Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Last Dance (2000)

So, yeah, this is helping to answer my questions about the end of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which wasn't his real name either)—not bad, but maybe a little tired. As it happens, this is also a milestone in the series, the 50th book, so perhaps McBain was unusually up for it. The main case is a pretty good tale of murder for greed. Fat Ollie Weeks has more than ever become a character of interest, and generally that's for the good. He represents an adroit balance of loathsome and fascinating. Lots of nice touches here such as some misdirection about Houston, Texas, or the Broadway-style panache of a stage show producer and his minions. I'm not sure I hear the same hum and crackle of earlier titles, but it's still plenty serviceable as a procedural thriller. Multiple bodies are involved, the cruelty is wanton but comes in a variety of styles. I love the feeling of Isola as an alternative universe New York City that somehow exists with New York City in this world, though little is said (that I've seen or recall) about New York in detail. Steve Carella feels a little tired or exhausted. They all do, a little, those left. I was particularly happy to see Law & Order referenced, as I was curious about his take. It seems to be a favorite of at least two characters, the longstanding Bert Kling and his love interest, a highly accomplished African-American surgeon liaison with the police, Sharyn Cooke. One of the detectives is shot and injured. But that and the Kling thread do feel a little pro forma. So overall maybe a B+ for this one, upped a notch simply for making it to 50 in reasonably good style.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rolling Stones, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (1968)

June 15, 1968, #3

There are times I'm pretty sure this is the greatest rock 'n' roll song ever made. There are other times when it only seems overplayed and trite—the penalty for loving a song too much and too well perhaps, though to date it remains resilient enough to stage occasional pulsating comebacks every few years. Part of the reason I like it so well I'm sure is that it came of the Beggars Banquet sessions, an album that takes regular turns for me as favorite Rolling Stones album (trading off generally with Sticky Fingers and Out of Our Heads, though others butt in as well now and then). Why "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was not released on the album is anybody's guess, as far as I know. I'm willing to take the mythologizing route at this point and make the extravagant claims: It's too big to be contained on an album. It is an album. It rewired our brains and forced us to redefine the very concept of what an album is, etc. Yes, I know. But there is a tremendous amount packed into this three and a half minutes. It's the kind of song with the power to inspire one to sweeping statements. That impossible trebly crashing guitar, that stomping back beat, the way it finds a space that logically belongs to somebody else a long time ago and puts its stamp all over it, Grade AAA prime rock 'n' roll. It glides, it soars, it struts and preens. Can't take your eyes off it. Older than rock 'n' roll. Older than the 20th century. But work the focus and there it is again: the Stones, Mick Jagger a-leaping about the place, cranking out the mocking, jeering, irresistible sounds of bitter envy and revelry. For better and for worse. And in sickness and health too, for that matter. In other words, and to get right to the point, "Jumpin' Jack Flash is a gas gas gas."

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mansfield Park (1814)

In many ways I find I approach Jane Austen novels much like mystery stories. Where the latter has a murder or other crime, the former will have a marriage. There is always a plucky, handsome, and most sensible heroine—in this case one Fanny Price, an impoverished niece of a "great" family—and one or two or three prospects, at least one of whom will turn into some variety of rat. The pleasure for me is all in the subtleties of character, which Austen is so good at conceiving situations to show. Good people turn out to be something less than good, and bad people can mend their ways, so it's never clear where things are headed, except generally toward the sacred altar of betrothal. The most interesting character for me in this one is a Miss Mary Crawford, who is lively and spirited and seems capable of an interesting development. Unfortunately (and I think unfairly) she turns out to be something of a villain, doing things I don't think fit with her character as I understand it. Now and then the judgments (of the author? the characters?) are blurred and distorted and hard to read—antiquated, I guess. The way "theater" is routinely deplored as corrupting, for example, and indeed shown to be so. That seemed on the wrong side of ridiculous to me, and I particularly thought Miss Crawford's skepticism about religion was sharp, apt, and well-placed. But I think it is also intended to make her villainous. Thus, alas, I run somewhat afoul of what I believe are Miss Austen's own biases and morality. I am altogether just a little cockeyed to her judgments here. But honestly that's part of the engrossing appeal for me of her work. These are generally well made worlds she has left us, and it's fascinating to feel through the moral labyrinths to find how one is aligned. The resolutions reached in Mansfield Park may feel off to me, but I'm sure many find them by and large satisfying. But I don't. I would like to speak up again for Miss Crawford, and gently remonstrate against the felicity of first cousins marrying. But there you have it. Now I'm trying to write like Jane Austen. She casts that strong of a spell. Mansfield Park is not as good as her gold standard Pride and Prejudice but it's plenty fine.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Sonatine (1993)

Japan, 94 minutes
Director/writer/editor: Takeshi Kitano
Photography: Katsumi Yanagijima
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Aya Kokumai, Tetsu Watanabe, Masanobu Katsumura, Susumu Terajima, Ren Osugi, Tonbo Zushi, Ken'ichi Yajima, Eiji Minakata

There are at least two other movies named Sonatine. One is a 1984 Canadian feature described on as "Two teenaged friends have separate difficult experiences that make the girls seriously consider suicide." The other is a French short described on its Facebook page as "A once successful actress has taken refuge at her sister's home. Her presence triggers deep-seated feelings that lead to a tragic outcome." It is also the name of a piece for piano by classical composer Maurice Ravel. Try looking up the word and you soon arrive at "sonatina," defined as follows: "As a musical term, sonatina has no single strict definition; it is rather a title applied by the composer to a piece that is in basic sonata form, but is shorter, lighter in character, or more elementary technically than a typical sonata."

Pursuing: Sonata, according to Wikipedia, "literally means a piece played as opposed to a cantata, a piece sung." And so, as best I can tell, we have arrived at the fiction writer's shibboleth, "show, don't tell," with some overlying implication of insubstantiality, in terms of what the intriguing title is intended to convey. As much as anything Sonatine works like a musical piece—not to mention that it also contains wonderful music. Director, writer, and editor Takeshi "Beat" Kitano has created a befuddling movie that sits quietly and observes—observes contemporary (for 1993) Japanese yakuza gangster life, and more particularly observes the existential crisis of one specific mid-level chief, Aniki Murakawa (played by Kitano, which makes him a four-tools moviemaker at least).

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Eric Burdon & the Animals, "See See Rider" (1966)

Oct. 1, 1966, #10

Eric Burdon & the Animals had to go to the back of a long line in terms of getting their bite at this song, written by Ma Rainey in 1924 and recorded over the decades by LaVern Baker, Wee Bea Booze, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, Peggy Lee, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Sonny Til & the Orioles, and Chuck Willis (who had a #12 pop hit with it in 1957 as "C.C. Rider"). It is so old it has sprouted a garden of alternative titles: "See See Rider Blues," "Easy Rider," "C.C. Rider." The theme is old too: look out for the faithless sexual wanton woman, aka "easy rider," 'cos she's wrecking marriages. Everything else is a play on that—the "C.C.," for example, is said to stand for "country circuit" preachers, who carried the good word and that old time religion on horseback from town to town. Nevertheless, not understanding any of that, I liked the Animals version so much that for many years I kept reflexively including it on short lists of my favorite songs, remembering the giddy heights it sent me to whenever it came leaping out of the radio, too infrequently. I love the surging, high-stepping thrust of it, the headlong tempo, the ballsy confidence. The band is in great form. The Animals were initially my favorite of the British Invasion bands of the time (after the Beatles, always after the Beatles). "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" was my first exposure, but it wasn't long before I caught up with the shivery-good "House of the Rising Sun" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." "See See Rider" is a strong point in a strong run, which also included "It's My Life," "Don't Bring Me Down," "When I Was Young," and I stuck around even for the San Francisco-addled period, which I still enjoy too, and beyond.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

An American Tragedy (1925)

