music friday: what i listened to in 2016

It's late in the game, but I finally had to change things around on Music Friday, because I had a list of 10 songs from that year and I realized I didn't know a single one of them off the top of my head. So I went to Last.fm and had it sort my listening for the year 2016.

One song got played more than any other, so call this Steven's Top Song of 2016. It actually comes from around 1965:

The Fugs, "CIA Man". "Fucking-a man! C-I-A Man!"

These others are chosen from a batch that tied for second in my listening for that year:

Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop".

Les McCann, "Burnin' Coal".

Emmylou Harris, "Bluebird Wine".

Tommy James and the Shondells, "Crimson and Clover".

Fela Kuti, "Let's Start".

Fleetwood Mac, "I Don't Want to Know".

The Impressions, "Fool for You".

Joe Strummer, "Get Down Moses".

Aretha Franklin, "The Weight".

And, just to pretend to being current, here is a Spotify playlist for the 2016 songs I initially intended to include (the first song was supposed to be "Formation" by Beyoncé, but it wasn't on Spotify):


what i watched

Two movies that deserve more attention than these short takes will provide.

Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968). From a novel by Edmundo Desnoes, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Alea, this tells a story about Cuba in the time between the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis. The protagonist is a bourgeois writer, Sergio, who stays behind after his family and friends go to Miami. The picture of post-revolution Cuba isn't particularly celebratory, and you might wonder how Alea got the film made at all. Alea appears in the film as a director who is glad to have moved beyond the censorship of the Batista days ... you could say that nothing is celebratory in the film. Sergio is alienated at best, and no advertisement for the bourgeoisie. Alea fragments his narrative, throws in documentary footage, and makes us feel as if "we are there" with Sergio. The film won a few international awards, but it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1973. #274 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

The Guilty (Gustav Möller, 2018). The first feature directed by Möller, this is a compact thriller that takes place entirely within an emergency services center. Jakob Cedergren plays a policeman on desk duty, Asger, awaiting the outcome of an investigation into something that happened when he was on the job. It's safe to say that there is no movie without Cedergren, but it's unfair to say there is nothing to the movie beyond the actor. Möller effectively shows how the claustrophobia we feel reflects the impotence Asger feels as he gets a phone call that is more than just a random drunk. He's a detective, and he can't help but piece together a story about what he is being told on the phone. He wants to save someone, but he's stuck in his office, on his phone. No spoilers here ... suffice to say that you can't guess what direction the narrative will go, it constantly surprises, and over the course of the film, you realize the title is plural, not singular. The Guilty is a genre exercise that achieves all that it sets out to do, and that is far more rare than you'd think.

 


music friday, first kiss edition

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first kiss between me and my future (and still) wife.

Honestly, I don't know what to say about this. I'm pretty sure if you'd asked me in 1968 if this would be the case, I'd say I doubted I'd even be alive in 50 years, much less married to that girl. I've never been good at seeing into the future ... I've never been good at thinking/knowing the future would even happen.

But here we are. Thank you, Robin.

Here is the song that was Number One that week (for the first time ... it lasted for nine weeks):

And, since this is supposed to be Music Friday 2005, here's a song from an artist we saw that year in a little club called Cafe du Nord. It was just her and a guitarist, and they were having trouble making the electronics work, so the guitarist switched to an acoustic, and she came down off the stage and sang to us without a mic.

Promnight


yellow submarine (george dunning, 1968)

It was fun to revisit Yellow Submarine after so many years. I can remember sitting through it twice in one day during its first release, and it has kept most of its charm to this day.

The plot is a bit of fluff designed to work as many Beatles songs as possible into the movie, and as such, it seems a bit harsh to criticize it for what it was, is, and always will be. Nonetheless, that's the part that doesn't really recall my fondest memories, and when the film is sluggish, that's usually the reason. But the animation is wonderful, and the music, as expected, is the best thing about the movie.

The animation takes a kitchen sink approach, filled with a variety of styles. This work is so lovely, you might miss the fact that it is fairly simple compared to what we get from animation today. "Limited animation" is something I associate with cheap Saturday morning cartoons from Hanna-Barbera, but here, what appears atop the backgrounds is so inventive that you never find yourself thinking of Yogi Bear or Huckleberry Hound. As is perhaps inevitable, many of the songs come across like the music videos that became popular later. Two setpieces in particular are outstanding: "Eleanor Rigby" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". The latter in particular marvels in its use of rotoscoping. In the use of setpieces, Yellow Submarine is reminiscent of Fantasia.

The music is just as good, even though the soundtrack album has always largely been dismissed. With reason ... that album features two old Beatles tracks and a lot of George Martin's background music for the movie. Because of this, the four new songs get lost in the shuffle, and that's too bad. Paul's "All Together Now" is a trifle, but John's "Hey Bulldog" packs some bite, especially musically. The surprise champion here is George, who contributed two songs, one of which, "It's All Too Much", is among the best he ever put out.

Yellow Submarine is far more than mere nostalgia. If it ran another ten minutes, it would have overstayed its welcome, but as is, it is a welcome addition to the Beatles film output, even if they had little to do with it. It doesn't reach the heights of A Hard Day's Night, but it is a solid #2 among their movies.

 


20 faves #9: elvis presley, the complete '68 comeback special

9th of 20, roughly by chronology.

This choice appears because of a single fact: I believe the greatest night in the history of rock and roll music took place on June 27, 1968. That's when Elvis Presley recorded two sets of music on a small stage, with a few of his old music buddies and a very small audience. Parts of these two shows ended up in a televised Xmas special in early December, along with other songs. I could choose the original LP from that show (called, among other things, NBC-TV Special). I could choose a bootleg I treasured for many years, The Burbank Sessions, Vol. 1, which included both small-stage concerts. But eventually, RCA figured out another way to make money, which resulted in a DVD box set, and another CD package called The Complete '68 Comeback Special, which again included all of the material from the two sit-down concerts. So, for the purposes of this list, I'm going with that big package.

Complete '68 comeback special

 


20 faves #8: van morrison, astral weeks

8th of 20, roughly by chronology.

OK, so there is a lie in the above sentence. I can talk about how all 20 of these albums are favorites of mine, I can talk about how I could have easily added another 20, I can say that I've chosen chronology because I can't really rank the 20 albums. But the truth is, if this was a list of one, if this was me telling you my favorite album, that wouldn't be a difficult decision.

Last month, a book by Ryan Walsh was released, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. It's a fascinating book that places Astral Weeks in a context you might not have considered before: Boston in 1968. The thing is, I learned more about Boston than I did about Astral Weeks. Which may partly explain why even the best books about the album necessarily work from the outside. Because Astral Weeks is pretty inscrutable, and much as I've tried, I've never been able to clearly define its greatness. Only one writer I've read has pulled this off: Lester Bangs, in the book Stranded.

Astral weeks

Here is Lester, writing about the above clip:

After going through all the verses, he drives the song, the band, and himself to a finish which has since become one of his trademarks and one of the all-time classic rock 'n' roll set-closers. With consummate dynamics that allow him to snap from indescribably eccentric throwaway phrasing to sheer passion in the very next breath he brings the music surging up through crescendo after crescendo, stopping and starting and stopping and starting the song again and again, imposing long maniacal silences like giant question marks between the stops and starts and ruling the room through sheer tension, building to a shout of "It's too late to stop now!," and just when you think it's all going to surge over the top, he cuts it off stone cold dead, the hollow of a murdered explosion, throws the microphone down and stalks off the stage. It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it's sensational: our guts are knotted up, we're crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we've seen and felt something.


20 faves #7: the rolling stones, beggars banquet

7th of 20, roughly by chronology.

I just finished reading Keith Richards' autobiography, and there are some good passages where he describes how particular songs and albums were created. Too often, stories about The Stones are so filled with sex and drugs that you can't figure out how or when the rock and roll was made. His book certainly has lots of drugs (and less sex than you'd think), but when he stops to detail the making of music, the book takes a step up. I could pick many albums here ... Exile on Main Street is probably the consensus choice, and I spent a lot of time in my youth listening to Aftermath and Between the Buttons. But Beggars Banquet is probably the one I've liked best over the years. As I have often said, it still amazes me that there was a time when "Sympathy for the Devil" felt real. I've chosen the mostly-forgotten "clean" album cover, since that's what I had back in the day.

Beggars banquet

I'll add a bit from the comment section for this one. I wrote:

What interests me about the Rock and Roll Circus version of this song, which is just Mick and Keith's live vocals stuck on top of the album's music, is when Mick changes the words to include himself with the "faceless crowd". There's irony in the original ... Mick Jagger praising the common foot soldier? I'm reminded of Christgau's words about A Bigger Bang: Mick "once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his 'vulnerability,' but I'm touched that he cares enough to lie about it."


20 faves #6: aretha franklin, 30 greatest hits

6th of 20, roughly by chronology.

The second time I've cheated with a greatest hits package, although this might be the last time. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You would be the top "real" album, and I've always loved Live at Fillmore West. But this has the early greatest hits of the best woman singer in the history of popular music in my lifetime.

Aretha 30 greatest

 


music friday: 1968

B.B. King, "Lucille". B.B. never sings and plays at the same time, because he doesn't want to interrupt Lucille.

Manfred Mann, "Mighty Quinn". Dylan wrote and recorded it during the Basement Tapes era ... it ended up on the Great White Wonder. The flute part at the beginning is played by the guy who won a Grammy for drawing the cover of Revolver. The singer is the cousin of a Bond Girl. Thus ends my Casey Kasem imitations.

Aretha Franklin, "The House That Jack Built". A two-sided hit with "I Say a Little Prayer".

Dusty Springfield, "Son of a Preacher Man". Dusty and Aretha used to be labelmates.

The Dells, "Stay in My Corner". Released in 1965, they re-recorded it in 1968 and hit #1 on the R&B charts.

The Beatles, "Revolution 9". It is easier to find this song on YouTube with the track played backwards, than it is to find the original.

Marvin Gaye, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". From 1967-1970, there were three great, popular versions of this song (Gladys Knight, Creedence).

Status Quo, "Pictures of Matchstick Men". More than 20 years later, Camper Van Beethoven took their remake to #1 on the Modern Rock charts.

Mary Hopkin, "Those Were the Days". The music is a Russian romance song. This was Apple's second single release, after "Hey Jude".

Lee "Scratch" Perry, "People Funny Boy". Perry's first big single.



 


the dreamers (bernardo bertolucci, 2003)

I love Eva Green so much from Penny Dreadful that I assumed I've seen her in lots of movies, but in fact, The Dreamers, which was her film debut, is only the second one I've seen (Casino Royale being the other). When the movie was released, it was noteworthy as the latest film from Oscar-winner Bernardo Bertolucci. Until the film was complete, at which point the resemblance to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was evident. Most of the film takes place indoors, with people hanging out naked, having sex, with enough explicit shots to result in an NC-17 rating. Even now, the nudity seems to be on the edge, featuring not just full frontal but closeups of genitalia. For the first, but not the last time, Eva Green's sexuality smolders on the screen.

Yet some punches were pulled. The Dreamers is a story of 1968, with two Parisians, twins (Theo and Isabelle), and an American (Matthew, played by Michael Pitt). Most of the physical interaction is between Pitt and Green. The film hints at an incestual relationship between the twins, but a possible sexual relationship between the two men is only subtext. Bertolucci decided not to film scenes from the script that made that relationship more explicit, and given the openness of the presentation of the three, that decision is odd.

The three young people are infatuated with film, and viewers with a deep knowledge of film history will enjoy the references to that history. Asked if she is from Paris, Isabelle announces, "I entered this world on the Champs-Elysées, 1959. La trottoir du Champs Elysées. And do you know what my very first words were? New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!" Non-film buffs may be confused ... Eva Green is clearly not nine years old. But Bertolucci is quoting from Godard's Breathless, and to make his point more clear (and to help the non-buffs), he tosses in a brief clip of Jean Seberg in that movie selling that paper. These connections pop up throughout the film ... the twins like to play trivia games that require knowledge of film trivia. There are probably too many of those clips of other movies ... we get the point ... but the connections are meaningful, showing how the twins (and Matthew) are engulfed in film, perhaps at the expense of the "real" world.

The trivia games also connect to the sexual currents in the film. If you don't know the trivia, you have to perform some act. The first time we see this, Isabelle makes Theo masturbate in front of the other two to a photo of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Later, Theo makes Matthew and Isabelle have sex while he watches. The construct (film trivia, then sex) is odd, but the sexual freedoms of the three are so natural that we believe in them. There is no denying the erotic power, but Bertolucci takes it further, and his actors are perfect. In particular, much of the nudity is almost commonplace, co-existing with the erotic.

The irony is that all of this takes place in Paris in 1968, when revolution was in the air. Theo and Isabelle are half-hearted participants ... they'd rather watch movies. Matthew is like an American in one of Henry James' novels, seemingly innocent. The three of them live in the house of the twins' parents. One of the best scenes comes when the parents, who have been on holiday, turn up and find a completely messy house and three naked people sleeping together. The parents leave.

Of course, the innocent American must be abandoned in the end. Theo and Isabelle leave him to return to revolution. It is at this time, if we haven't already figured it out, that we realize the twins are playing at revolution, that, in fact, Bertolucci is only playing at revolution. Paris 1968 is a prop ... you wouldn't go to The Dreamers to learn about that time.

The Dreamers is as good as its spiritual parent, Last Tango, if just a bit below The Conformist. And I love Eva Green even more after seeing it. #989 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

This scene, in which Isabelle extends the "Name That Film" game to sculptures, includes one of the film's most remarkable images: