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Girl Panic: Duran Duran Returns To Rude Bits, Seductive Scenes

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Duran Duran likes naughty fantasies.

Other bands get busted for drugs or tossing television sets out hotel windows. After thirty years in the music business, Duran Duran gets banned for music videos even in the anything-goes 21st century.

In the glitzy nine-minute video “Girl Panic,” Duran Duran, played by legendary supermodels, depicts tongue-in-cheek debauchery in a sleek London hotel.

Naomi Campbell, who plays lead singer Simon Le Bon in the video, wakes up surrounded by svelte women clad in various lingerie bondage get-ups. A gorgeous girl French-kisses – gasp! – another beautiful girl.In one scene, fashion divas Cindy Crawford and Yasmin Le Bon enter an elevator with drummer Roger Taylor, who plays a bellhop. A few seconds later, the women exit, and Taylor looks a tad, well, rumpled and confused. What ever did those girls do to him?

Hard-core raunchy, the video isn’t. But MTV and VH1 apparently consider it too racy for their viewers’ peepers as the two channels have banned “Girl Panic.” It’s perplexing given some of their previous programming such as “Skins,” which was eventually cancelled because advertisers’ reaction to its depiction of sex and drug use by teens.

The channels also criticized the video’s “blatant product placement.” Hmm, yes, so do major motion pictures (Ever seen a James Bond movie?) and Lady Gaga videos. (Hello, “Telephone.”)

Women, who make up the overwhelmingly majority of Duran Duran fans, dream of luxury and escapism. The Savoy Hotel, where “Girl Panic” was filmed in June, whisks a Duranie into a bedroom world of champagne and afternoon sex. So what if the video features a Rolls Royce, Louis Vitton luggage and Swarovski crystals? Duran Duran raised their fans from a young age to desire the ultimate things in life.

They also gave us on healthy dose of eroticism in our teen years.

In their first banned video “Girls on Film,” myriad steamy scenes transpire in a wrestling ring as the band plays their instruments in the background. Two girls in gauzy lingerie engage in a pillow fight while straddling a whipped-cream covered pole and surrendering to a kiss. In another scene, a woman in a white fringed cowgirl outfit rides a man-horse in a black G-string before leading him off-stage on a leash. Yes, the video contained some rude bits. It made Duran Duran famous in 1981. It made their fans tingle.

For MTV, the band generated a shorter, tamer version of “Girls on Film.” Still, the X-rated version lingered on the shelf at a video store. Duranies and adolescent boys, whether they admitted it or not, figured out ways to see the “night version” of “Girls on Film” numerous times.

The Chauffeur,” too, became legendary among Duranies. Never released on MTV, the 1982 black-and-white video tells the story of two beautiful female lovers, clad in black garter belts and bustiers, meeting clandestinely in an empty parking garage. The band doesn’t appear in the video, but every Duranie who watched the video knew that to fall into bed with a member required an initial investment in silk stockings and fuck-me heels.

“Girl Panic” brilliantly pays homage to both videos with hat-tips that only a die-hard Duranie can spot. But fans, or Duran Duran for that matter, no longer needs MTV or VH1. As someone tweeted, “Do they even show videos anymore?” Duranies who want to study “Girl Panic” repeatedly can unlike in the days when we camped in front of the television set for hours waiting to see “Save a Prayer.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that MTV, which Duran Duran helped place into music history, dissed the new video. Any publicity, especially the provocative kind, is good publicity. Here’s predicting that the ban will undoubtedly lead to today’s teens – and their Gen X mothers – sneaking peek after peek of “Girl Panic” on their iPhones.

Written by suziparker1313

December 8, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Posted in Music, Pop Culture

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Birmingham Calling: Duran Duran … Exhibited?

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Not everyone dreams about a vacation to Birmingham, England.

But Duranies do.

Birmingham is to a Duran Duran addict what Liverpool is to Beatles fans. Duranies long for a time machine to travel to the legendary Rum Runner, the night club where Duran Duran formed in 1978.

In a Duranie’s imagination, Birmingham is a mythical place where Brummies drink in pubs, boys dash out in eyeliner driving Aston Martins and girls have a chance to land in bed with a dreamy lead singer.

Birmingham natives say that is far from the truth, but it’s hard to convince a Duranie.

