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Et maintenant, un moment du silence.

Posted by jsoliver on June 21, 2007

Near the beginning of Band of Outsiders, our heroes, Franz and Arthur (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) are cruising around the streets of Paris in a top-down convertible as they simultaneously plan a robbery and rush to make it to English class on time. As they pass through a busy intersection they decide to ignore the traffic law and pull the car up on the sidewalk and reenter the street farther down, and by doing so they not only bypass the congestion but also set the tone for the entire film.

To say Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 crime thriller/comedy/drama is a movie is to do it injustice. Band of Outsiders (Bande à part in French), a flagship of the New Wave movement, is more of an anti-movie. Previously, movies were reserved for big things—wars, adventure, high romance, remarkable characters, all that jazz. But this film’s characters are more the less normal people doing silly things. And hell if it didn’t change the way movies are made. Really, look around you—how many movies these days are about normal people doing silly things?

Perhaps a very concise history lesson is in order: In the late fifties and early sixties, a few aspiring filmmakers with more than a few screws loose were running around France, talking about these movies they were going to make. These guys, which included Godard as well as the equally notable François Truffaut, started making these movies, and soon realized something that would seriously alter their film styles—they had no money. As such, they improvised. They shot in black in white, they took few takes and cut unwanted bits right from the middle (the advent of jump cuts), and while they were doing those weird things, they figured, what the hell? Let’s do some other new things too, for no other reason than that we think they’re cool.

Band of Outsiders
is littered with such bizarre little tidbits, which seem right at home given its equally bizarre plot. Two guys (I understand “guys” is a bit generic, but the audience isn’t really given much more information about who the hell these people are) catch wind of a wealthy man who’s knocked off an exorbitant amount of money from the government by cheating on his taxes. A girl who lives in his care, Odile (Anna Karina) tells them about this money for some reason, and they all decide to rob the guy.

There’s really not much related to the story going on after the premise, however, and much of the film is dedicated to watching these misfits gallivanting about Paris and wasting time, all the while knowing that they’re going to pull off a heist. That frees Godard up to include his silly little bits of business, including a choreographed dance in a café, a nine-minute-and-forty-three sprint through the Louvre, and a moment of silence held in honor of there not being anything to talk about (during which Godard slyly cuts the film’s audio completely). The overall effect of such nonsense is surprisingly easy to identify with. It’s not hard to imagine that if my friends and I decided to pull of a big heist, that would of course entail “preparing” for the caper by devoting much of our prep time to screwing around the town. And that’s the feeling Band of Outsiders give us—we know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that they could easily be us.

It’s not all fun and games, though. There is dangerous heist at hand, as well as some dangerous flirting and (forgive me) dangerous liaisons. But all that takes a backseat to screwing around. So it’s not surprising that these guys hopping a curb in a convertible—and no one looking at them as if that’s out of the ordinary—should essentially sum up the movie in a few quick seconds.

To be fair, Band of Outsiders didn’t single handedly change the way movies were made. But it was part of the movement that did. Wes Anderson wasn’t the first to make such goofball movies with unusually quirky characters in almost painfully un-dramatic situations (Rushmore is perhaps the least remarkable story anyone ever had the audacity to put on film). And furthermore, people who call Quentin Tarantino such a great innovator of film should perhaps take note that he did name his production company A Band Apart. Sound familiar?

Posted in Cigarettes, Comedy, Crime, Film noir, Love and Romance, Movies | 2 Comments »

Heroes and Saints

Posted by jsoliver on May 16, 2007

Indiana Jones. Oskar Schindler. Rhett Butler. T.E. Lawrence. Atticus Finch. James Bond.

There are two types of good guys in the movies. And when I say that, I don’t mean there are two types of protagonists in the movies; there’s a thousand different kinds of protagonists—anti-heroes, scoundrels, conmen, soldiers, spies, and the like. I’m talking about the real good guys, the characters that you respect for their noble qualities. And although these characters come in all shapes and sizes and varieties, they can all essentially be broken down into two groups—the heroes and the saints.

Of all the great movies that exist, I can think of none that showcase the nobilities and the flaws of these two dynamic onscreen personalities more admirably than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic (and in my opinion, his finest picture,) Notorious.

Notorious, which sports one of the most delicately balanced scripts in the movies, targets its attention on both plot and character, without either becoming the primary focus (unless, of course, you can say that both are the primary focus). It tells the story of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), whose father has just been imprisoned for treason as a Nazi spy. As she parties and drinks and socializes to forget her woes, she’s approached by Mr. T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), an American agent who believes her father’s position inside the spy rings could make her a valuable source of information. As fate would have it, however, she is assigned to keep tabs on Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s old buddies who, once upon a time, was very much in love with her. So Alicia does what she can to convince the love-struck Nazi that the feeling is mutual, but surprise! by now she’s really fallen for Devlin.

Unlike most of Hitchcock’s great movies, which placed foremost emphasis on the suspense and thrills with a romantic subplot, Notorious is, well, notorious in its decision to reverse those roles. What’s fascinating about this film is its differing perspectives, not only that of its heroine but also of the two men who love her. She’s always the same person, but the effect she has contrasts greatly between them—Sebastian , who can’t believe his good fortune at this woman returning to his life, loves and trusts her completely, whereas Devlin is always suspicious that she may actually love Sebastian instead of him. It plays wonderfully against what’s actually going on, as both men believe something which is the exact opposite of the truth. Maybe their false assumptions stem from their motives—Sebastian is driven by genuine love, while Devlin is motivated first and foremost by the job, and secondarily by his affection for Alicia. Why Alicia does what she does is less clear; perhaps she truly wants to serve her country, or maybe she’s just trying to cleanse herself of her father’s actions. In either case, there’s never any doubt that Alicia sees Sebastian as the bad guy.

But we don’t.

Indeed, it can be fairly jarring when the film reminds us that Claude Rains is, in fact, playing a Nazi. He certainly doesn’t seem like a Nazi—he actually seems like a pretty nice guy. In many ways he’s the exact opposite of the tall, handsome, charming ladies’ man Cary Grant is famous for portraying. Sebastian is not too handsome, he can’t melt a woman’s heart with a couple of words, and he’s not that tall, either. An interesting fact is that Ingrid Bergman was actually quite a large woman in real life—there are famous stories of Humphrey Bogart being propped up on pillows or boxes to appear taller than her in Casablanca—but Hitchcock purposely avoids this here, visually reminding us of Alicia’s power over Sebastian. He doesn’t do that when she’s onscreen with Grant. As the film shies away from the international intrigue, instead using it as a vehicle for a romance, we find ourselves identifying more with Sebastian than we do with Devlin. In fact, aside from the exposition in the first few scenes, Hitchcock seems to be purposely avoiding reminding us that he’s a Nazi. And when Sebastian realizes what’s really going on (his famous line, “I’m married to an American agent”), our world feels just as shattered as his must be.

Saints endure pain. That’s how I define them in the movies, anyway. They may not always be moral exemplars, but they’re motivated by virtue and end up with the short end of the stick. As such, they’ll always be the characters we identify with. For some reason or another, people are more responsive to others when they see them hurt—we tend not to recognize the full humanity of another person until we see them in a great deal of pain. Maybe we’re not as cynical and selfish as we seem to be, since we always feel closer to another in their hour of need. The duration of Notorious is Alex Sebastian’s hour of need, not T.R. Devlin’s. And it’s Sebastian, not Devlin, who gets left out in the cold in the end.

Heroes are the people we admire for their greatness. They can do anything—save the world, get the girl, capture the bad guy, whatever. Nothing can stop a hero, and we love them for it. That’s the kind of character Cary Grant always played, and T. R. Devlin is no exception. Throughout the film, although we know he has to love Alicia, we never get the impression that she’s at the top of his list of priorities. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any movies where Grant seemed to be concerned a primarily with the girl—he always wanted her, but not as much as he wanted something else, and the same applies here. And it tears us up inside to see Devlin behaving how he does and know that he’ll win Alicia. All the while, Sebastian is fighting with everything he’s got for her, but we know he doesn’t stand a chance against Devlin. Deep down, he seems to know it, too. All this gives remarkable punch to the film’s best line, ironically delivered by Grant after he’s been caught kissing the little lady: “I knew her before you, loved her before you, only I’m not as lucky as you.”

The hero is who we wish we were. The saint is who we’re probably closer to, even if we don’t like to admit it. And if truth were told, most of the people we know would probably say the same thing.

No matter how many times I see Notorious, I can never for the life of me work out who I want to see come out on top. Ingrid Bergman seems to have a thing about tearing herself between two men, but in Casablanca we knew we wanted her to end up with Rick. Notorious is the exact opposite—Cary Grant is the dashing, romantic hero, but he seems to take her for, well, granted. At the same time, Claude Rains seems to love her much more, but she doesn’t love him, and he can be just as despicable as Grant, albeit in different ways. No matter who she picks, the ending is unsatisfying, and it forces us to consider who these characters really are. Hence, I have written this thing.

Posted in Movies | 9 Comments »

The Show Must Go On

Posted by jsoliver on April 25, 2007

Moulin Rouge is a bizarre movie.

