Monday, June 19, 2017

Not worthy

My second Beatles book in this month of Sgt. Pepper's 50th anniversary is a collection of essays called In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, edited by Andrew Blauner. There are some fine pieces here, the best of which—Jon Pareles on "Tomorrow Never Knows," Peter Blauner on "And Your Bird Can Sing," David Hadju on "You Know My Name (Look up the Number)"—combine personal reminiscence with musical analysis and interpretation. Essays that come down too heavily one way or the other tend to be on the weak side. And some of the lesser essays still make interesting points, as when Thomas Bellar, in an otherwise lackluster piece on "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," refers to Elton John having made the song "wholesome" in his cover version. Gerald Early turns his essay on "I'm a Loser" into a thought-provoking reflection on being a black kid grooving to the very white Beatles—though he pads the essay out with unnecessary lists of pop culture artifacts.

I'm sorry that some great songs like "Norwegian Wood" and "She Loves You" get essays that feel knocked off in a weekend on assignment. And I wish that someone had written about some lesser-known songs like "Blue Jay Way" or "Things We Said Today." But my main beef is with the infrastructure. No disrespect is meant here for Pareles or Hadju or anyone else, but these essays are not really by "great" writers. Great writers are Thomas Pynchon or Toni Morrison or Stephen King or Haruki Muakami or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Hilton Als. None of them are here. Jane Smiley, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, may be a great writer, and I've heard lots of praise for Rick Moody and Joseph O'Neill though I've not read their works. But the subtitle should have been "Writers on Great Beatles Songs." Aside from the pieces by Hadju, Blauner, Pareles, and Early, I doubt any of these musings will stick with me; maybe John Hockenberry's ode to "Let It Be" (and to his daughter Olivia) and Chuck Klosterman's deconstruction of "Helter Skelter." The rest have already left my mind, and while only a couple of essays are total crap, these great songs should have inspired better material. Read this book, but check it out of the library--it doesn't need to be on your permanent Beatles bookshelf.

And, just to show how petty I can be, the order of essays is faulty. In the intro, it's stated that the songs are presented in chronological order of release, but the songs from Sgt. Pepper come between songs from Revolver (wrong!) and "Strawberry Fields Forever" comes in the middle of that muddle (wrong!). This seems to have been not a labor of love but just a labor.
  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A year in the life

Steve Turner's Beatles '66: The Revolutionary Year is a solid addition to my Beatles bookshelf (who am I kidding, bookshelves, at this point). It's been a given that 1967, with the release of Sgt. Pepper and "Strawberry Fields Forever," was the year in which the Beatles truly solidified their legacy and weren't going to fade away. But in this mix of reportage (second-hand) and interpretation, Turner explains how, in the his mind, 1966 was truly the turning point year in the Beatles' career.
Among the reasons he presents: 1966 is the year of Revolver, the album they spent the most time working on (almost three months) and which featured music that would be difficult to reproduce onstage (most notably, the psychedelic masterpiece "Tomorrow Never Knows"); for the first time, the Beatles ran into controversy and protests, due mostly to John Lennon's out-of-context remark about being more popular than Jesus; drugs became a major influence in the creation of their music; and this was the year they quit touring, which opened them up to spend nearly unlimited amounts of time in the studio.

To his credit, Turner is pretty good about sticking just to 1966, ignoring what must have been a strong urge to write at least a bit about Sgt. Pepper, which they didn't start to record until the beginning of 1967, though he does get to cover the gestation of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, which pointed the way to Pepper. Turner succumbs at times to that unfortunate trend of including everything he dug up, whether or not it's crucial to his argument; for example, a mention of Ray Davies's published review of Revolver leads to three unnecessary paragraphs about the relation of the Kinks to the Beatles. There is much that should have been trimmed away but I can't complain too much when the rest of the book is so interesting. I've another Beatles book on deck for next time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

He'll never have that recipe again

Maybe I should just stop reading pop culture autobiographies. This memoir, The Cake and the Rain, by renowned songwriter Jimmy Webb, is another in a string of disappointments. Since the mid-60s, Webb has written hundreds of songs, though his lasting fame is largely a result of the work he did in a handful of years, from 1967 to the early 1970s. I'm a big fan of Webb's 60s music: "MacArthur Park," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," and his work on the first two 5th Dimension albums, which included "Up, Up and Away," "Carpet Man," "The Girls' Song," and "The Magic Garden." Based on the title of this memoir, two vivid images from "MacArthur Park," I assumed we'd get some good stories about his work--how he wrote his songs, what they meant to him, etc. No.

Instead, the book is almost entirely about his childhood (meh), his drug-fueled partying lifestyle (fun in a gossipy way, especially his story about Joni Mitchell getting naked at one of his parties), and lots and lots of name-dropping (Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Dylan, yadda yadda). He goes on at length about his ill-fated romances but never tells us what it was about these women that attracted him to them in the first place. I get the impression he thinks he's told us a lot about his life during his hit years (the book ends around 1973), but he hasn't--it's almost all superficial meandering (don't get me started on the tedious fracturing of chronology). To his credit, he does open up about his resentment over being very popular but finding himself ignored by the "hip" journalists. Though he was living a lifestyle as decadent as any rock star of the era, his music continued to be closer to the un-hip easy listening style than to rock & roll. Actually, he was ahead of his time; by the mid-70s, his style would have been seen as kin to the mellow California vibes of Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.

Unfortunately, for all his fame as a songwriter, he never made it big as a solo performer, though not for lack of trying, and the stories of his attempts at singer-songwriter stardom are the most interesting anecdotes in the book. This memoir ends in 1973 when he realized what drugs had done to him (and, I'm assuming, kicked them, though the last few pages of the book read more like an inducement to read his next book rather than a satisfying resolution to this book). To be fair, Webb wrote an earlier book called Tunesmith which is apparently more concerned with songcraft, and maybe he didn't want to risk repeating himself here, but the absolute lack of any insights into his art, in addition to the awkwardness of his narrative, make this book an unsatisfying read. I do think his 1967 album with the 5th Dimension, The Magic Garden, still holds up, and giving that another listen is a more worthy activity than plowing through this.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Life with Archie

I read a lot of comic books in my youth (back in the 60s and 70s), mostly DC superheroes lines, but my guilty pleasures were the Archie comics. Since Archie has, against all odds, retained a presence in current popular culture, I assume I don't have to go into a lot of detail about his background. Suffice to say that the stories focus on red-haired high school student Archie Andrews, his off-and-on girlfriends (the rich and bitchy Veronica Lodge, the perky and innocent Betty Cooper), his buddies (the slacker Jughead and cocky jock Reggie), and his misadventures at Riverdale High. The details in the comics have changed to keep up with the times, most notably with the addition of gay student Kevin Keller, but the overarching themes remains the same: trouble with girls, trouble with teachers, trouble with money, etc.

The new CW series Riverdale takes these iconic characters (they've been around since 1942) and puts them not only into the 21st century, but into a small-town gothic atmosphere. Much has been made of the show's resemblances to Twin Peaks, and that is certainly true on the surface, though the surreal dreamlike quality of that show has not been carried over here. I liked the show quite a bit in the beginning, mostly watching how they were both updating and honoring the original characters. Archie was a likable but clueless kid; here, he's likable but sensitive, playing football but also concentrating on his songwriting hobby, which he takes seriously. Veronica is the rich girl who has, had to move from Manhattan back to her mom's hometown because her rich father has been jailed on fraud charges. Jughead is less a doofus and more a loner. Betty is the closest to being like her comic book self, blonde and perky and carrying a torch for Archie; they're best friends but he can't quite see her has a partner in romance. Kevin is delightfully and openly gay (happy, not tormented); Reggie has become downgraded to a bullying bit player, and other side characters like Moose, Dilton Doily, and Josie and the Pussycats are also present.

Even bigger changes have happened to the adults. In the comic books, parents are basically background dressing (except Veronica's dad). Here, they all have backstories, mostly sad ones. The most disturbing change is in Betty's mom, who doesn't like Archie or Veronica, and Betty's dad, whs, who may be implicated in a murder. The prim elderly teacher Miss Grundy has been turned into a mild-mannered music teacher who seems to be a cougar at heart--she has a torrid affair, if short-lived, affair with Archie.

All the characters, young and old, now lean toward depression and brooding, largely because, as in Twin Peaks, the overarching narrative involves an unsolved murder, that of Cheryl Blossom's brother Jason. The first few episodes were an interesting mix of humor and whimsy (watching how the characters and situations would be adapted) and creepiness (the weirdness of the parents, the almost incestuous vibe between the Blossom siblings). Veronica and Kevin (pictured below) had a funny "meet cute" moment; Josie and the Pussycats snuck in a snatch of the Archies' 60s hit "Sugar, Sugar"--BTW, the Archies are another guilty pleasure of mine, perhaps the greatest bubblegum group of the era; the Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle was played around with a bit before being dropped completely; and Veronica actually called Archie "Archiekins."

I was really enjoying the show for a while, but now, six episodes in, the glow is fading. The humor and whimsy levels have dropped precipitously and it's becoming just another gloomy show about teenagers. I don't like TV shows that focus on teens, but teens seem to be a major market for the CW (Vampire Diaries, lots of DC superhero shows) so I guess I should have expected this. The acting in general is fine: KJ Apa is a surprisingly hunky and handsome Archie, Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes are note-perfect as Betty and Veronica, Casey Cott is an appealingly snarky Kevin, and the adults (Luke Perry as Mr. Andrews, Marisol Nichols as Mrs. Lodge, and Madchen Amick--an actual Twin Peaks alumnus--as Betty's mom) are all fine. I also have to mention Cole Spouse as Jughead--when I realized that he played Ross' son Ben in Friends, I felt incredibly old! I'm just wishing the scripting was better, that the blend of mystery and humor that worked so well in the first few episodes had been sustained. I'll stick with it for the season, which may be as long as it lasts given the ratings drop it's experienced lately).

[BTW, the product placement involving Cover Girl is out of control. In almost every episode, in addition to ads for Cover Girl featuring Reinhart and Mendes, we get a lingering close-up on a Cover Girl product being used by Betty or Veronica. I'm not categorically against this kind of thing, but a little more subtlety would be welcome.]

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Not arriving

The Old Curmudgeon (um, that's me) says science-fiction movies have been on a steady decline since 2001. Well, since 1968 when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. 2001 was widely seen as the first adult sci-fi movie, one that was not intended for kiddies or the feeble-minded. There were no bug-eyed monsters, no blasting laser beams, no buxom women in skintight spacesuits. It made an implicit claim to verisimilitude—we all thought this might really be what space travel could be like in the year 2001—and involved issues of morality and philosophy. This film was thought to be the harbinger of a new wave of SF movies. [I’m going to use SF from here on in, as this abbreviation caught on briefly in the 60s when it was thought it could stand for both science fiction and the larger genre of speculative fiction.]
Now, it looks like 2001 (the climax of which is pictured above) was more a dead end than a new route. Though it was popular and commercially successful, most of what came after it seemed to be a reaction against the direction in which it was pointing. To be fair, the dialogue was (intentionally) banal, there wasn't much of a narrative—and what there was presented elliptically with a wildly ambiguous ending—and the pace was slow. And, of course, it was made by a cinematic genius, Stanley Kubrick. Maybe there was nowhere to go from here except backwards, way back to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers B-movie serials of the 1940s, but with bigger budgets (Star Wars, etc.)

I have followed rather casually the flow of SF movies over the years and though few have attempted to follow 2001 (maybe Solaris and Sunshine), many have stuck to the modified space opera formula of Star Wars. But with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another genre strand emerged: the personal, intimate SF film, leaving behind the monster scares of Them! and Tarantula, and thecosmic philosophies of 2001, to focus on an individual's personal journey. It may still have impressive SF effects but it often comes down to being about the transformation of one person or family. Examples include Blade Runner, Moon, Interstellar, and The Martian, hitting bottom with the execrable Signs, which was about how God sent a huge destructive alien force to Earth just to teach Mel Gibson to be a better father. Of course, no matter how scientific science fiction stories get, they have to be about people to give us a way in. But instead of focusing on the awe of the science, or the scientific mysticism, or the possibilities of the future—all of which Close Encounters did very well, while still being about people and family—most of these recent films put the SF stuff in the background while foregrounding the personal story, instead of, more or less, vice versa. (To clarify, I like some of these movies, most notably Blade Runner, but am not crazy about this being the "winning" genre.)

I thought that Arrival might be different. The film, which feels like an update of The Day the Earth Stood Still, is about the arrival on Earth of large, hovering spaceships piloted by creatures who can't speak our language. It got rave reviews and is up for several Oscars. The lead actors give very good performances. Amy Adams is a linguist who, we come to believe, is divorced and has recently lost her daughter to cancer, and is sort of sleepwalking through life when she is approached by the military to try and figure out the language of the aliens. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who is part of her project team and with whom she develops a close and trusting relationship. At first, their process of learning to communicate with what they call Heptapods (they look a bit like octopi with seven tentacles) moves slowly, and the researchers in all the countries in which the aliens have landed share the knowledge they gain. But soon Russia and China become distrustful of the visitors and cut off communication. Because of the fear that some nations may use force against the Heptapods, Adams and Renner soon have a very tight timetable.

As the demands of the traditional puzzle narrative would insist, Adams has a breakthrough just in the nick of time. But, as in an M. Night Shyamalan narrative, this solution ends up changing our perception of much of what we thought was going on. No spoilers here, though I will say that I rather liked the twist involving the alien language, but was less excited about how that twist affected the rest of the story. The cosmic "awe" that I thought I was headed for here turns into a kind of sloppy "Awwww…" involving the fates of our characters. I'm sure part of my reaction is just me being recalcitrant and looking back fondly on 60s and 70s cinema which will never return, but I felt doubly disappointed in Arrival because it was so highly praised. I'm thinking I'd better lower my expectations for La La Land.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Take the Fifth

The 5th Dimension was basically a 60s sunshine pop vocal group that managed to outlast the "sunshine" trend and kept having hits into the mid-70s. They had 30 songs reach the Billboard Hot 100 between 1966 and 1976, in a wide variety of styles, but their biggest hit was something of a fluke: a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." The lyrics and to some degree the music was on the hippie-trippy side of 60s pop and they never really did anything else like it, even though it was their biggest hit.

I’ve always loved the group, and I own not only the CD reissues of their 60s album but also the 2-disc Up, Up and Away: Definitive Collection from 1997. But I am pleased to add this new 3-disc set, The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles, 1966-1975, to my collection, if for no other reason than it contains the single edit of "The Declaration" by itself as a 4-minute song and not as part of a 10-minute medley. But this set also gave me a clearer look at the career of the group from their non-hit beginnings in 1966 to the end of their chart hits in 1975.

In their first phase as The Versatiles (four songs included here), they were a generic Motown-type R&B vocal group, not bad but nothing special. When Johnny Rivers and Marc Gordon signed them to Soul City Records and changed their name to The 5th Dimension, the two men also changed their musical direction to what is often referred to as sunshine pop, not jangly enough for bubblegum but not lush enough for easy listening. They began having mid-chart top 40 hits, most notably with what became their signature song, "Up, Up and Away." Their arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, became more complex, and they recorded songs by two of the most well-regarded songwriters of the era, Jimmy Webb ("Up, Up") and Laura Nyro ("Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues"). Sometime after the huge success of "Aquarius" in 1969, perhaps because sunshine pop was falling out of fashion, they transitioned to a third phase, easy listening, with strings and slow tempos and saccharine romantic lyrics ("One Less Bell to Answer").

