1º – Julien Temple, The Filth and The Fury (Fine Line Features, available at VisArt)
This documentary of the Sex Pistols, released on video after a brief run in the theaters, seeks to redress the seminal punk group’s troubled relationship with its manager, Malcolm McLaren, who told his cruelly entertaining side of the story in a previous (and infamous) documentary, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Temple recasts the Pistols as socially engaged artists rooted in the history of 1970s economically depressed Britain (garbage strikes, the dole, pompously out-of-touch hippies, etc.) rather than the sick joke of a prefabricated boy-band designed solely to cause a spectacle and a stir. What’s most interesting in this spat is that beneath the oversized egos and scores to settle lurk some unanswered questions, most of all about a concept that proved a touchstone for punk: anarchy. If “Anarchy in the U.K.” was the goal, what was anarchy exactly?
Manager McLaren seems to have viewed anarchy as sheer style and surface, a foolishly utopian pursuit worth a few good gags along the way to inevitable unattainability: Barnum’s circus headed down the road to another scandalous suckering of the masses. Guitarist Steve Jones seems to have viewed it simply as a world in which his dick got sucked continually. Bassist Sid Vicious viewed it as a death wish expressed through infantile nihilism, ending in a self-immolating, immortalizing blaze of glory (though he wound up, of course, going out in an addict’s pool of dribble). And lead singer Johnny Rotten, bless his spiky-haired soul, seems to have viewed it as a world in which true individualism and liberty might triumph and the false chains of the world might at last be blown away.
What emerges at the end of The Filth and the Fury, with Rotten–defeated by McLaren’s fiendish managerial manipulation–repeatedly caterwauling “No Fun!” as he sinks into the stage during the group’s final concert in San Francisco, is that the dream of anarchy and what it offered–anarchy as chaos, anarchy as camp, anarchy as libidinous paradise, anarchy as social and artistic liberation–is what drove the cultural juggernaut that was the Sex Pistols, from whatever angle the story gets told. Fascination with the Sex Pistols is fascination with anarchy; Temple’s The Filth and the Fury seeks to cleanse the tale somewhat, but the dirty secret remains.2º – Guided By Voices, Live at the Cat’s Cradle, May 18
Guided by Voices has always been just that, if you mean the voice of lead-singer Robert Pollard, shaped by his prophetic vision (suspicion?) of the redemption at the core of rock’s path of silly sin. Pollard has always seemed acutely aware that hard upon the heels of rock ‘n’ roll faith came rock ‘n’ roll doubt, e.g. first there was skinny Elvis, but soon there was fat Elvis; first the Beatles, then Wings; first there was The Who hoping to die before they got old, then a series of never-ending farewell tours, and so on.
Pollard and his band’s brilliance is in blasting through to the faith via the doubt. His band camps it up in order to get it down. His beer gut yields to leg kicks. His microphone twirls on its wire with just the right mixture of satire and sincerity. He claps his hands and shimmies his hips as he stares out over the audience at some imaginary rock ‘n’ roll oasis on the horizon. He sings of never growing old, of the teenage FBI. He lambastes an audience member who claims the band should change their name to “Guided by Lost-It,” explaining he’s ready to kick that guy’s ass after the show. His guitarist and bassist start kissing each other as they wheel and dive through crunching riffs worthy of AC/DC. The band gets progressively drunker; salvation is just around the bend of the next power chord, the next anthemic chorus. And at the same time, it’s all a joke, a farce, a charade. Rock ‘n’ roll faith and rock ‘n’ roll doubt condensed into one ball of energy catapulted forth in a rapturous, transcendent din of jive.3º – Utah Phillips, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, Loafer’s Glory, Making Speech Free (Righteous Babe Records, Red House Records, IWW Records, all available from No Guff Records, P.O. Box 1235, Nevada City, CA 95959)
“Anarchy isn’t a noun, it’s an adjective,” Utah Phillips relays from his mentor, the Catholic pacifist anarchist Ammon Hennacy. “Anarchy is an attitude, it’s not a program, it’s not a revolution, it’s not a set of principles that you subscribe to.” Here we seem to have arrived at an anarchy a far cry from the Sex Pistols electrified roar–it fact, it’s the faraway cry of a freight train whistling across the great American frontier of the imagination. Bruce “Utah” Phillips, the “golden voice of the Southwest,” his beard now fully grey, regales listeners with tales, stories, corny jokes and songs he picked up from those he calls the elders, by which he means the radicals, Wobblies and union organizers that existed at the turn of the century, as well as the hoboes, tramps and bums he bumped into while riding the rails during the last days of the great era of the railroad.
The anarchy Phillips communicates is something utterly different from the Sex Pistols’–it’s peaceful and voluntary. While the Sex Pistols demanded attention, Phillips’ anarchy is concerned with the daily struggle against domination and violence, even the violence within. Phillips’s songs and stories generate a sense of space, of alternatives hidden in the fringes, on the edges, while the Sex Pistols drove their roaring sound straight into a brick wall. Phillips’s anarchy is a tad folksy, corny and nostalgic, but let’s face it, so are the Sex Pistols now.
But more to the point, Utah Phillips’ world of songs and stories contain something else alongside their rustic quaintness: a tough and tender something; a romanticized yet fierce something. It’s a world comprised of, on the one hand, hard-nosed working-class radicals driven by purpose, and on the other, dreamers and drifters of the “traveling nation.” Somewhere in that range is a home, a place that the Sex Pistols sought too.4º – Joe Gould’s Secret (USA Films, available at VisArt)
This brilliant rendering of Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker articles about the famous bohemian Joe Gould marks one of those few instances when a film is as good as the writing that inspired it. Among many artful scenes in this tale of two writers from different worlds who turn out to be doppelgangers is an homage to the famous “mirror scene” in Duck Soup. We get Joe and Joe (Mitchell and Gould), the aristocratic, tight-lipped North Carolinian essayist and the depraved, exhibitionist New York poet, dancing around a full-breasted statue in an art gallery, twins dancing around each other at the nipple of creation until they mix up their hats–one neat, the other tattered. It’s a subtle ode to the Marx Brothers, indicative of the quiet brilliance of the film as a whole.5º – Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, Gem&;252se (Iftaf Records, available from Extraplatte, www.extraplatte at/homepage)
At last, true anarchy. This group from Austria performs on … vegetables. That’s right, vegetables: the cuco-phone, the lotus-flute, the rhubarb-harp, the melon-drums. It’s a truly disturbing sound on disc, the sound of a kind of voluntarily organized food fight, which may be the true sound of anarchy. Shrill cries and gutteral yuks, cacophonous squeals and long, low hums. Harmonious choruses and dissonant “freejazzcore” improvisations, classical compositions and ambient atmospherics. But the best part is that in concert, the band supposedly chops and cooks up its instruments for an after-concert meal, answering once and for all the question of art’s practical usefulness for both anarchic liberation and human sustenance.