Alt-Synopses: “Alien: Covenant”


Legendary director Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created in “Alien” with “Alien: Covenant,” the second chapter in a prequel trilogy that he promises will bridge the gap to the first film, a gap nobody perceived until he pointed at it.

“Alien: Covenant” will act as a semi-sequel to “Prometheus,” a semi-prequel to “Alien” and a semi-truck flattening your affection for this franchise.

In “Prometheus,” we learned that humans were created by a race of albino bodybuilders called the Engineers. At some point in the history of the universe, the Engineers apparently decided to kill all humans. The reason for this attempted genocide, according to allusions made by Scott in interviews, is that the Engineers were mad at humans for killing Jesus.

If true, this would be the worst plot twist since the ending of the “Planet of the Apes” remake, which featured a statue of Aperaham Lincoln.

Much of the plot of “Prometheus” concerned black goo devised by the Engineers for purposes that remained as murky throughout the film’s 124 minute running time as the goo itself.

The goo seemed as adept at creating underwhelming monsters as it was at generating arbitrary scenes.

At the end of “Prometheus,” Elizabeth Shaw and David the Android headed off to the planet of the Engineers, which they fully expected would be a technological, societal and environmental utopia.

In the new film, however, the Engineers’ planet is revealed to be the biggest disappointment since the Battlestar Galactica arrived at Earth in 1980 only to find it polluted by former “Brady Bunch” cast members and stock footage from the movie, “Earthquake.”

The “Covenant” of the title refers to a spaceship and surely is not meant to evoke the new covenant that Jesus established in the New Testament.

The Covenant is inhabited by six sets of couples, an arrangement designed to encourage colonization, pointless arguing, quick slaughter of the most annoying characters and aliens punishing people for having illicit intercourse.

The crew lands on the Engineers’ planet only to discover that is has largely become a barren, hellish wasteland, or – as it is referred to in the credits – Australia.

In “Alien: Covenant,” the black goo has become plant spores inside seedpods because why the hell not?

Alien DNA is scattered exactly the same way an innocent child scatters the seeds of an aged dandelion. In the new film, however, there are only aged dandelions of death.

Fox wisely abandoned the tag line: “Nature hasn’t been this evil since ‘The Happening.’”

In prior films, alien infants were known as chestbursters because of their method of egress from the human host. In “Alien: Covenant,” Scott will introduce backbursters, a nickname that should be self-explanatory.

Given the dwindling options, we are forced to consider the very real possibility that the next film will feature the debut of the assbursters.

“Alien: Covenant” opens tomorrow.

Viva La Revolution!


In 1981, bassist Andre Cymone left Prince’s band under contentious, ego-clashing circumstances.

Mark Brown said he knew of the subsequent vacancy, but he didn’t think he was in the running for the job or that he could put himself in the running.

“I didn’t think I would be considered,” he said in a phone interview. “He grew up with such a vast selection of awesome bass players in Minnesota. I was like, ‘Why would he pick me? I am the youngest of most of them. There’s no way.’”

Still, he kept seeing Prince in the audience at his shows. But he chalked that up to other factors.

Then one day, the phone rang at 11 p.m. at the community center where Brown rehearsed.

It was a guy claiming to be Prince.

“I was like, ‘This ain’t Prince. Get out of here,’” Brown said. “He didn’t say much after that. He just said, ‘I want you to audition for my band. I want you to learn all three albums. (Drummer) Bobby Z will pick you up tomorrow.’

“I worked at a 7-Eleven store at that time,” Brown recalled. “(Prince) said, ‘I’ll have him pick you up at 7-Eleven.’ I was like, ‘How did you know I work at 7-Eleven?’”

The unsuspecting Brown, aka BrownMark, was on the verge of joining the Revolution, one of the few backing bands in music history that became almost as famous as its frontman.

Prince would never lead its like again.

In the wake of Prince’s death, the Revolution reformed to pay tribute to its fallen leader.

It is now on tour, providing closure for fans and opening a new chapter for itself, perhaps.

The Revolution will perform Saturday at the Majestic Theatre in Detroit.

Brown recalls being nervous during the drive over to Prince’s house for the audition. His jitters were not eased when Bobby Z looked over at him and said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“I was like, ‘What is that? What kind of question is that?’” he said.

Brown was confident in his bass-playing abilities. He just wasn’t sure how he and Prince would get along.

“What was nerve-wracking was not knowing him,” he said. “I had heard all sorts of rumors about him. This was my first time meeting him, face to face. So my fears were more of, ‘How is he going to respond to me? How am I going to respond to him? Is he straight? Is he gay?’ I knew nothing.”

Apparently, Prince answered his own door in those days and Brown was not prepared for the sight of the man.

“Prince was literally about 5 foot 2,” he said. “I’m six feet and I am looking down on this guy. He had on leg warmers with shorts. His hair was coming all down and he had big earrings on. I just remember, I was like, ‘Holy crap.’”

Prince’s androgyny was a pretty radical concept in those days.

“Prince spewed sexuality,” Brown said. “When I saw him, I had never seen anything like that before.”

After the audition, Prince gave Bobby Z the night off, saying he would drive Brown home himself.

Brown wasn’t sure what to make of that either.

“I was like, ‘Oh, crap,’” he said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘It’s just me and this guy.’ I was like, ‘Wow, this is weird.’”

Whatever was happening in Brown’s overworked imagination, Prince merely used the drive to offer him the job.

“I was so happy, I almost (peed) my pants,” he said. “But I tried to keep my cool.”

Prince had a reputation as a tough bandleader and that toughness was on display from the first rehearsal, during which Prince repeatedly tugged Brown’s ear and kicked him in his hindquarters, saying, “Play the bass.”

Even when dispensing practical advice, Prince could be as enigmatic as a funky Confucius.

A funky Confucius wearing butt kicking boots.

But Brown said he eventually figured out that Prince wanted him to play more aggressively.

“That guy taught me so much about professionalism,” he said. “I owe him my entire career. If it wasn’t for him, I never would have been able to accomplish half of what I accomplished in my lifetime.”

Brown’s first concert, in front of a hostile Rolling Stones crowd, was as fiery as trials by fire get.

“I had only been in the group a month at that point,” he said. ‘Within the first few seconds of the opening number, a grapefruit landed on my bass keys. It knocked me clear out of tune. I sounded horrible.

“People were screaming,” Brown said. “Somebody got hit with a bag of chicken. Bottles we’re flying on stage. We were dodging stuff. Prince was so afraid of my reaction. He said, Mark, this isn’t the way it is. We were just trying this out.’”

Brown let Prince know that he wasn’t at all daunted.

Prince’s dream for the band that he would come to call the Revolution, Brown said, was something along the same lines as Fleetwood Mac: a band in which every member had something to contribute creatively.

The band sometimes jammed for ten hours at a stretch, he said.

“We were developing a sound,” Brown said. “That’s the work ethic he taught me. If you want to develop a unique sound, you play, play, play with each other. Don’t play songs. Just play. Release yourself. We developed this massive sound. He called it a freight train. That’s where the Revolution was born.”

The precision of the machine he’d built became evident during the writing of the song, “Purple Rain.”

“(Keyboardist Lisa Coleman) had some chords,” Brown said. “Prince had an idea. It slowly started to come together. I remember, I just sat there most of the day, listening to the changing, the progression. It was an all-day event. The song took on many different shapes and forms before we got it to where it was.”

“Purple Rain” – song, album and film – was the juggernaut that propelled Prince into the mainstream.

It was during this ascension that Brown began to fully appreciate the scope of Prince’s vision and the iron will that drove it.

“I call him a genius mastermind,” he said. “I believe in my heart, from ‘Dirty Mind’ forward, he knew what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there. He just had to figure out the pathway.”

It might be hard for some people today to appreciate the improbability of Prince’s massive success at that point in time, Brown said.

“For me, it was very explosive,” he said. “I was stunned. There had never been a band, a multiracial band, that had broken through some of the racial barriers of the time. I know about those racial barriers because I am a black man. And there were heavy racial barriers in the music business. Prince was determined to break through them, and he did. I was in awe.”

Prince’s decision in 1985 to add a half a dozen new members to the Revolution for the “Parade” tour doomed the band, Brown said.

“Two of the security guys were now at the front of the stage doing dance moves,” Brown said. “Everything started changing. I didn’t want to be a part of it. I was like, ‘Time for me to go.’”

He insists that the band never broke up, that no one was fired. Everybody just mutually decided to close that chapter.

Brown went on to found the group Mazarati. Prince gave Mazarati the song, “Kiss,” to record, and when he heard the band’s demo, he asked for it back.

Brown said he and Prince maintained contact over the years. Prince would call him out of the blue, using a silly pseudonym if Brown’s kids answered the phone.

“He used to call me 2, 3 o’ clock in the morning,” he said. “Sometimes he would call my house and my kids would run up to me and say, ‘Somebody named Alexander Nevermind is on the phone.’ I knew who that was.

“He always reached out to us,” Brown said. “He always stayed in touch with us. And that was endearing. I loved it. He truly was my brother.”

Brown said he heard of Prince’s passing by phone from a member of his security staff and cried for two days.

He was subsequently angry about the salaciousness of some of the media coverage.

“People immediately want to jump to a negative conclusion about a guy I knew,” he said. “They have no clue who he was internally. This guy was a very private man. And in that privacy, sometimes you make mistakes.”

Prince had been contending with excruciating chronic pain for many years, Brown said.

“I have female friends with hip issues,” he said. “Prince wore the high-heel boots. The difference between him and the women I know is that he didn’t just wear them. He danced in them.”

At the time of his death, Prince was planning to reform the Revolution and tour with the band, Brown said. He had secured promises from the former members that they would not perform as an entity without him.

The reunion happened. Just not on Prince’s terms, tragically.

Performing with the band mates he first met four decades ago is exactly like it was four decades ago, Brown said. Only better.

“We are the same,” he said. “Prince called us a freight train. That same energy is there and that’s what shocked me the most. He really put together a set of unique personalities. When we come together, that energy is so powerful that even we scratch our heads and say, ‘My word.’

“We’re even more seasoned now then we were then,” Brown said. “So it’s even more dynamic.”

There is a certain “New Orleans funeral” aspect to the shows – fans mourning by way of celebration.

Where it goes from here is up to them, Brown said.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this involves and where we take it,” he said. “And a lot of that is going to depend on the fans, on what you guys want us to do. It’s going to be fan-driven.”

A version of this story can be found at


The Gospel According to John


If you lived in a progressive town or city in the late ‘80s, the so-called New Folk Movement had a lot in common with the British Invasion.

The airwaves and stages were inundated with confident young acts that used folk music as a springboard into unexplored artistic realms.

The Paul McCartney of that movement in terms of talent and good looks was John Gorka.

He was a heartthrob to Reagan-era wearers of tie-dyed maxi skirts and patchouli oil.

With his baritone voice and woodsman’s beard, Gorka was folk music’s answer to Barry White.

Which is not to suggest that White required an answer from folk music.

That was 30 years and one digital revolution ago.

Gorka, well into his silver fox phase these days, never had much interest in his own sex appeal.

He is now, as ever, a compelling performer and earnest artist who is always trying to write a better song today than the one he wrote yesterday.

He will perform Friday at the Ark in Ann Arbor.

One of Gorka’s earliest mentors was the late Greenwich Village folk singer Jack Hardy, who taught Gorka a blue-collar approach to songwriting that turns out to be fairly unusual.

Most famous musicians will tell you that they eschew a songwriting regimen in favor of awaiting the muse.

But Hardy advocated a greater amount of self-discipline.

“It was the first time I had met someone who wrote songs on a schedule,” Gorka said in a phone interview. “He was finishing a song a week. That was his schedule for many, many years.

“I had never heard of that before,” he said. “I knew that novelists would sit down and try to write a page or a chapter a day. But I didn’t know songwriters could do that.”

Hardy’s view was that waiting around for inspiration to strike is a cop-out, Gorka said.

“He believed that if you work at it, you’ll get better, faster,” he said. “Even if you throw out three quarters of the songs you write, you will get better.”

Gorka said he started slow at a song a month. He worked up to two songs a month, and then he and his wife started having kids. The pace inevitably slackened.

Having a family meant that Gorka no longer had “large, unencumbered blocks of time.”

“They were great for musing and letting song ideas bubble up,” he said. “I used to be able to wake up slowly. That’s not an option anymore.”

In the midst of writing a song is still Gorka’s favorite place to be.

“Seeing where it’s going to go,” he said. “Even though you can work at it, the process is still a mysterious thing. The quality can vary. Sometimes a song takes a lot of work and sometimes it comes easy. Both of them can be equally good. And just because it comes easy, doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good.”

Gorka said he will alter established songs in performance if he is dissatisfied with some aspect of them.

“I will change lines in a song that I don’t think were even right at the time or when they don’t seem to be right to sing anymore,” he said. “The world changes and the meaning of the song changes.”

Last year, Gorka was given an opportunity by his label, Red House Records, to release an unusual collection of personally primordial material.

“Before Beginning” features demo versions of songs that were eventually remade for Gorka’s debut album, “I Know.”

The demo versions were professionally recorded in Nashville with studio musicians, so the songs have more of a country flair than the versions that made it to vinyl and CD.

Gorka said the reel-to-reel tapes (which had been in the possession of the sessions’ original producer, Jim Rooney) had to be baked before they could be played.

Baking magnetic tape at a low temperature reverses deterioration, Gorka said.

“We didn’t use an oven,” he said. “We used a box with a hair dryer set on low.”

Gorka said it had been at least 30 years since he’d last listened to the tapes.

The John Gorka of 30 years ago was a relentless performer who would go out on tour for long periods of time.

When Gorka and his wife started having kids, he curtailed this custom considerably.

“If you are away enough, people will learn to get along without you,” he said. “You want to stay indispensible.”

Gorka said he has a friend whose father was a frequently absent, long-haul truck driver.

“Until one day, he said to his mother, ‘Mom, that man is here again,’” Gorka recalled. “That was the end of his father’s long-haul trucking career.”

Changes in the music business have meant that musicians who used to depend on recordings to pay the bills now have to depend on touring.

Full-time folk musicians, on the other hand, have always had to do a lot of touring.

That doesn’t mean that artists like Gorka have been immune.

“In terms of the royalties that you get from streaming,” he said. “You get these ridiculous checks. I got one for one cent. I managed to save that one. It took 49 times that to send that check to me.”

A musician can laugh at a check like that or be discouraged by it, Gorka said, and he or she should always try to choose the former.

Gorka has no grandiose goals for his career at this point.

“I want to try to get the kids through college without enormous debt,” he said. “And to stay healthy and do it as long as I can do it. People have been coming out and that’s been really encouraging. I’ve been pretty lucky.

“I always think it could end tomorrow,” Gorka said. “So I’m grateful when people show up.”

(A version of this story can be found at 


Deadpanning For Gold


Five years before he attempted his first stand-up gig, a teenaged Todd Barry performed comedy on “Late Night with David Letterman.”

Letterman may not have been aware that Barry was performing comedy. But that’s OK. Letterman didn’t have to know everything.

Barry was part of a Viewer Mail segment in which he claimed that he could do a great impersonation of the show’s bandleader, Paul Shaffer.

Barry can’t do a great impersonation of Shaffer, or even a tolerable one, but he never really thought he could.

He was lying for comic effect.

Letterman was fooled by this Barry’s ruse. Or maybe he was just pretending to be fooled for comic effect.

In an email interview, Barry said that he had not yet made the connection between comedy and vocation at that point.

“I always had an interest in making people laugh, but no specific direction regarding how I would do that or if I even wanted to do it,” he said. “I never considered doing standup until after college.”

Many years later, Barry made his legitimate debut on a Letterman-hosted program and somehow failed to mention the Viewer Mail segment.

“I tried to bring it up during a commercial break, but he was distracted,” he said. “I regret that I didn’t mention it to the producers.”

Deciding not to mention this to Letterman seems a very Todd Barry thing to have done.

Like many a stand-up comic, Barry is essentially a shy guy. His stage persona – dry with a touch of knowing smarm and plenty of space for letting jokes smolder – is not a calculated creation.

“I’ve never consciously worked on my persona,” he said. “It’s just what evolved, for better or worse.”

Barry performs Thursday at the Tiger Room inside Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits.

Thousands of performances ago, he took the stage for the first time at a Coconuts Comedy Club in South Florida. He did bits about McDonalds and circumcision, among other topics.

In the early days, he would record routines and listen to the audiocassettes in his car after the shows.

More than three decades have passed, but Barry said he still gets stage fright from time to time.

“I do still get nervous,” he said. “Sometimes that’s situational, like if it’s in an especially large venue…or a bad one.”

Barry’s deadpan demeanor onstage seems like it would be good for hiding vague unease and/or full-blown panic.

“Yes, sometimes pretending like you don’t give a (expletive) is helpful,” he said.

Some comics, like Stephen Wright, Jerry Seinfeld and the late Mitch Hedberg, are/were fond of working through drafts of potential jokes in notebooks.

But Barry said he can admire, but not emulate, that practice.

“I want to have that method, but I basically think of an idea and start working it out on stage,” he said. “I will occasionally sit down in a coffee shop and try to brainstorm, but I lose patience rather quickly.”

Barry did, however, muster enough patience to write a book.

“Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-the-Biggest Cities in the World” debuted in March to laudatory reviews.

The book is a celebration (with snark) of the so-called “secondary markets” where Barry performs. Perhaps Fort Wayne will make a future edition.

The hardest part of writing a book versus trying out stand-up material, Barry said, is the lack of a sounding board in the first endeavor.

“In standup, you know immediately if something works,” he said. “When I wrote the book, I had to guess whether people will like it and sometimes I wasn’t sure. But it’s getting decent reviews, so that’s relieving!”

Barry has described himself as a foodie in at least one prior interview (although it is predictably difficult in that context to tell when Barry he is joking and when he is being earnest).

Touring and foodolatry would seem to go hand in hand (or fork in mouth).

In truth, however, Barry’s chief criterion for choosing eateries is proximity.

“I often go on Yelp and search for coffee and restaurants that are near the hotel I’m staying at,” he said. “It’s nice to have something within walking distance, but I will get a taxi if I’m really feeling isolated.”

Loitering in nearby coffee shops for hours while writing nothing in notebooks is one of Barry’s favorite pastimes.

Like most prominent stand-ups, Barry has done guest shots on many TV series. He also played a major role in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.”

A few years back, Barry toured with no prepared material and more such experiments may be in the offing.

“I’d like to do a bigger role in a movie, or be on a great TV show,” he said. “I’m also interested in doing some sort of live show that isn’t standup. But I haven’t figured that out yet!”


Alt-Synopses: “Fate of the Furious”


The last installment of this automotive mayhem franchise, Furious 7, left many questions that future sequels are obligated to answer:

  1. Can the series continue after the death of actor Paul Walker?
  1. Can the series continue to pretend that it never made reference to Tokyo drifting?
  1. Will the franchise be hampered by a recent Universal Pictures edict in which the characters are hereafter limited to driving one vehicle made by the series’ new sponsor: the Mitsubishi Mirage?

Fate of the Furious, which opens today, may provide some answers.

After Walker died, some pundits wondered whether Universal should just stop making films in the franchise.

But Universal executives said Walker would have wanted the series to continue, given that Walker had been very sentimental about Universal’s money.

The title of the new film features a veiled reference to the sequel’s chronological place in the series (essentially, “F8 of the Furious”).

Future titles now being considered by Universal include: The Fast and the Asi9 and Dis10ded and Furious.

The series has a checkered history. It almost didn’t bounce back from the universally panned third installment, The Fast and the Furry-ous, which was set in the world of animal costume fetishism.

Luckily, Universal quickly figured out what viewers really wanted and it has been giving it to them ever since: More automotive phallic metaphors than you can shake a phallus at.

Universal has every reason to be optimistic about the prospects of Fate of the Furious, but there are signs of trouble.

This is the second consecutive installment without the word “fast” in the title, which would seem to suggest that some sort of deceleration is happening.

Universal might want to have that checked out.

In Fate of the Furious, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) appears to have turned evil and is battling his former crime-fighting cohorts.

Has Dom really become a criminal or will viewers find out, in a plot twist so shocking that only everybody would have been able to predict it, that he’s being blackmailed?

It’s probably that first one.

New cast members include Charlize Theron as a super-villain named Cypher. While it is easy to fault Cypher for her aloofness and insensitivity, she explains in the film that there really aren’t a whole lot of options in life for a girl whose parents named her Cypher.

Cypher has always secretly wished that her parents had gone with their first choice: Twinkles.

Cypher seems remarkably evil in the trailers, but how will she measure up to other memorable villains in the series: Tabula Rasa, Goose Egg and Diddly Squat?

Also joining the series is British acting legend Helen Mirren.

Fans almost blew a gasket trying to figure out what part she’d be playing in Fate of the Furious.

Luckily, Mirren eventually revealed via Twitter than she’d be reprising one of her signature roles: Queen Elizabeth.

The new film generated some controversy recently when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson called some unnamed fellow cast members, “candy asses.”

We must consider the possibility that Johnson intended this as a compliment, given that an ass made out of actual candy would be quite advantageous in certain situations.

At one point in a trailer, we see Johnson drive a car with one hand while steering a torpedo with another.

If anyone can make us believe such a preposterous scene, it’s either Johnson or a man whose ass is made out of actual candy.

Fate of the Furious will compete with Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 for the affection of automobile aficionados this summer.

It remains to be seen which film will win the coveted title, “Most CGI.”