The Moment I Got It

October 14, 2016

unknownWhen I heard the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was, “What a strange choice.” My second thought, an instant later: “What took them so long?”

The “strangeness” comes because most of us don’t think of Dylan’s unmatched output as “literature.” Though much initial reaction is supportive, the backlash has quickly formed. Novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” Jodi Picoult offered the hashtag #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? The meanest (and funniest) dig I’ve seen comes from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Unlike the timorous voters for Oscars and Grammys, the Swedish Academy was not afraid to take a bold step which arguably blows up the whole definition of literature, much as Dylan himself once did for popular music. It calmly explained in its citation that Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But that presents two problems for non-senile, non-gibbering purists.

First, “song.” That Dylan is a masterful writer — at minimum, one who has repeatedly been able to connect with his audience in a deeply felt way for more than half a century — cannot credibly be contested. But aside from the very fine prose voice of his memoir CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE, most of Dylan’s work has been written not to be read, but to be performed aloud. (He’s the first musician ever to receive this honor.) Walt Whitman may “sing the body electric” and compose a ”Song of Myself,” so a poem can be a song. But can a song be a poem? If not, the anti-Bob faction may have a point — but the selection committee emphatically says yes, it can.

Second, context. There have been quite a few print collections of Dylan lyrics over the years, and I believe another one is expected this fall. When you flip through a representative sample, you’ll indeed find a trove of vaulting images and dazzling metaphorical beauty. But you’ll also have to read past a simple 12-bar blues lyric that might sound great — fulfilling its artistic purpose — but looks hopelessly banal on the page. In other words, this big-tent view of literature will require its own aesthetic to be properly studied and appreciated. We haven’t developed that yet, which is one reason some folks are freaking out today.

tumblr_inline_mw3xrqtc8x1rilmyoThere’s one more strike against Dylan. Even conceding that a song is really a poem performed out loud, what’s up with that crazy anti-musical voice? I faced this problem myself when I encountered Dylan for the first time. It was fall 1964, I’d just entered high school, and I saw a short notice in Time magazine about his new record, ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. I knew he was the guy who’d written “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” both covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (the latter by Simon & Garfunkel too: they and Dylan shared a producer, Tom Wilson), but I had never heard his voice. I dropped the needle on Side One Track 1, “All I Really Want To Do,” and almost started laughing. This nasal, vibrato-less wail was on pitch all right, but it cut through the air and clashed with the litany of rhymes in the verses, and then the sumbitch yodeled on the chorus and blew simple open chords on a harmonica! To the piano for “Black Crow Blues,” of which I thought nothing special, then an interesting little riff, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” but I still wan’t really paying attention.

The next song was called “Chimes of Freedom.” It begins, “Far between sundown’s finish / And midnight’s broken toll…” I perked up: something was different. I leaned in to a relentless cascade of images. Where “All I Really Want To Do” had been playful, this was mature and sophisticated — the yodeling hayseed was nowhere to be found. Now it was a rousing call for basic human decency using linguistic connections I’d never heard before. I listened to the entire seven-minute song, picked up the needle and played it again. The second time through, I found myself fixated on one word: the chimes of freedom were “flashing.” Chimes don’t flash. They peal, clang, bong, jingle, whatever. They toll in the song itself. Then I said, whoa: the lyric doesn’t say they’re listening to the chimes, it says they’re gazing upon them during a thunderstorm. Any other songwriter would describe the experience as aural. Who would think to observe the chimes of freedom visually? I listened one last time before continuing with the rest of the album. Now I was seizing on the lyrics. My focus had moved past the voice into the heartbeat of the songs. I was breaking down the verses in real time if I could, and on subsequent plays if not. There was a richness, a substance, that I’d never heard in popular music. By the Lp’s end I had become a Bob Dylan fan. On the power of the poetry. On the strength of the literature. And I’m only frickin fourteen.

Energized, I went back and bought his three previous albums (how would his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” sound, I wondered? Like Woody Guthrie in the Dust Bowl). Retroactively, I learned that he had arisen out of the “traditional” Greenwich Village folk scene but was upending propriety by “writing” his own songs early on. I use quotes because his early “Farewell” (the one at the end of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is nothing more than “The Leaving of Liverpool” with altered lyrics, just as “The Patriot Game” becomes “With God On Our Side” in his hands. But melodic “homage” is part of the folk tradition too. Then Dylan became more topical and the darling of the civil rights and antiwar movements with powerful pieces like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time of ANOTHER SIDE, though, he was undergoing another step in his evolution and setting the topical folk scene aside, causing resentment that survives in some circles today. And that’s where I caught up with him.

About a year later, on Nov. 27, 1965, my sixteenth birthday, I was sitting in an audience at McCormick Place in Chicago for an early stop on Dylan’s first tour with electric instruments, brought on after a solo acoustic set and intermission. Musically, he was advancing faster than his audience and there were plenty of boos during the second set. (This show was very much like the one recorded at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and released as part of the “Bootleg” series.) I have rarely been so thrilled to be at a concert. Maybe Elvis. Maybe Sinatra. Maybe not.

Dylan’s material didn’t sound like old folk songs any more. He was inventing beautiful melodies as well. The verbal allusions were a mashup of current popular culture and the classics, intruding on and elevating each other as if inside a dream. Yet even this was only a career byway. Dylan has continued to reinvent himself, periodically shaking off all but the most ardent fans in the process. (He lost me briefly during his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s-early 80s.) In this respect his career more resembles a painter’s than a performing artist’s: a country period, a gospel period, an American songbook period. Not every one of his song lyrics belongs in the permanent pantheon. Neither does every single thing written by Faulkner or Hemingway. But a remarkable body of Bob Dylan’s work does indeed belong there. If 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature forces us to reevaluate the very meaning of the term, then that was a well-given prize indeed.

