Rock Goes To the Movies: Interview with Bill Shelley

When Billy Shelley and Dylan Skolnick decided to put on a series of monthly rock music nights at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, they had no idea how big it would become. They originally planned a low-key night in the Cinema’s smallest theater for
a Tuesday night back in July. As tickets sales moved along at a brisk pace, they moved the evening’s festivities to the Cinema’s bigger room and then finally had to have it in the biggest of the three rooms. The overflowing crowd was treated to a wonderful
night of rare Beatles clips, a brief Q&A and a lively aftershow reception in the Cinema’s café. In August, Shelley presided over the screening of a rare Who concert and in September a night of Motown featured a tribute to Michael Jackson. This ongoing
series has plans for Bob Dylan on Wednesday, October 21st, followed by future nights featuring Elvis and Sun Records, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and James Brown. There will be an encore of rare Beatles in December. I caught
up with the enthusiastic, soft-spoken Shelley, who is putting on these shows for all the right reasons. Shelley’s life in music and film is equally as interesting as the shows he puts on and he is a real Long Island treasure.

Q: How did this series at Cinema Arts Centre come about?

A: My original idea was to show silent comedies and possibly do a series. After discussing this with Dylan Skolnick I mentioned doing rock concerts instead and he loved the idea. I wasn’t sure if it would work but after the first show with The Beatles it proved to be a success.

Q: Have you ever done anything like this before?

A: As a teenager at Oceanside High School I belonged to an AV “Movie Club” and we would often charge a small admission on a Friday and Saturday night, and we’d show Elvis, The Beatles, Allman Brothers, Cream and other rock
concert films in the school’s auditorium. I once got a 16mm print of Ladies and Gentleman, The Rolling Stones and the crowd rioted. The Alpha Omega frat boys knifed up the seats and it cost us our profits —over $2,000 to get the damage repaired. But other than that, I was always showing films in the basement of our house in Baldwin. The house had a fifty-foot throw from the projector to the bed sheet tacked to the beams and an old 1930s radio speaker behind the sheet for sound. On any given weekend night you’d have maybe twenty to fifty neighborhood kids sitting down there watching the old Flash Gordon films, then Max
Fleischer cartoons and then Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin. It was a lot of fun.

Q: What was your first love—film or music?

A: Music came first as I recall. My mother’s favorite singers were Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn so their records were always playing in the house. My parents had an open door policy that if any family member was in financial trouble or divorce they could come stay with us. We had relatives living with us who were in Vaudeville. My Uncle Kenny was a jazz drummer with the Clicquot Club Eskimos back in the 1920s and he taught me how to play drums. My Aunt Melissa played the ukulele and my Aunt Beatrice played the banjo. And they would have these impromptu concerts in the living room and I eventually learned to play piano and organ just to keep up with them. And we also had tons of old 78rpm records to amuse us. But even as a small child I was aware of the magic of film. I remember seeing the old silent Chaplin pictures on television back around 1964 as well as the old Farmer Grey cartoons. I remember the Our Gang films that were on channel 11 with that great old Leroy Shields music. My mother started taking me around to junk shops where we’d find these old toy projectors from 1910 and reels of 16mm and 35mm cartoons and comedies. That was the start of my collection.

Q: Did you go to college for film?

A: I went to S.V.A. or The School of Visual Arts. I graduated in 1983.

Q: Music and film have always had an interesting relationship. Why has music on television not worked as of late?

A: Who wants to watch a boring band making boring music on television? Concerts always play better in real life anyway. However I happen to like Green Day and I think they are politically the smartest band on the planet right now. Rock music was once considered dangerous by parents and that’s why it attracted teenagers. Now it’s Disney-fied and Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers are considered by conservatives and the Moral Majority as homogenized and safe. Music as of lately just doesn’t have the creativity or spunk that it use to have and it’s sort of a shame. Kids should put down all the gadgets and computer gizmo stuff and pick up a Gibson guitar and learn how to play it really well. And kids today really need to learn the business from the inside out. First thing is get your songs copyrighted before you do anything. Second is get a good trusted lawyer.

Q: What was the first rock music treasure you found?

A: It was probably footage of the Beatles working in the studio with their producer George Martin. I’ve had a good relationship with Apple Corp. Ltd and Sir George Martin for the past ten or fifteen years. They have licensed footage from me on several occasions. Sir George has recently been working with PBS on a documentary series called The History of Sound and I’ve been supplying footage. My involvement came about when George Martin was looking for any footage of himself with The Beatles in the recording studio working and I found roughly forty-five minutes of unseen studio footage from 1962-1968. About a year or so ago Martin Scorsese came to me about George Harrison footage for a documentary in cooperation with George’s widow, Apple Corp. Ltd and the remaining Beatles and their families. But several times I’ve heard from Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney’s production people about film footage.

Q: What was the most bizarre discovery?

A: Film of Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention playing or rehearsing backstage with The Lettermen around 1967.

Q: What was the most difficult to obtain?

A: Years ago I was working on a documentary and we were using a clip of early Pink Floyd and we needed the band to sign off on the clip and everyone was fine except Roger Waters. He kept saying, “Well, I’m not going to sign off if he’s going to be in the clip.” And I said “But “he’s” David Gilmour and he’s singing in the clip. How can I cut him
out?” So after about six months of legal wrangling I got an idea. I phoned Roger and said “Listen, sign off on the clip and we’ll give all the money to Syd Barrett.” And he did.

Q: What’s the rarest film you have and how did you find it?

A: I’ve got Sarah Bernhardt doing Hamlet from 1900. Chaplin outtakes from 1914 and a film from 1902 called Tour Of The Edison Studios. There are also hand colored 35mm films from the early 1900s that are marvelous. Also tons of outtakes with silent film stars and screen tests.

