On this date in 1976 (the Bicentennial year!), we saw Randy Newman and Ry Cooder at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. Newman wasn't pushing an album, far as I can recall ... Good Old Boys was a couple of years old, Little Criminals was still a year away (Cooder would play on both of those albums). Newman was 32 years old, Cooder 29. Cooder released Chicken Skin Music later in '76, so I imagine he played some of those tunes ... clearly my memory is shot, I can't even picture Cooder in my mind from that night.
We enjoyed Newman ... only time we saw him, but whenever I see him on TV or YouTube, his personality reminds me very much of that night.
They both appeared on the soundtrack to one of my very favorite movies, Performance, back around 1970. Here are a couple of examples. First, the opening of the film, which features a few bars of Newman singing "Gone Dead Train". Note: some S&M sex in the clip, if you click on it.
It feels a bit picky to complain about a movie that succeeds on so many levels. It probably deserves the $1.9 billion and counting that it has collected at the box office. It ran for 2 1/2 hours without being boring ... the only break I took was when my old-man body had to pee (thanks to the great app RunPee, I knew when to go and what happened while I was gone). And some of my complaints are personal, based on taste preferences more than anything concrete. (As an example, I like non-stop action movies when they feature actual human beings ... The Raidmovies, for instance ... but am not as impressed by movies where the action is largely CGI superheroes flying around and beating the crap out of each other. Or, as I said about The Last Jedi, "lightsaber fights are boring, especially when you consider what is being done in movies like The Raid films.")
Infinity War has more emotional depth than is usual for these movies. Josh Brolin as Thanos in particular is more than just another Big Bad. But at some point, enough is enough. (I realize that any movie that makes close to $2 billion clearly hasn't reached saturation for most people.) Because Infinity War is partly the culmination of previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a large number of important characters turn up. This is especially the case with the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, who meet up and instantly double the number of key characters. (Not to mention Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, and others.) There are simply too many characters in Avengers: Infinity War. Crucial characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, 5 minutes screen time) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, 4 minutes) are barely around long enough to make an impression. (If you're a fan of Hawkeye, spoiler alert: he's not even in the movie.) Then there are the actors, some of them truly great, who were in Infinity War and I didn't know it until I saw their name in the credits: Idris Elba, Benicio Del Toro, and Carrie Coon come to mind.
Having said all of this, I can safely say that if you are a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you will like Avengers: Infinity War. You will probably see it more than once. For me, almost all of the movies in the MCU run together ... I give them all the same rating, with the exception of the Guardians movies, which I didn't like, and Black Panther, which I think is a great film. This doesn't mean I don't like the movies ... that "same rating" I give them is 7/10. But I don't care about them in the way I feel I should about a $2 billion success.
I could best express my position in all of this by noting that my 2nd-favorite part of the MCU (after Black Panther) is the TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. There are people with superpowers on that show, but the reason it's still around after five seasons is because it has real human characters that you get to know in depth.
Eric Clapton's work with Cream solidified his reputation. His long career has entrenched his work in the rock history books. A man who plays guitar as good as Clapton is always going to have tracks here or there that amaze. But I'd say the title of his 1989 album describes much of his career: Journeyman. (Christgau wrote, "What did you expect him to call it--Hack?") Which leaves Layla. The Dominos blend seamlessly with Derek, Duane Allman gives the sideman performance of all time, and Clapton's pain leads to an anguished work of art that never got old. One of only two non-compilation "double albums" on my list ... it makes great use of the extra space.
Film Fatales #40: Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016).
Divines is an interesting movie, for me anyway, because it takes place somewhere I know little about (French suburb), and the lead actor, who happens to be the director's kid sister, is the best thing in the movie. It's also a different kind of gangster movie, much more a female buddy movie.
The buddies are Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina's sister) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). They are low-level hustlers who want to join a gang led by Rebecca ... with Dounia as the primary instigator, they work their way into the gang. What follows isn't particularly original, nor does the fact that many of the primary characters are women seem to make a lot of difference. It works because the writing is good, because the acting is especially good, because the locale is intriguing. Cinematographer Julien Poupard adds a lot to the power of the film, working closely with Benyamina (this interview offers an up-close look at their work together), resulting in a film that, as Poupard says, colorful but not to colorful. He also mentions the influence of Mean Streets, which hadn't occurred to me but which makes perfect sense.
Divines won awards at several festivals, and won César Awards for Most Promising Actress (Amamra), Best Supporting Actress (Lukumuena), and Best First Feature (Benyamina). Promising ... that's a good word to describe Divines, which makes one look forward to the future work of Benyamina et al. But there is no need to wait, for Divines is already a solid accomplishment.
By Request: Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009).
I've been trying to find something to say about Watchmen since I saw it last week, and I'm drawing a blank. It kept my attention for its long running time, and it was often visually dazzling. (I've read the graphic novel, but it was so long ago I can't rely on my memories for comparison purposes.) But it also wasted Carla Gugino, and while I could tell Snyder was reaching for grandeur and meaning, I was mostly impressed by the amazing mask worn by Rorschach. It's the damnedest thing ... the only thing I can compare it to is the rotoscoped faces in A Scanner Darkly.
How appropriate the I finally move beyond the 60s with the album that did what it could to end the 60s. This album was part of a two-pronged attack ... the major part, to be sure, but Jann Wenner's interview with John Lennon, which ran in two issues of Rolling Stone, was amazing at the time, with Lennon pulling some of the same tricks he did on the album, basically trashing everyone but himself and Yoko. It's ferocious on the page, although if you hear the audio, he sounds much nicer, somehow. For me, there are the post-Beatles solo albums, a few good, mostly not, and there is Plastic Ono Band, which dominates them all to this day.
Guns N' Roses, "Sweet Child O' Mine". I love Slash's opening riff, but I confess, I can't stand the sound of Axl's voice.
Prince, "Sign O' the Times". I wouldn't argue with those who said this was his best album, although I'd vote for Dirty Mind. This was the last time I paid close attention to his albums, even as I still attended his concerts on occasion.
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, "Fairytale of New York". I like the sound of Shane MacGowan's voice just fine.
Sonic Youth, "Schizophrenia". I didn't really start paying attention to them until the next album, but they were getting to a place I could appreciate. I've actually seen them twice (1999 and 2009), which is two times more than I'd expect.
Sinéad O'Connor, "Troy". The first single from her first album. I tried to write while I was listening to this live performance video, and I had to stop ... she's commands our attention.
Aerosmith, "Rag Doll". There's a good, brief discussion of Aerosmith in the comments for last week's Music Friday.
Big Daddy Kane, "Raw". I tend to forget about Big Daddy Kane, but he was one of the best rappers of his day.
Rosanne Cash, "Tennessee Flat Top Box". We just went to a Pink concert with our daughter, which reminded me that the first concert we took her to, when she was four years old, was Bonnie Raitt and Rosanne Cash.
The Sisters of Mercy, "This Corrosion". The video is not of the 11-minute version.
It isn't a question of whether The Velvet Underground would be on this list. It's just a matter of choosing an album, and more than usual, my selection changes on a regular basis. The Velvet Underground and Nico introduced them ... White Light/White Heat has "I Heard Her Call Me Name" ... Loaded has many classics but is also missing many of the key members. Then there's the posthumous stuff, like 1969 Live, which has always been a favorite of mine. But I'm going with the self-titled third album, because I like the ways it defies the image of the band as the noisemakers who made "Sister Ray". John Cale is sorely missed, and perhaps that's the reason why no other VU album shows their quieter side with such beauty. "Pale Blue Eyes" is my pick to click, but there are so many others ... although I admit I don't care if I ever hear "The Murder Mystery" ever again. And it closes with one of Mo Tucker's rare, lovely vocals.
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.
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.
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.