Friday, December 28, 2007
I'm 35 today. Yay? At least, as usual, Frank Sinatra has prepared me for the coming year, which will surely be a year of blueblooded girls and riding in limousines. (Their chauffeurs will drive.) Well, maybe not. But with any luck it will be a better year than this last one.
Monday, December 24, 2007
When you spend the holidays in Florida, it's occasionally easy to forget that it's Christmastime, especially if you grew up in the often snowy, always cold Midwest. Fortunately, there are people down here who work to will Christmas into the tropics. And nobody works harder than the folks at The Oakdale Christmas House in St. Petersburg. Operating since 1977, it's a massive, front yard display of shiny Christmas doo-dads. Very little of it is original work. Mostly it's toys and lawn decorations from the past few decades set up in a series of brightly lighted, almost shrine-like displays. The front yard, for instance, features a Teddy Ruxpin, helpfully labeled "Talking Teddy Bear":
The house combines items pretty randomly. One display features a pair of angels spinning in the air as they book end Minnie Mouse:
There are some original characters however. Meet Mr. Slush and his family. And their disco ball:
But it's not all cartoon characters and inflatable snow globes. Peppered throughout are reminders that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus' birth. Often in the most unexpected places:
Honestly, the whole thing can't be properly experienced unless you're there. So I'll try for the next best thing. Here's a video. Note the clip of a televangelist playing in the background. I didn't realize until I finished taking the video that the display had a TV at the top but it's in frame at one point. Merry Christmas!
Update: Stevie also blogs about this.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Last night I went to a screening of The Great Debaters, a Denzel Washington-directed film about a groundbreaking '30s debate team from a Black college in Texas. The movie was earnest/well-acted/forgettable but I'll always remember the night as my first encounter with the Dyson Airblade, a new-ish mechanical hand drying system that emphasizes air speed over air temperature. It's like sticking your hands in a cool jet stream. It truly is a wondrous age.
Below, someone (not me, obviously) enjoys the Airblade.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
It's by design that my work number isn't the easiest thing to track down. After years of working in the Madison office where anyone could walk in off the street and tell us about his hippie jam band playing at some coffee house, I've tried to limit unwelcome access as much as possible. When I do get a call it's usually from someone I want to talk to or someone tenacious enough to figure out my extension. I rarely get calls from famous puppeteers out of the blue.
But that changed yesterday when Bob Baker of the Bob Baker Marionettes called to talk about the Disney Inventory Noel and I wrote last week. We had a nice talk about his time with Disney, where he worked in the special effects department after WWII. It was great to talk to someone who was there, especially after being immersed in Disney stuff after reading Neal Gabler's bio. Baker's well known in his own right, though. He was head animator for George Pal's Puppetoons and worked on everything from Star Trek to Close Encounters to George Ulmer's Bluebeard. And his marionette company has entertained L.A. kids for years. Like the title of this post says, I wish I got out-of-nowhere calls like this more often.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
If you've ever been to my current place, or any place I've ever lived, you've probably noticed that it's overrun with media. It's the best fringe benefit of my job that a lot of books, CDs, and DVDs float my way for free. But the cumulative effect of doing this for a few years is that the room disappears fast. Factor in that I spent years prior to turning pro squandering my paycheck on media and a personality that gets sentimentally attached to objects and you're left with, well, a mess. And given that our place, while spacious, is still very much a big city condo something had to give. For the last couple of weeks, it's been giving. Stevie and I did a large book and DVD purge last weekend that left us with a little more pocket money and still way too many books and DVDs. For the past few days I've been packing up my CDs.
I know people, people who are wildly enthusiastic about music, who have taken advantage of the glorious age of digital music we're now living to sell their CDs. I can't do that. I just can't. I've been building my collection since I was 16 and can still tell you the first four CDs I bought and when I bought them. (First: Green by R.E.M., purchased during a marching band trip on the first week of its release in 1988 before I owned a CD player.)
I get attached. I can remember poring over liner notes for albums and staring at covers. I once saw an interview Bryan Ferry where he complained that CD listeners lacked the "tactile" relationship with their music that vinyl fans enjoyed. If he only knew what was coming. I'm pretty sure I'm from the last generation to grow up touching music. But I don't really touch it anymore. I rip, peruse the liner notes, and go. I still look at the covers, but it's usually when they appear in the corner of my screen.
I don't really miss playing CDs, to tell the truth. I love the digital age. I listen to music just as deeply and more broadly than ever. I take my iPod with me everywhere. My laptop (and an external hard drive) allow me to keep a considerable library at my fingertips and a large hard drive at home houses a collection in excess of 200GB. That said, I still love my CDs. And packing them up hasn't been easy. I kept hitting little sentimental trapdoors. I mean, I can remember a couple of weeks in December of 1998 when the Townes Van Zandt album High And Low And In Between felt like the closest friend I had.
Nonetheless, they have to make room. So, apart from a few we listen to in the car on a regular basis, down to the basement they go, secure in the finest plastic tubs Target stocks. I guess I could get rid of them, but I keep thinking about the dream house I'll maybe own down the line, one with a wall of shelves for all my CDs that my as-yet-still-imaginary kids, who will never rebel against their dad's great taste in music, will be able to look at, and listen to, and touch.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
I've been flying more than usual lately (see previous post) and as anyone who's spent anytime at O'Hare already knows, nothing is free. To use the wireless you have to sign up for a service called Boingo. Which, whatever, as a captive audience who compulsively checks his e-mail, I'll pay for the privilege. But Boingo was apparently set up around 1994 and signing up for it requires finding a username that
a) Isn't taken and
b Is between 5 and 10 characters
That's not as easy as it sounds and around attempt 12 I came up with a username that I thought was perfect. Of course, it didn't work.
So, hi. It's been six weeks since I've posted here and for once I have a good excuse. On Monday, August 20th, my father was in a car accident near his home in Englewood, Ohio while taking some vegetables to his sister-in-law. His car collided with a dump truck. The driver of the dump truck going full speed and died at the scene. My father was able to make a call to my mother using his cell phone while others waited for him at the scene. Accounts vary as to whether or not he exited the car himself or was pulled because of a small fire. As to who was to blame, I'd rather not get into that issue apart from saying that my dad had a lifetime of frustratingly overly cautious driving. This seems to have been the day he made a split-second mistake at a backwoods intersection known for poor visibility, a history of accidents, and neighbors who have raised the issue with the town council more than once.
