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the fall

Much is made these days of binge-watching. Most of the discussion focuses on Netflix, although there are other outlets for the practice of watching entire seasons of television series in a short period of time. I’m not a big fan of binge-watching … the only recent occasion when I did it was probably Orange Is the New Black. What I end up doing is watching in a piecemeal fashion rather than all at once. It’s a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind … I can easily see what recent episodes are waiting on my DVR, but it takes a bit of work to switch over to Netflix. Not a lot of work, but enough that I often forget to bother. Take House of Cards, a fine Netflix show that won three Emmys for its first season. We still haven’t seen a handful of episodes. It’s as if the ability to watch all of the episodes at once removes the urgency. I’ll watch a series week to week, and I don’t miss episodes because I want to keep up. But House of Cards? It will still be there tomorrow. The very thing that makes it possible to watch the entire season at once ends up allowing me to get “behind” without concern.

And so, The Fall. It’s a BBC production that was a great success in the UK, five episodes long but with a second season approved. The U.S. rights were grabbed by Netflix, where you can binge-watch the five episodes in one longish evening if you’d like.

But we fell into the slow eating routine, spreading out those five episodes for so long I forget the length. This meant that each time we watched a new episode, we had to remember what had happened before (and “previously on” didn’t fulfill our needs). Which is all a way to explain that I’m not doing the series justice.

Having said all of that, I liked The Fall quite a bit. On the surface, it’s just another procedural with a serial killer, which isn’t my cup of tea in the first place. What raises The Fall is the care taken to establish characters, and the manner in which life in Belfast is integrated into the narrative with restraint. That, and the acting, mostly by actors about whom I know nothing. Well, Archie Panjabi shows up, and while I don’t remember seeing him in anything, Jamie Dornan has been in the news lately after being cast in the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey. The star power behind The Fall, though, lies with Gillian Anderson as the detective in charge of the case. I’ve never developed an opinion about Anderson, since I didn’t watch X-Files. She is excellent here, underplaying in a way that is appreciated when compared to contemporaries like Claire Danes in Homeland and Diane Kruger in The Bridge (both of them are also excellent, but in a far more showy fashion). Anderson’s Detective Gibson is a bit like Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison … although in this show, office sexism is mostly hidden, Gibson makes explicit connections between the acts of the serial killer and misogyny (as if the sexism had moved from the office to the outside world). Anderson does a fine job of delineating Gibson’s intelligence. It’s a performance that simmers without often boiling over.

There are a lot of these small, fine dramas on television these days. Mo Ryan gave a nice list when urging us to watch The Returned, a French series which begins soon in the States on Sundance: Top of the Lake, Rectify, Broadchurch, The Fall. Top of the Lake was probably the closest of these to The Fall, although I thought it reached a higher level. Both have prominent actresses in lead roles as a detective (Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake). Moss’s character had more depth than Anderson’s, and that show, helmed by Jane Campion, made marvelous use of its New Zealand setting. Broadchurch did more to put us inside the community where the events took place than does The Fall. But all of these series have their own strengths, and all of them are very good. To put it in modern terms, all are worthy of a binge-watch session. Grade for The Fall: A-.


lou reed and me

I don’t have an overarching theme here. Others have already done a great job of explaining his importance. All I can do is walk through some of the times in my life when Lou Reed was there.

Starting with The Velvet Underground and Nico, or, as most people I knew called it, “The Banana Album”. The legend is that this first VU album bombed (except for all those cool influential people who were inspired to form bands, of course), and that the Velvets were the antithesis of the San Francisco Sound and thus, unwelcome around these parts. I don’t know about the latter … I do know they played lots of concerts in the Bay Area. But the chronology, and how it matched with my own, means that in my world, the Banana Album was not a bomb at all. In February of 1967, Larry Miller got a gig as a DJ for a foreign-language FM station, KMPX. The Velvet Underground and Nico came out in March. Tom Donahue famously moved in to KMPX, and by the time the Summer of Love was in full swing, KMPX had become a full-time free-form station. I can’t say for a fact that KMPX played that VU album, but where else did I hear it? Maybe my brother had a copy? This is what I can say for what passes for fact in my memory: that first album was popular to me, my friends knew of that album, and, in my narrow, solipsistic mind, anything that was popular with me and my friends was by definition mainstream. Thus, I had no idea that most of the world paid the Velvets no attention.

