20 faves #9: elvis presley, the complete '68 comeback special

9th of 20, roughly by chronology.

This choice appears because of a single fact: I believe the greatest night in the history of rock and roll music took place on June 27, 1968. That's when Elvis Presley recorded two sets of music on a small stage, with a few of his old music buddies and a very small audience. Parts of these two shows ended up in a televised Xmas special in early December, along with other songs. I could choose the original LP from that show (called, among other things, NBC-TV Special). I could choose a bootleg I treasured for many years, The Burbank Sessions, Vol. 1, which included both small-stage concerts. But eventually, RCA figured out another way to make money, which resulted in a DVD box set, and another CD package called The Complete '68 Comeback Special, which again included all of the material from the two sit-down concerts. So, for the purposes of this list, I'm going with that big package.

Complete '68 comeback special

 


20 faves #8: van morrison, astral weeks

8th of 20, roughly by chronology.

OK, so there is a lie in the above sentence. I can talk about how all 20 of these albums are favorites of mine, I can talk about how I could have easily added another 20, I can say that I've chosen chronology because I can't really rank the 20 albums. But the truth is, if this was a list of one, if this was me telling you my favorite album, that wouldn't be a difficult decision.

Last month, a book by Ryan Walsh was released, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. It's a fascinating book that places Astral Weeks in a context you might not have considered before: Boston in 1968. The thing is, I learned more about Boston than I did about Astral Weeks. Which may partly explain why even the best books about the album necessarily work from the outside. Because Astral Weeks is pretty inscrutable, and much as I've tried, I've never been able to clearly define its greatness. Only one writer I've read has pulled this off: Lester Bangs, in the book Stranded.

Astral weeks

Here is Lester, writing about the above clip:

After going through all the verses, he drives the song, the band, and himself to a finish which has since become one of his trademarks and one of the all-time classic rock 'n' roll set-closers. With consummate dynamics that allow him to snap from indescribably eccentric throwaway phrasing to sheer passion in the very next breath he brings the music surging up through crescendo after crescendo, stopping and starting and stopping and starting the song again and again, imposing long maniacal silences like giant question marks between the stops and starts and ruling the room through sheer tension, building to a shout of "It's too late to stop now!," and just when you think it's all going to surge over the top, he cuts it off stone cold dead, the hollow of a murdered explosion, throws the microphone down and stalks off the stage. It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it's sensational: our guts are knotted up, we're crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we've seen and felt something.


20 faves #7: the rolling stones, beggars banquet

7th of 20, roughly by chronology.

I just finished reading Keith Richards' autobiography, and there are some good passages where he describes how particular songs and albums were created. Too often, stories about The Stones are so filled with sex and drugs that you can't figure out how or when the rock and roll was made. His book certainly has lots of drugs (and less sex than you'd think), but when he stops to detail the making of music, the book takes a step up. I could pick many albums here ... Exile on Main Street is probably the consensus choice, and I spent a lot of time in my youth listening to Aftermath and Between the Buttons. But Beggars Banquet is probably the one I've liked best over the years. As I have often said, it still amazes me that there was a time when "Sympathy for the Devil" felt real. I've chosen the mostly-forgotten "clean" album cover, since that's what I had back in the day.

Beggars banquet

I'll add a bit from the comment section for this one. I wrote:

What interests me about the Rock and Roll Circus version of this song, which is just Mick and Keith's live vocals stuck on top of the album's music, is when Mick changes the words to include himself with the "faceless crowd". There's irony in the original ... Mick Jagger praising the common foot soldier? I'm reminded of Christgau's words about A Bigger Bang: Mick "once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his 'vulnerability,' but I'm touched that he cares enough to lie about it."


20 faves #6: aretha franklin, 30 greatest hits

6th of 20, roughly by chronology.

The second time I've cheated with a greatest hits package, although this might be the last time. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You would be the top "real" album, and I've always loved Live at Fillmore West. But this has the early greatest hits of the best woman singer in the history of popular music in my lifetime.

Aretha 30 greatest

 


music friday: 1968

B.B. King, "Lucille". B.B. never sings and plays at the same time, because he doesn't want to interrupt Lucille.

Manfred Mann, "Mighty Quinn". Dylan wrote and recorded it during the Basement Tapes era ... it ended up on the Great White Wonder. The flute part at the beginning is played by the guy who won a Grammy for drawing the cover of Revolver. The singer is the cousin of a Bond Girl. Thus ends my Casey Kasem imitations.

Aretha Franklin, "The House That Jack Built". A two-sided hit with "I Say a Little Prayer".

Dusty Springfield, "Son of a Preacher Man". Dusty and Aretha used to be labelmates.

The Dells, "Stay in My Corner". Released in 1965, they re-recorded it in 1968 and hit #1 on the R&B charts.

The Beatles, "Revolution 9". It is easier to find this song on YouTube with the track played backwards, than it is to find the original.

Marvin Gaye, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". From 1967-1970, there were three great, popular versions of this song (Gladys Knight, Creedence).

Status Quo, "Pictures of Matchstick Men". More than 20 years later, Camper Van Beethoven took their remake to #1 on the Modern Rock charts.

Mary Hopkin, "Those Were the Days". The music is a Russian romance song. This was Apple's second single release, after "Hey Jude".

Lee "Scratch" Perry, "People Funny Boy". Perry's first big single.



 


the dreamers (bernardo bertolucci, 2003)

I love Eva Green so much from Penny Dreadful that I assumed I've seen her in lots of movies, but in fact, The Dreamers, which was her film debut, is only the second one I've seen (Casino Royale being the other). When the movie was released, it was noteworthy as the latest film from Oscar-winner Bernardo Bertolucci. Until the film was complete, at which point the resemblance to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was evident. Most of the film takes place indoors, with people hanging out naked, having sex, with enough explicit shots to result in an NC-17 rating. Even now, the nudity seems to be on the edge, featuring not just full frontal but closeups of genitalia. For the first, but not the last time, Eva Green's sexuality smolders on the screen.

Yet some punches were pulled. The Dreamers is a story of 1968, with two Parisians, twins (Theo and Isabelle), and an American (Matthew, played by Michael Pitt). Most of the physical interaction is between Pitt and Green. The film hints at an incestual relationship between the twins, but a possible sexual relationship between the two men is only subtext. Bertolucci decided not to film scenes from the script that made that relationship more explicit, and given the openness of the presentation of the three, that decision is odd.

The three young people are infatuated with film, and viewers with a deep knowledge of film history will enjoy the references to that history. Asked if she is from Paris, Isabelle announces, "I entered this world on the Champs-Elysées, 1959. La trottoir du Champs Elysées. And do you know what my very first words were? New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!" Non-film buffs may be confused ... Eva Green is clearly not nine years old. But Bertolucci is quoting from Godard's Breathless, and to make his point more clear (and to help the non-buffs), he tosses in a brief clip of Jean Seberg in that movie selling that paper. These connections pop up throughout the film ... the twins like to play trivia games that require knowledge of film trivia. There are probably too many of those clips of other movies ... we get the point ... but the connections are meaningful, showing how the twins (and Matthew) are engulfed in film, perhaps at the expense of the "real" world.

The trivia games also connect to the sexual currents in the film. If you don't know the trivia, you have to perform some act. The first time we see this, Isabelle makes Theo masturbate in front of the other two to a photo of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Later, Theo makes Matthew and Isabelle have sex while he watches. The construct (film trivia, then sex) is odd, but the sexual freedoms of the three are so natural that we believe in them. There is no denying the erotic power, but Bertolucci takes it further, and his actors are perfect. In particular, much of the nudity is almost commonplace, co-existing with the erotic.

The irony is that all of this takes place in Paris in 1968, when revolution was in the air. Theo and Isabelle are half-hearted participants ... they'd rather watch movies. Matthew is like an American in one of Henry James' novels, seemingly innocent. The three of them live in the house of the twins' parents. One of the best scenes comes when the parents, who have been on holiday, turn up and find a completely messy house and three naked people sleeping together. The parents leave.

Of course, the innocent American must be abandoned in the end. Theo and Isabelle leave him to return to revolution. It is at this time, if we haven't already figured it out, that we realize the twins are playing at revolution, that, in fact, Bertolucci is only playing at revolution. Paris 1968 is a prop ... you wouldn't go to The Dreamers to learn about that time.

The Dreamers is as good as its spiritual parent, Last Tango, if just a bit below The Conformist. And I love Eva Green even more after seeing it. #989 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

This scene, in which Isabelle extends the "Name That Film" game to sculptures, includes one of the film's most remarkable images:



