ural thomas

Where sound meets vision

Eric Isaacson's Mississippi Records Music and Film Series unites the music film with live performance

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 Theatre 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.

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Mississippi Records Music and Film Series poster

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.”

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Toody rocks.

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.

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Isaacson – photo by Jill Samish

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:

Continues…

The Kingsmen play the FBI's favorite song at the Oregon Historical Society. Credit: Kelsey M Curtis.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our national anthem,” proclaimed Kingsmen singer Dick Peterson as Thursday afternoon’s version of Portland’s legendary garage band exploded into the riff that launched a zillion dance moves of questionable sobriety. The band’s hit version of “Louie Louie” was recorded almost half a century ago a few blocks from the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon History Museum, where this concert kicked off Oregon Rocks!, a retrospective exhibit surveying the history of the city’s music scene. The group for this performance included Phil Volk, of Paul Revere & the Raiders, who also recorded “Louie Louie” in the same Portland studio around the same time.The Kingsmen’s set was preceded by a deliciously lively and smooth performance by veteran Portland R&B singer Ural Thomas, who glided around the mike stand in OHS’s plaza under the afternoon sun like a musician a third his age. His voice sounded every bit as clear as it must have four decades ago when he was opening for the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, or before that with his 1950s Portland group, the Montereys.

Although I did get to hear Portland Mayor Sam Adams read a proclamation about Portland music, I had to miss later sets by Quasi and Pierced Arrows. But Thomas and the Kingsmen’s performances alone were worth the admission price, especially considering that the latter had no doubt played the rock standards (“Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “Money,” “Twist and Shout” etc.) in this set hundreds of times, and the drummer was apparently a last minute fill-in who had to make a quick duct tape repair of his drum head. The rockers delivered familiar chords with real enthusiasm and punch, and the crowd smiled appreciatively.

One of the broadest smiles adorned the visage of filmmaker Marc Moscato, the 35-year-old visionary behind Portland’s Dill Pickle Club, which spearheaded this tribute concert. I hereby nominate Moscato for honors in the Civic History category of the mythical Most Valuable Portlander Awards I think should be given out each year. (Admittedly, competition is stiff in that particular slot: the Architectural Heritage Foundation, writers Randy Gragg and Brian Libby, et al.)

Over the last couple years, Portland’s DPC has sponsored tours about Works Progress Administration-era art in Portland, where our food comes from, how the city works, the history of Old Town/Chinatown (in partnership with Friends of Portland Chinatown), where power comes from, and more. DPC has also created Oregon History Comics, published books (including Northwest Passage: 50 Years of Independent Music from the Rose City), started the PDX Re Print lecture series that celebrates out-of-print books about the city, and partnered with Portland public schools. The tours and events I’ve attended attracted participants across the age spectrum, with most probably in their 20s and 30s.

DPC and OHS deserve kudos for focusing this time on Oregon’s arts scene. And it underlines the importance of preserving, celebrating, and reactivating that history. Thanks to this event, I would pay money to hear Ural Thomas, who I missed during his Jumptown glory days, sing again, but history lives on even when its protagonists don’t. The extinct bands and performers showcased in OHS’s Oregon Rocks! deserve to be recognized because they brought joy and contemplation and pathos and dancing and so much more to thousands of Oregonians.

I suppose some Oregonians will never understand why bands that gained brief fame for songs that boast only two or three chords and lyrics that — if you could make them out at all — go something like “Louie Louie, oh no / Me gotta go /Aye-yi-yi-yi…” merit enshrinement in a museum. Some rock/punk types might similarly resist entombing pop culture’s raw street energy in a stuffy glass museum case. But those songs and those bands meant something important to us, and historical surveys like Oregon Rocks! can tell us and our descendants what they meant and why it mattered, then and now.

Yet tangible mementos of those evanescent moments can be as ephemeral as the often gorgeous concert posters affixed to telephone poles (as many are in an especially clever part of this exhibit), only to be ripped down and discarded after the show is over. But history teaches us that even when the show is over, it’s not over. These stories still have meaning (if not necessarily the meaning the FBI thought “Louie Louie” did all those years ago) and will continue to resonate.

Portland proto-punkers Pierced Arrows helped open Oregon Rocks! Credit: Kelsey M. Curtis

For example, anyone who wonders where the coiled, dangerous anti-authoritarian power of punk music came from in the late ‘70s and ’80s, and even in today’s neo punk bands, may understand a bit more when they see the newspaper stories, displayed in Oregon Rocks! about the mid-‘60s riots around a rock concert at Seaside, complete with tear gassed teens dressed for a frat party, not a revolution. Important parts of Portland’s musical history disappeared with the African American neighborhoods that spawned them. Tapes of some of Thomas’s crucial 1970s music went up in smoke when a fire claimed the performance venue where they were recorded. It’s vital to preserve what’s left.

The exhibition has already proved useful to spreading the word about Oregon music beyond our borders, as I’m chronicling Portland’s music scene (all too briefly) for the Grove Encyclopedia of Music, which is, I suppose, even in these Wikipediatric conditions, the closest thing to an official record that non-Oregonians will likely peruse when they need a quick and dirty history of music that was sometimes, endearingly, both.

DPC’s Northwest Passage book proved a valuable resource for that article, as will OHS’s worthy exhibit, which was curated by Ryan Tobias and Floating World Comics’ Jason Leivian.
Admission to Oregon Rocks!, which runs through January 15, 2012  is free, by the way, for Multnomah County residents, although donations are needed, encouraged and accepted. I’m sure the curators join me in wishing that resources existed to provide an even more comprehensive overview of the city’s pop, blues and jazz musical history, not to mention the conspicuously absent classical music story. Despite its limitations, most probably unavoidable, Oregon Rocks! certainly compels the attention of every Portland music lover.

OHS’s well-documented struggles have occasioned assertions that, in economically stressful times, history just isn’t as important to Oregonians as more urgent needs like food and shelter. The same argument is regularly waged against the arts. That’s a discussion for another day — or actually many, many days. But this event, the OHS exhibition itself, and the success of new history-for-hipsters organizations like Dill Pickle Club and Research Club, whose conscientious efforts draw participants from all age ranges, demonstrate a real and growing craving for Oregon history.

Preserving our arts history (as in YU’s recent tribute to the old Portland Center for the Visual Arts) is especially important in a state that’s mostly inhabited by people who aren’t from here. Many of us — from some of the original trail blazers to today’s bike, brew and barista immigrants — ventured to Oregon seeking a place in which non-commercial values like nature and the arts (whether “Louie Louie” or Ludwig Van) take precedence over other priorities like big houses and big paychecks. No less than native Oregonians and old-timers, arts-loving newcomers treasure reminders that we’re part of a larger story, of many larger stories, that started before us and, with help from those such as Oregon Historical Society and Dill Pickle Club that are preserving our arts history, will go on beyond us.

If you heard Ural Thomas sing on Thursday afternoon, or ever rocked out to “Louie Louie,” or if you see Oregon Rocks!, you’d understand why, individually and collectively, Oregon’s arts history deserves attention and support. We owe it to future generations of Oregonians to leave something of our artistic heritage behind, for arts lovers who come along decades after all those original artists and their audiences have said, in the words of our national anthem, me gotta go now.

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