Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Halloween Lobotomy Room 27 October 2017 DJ Set List

Made plans for Halloween already? Cancel ‘em! Come and rock around the graveyard instead when Lobotomy Room and Fontaine’s join forces for a FREE Halloween extravaganza on Friday 27 October!

Yes! Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll - when incredibly strange dance party Lobotomy Room returns to the Polynesian-style basement Bamboo Lounge of Dalston’s most unique nite spot Fontaine’s! And there’s going to be dry ice, skulls and special Halloween cocktails! Dress up or simply come as your own bad self!

Lobotomy Room! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! Sensual and depraved! A spectacle of decadence! Bad Music for Bad People! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Punk! Twisted Tittyshakers! White Trash Rockers! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and Other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs the Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell. Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock! With added spooky Halloween novelty kitsch (“Monster Mash!” “Goo Goo Muck!”).

Admission: gratuit - that’s French for FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier.

It’s sleazy. It’s grubby. It’s trashy - you’ll love it!

A tawdry good time guaranteed!

Lobotomy Room doing a Halloween club night in Fontaine’s Bamboo Lounge is a very grave occasion! Actually, when it comes to throwing a Halloween bash, I completely defer to the Gomez and Morticia of punk – The Cramps! Here’s Lux Interior (RIP) and Poison Ivy offering festive hosting tips to Details magazine in 1994.  These are words to live by from psychobilly’s royal couple. I totally adhere to their rule of “play music loud enough so that guests are forced to do anything but talk”. (In the past I’ve had a group of people storm out of the Bamboo Lounge in a huff because of the volume. One wailed, “Are you trying to give us a heart attack?!” And they were  faux punks and Goths in leather jackets! Good riddance!). I was hoping someone would order Ivy’s toxic Scarlet Sangria on Friday, but no one did! All of the ingredients were on hand!

Musically, I embraced the occasion by mainly sticking to campy atomic-era Halloween novelty tunes – a genre of music I love and crave for an excuse to play. I drew heavily on Ace Records’ These Ghoulish Things: Horror Hits for Halloween (2006) – the only Halloween novelty song compilation anyone really needs. Elsewhere, I melded-in even more of The Cramps' Gravest Hits than usual (de rigueur on Halloween), Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Screamin' Lord Sutch, not one but two tributes to ultimate coffin cutie Vampira (aka the late horror movie hostess portrayed by Maila Nurmi) and the theme tunes to both The Munsters and The Addams Family as well as the standard rockabilly, tittyshakers, surf punk and rhythm and blues. I strategically left the perennial Bobby “Boris” Pickett masterpiece “The Monster Mash” until late into the night when the dance floor was already full. Rest assured people went batshit!

/ Did someone say "Bat ..." /

For the adult viewing pleasure of the attendees, as a Halloween backdrop I projected Orgy of the Dead (1965) on a continuous loop. It's a deliriously terrible, irresistibly wonderful sexploitation-horror film straight from the twisted imagination of that noted exemplar of quality – Edward D Wood Jr! (It’s directed by Stephen C Apostolof from a script by Wood, but believe me – it feels like an Ed Wood production). Filmed in Gorgeous Astravison and Shocking Sexicolour, Orgy is essentially a “nudie cutie” flick featuring a bevy of big-haired topless go-go dancers frolicking and shakin’ it in a mist-shrouded, el cheap-o graveyard set (a location not dissimilar to the one in Wood’s earlier Plan 9 from Outer Space). Flamboyantly hammy psychic Criswell (one of Wood’s regulars) delivers some portentous speeches as The Emperor, who summons “Princess of the Night”, the raven-haired Black Ghoul (buxom starlet Fawn Silver in a role originally offered to Vampira. Silver’s beehive wig is sensational). The Wolf Man and The Mummy also crop up to leer at the naked women, but really the minimalist "narrative" takes second place to the boob-tastic gyrations of the ten strip-tease artistes. Orgy of the Dead is a true kitsch classick! Glancing up from the DJ booth and seeing the buxotic titty-shaking all night gave me life! (I bought my exquisite deluxe limited-edition Blu-Ray / DVD combo from VinegarSyndrome.com and I highly recommend them). 

