Tuesday, August 30, 2016

COMMON CLAY

It was burnoff season in the summer of 1980, when the Big 3 networks aired all the failed pilots and unloved theatrical releases to which they owned the rights, and which would inevitably get terrible ratings.  But they had these things, so when they knew no one was watching, they'd go ahead and show them, these pathetic Bob Denver sitcoms and terrible variety shows, and these movies like The Little Prince.

A failed, little-loved adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book, it was airing in a ninety minute time slot as part of The CBS Saturday Night Movie.  Though a short film, it would have been extensively cut to fit in that time slot, which shows how little the network cared about it.

Nonetheless, my brother and I made sure to watch.  We didn't know Saint-Exupery's book at all, or care about the fact that it had an original score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.  We just watched because it featured an appearance by Bob Fosse, and we were both huge admirers of Fosse's All That Jazz, and the chance to watch the man himself, as opposed to Roy Scheider portraying him, was just to strong a lure.  Plus, hey Stanley Donen directed!  Singin' In The Rain, Bedazzled.  How bad could it be?

Well, it wasn't very good, and even Fosse's sequence is kind of disappointing.  But it does have Gene Wilder as a fox, a wild fox tamed by the title character.


This scene was followed by a commercial break.  We were watching this in my brother's room upstairs, and during the break, I went downstairs to the kitchen to get a drink.  Turns out Mom was watching it, too.  She'd exiled herself to the kitchen to watch it on a small black-and-white TV, because she knew it wasn't anything Dad would like.

And she was crying.  I asked her if she was okay.  "Oh, honey," she said.  "The poor fox," then continued crying.

I could talk and talk and talk about the greatness of Gene Wilder, who died Sunday at the fine age of 83.  I could explain how his surprisingly melancholic performance in Blazing Saddles anchors that film's anarchy, how his meticulous preparation for the role of Willy Wonka, a role many actors would have tossed off, resulted in a film that is rediscovered and loved by every new generation.  I could tell you that the screenplay he co-wrote with Mel Brooks for Young Frankenstein is a masterpiece of carefully-escalated comic madness, or that his performance, descending from barely-controlled calm to outright madness, in a brief segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex is one of the greatest things ever put on film.

I could tell you all that, and it would be true.  But more important than any of that, at least to me, is this: Once upon a time, he made Mom cry.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

'CAUSE YOU MEAN THAT MUCH TO ME

One of the many unfortunate side effects of the successful 1983 film The Big Chill was the way it turned the recorded legacy of Motown into a soundtrack for Boomer nostalgia.  Suddenly "The Sound Of Young America", some of the most important and influential music ever performed and, more importantly, written and produced by black artists was being used to soundtrack the lives of well-to-do white people.  The Four Tops were used to sell luxury cars, Smokey Robinson became a karaoke favorite and, worst of all, Marvin Gaye's indelible I Heard It Through The Grapevine was rerecorded in a soundalike version and used to sell raisins.

But in honor of what would have been Gaye's 77th birthday, let's reclaim it and recognize if for what it was, is, and will always be: One of the greatest singles ever released.



Let's start with the beginning: That first snap of a drum, leading into Johnny Griffith's slightly ominous keyboards, their terrible portent joined by the rattlesnake tambourine.  This is not an upbeat pop song, or a heartbreak song.  This is something else.



Next, a solid groove is laid down by James Jamerson's bass.  Whatever else is going on here, there will definitely be funk.



And then.  Oh, and then.



The sheer majesty of Gaye's vocal performance simply can't be overstated.  With this one song, he went from being one of Motown's most reliable crooners to something else entirely, an artist fully in charge of his instrument, able to whiplash from paranoia to anger to aching vulnerability, all in service of the song, or, more accurately, the emotion of the song.

