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music friday: schlock

Jody Rosen has a piece on Vulture that is getting a lot of attention, titled “In Defense of Schlock Music: Why Journey, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie Are Better Than You Think.” I had an instant knee-jerk reaction, especially when Rosen spent the first four paragraphs talking about my bête noire, Journey. (Side note: I’m listening to a Spotify radio station of 1980s music while I write this, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” just came on. Do I give it a thumbs down?) But … it’s a great article, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t really argue with Rosen’s opinion that “there is no more flaming schlock purveyor than … Bruce Springsteen”.

Rosen adds a list of the 150 greatest schlock songs ever. Which leads to this week’s Music Friday: some of my favorites from Rosen’s list.

2. Prince and the Revolution, “Purple Rain”. Rosen reminds us of the importance of hot-shit geetar in power ballads.

11. Elvis Presley, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. There are so many to choose from out of the King’s massive catalog.

18. Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”. I never really thought of many of these songs as being “schlock”, but it’s possible I’m defining “schlock” as “I don’t like it”.

23. The Four Tops, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. For me, this really helps make Rosen’s case. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs, but Levi Stubbs’ singing and the track’s production are schlock. I get that, now. Just look over your shoulder.

27. Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”. “Jungleland” would be the more obvious choice. “Thunder Road” is the first song we saw Bruce perform in concert, back in 1975.

50. The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack”. Again, I might have gone for a different choice (“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”), but Rosen’s chosen a good one.

51. Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”. “There’s no mistaking a singer as forceful as Wynette for a doormat.”

65. Johnny Cash, “Hurt”. Not sure how this fits here, even with Rosen’s comments.

74. Katy Perry, “Roar”. I know why this is here.

78. Foreigner, “I Want to Know What Love Is”. Started with a power ballad, ended with a power ballad.

And, ah, what the heck … when I finally gave in:

if candlestick park had been a fish, you would have thrown it back

Tuesday night, Geoff, Nikki and I attended a soccer match between the USA Men’s National Team and Azerbaijan. It was held at Candlestick Park, which will thankfully be destroyed in the near future. Here’s a photo of us at the match:

steven geoff nikki usmnt 5-27-14

(Note the cold-weather gear for a match in late May.)

For this week’s Thursday, I take us back almost fifteen years, to Candlestick Park on September 30, 1999, when the Giants played their last game at that miserable dump:

l nikkigeoffsteven

(Note the warm-weather gear for a game in late September … Candlestick was funny that way.)

mad men, season seven midway break

There really isn’t much to say about Mad Men at this point. Probably the most noteworthy thing is that we are halfway through Season Seven, and the show is still running on all cylinders. The Sopranos lasted six seasons, The Wire lasted five, Deadwood only three. A few shows made it to seven: The Shield, which was fairly consistent over the years and featured one of the greatest finales of all time; Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which peaked in Season Three but was never less than good. But Mad Men has been one of the best shows on television every season, and that’s the definition of noteworthy in the modern world of long-form series.

As we await the final seven episodes, a few questions in particular come to mind. Will Don Draper finally progress beyond his general dickheadedness? There has always been a fear that Don would continue to repeat past mistakes, which might be realistic but which doesn’t make for very good episodes in the later seasons. But he had his fall, and is now giving hints that he might have seen a bit of the light. Peggy Olson has, from the start, been the female character most likely to grow over the decade, and that in fact is happening. It’s still up in the air whether she’ll be Just Another Don Draper, or will be able to be a whole person, both as a worker and off the job. Sally Draper isn’t a primary character, but her growth has been fascinating to watch. (I’m convinced that she was never meant to be anything other than marginal, but that Kiernan Shipka demonstrated from the start that she could handle whatever Matthew Weiner gave her … outside of Jon Hamm, I’d say Shipka will one day be seen as the breakout star of the show.)

It’s fun to see the show make it to 1969 … not just the moon landing, but Burger Chef (where I had the one and only fast-food job of my life). But it has always been apparent to anyone who looks beyond the surface that Mad Men can’t be reduced to a reconstruction of the 1960s. As Tim Goodman has insisted since the series began, the essence of Mad Men is the story of the existential crisis of its lead character. There are countless secondary characters, some of whom are important enough to be more than secondary. But this is a show about Don.

Some of those other characters have been more finely drawn than others. Peggy and Sally are great, but they never seemed to know what to do with January Jones as Betty, which is a lost opportunity. It remains hard to believe that closeted Sal Romano never returned … Bryan Batt was so good, and Sal’s character so interesting, that having him get fired to show how attitudes towards homosexuality stood at the time was a big mistake.

