Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Lovely Bones (2002)

Do biographical details of an author's life matter? Even before I came to understand that Alice Sebold is herself the survivor of a violent crime—the subject of her first published book, a memoir, Lucky, which I haven't read—I had been vaguely troubled or put off by something in this carefully constructed first novel. The basic premise strikes one first as almost breathtakingly audacious, the story narrated from beyond the grave by Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who, in the first chapter, is captured, raped, murdered, and dismembered by a serial sexual predator living in her suburban neighborhood. At a suitably ghostly distance she observes the grief of her family and friends as they attempt to come to terms with what to them is only her unexplained disappearance. They are reasonably certain she wouldn't have run away, that she has probably been killed, but nothing will ever be certain for them again. Though Sebold includes some fanciful ideas about heaven and the afterlife, not all of which work, mostly she stays close to the ground, focused on the anguish of Susie's family and, more incidentally, that of Susie's spirit, almost completely helpless to comfort them. The tale thus careens uncertainly between a ghost story, a true crime case study, and a kind of Kubler-Ross self-help tome on coming to terms with grief. It tries to get the benefit of all and in the end cheats itself of everything. The idea that seems at first so fresh and original soon becomes mired down in the ungainly mechanics of lumbering a plot forward. Of course the family will get over it, even if it splits them apart; they have no other choice. And, inevitably, there will be a manhunt. Sebold's burden of what to do about her killer tends to sprawl suffocatingly over everything—letting him get away becomes all too quickly freighted with the frustrated baggage of victimology and vengeance, and yet bringing him to some kind of justice, particularly from the point of view of the transcendently spiritualized narrator, is if anything even more problematic, one that Sebold does not solve satisfactorily. By playing with the fire of such powerful material, Sebold only succeeds in creating a new cliché, one now on display in a new true-crime show on the Investigation Discovery channel, "Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets." Better, I think, that she had gone the route of a superior show on that same channel, "Disappeared," and focused on the bewilderment of those of us left behind who simply don't know, and can't know, rather than telegraphing everything in such a seductively explicit, overly clever way in the first place. This would also have enabled her to leave heaven out of it altogether.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Doppelganger (1983)

Interesting that the Kid Creole reissues of just a few years ago have evidently already sunk without a trace, other than Fresh Fruit and this—my impression had always been that 1982's Wise Guy more or less endured as the go-to choice, at least for most critics, so go figure. I like pretty much everything August Darnell did, which also includes Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band in the '70s, but for better or worse the two Kid Creoles still available besides anthologies and live albums (worthwhile themselves, of course, to varying degrees) are also my two favorites. Maybe it's because they're the ones that sound most like musical productions never mounted? And the more's the shame for that. I can't discern a theme in this sparkling mess, let alone a story line (nor could Robert Christgau), but the clues are tantalizing, starting with the title. August Darnell, Dr. Buzzard, Kid Creole, not to mention at an extensive curriculum vitae of studio session work, and did you know the guy has a master's in English? "Doppelganger" doesn't even begin to cover the teeming identities finding ways to coexist inside Darnell's tiny frame. And I'm telling you, the guy not only merits more attention, but positively rewards it, with horns and charging rhythms, melody and a pristinely clarified production, propelling it all, from the exuberant album kickoff "The Lifeboat Party" to the obligatory new wave cover gesture of "If You Wanna Be Happy" to the touchstone declaration of general purpose, "Call Me the Entertainer." There's even a leftfield meditation on dead rock stars, "Survivors" ("It happened to Jimi, it happened to Janis, it happened to Elvis [eliding toward Walrus] too / It happened to Vicious, and Frankie-uh Lymon, it can happen to me and you"). Oh, and here's another that would appear to signify intention, "Broadway Rhythm," with something to say about "integrated rock 'n' roll." And the lovely "Back in the Field Again," with very few twists and turns, just a brave and bittersweet avowal post-divorce that things are going to be all right again, maybe. It all closes on something called "The Seven Year Itch." As you may surmise, there's show biz all over the place here, stuffed into every nook. And if the whole never manages to cohere into anything greater than the sum of its mystifying parts, there's an awful lot of pleasure to be had attempting to piece it all together.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Godfather (1972)

USA, 175 minutes
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: Nino Rota
Editors: William Reynolds, Peter Zinner
Cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Al Martino, Morgana King, Lenny Montana, Salvatore Corsitto, Alex Rocco, Simonetta Stefanelli

I had some idea how contentious director Francis Ford Coppola can be, but I never understood until recently what a supremely embattled production this debut foray into the Mario Puzo material came to be. It was budgeted at under $3 million dollars, a paltry sum even then; bringing on the 31-year-old mostly unknown Coppola to make it was probably just more of the producers' efforts to conserve costs. (In a foreshadowing of the rest of his career, Coppola managed to end up spending over $6 million, although that's still not much—he has compared shooting some parts of it to a makeshift, on-the-fly UCLA film school project.)

Most of the fights centered on the casting. At the time, arguably the only "hot" actor associated was James Caan. Marlon Brando was in the most severe doldrums of his career, with a reputation for troublesomeness on set, and the rest—Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Diane Keaton—were largely unknowns, certainly in Hollywood. Abe Vigoda was someone with almost no experience who showed up at an open casting call. But the problems were hardly confined to casting.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)

Ken Kesey's first published novel is as meticulously wrought as it is poorly represented by the film version that followed it 13 years later. By its very medium that movie was foredoomed from the start to play too easily to the broadest elements of a story already perilously close to hackneyed interpretation. It's a story about the wisdom of the mad and the sanity of the insane, and that's just too easy. It needs Kesey's allusive language to soften and blunt the cliché, and it needs the novelistic device and the nuance afforded by it of the unreliable narrator strategy, which screws this tale right into the ground. The real central character of the thing is Chief Bromden, the passive and set-upon long-time inmate of the institution who tells Randle McMurphy's story, which is actually just one externalization of his own. McMurphy's story is easy enough to confuse for the main show—a kind of tragedy, as he arrives on the scene, introduces his fellow inmates to life and pleasure and joy, fills them to the brim with it, before bringing himself down by the character flaw of a resolute defiance of all authority. But think about it. Is that really such a character flaw, particularly within the four corners of this novel? No, the real story here is the epiphany and awakening and exhilarating liberation of Chief Bromden, and the only way into that is by letting him tell his own story in his own idiosyncratic way, a story whose action is almost entirely internal. Kesey worked as an orderly in an institution for the mentally ill and obviously observed it closely, the suffocating, claustrophobic routines of the place, with everything revolving around meals and smokes and baths and the authority wielded ruthlessly by the medical staff at every level. More importantly, he also gained some ineffable grokking sense, likely from his participation at the same time in formal studies of hallucinogenic drugs in that institution, of the interiority of those living there in the conditions, the paranoia and fear and delusions, the hazes of drugs and electroshock therapy and mental unbalance, and the capitulation that overwhelms and swallows entire lives, lives already debilitated. In effect Kesey occupied the gray areas occupied by gray men and women between madness and vitality and death and torpor and came back to tell about it. I can understand why a Hollywood studio would want to jump all over what turned out to be a hot property (my paperback from 1967 is already labeled as a fifth printing), and even why a citizen of a repressive Eastern Europe Soviet regime, Milos Forman, would be drawn to it. But they couldn't even touch the raw power of this novel, much less do it justice.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (1981)

At one time I liked to refract this through the lens of a concept album, because arguably that's what it is, though one rather more like a song and dance musical than Tommy—a South Seas cruise more or less, departing from approximately New York City with stops in the Caribbean and across the Panama isthmus, with local color and musical numbers and styles galore. To point out that something like that was a little out of step in 1981 is an understatement, though by and large it was well reviewed, as a bit of a novelty, which is how it came to my attention. I'm not sure how many people even remember Kid Creole at all now but for several years in the '80s I numbered him among my pet obsessions and collected 'em all. I even saw the act in 1986, attending it more out of duty than anything but in the end coming away more than a little impressed—I count it as one of the better live shows I've seen, in fact, thanks partly to the comically sexualized energy and presence of the Coconuts. But the music of Kid Creole (nee August Darnell), who somehow went directly from the Bronx to an astonishing plurality of musical locations across the globe, is what always seals the deal, and Fresh Fruit may well be the best single-volume introduction to his work. A heady stew of rhythms, pure pop tunesmithery, and a Broadway producer's flair for showmanship, the fragmented stories of journey, border crossings, adventure, and love found and lost move briskly through their paces and somehow grow almost illicitly charming. Not a one of them is a bit like any of the others, yet the overarching sensibility and sharp production unifies them into something that's practically seamless. It's not hard to understand how "fresh" worked its way into the title. At one point this became an album I listened to frequently enough that even now I can hear the beginning of the next song in the end of the last. And while I remain impressed with the musical styles absorbed so completely and deployed so artfully, I have to say that it's when Kid Creole opens the jacket of his quasi-zoot suit to reveal the palpable pounding of his throbbing heart that I am most enduringly affected. So "I Stand Accused" and "Gina, Gina" and especially the album closer "Dear Addy" tended to be the tracks I put on mix tapes again and again for friends and for myself, and that even now I enjoy hearing again most fondly.

Friday, January 21, 2011

8½ (1963)

Italy/France, 138 minutes
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Photography: Gianni Di Venanzo
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Leo Cattozzo
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk, Barbara Steele, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, Eddra Gale, Guido Alberti, Jean Rougeul

Italian director Federico Fellini's 8.5th film (after seven features and a short, though IMDb would seem to count it a little differently) is a great big shaggy dog of a movie and arguably a critical point where consensus art film starts to lose any chance for a broader audience. I recall the first time I saw it finding myself completely impatient with it—it just seemed like so much meandering self-indulgent crap. More recently I'm more forgiving. I still think it's meandering self-indulgent crap, but observing it repeatedly and closely discloses how carefully crafted it is to be exactly that.

The story: an attempt in media res to make a film, a production bogged down in chaos. Director Guido Anselmi (played by a brooding, pained, masterfully controlled Marcello Mastroianni, by all appearances standing in for Fellini) has become increasingly lost in the details and his own messy personal life. A man generally introduced throughout as "the author" (played by Jean Rougeul), a writer brought in to help salvage the project and a kind of one-man Greek chorus, lays it out in the first 10 minutes: "You want to talk about the film?" he snidely says to Guido, above the pumping strains of Beethoven. "On first reading it's evident that the film lacks a problematic or philosophical premise, making the film a series of gratuitous episodes, perhaps amusing for their ambiguous realism. One wonders what the authors are trying to say. Are they trying to make us think? To scare us? From the start, the action reveals a poverty of poetic inspiration. Forgive me, but this might be the definitive proof that cinema is 50 years behind all the other arts. The subject doesn't even have the merits of an 'avant garde' film, but it has all the shortcomings."

Thus, you can't say you weren't warned.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"Billie Jean" (1983)

1. Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean" (Jan. 29, 1983, #1, 7 wks.)

If anybody ever figures out the secret to writing the perfect pop song, I think they are going to have to name it "Billie Jean" in honor of Michael Jackson's greatest moment. This song works on so many levels, not least that it's the purest and most sincere pleasure to hear, with that snaky, sinuous bass, the whisper-soft keyboard chords that bring it up, the tightly propelled mix generally, the rapscallion guitar break, and the spine-tingling cascading string flourishes that slash across the chorus like lightning (I guess that's actually keyboards at this juncture in history, and thank you Quincy Jones, for everything you did). This little production, full of complexities and textures, soars and swoops and dive-bombs and rockets back up. It don't stop till you get enough, to coin a term. At times I swear it belongs on a permanent play loop. No other song necessary, ever. Then there's the matter of Jackson's appearance at the Motown 25th anniversary celebration, where he took the stage and performed this song and introduced the world to the Moonwalk, which for me might be the single most riveting television moment in all of rock 'n' roll history. I cannot take my eyes off it any time I see it again; the whole thing in its pristine moment is endlessly spooky good. At one time, in the blinding flash of Thriller as it was just having its way with the pop charts, all the songs seemed pretty good. But it didn't take long to realize this was the real flashpoint, the one I couldn't actually get enough of and that could leave me almost short of breath from the exhilaration (or was that me dancing?). I suppose you could complain about the silly story the lyrics tell, or maybe Jackson's choked-off way of singing, which makes it harder to follow the general through line of the song as closely as you might like. Go ahead. Complain away.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chronicles, Volume One (2004)

I understand the idea here is there's going to be three volumes altogether, and even that he is already busy working on the second. But we all know how Mr. Robert Zimmerman is occasionally prone to some stretchers. I'm just happy for what we got here, which is typical enough for Bob Dylan in terms of its capricious approach to the task of memoiring—skipping about from the period of his odyssey in which many of us are inordinately interested, the landing and early days in New York City in the early '60s, to a couple of others with marginally less draw: when he was recording the albums New Morning (1970) and Oh Mercy (1989). Over and out, done, more or less: 293 pages. What's much less typical from Dylan, and should probably be considered as surprising as it is appreciated, is the straightforward fashion in which he recounts the events. Where previously much of his life and background was murky and general, cloaked in deliberate if playful misinformation and almost sarcastic mythologizing—orphaned in the Dakota flatlands, taught to play guitar by Hopi Indians, a busker on the streets of southside Chicago (I actually made all those up, but they're not that far from the stories he used to spread about himself)—here he lays it all out flat, clean, and unadorned. There's more where that came from in the Scorsese documentary that followed in the year after publication of this book, but in many ways this is where the clean breast started. The change of heart it betokens had likely been in process for many years before that, going back (my guess) to his serious health scare of circa 1997. In many ways, however, and as happy as I am to have it and read it and get a clearer sense of the trajectory of his life and career, and I wouldn't have it any other way either, the end result is also a bit like the experience when one finally manages to cajole a magician who has just performed some astonishing trick into giving up its secret. It's good to know, on one level, but some of the wonder of it is inevitably rubbed away for good. Is this something Bob Dylan himself understands? Well, it did take him a long time to cough up even this one. And when did they say that next one (of three?) (and he's just about 70 now?) was supposed to come out?

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Combat Rock (1982)

A few years ago I worked a crazy temp-style kind of job proofreading customer communications material for an insurance company. There was a crew of about a half dozen of us and we didn't actually have that much to do—the material was numbingly repetitive but long stretches of time, even days, would pass before we got new batches of it to work on. We got along fabulously and laughed very hard most days. Someone among them, or several, I can't remember exactly, were huge fans of this album, randomly bellowing things like, "This is a public ... service ... announcement," to which the rest of us soon enough learned to respond in unison, "With git-TARS!" I realize this can't possibly seem funny to anyone reading, but we were enjoying ourselves so I guess you had to be there, etc. But the point is that it sent me back to this album, condemned by virtually all around me in 1982 as the crassest sellout in history, largely by reason of actually spawning a top 10 hit, and it sent me back more generally to the Clash, at which point I started to realize how profoundly they lived on inside me yet and so many of us, attached in the guts like, old friends never forgotten. Joe Strummer was already dead by the time of that proofreading job so it was no longer possible to even pretend the Clash would come back some day and thrill us like it was 1980 all over again, or at least provide the opportunity to hoot at our own nostalgia. No, the arc of the Clash was more like (tiresome Boomer analogy warning) the Beatles; once it was over it was good and well over, finished, once and for all, finito, kaputski, hit the road Jack, done—with just a few random, fragmented reunions and promises for the real thing that ultimately all fizzled away before they could happen. In the end this band is as oddly rooted in their time as they are forever living above and beyond it. I saw them in 1984, playing an arena, and it was sadly all by-the-numbers by then. They were clearly finished. But this last great shot (not prepared to speak to Cut the Crap yet) is way better than I remember, the above-referenced album opener "Know Your Rights," the Tom Tom Club (really?) bounce of "Overpowered by Funk," and especially the Sandinista-like "Straight to Hell," moody and strange and powerful, which found a worthy home in M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes." All this and Allen Ginsberg too. God bless this band.

Friday, January 14, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

UK/USA, 141 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick
Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editor: Ray Lovejoy
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

In case you ever need it for a trivia contest, the first line of dialogue in this movie is, "Here you are, sir. Main level, please." And it occurs 25 minutes in. That's the level of pure cinematic experience on which we are operating here, which in its totality is nearly as baffling as the overall effectiveness of this picture itself.

It's not easy to defend to detractors—because it's not hard to find endless examples here of the monumentally silly. From what are obviously actors in ape suits in the opening sequence (bombastically entitled "THE DAWN OF MAN") to the typical inability of science fiction films before 1990 to predict anything like the Internet or cell phones (the always popular video phone does put in an appearance but phone calls, even in outer space, are still made from phone booths, and there doesn't appear to be anything like voicemail) to no apparent changes in fashion since 1968 to the hackneyed-even-then computer gone amok to using a geometric figure as some kind of religious agent of evolution (a black monolith, really?) to the general incoherence of the narrative, this movie should not work. It should fail abjectly and miserably simply from being so painfully ham-handed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"It's Too Late" (1971)

2. Carole King, "It's Too Late" (May 22, 1971, #1, 5 wks.)

Like most people, I tend to prefer Carole King's work as a songwriter in the early '60s when she was a key part of the Brill Building brain trust that ruled the pop airwaves of the time. Usually co-written with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, her songs include "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" by the Shirelles, "The Loco-Motion" by Little Eva (who was a household maid and babysitter for King and Goffin), the infamous "He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)" by the Crystals (produced by Phil Spector), "Pleasant Valley Sunday" by the Monkees in 1967—it's actually a long list. The album from which this comes, Tapestry, is entirely different, a creature of its mellow post-hippie times, gauzy and gentle and slightly burnt-out about things. But the truth is I didn't know any of this about her or the album in the summer of 1971, when you couldn’t turn on the radio and avoid hearing for long the strains of “It’s Too Late.” It always caught me up, made me genuinely sad, even tearful on some occasions. Its details were so right, opening with “Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time,” its generalities provocative (“Something inside has died and I can’t hide”), its overwhelming conclusion impossible to refute: “And it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late.” The song captures an essence of giving up, which is likely why it struck so many deep chords at the time with me and, obviously, others. But in another way, “It’s Too Late” runs somewhat against convention. More than anything, it’s a song about giving up on a deeply felt connection, a person you have been living with, for no obvious or good reason other than “Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool.” There is thus a good deal of deceptive complexity to it, which I think has contributed to making it so enduringly significant for me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Let's Stay Together" (1971)

3. Al Green, "Let's Stay Together" (Dec. 11, 1971, #1)

As far as top 40 fantasies of love go, it doesn't get much better than this—not least because it factors in just enough grit of the real thing, by implication the raw everyday friction and the making up and coming back together, denying and acknowledging them at the same time, that it manages to have its cake and eat it too, as it were, enabling it to resonate powerfully with anyone's experience. It bypasses the frontal lobes and goes directly to the brain stem, and tells it all the things it wants to hear. Then there's the matter of how just plain damn good it sounds. Al Green, of course, is a towering figure in the what-you-may-call-it, rhythm and blues, black, soul, urban fields of pop music. But let's put our cards on the table. There's good, there's towering, and there's this. I can think of few things more uncannily beautiful, understated, simple, and straightforward, driven by an uncomplicated drumkit and soothing bass, touched up by sweet flourishes of horns and strings and backing vocals, textured emotionally by upward bound chord shifts, and topped off with Green's uniquely sultry, laidback vocals, with all their strange sighs and hiccups and pauses, which may sound casual and tossed off but that's the deception of it. They are anything but. It's all focused sharply toward the single point of the lyric, which nevertheless manages to dance around itself artfully even as we know exactly what it's about at every step, and that is the deepest and most meaningful love felt for a lover and companion: " ... baby, since we've been together / Ooo, loving you forever / Is what I need / Let me, be the one you come running to ... Loving you whether, whether / Times are good or bad, happy or sad." I'm willing to wager relationships have survived with just these slender reeds on which to cling.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Summertime Blues" (1958)

4. Eddie Cochran, "Summertime Blues" (Aug. 25, 1958, #8)

Well, I guess this is my favorite hit from the '50s—and if I say that with some bemusement, it's not because I don't appreciate the charms and attractions of the giants who tend to overtop Eddie Cochran, who died when he was just 21. In some cases, such as Chuck Berry, it's a matter of tending to like more the songs of his that weren't hits, as the more familiar tunes have been worn down to nubs. I almost can't hear "Maybellene" or "Johnny B. Goode" any more (and the more's the pity). On the other hand, I have always heard this and seem to like it more every time I do. This may be because I came to it first more or less through the bizarre filters of the Who, Blue Cheer, and T. Rex, none of whom got it particularly right. It may be related to the fact that, even with all its rockabilly signifiers, it's always struck me more as a Coasters type of song—it has that exasperated wiseass teen griping nailed down to fine shtick, notably in the flat booming intonations of the walk-on grown-up parts, e.g., "Now you can't use the car 'cos you didn't work late" or "I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote" (and I love that he takes "my problem to the United Nations" but ends up talking to his Congressman). But in the end I think the appeal is all sonic, compressed expertly into a scant two minutes: the rolling bass that sets it in motion, the neck-snap guitar chords, the highly inflected yelping of the vocal, counterpointed by the wry, cartoony admonishments, and the way the sound of it opens and closes like a window on a soft summer day. At this point I don't think I'm ever going to get tired of it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965)

5. James Brown, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (Aug. 7, 1965, #8)

One more time around that twisty bend at the river: James Brown's most significant song not only heralded and completed his transition from accomplished rhythm and blues rave-up artist and professional entertainer nonpareil into the everlasting king and high priest practitioner of funk and the related arts, from which sprang mind-boggling swaths of worldwide popular music—Fela Kuti, George Clinton and the entire P-Funk army, Prince, Michael Jackson, King Sunny Ade, Dr. Dre, Chuck D, and Afrika Bambaataa are just a few who credit his huge influence—but it was also the moment that floored and flattened practically everyone who heard it. And listen, this was a career, with dozens of albums and no fewer than 44 top 40 hits. Me, I was a kid when this came along. What I remember is the respect in the voices of the disc jockeys when they talked about this song, and I don't think that was the payola talking. I didn't get it, but I listened, and over the years, and the decades, he's become an artist I still haven't grown all the way into. Is there a better example than this? "This is a hit!" and they're off, the entire band transformed at once into an overwhelmingly focused unit, tight, working it, irresistible. The horns flutter and pipe and go way down low and never stop moving; nor does that guitarist's wrist. I like the short, raw blast of the single version best—says here it was recorded in less than an hour on the way to a gig, and the master tape later speeded up to get it in the key they wanted. I like that. But there's nothing hurried or rushed about it, upbeat tempo notwithstanding, and across his catalog there are a good half dozen or more versions with their own unique features. I've been hearing this all my life, and I'm still hearing it.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Classic Crimes (1913-1937)

William Roughead and Edmund Lester Pearson began corresponding in the '20s and by the evidence enjoyed a long, close, and cordial friendship, each recognizing in the other something of a spiritual brother. Born only 10 years apart, both devoted themselves in the hours away from their careers—Roughead as a lawyer in Scotland, Pearson as a librarian in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, and New York City—to their passionate avocations of pursuing the details of true crime cases. Pearson has his touchstone obsession with the Lizzie Borden case, while Roughead tended to be more catholic and wide-ranging in his appreciations, pushing back further into history, and not confining himself as much only to murder. Both are excellent, wry, and charming writers; fans of Roughead have included Henry James, FDR, and Toni Morrison. This collection of Roughead's work published by the "New York Review of Books" gathers up a dozen cases across the scope of his career—as he referred to them, "adventures in criminal biography." It provides probably the best starting point for his work, which is maddening in the duplications scattered across his now almost entirely out-of-print volumes (and which tend to command ridiculous and disappointingly high prices anyway). Here you will find the details of the case of Deacon Brodie, which inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of Madeleine Smith, a "trial of the century" nominee in the mid-1800s, and of Burke and Hare, early 19th-century serial killers in Scotland enterprisingly and systematically harvesting corpses for anatomists, a lucrative trade then. The motivations and the deeds are sadly timeless; very little reported on so breathlessly nowadays is anything that has not already happened one way or another centuries ago, and usually for the same reasons. As with Pearson, Roughead tends in some ways toward the ponderous, and occasionally can even become a bit of a scold, which I suspect is all just a way of maintaining distance from the mayhem in which he otherwise happily wallows. One is well-advised to keep a good dictionary on hand when reading him as his vocabulary, drawing on many Scottish idioms now largely lost, is as rich as it is apt.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

London Calling (1980)

Wow, when is the last time I put this on? I'm jumping around the room here. As product of three decades and more past, this clearly falls into a category of album I have discussed previously—those known better for being known than recalled for their features and charms. In this case, I'm a little surprised to count myself among those who either forgot how good this is or insufficiently appreciated it at the time. I mean, I remember sitting in a living room with my brother, with whom I shared a railcar apartment at the time, playing this loud every day for weeks. But I don't remember loving it in the way I have these past few weeks. WTF?! I still think that, pound for pound, ounce for ounce, Sandinista is probably the better album, but now we're starting to get into the questionable area of comparing and analyzing various ecstasies, and ecstasies, as we're all supposed to know by this point, are not there to be considered soberly—they are there to be enjoyed heedlessly. It doesn't hurt any that this kicks off in the title song with one of the most stirring and blatant generational calls to arms you may be privileged to encounter, anywhere, any time, nor even, indeed, that the album cover art itself self-consciously mimics a similarly positioned Elvis Presley album. They are out to change the world here, it's as plain and simple as that. And if they failed—only two years later they were getting routinely slapped around as sellouts, two more years out they appeared to be acting the part, and two years beyond that they were all but gone entirely, with nary a ripple on the surface of the water marking their departure, let alone their one-time presence—they did so as honorably as it's possible to do, leaving behind an indelible mark of which we have not yet seen even the edges. Compare this with the previous album, Give 'em Enough Rope, and the subsequent one, Sandinista, and all that followed, and it seems likely that we have another case of artists gone to the crossroads. Song by song, this is not that different from what's on Rope—yet there's something about it that's leagues and miles beyond. Partly it's the willingness to switch up on the musical styles—"Lost in the Supermarket" is sweet and wistful (and deceptively acerbic) in a way nothing of theirs had been before, "The Guns of Brixton" as dramatic and menacing and atmospheric. "Spanish Bombs" as swinging. And "The Right Profile" celebrates ... Montgomery Clift? Stagger Lee's in the mix too. And so it goes, up and down and across the four vinyl sides and full hour of this magnificent release. It's so good that it almost makes me sad that so little can or ever will compare to it, and that it's already happened and we won't see its like again. But I bravely wipe away my tears, and play again. LOUD.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Rules of the Game (1939)

La règle du jeu, France, 106 minutes
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir, Carl Koch
Photography: Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bachelet, Jacques Lemare, Alain Renoir
Editors: Marthe Huguet, Marguerite Renoir
Cast: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Jean Renoir, Mila Parély, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Roland Toutain, Odette Talazac, Claire Gérard

It may be hard to imagine now what made The Rules of the Game so controversial in its time and place—Paris, 1939—but then it may not be so easy either to grasp the circumstances of that time and place: a European economy long mired in the doldrums of a global depression and pestilent politics, with the shadows of Hitler's Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Russia creeping ever steadily across the landscape.

There's little question that it was controversial. Director Jean Renoir in an introduction to the film that appears on the Criterion edition and was shot more than 20 years after the initial release of this film, expresses his conviction that it's about a society "rotten to the core." He also notes that the aristocracy took evident exception to the events depicted, destroying seats at the premiere. One man evidently attempted to set the theater on fire. The ruling regime subsequently banned it. Ah, France. Renoir wryly notes that of all his films this was "clearly the biggest failure."

Thursday, January 06, 2011

"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (1965)

6. Rolling Stones, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (June 19, 1965, #1, 4 wks.)

This is virtually a no-brainer for a list like this, an easy and obvious pick. Not only does it have the merits of being a great rock song, propelled by Charlie Watts's claptrap drumming, that hits hard and brings a nasty subversive mocking punch, but it was also all over the place in the summer of 1965 when I first tuned in to AM radio in a big way as a 10-year-old. True enough, the thing was over my head, and honestly kind of gave me the willies. All that mumbling and speech slurring by Mick Jagger, the caustic sarcastic twist he works into the first lines and throughout just by dropping his voice slightly—why can't he enunciate, I thought, and be straightforward about the whole thing? And then there was the big fuzz tone of Keith Richards's commanding guitar hook, which confused me. I thought it was a saxophone for the longest time. So if I grew into the song slowly over the years, as my understanding and grasp of it deepened and ripened, it nevertheless had me in its visceral claws from the first seconds I heard it. It made my skin crawl, disturbed and quietly upset me, with the same effect that horror movies would have once Romero set the terms in the late '60s, as something that caused me a desperate uneasiness but from which I could not ever turn away. This is something that happened every day for most of that summer. And even if, in many ways, it sounds a bit childish to me now as so many of the favorite songs of my childhood do, it still retains a sultry, overweening dignity, it still rocks sweet and hard, and it can still get right under my skin.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

"I'll Be Around" (1972)

7. Spinners, "I'll Be Around" (Oct. 7, 1972, #3)

There is something about this song almost perfectly comforting for me; a deeply personal favorite that has lurked in the background of my life for many decades now, continually burrowing in further and further and more times than I can say presenting itself entirely anew all over again. It's as good an example as you can find of the exquisite black pop music of its time, anticipating and already bleeding into the big disco moment on the horizon, and there's no end of comparative hallmarks nearly as good, before and after, by the likes of Al Wilson, Billy Paul, Al Green, the O'Jays, the Stylistics, Major Lance, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the Chi-Lites, Skylark, Blue Magic, Roberta Flack, so on and so forth forever and seemingly ever. Originally released as a B-side to "How Could I Let You Get Away" (worthy in its own right, but with significant debts to the Stylistics and Chi-Lites), disc jockeys sussed it out and flipped that over to give this the airplay (back in a time when they could still do such things). It stands as absolutely one of the best, with all its various right elements positioned and deployed deftly: the heady air of romantic wistfulness, horns with a touch of Memphis, strings so sweet you get a cavity, evocative electric guitar touches, and words that tell a tender and painful story of enduring, unrequited love. Maybe that's what takes me apart: "There's always a chance, a tiny spark will remain / And sparks turn into flames / And love can burn once again." It puts me in mind of both divorce and falling in love all at once. And just at its most critical point, the cascading strings and responding horns come along and have a conversation about it, methodically sawing your heart into halves, quarters, pieces, shards. This guy is never going to give it up, is he? No, he's not.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

"All Along the Watchtower" (1968)

8. Jimi Hendrix Experience, "All Along the Watchtower" (Sept. 28, 1968, #20)

One of the most audacious covers ever and a surprise hit that I think everyone can probably get behind in one way or another. (The only comparable moments might be the Pet Shop Boys covering U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," but in that case it was the original that scored the hit, or maybe Matt "Cloverfield" Reeves covering Let the Right One In, but that's the movies, so no, neither one is even close.) Bob Dylan, still retrenching from his mid-'60s years on the road buffeted between the forces of loud electric rock and those of his would-be acoustic masters, released one of his quietest albums in years early in 1968, John Wesley Harding. It was uneven, though it carried some of his best material, and it featured a subdued little song with some inspired strumming called "All Along the Watchtower," which barely clocks in at two and a half minutes. Along came Jimi Hendrix, who plucked it as the standard-bearer (in terms of chart action anyway) for his magnum opus, Electric Ladyland. As a young 'un at the time I didn't even know Bob Dylan had anything to do with it. All I knew was the knack Hendrix immediately evinced for making a song soar, with his guitar playing, his singing, and his uncanny sense for dynamics and the textures of sound—most of which he figured out how to produce on an electric guitar. This drops into place with a mighty kick and walloping chords, reaching altitude fast and floating there, Dylan's melody alternating with spooky, thrilling noises and lyrical, thrilling guitar play. That I came to know it on an AM radio still seems beyond comprehension to me. Anyone who dared to wonder what's with that Hendrix guy, I could always point to this.

Monday, January 03, 2011

"I Got You (I Feel Good)" (1965)

9. James Brown, "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (Nov. 20, 1965, #3)

There's a one-page six-panel comic strip interpretation by Mary Fleener of this song that I wish I could reproduce here or even point to directly, but alas, it appears to be MIA on the Internets for the moment. At least a smaller version of the one I found in a newspaper and clipped and had on my wall for years can be found in the booklet accompanying the Star Time box set, which you want to get anyway if you have any interest at all in James Brown and don't already own. The strip (and the whole box set, for that matter) is about as perfect as the song itself. Done up in Fleener's trademark style, which draws self-consciously from a mix of cubism, art deco, and a '60s underground comix  sensibility—Fleener herself labels it cubismo—it's all stark blacks and whites with sharp edges and triangles and energetic bursting perspectives, a match for Brown's music. Half the fun is the lyrical spellings themselves: "Wwaaaow!" she interprets the opening scream, one for the ages, which is more and less tarted up with gaudy reverb across different versions. "So GOOD ... so GOOD," in the second panel the presumptive singer is flat on the floor, clutching a pair of fishnet-stocking'd legs by the calves, "I GOT YOU!" The sax break in the fourth panel: "Bomp BOMP bap bap BOMP." Then the band in medium-long shot, on stage and necessarily in thrall to itself, surrounded by little words: "When ah HOLD you in mah aaaAHHHhrrms ... " And last panel, James Brown's face, sweating and insane, bracketed on either side by "SO NICE," underneath it one last scream, "I GOT YOU! Wwwaaow!" But reading about what somebody drew about what they heard when they heard this song is a pale imitation of the real thing. You can't even begin to imagine.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Fatal Vision (1983)

I first encountered this in the '80s, when it was wildly popular after a television production based on it aired and it quickly came to be regarded as something of a true-crime classic, compared favorably to such standards as In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song. If Amazon customer reviews are any gauge, it's still considered credible and significant, though it's hardly up to the levels of Truman Capote's or Norman Mailer's work. In fact, there are persuasive circumstances casting doubt on the overall integrity of McGinniss now, which we will get to, but even plowing through this again recently I still found it hugely convincing and frequently had to stop and examine more closely, in the context of what's been learned since its publication, exactly what Joe McGinniss appears to be up to in this book. It certainly meets the essential criteria for a solid true-crime book in that the case at its heart is fascinating, heart-wrenching, and lurid. Green Beret medical officer, serial philanderer, and chronic self-aggrandizing exaggerator Jeffrey MacDonald claims that, in the early morning hours of a Monday in February 1970, a group of intruders broke into his home, chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs" as they systematically and brutally slaughtered his pregnant wife and their two daughters, ages 5 and 2, while leaving him with relatively minor injuries. An Army investigation cleared MacDonald of any involvement in the crime, but many years later, in 1979, he was brought to trial and convicted for the murders; he remains in prison still. McGinniss was actually brought in to the case by MacDonald and his defense team in the hope that they could use his account of the crime and trial as ammunition in the public relations battle of the court of public opinion—McGinniss was even formally deputed as a member of the legal team in order to shield anything MacDonald might tell him under client-attorney privilege. At some point during the trial, however, McGinniss decided that MacDonald was actually guilty of the crimes (beyond a reasonable doubt, as he angrily attests still when pressed to it for public statements), although he was fatally slow to let MacDonald know anything of his change of heart, presumably in order to protect his book contract and continue to enjoy the access to MacDonald and his papers that no other journalist could have hoped for at the time (and obviously there were a number of them angling to get in on this story). As I said, the sleight of hand that McGinniss performs in this hefty slab of reportage, nearly 700 pages, is impressive, often using MacDonald's own words against him. Its most notable stunt is probably conjuring almost entirely out of whole cloth a motivation of amphetamine psychosis spurred by MacDonald reading an "Esquire" article about Charles Manson and a Mickey Spillane novel. For those with deeper sources on the evidence or a more nuanced approach—Jerry Allen Potter's and Fred Bost's Fatal Justice provides the former, Janet Malcolm's pithy The Journalist and the Murderer provides the latter—it also becomes apparent just how much McGinniss chose to shade and leave out of his account. With deft and subtle choices, McGinniss created an extremely convincing case for Jeffrey MacDonald as a kind of unprecedented, one-of-a-kind monster—a real thriller-chiller and a dilly of a story for anyone (such as myself) with a fascination for the perversions and depredations of true crime.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year memo

Happy new year, everyone. Hope your holiday season was a good one and for all the best in the coming year. Around here it's been a pretty good year.

Anyone following along is aware that my countdown of 100 Hit Songs is approaching its endgame. It's been a fun project, so much so that I'm now planning a sort of companion piece—100 Other Songs, drawn from the much larger pool of songs that did not make the U.S. Billboard Top 40, 1955-present. That will start in a few months, probably late April, as I gather up the titles and spend time massaging a list into shape. You can't know the pleasures of useless list-making unless you have indulged it yourself, and of course I highly recommend that you do so beginning immediately.

Another project for this upcoming year, actually already begun: Friday considerations of critical-consensus movies drawn from the massive major list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—now with paragraphing, even! According to the website, that list is actually due for another updating shortly, but I don't anticipate major changes at the top and will continue with the first couple dozen or so, before going off on random choices again for awhile (as always, stamina allowing). But I think I will probably be returning to that list—at the very least it's a terrific programming guide, generally a good exercise, and a project that promises to go on forever (just under 20 years, by my calculations).

As always, on this blog comments are welcome and invited. Please don't be shy.

Last, here's a few little movies lists drawn up from the past year. Seeing movies is what seems to most reliably preoccupy me nowadays, for better or worse. I couldn't begin to address books of any type or TV shows (certainly beyond the ID channel) or even pop music of the year. And note that there are gaps aplenty anyway in the 2010 movies list as it is (iceberg tip of still not seen, for example: Inside Job, Carlos, Dogtooth, Splice, How to Train Your Dragon, Enter the Void, The Runaways, Greenberg, Mother, Tiny Furniture). Educate me further in the comments if you like.

Favorite movies of 2010: The Ghost Writer, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Social Network, Let Me In, Cyrus, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Despicable Me
Favorite movies first seen in 2010: Au hasard Balthazar; Tokyo Story; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; I'm Not There; The White Ribbon; Avatar; talhotblond; Death Proof; To Be or Not to Be; A Serious Man
Favorite movies seen again in 2010: Mulholland Dr., Jackie Brown, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fanny and Alexander, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Rachel Getting Married, Modern Times, M*A*S*H, Streetwise, Friends with Money