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Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Story Behind the Great Music in a 'Lost' Movie Classic About Los Angeles

"The Exiles" Exiled No More

In our popular culture we have an ongoing interest -- an obsession, really -- with discovering “overlooked” or “lost” works of arts and their creators. Music, movies, books, old TV shows, Broadway musicals, paintings--we’re as interested in old gems that slipped through the cracks as we are in new work. We have all become curators.

These rediscoveries also often have fascinating histories. One current celebrated example is the restored film The Exiles, a documentary-style movie from 1961 that follows a group of young American Indians who have moved from southwest reservations to downtown L.A.

All the action takes place during one long Friday night. Using non-professional actors and shot in high-contrast black-and-white with mostly available light, the film not only captures their restless, searching alienation (and their drinking) but also a mysterious L.A. of another time, another place.

Today, its locales appear to be conjured from a dream state of old L.A. pulp-fiction novels. Yet they were real at the time. The Bunker Hill section of downtown, where the subjects live, was a fading residential neighborhood back then -- it is office towers now. And streets like Broadway and Main Street were alive with raucous, rowdy working-class bars, movie palaces with glittering marquees and late-night stores advertising bottles of kosher wine for 59 cents. There was even a functional funicular to get people from downtown to Bunker Hill and back.

Among The Exiles’ other accomplishments was a thrilling and innovative rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, featuring unknown raucously celebratory instrumentals and a few wistful ballads presented as if they were the day’s biggest hits. They were heard as coming from radios and barroom jukeboxes, part of the natural, ambient environment of L.A. at the time. It’s a conceit, maybe, but it gets right just how much rock ‘n’ roll meant to the everyday fabric of urban American life. Especially L.A. For this and other reasons, one reviewer termed The Exiles (not quite) Native American Graffiti.

In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, two of the subjects go into a bar called the Columbine, where the jukebox blares out a dance instrumental that starts with percussion and then pushes on to squealing sax and rumbling guitar. The camera moves upon the faces in the late-night bar, pausing on an under-the-influence Caucasian male who dances provocatively with an Asian man. The implication, daring for the time, is that he’s gay -- part of this city of night.

The Exiles was the master’s thesis project of Kent Mackenzie, a University of Southern California film student who befriended his subjects well before shooting the film. Working with a three-man camera crew, he made the movie with financial help from his family. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival, but never received theatrical release -- confined instead, over the years, to museum and festival programming and film-studies classes. And obscurity. (Mackenzie, who made only one other feature film, died in 1980.)

But it 2003, L.A. film historian Thom Anderson praised it in his own film about how the movies have portrayed Los Angeles -- L.A. Plays Itself -- and the rediscovery started. In 2008, Milestone Films restored The Exiles and gave it a limited but highly praised theatrical release; last month a two-disc “premiere edition” was released on DVD.

Like the film itself, the music also has an interesting history -- one that seems to be only now slowly becoming documented. The film credits the Revels--Anthony Hilder and Robert Hafner--for the pop music sound track, without offering details. (Eddie Sunrise provided music used when the Indians “exiled” in L.A. meet late at night at “Hill X’’ overlooking downtown, to party.) Hilder and the Revels’ leader/saxophone player Norman Knowles were involved with an L.A. record label of the period called Impact.

The Revels were an instrumental act of the late 1950s/early 1960s out of San Luis Obispo, a city near the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They were not, it should be added, surf-rock. They preceded that. But they could be called party rock -- their name implies as much. Their songs had a good-time vibe that some have said was associated with drinking, similar to the Champs’ 1958 smash “Tequila.” A retrospective album is called, after all, Intoxica!!! And the band got a fair amount of airplay in 1960 with a song called “Church Key” -- a term for, among other things, beer can openers.

But the Revels are probably best known now for the instrumental “Comanche,” with its gritty, ominously driving sax part. It was used to powerful effect during one of Pulp Fiction’s more infamous scenes, and then released on the soundtrack. The Revels reactivated their career in the early 1990s because of that, although that has since been put on hold.

“Comanche” has had an active post-Pulp Fiction afterlife -- just this past October, it was used for contestants on the television program “So You Think You Can Dance.” Oddly, it was written for The Exiles, says the Revels’ Knowles during a telephone interview from his California home. But it wasn’t used. “‘Comanche’ was supposed to be done for the movie, but it didn’t get used,” he says. “Isn’t that weird?”

The songs that were used, Knowles says, were “Monkey Bird (Conga Twist)” -- in the celebrated Columbine bar scene -- “Tough Soul,” “It’s Party Time’ and “Revellion.” Revel pianist Sam Eddy wrote “Party Time;” Knowles the others.

Three of the songs already existed when The Exiles was made, Knowles says. But “Party Time” was different. It dominates yet another of the movie’s terrific bar scenes, this one focusing on a young American Indian named Tommy. He tries to enchant a young woman by pretending to play along, on a bar counter, to a catchy piano-based jukebox tune. He jokes to her that he’s Fats Domino or Huey “Piano” Smith, as she watches amused.

“Party Time” surprisingly was not recorded until after the scene was shot. “Kent brought a little 16 millimeter projector to the recording studio and showed that on the wall,” Knowles recalls. “We watched it a few times on the wall and then had Sam start making up some stuff. We did it right there to scenes of him (Tommy) playing.”

The Revels were not an American Indian band, so one open question is how they became involved in the project. Knowles himself isn’t sure, but thinks Mackenzie may have made contact with Impact, where the Revels were the house band for many productions.

But Knowles says Mackenzie also knew of the Revels’ reputation. “We were playing for Navajos a lot of time,” he says. “We played in Gallup (New Mexico) almost every month. We’d do really well in Navajo country.” Often, the band would tour with singers like Chubby Checker.

Talking to Knowles about those days reveals a world of Top-40 radio -- and record promotion -- every bit as vanished today as the Bunker Hill neighborhood shown in the film The Exiles. He recalls, for instance, stopping in an Oklahoma City radio station, while on the road, to promote “Church Key.”

“A guy walked in and said, ‘What in the world are you doing here at five in the morning,” Knowles recalls. “We said we just wanted to give this record to the deejay. He said, ‘I’m the engineer, come on up.’ He took us upstairs and it was all automated -- this was back in 1960. But they still programmed their own music.

“He said the program director would not be in until 8, but he’d give him the record,” Knowles continues. “So we went on our way. I thought that will be the end of that; he’ll probably take it home. We were probably halfway across the country when the station made it the pick of week. That made it a (regional) hit overnight.”

One enduring mystery about The Exiles' music is that it uses several lovely vocal songs that are not by the Revels. One is played on a radio in a Bunker Hill apartment right after a deejay identified as Larry McCormick introduces a Revels song called “Tough Breaks” (it’s really “Tough Soul”) as “one everyone digs so much” and says it’s ranked at Number Three.

The announcer then says, “Since Friday evening is always a good time, we’ll roll along with one called ‘Good Times’ by Charlie Wright.” A soulful ballad, with an introspective piano introduction a bit like “Unchained Melody,” then plays. And later in the film, in the Columbine bar before the Revels’ songs blare from the jukebox, there’s a lovely Dion & the Belmonts’-style teen ballad with mysteriously erotic lyrics that seem to say, “With me it’s almost love late at night.”

On a hunch, this writer emailed Charles Wright -- of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band fame -- to see if “Good Times” might be an early, pre-stardom song by him. He wrote back, “That certainly is me” but said he had never heard of the movie and wanted information on getting a copy.

Like so many of us, he will soon be discovering a “lost” classic.

By Steven Rosen
Sonic Boomers (www.sonicboomers.com)
— 12/04/2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

A (Chuck) Prophet For Our Times

Before I could even fully ask the question, Chuck Prophet — the Petty-with-an-edge Americana singer/songwriter/guitarist — was laughing.

I said the word “Wikipedia,” and he instantly knew I was heading to this paragraph in his entry: “Chuck Prophet parted with New West Records in 2005 after a restaurant tab argument involving an extra order of garlic bread.”

Really?

“It’s metaphoric, I suppose,” he says, calling from a cell phone while walking around San Francisco, where he lives. “It’s a lot funnier than what actually happened. There was a restaurant tab that left a bad taste in some people’s mouths. To be fair, it’s a very difficult business and it always was, even before people stopped buying records. Things get petty, what can I say? People get dropped all the time.”

