Thursday, May 23, 2024

Life by Misadventure – “The El Duce Tapes” Reviewed

I recently cleared out a storage unit I’ve had for the best part of ten years. An appalling totem to my decisions as to what to keep in life and what to throw away (short answer – keep it all, just in case) it’s slightly telling that the three final boxes I removed (one of which subsequently went straight in a bin, funnily enough) were packed with VHS tapes. It’s the gasping end of 2020 – there can be little reason to be hanging onto items both bulky and difficult to play, let alone a right old state if you can play them. And yet, I could not bring myself to chuck the whole lot. Big box editions of ropey old horror films just have too much nostalgic tug on me to let go but other items are more perplexing – episodes of TV shows (several episodes of ribald late-night sporting show “Under the Moon”); Channel 4 documentaries such as “Exorcist of Wood Green”; episodes of “Moviedrome” kept for Alex Cox‘s drawled intros. More than these, a surprising amount of music bootlegs. Live, shockingly recorded videos of The Mummies; Billy Childish; Mudhoney; Screaming Trees and many more recorded from under someone’s jacket as the person next to them drowns out the band saying they might go to the bar in a minute. I dare say, if I took five minutes I could find them all on YouTube but the effort it took to obtain them back in the day and the extraordinary thrill of knowing only a few people had these rare documents still lingers, even though the truth is now blatant to see. These feelings were made all the more cutting by “The El Duce Tapes”, Ray Sexton’s collection of hand-shot footage of budget rock band The Mentors and their erstwhile leader, El Duce.

Although The Mentors may not have dared to threaten any award-giving bodies during their heyday, it must be made clear that they were not without musical merit and their ability to fill a room cannot be doubted. They played alongside bands such as Black Flag, Killing Joke and Revolting Cocks and surely added more to the bill than they detracted each time. Filmed by Sexton an enormous camcorder from the early 90s through to when even his interest and tenacity were stretched to popping point, it feels glib and ridiculous to hail the resulting documentary by Rodney Ascher (“Room 237”; “The Nightmare”) and David Lawrence as of cultural importance but I’m going to risk it anyway. Brilliantly interspersed with footage of Roseanne strangling the American national anthem, shock talk shows and Beavis and Butthead, it shows the 90s at the zenith of its platform for triggering idiots, fake disgust and freedom from the shackles of Reaganite censorship. Everyone can get on stage and do what they like and they are encouraged by baying naysayers to try and offend them any way they can. The clips of Jerry Springer show audiences and guests with almost orgasmic zeal saying exactly why everything in the world has gone to pot and can you show some more please as they just want to make sure?

Who are The Mentors? Budget Rock; Shock Rock or, in El Duce’s own words, Rape Rock, they are not the kind of musical turn picked to play on Strictly. The most obvious comparison is GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, for several reasons as the documentary points out, though by the time Sexton was beginning to film the band they had already been gigging and recording since 1976 and their creation in Seattle. In this time, the band had gone from a very earnest jazz fusion approach to realising that they could attract infinitely more attention by writing lyrics that in one telling line right at the beginning of the film manages to offend most of humanity in one go, whilst featuring vomit, naked girls and fist fights into the bargain. For good measure, they wore executioners’ hoods, memorable way beyond the last fuzzing chord died away.

El Duce – Eldon Wayne Hoke – was indisputably the band’s leader, an easy enough to determine factor when considering their guitarist, Eric Carlson, went onstage by the name of Sickie Wifebeater and that their bassist, Ed Danky was by night, Poppa Sneaky Spermshooter [band members came and went as fast as they came up with their nom de plumes]. For his part, El Duce was an accomplished drummer and in an alternative reality could well have made his name in respectable musical circles. His allegedly slap-happy bullying father soon drove Hoke into rebelling against first school and then society at large, from starting fires to excrement-based hi-jinx. Their lyrics are indeed shocking, though no more than, say, hundreds upon hundreds of extreme metal bands. The violence against women is a constant thread throughout their songs – “personally, I’m not in favour of rape,” thoughtfully intones Sickie, just so we’re clear. Where Hoke’s own reality and fantasy began is not clear, though girlfriends and his sister don’t suggest for a second that he enacted any of his grisly scenarios. Racism and flirtation with Nazism are given even shorter shrift by El Duce himself who has no problem with the colour of the person’s skin, only the person inside it.

El Duce’s attempts to attract attention certainly worked. Not only did they regularly sell-out entirely respectably-sized club venues on a nightly basis, their lyrics and goading on-stage behaviour drew the withering eyes and ears of the Tipper Gore-founded Parents Music Resource Centre, as well as regular appearances on both cable and national TV show, such as the aforementioned Jerry Springer Show. Here, El Duce was perfectly at home. Smart enough to goad the appalled audiences and guests by saying exactly what they hoped he’d say and ballsy enough to be de-masked and ridiculed for his appearance. It was not, as the band insisted, “art” but it was calculated and well-executed.

Stitched together patchwork-style, the documentary refreshes itself as often as El Duce does from seemingly never-ending supplies of alcohol. Gwar feature regularly, a good example of a band who could shock but never be accused of corruption. The members find it increasingly funny as El Duce anecdotes are wheeled out – tales of sordid behaviour and drunk-unto-oblivion revelry. As the documentary progresses, the tone shifts to uncomfortable scenes of an obviously alcoholic man unable to cope with the world around him as the world around him points and laughs. He pranks Mr Spermshooter by keeping him waiting for a lift to a gig which never comes. Spermshooter overdoses and kills himself. No matter, says El Duce, it lifts the weight of firing him off his shoulders.

We follow Hoke to his trips to the benefits office, hearing that he supplements these cheques with minor decorating jobs and helping his girlfriend out at private parties (whatever that means). This seems doubtful as not too long later we see him collapsed on the street with a homeless friends, barely able to string a sentence together. Sightings become more sporadic. First he’s living on the street in cardboard boxes; then ad-libbing appallingly on new songs; then shockingly, dragged about unconscious by his feet, completely nude, around a frat party. By life’s own design, he lived the life he sung about but no-one switched on the light and gave him the help he needed for either his mental troubles nor his drink problem. It’s awful to see and a demonstration of the 90s desperation to embarrass others and self-aggrandise at all costs.

By the time the documentary reaches its conclusion, it’s no surprise at the cost but still alarming at the denouement. Nick Broomfield captures footage [in the documentary “Kurt and Courtney”] of El Duce in a grotty wooden hovel, his eyes dancing in their sockets as he tell of Courtney Love offering him $50,000 to shoot Kurt Cobain and make it look like a suicide. There’s no suggestion this was the case, of course, indeed the footage was doubtless included simply to show the ramblings of a madman, a down and out and even from his lowly position knew of Kurt and Courtney’s relationship. Eight days later, inebriated, El Duce was killed, decapitated by a train as he attempted to cross the tracks to meet some fans calling his name. This is told by chortling ‘friends’ who see it as typically El Duce to go this way, disregarding his life in every way.

In amongst my foolishly accumulated boxes of VHS was a copy of the GG Allin documentary, “Hated”. I’ve kept it. “The El Duce Tapes” is a more than worthy addition to this strand of music documentary which sheds light on those who on the surface live churlish care-free, even careless lives but beyond that have extraordinary stories of loss and show examples of appalling human behaviour, usually not those on whom the film is actually based.

Daz Lawrence 

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