Friday, November 21, 2014

2 punks who don't quite get their due

To say that I've recently read two books about punk rockers is perhaps not quite accurate. One, Lou Reed, is generally accepted as the godfather of punk based largely on his early work with the Velvet Underground. The other, Brian Jones, was a founder of the Rolling Stones and died long before punk music was a genre, but I feel fairly confident in giving the early Stones some punk credentials. Both of these musicians were present at the creation of important bands but neither one really gets his due in these flawed biographies.

Certainly the legend of Brian Jones deserves a better book than Paul Trynka's Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones. Jones was, in the beginning, fully an equal to--and probably, as Trynka argues, musically superior to--Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and this book is fine for background information about Jones. It's very sad to see Jones sink into a mire of drugs and thwarted ambition; he was booted from the Stones in 1969, at the dawn of my own rock & roll coming of age, and I remember the headlines about his tragic death in his swimming pool, probably the result of years of drug abuse. 

The main problem with the book is that the author has an ax to grind--that Jones was ill-treated by Jagger and Richards for years before he was forced out, and that the living Stones have never given Jones his due. All that is certainly true, but Trynka can't be objective here; about every 10 pages, he blames the Stones for most of Jones' problems and doesn't seem to see that much of what he reports actually supports the opposite view, that Jones was, to a substantial degree, the author of his own misfortune. Trynka is sloppy with details here and there, though the last couple of chapters, as Jones' downfall seems inevitable, are well written. I like that he takes down the conspiracy theorists who believe that Jones was murdered: Trynka makes it sound like Jones' untimely death was almost inevitable. I liked some of this book, but I wish a more rigorous and objective writer would tackle this material.

The first two-thirds of Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris was written in the 90s and it's a fairly solid, well-researched look at Reed's life, from the shock treatments he received as a teenager to his falling in with John Cale, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground (who in their short time together became one of the most influential rock bands of the 60s), to his solo career that pretty much peaked in the early 70s with the albums Transformer and Berlin. 

These were both seminal albums for me and I was disappointed when Reed seemed to lose interest in his career, producing slipshod work for years until he regained some footing in the 80s. Bockris explains some of that: Reed was, for much of the 70's, a speed addict and a heavy drinker, seemingly constantly high. But high or sober, Reed had two sides: he was either charming or a total prick to everyone he knew. The biggest fault in the first part of the book is that Bockris does zero analysis of the music. Even "Walk on the Wild Side" doesn't get any detailed look at its lyrics, and that would seem to be mandatory for a book on Lou Reed. He touches on the roots of Berlin in a past relationship of Reed's but delves no deeper. 

The last third of the book, covering the mid-90s to the present, was clearly slap-dashed together just after Reed's death in 2013, and its fault goes in the other direction: rather than doing any new research, he mostly writes only about the music Reed made during this time, with and in reaction to his wife Laurie Anderson. Overall, a sloppy book. If someone took the first half and added copious music annotations, we might have a good read.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A playwright named Enigma

New Yorker drama critic John Lahr has written a new biography of Tennessee Williams, who in the 50s and 60s was generally conceded to be the greatest living American playwright. It's a big book and deeply researched, and it starts off like gangbusters, but once Lahr gets around to the plays, things go wrong. Some biographies of artists wind up giving short shrift to their work, so I'm glad to have a volume that deals in criticism of Williams' plays and presents background about the production and reception of the plays. But Lahr winds up burying the reader in pages of lengthy quotes from letters between Williams and his directors and collaborators (usually Elia Kazan). He is using correspondence that has been largely unavailable for publication until recently--the backstory on the vagaries of the Williams literary estate is told, again in overwhelming detail, in the last chapter--so I understand his temptation to use the writings, which are quite candid, but we end up slogging through paragraph after paragraph of seemingly unedited letters that make the same point about the plays and productions over and over again.