But Prophet isn’t on the phone to talk about being dropped from a record label. He has a new CD out, Let Freedom Ring!, which features his imagistic, sometimes-gripping and sometimes-humorous impressions of hard living in a recession-gripped America. The songs are given a stripped-down Rock-quartet sound, a result of recording in a Mexico City studio with 1950s-era equipment.

Overall, the album plays like a soundtrack for Robert Frank’s outsider-compassionate The Americans photo series, featuring the kind of catchy, Folk-tinged Rock & Roll that Tom Petty inherited from The Stones and The Byrds and handed down to Prophet, who added Punk-era insight.

It’s his second release for North Carolina’s resourceful Yep Roc label, which has become a record company of refuge for all sorts of musicians with hard-won artistic integrity, from Nick Lowe and Robert Forster to Dave Alvin and The Apples in stereo.

Prophet’s first album for the label, 2007’s Soap and Water, was the highest profile in a career that started in the mid-1980s with a California AltRock band called Green on Red. The native Californian has been releasing solo albums since 1990, although he first worked with a British label and had only spotty U.S. distribution.

That changed with 1997’s Homemade Blood — a dark and disquieting take on suburbia — on the Cooking Vinyl label. Since then, he’s released five solo studio albums (on three different labels) and all sorts of side projects and collaborations, including playing guitar and co-writing songs with Alejandro Escovedo on Escovedo’s 2008 breakthrough, Real Animal.

With such Americana songs, it seems odd that Prophet would want to go to Mexico City to record.

“I think people initially thought I was after mariachi horns, but it wasn’t that,” he says. “Just as I had a batch of new songs, I heard from a friend who was an engineer and had moved down there. He said, ‘Man, you got to come down here. It’s like the 1960s.’

“Because of MySpace, MP3s and social networking, people are being exposed to music they never heard before,” Prophet explains. “Now, you’ve got people walking around listening to Death Cab for Cutie or Joni Mitchell or whatever, so in that respect it’s a kind of revolution down there and really open.

“So I visited my friend and we found this studio up on a hill that was state of the art for the late 1950s/early 1960s, and they’ve maintained it. I walked into that room and said, ‘This is it.’ So I went back to San Francisco, put my little cast together, and flew down with a tight little four-piece band.”

If Prophet’s album is political, it is opaquely so — more character-driven than polemical. That fits his personality.

“I often get quiet in political discussions,” he says. “If I can get people in my songs to sound real, that’s all I can do. I’ve written songs full of people I wouldn’t necessarily hang out with. That’s about as political as I am.”

But Prophet does have a reputation for being able to turn heads and throw listeners for a loop with his lyrics. His official biography acknowledges as much, heralding “a vivid parade of razor-edged one-liners.” And if you need proof, try this couplet from the sinewy “Hot Talk” on Let Freedom Ring!, which drives and builds ominously like the Stones’ “Shattered” or Greg Kihn’s “Breakup Song”: “She said, ‘Look up in the sky, there’s a billion stars we’ve yet to even name’/I said, ‘Oh yeah, well look over there, that’s an Indian casino built on a secret burial grave.’ ”

Prophet says he authorized the one-liner reference in his bio, but “I can’t say it makes me happy when people say that. I don’t think of myself as a one-liner guy, trading in Dylanesque non sequiturs or puns. I don’t trust it. As I’ve grown as a songwriter I’m less dazzling, although I think I’m getting better.”

And the line about the Indian casino, which appears to be a non sequitur? It came to Prophet after he played a gig at just such a place.

“The guy told me next year they’d have a better crowd because they were building a road straight to the casino — as long as they don’t uncover any more sacred burial grounds,” Prophet recalls. “He said he told his contractor, ‘If you see something, call me first,’ implying, ‘God forbid we lose a year standing around wondering what to do.’ If you find some bones, look the other way, please.’”

As someone else sang first, but Prophet would probably agree with: “Ain’t that America?”

CHUCK PROPHET performs 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2, at the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

By Steven Rosen
www.stevenrosenwriter.com
(This first appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat 11-25-09)

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