And he does this all without showing off.  There are so many times here when Gaye deploys a falsetto ("losing YOOUU would end my life you see"), and it could come off as shameless showboating of the Whitney/Mariah school.  But it never does.  He knows how to use his voice not for effect but for truth.  His voice can do anything, but he only takes it where the song needs it to go, not where he wants it to go.

I Heard It Through The Grapevine was produced--magnificently--by Norman Whitfield.  The musicians and arrangers at Motown were second to none, but the actual recording techniques used by the label tended to be utilitarian.  But Whitfield clearly took extra care here, in mike placement (the drum sound is amazing) and in his handling of his singer.  He didn't just record Gaye's vocals, he directed him, and helped him follow his emotions while singing, wherever they may lead.

And those emotions could lead to some dark places.  It's obvious in the vocal track that Gaye is wrestling with some personal demons, the paranoia and pride and arrogance that would unfortunately define his personal life, but would also lead him to explore those emotions on record, and how to harness all that to the astounding instrument of his voice.  He took charge of his own career after this song, and wrote, produced and arranged his own material.  The results were What's Going On, I Want You, and Here, My Dear--some of the greatest recordings ever made, by arguably (inarguably, if you ask me) the greatest singer who ever lived.

And that's a pretty good legacy for a song that too many people associate with dancing raisins.

Monday, February 08, 2016

WANTED TO BE SURE WE WANT THE SAME THING

We had issues, she and I.  I'd never been in love, and had only fairly recently emerged from a decade-long struggle with crippling depression.  So when things were good with us, I felt something akin to ecstasy, and I never wanted the high to end.  Consequently, every little spat, every minor issue, felt like it could bring everything tumbling down.  I was confused a lot, and the confusion tended to manifest itself as anger.  She was bipolar, only she hadn't been diagnosed as such, and in fact wouldn't be until after we split.  She acknowledged she had issues, but never wanted to admit they were as serious and deep as they very clearly were.  At her worst moments she would lash out at me, claiming I was intentionally trying to make her believe she was crazy, but I knew I just wanted her to feel better.  But even in that, I was selfish--I wanted her to feel better so my life would be easier.

Time passed.  Most days were status quo.  Issues were dealt with my ignoring them, hoping they'd go away.  When they didn't, they would reemerge at the worst possible times, leading to evenings resembling a badly improvised take on Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?  The rest of our time was spent like something out of a nineties sitcom, all snappy one-liners and random pop cultural references, which in a way was more exhausting than fighting.

Either way, we were always on, always performing.  Our emotions were kept on the surface, operatic and overwrought, and we fed off each other, in good ways and bad.  There were more good days than bad, but the bad ones stood out, and tended to skew the curve.  We kept going even after it should have been obvious the marriage had ended.  And then it ended for real.

The thing is, we were only together for five years, and yet it felt like it went on forever.  Not in a bad way--I lived an entire life in time with her.  I've had my beloved cat Staley for five years, and I still think of her as "the new cat".  But time moves differently now, more slowly, it seems.  Or maybe I've just finally learned how to relax.

I'm happy now with Janie, with the dog and cats and the odd little life I've made for myself.  But I'm grateful for the journey that brought me here, and the defining moment of that trip occurred nineteen years ago when I met Sue Ellen.  Until that moment, I could never imagine myself getting married.  After that moment, I could never imagine myself getting divorced.  But then, nothing about life is ever what we imagine.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

THAT IS, I THINK IT'S NOT TOO BAD

Have you ever heard a band you really like cover a song you love, but somehow been tremendously disappointed with the result?  Sure you have!  Covers are a dime a dozen, but good ones are as rare as...I dunno, something less common than dimes.

Consider this:


That, of course, was R.E.M. with a why-bother version of Richard Thompson's great Wall Of Death.  It's not bad, really, but it just kind of sits there--there's a half-assed attempt at making it their own, but they don't seem to want to try too hard, and what's more, they don't really commit to the song.

And maybe it's not really a song for them.  Thompson's original has a sing-along feel that makes it seem like some traditional melody, but as is usual for him, it's also very personal, with a heavy dose of anxiety and angst at its core.  To do it justice, you'd really need to embrace both its sunny melody and hidden darkness, and R.E.M. by nature tend to be a little more detached. 

In other words, they didn't connect to the song.  It happens, and usually in far worse ways.  After all, there are too many bad versions of great songs to count.  This time of year, you can't walk into a public place without hearing some generic easy-listening crooner murdering Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.  The problem is always the same: They make the song about themselves, about their show-offy styles and melismas and grandstanding.  They're not performing a song, they're demanding attention like a little kid having a hissy fit.  If you can get all the way through this, you're stronger than me:


Obviously, Aguilera can sing, but she wants to make damn well sure you know it.  The song is incidental.

Which brings us to the worst kind of cover: The clueless version.  The version performed by an artist who obviously has no idea what the song is about, but for whatever reason, does it anyway.  The popularity of karaoke shows like The Voice seem to encourage this sort of thing, but it's a long and ignoble tradition, sometimes done with actual malicious intent (Pat Boone removing any trace of soul from classic R&B songs, and somehow reaping profits that the actual creators of the material were denied), but most often it just happens because the music industry is a terrible thing that must constantly feed on itself.

Nothing illustrates this better than the endless string of Beatles covers.  There have been countless albums full of the damned things, jukebox musicals on stage, and terrible, terrible movies.  And the worst of these by far is the 1978 disaster Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees as ersatz Mop Tops.  Inexplicably produced by George Martin, the Fifth Beatle himself, the soundtrack was one dreadful misjudgement after another, performed by artists who simply don't seem to understand the basic emotions of the songs they're performing.  Let's take a listen to Sandy Farina's version of Strawberry Fields Forever, and observe John Lennon's wistful classic turned into some faux-Olivia Newton-John styled pop                                                                                                




 Ugh.  Well, we won't do that again.

But obviously, there are good covers.  But even then, they sometimes try too hard.




Great song, good cover.  I mean, Tom Jones sings the hell out of it--that's what he does--but Art Of Noise approaches the material as something to be deconstructed, and includes so many distracting bells and whistles that the actual song is almost secondary.  Which is kind of ironic, really, because Prince is often prone to over-producing his own work, but Kiss in its original form is one of the few times he lets the song do the work.

And that's really what it comes down to.  Marshall Crenshaw's version of Abba's Knowing Me, Knowing You is one of my all-time favorites, simply because Crenshaw has the good sense to leave well enough alone.  Nothing here is significantly different than the original recording; even the keening, minor-chord guitar solo comes straight out of the Benny & Bjorn playbook.  But simply by singing it in a straightforward manner, in his own sad, resigned voice, Crenshaw makes it sound like it came straight out of his own repertoire.  It's an approach all singers should take: Always trust the song.


Friday, August 14, 2015

I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW IT MAY BE THE LAST

I don't even remember how many mulberry trees we had on the farm.  The one on the fence row of the old orchard was the best, and closest to the house.  The one behind the pump house would do in a pinch, if I was playing in the corn crib and needed my fix.  The other trees tended to be scraggly, and most of the berries they bore were more pinkish than purple.  But I might eat them anyway, because they were mulberries, and they were there.

Because soon they would be gone.  Mulberries were at their ripest in June and July, the prime days of summer, when every day was a string of endless possibilities.  The farm had essentially ceased functioning as a farm around the time I was born, so the chicken coop, the barn, all the buildings and abandoned equipment were mine to do with as I would.  Of course a hay rack was made to be a pirate ship; what other purpose could it serve?

Then August would come, and the mulberries would be gone.  The whirr-whirr-whirr of cicadas and the Greene County Fair served as annual reminders that summer was coming to an end.  School would be starting again, and dread gnawed at my stomach.  Precious weeks, then days, were all that remained of my freedom.  But how could I enjoy them when I knew they had to end?

