Wednesday, May 25, 2011


This week, the Beast felt obligated to check out yet another "Saturday Night Live Is Dead" article, which the mainstream press has been publishing variations on since the show's fifth season. (It just might be the longest running obituary in American cultural history.) But what struck us about Slate writer Nathan Heller's take on "SNDead" was that rather than just focusing on the comedy in those crucial early days he also emphasizes the little-written about impact of the show's musical guests. An excerpt:

Given the limp and ashen entertainment-industry sausage SNL has become, it's hard to fathom just how strikingly connected to the youth zeitgeist the early program was. George Carlin hosted its 1975 debut while very stoned, tossing off jokes about blue food or trying to smoke the hash marks on a football field. Billy Preston came on to sing "Nothing From Nothing"; folk wunderkind Janis Ian performed her outsiders' anthem "At Seventeen." The following week, host Paul Simon sang several songs in patched jeans and camera-unfriendly tweed, reuniting with Garfunkel on-air for "The Boxer" and "Scarborough Fair." Live music on TV was by no means new in 1975, but Saturday Night, with its deglamorized performers and close, well-lit audience, offered something more: a new tenor of intimacy on-air, a clubhouse for a generation on the comedown from its great cultural moment.

Being a loyal watcher of SNL since 1977 -- when we had to sneak downstairs in our pajamas to sit and watch strange new sounds by The Specials, The B-52s, Joe "King" Carrasco and many more -- the Beast decided to take a backwards walk through 36 years of musical-guest highlights.

PART I: 2011-1999

100. Foo Fighters – “Walk” (4/09/2011)
"Rope" was their first song and it sounded terrific on the radio, but the second song was an amazing blast of sonic perfection. SNL's notoriously bad sound problems were blasted away as well.

99. Lil' Wayne w/ Eminem – "No Love/Won't Back Down" (12/18/2010)
Em, who has given some of the dullest performances in SNL history, wisely takes a back seat to Weezy, who explodes onstage like he just got out of jail or something.

98. The Arcade Fire –
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (11/13/2010)
Win Butler's wife/second-in-command/muse Régine Chassagne took the lead on this poignantly defiant tune from a pre-Grammy winning The Suburbs. She sings it in a beautiful wobble, and further unveils a twitchy and unpredictable stage persona that was somehow easier to take than her hubby's.

97. Kanye West – “Power” (10/02/2010)
Even if you don't like this guy or his music, this performance was a game changer for the show. West draped the famously neutral, faux-subway music stage in all white and called down an angel-posse of dancers. This might also have been a game-ruiner as well: Lady Gaga's batshit performance last week upped the ante into the realm of live music video rather than live performance.

96. Pearl Jam – “Just Breathe” (3/13/2010)
Heavy vet rockers came out like a lamb on their 4th SNL appearance with this hushed, meditative tune.
Just perfect.

95. Adele – “Chasing Pavements” (10/18/2008)
Before she was a chartbuster, the British teen chanteuse with a voice twenty years her senior appeared on a heavily watched episode hosted by Josh Brolin. She scored! This despite dueling cameos by Sarah Palin and Tina Fey and that many watching had rarely seen a full-figured woman on the SNL stage since Aretha. Best part: Her little embarrased hop at the end -- Oh bloody 'ell, did I fuck that up?

94. Gnarls Barkley – “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?” (4/12/2008)
An ominous and disturbing avant-soul plea performed by a band of dubious tricksters dressed like James Brown's Famous Flames if they were wacked-out on lithium. The ghost of Michael O'Donoghue was sitting in the balcony, smoking a More and smiling.

93. Bjork – “Earth Intruders” (4/21/2007)
Backed by her cult of female brass players dressed in flowing technicolor dreamcoats, the tiny ice princess traipsied barefoot through this modern-primitivist march, which she apparently composed after a dream she had while flying over the Atlantic.

92. Beck – “Clap Hands/One Foot in the Grave” (10/28/2006)
Beck's band sat at a dinner table onstage and pounded out a junkyard beat with plates, utensils, drinking glasses and their hands while their leader stood to the right and plunked wobbly chords on his cheap guitar -- even splicing in a snatch of his pre-"Loser" song "One Foot in the Grave." If that wasn't enough, the entire scene was mimicked by a collection of marionette puppets.

