The new posthumously released album from the late Memphis rock-soul cat Jim Dickinson has a fitting title: "I'm Just Dead, I'm Not Gone." You could say something similar about Doc Watson, the iconic folk legend from Deep Gap. Watson passed on last month at the age of 89, but his influence will live on for as long as people are applying picks to guitars. In his absence, what was supposed to be a Watson concert has been repurposed as a tribute memorial performance and symposium put on by his friends and peers. For some of their thoughts and remembrances (plus details about the event), see the story in Sunday's paper.
Rock nerd that I am, I'm a compulsive reader of rock biographies. So please trust me when I say that even if you're not a genre fan, Joe Oestreich's "Hitless Wonder" is extraordinary -- a sharply written memoir of his time in the trenches with the band Watershed, which plays Saturday night in Raleigh. Oestreich will also do a reading while he's in town, so see the interview in Friday's paper for details on both.
"Something From Nothing"
Cast: Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, Big Daddy Kane, Eminem, Kanye West, many others
Length: 111 minutes
Show, don't tell is one of the oldest rules of writing. And "Something From Nothing," the iconic gangsta rapper Ice-T's ambitious hip-hop documentary, has too much telling and not enough showing. Three-dozen mostly old-school artists weigh in, and too many of them just don't say enough to deserve as much screen time as they get.
Boil this film down to the highlights, however, and it has plenty to recommend it. The format is bare-bones, mostly interviews and off-the-cuff rhymes framed by shots of urban scenes in New York and Los Angeles (rendered like sepia-toned postcards). "Something From Nothing" eschews the celebrity aspect of hip-hop stardom to focus on the craft of the form, how its practitioners write lyrics and rhymes to create what the film's subtitle calls "The Art of Rap."
If you think there's nothing more to rapping than throwing out random rhymes over a recorded loop, "Something From Nothing" will disabuse you of that notion right quick. The eternal struggle of getting the right words onto paper is universal.
"Had the [expletive] right there," Grandmaster Caz mutters at one point. Anybody who has ever written anything will be able to relate.
There are some puzzling omissions, especially Kurtis Blow and Jay-Z, but "Something From Nothing" has plenty of charisma on the screen. Some of the film's more entertaining bits include Rakim attempting to explain his 16-dots-on-a-paper method of lyric-writing (which even Ice-T admits he doesn't understand); Immortal Technique explaining why he writes while in a state of physical hunger; Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon holding forth on the nunances of the word "wack"; and KRS-One recalling the start of his hip-hop career -- getting called out for his clothes at someone else's hip-hop battle. Ice-T has enough credibility and history to command respect from his peers, even when confessing that he'll sometimes fake onstage microphone problems to cover when he forgets lyrics.
Eminem makes the most vivid impression. Spitting out the rhymes to the "8 Mile" theme "Lose Yourself," he appears wild-eyed and on the verge of collapsing into a trance. You get a sense of him as a deeply damaged human who copes by working nonstop.
At the other end of the spectrum is Snoop Dogg, who treats rap like sport -- a series of challenges to rise up to. Mellow and cool behind his shades, Snoop looks like he's turning into John Lee Hooker, a wizened old bluesman. Or maybe a guy hanging around a barbershop spinning rhymes in an endless dozens game, which is how rap began in the first place.
And so the circle continues.
"Rock of Ages"
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige, Tom Cruise
Director: Adam Shankman
Length: 123 minutes
"Rock of Ages" wastes no time setting a tone of deliriously over-the-top giddiness, establishing its musical bonafides in the very first scene. As Sherri Christian (played by real-life country singer Julianne Hough) chases her Hollywood dreams via bus, all the passengers break into song on Night Ranger's 1984 power ballad "Sister Christian." At the screening I attended, the "Motorin'/What's your price for flight" chorus induced the first of many guffaws in the audience.
That's a pretty good indicator of what you're in for here: cheese, glorious cheese baked up by the sort of people whose frontal lobes have never once been darkened by the thought, "You know, that's just too freakin' obvious." But if that sounds like criticism, it's not. "Rock of Ages" is as enjoyable as it is preposterous, so long as you're not expecting much beyond a fun romp through various signposts of the hair-metal era.
Based on the 2006 jukebox musical, "Rock of Ages" draws songs from Guns N' Roses, Foreigner, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Scorpions and other metal giants from the time when MTV actually played music videos. The film is set in 1987, and it's staged, lit and choreographed like a video of that period.
What plot there is centers on Sherrie's romance with Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rock singer. But that's by far the weakest part of the film. Too much of "Rock of Ages" consists of the romantic leads giving each other pep talks and telegraphing future plot developments.
The subplots, however, are delicious, thanks to sharp dialogue and a terrific supporting cast. Russell Brand puts in another great piece of character-actor non-acting as a debauched rocker working for seedy club owner Alec Baldwin (they also have a duet toward the end of the film that must be seen to be believed). Catherine Zeta-Jones plays an anti-rock crusader with a dirty secret she hints at by performing Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" just a little too zestfully. Mary J. Blige is a strip-joint madame with soul, and Paul Giamatti is perfect as the quintessential oily manager dude.
Improbably, however, the film's biggest show-stealer is Tom Cruise as burned-out rock star Stacee Jax. He certainly isn't the first name that comes to mind for a part like this, but his cross between Axl Rose and Jim Morrison as a bemused hard-rock shaman is spot on.
With Jones leading a Bible-thumping drive to shut down Baldwin's rock club, much of "Rock of Ages" plays like a heavy-metal "Footloose." There's something almost quaint about revisiting this long-abandoned cultural divide -- nowadays, similarly inclined culture warriors are more likely to be fulminating about birth certificates or gay marriage -- but "Rock of Ages" is very much a snapshot of an era.
And yet it's an era whose echoes will be familiar, because they're still playing out. "Rock of Ages" closes with an all-hands-on-deck version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," and darned if it doesn't sound more like Taylor Swift's arena-country than Poison's '80s-vintage arena-rock.
Rock of ages, for the ages.
With an election coming up this fall and North Carolina shaping up as a key battleground state, we're going to be in for a long stretch of overheated political debate -- some of which will probably involve accusations that the News & Observer is just a mouthpiece for liberal propaganda. It's not for me to say whether or not that's true. But it seems worth reminding one and all that a long, long time ago, the N&O was seen as a far different kind of mouthpiece.
For example, below is something a friend just pointed out and which I somehow missed until now: a 2008 album cover by the hip-hop band The Roots, paired with the 1898 cartoon it was based on. And this particular cartoon, an unbelievable bit of race-baiting called "The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina," was drawn by one Norman E. Jennette and published in the N&O on Sept. 27, 1898.
This September, as it happens, The Roots will be in Raleigh to play Hopscotch. Think they might have something to say about this?
I've been waiting a couple of decades to be able to say this, and finally I can: The dB's, godfathers of North Carolina underground pop, have just released a new album. It's been a long time coming -- 30 years since the last record put out by the original lineup -- so the fact that it's out at all is good news. The great news is that it's an excellent record, and you can take a live listen on Saturday night. For details on that, see the interview in Friday's paper.
Photo courtesy of Wayne Patterson.
Sad to say, Doc Watson has reached the end of the line. He passed on Tuesday evening. For complete coverage, go here. And take comfort knowing that Doc and Merle are together again up in heaven. I'm thinking there will be some hot pickin' up there tonight.
Eons ago, when I was a kid, I remember spending a lot of time with a record called "Music: How It's Made and Played." It was an orchestral-music primer, introducing all the different instruments and the way they blended together, and it had that Disney knack for making the subject both accessible and mysterious. When all those instruments cranked up together, it sounded like the spookiest soundtrack ever.
Somehow, The Polyphonic Spree conjures up that same feeling. The group played Cat's Cradle Saturday night, their first Triangle show in some years, delivering another lovely dose of rapture. It's odd to think of a 15-piece band as "stripped down"; nevertheless, this was indeed the leanest version of the Spree that I've ever seen. Flautist Audrey Easley was missing, and this configuration also didn't have harp or theremin.
But Tim Delaughter, the Walt Disney of symphonic indie-rock spectacle, was still out front, channeling his and your inner child. There was also a xylophone, a three-piece horn section and a killer cello player. And even though they didn't do the one that always make me mist up, they did "Soldier Girl," "When the Fool Becomes a King" and a drop-dead perfect medley of "See Me Feel Me/Listening to You"-"Pinball Wizard" (if ever a band was meant to cover The Who, it's Polyphonic Spree).
There was laughter, a lot of jumping up and down, smiling -- plus confetti. Lots and lots of confetti. A joyous 90 minutes of bittersweet whimsy that left me feeling 8 years old again, and that's always a good thing.
So why weren’t you there?
(Photo: Patty Chase)
From David Holt, the latest on Doc Watson, hospitalized since Monday:
Doc Watson is in critical but improved condition after undergoing colon surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The family appreciates everyone's prayers and good wishes.
Let's keep the good thoughts coming, folks. And you can check updates here.
UPDATE (3:30 pm Sunday): It may or may not mean anything dire, but reports are that Watson's family has been summoned to his bedside.