Theodore Dreiser's "first novel since 1915" is genuinely a great American novel of the 1920s and inevitably invites comparison with The Great Gatsby, published the same year. At something like five times the size, Dreiser's novel is certainly the most imposing. In a comparison of language, perhaps, is where Dreiser's nagging reputation as a poor writer may find some origins. Not only is Fitzgerald's lustrous language one of the fine points about Gatsby, but also An American Tragedy does have some remarkably deplorable passages—I had always wondered why Dreiser had the reputation, and now I think I know. Most of the last third seems to refrain from direct verbs altogether, preferring to use the gerund form, which begins to feel like moving through pitch—the judge deciding, the lawyer presuming, the gallery gasping, the defendant worrying, the investigator scheming. I think it might be the worst I've ever seen, at least within the bounds of formal literature. Still, it does not diminish the blunt force with which Dreiser imagines and moves his characters about. Clyde Griffiths, at the precipice of a career that could have shot to the skies like Jay Gatsby's, is instead felled, by his circumstances—the inferiority of his upbringing in the naturalist fashion, at which Dreiser has never been better—and equally by his choices. Together they sketch Clyde's character, unique yet of an unmistakably 20th-century American stamp, indeed archetype. An American Tragedy is a big fat tome, with clunky writing, but it is a pulpy, breezy, gripping read, as all the forces of the narrative are brought to bear. All of Clyde's decisions, good and bad, are arrived at transparently. The predicament in which he finds himself is aching and relentless. At some point, likely, readers depart from Clyde's choices and begin to disapprove—strongly. But the route to that place is so lullingly banal that it's really hard to say that moment is going to be the same for everyone. The second of the book's three sweeping movements was most interesting to me, a novel of manners that studies American class distinctions closely. The crime and courtroom drama are fine, but increasingly wordy. Still, obviously, this is one not to miss if you care anything about Dreiser and/or 20th-century American lit.

In case it's not at the library.

Robert Cray Band, "Smoking Gun" (1987)

March 21, 1987, #22

I am a fan of Robert Cray and his one and only hit is no exception, not least in that it comes from probably my favorite album by him, Strong Persuader. I like to think of that album, and Cray more generally, as one analog to the Beatles' work of the mid-'60s in terms of the broad and varied approach taken to love and relationship song to song, which I informally dubbed the puppy love song project. Call Robert Cray, especially on Strong Persuader, the all grown up love song project. As with the Beatles, the scope is appreciated only across the songs, as each one is more or less a unique point unto itself. For example, in "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," the singer is the outside disrupting agent in a married couple, who live in the next apartment, from which he can hear them fighting. The singer has been sleeping with the woman. He hears the man accusing her of being unfaithful. He listens to the fight and fills in the circumstances for us with a blend of regret and satisfaction. He takes no action. In the #22 hit "Smoking Gun," by contrast, the singer is the cuckold realizing he is in an adulterous marriage. In the classic spectrum of grief, denial is giving way to anger, though by and large it is still just simmering anxiety. But the singer seems to know if he presses the issue now he's liable to catch her with "that well-known smoking gun." I like the way the lyric traffics in one of the most difficult aspects of these situations—the images one conjures (or, God help us, sees). The singer is not yet the abject figure of "I Guess I Showed Her," a bruised cuckold now living in a motel (to make another comparison from the Strong Persuader album). But he's surely on his way, though the guitar playing suggests the person in this song may have the greater portion of rage about him.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Commodores, "Easy" (1977)

June 25, 1977, #4

For me, this is not hard. It's "R&B" because it's on the Motown label, but it's adult contemporary to the marrow, proceeding from the lyrical sentiment and carrying all the way through to the surprisingly hard-edged (yet always tasteful, and tasty) guitar solo. It could not have happened in another era and it was perfect for it. Yes, Jake, I know, it's Lionel Richie. And while I have to acknowledge my lack of regard for him and all his projects (but especially his solo projects)—yes, I am one of those—there is no point in denying how wonderful I find this one. It is beautiful, open, rolling, warm, soft, buoyant, and caressing, floating on its own good feeling. It's charged with a sexuality that's healthy and casual, but incidental to its greatest pleasures, the celebrations of the small, treasured moments. (Or so, anyway, I had always taken it, until I read how it's about a guy at peace with having dumped someone, which puts a different spin on it. But too late now!) I memorably heard it in a grocery store once on a Sunday morning and all my life since I have loved to do my grocery shopping on Sunday mornings. In fact, I will probably go grocery shopping tomorrow morning. I forget this song for years at a time and then I happen to hear it again. At this point it might be useful to bring up Keith Carradine's smaller hit of one year earlier, "I'm Easy," but I don't see why, beyond that both use the same word and also both traffic in country and western stylings. There's no contest on this one. It's the Commodores—it's Lionel Richie—all the way. Play again, please.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Soft Cell, "Tainted Love" (1982)

May 22, 1982, #8

"Tainted Love" started life as a swaggering, uptempo '60s post-Motown pop soul number, recorded by Gloria Jones, written by Ed Cobb (also involved in writing "Dirty Water" and "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" for the Standells, among others for others), released on Champion, and going nowhere fast. Or slowly. In the early '80s the Soft Cell duo of Marc Almond and David Ball ran it through the Gary Numanizer for the biggest hit of their (and the song's) careers, spending most of a full year bouncing around the Billboard Hot 100. OK, maybe it's the mix I'm pointing to that has the Gary Numan qualities (or maybe not). Later Marilyn Manson had a turn with "Tainted Love" too, so the thing has been around the block, 50 years and counting. Its resilience has to be counted as a given at this point. I was more relieved than surprised to get the detail on its pedigree, because at some point in the years since it was a hit I had relocated it in my memory all the way back to the '60s. I made someone show it to me in a book that it came from the '80s. As such, perhaps, I think of it now as one of those infinitely malleable songs. I have almost entirely lost track of the "original" Soft Cell version in all the welter of mixes (extended and otherwise), covers, live (clonking) rave-ups, and whatnot. It's a very silly song in many ways, with robot beats and a whole swollen narrative embedded in use of the word "tainted"—very silly but too often a stone winner in the clutch to be written off. Close the loop. Look for the versions that work the Supremes song in, "Where Did Our Love Go," which start with the earliest.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Deep Purple, "Hush" (1968)

Aug. 28, 1968, #4

Written by Joe ("Walk a Mile in My Shoes") South, originally for Billy Joe ("Down in the Boondocks") Royal, it's a bit of a crooked line to Deep Purple, which has incidentally made something of a career itself of crooked lines. "Hush" was an early top 40 hit for the hard rockers, and their biggest until "Smoke on the Water" matched it five years later. (For that matter, "Smoke on the Water" found its home on my favorite Deep Purple album, Machine Head, which also contains my favorite Deep Purple song, "Lazy," but that wasn't a hit.) For me "Hush" stood with "Itchycoo Park" as a kind of sinister, undertowing milestone of psychedelic music, drugs, and looming adult awareness. It seems quite serious, a transgressive menace of some kind though hard to put one's finger on why. "Hush" is not concerned nearly as much if at all with a drug experience, but attacks with an alluring and mysterious quality, opening up as it pleases for instrumental breaks. It is beautiful and ugly at once—homely ugly, not dangerous. I thought I didn't hear it nearly enough on the radio at the time, which has left me vaguely convinced it's overlooked or underrated, though it's hard to argue with a #4 (if you're inclined to accept the premise). More recently it has become popular among filmmakers, who have inserted it into Apollo 13, Children of Men, and other movies. Sure, I guess it's a little overdone in the dramatics department, with the arrogant guitar and heavy organ and the booming rattletrap drums and the freaking wolf howling in the distance in the overture. More operatic for sure than I would have expected from a de facto collaboration between Joe South and Deep Purple.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beach Boys, "California Girls" (1965)

Aug. 7, 1965, #3

"California Girls" appealed to me first for the pro forma geographical name-checking in the lyrics, a version of Chuck Berry's original strategy in "Sweet Little Sixteen," like ticking off boxes on a medical form: "East Coast girls are hip ... Southern girls with the way they talk ... Northern girls with the way they kiss," etc. But it's much more than a lyrical schema that appealed to a 10-year-old. The grand production, which opens so big on the chorus, is hard to miss even across staticky AM radio. Coming at the top of their game, "California Girls" remains one of the absolute best by the Beach Boys. The instrumental section reportedly took 44 takes to get, more evidence for Brian Wilson the mad genius who knew very well exactly what he was doing. What I didn't know until recently is that the song is also partly a result of an LSD experience, Wilson's first trip actually, during which he hammered out much of the musical framework (Mike Love also made contributions, evidently unconnected with LSD). I like "California Girls" for sentimental reasons, because it reminds me a lot of the first summer I spent listening to AM radio, down to specific images and experiences. But it's also a great example of the group's deceptive complexity. Modeled self-consciously on the Drifters' very fine "On Broadway," it's simple enough rock 'n' roll on one level, as filtered through Nik Cohn's concept of the high school years of the early '60s—it's not hard to believe the singer really wished they all could be California girls. But it is also rich with melody, sophistication, and production technique. Like the ocean they lived next to and reflexively exalted, in the fullness of time it beats you down to sand.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Byrds, "Eight Miles High" (1966)

April 30, 1966, #14

Wikipedia can just be priceless, as in this wonderful sentence: "Although commercial airliners fly at an altitude of six to seven miles, it was felt that 'eight miles high' sounded more poetic than six and also recalled the title of the Beatles' song 'Eight Days a Week.'" Because right, the song, credited jointly to Gene Clark, David Crosby, and Roger McGuinn, is about airplane rides. But that's not fair—already the article had talked about the strong and obvious drug connotations that the song bears. Me, I find the Byrds something of a blind spot in my own canon, part of a discernible pattern when you note the Everly Brothers and R.E.M. are two more. I have always respected the Byrds, had many friends gaga about them in various ways, and I understand the excitement on some levels. Yet for the most part I remain unmoved by the reality of hearing the music, except for random exceptions such as Sweetheart of the Rodeo and this strange plant that somehow took root in the top 40. I remember it freaked me out a little to hear it on the radio, that's part of its enduring appeal, especially late at night on scratchy AM radio stations. It comes sounding a little scratchy itself—prickly and rumbling, thudding, physical and awkward yet somehow insubstantial too, like cotton candy. Nothing else I'd heard felt remotely like it. Not so different from being high on hallucinogens in a way—and not so different from airplane rides either, for that matter. Wikipedia also identifies a source for this song that had never occurred to me before: John Coltrane. Oh yeah, that works—and the Byrds (which Elvis Presley would sardonically pronounce as "beards" two years later) had a hit with it. God bless them.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Impressions, "It's All Right" (1963)

Oct. 12, 1963, #4

Here's the biggest single for the Impressions and for lead singer and songwriter Curtis Mayfield too, at least until his solo career got underway in the '70s and he matched the chart performance with "Freddie's Dead." But that was 1972 and this is 1963 and therein lies all the difference. In many ways you wouldn't even know it's the same artist. That was the year that gave us "Be My Baby," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Guantanamera," "In My Room," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Louie Louie," "Ring of Fire," and "Surfin' Bird," so it's easy to lose track of "It's All Right" in the shuffle. Built for comfort, it moves slow—"When lights are low / When you move it slow / It sounds like a motor," as the song explains—powered by luminous harmonies and inflected by a nagging guitar upstroke and the kindest horn section you may ever hear. It is at once earthly and celestial. "When you wake up early in the morning / Feeling sad like so many of us do," you will know just what to do, now that you are reminded of the existence of this song. It's pitched at such a simple level that when the handclaps start near the end they are amazingly effective—the rousing moral equivalent of a guitar solo. And there is always hope, that is what this song is here to tell us. It's about enduring. "Someday I'll find me a woman / Who will love and treat me real nice / Then my woe's got to go / And my love, she will know / From morning, noon, and night ... / ... whoa, it's all right." Aw yeah.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Sisters Brothers (2011)

It's possible that Patrick deWitt, born on Vancouver Island and presently living in Portland, Oregon, was unaware of Deadwood or the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit while he was writing this novel. But I think it's more likely they acted as some sort of inspiration as deWitt concocted this handsomely wrought revisionist Western, which manages to have its cake and eat it too, from beginning to end. It is perfectly satisfying as a Western—caveats must be registered here as I am not necessarily the best judge of Westerns—and yet as playful and ironic as any other piece of Portland culture. I see the greatest influence of the latter-day Westerns in the language, which is splendidly lucid even as it retains the slightly ornate tang of 19th-century usage (which was at least the greatest thing the True Grit remake had to offer). DeWitt is very sly about what he manages here. By applying a veneer of 21st-century sensitivity to the tropes of Westerns, deWitt is skillful in lampooning various odd angles in to the form, such as relations between men and beasts, or between brothers, and thus it is often very funny and lighthearted. He's even more skillful in applying notes of poignancy in these very same areas, and only gradually does one come to understand the serious ambition here. Even as it contributes to the ongoing (and slow) revitalization of the Western genre, it also flies daringly and straight into profound existential questions, of life and death, of men and beasts and brothers. Love, loyalty, dehumanization, and even an odd element of science fiction are all managed adroitly. The narrator, gunman Eli Sisters, is a wonderful creation, with a near perfectly modulated voice. Unschooled but wise, venal and cowardly and weak, but across the space of the novel he is redeemed by his own constantly questioning manner. He remains deluded yet clear-sighted, and managing that knife's-edge balance—and developing it—is perhaps the greatest pleasure of this very impressive novel. I loved it.

In case it's not at the library.

Edwin Starr, "War" (1970)

July 25, 1970, #1 (3 wks.)

Easy enough to make fun of this now as a type of buffoonery, the Motown label making its way in an era of mandatory relevance. My own favorite joke comes from Seinfeld, when Jerry tricked Elaine into thinking that Leo Tolstoy originally wanted War, What Is it Good For? to be the title for War and Peace. Setting aside the peacenik impulses of the time, and the times themselves for that matter, full of Vietnam, injustice, and frustration—there's no good in going there at this point, except to remind people that's the way it was. But I have to say I have often been impressed all over again by the titanic force of this little decaying time capsule. The song was written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, and the production is full-on Whitfield Motown psychedelia. I have loved it in its time, later on oldies radio (to which I know I listened too much), and finally most recently for this little exercise. If "War" and Edwin Starr's too-close veering toward a cartoon Scooby Doo persona in the vocal can quickly stale, it never quite stops sounding fresh either. The attack positively clobbers, opening on the chorus big after the feint of a prolonged drum roll. And I mean BIG. It is immediately all over it. ALL. OVER. IT. Yes, arguably it settles too soon into the chug-a-chug of the main body of the song, and yes, the glories of the chorus wear thin from prolonged exposure. But this song always retains its power to please again. If you don't like it now, try it again in another six months. It's going to get you one of these times. Play loud.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Foreigner, "Waiting for a Girl Like You" (1981)

Oct. 17, 1981, #2

Following the playbook of hard-rock / metal bands of the late '70s and early '80s, Foreigner breached top 40 charts with this "power ballad," by which is meant a soft-rock or adult contemporary ballad performed by a band with a stake in continuing to appear hard and macho, though the song isn't at all. Consider "Beth" by KISS as primary model, or "Love Hurts" by Nazareth. Also note: that's Thomas ("She Blinded My With Science") Dolby on the cascading synthesizer keyboard, which as much as anything makes this song—in the break leading to the chorus, when it wells up into the grinding plodding and impossibly gorgeous doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee, etc. Sublime moment. Evidently I was waiting for a song like this because it struck hard. I'm not a Foreigner fan, but "Waiting for a Girl Like You" arrested me totally and completely. If pressed, I would probably still have to categorize it as that most useful and evasive pleasure, the "guilty" one. It's certainly a coincidence—I would swear to this—that I had just taken up with a new girlfriend at the time, someone I considered very special (though no one else I knew then, including her, particularly liked this song). It came late in my career as a dedicated follower of top 40, when radio stations in the US were already busy carving up hits across new and different formats. It came creasing out of the radio in the delivery van I was driving at the time, echoing through parking garages where I made my stops, and it never failed to stop me cold, moody, sweltering, and so fine. It still affects me that way. The nights are cold but the song is warm.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Pather Panchali (1955)

India, 119 minutes
Director: Satyajit Ray
Writers: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Satyajit Ray
Photography: Subrata Mitra
Music: Ravi Shankar
Editor: Dulal Dutta
Cast: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Subir Banerjee, Chunibala Devi, Runki Banerjee

Pather Panchali (translated as "song of the little road") is the first film in director and screenwriter Satyajit Ray's so-called "Apu trilogy." It is explicitly about poverty but that's not the reason it's low-budget—not intentionally. The unadorned footage often feels documentary in style if not purpose. Francois Truffaut reacted badly to it—though it also appears a distinct influence on The 400 Blows—reportedly saying he wasn't interested in seeing movies about "peasants eating with their hands." It is also Ray's first movie, widely honored around the world now (and making a long-term home in the top 100 films on the list of the greatest of all time at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?). But it was made on the fly, while Ray worked a day job in an advertising agency, interrupted as funds ran out.

