Friday, December 31, 2010
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Maxwell Anderson
Photography: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: George Tomasini
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones
It's interesting that Vertigo continues to safely occupy its position as consensus choice for Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece—Psycho has its loud (and persuasive) partisans, of course, and a clutch of other titles might be mentioned for the running as well: Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, The Birds, sometimes even my own two favorites, Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt.
Vertigo was never much of a commercial success, which is neither here nor there in the scheme of things. More interesting for me, in light of its status, is that it's not much of a suspense or mystery film either; more of a melodrama, if anything, and at that doesn't always seem to bear strictly recognizable human motivations. Even as it's said to be far and away Hitchcock's most "personal" film, it occupies a landscape that exists almost entirely in a baffling moral vacuum, a bizarro world of (literally, in some cases) up-is-down norms not always easy to parse.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
This three-minute wonder operates as a kind of machine, with every instrument save Brown's vocal dedicated exclusively to the rhythm, working the beat good and hard, "on the one," and moving with all due deliberation in consideration of its various daunting complexities. Even chord changes, for those keeping track of such things, are minimal—there's only one, at the bridge (though the bridge is not openly discussed here as it is elsewhere in Brown's work). It's all about the rhythms, and even as it attains a kind of status as rarefied, abstract, concrete art, it's music best appreciated on one's feet, moving, and ultimately stands as just another example of how working hard produced memorable results for James Brown. No one was being cute when they tagged him as the hardest working man in show business. The song's writer, alto sax player and nominal bandleader in Brown's funk army, Pee Wee Ellis, has pointed to two sources for the origins of this song. The first is a rhythmic figure that Brown introduced to him in a dressing room one night via his voice and breath—a likely approximation of it can be heard in the second half of the false-start 23-second version found on (the essential) Foundations of Funk. The second, according to Ellis in an interview with "Down Beat" magazine, is the horn line from Miles Davis's "So What," from Kind of Blue. Thus some deep roots, which may account for the variety of versions recorded throughout the breadth of the considerable Brown canon: a seven-and-a-half-minute version found on the album that carries the name, the three-minute hit, a jazzier five-minute version featuring a piano, instrumentals, alternate takes, the historically significant 23-second studio moment, and of course numerous live versions. It's one you really don't want to miss, and probably haven't.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Far and away the single scariest song in all of my Billboard book—the only thing close is "D.O.A." by Bloodrock, which is larded through anyway with cheese. These three rappers out of Houston, Texas, who have constituted the Geto Boys since 1988—Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill—here do what rappers do, take turns discharging verbiage, as the chorus circles around a guitar figure from an Isaac Hayes song. Words, words, words, all telling stories from strictly internal POVs of gangsters cracking under the pressure. Scarface: "I'm poppin' in the clip when the wind blows / Every 20 seconds got me peepin' out my window." Willie D: "Here they come, just like I figured / I got my hand on the motherfuckin' trigger / What I saw'll make your ass start gigglin' / Three black, crippled and crazy senior citizens." Scarface again: "I often drift while I drive / Havin' fatal thoughts of suicide / BANG and get it over with." And then Bushwick Bill closes it with a story too long to reproduce here, one better experienced as intended anyway, as sound and mood and tone and inflection, about a vicious, titanic street brawl that turns into a hallucination: "It was dark as fuck on the streets / My hands were all bloody, from punchin' on the concrete." This is certainly stark dramatization of gangster life, which might strike some as a flavor of glorification, but clearly no one is having anything close to a good time. And I don't think the point is the moral of the story or the cautionary aspect anyway—it's the experience of it, the raw sensations, which are overwhelming.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
