Rock Docs as liturgy: Big Star and Drive-By Truckers

rockdocIn the new Big Star documentary, “Nothing Can Hurt Me,” one of the rock era’s least-known-but-most-influential combos comes with a loser’s tale like no other. A tuneful-but-rocking Memphis band featuring local star Alex Chilton (known internationally for his teenage work with the Box Tops, particularly his lead vocal on “The Letter”) works hard, makes beautiful records, gets head-spinning raves from virtually every important critic in the USA and still flops, badly. Both of the songwriters/visionaries in the band are what you might call less than 100 percent stable, but the real damage comes from the music industry. Record labels go bankrupt. Distribution warehouses are padlocked just as the band’s album is ready to ship. Call them Bad Star and you’ll get the picture. The universe was aligned against them. And never wasn’t.

The film, has great music and some truly fascinating stories to tell — particularly a strangely compelling digression about Memphis’s art-freak community, which deserves its own film. Certain terrain, e.g. the bits that might wound the memories of surviving family members, seem underplayed but that’s a smallish beef. The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.

Check out the trailer:

The Drive-By Truckers documentary “The Secret to a Happy Ending” has been around for a couple of years but I don’t think it ever played here in Portland and I certainly didn’t know about it until a random Google search uncovered it last Friday night. I rented it from iTunes and stayed up watching until 1:35 am or so, then spent the rest of the night dreaming of stock cars, beer and industrial damage. “You’ll come for the golf, but you’ll stay for the cancer!” then-DBT member Jason Isbell (chunky, baby-faced, sweet-natured and increasingly bleary-eyed and stumbling as time passes) jokes of the band’s north Alabama homelands.

The film is full of such vivid details, and includes more than enough concert footage to portray the band’s powerful-yet-intricate three guitar attack and the emotional/intellectual complexity of  their Faulkner-esque stories. Tales of incest and Biblical tornadoes; of family feuds and race car drivers, of indulgence, sin, sacrifice and the sacred bond of kin. “The duality of the Southern thing,” as co-founder and Garcia-like figure Patterson Hood described it in song. There’s plenty of love on the screen. For all the group’s good ol’ drinking and partying (that witnesses admit to never, ever telling anyone about in detail) they’re also smart and thoughtful artists whose best work — “Southern Rock Opera,” a 2-disc concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd and the modern south, “Decoration Day” and “The Dirty South” — presents a distinctly new take on the south’s various historical legacies. And this is where the movie falls a bit short. Rather than dig into the origins and deeper meanings in the band’s strikingly original voice, we hear far more about the joys and pains of the road and their fans’ wild-eyed devotion to the group. Typical rock stuff, in other words, which misses the core of the DBT’s animating spirit.

That said, the concert sequences are exquisitely shot, the performances live up to the hype and any two hours spent in the company of a man as sweet and joyous as Patterson Hood is time well spent.


Song of the day, captured live: Jason Isbell’s “Flying Over Water”


Crunchy guitars, snap-tastic drums and an unforgettable melody. “Flying Over Water,” yet another highlight from Isbell’s brilliant Southeastern, which is basically all highlights, is easily the song of the summer for me. From the album of the year. Give it a spin.



Watch this now: Jason Isbell on Letterman


Still can’t get enough of Isbell’s breathtaking new album Southeastern, so what a treat to see him play one of the new tunes on David Letterman’s “Late Show” last night. This is “Stockholm,” a great yearning rocker: restless, aching, aglow with the morning light. “Once a wise man to the ways of the world/Now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl/Cross the ocean, a thousand years from my home/In this frozen old city of silver and stone…”

Jason Isbell’s ‘Elephant’ is the saddest, greatest love song of 2013


A guy and girl sitting at a bar. They’ve known each other for a long time but now something new is happening.

She said, ‘Andy, you’re takin’ me home/But I knew she planned to sleep alone/I’d carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor…”

Sense the darkness in that room, the small comfort of the solitary bed and the whisper of the bristles against the floorboards. You can hear it in the direct voice and the unresolved guitar chords, too. The inescapable fact of death coming closer.

“I’d sing her classic country songs/And she’d get high and sing along/But she ain’t got much voice to sing with now…”

Jason Isbell’s album Southeastern (buy it on his site, on iTunes or wherever you buy music) pulled me in about two songs into my first listen on Spotify, but “Elephant” was the song that made me stop what I was doing and turn it up. Something about the pain his voice and the lightly sketched details (e.g., ‘Seagrams in a coffee cup’) rippled my marrow. The elephant that walks alongside all of us. And, if we’re lucky, the loving presence that lights our way into the end.

“There’s one thing that’s real clear to me/No one dies with dignity/We just try to ignore the elephant somehow/Somehow/Somehow…”