The very concept of things ending haunted me as a kid.  I was prone to depression, but not to philosophical musings, or I may have realized that it is the very fact that all happiness has a sell-by date is also the thing that makes it so precious.  Seasons, at least, are predictable.  We know when they will end.  Life itself is more wonderful than all the glorious days of summer, better even than a handful of mulberries, but it could all be over any time.

Which is OK.  Everything needs an ending.  And really, good things are lessened when they run too long.  (It's why the earlier, shorter James Bond movies are more satisfying.)  Trees change color, school starts again.  People grow older, people die.  But they were good while they were here, and we'll have fond memories, until it's our time to go, and hopefully others will have fond memories.

There's a mulberry tree in my back yard.  Everyday while it was in bloom, I would stop while taking the dog out and pluck some berries from the branches.  They were always delicious.

Monday, February 16, 2015

PART HEAVEN, PART SPACE, OR HAVE I FOUND MY PLACE?

Janie got out of bed because my loud snoring was keeping her awake, and now she's sleeping in her recliner.  It seems like she and I have been together forever, but really, it's only been about four and a half years.  Paul is sleeping in the other recliner, because he still hangs out here a lot.  He came into my life when I dated his mother, and even though that relationship only lasted a few months, he and I have stayed friends for--wow.  Eight years and change?  That's a long time.  (I'm still friends with his mom, for that matter, although minus the whole "hanging out together" part.)  And of course, freely traveling between both chairs is Isabella T. Beagle, the greatest dog in the history of dogs, curling up with both of her friends for a few minutes, then coming back to me and placing her head on my lap as I type, nuzzling my beloved cat Staley.

It's a nice, warm life I've made for myself, here in a ramshackle house I can at least call my own.  There's only one thing wrong: Mom missed the whole thing.

When my mother passed away nine years ago today, I was in a bad place: Still reeling from the breakup with my wife four years earlier, prone to fits of depression and anger, certain that I was destined to drift through the world alone.  Mom had confidence in me, thought that wherever I landed would be wherever I was meant to be--she actually phrased it that way during one of our conversations, to which I responded, "Thanks a lot, Buckaroo Banzai," and of course she laughed, because there weren't too many arcane pop culture references she wouldn't get--but I was certain that my marriage was my one shot at happiness, and I'd blown it.

Well, maybe not certain.  In fact, I was starting to think the whole divorce thing was just a distraction in my life, but I hadn't figured out what the next act was supposed to be.  When Mom got sick, even though she stayed in good spirits even as the doctors explained just how far the cancer had progressed, spending as much time as possible with her became a kind of top priority.

Then she died, and I felt lost, and briefly wondered if I'd ever feel happiness, or anything, again.  But I'd inherited mom's cat Monika, who started interacting with psychokitty Delmar in the most entertaining ways, and I loved just watching them get to know each other, and I found myself laughing at their antics on a daily basis.  So I could still feel some measure of joy.  And I started this very site, initially as a way to process my grief, but then it kind of turned into a journal of my dating life, because that's a thing that also continued.  (Eventually, of course, it became whatever the hell it is now.  To Theoretical Reader Who Has Been Here All Along, I'd just like to say how very sorry I am for all those clips from Lynda Carter variety specials.)

Most importantly, I just kept living.  I'm pretty sure Mom would be overjoyed to see I've finally attained some measure of happiness in life.  Heck, I'm certain of it.  But I will never be able to share it with her, and knowing that is an ache that will always linger, a hole in my heart that can never quite be repaired.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

WELL. I GUESS WE HAVE TO TALK.

Today is the birthday of actor Marc Blucas, and I mean no disrespect--I'm sure he's a nice guy and all--but it seems like as good a reason as any to explore the little-discussed cultural phenomenon of the Made-For-TV actor.


Television is a unique medium because its text is ever-changing by its very nature.  A novel may turn out very differently from its authors original intentions, but the reader only ever sees the finished work.  The script of a movie may go through dozens of different drafts, but we only see the version that was filmed.  And a play is a text set in stone; it can be interpreted any number of ways, but the words and actions will always be the same.

