Friday, August 31, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #67 - "She Drives Me Crazy"

From the ashes of The English Beat rose two bands - General Public, and Fine Young Cannibals.  Simply by looking at which members of the Beat joined the two offspring, one would have expected the former to become the better band, because that was the band formed by the two frontmen - Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger.

However, the opposite was true.  The two albums by General Public were OK but nothing more than that, while both albums from Fine Young Cannibals were outstanding.  FYC featured Andy Cox (guitarist) and David Steele (bass), along with a secret weapon - Roland Gift, who at his best evoked nothing less than the memory of Otis Redding.

This was the biggest hit from FYC, and you still hear it today - probably because it's a great song.

Fine Young Cannibals, "She Drives Me Crazy," from the summer of 1988.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #66 - "Ride Captain Ride" (1970)

I guess you could call this one of the great one-hit wonders, because I don't recall ever having heard another song from this band.  Having one hit hardly qualifies an artist for Hall of Fame consideration, but this song still gets played a lot, so it obviously had some staying power.  What I know for sure is that I'd turn up the radio every time it came on, or at least as loud as my dad would let me.

Blues Image, "Ride Captain Ride," from the summer of 1970.


Monday, August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong

When I was in the sixth grade, a couple of years after the Apollo 11 mission, my teacher told us one day that he really admired Neil Armstrong, because Armstrong had never taken advantage of his historic feat to cash in and trade in his name for the sake of fame and fortune.  And mind you, that was in 1972.

Given forty more years to take advantage of his amazing feat, Armstrong simply went back to his life, and from all accounts enjoyed it - never for a moment thinking that he was missing out on something.  And that above all else is probably the best testament to his greatness.

The astronauts who captured the nation's imagination were a rare breed - and so were the technicians and the rocket scientists who guided them to their destinations.  And Armstrong may have been unique in that he held both qualities.

All I know is that anyone who was alive and old enough to know what was happening on the evening of July 20, 1969 is never going to forget the name Neil Armstrong.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #65 - "Harvey Haddix"

Since I have a lot of catching up to do, this one will kill two birds with one stone.  "Harvey Haddix" is a song that belongs to summer.  In it, The Baseball Project pays tribute to the man who probably pitched the greatest game in the history of major league baseball - 12 perfect innings, only to lose the perfecto and the game in the unlucky 13th.

I post a video of the song every time someone pitches a perfect game, but I'm a little late this time.  But better late than never, so congratulations Felix Hernandez for becoming the third player to pull off the feat this season.

The Baseball Project, "Harvey Haddix."

95 Songs of Summer, #64 - "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (1970)

It's a testament to the greatness of this song that there were two equally great, but stylistically diverse, versions to assault the charts.  This is the first one I heard - Diana Ross turns the tight Marvin & Tammi version into a 6-minute epic.  This kind of thing doesn't always work, but it does here.

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Diana Ross & the Supremes, from the summer of 1970.

Friday, August 24, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #63 - "Margaritaville" (1977)

I said earlier I wasn't going to do this, but let's pretend for just a minute that summer has just begun...pretend that the glow from the end of the school year is still burning hot, and that the next school year is nothing but a distant memory...and pretend that we're all looking forward to that spectacular fireworks show on the 4th of July.

Are you there yet?

Maybe what you need is a margarita...or two.

"Margaritaville," Jimmy Buffett, from the summer of 1977.

Sports Trivia

In my office, I have an ESPN Sports Trivia daily calendar - one of those with a different question for each day.

For Thursday, August 23 the question read:

"The USA women won bronze at the 2000 Olympics.  Which country earned the gold?"

Hmm...was this the medal for best looking female athletes?  Best dressed female athletes?  Best behaved?

I guess we'll never know.  But whatever it was, Norway won the gold.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #62 - "Ode to Billie Joe" (1967)

I was only seven years old when this song was released, but even at that young age I knew enough to know that it was an amazing song - almost like a hard-boiled detective novel, compressed into one four-minute song.  And no, that doesn't mean that I knew at age seven what a hard-boiled detective novel was.  But I did know that this was one hell of a mysterious song.

Bobbie Gentry, "Ode to Billie Joe," from the summer of 1967.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #61 - "Cruisin" (1979)

I have a sneaking suspicion that I might be altering the calendar a bit with this one, but even if it wasn't strictly speaking a song released during the summer, it is (as far as I'm concerned) a classic "summer song."

Smokey Robinson's stature was long settled by the time this song was released, but it did kick off a mini-renaissance for the man who was responsible for a prodigious amount of great work in the 1960s and early 1960s.  No question that Smokey can rest on his laurels for the rest of his life, but one gets the feeling that he might just decide on a whim to head back to the studio at some point, and create even more great work.

So while this song really belongs to all summers, we'll assign it to the summer of 1979.  Mr. Smokey Robinson, with "Cruisin'." 

