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 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.

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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:

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:

  1. The program must have an element related to music.
  1. The films should be ones that have not been shown in Portland for a long, long time (if ever).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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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