Sunday, October 30, 2011

Best American Crime Writing 2006

A couple of commenters showed up this month asking about the status of this series, as the 2011 edition does not appear to be available at this time and there's very little information anywhere about if and when it will be coming. I don't know any better than anyone else, but in my poking around I came across a news item about Ecco Press senior editor Matt Weiland leaving for another house earlier this month. It may or may not be related. I have written to HarperCollins, the parent company of Ecco, to see if I can find anything out and will report back if I do. Meanwhile, I'm going to stick with my project of reviewing the series by volume, hoping that it's not about to become a memoriam.

The 2006 edition was edited by Mark Bowden, a journalist and academic who often examines crime in the context of foreign policy and war. He is likely best known for Black Hawk Down, which recounts the 1993 American adventure in Mogadishu in harrowing detail (and was later made into a loud movie by Ridley Scott). This also happens to be the last volume in the series that would be labeled as "Crime Writing"; henceforth, to avoid confusion with crime fiction, it would be known as "Crime Reporting." In a way I was sorry to see this. I think it's a shame that detective and mystery fiction have managed to effectively win the label of "crime writing," relegating true-crime literature to its current awkward, hyphenated, overly descriptive, and somewhat ghettoized status. But I don't doubt the marketing people know best in this. As always, it's a good collection, its pieces as interesting now as the day they were published, although I must say that, this far out, one does wish (somewhat impractically) for a bit longer view in some of the codas—again, that nice sense of wrapping up each piece is one of the best features of the series overall. I'm not sure whether it says more about Bowden (and/or series editors Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook) or about the times—probably the times—but there seems to be a bit more attention here than usual to crimes of priests and other Catholic Church officials, in terms of both the crimes themselves and of their subsequent (seemingly massive) cover-ups. Various crimes of doctors and police are also featured, so it may be more of a broader interest in the corruptions of our most important pillars of civilization. In another hallmark of the series, the ridiculous and light-hearted shows up cheek to jowl with the tragic and the horrific. A thoughtful and searching examination of the Emmett Till story and its long aftermath by Richard Rubin from the "New York Times Magazine" is here as well as a strange story by Skip Hollandsworth from the "Texas Monthly" about a serial bank robber known as Cowboy Bob who was actually a woman. My favorite piece in this one was once again the last—I'm starting to think they may save the best for last as a matter of policy. "The Great Mojave Manhunt" by Deanne Stillman appeared originally in "Rolling Stone" and tells the story of the capture of one Donald Kueck, a desert outlaw with a long history of bad blood with authorities taken down with considerable prejudice. The echoes of Waco are unmistakable. When police finally reached his body it was so thoroughly burnt that it crumbled when they attempted to move it. Stillman is something of an unusual writer of true-crime, far more poetical and effusive than the usual brisk just-the-facts-ma'am exercises offered up by most of its writers. Her allusive language does not always work, but it certainly does in this case.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reconsider Baby (1954-1971)

It shouldn't be any surprise that my favorite albums by Elvis Presley are barely albums proper in the way we typically think of albums now. He just never was that much of an albums artist, too busy making himself a colossal force of culture. Or anyway making movies, or something. So if The Sun Sessions was cobbled together 20 years or more after the fact, and Elvis' Golden Records, Vol. 3 appears deceptively to be just another entry in the ongoing ossification of the '60s, this was conceived, assembled, and released in 1985, nearly a decade after his death. I don't think it ever got a real CD release and it's not particularly easy to reassemble its various pieces from the bewildering thickets of product existing out there now. Its stated purpose was to make the case for Presley as an accomplished blues singer; note the hues of the album cover, for emphasis. The track listing: "Reconsider Baby," "Hi-Heel Sneakers," "Stranger in My Own Home Town," "Down in the Alley," "Merry Christmas Baby," "Tomorrow Night," "So Glad You're Mine," "One Night," "When it Rains, it Really Pours," "My Baby Left Me," "Ain't That Loving You Baby," "I Feel So Bad." I haven't been able to reproduce this album since my turntable went bust and I let it slip away in various purges of vinyl, at least in terms of the versions I remember for each title, but with what's out there now one can still come close enough to affirm, positively, "Mission accomplished." Presley reportedly found his greatest comforts and pleasures singing gospel, he's adequate as a crooning balladeer (some would surely argue he's even better than that), and of course he's the widely acknowledged "king of rock 'n' roll." But he was no slouch when it came to the blues, whether it's flavors of raunch, rave-up, desperation, jumping joy, or just plain sadness. He was all over it. This is a set, though you may have to go to some trouble now to gather it up together in one place, that stands up to and actually gets better and better with extended regular play. Sometimes I feel like Presley is overrated, with all the hoopla and everything that is claimed for him. No one could live up to that. But when I listen to a set like this I realize how genuinely gifted he was. Multiply that across varying tastes by the millions and I think you start to get some idea where the reputation comes from. He's one of those rare figures who comes very close to managing to be all things to all people. And if you'll excuse me now, I really must go spend another six minutes with this amazing version of "Merry Christmas Baby" that's just starting....

