Director Kurt Voss (Down and Out with The Dolls, Ghost on the Highway) got his start after film school with Border Radio, co-written/co-directed with Allison Anders and Dean Lent, and starring Chris D. (Desjardins), John Doe, Luana Anders and Dave Alvin. The road to completion of Border Radio (1987) was paved with false starts, broken contracts, bankruptcies and yet their devotion to the project and tireless D.I.Y. spirit paid off with what has since been seen as a time capsule of L.A.’s 1980s music scene (Green on Red, Flesh Eaters, John Doe, X, Blasters, Divine Horsemen). Border Radio is now part of the Criterion Collection. Kurt Voss tells all in this piece for PKM.
I’m drinking beer in a bar called The Brig in Venice, California. It’s the mid-1980s, and I’m wearing John Doe’s oversized football jacket. John just draped the jacket over my shoulders because I am cold. The fact that the jacket is way too big and hangs like a sack on my skinny little 22-year-old shoulders is somewhat belittling, especially considering that my girlfriend, Allison Anders, is also present and very infatuated with John.
The baggy jacket seems to underscore the fact that I am a skinny kid next to the strapping punk rock star Doe, who is just past 30. But John has no intent to diminish me in Allison’s eyes; he’s simply a sweet, kind man. At least sometimes. In any case, John hardly notices Allison’s adoring eyes for the fact that he’s still licking his wounds from a recent breakup with Exene, his co-singer, co-founder, and former life partner from the band X, who have three critically-acclaimed albums under their belts. John is currently a little emotionally raw, it would seem.
When I tell him he should have taken onboard the girls calling at him from another car as he drove to meet Allison and I at the bar, he says, incredulous, “What, just tell ‘em to get in?” Well, yes. I mean, what would Errol Flynn have done?
Allison and I know John because he is acting in a feature film called Border Radio that we have been making for two years, since 1984, and that will take us another two years to complete. But at the moment that eventuality is as in doubt as John Doe’s confidence. For John’s breakup came complete with a cuckolding from Exene, who slept with their video director Pete Haskell (the silent movie pastiche for “Because I Do”) after John had agreed to take the filmmaker into their very home. Exene’s revenge, no doubt, for John’s own rather flagrant affair with Lorna Doom, bassist for The Germs. I say “flagrant” because John not only wrote the song “White Girl” about the tryst, but obliged Exene to harmonize with him on the song.
Evidently Exene bided her time and picked her spot. Payback affairs hurt the worst, I will learn years later when my personal life is equally as complicated. But for now, life is simple, driven by one overriding preoccupation: How to buy our latest batch of black and white negative film out of the lab?
Border Radio Trailer
Allison and I live together at her UCLA student housing apartment on Sepulveda Blvd. We had met a couple years prior, at LAVC, a junior college in the San Fernando Valley, which I began attending after bailing on high school at 16. Allison, a young mother of two, had just returned to college when we met. I was already a Sex Pistols fan, had gotten the tar beaten out of me at the Olympic Auditorium seeing Public Image Limited in 1980, and enjoyed bands like The Mentors and Wall of Voodoo at the Hong Kong Cafe. But Allison was a couple years ahead of me in getting her beak into the Hollywood punk scene. She’d seen Gun Club make their debut, had published poems about punk, and had guested as a singer on an album by Monitor, co-founded by her friends Laurie and Steve, before Laurie broke up the band and the marriage by sleeping with her brand-new protege, Curt Kirkwood, who headed a punk-art trio called Meat Puppets. Incidentally, if there is a takeaway here, it is that one should not start a music project with a mate. A true rookie mistake. But musicians are romantic. At least until they are not.
One of the bigger self-professed romantics on the L.A. punk scene is poet Chris Desjardins, reborn after a stint as a Venice poet with ex-wife Bonnie as a Slash Magazine writer under the pen name Chris D. His overarching ambition is to be a filmmaker, but Chris finds that he can also express himself through glorious punk howling. I start following Chris’s band, Flesh Eaters, with their second album, which catches my eye when I spot John Doe on the back cover, looking glorious in leather coat and engineer boots and flanked by Dave Alvin of the Blasters, a rockabilly band from Downey. Along with drummer DJ Bonebrake of X and sax player Steve Berlin, these young ruffians make a glorious noise when I see them at The Whisky.
I am smitten with Chris D., and follow the next iteration of his band when they begin playing out at Music Machine, a club not far from Allison’s student housing digs. Allison and I have ended up transferring together to the UCLA film school, where we make some lauded black-and-white film shorts photographed by another classmate, Dean Lent. Faculty note a similarity in our films and suggest further collaboration. Allison and I write a rather sketchy script after a “holiday” visit to a friend’s ramshackle beachfront trailer in Ensenada Mexico, a couple hours south of El Lay. Our screenplay is a piece of art student alienation and concerns a man alone, in self-imposed isolation from his L.A.-based wife and kid. Allison has the inspiration to cast my hero Chris D., who with his brooding, smoldering countenance looks great in photos. We approach Chris at a Music Machine gig and he is rightly dubious that we can get the money together. But he nonetheless agrees, and suggests bringing some of his music buddies aboard to give the film a higher profile.
