A loft in Manhattan, New York, 1979: Talking Heads are working on their latest album Fear of Music. A TV crew from England are present making a documentary for the UK arts series The South Bank Show. They interview and film the band at work—writing, rehearsing and recording songs. At times, listening to Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and David Byrne talk they all make it seem what they’re doing is really quite ordinary, almost mundane. Frantz says he considers his life quite normal when not on tour. He gets up early rather than sleeping all day and going to the clubs at night. Byrne, who sounds at times like Andy Warhol—nervous, shy—discusses his thoughts about dressing like ordinary working people in ordinary everyday work clothes, though he soon discovered keeping up with ordinary fashions was expensive. Tina Weymouth points out the band plays under full house lights and eschew spotlights on solos. They are earnest, conscientious, and make it sound as if what they are doing, what they are creating, is quite workaday when in truth this talented quartet are producing something very, very extraordinary.
As the documentary develops, the disparity between their artistic aspirations and their personal points of view of what they’re all about becomes apparent—with Frantz musing on whether it’s good old rock ‘n’ roll or actually art that they are producing. History’s jury has already returned the verdict on that—a unanimous decision in favor of art—great art.
Weymouth, Frantz and Byrne first played under the name The Artistics. They had an idea of “combining conceptual and performance art with popular music (their sound earned them the nickname The Autistics).” Then a friend suggested the name “Talking Heads” lifted from the TV Guide—which appealed as it had no genre defining angle. Dressed in button down shirts, sensible shoes and corduroy in amongst the ripped T-shirts, leather jackets of New York’s punk clubs, Talking Heads was a vision of the future, belonging to no genre or scene, ultimately. This became more than evident through the eight studio albums the band produced between 1977 and 1988.
In 1987, the B-52s produced an incredible public service announcement for AMFAR (The Foundation For AIDS Research) with the late NYC-based video artist Tom Rubnitz (best known for the “Strawberry Shortcut” and “Pickle Surprise” videos) and several of their closest famous friends. The colorful tableau vivant recreated the Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s album cover with the flowers spelling out “Be Alive”
Along with the B-52s, you’ll see Korean video artist Nam Jun Paik, Allen Ginsberg, Dancenoise, “voguing” pioneer Willi Ninja, Nile Rodgers, Joey Arias, Tseng Kwong Chi, Mink Stole, ABC’s David Yarritu, “Frieda the Disco Doll,” John Kelly as the Mona Lisa, Lady Bunny, performance artist Mike Smith, Kenny Scharf, David Byrne and then-wife Adelle Lutz, model Beverly Johnson, NYC “It Girl” Dianne Brill and Quentin Crisp among many others.
If this isn’t eighties enough for you already, note the presence of “Randee of the Redwoods” (comedian Jim Turner) the acid-fried MTV “presidential candidate.”
Part III of my “Only Assholes Don’t Like the B-52s” multimedia dossiers on the wild and wonderful recording career of that great American band, the B-52s. Today’s topic, my personal favorite of all of their releases, the 1982 EP produced by David Byrne known as Mesopotamia.
Yes, what is generally thought of as being one of their least successful records—it was critically savaged when it came out—is to my mind their very best work. The hiring on of Byrne, then at the height of his creative powers—he was simultaneously producing the seminal score he did for Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production, The Catherine Wheel—I thought was an inspired move on the band’s part. Byrne introduced the polyrhythmic African beats of Remain in Light and his Brian Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts into the signature sound of the “tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia’’ to great effect. I was a huge Talking Heads fan, so hearing elements of their “African/Eno-era” sound melding with the trademark B-52s wacky racket was heaven for me as a teenage rock snob. Byrne took their sound to a different place, and I felt nicely expanded on their sonic palette. The B-52s obviously felt differently, as Byrne was fired before a complete album could be recorded (hence only an EP of the sessions was released).
Seriously, you have no idea how often I played this record. It falls into the “soundtrack of my life” category in a big way. But what many fans of the group do not know is that there are three very different versions of Mesopotamia: The “classic” shorter US/Warner Brothers EP version; the extended mix version mistakenly(?) released in Germany and in the UK by Island Records; and the 1991 CD version, which basically mixed David Byrne’s contribution right out of the proceedings…
The first two B-52s albums are classics, and to my mind perfect in every way, but a third album in that same style would have probably been one too many. Byrne’s involvement, for many fans, took the band a little too far away from their inspired amateur beginnings perhaps, but who else but Byrne was capable of coming up with such amazing grooves back then? And haven’t the B-52s always been about the beat? David Byrne was on fire then creatively. I’ve read that the B-52s felt that his production made them sound too much like the Talking Heads, but hey, what a valid direction that was for them!. True, certain elements of their sound (Ricky Wilson’s Venusian/spy-fi surf guitar for one) were diminished, but other elements (Wilson’s striking use of dissonance in his compositions) are given free rein with different instrumentation (like the nearly atonal “No Wave” horn lines). Their sound was nicely expanded upon by Byrne’s “dubbier/trippier” and more-layered production approach, if you ask me, but the B-52s didn’t ask me, and it’s their call, ultimately…
Still why not release a special collector’s edition of Mesopotamia with the original longer David Byrne mixes and the known outtakes: “Queen of Las Vegas,” (see below), the original “Big Bird” and “Butterbean” (both recut for Whammy) and the pretty, out-of-character Fred Schneider ballad “Adios Desconocida” (which you can hear here). In any case, the longer, “alt” David Byrne version of Mesopotamia, unavailable now for nearly 30 years and never released on CD can be downloaded all over the Internet.
PS I don’t hate the 1991 remix of Mesopotamia, but I’d never choose to listen to it over either of the David Byrne versions. Ever. Nuff said.
Kate, Fred and Cindy on the set of The Guiding Light soap opera in 1982 (see below for video clip)
A slamming live “Mesopotamia” from the Rockpop Festival, Dortmund, Germany, 1983:
It’s common knowledge that Radiohead got its name from a song written by David Byrne called “Radio Head” that appears in the movie True Stories. What’s less well known is that Byrne wrote that song about Stephen Tobolowsky, a familiar character actor and raconteur whose signature role is Ned Ryerson in the classic 1993 movie Groundhog Day.
This remarkable happenstance was revealed on Tobolowsky’s recent appearance on the Nerdist podcast hosted by Chris Hardwick. The story is told around the 40-45 minute stretch of that episode.
So what’s going on? Let’s start with the premise that Stephen Tobolowsky claims to be more than a little bit psychic. Add to it the fact that Tobolowsky is credited as one of the co-writers of True Stories, along with the playwright Beth Henley. So if nothing else, Tobolowsky and Byrne were hanging out a bit during the mid-1980s, while they toiled on this movie. (In the Nerdist interview, by the way, Tobolowsky says that Byrne threw out most of Tobolowsky’s contributions as a writer.)
In his college years, Tobolowsky more or less stumbled on psychic powers of considerable potency, if the stories he tells are to be believed at all. As he puts it, he developed the ability to “hear” or “read” people’s “tones,” that is, to intuit a whole lot of private and even situational information about a person just by being in the same room with him or her. One story involves blurting out that a quasi-mentor of his was living under an assumed name and that his initials were actually “M.L.” or “M.K.” (they were “M.K.,” in the event). He tells a couple more stories of that level of mind-boggling ability—stories that, if true, would cause quite a few skeptics to give up the argument entirely. Tobolowsky continues:
So my girlfriend Beth at the time thought, “We have a real money-making thing here! ... You know, we’ll have people pay a quarter or a dollar and have you read their tones.” She would round up people, bring ‘em in to the green room or whatever, and you would think it would be funny, but I would go, like, “Ah, you just got an inheritance and you want to know how you’re going to spend that money,” and they would get up and cry, and everyone would have these creepy, creepy, creepy feelings.
Beth loved me for it, and she thought, “This is so cool, what are my tones?” and I said, “I gotta quit doing this, because this is way creepy, and I don’t really like it.” So—while that nineteen furious days that we were working on True Stories, Beth says, “Tell David. Because David wants to put all these true stories in his movie, Stephen. Tell him the true story about you hearing tones.” And I said, “No, baby, no, I don’t want—” “No, tell him the story about you hearing tones.”
So I sat and told David the story of me hearing tones. And he looked and says, “You’re kidding!” And I said, “No, David, that’s really the story but I don’t do it anymore, I don’t like to do it anymore, it was too creepy, and I don’t like to do it anymore.”
So anyway—sure enough, a year later, David has written into True Stories a character that hears tones, and he wrote the song, that day he came over and played “Wild Wild Life,” he says, “Here is a song that I wrote for you, Stephen.” And we put it in the thing, and it was “Radio Head.”
“I’m pickin’ up somethin’ good…. Radio Head….”
So Radiohead got their name from the song David Byrne wrote based on my psychic experiences when I was in college!
Max Headroom, now there was a weird-ass experiment. In hindsight the digital character is the very definition of a “curio.” It takes only a few seconds of watching Max to remember just how irritating he was, a stuttering, condescending, smarmy non-entity (literally) who is devoid of content (making him a natural pitchman for Coca Cola, which he was for several national advertising campaigns). Watching authentic artists like Sting and David Byrne interact with Max is a little painful.
Before the narrative sci-fi show Max Headroom descended on U.S. shores in 1987, British audiences had been “enjoying” The Max Headroom Show, which featured interviews and music videos, throughout 1985 and 1986. In the first clip, Sting is promoting The Dream of the Blue Turtles as well as The Bride, his first movie after Dune, so it must be 1985. True to Max’s essential vapidity, they discuss shoes for most of the interview. The strategy of intersplicing unmotivated stock footage resembles nothing so much as a short film by Lelaina Pierce as recut by Michael Grates, to invoke the Winona Ryder and Ben Stiller characters from Reality Bites.
Of course Sting is inherently annoying—check out his shades—but it’s really not his fault in this case; David Byrne’s naturally distanced temperament works a lot better. Unfortunately, the clip, put up by the official Talking Heads YouTube account, gets badly out of sync after a couple of minutes, but given that it’s Max Headroom, it hardly matters. Byrne is there to promote True Stories, his only directorial feature, so it must be about a year later than the Sting interview.
The Max Headroom Show, not to be confused with the narrative show Max Headroom, was the original Short Attention Span Theater. As many have noted, it was the perfect plastic entertainment for the Reagan era, so much so that Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury turned the sitting president into an unfunny imitation called Ron Headrest.
In retrospect what’s interesting is that the technology was so evidently driving the car—the technical feat of an electronic Matt Frewer cackling at Sting is actually impressive, but the form was miles ahead of the content. Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which hit in the 1990s, evened the scales a bit more successfully.
Here’s Kermit the Frog covering “Once in a Lifetime,” wearing the David Byrne oversized suit from Stop Making Sense and faithfully reproducing Byrne’s spastic movements from the video.
I can’t decide if Kermit’s endlessly reasonable (never truly frantic) voice actually fits this material—does it matter?—but it’s a hoot either way. This appeared on Muppets Tonight in 1996, and the voice of Kermit is provided by Steve Whitmire in this instance.
And it leads into a perfect Statler & Waldorf parting shot. Of course!
It’s cellist/composer Arthur Russell’s great triumph that his influence became so massively widespread, and his great tragedy that he never knew it. His AIDS-related death in 1992 happened before the world caught up with him, but his vision impacted genres as widespread as acid house, jazz, minimalism, ambient, folk, hip-hop, dub… this could go on, as a concise summation of Russell’s improbable career is just flat out impossible. DM’s Niall O’Conghaile did an insightful post on Russell about a year and a half ago, and frankly, I can’t touch it. If you want to know more, I strongly recommend you have a look at it. Now is fine, I’ll wait.
There’s a lot of GREAT personal and musical background on Russell here in this rarely seen video. It features his friends and collaborators David Byrne, Philip Glass, and Allen Ginsberg, and it was recorded in 1994 as a video press kit for the posthumous Another Thought, a collection of unreleased late-career recordings. Bonus: David Byrne’s heroic pony tail.
Oh what a time it must have been on Manhattan’s Bond Street in the mid-1970s. Bond Street connects Broadway and the Bowery exactly where CBGB’s used to be, and a lot of cool folks used to live there when it was still considered a pretty sketchy part of town—before NYU moved in. Today Bond Street is mostly known for very expensive co-ops.
David Byrne used to live at 52 Bond Street back in the day, just a few steps away from CBGB’s. He crashed with an old RISD buddy of his, an artist named Jamie Dalglish. Dalglish was and is a painter but at that time he was obsessed with video. In 1975 he had the idea of a video art project that would consist entirely of interviews. The idea was that Dalglish would compile hours and hours of footage of his artist friends talking with Byrne—but Byrne would be offscreen the entire time. The name of the project was “Talking Heads.”
As David Bowman relates in his book on Talking Heads (meaning the band, not the video project):
But back in 1974, Dalglish spent most of his energy on ideas about video as a replacement for language. At year’s end, Dalglish would undertake a massive seven-and-a-half-hour video consisting of more talking than images. It would be composed of fifteen static shots of fifteen different people sitting in a chair listening to David Byrne.
David was talking—jabbering actually—performing a stream-of-consciousness dialogue off-camera. Tina said, “The tape was David spouting off what other people thought. Memorizing anecdotes and advertisements from TV. Things that he’d heard other people say.”
This video disappeared years ago and has become the Holy Grail of Talking Heads research. Dalglish is convinced that Talking Heads manager Gary Kurfirst has it. Kurfirst says he doesn’t know what Dalglish is talking about.
I’m not a private detective or anything, but to me it sure sounds like those tapes are lost for good, fellas.
As Byrne blandly tells it in his 2012 book How Music Works, “In the mid-seventies I was offered room and board in New York by a painter, Jamie Dalglish, who let me sleep on his loft floor in return for help renovating the place. This was on Bond Street, almost right across from CBGB, where Patti Smith would read occasionally while Lenny Kaye accompanied her on guitar.” And that’s the last we ever hear about Dalglish—and no word at all about Dalglish’s “Talking Heads” video project.
Here’s a little more about Bond Street, taken from a 2007 article in the New York Observer—the whole thing is worth a read:
My other neighbors included a struggling and somewhat unstable artist, an ex of David Byrne’s, and a lesbian novelist who would later publish to considerable acclaim but who then worked at a rickety table I could see out my window, where she’d gently masturbate with one hand and hunt-and-peck type with the other. Our doormen were typically prone and pungent skid-row types. There were several Bowery hotels, a.k.a. flophouses, nearby, but no Bowery Hotel, and certainly no trendy restaurants.
The only semblance of uptown chic arrived with visitors slumming at CBGB. Which may be why, after Talking Heads shows, David Byrne would escape to visit my downstairs neighbor, a fellow Rhode Island School of Design grad, [this is almost certainly Dalglish—Ed.] while Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who shared a cold-water loft on Chrystie Street, would come to my place for hot showers and quick pick-me-ups.
The full “Talking Heads” videos appear to be lost, but you can see four short snippets to get a taste of the whole thing. Here Byrne and artist Jeff Koons discuss authenticity in music, working in a key reference to The Bob Newhart Show:
David Byrne / Jeff Koons:
After the jump, Byrne talks with Jeff Turtletaub, Chris Frantz, and Vito Acconci…
There’s a book to be written about musicians who started their careers by playing the ukulele. The ten-year-old Leonard Cohen taught himself to play the ukulele long before he learned to play the guitar. The teenage John Lennon was taught by his mother Julia how to play uke before Paul McCartney helped him hold down a chord. Fellow Beatle George Harrison was a life-long enthusiast, and kept a car boot full of spare ukes to give to fellow fans. Joni Mitchell wrote all of her early songs on a uke, long before she could afford to buy a guitar. Bill Drummond of The KLF once said he was so in love with his ukulele he took it to bed. While David Byrne, who was proficient as a child on harmonica, accordion and guitar, started his show business career busking with a ukulele around New York, before forming Talking Heads with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth.
