music friday: bruce springsteen, "sherry darling", the river

I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s recent concert that we attended in Oakland, part of his “River Tour”, wherein he plays the entire River album in order. There is a lot of talk these days about how fragmented our listening habits have become. We don’t listen to albums anymore, we just hit shuffle play and let the software choose from a million different songs. Maybe you have a favorite artist ... say, in my case, Bruce Springsteen ... and you have a playlist consisting solely and entirely of every song Bruce has ever recorded. I’ll listen to that playlist, but when I do, I’ll use shuffle play. The result? Let me do an experiment, I’ll shuffle that playlist and see what comes up.

There are close to 500 songs on the playlist. For this particular shuffle play, we start off with “My Best Was Never Good Enough”, a favorite track of mine from The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995). Next comes “I Wanna Be With You” (1979), one of the outtakes that ended up on Tracks. Then the Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman”, from the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert in 2009, with Bruce joined by John Fogerty.

That’s followed up with the “Detroit Medley” from the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert. Finally, closing out the first five songs is “Blood Brothers”, recorded in 1995.

You get at least a glimpse of what makes Bruce “Bruce”. Cover versions of 60s rock classics, an acoustic track, and two lesser-known tunes. Nothing from his most famous albums, nothing that’s one of his hits. But all of it is recognizably Bruce Springsteen.

The artist is the only thing that brings this disparate material together. Those five songs do not resemble an “album”, or even an EP. An album has its own coherence. At least, that’s how it used to be. It might still be true, but the audience doesn’t necessarily treat it as such.

What I thought while listening to the Oakland show was that Bruce was forcing us to return, not just to 1980, but to a time when an album was an album. He has played many River songs in concert over the years ... to use one example, at the show I saw most recently before Oakland 2016, he sang “Hungry Heart” and “The Ties That Bind”, separated by several other songs, of course. This tour, though, we got it all, track by track, in order. Just like we were listening to the album.

Well, if we were listening to the album with 35+ years on us. Clarence and Danny are gone, Jake and Charles and Nils and Soozie (and sometimes Patti) are with us. The crush of nostalgia lies heavily over the concert, to be sure. But as an experience in hearing an album, it was different.

“Sherry Darling” had an interesting history. In the old days, Bruce was always tossing a few new songs into his shows. At the famous Winterland concerts in 1978, he played “Ties That Bind” and “Point Blank”, even though he was touring behind Darkness and The River was two years away. So we knew those songs before they ever turned up on an album. “Sherry” was another of those songs ... while he didn’t play it for us, he trotted it out enough times that we heard bootleg concert versions.

When The River was released, I was wary. Darkness on the Edge of Town was indeed dark, and in fact that fit well with my personal experiences of the time. But I also knew that my favorite parts of his concerts were the joyous ones. “The Ties That Bind” was the first track on The River, and it was good, but I feared the darkness was returning. So when “Sherry Darling” was the next track, with its goofy lyrics and pseudo-crowd noises, I was so happy I could cry.

You’ll note from the above video that in 1978, Bruce wanted the crowd to make noise (“fraternity rock”), but he couldn’t expect anyone to sing along, since the song had never been released. In 2016, though, it is expected that we will know the words, and we will sing them:

We are hearing the song in the context of the original album. But we can’t replace the newness of those first times we heard those songs in 1980. Bruce approximates the experience of listening to an album, but nothing more. And there’s the added fact that some of the most noteworthy performances on this tour have been non-River songs, like his tributes to Bowie and Prince, “Rebel Rebel” and “Purple Rain”.


film fatales #14: diary of a teenage girl (marielle heller, 2015)

Diary of a Teenage Girl has a strong sense of place (San Francisco, 1976). At least it seemed that way to me, a lifelong Bay Area resident who lived across the Bay in Berkeley at that time. The various steps that led to this film show how tied to the area it is. Phoebe Gloeckner, who wrote the original graphic novel, lived in San Francisco in the mid-70s under circumstances similar to those depicted in the movie and personified by the titular teenage girl, Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley). Gloeckner calls her work fiction, but it is often interpreted as a form of autobiography. Marielle Heller, who also has ties to the Bay Area (her husband is one of the Lonely Island guys who came from Berkeley, and her father-in-law is artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre), was taken by the book and turned it into an off-Broadway play. Gloeckner liked it and gave the film rights to Heller, who eventually wrote and directed the movie. Some of the above probably matters more than other parts, but given the way Heller uses fantastic elements in the film, it’s worth noting how it is rooted in a real place (and time).

What is far more important, of course, is how well Diary of a Teenage Girl locks into the life of a teenage girl. There aren’t many characters like Minnie Goetze, who is recognizably confused about life, and about her emergent sexuality, but who is also brazenly confident in some ways, not all of them “good”. As the film begins, Minnie tells us in a voiceover that she has just had sex for the first time (“I had sex today ... holy shit!”). Her excitement reflects the newness of the experience, but she already seems to have a handle on the situation. Minnie is not going to be a victim.

This is one reason that critic Mick LaSalle says the movie “is not a pleasure to sit through, not even remotely, not even by some stretched definition of the word ‘pleasure.’” Gloeckner/Heller (identifying the specific source for the material can be confusing) refuse easy answers, mostly by refusing black-and-white categorizations. The basic plot revolves around Minnie’s sexual exploits, and she is having sex with her mother’s boyfriend, who is at least twice her age (she is 15). Alexander Skarsgård plays the boyfriend as he is written: kinda lazy, actually and ethically, ruled by his dick and mostly unlikeable, yet even with all of this, he isn’t pure evil ... he is barely a “bad guy”. The reason for this is that the film (and Bel Powley) does a great job of nailing the actual mind of a teenage girl, and the boyfriend, like everything else in the movie, is presented to us through Minnie’s eyes. She gradually comes to understand what kind of person he is, but she is allowed the time to reach this conclusion for herself. It isn’t forced on us by pre-established morals. So yes, the film lacks pleasure, because it makes us feel uncomfortable.

Yet Bel Powley reaches out to us, so that our discomfort is attached to her own, and we can indeed take small pleasures from her growth by the end of the movie.

We could use more movies like Diary of a Teenage Girl, told from a girl’s perspective, honest, with artistic delights in the production, all on a budget of $2 million. (No, I’m not missing any zeroes.) Powley is new to us, but the supporting cast includes Skarsgård and Kristen Wiig in major roles, and Christopher Meloni in a fairly large cameo, and everyone is solid. Given the subject matter, I can’t say this is a movie for everyone, but it is an auspicious beginning for Marielle Heller. #495 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


music friday: prince

Greil Marcus happened to be at my first Prince concert (he and I have been at a lot of the same shows over the years, including my first rock concert at the Fillmore in 1967), which would be irrelevant except he wrote about it, thus saving me the trouble:

Fronting a band of three blacks and two Jews from Minneapolis, Prince stormed into town on the heels of last year’s breakthrough Dirty Mind, was greeted by the most excited and diverse crowd (black and white, punk and funk, straight and gay, young and old, rich and poor) I’ve been part of in a long time, and sent everyone home awestruck and drained: “That was the history of rock ‘n’ roll in one song!” a friend shouted before the last notes of “When You Were Mine” were out of the air. All barriers of music, sex, and race were seemingly trashed by Prince’s performance ...

I have a habit of telling people Prince is the only artist where I was “there” at the beginning. It’s an exaggeration at best, nonsense at worst ... I picked up on him with Dirty Mind, saw him for the first time on that tour in 1981. I think it was the fact that not many people in my crowd knew him yet, combined with the part where that concert was one of the transcendent shows of my life. I like to think I’ve seen some great performers over the years ... some of them very good indeed. Sleater-Kinney is such a favorite of mine that I’ve seen them 14 times, not to mention two Wild Flags, two Corin Tucker Bands, and two Cadallacas. But as a live act, I place them just below the greatest. Same with Patti Smith, Pink ... great concerts, but not quite the peak. By 1981, my top two were Bruce Springsteen and The Clash. After that Prince show, the list grew to three.

(It’s weird I think of my being there early for Prince. I caught on to Bruce with Born to Run, saw my first Bruce concert on that tour. People think I was there from the start, but Born to Run, like Dirty Mind for Prince, was his third album.)

Let me return to Greil’s review for a moment. We can all agree that Prince was a dynamite live performer, that he created a tremendous recorded legacy, that he was so influential it seems like the word should be retired now. But perhaps the thing I found most amazing at that concert was “the most excited and diverse crowd”. I’m just an old rock-and-roller ... OK, I was only 27 at that show ... Bruce Springsteen is my favorite, and at his shows, the number of African-Americans on the stage often seems to outnumber the ones in the audience. My experience with “diverse” crowds is more like there being lots of lesbians at Sleater-Kinney concerts, or dads taking daughters to see Pink (lotta lesbians there, too). But that Prince show ... like Marcus, I’d never seen anything like that crowd.

Which may be why I was so sad the next time I saw Prince, on the Controversy tour. The crowd was once again diverse, but the lovely vibe was gone ... pickpockets worked the crowd on the floor, it was the only time in my life I’ve been anything close to being “mugged”.

(I should probably note, that second concert was at Civic Auditorium, which held around 7000. The first was at The Stone, which held 700.)

Prince crossed generations. I’ve been texting with my son and daughter a lot the last 24 hours, and my son hit the nail on the head. Talking about early memories, he said that “Little Red Corvette” was “like mom and dad’s voice.”

And about “Little Red Corvette”. What a great song! As I type this, I’m listening to another great song, “Head”, which isn’t exactly subtle. The singer meets a woman on her way to her wedding. He wants her, but she’s a virgin. “But you're such a hunk, so full of spunk, I'll give you head.” She’s so good at it that he “came on your wedding gown.” She married him instead, of course. And, in case this sounds like a typical male fantasy, he spends the rest of the song giving her head.

But I was talking about “Little Red Corvette”. Double entendre lyrics are a dime a dozen, but when they are as good as this, why quibble? The woman as Corvette, her pocket full of horses (some of them used). The way he “felt a little ill when I saw all the pictures of the jockeys that were there before me”. Like a cross of Bogie and Baby in The Big Sleep and Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues”, with the added loveliness of “But it was Saturday night, I guess that makes it all right”. And a great production. One of the handful of “might be his best” tracks.

Thinking about all of this, I’m realizing Prince did more than cross generations. He brought people together. The first time I saw him was with my brother and sister-in-law. On the Purple Rain tour, my wife and I went with friends, one of whom we had known since high school. I took my son when he was young. My best friend went to a Prince concert with our daughter. The last time I saw Prince, I sat with my son and daughter-in-law. My wife felt left out, was upset we didn’t think she’d want to go. So she got tix late, ended up with better seats than we had, sitting with our nephew.

To say nothing of the practical aspect of Prince. My son just texted me to say that “If there was no sign o the times, dishes woulda never been clean”. Although I admit, if it were me, I might have been so distracted by that greatest of all Prince albums that, rather than be inspired to finish the chores, I would have just been unable to work.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might have noticed there are no links to videos. Prince was famously vigilant about keeping his music off of YouTube. With perseverance, you can find a lot of good stuff. In the meantime, you could always go buy some of his music. Just try not to fall into the trap described in this Onion headline: “Nation Too Sad To Fuck Even Though It’s What Prince Would Have Wanted”.


what i watched last week

Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967). When I was a teenagers, I loved riding on bumper cars. I didn’t much care for the rides that went round and round ... made me want to barf. But bumper cars ... you could be as mean and violent as you wanted, in fact that seemed like the point of the ride. My only redeeming quality was if I felt someone was being a bully on some bumper car rookie, I would spend the rest of my ride smashing into them as many times as possible. I also liked to “accidentally” get turned around so I could blast into people head-on. The title character of Mouchette is one of the most glum people you’ll ever find in a movie. Depressed, hateful, all for good reason, her life is a disaster. She goes beyond not liking the popular girls at her school ... she waits for them when the school day ends and throws mud at them. But there is one brief scene where Mouchette is, if not happy, at least smiling: when she rides bumper cars. She seems to enjoy being hit as much as she enjoys crashing into others. I’m not sure what is weirder, that her one moment of happiness comes via bumper cars, or that Bresson allowed his film to show two minutes of joy. I once wrote about Bresson, “Bresson has an individual vision about film, and his films are very clearly ‘his’. He is one of the few directors who truly deserve the title of ‘auteur’.” Usually, this leads me to admire a film more than I actually like it, and that’s the case here, as well. (The one time he won me over was A Man Escaped.) #174 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong Lee, 2007). Do-yeon Jeon does wonders with the leading role of Shin-ae,  a recently widowed mother of a young son. Lee’s approach is deceptively simple ... the presentation is straightforward, but events complicate our understanding of Shin-ae, who begins the film trying to deal with grief, only to find it nearly inescapable. There are similarities to the kinds of torments Lars von Trier loads onto many of his female characters, but Lee keeps things on a human scale, with room for light comic moments. Jeon is impeccable struggling through the trials life throws at her. There is an interesting examination of the role of religion and God in the film ... and they aren’t always the same thing. Lee is fair towards the church members, but he also gives time for more personal relations with God, all the while never taking a stand on whether or not God even exists. This is not a heart-warming movie, but neither is it a chore to sit through (although it probably runs longer than it needs to). #442 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 8/10.

The Gleaners & I (Agnès Varda, 2000). 8/10.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001). 7/10.


film fatales #13: bridget jones's diary (sharon maguire, 2001)

I wrote about this for the most recent “Music Friday” post. Here is the main portion that dealt with the movie:

In the mid-1990s, English novelist Helen Fielding began writing a serialized newspaper column about a single woman in her 30s working her way through life in London. This column was popular enough for Fielding to construct a novel from them, called Bridget Jones’s Diary. Fielding’s work was compared to Nick Hornby’s, the chick lit to his lad lit. Her book was popular enough to elicit a sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which wasn’t as good, although it had its moments.

Next up was a film version of Diary. This movie, starring Renée Zellweger as Bridget, was eagerly anticipated by fans of the book, although British fans were upset that an American was playing the English icon. (Zellweger was excellent, grabbing a Best Actress Oscar nomination.) The question was, could the movie capture the blend of self-awareness and humorous honesty that made the book a good read.

I just watched Bridget Jones’s Diary ... I think for the third time ... because it celebrated its 15th anniversary this week. It still holds up as an example of a good rom-com.

It’s interesting to think of the movie in the context of “film fatales”. To some extent, I’m stretching the category ... I don’t know how many women filmmakers were inspired by Bridget Jones’s Diary, and director Sharon Maguire hasn’t done a lot since. She began in television ... Bridget Jones’s was her first feature ... and she didn’t direct another feature for seven years, even though Bridget did very well at the box office. She didn’t work on the inevitable sequel (although she has directed the third film in the series, which is scheduled to come out later this year). Her only other feature was Incendiary, which was poorly received.

But as a manifestation of Fielding’s place in contemporary literature, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a fine companion piece, which some thought was better than the novel. A successful film, based on a novel by a woman, directed by a woman, with an Oscar-nominated performance by a woman ... I’m going to place in within my Film Fatales. #868 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


music friday: "all by myself"

Some filmmakers are better than others at using popular music in their movies ... thinking Scorsese and Mean Streets. Some reject the idea of a soundtrack, and many movies feature original soundtracks of mostly lyric-free music.

Once in awhile, the connection between song and music becomes unbreakable. You hear “Bohemian Rhapsody”, you think Wayne’s World. (This doesn’t happen with Mean Streets, which features too many great songs to force any one of them into our brains solely as Mean Street Music.)

In the mid-1990s, English novelist Helen Fielding began writing a serialized newspaper column about a single woman in her 30s working her way through life in London. This column was popular enough for Fielding to construct a novel from them, called Bridget Jones’s Diary. Fielding’s work was compared to Nick Hornby’s, the chick lit to his lad lit. Her book was popular enough to elicit a sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which wasn’t as good, although it had its moments.

Next up was a film version of Diary. This movie, starring Renée Zellweger as Bridget, was eagerly anticipated by fans of the book, although British fans were upset that an American was playing the English icon. (Zellweger was excellent, grabbing a Best Actress Oscar nomination.) The question was, could the movie capture the blend of self-awareness and humorous honesty that made the book a good read.

I just watched Bridget Jones’s Diary ... I think for the third time ... because it celebrated its 15th anniversary this week. It still holds up as an example of a good rom-com. But watching it for a third time, fifteen years after the fact, can’t duplicate the feeling of sitting in the theater in 2001, waiting for the movie to start, hoping it would be good.

The movie began with a voiceover, which effectively emulated the diary structure of the book. After five minutes or so, the credits sequence began. And even though it seemed obvious the minute it happened, it was also perfect, so perfect that I’ve never been able to hear this song without thinking of Bridget Jones:

That version was sung by Jamie O’Neal. Here is Eric Carmen’s original:

And, what the heck, one of the most honest songs ever written:

I just want a hit record, yeah
Wanna hear it on the radio
Want a big hit record, yeah
One that everybody's got to know


film fatales #12: the gleaners & i (agnès varda, 2000)

Agnès Varda has always made films her own way, and her discovery of small digital cameras proved to be a blessing. No big crews, no expensive film, just grab your camera and hit the road. If you or I did that, we’d get at best an entertaining short home movie. But Varda is an artist, and this film, about “gleaners” (people who collect crops leftover after harvest), easily finds room for a gentle look at aging (Varda was 71 when she made the film), as well as an expansion of the notion of gleaning to include dumpster divers and, yes, filmmakers like Agnès Varda.

When I say parts of the film are “gentle”, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Yes, the overall tone is impish, as Varda shows ways to take pleasure in what we can find (“glean”) along the way. But if for the most part she avoids soap-box speechifying, we do find ourselves wondering why, in this day and age, people still need to get food from trash bins. But the gleaners are not pitiable. In fact, they are seen as members of society making the most of what the rest of us leave behind. Whatever condemnation we see is towards a society that so easily produces waste.

We even get the chef of a highly-rated restaurant who does his own gleaning for vegetables and herbs, saying that way, he knows what he is getting.

But what comes through more than anything is the joy Varda takes from the gleaners. At one point, she picks up a broken wall clock with no arms or hands. It would seem useless, but Varda puts it on a mantel in her house, telling us a clock without hands is perfect for her.

Not only does she connect her filmmaking to the act of gleaning, she also connects it to works of art from the past. She is inspired by a famous 19th-century painting by Jean-François Millet that shows peasant women working the field after a harvest. The connection to the post-harvest gleaners in the film is clear, but once she moves to those who are “urban gleaners”, her vision is expanded, as is ours in the audience. We, also, are gleaners. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #12 on the all-time 21st-century list. 8/10. (Other Varda films I have written about: Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, and my favorite, The Beaches of Agnes.)

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


music friday: walk-up music

Here are some of the songs used as walk-up music for Giants players. I’ll use the starting lineup on Opening Day, at least the guys whose songs are listed on the team website (to be honest, I think it’s a little outdated).

Denard Span: Fabolous, “Ball Drop

Buster Posey: Brantley Gilbert, “Hell on Wheels

Hunter Pence: White Zombie, “More Human Than Human

 

Brandon Belt: Jay-Z, “99 Problems

Brandon Crawford: Elle Goulding, “Burn

Jake Peavy: Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands

Angel Pagan: Calle 13, “Baile de los Pobres

 

Let’s toss in pinch-hitter Gregor Blanco: Nova y Jory, “Aprovecha

 

A favorite at our house, the music that is played when pitcher Sergio Romo enters the game: Banda MS, “El Mechon

 

And finally, this is played after every Giants home win: