Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Kiss on My List" (1981)

76. Daryl Hall & John Oates, "Kiss on My List" (Feb. 14, 1981, #1, 3 wks.)

Hall & Oates had a few hits in the '70s—the sublime "She's Gone," the disquieting "Sara Smile," the execrable "Rich Girl"—before finding their '80s rut with this, a rut they chose to call a groove and go with. Fair enough, I say. It spawned a good handful or more of soundalike hits that all broke the top 10. I'm not necessarily going to begrudge anyone's success on such a basis, though I must admit to getting a little tired of the formula by the time of, say, 1983's "Maneater." Still, this is where it started, and if the song has various barely defensible attractions for me, not least that it acquired an "our song" status in a relationship I recall now with great affection, it also brings other elements I think are harder to deny. It's deceptively alluring, easing into itself with a simple drumbeat and crisp piano chords, before Daryl Hall starts in with his uncanny blue-eyed soul business (I have never figured out exactly what John Oates is supposed to be bringing to the party, but it took me awhile to understand Art Garfunkel's contributions too, so I may yet see the light one day). As the chorus approaches it adds various levels of complexity, and by a little more than a minute in it's more or less fully functioning: its themes, both musical and lyrical, all laid out and on to the elaborations. Yes, you may say that particularly the lyrical are trite, and that may well be so. But if you had known someone whose kiss at that time was on your list of the best things in life, you might feel a little differently about it—a bit more like me, perhaps, who can still find pleasures here to positively wallow in. It's what I'm doing at this very moment. 'Scuse me, need to hear it once more.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"Heart of Glass" (1979)

77. Blondie, "Heart of Glass" (March 17, 1979, #1)

Another heinous sellout of epic proportions, once again producing results that only the most hardened could object to. In this case, it is New York punk-rock scenesters Blondie dabbling in the dread disco and dancing their way to the top of the charts, incidentally inventing a neat counterpoint to the Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone" (and maybe Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" too), which others have used elsewhere to good effect. The song actually started life in 1975 as a reggae number called "Once I Had a Love," which is frankly hard for me to imagine. As reconfigured a scant few years later, with producer Mike Chapman given his head at the board, it's one of the smoothest, slickest productions to emerge from the heyday of disco, as glistening and sleek and cool as the material that provides its name. The four-on-the-floor is thankfully understated (but there, oh there), the little guitar flicks almost tender, and the backing vocals positively meditative. It's the swirling layers of keyboards and the ethereal vocals from Deborah Harry that do most of the heavy lifting. The groove is so fine that this is one of those rare dance songs whose mixes can be judged by their length, i.e., longer better. Longer longer better better. Longer longer longer better better better. I'm not sure what I can add. It's good to dance to? Sometimes I think I might be getting a little tired of it, but often a change in setting, hearing it somewhere that surprises me—such as, these days, an elevator—can revive all its charms for me in an instant. Maybe that sounds like damning with faint praise, but that doesn't mean it's not a damn fine song.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968)

I first read Robert Coover's insane meditation on a solitaire baseball game played with dice for probably the wrong reason, involved myself at the time in a similar activity. Mine happened to be Strat-O-Matic (which I see still publishes and updates the board game, though it has long since also been adapted to computer play), whereas the hero of Coover's novel, the titular J. Henry Waugh (a name some have interpreted as a variation on Yahweh, which may offer some idea of the dynamics going on here), essentially invented his own from scratch—players, teams, umpires, league administration organizations, and all. It was a little unsettling for me to see how completely nuts our main character Waugh actually is, a middle-aged man living alone in a tiny apartment above a storefront who, at the time with which the novel is concerned, is in the process of blowing his livelihood as a low-level accountant/bookkeeper to his strange preoccupation. There's little need to attempt recreating the plot points that bring him to the pass. They are deeply embedded in the game he has invented, which has enabled him to build an entire alternative history within the confines of his head. You might as well enjoy them in the reading, because they are intricately complex, devilish clever, and incidentally offer the jumping-off point to the real action of the story, which seems to be the entry of a mind into a psychotic break. That's the point Coover lost me originally. I wanted, of course, some kind of literary imprimatur for the lark on which I thought I had embarked. And still, even prepared for what happens, it hasn't been much easier the second or third times through. For me, Waugh remains the most interesting point of contact here, and once we seem to have lost him, entering his world entirely and no longer with any familiar external referents on which to cling, it comes to seem a little dull—the colorful characters and their colorful nicknames, the dugout camaraderie, the folk tales and the endless songs, the recitations of lore and unmatched statistical feats. Dull, at least, until one stops to ponder how we came to occupy this world, at which point it becomes almost terrifying, as if suddenly plunged into a simulacrum whose origins we are not intended to know, but do. It is like the moment when a reality we understand only as reality briefly and flashingly pixelates. How did we get here? We can't remember—except, in this novel, Coover pries open a very slight and often disturbing aperture into the memory.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mudhoney (1989)

All due respect to Nirvana (and, I suppose, the slippery slope that begins with Soundgarden and ends on Pearl Jam), but Mudhoney for my money was the best band to come spinning out of the Seattle world domination grunge gesture of the late '80s and early '90s. They were all loud, but unlike their various brethren, Mudhoney was the most comfortable going foul-mouthed and playing it for laughs. They could be pretty funny too. Too often the rest were just sourpuss cases of pining earnestness, but Mark Arm & co. were seriously loose and freewheeling, a pleasure and a joy, the one band of them all most evidently plugged into their primal inner Stooges. Perhaps nowhere is it more in evidence than here, on their official debut (after singles and an EP), with such high points as "You Got It" ("Keep it outta my face"), "Here Comes Sickness," a kind of variation on the first single, "Touch Me I'm Sick," and, of course, the unbridled romp of "Flat Out Fucked." Nor were they merely obnoxious, as their calculated turn to reverb for the mysterious album kickoff, "The Gift," demonstrates, or especially when they literally architected sounds of the future with "When Tomorrow Hits," which Spacemen 3 (and later Spectrum, same diff) took and ran around the planet a few times. Somehow, and you may find yourself facing the same dilemma which is why I bring it up, it seems like listening to Mudhoney is going to involve a lot of effort, like a homework assignment. But that only lasts as long as it takes to actually put it on, let it play a few minutes, and adjust the volume appropriately. There is a surprising amount of complex layering to the sonics of what they're about, no shortage of creative grooves, and, when Mark Arm starts in with the yelping and roaring, some good yuks too. March to Fuzz offers the best widescreen picture, but short of that this is probably their best single album. Mudhoney: long may they wave.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

USA, 102 minutes
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Hubert Selby Jr., Darren Aronofsky
Photography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Clint Mansell (with performances by Kronos Quartet)
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Mark Margolis, Keith David

This lush and barbaric movie about addiction takes place over a nine-month period, in a summer, fall, and winter series that sees things go from bad to worse for its four characters. It is almost spectacularly bleak, redeemed from parody by the deft and imaginative filmmaking of director Darren Aronofsky and his crew, and by the stark, rapid-fire rhythms of its editing, which focuses on telegraphed snapshots in rapid succession, shorthand critical elements of addiction (the lighter, the cotton swab, the pupil of the eye constricting with the rush), setting up a monotonous drumbeat of repetitious images that reflect the repetitious life of addiction. Ellen Burstyn plays Sara Goldfarb, a rapidly fading Brooklyn widow who spends her days eating chocolates and watching episodes of a TV show that seems to be broadcast constantly, something that is a cross between a daytime talk show and an infomercial. When she comes to believe she will soon be on the show she sets about losing 50 pounds with the aid of an unscrupulous doctor and diet pills. Jared Leto plays her son Harry; Marlon Wayans plays his pal Tyrone. Both are heroin addicts and promiscuous drug users who dream of scoring a big haul, which somehow equates to everlasting financial independence and a lifetime supply. Jennifer Connelly plays Marion, Harry's girlfriend, who is also a heroin addict dreaming of a life without a single hassle ever. It goes without saying that they are all damaged, but this movie is not particularly interested in them anyway. In fact, it gives us only enough information about each to make it hurt to see the futile damage they wreak upon themselves in their catastrophic plummets. Instead, this movie is more intent, with a kind of zealous purity, on showing what lives of addiction look like and sound like and feel like, and it's never attractive. The arc of the individual stories is simple, as high moments of pleasure and joy and anticipation for the future in the summer are quickly followed by various missteps and failures in the fall, which lead to extremely bitter winters. Aronofsky has plenty of tricks to distract from the relentless onslaught of emotional carnage, such as frequent use of split screens, in one memorable scene using them with Harry and Marion even as they lay in bed together. The music, especially from the Kronos Quartet, is harsh and percussive but vibrant and intellectually distanced at the same time, which effectively underscores the central point of how willfully unplugged these people are. In the end, as each faces his and her individual cataclysm, all four fold into fetal positions, longing for death, and if they can't have that, then the next best thing, which is all the hope and safety and security of the womb, before they had ever set foot even once on this planet.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Born to Be Wild" (1968)

78. Steppenwolf, "Born to Be Wild" (July 20, 1968, #2)

Me, I've never found much appeal in the biker outlaw lifestyle, but by God, when this thing starts I'm ready for just about anything. It packs a whole lot of living into its little life, including arguably the origin of the term "heavy metal" (if not exactly the sound of it, at least as we have come to understand it). Countless filmmakers, first-rate and otherwise, have resorted to it when they want to deploy a great knockout punctuation mark, lending a potent moment of sheer propulsion to any scene of vaguely rebellious, anti-authoritarian bent. It's there rearing its breeze-blown hairy head in everything from Easy Rider to Dr. Dolittle 2. Video games and professional wrestlers have gotten in on it too. Written by one Mars Bonfire—as fine a pseudonym as exists in all of rock, and though he gave us little else besides this, he didn't have to—it's a rode-hard anthem that in Steppenwolf's version stands up yet to close listen: the organ and guitar remain locked in death match all through, and the drumming, as plain as it may be, nevertheless drives it forward at highway cruising speeds. The lyrics are what they are, unsurprising and slavish declarations of liberty that nevertheless thrill all the way to the roots: "Get your motor running head out on the highway," blah blah blah. The point is that they feel so terrific, particularly when school is out and summer just starting. There's little better. It's like the first kicking jolt of love, or anyway of a good drug experience. And while it has been covered and covered and covered, the original is still the best.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Dreams" (1977)

79. Fleetwood Mac, "Dreams" (April 30, 1977, #1)

As much as I stake everything on Christine McVie as my single favorite Fleetwood Mac, and as much as I champion Lindsey Buckingham, both as songwriter and guitar player, and as much as I'm the first to snicker right along at the antics of Stevie Nicks, swirling inside her rainbow of scarves, I think it's hard to deny that Nicks is the one who delivers the most potent goods when it comes time to trample the airwaves. Sure, her big numbers tend to be all of a piece—"Rhiannon," "Sara," "Gypsy," and this, the best of them, "Dreams"—but they are also, all of them, moody, atmospheric, gorgeous exercises built to Nicks's earthy register and just made for prancing about in slow motion within haloes of cascading fabric. I don't even care that the lyrics here are just as trite as they can be: "Thunder only happens when it's raining," etc. What matters is the tight, exalted hush of the band, the simple elegance of the melodies, and, more than anything, the texture of Nicks's voice, pushing against the firm foundations of the song, lifting and rising, falling and swooping, buoyed by the otherworldly harmonies of Buckingham and Christine McVie behind her, like a leaf caught in an autumn wind. It's not coming to ground anytime soon, floating and twisting and just beautiful. I would also like to take a moment to call your attention once again to the superior rhythm section, which sets a rock-solid groove from the first second and maintains it right through. I remember feeling fortunate at the time—amazed, even—that something as good as this was on the radio every day for all those weeks.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"White Rabbit" (1967)

80. Jefferson Airplane, "White Rabbit" (July 1, 1967, #8)

"One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all." Well—I think we all know what this song is about, now don't we? And I don't want to hear a word about Lewis Carroll, even if the whimsical mathematician did supply most of the familiar nouns, proper and otherwise. Context, certainly in this case, is everything. Just like the '70s, as previously discussed, provided a hospitable setting for the ludicrous sexcapades of Roxy Music and Lou Reed, so the '60s made the bed for hallucinogenic, mind-expanding drugs and various psychic explorations, and in such straightforward fashion that a song like this could actually find itself all over the radio. It's a bit mind-boggling all in its own right. The strength of this song, aside from its startling subject matter, is the bold way it rips a page out of Ravel's Bolero playbook, putting together a quietly throbbing bass, gentle warping guitar tones, and a somber, almost military tattoo on the snare drum, pa rum pum pum pum, until the thing blows open across the last minute. Over and out. Done. There's really not many pop songs like it. Grace Slick, who wrote it, has her giant voice under virtually perfect control, as big as an arena when she needs to make it so, warbling the garbled tale as she rides the wave of the slow crescendo, which builds and continues building for the entire two and a half minutes that the song lasts. The basic idea is summarized at the end: "Feed your head. Feed your head. Feed your head." Is it really so much to ask anyone to get behind?

Monday, August 23, 2010

"All the Young Dudes" (1972)

81. Mott the Hoople, "All the Young Dudes (Nov. 4, 1972, #37)

This is almost surely the best song David Bowie ever gave away, and Ian Hunter and his mates prove in a matter of three and a half minutes that they were just the ones to step up and knock it out of the park. No one, not even Bowie, does or has ever done this song better. Mick Ralphs's plaintive guitar opens and already it's a heartache. Then Hunter arrives at the mic, mumbling about suicide and kicks in the head, with a melody line that falls face-forward in slow motion, and the sweet pathos is underway in earnest. By the time of the chorus, one of the great moments of '70s rock is pealing forth like doves released from a box, the point where anyone with any sense is reaching for the volume control to turn it up and furthermore trying to match the notes at the top of their lungs. The song materialized in the glam era, and it's all about putting on a good show, but it comes with its own bag of tricks too, chipped in by people wearing their shades 24/7, doubtless up for days on end weary and ragged from speed. They fit it out with hand-clapping, a homely, rolling drumkit, and a lovely droning organ. The totality of it busies itself sending a message, and here is that message: "Carry the news ... Boogaloo dudes ('stand up, come on')." You could put an entire choral choir behind this and it would never get any more majestic than that. Extra credit inspirational verse: "Television man is crazy, saying we're juvenile delinquent wrecks. Oh, man, I need TV when I got T. Rex?"

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lolita (1955)

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is no doubt far more notorious than read, a book that it's dangerous to be seen with in public even today. It's understandable enough because the argument against it is so flatly dismissive and easy to make that it's hard to counter, particularly in this day and age: "I don't need to read anything about a pedophile to know it's a bunch of garbage," etc. And that argument comes from all corners, not just fundamentalists and other professional prudes. That's just a shame, of course, not least because the thing is done so well; it's humorous, light, deft, and clever as hell without ever pulling its punches about the events it describes. It is never close to salacious, describing instead grimly pathetic and desperate lives. It is most convincing in those moments when the tragedy of the girl—Dolores Haze, by name, and note even there how well Nabokov understands how hard she is to see, as are most children—is most plain to see, as when she realizes she is well and truly trapped at the side of this man, Humbert Humbert, sobbing at night in their motel beds after she thinks he has fallen asleep, or, later, when the direction of her life as an adult is revealed. That's when the profound grasp of the material that Nabokov has brought to this is most apparent. Yes, it's a story about rape and murder and abuse. It's also a story about America and hypocrisy and the good life—in its second half, it even turns into a genuine road story, Jack Kerouac's raw material given substance and urgency and meaning two years before Kerouac's novel was ever published. The main trick with this book, I think, is simply to sit down and read it. Forget the outrage and especially forget all the highfalutin literary gimcrackery that gets claimed for it and about it. There's plenty of time for that and plenty of critics to read if you're interested, because Nabokov is performing entire series of literary feats within these pages. But first read it. Because perhaps the most significant stunt Nabokov manages here is that he has made it so engaging, so perfectly and rapturously entertaining without ever skipping past any of the unpleasant implications inherent in the very nature of the story. It's really impressive.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild (2008)

In some way that I cannot entirely explain, Jonathan Richman appears to be back in my life. It started with a show he happened to play in Olympia late in 2008 (promoting this, I guess, at least inasmuch as any of his shows are ever in support of product). "Please," I thought, indulging a nostalgic fantasy, "play 'That Summer Feeling,' play 'Pablo Picasso,' and for gods sake leave your shirt on." My wishes came true! And more—the show closed on an unexpected second encore, with me out of position and halfway to the door, standing there nervously shifting from foot to foot to see if this was going to be worth hanging around for, as he played, softly, so softly you could hear people rustling in the crowd, what turned out to be the most devastating song of the evening (in an evening full with more than its share), "As My Mother Lay Lying." At that moment my own father lay lying, three months away from his death, though I couldn't know that then any more than Richman as I stood there in the dark quiet and absorbed the words, the profound impact of them deepening by the moment. Now I'm starting to catch up with what Richman has been doing these past 25 years. All I happened to notice going by were the cameos in There's Something About Mary, which I was happy to see, but otherwise he's got a good couple handfuls or more of albums I barely know. Often accompanied, as in the movie, only by drummer Tommy Larkins, whose phlegmatic presence is a nice foil to Richman, many seem to include songs explicitly celebrating one artist or another—here it's "No One Was Like Vermeer"—a number of foreign language selections (here, "Es Como El Pan" and "Le Printemps des Amoreux est Venu"), and the usual silly but often endearing foofaraw (here, "The Lovers Are Here and They're Full of Sweat"). He takes a surprisingly hard line against antidepressants and the culture of eternal happiness in "When We Refuse to Suffer," which actually gets two treatments here, and indeed also opened both of the shows I have seen in the past couple of years. He appears to be very serious about this, and there are other songs in that vein as well (more for me to research, not sure if they're brand new or from albums I don't know well). He even includes a Modern Lovers cover on this, "Old World." I still like the Modern Lovers version better, and ditto with "Pablo Picasso" for that matter, whose language is unfortunately and ridiculously cleaned up in the latter-day version. But it's nice of him to take us Modern Lovers clingers-on into consideration that way. If you want Jonathan Richman back in your life, take it from me, this is as good a place to start as any, and worth your time too. I find myself thinking, once again, that he's maybe some kind of saint on earth.

Friday, August 20, 2010

March of the Penguins (2005)

La marche de l'empereur, France, 80 minutes, documentary
Director: Luc Jacquet
Writers: Jordan Roberts, Luc Jacquet, Michael Fessler
Photography: Laurent Chalet, Jerome Maison
Music; Alex Wurman
Narrator (English version): Morgan Freeman

I used to feel like maybe I needed to be a little bit apologetic about liking this as much as I do. Maybe that's the G rating, its ubiquity in strictly child-safe outlets such as kids sections in bookstores and libraries, not to mention lube-oil-filter waiting rooms, or maybe because it seems like it would just have to be only one more lovely entry in an endless series of rote documentaries on funny aminals. To some extent those things are true. The penguins are adorable, up and down and across the breadth of this, waddling about in their Chilly Willy tuxedos and all but urinating ice cubes, followed by spit takes. But above and beyond that, their story is so jaw-drop amazing—no, make that profound. With efficient strokes, this handsome documentary sketches the one true story of how emperor penguins in the Antarctic propagate their species, year in and year out. It involves 70-mile treks across frozen landscapes, spending the season of darkness squatting over an egg, and going without food for months at a stretch. Is it manipulative? You did notice that was certified movie star Morgan Freeman performing the narration chores for the U.S. version, didn't you? So yes, of course it's manipulative. It's meant to move you. Mission accomplished. The photography is beautiful and the music ineffably sweet too. Everything about it is done with just the right touch: the haunting cries of the penguins coupled with the various functions of those cries, gradually revealed, work with the simple, continuing focus on the trudging, waddling, plodding gaits of the creatures to yield them their due dignity and then some. Breathtaking shots of them underwater, by happy contrast, reveal their astonishing grace and genuine status as birds capable of flight And their mating, the arduous rituals between male and female of connection and shared responsibility and survival, raise the stakes sky high. A shot will come that shows an egg suddenly, accidentally exposed, frozen in seconds, the life of it perished, and it is an almost unbearable thing to contemplate. In short, this movie has everything you could ask for in 80 minutes of entertainment, fact-based or otherwise: quest, conflict, stakes, resolution, redemption, laughs, and overweening pathos. Humans not needed in this case, thanks very much. What's more, probably it could not have been made even 20 years ago, so don't miss the DVD extras documenting the technology and the work, on the part of humans, that made it all possible in such harsh extremes: below zero temperatures, high winds, constant darkness, etc.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Hypnotize" (1997)

82. Notorious B.I.G., "Hypnotize" (April 26, 1997, #1, 3 wks.)

In which I acknowledge a by now likely all too obvious lack of grasp of so many things hip hop—it isn't that I don't like much of what I hear of it, but that I do so, when I do so, from a maddening remove, through a glass darkly like, that makes me feel I am probably not actually entirely getting it. It's as if I could be the butt of the joke at any moment. But something about this—and disregarding the proximity of Biggie's death, which had little direct effect on me, I was late to hearing about that too—charmed me immediately and forever. The churning, stumbling well of ponderous rap that issues from the nether regions of a man obviously very large (you can hear that in the way he breathes even, barely wheezing the words at times), contrasted with the perfectly rendered tone of smitten adoration of the chick singers, is just a pure delight. He: "Girls walk to us, wanna do us, screw us / Who us? Yeah Poppa and Puff / Close like Starsky and Hutch, stick the clutch / Dare I squeeze three at your cherry M-3 / Bang every MC easily, busily." And they: "Biggie Biggie Biggie, can't you see, sometimes your words just hypnotize me." And he: "Uh uh huh, uh huh." It has always struck me as almost perfectly slyly hilarious. Biggie has even got his own sidekick sycophant yes-man to accompany him, darting in and out of the rap, which is nearly as rich. Finally there's the Herb Alpert sample ("Rise"), as inspired as everything else going on in this glorious brew. It's just terrific.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Cars" (1980)

83. Gary Numan, "Cars" (March 29, 1980, #9)

Along about the time this creased radio airwaves I happened to be a big personal champion of new wave—I desperately wanted to believe that Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Blondie, Iggy, Bowie et al. could, given the right circumstances (read: exposure), wreak the same kind of cultural earthquakes that Elton John did, if not the Beatles or Elvis Presley. Heck, they had already done so with me. My fondest dream then was to see the Ramones score a hit. I was probably wrong about the potential there, but that doesn't mean any of it ever got the fair chance it shoulda coulda woulda. The industry at that moment was just then entering a distinctly innovative and higher plateau of corruption, and new wave acts almost by definition tended to be either too naïve or plain too poor to work the pay-to-play routes (which alone pretty much puts the lie to all their smug poses of knowingness—at bottom most of these acts were plain innocents, probably one of the reasons I liked it all so much in the first place). Which brings us, in extremely roundabout fashion, to the androidish syntho extravaganza of Gary Numan and his lumbering, robotic, and ever-so ironic love poem to the alienation and isolation wrought by the automobile: "Here in my car / I can only receive / I can listen to you / It keeps me stable for days / In cars." I think, when all is said and done, that we're going to have to go with "novelty" on this when it comes to explaining the success. Who knows anyway what he's going on about? Who cares? It sounded just weird and just catchy enough that everybody wanted another listen at it, and so here we are now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Whole Lotta Love" (1969)

84. Led Zeppelin, "Whole Lotta Love" (Dec. 6, 1969, #4)

It's probably fair to say that hearing this for the first thousand or so times stands still as a life-changing experience. I had never heard anything like it ever in my life. I accomplished the number in about the first four months of owning the album, Led Zeppelin II. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to find this in the Billboard book, and at #4 no less, as I don't remember hearing it much on the AM stations I favored at the time. It could well be that this was among the first to mark the bifurcation between AM radio and FM radio, wherein the former was the usual teenybop product (which don't get me wrong I loved), eventually modulating into the now painfully familiar all-talk-all-the-time crap (which don't get me wrong I hate), while the latter I recall bearing the mystique of "underground." At any rate I acquired the album and couldn't get enough—of this song, specifically, so it was fortunate for me that it was the first one on the first side, which facilitated an easy and quick needle lift and drop operation. How do I love this thing? Let me count the ways. There's the pounding riff, which is thrilling. There's the way the drums are produced to ride along right out front of everything, after coming in late. There's that scraping, sliding sound guitarist Jimmy Page makes to respond to the nasal chorus chant of "wanna whole lotta love." There's the big spacy break a minute and a half in, where it feels like you must be floating around in space or something. "Ah ah ah ... ahhh ahhh ahhh," goes Robert Plant, owner of another of the great rock 'n' roll voices. Then there's the brilliant return from this break, which can still knock me over. There's wanting to hear it again every time it ends. There's never enough of it, or wasn't, anyway, for quite a long time.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Me and Mrs. Jones" (1972)

85. Billy Paul, "Me and Mrs. Jones" (Nov. 18, 1972, #1, 3 wks.)

I guess there are love songs more beautiful, but not many, and none certainly about illicit carryings-on between married folks or bearing so forlornly the freight of its own certain doom. I credit much of the gut punch it manages to deliver first to the lush strings that vibrate with an almost sour tension, alternately swooping to accent the soft high notes. Second to Billy Paul's voice, which is clarion clear but with tender places, like bruises. And third to the pining guilt that inextricably undergirds the small drama. The singer of this song is not getting away with anything and he knows it, all denials to the contrary notwithstanding. The whole thing might be just his fantasy, in fact. The song never appears to consider the pain that might be caused to others, even if "we both know it's wrong." But at the same time it's so deliciously full of the knowledge of doom, the guilt and lust that lights such matters all aflame, turning them into useless little holocausts of passion, and some sense as well of the humiliation to which they've been reduced, meeting everyday at the same café. "We've got to be extra careful, we can't afford to build our hopes up too high." The innocence of it, in the telling, can be positively touching: "Holding hands and making all kinds of special plans." Who are these people? Even the named "Mrs. Jones" is obviously an alias. How did they meet? Where did they come from and where are they headed? No answers, even fewer clues. These are people living life one day at a time. The rest of us heard enough in it to make it #1 for three weeks.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pick-Up (1955)

Charles Willeford isn't a typical crime/noir novelist, starting out rather as a poet and eventually making his way into academia. Pick-Up was as likely intended to pay the bills as much as anything, but it packs a real punch, and across his career Willeford never did end up straying far from the genre. It's fair enough to call this second novel of his depressing, a relentlessly detailed account of the enervating realities and the gray life that the down and out are forced, by circumstances and by their own choices, to live inside of in America. Yet something about its compact, straightforward style bears its own momentum right to the very end, where a twist ending reconfigures one's perception of everything that has gone before. Harry Jordan is a talented artist and World War II veteran scraping along as an alcoholic short-order cook in whatever San Francisco diners he can catch a job in. He meets Helen Meredith, also an alcoholic and now estranged from her upper-middle-class origins because of it, drinking in a bar. They take up with one another, first setting up digs in Harry's room at a boardinghouse. Typical conversation: Harry: "I'm pretty much of a failure in life, Helen. Does it matter to you?" Helen: "No. Nothing matters to me." The connection is forged, though it's not easy to see at first how or why, let alone that it could possibly be anything lasting or good for either one, and sure enough, after a brief period of glowing hope during which Harry paints Helen's portrait and takes a job, attempting to go out on the straight and narrow, things soon spiral into mayhem and tragedy, marked by death, madness, and the mundane rituals of the court system. But the getting there is often oddly toned. Things happen that don't make sense: fights erupt too quickly in bars, Harry's situation seems impossibly precarious, psychologists ask the strangest questions, and Helen's family takes an instant and visceral dislike to him, in spite of the obvious improvements in Helen's life. But much of this is in retrospect. It's a short book, some 160 pages, that moves briskly and generally keeps one involved, in spite of the potentially off-putting squalor and the extremity of the circumstances. It's never repulsive for its own sake—it's no Barfly, put it that way. Willeford brings a familiar '50s sense of the melodramatic and even the existential with the couple's love contrasted against the overwhelming context of their constant (and refreshingly if disconcertingly conscious) desires to die, moving the action through bars, jail, mental institutions, and the like. Then the senses-altering payoff, which comes literally in the second-to-last sentence and which I (for one) never saw coming. It is also a revelation entirely of its time, the '50s, yet one so artfully done that I think it still resonates powerfully even now.

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

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Royal Scam (1976)

Across the fullness of time this appears to more and more shape up as the consensus choice for weakest Steely Dan album of all, at least from the '70s, which may or may not explain why I went apeshit for it at the time of its release. In fact, I spent the better part of a year listening to it at least once every day like clockwork (along with Court and Spark, which I liked even more, and Abbey Road—I remember it now as a lonely time), until the day came when the obsession loosed and infatuation passed and I found it suddenly used up for good and all and have since rarely returned to it. But if I can't still appreciate it the way I once did, I can at least recall many of the details that appealed to me. For example, in "Kid Charlemagne," which kicks the album off with a tale of the adventures of an Owsley Stanley-type drug messiah figure facing a bust; as the household scrambles to gather up their shit and split, this snippet of dialogue occurs: "Clean this mess up else we'll all end up in jail / Those test tubes and the scale / Just get them all out of here / Is there gas in the car / Yes, there's gas in the car / I think the people down the hall know who you are." Nice. That's followed by a song that explores the ancient cave paintings of north-central Spain, and then by one narrated by a desperado on the verge of suicide by cop, pleading for his death. And so it goes, all the way through: grinding petty domestic disputes, glamour divorces on film, the plight of West Indies immigrants, Shriners. I don't think Steely Dan songs ever got quite as concrete and specific, focused so clearly on suggestive vignettes, as they are here, and for that I still like them. Meanwhile, the melodics are fading alarmingly, but still present, and the playing and production are uniformly immaculate, the perfection that approaches its own levels of arid excess. But I'm not griping. I'm glad it was there for me when I needed it, and here for me now whenever I like to return.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Canada/USA, 134 minutes
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, Annie Proulx
Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, Randy Quaid, Roberta Maxwell, Peter McRobbie

Ang Lee's gay cowboy western romance is an always interesting and often unpredictable mix of the general and the highly specific. First, obviously, it addresses the ways that denial and repression brought on by social pressure and stigmas associated with being gay or otherwise "other," whether internalized or imposed from without, only compound and literally worsen everything for everyone. This falls under the category of "the general," but the picture is highly effective in getting at something that is too often maddeningly elusive, particularly with regard to those who will not see. This, in fact, may be its single greatest strength. Ennis Del Mar (played by Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) meet as two lonely young Westerners scratching out a living in 1963, taking a summer-long job working together in Wyoming tending a herd of sheep. They fall in love, neither one able to handle what has happened to them. "I ain't no queer," Ennis tells Jack the day after their first sexual encounter. "Me neither," says Jack. But this one summer would prove to be the idyll that neither of them could forget, and that both longed to return to for the rest of their lives. After it is over, Ennis will marry his sweetheart Alma a few months later and then father two girls with her. Jack, for his part, knocks around the rodeo circuit awhile before marrying and settling down in Texas. A few years after their summer they are seemingly locked into their life choices. Then Jack looks up Ennis and almost immediately they take up where they left off, and both are overwhelmed and shaken by the depths of their feelings. From then on, even as their families come to suspect them and it leads to numerous problems in their lives, they continue to meet once or twice or three times a year for a few days or a week at a time. It is heartbreaking to watch time escaping them, to see them aging, with both feeling so trapped by their circumstances. And here is where the story becomes highly specific, not just some by-the-numbers quasi-Sirk melodrama of gay love frustrated, but a story of two specific individuals in love, making specific choices and suffering specific consequences. In that regard, though it is to everyone's credit that they attempted it, I have to say I'm not entirely convinced. I don't trust, for one thing, that screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana or director Ang Lee or short story writer Annie Proulx actually know enough to make the movie work on the level of specificity they intend. But that's only hindsight, after multiple viewings began to produce a sneaking feeling of hollowness, and me trying to put my finger on the reasons. I continue to be surprised often by how much of it does work—the performances of Gyllenhaal and particularly Ledger are subtle, complex, and brilliant, it's a beautiful thing to look at, and its heart (and politics) is in the right place, which I count as a plus.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like a) Sex Machine" (1970)

86. James Brown, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like a) Sex Machine" (Aug. 1, 1970, #15)

Most parentheticals in song titles are there to remind you of a line in the song and can be safely lopped off for shorthand, e.g., "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame" or "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)." So what are we supposed to do here? "Get Up Sex Machine"? And what about that second "like" inside the parenthetical? You'd think anyone would feel like a sex machine rather than like being like one. (In fairness, "Sex Machine" is obviously the shorthand, and this odd version of the title does not often appear outside of Billboard references. Even so, I have to think it must have shown up on the label of a 45 somewhere, sometime.) But shoot, no one gives a crap about such niceties once this thing uncorks, which it does in exactly 12 seconds. At which point it could go on forever, and probably has on some outstanding nights and I only wish I could have been there. Here we are privileged to witness the Godfather of Soul at one of his absolute peaks of power. The band doesn't want to get fined, so they sure are tight, and JB rides the groove like a surfboard, focused and obviously relishing each moment as he consults with the band, directs it "to the bridge" (if not the first time he has resorted to this trope it may well be the most famous), and ultimately brings it to a close with an astonishing flourish, all poise balanced by power. Not sure how much the whole thing has to do with sex—there doesn't appear to be a woman (or otherwise sex partner) in sight, except of the most highly theoretical kind. It's more about working hard, as is most of his catalog in one way or another. And it's only one of the many peaks along James Brown's highlands.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Bad Moon Rising" (1969)

87. Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Bad Moon Rising" (May 17, 1969, #2)

This song is here not just because I like it, but also out of respect for—hell, make that quaking fear of—the juju that Creedence Clearwater Revival so recklessly slings around here. Concerned as it is, focused with laser clarity even, on the ineffable power of a really bad vibe, it's a sonic case of self-fulfilling prophecy, a pop song that is literally dangerous. I have seen it cast palls over moments when no one was particularly paying attention to it. Fights erupting. Auto accidents. Giant boulders falling out of the sky. Flames licking out of cracks in the earth. I'm not kidding about this. There it was playing. Even the day or two I spent listening to it for this little squib was accompanied by an incident of freaky bad luck courtesy of nothing less than the music industry itself. I better hurry up and finish with this. Creedence, of course, was famous for their string of #2s (I count four, out of eight top 10s, with one more a #3 and still another a #4) without ever hitting the #1 sweet spot. Then they broke up. All that's a doggone shame, because you can hear in this everything you need to understand why some were willing to claim the California quartet—2 guitars bass drums, Fogerty brothers and chums, flannel flying—on the verge of rivaling the Stones for status of world's greatest rock 'n' roll band. The thing virtually turns on a dime, and it's a pleasure every time. Guitar chords so crisp and snappy. A rhythm section that's all joy. John Fogerty in possession of one of the great voices of rock 'n' roll. And trouble on the horizon: "Don't go around tonight / Well, it's bound to take your life. / There's a bad moon on the rise." All elements in place. 1-2-3-4. Go.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Light My Fire" (1967)

88. Doors, "Light My Fire" (June 24, 1967, #1, 3 wks.)

When Robby Krieger got frustrated at the progress he was making in trying to write this song and shoved it away in a drawer imagine what would have happened if his bandmates hadn't encouraged him to take it out again. One great big hole in the heart of the '60s, that's what. This first song that the Doors carpetbagged onto the charts may well be the best of all theirs; at least it's certainly an impressive statement of purpose, and the most successful too—though, in Billboard terms, just by one week at #1 over "Hello, I Love You." The long version, which got played late at night on all the FM stations, which became the classic rock stations, which still play it late at night and all day long too, now, when they feel like it, offers only a hint of the kind of thing that could be found on the albums. Ray Manzarek strikes the tone with his swirling organ play. Guitarist Krieger steps up and gets off a lovely solo. And the singer, Jim Morrison, who also fancied himself a poet, equates fire to sexuality to doom with his sincere brow all furrowed. I think he means it. In fact, when I hear what he's going on about on the long tracks from the albums—"The End," "When the Music's Over," like that—I know for sure he means it, every syllable. He's really into funeral pyres for one thing, see. Oh, and I promise not to make a habit of this, but the parade of covers on this one is pretty impressive too: Jose Feliciano (but you knew that), Nancy Sinatra, Astrud Gilberto, Julie London, Brian Auger, Shirley Bassey, Cibo Matto, UB40, Massive Attack, Minnie Riperton, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Type O Negative, B.J. Thomas, and Trini Lopez. Among others. So that settles it. Another major icon.

Monday, August 09, 2010

"These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" (1966)

89. Nancy Sinatra, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" (Feb. 5, 1966, #1)

On another day I could just as likely pick any other of Nancy Sinatra's collaborations with Lee Hazlewood—"Sugar Town" or "Jackson" or "Some Velvet Morning"—which are arguably superior, and God knows I've had my infatuations with all of them. But there's something so downright iconic about this, so perfectly emblematic of the '60s at its most innocent and shallow, in regard particularly to sexuality and fetish and, yes, even celebrity (because, sure, it had to be Frank's little girl with the laughing face doing this, right) that it appears now almost quaint. Well, Nancy Sinatra never had much range, never even claimed to—Hazlewood was more the auteur between the two of them anyway—but she had the legs for the boots and the song was about the boots and that's what mattered. (Red Captain Marvel boots, according to the album cover, with white fishnet hose. How was a red-blooded American male of the '60s supposed to keep his mind on anything else?) Backed by the Wrecking Crew, a group of L.A. studio musicians who played with everybody from Bobby Vee to the Partridge Family to Simon and Garfunkel, it's country down at its bottom, with a groaning double bass, a lot of strumming on acoustic guitars, and a tambourine there just to make it wow nowsville for 1966. Nancy's responsibility is simply to step up and let the cornpone unreel nice and easy: "You keep lying, when you oughta be truthin' ... You keep samin' when you oughta be changin'," so on and so forth. Think it's not iconic? The song has been covered by the Supremes, Loretta Lynn, the Residents, Nick Cave, Megadeth, Crispin Glover, Jewel, Billy Ray Cyrus, Lisa Germano, LaToya Jackson, Boy George, Bad Manners, Delbert McClinton, KMFDM, Antonio Banderas—oh hell, go read the whole list for yourself. Are you ready boots? Start walkin'!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

Patricia Highsmith knocked around New York and Mexico and paid the rent in the '40s as a comic book scriptwriter, churning out the skeletal bones for four-color biographical tales of historical figures such as Albert Einstein, Edward Rickenbacker, and others. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, got picked up by Hitchcock and turned into one of his best films, though the book itself is somewhat clumsy and turgid. By the first Ripley book, however, written when she was 34, Highsmith was clearly settling into the strengths that would mark her out as a uniquely memorable writer of crime fiction: cogent portraits of an unsettling psychological depravity accompanied by enviable levels of sophistication in the art of living. Tom Ripley, as Frank Rich pointed out in his epic valentine to the 1999 movie based on this novel, is "an unmistakable descendant of Gatsby"—emerging out of impoverished middle American origins but with a self-defined destiny as broad and fine as the entire world itself, old and new. Highsmith claimed Ripley as her favorite creation and certainly in this first outing with him (of five total, between 1955 and 1991) there's a bracing zest to the proceedings as she puts him through his paces, using, cheating, defrauding, and ultimately murdering, if he must; whatever he is required to do to acquire the life he imagines for himself, that's what he will do. He is the consummate flimflam man, artful and deft, with a knack for finding the weak spot of anyone he meets and ruthlessly exploiting it. He has discriminating taste but, as the novel unfolds, more and more obviously no soul whatsoever. The only suspense on display here, in fact, is how far Ripley will take things. Otherwise it's flat and straightforward, moving steadily forward across time and staying close to the details and rationales, always perfectly understandable, for Ripley's ongoing adventures. By the time he's unloading a corpse over the side of a boat you're likely to start feeling in need of a shower—though, perhaps, with a fine Chianti on hand to enjoy with a light dinner of cold roast chicken and cucumber slices in your robe and slippers after.

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

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Katy Lied (1975)

By the time of this fourth Steely Dan album it was more clear than ever the kinds of districts to which the act was headed: a studied jazz sheen, all studio performances, and no further live appearances ever (though that latter would change some two decades or so later). I missed the instincts for pop architectonics, and even more the humor, oblique acumen, and small but durable wonders offered up by the lyrics. But they still had enough juice to make it worth hanging on a while longer. If this is not up to the pleasures of the second and third albums it's certainly got its own bag of tricks. The various licks and increasingly tasty production flourishes remain put to the service of concrete and interesting points of view, often telling little stories set into unique tableaus, evincing a nice sense for decoration from the interior of a dollhouse—a surprising pattern of wallpaper, an interesting cut to the tiny furniture pieces, an admirable Turkish rug, five by six inches. Like an early Scorsese picture, "Bad Sneakers" pines from the inside of one kind of institution or another, jail or hospital, for better days on the street with friends, "stompin' on the avenue by Radio City with a transistor and a large sum of money to spend." "Rose Darling" does something similar with a sorely missed fuck buddy, sorely missed in the moment at any rate, while "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More" briefly apes the pimp life. And "Doctor Wu," perhaps set in Vietnam, rings down the curtain on the mercies, tender and otherwise, of heroin addiction, a tale told all aslant, yet gently, as it must. Hard not to feel that one. And that's just the first vinyl side, admittedly the better of the two. But you get the idea—a nice one to get close to.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Lost in Translation (2003)

USA/Japan, 102 minutes
Director/writer: Sofia Coppola
Photography: Lance Acord
Music: Kevin Shields
Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Fumihiro Hayashi

I suppose it's easy enough to be distracted by the case for nepotism against Sofia Coppola, who may well have never had the opportunities to get her feature film projects off the ground if she didn't have the last name, and father (and, face it, gene strands), that she does. And I will acknowledge not caring much for what else by her I know, her third film, 1999's The Virgin Suicides. But this moves in mysterious ways, in large part out of a weird yet electrifying chemistry between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson, who are both not only first-rate, but positively swimming with grace and poise in an affluent only felt and barely seen clearly or understood. The setting is Tokyo, where Charlotte (played by Johannson) has repaired on a working vacation with her husband of two years, who is a celebrity photographer far more interested at the moment in his work and its perks than in Charlotte. She spends most of her days by herself in the hotel room or wandering the city. Bob (played by Murray) is a fading movie star who made his bones in action pictures, and he's easily twice her age. He is in Tokyo to shoot commercials and photos for the ad campaign of a whiskey brand, and while there gets roped into more promotional chores. Bob and Charlotte are both staying at the same hotel, both miserable and lonely, both unable to connect with their partners. (Bob's wife Lydia appears as a tinny voice on the other end of phone calls and a name at the end of snippy messages or on fax cover sheets, which always seem to arrive on the machine in Bob's room at 4 a.m.) Gradually, recognizing one another in the hotel lobby and elevators, Bob and Charlotte begin to fall into each other's orbits. Coppola does a nice job of keeping the spaces across which these figures must navigate somehow unbearably huge, setting them in a foreign city full of strange sounds and sights, where even the alphabet is all wrong, which has the effect of making them seem that much more tiny. They are bitter, cynical, snappish, suffering from insomnia and a kind of homesickness that is much larger than simply wanting to be home again. They don't necessarily want to be home again. But they want desperately to be somewhere else, anywhere, away, and in each other they find something that might resemble that fleeting place. The smartest thing Coppola did with this, of course, was keep the relationship strictly chaste. Abstracting out that element of the desperate clutch is enough in itself to move mountains, as the tiny details of the connections and disconnections between Bob and Charlotte—a night at a karaoke bar (the music throughout has a lot to do with making this movie work), a night in Charlotte's room, a night watching TV in Bob's room, a bad lunch—slowly build into something that, if not monumental, nonetheless might stay with you forever.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

"Alone Again (Naturally)" (1972)

90.  Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Alone Again (Naturally)" (July 1, 1972, #1, 6 wks.)

Irish skiffle-influenced singer/songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan (not to be confused with Gilbert & Sullivan, it says here) basically ruled the AM radio waves in the summer of 1972 with this nagging ditty that almost instantly crawled under my skin and retains the power today, even with its drippy sing-songy wallow in self-pity, or more likely because of it, to make me deliciously, deliciously sad. File under "guilty pleasure"—but noting its six-week stay at the top, which type lengthy reign was not as common in the '60s and '70s as it has been in the past 20 years, I think, in that assessment, that I was hardly alone ("again, naturally"). It's utterly forthright, if cloyingly precious, in declaring its despondency: "I promise myself to treat myself / And visit a nearby tower / And climbing to the top / Throw myself off." The dagger to the heart occurs in the third verse, all necessary groundwork sufficiently laid, when he describes, first, his mother's bewilderment at his father's death, and then, shortly after, her own death. "I cried and cried all day," he announces. Well, who wouldn't? I hadn't heard this in the longest time and in my memory it also featured the death of a pet, a cat I thought, but that doesn't seem to be here, nor anything like it in O'Sullivan's two other, vastly inferior chart appearances ("Clair" and "Get Down"). So I must have imagined it. Take a listen to this, if you don't remember it, and you'll understand why anyone might recall it including a dead beloved kitten. And so, right here, this is the end of the line for me with Gilbert O'Sullivan, which leaves him, of course...

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

"Walk on the Wild Side" (1973)

91. Lou Reed, "Walk on the Wild Side" (March 31, 1973, #16)

Sweet Lou Reed's one and only appearance in the top 40 delivers up the now well-famed throwaway of the chorus, "And the colored girls go / Doo do doo do doo do do doo," the one thing that may finally end up being what he is best remembered for, ironically or not, for better or worse. It's another one of those songs, like the Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug," that could have found its way to the mainstream of American popular culture only in the flamboyantly decadent '70s, as it sardonically and explicitly celebrates transvestism, street hustlers, and drug addiction in a series of nursery rhyme style scenarios admirably sketched out with deft economy, e.g., "Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the streets / Lookin' for soul food and a place to eat / Went to the Apollo / You should've seen 'em go go go / They said, Hey sugar / Take a walk on the wild side." Reed's quavering alto seems barely capable of pushing the syllables past his lips. You can imagine him practically motionless in his shades and black leather. But the creepy affect is just more of the proto-Halloween fun. Fruit of an early collaboration with David Bowie, who at that moment was segueing from the Ziggy Stardust opus into the throes of his lightning-bolted Aladdin Sane phase, "Walk on the Wild Side" became the standard-bearer for Reed's Transformers album, which may or may not have done justice the way that producer Bowie wanted to his hero from the Velvet Underground. It's hardly Lou Reed's best but nor is it even close to his worst. I think a number of other songs on it happen to be better, such as "Perfect Day" (used brilliantly in the movie Trainspotting), but hey, this was the hit.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

"Space Oddity" (1973)

92. David Bowie, "Space Oddity" (Feb. 24, 1973, #15)

Even though this song ascended the charts just as David Bowie was making rapid headway into world popular culture as a figure of ambiguous sexuality cum decadence, none of that really has very much to do with it. In the first place, the timeframe is wrong. The song actually supplies the title and appeared on Bowie's second album, from four years earlier, his wannabe hippie by way of Marc Bolan's Tyrannosaurus Rex outing of 1969, Space Oddity. In the second place, as with Elton John's "Rocket Man" from 1972, it's an oblique and by all signs quite sincere tribute to the U.S. Apollo program to reach and explore the moon, then in progress. Sure, it tries to strike the knowing tone with the pun on the Kubrick film title and Bowie's everlasting conceit as the outsider peering in—the alien, the man who fell to earth—one of the few continuing themes across much of his career. But there's nothing about the straight life that gets sent up or mocked here, try as you may to find it (and people did). Instead, and refreshingly I think, the terms of space exploration itself actually seem to have caught Bowie's imagination, as he tries to grasp and relate what he thinks the experience of being an astronaut must be like, "sitting in a tin can far above the world." In fact, in the story he tries to make of it he's actually guilty of a shameless ham-handedness as said astronaut encounters calamity and doom. "Tell my wife I love her very much"—yeah, and why don't you pat Elvis Presley's dog Shep on the head while you're at it. Nevertheless, it's ultimately a stark and lovely meditation on the space age we were and still are entering and its best qualities live on undiminished.

Monday, August 02, 2010

"Losing My Religion" (1991)

93. R.E.M., "Losing My Religion" (April 20, 1991, #4)

Anyone tracking along with the career of R.E.M., 10 years, seven albums, three top 40 singles, an indie success story and major label signing sellout down the line, had by this time probably pretty well made up their minds about how they felt. Late as usual to the party, this is where I finally decided I liked them, and quite a bit, hardly suspecting that, with the possible exception of "Drive," this is the last decent thing they would push into the top 40—and even knowing already that the album that spawned it, Out of Time, came with its share of flat patches and embarrassments (the follow-up, for example, "Shiny Happy People"). Oh well, you can't be right about everything. But I don't think there's much question I'm right about this: from the mandolin leading the charge to Michael Stipes's newfound clarion enunciation to the soaring melody, it's poignant, touching, inspiring, unforgettable. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, the enunciation is in the service of lyrics that have to be characterized as unclear, if not impenetrable, if not outright opaque. "Oh no, I've said too much / I haven't said enough" indeed. But this is what R.E.M. does and has always done best. The words don't say it—the sound of the music and the texture of Stipes's voice itself does that work. Even without the telltale word "losing" in the title (and that other one, "religion," and don't forget "my") it's not too hard to tell that this is a song about loss and faith and enduring and love in spite of everything. This was a big moment for alternative rock and its many sincere and hard-working followers. The whole world was poised to open for them. They were about to achieve everything they wanted.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008)

Kate Summerscale makes a detailed and authoritative (if implicit) argument here for the so-called Road Hill murder of 1860 as the first sensational media-saturated murder mystery of its kind, predating Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Charles Manson, and O.J. Simpson by decades and more—detailed and authoritative not least because practically a quarter of her book is given over to notes and sourcings. But the sum is no rote rendering of dry details. In the first place, the case still retains both its mystery and sensation some 150 years later. On an early summer's night, a middle-class Victorian English family's three-year-old baby is plucked from the room where he slept with his 22-year-old nursemaid and his infant sister, across a short hallway from the room shared by his parents and five-year-old sister, on the second floor of the house (or "first," above the ground floor, in British and European usage). The baby Saville's body was not found until the evening of the following day, dumped in the pit of the outhouse used by the servants at a corner of the property, savagely stabbed to death. In the second place, the detective who led the investigation, Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, was one of the eight principals who established Scotland Yard and he also served as the inspiration for Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and, in part, Charles Dickens's unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Summerscale also reasons that the case influenced Henry James as he wrote "The Turn of the Screw," and contends that Whicher represents one of the earliest and most enduring models for fictional detectives: logical, sharp-witted about physical evidence and forensics, canny in his understanding of human nature, and confidently following his hunches. Her book methodically takes the case from beginning to end, from the murder itself to the investigation that eventually stalled to the shocking confession that came years later, and even follows up the fates of the various principals, some of which turn out to be surprising and even confounding of expectations. Steeped as it is in the literature of both true crime and murder mystery fiction, particularly of the now mostly forgotten pre-Sherlock Holmes Victorian era, Summerscale the writer shows on practically every page how well she has absorbed the lessons of those gone before. It's a gripping, elegantly told tale that is exhaustive in nailing down every last detail, maintaining a well-won veracity on every page. It's also a perfect pleasure to read, endlessly fascinating and opening many new avenues to explore for crime aficionados.

In case it's not at the library.