Friday, September 30, 2011

The General (1926)

USA, 107 minutes
Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Writers: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Al Boasberg, Charles Henry Smith, William Pittenger, Paul Girard Smith
Photography: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
Editors: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

With the exception of Charlie Chaplin I have long tended to struggle with comedies of a certain vintage, those pratfall-driven productions usually headed up by various familiar names: Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Kops, even the Marx Brothers all tend to be lost on me. And I'm quite sincere in my use of the word "lost"—I envy all those who get the kind of pleasure and solace out of them that I seem to find only with Chaplin. Even Woody Allen, at one point as important a filmmaker for me as anyone (hard to remember now sometimes!), has several times made his case for the Marx Brothers. But I have only barely glimpsed any of that for myself so far.

The Three Stooges, to briefly wander off on a tangent, is something of a different matter. They don't do much for me any more, but as a kid and for years into being an adult, I did find them very funny, particularly in the company of others—the sound effects, the silly ways they carried on, the fierce concentration on their various cruelties. I remember attending a ballgame once, it must have been in the '80s, where a Three Stooges clip was played between innings. I was struck, looking around, at how hard so many of the men were laughing, and at how cross so many of the women looked. There's something about the Three Stooges that really divides by gender.

Buster Keaton is often opposed to Charlie Chaplin in a kind of Beatles/Stones or Coke/Pepsi manner of systematic binary duality, and he is another one who seems lost on me for the most part, though my exposure to him even still remains fairly limited. But I will say that I have had an interesting experience with The General.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

40. T. Rex, "Ballrooms of Mars" (1972)


I know Marc Bolan almost surely qualifies as superstar to most, at least those of a certain age, but somehow I get the feeling he's been overlooked in the long decades since his death in 1977, by which point that star was certainly fading anyway. That's probably on me, coming rather late to the best of T. Rex, which to me are the matching pair of albums from the early '70s, Electric Warrior and The Slider. No one else sounds like this. They are studies in smoldering understatement, cool bravado, tempered joy, and a hedonism restrained only by unknown laws of comportment, strictly enforced, all of it burnished to a fine buff. "Ballrooms of Mars" comes from The Slider, which I like a little better—but only because it's the one I've ended up playing the most frequently—and it's a nearly perfect example of the things that Bolan could do so well. (I hasten to add that if you like this at all you shouldn't waste another minute about getting either or both of the albums. They are fine.) I particularly like how everything about it is so casually deliberate, from the studied name-dropping (Bob Dylan, Alan Freed, John Lennon) to the science-fiction setting implied in its name to the various fashion inventories to the hoary old call to "Rock!" Everything is as cool as can be even as it manages to build itself up to a colossal head of steam. By the time Bolan commands us to "Rock!" and sends the tune sprawling into nether regions of the solar system, tumbling and spinning slo-mo in a place absent all gravity—well, I really don't see how it's possible for anyone to do anything but exactly that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

41. Hole, "I Think That I Would Die" (1994)


I have always been a sucker for a good drama, and among other things this delivers one of the great declarations of "Fuck you" in all of rock 'n' roll. This one's personal—well, they all are with Courtney Love, but you know what I mean—it rolls up all the grievances she forever nurses about feminist backlash and unfair and you wouldn't with anyone else and why me and low self-esteem and there should have been something about Olympia, Washington, and all the fans and sycophants not appreciative (read: ingratiating) enough, and football players, and John Cheever, and thick meat sandwiches with ketchup. The usual upchuck of association, sung calculatedly out of key. Mostly this is a locus for all the seething resentment she bore over the baby Bean and Child Protective Services and so-called friends who narc'ed her out and who knows what else. But that whole episode. On that level it's just about as authentic as I've ever heard her. That's, I believe, why the chant goes, "I want my baby / Where is the baby? / I want my baby / Who took my baby?" The mumbled, "It's / Not / Yours" before the great volcanic eruption. The point is it's cathartic, like the album, but with a particularly fine point, which somehow never seems to wear away. She really seems to mean it. For a few naked moments the self-centeredness is deliberately cast off—no doubt for self-serving motives, but done all the same. And there she is, with a great band at its peak churning away behind her, genuine: "There is no milk / There is no milk / There is no milk."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Best American Crime Reporting 2007

