I just watched two documentaries about music, life, and death. The first one was The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life about Alice Herz-Sommer who died this February at the age of 110. She was the oldest Holocaust survivor, and at the age of 109, when the film was made, she was super lively and at the piano for hours each day in flat number 6 of her apartment building in London.
Herz was born in Prague in 1903 to a family acquainted to Gustav Mahler, and Franz Kafka, who used to visit her mother to discuss his writings, and would take young Alice and her sister for walks and tell them stories. She did not recall these stories but remembered his atmosphere. This was a big word for Herz, which she additionally used to encompass impression, character, and conditions. She said what you learn in school is important but the intellectual atmosphere of your parents is more important.
Herz became a concert pianist but when the Nazis invaded Prague they took away her grand piano, and after taking away her friends, family, and husband, she was sent to the Terezin concentration camp north of Prague at the age of 39 with her son. There she performed more than one hundred concerts for the others in the camp. A friend who endured the camp and witnessed the evening events said she played Chopin’s Études from memory. Herz said the concerts were not entertainment but rather moral support. She said ill and old people came to the concert and became young again.
A friend and cellist who survived Auschwitz by performing in an orchestra at the death camp explained that musicians were spared to play for the Nazis. The cellist said any officer could come into the music space at any time and request whatever he fancied. One day even Dr. Mengele stopped by and requested she play Träumerei by Schumann.
Herz lived for music, and referred to it as a dream. She called Beethoven a miracle, and twinkled with amazement when she talked about what is inside his melody. She said we should thank Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann for giving us indescribable beauty. “They made us happy.” Apparently her son Raphael shared her sentiment. She said she found him at the age of three crying to a piece that he found beautiful.
I thought that following this short film about such a lovely person who survived such a horrible time, with a documentary about a punk band might feel disrespectful but A Band Called Death is just as special. I always think of skinny, pale, nasty guys as the creators of punk but before there were The Ramones (1974) or The Sex Pistols (1975), there was a proto-punk band called Death out of Detroit that was started by three African American brothers in 1971. Way ahead of their time, and totally experimental, Death rocked it.
The Hackney brothers grew up in a hustling Motown, and were turned on to all music by their father who told them to tune into what the Beatles were doing. They also absorbed The Who, Alice Cooper, Jimmy Hendrix, and Queen. Their first venture Rock Fire Funk Express was about trying to figure out their sound but they ended up playing Rock and Roll so hard that it became Punk. The mom let the brothers take over a room in the house to practice in but set strict playing hours: 3-6pm. The band was named Death by the oldest brother in the group after the father died in a car crash with a drunk driver while he was racing an injured trainee to the hospital. Using the name was to put a positive spin on death because the brother believed it was just like a birth, and the ultimate trip.
The film is about the rise and fall of the band, the death of the brother-leader, the music career of the surviving sibling members and then the reemergence of the band more than three decades later after their music was rediscovered.
Click here to watch the trailer for The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Click here to watch the trailer for A Band Called Death