Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Talent and Passion and Music, Oh My

I don’t mean to complain, because I enjoy both the challenge of trying to figure out office systems developed over two years by a previous employee and the income I’m earning by actually going to work five days a week. But, alas, it’s hard to keep up with a blog when you don’t have all that free time. It’s not even the writing so much as finding the subjects to cover. I haven’t seen any movies in the last few days, and I’m slogging through a complicated yet fascinating book as fast as I can, but I’m not done yet. And music has shuttled into the background of my life, so I don’t have anything interesting to say about what I’m hearing.

However, I did go out to Frederick’s Music Lounge again last night to catch Elizabeth McQueen and the Firebrands. Now, that, friends, was what we call a good time. Here’s the thing about young Ms. McQueen. She’s 27 years old, and yet her fave rave music these days is from the olden days of English pub-rock and the folks who followed in that ilk. So, you’ve got a young woman from Austin, Texas covering material made famous by old guys from England who dearly wanted to be playing in Texas back in the 70s. Will the circle be unbroken, I ask you?

McQueen is a pistol of a singer. She does it all with phrasing. Her voice is strong enough to get by, but not particularly distinctive of an instrument. However, she possesses the songs, puts some swing into the way she delivers ‘em, and a whole lot of passion. Believe me, you ain’t heard “Local Girls” by Graham Parker until you’ve heard her entirely un-sassy yet substantive rendition. Well, maybe you’ve heard it, but you ain’t heard it done in a manner so different from the original as to be a new song.

Except, of course, that it’s not a new song. Some of the songs McQueen does are new to me – as enamored as I am of the British scene of the late 70s, I never actually bought any Ducks Deluxe records – while others, such as “Almost Blue” by Elvis Costello, are as familiar as the hair on my head. So, it’s interesting that McQueen puts so much personality into her versions of other people’s songs, and not just any other people. She wants to sing the music of a very specific sort of person, the British pub or pub-influenced rocker.

I know, she’s got a lot of country and swing standards in her repertoire, too, but what’s getting her attention is the pub rock stuff. Still, she’s a full-fledged member of Asleep at the Wheel these days, too, so I guess we’ve got a lot of nuance still to wring from this talented young lady.

My next point has to do with talent. Or specifically, the difficulty of figuring out why I give the benefit of the doubt to some players, but not to others. The problem comes when talking about Jeff and David Lazaroff, whose band opened the show, mostly backed McQueen during her set, and then entirely joined forces with her for a final set of what was billed as the Roots Rock Roller Coaster. I’m going to own up to the obvious fact that I found the second guitarist in Lazaroff’s band to be quite attractive. But, pretty people annoy me musically all the time.

Nope, the interesting thing here was that, as I kept finding other people saying in various ways, she played in a weird kind of slow motion. She looks very young, and yet she obviously intensely studies the guitar licks of country, bluegrass, swing, and rockabilly guitarists. She soloed in every song, and put together impressive collections of classic ideas. But, she never quite delivered them with conviction, or more precisely, with the ease of expression that more experienced guitarists display. (Her counterpart on the other side of the stage, David Lazaroff was only really better at this by comparison; he had a few more original ways of tying ideas together, and he played faster, but he’s still got a ways to go, too.)

The fact is, this never really grew tiresome. Part of it was the great rhythm section behind the guitars; the other part was that whenever McQueen was singing, things were cooking no matter what the band sounded like. Still, I’m not sure how to explain why I found this particular display of the inevitable learning curve so much more promising than a lot of players I’ve heard over the years. There was something about her (and David) that told me they were going to get better some day, and in the meantime, there was the heady rush of making music on a hot night in a small bar in front of an enthusiastic crowd.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Greta Garbo Acts the Whore

I’ve been haunted by Greta Garbo for a few days now. Well, not just Garbo, also John Gilbert, an actor far less well known today, but who was, in 1926, quite the hunk to be paired with her in a film like “Flesh and the Devil.”

Cat mentioned when I told her the plot of this flick that she didn’t understand why I like these old silent movies, because women are always either whores or angels. Aside from the fact that it’s still a common enough pair of options for female roles in popular culture, I didn’t have an answer that made much sense. I love the silents for the way they tell the stories, for the skills of the actors and the directors, not so much for the cultural values they enforced. On the other hand, there is a lot to learn by looking at cultural values of 80 years ago, especially when considering how they’ve changed or for that matter, not changed.

Here’s the plot this time. Garbo is a whore. But, interestingly, she’s a whore who splits up sex and payment into two different roles. She offers sex to Gilbert’s character, Leo, but gets paid first by her husband Count Van Rhaden, and then by her second husband, Leo’s best friend Ulrich.

Leo and Ulrich are as close to being lovers as 1926 conventions would allow. Flashback scenes show their childhood bond as blood brothers, and every time they meet on screen, there is a palpable sexiness about the way they hug each other and stare into each others eyes. Their mouths come within an inch of each others more than once in this movie. Back in the day, male friendships were often shown as being this intimate; now, intimacy between men starts the libido flowing every time.

Anyway, after early scenes set in the Austrian army camp where Leo and Ulrich serve, which are there to show which one is the top – that would be virile Leo, who literally has the top bunk – and which the bottom – Ulrich, who has to cover for Leo’s AWOL late night escapades, and who tires easily when performing physical labor which Leo can knock out with a smile on his lips – we encounter Garbo, and things get going.

The seduction scene between Garbo and Gilbert is easily one of the sexiest things I’ve seen. The key is Gilbert’s lighting of her cigarette, the symbolic setting off of orgasm. He does it smoothly, without much effort but with plenty of passion. Later, when Ulrich gets a chance to light Garbo’s cigarette, he fumbles with the match and it goes out early. I wonder if there was a Freud passage out there that gave them the idea for this contrast.

Anyway, Garbo and Gilbert are lying in exquisite post-coital satisfaction when her hitherto unrevealed husband shows up. Challenging Leo to a duel, but with the proviso that they pretend it’s over a disagreement playing cards, the Count winds up dead the next morning. Leo is sent away to Africa by the army because of this murder, and Leo asks Ulrich to watch over the Countess.

Three years go by, and Ulrich is now married to Garbo, who needs the luxury he can provide, but who desperately wants the passion offered by Leo. She tries to have it both ways, he tries to avoid her. Leo gets advice from Pastor Voss, an old family friend, who tells him that if the devil can’t get you through the spirit, he’ll send a woman to get you through the flesh. Yep, women’s sexuality freaked guys out back then. (As if it still doesn’t, but there is a little progress given that few would say anything quite this insane, anymore.)

Well, you know what happens. Eventually, Leo gives in, and if there is no indication he actually sleeps with Garbo this time, the intention is there when they agree to run away together. She backs down at the last minute when Ulrich gives her an expensive gift, and then Leo is caught with his pants down (or his bags packed, I forget which). Now Ulrich must challenge his best friend to a duel.

This sets the stage for a climactic scene set on the island where the boys had forged their blood brother bond. It’s winter, so they must trudge across the frozen river before taking awkward strides in the deep snow to set the stage for their duel. Meanwhile, Ulrich’s little sister – I forgot to mention her; she loves Leo, but has remained a virgin, and is thus the pure, good angel sort of woman – begs Garbo to get out of bed and go talk them out of this duel by telling Ulrich she was really a whore.

Hertha – and I do love that name – has her prayers answered. Garbo gets up, and starts trudging across the ice just when the duel is about to begin. Do you know what happens when you cross ice too often in a movie? It’s kind of like when you see a gun in the first scene, you know it’s going to go off. Well, just when she falls in and drowns, a light goes off in the male heads, and they realize they can’t kill each other after all. Cut and print.

Apparently, there was an original ending which showed Leo talking to Hertha after they got back home, but I much prefer this sudden stop, with Leo and Ulrich being miserable yet alive, and a final shot of the water bubbling slightly where Garbo fell in. It’s way bleaker, and offers no chance of redemption, which would just be a snore after all this drama.

In 1926, women had to be punished for desiring sex. The only way to imagine them desiring sex, in fact, was to imagine them desiring evil in general. They were agents of the devil, because sexual pleasure was a sin. This particular pattern has subtly shifted since then, and if I didn’t have to go to work right now, I’d look into it. Feel free to comment on what’s happened over these last 80 years in this area.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Forty-Eight Hours Since Last I Blogged

Some days I just don’t wind up with the energy to write even a couple paragraphs. And yet, I have lots of energy for experiencing things worth mentioning. So, here we go with a small number of comments about a lot of things.

1) I don’t know where in the country you are, but it’s ridiculously hot. Everything I do is tempered by the fact that I live in a house where we only have one room of air conditioning.

2) Wednesday night, I went to Frederick’s Music Lounge to catch Tim Easton and Kevin Gordon. Both these singer songwriters were in fine form. Easton played solo (with the occasional aid of a local violin player named, I think, Kevin Buckley), while Gordon rocked with a crack team of Nashville session players who were channeling lots of Memphis soul. Yeah, that’s all I got, except to say you really should listen to these guys.

3) We caught up watching last week’s episode of “30 Days,” the new cable series by Morgan Spurlock, the guy who did “Super Size Me.” This time, Spurlock and his fiancée agreed to live for thirty days on minimum wage jobs (or more precisely, jobs they could get without prior experience). Watching them deal with the hardships imposed by such tight financial constraints was further proof, as if it were needed, that this country is surviving off the backs of its working poor in ways that are simply unconscionable.

4) Wednesday afternoon I watched Fatty Arbuckle in his 1921 movie, “Leap Year.” This was the last movie Arbuckle made before the scandal which ended his career. Arbuckle was completely exonerated by judge and jury of any involvement in the young starlet’s death which happened at his party, but he was kicked out of Hollywood anyway. Too bad, because this nutty comedy of a guy who can’t stop getting fiancées through no fault of his own was quite a hoot.

5) A 1926 Lon Chaney flick called “Tell It to the Marines” was the first movie ever made with the cooperation of the United States Marine Corps. If you’ve ever seen any of the dozens of military boot camp films which followed in its wake, or for that matter “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” you’ve got the basics. A boy comes in to the corps green as can be, and they make a man out of him. The pleasures of this one are mostly in Chaney’s complex sergeant and the enthusiasm of William Haines as Skeet Burns, the young recruit. On the other hand, Haines is quite the asshole to his supposed love interest, whose only regret about the night he practically raped her was that she tattled on him.

6) Speaking of slapping women around, last night Cat and I watched James Cagney in “Picture Snapper.” Oh, the guy is engrossing as all heck, pushing his way around as the eager young reporter who wants to go straight after his years in Sing Sing. But, that doesn’t stop him from pushing his hand hard into the face of the bimbo who never catches on that he isn’t going to go to bed with her. See, it’s violence against women because Cagney’s character is truly in love with another. Of actual interest, the complex series of reactions by reporters to witnessing an electrocution execution was rather impressive in an era when nuance concerning law and order wasn’t all that common.

7) I’ve been driving around listening to Duke Ellington’s “Piano In the Foreground,” a trio album re-released last year. Since most of the hundreds of Ellington albums in the world feature him leading his amazing big bands, it’s a rare treat to hear him just sit and play the piano. He had an elegant, minimalist style at the keyboard. He liked to stick to the melodies and riffs of the song, with little ornamentation, but plenty of variation.

8) I gobbled up “The Essential Doctor Strange Vol. 2,” one of those giant 500-plus page collections of black and white reprints from Marvel comics. The first half of the book gives us the 1968-69 issues of Dr. Strange’s own comic book, which lasted for a short time after years of sharing half of Strange Tales. The Gene Colan artwork is absolutely gorgeous, but Roy Thomas didn’t put a lot of thought into the meandering tales. Fast forward a couple years and we get the revival of Dr. Strange as featured originally in the omnibus title Marvel Premiere. With a revolving cast of artists, most of them really good but one, whose name escapes me right now, as hideous as any professional comic book artist I’ve ever seen, veteran scribe Gardner Fox got Strange involved in a hooey-ific bunch of Robert E. Howard gothic monster nonsense. But Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner rescued him, and the last five stories in this book are philosophical, complex, and downright powerful things.

9) Next week, I start a two-week temporary job. Should be interesting going on a regulated schedule.

10) Did I mention it’s hot?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

No Fandango In Scaramouche

Damn! They knew how to make movies in the 20s. I caught the 1923 version of “Scaramouche” yesterday, and was enthralled for about two hours. Oh, the plot is kinda silly, but the sheer energy of it all keeps things moving.

Here’s the story. Young man is in love with young woman. Young man’s friend gets killed defending the ideals of liberty in a duel with young woman’s “noble” suitor. Young man vows revenge, but can’t get satisfaction. Young man joins a traveling troupe of actors, develops a talent for scripting, directing, and acting. Young man tries to lead revolutionaries in an assault on “noble” suitor from the stage, but suitor and woman escape. French Revolution begins, young man plays leading role. Despite urgent need to kill the noble class, young man pleads to save his honey and another noble woman, who turns out to be young man’s mother. Bet you can’t guess who’s the father.

I love the way the ideals of the French Revolution get subsumed in this bizarre tale of love and family. Somehow, once everybody knows they’re related, all their troubles get swept away. I also love how the main character is capable of excelling at whatever he does, from acting to becoming, on short notice, a master swordsman.

The scenes of the Terror are pretty riveting, and the jump cuts to the ladies in peril do add a nice touch of tension. I know, it’s only a hair removed from watching a train bear down the tracks towards the place where the heroine is tied up while the hero races to her rescue, but it’s still pretty cool.

Oh, by the way, the play the hero writes is called “Figaro de Scaramouche” or something very similar to that, which helps to explain at least two words of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I did keep expecting somebody to try to do the fandango, but it never happened.

As Though La Dolce Vita Can Be Discussed in 1200 Words Or Less

“La Dolce Vita” isn’t exactly an action flick, but it’s plenty engrossing. Fellin’s 1960 acclaimed masterpiece tells the story of Marcello (played by the incomparable Marcello Mastroiani), a tabloid journalist who can’t quite figure out why he is no more happy than all the bored and jaded celebrities he spends his life observing. The film moves through a series of encounters Marcello has with different women, until ultimately he is cut off from the only woman who represents hope to him, thanks to a loud wind and just enough of a tidal basin to keep them apart.

You know me, I’m gonna wind up focusing on the representation of women in this movie. Fellini seems fixated on three possibilities for women – they are empty whores, boring housewives, or virginal angels. Obviously, the only life option for the angels is to empty themselves out one way or the other through sex; there’s not much hope for young women to grow up into a life with depth.

Marcello hooks up with a bored and rich socialite who picks up a streetwalker for the thrill of being taken to her house to have a strange location for sex. The prostitute is paid only for the use of her bed, not her body. Marcello goes along for the ride, willing to make his friend happy, but not caring if she isn’t. He asks her if she wants sex, she says no, and then they do it anyway.

Much later, this same woman tricks him into revealing one of only a handful of actual emotions shown in the whole three-hour movie. Why does she trick him? Because she is a slut, unable to resist the lure of another cheap and tawdry thrill, making love while humiliating a man.

Meanwhile, Marcello lives with Emma, a boring housewife in circumstance, if not in name. Her only interest is in marrying Marcello, and since he is sleeping around on her, she tries to kill herself. That’s when we see another emotional side of Marcello, who cries at her side in the hospital. Of course, he does leave her to make a call to the socialite, but he comes back when the phone isn’t answered. (As an aside, it’s very interesting to see the sheer number of telephones in this movie, and to realize the difference between our current cell-driven world and the time when all conversations were limited to the length of a wire from a wall. Fellini definitely emphasized the telephone connections and distances here.)

After Emma comes Anita Eckberg, the brainless, sensualist (clearly shown to be at the very least a tease, which is a virtual slut in Fellini-land). Impossibly beautiful and possessing a chest that would make Lara Croft jealous, Eckberg steals the film with her sequences. Laughing and posing in her press conference, then dancing with a series of men, Eckberg flies off the screen with an ease and grace. But, while Marcello expresses an interest in her – out of habitual lust, I suspect, more than any real connection – she is far too flighty for him. Again, a woman serves only as something to be gotten or forgotten.

Emma figures in the next sequence, a visit to the countryside where two children claim to have seen the Virgin Mary. Here, Marcello tries to keep his partner safe – housewives must remain on a pedestal, where they cannot participate in life – while he investigates further. Chaos reigns in one of those amazing Fellini crowd scenes I’ve come to love. Nobody ever knew how to get more humanity into a large group of people than Fellini did. Eventually, somebody dies, and we move on.

After this comes the center of the film in Fellini’s mind, I suspect. Marcello sits briefly in a nearly deserted café. The fourteen-year-old girl who works there is enjoying the music on the jukebox, but he asks her to turn it off. She does, and engages him in conversation, instead. Somehow, we are meant to believe this is a real connection, though the film stops just short of being creepy and having Marcello make a pass at her. But, this is the only time that Marcello finds himself engaged by a female on a level other than one of disinterested sexuality.

A party at an old friend’s home gives us a chance to see Marcello dream of a different life. Steiner is a real writer, with intellectual friends, a wife, and two beautiful children. Eventually, he kills himself. But, that comes later. Marcello tells Steiner of his jealousy, and Steiner tells him that life is not any more interesting for him than it is for Marcello. I think Fellini believed people were pretty much trapped inside themselves, forced to go through motions they didn’t enjoy, even when they were rebelling against the conventions of society. At any rate, this is the first step in Marcello’s slow decline towards degeneracy himself, as he learns that his aspirations towards higher quality literature might not save him from the boredom he feels with the world.

Then, he runs into his father, whom he rarely sees. This is the most bittersweet section of the film, with Marcello wanting desperately to connect to his father in the same way he had connected to that girl. But, of course, another woman comes into the picture, a dancer in a nightclub who, of course, is slutty enough to keep the old man company and take him home for spaghetti Conroy (is that what they called it back then?). Here, at least, even though yet another woman is available to him, Marcello doesn’t even feign lust himself. But, from our point of view, we’re still seeing women as whores (or, in the offscreen presence of Marcello’s mother, a boring housewife).

One more woman to meet and it’s over. That’s Nico, later famous for “singing” with the Velvet Underground. Her bubbly bemused presence doesn’t exactly equate to any of the potential roles for women in the rest of the film, but she does lead Marcello to the party where he gets demoralized by the socialite mentioned above. After this, Marcello gives in, and leads the action of his social circle, rather than chronicling it. Things get really ugly in the final party scene before everybody goes out to the beach and views a freshly caught monstrous fish which keeps on staring out at them. As if the monster were outside them after all!

“La Dolce Vita” is so full of powerful imagery, constant and invigorating movement, overlapping dialogue, and creative genius that it can be an overwhelming experience. Marcello is the focal point of it all, the man who attempts to observe life yet can’t help but be hurt by it. It’s not as though any character other than Marcello is developed beyond a few simple characteristics, but the men all seem defined by things they do, while the women are trapped in relation to what they do to men. An interesting project for some ambitious young feminist writer might be to retell this movie from female points of view. Perhaps the socialite has gone through the same downward spiral as Marcello. For now, we are only left to wonder.

A Few Words About Jeff & Vida

I’ve been listening a lot lately to an album called “Loaded,” released a year or so ago by Jeff & Vida. It’s not exactly been a coincidence. Vida sent it to me (along with their first album from a couple years back) in hopes I’d promote their concert appearance last night at Frederick’s Music Lounge. I couldn’t get a piece in the paper, but I played them on the radio, so I did what I could. That wasn’t enough to bring more than about 20 people out on a Tuesday night, I’m afraid.

The opening act, Ninth, didn’t come all the way from Norway just for me to insult them, but I’ll give it a try, anyway. These kids brought a Marshall stack into Fred’s, and wanted their bass drum to have a microphone. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Fred’s, but the square room isn’t much larger than the average suburban dining room, so there isn’t much need for that level of volume.

But, never mind the attempt to spread tinnitus. Musically, these guys didn’t have much going for them. I guess the best way I can describe them would be to ask you to imagine some sort of unholy cross between Duran Duran’s funk and I, don’t know, the prog rock of Gentle Giant. I said it was unholy.

Anyway, those of us who had repaired to the patio during their mercifully brief time on stage returned to the parlor to catch Jeff & Vida. Vida sings lead with a smoky curl of a voice that has appropriated more than a couple mannerisms from a young Wanda Jackson. Jeff sings harmony beautifully, and live, switches between acoustic guitar, banjo, and his best instrument mandolin. (On record, he’ll also play a mean electric guitar, lap steel, and dobro.) They meander around the intersection of country, bluegrass, and the occasional pop/rock/jazz inflection.

Normally, Jeff & Vida play live with an acoustic bass player – they have two, but this gig found them in between leaving the one and meeting the other – but I never felt anything was missing. On record, they have all sorts of musicians, including drums, which of course makes for a fuller sound, but live, they are so engaging and loose that further musical augmentation isn’t really necessary. If only they’d been the opening act, I would have thought this was a perfect evening.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Holding Steady With the Hold Steady

On the advice of my fellow rock critic Roy Kasten, a bunch of us went out last night to catch a band called the Hold Steady. Interestingly enough, the reaction of our little crowd ranged from manic enthusiasm to supreme disinterest, which just goes to show the wisdom of Tom Ray’s immortal line about musical taste, “That’s why they make menus.”

Me, I found them to be very good. Basically, this is a four piece rock band – guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums – with a front person who makes all the difference. The musicians are terrific, especially the rhythm section, but they would probably be a fairly ordinary band without the vocalist, who declaims rhythmically in a wildly exhortatory manner. What few lyrics I could make out were intelligent, witty, dark.

The comparison that struck me was that these guys are doing something akin to what Patti Smith did back in the 70s. Here’s a poet delivering his lyrics in a musical style, and taking advantage of his understanding and love for rock’n’roll. His style isn’t the same as what Smith uses, nor is his band the same as hers. But, the spirit, albeit infused with a greater ironic distance, was similar.

A word about irony, because this was something of a dispute among my party. Cat thought the Hold Steady were entirely too ironic, and Roy insisted they weren’t ironic at all. Me, I thought they used irony to cut the hearts-on-their-sleeve rock approach that would have made these guys forgettable without the vocalist. Because they could and did pump up the emotional rhetoric with forceful guitar riffs, percolating bass lines, swooshy organ chords, and pummeling drums, I think the Hold Steady know the tropes of rock’n’roll quite well. But, because the vocalist was both drawn to the release of the music and insistent on delivering his words where they needed to fall, and because, frankly, he wore glasses and a perfectly ordinary polo shirt which can’t be taken as anything but an ironic comment on rock star couture, there was always a tension between ironic distance and direct communication. That was the key to this band, for me, and I want to hear more of their recorded music to see if it holds up.Ho

Monday, June 20, 2005

A Summer's Idle

Yesterday, a beautiful, sunny, warm day with no humidity and nothing in the weather to cause suffering, was a great day to lay out by the pool. Somehow, Cat taught me in the last couple years to look forward to the time we spend at public pools. A baseball game on the radio, a good book, some sunscreen to prevent pain, and the occasional dip in the water add up to a lovely way to spend a day.

If I were the type who embellished my tales to achieve thematic coherence, I would describe massive splashes of water pouring over me as I read “Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies” by Alan Dale. I imagine the scenario thusly. First, I would have serious difficulty with the lounge. As I attempt to align the back to the proper level of comfort, the front of the lounge would collapse. As I lean forward to pull that part off the ground, the back would fall on me, and I would be trapped in the middle. Eventually, I would throw my captor off and stand with my hands on my hips, a slow burn on my face as I attempted to regain my dignity.

Once I did get myself seated, I would begin reading leisurely about Preston Sturges. As I turned the page to begin the chapter on Jerry Lewis, however, a very large young boy would suddenly come running towards the pool in front of me, and approximately fifty gallons of water would be displaced after he performs a triple axle and lands with a giant splash. I would sputter, and then the chair would collapse again.

You gotta love slapstick, and Alan Dale loves it more than anybody I’ve ever encountered. This book is full of analysis of the greats – Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, Mabel Normand, the Marx Brothers, Sturges, and Lewis – and it adds to the appreciation I already have for the movies. As much as I enjoyed further breakdowns of Marx scenes I’ve memorized over the last 35 years, I was intrigued most by Dale’s postscript, in which he extends the legacy to the work of Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy. Let’s see a second volume, dude!

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

Now I can finally say I’ve seen “The Jazz Singer,” the movie that changed everything. It wasn’t exactly the first talking picture ever made, nor is it exactly a real talking picture. But, it was the film that signified the future in 1927, the one that made sound an integral part of the motion picture experience. So, I’ve always wanted to see it.

It’s not very good, and yet, I’ve been thinking about it for two days. I find it interesting on a lot of levels. Basically, the story is about a generational divide, between the immigrant Jews who held on to their traditions, and the Americanized youth who need to move on, to build a new culture. Al Jolson plays the jazz singer, the youth who turns his back on his parents in order to, well, frankly, rip off African-American culture.

Why is he in black-face when he performs on stage in this movie? His big break comes when he snags a role in a Broadway revue, but for some reason, he corks up his face and puts on a close-fitting, African hair wig. I guess it completes his transformation, his assimilation into a world far removed from his own, while symbolizing that Jews weren’t the lowest of the low in 1927. At any rate, it makes the whole picture more problematic than the flimsy story and uninteresting directing deserves.

Jolson was described by Gilbert Seldes, America’s first popular culture critic, as an unstoppable, larger-than-life force, as essentially the triumph of vulgarity. And, you can definitely see that the guy was a bundle of energy, and capable of “jazzing” up popular ballads of the day. The movie makes a big point of saying he has a “tear” in his voice, the same as his father, the Jewish cantor. I don’t know much about cantors, but I know that the vocal sung by the father (actually portrayed by Warner Oland, who later went on to play Charlie Chan in many movies; I don’t know if that’s really him singing) was profoundly moving, while Jolson’s vocals are at best diverting.

See, I do know about jazz, and I know that Jolson wasn’t doing anything half as interesting as Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith were creating at the time. It’s interesting that the 20s were known as the “Jazz Age,” but that was because white audiences accepted a remarkably watered-down version of what blacks were inventing. I suppose it was progress to try watering the stuff down rather than making it seem ridiculous, as minstrelsy had done for decades before. But, it’s impossible for us now to take Jolson’s vocals seriously, as either emotionally powerful (when he sings the pathetic songs about motherhood) or sexually liberating (as when he bounces around like a meth addict on “Toot Toot Tootsie.”)

On the other hand, I can’t think of too many depictions of actual Jewish experience on the big screen in the years between 1927 and, I don’t know, whenever Woody Allen discovered Ingmar Bergman. So, as a window on a lost world, “The Jazz Singer” holds some moderate levels of interest. The footage of the ghetto’s hustle and bustle was interesting, and the shots of services in the synagogue were fascinating, and beautiful. When Jolson’s parents are concerned he may be taking up with a shiksa, his papa reassures mama that many of the world’s actors are Jewish with stage names made up to cover up their past. That seems like a remarkably honest point to have been made onscreen at a time when changing names seemed like a necessary part of having a career.

So, I’ve seen it, and I can go on. If it’s hard to see exactly why audiences at the time found this superior to the silents of the day, which had reached a remarkable level of artistry throughout the 20s, it’s easy to understand the lure of novelty which caused talkies to so thoroughly take over the market so quickly. For better and for worse, “The Jazz Singer” was the movie that brought us into the modern world, the one where innovation would be seen as more important than invention.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

A Few Words About Neil Young's Movie

Nine years ago, Jim Jarmusch took a crew armed with Super-8 cameras to a couple of Neil Young and Crazy Horse concerts. The results, mixed with some hotel room interviews and some rare backstage footage from 1976 and 1986, were released in 1997 as “The Year of the Horse.” I finally got around to watching this documentary yesterday.

The backstage and interview footage, while mildly interesting, is rarely revealing. I suppose the best part was when Neil called guitarist Frank Sampedro to his room to fix a computer problem. Although the 1986 scream-fest between Neil and bassist Billy Talbot over a backing vocal mix-up was fascinating, I’ve since been told this was edited from a much longer fight which had been shown before.

Anyway, you won’t care much about the talking, but the music soars. In 1996, Neil Young and Crazy Horse were touring behind “Broken Arrow,” which is not one of their best records. But, live, they were coming together stronger than ever, and the concert footage is absolutely glorious. An incandescent version of “Fucking Up” starts things off, and while none of the other songs hit that righteous level of fury, they are damn beautiful. Watching Neil and Sampedro stare straight into each other’s eyes is a treat as they drive that rich, overloaded guitar sound into one glorious burst of passion. The last part of the movie welds footage from a 1976 performance of “Like a Hurricane” onto two or maybe three different 1996 versions. I could live without the Sonic Youth-inspired free form noise at the long end, but the actual song is still gorgeous.

If perhaps you have the live album “Year of the Horse,” be advised that none of the songs in this movie are on the record, and vice versa. I don’t know why this movie stayed out of my sight for so long, but it’s a pretty cool thing to have finally seen.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Robert Plant and Joshua Redman, Not Together

I’ve been listening to a lot of music recently. Though I don’t always have time to really work up a good review, I’ve decided to start at least giving out a little bit of thoughts on these records. So, watch for the occasional paragraph or two on various recent releases.

Robert Plan and the Strange Sensation, “Mighty Rearranger,” Sanctuary Records. I was never a fanatic about Led Zeppelin, though I have had plenty of moments when I’ve been awestruck by their bludgeoning powerhouse of rock. Frankly, I think I’ve had almost as much fun hitting the high points of Plant’s solo career, which with this new record has reached a new apex. His long-time fascination with middle-eastern and northern African melodies and harmonies, combined with the blues he’s been assimilating since he was a boy, and an influx of some creative modern dance rhythms here and there, makes for one satisfying record. Every time I play it, I’m struck by something different. Do I love it for the intricate layers of guitar, for Plant’s controlled vocal delivery, for the melodic inventions sprinkled in between the blues forms? All of the above.

Joshua Redman Elastic Band, “Momentum,” Nonesuch Records. There are things happening in the jazz world these days, and I only get to hear the tip of the iceberg. This is a mighty fine tip, though. Redman is working out some funk here, mostly in a trio format of himself on tenor saxophone, Sam Yahel on bass synth, ambient synth, and other keyboards, and Jeff Ballard or Brian Blade on drums. I’m particularly enamored of Sheryl Crow’s “Riverwide,” which sounds like a nice follow-up to Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way.” But, that’s one of the only quiet moments on this record. Mostly, Redman and company are slamming down rhythms and riffs, building intricate edifices out of danceable movements.

How Now Joe E. Brown

Joe E. Brown cranked out the movies back in the late twenties and early thirties. A quick scan at the indispensable www.imdb.com shows he starred in 39 movies between 1928 and 1939. I hadn’t seen any in thirty-some odd years until catching “Fireman Save My Child,” and “You Said a Mouthful” in recent weeks on TCM.

Brown’s most famous role was many years later, a bit part in “Some Like It Hot,” in which he wooed Jack Lemmon’s female persona. But, in his younger days, Brown was a physical comedian with an aw-shucks personality and a signature way of hollering that starts out quiet and builds to a loud wail. Any of his old movies feature this holler about two dozen times, and it’s pert near always funny.

They didn’t spend much time on the plots in these films. “Fireman” is about a baseball pitcher (employed by the St. Louis Cardinals, of all teams) who’s also a great fire fighter, and who gets distracted when he hears sirens. “Mouthful” is a strange confusion of identity picture in which Brown’s character gets mistaken for a champion marathon swimmer. Urged on by his new ward Farina (from Our Gang), Brown wins the heart of a very young Ginger Rogers by actually managing to win the hours-long marathon despite never knowing how to swim before he got there.

It’s not logic we’re looking for here. It’s Brown’s huge gaping maw of a mouth, a hole larger than anything not drawn by Jack Kirby in the 60s. It’s his wind-up toy awkward movements, his ability to create strange patterns with his arms, head, and legs which he can duplicate several times in each movie. It’s his ability to be seen as foolish yet unbeatable at the same time. There is no suspense in these films, no real connection between sequences. It’s just a series of gags interrupted by half-hearted romance. These are not guffaw-inducing comedies, but they’ll put a smile on your face and a warm feeling in your belly. And, hey, two down and 37 more to go.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Naked Truth About Naked Lunch

I’ve always felt I should dig William Burroughs. I mean, the guy is from St. Louis, all kinds of my friends worship him, and he was always cool as hell when he’d appear on TV, in movies, or on records. I met him once, too, and he sounded exactly like himself when he talked, which, for some reason, impressed me greatly at the time.

But, you know, I’ve never read much of his stuff. Just “Junky,” and some excerpts from other, more formidable novels. One thing I know about his writing, though, is that it is in love with language. It may be the kind of love that borders on hate, but ultimately, language is always held to be the highest, most perfect part of life.

So, watching David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” last night, it occurred to me that it was odd how little love for language was in there. Cronenberg loves visuals, of course, and there were plenty of oddball ones in the flick. All those typewriters turning into bugs, and the pure ickiness of the mugwomps, you know. The music was cool, lots of Ornette Coleman sax solos floating in and out of the background. The actors, especially Judy Davis, had some fun with their roles. But, they didn’t get to talk much in those Burroughsian rhythms that make him such a major force of nature.

I hadn’t seen this in about twelve years, so I’m glad I gave it another chance, but ultimately, I’m just not sure “Naked Lunch” works that well as a movie.

Discussin' Fat Possum

I’ve always suspected an element of racism in the mania for Fat Possum blues artists over the last ten or so years. All these young white kids who had no interest in or knowledge of the form of the blues were suddenly cheering on these old black men missing teeth and meandering off and on the norms of pitch and intonation. I’d hear the occasional mildly interesting song, but it was hard to get past the fact that I knew so many better blues records.

There is a myth of authenticity that permeates our culture. Somehow, people expect a purity to exist, a Platonic version in reality. The ideal is often rooted in the past, at a time when things were simpler – and, it shouldn’t be forgotten, when African-Americans (or for that matter, women, gays, Native Americans, etc.) knew their place. So, the belief that blues performers who remained undiscovered, who were barely if at all tainted by contact with the mainstream of the genre, would inevitably be more pure than the slicker performers these people never heard in the first place.

I watched the documentary “You See Me Laughin’,” which is built around the Fat Possum empire, such as it is. I have to admit my admiration for these guys – R.L. Burnside, Cedell Davis, T Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, et al – did grow as a result of the movie. Each of them does have a distinctive style, a personal version of the blues, which is all you can ask of a musician. Burnside, in fact, has a lot more chops than I thought he did, and a greater orientation towards creating a throbbing, propulsive groove. I suspect the live footage, whether intimate performances in living rooms, or loud, rockin’ performances in juke joints or at festivals, engaged me more than the records, which I recall being sloppy at times to no purpose. But, it’s also the genuine warmth of these individuals on screen, and the stories they had to tell which amplified their music. Maybe I was too quick to dismiss them, or maybe I just needed to see them as people first, before I could enjoy their music more. (On the other hand, Jon Spencer comes across as a nice guy onscreen, but the Blues Explosion stuff with Burnside remains unlistenable.)

This got me to thinking about the relationship between personality and music. I rarely get to know national recording artists. The ones I have met have been in mostly artificial circumstances, formal interviews or meet and greets. (That’s why I remember most fondly the Meat Puppets, because we actually hung out all day once, or the Long Ryders, because we went up in the Arch together.) But, I sure do know a lot of local artists. Some of them are enormously talented, some of them less so. I try to maintain a critical distance from my friends and acquaintances, but I do occasionally find myself giving the benefit of the doubt to musicians I’ve met. Somehow, knowing somebody has a sense of humor makes it easier to take it when a guitar is out of tune, or a vocal line only hints at an obviously intended melody.

But, then again, some things are just plain bad.

Hurrah for Marah

Serge Bielanko lifts his head up high, closes his eyes, and delivers all the passion and energy of his body through his hands as he strums his guitar. His brother Dave is barking into the microphone, picking riffs on the banjo, and channeling the mood of the crowd into the music. The non-Bielanko members of Marah are just as excited to be there; the rhythms are furious, powerful, irresistible.

I know, I know, Nick Hornby has already gone on and on about how Marah is the greatest live band in the known universe, and one of the few that’s been worth anything in the last ten or twenty years. I’m not going to make a claim like that. But, I can tell you that seeing them last night at Off Broadway was one of those experiences that can completely recharge any tired batteries I might have had going in. This is what rock’n’roll is supposed to do – connect musicians and audience into a communal ecstatic frenzy, all grounded in basic, elemental structures and solid craftsmanship.

It’s not as though I’ve grown tired of music. I listen to it all the time, I go out to see bands week in, week out. When I meet people away from the music scene, and I tell them I go to only about fifty concerts a year, they seem shocked at how high that number is. I’m just comparing it to my peak years of 150 shows attended annually, so it seems as though I’m being conservative.

I have good experiences all the time, but shows such as last night’s Marah performance remain magical. I saw these guys three times last year, and only the first time was better than this one. I can’t honestly say whether or not I remember it as being better because a) I had absolutely zero expectations, having never really heard more than a song or two from them, so all the good of the show seemed remarkably better; b) the mixing in of a greater number of Serge Bielanko vocal songs, as well as a larger influx of r’n’b, really made for a more powerful show because of the variety; or c) Cat, Karen, and I had downed a lot of wine before the show, and we weren’t ready to stop drinking once we got there.

At any rate, last night I imbibed only moderate alcohol, so my mind is clear. This was a show of pure joy. It’s funny how Marah’s lyrics are generally bleak, but their live shows are so gosh-darn happy. But, that’s what they do, and when they are feeling completely comfortable, as they were last night, Marah really can be just about as good as rock’n’roll gets.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Comeback Brings Back Memories

Watching Lisa Kudrow absorb every disappointment possible on her new series “The Comeback” is becoming the most wince-inducing pleasure of the year. I’m laughing, but my stomach is churning just thinking about this show. Last night’s episode was full of pain and brought back bad memories.

When I was a junior in high school, I remember not having any friends with whom to sit at lunch. So, the first couple of days, I sat alone, enjoying my deviled ham sandwich, bag of chips, and Ding Dong. Or maybe I bought a slice of pizza. I don’t remember exactly, but I know it was something healthy like that.

On the third or fourth day of the week, some boys I knew, but didn’t know well, invited me to join them at the next table. So, I gathered my lunch up, walked over, and pulled out a chair. Mike Pappert said, “Pick, I wouldn’t sit there if I were you.” Not understanding that he was actually trying to give me good advice, I assumed it was some sort of ribbing. I was used to people making fun of me, you see, even though I’d never had any of these guys do it.

“Pappert,” I said excitedly. “I’ll sit anywhere I please. This chair looks good to me, so I’m sitting here.”

Then I looked down, and saw that, for whatever reason, the chair was full of water.

Oh, boy, did that ever hurt. Sheepish, I pulled out the next chair, and sat with that group in awkward silence.

On “The Comeback” last night, Kudrow’s character is flown to New York for the upfronts – and thank you, Entertainment Weekly, for reporting a couple weeks ago on this phenomenon, so I could appreciate what was happening. This is where the networks preview their new shows to affiliates and sponsors. It’s a big deal, of course.

“The Comeback,” you may or may not recall, is a sitcom about a reality show being filmed about a sitcom star. It’s shown entirely from the point of view of raw footage for the reality show. Kudrow’s co-stars on the new show are introduced, but she is not. So, she is hurt, and begins lashing out at the stage manager. During her tantrum, we here the announcement regarding her reality series, and we realize that they intentionally didn’t mention her for the sitcom, waiting to give her a bigger introduction on her own.

Ouch! It’s funny, I knew that moment on the show hit me hard, but I didn’t realize why until I started writing this. It’s probably one of the worst types of embarrassments, when we attack at the time of being helped.

Last Day of Twang

The last day of Twangfest 9 seems like a blur to me now. Images mix up in my head. There’s Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash dueting on the same song Armstrong recorded in 1930 with Jimmie Rodgers. Here’s the Bottle Rockets playing the tightest, most power-packed set I’ve ever heard from them (going back some 18 years to their Chicken Truck incarnation). And now, it’s 2 in the morning and some 5’6” girl at the bar wants to see how tall she is compared to my 6’8” frame.

I sat in the Schlafly Bottle Works for three and a half hours watching the amazing collection of vintage films and TV transcripts called Twangclips. Barry Mazor, senior editor of No Depression, runs this part of the program. There were technical difficulties aplenty, and the people in the room were talking louder than the music – can you believe they could make more noise than the Dream Syndicate in their Paul B. Cutler guitar shredding prime? – but it was a blast seeing images of Bob Wills, Patsy Cline, Green on Red, Loretta Lynn, and many, many more.

Meanwhile, Undertow Records was hosting a party out on the parking lot, spotlighting a number of their bands. I didn’t get to catch much, though the last couple songs played by Steve Dawson (of Dolly Varden) were exceptional. I think this guy is a songwriter to watch. He’s written some really interesting stuff already, and the bits I’ve heard from his forthcoming solo album are really cool. Finally, Adam Reichmann (formerly of Nadine) played a half dozen lovely songs all by his lonesome, ending just before the rain started coming down hard.

That night, Twangfest moved from the comfy confines of the Duck Room to the large space of the Pageant. With hundreds more people in the club, it was much harder to spot all the friends I know from previous nights (and years), but I got plenty of socializing in. The Townsmen from Columbus, Ohio opened the show with a nice bit of R.E.M./Jayhawks jangle pop. I really liked the drummer a lot, and the guitar solos had some teeth to them. The guy from Slobberbone followed, and did nothing for me. It was raunchy country-based rock that never quite coalesced into anything with a personality.

The Bottle Rockets, however, had personality to spare. For many years, Brian Henneman has been the focus of this band, and if he was in a bad mood, there was no hope for the show. Now, while he’s still the driving force, he is surrounded by excellent musicians. Long-time drummer Mark Ortmann is locked in with brand new bassist Keith Voegele, and somewhat recent additional guitarist John Horton can give Henneman a run for his money in the lead guitar race. It’s great to see a band come together better than they’ve ever been after all these years. They played old classics and a few new songs which should be recorded by next spring. I’ve always thought the Bottle Rockets were the best of the original alt-country triumvirate (along with Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks), but now they’re truly great.

I wish I was as excited by Neko Case, the final act of this year’s Twangfest. I love her records, but somehow, when I see her live, things never quite reach the apex of excitement I expect from her. She sings beautifully, but seems detached from the music. This doesn’t happen when she’s in the New Pornographers, where she seems to be having a ball. But as a front person, she comes off as too serious, and perversely deflects the serious beauty of the songs. They sound not exactly clinical, but far from emotionally true.

After the Pageant kicked us out, we repaired to the Halo Bar for further drinking. Much fun and hysterical conversation occurred, very little of which would make sense to anybody reading this. But, on a personal note, Cat and I achieved a new milestone. After getting to sleep near 4 in the morning, we didn’t wake up until after 11 am. Normally, we tend to arise before 8, no matter what we did the night before. What will this mean for our future weekends?

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Twangfest Update

Today is the last day of Twangfest, so here’s an update on what I’ve seen so far. Wednesday night’s opening festivities were a lot of fun. Three bands played. Milton Mapes were a lot more powerful live than they are on record, albeit somewhat less melodically interesting. Or maybe the livelier rock sound overpowered the subtlety of their tunes. I don’t know. I liked them, but I can’t recall too much of what I heard two and a half days ago.

Not so with Jon Dee Graham. Here’s a guy who’s flown under my radar for a long, long time. I saw him with the True Believers something like 19 years ago, but I didn’t remember him specifically being so good. I remember loving the show, but there were three guitarists. Well, he’s a world-class level player, roughly akin to a country-influenced Richard Lloyd. And, he can’t sing any better than Lloyd, so those comparisons rang in my head all night. Still, I vow to never miss this guy again, because that performance was absolutely spectacular.

The raunchy good times of the Meat Purveyors ended the night. This band is just plain fun, with an acoustic guitarist/songwriter and a mandolin player who are functional, yet completely overshadowed by the larger than life vocal presentation of Jo Walston, and the in-your-face stand-up bass playing of Cherilyn DiMond. The originals are catchy, the covers – notably the Madonna medley – brilliant. This is music that’s as close to good-time back porch party sounds as you’re ever gonna see on a stage. I do think I liked them better at Frederick’s Music Lounge, where you’re literally about ten feet away from the stage at all times, but I’m not going to begrudge them a chance to play in front of a larger crowd.

We skipped Thursday night, since neither Cat nor myself are fans of Supersuckers or Richmond Fontaine. The band on that bill we do love, St. Louis’s own Rough Shop, apparently put on the best show of its life, according to at least a dozen people we saw yesterday.

Friday afternoon, we visited Twangpin, the party held at the Maplewood Lanes bowling alley. There, the Bowling Stones, an amalgamation of Twangfest organizers and friends, played a fun set of country and rock covers. It was somewhat under-rehearsed, but full of passion and intelligent arrangements. Bet you’ve never heard “Teenage Kicks” played on a dobro, have you?

Friday night, it was on to the Duck Room for the night I most anticipated. I forget the opening act’s name, but that’s all right since I didn’t like him much. Nora O’Connor, however, was a delight. I enjoyed her more a few months back at Off Broadway, because there were only ten people in the crowd and we could concentrate on her impeccable vocal skills. She uses a lot of dynamics, moving closer and further away from the microphone as she raises and lowers her voice. In a big room, with 150 or more people talking over the quiet performance, it was hard to hear. But, it was terrific. I just wish she had brought a drummer along to pump up the crowd a bit.

Moot Davis had no such problems. What a band he’s got, led by the astounding guitar stylings of Pete Anderson (you know, the guy who worked with Dwight Yoakam for more than 15 years). This is honky tonk music on amphetamines, pumped up to warp speed without ever sounding punk. That’s because Anderson and the rhythm section insist on staying true to the groove, even if they infuse it with extra power. Davis is a great singer, and his songs are often catchy. I do still think if he ever loses Anderson, his meal ticket will be gone for good, but right now, this is as solid a country act as you’ll find.

Finally last night, we had a party with Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, one of the great country/western swing/r’n’b party bands of the last ten years. Sandy can sound absolutely like a young Elvis Presley, with that eager, look-at-me-I’m-a-singer tenor. And his band is a pure delight, especially the pedal steel player who joined him about two years ago. I hadn’t seen these guys in seven or eight years, so it was a real treat to remember just how great they are.

Today, we have Twangclips, and then tonight there’s Neko Case and the Bottle Rockets at the Pageant. Tomorrow is a day of rest, then Monday night, Marah is playing at Off Broadway, in a show not even related to Twangfest, but which we have to attend, anyway. With this much live music to entertain me, who needs a job? (Well, maybe eventually I’ll need money to pay for going out, won’t I?)

The interview

Forty-eight hours have passed since I sat in the office of Professor John Baugh. A very interesting experience. All the nervousness passed within thirty seconds of walking into the room. We had a pleasant conversation, discussing my experience as a writer, and my experiences editing way back in the days of Jet Lag.

The primary aspect of the job is editing, which is the hardest skill for me to prove. In fact, the only way I can see to prove it is to take a test. All the editing I’ve done in my life has been done without thinking of posterity. I would clean up writing of others at Vintage Vinyl, or I would make suggestions to writers for Jet Lag. It was done on the fly, to get something accomplished. I never thought it would be something I’d want to recall years later.

I remain very interested in obtaining this job. I think it would be fascinating to be in the halls of academia, reading early drafts of whatever the various professors in African and Afro-American Studies are developing, and trying to help them achieve the best work they can. I’ve always enjoyed my visits to college campuses. There’s something about breathing in the atmosphere of a place devoted to learning that just gets to me. So, fingers remain crossed, but the rest of me has to keep on keeping on with the search.

Speaking of which, I applied for one job recently that I thought I could do well, but that I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about doing. I actually wavered for three days as to whether or not to send in a resume. Interestingly enough, they were the only company of the twenty or twenty-five with which I’ve applied to send me a rejection letter. And, I love the phrasing: “Thank you for applying. However, our search goes on.” However, our search goes on! Not, we’re sorry, you don’t meet our qualifications or anything focused on me. It was all about them. You almost feel sorry for them that I wasn’t what they wanted.

Next week, it’s back to seeking contacts and talking to people. I only wish I could make a living doing that. It’s a lot of fun just getting together with people in different walks of life. Everybody is just so nice and willing to help. I’m gonna get a job yet.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Nerves and Distractions

I hate being nervous. I hate the fact that once I experience the thing I’m nervous about, it’s not going to seem like all that big a deal. I hate the gnawing in my stomach, the deadening of my brain and body, the dryness of my mouth. I hate the waiting, and the ways time slows down dramatically every second you can’t find something to serve as a distraction.

In 24 hours, I’ll sit in a job interview, trying to impress somebody I don’t know. That’s never been my forte. I realize, once I meet somebody, I can talk with them without any problem. But, how often do I meet somebody who holds such power? The ability to end my search, to give me certainty, a regular income, benefits, the whole nine yards? And, at the same time, I have to be probing him, to make sure this is a job I really want. What if I can’t do it? Not the job, because I know I can handle that. But how do I determine from an hour’s conversation whether this person is somebody I can trust to lead me through the job?

I know that most studies show that the first job interview in a search is rarely successful. And, I haven’t exactly stopped my efforts at getting elsewhere. But, I want this right now, because I think the job is really interesting, from what I’ve seen, and I’m putting all kinds of thought into just this one. It’s like setting myself up for a fall, but I can’t stop myself. And all this just goes to make me nervous.

I’ve got a lunch meeting today, which will help. And Twangfest starts tonight. There’s some good music to catch, especially Jon Dee Graham and the Meat Purveyors. The trick there, of course, is to avoid staying out too late and giving up a small edge to my game in the morning.

VELVET GOLDMINE. My distraction yesterday afternoon was this 1998 flick directed by Todd Haynes and starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Ewan McGregor. Yes, they kiss, and lie in bed naked together. These facts alone don’t make the movie great, but they didn’t hurt it, either.

The idea is confusing to me, taking a glam rock approach to “Citizen Kane,” and finding an ultimately emptier mystery than that of “Rosebud.” Because Brian Slade (Rhys-Meyers take on Bowie) didn’t actually die, he just disappeared, after his fans turned on him for a fake death on stage publicity stunt. McGregor’s Curt Wild fulfills all his Iggy Pop mirror fantasies, except that he is a) entirely too beautiful to play an Iggy clone and b) has all the sexuality and virtually none of the danger necessary for the role.

So, glam rock was empty role-playing, we’ve heard that before. But, Haynes seems to want it to have fallen down because it met a true homosexual love it couldn’t bear. Slade can’t resurrect Wild’s career in the way that Bowie did for Iggy, but he can give up his own success in a futile attempt to show how much he loves him. Meanwhile, our intrepid reporter, Arthur Stuart (played by Christian Bale) stands in for all the gay teens who had their lives turned around by the sudden short-lived wedding of bisexuality and rock’n’roll. His love for Slade and Wild is unrequited, but he seems to be connected to them for the rest of his life, anyway.

The actors do a great job, the imagery is usually pretty cool – the starship bits don’t quite work for me – and the songs, sometimes originals written in glam style, sometimes old classics sung and played by new people, are really good. I just can’t figure out why so much of Bowie and Iggy was welded into these new characters, only to have their fictional changes be less interesting than the real ones.

SIX FEET UNDER. The new season has started, and the race is on amongst the Fischer clan to see who will get to have the most miserable life. Last year’s winner, David, seems remarkably stable so far, as he and his lover Keith figure out how they will wind up becoming parents. Nate seems pretty messed up, doing nice things for all sorts of wrong reasons, so I’ll keep my eye on him. His new wife Brenda definitely has a horrible time of things in this episode. Claire is living with a ticking-time bomb, the long-time nutjob Billy. Ricco, honorary Fischer, is dating and finding every woman unsatisfactory simply because he won’t give them a chance. But, the smart money right now has to be on matriarch Ruth, who has had her dreams of happy golden years shattered by the mental illness of her husband George. The opening death in this episode, by the way, neatly encapsulates what has become a perennial theme with this show: You should get out there and open yourself up to experiences, because whether you do or you don’t, you’re gonna be screwed over by illness or death.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


You know what Peter Brady said, right? When it’s time to change, you’ve got to rearrange. While I certainly enjoyed the blogging method I was employing these past few months, the concept of putting together regular essays for no compensation was becoming a bit of a drag. You probably noticed the number of entries shrinking in past weeks. I’d have ideas, but then I tried too hard to make them work. Or, I’d be afraid to think at all about something, for fear of having to create an entire essay on a subject.

So, herewith I present to you Pick Your Pop Culture phase two, in which I just tell you what’s going on in my world as often as possible. This doesn’t mean the abandonment of essays, because sometimes, I’ll start writing and giant spews of thought fountains will come out. But, there will be short subjects interspersed here and there, as well.

THE JOB HUNT. I’m still looking. I have an interview on Thursday, my first job interview since, I don’t know, 1979 or something. I’ve conducted interviews, so I have some idea what to do, or even better, what not to do. The job seems interesting, anyway. It’s an editorial assistant to the new professor in African-American studies at Washington University. His name is John Baugh, and his specialty is linguistics, particularly African-American speech patterns. His last book, which I’ve tried to find in two college libraries, was “Beyond Ebonics.” Failing in my search for that one, I did read a much earlier work, “Black Street Speech: It’s History, Structure, and Survival,” published back in 1983. The subject is not one that I’ve studied extensively, but it is fascinating.

Meanwhile, I spend a lot of time meeting people, looking for contacts, seeking out ideas for how to find gainful employment. I have a mix of skills from my days at Vintage Vinyl that most people seem to agree are transferable to other areas. I know how to manage people and companies, I have a strong data analysis and financial planning and interpreting background, and I can write. I’m looking hard at arts and other non-profit organizations, and university employment, but I’m open to other suggestions. And, I’m looking for more freelance writing opportunities. If anybody has any ideas, let me know.

VIC CHESNUTT. I’ve been driving around the last couple days with Vic Chesnutt’s new album, “Ghetto Bells.” A quiet, sometimes mournful, sometimes delicate record like this wouldn’t seem to make a good driving companion, but I like the way this thing fills up my car. Chesnutt has written a bunch of powerful new songs, including a grim analysis of the last presidential election called “Little Caesar.” The one that stops my mind from racing every time I hear it, though, is called “Rambunctious Cloud.” First of all, there’s a personal connection for me with the word “rambunctious,” which was something my father said virtually every day of his life around me, as far as I can remember. Beyond that, though, the song is by turns funny, thoughtful, banal, and moving. It’s about the connections between rain and life, over time, and across space. It, along with all the other songs here, also benefits from some exquisite Bill Frisell guitar work. His solos on this cut will break your heart.

LA STRADA. Usually, I work pretty hard on job hunting, especially on Monday, but yesterday, I had some writing to do in the morning, and I wound up spending most of my afternoon watching movies. I think I had seen this Fellini masterpiece once before, but aside from a few images of the incandescent Guilietta Masina and her delightful body language, I didn’t remember much about it. Masina and Anthony Quinn are both unbelievably great in this movie. Quinn plays a traveling circus performer who buys Masina from her family to be his assistant and mistress. He is not kind to her, but she wants so much to please him, and more, to please people in general. Nobody has ever shown more rapidly shifting emotions with just facial expressions than Masina.

WELCOME DANGER. Harold Lloyd’s first talking picture, from 1929, was remarkably funny, especially considering I don’t think I’d ever run into it before. His voice perfectly matched his image, and even though some of the movie suffered from unbearably bad dubbing of scenes shot when the film was originally intended to be silent, he did a great job integrating sound into his world view. The plot is, of course ridiculous, involving Lloyd the botanist/police detective in a complicated Chinese gang war battle, interweaved with a strangely sweet love story. The long scene when Lloyd thought his sweetie was a boy was odd, putting him in an uncharacteristically mean-spirited light. But, once Lloyd and his street-beat-walking cop friend Clancy get locked in the basement of the Chinese flower shop, hilarity ensues. You’d never think there was so many ways to get laughs from such a stock situation. Bonus points: I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the 3 Stooges learned to squeeze heads in those old-fashioned presses by watching this movie.

THE COMEBACK. Lisa Kudrow has a new series, and it’s got a lot of promise. At first, I was worried it was a little too much like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” lite, but there is a lot more depth in this half hour than I expected. Kudrow’s character is a former TV sitcom star who’s now working in a small role in a new sitcom, while filming a reality series about her comeback. The series shows the way in which reality shows are filmed, as well as the way in which sitcoms are filmed. Kudrow has the bark expected of a relatively successful Hollywood star, but much more than that, she shows the fears and the nuanced power struggles that go on among the folks we see as so successful. It ain’t easy to be rich and famous, we all know that. It may be even harder to empathize with the ways it ain’t easy. Good laughs and the occasional punch to the gut emotionally.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Numbers Game

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline in the sports section read, “The Most Indispensable Player on the Cardinals.” The story made the claim that Jason Isringhausen is the one guy the team can’t live without. Move over Albert Pujols, the second greatest player in all of baseball over the last three years by any measure you’d care to name. Nope, the daily paper thinks the most important player is a guy who pitches in less than 70 innings per season. That’s 70 out of a minimum of 1438 innings for the whole team.

How did this happen? How does conventional wisdom overtake reality again and again? It’s not just baseball, you know. Check out how many people still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Evidence is not as important as one would think it might be. I mean, I’ve lived my whole life ready to change my opinions of something if proof comes along that I was wrong before. But, apparently, this is not common.

Baseball leaves behind the clearest trail of proof that has ever been assembled in human endeavor. You can tally up the numbers, and see just what each player has contributed to his team’s success. Everything is a zero sum game. For every out recorded by a pitcher, there is an unsuccessful at bat for a hitter. And vice versa. And, outs are the most precious commodity in any baseball game. Each team has 27 and only 27 of them to work with (unless there are extra innings, and then each team gets an equal number again and again until one team wins). So, anything that prevents outs should help one team while hurting the other.

And yet, for some reason, the vast majority of baseball fans – led by the astonishingly simple-minded sportswriters and broadcasters of the world – cowtow to statistics which don’t reflect this simple rule. There is no less useful statistic in all of creation than the number of saves tallied by a pitcher during a season. It tells us absolutely nothing other than the fact that this pitcher makes more money than all his peers in the bullpen, and he makes that money because his manager puts him there.

I wanted to read “The Numbers Game,” written by Alan Schwarz, when it came out last year, but I wound up waiting until it recently hit the paperback market. Schwarz has done an excellent job of researching the history of baseball statistics and he’s uncovered some fascinating stories. I was impressed to find there were at least a few people in the 19th century who understood that batting average, and runs batted in, were misleading numbers. And, yet, ask a modern-day baseball fan who are the best hitters in the game, and these will be the two stats they use to tell you.

Saves weren’t invented until 1969, and prior to that, pitchers were never employed exclusively to pitch the 9th inning. In fact, before the mid-1980s, when Tony LaRussa hit upon the bright idea of putting Dennis Eckersley into the role of what we now call a closer, the best relief pitchers were brought in when the game was on the line, which may or may not have been the 9th, and which may or may not have been for only one inning.

Schwarz looks at statistics from a wide variety of angles, but it’s clear he’s on the side of the mathematicians who have expanded the science of baseball study over the years. Not that there’s anything wrong with people who have come up in the game without knowing the exact percentage of runs which can be expected to score with runners on 1st and 2rd and one out. It’s just a little more fun to have that tidbit in your back pocket while you yell at the manager for deciding to bunt in a situation which is already likely to lead to good results. Trading an out for a miniscule increase in the likelihood of scoring a run is just silly.

So, yeah, I was talking about saves. The rule states that a pitcher who gets the last three outs of a winning game, as long as he enters the game with his team ahead by three or fewer runs, or if he gets fewer than three outs yet faces a batter with the tying run in the on-deck circle, is credited with a save. It doesn’t matter if the last three hitters are the bottom three in the order for the worst hitting team in baseball, or if the three previous hitters, retired by another pitcher, were the three most dangerous hitters in the game. Saves only measure who gets the last out, whether or not that out was the most difficult out.

Watch Jason Isringhausen pitch sometime, and prepare to chew on your knuckles. I mean, the guy is a decent relief pitcher, but he has a nasty tendency to put people on base in tight situations, unless he’s facing the real bottom of the order. In that case, he’ll blow people away. He’s had a lot of saves in his career with the Cardinals because the Cardinals have won a lot of games while he’s been here, not the other way around. I’m glad he’s on the team, though, frankly, I wouldn’t pay him the huge salary he commands if I were in charge. But, the most indispensable guy on the Cardinals, a team that has three of the ten or so best hitters in the game today – that’s Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen, if you don’t already know? That’s just crazy talk. It’s the equivalent of believing false evidence without bothering to examine the correct evidence right under your nose.

“The Numbers Game” is a blast to read. It’s like watching the race to discover the atomic bomb or something, as formulas come into existence which destroy conventional wisdom. I find baseball to be infinitely fascinating, of course, but it’s even more so when you realize just how much there is to still be learned about it. I do worry about the concluding chapter of the book, though. Schwarz seems convinced that a new computer software and hardware package called Tendu will revolutionize baseball statistics. By next year, if all goes well, we should have access to every data point from every major league game, which, I think, will confuse the issue.

Baseball becomes clearest when the most data is crunched. Until you have hundreds or even thousands of examples of situations, randomness will infect what you see. Any twenty or thirty at-bats can result in any sort of situation. There’s little that annoys me so much as hearing announcers prattle on about how Roger Cedeno is 6 for 9 against a certain pitcher, as if that makes it very likely he’ll get another hit. The fact is, Roger Cedeno isn’t a very good hitter at all, but he’s still a major league ball player, and thus is capable of getting six hits out of any random nine at bats in his career.

Tendu will oversaturate us with data that is essentially random noise. Want to know how many times Albert Pujols pulls the ball with an 0-2 count and the temperature 75 degrees? Well, we’ll know, but so what? What will that mean to our understanding of the game? I fear micromanaging by insane statistics in ways that will make Tony LaRussa look like Homer Simpson.

Of course, ultimately, we’ll be able to use this data in ways much more interesting. The more information we have, the more likely we’ll be able to know what’s going on over a larger number of events. And, the beauty of baseball has always been that for all the joy of each individual game, it’s the lifetime of experience with the sport which makes it something to love.