Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Do you want the long version or the short version?

In my younger days, when the radio was about the most important thing in my life, one of my greatest joys was hearing the "long version" of a song on AM radio. I'm not sure this concept is still one that has wide currency. Back then (1960's-80's), the single (45 rpm) version of a song, the one that got played on the radio, was often a shortened version of the complete song as it appeared on the album. The reason: the shorter the song, the better a chance it had of getting played on the radio.

My love affair with radio started in the summer of '69 when I was, well, still a kid, and the first time I was aware of this distinction was the song "Let Me" by Paul Revere & The Raiders. The single, which I owned, was 2:41, but the album version, which I could hear occasionally after dark on the radio, was almost four minutes. The difference, as often was in these cases, was in the ending: on the single, the coda was either simply faded early or, in the case of "Let Me," was actually re-edited so that it was, to my ears, substantially different. Of course, because the long version was so hard to catch (and if you did, it was late at night, like 10 p.m., or even, gasp, midnight!), it seemed a sign of hipness to say, casually to your friends, that you liked the long version.

The other early example of this I remember is "Spinning Wheel" by Blood Sweat & Tears. The 45 had a calliope snatch at the end, then ended cold. On the album, the music repeated after the calliope into a longer fadeout. Sometimes a middle verse was edited (I'm pretty sure that's the case with the single of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water"). Sometimes the reverse happened: with Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover," the single was the original version, and for the album, a long, meandering "psychedelic" middle section was added. I even heard a long version of Bob Dylan's very short song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" which a DJ produced by simply repeating one of the verses.

Of course, there were also the instances when songs were shortened due to content rather than length. Sometimes they were bleeped, as in Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue," or awkwardly snipped, as when our local station cut the word "crap" out of the first line of Paul Simon's "Kodachrome." Over on the FM dial, I would get positively giddy when I would hear Grace Slick sing, "Up against the wall, motherf**ker!" uncensored, in the Jefferson Airplane's "We Can Be Together," or when I'd hear Mary Balin sing about the taste of the real world he got when he went down on her in "Miracles"--that song got trimmed for both length and content.

By the 80's, radio was more open to playing longer songs, though even today, you will still find shorter "radio edits" available on iTunes. The disco movement led to the phenomenon of incredibly long remixes intended for the dance floor which were issued as 12" singles; here's where my love for long versions first stumbled. I found these cool in the beginning, especially during my discobunny days, but soon realized that they were repetitious to the extreme, usually padded out to 8 or 9 minutes by long passages of thumping drums and bass. Now I find them tedious, some exceptions being "Savin' Myself" by Eria Fachin, New Order's "True Faith," and the glorious eight minutes of "Forbidden Love" by Madleen Kane (pictured below)

My obscure point: it's weird now that when I can choose the long or short version of a song, I typically go for the short version. I've pretty much gotten rid of all my Erasure remixes (too much chopping up and not enough hooks) and when I went through some of my 12" vinyl disco singles this weekend to see which ones I might want to rip to mp3, there weren't that many. Even "Turn the Beat Around" is preferable in the short version. And I've grown to dislike the extended "Crimson and Clover" with a passion. Still, give me the full LP versions of "Miracles" and "Layla" and "American Pie." Life's too short for bad remixes, and it's too short for bad editing jobs on long songs that are perfect.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wallowing like a sophomore

This morning, the iPod had me practically suicidal. First of all, I was thinking about my poor sick kitty who has been acting strangely the last day or so. Secondly, I needed coffee. Then "The Last Resort" by the Eagles came on the iPod. This song, from Hotel California, always makes me choke up, though I feel a little silly about that. It's a message song told in incomplete narrative chunks. Without actually going to look up the lyrics, let me tell you what I think it's about.

First verse: A young woman from Rhode Island goes out West to seek the American dream because she's heard that California is "paradise." Second verse: The young woman drops out of the song and the singer sings about the dirty little history of Manifest Destiny, and how we knocked down the mountains to build elite, swinging communities, how we raped the land and called it "paradise." Third verse: With California exhausted, missionaries headed to the paradisaical further frontier of Hawaii, bringing a neon sign saying "Jesus is coming." Then there's some talk about our endless needs and bloody deeds in the name of claiming a frontier. At the climax, the music swells into hymn territory with these words:

"And you can see them there, on Sunday morning
They stand up and sing about what it's like up there
They call it paradise; I don't know why
You call someplace paradise...
Kiss it goodbye."

