Richard Pryor Does Early Stand-Up Comedy Routine in New York, 1964

Yesterday we featured one of the final performances of Lenny Bruce, the so-called “sick comedian” who was hounded out of work in the mid-sixties for his supposed obscenity. While Bruce was fighting and losing his legal battles, going bankrupt, and sinking into depression, one of his successors was just getting his start in New York City, playing Greenwich Village coffee houses alongside Woody Allen and Bob Dylan. Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor arrived in New York in 1963, leaving behind him a grim, abusive childhood in Peoria, Illinois and a very troubled army stint (most of which he spent locked in the brig). But watching Pryor’s early act—like the 1964 performance above—you’d hardly know that he came from such hardscrabble places as he did. We get the classic Pryor gestures, mannerisms, and expressions: the full immersion of his arms and malleable face in every punchline. But the jokes…. Well, it’s safe material. Tame one-liners and middlebrow, sanitized bits about childhood, bachelorhood, life in New York, and TV commercials. If there is a glimmer of the absurdism and tragicomedy of Pryor’s later wit, it’s a faint one. But who can blame him after what happened to Lenny Bruce?

But, as we all know, something changed. According to Pryor himself, he had an “epiphany” while standing onstage in front of a full audience (which included Dean Martin) in Las Vegas in 1967. Apparently, before he started his act, he looked out into the crowd, exclaimed into the microphone, “what the f*ck am I doing here?” and walked off stage. For the remainder of his career, he built his onstage act around the brutal, unsparing honesty--about race, poverty, drug abuse, his troubled past (and present), and everything in-between--that audiences loved. Even when the bits were painful, they were painfully funny (though not always so funny off stage). That he managed to cultivate such a profane and controversial persona while achieving mainstream Hollywood movie success is further credit to his versatility. He even did the alphabet on Sesame Street in 1976. But he never went back to the unthreatening and generic material from his early New York days. Even his roles in the most kid-friendly films had plenty of edge and that vein of dopey-but-dangerous craziness that ran through all of Pryor’s work after he found his voice.

For a vintage clip of the Richard Pryor we remember, take a look back to the 1979 film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, recorded the previous year at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California. It's NSFW, of course.

Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen Take Phone Calls on New York Cable TV (1978)

I don't know about you, but when I think of Sid Vicious, I picture a young Gary Oldman. The Sex Pistols bassist certainly made an outsized cultural mark in his 21 short years, and Oldman's performance in the Alex Cox-directed Sid and Nancy has become, for those too young or distant to catch the band at the time, the authoritatively vivid depiction of him. Though arguments routinely erupt about the license Cox may have taken with the facts of Vicious' life and death, you need only watch a clip of the genuine article to understand how expertly Oldman captured his distinctive kind of surly vitality. I recommend the above late-seventies broadcast from The Efrom Allen Show on New York cable television (part one, part two, part three), which finds the shirtless Vicious sitting on a panel with his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (the titular Nancy of the film), Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys, and Cynthia Ross of the B Girls. "THAT'S SID VICIOUS ON YOUR SCREENS, FOLKS," scrolling text tells the viewers. "IS SID VICIOUS? WHO CARES? CALL 473-5386 TO SPEAK TO THE PUNK OF YOUR CHOICE."

And call they do. Vicious responds with the same oscillation between articulacy and inarticulacy you may recall from Oldman's portrayal, and Spungen seems to possess the same behaviorally concealed core of intelligence that Chloe Webb gave her in the movie. She takes up the role of his defender when, lit cigarette in hand, she unhesitatingly shoots down a caller who asks the faintly zoned-out punk icon why he's "so derivative": "He's as original as you get! He's not derivative of anything!" As the show goes on, this proves not to be the only accusation of its kind. Other calls include inquiries about post-Pistols projects, a suggestion to collaborate with Ron Wood (of all people), and prompts for predictions about the direction of punk rock. "How should I know?" Vicious blurts. "I live my life day by day. I don't plan years ahead." Indeed, he didn't need to. The program aired on September 18, 1978, eight months after the Sex Pistols dissolved. Less than a month later, Spungen would be gone, and less than five months later, so too would he.

Related content:

An Acoustic History of Punk Rock Sheds Light on NYC’s Lower East Side (NSFW)

Take a Virtual Tour of CBGB, the Early Home of Punk and New Wave

The Talking Heads Play CBGB, the New York Club that Shaped Their Sound (1975)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1985: The Concert Film

In the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan tore through the international music scene like a Texas tornado. His amazingly fluid and dexterous guitar playing on a series of platinum albums established Vaughan as a household name and helped spark a blues revival. But in the summer of 1990 a helicopter he was riding on crashed into a hill in Wisconsin, and the whirlwind had passed.

This concert film captures Vaughan in full force. It was made on July 15, 1985, during Vaughan's second appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. His first, in 1982, had seemed like a disaster at the time. Vaughan and his band Double Trouble had never made a record and were virtually unknown outside of Texas in 1982, and their performance at Montreux was met by booing from some members of the audience. Vaughan was shaken. He had never been booed before. But the 1982 Montreux performance turned out to be the most important of Vaughan's career, as Chris Gill explains in Guitar World:

David Bowie was in the audience, and he made a point of meeting Vaughan and his manager in the after-hours lounge. John Paul Hammond, the son of record producer John Hammond, also saw the show and asked for a tape of the performance to give to his father. Jackson Browne caught the band's performance in the after-hours lounge, and he sat in with the group until early the next morning. Within the next few months, Browne invited Vaughan and Double Trouble to his L.A. studio to record a demo, Bowie asked Stevie to appear on his next album [Let's Dance], and John Hammond, who helped develop the careers of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, helped the band sign a deal with Epic Records and offered to produce their debut album. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

So the 1985 Montreux appearance was something of a triumphal return for Vaughan. There was no booing this time. Vaughan had a pair of platinum albums under his belt, and he and Double Trouble were touring Europe to promote their third album, Soul to Soul. In the film, Vaughan and the band are introduced by festival founder Claude Nobs, who gave them their big shot in 1982. The trio of Vaughan on guitar and vocals, Tommy Shannon on bass, and Chris Layton on drums had just been expanded to include Reese Wynans on keyboards. They play 13 songs, including three with Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, who joins them on "Cold Shot," "Tin Pan Alley" and "Look at Little Sister," in which Copeland and Vaughan trade blistering guitar solos. Another song, Copeland's "Don't Stop By the Creek, Son," was apparently performed that night but cut from the film. The rest of the concert appears to be intact. Here's the set list:

  1. Scuttle Buttin'
  2. Say What!
  3. Ain't Gone "N' Give Up on Love
  4. Pride and Joy
  5. Mary Had a Little Lamb
  6. Cold Shot
  7. Tin Pan Alley
  8. Look at Little Sister
  9. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
  10. Texas Flood
  11. Life Without You
  12. Gone Home
  13. Couldn't Stand the Weather

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'Electric Church': The Jimi Hendrix Experience Live in Stockholm, 1969

Bono and Glen Hansard Busking in Dublin on Christmas Eve

It has become something of a new Irish tradition. For the fourth year running, Bono, Glen Hansard  and friends took to the streets of Dublin -- to  Grafton Street, to be precise -- to spread holiday cheer and raise money for charity. Last year, the group performed a rousing version of the Mic Christopher song “Heyday” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” This year, they added “Silent Night” and a rendition of U2's “Desire” to the mix.

Related Content:

Neil Young Busking in Glasgow, 1976: The Story Behind the Footage

The Wondrous Night When Glen Hansard Met Van Morrison

Bono Tells UPenn Graduates “Pick a Fight, Get in It” (2004)

Lenny Bruce Riffs and Rants on Injustice and Hypocrisy in One of His Final Performances (NSFW)

We can remember Lenny Bruce as a masterful social critic or as one of the edgiest, most original comedians of the late-50s/early 60s. Or both, since both sides of him were always present in the live performances preserved on film and tape. Born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Long Island, Bruce came from a showbiz family, in a way; his mother was a performer and a supporter of his stage ambitions. But, after his discharge from the Navy (for a performance in drag, among other things), his New York act evolved quickly from celebrity impressions and burlesque to a more personalized and biting satire that cut through the genteel silences around racism, religious intolerance, drugs, politics, sexuality, and Jewishness in America. Sprinkled liberally with Yiddishisms, hip beat expressions, and topical riffs, Bruce’s jazz-inflected act could swing wildly from giddy falsetto exuberance to heartbreaking downbeat lament in a matter of minutes. Perhaps nowhere is this highwire act better documented than in the recording of his 1961 performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which he gave at midnight in a blizzard to a devoted audience of nearly 3,000.

