Friday, December 31, 2010

Vertigo (1958)

USA, 128 minutes
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

"Cold Sweat" (1967)

10. James Brown, "Cold Sweat" (Aug. 12, 1967, #7)

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

"Mind Playing Tricks on Me" (1991)

11. Geto Boys, "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" (Nov. 2, 1991, #23)

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

"A Change Is Gonna Come" (1965)

12. Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come" (Feb. 13, 1965, #31)

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

"Rainy Night in Georgia" (1970)

13. Brook Benton, "Rainy Night in Georgia" (Jan. 31, 1970, #4)

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

White Teeth (2000)

Ho-hum, another day, another prodigy. Published when Zadie Smith was just 24, this ambitious, juicy, sweeping novel takes on globalism and post-racialism at its most mundane (and therefore its most profound) levels, the levels at which we live with it every day. A comedy acting occasionally as if it thinks it's a tragedy, it tells the story of the friendship between two middle-aged World War II buddies living in London as the 20th century nears its end—Archie Jones, a British national whose first wife is Italian and second wife a Jamaican Jehovah's Witness decades younger than him (and it's real love this time) and Samad Iqbal, a stubbornly proud Bangladeshi who clings to the traditions he knows, for the sake of his twin sons and their heritage and his own sense of identity, even as he watches those traditions rapidly disappearing in a grotesque world. Along the way these two families become enmeshed with another family of British nationals, the Chalfens. Marcus Chalfen is a brilliant Jewish scientist specializing in genetics (he is working with the DNA of mice on a "FutureMouse," to which various fundamentalists inhabiting this story have grave objections) and his wife Joyce is a lapsed Catholic hippie chick. Even as the various stereotypes embraced by this vastly multi-hued cast stand up and represent, the tangled interconnections and alliances and surprising commonalities between the various figures not only continually bleed the lines separating them but enable them—and here's the real miracle of the thing—to do so as fully formed, individual, and unique human beings, with back stories and private griefs and joys and engaging quirks that distinguish them and make them practically, as the usual cliché for this moment would have it, step off the page. After all the bluster and howling we see reported every day by 24-hour news outlets, there's a firm sense here that this is what immigration actually looks like. Laid across the scope of this novel are Bible-thumpers, apocalyptic rumblings, gangsters, rap music, marijuana, and a whole lot more, even Nazis. Is it a little bit busy? Yes, as hell. Does it work? Not always. At points it feels labored, even mechanical. Watch closely and you'll see that even a kitchen sink is involved in the action. Is it nevertheless brash and thrilling? Yes, entirely, an auspicious kickoff to the 21st century that I suspect people will still be reading even as it turns into the 22nd century (if indeed, obligatory sour note, we actually manage to make it there).

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Citizen Kane (1941)

USA, 119 minutes
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

"Loser" (1994)

14. Beck, "Loser" (March 5, 1994, #10)

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

"Wouldn't it Be Nice" (1966)

15. Beach Boys, "Wouldn't it Be Nice" (Aug. 20, 1966, #8)

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

"What's Going On" (1971)

16. Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" (March 6, 1971, #2)

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

"I Can Never Go Home Anymore" (1965)

17. Shangri-Las, "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" (Nov. 20, 1965, #6)

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

The Big Clock (1946)

Kenneth Fearing was a veteran contributor to the pulp magazines of the '30s and '40s but probably considered himself a poet before anything else. Even as he continued to publish collections of verse he eventually branched out to crime novels, of which this short example may be his best known—the movie version starred Ray Milland and Charles Laughton and is something of a minor staple of the noir subgenre (it was remade in the '80s as No Way Out). As with much of the work in Robert Polito's Library of America collections the novel bears intriguing narrative innovations deployed almost casually in otherwise routine tales of mayhem and deceit. In the case of Fearing's work it's a matter of shifting first-person points of view. Various characters step up for a chapter or a handful of chapters at a time to move the story along. It's a bit clunky, as the voices don't change that much from character to character, and it's all too plainly plot-driven, but it nevertheless provides an interesting panorama that serves to keep readers just slightly off balance even as the plot begins to engage full throttle. George Stroud is a cynical executive in a giant faceless corporation in New York City—the model appears to be Henry Luce's mid-century Time, Inc.—who finds himself put in charge by his boss of an investigation into the murder of his (the boss') girlfriend. His boss tells him that a key witness has disappeared and must be found; only Stroud knows that that witness is himself (he had spent the weekend with the victim, and obviously doesn't want his boss to know), which means he must misdirect the investigation even as he makes his own attempt to find out what happened, in order to avoid the blame for the murder that he knows (and that we know, thanks to the first-person tactic) he didn't commit. It's an absurd conceit, but never mind. Fearing keeps events moving quickly even as the twists and convolutions maintain the suspense, and people speak to one another entertainingly in the usual clipped, flinty phrases of hard-boiled fare. Soon enough Stroud and the reader figure out who is actually culpable, and it all comes down to a manhunt in the skyscraper in which Stroud works, a manhunt for himself that Stroud must evade even as he heads it up. The action turns into an exceedingly clever kind of juggling act with even aspects of the New York art world involved, and in the end it's all tidy as hell; along the way, it holds our interest at every point.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Give 'em Enough Rope (1978)

As it happens, based purely on a reputation rising fast and a rush of slavering good reviews, this first Clash album available in the US is also the first I acquired, back when it was brand-new late in 1978. But as an adherent of new wave, who adored the Buzzcocks and appreciated "Anarchy in the UK" for its tunefulness and hooks, I was vastly disappointed. And I will say still that I think it's probably the least of all the Clash albums (Combat Rock has been routinely underrated, but we'll get to that). Yet for all that it's still pretty damn good—sounds better to me, in fact, than it ever has. The carp I had with it—along with not a few other folks, as it seemed to fall fairly quickly in estimation from that first round of approval, which I think in retrospect was more like rerouted love for the debut, still unavailable stateside at the time—the carp I had with it is Sandy Pearlman's production, which tends to push the more metal elements to the fore even as it crushes the sound into a thick sludge of assault. Now, well—is that bug or feature? You decide. My favorite song was "Tommy Gun," followed by "Stay Free"; both have a lot of churning emotion that drives them, though the former accomplishes it with an admirable cock-rock guitar figure. They're still probably my favorites, but for whatever reason—maybe hearing it with post-grunge ears?—the rest of it sounds at least proficient, and often much more, outright great. "Safe European Home" and "English Civil War" have points to make, which I didn't want to pay much attention to at the time. Ditto "Last Gang in Town" and "Guns on the Roof." "Julie's Been Working for the Drug Squad" is a flat-out charming goof. And that's how it goes. When it's not earnestly indulging sheets of anger behind a wall of bombast it's making with the good old yobby times, salted through with rank but affecting sentiment. On closer examination, issues of the day are soberly addressed: "Tommy Gun" about the Middle East aircraft hijackings of the time, for example, or "Julie's Been Working" about Operation Julie, a big-time LSD bust in England and Wales in 1977. Even a breakdown of the titles indicates something of what they're up to here: "gun" appears in two titles, "drug" in two titles, and also "war," "gang," and "stabbing." So while the good times are celebrated with no stinting on the exuberance, there's also something deadly serious underneath it all, not dealt with frivolously.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Road Warrior (1981)

Mad Max 2, Australia, 95 minutes
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

"That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be" (1971)

18. Carly Simon, "That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be" (June 5, 1971, #10)

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

"Crystal Blue Persuasion" (1969)

19. Tommy James & the Shondells, "Crystal Blue Persuasion" (June 28, 1969, #2)

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

"(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All" (1972)

20. 5th Dimension, "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All" (April 22, 1972, #8)

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

"Hello It's Me" (1973)

21. Todd Rundgren, "Hello It's Me" (Nov. 10, 1973, #5)

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

The Accidental Tourist (1985)

On the heels of a successful movie adaptation (four Academy® Award™ nominations! winner of an Oscar©!!), and with Anne Tyler coming fully into her own, in the late '80s it was common to see this labeled as her best novel. To be fair, it's pretty good—certainly among her best. As usual, she finds a family-based situation on which to alight that has potential for bottomless poignance. In this case, Macon and Sarah Leary, middle-aged couple, are attempting to cope with the death of their only son, a 12-year-old who perished in an act of random violence, during a holdup at a fast-food joint. Macon makes his living writing guidebooks for people who don't like to travel; the title of the novel is the name of the series of books he authors. In comparison to the rest of his family, for the most part a bizarre bunch of OCD-candidate fussbudgets, Macon is a reasonably normal person, but the rest of his family is not a good standard. Sarah, fed up to the teeth with him and with them and still grieving a year after their son's death, leaves Macon, who almost immediately loses his bearings entirely, plunging into ever more desperate attempts to maintain control in his life, which Tyler shows in very funny yet harrowing scenes: washing his clothes in the tub at the same time he showers, for example, or, as another efficiency measure, hooking up his coffeemaker and popcorn popper to the clock radio in his bedroom for a breakfast of coffee and popcorn in bed every morning. Into this morass enters a young woman in her 20s, Muriel Pritchett, a single mother who takes to Macon for some reason, in spite of the age difference and, even more difficult to believe, in spite of the personality, er, situation. She and Macon are virtual polar opposites. Where he seeks control in everything, she implicitly rejects that such a concept as control even exists. The attraction is neither easy to believe, nor terribly original, but once past that the action proceeds memorably. Much as with the movie Casablanca, there is a sense here (confirmed in later interviews) that the author knows little better than any of the rest of us how it will all resolve, particularly once Sarah returns wanting a reconciliation. As for the movie based on this book, it's decent enough, but produces one slightly unsettling side effect: it is almost impossible to imagine Macon Leary and Muriel Pritchett in one's mind as any people other than William Hurt and Geena Davis. I'm willing to call that a triumph of casting, even if (or maybe because) that was the case from the moment I heard of their appearances, long before I ever saw the movie.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Clash (1977/1979)

For various reasons (or "excuses") I never properly got around to this one until fairly recently. I know it's essential—and found I knew the tracks fairly well by the time I sat down to listen closely. It has been in the air for decades, after all, playing in record stores and clubs and at friends' places, and I had pretty well absorbed it. What I didn't understand nearly as well was how different the original 1977 UK release is from the way-late (thank you, CBS) 1979 US release, even though they share some 10 tracks of their 14 and 15, respectively. If the majority of the tracks are the same—and the versions identical, except "White Riot," re-recorded from the original—the sequencing is significantly altered. Most of side 1 of the UK version appears to be basically side 2 of the US version but there are many alterations. As with the Beatles albums of the mid-'60s, the result is that they are effectively two different albums traveling under the same title and cover art, and this in spite of sharing identical versions of nine songs. I find that I like the UK version better. It sounds more like the landmark this is supposed to be, fresher and more vital and natural. The US version, with such lengthy additions as the 3:58 "Clash City Rockers" that kicks off the first side, or "Complete Control" (which has a guitar solo), or the new-wave gesture of the telling cover (in this case, "I Fought the Law"), seems already to be about the task of creating great iconic myths for its time. The band hadn't yet entered the studio to record any of London Calling, but they were about to, and obviously the ideas that would come to define the Five Great Vinyl Slabs of 1980 (with Sandinista) were percolating. They also hadn't yet entirely thrown off the misbegotten feint toward metal bombast and monotony of Give 'em Enough Rope. All of which ironically makes the US version of their astonishing debut feel more like a transitional effort with a bit of an identity crisis. Yet none of that takes away either from the finest moments they both share: the rowdy and caustic singalong "I'm So Bored With the USA" (notably appropriate in this context), "Janie Jones," "Career Opportunities" (which would make yet another appearance, this time in a different version, on Sandinista), "London's Burning," or the big dub reggae exercise "Police and Thieves." For that matter, "Clash City Rockers" actually manages to effectively signal what was coming, and for that reason alone makes the US version nearly as essential. Oh bother, you need them both after all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006)

USA, 74 minutes, documentary
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

"I Fought the Law" (1966)

22. Bobby Fuller Four, "I Fought the Law" (Feb. 12, 1966, #9)

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

"Don't Worry Baby" (1964)

23. Beach Boys, "Don't Worry Baby" (June 27, 1964, #24)

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

"Rapper's Delight" (1980)

24. Sugarhill Gang, "Rapper's Delight" (Jan. 5, 1980, #36)

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

"Tangled Up in Blue" (1975)

25. Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue" (March 29, 1975, #31)

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

After Henry (1992)

With this collection of essays Joan Didion rounds back into form—or, that is, the form by her I most appreciate, personal essays on quirky topics, dispassionately observed and delivered with a hard glitter—very nearly rivaling her best, The White Album. Her interest in U.S. politics starts to come into focus with a few pieces on Washington, D.C., including "Insider Baseball" (which also appears in her next collection, Political Fictions), an interest arriving at just about the time, in the twilight of the Reagan ascendancy, when the right-wing tipped over into fantasist realpolitik and infected the rest of us with all their lunatic bellowing, which we go along with, to our everlasting shame, if they would just shut up once in awhile. Didion refuses to have any of it and seemed to know even then that they never would shut up. She can be positively acid in the details she focuses on, examining the disinclination of American news media to actually report much of significance, noting in 1988 for example that, "American reporters 'like' covering a presidential campaign (it gets them out on the road, it has balloons, it has music[...]), which is one reason why there has developed among those who do it so arresting an enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported." Most of the essays focus on California life, looking at Patty Hearst, nuclear reactors in a region affected by earthquakes, southern California property values (and the strange culture it enables), Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, murder and mayhem in the picture industry, the fire seasons, and the history and evident purposes of the "Los Angeles Times" (which she argues convincingly for being a uniquely great national paper). Then a final stop in New York, "Sentimental Journeys," a decidedly unsentimental consideration of the Central Park Jogger case (well before it was known that those convicted and imprisoned for it did not do it, which she seems to sense). Her range of subjects, her evident fascination with all of them, and the clearness of vision and scrupulous attention she brings to her language and facts make practically everything here not only utterly engrossing and enlightening but worth visiting and revisiting. She's that good.

In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Fire of Love (1981)

The Gun Club were hangers about with such early '80s Los Angeles fixtures as X, the Blasters, and the Flesh Eaters—all associated with the Slash label, each biting off their own piece of the post-punk pie. Led by professional wolfman and occasional poet Jeffrey Lee Pierce, they attempted to corner the psychobilly segment of the market, arguably by inventing it, with varying degrees of success. Fire of Love is their first album and probably their best (the second album Miami has some nice moments too, and that's about all I know); "Sex Beat," a rollicking rip-off of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died," is the first song on the album and probably their best. Not that I mean to imply anything about shooting wads quickly. That's just the way it fell. Pierce, who sometimes sounds uncannily like Steve Wynn in the quiet parts, yelps a lot and populates his songs with Western imagery and night and intimations of death and murder and mayhem. The obvious comparison is to Jim Morrison but Pierce & crew are neither as tuneful nor as facile about engendering the grotesque outrage (though while I'm at it I'll mention that I think some of the most significant roots of psychobilly are found in L.A. Woman's "The WASP"). The band, which sometimes sounds uncannily like Dream Syndicate without the dynamics, plays to the words and the yelping with a vaguely country/western feel. But if the album seems all of a clumpy piece, lacking proper individuation let alone anything that just leaps right out and plasters itself over your face—"Sex Beat" is as close as they ever get to that—it still wears well. Produced in part by Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters, who also worked on albums by Dream Syndicate (hey, what do you know) and Green on Red, the sound is stoic and workmanlike, a kind of understated Rank and File, except for Pierce's calculated histrionics, and even they seem flattened into the mix. Somehow, however, it's all kind of comforting, and I have frequently found myself looking forward each day over the past week or so to the opportunity to play it again. It actually seems to get better and better every time through.

More information in comments.

Friday, December 03, 2010

My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

USA/UK, 82 minutes, documentary
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

"Surfin' Bird" (1963)

26. Trashmen, "Surfin' Bird" (Dec. 28, 1963, #4)

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

"Wild Thing" (1966)

27. Troggs, "Wild Thing" (July 9, 1966, #1, 2 wks.)

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."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Incense and Peppermints" (1967)

28. Strawberry Alarm Clock, "Incense and Peppermints" (Oct. 14, 1967, #1)

In latter years I have often suspected this—long since a staple of the hoariest oldies format on the radio—as a bit of a corporate psychedelic-rock project, maybe because it did so well at the time and has endured so persistently. But disregarding the company that eventually came to pivot on it to make it a hit, I see that its actual origins more or less mark it as the real thing, emerging from the Los Angeles welter of the time, and complete with stories of backstabbing intrigue and various untoward disavowals (in fact, one of the people who dreamed it up in the first place and was subsequently denied credit, Ed King, later went on to Lynyrd Skynyrd; more here). In any event I have always appreciated it and in many ways it seems to me now among the quintessential representations of the form, right down to the very silly wake-up call of the band name (changed from Thee Sixpence ostensibly to avoid confusion with another band) and the song title that willy-nilly juxtaposes seemingly discordant sensual input (compare "Crimson and Clover," "Purple Haze," or "Hot Smoke and Sassafras"). And that's just the accouterments of the thing. The sound of it is at once cartoonish pop music with broad streaks of vaguely disorienting menace, led by thick washes from the organ and a wheedling, gruff, chameleon electric guitar, undergirded by walls of backing vocals in various dark harmonies. And what are they going on about? "Beatniks and politics, nothing is new / A yardstick for lunatics, one point of view" and "Who cares what games we choose? / Little to win, but nothing to lose." Who knows? Some kind of trip, evidently. But it sounds so good, and you remember it forever.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Good Vibrations" (1966)

29. Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations" (Oct. 29, 1966, #1)

At the time it was new, I liked this about as much as any Beach Boys hit (yes, even "Barbara Ann")—it sparkled and moved and I enjoyed it when it came on, though I wasn't ever switching around stations to pick it up like I would with others. If anything, in fact, I was a little suspicious of the falling-over-themselves acclaim this so regularly received from all quarters, even after it had faded from the airwaves and, later, become a fixture on oldies stations. Call it my reflexively contrarian nature, that unique curse. Slowly, however—talking decades now—the thing started to nag at me. Particularly when I saw the way it was used in movies, the hard core of its eternal beauties began to disclose. Most memorable for me, perhaps oddly, was in the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, where it flew off the screen in an unusually apt transition, embracing and engulfing. Now I wonder how I ever could have been the least bit indifferent to it. It sneaks in so soft-footed, adds simple elements, takes off like a speedboat on the chorus. The organ is impossibly soulful in its light touch, when you manage to notice it; ditto the sawing cellos, which are thrilling. Oh yeah, they can sing some too. The use of theremin is absolutely perfect, taking this strange instrument out of the realm of '50s science fiction movies yet retaining its disquieting sense from those movies. The song inhabits and roams its strange structure easily and at will, almost randomly, and has enough going for it that it could easily triple or quadruple or more the 3:38 duration of the single release and would no doubt hold interest. As it is, I'm happy now and then simply to play it over and over.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jane Eyre (1847)

I never got around to Charlotte Bronte's magnificent mid-19th-century novel until recently, but I'm here to tell you now that it's definitely worth getting around to. As with Jane Austen's work—and unlike, for me, Charles Dickens's—the language is pellucid and shimmering, the plot carries its own headlong momentum, and reading the thing is as easy as falling into a warm pool. Recounting the life and various hardships and triumphs of the titular character, it's a big sweeping melodrama of orphans and cruel foster parents, of privation and grit, of haunted houses and secret debts long owed, of marriage proposals made in bad faith and good, of arson and suicide and unspeakable kindness when least expected, of misperceptions and misapprehensions of character, of love found and lost and denied and found again. Some of its tricks are terribly obvious—the class conflicts, for example, or the various coincidences on which the story relies, or the symbolism of the tree where Jane and Rochester rendezvous at some of the most critical points of their relationship—but the entirety of it is carried off with such poise and confidence that it's impossible not to believe every word, and more, want to stand and cheer at them. I understand from the introduction to my ancient Rinehart edition (by one Joe Lee Davis in 1950) that, in 1846, Charlotte and her two sisters, Emily and Anne, set themselves to the task of each completing a novel. They had previously published poetry under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton, respectively; at that time Charlotte, the eldest, was barely 30. In a year's time Emily produced Wuthering Heights (which I loved the first time through, and liked much less a second time), Anne Agnes Gray (which I haven't read yet but intend to), and Charlotte Jane Eyre, taking a bit longer. That's a stupefying feat of production for a single household in such a short period of time. Emily died a year later, and though Charlotte and Anne would go on to produce other work both of them died young as well, Anne at 29 and Charlotte at 38. While we're at it, Jane Austen died pretty young too, at 41. Hard times back then, as the first-person Jane Eyre will detail for you at length in Charlotte Bronte's brilliant and essential novel.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Big Lebowski (1998)

USA/UK, 117 minutes
Directors/writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Photography: Roger Deakins
Editors: Tricia Cooke, Roderick Jaynes, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliot, Tara Reid, Flea, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, Aimee Mann

I remember enjoying this star-studded fantasy barrel of laughs quite a bit when it came out, the insanely complicated story of the Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) and his inadvertent falling in with various packs of no-goodniks in and around Los Angeles who intend him evil in any number of ways. But I missed the shift to cult status, which I see started in the early 2000s on the usual midnight movie circuit, a few years after the release, and has now expanded to include a church, the Church of the Latter-Day Dude, or "Dudeism," a factor clearly signifying that something has arrived as a cult. In terms of both production and entertainment value, I don't think there are many such movies that can compare. The cast is stellar, in small parts and large. John Turturro, for example, probably gets something on the order of 10 minutes of screen time as a registered sex offender and deranged competitive bowler, but he's hilarious and unforgettable, pulling on his crotch as he makes threats and tonguing his bowling ball preparatory to hurling it down the lane. John Goodman has a much larger role as an aggrieved Vietnam veteran and it's arguably his best performance ever. Bridges, the star, is pitch-perfect as the slatternly hipster doofus—a bowler, a pot smoker, a white Russian swilling appreciator of indoor decorative arts, who roams the world perpetually clad in disgusting bathrobe and flip-flops. And Jimmie Dale Gilmore Sam Elliot almost steals the show as the cowboy narrator who gets all meta and shows up in bowling alley bars to discuss points of narrative with the Dude. Just another inexplicable cowboy from Hollywood. A screwball comedy minus the romance, this is the kind of movie where everybody knows the meaning of the word "nihilist" and casually bandies it about all the time, in regard to themselves and others. Not all the jokes work—the "Branded" scriptwriter found encased in an iron lung, for example—but they keep coming. It's pure comedy too. There are no changes to tones more appropriate to horror or noir or whatever, though they could have done it. They (meaning the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed) could have even made it kind of stressful, on the order of an "I Love Lucy" episode ("d'oh no, don't do THAT, Dude!") but they didn't. They stuck with comedy, underlined by the bizarrely effective fantasy sequences, such as the film within the film, "Gutterballs," which are funny and crazy weird on the order of Busby Berkeley dance routines, but with Creedence and bowling motifs and the hairy Dude in his bathrobe. If it starts to seem like a matter of diminishing returns to keep track of all the narrative threads, don't worry. It probably hangs together. Check on that with a Dudeist.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Get on the Good Foot" (1972)

30. James Brown, "Get on the Good Foot" (Sept. 9, 1972, #18)

JB yelps, "Que pasa, people, que pasa—hit me!" And this song kicks in as if the band had been playing it already for hours, if not centuries, which is hardly outside the realm of possibility (figuratively speaking, of course, in the case of the latter). I've got this one here as a kind of stand-in for all the many mighty sounds created by Brown and crew in the early '70s, many of which actually made their way to the top 40—"Super Bad," "Get Up, Get Into it, Get Involved," "Escape-ism," "Hot Pants," "Make it Funky," "I'm a Greedy Man," "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing," "I Got Ants in My Pants," maybe even "King Heroin," though that's decidedly a horse of a different color—and many of which can be found on the essential box set Star Time and/or the nearly as essential Make it Funky double-CD anthology (better to get both, if you care at all about funk or rock 'n' roll, as the duplications of version and even title between them are far more infrequent that you might suspect). "Get on the Good Foot" finds a band and its leader typically in full control of all faculties: the horn charts ripple with power and muscle, the rhythm guitar just about breaks off your neck keeping its time so tight, the famed bridge in this case knocks it into a kind of drunken, sprawling mode for the better part of a minute, and then back to the groove. The whole thing hurtles forward at the kind of pace that gets you breathing harder just hearing it, drives you to your feet, makes you throw your hands in the air like you just don't care, etc. You probably already knew at least that much.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Diamonds and Rust" (1975)

31. Joan Baez, "Diamonds and Rust" (Nov. 8, 1975, #35)

At this moment, listening to this song again, I want to go back and redo the whole list in order to push this to the top. It sounds so good—better than ever. I've spent most of a lifetime undervaluing Joan Baez (who I once uncharitably referred to in print as "Joan Baezzz"—I'd like to apologize for that now). But even in my self-important fatuousness I could hear this song for what it was back when it barely crested the charts to qualify as a hit: the gorgeous, sweetly bruised song of lost opportunity and poignant, rueful regret. "Regret" may not be the right word—there's no connotation of blame or fault-finding here, only sadness, joy found and lost. It can't be much surprise that this emerged out of the welter of Bob Dylan's wildly acclaimed (and, I have always thought, somewhat overstated) mid-'70s divorce album Blood on the Tracks. His great return to form, and all that. Six months later, Joan Baez stepped up to offer this memoir, etched in her soul. It starts with a phone call and a voice from long ago heard once again, and then drifts back into memory and nostalgia denied: "Now I see you standing with brown leaves falling all around / And snow in your hair / Now you're smiling out the window of that crummy hotel / Over Washington Square / Our breath comes out white clouds / Mingles and hangs in the air / Speaking strictly for me / We both could have died then and there." The words are wrought carefully, with concrete images of seasons in change and a steadfast tacking away from sloppy confession. The melody is haunting, the musical setting a lush '70s production, helmed by a voice that could shatter glass if it wanted, a story told without self-pity.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Poison Ivy" (1959)

32. Coasters, "Poison Ivy" (Sept. 7, 1959, #7)

Perhaps the most comical line in all of Wikipedia occurs in regard to this song, delivered so dryly: "In a recently published biography about Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller, the song's authors, it was revealed that the song's lyrics are about sexually-transmitted disease, not the illnesses previously thought [measles, mumps, chickenpox, common cold, whooping cough]." Well, all right then, good to have that settled. And now that we're all done laughing I should probably mention that I didn't exactly realize that myself back when I first listened for it on oldies weekends. No, what I liked were the insistent rhythms, the infectious melody, the weird way it twists the words around, plays with the themes of disease and flora, making them hooks all in themselves: "Measles make you bumpy / And mumps'll make you lumpy / And chicken pox'll make you jump and twitch" and especially the flat declaration, "You're gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion." Later on, as an adult, I figured it out, but on those early encounters when I fell into its orbit so naturally, it was just bewildering and transfixing what they could be going on about. This was the first hit by the slick novelty specialist Coasters that arguably wasn't a novelty, though you could certainly make the case that it is. But it's sly as opposed to the broad strokes of "Charlie Brown" or "Yakety Yak" or "Along Came Jones." Not that there's anything wrong with any of those—the Coasters are actually one of my favorite acts of the '50s and perhaps my favorite vocal-oriented group of all. But there's something uniquely special about this one, I think. Listen to it a few times and see if it doesn't get under your skin.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Help Me" (1974)

33. Joni Mitchell, "Help Me" (April 20, 1974, #7)

For some reason, every time I find myself considering this song (or the album from which it comes, Court and Spark) I want to appropriate the William Carlos Williams poem, and plaintively declare that so much depends upon the lady with a hole in her stocking. That image and the deceptively casual way that Joni Mitchell uses it are only one of the many poignant features that have pulled me into this since it was a radio hit. This song, this album, this period, is approximately the point that Mitchell stepped boldly away from her folkie origins to showcase her broader musical skills, which were always there, passing through this gorgeous pop period (don't blink too many times because you're apt to miss it) on her way to the more rarefied regions of jazz and points further. It's so guilelessly dedicated to the painful search for love and the fleeting pleasures, when attained, and it's just about as straightforward as it gets: "Help me I think I'm falling In love again When I get that crazy feeling again, I know I'm in trouble again I'm in trouble." And it comes with a pop sheen that positively glistens, an acoustic guitar leading the charge but quickly giving way to a lush arrangement full of little surprises: a tidy, clean-cut mix, sax and flute and guitar popping up to make statements, a melody that swoops to the high notes, some of them held good and long (you'll lose your breath singing along if you don't know what you're doing), angelic backing singers, and, yes, the lady with a hole in her stocking, who, you know—you dance with her. Didn't it feel good? (Didn't it feel good?)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

I have long been a bit of a sucker for pop science books, and this is probably one of the best. It's fairly long, running to over 500 pages in the hardcover edition with the endnotes, but then its scope is ambitious and sweeping: all of the scientific history of the planet, including physics, chemistry, geology, biology, genetics, and more. A friend scoffed at it once, saying that it mostly details the petty feuds that erupt among scientists, who are all too well aware that credit for advances equates to funding for more research. That's true enough, but those conflicts are hardly without their own intrinsic interest—it's actually amazing to read how often synchronicity occurs in scientific breakthroughs. What appeals to me most is the knack that author Bill Bryson evinces for condensing the most complex concepts to understandability—there's no math here, really, which of necessity makes it all ultra-simplistic in the big picture, and I'm no expert either, so maybe my judgment is just an article of faith. But Bryson continually finds straightforward, striking strategies to convey what he's after. For example, in discussing the scope of our solar system, which we all know well from schoolroom models of various planets swirling about the sun, he makes the point that if the planets were reduced proportionally so that Jupiter were the size of the period that ends this sentence, Pluto would be the size of a single molecule—and they would be 35 feet from one another. Another example that has stuck with me: in studying the Yellowstone area, geologists could see plainly that there is a good deal of volcanic activity there. But try as they might they could not find the caldera, which is the focal point of a volcano, the large basin that results from the explosion or collapse at its center. They could not find it, that is, until satellite photography came along—and the entire region was revealed as being the caldera. That is one motherfucking big volcano, and Bryson goes on to detail exactly how devastating its explosions have been and will be again. Also that it's overdue to blow again, which is more or less going to mean bye-bye North America and hello Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The book actually makes for brisk reading, even as it remains evident that it is essentially inadequate to everything that is actually known and the controversies and disputes surrounding that knowledge. But a bibliography is also included that points to scores more books of varying levels of readability, a good many of them evidently quite accessible. I haven't got to many of them yet, but whenever I'm ready for more of this, that's probably going to be my first stop.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Live at the Apollo (1963)

This still holds a reputation for being one of the greatest live albums ever recorded—certainly one of the first. If it now has many rivals, it's still not hard to see the point. It is, first, a faithful chronicle of a live show, at least James Brown's portion of it, from beginning to end, as opposed to some record of a peculiarly successful jam session in front of a crowd, which is what other highly regarded live albums, as by the Allman Brothers or Phish or the Dead, amount to. So it starts with the standard introduction by a breathless master of ceremonies, in which JB is praised every which way imaginable for two minutes, a gesture that merely serves to build suspense further (by that point in many Brown shows it was getting cruelly late and the band had already been onstage for nearly an hour raving up on rhythm and blues standards). Then, suddenly, he's there, James Brown himself, flashing his moves (you see them in memory, they are emblazoned there), blasting through hits with breath-quickening tempos: here, "I'll Go Crazy," "Try Me," "Think," songs that the audience knows and craves, already satisfying appetites. The performance is complete with calculated flourishes at every point, the band tight and taut and muscular, providing ratatat transitions between the numbers. Then the show shifts gears, slowing down some with "I Don't Mind," then stretching things out to over 10 minutes with a smoldering "Lost Someone." He's got you now—somewhere in here the point occurs where you realize that all the hassles of getting to this show and waiting for it to start are now undeniably worth it. Always a good moment. Terrific accidents of live performance are captured, as when a girl shrieks into a quiet place, perfectly timed with the emotion of the song in the moment, and the audience responds with gasps of laughter, tension released. That also provides a canny concrete sense that this all actually happened once, in some faraway room, now caught forever. Then—he's actually very nearly done now—a seven-minute medley, intended to leave nothing neglected: "Please, Please, Please," "You've Got The Power," "I Found Someone," "Why Do You Do Me," "I Want You So Bad," "I Love You, Yes I Do," "Strange Things Happen," "Bewildered," and a return to "Please, Please, Please." An impossibly fast "Night Train" finishes it. In the end, after little more than 30 minutes, band and audience are equally exhausted, and satisfied. That's showmanship raw and pure, and this is one of the best places to find it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Matrix (1999)

USA/Australia, 136 minutes
Directors/writers: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Photography: Bill Pope
Editor: Zach Staenberg
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran

Dark and self-consciously suffused with a diseased green, as if witnessed via monochrome computer terminal monitors of the '80s, The Matrix, which seemed so futuristically groundbreaking at the time of its release in 1999 and now seems so vaguely yet persistently dated, plunges us quickly into its various exasperating contradictions and paradoxes. The action comes fast and furious in the first 10 minutes, then slows considerably until its big finish. Except for a handful of fantastic set pieces along the way it settles most of the time for being awfully talky, and the talk tends to be all too often awfully trite, sampling a smorgasbord pastiche of new age received wisdom (I can't be the only person, amidst all the yakking about a mythical Jesus-like figure known as "The One," to keep thinking of Gwen Welles's Sueleen Gay in Nashville). On first viewing it's arguably a sound enough strategy, enabling viewers time to absorb the complex implications of the high concept: a world now organized and controlled by sentient machines that depend upon human beings as a source of energy akin to batteries, maintaining human docility with an elaborate neurological ruse experienced as "the matrix," inside of which it is always 1999 and people believe they are living the kinds of lives we all think we know. Thomas A. Anderson, played by Keanu Reeves, by day is a faceless software developer in a giant unnamed corporation, by night a computer hacker with the handle Neo. He is recruited by a mysterious band of ragtag outlaws in trench coats headed up by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss), who strike blows for freedom and are hunted by nameless "agents" cut so square and efficient they make FBI personnel look like weekend bikers. The first time I saw this, when it was new, the story seemed to me so complex and intricate that I could barely follow it. But every viewing since has made it seem more and more straightforward and practically hackneyed. Not sure how that works but I think I'm about done now. Still, I could not possibly ever steer anyone away from this who hasn't seen it yet—the fight scenes, heavily influenced by the gunplay of Sergio Leone and John Woo and whole traditions of kung fu action, make it entertaining enough by themselves. And the innovation of "bullet time" alone, which has gone on to be used and parodied extensively, makes it something of a necessity, although you will probably have the sense that you have already seen it even if you haven't, so pervasive has its influence grown in the years since its release. A good many absurdities must be taken at face value (human beings as batteries for machines? really?), which is surprisingly easy given the more profound sense exploited here that all is not as it seems, that there is more to everything we experience than we presently know. To the extent that this does work, that's the primary idea powering it.