91. Queens of the Stone Age w/ "Gene Frenkle"
– “Little Sister” (5/13/2005)
Not since a spastic and dishevelled John Belushi joined Joe Cocker onstage for "Feelin' Allright" in 1976 did the show's mixing of comedy and music fit together so well. Like that hallowed performance, host Will Ferrell waited until after the first chorus to make his appearance as the hapless (and deceased) cowbell player from the Behind the Music: Blue Oyster Cult sketch. The ending is even better: Ferrell and guitarist Josh Homme with their arms around each other, stone-faced, looking so over-serious that it kicks the joke up a notch:

90. Usher featuring Ludacris – “Yeah!” (5/01/2004)
For those couch surfers who never saw Usher's impressive live show got their Funyons blown out of their hands with the meta-acrobatics on hand, particularly the "time-lapse marionette" and the artist's spectacular free-standing backflip at the end. In our memory, the only time "live" has been transformed into "optical illusion" on SNL. It also made us want to start working out again.

89. Toots and the Maytals w/ Jack Johnson & Ben Harper
 – “Pressure Drop” (4/03/2004)
This should have happened back in 1976, especially since early SNL had a love affair with reggae artists, from true purists like Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh to pop-friendly knockoffs like Eddy Grant and Musical Youth. Sir Toots' gritty voice survived the years intact and he showed himself to be spry as ever. Jack Johnson looked lost. The host for this show was Donald Trump. Can't imagine how that afterparty went.

88. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott – “Pass That Dutch” (11/15/2003)
In her first SNL performance in 1998, she was relegated to one song and too many guests. Five years later, Mizz Hootie-Hoo returned, svelte and in charge, unleashing some of the best unified choreography this stage has ever seene.

87. Dixie Chicks – “Travelin’ Soldier” (2/08/2003)
Just over a month and a half before U.S. troops invaded Iraq for the second time and just a month before lead singer Natalie Maines forever changed the course of their career by protesting it, the Chicks popped up on SNL: The Y'all Edition (the host was Matthew McConaughey). The timing and poignancy of the song, of course, cannot be overstated. Especially with what we know now.

86. The White Stripes – “We’re Gonna Be Friends” (10/19/2002)
"Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" was a more rockin' song, and it was such a rush to hear "Ladiesshh and Gentlemen, the White Shtripesshh..." come from the pre-Palin mouth of host Sen. John McCain, but this quieter ditty was the more rewarding -- the kind of after-hours intimacy for which SNL is (or was once) known for. 

85. OutKast – “Ms. Jackson” (3/22/2002)
The insurgent South invades SNL. This was the amazing, booty-bouncing 2000-01 touring version of OutKast, the one that no longer exists, before Andre 3000 and Big Boi confused everyone by splitting themselves down the middle, as seen in their strangely hollow second SNL appearance in 2003.

84. Ryan Adams – “New York New York” (10/11/2001)

83. Paul Simon – “The Boxer” (9/29/2001)

82. Alicia Keys – “Fallin’” (9/29/2001)

81. Radiohead – “The National Anthem” & “Idioteque” (10/14/2000)
The 9/11 songs. Two of these performances are from the same show almost three weeks after the devastation in lower Manhattan, one a month after that, and one almost a year before. The Simon/Keys show was a great study in indirect mourning: Lorne Michaels was criticized for having his old Hamptons pal rhymin' Simon on for his umpteenth appearance and performing a 33-year-old song that, at least on the surface, had nothing to do with terrorism; on the contrary, Michaels asked Simon to perform a "defiant" song and what better than "The Boxer"? The lyrics tell a uniquely American story: the lonely pug immigrant, battered and bruised but still proud of the new land that has nearly broken him. Best moment: Simon sings the deathless line "the fighter still remains" as the camera cuts right to the Mount Rushmore visage of Rudolph Giuliani standing onstage with a collection of bruised and battered New York firefighters. Keys couldn't have done any better than simply singing "Fallin'" (that title now having multiple meanings) as she wrote it: an angry, gospel-tinged torch song; 9/11 was nowhere onstage and therefore, everywhere. Ryan Adams bringing "New York New York" to epic life a few weeks later ushered some punk rock fury to the fore (courtesy of Adams' Ramones t-shirt and awesome sneer as he sang the chorus). But Radiohead beat them all time-wise and zeitgeist-wise by performing two songs from 2000's Kid A that sounded like disquieting communiques from a dying space station, their titles sounding like wake-up calls.