In 1955, India was largely isolated from Western mainstreams of filmmaking (which still hasn't improved that much), and by the evidence Ray was nearly as isolated from more localized Indian Bollywood mainstreams too. In many ways, the strains bend so far away from one another they meet on the other side. Under the influence of Jean Renoir, whom Ray met, and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, Satyajit Ray and Pather Panchali actually preview a lot of the nascent preoccupations and energy of the French New Wave and the heroic era of art film. One key difference: while it may be lighthearted (surprisingly so surprisingly often), Pather Panchali is rarely just whimsical. The stakes are high for these people with mere cling holds on survival. It is shot on basic black and white film stock, the music by Ravi Shankar is used sparingly, and the attention remains raptly focused on the impoverished family at its center.

James Brown, "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)" (1967)

Dec. 30. 1967, #28

The first thing that really intrigued me about this minor '60s James Brown hit is the strange title (in a series of them, a continuing JB specialty, see also "Get Up [I Feel Like Being Like a] Sex Machine"). The way he sings the song, and the way it's typically understood, is the more familiar "I Can't Stand It," meaning that he is overwhelmed by the feeling, presumably sexual. In the verses, at the same time, he goes into more detail about what he can't stand: "your love" (repeatedly), as well as "myself" (per title). Still, the overwhelming sentiment of the song remains not some puritanical rejection of sex but more the usual Freudian / Oedipal / whatnot fear of a woman's sexuality and/or commitment in general. I did not know until very recently that the song is fruit of a collaboration with a white rock band, the Dapps, who acquit themselves all right, though now that I know that I stubbornly hear the song as somewhat "less than" the rest of Brown's catalog in terms of the band. It's interesting and suggestive that the single release was mechanically sped up. I don't know other versions well enough to discern any chipmunk effect in it but I guess it might be there for those who know the song really well. All credit, as usual, goes to Foundations of Funk, Make it Funky, and especially the Star Time box, which introduced me to these deeper levels of Brown's work. He was as restless and searching as anyone in the '60s (and beyond), which is heard here as elsewhere and further confirmed by the experiment with a white rock band, the production manipulations, and a strange penetrating lyric that very nearly makes profound sense in spite of itself.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit in the Sky" (1970)

March 7, 1970, #3

If it's possible, I love this song now more than I did in 1970. Actually, it's quite possible, because I took it so much for granted back then. Notwithstanding, it was always mysterious. Who was Norman Greenbaum and why was he saying these things? I explained the religious bent to myself by assuming he was a Jesus freak, as we said, for which I forgave him (my more generous years). But it never stopped seeming strange sitting there in the middle of the radio, the impeccable rock 'n' roll instincts marshalled up against words about dying and a friend in Jesus and such, with handclaps, and all with no evident hint of worry about anything (and no irony either). Always, always irresistible and best played loud. With Wikipedia to help, we find out that songwriter and performer Norman Greenbaum, with connections to the Lovin' Spoonful and Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band (not to be confused with Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show), saw Porter Wagoner on TV and decided he wanted to write a gospel song, a thought experiment on his part about what went into one. Obviously he took liberties because you don't usually hear that kind of raw fuzz on a gospel recording, but that's exactly what makes it. It sounds so blasted powerful, vibrating and wrapping itself around your head and his voice with a sound as big as outer space. No wonder I took it for granted he'd had a vision. In a way, he did. We need more visions of that kind too, the kind which result in raw fuzz tone guitars. Also: needle drop in the YouTube video.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Joni Mitchell, "Free Man in Paris" (1974)

Aug. 24, 1974, #22

Of all the many musical masks worn by Joni Mitchell, it is her turn as pop tunesmith I most favor. Court and Spark is the best one-stop for it and "Free Man in Paris" could well be my favorite of all on that album, although I hate to be pinned down on these things. As a lustrous expression of joy, high-flown stepping into a big bottom, a jouncing exuberant blast of giddy sunshine, with those lush howling self-harmonies that make it snap (her knack for which is the best feature on the album, woven even into the sad songs), it has few parallels. Even Stevie Wonder might have to take a back seat on the joy front for a minute. It sounds like Paris, in spring, fresh air and flowers and the streets warm and easy and charming to stroll in the afternoon. It sounds like Paris, it sounds like spring, it sounds like liberty. It is captivating that way from the first time it's heard—an unbelievably sweet pop confection. Yet for all of the things it might have been about—think of that expression, free man in Paris—I must say it is a little disappointing that it is about David Geffen. But so go the ways of rock mythologizing. Don't pay attention to that. Try to put it out of your mind. Stop thinking about David Geffen. "There was nobody calling me up for favors / And no one's future to decide / You know I'd go back there tomorrow / But for the work I've taken on / Stoking the star maker machinery / Behind the popular song." I said STOP THAT.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Yes, "Roundabout" (1972)

March 4, 1972, #13

In high school daze I occupied an uncomfortable ground between an increasing interest in album artists and their very long jam-oriented exercises, toward which all the cool kids were gravitating, and an increasingly helpless adoration of the embarrassing pop music still playing on the AM radio. I may have mentioned this before. It was always very exciting and convenient for me whenever the worlds came together and acts such as the Allman Brothers, Edgar Winter, and Focus began making random inroads. So if, over the long years, I finally had to say no to Yes, I still haven't forgotten how exciting and indeed gratifying it was to hear a band I loved on my stereo at home cracking the top 40 and making it on the radio. In necessarily shortened version, per the usual. As a purist I am pointing to the full-on 8:36 album track (those without the extra five minutes can find the bowdlerized single version here). It's full of all their usual musicianly charms, the fluid walloping bass of Chris Squire (arguably the band's single best feature) is as defined and integral as Rick Wakeman's rippling keyboard and Steve Howe's politely marauding electric guitar. No one then or now knows what singer Jon Anderson is getting up to in the words. "The lyrics are obscure," Wikipedia helpfully informs, "and have been the subject of debate on music discussion sites." Interestingly, when "the subject of debate on music discussion sites" is googled, the only thing returned are variations on the Wikipedia article about "Roundabout." Remarkable how prescient the title and analysis of the lyrics are in this regard.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Van McCoy, "The Hustle" (1975)

May 31, 1975, #1

When Whit Stillman makes fun of dance crazes this has to be factored in too. I can't speak with any authority, of course, but I suspect the line dance known as "the Hustle" is not so far removed from "the Twist"—that is, essentially individualized writhing on a dance floor to groovy prerecorded music, with coordinated moves and gestures included or dispensed with as seen fit. At any rate it doesn't matter at all for my purposes. For something so universally reviled in its time, not to mention a one-time #1 hit across the land, Van McCoy's "The Hustle" seems to have slid away remarkably far into obscurity, especially when one considers that the issue at hand, disco music, in many ways remains as vital as ever—more so. "The Hustle" is very early disco, of course, commercial product more recognizable to me now as '70s Philly soul than disco (though McCoy is a D.C. native and it was recorded in New York City). You can hear how the arrangements, particularly the horn charts, were later utilized by the soundtrack artists such as David Shire working to the side of the Bee Gees in Saturday Night Fever, and you can even hear how the instrumental breaks sound like theme and bumper music from '70s game shows. Yet for all this heap of mediocrity the whole of it sounds transcendentally splendiferous to me to this moment, hitting its chirpy soaring marching doot-doots and deet-deets on the flute with wonderful pop economy and precision, a rainbow world of sweets and soft perfume extending to the horizon. I love living inside it and I hope Whit Stillman does a movie about it someday. Inspirational line: "Do it. Do the Hustle."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Danny O'Keefe, "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" (1972)

Sept. 23, 1972, #9

Spokane native Danny O'Keefe always knew he had a winner with this song. He recorded it in 1967, though that version was never released, and then he gave it away to a band called the Bards, from Moses Lake, Washington. Then he recorded it again for his first album, and then he recorded it one more time for his second album, and that's the version that finally creased the airwaves. It came out at going-back-to-school time for me in my senior year of high school, and I loved to hear it come sidling in on the radio as I drove around. So acutely aware of the passage of time, the Faulknerian unceasingness of it, so full of sadness. "You know my heart keeps tellin' me," the singer bleats, "you're not a kid at 33." No, you're not a kid at 33, I know that feeling too, but I didn't feel that much like a kid at 17 either, so I identified. Its burden is the well-worn burden of convention and expectation. The singer is not where he is supposed to be in life, he knows that well, nearly as well as he knows that where he's supposed to be is not where he wants to be. That endless dilemma, because also he doesn't exactly know where he wants to be either. On the road, pickin' a guitar, sitting soft at a sunset—those are the things he wants, although unfortunately "Everybody's gone away / Said they're movin' to LA." And furthermore, the hard truths of life just now really seem to be settling in: "Some gotta win, some gotta lose." A pause to let that sink in. "Good Time Charlie's got the blues." It's almost funny, if you think of it as ruminating third-person braggadocio, but the mood of the song effectively throws sand all over that and everything, except further delicious wistful sadness.