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10/30/16: Some of these same thoughts, more artfully realized, by David Hadju. (Listen to the commentary by Hadju, Sean Wilentz and Robert Christgau on the INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Criterion DVD.)


Casting Fate Windward

July 27, 2016

Vince-GuaraldiWIn 1962, composer-pianist Vince Guaraldi included an instrumental piece on an album of jazz tunes inspired by the film BLACK ORPHEUS. It became a hit single for the Vince Guaraldi Trio and won the Grammy as Best Jazz Composition the following year. It’s called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” And after more than half a century, it’s never gone away.

Guaraldi is best known for scoring and performing seventeen PEANUTS tv specials with a signature piano-led sound that really conjures up the cartoon characters. But his most lasting legacy just might be “Cast Your Fate.” The tune has been covered by so many artists that it’s mind-boggling. (See the exhaustive list below.) Many MOR instrumentalists have had a go at it, along with a wide array of others: the likes of George Benson, Earl Klugh, George Winston, David Benoit on the softer side; Quincy Jones and the British group Sounds Orchestral with lush multiplayer arrangements; even the James Gang on RIDES AGAIN, rocking “Cast Your Fate” to a “Bolero”-like drum cadence toward the end of their “Bomber” suite. Carell Weber wrote lyrics shortly after it hit the charts, and vocal versions have been recorded by Johnny Rivers, Mel Torme, We Five and the Sandpipers among others, but I don’t like a single one: lyrics make the song too explicit, too ordinary. It’s as a pure instrumental that the tune really endures. I recently compiled a “Cast Your Fate” playlist just from the records I happen to own: being able to sort a database by song title makes it easy. The list takes nearly 40 minutes to play, but so far I haven’t grown tired of it. That’s because “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is open-ended. The possibilities are limitless.

The piece begins with a gently loping line, then introduces eight light, haunting, faraway-sounding bits of dreamy harmony. It repeats this pattern, slightly adjusted, twice more. Then that incipient tension finds release in warm major chords: here you detect the only bit of contemporaneity because the syncopation sounds so Sixtiesish, but it still makes you feel good. Now everything you’ve heard repeats. The second time through, you’re looking forward to that resolution at the end, can’t wait for it to arrive. But just as you’ve settled in comes the part which explains why “Cast Your Fate” attracts so many musicians.

Out of nowhere, the piece opens up into an improvisational section that has nothing to do with what has come before. Guaraldi’s inaugural hit version turns on a dime to a swaggering swing rhythm, doubtless reminding hepcats of Dave Brubeck’s time-signature mashups on his groundbreaking TIME OUT, but sounding fairly radical to a pop audience. The piece has now brightened — in fact it has teleported to a different place altogether — and the composer leans back into a midnight-set piano solo, Floyd Cramer “slipped notes,” walking bass line and all. But don’t get too comfortable: this center section ends as abruptly as it arrived. We pop back to that wispy tension-release combo which stated the motif at the top. Then the syncopated riff trails off, losing volume and notes until we can barely hear it. In my imagination, it too is borne away on the wind. Finally Guaraldi ends the track with a root-chord button (the only thing about the record I don’t care for: I wish he’d just faded out).

A schizophrenic middle section is hardly a new invention. For example, the second movement of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 as written by the composer consists of only one measure with two chords, known to geeks as a “Phrygian half cadence.” We can’t be sure, but we believe Bach is inviting a keyboard or violin player to just wail, play an improvised cadenza or any verdammt thing he pleases, just so long as he winds up with the final notes that musically hand it back to the (once again tightly scripted) third movement. The sky’s the limit: interpretations of this section of No. 3 are as varied as are the players themselves. For the most extreme example I know, listen to Wendy Carlos’s space-age electronic freakout on SWITCHED-ON BACH — yet note how perfectly the bellicose Moogy mugging still leads in to Bach’s twinkle-toed third movement. (Carlos recorded the concerto twice more as the technology became ever more supple, and her second movement is different each time.)

I believe that ability to stretch out and make the piece your own is the secret to “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”’s longevity. It’s fascinating to hear different artists play with it, and not just jazzmen. The Sounds Orchestral dudes give the middle improv a lighthearted Vegas feel. Quincy Jones’s orchestral take is slow and sexy. Earl Klugh makes the piece sound as if it were written for guitar in the first place (lute players did the same for Bach). Allen Toussaint adds blue notes to that syncopated riff. Paul Brooks offers a dance beat. In George Winston’s version (it’s part of an entire album of Guaraldi tunes; George idolizes him) he keeps the left hand going in that same soft rhythm and realizes Guaraldi’s fading riff by reaching into the piano and dampening the strings with his fingers. Joe Walsh even does away with the center section altogether for the James Gang (to play No. 3, all you really have to do is hit two chords), but cleverly uses the main “Cast Your Fate” motif itself as a strange middle section in his own composition “The Bomber” for what amounts to a metamusical joke: whew!

To some snobs, “Cast Your Fate” is a square relic from the Sixties, like Nehru jackets or Rod McKuen poems. But not only do I love it — the theme and the center both — I sometimes crave it. I don’t think a year passes for me without at least one spin of the original Vince Guaraldi record, which still has the best snap to the improv of ‘em all. I know I’m not alone, because cover versions keep on coming. And no wonder. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is already beautiful by itself, but your personal touch and taste can make it belong to you.

8/3/16: Here, courtesy of Guaraldi expert Derrick Bang, is an amazing list of “Cast Your Fate” cover versions over the tune’s first fifty years. You can learn lots more about Vince Guaraldi at Derrick’s great website and from his book VINCE GUARALDI AT THE PIANO. Thanks to George Winston for hooking us up.

Twists of Fate

Mel Torme, (single) (1963; hit #4 in Australia on 5/25/63)
Quincy Jones, Plays Hip Hits (1963/June)
Arthur Lyman, The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman at the Crescendo (1963)
Steve Allen, Gravy Waltz and 11 Current Hits (1963/March)

Warren Covington, Let’s Dance Latin (1964/April)

Floyd Cramer, Class of ’65 (1965)
Xavier Cugat, Feeling Good (1965)
Ferrante & Teicher, Only the Best (1965)
The In Crowd, The In Crowd (1965)
Sounds Orchestral, Cast Your Fate to the Wind (1965/March)
The Jimmy Wisner Orchestra, Cast Your Fate to the Wind (1965)
We Five, You Were on My Mind (1965)

Steve Alaimo, Steve Alaimo Sings & Swings (1966)
Anita Kerr Singers, Slightly Baroque (1966/November)
Baja Marimba Band, Watch Out! (1966)
Martin Denny, Golden Greats (1966)
Shelby Flint, Cast Your Fate to the Wind (1966/August)
Joe Harnell, Golden Piano Hits (1966)
Horst Jankowski, More Genius of Jankowski (1966)
George Martin and His Orchestra, And I Love Her (1966)
101 Strings Plus Guitars Galore (1966)
Johnny Rivers, Changes (1966)
The Sandpipers, Guantanamera (1966/October)

Chet Atkins, It’s a Guitar World (1967)
Ramsey Lewis, Goin’ Latin (1967)
Billy Strange & The Challengers, Billy Strange & The Challengers (1967)

The James Gang, Rides Again (1970)
Allen Toussaint, From a Whisper to a Scream (1970)
Quincy Jones, Smackwater Jack (1971)
The Marketts, AM, FM Etc. (1973)
Roger Williams, ??? (1976)
David Axelrod, Heavy Axe (1975)
George Benson, Good King Bad (1975)
Earl Klugh, Magic in Your Eyes (1978)
Larry Vuckovich, Cast Your Fate (1982)
Hollyrock, Legalize Freedom (1987)
David Benoit, Waiting for Spring (1989)
Dave Brubeck, Quiet as the Moon (1991)
Dave Stewart, Spin (1991)
Dean Magraw, Broken Silence (1994)
Mike Strickland, My Favorite Things (1994)
Bill Cunliffe, Bill in Brazil (1995)
Laurens Van Rooyen (1996)
George Winston, Linus & Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi (1996)
Ray Bryant Trio, Ray’s Tribute to his Jazz Piano Friends (1998)
Russ Conway, Walk in the Black Forest (1998)
Paul Brooks, Drift Away — Seascapes (1999)
Klaus Doldinger, Works & Passion (2001)
Jazz East, The Springwater Incident (2002)
Gretchen Phillips, Togetherness (2003)
Karin Plato, The State of Bliss (2003)
Nick Stubblefield, Tried As an Adult (2003)
Richard de Cluny, Romantic Instrumentals — Piano Nights (2004)
Buddy Fambro, Higher Consciousness (2004)
Dan Luevano, Simpler Times (2004)
Dave Pell, Meditation (2004)
Nelson Rangell, My American Songbook (2005)
Larry Brown, The Long Goodbye (2006)
Starlite Orchestra, Pop Hits on the Piano (2006)
Steve Hall, Swept Away (2007)
Pam Pierce, Believe It (2007)
Bonney & Buzz, Bang It Again (2008)
Don Brennan, Well, to Begin With (2008)
Free Wind, Piano Chillout (2008)
Jennifer Leitham, Left Coast Story (2008)
Aaron Brask, The Guaraldi Sessions (2009)
Graham Blvd, Songs for Pirate Radio (2010)
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall, I Feel You (2011)


The Five Biggest Cultural Events Of 2015

December 30, 2015

41199682-fa08-4cca-9691-bfdd5163c812_12731_CUSTOMHAMILTON. Every bit as crowd-pleasing as it is brilliant, this changes everything, as OKLAHOMA!, HAIR and RENT once did, by bringing fresh ideas into the theater just when we needed them. Among the show’s legion of fans is the President of the United States (and he saw the understudy!), who commented, ”I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on during my entire political career.” The night Cheney attended, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “He’s the OTHER vice-president who shot a friend while in office.” A hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers is the toughest ticket in New York: who would have thought? Before HAMILTON wins its inevitable Tony next June, I predict it will have already earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

UnknownTRUMP. Talk about a disruptor! The Pub race was always gonna be colorful (Rick Santorum again?), but Jeb! was supposed to be unstoppable: guys like Rubio and Kasich were actually running for vice president, went the wisdom. Then Donald J. Trump shows up with a very simple message for the Pub base: (1) I don’t even HAVE a dog whistle, so I say out loud what you’ve been thinking all along; and (2) I’m so rich that the power brokers can’t buy me off. Add that to a general loathing of professional politicians among the Tea Party set (the wet-eared, anti-governance Freedom Caucus just obtained the scalp of its own party’s Speaker of the House), and Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are promoted as electable not despite, but because of their ignorance. The star chambers which actually run the party have been impotently predicting The Donald’s demise for six months, but now the RNC is making contingency plans to protect its down-ballot candidates against an ever more possible Trump nomination. Absurd, yes. But party bosses have to think about it. Anything less would be malpractice.

