Thursday, July 30, 2009

Welcome To The Nightmare: Stellar Corpses Unleash New Album

(Article published in today's Good Times)

Though most people may like to think of Santa Cruz as a quiet beach town, some locals know the area also has a dark side—one part fictional, as seen in the cult classic vampire movie The Lost Boys, notoriously filmed here in the 1980s—the other very real, as seen during the 1970s when a string of serial killers terrorized the mountain communities that surround the city.

It should come as no surprise then that a band that embraces the more monstrous side of things has been born here: Stellar Corpses have been making a name for themselves locally and globally for nearly four years, mixing psychobilly, punk, rockabilly, surf rock and more, while striving to avoid any pigeonholes. Featuring Dusty Grave on vocals and guitar, Matt Macabre on drums, Dan Lamothe on bass, and Emilio Menze on guitar, Stellar Corpses released their debut EP, Respect The Dead, in 2007, toured Europe in 2008, and a new full length album, Welcome To The Nightmare, has just come out on Fiend Force Records, exploring a fuller breadth of styles.

“There’s something that everyone will like on the new album, we have such a wide variety of stuff that we listen to—everything from Jimmy Buffet to Slayer,” Macabre says.

The instrumental title track kicks things off in high gear for the album, followed by the shout-along anthem “My Shadow.” “Cemetery Man,””One More Day” and “When You Don’t See Me” are among the other standout tracks on Welcome To The Nightmare, which is being unveiled at this week’s CD-release party at The Catalyst.

“Our predecessors, the guys who were doing rockabilly to start with, they were taking country and the blues and doing their own thing with it,” says Grave. “We just feel like we’re continuing that tradition, and being true to ourselves.”

That independent attitude has fueled the band’s journey down a darker, richer path—chances are you won’t hear many other area groups play a song like “Hale Bopp,” a frightfully catchy tune that tells the infamous tale of the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult, set to a Bo Diddley-on-steroids beat.

Info Box:

Stellar Corpses’ CD Release Show
Friday, July 31st
9 p.m.
The Catalyst
1011 Pacific Ave.
Santa Cruz
(831) 423-1338

Who Ya Gonna Call? Ray Parker Jr. Set To Perform At The Boardwalk

(Article published in today's Santa Cruz Sentinel)

With an instantly recognizable tune and the familiar refrains and shout along responses of “If there’s something strange/ in your neighborhood/ who ya gonna call?” the “Ghostbusters” theme song likely brings back a flood of fun memories for anybody who grew up in the 1980s, or was a fan of the hit movie and much-played music video.

Written and performed by Ray Parker Jr., the theme song for “Ghostbusters” opened the blockbuster movie about a group of somewhat zany paranormal investigators starring Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson and Rick Moranis. Released in 1984, fans have been celebrating the 25th anniversary of the film with the recent release of a special edition Blu-ray DVD and a new high-tech video game that came out earlier this year, both featuring the catchy theme song.

“We didn’t know it was going to be a record, we didn’t know it was going to be anything. To be quite honest, today we’re talking about like it’s a big deal, but at the time I was doing it, it was not a big thing,” says Parker, who is performing at the Boardwalk on Friday night.

Prior to getting the “Ghostbusters” gig, Parker was known in the entertainment business for a string of well-received songs as a solo artist, as well as having a reputation for being a stellar studio musician, having performed with people including Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Barry White, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross among many others. Near the end of the production of the movie, the producers and director approached him to write a theme song for the horror-comedy.

“They liked my other songs, and so they just wanted me to write one for the film—who knew it was going to be that big—I thought I had big records before, but that was like hitting the ball out of the park,” says Parker.

“They showed me the film, they didn’t have any music in it yet, the director kind of described what he was looking for, and I only had a few days to do it, because they were running out of time—the film guys always start late on the music—and that is the song that came out of it.”

Parker wrote, recorded and produced the song in a mere two and a half days, recording in a Hollywood studio he owned at the time, playing almost all of the instruments himself, aside from a few overdubs that his friends helped provide.

“That was my girlfriend and her friends yelling [‘Ghostbusters’] in the background, so I got them on it,” laughs Parker.

The accompanying music video for “Ghostbusters” ended up being a star-studded affair, featuring Parker singing on a variety of neon and mist filled sets, while the cast members danced and sang along with him in Times Square, and celebrities who weren’t even in the film turned in appearances, such as Chevy Chase and John Candy.

“It was a lot of fun to make, especially the New York scene with all the Ghostbusters guys and me, and it was sort of a monumental video. We got on MTV at a time when they said they weren’t playing any black music on MTV.”

Parker, who is still recording and touring a good portion of the year, recently released his latest solo album, “I’m Free” and spent part of the summer touring in Europe, performing at events including the Montreaux Jazz Festival. He still enjoys playing the “Ghostbusters” song, and says he looks forward to meeting his fans on the beach tomorrow night.

“I think the song is a huge blessing, ‘Ghostbusters’ seems to transcend time. I have a son who is 8 years old; he and all of his friends know it. As the new kids grow up, they all like that song, it’s really interesting.”

Info Box:
Ray Parker Jr.
6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Friday, July 31
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
400 Beach Street
Santa Cruz
(831) 423-5590

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

USS Hornet Splashdown 2009

(Preview published in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian)

USS Hornet Splashdown

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to ever walk on the surface of the moon, and the famous quote, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" was relayed around the world to an enthralled television audience. When the historic Apollo 11 mission was over and it was time to return to Earth, their capsule landed in the Pacific Ocean, where the aircraft carrier USS Hornet was the main ship to recover them. Today, the Hornet has a place of honor in San Francisco Bay as a floating museum, and the majestic ship is hosting a special three-day event, Splashdown 2009, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of these groundbreaking accomplishments. Aldrin and several other crew members from the mission will be on board, sharing memories with visitors, who can also enjoy interactive exhibits, displays, receptions, talks about current space exploration, and more. (Sean McCourt)

6–10 p.m. (Sat/25 and Sun/26 10 a.m.–5 p.m.), $6–$25
USS Hornet
707 W. Hornet, Alameda
(510) 521-8448

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More Than A Decade Later, The Dude Abides

(Article published in today's San Francisco Examiner)

When the Coen Brothers' bizarrely brilliant comedy “The Big Lebowski” was initially released in 1998, it didn’t fare so well at the box office. In the decade that has passed, however, it has become a bona fide cult classic, inspiring such fervent fandom that in 2002 the first "Lebowski Fest" was held in Louisville, and the event has grown every year since.

Bay Area fans can join in on the celebration of the film that starred Jeff Bridges as the Dude, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore with a host of events this weekend at “Lebowski Fest San Francisco,” which is part of a 15 city tour put together by Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, who came up with the idea of the festival while working as vendors at a tattoo convention.

“To pass the time we were quoting lines from ‘The Big Lebowski.’ Low and behold, the people next to us joined in and started quoting along with us,” says Russell. “We had this moment where we realized that we were not alone in our obsession and love of the movie, and we were like, ‘If they have this tattoo convention, why can’t we have a ‘Big Lebowski’ convention?’”

Russell and Shuffitt, along with some friends, rented out a run-down bowling alley and invited people to come dressed as their favorite characters and to have a good time—the turnout was much bigger than they had expected, and the festival has continued to grow in popularity, and now travels the country.

“It just keeps getting bigger and weirder and it’s a lot of fun. There are still plenty of surprises and several moments where I’m left scratching my head,” says Russell.

Friday night’s festivities will include a costume contest, trivia contest, and of course, the mass consumption of white Russians while bowling, or rolling rocks, as one would say in the parlance of Lebowski-speak. The party continues on Saturday night as the Fox Theater in Oakland hosts live music acts including Har Mar Superstar and a screening of the motion picture that started it all.

Russell and his cohorts have even written a book about the “Lebowski” phenomenon, “I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski,” (Bloomsbury, 2007) which lead to their first and only interaction with the Coen Brothers.

“When we asked if we could write the book, they sent a one sentence official response, which was, ‘You have neither our blessing nor our curse.’ It was very Coen-esque I guess,” Russell laughs.