80. Neil Young – “Razor Love” (5/06/2000)
For being live, SNL is such a tightly regimented show that some artists have to shorten their songs or are cut off altogether when they go long (The B-52's in 1980 and Joe Jackson in 1986, for example). At over six minutes, "Razor Love" stretches out on a Topanga Canyon hammock and takes its lovely time, all the old lions (Young, basssist Donald "Duck" Dunn, pianist Spooner Oldham) sitting around a nonexistent campfire. We fell into a blissful, not-a-care-in-the-world sleep during this broadcast -- and that is not at all a criticism.

Monday, May 23, 2011

LIVE REVIEW: Wadada Leo Smith & Motoko Honda Square Off in Someone's Living Room (5/22/11)

"The piano and I will be very surprised!" - Mimi Melnick

“I’m supposed to say something about music,” a soft-spoken Wadada Leo Smith told the crowd gathered in a sun-stippled Encino living room that overlooked an orange crate-art panorama of the West Valley. “It’s always hard to begin, so I’ll just start anywhere.”

The dreadlocked trumpet mystic-slash-music professor and his one-time Cal Arts pupil Motoko Honda (who have already blown people away performing together at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater and the old Rocco space) proceeded to make good on their promise: they started on that precipiece called “anywhere” and wound up “somewhere” quite different with two sets that consisted of at least five improvisational journeys that ranged from stretched out to surprisingly brief. It wasn’t an old-school jazz battle like “The Chase” but a mutual benediction of two minds twisting themselves around each other like two snakes on a caduceus staff. It was a bracingly eloquent fight club between Pupil and Teacher.

Piano, pimped

The Pupil had brought something new to the 1922 Steinway grand sitting in the corner by the patio doors. This piano has seen the fingers of Horace Tapscott, Gerald Wiggins and Nate Morgan to name just a short list, yet the Pupil brought the 21st century in from the cold and tricked out the instrument with a collection of electronic gizmos and wires including a KAOSS pad perched right above the action frame. Mistress of ceremonies Mimi Melnick (it was her house), as well as some of the whiter-haired old schoolers in the tiny audience, didn't know quite what to make of it. If one expected the Pupil to perform some sort of sleight-of-jazz with her techno frippery, she went the opposite direction. The Pupil barely used the devices -- and when she did, salt-and-peppering the roiling music she and the Teacher produced with admirable restraint. "We have a long history together," the Teacher smiled at the crowd.

Word. The Teacher began with splats of quavering half-notes; the Pupil sidling up to his runs with shimmering notes zipping like tiny little sprites dancing on the stalk of plants, traipsing up to the petals, then flying off and fading away. For the second improv, the Teacher muttered to the Pupil: "You start." She did, plinking the piano wires while hitting ominous clusters on the keys. The Teacher hung back as the Pupil went into a lyrical Bill Evans mode -- maybe with a little of Keith Jarrett's searching quality -- before unleashing an avalance of descending/ascending notes.

Next up was Smith's 2009 collaboration "Rabia's Unconditional Love: A Spiritual Mystery of the Heart," with the Pupil taking over the role of bassist Jack DeJohnette. The Teacher pushed ugly, flatulent sounds with his trumpet mute -- call it "playing while drowning" -- while the Pupil weighed in with her aggressive left hand, splitting jagged chords that leaked into a quiet twilight sleep. The Teacher ended the song with a strangle, playing bent over with the bell of the horn pointed straight into the carpet. They go even further on the closer "Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy" from 2009's Spiritual Dimensions, with the Teacher finishing up with an outtake of breath that sounded like bubble wrap scraping across concrete. "By the way," the Teacher told us. "I know all of you."