Unknown-1ADELE. Recorded music was supposed to be dead to streaming and piracy. Then Adele released her album 25, and to say it was eagerly awaited is the understatement of the 21st century. In its first week, 25 sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S., shattering quarter-century sales records to bits and making it far and away the most lucrative cash cow of the digital era. To put it another way, that week 25 was responsible for 42% of all recorded music sales; the closest competitor in this regard is Taylor Swift’s RED one year ago, and she controlled barely half of Adele’s market share. Her listeners come from all shades of the music spectrum: men and women, old and young, people who barely follow what’s left of the music business. Her single “Hello” became so ingrained in the culture that it was able to serve as the recurring punch line for a SNL sketch, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” the week she appeared.

tfa_poster_wide_header_adb92fa0STAR WARS. Adele the most fervently anticipated in the year of THE FORCE AWAKENS? I still say yes, because of the utter domination of her business. But I doubt there’s a living being anywhere up the food chain from the unicellular flagellate that wasn’t aware of the coming date of December 18. The hitch was that many devotees had been soured by the ho-hum “prequel” trilogy, so the #1 job of Bob Iger and the marketers at Disney, new owner of Lucasfilm, was to get the fans back on board. I won’t go into detail (see it soon or it’s sure to get spoiled for you), but mission accomplished. And the globe-spanning magnitude of STAR WARS fever was up there in Adele territory. It took THE FORCE AWAKENS just two weeks to become the all-time worldwide #9, and it could even be a notch higher by the time the ball drops in Times Square. Now let’s see if it can rack up a sick amount of multiple viewings like TITANIC or its 1977 predecessor. This is the first STAR WARS picture without George Lucas’s hands on it — he gets a “based on characters by” credit — but J. J. Abrams really performed under pressure, and this makes two iconic space franchises he’s re-energized. We’re starting to see a backlash develop among people who found the flick a little too familiar, but just now Disney is right where it wants to be, armed with the ultimate selling proposition: everybody wants it, and only we have it.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanGO SELL A WATCHMAN. That is not a typo: the event wasn’t really the content of Harper Lee’s second published novel — the critical reaction has been tepid to a story that pales when compared to her inspiring masterpiece TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD — but the circumstances of its discovery and dissemination decades after it was written. After keeping GO SET A WATCHMAN locked away for half a century, was the frail and ailing author honestly willing to approve its publication now? It was the fastest-selling book in HarperCollins’s long history (they published MOBY-DICK, dude), doing 1.1 million units in the first week and a skajillion more as the year wore on. More people wanted it in paper than on a pad — the opposite sales pattern from most works of fiction — and physical booksellers quite understandably rejoiced. Anything that brings in customers is good for everybody, and the book business could really use some good news right now.

4/18/16: And the Pulitzer Prize goes to…HAMILTON.

5/26/16: And the Pub nomination goes to…TRUMP!


My NYFF 2015

October 11, 2015

Unknown-2Had to miss some second-week movies this year due to a temporary ailment, but I did manage eight, including all the ones I was really, really anticipating. The weather again cooperated, but not the Pope’s visit, for which FSLC had to postpone the fest opening by one day. It was the cusp of autumn, maybe a little warmer than usual. Some friends and I went inside for DE PALMA in almost mild-summery conditions, and when we came out two hours later, the temperature had dropped 20 degrees. My fest, on a five-point scale:

75-1MIA MADRE**** (U.S. Premiere) That rarest of avises: a heartfelt, human-sized, accessible drama made by and for intelligent adults. A film director in Rome (Marguerita Buy) tries to cope with both her latest shoot, featuring a comically imperious American actor (John Turturro, hilarious even in Italian), and the fading health of her beloved mother. Nanni Moretti’s beautiful film juggles these stresses and points of view in a non-linear fashion that gradually reveals itself to be impressionistic. Inspired by the passing of his own mother, Signor Moretti (who personally takes a crucial role) provokes moments of quiet recognition amongst many belly laughs, affirming that our lives are really more similar than they are different, each personal journey strange and beautiful in its own way.

depalmapaltrowbaumbach3DE PALMA**** (U.S. Premiere) The complete career of one of our most fearless, most unpredictable directors, an illustrated monologue which takes us from Brian De Palma’s short student films (featuring a very young Robert De Niro) to his latest pictures, made in Europe to escape the studio system, with nothing omitted in between. Unlike most film retrospectives, there are no talking heads except De Palma’s: co-directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach are skilled and confident enough to get out of the way of a great storyteller while beautifully curating the clips and memorabilia that engage us visually. Because of this one-note format, DE PALMA is probably not for everybody — no aspect of the filmmaker’s wide-ranging career, including projects that went nowhere or were eventually made by somebody else, is left uncovered — but catnip for anyone with a deep interest in movies. It’s an ideal festival film. De Palma’s artistic breadth is remarkable: the same man has dipped into blade-wielding thrillers, space science fiction, searing war stories, L.A. noir, even a pioneering rock musical. My main takeaway was how capricious the American movie business really is: De Palma careers from project to project in a series of happy (or otherwise) accidents and keeps going from chump (THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES) to darling (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) and back again. You have to be devoted to your craft to withstand the many indignities wrought by a constantly shifting cultural landscape, and though his wild career has toughened De Palma, he remains gracious and warm (he charmingly expresses surprise as, “Holy mackerel!”). He has thus earned the love and respect of the next generation, exemplified by the two young Turks who honor him here.

UnknownWHERE TO INVADE NEXT**** (U.S. Premiere) That populist provocateur Michael Moore is at it again, but his new film feels more playful, hopeful and uplifting than usual. Armed only with an American flag, Moore “invades” European countries and Tunisia to plant Old Glory on their soil and steal their best ideas. In France he discovers vacation/parental policies that would make the greediest American union member blush, yet companies are doing just fine and French workers are happier and more productive than we are. In Iceland, scene of the worst banking catastrophe of the 2008 financial crisis (every bank failed except the one run by women), all the big shots were prosecuted and are now in prison. He examines female empowerment, incarceration policies, health care and education, and finds real-life solutions demonstrated to be effective by others. And the thing is that all this progress is based on American ideas; even the banker prosecutions were aided by a veteran of the S&L scandal hired by the Icelandic government. (Y’know, he was available here too…he lives here.) Time and again, the interviewees demonstrate the natural state, a concern with the welfare of others alongside oneself, which is sorely lacking in the US. One Icelandic executive — where by law all corporate boards must have no less than 40% representation by the minority gender — says she wouldn’t live in America if they paid her, and our lack of devotion to our larger community is the reason why. These people are flabbergasted that there exist poverty-level Americans in the richest country on earth. After the screening, ushers handed out Faber-Castell pencils from a factory we’d just visited and a genuine application form from Slovenia that allows even non-nationals to study at the college level, in English, tuition free. Here’s a new aspect of Michael Moore: not sniping, just presenting time-tested solutions that work because labor and management — who have been at each others’ throats, to be sure — or the general citizenry which insists on proper education and health care want them to work. It’s constructive, not polemical, unless you stop for a moment to consider that solutions to many of our societal ills are right at hand, if only we could rouse ourselves to demand them of our elected leaders.

imagesSTEVE JOBS*** (Festival Centerpiece) A dedicated and assured effort by all concerned, but considering the pedigree, I felt a little deflated. You have red-hot Danny Boyle directing a script by rock-star screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, a stellar cast led by Michael Fassbender, and most of all, the mercurial personality of the subject, a zen visionary who still had to learn to care about other people. Though it’s assembled from Walter Isaacson’s biography, the creative point of view seems one-dimensional. I blame the screenplay. Yes, it’s boldly distilled into three long scenes, each taking place backstage just before a Jobs product launch: for the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT workstation in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. It’s nifty the way Sorkin makes us infer outward each time at all the inspiration and bullying that brought us to this place, while Jobs does the patented Sorkin “walk-and-talk” from one crisis to the next. But the throughline of the movie is Jobs’s relationship with his daughter Lisa (he originally denies paternity and that he named an Apple computer after her), not his effect on the broader culture. Furthermore, although a mellowing in Jobs is treated as a denouement at the iMac launch, we don’t get to see the achievements of his happier and more peaceful third act, including more traditional fatherhood: the coming iPod (though he briefly alludes to it and to the concept of a touchscreen), iPhone and iPad, which have arguably changed the world without any parallel competition from Bill Gates. Some of Jobs’s younger devotees may be disappointed, even puzzled, by the early stopping point. The acting is uniformly top-notch, although Ashton Kutcher put up a better physical impression than Fassbender does here. Jeff Daniels as John Sculley stands out among many good players; of contemporary actors he is probably Sorkin’s best motormouthpiece. But the summed-up whole was far from what I expected, which was a great movie. This is merely a good one.

75MICROBE & GASOLINE**** (U.S. Premiere) A wonderful laugh-out-loud coming-of-age/road picture/fantasia by the inventive Michel Gondry. It’s based on his childhood memories, but only up to a point. Two loners who are too hip for the classroom become friends, tax the system a bit, and then decide they’re going to split their oppressive school and family scene by building a car (actually not much more than a go-kart powered by a barely heavier engine) and sputtering through the French countryside; they solve all lodging issues by attaching a garden shed to the contraption. Here Gondry vaults into fantasy, for the movie boys go beyond his real-life dreams: they actually build their vehicle and head out into a picaresque series of adventures. The goading, teasing relationship between young actors Ange Dargent and Theophile Baquet is delightful, and Audrey Tatou as Dargent’s long-suffering exasperated mother is particularly fine. There is an undercurrent of sadness and danger, but Gondry means this as a loving toast to boyhood passions of several different kinds. You feel better just for watching it.

129BRIDGE OF SPIES**** (World Premiere) A tense, period-rich story about the famous 1962 swap that returned U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers to the West at the jittery nuclear-terror height of the Cold War, the first time the U.S. had been caught red-handed spying on the Reds. In exchange, the Soviets got Rudolph Abel, who had spent twelve years in America (though he was never actually proven to be a spy, key to what takes place after his kangaroo-court trial). Mark Rylance as Abel is the real discovery: he’s a quirky stage actor who hasn’t been seen much on screen, and here he creates the most hated man in America with an oddball humanity that radiates in every scene. His public defender is Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks, today’s Jimmy Stewart) who thus becomes the second most hated man: these are serious Commie-fearing, rule-of-law-ignoring days. He resists the nearly unanimous calls for execution by pointing out that some day Abel might be useful in a trade for our own spy. Soon that very situation arises and Donovan himself is tapped as the negotiator in Berlin, since the governments can’t be officially involved (that would require officially admitting that Powers and Abel were in fact spying). Donovan and Abel develop a real respect for each other, for each man serves with honor in his way. All this is tossed together by Steven Spielberg, who displays his natural affinity for storytelling and for the joys of moviemaking. To some directors, the set is a workplace; to Spielberg, it’s a playground. For example, after one volatile press scrum the floor is littered with flash bulbs, and the photographers scrunch them with their shoes as they fly to the next opportunity — a great way to show frenzy. We learned in the q&a that this shot was unplanned, caught on the fly. Period detail in Brooklyn and Berlin is perfect: everybody smokes, everybody wears a hat. The script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen (!) is very sharp and manages to nail the era of paranoia without tiresome exposition: Donovan’s own children have learned atomic-war drills in school, and they come in handy when a vigilante takes aim at their home. Only time will tell how many viewers will want to relive this remarkable period, but they will find lush detail and a propulsive story: it’s another adult-oriented feather in Spielberg’s fedora.

Unknown-1CAROL**** Todd Haynes’s lovely adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, in which a mousy salesgirl and would-be photographer (Rooney Mara) meets a wealthy, assured socialite (Cate Blanchett) and falls madly in love. Their chief problems include the fact that Blanchett is married with a daughter, and that they live in New York in the early Fifties, when so much as a stolen glance is suspicious. The picture belongs to the two leads: their erotic chemistry never wavers during storms of tribulation, even as their relationship mutates with changing fortunes. The design and photography are superb. Sets, costumes, coiffure and lighting utterly transport us to the days when the Forties reluctantly give way and Eisenhower ascends, but the look is muted, darker, a world away from the hyper melodramatic Fifties of Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN. Every buck is up there on the screen. Longtime Haynes watchers know to expect the unexpected (his previous film, I’M NOT THERE, is probably the wildest reach since his notorious Karen Carpenter short), but this intense yet gentle piece plays as the kind of surprise you’d been waiting for without even knowing it.

miles-ahead-movieMILES AHEAD*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Making a movie about Miles Davis is a tall order. Don Cheadle tries it as a quadruple threat — co-producer, co-writer, director and star — with mixed results. The film finds Davis in one of his hated interviews, swatting away questions with hipster grumbling and faux-zen pronouncements. He’s later revealed to be holed up in his Manhattan apartment, unsettlingly near madness, toward the late-Seventies end of his self-imposed five-year artistic silence. The MacGuffin is a reel of self-recorded audio tape that could reignite his career: everybody wants it, including a sleazeball from Davis’s label (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who was also great as put-upon engineer Andy Hertzfeld in STEVE JOBS). The historic information is presented in a series of flashbacks that are intentionally jarring: a downbeat on Miles’s trumpet shock-cuts to a car chase, the rear of an elevator magically opens like a doorway onto the next scene. There is a backstory — we see Davis’s early Village days, the wooing and winning of wife Frances (the ethereal Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the roots of a rage that both buoyed and tortured him — but too much of the movie is basically an unwelcome heist caper and chase, all for that golden tape reel. Cheadle’s acting interpretation is likewise jagged and uneven: his vocal performance is monochromatic whispered anger, but unlike most music biopics, he does look like he’s actually playing his instrument, even in the tightest shots. Some Miles fans may insist the staccato form does indeed mirror his life, and his estate certainly cooperated with this project. But I still felt underfed after spending two hours with this game-changing musician. However, Cheadle does manage to bring the music front and center — there’s plenty of tremendous Miles Davis trumpet throughout.

WISH I’D SEEN: EXPERIMENTER, MAGGIE’S PLAN, THE MARTIAN (a quickly added surprise screening), NO HOME MOVIE (sadly, director Chantal Akerman passed away on October 5, two days before her U.S. premiere), THE WALK

ALREADY SAW: BROOKLYN****, THE FORBIDDEN ROOM***

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10 Things I Learned About London Theater In 3 Days

September 11, 2015
  1. Unknown-1In England, Roald Dahl gets a possessory credit above the title (like the one John Carpenter takes) for CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
  2. They charge four pounds for a Playbill in London. But it’s bigger than the free US ones, each particular edition has some editorial material about the specific show you’re seeing, and, anyhow, somebody in front of me was somehow able to run down the cast (“Who’s Who”…) on his smartphone.
  3.  TPTGW106-700x325Slapstick works everywhere. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, which is basically the disaster act of NOISES OFF quadrupled, or maybe a live version of THE ART OF COARSE ACTING, should come with complimentary Pampers. Sometimes you can’t even breathe.
  4. When the manager of THE COMMITMENTS yells just before the fourth-wall-breaking encore set, “Is there anybody here from Ireland?”, a London audience can give him a huge response.
  5. UnknownThere are theater-busting assholes everywhere. Just to the right of me at THE COMMITMENTS, two biddies talked to each other using normal conversational tones during the entire show, as if they were home watching telly. Fortunately, whenever the soul band played, you couldn’t hear them any more. They did their best to ruin the show but failed.
  6. You can order “interval” (intermission) drinks before the show. When you get to the bar at halftime, they’re already waiting for you. The interval order taker is the most popular guy as the audience is filing in.
  7. Ice cream is a huge interval favorite, but can be queued for and consumed in the auditorium itself. No biggie. A member of staff will be by just before curtain with a big rubbish bag.
  8. They don’t tell you to turn off your phone or don’t take pictures or don’t bring anything into the theater. People just take all the pre-show pictures they like but know enough to turn everything off when they should. I never heard a cell phone ring or even saw anyone surreptitiously consulting one during the actual performance. The transgressive biddies were, sadly, non-electronic.
  9. maxresdefaultThose oompa loompas (five or six different sly costume-&-lighting gags to make an average-sized person appear to be half hisser actual height) are amazing and worth the CHARLIE ticket alone. The bad news: they don’t appear until Act II.
  10. Understudies and overstudies come out on stage for the final performance. The lead COMMITMENTS role — the asshole singer — was being played by the Sunday man, but his rest-of-the-week counterpart, and all other fill-ins, showed up on stage for the finale of the show’s West End run. Is the musical — book, in the musical theater sense, by Roddy Doyle — any good? Look: all they promise is that you’ll get to see the soul revue known as the Commitments throw down live on stage, and once they kicked the show proper away for a joyous out-of-character series of encores, they bloody blew the roof off the bloody dump. So no, and bloody YES.

Cassandra Channels Billie

April 25, 2015

61D3iXftobL._AA160_She was just billed as “Cassandra” back in Jackson, Mississippi in the 70s-80s, when she was the featured singer with Sergio Fernandez and his band at local spots like POETS in “The Quarter” on Lakeland Drive. All caps because the name was (rumored to be) a response to the overly cheerful T.G.I. Friday’s: it (supposedly) stood for “Piss On Everything, Today’s Saturday.” At first you said, Cassandra? I just want a pint or two; I don’t want to hear about how everything’s falling apart.

But this Cassandra melted you down within five minutes. Her worst quality, I have been told by more than one POETS server, was that her voice made customers forget to keep drinking. That’s how smitten we all were. Most decent-sized cities with local music scenes have one or two standouts who make you think, this individual is good enough to go pro. Well, ours went and did it. Her name was, and is, Cassandra Wilson, and she’s been a shining light among jazz vocalists in the wider world for more than 25 years.

After all that time and all that adulation, Cassandra has become so confident in the recording studio that she’s willing to take a few chances, and has it ever paid off on her latest release, COMING FORTH BY DAY. It’s an album of mostly covers of, and a tribute or two to, Billie Holliday, a singer whom Cassandra respects, admires, even adores. But this is no impression, not an attempt to resurrect a style or a voice. This is Billie through Cassandra, and she had the guts to engage Nick Launay, the longtime producer of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. (Did anybody else see that documentary, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH?) The supporting musicians thus range from T Bone Burnett to Nick Zinner, with Van Dyke Parks supplying the string arrangements.

The best way I can describe the result is, it’s as if Billie Holliday were sitting next to you and singing softly into your ear. Yes, there are some out-front dynamics, but in most cases Cassandra makes you lean in to her; the only other producer I might have trusted to get a similar ambience would be Daniel Lanois. You will never consider “All of Me,” “You Go To My Head,” “These Foolish Things,” or even “Strange Fruit,” the same way again. It’s the midnight set after the playboys and their girls have all gone home.

This album is not for everybody; Cassandra has plenty for you jumpin’ jivers in her catalog. But in a way, it’s a wonderful summation of her career, and never have I been prouder of Jackson’s knock-em-dead chanteuse.


John & Janis

December 29, 2014

UnknownWhat was it like to be Janis Joplin’s road manager, back in the day? Now you can find out for yourself. ON THE ROAD WITH JANIS JOPLIN is an illuminating, heartbreaking, educating, palpitating, emancipating tome, a new book you just have to read if you care at all about the preternaturally gifted bluesy chick from Port Arthur, Texas and the times that first embraced her and then, let’s face it, erased her.

Other talented authors have also written compellingly about seminal vectors in rock & roll history, but unlike the Greil Marcuses and Peter Guralnicks of the rock world, John Byrne Cooke isn’t so much a reporter as he is a storyteller, a novelist. So you get that journalistic eye and ear for detail, but it flickers through a sense of relaxed pace, rhythmic inevitability, narrative motion that feels more like an ambling river canoe float than the unrelenting, determined freight train of bald historical recitative. (In a typically charming choice of words, the author and a friend “bushwhack“ toward the Pacific coast in their rental car.) Mr. Cooke draws you alongside him, and that warm relationship continually renders this book less about me and more about us. But unlike us, Mr. Cooke was actually, physically present for some world-shaking events.

cv_smlNow it’s time for full disclosure. Mr. Cooke is a former author of mine — I edited his historical novel THE COMMITTEE OF VIGILANCE, which dramatizes an infamous tumult in his beloved San Francisco — and he remains a personal friend. Among his other works, I particularly commend to you his masterful THE SNOWBLIND MOON, a first novel so fine that it persuaded the grizzled pros of the Western Writers of America to bestow not only their “Medicine Pipe Bearer” award for best debut, but also the prestigious Spur Award for best novel period, a remarkable double honor. So — trust me on this — dude be good. But, as with every other author I’ve had either the privilege (mostly) or the burden (don’t ask) to serve as editor, I would never lie, either to him or for him. What I say below is my unvarnished opinion; I’ll pick a nit or two, but as veteran readers may have already noticed, if I didn’t genuinely like a book, I wouldn’t bring it up in the first place. Vita’s too brevis, y’all.

Further disclosure. Years ago, I got down on my metaphorical knees and begged Mr. Cooke to write his musical memoir. He demurred. I don’t know what finally brought it forth so much later, but I’m not complaining. Even if I didn’t get to publish, I did finally get to read, and it’s a great comfort to know this unique perspective was eventually set down for the rest of us. Do not pass it by. It took me an unusually long time to finish this book, because stray comments kept compelling me to set the thing down and listen again to some primal music I thought I already knew inside and out. That same tug had produced similar revelations with the Beatles before, but this time my emotional stake went as far as the bloody road manager. Get close to the come-hither spell of this book and yours will too.

Mr. Cooke first describes the long and winding road that leads to her door. Like most real-life adventures, his journey hangs on the dual hinges of ability and luck. He’s a New England blueblood who, smitten by the Harvard-area folk scene — you had to be there, man — winds up in a bluegrass band, twanging out the real American songbook. The author’s Charles River Valley Boys (despite the group’s shitkickery-sounding name, the Charles runs by Boston, as any Standells-digging frat boy can tell you) have not only recorded for big-shot label Elektra, but were also debut-produced by the soon-to-be-legendary Paul A. Rothchild, who will figure in later. One thing leads to another, which might as well be the motto of this book, and the author’s music connections deposit him into the office of filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, who is planning to shoot the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival. “Penny” specializes in what they call cinema verite, meaning the product looks like it was simply caught on the fly. Not true, as we learn through the eyes of the guy who runs Nagra sound for Penny at Monterey — and there catches his first glimpse of the amazing Janis Joplin. The Boston folk scene and Penny had already led the author through Bob Dylan (via Penny’s DON’T LOOK BACK) to the Bearsville digs of his manager, Albert Grossman. Then, over dinner one night, Grossman offers Mr. Cooke the job of road manager for his newest client, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Shep Gordon, longtime manager of such acts as Alice Cooper, cogently reveals a manager’s main mission in Mike Myers’s entertaining new documentary SUPERMENSCH: ”one, get the money; two, always remember to get the money; and three, never forget to always remember to get the money.” A road manager, now, has much more on his mind (certainly not to belittle Shep’s Big Three, you understand), and Mr. Cooke does a wonderful job of describing how one corrals, sweet-talks and disciplines a bunch of less-than-punctual musicians as they go careering from one gig to the next. He is the authority, the responsible adult on tour, and he works for the band but establishes lines of demarcation immediately: I’m not your valet, you carry your own guitars. Only then can he begin to relate to Big Brother personally.

Mr. Cooke is a natural yarn-spinner who respects, even marvels at, the great historical tradition: after a cross-country airplane flight he muses, “In five hours I’ve covered what it took the emigrants of the nineteenth century’s great westward migration months of peril to travel.” Now he’s with a new group of pioneers, bringing the bluesy side of the “San Francisco sound” to an America that’s only now learning about the Haight-Ashbury district, itself already starting to find tourists underfoot. From 1967 on, absent one short break, Mr. Cooke manages the tours of Big Brother, the Kozmic Blues Band, and Full Tilt Boogie: he is with Janis on the road until her death.

As a result, we are able to experience her brief but meteoric career at a legato pace that resembles the speed of real life. For example, we see the making of Big Brother’s first major-label record, CHEAP THRILLS, as the debilitating slog it was. Producer John Simon (whose other work I greatly respect) didn’t click with the band and turned out to be an impediment. The resulting album — still my favorite of Janis’s recordings — was basically saved in the studio by co-producer Elliott Mazer’s clever editing and mixing, which gave the aural impression of a live performance. Mr. Cooke’s musical background gives him valuable perspective and some luscious personal moments. The 1970 “Festival Express” train on its cross-country tour of Canada was a “rolling hootenanny” stuffed with musicians who never quit jamming, and after trading Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers songs with The Band’s Rick Danko one night, the author gets an informal back-slap from Bandmate Richard Manuel: “Hey, man, you can’t sing like that. You’re a road manager.” It’s delightful to sit with Janis in the bar of a Holiday Inn in Austin as a lounge singer “with an electric guitar and a rhythm machine” strikes up “Me and Bobby McGee.” She’s astonished: at this point, the best-known version is on a Roger Miller album, but by coincidence Janis is planning to sing the song tonight at a private birthday party. She leaves the lounge unimpressed.

JBC-WebsiteHeadshotMr. Cooke can’t help but become personally attached, so the reader does as well. It hurts us to watch the dissolution of Janis’s first two bands. The reasons are varied, but the pain feels vindicated when she hits her stride with Full Tilt Boogie, the unit that records the exuberant PEARL (Janis’s private, personal nickname) with that same Paul Rothchild on the faders. The band and its singer are each at the very top of their games when an accidental overdose — Janis almost certainly misjudged the potency of the heroin that killed her — ends everything. Our loss is of a pop icon. The author’s is of a close friend.

I love the tone and feel of the story, but if I were still Mr. Cooke’s editor, I’d suggest he watch the abrupt changes from present tense (it sounds more immediate) to past tense (it sounds more reportorial) and back again; they observe some kind of inner logic that isn’t readily apparent to the reader, sometimes occurring within a single sentence. I would also have corrected the repeated misspelling of Hugh Masekela’s name: a simple mistake by the author but very embarrassing for the copyeditor, who presumably understood pop music of the period but also managed to muff Ritchie Valens, a name easier to spell correctly. Also, John, James Gurley wrenches five guitar notes before the “Handelian silence” (love that!) on “Ball and Chain,” not four, but that’s beyond the typical copyeditor’s powers: you’d have to luck into a CHEAP THRILLS nerd like me to correct that.

As I hoped and suspected all those years ago, this is a document we’re lucky to have. Nobody else could have told this story this intimately, because it requires unusual talent in both seeing and hearing. And besides taking us way backstage into the life of a glorious talent, John Byrne Cooke’s wonderful narrative also pays tribute in the best way possible: it encourages us to go back and reclaim the music, to honor what was  while we continue to luxuriate in what is.

2/17/15: Today we learned that Sam Andrew has passed away. Say hi to Janis, man.


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