Previous month:
February 2007
Next month:
April 2007

shut up & sing (barbara kopple and cecilia peck, 2006)

Shut Up and Sing makes a good case for … well, you know what, I'm not sure what it makes a case for, but whatever it is, the case it makes is a good one. The blurb on the Netflix disc holder says the movie "centers on … The Dixie Chicks and their nationwide vilification" after singer Natalie Maines said something snippish about Bush in a concert. Watching the movie, you can see the reaction of some of the country music fans who turned their back on the Chicks, and there are occasional mentions of the damage the controversy did to the band's performance on the record charts. (This could have been focused on in more depth … there is a brief segment from congressional hearings about conglomerate control of radio, and a few interviews with DJs and station managers who quit playing Dixie Chick records, but, as is the case throughout the film, nothing of real depth is offered.)

The movie works best as an intimate look at the artists. The filmmakers seem to have had very close access to the Chicks, and the women come across in terrific fashion, funny, with great camaraderie. Although sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire started the band, it's Maines, the lead singer who was added to the band some years into its history, who gets the most attention … yet the sisters seem mostly happy with the situation. And while Maines is the one with the "Big Mouth," her fellow Chicks stick by her, presenting a united front to the world at large that is touching and inspiring.

I wanted more clear analysis, so in that regard, Shut Up and Sing fell a bit short for me, but I may have been expecting something that wasn't intended. Or rather, whatever the intentions, what comes across is more a study of three working female artists than a simple presentation of public events. And that study is very good indeed.

My biggest problem with the movie is tangential … it's not something that comes up in the movie, really, but I can't help thinking about it. The Dixie Chicks make fine music … I don't think they are the best country musicians of all time, or the best anything of all time … I like some of their songs, but my taste runs more to Alison Krauss on the one hand or Dolly Parton on the other. But the movie makes the point that the Chicks' music transformed into something more … pop? … when they felt that the country audience had abandoned them. We don't get enough music in the movie to make any useful judgments about how that transformation worked out … if you know their music, you can decide for yourself if going from "Goodbye Earl" to "Not Ready to Make Nice" is progress or not, but you won't be able to figure it out from the movie, which never makes any claim to being a concert film. The thing is this: I am always concerned when I think art is being evaluated more on its "proper" cultural position than on its quality as a work of art. And I can't help wondering how many people have become Dixie Chick fans not because they fell in love with the music, but because they fell in love with that lady who dissed George Bush. I'm not talking about the fans who know the words to all the songs, I'm talking about the people whose first real exposure to the band came when the controversy raised its head. Just as a lot of people decided then and there that they no longer liked the Dixie Chicks, you just know there were people who said "I'm gonna go out and buy me some Dixie Chicks albums to show I support free speech." Well, free speech is a great thing, and Dixie Chick albums are good things, but I'd be happier if I thought people were buying Dixie Chicks albums because they thought the albums were good, instead of buying them because Natalie Maines said a mean thing about Bush. Because deciding you like the Dixie Chicks because of what Maines said is just as stupid as deciding you don't like them for the same reason.

Whatever … I'm nitpicking over a movie that was enjoyable. These three women really are great fun to watch as they interact. The movie has a real woman's perspective, which may go without saying (it's about three women and directed by two other women), but it's a welcome change to see women musicians offering up their own vision of what it means to be artists in a collective. I'm not going to run out and buy some Dixie Chick music … the stuff I already have is good enough for me … but the next time I listen to them, I'll see them in my mind, and I'll like what I see.

get yer head outta yer ass

Among the items in the most recent Newsweek poll of Americans:

When asked to select from a series of options to the question "Which one of the following statements come closest to your views about the origin and development of human beings," 48% of the respondents chose "God created humans pretty much in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

As stupid as these people are, they aren't as confused as the folks categorized in the poll as "Agnostics/Atheists." OK, it's bad enough that the two are combined into one group, which itself makes absolutely no sense. As one person commented, there was only one possible answer for those groups. Agnostics would choose "Other/Don't Know" and atheists would choose "God had no part." Instead, 13% of the agnostics/atheists believed God created humans in their present form. Huh?

Meanwhile, fewer than half of those polled answered yes to the following: "Do you think the scientific theory of evolution is well-supported by evidence and widely accepted within the scientific community?"

Y'all want to blame George Bush and the Republicans for everything that goes wrong in this country. But it's pretty clear that, Bush or no Bush, Americans are a pretty stupid lot.

guess I better watch another movie right now

I had an hour and 50 minutes remaining on this month's allocation at Netflix "Watch Now." That the thing where you watch movies streamed on your computer. You get them "free," one hour's worth per month for every dollar a month you spend on Netflix. Since I have a big nice monitor, and since Netflix's streaming is pretty good, it's a nice value for the price. I decided to watch Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, which is 1:45. When it was done, I figured I'd done pretty well keeping my "lost" minutes down to five. And then I read this on the Netflix site:

You have 5 minutes of instant movie watching time remaining through 03/30/2007.

You can start a movie of any length regardless of the number of minutes you have remaining on your account. You can pause and restart that movie and watch it until the end. However, if you leave the movie playback page or close your browser after the remaining time on your account reaches zero, you will not be able to restart that movie or any other until the start of your next billing period on 03/31/2007.

I guess I better start watching another movie right now!

friday random ten, 1968 edition

1. Mother Earth, "Revolution." From the great lost hippie album, the soundtrack to the movie Revolution. The movie itself isn't much … nice for archival purposes, and geezers from the Bay Area can see people like Herb Caen and Cecil Williams in the 60s. But the soundtrack, which featured the first recorded work of Mother Earth, the Steve Miller Band, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, was terrific. Quicksilver has gradually gotten their tracks onto reissues, and I think the same might be true for Mother Earth, but the Steve Miller sides never show up. I'm thinking in particular of "Your Old Lady," quite simply the most killer guitar raveup Miller has ever played in his life (on record, that is … in concert he was known to take the song even further). Mother Earth's primary singer was Tracy Nelson, a bluesy white woman who might have gotten more attention if there wasn't another, more obvious, bluesy white woman in town at the same time.

2. Big Brother & the Holding Company, "I Need a Man to Love." Speak of the devil. Not to say that Janis doesn't deserve her place atop this particular mountain, just trying to explain one reason why you might not have heard of Tracy Nelson. As long as I'm here, I might as well note that Big Brother was the best band that ever played with Janis. Don't believe those people who say otherwise.

3. The Moody Blues, "Legend of a Mind." We have definitely moved into the era when FM "Underground" radio was emergent … every song so far is an "album cut" that wouldn't get played on AM. This Moodies song is the ultimate song of the time, I suppose … Timothy Leary's dead, you know. In my (long past) cosmic days, I loved the Moody Blues. The video link is a classic … classic of what, I'm not sure.

4. Laura Nyro, "Stoned Soul Picnic." Nyro returns for a second week, once again writing songs that others turned into hits, while her album peaked at #181. It should be noted, though, that the people who DID buy Nyro's albums were fanatics about her greatness.

5. Richie Havens, "Run Shaker Life." This song sounds like it could have been written long ago, but Havens in fact co-wrote it. Or so it seemed in 1968. Later, it turned out it WAS an old song, a Shaker song, to be exact. Whatever … I'm still trying to figure out why Richie wants to shake all that carnal stuff out of himself.

6. Johnny Nash, "Hold Me Tight." Reggae-Pop in 1968? Yes, it's true. On a related note, am I the only person who remembers a teevee commercial starring the New York Jets … I feel like Emerson Boozer was one of them … where they sang a version of this song?

7. Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley P.T.A." The sixties were a great decade for protest music, of course. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, "Riley's recording became the first song by a female country artist to top both the U.S. pop and country charts. Her accomplishment would not be repeated until 1981." Barbara Eden starred in the TV version.

8. Albert King, "Blues Power." One of those abrupt transitions shuffle play is so good at. Hearing Albert King shout out "This is BLUES power" brings back a lot of memories. People think of 60s FM Underground radio as full of psychedelia and political folk music, but blues was very popular on those stations as well, and "Blues Power" was a staple, all ten minutes of it. The fact that I can still quote lyrics at will from this song is kinda scary, to be honest. "I ain't seen my main squeeze in ten long weeks today. You KNOW I got the blues. Can ya dig it?" "Wouldya believe I invented blues power?"

9. The Rolling Stones, "Stray Cat Blues." Beggars Banquet remains one of my favorite Stones albums, perhaps THE favorite. "Stray Cat Blues" verges on blues parody, and it's easy to hear it that way after 30+ years of Mick preening his way through one weak album after another. But back in the day, it was still fresh. The video link is to a performance from 2003 … somehow, the older Mick gets, the more creepy this song to a teenage hottie becomes.

10. Sam & Dave, "I Thank You." "You didn't have ta love me like you did, but you did, but you did … and I thank you!" An easy winner for Video of the Week.

the wolfman and the new guys

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, I attended a concert that was both excellent and odd. The excellence came from the performers; the oddness came because the two acts were not an obvious match for a double-bill.

The headliner was the J. Geils Band. I guess this band is mostly forgotten now … groups like Aerosmith and ZZ Top are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but while there are rumors of J. Geils champions within the Hall that argue for their inclusion, I'd be surprised if they ever made it. They weren't exactly critical favorites … they don't make the Acclaimed Music list of the 1000 most-acclaimed artists, have no albums on the top 3000, no songs listed at all. They only had two albums to make the Top Ten of the Billboard charts (one, Freeze-Frame, made #1 … it's the album they were touring behind 25 years ago) and one #1 single ("Centerfold" from Freeze-Frame). For all I know, they're mostly famous now because lead singer Peter Wolf was married for a time to Faye Dunaway.

None of this changes the fact that they were one of my favorite bands. Second-tier, sure … we're not talking Bruce Springsteen or Sleater-Kinney, not Hüsker Dü or Prince or the Clash. Their albums were erratic … they're the perfect band for the day of shuffle play, you can just rip the good songs and ignore the rest, and there's a helluva greatest hits album to be found amongst their best work. More importantly, though, they were a great live act, one of the best-ever, at least among rockers you barely hear of. A lot of that was Peter Wolf, one of the great dynamic front men ever. Wolf was born Peter Blankfield … like much of the band, he was Jewish (the best musician in the band, harmonica virtuoso Magic Dick, carried the "real life" name Richard Salwitz … he had one of the biggest white Afros of all time) … Wolf was a Boston DJ in the late 60s, playing blues and R&B, the music that he loved. Eventually he started singing in a band, locked up with the J. Geils crew, and the rest was rock and roll history for more than a decade.

Wolf raised interesting questions about white appropriation of black music. He loved the music, that was evident, and those of us who found his singing and stage persona thrilling didn't really consider any of the implications, but some argued that Wolf was … well, Christgau once called the band a "marginally offensive boogie cartoon." It's hard for me to say … whatever it was, I was a sucker for it. Nick Hornby wrote about the band in Songbook, describing his first trip to America and what happened when he first heard a J. Geils record, that gives a good feel for their appeal:

I'd never heard of them, and I'd never heard anything like them; in those days, before they had a big pop hit with "Centerfold," they played white-boy R&B, like the Stones in 1965, but much louder and much faster, with a berserk irreverence and an occasionally terrifying intensity. On the live album, Peter Wolf, the lead singer, shouted out funny, weird, or incomprehensible things in between songs: "On the licking stick, Mr. Magic Dick!" "This used to be called "Take Out Your False Teeth Mama … I Want to Sssssuck on Your Gums." And something that sounds like "Are yougonnagetitmoodoogetitgoomoogetitmoodoogoomoodoomoo getitalldowngetitallrightgetitoutofsightandgetitdownbaby?"

Most of their best music was covers … my own faves include the live "Looking for a Love" from Full House, where Wolf's screams cross way over beyond offensive parody into what Hornby quite rightly calls terrifying, and the immortal "Love-Itis," which Robin has really really tired of over the years because I must have told her a zillion times that I had love-itis. But there were some hit originals, too … obviously "Centerfold," their biggest hit, but also a song that is an out-of-leftfield (for an R&B-based rock band) killer, "Love Stinks." It's simultaneously a pop song, a great singalong, and a bitter wail against the perfidies of love. It's a classic: "I've been through diamonds, I've been through minks. I've been through it allllllll …. Love Stinks" followed by the irresistible chorus, "LOVE STINKS! YEAH YEAH! (love stinks)." (The Adam Sandler version doesn't quite get it.)

I saw them live several times in the 70s, with 1982 being the last time (the band was on the verge of breaking up as they finally hit it big). J. Geils weren't a punk band, so they were out of style, and while I loved them, the truth is, they were never really good enough to earn the title "American Stones" (they were better than Aerosmith, though). That last time, 25 years old, I took psychedelics before the show … can't remember what, mushrooms, mescaline, something. They were as good as ever (the band, and, I guess, the drugs, too).

And yet I probably wouldn't have mentioned all of this if it wasn't for the opening act. They were pretty good … their lead singer was also a fine front man, and even though their music was quite unlike that of J. Geils, they won over the crowd (not an easy thing … J. Geils fans wanted to see J. Geils, and since we all knew that J. Geils played marathon concerts, opening acts just made us antsy, so that I can recall such fine bands as Los Lobos being totally ignored by the we-want-Geils folks in the audience). They were from overseas, and had released a couple of albums that farted around the lower reaches of the Top 100. We knew who they were, maybe even looked forward to having them open the show, but they weren't exactly big stars, so it was fun to see how well they did and how successful they were, as opening acts go, at pleasing the rabid Geils audience.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention their name: U2.

happy birthday david!

We never seem to run out of birthdays in March. Just in the family I've got a brother, sister, in-law, and nephew celebrating another year. Today is my brother David's day. I suppose you could say this about all of my siblings, but I'll mention him this time, since it's his birthday: he covers a lot of ground in terms of his interests in life. Perhaps this says it best: I got an email from him the other day telling me how excited he was that he'd finally found a DVD copy of The Hypnotic Eye. Laugh all you want … I'm ready to borrow it already! So, in honor of my brother's birthday and days gone by, here's a picture he included in that email:

i gotta get a new clock to keep track of this stuff

My fifteen minutes of fame have been extended yet again, and, as with the last time, it's the Chronicle that moved the hands on the clock. Last week, Jon Carroll wrote a column about plagiarism that inspired me to drop him a quick email in response. Today, Jon ran a "letters column," and guess who showed up? "I also got notes from teachers who deal with plagiarism every day in the classroom. Steven Rubio outlines an interesting dilemma …"

Yes, it's that little old fame whore, me. I'll leave it to you to follow the link so you can read the entire column … here's an excerpt from the first part of my email, which didn't get quoted:

I'm an English teacher at the community college level who refuses to blame an entire class of students, in advance, for the possible future actions of a particular student. I am not naive ... I know students plagiarize ... but that is no reason to contribute to the "culture of distrust" which most surely does exist. And so I do not have students submit their papers via Turnitin.

Your column today points out the reality of higher education today, although I'm not sure this is more true now than before: students in general are not in college to get an education as much as they are there to improve their chances on the job market. And students are not to blame for this state of affairs.

Thanks to Jay Hipps … yes, Jay, you were the first to let me know! I hadn't gotten to my morning paper yet.

more facegen

Doug asked for some sample FaceGens, and it's easier for me to create a new post than try and get them into a comment, so here goes. I'll post mostly "close-ups," but there are also medium shots for some players.

This is a 40-year-old Hispanic … he is, in fact, "me" in the game:

Here are the various ethnicities, at least the primary ones (I haven't yet seen an East Indian):

From left to right, a 20-year-old Caucasian, 5'11" 200 lbs; a 23-year-old African, 5'7" 175 lbs; a 24-year-old Asian, 6'3" 220 lbs; a 57-year-old African, 5'9" 180 lbs, BMI: 26.4; a 55-year-old Caucasian, 6'2" 220 lbs, BMI: 27.9; and a 17-year-old African, 6'2" 215 lbs.

I suppose I should add someone with facial hair. The first guy is a 20-year-old Asian, 6'0" 205 lbs, the second, a 22-year-old Hispanic, 6'4" 235 lbs:

Finally, I will note that very little of the above is my work. The logos are downloaded from various sites … I'd give credit, but I'm not sure which comes from where. What I do is try to match colors to logos, so that, say, the brim of a cap matches the undershirt which matches a color in the logo on the cap. FaceGen does the rest.


l word season finale

I was writing something about the season finale of L Word and accidentally deleted everything. It's a sign of the quality of the show that I have little interest in recreating my discussion. Season Four (FOUR!) was arguably the best, although it may just have been that it's worn us down so we don't complain as much. A couple of the most annoying characters remained annoying, but for the first time, it seemed like we were supposed to be annoyed … in earlier years, these characters were presented as the best, their worst aspects somehow seeming to be meant as endearing. Jenny, the Most Annoying Character on Television ™, was crappy again after almost being human for most of Season Three … but everyone seemed to finally recognize this, and she didn't fare well, about which I can only say "about time." (Mia Kirschner has always been great, which helps, but just barely.) Jennifer Beals' Bette is a control-freak who was, along with Jenny, the heart of the show, and it was nice to finally see her called on her self-centered dominatrix tendencies. Beals is also doing a fine job, and her character actually made progress this season.

And (she gets her own paragraph) Leisha Hailey is the best thing about the show, even when they give her character, Alice, stupid things to do.

Oh, and the women are all gorgeous and they have on-screen sex. A lot.

But the problems of past seasons haven't really gone away. Characters change their core personalities from one season to the next to fit whatever plot shenanigans have been devised for them. The worst in this regard is Rachel Shelley's Helena (it's always worth mentioning the name of the actress, because with a couple of exceptions, these women do excellent work, better than the show deserves). She was a rich bitch in Season Two, everyone's dearest friend in Season Three, and a ditsy doofus in Season Four … none of these people resembled their earlier manifestations, but what the hell, Shelley did what she could with the role(s) and, like everyone else, she's hot and does lots of sex scenes. Also, as always, the show comes to a complete stop on a regular basis in order to climb on this or that soap box for speechifying of the worst sort (it doesn't matter that much of what is said in these scenes is on target, for they come out of nowhere and are completely inorganic in their presentation).

A special mention must be made of the song that closed off Season Four. The L Word, like far too many shows these days, loves to end episodes with meaningful montages underneath a "relevant" pop song, and this was never as bad in its worst moments as it got on Sunday night, when they managed to combine two of their worst qualities into one laughable mess: the anvilicious speechifying and the let-the-pop-song-do-the-work-for-us montage. As the season ended, Bette was impressing her former and perhaps future girlfriend, an artist played by Marlee Matlin, by bringing a huge advertising sign all the way across the country … it showed that she could break free of her control-freak patterns in the name of love. Meanwhile, back at home, we got The Montage of the various other characters doing whatever it is that characters do in these montages. While this occurred, the inevitable pop song flowed through the speakers, in this case, a song from one of my favorite singers, Pink. The song? "Dear Mr. President," wherein Pink chastises President Bush for being a fucking dickhead. I'll give a quarter to anyone who can tell me what "Dear Mr. President" has to do with anything that was on the screen as it played in the background.

Grade for season finale: B-

Grade for Season Four: Ah, what the heck, B.