Leo addresses the crowd

From Left: pianist Ben Rosenboom, bassist Mike Watt (yellow jacket),
and historian Steve Isoardi watch the show

At the end of the performance, Horace Tapscott's biographer turned to the Beast and remarked: "She reminds me of Horace."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blog Sweat

Review of debut album by L.A. wunderkind pianist Austin Peralta (L.A. Record)

SoCal Musician in the Spotlight: Carl Saunders (Scott Yanow)

The Dozens: 12 Essential Max Roach Recordings (

New documentary on PBS’ groundbreaking show Soul! (Wax Poetics)

…or Have They? (Rehearsing The Blues)

Ladies and Germs, The National Jukebox Arrives (Library of Congress)

The History of Freeform Radio (Consequence of Sound)

20 Years On (Again): De La Soul Is Dead (Oliver Wang’s Soul Sides)

Seattle Soul of the 70s: An Interview with Wheedle’s Groove Director Jennifer Maas
(Aquarium Drunkard)

The Top 10 Videos of Daniel Dumile a.k.a. Zev Love X a.k.a. MF Doom (URB)

Artist Profile: Peaking Lights (Altered Zones)

Antilogy Magazine Launches with Nate Wooley Interview (Antilogy)

Jim DeRogatis on Elvis Costello’s Spinning-Wheel Tour (Via Chicago)

Daphne Carr on groundbreaking feminist music critic Ellen Willis (FunBoring)

Is Hip Hop Evil? (The Oxford American)

Geeta Dayal Interviews Max Matthews, the late father of computer music (Frieze)

Friday, May 13, 2011

UPDATE: The L.A. New Music Snerd's Dictionary of Terms

After a loooooong hiatus, the Beast has finally gotten around to updating the first installment of The L.A. New Music Snerd's Dictionary of Terms. (All additions/changes are in red bold.) This in anticipation of Part 2, which is being readied to go up in the next week or so. Thanks again for your patience!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Song of Dissolution

The Beast was laid low this weekend with a massive chest/head cold and as a result sunk into the dregs of sickness on our couch while we went through our unwatched DVR list. We watched two entertaining if deeply flawed films -- Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces (2006) and Robert D. Siegel's Big Fan (2009) -- and was struck by the use of an old John Cale track in two very similar scenes.

"Big White Cloud" is encased in lush sun-kissed orchestral arrangements and choirlike vocal accompaniment that could only come out of the early 70s. (In many ways, Cale's solo debut is a lot like Lou Reed's Transformer -- both dated and timeless.) The album it comes from, Vintage Violence (1970) was Cale's solo debut and surprised many critics by sounding nothing like his early drone work with the Theater of Eternal Music or his groundbreaking amplified-viola work with the Velvet Underground.


So why does this 41-year-old song pop up two films in three years? Both Carnahan and Siegel place the song in pity-party scenes for our main characters. The former employs "BWC" in a long scene of unshaven, coke-addled ex-Vegas performer Buddy "Aces" Israel (a nice 'n' sleazy Jeremy Piven) staring at himself in the mirror as realizes his life is draining down the toilet behind him.

"Looking at bees, licking the trees...": Smokin' Aces

In Big Fan, "BWC" is featured in a short montage of the pathetic life of parking-garage employee/NY Giants fanatic Paul Aufiero (a suitably hangdog Patton Oswalt) after he is stomped almost to death by his favorite Giants player and then is practically exiled from his petty, payday-hungry family when he refuses to press charges.