Speaking of bargain basement gutter auteur Ed Wood Jr: the Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies film club has been going from strength to strength this year, with full houses virtually every month. For October 2017 we screened our first double-bill: Ed Wood (1994) / Glen or Glenda? (1953) – and it pretty much tanked! (Only an elite hardcore of people stayed for Glen or Glenda?). Regrettably, I have to add Wood to the pantheon alongside Pee-Wee Herman and Elvira of cult figures I personally venerate but who aren’t a “draw”, especially among younger people. (Having said that: I do have Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of The Monster on DVD so I inevitably will gamble on screening a Wood film again in the future).

Anyway, here's my Halloween 2017 set list:

Night of the Vampire - The Moontrekkers
Monster in Black Tights - Screaming Lord Sutch and The Savages
Mr Werewolf - The Kac-Ties
Dead Man's Stroll - The Revels
Bloodshot - The String Kings
Drac's Back - Billy De Marco & Count Dracula
Spooky - Lydia Lunch
High Wall - The Fabulous Wailers
I'd Rather Be Burned as a Witch - Eartha Kitt
It - The Regal-airs
The Whip - The Frantics
It's Monster Surfing Time - The Deadly Ones
Johnny Hit and Run Pauline - The Ramonetures
King Kong - Tarantula Ghoul
She's My Witch - The Earls of Suave
Strolling After Dark - The Shades
Two Headed Sex Change - The Cramps
Vampira - Bobby Bare
Nightmare Mash - Billy Lee Riley
The Voodoo Walk - Sonny Richard's Panics with Cindy and Misty
Goo Goo Muck - Ronnie Cook and The Gaylads
Graveyard Rock - Tarantula Ghoul
Dancing Girl - Bo Diddley
Feast of the Mau Mau - Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Scream - The 5,6,7,8s
Do the Zombie - The Symbols
The Munsters Theme - Milton DeLugg and Orchestra
The Way I Walk - The Cramps
Addams Family Theme - The Fiends
The Mummy - Bob McFadden
Monster Party - Bill Doggett
Anastasia - Bill Smith Combo
Strollin' Spooks - Ken Nordine and His Kinsmen
Sinner - Freddie and The Hitchhikers
Torture Rock - The Rockin' Belmarx
Vampira - The Misfits
The Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon - The Cramps
Bo Meets The Monster - Bo Diddley
Pedro Pistlolas Twist - Los Twisters
Monster Mash - Bobby Boris Pickett
Strychnine - The Sonics
Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Choice - The Monks
Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen
Shortnin' Bread - The Readymen
Batman - Link Wray and His Ray Men
Surfin' Bird - The Trashmen
Peter Gunn Twist - The Jesters
Suey - Jayne Mansfield
Viva Las Vegas - Nina Hagen
Atomic Bongos - Lydia Lunch
Margaya - The Fender Four
Wipe-Out - The Surfaris
Blitzkrieg Bop - The Ramonetures
Breathless - X
C'mon Everybody - Sid Vicious
Funnel of Love - Wanda Jackson
Wild, Wild Party - Charlie Feathers
Wiped-Out - The Escorts
Rock Around the Clock - The Sex Pistols
Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran
Surf Rat - The Rumblers
Year 1 - X
He's The One - Ike and Tina Turner
The Girl Can't Help It - Little Richard
Lucille - Masaaki Hirao
Jim Dandy - Ann-Margret
Bossa Nova Baby - Elvis Presley

Further reading:

Flashback to the 2016 Halloween Lobotomy Room

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Thursday, 26 October 2017

Reflections on ... Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specialising in the kitsch, the cult and the queer! And on Wednesday 20 September, we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Valley of the Dolls (1967)!

Before Mommie Dearest ... before Showgirls ... the original “What the hell were they thinking?” Bad Movie We Love was show business cautionary tale Valley of the Dolls. A perennial favourite of drag queens and a cult classic for connoisseurs of kitsch, the unintentionally hilarious and wildly entertaining 1967 film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s scandalous 1966 bestseller took the already lurid source material – and went even trashier with it! (An enraged Susann herself called the film “a piece of shit”!).