What I noticed listening to the singles (A-sides and B-sides) in order was how their vocal style changed. As The Versatiles, Billy Davis Jr. took the lead part, but through most of their sunshine phase, there weren't really traditional lead vocals; either singers took turns or sang in unison or, often, did both in one song ("Carpet Man," "Sweet Blindness"). There were exceptions—Davis on "Aquarius," Marilyn McCoo on "Wedding Bell Blues"—but it wasn't until the group's third phase, easy listening, that McCoo pretty much took over lead vocals ("One Less Bell," "Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes," "Never My Love") and the arrangements reduced the others to just backing singers. Those above songs are fine, and "Angles" is one of my very favorite 5th songs, but this was a definite move away from the 60s rhythmic sound to a lush orchestral feel, from interesting arrangements involving sitars and tack pianos, and sometimes a political message ("The Declaration," "Save the Country") to a more conventional sound.

The later songs also reveal clearly what a great singer McCoo is. Her creamy voice is on a par with Karen Carpenter's, and with different handling, she might have had a strong solo career, but that never happened. After his Versatiles songs, Davis never again felt as confident as an R&B singer, though his voice remained distinctive. The B-sides allow the other three (Florence LaRue, Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore) to handle some leads and they're fine, but McCoo had the strongest voice, and strongest visual appeal, in the group. None of the B-sides are lost gems but a couple are of interest: "I Just Wanta Be Your Friend" has a loose War feel to it, and "Skinny Man" and their cover of "Feelin' Alright" are as good as any of the hit sides. I still think it's a shame that one of their strongest songs, Jimmy Webb's "The Girl's Song," wound up wasted as a burn-off single released by Soul City to draw attention away from their newer work on Bell Records. Generally, even their most cringe-worthy hits (like "Living Together, Growing Together") are worth hearing, though two of their last songs, "Ashes to Ashes" and "Flashback," are ones I'd skip next time around. Still, 2-1/2 discs worth of great music is a solid legacy for the group.
I would say that this is now the definitive collection of 5th Dimension music, but it's missing two strong songs from the earlier collection, "Orange Air" and "Time and Love." Plus, these are single mixes so most of them sound like mono, and a couple sound a bit muddy compared the album versions. So go ahead and splurge for this and for Up, Up and Away (which has since been reissued as The Essential Fifth Dimension.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Film on film

The title of this book, A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies, excited me and gave me pause. The good part: a book about the world of people who collect film--not DVDs, not videotape, but movies on film. I know that private collectors have been responsible for restoring missing sections of classic films and in some cases have had the only extant copies of some movies thought missing, so this seemed like an interesting topic. What gave me pause: the word "bizarre." That could be either promising (colorful interesting characters) or threatening (are we talking about mentally ill people here?). As it turned out, they are definitely more colorful than ill. Calvin Thomas Beck, the editor of the legendary horror movie magazine Castle of Frankenstein, is mentioned in passing as being a little like Psycho's Norman Bates, but due to his love for his mother, not for any murderous activities. Unfortunately, the book turned out to be a missed opportunity.

The authors, film collectors in one way or another themselves, have essentially put together a collection of short magazine article-length interviews with a number of these collectors, even giving some pages to a couple of famous people (Roddy McDowell, Kevin Brownlow). Some individual chapters are fairly interesting, but what's missing is a chronological, overarching narrative that explains the whole phenomenon: How did the private collecting of film prints get started in the first place? Where do most of them come from--pilfered from studio archives? Duped from theatrical prints? Why were studios, for a time, so hot to crack down on the collectors? (McDowell was the subject of a sting-type operation in the 70s that got a lot of press.) Unless I missed something, I didn't get comprehensive answers to any of these questions. I did spend some time in the company of some unusual folks--though many of their stories are blandly sad--but I wish there had been more ambition on the part of the authors to tell a fuller story.