"Sound of sun, missing my eyes...": Big Fan

The highlight of the song is Cale's quavering baritone, which contrasts with the syrupy Curt Boettcher-like production. It reminds The Beast of two other songs. One is Gordon Peterson's "Hard Sun" (later covered by Eddie Vedder on the Into the Wild soundtrack), which has the same kind of I'm-a-tiny-speck-in-this-giant-awesome-universe feel and lyrical POV; the other is "Tiny Tears" by the Tindersticks, in which lead singer Stuart Staples' own smoky, ominous baritone so mimics Cale's that we actually thought it was "Big White Cloud" when it played over a famous scene in The Sopranos. In the episode titled "Izabella,"a mob boss sits spaced-out in his shower as the camera tilts woozily on his lithium-induced face. Later, the song returns when his "Uncle Junior" attempts on him:

Anyway, "Big White Cloud" is now officially my "sick and feeling like shit" song. I am in great company.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


NOTE: Today at 6pm Mountain Time in Park City, Utah, a memorial service will be held for Christopher S. Maddux, a revered and beloved Media Instructor for Park City High School who passed away from cancer last Friday at age 54. Maddux was the Beast’s Communications Instructor back in the mid-1980s in Racine, Wisconsin and was a continuing influence for the rest of my life. He was one of THOSE teachers. Although the Beast intended today’s post to be about Thom Zimny’s new Bruce Springsteen documentary film The Promise: The Making of Darkness at the Edge of Town, Maddux was an avowed disciple of The Boss, and we dedicate the following to his memory.

 I can't sleep so I lay awake listenin' to the sounds of the city below
I get dressed and walk the streets but I got nowhere to go
Tonight it's you I miss
Bruce Springsteen, “Someday”

“Hey, Maddux. Promise me this: Teach them as well as you taught us.”

It was a cheesy line and I knew it when I said it and I knew he would call me on it. The “them” I was referring to were the high school students out West who had no clue of the force of nature they were about to experience: a motorcycle-driving, leather jacketed John Belushi doppelganger with the late Blues Brother’s similar kind of dangerous energy and devastating comic timing. “Us” was the core of his first generation of student minds he molded and trained to interpret the confusing and perilous imagery of adolescence and transfer it into the language of film and video.

Chris had done his job with us and he was moving on. His wife, dog and worldly possessions were all packed into his big blue van parked in front of his just-sold house, about to begin the long drive from Southeastern Wisconsin to the Utah badlands, where he would eventually settle in Park City. It was Fall 1987, and by that time, a rather obscure film festival called Sundance was spending its sixth year in Park City. In two years, the festival would be put on the map with sex, lies and videotape, written by a 24-year-old former music video director named Steven Soderbergh. When Soderbergh’s film became the breakout hit of 1989, winning the Palm D’Or at Cannes and anointing its creator the youngest director to ever do so, it ushered in what Roger Ebert would later call “the Sundance Generation”: Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarmusch, Lizzie Borden, Charles Burnett, Todd Haynes, Jenni Livingston, Julie Dash, Hal Hartley, Tom Kalin, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, Victor Nuňez, Leslie Harris, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, David O. Russell, Steve James, Terry Zwigoff, Quentin Tarantino, Pamela Yates, Ed Burns, James Wan, Darren Aronofsky, Tom DiCillo, Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Solondz, Mary Harron, Neil LaBute. And that’s just the short list.

All of these directors had one thing in common: they made gritty and personal films that borrowed from Hollywood film language while at the same time subverting them. I followed the careers of most of the above listed and the auteurs who inspired them because of the teachings and passions that Chris both installed and stoked. He was a proudly blue-collar wild child of the 1960s who managed the Film and Video Department (then anonymously lumped under the rubric “Communications”) at The Prairie School, a prestigious private college prep institution in the tony community of Windpoint. He did this between 1981 and 1987, and he created his own irreverent world within the walls of an institution built by Frank Lloyd Wright and Associates to educate children of Johnson’s Wax executives. About a half a mile to the north was the verdant orchard housing Wingspread, another Wright-designed astral plane that was once the home of JW magnate Herbert Johnson and his family. A mile east of that was the Mediterranean-style villa of the late heir Sam Johnson, complete with priceless view of Lake Michigan and helicopter pad.

You remember the faces, the places, the names
You know it's never over
It's relentless as the rain
Bruce Springsteen, “Adam Raised A Cain”

The Prairie School itself was an elaborate Wrightian vision of red-brick whorls and circles, laid out like a giant Danish roll that had been slightly dissembled, with swooping round semi-lit hallways and wooden lockers with no locks. Christopher Maddux ran the “Comm” Department from a studio nestled secretly and strategically behind the school’s Performing Arts Theater. The space resembled a public access studio or soundstage from the early days of television. It had grey cinder-block walls covered by sheets of grim black curtains on metal rails. From the high ceiling hung a dense forest of parallipshere, ellipsoidal and scoop lights. There were two TV cameras hooked up to a primitive switching machine located in the “booth,” in which where sat TV screens and at least two giant WW II surplus ¾ inch editing machines.

The Boss, mid-1980s

When I first came to Prairie School in the winter of 1983, Chris would hold court early in the mornings before class from behind his small desk jammed next to a ratty, puke-green wooden loveseat. Here his students would assemble like clockwork, the invite always open yet unspoken. At least six or seven languid teenaged bodies would be prostrated around his desk like a pimpled shrine, Calculus or Earth Sciences books open, corn nuts spilled on floor, paper footballs whizzing back and forth. Chris juggled the phone like Harvey Weinstein, his lesson plans and the honorary morning donuts respectfully presented to him au gratis, all the while keeping up a constant spatter of jokes, digs, insults, hard-won praises, bon mots and hilarious recollections from his past—the darker and more twisted the better. I am thinking in particular of the one he told of accidentally using his wife’s toothbrush that morning—“It tasted all oniony,” was his horrified review as we howled and covered our faces with our books. Then Chris would flip the ever-present blue football up in the air and whip it at us.

The atmosphere in that cramped box before the institutional drudgery of the Ordinary School Day began was something I have prized every day of my life for nearly three decades. It was essentially a morning radio show with no microphones (those were packed away in little leather purses in the studio). Call it “Mad Man Maddux and His Morning Gross-Out Zoo,” where the invective and opinions and put-downs and juvenalia flew so fast and furious – like the tennis balls in the studio “gladiator” matches or the paper clips during the dreaded “Vietnam Experience”* – that one had to develop a thick skin and a fast witty tongue in order to stay afloat. Some couldn’t keep up—I often couldn’t. Chris’s very presence was pure physicality – he was lighter than both Belushis and twice as graceful when he wanted to be, even when picking me up, hefting me over his shoulder and shaking me like a rag doll – but I always admired his verbal abilities. He was quicker than an eyeblink with his words and he could be merciless on people he did not respect (mostly, phonies and their flunkies). It was like walking into the writer’s room of Saturday Night Live during the early days and finding oneself in the best comedy fighting force ever assembled. To be given an exclusive invitation to one of Chris’ epic road trips down to Swiderski Electronic Repair in suburban Chicago was like being given an invitation to one of Lorne Michael’s “White Parties.” On one of these excursions, I only remember laughing so hard I cried, hiccupped, peed, hallucinated.
*On a bet, if anyone dropped the blue football, the dropper would have to crawl underneath all six rows of heavy typewriting desks with a tight wooden hanger clamped on his skull while the other players shot paperclips at them from strategic locations. Every bit as fun as it sounds.

What Chris assembled at Prairie from the unmolded clay of “Us” was a fighting force of nerd-os and twitchy misfits that handled Audio/Visual duties of the school, the Sound and Lighting at Theatrical Events and occasionally were dispatched throughout the city and its environs as guerilla filmmakers, dragging the school’s one remote camera in its hernia-popping grey case into fields and basements and the front rooms of our parents’ homes. Thanks to Chris, we became snobby film artistes before many of us could legally drive. He showed us Cabaret and Koyanisquatsi. He stood in front of us and told us: “You are the cream of the crop.” (I saw he wrote this in his lesson plan, with at least ten exclamation points added to it.) He taught us the vernacular of people like Spielberg and Kubrick and as a result I remember watching every film during that period with heightened sensitivities: “Dude, look at that great tracking shot!” “Wow, that deep focus Welles is using is amazing!” “Who edited this? Some Dede Allen wannabe?”

"It will always be Maddux's room. ALWAYS."