More evidence of the giant impact that Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" intriguingly had on African-Americans in the early '60s, Sam Cooke's posthumous penultimate hit was written as his response to the Dylan ballad, which he included in his stage show shortly before his death. (In No Direction Home, Mavis Staples memorably quotes the line, "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man," obviously amazed that a young white boy from Minnesota could so aptly capture so much of the essence of her father's life.) Certainly Cooke's song feels now as if he were looking as far forward as he or indeed any of us still possibly could, with a sobering, simple, and profoundly moving message, one that resonates yet: "A change is gonna come." At the same time, Cooke draws on his deepest roots as a gifted gospel singer, his stock in trade for years before he turned to popular music (in the process outraging a good many of his most devoted fans; the circumstances of his death didn't help any with that either). In many ways this song expresses a gravitas that Cooke himself missed, though his popular career nevertheless features some of the best and most influential black pop music to be found in its era or any other. Dressed up with a lush orchestration that makes it as big as Carnegie Hall and then some, the images of Cooke's words bristle with a kind of 19th-century cum ancient veracity that only serves to ground the song further. It may not have peaked that high, but it has lasted a long time.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Until Brook Benton applied his baritone to this, some few years since he had had a hit of any significance, he tended to present as more a purveyor of a certain type of jaunty fare that played well in lounges, often in duets with Dinah Washington. More than anything he appeared to be a student of Jackie Wilson. And that stuff's pretty good, not trying to denigrate it—"Baby (You've Got What it Takes)," "Kiddio," "A Rockin' Good Way," "The Boll Weevil Song," so on and so forth, all from the early '60s. Upbeat and swingin'. But it provided little preparation for what could well be the single saddest, lonesomest song ever recorded by anyone anywhere. Tony Joe White ("Polk Salad Annie") wrote it. Arif Mardin (fellow traveler with Ahmet Ertegun) produced it. And the times called for it, or so its success would seem to indicate. Thus Brook Benton, virtually out of nowhere, stepped up and put it down, and after that it was all over except for the crying. The smoky organ and especially the lush, lovingly hand-picked electric guitar sound straight out of Memphis, and the imagery is all Deep South, at least the sensibility: "Neon signs a-flashin', taxi cabs and buses passin' through the night, / A distant moanin' of a train, seem to play a sad refrain to the night." About then the strings come up. Later the singer may be spied hopping a boxcar for places unknown, guitar and picture of woman in hand, hanging his head and muttering the words that tear at the heart of anyone listening: "I feel it's rainin' all over the world." I don't know about you, but even the opening seconds of this just knock me sideways.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
In case it's not at the library.
Friday, December 24, 2010
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Herman Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, Roger Q. Denny, John Houseman, Mollie Kent
Photography: Gregg Toland
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: Robert Wise
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris
When something is as universally adulated as this—not just ranked high but routinely rated #1 in critical poll after critical poll—it can paint a target on its back for contrarians such as myself. It seems hard to believe that anything could possibly foster such agreement and it smells like the kind of thing that annually delivers up Oscar travesties, the hoariest industry trend of all by now.
But a few little items in recent years have helped me better get over myself in this regard, and I pass them along for what they're worth for anyone who might be struggling with a similar predicament. First, I read about an encounter reported by Jonathan Rosenbaum that occurred in a film class he took in the early '60s, when he was given to understand, after asking about the exclusion of Citizen Kane for any consideration in the class, "that Orson Welles's film was basically uncinematic and therefore only impressive to amateurs who understood little about the medium." That's the kind of thing guaranteed to raise the hackles of any self-respecting contrarian.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Beck's one and only hit (for all I know, his one and only attempt at one) is typically enough cobbled together from a lot of pieces—a slide guitar, a sitar figure, a Dr. John drum track, some random Spanish verse, a bracing tumble of words, and I think I hear George Bush (the elder) in there too. Out of this welter emerges a potent vocal hook in the chorus, easily sung and not soon forgotten: "I'm a loser baby so why don't you kill me." The album from which it comes, Mellow Gold, has little else to recommend it (YMMV) and it would be another two years still before Beck had begun to successfully transform himself into the beloved album artist that he remains even now. Compare the career flight path of Radiohead, with their hit "Creep" followed by a lengthy interval before The Bends (and especially OK Computer) and ensuing status as generational touchstone. In both cases, the early hit songs were at once aberrations from the eventual catalog and yet almost perfect anticipations of it too. In many ways, particularly at its moment in time, "Loser" seems like a kind of left-handed if obviously inadvertent tribute to self-slain Kurt Cobain, which only added to its iconic gesture. In the Rorschach morass of it can be heard strains of heaving depression, infantile sarcasm, the usual self-deprecating irony, and the kind of humor on which a person can survive, all of which only go to further compound the bewildering depths of it. Beck, walking himself back a bit from it, is reported to have later said, "The raps and vocals are all first takes. If I’d known the impact it was going to make, I would have put something a little more substantial in it." Me, I'm pretty sure it doesn't deserve the denigration.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Once again emerging from inside the confines of his head, Brian Wilson here offers us perhaps the most audacious, naïve, heartfelt, genuine, wrongheaded, thrilling, foolish fantasy of love and marriage ever committed to recording media, here, now, anywhere. With one possible exception (still ahead) no hit on the radio ever captured the seductive simplicity of the fantasy quite so completely. It is never, not even for one second, the least bit embarrassed about its addle-headedness, and therein resides its everlasting charm. Used effectively as the kickoff to one of the great rock 'n' roll albums, Pet Sounds, it starts with deceptively gentle guitar goofing, a drum hit, and then the shimmering, overwhelming wall of vocals and melody and words. It can penetrate like the rush from a drug, that moment when you suddenly realize everything is different now. Listen to them putting it down: "Wouldn't it be nice if we were older / Then we wouldn't have to wait so long / And wouldn't it be nice to live together / In the kind of world where we belong," they sing, and the sincerity sparkles through. They are evidently as high as we are now, and they continue, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up / In the morning when the day is new / And after having spent the day together / Hold each other close the whole night through." Then they clinch the deal: "Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true / Baby then there wouldn't be a single thing we couldn't do." The genius of Wilson & crew here is that they accomplish all this with such basic elements: words, sounds, melody, harmony. This thing is just about perfect the way it is. It doesn't need any help. It's all there all at once.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
A frequent complaint about Motown through the '60s was the distance they maintained from the current events consuming so many—civil rights, long hot summers, Vietnam, all that. Everyone and everything was required on some level to bear "relevance" back then, and so, as if to validate the appreciation of the galvanizing sounds, some heard coded messages, as in Martha & the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" (or, to a lesser degree, "Heat Wave"). Toward the end of the decade, the label made more formal if often wrong-headed (though some perfectly apt) attempts, as with the Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack" or Edwin Starr's "War" (+ don't forget this). But no one on the roster, producer or performer, ever got it as right as Marvin Gaye here. Nothing had ever sounded quite like it before. Nothing would ever sound quite the same again. Almost purely a studio concoction, with complex layerings of tracks, led by Gaye's soaring, swooping, shimmering vocals and his shrewd and tuneful and emotionally pitch-perfect songwriting, it sounds simultaneously exhausted, enlivened, depleted, and energized. The poignant saxophone lines alone can rend a heart. The words are plaintive and heartfelt, never cloying though they may scan that way when read: "Father, father / We don't need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate." It captures perfectly (cliché alert) the sense of being alive and young in the early '70s. The song and the album that the song kicks off—an album that provides even more complexity with its suites of artful musical and lyrical themes and that went on to produce three top 10 hits—remain among the most purely felt auditory sensations that have ever come racketing out of car speakers on staticky AM radio stations.
Monday, December 20, 2010
The Shangri-Las, composed of two sets of sisters out of Queens, New York, who came across as perhaps just slightly more JD than anything in the Phil Spector stable, are probably best known and remembered for their biggest hit, 1964's "Leader of the Pack," a novelty that doesn't wear particularly well after 45+ years, even the camp flounce that can occasionally seem rather charming (e.g., "Yes, we see!"). A couple of others actually represent them much, much better: the sultry "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)," first, which is approximately 110% pure raw teen sex. And this overripe, entirely effective morality tale, all tarted up as a little opera compressed into just over three minutes. Packed to the gills with extravagant flourishes and asides, none miss their mark, and all hit very hard. The story is an eternal one, as bold in its strokes as it is simple: told in the first person, the girl loves the boy, the girl's mother forbids the love, the girl runs away, the mother takes sick and die. And now, [title]. The small points tell: the sheer dynamics that shuttle between soft and harsh. The hushed, urgent entreaty at the start: "Listen / Does this sound familiar?" The strings and backing vocals that layer through and swell like frosting in a slice of cake, continually counterpointing the narrative. The way the vocal dips toward the mic on, "I was sure I was right." The lullaby that comes from nowhere and drives the dagger home. The haunting cry of "Mama!" And the killing choke at the end. Those unprepared for the wallop here can find themselves taken apart by this song—it's happened to me. There's a case to be made that this is the finest moment of a good many ever for producer/songwriter Shadow Morton.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Friday, December 17, 2010
