" t.v. It's the kind of clean, safe kiddy programming that actual children only enjoy until they're old enough to learn how to change the channel. It’s hard to believe that TMBG would be associated with it. After all, they made some of the craziest, most fun videos of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

As for the music -- there’s a perfectly good song about the alphabet that ends with “Now I’ve learned my ABCs/Tell me what you think of me.” These new songs were as unnecessary as they are tedious. This doesn’t even compare with their last stab at children’s music No!.

BONUS!
MY ORIGINAL REVIEW OF THE CD HOLIDAY IN DIRT


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Feb. 15, 2002


Stan Ridgway is an acquired musical taste that far more people ought to acquire.

His new CD, Holiday in Dirt, a collection of outtakes, mostly from the 90s, is a must-have for certified Ridgway fans. And for potential cult members, it would be a great place to start.

Lets put it bluntly. Ridgway is one of the finest songwriters working today, a highly literate, often funny, sometimes kinda creepy storyteller who spins tales of sad drifters, barflies, con men, small-time hustlers and lowlifes with high hopes. His damaged but determined characters will haunt you long after the CD player is turned off.

So many critics compare Ridgway's lyrics to Raymond Chandler (I think it was Greil Marcus who started it) that its just about become a clich. Its time for something new. So lets throw this one out and see if it sticks: Stan Ridgway is the Harry Dean Stanton of rock n roll. Its not hard to imagine Ridgway songs bouncing around the mind of the henpecked private detective Johnnie Farragut in Wild at Heart. The hapless Bud in Repo Man could have driven straight out of a Ridgway ballad.

Ridgway's music is not easy to categorized. Starting out as the quirky singer for the quirky L.A. New Wave band Wall of Voodoo, you can still hear a little "Mexican radioo - the spaghetti-Western guitars, the coffee percolator drum machines - in his work 20 years later.

But Ridgway's solo work draws from a wide array of sources - jazz, country, soundtrack music, show tunes and synth pop among them. His musical trademarks are his lonesome harmonica, which appears in many songs and, more importantly, his voice - a nasally tenor that would fit perfectly on many of his shadowy characters.

Holiday in Dirt begins with one of Ridgway's most impressive songs, "Beloved Movie Star.o The subject matter - a washed-up actress helpless to stop youth and beauty from slipping away from her - has appeared in rock songs before (the Velvet Underground's "New Age," Concrete Blonde's "Jenny I Read").

But Ridgway's tune - with its stately harp flourishes and Stan singing in a near worshipful voice as if he's the last one on Earth who believes in the fading star - makes this an instant classic.

"Beloved Movie Star Redux," which ends the album (if you dont count the "hidden" track, a hilarious golden-throat deconstruction of Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" -- say, is that a karaoke track here?) is a rougher and more acoustic mix. (And as Ridgway points out in the liner notes, you can hear the family dog, Bart, barking in the background.)

At first I didn't like it as much as the first version. Ridgway starts out singing in a lower octave and later switches when its obvious it doesnt work. But the more I listen to it, I think "Redux" has more heart.

"Bing Can't Walk," the tale of a Mafia bonebreaker, is a prime Ridgway crime song. It's got production and a nasty organ by Mitchell Froom and all sorts of classic Ridgway electronic gimcrackery - plus perhaps his best harmonica work on the album.

Another standout is "Brand New Special and Unique," which started out as a song for Ridgway's underrated mid-90s band Drywall. It features a wicked sax by Don Bell, a near hip-hoppy rhythm, cool-cat bass and ghostly background voices provided by the singer's wife, Pietra Wexstun.

This is followed by an ominous, fuzzed-up little rocker called "After the Storm," which sounds even closer to a garage band than Ridgway's amusing though not vital ode to his teenage rock memories, "Garage Band 69."

But Ridgway does far more than create creep shows and peep shows. He's perfectly capable of creating gorgeous melodies. "Amnesia" is a heartfelt love song, while "Act of Faith" is a sweet waltz featuring Stan strumming an acoustic guitar. The melody sounds like a cowboy tune or a traditional Irish song.

Stan Ridgway is one of those "just world" artists. You know, "in a just world, Stan Ridgway (or Richard Thompson/The Mekons/GillianWelch/Johnny Dowd)would be as big as Kenny G (or Garth Brooks/Britney Spears/Limp Biskit).

But somehow just having music like Ridgway's available makes the world seem a little more just.

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