You can probably guess by now that Chris Maddux wasn’t your normal private-school teacher. He was a Thief in the Temple. He knew we were privileged sons of Windpoint and he set out to remind us of the way the world works and how much of that has nothing to do with the bank account you are born from. We got full of ourselves and procrastinated or compromised our visions and Chris would crack the whip on us. (I remember him dictating to me my own Semester Progess Report: ‘Dear Mrs. Duersten: Here’s why I’m a knob and didn’t finish my Communications Project…’) He also knew we were hurting terribly from our various teenage dramas, most of them involving disintegrating families and lack of father figures – from death or living absence – that were as endemic to our generation as they were to his. He walked the line between tough love and true affection masterfully. He was the living rebuke to that old adage that in order to be an effective educator, you can’t be a buddy to your students. Chris proved that wrong the moment he stepped up to his first podium.

Yeah, on the other side of the street
Yeah, you've got the look as if you own the world
Bruce Springsteen, “Wrong Side of the Street"

How on earth did he get away with it? He could speak our language and then spin around on one foot and talk the talk of school administration passionately and convincingly. In essence, here was a rock and roll kid from neighboring Kenosha who had turned himself away from the fate of most rock and roll kids from Kenosha. We met some of them one night when we were working late in the studio. Maddux invited some old friends in to show them a video we had all wrote, scripted, storyboarded, lit, filmed and edited together. They were rough biker types, some wearing Army jackets and others in bandannas and handlebar moustaches. Chris stood out among them like an alien from suburbia— yet they coalesced around him the way his students did. We realized later a lot of them were Vietnam vets, and that explained the guarded look in their eyes. That explained the Harley-Davidson and leather jacket Chris drove/wore to school some mornings. That explained the Springsteen on the studio hi-fi he blasted and sang along with in comic operatic style: “ohhh-whoooaaa-whooooahhha thuunderr roooad, OHHHH THUNDEEER ROOOADDDDD….”

I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that could save me
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it may raise me
Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”

We were as fiercely protective of him as he was us; we clamored around his ankles like hormonal, eager-to-please puppies. He kept us safe from the deadening bureaucracy of private school life and let us run our freak flag up a pole every time we turned on a camera. I remember discerning when the powers that be (such as they were) in the school administration were becoming worriedly aware of the tight-knit group “Mr. Maddux” (we never called him “Chris”—at least not in the early days) had developed. I was sitting in a school official’s office and he was asking me of my plans for my senior year. I told him I wanted to pursue my studies in Advanced Communications. “Oh well now,” the offical clucked dismissively, “I’m sure Mr. Maddux wants some new blood in there, Matt. Maybe you should shift your focus towards blahblahblah…”  (He didn’t really say “blahblahblah” but that’s what I heard after he said what he just said.) I went to Chris and he nearly blew his stack. He assured me that nothing could be further from the truth. He told me he had made an investment in me—in all of us—and then went on to say a few things about the school official of which no polite ears should ever have to bear the repeating. He knew we weren’t all going to grow up to be filmmakers or screenwriters or MTV video directors and we knew it too; it was the investment of the soul he was speaking of, not the tools it would eventually control. Chris went that deep and could do it in a millisecond.

So when I said that cheesy, Hallmark-movie-of-the-week thing to him in the driveway—“Make me a promise” or something like that, lost to time—I realized I finally got him. He paused—no, actually, he froze in his tracks and looked at me. The bravado and imposture was gone and the man was there in the dark eyes, looking like he was about to seriously lose it. But he didn’t. He got in his van and lit out for Utah, where he would go on to perfect his educating and political talents for a new generation of nerd-os and twitchy misfits at the Park City High School. He would even found his own film festival in Park City, a quintessential Madduxian retort to the hyperactive-hyper-hype of Sundance. I smiled when I found this out. The thief was in the temple again.

He never promised me anything, by the way. He didn’t have to.

And baby there's time
Time enough to cry
With all our sad stories
And all the bad that we've done
And all the times
We've rode on for glory
Bruce Springsteen, “Spanish Eyes”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sunday, May 1, 2011


 You must pay for everything in this world,
one way and another.
There is nothing free except the grace of God.
Mattie Ross, True Grit