Category Archives: Film/DVD

Watch Justice League Trailer & Listen to White Stripes Song

WS

Above: Jack and Meg in Joker-Harley Quinn mode.

By Uncle Blurt

Hell yeah I’m gonna see the Justice League movie when it comes out – as a recovering comic book nerd, I already feel that telltale itching at the back of my neck since I saw the trailer for the Zack Snyer-directed film. And while you watch Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg gettin’ with the gettin’ it on, you can revisit the White Stripes’ classic “Icky Thump,” which is the musical backing on the soundtrack of the trailer.

Video: Trailer for Sharon Jones & Dap-Kings Documentary

 

sharon_jones3-450x365

Dap dat!

By Blurt Staff / Photo by Susan Moll exclusively for Blurt

At the end of this month, July 29, the new Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings film Ms. Sharon Jones! will start showing (initially, in L.A. and NYC). It was directed by Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA; American Dream) and filmed in 2013. Here’s the trailer:

Nick Cave & Bad Seeds Announce New LP, Documentary

Nick-Cave

Pictured above is Cave at SXSW 2013 in Austin as part of our report; photo exclusively for Blurt by John Boydston.

By Barbi Martinez

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds fans are pinching themselves today at the news, finally, of a new album in the pipeline: the Cave camp announced today that on Sept. 9 Skeleton Tree will be released. It’s the followup to the group’s groundbreaking 2013 album Push the Sky Away (reviewed HERE; there was also a live release since then).

As Rolling Stone reports, on Sept. 8 the Seeds will have the entire record debuted via selected international theaters “as part of the One More Time With Feeling film that has been directed by New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly). The project began as a performance-based piece and evolved into a documentary-type project that explored the ‘tragic backdrop of the writing and recording of the album’ concerning the loss of Cave’s teenage son in July 2015… The film includes footage of the Bad Seeds performing Skeleton Tree, along with interviews and Cave’s candid musings.”

Mmmmm…. candid musings….. mmmm….. Go to the film’s site for full details on screenings, incidentally.

ELVIS COSTELLO – Detour: Live at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

Title: Elvis Costello - Detour: Live at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

Release Date: February 12, 2016

Eagle Vision

www.eagle-rock.com

Costello DD 2-12

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Based on the sheer power and largess of Costello’s catalog alone, any DVD that documents his 40 year career and more than 25 of his superb songs is in itself well worth the price of admission. Consequently, this live disc, taken from last year’s Detour tour, makes for an outstanding concert souvenir as well as a superb summation of Costello’s classic catalog. Granted there is a certain element of goofiness that accompanies the show’s center stage prop, the oversized Lupe-O-Tone TV set, but as a vehicle for Costello to ruminate a bit about his backstory and specifically his father’s career as a musician, it aids with the insight. More significantly, it provides an opportunity for Elvis to get up close and personal with diehard devotees.

 

As for the performances themselves, admittedly there is an element missing when Elvis opts to present his material sans a backing band. That’s especially apparent on songs drawn from his early insurgent phase — specifically “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down,” “Watching The Detectives” and “Accidents Will Happen” — tunes that would sound more in sync if he had a group in tow. However, he still pulls them off ably, albeit in acoustic/demo mode. Nevertheless, the best offerings come about when he has the support of his special guests, Rebecca and Megan Lowell of Larkin Poe, whose tightly-knit harmonies and adept instrumental abilities provide the backing on such standards as “Peace Love and Understanding,” “Blame It On Cain” and “Brilliant Mistake.”

 

Granted, this year’s model is considerably mellower than the angry young punk that exemplified the early Elvis, but that maturity has also brought an increased appreciation for his song craft and a stage persona that is both wiser and more wizened than ever before. Detour may have taken Costello off the beaten path, but it still finds him on the right road forward.

 

RODEO (IS) THE MAN: “The Great American Cowboy” (PT. 3)

FAR LEFT PHIL LYNE...FAR RiGHT LARRY MAHAN

PHIL LYNE INTERVIEW [Go HERE for Part 1, the Kieth Merrill interview; and HERE for Part 2, the Larry Mahan interview]

[Above: Phil Lyne, Preston Fox, Alan Cassidy, Larry Mahan]


BLURT: I wanted to ask you how has the rodeo that you took part in back in 1972 changed? I ask this because Jack Hart in the film mentions that he found the rodeo back in 1972 unrecognizable from when he was in it, so do you feel the same way about rodeo today?

PHIL LYNE: It has changed a bunch you know. Of course everything changes with the times. They probably rope smaller calves. They bulldog I’d say smaller steers. Things change and the biggest thing that kind of, they went to Vegas and there was nothing wrong with going to Vegas. I just thought that the facilities they had at Vegas were too small. I thought that they should’ve got a long with Vegas and said look you know if you’ll just build an arena. What they did besides having a stadium to play football in they had arena football. It was just too small to me.

 

What’s the adrenaline like when you’re sitting on top of a bucking bull or bronco?

 I just liked it. It was what I liked to do. That’s what I want to do, ever since I was little I liked to ride and I roped. I was raised on a ranch. You know some of them have high school rodeos or college rodeos, and they gave points like for all around and stuff and they do in the PRCA and RCA it is money. I had someone ask me did you just do it for the points and I said no I like to do it. I like to ride bareback horse, like to ride broncs, like to ride bulls, like to bulldog and I like to rope. I just liked everything to do in rodeo.

 

I was talking to Larry Mahan and he was saying that he became a bit of an adrenaline junkie.

 Well it’s a thrill. You know when you ride a good bull a ranked bull, and you ride him, you know there’s probably not that many people that can ride that bull. You don’t get thrown off very much, you kinda get sometimes a rush of adrenaline in your body when you get off when you just, kinda like Larry said you become a junkie to it maybe in a way. I just enjoyed it. I liked it. In the calf roping its rhythm and timing and when you can put everything together time and time again and not make mistakes it kind of gives you a rush too.

 

Are you still working your family ranch?

 Yeah. I live in Cotulla now and my wife and I bought a place over here a ranch and we ranch in George West. We’ve been in Cotulla since 74’.

 

What was it like for you to walk away on top and did you ever consider staging a comeback?

 Well see, I’ve heard people say you know well it was my goal to do this or it was my goal to do that or that was the goal that I set for myself and so forth. This is the honest truth, I never thought about winning the world and all around in the RCA. I did it because I wanted to. I rodeod because I wanted to rodeo. I liked to be around the guys. I liked to do it. I liked to get on, I liked to ride. I liked to rope. I didn’t win and say look I want to be a world champion. I didn’t say that when I was in high school, or that I wanted to beat so and so. I didn’t care about even though some of the guys you know you’ve always got a guy that you don’t always care a lot for but I never looked at it like well I want to beat him because I’m upset with him or pissed off at him.  I just rodeod because I liked to rodeo. I woke up there one day and there I was, I was in the lead for the world you know in the calf roping and the all-around, which was fine with me. I just went ahead and competed and did the best I could do each and every time. That’s the way I always looked at it. If you set a goal for yourself and you reach the goal, well maybe you should’ve set a little higher goal. I never did set goals. I just did the best I could do.

 

In the film it leaves the impression that you did it because you enjoyed it but your real goal was to go return to ranching.

 I like to hunt. I wasn’t getting to do [that]. I had rodeod hard for probably 10 years even though I wasn’t but 24 years old. I amateured a lot, and I’d go to 3 or 4 rodeos a week when I was amateur even in [high school] and stuff. When I got off and stayed on the road for two years and I wasn’t getting to do. I wasn’t getting to hunt. I like to use dogs and stuff, to work cattle with dogs. I like to use little dogs to run hogs with and stuff like that. I like to hunt and so you know I just kind of did what I always wanted to do. I took care of things first at home and then did what I need[ed] to do later. You know you kinda gotta take care of business first. A lot of times if I wasn’t practicing enough then I felt that even after I got married that if I didn’t practice twice a day or something like that. Well I wasn’t really putting out enough. I might be cheating my family. Boy, you get to doing that and then you try and keep things going at the ranch at the same time and there’s not enough hours in the day. This was after I quit rodeoing, I quit the riding events. Later on I ended up winning the steer roping title in 1990 because in the 80’s the steer ropers were really good and they had a lot of big jackpots. It was really good. I won it in 90’and I quit in 90 after that. It wasn’t [that  I] quit because I won it, I quit because the money deal went the other way. So why do it? Plus, I had to drive 300 miles to get started where I am down here. In the 1980’s I probably won just in the steer roping $125,000 , $150,000  tripping steers and that was a lot of damn money back then. We bought a place and it helped us to get by. Then in about ’88 it turned and started [going] the other way.

 

So you’re saying the money decreased?

   Oh yeah, I’ll give you an example, I went to a jackpot in 88’ [in] Denton Texas. The Smith brothers put it on. They had I think 46 ropers or 48 ropers and the entry fee was $500, it might’ve been $750. I won third in one round, then I come back in a short drove. I think third in the average and I won the short drove, won the average. I won 11,000 a little over $11,000. Then the next year they started an AB association. In the A association, which I had to rope there [were] 26 or 27 entries. I think we roped for $400 and they took out a $100 for stock charge. Then I placed identical the same way and won $3480. And then the next year they called and invited me to come and I said how many ropers you got in the open? They said 16. I said I’m not coming. Because why go you know? It [has] always been kind of a business deal to me after I quit. When I was young and riding bulls and rough stock in rodeo in the RCA, I did it because I wanted to. I just liked to compete in rodeo. It probably wouldn’t’ve made any difference if were just riding for marbles. I just liked to do it. When it got to the point that I felt that I was missing. I grew up on a ranch, the nearest kid was 6 or 7 miles and hell I hunted all the time with what we called, excuse me, because it wasn’t a sling shot. A sling shot is what you swing around your head with two leather straps like David killed Goliath with. What we used was what we called [Ni**er] shooters, you can’t say that anymore now. I think they call it wrist rockets. That’s what we used. By the time I was 6 or 7 years old I had a .22 and I was by myself with a .22. I just hunted and I still to this day I love to hunt. Missing out on that, I was missing out on it then I got married. I went a little bit this and that. It’s just priorities what you want to do in your life. Everybody’s different.

 

What was it like working with Director Kieth Merrill?

 They were there sometimes on the chutes you know or around a roping box, or the bucking shoots. They came out to the ranch one time. We hunted some birds. They were all really great to work with. They never like pestered me or got in the way, they were good, really good!

 

What was it like when you saw the final cut of the film and where did you see the film for the first time?

 Where was it Oklahoma City? I’m not sure. I don’t even remember.

 

Do you remember what your reaction was to seeing the film the first time?

 You see and it didn’t make any difference to me it was no big deal, but the RCA called me and told me they were going to do a 10-minute or 15-minute documentary on rodeo and wanted to know if I would help them? I said sure no big deal. I thought it was gonna be a 10 to 15-minute documentary. They told me [it was] gonna play at these theatres, [during a] double feature, between the two movies. So when I saw it, it kind of surprised me.

 

What was it like to see yourself up on the screen? 

Some of the deals they kind of showed me not doing so good. Then they’d show Larry doing better and maybe you know in the end well Larry got hurt. In the end I went on ahead and won. Maybe that was the way they had it to make it work right. I don’t know.

 

Was it not like that in reality?

 I think maybe if they’d have checked. I don’t know but I think at the time Larry got hurt I was $12,000 ahead of him. You know we were competing and I’m just like Larry, if you gave him the option of me getting hurt or not getting hurt, he would take it not getting hurt. I’m the same way I didn’t want to see him get hurt. You know we’re just not that way. I’m sure Larry feels the same way. He’ll bust his ass to beat you every time, but he’s not going to cheat you in any way. He’s just not that kind of guy. We’ve got a few in rodeo. You’ll see guys that’ll do anything if they can win. There’s a bunch of them there that won’t.

 

I was talking with Director Merrill a couple of weeks ago and he was saying that today’s rodeo men are more athletes than cowboys. He said he takes nothing away from their athleticism but that they aren’t true cowboys. What’s your feeling on this subject?

 There’s probably more boys that when I was rodeoing that [were] actually cowboys. They could go out on a ranch and [actually] do something. I think that I came up amateur, high school, college and professionals in the best time of rodeo. Like now you see guys that they’re in big rigs and they’re by themselves or they got a driver. You know back when we rodeoed, there might three or four of us in a rig. You took turns driving. Hell we had a good time too. I think we had more fun. Like Larry who had a plane I had a Cessna 210 and guys rode with me and guys rode with Larry and we made a lot of rodeos. I may make 125 rodeos one year and 135 the next but if you’re rodeoing you got a line of rodeos set up to go to. If you’re in South Dakota what are you gonna do, you gonna go home or fly home and then wait to go to another rodeo in a week or ten days? We had [them] lined up where our expenses were the same other than the entry fee. Some guys would pull some stunts like Chris LeDoux he was one time in Vancouver and he entered Jasper Texas and he had to fly to Houston and he was up in Saskatchewan the next day. I think he had to win first in the bareback riding to make any money and he had to win second to break even. You had a few guys that pulled some crazy deals like that but not very many. Most of the guys were trying to make some money. I never pulled any crazy stunts like that.

