Punk Puppet Apocalypse
Filmmaker John Roecker wants you to know that puppets can be your friends. Now where's Chucky? Chucky!!? Photos by Kevin Scanlon
John Roecker recalls the first time he met his idols, X, at a bus stop on Hollywood Boulevard. “I can still close my eyes and see the bus door open and John Doe and Exene coming out of it,” says the controversial first-time filmmaker. “She was in this beautiful li’l polka-dot dress with the little socks and little shoes and him with the chain wallet. It was just like the coolest sight ever walking toward me and I couldn’t believe it. There was like this orange sky behind them and it was so poetic, like a Raymond Chandler novel. These people just did not fit in with the whole sea of polyester around them.”
Roecker sure is a romantic about certain things, like art and music, though you might not know it from watching Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, his claymation musical retelling of the Helter Skelter Charlie Manson saga. The movie viciously and gleefully rips on religion, homosexuality, hippies, Hollywood, rich people, poor people, drug users and the Beatles. (Now that’s blasphemy!) Plus, it’s packed with more blood, foul language and weird sex than Tarantino, Lynch and South Park’s Parker and Stone’s stuff combined. But the guy is really a softy when you get to know him. A softy with a tongue that can slice like a sushi knife, but a softy nonetheless.
I gotta admit, I didn’t always feel this way. I met Roecker during his reign behind the counter of You’ve Got Bad Taste, the “apocalyptic general store” in Silver Lake that he ran from 1995 to 1999 with his idol-turned-friend Exene Cervenka. Exene was the punk legend, but it was Roecker who was scary. This was a guy who seemed to have no internal censors or sense of appropriateness. I thought he was magnetic and intimidating and hilarious all at the same time.
And his wicked humor was all over that damn store, too. Bad Taste hawked everything from Patty Hearst’s “Wanted By the FBI” rap sheet (framed) to paintings by John Wayne Gacy to a books-on-tape version of the Unabomber’s manifesto (edited for “just the good stuff”). Its infamous window displays, one parodying a Scientology E-meter deprogramming and another depicting the bizarre Heaven’s Gate mass suicide (complete with Nike-wearing mannequins in beds covered in purple blankets), raised the eyebrows of even Silver Lake’s most open-minded scenesters.
A decade later, at Roecker’s memorabilia-filled Los Feliz home, it’s clear his subversive tastes haven’t changed much since then. Every room is filled with cool collectibles and rare entertainment knickknacks. One room is crammed with ’60s and ’70s action figures, miscellaneous toys and, yes, some puppets, though none of them have the eerie devil-doll look of the Freaky figs (Charlie brings to mind the creepy Zuni warrior doll from Trilogy of Terror), which are put away in storage. He has been taking the little guys out for occasional photo shoots, though, now that Wellspring (the company that put out provocative works such as Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny and Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation) has just released Freaky andmade itavailable in video stores. Unfortunately, at press time, he was having trouble getting stores to actually carry the movie, but you can get it at Amoeba and Virgin Megastore here in L.A.
“I wanted to push the envelope, and I wanted to go so far as to actually offend both the liberals and the right,” Roecker says proudly. “I think I have succeeded.”
Odious art is all well and good. But here’s the thing: His movie would have probably never gotten the attention it has thus far (in mags like Rolling Stone and Kerrang! and tons of music-related blogs) if it weren’t for its unbelievable, star-studded cast, a who’s who of seminal punks and nouveau rockers that includes Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong in the lead role as Charlie “Hanson,” Rancid’s Tim Armstrong (who also produced the flick through Hellcat Films, a new division of his record label) as narrator and the likes of Travis Barker, AFI’s Davey Havok, Good Charlotte’s Benji and Joel Madden, John Doe, actress Asia Argento and Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, to name a few. Not to mention a gal under the not-so-disguised alias of Nelly Posbourne as lead character Sharon “Hate.” (Coincidence that her character is a mama-to-be named Sharon? I think not.)
Live Freaky is, in fact, one fucked up piece of celluloid. Forget the fact that it shows full-on clay-genital penetration shots or that it re-enacts the Manson family slayings in vibrant, red-splattered Kill Bill fashion. To many, what’s most distasteful about this Disney-Small-World-gone-demented yarn is what spews from the characters’ tiny sculpted mouths. One review noted, “Every word is calculated to offend.”
“No one who lent their voices to this thing cares if there’s controversy,” says John Doe, who voices the character of Tex, the Charlie follower who does most of the killing. “We all embrace it.”
“That’s code for we’re all Satan worshipers,” he adds jokingly. “But seriously, he’s rattling the cage, and I think we all liked that.”
And while that may be true, chatting with Roecker under the watchful eyes of the copious collectibles and figurines that stare out from the shelves in his kitschy kitchen, it’s clear there is a message behind his madness and a very big heart behind his filmic hell-raising. He’s been accused of trying to shock purely for shock’s sake, but the guy’s got way too many opinions and inspirations for that.
Ten years in the making, Freaky is about challenging the status quo in a way that’s droll and rousing and, yeah, ugly too, not unlike the hardcore music that awakened Roecker’s rebellious soul, growing up as the youngest of five kids in Granada Hills.
This guy’s a romantic all right, and the object of his affection is, and always has been, the visceral music that spoke to him as an adolescent when nothing and no one else did. Music that filled his daydreams as he lay in his flier-plastered bedroom, with Rodney on the Roq blasting in the background. Music that questioned everything.
“It was the ’70s. I was a complete outsider and I didn’t have anyone. All the kids were into Van Halen and metal and all that,” he remembers. “I just wasn’t. I liked the Beatles and that was all I was into. Then I saw this band called Sex Pistols on a Dick Clark special and everything changed.”
Roecker became the only punk kid at his Catholic school in the Valley, wearing short black hair, safety-pinned jeans and Chuck Taylors in a sea of fuzzy locks, flared corduroys and Vans tennis shoes. He was constantly teased and called “faggot” by the Camaro-cruising kids in his neighborhood.
After watching Battle of the Rock Stars (a one-off musical version of the popular ABC show Battle of the Network Stars) featuring the Runaways, he realized there was a whole city full of people just like him. And it was only a bus ride away.
Hollywood had always fascinated him. It was where films and TV shows were made and where Roecker’s father, a director of episodic TV shows including Little House on the Prairie, spent his days. But the punk scene there added a new dimension to the so-close-yet-so-far-away fantasyland. On the surface it was glamorous, but underneath it was dirty and dangerous. It’s cliché now, but to a kid coming of age, realizing that things aren’t always what they seem and that dreams definitely don’t always come true, the dark side can be undeniably seductive. And one band in particular expressed this desperate duality better than any other.
Wearing a faded-out, paper-thin X Los Angeles T-shirt during our interview, Roecker reminisces about the band’s thrilling live shows and the early punk days, his eyes bright with awe as he takes himself back and names off the bands he saw. “Christian Death, Blondie and the Go-Go’s .?.?.”
“How did you become friends with all these people?” I interrupt.
“I wasn’t,” he says flatly. “I was still a loner back then.”
But I’m having trouble believing that. See, if you know John Roecker or even if you just know of him, you know this: The dude has a ton of rock-star friends. He’s not unlike Rodney Bingenheimer in that sense, though he’s much more of a Svengali (and he admits this, if only in a jokey way), or a sounding board, if you will, offering guidance, advice and, most importantly, a strong opinion to many of his talented chums.
