Blair's Blog


Hearing about the death of Rick James earlier this month got me digging through boxes in the cluttered storage room off my dilapidated garage, looking for the yellowing magazine that contained the write-up of my lone interview with the funk superstar. Found it! Rock & Soul magazine, July 1982. Rick, in his full braided glory, looking sultry as the headline proclaims: “Rick James His Raunchiest Interview Ever!” I do recall the magazine’s editor telling me he wanted to put in every F-word I could jam into the piece and fortunately Rick complied.

Perhaps foreshadowing my employment at Mix a year-and-a-half later, the opening of the article is a recording studio:

“At the Record Plant studio in Sausalito, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Rick James and the Stone City Band are busy recording overdubs. A bottle of scotch is making the rounds in the control room and the smell of good reefer is thick in the air and James repeats a funky groove on an Oberheim synthesizer again and again…”

What I didn’t write in the article is that on top of the console was literally the largest pile of cocaine I ever saw in my life—we’re talking Scarface large. Somewhere in the unwritten bylaws of rock journalism at the time there was the generally agreed upon notion that you didn’t write about cocaine. But it was everywhere: studios, record company offices, parties. I remember hearing a (perhaps apocryphal) story that one major record label listed cocaine expenses on its tax forms as “gardening supplies.” It was quite an era to be a nose! Jokes aside, many careers (including some leading producers and engineers) were destroyed by cocaine. Bank accounts were emptied by cocaine. A lot of people devoted a lot of time to some really bad ideas conceived on cocaine.

Rick James might have been high as a kite when I arrived for my interview with him, but he still impressed me as an extremely thoughtful and articulate guy; he was truly one of the brighter cats I’ve interviewed. He was coming off the multi-Platinum success of Street Songs (which contained the smash “Superfreak”) and recording the follow-up, Throwin’ Down. He seemed quite conscious of the fact that “Rick James” was a character; he was still James Johnson, the eccentric kid from Buffalo who’d once played in a Toronto band with Neil Young. Even with that pile of Peruvian nose candy in rolled-up-dollar’s reach, he seemed to understand that the whole fame game could be fleeting. Still, he believed he’d already passed through the rough waters:

“I started believing all the shit that was being written about me, about how great I was, how I was this bad cat. For a while, I guess James Johnson got lost and I became Rick James. I was F---d up on drugs all the time; bitches were hassling me. It all came too fast…I hade to decide whether I was going to take this business seriously or get the f--- out. I decided to get down and do it right.”

“Superfreak” brought James to a new audience that, for the first time, included many white fans:

“It’s a f----n’ disgrace that white AOR radio won’t play black records. You come to one of my shows and you’ll se white people dancin’ next to black people, rich whites next to poor blacks. You’ll see mothers and daughters, doctors and lawyers, teenyboppers, gangsters, pimps, whores, hippies and college students. All these different kinds of people come to my shows, yet white radio will not play my records. Where’s that at?

“If you’d had four black people up there singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ in 1964, you think they would’ve been as big as The Beatles? F--- no! Where’s Chuck Berry now? Sam & Dave were singing, ‘I’m a soul man.’ I work hard for what I got to get enough money for bread and butter. John Belushi and the f----n’ Blues Brothers come along, sound like shit singing the same song and it goes double-Platinum. Gimme a f----n’ break!

“I’ve seen too many shitty white bands makin’ all the dough while black artists have to struggle. We should be getting more of the pie.”

Of course, the Rick James saga is ultimately a sad one. Drugs messed him up, he blew his money, got involved with a lot of shady characters, did time in jail. The great comeback never quite materialized, though a lot of respect for his past glories did come his way the past couple of years. Comedian Dave Chappelle did a great Rick James; that’s worth something!

Here’s how the 1982 interview closed:

“To me, Rick James will have been nothing unless we last like Stevie Wonder or the Jacksons. Aside from the money, which is great, I want some respect. I want people to say, ‘He made good records for a long time.’

“The other thing I want is for success not to change me. I can handle it, man. I’ve been through the shit and the music’s better than ever. I haven’t changed though. I’m still the crazy motherf---- I always was.”

Well, you can’t always get what you want. Rest in peace, you crazy mutha!

If it were up to me and I had a totally free life, I’d probably go to the movies four or five nights a week. I’ve always loved that immersive experience; TV/DVDs don’t even come close. And theaters have gotten better in recent years—I applaud the rise of stadium seating and the greatly improved audio (and less intertheater bleed) in most newer multiscreen complexes. I always have a long list of films I want to see, but the reality of my life is I don’t get out that often; po’ po’ pitiful me. So to see three movies in three nights, as I did last week (okay, one was on DVD—not that easily managed with a teen and a ’tween at home), was quite a treat. Two are current blockbusters I saw in packed shopping mall cinemas: The Manchurian Candidate and The Bourne Supremacy. The DVD was Cold Mountain, which I’d missed in the theaters for some reason and now regret that I didn’t see on the big screen. I enjoyed all three tremendously for different reasons. But one thing they shared was imaginative audio, though the role that effects and music play in each is completely different. (It’s become a something of a joke in my family that I never leave the theater until I read the sound credits, usually around the seventh minute and third song of the credit scroll. By then, it’s usually just me and three other people in the theater, and one of them is only there because he lost something under his seat.)

The Manchurian Candidate was one of the most interesting sound jobs I’ve heard in a long, long time; indeed, the strange, even hallucinogenic sound mix is an essential component of the movie’s power. There’s barely a moment in the film when there aren’t multiple audio sources playing at once: radios, TVs, conversations, odd noises of unknown origin and purpose—it all adds to the confusion of the main characters in the film and to our understanding of what those characters are going through. Director Jonathan Demme can always be counted on for an interesting soundtrack, whether it’s a straightforward concert movie like the Talking Heads’ magnificent Stop Making Sense or an eerie thriller like Silence of the Lambs. The Manchurian Candidate has an edgy, grainy documentary style in much of it, as if a camera just happens to be there capturing the action, and the audio track also has that almost haphazard feel to it. Of course, its genius is that neither picture nor audio is accidental; it’s beautifully edited and mixed, respectively. In a film where memories are hazy, reality is completely surreal and dreams even more vivid than waking life, Demme keeps the viewer uncomfortable and off-kilter every second, while still advancing a coherent narrative—a nice feat.

Veteran New York re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman, who was instrumental in the ultimate design of the soundtrack, notes that director Demme “is always very conscious of sound and how it can work, especially music. In this case, I think he was really interested in trying to get inside the [Denzel Washington] character’s head using the soundtrack—this cacophony of the schizophrenic insanity that was growing in his head as the film progresses—various effects that are used and all the news reports that sort of drift in and out; we spent a lot of time on that. And also there’s a lot of things that [score composer] Rachel Portman did that don’t sound like score per se that are used more like effects—great low tones on the cello and things like that.”

Look for more on The Manchurian Candidate in the October issue of Mix. In the meantime, try to see this one on the big screen to get the full impact of the trippy surround mix.

The Civil War drama Cold Mountain is a century-and-a-half and a million film miles from The Manchurian Candidate. If the latter film uses its soundtrack to emphasize and even create confusion and a sort of psychic claustrophobia, the former is all about wide open spaces, the poetry of deeply felt passion and the music of the human heart. As directed by Anthony Minghella, with both film editing and sound design by the great Walter Murch, the film is beautifully lyrical and graceful—even as it depicts some absolutely heinous and despicable behavior. It’s obvious from the outset that Minghella is striving to tell a love story with nearly mythic overtones, so it’s no surprise that his colors feel saturated and that the minimal effects track still a rough-hewn richness that’s a bit juiced or hyperreal.

This is a film in which music is an integral part of the story and the thread that stitches scenes together. Ada Moore (Nicole Kidman’s character) plays piano divinely and uses it both as a social tool and as a self-healing balm; when she sells her instrument, we understand what a blow this is. Stobrod Thewes (Brendan Gleeson), the father of the Rene Zellwegger’s character, Ruby, is also a musician, a fiddler in an itinerant trio that figures importantly in the story. He wasn’t the greatest father to Ruby, he hasn’t been in her life for years, and when he returns, she is still angry with him. But there’s a great moment where he explains to her that he’s a changed man and it’s in part because all these amazing tunes have miraculously come out of his fiddle—it’s almost like a magic fiddle has saved him from his baser inclinations. He and his musical partners (including Jack White, of White Stripes fame, as Georgia) do pick some tunes that give a nice sense of time and place to the movie and also show how music binds characters together—even the bad guys know the words to one old tune Stobrod sings by a snowy camp fire. The soundtrack mixes old-time tunes from the Civil War era (“Wayfaring Stranger,” et al) with newly written songs by the film’s music producer, T Bone Burnett (and various mates of his, including Sting and Elvis Costello), that sound like ageless mountain tunes. Then, on top of that there is a more conventional, but no less appropriate, Oscar-nominated score by Gabriel Yared, combining symphonic elements with traditional folk inspirations. All in all, it’s a very effective melding of musical styles. And though I found Sting’s “You Will Be My Ain True Love” a little dark and dour when I heard it on the Academy Awards telecast last February, now that I’ve seen the film and heard the variety of music in it, I think I’ll go out and pick up the soundtrack.

The Bourne Supremacy, even more than its predecessor, The Bourne Identity, is a thrill ride, pure and simple. There’s not much story, the characters are kind of sketchy—though compelling—and the fun is in the almost nonstop action sequences so expertly crafted by director Paul Greengrass and film editors Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse. If handheld camera work and quick edits make you queasy, this is not a film for you. The SFX track is loud and assaultive: Every crash and crunch and punch and tire squeal feels like it’s turned up to 11, yet it works because the pace of the editing is so amped, the sound had to match. Oscar-winning sound supervisor Per Halberg led the effects team.

With so much motion in the editing and volume in the effects, it is the propulsive music of composer John Powell (who scored the first film, too, as well as The Italian Job, Evolution and various other films) that holds many scenes together and gives the film some shape and flow. Sometimes, it’s minute after minute of percussion-driven improvisations that carry a scene; other times, there might be some sort of drone that pulls action along or some electronic touches that liven up the soundtrack. It’s all very modern, primal and neatly integrated into the film.

I called up one of Bourne’s re-recording mixers, Bob Beemer (profiled in the June 2004 Mix, following his work on The Passion of the Christ), and he agreed that the Powell score was particularly important to the film’s effectiveness. He also noted that during the early stages of the film, there was an uncharacteristic dearth of ideas about what the temp music (pulled from existing sources before the composer is brought in to score the film) should sound like. “Emotionally in this film,” Beemer says, “the glue is the music, and about half-way through the preview process, [the director and producers] decided they wanted John to go for the relentless nuclear percussion music thing and he really came through—I thought it ended up being really effective. But also, if you listen closely, you’ll notice that the music is always changing and interesting, even when it seems like it’s just rhythmic drums. Actually, there are different orchestrations coming in; it’s really beautiful. It varies enough so that it’s not like a loop. Also, it allows for sound effects to play through. I think it’s one of the best sound jobs I’ve worked on.”

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