Silver Anniversary Edition Liner Notes from Director W. T. Morgan:
A quarter-century ago THE UNHEARD MUSIC premiered at Sundance.
To get there, Angel City Productions – Chris Blakely, Everett Greaton, Alizabeth Foley and I – spent a lifetime in wolf years shacked up with X and their uniquely charged punk poetry. We found kindred spirits in John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and D. J. Bonebrake, and tried to capture lightning in a bottle during that electrifying run when they made Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World.
This was our first film, and we put everything we had into it – blood, sweat, 96 tears in 24 hours, our bottom dollars, thousands of film fragments...I’d say everything but the kitchen sink, but there is a sink in We’re Desperate. It’s literally and figuratively hand- made: shot on film, cut on film, fx created in-camera – analog all the way.
With the release of the Silver Anniversary Edition of "The Unheard Music", I had the opportunity to interview Associate Producer/Actress Alizabeth Foley.
Foley did double duty on both sides of the camera, appearing in the film as Paulene, a fictitious character whom Morgan describes as “an archetypal – and over-identifying – X fan.” The character was inspired by the confluence of several factors: an anonymous fan letter from an emotionally disturbed young woman convinced that all of the songs were about her; an actual hit and run accident in front of Johnny’s Pastrami witnessed by Morgan and Foley, where a woman was tossed or fell from a speeding car, and then run over; and the lyrics to X’s song, “Johny Hit & Run Paulene,” which found pulp friction in the collision of punk outcasts, drugs and violent rape. In Foley’s mind it all crystallized in two key lines: "She wasn’t what you’d call living really / But she was still awake...."
BrooklynRocks: What is the history of Angel City Productions? How did the members come together? Did you do any work together after ‘The Unheard Music’?
Alizabeth: I’m not officially part of Angel City. My husband, Bill Morgan, the director, is one of the partners. He went to Stanford where he became friends with Chris Blakely and Everett Greaton, the other two partners. They spent time together in Palo Alto and also at Stanford in Italy. Later, Bill and Chris shared an office in Ocean Park. Bill was writing scripts and reading about the music scene, thinking about X’s music for one of his scripts. Chris had just come out of law school and realized he didn’t want to be a lawyer. He came up with the idea to do a short film on three punk bands: the Alley Cats, X and one other one, I forget, as an exploration of why these bands couldn’t get airplay or record deals. This is 1979/1980. Bill suggested focusing on only one band, X. Chris invited Ev down from Frisco to help him out and the two of them got on option to use X’s music, soon after.
One of the first pre-production meetings was at the apartment I shared with Bill. I was an aspiring actress so I lobbied to make it a full-length movie, with fictional elements, i.e. Paulene–which didn’t go over so well. So, they went off and shot their documentary for three years while I thought about how to get Paulene into the movie.
BrooklynRocks: What attracted you to X (as opposed to any of the other punk bands of the time)? I can’t imagine many bands today letting anyone get such a personal and up-close look at both their on-stage and off-stage lives. How did you cross this bridge with X?
Alizabeth: I like the idea of control, but fate is the master and can only be viewed in hindsight. X wasn’t something I went after; The Unheard Music came to my house.
X was, maybe, the first punk band I ever saw in the flesh. I just remember not digging punk, except for The Sex Pistols, which I liked. It seemed like so much posing, the clothes and stuff, but I hadn’t really experienced it, just magazines and TV, passing people on the street or at parties. High fashion models with safety pins on their leggings. I lived through the sixties, so was superficially a hippie, then glitter and glam, but had gotten kind of "conservatived" out by this time. I mean not really, but I was working at William Morris and learning about movies and taking acting lessons.
Bill and Chris wanted to see X, so the four of us, including Betsy, Chris’s wife, went down to the Whiskey to see them. It was a small crowd; the music was dissonant, I didn’t like it. Anyway, I was bored until I heard what sounded like an animal. It might have been "Nausea" or "Johnny Hit & Run Paulene", but Exene’s voice was like a tractor beam, which drew me to the stage. I got up close and just looked at her. Her hair was uncombed, she had on torn clothes and her little flat Buster Brown shoes. When she moved, I couldn’t tell if she was beautiful or ugly. She wore a leather motorcycle jacket, and when she turned away, “Society’s Outcast,” was emblazoned on the back. Well that was it. I wanted to be her. I said in my head: I want to be her. We bought Los Angeles, which I played every waking hour, every day. Everything about it fascinated me: the lyrics and art on the album sleeve, the photograph of them under a bridge, in the dirt or something. It seemed to be the answer to every question and hope I’d grown up with: Religious, political, social, emotional, it just hit me on many, many levels. “X” has so many meanings, all organic: The unknown, the first variable, the female zygote, a kiss, shorthand for Christ as in Christine and xmas, girders in bridges; the shape and symbol is everywhere. Anyway, three days later, or a week, or a month, I don’t know, Bill told me Chris got the rights to X’s music and they were going to have a production meeting at our house.
