October 24, 2013

THE BIRDS vs. Ritchie Blackmore

Starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. (1962, 119 min).

I was a freshman in high school when I first discovered the eardrum-shattering glory of Deep Purple, best-known as the “Smoke on the Water” guys. Even today, every living soul on Earth knows that song, the one classic tune where any wannabe rocker can pluck-out the opening riff less than 10 minutes after picking up a guitar for the first time.

I got into them a few years after they’d broken up, when I bought a cassette of their greatest hits at a used record store, mostly because of “Smoke on the Water” (who doesn’t love that song?). When I popped the tape into my stereo, I was totally blown away by how heavy these guys really were…”Smoke on the Water” was a mere ballad compared to “Space Truckin’,” “Highway Star,” “Fireball,” “Speed King” and “Burn.” This was when my musical tastes were leaning in a harder direction and Kiss just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. Even though AC/DC and Van Halen were rising in popularity, Deep Purple was the heaviest shit I ever heard, the one band that made my bedroom walls rattle with a satisfying bottom-heavy drone.

Musically obsessive as I was, I bought most of their other albums and played them incessantly, which sounded totally awesome in the car once I got my license. There was nothing cooler to me than rolling down the windows of my VW Bug and cranking Purple’s Made in Japan as I cruised 82nd Ave on Friday night (though none of my peers would agree). But alas, there was always a bit of sadness attached to my infatuation with Deep Purple, because they had long-since split up. Although I also really liked Rainbow, the band former-Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore formed after leaving the group, they didn’t provide quite the same rush.

So imagine my joy when, in 1984, the classic Deep Purple line-up reunited for a brand new album and concert tour. Second only to a Beatles reunion, this was like the second coming of Christ. It goes without saying I listened to the new record until the needle wore down and bought two concert tickets the day they went on sale. Hell, I even threatened to quit my job when my asshole boss tried to tell me I couldn’t have that night off.

When the lights of Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum went down and Purple tore into “Highway Star,” I could barely contain myself. This was Deep Purple in the flesh, blasting out classic after classic like they’d never been away…Ian Gillan’s blood-curdling screams, Blackmore’s rock-god poses as he shredded his Fender Strat, the unholy noise roaring from Jon Lord’s Hammond organ. For the next two hours, I never sat down. The show was as glorious as I always imagined it would be…save for one thing…

After climaxing with a smoldering 15 minute version of “Space Truckin’” (always my favorite Purple song), the arena went dark, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. We knew what was coming next. Purple had already played most of their classics, along with a few new tunes. All that was left was their biggest, most famous song, rightfully reserved for the encore. We waited in the dark, a legion of lighters raised as we roared in anticipation of the opening riff to the most iconic hard rock anthem of all time.

"Feel a buzz? Even a little?"
Instead, the house lights went up. The show was over. The wave of cheers instantly turned to boos of disapproval. I stood dumbfounded. This had to be a mistake. Surely they weren't gonna leave without playing “Smoke on the Water.” This was their signature fucking song…for them not to play it was as inconceivable as the sun refusing to come up in the morning.

But Deep Purple didn’t return. To this day, it is by far the most WTF end to a concert I’ve ever experienced. While the show was great, I left feeling a little unfulfilled, cheated and let down.

Ritchie Blackmore was always my favorite member of Deep Purple. He wrote a majority of the music, looked the coolest on stage and arguably had the most appreciable talent. It's also been well-documented that he was a moody, contentious and insufferable dick, prone to wild tantrums and mood swings (probably why no two Rainbow albums ever featured the same line-up). So if he didn’t feel like playing “Smoke on the Water” on a given night, that was it, and he didn’t give a damn if his fans approved or not. Apparently, this happened at a lot of Deep Purple shows.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is a lot like that Deep Purple concert I attended. I have to assume there were legions of Hitchcock fans back in‘63, groomed on his previous genre-defining films, who walked out of The Birds feeling like I did when shuffling out of the Richfield Coliseum…what the fuck?

During its entire running time, The Birds is arguably one of Hitch’s greatest, most original masterpieces. It’s a film with no music score, perfectly-paced suspense, innovative visuals and deliberately shallow characters. Every animal-on-the-rampage film released afterwards owes a hell of a lot to Alfred Hitchcock…until the climax.

Oh, wait…there is no climax? You mean I’ve been watching this relentless exercise of horror, only to have all the surviving characters simply drive away in a convertible? Not even an ambiguous fade-to-black? Just a cutaway to the Universal Pictures logo? No end credits? Surely there must be a problem up there in the projection booth! Someone must have forgotten to spool the final reel!

But indeed, The Birds ends as abruptly as the Deep Purple concert I attended in ‘84...no climax, no capper, no resolution. The film simply stops.

According to numerous sources, The Birds was originally supposed to end on a more apocalyptic note, with millions of birds lining the Golden Gate Bridge, suggesting this was a global thing. But that scene never got filmed. So it simply ends.

Why? Because Alfred Hitchcock was the true star of his movies and got to do whatever the hell he wanted. Everyone else involved, cast & crew, no matter how famous, were underlings, and he treated them as such. Like Blackmore, Hitch had the talent and moxie to justify such behavior. Think about it…if you were a Universal Studios exec back then, would you dare dispute any creative decision made by the guy behind Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho? How do you argue with a mind like that and still retain your job? Hitchcock may have been a genius, but he was also kind of a dick.

Hence, The Birds has no ending, no resolution, and we were all forced to accept it, much like I was forced to accept a Deep Purple concert without “Smoke on the Water“ as the logical capper to the evening. I have no problem with open-ended conclusions, but this was more of a cinematic 'fuck you.' There must have been scores of Hitchcock fans who felt just as let-down in 1963 as I was in 1984, when Ritchie Blackmore decided we weren’t worthy of the climax we were expecting.

It's still a great movie, though.

No comments: