A Sad Farewell to Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard

Yes, this day was coming, but I did not think it would come this soon. Back in 2015, Amoeba Music sold its Hollywood location on the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga to developer GPI Companies for a reported $34 million, and it is set to be turned into yet another high-rise building in Los Angeles. I read the store would be open through the end of 2020. But then we were all hit by the global pandemic known as Coronavirus/COVID-19, and “non-essential” businesses like Amoeba were forced to close the doors temporarily. There was hope Amoeba’s Hollywood location would re-open again soon, but then co-owner Jim Henderson made the following statement:

“The massive impact from the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of our iconic Hollywood location at 6400 Sunset Blvd. With no reasonably foreseeable opportunity to re-open in our current location, we are instead focusing on hopefully opening in the fall in our previously announced new home at 6200 Hollywood Blvd. This situation has been forced on all of us, and we feel this decision is the most responsible and practical one.

“This is heartbreaking for us. We never envisioned not being able to give the store the send-off it deserves, to give you all a chance to say goodbye. We had so many events planned to celebrate our history at 6400 Sunset, but we are facing too many mitigating circumstances that simply won’t allow for it.”

Having read this, I understand and respect Amoeba’s decision not to re-open its Hollywood location. All the same, this is a real heart breaker for me as I looked forward to visiting this store again at least a few times before it closed, but now this will not happen. Like the Second City theatre, Amoeba Music was like a second home to me in Los Angeles which I visited frequently. Walking out of there empty-handed could feel criminal, but I could always find a certain CD, DVD, Blu-ray, cassette tape or vinyl record worth adding to my terrifyingly enormous collection (my dad says I have more CDs and DVDs than God).  

Having grown up in in Northern California, I often visited the Amoeba stores in Berkeley and San Francisco quite often, and this was back in a time where downloading music digitally was far from ever becoming a reality. Upon learning they were going to being opening a store in Hollywood, I became infinitely excited at what it would have to offer. Anyone familiar with the average Amoeba Music store knows they are far bigger than the normal record store. In fact, they are like warehouses which look to contain anything and everything you could ever hope to find. I was lucky enough to attend this store’s opening night back in November of 2001 and was in awe of just how big it was. If you were unable to find what you were looking for there, you had to wonder what was wrong with the world.

One of my biggest thrills in recent years was introducing my parents to this particular Amoeba Music store when they visited me in Los Angeles. They were flabbergasted at just how big this particular store was, and they were quick to grab their hands-on stuff like a Monterey Blues Festival t-shirt. This was also around the time of my birthday, and they got me Shout Factory’s special edition of “Creepshow” on Blu-ray, and that’s even though my dad was horrified at the price on it, and the soundtrack to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” While I was unable to introduce my parents to New Beverly Cinema during their recent trip, I am ever so glad they got to check out this particular Amoeba store while it was still operating.

The following are some of my most memorable purchases I made at this particular Amoeba Music store.

Killing Zoe

I was lucky enough to visit this store on the day it opened back in 2001, and the DVD to “Killing Zoe” was the first thing I ever purchased there. Written and directed by Roger Avary, it stars Eric Stoltz as a safecracker named Zed who joins up with his longtime friend Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade) in Paris to rob a bank on Bastille Day. I had just discovered this movie on IFC and was absolutely enthralled by it. The acting all around was terrific, and Anglade in particular was phenomenal as a man fully determined to go out with a bang. I also really dug the film score composed and performed by Tomandandy which proved to be as hypnotic as it was propulsive, and I have since become a big fan of their work.

But yes, “Killing Zoe” is especially worth watching for the gorgeous and beguiling Julie Delpy who wows us fright rom her first appearance as Zoe. Whether she is in bed with Stoltz or wielding a heavy-duty machine gun, you cannot take your eyes off of her for a second.

Because this was the first thing I ever bought at this particular store, I assure you I will never get rid of it.

The Best of Siouxsie and the Banshees

One time while I shopped here, this compilation album was playing on the store’s speaker system. I was already aware of Siouxsie and the Banshees thanks to their wonderfully bizarre song “Peek-a-Boo” which has an equally bizarre music video, and also “Face to Face” which proved to be a fantastic addition to the “Batman Returns” soundtrack. As this album played, I started to wonder why I didn’t give this British rock band more of my attention years ago as I suddenly became entranced by their songs “Cities in Dust,” “Dizzy” and “Kiss Them for Me.” to where I soon went over to the front counter to see what specific album was being played. I walked out with several items that day, but “The Best of Siouxsie and the Banshees” is the one I find myself still playing quite often.

“We Are Night Sky” by Deadboy & the Elephantmen

As with any other Amoeba Music store, the Sunset Boulevard location played host to many singers and bands who performed there in support of their latest releases. I was fortunate enough to be at the store when Deadboy & the Elephantmen performed in support of their second album, “We Are Night Sky.” Led by singer and guitarist Dax Riggs who was accompanied on bass and drums by Tess Brunet, the band was often compared to The White Stripes, but they really stood out on their own. As they played songs like “Stop, I’m Already Dead” and “Blood Music” with sheer abandon, I quickly became a fan and bought the CD. Other great tracks on this album are “How Long the Night Was” and “Misadventures of Dope.”

What a shame it was that this band came to a permanent end just one year later.

“Send Your Love to Me” – a P.J. Harvey live bootleg CD

The lady at the register warned me the sound quality on this disc was not great and that it sounded like someone recorded this show from the audience. I appreciated the warning as it prepared me for a recording which was clearly not done on a professional level. Still, I found it interesting to hear Harvey’s music from this vantage point, and at one point you can even hear one audience member tell another how she is going to be playing herself in the next “Batman” movie (I’m guessing he meant “Batman Forever”). Having seen Harvey perform live years ago at The Wiltern, listening to this bootleg made me feel like I was right back there again as songs like “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Down by the Water” are so invigorating to take in with an audience of fellow fans.

“Sorcerer” soundtrack by Tangerine Dream

At my previous day job, a friend of mine named Richard shared my love of film scores and movie soundtracks. One his big favorites was Tangerine Dream’s score to William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer,” and he complained about how he could never find it at any record store in Los Angeles or any other city. Sure enough, I did find a copy of it at Amoeba on Sunset. Surprisingly, it was not in the soundtrack section, but instead in the New Age section where all the other Tangerine Dream CDs could be found. You should have seen Richard’s face when I showed him the CD. Seriously, he looked like Donald Sutherland at the end of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he was completely stunned to be holding any copy of this particular soundtrack. I also agree with him about how this is one of the most unique film scores ever composed, and it opened up doors for Tangerine Dream in Hollywood as they went on to create more unforgettable scores for films like “Risky Business,” “Firestarter,” “Near Dark” and “Thief.”

“Heartland” by Client

While searching in the electronic music section for the latest CD by Hybrid or Juno Reactor, I came across a sign which said, “If you like Goldfrapp, then check this band out!” The band this sign was referring to was called Client, an English electronic music group from London which had just released its latest CD, “Heartland.” Would I have bought this CD in any other store? Well, it seems a bit unlikely as other places may not have been as quick to promote a band or artist Americans were not the least bit familiar with. Thanks to this sign, I got to check out this album which contains such terrific songs like “Lights Go Out,” “Zerox Machine” and “Someone to Hurt,” and these are songs I still never get sick of listening to.

“Adventures in Babysitting” t-shirt

As soon as I saw this t-shirt which featured Elisabeth Shue’s famous line of dialogue from the 1987 teen comedy film, I knew I had to have it. However, there was one slight problem: where could I possibly where it? Any shirt which says “don’t fuck with the babysitter” is not exactly the kind you can wear it if you live near an elementary school. But with all the social distancing currently going on, perhaps I can get away with wearing it as it can be hard to make out certain words when others are six feet away from you. At the very least, it will give some a reason to laugh during a time where it feels like the world is bordering on Armageddon.