My father suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung, a fractured knee, and fractured upper vertebrae, all serious injuries for a 29-year-old, much less a 79-year-old. He was taken first to one hospital then to another, the latter being known for its trauma center. He was declared to be in serious but stable condition.
He was still in much the same condition when I arrived the next day, there being no good, short-notice flights the day of the accident. We also decided that I simply couldn't do that much to help on the day of the accident, anyway. It was a feeling I'd come to know all too well.
When I first saw my father, he was in bad shape. When I left, two weeks later, he had improved only slightly. When I returned the weekend after that he was still not well enough to be released from the hospital and into a nursing home. This was deemed necessary as the next stage of his recovery since he would need almost constant care upon release.
Complicating matters: he's kind of a danger to himself at the moment. That's the thing I haven't touched on yet. The accident left my dad with a broken, slowly recovering body. It seems to have left his mind in similar shape. For the first ten days or so he was virtually incomprehensible, a trend that bottomed out during a terrifying trip to the ICU. He would hallucinate, grab at imaginary car keys in the air, and talk about things that the dog was doing. Since then he's been better, but it's a deeply qualified better. He can talk about the accident in horrifying detail but has to constantly be reminded where he is. Asked what year it is and dad will always respond, "Now wait a minute..." before replying with something that's not even close.
And that's more or less where we are now. I've yet to go back since my dad was moved to a nursing home last week. I get daily reports from mom. She's wildly encouraged by the slightest signs of improvement and crushed by any setback. I'm due to go back again next weekend. I don't expect any major improvement. The way I see it we're on a journey of many miles that my dad can only travel in inches.
I really appreciate everyone who's been asking about him. I'll start posting updates in this space. I'll try to be better about keeping in touch but it's kind of been hard to get back to everyone. If you'd like to send cards or anything, my dad can be reached at:
5790 Denlinger Rd.
Trotwood, OH 45426
Stay safe and well.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
As anyone still reading this all to infrequently updated blog probably knows I did a piece for Slate a couple of weeks back about Popeye. I'm not sure I have that much more to say on the subject, but I'm using it as an excuse to test out some software that rips, converts, and uploads clips from DVDs. Here's a moment of early Fleischer brothers insanity in which Popeye will stop at nothing to create a quiet environment for a baby. (Not Swee'Pea, by the way. This is pre-Swee'Pea.) Enjoy.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
"ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS NOTHING"
I once considered writing an article on why I thought there has never been a bad version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. I'm glad I didn't. This new one isn't so much bad as half-hearted. There are plenty of current events (well, current as of when it was shot for an intended 2006 release) floating around in the background to acknowledge that there could be some political subtext to it, but it never commits. There is at least [minor spoiler] one truly daring idea that it plays with, the notion that maybe the invaders have the right idea, that humanity is a self-destructive species that might be better off if someone else would take a firm hand to it. And it backs it up by not making that strong of a case for humanity. There's also much that could have been done draw parallels with an outside force invading the U.S. for our own good. Unfortunately, all that stuff just sort of lays there and the action doesn't compensate for it. And, man, can you tell that this thing is patched together by different hands months apart. It's been edited to the bone and the style changes virtually with each scene. Avoid. (I do like the line I've used for the title, however. Pretty chilling coming from Jeremy Northam, even if I did spend the whole movie thinking he was Todd Field.)
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Monday, June 11, 2007
Here's what I don't need to read next: Anything suggestive of the apocalypse. In the past two weeks I've read Don Delilllo's latest, Falling Man and, like the rest of the Oprah-instructed nation, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. (Hey, I was going to read it anyway. And now she's chosen one of my favorite books of the last decade or so, Middlesex as her next project. Please stop reading my mind, Oprah Winfrey.)
Both were excellent / terrifying. I just finished the McCarthy today and it's a vision of the world after some sort of apocalypse as pitiless as it is plausible. He never gets around to detailing what's made the sky turned grey and the buildings melt just enough to lose their bearings but it doesn't matter. It's a picture of the world gone off the cliff, the kind we always fear leaving to our kids. By McCarthy's relucant admission it was inspired by his relationship with his young son (McCarthy's 75 with an 8-year-old kid) and it's filled with a desparate need to preserve what's good and human in the face of times that's misplaced the value of such qualities. It's relentless until an ending that's a tiny bit of a cop-out. Thank heavens.
My review of the Delillo book posts Thursday so I won't repeat myself. But I'll add a couple of filmic references by saying that nothing's captured the tone of what it felt like in the days, and now years, after 9/11 so well since The 25th Hour. I wouldn't put Lee in charge of the film version, though. I think only Kubrick could have really caught the sense of unease stirring beneath cool surfaces that he does so well.
Now I need to read something about resource girls who raise money for animal shelters or something.
SOMETHING I SAW TODAY
Today while walking Sophie I saw a boy of about eight wearing a Scarface t-shirt. I don't have a picture of the kid but I think I can simulate just how wrong that is with other pictures.
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
In searching for an image of a giant man for that last post I hit a site called Postmark Press, which is run by a woman who works with images from old postcards. Hey, she's been on Martha Stewart Living, so it's more than just a hobby. There's lots of cool stuff there, including a postcard of a man who's very proud to live in Akron. And then there's this:
I'm still trying to get my mind wrapped around it.
Oddly enough it bears a striking resemblance to the DVD cover for Sleeping Dogs Lie, a Bobcat Goldthwait-directed movie that played Sundance under the name Stay and is apparently the as intelligent and insightful as any film about a youthful indiscretion involving an animal can be.
It's a terrible cover. But not, as it turns out, without precedent.
BABY, YOU'RE SAFE WITH ME:
OR, IT'S NOT EASY BEING BIG
I am, as anyone who has ever met me can attest, a big guy. I'm tall and not slender in the least. I'm pretty sure I give the impression that I could physically harm somebody although I've never thrown a punch in my life. Most of the time this works to my advantage. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've never had to throw a punch in my life is because I'm big. I think imposing might be the word I'm looking for here.
But being big has its costs. I like VW Beetles and Mini Coopers but I can never buy one. I like to sit on the aisle seat at movies so I can stretch my legs a bit. These are not tragedies. People assume I'm kind of dumb, even if only one persone, my roommate freshman year, has come out and said he thought I was dumb based on my appearance. That's also no tragedy. That's something I tend to use to my advantage.
But here's the other thing: I can scare people. Specifically women. Walking around, I'm always careful to keep my distance and act as unthreatening as possible. Most of the time it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Today, for instance, I was walking to my car behind a woman doing the same. It was broad daylight and there were other people around. Admittedly, the neighborhood our office is in can be a little sketchy. Maybe she'd had bad experiences before, I don't know. I was late, as usual, for picking Stevie up and for some reason this woman kept turning around to look at me as I drew closer. She looked slightly more panicked each time and even started to clutch her purse. Meanwhile, I figure the best way to deal with the situation is simply not to acknowledge it, make no eye contact, and just keep moving. I mean, what's the alternative? Say, "Hey, nice lady, I'm not going to hurt you." That's even creepier.
Why did the whole experience make me feel like I'd done something wrong? And would this have happened if I'd been, say seven inches closer to the ground?
Saturday, April 07, 2007
THE WICKER MAN: A TRIBUTE IN SONG
Because Appple's GarageBand makes making crappy ambient music way too easy and because it's cold outside and I had nothing better to do, I present to you my musical tribute to Neil LaBute's The Wicker Man. My apologies in advance especially since, with the help of Apple's pre-made loops, the beat's all mine this time.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
I curate the Videocracy section over at A.V. Club central, which means wading through a lot of not-so-great clips, many of which seem like they're trying to be funny. Whenever anything from VH1's Acceptable TV shows up it's a cause for celebration. The show's clips can be watched on VH1 (for traditionalists) or on the website (for Gen Z) types. Or you can sample one right here, just because I said so.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
ANALOG TO DIGITAL: THE OTHER PARTON
I spent some time this weekend browsing a record store I'd previously underrated--Lincoln Square's Laurie's Planet Of Sound--while hanging out with some old college friends. Browsing the country section I came across two albums by Stella Parton, the younger sister I never knew Dolly Parton had. Turns out she had a low-key country career in the late-'70s, scoring a couple of country hits but never quite emerging from her sister's shadow despite an appearance on The Dukes Of Hazzard. Today she enjoys a gospel career, which you can read all about at her website.
I Want To Hold You In My Dreams is her first non-gospel album and it's not bad, either. Released on her own Country Soul label, it features a number of original compositions sung in a pleasant voice that sounds more than a little like her sisters. And that's probably why I never heard of Stella Parton. There's plenty here to like but nothing that her sister doesn't do better. (And am I wrong or is that Dolly in the background on some of these songs?)
But, putting Dolly aside, this is worth a listen. The title track--the hit--is achingly sincere (I'm a sucker for a good spoken-word passage) and there's an odd little song about Olivia Newton John called "Ode To Olivia," defending her against country purists who didn't like the Australian's inroads into "their" music. And you have to have respect for anyone who cuts a song called "Long Legged Truck Drivers," a raucous declaration of tha narrator's inability not to give it up for any trucker that passes her way.
Monday, April 02, 2007
WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT? (AMBIENT MIX)
This might be the stupidest way I've ever spent half an hour. I'm teaching myself to use GarageBand while putting together a draft of a possible podcast. This, of course, yielded a remix of Aphex Twin's ambient classic "Cliffs" with soundclips from The Reaping, a movie I want to see for all the wrong reasons. Enjoy?
Friday, March 30, 2007
A MUST TO AVOID: 360S
My friend and colleague Noel Murray's recent blog post dislodged a traumatic food experience worth sharing, if only so no one else out there makes the same mistake I did this Tuesday. Hungry for a snack, I hit our vending machine and picked up a bag of something called 360s after a cursory glance at packaging promising cheese and pretzels. Thinking it was a rip-off of Combos, a snack favorite since their introduction in the '80s, I opened the package to be greeted by orange pellets that practically glowed. These weren't pieces of cheese surrounded by pretzels; these were pretzels surrounded by cheese. The packaging promised "real cheese" but the "cheddar" looked instead like pieces of clay covered in glaze.
They tasted much the same. I downed three pellets and shared one with a co-worker before trashing them. I'm no stranger to junk food, but this looked like some human equivalent of dry dog food.
The weird thing is you shouldn't have any trouble avoiding them. When I Googled them I found only sites that sold food in bulk to fundraising groups. One contained this note: "Due to the nature of this item, we do not accept returns for this product." I can only imagine some poor Boy Scout in Duluth who has to live with a closet of these once word-of-mouth got out. So how did they end up in an office in Chicago? The mystery deepens.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Thursday, March 22, 2007
(Okay, just go ahead and say it like the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons: Worst. Vacation. Ever.)
Today is my first day back at the office after the waterborn toxic even that left us all office-less for six week. And it feels good. I had mixed feelings about going back. I'd kind of settled into a nice groove rolling out of bed and into the office. But I think if I'd stayed much longer I would have settled into a nice funk as well. I always already starting to feel it this week when, until I came up with a "to do" list and made myself work through it, felt a bit directionless. It didn't help that the pile of crap I kept bringing home from the temporary office the business staff was using was piling up around my feet. I never realized just how weak the signal-to-noise ratio in all the promo CDs and DVDs we get in until my home became a depository for it all.
It's weird: I could probably swing being a full-time freelancer (emotionally, at least... I'm not sure I could make it work financially.) And I don't mind an office routine, especially since my company is pretty understanding about letting us work at home when we need to. (Which for me is about three times a month when I can't stand the distractions of human company in any form any more.) But this working at home while working for a company business is not an enviable life. There were times I would have loved to have taken my laptop to a library or a coffee shop but couldn't because I felt I needed to be near a phone. And I did. There were fires that had to get put out daily. And there were plenty of days I would have loved to have said "screw it" and just gone shopping for records and comics all day. But I couldn't do that either.
It was getting old and I kept having this urge to cut my hair off that didn't pass until today. (Not in a Britney-sort-of-way. Just much shorter after intentionally growing it out into a moppy thing for a while. Why? I don't know. Blame it on the quasi-shut-in lifestyle. I also realized that, apart from Stevie, I wasn't really talking to anyone else and kind of losing the touch for it. A few more weeks and I'm pretty sure I would have turned into Max Von Sydow in Hannah And Her Sisters. ("Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?")
So I welcome the return to office life, even though our office is still problematic. I'm going to try set up a little isolated office within the office so I can have some privacy for once. We'll see how that goes. Also, it's orange. Really orange. How orange? This orange:
Yeah. That orange.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
THE QUOTABLE SCREAMIN' JAY HAWKINS
I'm currently reading Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere To Run: The Story Of Soul Music. It's good, too, and kind of sad so far. Published in the early-'80s, it draws heavily on conversations with soul giants who were, by and large, not doing so well in the post-disco era. But I digress. Here's a great quote about soul music from Screamin' Jay Hawkins, interviewed by Hirshey shortly after Hawkins opened for the Rolling Stones:
"Now I never sung that stuff, but I like it, what they call soul. That stuff got heaven and hell in it." He laughs. "Me I guess you have to say I spent most o my time on the dark end of the street."
Thursday, March 15, 2007
ANALOG TO DIGITAL: DUETS, WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR?
Edwin Starr and Blinky, Just We Two (1969)
I'd never heard of this album before spotting it at Reckless Records in Chicago but who could resist that cover? This was an album Edwin Starr recorded after "Agent Double-O-Soul" but before "War," working with another new Motown signing, an L.A. preacher's daughter named Blinky. It's a pretty inspired pairing, too. Starr's a belter, and like The Four Tops' Levi Stubbs he pushes the Funk Brothers outside the assembly-line comfort zone. (James Jamerson's bass work is worth the price alone.) Blinky's clearly someone's who grew up listening to gospel and pop and decided she didn't have to choose between them.
Starr would go one to release "War" the next year, one of the few hit songs from the classic Motown era that wears thin over time, especially since he displays a much greater range here than that song's one-note grunting. You won't hear it on too much after "War" either, certainly not on the dreadful disco hit "H.A.P.P.Y. Radio." And Blinky? She apparently kept recording material that never saw the light of day then went on to open for Sammy Davis Jr. before disappearing from the scene. Listening to this it's hard to understand why.
When I started this I decided only to post from albums that aren't available on CD, not realizing that this had come out, in a limited edition, on Hip-O's online-only arm Hip-O select (a.k.a. The site that could eat up the Phipps family fortune if I bought everything from it I liked, like those big Motown singles collections and the James Brown singles series). So, in the interest of fairness, here's a link, and two of the album's best tracks. Dig the way Starr calls Blinky out by name on "I'll Understand." He almost makes the ridiculous name sound sexy.
Recently I answered an open call for submissions from Contiuum Press' 33 1/3 series, a run of monograph-like books dedicated to classic albums. Out of 450 submissions they chose 20. Mine wasn't one of them, which is fine, although I was hoping it would be. Meanwhile, my big piece of Memphis music movies was pushed from the issue it was slated to run in with the possibility it might run in a future issue. Might.
So my freelance writing sideline is at an impasse at the moment. Which is okay, I guess. I've got plenty to do for The A.V. Club, which always publishes my writing to an audience that seems to like it. But I would have liked to have written this book and I would have liked to see my Memphis work pay off. Which it might still. Might.
Anyway, below is my rejected proposal in the interest of just getting it out there. I'm not rereading it, especially since I've thought of ways to improve it ever since I sent it. If it's riddled with typos or misspellings, please don't let me know. That would just depresss me. Also, you should hear the album. It's amazing.
* * * * * *
First let me say that I was thrilled to see you had opened the door for submissions for 33 1/3. I’m a big fan of the series and would love to contribute. With that out of the way, let me get right down to it and propose doing a book on an amazing album I can’t believe you haven’t covered yet: Jerry Lee Lewis Live At The Star Club, Hamburg.
It’s an album recorded at a crossroads, both for Lewis and for rock and roll, and I would approach it as such. Having seen scandal diminish his commercial fortunes, Lewis has left Sun Records and Sam Phillips for Smash and an unsure future that, in 1964, has yet to pay off. Yet while the hits have dried up domestically, Lewis’ stock has risen abroad. A return to England, the country that unmade him, has been a great success. He has no shortage of fans in Germany either, wildly enthusiastic fans who chant his name when he plays The Star Club in the heart of Hamburg’s nightclub-and-red-light-district, the Reeperbahn. It’s the district that helped birth The Beatles and other British Invasion bands, a wave of rock and roll musicians who grew up worshipping Lewis and his peers, a generation they’re already eclipsing.
One of the bands chasing The Beatles will back Lewis at the Star Club set, The Nashville Teens, who, despite their name, hail from throughout the U.K. They’re soon to have a hit with “Tobacco Road” then begin a slow fade back to obscurity. On this album, they almost seem to be doing battle with Lewis, his inimitable singing and playing outpacing their secondhand competence. They play the British Invasion sound well, but there’s no mistaking it for anything but a copy of a copy made irrelevant here by the presence of an original. As Lewis races through his own hits, and the hits of others from his generation, they’ll lose the battle even if others will win the war for them.
Lewis remains, as ever, a tortured man, believing that the music at which he excels has already spelled his eternal damnation. He’s still haunted by the loss of his toddler son, Steve Allen Lewis, who died in the family swimming pool. His marriage with Myra Lewis, the cousin he married when she was 13, remains volatile. There’s joy in his playing in front of that chanting crowd, but something else as well. Performing high on amphetamines, the state in which he would continue to perform well into the 1990s, he adds his own flourishes to the lyrics. When he sings, “Jerry Lee’s going to rock away all his blues,” while playing “High School Confidential,” there’s exuberance to it but also some wishful thinking. He’s a few years away from a comeback with the country hit “Another Time, Another Place,” but a performance of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” gives a hint of the guilt-soaked records that will send him up the country charts.
