Tuesday, May 31, 2011

80. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "From Head to Toe" (1982)


At one point in my life I decided I wanted to be a collector, and then I decided that I wanted to collect Elvis Costello product. As you can imagine it was almost immediately an overwhelming chore. Few artists are at once so prolific and so willing to release countless alternative versions and packages from market to market and year to year. I gave it up pretty quickly. But it's how I came to know this gem, a cover of a Smokey Robinson Going to a Go-Go song stripped down to an impossibly bouncy essence that bursts with up-tempo charm and never overstays its welcome. I wore out the single, which significantly compromised the value of my investment. That must have been when I figured out I'm not cut out to be a collector, as much as I love to prowl for treasure. I see here that the tune essentially existed only as the single until it was anthologized on a couple of compilations (The History of Rock, Vol. 39 in 1986 and a Costello collection, Out of Our Idiot, in 1987), before finally finding a home on Rykodisc and Rhino reissues of Imperial Bedroom. It doesn't particularly belong there, even if the time frame is right. I would be more inclined to slot it with Get Happy!!, but I'm not really sure it belongs anywhere. It's in love with itself for being in love with itself and somehow makes that as good a reason as any to stick around for the two and a half minutes. As with so many Costello numbers with his house band, Steve Nieve's piano is a feature attraction, sparkling all through. But it's probably the infectious enthusiasm of Costello himself attacking the vocals that's as responsible as anything for putting it over. The guy just loves music and it's evident in every little thing he does.

Monday, May 30, 2011

81. Ultravox!, "The Man Who Dies Every Day" (1977)


This turned up on a mix tape of punk-rock that a friend made for me in the fall of 1977 after I expressed some interest following the "Time" magazine write-up of the Sex Pistols tour, then just starting. I think the song might even have opened a tape side, and I know it was accompanied by at least one other Ultravox! song, "ROckWrok," the band's official first single. Certainly it made an impression and opened my eyes ... to something. It's hard to think of it as punk-rock now, even if it comes from the right place and time (London, 1977). With its dramatic dynamics, rubber-ball tempo, harmonies at the top of the lungs, and strange wailing noises it's more something poised between glam and New Wave. I can't imagine, for example, how it could possibly be performed by players not wearing makeup. I can see better now how cartoonish it is, steeped in B-movie pseudo-noir spy subterfuge affect and gesture, but no, still don't consider that too much of a problem, let alone deal-breaker. If the whole production is practically stalking around in a trench coat and fedora, to me that just means it's in character: "Someone stood beside me for a moment in the rain / A silhouette, a cigarette, and a gesture of disdain," it starts, and it pretty much goes on in that vein. It's easy to imagine it as background music for a nightclub scene in a movie like Blade Runner, say, which I think must have been the kind of futuristic sense I picked out of it right away. It was a pain in the ass to rewind the tape and play again and again but there was a period when I did just that, and that tape was no slouch in terms of what it included (at least one more selection from it still to come, in fact).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Woman Destroyed (1967)

I've never been remotely up for Simone de Beauvoir's magnum opus, The Second Sex, a mid-20th-century touchstone of French feminist literature that runs to some 800 pages. But following up on a leftfield recommendation of this suite of three stories, I was happy to find myself encountering a favorite approach to fiction, introspective meditations that often work like Chekhov in examining concrete surface details closely until an interior world is sufficiently disclosed. All three stories are told in the first person, one of them essentially a series of diary entries, and all find the woman telling it reaching an emotionally decisive point in her life. The women are past middle age, and thus virtually invisible by most lights, a complicating factor in their situations and arguably the most significant point that any of these stories or all three together may have to make. In the first, "The Age of Discretion," the narrator is an otherwise accomplished and contented woman in a happy marriage who is attempting to deal with the fact that her grown son has a life of his own and does not necessarily share all her values. Some of his choices, as exemplified most acutely by his wife, are not the ones she would make. In "The Monologue" a woman of means who takes her privilege for granted finds herself alone on a New Year's Eve and erupts in a protracted howl of resentment. The language spills out of her in long paragraphs; as riveting as it is, she will never know any comfort that we could give her. In the last, the title story, the narrator gradually comes to realize that her husband is having an affair and attempts to come to terms with what it means in terms of his devastating indifference to her. It's as likely as not that these stories were written and published separately from one another—I can't find anything about that. But they seem to me to work so well together that I can't be sure they weren't intended to be taken that way. "The woman destroyed" covers them all thematically, even as it approaches the theme from different angles: aging and empty-nest repercussions, loneliness and its resentments, the familiarity verging on void of the long-term relationship as it goes through a "bad patch." De Beauvoir's language (in translation by Patrick O'Brian) is straightforward, luminous, and unique to each circumstance, capable of bending artfully to the voices of its protagonists. This is a very nice one.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Parallel Lines (1978)

With the black and white stripes setting a motif on the album cover art, and the skinny ties and sneakers on all the players except glamour girl Deborah Harry, and its equal bows to punk-rock (more embodied in the history of the band), farfisa-driven garage-rock ("11:59"), and disco ("Heart of Glass")—not to mention the lively pop of all its songs from track to track—Parallel Lines in many ways is the quintessential New Wave album. (And when, I wonder, did I begin to capitalize the term? I used to abhor it when "Rolling Stone" magazine did so back in the '70s and '80s.) It still sounds surprisingly good to this day, although it's arguable that's because I waited so many years for this day to roll around again. I virtually wore it out in its time, hearing it first (of course) in a record store where it sounded like the best goddam thing I had ever heard in my life. For whatever reasons I tended to favor the first side over the second—listening to the whole thing again it seems to me now pretty much seamless from start to finish. Once again the mysteries of the New York punk-rock bands of the mid- and late '70s must be registered: nothing here is anything like '78 releases by the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, or Television, which in turn are nothing like one another. Blondie was typically derided as the sellout of the bunch, and it's not hard to see why—the glamour chick, the verse-chorus-verse approach (though no one matched the Ramones in that department, and Talking Heads were no slouches there either). Plus they actually had hits, so in that regard mission accomplished. Me, I have no particular problem with melodic songwriting that concerns itself with relationship foibles, so the sellout aspect was never going to be a deal-breaker for me. But it's interesting how tastes shift about. In that long-ago record-store day it was "Fade Away and Radiate" that sealed it for me; now that seems like positively the least interesting thing here. "Pretty Baby," the song that was playing as I made my purchase, now seems more likely to be the best thing here, certainly on the first side. The second side, maybe because I listened to it less back then, overflows with little pleasures: the "Batman" dynamics of "Will Anything Happen?," the lovely lilt and spidery constructions of "Sunday Girl," and of course the formidable "Heart of Glass," their greatest hit. It's all here, just waiting for the memories to be made and remade, lived and relived.

