Archive for 2002

Monday, July 1st, 2002

The Full Monty

“MISS this at your peril”! urges the East Anglian Daily Times. No less an authority than the Grimsby Evening Telegraph recommends, “Hold on to your hats!” while that august arbiter of taste the Tamworth Herald Extra eloquently declares The Full Monty “the comedy hit of the year.”

One hesitates to pit oneself against this formidable critical consensus, or the unlikely commercial success of The Full Monty but I beseech you . . . Patronising, glib, unfunny, desperately British from the accordion-driven soundtrack down, The Full Monty’s “success” was in coinciding with one of those periodical penchants on the part of American movie audiences to check out our quaint English accents. They goggled amusedly at the spectacle of these Sheffield “blokes” (love that word!) gyrating hilariously much as they would watch a bear riding a bicycle at the circus, ie with no sympathy with or understanding of just what grim fate brought these creatures to this pass.

Mind you, that international audiences might not comprehend of the political context of The Full Monty is hardly their fault – the film provides none. From an opening Sixties Pathe news item extolling the virtues of “booming Sheffield”, we flash forward 25 years to see the city somehow reduced to a post-industrial landscape, through which men walk desolate and brass bands (literally, honestly!) roam about aimlessly. No one, apparently, was to blame. The words “Thatcher”, “Eighties” and “Asset-Stripping Capitalist Bastards” are not heard once. Perhaps Mr Murdoch, head of 20th Century Fox, backers of The Full Monty, might have taken exception to that sort of Ken Loach-style proselytising. The premise is effectively, “Na’ then, lads, through no fault of’t Government, we finds usselves a bit brassic.”

The politics is purely sexual, with Robert Carlyle’s Gaz and co feeling emasculated by their straitened circumstances. But no old-style Socialist whingeing for them. Like good Thatcherites they look after themselves in this post-societal society, graduating from a little petty theft to hauling themselves by their own jockstraps to turn a penny as strippers, becoming Cosmopolitan-style New Men, at ease with their own bodies in the process.

It’d be bad enough if The Full Monty were just a rehash of Fame, with its message that if you wish hard enough, all your dreams, however improbable, will come true, so long as you’re characters in a piece of shit movie. Leave aside Robert Carlyle’s wavering Yorkshire accent, the fact that, ironically, Sheffield isn’t in anything like as bad a way as it’s depicted here (the film-makers had to scout long and hard for suitably dingy locations), that to ensure translantic success every British film now has to feature a fucking funeral. Overlook the laboured slapstick and predictable daft-as-a-brush humour that adds insult to injury or the movie’s abrupt conclusion, copping out of answering all the awkward questions it’s pouch-posed. What’s truly obscene about The Full Monty is the way that it processes the tragedy of unemployment and the ruination of Britain’s industrial base into fodder for the rictus-smiling, sexy Nineties. As a meaningful statement to Northern men thrown out into the post-industrial cold with nothing but a smouldering sense of humiliation to warm them, it makes Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” sound like Roosevelt’s New Deal by comparison. “I say, you could become strippers, you know, like those Chippendale fellows. Amusing caper, what?”

Time was when that recent Full Monty-esque photo-op of Prince Charles thrusting his groin in a Sheffield dole queue would have been picked up on as a howling gaffe, a mute fuck-off on the part of the haves to the have-nots. Now, it’s greeted appreciatively, as a sign that the Prince has learned to “relax”. In these post-political Blairite times, we’re past disgust, rage, imagining that there’s anything realistic we can do about unemployment. Let it go. Move on. What’s more important is that, like these Full Monty fellows, we loosen up, unbutton, show our willies even, ha ha! Actually, they even cop out of showing us their dicks. But there’s bollocks aplenty on display here. The full bollocks.