Kiss (1992)

Shocking, in a way. It's been more than 20 years since I have read from the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, which means that even a book published in 1992 I have to take more or less as new, all further developments as yet unknown beyond a certain point in the late '80s. Typically enough, it runs well over 300 pages, but it is reasonably lean and swift, focusing largely on a plot about a wealthy investment banker who hires a hit man to murder his wife. This is interwoven with the soap opera storyline of Steve Carella, observing the trial of the man who killed his father. Kiss is not a best effort in many ways. Even the title turns out to be a hunk of nothing that simply molders there. The twist ending is too cute by half, stepping all over some otherwise intriguing plot points, offering up a kind of late-breaking Double Indemnity narrative line that I think would have been better developed in the light. The court case and Carella thread may or may not be slightly belabored (I think yes), but it's interesting to read now among other reasons because of its close proximity following the Rodney King case and preceding the OJ Simpson case. A snapshot of a certain historical moment in criminal justice, if you will. I also wonder how well McBain might have been familiar with Law & Order at that time, still in its early years but already excellent. McBain often rambles on in discursive fashion, as usual, and the sidebars are often as interesting as the investigations because they are all so skillfully integrated.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Al Wilson, "Show and Tell" (1973)

Nov. 24, 1973, #1

Here's a sentimental favorite, a sweet and gorgeous ballad by Al Wilson, his only hit. Wilson was a big-barreled singer out of Mississippi, covering a Jerry Fuller song Johnny Mathis had already recorded (Peabo Bryson, much later, in 1989, recorded another version, which went high on R&B charts). Wilson brings a certain classic gravitas to it, a sense of a grown man grappling with love, in aching confusion at least as much as wonder at the splendor and so forth. In fact, the song is about his confusion. He's uncertain of his status and it causes pain. Does he dare speak? How will she respond? The woman may not even know him, or anyway may not be aware of his feelings. Inability to communicate seems to be the major theme. He's afraid to speak. He wants a sign. "Can'tcha see I'm tryin' to show love is right." There is desperation in it but it also has a kind of workingman dignity and poignancy—it resorts to strings but uses them well. Wilson inhabits every syllable. The band is fine. It's a song of great hope even as it works familiar steps of love. It insinuates slowly but methodically. I don't remember hearing it for the first time, or having any opinion or thoughts on it much at all, until I heard it early one dark cold morning on the way to work and suddenly I loved it and at the same time felt grown-up. I was working at a nursing home job while I waited for a vo-tech class I was taking in the spring to start. No looking back since. Inspirational background vocal: "do-do-do-do-do."

Friday, November 14, 2014

A-ha, "Take on Me" (1985)

Aug. 24, 1985, #1

Come spinning out of the heights of mid-'80s synth-pop (so-called), Norwegian popmeister trio A-ha scored their only U.S. #1 largely by dint of a soaring epic chorus that sits and climbs mountains right in front of your ears, propelled by an irresistible skippy beat. "Take on me," goes the first glorious line of it, reaching down into the bottom of a scale ("take on me," the backdrop singers agree). "Take me on," goes the second glorious line, ascending, nearly making sense now but not quite ("take on me," the backdrop singers try again, as if confused). "I'll be gone," goes the third glorious line, stretching it out, breaking free, escaping into the stratosphere of a falsetto at the top of a scale and the incoherence of a line that doesn't matter ("In a day or two"), doesn't matter because the song has done its work now, in a matter of some 70 seconds. What a hook—you can't get it out of your head. This little dinger never stops working for me, even 30 years later. Call it sentiment, maybe. I see in Wikipedia that it's much regarded for the video, a comic-book conceit (literally, comic book) romance of interpenetrating realities that is as cute and empty as any teen comedy of the era, complete with big hair and sultry pretty-boy smoldering. But I never knew it that way because I never paid attention to videos. This thing came arcing across the airwaves (at a time when I wasn't paying much attention to that either), cutting across all distractions the moment it surfaced. Beautiful, searing, undeniable, then and now. Pretty good video too, now that I see it.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sarah McLachlan, "Angel" (1998)

Nov. 14, 1998, #4

It's true I have never been much of one for opiates—the War on Drugs propaganda of a lifetime worked all too well and I diligently avoided them. That's surely to the good, though it pains me some to learn, all this time later, how much relatively safer they are than stimulants such as amphetamine and cocaine varieties (not to mention legal alcohol). As usual, it's the laws causing most of the harm. The romance of opiates returned briefly in the '90s—McLachlan was specifically moved to write this by the death of Smashing Pumpkins' keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin. Other specters hang over it too, of course. That romance was itself surely less to the good. But among other things it did produce this tender and amazing song, routinely capable of filling me to overflowing with a delicious sadness and no taint of self-pity. It's the human condition—solace washed up depressed in a dark cold hotel room, under a naked bulb—made into music pure. The song was later (and unfortunately) used as the theme for an in-your-face campaign against animal abuse, and has been interpreted more benignly as being about everything from disappointment to God. Fair enough. You can't blame anyone who can't stand it for the associations (and/or ubiquity). If that weren't enough, its piano chords have also become a cliché of poignant scenes in TV and movies. But I think it transcends all these problems and makes them puny. For me, it finds its greatest power in the simple expedient of kindness, toward someone with a hard life, who seeks to blot away the inescapable pains, even if fleetingly. The song does not judge and thus feels like one of the kindest acts ever committed. It's pure love, "this glorious sadness that brings me to my knees."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Timbuk3, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" (1986)

Nov. 22, 1986, #19

In retrospect, Chernobyl likely had everything to do with turning this into a hit for Timbuk3 toward the end of 1986—that and a wonderful turn of phrase, the kind of forehead-smacking verbal point you wonder no one ever thought of before. Timbuk3 was married couple Pat and Barbara MacDonald out of Madison, Wisconsin, folkies by inclination but with a lot of electronic gear in tow for the beats and such. This song is how they're known and leads off their debut album, Greetings From Timbuk3, with which I was briefly infatuated (notably for the song "I Love You in the Strangest Way," a haunting moaner that ended up on a disproportionate number of mixtapes). "Future's So Bright" is a funny blend of styles, a thumping rhythm section hard-rock attack with a soaring blues harp and wonderful country harmonies in the vocal, underpinning an '80s wiseass new wave puppy cynicism. You gotta wear shades for all the nuclear radiation, is of course the basic idea, though even that is approached in an odd way. The singer is kind of desperately normal, on an ordinary yuppie track, going to college and studying marketable skills. "I'm doing all right, getting good grades," the singer reassures himself. It's the nuclear science teacher who is worrisome, wearing dark glasses in the classroom. Presumably he knows something the rest us don't. The cheerful optimism never flags, nor the overburdened irony, and there is an admirable tension between them maintained to the end. Plus Chernobyl happened that year. Also: this wonderfully evocative note in Wikipedia: "The former members of Timbuk3 have refused to license the song for commercials, including a $900,000 offer from AT&T and offers from Ford, the U.S. Army, and Bausch & Lomb for their Ray-Ban sunglasses." Kudos, MacDonalds.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)

(Uncorrected short version here.)

A Tribute to Jack Johnson is a great example of "electric Miles," a late phase of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis's career begun in 1968 with In a Silent Way. Electric Miles not only wired and amped up his icy attitude and complex sound, but began looking to more contemporary sources as well, such as Sly Stone and James Brown, for the self-conscious explorations of identity that provide so much urgency here, still, for this and for so much of his work from the time, at once operating inside a tradition and yet feverishly innovating and expanding it. This album is well known, much loved, and there's not a lot I can add except to echo the sentiment that it's one of the greatest albums ever made, jazz or rock, and you should probably go listen to it right off.

Patti Smith Group, "Because the Night" (1978)

May 13, 1978, #13

I did not know or suspect for a long time that this is a Bruce Springsteen song, and now I have to wonder how I ever missed it. Recorded in 1977, it has the heroic thrust and optimistic face to the sun of his autopilot mode down to the thundering drums and tinkling circling piano intro. It's co-credited to Patti Smith because she reworked Springsteen's original lyric, though Wikipedia tells me he has also performed it over the years with his own lyric. I hope that doesn't mean tensions because I have long indulged a romantic sense that this was the result of a serendipitous connection between two New Jersey natives. Certainly their personas are simpatico here. Smith is a natural at the Springsteen swagger, which had to come from somewhere, and the tumbling surreal bent of her wordplay is part of what makes it work. I have to think the romantic view holds. They're playing and singing the hell out of it. The guitar solo from Lenny Kaye is a model of economy, a hallmark of its times (compare Iggy Pop with James Williamson, "I'm Bored"). And Springsteen had a way of insinuating himself into the greater New York City area elite, as remember also he showed up mumbling, "Well hey, man, that's just a lie" on Lou Reed's masterpiece title cut of Reed's Street Hassle LP. Springsteen was likely dealing with a fair amount of pent-up creative energy at the time, precluded from releasing anything while a legal battle with his former management was resolved. The dispute erupted shortly after he appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, three years before. Problems, problems. And out of all that came this wonderful surprise hit song in the spring of 1978.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Shirley Bassey, "Goldfinger" (1965)

Feb. 27, 1965, #8

True confession: I have never much cared for James Bond movies. But I love the music, and this song, by this artist, could well be the best of it. Welsh singer Shirley Bassey (who sang two more Bond themes nearly as good, "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker") was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 1999, but don't hold that against her. She had to work hard to get this in the can. According to Wikipedia the monumental operatic note she hits and holds toward the end required her to remove her bra and nearly caused her to pass out. But by the time the all-night recording session wrapped they didn't have just a massive worldwide hit, but an iconic and indelible moment in spy, movie, and music history. The soaring, walloping two-note orchestral figure at the open, now the very signature of Bond music, was invented by John Barry on the spot in the middle of the session. Speaking of Barry, of course, there's your real auteur here, a veteran of movie music and the author of no fewer than 11 Bond soundtracks from the Sean Connery era on to 1987. Barry created a distinctive mood and sound still imitated by anyone attempting to concoct Bond themes (up to and including the recent reboot franchise with Daniel Craig, which has otherwise extruded so much of the old-school foofaraw). Still, all due credit to Barry, it is Dame Bassey who is responsible for much of the overwhelming power on display here. I love her ultra-precise diction and the cold way she spits it out. It's grim and spooky and swell. It's the essence of what made spy movies of the day so winning, and it always sounds good.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Roberta Flack, "Feel Like Makin' Love" (1974)

July 6, 1974, #1

Not to be confused with the Bad Company song of the same title one year later, although with the ongoing corporatization of rock 'n' roll in those years they perhaps stand equally as heralds of a new way to sell, sell, sell w/ sex to undazing hippies and other children—"adult contemporary" and "classic rock," by name. I was less aware of that at the time with all the other breakdowns going on. Indeed, I have wonderful memories of this song on the air in the late summer of 1974. I mean literally the air, not just radio. I heard it swelling from apartment windows and cars most unexpectedly, most welcome, as walking with friends on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis one night, on one of those gorgeous, still, warm but not hot August nights, coming from a taxicab. I'm prude enough that the frankness of the song made me blush a little—have always thought "making love" an awkward way to talk about sex (with or without our friend the gerund-friendlyin' apostrophe). But that's just me. On the other hand, Roberta Flack sounds like a woman in love, not in heat (again, compare Bad Company for the dopey male version of the usage), and that is what makes this song particularly beautiful and affecting in spite of my efforts to resist it. It is indeed a harbinger of the adult contemporary to come (more often than not a problem, I admit, though I like perhaps surprising amounts of it in the '70s), with its sultry, swirling, softly treading electric accompaniment. The lyrics unfold a wonderfully romantic and domestic scene that sounds as healthy as a walk on the beach, with a happy ending. Winner.

Martian Time-Slip (1962)

Martian Time-Slip is the first novel by Philip K. Dick that well and truly blew my mind. On subsequent revisits I isolated the effect essentially to one chapter, featuring an example of the title concept, which is only explained tangentially, indirectly, by recourse to various important words that are not exactly as we understand them, today or then, the most important of which is "schizophrenia." One important character here, Jack Bohlen, is described as "ex-schizophrenic." The paranormal abilities of another important character, the autistic boy Manfred Steiner—"autism" also gets a Dickian treatment—are equally grounded in terms of "faux" mental illness. Then there are the native Martians—yes, the book is set on Mars, in the 1990s—called "Bleekmen," who are similarly able to unplug from the perceived time stream. As a plot element, the Bleekmen remind me a good deal of aborigines in movies by Nicholas Roeg and Peter Weir. Finally, there is a can-do American spirit of the '50s, crystallized most in the person of Arnie Kott, a corrupt union official and small-time despot. In the background are the harsh conditions of Mars and the bored empty lives of the humans living there. Arnie—he insists everyone call him "Arnie," coldly correcting anyone who calls him "Mr. Kott"—wants a schizophrenic who can predict the future—more accurately, project into the future—in order to get a leg up on his business competition. He drafts first Jack and then Manfred to his cause. The results for Arnie play much like a situation comedy. He just can't catch a break, can't win for losing, what does he gotta do, etc. Through the welter of random and often unmotivated betrayals, snafus, and setbacks, Arnie finally settles on a single point in time to go back to in order to attempt to change the course of events. The book is chronological, so that means we can see the moment of time and Arnie's attempted interference with it before we really understand what is going on. Dick pitches his action and tone at unbelievably bland levels—his language is rarely heightened but almost dead, which provides a rich loam for his bizarre and troubling ideas. Thus the particular chapter I'm talking about (10) plays like a malfunctioning machine, continually resetting itself. It is subtle, and quite terrifying, and no level of rational explanation later (which is neat enough but ultimately not enough, in terms of credibility) even comes close to a weird new sense of reality, which never goes away. Or maybe probably that should be with the scare quotes: "reality." This is a great one.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Joey Dee & the Starliters, "Peppermint Twist - Part I" (1961)

Dec. 4, 1961, #1 (3 wks.)

When I say that "Peppermint Twist" by Joey Dee & the Starliters (both parts, or either) is my favorite Twist song, it doesn't mean I necessarily endorse music muscled up the charts by organized crime, nor music that today may be heard streaming at 9 a.m. on a weekday at an Albertson's, where I happened to hear this while trying to figure out how to write it up. Serendipity, man. Yet if being in the oldies mix at a grocery store by definition ought to tell me it has been vastly overexposed by now, it doesn't mean I like it any less. Oh no. I love the way it enters at full steam, taped live, mid-workup, already in full possession of its soft, irresistible groove. It's music that can play for hours—maybe did play for hours, if anyone possibly remembers the scene at the Peppermint Lounge in those halcyon times. "Bop shoo-op, a bop bop shoo-op," go the backup singers. "Well meet me baby down at 45th Street," says the singer (that's the Peppermint Lounge!). "Bop shoo-op, a bop bop shoo-op," go the backup singers. So much to love here: a nice mellow sax, an impossibly spry and nimble guitar break, with clapping along, and the way the frontmen jump in unison on the video I'm pointing to. (I'm less comfortable with the proportionality of Joey Dee's head size in that video, however.) How long does it go? Looks like 2:03 for the hit, another 1:50 for the b-side flip "Part II." Impressively economical. But you'll want to let it go 20 minutes at least, so figure on playing, oh say, at least eight times.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

