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throw it back, whammer jammer

On this date in 1982, I saw the J. Geils Band at the Civic Center in San Francisco. It was the second of two shows at Civic. I thought it was a fine concert, although I was on psychedelics so I’m not to be trusted. I loved that band, saw them several times in concert.

What makes this concert noteworthy in retrospect was the opening act: U2. Although no one knew it then, this was the last time U2 opened for anyone, other than at festivals. My memory is they kicked ass that night, although stories that they blew J Geils off the stage are exaggerating.

For U2 fans, here is their setlist:

Gloria

I Threw a Brick Through a Window

A Day Without Me

An Cat Dubh

Into the Heart

Rejoice

The Cry

The Electric Co.

I Will Follow

Encore: Out Of Control and 11 O'clock Tick Tock

Here’s "Whammer Jammer" from a show I saw at Winterland in 1977, featuring Magic Dick. (Robert Gordon and Head East were the opening acts.)


underground

On the most recent episode of the very good American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the inflammatory audio tapes of Detective Mark Fuhrman are heard. Johnnie Cochran, played with devious excellence by Courtney B. Vance, says the tapes show “what black people have always known”. At one point, one of the white members of the “Dream Team” says he knows how Cochran feels, and Cochran explodes. There is simply no way a white person can truly understand what it means to be black in America.

Underground is a new series on WGN America. All I knew of WGN prior to this is that they were an early “superstation” that showed Major League Baseball games for the Chicago teams. Underground is one of their first original series, and without decent reviews, I doubt I would have found it. It tells a story of the Underground Railroad, with the primary setting being a Georgia plantation where some of the slaves are planning an escape. It’s a tricky show, trying to be true to the history of slavery in America while still giving the audience something they will want to see week after week. So there is a lot of melodrama. But the extensive cast (hello, Adina Porter!) does wonders with the material, and we care about the characters.

While the focus is on the escape plans (we’ve seen three episodes so far, with the fourth airing tonight), we also get a clear picture of why escape is necessary. The plantation owner and his friends are suitably inhuman, and the slaves live in constant fear that some perceived mistake will be severely punished.

There is always a chance that this will be presented in a way that encourages the audience to enjoy the misery ... giving lashes to the slaves is barbaric, but it is also a part of a show that in part has entertainment on its mind. So far, Underground avoids this. I once taught the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one student actually wrote that the slaves in the book were happy. There are no happy slaves in Underground.

A few years ago, I posted excerpts from the will of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, who died in Virginia in 1757. If I remember correctly, I was finding my way through Ancestry.com files ... my sister had an account. I knew my mom’s family came from Kentucky ... my grandmother was born there. I never really thought about the implications of those Kentucky roots. But then I found that will. Here, I’ll repost the excerpts:

To Thomas Cralle Lamkin, son of Mary Jones, widow and relict of Charles Jones, late of Northumberland County five negoes vixt: Little Ben, Isaac, Peggs Bess, Blacka Top and Aggy. If he should die before he arrives to age or day of marriage, his mother Mary Jones to enjoy two of the said slaves that may be left at his death, she to have her choice during her natural life, then to revert to my children the remaining part

To son William Matthews Cralle nine negroes vizt: Chnce, Cate, and their daughter Bess, Frank, Alice, Stephen, Cate, Dominy, and Edmond.

Mulatto man Will, may be free at my decease.

To son Rodham Kenner Cralle three negroes vizt: Harry, George, and Nanny and my watch.

To daugher Mary Foushee my silver tankard, and negro wench Rose Anna

Rest of my estate both real and personal to be equally divided between five children Kenner, John, Rodham, William, and Mary, except Ben and Matthews whom I give to my son Kenner, son John to have Rachel, Old Ben to make choice of his master among my children.

I think it’s the matter-of-fact tone that is most disturbing. Mary Jones will “enjoy” her slaves. Old Ben isn’t given his freedom, but he gets “to make choice of his master”.

What was really most disturbing to me was that this was in my family’s past. I had certainly never owned up to any of this, beyond a general despair over slavery, and the role of whites in the “institution”. What this will showed me was that, beyond the general despair, I had, through my family, a specific responsibility. I can’t change the past, and I don’t take the blame for what my ancestors did centuries ago. But I also understand that it is too easy for white Americans to dismiss any thoughts of this evil stain on our history ... “oh, that was then, we didn’t do that”. Well, yes we did. Just ask my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

After last week’s episode of Underground, I said to my wife, “that’s my family”. I don’t know if my great-great-great-great-great grandfather had a plantation. I don’t know how he treated his slaves. But I know he had them, in numbers ... that will specifically lists 23 slaves. That’s 23 too many.

I find myself falling into a trap I have set for myself all of my life, making everything about Me. That shouldn’t be what’s happening here. My feelings about my family’s past are not equal to the suffering of the slaves my family owned. Underground can’t only be a “good show”. It also gives context, a context that includes the past of my own family.


music friday: bob dylan, blood on the tracks

My Dylan obsessions go something like this:

The first Dylan album I bought was Bringing It All Back Home, when I was 12 years old. I was more taken with “Like a Rolling Stone”, which was released a month or so before the album on which it appeared, Highway 61 Revisited. My memory is that my brother had a lot of the early albums, and many of the songs I liked from them were the energetic ones: “Pretty Peggy-O”, “Gospel Plow”, and “Freight Train Blues” from his underrated debut, “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” from Freewheelin’. I preferred the raucous electric side of Bringing It All Back Home, although I have always been taken with “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. But “Like a Rolling Stone” was my national anthem. And “Desolation Row”, also from Highway 61, has always been a favorite, although when I was 12, I didn’t know it was funny.

Then came the classic period ... I wasn’t taken with Blonde on Blonde as much as most people, liked John Wesley Harding more.

In 1972 or 1973, I took a class at junior college from a professor who had gone on the road with Dylan as the latter headed to New York in the early-60s. His enthusiasm was infectious, and when Planet Waves came out, I bought it, one of the few records I purchased in those first, broke, married years. “Dirge” was such a downer, Dylan has never even played it in concert, and he has played a lot of concerts. It started with “I hate myself for lovin’ you and the weakness that it showed”, and went downhill from there.

All of which led up to the big tour, Dylan and The Band, in 1974. It was the first concert my wife and I attended together. This was the period of my biggest Dylan obsessions ... I even went so far as to wear a scarf on my head, which I had never done before and never would again, because Dylan wore one for the Hard Rain TV special.

Which brings us to Blood on the Tracks. If we only count the completeness of my obsession during the moment, this was my favorite Dylan album of them all. I guess “Tangled Up in Blue” remains the most-acclaimed song, for good reason, but I also loved “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, and made a short film with me and my newly-born son of “Shelter from the Storm”. But I was as mean-spirited then as I ever was, so “Idiot Wind” really grabbed me.

The first official release of The Basement Tapes followed, and we played them over and over. I made another short film, this one based on “Tiny Montgomery”. Much of Desire seems unfortunate now, although I still like hearing “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”. Street Legal was awful, but we did go to see that tour, which was more Neil Diamond than Bob Dylan (check out Bob Dylan at Budokan if you must).

Then there was 1997:


by request: the americanization of emily (arthur hiller, 1964)

It takes a while for me to get to requests ... this one was made in October of 2014. But I get there.

The context is interesting. I wrote about The Sound of Music, which got the amazing (for this blog) total of 16 comments. The first comment offered Emily as an “antidote” to Julie Andrews' performance in Sound of Music. I responded that I remembered seeing that movie back in the 60s but not since, and that my memories were positive. James Garner has said this was his favorite of his many movies. Julie Andrews appeared here between Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and she was reportedly happy to have a more “adult” role to show she had breadth.

The director was Arthur Hiller, whose career might be called “non-descript”. He directed 33 films, including the very popular Love Story. David Thomson referred to “a dozen consistently impersonal and unexciting movies”, calling Hiller “the kind of director who gets pictures done on time, on budget, without troubling or threatening anyone.” Thomson does praise The Hospital, which coincidentally shared a screenwriter (Paddy Chayefsky) with Emily. In fact, I suspect Chayefsky is responsible for what is best about The Americanization of Emily (I have not read the William Bradford Huie novel on which the film is based). The Hospital and Love Story are the only movies for which Hiller won a prominent award (his only Oscar nomination was for Love Story ... he lost to Franklin J. Schaffner for Patton). Hiller did win various lifetime achievement awards, and served as president of both the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He made his mark, but his films rarely caught fire.

I said Chayefsky is the reason Emily is good, but that’s only part of the story. Most notably, Garner and Andrews are very good in their starring roles. But what makes the script so good (again, I lack knowledge of the novel) is also what occasionally brings the movie down. My friend who recommended the film, quoting Sweet Smell of Success, said “it’s a cookie full of arsenic”, and that’s right on target. But there are too many speeches that, while full of arsenic, sound too much like soap-box lecturing. (Several of the "memorable quotes" listed on the IMDB are quite lengthy.)

Still, there is something to be said for a war movie that comes out in favor of cowardice. In some ways, Garner’s character here isn’t much different from Bret Maverick. I can see why I liked it when I was a teenager in the 60s. 7/10.


tokyo fish story

Yesterday, we saw our friend Arthur Keng in Kimber Lee’s Tokyo Fish Story, a TheatreWorks production playing in Palo Alto until April 3.

The basic plot is fairly standard ... an older Sushi Master confronts the increasing influence of the modern world, while his not-so-young son tries to take what he has learned from his father and meet that world head-on. I don’t know that Lee is too concerned with the plot, which exists as something on which to hang the play’s themes of pride, family, and change. Those themes are also fairly standard, though, so the way the story is presented makes or breaks the play.

Happily, the production, directed by Kirsten Brandt, is continually unique and captivating. Wilson Chin is listed as Scenic Designer, so I’ll send my props his way. Virtually everything on the stage moves, and not in the usual way where people come out and rearrange furniture during blackouts. No, the largest structures are on wheels, and often seem to be pulled by unseen hands. The set is fairly simple at any one time, but it changes so rapidly, the effect is of many, many sets. The play takes place in a sushi restaurant, and most of what we see is the preparation areas of the kitchen. But occasionally, the sushi bar from the actual restaurant slides into view, giving us another room with little obvious movement. All of this is highlighted by movable walls, frames really, that come down from the ceiling and then are pulled up again, depending on the specific needs of a scene. Once again, this innovative use of space creates interesting illusions that allow the audience to fall into the spirit of the play. (Special mention needs to go to the fascinating way we see the Master biking to work ... he pedals a bike which is high in the air on a moving platform, coasting above and behind the other actors.)

Of course, we were there for the acting, specifically Arthur. We had a treat in store, for there are only five actors, but more than five parts. So Arthur played six different roles, which made for six times the fun for Robin and I. The various costumes helped differentiate those characters, but Arthur managed to quick-change not only his outfits but his presentation ... we were never confused. One of his six characters is a complete klutz who gets a job working in the kitchen, leading to several funny moments featuring pans and vegetables and everything else ending up on the floor. I’m guessing it’s quite rewarding to bring an audience to laughter thanks to your own inspired fumbling.

I can see Tokyo Fish Story as a film, maybe something for HBO or one of the streaming services. All of the actors, especially Francis Jue in the lead, would benefit from a judicious use of close-ups and medium shots to draw the viewer in. On the other hand, the live component was vital ... it’s not that the play is incomplete. It would be nice, though, if it got a wider audience at some point.

It’s really very fun to see someone you know in various plays ... not to mention the occasions when he turns up on TV, which has happened a couple of times. Looking forward to the next time he graces the Bay Area with his presence.


music friday

My most-listened to tracks, by year, according to Last.fm, which grabs my Spotify listening. I’ve included a track for each year that I listened to a lot. No, I don’t understand how James Taylor got on there. As usual when I check what I actually listen to instead of what I like to think I listen to, I am revealed as a music fan stuck in the 60s.

 

2006: The Beatles. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”. (Link is to an alternate take.)

2007: Bob Dylan. “Mr. Tambourine Man”.

2008: James Taylor. “Fire and Rain”. (Link is to a live version from 1970.)

2009: Bruce Springsteen. “Born to Run”.

2010: The Rolling Stones. “Moonlight Mile”.

2011: Wild Flag. “Romance”.

2012: Bruce Springsteen. “Badlands”. (Link is to a live version from 1978.)

2013: The Beatles. “Get Back”. (Link is to rooftop version.)

2014: The Rolling Stones. “Salt of the Earth”.

2015: Jefferson Airplane. “She Has Funny Cars”.


what i watched last week

Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015). Room is driven by the acting. This might be stating the obvious, since Brie Larsen won a Best Actress Oscar. More to the point, though, Room did not win the other three categories (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay) it was nominated in. Room is absorbing, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone who didn’t like the acting part of movies. The claustrophobia of the room is effectively presented, and the scenes where the two protagonists return to the “real” world are properly heartfelt. But too much of the time, the movie felt to me as a trick as much as a film. The second half of the movie, when the trick is gone, is ordinary ... OK, but ordinary. Larsen, a favorite of mine from Short Term 12 and United States of Tara, is quite good. I only saw one of the other four Best Actress nominees, so I can’t compare them all. But Larsen isn’t an embarrassment to the Academy. Probably the biggest mistake is that he co-star, Jacob Tremblay, get a nomination. He’s at least as good as Larsen. #396 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

City of Hope (John Sayles, 1991). The kind of movie the word “sprawling” was made for, City of Hope has a few dozen “main” characters and several intertwining plots about big city corruption. The cast is equally sprawling ... there’s an Oscar winner (Chris Cooper, Adaptation.) and a few Oscar nominees (Angela Bassett, John Sayles, and David Strathairn). There is a who’s who of B-listers and “hey, it’s that guy”s ... I don’t mean they aren’t any good, only that they are better known for indies and TV ... Vincent Spano, Tony Lo Bianco, Joe Morton, Frankie Faison, Gloria Foster, Tony Denison, Kevin Tighe, Barbara Williams, Joe Grifasi, Gina Gershon, Jude Ciccolella, Lawrence Tierney. It is quite involving, and, as Roger Ebert noted at the time, stylistically similar to Slacker. And the Paul Haggis movie Crash owes a lot of City of Hope. I noted when the latter came out that it might have been better as a television series ... the same might be said for City of Hope, which could certainly maintain interest over a longer period of time, given the large cast of characters. As with so many of Sayles’ films, I liked it but didn’t go crazy over it. (Lone Star is the one exception to that rule.) I think I probably overrated Crash when it came out, and I feel now like I prefer City of Hope, so I’ll give it a rating that reflects my recent thoughts. 8/10.


bruce #36

I normally save the setlist junkie stuff for the end, but this time, we can learn something from examining the setlist.

Last night, Bruce played 35 songs, including the entire album The River, which has 20 tracks.

In October of 1980, my wife and I caught five shows in a week on the River tour.

Of the songs we heard last night, 18 were songs we heard at every one of those five shows. Another 5 were songs we heard four times. One we heard three times, one we heard once. So we heard 25 of last night’s 35 songs at least once on the 1980 tour, most of them all five nights.

Of the ten songs from last night we never heard in 1980, seven came from The River era or earlier (including “Shout”, which I assume Bruce and the band knew back in 1980, whether they played it or not).

Of the three remaining, one was from Born in the USA, two were from The Rising.

My point in all of this? This tour is centered on The River album. But there are 15 other songs, and 12 of them could have been played on the 1980 tour. Bruce hasn’t just revisited The River; he has revisited the 1980 tour.

Now, there are a lot of Bruce fans who didn’t catch him in 1980, for whatever reason, so I’m speaking only of my wife and I ... and all the other people from back in the day. There was very little last night that we couldn’t have experienced in 1980 ... for the most part, we did. Which makes last night’s concert arguably the least-adventurous of all the 36 Bruce shows we have attended since 1975. Ignoring for a moment the more than 35 years since The River Tour, what we saw last night was effectively our 6th River Tour show.

Of course, the above makes it sound like we had a bad time. But that River Tour was one of the most memorable times of our lives. The E Street Band probably plays “better” now than they did back then. Bruce still has remarkable energy ... not as frantic as he used to be, but there aren’t a lot of 66-year-old rockers who can still put on a 3 1/2 hour show without flagging. Amazingly, five of the people on stage were also on stage in 1980, and the “new” folks are wonderful. Soozie Tyrell isn’t given enough to do on this tour, but her violin is welcome when she gets to play it, as are her backup vocals. Same goes for Nils Lofgren, who did his trademark whirlybird solo and added his lovely backup vocals. More important for this tour are the two “replacements”. Charlie Giordano has more chops than Danny Federici ... he’ll never replace Danny as an original, but they lose nothing on keyboards with Charlie in the mix. And in one of the great twists of fate, Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons is a great sax player in the Big Man mode, and as my son noted, he is fully integrated into the band at this point, playing Clarence’s famous solos while adding his own personality to the mix. (He’s also the baby of the group ... in fact, Jake was born the year The River was released.)

You’ve got great songs played by a great band, a crowd wired for a great time ... why ask for more?

A few extra notes:

Bruce no longer sings in his higher range. He did his falsetto once, but mostly, he rearranges songs to avoid those high notes. If you weren’t expecting them, you wouldn’t notice ... other than that, Bruce is in fine form, and hey, Tony Bennett rearranges his songs, too.

There was a couple in front of us who danced and hugged and kissed the entire show. Afterwards, I had to ask them how old they were ... it would have been too perfect if they were 27, like my wife and I in 1980. They were a couple of years older, but it was fun seeing people younger than everyone on stage having such a great time.

A friend was sick and couldn’t attend. She offered her tickets to anyone who could make the show on short notice, saying she didn’t want money, just wanted to know the tickets got into good hands. Mission accomplished ... a true Bruce Community Moment.

(On the darker side, another friend got last-minute tix and found at the door that her tickets were fake. The person who sold those fakes is not in the Bruce Community.)

I often measure Bruce shows by how often I cry. But this time, I kinda knew where that would be focused. Many fans have never seen him play “Drive All Night”, and they were guaranteed to get it on this tour. We saw him sing it almost every night in 1980, but never since. It is a favorite of mine. Even though I not only knew he would sing it, I knew when it would come (he was playing the album in track order), I lost it when the first notes came. To make matters worse, in the middle, he threw in a bit of “Dream Baby Dream”, another favorite, and quite appropriate. Was it the highlight of the evening? It was for me.

Finally, the last of the setlist junkie stuff. We heard three songs that were new to us at Bruce shows: the River outtake “Meet Me in the City” that kicks off the show, “Fade Away” (the only River song we had never seen), and “Shout”, an oldie we’d missed in the past. “Born to Run” remains the song we’ve heard the most.

Oh, and “Rosalita” is my favorite Bruce song, but I don’t need him to just walk through it. He played it at the first ten shows we saw, but it’s more rare since. The one time since those early days that I was really delighted came when he pulled it out at the Pac Bell Park concert. Last night’s version was great fun, goofy and sloppy just as it should be. I’m glad it was there.


music friday: here comes the river

Sunday, Bruce Springsteen’s “River” tour comes to Oakland. At this show, he will play the entire album The River. In 1980, we took our only extended Bruce vacation, seeing him in three cities in two states, five shows in seven nights. He was touring behind The River, of course, so we saw him perform those songs night after night. For some reason, he never played “Fade Away”, so we’ll have one “new” song on this tour. Along with anything else he tosses in.

This will be my 36th Bruce show, dating back to 1975. Robin missed a couple of those. Bruce’s first tour since this blog began was The Rising Tour in 2002, and I took that time to write about my experiences with him over the years. Here is what I wrote about The River album:

The River

We all grow up eventually, even Steven Rubio and Bruce Springsteen, but it always struck me as odd that someone with as much adolescent energy as Bruce Springsteen also always seemed older than his years. If he was 30 when he made The River, he sounded lots older on songs like "Point Blank" and lots younger on songs like "Sherry."