Film

Let the Kayfabe be Unbroken: My Breakfast with Blassie

“Classy” Freddie Blassie filing his teeth

This movie provokes a guilty-pleasure curiosity, followed by a yearning to somehow feel above the ridiculous performance you’re witnessing.

I have never seen My Dinner with Andre, but lest you suspect that I am unfit to critique its parody, I should point out that I did see a fantastic spread of fake movie covers in a Mad Magazine spoof of an old Columbia House Video ad about 20 years ago, and one of the covers in question was My Dinner With Andre the Giant, and so now you know better than to question my credentials.

In a just world, My Breakfast with Blassie would be part of a DVD two-pack alongside I’m from Hollywood, the life-changingly surreal and bewildering documentary highlighting Andy Kaufman’s deranged, inspired wrestling feud with heavyweight champion Jerry “The King” Lawler, who has since become a bloated, grotesque letch who rants incessantly about the breasts of World Wrestling Entertainment’s female wrestlers. (Except that female wrestlers are now called “Divas”, and Lawler calls breasts “puppies”.)

DVD: My Breakfast with Blassie

Film: My Breakfast with Blassie

Director: Linda Lautrec, Johnny Legend

Cast: Freddie Blassie, Andy Kaufman

Year: 1983

Rated: not rated

US DVD release date: 2009-06-16

Distributor: Video Service / MVD

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/b/breakfastblassie-cover.jpg I’m from Hollywood is far more accessible than the for-Kaufman-diehards-only My Breakfast with Blassie, which lacks not merely approachability for mainstream audiences, but indeed even simple context; little effort is made to explain why a frail-looking actor best known for playing an irritating but lovable example of the Just A Stupid Accent trope would make the inexplicable decision to challenge a championship wrestler to a match. Admittedly, even I’m from Hollywood has no answer to that question, but it’s still the more engaging of the two movies by quite a wide margin.

For now, My Breakfast with Blassie is on its own, and it’s just what its title implies: performance artist Andy Kaufman has breakfast in a diner with professional wrestling legend “Classy” Freddy Blassie. As their meandering, nearly hour-long discussion unfolds, the viewer experiences precisely the same emotional cycle one undergoes while watching a professional wrestling program: an initial guilty-pleasure breed of curiosity, followed by a self-conscious yearning to make it clear that you are somehow above the ridiculous performance you’re witnessing. (Even if you’re watching it alone.)

Ultimately, you’re left wondering whether the prolonged, off-putting joke has been conducted at your expense. You might even speculate about the extent to which the performers themselves are in on the joke.

Kaufman and Blassie discuss germaphobia and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, plus herpes, saying grace before a meal, tactless autograph-seekers and, inevitably (if also much less frequently than you might expect), professional wrestling. One cannot help but wonder who the intended audience for such a nonsensical movie might have been, even as one concedes that My Breakfast with Blassie, while largely stupid, is also kind of entertaining, if perhaps only by accident.

Twenty minutes into the meal, wrestling comes up for pretty much the first time, as Kaufman expresses dismay that Jerry Lawler was able to beat him up at all, let alone so badly that he’s still wearing a neck brace months later; “But I’ve wrestled women that are bigger than him,” he marvels. The advice and gentle criticism that Blassie offers his young protégé in response is so brilliant in its calm, dignified, straight-faced earnestness that the legendary wrestler and manager somehow manages to steal the show from Kaufman.

This is no small feat, but nor should it be a surprise; My Breakfast with Blassie is performance art, sure, but so is professional wrestling, and by the time My Breakfast with Blassie was shot in the early ‘80s, Blassie had been in the wrestling industry for several decades. (Behold life’s cruel unpredictability: Kaufman was 34 and Blassie was 65 when My Breakfast with Blassie was released, and yet Kaufman was dead a year later and Blassie lived another 20 years.)

Oddly enough, despite my 20-plus years of wrestling fandom, I have seen only a few scattered matches that featured Blassie as a ringside manager, and I’d never seen him perform as a wrestler until I perused the My Breakfast with Blassie DVD extras (which also include nearly an hour of deleted scenes.) Naturally, I’m familiar with Blassie’s tendency to dismiss wrestlers and fans alike as “pencil-neck geeks” (though I prefer Bobby Heenan’s dismissive term for the common man: ham-n’-egger), but a mere catch-phrase gave me no sense of what to expect.

This is what to expect: Freddie Blassie looks and sounds like a less googley-eyed, less child-mollesty version of Ed Wilson, Rodney Dangerfield’s creepy character in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Coincidentally, in an early scene in Natural Born Killers, Dangerfield’s character watches a wrestling match; it features Native American superstar Tatanka making his inevitable comeback against some anonymous jobber or another.

Dangerfield’s Ed Wilson drunkenly admonishes the hapless, nameless white wrestler to “Get that fucking Indian!” While Blassie never says anything quite so inflammatory during his meal with Kaufman, he does refer to a pregnant Asian waitress as “Buddha”. He then insists on repeatedly rubbing her belly, and finally predicts that she’ll soon be on welfare.

When Kaufman tears into a female patron with his reliable “You should be in the kitchen where you belong!” shtick, Blassie gives an approving nod and chuckle. Still, who can say how much of Blassie’s man’s-man gruffness is an act? Can we not safely assume that any man who willingly appears in an experimental, self-indulgent movie with Andy Kaufman does not take himself seriously?

I could say that Kaufman and Blassie’s deaths have lent an unexpected poignancy and relevance to My Breakfast with Blassie, but I would be lying. However, that both men are dead does seem to add a final, perverse punch line to what was already an unabashedly arbitrary movie, and I am sure Kaufman would approve. In the beginning voice-over narration, he dejectedly wonders why “Nobody seems to care.” He adds, “I have wrestled and defeated over 400 women, and what do I get?”

You get cancer, Andy. And a baffling, unique, subversive legacy.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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