"Blues for SEPIA"

Article from the "Recording Worlds Magazine" (issue 247, July 1975)

We are in Montauk, Long Island at Arbus Autoclave Studios. Perched around a single RCA diaphram microphone are R'n B legends Leroy Scrag (bass), Elmore "Juice" James (mouth harp) and Milt "the Hilt" Slovotsky (near-mythic Chicago slide player). For an hour, they have been vamping on a shuffle (tentatively called) "Deep Seep", a play on SEPIA's title, the film being scored today at Arbus.

But this isn't your normal film scoring session, not by a Memphis mile. Behind the board, with engineer Austin Grig, is famed underground director Alan Smithee and a cadre of art and filmworld types. Among them are German director Werner Herzog, a thin boy with silver contact lens who claims to be here because "Andy told me to", and starlet Valerie Perrine, who plays the films titular character. In a corner, the composer, the great Buddy Miles, catches some Z's in the lap of a female companion named Rainbow.

Suddenly, the music stops, and Smithee leans back in his chair, adjusts his monocle, and says, "Colored music is *so* droll, wouldn't you say, Werner?"

Herzog, taking a hit of something from a large bong, shakes his head, "The jungle...I hear only jungle."

For the last week, this is the only sentence we have heard Herzog say, but it seems to amuse Smithee, who calls for a break in an accent not unlike that of an opiated Bela Lugosi. "It's conceptual locution," explains the Andy boy.

Whatever the case with Smithee's accent, he then consents to a rare Q and A with your Recording Worlds correspondent, insisting that his "friends" and bassist Scragg be part of it.

RW: So, Alan--how goes the session?
S: Ah--music! Film! Yes! SEPIA will be just that--music and film. Dialogue too. It will be everything!
RW: Um...yes. So Mr. Smithee--
S: Call me Ishmael.
RW: Excuse--
S: A joke! Americans! So serious!
RW: Oh. Right. So...Ish...I mean, Alan--
S: Alan is fine. It is my name. I shall always have it.
RW: Alan. Tell us about SEPIA, and the use of these blues greats.

But Smithee suddenly excuses himself to use the commode, so a dazed, but lovely Perrine steps in.

P: Excuse Alan. He is a sensitive man, and suffers from gout.
RW: Of course.
P (perking up): SEPIA! Oh, gosh! It's a swell film! It's like this totally feminist movie. I'm Sepia Washington, Magnum-slinging, karate-kicking massage therapist cum private eye. (she pauses to adjust her Afro). I've always felt, well, black. You know, like oppressed and stuff?

Alan understood this when casting me--the studio wanted Pam Grier or something--but Alan saw past my blond-haired, big-titted bimbo act--which I really only did for Bob Fosse on LENNY--um, and George Hill in SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE I guess, but it stuck with me, I don't know why. I mean, so what if I was a stripper! I'm a person, a woman. I read too!

Perrine breaks down in tears. Gaunt New Orleans bassist Scraggs comforts her, while saying "hell, 'taint no shame in havin a nice rack like that, honey".

Then Smithee reappears, looking remarkably chipper after his bathroom visit.

S: Is Valerie crying again?
RW: It appears so.
S: Ha! I imagine she told you of her character. This is why I chose her to play Sepia. I saw the rage of a woman whose dugs blinded the world to her finer qualities. This is much like the plight of the American colored, no?

Scraggs face turns notably sour at this point, and walks away, muttering something about "honkie Nazis", but obviously in a spirit of comradeship. As any recording engineer knows, the pressures of the recording process often bring out in the musicians a private language of jokes and other affectionate, if coded exchanges.

When asked about the choice of Buddy Miles, Smithee seems confused.

S: Buddy who?
We indicate the sleeping musical great.
S: Ah! Yes! Buddy! Buddy! This junk...I mean, I feel so excited, I forget! Buddy is a brilliant musician! Brilliant! Even in repose, he inspires. He is the voice of God in SEPIA, n'est pas?
H: The jungle--
S: Enough with the jungle, Werner! Get yourself a nice little boy!
RW: So you had always envisioned a blues score...
S: Always! Cinema is music which draws upon the Weltshmertz of the viewer. And the mystery of weltshmertz IS the secret of SEPIA. You see it in (Lee) Van Cleef's face, this mystery. You see it in the gun-play, the zoom lens. But I do not examine mysteries, no! I...indulge them. So, of course, it would be the blues for SEPIA.
RW: But what about the action scenes?
S: Oh, yes. We have Lalo Shifren for those. His Spanish blood, you know?
RW: Which brings up some controversy: some say you are making a blaxploitation film, that you, a white man of European background are merely milking a formula at the expense of American blacks.
S: So what's wrong with the milking? Do you say I know not of suffering? Bah! We all suffer. Suffering is cinema. Sex, suffering, cinema -- the same! And guns! SEPIA has all of this. And Valerie knows what to do with a gun, she has suffered so. Hence this is not exploitation, this is reality, which is film.

At this point, Smithee's excited monolog wakes the slumbering Miles.

M: Grmmphh.
RW: Buddy, about your score --

But the composers eyes fill with a friendly loathing at the sight of Smithee.

RW: Oh fuck, man. Is that fuckin Kraut vampire still here? Fuck, I got a job to do.
S: (laughing) Musicians! What kidders, no?

-- Grey Zone I