Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Fallen 2013

When I started doing this post, it was going to be longer, but eventually it just seemed overwhelmingly infinite.  There are just too many greats who pass away every year to cover them all.  So I ultimately decided to just leave out most of them and concentrate on people that were very important to me personally, and whom I feel I have something to say about.  

Ray Harryhausen - I have to begin with good old Ray.  I'm sure I've talked on this blog before about how much Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger blew me away as a kid (I'm sure that this will be at least the third time that I've recounted the story of leaving the theater after seeing Star Wars, released later the same year, and telling my mom that I liked Sinbad better), and how I think The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is as perfect an adventure movie as any ever made (its peers, in my view, are the original King Kong and the aforementioned Star Wars).  Those fantasy movies to which Harryhausen contributed his trademark stop-motion effects, which would also include The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (with the ridiculously beautiful Carline Munro), Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans, are simply magical entertainment.  I don't think I've ever written about Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, which has by far the most thrilling effects of any of the 50's sci fi films.  I've loved that movie, especially the climactic scenes of saucers smashing into the monuments and landmarks of Washington D.C., since long before I'd seen it or even knew the name of it (those scenes were always included in montages of 50's sci fi flicks).  When I think about the remarkable patience (a quality you can practically see on his face when you look at photos of the man) with which he breathed life into those tiny models, there's only one way to put it: Ray Harryhausen IS cinema.

Lou Reed - I'm going to get personal and autobiographical on this, because how could I not?

I started high school in 1982.  At that point, I had been listening to rock music for 3 or 4 years, devouring all I could, refining my tastes, excommunicating heretics. I moved from KISS and Foreigner and Cheap Trick to Van Halen and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC to Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and now I was beginning to listen to some stuff outside the boundaries of heavy metal.  I was just starting to listen to bands like The Ramones, The Cramps and the Dead Kennedys, and I was getting seriously obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and The Doors.  And I was regularly reading Creem magazine, which is where I first head of The Velvet Underground.  In fact, I had two separate issues of Creem which each contained a long, hyperbolic essay on VU, both essays placing them as one of the key bands of rock history.  As described, this band apparently played weird, dark, hypnotic music like my favorite 60's bands, and was somehow also the spiritual godfather of every punk band.  The more I read, the more I became intrigued by the idea that this band that nobody had ever heard of was the greatest rock band of all time.  I mean, how could you not be hooked by this idea, that you could go out and search for this secret key to rock history?  I had to hear their music.

This turned out not to be so easy. In 1982, in deep suburbia, those records were simply nowhere to be found.  I spent perhaps a year searching for them every time I went to a record store (which was quite often).  Of course, this made me want to hear them even more.  You can tell me all about the Beatles and Stones, but once I've been alerted to the existence of a record that I can't hear, of course all I can think about is hearing that record!  Finally, on vacation with my family in Atlanta, I found a Japanese import of White Light/White Heat at the Record Bar in the Lennox Mall.  It was expensive--can't remember the price, but in a time when a new album usually cost about $7, it was considerably more than I'd ever paid for a record--but I conned my parents into giving me the money, and it was mine!  Of course, I still didn't have access to a turntable on vacation.  For the next couple days, the best I could do was look at the Japanese liner notes on the insert.  Finally, after arriving home late at night and unpacking, I was able to sit down and listen to it.  I wish I could relate a story about how I was instantly transformed, but truth is, it took a few listens to really even get what I was hearing.  But once I did, I became obsessed, especially with the second side, which consists of two songs: the gospel-ish "I Heard Her Call My Name," with Lou Reed having an absolute spazz attack of a guitar solo, and the 17-minute "Sister Ray."  "Sister Ray" is one of my favorite pieces of music ever made, a maze of strange sounds that you can easily get lost in.  I have the entire thing memorized so deeply, I know what each instrument does at each moment.  That recording is a part of my life.

Soon I was able to also get a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico (mail order), and a bootleg called Velvet Underground Etc. (not as appealing to me, at least at the time).  The strange thing is, this was kind of a lonely period in my life, and I really had nobody to share these records with.  I played them for a couple people, but nobody responded to it.  I eventually managed to get my friend Tercio hooked, but for a few months there, they were just my private pleasure.  And while I don't think that's the best way to enjoy music--it's not really complete until you can share it--it does give it a bit more of a sense of intensity.  How strange, a couple years later, to discover that the most prominent fan organization for the band, The Velvet Underground Appreciation Society, was actually based in Stuart, Fla.  Near the end of 1984, their first three albums got a re-release, and were now available even in the lame mall record stores in Stuart.  This annoyed me--"Oh, now anyone can get them!"

(Side note--I also came to feel like I had been sold a bill of goods by a lot of the critics who wrote about them, each of whom seemed to make out like they were the only people in the world who had recognized their genius at the time.  I got the impression that the band was universally hated and driven out of the rock scene with torches and pitchforks.  But later, whenever I mentioned the band to older people, people who had been around in the 60's, they all seemed to think very positively about them, although most of them didn't seem to realize that they had more than one album.)

In all those Creem articles, there was usually also a mention of one of Lou's solo records, Metal Machine Music, which was always described as "four sides of pure feedback and noise."  I assumed this was a bit of hyperbole, that what they actually meant was that it was a double album of noisy, feedback-heavy songs more-or-less in the early VU style.  Obviously, I really wanted that album.  I bought a used copy at the flea market from John Clements (who would soon open Confusion Records).  It was, I think, $12, on account of it being a double album and out-of-print.  I got it home and discovered that there was no hyperbole involved.  MMM is LITERALLY 4 sides of pure feedback and noise.  It's interesting to listen to, though.  Has a strange, hypnotic effect, while not exactly being relaxing like most trance music.

Aside from that, I never really explored Lou Reed's solo career (or John Cale's, for that matter).  Which is kind of strange.  I think Transformer is a fine pop record, I like a lot of The Blue Mask (more for Robert Quine's guitar work than Lou's songs), haven't really listened to a lot of even his classic 70's albums.  I saw him live in '87, pretty lame show, and never really followed his career after that, which means that I've never even listened to acclaimed albums like Song for Drella, New York or Magic & Loss.  But there is one Lou Reed record that I really love: the 1978 double live set Take No Prisoners.  It's Lou feeling lose and playful, running through his 70's material (from Loaded through Street Hassle), but mostly fucking around.  There are long monologues where he seems to think he's doing some kind of stand up comedy performance.  It sounds like I'm making fun, but I really do like these performances.  One of the loosest live records I've ever heard.  Check out this version of "Walk on the Wild Side," with constant digressions into storytelling and ranting:


Roger Ebert -What an interesting life Roger Ebert has lead.  At every stage, something going on.  First, the young critic and screenwriter who wrote the script for my all-time favorite movie, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, contributing such indelible lines as "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" and "Mark my words, Jungle Lad...ere this night is through, you shall drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"  He would go one to write or polish several other scripts for Russ Meyer movies, including the Sex Pistols movie that never quite got made.

Then there's the TV show.  And almost everyone I know describes the impact of that show on their young minds as an introduction to the idea of thinking critically about pop culture.  Whether I agreed with them or not on any given film, I always thought it was just awesome that there was a show that was just about two guys sitting around arguing about movies.

By the time the show ended, Ebert had become the sort of Grand Old Man of American film criticism, and he seemed to embrace that position.  His The Great Movies column, where he would write long essays on classic films, is by design more accessible than the work of many more esoteric critics.  There's also a sense of looking back from an older perspective, best summed up in his review of La Dolce Vita.  Ebert talks about how he saw the film differently at different times in his life, a sort of autobiography through the lens of one film.  And how he finds a common theme in that film, L'Aventurra and Blow Up: the only thing that brings true happiness is working at something you love.

And then there's the final year or so, after cancer had taken his voice.  Unable to speak, unable to eat, he poured all his energy into writing.  He took to Twitter like a fish to water, posting something like 50 tweets a day.  He wrote long essays about film, books, life, food.  The stuff he wrote about food seemed the most poignant, wistful memories of a pleasure no longer available to him.  He republished old reviews, recounted untold stories (like the Sex Pistols adventure), and tied up loose ends.  What a wonderful privilege, to have a year to sum everything up before you go.

Haji - I've always thought that Haji was even more awesome than Tura Satana (if that's even possible), overacting in her fake Italian accent.

Jim Kelly - If Haji pulled off an amazing trick out-badassing Tura Satana, Jim Kelly surely equaled it by out-badassing Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.  When death came for him, he didn't even notice.  He was too busy looking good.

Tom Laughlin - No, Billy Jack was never quite as awesome as Jim Kelly or Bruce Lee's characters, but there's something so of-the-moment about that film, about the half-breed Native American protector of the flower children with the drippy folky theme song.  When I watch that movie, I feel a shock of recognition of the world as it looked when I was in elementary school.  There are two reportedly horrible sequels out there, and there were plans for a fourth.  In fact, reading Laughlin's wiki page, it's easy to conclude that the guy was just a straight-up nutjob (or a Great American Dreamer, whichever term you prefer to use):

Laughlin had sought funding for a fifth Billy Jack film since at least 1996, when he spoke about it during a lawsuit against a man who had (Laughlin claimed) illegally changed his name to "Billy Jack",[50] and at one point Laughlin had plans to make a Billy Jack television series.[51] In 2004 he announced that the film would be entitled Billy Jack's Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose; this was shortened to Billy Jack's Moral Revolution in 2006.

In 2008, the film's title was changed to Billy Jack for President.[5] It was re-titled Billy Jack and Jean. Laughlin claimed it would be a "new genre of film" and a great deal of social commentary on politics, religion, and psychology will be discussed,[52] and a debate will take place between Billy Jack and President George W. Bush via computer manipulation of archived speeches.

Michael O'Brien - Along with his brother, Eddie, Michael was the co-founder of The Eat, the band that put Florida on the punk rock map in the late 70's/early 80's with power pop classics like "Communist Radio."  Buy their CD, It's Not the Eat, It's the Humidity, which is stuffed full with pogo-punk masterpieces.  One thing I like about them is how their unusual lyrical obsessions recur throughout their work: sex, drugs and rock n roll, obviously, but also Catholicism, communist Cuba and sports.  How many great songs about football can you name?  None?  Well, then you haven't heard "Open Man!"

Pat Fear (aka Bill Bartel) - Pat Fear was the founder and principle songwriter of White Flag, for my money the most underrated band of the hardcore movement.  White Flag weren't popular in their scene.  For one thing, they were pro-Reagan (but doesn't hating on Reagan seem so quaint after Bush?).  They also wrote...well, let's say they wrote even-handed songs about the relationship between police and punks.  Regardless, they wrote great fucking songs.  They were one of the first hardcore bands to incorporate metal into their sound, but I think they did it in a much more appealing way than most.  Instead of becoming this bludgeoning, testosterone-driven thudmachine, they kept their slick, fast sound and modified the Agent Orange-style leads into something more along the lines of Randy Rhoads and Eddie VH.  Seriously, check out their album Third Strike.

Hal Needham - I honestly didn't know much about Needham before he died.  If you had asked me, there's a 50/50 chance I could have identified him as the director of Smokey and the Bandit (he also made Hooper, Cannonball Run, Stroker Ace and Rad).  Prior to those films, he was the highest-paid stuntman in Hollywood.  Like anyone else my age, I probably watched Smokey and the Bandit over 20 times on lazy afternoons at home, and saw Cannonball Run (where Needham invented the end-credit bloopers reel) plenty of times too, but the movie that really sticks with me is Hooper.  Just thinking about that movie takes me back to the Mayfair Theater, and going there with a group of young friends to see Burt Reynolds drive a rocket-powered Trans Am.  I've seen the film fairly recently, and it holds up much better than the silly car chase films that were more famous, perhaps because (I now realize) it's probably to some extent an autobiography.

James Gandolfini - Way too soon.  So much of The Sopranos rested on the audience just having a good feeling about Tony, a good feeling that would be constantly undermined by his actions, and that came completely from Gandolfini's performance and persona.

Dennis Farina - Did you know that he was a cop before he became an actor?  On one episode of Dinner For Five, Jon Favreau asked him what he thought the most realistic cops show was.  Farina answered Barney Miller, because it shows the part of the job that most cop shows don't show: sitting around the station, filling out paperwork, shooting the shit, being bored.

George Jones - Who's going to argue that George Jones wasn't one of the greatest country singers of all time?  Best known for weepy ballads, but he was capable of rocking pretty hard, as on his first number one hit "White Lightnin'."

Furio Scarpelli - This is the guy who wrote the screenplay to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (and 140 other films, apparently).  It's one of my favorite films, and also one that holds a special significance for me: it's one of, if not the, first movies I remember watching and thinking not "I'm really enjoying this" (although I was certainly thinking that as well), but "I'm really impressed by what they're doing here."  So much credit goes to Sergio Leone's beautiful direction, and Ennio Morricone's immortal score, and the three iconic performances, but let's also acknowledge Furio Scarpelli's contributions.  This is an amazing script, the way it keeps the story moving and twisting for three hours without giving the audience a chance to get bored.

Dick Dodd - The nasty, nasal voice on the Standells' classic garage rock hits "Dirty Water," "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" and "Riot on the Sunset Strip."  He also plays drums on those records, and earlier, on The Belairs' surf hit "Mr. Moto."  Perhaps the definitive garage rock vocalist.

Jeff Hanneman - Early reports were that Slayer's guitarist died of "necrotizing fasciitis infection possibly resulting from a spider bite," which would be the most metal way to die!  The autopsy showed that it was the more common rockstar way to die: he drank his liver into oblivion.

Alan Myers - The original DEVO drummer, known to his bandmates as "the human metronome."

Esther Williams - Here's a great star of Hollywood's Golden Age who is little remembered today.  She was an aquatic ballet dancer, or something like that. Whatever you'd call it, she's pretty much a genre unto herself. She filmed several films in Florida, at places like Silver Springs and Weeki Wachi. 

Elmore Leonard - And speaking of Florida, I have to mention good ol' Elmore Leonard, whose witty, zippy crime novels make my home state seem downright cool.

Richard Matheson - Author and screenwriter, and one of the most important genre writers whose name most people don't know.  I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the Twilight Zone episode with Shatner on a plane, all his.

Bonnie Franklin - I was a compulsive watcher of sitcoms throughout the 70's and 80's, and One Day at a Time holds a special place for me: it's the first show I remember really caring about on any level beyond the jokes.  I cared about what happened to these women every week, even if it wasn't all that funny.  Granted, part of that might have been a crush I had alternately on McKenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertenelli, but whatever.  Bonnie Franklin was kind of a key part of my childhood.

Jonathan Winters - I never really liked Winters growing up.  His comedy just rubbed me the wrong way.  A little too broad, maybe.  But you can't deny his importance in the development of improv and character-based comedy.  And he's great in the incredible movie The Loved One.

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