The material on the major plays, including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is interesting, though I would like to have had a bit more discussion of the movie versions, which are barely mentioned here even though Williams himself often worked on the screenplays. On occasion, Lahr spends so much time and effort on the rough birthing processes of the plays that the plot summaries or details about the actors suffer--I'm still vague on what happens in Orpheus Descending and Summer and Smoke, and aside from Laurette Taylor (Glass Menagerie) and Marlon Brando (Streetcar), the actors are definitely kept in the background.
Lahr approaches the plays from a psychological criticism viewpoint and that is helpful; I found it a particularly illuminating way to read the very odd Suddenly Last Summer and the late play Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which on the surface is about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. A fairly full portrait of Williams from the outside is presented, yet I still came away from this book feeling like I didn't know what made Williams tick. Lahr does a nice job of bring some of Williams' friends to life, particularly the director Elia Kazan and William's partner Frank Merlo, and I enjoyed learning that one of Williams' companions later in life was a relative of Jack Nicklaus. I would recommend this, with the caveat that it bogs down in drowning detail in the last half. (BTW, the cover image above is of the British edition, which is a much better cover than the odd, gaudy, cheap-looking American cover.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

The birth of pop music as we know it

"Here Comes the Night : The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues" by Joel Selvin is one of the best pop culture histories I've ever read. But you need to know this: the title is a lie, or least a deception. Bert Berns is a name generally lost in the far-off mists of time; he was a songwriter ("Twist and Shout," "Hang On Sloopy," "Piece of My Heart"), producer (The Drifters, Solomon Burke), and head of the record label Bang, whose biggest artist was Neil Diamond. He died in 1967 at the age of 38 of a heart condition which doctors has thought would kill him at a much younger age (Bobby Darin was in the same situation) and he has not been lionized like some of his contemporaries such as Phil Spector or Carole King. Selvin wants to give Berns his due, and he is theoretically the focus of the book.

But the narrative is really about the pop music industry of the 50s and 60s: the songwriters, producers, and label bosses. Berns vanishes for entire chapters--though the book comes to a sudden stop with Berns' death in '67--and there is almost as much here about Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records and songwriter duos Leiber/Stoller and Barry/Greenwich as there is about Berns. This is not a complaint. Basically Berns serves as a throughline for the larger story of how the modern-day pop music business developed. Even the "dirty business of rhythm & blues" part of the subtitle is a bit misleading--lots of R&B singers crop up here (The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, Ben E. King, and lesser-known artists like the Five Crowns and the Exciters) but so do many performers from other genres like Van Morrison, The McCoys, the Strangeloves, Lulu, and the Beatles. The Brill Building-era songwriters are also evoked: Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Burt Bacharach, etc.

The pace is fast but things never get muddled. The middle bogs down a bit as Selvin has a tendancy to lapse into simple listings of Berns' various recording sessions, but this is easily forgiven as the rest of the book holds the reader's attention so well. The biggest surprise is what a bastard Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records could be--he and Ahmet Ertegun usually come off as nice guy geniuses, whereas here they seem more lucky than smart, and not always nice people. Hence the "dirty business" part of the subtitle, which also refers to various mob connections which are detailed.

I can't say enough good things about this book. If you love pop music and want to know more about its roots, this is an engaging resource, exhaustively researched and well-written. (Coincidentally, there is a "jukebox musical" playing in New York right now consisting of the music of Bert Berns called "Piece of My Heart.")

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The giant turtle and the mystical mermaid

In this age of streaming video and countless outlets for movies, I have been enjoying more access to the Golden Age of TV-movies, back when the range was wider than just romance or true crime or Sharknado. Best were the genre entries (horror, fantasy, sci-fi), some of which were as good as any B-movie of the time--see my review of 1971's Black Noon. Warner Archive Instant has a nice selection of these films, and I recently watched one called The Bermuda Depths (1978). It's no masterpiece, as it has the usual limits of the TV-movie--low production budget, indifferent acting and directing--but it also has an unusual plot and atmosphere which one viewer aptly described as a "weird cross between Gamera and Portrait of Jennie," to which I would add the Dennis Hopper cult film Night Tide, with touches of Jaws.

Leigh McCloskey (below) returns to his family home on an island near the Bermuda Triangle years after his marine biologist father died in a mysterious accident. He reconnects with his childhood buddy Carl Weathers who is working on an advanced degree under the tutelage of crusty but nice scientist Burl Ives. McCloskey, who seems a bit like a lost soul, is trying to find out what happened to his father, and also trying to piece together memories he has of a girl with whom he shared walks on the beach; in flashbacks, we see them together as he writes their initials on the back of a sea turtle.

