Blow Up Hollywood Unveils The Diaries of Private Henry Hill
One of the greatest anti-war films of all time was "Johnny Got His Gun." Based on the book by Dalton Trumbo about the horrors of war, specifically WWI, the movie was released at height of the militant and mass protests against the Vietnam War. About a year after the book's release, American forces withdrew in the face of disintegration, i.e., troops refusing to fight, draftees smoking pot instead of patrolling, and gung ho officers being killed by those under their command. If only there were such instances of the human spirit asserting itself now. At least there is a growing peace movement here in America, and, as in the past, this is reflected in music. And I ain't talkin' about the Dixie Chicks.
If the '60s had Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and Country Joe and the Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag," then today we have the anti-war concept album, The Diaries of Private Henry Hill. Created by the mysterious entity known as Blow Up Hollywood (BUH), this CD/DVD, like Trumbo's book, takes a soldier-eyed view of the hell that is war. The group is completely anonymous. Their faces are never seen, neither on CD covers nor during live performances.
Blow Up Hollywood's intention is stated in their manifesto: "Beyond the illusion, without regard of egoism... comes a new breed of artists for the new millennium... Blow up Hollywood is a metaphor expressing our willingness to eradicate all hype." Lead singer and guitarist, Steve Messina, explained how Blow Up Hollywood was born. "It really started as a musical vacation, a group of friends renting a beach house for a few weeks. We took that time to just record whatever we wanted to." This freedom and isolation started to grow on them. "We talked a lot about our frustration with the music industry and how we just wanted to be creative on our own terms. After the vacation was over, without even realizing it, we had our first album."
One might wonder how they came to create their anti-image and why all the secrecy regarding the group's identity? "We decided from the very inception of the band that the group members would remain anonymous. We wanted to create an egoless environment to work in. We believe what's important is not who's in the band but the music the group makes. The name is a representation of our disenchantment with the entertainment industry, with big corporate giants creating puppets instead of artists, creating Barbie dolls instead of musicians," states Messina.
Musically, Blow Up Hollywood reminds one of Radiohead, or classic greats like Electric Light Orchestra, Penguin Café Orchestra and, of course, the Beatles. The group's guitar and piano-based songs are embellished with keyboards, sound effects, bass, drums, strings and saxophone. These elements are used sparingly, elegantly, and tastefully.
Messina's journey began with discovering the magic of music at an early age. "... the first song I remember is "Michele" by the Beatles. My dad played it all the time on his guitar," he said. "I loved listening to him play when I was young. The way the sound made me feel was incredible. I was hooked. I grew up listening to everything. I was exposed to a lot of different styles. A lot of Beatles and classical music. My dad played guitar and piano. My uncle and grandmother played piano. All of them played for the pure love of it." From such exposure comes a view of music that is not as limited as, say, punk and other forms of rock, which equate passion and emotional intensity with screaming.
The power of BUH's music is in the emotional gravitas of songs, which reflect the simple truth of one soldier's experience in Iraq. Besides bringing to today's music scene little used devices like lush orchestration, they have also brought the concept album into the 21st century. The concept here is a simple one and came about in a way that lends credence to the idea that events in this life are interconnected.
Mr. Messina volunteers at a homeless shelter in New York City. Blow Up Hollywood's manager, Karen Lee, related to me that when she was walking down a New York street with Messina one day, marginal and destitute people seemed to gravitate toward him. He stopped and dealt with them, giving spare change to some, and directing others to a shelter and various places where they could seek aid. When asked why he does this, he responds nonchalantly. "I'll just say it's a great practice to help other people. It's easy and it makes me feel better. I feel compelled by it."
It was there at the shelter where the project began. "I stumbled onto these amazing journals here. A transient came in that night, but he wasn't a regular; he was inconsolable about his son who died in Iraq. We talked for hours. He didn't even stay the night and he left without the journals and I poured over them. It's interesting to learn about a life that isn't your own. It's amazing the choices people make in their life and the journey it leads them on. I was really moved by what this young man went through. So we decided to make songs based on some of his journal entries. It really felt quite natural."
The songs cover the emotional, spiritual, and political peaks, valleys, and epiphanies that young Henry Hill experienced. The record opens with "The Pledge," which sets the tone of the album by mixing an eerie piano theme and backwards tapes sounds with a disembodied child's voice reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The next cut, "WMD", tells the story of many of our brave men and women fighting in Iraq. "Did really poor in high school it wasn't my thing / I wanted to leave this small town but I had no money / so I visit my uncle sam and he tells me he has a plan / I can see the world for free /. ... they put me on the front line / and they told me to wait for a sign / I'd be looking out for WMD's / WMD's what are these?"
The next two cuts show the private getting caught up in the war machine. "Bombs Away" has simple, strummed guitar chords underpinning a semi-sweet chorus of voices, singing "oh bombs away, how I love the sound of you ... I want to drop my bombs on you, I want to see the damage they can do." On the aptly titled
"Charge" combat lust rears up along with the hopes encouraged and exploited by recruitment ads: "If you could see the way that I fight / I'd make you proud / ... god is on our side, this you can't deny ... and when the fighting's done, I'll be coming home / charge." Pride, strength, growth, blessings by the creator, and victory all within reach.
Over time, death and destruction apparently caused Private Hill to have the crisis of conscience and subsequent melancholy expressed on "Salvation," where he searches for salvation in the "wreckage of a life (among) all these lies, bury me alive." In the song "Shots Fired", Henry Hill escapes from his horrible present via dreams and fantasies of love, perhaps his (last) thoughts before, during or after being mortally wounded: "Nothing's gonna keep me tonight from you ... it's so peaceful now at home with you ... I'm in love with you..." Two standout tracks are the instrumentals
"Shock and Awe" and "Requiem", which incorporate musical themes and motifs from other songs on the record and expand on them. The music is so colorful and emotionally evocative that no words are needed, and their placement in the narrative of this musical story is positively cinematic.
Don't think for a moment that all this detailed description of the content and flow of the songs constitute what is referred to in movie reviews as spoilers. The power of "The Diaries of Private Henry Hill" can't be blunted by knowing what's going to happen; the songs get better with repeated listenings. Furthermore, they have a multimedia show featuring films projected on a screen, while the band, obscured by shadows and lights, plays a live soundtrack. The band's commentary for a fallen soldier makes them a unique and important one. Don't miss this one.
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