But a successful TV series is its own beast.  Even if its creators have a particular goal in mind, the workaday nature of TV production can provide detours along the way, or even change the goal.  The network nixes a particular plot development.  A planned location is suddenly unavailable.  A necessary scene is simply too complicated to pull off within the scheduled time and budget.

And then there's the actors.  Casting a TV show is a leap of faith.  The evolving nature of a TV show means that characters are liable to be put through some pretty extraordinary paces, be required to do things whether comedic or dramatic that the creators may not have originally intended.  And that may require the actors to deploy a skill set that they simply don't possess.

A sidebar here: For the longest time, there was believed to be a clear difference between "movie actors" and "TV actors".  Movie actors could do more heavy dramatic lifting, and more importantly, they had charisma, they had cool.  Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton--those were movie actors.  TV actors could do light drama, light comedy, and were familiar comforting presences: David Janssen, Alan Alda, the casts of most seventies sitcoms.

But even among the actors that toiled in the TV trenches, there was a subset: The Made-For-TV actor.  These were guys (and they were mostly guys) like Ben Murphy or Gil Gerald, affable, unthreatening presences with only trace amounts of charisma, doomed forever to star in shows like Gemini Man or Buck Rogers, programs that only got on the air because a network couldn't just schedule dead air for an hour.  You see someone like Gil Gerald in a show, you immediately know you're seeing the third or fourth choice for the role.

Back to my main point: Once an actor is cast on a series, the character evolves, mostly because the writers see what the actor brings to the role.  The classic example is Edward Asner's role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show--it became obvious that he could do absolutely anything, nail any punchline but also break your heart.  Moore's name may have remained in the title, but Asner clearly was the soul of the series.

The first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a fairly rough ride, as you see the writers and the actors struggling to figure out exactly what they want from the show and its characters.  But what the sow will be is still there, in embryonic form; it just needs to evolve.

And it does, quickly.  The actors assembled by creator/producer Joss Whedon may not have the technical chops of more rigorously trained thespians, but they're perfect for their roles, and as the show goes along, the writers clearly play to their strengths.  And more delightfully, it's the kind of show that can mock itself and its cast--when other characters discuss Buffy's idiosyncrasies, they're as much discussing the various shades of Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance. 

All of which brings us to Marc Blucas.  Introduced as Buffy's love interest in Season 4, Blucas stands out like a sore thumb in this series.  It's not entirely his fault--his character has no real traces of personality, but that's probably at least partly due to the fact that he's written as a fairly standard-issue jock, and you don't get the feeling that the writer's room of this particular show was filled with people who knew much about jocks.

Still, Buffy specialized in characters who seemed to be one thing but turned out to be much more.  And maybe that was the intention, but it became obvious that Blucas just wasn't up to it.  But he didn't go away, and his presence undermined the entire season.  He could have been like Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie, only Blucas didn't seem to realize he was the straight man.  (The original Marx Brothers analogy I was going to use was Alan Jones--the bland romantic lead nobody cares about--but in earlier Marx pictures that role was usually essayed by Zeppo, and as all Buffy fans know, the show already had its own Zeppo.)  He had no self-awareness at all.  He played his character as a straight-ahead TV type, a Ben Murphy on a show that had no use for Ben Murphys.

In that sense, he may have represented the last of a line.  Sure, there are still TV actors hilariously outmatched by the demands of their part--have you tried sitting through that new Katherine Heigl thing?--but it's very rare to find a purely Made-For-TV actor anymore.  Thanks in no small part to Buffy itself, TV writing has become smarter and deeper than ever before.  There are still time-killer shows, but even those incredibly formulaic CBS procedurals showcase the likes of Joe Mantegna and Laurence Fishburne.  The days of Ben Murphy, Gil Gerald--and Marc Blucas--may be gone forever.