Saturday, June 1st, 2002

Led Zeppelin

There’s a serious case to be made that Led Zeppelin are among the most egregious and noxious rock bands of all time.¬†They built a career on ripping off and bastardising old blues standards (never crediting the original artists). They were responsible for the turgid black tar of heavy metal, whose odour and seepage still persists in the pages of Kerrang! Lyrically, they were by histrionic turns maudlin, whimsical, misogynist (“soul of a woman was created below”), self-pitying, or pathetically self-aggrandising. They appealed to the basest, saddest instincts of their mostly young and resolutely masculine audience. Their refusal to release singles betrayed an unreconstructed sense of self-importance and pomposity, mostly on Jimmy Page’s part.

Their grotesque self-indulgence was reflected musically in the interminable wank-doodle nonsense of The Song Remains The Same. Their abominable behaviour while on the road, meanwhile, ranging from acts ranging from random vandalism and physical violence to sexual assault were regarded (by themselves, mostly) as the justifiable extravagances of latterday Gods unbound by petty moral codes or limited funds. It was just and overdue that they eventually came crashing to earth, the surviving members reduced to dinosaur remains while still only in their Thirties. Thank God for punk.

It was only about a decade after their effective demise, following the death of John Bonham in 1980, when it was possible to extricate them from their era, that you came to realise what a worthy, pebble-grey and paltry rock world it would be without Led Zeppelin. Wary and perhaps incapable of celebrating themselves in interviews (Plant can come across as an ageing backpacker, Page as tetchily muso) Zep never outlined their aesthetic intentions. It’s what they physically were that counts – pretentious, overblown, oversexed, black, massive, airborne, awesome. Thank God for Led Zeppelin.

Zeppelin were born in 1969, a year in which rock had gone “bad”, its idealism on the point of being raped at Altamont. It’s for that reason that there are things in their music you won’t find – the humanism of The Beatles, or the Utopianism of Hendrix. They were born at a time when, post Hendrix/Cream/Iron Butterfly, rock was beginning to take on a range and density, the dark stressmarks of experience, as opposed to the gossamer lightness of its halcyon days (even early Velvets or The Doors weren’t this heavy duty).

Right from the start, Led Zeppelin were never small. Both materially and commercially, they cast a massive shadow. They were always just a little frightening, an unconscious harbinger of the Seventies, as modernism went into an ominous, ideologically rudderless, supersonic overdrive, hurtling into the darkness of the future. It wasn’t just Page’s virtuosity, nor his murderous way with a riff, that enabled Zeppelin to up the ante (nor, for that matter, John Paul Jones’ discreet powers as an arranger, nor John Bonham’s pulverising percussive capacities) but Page’s production methods. He would set up the mics in the studio some distance from the amps so as to create a more expansive fretboard effect.

Even on the slightly bloated-bluesy debut album, there’s a sense of guitars assailing you, spiralling, sliding, flooding and billowing at you, from all sides. By the time of “Physical Graffiti”, Led Zeppelin’s biggest and best album, the sensory overload leaves you worrying that your ears are going to bleed pitch-black. Then there was Robert Plant. Modern eulogies to Zeppelin often neglect “Percy”, their spritely lead vocalist who was once in a group called Hobbstweedle, are embarrassed a little at his rock God effeminacy, his tassled melodrama, his Tolkien fixation, his onstage posturing. Yet Zeppelin are unimaginable without him. If Zep did write Songs of Experience then it’s Plant, in conjunction with Page’s occasional folk-tinged melodic acoustic interludes, who is wailing in anguish for a lost Innocence, his laid-to-rest hippy past, maybe, as evinced on Led Zep IV’s “Going To California”, or an ancient never-never, an imaginary idyll (on “The Battle For Evermore” or, more obviously, the Lady of the Lake wet-dreamt of in “Stairway To Heaven”), or for his lost soul on the likes of “In My Time Of Dying” (“all my cheating – all my cheating!”).

Then, too, if Zep wrote songs of Experience, it was experience as in, feeling it, doing it, living, loving. Unlike much of the dourly, sexlessly pig-masculine slew of heavy metal that followed in their wake, Led Zeppelin created, a la Hendrix, among the most highly charged, moltenly sexual body of music in rock, in its motion, its nasty ecstasy, its voracity. Random example – “Black Dog”, a pure fucksong to its last pore. Plant was the perfect conduit for that. He used to talk about “wanting to fuck the entire front row” while onstage.

In 1997, I saw Page and Plant, then supposedly well past their pomp, perform to a huge, rock-starved audience in Sofia, Bulgaria. Even in their fifties, the tumescent sonic barrage they created, the melt, the thrust, the give of the noise, made you think of some giant organism on heat. It’s hard to find “goodness” in Led Zeppelin. Yes, they “bastardised” the blues but unlike worthy contemporary replicators like Robert Cray or smalltime pub rock curators they did the blues a sort of modern justice, drag out, multiply and massively electrify all of the lust and woe and self-pity implied in those tinny, scratchy originals. The bastard was worthy of the Daddy – check “When The Levee Breaks”. Led Zeppelin’s “badness” is the point, part of the unease about them. Somehow, the idea that there’s a black, Satanic seam running through their work is an intoxicating and exhilarating one. Unworthily, you almost want to believe that they did record an album of Swabian death chants, that Page did more than dabble in black magic, that there was more than a touch of evil in their lives and legacy. Blues-rock is supposed to trade with the devil, it’s a decades old tradition. It’s a vital, poisonous ingredient.

That said, Led Zeppelin aren’t some diabolical quantity best sealed in their historical tomb, on pain of being unleashed like the furies in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (a scene reminiscent of the mid-section of “Whole Lotta Love”). They were trailblazers, they do leave a legacy. John Bonham, who with his Herculean drumming style and chairleg-sized sticks put the Hammer in the Gods, is sampled everywhere. The band’s plunder of World Musical styles, from the tablas of “Bron-Y-Aur” to the mock-Arabic orchestration of “Kashmir”, to the very Byzantine, muezzin quality of some of Page’s best riffs, is echoed in the more respectful contemporary tones of the likes of Transglobal Underground. What’s more, back in the late Eighties, when a new avant-garde in rock was beginning to reject the musically correct strictures of post-punk and attempting the sort of self-reflation and experimentation (Big Black, The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine) that would culminate in the epic fury of The Pixies and Nirvana it was to Led Zeppelin, among others, that they turned, their sense of rock as Thing-In-Itself rather than small tool. It was just that Zeppelin were brought down and spent some time in exile. However, in the contemporary rock climate of diffidence and trad caution, you can’t help feeling that we’re crying out for some of their sensual black noise and hellfire, to raise the volume and temperature of things once more.

Tuesday, April 16th, 2002

Billy Elliot

Remember when BBC newscasters used to end reports with remarks like, “And fingers crossed for Emma Thompson at tomorrow night’s Oscars!”, as if it were a patriotic given that we’d be rooting for the smarmy old cow? Well, expect similar exhortations for Billy Elliot come this month’s awards.

Set in Durham against the backdrop of the 1984 miner’s strike, it tells the “exhilarating”, “stirring”, “bravura” story of an 11 year old boy drawn away from his weekly boxing class towards the ballet sessions organised by Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters), much to the disgust of his Father, miner Gary Lewis. His elder brother, a firebrand picketer, is disgusted too. The word “cissy” is bandied about over the kitchen table. But Billy can’t and won’t stop dancing. Will he eventually win over his pa and bro, triumph against the odds and local prejudice and grow up to perform in the Royal Ballet? Did Scargill win the Miner’s Strike?

These are questions we know the answers to from the outset. Billy Elliot is clearly assembled from a Do-It-Yourself-Construct-A-Heartwarming-Surprise-British-Movie-Success-Kit. There are the usual measures of provincial earthiness, “wry humour”, (in this case mostly at the expense of male homophobic inhibitions), with pathos dolloped over the top by thick gravy – Billy’s Mam died young, you see, as a tinkling piano trickling constantly throughout the film reminds us. Julie Walters is drafted in to do her careworn but tough schtick, while Gary Lewis must surely by fed up of playing the dense patriarch who eventually does the right thing out of love for his bairns.

Where do we begin? Well, there’s the boy himself, played by jug-eared sprout Jamie Bell, the most ungrateful, self-obsessed little character visited on us since Mowgli in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Granted he’s 11 but his utter indifference to the privations, picketing and police presence all around him are more to do with his blinkeredness than his innocence. As for his spontaneous dance routines, mostly involving lots of running around punctuated by the occasional clumsy pirouette, you marvel at the stoicism of his family and fellow terrace-dwellers in not gathering him up, hog-tying him to a rail and lobbing him in the canal – they’ve enough to be putting up with as it is. His backyard routine to The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice” just makes you want to toe-punt the little c*** up and down the back ginnel.

As with The Full Monty, Billy Elliot is guilt of exploiting rather than exploring a political backdrop for its own dramatic ends – in this case, the miner’s strike. The permanent phalanx of police is presented as a mere fact, their dubious role in the strike unquestioned. Indeed, if the film imparts any message via Billy Elliot, it’s the insidiously fashionable one that the crisis suffered by the miners was somehow one of masculinity, rather than their being victims of the callous, needless birth-pangs of a post-industrialist project enforced by Thatcher’s Tories. The scenes involving confrontations between police, picketers and coachloads of scabs are often lamentably staged – in once scene, you can see what are clearly a bunch of local extras actually grinning as they’re pursued down the streets by cops.

Then there’s the scene in which Billy’s Dad, reduced to scabbing to pay for Billy’s fees, is confronted by his eldest son, who simply takes a leg-up over a security fence to get into the coalfield. Erm – dunno, but in actuality, wouldn’t he have been hauled back down by about 1500 riot police? Wasn’t that why they were there? Ironically, the truth is that back in the early Eighties, you could have thrown a brick in any of the big Northern industrial town nightclubs and hit half a dozen blokes in ballet tights. The New Romantic era went over huge in recession-hit Leeds, for instance, with clubs like Amnesia and The Warehouse crammed with Spandau lookalikes. Recession-hit areas have always been hotbeds for defiant flamboyance and dressing up, a cultural fact beyond the conceited makers of Billy Elliot with their stereotype notions of dourly conservative Northerners.

Ultimately, however, the sub-text to The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, one that seems especially pleasing to Americans is – okay, your jobs and traditions have been taken away from you but don’t be so sullen and brutish about it. You can still entertain us with your little dances. You Northerners are the new Negroes, dancing is in your blood. Dance, you poor clods, and maybe we’ll throw you some pennies! Some may find this “heartwarming” . I find it blood boiling.

Monday, April 1st, 2002

Sam Kinison

(This is an unedited version of a piece first appeared in Uncut in April 2002)

The Comedy Store, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, 1983. For a few dollars and a two drink minimum, you can have the door guy escort you to a table in the dank bowels of the joint and sup till the small hours laughing it up to a series of aspiring stand-ups. Good stand-ups, too – quirky, sharp, self-deprecating, most of whom you’ll never hear of again. That said, all the American comedians you ever heard of started out at the Comedy Store.

2am. Most of the smart crowd have melted away. A sleazy assortment of bikers, junkies, drug dealers linger. Last guy on tonight started here working the door himself, so hard up he had to walk seven miles every night to the Store to raise enough money in tips for a pizza slice and a cab home. He was a hit out in Houston and decided to try his luck in LA but Mitzi Shore, the martinet who runs the Comedy Store, doesn’t get him. She doesn’t think he’s funny and worse, he’s profane as fuck and Mitzi is trying to run a clean-ish Store, at least before midnight. But this guy once stepped in to defend Mitzi from a drunken attack by her alcoholic boyfriend so he’s temporarily in her good graces.

The MC announces him, there’s a lairy whoop and on he slinks, wide as he’s tall, sporting shades and a nasty little moustache, hair lacquered aggressively over a bald patch, bursting out of a tight leather jacket. Already, you suspect this guy is not a graduate of the whirling bow tie school of chuckles. He stares hard at the tables, letting an uneasy pall descend on the room.

“Okay,” he hisses, finally, drawing on a cigarette. “You folks have had a good time, right? You’ve seen a lot of comedians. Maybe you thought they were funny. Some you may want to see again. A lot of comedians try to get you to love them. Well, me, I take a different approach.” Here, he dons a single leather glove, as if about to go to work on somebody tied to a chair. Then he removes the shades. “My name is Sam. Sam Kinison. YOU’RE GONNA WISH TO GOD YOU NEVER SAW ME! YOU’LL BEG GOD TO FORGET MY FACE! AUUGH! ! ! AAAAUUUGHHH! ! ! !”

Sam Kinison, who died ten years ago this month, was a nasty man. A former preacher, he forfeited his soul for a coke and booze habit and a few jokes about Christ on the cross. He was very wrong about many things. He lambasted gays for “fucking monkeys” in Africa and thereby visiting AIDS on the world. His routines were rife with a black streak of misogyny. His politics were of the jocko, right wing, America-uber-alles variety. In the wake of the Gulf War he mocked the Kurds. “They’re fucking idiots, man! They should change their name to The Fucks because they’re fucked.” and blamed them for declaring war on the USA. He prowled the deepest, darkest sewers of obscenity and taboo with the zeal of a holy man turned about as unholy as you can get. And those who saw him will swear that to do so was to laugh, laugh till you thought you were going to asphyxiate, laugh in surprise and disgust with yourself at the sheer toxic glee of it all. It was like that footage of the exploding whale – audiences would be drenched in Sam as the body parts his raging demons showered the room. He was very possibly the funniest man who ever lived.

Early on, Sam Kinison hung out with a brattish pack of stand-ups known as the Outlaws, who included Andrew Dice Clay and Bill Hicks. Dice was the most obnoxious of the three, with his Fonz-like posturing and bullying of Asian-Americans (“If you don’t know the language, get the fuck out of the country!”) but it wasn’t long before the joke faded and all that was left was a cold stench of washed-up, racist braggadocio. Of the three, Bill Hicks is best known to British audiences and, despite his misanthropic attacks on white trash and pro-smoking schtick, the most palatable to liberal sensibilities. His act bristles disgustedly at the hypocrisies of American life and the consumer culture perpetuated to keep its citizens sated and stupid. He touched raw nerves of political truth and his death of cancer at 32 lent him a posthumous authenticity – as if his nicotine-fuelled rage literally ate him up. Hicks was very funny. Yet he pales beside Kinison. He filches a lot of Kinison-isms such as the evil chuckle between bits and bellowing crescendos. Yet there’s sometimes a distracting, self-satisfied air about Hicks and an odd lack of rapport with his audiences.

Sam Kinison was far less politically on than Hicks and yet, in that signature primal scream of his (“AAAAUUUUUGHHHHH!!!!”) there was a deeper, more Promethean truth. Sometimes, Kinison is faintly praised with the feeble epithet of “political incorrectness” but he was much more than that. He chafed at the very restrictions of life itself. One routine sees him relate a call from his parents saying it was time he took some financial responsibility for himself, stop sponging. He replies that before he had been their child he had been a free spirit walking the cosmos in a pure body of light; “I was light, I was truth I was a spiritual being – then YOU had to FUCK! AND BRING MY ASS DOWN HERE! I didn’t ASK to be born – I didn’t call and say ‘Hey, please have me so I can work in a fuckin’ Winchells someday! Now you want me to pick up the tab? FUCK . . . YOUUUUUUU! !” he’d scream, with glass-shattering, tonsil-busting virtuoso raucousness.

Sam Kinison was born in Yakima, Washington in 1953, son of a maverick Pentecostal preacher. He was a placid infant until, aged three, he was hit by a truck and suffered 30% brain damage and epilepsy. Aged 16 he ran away from home, disappearing for two years before meekly returning and joining his brothers on the ministry circuit as a preacher.

From the scant footage that exists, it’s clear Sam was some preacher man. He learned how to bring on his congregation, from a quiet opening, rising and rising to a tornado pitch of evangelical frenzy, hitting the sort of rhetorical equivalents of Aretha Franklin bringing the plaster from the ceiling with “Amazing Grace”. He was full of the same fire he later brought to his comedy. But his message was unorthodox. He didn’t warn the faithful about the Second Coming but that Jesus and the Holy Spirit was within us all, to discover for ourselves.

Furthermore, for an American preacher, Sam showed a marked indifference to the collection plate. Indeed, it was his disillusionment with the Jimmy Bakkers and Swaggarts of the world, spiritual snake oil salesmen stumping up funds for Theme Parks in the name of Christ that caused him to quit preaching. Later, he would expend some of his choicest bile on “wacko preachers” and revelled in the eventual disgrace of Jim and Tammy Bakker.

In his twenties, already divorced, Sam decided to enrol in comedy school. His first appearances were in Houston, where, although short of material, he certainly knew how to grab an audience. Faced with row after row of ten-gallon hats defying him to entertain them, Sam would leap offstage, jump the hugest guy to hand and mock-sodomize him in front of his girlfriend. Amazingly, none of his cowpunching rodeo victims ever punched him out. They were reduced to sheepishness as the joint fell about around them.

Sam’s second wife was Terry Marrs, a divorced businesswoman. However, theirs was always a fractious relationship as he was starting to make up for years of temperance, shipping aboard all the drugs and booze he could find, while she was disinclined to put up with too many of his lost, riotous weekends. The couple moved to LA and fought with cartoon intensity, her trying to wrench him into line, him feeling caged by marriage and a small apartment. Sam’s wives fed into his act as one composite, prissy, fun-hating and vindictive female, engines for his venom. It was wholly unfair and overwhelmingly hilarious. He would kick off asking some guy if he intended to get married, settle down. They guy would nod, then Sam would say, “Then promise me this. Remember this face. AAAAAUUUGHHH ! ! ! !”

After years of rejection, Sam broke through in the mid-Eighties. He took a cameo in a Rodney Dangerfield movie, Back To School. He released his first album, Louder Than Hell. It was, simply, nuclear comedy. On marriage: “If you see me round the yard and stuff, round the house? Kill me. Remember when I was a man and controlled my destiny? KILL ME! SHOOT ME IN THE FUCKING FACE! I BEG FOR DEATH! AAAUGGHH ! !” On Christ, as his disciples weep at what a terrible thing it is he has to die. “WELL, IT WOULDN’T BE SO BAD IF SOMEONE’D FETCH A LADDER AND A PAIR OF FUCKING PLIERS!” And finally, with customary sensitivity – the starving of Ethiopia. Imagining himself, improbably, as a frustrated aid worker, Sam rants, “It occurs to us there wouldn’t BE world hunger if you people would LIVE WHERE THE FOOD IS AT! YOU LIVE IN A FUCKING DESERT! YOU SEE THIS, HUH? THIS IS SAND! KNOW WHAT IT’S GONNA BE A HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW? SAND! GET YOUR SHIT, WE’LL MAKE ONE TRIP, WE’LL TAKE YOU WHERE THE FUCKING FOOD IS AT! WE HAVE DESERTS IN AMERICA, WE JUST DON’T LIVE IN THEM, ASSHOLE!”

Come the late Eighties, Kinison was an LA superstar, partying with Billy Idol, Bon Jovi, appearing regularly on Letterman and Howard Stern, sober or otherwise. As if having to sate a gigantic muse, he was a man of voracious appetites – food, beer, sex, marijuana, cocaine which he snorted to the point of developing an irregular heartbeat and had to kick. That’s what he said, anyway. Career wise he was too hot for some. Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC, announced he would never appear on the network again following a Saturday Night Live appearance where he’d speculated as to Jesus’ last words, mimicking a nailing noise with his mic; “NOT THE OTHER ONE! NOT THE OTHER ONE!” However, NBC were flooded with letters of support for Sam, with Tartikoff himself sent faeces in the post by disgruntled Kinison fans. The network relented. Talk shows, HBO specials followed. But even if he’d wanted to cutesy up for a Hollywood or sitcom career, a la Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, his inner monster would never let him. He’d tried out in an abortive movie called Atuk in which he played an Eskimo in Manhattan. It was dire, Sam knew it. He bailed out and agreed out of court to pay $200,000 to United Artists for breach of contract. Then, there was AIDS. On his second, otherwise brilliant album Have You Seen Me Lately, Sam, revelling in his outlaw status, questioned that the disease was contracted by heterosexuals. “Name ONE!” he snapped. He’d later do the bit on Letterman. The gay community was furious, demonstrated outside his shows. Elton John denounced him as a “pig”.

Kinison, without exactly climbing down, quietly dropped the bit. “Sam never hated gays,” his brother Bill insists. “He just hated being told what he could and could not say.” On his third album, however, Leader Of The Banned, he got his own back. After an extended eulogy to Walt Disney, how he’d conceived Mickey mouse after watching a rodent scurrying around his apartment, how this had led to the whole Disney empire. “Just suppose he’d been a FAGGOT,” Kinison screamed. “He’d have taken the mouse and SHOVED IT UP HIS ASS!”

Banned, with Kinison bandana’d up like an honorary heavy metal guru, was not his greatest album. However, it would be the last released while he was alive. By April 1992, Sam seemed to be emerging from a period of turbulence. After dating girlfriend Malika but also fucking her equally sultry sister Sabrina, he’d married the former. He was regaining his comic form after a dip in his popularity. He revelled in the upbeat American mood following the Gulf War. One of his routines, later released on the posthumous album Live From Hell, included a touching tribute to John Kennedy. “There he is, in the Oval Office, dick up Marilyn Monroe’s ass, finger on the nuclear button telling those Russians to stay the fuck out of Cuba . . it DOESN”T GET MUCH BETTER THAN THIS!” This was joie de vivre, Sam-style.

On April 10, a convoy of vehicles set out toward Laughlin, Nevada. The passengers included Sam (who could have flown but was nervous of planes), Malika, his best friend comedian Carl LaBove and older brother and manager Bill. Bill took care of Sam, picking up his career, dismissing some of his more wayward entourage and now booking him a three-year residency in Vegas. Bill knew the real Sam – a goof-off, a fuck-up, a “misguided missile, a prick, a truthteller” in his own words. Sam always felt bad around Bill, felt he was constantly letting him down. But Bill took care of Sam.

Turning north onto Highway 95 around sunset, a truck came speeding head-on towards them. Sam, leading the convoy, wiggled the front of his car to alert the driver, swerved but it was no use. The truck driver was a 17 year old with a couple of beers inside him. Sam had once done a bit about drink driving. “What is the big DEAL? How are we supposed to get the CAR back to the HOUSE? We will drink and we will drive. Because most of us pull it off every single FUCKING NIGHT!” But not tonight. Sam seemed unhurt. Carl LaBove assured him he’d be all right, held his head. But Sam seemed to be in conversation with some invisible entity. “Why now?” he asked. “I don’t want to die.” Then, after a pause, he replied “OK . . OK”, as if having seen reason and, peacefully, shut his eyes and stopped breathing.

Sam Kinison was a man of very bad habits who said some awful, terrible things. Had he lived, who is to know what awful, terrible things he would have had to say about Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, George Dubya Bush, the war in Afghanistan. Incorrect he may have been – but the truth he uncovered was the dark, nasty stuff most of us keep properly locked away in order to function as civilised human beings. Sam showered us with his, with almost righteous fervour. And some of us will never laugh so hard again.

