Previous month:
April 2016
Next month:
June 2016

malagueña and me (and the 101 strings, roy clark, liberace, and charo)

Here is something I wrote back in 2003:

I recall a record we used to own when I was growing up. It was called The Soul of Spain, which sounds pretty authentic, I know, but this was an album by the 101 Strings Orchestra. The 101 Strings were like second-string Mantovanis ... they made a gazillion albums over the years, many of them theme albums, many of those themes tied to various places around the globe ... and so, The Soul of Spain.

The big hit on this album was, of course, "Malagueña" ... this was an epic rendition, almost ten minutes long, featuring (you guessed it) lots and lots of strings. For awhile it seemed like every guitar picker had to prove he could play "Malagueña" ... Hee-Haw star Roy Clark was one of the fastest ... the 101 Strings version even turned up a few years ago on an anthology called Cigar Aficionado: Latin Mood.

Because of my childhood memories, the 101 Strings version of "Malagueña" remains completely identified in my mind with my Spanish heritage. Pretty much anytime I hear the song by anyone, though, I get all teary-eyed. I also recall, as a kid, that we would go to my grandmother's house on Sundays, and oftentimes someone would grab a guitar, usually my uncle ... he couldn't really hear out of one of his ears, so he'd stick the bad ear right on the guitar and he'd play flamenco ... like a lot of people, I guess I assumed things like flamenco and bullfighting were "Spanish," because that's really all I was taught. I didn't think of myself as being Andalusian.

That ignorance means I never even made the simplest of connections ... that the title "Malagueña" referred to Malaga.

OK, I established that in my heart, to this day, I identify “Malagueña” with both my childhood and my Spanish heritage. But a fuller examination perhaps says something about identity in the United States.

First, just to cover all bases, my father was Spanish (as in “from Spain” ... his parents were born there), my mother was “American” (as in her family came from Kentucky). I was born in 1953, so I was raised during the height of assimilation. This meant, among other things, that we didn’t speak Spanish in the home.

I’m not sure I spent enough time in the above post describing the 101 Strings Orchestra. They released their first album in 1957. Their genre was “mood music” (it goes under many names), which is basically an easy-listening version of “lite classical” music. (OK, “lite classical” is likely easy-listening music itself.) There is a lot of information about 101 Strings on the Internet, yet my search skills seem to fail me, for I never quite get the story right. Suffice to say that 101 Strings sold LOTS of record world-wide. Growing up, I thought we had The Soul of Spain in our house because of my father and his family, but as far as I can tell, The Soul of Spain was one of those late-50s suburban artifacts that made it into many households.

As I say, their version of “Malagueña” is the standard for me, based solely on that album when I was a kid. There are many reasons why this is odd. First, there’s the idea of a mood-music orchestra playing Spanish classics. Second, if we’re going to be essentialist about this, 101 Strings were a concoction of an American record mogul who signed a German orchestra to play under the 101 Strings moniker. Third, “Malagueña” was written for piano, not for an orchestra. It has become a standard for all sorts of instrumental combinations over the years ... apparently it’s popular with marching bands ... and after Carlos Montoya recorded a flamenco guitar version, it became a standard showcase for guitarists (like Roy Clark, mentioned above, although there was also Jose Feliciano, and, perhaps most “authentic”, the Spaniard María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza, better known as Charo). Given my connection to the orchestral version, and the prevalence of guitar-based versions, the version performed by Liberace seems incongruous. But at least he was returning the song to its original instrument.

All of this, with the exception of Charo, would seem to move the song far from Andalusia (even Charo came from neighboring Murcia). Thus, if “authenticity” is important (and who knows the answer to that question), then it probably says something about America, at least in the late-50s, that the version which stuck with a Spanish-American boy came via a German orchestra.

But there is more. The composer of “Malagueña” was Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote it in 1928 as the final movement of his “Suite Andalucia”. Here, it would seem, we can find the most authentic “Malagueña”.

Except ... Lecuona was a Cuban, born in Havana.

Oh well ... authenticity is overrated, anyway. Here’s the 101 Strings version:

Roy Clark, flashing his hot licks for Felix Unger and Oscar Madison:

Liberace (with Sammy Davis Jr. as a bonus at the end):

And the great Charo (with bonus Jerry Lewis Cuchi-Cuchi):

game of thrones and penny dreadful

Game of Thrones is the centerpiece of the current HBO lineup. HBO has long established itself as the place for “quality” television. Game of Thrones may be a genre series based on fantasy novels, but its presence on HBO lifts it above genre. (This is not a value judgment or a dismissal of genre fiction, just a way of noting that HBO makes a series more than genre ... “it’s not TV, it’s HBO”.) HBO’s stature has declined since the days of The Sopranos ... there is a lot of competition nowadays. But there is no question that Game of Thrones is treated with respect in part because of the network on which it airs. It has won 26 Emmys and counting. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t escape it.

There has been some recognition of newer outlets like the streamers Netflix and Amazon, and their shows also achieve a level of acclaim. It seems a bit harder for already-existing premium cable networks to get the same kind of attention. Starz can’t escape its original reputation as a dumping ground for Encore movies, even though Spartacus was rather like a cheesy version of HBO’s Rome, and the current series Outlander is quite good (and, like GoT, is based on a popular series of genre novels, in this case, historical romance).

The true step-brother of HBO, though, is Showtime, which has been around for a long time, and which has offered many fine series, but which lacks a certain HBO-level of respect. Some of Showtime’s original series seek a different, broader audience, like Queer as Folk and The L Word and Soul Food, and others are attempts at “quality television” that are scaled down from the beginning, like Weeds or United States of Tara. Showtime does have “prestige” shows ... Dexter, like many of their series, ran for several seasons past its sell-by date, but it got lots of attention. Shameless, which is as good as anything on HBO and features a performance by Emmy Rossum that will apparently go unrecognized by the Emmys until Rossum dies, hasn’t yet begun to stink, and it’s hard to imagine why it hasn’t made a bigger impact. (Maybe if it was on HBO?)

Besides Shameless, Showtime does have a few series that have captured some of the cultural attention, most notably Homeland, which in true Showtime fashion was great for one season and has faded ever since without getting cancelled.

But the best series currently on Showtime is Penny Dreadful, which recently began its third season. It’s hard to assign a specific genre to Penny Dreadful ... perhaps the title gives us a label. It is a project by playwright and screenwriter John Logan, who has won Tonys and been nominated for Oscars ... he also wrote the two most recent 007 movies. As far as I can tell, Penny Dreadful is his first television series.

A series like Game of Thrones thrives on its immense landscapes and countless characters. It always looks expensive. Penny Dreadful, on the other hand, just looks great, without preening over its budget.

Penny Dreadful is also original ... it is not based on novels. But its construct couldn’t exist without novels, for Logan got the idea to do a mash-up of characters (in the public domain) from 19th-century fiction and early horror films. So there are major parts for Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, and the monster’s mate ... Dorian Gray ... Dracula, Van Helsing, Renfield, and Mina Harker ... Lawrence “Wolfman” Talbot ... and now, Dr. Jekyll has turned up, as well. These famous characters surround Logan’s inventions, mainly Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray. (Has there ever been a show that starred an ex-007 and an ex-Bond girl?)

You would be forgiven if you thought this would add up to a mess, glorious or not so glorious, and if you perhaps hoped Penny Dreadful was mostly camp, that would be understandable. Except for the most part, Logan is quite serious about all this stuff. The main method for demonstrating this is through the fearless performance of Eva Green, who at times appears to be channeling the great Barbara Steele. Green’s face reflects all of the craziness surrounding her, and the attempts by Vanessa to create meaning out of her chaotic existence is wonderfully portrayed by Green.

Yet for all of this, I don’t hear many people talking about Penny Dreadful, certainly not in comparison to Game of Thrones. Both series have complicated narratives with fine actors, both are full of sex and violence. But GoT, whose most prominent female characters are at best only nominally central, is taken more seriously than Penny Dreadful, where Vanessa Ives is more fascinating that Khaleesi and Cersei et al combined.

