The Incredible Mister Biggs: Train Robber, Sex Pistol, Ronnie Biggs dead at 84

ronnie biggs
By the time of the U.K.‘s Great Train Robbery in 1963, train robbing had already passed more or less into quaintness. But quaintness did nothing to deter 15 men from stopping a train in Buckinghamshire and hauling in what would be equivalent to over $7 million USD today. Several of the robbers were sentenced to a rather harsh 30 years in prison, including Ronnie Biggs, who, though not the caper’s ringleader, achieved the gang’s greatest notoriety by escaping from prison less than a year and a half into his sentence, fleeing to France for appearance-altering plastic surgery, and eventually living openly as a fugitive in Brazil, who would not extradite him to the U.K.

Then, in 1978, at age 49, he became a punk singer.
biggs 7
Julien Temple’s preposterous and incoherent Sex Pistols film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle brought that band—by then halved to just drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones—to Rio de Janeiro, where they met up with Biggs and with him recorded “No One Is Innocent” and “Belsen Was A Gas.” A ridiculous but very, very fun scene in the film shows the band, with Biggs as their new singer, performing “Innocent” with bass player/Nazi fugitive Martin Bormann—actually an actor. One conceit of the film had it that rather than dying in 1945, Bormann escaped to Brazil. And joined The Sex Pistols. Did I mention preposterous?

Biggs was no newbie to music, though—he’d already participated in the creation of a jazz album in 1974! The collaboration with Bruce Henry was titled Mailbag Blues, and the album finally saw release in 2004. Per Bruce Henry via

Mailbag Blues was written over a couple months’ period ... with Ronnie at our side telling us his story and us breaking it down into events that we most related to musically. The songs are structured as a soundtrack, each one telling us part of a story and leading on to the next. When we went into the studio to record, we had the whole album pretty well defined, but we left a lot of room for individual improvisation, as was the style in 1974.

The recording took place in a very small room, on a four track Ampex Tape Recorder. Everybody played together, and we only used playback on one or two tracks for additional percussion. We were so young and eager back then, and we took ourselves so seriously, that we wouldn’t let Ronnie sing, which is too bad because he had a terrible voice but the Sex Pistols did all right with it didn’t they?

mailbag blues

“London ‘63” from Mailbag Blues

Later, in 1991, German pin-up punks Die Toten Hosen tapped Biggs to sing “Carnival In Rio (Punk Was),” the lone original song on their covers/tribute album Learning English - Lesson One. For the b-side of the song’s single, he reprised his turn on “No One Is Innocent” and also covered The Equals’ classic “Police On My Back.”


Die Toten Hosen with Ronnie Biggs, “Police On My Back”

After years of ill health, including multiple strokes, Biggs surrendered to British authorities in 2001. He was promptly arrested, and confined to complete his original sentence. He was released, due to further deteriorating health, in 2009, and was able to contribute to the book The Great Train Robbery 50th Anniversary:1963-2013. His years of illness finally claimed his life today.

Rest in peace, Mister Biggs. Nobody can say you didn’t live an amazingly colorful life.

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Discussion
Sylvester’s dog Princess Terry receives “celebrity pet” award, Castro Street Dog Show, 1984
10:02 am



Damn my terrible timing! Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the passing of Sylvester; queer icon, incredible vocalist and Disco Diva extraordinaire. Well, I may be 24 hours late, but I couldn’t let another day pass without posting something in tribute here on DM.

And what a doozy of a clip! Yes, it’s Sylvester at the Castro Street Dog Fair in 1984, receiving the “celebrity pet” award on behalf of his pup, Princess Terry, from former Catwoman Lee Meriwether, all under the watchful gaze of a leather-vested cowboy. Yep. It really doesn’t get any more camp than this.

R.I.P. Queen Sylvester, you will forever be missed!

Major H/T to Matthew Hill!