The Carnegie Hall concert marked the height of his career, after which his sad decline began. Later that year, he was arrested in San Francisco for obscenity. He was acquitted, but this began the years-long battle in courts, including two Supreme Court appeals, on similar charges (dramatized in the excellent biopic Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman as Bruce). The legal battles bankrupted Bruce, and exhausted and demoralized him; he stood as a defender of the right to free expression and the need for people like him, whether just “entertainers” or serious satirists, to hold power to account and mock its threadbare contradictions, but he so profoundly rubbed the legal system the wrong way that he didn’t stand a chance.

By 1966, Bruce could not gig outside San Francisco. One of his final performances (above) before his death from overdose sees him rehearsing his legal battles. He is embittered, angry, some might say obsessed, some might say righteous, but he’s still in top form, even if there may be more of Bruce the critic than Bruce the entertainer here. Lenny Bruce has been mourned and celebrated by comedic giants like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks and musicians like Nico, Dylan, and R.E.M. But it sometimes seems that his name gets more press than his work. So, get to know Lenny Bruce. Watch the performance above, but also listen to the brilliant Carnegie Hall concert (available in 7 parts on YouTube). And thank him every time a comic gets away with crossing social boundaries with impunity. He wore the system down so that the Carlins and Pryors could break it wide open.

Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.

Watch Portrait of an Artist: Jackson Pollock, the 1987 Documentary Narrated by Melvyn Bragg

Jackson Pollock painted with the kind of visceral immediacy that frees you from having to know much about his ideas, his methods, or his life. But spend enough time gazing at his canvases and you'll surely start to get curious. If you've seen Melvyn Bragg talk to Francis Bacon in studio, gallery, café, and bar on the South Bank Show's profile of the painter, you know how expertly he can open up an artist's world. Two years after that International Emmy-winning program, the broadcaster, writer, and House of Lords Member applied his talents to a perhaps even less understood painter in Portrait of an Artist: Jackson Pollock. Where Bragg appeared as a participatory presence in The South Bank Show — to the extent, at one drink-sodden point, of getting tipsy himself — here he sticks to narration. His relegation to the soundtrack perhaps reflects a certain cultural distance: to an American, Bragg seems about as English a host as they come, and to the rest of the world, Pollock seems about as American a painter as they come — in his work as well as his life.

The Library Media Project describes Pollock as a "'cowboy' from Wyoming" instrumental in forging the American art movement, Abstract Expressionism. They describe his life in the smallest nutshell: "His famous 'drip' paintings earned him both notoriety and abuse and the pressures of new-found celebrity compounded his lifelong struggle with alcoholism, a fight he lost when he died in a car crash at the age of 44," In its 50 Bragg-narrated minutes, Portrait of an Artist: Jackson Pollock goes into far greater detail, using existing radio conversations with Pollock, photographer Hans Namuth's film of Pollock at work, and interviews with critics, curators, Pollock's colleagues, his friends, his widow, and his mistress. Where a biopic like Ed Harris' Pollock plunges straight into the artist's brash conduct and volatile mixture of work and life, this documentary steps slightly back, examining Pollock's paintings and the Hemingwayesque existence that gave rise to them in a cooler — not to say more English — light. Make them a double feature, if you can.

Portrait of an Artist: Jackson Pollock will be added to the Documentary section of our collection of 500 Free Movies Online.

Related content:

Jackson Pollock: Lights, Camera, Paint! (1951)

MoMA Puts Pollock, Rothko & de Kooning on Your iPad

Francis Bacon on the South Bank Show: A Singular Profile of the Singular Painter

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Jim Henson Teaches You How to Make Puppets in Vintage Primer From 1969

Give Jim Henson 15 minutes of your time, and the father of the Muppets will teach you how to make your own puppets, using nothing other than household items – socks, potatoes, tacks, tennis balls, rubber bands, wooden spoons, and the rest. This primer originally aired on Iowa Public Television back in 1969, not long before Henson joined a fledgling TV production, Sesame Street, where he helped create the most famous puppets of our generation: Oscar, Ernie, Kermit, Bert, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and the rest. Though recorded 40+ years ago, the advice is simple and timeless. When you're done watching this old favorite of ours, you can go deeper into Jim Henson's imaginary world with these varied clips.

Jim Henson’s Original, Spunky Pitch for The Muppet Show (1975)

Watch Jim Henson’s Violent Wilkins Coffee Commercials (1957-1961)

Jim Henson’s Zany 1963 Robot Film Uncovered by AT&T: Watch Online

Jim Henson’s Animated Film, Limbo, the Organized Mind, Presented by Johnny Carson (1974)

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