music friday, the podcast

Earlier this week, I took part in a podcast with Scott Woods and Phil Dellio. The topic, at least at the beginning, was Robert Christgau's memoir, Going Into the City. I've listened to a little more than half of it, and so far, I've managed to avoid saying anything too stupid, for which I thank Scott, the host and editor of the podcast. It's fun to hang out with those two, who have been friends for a zillion years. As I said to my son, I was like the visitor from another planet, aka Berkeley. If, after listening to all 120 minutes, you still haven't had enough, Scott included a link at the bottom to an interview he did with me back in 2006, which amazes me ... both that he thought I'd be an interesting interviewee back in the day, and that almost a decade later, he's still kind enough to include me in these things.

Robert Christgau: He Needs Us, We Need Him (podcast)

For this week's video, a couple of versions of a song that is featured in the podcast. First, the "original", The Wild Tchoupitoulas with "Indian Red":


And here they are at Mardi Gras 2015:




the americans, season three finale preview

Today, Sonia Saraiya wrote an interesting piece on The Americans, which is finishing its third season tonight. It addresses a topic that is near to my heart: why is it that "no one" watches The Americans, even though it has been called by some the best show on TV? My wife and I are the only people we know who watch it (usually, when I say something like this, friends pop out of the woodwork talking about how they are watching, too, so I apologize in advance if I've missed you here). Its ratings are shaky enough that you never know from one season to the next if FX will renew it, but since it's a show that still has a lot of story to tell, and since it hasn't lost any steam creatively (Saraiya calls Season Three the best yet), it would be a shame if it was shut down. (It has been renewed for a fourth season.)

Saraiya struck a nerve with me because she gets right to what I find to be arguably the most interesting thing about a very interesting show: that no one watches it. We all have shows like this ... just yesterday on Facebook, my sister linked to an article titled, "'Call the Midwife' Is the Most Feminist & Socially Conscious Show You're Not Watching". The author of that piece, Sabienna Bowman, has no difficulty finding reasons to praise Call the Midwife, and if many of those reasons seem less artistic than socially progressive, people who prefer series they can "agree with" will understand Bowman's claims (and, to be sure, she also draws attention to the artistic excellence of the show). What makes Saraiya's piece different is that she does as good a job as Bowman of describing what raises the series to the higher levels, but the point of her argument is that nevertheless, The Americans is less than great as a viewing experience.

It’s a good show—sometimes even a great show. The season ending Wednesday evening is to my mind the series’ best yet—one where some of the most carefully laid secrets from as far back as the first few episodes are beginning to unravel.... It’s a very well-crafted show missing some ineffable je ne sais quoi—the “zsa zsa zsu,” as Carrie calls the spark of chemistry she feels with Berger, in “Sex And The City.” “The Americans” is charismatic for some, but it’s not alchemically watchable—it’s not must-see TV. It’s something else....

A lot of shows about death and mayhem may be populated with nothing but embodiments of grim despair, but they will still make an effort to be funny—“Breaking Bad,” one of the most violent and upsetting shows I’ve watched, was still a sardonic, starkly humorous show. “The Americans” can’t quite manage that. It’s hard for a show to find humor when it benefits the protagonists to keep everyone as miserable as possible.

Which is another part of the show’s essence. There’s no one to root for in “The Americans” ... 

This is the beauty of “The Americans,” too. It’s a hard show to love, but in some ways, that’s the point. None of this, the show seems to say, gesturing at the world in 1983, is particularly easy. It’s a reminder of the worst part of humanity, and a memento of a terrible time in history—when a pointless struggle between two ideas of nationhood killed thousands of people and ruined the lives of many more. It’s all real, and still upsettingly relevant.

There are "feel good" shows, and it's easy to see why they might be popular. But nothing feels good about The Americans. There is no one to root for, because the central characters, the ones who in another show we would expect to identify with, are Soviet spies who commit horrible acts in the name of ideology. We could root for the U.S. spies, except despite the central characters being hard to like, our instincts as viewers are to at least hope that those characters survive ... like when we root for the anti-hero to emerge victorious. And the U.S. spies are no better from a moral standpoint than the Soviets.

As Saraiya concludes,

[W]hat I struggle with in particular is the show’s lack of hope, in the midst of so much horror. I respect the hopelessness—it’s valid, it’s rational, and given how we know the Cold War is going to end, for the Jennings family, it’s inevitable. But it’s hard for me to live with that, for hours or weeks or years at a time. My distance from the show is a defense mechanism; a way of holding out hope for my future, as yet unwritten.

I sense the same thing, although my taste preferences gravitate towards art that represents hopelessness. I don't feel a need to distance myself. Having said that, it's hard to think of another show that makes me as anxious as does The Americans. A show about spies will necessarily include tense scenes where the spies are close to being caught in the act. There are multiple such scenes in every episode of The Americans. You're on the edge of your seat, even if you aren't "rooting" for the characters. And this feeling is relentless ... it's built into the series.

Saraiya is right: The Americans lacks hope. Nothing is going to work out well in the end, and we in the audience know this. The Americans has leading characters who are hard to like (even though the acting is great), it regularly features scenes that are excruciatingly tense, the moral compass of the characters is not easy to love ... of course no one wants to watch it.

Ultimately, Saraiya's essay helps me understand what has puzzled me for three seasons. For most people, it's not enough that a TV series is excellent, if the excellence is designed to make the audience feel bad. I stand by my position that The Americans is one of the best shows on TV. But I don't blame you for ignoring it.

live at the apollo

The title of this post refers to the classic James Brown album from 1962. It also refers to a book in the 33 1/3 series, this one written by Douglas Wolk, about that album.

Wolk weaves a detailed analysis of Brown and the album with a narrative describing world events at the time the album was recorded. The concert occurred during the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. Wolk works at tying Brown's combustible live show with the potential for fireworks happening out the walls of the Apollo, just two days after Kennedy had given a speech to the nation about the crisis:

"It's getting a little cold outside," he declares, and there's a rustling of assent. (It was: the weather on the night of October 24 was nasty, in the mid-to-upper 30s Fahrenheit in Harlem. Brown's staff had gone out and handed complimentary cups of coffee to people waiting in the long line outside the Apollo, making sure they were in a good mood when they got inside.) But then he adds: "I wonder do you know what I'm talkin' about? I said it's gettin' a little cold outside." That's a nudge. He's not talking about the weather. He's talking about the chill everyone in the room has been feeling for the last two days. But that's outside; this is inside the temple of Apollo, where the famous flames burn.

It's an interesting approach, and I do remember my ten-year-old self, aware that something was going on, looking at every plane that flew by wondering if it was from Russia. So sure, missiles were on everyone's minds. But for the most part, I found these sections of the book mostly digressions, and I would get antsy for Wolk to return directly to the album.

Which is where rewards are to be found, for Wolk does a terrific job. He has clearly listened to Live at the Apollo many times, and more carefully than most of us, I suspect.

Turning up "I Love You Yes I Do" as loud as it can go is also a good way to admire the amazing recording quality of Live at the Apollo. You can make out the cries in the crowd, and bits of the Famous Flames' off-mic backing vocals; you can also hear a little squeak right before each beat. Perhaps the drum kit had a squeaky hi-hat, or the organ had a squeaky speaker?

The majority of the book, as with the album, is "Lost Someone". It is to Wolk's credit that reading his writing on "Lost Someone", you want to immediately put the song on. (OK, I pretty much always want to put that song on.)

I can't quote the whole book ... you really need to read it, listening to Brown all the while. But I can't resist a bit more:

[W]hen he recorded LATA, he knew he was being recorded, and he held back, so he wouldn't overload the microphone and get distortion all over the recording, because theyn Syd Nathan would never let him put it out. Live at the Apollo, my friends -- Live at the Apollo is the sound of James Brown holding back. ...

James Brown has been singing "Lost Someone" for almost eleven minutes. Time has bent and suspended under the week's incredible gravity.

Wolk makes a point ... maybe it's one everybody already knew, but it hadn't occurred to me before. Live at the Apollo is one of the greatest albums ever made, a crucial part of the history of James Brown. Yet it comes before the period when Brown changed music, when he had his biggest impact. I might play "Lost Someone" once a day until I die, but in the end, it's just a stunning performance. But with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" as a marker, funk becomes king. There are hints of that future in Live at the Apollo, but only hints.

There are thousands of records that bear James Brown's influence, and a lot of them even namedrop him, but almost all of them take off from his 1965-1974 funk period. You can scarcely hear the echoes of the massively popular Apollo in the music of anyone other than James Brown himself.