bushwick bill

I have nothing original to say about Bushwick Bill, who died Sunday at the age of 52. But I shouldn't let his passing go unnoticed. I was never his intended audience, but on at least two occasions, he got my attention. The first was on Geto Boys' great "Mind Playing Tricks on Me", where Bushwick took the final verse, about Geto Boys out on Halloween. A man wants to take them on, and

So we triple-teamed on him
Dropping them motherfucking B's on him
The more I swung, the more blood flew
Then he disappeared and my boys disappeared too
Then I felt just like a fiend
It wasn't even close to Halloween
It was dark as fuck on the streets
My hands were all bloody, from punching on the concrete
God damn homey
My mind is playing tricks on me

Here's a lyric video where the lyrics are almost correct:

That song appeared on We Can't Be Stopped, with one of the most famous album covers in music history. Bill had been shot in the eye, and a picture was taken in the hospital:

Bill's great solo song was "Ever So Clear" (he had been drinking Everclear when he was shot). "It's fucked up I had to lose an eye to see shit clearly."


losing it at the movies: something wild (jonathan demme, 1986)

According to Wikipedia, the Quad Cinema is "New York City's first small four-screen multiplex theater". Opened in 1972, the Quad specializes in foreign and independent films. I live on the opposite coast from the Quad, so I can't make it there, which is too bad, because they are in the middle of a two-week festival, Losing It at the Movies: Pauline Kael at 100. Quoting from the Quad website, "The Quad celebrates Kael’s centennial—it would have been her 100th birthday this June 19—with 25 movies that she championed as well as a few that she dismissed, reviving debates that she stoked… and still can."

I'm on this. I've written here about eleven of those films:

Now it's time to take on the other 14. So I've started a new, semi-regular feature, "Losing It at the Movies". One of these days, there will finally be a general release of What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a documentary on Kael I've been looking forward to. In the meantime, I begin with Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote:

Jonathan Demme’s romantic screwball comedy isn’t just about a carefree kook (Melanie Griffith) and a pompous man from Wall Street (Jeff Daniels). The script—a first by E. Max Frye—is like the working out of a young man’s fantasy of the pleasures and punishments of shucking off middle-class behavior patterns. The movie is about getting high on anarchic, larcenous behavior and then being confronted with ruthless, sadistic criminality. This rough-edged comedy turns into a scary slapstick thriller. Demme weaves the stylization of rock videos into the fabric of the movie. Starting with David Byrne and Celia Cruz singing Byrne’s “Loco De Amor” during the opening credits, and ending with a reprise of Chip Taylor’s “Wild Thing” by the reggae singer Sister Carol East, who appears on half of the screen while the final credits roll on the other half, there are almost 50 songs (or parts of songs), several of them performed onscreen by The Feelies. The score—it was put together by John Cale and Laurie Anderson—has a life of its own that gives the movie a buzzing vitality. This is a party movie with both a dark and a light side. With Ray Liotta as the dangerous, menacing Ray; Dana Preu as the kook’s gloriously bland mother; and Margaret Colin as bitchy Irene. Also with Jack Gilpin, Su Tissue, and Demme’s co-producer Kenneth Utt, and, tucked among the many performers, John Waters and John Sayles. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto.

Jonathan Demme had risen from the Roger Corman factory, directing the Talking Heads concert movie, Stop Making Sense, in 1984. Melanie Griffith, 29 when the film was released, had been in movies for more than a decade, most notably in the 1984 Brian De Palma film Body Double. She was also known as the on again/off again wife of Don Johnson (they are the parents of Dakota Johnson), and as the daughter of Tippi Hedren. Jeff Daniels, 31 when the film was released, had broken out the year before as the male lead in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Meanwhile, Ray Liotta, a bit older than Daniels, had made his movie debut in 1983 in the notoriously awful The Lonely Lady. He doesn't show up in Something Wild until around 50 minutes have passed, but when he does, the film takes a turn from which it never returns. Liotta is magnetic as an ex-con who easily slips between a creepy smile and a frightening demeanor. Something Wild is fine before Liotta arrives ... Griffith and Daniels are good ... but Liotta takes over the movie. I remember seeing this when it came out, and my brother-in-law said he felt it was like watching two movies. He was referring to pre-and-post Ray Liotta.

Daniels' Wall Street man is the one who experiences something wild, and that wildness comes in two forms: the breezy, devil-may-care of Griffith's daredevil, and the sadistic menace of Liotta's con. Liotta changes the movie, but it isn't as jarring as my brother-in-law thought. Liotta isn't from a different movie, he is a different wild.

In this scene, the tables are turned:

I can't go without mentioning the appearance of the great band The Feelies, who turn up as The Willies, a band playing a high-school reunion. The following scene is also when Liotta makes his first appearance:

Finally, just because ... a video of The Feelies, directed by Jonathan Demme:


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.)


throwback to the well a third time

I've told this story at least twice before, each time on June 6, which is the date when this singular event occurred. The first post came on June 6, 2004 ... it marked the 20th anniversary. I'll cut-and-paste with minor edits.

There were better years to be a Giants fan than 1984. Among the "stars" of that 1984 squad were the combo of Al Oliver and Scot Thompson at first base (Oliver, a newly-acquired, decent if overrated player, was 37 years old, and he hit an empty .298 with no walks and literally no homers before being traded away in August; Thompson was a career bench-warmer who was OK for the Giants in '84). There was a three-headed, hitless Hydra at second consisting of Manny Trillo, Brad Wellman and Duane Kuiper (two were past their prime, one never had a prime); outfielder Joel Youngblood at thirdbase (he made 36 errors in 117 games); and the immortal Johnnie LeMaster hitting .217 at shortstop. Jack "The Ripper" Clark got off to a terrific start at the plate, and he was in his prime, but then he got injured, only played in 57 games, and was traded before the next season began. The winningest pitcher on the team was Mike Krukow, who won 11 while losing 12 with an ERA a full run higher than the league average ... it was his worst season.

At the beginning of play on June 6, the Giants were buried in last place, with the worst record in baseball, having lost 2/3 of their games thus far. They had finished off May by losing the last four games of a road trip. Returning to Candlestick Park, they won once, then lost another five in a row, leading up to the events of June 6th. It was grey and drizzly that afternoon, and only 7635 fans showed up, one of whom was me, playing a little mini-hooky from work (I was working swing shift and would be showing up late that day). The Giants leadoff hitter was Johnnie LeMaster, for those who think Neifi Perez is the worst leadoff hitter in Giants history. The visiting Atlanta Braves, led by Dale Murphy, picked up a couple of early runs off of Giants starter Jeff Robinson, but then, miracle of miracles, the Giants loaded the bases with two singles and a walk, at which point, Bob Brenly hit a grand-slam homer to put the locals up, 4-2. (As punishment, the next time he batted, Brenly was hit by a pitch.)

This was as good as it got for Giants fans in those days. You wouldn't have had any problem figuring out that we were disgruntled, since some fans had taken to showing up to games wearing paper bags over their heads, as if to say they were too ashamed of rooting for the Giants to show their heads. And, sadly, it was as good as it got for the Giants that day, as well. As the water drizzled over our bodies (it never actually rained, so they never quit playing, but it was never anything less than wet), the Giants farted away the rest of the game. In the top of the ninth inning, Bob Watson doubled home Rafael Ramirez to tie the game, 4-4. And so the game went on and on and on ... 3 1/2 hours worth by the time it was all done, which was a lot in those days.

In the top of the 11th inning, with two outs, the Braves got a runner on via a Giants error, bringing up pitcher Steve Bedrosian, who in his entire career hit .098 (15 singles and 3 walks in 14 years constituting his entire offensive output, while he struck out 58 times in 153 at-bats). Bedrosian singled to put runners on 1st and 2nd. In a move that will sound familiar to current Giants fans, the Giants then intentionally walked Dale Murphy, far and away the Braves' best hitter, moving everyone up a base to load 'em up, bringing up lefty Chris Chambliss (the Giants pitcher by this point being another lefty, Gary Lavelle). Lavelle proceeded to walk Chambliss as well, giving the Braves the lead ... the Giants couldn't score in the bottom of the 11th, ending the game with strikeouts by Johnnie LeMaster and Chili Davis, and just like that, the Giants had their sixth consecutive loss.

Which was too much to bear for a fan in the upper deck. I used to know his name, but I've forgotten it over the years. He was mad ... well, we were all mad, except for those of us who were just beaten down by the awfulness of everything ... a team that had never won the World Series, in the midst of their worst season ever, losing game after game in ugly fashion ... all 7000 of us who had been sitting in the drizzle all afternoon long with nothing to show for it except wet clothing, and there was this guy in the upper deck, and he'd had enough. As the Giants dragged ass back to their clubhouse, this fan, who had placed himself in the upper deck just above where the Giants's dugout was located, started yelling at the players. And he was loud, he was pissed, and he knew a lot of cuss words. There weren't very many of us left at the game, so it wasn't hard to hear this guy as he lambasted the players for their pathetic performance, spicing his commentary with f-this and f-that. He apparently felt the need to get closer to the players, so he climbed onto the railing so he could lean over better ... and by that point, I was out of the park, hoping to get on the road so I could get to work without missing too much time. For that reason, I only know what happened next from news reports.

The fan leaned over the railing ... like everything else in the park by that point, the railing was wet ... he leaned over, he slipped, he fell to the bottom deck and died from the impact, which was so hard he splintered a chair, a piece of which flew in the air and knocked an old-timer unconscious.

I've always thought the fan's last words were probably "YOU SUCK!" And while no one should die like that, and I mean no disrespect to the man or his family, nonetheless a part of me thinks that's how all SF Giants fans would like to go: at the ballpark, bitching about yet another loss. Seems appropriate, somehow.

Might as well finish with the greatest game of Bob Brenly's career:


revisiting thelma & louise (ridley scott, 1991)

My memories of Thelma & Louise are inextricably connected to my daughter. She was 13 when the movie came out, and quite taken with it. I assigned the movie to a class I was teaching at the time, along with Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening. I was struck by possible similarities in their endings, which led me to try and work through any other similarities by using it in the classroom. I fear I can't remember much more ... I know I'm supposed to keep track of these things, but it was more than 25 years ago and my brain ain't what it used to be.

One day, when we were going to discuss Thelma & Louise, I brought my daughter to class with me. She was and is sharp and opinionated, and she wasn't one to refrain from a discussion just because she was "only a kid". Now, one of the worst things that can happen to a teacher in a discussion class comes when the students don't interact with each other. The teacher says something, calls on a student if no one has anything to say, listens to the student, waits for a classmate to respond, and then breaks the silence by making another statement and calling on a different student. The pattern goes Teacher-Student A-Teacher-Student B-Teacher-Student C ... you get the idea. It would be closer to the ideal if it went Teacher-Student A-Student B-Student C.

Well, I said something to start the discussion and called on a student, who said something I don't remember. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a hand go up, and I think, great, someone else wants to chime in! I look over towards the hand to see my daughter, all fired up. What the heck, I figured, so I called on her. She looked at the first student and contested what she had said. Another hand went up. That student responded to my daughter, whose hand went up (I think eventually no one bothered with hands, although the discussion never got chaotic). My daughter responded, another student had something to say. I couldn't decide if this was a teacher's nightmare or something more ideal: Teacher-Student A-Daughter-Student B-Daughter-Student C-Daughter etc.

I was a proud dad, and the next class, my students all said how refreshing she was.

Well, a few months ago, my daughter, who is now 41 and lives in Sacramento (75-80 miles from Berkeley), tells me that Thelma & Louise is coming to Sac and she thinks we should go. I hemmed and hawed ... some time later she let me know she had bought tickets ... later still she asked her mom along. Long story short, last night, my wife and I drove up to Sacramento to watch an old movie with our daughter on a Monday night.

As someone who long ago grew comfortable with watching movies at home, I must say at the start that it was great watching the movie with a crowd. I suspect they had all seen it before ... you could feel the anticipation before a big moment. What was even better was the joy they were taking from the film. Jocular laughter as Thelma left on the trip, leaving her husband a frozen dinner in the microwave. Pin-drop silence as Harlan attacks Thelma. Shouting and cheering when Louise shoots Harlan. That was the moment I knew the audience was essential.

Thelma & Louise is well-known for taking some standard buddy movie tropes and switching the heroes to women. It's also a road movie, another genre largely limited to men in those days. The scenery is crucial ... when we see Monument Valley, we're seeing John Ford, and we're seeing two women where men would have been in Ford's films. The film, and the characters, claim Monument Valley for their own.

The characters are iconic; the performances of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are as well. Both have done great work in their careers ... both have an Oscar on their shelf ... but one shot of them in Thelma & Louise and for a moment, you forget they were ever in anything else:

One of the pleasures of watching older movies is seeing familiar faces in the cast. Everyone knows that Sarandon and Davis were in the movie ... you might also remember Harvey Keitel ... and there's Michael Madsen and Stephen Tobolowsky and Christopher McDonald and Lucinda Jenney. But there was also one actor whose career took off after Thelma & Louise. He was in his late-20s, had been in a few movies no one saw, and had a few roles on TV. But he made quite an impression when he turned up on the screen in Thelma & Louise:

It's the movie that made Brad Pitt a star. And even though the audience last night knew he was in it, and remembered him quite well, still, there was something about his entrance that enthralled just as it did in 1991.

Finally, here's one more clip that you will remember ... everybody remembers it. We now know who Brad Pitt is, but I bet you don't know the name Marco St. John. This will jog your memory:

#706 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all-time.


deadwood: the movie

I'm on record as believing that the first two Godfather movies are the best films of all time. When The Godfather Part III came out, I didn't think it was necessary, but I was at the theater as soon as it was released, nonetheless. It wasn't as good as the first two, but neither is anything else. Part III is not my favorite movie. But if I'm channel surfing and I see it's on, I usually watch it for awhile, and it's fine, with some memorable scenes. In the end, it didn't need to be as good as its predecessors ... it was, and is, enough that it didn't besmirch the legacy.

In that way, GF III is something of a standard bearer for a work that returns from a greater work after a longish period of time. When something like that comes out, I just hope it doesn't besmirch the legacy.

Deadwood: The Movie has been rumored ever since the series was first cancelled in 2006. HBO supposedly came to an agreement with the show's creator, David Milch, wherein two TV movies would be produced to provide closure (the final episode of the series wasn't meant to be final, although it worked passably for that function). But those movies never got made. Until July of last year, when HBO approved one movie, which was filmed at the end of 2018.

Remarkably, given the long wait between projects, almost the entire original cast returned. A couple of characters had died during the show's run, and a couple of actors died in the interim. But other than Titus Welliver, who was making the latest season of Bosch and couldn't make his schedule work, everyone else was there, even Garret Dillahunt, who played Wild Bill Hickok's murderer in Season One, and then returned in an entirely different role for Season Two (in the movie, he had a cameo as "Drunk Number Two"). The actors have all aged, which was perfect, but the characters had aged, too ... it took place roughly ten years after the end of the previous season.

As the movie began, I was thinking one thing: I hope it doesn't besmirch the legacy.

I needn't have worried. Although Milch is now suffering from Alzheimer's, he got the script written, with the unique Deadwood Dialogue intact. That in itself is enough to make the movie honest to its legacy.

Various characters' stories come to a believable conclusion, while others are properly left up in the air. Nothing feels out of place ... if the movie is more a pretty-good episode than an all-time classic, it is still of a piece with what came before. And it rewards those of us who have waited so long. The last half-hour or so even brings a few tears to our eyes, although Milch has never been one to overdo the sentimentality. When Trixie, with Al on his deathbed, begins the Lord's Prayer with "Our Father, which art in heaven", Al's last words are "Let him fucking stay there".

Here is what I wrote after Season One: "Deadwood Season Finale". A list of great lines from Season Two: "Best Lines". And what I wrote after Season Three ... this is a pretty good piece, if I do say so myself: "Oh Mary Don't You Weep".