Monday, December 4, 2017

Scrooge and Dickens

I've read two books recently that are centered around the circumstances of Charles Dickens writing his classic "A Christmas Carol." One is a new novel and one is a non-fiction account first published some ten years ago but reissued recently because it's the basis of a new movie. They complement each other nicely, but they are also proof that there is still room for more literature about this immortal story.

The book I read first was the novel Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva. Pressured by his publishers after the flop of his current serial novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and irritated by his lively family--including his debt-ridden father--Dickens struggles in just a few weeks time to come up with a Christmas story that will sell well and give his reputation some burnishing. We see him getting his inspiration for characters (Scrooge being based on himself) and names (Fezziwig, Cratchit, etc.), but mostly he gets help from a beautiful and somewhat mysterious woman in a purple cloak who will inspire him to turn his wobbly first draft into the classic we all know.

The style here is overwritten, primarily paragraphs overflowing with atmosphere description; the language is lovely at first, but too much of a good thing is still too much. Though I do like stylish writing, I found myself skimming over much of the description of the streets and the night. Oddly, the plotting is slightly underdone--we don't get a strong sense of his first draft, and the drama with Dickens' family is not strongly motivated. It feels like Silva just wanted to introduce the wife and kids in order to banish them for most of the rest of the book. But the central drive behind the story is interesting and the ending is satisfying, though not all readers may be happy with the leaps in faith and logic you have to take near the end where a relatively realistic story overtly becomes a fantasy. Overall, a nice way to begin Christmas season reading.

Coincidentally, I ran across The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford just a couple days after finishing the Silva novel. It's a brief, lightweight, non-fiction account the same story of the writing of A Christmas Carol. Aside from the obviously fictional characters that Silva adds, this read like a nice fleshing-out of the background of Silva's novel. One odd point: Silva has Dickens' wife and kids leave him for the holidays because he's being such a grouch (or scrooge, if you will). This felt like it might be a real detail, but Standiford does not mention it. He proclaims (at the end, unfortunately) that it his book is meant to be essentially a light little trifle, not an academic tome, and indeed, it feels like a bit of a rip-off to pay full price for what is essentially a long New Yorker or Vanity Fair article. Almost half the length of the volume is taken with a reprint of Christmas Carol--wouldn't anyone who picks this book up already have a copy? It was interesting to read both books together, though I still think the best book on the subject of "A Christmas Carol" is The Life and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by Paul Davis from 1990, still in print, though in a very expensive edition only.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Nice girls don't stay for breakfast

Back in the days of Napster (end of the 90s into early 2000s), I discovered the music of Julie London. To me, she was just a faded 50s lounge singer, known for her whispery, husky voice who had one fluke hit, "Cry Me a River" (which I knew better from Joe Cocker's sped-up version). I knew she had starred in the hit 70s TV series Emergency but I'd never seen an episode of that. At any rate, her sultry version of the bubblegum song "Yummy Yummy Yummy" was included on an episode of Six Feet Under. I was quite taken with it, searched Napster for recordings by her, and downloaded a handful of them. This eventually led, as Napstering often did, to me buying some of her music on CD and later on iTunes. I became a fan, but still didn't know much about her except that her album covers were quite sexy. So I was excited when I saw Go Slow, a biography of London by Michael Owen, at the library.

I discovered that Julie London's career in music and movies was never really a high priority for her. The movies she co-starred in, often B-grade westerns, weren't big hits. After "Cry Me a River," she never hit the Billboard singles chart again, and though she recorded some thirty albums, only a handful of those charted--however, she must have sold enough copies to please Liberty, her record company, who kept releasing her music for 15 years. As far as I can tell, this is the only book about London in print. It ended up being more about her career and her music than about her as a person, which is par for the course for bios that are pieced together mostly from press releases and old interviews. Still, if this never really scratches the surface of her personal life, it is a fairly exhaustive survey of her albums and her concert and club appearances.
If Owen couldn't hunt down many people who knew her well (she died in 2000), he did manage to collect lots of information about her recording sessions, her live shows, and her movie roles. It seems that London didn't really think much of her own singing, and admitted she didn't have the drive or ambition to keep a career going full steam ahead. In a misguided attempt to find a tragic flaw, Owen occasionally hints that she may have had problems with alcohol--she often needed a nip or two before recording--but though he brings the subject up often, he never digs up any evidence of real alcohol abuse, or ways in which her drinking hurt her family. The closest thing to a tragedy is her first marriage to actor and producer Jack Webb, which seemed to have been an unhappy relationship all around. However, years after their divorce, he became friendly with London and her second husband. musician Bobby Troup, and Webb was responsible for getting London and Troup roles in his series Emergency, the success of which seems to have made it possible for London to retire from show business in the early 1980s. The middle of the book drags, becoming a string of unvarying descriptions of her live show, but still I enjoyed the chapters about her recordings, and I am now more interested than ever in getting more acquainted with her music. [BTW, the title of this post is the name of one of her more notorious albums]

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Theatre on television

Theater on television—that is, the presentation of a play or musical on a stage live (or enacted as if live)—has made a small comeback lately with the live extravaganzas of The Sound of Music and Grease and The Wiz. Those who care about such things will usually say that the 1950s was the "golden age" for this kind of programming, with shows like Playhouse 90 and Lux Video Theatre broadcasting such shows every week. But, although those regular series were gone by the early 60s, this baby boomer remembers seeing several such specials aired under a variety of titles (mostly Hallmark Hall of Fame but also ABC's Stage ‘67 and occasionally as a Movie of the Week). These shows don’t get rerun anymore and for the most part have not been issued on home video, but I recently had the good fortune to find prints of two of these specials on the Internet.

I've been hunting for a copy of the 1967 CBS broadcast of The Crucible for years. Starring George C. Scott and Coleen Dewhurst (at the time, real-life husband and wife) as the Proctors, I saw this on its original airing (I was 11) and never forgot it. A recent viewing of the Daniel Day-Lewis version from the 90s triggered another round of searching and this time I was able to stream it. On the surface, the play is about the Salem witch trial hysteria of 1692, triggered by the antics of a group of teenage girls and spread by fear and by religious and political posturing, and the trials' effects on the good but flawed John Proctor and his wife. The 1996 film opens up the play to good effect but Day-Lewis' performance is oddly tamped down—though Winona Ryder is very good as Abagail, the disturbed young woman at the center of the supposed witchery.

The 1967 version highlights the highs and lows of live play presentation. (A note about my use of "live": most of these shows in the 60s were not broadcast live, but were taped live; major errors could be reshot but small mistakes sometimes were left in. For all intents and purposes, individual scenes were taped live, though it might take several days to shoot the entire play.) Performances gain power from uninterrupted takes, usually with the use of multiple cameras, and the entire cast here is quite good, from Scott and Dewhurst, to Melvyn Douglas, Fritz Weaver, Will Geer and Henry Jones, and Tuesday Weld (pictured above with Scott) is especially good as Abagail. Sets were more elaborate in a TV production than they would have been on stage, since they had a whole studio in which to roam. One minus of a production like this is the amount of close-ups, which I find to be distracting, especially in the middle of an emotional scene. There is typically no such thing as a close-up on stage, so it feels strange to be watching a scene of several people interacting, shot essentially from an audience point of view, and suddenly get a close-up on one actor. Scott in particular, being a strong "force of nature" type, does not necessarily benefit from these close-ups—we're too close to all that bluster and emotion. Still, this is a powerful presentation of the play, probably the next best thing to seeing it live; even though the 90s movie is fine, this production is better at getting across the immediacy of the performances, and the emotional impact of the incidents.

Of Thee I Sing, originally produced on stage in 1933, was the first  musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and, somewhat oddly, has never been filmed—word is that the Marx Brothers were going to tackle it and decided not to; while it certainly would have been fun, I'm sure it would have wound up nothing like the stage production. It seems to be rarely revived, partly because it's political satire, and much of that genre dates badly. But this CBS-TV production from 1972 holds up well, perhaps in part because much has been cut from the original, since the show runs only 75 minutes. The plot: an unnamed political party runs an unknown named John P. Wintergreen for president; his running mate, Alexander Throttlebottom, is so nondescript than no one in the party, not even Wintergreen, ever remembers who he is. The unmarried Wintergreen runs on a "love" platform and the party holds a contest to find him a wife. But after a winner is announced, Wintergreen realizes he's in love with his secretary and marries her. He's elected president, but the angry rebuffed winner of the contest makes trouble for him and the party.

The pleasures here aren’t so much in the plot (the comic jabs feel very mild compared with the kind of political satire we've had in pop culture since the 60s) but in the performances. Carroll O’Connor doesn't deviate too much from the mannerisms of his well-known Archie Bunker character, but he holds the play together and he sings surprisingly well. Also worth watching are Cloris Leachman as his wife, Jack Gilford as Throttlebottom, and Jim Backus, David Doyle and Jesse White as various political figures. The musical was filmed on a stage before a live audience, and that energy helps the play. Unlike The Crucible, there are not many close-ups, with the camera often shooting from the vantage point of the middle of the front row, and that works well.  Watching these made me miss the days of such theatrical TV productions; last year, Broadway HD broadcast a live performance of She Loves Me directly from its Broadway house, and that was pulled off expertly. The recent live Sound of Music and The Wiz were fun but seemed a bit airless as they were not performed before a live audience. Hairspray and Grease did have audiences for at least some of their scenes, but being shot across several soundstages at a movie studio, they felt gimmicky. It's too bad that this kind of programming is so scarce today. Here’s hoping I can run across more of these 60s and 70s goodies in the ether.

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.]