Q: Is there any chance of a screening of Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara or Eat The Document?

A: Renaldo and Clara is almost five hours long and the rights I believe are tied up with Columbia Pictures. Dylan should have made it a straight concert movie and it would have been marvelous but he tried to make this long incoherent story and it’s pretty much a tedious mess. Eat The Document was originally made for ABC Television as a special and it’s a fascinating look of Dylan’s tour of England with The Band during 1966. I understand that D.A. Pennebaker wants to re-cut the film and put back all the music footage and call it Something Is Happening. It would be nice to see that version it if we could get the rights and permission for a theatrical screening.

Q: What about the notorious Robert Frank film of the Rolling Stones C—sucker Blues?

A: That’s a tough name to put up on a marquee. Again, rights and permissions are needed and The Rolling Stones really don’t want this film released yet. Although clips have appeared in various documentaries I don’t see this being released theatrically or commercially for a very long time. Can you imagine driving down Main Street USA and seeing that name in big letters at your local movie house? It’s a shame because it’s not a bad film.

Q: Have you run into any legal problems in securing licensing or showing these clips?

A: You should understand that I’m doing this for a very small lecture fee for a non-profit theater. People are basically coming to hear me lecture about the history of the films and film preservation. I usually show footage that has no licensing problems or the permissions are easy to secure. And I have a lawyer who straightens out most of the problems. My music clearance person is Cheryl Cooper of First Light Company and she’s very good at handling all sorts of complicated rights situations. But the bottom line is if a group or record label says no then its no.

Q: What kind of relationship do you have with the labels and artists involved?

A: I have a healthy relationship with most of the major labels. As for the artists, most are very nice to deal with. But I often hear from some of them and they are dead broke which is a shame and it surprises me. And they tell me these horrible stories about how they got screwed by bad managers and lawyers or the record company won’t give them their royalty checks. Some of these folks are or were once very famous and now they are living on welfare or in cardboard boxes literally. So I started a policy that if I sell or license footage of these performers I always give them half the amount of the check. These are our childhood heroes and it’s a shame how badly the record industry has treated them. Once a famous musician showed me a pen. He said, “See this pen? You could get beat up worse with this pen than you could in a fist fight. You could lose your entire life with a wave of this pen.” And he did by signing a bad recording contract.

Q: Is there some film clips that you have heard about, but which were destroyed?

A: The BBC was notorious for erasing their broadcast videos of a lot of early music footage. And American television was no better. Back in the 1960s a reel of broadcast video was like $300 per hour and most stations felt that after a show like Hullabaloo was broadcast it was easier to erase the tape and let the news department use it again. I have a beautiful ten minute interview with Janis Joplin filmed in San Francisco in 1967. It’s in color but there is no sound. I found out later that the station’s news department used the sound for a sound bite on radio when she died. I’ve tried everything but still can’t locate any soundtrack.

Q: Is there anything you found but couldn’t preserve?
A: Some of NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour shows from the 1950s that were discovered under leaking pipes in a studio basement for twenty years that just mummified when they dried out. I’m still working on it.

Q: Are there people in the music industry who know about you and alert you to something they knew about?

A: Yes, that happens all the time. I was once told of a film of the Jimi Hendrix Experience jamming with members of Traffic backstage somewhere and after hundreds of phone calls, false starts and tracking down leads I eventually got my hands on it. If we ever do a Hendrix or Traffic night at the Cinema there is always the possibility of it being shown. It’s about 5-10 minutes in length, in color and it features Dave Mason, Steve Winwood and I believe Jim Capaldi. I also have Jimi Hendrix on the Lulu Show in London from 1967 which the Hendrix Estate refuses to believe exists (laughs). I’ve approached Dylan about Traffic and it might be fun. Maybe we could double feature them with Santana just like in the old Fillmore days when you went to a show and you’d see four groups on the bill.

Q: What kind of musical artists do you like?

A: I play everything from Ragtime cylinders to the Beatles. Don’t get me wrong, as I happen to also love rock music from the 1960s and early 1970s because that was the best era of music. And I deeply enjoy early jazz and blues 78rpms from the 1920s. That’s the only way to listen and appreciate them with all their inherent surface noise and hiss. Reissues on LPs and CDs I consider fake and phony in terms of sound quality.

Q: Are there any films, directors, actors or film genres that you particularly like?

A: Strangely enough I happen to have a love of the films of Mabel Normand. She was Hollywood’s first comedienne back in the early teens. She was a beautiful Gibson Girl model who made movies with the greats: D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Sam Goldwyn and Charlie Chaplin, whom she discovered. Her films are fascinating because she not only starred in them but wrote, directed and produced many of them as well. And she was
funny and charming.

Q: What is the best rock music film of all time?

A: Lets do this by decades. In the 1960s it was a toss up between A Hard Days Night and Woodstock. In the 1970s it was probably The Last Waltz and in the 1980s it was David Byrne’s Stop Making Sense. In between there was No Nukes produced by my old friend and one time boss Julian Schlossberg.

Q: What’s the full schedule for the Cinema Arts in the upcoming months?

A: The Cinema Arts Centre is coming out with a brochure but I believe this is it: October is “Bob Dylan & Friends,” November is “Elvis & Sun Records,” December is “The Beatles—More Rare Clips,” January 2010 is “The Grateful Dead—Rare Clips,” February is “Led Zeppelin—Rare Footage,” March is “The Rolling Stones—The Brian Jones Years,” April is “James Brown—Rare Clips.”

Q: What other projects are you working on?

A: Currently I’ve been working on some Time Life commercials. And a music documentary that George Martin is producing. Another Johnny Cash documentary and a Harry Belafonte tribute. Other than that I’m working on industrials for John Hancock Financial.