 


what i watched last week

L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962). This movie, like many others, benefits from the intelligent guidance of someone who “gets” the movie. You could say this is always true, but for many/most films, the pleasures are available from the start. It’s not that we wouldn’t benefit from watching, say, Goldfinger alongside an expert on Bond movies, and some films (the best Bonds among them) retain a lot of their pleasures on multiple viewings. But a movie like L’Eclisse has a built-in inscrutable surface, and that surface makes the movie a candidate for further viewings, perhaps especially after reading through some of the best criticism of the film. One of my flaws as a critic is that I resist works that don’t make themselves immediately apparent. When I hear that a movie must be seen more than once, I get cranky, thinking if that is the case, the movie hasn’t done right to begin with. I don’t think an inscrutable surface is evidence of depth. But I can go too far. You will get more out of L’Eclisse, the more you put into it. Antonioni doesn’t do all the work for you. Having said that, I remain puzzled why I find L’Avventura one of the greatest of all movies, yet find the rest of his word admirable at best, and barely watchable at worst. I find Blow-Up fun, if silly, and Red Desert only worth a single viewing, if that. #106 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Revisiting a classic film from a classic director. One problem is that I think Kubrick is overrated, and I think 2001, rather than marking his peak, marks the beginning of his decline. My favorite Kubrick films are Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), with Spartacus (1960) after that. I intended to write about this movie in a separate post, but I think it slides right in to my comments on L’Eclisse. 2001 has a built-in inscrutable surface, which makes it a candidate for multiple viewings. I think the cosmic themes of the movie are perfect if Kubrick wanted to seem deep ... there is no explanation, Kubrick resists explanations, but in a true cult-film pattern, the vagueness only increases the interest of its fans. I don’t like this, but perhaps 2001 is the kind of movie where the absence of explanations is the proper approach.

I was a big fan of 2001 when it came out. We all watched it more than once, usually when high. We didn’t see the “Star Gate” sequence as needing explanation ... we just laid back and let it wash over it. There is something to be said for that kind of response, and it’s true, I never liked 2001 as much as I did when I was young and high.

The special effects hold up remarkably well (not talking about the Star Gate). The enormity of the space vehicles is impressive, and everything moves slow ... I think if they zipped around, we’d see the effects as primitive in comparison to what is possible today. Instead, they are lovely and elegant. The Star Gate stuff is less impressive, but at the time, we were blown away.

I can’t say too much about the importance of the music. Most of us owned the soundtrack album, which we played far more frequently than we did any other music-only soundtrack. (I mean, we played A Hard Day’s Night more, but that was a Beatles album, not a soundtrack.) We’d hear the music, and see the scenes in our heads. Kubrick’s use of music was remarkably on target ... everything fit perfectly with what was on the screen. So when we listened to the soundtrack, we felt fond feelings about the movie, which led us to go watch the movie again.

On the other hand, Kubrick’s disdain for actors is evident. Actors like Kirk Douglas and Peter Sellers had such strong screen presences that they couldn’t be held down, and Malcolm McDowell dominated A Clockwork Orange. (One reason for that is that the other actors were awful.) In 2001, the most interesting actors are the guy who does the voice of a computer, and the ones who play apes. I understand that Kubrick is emphasizing the banal ... I suppose Keir Dullea is the perfect actor, in that case. The performances we remember most from later Kubrick are the ones where the director allowed the actor to do whatever he wanted ... McDowell, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. There isn’t a lot of subtle acting in Kubrick movies, which may matter more to me than to others.

If you had asked me in the late-60s, I’d have given 2001 10/10. In more recent years, I’ve decided on 6/10. But, for whatever reason, I felt more kind this time around. #3 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 of all time, above, just to list the next three, Tokyo Story, The Rules of the Game, and The Godfather. Honestly, I’m feeling generous to 2001, but it is not in the league of those other three. I wouldn’t place it in the top five of 1968. (Monterey Pop, Rosemary’s Baby, and Night of the Living Dead come to mind.) 7/10.


tv grid, 1968

This comes from a TV Guide in 1968, just as the new fall season arrived. I found the picture at a website called Television History. It shows a grid with all of the prime time shows on the major networks:

1968_TV_Programs

If you want to know what was different about life for a 15-year-old American in 1968, here is one example. Three channels to choose from, all over-the-air free-with-ads. The total number of prime-time series was smaller than a list of the prime-time series today for any specific time/day.

As for what I watched: Saturdays were CBS until 10:00, although if there was a rock and roll act I wanted to see, I would switch to Hollywood Palace. Sunday was also CBS: Ed Sullivan, Smothers Brothers, Mission Impossible. Monday was tough, since the second half of The Avengers conflicted with the first half of Laugh-In, and there were no VCRs in those days. Tuesdays I’d watch Red Skelton, or nothing at all. Wednesdays were totally cruddy. Thursdays began with ABC comedies The Flying Nun, Bewitched, and That Girl, followed by a switch to NBC for Dragnet and my dad’s fave, Dean Martin. Finally, Friday had The Wild, Wild West.

The truth is, Robin and I started going together in late September of that year, so I spend most of these evenings talking to her on the phone.