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

USA, 110 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Photography: John F. Seitz
Music: Franz Waxman
Editors: Doane Harrison, Arthur P. Schmidt
Cast: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Jack Webb, Lloyd Gough, Cecil B. DeMille, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite film directors, and Sunset Blvd. happens to be my favorite picture by him, so naturally I'm happy to see it placing so high on the list of all-time greats at the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website. Wilder is cynical, bitter, and funny, pretty much in all the right proportions, and his talent as a screenwriter is at least as abundant as his ability to work with actors and frame visuals. Nowhere does he bring all that together in a more dazzling confection than here.

Sunset Blvd. is frequently characterized as a film noir—indeed, one of the great ones. It's good to see it lauded for any old reason, and all the various deep and angled shadows, along with the incidental crime in its story frame, make the designation appropriate enough, I suppose. But its black absurdity makes it seem to me more of an American gothic—or even more specifically a Hollywood gothic. Is there any other noir that makes such flawless use of not only a dead chimpanzee, but a pipe organ that catches the wind in a way that makes it sound as if it is on its deathbed of lung cancer? Or any other one even like it?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

34. Beatles, "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" (1964)


I see on Wikipedia that this likely qualifies as something of a minor Beatles song—never a hit, written as a confidence-booster for George Harrison to sing, and lightly derided by Lennon and McCartney. It's short too, at less than two minutes. But it has always been among my favorites and even more so as increasingly my favorite albums by the Beatles have become the two bearing the titles of the first two movie projects. This is from the Hard Day's Night album and it's as shimmering and punchy and lustrous and black-and-white as the movie itself, attacking with brilliant ringing chords and a churning rhythm that set the tone instantly. I guess it's rather sing-songy (for George's sake apparently), but it has all the hallmarks of what made those first Beatles songs so perfectly attractive: innocent and full of children's energy, but compressed to diamond-points, overflowing with shrewd musical ideas and strategies that are never busy calling attention to themselves but are simply there to make the songs better. And they do make the songs better, unique and unusual and interesting, not in a way that shouts, "Look how clever we are," but rather that says, "What do you think of that? How do you like that?" "Silly love songs" as Paul McCartney would later make a fetish of it. That's all this is. "Before this dance is through / I think I'll love you too / I'm so happy when you dance with me." But it's driven by those chords and that rhythm and God knows what other musical tricks. It gets right under my skin and makes me instantly happy and I'm happy just to play it over and over—and particularly thrilled when it shows up unexpected on the radio, which believe me is not often enough. Hardly ever, in fact.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

35. Bob Dylan, "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965)


I've always considered Highway 61 Revisited the best Bob Dylan by a fair sight, but Bringing it All Back Home, home of the original (and best) version of "Mr. Tambourine Man," is worthy in its own right. Worthy, did I say? Downright essential. "Mr. Tambourine Man" kicks off the second side and has often seemed to me a far-reaching look to what was to come, even though it's plainly as acoustic as can be, with Dylan strumming away and blowing his mouth harp, accompanied only by a subtle electric guitar figure from Bruce Langhorne. I was not much a fan of the Byrds cover, so for a long time I was reluctant to play that second side, drawn to it more by the dark, penetrating, and often very funny long song, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," which of itself practically made it the better side (with "Gates of Eden" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"). I don't recall the circumstances, but I put it on once for another chance at that long one and finally this leapt out at me. It's so many things all at once: Controlled, caustic, soothing, mournful, plain as can be, as light and nimble on its feet as a cat, and ultimately quite beautiful, but in a way that leaves one stammering around outside the edges of it. The best way in is ultimately just listening, letting the levels peel back and back and back. The language spills like rushing water as it does on so much of Dylan's best material, the rhythms of it and its meanings vying at once for attention, tumbling together stream of conscious style, enveloping one all at once in an indelible moment and feeling. It's not my favorite song by him—there's still one more ahead, and a good many candidates always ready to surge (including the aforementioned "It's Alright, Ma")—but it may be the single warmest thing he ever did.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Asylum (1997)

If Patrick McGrath's amazing novel of psychological horror never quite transcends the niche it occupies so well as a puzzle box of tricks and deceptions, it nevertheless must be counted as one of the finest examples of it you will find. It's creepy, nerve-wracking, clever, written with such elegance that the decadence rolls off in unrelieved waves, so engrossing from the first page forward it's a dark thrill ride at some point you find yourself hoping will never stop—even as it gets wound up so tight you wish it would for God's sake. I haven't yet read anything else by McGrath that matches it, and very few things by anyone else beyond the accepted masters, such as Edgar Allan Poe. John Fowles (The Magus) and Ian McEwan (The Innocent) are about as far as I'm willing to venture in terms of comparison, and even there I'm worried that I'm just mixing up my morbid Brits. Maybe Alan Moore, another Brit, and one who works in another medium altogether, comic books. Certainly McGrath matches his facility for storytelling and for striking the macabre tone without being a cackling buffoon about it. This is truly scary, disturbing stuff in its best moments. So many things that I naturally gravitate toward are on display here: Freudian obsession, cruelty, high gothic overtones, and a nicely plotted story that may fairly be called "gripping," its momentum hurtling one forward into the dark night to the finish. There's a beautiful woman married to an official at a high-security psychiatric hospital. There's a madman who's not actually mad who seduces her. Or wait, he's probably mad. No. I don't know. There's a Machiavellian puppet-master pulling strings. Maybe. There are masks behind masks and layers of identity peeling away, and of course multiple twists and surprises. And always we are in the hands of a storyteller whose seductive power only grows, a pitiless master. At some points it feels as if the book could instruct one to go make a cup of tea for the author and it's as likely as not that readers, zombie fashion, would. It's not often enough that someone capable of imagining a plot as intricate and byzantine as this can deliver it with such precise and lovely language. Anyone who hasn't read this yet, I envy you. Go have yourself a good time.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Close to the Edge (1972)

I'm pretty sure the general consensus on Yes is that Fragile is the best album they did, with maybe The Yes Album in there too, though I suspect there's another quarter who would argue for Tales From Topographic Oceans, a double LP with four songs. I like Fragile, I never warmed to Tales (and I have nothing to say about the '80s comeback, except I did kind of like that hit). Close to the Edge, the album that came between, was the one I owned and was fanatical about for a time, a daily habit even, mostly for the side-long title song, although I thought the flip was worth the time too when I was in the mood for more where that came from. But I was done with it more years ago than I like to think. So I approached it again recently with some trepidation. Boy howdy what do you know, it still sounds terrific. Visiting Wikipedia, I am reminded that two of its three tracks, including the long one, are presented as suites composed of titled sections: "The Solid Time of Change," "Total Mass Retain," "Seasons of Man," "Cord of Life," and like that. I probably didn't need to remember that, because it only emphasizes the silly pretensions of a lot of the progressive-rock I consciously walked away from. But it doesn't mean even so that there isn't a good deal of soul and energy and imagination incorporated here, not to mention a good groove once in awhile, and always a kind of sincerely felt yearning after transcendence. I am also seeing that the long one has something to do with Hermann Hesse and one or another of his novels, but the thing is they really could get it worked out on the musical plane and that's the level on which it operates still. In fact, setting aside all the ponderous conceptual hippie (or post-hippie) shtick is not hard at all with the thing playing. As far as I can tell it's a real band working things out the way real bands do—rehearsing, jamming, locking up with one another, and knowing what they're all about all the way from the inside, each connected equally to all the others, and then just playing until it comes together. I mean, it's possible that what I'm hearing is a sentimental hit of nostalgia, re-embracing with an album I remember well loving, and all the memories and lost youth and all that associated with it. Or, on the other hand, maybe it's just a really good album.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Third Man (1949)

UK, 104 minutes
Director: Carol Reed
Writers: Graham Greene, Alexander Korda, Carol Reed, Orson Welles
Photography: Robert Krasker
Music: Anton Karas
Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Bernard Lee, Wilfred Hyde-White, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, Erich Ponto, Paul Hoerbiger

In his introduction on the Criterion DVD, Peter Bogdanovich calls The Third Man "perhaps the greatest 'non-auteur' film ever made," going on to compare it with Casablanca as an "extraordinarily happy accident." That's probably fair enough. There's plenty of talent to go around here: Graham Greene wrote both the screenplay and the literary property on which it's based. Cinematographer Robert Krasker is positively heroic about converting postwar Vienna into a malevolent place of inky blacks, confusing geometries, and outsize shadows. And of course Orson Welles, in spite of his limited screen time—he doesn't even appear until the first hour has passed—imposes enough sheer presence to make it feel as much like a Welles picture as any on which he carries the director's credit.

Obviously I still need to see some of director Carol Reed's other efforts, particularly of the period—Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, which immediately preceded The Third Man, are widely praised. But Bogdanovich's assessment does confirm my impression of this as one of those unique and special projects where so much falls into place just right, with contributors working together well and at the same time achieving personal heights.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

36. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put a Spell on You" (1956)


This early rock 'n' roll novelty—recorded in a drunken session Hawkins claims he didn't remember even the next day, banned from radio in some places for its "cannibalistic" noises, and generally so weird that it never cracked the charts—has managed to transcend its strange pedigree to become a classic in its own right. I know I was aware of it before Jim Jarmusch's 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise but that's certainly where it really caught my attention, bawling out of a cassette tape player that the female lead carried with her wherever she went (Hawkins himself later made a memorable appearance in another Jarmusch film worth seeing, Mystery Train). Knowing the backstory to the song, the elements of the drunkenness and even the "cannibalistic" noises, may (or may not) clarify what you're hearing, but I think the truth is that they work only to the extent they complement and sharpen the tension with the careful and plodding attack by the sax and rhythm section—and what's that, a banjo?—setting up something that is equal parts clownish and supernaturally powerful, and altogether startlingly original, which Jarmusch played to perfectly. I'm not entirely convinced Hawkins ever had a firm handle on what he had wrought, but he was anyway able to take it and parlay it into an over-the-top shtick involving props such as coffins, capes, skulls, and the like, all of that rather remarkable of course for the '50s. Now it bears the label generally of "shock rock," and it laid the ground for the likes of Screaming Lord Sutch, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, arguably even Alice Cooper and everything that followed in his wake. But this is ground zero for all of that, and it's pretty special in its own right.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

37. Pogues, "Fairytale of New York" (1987)


Apparently I have been living in a cave because until just now via Wikipedia I had not realized the efforts people have made to turn this into a holiday classic—as admirable as they are ludicrous as they are perfect. Ludicrous because the song is so determinedly squalid, so dank and fetid, a drunk man in jail on Christmas Eve who pines uselessly for better days; perfect because with all that it works so well. My hat is off to those who hear this so clearly now. It gives me cause for hope after all. The album it comes from, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, is an utter revelation itself, but this was the point where it tipped over for me into something so strange and bewildering and good I don't have adequate words for it. I have been known to play it again and again. Shane MacGowan's gruff, whiskey-soaked, forever off-pitch growl matched with Kirsty MacColl's forever upbeat pop fashionista femme warble, the lush grand piano that launches it, the strings that carry it home, all the Irish strains, the nostalgia and regret and other symptoms of despair, the presence of law enforcement, and overall the sense of a nagging sadness, omnipresent, only temporarily, fleetingly redeemed, are overwhelming when heard under the right circumstances, e.g., alone, whether by oneself literally or in a madding crowd or at the family hearth. Maybe it's the Christmas theme that makes it hit so hard. Maybe I'm vulnerable to any flavor of pop music syrup that comes along. But the tension here is visceral, operating at multiple levels: a strange duet, foul-mouthed and sweet, with intimations of both jail and joy, bittersweet, wise, and knowing.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

I read this book back in the day, though I'm pretty sure only the once, when I was so entirely in thrall to Vonnegut, toward the end of my high school career. I'm pretty sure I never understood the enormity at the center of it, the February 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden, the way he intended, only approximately. By the numbers (135,000 dead and the images he gives us of the destruction, comparing the Dresden landscape to the moon) it was worse than the March 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo (81,000 dead), which was worse than August 1945 Hiroshima A-bomb attack (71,000 dead). It was very bad, and 25 years after the fact Vonnegut is still gnawing away at it here, still quite evidently shattered by it, which is reflected in the strange way that his slender volume proceeds, with its Tralfamadorian aliens that kidnap the protagonist, its use of "so it goes" to punctuate every death (whether any mention of the thousands in Dresden or various life-forms), and the mystifying use of time travel, the coming "unstuck" in time that Billy Pilgrim experiences. It's something more than intense memory, but not by much. Then there is the very calculated and self-conscious way that Vonnegut injects himself. It's a novel, but there's Vonnegut using Chapter One the way others might use a preface or foreword, where he talks about how he begins the novel, which actually starts with Chapter Two. Just weird, but also convincingly reflective of a soul in extremity. It was a lot easier for me this second time through to set aside Vonnegut's variously annoying and beguiling tricks and focus on what he tells us about Dresden and to imagine what it must have been like to experience that and understand the horror. It's no wonder he spent the rest of his life opposed to war. It also raises questions about our conduct in and prosecution of the "good war." Both Dresden and Tokyo (and of course Nagasaki, and there's a case for Hiroshima too) appear to stand as acts of state-sponsored rage, a kind of terrorism, justified or no nevertheless coming from impulses that sensible people have always known must be set aside for the sake of civilization and humanity and other quaint ideas. It's cause for despair that these atrocities have mostly been covered up by history—which, I know, the victors write and all that. That's the despair that uniquely haunts this very strange little novel, and the reason it belongs in libraries until the end of time.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Aqualung (1971)

I had some hope I might actually like this after 40 years. I never warmed to it much at the time, though I did love the first three Jethro Tull albums—Benefit, probably the least of them objectively speaking, is an eternal favorite for being one of the first albums I ever owned. This Was had Mick Abrahams and Stand Up was just charming. I saw a Tull concert in support of Aqualung that I remember liking pretty well. A bit on the histrionic side, naturally enough I suppose, but some very sharp and memorable moments that are with me still. And taken a track at a time as it would come on classic rock radio, the title song or "Cross-Eyed Mary" or "Hymn 43" or "Locomotive Breath" or whatnot, I thought it was pretty good too, hooks and atmosphere and groovy hard-rock guitar, etc. But alas maybe its moment has simply come and gone for me; listening to the whole thing now has proved little better than a numbing chore. Partly it's because I don't often connect with such big hairy brawny concept albums (I know, there are exceptions) and partly because somehow this particular concept leaves me a bit squeamish. It's not that I have anything against anti-religious sentiments, but when the rage reaches certain levels of vitriol I often find myself looking around nervously for the exits. I don't doubt the severity of the problems. But as one of the damned, I was fortunate enough to escape many of them. Honestly, I'm glad my Midwestern United Methodist Church never ran any of the trips on me—if anything, it was "too liberal" and threw the curse of a lasting impression of tolerance on me. So no horror stories, thank God, and not much of the seething resentment to share, except of course for Fred Phelps and his ilk, and we all know dicks like that are a special case. I don't doubt that for some this album is a tonic, even a life-saver, in its time and place. As for the matter of whether Ian Anderson (pic) and Alan Moore (pic) are actually the same person, that's just a rumor from irresponsible quarters and I refuse to traffic in such things.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Children of Paradise (1945)

Les enfants du paradis, France, 163 minutes
Director: Marcel Carne
Writer: Jacque Prevert
Photography: Roger Hubert
Music: Maurice Thiriet
Editors: Henri Rust, Madeleine Bonin
Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, Maria Casares, Louis Salon, Pierre Renoir, Gaston Modot, Jane Marken

Children of Paradise is regarded as being nearly as famous for the circumstances of its production as for anything else about it so I will start there. Filmed under Vichy France, during the German occupation of World War II, there's an undeniable scrappiness to all the extras and the vigor of many of the exterior shots, a sense of making do and a kind of spiritedness to it that I think may be genuinely unique. Vichy authorities, for example, had imposed a maximum film length of 90 minutes, and so the 163-minute Children of Paradise is presented as a kind of double feature, two back-to-back films each with their own elaborate (and parallel) opening titles. In so doing, they found even more ways to make their production a self-consciously "theatrical" work, with its seams showing and some of the stuffing hanging out.

They weren't, of course, so daring as to try to compress some anti-authoritarian allegory into it—they probably never would have got away with it, for one thing, if they had even been inclined that way—so this tale of Parisian culture of the 1840s wild and free on the streets does not have much to do with Parisian culture under German rule a century later, except for generalities such as the immutable human spirit. The title refers to the players and backstage crew, the participants actively involved in the exciting life of theater and drama, as well as the working-class people who attended the shows and could afford only the cheapest seats. What we would now call "nosebleed" seats were then referred to as "paradise" or "the Gods" and the best players were said to be playing explicitly to "the Gods," whose patrons gave the most immediate and unfiltered reactions to performances. "Up in the Gods," says one character, "their lives are small, but their dreams are vast." It's a heartening view of culture and theater and democracy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

38. Iggy Pop, "Five Foot One" (1979)


Iggy's 1979 New Values was way high on my list of favorites of that year even if it is somewhat uneven. With horns and the band tight as can be and Iggy's various improvs, whether they work or not, carefully preserved in the pristine rock amber of the precise, dusky production by James Williamson, it works a lot of the time. The title song avails of this aesthetic too and to varying degrees other songs here, "Tell Me a Story," "Girls," "I'm Bored" (a candidate at #138), "Billy Is a Runaway." But the sound is nowhere more put together than on this five-minute display of wanton modulated chamber-rock. Everything from the heartbeat bass to the tidy drumkit to the rolling waves of the horn charts and electric guitars and Iggy's goofs off all of it—studied, and thus vaguely abstracted and distanced, but compensating with a surprising good humor that is lusty and alive, and a band that is rocking, rocking. No one but Iggy Pop is capable of such stunts. Here he is out front making jokes about a short-guy complex; at an actual height of just a shade under 5'-8" it's something Iggy is not likely unfamiliar with, one of the reasons he can make it work so effectively. The scenario is funny too, a guy working at an amusement park and hot for some. "With a bottle of aspirin and a sackful of jokes / I wish I could go home with all the big folks," he declares outright. "I wish life could be Swedish magazines." At that point the song's about opened up wide and working on open cylinders like a mighty machine or intricate household appliance. You can dance to it if you want. "I won't grow any more any more any more," he finally concedes as the noise envelops him.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

39. Alex Chilton, "Thank You John" (1985)


From early in Chilton's neo-Memphis going on neo-New Orleans phase of his second half of the '80s, just as he was simultaneously becoming an underground indie darling cum icon of transfixed youth forever. I knew this originally from an EP set called "Feudalist Tarts" that's got a few nice things: cover of Carla Thomas's "B-A-B-Y," cover of Slim Harpo's "Tee Ni Nee Ni Noo / Tip on In," the whole jazz band riffing like a rock band thing alone. But this Willie Tee moment of parable truth out of the beach music scene of the Carolinas was ahead of its time at least in terms of the studied matter-of-factness of the way in which it reveals itself. The contempt the pimp has for the john is done to a ripe turn by Chilton. The business-as-usual interchangeableness of the ho under control is suggestion and allusion. The horns and snaky rhythms keep it amiably rolling forward, flowing and warm and easygoing, which enables Chilton to go as icy cold as he can jettisoning the suave savoir faire of Willie Tee's original and lingering instead on the most suggestive details to draw out the shades of meaning, like lancing a boil with swift furious thrusts. There's nothing subtle going on here: "I know that you've been ballin' / You're as high as you can be ... I know he wanted to handle you / I could tell by the bruises on your arm ... I don't blame you baby for trying to swell his head / 'Cos after all baby he's giving us his bread." Willie Tee's version is more about getting over, but Chilton is bent on making the getting over the gotten over and every thing from his mouth is washed in bitter patina. His frail-voiced wizened hipster youth flirting with the downward spiral is just convincing enough of itself to sell this good and hard. It's unforgettable, even.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A Patchwork Planet (1998)

This is one by Anne Tyler that seemed to me not so easy to get a bead on. On the one hand it's as compulsively readable as anything by her; I have now found myself twice rip-roaring through it in short order. Its first-person story of Barnaby Gaitlin the poor little rich boy and black sheep of a wealthy family of Baltimore philanthropists has all the usual Tyler hallmarks: quirky lovable characters who bring the pathos, a jumble of amiable incident, and a moderately surprise twist in its ending that satisfies more than not. Gaitlin has rejected his wealthy family nearly as much as they have rejected him, though all remain enmeshed with one another. After some serious problems as a teen, including a late graduation from high school and legal troubles involving burglary charges, he has spent all of his adult life working for Rent-a-Back, which provides manual labor services to the elderly. Gaitlin turns 30 as the novel begins. Divorced from a brief marriage, he has a 9-year-old daughter who lives with her mother and stepfather in Philadelphia. Gaitlin is a bit of a Holden Caulfield, reflexively rejecting anything he identifies as phony. He rents the basement of a home from a family with whom he must share a bathroom. The patriarchal side of his family believes that angels traditionally visit them at portentous points in their lives to deliver fateful messages. Gaitlin believes he may have found his angel in the person of Sophie, who he meets on a train ride between Baltimore and Philadelphia after watching her carry through on a good deed on an earlier train ride. But when they end up involved, Gaitlin is no longer as sure about that. Taken altogether, A Patchwork Planet notably has its oddities, perhaps none greater than Tyler's decision to tell the story first-person by Gaitlin. Over the duration of the novel he seemed to me less and less believable as a man, and indeed begins to come off like one of those Woody Allen characters—philosopher or TV comedy writer or documentary filmmaker—who only sounds like Woody Allen. Gaitlin sounds more and more like the typical garrulous, overfeeling Tyler female with an overlay of pro forma male characteristics, such as a certain degree of handiness with tools. Some of Gaitlin's plaintive declarations and assertions at points started to remind me of Jack Handey Deep Thoughts shtick ("If you go parachuting, and your parachute doesn’t open, and you friends are all watching you fall, I think a funny gag would be to pretend you were swimming"), which brought things dangerously close to capsizing under their own weight at various points. Yet this is also one of Tyler's more tightly constructed and symmetrical plots as well and certainly worth it for any fan.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Sleeping With the Past (1989)

This is the other Elton John album I pulled out of the slush pile the same day I picked up the Thom Bell set. It was officially the new one at the time, hailed by fast-talking PR types who called me on the phone as some kind of rapprochement and reunion of Elton and his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin. Something about it certainly struck home for me as I played it quite a bit, used various tracks as staples on mix tapes I made for years ("Sacrifice," "Sleeping With the Past," "Club at the End of the Street"), and in general just had myself a real nice glowing Elton John renaissance over it. I don't hear much of that as clearly now—though the music has well-grooved associations with a momentous period of my life and so some value on that level. I had the whole thing on the side of a tape that I took with me on a trip to New York, playing it a lot on my walkman as I pounded the streets and stopped into stores such as the Strand bookstore, and it worked nicely in that context, surprisingly. But mostly it sounds ponderous and lumbering to me now, though with all the usual high production values and some occasional moments that whip themselves up to a fine spirit or to very lovely passages or both, much like virtually all of Elton John for 30 years or more. In the end, maybe Elton John has become a kind of Elvis Presley for me. I'm still mostly enamored with much of his early work and certainly all the hits when he exploded in the '70s. He has steadily ossified into nothing ever particularly surprising, let alone meaningful. "I'm Still Standing" indeed, career statement of purpose. I said before that people were grateful for his reworking of "Candle in the Wind" as an elegy for Princess Diana, but I wasn't actually one of them. On the other hand, I wanted to stand on a chair and cheer when he and Eminem pulled their little stunt. So I don't actually have anything against him or resent him his success the way I might some others. I'm glad he's around and still out there and it's even nice to hear this again once in awhile.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Psycho (1960)

USA, 109 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Joseph Stefano, Robert Bloch
Photography: John L. Russell
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: George Tomasini
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson, Patricia Hitchcock, Mort Mills

Alfred Hitchcock’s full-tilt stab at horror must have come as something of a shock to those who had grown used to the technicolor antics and capers of all those sparkling Hollywood stars in Hitchcock’s ‘50s productions, whatever weird trails they might have gone down, such as Vertigo. But Psycho remains a classic horror show to this day, one of the pictures most associated with Hitchcock and one by which he may be best remembered. It came at the tail end of arguably his greatest run, after Vertigo and North by Northwest, and it heralded the dawn of the kandy-kolored tangerine dream decade that was to follow with the grit and harsh contrasts of a movie that was black and white on multiple levels to its core.

It takes a number of chances, most notably in the single-minded way it goes for the look and feel of a tawdry low-budget shocker as well as in the relatively brief screen time given to its female lead, Janet Leigh. In many ways, and in spite of its feature length, it operates as a particularly meticulous installment of his TV show, complete with story twists and surprises and a clumsy everything's-all-right-after-all coda, grounded in the reassuring avuncular tones of a professional psychiatrist. Because of those story twists and surprises, and how artfully the picture manages to husband its secrets, I feel obligated at this point to mention that spoilers are ahead.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Even for someone without the formidable writing skills of Joan Didion there's a story of significant dimensions to be told here: A few days after Didion's daughter lapses into a coma for reasons not entirely clear, her husband of nearly 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, suddenly suffers and dies from a cardiac event in their home, which Didion witnesses just as she's about to serve dinner. Her daughter's health remains precarious over the year that follows. Because of Didion's and Dunne's reputation, or even fame, there's an odd blending here of facile gossipy fascination and genuinely gripping story of human pathos. As we have seen, Didion has spent much of her career trafficking in highly personalized anxiety and dread, and here she is, out of a long life of evident privilege, suddenly confronted with samples of some her worst nightmares—some of the worst nightmares of anyone. I found my sympathies thus not entirely unmixed, though more often than not feeling for her, and achingly so. One doctor very early, shortly after the death of her husband—I mean literally in the few hours following—refers to her as "a pretty cool customer," which rings true in every way imaginable. Yet her life's nonfiction work, even as it maintains the pose, makes apparent that she is actually anything but. Acting as if she is "a pretty cool customer" is simply what she knows to do. Typically enough, for example, she reports, and with a good deal of lucidity, on how she is unable to throw away Dunne's shoes because he will need them when he comes back, even as she more than readily acknowledges how well she knows he is not coming back. Even at the end of the book, when she is writing a year and more out from the events, she notes in passing that she still has the shoes. Things like that make this finely observed work, to a remarkable degree. Sudden death, even long-expected death, does have a way of throwing one into such mindsets. The denial of reality is very clear in such moments. One may continue to function entirely as someone who has accepted reality, yet the denial rages on inside, consciously or not. Didion, thrown willy-nilly into the greatest extremities of her life, reports back with exactly the kind of poise and eye for the telling detail and sharply etched prose that we have come to expect from her in even the most dispassionate areas. It makes me suspect what a lifeline her work must be for her, and I find myself respecting her for it all the more.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Complete Thom Bell Sessions (1977)

It may seem vaguely comical to label something that amounts to all of six songs totaling just 35 minutes of music "complete," but complete is complete, and the reference here is to an EP released in 1979 with just three of these tracks. This complete set, though recorded in 1977, didn't come along until the end of the '80s, well after Elton John had settled into the calcified glamour he has occupied so well over recent decades and producer Thom Bell had registered his greatest work with the Delfonics, Stylistics, and Spinners (who show up here singing background vocals). Those soul acts rank way high for me among those from the late '60s into the '70s and Elton John of course is a lifelong favorite, so this was a bit of a natural when I fished it out of a slush pile circa 1989. Yet it nevertheless came as a surprise as I had not been particularly aware of the EP and its associations with Bell and the Spinners. The truth is I was about done with Elton John by 1979, though now and then I took a chance on one of his albums, such as 21 at 33 (which usually proved disappointing). The general thrust is apparent just from scanning the titles, where the word "love" appears in four of the six, though not always without something of a bite: "Nice and Slow," "Country Love Song," "Shine on Through" (which showed up in different form on 1978's A Single Man), "Mama Can't Buy You Love," "Are You Ready for Love," and "Three Way Love Affair." Elton gets songwriting credit for three of them, and Bell also for three; the only one they collaborated on was "Nice and Slow," with Bernie Taupin chipping in lyrics. Two songs come in close to or over eight minutes, and the rest are about five minutes each, so there's some stretching out here but not to unruly lengths. To me there's a slightly muffled sound to the recording, as if the seals were fixed too tight and the oxygen depleting, which something could maybe be done about in a remastering, or perhaps that's the way Bell and John intended it. It's not that distracting—the main attraction is the late-disco sound verging on adult contemporary that moves so confidently through everything here. Those are a couple of genres where it's all too easy to go wrong and where so many before and since have wrecked. But there's something sweet and poignant about this set, a feeling that history waited too long but it's good to have at last, a feeling that persists. I still hear these songs as revelation and surprise, with some sadness I can't quite pin down, nonetheless inflected, enlivened, heartened, even redeemed by the joy they bear. It's one '70s set that seems likely to quietly endure a good long time.