Saturday, July 31, 2010

Law and Order (1981)

The only way Lindsey Buckingham's first solo album and self-produced one-man-band studio overdub extravaganza surprised anyone, or anyway me, was in how good it was. And it's awfully good, at least when it is. Sounding for all the world like approximately one-third of every Fleetwood Mac album since 1975, it also isolates a few key facts that might have been taken too much for granted previously: Buckingham is a careful, melodic songwriter who gets his emotional points across with surprising arrangement, economy, and effectiveness and a disarming penchant for letting the big swooning gambit just rip (cf., the stark, plaintive, and insanely endearing chorus, "I think I'm in trouble"). He will get his head around some crazy idea or other and go off all quirky (see also Tusk, which even so has plenty of pleasures to call its own, and we'll be getting to them soon enough). But that keeps things interesting. There's usually something memorable to take away humming. His stuff works—nor does he have to prove it to anyone, though I must say, given his track record these past decades, it's nice enough when he does. Everything I've heard of his solo albums is pretty much all the way there consistently, and of course that's not even to mention the Fleetwood Mac oeuvre. He's a pretty good guitar player too, though there's less of that on display here. Sure, yeah, you have to forgive the occasional excesses, often notably misplaced—here it's the opening track, "Bwana" (see also "Tusk," which someone thought would make a good single) (and in a way it was). He does a lovely job with the cover of the Kurt Weill standard, "September Song." He's a sheer delight on the aforementioned "Trouble," "I'll Tell You Now," "It Was I," and "Johnny Stew." He's even willing to make fun of hot tub culture in "That's How We Do it in L.A."—although, honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to find out he'd written it in one. In L.A., no less. But I guess just because you have perspective doesn't mean you can't take your share of the pleasure.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Before Sunset (2004)

USA, 80 minutes
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Kim Krizan
Photography: Lee Daniel
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Nine years later, in the story and in reality, our heroes meet again. The rendezvous they had planned for six months after their wonderful night, agreeing to meet again in Vienna, never came off, at which point they had no way of reaching each other again. That's one of the problems with extravagant romance. Too many pitfalls. Now thirtysomething Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) has written a moderately successful novel based on that night and is in Paris to give a reading, at which thirtysomething Celine (played by Julie Delpy) surprises him by showing up. He must leave for the airport that evening to fly home, but almost immediately they pick up where they left off, and if the years between have not been very hard on either one they have not been so kind either. They have been fortunate in their careers and material circumstances, but Celine has gone from one unsatisfying, vaguely distant relationship to another, while Jesse finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage. This is by far the better of the two Before Sun--- movies Linklater has made about them, and it's so good that it even tends to redeem the slender offerings of the first, instantly creating a context that widens and deepens both. Jesse and Celine are still young, in their early 30s, but life has already begun to work its erosions on them—which instantly, and profoundly, creates the stakes that were never there in the first adventure. Now they both know too well, and indeed acknowledge as much explicitly to one another, that the kind of opportunity they once found with one another does not often come along, and must be seized when it does. Unless, that is ... unless it's just another cruel false illusion—could that be? The kind they both also know so well now. As do we all; and here is our connecting point. After all, they only had that one night in Vienna and, now, this one afternoon in Paris. Is it real? How much do they really know each other? How can they know? And so they cling to one another instinctively, almost desperately, unwilling to part, fondling the connection, nervously joking and deeply engaged and occasionally sparring out of doubt and pain and insecurity, but never without an unmistakable sense of the ludicrous, even dangerous, rightness of it. They open up to one another so beautifully. He tells her how he was thinking of her on his wedding day, thought he saw her even. Her face grows quiet. It might have actually been her. Inevitably they end up at her apartment, where she plays him a lovely song on her guitar. "Baby," she tells him, "you are gonna miss that plane."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Good Times" (1979)

94. Chic, "Good Times" (July 7, 1979, #1)

Perhaps nothing suits the blasted heat of the deep summer as nicely as Chic, the kind of sweltering heat that endures into the evening and well into the night, the kind that drives everyone out to find something to do. Or maybe that's just the way I remember it. Dancing and loud music at any rate are usually the right place to start, which makes this sparkling, exuberant #1 hit a fine go-to in such moments. "Good Times" may not stand as the best thing Chic ever did—it's arguably monotone, lacking certain dynamics they achieved with ease elsewhere, such as melody. But it's unmistakably Bernard Edwards on bass, Nile Rodgers on guitar, boisterous chick singers, strings and keyboards darting in and out all over the place, and a light touch (always the Chic specialty) on the normally heavy four-on-the-floor disco beat. All in themselves those qualities make it eternally lasting dance music, the apotheosis of everything that made Chic great, celebrating the simple pleasures ("clams on the half shell and roller skates, roller skates") with a relish that is positively infectious. And they were rewarded for it with their last chart hit, happily going out on a #1, shortly before embarking on the best work of their careers—the albums Risque, which spawned this, Real People, Take it Off, Tongue in Chic, and Believer are uniformly brilliant, though you would never know it from the sales figures. But do not let me digress too hastily into sidelines harrumphing. Even "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" and "Le Freak" still have precious Chic qualities to recommend them. And even more does "Good Times," as its title and everything about it shouts right out loud.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"In Dreams" (1963)

95. Roy Orbison, "In Dreams" (Feb. 23, 1963, #7)

This is arguably enough here for one reason only: its uncanny use by David Lynch in his 1986 movie, Blue Velvet. Roy Orbison has plenty of good songs, for any of which the case can be made for consideration over this—"Crying," "Only the Lonely," "Running Scared." Yeah, yeah. And I love them too. But I can never forget the way I saw this ("A candy-colored clown they call the sandman") utterly reinvented and rocketed straight to the brainstem, where reside the lizard instincts so many of us barely know even exist. Yet none of that means it isn't a perfectly typical, and typically effective, Roy Orbison outing, full of the kind of tender feelings of loss and yearning and pain that only his operatic warble gets over with just the right mixture of uncertainty and confidence. The dreams he happens to occupy may hardly be the same as Frank Booth's, gasping into his face mask, but they are equally as futile, verging on a kind of romance of overweening emptiness without ever quite crossing the line into out-and-out nihilism, but masked rather by blind hope, and thus far more poignant. That, in short, is the Roy Orbison specialty. And watch how he does it: skating atop a musical arrangement that pits a little band against a big orchestra and builds the tension inexorably as it goes, he tells the tale. In dreams he walks with her. In dreams he talks with her. They're together in dreams. In dreams. But just before the dawn—well, you know how this ends. Come on. It's a Roy Orbison song. He remembers that she said good-bye.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Bennie and the Jets" (1974)