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Discussion
What dead rock stars would look like today had they lived to a ripe old age
02:32 pm

Pop Culture


Bob Marley
I can’t place my finger on exactly why I find these ‘shopped age progression portraits—by Sachs Media Group and photo restoration and manipulation company Phojoe—so unsettling. But I do.

Poor Jimi! He looks worse than Keith Richards! And apparently had Dennis Wilson lived, he would look exactly like Glenn Frey does today. That sucks!

You can view a lot more of these at Sachs Media Group.

Dennis Wilson

Janis Joplin
More freaky portraits after the jump…

Posted by Tara McGinley | Discussion
Zapruder speaks: Vintage interview with the man who shot the Kennedy assassination
08:24 am


John F. Kennedy
Abraham Zapruder

Abraham Zapruder shot the most famous home movie in history. He was the man whose 26 seconds of film footage captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963.

It is the only known film of the entire assassination.

In an interview with Jay Watson, program director with WFAA, an ABC news affiliate, Zapruder described the events he witnessed.

“As I was shooting, as the President was coming down from Houston Street making his turn, it was about a half-way down there, I heard a shot, and he slumped to the side, like this…

“Then I heard another shot or two, I couldn’t say, it was one or two, and I saw his head practically open up, all blood and everything, and I kept on shooting. That’s about all, I’m just sick, I can’t…”

Watson responded by saying that this “pretty well expresses the entire feelings of the whole world.”

The report moves on to videotape of the President’s body arriving at Parklands Hospital, after which a photograph of the Texas School Book Depository is shown and discussed in relation to the shooting. The report ends with news of the arrest of a suspect.

Here, in less than six minutes, is a concise distillation of the events that have obsessed America for 50 years.

H/T ABC News

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Taiwanese funerals: Miniskirts and marching bands
07:26 am



I attended about half-a-dozen funerals before I was twelve years of age. To my young mind, they were all the same, dreary and cold, under slate-grey, rainy skies, which made me think that when my time comes, I’d like to be sent off by Viking long boat, set aflame on chilled northern waters. As you can tell, I was greatly influenced by the Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis film The Vikings, and I’d decided it was either longship, or die like Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine), thrown into a pit to wrestle with starving wolves. Ah yes, a Viking’s funeral was my plan. But now, having seen these funerals from Taiwan, I may just change my future funeral arrangements.

Taiwanese funerals are certainly loud and cheerful, and make a change from the traditional damp-eyed family and friends pretending they actually liked you. It’s just a pity one has to die before enjoying such an exuberant send-off.

See more Taiwanese send-offs here.



H/T Arbroath, via RocketNews24

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Is Andy Kaufman alive? His ‘daughter’ says that he is
05:37 pm


Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman Awards, 2013
Michael Kaufman standing next to a woman who either is or is not Andy Kaufman’s 24-year-old daughter

Every year for the last several years, at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York, a ceremony called the Andy Kaufman Awards takes place in which the eponymous, dearly departed, and much-missed comedian is celebrated, and current performers carrying on the spirit of his baffling comedy are singled out for recognition (Kristen Schaal and Reggie Watts have been two of the comedians so honored).

On Monday evening, this year’s edition of the Andy Kaufman Awards took an unusually Kaufmanesque turn, not only when Kaufman’s brother Michael took the stage to announce that Andy is indeed still alive but even more so when a young woman took the stage, claiming to be his daughter and likewise “confirming” that Andy is alive and well.
Andy Kaufman
The woman in question did not, apparently, give her name, but she did reveal her age—24, which would put her birthdate at around 1989. The fact that intrigues is that Kaufman died in 1984 at the age of 35.

Killy Dwyer, who was part of the event as one of the potential honorees, posted the following on her Facebook page:

Ok. Tonight was a mindfuck. Anyone who was there will attest. Andy Kaufman’s daughter came onstage and claimed he was alive. It was. It was…I can’t tell you how it was, only that it was as real as any reality that i’ve seen. and yeah. I get that it is—could—might all be a hoax. That was the only and last thing I want to say. it was fucking fucked up. She said he is alive and that the passing of his father this July made him want to reach out via her- to Michael, Andy’s brother. She said he is watching the award entries, semi and finalists with great interest always. He just wanted to disappear. To be a father. To be an observer. As much as this seems like bullshit as I type it, it was as real as anything I’ve ever seen. There is video. It was chilling, upsetting and absolutely intriguing. I bawled my eyes out. The entire room was freaked out. It was, if nothing else, brilliant. and incredibly mindfuckng and AWESOME.

To supply a little background, the basic facts are these. Between roughly 1970 and his passing in 1984, Kaufman established himself as one of the most original voices in comedy, primarily through his appearances on Saturday Night Live and his status as a regular player on the cast of Taxi (1978-1983). He gave a number of live performances coinciding with his run on Taxi that are considered legendary, particularly his April 1979 show at Carnegie Hall in which, among other things, he took the entire audience out for milk and cookies (this required the use of 24 buses) and invited everyone to join him on the Staten Island Ferry the next morning.

Long accustomed to baffling and irritating his audiences, in his last years Kaufman refined what can only be called an especially provocative form of anti-comedy to its most sublime expression. Kaufman became renowned for belligerently boasting that he could beat any woman in the sport of wrestling—and several such matches were staged. He also had a scuffle and a heated exchange with Memphis wrestler Jerry Lawler on Late Night with David Letterman.

He developed an alter ego named Tony Clifton, whom Kaufman insisted be hired as a guest actor on Taxi—Kaufman’s partner in crime, a curious figure named Bob Zmuda, later continued with the Clifton persona after Kaufman’s death of lung cancer in 1984, in part to fuel speculation that Kaufman was still alive and controlling this macabre anti-comedy from offstage.

Rather brilliantly, Kaufman—alive or no—managed to set up conditions whereby almost anything that happens can be said to further corroborate either the facts of his death or the concocted nature of same. It is well known that Kaufman spoke often of faking his own death, but most reasonable observers have concluded that this is highly unlikely.

This is what makes the events of last Monday night so compelling and weird. Nobody claims to know who the young woman is or whether she is telling the truth. At the Andy Kaufman Awards on Monday, Michael Kaufman, Andy’s brother, told a story about Andy’s supposed promise to meet up with Michael on Christmas Eve of 1999, on which date Michael showed up at the appointed restaurant but Andy did not—however (according to Michael) an emissary did hand Michael an envelope that evening explaining about Andy’s faked death and his new family, including a daughter. 

So what we know is, either Andy Kaufman is alive or his brother and an unidentified woman staged a remembrance of his brilliantly perverse comedy in the most attention-getting manner imaginable.
Kaufman in rare form, taunting Jerry Lawler and wrestling a woman named Susan:

(The best account of this bizarre turn of events can be found at the Comic’s Comic.)

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
To Lou Reed and all of his satellites
02:27 pm


Lou Reed

I was 16 years old and living in Fairfax, Virginia when I first heard The Velvet Underground’s debut album. It was 1967 and I was ready for something, anything, to slough off the teenage suburban blues that encased me like dead skin. I had no exact idea of what I was listening to when I listened to that album but whatever wild form of rock and roll it was it dug down deep into me and altered something very essential in my nature.

The Velvet Underground’s music was literally electrifying. Their songs were like subatomic particles saturating my cells and transforming me into some kind of new being. For 18 hours straight I listened to that album while eating bennies (benzedrine). Sitting and spinning in circles on a smooth wooden floor while the music hummed, droned, surged and sparked all around and within me. 

The electronic equivalent of one of William Burroughs word viruses or Rimbaud’s poetry as a “derangement of the senses,” the music of The Velvet Underground infected me and scrambled my brain forever.

I was indoctrinated into the splendid darkness, muttering the Warholian oath of Doctor Frankenstein: “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder.” Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico were turning me into a teenage Frankenstein and I was ready to thrust myself into the “meat pit of mortal desire” with a monstrous passion. I was only 16 but I knew how to nasty.

