Tuesday, November 30, 2010
In latter years I have often suspected this—long since a staple of the hoariest oldies format on the radio—as a bit of a corporate psychedelic-rock project, maybe because it did so well at the time and has endured so persistently. But disregarding the company that eventually came to pivot on it to make it a hit, I see that its actual origins more or less mark it as the real thing, emerging from the Los Angeles welter of the time, and complete with stories of backstabbing intrigue and various untoward disavowals (in fact, one of the people who dreamed it up in the first place and was subsequently denied credit, Ed King, later went on to Lynyrd Skynyrd; more here). In any event I have always appreciated it and in many ways it seems to me now among the quintessential representations of the form, right down to the very silly wake-up call of the band name (changed from Thee Sixpence ostensibly to avoid confusion with another band) and the song title that willy-nilly juxtaposes seemingly discordant sensual input (compare "Crimson and Clover," "Purple Haze," or "Hot Smoke and Sassafras"). And that's just the accouterments of the thing. The sound of it is at once cartoonish pop music with broad streaks of vaguely disorienting menace, led by thick washes from the organ and a wheedling, gruff, chameleon electric guitar, undergirded by walls of backing vocals in various dark harmonies. And what are they going on about? "Beatniks and politics, nothing is new / A yardstick for lunatics, one point of view" and "Who cares what games we choose? / Little to win, but nothing to lose." Who knows? Some kind of trip, evidently. But it sounds so good, and you remember it forever.
Monday, November 29, 2010
At the time it was new, I liked this about as much as any Beach Boys hit (yes, even "Barbara Ann")—it sparkled and moved and I enjoyed it when it came on, though I wasn't ever switching around stations to pick it up like I would with others. If anything, in fact, I was a little suspicious of the falling-over-themselves acclaim this so regularly received from all quarters, even after it had faded from the airwaves and, later, become a fixture on oldies stations. Call it my reflexively contrarian nature, that unique curse. Slowly, however—talking decades now—the thing started to nag at me. Particularly when I saw the way it was used in movies, the hard core of its eternal beauties began to disclose. Most memorable for me, perhaps oddly, was in the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, where it flew off the screen in an unusually apt transition, embracing and engulfing. Now I wonder how I ever could have been the least bit indifferent to it. It sneaks in so soft-footed, adds simple elements, takes off like a speedboat on the chorus. The organ is impossibly soulful in its light touch, when you manage to notice it; ditto the sawing cellos, which are thrilling. Oh yeah, they can sing some too. The use of theremin is absolutely perfect, taking this strange instrument out of the realm of '50s science fiction movies yet retaining its disquieting sense from those movies. The song inhabits and roams its strange structure easily and at will, almost randomly, and has enough going for it that it could easily triple or quadruple or more the 3:38 duration of the single release and would no doubt hold interest. As it is, I'm happy now and then simply to play it over and over.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
In case it's not at the library.
Friday, November 26, 2010
Directors/writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Photography: Roger Deakins
Editors: Tricia Cooke, Roderick Jaynes, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliot, Tara Reid, Flea, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, Aimee Mann
I remember enjoying this star-studded fantasy barrel of laughs quite a bit when it came out, the insanely complicated story of the Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) and his inadvertent falling in with various packs of no-goodniks in and around Los Angeles who intend him evil in any number of ways. But I missed the shift to cult status, which I see started in the early 2000s on the usual midnight movie circuit, a few years after the release, and has now expanded to include a church, the Church of the Latter-Day Dude, or "Dudeism," a factor clearly signifying that something has arrived as a cult. In terms of both production and entertainment value, I don't think there are many such movies that can compare. The cast is stellar, in small parts and large. John Turturro, for example, probably gets something on the order of 10 minutes of screen time as a registered sex offender and deranged competitive bowler, but he's hilarious and unforgettable, pulling on his crotch as he makes threats and tonguing his bowling ball preparatory to hurling it down the lane. John Goodman has a much larger role as an aggrieved Vietnam veteran and it's arguably his best performance ever. Bridges, the star, is pitch-perfect as the slatternly hipster doofus—a bowler, a pot smoker, a white Russian swilling appreciator of indoor decorative arts, who roams the world perpetually clad in disgusting bathrobe and flip-flops. And
Thursday, November 25, 2010
JB yelps, "Que pasa, people, que pasa—hit me!" And this song kicks in as if the band had been playing it already for hours, if not centuries, which is hardly outside the realm of possibility (figuratively speaking, of course, in the case of the latter). I've got this one here as a kind of stand-in for all the many mighty sounds created by Brown and crew in the early '70s, many of which actually made their way to the top 40—"Super Bad," "Get Up, Get Into it, Get Involved," "Escape-ism," "Hot Pants," "Make it Funky," "I'm a Greedy Man," "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing," "I Got Ants in My Pants," maybe even "King Heroin," though that's decidedly a horse of a different color—and many of which can be found on the essential box set Star Time and/or the nearly as essential Make it Funky double-CD anthology (better to get both, if you care at all about funk or rock 'n' roll, as the duplications of version and even title between them are far more infrequent that you might suspect). "Get on the Good Foot" finds a band and its leader typically in full control of all faculties: the horn charts ripple with power and muscle, the rhythm guitar just about breaks off your neck keeping its time so tight, the famed bridge in this case knocks it into a kind of drunken, sprawling mode for the better part of a minute, and then back to the groove. The whole thing hurtles forward at the kind of pace that gets you breathing harder just hearing it, drives you to your feet, makes you throw your hands in the air like you just don't care, etc. You probably already knew at least that much.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
At this moment, listening to this song again, I want to go back and redo the whole list in order to push this to the top. It sounds so good—better than ever. I've spent most of a lifetime undervaluing Joan Baez (who I once uncharitably referred to in print as "Joan Baezzz"—I'd like to apologize for that now). But even in my self-important fatuousness I could hear this song for what it was back when it barely crested the charts to qualify as a hit: the gorgeous, sweetly bruised song of lost opportunity and poignant, rueful regret. "Regret" may not be the right word—there's no connotation of blame or fault-finding here, only sadness, joy found and lost. It can't be much surprise that this emerged out of the welter of Bob Dylan's wildly acclaimed (and, I have always thought, somewhat overstated) mid-'70s divorce album Blood on the Tracks. His great return to form, and all that. Six months later, Joan Baez stepped up to offer this memoir, etched in her soul. It starts with a phone call and a voice from long ago heard once again, and then drifts back into memory and nostalgia denied: "Now I see you standing with brown leaves falling all around / And snow in your hair / Now you're smiling out the window of that crummy hotel / Over Washington Square / Our breath comes out white clouds / Mingles and hangs in the air / Speaking strictly for me / We both could have died then and there." The words are wrought carefully, with concrete images of seasons in change and a steadfast tacking away from sloppy confession. The melody is haunting, the musical setting a lush '70s production, helmed by a voice that could shatter glass if it wanted, a story told without self-pity.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Perhaps the most comical line in all of Wikipedia occurs in regard to this song, delivered so dryly: "In a recently published biography about Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller, the song's authors, it was revealed that the song's lyrics are about sexually-transmitted disease, not the illnesses previously thought [measles, mumps, chickenpox, common cold, whooping cough]." Well, all right then, good to have that settled. And now that we're all done laughing I should probably mention that I didn't exactly realize that myself back when I first listened for it on oldies weekends. No, what I liked were the insistent rhythms, the infectious melody, the weird way it twists the words around, plays with the themes of disease and flora, making them hooks all in themselves: "Measles make you bumpy / And mumps'll make you lumpy / And chicken pox'll make you jump and twitch" and especially the flat declaration, "You're gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion." Later on, as an adult, I figured it out, but on those early encounters when I fell into its orbit so naturally, it was just bewildering and transfixing what they could be going on about. This was the first hit by the slick novelty specialist Coasters that arguably wasn't a novelty, though you could certainly make the case that it is. But it's sly as opposed to the broad strokes of "Charlie Brown" or "Yakety Yak" or "Along Came Jones." Not that there's anything wrong with any of those—the Coasters are actually one of my favorite acts of the '50s and perhaps my favorite vocal-oriented group of all. But there's something uniquely special about this one, I think. Listen to it a few times and see if it doesn't get under your skin.
Monday, November 22, 2010
For some reason, every time I find myself considering this song (or the album from which it comes, Court and Spark) I want to appropriate the William Carlos Williams poem, and plaintively declare that so much depends upon the lady with a hole in her stocking. That image and the deceptively casual way that Joni Mitchell uses it are only one of the many poignant features that have pulled me into this since it was a radio hit. This song, this album, this period, is approximately the point that Mitchell stepped boldly away from her folkie origins to showcase her broader musical skills, which were always there, passing through this gorgeous pop period (don't blink too many times because you're apt to miss it) on her way to the more rarefied regions of jazz and points further. It's so guilelessly dedicated to the painful search for love and the fleeting pleasures, when attained, and it's just about as straightforward as it gets: "Help me I think I'm falling In love again When I get that crazy feeling again, I know I'm in trouble again I'm in trouble." And it comes with a pop sheen that positively glistens, an acoustic guitar leading the charge but quickly giving way to a lush arrangement full of little surprises: a tidy, clean-cut mix, sax and flute and guitar popping up to make statements, a melody that swoops to the high notes, some of them held good and long (you'll lose your breath singing along if you don't know what you're doing), angelic backing singers, and, yes, the lady with a hole in her stocking, who, you know—you dance with her. Didn't it feel good? (Didn't it feel good?)
Sunday, November 21, 2010
In case it's not at the library.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Friday, November 19, 2010
Directors/writers: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Photography: Bill Pope
Editor: Zach Staenberg
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran
Dark and self-consciously suffused with a diseased green, as if witnessed via monochrome computer terminal monitors of the '80s, The Matrix, which seemed so futuristically groundbreaking at the time of its release in 1999 and now seems so vaguely yet persistently dated, plunges us quickly into its various exasperating contradictions and paradoxes. The action comes fast and furious in the first 10 minutes, then slows considerably until its big finish. Except for a handful of fantastic set pieces along the way it settles most of the time for being awfully talky, and the talk tends to be all too often awfully trite, sampling a smorgasbord pastiche of new age received wisdom (I can't be the only person, amidst all the yakking about a mythical Jesus-like figure known as "The One," to keep thinking of Gwen Welles's Sueleen Gay in Nashville). On first viewing it's arguably a sound enough strategy, enabling viewers time to absorb the complex implications of the high concept: a world now organized and controlled by sentient machines that depend upon human beings as a source of energy akin to batteries, maintaining human docility with an elaborate neurological ruse experienced as "the matrix," inside of which it is always 1999 and people believe they are living the kinds of lives we all think we know. Thomas A. Anderson, played by Keanu Reeves, by day is a faceless software developer in a giant unnamed corporation, by night a computer hacker with the handle Neo. He is recruited by a mysterious band of ragtag outlaws in trench coats headed up by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss), who strike blows for freedom and are hunted by nameless "agents" cut so square and efficient they make FBI personnel look like weekend bikers. The first time I saw this, when it was new, the story seemed to me so complex and intricate that I could barely follow it. But every viewing since has made it seem more and more straightforward and practically hackneyed. Not sure how that works but I think I'm about done now. Still, I could not possibly ever steer anyone away from this who hasn't seen it yet—the fight scenes, heavily influenced by the gunplay of Sergio Leone and John Woo and whole traditions of kung fu action, make it entertaining enough by themselves. And the innovation of "bullet time" alone, which has gone on to be used and parodied extensively, makes it something of a necessity, although you will probably have the sense that you have already seen it even if you haven't, so pervasive has its influence grown in the years since its release. A good many absurdities must be taken at face value (human beings as batteries for machines? really?), which is surprisingly easy given the more profound sense exploited here that all is not as it seems, that there is more to everything we experience than we presently know. To the extent that this does work, that's the primary idea powering it.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Another song that has ranked much higher for me on previous lists. I was surprised this time to find how relatively little I have ever cared for most of the Beatles hits. A follow-up project I am contemplating, "100 Other Songs," would no doubt correct for that, culling heavily from Beatles album tracks—because there's no question about the enduring significance for me of this strange band of pop tunesmiths, dominated by the bass player and rhythm guitarist. And there's no question this was the song that raised the curtain for most of us of a certain age. At the time, TV was generally denied in our household (the result of my father witnessing the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television) and as much as I begged and pleaded I was allowed to watch only the third of their unprecedented consecutive appearances on Ed Sullivan's variety show in February 1964. They played this with "Twist and Shout" and "Please Please Me." In April, all three would be part of the Beatles' historic assault of the Billboard charts, when in one week they occupied all five of the top positions. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was #4; the other two were "Can't Buy Me Love" and "She Loves You." This is how Beatlemania works, in a nutshell—piling on with the statistics that delineate the phenomenon. They are literally incomparable and I doubt that anything like it will ever be seen again. And what's all the fuss about anyway? (Reaching that question was also part of the natural progression of Beatlemania.) In the case of "I Want to Hold Your Hand": bashing crashing stirring guitar chords, howling harmonies, and a nagging sweet tune, in service of a declaration of absurdly innocent puppy dog love. Don't make me say you had to be there.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
In past exercises like this I have always placed this song high, even #1 on at least one occasion, and I defend it still though it has become something of an object of occasional ridicule, as on "Seinfeld," and even though I can hear better how exceedingly slight it is in many ways. The connection for me is personal—it was my first "favorite" song on the radio, and a song that pulled me toward the radio to hear music in the first place. From here, it's all sentimental bathos. When my grandmother was dying, in the small town my father grew up in some 100 miles from our home in the Minneapolis suburbs, I often rode along with him when he traveled to visit her in her final days. It was a day away from school for me and something like a bonding experience for my father and me. There was serious weather in Minnesota at that time—early spring and unusual flooding. We always managed to get where we were going, but sometimes circuitously. I probably wasn't much comfort to him, barely 10 at the time, a kid with essentially no grasp of what was happening beyond the heavy vibe. I wasn't even allowed in my grandmother's hospital room, but instead left to wait in the lobby, where people looking out for me introduced me to games of Battleship on graph paper. For the several hours that my father and I traveled in the car together each day I begged him to play the radio and find the pop stations and I listened especially for this song, which seemed to concern itself in such dedicated fashion to a fantasy of urban living, one that has ultimately been imprinted on me. I internalized every word, viz., "You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares" and, especially, "Downtown, everything's waiting for you."
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Purely a personal favorite and hardly my favorite Talking Heads song at that, I'm getting behind this strictly because it made me almost as happy to see this band win a top 10 hit as it did the day in about 1978 when I accidentally tuned in "American Bandstand" and found them featured. From 1977 until 1986 this was probably my favorite band, for better or worse (I know I'm telling stories on myself here), and every time they took a step that worried me—joining forces with Brian Eno, expanding to a band more than twice the size of the original, releasing a double-live—they redeemed themselves and then some. This originates on their 1983 album Speaking in Tongues, at which time fans were worried because it had been a few years since the band had released anything with all-new material, the longest gap yet in its career, and the problems among the members were starting to leak out and affect things. Happily, the album turned out to be a good one—workmanlike, maybe stinking a little of professionalism, but neatly consolidating their many previous gains. If it didn't offer many surprises or challenges it did provide a good deal of pleasure. This song represents its strong points as well as any (save, perhaps, the lovely "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)"). They bring the funk, which has always marked their best work, even that arch first album. And Byrne's crazy mixed-up strategies for the words and vocals continues apace. Wikipedia informs me that he worked on these lyrics basically at the level of the syllables, piecing it together in fragments, and it shows, but not in a way that isn't charming.
Monday, November 15, 2010
I know it could well be considered some kind of sacrilege to not only place the hallowed king of rock 'n' roll at such a relatively low level on a list like this, but then to complicate the matter further—adding insult to injury, like—by choosing this title to do it with. But I was born almost exactly too late for Elvis (and right on time for the Beatles) and never caught up with his great '50s work, the best of which did not chart anyway, until well after his death. Meanwhile, this song has worked its way far inside me, slow and steady, starting from that first autumn when it was on the radio. As I say, I was almost entirely ignorant about who he was and what he represented. I didn't understand this was part of a comeback that many considered almost miraculous. To me, it was just something I heard on the radio, shut up in my bedroom by myself working on puzzles and/or Ed Roth hot-rod models (which I wasn't particularly into either, I just wanted something to do while I played the radio, and liked the "Mad" magazine vibe). This song wasn't even a particular favorite, at least not consciously, but the worried tone of it worked on me, the simple but dexterous guitar playing, the strings sawing in on the big moments, the subdued and submerged tone of his vocal, as if he is singing from the bottom of a very deep place, and the overweening, aching sadness that it communicates. Over the years, I came to love this more and more, until finally, in 1981, I bought a copy of the 45 single and proceeded to wear it down to surface noise. I think I'm probably not explaining very well what is important to me about this song, but it's important.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
In case it's not at the library.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Callie Khouri
Photography: Adrian Biddle
Editor: Thom Noble
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Pitt, Timothy Carhart, Lucinda Jenney
Here's one that actually seemed to me even better than I recalled, a fine epic road movie based out of Arkansas that switches up on gender and illuminates a world—admittedly, with overly broad strokes and taking aim at every easy target it can think of—that half of us don't understand nearly well enough. Thelma, played by Geena Davis, is a young housewife with a ridiculous petty tyrant lout for a husband, a carpet salesman and a perfect fool and a philanderer too (!) who dictates everything she can and cannot do. Louise, played by Susan Sarandon, is a flinty waitress in a foo foo uniform who chain smokes, swears a lot, and has a red-hot temper. They treat themselves to a rare weekend getaway to the mountains, Thelma climbing out on a limb and doing so without her husband's permission. When they stop on the way for drinks and dinner at a loud roadhouse the troubles begin: Thelma connects with yet another lout, Harlan (played with bottomless creepy menace by Timothy Carhart), lets him get her drunk even as they kick up their heels on the dance floor, and before long he has taken her out to his car in the parking lot where he begins to assault her. Enter Louise, who has a gun and uses it to liberate Thelma from the situation. But Harlan, in his fuming impotence, makes one foul-mouthed remark too many, and Louise loses it and shoots him dead. The girls hightail it out of there, turning fugitive and heading for Mexico by way of Oklahoma City. From that point the road movie is on, with cars zooming down highways, swooping tracking shots from helicopters, eerily beautiful shots of the Arizona desert at night, and police lights flashing in sweltering heat. With little to tie them to the murder they have time to act on their plan to make it to Mexico, but fate is not about to smile on them kindly in this movie. Down the road, most of the ways that a man can do a woman wrong make their appearances. It gets hard to watch at many points, such as when Thelma keeps letting herself be drawn to a shifty hitchhiker, J.D. (played by Brad Pitt, smug as usual), but that's just the narrative tension working—like "I Love Lucy," mixing up dread and horror until we are as unwilling to look as we are unwilling to look away. A good many set pieces are scattered along the way—for all his many various and legion faults, Ridley Scott does know how to put together a movie. My favorite was a hold-up scene captured in the grainy black & white of an in-store camera video, seen from the comical point of view of the authorities in pursuit of them in the company of Thelma's husband. The ending is suitably desperate and not, I think, all that cheap or easy (though you could probably argue it the other way too), harking in an almost unbearable way to a scene that ended better in another buddy movie of outlaws on the lam, this one more the traditional purview of males, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
I can't put my finger on exactly why I have this impression, but I have long had the sense that War is not taken particularly seriously. That could just be me on their "Why Can't We Be Friends" (pretty weak tea). Or it could be memories of a friend carping about "The Cisco Kid," which has since been filed by me under guilty pleasure. Or maybe it's the early association with Eric Burdon, who is easy to shrug off. But the best stuff that War ever did, and this is the best of it, packs quite a punch, moody and brooding and atmospheric and, as we used to say, tellin' it like it is. (Among the songs that charted, "Slippin' into Darkness" is very nearly as good in this vein, and "All Day Music" practically the equal of either with a slightly different wrinkle, celebrating a mellow and funky joy.) Suffused with enormous sadness, this song quickly sinks into explicit resignation, with an evident understanding of all connotations of the word "ghetto"—I suppose that's the Oakland origins, or maybe just my perception of same. The tempo is slow and deliberate, as if pondering its own heavy weather, or even caught, mired in it, and the instruments are of the time, soft horns and wah-wah effects and that haunting harmonica of Lee Oskar. The verses play off of a kind of wistfulness that still bears vestiges of hope, but the chorus shuts that down. Not to destroy the hope but to put it in perspective, to set the appropriate expectations—as we say now—and it feels like it's overflowing with a world of authoritative experience. In the moment, it's hard not to believe they know exactly whereof they speak. It's hard not to believe that the world is a ghetto still, to this day.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
You have heard this, if only as the opening theme for TV's "Happy Days," so you know what we're talking about. What's harder now is to reimagine it in its context, when it could simply be used as the opening theme for a gritty movie of inner-city strife (Blackboard Jungle) and literally cause riots to happen across England. Bill Haley was just barely on the right side of 30 when he scored this definitive hit. Paunchy, sweaty, already obviously losing his hair, he was never going to make a suitable object of desire for the masses in the new world that his classic song (and already fifth top 20 hit) was ushering in. That would be a job for Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and perhaps Little Richard, who each had oceans more of sex appeal. Nonetheless, it was Bill Haley who got his shoulders up above the Pat Boones and Patti Pages of the deadening mid-'50s radio fare, opened his arms wide, and welcomed one and all with a kind of infectious and undeniable and mad joy. Even now it's not hard to hear its appeal—the country twang of Haley's singing, the rhythm and blues elements marking out the arrangement, the chanting and insistent nursery rhyme mentality that never lets it fade into the background. The drums hit hard, the band swings, the guitar rocks, and the tune quickly tattoos itself to the inside of your head. Nothing was ever going to be the same again, and even if this were atrocious crap it would still belong on a list like this simply for the impact and lasting influence. Fortunately, it's an altogether nifty concoction, even if you (and I) may be rather tired of it at this juncture.
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
Talk about iconic, talk about the origins of rock 'n' roll, talk about the detonation points of history. Little Richard—though he did not come from nowhere, hardly—about had it all, not least the wit to invent "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop a-lop-bam-boom" and then use it to open this, his first hit, cramming it down the microphone hard. He's the one pumping the piano—later a saxophone shows itself in—and the whole thing is delivered with a fervent fever across its two and a half minutes that is equal parts church throw-down and titanic pleasure release. It may sound rather tame to our ears now, but I think that's more the production and the recording technology. What doesn't sound tame is Little Richard's vocal, a fact easily enough detected when one attempts to sing along and match him note for note, intonation for intonation. Then you'll feel it. He's all over the register: falsetto hoots, various growls, grunting flourishes, hard breathing, and that attempt always to enunciate those nonsense syllables as if they mean something. Because they do, and it's a meaning that transcends language, which makes his strategy really the only way to do it (just don't call it speaking in tongues). Little Richard made his bones with this, repeating the same kind of stunt over the next year and a half or so. If it's tempting to argue for any one of them over the others, that's a matter of personal taste—they are all essentially of a piece. He then retired into a career that continues today, more than 50 years on, vacillating between obedience to the Lord and a return to these devilish sounds and the kind of media empire that produces them. Little Richard himself, of course, would never use the term "media empire," even in regard to his appearances on "Hollywood Squares."
Monday, November 08, 2010
This is of course the song that plays as the movie Saturday Night Fever opens and the credits run, with the camera focused close on the rather unremarkable shoes of Tony Manero as he walks, struts, the sidewalks of Brooklyn on an errand for work, stopping for a slice, putting money down on a shirt he likes that he sees in a shop window, but with the camera always returning insistently to the feet. Anyone could have guessed it was going to be a movie about dancing. It's hard to imagine this song would have been quite so successful without the movie but that's neither here nor there. The Bee Gees had hits right along through the '70s even as their style morphed imperceptibly into one of the most recognizable archetypes of disco, all loose-limbed with cascading falsettos and horns and a swaggering rhythm section. Heck, sure, it was easy to make fun—they do kinda sound like chipmunks, don't they? And it's not exactly manly either. But it worked. A decidedly different act 10 years earlier, the Bee Gees made the most of their moment, occupying most of the first side of the double-LP soundtrack and with one or two more songs scattered in there too and then kept pumping it out for as long as they could keep gas in the car, which didn't actually turn out to be that long. They were practically a nostalgia act already by the time Ronald Reagan was entering the White House. But in the winter that this made its mark it was as inescapable as it was welcome, with a simmering excitement to it that unfortunately made promises it could not possibly keep.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)
Saturday, November 06, 2010
Friday, November 05, 2010
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Photography: Alun Bollinger
Editor: Jamie Selkirk
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O'Connor, Jed Brophy, Peter Elliott, Gilbert Goldie
A quiet landmark of its kind hiding in plain sight, this is director Peter Jackson's more or less first essay at the mainstream market and an interesting mix of a lot of the elements he has always been preoccupied with: fantasy, horror, and a swooning, almost drunken, embrace of the alluring surface details of adolescent life, which eventually open to reveal a careering maw of terror. It's also more or less Kate Winslet's first movie (complete with "introducing" in the opening credits, which also attaches to her co-star Melanie Lynskey, who matches well with her here even if she hasn't enjoyed the same stellar arc to her career since). Set in 1950s New Zealand, and based on a true story, it traces the path of an intense friendship between two lonely adolescent girls, Juliet Hulme (played by Winslet)—who interestingly went on to become a well-known mystery writer, Anne Perry—and Pauline Parker (played by Lynskey), a friendship that ultimately takes on grotesque and tragic dimensions. Much of the language, in fact, is taken from Parker's diaries of the time. They are an oddly matched pair, crossing class lines. Juliet suffers from tuberculosis and a peripatetic English family (her father is an academic) all too willing to leave her behind "for the good of her health." Pauline comes from a lower-middle-class New Zealand family and is all too aware of, and ashamed of, her mean origins. From the beginning, opening on a lengthy foreshadowing of the final scene that nonetheless hardly prepares us for it, the action and momentum here is swirling, dizzying, headlong. It's exuberant, pulsing with adolescent energy, staying on the point of view of the two girls. The camera echoes this dynamic, perpetually restless and roaming, making the action feel supercharged every step of the way. At first, Juliet and Pauline share an obsession with the opera cum pop singer Mario Lanza, a particularly amusing abhorrence of Orson Welles (who they refer to as "It"), and fairy-tale-like fantasies of the British royal family. In the private world they construct, they set themselves to creating novels and pictures and elaborate if incoherent backstories of their romantic adventures. As the fantasies of the girls become more intense so does their presentation here, with unreal radioactive glowing colors, landscapes that warp and shift, and eventually animated clay figures who act out the roles imagined for them. Between Juliet's condition and some sexual misbehavior on the part of Pauline with an unpleasant boarder (adroitly done), the parents of both are soon concerned and stepping in to try and cool the ardor between them, which of course only serves to fire them further. The parents are fascinating and affecting characters, particularly Pauline's. Eventually the girls set themselves to a horrific plan to liberate themselves from these parental oppressors, and as the film shifts into that final, closing sequence, the swooning fantasy approach falls away and is replaced by something that's almost verite, delivering a payoff that's shocking, disturbing, and unforgettable.
Thursday, November 04, 2010
It's still hard for me to believe that Phil Spector has been sent to prison for murder—it's not that I doubt the evidence, or even the various propensities he's shown over the decades. I guess I must just still be stuck in the "denial" phase along the road to acceptance. Meanwhile, his work still stands, particularly the "little symphonies for the kids" wall of sound hits that he concocted in the early '60s, of which this is likely the single best. (But for gods sake don't stop here. The Back to Mono box set remains the best way to grasp and appreciate his work, and represents one of the best box sets in all rock 'n' roll.) Spector loved the Ronettes so much that he married the lead singer, and it's not hard to hear how he lavishes just a little bit more of everything on their productions. Even so, I never really cottoned to how effective this particular song is until I saw the way Scorsese used it in Mean Streets, part of one of the greatest pop song transitions in any movie, and pioneering in its translation of radio fare to soundtrack element; Scorsese, of course, has since proved one of the great masters of it. Everything you want from a Phil Spector number is here: Brill Building tunesmithery, big booming drums, tracks stacked to the sky, alluring rhythms, an entire orchestra, and Ronnie Spector, all in the service of a plaintive, affecting declaration of love. It soars on the chorus, the strings carry an instrumental break with poise and aplomb, and you don't want it to end ever, and it shouldn't. This song makes an effective case that it should always be the early autumn of 1963 and we should have never gone beyond that.
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
I have literally gone around and around and around on this one—often it has seemed tedious, worn out from overexposure, almost thick-witted in both conception and execution. Then, often when I'm driving, it strikes like a thunderbolt and occurs to me how well suited it is for singing along with at the top of one's voice. It was one of the first singles I ever purchased so has that enduring baggage as well. I think it's safe to say, though infinitely arguable of course, that it represents the pinnacle of Beatlemania, following the first tour and introduction to the world, as the title song from their second movie (by which time it was de rigueur, if not plain rote, for teen girls everywhere to show up and scream their heads off, to the point where you couldn't make out a word of dialogue, not that anyone was missing much if you've ever gone back to look at that movie). It was also a point where Lennon started to get more obviously confessional (and verging on the point when Lennon and McCartney started going their separate ways in the songwriting), abstracted and oblique; no one needed to pay any particular attention to the personal details, a point of view that decidedly would change, especially in Lennon's solo career. But here, I think, we see the Beatles beginning to totter at the tipping point of empty-headed teen pop music icons and head toward something more significant and meaningful, at least for one (rather large) segment of their audience. Sure, you want personal, go to "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" on the album (which they ultimately gave away to an outfit named Silkie, but Lennon's vocal is the version you want). This was the hit, one of them, loud and proud, as Brian Epstein intended it to be.
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
The easy comment here, one I've made myself a few times, is that this stands in as a fine divorce or breakup song. Certainly it has served me well at such times. But Patsy Cline's sweet, nagging, ever-so slightly nasal vocal delivers a good deal more than an opportunity for self-pity and crocodile tears. In fact, it's not even particularly sad. Instead, it digs into the poignant, evocative mysteries of an inability to let go of someone, and does so with a perfect image, encapsulated in the title. Speaking strictly for myself, I know when I've found myself taking to the streets late at night (or "along the highways," a notably chilling image from a female singer) that it may not always involve relationship grief, but it usually does. The singer's ostensible mission, to seek out that missing object of love, is ridiculously futile on its face. If he's not with her at 1 a.m. he's not likely to want to be found even if she could—even if she knew where to look. Especially if she knew where to look. This is one of Patsy Cline's specialties, a kind of theme that surfaces over and over again in her work: a simple idea that becomes stranger and more deranged the more one thinks about it. It's that voice of hers, and the tunefulness, and the homely country (going on countrypolitan) trappings that lull you. But think about it, how insane is this for a nighttime scenario: "I stop to see a weeping willow / Cryin' on his pillow / Maybe he's crying for me." Or this, the heart of it: "I go out walkin' after midnight / Out in the moonlight, just hopin' you may be / Somewhere a-walkin' after midnight / Searching for me." That's not right. Nothing about that is right.
Monday, November 01, 2010
I admit I probably ranked this higher just for the effect it's had on me opening the Nuggets album rather than for anything about how it sounded to me on the radio. I mean, I liked it fine when it was a hit. But something about the way it kicks off the classic Lenny Kaye selection of garage-rock exemplars is nothing less than galvanizing. It's not "Louie Louie" or "Psycho" or "G-L-O-R-I-A," not raw guitar and two chords and primitive musicianship, not all yobby and attitude-warped. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) It's mysterious and creepy, obviously talking about hallucinogenic drugs and doing so early and in a way that's as seductively appealing as it is slightly repulsive. In retrospect, and perhaps this is less than fair, it seems to me like the kind of thing Charles Manson could talk himself into grooving on, and may have. It's filled with strange trembling noises and a dynamic that takes it from the melodic hush of the verses to something louder and more aggressive—but still restrained, always relatively restrained—in the chorus. Sometimes, hearing the rest of their songs on the early albums (pre-Axelrod, which this falls into), I'm surprised they didn't do better. Then I stop to think. Is there any band name quite as painfully tone-deaf? Even the Butthole Surfers (who found their way to a chart appearance too, as amazing as that still seems) is more in-your-face about the matter. Electric Prunes is too coy by half. But "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)" is almost perfect, for better and for worse, in its take on drug culture. Watch out for those bad trips now.