Friday, May 27, 2011

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Italy/France, 174 minutes
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Photography: Otello Martelli
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Leo Cattozzo
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noel, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, Walter Santesso, Alain Dijon, Nico

I'm starting to feel like this whole thing with Fellini is just not going to work out for me. I do appreciate a handful of his pictures from the '50s, but David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film is there to tell me I'm wrong, warning that those movies need "to be put firmly in [their] place" as "slick, mechanical stories, feeding on superficial feelings and uncritical of sentimentality or grand effects." (They include I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone, and Le notti di Cabiria, the latter of which is one of my all-time favorites, although I believe I am coming to understand better all the time that that is probably more a matter of its lead player Giulietta Masina than her husband Fellini.)

On the other hand, La Dolce Vita and both occupy the top 25 of the critical consensus list of the best films of all time at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (currently #25 and #6 respectively). For me, they are both overlong exercises in overweening indulgence that only occasionally redeem themselves with arresting sequences (the majority of which involve music) and momentary diversions of intriguing images. I'll go with the critics to the extent that is the better of the two—in fairness, Thomson is nearly as dubious about La Dolce Vita as he is of the '50s films—but I think I may be about done with the enterprise now.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

82. Nirvana, "Heart-Shaped Box" (1993)


For the brief sliver of time in which Nirvana ruled—it wasn't long, they were effectively supplanted by Pearl Jam even with this, in commercial terms anyway—I had a fan's adoration of them nearly every step of the way. I hung on every piece of news. I was intrigued, for example, that the new album was to be produced by Steve Albini. I was insulted by Axl Rose's behavior, and I worried that the press was treating them fairly. I thought they deserved their privacy. In retrospect it's silly, as these things usually are, made tragically so when Kurt Cobain demonstrated the dimensions of what was at stake. But I remember the excitement when the local commercial alternative radio station announced they had this first single from the new album and the time they would be first playing it. Phone calls from friends came to let me know, and I was tuned in to hear at the appointed hour. There are always artists and albums and first singles that are going to produce the effect, but not every one works for everyone. Somehow this became one of mine. "Heart-Shaped Box" isn't the most representative song on In Utero—that would be either "All Apologies" or maybe "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"—but it's a good way in, a mid-tempo word salad with the usual thrilling dynamics and memorable, provocative, even signature turns of phrase floating out of the chaos, viz., "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black" and "Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back." We know now there wasn't much time left when this came out, but the possibilities seemed to stretch well beyond all visible horizons. This was a kind of rest stop in the desert, where unknowing a nice picnic was enjoyed shortly before the accident that changed everything.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

83. Everything but the Girl, "Wrong" (1996)


Everything but the Girl is a long-time collaboration between singer Tracey Thorn and keyboard/guitar player Ben Watt, a British act much in the vein of other couple acts from the '80s such as Yaz or Eurythmics. In many ways they got lost in the welter of '80s synthesizers and bombast, but lived on to play another day in the '90s when they found themselves more or less naturally, if surprisingly, aligned with trip-hop flavorings of electronica. As with the Pet Shop Boys or Madonna, much of their best later work exists in the form of multiple mixes, much of which is worth chasing down because it nearly always has the sturdy foundation of solid songwriting with a memorable vocal performance gliding across the top. Thorn has a big voice, with sources located equidistant between soul and lounge, a place she occupies with poise and comfort. The 1985 album Love Not Money was my introduction and I'm not sure still that it isn't their best; it's certainly fine. By the time this came my way, once again via CMJ, they had turned more toward the electronics. But Thorn's voice is what it is, an old-school instrument, and so everything she records comes with a certain amount of warmth and stirring depth. This is my favorite example of how they work those tensions to their advantage. I've already made the joke about becoming the singer once you're learned to sing the song (twice, in fact: with Buddy Holly and then with Prince), so I'm afraid of being arrested by the trope police if I try that again. But I will point out that Thorn's phrasing here, her timing in and around the soft-pedaled furry and metallic beats, is deceptively tricky business, harder than it seems, and I was pretty happy with myself once I got it down and could sing along note for note, notably when I figured out how to get the "'cos I was wrong" right.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

84. Robert Cray, "Right Next Door (Because of Me)" (1986)


This comes from Robert Cray's best-selling, best-known, and probably best album, Strong Persuader. The whole album is good as are several others by Cray well worth tracking down (I like Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and Midnight Stroll quite a bit). I think of this as the album's title song because it contains the deceptively casual throwaway phrase "strong persuader," even though the only top 40 hit from it, and the only one he ever had, is the album opener "Smoking Gun." What I like about "Right Next Door" is the tricky, almost cinematic approach Cray takes to telling a story. Here the story is a version of the familiar blues braggadocio of sexual prowess, but the twist is that the lover man is "listening thru these thin walls" in the apartment next door to a fight that has erupted between the woman he has seduced and "the man that really loves her." "It's because of me," he sings in the chorus, and somehow he is at once both sad and smug about it. As events in the song unfold he is exposed for the charlatan he is. The guitar play is admittedly not up to what Cray is capable of—for that, start with "Smoking Gun," and there's more where that came from all over this album and his entire catalog—but "Right Next Door" may be the one best example of the kind of songs that populate Cray's catalog, thoughtful, intelligent exercises that handily assume a wide variety of characters, situations, and points of view, exploring them with a good deal of surprising and bracing nuance. They are equally rooted in Cray's chosen form, the blues, even as the sophistication of them takes what many consider to be a virtually exhausted musical genre to all kinds of new places.

Monday, May 23, 2011

85. Graham Parker & the Rumour, "You Can't Be Too Strong" (1979)


There's a word for how this sturdy little leftover from yet another all-but-forgotten rock 'n' roll's last hope ended up on this list, and that word is "shuffle." It's badly dated in at least two ways, first that it even attempts the topic of abortion at all—does anyone, anywhere, write anything like it nowadays? It's just too loaded, politically if nothing else; if someone has (and someone must have), it's probably been even more marginalized than Graham Parker was in his time, and he was never marginalized for this. The second point where it's dated is in the vaguely sexist direction of the story it tells, taking a calculated position at some distance from the (objectified, if uneasily respectful) center of its attention, and too quickly diving for cover in a kind of good old boys denial of the powerful emotional gravity of the situation ("Well I ain't gonna cry, I'm gonna rejoice / And shout myself dry and go see the boys / They'll laugh when I say I left it overseas"). It's not so much that the singer doesn't understand what's at stake, the stark and poignant tone of the song makes that clear enough, but that that kind of position is still even available to be taken. I'm not sure it's the case any longer that anyone could so openly and cavalierly celebrate dodging the bullet of parental responsibility, which means perhaps some progress has been made here, perhaps without our even noticing. Anyway, the reason I like it now is more because of the associations with the times. Hard to believe now, in retrospect, but there was a brief period when Parker and the album this comes from, Squeezing out Sparks, seemed to point the way to our future. That's all so buried now that only shuffle could bring it back.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

All the King's Men (1946)

Robert Penn Warren was a poet and academic at least as much as he was a novelist, which no doubt accounts for the lovely language and meticulous structuring of what is probably his single best known work. It's arguable that the denseness of it verges on a kind of suffocating quality, in much the same way as, say, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man—worthy works both, very much so, but they can feel as if they have been pruned and worked within an inch of their lives, a good deal of natural energy extruded. All the King's Men is often tagged as the greatest American novel about politics, and since I can't think of a better one I'm happy to go along with that. Based rather self-consciously on the figure of Huey Long, the wildly popular and fanatical governor of Louisiana who went on to become a Depression-era U.S. senator before being assassinated, it tells a number of stories simultaneously: Willie Stark's most obviously, the Long character, but also that of the narrator Jack Burden and his involvement with the Stanton family, whose patriarch preceded Stark in the Louisiana governorship. It's a pretty big novel, running to more than 600 pages in my trade paperback edition, and it addresses with a good deal of veracity the tiny details of confused personal lives as much it does the broad strokes of a public life verging on fascism via the circuitous and flawed routes of populism. Warren's singular achievement is making it clear how well-intentioned and intelligent Stark (and perhaps Long) was from the first, corrupted eventually starting only from the necessities presented by American elections—and probably more accurate to say by the human nature represented by them, on both sides, voters and candidates equally. There's plenty of gray to go around here. Huey Long, for as much as he was a shrewd and calculating propagandist, also managed to implement one of the most effective and far-reaching progressive agendas in the country, making his career attacking the corporate excesses in Louisiana of Standard Oil and going on in his governorship to create far-reaching public works programs. Long's education programs, as just one example, brought literacy to tens of thousands of Louisianans. Warren paints Willie Stark as a man who starts out as an earnest rail-splitter type and learns to grasp the levers of power; that power brings him to ruin. It may or may not be true to Long—I don't know that much about him—but pieces of the basic lessons apply today as much as ever. I can see pieces and elements of Nixon, Carter, the first George Bush, Mitt Romney, and many more in Willie Stark. If there's one novel you're going to read about American politics, I'm with the majority that this is the one to choose.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Kissing to Be Clever (1982)

Boy George turns 50 next month, a statement of fact I am not entirely prepared to get my head around. To me, the "boy" part of George O'Dowd's self-selected appellation is still and will likely always be the most relevant descriptor. The arc of his career and his life starts here, when he was barely 21. Culture Club stepped in, with Spandau Ballet, Visage, and Duran Duran, as one of the main players in the so-called New Romantic flavor of British New Wave in the early '80s. Perhaps more than any of them, Boy George and Culture Club drew convincingly on reggae and soul sources, with everything polished up to a high sheen of production, even as provocative titles such as "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," "White Boys Can't Control It," and "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" promise a sultry cornucopia of vaguely sadomasochistic sexual pleasures aplenty. Boy George has got a pretty good voice, and he figured out how to mimic enough of Smokey Robinson's sweet croon to transcend all the things that potentially seemed likely to be shallow and trendy about him and his projects, starting with the willful outré manner and, especially, the coy transvestism. Right out of the gate Culture Club started scoring hits and for my money the first of them, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," remains the best, a bruised and whimpering declaration of love in the face of unnamed threat and/or potential rejection that positively soars on the chorus. In many ways Boy George has gone on to live out the lifestyle he romanticized, even as he has found ingenious ways to make it work for his advantage—who else, for example, could possibly have been tapped for the theme to the movie The Crying Game? It proved to be his biggest hit since the salad days of Culture Club, and there he was again, charming as ever, on the TV talk show circuit. More often, however, he appears to have lived out the dark side, with frequently lurid episodes encompassing heroin addiction, secret love affairs with straight men, and imprisonment on charges related to drug use, theft, and even kidnapping. Nevertheless, in interviews he remains as charming and self-effacing a celebrity as one could hope for. A man of mystery, in other words—and with the potential still, I suspect, to surprise us all at least one more time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Some Like it Hot (1959)

USA, 120 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Robert Thoeren, Michael Logan
Photography: Charles Lang
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Editor: Arthur P. Schmidt
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, Pat O'Brien, Joe E. Brown

I fully intended coming into this complaining—and I will say, and stick to it, that I think it's one of the stranger artifacts of the critical consensus that this gets pushed to the head of the Billy Wilder line when Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, and The Apartment—at the very least—deserve places well ahead of it. I was going to complain, but then a funny thing happened. I watched it again.