...and as I sing along, I always choke up. It's what I think of as a "college sophomore" feeling--you know, when you're discovering all the wrongs of the world and how art can express them so well. I'm not surprised the song made me sad and furious when I was young--I was quite susceptible to message songs--but I am always a little surprised when I still react that way at my age. I think it's partly because it's long and majestic-sounding--even if you couldn't understand the lyrics, you'd still know something "important" was being said. Henley also sounds quite sincere, though I do I wish the lyrics were a bit more coherent. One way or another (either because I'm gay or I don't believe in the Christian god), I've already kissed paradise goodbye, but I really like the juxtaposition of hopes and dreams of the Frontier with hopes and dreams of Heaven.

If that wasn't enough, next came Joni Mitchell's "The Last Time I Saw Richard," from her wonderful album Blue. In a cafe, the singer meets up with an older friend who has met the fate of all aging romantics, winding up "cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe." Disillusioned with romance, he has settled for a sterile marriage. At first, Joni thinks there's still hope because he's playing romantic songs on the jukebox, but by the last verse, she's sitting alone:

"Hiding behind bottles in dark cafes, dark cafes,
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away"

Though I don't choke up, I do like to wallow in the remembered sensation of thinking of myself as a cyncial romantic already at the tender age of 20 (when a slightly older boyfriend introduced me to the genius of 70's Joni Mitchell) even though it was really just a pose. I'll say it again, I love my iPod, but I hope it delivers some more upbeat tunes this afternoon.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The return of the album

Just kidding! No way! See my old post on the death of the album for more details. But still, once in a while, I'll find something worth having as an album, even as a physical artifact (CD). It's usually something that sounds like an organic whole. It might be a concept album (such as Sgt. Pepper) or just a collection of songs that sounds perfectly right as one piece (Joni Mitchell's Blue). Most recently, I bought the first album by Seattle rock band Fleet Foxes. The sound, as I described rather flippantly on Twitter and Facebook, is like a drunken Beach Boys led by Neil Young. Now I would add the influence of The Band in there as well. They describe their music as "baroque harmonic pop," which is a good start, though I'd say sort of lo-fi pop/folk. Not sure what the lyrics are getting at (no lyric sheet), but they seem a bit emo-John Denverish at times, with lots of references to nature and emotions. Like the songs on Brian Wilson's Smile, some of them are like mini-suites, with melodic and rhythmic changes within songs. The critics seem to have anointed "White Winter Hymnal" as the song everyone should buy on iTunes, and it is does have lovely round-style harmonies, but no one song has jumped out at me yet; the songs all work together nicely to create a lovely soft rustic mood that doesn't lend itself to iPod shuffling.

A band I've mentioned on my blog before but never discussed is The Decemberists. They have in common with Fleet Foxes a somewhat folkish sound, but their arrangements are fuller and more indie-rock oriented. Their songs often sound like strange old ballads, full of death, war, and star-crossed love. The Crane Wife, from 2006, sometimes has a 70's "progressive rock" sound, like Emerson Lake & Palmer crossed with British folkies Fairport Convention. And like Fleet Foxes, they are a band best heard via album, though I do have a few of their songs on the shuffle. My favorite, from an earlier album, is "16 Military Wives," a much more straightforwardly rockin' tune than usual for them. "Sons and Daughters" on Crane Wife is another that stands up well on its own. Singer Colin Meloy has a distinctive New Englandish voice (and for some reason, I picture him looking like Rainn Wilson, though I don't think he does). They recently released a song called "Valerie Plame," and I was shocked to find that it really is a mid-tempo pop song about Valerie Plame! A new album is due in March, and I'm sure I'll need it on CD rather than from iTunes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How songs chug

Thanks to my iPod (forget same-sex marriage, when can I marry my iPod?), I had a dumb little epiphany this morning on my way to work. First the iPod played "Islands in the Stream," an innocuous little pop ditty by Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton. I realized as I was singing and bopping along in the car that I like the song largely because it does something I've always thought of as "chugging along." I've never quite known what I meant by that phrase, but another song I love for its chugging is Dionne Warwick's "Heartbreaker"--I love Dionne's Bacharach period in the 60's but don't have much use for the rest of her output, except for this early 80's number with Barry Gibb.