Goodbye Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. While I look forward to the opening of its newest location, to see this one shut down sooner rather than later really breaks my heart. So much of my money was spent here, and I have long since lost track of all the CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays I managed to trade in there for store credit.

Hopefully the new store will have a bigger parking lot.

The founders of Amoeba Music, Dave Prinz and Marc Weinstein, have since created a fundraising page on Go Fund Me to help offset the costs associated with the COVID-19 shutdown. With all Amoeba’s locations currently closed, they are struggling to survive and are doing what they can to pay their bills and take care of their employees’ health insurance. Their fundraising goal is $400,000, and to date they have raised over $230,000.

Click here to learn how you can make a donation.

‘Sorcerer’ May Very Well Be William Friedkin’s Masterpiece

Sorcerer movie poster

This is the movie that almost completely destroyed filmmaker William Friedkin. “Sorcerer” came into theaters with a high level of anticipation, which was understandable as it was made by the same man who gave us “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection.” Lines were wrapped around the block when it opened at Mann’s Chinese back in 1977, but by the second week the theater was practically empty. “Sorcerer” was considered to be a critical and commercial failure, and Friedkin’s career has never been the same since. Of course, it opened around the same time as a small independent feature which blew away the competition. You may have heard of it, “Star Wars?”

Well, they say time heals all wounds, and “Sorcerer” has been critically re-evaluated to where it has received the critical acclaim it long deserved. The film is quite an accomplishment and a fascinating study in madness and redemption, and you will never look at truck driving the same way again after watching it. Depending on who you ask, it t is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (Friedkin denies it is). The Oscar-winning director put his heart and soul into “Sorcerer,” and it pins you back into your seat and thoroughly exhausts you long before it ends. Like many great movies, it is one you experience more than watch.

“Sorcerer” takes its time getting started as we watch the back stories for its four main characters and of how they ended up at where they are. We meet hitman Nilo (Francisco Rabal) who takes down a target with a simple bullet, Kassem (Amidou) as he bombs a local church with the help of his friends, investment banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) who is about to be jailed for fraud, and then there’s Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who is marked for execution after his gang robs a church and accidentally kills a priest.

After this protracted prologue, the action moves to an unnamed location in a Latin American country which these four people have escaped to and seek refuge in. The utter squalor these men are forced to live in is so vivid to where it feels like the flies and stench of the environment doesn’t stop at the silver screen. You know how some people look at a movie and say it really made them want to take a cold shower? One shower is not enough to get past the filth these characters are forced to live in from day to endless day. This place is hell on earth for anyone, but these men obviously prefer it to death. They managed to avoid prison, but they came to a different kind of prison they are now ever so desperate to escape.

The chance for escape comes when an oil refinery suddenly explodes into a fireball, and the firefighters are unable to put the fire out without the help of explosives. Company executives manage to find a surplus of nitroglycerin sticks which can do the job, but the only catch is these sticks have not been turned and, as a result, have become highly sensitive and to where the slightest vibration could make them explode. So when an offer comes to drive this unstable set of explosives to the burning oil field for a high reward, these four jump at the chance to do the job. The rest of the movie follows their treacherous journey in trucks to deliver the explosives and hopefully not lose their lives in the process.

One thing I really admired about “Sorcerer” is how Friedkin dared to give us characters who were not altogether sympathetic. They are criminals of one kind or another, and yet we follow them every step of the way through their treacherous trip. Friedkin saw their incredibly dangerous journey as their chance not to just escape the filthy poverty they were stuck in, but also as an opportunity to redeem themselves for whatever bad deeds they committed. But their entire journey is a lot like sailing down the river Styx as they have to travel to through hell in order to escape it.

Friedkin does a great job of sustaining the tension as these men drive the trucks over terrain which looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing, and who encounter unwanted guests that have no idea of the cargo they are carrying. But the movie’s big action centerpiece is when they are force to drive the trucks over a suspended bridge which looks more than ready to completely fall apart. Add to that some furious rainstorms, and you have yourself one hell of a sequence which leaves you wrung out by the end.

