Sunday, June 28, 2009

Man in the mirror

I don't have much to say about the tragedy of Michael Jackson. It's a sad story about a man who so clearly epitomized the truism that money can't buy you happiness. He made a lot of wonderful music, made a lot people happy, and had the world on a string for many years, and yet:

1) He hated the way he looked and apparently went through years of plastic surgery, not to mention skin-color changes, to try to look different. It's startling to see him in one of his last music videos, for 2001's "You Rock My World" in which he looks more like a grotesque approximation of a pasty-faced mannequin rather than a human being. It's even more startling to see him in the video for "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" back in 1979, when he was actually a handsome, happy-looking young black man.

2) He seemed unable to make intimate connections with other humans. My theory about the crotch-grabbing, the failed marriages, the sharing his bed with adolescent boys, is that he really had no clue what physical intimacy was all about. I would not be surprised to learn that he never had sex, not even with the underage boys with which he was suspected of having done so. I hope, and even think it may be possible, that he was actually a good father to his three kids, because I don't know that he could ever relate to people on anything but a child's level.

3) He seemed never to be satisfied with his fame. In some ways, Thriller was a misfortune; how does anyone follow the best-selling album of all time? The whole "King of Pop" thing was a silly attempt to make something so just by putting a label on it. Interestingly, the networks seemed to be using the "King of Pop" phrase un-ironically over the weekend. So, what the hell, maybe he was the King of Pop.

4) And, of course, the sad untimely end, on the eve of a promising comeback to live performing. When I heard him being compared to Elvis Presley, another King who came to a tragic end, I first thought, no way. But then I realized that, to the generations that came of age in the late 70's and 80's, he probably was the equivalent of Elvis or The Beatles. And I guess I'm OK with that.

To me, he made good, solid, glossy pop music; I don't think he broke any real musical ground like Elvis or The Beatles, but lots of people felt strong personal connections with his music. Many of the TV and Internet obits have praised him for breaking down the last racial boundaries in pop music, but truth to tell, that had been mostly done in the 60's by other Motown artists (like Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross), and Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix, all of whom had huge mainstream fan followings and whose music was played widely on mainstream top 40 radio stations. Undeniably, he broke the color barrier on MTV, an important cultural happening. And he may well be the last pop music superstar who could appeal broadly to almost anyone who listened to the radio.

I find much of his music catchy and fun to sing along with in the car. But I have stronger connections to his earlier music with the Jackson 5, largely because I was a teenager when they first hit it big--I'm only two years older than Michael. It takes me back to a simpler, happier time, or at least a time that seems that way in retrospect. I realize now that Thriller was part of the musical soundtrack to the disintegration of my first serious live-in relationship with another man, which had lasted 3 years, so that may color to some extent how I feel about that music now. Regardless, the story of Michael Jackson is a sad one, but the music left behind will continue to make lots of people happy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Too discreet

I picked up Reynolds Price's memoir Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, largely because the first review I read of it noted that the book contained some interesting stuff about affairs he carried on with other men in his youth. The review made it sound quite steamy, so I was expecting, if not exactly porn, then some spicy passages on love and lust. Much to my disappointment, Price winds up being too discreet.

I've never read any fiction by Price, though I keep thinking I should, so I am not the ideal audience for this book, though as a former (and still recovering) academic, I do have an interest in his memoir, which covers the years in the mid-50's when he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford then returned to the States and took a teaching job at Duke (where he has remained to the present day). The first part of the book, covering his first year at Oxford as he acclimates himself to surroundings very different from what he was used to in North Carolina, is interesting, but the rest of the memoir, covering his friendships (with folks like Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden) and travels in Europe, gets repetitious.

By the time he gets around to actually having sex, at the age of 24, it's page 268 out of 400, and it's described like this: "[We] turned out prior uncertainty into an actual intimacy--it was my first experience of employing my body in one of my grandest jobs." And that's about it. It took him until he was into his 70's to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, and he still disapproves of using the word "gay" to refer to homosexuals; I'm thinking based on what he says in this book about his intimate relations over the years that he's got a little self-loathing going on. [This observation, by the way, has little to do with the lack of explicitness in his description of sex; I'm more or less joking about wanting more details, though based on the pictures of him in the book, he was something of a hottie back then!] He also states that he has rarely written about gay people because they tend not to bond for long periods of time and are not good subjects for narratives about families or covering long time arcs. How very strange, and sad for him. I'm still tempted to read one of his novels, but much less so than I was before I picked up this memoir.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

TV I'm still watching

Network television (traditional and cable) just isn't making shows for me anymore. Frankly, outside of more sitcoms--where's the next Arrested Development?--I don't know what would attract me back to TV. Not reality shows, not do-it-yourself shows, not police or doctor or lawyer dramas. I used to like historical documentaries, and still do when they're on PBS, but the stuff on the History Channel, et al., seems so overdone and artificial, not to mention repetitious--I'd be surprised if there was more than 20 minutes of un-reiterated information in any hour-long cable history doc. If Mike Rowe was always shirtless, I might watch Dirty Jobs more often. Even my old standby, Game Show Network, has gotten rid of the old black & white game shows they'd run overnight, and seem to be producing no more new Lingos or Chain Reactions (where have you gone, Dylan Lane, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo woo woo...).
So aside from my usual surfing of Turner Classic Movies, here's what I'm still watching on TV:

Pushing Daisies--canceled, with its last 3 episodes just recently burned off on the TV graveyard of Saturday night. I liked the last twist [SPOILER:] that they finally decided to tell the aunts that Chuck was still alive, and think they should have done that a year ago.

Pluses: quirky and wonderfully whimsical; phantasmagorically colorful; solid ensemble acting, especially the fabulous Kristen Chenoweth (who got to belt a few songs now and then) and the sexy Lee Pace; occasional interesting guest stars (Paul Reubens, Diana Scarwid, Wendie Malick).

Minuses: the arc story stuff took over the show, disastrously, in the second season, and the colorful whimsy could only make up so much for that.

The Big Bang Theory & How I Met Your Mother--Monday night sitcoms with likably unlikeable characters, the first with physics nerds, the second with hip young middle-class New Yorkers reminiscent of updated "Friends."

Pluses: good acting, funny dialogue, and great turns by Jim Parsons on Big Bang (pictured) and Neil Patrick Harris on Mother (who will now no longer be forever associated only with Doogie Houser); Mother has some very clever bits involving narrative distortion of time and space, flashbacks and flashforwards

Minuses: I don't care one bit for the arc story on Mother, leading us up to the big moment when Ted will meet his future wife. To the show's credit, they have put that on the back burner. On Big Bang, as much as I like Parsons, his character, a nearly autistic savant, who is deliberately irritating, sometimes goes too far. So far, Parsons has kept me laughing, but I fear they will make him such an alienating putz, I will lose all empathy for him.

The New Adventures of Old Christine--We just started watching this one this year, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Christine, whose ex-husband, with whom she has remained friends, is about to marry a woman, also named Christine. This is the most traditional of the sitcoms I currently watch, reminding me at times of 90's shows like Roseanne or Grace Under Fire.

Pluses: Louis-Dreyfus, the best female comic on TV since Ellen DeGeneres's heyday on Ellen; Clark Gregg, her ex, who is a bland-but-sexy husband type.

Minuses: They don't always know what to do with co-star Wanda Sykes--sometimes she's hysterically funny, sometimes deadly dull. Also I don't much care for Hamish Linklater, playing Christine's goofy brother.

Castle--Nathan Fillion as a famous author who shadows a female police officer to get ideas for his books. Basically an old-fashioned cop show with a little more humor than most.

Pluses: the charmingly sexy Nathan Fillion, who single-handedly makes the show worth watching, though Stana Katic, as the cop, has grown on me, and they have good chemistry.

Minuses: the supporting cast is OK, but as characters, they all need to be better developed.

Gary Unmarried--Jay Mohr is divorced from Paula Marshall, but with joint custody of two kids, they keep getting involved in each other's lives.

Pluses: I'm a little embarassed to admit that I find the beer-swilling, overgrown frat-boy Jay Mohr to be kinda sexy, and he and Marshall work well together; well written without being particularly original or edgy; I liked the addition of Max Gail as Mohr's old-hippie father in the last few episodes.

Minuses: The rest of the supporting cast is so-so, and the plotting could use some originality and/or edginess.

I watch enough Burn Notice to keep up, but aside from Jeopardy, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report, that's about it for broadcast television. I imagine I'll get excited about something this fall that will wind up being either too quirky (Daisies) or too edgy (last summer's Swingtown) to last, so I'll be in a similar boat next summer.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

No fortunate one

I've knocked another beloved artist off a pedestal by reading Hank Bordowitz's Bad Moon Rising: The Unofficial History of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Back in junior high and high school in the late 60's and early 70's, I owned practically every single that CCR released and could sing them all note for note. The most astonishing thing about this book was that it reminded me that all their great music (12 hit singles, many of them double-sided hits, and 7 albums) was recorded and released in the span of only four years, 1968-1972. They could do grungy swamp rock ("Susie Q," "Green River"), good time rock & roll ("Travelin' Band," "Hey Tonight"), social commentary ("Fortunate Son"), goofy nonsense ("Lookin' Out My Back Door") and downright spooky unclassifiable stuff, like my very favorite CCR song "Run Through the Jungle," which I remember playing at midnight (through headphones) on summer nights to scare myself silly and get tingles up and down my spine.

Most of us know the story of how the band imploded in the early 70's; lead singer and songwriter John Fogerty broke the band up after his brother Tom left and one last album by the trio of Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford was critically lambasted (though it did have one last great song, "Sweet Hitch-Hiker"). Fogerty, lauded as a musical genius, was expected to have a great solo career, but instead he got embroiled in nasty legal problems with his record company, Fantasy, and has only produced 5 albums of original material in the last 35+ years, none of which has lived up to his reputation, critically or commercially.

I'd always been on his side in his struggles against Fantasy and its head Saul Zaentz, but this book gives a more complex picture of those struggles, and, while Zaentz still comes out an asshole, it turns out Fogerty, undeniably a massive talent but also something of an egomaniac, did as much to sabotage his own career as anyone else by holding onto vengeful grudges (against Zaentz, his former bandmates, and his brother) and never even attempting to take the high road by forgiving and forgetting. The saddest chapter is the tale of their "reunion" when CCR was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993; Fogerty told the event's organizers that, while he would allow the rest of CCR to appear with him at the induction, he would not perform with them, so the house band, with the addition of Bruce Springsteen, played instead while the other guys, who had been reheasing for a performance that night, got the cold shoulder.

The book was written with the cooperation of Cook and Clifford, and the son of the late Tom Fogerty, but with no input from John Fogerty. It is to the author's credit that his story still feels fairly balanced, with Fogerty coming off more a tragic, pitiable figure than a devilish villain. The book feels a bit overstuffed with critical commentary on the music, without doing a very good job at actually analyzing the music, but that's a relatively minor sticking point. It's basically a good read, though I should note that the edition I read was the original from over 10 years ago, and apparently a revised version came out in 2007. However, it seems as if little has changed since then: Fogerty still puts out a well-received but unspectacular "comeback" album once every 10 years or so, and Doug and Stu have continued struggling along in the music business, at one time reuniting as Creedence Clearwater Revisited without Fogerty and without much success. A sad story indeed.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Kindle & I; or, Joni Mitchell is a pompous, strutting ass

I finally broke down and used Don's Kindle to read a book..., or to read a Kindle book..., or to read an eBook; I'm not sure of the terminology. The Kindle feature of which Don is most enamored is the ability to be lying in bed at 10:15 p.m. (yes, we're usually in bed by then), decide you want to read a book, and without having to get up, put on clothes, and go to the computer, just lie there, access the Kindle store from the Kindle, buy the book, and seconds later, be reading it. That's pretty much what I did: while lying in bed reading a New Yorker (a physical print copy), I saw an ad for a new book on Joni Mitchell, grabbed the Kindle out of Don's hands, and a minute later, I was reading the book on the Kindle. (Well, I took a bit of artistic license there, but that's how it could have and should have happened.)

The book is Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer. I have a long and complex relationship with the music of Joni Mitchell, but suffice to say that I think her 1971 album Blue, a stark and lovely set of love songs, both happy and sad, is a work of genius and one that spoke to me intensely in my youth. It's also an album that still holds up after all these years ("A Case of You" was covered not too long ago by k.d. lang, and "River" has become a Christmas standard). The book covers her life and career from just before the recording of Blue in 1970 to Hejira, what Mercer seems to consider her last great work, in 1976. I would have included her next album, 1978's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, which I like more than Hejira. But there is no doubt that by the time of 1979's Mingus, she had turned completely away from folk music and personal storytelling to jazz and more impressionistic lyrics, and lost much of her audience. I gave her two more albums, then stopped following her career. I didn't resent her for her changes, but I just wasn't interested in following her in that direction, and I was incredibly grateful for the body of work she left behind.

But this book... First of all, it's not terribly well written. I was expecting a mix of music criticism and biography, and that's basically what I got, but it's an idiosyncratic book, which bounces around in time and space, and does not do what I feel it promised, which was to include a track-by-track analysis of the albums. What analysis she does is interesting, especially when covering Court and Spark, Mitchell's biggest commercial hit. At times, Mercer, who had limited personal access to Mitchell, writes in an clear objective style, but at other times, she awkwardly inserts short personal anecdotes which seem barely related to Mitchell and her music (and there's a long section about beat poetry that comes to nothing). I totally understand this push toward "subjective criticism": if I ever write in detail on one of my blogs about Mitchell's music, I will have to relate the circumstances of my discovery of her albums and how each one affected my life. But here, the connections seem murky.

But the most disappointing thing is not the writer, but the subject. Mitchell comes off as a pompous, strutting, egocentric ass. She disparages the world for not "getting" the music she's produced over the past 25 years, and seems pretty pissed that her obituary will first and foremost reference her earlier work. There seems to be no one else in the pop music pantheon whom she respects, not even ex-lovers such as James Taylor or Leonard Cohen--and though I'm not a big Cohen fan, I will say that his output has remained interesting, accessible, and alive long after hers has become boring and irrelevant. The only other "geniuses" she can imagine being compared to are Beethoven, Debussy, and jazz musician Wayne Shorter.

Mitchell does make at least two interesting and valid points. The first is her concern with the gossips who attempt to figure out who her songs are about. These early songs are personal, about things and people in Mitchell's life, and therefore autobiographical, but the events of her life have become art and, as Mercer and I can attest, the songs take on a universal appeal. Though I've never been to Paris or Greece or even California, and never taken Graham Nash as a lover, I can identify with most of her songs. However, I am only human and I did enjoy finding out here that "Coyote," from Hejira, was about a fling Mitchell had with Sam Shepard. Still, I understand why gossip-mongering fans upset her, and Mercer does a nice job balancing Mitchell's privacy with the reader's need to find out at least a few juicy tidbits.

The other interesting point she raises concerns the label "confessional" which is often applied to her music. "Confessional" implies Mitchell has done something wrong or sinful and needs to be redeemed by confessing her errors--a lengthy discussion of St. Augustine ensues at one point. I agree with her that "confessional" is probably the wrong term to apply blanketly to the works of the singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s. It's all the stranger, however, when Mercer says that Mitchell's music changed when she "absolved herself of the need to write autobiographical songs." Isn't "absolved" completely the wrong word here?

As to the Kindle, for me it will never replace flesh-and-blood books (I know, I know, but it's evocative) but once I gave in, I enjoyed the experience. Pages don't exist, and you only know how far you are in a book by a percentage number displayed along the bottom. (I was telling people, "Hey, I'm 34% of the way through the Joni Mitchell book!") You can take notes, though I missed the tactile experience of writing in margins and underlining things in red or purple. As for Joni, I still love her music, and am listening to "Amelia" on the computer as I write these words. Maybe it's just best not to know too much about the people we put on pedestals.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Angels, demons, and Nixon

By chance, I saw two Ron Howard movies almost back to back recently, Angels & Demons and Frost/Nixon. Like many folks my age or older, I have fond memories of little vanilla Ronnie Howard as: 1) Opie, Mayberry's best-behaved kid; 2) Marion the Librarian's little lisping brother in The Music Man; 3) well-behaved 50's teenager Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. Perhaps knowing he'd quickly lose his cute looks (and hair), Howard changed career course and has now secured a place among the top rank of high-powered film directors.

His movies aren't bad, but I find him an unexciting and not terribly original talent. Splash, Cocoon, Apollo 13, Willow, EdTV, and The DaVinci Code are all solid, respectable films and, apparently, crowd pleasers, but none have really stayed with me. A Beautiful Mind is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, but that is memorable more for the acting and the screenplay rather than the directing style.

Frost/Nixon follows in the usual Howard mold: more than competent but unremarkable filmmaking featuring two very good performances. It's the background story of the ground-breaking TV interviews that British talk show host David Frost held with disgraced former president Richard Nixon. Actually, it's about Frost and his attempt to break out of what he considered a second-rate career; though the character of Nixon almost dominates the proceedings (thanks to Frank Langella's excellent performance), the narrative focuses on Frost, well played by Michael Sheen. I enjoyed the film as I sat through it, but only three weeks on, it's fading from memory.

On the other hand, Angels & Demons, Howard's latest theatrical release, is pretty darned fun. I read the Dan Brown novel that the film is based on a few years ago. Like The DaVinci Code, it's a faux-literate thriller featuring symbologist Robert Langdon tracking down esoteric clues embedded in history, art, and architecture in order to solve a string of murders, and in the case of this film, the possible destruction of the Vatican by a vial of anti-matter. Tom Hanks is OK in the role, though he seems an odd choice for the role of Langdon as he didn't get to use his considerable charm or humor in either film. The devilishly handsome Ewan MacGregor is very good in the main supporting role as a potentially powerful priest, and as in DaVinci Code, the lead female (here, Ayelet Zurer) has little to do and works up no chemistry with Hanks.

The film doesn't really come to life until about halfway through, partly due to the amount of exposition involving art and history. The surprise here is how well Howard handles the action-filled climax. I might even consider seeing this one again. Still, I'm thinking that Beautiful Mind might be the peak of Howard's career.