Not only were he and Exene partners in crime and bad taste, but he was very close to her then hubby, Viggo Mortensen. (Roecker’s their son’s godfather.) Mainly through his store days, he had developed close bonds with everyone from Donita Sparks of L7 to Gwen Stefani, not to mention nearly all of the marquee names that participated in the Freaky project, especially “the Armstrong boys,” Tim and Billie Joe (who aren’t related, but are old East Bay punk comrades). Tim was the first to seriously encourage Roecker to turn his script into a real film, while Billie Joe later became like a brother while working on Freaky, even asking Roecker to document in film the entire recording process of the now multiplatinum record American Idiot. The result, Heart Like a Hand Grenade, is due out at the end of 2006.
So how does a guy go from follower to friend as effortlessly as he has?
“Part of John’s charm is he’s not afraid to be a fan,” says Jane Wiedlin, who plays the appropriately high-pitched “Hanson” family member Squeaky in the film. “At the same time he’s really irreverent, which I’m really drawn to. It forces you to make fun of yourself and not take anything too seriously. He can make fun of anything, including himself. He’s not immune to his own wicked humor.”
It’s a testament to Roecker’s charismatic sway that even Tim Armstrong, who never grants interviews, is willing to talk about him. “You know you either love him or hate him, but you don’t forget him,” Armstrong tells me over lunch at Netty’s one afternoon. “He’s got great ideas, and he’s just really entertaining and fun to be around. And he’s a loyal friend.”
During a snack break (Pringles), I ask Roecker what he says to people who might call him a starfucker. At first, he seems a little wounded, but then he gets all wry and haughty — the way that I remember him from back in his irascible retail days.
“Well, I haven’t fucked ’em yet. I wanna fuck ’em. .?.?. Are you kidding? I wanted to fuck Billie Joe Armstrong and all I got was this damn movie,” he says impishly. “It wasn’t a stalking kind of thing, if that’s what you’re getting at. Look, if I actually got laid by these people, I’d be happy to be called starfucker. I’d wear it as a badge of honor. I mean, c’mon, Tim and Billie are hot. Holy cow.”
A few days later, amid a sea of skull tattoos, studded belts and combat boots at the Freaky DVD release party at the Steve Allen Theater, Rancid and John Doe do an amazing acoustic set after a raucous screening of the film. Well-wishers include No Doubt’s Tony Kanal, the Madden brothers and various cast members — but Exene and Billie Joe are nowhere in sight. The next day, the New York Post’s Page Six manages to make a gossip item out of the latter’s absence, but Roecker says there’s no story there.
“I don’t want to whore out my friends for every fucking opening,” he says defensively. “It’s so tough. Billie did a lot. He did the songs; he did the commentary. I’m not going to be like, ‘Billie, why don’t you fly all the way to L.A. for this premiere?’ I’d feel really guilty. The band had a crazy year, and now he needs a break and some family time.”
Though Roecker admits he hasn’t spoken with the Green Day singer for several months, he insists there was no falling out. He does reveal that he is now, sadly, estranged from old pal Exene, though he refuses to go into any details. Exene declined to comment.
It may be over now, but her partnership with Roecker, based on a mutual love for religious iconography and a nothing’s-sacred DIY aesthetic, was definitely a precursor to Live Freaky’smocking sensibility.
“It’s an obsession with me. I don’t understand how people can give away everything they have to something that may not exist and just blindly follow,” he says. “That’s what we’re run by today. Alcoholic, born-again Christians trying to speed up Armageddon because they think that God’s gonna come and pull them out of their little suits and take them to heaven.”
Freaky opens with the end of the world as we know it, and a wandering nomad finding the book Helter Skelter in the desert. From there follower Hadie (played by the Lunachicks’ Theo Kogan) tells the tale of how, after a bad acid trip, she came to worship and obey Charlie and, along with the other “family members,” ends up killing druggie actress Sharon Hate (and her baby) and going to prison for her crimes. Charlie, played with giddy machismo by Billie Joe (who also wrote and sings a couple of super-catchy, über-campy tunes in the film; available with the DVD package on a bonus soundtrack CD), goes to the slammer too, and, thanks to an overzealous media, becomes somewhat of a rock star.
