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December 2010
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portlandia series premiere

Regular readers know I can’t be trusted to “get” modern comedy. And when I do like something, it usually bludgeons me … like 30 Rock with its rapid-fire, non-stop jokes, or Curb Your Enthusiasm with its clueless mean-spiritedness. So Portlandia might not be my cup of tea, since it offers a kinder, gentler comedy. Still, I’m willing to check out anything Carrie Brownstein is doing, so I took in the first episode of Portlandia.

And I liked it. It was kinda cute, and I don’t usually do cute, but it was cute with barbs. The barbs aren’t really gentle, either. But they are aimed at the same people who make the jokes, so there is a nice insularity to it all. Fred Armisen and Brownstein know the world of the show quite well, and they allow us to see that they are a part of the culture they are poking. So there is no mean-spiritedness at all. As others have pointed out, the show makes fun of the exact audience they can expect to be watching: smart, self-conscious folks who watch IFC.

I’m sure there is a lot of Portland-specific material … I’ve been to Portland many times, but never lived there, so I’ll leave it to the natives to judge if the show gets the place “right.” But the subject isn’t confined to Portland … there was a lot of Berkeley in what I saw, in particular the restaurant scene where the server had a dossier on the chicken that was to be served (I just ate in a place where the server explained that the mushrooms in the ice cream were picked from the Berkeley Hills, and there’s a newish restaurant in town, Gather, that has enormous chalkboards that list where all of the food on the menu comes from).

So … low-key but smart comedy, Carrie Brownstein … what’s not to like?

BTW, a footnote about Gather, which is actually a fine place … I enjoyed the burger I ate there a couple of months ago. The web site’s description of Gather could serve as a sketch on Portlandia all by itself:

Practically every material used in our interior comes with a unique story.  The bar is made from a Douglas Fir that grew and fell in Camp Meeker in Sebastopol. Because the trees grow really fast in wet forests like these the rings are huge and highly distinctive.

Recycled pickle barrels are experiencing a new life as wait stations, the back bar and cabinetry in the open kitchen.

A former 100,000 gallon water tank from Marin county has been turned into tables, counter-faces and our front door; bleachers from a local high school are now banquettes and tables; the lights over the bar have been crafted out of local, recycled Square One vodka bottles and even the exposed piping in the main dining room is thoughtfully laid out to emulate the rays of the sun, exemplary of our commitment to honoring the essential elements of life.

a visit from the homeland

We went to Juan’s tonight, and got “our” table, the one next to this picture on the wall:


There were only two other people in the restaurant, it being a bit early for dinner … two guys sitting together. Our server, Eddie, immediately pointed at the picture and started talking to the guys in Spanish … I joined in … it took no time at all for them to say they were from Andalucía. We shared a few stories, I told them my family was from there, specifically Estepona, we talked about various places, including Ronda where the above picture was taken. It was fun!

As we were leaving, I shook hands with the two guys. We talked a little more … what soccer team they liked, stuff like that. As we walked out the door, I heard one of them say “’ta luego!”

Robin and I were delighted. It’s been almost two years since we got to hear the Andalusian accent. It’s distinctive enough, and we’ve been there often enough, that even Robin, who doesn’t speak Spanish, recognizes that “lazy tongue.” Never use two syllables when one will do just fine.

music friday: thelma houston, “don’t leave me this way”

I don’t know if people these days remember the way that disco was both extremely popular (both on the subcultural level and, after Saturday Night Fever, with the masses) and extremely reviled (“disco sucks”). One angle to this is the way established rockers made concessions to the disco market, concessions they felt were necessary no matter what they thought of the music. It was invariably seen as a step down … no matter how great a track like “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones might be, it was mostly dismissed as beneath the level of the artists. I mean, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is often cited as evidence of Rod Stewart’s shameless selling out, but the great one had been in decline for a few years already … see “Hot Legs,” or Smiler for that matter. One result of this, along with the general disdain with which the rock audience held for disco, is that great singers doing great songs in great arrangements are remembered, if at all, as the product of one-hit divas, working in a disreputable genre. Even now, when “disco sucks” is a thing of the past, the music is treated more as a nostalgic tool than as a genre full of great music … I’d guess that most people, asked to name a disco song, would offer ”YMCA” (not that the Village People didn’t make some great records, themselves).

And so to Thelma Houston. One the one hand, it’s fair to call her a one-hit wonder … she recorded for a long time before and after her big hit, but never had anywhere near the success of “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” I could say that she continues to work in the business, which is true, that she occasionally releases albums, which is true, that she branched out into acting for awhile, which is true. But, to be honest, the only reason she’s featured here is because of her big hit.

And it was big, indeed. I’m a bit biased … it’s probably my favorite disco track of all time. But this wasn’t just another song. Written by Gamble and Huff along with Cary Gilbert, it first showed up on an album by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, with lead vocals by Teddy Pendergrass. It was a top-ten hit on the disco charts, and, to ears more accustomed to the Thelma Houston version, is a bit more bombastic in the vocals and a lot less disco in the arrangement:

I can imagine using these two versions in a classroom, as a subtle example of what happens when you emphasize the disco angle. Push the bass way up front, draw attention to the metronomic beat, switch Teddy Pendergrass for the passionate vocals of a woman like Thelma Houston, and you’ve got a gigantic disco hit (this video has some bizarre visuals, which I’ll attribute to the international stature of the song):

Some years later, The Communards hit with their own Hi-NRG version, this time led by the vocals of the great Jimmy Somerville and Sarah Jane Morris. There’s a tale to tell in the travels of this song from Teddy Pendergrass to Jimmy Somerville via Thelma Houston:

To be fair, one of the best examples of how “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was part of our daily lives for a short while is unavailable on the web … and here I thought you could find anything on the Internet. Looking for Mr. Goodbar was a movie based on a popular novel that fictionalized the story of a young schoolteacher who was murdered. The teacher is sexually adventurous, and, in the movie at least, this leads inexorably to her demise. The creepy moralizing of the movie made it quite a disappointment, despite the presence of Diane Keaton in a role that for perhaps the first time emphasized her sexuality, Tuesday Weld in an Oscar-nominated performance, and Richard Gere in his film debut. What got many of us into the theaters on the opening weekend, though, was the trailer, which is the thing I can’t find online. The trailer, which as I recall enticed us with the idea of Keaton searching for sex in all the wrong places, featured Thelma Houston on the soundtrack, and seemed to promise a visual exploration of that great song. I’m not sure I’ve ever been convinced to see a movie based solely on a song on a trailer, but “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was that kind of song. Too bad the movie sucked.


Tommy Craggs at Deadspin:

If you're unfamiliar with [Jeff] Novitzky, he is the former IRS agent who didn't exactly cover himself in glory the last time around but who is nevertheless heading up the FDA's investigation into [Lance] Armstrong. He has behaved far more atrociously than any cyclist poking himself with a needle, and he has done it with the implicit and explicit encouragement of a media that should be bird-dogging his every move. In another life, Novitzky would've been digging through Dalton Trumbo's garbage. In this one, he has walked all over the best parts of the Bill of Rights in a flagrantly illegal raid of a drug testing facility and then very likely leaked the famous names harvested in that raid to certain eager reporters, which is also flagrantly illegal. …

Why are sportswriters not only ignoring his cheating but essentially consecrating it under large headlines? If it wasn't obvious already, the War on PEDs is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the War on Drugs, and this one is likewise being covered by a captive media writing the same kind of stories featuring the same kind of Joe Fridays and the same kind of selective righteousness.

return of the japanese iron chef

On the old original Japanese version of Iron Chef, it often seemed as if whatever the ingredient of the day was, at least one of the chefs would find a way to turn it into ice cream.

Tuesday night, Robin and I had dinner at eVe, a new restaurant in Berkeley. The dishes were unique, almost as if the chef made them up on the spot. I had a chestnut soup with chocolate and cayenne and mango and apple and other stuff. My steak was perfect, and surrounded by curds and whey, mustard greens, chanterelles, and who knows what else. Robin, meanwhile, had “Farm Egg” for an appetizer (it had grits, among other things) and monkfish for the main course.

Dessert is what reminded me of Iron Chef. We both opted for the flourless chocolate cake, which was more like fudge. It came with a pear, and a small scoop of ice cream that tasted a bit like maple. The waitress informed us that this was Candy Cap Ice Cream, made from candy cap mushrooms found in the Berkeley Hills. Mushroom ice cream … v.Iron Chef.


Holy shit.

I wish I was referring to one of the greatest movies ever made, but I’m not. Yesterday around 4 in the afternoon, I was having something to eat and reading off the monitor, when, with no warning, I experienced something entirely new to me. For a couple of seconds, I thought I was having a dizzy spell, but that quickly moved far beyond mere dizziness. When I get extremely dizzy, the world seems to spin. This was not the same thing. It was more like a gyroscope, or what they do to an astronaut when training them for a trip to outer space. It reminded me of that Baby Boomer classic from Disney, Our Friend the Atom.

our friend the atom

I was alone in the attic, so I shouted out for Robin to come upstairs. Quickly, she and our daughter Sara rushed up. They’ll have to explain in the comments section what was really happening. Apparently, I was holding onto the arms of my chair with a terrified look on my face. Suddenly, it felt like I was going to fall. In my mind, I was on my back, legs and arms flailing, trying to keep from making an endless descent … in reality, I guess I was just sitting in my chair. Sara repeatedly told me in a calm voice that I wasn’t falling, that I was just in my seat. Eventually, the feeling subsided … hell if I know how long it took, but a minute or so seems about right.

I threw up a few times, and sweat like a pig. We went down to the emergency ward, and it’s a sign of how ordinary my situation was that we were back home within a couple of hours … perhaps the shortest trip I’ve ever taken to emergency. I had, the doctor explained, a case of vertigo.

This may never happen again, or, of course, it may happen frequently. I don’t know. As I type this the next morning, I’m mostly feeling fine, if a bit wasted. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to know another outburst is coming, so I can’t really prepare for it. I hope it never happens again, although at least the next time, I’ll know what is happening … much of the terror I felt came from my lack of understanding, as if the world as I knew it had changed in an instant into something much more scary. Those of you who have had a bout of vertigo … my son reminded me later in the evening that he is one of those people … know what I mean. The rest of you will just have to take my word for it, and hope it never happens to you.

what i watched last week

Being There. I loved this movie when it came out, and liked it in subsequent viewings, as well. Yet I approach it with an odd caution. I generally dislike movies that present the masses as stupid. The question is whether Being There is one of those movies. And I’m not sure. The satirical notion (some would say the film is a bit of a one-trick pony) that a human blank slate would allow otherwise reasonable people to see themselves in the man is presented to us primarily as something only the rich, powerful and/or professional classes fall for. When the pallbearers at the end of the film decide Chance the gardener is the only person who can allow them to keep the presidency, the joke isn’t on the idiotic masses who might fall sway to Chance … it’s on the pols who think the masses will fall for Chance, simply because the pols themselves have fallen for him. It’s a fine line, to be sure, but perhaps that line explains why I still retain a fondness for Being There. And while the sexual subplot about the President could be dumped, the one about Eve and Chance should stay, since to this day, the “I like to watch” masturbation scene is perhaps the most memorable in the entire movie. #447 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

The Town. Ben Affleck’s latest ode to Boston has a lot going for it. Affleck has a feel for the area and he brings the audience along with him. Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker is terrific as a scarily off-center bank robber. (Affleck also got a great performance out of Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone … he’s looking like a good "actor’s director.”) And Affleck offers one classic scene, worthy of Hitchcock, involving two men, one women, and a tattoo. But the film always seem to be trying for something more profound than a simple crime drama, and it doesn’t get there (Affleck cut the film seriously to make the 125-minute cut … there is an extended version now on disc that might do a better job in this regard). 7/10.

Thunderball. Better than I remembered, although still not a top Bond film. In fact, the decline begins here. After a strong start with Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger raised the stakes … they remain two of the best in the series. Thunderball wasn’t up to those two. Perhaps it was Adolfo Celi as Largo, who didn’t make much of an impression (the remake, Never Say Never Again, wasn’t as good a movie, but it had Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo, and I am on record as claiming Brandauer was the best Bond villain of all time). Outside of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, nothing has risen to the pre-Thunderball level … although it is only fair to note that Thunderball was a big hit at the box office, and obviously the series remained popular for decades. 7/10.

