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.