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House Of Tudor 

The Last Cigarette and Pretty Things

Wednesday, Sep 1 1999
In the 1920s, it was considered unseemly for a woman to smoke cigarettes in public. So American Tobacco hired Edward Bernays to sell its Lucky Strikes to vainglorious females as an appetite suppressant, and to politically minded women as a symbol of freedom from male domination.

American Tobacco's sales more than doubled, but as the satiric, often hysterical film The Last Cigarette illustrates, this was not the last of the tobacco industries' woes. In the '50s, men were put off by the "sissy" packaging of Marlboro, so the company had to come up with a cowboy. Then all these pesky health risks starting emerging. Produced by S.F.'s Up In Smoke Productions and directed by Kevin Rafferty (Atomic Café) and Frank Keraudren, The Last Cigarette merges eye-catching footage of smoldering starlets and fiery he-men with vintage commercials, queer esoterica (like the double-stemmed, heart-shaped lovers' filter), smokesploitation fetish flicks (French inhale, oh yeah), "PSA"s (pipe smoking is not harmful), anthropological surveys (4-year-old kids smoking, 4-year-old monkeys smoking), and coverage of the House of Health and Environment Subcommittee hearing on tobacco (R.J. Reynolds CEO comparing tobacco to coffee, tea, sugar, cheese, warm milk, and chocolate).

The elegant fusion of aesthetic images (lips, smoke, bunny hearts) and an expertly compiled soundtrack (passionate works from Cole Porter, Vertigo, Spellbound, Ennio Morricone, Marc Ribot, and the National Philharmonic) makes The Last Cigarette an artistic treasure. But through an even-handed exploration of the current smoking debate The Last Cigarette becomes an invaluable document. A testament to the filmmakers' fair play: Watching this movie, nonsmokers are revolted and smokers can't wait to light up. The Last Cigarette has its West Coast premiere at the Roxie on Friday, Sept. 3 (and screens through Thursday, Sept. 9), at 6, 8, and 10 p.m., with matinees on Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday at 2 and 4 p.m. Admission is $7; call 863-1086.

Grievously, for most Americans a brief history lesson will be in order here: After co-founding a little Muddy Waters-influenced rock band with fellow musicians Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, guitarist Dick Taylor went away to art school and hooked up with another decidedly Jagger-esque mug named Phil May. In 1963, May and Taylor formed the Pretty Things, who pumped out three consecutive British hits: "Rosalyn," "Don't Bring Me Down," and "Honey I Need." Certainly, the Pretty Things weren't the only early '60s band drilling into blues bedrock for inspiration -- the Yardbirds, the Kinks, and even the Beatles all did so, too -- but onstage the Pretty Things were different, rougher, harder, even a little bit mean. Driven by the growling presence of May and the mad drumming of Viv Prince, the Pretty Things had what would later be called a decidedly punk edge. (A wee Johnny Rotten would see the "Grimmer Twins" with his mum in London long before his musical rake was hardened.) And the Pretty Things lived even harder than they played, setting fire to planes in midflight, openly doing drugs, and "swinging" around the block and back before most musicians realized bi could be coupled with sexuality.

After their first two albums, the Pretty Things were a British sensation, with a far-flung roll call of admirers that included Judy Garland, the Kray Brothers, and a young David Bowie, who went on to cover both "Rosalyn" and "Don't Bring Me Down" for his Pin Ups album. But May and Taylor weren't content to flog the sound that had made them famous. In 1967, May began to exert control over his vocals and the Pretty Things released Emotions, a lush piece of highly orchestrated psychedelica that coincided with the emergence that year of Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The following year, the group released S.F. Sorrow, the first recorded rock opera, which Pete Townshend acknowledged as paving the way for Tommy, released by the Who in 1969.

Even without Taylor -- who left the band thinking S.F. Sorrow was the Pretty Things' magnum opus -- 1970's Parachute was named album of the year by Rolling Stone. In 1974, Led Zeppelin signed the band to its own Swan Song label, after years of hearing manager Peter Grant laud the Pretty Things' indulgences; the Pretty Things released two albums of gritty rock 'n' roll. In 1978, May and Taylor reunited but the Pretty Things appeared only rarely. Then, in 1980, they began recording Rage Before Beauty, an album that was completed only this year with contributions by Ronnie Spector and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.

In the liner notes, producer Mark St. John is as brutally honest as the Pretty Things themselves: "This isn't 'The Best Album In The History Of The World...EVER.' This isn't even 'The best album in the history of Pretty Things ever.' This is just the best album I have ever heard from a band of middle-aged men." It's better than that. While Rage Before Beauty may suffer on three songs from overly mature sentimentality, and from the noticeable lack of the ferocious Prince, this album is still a lesson for 80 percent of musicians half the Pretty Things' age, and 100 percent of their peers. It's droll, acidic, catchy, and completely unabashed, and the band members don't wear tight trousers. For those unfamiliar with the Pretty Things, it will evoke memories of all your favorite groups from the '60s and '70s. For those familiar with the band, it will evoke all your favorite Pretty Things. The Pretty Things perform at Bimbo's 365 Club on Monday, Sept. 6, with Mover opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17; call 474-0365.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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