USA, 95 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Photography: Robert Elswit
Music: Jon Brion
Editor: Leslie Jones
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Karen Kilgariff, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán

After Boogie Nights (155 minutes) and Magnolia (188 minutes), director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson was showing some signs of a tendency toward bloat. Anderson wanted to make a shorter movie and for some reason he wanted to work with Adam Sandler, who was then within range of the peak of his box office powers. I'm willing to give Anderson the benefit of the doubt that it wasn't commercial appeal he was after. More likely something along the lines of what Martin Scorsese managed with Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy: putting an overfamiliar (and frequently tiresome) comedy icon in an utterly new context, which at the same time is profoundly appropriate.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a self-styled businessman barely eking out a living. At the time of the movie he is operating out of office space in a warehouse somewhere in industrial Los Angeles, attempting to sell novelty products as some kind of B2B (business-to-business) enterprise evidently aimed at trade shows and/or Las Vegas casinos. He wears a ridiculous blue suit that many people ask him about but he never explains. On the side, he is at work on other schemes. They are all a little ridiculous. He has seven sisters who harass and belittle him, and a bad case of rage. A really bad case of rage. In case you were wondering, Punch-Drunk Love is a love story—and a wonderful one.

Bobby (Boris) Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers, "Monster Mash" (1962 / 1973)

Sept. 15, 1962, #1 (2 wks.) / June 30, 1973, #10

"Monster Mash" is one of those rare hits that managed to hit twice (see also "The Twist," "Stand by Me," and perhaps others too ... anyone?). "Monster Mash" is a novelty song, basically a girl group vamp, which appropriately hit first within the Halloween time frame in 1962. The summer 1973 hit is a bit more mysterious (there was also a Hot 100 appearance in August 1970), but we'll get to that. On the original release in 1962, the BBC banned the song as "too morbid." In 1973 it was rereleased in the UK, where it peaked at #3 in October. But how it became a hit in the US just before that, well out of the Halloween time frame, is the mystery. I remember it on the radio that summer, and I remember enjoying it with others, in the car and such, because it really is a wonderful little thing, but I was puzzled also that it was a hit. Maybe somebody out there knows that story too. Anyway, it is a delicious toss-off relic of its first era, the NYC / Brill Building pop factory good times, specifically division of Twist. It is indeed a "monster mash" of time-bound parodies: the Mashed Potato dance craze (a variety of the Twist) paired with Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, themselves a craze because of the arrival on late-night TV of the Universal monster movies of the '30s. Total 100% formula, perhaps the very definition of a novelty song, and yet for me it entirely transcends the label. I like to think it has something to do with the presence of Leon Russell, but some sources say he was late for the session and only appeared on the b-side song. It's goofy funny with the Lugosi impersonation and sound effects and all, but what brings me back is the conviction of the backup singers and the pleasing way it rolls along. It gets to some good places.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman" (1968)

Nov. 16, 1968, #3

Written by Jimmy Webb, produced by Al DeLory, sung by Glen Campbell, with a twangy guitar break by James Burton, the much-honored "Wichita Lineman" is still somehow vastly more than the sum of its parts. Jimmy Webb wrote "MacArthur Park" and, more importantly for our purposes here, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Galveston," more hits for Campbell. All were produced by DeLory (except "MacArthur Park," produced by Webb). I think Glen Campbell may have been a little underrated for much of his career (too commercial or something)—"Wichita Lineman" comes from the same album that also yielded the wonderful sad schmaltz of "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife." But consider the larger pattern: Wichita, Phoenix, Galveston, even MacArthur Park. The sense of place is strong with this team, and indeed, it's the specificity of the working man in Kansas that contributes so much to what makes the song work so well. It oozes a clean and bracing sadness, better in every way than any kind of self-pity, no matter how justified. The singer is working and he is sad and he is working. It describes a universal experience: unrequited love, and the requirement to keep working. The sadness is thus exponential and infinite. It has strange, affecting lines: "I hear you singing in the wire / I can hear you through the whine," which mimic the effect of hearing songs like this late at night from a strange AM radio station very far away. The Wichita lineman is still on the line. The orchestra swoops and soars. James Burton, perhaps most famous as an Elvis Presley sideman (and Ricky Nelson too), enters. Is it possible anything could ever be more beautiful on this God's green earth?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Beach Boys, "God Only Knows" (1966)

Sept. 17, 1966, #39 

Leave it to Brian Wilson to turn a figure of speech into a prayer and back again in the conventional space of some 2:54. We are listening to the hosannas still, and I come to deliver another. "God Only Knows" was the b-side to the top 10 hit "Wouldn't it Be Nice" and somehow, from that position, managed to crawl into the top 40 on its own, reaching #39 (I guess jukebox play or something had to be a factor). The various accolades are quite colossal at this time: Paul McCartney's favorite song of all time, #25 on a Rolling Stone list (500 Greatest Songs of All Time), and perhaps most unbelievably #1 on a Pitchfork list (Greatest Songs of the 1960s). I like "God Only Knows" because I like the sound of everything that came of the Pet Sounds sessions: the brilliant harmonies, and the songs, inflected equally with rock 'n' roll and European pop song, earnest entreaties to a heartless universe, a touching faith and its incipient erosion. Here it is plain as can be in the shrewd choice of phrase to lean on, so plaintive and heartfelt in the stained-glass cathedrals of the harmonies: "God only knows ... God only knows ... God only knows." What I'd be without you, to complete the thought. But the real energy here, always, is more on the order of agape—even as it is not entirely clear that it's not the girl herself who might be God. In which case, that's creepy. But of a piece with the sense we have of Brian Wilson's complexes, which include among other things a certain compulsive need to worship. He breaks that off pretty clean here, and produces a song that is endlessly beautiful, not to say exalted.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Phoebe Snow, "Poetry Man" (1975)

April 8, 1975, #5

I understand how telling it is that "Poetry Man" was a #1 hit on Billboard's easy listening (aka adult contemporary) chart before it ever crossed over and went to #5 on the big chart. But if this song is an example of bad taste I don't want to have good taste—I adored it even before I was an adult contemporary and I think it's easy listening without the judgment. If I am ever lucky enough to hear it on the radio it is a fine day. Those circumstances to date have seemed to be on the order of road trips or errands in rented cars, at strange times of day and night, on radio stations I will never hear again. It is one of the great wintertime hits, warm and wordy and gushing and tender. It's at least as enamored of the Beats as I ever could have been, swooning in its ladled-on visions of the literary art and its healing, redemptive powers. It's sweet as hell yet so much more than that yet always sweet again. The players are loose, freewheeling, and tentative, striking lovely notes, touching for and sliding around them, in concert with Snow's warbly delicate vocal style. It's from the best album she or nearly anyone else has ever made. It's meandering and sloppy yet never loses its way. The sadness is palpable even as it declares its joy, and by the time Zoot Sims uncorks his pure pro saxophone solo, riding a gentle stream of strings, the mood is rich with suggestion—about music, poetry, love, time, and stuff like that. "You're the poetry man," it says. "You make things all right."