All the pieces of the plot are present, but how they fit is a little strange: the grown-up girl (Connie Sellecca) returns and says her name is Jenny Haniver--which is also the name given to odd, monstrous figures carved out of the carcasses of rays. He only ever sees her coming in or out of the ocean, and no one else sees her at all. There's also a legendary gigantic sea turtle that Ives and Weathers are trying to find. And, of course, they are near the Bermuda Triangle, where people and things are always mysteriously disappearing.

On the plus side: the tone (creepy fantasy), the pace (slow and, at times, a little dreamlike), and the relatively complex story. Selleca is mostly called upon to just look lovely and mysterious, and she's very good at that. Weathers (Apollo Creed from Rocky) is also quite good. On the minus side: the special effects which are only occasionally effective (it's a Rankin-Bass production, BTW) and McCloskey, who seems to be almost literally sleepwalking his way through the movie; sometimes this approach works, giving his character a damaged, distant feel, but more often, he just seems a little slow, physically and mentally.

Ultimately, it's Gamera, ...err, the giant sea turtle that's the biggest problem. Is it good? Bad? The spirit of Nature? Sellecca's brother/father? A Moby Dick comparison is half-heartedly set up between Weathers and the turtle, but it doesn't resonate emotionally. A little more fleshing out of the plot points and a more consistent leading performance would have helped, but as it is, it's still worth a look. People who saw this in their youth seem to remember it as the movie about the girl with the glowing green eyes (Sellecca, pictured at top) but that's a very brief shot, and they looked more bluish to me than green.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Missed opportunity

I've read several books about the music industry, mostly books about artists or genres but occasionally about a specific label--two memorable ones are The Label: The Story of Columbia Records by Gary Marmorstein and Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George. A new book, Cowboys and Indies by Gareth Murphy, claims in its subtitle to be "the epic history of the record industry" but it falls far short being that--and I wonder if the author realizes the punnish reference in his subtitle, as Epic is a major label, a subsidiary of Columbia and home of Michael Jackson's legacy.

According to his acknowledgments page, Murphy did do some original interviews, but the bulk of the book seems to consist of material from other books, so if, like me, you already have some background, there isn't much new here. He focuses on people and companies about which there is lots of published material (Columbia, Island, Warner/Atlantic, Elektra, Asylum) and virtually ignores other major labels like RCA, Decca/MCA, Stax, and even Reprise which was started by Frank Sinatra and included Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa and Neil Young on its roster. For the most part, the only new material in here that I found interesting was about Herb Alpert's label A&M, and a couple of gossipy tidbits about cocaine use at Casablanca Records--someone should write an entire book about how the record industry went coke-crazy in the 70s.

Murphy at least begins at the beginning, with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, and he spends a lot of time on the punk years, presenting interesting information on the influential labels Sire and Stiff. But the omissions are numerous, and perhaps the most egregious one is the small amount of space he spends on the Beatles and their twisted record label history in the U.S. before they hit it big on Capitol. I guess this was not a total waste of time--I loved his description of Walter Yetnikoff, head of the CBS Records conglomerate, speaking in "fuck-littered Yiddish,"--but the subtitle makes you expect more than you will get. Disappointing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The fuss over Gone Girl

Most surface descriptions of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn make it sound like it is not the kind of book I typically read: a missing wife police procedural with a brutal husband as a suspect. Some descriptions stress another element that doesn't always work for me: the out-of-nowhere narrative twist like happens so often in the films of M. Night Shyamalan. And though the critics generally like the book, the "everyday people" I knew who had read it were split between loving it and hating it. So on an impulse, I bought this in paperback as a summer read, though I couldn't wait for summer.

The story is, in fact, a missing-wife, suspect-husband tale, reminiscent of the Scott and Laci Peterson story. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy, the wife of Nick, goes missing. Did she leave on her own accord?--she and Nick were having problems. Was she kidnapped?--her parents are the wealthy authors of a series of children's books whose central character was based on Amy. Was she murdered?--there are no visible signs of struggle until some suspicious blood traces are found in the kitchen.