 

So you’re a pilot as well?

 I had a Cessna 210. I put 330 hours on the thing. I had my pilots license. They (Kieth Merrill) wanted to get in with me and ride with me for a couple of days. I told them it would be fine but that they’d have to let me know ahead of time. I told them two or three weeks ahead of time. That’s because I had guys with me that were riding and they were depending on me to get them to the rodeos that we entered together. They had to let me know so I could let them know. I told some of the boys, I said some time these guys are going to want to get in for a day or two so ya’ll gonna have to make arrangements when it comes up. I told them give me a couple of weeks’ notice. They said that’ll be fine. Well they show up on the Fourth of July in Cody Wyoming and they wanted me to get a couple of guys out and jump in and I told them no way. I don’t know if that upset them, I guess it did. I couldn’t put those two guys out to let the film crew in. If I did kick them out how are they gonna get there [otherwise].

 

So before you built a name for yourself, how were you getting from rodeo to rodeo? Were you hitching rides, or were you sharing a car with somebody? I ask this because Larry talks about how he had a school and he would teach kids how to share rides and how to live off a hamburger a day. So how did you get around?

 There was always two three or four of us get together. It just depends maybe a couple of us roped calves. Or maybe there was a couple three of us that rode rough stock and would get in a car and you know when I got there I’d call ahead and talk to the guys and say hey are you going to [a] certain place and you know could I ride your horse?

I’m gonna be up Saturday night. Oh yeah that’s fine and I paid him 25% of what I won. I don’t know this hamburger a day and all of this stuff. I know that I just tried to get hold of two or three good guys and split everything up. I travelled with bulldoggers. I travelled with calf ropers. I travelled with rough stock. [The] hamburger a day this and that I don’t know. [At] holiday inn there’d be 4 of us in a room [splitting] $14 and we’d split it 4 ways. Sometimes there’d be six [of us] and we[‘d] split the mattress on one bed. I [saw] Larry just get a motel room by himself. I always looked at it [to make] money. I usually ate more than a hamburger a day. I guess I was lucky enough, that I [was able] to.  I didn’t have anyone [travelling] with me either that had to miss any meals. Hell if I knew I’d have helped them!

 

Are you still in touch with Larry, and do you still make appearances from time to time at events?

 I team rope. I’ve got a grandson that’s 17. He ropes good, bulldogs good, and team ropes good. In fact, he just left today to go to Stevensville to a jackpot roping up there. I have a granddaughter she’s eight. She does good in the barrels and poles. I just cut two fingers off September the 26th in Amarillo. My little finger and my ring finger. I heeled a steer and the steer was strong and the rope was running over the horn and the rope come around my little finger and my ring finger and got them.

 

Is your hand healing?

 Oh yeah its good. I’ve already placed. I roped two weeks ago. I roped at San Antonio and placed there. Its good. I’ve still got the same wife. I’ve been married for 42 years. I just about got her straightened out too!

 

Do you sometimes call Larry or see him?

Yeah I sometimes call him and BS a bit.

 

Larry was saying something that I thought was really interesting he said that the bulls and the broncs today are even bigger than they were back then.

 The horses I think they feed them better. They take better care of them. The bulls the same way. I think that if you can ride the ranker the stock the better it is for you. You got to draw some buckers. I feel like when Larry and I was going that sometimes you didn’t draw anything that you could win anything on. But I think what’s so great now these guys are being able to go and get on and everything or most of them that they get on they win on. The only problem is they’ve got to ride them. The horses are probably in better condition and they grain them probably better. The bulls definitely they take better care of a lot of the bulls. My guys have got really good bulls, they’re not making any money out of it, but they’re in it because they want to ride bucking bulls. They take a lot of pride in having that quality of bucking stock. Some of these guys like the Kesler brothers in Montana they probably have 700 or 900 horses and no telling how many Calgary’s got. Problem now is they’re running out of [bronc and bareback riders].

 

So you’re saying that it’s hard to find these kind of people to ride these animals these days?

 What’s funny was when I was in high school, we’d go to these high school rodeos, we’d have from 60 to 80 bull riders. Now when we go to these high school rodeos you’re lucky to get 4 or 5 or 6. And then in the bareback riding we’d always have 40-60 bareback riders. Now you’re lucky to have 4 or 5 or 6 bareback riders. We just don’t have them like we used to. I don’t know why.

 

What do you think these days of people wearing helmets and pads? How does that settle with you someone who came up without safety equipment?

 I don’t know if they call it stupidity or what. I got hit in the head one time in Utah that knocked me out for two and half hours but other than that. That’s the only time I think that I’d have needed a helmet. It only takes once you know. As far as I always thought that the worst thing about riding bulls was getting stepped on. Cause really you take [2000 pounds and put it in an 80-inch it that can mess the hell out of you]. As far as getting hooked or getting a horn run into you, I never thought about it. Probably the worst thing is getting stepped on. Maybe the vest could prevent people from getting killed. The helmets, they still get their teeth knocked out. I think a lot of that is the way you ride too. I hate to say whether I’d use a helmet.  I would think if they had to ask me yes or no, [I’d say no]. But now a vest is mandatory. [So] you have to [wear it] or else you wouldn’t be able to get on.

 

Did you ever ride Oscar?

 I tell ya what. I think Bob Cooke told me one time he threw me off at one of their rodeos. I ran in there and there [were] two bulls left in the chute and one of them was mine we jumped on right quick.  I got on and he threw me before the whistles. He got me, which was now Cooke said that was Oscar. If it was that was the only time that I ever got on him.

 

A lot of cowboys back then unlike you and Larry they were living from rodeo to rodeo. They had to try and make ends meet. So it must’ve been a pretty desperate situation for a lot of them?

 Yeah, you know I know some guys that they would rope and they would just, or they would ride and they wouldn’t have the funds and they’d just have to go home. There were other guys that would work the stock or do stuff around the rodeo to pick up a little extra money. In that sense a lot of them didn’t [just depend on somebody else to send them money]. They had to make it on their own.  I’m sure some of the guy’s moms and dads would send them some money to help them but they were a whole lot more conservative than a lot of the guys that compete today. Of course it’s hard for me to say that because I really don’t compete today and I don’t know really how conservative some of them are. But when I look around the rodeos and see how they do and what they do, it doesn’t look like to me that they’re being very conservative.

 

What do you mean by conservative?

 Like a friend of mine was at Stevensville and there were four guys there that were going to San Antonio to compete. They were all in four different rigs and there were team ropers and bulldoggers and stuff like that. They all took four rigs to San Antonio and came back. I can’t see that, I don’t know why they would do that, when they could’ve thrown their horses in together and [travelled] in one rig. Look just how much more it costs you to drive from Stevensville to San Antonio [in] four rigs then to drive one and come back.

When I had the Cessna 210 I charged the boys a nickel a mile to ride with me, which in that 210 cost me $18 an hour to fly. That [included] insurance, fuel, depreciation the whole nine yards. [It] flew over a 180 miles an hour. If I had two guys in there with me I was travelling for nothing. It was a good deal for them. If I had three, then I was making a nickel a mile. I got home with probably half of what I won. I thought that’s pretty good.

 


So when did you get your pilots license and who had a plane first you or Larry?

 I got a pilot’s license in 1972. Larry had a plane first. Larry probably had a plane back in the mid-sixties, I would imagine. I wanted a 210, I wanted more umpf! So TJ Walker and I bought a 210 at Black Aviation in Albuquerque at the [beginning] of 72’ and then I bought him out later on and then I flew it that year and then after year or so I sold it.

 

You buy the plane new or used?

 Oh no it was used. It had about 2300 hours on the airframe and 18 hours on a new major overhaul on the engine. I gave $12,900 for it. I put 330 hours on it and sold it for $13,000. I did 1800 of upkeep on it.

 

In the film there are some kids as well as cowboys who talk about the numerous hits they’ve taken. It seems for some of these younger riders getting hurt was sort of a badge of honor. What are your thoughts on this? Did people really talk that way?

 I don’t know where Kieth came up with those guys. Kinda like wanting a little sympathy and then saying here’s how tough I am. I did this and I did that. All the guys that don’t even say a word about it and you don’t but they’re participating with some pain but you don’t know about it. You know that’s a real cowboy. Better than a guy that comes out [and] wants a little sympathy or something you know?

 

So you’re saying that the guys you hung out with never talked about the pain they were in?

 That’s a pretty good way to put it. Sometimes you just gotta take a little of it. I mean shit if it’s where you can’t win, then you need to go home and get well. But hell everybody’s gonna have a little pain here and a little pain there. Some people can just take more pain than others.

 

Do you think you’re one of them?

 I just like to rodeo like I said. I yell ya what I think is really good is the sports medicine, that the guys can help the guys and tell’em hey you know you need to go home and get well. Or they can say he if you can stand the pain, it’s not gonna hurt ya. It’ll take a little longer to get well. If you can stand the pain, that’s up to you. This is one of the deals that we missed out on that I think is really great for those guys now. Because like hell you’re not a doctor you just go by [how] you feel. Sometimes you can try to be too tough. You can do more damage. You’re better off to go get well.

 

Larry mentions now they have sports medicine and breeding programs for livestock, that back when you two were competing it was basically the dawn of this new era in rodeo.

 To me everybody does or participates because they think that it’s the right way to do it. But sometimes those guys, the people that get them to doing stuff don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and they get them to doing certain things, that’s really not consistent and not the [way]you should do them. Let’s put it that way. Like calf roping and riding bulls I’ve got ways, what you should do that is to be consistent and make the best runs in calf roping. A lot of people you watch a run, watch a complete run of a guy rope a calf and tie it and you say what did he do wrong? He says I don’t know. Well did he do this or did he do that? Well he says how did you see that? Hell [weren’t] you watching? You see stuff in a run I think that and other people can’t. I was so picky at myself and I figured out stuff and I was lucky maybe that I figured out what I thought was right, or the best way to do things. I know that it works for other people because I showed them it worked. They can do what I show them and they can make better runs but they can’t mentally consistently practice those habits and get them to work where they are muscle memory. You can’t do the bad habits. It’ll eat you up. If you’ve got, ten things that you’ve got to do in a calf roping run to make a smooth solid run and you can only do each thing fifty percent of the time successfully how the hell are you going to get to the end of that run? You see what I mean if you do it this way you can only make it work fifty percent of the time because you’re [going to] mess up. If you can do it the other way and [do it 99%] of the time and make it work, then you can make consistent runs one after another. You get to where you’re solid. It’s just [like being a] receiver. I don’t care how fast or how good a route he runs, if he can’t catch that damn ball he ain’t doing you any good.  That’s the same way with roping and it’s the same way with riding bulls. People talk about the Brazilians being so hungry. The Brazilians are taking hold and they’re taking hold of riding the bull and they’re not getting out over the front end too far which I think is what a lot of the American riders do.

 

Larry says that when he was on a bull he was able to compartmentalize it down to fractions of a second. I assume you have to get into a similar mindset when you’re dealing with calf roping as well?

 With Calf roping [it’s] the muscle memory, the smoothness and everything and [you] put it all together [along with] rhythm the timing. I wasn’t that big but I flanked a lot of big calves. I could handle a big calf pretty [well]. A lot of guys couldn’t understand how I could do it but it was rhythm and timing and being in the right spot [at the right time]. In roping position [is everything].

 

How did you develop you’re roping style?  Who taught you?