Recorded in a time of great change for Lewis and the music he helped popularize, Live At The Star Club, Hamburg provides a jumping off point for further discussion—of both Lewis and the environment surrounding the creation of the album—with virtually every song. I would structure this book around the album’s set list, discussing the origins of each song, its particular relevance to Lewis as a recording artist, and it relation to a larger discussion. The autobiographical “Lewis Boogie,” for instance, would lead into a discussion of Lewis’ origins. With “Great Balls Of Fire,” a song built around the twisting of Pentecostal imagery into a sexual sacrilege, I would talk about Lewis’ religious beliefs. Other points of discussion would include ‘60s Hamburg (a scene as wild and open in its way as ‘50s Memphis), Lewis’ relationship with the artists and rivals whose hits he’s covering (including Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and, with “Money,” Motown), and the unhappy decades awaiting him as he sank successfully into the sounds of country remorse.
As for the biographical information, I’m the editor of The A.V. Club, the entertainment section of The Onion. I began at The A.V. Club as a freelancer, then worked as assistant editor before becoming editor and I’ve written thousands (no, really) of music and film reviews for it, in addition to interviewing everyone from Sam Phillips to Robert Altman. During my tenure there I’ve helped build a section that was once an afterthought to the satirical news into a respected publication in its own right. I would be the best possible person to write this book both because of my deep love of the music and because of my willingness to throw myself into a project until I’m second-to-none in expertise. What I don’t know about Lewis and this album already I intend to research thoroughly both through secondary sources and by consulting as many primary sources as I can track down. I zeroed in on this album as the result of writing a piece for an upcoming issue of REDACTED on portrayals of Memphis music in film. I’ve long been drawn to the place and period that created the early sounds of rock and soul music, but it was Lewis that I couldn’t let go of when I finished the piece. I would like to write a book with the unmistakable intensity of a Jerry Lee Lewis performance and the scholarly discipline I’ve admired in other volumes in this series. My favorite so far: Douglas Wolk’s Live At The Apollo, which captured the personality of the performance itself, provided illuminating facts about its context, and breathed with a personality all its own.
I sincerely hope you’ll give me the opportunity to write an entry that can live up to the high standards you’ve set so far.
Thursday, March 08, 2007
MOVIES ON MY MIND: 300
UPDATE:This ended up being a draft for a more polished piece I published on The A.V. Club blog. You can read it here. It's much better than this version.]
Another Tuesday means another Tuesday-night screening, this time for 300, an adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the 300 Spartans who held off an army of Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. I went with my friend and colleague Nathan Rabin and I'm honestly not sure how to respond to the film. On the way back we couldn't decide if what we'd just seen was thrillingly repulsive of repulsively thrilling.
One thing's for sure, it's a fairly faithful adaptation of Miller's book. Like Sin City it tries its best to mimic the look of Miller's art, shooting on soundstages, filling in the backgrounds with CGI effects, and opting for stylization over realism. There are a few notable additions: On their way to Thermopylae the Spartans, led by Gerard Butler's Leonidas, stumble upon a village that's been destroyed by the Persian army, leaving only one small child to tell the tale. Before dying. And there's a lot of business with Leonidas' wife, who's left behind to try to persuade the Spartan council that maybe standing up to the Persians wouldn't be such a bad idea. Both bits feel a lot like padding even if they play into the most disturbing aspect of the Zack Snyder-directed film: Somehow in the translation from page to screen it's become a screaming endorsement of fascism.
That's not a word I want to throw around lightly and I know I'm not quite literally dead-on, since Sparta wasn't a fascist state. But the film doesn't dwell on the finer points of Spartan statecraft. What it offers is vision of society in which value comes only from one's devotion to the preservation of the state. The Sparatans worked toward one purpose, strengthening their city state through raw might. They practiced a brutal version kind of eugenics, discarding any babies found to be flawed. Miller's book portrays all of this with an unabashed admiration for its barbaric integrity. But admiring aspects of ancient principles isn't the same as endorsing them and that's something that gets lost on the way to the screen.
I'm not suggesting that the filmmakers are looking for a Spartan revival, but in moving from one medium to another, 300 has gained a layer of glamour with some disturbing implications. The fight scenes are brutal but, as our own Tasha Robinson points out in her review, so completely divorced from realism that they become oddly bloodless no matter how much blood fills the screen. Snyder shoots the battle scenes with a dynamic intensity, slowing it down to dwell on the good bits. It's thrilling. And it's only thrilling. There's no sense of danger. Death comes with no feeling of loss. Part of what bugged me so much about Troy a few years back was that, even while telling the original war story, it shirked its responsibilities as a war movie, boiling down a devastating, decade-long conflict to what looked like a bloody spring break. Here it's like a weekend with the boys gone slightly awry.
Nathan said he couldn't remember a movie so unabashedly pro-war. I can't remember one so unabashedly pro-nationalism. The Spartans here constantly define themselves by what they are not. When an envoy from Xerxes mentions Athens, Leonidas dismisses them as "boy lovers." (There's an inconvenient truth about that distinction.) When Xerxes meets Leonidas, the film plays up his ambiguous sexuality and not-so-ambiguous body language. And it's not just behavior that's un-Spartan. The Persian army consists of Middle Easterners, East Asians, and Africans. If the film never quite treats the other races as repulsive, it doesn't hesitate to emphasize their exoticism and danger, elements that clearly have no place in an ordered, Spartan society.
Any resemblance to our own is not entirely coincidental. Miller's book was released in 1998, years before our current conflict in the gulf. But a film's a product of its time and it would be hard not to draw parallels even if the screenplay didn't throw in touches to make the connection even clearer. There's a lot of bellowing about "freedom" (nevermind all that compulsory military service), a feckless, corrupt anti-war legislative body to deal with and the film ends with Sparta leading all of Greece in a battle against mystic force from the East. A shameless recruiter would spend this weekend trolling the multiplexes.
300 plays like Starship Troopers without the irony and it closes on a note of triumph that shuts out the great irony of history. The repulsion of the Persion army paved the way for a golden age, one that allowed for Sophocles, Plato, Euripides, Heordotus... you name it. And it lasted about 80 years until a fairly pointless civil war between Sparta and Athens ended it. But that would have to be the subject of a very different sort of movie. Don't expect a sequel.