As for X’s cooperation: Chris, Ev and Bill are pretty smart and personable guys. What was being shot was good, which X could see, so I think they just had a lot of patience and faith that it would all work out. Also, they are professionals. I think they saw us working. It was trying for them, though, towards the end but everyone was very respectful of each other.
BrooklynRocks: In the film (and the 25th Anniversary look-back), John Doe seemed to be "creeped out" by the note from the person who claimed that the song “Los Angeles” was based on her life story. Was that the original note that you showed in the film and how did you come up with the “Pauline” sequence?
Alizabeth: That was the real letter, but it was about the whole album, Los Angeles, not just the song.
She thought all those songs were about her. I understand John being creeped out by someone like that because he was the focus of that insanity.
“One person’s insanity is another person’s reality.” ––Tim Burton
Since I wanted to be an actress and knew nothing about documentaries, I related to X’s music and personae emotionally, in images, memory, fantasy, story and projection. I knew the political and social elements would be covered in other songs, but I thought Paulene was a way to make it personal. I just had to find the story and make it compelling enough to persuade the others to film it. It was also a chance to make something different, like X.
Many things happened while the guys were shooting the documentary parts that made Paulene possible, some of them weird coincidences, although the exact order of them is blurry, now.
The letter in Exene’s studio was the first way in. Bill had seen it and put it on the bulletin board to be filmed. He told me the gist of it because you can’t see what was on the following pages. So on film, we now have a character or outside consciousness.
The next thing was Bill and I were sitting in the middle booth at Johnnie’s Pastrami on Sepulveda, at 2 or 3 in the morning. It was summer, the sliding doors were open with birds of paradise on either side and the tiki torches and fire pit were flaming. A black man in a big Olds or Buick made a u-turn and jumped the curb right in front of us. He looked across the street where a girl was laying on the double yellow line. I thought the man had hit her, but the guy in the booth behind us said he saw someone stop in the middle of the street and throw her out of the car. Then another car ran over her and kept on going. The man who jumped the curb was stopping to help her. An ambulance and cop cars arrived and parked so their lights shown on the body in the middle of the street. We didn’t know if she were dead or alive until she started groaning really really loudly – like an animal. We watched the whole thing through the open sliding door in Johnnie’s Pastrami. A hit and run right in front of Johnnie’s.
You have to ask yourself, what kind of world do we live in where a girl was with someone who cared so little about her that he threw her into the middle of a busy street, and then someone else, a total stranger, comes along, runs her over and keeps on going? ––And then, why were we, of all people, there to see it? These things aren’t supposed to happen but they do. X writes about them. That definitely helped my case.
Then, Angel City shot the backstage interview with Exene on the closing night of the Whiskey , which was to be her interview only because they didn’t have sound equipment to shoot the show. I prevailed upon them to shoot the performance of "Johnny Hit & Run Paulene", without sound, anyway, which they did, along with "Soul Kitchen". Craig Smith cut them so well, sound-wise, that Ray Manzarek thought he was hearing his own voice—even though they were the album versions he produced. So now we have X’s performance of "Johnny Hit & Run Paulene".
The next thing, I shot the housemoving on Super 8, re-shot wonderfully, by John Monsour, which was Paulene’s consciousness.
Lastly, and another coincidence, if you want to call it that, was that the moving company parked the building temporarily on a vacant lot on Broadway, overlooking downtown. Across the street was a bar named, Johnny’s, with a neon sign that spelled it out just like the song title. So now, we have two more elements, a location, Johnny’s, and the housemoving, that match up in a nice way.
Believe me, I was a broken record the whole time. I was working on "We’re Desperate" and generally helping out every which way, but everything I did was geared toward Paulene. I guess enough connections were made that it became easy enough to film.
I realize this wasn’t John’s or Exene’s intention for the song, but I purposely kept myself away from X and most of the documentary filming, so I didn’t really know that––and didn’t really want to, so I could concentrate on a story.
BrooklynRocks: After watching other docu-drama films that make the Los Angeles punk scene out to be “sex, drugs and violence” and the live shows as “battlegrounds”, how true is this depiction and how difficult was it to film the live footage of X?