96. Elton John, "Bennie and the Jets" (March 2, 1974, #1)

What is it about this one? I have never understood anything about it except my enduring attraction to it. It's plodding, mostly witless, annoyingly fake, the stuttering and hissing an empty mannerism, and yet I have been entranced by it—entranced, I tell you—from the first moment I heard those inevitable piano chords go crashing into the faux crowd noises, from even the very first clunk of noise, as the thing lumbers into existence, even in that moment saying to myself, "What is it about this one?" (At least I know I'm in estimable company—Axl Rose has said this song inspired him to become a singer, and I bet he can't explain it either.) (And now I'm reading on Wikipedia that even the band thought it was "one of the oddest songs we ever recorded," "too plain and unoriginal," and Elton himself thought it a mistake to release as a single.) (And there we all were poised to make it a #1.) I'll guess that the attraction must exist somewhere in the tension between what it purports to be and what it is, a song celebrating a band that seems hard to believe even exists and at any rate the song doesn't appear to be that excited about it, in spite of what it says ("We'll kill the fatted calf tonight, so stick around") and even with all the pro forma hoopla generated, or attempting to be generated, with those obviously dubbed in crowd noises. Instead, it reveals itself as something sturdy and homely, even stalwart, going about its business with no evident second-guessing or even appearing to try hard. And the brilliant, deliberate, hammering chords that pound it home so resolutely over and over by its very sound.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Laughter in the Rain" (1974)

97. Neil Sedaka, "Laughter in the Rain" (Nov. 16, 1974, #1)

Neil Sedaka took up his position at the Brill Building in the early '60s with a charming teenybop act and a quiverful of tunes that often lodged dangerously in one's head: "Calendar Girl," "Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen," "Next Door to an Angel," like that. He dropped out of sight then, reemerging with a big comeback bid in the mid-'70s that turned ultimately into a kind of unpleasant lounge play, along the way massacring one of his best hits, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," slowing it to an unbearable crawl and acting too hard as if he meant it and we'd care if he did. But early into that comeback he must have been hungry or something because this song (and its flip, "The Immigrant Song," written in sympathy for John Lennon, and also a song he gave to the Captain & Tennille, "Love Will Keep Us Together") redeemed it all for me for a year or two there. Wistful, poignant, unafraid to go right for the heart-throat with aching strings and a soaring chorus, it's an emotional inversion and mirror image on some impenetrable level to the Everly Brothers' "Crying in the Rain." Personally, I have always found people infinitely more attractive in the rain, and the images here of walking hand in hand with the one he loves, without an umbrella soaked to the skin, hearing laughter, just go right through me (even if he says it's on a country road when it should be on a downtown street). Am I embarrassed to like this as much as I do? I suppose I should be. But it probably won't be the last time that I could be accused of an abject lack of critical faculty.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Corrections (2001)

From the outside, it sure looked like Jonathan Franzen figured out a neat way to have his cake and eat it too when he publicly squawked about his third novel being selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. Not that that's what he intended by expressing his reservations, but that's what he got. Sales went through the roof as Oprah's army descended on it, and then the notoriety when Winfrey herself reversed an invitation to him to appear on her show served to maintain the high profile awhile longer (even as Oprah's army grumbled about the rudeness). It may have all been a bit embarrassing for everyone involved, but actually few novels deserve the kind of attention this one subsequently received, however inadvertent. The Corrections takes the all too familiar premise of repressed suburban family dysfunction and spins it into something elaborate, sturdy, and fine, plunging us into the adventures of the Lambert family, whose three children, middle-aged or verging on it, attempt to cope with the demise of their parents and various dissolutions of their lives, in progress. Each has landed differently, each with a plan for managing. The eldest boy is a banker with a wife, two kids, and a rigid personality. The middle boy is a liberal arts college professor in trouble for sexual peccadilloes, a perpetual adolescent forever in black leather jacket sneer, forever beating at the doors of cool. And the youngest girl, Denise, is a chef who has recently elected to embark on an affair with the wife of her boss. Denise, with their father perishing from a debilitating disease and their mother barely dealing with it, has set herself to organizing one last family Christmas, in which none of the rest is particularly interested. And so it goes. Told with an unerring eye for the details that break hearts and turn the whole world wide open, this novel careens across time and space and avoids all the tired old cliches of its type, enlivening them unexpectedly, bringing a freshness and originality that is poignant and captivating, and often daunting, as every one of the characters sooner or later takes a turn on the tightrope of emotional recklessness—with no nets ever. If hardly the first novel to take on the anxieties of the mid-20th-century middle-class American family, it's far and away one of the best I've seen.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Nightfly (1982)

At the time I had about given up on Steely Dan. Aja and especially Gaucho had sounded to me just calcified with technique, sterile more than anything else. Donald Fagen had evidently long since lost all sense of humor. Even the quality of his singing seemed thin, nasal, and self-pitying. I quickly tossed this right into the same bag. But years later I pulled it out again for whatever reason and started to pick up on the gushy and comically mannered nostalgia that it evinces behind everything, and for a memorable time grew infatuated with it. The cover about tells the whole story: the alluring pleasures of hiding out in a world dominated by cool jazz, New Wave French cinema, the overweening glamour of the Kennedy administration, late night radio, Chesterfield Kings, and the ennui which surpasseth all understanding. Sure, it's still troubled by the late Dan predilection for what I termed then "tasty-ness": every arrangement, every texture, every production touch, every chord change, every note of every solo considered and worked over until any sign of life or impulse, let alone vitality, is compressed practically right out of it. But you know what? That kind of works, on a metaphorical level say, when nostalgia is the theme. And that's the theme here, from the slick cover of Dion's "Ruby Baby" to the overt nods to Camelot throughout to the gauzy honorific to the late-night jazz DJ on the title track. This is all about "good old days," abstracted, not specifically any particular good old days, in spite of all the early-'60s signifiers (very little in the early '60s sounded much like anything here, for one thing), but all of them. It's about loss, and knowing it, and the yearning to recover days past, and knowing can't be done, but wanting it anyway. And, perhaps appropriately, it only gets better with time, as now it bears the feelings of randomly distributed memories spanning nearly 30 years, all of them good, even when they aren't so good. It just gets to be a pleasure having this along.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Before Sunrise (1995)

USA/Austria/Switzerland, 105 minutes
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan
Photography: Lee Daniel
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

A deceptively slight romance with a concept at once so familiar and so simple as to verge on hackneyed. American twentysomething Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) meets Parisian twentysomething Celine (played by Julie Delpy) when they are both traveling by train in Europe. After a brief conversation, Celine, on an impulse, gets off the train with Jesse in Vienna and they spend the night together, roaming the city, talking, growing closer, and ultimately falling in love. In the morning Jesse will be flying back to the U.S. and Celine will reboard the train and continue on to Paris. Jesse is naturally charming, composed of equal parts swagger and unsure timidity, while Celine is also charming, but more brash and outspoken, unwilling to trust a man but unwilling not to. Both, more than anything, are young, happy to indulge romance and idealism. They barely have money to feed themselves, let alone for a place to spend the night, but the company of one another provides all the entertainment and comforts they need—or, indeed, that we as an audience might require. In fact, for the most part director and co-writer Richard Linklater does an admirable job of staging a legendary first date, a greatest night of one's life, the sense of astonishment and joy and the continual testing and retesting of a deep and powerful newfound connection with another person. If we are lucky, we have had an experience like this in our lives, and it's not hard to recognize a version of it here: the conversation that never wants to end, happily unloading all the stories of one's short life, with startling happenstance encounters along the way, flare-ups of difference quickly smoothed over, and an unforced wandering from place to place amidst wondrous sights and experiences. The late-night weariness that occasionally threatens is quickly overcome by the energy of the connection that burns through it. But for all that, some patience and indulgence may be required here. The story amounts to little more than said date, virtually devoid of any personal context other than what one character tells the other, or stakes of any kind except insofar as they have seduced us into caring for them. And I don't know about you, but nothing Celine has to offer (let alone Jesse) much gives me any reason to care particularly deeply, beyond a general happiness in seeing others connect and do well. Speaking strictly for myself, that's not going to get me to Paris or anyplace like it without having to pay for a ticket first.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Doing it to Death" (1973)

98. JB's, "Doing it to Death" (June 23, 1973, #22)

Not sure why this went out under the name of the band, elsewhere credited as Fred Wesley & the J.B.'s; that's James Brown as usual in charge of the proceedings in this simple and overwhelmingly effective rave-up. It's not as if this band (whose individuals he calls by name: Fred, Maceo, and one mysterious entity referred to as "brother ... I won't call your name, I don't want no people to know you're in here")—it's not as if this band was so different from any on the mass of product that bears the official imprimatur of James Brown (let alone, of course, that "JB's" doesn't particularly differentiate anything in the first place). Maybe it has something to do with assigning royalties. Be that as it may, it includes another one of the master's famous and among his most thorough and far-reaching explications in situ of the exigencies of song structure, not the least of its many appeals (and refreshing for once that it's not about the bridge): "In order for me to get down, I got to get in D," he begins, with the band at that moment in F. "Need to get in D, dog for D / Down D, funky D, shakin' D, down D." At which point, of course, the band takes it on down to D. What else were they supposed to do? As for me, I'm normally about standing on my chair waving my hands over my head at this juncture. When it says "doing it to death," that's just what it means, and even 10 minutes for both parts 1 and 2, in the extended version, are not nearly enough. Thank God at least for repeat function.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Love Is the Drug" (1976)

99. Roxy Music, "Love Is the Drug" (Feb. 26, 1976, #30)

In the halcyon era of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Bryan Ferry and his fellow travelers get their gigolo on and troll downtown the red light place. It's not entirely believable but the oozy seductiveness remains persuasive enough, for reasons good and bad, and how they managed to pilfer this onto the U.S. charts has to be taken strictly as a matter of historical context. Or, "It's the '70s, Jake." Which doesn't change the fact that it endures to this day for us to marvel at, enjoy, thrill to in its snaky, skanky glory, all enunciated quite clearly. "Late that night I park my car / Stake my place in the singles bar / Face to face, toe to toe / Heart to heart as we hit the floor / Lumber up, limbo down / The locked embrace, the stumble round / I say go, she say yes / Dim the lights, you can guess the rest." Now wait a cotton picking minute, that's sexual addiction you're talking about, isn't it? Well, if it's convincing enough Roxy Music—co-writer Andy Mackay squawks away on his sax, Paul Thompson hits those drums hard, and Ferry of course is unmistakable, in tone and sensibility—it's still so blatant and obvious about itself that it's hard not take as calculated. But who, even in the '70s, would ever imagine that a sleazy workout about pickup sex had broadcast commercial potential? We know the answer to that now. This may not be the best thing Roxy Music ever did by a far sight, but it's the only one that managed to distinguish itself as a U.S. hit. That alone makes it something special, even now. Especially now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"What it Feels Like for a Girl" (2001)

100. Madonna, "What it Feels Like for a Girl" (May 19, 2001, #23)

First Charlotte Gainsbourg steps up and murmurs the defining prologue: "Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, 'cause it's OK to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading. 'Cause you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly, you'd love to know what it's like. Wouldn't you?" And, just as you're getting your head around that, Madonna's 42nd charting single begins to move. Yes, I said 42nd—after Billboard got done crunching the numbers 10 years ago, only Elton John, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley were ranked higher as "top artists" (whatever exactly that means ... James Brown had four more chart appearances than her at the time but ranked #24 to her #4). Her vocal here is typically thin, the arrangement and mix straight out of clubland as usual, steeped long in disco and glitz and surface sheen. But as the melody takes and the whole thing swells into form with the chorus, it assumes a power that is greater than the sum of its parts: the probing theme, its haunting ache, the unmistakable presence and self-assurance of the star, ready as always for her close-up, and that unsettling note from Gainsbourg, which lands twice, if softly, on the word "degrading." Madonna has a lot to take credit for, more than most are willing to give her, and of course she has things to answer for as well. But I guess this may be just about the best thing she has ever done, from an album, Music, that is patchy but positively arresting when it is on. I had often liked her, never loved her, and all but given up on her by the time of this. Always nice to get a surprise.

