Chasing the Blues Away with Our Community: BCL’s Music and Movies Film Series
Written by BCL co-founder, Neil Carlson
Of all the activities I missed during the long, cold winter of our covid discontent, going to see live music was at the top of my list. I missed the collective energy of the crowd: the sublime, almost electrical hum that reminds us of our connection to other human beings. After 18 months of Zoom -based living room concerts, I longed to feel that sense of awe I get while watching a band perform at the top of their game.
You could do a lot worse than to spend an evening with James Brown as he counts the JBs down to the bridge; or Aretha Franklin transubstantiating “Bridge Over Troubled Water” into a gospel song; or Willie Nelson singing around the melody, playing just before or behind the beat, a cloud of pot smoke lingering in the air like the ghost of Django Reinhardt.
But, with summer fading and winter approaching, we didn’t have enough time to organize a live concert at BCL, so we decided to do the next best thing: Find some great old recorded concerts and play them “live” outdoors. We bought an inflatable movie screen, borrowed a friend’s JBL Party Box portable sound system, and hooked my laptop up to our projector. For a hundred-and-twenty bucks, we had ourselves a mini outdoor amphitheater, right here in the BCL parking lot. Like so much of post-pandemic life, BCL’s Wednesday night “Music and Movies Film Series” was scrappy and ad hoc, making it up on the fly as best you can. We only got two shows before the wind and the cold set in, but we made the most of the fleeting summer nights we had.
Jamming with Springsteen in 1975
First up on our Wednesday night lineup was a 1975 concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. I had never seen Springsteen live, so this legendary show seemed like a great place to start. Springsteen had just released “Born to Run,” and his star was on the rise—not yet a full-blown rock star, but big enough to attract both would-be fans and haters alike.
The Boss did not disappoint. As the first few notes of the reedy harmonica intro to “Thunder Road” issue forth from the darkened stage, Bruce has the audience—and by extension, us–eating from the palm of his hand. Over the next two-plus hours, Springsteen and his band put on a dazzling display of unparalleled musicianship, charisma, humor, and fraternal love.
But the highlight of the evening came about halfway through the screening. I noticed a stranger lingering at the gate leading from the street to the parking lot. He lingered a bit on the street, but when he started making his way down towards the rest of the crowd, I walked up to meet him.
“Hi,” I said, “You a Springsteen fan? You’re welcome to join us.”
“This is my movie,” he said.
“Totally. It’s my movie, too. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
“No, I mean this is my movie,” he continued. “I made this movie.”
It turns out that this was Bruce Springsteen’s video producer, Thom Zimny, who (of course) lives in the neighborhood. His son had been walking by earlier that evening and hurried home to tell his dad, so Zimny popped over for a little stroll down memory lane. In the early aughts, bootleg version of the Hammersmith concert had been going around the Internet, but it was in black-and-white and the sound quality was awful. Zimny was working as a film editor, and one day Springsteen popped by the office to drop off several reels of footage from the same concert that he had discovered in a storage room. The good news was that the film was in color; but the bad news is that it was brittle and dirty from years of neglect. Nor was there any audio. So Zimny spent the next few years restoring the film and painstakingly synching the film with a separate audio recording from the concert mixing board.
As he finished his story, the band launched into a revved up rendition of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” I had always found the studio version of the song a bit dull—overproduced and two beats slow. But the live version is a revelation. Played 20 percent faster, Clarence Clemmon’s saxophone takes center stage as Bruce and the boys whip through the first three verses, introducing the band along the way, before winding down a fake ending. They pause long enough for the audience to start clapping, and immediately launch into a four-minute vamp, and bring it home to the final verse and chorus.
“Goddamn!” I muttered, awed by their showmanship and energy. “You know, I get it now. At heart, these guys are a soul band that just happened to be playing rock-and-roll.”
Zimny nodded. “That’s exactly right.”
This was such a beautiful and impromptu moment that both I, and our coworking members in attendance were able to enjoy. THIS reminded me of how much I love our community. And I mean community in the sense of bonding with colleagues, and enjoying this art and music-loving neighborhood of Gowanus.
Bringing Harlem to Gowanus with Summer of Soul in 1969
Next up on the list was “Summer of Soul,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s 2021 documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a six week summer concert series featuring Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Sly & the Family Stone, among others. Back in 1969, television producer Hal Tulchin recorded 40 hours of concert footage, but when he shopped it around, all three networks passed because no one thought there was an audience for a Black music festival. (Kids: Once upon a time, there were only three channels.) So the footage sat in Tulchin’s basement for 50 years.
To his credit, Questlove is less concerned with why these concerts never saw the light of day (hint: it’s the racism, stupid) than he is with helping his audience appreciate what they were missing out on all these years. As he put it to one interviewer, “What would have happened if this was allowed a seat at the table? How much of a difference would that have made in my life? That was the moment that extinguished any doubt I had that I could do this.”
And do it, he did. Drawing on Tulchin’s concert footage, interspersed with interviews with performers and attendees, the film is a love letter to Black music and culture, in all its diversity and vibrance. Questlove embraces both The 5th Dimension, whose pop stylings—the group is most famous for the song “Age of Aquarius” from Hair—were once dismissed as “too white,” as well as Nina Simone, whose rendition of “Young, Gifted, and Black” stands on its own as a defiant rebuke to a culture that didn’t allow these performers a seat at the table. (Concert organizers had their own biases: Jimi Hendrix, deemed “too radical,” was denied a spot in the lineup, despite repeated requests to perform.)
But the meat of this film is the performances themselves. The film opens with a montage of 29 year-old Stevie Wonder covering the Isley Brothers’ hit, “It’s Your Thing.” The camera follows Stevie—playing in drizzling rain, trailed by an umbrella-toting roadie—as he moves from the microphone, to the keyboard, to the drums, hyping up the crowd. He’s dazzling and charismatic and, most of all, hungry: Over the next six years, Wonder would go on to release three of the funkiest, most ambitious albums of his career, and some of the most important records of the 1970s. His performance captures the protean energy that fueled his future streak of creative genius.
For me, the highlight of the documentary was Mavis Staples’s duet with Mahalia Jackson. The scene opens with Jessie Jackson on stage, giving a first-hand account of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Less than a year had passed since that awful event, and the emotional wound was still raw. With Mahalia Jackson’s band vamping in the background, Staples steps to the microphone and launches a slow-burning intro to “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Despite a nasty head cold, Mahalia Jackson eventually joins in, and the two of them proceed to bring the house down. “I was honored,” Staples says in the voiceover. “That remains my biggest honor—to be able to sing on the same microphone as Sister Mahalia Jackson.” To which those of us watching now, 50 years later, can only reply: No, Miss Mavis. The honor is all ours. Honored, was how we felt, watching this glorious documentary in the parking lot at 540 President Street in Gowanus, Brooklyn!
Though movie night has come to an end, we look forward to meeting with our members again for more in-person events where we can continue to create memories and special moments together.