 Well nobody I just sat down and figured it out. Now the kids they have more schools to go to and people to go to but sometimes you gotta watch if you go to those schools or you watch the guys who put on the schools. You’ve gotta pick that chicken shit out of the salt and pepper. Some of them are so full of bull. All they do there is just take your money. I was lucky that I just happened to hit on some things that I thought was right and I practiced right. You know what I had to do to win. I tell ya what like riding bulls. I really liked to ride those bulls and I was at Cheyenne and Cowtown hadn’t been rode in 5 years. The only bull to throw George Paul off at the saddle. I went and I had him in the short go and I went over and I asked Dicky and of course I wasn’t a rookie it was my second year. He said, what hand you riding him with? I said right. He says you can’t ride him. I thought shit. So I went over and asked Doug Brown what about Cowtown and he says what hand you riding him with? I said right and he says you can’t ride him. So I went over and asked Paul Mayo, what about Cowtown? He said what hand you riding him with? I said right. He said you ain’t got a chance. So I walked to George Paul and asked what about Cowtown? He said, “Fuck that son of a bitch!” He said you put your hand over and you move your hand over almost in the middle of his back and every time he makes a round you look in there. I’ve always put my little finger right next to the backbone. I never put my hand over the middle. I did like George said I moved over where my ring finger was right in the middle of his back and boy I snapped him off. It was just so easy. From that day on you know where that ring finger went right in the middle of that backbone. I think that helped my bull riding 100%. I always thought that and I still think today that when you put that hand over in the middle that it takes some of that power away from them bulls where your dead center. If you put your little finger next to the backbone well then you’ve got to ride a little catawampus to allow when they jerk, you. They jerk you into your hand. If you watch 9 out of 10 guys will get bucked off or bucked off into their hand. That [was the] one deal right there in Cheyenne, that helped my bull riding 100% .

 

So unlike the kids you mentioned that went back to their habitual ways once out of your school, you seemed to be able to take advice from other riders and incorporate it into your own style?

 When I rode Cowtown and I rode him so easy. I said holy shit. So I kept doing it and it just kept working.

 

I was curious; there’s a scene in the Great American Cowboy where one of the steer wrestler’s kind of gets ahead of the animal and the steer is pushing the man. Director Merrill then stops the frame right there and you see the cowboy looking back at the animal and the steer is looking forward. How hard is it to take down one of those steer and have you been in a situation like that?

 That steer wasn’t trying to push him. It was at Cheyenne and the guy kind of missed the steer and then he ended up in front of him the steer and the steer is looking at him and they get kind of balled up there. I’ve never seen a bulldog push somebody. As far as taking one of them down. I liked to bulldog I really did but I just wasn’t big enough. I weighed a 153 pounds when I was rodeoing. Some of the guys I rodeod with they weighed 210, 220, 260. The bulldoggers some of them had a 100 pounds on me. I didn’t have much of a chance of winning but I did place. The guys who win in the bulldogging comes back to if their fundamentals are really good. They’ve got the better horses. Its doing the right thing just like the calf roping.

 

How old are you now if I may ask?

 I’m 68.

 

How old is Larry?

 He has to be 85 or 90 [right]?

Naw, I’m kidding (chuckling).

I imagine Larry is probably 73. 72,73 maybe.

 

Did you ever wear a pair of Larry Mahan boots?

No I never did.

 

What did you think when the film won an Oscar?

 Well I think it was good. I think it helped rodeo. I think they did a good job. They had to get a world of footage. Just like that guy you mentioned looking eyeball to eyeball with that steer. They did a good job. I think I thought it was kind of corny with those guys. Like the deal you brought out about those guys talking about how they’d done this or got hurt. I don’t know where they found those guys. I think out there in California or somewhere. I thought that was awful corny. What sells the movies, sometimes the guys in them think this might be corny. While some people might think hell that’s just great!

Thanks to Kieth, Larry and Phil! – Ed

RODEO (IS) THE MAN: “The Great American Cowboy” (PT. 2)

 

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INTERVIEW WITH LARRY MAHAN  [Go HERE for Part 1, the Kieth Merrill interview]

BLURT: How has rodeo changed from the early ‘70s?

LARRY MAHAN: You know in a couple of the events the equipment has changed, like in the bare back riding it’s a totally different style and the roping, tie down roping the calves are a lot smaller and the top ropers, quite a few of the top ropers are a lot smaller now because of that. Back in my day the guys that roped calves were bigger and the calves could be up to a 100 pounds heavier. The performance, the rodeo performances have changed in that now there’s, they’ve gone for a younger market and there’s a lot of Rock and Roll and they’ve timed a lot of the events to different high energy rock and roll sounds.  It’s very loud compared to what it was back then, and the mode of transportation for these guys that work the timed events is something that has changed so much. Back during my time, the guys that worked the timed events they might have a pickup and a camper with a two horse trailer behind it and now these rodeo guys in the timed events are driving huge semi-trucks with living quarters and trailers that can haul 4 or 5 horses, and it’s like a 40 [or] 45-foot rig going down the road. Quite often those guys have two rigs on the road and they have drivers driving for them and they just fly in and do their deal and then they’re off again, they spend some time on the road it just depends on how many events they are trying to get to during a particular time. Of course the money has changed, not comparable to other sports but according to the governments calculations my biggest year was $63,000 that was 1973 and the top all around guy now probably wins $350,000 I’m not sure but somewhere in that area, but sixty thousand back then was worth in this day and age would be worth three hundred and something thousand. So that’s been interesting how the inflation and the dollar signs have changed more there up in the six figure bracket now but it’s basically the same amount for money and it costs a lot more to go up and down the road in this day and age then it did back then. I really feel that for the rodeo cowboys that were competing back then, there was some really good athletes, but rodeo has come so far because of sports medicines, sports psychology. The group that I was in was just starting to get into the mind game of the sport and now the opportunity is there to where they can take that a lot farther.  I think they’ve taken their athletic abilities to higher levels in some of the events.

 

Have the animals changed in terms of how they’re bred?

They have yes. That has been a huge change because the breeding programs that these stock people have developed have turned out to create animals that are in the bucking horse events, there has always been big horses but now more big horses they are breeding. Genetically they are breeding for bigger horses. The bulls are more athletic and they have proven like in race horses if you breed the right stallion to the right mare you have the chance at getting a great offspring. Now they have competitions for the bulls so that has changed. During my time there were always tough animals and in the national finals they had tough animals, but throughout the year now there’s more tough animals out there and especially in the bull, well obviously the bull riding and the horse riding events, so PBR your probably familiar with that. The bull riding, they have taken that to an amazing level in so many different ways. They’ve taken the event that where the element of danger is the greatest and it’s probably the fans favorite event and they’ve developed, that’s where they really shine with their bulls and the bulls I mean there are so many of them that are almost un-rideable. My concern is are they crossing enough people to create good enough bull riders to ride these suckers. I mean they cripple them right and left you know.

 

So would Oscar actually be a formidable bull in today’s terms?

 Oscar would’ve fit into the top echelon in the bucking bull world, yes, but he’d probably, I don’t think he would’ve been the top bull of the year because of his style of bucking, that fast spin. Now they have bulls that maybe they’re not spinning that fast but you’ll see pictures of the bugger almost standing on their heads they kick so high and that spin there’s much power there. Oscar to me was just a swift chicken you know; the power wasn’t there but he had centrifugal force that very few bulls had during that time.

 

The film has an energy and punch to it that doesn’t seem to have aged.

 Well Kieth was so far ahead of his time and I really think that he helped to revolutionize the rodeo world when it comes to capturing the sport and because it was such a piece of art along with the action and the energy it was just amazing and I’ve yet to see anything that would come close to, there have been documentaries that have been done on rodeo, but nothing that would even come close to what Kieth did. As the years went by I’d see when rodeos were being filmed or people were doing a little special on them or whatever you could see that they had definitely studied Kieth’s work. It was just such a treat to be involved with that and to me it was so amazing. I’d become a pilot and loved flying, so I had two passions going at the same time. I’d swear there were times that I would have to go to a rodeo 200 miles down the road, which was just a hop and a jump with my old airplane and I’d go to an afternoon rodeo and pull in there for another rodeo in some other town could be 200 or who knows how many miles, and there’s Kieth and his family and the crew, and I was like holy cow. It was just amazing to watch them I mean they were; you talk about some energetic people in that crew. I mean they didn’t weaken, they got after it. They really did!

The thing is Kieth was such a clean cut guy I think that he was a very spiritual kind of guy I’m sure back then and I’m sure that he still is and that has a lot to do with all of that energy. I just had a feeling back then that he was on such a good track, and I’m glad to hear that, it would never have crossed my mind that he wouldn’t have stayed on that track because he made a commitment to his belief system.

 When I turned pro in the rodeo game you get a permit and you have to win a thousand dollars on that permit and I was right out of high school and had moved from Oregon to Arizona and I was about 3-4 hundred dollars from filling that permit, because I was dying to turn pro. I went to El Paso in 1963 won second in the bull riding $852 and that was the most money I’d seen in one pile in my life and that put me over the limit and I turned pro that next week.

 

So you have El Paso to thank for it?

 Absolutely, otherwise it might’ve take me another twenty-five years to get that last 400 dollars, maybe not though.

People ask me all the time don’t you wish you were in rodeo now with all this money? Well basically the money is the same except everything has gone up. But I says you know I rodeoed during the best time to be a rodeo cowboy. The world was so much friendlier and in this day and age if I jumped out of a rent car and had to leave it somewhere and run through the airport they’d shoot you. Now it takes longer to get through the airport and security than it does to your destination most of the time. So it was a friendly time and it was, and being able to fly around the country with such a freewheeling lifestyle, it really did represent I think what this country stands for, which is independence, freedom and you get to make all of your own choices on where you want to go and when you want to do it. I really feel that we as a nation have lost a lot of that and it’s very sad.

 

Director Merrill spends a lot of the film on the competition between you and Phil Lyne and shows you giving back to the younger generation by teaching them riding skills and how to survive on a hamburger a day.

 Yeah (chuckling) that’s when they shot the rodeo school down there in Austin. That was a fun time. He did such a great job, the way he would weave things in and out and add the story line go through that world of rodeo and expose so many aspects of the sport was just incredible the way he did it. He’s a genius in my eyes. I’d love to see some of his other stuff, I’ve never had an opportunity to do that. I’ll have to find some of it.

 

What was your reaction when you saw the final cut of the film and where did you see the final cut?

 I think I saw the final cut in Cody, Wyoming when he had the premiere. When I saw that last shot the way he did that freeze frame and ran the credits all I could think of was, wow amazing! I still have people today ask me if I rode Oscar. I’ve made up so many stories. What a way to end it but the action the way he would just go with all that energy and power and then all of a sudden the next frame would be some bucking horses standing there eating and picking up the sounds of them chewing, it was just incredible. Then the shots with Jack Hart and the other old men there at Cheyenne that said rodeo used to be tough, during that wild horse race. He captured so much. That must’ve been a nightmare to try and edit all the stuff and Doug Hall had become a good friend of mine that worked with him on I think the narration on some of it. Doug passed away a few years ago.

 

You mention Jack Hart. I love the scene where he tries to light his cigarette for almost 2 minutes while talking about how the rodeo was back in the old days. It’s a great portrait of a type of man and way of life that was quickly vanishing.

 He was the old wild west. The story on old Jack was quite interesting supposedly he was a pretty handy man with a gun and I think I’d heard that he was sort of a bodyguard for one of the boys up there in Las Vegas and probably tried to shoot at a few people and tried to miss’em but he hit them. He was a character; he was really something. I got to know him really well in fact to the point that before they did the film Cow Palace he was baby sitting my little daughter one night, so I said Jack you’re a babysitter, I said my goodness she’s not gonna be any safer and  you know that he’s packing. He was funny. He was a great old man. At the Cow Palace they one of those big Quonset huts back then and they would have bunk beds in there so if you got there early enough, they’d probably had 50 beds in there. You could stay there for the week and just camp in that room, in that Quonset hut. Jack stayed down there and he also had connections that he was running the stalls and he would issue the stalls to the guys and they had to pay him a pretty good amount of money and so on. He said one night, I’d stayed in the old Quonset hut a couple of times earlier, I’d sorta graduated from that. He said one night some guys came in about two o’clock in the morning after the bars [had closed] and Jack was in there and they come in drunk and they [were] making a noise and said all of a sudden there was a big boom, old Jack just pulled his pistol out and shot it through the ceiling, he said you could’ve heard a mouse poop.

 

The film has these punctuated moments such as the one during the steer wrestling where a man is in front of the bull and he is being pushed by the animal that really seems to capture the rivalry between man and beast

For me the only person I was competing against was me because every day I was on a program and I think probably a lot of the other fellas at that time and I know a lot of other athletes. You’re constantly trying to improve and you have to create muscle memory that when that all that consciousness can turn into a subconscious then it’s all feel and reacting to that feel through the energy going through the different body parts. So that’s what I would sort of groove on during that time of my life.

 

What is the adrenaline like when you’re sitting on top of a bucking bull or bronco? Do you try and harness that explosive energy?

 Well to me the key was to try and mask that energy and in the bull riding especially you feel something and if he gets ahead of you, it’s a constant game of catch-up. If you get a little too far ahead of the game, then you’re gonna have problems there. So in my life for many many years and I’ve overcome that because I’ve worked on it but in retrospect when I think back that’s one of the few times that I could really feel that I was totally totally mentally physically spiritually or whatever into the moment and I still ride a lot of horses even at my age and love riding but I’ve been able to relate that or transfer that to what I’m doing with just riding horses. When I really got into horses I found that and through studying and hearing it from all these different old time great horsemen, that horses never leave the moment. So when you get into the moment you can really apply techniques training that boils down to communication and what kind of a communicator you [are].  Do you communicate with a strong hand? Do you really understand that that horse has to totally understand the thing before he can do what you want him to do correctly, or what’s correct in your mind? It’s exciting for me that going from the rodeo game, which was fast and violent to a whole other aspect of riding that I find in different disciplines you have high energy, but then you shut it off. So in my events in rodeo in the seconds when that gate comes open your motor has to be ready to kick in like a drag race. You just punch the pedal to the metal so to speak. I felt that I had to become a machine and the difference between me and the machine is that I had to be able to handle the unexpected. So that was always a fun challenge for me and then knowing that I was really there in that perfect spot to go out there and go through that adrenaline rush. I realized after I quit that I was an adrenaline junkie. It’s a feeling that to me I don’t think I can explain it but it’s a high that goes all the way through your body, [cells and tissues].

 

When Director Merrill captures the animal coming out of the chute during that first leap you can sense how volatile the situation really is. What’s the connection that cowboys feel with the animal they’re riding?

  Well in my events the riding events, if it was really a nice animal that all you had to do was make sure you had the feel and the timing and the balance in synch with his and knowing that if this was one that you were going to win on, that was a different kind of respect that I had for them versus the ones that were really bad and really hard to ride.

That was the respect for them being such amazing athletes, that they could have that size and all of that power and control it in the way that they would. If it was just a bad especially in the bull riding that whacked a rider in the face or whatever, for me I just didn’t want to draw (chuckle). I just as soon stay away from them; I don’t want to find out that I have respect for his ability to throw me off or not. To get psyched up for the right spot was always fun and that’s a big challenge for a lot of people and it was for me at different times. I look back and I say, did I really do that? I must’ve been crazy. I heard Waylon Jennings old song, I’ve always been Crazy, so maybe that’s what the bulls and bucking horses did for me.

 

Director Merrill has a section where some riders talk about the hits they’ve taken. Was this part of the bravado of being taken seriously as a cowboy back then?

 I never heard those conversations and I think a lot of those young people you were talking about were at that rodeo school because they filmed a lot of that and I think to a lot of them that was their badge of honor. It probably was you know and I never heard a lot of guys talk about that and for all of the insanity I put my body through I really don’t have any aches and pains from all of that. I’m living proof that God takes care of idiots (chuckling). We didn’t talk about, what did you break last year? No. We were concentrating on what we were gonna do next and how to handle the disappointments of failure and losing and how you handle winning was all a big part of it.

 

In the film Larry there’s a fair amount of failure for very few successes would you say that that’s the case in rodeo you fail more than you succeed?

 In the formative years without a doubt but when you get to that top echelon of the top 15 guys that make it to the national finals and probably even lower than that the ones that are still trying to get there the next 10 or so. When you get to that top level in the horse riding events especially failure wouldn’t be from bucking off because you’re at a point where you’re gonna ride most of them that you get on. The failure wouldn’t come from not doing it correctly or you didn’t draw the right one but the law of averages, if you have developed a talent to stay on one and do it correctly and do what the judges are looking for you’re gonna win probably more than you lose. Although then and even now these guys can go all year long and the only profit they have is what they win at the national finals. So what’s winning and losing? To me winning was the self-satisfaction that I was happy with the event, the performance or I wasn’t. So winning and losing was to me if I had a good draw and didn’t win and the mistakes were mine that was disappointing. The next step is how long are you gonna carry that disappointment around with you? You know when you’re younger you worry about it too much and then you get to a certain level and you analyze what just went wrong and what does it take to correct that. I always said ok what went wrong that’s out of the picture now I don’t have to bring that back in. I realized what I did wrong and I’m gonna draw this mental picture of what you do to make a right out of it and again just the visualization that run over and over and over in your mind. Kinda like I said the group that I was involved with, we were the first ones that really got into mental imaging. [To] be able to get on a bucking horse 100 times before you crawled over the chute [and] really [got] on him.

 

Did a lot of the people you were teaching have a hard time coping with failure, was that one of the things you focused on?

 When I was doing the schools you’d have a lot of young guys that weren’t really sure why they were there. They thought they wanted to do it or their parents wanted them to do it or whatever reason they were trying to make some kind of statement. The fear factor was probably quite heavy and on their minds all the time. That was sort of it in a nutshell. Then when you’d get to a certain level, it becomes a lot easier. Now there’s much [more] information out there that any young person that wants to become an athlete can study. That’s why I’m convinced that’s why we have such good athletes in so many different sports right now, especially these really physically demanding sports.

 

Something that’s not explained in the film, is the physical preparation involved. Was weight lifting part of your regimen? You have to have some muscles in order to hold on right?

 The pace was so fast when you’re going to a 100 rodeos a year, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time going to the gym and working out that way. Me personally I had a 20-pound weight that I carried in the airplane all the time. I’d be flying across the country and I’d be working on flying the plane and working out at the same time. A 20-pound weight now I’m down to a 10-pound weight, I’m becoming a lightweight! I was constantly and a lot of the guys that were super serious about it you know there was always pushups in your room and things that you could do at the spur of the moment and then for me working three events, I mean just to warm up for it, that was almost like a workout right there. Then after that first event your body is tuned in and you’re ready for another one and another one. In between events you’re still loosening up and to me it’s more, the program would be more like a gymnast than a football player. Now the steer wrestlers, ropers things like that, power lifting would be more important. I worked out all the time. If I was at one of the big rodeos, and we were going to be there for a week in Denver or something like that, I’d start going to the gym. To me top physical conditioning was very important and now in retrospect I can say in this day and age I would probably have access to things we didn’t have back then. If we had I could’ve been in even better shape. That was very important to me and I think it was important to the majority of the guys. Some guys just had natural ability and they could just go out there and just jump on one and didn’t go through the process. My ability probably came from a combination of natural [talent] and [a] willingness to work at it hard enough to stay in tip top shape, to be aware of your body. The body is the one that’s gonna, it’s out there to do the job and it all starts in the mind, that controls everything else.

 

Regarding the rivalry between you and Phil Lyne that’s expressed in the film, what’s it like when you’re on top and you have people coming after you? Was it hard to shift gears from being on top to being in the hunt?

 Well it wasn’t so much, you were always wanting to know how, I was always interested in knowing how Phil did it the rodeos that he’s been to, that maybe I’d been to earlier or whatever. That wasn’t the determining factor. To me again It was up to me on how hard I wanted to work to be the best that I could be. I had no control over any other competitor. When I finally realized that I was the one that was going to make mistakes or do it as close to perfect as possible, to me it was a totally new and different approach but I enjoyed that so I went and did the transition from worrying about what someone might’ve won, by the time we got to 1971 and ‘72 when Phil was in the lead that wasn’t that important. The idea was to get to as many rodeos as you can and do the best you can do. I have no control over what he won and he had no control over what I rode or didn’t ride. You’re always hoping that you’re going to be able to stay ahead of the game.  The first year when Phil won it he had been in the lead and I was within about a thousand of catching him and I was on sort of a hot streak, and he was in a slump for a while and I was getting close and then I broke my leg in Ellensburg labor day weekend so that took me out that year and then the next year when Kieth did the film I pulled a bicep loose and were within about a thousand I believe that year as well. Phil had been in the lead and I was slowly catching him, but que sera sera you know. That doesn’t mean that if I hadn’t broken my leg or pulled a bicep that I was gonna beat Phil. Phil was amazing because he was such a great all-around cowboy on both ends of the arena. He rode bulls really well, bareback broncs and horses so so, but he could really rope!  He was a great roper and bull rider and then he would win enough in the other events that would keep him going and then he became a strong contender for the all around.

 

Have you two remained in touch?

 I hadn’t talked to Phil, I seen him once and a while, I team rope once and a while it’s like a bad game of golf but it’s sort of a fun thing to do because its horse oriented. And there about two months ago Phil called me and I hadn’t heard from him or seen in a couple of years and he said Mahan, “what do you think of these bareback riggings these guys are riding on?” I don’t spend much time thinking about all of that stuff but they’ve changed the riggings to the point that the style is totally different than it was when we were riding. I said well Phil it’s pretty weird and he has a grandson that’s big in high school rodeo and he said well I’m just coming back from the high school rodeo finals and it was in Rock Springs Wyoming and he said one day I saw five young bareback riders hang up with those riggings. These guys just literally tie their hands in there now. It’s that bind they bind them in there and if you buck off a certain way you’re gonna hang up. He said I saw 5 young guys hang up. The pickup men finally had to rope the horses and get ahold of them and people from the chutes came out to cut the kids loose. These kids go to these schools in this day and age and they can’t stay on one that’s bucking but they got all that sophisticated equipment, if you don’t love your kid send him to one of those schools let him be a bareback rider (chuckling). So I put Phil’s number in my phone and here about three weeks ago, I’m down at the barn riding some horses and the phone rings and I see its Phil. This team roping has really grown they have an association now they have different levels you could be at one, two or three depending on how good you are. I’m pretty low I think I’m a four and Phil’s probably a lot higher than that but I see his name there and they have a big roping during the national finals at one of the hotels out there pays a 100,000 a man or something like that so I sees his name and I say Phil I know you want me to rope with you in Las Vegas but I said my numbers too high and I don’t rope with amateurs.

He didn’t laugh or anything and he said well it’s a good thing because I just cut two fingers off team roping he got it hung in the dally on the saddle. Well I felt absolutely horrible. He said that in fact right now they’re getting ready to haul me, he said I didn’t know that I dialed you, he said I must’ve butt dialing or something. He said they’re getting ready to haul me to Dallas to see if they can put these fingers back on. So the next morning I called him and I said well how’d it go?  He said I’m leaving the hospital right now. I said no kidding I said did they get them sewed on did it work? He said no it didn’t work they just went ahead and left them off. So I said Phil I said as good as you rope I said if something like that can happen to you, I said I’m gonna quit this team roping thing and I’m going to give you the first right of refusal to buy my ropes. He said it’ll be a while before I need them. I promise you and this might be something interesting that after all those years of roping and to have something like that happen to you. I’ve told a lot of guys since then that I will bet money within a year Phil will be roping with a thumb and index and middle finger’s as most guys can with all five. Then somebody sends me a picture right after it had happened, he’s still sitting on his horse and holding his hand up the two fingers are gone there’s looks like some veins sticking out of them it made me sick, it was awful. He’s standing there and had that look on his face like oh hell! It was like it didn’t even bother him he was just mad that it happened. Somebody said they were there and said I’d a been screaming and crying and Phil just said, well I’ll be darned look at that!

 

That’s an intense story! Something related that I talked about with Director Merrill, there’s a kid in the film who has a black eye who has had stitches and talks about it like it’s no big deal. The mentality, the ability to tone out the pain and accept disfigurement is something I’m very fascinated with, because it seems like by the time these kids take part in the real deal, nothing seems to phase them.

  Maybe it’s lack of mentality (chuckling). I tell ya I really think that if a young person is passionate about something and especially a game that has the element of danger, the agony of defeat or the thrill of winning. I think that has so much to do with it. You learn to accept the fact that that’s part of it. But again you psyche up to the point that you convince yourself or I could that it was never going to happen to me. You don’t want it to happen to anyone else but it’s not going to happen to you. You almost think that you’re untouchable. It’s not if it’s going to happen it’s when it’s gonna happen, because injuries are part of it. So you’re not gonna find one out of a hundred that at that age that can understand it to the degree that they really know what they’re talking about. Kid got a black eye, how did he react when that first happened? He could’ve been the same little tough kid or I could’ve been someone that was heartbroken and was thinking that he might die and the parents were screaming and going nuts and you know there’s a lot behind the scenes that you have to assume. As far as just an attitude for everybody that steps into the game, I don’t think so, it’s one of those games that sooner or later you look in the mirror and you really figure out if that’s what you really wasn’t to do or not and a lot of people become adrenaline junkies at an early age, not just rodeo but all the youth sports that are out there. They have the comradery going with all the other kids on their team and that’s one of the beauties of sports, you have an opportunity to really learn a lot about yourself.

 

In the film, rodeo seems to be a contest against yourself more than anything.

