Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Blurt Jazz Desk: New Releases

Presenting installment #3 of the Blurt Jazz Desk—go HERE to access the previous editions—and our Jazz Editor’s top picks of some new and recent titles from respected labels Mack Avenue, International Anthem Recording Co., Whaling City Sound, Onyx Productions, Ropeadope, Same Island Music, Okeh, Jazzelm Music, and Orleans Records. Guarantee: all sounds are final—and if you wanna debate that, you can find Dr. Kopp at his Musoscribe blog, natch.

BY BILL KOPP

Brian Bromberg

Full Circle

Mack Avenue Records

Bromberg has recorded at least 12 albums prior to Full Circle. The disc opens with a rare archival recording made some 65 years ago; it features his drummer father with a trumpeter and trombonist. Bromberg has added his bass to the recording; it’s delightful. The rest of the disc is much more in a modern vibe; it swings and is full of energy and intensity. Even more impressive, these recordings feature overdubs – still not so common in jazz – so listeners get to hear Bromberg’s sizzling fretwork and his nimble, propulsive bass playing. Arturo Sandoval guests on “Havana Nights.” – Bill Kopp

 

Mazzarella

Nick Mazzarella Trio

Ultraviolet

International Anthem Recording Co.

This disc of seven originals features the trio of Mazzarella on alto sax plus bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly. The instrumentals fall on various points along the spectrum between hard bop (“Neutron Star”) and the more abstract sounds of Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman (“Abacus and Astrolabe”). “Luminous Dials” might remind rock-oriented listeners of Frank Zappa’s jazz-leaning work. Things get wild and atonal on the title track, then the aptly-named “Outlier” reins things in (but just a bit). The rhythm section’s main role is to provide a canvas upon which Mazarella can apply his splashes of wild saxophone. – Bill Kopp

 

Jason Miles

Jason Miles

To Grover with Love: Live in Japan

Whaling City Sound

Miles is a New York-based keyboardist and bandleader who – among an impressive list of credits – was a trusted collaborator of late-period Miles Davis. This live set captures Jason Miles and his band paying tribute to Grover Washington. At their best – which is most of the disc’s run time – these tunes are funky and engaging. At their weakest – which is not often – the performances lean perilously close to “smooth jazz.” Andy Snitzer and Eric Darius take on the challenge of the sax parts, and Nick Moroch’s fiery guitar solo on “Lorans Dance” is a highlight. – Bill Kopp

 

Triangular

Triangular III

Triangular III

Onyx Productions

This live set was recorded at New Haven CT’s Firehouse 12 in October 2015, and features Ralph Peterson on drums, pianist Zaccai Curtis, and Luques Curtis on bass. The recording has a very live and dynamic feel, capturing the intensity and excitement of this superb trio. As often as not, Z. Curtis’ piano is the centerpiece, but the other two players more than hold their own. A mix of original compositions and the occasional standard (Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”) makes for an engaging set of music. The exotic “Inner Urge” is the most thrilling number, but the entire album is worthwhile. – Bill Kopp

 

Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin

Bye Bye Blackbird

Ropeadope

Some tasty soul jazz in the vein of Les McCann is the order of the day on this set. Those who enjoy Dr. Lonnie Smith and/or The New Mastersounds will dig this set of a half dozen instrumentals from a crack set of jazz players. Alto saxophonist David Sanborn guests on two tracks, but Demos Petropoulos’ expressive Hammond B3 is often the star. And while you could be forgiven for shuddering at the sight of yet another reading of “At Last,” Catalano shines on the track. The band cuts loose for the closer, sounding like they’re recording live for “Shakin’.” – Bill Kopp

 

Pratt

Dan Pratt

Hymn for the Happy Man

Same Island Music

Pratt plays alto and tenor sax, backed by a piano/bass/drums ensemble; bassist Christian McBride is the most high-profile member of the group. The set is varied, featuring challenging numbers like “Gross Blues” and more straight-ahead offerings such as the piano-centric “New Day.” The album’s longest piece, “River” is also its most atmospheric and contemplative. It’s also perhaps the best track. “Speak Low” is occasionally reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s deft combinations of classical and jazz. While the more intense numbers are fascinating, this aggregation seems at its best when the players go for subtlety, as they do on the title track. – Bill Kopp