If You Go:
Lebowski Fest
Classic Bowling Center, 900 King Drive, Daly City
Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
8 p.m. Friday,
7:30 p.m. Saturday

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ramblin' Jack Elliott Plays Felton

(Article published in today's Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Legendary folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliottt has been making music and traveling the world sharing his songs for more than five decades now—and at age 77, he shows no signs of slowing down. Having befriended and played with everybody from Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, Elliott has influenced multiple generations of songwriters and musicians and won many awards along the way, including the National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Born and raised in New York City, Elliott became fascinated with cowboys after seeing a rodeo at Madison Square Garden as a young boy. Unhappy with school and the prospects he was facing in the city, he ran away from home at age 15 and after hitchhiking out of the area, he ended up joining a rodeo—a stint that lasted just a few months, but it gave him his first exposure to folk music, courtesy of the rodeo’s resident musical clown.

“When I got home from that trip I found an old guitar in the closet and started playing some of those songs that I heard him singing, which were mostly hillbilly songs—they didn’t call it country-western at that time.”

After honing his playing skills while listening to radio stations that broadcast western music, Elliott discovered the burgeoning folk music scene in Greenwich Village, and eventually befriended Woody Guthrie, for a time moving in with the Guthrie family, soaking up as much musical knowledge as he could from the seminal writer of “This Land Is Your Land.”

On a road trip across the country with his mentor, Elliott discovered that the power of Guthrie’s songs and the messages he conveyed through them did not sit well with certain portions of the American population, even in his home state.

“A lot of the good people in Oklahoma loved Woody Guthrie and were very proud of him, but there was another large element of Guthrie haters—he narrowly escaped with his life after we stopped at a cafĂ© in Okemah for a cup of coffee.”

Fifty years on, Elliott continues to travel and play with a fiercely independent spirit gleaned from his heroes, and he comes to Don Quixote’s on Wednesday supporting his latest album, A Stranger Here (Anti Records), which has been receiving rave reviews from fans and critics alike since its’ release this past April. The 10 tracks that make up the album are all cover songs; the collection is comprised of not folk, but pre-war and Depression-era blues tunes by artists such as Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Reverend Gary Davis.

Elliott actually played with and met some of these blues masters when he was an up and coming young troubadour in the early 1960s, such as an encounter he had with Mississippi John Hurt at the Newport Folk Festival.

“He admired my Martin guitar—he had a kind of inexpensive guitar that he owned, and he asked me if I would mind letting him use my guitar. I said ‘You sure can, I’d be honored for you to play my guitar.’ He took it with a big ear to ear smile, and said, ‘Thank you, if they calls you for it, I’ll give it back to you, if they calls me for it, you give it back to me.’ Kind of hard to figure out what that means,” Elliott laughs. “But it all worked out.”

Even though the songs were written several generations ago, their melodies and messages still resonate with modern audiences, which Elliott attributes to a few key facts.

“It’s direct, it’s very simple, it’s undeniably true and it’s kind of rough— I think it appeals to people that must be tired of all the phony B.S. that’s so popular in music now.”

If You Go:

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
July 22
7:30 p.m.
Don Quixote’s International Music Hall
6275 Highway 9
(831) 603-2294

Friday, July 10, 2009

Remembering "Creature From The Black Lagoon" star Ben Chapman

(Article published today on the website of the San Francisco Bay Guardian)

Having roared and clawed its way into the hearts of film fans around the world when it was first released in 1954, the Universal monster classic Creature From The Black Lagoon has endured for generation after generation, seeming to grow in popularity with every passing year. Filmed in glorious black and white, the tale of the ancient half-man, half-fish—better known as the Gillman—cleverly uses the unique aspects of the colorless medium to effectively create a creepy atmosphere, particularly with the manipulation of shadows and lighting. Believable cast interaction, a monstrous musical score, and above all a great story make Creature From The Black Lagoon a picture to remember—and it’s clear from the multitude of collectibles, video releases, actor appearances and screening events that faithful fans have done just that.

The iconic and intricately designed Gillman suit was brought to life in the scenes above water by the late Ben Chapman, who gave the character a sympathetic feel through his body language and natural motions—a feat that no modern CG effect could hope to recreate.

Chapman, who passed away last year at the age of 79, visited San Francisco in October of 2006 for a special event at the Castro Theatre celebrating Creature From The Black Lagoon, meeting fans and sharing memories with the audience. I had a chance to speak with him then.

“One of the things that made it successful—and it shows—is that we were all very happy. It was a great crew, great people. I would get up in the morning and I couldn’t wait to get to the studio.”

