Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

#50: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)

I decided to start with a few movies that are probably not entirely stellar in everyone's book, but made lasting impressions on me one way or another; as Steven says, more faves than undeniable classics (later for the latter). Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—or, according to "Mad" magazine, "Botch Casually & the Somedunce Kid"—was just another Friday night at the movies in junior high. But a few months later I found a copy of William Goldman's screenplay in mass market paperback and was fascinated with the structure and syntax of it, the CUT TOs and FADE IN ONs and so forth, and the way that all those elements with the dialogue told a story. Then I went to see the movie again and again for a time. I see now that it doesn't amount to that much—the broad humor, the jokey camaraderie between Butch and Sundance, and the various musical interludes scattered along the way often seem to me basically dreadful. But it's almost always entertaining and comes with numerous memorable moments (e.g., Sundance: "Can I move?"). It's notably good on the bittersweet inevitability of the ends of things, and was set up unusually well to wield the point, effectively equating the end of the '60s with the closing of the western frontier and the coming of the movies, or something like that. I couldn't find a clip of the saddest scene in the whole thing, when Sundance's girlfriend tells Butch and Sundance she's decided to head back to the States and wait for them to meet her there. All three know she's leaving because she doesn't want to see them die, and that their deaths are not far off. I remember recognizing it as the way a lot of people seemed to feel about things then, even though, just like in the movie, there was a lot of forced hilarity going on at the same time.

"Raindrops keep fallin' on my head / But that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turnin' red" 

"Mad" magazine movie parody titles

Phil #50: The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972)
Steven #50: Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001)

It causes me anxiety to remember that Barbara Ehrenreich's participant/observer-style examination of the plight of the American underclass actually took place late in the Clinton adminstration, when the U.S. economy by all indications was roaring and good times were upon the land. I really hate to think what it must be like now. Like so many great things, Ehrenreich's strategy for this experiment, which takes its place alongside the legacy of such writers as Jack London and George Orwell, is the soul of simplicity. Parachuting into Florida, Maine, and Minnesota with only a car ("Rent-A-Wrecks"), money enough for a place to stay, and an ATM card for food if she absolutely must, Ehrenreich posed as a housewife returning to the workforce with minimal skills and experience and then attempted to survive. "The idea was to spend a month in each setting and see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month's rent," she writes. All things considered, even these basic terms and the levels of support she allowed herself might reasonably be deemed cushy by anyone actually living the life. She lands jobs as a nursing home aide, a house cleaner, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. The results are predictable enough—there's a whole lot of soul crushing going on out there. Well-meaning friends of Ehrenreich encouraged her to skip the field work and just do the math, but if she'd taken their advice she'd never have found out some of the hidden realities she uncovers here, which are almost beyond imagining for many in privileged positions. For example, Ehrenreich details how the cost of living is not just proportionally higher for the underclass, but often is actually higher too. If a person can't afford to pay the deposits required to secure an apartment, and has no resources to borrow the money, the only choice left for many is taking rooms in cheap motels, paying by the week or night—and even cheap motels can cost well upwards of a thousand dollars a month. Obviously staying in a motel is intended as a stopgap measure but Ehrenreich makes all too clear how easy it is to slip into vicious cycles of economic entrapments. People in these positions are perilously close to disaster, day in and day out, and often they don't take good care of themselves either, eating poorly and eschewing exercise. Medical care, of course, tends to be out of reach. And I haven't even started on the realities of the kinds of jobs Ehrenreich took, which I happen to know some of from periods working as a nursing home aide myself and in a K-Mart. This is a bleak and tremendously valuable book and warrants continual updating. I wish I had a fraction of the courage Ehrenreich demonstrates here.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Underwater Moonlight (1980)

The second album by the Soft Boys was pure revelation when I finally caught up with it, a few years after Robyn Hitchcock was fully embarked on his solo career, with and without the Egyptians. Already Hitchcock's trademark wry European surrealism cross-pollinated with New Wave sonics is fully on display: "You've been laying eggs under my skin / Now they're hatching out under my chin / Now there's tiny insects showing through / And all them tiny insects look like you," he casually tosses off on "Kingdom of Love." The album opener, "I Wanna Destroy You" is an ostensible anti-war sentiment that sets out to flatten you with all its might. The expressions of love, as on "I Got the Hots" or "Insanely Jealous" (which reports jealousy of, among other things, the people that you see, the people that aren't me, the places that you go, the people that you know, the hairs upon your back, the spiders in your path) are just barely this side of unhinged. The context, the primary feature, and the raison d'etre all through is crunchy, pile-driving, Brit-derived rock 'n' roll at full propulsion, the sound of guitar strings snapping on open chords played hard, with Hitchcock's adenoidal boarding-school twit vocals riding the top with variously sweet melodies. The original vinyl LP was nearly perfect, one to flip over and over and over. Some 20 years later came a reissue with seven or eight extras (one, a cover of Syd Barrett's "Vegetable Man," had previously appeared on some of the LP editions) and a whole second disc of live performance/rehearsals from the time, known as ...And How it Got There. I'm rarely one to complain about excesses of the things I like, but the reissue has never hit me with the same force as the original, which just means, I suppose, that I need to learn how to apportion my things more carefully. Because actually, taken on a case by case basis, a number of the added tracks are among those I enjoyed most in revisiting the album recently: "Strange," with its eerie and beautiful harmonies and spare arrangement, "Where Are the Prawns?," which rocks a good deal, and "Black Snake Diamond Rock," which also rocks a good deal (and is not to be confused with an early solo album, Black Snake Diamond Röle). This is good stuff, bringing interesting variety to an already impressive set. But the original 10 remain as fresh and weird and potent as the day I first heard them, raving up at will and putting themselves across effortlessly.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Future (2011)

Germany/USA, 91 minutes
Director/writer: Miranda July
Photography: Nikolai von Graevenitz
Music: Jon Brion
Editor: Andrew Bird
Cast: Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky, Joe Putterlik, Isabella Acres

There's a fair number of disclaimers I need to hit with this one so I will just get right to it. This is one of those pictures I would not think could ever work—even, or maybe I should say especially, after actually seeing it. But both times I have seen it now I have come away in something of a not entirely pleasurable daze. So the first disclaimer has to be the obligatory SPOILER ALERT. I think much of the impact turns on a particular plot point, which I will talk about beyond the jump, a plot point that for me was entirely unexpected, for which I was not prepared, and that utterly floored me. Yeah, it still works fine knowing it ahead of time, as I discovered looking at The Future again. But spoiler rules are spoiler rules, so there you go.

There's also a matter of director/writer Miranda July's steely determination to operate within the dimensions of a twee preciosity. The inclination was a good deal more pronounced in her 2005 debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, but it's here too. I would argue she's shrewd about the way she goes about using it, ultimately playing very hard against expectations even as she packs this full of familiar indie mumblecore-type gestures, with self-involved 20somethings (who are actually 30something, as we shortly discover) living their ironic alternative lifestyles with pluck and humor, buoyed by a stream of wide-eyed and gentle knowing sarcasm that threatens constantly to tip over into bitterness and bad temper.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Facebook 50 '11: Introduction

Last year a friend (Phil Dellio) invited another friend (Steven Rubio) and myself to participate in a countdown of our 50 favorite movies. It was staged in a Facebook group—Phil had just completed another countdown exercise in another Facebook group with another friend (Scott Woods), which was devoted to 100 favorite songs. I had some impression that Phil's impetus for these countdowns grew at least as much out of an infatuation with The Social Network as from an appreciation for Facebook, about which most of the planet now appears to be variously dubious. But the turn of a decade, approximately, is usually a good time (read: excuse) for copious list-making anyway and I was happy to sign on. And so we went at it, at a rate of two picks per week each (I posted on Tuesdays and Fridays) for nearly six months, with a few dozen others cheering and jeering us along in comments.

Though I have made many song and album lists, I had tried only once before, in the '90s, to formally make a list of favorite movies, and then it was just a top 10, riddled with so many ties and also-rans and otherwise yoking in so many titles along the way that I think I managed to mention nearly three dozen movies when it was all said and done. (Before that I had long nursed a favorite three, all of which have place names for titles, but only one of which appeared as a pick on this list; explanations forthcoming.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bad Behavior (1988)

Mary Gaitskill's first collection of stories remains daring and remarkable to this day, I think, assiduously working further edges of conventional propriety with dedication and nerve. It's arguable enough that these stories are sensational simply for the sake of winning attention, but I think there's more to them. They are populated and overpopulated with prostitutes, practicing sadomasochists, and fucked-up Americans of many stripes, usually urban creatures operating out of New York or various points elsewhere, such as San Francisco and Michigan. Young women turn to prostitution to make ends meet. Grown adults in marriages carry on empty affairs, or indulge mockable perversions. People in these stories keep trying to connect but are thwarted by the static noise of sex and all its confusions, most often the confusion with love. One of the best stories here, "Something Nice," tells about a john who fancies himself apart and above the exploitation in which he regularly indulges, and falls in love with a prostitute. Later, after she has left the trade and he sees her in public with a boyfriend, she pretends not to know him. He is devastatingly humiliated. Perhaps the most famous story here, "Secretary"—because it was made into a decidedly minor indie movie in the '90s—is also one of the most puzzling and least effective, relying heavily on a tendency to reduce characters and situations to ciphers that don't compute; it appears to be trying to work as some kind of representational allegory. At those times it feels like Gaitskill is attempting to have her cake and eat it too, so to speak—attempting to extract the pathos she knows well in these empty middle-class lives even as she ruthlessly, casually, and heartlessly makes fun of them And Everything They Stand For. Better when she just goes right at the poignant details and lets the stories sort themselves out, as in the long hodgepodge of the last story, "Heroes," with all the siblings of two generations coming and going and some characters that seem flatly unbelievable, until the totality of the events recounted mounts to an impressive presence, and one finds oneself half in love with a few of them, and feeling as though one knows them all very well and cares what happens to them. It's no wonder that this was taken as an auspicious first book—it is.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)

I find myself of several minds on this decidedly strange set by singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum's Neutral Milk Hotel. On balance they fall on the positive side—which is just another way of saying I like it a lot, even though I see the various problems plain. There's a lot of adenoidal yelpin' and wailin' contained herein, more than I usually have the tolerance for and most of it dallying on the borders of the dread twee. Directly so, in fact, with "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One" to open, followed immediately by "The King of Carrot Flowers Pts Two & Three." The various eccentricities of instrumentation—accordion, cornet, flugelhorn, bowed banjo, etc., etc.—are whimsical unto the death. It's folk music on its face, with forerunners Camper Van Beethoven and Beat Happening attempting to enclose it at either end of a spectrum. It's not afraid to swell the bottom and rock out awhile when it has a mind, most obviously on the imposing "Holland, 1945." I haven't tried much to puzzle out if the strange fragments of lyrics floating by add up to anything. They're weird and that's enough for me. There's the aforementioned king of carrot flowers, there's a two-headed boy, and, indeed, as promised, there's an aeroplane over the sea. These various nouns are combined with verbs and adjectives and the syntax all seems correct. Hell if I know what it's going on about, however. But Jeff Mangum, who wrote and sings most of these songs, seems to mean every syllable. That feeling is quite strong. And there are so many strange winning moments swirling about this, musically in the various mash-ups of sound achieved or when the cornet sounds impossibly, unbearably sweet in passages. Mangum is frequently at the head of calibrated yet powerfully moving performances; he flails at his acoustic guitar with precision and poise and lets the strange words uncork at the top of his lungs. It excites a kind of awe in such moments, so willfully dwelling in the place it has chosen, and respect too, the kind of feelings I also have for Frank Zappa or Todd Rundgren—brainy (maybe overly so), musical, restless, ruthlessly creative. Obviously everything has been poured into this—indeed, it is practically the last thing we have heard from Mangum and this band since. But what is it? Devastatingly original, we can start there for sure.

Friday, January 13, 2012

L'Avventura (1960)

Italy/France, 143 minutes
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra
Photography: Aldo Scarvada
Music: Giovanni Fusco
Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Cast: Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari, Dominique Blanchar, James Addams, Lelio Luttazi

The last time I looked at L'Avventura I found to my surprise that it went by lickety-split fast for a slow-moving movie nearly two and a half hours long. It struck me as lean and supple and basically in full control of its powers. Yet it's very likely that L'Avventura may be the single most disappointing movie I've ever seen, when I saw it the first time, looking forward from its length and reputation and the general contours of its storyline to something narratively engaging and instead finding what looked and felt like a puffed-up (and boring) piece of cruelly deliberate aimlessness.

It might have had something to do with the circumstances—that first look was at a VHS tape checked out from the library. I'm sure most would agree that's not the way to see Michelangelo Antonioni's widely hailed and regarded masterpiece. In fact, I haven't yet had (or anyway taken) the opportunity to see it on a big screen; the sense I get, not just from the tenor of the praise but from the way the visuals have since caught me, is that this is one that likely improves with size, and the bigger the screen and the house and the more packed you can get it, the better. Otherwise it's a little bit of a crapshoot.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

1. Chills, "Song for Randy Newman, Etc." (1992)


I like how Chills songwriter and mainstay Martin Phillipps tries so hard to make this as particular to a concrete place as he can, to bucolic New Zealand. "In New Zealand our volcanoes and towns / Rest together in peace, keep their roots in the ground," he nonchalantly leads with on one verse. New Zealand, yeah, right. This song contains one of the most plain universal themes I've ever heard, laid out and rendered flat and bland and stripped down to the essentials of a singer and keyboards, masking itself in them, charting the dark night of the creative soul behind private choices and pains. All of us are implicated one way or another. Even the desperate name-checking—Randy Newman in the title only the most obvious, perhaps because those are his piano licks providing accompaniment. But there's another handful or so of usual suspects lurking and darting about the passageways of this deceptive little three-minute ballad ("Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake," Phillipps reels them off at one point). It's so full of humility and yet so arrogant and so certain of what it knows and resigned to it that it transcends and leaves behind the downer vibe it carries like a cross. I seem to keep saying things like that a lot, making excuses perhaps for a bunch of downbeat songs picked by a gloomy man. Looking over the last 15 or 20 on this list, oh hell the whole thing, I can see it fits a pattern. There's self-pity here (as there is in "Nightime" and "Somebody to Lay Down Beside Me" and down the line). Certainly self-obsession. But all of them, from Martin Phillipps to Alex Chilton to Jonathan Richman and all the others, also make a case, simply by doing what they do, for dignity and for cheer too, for staying engaged with the best of all things, however one may find them, and whatever pains they bring with them. Because the one thing we know is that there will be pain. Martin Phillipps makes that point here, but he also describes as poignantly as anywhere I know the rewards, with his elegant description of a songwriter's powers: "Can you hear sounds forming in your head / Do they say more than you've ever said." The answer is yes, I have heard them, hundreds of times, here and a thousand places. I can hear them still and they still say that much.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2. Big Star, "Nightime" (1974)


At the time I was getting to know this song, in the mid-'80s with the vinyl release of the Third album by Big Star with the big blue cover and liner notes by Howard Wuelfing, I was pretty busy myself with a life full of "At night time I go out and see the people," and I felt about it much the same way the singer here sounds, dismal and sour and maybe a little studiously bored. "And dressing so sweet, all the people to see"—there we go. Those details caught my attention but really it was the mood of it that seemed to swallow me whole, even from the first, a sound that runs all through the near-score of great tracks that cluster around this album. But gradually I focused on this song as I came to realize the plight of the singer was my own at the time. "I'm walking down the freezing street / Scarf goes out behind," he sings. It sounds like the loneliest street of all time. I think I walked it too. Then suddenly the song swells into its raw climax, a bleating from the bottom of the soul that never plays quietly in the background for me: "Get me out of here / get me out of here / I hate it here / get me out of here." I connected with what this song was saying and with how it felt all at the same time, and in many ways I followed that trebling vocal performance across a couple thousand miles, Pied Piper style, into a new life in a new city. This is really a dark moment that is captured here, but rendered so purely and so absolutely that it becomes a moment of exaltation as much as anything, and hope too.

Monday, January 09, 2012

3. Mott the Hoople, "Ballad of Mott the Hoople (March 26, 1972, Zurich)" (1973)


In one way or another I frequently seem to be writing about one of these last three songs, even as they lean decidedly toward the margins. This is likely the least obscure anyway, a landmark of '70s glam. I spun the name for this blog out of it, and later, to be clear, threw up a clarifying verse when I realized how many people took me for a dedicated fan of the Who. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I'm more a dedicated fan of this particular song, with its many great turns of phrase ("I wish I'd never wanted then what I want now twice as much") and with its luscious mood of weary introspection, its brooding considerations of the various satisfactions and dissatisfactions. It focuses on a rock band touring act but the psychic place it describes could as well be a frazzled Fellini production shot in Italy, a grifting traveling carnival show in the mid-century Midwest, maybe even (a stretch) circuit riders, horseback and camping at night, out saving souls in slave-owning frontier districts of the old South. Or it could be your own interior life, trying to keep it together day to day. It's a place that lives for the extremes of ecstasy and despair, most poignantly at the crack of dawn. It's there in every line, from the highly particular ("Buffin lost his child-like dreams / And Mick lost his guitar") to the most broadly general ("Rock 'n' roll's a loser's game / It mesmerizes and I can't explain"). It calls the whole thing a circus and then calls it a night. Beyond exhaustion and directly into clarity. Out of the mouths of babes. A magic trick. A guide to the construction of one's own life and myths, a place to go get lost for a lifetime, and eternity, all wrapped up into one.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Digging to America (2006)

On balance this is a pretty good one, with an interesting combination of Anne Tyler's by-the-numbers themes and a whole new wrinkle that makes sense in terms of her biography. By-the-numbers first: the familiar collision and results ensue between a fussy controlling person and a more freewheeling vibrant disorganized personality is well-known territory. Here the usual gender roles are switched (not for the first time either, as in A Patchwork Planet): the controlling person is Maryam Yazdu, an Iranian immigrant, and Dave Dickinson, a Baltimore native and recent widow, is the one who embraces life willy-nilly yet always with exuberance. What I thought was particularly interesting and fresh here is Tyler's takes on immigration experiences, as the Yazdus and their clan all have significant roots in Iran. That's a fascinating choice of itself; it makes sense that Tyler's husband (who died in the late '90s) was himself Iranian-American, and first or second generation at that, a reasonably recent transplant. It makes sense all kinds of ways—both because she (Tyler) lived a lifetime with exposure to the customs and ways of Iranian immigrants, and also as a solace to remember her husband and her life with him. It's a huge twist compared to other Tyler but there's also no mistaking it for anything but. The usual heartaches are all over it, the sad and lonely people failing to connect even as they yearn on their deepest levels for exactly that. The characters are vivid and feel like people I've known. A small point: Something about the title seems off to me. It's connected in the book to the way children all talk about digging holes to China—I know I did it myself, and it feels universal—with even a funny child-like cast to it, and in an interview Tyler talks about how she intends it almost inversely, as digging through facades that people erect for themselves, made doubly difficult for immigrants with the additional cultural (and political, she might have added) overlays. Still, something about the title doesn't work for me. Paradoxically, it reminds me both of an Albert Brooks movie and of deadly earnest documentaries, which was a little distracting. This is good enough that it deserves an audience with nothing standing in its way.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hard Line (1985)

On Hard Line the Blasters get their gospel on more self-consciously (and more awkwardly) than ever, turning to the Jubilee Train Singers and the Jordanaires for sweetening, for effect, and perhaps even for the power of the Lord. The one cover this time is by John Mellencamp, along with a couple of collaborations with John Doe. As usual the originals dominate and they stand with and even above the rest. But the calculated gestures work some toward making this third in line for me of their three great studio albums. Although just because it's third in line doesn't mean it isn't great. It rocks low and sweet and hard, like they know how to do. Yet at this point, after years of constant touring and rarely getting their heads up above semi-obscurity, there's a nagging feeling of exhaustion worrying the edges, as though somebody were pushing them for a breakout, or even more likely, they were pushing themselves. Semi-obscurity grinds fine as poverty, even if it keeps the cachet pure. Not long after this album Dave Alvin would split for a solo career, and not long after that their stuff would start showing up in movies such as Someone to Watch Over Me, Bull Durham, and From Dusk Til Dawn. It's good movie music, of course, but I think their stuff more properly lives on in blood-bucket clubs in the middle of the night all over the land, wearing their rock 'n' roll hearts on their sleeves. It's no kind of life for a good person—you can talk to Hank Williams about that, who died before he was 30—but to me those dank stinking clubs are where the Blasters are most naturally vital. In many ways the end feels near here (which I understand could be just another way of saying "apocalyptic"). The songs and playing are as tight and sharp and explosive and vibrant and appealing as ever on Hard Line and I won't argue with anyone who might even find it their best. But it feels close to the end to me on some basic level. Phil Alvin has somehow kept them together to this day, albeit intermittently and often only for one special occasion or another. But some of the joy and exuberance and hence some of their most natural power is beginning to ebb away and this album often feels as close as they ever got to genuinely sad—not necessarily such a good thing.

(Testament box)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Movie of the Year: Introduction

A couple of years ago, when the best-of-decade lists for the 2000s started rolling out, I realized with some dismay that I had let most of those years go by without benefit of my old movie-viewing habits. There are a number of reasons for this, none good—distracting full-time work, souring relationship, miasma of Bush/Cheney rage and depression (aka BDS), various encroachments of middle age—and I saw that my early cuts at a list were woefully inadequate.

At approximately the same time a number of movie bloggers I had discovered and begun to follow had started a project that really fascinated me: systematic evaluations year by year of movie history, with lists of their favorites and a write-up for their pick of their very favorite for each year. Most of them started in the distant past, as early as the mid-'20s but never any later than 1931, and moved forward. I realized I also had a ton of gaps before the '60s.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

4. Randy Newman, "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do" (1988)


Some of those early Randy Newman albums seem to me a bit overrated, but it all balances out because I think the ones from the '80s are underrated—Trouble in Paradise and Land of Dreams, the latter of which provides a home for this. A lot of Randy Newman's best stuff tends to get over by slapping a wiseass smirk in front of calculatedly ignorant, outrageous statements, usually about racism and its analogues, set carefully into musically lulling settings (he takes his place in a family of movie composers), and then letting his partisans fob the excesses off on capital-I irony. It's a lot of passive-aggressive energy, to get to the point, but mostly I think it does work, not least because Newman himself remains so sly and so shrewd about what he does. He's got a lot of courage and a lot of wit. That's a good combination and this is where he puts it over with few peers, I think. At first it seems like the usual, in the singer's self-reported reprehensible behavior, the way he treats his family and loved ones and all his responsibilities, most painfully his children. But it's bracing when you realize how truthful he is, from beginning to end, and how he has found perhaps the perfect mouthpiece to do so, himself—or anyway, the singer is a performer too, it turns out. There's nothing funny about it. It's tragic. It's mean. It's chilling. The only thing giving irony any purchase at all is the idea that anyone like the singer describes himself would have this level of self-awareness, let alone the ability to articulate it so clearly and so matter-of-factly, a question as well with the great material on William Shatner's Has Been. This one's not got its due yet.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

5. Jonathan Richman, "That Summer Feeling" (1983)


I like how Jonathan Richman comes at us like a kind of wide-eyed innocent, an outright naif even, charming and boyish and silly. But let him close and the game becomes more evident. Perhaps nowhere more so than in "That Summer Feeling," from the 1983 album Jonathan Sings! The whole album is worth tracking down. The song that opens it is a kind of nursery inversion of Alice Cooper's "School's Out," seemingly all about the free and easy pleasures of the warm season, with a lot of free and easy sing-songy rhymes to move it along: "When the cool of the pond makes you drop down on it / When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it / When the teenage car gets the cop down on it." But this is no nostalgia trip. This is about the kinds of things you live with all your life, propelled against your will through time, the pain and regrets and longing that inevitably accrue. He's serious and he makes it plain as sunshine: "But if you wait until you're older / A sad resentment will smolder one day / And then this summer feeling will come haunt you / Then that summer feeling will come taunt you / That summer feeling will hurt you / Later in your life." Who is Jonathan Richman and what does he want? What is he telling us? I'm still not entirely sure, and I'm not convinced he could even articulate it himself. But he's working on the deep levels when he's at his best, and just like that summer feeling, if you listen close enough, he's going to haunt you the rest of your life.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

6. John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" (1972)


Is there any music more willfully isolated and sequestered as what swamps us every December? By the math, on a rational basis and objectively speaking, a handful or better of titles on a list like this, or approximately 8.3%, should be Christmas music. But does that ever happen? No—not least probably by dint of the resentments raised in so many of us bludgeoned by it in public spaces and via media every year. I share this problem but I also have a secret to tell you. There's a lot of Christmas music I like a lot, from Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" to the Phil Spector holiday album to classics by all the usual suspects, Nat King Cole and Burl Ives and even Andy Williams. I even love many of the hymns, in their time and place. For many years after the murder of John Lennon, starting in fact that very year of 1980 when I made a point of acquiring this single, this was how I greeted the Christmas morning: "So this is Christmas and what have you done, / Another year over, a new one just begun." I wanted very much for it to become a holiday standard (as much as, later, when I discovered it, I wanted it again for Big Star's "Jesus Christ," an even more hopeless cause). Perhaps it has finally become one across these long decades, though I haven't noticed it on any radio station I listen to any more than "Fairytale of New York" (#37 on this list, which means I actually made a 2% Christmas nut, which I bet you $10,000 is better than anyone else offering up a list of 100 favorite songs). Now "Happy Xmas" sounds to me more diminished, sad and echoing with faraway memories of a distantly remembered past. But if that's not one perfectly apt description of the best Christmas music, I don't know what is.

Monday, January 02, 2012

7. Velvet Underground, "Sweet Jane" (1970)


It's practically impossible by definition to pick a favorite Velvet Underground album but if forced I'm going with Loaded. There's a warmth and an unaffected and generous adolescence to it, looking forward to Mott-style glam, that never fails to catch me up. It's an odd affect, particularly coming at the tail end of their ride. It hardly hurts that it piles on upfront with one of the great rock anthems in "Sweet Jane," an allusive tale, supported by a nearly perfect array of acoustic guitar chords, about kids moving to the city and living their lives. In the right moment it is the thrill of a lifetime. I've talked before about how a person may aspire to master the phrasing of certain signature songs, enabling a kind of process of transubstantiation in order to actually become those beloved singers and songwriters (Buddy Holly and Prince), at least for the duration of the songs and one's ability to sing with them perfectly. I have long held strong suspicions that the same holds for Lou Reed and this one, but I have never managed (yet) to entirely duplicate the various asides and chortles and feints and dodges of his deceptive singing in the verses, not for lack of trying. It's a pleasure every time to hear, particularly when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, folksinger Lou Reed style. As loud as you can now: "And there's even some evil mothers / Well, they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt / Y'know, that women never really faint / And that villains always blink their eyes / And that, y'know, children are the only ones who blush / And that life is just to die." P.S. Never mind the later metal versions of this, as on Rock n Roll Animal. I insist it's the Loaded version you want.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year memo

Happy new year, everyone. It's been a decent year here and I hope the same's true for all of you too. Thanks as always for checking in and following along at "the Home of the Plangent Memoria"™—it appears there were more of you showing more interest than ever in this little blog over the past year, and it's much appreciated!

First: Good news! The prolonged 100 Other Songs countdown is wrapping up soon—I never thought it would extend into the new year, but what the hell, I took a train out of town for the holidays, so there you go. Between it and last year's 100 Hit Songs countdown I have found the write-ups to be fun and plan to continue them sans the countdown overlay into the future forever (or for the time being), probably on Wednesdays. For those of a mind, I also chip in a "song of the week" over at Balloon Juice, a sensible place for the U.S. citizens among us to go get on your political exasperation. My song picks usually appear on Fridays or Saturdays.

Planned new stuff for this year mostly involve movies. I spend a good deal of time with them these days, at home with the remote or out at the theaters predictably annoyed by fellow viewers, who chat, say "what was that?" and "what's going on now?" a lot, and check email on their smartphones. Furthermore, they all appear to be standing on my lawn. But I digress. I am starting a Movie of the Year feature on Fridays, looking at favorites by year, which will alternate every other week with the usual Friday movie reviews. It starts with 2011 and then I work my way back. This one's going to take awhile. More on that soon.

And too: Last year I was invited to participate with a couple of others on Facebook in a countdown of our 50 favorite films. I will reproduce my write-ups for that here on a weekly basis (so, yes, this will take awhile too) and will include invaluable thoughts on the enterprise of constructing and addressing a countdown too—exciting. The Facebook 50 '11 will also start later this month, as a regular feature for Tuesdays. More on that one soon too.

Thanks as always for stopping by, reading, and leaving comments—I love to get them. All the best to everyone for a great new year!