Monday, July 19, 2010

100 Hit Songs: 101-200

I couldn't begin to try to explain the fine points of discrimination that put, say, #122 ("It's All Right" by the Impressions) 43 places ahead of #165 ("Seven Year Ache" by Rosanne Cash), let alone what puts that one place ahead of #166 ("Itchycoo Park" by the Small Faces). Everything here was in the top 100 at least once at one point or another, or darn close, and subsequently pushed out by the churning and shuffling. There's another hundred beyond this, and another hundred beyond that, but already, here, I reached a point where making distinctions was starting to look like a mug's game of ever-diminishing returns. I didn't actually know there were so many radio hit songs that I liked so much until I undertook this exercise, so that's useful information. Any one of these, and all of them, I would be perfectly happy to hear right this minute, and repeatedly.

101. Chi-Lites, "Oh Girl" (1972)
102. Phoebe Snow, "Poetry Man" (1975)
103. Beach Boys, "God Only Knows" (1966)
104. Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman" (1968)
105. Bobby "Boris" Pickett, "Monster Mash" (1962/1973)
106. Joey Dee & the Starliters, "Peppermint Twist" (1961)
107. Roberta Flack, "Feel Like Makin' Love" (1974)
108. Shirley Bassey, "Goldfinger" (1965)
109. Patti Smith Group, "Because the Night" (1978)
110. Timbuk 3, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" (1986)
111. Sarah McLachlan, "Angel" (1998)
112. A-ha, "Take On Me" (1985)
113. Al Wilson, "Show and Tell" (1973)
114. Danny O'Keefe, "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" (1972)
115. Van McCoy, "The Hustle" (1975)
116. Yes, "Roundabout" (1972)
117. Joni Mitchell, "Free Man in Paris" (1974)
118. Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit in the Sky" (1970)
119. James Brown, "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)" (1967)
120. Foreigner, "Waiting for a Girl Like You" (1981)
121. Edwin Starr, "War" (1970)
122. Impressions, "It's All Right" (1963)
123. Byrds, "Eight Miles High" (1966)
124. Beach Boys, "California Girls" (1965)
125. Deep Purple, "Hush" (1968)
126. Soft Cell, "Tainted Love" (1982)
127. Commodores, "Easy" (1977)
128. Robert Cray Band, "Smoking Gun" (1987)
129. Eric Burdon & the Animals, "See See Rider" (1966)
130. Rolling Stones, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (1968)
131. Sylvester, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" (1979)
132. 5th Dimension, "One Less Bell to Answer" (1970)
133. Dionne Warwick, "Déjà Vu" (1979)
134. Fleetwood Mac, "Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)" (1976)
135. Edison Lighthouse, "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" (1970)
136. Three Degrees, "When Will I See You Again" (1974)
137. Bruce Springsteen, "Hungry Heart" (1980)
138. Harry Chapin, "Taxi" (1972)
139. Minnie Riperton, "Lovin' You" (1975)
140. Sam Cooke, "You Send Me" (1957)
141. Buoys, "Timothy" (1971)
142. Undisputed Truth, "Smiling Faces Sometimes" (1971)
143. Guns N' Roses, "Welcome to the Jungle" (1988)
144. Bobby Helms, "Jingle Bell Rock" (1957)
145. Toys, "A Lover's Concerto" (1965)
146. Jethro Tull, "Living in the Past" (1972)
147. Box Tops, "Neon Rainbow" (1967)
148. U2, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (1987)
149. Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "She's Just My Style" (1965)
150. Petula Clark, "A Sign of the Times" (1966)
151. Cardigans, "Lovefool" (1996)
152. ABBA, "The Winner Takes it All" (1980)
153. James Brown, "Mother Popcorn (You Got to Have a Mother for Me)" (1969)
154. Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965)
155. Lipps, Inc., "Funky Town" (1980)
156. Curtis Mayfield, "Freddie's Dead (Theme From 'Superfly')" (1972)
157. Edgar Winter Group, "Frankenstein" (1973)
158. Shocking Blue, "Venus" (1969)
159. Frank Sinatra, "It Was a Very Good Year" (1966)
160. Shirelles, "Foolish Little Girl" (1963)
161. Young Rascals, "How Can I Be Sure" (1967)
162. Sheena Easton, "For Your Eyes Only" (1981)
163. Tony Joe White, "Polk Salad Annie" (1969)
164. Isley Brothers, "That Lady" (1973)
165. Rosanne Cash, "Seven Year Ache" (1981)
166. Small Faces, "Itchycoo Park" (1968)
167. Viscounts, "Harlem Nocturne" (1966)
168. Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, "Too Late to Turn Back Now" (1972)
169. Scott McKenzie, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" (1967)
170. Lulu, "Oh Me Oh My (I'm a Fool for You Baby)" (1969)
171. Chambers Brothers, "Time Has Come Today" (1968)
172. Sylvia, "Pillow Talk" (1973)
173. King Curtis, "Memphis Soul Stew" (1967)
174. Dixie Cups, "Chapel of Love" (1964)
175. Paul Revere and the Raiders, "Him or Me – What's it Gonna Be?" (1967)
176. Bee Gees, "How Deep Is Your Love" (1977)
177. Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction" (1965)
178. P.M. Dawn, "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" (1991)
179. Carl Douglas, "Kung Fu Fighting" (1974)
180. MFSB, "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" (1974)
181. Elvis Presley, "Little Sister" (1961)
182. Paris Sisters, "I Love How You Love Me" (1961)
183. Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley P.T.A." (1968)
184. Archie Bell & the Drells, "Tighten Up" (1968)
185. Berlin, "Take My Breath Away" (1986)
186. Johnny Rivers, "Poor Side of Town" (1966)
187. Blackbyrds, "Walking in Rhythm" (1975)
188. Brenda Lee, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (1960)
189. Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids, "Party Doll" (1957)
190. Rod Stewart, "Maggie May" (1971)
191. Los Del Rio, "Macarena" (1996)
192. Skylark, "Wildflower" (1973)
193. Jaynetts, "Sally, Go 'Round the Roses" (1963)
194. Richard Harris, "MacArthur Park" (1968)
195. Lee Dorsey, "Ride Your Pony" (1965)
196. Captain & Tenille, "The Way I Want to Touch You" (1975)
197. Carla Thomas, "B-A-B-Y" (1966)
198. Janis Ian, "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)" (1967)
199. Major Harris, "Love Won't Let Me Wait" (1975)
200. Staple Singers, "Respect Yourself" (1971)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dispatches (1977)

All American experience in the Vietnam War starts and ends with this book by Michael Herr. Which might be an overstatement, but not by much. The ghosts of the '60s, foreign policy division, stalk this set of on-the-ground reports and recollections from in and around the frontlines of that doomed military enterprise as surely as anything you may encounter from Alabama or Dallas or San Francisco or Chicago, and along the way it sets the table for such now familiar landmarks as Apocalypse Now (to which Herr contributed narration), Full Metal Jacket (which Herr co-wrote with Kubrick and Gustav Hasford), and in general the deluge of efforts to come to grips with that war that only began to emerge after this book's publication, as if the country had been holding its collective breath until that moment to make sure it really was over, and safe to start talking about it. Herr gave us one of the most pervasive and enduring mythic images of the war, soldiers crouched in foxholes after dark, taking fire, lobbing grenades at unseen enemies, playing Hendrix to get them through as the tracers and explosions briefly illuminate their painted faces. More or less a new journalist in the classic style, which means that he plunges himself entirely into what he covers and reports it through the filter of his experience, Herr's language is as exalted and hallucinatory and elusive and baffling as the Vietnam War itself: the danger, the jungle, the sweltering heat, the drugs, the ubiquitous choppers, the oppressive nearness of death, the desperation, the futility and absurdity. "Going out at night the medics gave you pills," he starts after a brief overture, "Dexedrine breath like snakes kept too long in a jar. I never saw the need for them myself, a little contact or anything that even sounded like contact would give me more speed than I could bear. Whenever I heard something outside of our clenched little circle I'd practically flip, hoping to God that I wasn't the only one who'd noticed it. A couple of rounds fired off in the dark a kilometer away and the Elephant would be there kneeling on my chest, sending me down into my boots for a breath." That's how it starts—we know, of course, how it ends.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Washing Machine (1995)

Five years after selling out and signing with a major label finds Sonic Youth comfortably churning out product, and what product it is. Recorded in the run-up to the band's headlining turn on the Lollapalooza festival, this their ninth album, fourth for the aforementioned major, boasts a rock foursome, 2 guitars bass drums, in full command. The guitars crunch like dry gravel, hitting all notes and tones; the feedback shrieks and howls, skirting the edges of shrill but never crossing over, instead adding texture and authoritative emotional veracity; and the tunings bring the mysterious and ethereal more evocatively than ever. Production's pretty good too. Perhaps most surprising, the ability of the band to write memorable melody (as a unit, evidently), the kind to hum with, to remember later when you're far from it, at work or walking along or sitting in a bar with friends, is nothing short of amazing. The kind, as on "Little Trouble Girl," that pays respect to the Shangri-Las. Or that, like the title song or album opener "Becuz," just plain get the job done. I don't think writing good songs is about going soft or getting old or complacent. I think it's about getting better at what they do. Nowhere do the elements of this entirely unexpected, almost shocking growth come into focus more than on "The Diamond Sea," the 19:36 elegy to Kurt Cobain, who died the year before they entered the studio to record this album. From the first tentative seconds it looms from out of a sad, brave place, Thurston Moore's lyrics going about their work with a minimum of fuss, the vocal as boyish as it must be. Then the band lets loose, methodically tearing shreds across its surfaces, winding itself up good and tight, with Kim Gordon's bass maintaining the lyrical underpinning as the vortex opens and shuts and opens, until things are quiet again and Moore is singing again, the sad, brave song, and then all goes swirling off again, hurtling-like, massive, buoyant, floating, dignified wreckage, casting its spells deep. I've heard it compared to the Grateful Dead, and not as an insult. I don't hear that exactly. But somehow I like the comparison.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

USA, 84 minutes
Director: Larry Charles
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, Todd Phillips
Photography: Luke Geissbuhler, Anthony Hardwick
Cast/appearances: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, Pamela Anderson, Bob Barr, Alan Keyes

Inspired, unnerving, and hilarious, so much so that I have wanted almost desperately to overlook its many flaws and exalt it to the status of documentary—and, at that, an important one. Sacha Baron Cohen as the overbearing yet disarming Kazakh stereotype is sharp as hell, locating the fatuousness of his various interlocutors, impassively abetting them in the self-exposure of their deep-seated stupidities and hypocrisy. But no, it's not a documentary, as the tissue-thin connecting narrative scenes make more than apparent, featuring only Cohen or Cohen and sidekick Ken Davitian (as his producer) on camera. But the throbbing heart of this thing remains the numerous daring and outrageous pranks that it documents. With the exception of the overdone kidnapping of Pamela Anderson as its lame climax, the pranks are as real as the stink on your ass. They are often so ingeniously engineered and played out as to be almost distracting (this Salon article has helpful information). Somehow, for example, he finagles his way into singing the national anthem at a rodeo in Salem, Virginia, where his introductory remarks draw an enthusiastic response: "May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq! May you destroy their country so that of the next 1,000 years not even a single lizard will survive in their deserts!" (The crowd is noticeably less appreciative, however, when he begins singing and mangles the national anthem.) Then there is Cohen eagerly taking pointers in etiquette from privileged genteel Southerners in Birmingham, Alabama, pretending at a dinner party that he does not understand how to excuse himself to use the bathroom, and then returning to the table from said trip with a plastic bag of feces, which he presents in his confusion to the hostess. Then there is conservative/"libertarian" stalwart Bob Barr taking a sit-down with Cohen, who offers Barr cheese as a customary way to open a meeting. Once Barr has taken a bite of it Cohen tells him his wife made it "from the milk from her tit." All of which brings me, haphazardly or otherwise, to why I likely saw more importance in this wild romp than may actually be here: it is a neat encapsulation, reflection, and expression of the rage and impotence I experienced regarding the national zeitgeist in the U.S. over this past decade. I like this so much, in other words, because I got so mad. And if many of the people targeted here are hardly the most appropriate for the treatment (and a number are plain victims, in the wrong place at the wrong time), most of them will do fine until the right ones come along. What's more, none of that means this isn't funny. It's devastatingly, wickedly funny.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

100 Hit Songs: Introduction

Having enjoyed the versions of them I've seen on other blogs, I've decided to try my hand at a countdown. Some of those I first considered—greatest albums ever, best movies ever, top novels, favorite cats—were so broad and wide-ranging as to feel almost impossible to even start getting my arms around. Maybe down the line for them.

Instead I opted for one that seemed manageable and comes with fairly clear-cut ground rules: 100 favorite hit songs, all candidates for which must have appeared on the Billboard Top 40 charts for the U.S. between 1955 and the present. This precludes me from including such stalwart and eternal favorites as Big Star's "Nightime," the Chills' "Song for Randy Newman, Etc.," or even the Stones' "Street Fighting Man" (not to mention entire album sides such as Abbey Road side 2 or Moondance side 1, a fraud I have attempted on previous such lists).

All the usual disclaimers apply. The listings and my comments to follow constitute subjective and extremely fluid judgments, with no airs regarding comprehensiveness, objectivity, or even permanence. I am deliberately using the word "favorite," though a good many of the songs are included because of their historical significance or their historical unlikelihood, and often the anomalous combination of both. That is, among other seeming paradoxes, a song may end up being a favorite within the constraints of this exercise, but would not necessarily place even on a personal top 10 of mine for that particular artist. Patti Smith, for example, just missed this big list with her "Because the Night," which ended up at #109 when I called an arbitrary, deadline-driven halt to the tinkering and fussing. But I actually like many tracks on her Horses and Easter and Wave albums a good deal more. On a monster all-up list, "Because the Night" would probably be lucky to get above 500, or even 1,000 (and that would be mostly because of its status as an unusual hit, and also, another extraneous intangible, because there's something I like about the New Jersey connection with Springsteen, especially in the context of its time, who wrote it and gave it to her).

I think we can all agree that claims to objectivity in these matters are inevitably a lot of foolishness anyway. Or, as Mark Twain wrote in different circumstances, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." Even six months from now—which, checking over my schedule here, is approximately when we will finally be rounding in to a top 10—this list would almost certainly be rather different if I started over. The plain fact is that I just seem to enjoy lists these days, reading them by others and now concocting my own.

Dates given will be for the years in which the songs entered the chart—hence, for example, "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett (with or without the Crypt-Kickers, which good Christ I am just now finding out included Leon Russell), would be labeled as both 1962 and 1973. This is something you need to know in regard to only one, or perhaps two or three, of the songs that will appear in this countdown, the identity of which might be something you enjoy trying to guess.

Props to my favorite list-making blogs, all as it happens concerned with movies: Goodfella's Movie Blog, They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (which takes the enterprise to all new levels), and Wonders in the Dark. They get all credit for inspiring me to this—but no blame, of course, for the various swings wild and even excesses (or perhaps merely exercise of rote conventional wisdom) on which I am about to embark.

Scheduling (as usual, within the limits of my stamina): Fridays continue on movies, Sundays on books, and Saturdays now devoted to albums. More or less everything else is countdown. As always, comments are welcome and invited.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sexplosion! (1991)

Two minutes into this thing, which runs about an hour, and you know you're in for a rollercoaster ride of down and dirty camp high jinks. The quavering fearful girl who's not hurting anything, the rubbery disco bass, the chanting chicks, the big bawdy faux horn sections, and the soaring, swooping keyboards all march right out like clowns in a parade. Then more spoken word samples: "Did somebody tie you up the other day?" "Yeah." "Why did they tie you up?" "'Cos I said I was leaving ... I was forced to stay someplace like a slave." Voice 1 = a modulated middle-aged newscaster right out of '50s clip art sucking on a pipe. Voice 2 = the quavering girl, barely speaking above a whisper. Voice 2, or something like it, will also appear later to coolly defend the use of LSD. Groovie Mann and Buzz McCoy, the principals of My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult—or TKK as its aficionados commonly refer to it, evidently in need of some relief from the thick-witted syllables and willful misspelling—clearly have no qualms about paying extended inspection visits to the elements at the deepest and darkest heart of suburban panic, playing them for a good joke: French decadence, street sex, lost lives, martinis, sadomasochism, drugs, the ongoing refusal to accept Jesus as one's personal savior. It's all here and as drolly explicit as they can make it. It's arguable that all of TKK, and certainly of this album, their third full-length plus an EP, finds its sources in approximately 25 seconds of the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" (the fourth verse), which they have been about infinitely expanding since their origins in the late '80s. I would be inclined to dismiss it as the foolishness that it mostly is, except I happened to see the act on its tour in support of this, on a baking hot night, playing well past the hour that the law determined they should have finished by, and with various alarming stunts that included full-frontal nudity, oversized toy syringes, and various escapades with an anatomically correct, if grossly exaggerated, Jesus on the cross. The house was packed. I expected the police any moment. Somehow it was entirely thrilling. I've never seen anything quite like it. Echoes of that night remain trapped within these grooves.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The White Album (1979)

Named for the Beatles album that does not actually bear the name, about which it is anyway entirely silent, this may well be Joan Didion's single best book. In many ways it plays like the album, or certainly side 4, an ostensible collection of essays that of themselves stand only arbitrarily as discrete units, often composed rather of fragments only tangentially related to anything but a brooding sense of "the '60s," a concept forever maddeningly just out of reach. The title piece, for example, which opens the book, runs on for some 40 pages, touching on southern California life, rental homes, mental illness, serial killers and the ubiquitous dread of a knock on the door, the old Hollywood, the Doors, Huey Newton's health plan, strategies for gaining access to Eldridge Cleaver, traveling tips, Ezra Pound, campus unrest at San Francisco State College, "Wichita Lineman," Linda Kasabian, synchronicity writ intimate, and the afterlife according to the manager of a motel in Pendleton, Oregon, a Mormon. Elsewhere, Didion attempts to establish the distance she's incapable of in regard to her homeland, California, about which she remains endlessly fascinated in spite of herself. She examines women and the women's movement through the lenses, implicitly, of Doris Lessing and Georgia O'Keefe (the latter reminding of Didion's sincere regard and esteem for John Wayne both as an icon and as a human being). She travels to Hawaii, Colombia (foreshadowing some of her best '80s work), and the Hoover Dam. She attempts to explain the movie industry, authoritatively, from the inside. She apologetically breaks down the marketing physics of shopping malls. She takes to her bed with migraine headaches. If this is not her best book it's certainly the beginning of a string of them that continues to impress, and an excellent starting point for anyone interested in her. The cryptic, elliptical style is first perfected here, the compression and almost poetic precision of her elegant language, the constant nagging sense of dread balanced by continual attempts at irony that are understood always as insufficient and vain even in the act of making them, and the eternal yearning to make some kind of sense, any kind of sense, of this baffling kaleidoscope of American culture—inside of and beyond "the '60s," which haunt her.

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

Friday, July 09, 2010

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

USA/France, 147 minutes
Director/writer: David Lynch
Photography: Peter Deming
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Ann Miller, Justin Theroux, Robert Forster, Lee Grant, Billy Ray Cyrus, Dan Hedaya, Angelo Badalamenti, Monty Montgomery, Rebekah Del Rio

"Figuring out" this movie is a bit like looking at one of those '90s Magic Eye 3D images (an insight that's not new with me)—the metaphorical trick of relaxing your eyes and tricking your brain into seeing provides a glorious moment indeed, an inherently binary toggle. Yes, Mulholland Dr. is one of those things that people like or dislike intensely, and yes, you need to see it more than once. It's the last 25 minutes or so, after the blue box drops to the floor, that most inspires people to their sputtering denunciations of knave trickery and base pretension on the part of David Lynch, a response that's actually a bit funny when you think about it. Who, after all, doesn't want to be fooled, at least a little, when they settle down to watch a movie? And isn't that one of the reasons we watch in the first place, and in the dark—because it's like dreaming, intuitive and fleeting and irrational? Not that I want to (or could) go deeply into the various Freudian or Jungian dynamics and psychology of either this drama or dreaming itself. But look, the hallucinatory dislocations and discontinuous developments and the tenor and textures and even the forgetfulness and blank spaces of dreaming are all over this, sometimes even at the complex level of dreams within dreams within dreams, no small feat. That's ultimately how it makes sense—and yet, I think anyone can agree that the first two hours amount to a perfectly charming and perfectly mysterious, atmospheric, and insanely engaging kind of Nancy Drew whodunit (albeit one with teeth and claws), not a bit difficult to follow even with its absurd twists and turns. Betty (played by Naomi Watts, who is brilliant across the length and breadth of this) is new in Hollywood from Deep River, Ontario, bright-eyed and setting off on a promising career in the movies. Rita (played by Laura Harring) has amnesia after an attempt on her life is inadvertently thwarted by an auto accident that she walks away from. Betty tries to help Rita get it all sorted out. Meanwhile, hotshot director Adam Kesher (played by Justin Theroux) has a spectacularly bad day, encountering heavy interference in the film he is working on. Oh, and a cake and steak joint on Sunset, Winkie's, is effectively established as a vortex of evil. Along the way Lynch surfs a number of Hollywood's most standard and familiar tropes of genre: noir, melodrama, horror, suspense thriller, even westerns and exploitation pictures (not to mention expressionistic doppelgangers and elements of both Persona and Vertigo), mixing them all up just deftly enough to keep the entire production entertaining even as the tension and momentum build inexorably. Then the blue box falls and, in a way, you're on your own. The momentum is still there, you can feel it, it's like a vise on your head, with the stakes higher than ever. But the meaning starts to seem impossible, maddeningly slippery, fluid, elusive. Why do they all have these new names? These new roles? What changed? What's different? Why are all these things happening now? Who are those old people? Not to worry. The answers are there, though not everyone may agree on the specifics of them, nor even, perhaps, find themselves capable of rationally communicating all of them. Is the effort to understand worthwhile? Isn't it always? Watch again. You'll enjoy yourself; you'll see.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Heaven or Las Vegas (1990)

"Cherry-Coloured Funk" I remember when this came out that the line everyone seemed to take on the Cocteau Twins was that Elizabeth Fraser wasn't really singing words, just making lovely noises. Guess what? Yeah well, but anyway, they're definitely hard to make out, even when you're trying to track along right word for word. I also found out that this was the bestselling single album of their career, which spanned 1979-1997, and that it was their last for 4AD. All I knew at the time was that it was gorgeous and enchanting if alarmingly vaporous, difficult to recall to mind well when I was apart from it. In fact, I had a habit for several weeks of putting it on daily with the intention of getting to the bottom of this once and for all. Then that chopping, plodding attack to "Cherry-Coloured Funk" would start and about 30 seconds in Fraser would swoop to the lovely note and join herself in lilting counterparts and my concentration scattered, distracted or buoyed or both by the ineffable. It's hard to say that this is exactly comprehending music, or whether it's rather more something like finding a suitable background soundtrack to ignore. But now when I hear it again I know perfectly well, like muscle memory, what dodges and feints each song will take in the seconds before it does so and all the hooks and notes and various tricks. And it's indelibly connected with the feelings and experiences of the time when I was listening to it so slavishly, a mostly unremarkable period yet with its triumphs and disappointments and unique whatsits, the like of which I shall never again, etc. I always thought of this as the one from their well-stocked catalog that I just happened to land on, all of the rest of it equally distinguished based on what I heard, which just might be to say equally undistinguished, except by the force of what's brought to bear.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Special Beat Service (1982)