John Hemming, director of the Birmingham Music Heritage project and a rock historian, knows a lot about the British city. Hemming runs a website focused on the city’s musical history, and he is currently helping to organize an exhibit featuring Duran Duran in Birmingham.

“The goal of our project is to inspire future generations of musicians and alike from Birmingham to pick up an instrument and join the many famous bands and artists that Birmingham has produced,” Hemming tells me via email.  “We want to keep the music heritage of the city alive with films, exhibitions and live music.”

Birmingham’s musical legacy from 1965 to 1985, which Hemming has chosen to highlight on his website, includes an eclectic mix of bands and singers – Black Sabbath, ELO, Joan Armatrading, Musical Youth, Traffic, The Beat, Toyah Willcox and UB40, to name a few.

Hemming says that the city’s rich culture has always been – and continues to be – overshadowed by London, Manchester and Liverpool. It’s a place that has struggled with identity issues for decades, perpetually unclear of its place in British history.

“It was one of the first cities ever to face terrorism during the early 70’s so I think the city is still shell-shocked, but I think this has made Brummys the people we are today,” Hemming says.

In 1974, Birmingham was rocked by pub bombings that killed 21 people and injured 182. The British government blamed the IRA. And, in turn, introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allowed suspects to be held up to seven days without charge and allowed people to be deported from Great Britain to either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

But Hemming says, regardless of its past, that Brummys are “quite laid back and friendly.”

He also says that the city’s suburbs may have helped create some of the genius that emerged from Birmingham.

“Apart from the city centre visit the suburbs and then you can understand why the likes Black Sabbath formed and conquered the world…… its a dump!”

In the late 1970s, Birmingham, like much of England, was seeking an escape from gnashing punk energy. A perfect antidote? New Wave.

“Bands such as Japan [and] Tubeway Army were churning out a new sound of synth pop,” Hemming says. “In Birmingham bands such as the Beat and Dexys were breaking big due to the two-tone explosion in 79-80 in Coventry, but in the clubs something different was happening. Peacock Punks as they were called started to challenge fashion and people were making their own clothes and just being so experimental.”

But those who loved fashion didn’t call themselves New Romantics. Instead, Hemming says, media invented New Romantics.

“This was just boys and girls wearing make up and being flamboyant and having fun,” he recalls. “I can remember personally sharing eyeliner with the girls and blusher. In fact if you didn’t wear make up then you were really a geek! The bands in the underground were Fashion and Duran, it was a mix of disco, punk and synth.”

Duran Duran’s launch from the Rum Runner to global sex symbols didn’t happen for every band. Hemming said that one band that should have hit the big time but failed was Fashion. Duran Duran actually opened for Fashion, and Fashion supported the B-52s on the Athens band’s first UK tour.

“They really should have made it big,” Hemming says. “Their second album ‘Frabrique’ went out on the Arista label and made the top 20. The single ‘Move On’ was a great song but lead singer Dee Harris quit the band on the eve of the BBC’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’. The band had partied too much and finished themselves before fame and fortune.

But not Duran Duran.

Hemming said he remembers that “Girls on Film” version one was written by former lead singer Andy Wickett while working nights at Cadbury’s.

“He sold the rights to the song to the then management for £600,” Hemming says. “The song was then revisited by Simon who put his own stamp on it. But Andy was paid again by the management to teach Simon how to sing some of the songs.”

The Duran Duran exhibit, if Hemming pulls it off, will focus on the first years of the band leading to their first self-titled album that includes “Planet Earth” and “Girls on Film.” It will explore the band’s early line-ups and various incarnations as they played in clubs around Birmingham.

A documentary featuring interviews with Nick Rhodes and drummer Roger Taylor has already been filmed. Rhodes was a founding member along with bassist John Taylor. A photography exhibit by Paul Edmond is also planned. Edmond documented the early days of Birmingham’s new wave scene at The Cedar Club, Holy City Zoo and the Rum Runner.

Hemming says the exhibit will also feature designs by New Romantic fashion pioneers, Jane Karn and Patti Bell, who dressed Duran Duran at times.

“Patti Bell was renowned for selecting the best dressed to enter the Rum Runner and turning down anyone who was normal,” Hemming says.