A year earlier, The Fugs had prepped me for the surgery performed by The Velvet Underground and now the transformation was well on its way. I left the comfort and deadly dullness of suburbia for the untamed streets of New York City, landing in an apartment on West Houston street that I shared with a drag queen and a runaway friend of mine that had left the ‘burbs months before me. The streets were teeming with young hippies, rockers and weirdos and I felt immediately at home. This was a world in which we were all waiting for our man, whether he was a drug dealer, guru or lover….or all three. There was a jittery anticipation in the air like when you were about to cop something that would get you high or get you by or just make you thrilled to be alive. And that anticipation was its own high and very much like a song by The Velvet Underground.

Hey baby, don’t you holler, don’t you ball and shout
I’m feeling good, I’m gonna work it on out
I’m feeling good, feeling so fine
until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time
I’m waiting for my man
I’m waiting for my man
I’m waiting for my man

As much as I was formed and inspired by The Velvet Underground as an artist, it was Lou Reed specifically that made me want to become a songwriter. The title of his album “Transformer” was truth in advertising, it encouraged me to become something I wanted but never thought I could be: a rock singer.

Lou wasn’t a great singer and neither am I. So what. He made songwriting appear simple. It ain’t. But Lou made the art of song attainable by taking everyday reality and finding within it the riff that made it extraordinary. Like Warhol did with soup cans. The shape, the color, the essential “itness” of it. There is nothing in life that is artless. At certain angles, even shit shines.

Lou wrote about stuff, the stuff of life, the stuff I wanted to write about. The unspeakable stuff, the real stuff. I wasn’t interested in music that soothed the savage breast, I wanted to write savage music about breasts…and cocks and city streets and dark tunnels winding their way underneath those streets. Lou Reed made it all seem possible. You could write about your life while dancing to it. You could be both profane and divine. Lou found the spiritual in the dirty boulevards, Coney Island, hookers, junkies, and the whole of the wild side. Poetry was everywhere, under the mattress with a bag of dope and a blood-stained tee-shirt, in the shadow of the Berlin wall and inside the tenement where

Caroline says
while biting her lip
Life is meant to be more than this
and this is a bum trip

Lou Reed, more than any creative being on the planet, let me know it was possible I could become a rock and roller. And he did that for a lot of people. It has been said that The Velvet Underground spawned more bands than it sold albums. It’s true. Lou opened up the field for millions of us. There are few modern singer/songwriters that haven’t been influenced by his direct way of telling a story in song without hyped-up sentiment or maudlin platitudes. His hard-edged, cynical style, shot through with harsh beauty and tenderness, created a new level of sophistication and adultness in rock that hadn’t much been heard before him. He cut through the cute shit and talked about the raw side of city life like Cole Porter on a cocktail of crystal meth and Seconal. And yet for all the tough guy stance, here was a cat that could write lines like:

Thought of you as my mountain top,
Thought of you as my peak.
Thought of you as everything,
I’ve had but couldn’t keep.
I’ve had but couldn’t keep.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.

If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see,
I’d put you in the mirror,
I put in front of me.
I put in front of me.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.

Beneath the black leather veneer and dismissive smirk of Lou Reed there was something vulnerable and fragile. It was covered up out of necessity. The shit he wrote about, the shit he lived, could kill you. But you can’t write with the insight he did about the darker side of life, the lost souls and broken hearts, without having an incredible sense of empathy and love. On the surface, Reed was a badass. But somewhere a satellite of love was beaming down signals and Reed was there to catch them….and to beam them out to other satellites, of which I was one.


Posted by Marc Campbell | Discussion
Lou Reed dead at 71
10:53 am


Lou Reed
Velvet Underground

Lou Reed is dead at the age of 71. He’d gotten a liver transplant in Cleveland back in May, but the cause of his death has not been disclosed.

Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson told the Times of London earlier this year regarding the transplant: “It’s as serious as it gets. He was dying. You don’t get it for fun.”