Alizabeth: Politics is personal. It happens between the classes and even some families are battlegrounds as horrible and violent as any war. It’s something people hide or gloss over and don’t talk about, esp. those in power. So the punk scene was a place where I could be honest, more who I really was and not the nice front I felt compelled to put on. I imagine that the anger, drugs and violence came from real experiences that others needed to respond to, as well, on a personal level as well as on social and political levels.
Also, this is just me, but it didn’t seem so violent on the inside. I went into a mosh pit, once, and it wasn’t necessarily so violent. It looked very intense from afar (I was in the balcony sections of a club), but up close, in the center, the boys were moving down low in a circle, swinging their arms up and back, their expressions and bodies moving with the beat. I didn’t see it until I was in it: It was a dance! Like an M.C. Escher drawing, The Skank. Before I realized it, I felt a push from behind, really hard. I took it as my clue to leave. If you don’t know your limits, or what you bring to things, you can get hurt. But that’s true of everything.
The four live songs were shot at SIR Sound Studios, with three cameras, recording equipment, and a lot of planning. The audience was invited. X came with those amazing crosses, and Exene decorated her own mic. (X is the art directors of this film—though not credited!)
"Soul Kitchen" and "Johnny Hit & Run" were filmed during the closing night of the Whiskey, so it was a normal audience. We had only one cameraman, Marino Colmano and no sound equipment. The audience was fine, in fact they were respectful. I loved the audience and felt very maternal towards them. These people needed and appreciated the outlet, just like me.
BrooklynRocks: After five years of work, what were your reactions upon finishing the film? (Was it ‘thank God we’re done’ or were you ready for ‘more’)
Alizabeth: We were done. The movie was done. We were all exhausted and broke and it was time to move on.
BrooklynRocks: What sort of distro did the original issue of the film get and what were the reactions of critics and fans? (Apologies as I consider myself an X fan and I never heard of the film until I ran into a rental copy in Tower Video in the late 90’s)
Alizabeth: (No apologies necessary.) We had a really nice distributor, Skouras Pictures, part of an old Hollywood family. They were great and treated us well. They put up the money to pay for the finishing of the film, the titles, negative cutting, and music licensing, which was pretty expensive, probably more than the whole movie. They were located on a real movie lot and since none of us had made films before or went to any film schools, it was pretty cool to us.
The only thing I didn’t like was the publicist. He didn’t get me. He had this template and if you didn’t fit that, well….And I wish I realized that an advance really means you are paying for stuff, which means they are working for you. The distribution was small and depended on box office in each venue, I believe: One theater each in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and maybe some other cities. We went to Sundance, which was great, Italy, Japan.
We got mostly good reviews, some rave ones. People either loved the film or hated it. It was punk, after all. And the fictional element was kind of a surprise to some people.
Skouras went bankrupt pretty soon after that and they sold their rights to another company that also went bankrupt and on it went for about twenty years. Some weren’t so honest I think, more like LBO-types. It was painful because we were locked out of any say in what happened to the movie for all that time. Image was the best and last video distributor because at least they gave us reports, although the money went to another entity that also went “bankrupt.”
BrooklynRocks: Your film ends right around the end of the original lineup of X. What did you think about Billy Zoom leaving the band?
Alizabeth: Dave and Tony are great, amazing guitarists. No one can sound like either one of them. And no one can sound like Billy Zoom. Can you imagine Led Zepplin with a different singer singing "Stairway to Heaven" at a concert when you have the original album version with Robert Plant? Doesn’t work. Has nothing to do with the capability and artistry of the other guitarists. Different personalities, different sounds. X’s sound had become iconic by then, so it was a no-win for anyone trying to step into Billy’s shoes.
John and Exene broke up, before that, though, so, it was a bad time for the band.
BrooklynRocks: Can you talk a bit about some of the other projects you have been working on and what’s next for you?
Alizabeth: I co-produced, with Bill, an interactive CD-Rom for Microsoft and Kevin Costner called, 500 Nations, from the original Jack Leustig 8-hour documentary on the history of Native Americans, which I’m proud of.
Bill and I are working on a documentary on Indian gaming and how it affects various tribes, which is an interesting phenomenon, controversial, even amongst the tribes. So, I like that. We all have a perspective, it just depends on where you’re standing.
I’m toying with an app for the iphone and iPad, which I can’t talk about unless it gets further along.
Someone approached Bill about doing a sequel to The Unheard Music. At first, I couldn’t see it and didn’t see a way in. But now I understand documentary a bit more and can see other ways to create the personal perspective I need to identify with. I’m not willing to do it for free, or to work behind the scenes for so long anymore, so we’ll see.
X (the band)
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Silver Anniversary Edition Liner Notes from Director W. T. Morgan: