These haven’t been the best of times, and the world needs live music now more than ever. People also need a reason to let out some real laughter. It’s quite rare to experience both at the same time, but that’s what former Yes keyboardist/Prog Rock legend/absolute nutter Rick Wakeman delivered during his recent stop in Derry, NH on his current “Even Grumpier Old Rock Star” US Tour.
A sequel to his 2019 “Grumpy Old Rock Star” Tour (which shared its name with his 2008 book), Wakeman’s current solo jaunt finds him entertaining fans with selections from his 50-year music career and a heavy dose of his fantastic brand of brilliant – and often quite bawdy – humor. (Think Mozart meets Graham Chapman.) One only needs to take a look at the man’s notorious dirty joke-filled acceptance speech during Yes’ 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony to get a sense of what it’s like to spend an evening with a man who is equal parts meticulous composer and mirthful court jester. After all, anyone audacious enough to create an album like 1975’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table certainly isn’t afraid to shun convention. When it comes to the sometimes stuffy world of Prog, fans can always count on Wakeman to deliver his musical wizardry with a mischievous wink.
Without giving away too many punchlines, I’ll say that the guy is an utter riot. Whether discussing his advancing age (“I wear a pair of glasses to find the pair of glasses I’ve put down!;” “It gets harder when you get older, doesn’t it? Or maybe it’s the opposite…”), his history of heart attacks (“I stopped having them, ’cause they hurt!”) or a slew of other topics (including a story about the late Keith Emerson, a lavatory and an awards show…You really had to be there), Wakeman had the crowd in stitches with his between-song banter. These stand-up routines were juxtaposed with the sonic side of the festivities, which showcased the beauty of his talents on the keys. Every note of this performance – from show opener “Sea Horses” (off 1979’s Rhapsodies) to the final moment of encore “Merlin The Magician” (off the aforementioned King Arthur album) – was captivating. When not gifting the crowd with solo material, he performed classic songs (often infused with hysterical introductory tidbits) he recorded with the likes of Yes, David Bowie and Cat Stevens. Additionally, he performed a heartfelt tribute to The Beatles (“Help!” and “Eleanor Rigby”). For this writer, Wakeman’s loving renditions of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life On Mars?” were the evening’s most impactful numbers.
Wakeman’s return to American stages is the latest in a series of activities he’s undertaken during the COVID-19 era. In addition to releasing his latest solo album, The Red Planet, in June 2020, he revised his glorious past earlier this year with the release of Rick Wakeman’s Yes Solos, a stunning collection of some of his finest onstage moments with Yes from 1971 to 2003 (with three bonus solos recorded in 1989 during his time with the Yes spin-off group Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe). Full marks to the guy for taking such an enjoyable show – and a chance for folks to enjoy live music and jokes again – out on the road.
ProTip: Be sure to hit the merchandise table and pick up a copy of the fantastic Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour programme, which features plenty of Wakeman’s wit and wisdom – as well as a biography presented as a true-or-false quiz!
Kira needs no introduction, but here’s one anyway...
Best known to Punk fans around the world as the bassist for Black Flag from late 1983 to late 1985 and one half of the two-bass project dos with Mike Watt, Kira has spent the past several years building an accomplished career as a dialogue editor for television and film. Her many credits include Joker, the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born and the second season of Game of Thrones. Additionally, she’s received two Emmys and was part of the sound team that won an Oscar for its work on Mad Max: Fury Road. Now, at 60, she has a brand-new addition to her extraordinary résumé: Solo music artist.
Out today, Kira’s eponymous 10-song debut solo album offers a considerably more subdued atmosphere than anything she played on during her days with Greg Ginn and company. For a general understanding of its immediate vibe, picture a quaint avant-garde Jazz club rather than, say, the old City Gardens in Trenton, NJ. In addition to showcasing her ever-exquisite bass playing, the album features her soothing (but nonetheless evocative) vocals on all tracks. Guests include the amazing Petra Haden (who you can read more about here), guitarist Glenn Brown and drummer Dave Bach.
The album is Kira’s latest sonic undertaking to also feature her older brother, Paul Roessler, whose life in music has included stints with The Screamers, Nina Hagen, Nervous Gender, 45 Grave, The Gitane DeMone Quartet and a host of others. Paul’s role as co-producer and musical contributor is only fitting when considering he is the one Kira credits for inspiring her to play bass to begin with. Circa 1976, Paul put together a band called Arc2 to play a primitive version of his epic 47-minute, Prog-inspired composition, “The Arc” (finally recorded in proper form and released on limited-edition vinyl in 2013). Kira, who was 15 at the time, wanted in.
“Their bass player quit, which is the exact reason that I borrowed a bass and started practicing really hard – I wanted to join Arc2. I was never good enough, and then Paul got into Punk Rock. It all works out like it’s supposed to, I guess.”
Released on Paul’s Kitten Robot label (which he founded in 2019 with singer Josie Cotton), the album was written and recorded over a 13-year period. The track listing tells a chronological 38-minute story of (in Kira’s words) “love and loss.” Many of the songs address the passing of her beloved dog Hombrito (“Little Man”), who died of cancer in 2013 at only eight years old. Fittingly, a portrait of him graces the album’s front cover.
“I kind of had to go through the whole process – the early phases and the actual loss and sort of what happens after and with a little distance from the loss. For me, it was just natural to write about this and write this story. I tend to be extremely personal and try to connect with just raw emotion and then see if I can portray that in a way that someone can connect with. The songs are chronological, but they are not all specifically on the topic of the great love of my life in some ways, which was my dog.
“I never had a child, but I raised this dog from a baby,” she adds. “It was as close as I will ever get to having a child, having that connection and going through that process of him growing ill and dying – and how it feels now afterwards. He was everything; he still is. I love my dogs that I have now, but I didn’t have them as babies; I rescued them as adults. It is different when you start from the beginning.”
Although anyone who’s loved and lost a pet will readily empathize with what Kira is expressing with this album, she insists that the emotions experienced throughout the CD are universal.
“I believe by sharing those deep feelings, others can connect with it – nothing to do with the topic per se, but it’s that raw emotion that people can tap into. For me, that was huge […] Back in the Punk Rock days, we were expressing rage and anger, and [that music] captured that so well. This is really just more of the same: ‘Okay, I’m having this sort of frustration/annoyance feeling. How do I capture that?’”
Already a feverishly prolific band, Black Flag experienced its most productive era during the Kira years, recording six albums (four studio/two live) and two EPs from 1983 to 1985. The band also blazed through nearly 300 shows during that same time period. Those facts are amazing on their own, but they become jaw-dropping when considering that Kira was also an active student at UCLA at the time. Not surprisingly, this tough-as-nails work ethic established her as a force within the predominantly male Punk/Hardcore scene and earned the admiration of her fellow musicians.
As former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins noted in a statement sent to this website, “[Kira] was a mere slip of a woman, but physical size really didn't matter. She was in one of the most ferocious bands at the peak of violence in that scene in the '80s. She was as tough as any of us and could stand up to anything.”
Thirty-six years after Kira’s departure from the band, Black Flag remains one of the most lauded contributors to the history of American underground music. Interestingly, she believes that much of the group’s ongoing cultural relevance has little to do with the actual sounds it created.
“A lot of people who’ve heard of Black Flag haven’t necessarily heard Black Flag. It’s a concept; it sort of represents something. It’s sort of like the words ‘Punk Rock;’ what is the actual meaning? In a sense, Black Flag became this set of words that represented something much larger than the band actually was. If you played Black Flag music for a bunch of different people, you wouldn’t necessarily get the kind the impact response than if you just talked about it or showed them the logo. Back then, it was one of the few bands that was touring as extensively as it did, so it was a little more well known than a lot of the local bands that played maybe New York or LA and big cities but didn’t play three gigs in Louisiana or five gigs in Florida. So, that helped, but we were starving; we didn’t make a lot of money. People think now, ‘You guys were so big,’ but we were not big in the commercial scheme of things. We were sleeping on peoples’ floors and living off of $10 day per diems. It was not the glamorous lifestyle. But the big transition really started with bands like Nirvana and the Chili Peppers saying they were hugely inspired by Punk Rock – and maybe the LA Punk scene specifically. Maybe Black Flag was even specifically mentioned, and these bands did get huge. They were saying, ‘Hey, these are our roots.’ I think that made people start diving in. There is this mystique because of the logo, because of the name and because of the spread across the country that allowed it to become something defined. Not all bands could [do that]. People have heard, let’s say, the name ‘The Germs,’ but you can’t quite grab onto it. There was enough to grab onto with Black Flag that it actually stands upright as a thing. But I really don’t think it’s much about the music; I could be wrong. If you asked someone, ‘Hey, what’s your favorite Black Flag song,’ I don’t think there would be one for a lot of people. And that’s okay. It’s like ‘Punk Rock;’ it’s more of a concept than necessarily something you can explain and have a definition of.”
As for the records she performed on with Black Flag, she cites 1985’s In My Head as the one that resonates the most with her.
“There’s something about In My Head that people may not necessarily glom onto the way I do, but I was there. That could have well been an instrumental record. We were jamming most of those songs as instrumentals, like we did. We had a lot of instrumental stuff, but Henry started to write lyrics. When Henry is singing his own lyrics, there’s an emotion to it that he doesn’t always capture with other songs. He gets intense, but especially with Greg’s songs, he couldn’t necessarily identify as closely as something he wrote himself or something of course that [former bassist] Chuck Dukowski wrote, because Chuck wrote the most amazing anthems in Black Flag. But Henry was actually sitting down and writing. In a sense, [In My Head] was the most collaborative and the most of Henry expressing his own true feelings. I’ve always had a soft spot for the way those songs became the way they are.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, Kira found herself again recording Black Flag material in the studio – this time for the 2010 release Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie: Reinterpreting Black Flag. As the title suggests, the six-song, worth-seeking-out EP features vastly different arrangements of classic Black Flag tunes. The release boasts appearances by Blondie’s Jimmy Destri, The Plimsouls’ Peter Case, Mike Watt, Saccharine Trust’s Joe Baiza and original Black Flag singer Keith Morris, among many others. Invited by former Black Flag singer/guitarist Dez Cadena to participate in the project, Kira provides lead vocals on a Patsy Cline-tinged cover of “Nervous Breakdown” and plays bass and sings on a rendition of “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” that is absolutely nothing like the original. Kira looks back on the release with great fondness.
“I think [the EP] hangs together as an interpretation as well as anything I’ve heard, and I often point to it as something I’ve done that I’m proud of and thought was a very creative, cool project.”
Although Kira’s profile in the national underground circles grew exponentially upon her arrival in Black Flag, she was already well established in the Los Angeles scene via her time in a variety of bands, including Waxx, The Visitors, Geza X and the Mommymen, The Monsters, Sexsick, Twisted Roots and DC3. This writer’s personal favorite of the lot, the adventurous and brilliant Twisted Roots, formed in 1981 as a way for Paul, former Germs guitarist Pat Smear and the rest of the new band to focus their attention away from grieving the recent death of their friend Darby Crash. Kira, drummer Emil McKown (later of a pre-Kira lineup of Black Flag) and singer Maggie Ehrig completed the band’s original lineup.
“For me, Twisted Roots – especially the first incarnation – was a somewhat unique experience musically. I went to school with Maggie in the 12th grade and met her there. I was telling her about Punk Rock while she was still a hippie girl. I corrupted her into Punk Rock in our cooking class. It was some of the first times my basslines got a certain amount of freedom. Because the structures of the songs were not my own, I started to learn to write basslines that actually complemented the music. I think it was some of the earliest times when I got a little bit free with the bass parts, and Paul gave me a lot of freedom to do that. There were multiple incarnations of Twisted Roots, all of which were very special to me. Even though it wasn’t necessarily known musically for a lot of people, it was very big in my musical life. Obviously, Paul’s a big influence on me, and it was a big chunk of time for him trying to make [Twisted Roots] happen. In a lot of ways, I was just a side player trying to support him; there was a lot of me trying to figure out how to work in his framework. Until I have my own bands, I’m always just trying to find ways of supporting somebody else’s vision. In my own way, that’s what I was trying to do in Twisted Roots. It was a great experience, because sometimes people are more constraining of you, but Paul was not constraining of me.”
In 2011, fourth-fifths of the original band (with later member Gary Jacoby filling in for McKown) reconvened for a live performance at a Los Angeles screening of Dave Travis’ film, A History Lesson: Part 1, which features footage of the 1984 lineup of the band alongside live clips of The Meat Puppets, The Minutemen and Redd Kross.
“I actually said no when they first asked me, but the bass player who agreed to do it couldn’t do it for whatever reason,” Kira recalls. “When Paul and Pat came to me then, I had to do it. Of course, I was enmeshed in a very big work project and felt overwhelmed by trying to practice and get this together, but it was a great experience. I’m so glad we did it!”
(A 2012 feature by this writer on the history of Twisted Roots is available here.)
Although the stage still calls to Kira from time to time, listeners who enjoy her new album shouldn’t expect to see her take this material on the road any time soon.
“The likelihood of me touring is very low. It’s funny; life just kind of keeps moving, and that feels so far away and so difficult. It wouldn’t be the same if I did it again. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. That being said, performing live is one of those experiences that is so particular and rare; I certainly can’t say I don’t miss that and wouldn’t like to do it. So, the answer is I’m hoping to find a way to do something live performance-wise, but I haven’t figured out how. If I do perform live, it won’t be an exact capturing of that record; it will be interpretations of the songs. At this point, it’s a concept but not a reality.”
More than four decades after first picking up the bass, Kira is still creating captivating music drawn from the depths of her core emotions. With 60 years’ worth of experiences under her belt, how would she best describe herself at this point in her life?
“Bass player first and foremost – this is just who I am. Then a sound editor, dog mom, loving wife and loner.”
Moments ago, I received the below update from Richie Faulkner of Judas Priest. It appears unedited below:
I’ve always been grateful for the opportunities I’ve been presented with. I’ve always considered myself THE most fortunate man ever - to be able to play my favourite music - with my favourite band - to my favourite people around the world…
Today just being able to type this to you all is the biggest gift of all…
As I watch footage from the Louder Than Life Festival in Kentucky, I can see in my face the confusion and anguish I was feeling whilst playing ‘Painkiller’ as my aorta ruptured and started to spill blood into my chest cavity….
I was having what my doctor called an aortic aneurysm and complete aortic dissection.
From what I’ve been told by my surgeon, people with this don’t usually make it to the hospital alive…..
I was taken to nearby Rudd Heart & Lung Center and quickly went into what turned out to be a 10 ½ hour emergency open heart surgery.
Five parts of my chest were replaced with mechanical components…..I’m literally made of metal now….
It could have all ended so differently – we only had an hours set that night due to Metallica’s performance after us – and it does cross my mind if it was a full set, would I have played until total collapse…? If it hadn’t happened in such a high adrenaline situation would my body have been able to keep going long enough to reach the hospital…?
The amazing Heart & Lung Center was 4 miles away from the gig site – if it had been further away……..
We can always drive ourselves crazy with these things but I’m still alive thankfully. Whatever the circumstances, when watching that footage, the truth is, knowing what I know now, I see a dying man…..
I’ve been moved to tears and humbled by friends, family, my fantastic band, crew and management and also you guys sending me videos and messages of love and support during the last week – I thank you all so much and although I have a recovery road ahead of me, as soon as I’m able to get up and running again, you’ll be the first to know and we’ll get back out there delivering the goods for you all….!
One last thing maniacs, this came totally out of the blue for me – no history of a bad heart, no clogged arteries etc…my point is I don’t even have high cholesterol and this could’ve been the end for me. If you can get yourselves checked – do it for me please……
Lots of love and see you down the front again soon….
This is from our strong falcon - he will be flying high again just as soon as he is able….
Despite presenting a world of gun-toting tough guys and chest-beating bravado, it’s Giuseppina Bruno – not Tony Soprano, and not even protagonist Dickie Moltisanti – who matters most in The Many Saints of Newark.
This truth becomes clear early in the film, when Giuseppina (played with doe-eyed aplomb by Michela De Rossi) utters the word “motherfucker.” On its surface, the scene is a chuckle-inducing throwaway: New to America, the young Italian beauty is slowly grasping English while living in the company of a crew of Jersey mobsters – most notably her new lover, Dickie. (It’s a pretty easy word to pick up in a crowd like that, no?) But what’s important here is that she says it with equal parts glee and authority – cutely enjoying the novelty of expressing a dirty American word while simultaneously giving the audience more than a passing nod to its relevance.
“Motherfucker” carries considerable weight in this film. A few minutes prior to this pivotal scene, Giuseppina is introduced to Dickie – and the rest of us – as the much younger bride of his father, Hollywood Dick. At first, both Moltisanti men appear decent enough (at least by gangster standards): Dickie is a charismatic gentleman whose attitude and mannerisms hint at a heart of gold under his flashy wardrobe, while Hollywood Dick comes off as a doting husband – well, a doting husband with a subtle penchant for control and a glaring habit of speaking for his better half.
Before long, Hollywood Dick’s power over Guiseppina reaches a savage climax when he kicks her down the stairs for keeping an untidy bathroom. Upon learning of what happened, Dickie – fueled by memories of his father’s abuse of his mother – confronts the elder Moltisanti in his car. The exchange soon turns violent, resulting in Dickie killing dear ol’ dad by repeatedly bashing his head against the steering wheel. Unlike the ice-cold vibe of typical mob film deaths, the unplanned act leaves Dickie in a state of shock and panic – a condition worsened when he suddenly has to contend with distracting his wife, Joanne, and Tony (still a young boy at this point in the film) from the reality of what has just occurred.
And before long, Guiseppina becomes Dickie’s goomah.
Of course, the problem with being someone’s side carnival is you’re always left waiting for your ticket: Guiseppina makes Dickie dinner, only to have him swiftly get dressed and return to his regular life when responsibilities call. She also gets frustrated by what she perceives as Dickie’s disinterest in helping her open a beauty parlor. Alone and out of place in a foreign land, she finds solace in the arms (and more) of Dickie’s black associate, Harold, who concurrently separates from his Jersey crime connection and builds his own presence on the streets (including a murderous attempted takedown of Dickie’s crew) as racial tensions in the area escalate.
The inevitable revelation of Guiseppina’s betrayal leads to the film’s most bone-chilling scene. While the couple take an idyllic stroll on the beach, she confesses her infidelity to Dickie, who devolves into rage over his lover’s illicit acts with a “murdering nigger.” Within seconds, he drowns her, leaving her lifeless body to float above the waves. Guiseppina’s swift death comes out of nowhere and parallels the sheer brutality and masculine force of Ralph’s murder of Tracee during The Sopranos’ fourth season. But unlike Ralph, Dickie seems genuinely appalled by his actions as he suddenly finds himself responsible for the brutal death of a second loved one. In a flash, Dickie, who initially earned the audience’s empathy in his role as Guiseppina’s protector, becomes worse than the monster he originally killed in her defense.
The audience may care for Dickie as a character, but he is still a tragic personification of evil. It’s the same duality that made us eagerly follow an adult Tony’s flawed attempts to balance family and family for six seasons despite the fact we were rooting for a killer every step of the way. And despite Dickie building an empire in the darkest corners of New Jersey while fending off imposing male adversaries, the actions of a lithe female – driven and ultimately destroyed by her desire to achieve something greater for herself – lead to his undoing. Dickie is assassinated at the film’s conclusion, but he truly died with Guiseppina on that beach.
At a superficial glance, women were seemingly given short shrift in The Sopranos, often reduced to serving as fretting wives, background strippers at the Bing or runtime-filling goomahs. But in reality, some of the series’ strongest and most impactful characters were female: Janice schemes her way through her storylines, while Livia – a classic case of Borderline Personality Disorder and the root of most of Tony’s inner conflicts – torments her son’s psyche even after death. And of course, Dr. Melfi – the sanctuary-providing recipient of Tony’s most insidious confessions and arguably the show’s greatest moral compass – was a woman.
The Sopranos was a ladies’ playground; the men merely existed in it.
(By the way, pay very close attention to Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of a younger Livia. She looks and acts an awful lot like Carmela at times, doesn’t she? I doubt this detail – presented during a movie with a subplot involving a man’s affair with his stepmother – is a mere coincidence. You can practically feel Melfi’s future appointment book getting filled as this film unfolds.)
And then there’s Junior, the man responsible for a narrative bombshell in the film’s final act. The guy’s always had an inferiority complex, which we saw a lot of through his deteriorating relationship with Tony in the original series. In The Many Saints of Newark, Dickie – dripping with good looks, charm and street smarts – regularly upstages Junior in that thing of theirs. Later, Dickie mocks the balding and bespectacled Junior when he hurts his back while slipping down some stairs. This back injury leads to Junior’s sexual ineptitude – and, notably, emasculating words from the woman in his bed. It’s the final straw for Junior and the moment when Dickie’s fate is sealed.
For all its surface misogyny, The Sopranos was always a tale driven by women. The Many Saints of Newark continues this trend, mixing in enough Greek tragedy to brilliantly undermine the cinematically alluring but ultimately paper-thin machismo of Mafia culture.