Theo Croker

Escape Velocity

Okeh

If you’re the kind of listener who was disappointed when the fusion movement petered out and dissolved into soft jazz, then you owe it to yourself to check out this disc. The spoken word intro might conjure memories of Nat Adderley’s early 1970s Soul Zodiac, and there’s a vaguely Bitches Brew-flavored aesthetic at work throughout. But the whole affair sounds decidedly modern and forward-looking. Escape Velocity is informed by many genres: jazz, of course, but rock, reggae and hip hop too; Croker has a strong sense of melody that keeps things rooted in accessibility while still creating an ambitious work. – Bill Kopp

 

Warren Wolf

Warren Wolf

Convergence

Mack Avenue Records

Wolf’s buttery vibes and marimba work are guaranteed ear candy, and here he’s aided and abetted by a group that includes bassist Christian McBride and (on two tracks) guitarist John Scofield. The eleven tracks are very melody-forward; while there’s no great exploration happening here, Convergence is perhaps more consistently enjoying than any recently-released jazz album I’ve had the occasion to hear. The album is assured and thrilling in its low-key sort of way, and while it rewards close, intent listening, it makes tasty background music too. The grooves are often deeper and more soulful than they initially appear to be. – Bill Kopp

 

matt-baker-almost-blue

Matt Baker

Almost Blue

Jazzelm Music

Australian jazz pianist Baker relocated to New York City in 2010, to swim with “the big fishes,” as the liner notes say. This set is greatly influenced by Baker’s love of Herbie Hancock, but the tunes themselves are primarily from the Great American Songbook. Joel Frahm’s sax often takes the spotlight, but Baker’s assured and nimble piano playing is always present. Two very different readings of “Theme from The Apartment” are among the highlights, and Baker sings a romantic version of Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” “The End of a Love Affair” is the disc’s most effective track overall. – Bill Kopp

 

Carlo Ditta

What I’m Talkin’ About

Orleans Records

This disc is difficult to classify: sometimes it’s gritty, greasy soul jazz, featuring guitarist/vocalist Ditta backed by a funk band, highlighted by some sexy flute that recalls Herbie Mann. Other times it feels like New Orleans jazz/blues. The production aesthetic is decidedly odd, with certain elements (often Ditta’s voice and/or guitar) far too out-front in the mix; it’s almost as if they skipped the mastering step in production. That makes What I’m Talkin’ About an unnecessarily difficult listen. It’s varied and intriguing throughout, but requires much of the listener. Be warned that this album often sounds quite like a bootleg. – Bill Kopp

THE NEW WAVE: Zombi + Steve Moore + Perturbator + John Carpenter

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The Upshot: Here’s looking at you, kids: Three sonic and compositional progeny of filmmaker/composer Carpenter weigh in with intriguing new albums—as does the maestro himself. Below, following the text, listen to some of the music and view a clip of Carpenter performin a track live in the studio.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

For the past few years, it seems like the worlds of EDM and ambient have been the sole domain of synthesizer-dominated music. As usual, though, there’s more to the story if you scratch beyond the surface. There’s a whole movement of keyboard-wielding artists inspired by Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter soundtracks – electronic music that requires creators to sit down in front of an actual instrument and play it. Some of these synthwavers have been in practice for years and are just now starting to get attention beyond enthusiasts, while others have been the big dogs for a while.

Zombi CD

One of the best-known acts of the current wave, Zombi returns from a hiatus with Shape Shift (Relapse; released 2/12/16). On its sixth LP, the Pittsburgh duo ignores any pretension toward ambience and puts some serious oomph into its performance. That’s in large part due to the fiery kit work of drummer Anthony Paterra – his jazz and metal inflections give the music a rock drive that makes it perfect for in-concert enthusiasm. Keyboardist/bassist Steve Moore responds with pulsing loops, licks that could translate easily to guitar and cosmic washes of sound that emulate space travel. “Interstellar Package,” “Mission Creep” and “Pillars of the Dawn” demonstrate the pair’s chemistry as much as its instrumental and compositional fortitude, directly translating its live power to disk. Zombi drifted off into the ether a bit on recent work, but Shape Shift puts it back into hyperspace toward greatness.

Steve Moore

One reason for Zombi’s prolonged absence from the stage has been Moore’s increased responsibilities as a film composer. On Cub (Relapse; 2/12/16), the soundtrack to a Belgian horror flick, Moore takes a more orchestral approach than he does with Zombi – unsurprisingly, given the medium. Most of the pieces serve as support to visuals, as intended. But Moore’s ability to conjure some serious creep factor, a la the buzzing synth snarl of “The Hunt” or the ascending pipe organ melody of “The Treehouse,” makes this more than just an item that completes your collection. Play it from your porch next Hallowe’en.

