*ALERT: There be spoilers ahead.*
I’d read the email wrong. Perhaps it was my subconscious knowing how little I want to be in Midtown Manhattan, ever, but the address where the press screening of the long-awaited Bobby Liebling documentary, Last Days Here, was taking place was 1619 Broadway, and not 1616, as I swore up and down to The Patient Mrs. We still made it on time, and when I walked off the elevator on the fifth floor of the building — which, while we’re relating things to movies, I’ll say looked like something out of The Hudsucker Proxy — I awkwardly stumbled through identifying myself to the guy with the clipboard and the press list on it and we soon made our way inside, to the front row, and waited for the film to start.
Filmmakers Damien Fenton and Don Argott of 9.14 Productions — who between them directed, edited, produced and operated the cameras — also serve as the guitar duo for Philadelphia instrumentalists Serpent Throne, who released their third album, White Summer/Black Winter (review here), in 2011. Between this and the recent screening of the Southern metal doc Slow Southern Steel helmed by CT of Rwake (covered here), I’ve had occasion recently to think a lot about the nature of self-examination as regards heavy and underground metal and rock. Last Days Here was made my professionals, absolutely — Fenton and Argott crafted the documentary Rock School in 2005, prior to taking on this project — but professionals well inside the culture they’re documenting.
On an anthropological level, that’s bad science. Ideally, you would want someone outside of the subculture analyzing and reporting on its characteristics. One does not expect in watching one of his nature specials that David Attenborough should be a penguin, so why is it that no one but headbangers can be trusted to convey the ideals of the heavy metal lifestyle?
The simple answer — and what I’ve come to reconcile myself to in watching these movies — is they’d fuck it up. You couldn’t have Last Days Here filmed by a group of people without a direct appreciation for Liebling‘s contributions to heavy metal and more specifically to doom. It would either fall flat, ring hollow, or collapse on its own insincerity. It takes someone who knows not only what that appreciation feels like, but how much of your life it can consume and how much of your worldview it can shape. I don’t think heavy metal is alone in this regard, but had Last Days Here been produced by “outsiders,” it would have been condescending and cynical, and since the emotional investment is part of what typifies the culture, it has to be present on the most basic creative level for a film like this to work.
There are arguments to be made on either side of that, I suppose, but the notion of the “true” and underground heavy’s seemingly endless search for authenticity is an essential piece of understanding that Last Days Here takes as a given. It’s part of what revived Pentagram in the first place for the latest run that winds up as the triumph with which Fenton and Argott cap their film — well, that and the birth of Liebling‘s son in 2010 — and it’s what serves as the driving motivation that leads Philadelphia native and former Relapse Records employee Sean “Pellet” Pelletier to spearhead that revival.
We open on a toothless Liebling living in his parents’ sub-basement, smoking crack and promising not to die before the film is completed. Going into it knowing that Pentagram successfully completed tours of the US and Europe since this time, that Liebling was able to stay clean long enough to oversee the recording and release of the first album in a three-record deal for Metal Blade — 2011′s Last Rites (review here) — it’s obvious he keeps that promise, but if I wasn’t familiar with the band, it would be easy to see that as a foreshadow of his death to come. He looks neither long for the world nor particularly thrilled at having to spend another day in it. His arms are bandaged from what’s soon to be revealed as perpetual scratching and picking off his own skin as a result of crack-induced paranoia. He is a mess of injection scars and infection.
Last Days Here is ultimately sympathetic to Liebling, but at times brutally honest. We meet Bobby‘s parents, Diane and Joe Liebling, who’ve had to come to terms with their son’s failure at life and love him anyway. Their role as enablers of his lifestyle, such as it is, is touched on but never explored, and for a moment, it’s a bit like an episode of the tv show Intervention gone wrong. Before long, Pelletier (who is not to be confused with fellow Philly resident Chris Pelletier, the US label manager for Season of Mist; that’s a mistake I’ve regretted making a few times) is introduced as the second of the movie’s major focal points (that’s not to use the word “characters” to refer to people who actually exist), and he tells his story of discovering Pentagram‘s music at a record show with his then-girlfriend and having it change his life to the point of putting together the compilation of unreleased ’70s-era material, First Daze Here (The Vintage Collection), which was put out on Relapse in 2002 and instrumental in raising the profile of the band’s influence on doom, as well as somewhat ironically becoming one of their most influential releases in and of itself. All of a sudden, Witchcraft made a lot of sense.
A full history of Pentagram, its members, its legacy and its breadth of impact on the Maryland/D.C. doom style and underground and commercial metal is a project that the format of a feature-length documentary simply cannot cover, and Fenton and Argott must have either learned that early on or realized it going into the filming. Instead, Last Days Here crafts a narrative after giving a basic background from interviews with the likes of original drummer Geof O’Keefe, Joe Hasselvander, Victor Griffin, soundbyte-worthy journalist Ian Christie, Pelletier and others as well as telling the stories behind the band’s several failures — the audition for Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley they flopped, the lambasting Liebling gave Blue Öyster Cult engineer Murray Krugman (who appears to discuss the incident and the fame the band could’ve had in one of Last Days Here‘s several cringe-worthy segments) that unraveled their chance for a major-label contract — and laying much of the blame where it seems to belong: on the troubled singer writhing on his couch and rambling about parasites he needs to get out from under his skin, going to the hospital, signing a contract to turn over his record collection to Pelletier, Argott and Fenton if he ever smokes crack again.
He does, and so far as I know, keeps his records, and that’s one of the moments where the line between the filmmakers and the subject are the most blurred, but it’s also one of the most honest scenes in the movie, which one imagines is why it made the final cut and what must have been hundreds of hours of footage was cut. As regards the narrative that emerges in Last Days Here, it’s the story of Pelletier and Liebling — their troubled friendship (one gets the impression, particularly in hearing from O’Keefe, Hasselvander and Griffin, that Liebling knows no other kind) and Pelletier‘s attempts to get Bobby clean and put together a new Pentagram album with the original lineup. O’Keefe squashes those hopes after an entertaining trip down memory lane of some of Pentagram‘s negative reviews from their early days, but what shines through without any real outward mention is Pelletier‘s passion for the idea and for the band. As charismatic as Liebling is on camera — and even at his most addled, he is that; I had my own experience with it interviewing him early in 2010 — it’s Pelletier‘s belief in Liebling that drives the movie and serves as its emotional crux.
Liebling meets and falls for Hallie, a woman literally half his age (he’s 52, she’s 26), but though she eventually becomes his wife and the mother of their child, their own tumultuous relationship is seen more as an extension of Liebling‘s many addictions than the shot at redemption it ultimately wound up being. As Liebling moves to Philadelphia from the sub-basement to be near Hallie, it soon turns sinister (you can hear the musical shift in the Stars of the Lid drones that serve as a soundtrack when Pentagram‘s own music doesn’t) because of his drug use and Hallie dumps him, breaking his heart. We see Liebling as devastated, but it’s not heartbreak as much as it’s an addict needing a fix and she’s the fix. He pines, he moans, he gets tossed in jail for violating a restraining order she’s had put on him, and it’s Pelletier who puts his arm around Liebling and says how glad he is to see him after he bails him out. This is one of the most subtle and pivotal scenes of Last Days Here, because while Pelletier says this, he also adds that at least while Liebling was in prison, he knew where he was, reminding of an earlier confession that while Bobby was in jail, at least he could get some other work done.
Still heartbroken, Liebling returns to live with his parents and puts together a new Pentagram around the lineup of drummer Gary Isom, guitarist Russ Strahan and bassist Mark Ammen (all of whom would be gone by the time Last Rites came out). Its formation is somewhat nebulous, but Pelletier is nonetheless thrilled when he finally hears about it, only to be disappointed as Liebling continues using and mourning his loss of Hallie. Going to jail had cost Pentagram a deal with Phil Anselmo‘s Housecore Records — Anselmo shows up and appears as little more than a cartoon caricature of himself during his time on screen; I wanted to imagine the cameras shutting off and him asking in a perfectly clear and semi-British accent, “Shall we do another take, then?” — but Pentagram is moving forward anyway, mostly, from Liebling‘s perspective, as a means for him to prove to Hallie that he can not make it as a person more than a human being.
A sentimental pang went off in me when I saw the Metal Maniacs logo on the poster for Pentagram‘s 2009 comeback gig at Webster Hall. I didn’t go to that show (because that’s how much I hated working in New York), but seeing Liebling prevail on stage is Argott and Fenton‘s climax of Last Days Here. Off to the side of the stage is Pelletier, crying happy tears for Liebling‘s being able to pull it off this time as opposed to the several other flubbed comebacks mentioned as part of the buildup to the show, and in an interview shortly after their set, he says it was the best night of his life. His belief in Liebling, which doubtless came at the advice of those around him in his private life and, at times, himself, is validated, and the film fades to black after Bobby in repose and drunk on joy, quotes Forrest Gump in saying “life is like a box of chocolates.” As much as it kind of shot that moment in the foot to see it reduced to commodified film dialogue — the stuff of pop culture cliché — one almost has to applaud Argott and Fenton for leaving that in, unmanipulated. Muting him after the sentence before, which was poignant enough, and keeping him on screen in slow motion during the fade might have also worked, but it’s not really worth speculating.
Since it was finished before the album was released, Last Rites and Victor Griffin‘s return to Pentagram are never mentioned. Instead, an epilogue comes in seeing Liebling cooking breakfast and calling Hallie into the room. The two have gotten married, Liebling is living clean, and there’s a baby boy on the way. “There’s gonna be another me!” Liebling hams for the camera, while Hallie averts her eyes, clearly showing a preference for the man off-screen than the one on it. Nonetheless, this is grown up Bobby Liebling we’re being shown. Maybe 25 years too late, but grown up all the same. He has a bank account, he accompanies Hallie to the doctor to hear their son’s heartbeat for the first time, and in the very last shot of the movie, in a still photo, he and Hallie stand with their child, Robert Joseph Liebling, born in August 2010. He’s still posing for the camera, and there’s no guarantee that life is going to keep its serenity going forward — Argott and Fenton were wise not to make any such ridiculous promises — but you get what you get, and it’s certainly a happier ending than the opening promised.
After the credits rolled through, The Patient Mrs. and I joined the group of writerly-types in the hallway to head back downstairs and out. In the elevator, in a discussion between two critics in which I took part, one man told enough, half-laughing, that Last Days Here was well made, but that he had a hard time sympathizing with a pedophile — referring to the age difference between Bobby and Hallie Liebling — and I was astonished at how someone could so easily miss the point of the movie. Last Days Here isn’t the story of a musician who chases down a young girl and tricks her into bearing his seed, it’s the story of addiction, and each of Liebling‘s behaviors prior to getting clean as relates to Hallie can — and I’d gladly argue, should — be seen in that blue light more than any other.
The fact that at 26, Hallie – however sweet-faced or youthful she might appear next to her husband’s grizzled visage — was eight years beyond legal adulthood at the time of filming and at least deserves the respect of being allowed to make her own decisions on how and with whom to spend her days no matter how counter those decisions might run to one’s own perception of social norms and mores, is another issue altogether, but most importantly as regards Last Days Here, if Liebling proved able to correct his addictive behavior on all levels, including Hallie, and a healthy relationship was able to emerge from that, well, that’s more than a lot of people get. Hallie herself acknowledges the age difference and realizes that some people might think it’s weird. “If they think I’m only with him for his money, he doesn’t have any,” she says. And she’s right. If there wasn’t a strong emotional attachment there, why bother putting up with an addict whose track record of failures spans decades?
Hearing that, more than anything else, cemented for me the assertion above that you have to be within a subculture to fully understand it and that without the foundational appreciation for Liebling‘s creative work, no accurate portrayal of who he is and what he’s done as a person and as the leader of Pentagram, for better or worse, could be enacted. Last Days Here is that, and it’s a skillfully crafted, expertly edited narrative of friendship, love, failure and redemption in doom. I don’t know what the film’s appeal to those outside the sphere of the music will be, and I don’t have to care. If Pentagram have ever been anything, it’s been understood and embraced by a select group of people on whose lives they’ve made a serious impact. If that turns out to be the case with Last Days Here as well, the film can only be called more accurate for it. Doom on.
Thanks for reading.
Tags: Maryland doom, Pentagram, Washington D.C.