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.


The Heavy Box – Mike Cooley on the duality of the American gun thing.

cooleyAnother guy dressed in quasi-military drag. Another blurry security photo of the shooter, stepping casually through the door, assault weapon in his fists. Thumbnail profiles of the victims; the hardworking father, the popular student. Turns out the shooter has a history of mental illness. And violence.

Mental illness, violence and easy access to automatic weapons and mammoth amounts of ammo.

Such is the duality of the American thing.

The best thing I’ve read on gun control recently, coming from the middle of American gun culture, can be found on the website for the great Southern band the  Drive-By Truckers.It’s written by guitarist/songwriter Mike Cooley, and says it all.

(I’m posting the entire piece here, which may not be cool in terms of copyright and ‘net etiquette, but it’s such a transcendent essay and hit me so hard I felt — imagined? — a kind of moral purpose to passing it around.)

There was this heavy box I carried around with me for years. I would pick it up, put it in the truck, haul it to the next place and that’s where it stayed until it was time to move again. It was full of small caliber handgun and rifle cartridges, and shotgun shells of various size and shot patterns. It wouldn’t be considered a stockpile by today’s standards, and I didn’t have any use for it then, but I inherited it and the guns that went with it from my father. So I would toss it into the pile with the rest of the baggage I wasn’t ready to part with and pretend I was moving on.

My Dad owned a store. Similar to a convenience store, but located in the rural community where we lived, so it still functioned like a traditional country store, complete with a set of regulars that stopped by almost every day to chat. And without cable tv (it’s still not available there), 24/7 news, and the internet still over 20 years away, country stores and good ole boys had a wireless bullshit delivery system nonetheless. And good old boys never talk long without talking about guns.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but every now and then my Dad would come home convinced something was about to happen with regard to guns and ammo that required “stocking up.” There were going to be limits on the number of boxes you could buy. The price was going to reach unaffordable levels. “They” were going to make it so that you couldn’t even buy guns any more or be able to use the ones you had. And this information was never reported in the news because “they” don’t want you to know it. That’s how that heavy assed box came to be, and would eventually come to me.

One night before I inherited all those bullets, I got shot at. They wouldn’t have done me any good since I was trespassing. I’m pretty sure firing shots at the owner of the property you’re trespassing on makes it worse. Anyway I was with a couple of friends and we were rolling this guys yard. His house was on a hill at the end of a long driveway with woods in between. We heard the door open and the lights came on and we ran through the woods toward the road. He fired 2 maybe 3 shots and I could hear the bullets going through the trees alongside us. I don’t know if he was actually trying to hit us,and I’m not even sure if he could see us, but he didn’t just fire in the air either. It had to be obvious we were running away even if it wasn’t obvious we were just kids pulling a prank.

On another evening I was home with my parents and some of my friends thought it would be funny to steal the hubcaps off my car. We heard a noise and my Dad could see someone moving around outside. He got his gun, threw open the door and yelled “I’ll blow your head off you son of a bitch”. One of my friends stood up from behind the car with his hands up saying “don’t shoot Mr Cooley it’s me”. My Dad was red and shaking all over from fear and embarrassment. He’d almost shot a kid pulling a prank.

The inability to defend ones home or even the thought of that level of helplessness brings to mind images that are frightening for anyone, and my father and the man who shot at me belonged to a class and generation of men that were especially motivated that very fear. Robbing a man of the ability to defend his home was the last degrading thing the world could do to him. A world that many of the men of my dad’s generation and class saw as having it in for them in the first place. And that was enough to make anything less than an armed response, a weak response.

I never told my Dad I got shot at pulling a prank, and the man who did it outlived him.

I got rid of that box of ammo. If I need to do some shooting, I can buy more. And there was never a time when I couldn’t.

— Cooley