Throw on a bouffant wig, get yourself a stiff drink and strap yourselves in for a wild ride when Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies presents Valley of The Dolls! 

As usual: arrive circa 8 pm to order your drinks and grab the best seats downstairs in The Bamboo Lounge. (Seating is limited! First come, first serve!). The film starts at 8:30 pm prompt.

“Bitches in wigs!” Drag queen Jackie Beat

“You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls …” Barbara Parkins' spoken introduction to the film Valley of the Dolls (1967)

“Boobies. Boobies. Boobies. Nothin’ but boobies. Who needs ‘em?” Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls

“Adult books / I don't understand / Jackie Susann meant it that way …” from the 1981 song “Adult Books” by Los Angeles punk band X

/ Casualties of the glamour jungle: Valley of the Dolls covers the show business travails of our three heroines (left to right) Anne Wells (Barbara Perkins), Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) and Jennifer North (Sharon Tate, centre) /

Valley of the Dolls is a legendarily bad film with a terrible reputation. It is frequently categorised – albeit usually with affection – as a “bad film we love”, “so-bad it’s good” or “guilty pleasure.” But I’m ready to out myself: I’d genuinely rank Valley of the Dolls as one of my all-time favourite films. In fact, for me it’s as addictive as the fistfuls of “dolls” (pills) the film’s three main characters pop as casually as Tic Tacs.

Watching Valley of the Dolls lulls me into a trance of pure pleasure. The film unspools like a shimmering, hallucinatory pink fever dream. Like Mommie Dearest (1981) or Mahogany (1975), it’s an allegedly “bad movie” that is so wildly entertaining on every level, it collapses conventional distinctions between “bad” and “good”. The far more tasteful and respected 1952 talkathon All About Eve (1950), for example, covers much of the same “show-business-is-hell” thematic territory as Dolls (especially the bitchy antagonism between ageing veteran actress Helen Lawson and young upstart Neely O’Hara). Eve is heralded as a Golden Age Hollywood classic, but I’d argue the trashier Dolls is infinitely more enjoyable.

And it improves with repeated viewings. Dolls is a truly life-changing film! The insane dialogue was surely meant to be memorised and quoted. Along with the oeuvre of John Waters, I’d argue watching Dolls should be an essential rite of passage for all self-respecting queers. Sound-tracked by the haunting and ethereal Dionne Warwick theme tune (which you hear over and over and over again), the movie adaptation takes outrageous liberties with Jacqueline Susann’s sizzling original 1966 source novel. (If you haven’t read the book I highly recommend you do). Entire characters and subplots are excised – and the ending is radically changed. No wonder Susann hated the film! It’s not so much a faithful adaptation as a frantic summary of the book’s emotional climaxes as lurid bullet points. Think 123 spellbinding minutes of teased hair, bouffant wiglets, mood swings, mink coats, love affairs, emotional meltdowns, catfights, pill-popping, abortions, drug overdoses, nervous breakdowns, terminal illness, rehab, drunkenness, and slaps across the face.

Undistinguished hack director Mark Robson is usually blamed for the hypothetical flaws of Dolls (and he was reportedly nasty and bullying towards the lead actresses). But he’s also responsible for the film’s berserk, wildly lurching tone and the hammy performances (he apparently encouraged everyone to over-act) – so I am forever in his gratitude! It’s precisely his lack of judgement and control over the sensational material that makes Dolls so pleasurable. And to his credit, Robson shows some unusual, creative, and stylish flourishes too. When Neely recounts her hellish stint drying-out in a sanatorium to Anne and Lyon, the flashbacks are hazy and almost hallucinatory. And the glimpse of Jennifer’s subtitled French “nudie” art film is a viciously funny parody of almost every Brigitte Bardot film ever made (most overtly, Bardot’s nude sequence at beginning of Le Mepris).