Reaffirming the belief that French culture is built upon sex, liquor, and spectacle, Moulin Rouge looks like an erotic absinthe-induced haze wherein the world spins with dancing girls and tuxedoed bohemians, often in multiple directions at the same time. From the first frame, the audience finds itself lost in a circus which delivers more than the flyer promised, but before long it gives in to the frenetic energy and romanticized grandeur of the Paris that exists only in the imagination.

Directed by noted lover of excess Baz Luhrmann, Moulin Rouge is a feast for the eyes. The story, which revolves around the star-crossed love between struggling writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) and star performer Satine (Nicole Kidman), is more or less standard boilerplate. But the romantic plot and thematic elements of “truth, beauty, and freedom” provide the vehicle for one of the most gorgeous visual treats cinema can offer. Using a palate primarily of deep reds and rich golds, beautiful and creative set pieces (the finale is particularly breathtaking), and an editing style that looks like Edward Scissorhands was in charge, the final product reminds us that film is above all a visual medium—it’s refreshing to see movies in which the foremost focus is imagery every once in a while. Perhaps a more apt title would have been that of the show-within-a-show Christian writes for the Moulin Rouge, Spectacular, Spectacular—because that’s certainly what it is. I have a sneaking suspicion that had the movie been in French and completely unintelligible, it would have been enjoyable all the same.

The glitter and glitz is complemented by an impressive score—a reworking of several famous pop songs. Although more than a few eyebrows may rise at the idea of Ewan McGregor singing “Your Song” or Jim Broadbent performing “Like a Virgin,” the film pulls off a certain ambiance that somehow enables it to get away with the act. Besides, the new arrangements render some songs unrecognizable (notably a tango-inspired version of “Roxanne,” a far cry from what The Police did with it), but all are nonetheless entertaining and fit seamlessly into the movie. The finished product is not so much a story on film as an experience in itself. Moulin Rouge accomplishes one of the highest goals of art—to take an intangible, incommunicable idea (the bohemian ideas of truth, love, and beauty!) and capture it on celluloid.

Posted in Movies, music | 8 Comments »

It’s Good To Be The King

Posted by jsoliver on April 19, 2007

Since 1968, Mel Brooks has directed eleven movies. Of those, seven varied between “very funny” and “not so funny,” and one was just plain awful. But three of them rank unquestionably among the greatest comedies ever—indeed, among the Great Movies. It’s hard to fathom how a person can leave an irreversible mark on the popular lexicon in a scant 270 minutes, but that’s just what Brooks did between 1968 and 1974. The world will never forget Mel Brooks, and most of it will probably never forgive him, either.

Starting a his showbiz career as a standup comic and writer in the 50s, Mel Brooks was brought up in the tradition of Catskills comedy. Born Melvin Kaminsky, Brooks embraced his Jewish roots early on, going so far as to say he was more proud of his “Jewishness” than anything else. As such, he would employ that persona throughout his career, including his blatantly stereotypical character he did with Carl Reiner, the 2000-Year-Old Man. After working in television with Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows and Buck Henry on the cult classic Get Smart, Brooks took his first directorial stab at the movies with The Producers in 1968.

Keeping to his roots, he tells the story of sheisty, down-on-his-luck producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), who used to be the self-proclaimed “King of Broadway.” Acting on the afterthought advice of his nervous, nebbish accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder in his first starring role), Bialystock decides to execute the biggest scam the Great White Way ever saw with an elaborate fraud scheme (which they more amicably refer to as “creative accounting”). The idea is brilliantly simple: raise a million bucks to produce a sixty thousand dollar turkey and pocket the rest. The show is none other than Springtime for Hitler, a lavish musical written by crackpot ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars) featuring shameless Hitler-glorification and chorus platoons of stormtrooping showgirls in S.S. uniforms, high kicking and goosestepping and sieg heiling their way across Berchtesgaden in what looks like the bastard child of Leni Riefenstahl and Busby Berkeley. Much to their chagrin, however, the outlandish spectacle becomes a hit when it’s mistaken as a comedy—an ironic kick in the teeth that reaffirms Bialystock as the biggest name on Broadway but also lands him in jail. Just as Springtime for Hitler is a love letter to history’s most infamous dictator, The Producers is a love letter to show business. And although we’re never actually told, it’s quite obvious that Bialystock and Bloom are Jews…producing a show about Nazis. On the surface level it seems quite offensive, but in execution it’s flawless—Brooks manages to lampoon fascism and showbiz stereotypes at the same time, and the result is a must-see film for any movie fan.

Mel took another swipe at racism with his next great movie, Blazing Saddles. Set in the American west in 1874, it’s the (semi) epic tale of a black railroad worker (Cleavon Little) appointed sheriff of an imperiled but stubbornly racist town. Employing the help of a boozed-out ex-sharpshooter (Wilder again), the new sheriff saves the town from the evil state procurer Hedy (Hedley!) Lamarr and wins the affections of the townsfolk (he even gets them to like the Irish, too!) Outrageous even by today’s standards, Blazing Saddles pulls no punches with racial epitaphs—most notoriously the dreaded “n” word. Its depiction of bigots as bunch of blithering idiots does more to dispel prejudice than the colorful vocabulary (no pun intended) does to perpetuate it, and the result is one of the more effective manifestos in the post civil rights movement world. But its love affair with showbiz of old—a slew of puns and a few Looney Tunes references (and let’s be honest—Bugs Bunny was a vaudeville comic himself)—is perhaps more important to its cinematic significance. Furthermore, Blazing Saddles made Mel Brooks the unrivalled king of parody.

Brooks’ brand of parody/homage perhaps reached its apex with his next film, a tribute to Universal monster flicks of the 30s called Young Frankenstein. Lovingly scripted by Wilder, Young Frankenstein was the absolute zenith of parody and reverence, combing lighthearted fun-poking with deep adoration of old-world Hollywood. Stubbornly refusing to make the movie unless he was allowed to shoot it in black and white, Brooks showcased a painstaking attention to detail to create the exact aura of an old horror movie, even using the original set pieces from James Whale’s 1931 classic. Indeed, the final project is a thing of spectacular beauty in its own right, all jokes aside. Brooks’ love of cinema has never been more evident than in the gorgeous black and white cinematography and art direction, and evokes a similar feeling in a viewer who loves the movies as much as he does. But it’s certainly not all gloss and glitz—indeed, Young Frankenstein was probably the most comically sophisticated movie in the Brooks canon as well, but that’s largely due to Wilder’s incredibly smart script. Consider one of the film’s most famous scenes, a song and dance number referencing Fred Astaire’s Blue Skies in which the good doctor and the monster perform a coat-and-tails rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which Brooks initially thought was too kitschy for the film’s overall tone. However, it can’t be denied that Brooks’ unique comic flair was embedded throughout the project, and he never did a more admirable job when it came to direction.

For the rest of his film career, Mel fluctuated between genius and banality, but much of it is certainly quite funny. The aptly-titled Silent Movie was a stroke of inspiration—chronicling a harebrained director (played by Brooks) and his quest to revive the heyday of silent comedy, it featured some wonderful scenes and fabulous appearances from otherwise respectable actors, such as Paul Newman and Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft. High Anxiety, a tribute to the suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock (and dedicated to the master), contains one of the best ensemble casts he ever amassed and some fine jokes as well. The historical epics of Cecil B. DeMille were the subject of parody in History of the World, Part I, which saw Brooks reach the height of his ever-escalating vulgarity, but for the most part it doesn’t overshadow comic substance. Albeit a tad unbalanced, History of the World contained some gems, including a little known facts about Moses (also Brooks) and the events of the Last Supper, as well as a lovely song and dance routine led by Tomás de Torquemada (Brooks again) in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. But by the time of Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and the absolutely dreadful Dracula: Dead and Loving It, it was clear that Brooks was past his prime. Although those films contained some very funny material (well, not Dracula), they were wildly unbalanced and lacked the inspired flair of the older ones. But after giving the world three of the funniest movies ever made (and giving Broadway one of its funniest shows), we can forgive the later blunders. Actually, with such a relatively small body of work, its amazing how much impact Mel Brooks has had on American culture. So as far as I’m concerned, hail to the king.

Posted in Comedy, Movies | 7 Comments »

Seems Like Old Times

Posted by jsoliver on April 12, 2007

Annie Hall is a movie of moments. Told out of sequence and focusing more on character than plot, it’s difficult to reflect upon after one or two viewings and put things in order. Did this scene come first? When was that? Was that before or after? It’s a film about remembering, and so often our memories consist of single events, not a continuous line of them. And as such, to contemplate Annie Hall is to contemplate individual moments—but oh, what precious little moments they are.

Arguably Woody Allen’s finest film, Annie Hall is incredibly ambitious in its lack of ambition. It’s the story of two lovers, but it shies away from exciting adventures or fantastic situations one finds in many romantic films—it’s no African Queen or Gone With the Wind, certainly. And there’s no insurmountable outside force they have to face, either—Wuthering Heights and even Beauty and the Beast beat it there. No, Annie Hall is just about people who meet, fall in love, and inexplicably fall out of it. There’s nothing remarkable at all about its plot, except that such things happen every day. And as we watch as Alvy Singer (Allen) recollects his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), it’s hard not to reflect on something similar that once happened to us.

Consider one of the film’s best scenes—when their relationship is at its zenith, Annie and Alvy have decided to prepare a romantic lobster dinner, a decision that ultimately culminates in several fugitive crustaceans scuttling about the kitchen floor as the two frantically try to thwart their meal’s escape, laughing and giggling and joking the whole time. What a wonderful scene it is—in a scant few minutes, Allen captures the universality of “the good times,” those perfect moments with that certain someone, when all our worries, fears, insecurities, doubts, and sorrows evaporate in a transcendent moment of bliss. Even if you’ve never chased lobsters around a kitchen with someone you loved, you know exactly what feeling those characters have. We’ve all had the little moments, whether it was dancing in the rain on a drizzly night, or skipping stones on a dirty pond, or simply staying up together until the sun rises, doing nothing but talking. First and foremost, that’s where Annie Hall takes us—to those few magic moments when everything was alright.

Things don’t stay so good forever, though. Eventually Alvy and Annie begin to pay more attention to their differences than their relationship. Annie is annoyed by Alvy’s neurosis (and fascination with death), while Alvy is likewise irritated by Annie’s newfound pseudo-intellectualism when she starts taking adult education courses (which was his idea, interestingly enough). Things come to a head when Annie wants to move to Los Angeles to pursue a singing career, while Alvy is so in love with New York that he can’t bring himself to make such a change. Eventually the two split up. So it goes.

It’s during the film’s final scenes that we realize the importance of those little moments. As Alvy reflects on his broken relationship, he doesn’t even think about all the bad times or how seemingly incompatible he and Annie were. Annie is definitely a ditz, and Alvy is certainly neurotic, insecure, selfish, and a bit of a prick—but all of that took a backseat to the fact that they actually cared about each other. Or at least they used to. That’s all Alvy remembers—they were in love, and then they weren’t. The unfortunate events that led to the decline didn’t even register in his memory; he admits in his opening monologue that he just doesn’t know what happened.

Those fleeting seconds of happiness are so elusive; they can’t be manufactured. There’s a particularly pathetic scene where Alvy tries to recreate the aforementioned lobster night with some chain-smoking girl he’s with now. As he frantically chases the critters around, trying desperately to inspire the same kind of fun, she just can’t understand why he doesn’t simply pick them up. And she’s certainly not amused when Alvy tells her he hasn’t been himself since he quit smoking, which was sixteen years ago. “I don’t understand. Is that a joke?” she asks him. The lack of response and despondent look on his face reveals what we already understand—the magic just ain’t there, and he knows it.

The film ends with Alvy narrating about the last time he saw Annie. She’d come back to New York, was dating someone else, and was dragging her new guy to see The Sorrow and the Pity—a movie to which Alvy introduced her. They have lunch and catch up for a few hours before they part ways once more, and as the final shot rolls we hear Alvy talking about how great it was just knowing her.

He was probably right.

Posted in Comedy, Love and Romance, Movies | 9 Comments »

Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid

Posted by jsoliver on April 4, 2007

I saw Casablanca when I was ten. At that time I didn’t know much about Nazis, and probably nothing about Vichy France. I perhaps knew even less about this crazy little thing called “love,” other than that boys and girls grew up and they kissed and they got married and sometimes they got divorced. So although I didn’t know it at the time, I didn’t understand the movie at all—but I did know there was something wonderful about it, and watched it over and over, not knowing why.

I figured it out eventually.

Set in WWII French Morocco, Casablanca tells the story of an American expatriate, his former lover in Paris, and her rebel-rousing husband trying to get to the U.S. to continue his work against the Nazis. But the real story is that of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), two star-crossed lovers if ever there was a pair. They fell for each other in Paris when she thought her husband was dead, and she had to leave the American when the Czech turned up alive. They meet again a couple of years later, the whole story comes out, and ends with them splitting up yet again, knowing it’s the right thing to do, even if it kills ‘em. But a summary can’t effectively describe one of Hollywood’s most gut-wrenching romances.

I’ve often heard Casablanca referred to as a “chick flick” by people who haven’t seen it. I’m appalled by this, for although it’s certainly universal to both sexes, I contend that this is hands-down a guy’s movie. Focusing on the hard-drinking, cynical Rick, who probably didn’t deserve to lose the only good thing that ever happened to him, Casablanca seems to leap straight from the subconscious of any guy who’s ever had his heart trampled by a stiletto heel. But it’s not like it’s her fault—Rick’s a victim circumstance, is all. Even after Ilsa admits she still loves him after all this time, there just ain’t no room for sunshine and rainbows in Casablanca.

And although I can’t be certain it was intentional, one of the subtle themes seems to be that the only thing in life that’ll always be there for you is bourbon. Ilsa approaches Rick, drinking himself to death, saying, “Not tonight, Rick.” His response: “Especially tonight.”

Apparently all we can do is joke around, do the right thing, and drink up, boys.

Posted in Bourbon, Cigarettes, Love and Romance, memoir | 6 Comments »

“ARRRGHHHGORRA BUH BHVH DO ARRRRGGGGHHHHNNNN!!!!”

Posted by jsoliver on March 22, 2007

When they started calling Simon and Garfunkel “rock and roll,” something had to be done, pronto.

As the sixties wound down, so did rock music. In the fifties, rock and roll was something new and dangerous—back then a country boy raised in Tennessee could swivel his hips to something that sounded like blues hopped-up on steroids and cause an outrage. Then through the sixties, as Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the Cold War adversely affected the minds of millions, rock musicians appropriately reflected the zeitgeist of a culture spiraling out of control. They weren’t afraid of anything, and they did whatever the felt like. But then things cooled down, and what used to be that damned devil music decided it was content lay down its guns and become the easy, ordinary, plain-old mainstream music. And that’s why we have punk.

Around ‘74, a new wave of musicians came to the understanding that rock and roll needed to get its bite back right now. In an attempt to regain that lost edge, they decided to forgo the complex arrangements and the polished studio effects in favor of stripping down to a handful of instruments and really bad attitude. They were loud, they were fast, and they were pissed—these were the criteria, and although musical aptitude was preferred, it certainly wasn’t required. The punks evolved: the Ramones were too mellow and the Sex Pistols were too untalented, but before long we got the Clash, and there was plenty to be happy (angry?) about.

Having started out as a supporting act for the Sex Pistols in 1976, the Clash released its first, self-titled record the following year to great commercial success in the U.K. and displayed an unusual amount of sophistication for a punk group. The Clash contained influences of early rock and roll and even reggae, but most of all it was loud, loud, loud and fast, fast, fast. It was followed up by Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and by that point the band added a degree of polish the previous record lacked, but don’t think that means the essential sound changed too much. It was possibly even louder and even faster (yet more slick), but above all retained the all-important sense of RAGE (caps warranted). And thus the Clash spoke to the pent-up restlessness of everyone who was discontent with rock’s coma, but their importance wasn’t much greater than that of all the other young punks around. They were playing angry for an angry fan base—essentially, they weren’t doing too much more than riding the coattails of the movement.

Then there was London Calling.

In 1979, the Clash released their unquestioned magnum opus to commercial and critical success which had previously eluded them, and solidified their place in cultural history. With London Calling also came a breakthrough in the U.S., something the previous records couldn’t manage. Incorporating blends of rockabilly, ska, reggae, and R&B, the new album not only pushed punk rock in a direction in which it had never dreamed of going, but also gave a new spark to rock music on the whole. With one album, the Clash made the penultimate accomplishment that was the goal of the punk movement from the very beginning—rock was new, experimental, and dangerous once again. But that’s not to detract from the previous punk bands and their accomplishments, since London Calling couldn’t have happened without them. But in the grand scheme of things, the punk movement on a whole was building up to this record—consistently ranked these days as one of the ten or so greatest albums of all time, London Calling was the punk flagship.

But things went downhill for the boys from there. 1980’s Sandinista! saw them getting a big head, releasing a monstrous three-disc album in which they did whatever sort of weird stuff they felt like (it’s been called their White Album, but being so out of control and unbalanced, it gives me a headache that John, Paul, George, and Ringo couldn’t rival). It wasn’t a bad album though. There’s some great stuff to be heard on it, but there’s also a lot of crap. Besides, there were problems within the band itself by the time Combat Rock was released in 1982, notably drummer Topper Headon’s heroin addiction and subsequent sacking. Then, when frontmen Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’ differences resulted in Jones being booted, the shattered remnants of the Clash (now Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon, and a few other guys) gave it one final shot with the aptly-titled Cut the Crap in 1985 before calling it quits less than a year later. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Clash captured the spirit of a movement more adequately than any other, and for while they really were the only band that mattered.

Posted in music, RAGE, Revolution Rock, Zeitgeist | 6 Comments »

I’m Going Slightly Mad

Posted by jsoliver on March 15, 2007

Gnarls Barkley came out of nowhere.

Actually, that’s not true. Brian Burton and Thomas Callaway, more famously known by the monikers Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green, had led productive careers in rap and hip-hop before teaming up, garnering a good deal of critical acclaim along the way. Besides, Danger Mouse is notorious for collaborating with seemingly anyone he feels like—and he’s produced some damn fine albums. So it’s really not so surprising that these two should get together to cut a record, but to the average guy who didn’t keep up with hip-hop, they seemed to come out of nowhere. Almost overnight many people went from having never heard of either Danger Mouse or Cee-Lo Green to singing “Crazy” over and over again on every street corner.

St. Elsewhere hit stores in May 2006, a few weeks before Gnarls Barkley would solidify their place in ‘06 cultural immortality by performing their hit single in Star Wars garb (VH1 will surely touch upon that when I Love the ’00s comes around in twenty years). It’s easy to assume that such a stunt might partially explain the runaway success of “Crazy,” but that doesn’t give the song enough credit. Named best song of 2006 by Rolling Stone (which aptly described it as “the song nobody even pretended not to like”), “Crazy” took off simply because it was a good, catchy pop song with enough hip-hop and soul on the track to give it something special. Danger Mouse’s purpose in life is apparently to write and sample fine tracks, and Cee-Lo’s vocals resonate with a beautiful (but still cool) neo-soul sound that even puts Al Green in his place. And it had a great beat. St. Elsewhere is packed with similar numbers, each with it’s own distinctive feel but all bound by a common style and themes of mental instability, paranoia, and even suicidal fantasies. That’s because St. Elsewhere is a concept album held together under the umbrella of insanity, with such ideas often reflected in lyrics as well as the presentation itself—there’s definitely a noticeable (but balanced) juxtaposition between Cee-Lo’s light, airy vocals and Danger Mouse’s heavy, deliberate beats (particularly on “Just a Thought,” a discourse on considering suicide—echoes of multiple personalities, anyone?). The result is a vivid portrait of a mind in disarray, and insanity has never sounded so fun.

St. Elsewhere is a delightful little album, even to those who are less than fond of hip-hop. Although the standouts here include the title track, the apocalyptic “Storm Coming,” the relentlessly upbeat (but fundamentally depressing) “Smiley Faces,” the schizophrenic “Who Cares?” and the aforementioned “Crazy” and “Just a Thought,” the whole album is consistently entertaining and provoking (not to mention the last line of “The Boogie Monster,” which is one of the funniest musical punch lines of the year). Sauntering through a broken hellscape of dark themes with a smile of its face, St. Elsewhere tap-dances its way around its heavy subject matter and never loses that ever-important sense of fun.

Posted in Hip-Hop, music, Pop | 7 Comments »

“I love ya, pretty baby, but I always take the long way home.”

Posted by jsoliver on March 8, 2007

Tom Waits’ Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards hit stores last year, much the delight of those who love the boozy ol’ tomcat, as well as the chagrin of those who think his songs are about as pleasant as listening to a jackhammer at three in the morning. Perhaps the detractors will never acquire a taste for the man’s distinctive brand of musical allure, but the followers can rejoice! For Orphans is a sprawling, three-disc, fifty-six track mammoth of an album that highlights almost everything there is to love about the beat poet of music.

Essentially three albums, each disc in this set has it’s own distinctive feel. Brawlers sports fiery bar-fight songs in which Waits snarls as if he’s about to bite someone’s jugular, Bawlers is a collection of cry-your-eyes-out numbers in which he sounds like he’s going to do just that, and Bastards is an experimental collage of unused, avant-garde pieces where he sounds like he’s having a whole lot of fun. The whole album is solid, but Bawlers is the jewel in the crown, with some of the most beautiful and affecting songs to come out in quite some time. Of course, this is largely due to Waits’ gravelly old barfly voice, which was famously described by Gary Graff as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car.” While it’s certainly not conventional and definitely not pretty, there’s a world-weary charm to be heard in that raspy growl, which makes Tom Waits more than just a singer/songwriter. The pop stars can belt the ballads at the top of their beautifully smooth voices, and in that regard they will always seem alien to us, but Waits seems like he’s singing in a dingy bar just down the street. But his voice doesn’t stand on it’s own; rather it accentuates his evocative, sophisticated lyrics and lovely melodies. Indeed, there’s something quite hypnotic about such a harsh voice singing such pretty songs, and the result is delightful.

Orphans would be a great album to use when introducing someone to Tom Waits—the man’s released numerous albums over thirty-four years, but this one plays like a kaleidoscope of his career. It may be long and hard to listen to in one sitting, but it’s a magnificent showcase of what this guy’s all about.

Posted in Bourbon, Cigarettes, music | 13 Comments »

“So let me introduce to you the act you’ve known for all these years…”

Posted by jsoliver on March 1, 2007

It was summertime. My best friend Will and I were going to meet some girls for dinner at a local dive. We were out of school, feeling alive, and were flying into the setting sun like a bat out of hell, the stereo blasting The White Album. Will and I were singing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” at the top of our pathetic, untrained voices, and everything was alright.

At a young age my dad exposed me to these four guys from Liverpool. I was a little kid, essentially being forced to sit down in front of an old stereo as my dad popped in a worn cassette called Abbey Road saying, “You need to listen to this.” He was referring to the entire B side of the album, which runs eighteen minutes and would eventually become what I thought of as the greatest musical achievement of the 20th century. At the time, it didn’t mean too much to me: I didn’t like being told to acquire a taste for anything, and like many others I have to develop my personal taste at my own rate. But it did change how I would come to appreciate music, as had that crazy old man not been so enamored of rock and roll culture, I may never have really cared enough to look into The Beatles as I got older. But as it happened, I grew up and found a kind of “meaning of life” in rock music from the 60s and 70s, I began to recite the lyrics of “Yesterday” over rosaries and adhere religiously to the messages found in the gospels of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

I went through high school spreading the gospel to whoever would listen. Going to a tiny, no-nothing institution with a graduating class of less than fifty people and not one of them knowing anything about anything, it was a hard-fought battle. Many of them sacrificed virgins at the alter of Chester Bennington and did pagan dances at the shrine of Mike Jones. They prayed to Amy Lee so that she might rain tears upon them and they could wallow in their unfounded self-pity and feel like someone understood their strife with parents or girls or whatever little problem they treated like the end of the world. Heathens, all of ‘em. There were a few of us who were enlightened, and we had to stick together—Weezer fans don’t understand the spiritual value of getting together to listen to Exile on Main Strait and argue about how it stacked up against Sgt. Pepper. How were David Bowie and Elton John related?* Dylan versus Neil Young. How The Clash kicked The Sex Pistols right in the teeth. These were the big questions— the important issues. But through all the discourse, the countless LPs spinning on the turntable, the long nights of vehemently arguing our points over Cokes and Twinkies and passing out in the early morning, one thing always remained certain to all of us: The Beatles were the best there ever was.

I’ve often been asked to explain why The Beatles are my favorite band. I’m always at a loss whenever this transpires, as the reasons are largely personal and don’t make for a very good argument. I suppose I could argue that they were masters of the art of music, or that their influence touched everyone that came after them, or that they expanded rock music into something infinitely larger, but none of that really matters. The real reason I love The Beatles more than any other band is because I grew up listening to them, and through those old songs I learned to appreciate what music could be. The poignant beauty of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” captured my imagination, “Yesterday” broke my heart before I was old enough to understand why, and “The Long and Winding Road” sent me off on some sort of existential journey I still haven’t finished. “Here Comes the Sun” always made me see nothing but the good in life; “Eleanor Rigby” always made me see nothing but the bad.

Listening to these songs nowadays, I realized that something there’s been lost. It’s not that they aren’t good anymore, but that they’re familiar now. I know every note, beat, and accidental: every subtlety and nuance. There aren’t any surprises anymore. I remember listening all those years ago, not knowing what was coming next, constantly being taken offguard by something new and wonderful. I’ll never be able to get back the feeling of uncovering my favorite music for the first time. The joy of discovery is gone.

This year for Christmas I got a copy of Love, the new Beatles compilation/remix/mashup album. I was wary of it at first—why would you screw with perfection? But I gave it a listen, and I was captivated. I knew the songs, but they were different now. The changes made to the originals actually worked quite well, and although they weren’t necessarily better than the older versions, they were new—for the first time in years, I felt the old joy of being surprised by The Beatles. I listened to that CD over and over for weeks. I know all the nuances again.

In early January this year, my friend Chase and I were cruising around the town in his Mustang. We blasted Love at an obscene volume, both enthralled by rediscovery. As we were cruising off into the moonlight, I was back in the good ol’ days—driving off to nowhere with nothing to do but get lost in the music. And everything was alright.

And as long as I can listen to those four guys from Liverpool, everything always will be. It was as true that winter evening as it was that summer day, even after so much time had passed. There we were, flying off into the cold night and crying at the top of our voices, “Get back! Yeah, get back! Get back to where you once belonged!”

*The answer is “Lady Stardust.”

Posted in memoir, music | 13 Comments »

 
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