Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Leon Russell

010 Leon Russell
With a calculated facade that hovers decidedly on the redneck side of glam—he'll wear makeup, but with that facial hair and croaking drawl you're never going to mistake him for a girl—Leon Russell comes across as some kind of Dr. John knockoff who absurdly appears to believe he's Bob Dylan, a blip of the early '70s. But something about certain Leon Russell songs has always pierced me deeply and unforgettably. He got his foot in the door playing sessions for Gary Lewis & the Playboys in the mid-'60s and then struck out on his own, eventually making some splash with a couple of Top 40 hits and a few well reviewed albums before settling into a lifetime of semi-respectable bubbling under. His material may be hit or miss, but when it hits, it goes right to the heart, and all these years later his stuff can still sound just great to me.

Carpenters, "Superstar" (1971) First, but only because it's alphabetical, the Carpenters' best song by miles, which Leon Russell co-wrote with Bonnie Bramlett. (3:46)
Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "Everybody Loves a Clown" (1965) I have to include a few songs by Gary Lewis & the Playboys, an infatuation of mine that dates back to my grade school career. As with Dino, Desi & Billy, another favorite at the time, much of their success is due to famous dads, in this case Jerry. The hold on me has dimmed, of course, but I sure loved them at one time, and there was Leon Russell in the middle of it. This one was co-written by Leon Russell, the famous producer Snuff Garrett, and Gary Lewis. (2:26)
Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "Green Grass" (1966) I don't think Leon Russell had anything to do with this one, but I just like it a lot. (2:15)
Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "She's Just My Style" (1966) Co-written by Leon Russell, Snuff Garrett, Gary Lewis, et al. (3:12)
Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "This Diamond Ring" (1964) Leon Russell appears as a session keyboards player and also the arranger for this and numerous other songs by the group. The song was co-written by Al Kooper, Bob Brass, and Irwin Levine. (2:15)
Leon Russell, "The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen" (1971) (4:03)
Leon Russell, "If the Shoe Fits" (2:22) (1972)
Leon Russell, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (1971) Leon Russell has got such a fetish for covering Dylan that I thought I better get one of them in here, even if I don't often think he has that much to bring to them. I think he's better with his own songs, but he seems to want to tell us something. (3:41)
Leon Russell, "Lady Blue" (1975) His last appearance in the Billboard Top 40. (3:36)
Leon Russell, "Magic Mirror" (1972) (4:59)
Leon Russell, "Manhattan Island Serenade" (1972) (3:26)
Leon Russell, "Me and Baby Jane" (1972) I'm not sure how he does it, or sometimes even what he does exactly, but this may be the best single example of him doing it: swooningly sad, ripe to the point of bursting, dramatized within an inch of its life, yet somehow softly understated, always tender, and above all completely beautiful. The heroin theme only makes it hurt more. (3:53)
Leon Russell, "A Song for You" (1970) (4:09)
Leon Russell, "Tight Rope" (1972) His first appearance in the Billboard Top 40. (3:01)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Sirens of Titan (1959)

One of the things about Kurt Vonnegut that I think too often gets lost in the overweening attention paid to his dark humor, liberal politics, and/or various silly conceits is what a fine writer he could be. Just simple and plain as that. He knew how to construct sentences and choose words with an art and craft that he brought with equal force to putting together his best work, among which you would have to include his second novel, The Sirens of Titan. In fact, subsequent visits to this absurdist tract only underline the point. He may have grown a bit lazy further along in his career, too often reaching for familiar (and annoying) repetitive tics such as "So it goes," but he was also capable of this kind of deceptively simple, rollicking novel, which relentlessly builds on itself, starting out with all the self-conscious trappings of science fiction and a story about one Malachi Constant, richest man in the 22nd century, on a journey from Earth to Mars to further his holdings in anticipation of a coming interplanetary war with "the Martians." From there it telescopes outward, embracing wider and wider themes, ultimately introducing religion itself, first as an element of the absurd and then, through some trick of sleight of hand, of the profound, grappling with the grand meaning of historical human events and ultimately the significance of life itself—and managing it all within the confines of a continuing space opera. As overblown as the action becomes, the events and characters remain resolutely straightforward, as concrete and plainspoken as anything you might encounter in the work of Mark Twain, which only means it is sly and funny and careful always about what it is up to. Vonnegut, at the time, was among a relatively tiny minority to recognize the powerful subversive potential of science fiction. That's not to overlook the work of the titans of the field at the time—notably Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke—but only to mention that Vonnegut here found a way to uncover and point to vast levels that the genre held still unexplored. This is a very funny book, the first of his greatest work, and one that even warrants the term "mind-blowing."