/ He's just not that into you: that cad Lyon Burke and Anne Welles in Valley of the Dolls. Via /

Special mention must be given to Dolls’ several music numbers. Except for Anthony Scotti as Tony Polar, no one does their own singing - which really adds to the film’s artifice. (Speaking of artifice: when one character has her wig yanked off in a fight, she’s wearing another wig underneath!). Saturated in faux-Continental sophistication and Vegas lounge schmaltz, the middle-of-the-road quasi-show tunes belted by Neely, Helen and Tony are gloriously unmoored from the real-life youthquake pop culture of 1967. (Remember: this was the era of psychedelia, protest music, The Velvet Underground and Nico). This strange, campy ersatz “swinging” music (by Andre and Dory Previn) exists entirely in its own realm. Neely’s star-making performance of the perky “It’s Impossible” has an almost Eurovision vibe. (My favourite moment: when the strands of beads Neely is wearing around her neck miraculously suddenly loop perfectly around each boob like a bra. I love that this unintentionally hilarious shot was left in! It never fails to make me guffaw aloud). Fierce stage diva Helen working herself up into a frenzy squawking about planting her own tree (“my tree will not be just one in a row!”) is one of the great kitsch moments ever captured on celluloid. (Michael Musto has noted that Susan Hayward embraces the lip-synching so avidly that her mouth gapes open long after the final triumphant note she’s miming to has ended).

The chief pleasure of Dolls is the performances of its lead actresses. Susann’s novel had caused a sensation in ’66, so the film was a red-hot film property, every bit as hyped as Gone with the Wind had been in the 1930s. Just as with the hunt for Scarlett O’Hara, every happening young actress of the period was up for consideration for the main characters. It’s fun to imagine the various casting combinations that were proposed: Candace Bergen for Anne. (Susann herself wanted Mia Farrow). Natalie Wood or Ann-Margret as Neely (Susann would have preferred Barbra Streisand). Raquel Welch or Jane Fonda as Jennifer (Fonda was also considered for Neely. Susann’s own choice for Jennifer: Tina Louise – Ginger from Gilligan’s Island!). You can also throw Tuesday Weld, Liza Minnelli and Faye Dunaway into the mix. Meanwhile, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and even Lucillle Ball reportedly vied to play Helen before the part went to Judy Garland (and then Susan Hayward). Fun as it is to speculate how Dolls would have turned out with these alternative rosters of actresses, for me the final cast is perfection.

/ Barbara Parkins as Anne Welles: Good girl with all the bad breaks! /

As prim, long-suffering good girl Anne Welles, Barbara Parkins is superbly inexpressive and wooden with an immaculate frost-bitten lady-like demeanour. No matter what travails Susann’s plot throws at her, no matter how badly the callous Lyon Burke treats her, Anne’s face remains a rigidly-composed mask. Parkins - styled to evoke Jackie Kennedy -  also seems to occasionally slip into a patrician British accent. Her best line: “Neely, you’re being obnoxious!” Parkins’ performance is pretty terrible by most standards, but her lustrous bouffant mane is impeccable, and she stares out of train windows and suffers in mink beautifully. And her Gillian Girl hairspray advertisement is a mind-blowing camp extravaganza.

/ Sharon Tate as Jennifer North: Sex symbol turned on too often! /

The acting of Sharon Tate as doomed sex bomb Jennifer North is hesitant, remote, and uncertain in the fragile tradition of Kim Novak. Is Tate “good” or “bad” as Jennifer? Certainly, she imbues Jennifer with a dopey Marilyn Monroe-like child-woman vulnerability. Watching her, you’re reminded me of Pauline Kael’s review of Some Like It Hot: “Monroe gives perhaps her most characteristic performance, which means that she's both charming and embarrassing.” Tate has two undeniably great moments. When hip-swiveling smoothie nightclub singer Tony serenades her with the ballad “Come Love with Me” and they instantly fall in love, Tate does dewy-eyed, besotted wordless simpering better than any of the ingenues in an Elvis musical – and that includes Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra. (Susann originally modeled Tony on the old-school suave Brylcreemed likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra but as portrayed in the film, he’s a macho crotch-thrusting Vegas stud more in the tradition of Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck). And Tate is genuinely tragic in Jennifer’s suicide scene in that orange and brown hotel room, gulping down a fatal dose of pills while staring at herself in the mirror.

/ Above: "At night, all cats are grey ..." Lee Grant as Miriam. Via /

Honourable mention must go to Lee Grant in the supporting role of Jennifer’s scheming and secretive sister in law Miriam. Like her peer Shelley Winters, Grant is from the intense, nostril-flaring Method school of acting. And like Winters, Grant demonstrates no one hams it up quite like a Method Actor. It’s been noted that even when completely silent and standing completely still, Grant still manages to overact furiously in Dolls. Whether eavesdropping on conversations, hovering around corners, having tense telephone conversations with doctors, heating-up lasagna or just lounging at home alone in a bathrobe (while wearing a thick glossy chestnut wig and false eye-lashes), Grant approaches the role like she’s in a Greek tragedy. In her 2014 memoirs Grant admitted she underwent her first face lift when she was still in her thirties. Certainly, her face in Dolls is stretched as taut as a drum. Grant’s best moments: when she cryptically warns Tony, “How many times do I have to tell you? At night all cats are grey” as if imparting ancient mystical wisdom. (What does that even mean?). And - when Tony’s medical bills begin piling up - Miriam shamelessly pimps Jennifer to a high falutin’ French pornographer (I mean, film director) with, “You’ve posed undraped on the stage before.” Miriam would be Grant’s ultimate role until she played the drunk rich bitch slapped around by stewardess Brenda Vaccaro in Airport ’77. (I also love Grant’s brief, ghostly appearance in David Lynch’s 2001 tour de force Mulholland Drive).

Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson: A gut, fingernail, and claw fighter who went down swinging /

Judy Garland was initially cast as scary show business dragon woman Helen Lawson, but she was fired for drunkenness and clashing with the director. (Garland got revenge by swiping her Travilla costumes). Reliable pro Susan Hayward was drafted in to replace her at the last moment. While it’s a great cinematic “What if?” for Garland fans, I think the hard-boiled, tough-as-nails Hayward is majestic as unapologetic bitch Helen. Defiant and abrasive with a butch, rasping chain-smoker growl, Howard savours every barbed line. “The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's me, baby, remember?” she rages. “Neely hasn't got that hard core like me. She never learned to roll with the punches. And, believe me, in this business they come left, right and below the belt!” she gloats about her vanquished nemesis. “I'm a barracuda!” Howard snarls triumphantly, swilling champagne while wearing a green sequined caftan. Her Helen is a bitch goddess extraordinaire. And the fuss over Helen Lawson’s auburn wig is unfair: everyone in the film wears wigs and hairpieces throughout! In fact, in that infamous wig-tearing scene Neely’s own hair appears to be augmented with a wiglet. And the powder room attendant who comforts Helen is sporting an acrylic orange Ronald McDonald clown wig. (Seriously – check her out!). Wigs. Wigs. WIGS!

/ Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara: Nice kid turned lush /

Ultimately, though it’s Patty Duke who owns Valley of the Dolls as show business monster Neely O’Hara. Duke had won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar aged just 16 for playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (1962) and then starred between 1963-1966 in the pert ultra-kitsch Patty Duke Show on TV (as identical twin cousins!). At 20, Duke was perhaps understandably eager to jettison her teenybopper image. A meaty, challenging role like Neely must have looked like the perfect chance to prove herself as a serious dramatic adult actress. And boy did Duke seize the opportunity with both hands! She doesn't so much act as rampage through Dolls. The more pill-head Neely unravels, the more magnificent Duke is. Gritting her teeth, screaming her lines, flailing and thrashing, Duke’s portrayal of Neely is like one continuous whiplash mood swing or temper tantrum (or what John Waters would call a “glamour fit”).  I read someone somewhere describe Duke’s Neely as a “sequined terrorist”, which is totally accurate. This is a truly towering, unfettered wild display in the tradition of Ann-Margret in Kitten with a Whip (1964) or Tommy (1975), Diana Ross in Mahogany (1975) and Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981). At the time Duke’s performance was widely ridiculed. Even though Dolls was a commercial hit, there was speculation it would destroy her career. (Like Dunaway with Mommie Dearest, for years the mortified Duke refused to talk about Dolls. To her credit, towards the end of her life Duke embraced the film’s kitsch devotees). Today, her depiction of Neely O’Hara appears fearless and risky, nobly unafraid to appear foolish, pathetic, or desperate. Patty Duke died in 2016. I’d argue her crowning achievement was her incarnation of Neely O’Hara, destined to be continuously re-discovered by new generations of aficionados of "a lavender persuasion". Sparkle, Neely – sparkle!

Further reading and viewing:

There is a bonanza of documentaries about Valley of the Dolls on YouTube. Designing Valley of the Dolls emphasises designer William Travilla’s deluxe eye-popping costumes. (Travilla is best-remembered for his collaborations with Marilyn Monroe on eight of her films. His most famous creation is the white pleated halter-necked dress Monroe wears in The Seven Year Itch). It offers a goldmine of juicy gossip and insight. One fun factoid: $25,000 of the film’s budget was set aside for wigs and hairpieces. Sharon Tate was paid $35,000. Patty Duke was paid $75,000. Poor Barbara Parkins was paid just $20,000. More money was spent on wigs than one of the film’s leading ladies! That reveals so much about the filmmaker’s priorities! Designing also includes stills from deleted scenes. For example, that famous image of an anguished Neely reaching for the giant jar of red pills never actually appears in Dolls: that’s a hallucination scene from the sanatorium, cut from finished film. I’d love to see all these deleted scenes! If the scrapped footage still exists someone should compile them as a DVD extra. Or better yet, assemble a three-hour “director’s cut” with all the deleted scenes re-inserted!

/ Below: A prime example of Travilla's understated costumes in Dolls, as worn by Anne Welles in the Gillian Girl hairspray advertisement /

This documentary (below) offers an insanely entertaining, concise analysis of Dolls’ enduring cult status through the prism of a true queer eye. Contributors include Bruce Vilanch, Michael Musto, drag icon Jackie Beat – and Barbara Parkins (Anne Welles herself!). The present-day Parkins (who’s seemingly styled herself as Madonna circa 1984 with the crucifix and sheer lace) is a revelation: self-aware, perceptive, funny, hip and appreciative of Dolls’ camp reputation. The footage from Theatre-A-Go-Go's legendary low-budget Dolls stage production is hilarious. Surely this play is overdue for a revival? I'd be in the front row every night.

Read the essential Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For blog’s astute examination of Dolls here. The author Ken Anderson first saw Valley of the Dolls as an 11-year old at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Beat that!

Perhaps the oddest Dolls-related artefact is the 1968 tie-in album Patty Duke Sings Songs from The Valley of the Dolls and Other Selections. Duke’s singing abilities can charitably be described as modest, which didn’t prevent her from scoring a hit single in 1965 with the Lesley Gore-like teen ballad “Don’t Just Stand There” (on which her voice is wreathed in forgiving reverb and cooing backing vocalists).  The far more challenging material on Patty Duke Sings horribly exposes Duke as way out of her comfort zone. Whose idea was this? The makers of the film clearly recognised Duke wasn’t capable of singing Neely’s musical numbers (which is why she was dubbed). So why let Duke tackle this misbegotten record? Her pained renditions of “It’s Impossible” (certainly it’s impossible to sing!) and “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” (Duke doesn’t stick just to Neely O’Hara’s songs – she massacres other characters’ as well) are so bad they wind up being horribly compelling. See if you’re masochistic enough to endure the entire album!

/ If you can't manage the whole record, here is a sampler: "It's Impossible" delivered in own Duke's own strident tones. /

/ Bonus material: in the film Susan Hayward mouths along to Margaret Whiting's belting delivery of "I'll Plant My Own Tree". However, before she was fired Judy Garland recorded her own version. This clip syncs Howard's performance with Garland's voice in an intriguing hint of what might have been. Wow! /

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Sunday, 8 October 2017

Reflections on ... Tally Brown, New York (1979)

/ Tally Brown photographed by Francesco Scavullo in 1969 /
"... but the most magnificent, inimitable fräulein is the zaftig subject of Tally Brown, New York (1979) - a must-see for all those interested in performance and the cultural history of New York in the 70s. The bewigged Miss Brown, with false eyelashes capable of sending her short, round body aloft, is the most mesmerising raconteur and cabaret artist you’ll hear all year. Opening the film with her indelible cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Tally concludes with “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” performing that song’s line – “You’re not alone! / Give me your hands”—as a rallying cry far more rousing than several decades’ worth of tepid gay-rights chants."
Melissa Anderson reviewing Tally Brown, New York in The Village Voice in 2003

/ Tally Brown photographed by Francesco Scavullo in 1969 /

Watching Tally Brown, New York (1979), I couldn’t help but think: thank god, a filmmaker documented this remarkable, charismatic and completely original woman. And that it was someone as simpatico as queer New German cinema maverick Rosa von Praunheim.

Von Praunheim weaves a revealing portrait of chanteuse, actress, show business doyenne, bohemian earth mother and all-round diva Tally Brown (1934 – 1989), preserving both her riveting nightclub act and her personal offstage life. And good thing he did as Brown -  a vivid scene-maker in New York’s underground art subculture in the sixties and seventies - seems to have completely fallen through the cracks in the decades following her death. A Torch for Tally – the blues album she recorded in the fifties – is long forgotten. The Andy Warhol art movies she appeared in like Camp (1965) and Ari and Mario (1966) languish unseen in locked vaults at The Warhol Foundation (I managed to catch them when the British Film Institute held a comprehensive Warhol retrospective about ten years ago. Brown is magnetic in both). In 2017, Tally Brown barely seems to exist as a footnote.

/ Tally Brown photographed by Francesco Scavullo in 1969 /

The Barbican screened this ultra-rare documentary (in a grainy 16-millimetre print on loan from The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts) on 4 October as part of it’s The Grime and The Glamour:NYC 1976 – 1990 series devoted to “the wild days and night of New York’s coolest era”. As the title implies, von Praunheim positions flaming creature Brown - a native New Yorker - as the personification of her city’s decayed glamour. In atmospheric and beautifully degraded footage, we see seventies New York at its most gloriously scuzzy, grungy and decrepit: the porn cinemas and peepshows of Times Square, gay bathhouses, The Chelsea Hotel, neon signs, dive bars, dissolute nightclubs. And it all looks heavenly!

/ Tally Brown photographed by Billy Name in the sixties (almost certainly at Max's Kansas City). This shot is in Name's 1997 book All Tomorrow's Parties - the first time I ever heard of Tally Brown /

/ Lady sings the blues: Tally Brown in her youth /

Brown was a classically-trained (at Julliard) and adventurous singer with a disparate repertoire who regularly performed at venues like Reno Sweeney’s, SNAFU and gay bathhouse The Continental Baths. Onstage, we see Brown deliver jazz and blues standards (like “Goody Goody” and an intense, emotionally tormented version of Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny”) with commanding authority. But she also had a penchant for wittily and radically re-interpreting modern rock music like “Love in Vain” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones. She was especially partial to David Bowie. In the film we see her cover “Heroes” (she sings the final verses in Marlene Dietrich-like German), an eerie “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” Accompanied only by a pianist, Brown transforms the Bowie tracks into perverse torch songs. Call me a heretic but I’m no “rockist” or Bowie fan, so I prefer Brown’s slinky, dramatic, tortured and Eartha Kitt-like versions to the originals.

Brown moved in avant-garde circles and in von Praunheim’s film we encounter a pantheon of the era’s countercultural hip queer elite, including her friends Taylor Mead (his drooling village idiot antics are either enchantingly childlike or grating depending on your sensibility) and the effervescent, self-deprecating Holly Woodlawn. A silent Andy Warhol is briefly seen (but not interviewed). At one point No Wave “it girl” Anya Phillips performs an abject burlesque routine to a bar full of indifferent men. A glittering, turbaned Eartha Kitt is viewed carried aloft on the shoulders of a semi-naked African-American bodybuilder (she was then starring in the Broadway production of Timbuktu). For Divine fans the film offers a bonanza. We see him offstage with his own cropped greying hair, clad in a red kaftan and then onstage in full drag in a fragment of the 1978 stage production The Neon Woman. Post-show Brown “interviews” Divine backstage and jokes about regularly getting mistaken for him - and even signing autographs as him.

/ Above: Eartha Kitt as she appears in Tally Brown, New York (costumed for the musical Timbuktu) /

/ Divine and Tally Brown /

Divine (as Flash Storm) backstage during a performance of The Neon Woman at Hurrah in New York, 1978 /

/ Grace Jones and Tally Brown /

In an ideal world Brown would be revered as a LGBTQ icon. Certainly, she has qualities that should make her catnip for aficionados of camp. For one thing, Brown looks like an escapee from a John Waters film. Squint and she can resemble both Divine and Edith Massey. Her highly individual and distinctive appearance is extreme and drag queen-like. She favoured white powder, heavy black eye shadow, false eyelashes as thick as tarantulas and huge, ratty bouffant wigs. (Judging by the film, she also chain-smoked like a demon).  Brown’s plump feline face can evoke both Kewpie doll or Kabuki mask.

/ Tally Brown in the underground film Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers (1972) /

And she was zaftig. Or Rubenesqe. Hell, the rotund Brown was frankly and defiantly fat and owned it. Von Praunheim shows her visiting a much-younger artist ex-lover who lives in The Chelsea Hotel. Asked what attracted him to Brown, he explains it was her sensuality and confidence about her size, likening her to “a fertility goddess … like the Venus of Willendorf.” Unfortunately, by the time von Praunheim made this film, Brown’s body was a ruined temple. Following an accident that shattered her knee, she relied on a cane and lived with a degree of immobility and pain.

Tally Brown, New York is most enthralling when von Praunheim simply follows Brown wandering around her local neighbourhood as she shields her vampiric pallor with a pink parasol, just like Vampira or Lily Munster. Or visiting her elderly mother in Florida (which Brown dismisses as “a geriatric ghetto”). The Floridian sunbathing seniors in pastel-coloured leisurewear stare aghast as Brown passes by. During these segments, accomplished raconteur Brown extemporises on the soundtrack about the vagaries of life on fringes of show business (she speaks with maternal tenderness about fallen Warhol superstars doomed to die young like Ingrid Superstar, Andrea Feldman and Candy Darling), her encounters with the Mafia, her love of marijuana (she was initiated into smoking reefer by jazz musicians and is contemptuous of “the Woodstock generation” embracing it). Her speaking voice is posh, cultured (she’s clearly had elocution lessons) and reminiscent of Eartha Kitt’s or Elizabeth Taylor’s. Brown got her start singing rhythm-and-blues in sleazy burlesque joints and her preferred audience was old strippers and young sailors. Asked about singing at The Continental Baths, she purrs that it turned her on. (“I love real decadence …”). As well as New York and Florida, the film shuttles to other places Brown lived over the years while touring in theatrical productions such as The Pajama Game, Medea and Mame, including Las Vegas, Hollywood and New Orleans. Wherever she performed, Brown immersed herself in the local demi monde. In Vegas she embraced a nocturnal lifestyle, performing three or four shows daily and then not sleeping for days at a time – perhaps outing herself as speed freak? Brown reminisces about partying with the drag queens of New Orleans’ French Quarter while von Praunheim shows us a leather man in chaps loitering outside a gay bar, his furry ass exposed in a pair of chaps. Ah, the low-life of Bourbon Street! Basking in Tally Brown’s ambience for 93-minutes is intoxicating.