It is also worth noting that these talented ukulele-players have achieved great success in a variety of other disciplines—writing, painting, film-making, and art—with David Byrne arguably being the most creatively diverse of the bunch.
Here the inspirational Mr. Byrne performs a cracking set from his Uh Oh tour, on Halloween, 1992. Recorded at The Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, this excellent concert was released long, long ago on VHS as Between the Teeth, which leads to my only question, why no DVD release?
02. “(Nothing But) Flowers”
03. “Girls On My Mind”
04. “Mr. Jones”
05. “Something Ain’t Right”
06. “Life During Wartime”
07. “Women Vs. Men”
08. “Hanging Upside Down”
09. “Lie To Me”
10. “She’s Mad”
12. “Make Believe Mambo”
13. “And She Was”
14. “Buck Naked”
15. “Road To Nowhere”
Hidden in plain sight in the midst of his prodigious creative output, there is an unfairly overlooked gem in David Byrne’s discography that I feel is an absolutely monumental masterpiece of late 20th century music, one right up there with Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and his seminal collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I refer to the seamless funk opera score Byrne created for choreographer, Twyla Tharp in 1981, The Catherine Wheel. Unless you were a big Talking Heads or are David Byrne completest, chances are this one might have passed you by.
The Catherine Wheel is, to my mind, the third spoke (see what I did there) of a deeply psychedelic African-influenced polyrhythmic trilogy along with the above-mentioned Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—all three were easily in my top ten “tripping soundtracks” as an acid-gobbling teenager and all three would still be on my Desert Island Discs list as a middle-aged rock snob. If you’re a fan of the two better-known albums, but have not heard The Catherine Wheel, well, you’ll be in for a profound treat, but especially if you drop some acid beforehand (I’d encourage it, no really!).
Musicians heard on the album include Jerry Harrison, the powerful drummer Yogi Horton, percussionist John Chernoff, Adrian Belew, P-Funk’s resident Minimoog genius Bernie Worrell and Brian Eno. It’s mind-blowing to me that there’s not a deluxe 2-CD set of the album that would include the 12” mixes and live Talking Heads performances of songs from the score, but I feel like this incredible piece of music has always gotten short shrift from whatever major label currently owns it. (The Catherine Wheel is one of the greatest “fuck albums” of all time, too. That’s how they should market it, if you ask me. I toyed with the obnoxious linkbait title of “David Byrne, of all people, recorded the ultimate fuck album” but thought better of it).
Above, Talking Heads performing “Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)” at Wembley Arena in 1982.
After the jump, much more including the full Twyla Tharp ballet as it aired on BBC and PBS in 1983…
A bootleg of an early version of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s groundbreaking 1981 album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts can be downloaded at the My Wall of Tapes blog. Note that his boot has a different track listing from the “Ghosts” bootleg that has been in wide circulation since the early 1990s.
Interestingly, the blogger there mentions that his source for this tape was none other than David Byrne himself:
it is a pre release version of david byrnes first solo album, which was given me by david, when i stayed at his place in alfabet city, in 1981, i distinctly remember that there were two ukrainian funeral homes in the street.
There are several other tapes of Talking Heads studio and live rarities (and much more) at My Wall of Tapes, so maybe the provenance described is accurate.
I wonder if the neat-freak printing on the card below is David Byrne’s?
In any case, I’m still downloading it. My Wall of Tapes has some amazing stuff, check it out.
Welcome to part III of my multimedia dossiers on the wild and wonderful recording career of that great American band, the B-52s. Today’s topic, my personal favorite of all of their releases, the 1982 EP produced by David Byrne known as Mesopotamia.
Yes, what is generally thought of as being one of their least successful records—it was critically savaged when it came out—is to my mind their very best work. The hiring on of Byrne, then at the height of his creative powers—he was simultaneously producing the seminal score he did for Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production, The Catherine Wheel—I thought was an inspired move on the band’s part. Byrne introduced the polyrhythmic African beats of Remain in Light and his Brian Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts into the signature sound of the “tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia’’ ” to great effect. I was a huge Talking Heads fan, so hearing elements of their “African/Eno-era” sound melding with the trademark B-52s wacky racket was heaven for me as a teenage rock snob. Byrne took their sound to a different place, and I felt nicely expanded on their sonic palette. The B-52s obviously felt differently, as Byrne was fired before a complete album could be recorded (hence an EP of the sessions was released).
Seriously, you have no idea how often I played this record. It falls into the “soundtrack of my life” category in a big way. But what many fans of the group do not know is that there are three very different versions of Mesopotamia: The “classic” short (US/Warner Brothers) EP version; the extended mix version mistakenly(?) released in Germany and in the UK by Island Records; and the 1991 CD version, which basically mixed David Byrne right out of the proceedings…
The first two B-52s albums are classics, and to my mind, perfect in every way, but a third album in that same style would have probably been one too many. Byrne’s involvement, for many fans, took the band a little too far away from their inspired amateur beginnings perhaps, but who else but Byrne was capable of coming up with such amazing grooves back then? And haven’t the B-52s always been about the beat? David Byrne was on fire then creatively. I’ve read that the B-52s felt that his production made them sound too much like the Talking Heads, but hey, what a valid direction that was for them!. True, certain elements of their sound (Ricky Wilson’s Venusian surf guitar for one) were diminished, but other elements (Wilson’s striking use of dissonance in his compositions) are given free rein with different instrumentation (like the nearly atonal horn lines). Their sound was nicely expanded upon by Byrne’s “dubbier/trippier” and more-layered production approach, if you ask me, but the B-52s didn’t ask, and it’s their call, ultimately…
Still why not release a special collector’s edition of Mesopotamia with the original David Byrne mixes, the longer Byrne mixes and the known outtakes: “Queen of Las Vegas,” (see below), the original “Big Bird” and “Butterbean” (both recut for Whammy) and the out of character Fred Schneider ballad “Adios Desconocida” (which I found here)? In any case, the longer, “alt” David Byrne version of Mesopotamia, unavailable now for nearly 30 years and never released on CD can be downloaded at The Same Mistakes blog and elsewhere)
PS I don’t hate the 1991 remix of Mesopotamia, but I’d never choose to listen to it over either of the David Byrne versions. Ever. Nuff said.
Kate, Fred and Cindy on the set of The Guiding Light soap opera in 1982 (see below for video clip)
Compare the nearly 8-minute version of “Cake” with the shorter version that was released ex-UK and Germany. This song minus the horns at the beginning? A sacrilege!
And to think that at one point, I actually thought this song really was about baking a cake… Short version of “Cake” (US version):
Below, “Deep Sleep.” It’s true that this would very much sound at home on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but would anyone doubt that this is the B-52s once the vocals come in?
A slamming live “Mesopotamia” from the Rockpop Festival, Dortmund, Germany, 1983:
After the jump, the B-52s make a guest appearance on “The Guiding Light” soap opera in 1982… and more!
I find it difficult to watch Adam Curtis‘s various acclaimed documentaries without thinking: how much has he taken from Bruce Conner?
Indeed without Conner, would Curtis have developed his magpie, collagist-style of documentary making?
I doubt it, but you (and Curtis) may disagree.
The late Bruce Conner is the real talent here - an artist and film-maker whose work devised new ways of working and presciently anticipated techniques which are now ubiquitously found on the web, television and film-making.
Conner was “a heroic oppositional artist, whose career went against the staid and artificially created stasis of the art world”. Which is academic poohbah for saying Conner kept to his own vision: a Beat life, which channeled his energies into art - with a hint of Dada, Surrealism and Duchamp.
Conner was cantankerous and one-of-a-kind. He would wear an American flag pin. When asked why, he said, “I’m not going to let those bastards take it away from me.”
He kicked against fame and celebrity, seeing art as something separate from individual who created it.
