In 1978, Rhode Island filmmaker Jim Wolpaw directed the fantastically rough n’ ready short-form documentaryCobra Snake For a Necktie: Bo Diddley and the Young Adults. The film captured a raucous night at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, a then-new rock venue in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. Bo Diddley, still riding high on the heavy funky of his classic ‘74 album Big Bad Bo tore up the stage. So did local comedy-rockers Young Adults, as funny and nearly as wild as their San Francisco counterparts The Tubes. But the real stars of the show were the audience members, including a tenacious drunk who dragged most of the participants—including a put-upon Diddley—into witless conversations. It’s funny and weird and it captures the heart of Saturday night in a very authentic and spontaneous way.
Clearly, the spirit of that time and place stuck with Wolpaw because ten years later, he created a fantastically dark and hilarious ode to Lupo’s, (It’s A) Complex World, a low-budget, high-energy rock n’ roll musical comedy about one extremely eventful night at the storied rock dive.
Complex World was shot at the club over two years in the late 1980s. The plot is pretty loose, but the general idea is that a terrorist cell (led by Daniel Von Bargen, AKA George Costanza’s irresponsible boss Mr. Kruger on the final season of Seinfeld) has planted a bomb in the basement of the club at the behest of an evil state Senator, the father of the club’s owner. The terrorists want some kind of vague revolution and assume someone will give in to their demands before they blow the club up at midnight. The Senator actually wants to destroy the place with his son in it to garner enough sympathy to win his next election. Meanwhile, the mayor hires a biker gang (led by wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano) to terrorize the clubgoers for no solid reason.
Captain Lou Albano, who was an entirely believable maniac biker.
Confused? Me too. But none of this matters because no one at Lupo’s cares about bombs or Senators or lunatic biker gangs, they just want to get drunk and party. The Young Adults return as the evening’s headliners and are seen onstage playing songs like “Do the Heimlich” and “Kill Yourself.” The club is full of drunks and degenerates, including cult rock legends NRBQ, who do drugs in the basement with the terrorists and attempt to contact the ghost of John Lennon with a rotary phone. Jersey garage-poppers The Smithereens loiter at the bar, a manic street preacher (Tilman Gandy Jr.), spends the entirety of the film outside the club getting the Noah’s Ark story wrong, and nebbishy folk singer and begrudging opening act, Morris Brock, riles the repulsed audience into a froth of mutual animosity.
The Young Adults, who once had a local hit called “Meat Rampage”
Played by local singer-songwriter Stanley Matis, Brock is the star of the show, an incredibly bitter, mean-spirited nerd who hates the club and everyone in it, and proves his point by singing spiteful diatribes like “New Jersey” (“What an empty, barren wasteland/What a crass, commercial hellhole”) and “Why Do We Feed The Broads?” He’s also a member of the terror gang, although even they find him obnoxious.
Less a strictly narrative story than a set of loosely-knitted vignettes, Complex World is prime midnight movie material, anarchic, savage and endlessly quotable. It is a remarkable time capsule as well, capturing a long-gone era when not only were “mad bombers” still ripe for ridicule, but when a bunch of local-yokel rock bands could garner a sweaty, enthusiastic crowd willing to risk life and limb for a good time. Complex World is the last gasp of that increasingly hazy age before the Internet and Netflix, back when you still had to go out and mix it up with weird characters to get your kicks.
Much like the era that spawned it, Complex World is largely lost in the mists of time. A website popped up a few years ago to promote a DVD release of the film, but it hasn’t been updated since 2010. The Young Adults kept the party going, but broke up for good in 2014. Stanley Matis grew a beard and has not played as Morris Brock since 2010. Director Wolpaw still makes documentaries and teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. Lupo’s moved twice since Complex World was made, but still exists. Its current incarnation is the darkest club I’ve ever been to. I saw Corrosion of Conformity there about ten years ago and if it weren’t for the glowing tips of people’s cigarettes, I would have never found the stage. I liked it.
Your best bet to see it, at this point, is probably VHS, but Complex World is well worth the hunt. It’ll remind you of everything you love (and hate) about rock n’ roll.