Maybe Some Like it Hot is one of those films that depend on being in the right mood for it, which I know is a certain kind of indictment and at best damning with faint praise. I have seen this and liked it—those occasions are almost always unplanned, stumbling onto it on a TV broadcast. And I have more often seen it and been underwhelmed. In many ways it fits the sensibilities of TV better, as a kind of situation comedy of errors full of characters bent on deceiving and manipulating one another, often for no particular good reason above and beyond "I wanna." But it's Billy Wilder so there are many more levels to it than mere situation comedy.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

86. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, "The Message" (1982)


I have to be honest that I was among those who heard this in its time as compelling, startling, even galvanizing—but ultimately as a novelty. There didn't seem to be very many more places for this rap music to go after this. Of course, it may be the single most obvious place where I have been wrong, from a lifetime of being wrong. (In fairness, I'm sure you have been or will be as wrong about judgments of your own.) It's now easier to hear it as a Sugarhill project, with its whomping beats and mannered keyboard figures, and the way rapper MC Melle Mel steps into it and uncorks the words. In its time, however, it was something of a departure from the more typical good-times Sugarhill fare that just celebrated having fun, with the rapping pushed more than usual well front and center. In fact, no one in the Furious Five besides Melle Mel—including Grandmaster Flash himself—wanted much to do with it, at least until it turned into the giant cultural phenomenon of the year that it became. The tale is a basic wail about ghetto life, a case rarely hard to make, with long lists of concrete details and specific grievances: "Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care," and like that. It's pretty potent stuff, if not startlingly new, but what impressed me most then, and impresses me most still, is that nervous laugh Melle Mel works into the chorus, which really tells the whole story of the stress and the despair with which the rapper is living. "Don't push me 'cos I'm close to the edge," he goes. "I'm trying not to lose my head." And then: "Ah huh-huh-huh. Ah huh-huh-huh." It was chilling then, and it's chilling still.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

87. Boss Hog, "Ski Bunny" (1995)


This is my favorite song of all the Jon Spencer projects that I know, from the second, self-titled Boss Hog album. In typical Spencer fashion it lopes along at top speed, sounding at times like the players can barely keep up with one another, as if they are animals apart, caged. The song is full of good jokes even for as short as it is and apparently in some way about suicide. I particularly like the way they switch up expectations on the swearing, turning on a single word to convert it from a predictable moment of punk ragegasm into a hilarious junior high school plaint—and then going back on that. The album is one of those in which the songs are all short and bear strong resemblances to one another, where the whole of it works like an extended suite, imbued with the same themes and priorities yet shifting tonalities in various ways for effect. The formula may have been first perfected by the Ramones, but the Pixies did it pretty well too and even Elvis Costello got in on the act (with another mood entirely) on Get Happy!! I saw a Boss Hog show from the tour in support of this, and it was a night of memorable epic pandemonium: Thanksgiving, a strange night to be out, and as I discovered one of those with a good 30% or more amateur attendance, meaning people were more drunk than normal, more out of control generally, and there were fights. The bouncers were in bad moods, put it that way. I had to cower in safer recesses further away from the stage than I normally like, but even so the infectious pulse reached me all the way back there. I stayed for the whole thing, conditions notwithstanding.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

88. Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, "Forest Fire" (1985)


I just realized that on the last list I often found myself talking about the experience of hearing songs in the car, singing and carrying on and so forth as I drive somewhere. For this list, the scene is much more often my various living rooms, slashing away at air guitars, emoting into air mics from one knee, and/or otherwise dancing around like a fool. This is a prime example. Lloyd Cole, all bruised good looks and smoldering gesture on the slow build, may be altogether too self-consciously arty/literary for his or our own good ("it's just a simple metaphor, it's for a burning love" ... Lloyd, I think we had that much figured out before you even got to the line). But when the band brings it all up after a couple of verses, and the giant tidal waves of guitar washes set in, crunching slo-mo on chords as big as the moon, well. There I am again, miming histrionics and making foolish faces. Speaking from personal experience (and keeping in mind Lloyd's tip about the metaphor), this is a very nice song to play repeatedly at approximately those moments when you come to find yourself once again plunged into a crush on someone new, aka "falling in love." It's saccharine-sweet just like those feelings, perhaps even insufferably so under other circumstances. But it comes powerfully alive in the right moment, when lines like these start to work: "I believe in love, I'll believe in anything / That's gonna get me what I want, get me off my knees" or, my favorite, "If we get caught in this wind then we could burn the ocean." Actually my favorite is when the band cranks up, but I think you get the idea.

Monday, May 16, 2011

89. Bran Van 3000, "Drinking in L.A." (1998)


I picked this off a CMJ anthology CD, or rather it leaped out at me, back when that indie industry magazine was retooled for consumer consumption and kept us 20 or so songs behind on a monthly basis. I don't like much else by the act, and there are things to nitpick about here—the awkward use of the word "bubkes" usually makes me wince, and the casual references to a post-Tarantino Los Angeles culture of screenplay production are painfully over-baked. But there are many more things to like, and the surprising overall effect is to transport me to a sad place I barely understand. I was well past 26 by the time this came around, I have never lived in Los Angeles, and I think a fair question is what the hell else would you be doing in L.A. at 26 but drinking? Nevertheless since I first heard it I have found myself fascinated with all the little intricacies of the thing, even as the inexplicable waves of sadness crash down: the smug morning radio disc jockeys hyping "the Bran Van concert," the Snoop Dogg fillip, the dense wallop of the production, the soaring vocals on the chorus. The sadness keys in for me early, when one of the jocks says, "Give us a ring-ding-ding. It's a beautiful day," and something about that puts me instantly in mind of grinding commutes to soulless jobs, something to which way too much of our lives is dedicated and for which I suppose Los Angeles is uniquely appropriate. Followed immediately by gorgeous, soul-saving (if arguably shallow) music, ever the flipside of the grinding commute. Even if tomorrow you're just going to have to do it all over again, at least there's a song to help.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Saint Maybe (1991)

After the miscue of Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler came roaring back with her best novel since Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. It's not hard to see how some might take her as a bit formulaic—it's always Baltimore, it's always a fractured family, and it's always a heartbreak. But that's pretty much feature not bug; it's what keeps me coming back. She's so frequently capable of creating characters and situations that feel as real as barked shins. There's an easygoingness to the way people connect and cobble together lives in her stories, and yet at the same time she never hangs back from the deepest sources of their pain and the ways they play out. Our hero this time is Ian Bedloe, when we first meet him a typical self-centered 17-year-old with a girlfriend and adoring family. All families are flawed but the Bedloes seem to have a pretty good knack for keeping things on the sunny side. At least, that is, until Ian's older brother Danny, a star athlete in his high school days but lately more of a lost soul, makes what appears to be a bad marriage choice. Lucy is a few years older than Danny, with pretensions of sophistication and a couple of kids already from a mysterious first marriage, but Danny couldn't be happier, especially when she turns up pregnant shortly after they marry. Ian and the others have their suspicions about her, however. When he tries to confront Danny about them, in a typically oafish adolescent way, Danny takes it wrong. A cyclone of downward spiral descends, and tragedy swiftly takes place. Ian is overwhelmed by guilt and responsibility, even as he steps up to it. Eventually he finds his way to a holy-roller storefront Christian sect that seems to help him but also leaves him isolated from everyone around him. Tyler does not shrink from taking on the complexities of the emotional sustenance that a religious community provides, even one that appears alienating to anyone looking in from the outside. The children are heartbreaking and lovely, clinging desperately to Ian; they are unique and charming, with sour streaks and flaws. The connections between all of them, Ian's parents too, and the usual constellation of supporting actors, are distorted as they must be by the privations and the fierce love but they are profound. Nothing here ever feels phony, even when the boat turns toward home with a happy ending. By that point I am as helplessly, exasperatedly in love with Ian as anyone here, and I'm pretty sure that the least that can happen by that point is that things turn out well.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pure Mania (1977)

This is another album I found out about from a Robert Christgau capsule so I give him the first word. I especially like his "raving without letup" because that's exactly the way I experienced it and still do, as the mood suits (admittedly less so over the decades). I have never found anything else by the Vibrators with half the appeal of this, try as I might. But this is enough. This is plenty. I understand the objections that punk-rockers with a certain purity orientation are inclined to make to it—"bubblegum" and "commercial" are fair enough descriptors, and as Christgau notes the preoccupation with sex gets absurdly "narsty" too (representative titles: "Whips and Furs," "I Need a Slave") (but equally representative titles: "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah," "Baby, Baby"). Nevertheless, practically every song here makes me want to jump up and down, I tend to keep playing it louder the longer it's on, and it's never hard to make a daily habit of it once I think to listen to it again. I know I might be mistaken, but it sounds like the purest distillation of a certain strain of punk-rock to me, particularly the way the bass notes play as if the strings are just slightly too loose and being slapped at, Sid Vicious style, and the unmistakable British accents of the singers too. The tempos are fast and the songs brief, a third of them coming in at under two minutes, and the whole 15-song set lasts barely 35 minutes. "You Broke My Heart," at 3:28, is practically the "Whipping Post" of the set, the place where they slow down and air it all out. As a vinyl product, I used to think one side was better than the other but I could never remember which because they both sounded so good. Sometimes I wanted to start with the weaker side but neither one ever turned out to be that, or anyway I was jumping up and down no matter which one I started with. I'm jumping up and down still, though I would never think to refer to the action as "pogoing." That's something people do for authentic punk-rock. What I'm doing is just an immature frenzy of appreciation.

Oldboy (2003)

(This is my review of the LAMB May Movie of the Month.)

Oldeuboi, South Korea, 120 minutes
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writers: Garon Tsuchiya, Nobuaki Minegishi, Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim, Joon-hyung Lim, Chan-wook Park
Photography: Chung-hoon Chung
Music: Hyun-jung Shim
Editor: Sang-beom Kim
Cast: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hey-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji, Jin-seo Yun

Oldboy tells a moody, stylish, elaborate story that turns on revenge and the various fruits it bears—equal parts cautionary tale, puzzle movie, and brutality catharsis. In the end it somehow manages to amount to a good deal more than the sum of its parts, even as it pays off all expectations and then some. There's more than a little potential for credibility breakdown on close examination of some of the plot points it plays with, such as hypnotism and coerced amnesia, not to mention the central conceit of a privatized imprisonment industry (presumably on the black market!). But there's a good deal of complexity and nuance happening under the surface too—and the narrative momentum of the screenplay is powerful, the players here all entirely up to delivering the goods. It's an absorbing and even thrilling ride from beginning to end.

When we first see Dae-su Oh (played by Min-sik Choi in a performance that is brilliantly mannered, notably as it conveys the physical aging caused by emotional trauma), he is a drunken lout in a police station, an obnoxious jackass his friend must bail out in order to get him to his daughter's third birthday party on time. Even as he is released he can't resist one more obscene gibe at the cops before running away. He obviously considers himself someone not to be fucked with—yet shortly after, even with his friend attempting to hand-hold him home, he disappears into the rainy night.

Friday, May 13, 2011

90. Frank Zappa, "Transylvania Boogie" (1970)


There were a lot of guitar heroes cluttering up the joint in the late '60s and early '70s—Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia, etc., etc.—but I'm not sure Frank Zappa ever entirely got his due in this regard, probably because he was so much better known as sophisticated musical composer, rock savant, source of unbearable fart jokes, or most likely all of the above. The necessary evidence for all that is found on his best album, Hot Rats (minus the fart jokes, which as much as anything is the reason it's his best). But this five-minute workout, from his second solo effort (and one really not much different from other product released under the Mother of Inventions name), Chunga's Revenge, tends to be my single favorite track of all showcasing his guitar chops. It's got just about everything that made him a great player, including the ranges of tone he managed to draw, his fussy lyricism, his patience in the construction of a jam, and of course his facility with the wah-wah effect, perhaps his most signature element as guitarist. It's also got a strange and intriguing structure, with rhythms just slightly off-kilter, Aynsley Dunbar's drumkit pushed up in the mix and working the cymbals quite a bit, and Ian Underwood's spooky, nudging organ play that works like the current of a river, always nagging at you. "Transylvania Boogie" is not exactly something you can dance to, more like stand and bob your head or in concert hall situation sit and study dispassionately. Which might mean it lacks something in terms of guitar heroics, but in a way the clinical approach actually makes me like it even more, I think.

Touch of Evil (1958)

USA, 111 minutes
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Orson Welles, Whit Masterson, Paul Monash, Franklin Coen
Photography: Russell Metty
Music: Henry Mancini
Editors: Walter Murch (1998 re-edit), Aaron Stell, Virgil W. Vogel, Edward Curtiss
Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Valentin de Vargas, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Cotten

For all the unprecedented latitude that Orson Welles enjoyed in making his first feature, Citizen Kane, it sometimes seems like he spent the rest of his career paying for it—and I think that's more reality than perception, or than rotten luck on the part of Welles, or even than a natural result of an obnoxious personality clashing with Hollywood bigwigs. Across the fullness of his career, it's almost as if he were cursed. The Magnificent Ambersons (another one we will be getting to) may stand as the most egregious example of a film taken away from Welles and wrecked, but Touch of Evil certainly fits the profile too, and has the added distinction of being Welles's last attempt to make a Hollywood picture.

It's altogether an extraordinary way for Welles to end the sour relationship with Hollywood, featuring a cast full of fine performances and surprising grotesqueries, a screenplay tight as a drum that relentlessly goes from dark to black, a bracing performance of his own, and a few technical tricks still up his sleeve as well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

91. Van Morrison, "T.B. Sheets" (1967)


Van Morrison was just 21 when he wrote and recorded this remarkable meditation on untimely death, which is stripped down to essentials even though it goes on a long while: a sparse open arrangement with moody distracted guitar licks, equally moody organ fills, piercing harmonica, and the singer trying to deal with the fact that it's the middle of the night, his woman is on her deathbed, and the room is stuffy and smells bad. "I can almost smell your T.B. sheets," he says, muttering to himself, "Gotta go. Gotta get away." "I want a drink of water," he says. "I'll send somebody around later." Legend has it that Morrison broke down in tears after the session, and it's not hard to see how that could happen with something like this, so meticulously imagined. I think the better question may be how a 21-year-old Irish rock 'n' roll lad came to dream up such a thing in the first place (which may or may not be answered in terms of psychic vibrations by the circumstances and events of Morrison's visit to the US during which this was recorded). John Lee Hooker covered it five years later, and it's a worthy version as Hooker certainly has the doomy authority to put it over. But I'm not sure even so that it touches this Morrison original, which is so bold about its stark scenario and candid themes, so rooted in the sensory details of an overwhelming and horrific moment in the lives of two people, of whom we know only their immediate circumstances and nothing else. She is dying. He can't stand it. He can't face it. He flees the scene, leaving the radio on to play for her, and he takes us with him, even if only in his mind, and for our part it's at least as much relief as any he might experience.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

92. Pet Shop Boys, "Liberation" (1993)


This has always been my favorite song from my favorite Pet Shop Boys album—yes, I like it better than "Dreaming of the Queen," and "To Speak Is a Sin," the two next-closest to it. But I admit it's one that sneaks up on you. I like the wukka-wukka guitar sound that textures and drives it (which incidentally further underlines, along with the Village People cover and other elements, how much this was actually their "disco" album, and not their "rock" album, as originally promised by the perhaps satiric PR). I like the scenario in the lyrics of love finally acknowledged and accepted, and I like that it happens on a car ride late at night, involving the simple expedient of holding hands. And I love the way the orchestral sounds swell right at the moments when the emotional intensity is greatest, which includes the opening, a rapid dive into swirling waters. In the end, it doesn't need much of Neil Tennant's sly irony—virtually none, in fact—nor does it need much of Chris Lowe's production muscle either. It's just a very nice, simple song with a very nice, simple message. I said "simple," not "easy." In fact, I think it may be evidence that either or both of these Pet Shop Boys may well be prone to my own greatest weakness, crippling sentimentalism, played so straight here that it's practically opaque about any other intentions or aims. "The night, the stars / A light shone through the dark.... Your love is liberation, liberation." It might even be characterized as "sincere," if one is inclined to take the position and risk the ridicule.

Monday, May 09, 2011

93. Ray Charles, "Mess Around" (1953)


On a list like this I can't very well include every track from The Birth of Soul, which is as massively enjoyable as it is massively important, so I will choose a representative favorite. I like this one best today, getting the edge if only for the iconic moment when Ray Charles deliberately drives a wedge of silence between the words "pit" and "barbecue" in the first line, which somehow launches the thing to unimaginable levels of feverish excitement. Check it out: a song based on a backyard good-times rave-up, playing and wailing just for the pleasure of it, and for the escape—the same kind of thing that Louis Jordan and others have memorialized elsewhere in songs about rent parties. The tempo is fast, and Charles furiously pumps his rollicking piano with his left hand and skitters across the keys with his right. The horns are boss—just boss. The vocal is loose but always in command. Ray Charles the piano player seems entirely self-aware of every bit of the song's stride/boogie-woogie antecedents as it moves through its paces. It's sloppy and tight all at once, and there's a saxophone solo with potential to tear your head off. This well-known version at some two and a half minutes is freewheeling and explosive, and I can only imagine how it must have sounded on gutbucket nights when whatever band Charles had assembled stretched and let it hang out, with all its trapdoors and veering passages. Best enjoyed standing on a chair. And I wish Mary Fleener would make a comic strip out of this one too.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 (2003)

As a product, this is a rather strange book—more of a pamphlet, really, hardly bigger in dimensions than a mass market paperback and with a total of 44 pages, plus Frank Rich's preface. It contains a single piece by Joan Didion that ran originally in the "New York Review of Books," where the articles can go long, but generally not book-length. Of course, with 9/11 and its aftermath top of mind once again with the recent news of the death of Osama bin Laden, it's not hard to see how one gets to formulating a book like this. It was such an alarming and depressing time (not that it's gotten particularly better, but at least the overbearing urgency for making colossal mistakes seems to have diminished somewhat), and, indeed, this essay was a heartening meditation in that time, when so few seemed able to see so clear what was happening. "[Americans] recognized even then," she writes, "with flames still visible in lower Manhattan, that 'bipartisanship' and 'national unity' had come to mean acquiescence to the [George W. Bush] administration's preexisting agenda—for example the imperative for further tax cuts, the necessity for Arctic drilling, the systematic elimination of regulatory and union protections, even the funding for the missile shield." I'm not entirely convinced a majority of Americans actually did recognize that, but certainly from our vantage today the bad faith and incompetence of Bush and Cheney can be seen more than ever in stark relief. It was plainly visible then too, as this little book argues and provides evidence for by its very existence, but I lean toward believing it wasn't a message anyone seemed interested in hearing—even from what I observed among the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts. Ultimately that might make this tract interesting more as historical artifact. Try to imagine, as you read, that her points of view were considered dangerously radical, naïve, hidebound, and foolish. In actuality (or "meanwhile back here on planet Earth"), it overflows with a common sense, rendered with Didion's typical acerbic tartness, that was all too sadly in short supply then. We are still paying for the mistakes of that time—literally, still paying, for example for the radical, naïve, hidebound, and foolish Iraq War adventure. Which still has its defenders. And so, if only for that reason, this remains essential, even as it likely also remains an exercise of preaching to a choir.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Separations (1992)

I like Separations a bit more than His 'n' Hers—maybe just because it loosens up and lets itself range wide in its second half, the foray into "acid jazz." (I use the scare quotes only to indicate my general ignorance here; I don't entirely understand the term beyond that it is a flavor of electronica.) In the first handful of songs I sometimes hear something like the Stranglers, which might just be Jarvis Cocker's croak amid the arch and studied arrangements. Other times I hear things that put me in mind of Camper Van Beethoven. That's probably just the scraping violin. I'm sure these perceptions could well mean that I must be insane. The songwriting is always adroit even if it doesn't particularly distinguish itself memorably. But that second half, the "acid jazz"—well, it's pretty fucking good, if I may express my appreciation by swearing. The song times stretch to well upwards of five and six minutes and the pace picks up considerably, even as the rubbery synthesizer figures quietly assemble behind Cocker, who shifts as seamlessly as ever between his croaks and his impassioned breathless exclamations verging on yelping and back again. In fact, I like how Cocker doesn't particularly change his approach at all—it's as eccentric and insinuating as ever, with the rear-screen projection playing behind him more the factor that has been altered. It's still recognizably Pulp, by and large, just with a few unusual adornments that throw it all into interesting relief. "My Legendary Girlfriend" seems to me to be the winner of the set, with an underpinning full of dynamics and dramatic flourishes (and, yes, those rubbery synthesizer figures again), which shifts and bursts into throbbing declarations at the chorus. Effective, in a word. "Death II" gives it a run for its money, with a bit more propulsive momentum, a few nice breaks, and a nifty line opening up the production in "down at the D-I-S-C-O." Plus this: "Hey I feel this night will never end / and I will never see the day." Play loud and dance. Try not to frighten the household pets.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

La passion de Jeanne d'Arc, France, 82 minutes
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Writers: Carl Th. Dreyer, Joseph Delteil
Photography: Rudolph Mate
Editors: Marguerite Beauge, Carl Th. Dreyer
Cast: Maria Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon, Jean d'Yd, Louis Ravet

The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of those films with a history notably beset by exceptional troubles, all too easily raising fatuous speculation on God's will. Though it did not suffer the production setbacks of, say, The Exorcist, once Joan of Arc was in the can it encountered a remarkable series of problems. In fact, in the end it was never given many public screenings at all. Vociferous objections came almost immediately from French authorities, British censors, the Catholic Church, and elsewhere, all of whom had a stake in the way the story was told, each with an agenda based on thin-skinned self-interest more than anything else. (On the changes demanded by the Catholic Church, for example, one historian of the film has written that they left only "an annoying, Catholic film in which the Rouen tribunal had become almost sympathetic.")

Then a fire destroyed the original negative. Director Dreyer painstakingly reassembled his film from second takes, deeply disappointed at the overall inferiority of this second version, though others argue there is not that much difference. But the second negative soon after burned in a fire too. The Passion of Joan of Arc thus languished in gray obscurity for decades, as prints of it were found and bowdlerized and otherwise revised to various ends, all of which only increased Dreyer's despair. He fought them but went to his death in 1968 thinking his early masterpiece was little more than a lost cause and footnote to film history.

But expect a miracle, right?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

94. Walkabouts, "Train to Mercy" (1991)


From about 1988 to about 1993, the Walkabouts were my favorite live act. I got out to see them every chance I could, which sometimes was as often as every month, a real treat. They were basically the red-headed stepchild on the Sub Pop roster of the time (a roster now full of red-headed stepchildren, but more famous at the time for Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Nirvana); the PR machine cavalierly labeled the Walkabouts as "hippies with big amps." That label could serve as well retroactively for Country Joe & the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead, but point taken. The music of the Walkabouts was rumbling and loud, but well leavened with folk-rock currencies. You can hear the drift for yourself on "Train to Mercy." I hope you can also hear how effectively it could close a show, which is how they used it for several years. It's big enough to fill arenas, and I feel privileged to have been able to witness it in tiny clubs, and numerous times. The nine and a half minutes that this lasts effectively takes me back to those halcyon days, and it's even hard sometimes to resist the temptation to get to my feet and sway. How Brian Eno, who plays synthesizer and sings, came to be involved in it remains something of a mystery, though the song fits his sensibilities well and you can certainly hear his impact. Chris Eckman, one of the band's principals with partner Carla Torgerson, has written of Eno's participation, "He happened by the studio that night, almost by chance and recorded some tracks only after we got him drunk." That still doesn't answer the question of how Brian Eno "happened by" a Seattle studio one night, but whatever. Worked out well for all.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

95. Talking Heads, "Cities" (1979)


I've said before that I'm a big fan of the Talking Heads album Fear of Music, as much for its humor as for its adventurous experimentation, but this piece of it is an enduring favorite for slightly different reasons. It's not without its jokes, of course—the way Byrne yelps and otherwise fools with the chin-stroking, thoughtfully meditated problem of making the comparisons ("good points, some bad points"), and the thing about the smells of home cooking in Memphis ("home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks") being "only the river." But at a time when I badly wanted to leave the place where I grew up, Minneapolis, it offered a kind of primer on how to decide what to do next. "Find a city, find myself a city to live in" became a way of living for a year or two before I finally settled on Seattle, a place I visited and instantly felt a connection. I still love the way the song so much makes oneself the agent of the decision, and the open approach it takes to solving it, considering as example in its four minutes or so London, Birmingham (presumably in England rather than Alabama, but who knows, given what follows), El Paso, and Memphis. In the end, evidently, Byrne chose New York. But you know what? You can live anywhere you want, anywhere that feels right. It's just a matter of picking up and doing it. As the song warns, you'll get a little freaked out now, and that's for sure—I didn't know anyone in Seattle, I didn't have a job, and I didn't have a place to live. But it all works out. This ridiculous little song provided me a lot of comfort on the way.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

96. Aztec Camera, "Jump" (1985)


I was never that big on Aztec Camera, though somehow I ended up with one of their early singles, "Oblivious," a slight thing but with something of a lilting appeal. Nor was I even close to liking Van Halen or their 1984 dance crossover mega-hit. Put the two together, however, a confluence found in the shadows of a strangely packaged mid-'80s EP, a recording of a live performance in London—well, now that's something altogether different. Roddy Frame & crew took the blatant and largely empty commercial gesture that played a role in David Lee Roth's departure from Van Halen and converted it from light-hearted teen-focused dancefloor parable into something very much like a suicide note. The way Frame moans it out, the chorus sounds vastly different from the rather more chipper version by Roth, particularly when Frame starts leaning into it hard, repeating the message: "Awww," he sings, "You might as well—jump. Well, you might as well jump. Go ahead and jump. You might as well jump.... Go ahead...." The guitar solo that follows—I'm presuming that's Malcolm Ross but it's possible it's Frame—is like unto the chaos of death. The contrasts are stark. A hushed and somber feeling accompanies the singing part as it industriously sets about recontextualizing, finishing the job with a certain finality in the second reading of the chorus and opening the door then for the band to bring it up and Ross, or whoever it is, to grind away. The band gets louder, the guitar wilder, bolts of feedback erupt. I have a fanciful image in my mind of the crowd standing as one, holding their hands over their ears like the figure in Munch's "The Scream." Suddenly not so fun anymore, is it?

Monday, May 02, 2011

97. Kid Creole & the Coconuts, "Dear Addy" (1981)


I don't recall from the vinyl version of the Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places album the spoken-word overture that now accompanies this song on anthologies and reissues, but it is otherwise exactly the gem I encountered, undiminished: a glittering production of a straightforward lamentation of love lost (maybe—perhaps the spoken-word intro is there to indicate the jury is still out on the matter, all hope not yet lost), complete with swirling strings, sighing Coconuts, woeful backstroke guitar chording for rhythm, and a host of small touches designed to make one's heart swell, as swell it must. Bronx native August Darnell, aka Kid Creole, had a real knack all through the '80s for working memorable pop strains into various molds of world music (by way of Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building) powered by an encyclopedia of rhythmic figures to drive them. Nearly anything he recorded is worth looking into, and some of it is essential. This closer for a concept album about a globe-circling adventure remains my single favorite for its simplicity and for its shameless mournfulness. The voyager has returned home and all he wants now is his Addy. "Dear Addy, I'm afraid / I've lost more than I've gained," so on and so forth. The cries for Addy on the chorus are piercing, just her name and the sweet aching mess of the sound. It only goes to show you can travel the world 'round and when you come home again all you find is yourself, or something like that. It was a top 40 hit in the UK in 1982, which in its own way also just goes to show.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders (1997)

In the mid-'80s, almost immediately in the wake of Joe McGinniss's book Fatal Vision and the celebrated TV movie based on it, Jerry Allen Potter was approached by a retired FBI agent, Ted L. Gunderson, who claimed that the "slam-dunk" case was not all it appeared to be. Potter greeted this assertion with the skepticism that only someone who knows McGinniss's book could have, so damning is the portrait presented there of the so-called Green Beret murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was accused and eventually convicted of brutally slaughtering his wife and two young daughters with bludgeon and knife and then attempting to point the finger for the crime at nameless, faceless Manson-family-like hippies chanting "acid is groovy, kill the pigs." But Gunderson eventually lured Potter into looking harder at the case, and Potter in turn brought in co-author Fred Bost. The book that was published 10 years later based on their findings, Fatal Justice, is a fascinating companion piece to read with the McGinniss, practically inducing whiplash as it so thoroughly takes apart the case against MacDonald, along the way uncovering a good deal of prosecutorial and other misconduct that at the very least dwells in a gray area if it isn't outright malfeasance. The details are grinding and I'm not about to attempt to summarize them here; instead, I urge anyone under the spell of McGinniss's book to consider looking at this. McGinniss's role in the fiasco has been so grotesque that MacDonald was able to successfully sue him for damages in civil court, even as he remained (and remains) housed in federal prison. What concerns me at this moment—arguably off-point, I'll concede, but of more immediate concern—is that now Joe McGinniss has decided he's just the person to write a big book about Sarah Palin, and has moved to Alaska to do so. It's coming out later this year. McGinniss first launched his career as something of a New Journalist prodigy, writing about politics as a young man in 1968 with The Selling of the President, an interesting x-ray of the Nixon campaign for the presidency that year with a decided air of prescience about the way politics was going to be done in the U.S. post-television. But McGinniss hasn't acquitted himself well since—first the MacDonald debacle, and then, in the '90s, a book about the Kennedy family that found him the subject of charges of plagiarism. I'm not nearly as worried about Sarah Palin as I was before she resigned the Alaska governorship and set about proving in earnest for anyone willing to look that she's little more than a grifter preying on ignorant Medicare-leeching Tea Party Bible thumpers. But that doesn't mean I don't have a certain amount of dread about how McGinniss is capable of shooting himself in the foot in an all too likely attempt to crucify her with a calculated "edgy" book he hopes will make him some big bucks. With friends like this, who needs enemies? Fatal Justice, along with Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, make abundantly clear the lazy and arrogant levels on which McGinniss operates. Time for him to just go away now.

In case it's not at the library.