 Absolutely that’s what I was saying that when I finally got to the point that I started understanding the game it wasn’t about who else was entered into the event. I’m the one that had control hopefully over what I was about to do. I had no control over anybody else’s actions or performance. So, again you better have it in your mind exactly what you’re gonna you’re like that machine except you handle the unexpected. They tell you that the bull is going to turn back to the right, he turns back to the left well you’d better be able to make an adjustment and make one in a hurry. It’s the same in life quite often you don’t have to make decisions that quickly.

 

When you’re on a bull or a bucking bronc are you saying things to yourself? What are you thinking? Are you talking to the animal? What are you doing at that moment?

 What I would do, I would sing to the bull I’d say well I’m a rodeo-odeo-odeo cowboy bordering on insane (Chuckling). No! You’re in the moment so you’re trying to coordinate your energy your body your mind with a feel that’s happening at the time and you have to be ready to react. If you’re a fraction of a second late in that reaction that could be the difference of winning or losing. If you’re a fraction late, if you’re really on your game you play catchup. The one thing about the rodeo game that took me a while, I haven’t  mentioned this aspect of it for a while was the ability to test myself so often, so many times in a week. I mean during the summer months I’d go to 2 rodeos a day, every day. I think one year in July there were three days that I didn’t get on bucking horses or bulls. So you get into that groove and you get into a tunnel and a you’re in that tunnel. If you get to the point where you really putting it together mentally for me there was always that light at the end of the tunnel. The light was at the end of that 8 seconds. So that’s the big picture. So what do I do to get to those 8 seconds I stay in the moment I go a fraction of a second at a time.

 

So when Kieth slows things down he’s giving the audience a true sense of being inside those fractions of time. What’s your take?

 Well you break it down to the fractions of a second without a doubt. That’s a very important part of it. You can’t be waiting for that 8 second whistle. So at times when I felt I was getting close to the 8 seconds I’d start anticipating and start falling off. I’d say I want to ride for 10 seconds so I’d extend it out there so all it was, was part of the mind game. Then you have to break down all the body parts and back to slow motion. To me visualization is being able to get this picture in your mind and you can slow it down as Kieth did in the film and you can see all the body parts moving and visualize what you have to do with your different body parts to stay in synch with that bull or bucking horses body parts. But again to me that was a very juicy aspect of the game right there to be able to get into the moment and feel the energy and the power of that animal and then a  whistle blows and then all of a sudden times it would get so easy when the whistle would blow, which I found interesting after I’d been in the game a while. It’s like you almost could’ve quit trying and still ride one if you were in good shape and everything was feeling good. That’s the end of it.

 

Did you have groupies that followed you around back then?

 I don’t feel that I ever did. I was too busy to be aware of the things going on around me. Yes there were a lot of groupies around and there were guys that were into that but to me if that’s what you’re into and you’re into partying all the time and drinking those are the guys that are the easiest to beat. You learn to eat, sleep, walk and talk your game. When I quit. Here’s something I found Jonathan. I had trouble wanting to stay in one place. I realized I had become addicted to travelling and just the energy of running from a rodeo grounds to the airport jump into the plane three hours later 600 miles down the road at you’re at another event. That was sort of fun. I mean it was a great experience a great journey to go through all of that.

 

When you first started though you were hitching a ride and living on a couple of bucks a day right?

When I first turned pro I had an old pickup truck with an eight-foot camper on it and I had a wife and a child. So it was a pretty serious time. There wasn’t much time for jacking around. You put your nose to the grindstone and again I would eat sleep and walk and talk the game. If I hadn’t probably had all that responsibility who knows I don’t think I could’ve done everything that I did whatever that was you know. The one thing that helped me from the rodeo game was that I learned how to set goals at an early age. I had a passion and those two elements right there are very important. I mean those have a lot to do with your key to success or did for me in the rodeo game. I’d go down the road and see a bull out in the pasture and said now I’d like to put my rope on him. I bet he would buck. Now I look at them and I say mmm put him in a feed lot and we might have a great filet there.

 

Are there still a large number of cowboys travelling from rodeo to rodeo to make ends meet like there were in the old days? Has rodeo been able to widen its appeal beyond America’s rural areas?

 I think in the timed events, the barrel racing without a doubt. I think a lot of that stems from the parents realizing that if kids didn’t grow up around the western culture or lifestyle that they all of a sudden were in love with the fact that they might have their own horse. That then starts opening up the doors. Then there’s little competitions for kids to get involved with. I think in that area yes. In the riding events there’s probably more kids coming out of non-agricultural or ranching areas that get involved because they were top athletes and maybe they had a friend or somebody that was in the rodeo game and all they had to do was go ahead. They had the athletic ability to pick a lot of different sports but they picked the rodeo game. So I think there’s more people coming into the game that really didn’t have a connection with the heritage or culture of horses, cowboys and all of that. The parent’s realizing that it’s a good world for kids to get involved in, so they start supporting their kids and now that barrel racing and the roping events, it’s amazing the numbers of people that have spent a lot of money on good horses and big trucks and big trailers to haul their kids around the country because they want to give their kids a chance to do what they really think that they want to do.

 

So are there still guys piling in four to a car travelling around the country from rodeo to rodeo like we saw in the film?

 Those that are trying to make it, yes! Those that have reached a level of having the ability to make it to the national finals, the top 25 people that want to go out there and dedicate their lives to it probably not. I mean like I was talking about in the timed events the roping  and so on those guys are driving rigs, they have a couple of rigs and they’ll jump in a plane  and they have friends that have jets, that will fly them around from here to there to make it to these rodeos, just so those people that have the jets can say that they hauled old Trevor brazil to 4 rodeos over the fourth of July in their jet. You still have the guys that can’t afford or don’t have the connections to enjoy those fringe benefits that are still out there. But they’re not driving old beat up pickups. Then you have the world of people who take on the responsibility of having a family and they have a job and they love to rodeo and they have talent but they’re not willing to hit the road and let everything else play second fiddle to their desires. They stay home and take care of the kids and the wife and have a steady income and so on and so forth. It’s the combination of people involved in the game Jonathan is amazing. You have those that  have no money that have to get that next drink. I think if I can get to just one more rodeo I know I can win. Now you’ve got a guy who’s trying to make it, he’s a roper, that let’s say ropes calves or whatever and he’s riding an old horse that might be worth 10,000 dollars. The top end of these guys are paying 50, 75 ,100, 150 thousand dollars for a horse. So it’s hard to beat those kind of guys. Back there in the 70’s and so on it wasn’t to that extreme.

 

What are you busy with these days? 

 I spend a lot of time trying to explain to my wife, why I’m a horse addict and have about 80 head of horses. We raise cows, my wife’s a cow woman, she rides horses really well. I’m not retired. We have a wonderful life we have a little ranch in Colorado. Jill-Anne my wife had one in Oklahoma when we met and she still has that one. We live in Sunset Texas now and we have cows and horses and you have to take care of them. It’s a fun world to be involved with the western culture and western heritage. I think for those of us that have been able to be involved and stay involved, it’s a good connection to a very friendly world. I mean you’re gonna have snakes no matter where you go but I think that the majority of the people are involved in the lifestyle and the industry have a pretty good idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s pretty much cut and dried.

Go HERE for part 3 – our interview with Phil Lyne.

 

 

 

RODEO (IS) THE MAN: “The Great American Cowboy”

director Kieth Merrill second from right

Here’s the real true grit, via the Oscar winning film directed by Kieth Merrill that examines the lives of men of the rodeo. Exclusive interviews with the filmmaker and two of the titular cowboys, by our man in the stall. [Pictured above, L-R: Preston Fox, Alan Cassidy, Wilbur Plaugher, Wick Peth, Kieth Merrill, Reed Smoot]

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

Kieth Merrill’s Oscar winning documentary, The Great American Cowboy, which came out in 1973, is a living snapshot of the original American sport of rodeo. Here the true grit of these men and the noble nature of the animals they ride is spread out before the audience with a painterly grace. The film captures the explosive energy that’s released when a bronco or bull comes shooting out from the gate. Director Merrill explains, “Every rodeo movie that I had seen, and I watched everyone that I could find, the action was shot at a safe distance using telephoto lenses so my concept was let’s go with very wide lenses and go very close.” This method, coupled with high speed cameras and liberal use of slow motion, allowed Merrill to capture scenes that could easily have served as the source imagery for a Remington bronze. The heroic nature of the sport coupled with the seismic release of testosterone fueled energy makes for a riveting experience all the way through to the cliffhanger ending.

Following the competition between Larry Mahan and Phil Lyne for World Champion, narrator Joel McRae is heard saying that rodeo “came out of a maverick tradition of stout bread and strong winded horses—a tradition of men determined to tame them, not out of sport. but out of necessity.”

Then-101-year-old Jack Hart (aka “the oldest living cowboy”), who humorously keeps on trying to light his cigarette in the film, refers to the cowboys in the rodeo back when he was in it as “pretty scarce” but also as “good hands.” Rodeo, for Hart, evolved into what it was in the 1970s and then eventually into what it is today. Director Merrill says, “The rodeo that we filmed in 1972-73 was a totally different sport than what they’re calling rodeo today. Today they’re athletes, they’re boys that aren’t cowboys, some of them grew up on farms or ranches and some of them have never been on a horse, but they wear protective armor on their chests and they wear helmets. They wear protective gear like football players as opposed to cowboys.” “The rodeo cowboys in GAC are the real deal and the rodeo cowboys of today are athletes I take nothing away from them or their athleticism but they are not the courageous, balls out go for broke cowboys that we filmed.”

The film then covers the wild horse race, which pits a group of local cowboys against a horse as they attempt to tame the animal. As Hart says, “It was the best man wins—you or the horse.”

There’s something revealing in those words, as to how cowboys view their opponent. The connection between cowboy and animal was important to shaping the west. Cooperation was key to survival, and the assumption by many outside this life was simply getting the animal to capitulate and then be dominated. Hart’s words zero in on the esteem these men have for their opponent and respect cowboys have for the animal. Here, when these men lose, they lose hard. Merrill’s lens captures many a cowboy left defeated by broncos, with injured arms and brutal kicks to the face.

the-great-american-cowboy-movie-poster-1973-1020195884

Every generation has its definition of what it means to be tough. It’s a fascinating window into this world, particularly once Merrill turns his lens on some of the kids who are learning to be rodeo cowboys. One boy, no older than 10 years old, and with a massive black eye, talks about how he took a blow to his orbit and had to have 14 stitches, as if it was nothing. These kids are the definition of toughness, and show how hardened they become at an early age. For them, injury and setbacks go hand in hand and prepare them for life on the circuit. Later on in the film, a cowboy says, “I’ve had my head caved in twice, had both my knees popped out, both my legs broke. In Kansas in ‘69 a bull stepped [on] my back, broke my ribs, stuck my lungs. Luckily a doctor was there. He stuck a needle in back of my back and drained out all the blood or I’d a died right there. I’ve had my face crushed completely, a bull stepped on it, my nose broke twice, but you know, it’s there. You gotta do it.”

Merrill states, “I think that their ability to take punishment, their ability to be injured and get up and keep going… It’s simply about the bravado and the macho, you know, get the crap just completely kicked out of you, be stomped on by a 1200-pound bull, or get up and get back on a horse—that’s the cowboy way.”

The film, with its orchestral score, shocks and jars the audience in unexpected ways, much like a bronco trying to throw a rider off. The percussive elements help punch the force of each ride, lending them an aural sense of urgency. The horns recall Aaron Copeland’s ballet Rodeo and underscore the heroism that is very much a part of cowboy life.

The steer wrestling section of the film is striking in how it captures plenty of failed attempts for every successful ride. In fact, Merrill’s film unapologetically shows how many cowboys toil on life’s fringes. The men are okay with this because, more than anything else, rodeo is about proving something to yourself—about using skill and a dose of luck to conquer a force equal or greater than oneself. That’s the overriding goal for these men.

Of course, winning from time to time also helps keep their dreams alive.

The film’s main storyline tracks a pair of rodeo legends. One is Larry Mahan from Oregon, the reigning champion, who when not riding in events spends his time bringing up the next generation of cowboys. Mahan became such a legend that he even had his own boot brand (cue up that clip from No Country for Old Men where Llewelyn Moss asks to buy a pair). He trains them not only in arena rodeo skills, but how to survive and make it from event to event spending little or no money and living off a hamburger a day. This is a key moment in the film because it shows how rough and tumble their lives truly are. Dust and hunger are a constant companion for these men, scraping by and hoping for one more shot.

The other is Phil Lyne, who is the cowboy’s cowboy. He can rope, ride a bucking bull, and comes from a ranch in west Texas. In the film, Phil challenges Larry for the throne. I won’t spoil it for you, but the competition between the two is fierce and is amped up by director Merrill’s spirited editing. Given the brutal nature of the competition and the copious amounts of testosterone on display, the two seem to have a true admiration for one another; as I found out later in my interview with both men, they have formed a real friendship that has lasted the years since the film hit theatres.

Forty-three years on, The Great American Cowboy still electrifies and excites. It’s an important film that deserves to be dusted off and shown not just to rodeo buffs, but to fans of a type of visceral filmmaking that. much like the cowboy life depicted in the film, has seemingly disappeared into the ether. The documentary offers one hell of a gut-busting ride that’ll leave you with more than a few saddle sores by the end of it. Good news then for film buffs: In the near future we should be seeing a restored version of the film be released on DVD. Amen for that.

What follow are my interviews conducted in the fall of 2015 with Kieth Merrill, director of the Great American Cowboy, and cowboys Larry Mahan and Phil Lyne.

 

INTERVIEW WITH KIETH MERRILL DIRECTOR, THE GREAT AMERICAN COWBOY

 BLURT: Kieth, first I’d like to ask you the obvious question, what made you want to film a documentary about cowboys and the rodeo?

KIETH MERRILL: I went to a film called Any Sunday created by a filmmaker by the name of Bruce Brown. Bruce Brown was the filmmaker who created a sensation with a movie called Endless Summer it was a 16mm documentary film, which played in theatres, it was kind of a new wave of theatrical documentaries and when I went with my wife in Sunnyvale California to  see the movie On Any Sunday which was about motorcycle racing in the desert featuring Steve McQueen who was a friend of the filmmaker. I was overwhelmed [and] there was a long line of people waiting to buy tickets, the theatre was completely packed and everybody cheered, and loved the movie. I had at that point been making documentary films for corporations and other kinds of 16mm films. I owned my own equipment. I was very early in my career, I turned to my wife and I said I can do that. I didn’t see anything in that film that I didn’t know how to do and so I went home and began to scratch my head and in a very analytical way went through a long list of subjects and genres that would lend itself to the kind of movie that I had seen Bruce Brown had done one on surfing, Bruce did one on motorcycles, obviously they were action sports. So I saw the film by Bruce Brown, I recognized that the surfing film and the motorcycle film were both high impact action films full of fun full of humor and so I began to evaluate the various subjects that could be exploited that hadn’t really been exploited if that’s the right word as feature length documentary films. I decided that Rodeo had extraordinary amount of action it was very Americana having grown up in rural Utah on a dairy farm and sort of growing up on horses, I had a sense of the western culture though I was not a rodeo participant by any means and that’s where the idea came from. So the next day I called the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in Denver Colorado and started a conversation and it took me basically 3 months  to persuade them to give me the exclusive rights  to professional rodeo, rodeo sanctioned by the PRCA, which is the association that ranked cowboys, that had reasonable purses for the winners etc. That was where it all began and it began with a very serious calculation to create a motion picture that would play on the big screen that could tap into the experiences that I had, the talent that I had, the equipment that I had in the realms of documentaries.

The first thing that grabs the viewer is how the tension is heightened with a freeze frame of a bucking bronco and then a split screen with Larry Mahan, did you always have this split screen affect in mind when shooting the film, or did this come to you when you were editing?

It was kind of a combination of both split screen, freeze frame, and those techniques were not nearly as common in 1973, when we made the film as they are today. So to some extent I anticipated that we might use split screen knowing we would have a lot of material that wouldn’t necessarily fit into a linear story but would help capture the flavor. So we gave  some anticipation to that idea but it was really in the editing that I began to compile that idea, and notes aside there may be a question later but I edited the film myself I bought a K-E-M table  which was a European designed flatbed editing system which was spectacular for its day. I owned one of the first machines brought into the United States, and I sat in my garage and edited the film for 8 months ignoring the fact that my bills were piling up the phone was ringing off the hook but I just stayed focused and edited the film.

How much did this film cost to make?

The total cost of the film of the film was $300,000. [Below: the director at work on the set]

Director Kieth Merrill

Did you have to pass an “initiation” of sorts to prove that you were tough enough to hang out with these men?

No not really I grew up in the west I could ride horses without giving it much thought and so I was not at all unfamiliar with the world of livestock or horses or cows for that matter, though I confess I didn’t have much experience with brahma bulls, and bucking stock so no there was no initiation. The credibility I suppose of the couple of films I had made seemed to be sufficient.

How did you approach meeting Larry and Phil and were either of them reticent about talking about this subject?

I met them because I jumped into the world of professional rodeo. Larry Mahan was the six time all around world champion, Phil Lyne was the up and comer from George West Texas that was dazzling everybody with his ability to participate in bronc riding and bull riding and calf roping. The all-around cowboy is an all-around because he participates in at least three events and so it was an extremely fortuitous year to make this film because you had a classic story wherein the young kid from the ranch in George West Texas was challenging the 6th all time all around world champion Larry Mahan and so it was like a perfect storm as it were, they were not at all reticent, they were excited to be featured in the film. They were both extremely helpful from the first day we met them until the film was completely finished.

Preston Fox is credited with the in arena action camera, had you worked with him before and given that rodeos are impossible to script how did you all manage not to interfere with the competition or take one to the cranium as it was taking place?

I’d never met Preston Fox before the film began. I inherited Preston as a result of our executive producer who was a friend of his father or grandfather or whatever and part of the deal them putting up the money was that I would hire Preston Fox but as it turned out the good news was Preston was a very dedicated and talented filmmaker, cameraman and very courageous and he did get into the arena with the small handheld action camera most often the arriflex S and sometimes the gun camera, though he also operated the other cameras. He was not always in the arena, various rodeos had different rules and regulations about what we were allowed to do, but in truth we were given extraordinary access and the thing that distinguishes GREAT AMERICAN COWBOY from almost every other rodeo movie is that my concept going in was to totally shift the paradigm. Every rodeo movie that I had seen and I watched everyone that I could find the action was shot at a safe distance using telephoto lenses so my concept was let go with very wide lenses and go very close, so close to the action with very wide lenses to really capture the complete essence because the long lens tends  to distance the audience because it has a small depth of field the background is out of focus so one of the things that gives GAC an incredible sense of presence and an incredible sense of reality is the fact that the cameras were very close to the action with very wide lenses. We were shooting 5.9 and 10mm lenses 18mm lenses those are extremely wide lenses and that’s the reason that we were getting such extraordinary footage and Preston without question [is] credited with much of that. I likewise shot with wide lenses and spent a lot of time in the chutes sitting next to the cowboys as they mounted up.

Were any of the cameramen (including yourself) hurt or did any come close to being hurt in the process of filming this documentary? Any stories you’d like to tell us?

Remarkably there were very few accidents, there were a lot of close calls, but there were an enormous number of cowboys that were injured not because of the film or anything that was going on but the injuries that are captured on film are simply a part of rodeo, which has all changed, which is an important part of any article.  The rodeo that we filmed in 1972-73 was a totally different sport than what they’re calling rodeo today. Today they’re athletes they’re boys that aren’t cowboys, some of them grew up on farms or ranches and some of them have never been on a horse, but they wear protective armor on their chests and they wear helmets. They wear protective gear like football players as opposed to cowboys. The cowboys we filmed were real cowboys almost all of them really came from farms and from rodeos and from small spreads throughout the west and the Midwest including the central states. They were tough guys. They were very very tough; they wore no protective gear at all. They followed the rules of the PRCA in that they wore, they had to wear a long sleeve shirt and they had to start with a hat. I say start with a hat because the ropers always knocked the hat off in the first two minutes, in the first two seconds, because they don’t wanna have it interfere with their rope. The rodeo cowboys in GAC are the real deal and the rodeo cowboys of today are athletes I take nothing away from them or their athleticism but they are not the courageous, balls out go for broke cowboys that we filmed.

We were always at the edge of death in truth because we had that curious sense of security that a filmmaker has that if you’re making a movie somehow you are invulnerable to danger. As a result, we put ourselves in harm’s way. Remarkably none of us were hurt seriously or permanently. Probably the biggest [thing] happened with Preston Fox. We were at a particular rodeo and one of the ways that we disguised the camera in the arena was to dress Preston Fox up as a rodeo clown. If you’re familiar with rodeo you know that during the bull riding they have clowns which are actually bullfighters very talented, very athletic men whose job it is to turn the bull back and enhance the ride. If a bull doesn’t turn, it’s very hard for the cowboy to score points. The purpose of the clown is twofold one is to turn the bull to give the cowboy the maximum point opportunity the best ride possible. The second thing of course is to help him if he gets into trouble to release the bucking strap, to distract the bull once he’s off to keep him from getting gored. So it made sense for us to simply dress Preston up as a rodeo clown put him in the arenas so that when he was seen by the other cameras as they swept by the action and nobody would notice that he was a cameraman. Well on one occasion the rodeo clowns who for all their athleticism and bullfighting talents were also clowns in their own way told Preston that there was a particular bull that was extremely predictable and that he, the bull came always straight out of the gate and then just spun right in front of the gate and he said it would be an extraordinary shot and they showed him right where to stand and he had the arriflex with the wide lens and he said if you stand right here the bull will come out and will just spin right here. You’ll get an unbelievable shot. So trusting as he was and as we were, Preston got right in front of the chute and stood right where the clown told him to stand and the gate opened and the bull did exactly what the clowns knew that bull always did, which was run straight out of the gate and right over the top of the cameraman. So I don’t even think he got the camera on before he was completely flattened by a 1200 brahma bull. That was one of the highlights.

In terms of the voiceovers and narration, where were the voiceovers done?

They were recorded in Los Angeles I don’t exactly remember where. I think Glen Glenn sound was where we did the final mix so it’s very likely that’s where we did the recording. But that was all done of course after the fact. So other than the voiceovers that are shot on location, and in most cases part of an on camera interview the only narrative voice was really Joel McRae which was recorded in LA.

The script and narration that Joel McCrea voices was written by Douglas Kent Hall author of “Let Her Buck”, so what are we referring to when we say the script here?

Let me tell you an anecdote about Douglas Kent Hall whom I believe has passed away. I think a few years back I got a note from his wife or girlfriend that he’d passed on, but such as it is this movie was made a long time ago. Here’s the story, after we’d won the Academy Award for GAC we were approached by a foundation that was focused on native Americans and a fellow by the name of Will Rose asked me to come in and having made the film GAC he wanted me to make a movie called the Great American Indian, which we subsequently did. It never got the attention of course that the GAC did and effectively has kind of disappeared we’ve lost track of the masters etc. In any event that’s not the point. While I was out filming the film which was ultimately called “Indian” I got a call from Doug Hall I remember I was standing at a payphone somewhere in New Mexico at the side of the road and I called my office to check in [with] the the gal who ran things while I was away. She told me that I’d gotten a call from Douglas Kent Hall and I though great I’ll call Doug back so I did. Doug said that he wanted to set up a call with a guy who wanted to have a movie made and so anyway a few minutes later I’m on the phone and he said there’s a guy here who loved your movie GAC and he’d really like to talk to you about making a movie that he’s interested in, it’s a film about bodybuilding and here let me put him on the phone and moments later I get a voice on the phone with a very thick accent that says , “Hallo Kieth my name is Arnold Schwarzenegger and I have an idea for a movie called Pumping Iron about body building” and I said jeez you know I’m not very interested in bodybuilding I don’t know much about that so thanks but no thanks nice of you to think of me so I have the dubious distinction of having turned down the opportunity to launch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career!

The question about Douglas Kent Hall author of Let her Buck, I met Doug Hall in the middle of filming the movie so the idea that there was a script is certainly not consistent with what one usually thinks of when you think of a script. There was no script going in. The only script was the one in my head, which was that I wanted to tell a great story with great characters and fortunately I found in Larry Mahan and Phil Lyne a wonderful story and a wonderful competition and a wonderful conflict that I think distinguished the film in its day. It effectively plays almost like a dramatic narrative as opposed to a feature documentary though it embraces the documentary elements of the world of rodeo. Doug Kent Hall was a good friend. I met him as I said when he was at one of the rodeos shooting perhaps it was photographs for Let Her Buck, I don’t know the publication date, whether he was working on that book or whether he was working on his second book I don’t really know. It was most likely his second book. As we became acquainted he kinda worked with us and I engaged him to help me with the narration, which is what he wrote. We gave Doug Hall credit on the screen as the writer but in reality the writing was happening in the camera [as] I was shooting. That was the “script” and I was creating the story day to day and then after the fact when we started pulling the editing together we had Doug Kent Hall write the narrative, which many parts I rewrote. I take nothing away from Doug, he was a very talented guy and made a great contribution but certainly it wasn’t a script in the normal sense of the word.

Was Joel McCrea the only one you thought of to voice this or were there other voices you were also considering?

Joel McRae was not the only one by any means that we thought about. Actually I tried to get Robert Redford to narrate the film. I had met Redford can’t remember for sure how or why but I sort of knew him at that time and he was filming The Great Gatsby back east somewhere and I was on my way to London to have the musical score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra so I stopped on the location of The Great Gatsby and spent an evening with Redford and showed him a clip of the film asked him if he’s consider narrating the film and so on. He said he’d give it some thought but at the end of the day in a meeting at my house in Los Altos Hills he declined and so it was following that we then went to Joel McRae. He had just done Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I think the one he did before The Sting and then of course the Sting was nominated the same year that GAC was so we swapped correspondence and so on. Joel McRae was recommended by a young friend of mine Lloyd Tagert and I’m not sure how he knew Joel or tracked him down but Joel McRae was of course a classical old Hollywood cowboy and a wonderful wonderful man, we became great friends with Joel and Francis. Subsequently his son Peter worked for me for many years.

“Rodeo was the Man” in the narration the film talks about this being a sport that was forged from a man who had a wild horse needing to be broken and a man who said he could ride it, in your travels to all of these rodeo towns were Larry and Phil treated like rock stars? 

“Rodeo Was the Man” this is the kind of narration that Doug Kent Hall helped us with. This was narration that came more or less after the fact to sort of pull the pieces together, pull the segments together as I had edited and created them in the camera. I made a comment about the difference between Rodeo then and now and to some extent this also addresses your next question, but the second part of this question was were Larry and Phil treated like Rock Stars? Not really, not rock stars if you mean that the way it’s taken, no. There were certainly groupies, girls that liked to track the award winning cowboys. Larry Mahan if there was a rock star of rodeo it was certainly Larry Mahan. Phil was just a country boy and kind of a shy bashful kid. Larry on the other hand had girlfriends here and there and parenthetically let me make a point, which you may or may not ask about later. There’s a dark side to rodeo of course these are a lot of young men full of testosterone and bravado and reliving the wild west as it were. They’re not rock stars by any means but they’re certainly a gaggle of girls that follow them around which of course means that as they travel about the country they’re never without companionship if they want it and of course there’s bar fights and other kinds of things that go on. When the film came out in one of the interviews I had, someone said well you didn’t show the dark side of rodeo, you make it very heroic, you make these guys look like great guys and nothing about sleeping with girls and getting drunk and all that kind of stuff, and I simply said look if you’ve got 90 minutes to talk about the men and the sport you have to choose and I simply choose to show the positive. I simply choose to show the heroic, I simply choose to show the patriotism, the goodness because it serves no good purpose to delve into that which is common to all people and perhaps all sports and so that’s why you don’t see any of that. There is a certain element of Rock Star(ism) to rodeo guys but certainly at a much lesser level.

Jack Hart talks about how the rodeo has changed, and I’m sure he’d find it unrecognizable today with the pads, helmets, and sponsorships? Did you have a sense at the time that you were capturing a portrait of a part of the west that was in transition or dying out?

Old Jack Hart my favorite shot in the whole movie trying to light up his cigarette. I think I’ve already answered that earlier when I talked about the significant difference between cowboys who wore regulation long sleeve shirt and a hat and boots versus the guys with the pads helmets and sponsorships and so on so I won’t comment further other than the last part of your question as to whether the film captures a portrait of a part of the west that was in transition or dying out and I haven’t thought of that but I think that it’s absolutely true which is why there might be a real reason to resurrect the film and create a classic version of it, because it really did, it was kind of the end of an era to some extent it was maybe a decade before it turned into a big time professional sport where it was more about pads and helmets and sponsorships then it was about bravado.

The wild horse race where real local ranch cowboys have to tame a bronco, this looks to have been incredibly difficult to film, and you must’ve seen your fair share of bloodied men, how hard was it to film this section?

The wild horse race real ranch cowboys you know it in the shadow of what we just talked about portrait of part of the west that’s in transition or dying out. There are still places in the west where you have these incredible guys. The wild horse race is still alive and well in some of the rodeos. Those guys maybe cling to the more traditional parts of rodeo. It was very difficult to film at one level but as I explained the whole concept was close proximity and wide angle lenses and most of the wild horse race that’s in the film I was the cameraman. So back to the idea of script and storytelling you know the instantaneous intuition as to where to point the camera in the midst of all that to capture not only the action but some sense of story, some sense of beginning middle and end, which you kind of have in that little short segment, that was kind of how the film was made. We did definitely see our share of bloodied men and a few of them are in the film and that was maybe as close to death as I came in the movie, well other than I did climb on a bull but that was actually later.

The music is incredibly expressive using percussive elements as well as orchestral sections, who was the composer and what were your thoughts on the music at the time and how do you feel about the music today?  Did the composer work off of a final cut of the film or did you break it into sections and convey the ideas and length of each section so he could compose the music?

The music was written and composed by Harold Farberman. Here again I have to confess, I probably would not have, well not probably I would not have chosen Harold Farberman because I’d never heard of him and I didn’t know who he was. Our executive producer Albert P Heiner who was the VP of Kaiser Steel for whom I had done a very successful award winning film a few years earlier was the one who called me up one day and said so what are you doing these days? I pitched him on GAC and Al rounded up a half a dozen of his buddies and they’re the ones who put up the money. It was Al Heiner who introduced me to Preston Fox. It was Al Heiner who introduced me to Harold Farberman that’s the way the world works. He was the executive producer, he was critical to raising the money, so when he said that he’d like to have Harold Farberman do the music of course I said fine.  Harold Farberman at the time was the composer, the creative director of the Oakland Symphony. Albert P. Heiner as a VP of Kaiser Steel corporation was a huge player in Oakland overall, and on the board of the Oakland Symphony etc. So that’s how we came to have Harold Farberman. I actually love the music even today its startling to me how well it holds up. The only part of the music that I think is sadly dated and doesn’t work is the ballad he wrote “Going Down the Road” because it, while it certainly conveys the tedium of days spent on the road I think it lacks the flavor of country. The flavor of rodeo. The concept of music I will basically take the credit because I’d told Al Heiner that my concept of music was to create a ballet from the violent action of these animals, exhausting themselves to dismount their riders etc. and shoot a lot of slow motion and create a sense of ballet, which is why I always had the idea of using classical sort of classical score as opposed to the more obvious choice which would be sort of what would’ve been called Country and Western [back then]. The composer did work off of the final cut of the film and so it was as music always is done. It’s always scored to the cut film.

How did you settle on Oscar amongst the other notorious animals on the circuit? Did these animals travel or were they mainstay attractions at set venues?

Well here again this kind of a film was written day to day as we moved through the rodeo circuit. We generally followed the rodeos that Phil Lyne and Larry Mahan were planning to compete in so that gave us a very general itinerary. We filmed rodeos where they were not of course in some cases because of special events like the Omak suicide race, which was not really a rodeo per se but the chuck wagon races at Calgary and so on. The whole thing with Oscar we were working very closely with Jack Roddy of the I’m trying to remember the name of their rodeo company, I can’t remember now , but the animals are provided by stock companies that actually raise and train not train but groom animals for the purpose of rodeo. Jack Roddy was a good friend of ours and one of the top stock contractors and he and his guys were the ones who owned Oscar. So we knew about Oscar and we just happened to be at a rodeo where I heard about this bet that was not set up for the movie [but] was a real deal and so we just simply jumped in and captured the moments . So again we were extremely luck with those kinds of things but you can tell by the way that it was filmed that it was real because we grabbed whatever we could as the events were actually taking place.

The bull riding sequences have a musicality the way they were cut, and then slowed down. What guided you here, was it the motion of the animal, the rider? Did you cut with music in mind?

I mentioned the whole concept was to create a sense of ballet. So to slow this incredible violent action down using high speed cameras and then putting it to classical music was always a concept that I had in mind. The editing of the film was based almost exclusively on the visual power of the elements and then the music was added later.

Your opening quote from Sophocles “Many a man hath seen himself in dreams” is then echoed in the narration which says, “a boy first sees himself in a dream, he wants to be a cowboy” The kids you met like the boy that was kicked in the eye seem to talk about their physical disfigurement as if it’s a badge of honor or a right-of-passage. Was this attitude pervasive throughout these rural communities that you travelled to?

The quote by Sophocles and the echo of Sophocles later in the film was kind of a one two punch between Douglas Kent Hall and myself. That again is something that we developed in the narration when the film was basically being edited, but the question you’re asking is whether physical disfigurement is a badge of honor, I don’t think that physical disfigurement is anyway a badge of honor or a rite of passage but I think that their ability to take punishment, their ability to be injured and get up and keep going and they do talk with pride about their broken ribs and their broken bones and we captured a bit of that. I would say that at that time, that it kind of was a badge of honor not that the disfigurement or the injuries, but the survival. The fact that they were tough enough and so I think that’s what they were doing. They were touting their toughness and their courage, which is the way they looked at it. I don’t know maybe I’m saying the same thing but disfigurement no I don’t think, that’s the word you use, I don’t think it’s about that at all. I think it’s simply about the bravado and the macho you know get the crap just completely kicked out of you, be stomped on by a 1200-pound bull or get up and get back on a horse that’s the cowboy way!

In the steer wrestling section you have a moment where you freeze frame on a cowboy that really drives the point home that no one is really in control here, the tables have turned the vulnerability in this sport is exposed, plus it almost seems that the cowboy is cracking a smile. When you reviewed your footage did you hunt for moments like these that you could use to add subtext to the sequence?

You ask about the steer wrestling section and where I froze the frame from time to time. I didn’t necessarily look for those moments in other words I didn’t have a concept of freeze framing until I actually looked at the footage and realized there were those moments that lasted for only a few frames that would be totally missed were the one you use as your example where the guy is now being pushed by the steer. They’re looking, his eyes are strained to the rear, the steer’s eyes are strained to the front they’re looking at each other in a classic confrontation. I mean it’s just too visual and too strong not to have grabbed it and frozen it for the audience. So I decided on a kind of a mantra. My mantra was that content was more important than format. By that I mean, we shot in 4:3 which is the standard 16mm format, but we released it in 1:85 but many times in the film it will cut, it’ll cut the edges off and give the full frame in the middle because the action I felt shouldn’t be sacrificed by trimming, by diminishing the resolution or by trimming the top and the bottom in order to give it a 1:85 ratio which is the way you create a 1:85 from a 4:3 [aspect] ratio. So here again and this is a perfect example if you’ll notice the frame you froze, you’ve got black on the right and on the left. Well the total frame is a 1:85 but you see black stripes on each side, which means you’re seeing exactly 100% of the 16mm frame. A lot of people said oh you can’t do that, you gotta keep consistent and I said no its about content, not about format. I violated a lot of rules of format but preserved the content.

The narrator says after Phil Lyne retires that for many cowboys this is all they know and there is no choice but to keep going, they don’t in essence have the luxury of retiring. Did people feel critical of Phil for leaving instead of being forced out of the sport by injury like a “real cowboy”?

No one was critical of Phil Lyne. If anything they were envious, Phil was a real cowboy with a family ranch in George West TX. [He had a place to go back to. Rodeo was not his life. His was the perfect storm. He came from a ranch, won the best all-around world champion cowboy, went back to the ranch, got married raised kids and had a real life.]

I did not follow Phil’s career after the movie. I think it would be fascinating to track him down and put that year of his life in the perspective of the whole. Same with Larry who did not grow up on a ranch and made Rodeo his life and his celebrity into a successful career.

Did any of the animals have to be put down at the rodeos you attended if they were excessively violent?

I never saw an animal seriously hurt, injured and certainly never put down. I’m not sure stock contractors would ever characterize and animal as ‘excessively violent’. Bucking horses and bulls are selected for the attributes that make them great on the rodeo circuit… to my knowledge, they do not get meaner or more violent for some reason. There has been a lot of criticism from animal rights activists over the years about the treatment of animals in Rodeo, but they are some of the best cared for animals on the planet. There were horses that we could tell just loved to buck. Afterward[s] they were [as] gentle as kittens.

Below: Merrill’s Oscar for his film. PART TWO of the story, and interviews with cowboys Mahan and Lyne, is HERE.

Kieth Merril OScar Pic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marshall Crenshaw Mounts Kickstarter Campaign for Tom Wilson Doc

photo-original

Only 11 more days to go. Pitch in, punters.

By Fred Mills

Music geeks certainly know the name Tom Wilson – it appeared on the back of scores of key records back in the day, including albums by Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, Eric Burdon, Simon & Garfunkel, and a little old NYC garage combo called the Velvet Underground. What about the general public, though? Do they even know their Tom Wilsons from their Charlie Wilsons?

Marshall Crenshaw – you may have heard of him too – has obviously pondered that same question so he’s decided to make a documentary about the producer, and in the process is mounting a Kickstarter campaign to help get the thing funded. At the pledge page, Crenshaw duly notes, of his progress on the project thus far:

One question that I got asked a lot when I first got started on this project was, “Is there any film footage of Tom Wilson? Any audio? Will people be able to see, hear, and get a sense of this person when they see the movie about him?”. As of now I know the answer to be a big fat YES! We’ve discovered that there’s tons of still-unseen film footage of him in his element and in his heyday, AND we know of lots of places to look for more; the ongoing process of discovery has already begun.

There’s lots and lots of audio material too, beginning of course with the 40 one-hour “Music Factory” syndicated radio shows that Wilson produced and hosted during the late ’60s wherein he interviews people like Tim Buckley, The Velvet Underground, The Cowsills, fellow legendary-producers Teddy Reig and Artie Ripp, Dave Van Ronk, Sam the Sham, Frank Zappa, Johnny Tillotson (!!), many more.. And of course there are (still-unreleased) illuminating moments, conversations contained on unedited master tapes; later this month I’m going to a private listening session to check out some of that stuff. The movie that we want to make will bring a lot of incredible archive material to light for the first time, will be a feast for the eyes, ears, and souls of music fans.

That, for yours truly, is kind of the proverbial “holy shit” moment when it comes to piquing my interest in an archival release or documentary film. As of this writing Crenshaw has raised a little over $5k, with 11 days to go to reach a goal of $24,475. Let us go on record as saying this is the kind of film that has GOT to be made, folks, so head over to that pledge page where you can see the pitch trailer along with Crenshaw’s written updates.

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Worth noting is that this Saturday night (Feb. 27) Crenshaw will be on the radio with a re-airing of an earlier installment of his show that’s pretty relevant to this Wilson discussion. Notes Crenshaw, “[The show is] The Bottomless Pit, WFUV and wfuv.org, Saturdays @ 10PM EST, [of one] I did back in Oct. 2013, right after Irwin Chusid’s website was launched (www.producertomwilson.com). After doing the shows, I wanted more. There’s a huge gap in the Historical Record of Popular Music where Wilson’s story, in detail and depth, should be. Anyway, these radio shows were the start of Me being pulled down into this rabbit-hole.”

As with us all, Marshall.

Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows

Title: Any Way The Wind Blows

Director: Rob Hatch-Miller

Release Date: February 20, 2016

Syl_still2

The Rob Hatch-Miller directed Any Way The Wind Blows, currently making the rounds of film festivals to mucho acclaim, captures life of musical underdog and soul legend Syl Johnson.

BY DENISE SULLIVAN

Following the sustained period of grief over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., soul/funk singer-songwriter Syl Johnson responded with his own version of a mourning song.

“After Dr. King was killed… I didn’t want to make a militant song. My song… was asking a question,” he says.

Johnson’s downbeat “Is It Because I’m Black?” dented the charts, as did the other expressive jams he arranged and cut for Chicago’s Twinight label but mostly, his songs were soul-powered cries in the wilderness. Despite previous and future appearances on the charts and on Soul Train; a Willie Mitchell-mentored Hi Records tenure; a later, post-disco hit (“Ms. Fine Brown Frame”); and a cult following that grew among cratediggers at the dawn of the hip hop era (further fueled by the advent of the CD)—Johnson’s name and reputation as one of soul’s finest remains a fairly well-guarded secret.

Now, nearly 50 years after his solo recording debut, the documentary, Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows (directed by Rob Hatch-Miller), currently making the rounds of indie film festivals, goes some way toward unravelling the mystery of why things went the way they did for one of American music’s premiere voices and most-sampled artists (were it not for his explosive track, “Different Strokes,” hip hop as it’s known would not be the same).

SylPoster1200x1800

Johnson’s story is not your average unsung musician’s tale: Timing, as ever, was part of a long miscalculated equation that includes mismanagement and Johnson’s own quirky character traits. But as friends, family, fellow players, at least one hip hop mastermind (RZA) and an ex-wife testify, Johnson’s stalled career was not for lack of talent. His gift for delivering songs of timeless and enduring strength, with a lyrical depth, and dynamite swagger should not be open to debate. Yet for reasons unexplained, his musical abilities are challenged by novelist Jonathan Lethem, who asserts Johnson only had a “a tenth” of what his rival Al Green did.

The word “genius” in the context of Johnson’s creative spark is also argued against by different folks but facts are facts: The only things Johnson lacked in the starmaking department were promotion and a commitment from London Records (Hi’s parent company). Throughout the film, the talking heads agree that Johnson’s rare “loose” and “raw” qualities are what set him apart, contributing to his Twinight sides rising to heights of excellence. Those records, from “Come On Sock It To Me” and “Different Strokes” to “Dresses Too Short” had the sound that called producer Mitchell out of his Royal Recorders in Memphis toward Chicago in search of Johnson, his original choice to sing “Take Me To The River.”

In more recent years, representatives from the Numero Group label, which reissued a Grammy-nominated box set of Johnson’s music, would seemingly diminish the singer’s influence by categorizing him as part of their Eccentric Soul catalog (though enthusiastically received by collectors as well as critics—BLURT included—the series comprises mostly amateur records issued by complete unknowns). Yet keen to spread the good word, collect kudos, and sell records, the young executives and his new musical sidemen seem sincere enough; though Johnson isn’t entirely convinced, only half-joking when he says he’s “keeping an eye on them.”

Johnson’s great grandfather Wallace was a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi; according to the film, his grandfather bought the plantation and Johnson grew up with seven siblings, picking cotton and singing, inspired by listening to the birds sing. No one knows exactly how old Johnson is (one of his daughters suspects he’s considerably older than the 79 years currently assigned to him); it’s certain that in 1950, he followed his siblings and mother to Chicago. He immediately began to hang out and hold his own, playing blues guitar on the Chess Records scene, learning “discipline and how to dress” from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Junior Wells.

“To go hear Muddy Waters play? You wish you had been there and heard Muddy Waters play,” Johnson says in the film.

But singing the blues was not his desire. “We got some new shit for you, Pops,” he says, of the prevailing attitude behind 1959’s “Teardrops.” Dropping his birth name Thompson, he changed it to Johnson on a suggestion by notorious record man, Syd Nathan of the Federal label. Touring, recording, and trying to earn a living consumed him for the next few decades; the music took a turn and Johnson turned to the restaurant business for his hustle until that dried up too. As destiny would have it, with the advent of sampling, the popularity of Johnson’s records used as basic tracks and themes on rap’s greatest hits allowed him to earn a living from his music again.

syl-johnson-becky

Nobody knows better than Johnson what he gave to the business versus what he got from it, although his immediate family and the musicians he worked with have empathy and an understanding of what it took for him be a groundbreaking musician, as well as a man in all his dimensions—from abandoned child to father, businessman, and playa.

But it’s Wu Tang Clan’s RZA who shows the most generosity of spirit and unconditional gratitude for the price Johnson paid so others might benefit.

“It ain’t only the music that makes you valuable. It’s also something,” he says, pointing to his guts, “that you may have in here, that the other people don’t have.”

***

Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows screens February 20th at the Noise Pop Music Festival, 7 PM at the Roxie in San Francisco (with Johnson and filmmakers in attendance); and at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula Montana on Saturday, February 20th | 12:45pm at the Top Hat and Sunday, February 21st | 7:30pm at Crystal.

THE ANSWER MY FRIENDS, IS… The Syl Johnson Movie

Syl_still2

The Rob Hatch-Miller directed Any Way The Wind Blows, currently making the rounds of film festivals (next screenings Feb. 20 & 21) to mucho acclaim, captures life of musical underdog and soul legend Syl Johnson.

BY DENISE SULLIVAN

Following the sustained period of grief over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., soul/funk singer-songwriter Syl Johnson responded with his own version of a mourning song.

“After Dr. King was killed… I didn’t want to make a militant song. My song… was asking a question,” he says.

Johnson’s downbeat “Is It Because I’m Black?” dented the charts, as did the other expressive jams he arranged and cut for Chicago’s Twinight label but mostly, his songs were soul-powered cries in the wilderness. Despite previous and future appearances on the charts and on Soul Train; a Willie Mitchell-mentored Hi Records tenure; a later, post-disco hit (“Ms. Fine Brown Frame”); and a cult following that grew among cratediggers at the dawn of the hip hop era (further fueled by the advent of the CD)—Johnson’s name and reputation as one of soul’s finest remains a fairly well-guarded secret.

Now, nearly 50 years after his solo recording debut, the documentary, Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows (directed by Rob Hatch-Miller), currently making the rounds of indie film festivals, goes some way toward unravelling the mystery of why things went the way they did for one of American music’s premiere voices and most-sampled artists (were it not for his explosive track, “Different Strokes,” hip hop as it’s known would not be the same).

SylPoster1200x1800

Johnson’s story is not your average unsung musician’s tale: Timing, as ever, was part of a long miscalculated equation that includes mismanagement and Johnson’s own quirky character traits. But as friends, family, fellow players, at least one hip hop mastermind (RZA) and an ex-wife testify, Johnson’s stalled career was not for lack of talent. His gift for delivering songs of timeless and enduring strength, with a lyrical depth, and dynamite swagger should not be open to debate. Yet for reasons unexplained, his musical abilities are challenged by novelist Jonathan Lethem, who asserts Johnson only had a “a tenth” of what his rival Al Green did.

The word “genius” in the context of Johnson’s creative spark is also argued against by different folks but facts are facts: The only things Johnson lacked in the starmaking department were promotion and a commitment from London Records (Hi’s parent company). Throughout the film, the talking heads agree that Johnson’s rare “loose” and “raw” qualities are what set him apart, contributing to his Twinight sides rising to heights of excellence. Those records, from “Come On Sock It To Me” and “Different Strokes” to “Dresses Too Short” had the sound that called producer Mitchell out of his Royal Recorders in Memphis toward Chicago in search of Johnson, his original choice to sing “Take Me To The River.”

In more recent years, representatives from the Numero Group label, which reissued a Grammy-nominated box set of Johnson’s music, would seemingly diminish the singer’s influence by categorizing him as part of their Eccentric Soul catalog (though enthusiastically received by collectors as well as critics—BLURT included—the series comprises mostly amateur records issued by complete unknowns). Yet keen to spread the good word, collect kudos, and sell records, the young executives and his new musical sidemen seem sincere enough; though Johnson isn’t entirely convinced, only half-joking when he says he’s “keeping an eye on them.”

Johnson’s great grandfather Wallace was a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi; according to the film, his grandfather bought the plantation and Johnson grew up with seven siblings, picking cotton and singing, inspired by listening to the birds sing. No one knows exactly how old Johnson is (one of his daughters suspects he’s considerably older than the 79 years currently assigned to him); it’s certain that in 1950, he followed his siblings and mother to Chicago. He immediately began to hang out and hold his own, playing blues guitar on the Chess Records scene, learning “discipline and how to dress” from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Junior Wells.

“To go hear Muddy Waters play? You wish you had been there and heard Muddy Waters play,” Johnson says in the film.

But singing the blues was not his desire. “We got some new shit for you, Pops,” he says, of the prevailing attitude behind 1959’s “Teardrops.” Dropping his birth name Thompson, he changed it to Johnson on a suggestion by notorious record man, Syd Nathan of the Federal label. Touring, recording, and trying to earn a living consumed him for the next few decades; the music took a turn and Johnson turned to the restaurant business for his hustle until that dried up too. As destiny would have it, with the advent of sampling, the popularity of Johnson’s records used as basic tracks and themes on rap’s greatest hits allowed him to earn a living from his music again.

syl-johnson-becky

Nobody knows better than Johnson what he gave to the business versus what he got from it, although his immediate family and the musicians he worked with have empathy and an understanding of what it took for him be a groundbreaking musician, as well as a man in all his dimensions—from abandoned child to father, businessman, and playa.

But it’s Wu Tang Clan’s RZA who shows the most generosity of spirit and unconditional gratitude for the price Johnson paid so others might benefit.

“It ain’t only the music that makes you valuable. It’s also something,” he says, pointing to his guts, “that you may have in here, that the other people don’t have.”

***

Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows screens February 20th at the Noise Pop Music Festival, 7 PM at the Roxie in San Francisco (with Johnson and filmmakers in attendance); and at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula Montana on Saturday, February 20th | 12:45pm at the Top Hat and Sunday, February 21st | 7:30pm at Crystal.