Allison, Dean and I toss out our screenplay and begin winging it, pushing the story in a direction that will incorporate not just the music, but the music scene. A savvy move that gave the shaggy dog film sufficient “historic” value that it is currently in print on the prestigious Criterion Collection label.
We’re at Dean Lent’s house one day with our borrowed UCLA film equipment when Chris D. arrives with Texacala Jones in tow. She is the frontwoman of the riotous Tex and The Horseheads, a band I first saw perform with Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club guesting on guitar. Jeffrey had “discovered” Tex as a waitress at Club Lingerie, and she was nominally his girlfriend, although my later research into Jeffrey while making my homegrown Ghost on The Highway documentary about him revealed that this “relationship” was mostly in the head of Pierce, a hard-core fantasist.
The theatrical trailer from the documentary, “Ghost on the Highway”, exploring the life and untimely death of Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
Pierce had once headed a Debbie Harry fan club (thus his blonde dye job) and written the song “Sex Beat” about a cardboard standup of Debbie. Jeffrey’s mother no longer had the standup when I met her, but she showed me the little plastic Christmas tree he references in the song. In any case, Jeffrey discovered Tex, but was now broken up with her due to her “cheating.” He called her “ridiculous” in the rock press, but she was in fact the definition of outrageous. At that first gig I’d seen her, Tex had sung much of the set at my feet before her backing band erupted in an auto-destruct finish, the snare rolling past my feet.
This shooting day, though, Texacala is shy and demure until the clapboard snaps shut, and then she is goofy and broad. Seems her act is largely shtick, but she sure can sing, and she is often charmingly innocent, such as the time she amazed a club DJ by asking how on earth he was playing her band’s song, “Ain’t That Peculiar.” And who was the singer, she demanded. Tex had no idea she had all along been covering Marvin Gaye.
Tex works through her scenes like a pro, and then sort of bows demurely upon exiting with Chris. Nice kid, so long as she’s not goofing at being your girlfriend so as to advance her career. Silly boy, that Jeffrey. Also a visionary, and arguably a genius. John Doe observed that Pierce invented a genre of music, a claim which John argues few can make. Of course, John’s pretty great himself.
As for Tex, she will only made it through three albums, the second of which will be produced by John Doe while our never-ending film shoot is still ongoing. As for Jeffrey, he will do what so many blues legends must, and dies a hard death the following decade at age 37. I strongly suspect from my research that his actual cause of death was AIDS-related complications. In any case, I don’t reference any of this in my documentary as I feel my first task is to play Danny Sugerman to Jeffrey’s Jim Morrison and contain myself to the printing of the legend. So his heroin use is addressed, but his death skirted over. Not that I will ever forget sitting with his mother as she cried agonized tears while recounting having to take Jeffrey off of life support. Pretty wrenching stuff.
Dave Alvin is very much alive — and a live-wire — the day he shows up at UCLA to film his main scene on the student sound stage. Dave’s got hair combed back, a rakish kerchief round his neck, and he flirts politely with Luanna, Allison’s sister, who plays the scene opposite him, and portrays Chris D.’s abandoned and inquisitive wife in the film. Dave will be back to work in another shot or two some months later when we film a scene at the Hong Kong Cafe, where he first meets Luanna as Green on Red perform live in the background. Dave will also play most of the lead guitars on Jeffrey Pierce’s second Gun Club album for Chris Stein’s label. Dave sources the guitars he plays on “Las Vegas Story” from the next studio over, where Ry Cooder has knocked off work and left a stack of sweet axes. Dave has his pick, but puts them back when he’s done tracking. As I say, a gentleman.
We’re filming a scene in the borrowed Venice loft of Repo Man producer Peter McCarthy. Chris D. and John Doe are present, and dressed in denim, caps and gloves for a scene where they empty a club’s safe — the reason Chris is revealed to have fled to Ensenada. Chris looks suitably dark and criminal. Between takes, a preoccupied John paces and listens to mixes from his latest album sessions on a Walkman.
More Fun In The New World, a splendid album that did much good for X, has already come and gone, and yet we’re still filming. The new X album will prove to be Ain’t Love Grand, John and Exene’s divorce record. It is also their bid at greater commercial success. Ray Manzarek is out as producer, and a more slick producer has been brought in to add some gloss in hopes of a crossover. You’ve not been reading your punk bible if you don’t know how that move inevitably goes.
In any case, John is a total mensch as always, having made the haul all the way here after a stressful day in the studio, when he by all rights should be home in Silver Lake in the house he rents that was once occupied by Charles Bukowski. One night John gets drunk and pulls a big board off the wall in a disused room to reveal a big, hand-drawn mural by Bukowski. That’s my idea of archeological excavation done proper.
Allison and I joke that we are literal film junkies. Every day we wake up and try to brainstorm places to get dollars for the film lab. One day as we drive down Sepulveda Boulevard, Allison sees a guy she knows from UCLA who has just been awarded a cash stipend. We quickly agree he’s certain to be a soft touch, and we pull to the bus stop and offer him a ride. Scene ends at his bank.
We drive down to Mexico with Chris D. and five of us — Allson, Dean, myself, Chris D., and Luanna — sleep in the trailer each day after shooting. That is, when we can sleep. For as ferocious a singer is Chris D., he’s an even more amazing snorer. One night, after Chris has killed an impressive amount of beer, his snoring is so window-rattling loud that Allison and I retreat to sleep in the car.
Allison and I fight, and I move home with my mother. I’m on the phone one night with Chris and he starts talking about his previous night’s explorations with heroin when my mother picks up the extension. Chris abruptly hangs up. I’m not sure whether to be mortified on my mother’s behalf, or embarrassed in front of my rock idol. Not mutually exclusive impulses, I suppose.
The Flesh Eaters break up and Chris D. launches a new band, writes a new album, records it… And still we’re filming Border Radio. Years are literally passing, and all for want of negative-freeing lab dollars. Had this been the age of digital, we could have floundered through endless reshoots and rewrites and still been done in a few fleet months. But film developing, and then the cost of a scratch print with which to edit (using adhesive tape yet!), are just brutally expensive, especially to penniless ex-students like ourselves. But there’s something grand in it all, too. It is good to be driven and devoted to a higher cause.
Our luck changes when a friend from UCLA comes aboard as a producer to help us find finishing funds, which appear from Enigma Records, an indie label with cash flow from Capitol. Enigma Records agree to help us with lab costs in exchange for the soundtrack album rights. I get the idea to include an actual film outtake with each initial pressing, and on an OCD jag I sit for hours and days cutting up 16mm film and ensuring with my own eyeballs that each purchaser of the album will find an interesting outtake.
One night John gets drunk and pulls a big board off the wall in a disused room to reveal a big, hand-drawn mural by Bukowski. That’s my idea of archeological excavation done proper.
Allison is back in school out of financial necessity and wins a scholarship that allows her to “bring her accounts current.” Good news for her two daughters, who have suffered through this production along with us. We perform the editing by walking the reels into the UCLA editing bays through a side door every night past 11 p.m. Allison’s kids kip down in sleeping bags under the editing table and we work until dawn. At sunrise, we often drive downtown for a cheap, hearty breakfast at The Pantry. Once the picture is locked, we do it all over again, cutting the dialogue and music tracks ourselves. We solicit the graduate student with the mixing stage keys to sound mix the movie for us at a modest feel. I rather doubt UCLA Film School is run in such lax a fashion these days. I suspect they now probably even lock the doors at night. We finish the mix. We strike a 16mm projection print.
John Doe gets a new girlfriend, one who will become his wife and they would have three children. Exene and Pete Haskell fizzle quickly, and she rebounds into the arms of actor Viggo Mortensen. As for Pete Haskell, he is eventually murdered in a seedy and well-publicized case. I shake a fist triumphantly on John’s behalf when I hear the news (John’s a nice guy, but I am not, I’m a vengeful prick, and it will stand me in good stead when I go on to direct a dozen or so B-movies).
We take a completed print of Border Radio to an indie film market in New York that at this time is the only game in town for such fare, indie film still being somewhat of a novel concept, Jim Jarmusch and John Cassavetes notwithstanding. We get lucky at the market when we sell the film to a B distributor, who in turn licenses the film to a new media company launched by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. Mike is going to put Border Radio out on VHS, a format that has just triumphed over Betamax. But our luck runs out when the B movie distributor promptly declares bankruptcy and refuses to pay us the modest fee as dictated in our agreement. There’s no show biz fucking quite like that first. Really sticks to the ribs.
Chris D.’s glib drug use gradually takes its toll and puts him out of action for some time. But as he sagely observes in the lyric to his song “My Life To Live,” “Masterpieces can be coaxed from the ruins of five drunken years.”
Flesh Eaters-“My Life to Live”:
Chris lives to be the author of a hefty volume of dark and romantic musings, entitled A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die, same as his second album that had so caught my attention. And he reformed Flesh Eaters with John Doe and Dave Alvin in 2019, producing the aptly titled, Used To Be Pretty.
“Burning guitar” scene from Border Radio:
Border Radio at The Criterion Collection