ANALOG TO DIGITAL: PICKING THE HITS
Anyone who's spent any time in used record stores—and I'm speaking here as someone who's logged plenty of hours in them—knows that a few things are always true:
1) They all smell the same
2) They're always poorly lit
3) There's always plenty of Herb Alpert and Chet Atkins albums laying around for cheap.
I once decorated a small niche of an especially crappy apartment with copies of Alpert's Whipped Cream And Other Delights, but I'd never spent much time with Atkins until recently. Atkins ran RCA's Nashville division for years, pioneering the crossover "Nashville sound" that would help define country music in the '60s. Atkins also cut a lot of albums on his own, usually two or three a year. He'd typically lay down rhythm tracks at RCA's famed Studio B, a facility he'd put on the map, and record the leads at his home studio.
Atkins recorded many instrumental versions of contemporary hits, but even the renditions that border on easy-listening kitsch are usually redeemed by his distinctive playing. I picked up Solid Gold '69 in part because I simply couldn't imagine Atkins' versions of "Son Of A Preacher Man" or "Aquarius" and in part because I never pass up any rendition of "Hey Jude." But the standout tracks are the sensitive readings of "Both Sides Now" and "Blackbird" I've posted below.
One more thing: For some reason Donovan does the liner notes. There aren't any Donovan songs on it and if he appears on it somewhere, it eluded me. But the note is worth reproducing verbatim:
chet paul's tunes sensitive love for love young brownskin harp ear good for nice sounds but of fuzz great face beautiful guitar fondling country smooth like strings and cream joni's tune lovely classical box rewind once upon a time irish music went west and fiddles and jest country music came from the marriage of men's cultures under new suns and now c & w is very popular in ireland... and chet is very popular in america and i thank him for playing "our" new tune so beautifully. -- Donovan
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
"Maybe even a sandwich platter"
This is primarily going to be of interest to my fellow Daytonians. It's a tour of the Dayton Swim Club, a North Dixie Dr. institution that I've driven past many times without realizing that, well, it wasn't a swim club. Let's take a tour!
I think I'd love this clip anyway. The host is just so dang jovial as he shows off all the low-budget benefits of joining the Swim Club. Soda machines! A video game! A mechanical horse with a vibrator glued onto it! Amazing.
Monday, March 05, 2007
MOVIES ON MY MIND
RECENT FILMS I HAVE SEEN: Zodiac, Summer Rental, and a secret surprise movie even I didn't expect to see
Putting aside the Neil LaBute remake of The Wicker Man, David Fincher's Zodiac, which I caught last Tuesday, was one of the most disturbing films I've seen in a while, and not necessarily for the reasons you might suspect. In recreating the investigation into the late-'60s/early-'70s Zodiac murders, Fincher doesn't spare any of the grisly details—there's a murder by a lake that's all the more disturbing for its unflinching matter-of-factness—but what he gets really right is the psychic toll of obsession and the cancerous effect of an unanswered wrong. In a blind taste test I couldn't have told you that this was from the same director as Seven, Fight Club, and Panic Room. They're all films I admire, but the the nihilism of the first two has been transformed here into a muted dread. It settles like a haze on a San Francisco that's left the Summer Of Love far behind and the technical flash, so much in evidence in Panic never calls attention to itself here. It's technically brilliant, but in a chilly, Kubrickian kind of way. Even when blood gets spilled it looks cold.
Here's how our own Scott Tobias put it (and put it well):
Zodiac follows the events in strict chronology, without imposing an artificial structure. This daring conceit risks shapelessness, but makes the passage of time more devastating, as datelines separated by days or weeks extend to full years while the case lies fallow..
Devastating's exactly right. Watch as Robert Downey Jr.'s character devolves from funny drunk to a pathetic, almost inhuman lump of a man. Maybe he would have gotten there without the Zodiac killer. Maybe not. The film never veers from this strategy. Labels like "Six months later..." pop up between scenes as the leads grow cold. It's comic until it becomes tragic.
There are moments here that need discussing that can't quite be talked about without spoilig the plot. But I need to talk about one, so I'll vague it up as best I can. After a long stretch of scenes that's little more than characters discussing leads and finding out that everybody knows something about the case but nobody knows everything—there are lots of passages like this—one of the characters follows a lead into a moment straight out of The Silence Of The Lambs. He's in the wrong place at the wrong time and it's clearly going to cost him. Except it doesn't. It's a dead end followed by trusting someone else's wrong instincts, something we don't find out until many scenes later, maybe years for him (I can't remember). But the film doesn't make a big deal acknowledging this. The character's moment of mortal fear becomes irrelevant to him since it turned out not to contribute to solving the murders. It's exhausting to share that kind of paranoia and monomania for two and a half hours and Fincher makes it clear it's just a sample of what it would be to live it and there's no small reward in that.
I don't have a lot to say about the 1985 comedy Summer Rental, which I watched, kind of, while doing some file sorting at the end of the day last week. (Ah, the joys of working at home.) It was one of those films I alway wanted to see as a kid and never got around to seeing. And now I've seen it. With Summer School another film on my Netflix queue, it comes from a brief period in the mid-'80s when Carl Reiner was synonymous with summer comedies. It also came from that period when John Candy was in seemingly everything. Here the gags are cheap and belabored and the plots straight from the snobs v. slobs playbook. Watching it was purely an exercise in reflexive nostalgia and the most rewarding part came from being reminded of what old cereal boxes used to look like. I used to think there was some value to watching just about any movie I hadn't seen before. As I get older I'm not so sure. (Which doesn't mean I'm not going to watch Summer School too.)
So the big secret movie: When we saw Zodiac there was a marketing type there offering us passes to one of two movies. The first was The Brave One, a Neil Jordan film starring Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard. All that sounds promising. The second was a mystery movie. The marketing woman said that all she could tell us was that it would be rated PG and that it came from, "this genre of film," at which point she waved her hand across a sheet of paper listing everything from Cars to Pirates Of The Caribbean. Hmmm.... Something sure to be interesting or a mystery movie? The choice was clear: We went with the mystery movie.
There was much fuss and bother in getting to the screening and a lot of line-waiting as well. By the time we got inside we'd convinced ourselves we would be seeing Fred Claus since the passes, upon closer inspection, further specified it was a "holiday" movie and we knew it was in post-production in Chicago since the media was all over star Vince Vaughn for complaining about our city's post-production services. We were wrong. Long story short (and maybe these magic words will send my traffic through the roof): I've seen Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix.
How was it? I'm not even sure I should say. Ethically, I'm not even sure I should have been there since I don't think critics are even supposed to go to test screenings. But I'm not reviewing it professionally so screw it. I liked it, anyway, so I'm not poisoning any wells.
When the film series started, I didn't have much invested in it and, frankly, the films didn't really reward investment. I had only read the first book, which I liked just fine, but the first two films were kind of a bore. I remembered little beyond Kenneth Branagh's sly turn in the second one and Rupert Grint's ability to look either mortified or terrified (but never both at the same time and never any other emotion .)
The third film, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban changed that in a big way. The story deepened considerably (just as it did in the books), the stars grew into their roles, and director Alfonso Cuaron got beneath the special effects to find the human element. At the same time, I caught up with the series (thanks in no small part to Stevie's enthusiasm; she screamed like an eight-year-old when they announced what we were seeing) and the quality of the films started to matter to me.
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire fell short of its predecessor but it wasn't bad, either. It just got a little too caught up in the big setpieces and lost sight of the characters. That's not a problem here. The massive plot's been streamlined considerably, but it's been streamlined smartly. There are a few scenes that will mean a lot more to readers of the book but having read the book isn't essential. But director David Yates (who's previously worked mostly in British television) strikes a pretty great balance between the kind of drama that comes from big scary monsters and the kind that comes from realizing how easy it is to feel absolutely isolated from eveyone around you. The first shot's a killer and the only effect is a piece of abandoned playground equipment. Yates is sticking around for the next entry, too, and that's not bad news at all.
Everybody's good in it, too, but I have to single out Imelda Staunton's turn as Dolores Umbridge, a teacher with the most memorable talent for passive aggression since Uriah Heep. Some of J.K. Rowling's political subtext might have been lost if Staunton hadn't played her as Thatcher with fixation on cute kitten collector plates. She might be slightly less fist-tighteningly hateful than she was in the book, but only slightly.
I can't really say I enjoyed the test-screening process. It's a vile practice that's crept evolved from a marketing tool into an intrinsic part of the creative process. That's wrong. And, furthermore, this wasn't quite ready to screen. Many of the effects weren't done, and they got less complete as the film went along. I'd like to see it again with a climax that doensn't involve Ralph Fiennes with CGI-assist dots on his face battling Michael Gambon on a soundstage. But it was interesting to be on the other side of it, tiny pencils at all. We were asked for our favorite and least favorite scenes, asked to rate various elements on a scale of one to five, and questioned about our favorite characters. If we'd all hated one scene, would it be gone? If we'd ganged up on Daniel Radcliffe, could he have lost his job? Who knows? I'm sure they'll ignore my comments anyway. I'm out of the demo. Who cares what I think?
Thursday, March 01, 2007
ANALOG TO DIGITAL: THE GREAT TWIN CITIES FUNK POP BAND THAT WASN'T
(First: Sorry so long between posts. The next couple of days should be better. In the meantime, here's some more from my continuing efforts to transfer some vinyl music to MP3s.)
When Sinead O'Connor had a hit with "Nothing Compares 2 U," articles about her always touched on a few points:
1) She's bald
2) She's odd
3) U2 helped her get her start
4) She's Irish
5) Prince wrote it
But Prince didn't write it for O'Connor. He wrote it for The Family, might've-been-huge-but-wasn't Paisley Park act consisting of three refugees from the recently disbanded Time (St. Paul Peterson, Jellybean Johnson, and percussionist/hype man Jerome Benton), saxophonist/vocalist Eric Leeds, and Susannah Melvoin, twin sister of The Revolution's Wendy Melvoin.
They released one album in 1985, but even by the time I got curious about hearing the original version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" and was already buying up every Prince b-side I could get my hands on, it was hard to find. Was it some lost treasure of Minneapolis funk? I finally had my question answered recently when I found a vinyl copy for $5.99. Answer: No.
But it's not bad either, as these two tracks suggest. "Screams Of Passion" was the single and while I'm not going to say that this version of "Nothing" surpasses O'Connor's or the version Prince threw on his greatest hits collection. But it's worth hearing anyway.
P.S. The new embedded file-sharing system comes via a free site called Divshare, which I recommend.
Monday, February 19, 2007
JERRY LEE LEWIS: LIVE AT THE FRENCH LICK RESORT AND CASINO, FRENCH LICK, INDIANA
I've regretted going to my share of concerts over the years, and sometimes not even because they're bad. There's a Tortoise show that stands out as something that would be a truly memorable experience if the band was playing in your living room as you drifted off to enjoy a nice nap. But I've never once regretted turning out for one of the old guys. One of my favorite concert memories ever is seeing Johnny Cash at the Glastonbury Festival in 1994. This was around the same time the first American Recordings album came out. He was that year's token old-timer and I don't think he expected the reception he got. It's not like he ever stopped touring, but I don't think he'd ever played to a sea of black-clad, pierced English youth who could sing along to every song. And I mean every song. Not just "Ring Of Fire" but "Ghost Riders In The Sky," too.
On Saturday night Stevie and I saw Jerry Lee Lewis, like Cash another member of the Million Dollar Quartet. The last one, actually. He even named his last album Last Man Standing and put a picture of himself with Cash, Elvis, and Carl Perkins inside. I've been on a big Jerry Lee kick ever since writing the (apparently still in the editing process) article on Memphis music movies and picking up the aforementioned Last Man Standing. (A side note: It's actually quite good, unlike most of the oldsters-duet-with-younger-stars albums. Of particular note: A duet with Keith Richards called "That Kind Of Fool" on which they lament they were never the kind of fools who could just have one drink and go home to their wives.)
I'll spare you the harrowing ordeal of getting there via Google Maps directions that took us through the back roads of a national forest where no house is apparently complete unless there's half an automobile or a broken stove on the lawn and mention only in passing that southern Indiana is (otherwise) really pretty to get to the show. Once again: No regrets. Lewis' long-serving band warmed up the show with a handful of oldies which the drunken louts behind us dimissed is "bullshit" that quickly got downgraded to "third rate bullshit." It wasn't, but it wasn't star time either. That came when Lewis ambled out, explained that his plane had been rerouted and that he hadn't had time to change then launched into "Roll Over Beethoven." His voice was problematic on some songs, in fine form on others but the playng remained, as always, an inimitable force of nature. And, despite the environment--which offered excellent acoustics but little else in the way of atmosphere--it felt like a Jerry Lee Lewis show. The drunken louts wandered up to the front of the stage to do some dancing, prompting security to escort them to one side, but not before one of them engaged in some spirited finger-pointing in Lewis' direction and Lewis returned the favor. Later Lewis complained about how it wasn't a rock and roll show if people could tell you how to dance and when to dance. This was shortly before a fight broke out (also involving one of the louts.) For a good 90 seconds or so it was more Memphis roadhouse than sterile casino.
One particular highlight was Charlie Rich's "Don't Put No Headstone On My Grave," which Lewis played as a country lament that turned into rockabilly then back again. These are the official words:
"Don't put no headstone on my grave,
All my life I've been a slave,
Want the whole wide world to know,
That I'm the man that loved you so"
For some reason I heard "loved you so" as "loved his soul." I could be wrong. But I do know he finished the song by slamming the cover of the piano keys against the piano and then looking out at the audience in defiance of something. It might have been death or maybe just the woman he took to task for putting her fingers in her ears with the words, "And people say I'm crazy."
As I was hoping, he also did his rendition of "Over The Rainbow," which just kills me. And he closed, of course, "With Great Balls Of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shaking Going On." For the final passages of "Shaking" he rose, kicked over the piano bench, and played standing up. There was great effort involved in every part of that action and to close the show he simply wandered off and let the band play the final notes. But the spirit behind the gesture was unmistakable. One more rock and roll show down and The Killer was off to join the night, even if now it was at a slower pace.
Below's the setlist. Both it and the photo above come via the thorough European fansite The Jerry Lee Lewis Start Page.
1) Roll Over Beethoven
2) Over The Rainbow
3) Sweet Little Sixteen
4) Memphis, Tennessee
5) Before The Night Is Over
6) She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye
7) Why You Been Gone So Long
8) Don't Put No Headstone On My Grave
9) I Dont Want To Be Lonely Tonight
10) You Win Again
11) Hadacol Boogie
12) Great Balls Of Fire
13) Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On
ANALOG TO DIGITAL: DANCE, GREEDO, DANCE
I've had this album, Patrick Gleeson's Star Wars laying around for years without really recognizing what it was all about. I picked it up mainly because it looked like a hilariously kitsch Star Wars cash-in and featured this impossible to pass up subtitle: "Selections From The Film Performed On The World's Most Advanced Synthesizer." This, of course, must be heard. It is, pretty much as I suspected, an awesome relic, setting John Williams' score to a disco beat and throwing in every flourish that the world's most advanced synthesizer circa 1977 has to offer. (For the record, that's, per Gleeson's liner notes, "an E-mu (pronounced ee-mew) systems synthesizer. It is polyphonic--that is it plays 16 notes simultaneously when instructed to do so--and it is computer driven. The computer, which stores up to 8000 notes in from one to nine memory banks, is based on the Z-80 central processing unite, a popular chip among 'homebrew' computer folks.")
What I didn't realize was the Gleeson was the electronic music guru who put a heavy stamp on Herbie Hancock's early-'70s albums like the awesome Sextant. He's still active, too. There's a short article about him on endlessgroove.com and he's got a MySpace page.
So now I feel a bit bad about being disrespectful to this album for all these years since the man behind it is a legitimate talent whose work I've enjoyed immensely elsewhere. But that doesn't really make the album itself any better. Gleeson provides some detailed liner notes about wanthing to take "another approach" to Williams' score "one that did involve synthesizers and which was more surreeal than the scoring of the original." He also talks about embedding "semi-hidden references back to the film." For instance: "On the main theme track, which is Luke's theme, if you listen carefully to the bassline you'll hear that it is divided into two sections, one of them a hip funk line which is very 1977, and the other one a kind of remembrance of the way basslines were in the late '50s. This is because to me Luke is both a contemporary hero, and also a kind of throwback to the science fiction hero of the fifties--he hardly even kisses the girl."
Well, the reasons for that would come out later. Meanwhile, all I hear is disco John Williams.
Listen: Patrick Gleeson, "Star Wars Theme (Luke's Theme)"
Listen: Patrick Gleeson, "Cantina Music"
Saturday, February 10, 2007
ANALOG TO DIGITAL: WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Okay, I know I'm way, way behind everyone else with this, but I'm still thrilled I've learned how to do this. And by this I mean convert records into MP3s. I got my turntable back from my pal Bryce and had it figured out pretty quickly. And I will share with you the first fruits of my labor: A Moog version of the theme from Alfie as performed by someone named Christopher Scott. It's from the 1969 album Switched-On Bacharach. More to come, I'm sure.
Listen: Christopher Scott, "Alfie"
Thursday, February 08, 2007
So, this is why my week has been a little hectic: Exploding pipes. Namely, one exploding pipe at our office that flooded us out. Kyle came back from the bathroom saying it had "exploded" and that water was headed our way. I thought he had to be joking or exaggerating. He wasn't. This is what it looked like (all photos courtesy of Kyle Ryan):
My first thought was, "Oh, this sucks. I should just go work at home." It didn't really occur to me until I saw firemen on the stairs evacuating the building that I had to go home. Here's my on the stairs (please note the water cascading down):
And here's what the hardest hit part of our office looks like:
As of now, we're all housebound, which is okay by me. I'm pretty productive when working at home. But who knows when we can go back? Apparently there's no guarantee against bacterial infections and other troubling possibilities. (It was sewer water after all.) I'm planning on stopping by tomorrow to pick up some mail and some recording equipment. This week has taken a strange turn, to be sure.