The situation is fairly standard thriller boilerplate, but what makes the book worth reading is the narrative style. The first half of the book is told in alternating voices: the interior voice of Nick, who we figure out quickly is not the most reliable narrator (he makes oblique references to a disposable cell phone ringing but never tells us who's calling), and the voice of the missing Amy through her diary entries of the past few years, who seems generally more reliable. Then halfway through, a twist occurs--somewhat predictably but still joltingly--that throws everything we think we know about these two in a different light.

To say much more would spoil the fun, and despite some very dark turns the plot takes, reading the book is indeed fun. Nick and Amy are both unpleasant people but getting to know them is very interesting. Almost no one in the book is a nice person, and I had great fun with the author's takedown of awful CNN crime commentator Nancy Grace--under a fictional name, of course. I think some folks don't like the sexual politics, and may fault Flynn (pictured above) for what might be seen as the trivialization of some issues, including rape accusations. Where I found fault was in the ending--the last 30 pages or so seem like they're building steam to a real "gotcha" ending, but that's not quite the case. Still, I enjoyed this popcorn thriller, and it should make a good movie.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Old Curmudgeon meets the Oscar Movies

Since I rarely venture out to see current movies in theaters anymore, I wait for them to show up on DVD/cable/streaming, which means that, since the "serious" Oscar-bait movies don't get released theatrically until November or December, and therefore don't become available to us shut-ins for at least 90 days, I don't see many of the movies up for major Oscars until after the awards have been won or lost. When the nominees were announced in January, I had seen only one nominee, The Great Gatsby, and that was up for the relatively lowly awards of costume and production design. By now, I've caught up with most of the ones I plan on seeing so a quick report follows, minus the usual plot summaries since I assume most everyone knows the basics.

Gravity: Yes, I should have seen this in a 3D theater, because on a flat 2D TV screen, even a widescreen plasma TV screen, this movie falls flat because of the cardboard characters, cheap sentimentality, and the pinball-like bopping and banging of Bullock and Clooney against the space vehicles which gets tedious after ten minutes. I like the two actors, but they failed to hold me spellbound, and the 3D effects are pretty much lost in 2D.

Inside Llewyn Davis: I tend to go one of three ways with the Coen Brothers: they have their 5-star films (Blood Simple, Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, Miller's Crossing), their 4-star films (The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Art Thou, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowksi, The Ladykillers), and their 0-star films (Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, True Grit, though I give Fink points for John Goodman alone). This film is maybe a star and a half. The central performance by Oscar Isaac, above, is very good, but he plays a lukewarm character whom we never either accept nor completely reject, a 60s folksinger who is adrift after the death of his singing partner. Goodman (again) provides one of the few bright spots, but his role is basically a cameo. Loved the cats, was bored with the rest.

Blue Jasmine: Cate Blanchett deserved the Oscar for her unpleasant but riveting central character, apparently inspired by the wife of Bernie Madoff, but the rest of the movie doesn't quite live up to her. It's not as immediately recognizable as a Woody Allen film as most of his are, but Allen never quite finds the style (or wit) to make the movie as a whole memorable. It's a perfectly respectable film, much better than most of Allen's 21st century failures (Anything Else, Whatever Works), but it's not up there with the pleasures of Midnight in Paris or To Rome With Love.

Frozen: Lovely fun Disney musical. I'm not a fan of current-day animated features, but this is much more like the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast than like anything else that's come out lately from Pixar or DreamWorks or Fox or even Disney. The songs are almost on a par with Beast's, the characters are charming, and the villain isn't the Snow Queen (the influence of Wicked, I would say).

Nebraska:  Slow and meandering with a fairly unsatisfying payoff. Bruce Dern's performance is OK, but much of it consists of him sitting and staring into space. Will Forte is good as the son, but June Squibb steals the show as Dern's outspoken wife.

American Hustle: I think people like this fantasia on the Abscam scandal for the same reason they liked Argo: the 70s vibe, presented both authentically and a hint of irony. Argo had a nice light touch, which this movie could have used, but instead it feels like Scorsese lite, like the director was trying for a Goodfellas style. Though it has its moments, mostly thanks again to the actors (especially Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and a nicely understated Christian Bale), this never takes off.