big love season premiere

The final season premiere, I should add … this is the last season for Big Love. None too soon, I’m afraid. Last season wasn’t much good, and so this first episode of the new season is a comeback of sorts. But I no longer care about the main character, which pretty much ruins it for me. He gave a speech right near the end of the episode that seemed to demonstrate a bit of self-knowledge, but I confess I barely believed it, and don’t expect him to stick by it. I won’t quit watching … there’s only the one season left … but it’s not something I look forward too.

music friday: johnny thunders, “you can’t put your arms around a memory”

When I was growing up, reruns of the classic 50s television series The Honeymooners were on regularly. It seemed like it, anyway, because my siblings and I could quote liberally from the show. Later it became clear that there were only 39 episodes that were shown over and over again (other episodes were re-discovered later, but the “classic 39” were all we knew at the time). This probably accounts for our ability to recite dialogue … if the show was on five times a week, it would take less than two months before they’d start all over again from the beginning, so we’d see each episode several times a year.

One of our favorite episodes was one we always called “Chef of the Future,” although the actual title was “Better Living Through TV.” Ralph gets a scheme to sell a kitchen appliance via TV ads that will appear live during breaks for a local station playing movies. Here is the end of that episode … when we join Ralph and Ed, they are rehearsing their commercial one last time before they go live before a million viewers (“live” is exactly right … note the “spear fishing” and the literal breaking of the fourth wall, neither of which was planned):

The New York Dolls were one of the great American rock and roll bands. Like so many great ones, they are better recognized after the fact … they were not big stars during their short run, but their subsequent influence is found in all sorts of places, most obviously in punk (especially New York punk), but also as far afield as R.E.M. and the Smiths (Morrissey is a famous fan who helped organize their 21st-century reunion). Their importance is perhaps reflected in the fact that their bass player, Arthur Kane, a cult figure in a cult band but nonetheless at best the 3rd-most important member of the group, was the subject of a 2005 documentary, New York Doll, that played at Sundance.

When the band broke up, lead singer and songwriter David Johansen was the best bet for commercial success, and in fact, he has constructed a long-lasting solo career, with side trips into acting. What you noticed from the start of Johansen’s solo career was that it was safer than what he had done with the Dolls. This doesn’t mean his music sucked … in fact, much of it was quite wonderful. But it was missing something, and that something was Johnny Thunders, the Dolls’ lead guitarist and the Keith Richards to Johansen’s Mick Jagger. Thunders’ guitar work was an extraordinary sensory assault, just barely on the ordered side of chaos. Johansen was startling, but Thunders was unpredictable, like Bob Mould with fewer chops but more charisma. Compare these two versions of “Personality Crisis” … in the Dolls’ version, listen to Johnny’s noisy lawnmower, after which, the guitarists in the Johansen solo band seem technically adept but studied … they take actual solos!

Thunders, too, had a post-Dolls career, as a solo artist and with the Heartbreakers. His first solo album, So Alone, is considered one of his best, although he never got beyond cult status as a solo artist. “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” his best song, appeared on that album, and given Thunders’ famous drug problems, the song has generally been assumed to be about drug addiction:

Feel so cold and all alone,
Cause baby, you're not at home.
And when I'm home
Big deal, I'm still alone. …

And even though they don't show,
The scars aren't so old
And when they go,
They let you know

Here he is, singing the song in 1987:

It might seem at this point that the new year has brought an obsession with heroin to my music posts, given that “Signed D.C.” was last week’s offering, but there’s a bit of slippage. It might help if you looked at the list of people who have covered this song, everyone from Ronnie Spector to Blondie to Guns n’ Roses. Or you could check out Nina Antonia’s biography of Johnny, In Cold Blood. In it, Antonia writes:

Although he was never short of female attention, his closest relationships were doomed by his volatile neediness and by the age of nineteen, he had already written the song that many consider to be his finest moment, 'You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory'. Inspired by Janis, with whom he was embroiled in a typically intense saga of reunion and despair, the song … plunges the depths of dejection.

A great song is always open to multiple interpretations, of course, and saying he wrote the song about broken relationships doesn’t preclude a drug-addiction reading of the song when it was finally recorded. Thunders’ legend revolves around drugs, though, and so my guess is that’s the reading most people take from the song.

Oh, and The Honeymooners? Apparently it was one of Johnny’s favorite shows, and … well, check out this clip from the “Chef of the Future” episode, because according to Antonia, this is where the song title originated:

Better Living Through TV