Having said that, there are so many characters in Mad Men that we still care about, and the possibility of another classic episode is always there, and did I mention, it’s Season Seven? Mad Men isn’t just great, it is historically great.

the americans, season two finale

Here’s a show that snuck up on people. Last season, I didn’t write about it. When I finally posted something, at the time of the Season Two premiere, I spent the first paragraph talking about how it had slipped through the cracks on the blog. Two commenters said they had it on their “one day I’ll get around to it” list. If you stepped outside the group of us who obsess enough about television to know what’s on from month to month, I imagine you’d find a lot of people who didn’t even know The Americans existed. And if you did know, it might only be for the seeming stunt casting of Keri Russell as the female lead.

Well, we were all wrong, including those of us who thought about watching it, and people like me who watched it and knew it was pretty good. Season One was a fine start, and gave hope for something better to come. In Season Two, that something better arrived, in the process placing The Americans among the top tier of current programs.

Even then, it has taken me a week to write about the season finale. This show doesn’t get much respect. I’m going to start respecting it, right here and now.

First, in my ongoing efforts to try and say something about the filmmaking in shows, The Americans looks more like a movie than your average TV series. Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that, but between its setting during the early-80s Cold War and its clear recall of the paranoid films of the 70s, The Americans makes you remember movies, largely without nostalgia. Compare this to Mad Men, which is one of the all-time great shows and which has its own “filmmaking” merits, but which recall 1960s television more than it does movies.

The Americans is intriguing partly because it takes a fairly standard plot and turns it on its side. You have two parents, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, who are spies, which is a secret to their kids, their neighbors, to everyone except other people working with them. The difference is, it’s the Cold War, and the parents are Russians, deep undercover as Americans. Even that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, except we in the audience tend to identify with the parents, who are the main characters and who are played by Felicity and Matthew Rhys, and even in 2014 it feels funny for those of us over a certain age to be rooting for the “wrong” side. But The Americans doesn’t take the easy route. This isn’t a case of the two leads also being the heroes, it isn’t a case of revisionist history where the Russians are the good guys. Instead, we see that both the Americans and the Russians are ruthlessly committed to the Cold War, with neither side being “right”. With historical perspective, a lot of the global politics seem a bit quaint to us … we know what will happen to the Soviet Union, we know that some of the intrigue over technology is a dead end. There are some stereotypes … the Soviet leaders seem faceless (although the operatives on the ground are quite real), America is represented by the smiling face of Ronald Reagan. But Reagan is used in an interesting way: we see him mostly from the point of view of the Russian spies, who think of him as an evil man out to destroy everything that is good.

What makes this startling, what lifts The Americans above its basics, is that we see many sides of each issue, which leads, among other things, to the aforementioned identifying with the Russian spies more often than not. You don’t need to think Reagan was evil to fall into this identification process. You just need to appreciate the perspective of the lead characters. Who happen to be Russian spies who lies, cheat, and murder in the name of The Cause.

Yet I haven’t really gotten to the core of The Americans. The creator of The Americans, Joe Weisberg, is a former CIA officer, who said, “The most interesting thing I observed during my time at the CIA was the family life of agents who served abroad with kids and spouses. … The thing people are going to care about is this couple and whether or not they make it. We already know how the Cold War ends. Nobody knows how this marriage will end. Plus, deep down I’m more interested in marriage than espionage.”

And the marriage and family life of the Jennings is as confused as it should be, if you consider the circumstances. The parents aren’t “really” married at all … they were chosen in the USSR to be a spy team. (In fairness, there is some vagueness about their actual marital status, and they at least pretend to be legitimately married.) The husband gets married to another woman who is a secretary at the FBI, in order to use her to get information. Both husband and wife regularly have sex with other people to advance The Cause. Their romantic feelings for each other were irrelevant to their being chosen for this job, and at the beginning of the series, those feelings are only just coming to the surface, although they have two kids in the pre-teen/teen age. They make halting steps towards a “real” romantic coupling, but their situation means they must always accept actions outside the specifics of their marriage.

They are both devoted to their kids, yet they are keeping a huge secret from the children. Season Two really stepped forward in this regard, as they saw what happened to a similar family and realized their children were in danger because of the work of the parents. Teenager Paige is testing out new possibilities, as teenagers will, and she has vague suspicions of the odd lives of her parents. She rebels, they fight back the way protective parents will. (Part of this process that plays almost like comedy comes when Paige hooks up with a church with slight left-wing tendencies. Elizabeth in particular is revolted by this development … how can their daughter fall victim to the opiate of the masses?)

It’s an ordinary family drama, with parents who keep some things from the kids, with kids who rebel, with neither side really understanding the other. Except Mom and Dad are Russian spies. And anyone who has had teenage kids can’t help but identify with Mom and Dad the Russian spies.

The Season Two finale sets up a potentially gripping Season Three … you won’t get spoilers here, but as with much of The Americans, the root of things lies in The Cause, while the manifestation will come in the family.

Through all of this, The Americans does a fine job with the suspense angle of all of these people acting in secret, always in danger of being found out. That suspense is built into the foundation of the series, and we are never allowed to forget it.

When I finally got around to giving a grade, I assigned an A- for the Season Two premiere. Things have only gotten better. Grade for Season Two finale: A. Grade for Season Two: A. And while I often have a pessimistic feeling about future seasons of shows, my prediction for Season Three: A. Hunt this show down; it’s well worth it.

what i watched last week

Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983). I wanted to watch one of Gordon Willis’ movies after reading that he had died, and figured it was too soon to watch the Godfathers again. I chose Zelig, one of two movies that won Willis an Oscar nomination. It wasn’t the best choice … I’ve made my opinion about Zelig known in the past (“Zelig the character disappears from everyday life, and Zelig the movie pretty much disappears from the screen”). I don’t know that I’d change my opinion, but it was refreshing looking at the technical aspects of blending Zelig into history. Willis once said, “There was a point when I thought we were never going to finish, a point when I thought I was going to go nuts. I have never worked so hard at making something difficult look so simple.” Allen is trying to say something about celebrity, but for the most part, I think his intellectual ambitions for the movie are overwhelmed by the wonder of what we see on the screen. 6/10. What to watch alongside Zelig? I’d say Forrest Gump, but I hate that movie.

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966). This is definitely on the list of I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Seen It movies, if for no other reason than I’ve had to listen to endless comparisons to Performance where that favorite of mine comes out second-best. Yes, the two movies have some similarities, but not worth too much analysis … you’d do better comparing The Last House on the Left to The Virgin Spring. Persona is reminiscent of more recent films I didn’t like, so I’m a bit puzzled why I found it so affecting. I don’t think it helps to try and literalize the narrative, nor do I think you need to “solve” the movie’s puzzles (even though these are the kinds of things I complain about in movies like Mulholland Drive). The work of Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson is so exquisite, together and separately, that I think I could have watched them for another hour and a half. I was more willing than I usually am to let the film wash over me. I understand that the chronology is Persona/Performance, but I came at them in backwards order, so for me, Ullman plays the Mick Jagger role and Andersson is James Fox. Except the matchups don’t really work, and I need to quit thinking of the two films in tandem. I don’t normally think of myself as a big fan of Bergman’s, but the proof’s in the pudding. I’ve given my highest ratings to The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night, and if I’m not quite ready to place Persona up with those two, I’m still willing to guess that a later viewing will convince me it deserves that place. Until then, I’ll match it with Fanny and Alexander, pretty good company itself, and say 9/10. #24 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 1000 greatest films of all time … that’s right, #24. Watch it with Performance, why not?

Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). The MovieLens website tells me that, prior to this viewing, Schindler’s List was the “most often rated movie” that I hadn’t seen. I interpret this to mean that Schindler’s List was the #1 “I Can’t Believe You’ve Never Seen It” movie (even more than Persona). (Dances with Wolves now takes over at #1 in this category.) I’m a fan of Spielberg … I know he makes bad movies along with good ones, but I think highly of the good ones (I’ve given my highest 10/10 rating to four of his films, and at least 8/10 to ten movies). Schindler’s List comes close to Spielberg’s peak, and he clearly gave his all to the project. He uses his narrative skills to tell a story of Jews and Nazis, his recreations of Poland are awful and accurate, and he gets some good acting, notably from Ralph Fiennes. In many ways, it’s pointless to pick at places where the film doesn’t quite succeed. Liam Neeson himself has said he didn’t like his performance, and while Spielberg mostly avoids the overdone sentimentalism that often derails his films, things do get a bit sticky at the end. On the other hand, I can’t blame him for seeing a sliver of hope in such a dark history. #302 on the TSPDT list. 9/10. The obvious companion is Shoah, although that’s asking for a big commitment.

The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940). 10/10.

blu-ray series #12: the great dictator (charles chaplin, 1940)

Obscure classics delight new viewers not only because they are great, but because they introduce the newcomers to so many things they have never seen before. The Great Dictator is not obscure. You never know what people are watching in 2014, but at least two scenes in The Great Dictator have gone beyond film lore to cultural touchstones, such that even a newcomer to the film will recognize them.

Adenoid Hynkel dancing with a globe is one of them:

There is some disagreement about basic facts surrounding the making of the film. I’m not sure if they matter. One question is how much Chaplin knew about the true ugly details of Nazism. He later said if he had known the extent of Hitler’s ignominy, he wouldn’t have been able to make fun of the man. I’d say the film would have been made regardless, and scenes like the globe dance demonstrate why. Chaplin manages to display the dictator’s megalomania while acting gracefully to music by Wagner, a combination of artistry with moral outrage, a joy to behold even as its message is clear.

Chaplin offers a far more explicit, less “artistic” message at the film’s conclusion, in another scene that still lives, even for those who have not seen the movie:

Chaplin begins the scene as a Jewish barber impersonating a dictator. As he speaks, the dictator falls away, leaving the barber. Gradually, even the barber disappears, and Chaplin stands alone, the master of silent film speaking with his true voice. This transformation makes no literal sense, and there are many who think the speech has a tacked-on feel, that it doesn’t belong. But it is here that Chaplin comes to terms with his art. You could say he loses confidence in his audience … maybe they didn’t get the subtleties of the globe dance. He speaks directly to the camera, to the crowd in the theater, and perhaps because of the subject matter, he largely avoids the sentimentalism that has always been my least favorite part of his work.  If his words seem a bit naïve, well, Hollywood wasn’t exactly beating the drums against the Nazis in 1940. (The Three Stooges made the first explicit anti-Nazi film, a short titled You Nazty Spy!, a few months earlier.) On the screen, Chaplin’s speech inspires the soldiers, and we see a shot of thousands of them cheering. It looks like stock footage of a Nazi rally, and again I think Chaplin is commenting on his position as a popular artist: the words here might be close to Chaplin’s heart, the earlier speech by Hynkel might be largely gibberish, but the result of Chaplin’s call to action isn’t markedly different from the speech of any effective dictator. The soldiers aren’t cheering for ideas; they are cheering for the speaker.

#163 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10. One of the best things about the film is the presence of Paulette Goddard. She is even better in Chaplin’s Modern Times. For an out-of-left-field companion film, try On Deadly Ground, directed by and starring Steven Seagal. It concludes with arguably the closest thing to Chaplin’s speech in film history, as Big Steve ignores all of the action scenes that made his movie barely tolerable to deliver an endless speech about saving the environment. Understand, On Deadly Ground stinks, so your mileage may vary.

music friday: long versions

I posted a video link on Facebook earlier this week, of the Iron Butterfly lip syncing to “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”. All 17 minutes and 2 seconds of it. That’s a long time to pretend to play things like drum solos. Most people remarked on how it was the “long version” that mattered, not the short single that was a hit on its own. That got me thinking about these versions.

First, the one that got the discussion started:

There were two songs that never had “short versions”, that may have been connected. It’s appropriate that when the Rolling Stones did their first long song, it consisted mostly of Mick Jagger improvising about the sex he was going to have:

It should be noted that extended minutes of Mick was a better idea than something like the live version of “Toad” that appeared on Cream’s Wheels of Fire. A song which was just on the edge of too long in its studio version (Ginger Baker was a great drummer, so 5 minutes was probably just about right) ended up more than 16 minutes long in the live version.

Arthur Lee of Love said he thought the Stones got the idea for “Goin’ Home” when they heard Love play a long track on stage. Who knows which came first, but “Revelation” was so long, it took up the entire side two of Da Capo:

It was a big deal when FM stations played the album version of “Light My Fire” instead of the single version so popular on AM:

The Allman Brothers were known to stretch out a jam or two, perhaps most notably with “Mountain Jam”. They took a Donovan song that rolled in at 2 1/2 minutes, and stretched it out to 33:41 for Eat a Peach. This was especially poignant since Duane Allman had died between the recording and the release, so this was one of the last chances fans had to hear Duane. (If you don’t feel up to all 33:41, tune in at 23:10 for Essence of Duane.

Finally, the Chambers Brothers. The Brothers were a soul group straight out of gospel who had recorded “Time Has Come Today” in 1966. It ran 2:37, and was rejected by the record label. Two years later, it was the centerpiece of the group’s third album, The Time Has Some. Now it was more than eleven minutes long, with an extended psychedelic montage in the center. This was the hit version, once it was truncated to three minutes. (A longer shorter version was cut … it lasted almost five minutes.) This was another early marker of the distinction between the FM and AM radio of the day … “underground” FM radio only played the album version, AM radio played the shorter hits:

if it's thursday, this must be rosas

This is from the summer of 1984:

postcard from rosas 1984

It was our first trip to Europe … we stayed and traveled with Robin’s sister Tami and her soon-to-be husband Peter, who lived in England. The first night we were in Spain, we stayed in Rosas, on the Costa Brava. My memory is we arrived at night, and it wasn’t until the next day, looking out the balcony of our hostel, that I realized Rosas was next to the water. From there, we went to the house of Peter’s sister in Castelldefels (I think), a suburb of Barcelona. This would have been around June 13, 1984 … a week or so later, I spent the best birthday of my life in France.

The “Hermanos” were Geoff and David, who must have been living together in Portland at that time. The Giants game I referred to took place on June 11, which also narrows down the time frame. On June 12, the 1984 European Championships began in France, my first taste of the power soccer had over entire nations. As I recall, we ate in one French place that was more like a house than a restaurant, with a TV in the next room that kept the workers occupied. It was the tournament that gave me my first soccer hero, Michel Platini, who scored nine goals overall, including one in the final vs. Spain.

catching up: books

Not sure why I don’t write more about books here. Perhaps it’s that my training is to treat books as something worthy of long-form writing, I don’t know. Whatever, a friend posted a photo of his summer reading, using the usual method of stacking the books in a pile. I realized that I can’t do that kind of picture anymore, because the vast majority of books I read are e-books.

The main book I’m reading right now is A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng. Enke was a top German goalkeeper who suffered from depression and committed suicide at the age of 32. It benefits from Reng having known Enke … it’s startling at times when a conversation appears between the two, you’ve been reading along like any other biography and you forget the author was there at times. The pressures of being a goalkeeper are made evident, but what is hitting home for me is the manifestations of Enke’s depression, which are scarily real to me.

Keeping in the pre-World Cup soccer genre, I just finished George Vecsey’s Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer. While Vecsey is known primarily for his sports writing, he also co-wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter with Loretta Lynn. Eight World Cups is an ideal book for Americans new to the sport (there are fewer of them every year) who would like some history in advance of Brazil 2014. While Vecsey has been at this awhile, he was once, like many Americans, an outsider to the world of soccer, which makes his story relatable. He tells stories of the great individuals of the era, gives a full picture of each Cup, and if he spends less time on the “Dark Side” than the title suggests, the Beauty comes through loud and clear.

Rounding out some of the recent sports books I’ve read, there’s The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption by John Rosengren. What Rosengren does well is establish a context for that event, by leading us through the life of a Latino and an African-American in baseball of the 1950s and 1960s. Also, Craig Wright’s Pages from Baseball’s Past, a compilation of pieces from his website of the same name. Wright is a pioneer in sabermetrics who knows how to tell a good story (the first chapter tells us about Babe Ruth’s “mascot”, and fans will look forward to pieces like “The Walk-Off Triple Steal”. Finally, Jonah Keri makes sure you know what his book is about with his subtitle: Up, Up and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos.

I wrote recently about John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. And a few months ago, I had a few words about Latinos at the Golden Gate by my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval … yes, it’s true, I actually read a book that wasn’t about sports or entertainment. There was The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George. An old favorite, pilot Patrick Smith, offers Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections. I first discovered Smith when he wrote a regular column for Salon … I admit I was delighted to exchange a few emails with him about our shared love for Hüsker Dü. Bill Brown’s Words and Guitar: A History of Lou Reed’s Music was unmemorable, while Winning Fantasy Baseball: Secret Strategies of a Nine-Time National Champion by Larry Schechter was very useful for me back in February when I bought it. The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball by Benjamin Baumer and Andrew Zimbalist must have been good … I don’t have any bad memories … but to be honest, I barely remember the book at all, even as a fan of Zimbalist’s work.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jennifer Garlen’s second book on movies, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching. When I read her, I often wish I’d written what I am reading.

I just got the latest edition of David Thomson’s mammoth The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, previous editions of which are always stored on my phone for quick revisits. On tap: Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living, an examination of the philosophy of Albert Camus.