Linda Fairstein is the editor of this volume—a former Manhattan prosecutor who has gone on to writing crime fiction. I haven't read any of her novels but I do remember her appearance on "Murder by the Book," the old Court TV (now the lamentable TruTV) show, which featured crime-fiction authors as guest hosts. Canceled too soon, it was actually one of the better true-crime shows in recent years, because the cases were often so interesting. Fairstein focused her prosecutorial career on crimes of violence against women and children, but unfortunately wound up on the wrong side of things in the Central Park jogger case, winning the wrongful convictions, later overturned, of a handful of teenage African-Americans. There's a cautionary tale there. But her collection nevertheless stands up to all the others in this excellent series, many pieces coming from a global point of view with evident interest in issues related to terrorism and public safety, not surprising for a New York official. Mark Fass contributes a fascinating mystery story for "New York" magazine about a person who disappeared in New York City on September 10, 2001, and the byzantine efforts to determine her fate. The difficulties of it lend perspective to the scope of 9/11. Then there's the harrowing story by Tom Junod for "Esquire," now done up on true-crime TV, of Katrina and a pair of nursing home operators who stayed behind in the storm and attempted to do the right thing, and found themselves in a lot of trouble for their pains. There's a clinically precise and chilling account by C.J. Chivers, also for "Esquire," of the incident in September 2004 in which Chechen terrorists took control for three days of a school in Beslan, Russia. And there are the usual round-up of quotidian incidents, with their horrors and charms alike: a master thief of rare books ... grown women seduced by 14-year-olds online ... quiet roommates who turn out to be international jewel thieves ... priests who kill. The most interesting for me this time around was "The Monster of Florence," a bizarre and twisting tale of the investigation into a serial killer who operated in Italy in the '70s and '80s. The case remained open for years and incidentally almost devours professional true-crime writer Douglas Preston, author of the "Atlantic" piece that appears here, and Italian journalist Mario Spezi, with whom Preston collaborated on a private investigation and later a book about the case. At the time of this article the case was still open, but this reminds me, I still want to track down the book that came of it.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

At one time, along about 1975, I was pretty sure Elton John was that decade's natural heir to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Later I thought that was pretty ridiculous. But I guess the last laugh is on me when I look up the numbers in my Billboard book: There, on the list of 100 Top Artists 1955-2009, is Elton John at #4, behind Elvis, the Beatles, and Madonna (yes), and just ahead of Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Wikipedia pipes up, somewhat tentatively, that this iconic double-LP package "has come to be regarded as Elton John's best and most popular album," noting that it's his best-selling anyway, with some 31 million copies moved. Checking around, I see that's good enough to put it in the vicinity of the top 20 all-time bestsellers, no small feat. So when I call it my favorite I understand that puts me with the rest of the unwashed, but at least I've pretty much thought as much since the day it came out. There has always been something a little bit different about Elton John, and I don't mean just that he was the only rock star of the time pretending to be gay who actually was gay. From his various folkie-cum-country-rock-raver postures early to the glittering glamour and pure pop insouciance on display here to the range seen across his strings of hits, he's a tough one to figure out. Me, I gave in entirely with this, a big pop confection that opens with an 11-minute suite in which you don't even hear his voice until nearly the 6:00 marker—that's "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding." It's followed by a valentine to Marilyn Monroe, "Candle in the Wind," so universally beloved and genuinely touching he was able to rework it in memory of Princess Diana after her death 24 years later, and a lot of people were grateful. Then the weird faux live glam of "Bennie and the Jets," a song I am still waiting to understand, but one that nevertheless continues to thrill me. Then the title song, which verily cracks it open: that's it, this is all a big fat hosanna to beauty in the face of debilitating nostalgia, knowing the moment would never be so right because, and perhaps he even knew this too on some level, the moment would always be so right, from that point forward. And on it goes: the luscious piano textures of "Grey Seal," the sassy rock 'n' roller "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," something about a made-up cowboy, "Roy Rogers," something about a made-up Depression-era gangster, "The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)," and something about "I've Seen That Movie Too." My favorite song has always been "Sweet Painted Lady," even recognizing all the execrable prostitute clichés it bears. It's so goddam fucking beautiful it makes me want to cry in spite of everything, and that's how the whole album affects me, when the moment is right, and often when it isn't. We don't know how many right moments this guy has left, except we've already seen that movie too. And now it's 40 years later.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Taxi Driver (1976)

USA, 113 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul Schrader
Photographer: Michael Chapman
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editors: Tom Rolf, Melvin Shapiro
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Martin Scorsese

A good way to start an argument is to ask people what's the best picture by director Martin Scorsese. We have already seen that Raging Bull is the consensus favorite of critics, and there are cases to be made for Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, GoodFellas, and others. But it's not hard for me to see how Taxi Driver deserves to rank very high on this list. As strange and brave and unique and enthralling as it is from beginning to end, it's also one of the most influential movies from an influential period, and its reverberations continue to be felt to this day (most recent: Ryan Gosling's brilliant turn in Drive).

In fact, that image of Travis Bickle we all know so well now, the tormented loner waiting for “a real rain” to “come and wash all this scum off the streets” and who ultimately guns up and takes matters into his own hands, has recurred one way or another in film after film after film over the 35 years since its release. Matt Zoller Seitz listed some of them in a recent slideshow article for Salon: Mona Lisa, Evil Dead II, The Killer, The Fan, I Shot Andy Warhol, Fight Club, The Brave One, others. You can probably think of a few more yourself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

42. B-52's, "Rock Lobster" (1979)


You may not know it, but this prototypical masterpiece of new wave pop music—that halcyon form which exalted the "three-minute pop song" above all else—actually goes on for nearly seven minutes in the album version, hitting every silly note and striking every silly posture it can possibly think to do. It appears, more or less, to be a song about a beach party that turns into a scene from a bad science fiction movie. "It wasn't a rock / It was a rock lobster." Aieee! The sea creatures, they want to dance too! Oh, wait, they're cute. And so on. The sheer oddity of the B-52's is so beguiling that I never noticed how weird it actually is until Fred Schneider made his attempt to accommodate the grunge moment in the '90s. The sound is quick and nimble and cartoony and almost skeletal in its function, bursting with melody and rhythm as much as the self-conscious jokiness, single-string figures on a guitar joining forces with a jerky yet loping bass, piercing, percussive organ notes, and tip-tap drumming. The boisterous interplay of vocals from Fred Schneider (who sounds like he stepped off the set of a musical, playing the small-town geek) with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson is largely what creates the illusion that you have somehow wandered into a basement rehearsal session and/or impromptu house party. And while I am loath as ever to endorse music that must be studied, I must admit this now takes me a time or two through before I begin to fully connect, as I recall once doing instantly. It's just very, very strange music, as butt-simple as it appears to be at first. The point seems to be to dance, and that's usually what I find myself doing in short order. This is one of the best songs that I know to hear in public places—loud.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

43. Sister Sledge, "Lost in Music" (1979)


The Chic brothers, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, never strayed far from a fairly predictable set of lyrical concerns, which is one of the reasons I love them as much as I do: living well, experiencing joy, and dancing. Sometimes feeling sad. That about covers it. One subset dedicated itself narrowly to the pleasures of music itself—the 1983 "In Love With Music" by the flagship Chic is a good example. But this is the best, from Sister Sledge, one of their greatest side projects, particularly with the We Are Family album that houses it. It feels like a statement of purpose, a virtual manifesto. All the usual elements are in place: bass and funky guitar chops locked in groove, the powerful, sweet undertow, the keyboards/strings establishing a swirling, soaring context, and then the glorious harmonies and interplay of the Sledge sisters, who sound vaguely hypnotized and helpless before the power of the music in which they declare they are lost—and in which they are obviously fully engaged. It's inspiring in its single-mindedness: "We're lost in music / Feel so alive / I quit my 9 to 5." The verses get down to details, elaborating on the pleasures of performance and throwing everything away for it: "Some people ask me / What are you gonna be / Why don't you go get a job, uh-uh / All that I could say / I won't give up my music / Not me, not now, no way, no how, oh...oh..." There's even a throwaway reference to "Suspicious Minds" ("caught in a trap")—who knows what the hell it's doing there. To me it's just more evidence of the sheer abandon to music itself, the abstracted ideal, an underlining of the point simply because they can. Simply because they saw the opportunity and did.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How to Be Alone (2002)

