A New Look at Old Friends


A reader recently wrote me with some comments on my columns here. One thing she mildly took me to task for – we’ve since become Facebook friends – was “name-dropping.”

I happen to have enjoyed a full and rich life in which I’ve gotten to know and even become friends with a number people who have some measure of note and fame. So I don’t think of mentioning them as “name-dropping” but rather a point of reference. And it can be a valuable point of reference. Case in point is two recent documentary films.

One friend of mine said to my best friend after the screening of the movie Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, “I’ve never seen a movie with so many people I know in it.” I can say the same, including my best friend, music photographer Stephanie Chernikowski, who was close with the former lead singer of The Box Tops, Alex Chilton, who was later the primary singer and songwriter in the band Big Star. And who I also got to know in New York City in the late 1970s.

The very first touring rock band I ever saw was The Box Tops at age 13. The then 16-year-old Chilton was amazing: singing and working the stage like a white teenaged Otis Redding. I have joked for years now that I am likely one of the only people among the few that bought Big Star’s first two albums when they came out in the early 1970s that didn’t go on to start a band (yet), unlike members of R.E.M and The Replacements, among others.

So it was a big deal to me to meet and become friendly with Chilton (who died in 2010) just as I was starting out as a music and entertainment journalist. And knowing him and the story of his band and career, I was impressed and at times touched by how well the film captures the rather heartbreaking story of a group whose records were praised by music critics yet a commercial flop. And then over time became prized artifacts that were influential on generations to follow.

Hence I’d heartily recommend the movie to anyone who may not be familiar with Big Star, as their power pop style that reminds of The Beatles and Beach Boys yet had its own musical power all its own. The fact that the group became so influential and revered attests to their merits and importance. And one can learn much about how the music business really works (even small-scale success is elusive to most acts) and bands function (or not) within it. And knowing the primary subject as well as many of those who comment on the story means I can say how much the film rings true.

I can say the same of the Showtime doc Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen. I actually met Gruen in Japan in 1979, when he was living in Tokyo for a spell. We later frequently crossed paths and hung out during the 1980s in New York. Even before I met him, I was well-acquainted with his images and photo credits. In the mid-’80s I even arranged for one of the early exhibits of his work.

And the guy I know is the same modest and quite ego-free guy who tells his story in the film. Unlike how music and celebrity photography has become quite the media game today, it was far less formal when Gruen entered the field in the late 1960s. And as the movie relates, the fact that he is such a laid-back and friendly fellow is why he was able to become close with people like John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The doc is well worth seeing for Gruen’s memorable photographs alone. And similar to the Big Star film, it gives a look inside the business of music photography. Plus his (genuinely) self-effacing comments on his work and how he captured iconic images proves that it’s less the equipment and film and more the person behind the camera that accounts for great photos, even when they are happy accidents.

And I can’t help but be a bit chuffed to see that people I have known are now subjects worthy of documentaries. But more importantly, that notable talents I’ve admired are getting their just due and others can get to know these interesting people and their work that has blessed existence, and it can be appreciated by many others and documented for history.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2013



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