For Duranies the most thrilling part of the exhibit, perhaps? Rhodes will donate some of his artwork and photography. Jody Craddock, a premier football player, has also painted what Hemming calls a “stunning portrait” of singer Simon Le Bon.

But don’t ready the passport just yet. Hemming needs money, sponsors and a location to pull off his plan.

“To make this happen we need the correct funding and the perfect location,” he said. “We are looking for funds around the 50k mark to totally offer something special and curate material for such an exhibition.”

Surely, some old New Romantics have a pound or two to spare.

Written by suziparker1313

August 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Boys on Twitter: Duran Duran Cyber-Woos Generation X

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I’m fourteen again.

Thank you, Duran Duran. The old adage is true that we said in the 1980s – once a Duranie, always a Duranie. But who knew the obsession could reappear like a bad drug habit?

I blame the band for this renewed fascination. Brilliant work, guys. They have struck at the heart of Duranies everywhere with a new album — All You Need Is Now — that sounds like their first self-titled album mixed with the best songs of “Rio.” It’s synth-heavy, sexy and seductive. I’m smitten all over again.


Perhaps in a savvy marketing strategy, Duran Duran senses that Duranies are having a collective Generation X mid-life crisis. We need escapism from everyday life. Ta da! Enter Duran Duran to take us right back to the dreamy days of yachts with handsome men on board that we must marry.

What Duranie doesn’t still long for the days of endlessly watching “Save a Prayer,” dreaming of being held by Simon Le Bon as he sings about how it was all more than a one-night stand? Should I get out my John Taylor fedora and wear it to brunch? Maybe dye my hair Nick Rhodes orange?

Duran Duran, you sly devils.

I’ve spent hours of my life following this New Romantic British band. And here we go again. Thanks to this new album, Duran Duran is everywhere. They just completed a tour of North America that included the States plus a show in Mexico and a few in Canada. They played a show, directed by David Lynch, that was broadcast live on YouTube. I soaked in every minute of its surreal artiness. When it repeated right after the first broadcast, I watched it again for another fix of Simon – older and bearded. But who cares? It’s Simon Le Bon.

Duran Duran hit the festival circuit playing South by Southwest in Austin and Coachella in California. I missed the airing of the Coachella festival, but have caught clips on YouTube. With thousands of arms waving, it took me right back to 1984 when Duran Duran played filmed “Arena” in Oakland, Calf.

Certain advantages exist in the 21st century for Duranies. Sure, back in the 1980s, we stayed glued to MTV waiting for the next video, recording live concerts on VHS and cassettes, buying every magazine that mentioned Duran Duran and studying their love lives more than we studied algebra.

But now, Duranies have social media. And so do Duran Duran.

Simon and John  tweet religiously to their fans about their lives. They even answer questions and return tweets. (Hmm, I’m still waiting for a return tweet, Simon or John. Must I beg?) Drummer Roger Taylor prefers Facebook. Nick Rhodes, the night owl keyboardist, is missing in action on social media. Can someone clue him in?

On any given day, I can follow John giving up cigarettes, buying vinyl or tweeting the playlist for the latest concert. Simon’s tweets range from political about Osama Bin Laden to his trippy dreams. He can be snarky, but those who love Simon love his sarcasm.

Simon recently tweeted that he burned a potato in his apartment’s kitchen in the Dominican Republic when the band played a show there. Confession: It was a little disheartening to learn that Simon cooked his own food on tour. I envisioned a chef catering to his every whim. Then again, it’s not the high-rolling’80s anymore. But it’s nice to know that he can cook a potato about like I can – not very well.

Twitter offers instant gratification for Duranies as well as Simon and John. To some extent, Simon and John appear to have a few cyberstalkers, but a stalker or two is good for the old ego, eh?

Simon and John tout the rock star lifestyle – private jets, posh hotels, back stage passes. Duranies absorb these tidbits like Rio soaks up the sun on a yacht. They occasionally even talk about their wives and children, some of who also tweet.  Nick Rhodes’ ex-wife, Julie Anne, is on Twitter, and, surprisingly, has a loyal Duranie following. That was not the case in the 1980s when many fans cried about her marriage to Nick. Some Duranies move on eventually, I guess.

Oh, to have had social media in the band’s heyday. Then again, the band probably wouldn’t have had time to tweet for enjoying groupies and indulging in expensive champagne in the back of limos.

Whether it’s 1981 or 2011, Duran Duran knows where to stroke a Duranie’s weak spot. As Simon sang in “The Red Carpet Massacre,” “Maybe you think you’re above this, but baby we know that you love it.”

Yes, I do.

Written by suziparker1313

May 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Music, Pop Culture

Lady Gaga and Target Unite for LGBT Causes

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Lady Gaga has power, and to snicker at it is a mistake.

The 25-year-old pop goddess played hardball with Minnesota-based retailer Target and won.

Target wanted a special edition of her newest hit, “Born This Way,” which has already been called a gay anthem by Elton John. (Upon its release two weeks ago, it became the fastest-selling song ever on iTunes.) Lady Gaga wasn’t so willing to agree, given that Target had previously supported political candidates with anti-gay reputations.

“That discussion was one of the most intense conversations I’ve ever had in a business meeting,” Lady Gaga told Billboard.com. “Part of my deal with Target is that they have to start affiliating themselves with LGBT charity groups.”

She didn’t stop there. “Our relationship is hinged upon their reform in the company to support the gay community and to redeem the mistakes they’ve made supporting those [anti-gay] groups,” she said.

Target took heat last year for giving $150,000 to support a political action group, Minnesota Forward, that supported Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who backed a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

The company has pledged almost a half-million dollars to gay-equality groups so far in 2011, according to Billboard. One of them is Project 515, a Minnesota organization that wants gay families treated equally with straight families under state law. Target officials told Billboard that they had always supported groups in the LGBT community.

They added that Lady Gaga did not solely influence their decisions. “Certainly her perspective was very helpful in conversations,” Dustee Tucker Jenkins, Target’s vice president of public relations, said. “But we’ve considered a variety of different perspectives along the way, and that’s gotten us to where we are today.”

Target did not return calls for this story.

Lady Gaga has become a force in LGBT activism. In 2010, she supported repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gays from serving openly in the military, and asked her fans (whom she dubbed “Little Monsters”) to put pressure on their senators for repeal.

Just this week, Lady Gaga teamed up with M•A•C Cosmetics for a second year in a row, announcing that sales of lipstick and “lipglass” shades she helped design will go toward fighting HIV/AIDS. (Lady Gaga is a strong advocate for safe sex and AIDS testing.) The company has released a promotional video in conjunction to the lipstick line.

The video for “Born This Way” launches online Monday.

Written by suziparker1313

March 10, 2011 at 4:02 am

Lady Gaga Pushes ‘Born This Way’; Sarah Palin Backs Gay Group

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Sarah Palin and Lady Gaga on the same page?

When it comes to expanding rights for gays and lesbians, the two powerful media mavens — one on the left, one on the right — appear to share some similar views.

On Friday, Lady Gaga is blanketing the media to promote her new album, “Born This Way,” which won’t even be released until May 23. The title, which is also the first single released Friday, says it all, and the song is already being called a 21st century gay anthem by the likes of Sir Elton John.

Earlier this week, Sarah Palin restated that she supported GOProud, a self-identifying gay group, and that they should be included in this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

Palin, who is not appearing at CPAC, said on Fox News, “I don’t have a problem with different, diverse groups that are involved in political discourse, and having a convention to talk about what the answers are to their problems that face America.”

Her position is a rarity among most conservatives, but Lady Gaga would be proud. Maybe she’ll discuss it with Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” this Sunday. Or perhaps Palin will get a shout-out at the Grammy’s when Lady Gaga performs later that night.

While February was deemed a no Sarah Palin zone (it hasn’t exactly worked), Lady Gaga is about to seize the rest of the month.

No one – not even Palin – knows how to work media, social and otherwise, like Lady Gaga. She has more Twitter followers (more than 8 million) and Facebook fans (28 million) than any politician, including President Barack Obama (18 million) or Palin (2.7 million). She’s a powerhouse who’s already sold millions of records and broken social media and YouTube records. She can make any Twitter hashtag trend in less than an hour and uses Facebook to communicate with fans.

Last year, she took on Washington, challenging numerous politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, during the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” battle. Millions of her fans, called Little Monsters, bombarded Capitol Hill with calls asking their senators to repeal DADT.

The repeal movement succeeded, despite conservatives’ resistance, and Gaga can certainly share the credit.

Like her right-wing Alaskan sister, she generates controversy.

Lady Gaga appears on the March cover of “Vogue” in a pink 1920s flapper wig. Lady Gaga leaked the magazine cover on Facebook, which reportedly infuriated Vogue editors.

Then there’s the dance-pop “Born This Way” song itself.

The lyrics focus on civil rights for an array of people — “black, white, beige” and gay and straight, Gaga says. But she throws in a couple of words that have puzzled and angered people — “chola descent” and the passé word, “orient,” to describe Asians.

“Chola,” in urban slang, describes a negative stereotype of hardcore Latina gangbangers, and some in the Latino media have slammed Lady Gaga for using it.

So is Lady Gaga a racist or simply ignorant of the meaning of ‘chola’?” asked the website My Latino Voice.

On Thursday, more controversy bubbled when Lady Gaga announced that she had partnered with Target to offer an exclusive deluxe edition of her new album, “Born This Way.”

Last year, Target gave a $150,000 corporate donation to Republican candidate Tom Emmer — an opponent of same-sex marriage — in the Minnesota governor’s race. While Target’s chief executive apologized, amid protests and boycotts, the corporation declined to make a donation to pro-gay-rights groups. Maybe promoting Lady Gaga is the company’s way of calling it even?

Once the single was released Friday, music critics immediately started comparing it to Madonna’s 1989 hit, “Express Yourself.” Many outlets, including US magazine and Popeater, ran articles noting the songs’ similarities. Twitter was buzzing about the two songs. Lady Gaga has not responded to the comparison.

Palin, too, is facing a brewing controversy as liberal gay rights advocacy groups refuse to acknowledge her support of conservative gays.

Any hullabaloo is only good for Lady Gaga and Palin.

For now, Lady Gaga is blasting ahead full throttle with her enterprises — she recently became Polaroid’s creative director, co-designing a product line that includes an instant mobile printer, an instant digital camera and the “GL20 Camera Glasses” — still wearing the crown of reigning diva of the gay community.

Palin, ever smartly, could become a trailblazer by including gays and lesbians in the GOP dialogue just in time for 2012.

Written by suziparker1313

March 10, 2011 at 3:44 am

Top Five Celebrity Activists: Lady Gaga and a Palin, Too

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Star power goes a long way.

Celebrities can often shed light, or make a big impact, on a cause or an issue in ways that even the best public relations campaign simply cannot.

During World War II, Hollywood stars promoted war bonds, rationing and Victory gardens. These days, they take to social media and television to get their points across on myriad issues affecting the world.

Five celebrities who made a difference this year:

Lady Gaga: The pop superstar dipped her toe into celebrity activism in 2009 when she appeared at the National Equality March in Washington. But in 2010, Lady Gaga chose full-body immersion. She took on “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” and encouraged her “Little Monster” fans to make a ruckus by calling elected officials and asking them to repeal the law. For many Millennials, Lady Gaga’s call to action was the first time they realized that they could even call a senator.

The fashion diva, who took heat from PETA for a costume made from meat, also lambasted Arizona’s immigration law and took on the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church when the hate group protested her St. Louis concert. Her solution: Embrace them with love and peace.

How did she motivate her fans to action? Via Facebook and Twitter. Lady Gaga rules social media with more followers and fans than any politician, including President Barack Obama.

Expect the 25-year-old Lady Gaga to continue her fight for GLBT rights in 2011 as her third studio album will be called “Born This Way.”

Sean Penn: Academy Award-winner Sean Penn went beyond the extra charitable mile in 2010. When Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake in January, Penn didn’t just write a check to a relief agency. Instead, he started his own organization and ventured to the ravaged country.

And he decided to stay.

Penn became a camp manager for the International Organization of Migration at Petionville, one of the most complex temporary camps in Haiti. The IOM is the United Nations agency responsible for camp management and coordination. He also traveled to Washington to testify at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on rebuilding Haiti.

In December, Penn, 50, even skipped out of a fancy Dubai film festival where he was to receive a lifetime achievement award to return to Haiti because of concerns regarding the safety of his staff. He received the “Hollywood Humanitarian Award” at the Hollywood Awards for his “selfless” efforts.

Penn continues to stress the importance of medical supplies and doctors as the country battles cholera. He’s not going anywhere, he says. In fact, Penn has recently vowed to spend years in Haiti until the country is stable.

Michelle Obama: Like first ladies before her, Michelle Obama has a cause — childhood obesity. Sure, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton were pushing the issue long before Obama got on the scene, but she took the issue to a new level. She launched “Let’s Move,” a program to “raise a healthier generation of kids.”

She has called obesity a “national security threat” and an epidemic. Last year, she created a White House garden to show how easy it is to raise healthy food. She kicked off 2010 by speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors about the issue. This month, Obama celebrated a win when her husband signed into the law the child nutrition bill for which she strongly lobbied. The first lady isn’t above showing her hula-hooping skills or practicing with NFL teams to show kids how to exercise and get outside.

Her obesity campaign recently got Sarah Palin’s attention.

On her TLC reality television show, Palin said, “Where are the s’mores ingredients? This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert.” In fact, Obama said, “The problem is when things get out of balance, when dessert is practically a food group.”

In turn, Huckabee, a former overweight diabetic who wrote a book about his weight battle, came to Obama’s defense. Don’t expect Michelle Obama to back down on the issue. She plans to make the battle against childhood obesity her White House legacy.

Bristol Palin: She tangoed her way into the consciousness of just about every American household this year on “Dancing With The Stars.” But she also did her fair share of advocacy against teen pregnancy. Palin was 17 and unmarried when she became pregnant.

In May, Palin appeared in a public service announcement for The Candie’s Foundation, an offshoot of the clothing brand that promotes awareness of teen pregnancy. In 2009, she was named an ambassador for the foundation.

During her “DWTS” appearance, Palin filmed another PSA promoting safe sex for the foundation with Jersey Shore star and fellow DWTS contestant, The Situation. He promotes condoms, Palin promotes abstinence.

In December, Keith Olbermann called Bristol Palin “the worst person in the world” because she preaches abstinence to teens even though she was an unwed teenager when she became a mom.
Palin pulled a Lady Gaga and took to her Facebook page to defend herself. She wrote: “In order to have credibility as a spokesperson, it sometimes takes a person who has made mistakes. Parents warn their children about the mistakes they made so they are not repeated. Former gang members travel to schools to educate teenagers about the risks of gang life.”

Palin graduated out of her teens this year but is likely to continue her abstinence message into her 20s. That is unless she finds a new cause.

Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines and Patti Smith: Collectively, these four kindred spirits came together in of all places, Little Rock, Ark., to shed light on the West Memphis Three – Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.

While teenagers, the three were charged with the murders of three 8-year-old boys, whose bodies were found in 1993 naked and bound in West Memphis, Ark. For the last 17 years, the three have been trying to get the Arkansas courts to retry the case. Echols sits on Arkansas Death Row. The other two men are serving life sentences.

Vedder and Depp have long been supporters of the West Memphis Three. Only this year, however, did Depp decide to become more vocal publicly about the case. Depp appeared on “48 Hours” to plead for a new trial and pulled his friend, punk goddess Patti Smith, into the project.

In August, Vedder, along with Arkansas Take Action advocates, led the charge to organize a concert to shed light on the need for new hearings in the case. Depp, Maines and Smith appeared. Depp read poems written by Echols and also sang and played guitar. Maines, too, performed, and Smith closed the evening with her classics.

The celeb firepower may have just worked.

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in November to allow new evidentiary hearings for the West Memphis Three.

Musical Portrait of a President: Bill Clinton’s Young Life Inspires Opera

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Bill Clinton’s life has already been a soap opera.

Enter Bonnie Montgomery, a native Arkansan who has composed “Billy Blythe,” an opera in the traditional vein and based on the life of a teenage Clinton. The opera explores a summer day in 1959 in Hot Springs, Ark., with a young Clinton who lives with his colorful mother, Virginia, and his abusive stepfather, Roger Clinton.

Montgomery, 31, composed the music for the 90 minute opera with her long-time college friend, Brittany Barber, who wrote the lyrics. Four scenes of the opera recently debuted in the grand historic ballroom of Little Rock’s Women’s City Club.

Montgomery named the opera for the original last name of Clinton and his biological father, Bill Blythe, who died three months before the future president was born in 1946. Clinton went by the name until he was a teenager when he legally took his stepfather’s surname, although Roger Clinton never adopted him.

President Clinton and his mother, Virginia KelleyFour years ago, Montgomery, a professional musician, was inspired to write the opera while reading Clinton’s autobiography, “My Life.” Chapter Six moved her toward the piano.

In that chapter, Clinton begins: “I don’t know how Mother handled it all as well as she did. Every morning no matter what had happened the night before, she got up and put her game face on. And what a face it was. From the time she came back home from New Orleans, when I could get up early enough, I loved sitting on the floor of the bathroom and watching her put makeup on that beautiful face.”

Montgomery says that passage set her imagination on fire.

“It appeared to me on the stage with the lights, the set, the whole thing,” Montgomery says. “His life’s story is full of action and exaggerated Southern characters. It’s an amazing story that a man can come from where he came from and become the president. His personality is mythical and where he came from (Hot Springs) provides the perfect mythical backdrop.”

During the 1950s when Clinton lived in Hot Springs, the town, known internationally for its heated natural spring water, was a gambling haven for the rich and famous. Virginia didn’t shy away from gambling and she frequently visited the swanky nightclubs and local race track.

Virginia fortifies the opera as the central character in Clinton’s life. She molded her son – for better or worse – into the man he became, says Montgomery, who studied Virginia Clinton Kelley’s 1994 book, “Leading With My Heart” as she wrote the opera’s music.

Four scenes of the opera featured Virginia and Roger singing about their life in New Orleans in between morning kisses on a sofa. Another scene features the young Clinton, outside of a movie theater in downtown Hot Springs, singing about Gary Cooper’s “High Noon,” one of Clinton’s all-time favorite movies. Clinton also battles his stepfather to protect his mother in one high-octane scene near the opera’s end.

But the highlight of the opera is “Virginia’s Aria” when Virginia sings a lamented love note about Clinton’s father, Bill. In that song, Virginia compares Clinton to his biological father and highlights all the positives about her late husband. She sings as she puts on make-up, celebrating the benefits of lipstick and powder in attracting a man and holding back the cruelty of age.

Bill Clinton is also a natural subject for a native Arkansan like Montgomery.

Nearly every Arkansan of a certain age has a story to tell about him, and Montgomery is no different. She was in junior high school when Clinton first ran for president. She recalls putting a bumper sticker across her jeans to show her support of Clinton. “The first time I saw him was when I was a pee-wee cheerleader,” Montgomery says. “I was in the White County Fair parade on a float and he came to the parade. I just really remember he was really tall, friendly and had big hands.”

When she ran into Clinton last year in a hotel lobby in Little Rock., she told him about the project and he wished her luck. And at a Democratic event during the midterm campaign season, Montgomery presented him with a packet about the opera. So far, he hasn’t commented on it.

Montgomery says Clinton’s story is classically Southern and one that people could relate to even if Clinton had not been president. But her goal was to show some of the trials and tribulations that he battled as a young man. Those, she said, helped him to achieve the American dream.

Montgomery used her expertise in American art song and folk music to develop the opera. She wanted it to highlight the traditional characteristics of opera, with a Southern twist.

“Arkansas is so rich in musical heritage with Johnny Cash and the blues that it just made sense to focus on some of the rich music, too,” she says.

Montgomery, who also fronts a country and western band called Montgomery Trucking, assembled a cast from Arkansas, Tennessee, and Colorado. She is looking for an opera house to workshop the entire production.

Following the first performance, Montgomery and Barber hosted an after party at a local bar, ironically called The White Water Tavern (no connection to Clinton’s 1990s era Whitewater land scandals). There, the cast ramped up the opera to a racier version with Montgomery playing the role of Virginia — instead of mezzo-soprano Kelley Ponder who performed in the evening’s first performance.

Similar to the way Clinton took politics to a new generation via MTV back in 1992, Montgomery wants to enlighten a younger generation about opera, which has engaged her since high school. She says that many people have the wrong impression about the musical form. It’s not just boring and stuffy with big voices singing in Italian, Montgomery stresses.

“I want to take opera to a different crowd,” she says. “It would be great if this production could tour like a rock band and reach people who may never hear an opera. People could learn about opera and Bill Clinton at the same time.”

Written by suziparker1313

March 8, 2011 at 10:52 pm