That genuine love for what he was doing guided Chapman throughout his life—from his early days as a dancer and contract actor to his last years spent travelling the world and meeting his adoring fans, he always had a positive outlook on things.
Born in Oakland, his family moved back to their native Tahiti when he was young, but returned to the Bay Area when Chapman was 12, settling in San Francisco while his father worked as a merchant marine. Chapman had fond memories of living in the city, where he went to Lowell High School from 1942-1946.

“San Francisco during the war years—oh what a town—even the bums on the street had money! That town never slept.”

Chapman learned Tahitian dancing and singing from family, and after graduating, moved to southern California, where his brother in law had a traditional dance group. Around the same time, he joined the Marine Corp Reserves, and he was eventually called up to fight in the Korean War, where earned several medals before coming back to civilian life and rekindling his entertainment career.

“In 1952, I was working in a nightclub at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and some people from Universal Studios came in looking for a group to do some music and dancing in a musical short for the Miss Universe Girls.”

When getting ready to film a scene, the director asked Chapman to step out of the background and play a chief, sitting in a large throne and saying a few lines in Tahitian—which he spoke in addition to English and French. When the short was completed, some of the studio heads asked about Chapman, and offered him a contract.

“They were thinking about bringing back the tropical movies, about the islands, and they were going to groom me for it. I used to come into the studio when I wasn’t working, and say hello to everybody. I came in one day and there was a casting director for cowboys and stuntmen-type people, and she asked me if anyone had talked to me about an Amazon picture. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she made a few phone calls, and told me to come back the next day.”

The following afternoon Chapman returned, and he was taken to a meeting of studio executives, who simply asked him to stand up and turn around so they could get a look at him. After doing so, they thanked him and asked him to come back again the following morning.

“I came back the next day and she had a contract waiting for me for $300 a week, and that’s how I got the part—a lot of people think there must have been a big audition and this and that—but no, there was no big thing about it.”

“I’ve always been very lucky in my life of being in the right place at the right time—the same thing happened in combat, when I was in the Marine Corp in Korea, there were a few times I should have gotten killed, but I was just in the right place at the right time.”

When Chapman joined the production of Creature From The Black Lagoon, director Jack Arnold was scouting locations to shoot in southern California, but couldn’t find any place with clear enough water for what was needed for the underwater sequences, so he went to Florida, and found an ideal spot in Wakulla Springs. To save time and money, the studio decided to shoot all of the underwater parts in Florida with a second unit and stunt doubles, while the main actors filmed their scenes at the Universal Studios back lot.

How To Make A Monster

The Gillman is one of the most recognizable creature creations of the silver screen, the result of clever imaginations and hard work at the Universal Studios makeup department. But it was the six foot five inch tall Chapman who wore the costume and truly brought him to life for generations of fans.

“It was foam rubber, it was very light, and it was very pliable; it was like an outer layer of skin. They took a Plaster of Paris impression of my body and then they sculpted all the different pieces, and they simply glued them right on to this costume. To get into it would take two to three hours; you had to fit it just right, so that there were no wrinkles. I couldn’t gain weight or lose weight,” remembered Chapman.

“It was extremely hot though—if we were working where there was water, that was no problem, I would just jump in the lake or the pool, but if we were on a sound stage, I had a guy over in the corner with a hose, and I’d go up to him and ask him to hose me down, until I could feel my body temperature going down.”

The hands and feet of the creature were worn like gloves and boots, while the iconic mask slipped over his head, and sealed with a hidden zipper in the back. Some days’ shooting schedules required that Chapman keep the costume on for long periods at a time—the longest stretch being 14 hours straight.

Although the suit was very light when dry, there were several scenes that called for the Gillman to come out of the water, and when fully soaked, the foam rubber outfit would absorb liquid like a sponge, greatly increasing the overall weight, and making it difficult for the actor to move about.

“There’s that one scene at night where I climb up the side of the boat, and then I get up so far and there’s a lantern, and I hit the lantern, and dive back into the water. When we were filming on the soundstage, I swam over there and I tried to pull myself up, and Jack [Arnold] said, ‘Come on Benny, pull yourself up!’ and I said, ‘I can’t!’”

The water there was about 7 feet deep, so they got a ladder and put it under the surface, so as Chapman was pulling himself up on the rope, he could climb step by step at the same time, assisting him with the ascent, while still giving the appearance that he was only using the rope. If one looks carefully at the end of that scene, however, it’s easy to notice that when the Gillman falls back into the water, he doesn’t fall straight down—lands on something below, and then dives off to the side—a blooper that Chapman laughed about when revealing it.

The bulkiness of the suit in the water didn’t stop the young actor from playing around on the set, however—Rock Hudson would sometimes visit and bring various studio guests to see the location on the back lot, and one day Chapman told him that he would have a surprise waiting for them. As the guests arrived on the shores of the manmade lake, he swam out to the middle in full Gillman costume and submerged except for the very top of his head. He slowly moved in closer and closer, until the depth was only a few feet, and he leapt straight up out of the water and roared at the shocked people getting a tour.

“Word came up that I couldn’t do that anymore—they said the studio was afraid someone was going to die of a heart attack,” Chapman laughed.

Another behind the scenes story that he liked to tell was regarding the poor vision he had to deal with while wearing the costume—the makeup department had designed different sets of eyeballs to go in the mask for varying shots; some had larger holes for Chapman to see out if, others, for close-ups, had no openings at all, and a crew member would have to shine a flashlight at the actor so that he would know what direction he was supposed to be walking in.

In the famous scene where he was carrying Julie Adams through the caves of his underwater lair, he couldn’t see clearly in the dimly lit surroundings, and he accidently bumped her head into one of the fake rocks.

“I couldn’t see, I had no idea what was going on, then there was this kicking, and people yelling, and I was going, ‘What? What’s going on?’ and they grabbed Julie out of my arms. But she was a trooper, we patched her up, and we got that shot.”

Another challenge that Chapman was faced with was how to give the Gillman a personality—the actors portraying the other monsters in the classic Universal canon could use dialogue and (underneath their makeup) facial expressions to convey a sense of their characters. The Gillman costume completely obscured all of Chapman’s features, even his eyes, so he had to find a way to bring the creature to life.

“It’s very tough for an actor if he can’t use his face, so what I had to do was use body language to get what we wanted—a sympathetic view. He was the good guy, they were the bad people. The black lagoon was his home, and they invaded his home by coming in there with the boat. If you went home tonight and found a bunch of people in your living room having a party, how would you feel?”

Chapman pointed to the Marilyn Monroe movie The Seven Year Itch as proof that audiences had the sympathetic reaction to the Gillman right away.

“That famous scene where her dress blows up in front of the theatre—if you look just ten seconds before that dress blows up, when the scene opens it shows them walking out of movie theater, and above them in huge letters was Creature From The Black Lagoon. She says, ‘I feel so sorry for the creature.’”

Chapman was friends with Peter Lawford, known for being a member of “The Rat Pack,” and one day he was over at Lawford’s house for a party. Monroe was also there, and the two began talking.

“We were sitting there, but I didn’t want to say, ‘Well, you know, I played the creature,’ so I thought, ‘How can I get her to know?’ I started talking about The Seven Year Itch and said ‘There’s that one scene where you and Tom come out from the theater—what was that movie that you saw?’ and she replied, ‘Creature From The Black Lagoon.’ Peter was walking by, and said, ‘Oh, by the way, Marilyn, you know Benny here played the creature.’ She looked at me and said, ‘You did!?’—that just made my night, I floated away.”

A Universal Legacy

“When people ask me what made Creature From The Black Lagoon so successful, I go on and on,” said Chapman. “First of all it was a perfect cast; everybody was perfect for the role that they portrayed. The story still holds up today, because the story is of those scientists trying to figure out where man comes from.”

The classic cinematic techniques that were used in the film were another factor that Chapman attributed to the movie’s longevity.

“We left a lot of it to your imagination. In that movie, I kill several people, but you don’t see it. You don’t see blood and gore, you don’t see me kill a person, and you don’t see that person die. We leave it to your imagination, and that’s the way movies were made. In my day we made real movies with real stories and real people.”
Chapman fully embraced the Creature From The Black Lagoon phenomenon, and attended fan conventions and screenings throughout the globe, meeting his fans that grew up watching the movie.

“We enjoy sitting there and talking with them, and making ourselves accessible, having pictures taken. I enjoy people, I’ve always liked working with an audience—I love my fans, it’s simple as that,” said Chapman. “I feel very blessed that I was able to live and work in that era, I wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world.”

Info Box:
Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3-D
Friday, July 10
Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland.
Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.