Of all the actors in the cast, the most recognizable is Scheider. As a man on the run from the mob, he gives a performance which is never less than compelling, and you can only imagine the hell Friedkin put him through to play this role. The journey these men go on is not just dangerous physically, but also psychologically. Scheider does great work here as he is constantly on the verge of losing his mind, and this is especially in the movie’s second half.

Francisco Rabal, Amidou and Bruno Cremer are equally as good as they show the exhaustion and determination their characters have to complete this mission, and they too are put through the wringer to where they never seem to be acting their roles, but instead living them. You feel every bead of sweat which drips from their faces, and it makes “Sorcerer” even more of a visceral cinematic experience.

The imagery Friedkin captures is incredible as he shows us the squalor and unhealthy environment these characters live in so well, you can’t help but feel as trapped in it as they are. Friedkin has gone on record to say this film was the toughest for him to make, and I don’t doubt that for a second.

One of the other big pluses of “Sorcerer” is the brilliant score composed and performed by Tangerine Dream. Interestingly enough, they never saw a frame of the movie’s footage while working on the music, and yet they capture the events and psychology of the characters ever so perfectly. Like many of Tangerine Dream’s movie scores from “Thief” to “Risky Business,” this one is highly original and hard to compare to others. The soundtrack is still available on compact disc if you look hard enough for it.

After all these years, “Sorcerer” can no longer be mistaken as one of Friedkin’s misfires as it is now seen as one of his greatest cinematic achievements. It has since gained a strong cult following and is truly one of the most underrated movies of the 1970’s. It is unlikely we will ever get to see a movie made the way this one was ever again, and this makes it a must see for every and any film buff out there.

* * * * out of * * * *

Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein Look Back at Making ‘Near Dark’

It was a huge shock to learn Bill Paxton just passed away at the age of 61 due to complications following heart surgery. He was an actor who was always working and never seemed to be lacking for jobs in front of or behind the camera. His sudden passing sent shock waves through Hollywood and movie fans everywhere, and we are all mourning the actor who was unforgettable in “Aliens,” “Apollo 13,” and the HBO series “Big Love.” The following article is one I wrote after I attended a screening of vampire movie he was gleefully fantastic in, “Near Dark.”

near-dark-movie-poster

Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein stopped by New Beverly Cinema on Thursday, May 6, 2010, to introduce a screening of “Near Dark.” The cult classic was a vampire western horror hybrid made back in 1987 by Kathryn Bigelow, and it was being shown as a double feature with her Oscar-winning triumph, “The Hurt Locker.” It was not a sold-out screening, but this ended up making it all the more intimate for those who showed up. Paxton looked especially happy to be there as he was astonished there was actually a print of this movie still in existence.

When Paxton and Goldstein made “Near Dark,” they were just coming off of James Cameron’s “Aliens.” Paxton played Hudson, the soldier who thought he was so bad ass, and later turned into perhaps the single most annoying coward in cinematic history. Goldstein played Private Jenette Vasquez, one of the fiercest soldiers you could ever hope to meet and who, unlike Hudson, remained just as fierce when things got worse. Bigelow, who would later marry and divorce Cameron, called him to ask if it was okay to use some of his “Aliens” actors for “Near Dark.” Clearly, he said yes, so Paxton and Goldstein, along with Lance Henriksen, got parts in Bigelow’s movie. Paxton even said in one scene from “Near Dark,” the man who ends up sticking his hand out the car and giving him the finger was Cameron himself.

Having gone through what Paxton described as the “baptism of fire” with Cameron on “Aliens,” he, Goldstein and Henriksen formed a strong family unit as a result which made the making of “Near Dark” feel like a homecoming. When someone asked what the difference was in directing styles between Cameron and Bigelow, Paxton said bluntly, “No one else is like Cameron.”

 As for Bigelow, Paxton described her as the prettiest director he has ever worked with. According to him, she absolutely loves actors and encouraged them to come up with stuff for their characters throughout the shoot. Goldstein went on to talk about how the actors did an improvisation on how they would block out the sun in the car while driving around town in broad daylight. They came up with the idea of putting aluminum foil on the windows which blocked out the rays that would have immediately broiled their fragile skin and reflected them away so they could live on to do what they did best, suck the blood out of clueless human beings. The way Paxton saw it, most of “Near Dark” was improvised, and he said it was great to work with a director who was so excited to work with actors.

In regards to Henriksen, Paxton described him as “a guy you could never really read.” Back then, Henriksen had these intense finger nails which he had to cut off as Paxton described it, and Paxton even went on to talk about the time he and Henriksen were driving down the highway and got pulled over by the police. As the police officer was getting out of his patrol car, Paxton said Henriksen looked at him and said, “Should we take this guy out?”

Actually, that led to Paxton telling a story which Henriksen just loves to tell about “Near Dark.” During the times they were shooting at night, Paxton, who was made up in his gory vampire makeup as though half his face was chopped off, kept going up to people driving through town, telling them he had just been in a horrible car accident. This little prank always ended with Henriksen saying, “If you think he looks bad, you should see the other guy!”

Paxton said he saw “Near Dark” as a “Bonnie & Clyde” vampire movie. Tangerine Dream composed the movie’s score which is fantastic, and the movie is filled with other memorable musical selections. There was a great cover of “Fever” by The Cramps which was used in the pivotal bar scene where everything gets turned into a bloodbath. But Paxton said his favorite piece of music used was “Naughty, Naughty” by John Parr as it really sets the scene for when the vampires end up depriving a saloon in the middle of nowhere of its customers and employees. Apparently, Bigelow ended up paying for the rights to the song out of her own pocket.

One audience member asked Paxton and Goldstein if they had any Tim Thomerson stories to tell us. Thomerson played Caleb’s father in “Near Dark,” but he is best known for portraying Jack Deth in “Trancers” and its numerous sequels. Both actors said they had many great stories about Thomerson to tell us but basically summed him up as a great guy to hang out with who did so many great impersonations, his best being of John Wayne forcing himself on Walter Brennan.

In regards to character, Paxton saw his character of Severen as a Billy the Kid kind of vampire, wild and reckless in how he conducted business. He also said “Near Dark” owes a great debt to Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles which includes the books “Interview with A Vampire” and “Queen of The Damned.” To get into character, Paxton said he read Rice’s books throughout the shoot.

Goldstein said she saw her character of Diamondback as someone out of the Depression era or “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” someone who got by and survived any which way she could. She was perfectly cast in the role as very few actresses back then were allowed to play tough female characters who didn’t need a man to defend them at all.

Another audience member told Paxton he was a big fan of “Frailty,” his directorial debut from a few years back, and wanted to know if he was planning to direct again. Looking back on “Frailty,” Paxton said he had a great experience making it and would love to direct again if he can ever get out of “this damn show” he’s on (you may have heard of it – “Big Love” on HBO). Currently, he is looking over a few projects he is interested in helming and hopes to work behind the camera again really soon.

It was great to see Paxton and Goldstein come out and speak with the fans. Surprisingly, a large portion of the audience had never seen “Near Dark” before, so neither of them wanted to keep the audience waiting too long to see it on the big screen. “Near Dark” may not have been a big hit when first released, but it has more than earned its cult following especially in light of Bigelow’s deserved Oscar win, something which was a long time coming.

Actually, my favorite moment of the evening happened as Paxton and Goldstein were on their way out of the theater when an audience member brought up the subject of another HBO show, to which Bill replied, “Fuck ‘True Blood!’ We were doing this 20 years ago!”

This remark left us all in utter hysterics.

RIP Bill Paxton.