"I Confess" With their third album in little more than two years, the Beat had deepened and mellowed from their new wave origins into something awfully close to a for-real soul band even as they continued to swing wild stylistically. That soul impression might be due only to the presence of a full-fledged horn section on several of the tracks, but I think it actually has more to do with the quantum leaps forward taken by Ranking Roger, who gets a certain amount of convincing desperation into his yelping vocal performance when the songs call for it. The songwriting and especially the arrangements (piano player Dave Blockhead really starts bringing it here) are better too, more cohesive in putting together an organic sound—it's a band that knows itself pretty well by this point—though they still don't appear to have a lot to say. It all seemed promising enough but, unfortunately, this was the end of the line for them, at least for a couple of decades, as the principals blew apart and went on to various other projects, most notably General Public (Ranking Roger, guitarist/singer Dave Wakeling) and Fine Young Cannibals (guitarist Andy Cox, bassist David Steele, joining forces with singer Roland Gift). Ah, Britain. Ah, the '80s. To me, this was the Beat's most quixotic and fascinating album, one that I played often, patiently waiting for some deep connections I sensed there to kick in. Hearing it again all this time later surprises me how it produces the same sensation. It's a perfectly pleasant, even enticing 40 minutes, and it's not even far-fetched to wonder if it won't one day yet become a kind of small obsession or wonder in itself. But yeah, then the attention seems to wander off again.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife (2003)

Chicago art professor Audrey Niffenegger's first novel is nothing less than a pure revelation: a page-turner for those who enjoy turning pages, a science fiction story with new wrinkles to add to one of its hoariest traditions, time travel, and a romance that is convincing and tender and overwhelming. Actually, I don't mean to sound like I'm knocking time travel—it's probably my favorite of all the SF subgenres, with its fascinating paradoxes, its visionary potential, and likely its real impossibility, which ultimately may slot it more towards fantasy. But even more key to Niffenegger's success here, I think, is its canny relocation of all the necessary intrigues from out of the cerebrum, where it's often too easy for SF to find its natural environs, and into the cardiac. Because this is a thriller as well as a romance as well as SF, and it's practically impossible, over the course of it, to stop reading or to not to fall in love with the love affair between librarian Henry DeTamble and his wife and lifelong lover Claire Abshire (in many ways, "lifelong" actually understates it), which is one for the ages, and I mean those ages much closer to literally than figuratively. Henry is possessed of some mysterious condition, attributed a bit ham-handedly to a genetic disorder, that yanks him willy-nilly and tosses him across time. He has virtually no warning of when it will happen, no control over where or specifically when he will land, and he doesn't get to take anything with him, even his clothes. Like an extreme version of what Guy Pearce lives out in the movie Memento, Henry repeatedly finds himself disoriented, naked, and potentially anywhere (and, of course, anywhen), forced simply to cope with circumstances. And he's gotten pretty good at it, picking up the basics of street-level survival skills such as self-defense, various identity hustles, shoplifting, breaking and entering, pick pocketing. In the clever plot schemes here, Henry and Claire have always known one another and, perhaps, never known one another. When Henry first meets her, they have already made love in her past; that is still in his future. They have known each other when she is a child and he is an adult, when she is an old woman and he is a middle-aged man, as a married couple trying very hard to conceive a child, and as parents. The epic scope of it is breathtaking. It's a relationship doomed by his condition but one that is also eternal because of it, and therein lies the perfect aching beauty of it.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

I Just Can't Stop It (1980)

"Twist & Crawl" The Beat (forced by legal skirmishing to operate as the English Beat in North America, concession to LA singer/songwriter Paul Collins who was heading up a power pop band at the time with the name) were key players in the UK's 2 Tone ska moment of the late '70s and early '80s, along with the Specials, Madness, Bad Manners, and others. It's called "2 Tone" for the obvious reasons and also because that was the name of the label that signed and distributed most of them. Though this debut and the band itself has many of the trappings and even authentic elements of the original ska—most notably in the person of saxophonist Saxa, whose resume extends back to work with Desmond Dekker, Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster, and others—it sounds to me now more like new wave with a Jamaican patois (courtesy vocalist Ranking Roger, nonetheless a Brit): fast tempos, twitchy rhythms, verse-chorus-verse, random and statement-making covers ironic and otherwise (Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown," Andy Williams's "Can't Get Used to Losing You," Prince Buster's "Rough Rider"), and all of it delivered to the sacred service of F-U-N. Well, you could do a lot worse, and how. The Beat may not have stuck around long but everything they did was pretty great, infectious, irresistible, thoroughly charming, and with all the crushing weight of a feather, even on the occasional essays at message (such as "Click Click," which appears to oppose guns but plays like a seizure). That's a lot more than you can say for too many acts who overstayed their welcomes and then some. On this impressive debut, the Beat delivers good music for summer days and summer nights, for drinking beer and dancing on backyard patios until the neighbors call the police (you should have remembered to invite them in the first place). It's good loud, particularly with frequent and regular administrations, and can also fit nicely into a daily regimen.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Little City in Space (1984)

USA, 54 minutes, documentary
Director/photography: Miroslav Janek

Because I grew up in and around Minneapolis, Minnesota, and spent the first half of my life there, and because (full disclosure) I was a member in 1977-1981 of the Post-Void Radio Theater, who play a significant role here, I had some personal interest in tracking down this fairly obscure short documentary from Miroslav Janek. Janek's biggest claim to fame now may be as one of the editors of Powaqqatsi, the second of Godfrey Reggio's trilogy that started with Koyaanisqatsi. I'm glad I finally caught up with it, though I have to wonder how much significance it might have for anyone falling outside of the tiny reach in the late '70s and early '80s of the Minneapolis southside community radio station that it profiles, KFAI-FM (90.3). At the time when I knew the station and had some involvement with it, its broadcast range was something like 10 watts, which isn't much. Nevertheless, this freewheeling documentary, with its interesting mix of color and sepia-toned footage and terrific shots coming whole handfuls at a time, does capture a lot of the spirit and the realities of the station, from the insanely eclectic range of its offerings to the stoic Scandihoovian nature of its participants (even those who speak French, as one such here who lays claim to winter as her favorite season, incidentally justifying her presence in Minnesota, "where people live longer") to the claustrophobic warrens of the old church building in which it was housed and right down to the way voices sounded coming off the air through those microphones. I wish this little gem was twice as long as it is, or even three times as long. It feels like a nifty throwback to a time and an era when people could just throw in and start a radio station and people could grab cameras and make movies about it. But now I'm indulging in the most egregious distortion—I know for a fact, for example, that it actually took nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes labors to get the station off the ground in the first place, never mind what it takes to keep it going. But I like this documentary a lot, for reasons that may or may not transfer beyond myself and a few others who have traveled in Minneapolis.