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Streetwise (1984)

USA, 91 minutes, documentary
Director/photography: Martin Bell
Writer: Cheryl McCall

Seattle may have earned a reputation as something of a bastion of the laidback West Coast style, but this documentary of the mid-'80s has a different story to tell, chronicling the daily grind of runaways surviving on the city streets. The average age of the figures populating this grim yet placid and hauntingly beautiful meditation: probably about 14. Most of them left the certain horrors of their domestic origins for the uncertain horrors they confront here. These kids, who come across as preternaturally old even as they inhabit the emaciated garb of youth, wearing the faces of children, casually discuss robbing and dumpster diving and hitchhiking and faggots and johns and tricks ("dates") with one another and with the camera. They fend for themselves and occasionally find champions who attempt to fend for them too. But it's a loser's game and they know it as surely as those of us peering in at them from beyond the screens. Perhaps the most heartbreaking image that recurs all through is that of a young girl we have come to know slightly, whose words still echo in our minds, leaning into the window of a car stopped at the curb and then opening the door and climbing in. But the interactions with their parents make a close second. One mother is a waitress who barely survives herself and obviously has no ability to control or even much influence her daughter's behavior, though she cares and tries in her way. At one point, with her daughter attempting to carry on an easygoing, bantering conversation of small talk with her from another room in their home, there is a long silence followed by the mother finally responding, "Be quiet now, honey, I'm trying to drink." And there is a father and his son, Dewayne, whose story may be the saddest one of all that we actually witness, talking via telephone handsets on opposite sides of the glass window of a prison visiting chamber; the imprisoned father reminds Dewayne he has only three more years to go before his release, admonishing him to be good. To find out the fates of these children nearly 30 years on is only to confirm the death of all irony within the confines of this sad, circumscribed place: suicide, AIDS, nine children and counting, gone straight, stabbed in a street incident. One of them became a victim of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, in 1987. Her name is Roberta Joseph Hayes, and even though she plays a relatively small part here she has the best shot for immortality because of her association with a famous serial killer. She is the one who will always be talked about first.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Very Best of Little Richard (1956-1964)

"Tutti-Frutti" The original wild man of rock 'n' roll, and accept no substitutes. In his prime—hell, even now—there is no one like Little Richard [Penniman], of Macon, Georgia, though plenty have tried. James Brown, Paul McCartney, and Otis Redding all started their careers dazzled by and frequently outright imitating him (Redding also hailed from Macon), adopting his various stylings vocally if not sartorially (few before the '70s were willing to so publicly attempt such transparent light-in-the-loafers outlandishness) in order to find their rock 'n' roll ways. Bob Dylan wrote in his high school yearbook, circa 1959, that he aspired to play with Little Richard. Jimi Hendrix once said he wanted to do with his guitar what Little Richard did with his voice, by implication his performance. Prince reaches all the way through James Brown to get to the essence of Little Richard. This is no matter of simply paying lip service to a hoary rock 'n' roll cliché or legend. A listen to what Little Richard accomplished in his prime, and maybe a gander at what he contributes to the movie The Girl Can't Help It, should serve to answer any further questions. On a driving job I had once, long ago, I can never forget how I lit up like a pinball machine whenever the oldies station played one of those early hits: "Tutti-Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Rip it Up," "Keep a Knockin'," and others. The excitement is palpable, irresistible, and enduring to this day. Penniman, like so many of the early rock 'n' rollers, may be driven as much by mad flight into and out of the arms of Satan—which, at least in his case, could as well simply be the mundane matter of refusing to accept his own sexuality, though arguably that amounts to the same thing. His career itself has been marked by a similar dynamic. Rock 'n' roller, minister of the church, media celebrity, hallowed communicant, on and on it goes, back and forth. Fortunately for us (if perhaps less so for him), all of that tension is compressed into this music, which, as the saying goes, will never die. That's the art of it, and his never-ending accomplishment.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fun Home (2006)

Alison Bechdel's thoughtful and complex memoir of her father and growing up in central Pennsylvania in the '60s and '70s, a graphic novel, airs a lot of her family's dirty laundry along the way. But she does so in such a forthright, straightforward, even clinical manner, like someone puzzling over the essentials of her life from the inside of a therapy session after years of working on it, that it comes to seem more clarifying and elucidating than one would ever expect. Her father was a high school English teacher and part-time mortician (the book's title comes from the family's nickname for the funeral home he operated), passionately devoted to literature and even more to projects of historical restoration. He was also, speculates Bechdel, a repressed gay man who lived the great majority of his life in quiet desperation in the small Pennsylvania town where he was born, eventually committing suicide. Whether Bechdel has the authority to make such judgments, as a gay woman out since her college days in the '80s and/or as a close observer of her father and family, is quite deliberately left for the reader to decide. His death, if it was a suicide, is maddeningly ambiguous. This memoir is perfectly wistful in capturing memories and feelings of youth and childhood with which anyone can identify, when Bechdel sets herself to that. What is more fascinating to me is the connection she explores between herself and her father over literature, a connection that is carefully developed and extended across the breadth of this memoir, which saves its most profound revelations for the closing chapter. Even more, the ways she uses her skills as a comic book artist are often surprisingly apt, in retrospect arguably the only way she could tell this story, one that is so deeply embedded in connections to lines of type running across printed pages that a good many panels here are exactly that, reproducing passages from a number of literary heavy hitters—Proust, Camus, Joyce, Colette, and others. For all of its frank and open revelations, Bechdel is careful to seal off the privacy of herself and her surviving family the further away from her father that she gets. I left this with an unsettling feeling of knowing both too much and not enough. I'd like to think she can follow this up with something that deepens the story further. But then I have to wonder how she could possibly do so. It seems to be a story that is finished, after all, loose threads and all.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Two Sevens Clash (1977)

"Two Sevens Clash" For all the dread (meaning anxiety) that engendered and drives this stone reggae classic, the vibe throughout remains as steadfastly joyful as it is devout, which is not to say it isn't somber too. I suppose that's what happens when you are imagining the end of the world at the hand of a God who loves you, and who you love too. In this case, it's songwriter and singer Joseph Hill, head Culture (with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, among many others, in tow), taking to heart the words of Marcus Garvey, who predicted that July 7, 1977 (or 7/7/77), would herald a period of apocalyptic chaos. In a vision of his own, Hill conceived the terrible glories of the end and converted them into the title song here: "Look at the cotton tree / out by Ferry police station / How beautiful it used to be / And it has been destroyed by lightning, / Earthquake and thunder... / When the two sevens clash it bitter, bitter, bitter." It turned out to be a big hit in Jamaica in 1977, and thanks in part to that all of Kingston essentially shut down when the day came. Well, maybe Garvey actually meant 2077, or maybe Hill garbled the vision—or, come to think of it, maybe they were right. That's not what matters. The rest of us, apocalypse or no, can simply give thanks, kick back, and dig. The charms never seem to fade. Though it comprises only 10 tracks, barely more than half an hour, from song to song all is one groove and fine harmony. The keyboards provide perfectly bright accents, the chanting vocals and harmonies can practically hypnotize, and the rhythm section (of course) is locked in. Play it often and sing it loud: "Wat a liiv an bambaie."

