CINEMA: A Madman Lurks Inside Every Rock Star

buskirkbyline_rev.thumbnail.jpgBY DAN BUSKIRK
FILM CRITIC

YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME (2005, directed by Kevin McAlester, 91 minutes, U.S.)
A MILLION YEARS OF KENN KWEDER (2007, directed by John Henderson, 119 minutes, U.S.)

Its title, taken from the sole hit of the Texas psych-rock outfit The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, is sadly untrue — the world had forgotten the brightly-blazing talent of their lead singer, Roky Erickson. A glaring injustice, that, because Erickson was the Real Deal, a man with hell hounds on his trail who had a naturally blood-curdling howl to rival Van Morrison’s raw vocals with his early band Them. Mental illness and rumors of too many hallucinogens have only allowed Erickson to create music sporadically over the last few decades, and after a flurry of activity in the mid-80s, Roky sightings became fewer and fewer. By century’s turn, it was like he had disappeared into the same mist as cult stars like Syd Barrett and Fred Neil. 4.jpeg
After recent successful music docs on Texas eccentrics Townes Van Zandt, Jandek, and especially the marvelous Devil and Daniel Johnston, it seems inevitable that someone would go knocking on Roky’s door with a video camera. Sure enough, here comes Harvard magna cum laude director Kevin McAlester on the hunt for a story about where Roky’s been. No surprise, it wasn’t pretty.

After a brief flurry of early clips, we first see Roky in a cluttered apartment, rambling optimistically about a junk mail sweepstakes offer. Living under the loose care of his aging mother Evelyn,Roky seems to exist in some sad limbo, trying to drown out the voices by running all the household appliances at once while he collapses in his La-Z-Boy. Evelyn obviously loves her son but it isn’t until her youngest son Sumner returns to wrestRoky’s care from her that the Texas songwriter makes an unforeseeable step up of his cloud and into recovery.

That transformation is the film’s final pay-off and director McAlester should count his lucky stars, because otherwise there would be no feature film here. There’s very little footage of Roky’s heyday and even after recovery, Roky is not the most forthcoming subject for an interview. McAlester must have seen little option but to go the route of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, where the camera was turned away from its main subject in order to capture his nutty family.

So while Roky’s mind spins its wheels, we follow his lonely mother Evelyn, who has made some truly odd autobiographical art pieces including a fairy tale-like video that anoints a disturbed-looking Roky as “The King of All Beasts.” When Roky’s brother Sumner arrives from Pittsburgh (he’s a musician in the Pittsburgh Symphony) he seems like a fresh breath of sanity, yet the more time we spend with him the odder he seems. Perhaps the psychiatric therapy that reduces him to weepy fetal state is legit, but inviting a camera crew to capture it seems like needy exhibitionism.

It’s hard to defend such cynical thoughts once you see Roky in his current state, looking no more weathered than your average Rolling Stone as he confidently hits the stage in 2005 for a withering version of his classic “Cold Night For Alligators.” You’re Gonna Miss Me doesn’t do enough to illuminate Roky’s journey from psychosis to apparent health, but it does witness his most convincing recovery yet and one can’t help but to hope it is also his last.

You’re Gonna Miss Me is now available on home video through Palm Pictures

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No local musician has had his sanity questioned more frequently than Kenn Kweder. His unpredictable antics and alcohol-fueled reputation have had him on the local list of imminent rock tragedies for decades now, and yet he improbably remains, still here and vital after 30-odd years of headlining local clubs. There’s a thousand and one stories of things that have happened during his live shows (most unrepeatable at the request of Phawker’s legal team) yet a new DVD, A Million Light Years of Kenn Kweder, captures a bountiful collection of clips shot during many drunken nights once thought lost to time. A few of the clips are professionally produced (including a beautifully melancholy 1998 take of early Secret Kids-era tune “Suzy Says So”) but the majority of the disc is culled from fans who have trailed Kweder with their camcorders for decades.

kenn.jpgMuch has been made of his near-signing to major labels in the early 80s, yet national recognition or not, Kenn Kweder has always been an authentic “Rock Star,” a fact which these home movie-style videos render clearly. The sensation that you’re seeing a musician too big for the room bubbles up again and again as Kweder’s over-sized charisma brings a charge to each and every grainy clip.

The Bigger-Than-Life persona shouldn’t overshadow the strength of his catalog, a colorful collection of poetic Dylan-inspired songs which has been tackled by some of the city’s best musicians in town over the years. Among those visible here are Philly mainstays like Kevin Karg of the Sloane Rangers, Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner, Beru Revue’s Greg Davis and Ben Vaughn’s late bassist, the irrepressible Aldo Jones, all spotted supporting Kenn’s still-flexible voice, the raspy yet still razor-sharp instrument that cuts these songs to the bone.

That fact that Kweder has stayed committed to playing a punishing schedule of gigs when so many of his comrades have escaped for the safer pastures of regular jobs and health insurance only underlines the rock and roll true believer conviction that he brings to his music. He plays tonight at the Tin Angel for his DVD release party, and his shows at the venue are usually some of his tightest and most focused. However if you miss him, you can count on the fact that Kweder will be playing somewhere nearby soon, and as always he’ll be playing like it is his last gig ever.

Info on A Million Light Years of Kenn Kweder @ www.kennkweder.com

Kenn Kweder appears at 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. tonight at The Tin Angel, 20 S. Second St., Philadelphia PA 7pm and 10:30pm. $12.

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