Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Beautiful South, "We Are Each Other" (1992)


I gave it a try, but never connected with the Housemartins, who sounded all right but nothing to do with me, maybe a bit narrowly British. So it did come as a surprise much later when this follow-on band with Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway impressed so much with this song. I picked it off a promo CD incidentally selling vodka, Stolar Tracks Vol. 1, which in turn came from ... somewhere. I don't remember how I got it exactly. It is clearly flailing for a 1992 Now sound, with tracks from Arrested Development ("Tennessee," no less), EMF, Jesus and Mary Chain, Lush, Screaming Trees, etc., etc. I will point out that "We Are Each Other" is buried at #11 of 16 so it had to do some work to win the attention. It insinuates by pieces, and though it takes its time the pressure is steady. Mostly what I like is how it moves and sounds like just another poppy happy declaration of love (bearing also a certain production aesthetic of the '80s and '90s). As the details emerge and pile up, however, in the aggregate it somehow crosses a line into a notable case of bad boundaries, wandering into fields of the vaguely unsettling, sometimes almost alarming: "Closer than a sister to her baby brother / Closer than a cat to the child that she'll smother" in the chorus, "I shaved all my legs and you grew hairs upon your back" noted in a verse, for examples. But you wouldn't know any of that from just hearing the song blasting into the air somewhere. It can be almost annoyingly chipper. Thus it became a mix tape staple and I kept coming back to it, and come back to it still on occasion, looking for relief to this fascinating tension. But there's no relief.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

(There's a short version here.)

I have to start with basically facts from my life—this album and especially the breakthrough hit that opens it, "Like a Rolling Stone," have grown so deeply ingrained into my mode of being it is as if they have been ground down to liquefaction. Now it's a matter of saturation, leached in profoundly, which I understand among other things makes me cliché on certain obvious levels, as it is also leached in profoundly to a good many, who never want to stop talking about it. Love him or hate him, as they say. So I also want to attempt to be short.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970)

Dee Brown's classic and painstaking account of the catastrophes visited upon Native Americans of the U.S. West in the second half of the 19th century can be painful to read. It's engaging and thoroughly researched, and though it never breaks the fourth wall, filled with copious sources and citations, it's not very hard to read it as dark and angry. It sketches in its context from the beginning, with Christopher Columbus stumbling into the Bahamas and, believing he had reached India, naming the indigenous people he encountered (and kidnapped) "Indians" and putting them to work to win them their salvation. But the real genocide in the West—"real" meaning a systematic implementation of public policies—did not begin until the Civil War or shortly after. The 20-year period between 1871 and 1891 is when most of it happened and that's the story this book tells, simply laying out the facts. It's practically impossible to come away without some anger of one's own. That's as intended, and those not inclined to give the facts their due are likely to feel Brown's work is "manipulative" or even "self-serving." It's possible that the stories here might require some balance, whatever that means, and I think Brown's work here is scholarly and disinterested enough that one could as well turn to his bibliography for places to get what were once considered the more conventional views of the history of the times and places and peoples. If you want to start there, fine, but for what it's worth I recommend getting back here sooner or later. It's a quick, easy read full of fascinating stories—about the Navahos, Cheyennes, Lakota, Nez Perces, Apaches, and many more (including a good deal about perhaps the Native Americans' single greatest figure, Crazy Horse). You won't necessarily come away from any of it much impressed with the behavior of European Americans, but that's a worthwhile perspective too, and depending on one's own orientation, won't necessarily stay with you long—though it well might. Lots of massacres occur here, on both sides. Then it finishes with one of the saddest and most haunting episodes in American history, the pan-tribal embrace of the Ghost Dance. This book is not easy to forget.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Elephant Man (1980)

USA, 124 minutes
Director: David Lynch
Writers: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch, Frederick Treves, Ashley Montagu
Photography: Freddie Francis
Music: John Morris
Editor: Anne V. Coates
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon

It's possible The Elephant Man is over-packed with intriguing sideline elements that obscure how good it is. It's based on a true story. That's always trouble. It's a key milestone in the career of David Lynch and his tormented relationship with Hollywood—his first mainstream and arguably breakthrough movie (with Mel Brooks quietly pulling the strings in the background to make it happen). It's photographed in black and white at a time when that seemed to particularly signal a certain level of artistic pretension (or ambition). And its lead player, John Hurt, is utterly (and somewhat ludicrously) obscured by pounds of makeup. It was popular too—earning eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and even spawning a minor controversy when makeup artist Christopher Tucker was overlooked (with the result that the following year there was a new Oscar category: Best Makeup and Hairstyling).

I was actually a little surprised by how much it impressed me again. I saw it when it was new but somehow had not since. It's sincere in a way that reminds one how sincere David Lynch is, at bottom, once past his petulance and passive-aggressive misgivings about operating within the Hollywood system, including their trained-in audience expectations. It could be that The Elephant Man even captures the moment before Lynch became unalterably jaded. I think there's probably a better case for that happening with Twin Peaks, but The Elephant Man is flawed in ways that feel a little like studio oversight and compromised screenplay decisions. At the same time, those decisions are also the foundation for what makes this movie capable of soaring to its greatest high points.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Saint Etienne, "Lose That Girl" (1998)


I'm pretty sure Saint Etienne's fourth album, Good Humor, is better than most people seem to think, and "Lose That Girl" highlights a lot of the reasons why ("Mr. Donut" and "Erica America" were further candidates, eliminated late): pop confections sweet enough to make your jaw hurt, with aching undertows of tender pain and regrets, melodies that stick, and grooves. Also Sarah Cracknell's vocals, breathy epitome of a European pop sensibility that connects easily back to the '60s and Henry Mancini, Claudine Longet, Margo Guryan, Astrid Gilberto, Audrey Hepburn. I like "Lose That Girl" because it reminds me of another '60s artifact: "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" and the way the Beatles wrote their puppy love songs, focused on one specific aspect at a time of the churn of love and infatuation, ending up across several albums with something close to an exhaustive catalog. Here we have a concerned friend of the opposite sex, a girl attempting to talk sense to a boy blinded by the swoon. It sounds serious, from the details. But is the singer, who views herself as more sophisticated, really disinterested? Does she have designs on the boy herself? Is there more we need to know? Hard to say, hard to say, and yes of course. Part of the delight is the gaps left to ponder. The urgency is set in motion by the tempo, and the clanking band smoothly keeping up. All indications point to "that girl" being the bad news the singer asserts she is: "walked out on you last Saturday," "dropped out of school," "on her radio she turned the disco down," etc. As the song sails out of sight, nothing is resolved, and no, playing it again won't clarify anything, except the pure frothing magnetism of the pop music magic. There's a long version of this too, but I don't think it's nearly as good.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Killer Inside Me (1952)

Jim Thompson's breakthrough novel—not literally his first, but it might as well have been—is typically hailed as his masterpiece. Even Stanley Kubrick got in on the act, famously calling it "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." I'm not sure I agree. I can think of at least two other novels by Thompson that are better, A Hell of a Woman and Pop. 1280, and many more with details much more vivid and disquieting than anything here. But this is where Thompson figured himself out as a writer, already in his mid-40s. It has the thrill of discovery and certain clarity. The brutality and the raw (if folksy) misogyny, offered so casually and lightheartedly, the insight that psychopaths are people a lot like you and me (and very different too), Thompson's easy manner of feeling his way into the story with such a calculated jaunty air, and above all the bold innovation of telling it first-person from the point of view of the diseased mind—that's all born practically fully formed here. It's lurid and violent but always just a little bit comical, except it's never funny. It has the effect of someone amped on speed and too many days without sleep trying to tell a joke. It's impossible to get away and you dread the punch line because you know you will be expected to laugh. The Killer Inside Me is very much experimental work and half the fun is watching the crazy ideas come from nowhere, discarded when done with. Thompson appears to have had some notion, for example, that Lou Ford, our (anti)hero, a deputy sheriff in a rural Texas county, would among other things bore people to distraction with unending streams of platitudes. That's pretty funny until you see it in action. Then it's just weird. By the second third of this very short book it's about dispensed with. I understand most of Thompson's novels, and all the good ones, tended to be written in concentrated bursts, after a few weeks in a cheap hotel room. They read that way and I'm not saying it's a bad thing. Thompson, at his best, is almost always in perfect command of his work. I say start with A Hell of a Woman if you're only going to read one or two. But this one should not be much behind that if you're pushing on. It's the one everybody talks about and then you understand.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Morrissey, "Now My Heart Is Full" (1994)


