rocketman (dexter fletcher, 2019)

In many ways, Rocketman is a typical biopic. It's constructed as a flashback, with Elton John putting himself into rehab and telling everyone his story from childhood to stardom. Of course, everything goes to shit ... there's the booze, and the drugs, and the moneyed excesses. It's nothing you haven't seen before, with the obvious difference that this time it's Elton John rather than Billie Holiday or that guy in A Star Is Born. You get a shitload of Elton John songs, which is why you came. Taron Egerton does well enough singing those songs ... he's not the problem. It's the arrangements of many of the songs that brings Rocketman down, with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" being the best/worst example. Here is how it sounds in the movie:

It starts out OK, if a little tame for what is arguably the hardest-rocking song Elton ever recorded. But just past the one-minute mark, the guitar disappears, replaced by a big band sound with some psychedelia tossed in. The real thing, though, was recorded with the guitar up front, leading the charge. You might want to remember the name Davey Johnstone ... he's nowhere in the movie, and even a simulacrum of his sound disappears into the movie version of this song, but he is crucial to how the original sounded.

The movie version sounds more like a Broadway musical than it sounds like rock and roll.

There's also a standard trope of bios about musicians that goes seriously astray here. Most of the songs are presented as context for something that's happening in Elton's life. It's the curse of the singer/songwriter genre. But at least James Taylor was singing about himself in "Fire and Rain". Elton John songs are written by Bernie Taupin. Taupin isn't exactly an autobiographical writer in the first place, but it's a serious misstep to take words Taupin has written and have them come out of Elton's mouth as if they reflected Elton's situation. The whole idea of making songs explain situations (his heart was broken so he wrote this song) is trite misguided, but even if you do buy into that, it makes no sense that Bernie writes lyrics, completely separate from Elton, yet the movie acts as if those lyrics speak to Elton's innermost being. (As if to prove my point, the one time the songs make sense is when Bernie sings "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" ... at least the right character is doing the singing.)

And it's not just the original music that Rocketman is up against. It even goes where no other movie needs to any longer, for Almost Famous has already given us the "Tiny Dancer" segment for the ages. Here is Rocketman ... excuse the quality, the movie is too new for good clips, this looks like it was recorded with a phone off a movie screen, but you get the idea:

And here, the iconic scene from Almost Famous:

Rocketman's version is about Elton's sadness (voiced, again, using someone else's words). Almost Famous shows how music brings people together into a community. In one, the only thing we learn from the song is about Elton John's emotions ... in the other, we learn how people use music in their daily lives.

You will like Rocketman, if you just want the nostalgia of being reminded of songs from your past, if you want to see a reasonably good impression of Elton John, if you aren't bothered by the stock biopic tropes, if you don't mind that the score is better suited for a stage play than for a rock and roll show. I suspect that includes a lot of people. Not me.


music friday: dr. john

Had a different post ready for today, but made a quick change after hearing of the death of Mac Rebennack, Dr. John, The Night Tripper. This will be quicker than he deserves.

I first heard of Dr. John on his debut album, Gris-Gris, in 1968. I have written at length about the importance of the emergent FM "Underground" Radio on me as a teen. Gris-Gris came out as that radio was coming alive. Like many, I was conversant with New Orleans music because it was such a crucial element of early rock and roll. But I knew nothing of the culture, so when Gris-Gris came out, it was as if someone from Mars had made a record. There were a lot of weird records made in the psychedelic era. Many of them are junk, few of them had a lasting impact, even if I personally still listen to a lot of that music to this day. Gris-Gris may have been the most bizarre album of its time, and that's saying something. It was steeped in New Orleans' musical and cultural traditions. Not really knowing this, I experienced the album as weirder than it really was ... while it's still bizarre, listening to it now makes much more sense, because we can place it within our better knowledge of the traditions, and because we've listened to Dr. John for decades.

Here's a selection of his work. First, the lead track from Gris-Gris:

It was inevitable that the Doctor would turn to "Iko Iko", which he recorded for his excellent 1972 album, Dr. John's Gumbo. I've always been partial to this short video from some years ago which shows off his astounding piano playing:

In 1973, he finally had his hit single:

And in 1976, he turned up at The Last Waltz:

The last track on Gris-Gris was arguably its best: "I Walk on Guilded Splinters". While that entire album impressed me with its to-me other-worldliness, "Guilded Splinters" made for good cover material. One person made a Spotify playlist called "100 Versions" ... the title is a bit of an exaggeration, there are only 22 songs, but still:

Here's one of the tracks on that playlist: Cher's version from 1969.

Finally, Dr. John occasionally turned up on the late, lamented series Treme. "Tryin' to show Ron Carter somethin' on the bass, it's like tryin' to show a whore how to turn a trick. It's unpossible maneuver." (Apologies in advance for my pathetic attempt to translate what the Doctor is saying.)


music friday: frequently played albums

The question has been asked on Twitter: What 5 albums have you listened to most in your life? Be honest, not trendy. I don't know how to be honest ... I mean, if I ask Last.fm, which has been tracking my Spotify usage for a long time, the album I have listened to the most is Pink's The Truth About Love, which I'm pretty sure doesn't reach the numbers of stuff from the 60s, to begin with. So, keeping all that in mind, here is what I came up with, in no particular order.

Honorable Mention to Children of the Future, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Dirty Mind, Surrealistic Pillow, Beggars Banquet.

Personal note: The White Album was released on November 22, 1968. My then girlfriend/current wife gave it to me for a Xmas present.


music friday: elvis: the rebirth of the king (mike connolly, 2017)

This is a not uninteresting look at Elvis from the BBC that treats him with respect as an artist, proposing that Elvis in Vegas was, at worst, underrated and at best, his peak. I'm not sure this tells hardcore fans anything they don't already know, but The Rebirth of the King could serve to counter those caricatures of Elvis in the 70s that are so prevalent with more casual fans. It's not junk, and it made for a fun 60 minutes.

Greil Marcus stands in for the critics, and he is eloquent when describing the '68 Special, offering insights in particular to "Baby What You Want Me to Do". Several of the people involved with the music Elvis made in the late-60s/early-70s turn up with some good anecdotes, many of which point to the professionalism Elvis the musician brought to the table in those days. As is often the case in documentaries like this, we only get snippets of songs, which has the feel of coitus interruptus.

An interesting connection is shown between Elvis and Roy Hamilton. Elvis loved Hamilton's work, and the film is pretty convincing at showing how his vocals were influenced by the R&B star (whose son is interviewed).

Here are a few highlights from the film, only I'm posting a fuller version of the songs.

And, for as long as it stays up, here is the full documentary:


small world: sipowicz, sha na na, and me

I once wrote an essay for a book titled What Would Sipowicz Do? Race, Rights and Redemption in NYPD Blue. A couple of days ago, the publisher sent a group email to all of the authors, letting us know that the book, which came out in 2004, will be going out of print. As I often do when I get included in an anthology, I check out my fellow contributors, looking for names I recognize. This doesn't always make me happy ... Alan Dershowitz turned up in one of those books ... but it's fun, especially in retrospect, to see the company I once hung out with. In the case of the NYPD Blue book, there was Joyce Millman, one of the founders of Salon, and David Gerrold, writer of numerous books and perhaps best-known for his association with Star Trek (he wrote the Tribbles episode, among others).

One of the writers in that book responded to the email, copying all of us, thanking the publisher for letting us know. I thought that was a nice gesture, and looked him up online, just to see what else he had done. His name was Robert A. Leonard, and the piece he wrote for the book was "Forensic Linguistics in NYPD Blue". Leonard himself is a distinguished linguist ... among other things, he is the director of the graduate program in Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra.

Looking at his Wikipedia page and elsewhere, I found that I actually had an experience with Leonard many years ago, June of 1970 to be exact. I had just turned 17, and a friend and I went to Fillmore West. The opening acts were Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and Pacific Gas & Electric, who had a decent-sized hit that year with "Are You Ready?"

My friend and I had never heard of the headliners. They had made their mark, though, in a movie which had been released a couple of months earlier that we hadn't yet seen: Woodstock. The band was Sha Na Na:

When we saw them, they were fun and energetic and very entertaining. Later I would learn that the original members of the band were students at Columbia.

I can still remember one song they played that night. Here it is at Woodstock (check out Jimi Hendrix taking in the act around the 1:15 moment):

The singer was "Rob" Leonard. According to Wikipedia, "Leonard spent two years with the band, until he stopped at the age of twenty-one. He left the band because he was offered a fellowship at Columbia Graduate School and wanted to further his education in linguistics."

Yes, my fellow author in the NYPD Blue anthology was the same man I saw sing "Teen Angel" at Fillmore West in 1970.


music friday: songwriters

Next month the Songwriters Hall of Fame will welcome its six latest inductees. Here is a song from each of those songwriters.

Dallas Austin: TLC, "Creep". "If he knew the things I did, he couldn't handle me, and I choose to keep him protected."

Missy Elliott: "Work It". "Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup."

John Prine: "Everything Is Cool". "Everything is cool, everything's okay. Why just before last Christmas, my baby went away."

Tom T. Hall: Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley PTA". "Mrs. Johnson, you're wearin' your dresses way too high."

Jack Tempchin: The New Riders of the Purple Sage, "Fifteen Days Under the Hood". "I got those dead-battery-broken-fan-belt blues."

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: "Father and Son". "If they were right, I'd agree, but it's them they know, not me."


reaction

Anyone who has spent any time on YouTube knows the way it can become a giant time suck. You go there to watch one video, and by the time you leave the site, you've watched ten. I've been watching a lot of "reaction videos" lately ... I know that's what they are called, there's a Wikipedia page about them. They are exactly what you think: videos of people reacting to other videos, which often/usually appear on your screen along with the person doing the reacting.

Perhaps my favorite, which I have posted here before, is a compilation of fans of The 100 watching a key scene from the show that features (SPOILER FOR SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED YEARS AGO, BUT WHATEVER) the return of a beloved character thought to be gone for good.

An ironic note: Lexa's earlier death was a perfect example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome, the worst since Tara in Buffy. Fans were outraged ... many said they would never watch again. But in the above scene, we saw that while we can never forget that stupid death, showrunner Jason Rothenberg knew his character, and knew how to send her off properly (even if it took 9 episodes to get there). The 100 has just begun its 6th season, with a 7th already in place, but for me, Lexa's return remains the most emotional scene in a series that is full of them.

My recent binge has been focused on someone who calls himself Modern Renaissance Man. He gave himself the right handle, as a look at his Patreon page demonstrates: "videos, comedy relief, ministering, counseling, advice". As I type this, he has uploaded 963 reaction videos to his YouTube channel. What I find fascinating is that he is knowledgeable about music (he is, in fact, a musician in addition to everything else he does), but he is fairly young and not necessarily familiar with the classic tunes of older times. It can be a delight seeing his response to things that he has never heard, things that us old timers have heard so many times the songs become almost meaningless. Here is the first one I watched:

There is no way for me to go back to the moment I first heard this song. The next best thing is watching someone else hear it for the first time.

One more, a favorite song of mine, and a favorite video of mine as well:

Finally, something a little different, but again, an example of something us geezers have memorized but which might be new to others:


music friday: pink, julia michaels, billie eilish

Last.fm tracks my Spotify listening, and a couple of days ago, they gave me my April listening report. Some of it was obvious ... I listened to a lot of Pink, who we saw in concert in the middle of the month. My most played track was "Walk Me Home" from her new album, Hurts 2B Human, and a new video of that song, featuring the Sink the Pink collective, has been released:

Under a set of "discovery" tables, I found that my personal new discovery was Julia Michaels, which has another Pink connection, as she was the opening act at the recent concert. Here is the Michaels track I played the most in April, which happens to also be the song she opened with at the concert (and which is coincidentally called "Pink"):

Finally, there is the "Mainstream-o-meter", which compares your top artist of the month against the overall top artist. I got 53%, whatever that means, largely because I played a lot of Billie Eilish. I suppose I should be proud that at 65, I'm still listening to new artists like Michaels and Eilish, but the truth is, I had no idea how popular they already are ... "new to me" doesn't necessarily mean "new to everyone". Here is Eilish with "bad guy" ... I think she looks like a 17-year-old Aubrey Plaza in this video:

Bonus: the tables say Kris Rodgers & The Dirty Gems were my most obscure artist of the month.


music friday: george jones

My knowledge of country music does not run deep. It's not that I don't like it ... it's more that it rarely enters my music world, and when it does, it's often when old rockers turn to country (Jerry Lee Lewis being the best example). Looking back, I've seen the following people in concert, who might be considered part of the country music world: Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent, Joe Ely, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Union Station, k.d. lang, and Willie Nelson. Not exactly a cross section of the vastness that is country music.

And so it is with George Jones, who died on this date in 2013. I have vague memories of "White Lightning", which was a hit when I was a couple of months shy of six years old, and "The Race Is On" in 1964. Somewhere along the way, I became aware in an intellectual way of Jones' importance, enough so that I'd consider a blog post like this. But I don't want to make it sound like I am a George Jones fanatic, or that I know his work in depth. If memory serves, I only ever owned two of his albums, and I was probably influenced there by rock critic Robert Christgau, who covered the Jones catalog in depth in his Consumer Guide. Thus, the first of those two albums was All-Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, which received an A- from Christgau but which is not highly regarded in general, because while it contains a lot of great hits, the versions on this album were re-recorded, not the originals. So it has "White Lightning" and "The Race Is On", but not in the versions that first caught my attention (I'm not sure I noticed the difference). There is also "Window Up Above" and "She Thinks I Still Care", among other classics. A few years later, I picked up I Am What I Am (Xgau: A-), which included the record often called the greatest country song of all time, "He Stopped Loving Her Today".

Not to be disrespectful, but I watched the TV show Hee Haw occasionally, and it featured all of the great country singers, so I probably saw Jones there, as well.

Here are a few George Jones songs. First, "White Lighning" on Hee Haw in, I believe, 1969:

"The Race Is On" from 1986 at Farm Aid:

"He Stopped Loving Her Today":

Bonus: a couple of those other country acts I've seen. Rosanne Cash, "Seven Year Ache":

And k.d. lang, "Crying" (if you only watch one of these videos, make it this one):