Wednesday, February 20th, 2002


Perusing a law journal I recently came across the story of a client involved in a potential court case who was about to take legal advice and settle the matter for a reasonable sum. However at the last minute he informed his lawyer that he wished to take the case to court after all – because, he’d decided, that’s what Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator would have done. He wouldn’t have backed down. He would have fought. And won. So he didn’t back down. He went to court. He fought. And he lost. What a fuckwit.

A sad but true story, much as it’s sad but true that Gladiator was voted one of the top five best films ever made. Gladiator is not among the five million best films ever made. It is ludicrus, preposterus et turgidus ad nauseam. The words “Biggus” and “Dickus” reverberate silently throughout the movie, and, like the hapless Centurions in The Life Of Brian when faced with Michael Palin’s Caesar, one finds it hard not to burst out laughing.

The story. After Maximus has proven himself a decent General in one of the nicest proto-Fascist colonialist armies you could hope to encounter (unless you’re one of the Barbarians incinerated by them) he finds himself sold into slavery and his family slain as Commodus (Joaquim Phoenix), son of kindly philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius, murders his Father and takes over Rome. Meanwhile, Maximus becomes a gladiator in Proximo (Oliver Reed)’s stable. However, he has sworn revenge . . . Gladiator fails to convince on every level. The much-vaunted computer-generated replication of The Coliseum might as well have been knocked from old Fairy liquid bottles and a tin of battleship grey paint. Director Ridley Scott’s attitude towards the fight scenes is similar to that of the US Army in Afghanistan – fond of remote, state-of-the-art gadgetry but squeamish when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. Such sequences are obfuscated by the sort of excessive fast-cut editing and grainy slo-mo the producers of The Premiership like to use to ruin the ‘Goals Round Up’ section.

None of which can save the scene in which Crowe beats off a tiger chewing his neck from being the funniest since Adam West fended off the rubber shark in the Batman movie. The tone set by the principal adversaries is inadvertently, perhaps unavoidably camp, like the straight guys in Up Pompeii. Those names, for a start. “Commodus” would surely have had Frankie Howerd swivelling his eyes to camera, especially when the Senate harangue him about the lack of basic sanitation in the Greek Quarter. Ooer! As for “Maximus”, well you’re not complaining are you, Missus? Crowe’s gruff vocal intonation makes him come on like a Gladiator-o-gram at a hen party do, deep and hoarse as if from having overdubbed for one European film too many. Phoenix is a mincing mass of speech impediments, a sure sign of his weaseliness, especially when complaining of “Thqwabbling Thenators Who Cwy ‘Wepublic!'” And doubtless ‘Welease Wodewick!’.

Of course, Gladiator is not intended for laughs. With its leaden ambience, unremitting moroseness and incessant, wordless New Age screeching courtesy of antipodean GothLisa Gerrard we are supposed to feel properly immersed in gravitas profundis (et Oscari nominatus). Yet the film’s central message is deeply confused. It seems to want to have its Bread and eat it. Maximus lectures against the bloodthirstiness of the mob yet panders to them with bouts of violence far bloodier and violent than the actual citizens of the Roman Empire ever witnessed (deaths in gladiator bouts were actually infrequent). Perhaps the film’s real message is one of seething masculine frustration. It’s effeminate, silver-tongued connivers like Phoenix, Derek Jacobi and the chap in the ridiculous ginger wig who prevail while strong, musclebound, silent types like Crowe and his compadres, forever breathing hard through their nostrils, are enslaved (though all it takes to keep them captive, curiously, are a couple of geezers who look like stand-ins for the late Roy Kinnear in the old Go To Peterborough adverts).

Gladiator’s most contemptible gaffe occurs when the mob give the thumbs up sign indicating they want Maximus to live, whereas, as any retired Latin schoolmaster would wearily tell you, the thumbs up sign would have meant the opposite. You suspect the filmmakers knew this but left in the mistake knowing they would otherwise confuse their target audience – i.e. legions of folk as calamitously misguided as our courtroom friend, forced to pay out costs on a case he could easily have settled just because he was dumb enough to watch and admire Gladiator.