Reviews

Jazz, Loss, and Understanding in 'I Called Him Morgan'

Lee Morgan

While exposing the fragments and fault lines of memories, I Called Him Morgan tells the stories of Helen and Lee Morgan. It's also a story of storytelling.


I Called Him Morgan

Director: Kasper Collin
Cast: Larry Reni Thomas, Wayne Shorter, Paul West, Charli Persip, Albert 'Tootie' Heath, Ron St. Clair, Larry Ridley, Jymie Merritt, Al Harrison, Larry Ridley, Lena Sherrod, Bennie Maupin, Jerry Schultz, Judith Johnson, Billy Harper
Rated: NR
Studio: FilmRise
Year: 2016
US Release date: 2017-03-24 (Limited release)
Website
"There was never no doubt in anybody's mind Lee was gonna be a star."

-- Charlie Persip

"The country, I never liked at all." Helen Morgan is remembering her childhood in North Carolina, while you see generic footage of trees and sunlight and birds in flight. "My biggest aim was," she continues, "when I was growing up in the country, and I had to work on the farm and I had to do all of this, that when I got big enough, I was leaving this place." By now, you're seeing archival footage of cows in a pen, a weathered red barn behind them. The cows gaze vaguely in the direction of the camera. They don't move. She did.

Helen Morgan speaks slowly, her rhythms fragmented by age and receding memory. Her voice was recorded in 1996, over 20 years after she killed her common-law husband, renowned jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan. Helen's interview and her husband's story form a dual foundation for I Called Him Morgan. Layering experiences and impressions, music and image, Kasper Collin's remarkable film is less concerned with history than with effects, influences that stretch across time, ideas that shape art.

Some viewers may be familiar with Lee Morgan's career and celebrated talent, and others may not know how profoundly he shaped American jazz. For the former, the film's opening with Morgan's "Search for the New Land" will recall his 1964 album with Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock, and for the latter, the sound may be a revelation, cool, smart, occasionally abstract.

The track plays over a scene that appears abstract as well, snow falling against a gray sky, a seeming negative image that makes the snow look like ash. The snow looks forward and back, to the day when Helen shot Lee in a New York club calls Slug's, open that night in February 1972 despite a blizzard. "Search for the New Land" gives way to saxophonist Billy Harper's recollection: "I just couldn’t believe it. I didn't know what to think, because they were always together."

Harper's response to Morgan's death echoes many you'll hear in the film, from other associates like bass player Jymie Merritt or saxophonist Wayne Shorter, artists whose lives were touched by Morgan, and Helen too. "I heard police had arrested her and taken her to jail," says Bennie Maupin. "And, you know, I never saw her again."

That sense of loss lingers throughout the film. Morgan and Helen first appear on screen as a photo, held in Harper's hand. Morgan's back is to the camera, and he's looking into a brick-walled kitchen, where Helen sits at a table, lighting a cigarette. This photo and others create a sort of visual backbone for the film, frozen moments of their life together. Other photos show Morgan in the studio or on stage, a collection of gorgeous, haunting stills to show a career built on constant motion, from his early discovery by Dizzy Gillespie at age 16, through a harrowing heroin addiction, to his return to health and music, due in large part, and by all accounts, to his relationship with an exceptionally generous and loving Helen.

Such stills -- alongside some black and footage of performances, with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Morgan's own bands -- offer glimpses of Morgan and Helen's stories, but only that. Collin's film fills in the gaps for which it has no visual records with carefully selected abstractions, the snow and the cows, city streets, blurred traffic lights, New York City bridges and building exteriors. Brief looks at fire escapes and windows suggest times long past but lingering, desires to look inside, to understand. As much as the interview subjects who knew Helen and Morgan tell their versions of what happened, none has details about how the relationship began or shifted. When bassist Paul West observes, "His life was restored by Helen and it was a joy to watch: he was playing, he was producing, and he was living," a few shots of Morgan illustrate: he's older, he's sober, he's working his PR.

As these images help you to imagine what people describe, they also remind you of what you don't see. Interviews provide much of the film's narrative structure, as you hear pieces of memories from various artists, Helen's son Al Harrison, Morgan's girlfriend Judith Johnson, and the man who interviewed Helen in 1996, Larry Reni Thomas. A high school teacher and jazz radio announcer, Thomas frames her story with his, how he met her (she was an adult student in his Western Civ class, many years after she had served time in prison; when he learned she was Lee Morgan's wife, he says, "She looked at me kind of funny like, 'You know the story too.'").

The film follows behind Thomas as he walks to his desk drawer, where he keeps an old cassette tape under papers. When he pops that tape into an ancient cassette player, the camera is tight on the dust on the player's surface, then even tighter on the tape squeaking as it plays. And then, the sound is cleaned up so you can hear her voice as the image transitions to illustrations of what she remembers, however fractured: a girl in a sleeveless top, a road passing by a car window, a circa-'60s New York City skyline, her eventual destination. At once lovely and weird, this transition from now to then underlines the film's process, it's reaching back into analog machinery to conjure new art, impressionistic, by turns disconnected and dreamy, then lucid and insistent.

In exposing and making sense of the fragments and fault lines of memories, I Called Him Morgan tells the stories of Helen and Morgan -- how they met, how they worked together, how they appeared to others. It also tells a story of storytelling, how different strands come together and fall apart, how listeners participate in that process. In this, the film conjures visual rhythms resembling jazz, montages of image and sound providing new ways of conceiving the movements of time, of cause and effect, of interpretation. As it articulates loss, the movie also contemplates understanding.

9

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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8
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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Professor Abbas Amanat shines the light of reason and rationality upon this greatly misunderstood nation.

For many, Iran's defining characteristics were forged in only a few short months between 1978 and 1979. It was at this time that the Pahlavi Dynasty was toppled, that a largely secular government was exchanged for one driven by Shi'a Islam, and that the Ayatollahs rose to their dominant position within the Iranian political landscape.

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9

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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