Then came George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," a much slower and statelier number with a kind of "Hey Jude"-like chant at the end. And by gosh if I didn't realize that this song also "chugged along," causing me to thump a steady if slow rhythm with my entire body in the car seat. Next was The Babys "Isn't It Time" (sorry, but I count all Babys hits as guilty pleasures). Eh, voila, this song didn't chug. And I figured out what the hell I mean by "chugging."

In most pop songs (like "Isn't It Time"), after the first chorus, before the second verse begins, the background rhythm (bass, drums, rhythm guitar) stops or changes tempo, often slowing down, then picking up again once the verse starts. But in "Islands in the Stream" and "Isn't It a Pity" and "Heartbreaker," the background rhythm keeps going, it doesn't stop or slow down like in the average pop song. In other words, it just keeps on chuggin' along. Maybe this difference is obvious to everyone else, and with the current pop rage of stop-start rhythms, this may be a thing of the past, but I am at last pleased to know what the hell I'm talking to myself about in the car between bursts of singing along.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dead and buried and stabbed in the eye on horror movie night

For our traditional Friday night horror/mystery movie last week, we watched Dead and Buried, a film from 1981 which has picked up a small cult following. Normally I'd probably review this over on my Moviepalace site, but I try to adhere to a pre-1980 cutoff for that blog, so here we are. In the opening, on a misty New England beach, a photographer flirts with a hot local lady who rips her top off for him. Unfortunately, their naughty little idyll is cut short when she and a bunch of townies beat him up, tie him up, and burn him up, snapping pictures of him the whole time. They put his body in a car and make it look like he was the victim of an accident. When the new local sheriff and the (very) old undertaker investigate, it turns out the poor guy is still alive (in a startling scene inspired by a shot from Jaws) though horribly charred and unable to speak. Thus begins a string of mutilation killings; we know that the bulk of the townspeople are doing them, but we don't know why, or who the mastermind is. Even weirder, the eventually truly-dead picture snapper winds up alive and well, working as an auto mechanic at the town's garage.

The plot is fairly predictable, and the unmasking of the major villains is not surprising at all, but I must admit a number of gory setpieces did make me jump and/or yell: the charred man's unexpected scream, a nurse stabbing a man in the eye with a hypodermic needle, and a twitching, severed arm stuck in a car grille, all in the first half of the film. The plot itself has so many holes that it's way too frustrating to try and think it all through, but still things move along nicely to an OK wrap-up. James Farentino, a handsome if craggy-faced actor I know mostly from TV, is fine though he does tend to go over-the-top in the last half as his character keeps finding out nasty secrets. Melody Anderson (who played Dale Arden in the 1980 remake of Flash Gordon) is similarly OK as the sheriff's wife, who may have a secret or two of her own. Best is Jack Albertson, the Man from Chico and the Man (pictured w/Farentino) in his last screen role. He looks quite frail, but his role is fairly substantial and he does a fine job. The script was co-written by Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Alien) and I wish it had been a bit tighter; several relatively minor points that could be explained either aren't or are explained so subtly that I didn't notice. Still, a nice low-budget mainstream shock fest for a Friday night.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

More on Brideshead

My post on Brideshead Revisited was at least 2 paragraphs longer in its first draft, and after getting some comments on my post, I felt I should spend a little more time on it, specifically on the "romantic friendship"/gay relationship aspect: Were Sebastian and Charles lovers? Does it matter? Anything I have to say here is based solely on viewing the mini-series and the recent movie, as I haven't read the book (though I intend to soon).

I was in my mid-20's when the TV production first aired; I'd been "out" as a gay man for some time and had been living with my first real "partner" for at least a year. My degree was in English and one of my formative academic moments was in a class in which we read Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"; I raised the question of the main character's sexual orientation (the aging Aschenbach is swept up in a sexual obsession with an adolescent boy; he flirts like crazy, though no sexual activity actually occurs) but I was dismissed by the patronizing teacher who said that the story wasn't really *about* that. While I understand that literature is rarely *about* one thing, certainly there's something going on concerning sexual identity; after all, Mann could have had Aschenbach fall for a girl.

Before I go on a multi-paragraph rant, let me get back to Brideshead. In the early 80's, there were still not many "positive" representations of homosexuality in popular culture. Watching the first few episodes of the mini-series, I was convinced that Sebastian and Charles were meant for each other and were indulging in a mad, passionate physical affair, even though there was no clear-cut evidence for that. What was clear was that they did have a "passion" for each other, and in the midst of that, Charles meets Sebastian's sister Julia. My reading of what happens is that Charles transfers his feeling for Sebastian to Julia, she being a safer vessel for his yearnings. Sebastian is upset by this; in fact, this may be the event that determines the course of the rest of his life.

A "romantic friendship," according to Wikipedia, is "a very close but non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that which is common in modern Western societies." I suspect this is what's involved in many "phases" that teenagers go through when they have crushes on people of the same sex. In England, this kind of thing seems to be taken much more in stride, particularly in schools where the sexes are segregated. Now that I've mellowed a bit, I can accept that Charles' relationship with Sebastian may have been "unconsummated"; in some ways, that even adds depth to the sad yearning feeling of the entire miniseries.

Sebastian, however, is clearly a homosexual character, and it is somewhat problematic for us, as Roscoe points out in his comment on my earlier post, that his "condition" seems to be inextricably tied to his downfall. On the other hand, Sebastian does accept his "fate," not trying to hide behind a false heterosexual relationship. Yes, he seems to meet a sad end, but so do Charles and Julia, and it seems clear to me that the real cause for all the sadness and unfulfilled passion in the story is God (and Lady Marchmain). The movie seems to imply that, in the closing WWII scene, Charles is about to convert; I don't remember getting that sense at the end of the miniseries, but that could have been due to my own cultural blinders at the time. At any rate, I think I will take Roscoe's advice and read the book soon.

Below is a cobbled-together YouTube video which features the original TV theme song which I find so wonderfully sad, and which seems to be stuck in my head now for at least the next few days.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why I love my iPod: Reason #73

My iPod is on alphabetical play of roughly 2700 songs, so in effect, it's like a shuffle mode in that I really have no idea what's coming next. This morning, on my way into work, I heard "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight" by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, a sublime peak moment for 60's bubblegum. Ah, the rising, twinning voices of yearning, confused about the difference between love and friendship, desperate for news of "what she's doo-ooo-ing to-niiii--iiii-iiight...ahh!"

Next came "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" by the Pet Shop Boys, a sublime serving of 90's British synthpop. Ah, the joy of the usually cynical and dour Neil Tennant with clouds of happy synthesizers burbling underneath him as he proclaims, "I feel like taking all my clothes off / And dancing to the "Rite of Spring."

Then came "If" by Bread, a sublime slice of 70's vanilla-whitebread soft-rock, a lushly romantic song of non-specific love. Ah, the gentle apocalypse evoked by David Gates; with the stars going out, he and his loved one "will simply fly away."

Finally, "If Anybody Gets Funked Up (It's Gonna Be You)" by George Clinton, a sublime chunk of Parliament/Funkadelic funk. Ah, the growl of Mr. Clinton as he proclaims the funk illegal even as he tells us that some folks are "funkin' all through the night."

I would never have played these four songs together, and you damn sure wouldn't hear them together on any radio station I can think of, even the satellite stations. But my iPod gave me a wonderful little trip through four different musical worlds in the 20 minutes it took to get from home to work. Ah, sweet gadget that makes life (mornings especially) so liveable!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Brideshead Revisited revisited

I loved the early 80's British mini-series adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. For starters, it was 11 hours, a good length for a mini-series, not like the pathetic little 3- or 4-hour shows that pass for mini-series today. I was in my mid-20's when the show first aired, and I remember it being one of first times I felt like I was watching something truly "adult" on TV--I don't mean something naughty or pornographic, but something that actually had to be taken in and thought about; its meanings yielded themselves slowly and the drama resonated long after the series was over. I tried reading the book but it was so much like the show that I felt not much new could be culled from it--I'm more than willing to admit I might be wrong, but I've never gone back to the book to find out. I do, however, own the show on DVD and have re-watched it in the last several years to find that it holds up remarkably well.

This weekend we watched the 2008 feature film version of Brideshead Revisited. Though this glossy 2-hour film cannot hope to compete with the series in terms of depth, narrative sweep, or character, it does have some pleasures of its own. In the end, its disappointments were largely balanced by small successes so that I was pleased to have seen it, even though it will never replace the TV version.

[Hayley Atwell, Ben Whishaw, and Matthew Goode]

The plot of both versions concerns Charles Ryder, a middle-class lad who goes off to Oxford and falls in with an upper-class crowd, led by the whimsical but troubled Sebastian Flyte. The two have a "romantic friendship" of the kind that the Brits tend to tolerate but that we like to think never happens here in the States, but more importantly, Charles also falls in love with Sebastian's sister Julia, with the family's monied lifestyle, and with the Flyte's estate, Brideshead. Charles' love for Julia triggers jealousy in Sebastian (which leads him down a tragic path), but a bigger obstacle for Charles in his desire to live the life of a Flyte is their religious faith: Charles is an atheist but the family is staunchly Catholic. More to the point, the matriarch, Lady Marchmain, is. Her estranged husband has fallen away from the faith and Sebastian and Julia are stuck in the middle, both wanting to disavow their mother's notions of a stern god but not quite being able to let go entirely. For 10 years, Charles' fate is tangled up with the Flytes until a final break which leaves no one happy.

What this movie version does well is to make the central conflicts of love and friendship and class and religion quite clear. Unfortunately, to do this, the script has to cut back drastically on the rich supporting cast of characters. One of my favorites from the show, the stuttering, flamboyant Anthony Blanche, gets only one small scene in the movie, and sadly, it's not even the luscious "One brandy alexander... two brandy alexanders..." drinking scene. It's also beautifully photographed, far more so than the drab-looking TV show (its flat look was the only thing about the series that disappointed me in the recent re-viewing). Michael Gambon does a better job as Lord Marchmain than Lawrence Olivier did (Olivier was obviously quite ill, which in fact suits the role near the end), and the always fabuous Emma Thompson (pictured) does more with Lady Marchmain than Claire Bloom could do. I do, though, miss the wonderful John Gielgud who had a field day in the TV series with the role of Charles' clueless father.

The acting in the central triangle here is a bit off. Matthew Goode, as Charles, is just OK; perhaps the fact that he sounds a great deal like Jeremy Irons (the 1981 Charles) helps. Hayley Atwell is actually quite good as Julia, but poor Ben Whishaw is totally at sea as Sebastian. I admit that it's difficult to get the image of Anthony Andrews (pictured below with Irons) from the original out of my head--he embodied Sebastian perfectly, and was able to seem loveable and dreadful, admirable and pathetic, at the same time, often in the same scene. Whishaw just comes off as spoiled and irritating. Here, I can't see what this Charles sees in this Sebastian that entices him into a platonic "amour fou" which alters his life forever.

Finally, this film made me realize something about my own prejudices concerning the first version. The character of Sebastian is clearly a homosexual, but when I watched the 1981 version, I believed that Charles was, too. I didn't buy the "platonic" aspect of their romantic relationship (the picnic scene under the tree with the strawberries was so lush, I just knew they'd had sex, and lots of it), and felt that part of Charles' weakness was that he simply tried to transfer his physical feelings for Sebastian to Julia. 20+ years down the road, I can see that this is a misreading--whether or not they had sex is beside the point (in the 2008 version, they do share a kiss in addition to the strawberry scene); Charles was more in love with the family's way of life than he ever was with either Sebastian or Julia. I can recommend this film, but if you watch it, you really should dig up the original series and watch it, too, if for no other reason but to hear the achingly beautiful theme song by Geoffrey Burgon which for me will always conjure up the sadness of lost dreams and desires.