Director: George Miller
Writers: Terry Hayes, George Miller, Brian Hannant
Photography: Dean Semler
Music: Brian May
Editors: Michael Balson, David Stiven, Tim Wellburn
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston, Max Phipps, Vernon Wells, Kjell Nilsson, Emil Minty, Virginia Hey
The Road Warrior tells the simple, straightforward post-apocalyptic fable of how a relatively cultured tribe trapped in "the Wasteland" (presumably what we now call the Outback in Australia) (no, not the restaurant chain) survives besiegement by a vicious band of outlaws, ever prowling for oil. Along the way, it offers a good many plain electrifying pleasures, which serve as something of a palate cleanser from the franchise's more tedious first effort, Mad Max. Everything is bigger and badder, chockablock with ripe end-times insignia rather than ugly hoodlums on motors. Had George Miller gone to the crossroads? The storytelling schema is throwback to another era—visuals tell the story during daylight, often across great expanses of space, and sounds tell it after dark. Most of what dialogue there is could have practically been replaced by title cards. The action is headlong, constant, and visceral, focused on the blazing energy of post-punk fashion plates in control of jerry-rigged muscle cars and motorcycles (and a bizarre helicopter as delightful as it is weird) zigzagging across sand and down decrepit stretches of abandoned highway, across which lie random heaps of wreckage, smoking and otherwise. Even the wipes that provide the transitions bristle with energy. The whole thing gets positively Biblical at points; also medieval. Many die. Dean Semler's camera rattles and rolls and shakes, just barely keeping up with much of it, underlining the explosive danger stalking these events. The stunts, on hurtling vehicles, are often inventive and daring, and always convincing. An orchestral score counterpoints the raw look and feel, lending a moody doominess if not quite achieving the lofty operatic grandiosity it seems in search of. The one misstep is a big one: Mel Gibson, who is altogether too pretty to be the least bit believable and who, as the star, occupies entirely too much screen time. That may be his latter-day baggage bothering me, I allow that. I don't remember being so annoyed by him when I first saw this, on the original release. But that was then and this is now. Nevertheless, it's a pretty good show.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Carly Simon's first hit is far and away her best, not least because it manages to escape the soundalike formula she basically struck on with her next, "Anticipation," which subsequently led to her biggest, "You're So Vain." Don't get me wrong. It's a formula I like. I count Carly Simon as my favorite female pop singer guilty pleasure of the '70s, analogous to Petula Clark in the '60s and Sheena Easton in the '80s. But this is way beyond that—yes, all right, it's more proto-Adult Contemporary, and not just in its soft, wispy textures, its lulling piano, whispering vocal, aching strings, but in its themes, both adult and almost painfully upper-middle-class: "My friends from college are all married now / They have their houses and their lawns." This might be coming from the same general geographical vicinity as "Be My Baby" but it's a continent apart in terms of class. Yet there's something entirely universal here, and arguably even more enduringly so. The cold and distant family, the almost perfect isolation of the singer confronting the next stage of her life, the fearful prospect of that next step, marriage, which even in the midst of the burgeoning feminism of the day remained practically inevitable, one she feels compelled to take without questioning, except for this brief song. She can't articulate why any better than anyone else in this song can articulate anything ("My father sits at night with no lights on / His cigarette glows in the dark"). It's almost overwhelmingly terrifying, yet so utterly baseline familiar. I was in high school when it was all over the radio, I had not even had a girlfriend yet, and still the sadness and the terror of this deceptively quiet plaint could devastate me. It still can.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
If not the king or at least crown prince of '60s bubblegum pop, Tommy James with his ever-lovin' Shondells certainly qualified at a bare minimum for a sinecure among the landed gentry. They roamed the landscape of the day, handily working in various soul and/or psychedelic modes with far greater facility than any of the usual suspects (Lemon Pipers, Ohio Express, 1910 Fruitgum Company, songwriters/performers Boyce & Hart) and they produced a number of enduring classics that don't even sound that often like versions of one another. Their most celebrated turn, by evident consensus, may well be the candy-striped psychedelic "Crimson and Clover" (and do make that the long version, please), but there's a couple more I like better: one I've already mentioned, and this, which takes its cue from the late-'60s exhaustion represented equally by the Youngbloods' "Get Together," a lot of the Rascals' releases once they had (tellingly) dropped the "Young" from their name, and much of Simon & Garfunkel. "Crystal Blue Persuasion" is arguably enough just about as corny as it could be, with its bongos and wheedling acoustic guitar and simpering vocals and the hippy-dippy words, variously attributed to Biblical prophecy, methamphetamine addiction, and sincere desire for peace on earth. Probably not even Tommy James could satisfactorily account for what it's about, but that doesn't matter anyway. Once the organ enters, and the various swoops and passages of the melody take hold, churning and spiraling to ever greater heights, like taking switchbacks on a mountain path, it's a soothing trip to a blissful place, a pure balm and solace, and just what the doctor ordered. Not many chart hits I know can claim such effect, nor stand up so well to playing repeatedly.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
I chose this over the 5th Dimension's "One Less Bell to Answer," written by David/Bacharach, because even though I like them both, and for similar reasons (also "Wedding Bell Blues"), I had always heard this as taking the happier point of view on L-U-V love, recounting the experience of someone energized by a romance on the verge of blooming, even a little feverish maybe, and who, in the excitement of the moment, well, just can't sleep. Certainly that was my experience of hearing it, sleepless myself and hearing the bittersweet ache of it on oldies stations down the years and thinking about one girl or woman or another I liked and wondering if she liked me too. Come to pay attention more closely to the lyrics now and this appears to be something else, a story of a relationship already in place and perhaps in some trouble. But let's just set that aside. And while we're at it set aside the line about the sleeping pill too. Just let that slide. It's fair to call this Adult Contemporary—in fact, I think that's exactly the way to take their best stuff ("Stoned Soul Picnic" and the Hair thing are good too, but another bag). A song like this feels to me like getting right inside the skin of ordinary grown-ups—aka "regular folks," always a perilous place to go, but there you are, I'm going there—people with office jobs, too much responsibility, not enough money, more than their share of heartache. Ack, I'm making a mess of this. But I've been there, too often too much, and for a long time hearing this late at night offered the kind of comfort that only songs on the radio can provide, something that reaches out of the aether in the dark for you.
Monday, December 13, 2010
When last we heard from Todd Rundgren he was trying hard to cheer up a fellow named Leroy and find him a date, only in the last moment realizing that he should maybe think about taking some of his own advice. So fade to black. Open on: Three years later. Todd at telephone, contemplative. Lifts receiver, dials (this is 1973, see). Holds receiver, listening, tentative. Then: "Hello it's me / I've thought about us for a long, long time / Maybe I think too much but something's wrong / There's something here that doesn't last too long / Maybe I shouldn't think of you as mine." Does that make sense? Nah, not really, but it sure sounds pretty. And we are off on the further adventures of the bashful introvert nice guy out and about looking for a gal. (Set aside that this was hardly the real actual Todd Rundgren, whose girlfriend at the time was Bebe Buell.) Rundgren knew his audience well—guys whose chronic sense of romantic fantasy was matched only by the chronic ineptness of their ever achieving anything commensurate to the fantasy, and he pretty well wrote directly to that, with lovely tunes and nicely overwrought production and words that flashed non-sequentially on poignant elements of the fantasy. I know that "Spend the night if you think I should" out of this song always lit up for me like a big ol' Christmas tree. So did "It's important to me / That you know you are free / 'Cos I never want to make you change for me." Being genuinely sensitive meant having feelings just like that. I fell for it like the proverbial ton of bricks. It works on me still. Look how high I've ranked it.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
In case it's not at the library.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Friday, December 10, 2010
Director/writer: Harry Moses
Photography: William Cassara
More mysteries of abstract expressionism. This one starts one day in the 1990s, in southern California well east of Los Angeles, when Teri Horton, an Ozarks native who escaped to a life of long haul trucking, decides to buy a gift for a friend in need of cheering up. Horton, an inveterate prowler of the goods to be prized in rummage sales and even dumpsters behind upscale malls, finds a giant canvas in a thrift store covered with paint. The price is $8. Horton talks it down to $5. "It was ugly," she says. "If you wanna call it artwork." It wasn't exactly what her friend needed either, so Horton attempts to unload it at her next yard sale, where she is approached by a local high school teacher who tells her it might be a Jackson Pollock. At which point the action to this documentary, such as it is—including the title—gets underway. When Horton finds out that Pollock's paintings command prices starting at about the $50 million mark, she sets about in earnest attempting to authenticate her canvas, and the door is opened, for her and for us, into the very strange world of art connoisseurs, with its frauds, deceits, and pretensions. Very quickly the film establishes that the canvas probably is authentic by