Sunday, December 17, 2017

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by Scott M. Marshall

In a groundbreaking new book, author Scott M. Marshall examines the spiritual journey of Bob Dylan. Many remain perplexed at his so-called "Christian" period from 1979-81 when he released albums (Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981) with a strong Christian message, and turned his live performances into revival meetings. Dylan stopped playing all of his old material from the 1960s and only played gospel music. 

His fan base divided into factions, it's an often told tale. There's surreal footage of Dylan preaching to angry crowds about Judgment Day. After a few years of proselytizing, Dylan went back to being a more conventional rock star, touring with the likes of Tom Petty and The Grateful Dead. Yet as the book explains, spirituality has always been at the forefront of Dylan's songwriting. 

At first, I was somewhat skeptical if any book could explain Dylan's spirituality. After all, without access to the source himself, what can one really conclude? Instead Marshall relies on Dylan's own words the over 200 interviews he's granted during his career. Marshall also spoke to many who knew Dylan during his born again period. It's clear Dylan was serious about his new faith and the whole thing was not a publicity stunt (as many believed). What we get is not a definitive portrait, but a thought provoking one that adds depth to understanding Dylan's spirituality. 

When Dylan released Slow Train Coming in 1979 the songs "Gotta Serve Somebody," "When You Gonna Wake Up," and "Precious Angel" implored listeners to accept Christ as the only path to salvation. The follow up album Saved offered more soulful gospel with "In The Garden" and "Saving Grace." CBS records despised the Saved album and pleaded with Dylan to make a make a more commercial friendly record, the result being the underrated Shot of Love with one of Dylan's most beautiful spiritual ballads "Every Grain of Sand." A few years later Infidels followed, a moody album full of references to the Torah, prompting many to wonder if Dylan had returned to Judaism. 

A key theme in the book is how people perceive Dylan's spirituality, his Christian and Jewish fans seem to be in a competition as to which religion Dylan prefers. Prominent Christians such as Jimmy Carter and Billy Graham were elated that a rock and roll icon had embraced Christianity. Dylan's Jewish fans were taken aback, baffled at why Dylan would turn to born again Christianity for answers. 

At the same time, Dylan still frequently visited synagogues and appeared on the Chabad telethon three times during the 1980s. In 1983 he visited Jerusalem for the Bar Mitzvah of his son. On the Infidels album released that same year his song "Neighborhood Bully" was unabashedly pro-Israel, endorsing a hawkish foreign policy towards the Arab states.

Dylan's always been a fierce individualist. No group can claim Dylan as their own, a recurring motif in his career, going back to his going electric in the mid 1960s. He's obviously taken much from Jewish and Christian traditions, his admiration for Christ is sincere. His devotion to the traditions of Judaism are also evident in his words and deeds. Some conclude that Dylan has attempted to synthesize the two traditions.

Another strength of the book is Marshall's close attention to Dylan's live set lists, which seem to be a conversation between himself, fans, and detractors. His Christian songs have never left his live repertoire and in the late 1990s he would often perform traditional hymns. In his final concert of the 20th Century, he played the old spiritual "This World Can't Stand Long" as a parting message to the old millennium. 

In 2009 Dylan released Christmas in the Heart, a holiday record that blended traditional favorites along with songs celebrating the birth of Christ, Dylan told an interviewer he was a "true believer" in Christ. His 21st Century work is replete with spiritual longing and musings on a world that appears more broken everyday, the Old Testament and New Testament are in never ending conversation. 

Reading Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life one will come away with knowledge of Dylan as one of the most unlikely theologians in an age that relegates theology to irrelevancy. Marshall contributes a new perspective to Dylan's wide ranging catalog and complex relationship with fans and critics.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Book Review: The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study by Peter Hanson

Published in 2002, The Cinema of Generation X by Peter Hanson, is an early study of the youthful voices who defined American movies in the 1990s. Each chapter analyzes various themes in Gen X cinema and the creators behind them. Hanson uses the arbitrary dates of 1961-1971 as the birth range. They came of age as the open wounds of Vietnam and political upheaval loomed over the culture, in addition to an increasing divorce rate, the AIDS crisis, and across the board cultural malaise. 

If one could not find solace in family or institutions, the only remaining refuge was pop culture. Hence the pop culture obsessed characters that populate so many of these movies. The two convenience store employees in Clerks (1994) debate obscure plot points in Star Wars, while violent mobsters in Reservoir Dogs deconstruct Madonna's song lyrics, and the college grads in Reality Bites (1994) cannot stop talking about 1970s sitcoms.  

Ironic. Slackers. Spaced Out. Ennui. Those are all words used to define Gen X and ideas the movies are obsessed with. As the children of flower power and Ronald Reagan ethics, two competing influences in 1990s America, they looked at the world with weariness and cynicism. Slackers saw the moral bankruptcy of both world views:

Slackers do . . . perceive an antagonistic force in their lives , albeit an amorphous one; some Gen Xers carry the activism torch passed to them by the previous generation; and postmodern style . . . is not for style's sake, but rather a spirited, if not always prudent, attempt to seek new means of conveying thematic material (17).

Steven Soderbergh gets credited with first Gen X film; sex, lies and videotape came out in 1989, its themes of sexual dysfunction, video technology, and fractured relationships, would all become preoccupations of the decade. Quentin Tarantino delighted in twisting traditional narrative in his first two films Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Paul Thomas Anderson made the captivating three hour film Magnolia (1999) that follows disparate misfits trapped in self imposed misery. Kevin Smith's quartet of films in the 1990s: Clerks (1994), Mall Rats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), and Dogma (1999) are perhaps the best primer for Gex X cinema.

These movies took a personal approach to politics. Despite the generational confusion, their films embraced new ideas about sexuality, while at the same time looked at the ominous side of the sexual revolution. Male filmmakers still dominated the discourse, although Hanson does cover the early work of Sofia Coppola and Kimberly Pierce. White filmmakers tended to avoid racial issues entirely, a task left to the African-American directors Spike Lee and John Singleton.

Politics also extended to the workplace, or lack of opportunities awaiting the new generation. Reality Bites followed an aimless group of privileged college graduates troubled about whether going corporate would make them sell outs. Mike Judge's Office Space was a hilarious take on white collar ennui. 

There's also a fascination with violence. Tarantino dared audiences to revel in the violent criminal worlds of his imagination. Not a surprise, since the criminal life looked more appealing than the "McJobs" that were available. David Fincher's Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999) were bleak tales that toyed with Nihilism. The Wachowski siblings blew up the Sci-Fi genre with The Matrix, a visionary statement that struck a cultural nerve.

The year 1999 marked the high point of Gen X cinema: Office Space, Dogma, Boys Don't Cry, The Matrix, Fight Club, Magnolia, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Three Kings, Girl, Interrupted, and The Limey are all modern classics. As Hanson points out, the low budget Blair Witch Project, a found footage about 20 somethings lost in the woods, was the perfect metaphor for Gen X. 

Hanson's study is well written and engaging. An early attempt to understand 1990s cinema, the energy from these movies still pops off the page. And many of these directors are still working and producing great work! 

Hanson, Peter. The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study. Jefferson: McFarland, 2002. Print.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review: Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 by Daniel Wolff

In a stirring work of history, Daniel Wolff connects various flash points from the past, tracing the roots of righteous anger in America. On Christmas Eve 1913, 73 miners and their children perished in Calumet, Michigan after a false fire alarm either orchestrated by the mining company or their henchmen. A panic ensued and people trampled over each other for safety.  The fire exit door was locked.  Woody Guthrie wrote a song in entitled "1913 Massacre" that retold the tragic events, the final verse ending with "See what your greed for money has done.

In 2013 there were no remembrances for the lives lost, no specials on a major TV network that would remind Americans to reflect on labor struggles. As Wolff emphasizes, that doesn't mean it never happened. There's an anger, you just have to search for it. For the book draws a straight line from Calumet - Guthrie's song - and Dylan's recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" in 1965.

In the first chapter, Wolff writes that revolution suggested in "Like A Rolling Stone" never materialized: 

Like this new century was born from a struggle it barely knows about. As if forces have long been working underground, and we walk the landscape they've produced like innocents, unaware. (18)

Grown Up Anger tells three parallel stories: the historical roots of the Calumet Massacre, Woody Guthrie's political awakening, and how it all connects to Dylan. It's bigger than that even; it's the history of the 20th century and its epic tragedies. The 21st Century, as Wolff points out, has witnessed strides in terms of group rights, yet the wealth gap has skyrocketed. Union membership is at its lowest level since 1913. Even Michigan, a state put its fate in the hands of Trump, was at one time was the heart and soul of American labor, passed Right-To-Work laws. Wages are falling for everyone, except the top 5%.

The parallel journeys of Guthrie and Dylan are instructive, in their own ways tales of exuberance followed by cynicism and the echo of hope. On "Like a Rolling Stone" Dylan's anger seems to grow with each verse, but resolves itself with the promise of starting over and living to fight another day.

Wolff's cinematic approach to history is written with journalistic precision. Perhaps the approach warranted a more experimental writing style; maybe would've made for a cooler book. But now is not the time for abstractions; the time cries for truth and clarity. On that note, I would highly recommend Grown Up Anger.

Wolff, Daniel. Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913. New York: Harper Collins, 2017. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff

If there were a Godfather of modern popular culture, Harlan Ellison would be the guy. Mr. Ellison published his first story as a teenager and never looked back. A cult hero since the 1960s, he seems to have been everywhere and met everybody.  Biographer Nat Segaloff was given unprecedented access to Ellison's archives and granted several interviews with his subject. A Lit Fuse works as a reliable introduction for those new to Harlan Elison, while providing a complete picture for those familiar with his work.

In all honesty, Ellison's been his own biographer for decades, sharing details of his life in his writings and speaking engagements.  Reportedly, Ellison spent several years on a memoir entitled Working Without a Net, but recent health problems compelled him to pass the project on to his friend Segaloff. Many stories recounted in the book are reprints of interviews Ellison's provided over the years; the book puts them all into a cohesive narrative.

So, who is Harlan Ellison? He's written in all genres of fiction including TV and film, comic books and graphic novels, and media criticism. In addition Harlan's a voice actor, lecturer, comics collector, and one of the last great raconteurs. As a public personality he's been called the most contentious man on the planet; fearless in his confrontations with anyone, anywhere. Ellison can be a loyal friend or bitter enemy (he revels in getting revenge towards those who wronged him). He gained a reputation for being litigious, but won most of his cases (most famous case being the 1984 film The Terminator).  

Segaloff recounts Ellison's chaotic boyhood in Painesville, Ohio, a place he came to despise for its backward ways. He was bullied repeatedly for being Jewish and fought back just as hard. His childhood tormentors have often appeared in his stories, same names and all. He ran away many times, driving his parents up the wall.  After getting expelled from Ohio State (Harlan punched out a professor who told him he would never make it as a writer) he established himself in the pulp magazines, served in the army for a few years, and continued writing at a rapid pace. Then he moved to Los Angeles and broke into the television industry.

Ellison's had a tumultuous relationship with television, forever denouncing producers who changed his scripts.  The most infamous case is the Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever." Despite winning the WGA (Writers Guild of America) award for the script he remained angry over the changes made to his original vision. In 1970, he wrote The Glass Teat, a groundbreaking book on how television failed the public on every level. Ellison worked on the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone series, but walked off when CBS refused to film one of his scripts (a satire on Christmas and consumerism).

The author of over 1500 short stories, many of which are considered classics of the form. Just a few memorable titles are "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and "Jetty is Five" are all staples of modern fiction. Ellison's mostly written short stories, a form he believes is superior to the novel (also admits he lacks the focus to write a long book). 

Despite Ellison's abrasive personality he's fostered many friendships over the years: karate training with Bruce Lee, motorcycling with Steve McQueen, and a moving friendship with the late Robin Williams. His encounters with Frank Sinatra, L. Ron Hubbard, and irate fans are all legendary. As a teacher he championed young writers by running work shops, serving as a mentor to many.  Always the activist, he marched with Martin Luther King at Selma (wrote a compelling account) and delivered hundreds of speeches to support the Equal Rights Amendment (Governor Reagan put Ellison on a watch list and had his phone tapped). 

Ellison's crowning achievement remains his editing and supervision of the speculative fiction anthology Dangerous Visions in 1967, one of the Rosetta Stones of modern genre fiction. I was hoping the book would shed light on his collaboration with Thomas Pynchon, no dice.

Segaloff divided the book into thematic chapters, avoiding the awkwardness of a straight line narrative. Details are learned about Ellison's personal life: his five marriages, acrimonious relationship with his family, and the residual pain from his childhood. 

In 2014, a massive stroke sidelined Ellison. It was sad to read about how his health problems in recent years have prevented him from writing.

Ellison often agonizes if his work will endure after he's gone. I think it will. Few of his writings have been adapted into film so the possibilities are endless.  Segaloff makes a strong case for Ellison's legacy; admiring, but never worshipful.

(Many of Ellison's interviews are available on youtube. Begin with his interviews with Tom Snyder)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel

Old Records Never Die tells the story of a man's quest to reunite with all of his old records (this is a non-fiction book). And that's just it - the actual records he sold off years before. Now married with a young son and approaching middle age, Spitznagel's quest appears to be a futile attempt to recapture his youth, a mid-life crisis cliche. He would be the first to admit that. Over the course of a few years he haunts old record stores and even tracks down a few dealers who might possess his precious talismans from youth. Despite Spitznagel's occasional music snobbery and indulgence in nostalgia, he brings an emotional resonance to a story that culminates into a moving conclusion. I guess even the most vociferous cynic can turn out to be a sentimentalist at heart. There are also several hilarious and surreal moments with the various characters he encounters along the way. Highly recommended for the rock music obsessive, quietly, but defiantly, living the ethos of Gen X.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Concert Review: Phish at the Nutter Center 7-18-2017

The eclectic rock band Phish put their musicianship on full display at the Nutter Center in Dayton, Ohio last night. I went into the concert being mostly unfamiliar with their music and history.  I was aware they have a fervent following akin to The Grateful Dead.  Fans follow them around on tour and create a festive atmosphere at the venue. One of the most heralded American Jam Bands, known for extended improvisational music, Phish draws upon a wide range of musical influences.

Fronted by lead guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio, Phish played two full sets, each about 90 minutes long. Anastasio was supported by Mike Gordon on bass, Jon Fishman on percussion, and Page McConnell on keyboards.  They opened the show with some rockers like "Tuesday" and "Peaches En Regalia," and "Free." These songs are more rooted in the classic rock tradition of The Rolling Stones. Other songs displayed a funk influence with bass driven extended jams. "Crazy Sometimes," clearly a crowd pleaser.  They closed the first set with "Runaway Jim," a song that reminded me of The Grateful Dead in their heyday.

The second set was dominated by improvisational jams.  The opener "Down With Disease" clocked in at 23 minutes.  There's a definite Frank Zappa quality to Phish as well, showing off their quirky side with "Wombat." The band hold their own with any arena rock band from the 1970s, with hints of Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers. At times, Anastasio sounds identical to Jerry Garcia, at other times a Zappa delivery, but he can also be soulful and melodic. All four musicians are excellent showmen, each putting their distinct personality into the performance.  While phones were visible everywhere in the arena, the crowd seemed to be genuinely into the music.

Before saying farewell, Phish are off to Madison Square Garden where they will perform a "baker's dozen" worth of shows, they closed the concert with "The Squirming Coil," a meditative song from their 1990 album Lawn Boy.

What was my impression of Phish as a newcomer? They employed an impressive range of styles, much rooted in rock of the 1970s and 1980s, with some free form jazz and classical thrown into the mix.  When they want to - they can rock with the best of them. Much depends on your tolerance for extended jam music. It can test your patience if you are not accustomed to it.  Phish is known for making each concert a unique event with vastly different set lists from show to show, and they accomplished just that - an experience.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: Radio On by Sarah Vowell

Recent I picked up Radio On by Sarah Vowell, NPR impresario and hipster historian. In 1995 Vowell decided to keep a journal on her radio listening habits and record her observations, offering reflections on one of the least written about mediums.  Radio On offers a nervy trip back to 1995, replete with foreshadowing of what was to come.

Vowell listened to a wide range of what is now called terrestrial radio: FM Rock, AM Talk Radio, and tons of NPR. Many figures from 1995 appear; some are gone, and some are still around.  The death of Kurt Cobain was still raw in that year and his ghost looms heavily over the book.  Vowell wrote of Cobain as the conscious of the early 1990s:

It was a relief to know someone like him that was on the radio, part of American public life. . . To some of the people who grieve him, Kurt Cobain was a great artist, to others he was the medicine man of the rock and roll tribe, but, finally, he was simply a friend (5-6).

Vowell relates much on what she admires and detests about America. For 1995 saw a resurgence of the right (many more to come), in 1994 the GOP won both houses of congress back after 50 years out of power.  Once in power they gleefully acted as the wrecking crew to Bill Clinton's liberal agenda. Newt Gingrich gets much of Vowell's vitriol, along with crony Rush Limbaugh who dominated the air waves. Rhetoric from the right in 1995 has many echoes for today, fanaticism over gun rights topping the list.  The Oklahoma City bombing revealed how much some on the right despised their society, the Unabomber (extreme left) also entered the cultural parlance.

It's always fun to hear the young go after a sacred cow and few do it better that Vowell. Deadheads are almost as annoying as Rush's legion of dittoheads, chastising her peers for being trapped in the amber of counterculture nostalgia. She prefers P.J. Harvey to Alanis Morisette, ambivalent towards Courtney Love. She writes of her exhaustion with male voices dominating the discourse on music, most of pop  culture for that matter:

I seem to have spent my whole life listening to boys talk about music. And sometimes, no matter how smart or untrivial or meaningful the boy might be, the sheer aesthetic presence of a masculine voice engaged in record talk can get on my nerves (168).

The rise of the internet looms as well, still more of a novelty in 1995.  At one point Vowell ponders the possibilities, in the future everyone can be their own radio station, predicting the rise of podcasts.  The absence of social media makes itself known: in order to communicate people still had to call each other or write notes.  Seems much longer than 20 years.

Perhaps its the mid 90s milieu and all the talk of REM, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana it got me thinking of David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest would be published the next year (probably because the film The End of the Tour takes place at roughly the same time.)  I imagine Wallace and Vowell running into each other and she being annoyed with his writing style and obsessions with tennis and the pursuit of happiness. But Wallace did listen to Nirvana while writing so maybe they would talk about Cobain. Past is prologue, and the 90s were a prologue decade.

But back to radio, Vowell is fairly critical of NPR for being too middle of the road, in other words out of touch. Well someone listened at NPR, Vowell herself became a fixture of This American Life. Since the 90s radio hasn't changed much, mostly zombie radio these days. Satellite radio does excellent work, but with a price. And consumers can access music in myriads of different ways - that's a good thing.

Vowell's at her best when writing about patriotism in a time when conservatives act like they own it, she relates her patriotism more in the spirit of Neil Young (nothing like a Canadian to be the exemplar of good citizenry). Not without surprise, religion and national identity would preoccupy her future writing. 

Vowell channels the spirit of a perceptive road novel - from a specific time and place.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: Buckley and Mailer: The DIfficult Friendship That Shaped The Sixties

The 2015 book Buckley and Mailer by Kevin Schultz examines the friendship/rivalry between novelist Norman Mailer and Conservative writer William F. Buckley.  Both were consummate critics of the prevailing liberalism of the decade, Mailer critiqued from the Left and Buckley from the Right. On September 22, 1962 they held a debate in New York City and became friends afterwards, corresponding throughout the decade.  As their cultural influence waned the deep fissures within American they tried to transcend became ever more apparent.

With privileged backgrounds and Ivy League Educations, both spoke with a suave self-assurance.  Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead, based on his own experiences in the Philippines during the Second World War, established him as new voice in America literature.  His 1959 book Advertisements For Myself helped launched New Journalism, a style that made the writer a part of their own story.

Buckley also came to a prominence through a book, God and Man At Yale , a satiric look at the modern university.  In 1955 he founded National Review, which became the bible of the Conservative Movement.  Like Mailer, Buckley felt stagnated by the Eisenhower years and worried about the direction of the country.

Their debate was promoted as the “forceful philosopher of THE NEW CONSERVATISM . . . AGAINST . . . America’s angry young man and Leading Radical” (17).  The debate proved a jocular affair with both men finding common ground in their fears about technology threatening the individual. Buckley’s conservatism looked to the past for wisdom and guidance on how to move forward – read the “Great Books” and champion Judeo-Christian values as the path to Enlightenment.  Mailer evangelized for a new individuality that would reward creativity and advocated for a new value system to unlock the shackles of the past.

Both took the controversies of the decade head on. Mailer covered the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco that nominated Barry Goldwater and detected a whiff of Fascism.  Johnson’s landslide win over Goldwater failed to produce a consensus.  The left and right were drifting further apart. LBJ’s escalation of the war in Vietnam would fuel the New Left – and energize Mailer.

Schultz credits Buckley with driving out the wacko right wing groups such as the John Birch Society and the KKK.  His long running talk show Firing Line looks more like a placid cocktail party than the predictable rage at Fox News. As time went on Buckley’s aristocratic view of politics alienated him from the forces that would  shape modern conservatism – white working class resentment.

As well educated white men there views on race and gender betrayed their privilege.   Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro” expressed his admiration for black culture, specifically the sexual openness that terrified middle class whites. James Baldwin, a friend of Mailer’s, called out the racism of the article because of its simplistic view of black culture.  Buckley opposed the Civil Rights Movement and his statements on race are now outmoded, sometimes painfully racist.  In 1965 Baldwin humiliated Buckley at the Oxford Union debate they held.

Mailer’s reputation as a male chauvinist also put him in opposition to Women’s Liberation. In 1971 Mailer debated a group of feminists including Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer and came off as clownish. In a later essay, Greer dismissed Mailer as aging and no longer relevant – echoing the Boomer animus towards Mailer.

Mailer continued to write in the 1960s, writing an experimental novel An American Dream, and two works of non-fiction about protests he participated in Armies of the Night and Miami and The Siege of Chicago.  Realizing film was poised to displace literature Mailer made several experimental movies. In 1968 he ran for mayor of New York City with Jimmy Breslin in a splendidly Quixotic campaign that pledged to make NYC the 51st state.

Today literature lacks anyone approaching the panache of Mailer, while conservatism reduced itself to angry bloggers, talk radio rants, and Fox News (with a few exceptions – National Review soldiers on more weary than ever in the Trump era). Our fragmented culture tends to separate people into something resembling tribes, a development that would appall both Mailer and Buckley.

Reading the book, one can understand their flaws and yet appreciate their willingness to jump into the maelstrom of ideas.  Schultz paints a panoramic portrait of the 1960s that deeply resonates for the current moment.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sgt Pepper: Utopian Visions

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  Most commentators have written on whether it was the "greatest" Beatle album and then smugly tell you it's the most overrated music ever made. Let's not even go there.

To quote Peter Fonda from The Limey (1999):

Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. *That* was the sixties. (Pause)

No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all there was.

By that logic, and a fine logic it is, the release of Pepper marked the end of the 1960s, prophecy of some new age.  Certainly not the age that followed, nor the one we are in now, but someday maybe.

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote of how systems destroy radical ideas by making them banal.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's happened.  The Beatles, those mop top rascals who sent shockwaves of fear into nascent red America, are now about as offensive as a Friends rerun.

But Pepper survives as a Utopian vision, as Ian MacDonald's brilliant study of the Beatles Revolution in the Head pointed out, the album created a civilizational "contact high." 

So listen to Sgt. Pepper. Step into the time machine. Enjoy the philosophical interplay between John and Paul on "Getting Better" or George's jaunty guitar on "Fixing a Hole." Picture the imaginative characters Mr. Kite, Lovely Rita, Billy Shears, or Lucy in the Sky. "Within You, Without You" stands alongside anything in the New Testament. 

The first twelve tracks are mere rehearsal for the magisterial conclusion of "A Day in the Life." MacDonald wrote of the song:

The message is that life is a dream and we have the power, as dreamers, to make it beautiful (230).

Listening to Sgt. Pepper in 2017 cannot be experienced the way it was in 1967, yet the magic remains.  As the Beatles themselves said on the opening track, "they've going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile."

Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday Night Paranoia

Watching the 1978 Phillip Kaufmann remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  At one point Brooke Adams says to Donald Sutherland, "'I've lived in this city all my life, but somehow today I felt everything had changed."  And then that actually happened on 11/9/16 (maybe sooner).  So are the pod people are winning????  The issue lingers and we are in it for the long haul, the slow burn, moving through history's cunning passages and feeling ghosts breathing down our neck . . .

Sunday, April 16, 2017

TV Review: Wiseguy (1987-1990)

Wiseguy may be the Rosetta Stone of the modern TV landscape.  It aired on CBS from 1987-1990 to mediocre ratings and was mostly forgotten after going off the air.  The show followed undercover FBI agent Vinnie Terranova, ably played by Ken Wahl , whose job was to infiltrate and disrupt various criminal enterprises.  Also starring was Jonathan Banks as John McPike, Vinny's key contact with the FBI.  "Lifeguard" played by Jim Byrnes stood on call if Vinny got into a serious fix.

What makes Wiseguy historically important was that it went against conventional episodic television: stories played out over several episodes.  Neither did each arc exist in isolation, they were of part an even larger arc as the events in each story brought consequences for the next one. Unfortunately the realities of 1980s television prevented Wiseguy from developing even more complex stories.

Season One packed a wallop with two engrossing narratives featuring larger than life villains. Terranova's first assignment was to infiltrate the Atlantic City mob.  Sonny Steelgrave, played with gusto by character actor Ray Sharkey, wanted to take over the city. His persona combined Donald Trump and Tony Soprano.  Sonny took Vinnie under his wing and they form a close bond, causing serious loyalty conflicts for Terranova.

The second arc showed even more ambition with Vinnie fronting as a bodyguard for international arms dealer siblings Mel and Laura Profitt.  Kevin Spacey got his first big break and its fascinating to see him use acting rhythms he would bring to his future roles.  Mel's a drug attic who's prone to bouts of megalomania and paranoia.  Another major character Roger Loccocco (William Russ), a hired gun for the Profitt siblings, also became a recurring character.

The second season continued to emphasize character. Vinnie, dejected after the chaotic conclusion to the Mel Profitt case, sulks at home until he discovers white nationalists are starting trouble in his Brooklyn neighborhood.  Don't miss Fred Thompson as their titular leader, eventually revealed to be a huckster.

Next came the "Garment Trade Storyline" which featured Jerry Lewis in a rare dramatic role as garment trade business owner who gets in trouble with a mobster, a menacing Stanley Tucci. During filming Wahl was injured and briefly replaced by a veteran undercover agent John Henry Raglin, played by Anthony Denison from Crime Story.

Unfortunately the last part of season two remains unavailable on DVD and syndication, due to copyright  issues.  The story featured Vinnie taking on corruption in the record industry.

By season three the stories grew more erratic. The first arc returned to another mob themed story line involving Vinnie's stepfather.  Next came a brilliant four episode story on power plays in Washington D.C., centering on a scheme to launch a trade war with Japan that came straight out of a Tom Clancy novel, starring Norman Lloyd as a duplicitous general.

Then the setting moved to rural Washington, foreshadowing Twin Peaks which would air the following season on ABC. Vinnie discovers shady behavior and bizarre locals while investigating a serial killer case in what began as a simple investigation into small town corruption. The case caused Vinnie to experience a nervous breakdown and he went AWOL. The season ended with Terranova stumbling upon a toxic waste conspiracy in Seattle as his mental state continued to worsen.  Unfortunately the character never got a proper exit from the show's mythology.

Wahl did not return for season 4 over creative differences and the show quickly faded.  Wiseguy continued on for a short season with Steven Bauer taking over as the lead.  An inferior made for TV movie with Wahl aired in 1996.

So many of the most heralded shows of the 21st Century including The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Homeland, all owe something to Wiseguy. Jonathan Banks went on to star in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul brought a welcomed renewed interest in the show.  Wiseguy's pulpy writing style and retro film noir look are well worth revisiting.

Book Review: Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman

Jason Zinoman's history of 1970s horror is a welcome companion piece to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, only Zinoman has genuine affection toward his subjects. There are no heroes or villains in the book, just some creative people who burnt out a little too fast.  Published in 2011, Shock Value focuses primarily on John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero.  Others known for their work outside the genre also appear, namely, William Friedkin and Brian De Palma.

The story begins in the 1960s, a period when few took horror movies seriously.  Mainstream society considered them a bad influence on the youth.  But for a generation the Vincent Price movies and William Castle extravaganzas were unforgettable experiences. Then came Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho which opened new possibilities for horror, proof the pubic had an appetite for dark and lurid subject matter and that such films could be taken seriously as art.

Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby raised the bar even higher, using film techniques to keep audiences unsettled. Polanski intentionally obscured what happened in his compositions and the location shooting in Manhattan brought a sense of realism, making the audience paranoid along with Mia Farrow.

Meanwhile a new generation of filmmakers brought a DIY attitude to the genre.  George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was shot in low budget black and white like a cinema verite documentary. Romero broke taboos and tapped into the social anxieties of the 1960s.

Wes Craven, the most prolific of the group, was raised by devout Christians and was not allowed to watch movies as a child.  In rebellion against his family's values, Craven made The Last House on the Left, a shockingly violent film with scenes of graphic torture and rape, forcing audiences to confront the violence within themselves.  Critics dismissed the film as crude exploitation, but Craven's anti-violent message was lost on most.

Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was designed as an assault on the audience.  A group of college students run out of gas in the Texas backcountry and are terrorized by a family of unemployed cannibals.  In a savage twist Hooper invites the audience to sympathize with the psycho-killer Leatherface, just another lost child no one understands.

Horror went mainstream and became cultural phenomenon with the 1973 release of The Exorcist. Based on the bestselling William Peter Blatty novel, the film galvanized audiences. Detractors saw it tasteless exploitation, a misogynist film less about demonic possession and more about male fear of female sexuality.  Others saw it as sobering exploration evil and faith. The Exorcist received 10 Oscar nominations, unprecedented for a horror film.

The central relationship in Shock Value is between John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon.  Classmates at UCLA in the early 1970s they collaborated on the 1975 cult film Dark Star, a slight parody of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  O'Bannon resented Carpenter getting director's credit and the two feuded (O'Bannon wrote the script, acted, and designed the special effects for Dark Star).  Zinoman presents a Mozart/Salieri dynamic between them: Carpenter went on become an auteur in horror and sci-fi, while O'Bannon struggled to get studios to read his screenplays. He wrote the original Alien, only to be upstaged by the director yet again.

Zinoman argues the 1970s were a golden age for the horror genre - setting a high bar yet to be crossed. While the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other social upheavals had a tangential influence, the lowering of the production code allowed directors to push the envelope further than ever before. All outsiders in their own way, their movies reflected the dark side of American life. Proof of their enduring legacy exists in the flood of reboots and remakes their movies inspired - most of which failed to measure up to the originals.

Horror went mainstream in the 1980s, but the genre lost its edge. People want a fun roller coaster ride, the Paranormal Activity franchise being an example. Straight up gore fests attracted audiences, social commentary not so much.  Purists believe true horror should leave the audience confused and disturbed.  Zinoman wrote:

The most unpleasant thing possible is what Wes Craven and Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter were trying to put on screen.  That was the point.

As a work of film history, Shock Value is great way to revisit a pivotal decade in American cinema. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

White House, Monday Morning, 7am

Another Monday morning meeting in the Trump White House. In attendance are Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus. All top advisers to the commander and chief.  The three of them are waiting for their man to arrive; he insists on being the last to enter the room. Bannon and Priebus are engaged in an arm wrestling match (Bannon is winning).  Around 7:09am Trump walks in looking a little haggard with bags under his eyes.

The Donald:  So I just watched this segment on Fox and Friends, they like my tweets about Barack.  This will gain traction, take some of the heat off me.  I had to do something . . . this Sessions thing is driving me crazy. I'm tired of these disasters every week, let's make it a good week.

Jared: I thought you and Barack got along.

The Donald: He double crossed me Jared, he had the FBI bug my office.  And we still beat those bastards - 306 in the electoral college BABY!.  (He guffaws)  Did you see the media get into a hot mess about my tweets.  I attack their hero and they freak out. 

Bannon: It was a good one boss - kick em in the ass! This whole Sessions thing will die on the vine now!

The Donald:  I read about Barack's plot to destroy me in Breitbart, Steve your publication is a beacon of light in a world of fake news.

Jared: (underneath his breath) Anti-Semites.

Bannon: What was that Jared?

Jared: Nothing Steve.

The Donald: What else is on the agenda Reince?

Reince: We have the new travel ban to sign.  I think we should do it at noon and invite TV cameras in.  It went so well the last time. People love to watch you sign things. It looks so presidential.

The Donald: So the travel ban, what else?

Reince: Health Care sir.  We need to get congress moving on it.

The Donald: What the hell is taking Ryan so long?

Reince: It's complicated sir. If we take away people's coverage without a new plan it will be a PR disaster.  It will hit our base hard. 

The Donald:  We'll do it, and it will be great. What else?

Reince:  We got this threat from North Korea, we're gonna need you to make a decision on.

The Donald:  What decision?

Reince:  You know, The whole missile thing. They have big ones now.  We need a strategy, we'll present you with options.

The Donald:  Dammit, I don't want options. (He points to Bannon)  It's your job to present me with the best option Bannon.  I'm sure Putin has some good ideas.   Call him Steve.  What time is it in Moscow?

Bannon: I think's that's a great idea Mr. President. I have his private number, I'll do it right after the meeting. It is night time in Moscow.  

The Donald: Sounds good, Steve. Be sure not to wake Putin though, he might get annoyed  (he pauses, as if thinking)  You know what Reince?

Reince: What Mr. President?

The Donald:  Why don't we just take out North Korea? Just order our troops to cross the 49th parallel,   I mean, they don't even have electricity there right? We'll steamroll over them.

Reince: Sir, A war with North Korea would be a disaster, they have the military might to turn South Korea into a raging inferno during the first hour of hostilities. 

The Donald:  Oh, I guess we'll have to think about that.  Call Putin - We need him! He'll know what to do. Tell the Kremlin it's an emergency!!

Jared: Back to the Obama thing.  Are you seriously going to pursue this investigation?

The Donald:  I don't know . . . Maybe. . . . .   You see my ratings for the State of the Union. They obliterated Arnold.  Always knew I was better than that guy.  He's always been jealous of me. 

Bannon:  His Movies Suck!

Jared: Are you sure?  Predator was pretty good.  The Terminator?

Bannon: He's an overrated immigrant!  Gimme John Wayne any day.  Well, to be honest I checked out on Arnold after Jingle All the Way.  Everything before that was awesome! I tried to get him to read my script for a sequel to Commando.  He called me a diseased ewok looking man. In my script, he goes over to Iran and kicks so much ass.  So Much Carnage!  So Much Carnage! Economic Nationalism Baby! It would've been awesome. I love carnage!!

The Donald: Steve, I like you, but please settle down.  You are brilliant, smarter than all the generals combined. I mean, you've actually read books. In fact, I saw The Terminator and that gives me an idea. Could we build an army of cyborgs?  Reince, include that in the budget.  Forget about going back to the moon; I WANT AN ARMY OF CYBORGS!  They can build the wall too. And not those old fashioned ones like Arnold played, I want the ones like that liquid metal guy in Terminator 2.  They will defeat ISIS too!    

The unexpected turn in the meeting's discussion leads to an awkward silence.

The Donald:  Ok, I'm going to order a steak doused with Heinz Ketchup from the kitchen. Anyone else up for steak and ketchup?

Jared: Isn't it early for steak Dad?

The Donald: It's my favorite part of living in this dump.  I now eat steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  At 3 I get a Big Mac and a Shamrock Shake. It's great. The Kitchen staff, they are fantastic! Steve, after you call Putin, I want you to get every Terminator movie on DVD and have it on my desk - ASAP.  I got research to do (He gets up).  

Ok everyone, I'm going to go count my twitter likes, send a shout out to Fox News, sign the Muslim . . . I mean travel ban, then watch Spongebob Squarepants, I'll skip the intelligence briefing, I don't think those geeks from Langley like me for some reason.  Very Rude.  Steve - report to me on Putin - and I want those DVD's on cue and ready to play just as my Big Mac arrives.  How long will it take me to watch these movies Steve?

Bannon: Not sure Mr. President.  All day, I suppose.

The Donald: Great - Tell Spicer to tell the press that I'm "making phone calls to world leaders to discuss global security issues."  Don't tell anyone about my cyborg army - It's like . . . my classified top secret now. . . . I'll tweet about it . . . And Reince, write up an executive order that will force McDonalds to make the Shamrock Shakes year round- that's legal.  Right? I'm the Boss.

Reince: You're the boss, Mr. President.

The Donald leaves the room. The three of them glance at their watches, it was 7:57 am.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review: Quentin Tarantino: Interviews (Edited by Gerald Peary)

The University Press of Mississippi has provided an invaluable service over the years by publishing reprints of interviews from the most influential film directors.  These books serve as excellent primary sources on the creative process of these directors. The volume on Quentin Tarantino is a highlight of the series.

The best interviews are the early ones with Tarantino shaking up world cinema with Reservoir Dogs and the even more ambitious Pulp Fiction.  They defined 90s cool and pop culture, in the same way the French New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut revolutionized movies in the 1960s.  Tarantino was one of many movie geeks working at video stores during the mid 1980s, in his case the now legendary (and closed) Video Archives in Los Angeles.

Reading the interviews on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are like a film school in themselves.  What separated Tarantino from other directors of his generation was his interest in every type of film and his ability to create a unique genre out of them, while taking in large amounts of film criticism, mostly from his favorite critic Pauline Kael who wrote for the New Yorker.

After the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino become a pop culture phenomenon: frequenting the chat show circuit, cameo appearances, hosting Saturday Night Live, and attempted to launch his own acting career.  His 1997 film Jackie Brown, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, seemed an answer to his critics: a conventional, well plotted narrative with nuanced performances.

In the years since Tarantino's continued to explore genre: martial arts in the Kill Bill films, the war movie in Inglorious Basterds, and the Western/Blaxploitation in Django Unchained. In late 2015 he released the vicious Western The Hateful Eight.

A few general conclusions can be made about Tarantino from the book: his encyclopedic movie knowledge is unparalleled and that he's always been career conscious.  When he turns 60, Tarantino plans to retire and devote his life to writing criticism and fiction. After completing Pulp Fiction he stated his intention to make Westerns, war movies, and American History- all of which he's done.  

For a primer of the Tarantino aesthetic, look no further than this valuable book. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

President Barack Obama: A Few Kind Words

Today will be Barack Obama's last full day as the 44th President of the United States of America.  I believe it is safe to say we'll never see the likes of him for some time. Perhaps he wasn't meant for an age like ours, one where language is diminished. Arguments must be rapid fire insult ridden shouting matches carried out over social media where the only the loudest, crudest one in the room commands respect.  

Above all President Obama is a man of the written word and I hope he will continue to write after leaving office.  Like Winston Churchill, his command of the English language will serve him well for posterity. After writing the obligatory memoirs I hope he writes some history books like Churchill. Books, not tweets, will stand the test of time. Whatever President Obama decides to do, I wish his family well and hope he doesn't stay away too long.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Inauguration Day (For Night) Blues Playlist

As the Trump administration creeps ever closer to taking the reins of our ever fragile republic, I compiled a list of songs about many things that speak to the moment (for me anyway).  Many were songs I listened to over the past year so they are closely linked with the events of 2016. There's an ongoing tension between fear, hope, and defiance to the list. Let's begin with Badfinger's 1969 hit single, "Come and Get It" written by Paul McCartney for the counter-culture film The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr about a privileged billionaire obsessed with what people will do for money.  Based on the Terry Southern novel, the sharpest hipster of his day, he would've had a field day with the Trump era, but reality is satire these days.  "When the Circus Comes" from Los Lobos prepares us for the craziness.  "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" channels the mood of mid November '16. Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" reads like prophecy for 2017 with Jack the Ripper heading the Chamber of Commerce and the delusional Commander of Chief in a barrage of psychedelic stream of consciousness verse. "People Get Ready", an anthem of the civil rights era written by Curtis Mayfield, got covered by hundreds of recording artists. I like The Chamber Brothers cover, a steady rocking version that gets to the gospel origins of the song- appropriate for any day of the year. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins offer a slanted whimsy to political theory on "The Charging Sky." Next Harry Nilsson's version of the Randy Newman standard "Sail Away" about a charming slave trader reminds us hucksters are often too suave to refuse.  Fred Neil's "The Dolphins" will take you to some other place far away. And then Neko Case with "Night Still Comes," a heartbreaking dirge about anything and everything sung beautifully. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds share some "More News From Nowhere." New York City band Parquet Courts search for the Southern Soul on "Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth" and Elmore James moves us back to the center of the circle with "Dust My Blues."  The Rolling Stones go further into the abyss on "Dancin' with Mr D,"  a boozy reflection on excess and temptation, a Stones song more appropriate to conclude a Trump rally than his ominous preference for "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Frank Zappa's "I'm the Slime," memorably performed on 1970s SNL follows a megalomaniac who gleefully manipulates the masses (thru TV, not twitter). Tom Petty comments on widespread culture dissonance on "Shadow People." As Petty ponders the mania for Conceal and Carry as the last refuge of a dangling man he sings with resignation, "Well I ain't on the left, I ain't on the right/Ain't even sure if I got a dog in this fight."  P.J. Harvey resets the tone on "Community of Hope"; a new-old sort of protest music.  "Sittin on Top of the World"  by Howlin Wolf throws an existential curve ball into the ether.  Judee Sill's splendid "There's a Rugged Road" serves up more resilience; Pink Floyd's "Fearless" brings the resistance up another notch - we gonna need it! Finally Ohia's "Farewell Transmission," fronted by the fallen Ohio cult hero Jason Molina (1973-2013) closes the list out with a swinging prose poem rocker of viscous defiance.  As a coda, after emerging from the other end of the rabbit hole, I hope to hear The Doors "Hyacinth House" playing on a shiny neon jukebox, hinting that things will somewhere, somehow be OK.