Frank Zappa’s Surreal Movie 200 Motels: The First Feature Film Ever Shot on Videotape (1971)

As a famous first, Frank Zappa’s 1971 film 200 Motels set a standard for hundreds of wacky experimental, B-movies to come. The first full-length film shot entirely on videotape, the cheap alternative to film that had thus far been used primarily for TV shows and news broadcasts, the movie exploited the medium’s every possibility. “If there is more that can be done with videotape,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review at the time, “I do not want to be there when they do it.”

The movie is not only a “joyous, fanatic, slightly weird experiment in the uses of the color videotape process"; it is also a visual encapsulation of Zappa’s most comically juvenile, most musically virtuosic sensibilities, with Ringo Star playing “Zappa as ‘a very large dwarf,’” the Mothers of Invention playing themselves, Keith Moon appearing as a nun, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra taking abuse from Zappa, and a series of rowdy, raunchy misadventures piled one atop the other.

“It assaults the mind with everything on hand,” Ebert both marveled and half-complained. “Videotape reportedly allowed Zappa to film the entire movie in about a week, to do a lot of the editing and montage in the camera and to use cheap videotape for his final editing before transferring the whole thing to a surprisingly high-quality 35mm image.” As the making-of documentary below notes, the movie was edited without “the use of computer facilities,” and its layers of effects helped invent new aesthetic forms which now feel quite familiar.

Hyperkinetic, surrealist, and bizarre, 200 Motels is a mélange of animation, musical performance, crude jokes, and “a kind of magical mystery trip,” wrote Ebert, “through all the motels, concert halls, cities, states and groupies of a road tour.” It was not beloved by critics then (though Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars) and still gets a mixed reception. It may or may not be the “kind of movie you have to see more than once,” given its full-on sensory assault.

But Zappa’s experimental tour de force is essential viewing for Zappa fans, and also for students of the videotape aesthetic that has become an almost classic style in its own right. We can see in 200 Motels the roots of the music video—Zappa was a decade ahead of MTV—though, for better or worse, its “whimsically impenetrable plotline and absurdist sub-Monty Python humor,” as Ian Gittens writes at The Guardian, “were met with widespread bafflement and it sank without a trace.”

In the 80s, however, 200 Motels found new life in a format that seemed well suited to its look, VHS. Then it found a home on the internet, that Valhalla of ancient video of every kind. A touted DVD boxset, it appears, will not be coming. (Seems the distributer has been slapped with a “winding up order” of some kind.) But you can find it on disc, “intact and with the correct aspect ratio” as one happy reviewer notes.

Whatever medium you happen to watch 200 Motels on, your experience of it will very much depend on your tolerance for Zappa’s brand of scatological satire. But if you’re willing to take Roger Ebert’s word for such things, you should try to see this oddball piece of movie history at least once.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Beauty of Degraded Art: Why We Like Scratchy Vinyl, Grainy Film, Wobbly VHS & Other Analog-Media Imperfection

"Whatever you find weird, ugly, or nasty about a medium will surely become its signature," writes Brian Eno in his published diary A Year with Swollen Appendices. "CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit — all these will be cherished as soon as they can be avoided." Eno wrote that in 1995, when digital audio and video were still cutting-edge enough to look, sound, and feel not quite right yet. But when DVD players hit the market not long thereafter, making it possible to watch movies in flawless digital clarity, few consumers with the means hesitated to make the switch from VHS. Could any of them have imagined that we'd one day look back on those chunky tapes and their wobbly, muddy images with fondness?

Anyone with much experience watching Youtube has sensed the lengths to which its creators go in order to deliberately introduce into their videos the visual and sonic artifacts of a pre-digital age, from VHS color bleed and film-surface scratches to vinyl-record pops and tape hiss. "Why do we gravitate to the flaws that we've spent more than a century trying to remove from our media?" asks Noah Lefevre, creator of the Youtube channel Polyphonic, in his video essay "The Beauty of Degraded Media." He finds examples everywhere online, even far away from his platform of choice: take the many faux-analog filters of Instagram, an app "built around artificially adding in the blemishes and discolorations that disappeared with the switch to digital photography."

Lefevre even traces humanity's love of degraded media to works and forms of art long predating the internet: take now-monochromatic ancient Greek statues, which "were originally painted with bold, bright colors, but as the paints faded, the art took on a new meaning. The pure white seems to carry an immaculate beauty to it that speaks to our perception of Greek philosophies and myths centuries later." He likens what he and other digital-media creators do today to a kind of reverse kintsugi, the traditional Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with conspicuous gold and silver seams: "Instead of filling in flaws in imperfect objects, we're creating artificial flaws in perfect objects." Whether we're streaming video essays and vaporwave mixes or watching VHS tapes and spinning vinyl records, "we want our media to feel lived in."

Or as Eno puts it, we want to hear "the sound of failure." And we've always wanted to hear it: "The distorted guitar is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to it." This leads into advice for artists, something that Eno — who has made as much use of deliberate imperfection in his role as a producer for acts like U2 and David Bowie as he has in his own music and visual art — has long excelled at giving: "When the medium fails conspicuously, and especially if it fails in new ways, the listener believes something is happening beyond its limits." It was true of art in the 90s, and it's even truer of art today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Paintings of Miles Davis: Discover Visual Art Inspired by Kandinsky, Basquiat, Picasso, and Joni Mitchell

Few artists have lived as many creative lifetimes as Miles Davis did in his 65 years, continuing to evolve even after his death with the posthumous release of a lost album Rubberband earlier this year. The album’s cover, featuring an original painting by Davis himself, may have turned fans on to another facet of the composer/bandleader/trumpeter’s artistic evolution—his career as a visual artist, which he began in earnest just a decade before his 1991 death.

“During the early 1980s,” writes Tara McGinley at Dangerous Minds, Davis “made creating art as much a part of his life as making music…. He was said to have worked obsessively each day on art when he wasn’t touring and he studied regularly with New York painter Jo Gelbard.” Never one to do anything by half-measures, Davis turned out canvas after canvas, though he didn’t exhibit much in his lifetime.

He painted mainly for himself. “It’s like therapy for me,” he said, “and keeps my mind occupied with something positive when I’m not playing music.” Being the intimidating Miles Davis, however, it wasn’t exactly easy for him to find artistic peers with whom he could commune. When he first approached Gelbard, the artist says, “I was scared to death! I could barely speak.”

The two lived in the same New York building and Gelbard eventually relaxed enough to give Davis lessons, then later became his girlfriend, collaborating with him on work like the cover of the 1989 album Amandla. As she characterizes his style:

The way Miles painted was not the way he played or the way he sketched. He was so minimal and light-handed in his sound, in his walk. His body was very light; he was a slight man, a delicate kind of guy. His sketches are light and airy and minimal, but when he took his brush and paint, he was deadly – he was like a child with paints in kindergarten. He would pour it on and mix it until it got too muddy and over-paint. He just loved the texture and the feel. It got all over his clothes and his hands and his hair and it was just fun for him…

Miles also found a peer in fellow painter Joni Mitchell. She describes how he called her one day and said, “Joni, I like that painting that you did. Nice colors. I want to come over and watch you paint.” Davis, her musical hero, wouldn’t record with her (though she found out later that he owned all her records). “He would talk painting but he wouldn’t talk music with me.”

Davis’ paintings are rough and expressionistic, a counterpoint to the formal discipline of his music. (McGinley succinctly describes them as a “sharp, bold and masculine mixture of Kandinsky, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Picasso and African tribal art".) He didn’t make inroads in the art world, but painting did become “a profitable sideline,” noted the L.A. Times in ’89. Friends and fellow musicians like Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones bought his work. “A magazine called Du in Zurich bought some of my sketches for a special edition they’re putting out on me,” he said.

In 2013, a hardcover edition of his collected paintings appeared, with a foreword by Jones, perhaps the most avid of Miles Davis collectors. There are many other voices in the book, including author Steve Gutterman—who interviewed Davis before his death and writes an introduction—and various family members who contribute personal stories. Miles sums up his own “refreshingly unpretentious attitude” toward his artwork in one brief statement: “It ain’t that serious.”

Pick up a copy of Miles Davis: The Collected Artwork here.

Note: This post updates material that first appeared on our site in 2014.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch 700 Videos Nostalgia-Inducing Videos from the Early Days of MTV

“We’re gonna do for TV what FM did for radio”--Mark Goodman, the first ever MTV VJ.

When I was growing up, MTV was that rare commodity. Not all cable providers had it, and those that did charged an extra fee to get it. That meant there were certain kids in school that we were friends with just because their parents had it. (Sorry Tom, no hard feelings!)

This exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) YouTube playlist offers 710 videos that were staples of the channel in its 1980s heyday, right through the ‘90s when it slowly morphed into a lifestyle channel and VH-1 and then M2 picked up the slack of endlessly rotating memories.

Music videos had been around long before MTV. From Scopitones to the Beatles’ promo films for “Penny Lane” and such, visuals and pop music were natural allies. And through the ‘70s and early ‘80s, music programs mixed live studio performances with videos often. But not 24/7 often. And not, as the the first VJs proclaimed on August 1, 1981, in *stereo*. This was a big deal for a lot of people.

After introducing the crew one at a time--Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, and Nina Blackwood, all soon to become household names--the first video rolled: The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Early viewers soon discovered this however: MTV didn’t really have a lot of videos, and in that first year, certain ones got played more than their popularity deserved. (They seemed to play Saga’s “On the Loose” once every hour.) The other thing viewers noticed: there was a lot, a LOT of hard rock and Adult Oriented Rock as they used to say in radio marketing. After the new wave of the Buggles came Pat Benatar, Rod Stewart, REO Speedwagon, Styx, .38 Special, April Wine, Gerry Rafferty. (To be fair, there was also The Cars, Split Enz (!), and The Pretenders.

And then there were the predominantly white faces in all the videos. MTV was designed to appeal to rock fans and not, ahem, “urban listeners”. Electronic music, dance music, r’n’b, and other genres were noticeably absent. (It took public shaming by David Bowie and the undeniable pop juggernauts of Michael Jackson and Prince to change that.)

By 1982, the channel had expanded for many reasons. One of them was the amount of brilliant videos coming out of the UK, shot by directors who seemed to really get the potential of the art form. Tim Pope, Russell Mulcahy (who shot most of Duran Duran’s videos), and the duo of Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton brought in a knowledge of film history, animation, and surrealism to their videos, which complemented the mix and match fashion of the New Romantics.

But on both sides of the Atlantic, artists were realizing the potential of the visual element to their entire identities. Plus, there was money. Lots and lots of money. (Some of it even went to the musicians!)

As the ‘80s came to a close, MTV had changed music culture for better and for worse. It had dedicated programs to rap music, to alternative music, to heavy metal, and turned Spring Break into a rite of passage. And there were still some good years left in it.

Music videos are everywhere on YouTube now, but atomized just like everything else. You forge your own path as you go down the rabbit hole. They still have the power to shock, like last year’s “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, or unite the country very briefly like “Old Town Road” by Lil NasX. But what is missing, really, is that repetition. We all knew what Michael Jackson looked like because “Billy Jean” and “Thriller” were on our TVs all the time. Same with Madonna. Now we know our stars from their social media, from their magazine spreads, from their live shows, and sometimes, just sometimes, from these little music films that used to be the center of the universe.

Watch the complete playlist of 700 early MTV videos here.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Joni Mitchell Publishes a Book of Her Rarely Seen Paintings & Poetry

Self Portrait.”Art work by Joni Mitchell, from "Morning Glory on the Vine" / Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Joni Mitchell is a woman of many talents—too many for the label “singer-songwriter” to encompass. It does not capture the literary depth of her lyricism, the unique strength of her distinctive voice, or the deftness and versatility of her guitar playing. Nor the fact that she’s one of the most interesting personalities in rock (or folk-rock/folk/folk-jazz, whatever). Mitchell’s biography is riveting; her chatty and cantankerous interviews a treat.