examining the work of a forensic scientist, brought in by Horton, who finds a fingerprint on it that matches a fingerprint found in Pollock's studio, as well as on two other Pollocks with impeccable provenance (we also find out more than we might have ever expected to know about such concepts as "provenance"). Consistencies among unique trace elements of the paint are also discovered. Comically and exasperatingly, this means very little to the connoisseurs, who as a class may be represented best here by a notably fatuous clown named Thomas Hoving, who died in 2009 and here disgraces himself by proclaiming that he is, ipso facto, expert on everything he sees because he has lived and worked most of his life in New York art circles. (This movie is incidentally very good at explicating certain elements of simmering long-term resentments held against elitists on the coasts, which persist even as they grow only more toxic over the years and decades.) From there it's on to the slimy inner workings of the art world, when Horton hires a man previously imprisoned for fraud to represent her interests; he subsequently attempts to sideline her. There's also a detour involving John Myatt, previously convicted for art forgery, who says that he would never even try to forge a Pollock, because, counterintuitively, it would be too difficult. As terrific as this story is it's marred some by how unlikeable Horton can be. You want to be on her side, if anyone's, but she's as infected by greed as anyone here. During the course of the filming she was offered $2 million for the painting, "no questions asked," and during post-production, by another party, $9 million. Either one would be a handsome profit on a $5 investment, of course, but she turned down both offers. Latest word I can find is that she has had it for sale in a Toronto art gallery since 2008, with an asking price of $50 million, but it hasn't moved. Still, I defy anyone to see this and not find themselves at least temporarily obsessed with the various shades of truth of everything it looks at—the problems of authentication, the intrinsic values of abstract expressionism, the greed and pretentiousness of the art industry, and the deep fractures of class divisions.
Thursday, December 09, 2010
Anyone who's heard this, even if only by way of the Clash cover, which is worthy, has a pretty good idea just how terrific it is—the galloping rhythm, the big strumming charge of the guitar, the almost-too-chipper declarations of desperation. "Breaking rocks in the hot sun" and "I needed money 'cos I had none" and "Robbin' people with a six-gun." It's sort of a cautionary tale, but only from certain angles. The ringing chorus of "I fought the law and the law won" somehow insinuates itself more as some kind of 50-50 proposition, the moral equivalent of "I called heads but it came up tails," although that doesn't scan so well and obviously loses all the outlaw chic glamour. Meanwhile, the arc of the Bobby Fuller biography I think brings a lot of unexpected depth to the whole thing. Fuller pretty much spent all of his short career as a Johnny-come-lately Buddy Holly knockoff. Both came from West Texas, and Fuller outright idolized Holly and covered a number of his tunes, such as the follow-up to this, "Love's Made a Fool of You." In fact, "I Fought the Law" was written and recorded first by Sonny Curtis and the Crickets. Fuller was only 22 when he died in 1966, a few months after this twisted across the pop landscape. Reportedly his body was discovered in his parked car in front of his home in Hollywood. He had been beaten and gasoline was found in his stomach. Friends speculated it was related to Fuller's suspected mob ties. Los Angeles police ruled it a suicide. There's a lesson in here somewhere but I think maybe you have to be a corkscrew to see it clear.
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
It's a well-known fact that Brian Wilson did not surf—nor, by the time he set himself to paying tribute to and matching the various heights of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," had he ever taken to hot-rod racing, in the streets or otherwise. But obviously he knew it would have been the kind of thing that would worry him if he did. And so, with co-writer Roger Christian, he sighed softly and leaned back and imagined a girlfriend, one who would comfort and help to relieve him of these worries. One who no doubt looked a good deal like Ronnie Spector. And in letting his imagination roam among the febrile fantasies of the gunning engines, the hooting and the jeering, in the gloaming which closes down so heartlessly, he hatched something that will always be tremendously beautiful. It moves at a stately pace, with cascading sheets of harmonies that drop in like fruit falling from a tree, with a harsh but sweetly insistent rhythm guitar, and words that tell the story straight and bare the feelings plain: "Well it's been building up inside of me / For oh I don't know how long," he says. "I guess I should've kept my mouth shut / When I start to brag about my car / But I can't back down now because / I pushed the other guys too far." But, and this is the good part on every level, "She told me 'Baby, when you race today / Just take along my love with you / And if you knew how much I loved you / Baby nothing could go wrong with you.'" And the chorus: "Don't worry baby" X 3. In the face of this, how can anyone possibly be surprised by our disappointment that life isn't always just like this?
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Brainchild of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, backing in—yeah, for sure, that's the bass from "Good Times," literally, along with generous helpings of its guitar licks too—and Fab Five Freddy, Wonder Mike, Master Gee, and Big Bank Hank occupying the house with unmitigated serene confidence, plus a big shout-out to impresario Sylvia Robinson who scored a sexy hit in 1973, "Pillow Talk," and a few years later was beating the bushes around New York for rappers willing to put it down in her studio. There aren't many songs you can get your thumb right down on as "visionary" and/or "ahead of their time" and/or "a glimpse of the future," but this one is all that, and make no mistake. One of the first genuine 12-inch hits, the various Sugarhill principals take turns stepping up to the mic to rap, introducing each other round-robin style, with the energized Chic sounds driving it all at a comfortable pace. What's that they say? It starts, "I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, a you don't stop the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat," and it continues, "I got bodyguards, I got two big cars that definitely ain't the wack I got a Lincoln Continental and a sunroof Cadillac so after school I take a dip in the pool which really is on the wall I got a color TV so I can see the Knicks play basketball," and it goes like that. The only version I have on my hard drive is the full magnificent 14:37 though even the shortest I was able to find by tooling around a little on the Internet is a shade over five minutes, which is still pretty long for a top 40 hit, certainly in 1980.
Monday, December 06, 2010
OK, I acknowledge that the consistency I'm liable to evince when it comes to Bob Dylan and his singles and albums probably amounts to very little or none at all. By all rights, "Like a Rolling Stone" should rank way higher than the #154 position it finally occupied when I finished fiddling with this list. Every time I hear it on Highway 61 Revisited, my favorite album all my life ever since I first heard it, I am thrilled still. On the radio, however, not so much—maybe it needs that sound of a needle locking into a groove? And so contrariwise with "Tangled Up in Blue," which comes from an album I don't actually much care for, but I love the song deeply and immediately whenever I hear it blowing casually out of a radio. It's all personal, "tangled up" in memory and sentiment. I was living at the time with five or six others in a rental house in Minneapolis, on the river just across from the West Bank and close to the hippie district, where it seemed every shop one entered at the time was blasting this song. This was the beatnik portion of my life, 20 years old and reading "Howl" and The Subterraneans and enthusiastically attending French New Wave cinema in venues with folding chairs. With a gray female cat named Benson who got pregnant and had the litter in an old medical case that sat in my closet. Smoking Gitanes because that's the brand we all thought Jean-Pierre Leaud was smoking in La maman et la putain (in fact it was Galouises). In May, I traveled by Greyhound bus to San Francisco, where I stayed at the YMCA and slipped into a Pharoah Sanders show, perhaps the last time I was underage for anything, and thrilled until the wee hours to the African rhythms and the shredding tenor. Et cetera. I guess this song was about gone from the radio by the time I got back.
Sunday, December 05, 2010
In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)
Saturday, December 04, 2010
More information in comments.
Friday, December 03, 2010
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Photography: Matt Boyd, Nelson Hume, Bill Turnley
Editors: Michael Levine, John W. Walter
As filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev can be heard mentioning at one point, this started out as a documentary "about modern art," by which I think he meant mostly the post-WWII American work that spun out of New York starting with abstract expressionism and continuing on through post-Warhol pop art, much of which eventually came to command grotesquely bloated prices. Bar-Lev focuses for the purpose on the work of Marla Olmstead of Binghamton, New York, who made a splash in the art world circa 2005 as a 4-year-old with her vivid abstract canvases (see website). He sketches out the story of how her work came to attention first in a Binghamton coffeeshop, where the owner thought it would be funny to hang her paintings. But when people started wanting to buy them the ball started rolling. Eventually Marla's work ended up in a local gallery, then showing and reviewed in New York, and then the freakish nature of the story—preschooler as brilliant abstract expressionist—took over. Midway through the filming of this, the hysteria reaches the point where a "60 Minutes" piece airs about Marla. An astute media observer here notes that these kinds of stories, once they take on a life of their own, sooner or later become about the controversy they raise, even if they have to invent new twists. In this case it was exactly that "60 Minutes" story, which pointedly if rather cheaply questioned whether or not Marla is the one producing, or at least completing, the work credited to her. And so the undermining seed is planted, and this film limps home attempting to solve the arguably off the point but deeply puzzling mystery. The questions it raises are pointedly difficult. Do you like abstract art? Why? Do you like it less if it is produced by a kid? Why? Do you like it less if it is produced by her father? Why? Does your opinion about an artwork change after you learn personal details of an artist's life? Why? Is it impossible to form a judgment about art if you don't have information about the artist? Why? So forth and so on. I think a lot of the paintings credited to Marla are great, and when the various art critics and lovers of her work start bringing it it's hard not to be even more impressed. At one point the elements of one painting are lovingly analyzed by an enthusiastic owner, and make reasonably plain just how impressive the work is. At the same time, I have to admit that the mystery can't help but give me some pause. If the father is actually the artist, why doesn't he take credit? If Marla is actually the artist, why can't her production of it be captured on film? In fact, one of her paintings is produced on film, but now the problem is embedded at deeper levels: somehow that painting doesn't seem up to the quality of her other work. But is that true, or has that become a problem of the personal bias created by what we know or think we know? I'm not sure we'll ever get the answers to many of these questions, at least not any time soon—though the work that can be seen at the website seems to me even better than what's on view here, which is encouraging. For now, we may have to accept that this movie and Marla's (and/or her father's) work seem to be one of those points where we find "reality" utterly pixelated. For that reason alone it is eminently worth checking out.
Thursday, December 02, 2010
Well, you would have to classify this as a novelty, right? It slots well enough into a flavor of surf-rock, cross-pollinated with early proto-garage, but that pegged vocal performance, which sounds like the mic has been parked deep inside the throat of the vocalist, along with the bizarre lyrical preoccupations, put it in a realm all its own. It's not entirely clear who that vocalist is—drummer Steve Wahrer hatched the idea of carpetbagging the Rivingtons songs in the first place ("Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "The Bird's the Word"), and he appears the most likely candidate, though guitarists Troy Andreason and Dal Winslow are normally identified as the band's singers. Whoever sang it, and however you want to characterize it, there is something considerably enduring about it, though it lasts only a brief time. The tempo is ridiculously fast, as if the band were attempting to squeak it all out in the moments before the onset of nuclear war, and the grotesque, lopsided focus on the vocal bends and contorts and distorts all time-space around it. It's almost impossible to hold still while this plays, particularly as the volume appears to rise higher and higher (oh, was that you turning it up?), and it's not much easier to listen to it just once at a time. The message is a simple one, thoroughly absorbed: "everybody knows that the bird is the word." Yet utterly inscrutable at the same time. Good for the car, good in the movies and on TV, good in the grocery store, good in the middle of a forest camping. It works anywhere. The Trashmen are from Minneapolis, playing surf-rock. That means that approximately anything is possible in the 2:21 that this lasts.
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
One example of how things have changed over the decades is that it's harder to hear now how perfectly depraved this sounded at one time—so much so that parodists set to work on it almost right away, creating watered-down comic versions recorded by impersonators of Bobby Kennedy and Everett Dirksen (who?), which among other things pointed up the ridiculous presence of an ocarina in the middle of it. This Troggs hit is also, just so you know, a cover version itself of a song written by Chip Taylor and recorded by the Wild Ones a year earlier, and also the song that Jimi Hendrix played at Monterey a year later just before setting his guitar on fire. It has arguably lost some of its overwhelming power to disturb and hence thrill, and furthermore, the version I am listening to now (from a Nuggets compilation) sounds like it could benefit from a remastering. Yet for all that, including that very strange ocarina, it nonetheless retains a good bit of its effectiveness, possessed of a surprising degree of wide open space, filled alternately with crashing and not unpleasing guitar chords, that ocarina, and an affected caveman teenage lout vocal that lays it out plain: "You make my heart sing. You make everything groovy. I think I love you. I think you move me. Shake it, shake it, wild thing." As a result of its general mumbling incoherence, and the sense that these guys can barely play their instruments, it manages to paint a scene that is deeply primal, profound to its core, as all civilization virtually melts and falls away under its withering gaze. It can almost feel like witnessing the end of the world, when there is only the singer and the wild thing and the request to "shake it, shake it."