‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ Ride Again in Jesse Lauter’s New Rock-umentary (Q&A)


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Enjoy a Q&A with Jesse Lauter, the filmmaker behind the new Learning To Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen documentary. 

Art history is littered with tragic tales of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, who – despite their beautiful, groundbreaking work – lived and died in obscurity and poverty. But every once in a while, the planets and stars align, bringing those who have the means and the money together with talent, who symbiotically go on to create great works of art. What may be the cinema’s most celebrated example is when RKO Pictures lured Broadway’s “boy genius” from the Great White Way to Hollywood, by making Orson Welles an offer he couldn’t refuse: complete creative control and final cut over a film. When Welles arrived at Tinseltown the “wunderkind” famously quipped that the movie studio was “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” The result of this intersection between commerce and artistry is the 1941 classic Citizen Kane.

A similar happy confluence of factors was afoot in 1970 when, inspired by the spectacular success of the Woodstock rock festival and the ensuing concert film chronicling it, A&M Records put its resources behind one of the superstars to emerge out of that history-making experience in upstate New York. With A&M’s backing and a little help from his musical friends, Joe Cocker headlined a legendary tour that was immortalized by a live double vinyl album (click here to pick up on LP from our Rock Cellar Store) and a documentary, both entitled Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Cocker’s short-lived group was more than twice the size of the 14-member Duke Ellington Orchestra during the heyday of Big Band music.   

Jump cut about half a century, when another charmed convergence of elements led to a reunion of many of the original members of the Mad Dogs band, which reunites to perform together with contemporary talents. This heady concoction created Learning To Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a new documentary directed/produced by Jesse Lauter, which combines new original material with vintage footage from the 1971 concert tour film by Pierre Adidge that was largely shot at the Fillmore East and Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Some of these artists are glimpsed then and now, as Lauter intercuts between the 1970s rock doc and his more recently shot 111-minute production, featuring Leon Russell (who died in 2016), Rita Coolidge, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Chris Robinson, Jim Keltner, Dave Mason, Claudia Lennear, Steve Earle, Jon Landau, David Fricke, Larry Campbell, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, plus the late, great Joe Cocker.

In this candid conversation, Jesse Lauter discusses the etymology of the titles; how the Mad Dogs band, album and tour came about; how the reunion about five decades later transpired; the way his documentary came into being; Leon Russell, Joe Cocker and their clash; and more. 

Rock Cellar: Let’s begin by discussing sources. What is the derivation of the title Mad Dogs & Englishmen?  

Jesse Lauter: Noël Coward! That’s his song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” We have a little cameo from Noël as he’s introducing the song in the middle of the film.

Denny Cordell, he was the manager and producer, sort of Leon’s co-conspirator on the whole tour. He obviously thought it would be a funny way to describe these “mad dogs” – these wild and crazy Americans. Then the Englishmen – which were only two, Joe Cocker and Chris Stainton.    

Rock Cellar: Tell us about the original Mad Dogs & Englishmen documentary. Who were the top performers in it? 

Jesse Lauter: The Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour took place in the late winter, early spring of 1970. Joe Cocker is coming off of this electric high, becoming a superstar overnight, from his performance at Woodstock and the Woodstock film. He had big records in the U.S.; “A Little Help from My Friends” was catching fire as well. His band, the Grease Band – there’s two sides of the story, which I sort of kept kind of vague in my film – they quit on him? He fired them? To me, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, the Grease Band is gone and Joe needs a band.

He had worked with Leon Russell – the famed, at this point, session musician and producer, on a couple of things, and so he’s in Los Angeles and thinks of Leon. And Denny is sort of a conduit as well. Denny has managerial stakes with Joe, but also is managing and developing a business with Leon Russell; they go on to form Shelter Records together. Joe goes to Leon and Denny and says, “I need a band.”

And Leon basically says back to him: “I’d love to put a band together for you. I’ve had this concept of a large ensemble. What if I invite a lot of people?” And Joe being Joe, being game at the time, says, “Sure, bring it on.”

 

So Leon invites the best of the young – almost like a third generation of the Wrecking Crew [high caliber, L.A.-based session musicians], so to speak, but not really the Wrecking Crew, except for himself [as a member of the Wrecking Crew, Russell performed in the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”, and Jan & Dean’s “The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena)”] and Jim Gordon [drummer on hits such as Pet Sounds, “Classical Gas” and “Wichita Lineman”]…

So, they form this band and rehearsals take place and the band grows. You hear a whole bunch of numbers – the number 32 is the number that’s on the liner notes. It’s hangers-on, it’s amateur singers, it’s professional singers. What they do is they create this huge band in a matter of days and the record company, A&M, sends them on a jet plane, pays for a film crew to record it and also pays for multi-track recordings. We all know about Mad Dogs & Englishmen because of those critical decisions – because there was an album, because there was a tour documentary.

But, two months of this tour goes on, and the band never reunites in any shape or form. That’s where the story of my film comes in, because it tells the story of the only reunion that ever took place of this trip.   

Rock Cellar: Was there actually a canine who went on the tour?    

Jesse Lauter: Yes, there was: Canina. And that was [singer/songwriter] Pamela Polland’s dog. (See: Pamela Polland – Biography)

Rock Cellar: Explain the concept of the new rock-umentary, Learning To Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen? Who are the top performers in it, old and new?

Jesse Lauter: Fifty years have gone by and there isn’t even a semblance of a Mad Dogs & Englishmen reunion. However, it did have an impact on the greater world of music. [Such as the George Harrison-led] Concert for Bangladesh or Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Even Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, one could argue, was influenced by Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Big band rock ’n’ roll format and events.

So, Joe Cocker passes away in late 2014 and he had actually been in touch with the Grammy Award-winning Tedeschi Trucks Band, which was formed by a husband-and-wife duo, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, two of the most talented musicians playing music today. They actually formed the Tedeschi Trucks Band shortly after watching the Mad Dogs & Englishmen documentary for the first time. They always liked large bands – Derek himself having played in the Allman Brothers. Them both being huge fans of Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic and big ensembles. They watch Mad Dogs and say: “You know what? That would be fun to do something like this, with a circus atmosphere. Great covers. Great arrangements.”

So, they form this band. Tedeschi Trucks Band has gone on to win Grammys, [become] a touring act, they play at the White House, but they also play with lots of musicians. Derek has played with Eric Clapton, etc., Susan with B.B. King. So, they always had this fantasy of playing with Joe Cocker. They had been discussing with Joe about doing a set of Joe’s material, probably mostly from Mad Dogs & Englishmen at the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia [an annual four-day music festival held at Oak Ridge Farm in Arrington, Virginia]. But Joe got sick and passed away [from lung cancer], so that didn’t happen.

Then the idea became: “Let’s do a tribute to Joe.” Derek said: “I want it to be Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and I’ll only do it if Leon Russell will do it.” And that’s where my film comes in and the story picks up. You see them put this together in a matter of a few days. What they wound up doing is they invited as many of the original members who were still alive and able to be there, and they wound up getting about 12 of the original Mad Dogs:

Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge – who became a huge star from Mad Dogs & Englishmen – [ex- Ikette] Claudia Lennear – who many people know from 20 Feet from Stardom, but also is the inspiration for the [Rolling Stones’] song “Brown Sugar” – Chris Stainton, who went on to play keys with Eric Clapton. So, they had all of these amazing musicians playing with them, and a lot of the backup singers as well. And then they also supplemented that band with people like Chris Robinson, the lead singer of The Black Crowes, who obviously is a huge fan of Joe Cocker.

What my film does is capture that reunion. But what I wanted to do was tell the story of how the original tour happened; how it came to be; why it never happened again. But also this generational story, of you can see in real time, the influence and power of the music. The great communication link that is rock and roll, when you have an awesome young band playing with some of the old timers, and just getting together and doing what they do best.                      

Rock Cellar: You conducted and shot the new, original interviews?

Jesse Lauter: Yes.

Rock Cellar: How did you personally get involved in this project?

Jesse Lauter: Well, I was a huge fan of Mad Dogs from a pretty early age. I discovered it – it was a very hard film for people to get. I was a fan of Joe Cocker, but I wasn’t like a huge fan when I first heard about Mad Dogs & Englishmen. But as soon as I learned about it, in 2005, when the DVD reissue came out, I instantly got sucked in and it instantly had a huge impact on me. I became a mega Leon Russell fan, bought all of his records, we’d go see him play live. I’m a music producer at this time, I’m trying to cut my teeth making records. I wasn’t a filmmaker — and I still do work in music, I’m still a music producer — this is my first film, actually.

I always had this fantasy in my head that Mad Dogs & Englishmen would reunite or that I would even be the one who would reunite them. I would figure out a way to make it happen as a promoter or concert producer or something like that. So, when I heard the show [at the Lockn’ Festival] was happening, I was starting to make inroads into doing documentary films. And I happened to be friends with the promoter of the show and I got in touch with him and said I had to make a film about it. It turns out the Tedeschi Trucks Band was also on the lookout for directors and a production team to film it. So, all the stars lined up in my favor in order to be able to capture it.       

Rock Cellar: How did you combine footage from the 1971 doc with what you shot to synthesize and create a new film?

Jesse Lauter: Hours and hours of figuring and editing. [Laughs] In a lot of ways, when you sit with the original film and what we captured, you look for things, you look for running motifs that work together. And you just look at the story. Fortunately, what we captured wasn’t just a reunion concert. What we were able to capture and what actually happened was a beautiful experience for everyone involved. A powerful and spiritual experience, in a lot of ways. We’re talking about one of the most fundamental musical experiences for a lot of these very famous musicians, who had lasting careers. Leon Russell becomes a household name after this. Rita Coolidge becomes a huge star in the seventies after Mad Dogs & Englishmen. But they never go to revisit that music with each other … This is a chance for them to re-commune with this powerful, and what I’ve been calling, “sacred” music.        

Rock Cellar: Why is your version entitled Learning To Live Together

Jesse Lauter: Good question. Throughout the film, you see different relationships between people. Mostly positive; some negative. To me, this whole game we play in life … is all about relationships and how you get along with each other. And that’s the story of that tour. People were learning to work with each other. When you’re dealing with such a large ensemble, you’re going to have fraught relationships, you’re going to have positive, loving relationships. Everything from Joe and Leon seemingly [having] a positive relationship, where they trust in each other so much they’re going to do this huge thing, which deteriorates to the point where they never collaborated again in any way, shape or form.

Or the Tedeschi Trucks Band, that’s learning to make a 12-piece band be successful, an extremely hard thing to do from a financial perspective, but they make it work. And you have a husband and wife, Derek and Susan, they’re learning to live together and keep a band together at the same time. And obviously, that’s a line from “Space Captain,” which in many ways, is the theme song of Mad Dogs & Englishmen. [Learning To Live Together] seemed like a perfect lyric and title for the film.

Rock Cellar: You just touched upon, and your film alludes to, conflict between Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. Can you elaborate upon that? Am I in the ballpark by saying Joe was the figurehead – but Leon was the power behind the throne? 

Jesse Lauter: Absolutely. I’d say that’s probably an apt description. It is Joe Cocker’s tour; the album says “Joe Cocker.” It does not say “Joe Cocker and Leon Russell.” It’s a perfect artist/producer relationship, that’s what it was. Leon was producing the tour; Joe was the voice of the tour. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

But at the same time, Joe, for better or worse, as a very sensitive guy, he let the tour get the best of him. He wasn’t into it; somewhere along the way he lost the passion for it. So much so that he basically stopped performing after the tour. Whereas Leon Russell’s career as a solo artist was just starting to take off. So, you see this rift. And Leon’s very honest about it in the film. Leon was accused of things like being a career profiteer, taking advantage of Joe. He had always wished Joe would come to his defense, because he felt like he didn’t do anything wrong, but that never happened.

That’s sort of the crux of that relationship. It’s a shame they never collaborated again, in my opinion. But it is what it is. In a lot of ways, what you see in my film is Leon, this is his only way he can forgive himself, forgive Joe, for what happened in the past and to be able to deal with the  resentments that may or may not exist in that relationship. 

Rock Cellar:  Press notes refers to Mad Dogs & Englishmen as “a 20th-century musical experiment– a traveling rock & roll commune.” How were the original and your new film reflective and evocative of the counterculture hippie ethos?

Jesse Lauter: If you look at the original Mad Dogs & Englishmen, it’s at the end of the hippie movement. It’s 1970; it’s post “Summer of Love,” but that ethos is still there – free love, sex, drugs and rock and roll. That sort of is the foundational piece – not of the Mad Dogs sound – but of what that experience was for a lot of people who were on that tour … The Tedeschi Trucks Band, I’d say they’re “hippie-adjacent”… They’re a very 21st century version of the Mad Dogs, more put together, tighter, more business-savvy. 

Rock Cellar: Tell us about your personal background?  

Jesse Lauter: I was born in 1986 and … am a “native” of San Francisco. But I was raised mostly in Atlanta. I came to New York City at the age of 18, I studied at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. I’m a music producer, an engineer, a mixer. I do large scale projects, tribute concerts and tribute albums. In 2014 I made Bob Dylan in the Eighties: Volume One. I’ve worked with a host of musicians, from Stephen Stills and Judy Collins to Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group.

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The U.S. theatrical release of Learning To Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen started on October 21. For details, visit the film’s official site


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