Tuesday, July 31, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #42 - "Brother Louie" (1973)

We've arrived at the last day of July, the time of year at which all the old farts such as myself say things like, "Wow, I can't believe how fast the summer is going."  Sure, it's a cliche, but it also happens to be true, year in and year out. 

When I was in elementary school, the cycle of summer went something like this - those first few weeks after school ended in June were glorious, a feeling of freedom rarely matched by anything that came later in life.  Then you had the 4th of July, always fun; followed by the rest of the July when the "official family vacations" would often take place.  And then, August.  Still a lot of summer left, but close enough to the beginning of the new school year to start to think things like, "Oh man, only 4 weeks left...only 3 weeks left..." and so on.  You'd even start to see commericals for the new fall shows that would debut in September.  And truth be told, by August a lot of the summer's sheen had worn off.  It was still hot as you-know-what, and in the incessant heat even good, fun things like swimming and playing tennis would start to get a little boring - especially when you'd done them non-stop for almost two months. 

None of that really has anything to do with today's song, except to say that during this little project I'm doing my best to match the songs with the period during the summer when they first hit the airwaves (and the psyche).  The way my mind works (which, admittedly is a bit strange), it would feel odd right now to post a song that was a hit right as school was letting out.  Which reminds me - if I do this again next year, and I think I might, because there are tons of songs I'm not going to get to on this go-around, I will probably begin the countdown on Memorial Day weekend, and end it on Labor Day weekend - the traditional, if not factual, summer season.

It's too late to make a long story short, so about this song, I'll just say that it started to hit the radio in late July, and then made it to the top of the charts sometime in mid-August.  The stations here played it to death, but the song was so strong that it could withstand whatever number of plays it would get in a given day.  We had a lot of teenage conversations about what it all meant, and I'll spare you those except to say that they were pretty embarrassing, and that we really had no idea.

And of course, I also have to thank Louie C.K., for using this as the theme song on his remarkable, brilliant show "Louie" - thereby bringing the song back into the public consciousness. In fairness, I should note that he uses a different version, although it sounds very similar to this one. 

So with all that, today we bring you "Brother Louie," Stories, from the summer of 1973.

Monday, July 30, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #41 - "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine"

As a singer, Lou Rawls is someone that I would put in a category along with someone like Tom Jones.  Perhaps not Hall of Fame material, but certainly an enormous talent - well qualified for the "Hall of the Very Good," if there was such a thing.  Early on, he worked with the legendary Sam Cooke, and that is his voice you hear singing with Sam on "Bring It On Home to Me."  No less an authority than Frank Sinatra once said that Rawls had "the silkiest chops in the singing game," so clearly he was no Johnny-come-lately.

This song was, as it deserved to be, his biggest hit.  Written by Gamble and Huff, the great songwriting and producing team, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" played perfectly to Rawls' strengths, and he came through with an entirely convincing, muscular performance. 

Lou Rawls, "You'll Never Find Another Love LIke Mine," from the summer of 1976.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #40 - "I'm Not Lisa" (1975)

OK sports fans, it's time to dip into my little bag of obscurities for this one.

"I'm Not Lisa" sounded like nothing else on the radio in the summer of 1975.  Taken at face value, it's what you might call a typical country weeper, complete with requisite wailing steel guitar in the background.  But in an era when much of what one heard on the radio felt forced and/or artificial, Jessi Colter's song sounded like a breath of fresh air, cutting right through everything around it.

This was Colter's only crossover hit, but she obviously was a talented singer and songwriter.  Most people know her as the wife of Waylon Jennings, but even before that, she had been married to Duane Eddy.  I don't know if she's ever written a book, but I'm sure she has some great stories to tell.

"I'm Not Lisa," Jessi Colter, from the summer of 1975.

The Olympic Spirit

One time, during a dinner party at my parents' house, I made a comment about some obscure sport, and someone at the party asked my mom about it.  She said in response, "If they keep score, Jeff will watch it."  That may have been a slight exaggeration, but not by much.  With the advent of 24/7 coverage of sports on cable, there is rarely an evening or a weekend where I don't spend at least some time watching one sport or another.

So this saturation coverage of the Olympics was made for someone like me.  It's only Day 2, and so far I've watched the following:

- Team Handball
- Field Hockey
- Cycling
- Team and Beach Volleyball
- Fencing
- Water Polo
- Tennis
- Soccer
- Basketball
- Swimming
- Rowing
- Gymnastics
- Boxing
- Table Tennis
- Badminton

And so far, I'm enjoying the obscure stuff a lot more than the premier events like swimming and gymnastics.  And yes, that has everything to do with the fact that most of what you see during the day on the channels like CNBC, Bravo and NBC Sports Network is shown live, with an emphasis on the events themselves, rather than on the individuals and the "drama."

I understand the difficulties the time difference poses for the evening broadcast, and I understand the desire of NBC to make good on its investment.  But the fact of the matter is that the evening shows suck - no matter how hard one tries, you can't manufacture drama over a sporting event that occurred hours before.  There's got to be a better way to do it (and I admittedly say that not knowing what it is).

Random comments:

- So in my lifetime, we've gone from Howard Cosell as an interviewer at the Olympics to Ryan Seacrest.  I don't think that's progress.

- Did you see Ryan Lochte's closet?  Good grief, that was bigger than a studio apartment.  Doesn't look like Ryan has been starving in his bid to be recognized.  If it had been me, I wouldn't have allowed that to be filmed.

- Boy, that Opening Ceremony was sure fun to make fun of.  I liked it better when all they did was the Parade of Nations, plus a few minutes of pageantry.

 - Initially I was not a big fan of the Dream Team concept in men's basketball, but am happy to admit that I was wrong.  The appeal of the original Dream Team was probably just the jump start that the rest of the world needed to begin catching up to the U.S. and making international basketball something fun and interesting to watch.  I expect that we'll capture gold again this year, but knowing that we might not makes the whole tournament a lot more fun to watch.

The only downside of week #1?  We've got to wait for track and field.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #39 - "Spill the Wine" (1970)

This was another one of those songs that prompted my dad to repeatedly ask, "What's he saying?  What's he saying?  I can't understand what he's saying!"  As for me, I thought it was pretty darn exotic, or at least as exotic as a 10-year old can find anything.

Not long after "Spill the Wine," War came to the wise conclusion that they were talented enough to succeed without Eric Burdon, and they certainly did - becoming a hit machine that ran smoothly for several years.

"Spill the Wine," Eric Burdon and War - from the summer of 1970.

Friday, July 27, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #38 - "Cruel Summer" (1984)

They say that confession is good for the soul, so now would be as good a time as any to admit that I own four - four! - albums by Bananarama.  I can't explain or justify it, I just do.

Say what you will, but they were a great singles band.  And this was a great single - not only a hit during the summer, but a hit about summer. A two-fer!  And probably the best song they ever recorded.

"Cruel Summer," Bananarama, from the summer of 1984.

The Rising

SPOILER ALERT: I can't write about "The Dark Knight Rises" without revealing key plot points.  You've been warned!

The most important, effective and moving scene in "The Dark Knight Rises" is one that does not include Batman, Bane, Selina Kyle, John Blake, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, or any other major character.  It doesn't take place in Gotham City; rather, it takes place in the distant, impregnable prison where Bane has placed Wayne, rather than killing him (as he easily could have) during his first encounter with the Batman.  From the prison, there is only one route of escape - to climb up the walls of what to the eye appears to be a large well, with little footing or anything on the sides to grasp.  Only one person has ever escaped, and Bane clearly does not expect Wayne to be the second, given the battered, broken state of his body.

Of course,watching the film we know that that in order to fulfill his destiny Wayne must escape, must return to Gotham, and must take on Bane - just as Luke Skywalker's destiny required him to return to the Death Star to confront Darth Vader.  That Wayne will escape is a given.  It is how he escapes that provides a critical insight into what the characters of Bruce Wayne and Batman are all about.  Throughout the history of Batman, it's always been a story about brains over brawn.  To become Batman, yes, Wayne had to become a great warrior, and his wealth allows him access to a veritable toy store of technological marvels.  But it's always been about overcoming his own fear, and in turn taking that fear and striking it in the hearts of criminals.  Just as often as not, the best way to do that has been to outwit them, rather than outfight them.

To escape the prison and return to his destiny, Bruce Wayne must set aside his physical prowess and use his intellect to ascertain the only way out of  hell.  Just as importantly, he must let fear grip him once again, as it did on the night his parents were killed.  Those deaths were the seminal moment of his life, and it was the fear he felt at that moment which resulted in his becoming the Batman.  So while the physical side of Wayne is a factor in his escape, it is not the only one, and it is far from the most important one.

It's hard to put into words what a stirring moment this is.  Despite my best efforts to stay objective and not be drawn into the fanboy trap, I found myself sitting there, goose bumps running up and down my arms.  To get a sense of what it was like, listen to the soundtrack selection (above) that accompanies Wayne's ascent back to Earth.   If you don't have the time or inclination to listen to the entire piece, fast forward to 4:45 and take it from there.

Time has a way of lending focus to one's thoughts about movies, but right now I feel confident in saying that "The Dark Knight Rises" is a great film, and perhaps the greatest of the trilogy.   Nolan did something very wise with TDKR, and that was to steer away from the more obvious foes of Batman.  There was talk for a while that Riddler would be the antagonist, but that would have been a grave mistake, trying to follow Heath Ledger's definitive Joker - a truly terrifying, yet charismatic character - with anything remotely resembling a human foe.

With Bane, Nolan has the perfect villain, stays true to the Batman backstory (right down to the move where he breaks the Batman's back, as if it were a twig), and avoids comparisons with Ledger's Joker by making Bane a Vader-like terror, almost half-machine to anyone who looks him straight in the face.  Bane's motives are not always clear (by the end of the movie, they are), but by making him half machine, it doesn't really matter - this is a monster, one who may desire nothing more than taking nihilistic pleasure from instilling pain and suffering on the masses.  Kudos to Tom Hardy for lending the character something that resembles a soul - a very dark soul.

Many have commented that TDKR contains less Batman than any other Batman movie.  That's probably true, but I think it misses the point.  I say that because I think what Nolan is exploring here (not unlike Frank Miller and Alan Moore before him in "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Killing Joke") is the concept of Batman, the conditions which create him, and how by his very existence he might in turn might be accused of creating those who dare to rise up and challenge his moral authority to protect the citizens of Gotham.  As TDKR begins, there has been an era of relative peace in Gotham, yet it is a peace that is based on a lie (to be fair, a lie that the Batman himself allowed to take root, at the end of "The Dark Knight").  The conditions for a Batman, therefore, have never really disappeared.  He just needs a little nudge, so to speak, one that Bane is more than willing to provide.

Notwithstanding the presence of a terrifying villain, the most important characters in the movie are two who make their first appearance in the trilogy - John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).  They are important because they represent components of the Batman ethos - components of Bruce Wayne's psyche, if you will.  Blake represents the good side of Bruce Wayne, as well as providing a counterpoint to how Wayne evolved into the Batman.  He is openly idealistic, and in his youth chose a path of light (becoming a police officer) rather than darkness, despite coming from similar circumstances as Wayne.  Selina Kyle, on the other hand, is the dark side of Bruce - almost a living example of the old Bob Dylan lyric that "to live outside the law, you must be honest."  Yes, she's a thief - but one who is guided by a sense of justice (albeit one who at first is a little misguided).  She is also quite funny, proving that there is also something that she can teach Wayne.

Gordon-Levitt and Hathaway are both marvelous in the roles.  Gordon-Levitt achieves a state of gravitas that demonstrates he has a long, successful career ahead of him, playing just about any type of role that he pleases.  And Hathaway does something I did not think was possible, which is to push Michelle Pfeiffer down to #2 on the list of Selina Kyle performances.  Hathaway plays strong, she plays smart, she plays funny, and she plays sexy (boy, does she ever).  She's come a long way from "The Princess Diaries," that's for sure.  As for the rest of the cast, there is nothing to complain about - Michael Caine once again serves as the faithful conscience of Bruce Wayne, Gary Oldman is a commissioner equally at home being idealistic and cynical, and Morgan Freeman just sort of takes it all in while the world is collapsing around him.  I would like to have seen more of Marion Cotillard, but that may be asking too much for a movie that was already almost 3 hours long.  And I freely admit that I was really pissed off at myself for not figuring out the truth behind her character, given my familiarity with the Ras al Ghul storyline.

Nolan has clearly established himself as one of our greatest modern filmmakers.  If his best work remains ahead of him, then we are all in for a treat.  For now, he deserves all the kudos he receives for having created a remarkable trilogy - one with a great final chapter.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #37 - "Israelites" (1969)

When I was 9 years old, I had no idea what "reggae" was, but I doubt that I was alone.  And even though "Israelites" was all over the radio that summer, I don't recall any DJs making reference to that term either.

The song was nothing more than a memory until I bought my copy of "The 'King' Kong Collection," a collection of reggae classics that had been recorded and produced by the late and legendary Leslie Kong.  It is probably long out of print, but it's well worth seeking out - it's the only vinyl album that I've ever converted entirely to a digital format - it's that good.

The other thing I remember about the song is my dad, every time he heard it on the radio, saying "What is he saying?  I can't understand what he is saying."  Truth be told, I couldn't tell either - I just knew that it sounded great.

I don't know what became of Desmond Dekker, but at the very least he left us with one true gem: "Israelites," from the summer of 1969.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #36 - "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" (1974)

Today I'm going to do everyone a favor, in order to take the foul taste of yesterday's song out of everyone's collective mouth.  From the same summer as our previous entry, we'll venture from the ridiculous back to the sublime.

The first three albums by Steely Dan all fall somewhere between "near masterpiece" and "masterpiece."  By the time of Pretzel Logic, it was beginning to become clear that the enterprise was less a band than it was a group of talented sidemen fueled by the genius of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.  Things hadn't quite gotten to the point where they would in a few years, when it really was Fagen, Becker and their merry band of sidemen, but things were well on their way to that destination.

"Rikki Don't Lose That Number" was the first track on Pretzel Logic, and the first (only?) single released from the album.  It is a magnificent, exquisite song, achieving a level of sophistication that few artists have ever attempted, much less achieved.  And unlike some of what would come later, the song was brimming with emotion - red hot, as opposed to the ice cold (but sometimes, equally brilliant) fare on albums like Aja and Gaucho.

The "video" below is taken from a live show that was recorded that year, and the band sounds great - it is also interesting to clearly hear Michael McDonald on background vocals.  Say what you will about his tenure with the Doobie Brothers, the guy could always sing.

"Rikki Don't Lose That Number," Steely Dan, from the summer of 1974.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #35 - "The Night Chicago Died" (1974)

Back at the beginning of this little project, I warned people that not every song included in the "summer mix" would be a classic.  And this song certainly fits the bill of "non-classic."

In fact, a few years ago I did a few posts on a concept that I called "transcendent badness" - songs that were so bad that they were actually fun to listen to, just to be able to savor the horrible nature of it all.  Songs like "Run Joey Run" and "Billy, Don't Be a Hero."

I think "The Night Chicago Died" certainly is a candidate for this esteemed category.  Mind you, it is a catchy tune (catchy in the sense of "if I don't get away from this person soon, I'm gonna catch their cold"), but let's face it, this song stinks.  The music is somewhere between silly and vapid, the lyrics are ridiculous (The "east side of Chicago?"  Who sings about the east side of Chicago?), and everything about it gives me that horrible, awkward feeling of feeling embarrassed for someone who is having a very public meltdown.

But then again, it did make it all the way to the top of the charts.  And when I hear it, I am instantly transported to the mid- to late-summer of 1974, when you really could not turn on the radio without hearing this within about 15 minutes or so.

So without further ado, I give you Paper Lace, with "The Night Chicago Died" - from the summer of 1974.

Monday, July 23, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #34 - "Mainstreet" (1977)

I was tempted to select "Night Moves," even though it wasn't a summer song (at least not in the way that I am defining them), just for these lines:

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off, I sat and wondered

Well, last night we "woke last night to the sound of thunder," except it had to have been right over our house.  It was 2:30 a.m., and I jumped out of bed, to be honest scared sh*tless, thinking that our neighbors behind us must have built a meth lab that had exploded.  It was that loud.  Of course, that pretty much killed the rest of the night as far as sleep went, since the thunderstorm lasted a good hour, and was followed by a torrential downpour.  Oh well.

But since Bob Seger is on my mind, I'll go with "Mainstreet," a song from the same album that was a summer song - in heavy rotation in these parts, during the summer of 1977.  This was the album where Bob finally made the leap from regional legend to national star, a status that he's never really given up since.  He's still out on the road today, and word is that we'll be seeing an album of new songs from him sometime soon. 

"Mainstreet," Bob Seger, from the summer of 1977.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Mind of Steven Soderbergh (by Son #2)

This summer we've had a mini-Soderbergh film festival.  We still have a ways to go, but below are Son #2's reviews of those that we've seen so far.  My comments are below each review.

Haywire (2012) Soderbergh succeeds again, in that he has crafted the most realistic spy thriller I have ever seen, uses yet another ensemble cast effectively, and manages to bring MMA fighter Gina Carano convincingly to the forefront. Carano plays Mallory Kane, a very skilled spy who has been betrayed and burned by her boss, played by the always-great Ewan McGregor. Not exactly breaking any new ground, but the execution is flawless. All, and I mean all of the action scenes are done wonderfully, from beautifully choreographed fights, to amazing chase sequences. Kudos to the supporting cast as well. Channing Tatum (improving) and Michael Fassbender are very good as agents who find out that it isn’t always smart to follow orders. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas excel as suits who you never know exactly what their intentions are. Bill Paxton is also very good as Mallory’s father who is still working on coming to terms with his daughter’s profession. Finally, Carano fares well against her skilled co-stars and will have you routing for Mallory all the way. Very re-watchable and adding to the awesome factor is that all the actors did their own stunts. Awesome.

JV:  This was outstanding - pure adrenaline from start to finish.  I can't quibble with anything he wrote here, and I'd love to see another installment at some point. 

The Informant! (2009).  A good film but not a great one, The Informant! isn’t completely lacking. Matt Damon is Mark Whitacre, a super-white, naïve, goofy executive at a lysine processing plant, and is wonderful. Damon gained thirty pounds to play doughy Whitacre and is completely believable in the role. Also great are Scott Bakula and Joel McHale as the FBI agents who are constantly exhausted by the energetic Whittacre. Where the film falters is that it can be a bit boring at times and is kind of confusing until the end. Whittacre does serve as the narrator after all. What I will say about Soderbergh is that he is great at making all his characters, no matter how minor, believable, and he can bring out a good performance in most actors. I would go as far to say that he rivals the Coen brothers in that his minor characters are that good. Not his best but far from his worst.

JV:  "Super-white?"  Yeah, I guess that describes Damon's character accurately. For me, this one suffered from an identity crisis - it wasn't quite sure it wanted to be a satire, a comedy, or a straight drama, and ultimately ended up being a little less than the sum of its parts. 

Traffic (2000).  Falling under the category of long ensemble dramas (that’s a genre right?), this film manages to be engaging at all times. And when I say ensemble, I mean ensemble; flippin’ everyone is in this movie: Michael Douglas, Amy Irving, Topher Grace, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Catherine-Zeta Jones, Luis Guzmán, Dennis Quaid, Benjamin Bratt, Viola Davis, John Slattery, EVERYONE.  Even better (and more surprising) is that they’re all fantastic. Soderbergh is incredibly skilled at making all his characters believable and intriguing. The film follows three storylines all involving the illegal drug trade. One of them is from the perspective of Michael Douglas as the U.S. drug czar who discovers that his daughter has developed a serious drug addiction; his sections are especially haunting. The next storyline involves Catherine Zeta-Jones as the wife of a drug lord who is being prosecuted, so she is forced to take the reins of an empire she was unaware of. At the same time, Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán are DEA agents trying to put her husband behind bars and take away her life of luxury. Zeta-Jones’ transformation is remarkable. The final storyline has Benicio del Toro, in a much-deserved Oscar winning role, as a Mexican police officer who tries to be a good cop while surrounded by corruption. The stories are all linked in some way and all have satisfying conclusions. Soderbergh won Best Director, an award I believe was equally well-deserved.

JV: I haven't seen all of his films yet, but so far this is clearly Soderbergh's masterpiece.   According to Wikipedia, Soderbergh's original cut clocked in at 3 hours, 10 minutes, and I would love to see that version.  Each of the stories is compelling, and even given its length (even with the studio cuts, 2 hours, 20 minutes) it never flags for a moment.  I liked "Gladiator" a lot, but this should have won the Best Picture Oscar.

The Good German (2006).  One of Soderbergh’s experiments, this one is basically his own version of "Casablanca," and ends up being hit-and-miss. The presentation is beautiful; Soderbergh used filmmaking techniques of the 1940s and succeeds in crafting a film that looks like it could have been made during the time period. George Clooney, in his usual top form, plays a war correspondent who is thrust into a mystery involving the murder of his driver and an old flame whose actions are questionable. They are played by Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett, respectively, who also are very good. Maguire plays "angry young officer" very well while Blanchett shows us the nuances of a wife who simply wants to save her husband. Beau Bridges is also memorable as a general who doesn’t really seem to care what’s going on. Unfortunately, the film falters because it ends up being boring, confusing until the exposition, and we feel no connection to the characters. Style seemed to be what Soderbergh favored in this instance.

JV: OK, I admit it - I slept through most of this one.  But none of what I saw during my waking moments made me want to watch it again.  Not every experiment works, after all.

The Review That Got Lester Bangs Fired From Rolling Stone

It wasn't just this one, but this one is by far the funniest.  And "banned" is probably a more accurate term than "fired," since he was never a formal member of the RS staff.  But thanks to Paul Nelson, who when named record reviews editor demanded that Bangs' work be allowed in the mag again, Lester would return in 1978.

From Lester Bangs' review of Neil Diamond's "Hot August Nights," March 15, 1973 issue.

"...Attending the release of this sluice of ultimorgasmic sounds from Meister D. is some of the grooviest garnish this side of a Melanie presskit.  Here on the very front cover is Neil in full flight, working it on out and what is he doing?  Pretending to jerk off, that's what.  He's pantomiming whanging his clanger, and from the look on his face I'd say he's about to shoot off, and the only bogus part is that he'd like everybody out there to think it's 13 inches long.  It's truly a pic to post in your den or rec room for years to come, no matter what some o' them psychedelic schmucks with their Hawkwind nightshade garlands might think; you don't even need a black light, and it's great to spill beer on or throw your girlfriend up against in the party's latter leagues."

And mind you, this was from a mostly positive review.

The conclusion is also classic:

"...the only thing he could do to top this would be to collaborate with James Michener and Frank Capra on a Cinerama rock opera about the second coming of Thomas Jefferson as a wandering Jesus Freak minstrel who sews this wicked land up at the seams and brings the children home and their parents into the street to dance.  Starring none other."

Needless to say, you don't read reviews like this in Rolling Stone any more.

95 Songs of Summer, #33 - "Jessie's Girl" (1981)

This one goes out to my sister-in law Lisa, who saw Rick Springfield at the State Fair the other night.

One of the great things about popular music is that a guy like Rick Springfield, someone who is hardly a threat to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, can come up with a single that can stand beside just about any other great single of the rock era.

Young actors recording pop songs is a tradition that goes back forever, or at least as far as Ricky Nelson.  But for every young good looking actor with genuine musical talent like Nelson, you've got David Soul and John Travolta to remind us that, if God had meant them to sing, he/she wouldn't have given them the ability to act.  I'd throw Bobby Sherman in there for good measure, but I'm not sure he could act either.

Springfield was no Ricky Nelson, but he does have genuine chops, as evidenced by the fact that he is still hitting the circuit and drawing a good number of fans.  And he did come up with "Jessie's Girl,"  which is just a great, great song, pure and simple.  Sounded good then, sounds good today, and will probably sound good 30 years from now.

"Jessie's Girl," Rick Springfield, from the summer of 1981.

Alexander Cockburn, R.I.P.

Political writer Alexander Cockburn died on Friday, and although his name was hardly a household word, he was one of the best around.  For the most part he was a radical leftist, and I didn't agree with a lot of what he wrote, but he was a brilliant writer, with a wicked sense of humor.  I first encountered him during his days at the Village Voice, which I began subscribing to in 1978.  At that time, the Voice was one of the greatest leftist publications in the history of American journalism, although that's hardly all that they wrote about.  On the political side you had Cockburn, Nat Hentoff, Jack Newfield, Wayne Barrett, James Ridgway, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a few others.  Covering music you had Robert Christgau, and on film you had Andrew Sarris.  Overall, a pretty amazing group of writers.

Although an ardent opponent of Ronald Reagan's policies, Cockburn was one of the first political writers to take him seriously as a national candidate, as evidenced by this excerpt from a 1976 piece:

"No one can go into New Hampshire without clearly realizing that whether or not he wins, Ronald Reagan is the politician who is boldly putting forward the ideas and framing the debate for the rest of this election year.  This is the centrally important fact of the New Hampshire primary."

And here's his satire and humor on display, skewering the New York Times for editorializing against a holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Why not a Martin Luther King Day?" the New York Times asked editorially last Friday, and answered, "Dr. King, a humble man, would have objected to giving that much importance to any individual.  Nor should he be given singular tribute if that demeans other historical black figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Malcom X..."  Give one of them a holiday, and they'll all be wanting one.  Muhammad Ali Day, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Day. Where would it all end?  Better, the Times suggests, to give King a statue in the Capitol, presumably in white marble to blend in with the rest."

On Walter Mondale:

"They keep saying that the best reason to vote for Walter Mondale is Ronald Reagan.  But since Mondale filed to change his name and political identity to Reagan halfway through September, this argument doesn't carry quite the weight it once did."

And from a 1982 piece titled "Mount Kissinger Erupts":

"Halfway through November, spewing smoke and cliche hundreds of feet into the air, Mount Kissinger entered a peculiarly active phase.  Though no actual loss of life seems to have occurred, 'Kissinger Alerts' were broadcast on an hourly basis, warning the populace to beware of falling platitudes and other detritus from this semi-extinct volcano."


Saturday, July 21, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #32 - "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" (1973)

The late Jim Croce was probably one of the least pretentious stars in the history of pop music.  He was just a regular guy who liked to play the guitar, smoke cigars, and write songs about other regular Joes, some of whom were probably based on real-life characters that he'd come across during the course of his career.  Robert Christgau wrote of his posthumous Greatest Hits set:

"His short-haul trucker persona (world-weary machismo with a heart of gold and a soul of beaten copper) and detached lowlife portraiture (he doesn't mess around that much with Jim himself) were a relief from post-hippie confessionalism, and his music was sweet and tough, never an easy combo to bring off."

Croce was a minor star during his life, but in a bitter twist of irony, really hit it big after his death in a plane crash in the fall of 1973.  At one time in early 1974, all three of his albums were in the Top 5, and that spring he enjoyed a string of hit singles whose success could have made the likes of Elton John envious.  Whether he could have continued that level of success had he lived is doubtful, but he recorded enough outstanding songs during his short life that it seems likely he'd still be on the road today, making fans happy with his populist and heartfelt catalogue.

This song, probably one of his best (and certainly one of his best-remembered), hit the top of the charts during the summer of 1973.

Jim Croce, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," from the summer of 1973.

Friday, July 20, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #31 - "Racing in the Street" (1978)

I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from L.A.
I blew that Camaro off my back and drove that little girl away
But now there's wrinkles around my baby's eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
When I come home the house is dark
She sighs "Baby did you make it all right"
She sits on the porch of her daddy's house
But all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born
For all the shut-down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me we're gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands

Tonight tonight the highway's bright
Out of our way mister you best keep
`Cause summer's here and the time is right
We're goin' racin' in the street

"Racing in the Street," Bruce Springsteen, from the summer of 1978

Random Thoughts

When this blog first opened up shop (almost six years ago now), I would post from time to time on the political issues of the day; for the first couple of years, the description that you see above even included "politics," in addition to what's there now.  But a couple of years ago - may have been three, I don't remember exactly - I stopped writing about politics altogether, mostly because I wanted to devote my time to writing about other things, but also because I didn't want, even inadvertently, to contribute to the sinkhole that political dialogue has become in this day and age.

I think one of the reasons that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have become so popular (aside from the fact that they are both brilliant comedians with a remarkable sense of timing) is that they devote the larger part of their shows to skewering the media, showing us all just how ridiculous most of the talking heads that we see on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, et al. really are.  For the most part, those people aren't any smarter than you or me, but they like to think that they are.  And the message of those who really are smarter than you or me is usually undermined by a combination of arrogance, smugness or entitlement that, depending on one's mood (or the number of cocktails one has consumed) falls somewhere between aggravating and enraging.

Which brings us to what happened in Aurora, Colorado last night.  Try as I might, I haven't been able to get it out of my mind since the moment I turned on my iPad this morning and was greeted with a record number of "pop ups" letting me know what happened. 

What happened is a horrible, awful tragedy, but also supremely scary, because it points out just how fragile a concept life can be.  Regardless of how religious one is, I'm sure everyone can relate to the phrase "there, but for the grace of God, go I."  Midnight showings of popular movies have become commonplace in this day and age.  I've never been to one, but someday I might.  I was tempted to go to one for this movie, just because I was interested in seeing it in (a) a crowd where everyone was seeing it for the first time, and (b) a crowd that was prepared to shower its love on the movie.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not what some refer to as a "fanboy" who feels the need to piss on any kind of dissenting opinion about something.  But, having seen the first showing of "The Wrath of Khan" lo these many years ago, I know how much fun it is to watch a movie surrounded by devoted fans.

What makes me angry, and I'm sure that anger will only increase, is that I know damn well that we're going to be treated in the next few days to hours upon hours of amateur psychoanalyzing about "what it all means."  People on both sides of the political spectrum will seek to use this event for their own political purposes, cheapening the lives that were lost and themselves in the process.  We're going to hear and read thousands of words seeking a connection between what happened in the theater to what was going to be shown on the screen.  I won't be watching it or reading it, but you know damn well it will happen.

I know it's too much to ask for, but perhaps just for a while we could all devote our thoughts to the victims?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #30 - "My Sharona" (1979)

Today, we'll head to another year that has yet to be represented in the big countdown, 1979 - a year when there was a lot going on in terms of the music scene.  Disco was probably at its peak, new wave/punk was starting to make a bit of a dent in the charts, and though it would be years (decades?) before the fans of those two genres would recognize the similarities in between them, they were both giving the pop charts a shot in the arm.

And then there was The Knack.  The Knack presented themselves as a Beatles for the next generation, right down to the matching costumes that they wore on the cover of their first album (and in many of their concerts).  At the same time, they were presented as being new wave, although they really weren't.  Truth be told, they were a bit (or a lot) on the clownish side, and it came as no big surprise that their career as a band fizzled out fairly quickly.  They weren't much more than a marketing ploy, and if the history of pop music has taught us anything, it's that it takes more than marketing to build a lasting career.

But none of that changes the greatness of "My Sharona."  A great single is a great single, no matter how shallow the artist may come across at times.  And this was, and remains so today, one great single.

"My Sharona," The Knack, from the summer of 1979.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #29 - "Rock Your Baby" (1974)

We're gonna stick with 1974 today, and feature a song that was one of the first whisperings of a new genre called "disco."  As far as I can recall, this was the only hit that George McCrae ever had, but if you're just gonna have one, it might as well be a masterpiece, right?  And I'd put "Rock Your Baby" in that category - infectious from the first listen, and still sounding great after a thousand or so.

And that backing band?  They would forge their own identity about a year later; you might have heard of them - KC and the Sunshine Band.

And of course, you've gotta love the guys in the Seventies, letting it all hang out during performance (so to speak).  And I gotta say that it doesn't look like George was pumping much iron in the gym or elsewhere, so he had to be one confident dude.

"Rock Your Baby," George McCrae, from the summer of 1974.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Crazy Heart" - A Testament to the Greatness of Jeff Bridges

That Jeff Bridges is one of the greatest actors of his generation is not in dispute.  But even considering his lofty status, what Bridges accomplishes in “Crazy Heart” is nothing short of remarkable.  This is a movie that, with a lesser actor at the helm, could have fallen flat on its face.  The story – about a down and out, living day-to-day country singer – is nothing that we haven’t seen before.  Don’t get me wrong; the movie’s screenplay has strong elements and it’s well executed – but it’s nothing particularly special.  What makes the overall experience special is the performance of Bridges – his acting, his singing, his just being there – a performance that is probably worth three stars just on its own.  The thing is, you never get the feeling that Jeff Bridges is acting or playing a character.  When the wonderfully named Bad Blake is on screen – well, that’s who you’re seeing, that’s who you’re listening to, that’s who you’re alternately feeling sorry for or cheering on.  It’s just a guy named Bad Blake, a guy with a lot of faults who can sing and can write a song as if his life depended on it.  And for most of the movie, it does.

Also worthy of mention is Colin Farrell, who turns in a surprisingly believable performance as a country singer himself.  The movie should have given him more to do; I would have loved to see a few more scenes that filled in some of the blanks in the relationship between Tommy Sweet, the flavor of the moment, and Bad Blake, the crusty old codger to whom he owes everything.  Sweet is smart enough to know that he needs Blake’s songs to put him over the top, but the movie could have done a better job with that relationship.  As far as Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Bad’s love interest, goes – well, she’s fine, but she’s not much more than that.  That portion of the story, especially the parts with her young son, is entirely predictable – which can be death for a movie like this.  And one is never quite clear what she sees in Bad, aside from his talent – for most of the movie the guy is pretty messed up, a disaster waiting to happen.  And finally, the most honorable of mentions to the legendary Robert Duvall, who is wonderful in a small role as one of Bad’s oldest friends.  Duvall’s inclusion in “Crazy Heart” is probably not accidental, given that he once played a very similar character himself (and carried off a gold statue of his own for the trouble), but it’s very welcome.

In the end, “Crazy Heart” is a very good movie, with a magnificent performance.  Even if you don’t like country music, it’s well worth a watch just to watch Jeff Bridges do his job.

95 Songs of Summer, #28 - "Radar Love" (1974)

A quick look at my year-by-year cheat sheet shows that I have cruelly neglected 1974, a summer that was chock full 'o hits.  Including this one, a rocking little ditty from what I'm going to assume was the most popular band to come out of Holland (ABBA was from Sweden, right?).

When it comes to classic car-radio songs, "Radar Love" is about as good as it gets.  You hear those drums, you hear that bass, and before you know it you're reached over for the volume dial, and turned that sucker up as loud as it can go.  Then you forget to turn it down when you leave the car, so when you get back in and start it up, it's "eardrum split city."

But in this case, it's worth it. 

"Radar Love," Golden Earring, from the summer of 1974.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #28 - "Rubber Soul"

No, I haven't forgotten this little project.

I was all set to bore you with my tale of how I came to get into the Beatles, but suffice to say it happened when I was in the 4th grade, and a lot of it had to do with the Beatles' cartoon show that used to be on TV.  Anyone else remember the skeletons dancing to "I'm Looking Through You?"

In the end, I thought it would be more interesting to write about why "Rubber Soul" has dropped in my estimation in the years that I've been listening to it.  Now, mind you - obviously I still think it is a great album, but for many years I would have said it was my favorite Beatles album.  As you'll find out as we wind our way through the remainder of the list, that is no longer the case.  So why would that be?

Well, it's simple - and this may be a confession, because I doubt there are many Beatles fans who feel this way - I actually prefer the American release of the album to the official, uncut version originally released in the U.K. (and released in the States when the albums were released on CD in 1987).

Let's compare the track listing:

American Release: I've Just Seen a Face/Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)/You Won't See Me/Think for Yourself/The Word/Michelle/It's Only Love/Girl/I'm Looking Through You/In My Life/Wait/Run For Your Life

U.K. Release: Drive My Car/Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)/You Won't See Me/Nowhere Man/Think for Yourself/The Word/Michelle/What Goes On/Girl/I'm Looking Through You/In My Life/Wait/If I Needed Someone/Run for Your Life

It would seem to stand to reason that more Beatles would translate into more greatness, right?  Well, not in this case, in my view.  Perhaps because I owned "Yesterday and Today," which I freely admit was a scam designed by Capitol Records to squeeze a few more dollars out of the pockets of American Beatles fans (but a great album in its own right, I would also argue), well before I owned "Rubber Soul," the songs "Nowhere Man," "Drive My Car," "What Goes On" and "If I Needed Someone" have always sounded way out of place on "Rubber Soul."  And when I first bought the UK version, some of my first questions were, "Where's "I've Just Seen A Face?"  Where's "It's Only Love?"

Hey, it is what it is - ripoff or not, I honestly think the American release of "Rubber Soul" is a better album than the original U.K. version, which means that this is a composite rating.  If we were talking only about the American version, it would be in the Top Ten.  U.K. version?  Probably in the low 40s.

But either way, one should not lose sight of the fact that during this period (roughly, the period between "A Hard Day's Night" and "Sgt. Pepper"), the Beatles were creating remarkable, historic work.  Quibbling about song sequencing may be overkill.  But this is my story, and I'm sticking to it.

"Sexy Beast"

Son #2's Review:

Sexy Beast (2000, dir. By Johnathon Glazer). An unconventional heist film (the heist gets about three minutes of screen time) that manages to remain interesting, funny, and tense within its short running time of 89 minutes. The cast is great, especially Ben Kingsley as Don Logan, a psychopathic gangster who doesn’t like taking no for an answer. Ray Winstone is also excellent as an ex-safe cracker who simply wants to live out the rest of his life relaxing poolside at his home in Spain but instead finds his paradise lost when Don pays a visit. Ian McShane also makes a brief yet memorable appearance as a mob boss who radiates calm but remains intimidating. Overall, definitely worth seeing. Also worth mentioning is the fact that there is some great swearing in it. Also worth mentioning is that so many of the characters had strong accents that we had to turn on the subtitles in order to know what they were saying

JV's comments:

To get a full appreciation of Ben Kingsley's performance, imagine if Alec Baldwin's incendiary scene in Glengarry Glen Ross had been stretched out over the course of an entire movie.  To say that Kingsley radiates danger doesn't do him justice.  It's hard to imagine that this is the same actor who portrayed Gandhi all those years ago (or Georges Melies in Hugo, for that matter).  Even when he's the smallest guy in a scene (which is just about every scene), he takes complete command of what's happening.  It's a cliche, but in this movie he's a force of nature - there's no other way to describe it.  Without question, one of the best performances in a career full of great ones.

95 Songs of Summer, #27 - "You're the One That I Want" (1978)

One of the great things about having a blog is that you "meet" people with like interests and tastes, and even if you've never laid eyes on them (or have any idea what they look like, unless they post pictures of themselves) you feel like you know them - or at least know enough about them that if you did meet, there would be no problem striking up a conversation.  This can be a scary concept, but at the same time I think it's very cool.

Today I'm turning over the "95 Songs of Summer" series to one such person, someone who has been a huge supporter of my blog, via re-posts, tweets, Facebook posts and the like.  Michael Alatorre, better known to his blog readers as le0pard 13, is the proprietor of It Rains...You Get Wet, where, not unlike myself, he writes about film, music, books, TV, and many other topics.  Our tastes are in sync often enough that I can even forgive the fact that he's a Dodgers fan.

So as a way to say "thank you," here is Michael's post on a song that most definitely was all over the radio during the summer of 1978.   And lest you complain about the songs bonafides, don't forget that none other than Greil Marcus himself named it as his favorite single of the year, and even included it it in his legendary "Treasure Island" section of Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island.

And so, without further ado:

The year 1978 is sadly well known to me, but it did foster some significant remainders that reverberate to this day. Especially, in the films and music I'd follow that summer, and beyond, to say the least. Having never attended the 1971 musical Grease by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, I (nor those I took to the movie theater with me for that initial screening) had little expectation with its film adaptation. The late 50s working-class youth subculture known as the "greasers" ended up both tantalizing and off-putting. Yet, musically, the film's songs were nothing short of intoxicating. That some of the scenes were lensed at my rival high school gym, Huntington Park's, made for another eerie happenstance.

Still, a good number of songs in the film's soundtrack made their way to the Top 40 that season, which helped to make it the second bestselling album that year. The irony is the most popular single, and the one that I most identify with the film that summer, didn't originate from the stage musical. John Farrar wrote You're the One That Want specifically for the movie. It topped the charts the same month the film debuted in the States, and remains one of the best-selling singles ever. It still baffles me that John Travolta, who was nowhere near the singer as Olivia Newton-John, didn't harm the duet. As Allmusic noted:
"... he takes the Sonny Bono role to Olivia's Cher on this short and sweet soundbite from a film that was the rage towards the end of the decade."
It was an instant 'oldie' the day it hit the airwaves and remains one snappy ditty, even after all the years since.

"You're the One That I Want," John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, from the summer of 1978.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #26 - "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)"(1972)

Oh my, would you look at that hair.  Would you look at that shirt.  You see something like that and you ask yourself, "was there really a time when a dude would think he looked cool by wearing his shirt like that?"

Apparently so, and that time was the early 1970s.  We head back to the summer of 1972 for this one, the song that battled "Alone Again (Naturally)" all summer for supremacy of the airwaves.  And trust me, they still play this one all the time on oldies radio.  I know, because I listen to an oldies station on part of my drive into work every morning, because it's the only music station that includes a traffic report in its repertoire.  And I've heard "Brandy" quite a bit.  It's held up reasonably well, so I hope the boys in Looking Glass had a decent enough contract that they have benefited from 40 years of pretty solid airplay.

"Brandy," Looking Glass, from the summer of 1972.

Coming tomorrow: a special "95 Songs" post from one of my blogging friends.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #25 - "Kiko and the Lavender Moon" (1992)

As John Cleese might have said during his Monty Python days, now for something completely different.

By the 1990s, what used to be called "AM radio" no longer existed, for all intents and purposes.  For the most part, I stopped listening to the radio altogether, relying on homemade mix tapes to get me through my commute and any long drives that might be required.

So I can't exactly say something like "this song dominated the airwaves during the summer of '92," because it certainly didn't on any station operating near my hometown.  What I can say is that for me, "Kiko" was the album of the summer and "Kiko and the Lavender Moon" was the song of the summer.

I've written about Los Lobos elsewhere on this blog, but suffice to say that I strongly believe any discussion about great American bands of the rock era needs to include Los Lobos.  Over the course of their 35-year history, they've come up with so many classic albums and songs that I've lost count.  And this one is near the top of the list.

"Kiko and the Lavender Moon," Los Lobos, from the summer of 1992.

Friday, July 13, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #24: "Alone Again (Naturally)" (1972)

So, exactly how did a song about a despondent man about to throw himself off of a tower - one of the most depressing songs ever written, when you get right down to it - become one of the decade's (1970s) monster hits?

I don't know - perhaps because it was damn catchy, and people just weren't listening to the words.  Perhaps the melody and the vocal, both of which were very strong.  Maybe, as Elton John would sing a decade or so later, people just like sad songs.

Whatever the reason, Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" dominated the airwaves during the summer of 1972, and became the unofficial theme song of our first family trip to Disneyland.  I think it's a great song, and one that has held up well.  I'm not sure what happened to ol' Gilbert, but he was on quite a roll for a few years.

"Alone Again (Naturally)," Gilbert O'Sullivan, from the summer of 1972.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Son #2's review:

Hanna (2011, dir. By Joe Wright) Joe Wright never fails to impress; even with films like The Soloist, you still get a satisfying output from him. Hanna is one of his best, but I don’t know where I would rank it next to Pride and Prejudice or Atonement. Either way he is one of the best filmmakers working today. Saoirse Ronan, who also always seems to impress, stars as Hanna, a teenager living in Finland’s wilderness with her father, played by Eric Bana, who we see training her to be a skilled assassin in league with Jason Bourne. Hanna’s father has actually been training her to face Marissa Wiegler, a CIA operative who seems to want Hanna for some purpose and who is played by a never better Cate Blanchett. The film follows Hanna and Wiegler through a thrilling but deadly game of cat-and-mouse, and contains beautiful moments when the naïve Hanna interacts with the world she has never seen. The supporting cast is also superb, with the reliable Tom Hollander as a creepy assassin hired by Wiegler, as well as Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng as a gypsy family that Hanna meets during her journey. The film is a marvel to watch as well, with Hanna traveling through many different locations effortlessly, performing many magnificent stunts, the best occurring in a container park. At no point did I have trouble suspending my disbelief for Hanna is just so well done. Also worth noting is that the film has a great score by The Chemical Brothers. Joe Wright has proved himself more than needed.

JV's comments: No doubt about it, Joe Wright is establishing himself as a filmmaker as varied and diverse as Steven Soderbergh.  None of his four major films has much in common with the others, yet they are all successful, to varying degrees.  As good as the famous BBC version (the Colin Firth as Darcy version) of "Pride and Prejudice" was, when I feel the need to get my periodic fix for the story, it is his version that I turn to.  "Hanna" is the outlier among the four films mentioned above, and over time it may come to be regarded as his most successful.  It succeeds entirely on its own terms, being one of the best thrillers in recent years - a thriller with a good deal more soul than your run of the mill action flick.  Good stuff indeed.

95 Songs of Summer, #23 - "How Long" (1975)

No matter what happens from here on out, Paul Carrack will always own a small sliver of the rock continuum, thanks to two songs: "Tempted," on which he sang lead during his short time as a member of Squeeze, and "How Long," another enduring classic which is always the song people make reference to when they talk about the somewhat oblique concept of "pub rock."

"How Long" was all over the radio during the summer of 1975, and remains an enduring classic today.  It's a great song, and Carrack's vocal is what puts it over the top.


"How Long," Ace, from the summer of 1975.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #22 - "Heat Wave" (1963)

There can be only one song that fits today, when the mercury in Sacramento is expected to top out at 106 degrees.  I suppose I should be thankful, since the California Legislature is out of session and I therefore do not have to be wearing a suit.

I have no distinct memories of when I first heard this song, certainly not from the era when it was released (I was only 3 years old, after all).  And even though I know they're not singing about the weather, the song fits the day.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

"Heat Wave," Martha and the Vandellas, from the summer of 1963.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

NYC 2000

I bought this shirt for Son #1 during my lone trip to New York City in 2000.  I had almost forgotten about it; it's very eerie to look at it now.

"The Rum Diary"

Son #2's review:

The Rum Diary (2011, dir. Bruce Robinson).  An interesting film in that it really does not have a plot except simply following Johnny Depp’s character, aspiring author Paul Kemp, through Puerto Rico and the (sometimes) entertaining shenanigans he gets into. The only thing that could be called a plot involves a rich businessman played by Aaron Eckhart who wants Kemp to help him with a real-estate scam while at the same time teasing Kemp with his attractive girlfriend, played by Amber Heard. I thought the best moments were when Kemp was interacting with his fellow employees at the newspaper. A grumpy editor (played by a scene-stealing Richard Jenkins) contributes part of the fun, but even better are Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi as his drink-seeking roommates/co-workers. Watching Rispoli and Depp try LSD is a highlight as well as them all three of them drinking “470 proof alcohol”. Sometimes, it feels worth watching just to see Depp stagger glassy-eyed through Puerto Rico which is fine but the film runs at two hours and drags. At times, it feels like a stoner buddy comedy and others, a journalism drama. Ultimately, it ends up being a mixed bag.

JV's comments:  I think that about sums it up.  Not everything that Hunter S. Thompson wrote fell into the "genius" category, after all.  As noted above, the movie can't really decide what it wants to be - hard-hitting cultural/political drama, or drinking-buddy comedy.  By trying to have it both ways, it doesn't entirely succeed at either.  But even with all that, worth watching just for Depp's performance, as well as those that S#2 mentions above.

95 Songs of Summer, #21 - "What's Love Got to Do With It" (1984)

Talk about coming out of nowhere - this song, along with the album it came from ("Private Dancer"), was one of the most pleasant surprises of 1984.  Tina Turner had been around for a long time, but I'd venture to guess that few people had given her talent and ability much thought outside the context of "Ike and Tina Turner."  This album changed all that forever, and deservedly so.  1984 was one of those few years when the most popular albums of the year (like "Purple Rain" and "Born in the U.S.A.") were also the best albums of the year, at least from a critical standpoint.  "Private Dancer" fit that bill perfectly.

And this song?  From first listen, it was quite obviously a hit single, and a classic for the ages. 

"What's Love Got to Do With It," Tina Turner, from the summer of 1984.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Netflix Reviews Back - With a Special Guest Blogger

It has not gone unnoticed that the only thing I've written about lately (although it does seem to be popular) is the "95 Songs of Summer" series.  So Son #2 offered to write some reviews of the ever-increasing backlog of movies that we've seen on Netflix.  Sounded good to me; so tonight we start with the first of what will be quite a few.  Son #2's review comes first, followed by any comments I might have to offer.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, dir. By James Foley).  Brilliant. Brilliant acting, writing, swearing, you name it, this film probably has it. The film stars Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and Jack Lemmon as four real estate salesman who work without consciences (and filters) and find different times to disrespect their exasperated boss played by Kevin Spacey. The film centers around two days in the life of these men; they’ve just been threatened by a higher-up that if they don’t meet a sales quota then they are going to be fired. Thus the panic ensues. Harris imbues his character with an angry, “it’s not my fault I’m unsuccessful” attitude and his encounters with the other characters are tense and explosive. Arkin’s character is at the total opposite of the spectrum as an unconfident failure who just hopes to keep his job. Lemmon and Pacino occupy different spectrums as well as Lemmon is the defeated man still hoping to make a living and Pacino as the success he once was. The movie is best remembered for the monologue from the higher-up played by an arrogant and unforgiving Alec Baldwin. The film, simply put, is brilliant.

JV's comments:  Can't disagree with anything here.  The movie is brilliant, and while I won't quibble with Al Pacino's Oscar nomination, Jack Lemmon and Alec Baldwin probably deserved one more.   A lot of people today believe this is Lemmon's best performance, which is saying quite a lot when you consider his history.  And some might quibble that Baldwin was in the movie for less than 10 minutes, but trust me - they are 10 of the most incendiary minutes ever committed to film.  The acting is so good in this film that one could reasonably argue that Kevin Spacey gives the 6th-best performance - behind all those mentioned above, as well as Jonathan Pryce, who plays a nice enough guy who gets suckered by Pacino into buying something he doesn't want, doesn't need, and probably can't afford - the name of the game, with this crew.

95 Songs of Summer, #20 - "Kiss and Say Goodbye" (1976)

I believe this may be our first song from the Bicentennial Summer, and a great one it is.

When you hear a spoken intro like this one, it is critical that what follows be good; otherwise, it just sounds sort of stupid.

But The Manhattans come through, with a classic soul song the likes of which you rarely (if ever) hear anymore.  Great vocal, great instrumentation, great costumes...the song has just about everything one could ask for.

"Kiss and Say Goodbye," The Manhattans, from the summer of 1976.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

95 Songs of Summer, #19 - "Emotional Rescue" (1980)

"Emotional Rescue" is rarely mentioned when the discussion turns to great albums by the Stones, but it was better than people gave it credit for.  Being sandwiched between the obviously great "Some Girls" and the nearly great "Tattoo You, the album probably never had a chance.  But there was some good stuff on it, and it's hard to deny the greatness of the title song, which hit the top of the charts in the summer of 1980.

It was that fall that I made my sojourn to UC Berkeley, and I remember a lot of people hated this song - "disco Stones," they called it, or even worse.  It was certainly unlike what most would agree is the "classic Stones sound," and truth be told it was probably more "Mick" than "Stones."

But you know, Mick does know what he's doing, and for what it's worth I always thought this song sounded great.

"Emotional Rescue," The Rolling Stones, from the summer of 1980.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Songs of Summer, #18 - "Surrender" (1978)

Amazingly enough, Cheap Trick is nearing 40 years in the biz.  But I'm not sure they ever recorded a better album than "Heaven Tonight," which was released in May 1978 and became one of the big summer albums of that year.

And I'm quite sure they never recorded a better song than "Surrender," the big hit off of that album.  It's a great, classic song, one that worked just as well on the FM radio playlists of the day as it did on Top 40 radio.

Turn it up loud, and enjoy - "Surrender," Cheap Trick, from the summer of 1978.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Songs of Summer, #17 - "Urgent" (1981)

Thirty-odd years after the peak period of their success, it's quite clear that Foreigner's strength was that they were a great singles band.  Every one of their first five albums was OK overall, but put those singles together, and you've got yourself one killer of an album - from "Feels Like the First Time" in 1977 through "I Want to Know What Love Is" in 1984, the band was at or near the top of the singles charts an embarrasing number of times, and what remains of the group (Mick Jones and a bunch of sidemen, from what I can tell) has made a decent living at milking that cash cow.

The best of them all was 1981's "Urgent," which should go on any short list of the great singles of the decade.  The song was fueled by a propulsive beat and a vocal from Lou Gramm that was a heck of a lot more direct than what he usually committed to vinyl, but it was lifted into the stratoshpere by a remarkable sax solo by none other than Junior Walker himself.  For 30 seconds, Walker sounds as if he is warding off the devil himself - simply put, it is one of the great solos of all time.  It's remarkable stuff, and probably deserves a small wing of the Hall of Fame all by itself.

"Urgent," Foreigner, from the summer of 1981.


Thursday, July 05, 2012

Songs of Summer, #16 - "One of These Nights" (1975)

"We made a quantum leap with "One of These Nights."  It was a breakthrough song.  It is my favorite Eagles record.  If I ever had to pick one, it wouldn't be "Hotel California"; it wouldn't be "Take It Easy."  For me, it would be "One of These Nights." 

-  Glenn Frey

Mr. Frey got it right.  "One of These Nights" is as close to a perfect record as has ever been created, and almost certainly the best work the Eagles ever did - notwithstanding their later success with the mega-hit Hotel California.  It was a force on the radio during the summer of 1975, and we heard it frequently on our semi-annual trip to Los Angeles that year.

I think there were some who, at the time, called it "disco Eagles."  But it was far from that, although it was a sign that the Eagles were figuring out how to stretch themselves and venture away from the formula that had served them so well during the previous three years.  There's all sorts of things to praise - Don Henley's great vocal, the interplay of the guitars, the great falsetto backing vocals by Randy Meisner - it's just a classic, classic record.

"One of These Nights," Eagles, from the summer of 1975.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Independence Day Running Shuffle

1. Land of 1000 Dances, Wilson Pickett.   And I don't know a single one of them.

2. Pretty Girl from San Diego, The Avett Brothers.

3. Wake Up Little Susie, The Everly Brothers.

4. Pink Houses, John Mellencamp. 

5. Are You Lonesome Tonight?  Elvis.

6. A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke.

7. Ghost Train, Counting Crows.

8. Shakin' Shakin' Shakes, Los Lobos.

9. Born on the Bayou, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

10. Blue Ridge Mountains, Fleet Foxes.

11. Frank and Jesse James, Warren Zevon.

12. School Days, Chuck Berry.

13. Past Time, The Baseball Project.

14. Good Golly, Miss Molly, Little Richard.

15. Bonita and Bill Butler, Alison Krauss & Union Station.

16. The Lonesome River, Bob Dylan and Ralph Stanley.

17. Welcome to the Future, Brad Paisley.

Songs of Summer, #15 - Special 4th of July edition

Sandy the fireworks are hailin' over Little Eden tonight
Forcin' a light into all those stoned-out faces left stranded on this Fourth of July
Down in town the circuit's full with switchblade lovers so fast so shiny so sharp
And the wizards play down on Pinball Way on the boardwalk way past dark
And the boys from the casino dance with their shirts open like Latin lovers along the shore
Chasin' all them silly New York girls

Sandy the aurora is risin' behind us

The pier lights our carnival life forever
Love me tonight for I may never see you again
Hey Sandy girl


I can remember the fourth of July runnin' through the backwood bare.
And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin' chasin' down a hoodoo there
Chasin' down a hoodoo there. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Songs of Summer, #14 - "I'm Doin' Fine Now" (1973)

In my book, "I'm Doin" Fine Now" is one of the great unsung singles of all time.  It was a huge hit, but unless I missed something it was the only hit the group ever had.  Like the Spinners and The Stylistics, New York City was produced by Thom Bell, the Burt Bachrach of his generation.  Pure genius, from start to finish.

For years, the tune stuck in my head, and it was the main reason that I finally broke down in 2004 and bought the seven-CD Rhino Records collection of classic 1970s soul hits.  Which sadly is out of print, because it was one of the best music purchases I've ever made.

One thing I've realized in searching for songs to include on my list is that 1973 was just a killer summer for the AM radio hits.  It wouldn't surprise me at all if, by the end of this little project, there are more songs from 1973 than any other year.

"I'm Doin' Fine Now," New York City, from the summer of 1973.