I never met Andy Wood, but I knew him well. Wood was that childhood friend most of us had, the one who never seemed to fit in at school or on the playground or on this planet. He was the class clown you could always count on for a laugh, and later in life he was the one person who would break your heart. Andy was a genius and a poet, a fool and a tortured soul-he was rock's Pagliacci.
Andy Wood was the cherub-faced lead singer of the legendary Seattle band Mother Love Bone, while his alter ego was Landrew the Lovechild, the electric preacher of the gospel of "loverock." Wood should have been the biggest star to emerge from the scene that changed the world of modern music; instead, he died a junkie's death at age 24.
Wood's untimely death in 1990 came just as Mother Love Bone was about to hit it big. In life and in death, Wood was a huge influence on the musical community that had been his second family. And in the shadow of his passing, his best friend and roommate, Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, collaborated with future Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard to record a musical tribute. The resulting album, Temple of the Dog, was a work of such emotional candor and brilliance that it left those who didn't know Mother Love Bone or its enigmatic lead singer asking, "Who is this Andy Wood?" One of those people was locksmith-turned-filmmaker Scot Barbour.
Barbour was so moved by Temple of the Dog that the California native ventured to Seattle to seek the answer to that question. "I never wanted to do documentaries, and I probably never would have, had this not come along," Barbour told WW during a recent phone interview. "It was ultimately other people's music, and the emotion in Temple of the Dog, that drove me to want to know more."
The need turned into a 10-year project, culminating in the documentary Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story.
"I didn't know Andy, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to make a film about him unless I knew him intimately," Barbour explains. "One of the challenges of somebody like him is that no one really came to know him intimately-even his closest friends really didn't have a good grasp of what was going on with him. If they did, he would probably still be alive. I had to somehow uncover what was going on in his head, even though he was gone and no one else alive could tell me."
Barbour began getting to know Wood, not through the interviews that make up much of Malfunkshun, but through a more unconventional approach. "I knew he had gone into rehab a few times, so I got his records-nurse's notes, counseling sessions, assignments he had to write," Barbour says. "I got ahold of those records and really got a grasp of what was in his head at that point. Creatively, I needed his music and his lyrics to get in his head on that level and then put the two together."
Barbour's research allowed him to get into the complexity of Wood's personality, coming to know him in a way few people ever did. He got to know Landrew, the musician, who preached of love and the healing power of music. But he also got to know Andrew, the abused child who battled substance abuse and used a facade of humor to mask a lifetime's worth of pain. "That's how I got to the intimacy of the subject," the filmmaker says. "I really, really spent a lot of time uncovering who he was. Then knowing that, that's how I started doing the interviews."
Despite the cliché of the now-familiar subject matter-promising young rock star crashes and burns, leaving behind unfulfilled promises of greatness-Malfunkshun is far from an extended episode of Behind the Music. Incorporating colorful animated sequences reminiscent of Jim Blashfield's abstract work on music videos in the late 1980s, Barbour creates a vibrant portrait of Wood, seamlessly blending, swirling and merging a kaleidoscope of images with his music. "I wanted it [the film] to be an impressionist kind of thing," Barbour says. "You look at Monet's version of Notre Dame, and it's not photorealism, it's what he thought it looked like one day when it rained. How I made the film was how I thought Andy looked like from my perspective."
Yet the creative imagery Barbour uses in Malfunkshun is just the spice on a finely prepared meal. The main course of the documentary is the interviews with those who knew Andy, from his rehab counselor to his friends and family. Those conversations are folded into a wealth of old footage of Wood, photos and home movies of him and his brothers, videotaped concerts of his early band Malfunkshun, plus tons of Mother Love Bone footage. Watching all of those recordings makes it seem as if those around Wood knew his life would be cut short, and were inspired to capture his existence. And in every photo, home movie and videotaped performance, there is Andy the showman, cracking a joke and telling the world, in his own inimitable style: "Look at me."
Malfunksun takes place a lifetime ago, before Seattle appeared on the pop-culture radar. In this tiny universe, where Pearl Jam had yet to form and bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana had yet to make it big, Wood was a central figure, a flamboyant kid from the suburbs who was the life of the party. And while Wood's life is the foreground of Barbour's painting, the landscape in the background is Seattle, back when it was still a community and before it became a commodity.
"They were just kids, playing in the garage together, all just trying to make music and having fun," says Barbour, describing what it was like before all eyes turned to the Emerald City. "Then suddenly the most fun guy there is, with the biggest potential, is just wiped out. And that's when things started getting really serious. Seattle blew up and became an industry-people got signed, it was a business, friends parted ways. Andy was kind of the last symbol of their fun, the era of childhood for Seattle. It was their last moment before it all changed."
The most amazing thing about Malfunkshun is that the filmmaker-like me-never met Andy Wood. Barbour's film unfolds with such understanding and intimacy, it's as if the storyteller was someone who knew Wood his whole life. "I remember Chris Cornell in an interview said, 'Look, Scot, I really appreciate you doing this for Andy, and it would be amazing if you could get the type of person he was, but you're not. You can never get him,' Barbour recalls. "[Years] later, he told me, 'I have to take that back: You got him.'"
Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., 238-8899. 7 and 9 pm, Friday-Thursday, Sept. 2-8 (no show Wednesday). Additional shows 5 pm Saturday and Sunday. $4-$6.
Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story also screens as part of Sound Unseen, the music-related film series at Musicfest Northwest, which WW co-sponsors. 7 pm Friday, Sept. 9. Clinton Street Theater. $7, free with MFNW wristband.