Friday, June 18, 2010

When We Were Kings (1996)

USA, 89 minutes, documentary
Director: Leon Gast
Photography: Maryse Alberti, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Albert Maysles, Roderick Young
Editors: Leon Gast, Taylor Hackford, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Keith Robinson
Appearances: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King, James Brown, B.B. King, Mobutu Sese Seko, Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Lloyd Price, Miriam Makeba

At the time this came out, not too far behind Terry Zwigoff's groundbreaking Crumb, it seemed as if the dawn of a golden age of documentaries just might be upon us. What was missed in all the charismatic pyrotechnics—which remain, and as potently as ever—is how safely isolated in the past are the incidents that When We Were Kings recounts, at the time over 20 years and now closing in on 40, and how conventionally it follows the outlines of the typical sports documentary: set the terms, tell the story, and let the athlete's performance provide the drama. In other words, there's little that's new here. The events are ripe for mythologizing and that's pretty much what we get, with all the heady passions such exercises inspire. Arguably the greatest moment of Muhammad Ali's storied career, the1974 heavyweight championship bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, the so-called "rumble in the jungle," pitted an aging Ali against the reigning champion, at the time a relentless engine of destruction. Throughout the preliminaries, agonizingly extended six weeks at one point because of a minor injury to Foreman, Ali dances and jabbers, playing always to the cameras and press—but more significantly, it turns out, playing with Foreman's expectations, his very head, carefully assembling the pieces of what may be his most stunning triumph. Useful commentary from Spike Lee, George Plimpton, and particularly Norman Mailer fleshes out the terms of the accomplishment (for those of us less informed on the nuances of boxing), exactly what makes it both unique and ultimately characteristic. The fight itself, the way it proceeds, comes as a complete surprise after what we've seen of Ali in the run-up. But it appears he knew exactly what he was doing, executing the only plan that could have fetched him the win. It's an amazing sequence, and nicely done. But wait, there's more. Music from James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba (unfortunately mostly used as a caricature), and others who appeared at the festivities surrounding the main event, are nearly as thrilling. In fact, I wish there were more of them (it's a pretty short movie at less than 90 minutes), but I suppose that might have diluted the impact of the fight itself. If the moment was an exhilarating one for American followers of the sport, it was even more so for the Africans who played host to it, and their enthusiasm and excitement throughout is as palpable as it is infectious, contributing to the air (and myth) of an event of unprecedented historic significance.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

101 Two Minute Pop Songs, pt. 3

Last 33 and third of the two-minute pop songs. Come and get 'em.

Fats Domino, "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" (1959) Dig the chattering sax. (2:03)
Paul McCartney, "Junk" (1970) Pretty. (1:57)
Pepsico, "Come Alive! You're in the Pepsi Generation" (1963) I've noticed this one grows on you. By the way, Snopes.com has evidently not yet determined whether the Chinese version of this tagline does indeed translate to "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead." (2:02)
Quarteto Uai, "Na Tarde" (1973) (2:00)
Queen, "We Will Rock You" (1978) Now a classic sports anthem, like Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." How do these things happen? Do sports fans know what they're doing? (2:02)
Ralph McTell, "Willoughby's Farm" (1969) Mysterious and lovely and perfectly simple. (2:02)
Ralph Nielsen & the Chancellors, "Scream" (1962) Shrill. (1:58)
Ramones, "Teenage Lobotomy" (1977) (2:01)
Randy & the Rainbows, "Denise" (1963) (1:59)
Randy Newman, "Political Science" (1972) You can't argue with common sense. (2:01)
Ray Coleman & His Skyrockets, "Jukebox Rock 'n' Roll" (1957) (1:59)
Richard Hell & the Voidoids, "New Pleasure" (1977) (1:58)
Richie Havens, "Lady Madonna" (1969) (2:00)
Robyn Hitchcock, "Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" (1984) What a weirdo, yet somehow I like him more all the time. This from one of his best albums, I Often Dream of Trains. (2:00)
Rockpile, "Crying in the Rain" (1980) What I did after my cat died. (2:02)
Rolling Stones, "Good Times" (1965) (2:02)
Rolling Stones, "One More Try" (1965) (1:58)
Sam Cooke, "(Don't Fight It) Feel It" (1961) Good advice. (2:02)
Sam Cooke, "There, I've Said it Again" (1959) The guy is just poise itself. (2:02)
Serge Gainsbourg, "Cha Cha Cha Du Loup" (1964) (1:59)
Simon & Garfunkel, "We've Got a Groovy Thing Goin'" (1965) You must be out of your mind. Do you know what you're kickin' away-ee-ay? (2:01)
Sol Hoopii & His Hawaiians, "Palolo" (1927) (2:01)
Sound Dimension, "Soulful Strut" (1969) Good song. (2:02)
Stooges, "Loose (Take 26) (False Start)" (1970) Can you blame them after 25 takes? (2:00)
String-A-Longs, "Wheels" (1961) (1:58)
Suicide Commandos, "Call of the Wild" (1978) (2:01)
Teenage Fanclub, "What You Do to Me" (1991) (2:01)
Tim Hardin, "Reason to Believe" (1966) Very lovely. (2:00)
Triumphs, "Burnt Biscuits" (1961) Probably the best song here. (2:02)
TV theme, "The Jackie Gleason Show" (1952) Luscious. (2:02)
Ventures, "Frosty the Snowman" (1965) Oh gosh this is swell. (2:00)
Wanda Jackson, "Man We Had a Party" (1961) She sounds a hundred years old in this. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Anyway, I guess she always does. (1:58)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Art Star" (2001) (2:01)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Peepshow (1992)

Joe Matt's first and so far still best foray into comic book autobiography (his self-declared career, even raison d'etre, from approximately the age of 24), this collection of a few years' worth of the mundane adventures of his daily life in the late '80s and early '90s opens an intriguing window into his development as an artist. That's not the only window it opens, of course—it's notorious for the ludicrous and occasionally grotesque candor of its revelations, which include shrieking fights with his girlfriend, repulsive habits of thrift and laziness, and, yes, it's all true, the inside view of a porn habit with a few particulars regarding fetish. It is indeed a consummate portrait of ongoing selfish narcissism. He gets away with it (as much as he does) by dint of the comic book art, which is perfectly charming, by the fact that he tends to take ownership of his warts with aplomb and even relish rather than getting defensive or blaming anyone else for them, and because he's just plain likeable. In controlled doses. At a distance. And via the mediation of the printed comic book page. (Everyone who knows him reports that he's exactly as he describes himself, perhaps more so, and it's not like he doesn't catch on—he's often able to convey how others struggle to cope with him.) In the end he's not so different from you or me, just more willing to talk about his stuff and put it out there. What makes this worth visiting and revisiting is the chance to trace the self-discovery as it happens. In the earliest pages you can see him feeling his way toward what he's doing. R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and many others by now have made careers of comic book autobiography, but no one does it like Joe Matt, who soon enough flails his way to a discipline he mostly manages to stay within: the single-page/tiny-panel installments he is able to deliver on about a monthly schedule. He explores variations along the way, but never drifts far from what he can do with a single page, a minimum of cross-hatching (it's nearly all line work), and plenty of black ink. And he not only discloses the various personal details of his life and volatile relationship, for which he's famous, but also explores a good many other angles of his life along the way: the philosophy and practicalities of living cheap (some good tips!), his infatuations with showering and collecting and walking, the strange cats with whom he has lived, and all kinds of aspects of his art, including comical abstract exercises. If I didn't know better I'd be tempted to compare him to Montaigne.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Around the Fur (1997)

A few things I know about Deftones: They appear to want to eschew the definite article (like Shoes, a very different act), so don't call them "the" Deftones. The designation for those inclined to label is "Nu-Metal." They are from Sacramento. This is their second album, and it's on Madonna's Maverick label. Singer and guitar player Chino Moreno, the ostensible front man, has a hellacious voice to which prolonged exposure just might raise nodes on your own vocal cords. Careful here. Peers include Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age. I found out about them at an outdoor festival in 1996, where they were playing the second stage in the middle of a sweltering high-summer afternoon. They appeared alternately nervous and juiced, with Moreno pacing and making casual jokes from the stage, in between fits of the band letting loose with the kind of thing you find here: atmospheric blasts and shards of mighty guitar noise across which Moreno's aforementioned vocals surf until they are swallowed by the eddying battering ram of sound only to reappear again whenever the flotsam clears. Only to be swallowed again. Loud, quiet, loud, open space, bludgeon, open space. A kind of stern black and white drama marked out in bold strokes. There was something remarkable about the juxtapositions of their scruffy appearance and the wall of sound and the jokes and how wrong the light and heat of the summer day was. The set didn't last even 40 minutes, but it's something I have never forgotten. And if I've never experienced anything quite like it again, in this or any of their releases I've heard, much less anything by anyone else, it's something I'm looking for again even still.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

USA, 113 minutes
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Jenny Lumet
Photography: Declan Quinn
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George

Is it possible that this is Jonathan Demme's best movie? I have long thought he is most winning the closer to music (or performance, in the case of Swimming to Cambodia) that he manages to stay—most conspicuously Stop Making Sense, of course, which if not still the greatest concert film ever made certainly is on the short list of them, and I don't know what else is close. This movie comes chockablock with music, chiefly in the form of the joyful and spontaneous and heartfelt contributions to the wedding that sits at its center (including Demme's son Brooklyn playing "The Wedding March" on an electric guitar). Some spectacular business otherwise here as well, including Anne Hathaway's performance, which occasionally feels studied but more often is one she simply disappears into like something taken by the wind, painful, cringe-inducing, probably a little overwritten, but profoundly demanding to be taken on its own 12-step recovery terms. I think overall it's one of the most faithful and unsentimental renditions of the experience that I've seen yet. This is often filmed like a documentary, heavy on the handheld camera and the strange jerks and sweeps and odd frames of a restless camera on the move—although just as often the framing is deliberate and surprising and perfect—and, too, it often feels staged like an Altman picture, with characters and dialogue cascading and swirling in and out of it, until finally sometimes the only way to cope is simply to give in to the sensory overload and let the threads pull you which ways they will. For once the travails of the poor put-upon clichéd upper-middle-class American dysfunctional family, complete with divorce and substance abuse and rehab and siblings who die in childhood and that old favorite, the perennial Cold Mother (here done to a tee by Debra Winger), are counterbalanced with a genuine sense of the lovingness that can accompany such sad sacks and their connections and actually goes quite a ways towards explaining what they're all doing hanging around together in the first place. In fact, some of the scenes at the rehearsal dinner and then at the wedding itself—notably Tunde Adebimpe facing Rosemarie DeWitt, the titular Rachel, at the altar, taking her hands in his, gazing into her face, and getting off a breathtakingly poised serenade to her of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend"—are nothing less than transcendent, beautiful moments that remind that life may be a funny old dog but, in such moments, is probably worth it all, even if fleetingly. Some people always cry at weddings. I always cry at this.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Phoebe Snow (1974)

Phoebe Snow's auspicious debut is not the only album we have got from her—including anthologies and live sets, I actually count 16 at Wikipedia—but it's the best I've heard by a far sight, scoring a #5 hit in the gorgeous, quavering "Poetry Man" and winning warm accolades across the board. I like Robert Christgau's take best, describing her in 1981 as a New York woman "from a liberal background, with loads of artistic interests, she's insecure about her weight and hence her looks (which are OK at least) and hence her talent (which there's no questioning), and after plenty of therapy her emotions are still all over the place. Only none of her sisters can sing the postblues like Snow—neurotically, that's what she's about, but with incisive power." In December 1975, a year and a half after the release of this album, Snow gave birth to a daughter who was severely brain-damaged and subsequently elected to see to the girl's care herself, opting out of institutionalization. The consequences are easily imagined and confirmed: her career foundered and never again came close to the heights touched here. Her daughter, Valerie, died three years ago at the age of 31; at home with her mother nearby, one imagines. More recently, again according to Wikipedia, Snow suffered a brain hemorrhage at the beginning of this year and had to undergo life-threatening surgery. A twitter tweet via her website in April tells us that she is "awake, alert, and trying to talk." Even under the heavy shadows of this news, her music remains warm and vibrant, healing even. I rediscovered it last year in the wake of some losses of my own, and it provided layers and depths of solace I never would have anticipated. "Take Your Children Home" in particular grew to be a kind of lifeline, but any of the songs from this album, appearing at random in shuffle, stopped me whatever I was doing and for a few minutes seemed to open a place to enter that felt safe and comfortable. Maybe it's just nostalgia for times past when I was infatuated with this album. For many of us, not just Phoebe Snow, the world had a terribly different and far less threatening cast to it in the mid-'70s. I hope for all the best for her.

4/27/2011 update: Phoebe Snow passed away yesterday at the age of 60. My thoughts and condolences to her family and friends. She provided tremendous amounts of comfort in her time.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Dark Stuff (2nd ed., 2002)

Nick Kent, self-declared Lester Bangs idolator and star NME staffer back when it really counted, brings all the soft-pedaled erudition, unblinking cynicism, and dead-on wit we have come to expect and appreciate from him and his '70s (and into the '80s) generation of British rock critics. A glance at the table of contents quickly reveals the usual suspects (plus a few ringers) in stark relief: Brian Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, Lou Reed, Sid Vicious, Elvis Costello, Morrissey, Shane MacGowan, Iggy Pop (twice—and he also writes the foreword), Miles Davis, Roy Orbison, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain, Prince, Johnny Cash, Eminem, a few others. In compulsively readable pieces that comprise equal parts interview, thought experiment, and nicely observed detail, with revisions and second thoughts and perspectives that stretch across the decades, Kent goes one on one with all our favorites, or a good many of them, as he works to get at the music and the players and fans and the scenes that spawned them. One of the most surprising portraits for me, though perhaps it should not have been, was his staggering wade through the torrents of Elvis Costello's head, with Costello stalking through endlessly spitting petty vengeance fantasies when he was not yet even 22, circa 1977, just at the precise moment when success seemed within his reach but not yet quite even partially within his grasp, focused so intently on what he was about that the intensity and confidence and overpowering creative energy read like a kind of brutalizing, primally infantile rage—hardly the mellow, kindly, slightly sour or acerbic old uncle figure he seems to me to cut now (the mellowing likely part of the continuing fallout of the 1979 contretemps with Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills in a Columbus, Ohio, bar—more evidence by implication how much the incident changed him). But there it is, in black and white, along with Lou Reed as mid-'70s wastrel speed freak (yes, that really happened, children), Jerry Lee Lewis still plotting a comeback bid and imminent takeover of the entertainment world in 1989, and Kurt Cobain all MIA, the ghost who haunts every performer from Seattle across a six-week period that ended in April 1994. I can think of some I really wish Kent had been able to get to, e.g., Boy George, the Thin White Duke always, of course, and maybe Ian Hunter or Pete Townshend or Bob Mould or Nikki Sudden? Some others. But this will do. In fact, it's a real page turner.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Electric Ladyland (1968)

It took me awhile to catch up to the unrivaled Jimi Hendrix magnum opus, only to find out that I'm not sure it's possible to ever fully catch up to it, even now, better than 40 years later. For 20 years I never had my own copy—I listened to it in the basements of the houses of my friends in high school, and later they put tracks from it on mix tapes, and of course it even spawned a radio hit in the Bob Dylan cover, "All Along the Watchtower," and then, sure enough, at some point a lot of us began to forget about it. I've always heard it and known it on some level, even in the obscurity of memory. But it wasn't until I actually came into possession of the thing, first finally as the double-LP and later as the lengthy CD disc, that the majesties and depths started to really unfold. There's the muscular confidence and sheer blues brawn of the 15-minute "Voodoo Chile" (side 1/track 4) and the echoing "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," which closes the thing. There's side 3 (on the CD, tracks 10-12, intended to be seamless), one of the perfect album sides in all of rock: "Rainy Day, Dream Away," which boldly starts with the sound of toking indoors as skies outdoors empty, followed by a guitar that speaks, then "1983...(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)," and finally "Moon, Turn the Tides...Gently, Gently," increasingly spacy, ambient, production-heavy sounds that nevertheless retain the swooning cathartic presence of unearthly and utterly inspired music. Then side 4 (track 13) opens on "Still Raining, Still Dreaming." All through, themes are established, elaborated on, and left, only to be taken up again elsewhere. Side 1 follows side 4, track 1 track 16, as simply and precisely as any of the sequencing throughout. And through all of it the playing of Hendrix is as self-assured and poised as any guitar player anywhere ever: pyrotechnics when he feels like it, more often the gentle touch that accomplishes what it needs to with a perfect economy of sound and texture. He's a good singer too, don't let anybody tell you otherwise. I'm not normally comfortable with bloated terms like "masterpiece," but this is one case where I can use it with no reservations whatsoever. The rest of his catalog is good, great, brilliant. Here is where all that comes into focus.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Ghost World (2001)

USA/UK/Germany, 111 minutes
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Writers: Daniel Clowes, Terry Zwigoff
Photography: Affonso Beato
Production design: Edward T. McAvoy
Art direction: Alan E. Muraoka
Set decoration: Lisa Fischer
Cast: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, Dave Sheridan, Brian George, Brad Renfro, Stacey Travis

You have to tread carefully with anything that purports to be a coming-of-age story about an 18-year-old girl, especially when it stars a 28-year-old woman, co-stars a 44-year-old man, is directed by a 51-year-old man, and is co-written with and based on a comic book by a 40-year-old man. So consider all caveats in place, including that the person offering this evaluation is a man now older than anyone involved at the time the movie came out. With the possible exceptions of Thora Birch, the aforementioned star who plays Enid (or sidekick Scarlett Johansson, who plays her best friend Rebecca and in fairness was 17 at the time this was released), none of us are in good positions to comment on its veracity. Ghost World tells the story of Enid, who is appealing both because of and in spite of her elaborate adolescent disaffection and who kinda sorta falls for Seymour (played by Steve Buscemi, in a wonderfully tempered performance), an introverted, self-loathing collector nerd who is more than twice her age. Oh hell, who am I kidding—this is first-rate fantasy intended for middle-aged males of a certain temperament who, all of us, to a one, collapse over it in admiration. And, yes, that's me getting up from the floor after having just seen it again, wondering if I actually liked it more the first time or this second time, and wondering indeed what that will mean for future viewings. But all I know is how much I dearly wish the events could be true to life. That said, there's little question about other qualities in effect here. There's a lot to like: for all its plot holes and misfires, the events move perfectly believably from point to point until all the characters find themselves in an immaculate muddle, the exasperating sort that people in real life, not to mention such TV and movie stalwarts as Lucille Ball or Jackie Gleason, are forever entangling themselves in. Seymour offers a refreshingly equable and serene, even self-aware, version of the kind of bitter misfit previously seen perhaps most famously in director Zwigoff's other great movie, the documentary Crumb, while Enid is like nothing so much as an idealized youthful female version of it. The production comes with a nice unforced comic book simplicity to the framing of its shots, likely the result of input from co-writer Daniel Clowes, whose comic book work on which this is based is widely admired (though it has never particularly appealed to me). The whole thing looks and feels just great, colorful and exuberant and creative and original, and it's overflowing with terrific music. There are also a good many fine, small performances in the supporting roles, most notably from Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, Dave Sheridan, and Brian George. This is a joy and a pleasure from beginning to end, and recommended without reservation to all disaffected middle-aged men anywhere who have ever clung to an adolescent preoccupation beyond their 20s.

More information in comments.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Avalon (1982)

You can't really call this the best Roxy Music album, because in a lot of ways it's hard to make the case that it is a Roxy Music album. Mackay and Manzanera are reduced to sidemen, and after Bryan Ferry they're the only originals left. But, damn, is it sweet and pretty, impossible to resist, even overwhelming—which might only mean that you have just developed a taste for adult-oriented rock. But there's little point denying its effects. At a certain vantage, it feels like the entire world opening up wide. All of the art here is softly compressed into the structures and melodies and layers and nuances of affect. It barely moves, but it saturates every available space. Even in the background, where arguably it belongs, it calls insistently. It's meant to lull, seduce, beguile, draw you over, win you to its side—Ferry perhaps attempting to actualize his never-ending riff as the consummate gigolo. If it has its antecedents in the previous two late-period albums, Manifesto and Flesh + Blood, not even they prepared anyone for this. And if it is essentially the end of the line for Roxy Music as an enterprise—a live EP and an anthology (and not the first) is all the more we got from them—somehow in memory it seems to herald the beginning of a long, slow fade into a vanishing relevance textured by brief and occasional flashes of interest. I guess I must be thinking of Bryan Ferry's solo career from that point forward because all these years later it's as clear as can be. This is an end, not a beginning. And by the way what is that, a Viking on the cover? (Actually, it's Bryan Ferry's girlfriend at the time, Lucy Helmore, wearing a helmet to play King Arthur.)