Jonathan Franzen's immediate follow-on to his big commercial breakthrough, The Corrections, was this collection of essays. Most were published before the massive cultural event that the third novel became, and many after a literary polemic he published in 1996 that came to be known as "the 'Harper's' essay." Franzen has a deceptive knack for stirring up trouble in and around literary circles and I came to this more interested in his account of the dust-up he had with Oprah Winfrey, "Mr. Difficult," a late add to the paperback edition. On its publication, The Corrections was named as a selection of Winfrey's book club, a distinction that virtually guaranteed bestseller-level sales all on its own, but Franzen spurned the notice, concerned that it would turn off the kind of audience he had hoped the book would find—"male," as he put it. Winfrey in turn rescinded her offer to him to appear on her show. It was altogether an unpleasant episode for all concerned, even as it was easy enough, for me anyway, to see either side of it. Franzen shows in his consideration of it that he's capable of a good deal of soul-searching and honesty, admitting that he was as uncomfortable with Winfrey's status as an arbiter of middlebrow taste as anything, even as he acknowledged the far-reaching effects of her endorsement and the harm he did himself by rejecting it. (Last year, following the publication of his fourth novel, Freedom, they resolved their differences and he appeared on her show to discuss them.) Franzen is similarly lucid and straightforward throughout this collection, whether recalling the death of his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's, or thinking through the implications of supermax prisons, or grappling with the toxic and worsening patterns of the American political climate, or trying to set the terms for literary validity in this day and age. The "Harper's" essay, published originally as "Perchance to Dream" and appearing here in revised form as "Why Bother?," swirls around the arguments for a return to and/or calculated abandonment of the fiction of social realism. In the gap between, Franzen tells us in a foreword, his views had altered somewhat: "I used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don't read much Henry James," he recalls ruefully. As someone who worries about watching too much TV and not reading enough Henry James, but does very little to change that, I may be exactly the right audience for Franzen. I certainly know that I have liked nearly everything I've read by him, and this collection is probably as good a place as any to start. Well, noThe Corrections is probably the better place to start.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Houses of the Holy (1973)

By the end of the '70s, under the sway of punk-rock and poor old beleaguered new wave pop music, I had come to loathe two bands above all others: the Eagles and Led Zeppelin. My distaste for Led Zeppelin had started in the aftermath of IV, which, paradoxically, perhaps I "loved too much" in its immediate moment. After the number of times I heard "Stairway to Heaven" on the radio began to approach approximately five figures the bloat and the exhaustion were unmistakable. And though I would later make a fetish of "Kashmir" for the most part I was done with them, their appeal for me on a long slow slide that would not bottom out until some point in the '80s. Thus I did not make the effort to acquaint myself with this until about 15 years after the fact, wondering at myself for even buying it at all the day I left the used record store with a copy. But lo and behold it struck like a lost treasure, full of pleasures great and small, and turned out to be one of the better purchases I made that day. I listened to it frequently for months. Listening again, I think a good deal of that was making my peace with a band I had loved, bitterly rejected for reasons good and bad, and come to rediscover. It sounds patchier to me now than I remember, and "The Crunge" very nearly torpedoes it. A kind of tribute to James Brown that can as well be heard as misplaced mockery, needless to say it's not in possession of even a fraction of Brown's funk power, no surprise from the anti-dance fancy-time-signatures Led Zeppelin, which raises questions about the decision to do it at all. A good deal of the bombast, the risk for which was ever the downside to their winning power equation, is replaced more often here by a decidedly softer side, gentle exercises in things that might almost be taken as ballads, except the power dynamics intrude on them, achieving a welcome balance, especially as the album opens and takes off: "The Song Remains the Same," "The Rain Song," and "Over the Hills and Far Away" are fine additions to their classic catalog. The second vinyl side loses its way some, though I think "Dancing Days" goes with their best, and I don't have the complaints about "D'yer Mak'er" that certain factions among the faithful do. "No Quarter" and "The Ocean" now suggest to me much of what was to come as the band left Atlantic and moved on to their own label: largely unfocused exercises with all too fleeting moments of clarion brilliance. I don't hate them any longer the way I did in 1979, but I haven't forgotten how I came to that position in the first place either.

Friday, September 16, 2011

City Lights (1931)

USA, 87 minutes
Director/music: Charles Chaplin
Writers: Charles Chaplin, Harry Clive, Harry Crocker
Photography: Gordon Pollock, Roland Totheroh
Editors: Charles Chaplin, Willard Nico
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann

I was involved over much of the past six months with a couple of other friends in a Facebook project, just concluded, in which we counted down our 50 favorite movies in a group dedicated to the purpose. A few dozen people were along for the ride and chipped in with their own remarks, criticisms, praise, alternative selections, and talk about the weather and such as we went along. I have plans to port my list and write-ups over to this blog in a kind of meta anatomy of how I approach these kinds of countdowns, which I have been doing more in recent times than I ever thought I would have. More on that down the road.

Meanwhile, I'm just going to go ahead and give away the store here, partly because it's what's next on my ongoing project of writing about the pictures ranked in the essential They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? survey of critical consensus, partly because it surprised me how elusive my #1 proved to be not only to the two I was doing the countdown with, but also to friends of mine who were following along—I had really thought it was more or less common knowledge by this point, or at least somewhat readable from the picks I was making—and partly because the point of my exercise next year is not really going to be driving toward the big reveal of a top 10 and #1, but more looking closely at how I get there.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

44. Fleetwood Mac, "Warm Ways" (1975)


I knew the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks mid-'70s reboot of Fleetwood Mac almost entirely as a top 40 singles act, which I loved. I never felt driven to get the albums. Partly that was because friends were picking them up—when album sales are counted in the millions it's likely you will know a few owners. And sure enough one day I was visiting somewhere and heard this; it pinned me and it's been one of my favorites ever since. It's a Christine McVie song, who remains my favorite Fleetwood Mac as much as I like Buckingham and Nicks—her voice is at once so plain and so ethereal, and though her songs may be light on infectious melody they have a luscious, bruised, ripe quality that is irresistible. They overflow with poignance. They make me feel love—can I say that? This also expresses a certain kind of ideal of twenty-something romance in the '70s that worked on me deeply and without fail. I wanted the scenario and the story that it tells to become true in my life, a story of a single remarkable night that goes on for a lifetime, easy and peaceful. The singer just blissful in her bed: "Sleep easy by my side" and "I can't sleep, with your warm ways" and the real kicker tucked away in the chorus, which I think may not translate well as naked words: "Forever / Forever now, / Together." I even swear it came true for me on one notably historic night of my life, and lasted for nearly a decade. That it didn't survive the '80s only makes me the sadder every time I hear this now. But it's a good kind of sad, though it may have taken me awhile to get here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

45. Alexander O'Neal, "A Broken Heart Can Mend" (1985)


I have always liked this album opener from Alexander O'Neal's first, self-titled album so much I don't even remember much else from the rest of it. Produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis at one of those breakout points in a career where anything they touched was somehow turning to gold—commercially too, but more importantly just churning out sparkling brilliant gems everywhere, aka "height of their powers"—this glows with assurance and swanky aplomb, from its first seconds. It starts as a little throb that quickly swells into a gorgeous 3D landscape of texture and tone and beats and chanting backup singers. By the time O'Neal steps to the mike a lot of the work has already been done. But that doesn't mean he gets to coast along, and he doesn't, bringing his heavy soul man croon to bear on most delicate points, and soaring. Because the message here, as the chanters in the background insistently remind us over and over, is clearly one of hope: "A broken heart can mend." Then the keyboard washes come to occupy a role almost as a kind of divine call-and-respondent stopped by from heaven to accentuate this positive, crashing on the beach of a glorious mess and cascading across the sands like it just doesn't matter. Wave your hands in the air. I know I'm getting carried away but I can't help myself. This is such a slab of beauty. I don't think O'Neal ever matched it, and Jam & Lewis—well, I don't think I have anything else by them ahead on this list. But there are certain tracks by the S.O.S. Band and Janet Jackson that probably could and should have made it, based on the criteria that got this one here. But this will do. Oh yes it will.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ladder of Years (1995)

This one seemed to me something of a disappointment, I think mostly because I've come to have such high expectations of Anne Tyler. It starts out well, and continues well, but the resolution doesn't seem to me to work. Probably there's no resolution that could, all things considered, but Tyler is good enough that maybe I have just come to expect miracles. The story is about Delia Grinstead, a Baltimore housewife of 40 who feels taken for granted by her family (because she is). On the family's annual summer trek to the seashore she goes off on her own for a walk in her beach robe and sandals and suddenly decides to keep walking. She ends up in a small town inland where, almost as if she is sleepwalking, she begins to cobble together a new life for herself—finds a room, clothes, a job, just keeps on staying there, almost in spite of herself, as the summer ends and autumn and winter arrive. Gradually her whereabouts become known to her family but it's some time before anyone shows up, and then there's less any consideration for why she might be doing what she's doing and more an attitude of wondering if she plans to stop being crazy. In the meanwhile, she is building a life there, afforded the opportunity to try on or emphasize new and different aspects of her personality. For example, she starts out as a starchy, even severe, secretary at a law firm where she is considered ultra efficient. Inevitably, because she is a typical Tyler character who simply loves people and can't help connecting with them, she begins to build a set of friends and acquaintances who rely on her and on whom she relies too—"support network," is the term of art. In the process, she demonstrates to herself, and of course to readers, just how competent and well put together she actually is, in case we had any doubts. Gradually she falls in with a single father and his son and the potential for deeper connections grows to be distinctly more than a possibility. At that point, like Huck Finn and Jim crossing into the slave territory, the directions in which the story can go are alarmingly closed down. It's hard to know what's better or worse for Delia, shucking everything off willy-nilly from an old life and moving on, trying to make peace somehow with that damaged old life, or simply withdrawing into isolation. Tyler makes her choice—she would probably argue that Delia makes her choice—because a choice must be made. Until then, it's Tyler the way we know and love her, full of characters as strange as they are real, with all their charming, maddening warts and foibles.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

Arguably Led Zeppelin's defining album, with its thought-you'd-never-get-tired-of-it defining song "Stairway to Heaven," this all-time slab of classic rock opens with a song, "Black Dog," expressly intended to be very difficult or impossible to dance to, the better to stand or sit in one place and be bludgeoned by it. With jazz fusion in the air, Led Zeppelin's strategy, pursued across much of the rest of this album and indeed its career, was to switch things up, water down the blues strains, and attain its claims to musical sophistication via fancy time signatures. In "Black Dog," it's something like 5/4, or maybe that's 3/16. It doesn't matter. What matters is that paradoxically all the power is retained as forcefully as ever and you may as well stand or sit there and let yourself be bludgeoned by it. You probably don't have anything better to do anyway. I remember "Black Dog" ripping across the airwaves playing loud on car radios as we engaged in various late-adolescent antics, licit and otherwise, and I can still hear those times in it. The whole set, in fact, is virtually fried onto my brainstem at this point, "Rock and Roll" and "The Battle of Evermore" and of course the formidable "Stairway to Heaven"—which I almost can't hear anymore from hearing so much over the course of that decade, though I can certainly pick out what I used to like about it when I do happen to put it on and manage to actively notice it, such as the climactically lyrical guitar solo to which it builds. The four from the flip are equally iconic, and nearly as familiar: "Misty Mountain Hop," "Four Sticks," "Going to California," and "When the Levee Breaks." Is it any wonder this is a classic? As a result of a tendency, for whatever reasons, to listen vastly more often to the first vinyl LP side back in the day, I saved a little for myself, and now enjoy these latter four songs the most, particularly "When the Levee Breaks," which stretches out and goes places like a mighty river. And it is interesting to me to see this example of the long-term impact of overexposure and fatigue, how it affects the way I can hear these songs even today. Which means no matter how well I know, right down to my bones, that this is a timeless classic, I don't always hear it that way anymore when I play it. Better to surprise me with selections on the radio or in song mixes, and even then I've usually got you spotted. An article of faith, this one, but one that will go to my grave with me.

Friday, September 09, 2011

United 93 (2006)

France/UK/USA, 111 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Greengrass
Photography: Barry Ackroyd
Music: John Powell
Editors: Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, Christopher Rouse
Cast: J.J. Johnson, Ben Sliney, Gregg Henry, David Alan Basche, Christian Clemenson, Becky London, Trish Gates, Cheyenne Jackson, Chip Zien

There are no surprises or twist endings to this one, of course, though a narrative film on these lines, with its dispiriting last shot of a farm field rushing toward the camera though a jet airliner's windshield, even if our memories could all somehow be sanitized of these events we know so well, would likely feel jarring—perhaps even like one of those feel-bad cheat endings popular in less hopeful times, such as the ending of Night of the Living Dead. But from the first image here of Arabs in a motel room early in the morning praying and dressing, viewers pretty much know exactly what they're in for, or certainly at least the endpoint. It's thus tempting to turn away from this, but the fact is that it's really a very fine picture, effectively working on a number of levels. It's worth seeing any day of the year.

I hadn't actually intended to do anything about the 10-year point of 9/11—if you follow this blog in any way you already know that the one thing it isn't is timely or current or, dare I say it, relevant. It's basically all mapped out weeks and sometimes months in advance because I have learned through trial and error that I am just no good at staying in front of the leading edges of history. I didn't even realize this one would fall so close to the date until earlier this summer when I was penciling in the September items. But there it was and here we are, and I believe I will stay to form by simply noting the occasion and moving ahead with the review.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

46. Rosanne Cash, "The Real Me" (1987)


The album this comes from, King's Record Shop, may have been as close as Rosanne Cash ever got to a hit-making factory—the cover of the old man's "Tennessee Flat-Top Box" was only one of four to go #1 on the country charts. But "The Real Me" was not exactly any part of that. Instead, it stands out starkly from everything around it, and in retrospect it's easy to see how much it looks ahead to the next phase of her career, in the albums Interiors and The Wheel, a period of introspective, even raw exercises that accompanied a divorce and other life-changing events. She was coming to terms with ghosts that had haunted her all her life, as daughter of Johnny and wife of Rodney Crowell and mother of three (going on four). As a true-blue fan who enjoyed all of her '80s releases, I think Interiors is her best album running away. And I was thrilled and mesmerized from the very first I heard this, the soft, almost inaudible strokes of its beginnings, the way it verges on pure unaccompanied vocal performance, swelling bigger and bigger, and the simple power of its sentiment, which strikes home deep. The moment of liberation arrived, identity crisis resolved: "This is the real me, breakin' down at last / Hey, it's the real me, crawlin' out of my past." The verses make it plain this is artifact of the shell of her marriage cracking, but there's so much more to it than that. It's an arrival at a truth as vital as it is personal, a dramatic reckoning point, and a tremendous source of strength and solace for performer and audience alike. It's exciting in only the way that such a moment of personal revelation can be; it depends on that more than anything. And, simply put, it just feels good to recognize the impulse so plainly stated in another.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

47. Was (Not Was), "Somewhere in America There's a Street Named After My Dad" (1988)


What Up, Dog? remains pretty much my favorite album by Was (Not Was), an interesting enough act and one to never write off entirely. And while this is not necessarily my favorite song on the album, paradoxically it's the one going on this list, and reasonably high for an album track not even contemplated as a single release, at least not until a few years after the fact, and then as the third flier in promotion of an anthology product. If anything it's part of some concept I'm not sure I quite understand, opening the album even as the strange, frenetic, unpleasant, unforgettable throwaway fragment "Dad I'm in Jail" closes it. But the light-in-the-midnight-window sadness that suffuses the best songs on the album—"Anything Can Happen," "Love Can Be Bad Luck" (co-written with Marshall Crenshaw), and "Anytime Lisa"—is thoroughly sounded here, and if one doesn't necessarily notice its effectiveness at first, it sinks in eventually. Obviously there's some backstory to its scenario, which we never get, but can only surmise: something about suburbs and irony and best intentions, a family missing a father, a home life other than the ones seen on TV, and sad children lost in a giant land of indifference. It's slow and sparse, led by stark notes on a piano, carried along on the momentum of the light funky touches of guitar and bass and drumkit, underlined late by a muted trumpet. The chorus is sad and low, it really needs to be turned up a notch or several notches, but at the same time it's so tuneful that one is ready to sing with it in spite of oneself: "Somewhere in America / There's a street named after my dad / And the home we never had," it goes. Unadorned truth never spoken so plainly..

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Where I Was From (2003)

I had a hard time connecting with Joan Didion's treatment of California history. It's one of her occasional nonfiction works (Miami is another) that strikes me as distractingly fussy about its language and, in general terms, ultimately too atomized, a typical attempt to cobble together disparate magazine pieces but this time one that rarely works as anything close to an organic, cohesive work imagined from the ground up. Certainly she is on to a very big theme here, an attempt to engage with the root of our culture's continuing pull toward nostalgia and its never-ending recall of everything as better "back in the day." She makes a very convincing argument that that's the case with California culture approximately since English-speaking European settlers claimed it for themselves. Now we tend to think of the two or three decades following World War II (until approximately Proposition 13 in 1978) as California's golden age—certainly I do. But many of the California natives living through it at the time were just as unhappy with the developments they were seeing, preferring to recall rather an era some 20 or 30 years earlier as the better times, even as residents between the wars pined for an older time themselves. And so on and so forth across the history of the state. I found isolated sections of Where I Was From quite interesting. Didion makes a good case that much of California's wealth traces directly to policies of the federal government that have afforded it a good deal of largesse—corporate welfare, to put it plainly, often aimed at the defense industry. Her look at the Spur Posse scandal of Lakewood High School in the early '90s seems to me particularly suited to her sensibilities, both in terms of the alleged crimes (various male students keeping a competitive record of their sexual conquests organized by a scoring system, with points awarded) and even more for its keen-eyed look at the context, the Lakewood suburb itself. She's very good on the ins and outs of the history of Lakewood, which, with Levittown, New York, was one of the earliest postwar suburbs, a vast gridwork of mass-produced single-family dwellings with a mall at the center of it, the entire development erected all at once virtually overnight in the early '50s. And she also gets into some of the intricacies of water distribution in California, particularly southern California, which are fascinating—and she is perfectly lucid about it. In many ways, I think I might have liked this more if it was simply presented as a collection of essays (reworked or otherwise) rather than something larger in scope and more ambitious.

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

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Led Zeppelin II (1969)

It's much easier for me to see now that this is likely the inferior album compared to the debut, if one of them has to be considered inferior. But it was the first Led Zeppelin album I acquired, in thrall to "Whole Lotta Love," and I had never before heard anything remotely like it. Once again the sound is just as big as it can be, colossal, a veritable sperm whale roaming the depths, breaching the surfaces bristling with guitar riffs and pyrotechnics, Robert Plant's unholy shrieking, and a drumkit as big as any room you play it in, as big as the inside of your head, pounding away relentlessly. I thought it was so good, in fact, that I started to wonder what the critics in "Rolling Stone" were complaining about so much. I still wonder, in many ways—not the same things I complain about now anyway, that's for sure. The songs are shorter; only one ranges over six minutes. I miss the willingness to take them out, not that the impulse is necessarily in short supply. Even the psychedelic passage of "Whole Lotta Love" satisfies the desire, and the pivots and turns are there all the way through this. But the most memorable song here after "Whole Lotta Love" may be "Heartbreaker" and very little else, even as the other shards and fragments of the skimmed cream of jam sessions serve their purposes. It's hardly unlistenable, and beyond "Moby Dick" it rarely feels padded out, put it that way. But as with eating empty calories the pleasures tend to be fleeting and the appetite not quite satisfied, even with a stomach painfully distended. I might have worn out my first copy of Led Zeppelin II, but it was as much about engaging with the ideas it suggested as with the sounds and tones actually set down. That and playing "Whole Lotta Love" until it was a grayish band of vinyl compared to the other tracks on the LP. Even as it remains a deeply ingrained favorite, I can see it's probably not the right place to start with Led Zeppelin. On the other hand, if you have three Led Zeppelin albums I can't see how this isn't one of them.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)

USA, 116 minutes, documentary
Director: Paul Justman
Writers: Walter Dallas, Ntozake Shange, Alan Slutsky
Photography: Douglas Milsome, Lon Stratton
Editor: Anne Erikson

Greil Marcus once famously described The Motown Story 5-LP box set as "the history of James Jamerson's bass playing, on fifty-eight hits." It's virtually another one of Marcus's favored secret histories, and this essential documentary tells it like it should have been told long ago. Nearly 20 years after Jamerson's death, it plunges deeply and with a good deal of affection into the musicians responsible for the actual sounds that made all those Motown hits so indelible.

Collectively known as the Funk Brothers, these session players were mostly Detroit-area jazz musicians, many transplanted from the South in the great postwar migrations north, who prized keen playing chops and enjoyed the challenge of an anonymous day job that involved working out the kinks of seemingly endless strings of pop hits. The cash was not bad (though it could have been better) but it beat working in the auto factories. Their names may be somewhat better known now—Jamerson, Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, Earl Van Dyke, Richard "Pistol" Allen, Robert White, Eddie Wills, and many more—but they are still mostly unknown, and this picture sets out to make that right.