Monday, August 20, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #60 - "Magic Man" (1976)

In August 1976, I began my first job - working at McDonalds, where I would stay for the next four years, until I left Sacramento for UC Berkeley.  At the time, the Golden Arches workforce was comprised almost entirely of high school and community college students, with the exception of one or two managers.

For about three months, I absolutely hated every moment of the job - to the point where I would actually hope when I went to bed at night that the place would burn down overnight, so I wouldn't have to endure another shift the following day.  That's a little extreme, I know - but hey, that's what it felt like at the time.

It was hard work, with a ton of rules - but once I had gotten a little experience under my belt and figured it all out, I began to enjoy it (and I still make use today of the lessons that I learned then).  By March of the following year, I felt like I had everything down pat, and I must have, because a couple of months later I was named the store's Training Coordinator for the grillmen, meaning that I was responsible for training all new employees (at that time there was a pretty solid demarcation across gender lines - girls worked the window, and boys worked the grill).  I stayed in that position for the next three years, not really wanting to move up to manager because with that move came an enormous loss of flexibility in terms of scheduling.

By now you're probably wondering where this is all going.  Well, there are a handful of songs that are so inextricably linked to that time that when I hear them today, it is as if I'm transported back to those first few days on the job, wondering what the heck I was doing, and wishing that I could be just about anyplace else.

"Magic Man" by Heart is one of those songs.  From the summer of 1976.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #59 - "Games Without Frontiers" (1980)

Today we're going to stick with the weekend theme of Summer 1980, and feature Peter Gabriel's great song "Games Without Frontiers" from his brilliant third album.

I wrote about the album earlier this year as part of my Top 50 of all time - as I said then, even though "So" (also great) was more popular, I think this represents his best work - edgy, even frightening in a way that "So" was not (although to be fair, it came close).

If looks could kill
They probably will 
In games without frontiers
War without tears

Peter Gabriel, "Games Without Frontiers," from the summer of 1980.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Grading the Summer Soderberghs

Traffic - A+

Out of Sight - A
The Limey - A

Erin Brockovich - A-
Contagion - A-
Haywire - A-
Solaris - A-

The Informant! - B

The Good German - C

Surprise! A Soderbergh Double Feature

And the only thing we forgot was the popcorn.

How the hell I went so many years without seeing "Out of Sight" is beyond me, because this kind of movie is right up my alley - an exceedingly well-made crime thriller, based on a book written by one of the masters of the genre, Elmore Leonard.  Maybe I just couldn't believe that Jennifer Lopez had the chops to pull it off.

Well, she did, and J-Lo, I apologize for doubting you.  Lopez' performance in "Out of Sight" is so good that it makes me wonder what might have happened if she had decided to focus her efforts on high quality motion pictures instead of fairly pedestrian cinematic fare and a decidedly pedestrian musical career.  But hey, it's not too late - now that she's off of "Idol," maybe it's time to refocus on what she does best.

And then of course, there is this guy named George Clooney, who is at his best in roles like this, a likeable but flawed character.  It sounds a bit pandering to say that he oozes charm, but it is what it is, folks.  Given that the movie was made in 1998, you can almost see the machinations going on in his head, figuring out exactly what it is that was about to make him the closest thing that this generation has to a Cary Grant.

The screenplay crackles with wit, and the supporting cast is stellar - Ving Rhames as Clooney's buddy from prison, Dennis Farina as the loving dad of Lopez whose idea of a great birthday present is a new gun, Don Cheadle in scary mode as an ex-boxer, ex-con who doesn't shy away from doing whatever he needs to do to make the next score, Steve Zahn doing what Steve Zahn does best, and even Albert Brooks as a millionaire ex-con, showing that "Drive" wasn't a fluke.

And yes, the seduction scene is as good as everyone says.  And notable, because of the way it treats both characters with respect.

And then we moved on to "Contagion," another example of how Soderbergh can crossover between genres with ease.  The premise of the movie is very simple - a killer virus is spreading, faster than our best scientists can figure out how to stop it (or even figure out exactly what it is), and leaving few untouched as it travels across the globe and infects the good, the bad and everything in between.

In the wrong hands this could have been a ridiculous enterprise, but an incredible A-list cast of thousands (Matt Damon! Gwyneth Paltrow! Lawrence Fishburne! Kate Winslet! Marion Cottilard! Jude Law! Jennifer Ehle! Elliot Gould! Demetri Martin!  Hundreds of other recognizable faces!) makes an investment in the proceedings, and never leaves the viewer thinking that they wished, just maybe, that they hadn't signed up for this one.

Soderbergh and his scenarist Scott Burns made an inspired decision when they began the outbreak on Day 2 - this amplifies the mystery aspect of the story, and creates a situation where the viewer is no smarter than the scientists who are struggling to come up with answers.  This eliminates the possibility of an "idiot plot," because we have no way of knowing whether the characters are making the right choices.  It was also wise to kill off one of the major potential saviors of the story, because this just raises the stakes that much higher.  And it was also wise to focus as much on the societal impacts of the outbreak, so we can see that there really isn't as much of a gap between "normal" and "chaos" as we might imagine.

Two more excellent films in a career notable for its accomplishment and its output.  Well done.

95 Songs of Summer, #58 - "Mirror in the Bathroom" (1980)

The English Beat didn't have a long career, but they made the most of it.  All three of their albums were outstanding, and included enough classic songs to ensure that they'd remain a presence on the radio for three decades.  Music as good as theirs is truly timeless, and there's no question that songs like "Twist and Crawl," "Save It For Later," and "Doors of My Heart" (to pick just three) sound as new and fresh today as they did when they were released.

If forced to pick just one of the albums, I'd go with the debut, "I Just Can't Stop It," probably because it was those songs that I heard the band play during a memorable October 1980 concert, opening for Talking Heads.  The album is a winner from start to finish, and I'd be happy picking any of its songs, but I'll go with one of the most famous.

The English Beat, "Mirror in the Bathroom," from the summer of 1980.

95 Songs of Summer, #57 - "Let My Love Open the Door" (1980)

"Hit single" and "Pete Townshend" are not words that you often see together in the same sentence.  Hitting the top of the Top 40 has never seemed to be a goal for Townshend; both his solo work and work with The Who has aimed for deeper accomplishment and meaning.  At the risk of offending rabid Who fans (and boy, there sure are a lot of those) I'd argue that approach has sometimes been to his detriment - if he'd just lighten up a bit now and then, the deep stuff would become all the more meaningful.

"Empty Glass," Townshend's outstanding 1980 solo album, is a case in point.  For the most part, Pete is making a typically heavy statement; however, smack dab in the middle we've got what at first listen might seem to be a mindless ditty but over time proves itself to be an enduring classic.  And the lightness of the song brings the entire album into focus.

"Let My Love Open the Door," Pete Townshend, from the summer of 1980.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The King

Elvis Presley
January 9, 1935 - August 16, 1977

“If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

- Lester Bangs

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #56 - "Let's Go Crazy" (1984)

Prince has been around for so long now that it's hard to appreciate just how big he was for a few years in the 1980s.  No, "Purple Rain" didn't sell as many units as "Thriller," but listening today, is there really any doubt that the former was the superior piece of work?  And I say that as a "Thriller" fan, one who has never bought into the notion that MJ's masterwork was "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and a bunch of filler.

But for sheer awesomeness, from first note to last, "Purple Rain" can stand alongside just about any album that's ever been released.  Even the movie, misogynistic and poorly written though it may have been, was awesome - because all of that was forgotten from the moment that Prince or Morris Day stepped on the stage.

Around that time, I was the DJ for the weddings of a few friends and acquaintances - a thankless job if there ever was one.  You just try dealing with an unruly, intoxicated crowd once they discover that you don't have the one song that they were dying to dance to, especially after that 12th beer.  At one of the weddings, "Let's Go Crazy" was the bridal couple's first dance song.  It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but alas, that marriage did not take.

But, it wasn't Prince's fault - he did everything he could.

"Let's Go Crazy," Prince, from the summer of 1984.  And since Prince is notoriously finicky about his presence on YouTube, we'll forego the video today.  Besides, you've all heard this song, right?

Explain to me, please... a major league player in this day and age can possibly think that he is going to get away with using steroids?

Yes, I'm talking about Melky Cabrera, without whom the San Francisco Giants probably have zero chance of advancing to the postseason, unless Buster Posey keeps playing like Johnny Bench circa 1972 and Tim Lincecum starts pitching like it was four years ago.  And even with that, it may not be enough.

What an idiot.  I reserve the right to change my mind at some later date, but right now it wouldn't bother me at all if Mr. Cabrera had played his last game in a San Francisco Giants uniform.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Six years ago today, this blog entered into existence.  A lot has happened in those six years, but we're still going strong.

95 Songs of Summer, #55 - "Get Down Tonight" (1975)

A month or so ago, I featured George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby," the huge hit from 1974, in this spot.  Almost exactly a year after McCrae topped the charts, the band that backed him did exactly the same thing - and would go on to become a staple of disco for the next five years.

Although their first hit, I would argue that this remains their strongest song - not to mention one that really transcends the disco genre.  Sure, it's a great dance song, but you could say the same about a lot of classic rock 'n roll tunes.  After all, isn't that the point?

"Get Down Tonight," K.C. and the Sunshine Band, from the summer of 1975.

Monday, August 13, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #54 - "The Bitch is Back" (1974)

I've written elsewhere on this blog - probably on more than one occasion - that Elton John was my first "musical hero," and to this day I'd put his 1972-75 output up against just about any other artist's during such a short period of time.

At the beginning of the summer in 1974 I bought "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," a feast for the ears (a double-album with enormous depth) and eyes (great design and lyrics pages, something that for the most part went by the wayside with the demise of vinyl LPs).  And then, lo and behold, Elton released "Caribou," looking, shall we say, quite odd on the cover.  The first hit from that album was "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," featuring Elton in classic ballad mode.  But then, right around the beginning of August, another song began to show up on the airwaves - "The Bitch is Back" - and to these then-young ears, sounded like the hardest rocking thing Elton had ever done.  What those two songs demonstrated was that at his peak, which Elton was at that time, he could do just about anything - soft rock, hard rock, and everything in between.  He probably didn't get the credit he deserved because of the funny outfits, but he certainly won the battle of the charts.  And deservedly so.

From the summer of 1974, Elton John with "The Bitch is Back."


Sunday, August 12, 2012

It's Soderbergh's World...We Just Live In It

In the past week we entered Phase II of our Summer Soderbergh Festival, and were rewarded with three winners that demonstrate the versatility of the man who may be the most prolific filmmaker this side of Woody Allen.

We started with "Solaris," a 2002 remake of a 1972 Russian film treasured by an impressive cadre of serious cinephiles.  I'd never heard of it until I read that it was going to be remade, but then again it's not as if I watch a lot of Russian films.

"Solaris" is the kind of science-fiction that engages the mind and poses thought-provoking questions instead of offering a lot of special effects and action sequences (I don't have a problem with those kinds of movies, but it's nice to have some of the other kind every now and then).  George Clooney is very good as Chris Kelvin, a psychologist who is clearly struggling following the death of his wife.  After we see some scenes of Kelvin's daily life, he receives a message from his friend Dr. Gibarian, who is aboard a space station above the planet Solaris.  Without going into details, Gibarian pleads with Kelvin to join him on the station, but when he arrives one of the first things he finds is that Gibarian is dead. All that appears to be left from the crew are Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), and Snow (Jeremy Davies) - and both are pretty messed up, to put it lightly.  Snow warns Kelvin that when he finally goes to sleep, he might want to consider locking his door.

When Kelvin finally does sleep, he is visited by his dead wife, who seems to know everything about him and herself, except how she got there.  How she got there is the riddle posed by the movie, and as the plot advances we eventually learn that perhaps our assumptions about intelligent life and its purpose are far away from anything we might have imagined.  The movie posits a compelling premise dealt with in previous stories, including "Star Trek: Generations" and Alan Moore's brilliant Superman story, "For the Man Who Has Everything" - provided the opportunity to live the life of our dreams, what would we choose?  And is that dream life any less "real" than life itself?

We then moved on to what surely is Soderbergh's biggest hit, "Erin Brockovich" - the movie that won Julia Roberts an Oscar, and deservedly so.  Amazingly enough I had never seen it, and was more than duly impressed.  Movies like this are proof that movies designed to be popular entertainment can also be artistically rewarding.  From Roberts down, the cast is perfect, especially Albert Finney as the lawyer who eventually learns to take Brockovich seriously, even as her outfits and demeanor become more outrageous.  Another winner.

And last night we moved to "The Limey," almost the polar opposite of "Brockovich" - opposite in the sense that with this movie, Soderbergh was clearly taking advantage of his success to make the kind of movie that he wanted to make - a movie developed and crafted around an actor who during his career has been as great as he has been under-appreciated - Terence Stamp.  Stamp is breathtaking in the role, playing a English thief recently out of prison, known simply as "Wilson," who travels to the states to find out who was responsible for his daughter's death, and take vengeance on those parties.  Similar to Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast," Stamp is a force of nature - wreaking havoc on all those who cross his path.  Those in his path include Peter Fonda, somewhat wimpy as a Phil Spector type rock mogul, and Barry Newman, mostly known for TV roles but riveting in the role of enforcer and all around nasty guy.  The always reliable Luis Guzman is also outstanding, as a friend of the daughter who helps Wilson in his quest.  Good stuff.

Not all of Soderbergh's movies are great, but he should always get the benefit of the doubt because he is constantly testing himself, and trying new things.  There's few genres that he isn't comfortable working in, and when you see one of his movies, you're assured of seeing something interesting.

95 Songs of Summer, #53 - "Coconut" (1972)

To this day, I would make a case for Harry Nilsson's "Coconut" being one of the funniest hit songs of all time.  Funny, infectious, and a well-deserved hit that has remained so across the generations, in large part due to a terrific rendition on "The Muppet Show" that my kids watched dozens of times on a VHS tape that wore out long ago.

And with this weather we're having, a lime in a coconut  is sounding pretty good to me.

"Coconut," Harry Nilsson, from the summer of 1972.

Dream Team '12

One of my Facebook friends posted this morning that he was rooting against the U.S. in the gold medal men's basketball game, because of Kobe and LeBron.

I don't understand that mindset.  I root against Kobe and LeBron as hard as anyone during the NBA season, but it seems to me that some things should transcend one's usual rooting interests.  Love them or hate them, they are the greatest players of this generation, and hardly a reason to root against your own country.

I wasn't a huge fan of the Dream Team concept when it was introduced back in 1992, but I've come full circle - not only do I think it is great, I think it may have been the best thing that ever happened to international basketball, in the sense that it gave the rest of the world something to strive for.  And in those rough years when the U.S. was getting their arses handed to themselves by teams like Puerto Rico (still amazing to imagine today, even though it was just 8 years ago), it taught our greatest American NBA players a lesson in humility that they'd probably never been exposed to during the course of their careers.

This year, you saw a great team - a real team - out there on the court, smart enough to play like a team and to defer to the greatest player in the game when the occasion demanded it.  I'm not sure what else one could ask for.

Friday, August 10, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #52 - "Too Darn Hot" (1990)

OK, it's official - we're melting in Sacramento.  So I'm going to deviate a bit from the usual formula to feature a song that probably wasn't released during the summer, and certainly was never a fixture on the radio.  However, it is from the quite excellent "Red Hot + Blue" benefit album, which featured modern groups doing their own twists on classic Cole Porter songs - all to raise money for AIDS research and relief.  So it may not be a bonafide "summer song," but it certainly fits with the theme and is a nice little change of pace.

So from 1990, today we have Erasure, with "Too Darn Hot."


Thursday, August 09, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #51 - "Hot Fun in the Summertime" (1969)

It's summertime, and it's definitely hot, but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it "fun."  We're in one of those patented Sacramento stretches of heat above 100 degrees, and they're now projecting a high tomorrow that could reach 110.  Kind of hard to have fun in that kind of weather, no matter what you're doing.

"Hot" defines perfectly the status of Sly and the Family Stone during the late 1960s period when this song became a huge smash.  Partly due to Sly's non-musical proclivities, it was destined not to last, but while it was happening, it sure was fun.

"Hot Fun in the Summertime," Sly and the Family Stone, from the summer of 1969.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #50 - "Why Can't We Be Friends?"

I think I mentioned in my post on "Spill the Wine" that the band War became a staple of the Billboard Top 40 for a period of several years.  Songs like "Slippin' Into Darkness," "The World Is A Ghetto," "Cisco Kid," and "Low Rider" showcased a band that was comfortable doing heavy songs, doing light songs, fast songs, slow other words, a versatile band that deserved its stardom.

This song was all over the radio during a typically hot August in 1975 (actually I have no idea what the weather was like, but am just assuming that it was hot, since it is always hot in Sacramento in August).  Part of the fun in listening to it was trying to decipher the often very clever lyrics.  Musically, this was the sound of a band having a lot of fun, complete with a reggae lilt.

"Why Can't We Be Friends," War, from the summer of 1975.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #49 - "Best of My Love" (1977)

When this song came out, I had friends who actively made fun of it, on a regular basis.  Well, as the saying goes, he who laughs last laughs best, and all I can say some 35 years later is that this "Best of My Love" sure kicks the ass of the Eagles' "Best of My Love."  A great dance song then, and a great dance song now.  In all likelihood,  great dance song 35 years from now.

"Best of My Love," The Emotions, from the summer of 1977.

Olympics Musings

Random thoughts on the XXX Olympiad:

* I've been watching the Olympics since 1968, and I think I've put my finger on the difference between ABC's "Golden Era" coverage and NBC's "Media Era" coverage.  ABC approached the Games as an athletic competition, while NBC approaches them as entertainment.  ABC showed a lot of events on taped delay, so it may not be entirely fair to criticize NBC for that.  But although it's been a long time since ABC covered the Games, I never got the feeling that they were deliberately manipulating the viewing audience; whereas, NBC happily does that on a nightly basis.  I think Sunday's coverage is the perfect example of the evolving (or devolving, if you prefer) approach.  Everyone in the world seemed to agree that the Men's 100 Meter Dash was one of, if not the, signature events of the Games.  To my way of thinking, there is simply no excuse for not showing it live.  And I do recall that even when ABC was showing many events on taped delay during weeknights, on the weekends what we saw was live, to the extent that was possible.  What was inexcusable to me was the way that NBC used the 100 Meter race simply to generate increased ratings in the third hour of a program that was packed to the gunnels with filler.  Of course anyone with any interest in the outcome already knew the outcome, so why make us wait?  Did we really need to see a 36 minute Bob Costas interview with Michael Phelps?  Why couldn't that have been shown in the 11 o'clock hour?

* It saddens me how track and field has fallen in the pecking order of Olympics events.  Track and field has always been the heart and soul of the games, but today it clearly is lower than gymnastics and beach volleyball.  There was a time when an Al Oerter could become an Olympic legend for winning 4 consecutive golds in the discus.  Does anyone remember the last time NBC showed the discus, aside from 3 minutes of highlights?  Again, remember the mantra...this is now entertainment,  not an athletic event.

* Jarring:  NO U.S. runners in the Men's 400 Meter Final?  That's roughly equivalent to the Men's Basketball team not making the medal round.  And the decline in the Men's long jump?  Shocking.

* Forgive me, but a little beach volleyball goes a long way.

Monday, August 06, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #48 - "Summerlong" (2005)

Kathleen Edwards is one of those artists who always seems poised to cross the divide between cult favorite and big star, but never quite makes it to the other side.  However, her most recent album was her most popular, and the connection (both personal and musical) with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is bound to help her get some attention.

Her debut album, "Failer," received a ton of positive reviews, but for some reason I never got around to buying it (you can't buy every album, after all).  But during the summer of 1995, we were on a short vacation in Santa Cruz, and during one afternoon when we were killing time before the starting time of a movie, we wandered into Borders (the late and lamented...) and I decided to give her second album (newly released at the time), "Back to Me," a listen.  I began with the first track, loved it...skipped to the second, loved it...and so on.

"Summerlong" is what I would call a perfect pop song - if there was any justice in the world, it would have become a big hit.  No less an authority than Cameron Crowe apparently agrees, because he used the song in his movie "Elizabethtown."  The video below is a homemade effort using scenes from the movie; I used it because the recorded version of the song is superior to any of the live performances that are currently available on YouTube.

Kathleen Edwards, "Summerlong," from the summer of 2005.


Sunday, August 05, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #47 - "Lookin' Out My Back Door" (1970)

Here we are, almost at the halfway point of this little countdown, and we finally get to our first Creedence song (except of the special 4th of July post).  Scandalous.

A lot of Creedence's best songs sound like they were made for summer, but none more than "Lookin' Out My Back Door."  Almost alone among their greatest, this one is totally innocent, just a guy sitting on his back porch, listening to Buck Owens, most likely on a really really hot August night.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Lookin' Out My Back Door," from the summer of 1970.

Son of More Netflix Reviews

Or if you prefer, more Netflix reviews from Son #2.  This is the last batch, and then I've got several others to catch up on myself.  I guess we've watched a lot of movies this summer.

Attack the Block (2011, dir. By Joe Cornish).  It’s always nice to see an original addition to the science fiction/alien/horror genre. Especially one that isn’t trying too hard. The film involves a gang of teenagers that find themselves protecting their neighborhood from some genuinely scary invading aliens, furry beasts with creepy glow-in-the-dark teeth. It works because the film opens up with the audience by despising the group of kids until the invasion begins to take place, when you will cheer for them through the whole thing. The cast is great, with newcomer John Boyega as a gang leader who shows us why he is the way he is, and Jodie Whittaker as a nurse befriended by the boys (though after a rocky start).  Most memorable is Nick Frost as a stoner who doesn’t really know what is going on. It’s nice to see something new in this day and age of remakes and sequels.

The Reader (2008, dir. By Stephen Daldry).  An astonishing film that tells the story Michael Berg, who, as a boy, had an affair with a woman twenty years his senior. This was not an ordinary affair because during their meetings, Michael would have to read to Hanna, played by a devastating Kate Winslet. Without revealing too much of the story, the pair are forced to go their separate ways until Michael learns the hard way that Hanna was a member of the SS, and she is imprisoned as a result. Years later, the duo are back in each other’s lives, with neither knowing what they truly want. David Kross portrays Michael as a teenager and Ralph Fiennes plays him as an adult.  While I thought that Kross was very good, I felt that Fiennes’ parts of the film were stronger and Fiennes’ plays tired, middle-aged man perfectly. Kate Winslet won the Oscar for her performance and rightly so because she is so believable as Hanna that you will think that she is Hanna. Subtle and thought-provoking. 

Being Elmo (2001, dir. By Constance Marks).  If you are deterred by the thought of watching a documentary about the origins and puppeteer of Elmo, you are in for a pleasant surprise. The film centers around Kevin Clash, a man who has always loved puppets, and loved even more to put smiles on children’s faces. Really. We see clips of Kevin as a teenager performing in his neighborhood and for disabled children at hospitals. What was most fascinating to watch was how quick his ascent was in the “muppet world” and how accepting puppet-builder Kermit Love was to take him under his wing. Even better are the behind-the-scenes of Sesame Street and the parts covering Clash’s relationship with Jim Henson. We see the dedication and respect that the performers have for their craft, and the audience shares that respect. You’ll finish the movie just as Kevin Clash would have wanted you to: with a smile on your face.

Shine (1996, dir. By Scott Hicks).  Flawed but not bad by any means I think is an accurate way to describe Shine. Telling the story of incredibly gifted pianist David Helfgott, the narrative switches between young-adult David and older David, played respectively by Noah Taylor and Geoffrey Rush. It is seen that young David was physically and mentally abused by his father, Peter, played here perfectly Armin Muller Stahl (also good in Eastern Promises). Peter suffers living with his own failures and appears, in my opinion, to despise that his son is more talented than he. Eventually, David manages to get a scholarship and go to a prestigious music school where he begins to work on an extremely difficult piano piece and his mental breakdown begins. As an adult, David is seen to be incredibly difficult to manage but still is able to impress with his piano talents. I found this part substantially weaker than the first half; one of the reasons is that I did not really care for David all that much. I attribute this to not really being a fan of the “idiot savant” drama and was pretty annoyed by David. Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for his performance and I’m sorry to say it but I don’t think he earned it; one, for this type of performance being done numerous times before and two, he was in less of the film than I thought he would be in. Not great but not awful. I must note that all the piano playing sequences are very well done, and the music is wonderful.

JV comments:  I don't have much to add to any of the above reviews, except that I largely agree with all of them.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #46 - "Only the Lonely" (1982)

Hearing this song makes me feel a little old, because I heard it for the first time in the last couple of weeks that I was at UC Berkeley.  It's not really possible that it was 30 years ago, is it?

Yes, I guess it is.  We used to have ourselves some good ol' arguments about music on the second floor in Cheney Hall, but if memory serves this was one song that everybody liked.  It's a great single, and it graced the airwaves for the better part of that summer.

"Only the Lonely," The Motels, from the summer of 1982.

Friday, August 03, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #45 - "Three Times a Lady" (1978)

Say what you will about Lionel Richie, but there seems little doubt that he took the notion of "well-crafted, just teetering on the brink of sappiness" love song about as far as one artist could.  I could be wrong about this, but if it were not for Prince and Bruce Springsteen, I think Richie's "Can't Slow Down" would have been the most popular album of 1984.  And just this year, he's had another huge hit, re-recording his biggest hits in country-tinged arrangements.  So obviously, there's more there in Mr. Richie than just your typical pop schlock-meister.

Personally, my favorite composition of Richie's is "Lady," which became a huge hit for Kenny Rogers.  But "Three Times a Lady," released in 1978 when Richie was still a member of the Commodores, is a close second.  It is a beautiful song, exquisitely arranged and sung by Richie.  It still sounds good today, and I'm sure brings substantial royalties into the pocketbook of Mr. Richie - as it should.

"Three Times a Lady," Commodores, from the summer of 1978.

Closing the Movie Backlog

Some more reviews from Son #2:

American History X (1998, dir. by Tony Kaye). Tony Kaye’s excellent drama about an ex-skinhead trying to prevent his brother from following in his footsteps never ceases to be intriguing and provocative but still is hard to watch at moments. The film stars Edward Norton in the lead and he is dynamite; at no point is he not believable as the troubled Derek. Also good is Edward Furlong as his also troubled brother who has to decide whether he too wants to become a Neo Nazi skinhead. The movie does not feel like it’s trying to make a profound moral statement but is simply conducting a character study instead. Tony Kaye has reportedly disowned the movie because it was not edited the way he had intended but knowing what it is, I don’t think it would have made that huge of a difference. So Mr. Kaye, chill out, you still made a pretty darn good film.

JV comments: It's not a perfect film, but it does have that extra, hard-to-define "oomph" that sets it apart from your run of the mill fare.  Edward Norton is amazing - for someone who at first glance looks so slight, his presence is so commanding that you really believe that he can be the dominating force that he is in the story.  Also worth noting are the scenes in prison when he slowly becomes friends with an African-American inmate, particularly the scene where they debate the relative merits of the Magic Lakers and the Bird Celtics.

A Dangerous Method (2011, dir. by David Cronenberg).  Having been directed by David Cronenberg and bragging the talent of Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, and Keira Knightley, you would think this film would be in the ranks of the director’s last efforts: A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Unfortunately, it is not. This is not by any means a bad movie; it’s well-acted (despite a hammy turn from Knightley), beautifully shot and scored. But unless you are interested in the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and an unstable woman who compromises that relationship then this movie probably isn’t for you. 

JV comments: I had trouble staying awake, which is never a good sign.   I thought A History of Violence was a masterpiece and that Eastern Promises was not far behind, so this came as a bitter disappointment - particularly given the stellar cast.  For a Cronenberg film, it felt remarkably sterile.

Dave (1993, dir. by Ivan Reitman).  The Kevin Kline charm is at full strength during this film, and it makes it all the more irresistible. Kline stars as Dave Kovic, the head of a temp agency who finds satisfaction by helping others and by impersonating unpopular president Bill Mitchell, also played by Kline. That is why he finds himself in the position of playing the president full time after Mitchell suffers a debilitating stroke. Originally hired to just play the part, Dave finds himself in the position to bring helpful change to his country while preventing his sinister chief of staff, a constantly angry Frank Langella. If you can suspend your disbelief, which should not be hard, you will be enthralled the rest of the way. The supporting cast is great with Kevin Dunn as Dave’s hopeful Communications Director, Sigourney Weaver as Mitchell’s estranged wife who begins to lighten up, Ving Rhames as a serious secret service agent, and Ben Kingsley as the Vice President who was not respected by his boss during Mitchell’s time in office. Also great are the many actual media personalities who share their opinion over the film’s course. When movies are this fun, why not suspend your disbelief?

JV comments:  I've always liked Kevin Kline, and this has always been a favorite of mine.  You don't hear Ivan Reitman's name bandied about much when it comes to discussion of great directors, but there is a reason that films like this one, "Ghostbusters," and "Kindergarten Cop" have held up so well. They may not be the most ambitious films ever made, but they hit their targets.

Mr. Brooks (2007, dir. by Bruce A. Evans).  Intensely creepy, but never ceases to be fascinating.  Kevin Costner is at his best as the man with the perfect life, Earl Brooks. We see Earl is a very successful and respected business man who really does have it all: a beautiful wife and daughter, a beautiful home, and a man named Marshall who only he sees, an imaginary "friend" who is constantly trying to persuade him to murder people. Marshall is played by a devilish and never better William Hurt. Apparently, Mr. Brooks is the on-and-off again thumbprint killer who has been at large for several years. Mr. Brooks finds his perfect life thrown out of control when Mr. Smith, played by a surprisingly good Dane Cook, arrives and demands that he take him on his next murder run or he will turn him into the police. Also on the scene are a tough cop played by Demi Moore who has been following the killings for quite a while and is dealing with her own life’s troubles, and the aforementioned daughter who seems to be keeping many different things a secret. While I found that those parts of the film were kind of interesting, the best parts were when Earl was interacting with Marshall and Mr. Smith; they bring creepy to a whole new level.

JV comments:  This was a huge surprise - Kevin Costner playing against type, and doing it very effectively.  And S#2 is right, the scenes between Costner and Hurt are marvelous.  This is the kind of film that sometimes leads to bigger and better things for those involved in the writing and directing.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #44 - "Ready to Start" (2010)

Or: "How Arcade Fire Allowed Me to Keep My Sanity"

Released two years ago today, Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" was the best album of 2010, and the best album that this young decade has had to offer.  For me it will always be connected to a time in my life that was, shall we say, a bit on the stressful side.

For a little over seven years (until January of this year) I worked for a non-profit Association here in my hometown of Sacramento.  There was a time when I thought it could be the place that I would retire from, even though that milestone is at least another decade away.  But then one of those things happened that proves the old adage (which was said, but perhaps not originated by, John Lennon) that life is what happens when you make other plans.  Our Executive Director, ambushed in a television interview, was forced to retire after, among other things, it became known that he had used the Association's credit card to obtain cash advances at casinos.  There were other things which I won't go into detail here, but suffice to say that it was not a pleasant experience to learn things like this about someone that you had known for over 25 years and considered a friend, and even mentor.

All of that happened in late July, and it's fair to say that the 2-3 months which followed that fortnight were the most stressful 2-3 months of my life.  I look back on it now, and am thankful that the feeling with which I awoke every morning - a feeling that I'd describe as feeling helpless, caught in the middle of an unending scream - finally dissipated and eventually went away for good (although there are flashbacks from time to time).

So in the midst of all this, Arcade Fire went and released what I knew from the very first listen was a classic album.  But for a while, I almost didn't want to listen to it.  If this series has proved anything, it's that when you care about music the way that I do, songs, albums and artists become inexorably linked to the memories of one's lifetime.  There are songs that have appeared on this list, songs that are 40 years old, still transport me in time back to the period when I first heard them.  So, did I really want that to happen with an album that I knew was going to become one of my all-time favorites?

In the end, I couldn't resist, so I made the songs on the album my weapons.  At those moments when things would get a little rough, when stuff was really running 'round my head, I'd just turn them up louder.  Especially the two fast ones - "Month of May" and "Ready to Start."  I'd listen to them over and over, and for a brief moment, all would be right with the world.

"Ready to Start," Arcade Fire - from the summer of 2010.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot

I don't and it's not likely that I ever will, but everyone else seems to be giving this a shot, so why not me? 

1. The Godfather (1972), dir. Francis Ford Coppola
2. The Godfather, Part 2 (1974), dir. Francis Ford Coppola
3. North by Northwest (1959), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
4. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), dir. Woody Allen
5. Blade Runner (1982), dir. Ridley Scott
6. The Empire Strikes Back (1980), dir. Irvin Kershner
7. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), dir. Robert Mulligan
8. Jaws (1975), dir. Steven Spielberg
9. Pulp Fiction (1994), dir. Quentin Tarantino
10. The Sting (1973), dir. George Roy Hill

A bit on the quirky side, perhaps.  But there you have it.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #43 - "Seven Year Ache" (1981)

Those who know me well know that Rosanne Cash is one of the charter members of my personal music pantheon.  That "exalted" status really began with this song, without question one of her greatest, not to mention one of the great songs of the last few decades.

Cash has grown enormously as a musician and writer over the years, but I'm not sure that she's ever topped the perfection of this one.  Perfect in tone, in rhythm, in any way you can possibly define the term.

"Seven Year Ache," Rosanne Cash, from the summer of 1981.