And, being a sappy teenage romantic (I turned 14 that summer), I found “Heroin” to be the key to everything. I had no personal experience with the drug … still don’t, although I’ve had enough morphine to at least get the idea … I just loved the song, especially the growing cacophony as the song neared its end. And the lyrics hit home … “I guess that I just don’t know”, but also “thank God that I'm good as dead, thank your God that I'm not aware, and thank God that I just don't care.” If “Heroin” really did make people want to go out and shoot up, which I doubt … well, in my case, it was those last lines that were most appealing.

Move ahead to 1970-1. Loaded came out, but I don’t recall it making an impression. What did make an impression, a couple of years after its release, was White Light/White Heat, which entered our record collection when my brother found it in a garbage bin. I suppose that’s appropriate. Now I was up to VU album #2, albeit slightly late. It was very hard to ignore “Sister Ray”. (My love for “I Heard Her Call My Name” was solidified later in my life.)

My Lou Reed obsession began in the early 70s. “Walk on the Wild Side”, of course, but the first Lou Reed albums I bought were Berlin, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, and Sally Can’t Dance. I’d begun working in the factory by then, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal was very popular with the younger steelworkers, thanks to the guitar tandem of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. I played that one more than the others, thought Berlin was tragic in a good way, and probably didn’t realize that Sally Can’t Dance was a step down.

All of this led to my first Lou Reed concert, at Winterland in November of ‘74. Robin was pregnant with our first kid, and the air got to be a bit much for her … she went into the lobby area and found an open window, went to breathe in some freshness, and instead found some recently-deposited barf. Arthur Lee and Love were among the opening acts … I remember Lee performing his classic anti-drug song, “Signed D.C.” to an unimpressed crowd anxious to see the Rock and Roll Animal … at one point, Lee said, “this is 1966!”, as if he wanted the people to know he’d been there when Lou had been there. (My life with Love would make a good post on its own … I owned and loved their first two albums, i.e. I liked them pre-Forever Changes.)

Finally, Lou came out. Hunter and Wagner were long gone … the band was fine, but this wasn’t Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, this was a freak show. Lou simulated tying off and shooting up during “Heroin” … the crowd screamed in delight. That might have been the first time I considered how “Heroin” was a complex song that elicited unexpected responses. Thus went the Sally Can’t Dance tour.

We saw him several times over the years. Coney Island Baby was my favorite of his albums from those years, and I’ll argue with anyone who doesn’t agree with me that the end of “Coney Island Baby”, where Lou’s voice breaks as he says, “man, I swear, I’d give the whole thing up for you”, was the finest moment of his solo career. I went to the Rock and Roll Heart tour … the stage was full of TVs, and he played “Banging on My Drum” for what seemed like an hour. (If you know the song, you’ll appreciate the irony.)

Then came Street Hassle, and suddenly it was cool once again to be a Lou Reed fan. For he had delivered a Masterpiece ™. Looking back, it’s no masterpiece, but that’s easy to forgive, given that the title song is in the Lou Reed pantheon. “Street Hassle” encompasses much of what I loved about Lou and the Velvets, the way the softer parts were well-earned because of the harshness that surrounded them. There were passages where the lyrics were startling in their unsparing look at humanity, but there was also the final section, with Reed begging in his best R&B voice that his love won’t slip away. And there were these words, arguably Reed’s most quoted lyrics:

You know, some people got no choice
And they can never find a voice
To talk with that they can even call their own
So the first thing that they see
That allows them the right to be
Why they follow it, you know, it's called bad luck.

I was halfway through my decade working in a factory, and those words had enormous resonance for me.

The Blue Mask finalized Reed’s canonization as a reputable icon. Even Robert Christgau, who so famously irritated Reed with his low grades for Lou’s solo work, gave it an “A” (as he did for the next two studio albums). Now it was “Waves of Fear” that carried the resonance:

Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw
What's that funny noise, what's that on the floor
Waves of fear, pulsing with death
I curse at my tremors, I jump at my own step
I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell
I know where I must be, I must be in hell

There are two things about Lou Reed’s career I regret: that I never saw the Velvet Underground, and that for all the times we saw him live, I never saw the “Robert Quine” band, which was the greatest Reed ever had as a solo artist. (Happily, we saw bass player extraordinaire Fernando Saunders more than once.)

He was playing clubs a lot by then, and we got to sit up against the stage … one time, my wife made her famous observation that Lou Reed’s hands looked like her grandfather’s. The last time we saw him was on the New York tour, and I admit, in my personal experience, the 70s albums mattered more to me than New York. Not to mention the earlier 80s … New Sensations, like Coney Island Baby, was a favorite of mine, reminding me of what had become my favorite Velvets album over time, the self-titled third one with “Pale Blue Eyes”.

I never quit paying attention to him, and I was still buying all of his albums … those were the days when I still bought albums … I know that the 18-minute “Like a Possum” on Ecstasy impressed me, although I don’t listen to it now as often as I do “Sister Ray”.

I’m not sure what the point of all this is. I’m trying to show, by anecdote, that Lou Reed was an important part of my life since back in 1967. I wanted to admit to my obsession … I wasn’t as good about keeping track of these things in those days, but I think the only people I’ve seen live more often than I saw Lou Reed are Bruce Springsteen and Sleater-Kinney, neither of whom were anywhere near my radar in 1967 (OK, Janet was the only person in S-K who was even born yet in 1967, and she was two years old at the time). I wanted to “prove” my devotion by declaring my love for Coney Island Baby and “Temporary Thing”, from the mid-70s when Lou Reed supposedly sucked. I wanted a chance to say the words “Velvet Underground”, because they are my favorite band of all time, and even if I was just a suburban geek, I was “there” with them in spirit all the way back in ‘67. I wanted to make public, among all the amazing tributes paid to Lou Reed over the past few days, the ways in which this death matters to me more than most do.


what i watched last week

Killers Three (Bruce Kessler, 1968). This movie sucks, but it makes for great post-viewing trivia. The most obvious item is that the movie was produced for American International by Dick Clark, who also was one of the people who came up with the story, and who also co-starred as one of the Three. It was directed by Bruce Kessler, who may be the only person in history to get the following description on Wikipedia: “Bruce Kessler … is an American racing driver and film and television director.” He spoke with James Dean on the day of Dean’s death. And, as if the Formula One racing wasn’t enough, Wikipedia also tells us “Kessler was also a world class skeet and trap shooter.” The male lead was Robert Walker, Jr., son of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones (he once said, “I would like to develop as an actor in obscurity.”) The female lead was Diane Varsi, who earlier that year had been so charming in Wild in the Streets. Varsi only appeared in eleven movies, starting with Peyton Place, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She took eight years off from 1959-67, and made her last movie, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, fifteen years before her death. But that’s not all! There is a country music soundtrack (it takes place in North Carolina in the late-40s and tells the story of bootlegging, among other things). At one point, there’s a party at which Bonnie Owens (ex-wife of Buck Owens and, at that time, wife of Merle Haggard) performs. Oh, and speaking of Hag, he has a small part as Diane Varsi’s brother. And he sings. His songs are the ones that fill the soundtrack, and it’s very unfortunate, because those songs consist entirely of Hag re-telling the events of the movie up to that point (“They drove all day and night, California seemed so far. Now the law is closing in, and they’re looking for their car”). The theme song is “Mama Tried”, which had been released earlier that year. The movie is a rip-off of Bonnie and Clyde, minus the artfulness of Arthur Penn, the excellence of the screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton, the editing greatness of Dede Allen, the cinematography of Burnett Guffey, the wonderful acting by Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman and the rest (Dick Clark is no Michael J. Pollard), and the beguiling charisma of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. 4/10, of which 1 is for the movie and 3 is for the trivia.

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012). Practically everything goes right in this one. Spielberg mostly avoids the overwrought heart-tugging that affects even some of his best movies. The script by Tony Kushner is a marvel that manages to simultaneously walk the viewer through complex political machinations and offer vibrant characters (who are acted by a retinue of actors who must have been overjoyed to have such fine material). The movie has the look of the mid-19th century (as if I knew what that is), which I’m guessing is largely the work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. And Daniel Day-Lewis does something I admit I didn’t expect. I think of Day-Lewis as a showy actor in the Meryl Streep mode, but he buries himself inside Lincoln, and fulfills the cliché of forgetting it’s an actor and believing you are watching the actual Lincoln. In truth, I was surprised by a lot of things in this movie, mostly because as usual, I studiously avoided knowing much about it in advance. It’s not an action picture, it’s not a hagiography … no, it’s a political thriller, something like House of Cards only a lot better. Lincoln resorts to political scheming when necessary to achieve his goals, yet this doesn’t make him less appealing … in fact, it makes him seem more real, which is a hard thing to do with a character so embedded in the public mind. #163 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. I originally thought this was 9/10, but a conversation I had with a friend reminded me that while all of the above is true, the film is successful in part because it narrows its focus by excluding social movements that mattered to the story. It also mostly excluded black people. So, 8/10.

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981). A movie that encapsulates most of what defines De Palma for both his champions and his detractors. His command of the medium is exquisite, his ability to extract a desired response from the audience is superb. And his misogyny … well, here it is, there’s no use denying it. Nancy Allen’s character is a charmingly dim blonde … Allen makes the most of the part, she’s very good, and it’s not her fault that her then-husband De Palma never really lets her climb out of her dimness. I like this movie a lot, but I feel kinda dirty about it. #856 on the TSPDT top 1000. 7/10.


what ann powers taught me about lou reed

Ann Powers has been a favorite of mine since the days of her weekly column in the SF Weekly, and I was proud to get to know her when we were both in the English graduate program at Cal. Her resume since those days is astonishing … she’s written for the New York Times, was an editor at the Village Voice, worked at the Experience Music Project, took over from Robert Hilburn at the Los Angeles Times as chief pop critic, wrote, co-wrote, and edited several books, had a daughter with her husband Eric, and now she writes for NPR.

Over these years, she has become a master of a very difficult genre, the obituary. For one thing, I’m always amazed that she can get them out so soon after someone’s death, and still do justice to her subject. She brings everything she knows and has experienced to these pieces, and she’s so good, I always look to her first when someone dies. It’s a thankless task, writing those pieces, but we are all grateful that she does it so well.

I got a text from my son this morning while I was sleeping, asking if I was going to write about Lou Reed. I hadn’t heard the news, although that text told me everything before I even looked up the details. There may be a time when I’ll talk about Lou Reed and my relationship to his work … some of it exists already in the depths of this blog. (Coincidentally, the first time we saw Lou in concert, Robin was pregnant with our son-to-be.) And I, too, have written more than a few obituaries that have been well-received.

But for now, there is no need to go further than Ann’s piece for NPR, “What Lou Reed Taught Me”. Check it out.

Listening to Street Hassle, with its songs about feelings no one would ever want to admit, with titles like "Dirt" and "Leave Me Alone," I slowly realized what most of the punk or New Wave rock I loved so much rarely gave me. Clarity! Most music was too earnest, too clever, too deliberately gorgeous or bloody exciting to require what Reed's demanded, which was that a listener sit with the ugliness of a moment and really grasp the fatal mistakes and collapses that go hand-in-hand with the risks that bring humans to life.

Here we are in what seems like another lifetime: our daughter Sara, Robin, me, and our son, Neal. I am wearing a T-shirt Robin made me. Within the red heart, it reads “Coney Island Baby”. If memory serves, on the back it said “The Glory of Love”.

1978


music friday: bob dylan, "the lonesome death of hattie carroll"

Where is the true story? I had a hard time hunting this down, until I realized that it came in the afterword to a second edition of a book that I only owned the first edition of (what a crappy sentence that was). Bill James wrote of William Zantzinger:

He went into the real estate business, wound up renting inexpensive housing mostly to black people. A young woman who worked as a housing advocate for the poor, many years later, was astonished to discover that Zantzinger – then facing charges for housing code violations, charges which eventually landed him in jail for longer than the death of Hattie Carroll – was actually a likeable and decent man who was just trying to do what he could to help poor people find housing that they could afford. It is always best, I think, to remember that wickedness is human. (Popular Crime, 473-4)

Wikipedia tells us this version of the story:

In addition to federal tax delinquencies, Zantzinger fell more than $18,000 behind on county taxes on properties he owned in two Charles County communities called Patuxent Woods and Indian Head, shanties he leased to poor blacks. In 1986, the same year the IRS ruled against him, Charles County confiscated those properties. Nonetheless, Zantzinger continued to collect rents, raise rents, and even successfully prosecute his putative tenants for back rent. In June 1991, Zantzinger was initially charged with a single count of "deceptive trade practices." After some delay, Zantzinger pleaded guilty to 50 misdemeanor counts of unfair and deceptive trade practices. He was sentenced to 19 months in prison and a $50,000 fine. Some of his prison sentence was served in a work release program.

In 2004, Ian Frazier wrote a detailed article on the song and the case for Mother Jones. It’s worth reading the entire piece … I’m doing it an injustice by excerpting, as he interviews several key witnesses of the time. Here he discusses the song itself:

The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator's name, omitting the t—perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasize the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the zs. Zantzinger's actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the song lets on. Police arrested Zantzinger at the ball for disorderly conduct—he was wildly drunk—and for assaults on hotel employees not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing at the time. When Hattie Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical examiner reported that Hattie Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain hemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger's verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that, and of assault, but not of murder.

And here he addresses Zantzinger’s later property dealings:

In 1986, because of the back taxes, the county took possession of some ramshackle rental houses he owned in a neighborhood called Patuxent Woods. What Zantzinger did next got his name back in the news. He knew that the county now owned the properties, but that the renters, all poor and black, did not know. Counting on a lack of attention all around, he simply went on collecting rents as before. Even more enterprising, when tenants fell behind on their rent, he filed complaints against them and took them to court for not paying him rent on property he no longer owned. The county court, in calm and bureaucratic ignorance, heard the cases. And to put the cap on it, he won.

And, in what is perhaps the source for James’ comments, former housing activist Candice Quinn Kelly says, “I feel strange saying this, but Billy Zantzinger is really a very nice man.”

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” appeared on The Times They Are a-Changin’, which mostly marked the end of his protest-song days. His next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, was more “personal”. More than a decade later, on the album Desire, he included the songs “Hurricane”, about the imprisoned former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and “Joey”, about the gangster Joey Gallo. Both were “protest” songs, but something had changed since the mid-60s. Regardless of the accuracy of the songs’ presentation of the actual events, Dylan’s sympathies lie in an interesting place, as Robert Christgau noted at the time: “These are not protest songs, folks, not in the little-people tradition of "Hattie Carroll"; their beneficiaries are (theoretically) wronged heroes, oppressed overdogs not unlike our beleaguered superstar himself.”

Dylan in 1965: http://youtu.be/8C16SpTNbKY

Dylan in 1975: http://youtu.be/IAvPvll0iVI

Phranc: http://youtu.be/ffYkF1Ds8ng


i was combing my hair, man

Grantland has posted an oral history of the 1989 World Series, famous as the Earthquake series, although Bay Area fans also remember it as the only time the two local teams met in the Series (and A’s fans remember the sweep with some pleasure, while Giants fans are a bit embarrassed by it).

It hits home for me because I was at Candlestick for Game Three. Everyone has their earthquake story, and I’ve posted mine here before, I’m sure. In brief: I still remember the steel railing in front of me warping like it was made of silly putty. I remember seeing Jack Buck shortly afterwards … the look in his face was “I’m 65 years old, I don’t need this shit any more”. I remember the roar from the crowd when the quake had passed, as if it was an omen from the gods that the Giants had nature on their side. And I remember someone saying “the Bay Bridge is broken” and not knowing what that meant until someone with a handheld TV showed us the live footage.

The oral history is fascinating because it records the reactions of a good cross-section: players, of course, and other associates of the teams, the media, and fans in attendance.

Read the whole thing, but here are a couple of excerpts I liked:

Dennis Eckersley on the A’s attitude: “We were supposed to win. You know what I mean? We had a team not necessarily of cocky guys, but a lot of confident guys. Rickey and the Bash Brothers doing their thing. Me pointing at batters and shit like that. I could see how it would be interpreted.”

Eck on where he was when the quake hit: “I was in the bathroom. I was combing my hair, man.”

Candy Maldonado: “It felt like if you're surfing, like you're in a wave, and I felt myself elevating.”

The post-quake reaction … Mike LaCoss: “I'll never forget the noise. After I opened the door to the dugout, 60,000 people were standing on their feet.” Matt Williams: “Sixty thousand–plus people started chanting, ‘We will, we will, rock you!’” Jorge Costa, VP of stadium operations: “Some fan writes on a sign, ‘If you think that's something, wait until the Giants come to bat.’ I still remember that.”

On news of the Bay Bridge: Ray Ratto: “People had radios, and you could hear tidbits of the news broadcasts. ‘The Bay Bridge has collapsed … the fires in the Marina.’ This was about five minutes after the earthquake. I was going, ‘Holy crap, the rest of the world has blown up.’” George Thurlow, fan, upper deck: “The mood of the crowd was jubilant and excited and Wow, that was cool until the first radio announcements began. The first one that I have written down was, ‘The Bay Bridge is down.’” A’s VP Andy Dolich: “They didn't say a piece collapsed. It was, ‘The Bay Bridge collapsed.’ You can only think, Oh my god, this is a horror movie coming true.”

This is my favorite. During the break between games, the A’s went to Arizona to keep in game shape. Tony LaRussa thought it would be a good idea to have the A’s pitchers on the mound against the A’s hitters:

Dave Henderson: We all hated Eckersley because he was basically a dick on the mound. I'd faced the guy for 10 years and he was a dick before. The only reason we let him live was because he was on our team.

A’s GM Sandy Alderson: During that game, I think Eckersley drilled Canseco. He took a free shot at him.

Eckersley: Jose comes up to bat and he's pointing to center like Babe Ruth. The first pitch, I drilled Canseco in the back. I dunno, I guess I just got jacked up and threw as hard as I could. Jose's coming to the mound and he's pissed. Finally, everything cools down. It was a strange moment.

Dave Henderson: After it was all over, Canseco comes to me and says, "Hey, Hendu, you think Eckersley hit me on purpose?" I'm like, "You idiot. He's only walked three guys the whole year!"

And when Game Three was finally played:

Giants VP Corey Busch: We had the cast of Beach Blanket Babylon, the long-running musical, and they sang the song "San Francisco." The whole crowd sang it.

Giants VP Pat Gallagher: It was almost like people standing at church and holding hands and singing. People were collectively dealing with whatever feelings they had.

Giants athletic trainer Mark Letendre: The singing of the "San Francisco" song [pause] ... I can hear it and I just tear up.

And the video of ABC, showing what the nation saw:


what i watched last week

You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937). An early example of the “Bonnie and Clyde” story, fictionalized into “Joan and Eddie”. The beginning is a bit awkward, and the final seconds are absurd, but in between, You Only Live Once is a top-notch social melodrama. Henry Fonda plays Eddie with a dark edge he didn’t often utilize, and Sylvia Sidney recovers from the beginning to make us believe in her Joan. The message is that society made them criminals, and while the logic is a bit muddled, Lang does make us root for the duo. They get stuck in something beyond their control, which also happens in Bonnie and Clyde, but in that movie, you can tell that they get off on their crime spree. Eddie and Joan never enjoy that part of their lives.  #973 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982). This is a request from Jeff Pike, which means it deserves its own post, but I’ve gotten caught up in a couple of other things and never managed to write anything, so I’ll stick it here. Dustin Hoffman usually makes us very aware that he is acting … he’s not what I’d call a “natural” actor. You suspect he’s a bit like his character in this movie. Like that character, Hoffman is able to open up within the structure of playing an actress (the irascible actor in drag) who plays a character on a soap. He is still “acting”, but it makes sense with this role, since much of the time, his character is “acting” as well. The result is a Dustin Hoffman that is likable, not a trait I normally associate with him. He’d have won the Oscar in another year, but they were intent on rewarding Ben Kingsley for playing Gandhi. Instead, the film’s only Oscar went to Jessica Lange, who beat Teri Garr among others for Supporting Actress (it received 10 nominations). Gandhi won the most Oscars that year, twice as many as E.T., which is nonsense, but that was a particularly poor year for Oscar: The Long Good Friday didn’t get a single nomination, Fanny and Alexander didn’t qualify for Oscars until two years later (when it won four), and did I mention E.T.? In such company, Tootsie is a bit thin … I preferred all of those movies I just listed. But you could say it benefits a bit from that thinness, since it lacks the overbearing importance of Gandhi, and is a better movie for it. #440 on the TSPDT list. 7/10.


he never ate his vegetables 'cause they were just too darn chewy

We were listening to Robin’s Pandora station this morning, and Randy Newman’s “It’s Money That I Love” came up. It was the 2003 version from Songbook, with just Randy and his piano. This is a live video, but it’s similarly stripped down:

You could tell from the first few bars of the piano that it was Randy Newman. This was true even if you didn’t know the particular song, and it was true before his recognizable voice arrived. Of course, if you didn’t know any Randy Newman, it meant nothing, but I was intrigued by the fact that a few notes on a piano were so easily identified. A piano is a piano … OK, there are many kinds of piano, but a traditional piano is a traditional piano. So how come we can tell it’s Randy Newman?

Here’s someone offering a tutorial on how to play it. First, slow:

Then, sped up:

Robin said it was like the story you hear about how experienced Morse code operators can tell who is sending.

As we talked, Dr. John came on, and we laughed, because Dr. John has a very identifiable sound. I wondered if we heard Professor Longhair on piano, if we would think, “hey, it’s Dr. John!” For a recognizable style came in part from John’s  influences. In this instructional video, John imitates several New Orleans pianists … they all sound like Dr. John, or rather, Dr. John sounds like all of them. Yet on Pandora, we recognized the Doctor.

It’s not just piano. A John Prine song was obviously John Prine from the second he started singing. But you could read the lyrics, and if you knew his work, you’d say, “hey, it’s John Prine!” It was just a goof, “Safety Joe”, a bonus track on Fair & Square … I say “goof” because it’s casual even by Prine standards, with in-song laughter:

If you don't loosen up the buckle
On your heart and start to chuckle
You're gonna die of boredom
Safety Joe

He never ate his vegetables
'Cause they were just too darn chewy
And he never climbed much higher
Than the arch in old St. Louis

Joe gradually grew meaner
By not changin' his demeanor
But he never did nothin'
Too much for too long
Therefore his life never got much richer
Than the day they took that picture
In his birthday suit on the day that he was born.

The rhymes are “Prine-esque”. Buckle/chuckle, chewy/Louis, meaner/demeanor, richer/picture. The line “He never ate his vegetables ‘cause they were just too darn chewy” is also very Prine.

For some reason, I find it easier to understand what makes a lyric sound like John Prine, than to understand why I recognize Randy Newman’s piano.


music friday: concerts i've attended without robin smith

Two weeks ago, on Robin’s birthday, I listed artists we had seen together over the years. This list is a bit different: artists I have seen without Robin being present. They break down into a couple of periods, the years before we went to our first show together in 1974, and the post-punk era, with a Classic Rock act in the middle. Here goes:

Judy Collins, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”.  I went to my first concert on March 4, 1967, Judy Collins at the Berkeley Community Theater. She was touring behind In My Life. I was 13 years old.

Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”. In the Summer of Love, I went to my first rock concert: Chuck Berry, Eric Burdon & the Animals, and the Steve Miller Blues Band, at the Fillmore Auditorium. Miller and his band backed up Chuck, who later released an album from those shows, titled, oddly enough, Live at the Fillmore Auditorium. (Berry turned 87 today. When I saw him, he was only 40.)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Drunk Again”. Summer of 1968. Fillmore West, just around the time it opened (as Fillmore West … I think it was the Carousel before that). Also on the bill was Ten Years After, a couple of years before their Woodstock fame, and Fleetwood Mac when they were still Peter Green’s band. Butterfield and company are on the latest list of nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I wouldn’t vote for them … “East/West” belongs in the Hall all by itself, but that’s as far as I’d go. The version of the band I saw came long after Mike Bloomfield had left. “Drunk Again” showcases Elvin Bishop, who was still around.

Ike & Tina Turner, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. Late summer, 1971. Believe it or not, they were the opening act. B.B. King headlined.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra, “Meeting of the Spirits”. Spring, 1972, in a converted movie theater.

Rod Stewart, “I Was Only Joking”. Finally got around to seeing Rod at the end of 1977. I was only five years too late. A few weeks later, I saw The Sex Pistols.

The B-52’s, “Rock Lobster”. I could be wrong, but I think it was 1979, at Lower Sproul Plaza, lunchtime.

Gang of Four, “Damaged Goods”. 1980. Holy moly, they were great live.

U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. They were the opening act for the J. Geils Band.

English Beat, “Mirror in the Bathroom”. Also 1982, also an opening act, this time for The Clash.

Los Lobos, “Don’t Worry Baby”. We’re up to 1984. Also an opening act, also for The Clash (I saw a lot of great opening acts with The Clash).

New Order, “Blue Monday”. 1985. Not to be all whiny, but they didn’t play my beloved “Temptation” that night.

Hüsker Dü, “I Apologize”. I saw them a few times, I forget when or where, so I’ll go with 1985, when this video was taken. I never saw them open for The Clash … if they had, I might not have survived, but I would have died happy. This is my favorite of their many great songs, and it includes my favorite of their lyrics, oft-quoted (by me): “So now we sit around, we're staring at the walls. We don't do anything at all. Take out the garbage, maybe, BUT THE DISHES DON’T GET DONE!”

GG Allin, “Bite It You Scum”. Kesha’s Inn, I think 1989. I’m only going to say this once: don’t click on the link to the video. You’ve been warned. You’ve heard of NSFW? This is more like Not Safe for Humanity. You think I’m joking. You think, oh, Steven’s a nice guy, he’s just playing a joke. There may be a joke here, but if you don’t know anything about GG Allin, it won’t seem like a joke if you click on the link. Don’t blame me if you can’t resist.