At first, you want to cry. Then you smile.
“Bible Silver Corner,” the pristine Rodan instrumental that opens the band’s only full-length album Rusty, crystallizes a low mood under three grainy, black-and-white shots of Germantown. The camera traverses and then it’s the Big Four Bridge and the train overpass at Breckenridge Street and Swan. Then the Laundromat at the corner of Third and Oak, and a nondescript storefront with an ennobling message: “The only way to balance the budget is to tilt the world.” The frames meander over boarded-up Victorian homes before landing at the Rocket House, the vaunted Old Louisville fixture that housed countless musicians, artists and slackers, a collective of sorts that’s now a sentimentality, like the lamp in Grandma’s house that always sat askew but never failed to offer light.
A youthful Tara Jane O’Neil speaks in a Louisville lilt, lazy and slow, clipped except for the long “i” on everything that requires it, a generational carryover from a seasoned country accent that the state’s “big city” has no doubt sanitized in its push toward refinement. She sits in her new room at the Rocket House, a Billie Holiday poster on the wall over her shoulder, complaining that the indie rocker Shangri-La is not so mystical now that she lives here, subsidizing punk rockers, shows, parties and the socialistic character of any art collective that can become downright hostile when it’s your shit — your space, clothes, musical equipment — getting stepped on.
That O’Neil’s soliloquy on the merits of privacy is the first speech of “Half-Cocked” is fitting: It’s a film about a group of young turks who steal a van full of musical equipment and go on tour. The gear belongs to O’Neil’s brother. It’s her idea to take off with it.
This is precisely the behavior O’Neil’s character (also called Tara Jane O’Neil, but a more listless, space-cadet version) bemoans, leaving a tension from which an awkwardness of place builds and then permeates the film. These are people who don’t plug into outlets, not even among a houseful of homologues. They have slight ideas as to what they want, but they can’t even play the instruments they’ve stolen. More, this version of Louisville’s 1994 is a subterranean world built on contradiction and confusion, encapsulated by a movie that tries to document — through fiction that plays like documentary — the wild creativity of the time, a brief era that would ultimately be recognized and remembered for its significant musical and artistic contributions.
Yesterday, that film achieved its first wide release, 13 years after it was made. It feels outdated, perhaps because what it grasped — a vastly interconnected universe of underground music and art that held itself up with optimism and collapsed under its own force once its achievement became substantial — was also what it represented, and that sentiment has, in several ways but not in total, vacated the premises.
Michael Galinsky, a photographer and musician who made “Half-Cocked” with partner Suki Hawley (their first film; she directed), says the project began as more or less a love letter to Louisville, a place they found to be rife with artistic innovation of which nobody seemed to be taking a record. The New York pair — Galinsky was the bassist in Sleepyhead, a band that happened upon Louisville almost accidentally during an early ’90s tour — got to know the “main characters” through musical connections: The unwritten code was that you helped somebody out who needed a show in your town. It’s an exchange process that’s still alive and well in the underground music world.
Those characters, definitely not trained actors who do a respectable job playing somewhat caricatured versions of themselves, have come to be well regarded in this city and others for many things that don’t involve acting: O’Neil, who played in Rodan, Sonora Pine and Retsin and has a formidable solo career, is also a renowned painter; Jeff Mueller, also in Rodan, went on to form June of 44 and, later, Shipping News, the latter with Jason Noble, also an original part of Rodan and Rachel’s; Jon Cook was an original member of legendary Louisville rockers Crain and briefly the drummer in Rodan (he’s been in tons of other bands, too); Cynthia Nelson, not a Louisville native but lovely all the same, has worked with O’Neil both in Retsin and on two books of her poetry for which O’Neil provided the art.
“We wrote this script about all these people who we thought were just amazing and this place that was beautiful,” Galinsky says over the phone, his 9-month-old cooing in the background. When he showed it to his father for criticism, he says, the response was unequivocal: “Where’s the fucking conflict?” was scrawled across the title page.
And thus the pair reevaluated, coming up with a coming-of-age story about a group of outsiders that would star the people Galinsky and Hawley wanted to document.
