Monday, January 29, 2007

The inimitable Jesse Thorn, creator of the beloved podcast/public radio show The Sound Of Young America was kind enough to feature me on the latest episdoe of his other podcast, Jordan, Jesse GO!. I dole out TV advice and am outed as a fan of Dr. Who. You can get it on iTunes or here.

Updated: Jesse sent in a better link. It's in the comments.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


On Thursday we unveiled Videocracy, a new A.V. Club feature charting the most popular video clips on the web. I'm happy with it. But I'm not sure why this hasn't made the charts yet:

...especially since we've been quoting around the house endlessly since finding it. "The bees! The bees! MY EYES!"


Stevie and I took a trip to the Lyric Opera on Friday to see Turandot. It was part of my Christmas gift to her but, of course, kind of a present for myself as well. I wish we got there more often. I'm a fully committed fan of the opera whenever I'm there even if I rarely listen to it outside of an actual performance. Maybe it's a situational fandom--I think I can name most of the Ring Cycle but I don't remember what order they fall in--but I'm as happy at the Lyric as I am at the Music Box (our revival theater) or the Vic (our favorite concert venue). In another century it might have been more central to my cultural life. As is, I'm glad for every chance I get to experience it. We had season tickets one year in the second or third-worst seats in the house. It was a nice education but since then we've been paying for good tickets once or twice a year instead of terrible seats all year round.

Friday we saw Turandot, Puccini's final opera. He left it unfinished shortly before smoking himself to death. Conductin it for the first time, his friend Arturo Toscanini famously stopped the production at the last note Puccini wrote. This was my first time seeing it and I can't say I loved it the way I love Tosca or Madama Butterfuly. The ending obviously suffers--I can't help but think that Turandot herself would have more than one big moment--but beyond that I found myself not liking the lead characters in the least. It's a fairy tale piece inspired by a story from the 1001 Nights and it doesn't allow for the psychological complexity I like so much in his other works. There's one great Puccini heroine, but she's off in the margins. Still, the music is, of course, beyond inspired, so why quibble?

It might also have been the production we saw, which sported wonderful, almost Disney-like sets by David Hockney but variable performances. I liked the singer who played Turandot and loved the singer who played Liu and while I appreciated the voice of the South African tenor who played Cafalo, his acting was comically awful. The crowd felt it, too. I hadn't seen such a lukewarm response since we saw Regina a not-so-smooth adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes by Marc Blitzstein (a.k.a. that guy from Cradle Will Rock. I don't have the critical terminology to explain why it fell short, but you can feel opera when it gets to that place. This mostly didn't.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

MY DAY: JANUARY 23, 2007

Because when there's nothing else to write about, there's always today.

• Went to the gym and finally gave the new Arcade Fire album a good lisen. Oh. Yes.
• Went to work and figured out some assignments between calls. Also reviewed the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album and learned that I actually didn't have crummy MP3 files. It really sounds like that.
• Talked to a publicist who informed us that the publicist of a famous actor had turned us down for an interview with no explanation. It was a real WTF moment. If I had to pick an actor that I knew everyone on staff considered one of their favorite actors it would be this guy. Again, WTF?
• Pulled the trigger on some iTunes tracks that had been piling up in my shopping cart, mostly Nas songs from those in-between-years recommended by Nathan and some Neptunes-produced songs I don't have already.
• I'm now watching the State Of The Union address. Is Obama sleeping? And if he is, will that kill his presidential run?

Thursday, January 18, 2007


I have a MySpace page, just like everyone else. I usually check it every couple of days. Today I checked it twice. This morning I had no new messages or friend requests. This afternoon I had 12. Now I have 17. Why? One word.... Or is it two?: Cam-whores.

You've probably met them as well, especially if you set your profile to "male" and "straight." They set up profiles with provocative pictures that fig-leaf links for X-rated web cam services, or even other, non-X-rated sites. Take Grace:

She's just your average 20-year-old California girl who wants to be my friend. And if I want to see more pictures of her, there's a link for that too... A link to a laser-hair-removal service.

Ordinarily I ignore them but the deluge today is extraordinary. And then there's this. I'd like you to meet two of my new friends. First there's Gisele:

Then there's Mandoline:

Now, I suppose there's a chance that they're twins. The certainly make the same spelling errors. One links to another site (the ubiquitously advertised dating site with the come on "Want to see my in my birthday suite?" The other asks "Tell me if you like my birthday suite." Sadly, she'll never learn the answer. (Neither will Ashlyn, eMiLy, Miranda, Mandy, Shania, Larissa, Serenity, Ellen, Rianna Gloria, Ally, Kenna, Jasmin, or Leila.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

MY DAY: JANUARY 17, 2007

Because when there's nothing else to write about, there's always today.