And, if you somehow didn’t know from her many album covers, Mitchell is also an accomplished visual artist. “I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstance,” she said in 2000. “I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy.” It’s a great quote, though she also sings her joy and paints sorrow—as in the portrait of her hero, Miles Davis, made just after his death. (Davis was a painter too, and they bonded over art.)

Mitchell began selling her work “when I was in high school to dentists, doctors—small time,” she told Rolling Stone in 1990. She has written poetry since her teenage years. Her imagistic songwriting came from a love of literary language. “I wrote poetry,” she says, “and I always wanted to make music. But I never put the two things together,” until she heard Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” and realized “you could make your songs literature.”

Painter, poet, singer, songwriter, guitarist—all of the artistic sides of Mitchell have mingled throughout her career in the visual splendor of her covers, compositions, and lyrics. They also came together in a rare 1971 book. After the release of Blue, Mitchell “gathered more than thirty drawings and watercolors in a ring binder and paired them with handwritten lyrics and bits of poetry,” writes Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker.

She had the book handbound in an edition of 100 copies and gave it to friends for the holidays, calling it “The Christmas Book.” Now it has a different title, Morning Glory on the Vine, for a new edition to be released October 22nd. Part of the extensive celebrations for Mitchell’s 75th birthday, this edition fulfills a decade-long desire for the artist. “I always wanted to redo it and simplify the presentation,” she tells Petrusich. “Work is meant to be seen.”

The collection “feels consonant with Mitchell’s songwriting” in that it captures “tantalizing details about home,” in this case the home in Laurel Canyon that she shared with Graham Nash, the inspiration for the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Our House.” Still life compositions and self-portraits, both “vivid" and "intimate,” complement her vulnerable, playful, “funny and weird,” lyrics and verses. You can see more of the paintings from Morning Glory on the Vine at The New Yorker and preorder a copy of the book here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Beautiful New Photo Book Documents Patti Smith’s Breakthrough Years in Music: Features Hundreds of Unseen Photographs

Patti Smith is always surprising her fans with new work and new opportunities to admire her commitment to art and activism. If she isn’t publishing another memoir, or leading 250 people in a protest song, she’s showing her photographs, which she’s taken since the 60s, with Polaroid cameras and a German Minox 35EL. “I am not a photographer,” she says, “yet taking pictures has given me a sense of unity and personal satisfaction. They are relics of my life. Souvenirs of my wandering.” She surprised her fans once again by putting her treasury of pictures on Instagram.

But as comfortable as Smith has been behind the camera, she has been even more relaxed in front of it: “widely regarded as a style icon,” writes Stephanie Eckardt at W magazine, “she’s been a magnet for photographers almost immediately” after she arrived in New York “to hang around CBGB's and pose for Robert Mapplethorpe.”

She appeared in plenty of photos with Mapplethorpe when the two were just kids. Photographer Frank Stefanko captured her bohemian lounging in the 60s and 70s in stark black and white. (When he first encountered her in South Jersey, he says, she looked like “the bad guy walking into a saloon in an old Western movie.”)

“There are many photographers who have photographed Patti who are wonderful artists,” writes Lynn Goldsmith, whose own striking photographic record of Smith’s career is now being published in a new book by Taschen titled Before Easter After. (The book will be released in November.) Unlike Goldsmith, however, “they did not do documentary as well as concert as well as studio work with her. So that enabled Patti and I to have a narrative in the book that we could share with people of what was going on at that time.”

Smith describes what was going on with her usual casual lyricism:

We traipsed the path of rock ‘n’ roll, savouring its swagger, yet dodging the pitfalls. [Lynn] witnessed formative nights at CBGBs, gaining ground across America, my accident in a Tampa arena, and the struggle to rise again.

She refers to her fall offstage in 1977 while the band toured their album Radio Ethiopia. She broke her neck and spent the year recovering. Goldsmith captured the tragic event: “I saw her nearing the edge of the stage, but I thought she knew what she was doing because she always did this turning dervish on that song, where she spun and spun and spun.”  The following year, the band released Easter, their third and “most widely known and distributed” album, notes AnOther, and Goldsmith nervously shot Smith onstage at CBGBs in a neck brace.

The photographer surprised Smith by asking her longtime friend Sam Shepard to write a poem for the book inspired by the 1977 photo above. And at the book’s October 8th launch party, which included Henry Rollins, Rosanna Arquette, Moon Zappa, and John Densmore, Smith surprised her 150 guests by playing a set of songs “inspired by Goldsmith’s previous unseen photographs of the transformative period documented in the book,” writes Taschen. “She ended her set with her best-known hit ‘Because the Night’ from the album Easter… joined in song by every person in the room.”

The book is available in a pricey edition from Taschen (you can pre-order it here) and, coming soon, even pricier, numbered Art Editions. Here’s hoping they’ll surprise Patti Smith fans for the holidays with a paperback.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Night When John Coltrane Soloed in a Bathroom and David Crosby, High as a Kite, Nearly Lost His Mind

David Crosby is not only one of rock’s great songwriters; he is also one of rock’s great raconteurs—always ready with a story, told as only he can tell it, about life in not just one, but two of the most influential bands of the 1960s, the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash and sometimes Young. Few people have lived a life as colorful as his and lived to tell about it. Even fewer possess Crosby’s wit and eye for detail.

He came by his wealth of anecdotes at a significant cost, however, to himself and the people around him, as he readily admits in the newly released (on Blu-ray) Cameron Crowe-produced documentary Remember My Name. Now a wizened 78-years-old and still prolific and raising hell (on Twitter, at least) Crosby reached far back in the memory vault to tell the tale of his life, from childhood to his 60s heyday to his stints in jail and rehab and through every sordid stage of full blown addiction.

Drugs will seriously mess up your life, says Crosby, in no uncertain terms, but it’s also clear his life would have been much less eventful, and less interesting, without them. Take the story he tells of running into John Coltrane in the men’s room of the South Side Chicago club called McKie’s in 1963. Incredibly high, Crosby finds himself blown out of his seat and against the wall by Elvin Jones’ drum solo. He retreats to the bathroom and promptly hits the floor. “I’ve got my head against this puke green tile,” he says in the clip above from Remember My Name (see the trailer below).

While Crosby tried to pull himself together, who should walk in but Coltrane, still playing:

He never stopped soloing. He’s still soloing. And he’s like burning in this bathroom. He doesn’t even know I’m there. He never even saw me. I’m thinking I’m gonna slide right down this tile. I’m thinking my nose is gonna open and my brain is gonna rush out onto the floor. It was so intense. I never heard anyone be more intense with music than that in my life.

Crosby gets into more detail in an interview with JazzTimes. Coltrane, he says, “played in the [restroom] for a couple of minutes because the sound was good—it was echoey—and he was… as good as you think he was.” He also talks at length about his long relationship with jazz, from his discovery of late-50s records by Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, and Bill Evans, to Miles Davis recording a version of his song “Guinnevere.” (Davis was apparently instrumental in getting the Byrds signed to Columbia Records.)

The influence of Davis and Coltrane on Crosby’s songwriting is perhaps less evident than in, say, the work of Joni Mitchell, but Crosby admits that his “phrasing and melody choice” derived from “really good horn players.” It’s interesting to note just how much impact late-50s/early 60s jazz had on not only Crosby and Mitchell, but also 60s icons like Grace Slick. Listening to these classic rock survivors describe how Miles and Coltrane helped shape their sound shows just how much the mid-century jazz revolution fueled the rock revolution that followed.

Now that he’s sober, Crosby’s stories don’t involve nearly as much floor tile and brains sliding out of noses, but they’re still full of jazz encounters, including his recent collaborations with Wynton Marsalis and jazz collective Snarky Puppy. Read more about his recent projects and history with jazz over at JazzTimes.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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