The “actors” were in their early 20s when they made “Half-Cocked,” a two-or-so-week project that took them from Louisville to Chattanooga to Nashville, the “band” in the dodgy Dodge van Crain used to tool around the states and the “crew” tailing in another; all told, there were 15 or so people. They were on the doorstep of a three-month Rodan tour that took the band to Europe and all over the United States.
Of course, they didn’t make any money; there was none really to be had for a black-and-white film about a group of miscreants from Louisville finding themselves in their instruments, finding a place in the world and other self-effacing schmaltz. This is from the end of the film:
“Could I have your hands?” O’Neil asks. “Please? Trust me.”
The five are in a room just off a Nashville club’s stage, where The Grifters are soaring through a set. It’s the last show for the “band,” called Truck Stop, and they’ve all grown tired of one another. Everyone has been complaining.
“This is kinda cheesy,” Noble replies.
“Cheese is the greatest food to eat,” is O’Neil’s deadpan response. Then they all laugh. It’s a, yes, cheesy and personal denouement with a resolution you could see coming a mile away, but it’s charming as hell. You’re rooting for them from the start — within the first five minutes of “Half-Cocked,” Noble is called an “art fag” and the group is chased off for hanging a show flier on a storefront.
Maybe you can identify more with these people because you know them, you’ve seen them play music growing up or you’ve shared a stage with them; they’re from Louisville, and people are bred here with the understanding of an underdog, in a place full of slackers and mini-heroes, sometimes one and the same.
It’s safe to say Louisville — with the arguable exception of its native son Muhammad Ali — has never tilted the world. But the late ’80s and early ’90s was a time when cultural outsiders, so to speak, had as much power as the hippies did in the ’60s. While popular culture was busy embracing the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden — all bands of outsiders from a tight-knit underground music community — the underground was bubbling up toward the fore.
Louisville bands like Slint, Big Wheel and Rodan were hailed as a new underground frontier, original and adventurous and unforgiving in mixing art and music in a high-minded, low-rumbling sound as definitive for its restraint as its balls-out drive. The city was lauded as one among a number of “new Seattles,” eventually and famously tagged by Playboy magazine as a “music mecca.”
Kurt Cobain was still alive when “Half-Cocked” was made, but by the time Galinsky and Hawley hit the road to show the film, mostly in the same kinds of clubs where it was shot, he’d blown a bullet through the back of his head. And while Nirvana certainly shouldn’t be considered an embodiment of every underground ideal humming with energy at the time, it was a representative chunk. The effect of the band’s astronomical popularity was to bring a lot of attention to a lot of bands that had lived for a damn long time on the outer banks of the mainstream, and had in fact cultivated ancillary communities there, choosing not to try and suck on the big tit rather than simply falling short of it.
That is the precise moment of “Half-Cocked,” lodged on the in-between of an ebb-flow-ebb cycle when a lot more people than normal began to consider underground music really legitimate. Soon enough, the wave broke and rolled back, taking with it the most visible elements of the so-called underground movement, which was more a series of small groups around the country connected by a common pursuit. That’s why the mainstream couldn’t digest it. There wasn’t a single movement but all kinds of them, and they’re still happening now.
“I think that same amazing thing is going on now for kids who are 20,” Galinsky says, talking about the role nostalgia can play in all this. He says he went from being the guy in the front row at shows, to the guy in the middle, to the guy in the back by the bar, and now to the guy who goes to one or two a year. People grow up, he says. People have relationships that don’t allow three-month road trips. There is a certain point where you can’t sleep in someone’s bathtub anymore, not even for a night.
As of yesterday, you should’ve been able to get “Half-Cocked” at places from Wild and Woolly Video to Blockbuster and beyond. The filmmakers are showing it in several cities, and they hope to bring it to Louisville for another showing (the first was in 1997 at ear X-tacy). In the meantime, go to www.halfcockedfilm.com for more info, or to buy the film, which is packaged with a documentary called “Radiation,” which follows the filmmakers’ trip through Spain trying to show “Half-Cocked” to audiences. It features the bands Come and Stereolab, among others.
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