The night began with beers, politics and some good food at Shays. We cut our conversation short and headed to the Harvard Film Archive for a 7pm showing of Sam Packinpah's bizzaro neo-western masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. We were a few minutes late and I tried to turn my phone off and find a seat without disturbing the guy at the front giving the audience the rundown on this unusual movie. It was to be Pekinpah's last movie to come from his own pen. It was a straight up flop at the box office. Roger Ebert was one of the only critical voices to stand up for it. But the nation was coming to terms with the end of the Vietnam war and the autuers of the 60s and early 70s were serving up a string of box office bombs. Pekinpah would find himself at the mercy of the studios after Garcia got shunned. The cast and crew were at each others throat for the majority of the filming. Pekinpah and Warren Oates, the star of the picture, were both at the height of their alcoholism and it is rumored that they and other cast members including Kris Kristofferson were frequently high on shrooms during the production (you can definitely tell Kris is on something). Needless to say, the results of all this are a wholly unique and unsettling take on the western genre that Pekinpah spent a large part of his career deconstructing.
[Some spoilers follow.] The movie starts in a Mexican village with a pregnant teenage girl enjoying her last, and the only, peaceful moments of the film as she sits by a pond watching the ducks and caressing her large belly. She's brought to the church where the town patriarch demands to know who is the father of this bastard child. Through brute force she admits that it is Alfredo Garcia. The hunt is on. The bounty takes two men to a bar in a Mexican town where Warren Oates is playing piano for tips (dressed in Pekinpah's trademark oversized sunglasses and white suit) and he smells opportunity when the two suits seem pretty desperate for this Alfredo guy. It doesn't take him long to finds out that his girlfriend was with him a few days ago before he drove his car off the road and died. That information and the promise of 10 thousand dollars is enough for him to pack up his convertible and go find the body and bring back the head of Alfredo Garcia.
What follows is a boozy nightmare trip trough the desert towns of Mexico. A desperate search for one man's head and another man's redemption. When he tells his girlfriend that if he'd died in Tijuana or if he died in Mexico City, it would have been fine since he didn't have anything to live for back then anyway. But now bringing back this guy's head can give him a chance to set right a whole lotta wrongs -- it's something to live for and in the end something worth dying for. It's a grim tale with a healthy amount of pitch black gallows humor and an unforgettable performance by Oates. The scenes with Oates barreling down dirt roads, swigging tequila and holding swear filled conversations with the fly infested bag containing Al's head are like something from a horror show and yet undeniably funny. As is this one liner during one of the film's darkest moments... (turn up the volume on this one)
That's from a scene in the first half of the movie after Oates has basically proposed to his girlfriend and they decide to camp out in the desert for the night when they're confronted by two gringo bikers (one played by Kristofferson). It's almost like a redux of the controversial ending of his Straw Dogs. Kristofferson takes Oates' girlfriend to the bushes behind the campsight, but once he's back there, once he's separated from his friend, he doesn't seem to have the will or the ability to go through with the act. But rather than run away from her would be rapist, the woman feels sorry for him. There's many ways to look at this scene and it's obvious that he's baiting the audience. It raises a lot of questions but perhaps it answers the reason why this good natured Mexican woman is so in love with Oates' belligerent drunkard. I haven't caught all of Pekinpah's films and I have yet to see any of his more gentler films like Junior Bonner -- unfortunately my weekend is only allowing me to catch this one from the HFA's series -- but this one is easily my favorite.
Walking from the theater smiling we strolled down Massachusetts Avenue to Central Square and The Middle East nightclub. The downstairs was sold out for The Silver Jews show. I asked the few clusters of smokers standing outside if anyone needed a spare ticket. No luck, but I didn't care enough about the 15 bucks to try to hard. Where Who Shot Hollywood was about to start their set so we went in. Four guys who's average age I would say is about 16 years old took the stage. The novelty of this doesn't easily wear off but they're a super tight band playing catchy as hell hook-filled rock n' roll. With the lead singer plucking driving baselines (and sporting a very Frampton era hairdo), a keyboardist, a sharp rhythm guitarist and what looks to be the youngest player or drums, they fall squarely into the still thriving garage rock combo style that's been kicking around since The Strokes reared there head at the turn of the century. But don't hold that against them -- not that you should anyway. There's no way not to fall for these guys' infectious joy and sheer good times vibe that emit. A couple of their tunes are a bit over the top in a naive love song way, but you're having too much fun bopping your head along and being amazed that a band this young can have such solid, rockin' chops. And hell, at their age they should be writing naive love songs. Let them age another ten years before the angst and cynicism sets in. I haven't seen many bands in the opening slot of a triple billed show win over so many fans so quickly as Who Shot Hollywood. Take note, they'll be taking over and breaking young girls hearts across the planet soon enough.
Hallelujah the Hills had a hard act to follow. I apologize that we didn't give them a chance. Halfway into their first song, a Neutral Milk Hotel/Decemberists type tune, we ducked out and I tried one last time to sell my spare ticket. No takers. The tall boy PBR that I had during the first set was making me sleepy. We grabbed an excellent gin and tonic at the newly plus-sized Cambridge Kitchen across Mass Ave. Feeling better, we headed back to find a half decent spot in the now packed downstairs. I still can't imagine what it was like in this low ceilinged hole in the ground when half the audience was smoking cigarettes -- and I was here smoking them back then and it still seems impossible to me.
The Silver Jews came out and I was surprised to see David Berman step right up to the mike sans guitar and start belting out "Smith & Jones" while strutting around the stage. This was in sharp contrast to the sedate Berman that showed up two years ago singing behind a podium and rarely straying too far away from it. While I was beyond pleased with that show and the not too dissimilar performance at the 2006 Pitchfork Festival, I was blown away by the exuberance and nuance that Berman gave his vocal performance this time around. It was like a different band. He was actually having a great time up there -- emphasizing certain words to the songs in playful ways, making punctuations with nervous gestures -- it doesn't sound amazing to say it but for David Berman it's pretty amazing and it made for a hell of a fun show even if he was still getting used to the idea. Here his in Dublin explaining part of the transformation.
Like last time around, the set list comprised of a mix of old and new, not relying too hard on either. He'd mentioned recently about how pissed he'd be if he'd gone to one of the recent REM shows where they just played their last album and said goodnight. I agree with him. By the end of the show my voice was shot from singing along -- something that I hardly ever do at a show but cannot help myself from doing with The Silver Jews. They had a great keboardist and the guitarist was especially . His wife Cassie on bass is also even better than I remembered her being from the first time around and their duet on Suffering Jukebox was a highlight. Also, I'd forgotten how better the Bright Flight songs sound live. At the end Berman even shook some of the hands of the audience (actually, he was doing this while singing as well) and I still can't get over it... After the lights went up we chatted briefly with a friend we ran into. I picked up a signed copy of Berman's book of poetry from the merch table and we headed back to Somerville.
It was a good night. A lot of the videos on youtube are of unsurprising poor quality -- but I think the herkyjerkyness of this one goes along with the song... (this is not from the Cambridge show)