UncannyValley1500.jpg - art by Ariel Zucker-Brull

Unlike a lot of current synth music revivalists, Parisian one-person-band Perturbator eschews pure atmosphere and embraces beat. The Uncanny Valley (Blood Music; 5/6/16), the erstwhile James Kent’s sixth LP, certainly maintains the film score ambience of its forebears – song titles like “Neo Tokyo,” “Assault” and the title piece indicate tracks that might be found on the soundtrack of some sci-fi exploitation flick from the 80s, and the cover looks like a Heavy Metal homage/knock-off. But Kent looks to the dancefloor and the charts as well. “Diabolus Ex Machina” (which adds some chunky electric guitar to the mix), “She Moves Like a Knife” and the appropriately titled “Disco Inferno” aim to engage your hips as well as your cerebral cortex, while singers Greta Link and Hayley Stewart help mold “Venger” and “Sentient” into brooding atmo-pop. Kent maintains a strong grip on melody throughout, ensuring that nothing here comes off as a mere pre-programmable trifle. The Uncanny Valley could soundtrack both your next DVR anime fest or your nightly sojourn to the alternative dance club.

John Carpenter

In a way, the godfather of all these folks is John Carpenter. He’s better known as a filmmaker, of course – one of the most successful independent directors of all time, in fact. But he also composes and performs most of his own soundtracks – he’s responsible for the creepy-as-fuck piano line from the original Halloween – and they’ve been a great inspiration to the other folks in this review. He finally showcased his music side on last year’s excellent Lost Themes, and now he’s produced the inevitable sequel, Lost Themes II (Sacred Bones; 4/22/16). Backed by a band led by his son Cody Carpenter, the filmmaker worries less about scoring for scenes than for pure musical pleasure. “Persia Rising” and “Angel’s  Asylum” soar, “Dark Blues” and “Windy Death” snarl and “Last Sunrise” and  “Bela Lugosi” brood –  all are clearly meant to be enjoyed minus moving images in the foreground. Carpenter’s no Keith Emerson, but for the atmospheric tunes he conjures, there’s no need for him to be – the resounding  piano chords of “Virtual Survivor,” for example, make a perfect foundation for his band to flesh out. With Lost Themes II, Carpenter solidifies his second career.

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Zombi:

Steve Moore:

Perturbator:

John Carpenter:

 

Photo Gallery: Shaky Knees Festival May 13-15, Atlanta

 

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Photographer John Boydston went in search of great music and visual delights at the annual Shaky Knees Festival in downtown Atlanta, and found lots of both.  He reports there were 5 stages and an ambitiously diverse lineup of some big, some not yet big performers.  His personal highlights were Slowdive and Eagles of Death Metal.  Here’s a short gallery of who and what he saw and heard, which is by no means a complete overview.

 BY JOHN BOYDSTON

Savages

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savages Blurt Shaky Knees boydston-2

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All Them Witches

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Slowdive

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Jane’s Addiction

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Baroness

baronees shaky knees blurt

Beachballs & Skyine (literally, not a band…)

beach ball skyline shaky knees blurt

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Black Angels

black angels shaky knees blurt

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Bloc Party

Bloc Party shaky knees blurt-

Crystal Fighters

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Crystal Fighters shaky knees blurt

Eagles of Death Metal

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Nothings

nothings shaky knees blurt

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Cold War Kids

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July Talk

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Wolf Alice

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Beale Street Music Festival 4/29/16-5/1/16, Memphis

Neil Young (1)

Neil Young (pictured above), Yo Gotti, Indigo Girls, Zedd, Beck, Violent Femmes, Gin Blossoms, Weezer, Panic! At the Disco, Grace Potter, Cypress Hill, Courtney Barnett, Jason Derulo and many more made Memphis a must-be-at city once again.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY MARK JACKSON

April showers may bring May flowers, but rain during Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival brings mud—and lots of it.

Memphis Music Fest is no stranger to the rain during the annual weekend event, but it doesn’t seem to keep any true music lovers away. The festival grounds actually hold up very well for the most part, but I do recommend packing a pair of rubber boots and a poncho.

Mudd Fun

So, on with the show. This is one of my favorite festivals of the year, due to the organizers and staff. This event always has a top notch lineup with a diverse line up of acts. How many festivals can you see Neil Young, Yo Gotti, Indigo Girls, Zedd, Beck, and a whole stage dedicated to the Blues, all in the same weekend. This Festival is also one of the best values around, with tickets for all three days for just over one hundred dollars.

There was no way I could have caught all the bands with three stages running at the same time, so I had to plan out my weekend to make sure I was able to take in the must see’s.

Gin Blossoms

Friday’s must see’s for me were: The Struts, Gin Blossoms (above) Panic! at the Disco, Grace Potter, Weezer, and finishing up the night with Neil Young & Promise of the Real. I also happened upon Young and the Giant. I had never heard of them, but they had a really cool sound with a great stage presence.  One of my favorite things about music festivals is that you can always discover new music and new bands.

Grace Potter

Grace Potter (1)

Grace Potter

Weezer

Weezer (1)

Panic! At the Disco

Panic at the Disco (3)

Panic at the Disco (2)

Panic at the Disco (1)

Young the Giant

Young the Giant

Saturday started off with Lunchmoney Lewis (below), who came out in his traditional bathrobe and boxer shorts. If you haven’t heard of him or seen his video for “Ain’t Too Cool,” please finish reading this article, then grab your coolest shades and check it out – you will be hooked.

Lunchmoney Lewis

Next up on was Better Than Ezra from Louisiana, whose biggest hit was in 1995 and titled “Good.” They were as tight as they were in the ‘90s. Up next for me was Moon Taxi, the indie-progressive rock band that is based in Nashville. They took the stage at 7:00 PM as the sun was starting to set and the crowds started to swell.

Cypress Hill (1)

Cypress Hill

The group I was most excited to see this weekend was Cypress Hill (above); ever since I first heard their “Insane in the Brain,” the song has been imbedded in my brain. I was on my way to the photography pit in front of the stage when a white transport van pulled up next to me. As I moved to the side to allow the van to pass, it stopped and out stepped Cypress Hill. No waiting or warming up for the veterans, they exited the van and quickly walked to the stage and proceeded to rock the crowd—from the moment B-Real appeared onstage, the crowd was hyped, getting hits like “How I Could Just Kill A Man”, “Superstar”, “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That”, “Hits from the Bong”, and “Lowrider” and jumping nonstop and, er, waving their hands like they just don’t care.

Yo Gotti

Yo Gotti (1)

Next up: local Memphian rapper Yo Gotti (above), His DJ whipped the crowd into a frenzy before he even hit the stage, dressed in all white and sporting a white ski mask. The huge monitor screen that projected behind him on stage played images of Memphis before switching over to a cool looking graphic screen. Yo Gotti was a perfect act to put on before the night’s headliner of the Bud Light Stage with Jason Derulo.

Jason Derulo

Jason Derulo (1)

Jason Derulo (2)

Jason Derulo (3)

Jason Derulo (4)

Jason (above) came, saw, and kicked ass: People had already stood in front of the stage for hours and hours just to ensure they were front and center for this show. With choreographed moves and lots of dancers, this show alone was worth the price of the three-day ticket. If you have turned on the radio in the last five years, you have heard one of his hits such as “Wiggle”, “Ridin’ Solo”, “Watcha Say”, “Talk Dirty”, and now “Get Ugly.”

Violent Femmes

I didn’t get to see headliners Megan Trainor on the Fedex Stage or Modest Mouse at the Rockstar Energy Drink Stage. I did to get catch a couple of songs from Violent Femmes (above) on the Rockstar Stage. It would have been an incomplete weekend if I hadn’t been able to photograph and jam out to “Add It Up.” With my legs feeling like I’d hiked Mount Everest, Saturday was now in the books. Time to catch a little sleep before a full Sunday of music.

Blackberry Smoke

Blackberry Smoke (1)

Blackberry Smoke (2)

Sunday kicked off with Blackberry Smoke (above) from Atlanta, with a cross of southern rock, country rock, and bluegrass and having toured with such names as Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, ZZ Top, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

indigo girls

Indigo Girls (2)

Indigo Girls (1)

Next, I made my way over to the Rockstar stage to shoot the Indigo Girls (above). For a 4:15 Sunday show, there was still large crowd that was singing along to most of their songs and keeping time with the songs.

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (1)

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night sweats

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (3)

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (2)

Next up on the Rockstar Stage was another act I couldn’t wait to see, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (above). This soul singer, with his soulful voice and talented band, is one you must make plans to see perform. His breakout hit “SOB” is great, but just the tip of the iceberg. After leaving Nathaniel’s set I made my way over to the Bud Light Stage to catch a little of Courtney Barnett before making my way to the Fedex Stage to catch Beck (below), whose hits include “Loser”, “Where It’s At” and “Devil’s Haircut”. (He also won album of the year in 2014 for the album Morning Phase.)

Beck

Beck (2)

The final act of the weekend was Zedd on the Bud Light Stage. More and more festivals are turning to a mixture of DJ, dance, and EMD due to the popularity and the high energy vibe it brings to the crowd, and Zedd is a mixture of producer/DJ/musician who has done collaborations with such artists as Kesha, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, and Hayley Williams. He had a whole stage LED board which was positioned about 20 feet high, and the stage was rigged with flame throwers, smoke and confetti canons. The whole set became a non-stop dance party, and the LED boards conjured the vibe of an outer space journey.

Zedd

Zedd (1)

Zedd (2)

Zedd (3)

Kudos, incidentally, to the people in charge of booking this year’s Beale Street Music Festival. We couldn’t have asked for a better ending to a great weekend.

Zedd Crowd

 

 

THROUGH THE “VINYL” LOOKING GLASS: Parquet Courts

PQ

Transcending its past, the NYC-via-Texas quartet blends the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll—simple song structure, basic-level playing skills—with the clever street patter and sharp observation that made NYC acts like the Velvet Underground, Television and the Ramones so iconic in the first place.

BY JOHN SCHACHT

If you watched the first season of Vinyl, the HBO series fetishizing the 1970s New York City music scene, your takeaway was likely the opposite of what the show’s creators intended: If rock isn’t dead, somebody please kill it before it resembles this show’s Madame Tussauds waxworks.

Essentially a soap opera dusted with cocaine and tribute bands (stand-ins for David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Bob Marley and the New York Dolls all make appearances), the series—inexplicably green lighted for a second season—follows the tribulations of the fictitious American Century Records label as it staggers from one self-inflicted financial crisis to another in the early 70s. Its founder, Richie Finestra—played gamely by Bobby Cannavale, whose season as Gyp Rosetti revived a moribund Boardwalk Empire (also written by Terrence Winter)—blends Hit Men slime with rockist zealotry until it turns the heady early-70s firmament that birthed punk, disco and hip-hop into a caricature.

In the tone-setting premiere, Finestra has his mind blown at a Dolls’ show so epic that it collapses the club—though the metaphor alone could’ve done that. From then on, at least between lines of blow, Finestra puts American Century—reborn as Alibi Records—on a holy crusade to find other bands just as gob-smacking. In an oft-repeated slogan with all the subtlety of Soviet propaganda, Finestra fires up the troops by asking them to “Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Made you want to dance. Or fuck. Or go out and kick somebody’s ass!”

The alleged saviors emerge in an outfit called The Nasty Bits, a four-piece anachronism constructed from bits of NYC protopunk unknowns Jack Ruby, punk icon Richard Hell (a consultant to, and later critic of, the series) and the Sex Pistols—this last courtesy of lead singer Kip Stevens, played by executive producer Mick Jagger’s son, James, a sneering British guttersnipe with a junk habit. Finestra and his surrogates immediately begin sanding off the band’s raw edges, an irony somehow lost on the show’s creators. Still, the first season culminates in another epic Dolls gig, only this time it’s the Nasty Bits that steal the show—despite playing just one song. It’s a stunt, though, a bit of Malcolm McLaren Filthy Lucre-hood instigated by a Finestra phone call to the cops. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated, indeed.

Of the show’s many unintended ironies, there’s one that’s especially harmful to the cause it allegedly espouses. Viewers of Vinyl essentially have curators hectoring them about missing out on this magical moment—as if the present couldn’t possibly provide musical experiences as visceral. It’s the same era-centric arrogance—eventually enshrined by other waxworks like the 70s Broadway nostalgiagasm Beatlemania and the cinematic séance, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—that birthed punk, hip-hop and disco in the first place.

It’s testament to both the democratic form and its most enthusiastic practitioners that rock ‘n’ roll still even exists 60 years after the fad refused to evaporate, as nearly everyone predicted and expected. But it’s been nearly 50 since The Who first declared it dead, and another 20-plus since hip-hop, pop and commercial country relegated it to also-ran status in sales and influence. Still, new generations of kids yearn for that cultural and personal catharsis—the irresistible blend of libidinous abandon and tribal bonding—that rock ‘n’ roll built its reputation on and, on occasion, still delivers.

One band in the here-and-now whose DNA roots trace to some of the acts that Vinyl wants to immortalize, is Parquet Courts. The NYC-via-Texas quartet blends the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll—simple song structure, basic-level playing skills—with the clever street patter and sharp observation that made NYC acts like the Velvet Underground, Television and the Ramones so iconic in the first place. No surprise, then, that the band’s fourth full-length (fifth if you include Parkay Quarts’ Content Nausea) appears on Rough Trade, the label where the next generation of smart, arty punkers—Wire, the Fall, Swell Maps—kept the flame alive.

P Courts 4-8

If those links were obvious in Parquet Courts’ previous work, the new Human Performance begins to alter the band’s trajectory without sacrificing the modern take it brings to those roots. The songs on Human Performance may lack the sheer velocity that “Master of My Craft” (from 2012’s Light up Gold) or the title track from 2014’s Sunbathing Animal gave the band’s previous releases, and instead trades it for a more nuanced songwriting palette. The tempos are slower, the guitar muted (by comparison), and new elements like Latin rhythms and various keyboards make their debuts on an LP that took a year to make.

The opener, “Dust,” is on its face a companion piece to Sunbathing‘s “Bodies” or “Stoned and Starving” off Light Up Gold—a simple infectious riff that’s a conveyance for a fun bit of lyrics nonsense that, with full-LP context, turn out not to be such nonsense after all. The pace slows here, and the song trades in guitar feedback for keyboard touches. But the chorus—”Dust is everywhere/Sweep!”—offers a metaphor for what Parquet Courts pull off throughout Human Performance: the songs are an emotional house cleaning that, left unsaid or un-swept, would “sneak in ignored” and stack up until they suffocate.

The title cut follows, with Andrew Savage turning that keen observational eye inward—shorn of irony or distance this time—to chronicle the collapse of a relationship and its haunted residue. The song veers between the verses’ loping tempo and furious blasts of shouted choruses, setting up the dichotomy between the indulgence of remembering—”Nothing moves without drifting into a memory”—and the point when the “witness and know, fracture and hurt” curdles into mere “Human Performance.”

Examining the duality of our motivations and emotions elevates Parquet Courts above most of their peers. Not only do they avoid the Vinyl-style embalming of their source material, but the songs transcend the romanticized hipster baggage that the city—and Brooklyn in particular—currently carries with it. New York City intrudes, of course, but mostly as urban setting and certainly not as hipster’s paradise. The LP’s fiercest track, “Two Dead Cops,” is a straight-up recounting taken at Buzzcocks speed of the killing of two policeman not far from Savage’s apartment; “Captive of the Sun”—whose quasi-rap and echo-y noises would’ve fit nicely next to Combat Rock‘s weirder, more interesting moments—captures the “skull shakin’ cadence of the J-train” and “car-honk duet” cacophony that’s “in the key of New York.”

“Berlin,” built around a seductive western Telecaster riff, pumping Farfisa, and a cantering beat, is a NYC love-song by subtraction, as Savage’s narrator questions the joys of traveler anonymity, noting that “Teutonic frankness” alarms because “it tastes so familiar and wild.” Similarly, the bongos-accented “One Man, No City” confirms that self-consciousness is more sleight-of-hand than wisdom-gift, no matter the locale: “‘Cogito ergo sum’ people say/But think again, ’cause I have no faith/I find building blocks filled with nothin’.” The song also sounds, at times, remarkably like vintage Talking Heads.

Comparisons to Pavement, which band members swat away regularly, aren’t likely to vanish thanks to slacker-friendly tracks like the homage to a shuttered Chinese restaurant (“I Was Just Here,” robotic enough to also recall Devo) and Austin Brown’s meta-apropos deadpan on “Keeping It Even.” But those claims were “smart songwriter”-reductive in the first place. And these two cuts are the closest to filler on Human Performance anyway, though the subject matter suits an LP that wraps up thematically as neatly as it opens—especially given that the subject matter is essentially confusion.

And what a finale it is, too. After the stark realism punch of “Two Dead Cops,” the penultimate up-tempo downer “Pathos Prairie” role-calls a litany of self-deceptions like an accusatory chest-poke—”The past like a servant that bends for our sake/Into the lines we tell it to trace.” But the Loaded-like LP-ender lullaby “It’s Gonna Happen” concedes that those lies we tell ourselves are survival mechanisms likely to “happen every single time.” Rather than clever Malkmus snark, it reads instead as something like grace and, if not forgiveness, at least a measure of understanding. For a punk band, that makes sense—the music matters only when it means something in the here and now. Only when it’s alive, and not a caricature. Only when it’s not embalmed with the past.

Parquet Courts are on a North American tour this week (and beyond)—tour dates HERE.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HEAVY, MAN: Cha Wa

Cha Wa

The Upshot: Heavy New Orleans funk and party music, like nobody’s bizness.

BY CARL HANNI

Just when I was craving a Wild Tchoupitoulas re-up with a Galactic twist, along comes Cha Wa and their debut album, Funk ’n’ Feathers. Sporting an impressive pedigree of Boudreaux’s and Banister’s, Cha Wa is the mad funk Mardi Gras Indian party record of the…well, millennium so far, although New Orleans is likely to be underwater (again) before we reach that milestone….but ‘Cha Wa,’ which roughly translates in NOLA slang as ‘We’re comin’ for ya,’ is doing just that, indeed they do just that.

Cha Wa 4-1

So we’ll party like it’s 2016 till then, and Cha Wa is the ticket, the real deal, and the motherlode all at once. Cha Wa take the polyrhythmic, percussion heavy shuffle of classic Mardi Gras Indian combos like Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchoupitoulas and inject a dose of modern Crescent City funk, with considerable help from producer Ben Ellman from the peerless NOLA funk machine Galactic, and with a mixing and mastering assist by Count (DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, etc.).

Co-vocalists Irving ‘Honey’ Banister and Spyboy J’Wan Boudreaux provide the deep roots; Banister’s father Irving Banister Sr. played guitar on the 1953 original version of “Jock-a-Mo” (also called “Iko Iko” on many recordings) covered here, while Boudreaux’s grandfather was the legendary Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, and one of the most lauded Indian vocalists of a previous era. Furthering the roots connection is Norwood ‘Geechie’ Johnson of the Wild Magnolias on bass drum and background vocals. And both Banister Sr. and Davell Crawford (grandson of “Jock-a-Mo” writer James Crawford) guest on Cha Wa’s rollicking update on “Jock-a-Mo.”

Funk ’n’ Feathers features one original (“UPT”) by drummer and co-band leader Joe Gelini and nine covers, including a rollicking “All On a Mardi Gras Day” by Doctor John/Mac Rebennack, and Mardi Gras Indian classics “Injuns, Here They Come,” “Ooh Na Nay,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Hold ‘Em Joe” and “Shallow Water” by Monk Boudreaux. They sport a guitar, two keyboard players, the all-important sousaphone for that slippery second line bass line, and enough background chanting and group vocals to keep the neighbors up all night. Ellman’s influence is evident on the heavy funk mix on the keyboards on tracks like “Upt” and “Ooh Na Nay” but he wisely mainly stays out of the way, turns everything up loud and goes for that great separation in the mix that makes Galactic so deadly.

So, Cha Wa are coming for ya…ya ready? [Below: watch the band live in 2014]

Photo Credit: Erica Goldring, via the band’s Facebook page.

15 QUESTIONS FOR… Chunklet’s Henry Owings

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And… here’s the latest installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon, and meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1 (Slumberland Records), HERE for #2 (12XU), HERE for #3 (Saint Marie), HERE for #4 (Trouble In Mind), and HERE for #5 (Fort Lowell).

BY TIM HINELY

I think it was about 1995 when I saw my first issue of Chunklet and I believe it was issue 11. Wait, how did this ultra-cool zine exist for 10 previous issues and me not knowing about it?! The mag got better and better and it was obvious that editor/publisher Henry Owings was some kind of mad genius graphics whiz (self taught, I believe). The empire of Chunklet Industries then began expanding as Owings began selling Chunklet t-shirts (I’ve got a few) and then came the record label. While the releases seemed pretty sporadic early on the past few years have seen a blast activity with a bunch of excellent releases by old favorites Tar as well as (more old favorites) Man or Astroman?, Don Caballero, Obnox, Olivia Tremor Control and, a forthcoming release from Athens’ favorites, Pylon, a live recording of the band in ’83 (along with a limited edition 45). In between one of his 587 projects that he’s currently working on, Owings took some time out to answer some questions about his very active label.

When did the label form/ what was your original inspiration?
It was inspired exclusively by my inability to sit passively back during the first Clinton administration. My interest in money and/or success has been secondary to just getting a few things out that, without my assistance, would never see the light of day. Simple as that.

What was your first release?
My first “real” release was back in’ 93 with The Oblivians and the “Go! Pill Popper!” 7”. However, the label was called Drug Racer and that feels like an eternity ago. The first release on “Chunklet” per se was Les Savy Fav’s “Let’s Stay Friends” LP forever ago.

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If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by who would it be?
This answer could go one of two ways…

The first answer would be that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have put out records by some of my all time favorite bands: The Jesus Lizard, The Olivia Tremor Control, Tar, Man…or Astro-Man?, Thee Speaking Canaries, and that’s just the bands that I can muster off the top of my head without sounding full of myself. The fact that I’m putting out a 2xLP with Athens band Pylon this year is still something I think of with utter disbelief, so, yeah, I’m absolutely humbled by the company I keep.

Pylon 45

The second version of this answer is a bit more nuanced…

1) I’d love to be at the helm to release an authoratative MC5 box set. Not like the unimaginative garbage that has been put out, but rather, done by fans and meant for fans, but also intended to suck in new fans and preserve their legacy. As much of a fan as I am, everything other than their three ‘proper’ albums all seem pretty warmed over garbage.

2) I have been sniffing around the Atlanta band Smoke for the better part of five years to have their legacy championed. Trying to find a “real” label to springboard it to, but that’s another dream.

3) Another that I’ve been pursuing is the band Synthetic Flying Machine, which preceded both The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel and was probably one of my FAVORITE bands from back in the early days of living in Athens in ’92 and ’93.

4) I’d also want to release as much of the Camberwell band Part Chimp as I possibly could. One of the truly outstanding noise bands that refuse to break up.

5) There’s a local band that just started called Mutual Jerk that I’d love to be involved with somehow.

6) There’s Endless Boogie. God, I absolutely love them and would do anything they asked me to do.

7) And, of course, the band The Bar-B-Q Killers is another that I just would love to see presented to a modern audience. But as you might be able to surmise, the pace is glacial on this stuff.

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What has been your best seller to date?
Probably “Dusk at Cubist Castle” by the Olivia Tremor Control. But saying “Best seller” makes it seem like I’m doing this for the money which, let’s be honest, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites?
Not really. Just an occasional tweet or Facebook post. Bandcamp. Mailing list.

Is the Atlanta/ Athens music community supportive of the label?
I’ve never given it any thought. Perhaps?

Have digital sales been significant or nominal?
They’ve been significant-ish. Thanks for asking.

Vinyl is Killing the MP3 Industry" - Henry Owings (www.chunklet.com)

Vinyl is Killing the MP3 Industry” – Henry Owings (www.chunklet.com)

Has there actually been a vinyl resurgence the past few years?
Google it. I hear it’s happening.

What is your personal favorite format to release music?
I’d love to put something out on human skin, but I’m sure that Jack White guy has already done it. Bastard.

What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?
I still think Siltbreeze is one of the most consistent labels of the past 25 years. Gerard [Cosloy’s] ear over at 12XU is absolutely sterling. Bill and Lisa Roe’s Trouble In Mind is hitting home run after home run. Ever/Never out of NYC is doing a great job. Mostly “smaller” labels always pique my interest. Homeless out of Australia is cranking out the best jams. Goner, of course, is killing it. Deranged, Ektro and Blackest Ever Black’s catalog are really inspired. However, I’ve never been motivated/interested in a label’s commercial success. To me, it’s all about finding new jams and celebrating them.

Do you accept unsolicited demos?
Sure. But other than a polite “thank you,” it’s usually followed up by hitting the delete button.

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Please tell us the story behind the Tar 2x LP. How did it come about.
I’ve known Tar since ’91. They were probably the first band that I became actual friends with when I was in my early 20s. We always remained friends over the subsequent years since their break up in ’95. When the band emailed me about doing a 7” for their PRF BBQ reuinion gig in ‘12, I jumped at the chance. It started a dialogue about uncovering all the tapes from their AmRep and T&G 7”s and comp tracks, their ’91 Peel session and the bits and bobs that make up the 2xLP “1988-1995.”

As a super fan, I was also shocked by how many other super fans (or for them, friends that are super fans as well) that offered up to help get this release done. Without their help, it never would’ve come out. Those people are, specifically, Steve Albini (who went back into the studio and remixed some mixdowns that had gone MIA) and Bob Weston (who did a superior job of mastering and cutting the lacquers). In addition, and it can’t be stressed enough, Drew Crumbaugh was a great digital sleuth and editor to get the live digital component together. His contribution wasn’t necessarily celebrated on the vinyl portion, but the audio he polished/mastered really pushed the release over the top. But to back up for a second, this release took well over a year, but would’ve been impossible without all of the goodwill that Tar generated during their career. So for that, I’m indebted to Mike Greenless and John Mohr (specifically) but the band (entirely) for their interest and time. To have my name on one of their records is a true badge of honor.

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Contact points:
www.chunklet.com / @chunklet

1694 May Ave SE
Atlanta GA 30316

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Artists on label:

Pylon
Man…or Astro-Man?
Mugstar
Salad Boys
Les Savy Fav
Harvey Milk
Torche
Part Chimp
Floor
Honey Radar
Tar
Cuntz
The Jesus Lizard
The Corporate Office
Thee Speaking Canaries
Don Caballero
The Olivia Tremor Control
Obnox
Survival Knife
The Rock*A*Teens