“I actually came up with the whole idea because every time I went to a thrift store, I’d see copies of Helter Skelter on the shelves,” explains Roecker. “I thought, ‘Oh, my god. This book is going to be around forever.’ You never saw a Bible but you always saw Helter, and I thought when the world is gone they’re going to find this book and they’re going to make this guy Manson the messiah. The person [Vincent Bugliosi] who wrote [Helter Skelter] is this right-wing guy, but he made this madman into the messiah. I loved the irony of the whole thing.”
Of course, rock & roll culture has always been kinda obsessed with Manson as an icon — even before Marilyn — and that wasn’t lost on Roecker, especially since he lived in L.A., where the whole ugly saga came to pass.
While Freaky’s message is anything but subtle in regard to the hypocrisy of organized religion, there’s also satirical subtext dealing with society’s fascination with celebrity, queer culture (a comment by Sharon Hate about gay guys dying alone “with nothing but a huge collection of beautiful china that’ll get thrown away or sold at your parents’ garage sale for 5 cents a plate” is particularly wrenching .?.?. and, yes, Roecker is gay) and the human tendency to judge those who are different.
It was a very low-budget project (the insurance was more expensive than the movie itself), but that’s part of its charm. Most of the puppet footage was filmed in the garage behind Roecker’s house, and the vocal parts were done individually — some in Roecker’s living room (“there was lots of red wine”) and some when a couple of the bands were on the road (Doe says his parts were done in the back of a tour bus somewhere in Bakersfield).
It’s funny, in a guilty-pleasure, admittedly gross kind of way, and while some admire Roecker’s brazen approach, even comparing his chutzpah to Pink Flamingos–era John Waters, in general the critics have not been too kind.
Nerve.com said it “suffers from a grotesquely inflated sense of its own transgressiveness,” while Fangoria (of all pubs!) called it “puerile and lowest common denominator.” One reviewer, from the popular Web site Entertainment Insiders, went so far as to say, “I want this film to fail! I want the people involved in this film to be so overcome by remorse for their actions that they crawl on their knees up to the families of Charlie Manson’s victims and beg forgiveness for their cruel callous indifference. Fuck every one of you involved in this film.”
Whoa. Roecker knew he was gonna have to deal with some haters, particularly because of the movie’s pornographic scenes, but even he seems surprised by some of the reactions. “When the movie first came out we got rejected by every film festival,” he says. “I was told I was morally irresponsible. I went too far this time. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I wasted 10 years of my life making a film that no one’s going to see.’ I mean, remember back in the early ’90s when nothing was shocking? Now it’s like we’re living in the 1950s again.”
“They wanted him to change or take stuff out,” says Tim Armstrong, whom Roecker thanked ardently during an Oscar-like speech at the release party. “But I told him not to. It was important he stay true to his original vision.”
Indeed, Roecker’s little movie is, clay penises and all, exactly how he envisioned it, a form of “artistic terrorism” that yields to nothing. And despite the naysayers, he plans to carry on making more provocative, likely-to-be-reviled works with Armstrong, and with other directors he admires, including Caouette, whom he’s in talks with about making a horror movie (with real flesh-and-blood actors). He also just started a documentary called Satan Goes to the Movies about how Hollywood misconstrues Satanism.
Whatever Roecker works on in the future, you can be sure it won’t be conventional or safe entertainment, or even something his family members will be able to watch. He says his parents “aren’t allowed” to see Freaky.
And if the messages he’s trying to get across get lost amid the shock and schlock?
“All stories, including the Bible, are fairy tales,” he says. “It’s all so extreme, and you have to be an extremist when you’re trying to get your point across. There’s good and there’s evil and there’s nothing in between. That’s how I was taught. So all I want to do is flip it. I make the good the bad, and the bad the good. I’m not going to sit there and hold someone’s hand so they can get it, and I don’t think I have to.”
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