Monday, November 03, 2014

Chi-Lites, "Oh Girl" (1972)

April 15, 1972, #1

It doesn't take long for the vocal to come in on the Chi-Lites' big #1 moment, their biggest in a career that spanned four decades and five top 40 appearances. Just some 15 seconds, but already you are plunged into the burden of the profound sadness it carries. The slow, falling-forward tempo, the softly honking harmonica on loan from Brook Benton, those damn beautiful strings. It's clearly not a good day in the world of this song, confirmed when the first sound from the lead vocalist (presumably songwriter and producer Eugene Record)—who brings it—is an aching moan. "Ohhhh girl, I'd be in trouble if you left me now," and we're off. It is a relationship in the state of fuck, meaning that when you wake in the morning the first words in your mind are, "Oh fuck." The relationship is over. It's on. It's off. He wants to be with her. He doesn't want to be with her. She wants to be with him. She doesn't want to be with him. Somebody slept with somebody else. Then somebody else did too. Loves me, loves me not, loves me, loves me not. Much like "Me and Mrs. Jones," a hit by Billy Paul later that same year, "Oh Girl" is about keeping it real on the top 40 radio. It's hard to overstate the impact this song can have. It can sound like every worst moment in every bad relationship ever at some points, especially when the evading, back-stepping notes of regret and unfounded hope start: "I don't know where to look for love / I just don't know how / Oh girl, how I depend on you." For everyone stepping out on that ledge, here's your moment. Cue it up. Cry. You know it's going to be good for you.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Brighter Side of Darkness, "Love Jones" (1973)

Jan. 16, 1973, #16 

There are a lot of reasons "Love Jones" might seem to have been lost down the memory hole. The most obvious is that it was quickly obscured in the celebrity glare of the Cheech & Chong parody that followed within the year, "Basketball Jones," which featured George Harrison, Carole King, Darlene Love, and Michelle Phillips (among others) and was actually a slightly bigger hit, peaking at #15 in September 1973. Brighter Side of Darkness (what a name) are pure generic one-hit wonder, '70s version, never to be heard of again after a self-titled album that accompanied their sole chart appearance. The lead singer, Darryl Lamont, was 12 years old. Based out of Chicago, the group came up with a song that is a dense stew of the proto-disco black pop music of the time. It is powered by a majestic bottom and propped up by staccato horns over which strings swirl and glide like frosting. It takes its time. When the singing / speaking starts, it is so sincere and innocent in its ways as to be almost embarrassing, but ultimately irresistibly endearing. Lamont's voice has broken but not the callowness, attempting to get over, softly murmuring: " ... you see, darling / It's about time for me to / Get real serious about you / Because / If someone was / To rip me off of you / I couldn't account for / My actions." The theme, the mood, the song is all love, love, love, the sweetly painful kind from the years of hard teenage crushes, couched in tuff terms: "I need you / And the need is so strong / It's almost like that of a junkie." Different times, different times, that such a sentiment could coexist so neatly inside this beautiful sweet confection.

The Butterfly (1946)

By what I can glean from James M. Cain's 1946 preface, The Butterfly originated many years earlier as a story of a mostly indigent family from the Big Sandy River country of Appalachia who heads out for a better life in California. Cain abandoned it when he caught wind of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and subsequently ransacked the manuscript for scenes and passages of other novels. But it's not at all like Steinbeck's novel, not least because the central animating plot point is a complicated story of adultery and incest, and not much of anything to do with the noble dignity of poverty. It trucks in broad stereotypes, often cutting over to the lurid chiefly because it can, and thus the only interest it holds is in wondering how far it will go. It's a rush job potboiler in its final, brief form (barely 100 pages), with a lot of complications intended to demarcate the innocent and corrupt in programmatic fashion, which results in everyone being corrupt, though not necessarily by the terms of the story, which is just annoying. All the never-ending mysteries set up here could be resolved credibly, quickly, and without drama by a few judicious DNA tests. I was frankly shocked by the snide way Cain unfailingly assumes his own superiority to the rubes and hayseeds he condescends to put through predictable paces. Corn liquor in fruit jars, grotesque ignorance, depraved behavior, and pride. Guns, humiliations. He probably has many details about the lives of his characters right—as he firmly asserts in the preface. But he clearly never quite sees them as human. One wonders what might have happened if he'd never heard of the Steinbeck book and finished. It's possible there's a good story in this group of characters, though less easy to see how it works as a James M. Cain novel. He seems most effective to me with more money around the place—in insurance companies, opera, suburban Southern California. The Postman Always Rings Twice shows that he could write about poverty convincingly. But he'd have had to get a lot more delicate in The Butterfly a lot quicker, in areas such as incest, and he'd have had to find ways to make it more believable. Two tall orders there.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Young Marble Giants, "Choci Loni" (1980)


Hailing from an era when one album, even one song, might turn out to be enough on which to mount a personal canon, the Welsh minimalist postpunk trio Young Marble Giants found a formula and made it work for the one album they made, Colossal Youth, which is well worth tracking down. This quirky and lovely song hits the high points: the soft hum of electronic gear, a twangy, butt-simple guitar figure, evocative as only twangy, butt-simple guitar figures can be (as Duane Eddy and others have been making clear since well before this), plus an intricate build to momentum, Alison Stratton's wonderful, ethereal vocals, and the role of the drumkit played by what sounds like someone tapping and brushing cardboard boxes and/or table surfaces. The whole idea is an intellectual exercise on one level, boiling down a sound to absurd essentials, but it's also a stone groove, winsome throwaway pop gesture, and a kind of poetry, accomplishing a good deal more than the look-what-I-can-do that mars so many intellectualized musical exercises: diamond-hard, glittering, and just a little silly, but infinitely beguiling. It moves and shuffles about like a miniature dancer, spinning, turning, bowing, all grace and elegance. The brooding tenor, slightly flat singing of Stratton's voice complements the mood well, waiting nearly a full minute to enter into the 2:37 track. With her out front the guitar even gets to go a little crazy. The words: "Eaten out of house and home / Choci Loni starts a roam / Putting on a bandolier / Hearing through a nudie ear." The chemistry in this song goes as far as you can hear in every direction.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Exorcist (1973)

USA, 122 minutes
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: William Peter Blatty
Photography: Owen Roizman
Music: Jack Nitzsche, Mike Oldfield
Editors: Norman Gay, Evan A. Lottman
Cast: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Rudolf Schundler, Vasiliki Maliaros

I intended to have momentous or at least interesting things to say about horror movies approximately here, but often the scary pictures I've looked at in the past year have left me cold, and rarely frightened me. Maybe I should have looked in more unexpected places, such as the driving safety films we were shown in high school—they might still be scary, or certainly as gruesome as ever, I would think. The two movies that most gave me pause to revisit, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (both of which still retain the power to disturb), explicitly have nothing to do with the supernatural—like those driving safety films, come to think of it. But the supernatural has everything to do with The Exorcist, a movie that scarred me when I saw it on its original release (twice, foolishly, unbelieving of its power on me after the first time).

This reminds me of a story I used to like to tell, about a church youth retreat when I was in high school. As I recall, it was an overnight canoe trip. On the night over, a group of five or so of us stayed up late gabbing at a campfire. At some point we started swapping ghost stories and such. At some point we decided it would be fun to have a séance. We had a medium among us and people who knew the mumbo jumbo. We held hands and looked nervously around while someone recited the mumbo jumbo. We decided that our means of communication—admittedly ambivalent, but the best we could do in the circumstances—would be to make an ember glow that we pulled from the fire and stuck upright in the sand. Once for no, twice for yes. Being idiots we summoned the spirit of Adolf Hitler (to her credit, the medium did not approve). Things like this take some tinkering but finally we were pretty sure we had a spirit on the line and that it was our man. I asked if he really thought he could take over the world. The ember made a little popping noise and burst into flame.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Emma (1815)

I will likely be testing this theory of mine again soon, but in many ways Jane Austen's novels work for me in ways that are similar to genre novels. If I haven't looked at them in a while they are instantly absorbing, and perfectly charming, and I want to read another right away. But they resemble one another enough that I don't always have the energy to actually finish the next one. I love this world of Jane Austen's that is so single-mindedly focused on achieving happy unions between consenting adults, and all the daunting complexities back of them. There is always a deeply practical woman at the center of it, a few good men and women, and a host of lovable (and one or two not so lovable) recalcitrants to round it all out. Emma concludes on three felicitous—if I may use a Jane Austen word—marriage weddings, a typical if hyper Austen climax. Much of the novel is attempting to figure out who will end up with whom. It does not achieve the dramatic tensions of Pride and Prejudice, but it's a very pleasant journey. There is comfort even in the characters one does not like, partly because they so much resemble people we've known and are thus reassuring of our judgments, and partly by the familiarity. Austen was a uniquely alert observer of people, so even when her plotting begins to go flat or wayward it remains a great pleasure to follow along with her characters. It works at levels that are at once gossipy and profound, and enormously complicated, with fractured families and webs of relations across them, laid against an ever-shifting timeline of seasons and holidays, with events both pedestrian and momentous occurring in a regular rhythm. The language seems to me unusually lucid by 19th-century standards, and the society, while plainly antiquated, nonetheless recognizable. It's people just getting on with their lives, respecting their fundamental needs for human congress, to love and to be loved, and to be accorded respect and dignity too, in a world where both are so very easy to lose.

In case it's not at the library.