“I’ve always been uneasy about being identified with the art I’ve made. Art takes on a power all its own and it’s frightening to have things floating around the world with my name on them that people are free to interpret and use however they choose.”
Born in McPherson, Kansas, Conner attended Witchita University, before receiving his degree in Fine Art from Nebraska University. At university he met and married Jean Sandstedt in 1957. He won a scholarship to art school in Brooklyn, but quickly moved to University of Colorado, where he spent one semester studying art. The couple then moved to San Francisco and became part of the Beat scene. Here Conner began to produce sculptures and ready-mades that critiqued the consumerist society of late 1950’s. His work anticipated Pop Art, but Conner never focussed solely on one discipline, refusing to be pigeon-holed, and quickly moved on to to film-making.
Having been advised to make films by Stan Brakhage, Conner made A MOVIE in 1958, by editing together found footage from newsreels- B-movies, porn reels and short films. This single film changed the whole language of cinema and underground film-making with its collagist technique and editing.
The Conners moved to Mexico (“it was cheap”), where he discovered magic mushrooms and formed a life-long friendship with a still to be turned-on, Timothy Leary. When the money ran out, they returned to San Francisco and the life of film-maker and artist.
In 1961, Conner made COSMIC RAY, a 4-minute film of 2,000 images (A-bombs, Mickey Mouse, nudes, fireworks) to Ray Charles’ song “What I Say”. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Conner produced a series of films that were “precursors, for better or worse, of the pop video and MTV,” as his obituary reported:
EASTER MORNING RAGA (1966) was designed to be run forward or backward at any speed, or even in a loop to a background of sitar music. Breakaway (1966) showed a dancer, Antonia Christina Basilotta, in rapid rhythmic montage. REPORT (1967) dwells on the assassination of John F Kennedy. The found footage exists of repetitions, jump cuts and broken images of the motorcade, and disintegrates at the crucial moment while we hear a frenzied television commentator saying that “something has happened”. The fatal gun shots are intercut with other shots: TV commercials, clips from James Whale’s Frankenstein and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The film has both a kinetic and emotional effect.
REPORT “perfectly captures Conner’s anger over the commercialization of Kennedy’s death” while also examining the media’s mythic construction of JFK and Jackie — a hunger for images that “guaranteed that they would be transformed into idols, myths, Gods.”
Conner’s work is almost a visual counterpart to J G Ballard’s writing, using the same cultural references that inspired Ballard’s books - Kennedy, Monroe, the atom bomb. His film CROSSROADS presented the 1952 atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in extreme slow motion from twenty-seven different angles.
His editing techniques influenced Dennis Hopper in making Easy Rider, and said:
“much of the editing of Easy Rider came directly from watching Bruce’s films”
The pair became friends and Hopper famously photographed Conner alongside Toni Basil, Teri Garr and Ann Mitchell.
Always moving, always progressing, having “no half way house in which to rest”, Conner became part of the San Francisco Punk scene, after Toni Basil told Conner to go check out the band Devo in 1977. He became so inspired when he saw the band at the Mabuhay Gardens that he started going there four night a week, taking photographs of Punk bands, which eventually led to his job as staff photographer with Search ‘n’ Destroy magazine. It was a career change that came at some personal cost.
“I lost a lot of brain cells at the Mabuhay. What are you gonna do listening to hours of incomprehensible rock’n’roll but drink? I became an alcoholic, and it took me a few years to deal with that.”
Conner continued with his art work and films, even making short films for Devo, David Byrne and Brian Eno. In his later years, Conner returned to the many themes of his early life and work, but still kept himself once removed from greater success and fame. He died in 2008.
Towards the end of his life he withdrew his films from circulation, as he was “disgusted” when he saw badly pixelated films bootlegged and uploaded on YouTube. Conner was prescriptive in how his work should be displayed and screened. All of which is frustrating for those who want to see Conner’s films outside of the gallery, museum or film festival, and especially now, when so much of his originality and vision as a film-maker and artist has been copied by others.
‘Mea Culpa’ - David Byrne and Brian Eno. Directed by Bruce Conner