Below,  Andy Warhol’s “Symphony in Sound,” one of the only known sync sound film recordings of The Velvet Underground:

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
Pioneering jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, R.I.P.
05:25 pm


Ronald Shannon Jackson

Vernon Reid has posted on his Facebook page that legendary drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson has died at the age of 73.

I just got the news that my most important teacher & mentor Ronald Shannon Jackson passed away this morning. I am undone.

From Jazz Times:

Ronald Shannon Jackson, a drummer and composer who worked largely within the realms of free jazz, funk and fusion, died this morning, Oct. 19, in Ft. Worth, Tex. Jackson’s passing was confirmed by his cousin, Tobi Hero, on Jackson’s Facebook page. No cause of death was cited, however, Jackson was suffering from leukemia and had been living in a hospice. He was 73.

Jackson was a revolutionary in the avant-jazz scene taking cues from Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. With his group The Decoding Society, Jackson shattered the walls between jazz and rock and in collaboration with musicians like James “Blood” Ulmer, Vernon Reid and Bill Frisell introduced a style of music uniquely its own.

Here’s some recent footage (2012) of Jackson performing at the Kessler Theater near his hometown of Fort Worth:

With Vernon Reid and Melvin Gibbs at the Knitting Factory in 1999:

Posted by Marc Campbell | Discussion
Motown’s Charm School
09:35 am


Maxine Powell

For five years the gracious Maxine Powell ran the only in-house finishing school at any American record label. Most people have probably never heard of Powell, who died this week, but music fans have unknowingly enjoyed her handiwork at Motown since the ‘60s.

As Mrs. Powell explained:

When I opened up, in 1964, the finishing school, the purpose was to help the artists become class, to know what to do on stage and off stage, because they did come from humble beginnings. Some of them from the projects and some of them were using street language. Some were rude and crude, you understand, but with me, it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.

The petite former actress, model, manicurist, cosmetologist, and African-American finishing school-modeling agency founder was hired by Motown to help the label polish its artists’ public images. She met Berry Gordy through his sister, who was one of Powell’s models, and his mother, who took one of Powell’s self-development courses. Her official title was “artist development,” but her duties were broader than that.

It was Powell’s job to teach the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Tammi Terrell, The Marvelettes, The Velvelettes, and Smokey Robinson how to present themselves charmingly during interviews, performances, and off-stage public appearances. When they were in Detroit, Motown singers were required to attend two-hour session with Powell, learning public speaking, posture, walking, stage presence, etiquette, and personal grooming. Powell had studied African-American cosmetology at the renowned Madam C.J. Walker training school in Indianapolis.

Powell toured with artists on occasion, acting as counselor and unofficial bartender after shows. One of her mottos was “I teach class, and class will turn the heads of kings and queens.” She meant that literally. She wanted Motown’s artists to be able to comport themselves appropriately if they were ever invited to the White House or Buckingham Palace.

Perhaps more immediately useful was the instruction on how to sit in a limousine or on a stool (in a bar or on a talk who) in a short dress. Trying to act in a “ladylike” fashion is, let’s face it, like aiming at a constantly moving target. Even Diana Ross rejected the idea that shorter false eyelashes were classier than long, spidery ones.

Unlike Sharon Osbourne’s, Mo’Nique’s, and Ricki Lake’s Charm School candidates on VH-1, Powell’s students avidly listened to her and didn’t argue.

Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas, told The New York Times, “Mrs. Powell was always a lady of grace, elegance and style, and we did our best to emulate her. I don’t think I would have been successful at all without her training.”

Although Powell left Motown in 1969 she left a lasting impression on the artists she had helped. For example, prior to a national TV appearance she counseled The Supremes to dance with their knees, not their buttocks (“Do not protrude the buttocks” was one of her maxims). “You’re not out on the streets here,” she advised them.

Powell’s memorial service and funeral are taking place in Detroit today.
Below, Maxine Powell on her approach to teaching “class” and how she motivated her students:

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright | Discussion
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