Friday, December 2, 2016

2 Beach Boys

The Beach Boys are by now a legendary band whose vocal and instrumental.arrangements changed the face of pop music in the 60s. Part of their myth is that Brian Wilson was the musical genius whose various beakdowns--caused by drugs, past parental abuse, and the music business--brought an end to the Boys' most fertile period of creativity (1963-1968). While Brian more or less sat out the rest of the decade, the rest of the band, led by Brian's cousin Mike Love, kept touring and remained popular not due to any new music but to the repackaging of their classic material. I've read two books by outside authors about the group, and now we have two memoirs published this season by the two "leaders" of the band, and while Wilson and Love obviously have different takes on what happened, they somewhat surprisingly reinforce the myth in non-contradictory ways.

"I Am Brian Wilson" is Wilson's second book (the first, Wouldn't It Be Nice, from 1991, which I have not read, was not well-received). This is one the better celeb autobiographies I've read, largely because his voice on the page sounds like what I imagine he actually sounds like: a little child-like, lost and hurting (though not self-pitying), but also aware of his success and what his music has meant for his fans. He lays bare most of the events of his life, from his complicated relationship with his bullying father to his ambiguous feelings about his brothers and bandmates, to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his infamous psychiatrist, Eugene Landry, to what seem to be his very rewarding years of the past decade. It's an interesting and briskly-paced read, but also depressing when you consider the great music that Wilson never made, or think about the band the Beach Boys might have become but didn't.

Mike Love, a lead singer and songwriter, is the Beach Boy who has the reputation for being hot-headed and contentious. His style (or his co-writer's style) is smooth and very readable, but he still comes off as a little pompous and not immediately likeable. Though he tries very hard to come off as sympathetic to Brian and his troubles, it seems clear that he carries some resentment about the collapse(s) of the band, and understandably so. This book works best as a complement and corrective for Brian's book--I read Brian's first which may have affected my reactions. Love makes a particularly good case that he was shafted for years by Wilson over songwriting credits, a problem which led to a lawsuit that Wilson doesn't talk about in his book. I also have to give credit to Love for sticking with the group all this time. Without him, the band would surely have ceased to exist many years ago, and even if they haven't made truly great music since the 70s (though I very much like the 2012 album That's Why God Made the Radio), I still like knowing they're still out there plugging along in some form. Both books are interesting, though if you only want to pick one, I'd go for Love's book which is more direct and less fuzzy than Wilson's.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Life and times of a songwriter

Carole Bayer Sager is in the Songwriters Hall of fame for co-writing such songs as "Everything Old Is New Again" (used in a wonderful dance number in All That Jazz), "Heartlight," "That's What Friends Are For," "Arthur's Theme," "Don't Cry Out Loud," and "Nobody Does It Better." But to me, Sager is the woman who sang the quirky little song "You're Moving Out Today" back in the 70s, and who co-wrote some wonderful songs on Melissa Manchester's first few albums (especially "Midnight Blue," "Just You and I," and "Come In From the Rain").

This light and fluffy memoir is fun and easy to read, but it dissipates quickly. She's actually at her best when writing about the songwriting process, but let's face it, many readers will be looking for juicy tidbits about the men in her life, primarily Marvin Hamlisch and Burt Bacharach, and she does drop a few gossipy items about both--I had always assumed that Hamlisch was gay and that he and Sager were just good friends, but that appears to be false--though they never married, they were in a full-fledged relationship for years. Though both men were disappointments to her, she avoids making either one a villain--well, Bacharach comes off as quite a jackass, but maybe that's the price of musical genius. She also writes about friends such as Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Allen, drops a couple of gossipy tidbits about Dionne Warwicke, Bob Dylan (yes, she wrote a song with him!) and George Lucas, and it sounds like her relationship with Melissa Manchester may have been a bit strained. I enjoyed reading this but the writing is rather pedestrian, and, as I noted, its contents leave the mind fairly quickly. Still, I'd heartily recommend this to readers of celeb bios.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Girls on and off trains

In at attempt to keep this blog from going too quiet for too long (as it had for most of 2016), I'm planning on writing shorter reviews and comments. Let's see how it goes. I read Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train and found it to be a good, if not great, thriller in the Gone Girl mold of narrative trickery--multiple viewpoints, fractured chronology, weirdly evasive moments when the author is trying to keep information from us without making it too obvious that she is. The story of an alcoholic mess of a woman who gets tangled up not only with her ex-husband and his new wife but also with the disappearance (and possible death) of a young woman who had been the ex's nanny works fairly on the page, but it doesn't quite translate well to the screen.

The voices and overlapping storylines that flowed well on the page feel jerky and artificial on screen. Emily Blunt (pictured) does the best she can with the unpleasant title character, but the other two important women (Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson) seem interchangable--it's a plot point that the two have similar looks but neither one developed a strong individual character to care about. The men (Justin Theroux, Luke Evans and Edgar Ramirez) are more strongly drawn but their internal lives remain blank--partly because we're supposed to kept guessing about which of them, if any, is a killer. They could have been better written characters and still not given away the game. It's an ugly looking movie as well. The one thing about the film I thought was interesting was how often the train of the title is seen and heard in the background. Otherwise, this is a so-so thriller that I wish was creepier.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Rocky Horror x 3

Last week, Fox TV aired a remake of the classic cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. [I'm assuming if you're bothering to read this, you don't need a recap of the original movie.] In antic-------ipation of its broadcast, lots of folks took to social media to blast this show before having seen it. I was tempted to do so as well, but I waited and watched it instead, more or less assuming I'd be hate-watching. Well, it wasn't bad enough to hate, but it wasn't good enough to take to one's heart.

There were many mistakes and missteps along the way, and the biggest one was to scrub the material PG-rated clean--technically Fox rated the show TV-14 but that was wishful thinking on their part as there was very little here to raise the ire of 21st century moralists. No f-bombs, no gory cannibalism, no slips of nipples, and no skimpy gold Speedo on Rocky (though his baggy gold shorts did highlight his ass rather nicely from time to time). Worst of all, no Frank running his finger slowly down Rocky's stomach.

Giving the transsexual Laverne Cox the lead as Frank N. Furter was a mistake as well--Frank was not a transsexual, he was a transvestite, something very different. As a performer, she tried very hard and she can certainly hold an audience's attention, but since she presents as a woman and we only know she's gender-non-conformist by knowing Cox's life story, most of the subversive danger of Frank's pansexuality was dissipated. She also tried too hard to ape Tim Curry's original performance, and oddly, when she most succeeded is when she seemed most artificial.

The other performers were fair to middling--no one was a disaster but the only truly bright spots were Reeve Carney as Riff Raff and Ryan McCartan as Brad. The whole thing felt a little like a really good amateur production--they were all trying to achieve something they all seemed to know they never quite would. The production too slavishly reproduced the movie to its detriment, though I did enjoy the opening song; instead of the lips, they went back to the original stage production and it was sung by a theater usherette.

Speaking of which, after watching this, we watched a recording of a live performance of the Rocky Horror Show, the stage production, done last year in London. I'd never seen the stage show before, and it was fun even though it was performed in a fairly small space. The lead, David Bedella (pictured above with Ben Forster as Brad), did a great job of evoking Tim Curry without impersonating him, and most of the R-rated hijinks were present; especially rewarding was the return of Rocky's short shorts. The next night, we watched the original movie, still a glorious camp fest after all these years. And now I've been walking around for days singing "Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still..." and "Let's do the time warp again!" So thanks for the Fox production for putting those songs back in my head.

Friday, December 4, 2015


On the Internet, it seems like there is no middle ground on the subject of Enya, the Irish "new age" (a label she thinks is imprecise at best) singer. Those who don't like her music are very snarky about it, usually damning her with faint praise ("Yes, she’s sold 80 million copies of her albums, and she's very pretty, but damn, don't all of her albums sound alike?"). Those who love her music love her unconditionally and can't listen to any criticism ("Enya is a goddess; you stink; shut up!"). I'm not sure why someone whose music is so mild and uncontroversial causes such discord among music fans.

I love Enya's music and would buy anything she released, but my emotions about her don't run any higher than they do for any of my other favorite pop musicians (like REM or Joni Mitchell). I understand that her music is not for every taste, and if someone expresses distaste for her, that's fine. And, frankly, critics have a point when they complain that all her albums sound alike: they do. In fact, on her first four albums, even the formatting of tracks is the same; the first song is the title track—typically a lush, slow instrumental—the second song is a poppier, more radio-friendly song and usually the single from the album. Later you'll find a song in Latin or Gaelic (or both), and what one of my old friends calls a "bippity-boppity" song which has a stronger beat than the rest. She has occasionally tried something different—as in "My! My! Time Flies!" on And Winter Came in which she practically rocks out—but the tried and true usually wins out, and with worldwide sales of over 75 million albums, who can blame her?

Though she gets tarred with the New Age brush, I think she's gone past that label, though I'm not sure what other existing genre would fit her (Wikipedia calls her an Irish singer and instrumentalist, which is both correct and unhelpful). New Age has the reputation of being tinkly ethereal music whose main job is to relax its listeners. Enya's music can certainly be relaxing, but it can be powerful and even a little sinister. If I can say one thing about her music with certainty, it's that the lyrics (by Roma Ryan, wife of Enya's producer Nicky Ryan) are unimportant. They tend to be vague meanderings about love and loss (and water) which is fine since the message here is really in the music—the rumbling basses, the crystal clear pianos, the almost tribal percussion, the bells tolling in the distance, and the heavenly choirs of overdubbed Enyas which back up her gentle vocal leads.

The fact that most of the music is produced by synthesizers seems to bother some critics, but honestly, the music rarely sounds as artificial as electronic music can sound. If you didn't know better, you might easily assume that Enya and the Ryans had a full orchestra at their beck and call. The relaxation element might be more accurately called meditative or ruminative, as the music is rarely as surface-smooth as the music on relaxation CDs. It's a bit cliché now, but there is something almost ancient sounding about Enya's music, and having some songs in other languages adds to that feel. (She has done a few songs in Loxian, a language that Roma Ryan made up; yes, it's silly, but when I listen to those songs, I just imagine she's singing Latin.)

Her new album, Dark Sky Island, will change no one's mind. There is one immediate difference: the title song is not the first song. But otherwise, the basic formula is the same: nebulous lyrics about love and loss ("I Could Never Say Goodbye"), a song in Latin ("Astra et Luna"), instrumentals, a couple of sets of lyrics in Loxian, and some experiments with rhythm ("Echoes in Rain," "Diamonds on the Water"—which contains what sounds like woodblock percussion that I found charming on the first listen, irritating on the third). And I'm not complaining. There is something about Enya's music that feels mysterious and profound, and, for me at least, its novelty has not worn off after all these years, partly because no one else is doing it and partly because she does it so well.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The end of time

Well, at least the end of chronological time in mainstream fiction. I exaggerate, of course, but I found it interesting that in three recent novels, the narrative chronology is fractured and not always effectively. Modern readers have become used to reading timelines that are not straightforward. The concept of flashbacks in narratives has been around as long as there have been storytellers, I imagine, but the more complicated use of time--flash-forwards, moving in time without obvious signals to the reader or viewer--I think of as a 20th century device. The movie Citizen Kane may be a good early example of use of a more complicated timeline; there is a present-day throughline in which the reporter tracks down details of Kane's life which are presented as flashbacks in a more-or-less direct progression from youth to maturity to death, though there are a couple of stray moments presented out of order. Now we are used to having to keep track of movement from narrative present to flashback past.

But these three books don't actually make us guess. The last three current novels I've read (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Maplecroft) consist of chapters of journal entries or first-person interior monologues which are clearly dated, so theoretically there's no confusion. The first chapter might be August 29, 2012, told from Character #1's viewpoint, and the second chapter might be April 3, 2010, told from Character #2's viewpoint, and so on. This allows the author to spin her narrative threads out and delay certain revelations until later in the book to build suspense--two of the books are mysteries and the third, Maplecroft, is a horror/fantasy story that relies on plot ambiguities to provide tension.

While this can be effective, it can also feel like a lazy way to hide information from the reader. The technique works best in Gone Girl, as the chapters written by the wife actually are diary entries. In Girl on the Train, they don't seem to be written entries as much as dated interior thoughts, and in
Maplecroft, they are all written documents of one kind of another. But in the last two books, the bouncing back and forth feels contrived and gets a little confusing, so I found myself having to go back and check the chapter headings to figure out what was past and what was present, especially in Maplecroft with its many narrators.

But mostly the technique has come to feel lazy. I think the reader is supposed to gasp in awe and admiration when the narrative traps snap in place--think of the first time you saw The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects--but sometimes I wind up so on my guard that I either see through the trick or I am actually let down by the final revelations. All three of these books are enjoyable, but I can't help but wish that, especially with Train and Maplecroft, the authors had found other ways to keep us baffled.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Time and space and meaning

Interstellar is 2001 as remade by Frank Capra. That is to say, it's half hard sci-fi with a philosophical/mystical element and half sentimental family melodrama. Like many a dystopian story, not a lot of time is spent on explaining how we got where we are; suffice to say that at some point in the future, Earth is dying due to something called the Blight. Food stuffs no longer grow (corn is the last viable crop) and people are starving. The current generation sees themselves not as explorers or innovators but as caretakers of what few resources are left, to the point where children are being taught that the great breakthroughs of the past, like the Apollo moon landing, were faked so they don't dare dream of doing great things themselves.

That plot is interesting enough to sustain an entire movie, but Christopher Nolan uses it as story #1, a mere backdrop for story #2, of how a group of NASA scientists go underground (literally) to work on a life-saving mission. They have discovered a wormhole near Saturn that leads to a part of the universe with several planets that might be able to sustain life. Exploratory missions have found three strong possibilities, and through a long and convoluted storyline 2.5, NASA pilot turned farmer Matthew McConaughey winds up heading a trip through the wormhole to investigate the three worlds where we might send humanity to survive. There is a second plan, to launch mankind on an artificial satellite, and this is where the plotholes begin to creep in, at least for me, so I won't comment further on this development. At any rate, story #3 is about McConaughey's family, specifically his tie to his young daughter, and this is where the sentimentality gets distracting, so again, I won’t dwell on this.

At nearly three hours, this is both too long and too short. It's too long for one sitting—the plotline (story #2.75?) involving Matt Damon as an explorer from a previous mission felt especially extraneous even though Damon was very good. It's too short from the point of view of narrative. As I noted above, an entire movie could have been devoted to the backstory, so maybe this would have worked best as a TV miniseries. The screenplay was bloated with interesting ideas that never really got explained or worked out, and another couple of hours might have helped that.

The special effects, many of which were clearly inspired by Kubrick's 2001, are superb. In fact, in the last 20 minutes, the plot gets so twisted around, I would have lost interest and stopped the movie if the visuals hadn't been so compelling. The acting is generally solid. McConaughey is in practically every scene and I grew tired of his drawl and his intensity, but it's not really his fault that he's in too much of the movie. The two scenes of sentiment that worked on me both involved excellent performances by old pros Michael Caine (above with McConaughey) and Ellen Burstyn. Another vet, John Lithgow, in equally good in a less showy role. In my usual old curmudgeon way, I praise it by saying that this was not as disappointing as I was expecting it to be.