Friday, January 20, 2012

Brian Cross - It's Not About a Salary

I've got all these half-finished posts, including the Best TV of 2011 post, which I said I'd be posting soon but is maybe 1/3 done. This always makes me nervous, because whenever a blogger starts saying he's gonna post something and then it never happens, it's a sign that the blog is about to go dead. So anyway, I'm going ahead with this book review, just to get something out there. There will be more of these coming. And I will get to the TV post, eventually.

As a young hip hop fan, I broke more than one turntable attempting to scratch. When one considers that most records that I have scratched are hip hop vinyl, and that scratching actually damages the vinyl, it becomes clear that Grandwizard Theodore taught us to abuse our most highly prized possessions. He taught us the real possibilities of the commodity (its eventual unplayability/destruction) and made us appreciate its ephemerality.

-Brian Cross (B+)

I heard about this book when the author, Brian Cross, was on Oliver Wang's podcast--a great listen that I highly recommend. It's Not About a Salary is out of print, but I easily picked up a copy from the LAPL. Brian Cross presents a unique take on the history of hip hop in L.A., citing precursors in Central Avenue bebop, scat singers like Slim Galliard, The Watts Prophets, and the vein of spoken word folklore and rhyming that runs through African American culture in the form of toasts, signifying and the dozens. Toasts like "The Signifying Monkey" can be heard in dozens of different forms through the years, and surely informed developing rap.

Toasts come from "the life," which is understood as the occupation of hustlers - people (generally men) who make their living and live a lifestyle related to illegal and semi-legal activities, prostitution, gambling and narcotics...The subjects of toasts are the con, the profession of "turning out" whores, and tales of "the life." These stories are often related to the truth, but more often they are signifying. It seems ironic that the vernacular poetry of an oppressed people should be so concerned with the attributes of the wealthy--clothes, jewelry, cars and a sense of diminished necessity. Today the comic art of the dispossessed outrages with a show of being consumed by the signs of possessions, distinguishing a new generation of popular culture with a frank acknowledgment of the importance of the commodity.

You can see from that paragraph how he's building these connections. Hip hop is rather different from other musical forms (say, bebop or punk or even rock-n-roll--at what exact point do blues or swing become rock?) in that it can be traced to a very specific time and place, but at the same time, it doesn't come out of nowhere. So INAaS attempts to establish a lineage here. It's a very personal, subjective history, but those are always the most interesting kind.

In May 1988 approximately 150 of us were lucky enough to be present for an amazing show at McGonagles, a tiny sweatbox in Dublin. By some amazing chance a small-time local promoter had secured the largely unknown Public Enemy. Both Chuck and Flav offered insight on the similarities of our situations (read Irish and African American) and said things on stage that night that no Irish group would have attempted. Chuck's heavy rhetoric was offset by Flav's jester behaviour: Flav gave a talk on Irish Spring soap and Lucky Charms, two products I personally wasn't aware of until much later.

Cross has a long essay up front where he talks about the history of hip hop and related music in Los Angeles, followed by an alternate take by Ruben Guevara on the Latino culture and its relation to hip hop. Then come the oral histories: some 30 interviews, beginning with bebop drummer Roy Porter, The Watts Prophets, Horace Tapscott, continuing through the early West Coast rap scene (Toddy T, KDAY music director Greg Mack, etc.), Ice-T, Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, House of Pain, The Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, and on and on, each giving an account of the music scene in L.A. (and lots of industry rule #4,080) up to the time of the interviews (shortly before the L.A. riots).

A lot of anglo kids copied not only the styles (hair, dress) but the dances, the most popular of which were the Pachuco Hop, Hully Gully and the Corrido Rock...the Corrido was the wildest, sort of an early form of slam dancing. Two or three lines would form, people arm in arm, each line consisting of 150 to 200 people. With the band blasting away at breakneck rocking tempo, the lines took 4 steps forward adn 4 steps back, eventually slamming into each other (but making sure that no one got hurt).

-Ruben Guevara

Of course, the true test of a good music book is how many records it sets you on. And INAaS set me on quite a few. For instance, I had no idea that Slim Galliard had recorded a track with Dream Warriors (the Canuck rappers most famous for "My Definition (of a Boombastic Jazz Style)"):

At one point, Cross references "Was (Not Was)'s "The Freaks Come Out at Night" (also covered by Whodini)," and I got very excited. "Freaks Come Out" is a cover? Of a Was (Not Was) song? No way! Well, he got it not exactly right. It's a different song, but it's pretty nice:

Here's a funky Roy Porter jam. I'd actually heard this song before, but man, dig that guitar solo!:

Cross also mentions Charles Mingus' album A Modern Symposium on Jazz and Poetry. Here's a cool track from that album:

Friday, January 13, 2012

From The Comments: a Brag and a Bleg

A couple quick updates from my comments section. First, something awesome. I got a comment from Milo, the lead singer of my favorite early 80's Florida punk band, Gay Cowboys in Bondage. I had posted about their discography CD, and also mentioned them when posting about a couple local punk shows I saw circa 1984, but for some reason he posted the comment in my recent post about Public Enemy. Anyway, he informed me that one of the details I had written about (in both posts) was incorrect, so I edited those posts with his correction. But the main thing is, how awesome to get a comment from Milo!

Secondly, I have a bleg. It seems there are some problems with DivShare, and that some of the items I uploaded long ago are no longer there. Specifically, the Jimmy Swaggart and Lester Maddox albums I posted are, for some reason, no longer accessible. I've gone through my external hard drive looking for the files and I can't find them. It's possible that I deleted them, thinking that I was never really going to listen to them again, and that at any rate, I could always just download them from my own DivShare account. I don't have my digitizing setup together right now, so I'm going to throw this out there in hopes of making my rare commenter Muff Diver happy and saving myself some hassle: does anyone out there have those files? If someone could get them to me, I'd be very grateful, and would put them right back up, maybe on Mediafire or something.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Oxford American Winter 2011: Mississippi Music Issue

The Firstborn is Dead, Nick Cave's second LP with The Bad Seeds, comes with liner notes that seem to be based on an interview with Cave explaining all the songs. "Tupelo," it explains, is based on John Lee Hooker's song of the same name, about a great storm that hit the town of Tupelo, Mississippi in the spring of 1936 (the storm also caused intense damage in Gainesville, GA, the same city where my father died a few months ago). "The Tupelo tornado, the fourth deadliest tornado in United States history, slammed into Tupelo, Mississippi at around 8:30 P.M. It was an F5 on the Fujita scale, causing total destruction along its path. The tornado missed the downtown business district. The tornado moved through the residential areas of Tupelo, destroying many homes, and killing whole families who had little or no warning. When the death toll of 216 was announced, over 100 people had been hospitalized in three states. The final death toll was set at 233." So sayeth Wikipedia.

Nick Cave's version borrows from John Lee Hooker's account of the storm, but adds a mythical significance: the storm was a harbinger of the birth of the messiah in the town of Tupelo, the newborn king being Elvis Aaron Presley. It's a logical connection to make (although factually a stretch: Elvis was born some 16 months before the storm), and Cave milks the mythical resonance out of it, including references to Elvis' stillborn twin:

In a clap-board shack with a roof of tin
Where the rain came down and leaked within
A young mother frozen on a concrete floor
With a bottle and a box and a cradle of straw

Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals
And a child is born on his brothers heels
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red

(Again, not perfectly accurate, as all accounts I can find say Elvis' twin was born dead.) The lyrics have a strong strain of that Old, Weird America running through them, the way biblical prophecies and local legends and bits of old Childe Ballads get mixed together in these old folk songs. I've always loved this song, but I hadn't really thought about it in a long time, until this year's music issue of Oxford American magazine arrived, with a CD dedicated to the music of Mississippi, and it included this song (coincidentally, I got this song again the following week when I downloaded the first disc of Fire in my Bones: Raw + Otherworldly Gospel from eMusic).

The liner notes to the Nick Cave record mention the John Lee Hooker song, which is surely influenced by Henry Greene's earlier recording, but I find it impossible to imagine that Nick Cave could have come up with his version of "Tupelo" without having heard Henry Greene's "Storm Thru Mississippi." Like Cave, Greene cast the storm as the judgement of an angry God, and begins with "Well, Tupelo, MS was a mighty sinful town." It's a powerful song. I love the part where he sings "Well, people you might not believe it, but there is a God somewhere." In any other song, these words would be comforting, but Greene's God is not a God of mercy and love, but an Old Testament deliverer of wrath. "He can wound, he can heal, he can do just how he feel." God don't give a FUCK, y'all!

So I guess what I'm saying, as I say every year, is go out and buy the Oxford American music issue. Hell, get a subscription. That's what I do, and at $20 a year, the CD alone is worth it. But you also get what amounts to several pages of liner notes on each song, and several supplementary articles. (Then the other three issues are just gravy!)

The highlight, for me, of this issue was an essay by Elijah Wald on the blues' roots in "the dozens." It seems Wald is expanding this idea into a book, which comes out this year, and I have to say I'm looking forward to reading that as much as I'm looking forward to any movie or album coming down the road.

To finish off, one more idea that this CD has me thinking about, regarding two of the songs included. Jimmy Donley's "Radio, Jukebox and T.V." is identified as pure, honky-tonk country. Joe Henderson's "Snap Your Fingers" is identified as smooth soul music. Listen to them with your eyes closed, and it sounds to me like they have it backwards, which I believe illustrates how much these "genres" overlap.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

90's Hit Parade: So What Have We Learned?

Well, for one thing, we've learned not to take on big projects like that. I'm glad that's over. But I guess I'm glad I did it.

My primary goal was just to practice writing about music. It's something I feel I'm not very good at, because of the way I listen to music. Like, I can analyze the hell out of a movie or T.V. show or book, any kind of narrative art form, but I don't really listen to music with an analytical ear. It's more intuitive: I either respond to it or I don't. Asking me why I like a certain song or band is like asking me why I'm attracted to Salma Hayek. I mean, I just am. (Actually, that's a bad example, I could probably explain Salma pretty easily. Maybe it's like explaining why I have a crush on Aubrey Plaza.) Besides which, I don't really pay much attention to lyrics, at least outside of rap, so that makes it even harder. When I look at how someone like Matthew Perpetua can write about a song, the way he'll analyze the lyrics, and the state of mind of the character they're singing about, and how the sounds of the instruments augment, or comment on, the lyrics...the guy's just clearly listening on a much deeper level than I am.

I've also come to the conclusion that I lean too much on autobiography. it's an indulgent tic, one that I tend toward naturally, although it may have been encouraged somewhat by reading Ain't It Cool News in the late 90's. It's not always a bad thing--most of Lester Bangs' best essays incorporate autobiographical anecdotes, and Roger Ebert's review of La Dolce Vita is one of my favorite pieces of film writing. But I lean way to heavily on it. There's a bit of a dilemma here, though: the purpose of this blog is, partially, to allow me to be completely self-indulgent in my writing. Otherwise, why am I not trying to get paid for it? Anyway, I need to make an effort not to lean on that crutch too much. And even beyond that, I'm noticing a lot of tics, cliches I keep repeating, that I need to get past. This is something I resolve to work on in 2012.

My goal with this was to come up with something interesting to say about each song. I think I succeeded with about 2/3 of the entries. And I got a lot of thoughts out of my mind. Now I just have to finish up the films of the 00's reviews! There will be a post coming about my favorite T.V. shows of 2011, but it's going to take a while, expect it next week. I leave you with this...

Monday, January 02, 2012

Music 2011

Alright, kind of a mish-mash, which indicates how I've been going about listening to music lately. I reckon I spend a lot more time finding "new old" music than "new new" music. But to start off with, my top 5 albums, beginning with The Best New Band I Discovered in the Last...I Dunno...Five Years, Maybe?

tUnEyArDs - w h o k i l l ?
This band hits so many of my personal fetish-points that it would be impossible for me not to fall for them. They're weird, funky, catchy, experimental, DIY, femme-fronted, and their sound incorporates post-punk, hip hop and Afrobeat. In fact, once you hear the African influence (and I have to admit, it took me a couple listens to zero in on it for some reason), they don't even sound all that weird. Tuneyards (let's put the cutesy typography aside) are the brainchild of Merrill Garbus. She recorded their first album on a voice recorder, looping drums, vocals and ukelele, and released it on recycled cassette tapes. She has a touring band to fill out her sound now, but she still primarily relies on herself and a couple delay pedals to make loops of her voice, and accompanies herself on ukelele and a standup pair of tom-toms. And she write great songs. Nothing complicated, just good, catchy, and kinda weird tunes. She's wisely been putting "Gangsta" out there as the single, but I personally prefer "You, Yes You." Both great, happy dance songs.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Merrill does not look like a rock star at all. There's something really cool about someone who looks so normal fronting a band, with no hint of glamor. Merrill Garbus may be the most un-rock-star-looking rock star since Bun E. Carlos.

I don't really have a top 10 albums to list, so here's the rest of my top 5, and a handful of honorables. I don't listen to enough new stuff, I guess.

Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne

You almost have to admire the sheer depth of Kanye West's egotism. This is a guy who makes Jay-Z look humble. In fact, you know what this album reminds me of? Marc Maron's podcast. It's two self-obsessed people sharing the mic, constantly trying to turn the subject back to themselves. All those bits in "Otis" where one will pick up the other's last line and flip it? That's the musical equivalent of saying "Oh yeah, that's like what happened to me last week, see I was at Macy's and..." Like that one where Jay says "I got five passports, I'm never going to jail," and Kanye replies "I made "Jesus Walks," I'm never going to Hell." THIS MOTHERFUCKER THINKS GOD OWES HIM A FAVOR.

"Otis" is pretty much the jam of the year, no? God, the choppy beat, the screams, the way it abruptly ends (and shrinks into the relative calm of the opening of "Gotta Have It"). When Kanye complains about fools "actin' like this summer ain't mine," he's absolutely right. (If you have more taste for R&B/pop than I do, you probably think the summer belongs to Beyonce, but for my tastes, "Otis" is the one.) I like this meta approach to the idea of a summer song, announcing on the very song that it's going to be the song of the summer. A bold move, but Kanye is prepared to back it up.

It's not really Kanye's boasting that sets him apart in the megalomaniac sweepstakes--that's pretty much what rap is all about. It's his thin-skinned defensiveness. Like on "New Day," which is supposedly a track about how they're gonna raise their kids. And for Jay-Z, it's just that, promising to teach his son right from wrong, to never abandon his son as his father abandoned him, and so on. For Kanye, it's a chance to complain, in the most passive-aggressive manner, about how terrible his life as a rich celebrity is. Maybe he'll even make his son be Republican, so everyone knows he loves white people. Or, in the most pathetic line, "I'll never ever let him hit the telethon/Even if people are dying and the world ends." Dude, the problem isn't that you went on a telethon, it's that you showed your ass once you got there. Own the fuck up! Besides the obvious point that (a) what Kanye said on the telethon was completely true, and (b) he never suffered any real consequences for it, other than some people talking shit about him on TV! But to Kanye, this is a rough life. He's still not over the South Park thing, which pretty much proves he's a douche bag. I mean, for anyone who isn't a douchebag, if South Park makes fun of you, the correct response is "AWESOME! I'm being spoofed on South Park!" You know what, Ye? If you want to make the world a better place for your offspring, maybe you could start by not calling the very next song "That's My Bitch."

Which is an awesome song, by the way. Probably my second-favorite after "Otis." Such a 1990 throwback, with that Native Tongues-style beat, and the Public Enemy "Bat-Badyo, Bat-Badyo" loop, and the Monie Love reference. I liked My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy, but for my tastes, it had too much syrupy R&B. Watch the Throne is mostly hard hip hop beats, and the flow from song to song is so smooth. To my ears, Watch the Throne is the better album.

So, back to Kanye's ego, "New Day" is not even the peak. On "Made in America," the second-last track, Kanye actually compares his travails (being stalked by paparazzi and made fun of by T.V. comedians) to the martyrdoms of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Jesus! (I can't figure out how Betty Shabazz gets elevated to "Queen" status, but Malcolm is still just "Brother".) But you know what? I'll stick with Kanye, because for all his bluster and bitchiness, he's a funny guy. Seriously, who else would come up with that break in "Niggaz in Paris," or that line about "My other other Benz," or even "I paid for them titties, get your own." Kanye is in the great tradition of highly entertaining assholes. And he makes some great beats.

Wild Flag - s/t
Carrie Brownstein's new all-grrrl supergroup sounds pretty much like you'd hope they would sound, all rock-n-roll fun and attempts to be everyone's Joey Ramone. I don't think anyone's going to deny that this is the kick-ass rock-n-roll album of the year. I will add a slight complication, though. Songs like "Racehorse" were clearly composed with live performance in mind, and I can't help but feel like their holding back just a bit in the studio. Compare the excellent recording of "Romance" with the version they performed on Letterman, and there's a pretty big enthusiasm gap. This isn't always a bad thing, as these songs have lots of 80's pop subtleties to bring out, but I think they could have brought it a little harder.

Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee, Part 1
You can take this album's inclusion with as much salt as you deem necessary--I'll listen to pretty much anything these guys do--but this is the album the Beasties have been moving toward for decades. Starting in the late 90's, they seemed to pull apart their sound, to concentrate on each aspect for a whole album: punk rock on the Aglio e Olio EP, sample-based hip hop on To the Five Boroughs, and funky instrumentals on The Mix-Up. Now, they've finally fully integrated all these aspects into one sound. The band mostly rap over their own live instrumental tracks, and they've developed an arsenal of effects and sounds that harken back to late-80's indie sludge, but sound much more lively than any of those bands. Even the one punk rock track here, "Lee Majors Come Again," sounds fully integrated into the greater body of work. Like all their albums besides License to Ill and Paul's Boutique, they run out of "A material" well before they run out of room on the album, but for a bunch of old fogies, this is pretty sweet stuff.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic
This album actually goes well with the Wild Flag record, being a fairly straightforward, un-deconstructed rock-n-roll record. And it turns out Malkmus is pretty good at writing simple, cool rock songs like "Senator." He's maybe even better at the odd ballads like "No One Is (As I Are Be)" (maybe my favorite song title, but even these seem clearer than any he's done before.

A few other albums I enjoyed:

R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
I was confused when, earlier this year, R.E.M. announced that they were calling it a day. For one thing, I always figured that R.E.M. would just be making music forever. Back in the 80's, they seemed to have an advantage over bands like the Butthole Surfers or Fugazi in that their was nothing about their sound that required being young and full of energy. There was no reason they couldn't be writing their strange, beautiful songs just as easily at the age of 100. For another thing, in this moment when pretty much every band I listened to from 1986 to 1995 is on a reunion tour somewhere, it seems like a huge drama queen move to make a big, public announcement that you're breaking up. Why not just quietly go on indefinite hiatus? Does anyone really doubt that these three (or four) guys are gonna be making music together again within a decade?

At any rate, this album obviously has a bit more significance for me for it being the official swan song, but it's a good way to end things. After the pleasant-but-forgettable Reveal and the boring-but-boring Around the Sun, they sort of kicked themselves back to life with Accelerate, their hardest rock album, and they maintain some of the energy here (about half the songs on Collapse are fast rockers), but play more to their own strengths, which are always in the quiet moments. Collapse is easily the best of their post-Berry albums (and I'd also rank it above Out of Time, which I've never liked much for some reason).

My favorite track is "Every Day is Yours to Win," which feels to me like a nice send off for the band, a pretty little melody conveying the eternal message of R.E.M.: stick with it, kid, you're gonna be fine. They released a final single in October, "We All Go Back Where We Belong," and the two songs together seem to tie a nice little button on their career. Maybe it is best that they quit here. As much as I like these songs, I have to admit that none of them match their early material, and you can hear Michael start to slip into some familiar melodic tics that sound a lot like recycling old material.

Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this album. In theory, I love it. Palaceer Lazarro (fka Butterfly from Diggable Planets) is continuing his experiments in jazz-inflected hip hop, and going much further out. There's a loose sound to all these songs, like pieces of different tracks pulled apart and reassembled haphazardly in unexpected ways. It feels genuinely spontaneous and collaborative in a way that hip hop rarely does. But much of the album fails to engage me. Possibly the biggest problem is that the weakest material is frontloaded, so you get tracks like "Are You...Can You...Would You? (Felt)" and "A Treatease Dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)," both of which wear on my nerves a bit, right up front. For best results, maybe skip to track six.

Bjork - Biophillia
Can someone please explain to me how Bjork manages to get weirder every year? It's very frustrating to us hipsters, as it prevents us from rolling our eyes and saying we liked her early stuff.

And some stray songs I dug this year. As is always the case, much credit to Fluxblog, which is pretty much my source for keeping up with new music (to the extent that I actually do that):

Jonathan Richman - "These Bodies That Came to Cavort" I think this album actually came out in 2010, but I didn't hear it until this year, so I'm counting it. There was some footage of Jonathan performing it on Jimmy Fallon, but it looks like the web police removed it, so the best footage available is this. One of the best songs Jonathan ever wrote, it sounds like classic doo-wop, but it's impossible to imagine anyone but Jonathan having written it.

The Kills - "Future Starts Slow" These guys should be huge, just because this song NEEDS to be played in a packed stadium.

Radiohead - "Separator" I liked King of Limbs better than most people seem to (best album cover I've seen in years!). This song is definitely the standout. I thought it sounded familiar, couldn't quite place it, then I went back and listened to this Beastie Boys track, and...oh yeah, there it is!

The Drive-By Truckers - "I Do Believe" and "Pulaski" I wrote about these two songs here.

Bjork vs. Omar Souleyeman - "Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)" I'm not sure if this is an official remix, or just a mashup, but it takes the best song from Bjork's excellent new album and kicks it up several notches.

Scissor Sisters - "Nightwork" This song is hysterical. When I picture what people listen to at gay discos, I imagine it sounds pretty much like this.

Lloyd w/Li'l Wayne and Andre 3000 - "Dedication to my Ex (Miss That)" Sure, anyone can write a funny, profane song. The trick is to make it sound good, and I think Lloyd and the gang managed to do just that.

Mr. Muthafuckin' Exquire - "Huzzah! (Remix with a bunch of other rappers)" I'm always down for a good posse cut. Most of the rhyming on here is juvenile and silly, but I still have fun with it. I especially like El-P's inversion of Beyonce's countdown in his verse. That video, though...sheesh. I never imagined that El-P looked like a fucking Teddy Ruxpin.

Flaming Lips - "I Found a Star on the Ground" I actually did make it through the first two hours of the Flaming Lips' six-hour jam, and that was without even staring at a strobe light. You have to hand it to these guys, nobody takes a more experimental approach to music these days.

Favorite old stuff found on the internet:

Gil Evans Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix
. Especially the tuba-driven version of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)."

Gumbo for Colombo, a nice little mix of "global bass" from Mixtape Riot.

Dark Sweets, a beautiful mix of old 78's from Holy Warbles. I LOVE that first song, "Night Owl."

"Reach Out and Touch" by The Souls of Unity, a gorgeous gospel song that I became obsessed with during our Hawaiian vacation, from Soul Sides. While I'm on Soul Sides, let me also recommend Oliver Wang's podcast. Excellent interviews with guys like Quantic, Thes One of People Under the Stairs, and Sasha Frere-Jones. My two favorite episodes: Brian Cross (B+), which inspired me to hunt down Brian's book It's Not About a Salary, and Aaron Copeland, who discusses his 33 1/3 book about Aretha's live gospel album, especially the "bonus beat" section, where Aaron picks some of his favorite gospel recordings, including this one, guaranteed to MELT your speakers:

And my favorite, the mixes of early 20th Century recordings posted by Jonathan Boggart at Just One Song More. I especially like Jonathan's examination of minstrelsy in this post.

And a few random things:

The Stooges at the Palladium
I almost can't believe I saw this show. Seeing The Stooges play is something I've dreamed about for over half my life. And it never seemed like an actual possibility. Now, seeing the 21st century reunion tour is not the same thing as seeing the Stooges on a good night in 1970, or even on a bad night in'74 (not knowing which you were gonna get before the show started was probably part of the appeal), and furthermore, I would have preferred to see them a couple years ago, when ron Asheton was still alive (I'm a Funhouse partisan. In fact, my ideal Stooges set would consist of them playing Funhouse in its entirety, with maybe "1969," "Search and Destroy" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog" for an encore), but still, to see Iggy backed by James Williamson and Ron Asheton, with Mike Watt (the world's greatest rock bassist) and the guy who blew sax on Funhouse? Yeah, it was pretty awesome. The set list was a bit weird: they started with 6 of the 8 tracks from Raw Power, and they ended their encore with "Cock in my Pocket," of all things. But as soon as Williamson started cranking those licks out, and Iggy stood on the edge of the stage striking those Frank Frazetta poses, I was in heaven.

The opening act was Le Butcherettes, a Mexican girl punk band. The singer, Teri Gender-Bender, out-Iggy'd Iggy. The drums were so hard and loud that you could feel every beat in your chest. Damn cool band!

Niki Minaj - Pink Friday
The disapointment of the year? I dunno, I downloaded it for Bobbie (she being as taken as most everybody by Niki's verse on "Monster"), and neither one of us was able to get through it. Considering our age, maybe that's proof that it's awesome. I went back and listened to "Super Bass" since it appeared on everyone's year-end lists, and while it's definitely the standout, it's still pretty far off from what I wanted. I guess I didn't expect her to go all pop diva. Clearly she's aiming more for being the 2010's Madonna than a female Busta Rhymes, and that's probably a good decision, just not what I was looking for. It's kinda like that moment when it became apparent that Soundgarden were aiming to be the 90's Whitesnake rather than The Melvins-with-songs.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Best Old Movies I Saw in 2011

I'm not sure if I'll do a post about new movies. I've barely seen any. My favorites so far this year were all documentaries (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Beats Rhymes and Life, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Tabloid), so I'll probably post at least about those. But hey, I've been watching a hell of a lot of old movies, so here's a nice little list of some of them.

1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976) I first heard about this film from the documentary Z-Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. Subsequently, Mario Batalli has frequently invoked it on his cooking show for its depictions of Italian feasts. It's been in my Netflix queue for a long time, but I kept moving it down because I was intimidated by the idea of watching a 6-hour movie. I finally decided to just treat it as a miniseries, and watch it in one-hour chunks.

1900 tells the story of two childhood friends growing up through the early 20th Century on an Italian farm. Robert DeNiro (along with a couple younger actors) plays Alfredo Berlinghieri, son of the patron--the owner of the huge farm and estate on which they live--and Gerard Depardieu plays Olma Dalco, a son of poor peasants working on the farm. Throughout their lives, they continue a complex friendship. They fight, compete and bond, and eventually come to embody the two sides of a great political argument, with Olma supporting Communism and Aflredo fighting to retain control of his land, as Communists and Fascists battle for control of the country. Both men deliver fine performances in a movie with no shortage of good acting. One standout is Donald Sutherland, who plays a psychopathic Fascist named Attilla. Sutherland's performance is so over-the-top that it reminds me of Nicholas Cage's most unhinged performances. His level of villainy is almost absurd, except that we know that such men existed in Fascist (and Communist) regimes. His partner is the equally sadistic Regina, played by Laura Betti. The film begins with the aftermath of Allied victory in WWII: Attilla and Regina being attached by a mob bearing pitchforks. It's a brilliant move--if this scene had been saved for the end, the audience would have seen justice and catharsis in that action, but placing it before we see their crimes, we see the brutality of this lynch mob clearly.

The real star of this film is Vittorio Storaro, the director of photography. 1900 is probably the most beautiful film I've ever seen. Storar and Bertolucci manage to turn every scene into a museum-worthy painting of sunlight and landscape. If it had no plot, characters or themes to speak of, 1900 would be a success based on its visual appeal alone. As it is, I'd call it a masterpiece.

His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, 1951) Robert Mitchum made two films noir set in Mexico in 1951 (I caught them back-to-back on TCM). The first, Where Danger Lives, is a textbook example of the film noir: a doctor gets involved with a beautiful woman, and the next thing you know he's on the run for murder, his whole life unraveling. Hollywood dreamed this recurring nightmare over and over again for about 15 years. What does it mean? Well, I'll leave that question for another day, because the one I really dug was His Kind of Woman. In this film, Mitchum is paid to fly to a private estate in Mexico for mysterious reasons. Once there, he finds himself waiting in a purgatory that looks like an exclusive country club, where an oddball cast of characters, including Jane Russell, Vincent Price and Jim Backus have an ongoing party. Now, I'm always up for some Vincent Price, and here he's playing an egotistical, hammy actor (a role that's probably not much of a stretch for him), and he just chews that fucker up! Seriously, this is maybe the funniest role I've ever seen him play. As the film goes into its third (or fourth?) act, things get very weird, and noir, comedy and action get all mixed up. Vincent Price's character arc in this last part reminded me a bit of Hemingway's The Short, Happy Life of Francis MacComber, and just as I was thinking that thought Price actually made a reference to that story!

Dance, Girl, Dance! (Dorothy Arzner, 1940) I first read about this movie in...let's all say it together...Danny Peary's Cult Movies. Dorothy Arzner was one of the few female directors working in Hollywood in her time, and her movies have a reputation of having remarkably feminist content for the era. TCM aired this as part of their Summer Under the Stars celebration of Lucille Ball, who plays a tough cookie, seen-it-all dancer who is frienemies with Maureen O'Hara. Lucy played a lot of these roles in the 40's (she's also great in the boarding house drama Stage Door) before she settled on her daffy housewife persona, and I think I like her better in this mode. Arzner's vision makes itself clear in the character's motivations. O'Hara has a romance going on, but she's much more concerned with her dancing career (and this is not shown as a vice for which she must be punished). Men are mocked for their indulgence in burlesque shows. And the two leads share a relationship that is odd but feels very real, as best friends who want to kill each other. It's an offbeat script, but in its own way it makes a lot of sense.

Drive-In (Rod Amateau, 1976) The only movie on my list that I saw in the theater, Quentin Tarantino showed this at the New Beverly as the first half of a double feature with Dazed and Confused. It makes a lot of sense: this movie was made in south Texas in 1976 (with a grant from the Texas Film Commission), the same time and place that Dazed and Confused takes place, and it follows a day-and-night at the local drive-in movie theater and the roller rink, so the two movies are a great comparison case. Drive-In gives you a crystal clear window into small-town teenage life in the 70's, and it's a lot of fun. The soundtrack is all country music, with the Statler Bros. "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott" as the theme song. It's a funny, reactionary song that reminds us that, as much as we now revere 70's cinema, there were plenty of people who hated the shit at the time (and the once-again-relevant line about True Grit got a good laugh from the audience). I didn't stay for Dazed and Confused, because I'd just watched it in my backyard as part of a similar double feature with Van Nuys Boulevard. Not on DVD, but maybe it's coming? This was a freshly-struck print.

Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter, 1941) OK, I first heard about this movie from reading Dennis Cozzallio's interview with Joe Dante. I guess this is one of Joe's favorites, and there's this clip on YouTube that has Slim Galliard doing a musical number which erupts into an amazing swing dance performance. I guess I had the misunderstanding that this scene was indicative of the whole movie, that it was maybe one of those all-black musicals like Stormy Weather. As it turns out, aside from that one scene, Slim Galliard is nowhere to be seen, nor is any other black face. But it's an interesting film in its own way.

Hellzapoppin' stars the comedy duo of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, based on one of their stage shows, and it's just jammed with gags, much more so than any Marx Bros. or W.C. Fields movie you've ever seen. Now, they're not particularly good gags, mostly just silly (stupid might be more accurate) shit, but the sheer frequency of them is kind of amazing. I wonder if the Zucker Bros. watched this movie before they made Airplane? Also, Martha Raye is very funny in her scenes here. I've never seen young Martha Raye, I mostly just know her from denture commercials. Well, Hellzapoppin' doesn't seem to be available on official DVD, but you can watch it on Amazon Instant for 99 cents, or order a DVD-R of it from Amazon for some small amount of money.

The Exiles (Kent McKenzie, 1961) I'm not 100% sure I saw this in 2011, but let's go with it. This film was put on my radar by Los Angeles Plays Itself, where it was touted as one of the great works of L.A. neo-realism (along with Charles Burnette's Killer of Sheep). There's a great you-are-there feel to this documentary-like footage of young, rockabilly-obsessed Native Americans living in Bunker Hill. Good soundtrack, too.

The Cockettes (Bill Weber, David Weissman, 2002) I'm including this documentary because it helps confirm my theory that punk rock evolved, to a great extent, out of gay culture. Not mainstream gay culture (if such a thing could be said to exist in the 60's and 70's), really, but...well, John Waters always talks about Divine going to drag shows in the 60's, when all the drag queens were dressing as either Jackie O. or The Supremes, and Divine would show up in gaudy thrift-store dresses and fake scar tissue carrying a chainsaw. So, uh, THAT part of gay culture, which would perhaps also include Warhol's Factory, the films of Kenneth Anger, the Kuchar Bros. and Jack Smith, Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous Theater (from which the New York Dolls stole a lot of their act), and The Cockettes. John Waters, as it happens, is a player in this story, so it fits quite well.

The story begins with a commune in San Francisco (for some reason, everyone in the film pronounces the word "commune" with emphasis on the second syllable), where a bunch of gay guys and a few women live, and where these hairy, bearded guys would take LSD, dress in thrift store drag and sing showtunes. And then there is the Palace Theater, where Stephen F. Arnold hosts his Nocturnal Dream Show, a midnight movie series where he would show old musicals and underground films (Anger, the Kuchars and Jack Smith all included) to audiences that weren't going to be sleeping anytime soon anyway. Eventually, the Cockettes begin performing their drag lipsynchs as a floor show before the movies, a sort of predecessor of the audience participation rituals that go with midnight showings of Rocky Horror and such. Maybe you don't agree with me, but it seems to me that seeing a bunch of bearded, tripping hippies in unconvincing drag lipsynching showtunes to an audience of acid heads fits perfectly into the early punk rock aesthetic of the Velvets, Mothers, Stooges and Dolls. And it's perfectly appropriate that when John Waters' gang of misfits began making movies (heavily influenced by the above-mentioned underground filmmakers, and by Warhol, but with an aggressive edge that I believe defines the punk aesthetic as much as Lou or Iggy ever did), they would find their first real audience at the Dream Show, and a spiritual alliance with the Cockettes.

Angel Angel Down We Go (aka, Cult of the Damned) (Robert Thom, 1969) This is on Netflix Instant under the latter title. I love me some wacky, psychedelic rock-n-roll cinema, and while this is not as awesome as Head or Beyond the Valley, it's got to be at least as good as Wild in the Streets. Hillariously weird hippy worldview, with a rockstar/cult leader helping overweight heiresses and closeted millionaires dig themselves, baby! And some awesome songs, too!