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music friday: sly and the family stone, “qué será, será”

At the 1956 Academy Awards, the Oscar for Best Original Song went to “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Qué Será, Será)” from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much. The title has many variations … I’ve seen it with and without accented a/e/á/é, I’ve seen it called “Que Sera, Sera” with “Whatever Will Be, Will Be” in parentheses, I’ve seen it called simply “Que Sera, Sera”. In the movie, it was sung by Doris Day:

It was later used as the theme song for the TV series The Doris Day Show:

In 1965, Australian pop band Normie Rowe and the Playboys had a big hit in their home country with a version of the song:

Many artists covered the song in the 60s, including Connie Francis, the Shirelles, Mary Hopkin, even Alvin and the Chipmunks:

In 1971, Sly and the Family Stone released one of the greatest albums of all time, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That album itself deserves a few posts of its own. To be brief, after several years of middling success, Sly and the Family Stone hit it big with the album Stand!, which included many of the group’s most popular songs: “Stand!”, “I Want to Take You Higher”, “Sing a Simple Song”, “Everyday People”, and “You Can Make It If You Try”, along with the rather remarkable, 13 minute and 45 second “Sex Machine”. They then appeared at Woodstock, and gave one of the best performances in the subsequent film, released in 1970.

Sly and the Family Stone was noted particularly for the all-inclusive nature of its members, a mixture of black and white, men and women that looked a lot like what Prince offered up early in his career. They had crossover appeal, and they made great singles that were inspiring both in their message and in the fevered, gospel-like delivery.

But then, Sly Stone developed a drug problem. He missed a lot of concerts and feuded with some of the band members. The record company put out a greatest hits album that remains one of the, well, greatest. When There’s a Riot Goin’ On finally came out, it is safe to say people were ready for it, and it hit #1 on release. Except what they were ready for wasn’t what was delivered. There’s a Riot Goin’ On lacked the inspiring singalongs and danceable music of Sly’s earlier music. The music, in fact, was stripped down to its basics … it was also slowed down, and Sly’s vocals sounded very druggy. Sly took their earlier hit, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, a pop-funk classic, slowed it down to a crawl, and sang from beneath the grave, in the process letting the audience realize what they were really singing about in that hit (“looking at the devil, grinning at his gun”). That track, now titled “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa”, closed out the album. At the end of Side One was the title track … its running time was 0:00.

The follow-up album, Fresh, from 1973, was a fascinating blend of what had come before, with more upbeat songs attached to the stripped-down production of Riot. It featured their last great single, “If You Want Me to Stay”, and, on one track, it featured band member (and Sly’s sister) Rose Stone singing, yes, “Qué Será, Será”.

land of hope and commercials

I’ll start by admitting that not only is opinion divided on this issue among Bruce fans, but that I am in the minority. And, as will be clear, I’m not quite sure why this bothers me:

This is an advertisement for postseason baseball on TBS. The music on the video, and some of the visuals, is courtesy of Bruce Springsteen, from his inspirational song, “Land of Hope and Dreams”.

I’m not concerned with what was done to that great song to fit it into a two-minute time slot. Well, I’m concerned in that I think they botched it, but that’s not why I’m writing this. And I’m not concerned that Bruce has associated himself with baseball … he’s a longtime Yankee fan, he has played concerts at baseball parks (I saw one myself at China Basin back in 2003) … hell, he wrote “Glory Days”.

But, to the best of my knowledge, before this advertisement, Bruce Springsteen had never allowed his music to be used in such a manner. Bob Seger will tell us that Chevy trucks were like a rock, Michael Jackson would tell us to drink Pepsi, Lou Reed would pimp for a motorcycle brand he didn’t personally ride, but Bruce Springsteen didn’t do commercials.

You could argue that Bruce doesn’t need to sell his music to advertisers because he already has a gazillion dollars (which didn’t stop Michael Jackson). When asked why he did those Honda ads, Lou Reed said something to the effect of “if you liked my last album, shut up about the ads, because they helped pay for the music you liked”. If memory serves, Bob Seger said he was proud to have his music played in support of American workers and their products. Not a bad explanation, I admit.

You could even note that a few years ago, Bruce played the halftime show at the Super Bowl, an event which is about advertising as much as it is about anything.

You could point out that it’s not quite clear that Bruce is selling anything other than the greatness of baseball. I’d say you were full of shit, that he’s selling a TBS television show, but some have made this claim, nonetheless.

Many, perhaps even most, of the Bruce fans for whom I have the greatest respect are very happy to see this advertisement. They see it as a chance for Bruce to get his music out to a whole new audience, and they like the idea of seeing/hearing Bruce, no matter the context.

Finally, although I can’t recall the source and am using my fallible memory here, I seem to remember once reading Greil Marcus saying he liked hearing favorite pop songs in commercials, because it forced him to hear those songs in a new context.

Yes, I understand all of this. But the truth is, it bothers me that Bruce Springsteen has allowed his music to be used in a commercial.

(Obligatory disclosure: I hate advertising.)

true blood and the newsroom, season finales

It’s taken me a couple of days to get this up, because Robin didn’t get home until Tuesday in the late afternoon, which means we watched them Tuesday evening. What’s sad is that waiting two days barely mattered.

I no longer have much in the way of expectations for Alan Ball’s True Blood. I assume it will be incoherent, and uninterested in anything beyond immediate sensation (meaning plot threads are started and abandoned at will, often without resolution). It will make klutzy attempts to parallel the prejudices of the real world to the fantasy world of the show, none of which will carry any resonance. And it will always have lots of beautiful men and women getting nekkid and having sex, and it will always have lots of vampire gore, and thus, it will always be worth watching, even or perhaps especially because in the end, it’s not worth watching. True Blood is a superb example of enjoyable junk.

The Newsroom aspires to so much more, and while I always liked Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under, I never thought it was a great series (great epilogue, though). Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, though, was one of my very favorite series, and I liked The West Wing about as much as I liked Six Feet Under, until I gave up on it after Josh yelled at a building early in Season Five. My point is that I looked forward to The Newsroom with great enthusiasm, and when the show tended to give us the worst of Sorkin without enough of the best, I was disappointed. The good Sorkin is very good, indeed, and while I often thought of giving up on the show, I never followed my impulses, and I’ll likely be back for Season Two. But I wanted The Newsroom to be different from the True Bloods of Television. I didn’t want it to be something I watched for the two or three good things each episode that got me through the other 45 minutes.

But that never happened. Most of the characters on The Newsroom are infuriating and unlikable (I liked almost every character on Sports Night). Everyone gives rousing speeches that would sound great coming out of the mouth  of Aaron Sorkin, but since he is supposedly writing dialogue for individual characters with differences, the speeches, which all sound like Aaron Sorkin, don’t work. He creates interesting female characters and then undermines them every chance he gets, making them clumsy, socially inappropriate, stupid, anything but professional.

The sad thing is, Sorkin writes great dialogue, and he is terrific at what is best called “banter”. But when the banter takes place between unlikable characters, it’s not so terrific.

In the end, the best things on HBO between 9 and 11 PM on Sundays the past couple of months have been the trailers for Treme. Grade for True Blood and The Newsroom: B-.

what i watched last week

F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973). Made when Welles was in his late-50s, F for Fake is impossible to describe, and very hard to recommend to anyone except his many fans, of which I am one. It’s not that the film is bad, or willingly obscure. But Welles hides his intentions behind a cover story of a documentary about the art forger Elmyr de Hory, and he is so playful that it would be easy to take F for Fake as something less than serious. It is generally considered to be “minor Welles” (no real insult, given that “major Welles” means “greatest movies ever”), again because the magician in Welles seems to want us to believe he is just goofing. But he’s just using the magician’s trick of misdirection. F for Fake meets the cliché of “more than meets the eye”, except that, as with magic, it’s entirely possible there is less here than our eye thinks it doesn’t see. Since the topic is fakery, and since Welles is gifted a supplementary plot when the man who wrote a book about Elmyr de Hory (and is featured in the film) turns out to be Clifford Irving, who authored the Howard Hughes hoax, and since Welles himself first made a name for himself by convincing America that Martians had landed … well, it’s not easy to trust anything in this film, especially not the figurative wink which Welles keeps throwing our way. #343 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990). 8/10.

sports, businesses, fun

Over the past several days, I’ve had the chance to take in several games.

On Thursday night, I went to my very-first minor-league baseball game, as the Sacramento River Cats hosted the Salt Lake Bees. It was also the first game for my grandson, who isn’t even a month old yet. The River Cats are a AAA team (which means they are just one level below the majors), and I must admit I underestimated them. I thought I’d see an infield with rocks in the dirt, holes in the outfield grass, crappy facilities and food, and poor play. But AAA is filled with many good players, and Raley Field is impeccable. We saw several fine defensive plays, as well as a grand slam homer that was the highlight of the evening, since it meant we all got a free Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s the next day. Just under 10,000 fans were in attendance (the park seats around 14,000). Here’s a link to a video of the grand slam:

And here’s a picture of Sara and Félix:

sara félix rivercats august 2012 - 2

The weekend was filled with soccer, starting with Wrexham, a Welsh club playing at the fifth-division level in England. As you can imagine, we don’t get a lot of televised Wrexham matches here in the States, but Saturday, some British TV outlet had Wrexham v. Grimsby Town streaming online, so I sat down at the computer and took the game in. Wrexham has been around since 1864, and while they’ve never been in the top flight, they’ve had reasonable success in the lower levels. But serious financial problems in recent years (they were placed in financial administration in 2004) have sent them further down than at any point in their history. They play at the Racecourse Ground, which has hosted Wrexham matches since 1872. Seated capacity is 10,500 … attendance for this match was 3,127. It was a 0-0 draw of little note.

Next up, I went out to Buck Shaw Stadium to watch the top team in MLS, the San Jose Earthquakes. The stadium was sold out (10,525), and the fans went home happy after a 4-1 win. We had great seats thanks to my nephew Sean, who works for the team. While it’s hard to compare live viewing to an Internet stream, I can safely say that the quality on display at Buck Shaw was several levels above what I saw at the Racecourse. Here are the highlights:

Finally, Sunday morning, I slept in and caught Liverpool host the Premier League champions, Manchester City, on the DVR. A sell-out crowd of 44,942 saw an entertaining 2-2 draw.

There are several areas I find interesting. First is the way I watched the matches: two of them live, one on my TV/DVR, a fourth on an Internet stream. Second was the general level of play. The Premier League match was played at a higher level than the MLS match, which was at a higher level than the AAA baseball game, which was much higher than the fifth-division Wrexham match. Finally, the crowds for these events reflect … what, popularity I guess. Liverpool: 44,942. San Jose: 10,525. Sacramento: close to 10,000. Wrexham: 3,127.

Liverpool is worth more than $350 million. The Quakes are worth somewhere around $35 million. They are owned by the primary owner of the Oakland A’s, who are the parent club of the Sacramento River Cats. The A’s are worth around $320 million. I don’t know how to read a financial report, but Wrexham’s current assets are just under 300,000 pounds while current liabilities are just under 450,000 pounds. (I don’t even know if those are relevant figures.)

The primary owners of Liverpool are also the primary owners of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. This weekend, Boston made a blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the trade, the Red Sox removed around $250 million in player contracts.

I don’t know what all of these numbers mean.

music friday: bruce springsteen, “if i should fall behind”

A quickie this week … I spent last night in Sacramento and went to my first minor-league baseball game with Sara, Ray, Lex, and Félix. Luckily, last week Neal requested every version of “If I Should Fall Behind”, so here are some videos. “If I Should Fall Behind” initially threatened to disappear from memory. It appeared on Lucky Town, one of two albums Bruce released in 1992, his first since he disbanded the E Street Band. Those albums were not exactly treasured by fans. Still, he revived it for the Reunion Tour in 1999-2000, where it fit perfectly.

First, the original:

A live version from 1992 with The Other Band:

From The Reunion Tour. This is probably the best version. I played this for my class the last day I taught at Cal.

With the Sessions Band in the mid-2000s … this time, it’s a waltz … Patty shines on this one:

And a fan video from last month in Zurich … this time, Bruce is solo:

And if that’s still not enough, here’s a cover by Margo Timmins:

on depression, suicide, and medication

I’ve been thinking about writing on the career of Tony Scott, but I don’t have a lot to say. At a time like this, it’s best to say something nice, or to say nothing at all. I like True Romance, although it seems more like a Tarantino movie to me than a Tony Scott movie. The truth is, though, I have purposely avoided most of his films, because I hate Top Gun so much. I think I need to take a look at Scott’s other work, hopefully with a fresh eye.

Meanwhile, there’s the way in which he died. Roger Ebert tweeted a link to an article by Charles Raison, a professor of psychiatry at Arizona, and Roger’s correct, Raison’s piece is wise and realistic. When he says, “as much as I hate suicide, I also understand it”, he earns some good will as I read the rest of his piece. He writes evocatively about depression:

Depression is different. Because it is at its essence a perceptual disorder, it causes one to see the entire world as pain. It feels painful inside, but it also feels painful outside.

When a person is depressed, the entire world is disturbed and distressed, so there is nowhere to escape. And it is this fact that makes suicide so seductive, because it seems to offer the one available escape option.

He then speaks to why suicide seems so tragic. For one thing, “depression often passes on its own accord. It is not an incurable cancer that offers a guaranteed foreshortened future of unbearable pain. Because of this, depressed people kill themselves over something that would have lifted had they just been able to hang in there.” He also notes:

[A]lthough our treatments for depression are far from perfect, they are nonetheless effective enough to help the vast majority of depressed people feel well enough to forgo killing themselves.

I’ve been on psych medication for more than seven years. While the first psychiatrist I saw said she wasn’t comfortable with labels, feeling that individuals are always more complex than the label implies, she also noted (perhaps knowing I’d be on the Internet the minute I got home) that my “symptoms” suggested what they call “bipolar II disorder”. And it is true, for seven years I’ve taken two medications, one for depression and one for anxiety. I’ve found the anxiety meds to be especially helpful, feeling soon after I started taking them that the weight of 50 years had been lifted off my shoulders.

But I waited 50 years because I feared becoming a zombie. (Well, not 50 years … if memory serves, and it rarely does, my parents had me on “nerve medicine” at one point in my childhood.) I may have been miserable, but at least I was “me”. It was only when I finally realized that being “me” sucked that I went for the meds.

And, sure enough, I am still me. I’m not sorry I’m on meds. But, as I often tell people, I have most of the same thoughts I had back in the day. It’s just that I have better impulse control, and I have more of a “who cares” attitude, which is why there isn’t the anxiety of the past. I still have the ability to care … just think of the 2010 Giants if you need proof … but I don’t get freaked out the way I used to.

Yet, there is a way in which this is a problem. Sometimes I think the purpose of psych meds isn’t to make me feel better, although I do, but to make me easier to be around. I’m not the asshole I used to be, I don’t act out the way I used to, while I’m far from perfect, I think before I speak/type more often than I used to.

This came to my mind when I read Dr. Raison’s comment that treatments for depression “help the vast majority of depressed people feel well enough to forgo killing themselves.” I’m an example of how this works, and I’m glad of that. Nonetheless, Raison’s statement points to a serious problem: meds don’t make the world better, they just make you feel well enough to stay alive. You are, in effect, pacified so you don’t bother other people.

I’m reminded of the one time I went through an extended period of therapy (I think it was several months, no more than that). I was working in the factory, and I’d ended up standing in the middle of the street one night, screaming, and so I started therapy. And the purpose of the therapy was to help me cope. Granted, this was partly because I was only going to see the doctor until my insurance ran out, even if I needed years of therapy. And it is true that I don’t think much of long-term therapy (when I finally decided to get better, I went straight for the meds). Still, the idea was to help me cope, and it worked OK, and I lasted another two years before I couldn’t take it anymore. For two years, I was more or less a reasonable person who went to work and did his job like everyone else.

Similarly, meds for depression bring you back from the precipice of suicide. They let you be reasonable, let you do your job like everyone else. What they don’t do is change your circumstances. What they don’t do is remove the reasons for killing yourself. They just make you care less, so you no longer want to go to the precipice.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. But part of me thinks it’s a trick, wherein I take my medicine and pretend everything is OK, all the time knowing that if I quit taking the medicine, the world would be just as it was seven years ago. Nothing has changed at all, except my own personal chemistry.

by request: an angel at my table (jane campion, 1990)

Jeff Pike requested this one, which was also on my long-term list, since it’s #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films.

This is the true story of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, who wrote an autobiographical trilogy that Jane Campion filmed as a three-part television mini-series, which then became An Angel at My Table. (It’s unclear to me whether the film version is just the series, edited together, or if some changes were made.) Frame has a fascinating tale to tell: shy and talented, and perhaps prone to depression, she was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and spent eight years in a psychiatric hospital, where she received a couple of hundred shock treatments. She was scheduled for a lobotomy when her first book, a collection of short stories, won an important literary prize. The lobotomy was cancelled, and her writing career began.

Campion tells this story in a straightforward manner. The scenes in the asylum are extremely disturbing, and like the entire movie, are presented as Janet experiences them. The series of actresses who play Frame (Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox) do an excellent job of giving us a shy, withdrawn person (difficult to portray on the screen) while always giving a sense of the artist inside the shyness. (It also helps that the three, in their makeup and hairstyles, look so much alike it’s not easy to tell when one leaves off and another begins.) Fox, the only one of the three who continued with an acting career, is stunning, especially when something brings her joy. Frame experiences enough misery that the joyful moments are heartwarming in a good way.

Yet Campion hasn’t given us a feel-good movie. Yes, it’s nice that Frame found herself through her writing, and her success feels well-earned in the film. But Campion never stoops to a mere “heroine overcoming great odds” boilerplate, making An Angel at My Table much better than the norm.

The film jumps too quickly at times through important events in Frame’s life. I imagine if you knew her story in advance, this wouldn’t be a problem, but as is, the film could be longer, even though it’s already 2 1/2 hours long. There is also a matter-of-fact feel to some of Frame’s achievements. Little is made of her published works, beyond serving to move the story along, obviously in the near-lobotomy scene, but throughout … at one point, she is asked to autograph some books and I thought, she wrote a book already? In the past, I’ve tended to respect Campion’s work more than I liked it (and in the case of In the Cut, I didn’t care for it at all). Of the ones I’ve now seen, I’d say An Angel at My Table is the best Campion film. 8/10.

what i watched last week

Zontar: The Thing from Venus (Larry Buchanan, 1966). A 60s equivalent of those SyFy original movies, Zontar was an early example of a made-for-TV film. American International did good business packaging its films for the TV market, and managed to pad out those packages with 16mm color remakes of their earlier B&W classics, which went straight to TV. Zontar is a remake of It Conquered the World, and it’s been a long time since I saw that one, but I’m pretty sure it was better than the remake. The earlier film, directed by Roger Corman, had people like Peter Graves, Beverly Garland, Lee Van Cleef, and the immortal Dick Miller. Zontar wasn’t directed by Corman, and had Shirley Temple’s ex-husband in the lead, and no one you’ve ever heard of filling out the cast. As for the plot, this summary from IMDB gets right to it: “A misguided scientist enables an alien from Venus named Zontar to come to earth in order to help solve man's problems.” Needless to say, Zontar has ulterior motives. In all honesty, Zontar: The Thing from Venus isn’t as awful as I’m making it sound. I wanted to watch a crappy Creature Feature, and I did. Zontar delivered on that level, at least. 5/10.

2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy, 2012). A sequel to 2 Days in Paris (which I haven’t seen). Julie Delpy seems to have grown on me: I liked her in Before Sunrise, loved her in Before Sunset, and brought that love to the table when watching this film. Which is one way of saying I’m ready to forgive her a lot. Not that she needs my forgiveness; 2 Days in New York is a fine comedy. I’m not sure why I liked it, considering how rarely I “get” modern comedies. It had plenty of the things that are required in these kinds of movies: humor both smart and infantile, fart jokes, lots of talk about sex. But it’s not like those other movies. Some have compared Delby’s work here (she directed and co-wrote as well as starred) to Woody Allen’s, and I can see that. Maybe it’s because half of the film is in French, but it has a slightly classy sheen compared to something like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I don’t know. I suspect when I look back on this film five years from now, it will seem rather slight, but in the afterglow of seeing it, I’d call it quite charming. 7/10.

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997). 9/10.

totally biased

FX has a new comedy series, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and the first two episodes have come and gone. (Well, in the day of endless, quick reruns, DVRs, and On Demand, nothing is really gone.)

The most obvious comparison would be to The Chappelle Show: African-American comedian hosts a half hour of skits and a guest. But the more accurate comparison would be The Daily Show: comedian address the issues of the day, and a guest. The first episodes have included pieces on Gabby Douglas, New York City’s Stop and Frisk program, the Presidential race, and even the Sikh temple killings. The guests have been the show’s producer, Chris Rock, and Rachel Maddow. Like any such show, the segments are hit-and-miss, but the hits are impressive. There are only six episodes scheduled, which is barely enough time for Bell to establish a rhythm. As many have noted, Totally Biased might work better as a nightly, rather than a weekly, show. So consider these six weeks as a dry run, and check them out. Grade so far: B, but anticipating improvement.