Over the years, The Queen Is Dead has only sounded better, but I must say I never connected well or easily with the Smiths. Yet somehow, many years later, the Morrissey solo album kicked off by this song, Vauxhall and I, went directly to my heart (all that Graham Greene name-checking notwithstanding). Seeing the show approximately in support of it only cemented the affection, not least perhaps because the audience hysteria for him was pitched at such extreme and infectious levels. Later that night I caught sight of fans sprinting in the street after his tour bus, screaming his name. It's an uneven album, but about half is in this vein: sultry and vulnerable ballads with the ability to soar, sticky with emotion. "Hold on to Your Friends" and "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" sound nearly as good. As pop stars go, Morrissey remains one of the most interesting, sincere and eccentric like Jonathan Richman, fascinating and hard to parse like Aladdin Sane-era Bowie. I take Morrissey at face value, perhaps because he appeals to all sorts. When he says his heart is full, it's hard to explain, and he won't even try to, there's no need to say any more. It's all validated in the thick churn of the music, a wanton mess of rock band, strings, and droning keyboard figures delicately touching and holding the important notes. It's likely that the elegiac tone is product of losses Morrissey suffered in the early '90s, deaths of people close to him. I'm sorry for his loss, of course, and would not wish anything like it on anyone. But the result was nonetheless music that makes my heart full, and does still.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Rolling Stones, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" (1971)


I'm not about to attempt sorting out better from best among the Rolling Stones albums from the late '60s and early '70s. It's arguably their best period, when they seemed to effortlessly achieve status as world's greatest rock 'n' roll band. For sentimental reasons, I still tend to prefer the 1964 to 1967 period personally. But if forced to make a choice, 1971's Sticky Fingers is usually the one I want to name from the great run. It's no knock on Let it Bleed or Exile on Main St.—it's just that the album with the zipper cover designed by Andy Warhol was the one I owned and thus tends to remain the most familiar. But there's also the matter of this amazing song, which truly closes the deal. It starts as classic crunching Stones electric guitar blues riff, up there with "Brown Sugar" and "Tumbling Dice" and all those. Then, at about the halfway point of a 7:16 length, it wanders off into "Layla" territory with another song entirely, one obviously built out of an impromptu jam led by Mick Taylor's lyrical guitar play, Bobby Keys's barrelhouse saxophone, and a band capable of locking into solid grooves at will, as second nature. There's little else like it across the Stones' entire catalog, and even as it strays a bit into the prog-inflected territory of the times (a feature I like about it as much as any other, as the Stones have always been slaves to fashion, which often plays out comically) it remains unmistakably a product of a greatest rock 'n' roll band: raunchy, swinging, funny, hairy, evocative, and beautiful. Look for it at the movies in Blow, Casino (in its entirety), and The Fighter, among others.

Monday, June 03, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Accident (1967)—Chilly Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter exercise that played a lot for me like a vaguely campy "stay calm and carry on" version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's an extremely handsome production, tight and oddly toned, but overall I wasn't much affected by it.
Blow Out (1981)
Bound for Glory (1976)—This lengthy Woody Guthrie biopic from Hal Ashby never did interest me in the day. I have long thought Ashby is solid but a bit overrated, have a tentative relation to Guthrie's music (mostly I didn't know it for a long time), and wasn't enough of a David Carradine fan, so honestly I never even considered it. I appreciate it now, but mostly for incidentals, such as the obvious influence it had on Todd Haynes for I'm Not There., or for the interesting tension (did they notice when they were making it?) between Guthrie's stated values and his steady capitalistic successes, or for Carradine's performance, which reminds me I still want to get back to that Kung Fu series one of these days.
La Chienne (1931)—Jean Renoir got the first cinematic bite at the literary property that would also produce Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (below), which I like better overall for a mix of sentimental and objective reasons. But this is Renoir, and it's an interesting treatment of the story, with many alternating emphases and inclusions and exclusions. The two of them together make a pretty good double feature.