TV

Independent Lens: The Order of Myths

It's the careful, unsensational revelation of self-delusion that makes The Order of Myths so devastating.


Independent Lens

Airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET
Cast: Stefannie Lucas, Joseph Robertson, Helen Meaher, Max Bruckmann, Dora Finley, Dwain Luce
Subtitle: The Order of Myths
Network: PBS
US release date: 2009-02-24
Website
Trailer
Amazon

"My grandma said, I hope y'all don't get the white court from the black court, 'cause she said, 'What if it's going to be bad?' 'Cause I think they was filming her over there. She's talking about how she's about to cuss or something." Young and self-assured, the young girl tugs at her dress. "My grandma say she's going to be mad, if they do it from the blacks and the whites. She said it was more ghetto-like for the black people. 'Cause she wouldn't want it like that."

Appearing in the first few moments of Margaret Brown's The Order of Myths, which airs tonight on Independent Lens, the child's description sets up the film's focus on the Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. Initiated in 1703, the Mobile parties and parades are gaudy and lavish and loud, much as they are in the more famous versions in New Orleans (which city was not even conceived until 15 years after the first Mobile celebrations). In Mobile, 2007, however, there are two separate sets of festivities, divided by race and unequal when it comes to dollars available and spent. As the film interviews participants in both associations involved -- the white Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) and the black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) -- it reveals the assumptions and fears that sustain the division.

Some interviewees insist the segregation is just tradition. A white man in a Mardi Gras mask -- his interview conducted as he's surrounded by floats, his buddy, also masked, standing in the blurry background -- explains the racial equality in Mobile. "The colored people," he says, "have their debutantes in the paper. They put on a show, just like the white people do. There's a lot of wealthy ones too, there's educated colored people, doctors and lawyers. They good stuff." Dwain Luce, MCA's King in 1941 (and Brown's grandfather), insists the system is premised on choice. "New Orleans took two of the oldest organizations," he says, "and told 'em they had to integrate, so they quit parading. Nobody's gonna tell me who come into my house." In the next breath, he assumes his choice is everyone's: "Black people have their own parades. They want it that way." The film reveals the effects of such logic, repeatedly cutting between MCA and MAMGA activities, as well as their different neighborhoods. The MCA folks live on streets with cobblestones and chat at cocktail parties serviced by black, uniformed waiters; MAMGA members live in "Africa Town" (formerly known as Plateau), where the homes are in disrepair and a white family, the Meahers, is the primary landowner, renting to black tenants.

In 2007, the queen selected by MCA is Helen Meaher, whose grandmother was queen in 1935. Appearing repeatedly as she's fitted for her crown, she's soft-spoken and polite, pleased to be so honored. Her train designer, Kellé Thompson, takes pride in his work, showing off its frankly stunning hand-sewn intricacy. "And of course," he adds, "the beauty part is that Mobile has one queen of Mardi Gras," as opposed to other cities where he would be designing for multiple queens.

In fact, the other queen of Mardi Gras, grade school teacher Stefannie Lucas, has her own train designer, Pat Richardson ("I like to dazzle," she smiles, "All my trains dazzle"). Stefannie's grandmother Fannie confesses to being startled at the news. "When she said she wanted to be the queen, I said, 'Oh my lord, that's a lot of money.'" As they sit at Fannie's dining room table, Stefannie agrees, describing how she had to cut back on spending in order to be able to afford the honor. "It's about [the worth of] a car, a nice $20, 000," she smiles.

Stefannie and Fannie note as well the striking connection between this year's queens' families. Helen's great-great grandfather brought Africans on a ship, the Chlotilde, in 1859, after the slave trade was abolished. In order to destroy evidence of his crime, he had his first mate burn the ship after it landed at what would become Mobile, with the cargo on board. The Africans escaped and ran into the woods, eventually establishing their own community. (During the telling of this story, the film cuts to one of the many pre-coronation parties Helen attends, where the camera pans from the ladies in white dresses to a shelf in this fine home, to reveal a set of ceramic figurines, including some "Negro" field hands.) Stefannie concludes, "My people was on her people's ship."

The film underscores the irony by showing a gathering of the descendants of the Chlotilde Africans at the Mobile waterfront, where they mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, as well as Alabama's official apology for slavery -- made in 2007. Dr. Cain Hope Felder, Professor of Divinity Howard University, asserts that, despite whites' fears that any talk of remembering slavery means reparations, he doesn't want money. "There is no way you could pay, in terms of dollars and cents," he declares, ancestors' sacrifices. Instead, he seeks reconciliation, which must begin with discussions and shared experiences. One step toward understanding might be the Conde Explorers, the only integrated Mardi Gras organization in Mobile, established in 2003. While their members are enthusiastic, their numbers are yet small. And in 2007, the film notes, the group has only one white member.

Traditions are surely hard to break, especially when they're premised on forgetting bad history and supporting mythic self-images. As Max Bruckmann, chosen as Lord of Misrule (Helen's King) in 2007, puts it, "In the South, people like to dress up and go to a party. We like what our ancestors did and want to keep doing it." It goes without saying that he omits large portions of "what our ancestors did." Rather, he speaks in abstractions, selective and rendered in passive constructions: "So much of it is tied to history and what happened in the past."

It's the careful, unsensational revelation of such self-delusion that makes The Order of Myths so devastating. As Brittain Youngblood prepares for her debut at the coronation, she provides a running commentary on the rituals she once rejected and is now apparently embracing. As she believes she is self-aware, the scenes become increasingly uncomfortable. Speaking with a member of her mother's black kitchen staff, a woman she remembers from her childhood, Brittain is eager to detail her recent history, and awkwardly underfoot as the rest of the staff has to get around her. "Sorry," she says more than once, moving to let the workers by, while avoiding eye contact. "There is a code of behavior, a code of contact," Brittain says later, though it's unclear whether she knows she illustrates this code in her own behavior.

Meeting with her black dress designer, Maggie Outsey, Brittain's position is similarly complicated, especially as the camera frames the women during their conversation. Explaining her decision to be a Lady of the Court, she says, "There's something about it that appeals to me." Maggie looks at her pad, taking notes. "I'm getting a greater and greater affinity for my roots," Brittain continues. Maggie nods, eyes down: "Mm-hmm." And then Maggie says what Brittain needs to know, but will not. "I think this whole experience... it enlightens you about a lot, a lot of history."

8

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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