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Dennis And Lois: The Oldest Living Indie Rockers Of Our Luminous Age
Adelle Stripe , May 1st, 2020 09:41

An affectionate documentary of two unsung heroes of the trans-Atlantic alternative underground, Dennis and Lois understands fandom like no other. Novelist Adelle Stripe pays homage.

This week sees the release of the long-awaited, award-winning documentary about a New York couple who transcended the standard definition of ‘superfans’, becoming more renowned than the bands they followed around. Directed by Chris Cassidy, Dennis and Lois follows the story of two obsessive music fans at the heart of DIY punk culture, who have been together for over 40 years. Together, they estimate to have seen at least four gigs a week over that period, resulting in 10,000 shows over a lifetime. If anyone deserves a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s them. Lemmy once said, “If you think you are too old to rock ‘n roll, then you are”. Yet the couple’s age and Lois’s deteriorating physical health has not prevented them from watching gigs. They are living proof that there is no appropriate age to stop enjoying live music; now in their 70s, they were recently spotted at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club watching John Grant and Stephen Mallinder’s dark analogue outfit Creepshow. In the dressing room, Dennis recalled that one of the greatest performances he ever saw was Elvis, and in the documentary he shows slides on a lightbox that he took in Vegas of the King in a rhinestone jumpsuit and guitar, gesturing to a captivated audience.

Dennis and Lois’s home is a domestic museum of pop culture; floor to ceiling is crammed with memorabilia, and is a vision of Marie Kondo’s worst nightmare. As friends, fans and merch sellers for a vast array of bands their role often extends to providing a sofa to anyone passing through New York who needs a place to stay. For Dennis, his love for music “doesn’t have a beginning or an end”. This documentary is in itself a tender love story, not only between two people, but between themselves, the bands and the musical artform.

Their house is an archive piece that deserves to be preserved in a gallery; it is filled with stickers, toys, t-shirts, and posters from 20th century pop culture including drawers of Indiana Jones merchandise, an under-sink cupboard of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a SpongeBob SquarePants bathroom, a whole room for Batman, boxed Ghostbusters, life-sized busts of Bela Lugosi, Max Shreck and Boris Karloff, a Pee Wee Herman diorama, Beetlejuice with a spinning head, Freddy Krueger gloves, a basement full of vinyl, and a shrine to Frank Sidebottom, who regularly stayed with them on his travels. The scale of their personal catalogue is breathtaking, and certainly has parallels to Chris Sievey’s, if not Martin Parr’s archive – whose vast collection of ‘stuff’, from Saddam Hussein novelty watches to twin tower tapestries and Miners’ Strike ceramics, appeared at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art’s Parrworld exhibition a decade ago.

Originally from Brooklyn, Lois was a teenage autograph hunter who listened to her transistor radio each night and was entranced by the music she heard. Murray the K’s show was her portal to another dimension, and she hung out at the stage door each week, awaiting the stars who had appeared that night. She still has scraps of paper signed by Chuck Berry, Phyllis Dillon, and Tiny Tim, but was particularly smitten by English music, beginning with The Beatles and Rolling Stones, both of whom she saw live in the early 1960s. At the same time, Dennis was an apprentice cameraman from Hoboken, and aged 15 began working on the Clay Cole Show, filming the likes of Little Stevie Wonder, and The Shirelles. By working closely with performers, he always viewed them as human beings, rather than celebrities to be idolised.

When the two finally met in the 1970s, their obsessive personal worlds collided – both had near-identical record collections, watched the same TV shows, and adored the same bands. Their first date was a matinee screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, followed by a trip to watch Talking Heads and Richard Hell at CBGBs in 1977, as Lou Reed shot pool (and probably amphetamine) in the back room.

Arturo Vega, artistic director of the Ramones, remembers Dennis and Lois with great affection– they were some of the first hardcore fans at CBGBs who attended every single gig, including one show that was a nine-hour drive, to watch them play at a pizzeria for 20 minutes in Pennsylvania. They established an immediate rapport with the band and, noticing that Arturo was struggling to work the lights and sell t-shirts, offered to step in and work on the merch stall. This relationship lasted for years, and the film shows a touching scene where Dennis and Lois visit the graves of Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Johnny’s grave is far more ostentatious, with quotes from Lisa Marie Presley, Vincent Gallo and Eddie Vedder engraved on the stone, whereas Dee Dee’s has a simple epitaph in contrast, “O.K… I gotta go now”. It is decorated with candles, cigarette butts, plectrums and flowers – simple offerings for the band’s most troubled and creative member.

Filmed over a number of years, Dennis and Lois charts the couple’s friendships and losses; there is an argument that once you reach a certain point in life it is easier to look back than forward, but this attitude never prevented them from seeking out new underground music – they are as excited now as they were in 1977, and a pivotal moment occurs at a Fat White Family gig in New York. Tellingly, Dennis is inside on the front row, watching the stage explode to ‘Auto Neutron’. Outside, Lois waits in her car, unable to walk or leave her seat. They are both upset at being separated, even for an hour. At this point, in 2014, she couldn’t establish what the cause of her mobility issues were, but believes the trouble began in an Oasis moshpit in the 1990s, where she had held on to her t-shirt bag and was trampled by the crowd. Lois now walks with a stick and uses a wheelchair; she is devastated that her illness has taken “everything away from me, everything I loved”, including her ability to dance.

Marc Riley recalls they were recognisable figures in Manchester’s indie scene in the 1980s, and once rang him to ask if they could come over and get to know the Happy Mondays, as they wanted to hang out with them. “Erm, do you know them at all?!” he laughed. “No Marc, but we’re going to stand outside the stage door in our Frank Sidebottom t-shirts and say hi, and then we’ll be friends.” As it happened, Dennis and Lois were exactly right – Paul Ryder was immediately drawn to them, and they did become friends, just as they predicted. In opposition to received wisdom, when the Happy Mondays were recording Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches in Los Angeles, they were too scared to buy weed off the street, so it fell to Dennis to send them a parcel of ‘green goods’ via Fedex (under a false name); the band were so delighted they named a song after them to say thank you. It wasn’t until Dennis read the NME that he saw Ryder’s surprise gift, a tale that still brings a smile to his face all these years later.

With a revolving cast of Mancunian pop glitterati, including Mani, Peter Hook, Guy Garvey and Shaun Ryder, it comes as no surprise that these two New York Mancophiles are filmed on streets of the Northern Quarter, delighted to be back in their spiritual home, soaking up the Northern climate with glee. Lois stands outside Forbidden Planet and points at the dank and miserable Oldham Street beneath her feet. “This is where I want my ashes scattered,” she declares, “although Dennis wants to be buried, so the road will have to be dug up.”

This documentary is one of infectious enthusiasm, and a tribute to two of DIY culture’s most committed fans, proving that age is no barrier for relishing the unbridled thrill of live performance. It is a lesson for anyone who believes in the enduring essence of rock ‘n’ roll.

Dennis and Lois is now available to watch on iTunes and other streaming services

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