Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Music Randomness

Another Friday - another random 10, without much in the way of introduction:

1. Serge Gainsbourg - Docteur Jekyll et Monsieur Hyde
2. The Decembrists - I Was Meant for the Stage
3. Iggy & the Stooges - Search and Destroy
4. Come - Bell
5. Pink Floyd - In the Flesh?
6. Blind Faith - Well All right
7. Neutral Milk Hotel - Naomi
8. John Martyn - I'd Rather Be the Devil
9. Pearl Jam - Deep
10. James White & The Blacks - Almost Black Pt 1

Young Iggy:

Old Iggy (with Mike Watt and James Williamson):

And John Martyn:

And Come, from a reunion show a couple years ago; kind of reminds me that I've managed to see Thalia Zadek with three different bands - Live Skull, Come and her own band:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Shop Around the Corner

On the home stretch at Wonders in the Dark's Romance Countdown: I kick off the top ten with Shop Around the Corner.

There is a strange irony to love stories. To be stories, something has to change - and so it seems if you want the film to end with lovers together, happily ever after, they have to spend the bulk of the film apart. Enemies, even. And on the other side - if you show the lovers together, show their happiness in the film, the story demands that something changes - they have to be parted. And so the irony - the most powerful depictions of love and desire in films are often in the doomed love affairs, while in films with happy endings, lovers spend the whole show fighting - a merry war perhaps - but war, any any case... Tragedies and romantic comedies - Romeo and Juliet; and Much Ado About Nothing - the models for so many love stories, in their broad shape at least. Blissful lovers parted; bickering enemies united.

But that offers a challenge to a clever storyteller - how do you show people in love and still have a happy ending? How do you honor the conventions of romantic comedy (about what keeps people who belong together apart), while showing them actually in love? I suppose there are as many ways to do this as there are romantic comedies - mistaken identities, amnesia, class expectations, the comedy of remarriage - or - this one. What if the lovers are pen pals? what if they have never met, but have fallen in love with one another in words, two lonely, clever people stuck in their hard lives in the big city - who find they have a bond? What about that? And then - they meet in the real world - and take a dislike to one another - and - then you'll have a story! You'll have a story where they are in love with one another from the start, and enemies from the start; they can be as romantic as they want; they can bicker and fight and put each other down to their heart's content. (And cleverly - well enough they start to be impressed with their mutual nastiness.) Yes - then, you just have to play it out, the revelations, the consequences of lies and truths and self-deception - until, of course, it all comes together.

That is the plot of The Shop Around the Corner. Jimmy Stewart (as Kralik) has a pen pal he has fallen for, "dear friend"; Margaret Sullavan (Clara) shows up looking for a job. He is sympathetic, but can't help her - but she plays him against his boss to get the job, and they are off to a bad start. But she is, of course, Dear Friend - and off they go.

Though their story is just part of the film. There is a major subplot running alongside it - Matuschek the store owner's wife is having an affair (he receives an anonymous letter) - he thinks it is Kralik and fires him. It is not Kralik, though, and the twin humiliation of his wife's faithlessness and his mistreatment of Kralik drives Matuschek to attempted suicide; he is saved by the errand boy, and more plots are spawned, as Kralik comes back, and Pepi rises in the world. But for the first half of the film, this subplot haunts the main story. It's rooted in the same issues - secrets, deceptions, suspicions; anonymous letters and double talk; loneliness, loss. Both stories revolve around the question of who your true friends are. The plots are intertwined - Kralik's relationship with Clara is poisoned early by her willingness to get between Matuschek and Kralik, and take advantage of the rift between them; the trouble between the men (caused by Matuschek's suspicions) continues to pit Kralek and Clara against each other. The subplot ruins their hopes for one another - the pen pals were supposed to meet, but Kralik losing his job makes him avoid the rendezvous, though he can't help spying - and so learns the pen pal is Clara. And when the truth comes out, and Matuschek brings Kralik back, the romance gets another chance - though not without trouble.

It's a simpler story problem now - Kralik knows more than Clara does, and what will he do with it? He isn't exact happy to find that Clara is his correspondent, but it doesn't take him long to start thinking. And when he starts thinking - and paying attention to her - and he starts to fall in love. It pays off, in the end - as sweet and tender a moment of discovery as you get on film, all of it set up by the structure, the way their anonymous love is played against their workaday dislike for one another, and plays into their discovery of one another. Kralek finds that he likes her - he hears his correspondent's voice in Clara, he starts to imagine her as the woman he writes to. And maybe she likes him - she is brought to admit her own initial attraction to him, her foolish acting that stopped any connection before it started. But it doesn't matter - by then, she has him, completely - and he just has to let her know.

And so he tells - and she reacts, and all of their desires and conflicts and inner torments and outer strife come together, as they come together:

Very sweet. But then again, it is an incredibly sweet movie - a sweetness paid for by a spine of bitterness. Faithless lovers, attempted suicide, betrayals and cruelties; poverty, fear - everyone lives on a knife's edge of fear, if they were to lose this job, what could they do? - there is an edge to the whole story, a sense of just how close everyone is to ruin. The film is expressly about that shop around the corner - a quaint, gentle place, the friends and comrades there - but that shelter belies what happens within. Things burn; nothing is what it seems. It is a film about loneliness, the desperate loneliness in the city. Loneliness lies under much of Clara and Kralik's dilemma. They are so alone, they aren't really even at ease with themselves - they function well enough in their daily lives, but they know it is empty, that it leaves them bitter, in fear that they will never know anything else. Their letters are a lifeline - a thread connecting them to something better, not just to another person, but to a better version of themselves. They don't just find a kindred soul in the letters - they find their own better selves. And that too pays off in the end - how out of that profound solitude they have, in fact, found someone, a real person, who connects to the self they want to be - very nice.

And of course, it isn't just them. The shop, and the city itself, is full of all the trouble they have - loneliness and betrayal, no one quite honest with each other, no one quite connecting. But Lubitsch pays this off too. Mr. Matuschek's Christmas dinner with Rudi might be as moving as the actual ending of the film - someone who has lost his home and someone who has left his home connecting in the snow. What community there is is hard bought - but there it is.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Potty Train the Chairman Mao

Well, it is talk like a Pirate day, and I suspect if Pirates were around in the 1980s, they'd have been Butthole Surfers fans - so - this month's (delayed) band of the month is the pride of Texas, the psychedelic freak show that was the Butthole Surfers.

I'm in danger of getting stuck in the 1980s on this series - Husker Du last month, Surfers this month - and I could keep doing this for a while. I can't say exactly that I listened to more music, or bought more music then than since - but I was immersed in music in the late 80s in ways I haven't been since. I saw all these bands (most of them) - some of them quite often. I went to clubs, read magazines and zines, paid attention. This period still feels like the base of my musical experience.

And so the Butthole Surfers. I saw them three times in the late 80s - they were very impressive. The first time was a particularly interesting experience - 1987... I must admit that I had consumed many ardent spirits that evening, and was in something of an ardent spirit myself - it was the end of a semester (I had turned in the last paper of the term that very afternoon), and was in a mood to blow off steam. The Surfers were good for that. I spent most of their show in the pit - which probably should have scared the hell out of me - my friend who was there said he saw a metal pipe being circulated; someone got stabbed later in the evening - but I didn't notice. I had a grand time. (Truth is, mosh pits usually struck me as fairly supportive places - everyone wants to thrash and bang around, all together - if anyone fell, the rest picked them up and went back to thrashing; maybe that depended on the show... it was true for the Surfers anyway.) I do remember the aftereffects of grad school though - I remember standing on the edge of the pit, watching the band and the mass of fans surging around - looking at the films (driver's ed films; surgery films; other stuff, maybe less cringe-worthy), the naked dancer, listening to the wash or racket they were making - thinking - Hey! This is as if Freud's Thanatos Syndrome and Eros Syndrome were combined into one thing! sex and death together! Even sober, that's not such a bad way to put it. Something too about surfing on the waves of sound and scatology - who knows. It was great fun, I can say that - and their particular brand of racket definitely felt like it took stupid well onto the clever side of the line...

So there. I still like them - they made a very satisfying kind of noise: funny (always funny), funny lyrics, funny music, funny (if rather daunting at times) stage show - but some pretty fine music as well. They could write real songs, in a couple different idioms; they did a better job than you might think of combining things - there's a bluesy vibe throughout heir stuff, that doesn't necessarily show up in a lot of the 80s era underground post punk scene; they brought psychedelia back, long jams, Black Sabbath riffs, a bit before that stuff was fashionable again, and they managed to do it in a way that was always funny and usually convincing as straight music. And, especially when they had the two stand up dreamers going, they always rocked like a motherfucker. So - there you go.

Top 10 Songs:

1. Moving to Florida
2. Rocky
3. Gary Floyd
4. Mexican Caravan
5. Pepper
6. Lady Sniff
7. John E. Smoke
8. Ricky
9. Cherub
10. The Lord is a Monkey

And some video: here's their video for Pepper - a "one hit wonder" someone said, which is extremely bizarre to think about, since they were around for ages before this came out, but - perspective, you know. What they were as an underground act in the 80s is almost completely unconnected to what they were as a nearly MTV sanctioned act in the 90s:

As for what they were: here's Psychedelic Jam, 1987, the first tour I saw - naked dancer, films - an experience, and convincing music even. Strange stuff, but the kind of thing that could convince you on the spot - did I mention up there that I had only heard of them before I saw them? had never heard their music, and knew very little except their reputation for being extremely strange and shocking? It's true - they won me on the spot, and that is more to do with the music than the act:

And here - live in 1984, a straightforward, well lit live set - the two stand up drummers, the wild Texas psychedelic squall - Gibby - god knows what he's up to, though it seems to involve several costume changes:

And this is live in Holland, 1985, a particular bit of bad chaos, featuring Moving to Florida, Lady Sniff, and others - Gibby in a dress, Kramer on bass, lots of staggering around in circles in the infernal roar:

And one more - a vintage performance of Cherub:

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday 10 Again

Yikes - I just noticed this is the second Friday of the month - I owe you a Band of the Month! Well - I forgot that this was the second Friday of the month - I barely remembered it was Friday (and not for the first time this summer) - I am getting old.... So - well - so it goes. Band of the month will be late this month, I guess - I'm not abandoning it in any case...

Unlike Apple and the iPod Classic - shit! Where will I go when mine dies? the design may be old, but 160GB of storage is nothing to sneeze at, and not available anywhere else right now. Oh well: ever onwards! Someday soon, I will have a watch that tells time and plays - a couple songs anyway. Though I'll have to pay some telecom to listen to them... I suppose that's progress.

So this week - just random songs it is:

1. Atoms for Peace - Dropped
2. Boris - Untitled
3. Mars Volta - Roulette Dares (Live)
4. Decembrists - As I Rise
5. Jackie-O-Motherfucker - Bewcastle UK Oct 29 (live)
6. Waterboys - All the Things she Gave Me
7. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - We Can't Help You
8. Beck - Ramshackle
9. Grant Hart - Run for the Wilderness
10. Badfinger - Midnight Caller

And video? The Mars Volta sounds good.... I'm a sucker for a good bit of guitar wanking, and Omar certainly delivers.

And - let's try Beck:

Friday, September 05, 2014

Love Me Tonight

[This essay written for the Romance countdown at Wonders in the Dark. I posted there a couple days ago - then got distracted from posting here by the anniversary of the Fall of Atlanta. Anyway - here it is.]

Love Me Tonight starts with the ringing of bells, then fades in to shots of Paris, rooftops, streets, the Seine. We see a lone bicyclist, hear the swish of his tires on the street, then see an overhead shot of one street, with a man pushing a wheelbarrow. We hear its wheels; he stops, tosses his tools into the street (clank, clank), and he starts working, pounding a steady rhythm. We cut to an overhead shot of a bum, asleep, snoring. Then to a woman sweeping; to steam whistling from a chimney; to windows opening, a baby crying, to a man with a sawhorse, kids in the street, another man opening a store; women hanging out clothes, flapping them off their balconies; two cobblers sit down to their work, pounding nails (bang: tap/tap - bang: tap/tap); a knife grinder grinds, there's traffic in the streets, there's a woman pounding a rug, a car horn sounds - all of it mixes together, layered on everything else, a symphony of sounds, finished, so to speak, by a woman opening her window and turning on her gramophone, the whole street come together in music. And the camera goes into one room and finds Maurice Chevalier, dressing for the day, trying to shut out the noise, but not able to resist it - give him a second, and he'll be singing along.

And after that? It's all like that - Love me Tonight is a fairy tale, about a tailor who goes to collect a debt from a profligate Vicomte, and meets a princess, locked in a tower, surrounded by (mostly well meaning) jailers - mostly old men, though Myrna Loy is along as a bit of a comic foil; do they fall in love? does he rescue her? does he rescue him? It's hardly a mystery, as the whole film is a vast celebration of music and love, of community and life, and the wonders of film. It's a light, joyous story, and the film - everything - music, dialogue, performances, filmmaking - is as exuberant as the story.

Rouben Mamoulian directs, and he pulls out the stops. It's a trove of cinematic devices - musical and theatrical as well, and all together. The opening sequence with its natural sounds incorporated into music; the "pass-along" songs, especially Isn't it Romantic?; the way dialogue slips into lyrics and back, conversations sung, or half sung, rhymed at any rate; strictly cinematic tricks, like fast motion, slow motion, split screens, 180 degree cutting, animation, double exposure; theatrical tricks like direct address to the audience, use of shadows and mirrors, visual jokes. It's all there, for the joy of it all - but also working, all the time, to pull everyone together - especially the lovers - but everyone. It's a film of choruses, mostly - the streets of Paris, the people Isn't it Romantic passes through, the reprise of Mimi, the ensemble performance of The Son of a Gun is Nothing but a Tailor. Plus a duet or two, and complimentary songs for the lovers when they meet.

Everything in the story brings the lovers together; everything in the filmmaking brings them together; the whole affair works to make sure they fall in love and all is well. Right off the bat - Maurice sings in Paris - Isn't it Romantic? - and the song makes its way across France to Jeannette MacDonald, locked in her tower.

The usual complications arise - he runs her off the road; he charms and annoys her with a song; at the Chateau, the Vicomte has to pass him off as a Baron to keep him around long enough to scare up the money, and Jeannette takes a dislike to him. Myrna Loy tries to take him for herself; Charles Butterworth's count (who imagines himself a suitor for Jeannette) suspects him - but there is no way around it. Everything is against them - or with them - whatever it is. Her maiden aunts weave spells for her:

Cupid - cupid isn't subtle about it:

And Maurice can charm wild animals and wild men - saving a stag, and then sending the hunt away in slow motion, in a scene worthy of Cocteau:

How else could it end?

Though that is not the end. Our lovers come together, kissing in the garden, pledging love - whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are - united in their dreams (in song; in bed) - but there is more. He is a tailor - she is a princess - how can they be wed? But that can't be the end either - so if the prince can't ride up and save the princess from her tower, she will ride out and save him.

And that? Might be that. So back to the chateau and the three aunts, sewing, and their tapestry - which just happens to exactly reverse (in gender and angle) the actual end of the film. (Mamoulian doesn't miss much.) But someone rescues someone and everyone is happy, and so are we. It is a marvelous ensemble - the fantastic, inventive filmmaking, the outstanding Rogers and Hart songs, the witty, sexy dialogue, and an inspired cast - it's a joy from start to finish.

Friday in Fender Land

Another Friday is at hand. Here is some music for you....

1. Pink Floyd - Any Colour You Like
2. Audioslave - #1 Zero
3. Modest Mouse - Alone Down There
4. Flipper - Falling
5. The Kills - Pull a U
6. Neutral Milk Hotel - Where You'll Find Me Now
7. Black Sabbath - Sweet Leaf
8. Loren Connors - Onora's Kid
9. Earth - Miami Morning Coming Down
10. The Velvet Underground - Rock and Roll (Live)

Video? I am going off list for the Feelies, because I had a dream last night that I was Glenn Mercer. At least I thought I was Glenn Mercer - over the course of the dream, I think I realized I was actually Bill Million. Or I was in a band that was trying to cover the Feelies, and I wanted to be Glenn Mercer, but realized I was better suited to being Bill Million, and ended up trading my telecaster for a Gibson. In any case, Sooner or Later kept playing in my dream. The record version - a lot slower than this. This would have woken me up, I am sure....

And - speaking of telecasters - Dylan Carlson (Earth) in a recent performance. Not the song on the list, but a particularly nice sense of his sound:

And I suppose, following on the theme, which seems to be mostly Fender playing guitar heroes - here's a live shot of Loren Connors making beautiful and unworldly sounds on a strat:

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Fall of Atlanta

Today is the 150th anniversary of the fall of Atlanta, the event, more than any other single event, that marked the end of any chance the Confederacy had to win the Civil War. Militarily, the issue was probably not in doubt - but there was an election in 1864, and Abraham Lincoln stood a chance of losing, enough of a chance that he made serious plans about what to do in case he lost. His opponent was George McClellan, one time self-declared savior of the republic (though to be fair, he was not alone in thinking he was chosen to save the country) - McClellan proved a terrible battlefield general, with no stomach for the war - and politically very squeamish about pushing the war into political realms. But it was a political war, more and more, and the Democratic party, by 1864 was becoming very defeatist, not least because they had no desire to win a war that would free the slaves and make citizens of all black men. McClellan himself didn't go as far as the party did - he was not prepared to abandon the war or the south - but if he won, he would have been hard pressed to continue the war, and in any case, he was not a very forceful leader.

And the voting looked like a close thing, there for awhile. Grant's Virginia campaign was a bloodbath that ended in a siege of Petersburg. Sherman's George campaign brought less bloodshed (as both sides had more room to maneuver, and more inclination to do so), but appeared to be ending in just as much of a stalemate as the east. But the Confederate government saw things differently - they did not see the advantages of dragging out the campaign as far as it would go - they wanted to win a battle and drive the Yankees off... So back in July, they put John B. Hood in command of the Atlanta defenses, under the clear assumption that he would take the battle to the Federals - he did, fighting a series of bloody battles, that he lost, making the outcome inevitable. And on September 2, he set fire to the city and marched away, and Sherman had Atlanta, and fairly won.

There was a lot more killing to come. Hood headed off west and pestered the Union troops in Tennessee for some time - ending in more bloodbaths, at Franklin and Nashville. Lee held on in the east another 6 plus months, but his situation was desperate. Campaigns in the Shenandoah went for the Union. Sheridan in the east and Sherman in the west would eventually go on scorched earth campaigns to try to starve out the Confederate armies (And punish the Confederate civilians). And so on. But there was no changing the ending, really, after Atlanta fell, and Lincoln's reelection became assured. And so, today - it is worth remembering and celebrating.