• Some unavoidable delays around the house meant I got to catch the beginning of Regis And Kelly. Regis was blown away by Tony Danza's turn in The Producers. Kelly thought the American Idol judges were way too hard on the poor kid who sang and juggled.
• Wrote a review of The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Damon Albarn's new quasi-supegroup with Paul Simonon of The Clash, Tony Allen from Fela Kuti's band, and Simon Tong of The Verve. Yawn.
• Wrote my contributions to a piece I'm co-writing with Noel that's, in part, about great bands destined never to make the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I'm now listening to Hüsker Dü. These are related.
• Came home to see how the tortilla soup I made in the slow cooker turned out. Spicy.
• Made the unfortunate discovery that doing an image search for Tony Danza with "safe search" turned off yields some unfortunate results. Try it!

I mean, Obama puts this:

on his official website. (I ganked it from The Beat, however.)

I've got a pretty big politician crush on Obama already, and this just makes it more pronounced. Of course, if 24 taught me anything the other night it's that even nice presidents have to make impossible decisions. So maybe he's better off not running.


Can I host audio files? I'm trying to find out. If it works, here's Booker T. And The MGs playing "Mrs. Robinson." It's from The Complete Stax/Volt Singles (1968-1971), available via eMusic or at a store near you. You should buy it! (I'm covering my ass here.)

Booker T. And The MGs, "Mrs. Robinson"

Monday, January 15, 2007

MY DAY: JANUARY 15, 2006
Because when there's nothing else to write about, there's always today.

• Realized I hadn't posted anything here for a while and decided I should.
• Realized that I was so wiped out by finishing my big freelance piece (yay) that I'm officially out of things to say.
• So here's a post anyway. Whatever.
• Went to the gym very early despite not getting enough sleep.
• Stevie had the day off so I rode the bus into work today. On the bus I was wearing my cold-weather hat, one of those ridiculous-looking but very warm hunting caps with the flaps and the (fake) fur lining. I had the flaps down over my earphones. I was carrying my shoulder bag and a plastic bag with my lunch in it, which required some juggling. Once in my seat, I took out a notebook to work on a review longhand that I needed to finish today when I noticed that the draft from the door was blowing my hair. So I moved across the aisle, a process that involved securing my iPod and notebook and moving both bags then settling in and repositioning all of my stuff and getting comfortable with my notebook again so I could start scrawling away in my indecipherable handwriting. It was at this point I realized that, to all appearances, the line separating me from a crazy homeless person had never been thinner.
• Wrote. Edited. Went home. Made homemade French fries. Am currently watching the Golden Globes with Stevie. Jamie Foxx loves himself.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Here's an amazing clip in which TV's Morton Downey Jr. puts horror movies on trial. Anyone heard of John Anastasio outside of this clip?

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Nick Tosches wrote an amazing biography--of a sort--of Jerry Lee Lewis called Helfire that cast Lewis' life in terms of a Faulknerian drama between good and evil and imagined in the strictest Pentecostal terms. If Jim McBride ever read it before making Great Balls Of Fire! he must have decided to take everything in the opposite direction. Balls' greatest debt belongs to Frank Tashlin, the animator-turned-director who best known for working with that other Jerry Lewis. Tashlin made cartoonish, candy-colored satires in the 1950s and his influence is all over this movie. There's a great scene that falls where most biopics would inset a montage of swirling newspapers and screaming fans to symbolize their subject's ascent to fame. Instead, Lewis, as played by Dennis Quaid, rides through town, cheered along the way by everyone from high school students, to courthouse protestors to cops. Everyone loves Jerry Lee! Later, the sequence is reversed, and all those one-time fans shun him. It's silly, but much of the movie treads the line between knowing camp and, well, just plain camp. In the end it doesn't work out, but it's a valiant effort that's better than most reviews would suggest.

McBride has tried to make a movie with all the cartoonish energy and outsized sexuality of a Jerry Lee Lewis song and sometime he gets there, largely thanks to a daring performance from Dennis Quaid, drawing his inspiration from Huckleberry Hound when he's not channeling Lewis. Here the Ferriday Fireball is played an unreflective bumpkin driven by the power of his music and torn between serving god (as per the wishes of cousin Jimmy Swaggart, played by Alec Baldwin) and playing rock and roll. But really he's not torn enough. Anyone who's ever heard the amazing conversation between Lewis and Sam Phillips before recording "Great Balls Of Fire"--in which Lewis frets over playing "the devil's music," Phillips replies that music can save souls and Lewis replies, "How can the devil save souls?... I have the devil in me. If I didn't I'd be a Christian"--knows Lewis was tormented by the things that gave him joy. But here the dark side's not dark enough and while Balls gets a lot of the energy that made Lewis a star, it can't go much deeper. It ends with Lewis storming out of church, choosing independence over conformity. That was one of the choices he had to make, but far from the only one. McBride made Balls with Lewis' cooperation. (He recorded his songs for Quaid to lip synch.) The portrait of an innocent undone by stuffy '50s morality must have made it an easy sell.

Still, there's plenty to like here. Quaid's romance of his 13-year-old cousin (a giggly Winona Ryder who, in another Tashlin-esque sequence furnishes their new home by going to a store and literally throwing money around) is played for creepy, funny laughs. ("You're all woman to Jerry Lee!") The production design is theme park-perfect and there's a great sequence in which Sam Phillips listens to Lewis' recording of "Crazy Arms," likes it, presses it, runs it down to Dewey Phillips at WHBQ, and has the malt girls swooning before the night is through. The city was open that way then and the world was ready to listen.


I'm going to be writing about some movies with Memphis music in them for a freelance piece I'm preparing so these entries may read as a little notebook-y. Feel free to skip if you're so inclined.

When I first conceived this piece on Memphis music movies a completely forgot about Hustle And Flow. I was thinking of old school Memphis blues, country, soul, and rock and roll and forgetting that new music is still getting made there. I blame the autumnal tone of 40 Shades Of Blue and the nostalgia of the unsatisfying doc Only The Strong Survive (which I'll also be writing about. They spend their time driving past the ruins of the old music shrines and never acknowledge that there might be music bubbling up from those ruins? Is there a style of music made famous in Memphis that didn't work its way up from the economic bottom?

That's certainly the vision present by H&F, which impressed me more this time around than last. I loved the Terrence Howard performance but found the underdog-against-the-odds story a little pat. Still do, but it worked for me this time. Maybe it's because this time it played more like a superior b-movie than a failed arthouse movie. But I digress...

H&F works well as a companion piece to 40 Shades. Where Rip Torn plays a man whose found the limits of what music can provide him--spiritually if not financially--Howard plays a guy who's just finding out where music can take him. And where it can take him as a lot more to do with his soul than his wallet. From an early scene in which Howard cries listening to a spiritual in church to a finale that leaves him not on top but somewhere a few notches up from where he was before, it's much more about finding oneself as an artist and a human being than as a commercial success. In fact, commercial success, as embodied by Ludacris' character Skinny Black--a Memphis born rapper who's found great success--is treated with no small amount of suspicion. Early on, Howard looks at the cover of a Skinny Black CD as if he's not sure what about him bugs him. By the time they meet, he's figured it out. He gets Black's attention with weed and holds it with the words "What the fuck happened to you?" He explains that Memphis misses him and delivers an impassioned monologue about how, when the present civilization crumbled arcehologists would sort through the rubble of New York and Paris but, "If a nigga wanted to know about me, wanted to know about Memphis, all they gotta do is find your first underground tape.”

A city can be defined by music but it can also be explained by it. James Joyce wrote that he hoped Dublin, if destroyed, could be reconstructed brick by brick from his descriptions in Ulysses. But I don't think that's why he wrote the book and I don't think that's why Howard loves that tape so much. Sometimes art justifies who we are by explaining to the world how we lived and why we did the things we did, even when those things pained us, which is something that D.J. Qualls touches on in another monologue:

The thing is, and I believe this man, rap is coming back home to the south. This is where it all began: Heavy percussion, repetitive hooks, sexually suggestive lyics… It’s all blues, brother. “Back Door Man” to “Back Dat Ass Up,” it’s all about pain and pussy and making’ music man. With simple tools. By any means necessary. You’ve got to get what you’ve got to say out. Because you’ve got to. Every man, you know what I’m sayin’?... Has the right, the goddamn right, to contribute a verse.

He's tying Howard's "It's Hard Out There For Pimp" lament to the same tradition as Furry Lewis. The song just keeps changing shape and anyone who feels that Memphis' contributions belong in the past just isn't looking hard enough.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

R.I.P. Oscar (1994-2007)

Stevie and I had to put our cat Oscar to sleep today after a short, but clearly devastating illness. He lost a lot of weight over a short stretch of time, dropping from 10 pounds in Spetember to 6.5 in late-December, most the weight loss ocurring over the last few weeks. Our vet diagnosed him with kidney failure last week and prescribed a course of medicine and special food hoping it would give us a few extra years. But at the end of the week he'd only gained a fraction of the weight back, was frequently ill, and clearly not enjoying a high quality of life. The decision was hard, but not as hard as what would certainly have come next. The vet suspected that, given the medicine's ineffectiveness, he probably had a tumor in his digestive tract.

I adopted Oscar in 1996 after losing another cat to illness. He spent the first few days holed up in my closet, growling ferociously whenever I'd get near. I dropped off his food and water and kept my distance. Eventually he came around. I have an early, pleasant memory of curling up next to him in my bedroom in Madison listening to a U2 concert at the stadium nearby. He was always good for a curl. Apart from food and napping on top of random objects (in boxes, on computers, atop discarded hats) it's pretty much what he lived for.

It was from that same window that Oscar tumbled one night, sustaining neurological damage that left him unable to move three limbs for a week. He recovered thanks to the work of my great Madison vet and was walking by the end of the week. Only his trademark ragged ear remained to remind everyone of the traumatic experience.

Oscar was always sweet with me but could be a bit of an S.O.B. to others, particularly Stevie in the our dating years. He also made it hard to eat. When I lived with Nathan, he once reported losing an entire rotisserie chicken to him. Apparently Oscar walked around the apartment with it like it was a fresh kill. He terrorized houseguests. He smacked the dog in the face. He had his turf and knew to defend it.

But he was a sweetheart if he gave you the chance to get to know him. He even accepted Stevie after a while, spending most nights snuggled up next to her in bed. (True, he'd bite her if he wanted to jump out, but still...)I lived in five different locations with me but I think he liked this last one the best. It gave him lots of room to roam and plenty of closets to hide in. Mostly, however, he was happiest hanging out with us. He was good at that. We miss him.

Friday, January 05, 2007


I'm going to be writing about some movies with Memphis music in them for a freelance piece I'm preparing so these entries may read as a little notebook-y. Feel free to skip if you're so inclined.

Writer/director Ira Sachs' 40 Shades Of Blue was one of the films that first got me interested in doing this piece. A washed out mood piece starring Rip Torn as an aging Memphis music producer (who looks a bit like Sam Phillips but whose career seems closer to a Chips Moman or a Dan Penn. Torn's haunting performance really grabbed me, as did a portrait of a place that had drifted away from its moment of greatness. Accepting an award early in the film, Torn says, "“Music is the only valid thing to come out of this whole mess we call an industry. It’s just a moment in time that happened in Memphis that was just pure magic, when the music of the blacks and the whites came together.” But it's a time that's past, both for the city and for Torn. He now lives in a luxurious, lakeside house with a beautiful girlfriend (Dina Korzun) and their young child but the only moments in the film in which he appears even the least bit happy come when he boozes it up with some old music buddies. "Dark End Of The Street" brings him to tears, but he's disconnected from the rest of his life.

The film's as much about Korzun—whose performance is as dead-eyed as it is deep—a Russian emigre whose relationship with Torn is, to all appearances, just a more refined version of a sex-for-survival strategy she's used her entire life. That's too harsh though. She's the most sympathetic character in the film.

Getting back to the music, Torn goes on about growing up with attention divided between white string bands ,the sounds of jukeboxes in black clubs and it's clear he played a large part of bringing them together. But what has he done lately? We see him in the studio, acting with a focus he never has elsewhere, but the focus turns into rage in a flash. This is the intense, method-y Torn of Cracking Up, not the guy from the Men In Black movies. We see him later, contributing a lovely piano line to an ungodly piece of Europop. They drive through Memphis, past old studios and hangout spots now fallen into ruins. They drive to clubs that thump to dance music with no connection to anything like soul. The crowd's all white. He throws a party for himself with music he keeps interrupting for speeches and drunken proposals. By the end, when he begins drunkenly talking about how all he cared about was the the music, his guests pay no attention to him. The good times went away and the togetherness they created goes with them. Maybe it was all an illusion after all.

The music wasn't enough. At film's end there's a nearly wordless driving sequence in which Torn and Korzun both seem to have found a kind of sadness no song could prepare them for.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Because when there's nothing else to write about, there's always today.
• Between a minor head cold and the nasty weather it's been hard to get out of bed lately and today was no exception.
• Stopped at Whole Foods for a muffin on the way in to work. The usual homeless guy who calls me "big guy" was not there.
• Heard a rumor from Stevie, who heard it from someone else, who heard it from a "reliable source" that Dick Cheney would soon be stepping down to be replaced by Condoleeza Rice. I'm putting this here just so I can brag about it later if it comes true.
• Listened to the new Shins album. It did not, as Zach Braff promised, change my life. Yet. But I've listened to it more than once now so we'll see.
• Finished up the bulk of my posting for Slate. I'm sorry to see it end. I just hope I held my own.
• Ate dinner alone at Big Bowl and read Rob Sheffield's book Love Is A Mixtape. I was alone because I had to go to a night screening of Smokin' Aces. Not so smokin'.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


On June 10, 2006, I purchased a box of 75+ vintage paperbacks, mostly sci-fi and adventure books, from a Half-Price Books And Records in Lincolnwood, IL. I am reading all of them. This is book 5.)

This going to be a short entry since i read this before the bloglapse of the past few months and my memory is a bit hazy. Before reading The Seeedling Stars I only knew James Blish's name from the covers of all those Star Trek paperbacks I'd see at the Englewood Public Library growing up, the ones with names like Star Trek 4 and Star Trek 7 and so on. They adapted episodes into prose stories and apparently provided Blish with a nice income in his waning years. He was writing number eleven when he died in 1975. His wife finished it for him.

Blish won a Hugo in 1959 for A Case Of Conscience and found a following with his four Cities In Flight novels. I know little about either but I think I might be hitting some of them further down the line in this project. He also apparently coined the phrase gas giant, unintentionally amusing schoolkids for decades to come.

But back to the book at hand: The Seedling Stars is less a novel than a series of short stories, some of them quite long, that build off one another. All concern "pantropy"—presumably another Blish coinage—the practice of adapting the human body to live in alien environments. One story deals with tree-dwelling descendents who feat the ground, another with humans reduced to cellular size who live, and war, with single-celled organisms underwater. Conceptually it's all quite strong. Narratively, it's all a bit too protracted. The ideas in the stories are more interesting than the stories themselves. Which, I guess, is one of the main complaints people who don't read science fiction make about science fiction in general. I guess sometimes it's true.

Just a reminder to anyone who cares: I'm currently participating in's 9th annual movie club discussion, writing for an audience that's considerably bigger than that of The A.V. CLub (although that continues to grow) and that's about—and this is a rough estimate—about a billion times bigger than the readership of this blog. You can read it beginning here.

Monday, January 01, 2007



I'm going to be writing about some movies with Memphis music in them for a freelance piece I'm preparing so these entries may read as a little notebook-y. Feel free to skip if you're so inclined.

Rattle And Hum is the name of both a 1988 album by U2 and the accompanying tour film directed by the band's frequent video director Phil Joanou. Both document U2's attempt to connect to American roots music and both, however accidentally, document the failure of that attempt. By 1988, U2 had transformed themselves from critics' darlings and college rock staples into arena-filling, world-conquerors, filling a biggest-band-in-the-world void left when Springsteen decided that the E. Street machine had had its day. The band would soon radically, and successfully, rework its sound, joining its sweeping anthems to early '90s dancefloor sounds to create a self-consciously clamorous pop sound. This, however, is a reinvention that, while producing some great music, doesn't quite take.

Why? It's pretty evident in the scenes of the band recording in the then recently reopened Sun Studios with songwriter/producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement, best known for discovering Jerry Lee Lewis. Sure, Clement's there and so are the Memphis Horns. But there's no willingness to bend to tradition in the performance. Whether by accident or design, the way Joanou shoots the scene couldn't be more appropriate: There's Bono in the foreground singing into a classic microphone (maybe microphone, the one that stands so casually on the floor of Sun but which captured all those classic performances). There's a picture of Elvis in the background, singing into another mic. It's all just stage-dressing. Bono's the show.

Later, after some shots of The Edge staring soulfully at the Mississippi, we join the boys on a trip to Graceland. It's a rare opportunity for drummer Larry Mullen Jr. to speak and what he says suggests that he might not be the quiet one by choice:

I was a little bit disturbed by going to Graceland to be honest because, unlike some of the other guys I love the Elvis movies… It was great to see a film star who was a musician. In every single one of his movies. He wasn’t acting as a car salesman. He was acting a car salesman who loved to play guitar. And I really related to that. Because I worked in sales for a couple of years.

Mullen gets to sit on one of The King's guitars after some smooth talk from Bono ("“What Harley-Davidson means to this man you wouldn’t undersand.”) Then the U2 show lumbers off to find another town and another tradition.

The trip echoes an earlier pilgrimage from Spinal Tap. A "thorougly depressing" outing to Elvis' grave that Christopher Guest's Nigel Tufnel at least believes "puts perspective on things." "Too much," Michael McKean's David St. Hubbins decides. "Too much fucking perspective."


...also beers, steers, and queers.