Penny Dreadful suffers, I think, from being the wrong genre. (Outlander is the real example, here ... I really should be writing about that show, but it airs on Saturdays, while Penny Dreadful airs right after Game of Thrones on Sundays, so I tend to think of those two series together.) We’re still in a time where a “guy show” gets more attention than something like historical or Gothic romance.

barbara steele

Barbara Steele

vanessa ives

Eva Green in Penny Dreadful

music friday: random ten

If I had my way, I would tear this building down.


throw me back to 2005

On this date in 2005, we saw Bruce Springsteen on the Devils and Dust tour. At the time, I wrote:

Next up was the weirdest version of "Reason to Believe" in history. He stomped his foot for a drum, played harmonica, and sang into some oddball mic that distorted his voice beyond recognition, so even someone like me, who knew it was coming, didn't recognize the song until it was almost over. Try to imagine Captain Beefheart singing Delta blues from the bottom of a swamp ... it was downright scary sounding.

Here he is performing it a month later, to give you an idea:

Two years later, it had morphed into this stunning version:

Seen a man standin' over a dead dog lyin' by the highway in a ditch
He's lookin' down kinda puzzled pokin' that dog with a stick
Got his car door flung open he's standin' out on Highway 31
Like if he stood there long enough that dog'd get up and run
Struck me kinda funny seem kinda funny sir to me
Still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe

by request: survivor (james mcteigue, 2015)

We watch movies for a variety of reasons. My wife enjoys a classic as much as the next person, but she is also a knitter, and it often works well for her to have a standard TV show or movie running while she knits. She doesn’t always look up at the screen, so dialogue-heavy things are useful, and a sense of familiarity also helps, since she might not be giving her full attention.

And so we browsed through Netflix and decided to watch Survivor. It was only a day ago, and I’ve already forgotten why. Maybe it was the brief descriptive text: “He’s the world’s deadliest assassin and his next target ... is her. The cat-and-mouse game is on. The object: survival.” Maybe it was the cast: Milla Jovovich and Pierce Brosnan were the stars, both usually reliable, and the supporting actors included Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster, Roger Rees in his last movie, James D’Arcy, and Angela Bassett. Since I wasn’t knitting, my expectations were pretty low ... the very things that make it a good movie for a knitter might be negative for someone actually paying attention. But it’s nice to watch a movie together, and Outlander wouldn’t be on for a few hours.

All of the above should be kept in mind, because if I was grading this on the “Knitting Scale”, I might be kinder. But Survivor is formulaic, dumb, and uninteresting in general, which didn’t quite work for me. You can see some problems in advance. The cast was fairly impressive, a B+ group. I don’t know how much they got paid, but Jovovich, star of the Resident Evil franchise, surely makes more than chump change, and while he’s not getting paid 007 money here, Brosnan was paid around $40 million for his James Bond movies. (On the other hand, Angela Bassett was “only” paid $250k for her Oscar-nominated turn in What’s Love Got to Do With It.) Basically I’m inventing figures out of thin air, but the amount of money spent on the cast for Survivor was surely more than what the actors in Sharknado were paid. Well, the budget for Survivor was $20 million, which is a lot of money, but not so much for an international thriller with some big names in the cast.

My point is that even if they spent all $20 million on non-cast items, Survivor wasn’t exactly The Bourne Identity in the budget department.

Which shouldn’t matter. I watch movies all the time with budgets far lower than $20 million that are fine films. McTeigue has made a few interesting, relatively inexpensive movies in the past, such as his debut, V for Vendetta. (He also directed a couple of episodes of Sense8.)

But for a movie like this to work, everything needs to be tight, the suspense needs to drive the film, you should feel that everyone behind the production was fully invested in what we see on the screen. And that’s just not true. Oh, the actors don’t mail it in ... Jovovich is always good when she’s running around, and Brosnan has some fun playing a bad guy. But there is nothing to make anyone care about the characters, and the action does indeed look like most of the budget went to the stars ... it is a cheap-looking movie, on the level of a TV show. And there are no quirks that show some inventiveness from the film makers. Survivor is by-the-numbers, and the numbers aren’t that interesting, anyway.

If you are a knitter looking for something to take up 96 minutes of your time while you work, by all means, check out Survivor. For the rest of us, 4/10.