Pick an art form, any art form: Eric Isaacson could give you an enlightening, hilarious impromptu lecture on it. The proprietor of the Mississippi Records store and its accompanying record label is an encyclopedia of cultural knowledge; music, yes, everything about music, but also visual art, literature, film, and all their cross-disciplinary fringes. Last year, the Hollywood Theater wisely tapped his labyrinthine brain for the Mississippi Records Music and Film Series, a monthly event curated and hosted by Isaacson.
On January 22, the series kicked off its second year of programming with a screening of the 2004 documentary, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, a profile of Portland’s most venerated grassroots punk band.
In their day, Dead Moon (husband and wife team Fred and Toody Cole, plus drummer Andrew Loomis) was popular in the Pacific Northwest, but cultishly adored in Europe, where they were fervently embraced by the European festival scene as emblematic of a certain breed of fiercely individualistic, self-determined American artist. As an Austrian rock journalist explains in a broken English interview in the documentary, “No one who wants Dead Moon can buy Dead Moon.” They chose against affiliating themselves with an outside label – ever. Fred and Toody live in a rambling self-built house in the wilds of Clackamas. They infamously cut their own LPs on an ancient, precarious record lathe once owned by the Kingsmen.
The film, by Kate Fix and Jason Summers, explores the multifaceted musical career of two artists for whom ‘against the grain’ is a massive understatement. It’s the unlikely journey of four decades of Portland-based rock devotion, chronicling Fred’s roots as teenage rocker ‘Deep Soul Cole,’ to decades of psych/garage/bubblegum band involvement, to founding Dead Moon with Toody in the ‘80s as they both edged up on their 40th birthdays. By their own admission, they missed the Summer of Love – they were too busy homesteading and raising a passel of kids. When the kids were grown, they dove back into music, embracing stripped-down punk rock and the touring life. One of the most impressive things about Fred and Toody is how deftly they defy expectations about advancing age. As another European fan says in labored English, “They give me hope about being old. Because they are old, but they are still cool.”
It’s also the tale of Toody’s inspiring transition from the stay-at-home wife of a rocker, to a reluctant stand-in bassist, to a musical force in her own right. A longtime friend describes her timidity on the stage in the early days of Dead Moon (and its precursor band, the Rats). But in Unknown Passage’s present-day footage, Toody out-Patti Smiths Patti Smith as a savage punk rock priestess, with a wiry frame, a snarl of dark hair and mesmerizing stage presence.
And finally, it’s a love story. Married couples are not exactly uncommon in rock, but it feels special to see creative chemistry that flourishes unabated over decades. Watching Fred and Toody, I was put in mind of another punk rock power couple: Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of the Cramps. Like the Cramps, Dead Moon lays its foundations on a lifelong love affair chiseled out of the living rock of art and performance. The Coles stand out as a pair of freaks whose freakishness completes one another, who fan one another’s creative flames into a towering inferno. Post-screening, they took the stage for a mellow two-person set, plucking highlights from their 40-odd years of musical collaboration to a sold-out crowd.
I talked to Eric about his abiding love of Dead Moon, his plans for future installments of the Mississippi Records Film and Music Series, and his mainstream movie tastes:
LH: Dead Moon is a really one-of-a-kind band with such a long history in Portland. Can you talk about what you love the most about them?
EI: Fred, Toody and Andrew have an output that’s as impressive musically (or maybe more!) as people like Neil Young, Bob Dylan or the Beatles, but they made it happen without millions of dollars, an insulating entourage, the music industry machine pushing them and manufacturing their products, or drugs fueling their frenzy (well, maybe Andrew, a little). They put out 13 perfect records and toured the world while also operating their own label and distributing their own records, raising kids, running a business and supporting themselves through odd jobs doing construction.
Dead Moon is a shining example of how to work outside the machine and make great art. Their music may not have reached as many people as it could have due to their lack of collusion with the mainstream music industry, but, to me, it’s far more meaningful than the Beatles because of this. They are a REAL underground band.
LH: My favorite screening of the series last year was an incredible 1976 concert by Nina Simone, Live at Montreux. Her performance is absolutely on fire, but she’s really confrontational and antagonistic towards her audience.
EI: That’s actually my favorite live show ever caught on camera. Nina was living in Liberia right before it was shot. She had married an African prince and decided she was done with music forever. But then things didn’t work out so hot with the prince, and she was offered gobs of money from the Swiss to do an appearance at the jazz festival. I get the sense that she resented being there. It was her first public appearance in quite a while. But it’s one of those rare moments where you can tell an artist has completely surrendered to honesty and truth. She reveals herself, warts and all, and because it is true, it is beautiful (no real beauty comes without flaws; there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in).
LH: How did you conceive of this series? What made you put these films together the way you did?
EI: The series was actually conceived by Doug (Whyte) at the Hollywood. He approached me after I gave a presentation there and suggested that I do a monthly series of “whatever the hell I want” at the theater. I never would have thought to approach them about doing this, as they already have great programming without my help. I started to think of what I could bring them that they didn’t already have. I decided to use the following criteria:
- The program must have an element related to music.
- The films should be ones that have not been shown in Portland for a long, long time (if ever).
- The programs should be slightly difficult; things that make people feel a lot of emotions or challenge them in some other way, while still being entertaining.
- The programs should incorporate live musicians and presenters whenever possible.
LH: What screenings are upcoming in the 2015 series?
EI: [In February] we are having the Alan Lomax Archive screen a bunch of footage that Lomax shot in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s rarely-seen footage of folk cultures still managing to hold on to their traditions despite the modern world doing everything it can to bulldoze over them. There are drum and fife bands, blues, Mardi Gras indians, old time country music, gospel and on and on. This footage is culled from over 300 hours of footage. We’re showing this in celebration of Lomax’s 100th birthday.
After that, I’m collaborating with Church of Film, a couple of very deep heads who show films at the North Star Ballroom every Wednesday. They’ve managed to dig up tons of truly weird films I’ve never heard of, and we’re showing them. They’re tuned into a deep stream of real underground psychedelic stuff from all over the world. I asked them to give me all of their favorite scenes from movies that could work well as standalone silent pieces. I am going to pair these scenes with live performances by local musicians (I’m shooting for soul singer Ural Thomas, classical Indian raga vocalist Michael Stirling, guitar virtuoso Marisa Anderson and a few more folks). I don’t want to provide any soundtracks that are too self-consciously avant garde or abstract, more like songs that bring a new dimension to the scene. I think it will be a truly great show.
Beyond those two events, I have not nailed down the rest of the series for the year (I tend to work pretty haphazard and last minute). I’ve been thinking of bringing back the musician and cosmic thinker Phil Cohran for another show. A lot of folks missed his amazing musical performance and slide show on Egyptology, black power and the cosmos last year due to the snowstorm that hit (but 200 people did brave it!). I don’t want to reveal too much about the upcoming shows. Gotta keep it exciting…
LH: What are some of your favorite music documentaries or films about music that you haven’t screened yet?
EI: I have no plans to show any of these films because they all have been shown again and again, but I love the recent Townes Van Zandt doc Be Here To Love Me, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the Roky Erickson doc You’re Gonna Miss Me, Gimme Shelter… I actually have very mainstream tastes. I also love some campy shit like Phantom of the Paradise, True Stories, Wild in the Streets. Also, Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains and Born in Flames. As a rule, I do not like concert films… but once in a while, one will get me.
Music is the hardest thing to make a film about. There are very few successful music documentaries or films about musicians. It almost never works out, because ultimately, what’s so powerful about music is its abstract ability to feel like it is “yours.” Film tends to get in the way of the relationship between a person and the pure vibrations of music. But once in while, it works out.