The Wolf of Wall Street: This is Scorsese lite from the source himself, and my favorite of the nominees for Best Picture. There have been complaints about the foul language and the glamorizing of the lead character, a dishonest stockbroker played quite well by Leonardo DiCaprio (above). Scorsese glamorizing bad behavior? Really?... I'm shocked. Perhaps because these are Wall Street guys and not gangsters, the cursing (and general atmosphere) is not as threatening as in, for example, Goodfellas, which this movie reminded me of. At 3 hours, it is too long, and almost every scene could have been shortened, but there is an energy here that I found lacking in most of the other films.

I may eventually see 12 Years a Slave, Her, and Philomena. Probably won't see Dallas Buyers Club or Captain Phillips. If they ever bring Gravity back to 3D theaters, I might give it a shot. And as far as Gatsby, I liked it, didn't love it. It's certainly better than the Redford and Alan Ladd versions, which is probably faint praise.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bubblegum Archives: Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep

A few years back when I was blogging here more often, I occasionally wrote about one of my favorite pop music genres, bubblegum music. I defined it here and promised I would write more later. I did write about a handful of my favorite bubblegum songs but never got back to the subject on a regular basis. Here's hoping I will now.

I was moved to think about this yesterday when "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" played on my iPod. Here in the States, that song was a top 20 hit in 1971 for Mac and Katy Kissoon, a brother and sister act from Trinidad (pictured above). Here in Columbus, that version got a lot of airplay and I bought the single. It's a cute... well, chirpy little song about a baby bird, or so I thought. The original version, by a Liverpool singer named Lally Stott, never made it past #92 on Billboard though it was a hit in Australia and his is the one I have on my iPod, as it was the only one available digitally some years back when I bought it. A third version by a Scottish band called Middle of the Road was a #1 hit in England. According to Wikipedia, the Scottish version is in the top 40 of all-time best-selling singles (pre-digital era), yet I have never heard the song on an oldies station. Hearing it again after all these years made me wonder why it was such a big hit then and seems to be so forgotten now.

The verse, repeated 3 or 4 times, sounded to me like this: "Where´s your momma gone?/Little baby boy/Where´s your momma gone/Far far away." This alternates with a verse that substitutes "Poppa" for "Momma." The chorus: "Last night I heard my momma singing this song/Ooh wee chirpy chirpy cheep cheep/Woke up this morning and my momma was gone/ Ooh wee chirpy chirpy cheep cheep/Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep chirp." I assumed this was about a baby bird waking up one morning to find his mom and dad gone. The lyrics are just too sad to think about, but the melody is upbeat and, well, chirpy, so you wind up singing along without giving the meaning of the lyrics much thought.

But, is it really about a bird? The title line is the only reference to birds, and it's actually ambigious; it could just as easily have been "Le-dee-da-dee-da, da" or "Yippei-yippie-yo-yo" or any other nonsense syllables. There is also some confusion about one of the lines. Instead of "Little baby boy" as I heard it, some Internet sources give "Little baby gone," though most give "Little baby Don." There is a video of Middle of the Road performing it and she is clearly singing "Don." 

So, what the hell? Is this a horrifically sad song about a little boy named Don whose parents are no longer around? Are they dead? Did they get drunk and stay the night somewhere else? Have they broken up and forgotten about Don? Or is is about a bird named Don whose parents were killed as prey? The more I think about it, the creepier it gets. It actually reminds me of a 90s hit called "The Way" by Fastball about parents who leave their home and family never to return because they're looking for "eternal summer slacking." confidently states that it is about an abandoned bird, though I kind of like the implication given by another answerer: "That's the way my ex started out. At first he was chirpy, then...."

No matter what interpretation you accept, it's an awfully sad song. That's what I get for thinking too hard about bubblegum lyrics. As for why the song is forgotten now, well, that's probably a topic for a longer blog post about the oldies canon, but generally the more nursery-rhymey the song was, the more likely it is to plunge towards oblivion, no matter how popular it was at one time. The Fifth Estate had a big hit with a Wizard of Oz song, "Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead" but you never hear that, either. Come to think of it, most of the classic bubblegum songs of the 60s are missing in action ("Chewy Chewy," "Yummy Yummy Yummy," "Gimmie Dat Ding") except for the Archies' "Sugar Sugar." I'll have to chew on this and chirp some more on the subject later. The Mac & Katy Kissoon version is below: