Uriah Heep Brings a Touch of the Uncool to Cold Water

Pace Lou Reed, nobody’s life is saved by rock and roll in Cold Water. This in spite of  its young characters’ relentless pursuit of it, in both musical and metaphysical forms. Made in 1994, set in 1972, Olivier Assayas’s not-quite-coming-of-age film (much of which is reiterated, or one might say remixed, in his 2012 Something in The Air) shows its teenage characters desperate to be somewhere else almost all the time. “The crazy music drives you insane,” Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry sang on a song not heard in this film, but which exists in close proximity to it; the kids in this film seek not so much insanity as transportation.

It’s laid out in the film’s opening scenes: Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and his unnamed brother (Mathieu Mardoukhaev) glumly chow down while an older woman taking care of them regales the two with tales of desperate living from World War II; they couldn’t be more indifferent. They wrangle a radio and scurry to someplace where they can be alone; Gilles messes with the antenna, and there, faintly, comes Roxy Music’s single “Virginia Plain,” Ferry’s demand “make me a deal, and make it straight” sliding greasily off a wall-of-sound two-chord vamp. It’s like a transmission from another world, and the boys are transfixed.

Soon, Gilles is in a department store with his amie Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), discussing her woes. She’ll soon abet Gilles, spectacularly, in his shoplifting of a bunch of LPs, by crashing herself through the store’s glass door. Before this, she’ll express a silent disappointment with Gilles over his inability to understand her. He admits his shortcomings: “It’s true. I have my books, my papers, my records, but no experience.”

Among his books are Allen Ginsberg’s Planet News, and Gilles has a smoke and declaims, from memory, parts of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” before going to the party where the movie’s most indelible scene takes place. The party scene is one of the reasons it took so long for Cold Water to be screened in the States. The music played by an unseen phonograph at this grim celebration (held in an abandoned stone house from which the kids take all the wood to make a bonfire) is the kind of classic rock recycled nowadays by film and ad makers to evoke wistful nostalgia from boomers, and a continuing pain to acquire, rights-wise. The playlist hops from American simulations of roots music to trippy British folk back to the outré glam of “Virginia Plain”  and more with all the discrimination and aesthetic coherence of, well, a bunch of sixteen-year-olds.

One song is more of an outlier than any of the others: “Easy Livin’,” by Uriah Heep. The only hit single by the still (relatively) active band. To be blunt: it’s the least cool selection on the soundtrack. I’m not that much younger than Assayas, and as someone who grew up close to New York, I didn’t find the pursuit of rock and roll as difficult as it seemed to have been for Assayas in his early teens: “There was no rock and roll on French radio at all,” the director told Kristen Yoonsoo Kim in an interview last year, and “only three record shops in Paris.” I was luckier in that I had a favorite radio station, WNEW-FM, with a weekly “Things From England” DJ, and a Sam Goody with a smart import buyer in Paramus. And I could pick up, at local magazine shops, the rock rag Creem, which regularly lambasted Uriah Heep in its pages. They were considered the epitome of a journeyman boogie band with pretentions, and while they’d pick up a critical commendation here and there—Robert Christgau called their 1972 album The Magician’s Birthday “okay stuff,” but not before describing it as “third-hand heavy metal fantasies [. . .] hooked to some clean, powerful arrangements”—it was clear that they were not to be taken seriously. They were part of a post-psychedelic wave of British rock that produced a lot of unusually named bands, including Jethro Tull. Tull took its name from an obscure eighteenth-century pioneer in agriculture, while Heep merely lifted its moniker from Dickens’s David Copperfield. This is called not trying hard enough while trying too hard.

But, played between Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around The Bend” (by this point the kids have stopped dancing inside and are breaking windows and throwing old furniture on the bonfire, around which they bounce and gyrate) and the reiteration (with better sonics) of “Virginia Plain,” “Easy Livin’” sounds better than fine. This Is Spinal Tap’s Marty De Bergi (Rob Reiner, also the film’s director) praised that fictional band for “their exuberance, their raw power, and their punctuality.” In that spirit one may laud “Easy Livin’” for its sonic crunch, its momentum, and its brevity: the whole thing clocks in at a mere two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. The single, which originates from Heep’s Demons and Wizards album (which directly preceded Magician’s Birthday) chugs along on an irresistible up-tempo chunka-chunka rhythm while Ken Hensley’s keyboards, usually portentous, recall the amiable dinkiness of Dave “Baby” Cortez’s 1959 instrumental hit “The Happy Organ” more than they might the pipe organ majesty of a rock E. Power Biggs. The vocal hook is sharp too—singer David Byron’s baritone-to-tenor range is both rico and suave—and the lyrics simple but immediately evocative. “This is a thing I’ve never known before / It’s called easy living / this is a place I’ve never seen before / and I’ve been forgiven.” Been forgiven, you say? Yes, “since you’ve taken your place in my heart.” Oh.

One can shrug at, and off, the banality. But the lyrics don’t lack pertinence to the film’s action, or the emotions of its characters. Up until the party Gilles enacts his arguments with authority and his dissatisfaction with the suspended state of his relationship with Christine through several confrontations, one with Mourad, the boyfriend of Christine’s mom. Before we see Gilles at the party, we see Christine there, cutting off her own hair; the song the kids dance to as she snips away is the Janis Joplin version of “Me and Bobby McGee.” When “Easy Livin’” is playing at the party, Mourad and Christine’s mom show up, furious, searching for her; she’s not found, and the adults leave, still agitated. Assayas isn’t so corny as to seek direct song-to-image correspondences (although the film hits on one as the furious Mourad runs around the party and the words “tried to find ya” turn up in the Heep tune), but uses the songs as both tokens of period verisimilitude and commentary. There’s an almost concrete reason that “Bobby McGee,” with its trenchant, oft-repeated observation about freedom, plays again over the end credits. After the party, when Christine enlists Gilles on a quixotic trek to a probably mythic commune where they can get away from everything by which they feel oppressed, how can the viewer not loop back to the image of “easy living?” And the film’s final moments certainly raise almost mortifying questions about what, and who, will or will not be forgiven.

After attending a screening of the film with the director in attendance, I remarked to him afterward on the astuteness of the music selections, recalling how when you are/were in your teens, the effective distinctions between “Easy Livin’” and “Virginia Plain” seemed nonexistent. And how, for me, approaching senior citizenship, that may once more be the case, simply due to the way we are all, you know, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past and stuff. Mr. Assayas kindly allowed this could be the case, but he may have been merely indulging me.

I reached this conclusion because I recently decided to put my theory to the test by actually listening to Demons and Wizards. I am both a little disappointed and sort of relieved that my theory doesn’t hold up. “Easy Livin’” is undeniably a great single, but that’s in part because it’s a fun trifle. Not to say that “Virginia Plain” is Roxy Music’s absolute finest hour, but it still carries with it the rich and strange qualities that made Roxy such a distinctive band. (One that you might get kind of excited to see inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as it will be this year, in spite of the institution being itself a bit of a farce.)

Demons and Wizards as a whole is, as heard in 2019, still a mixed bag I found something of a slog. Uriah Heep was one of those bands that was founded by a guitarist (Mick Box) and taken over, writing-wise, by its keyboard player, Hensley, who specialized in not-entirely-bloated opuses such as “Rainbow Demon.” The songs avoided comparison to the cruder (and more fun) band Hawkwind largely by way of the aforementioned clean arrangements and also a prog-sounding chord thrown in here and there (“Circle of Hands” has a change lifted from King Crimson’s  “In The Court of the Crimson King,” released a couple of years earlier). And the lyrics make Yes’s Jon Anderson sound like Lord Byron: “Here rides the rainbow demon / on his horse of crimson fire.” At the end of my notes, I scrawled, in a bit of a froth, “Aaargh they sound like Styx.” There’s some neat pro forma stuff every now and again: the drum break in the intro to “Poet’s Justice;” and the rhythm guitar riffing therein. But when Byron (David, the singer, not Lord) is not kept on a tight leash he indulges in some genuinely atrocious wannabe soul-man vocalizing.

But with a song that almost effortlessly brings home the promise of a thing its teen characters “have never known before,” and are doomed to never find, the band clearly earned its place in the heart of Cold Water.