 

Perseverance Records’ Deluxe Edition of Tangerine Dream’s ‘Thief’

thief-soundtrack

Tangerine Dream kept composing one great film score after another back in the 1980’s. Whether it was “Risky Business,” “Firestarter” or “Miracle Mile,” the German electronic music group lent their own distinctive sound to some of my favorite movies from my youth. One of their best efforts was “Thief” which marked the feature film directorial debut of Michael Mann and starred James Caan as Frank, a highly skilled jewel thief and ex-convict who is looking to achieve the American dream. With Mann’s meticulous detail to cinematography and the ways in which jewel thieves, several of which were hired as technical advisors for this film, carry out a robbery, Tangerine Dream’s music proved to be the perfect complement to the style he ended up capturing to such an unforgettable effect.

Thief” has now been given a deluxe soundtrack release by Perseverance Records, a small label specializing in film scores which have either not been given the proper releases they deserve or are in need of a remastered edition. Their edition of “Thief,” to no one’s surprise, sounds better than ever, and it also includes the track “Confrontation” by Craig Safan who is best known for composing the score to “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.” This particular track has been omitted from previous soundtrack releases, but the good people at Perseverance Records did the right thing by including it here. It would not have earned the status of deluxe soundtrack had it been left out.

Now anyone who knows me best understands how much of a sucker I am for electronic film scores, and “Thief” is one of my favorites which wasn’t composed by John Carpenter. My favorite track is “Diamond Diary” which underscores the first big robbery Frank commits in the movie as it captures the intensity of it as well as the amount of time he has to complete his job in, which isn’t much. Then there’s “Dr. Destructo” which focuses on Frank’s determination to rid others of the control they have over him. As for Safan’s “Confrontation,” it is terrific in scoring how Frank gets his revenge and accepts the inescapable reality of who he is and what he cannot change.

Is there any downside to this edition of the “Thief” soundtrack? Well, there are no additional or alternate tracks to be found here. Since this movie is now over 30 years old, I figured there would be more music included which we haven’t heard on vinyl, cassette tape or compact disc before. Having watched Mann’s movie again recently, there are portions of Tangerine Dream’s score which sound different from what’s on the soundtrack, and I would have loved it if the film versions had made it onto this edition as well. Still, Perseverance Records has gone to great lengths to make this terrific film score sound better than ever before, and it makes revisiting this soundtrack all the more necessary.

“Thief” also comes with liner notes written by James Phillips which looks at what inspired Mann to make this movie, how Tangerine Dream came to compose the score for it, and of how Craig Safan was brought in to write music for the movie’s ever so violent climax. It was a surprise to learn Mann originally considered using blues music to score the criminal lifestyle this movie sucks us into. It turns out it was William Friedkin, who had just worked with Tangerine Dream on his underrated cult classic “Sorcerer,” who recommended the band to Mann for “Thief,” and back then the band was on the cutting edge of a new kind of music.

Phillips quote Edgar Frosse, the founder of Tangerine Dream, as saying he wanted to create “timeless music” and that the “exotic and shifting moods” of “Thief” fit in perfectly with the kind of music the band played. Just from listening to this soundtrack, you can tell Frosse and his collaborators, Christopher Franke and Johannes Schmoelling, were very much into experimenting with music and sounds, and it all makes for an unforgettable score which for some utterly ridiculous reason got a Razzie nomination for Worst Original Score. Go figure.

Another interesting section of Phillips’ liner notes is of how Safan was brought in to compose one piece of music for “Thief.” I was always under the assumption the track Safan composed was actually taken from a soundtrack to another movie as Mann got into the habit of doing this with his later films. However, it turns out Tangerine Dream was unavailable at one point due to their being on tour in Europe, so Safan was brought in to finish things up.

Granted, a lot of electronic scores from the 80’s sound hopelessly dated these days to where you can’t help but snicker at them, but Tangerine Dream’s score and Safan’s contribution to “Thief” really has stood the test of time. It perfectly captures the adrenaline rush of stealing stuff which doesn’t belong to you as well as the inevitably of how you can’t escape the life you were destined to leave. Perseverance Records has done an excellent job in making Tangerine Dream’s music sound better than ever. Like many of my favorite movie soundtracks, I never get sick of listening to this one.