Sunday, May 24, 2015

Track of the Week: Kim Carnes "Bette Davis Eyes"

The "eighties" did not begin on January 1, 1980, at least not as a cultural phenomenon.  They slowly came into being, fully solidified in 1982 with the end of the economic turmoil that began in 1979 and the beginning of a wave of popular culture distinct from that which came before.  (That's my periodization, and I'm sticking to it.)  The 70s was The French Connection, Taxi Driver, and Star Wars, while the 80s was Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and Return of the Jedi.  I have a theory that "Bette Davis Eyes" as performed by Kim Carnes is the true beginning of the 80s as a cultural epoch.

The sound is unalterably, unmistakably 80s, from the reverby guitar to airy synths to metronomic beats to its processed production.   Tapping into the Zeitgeist, this song spent a whopping eight weeks at the top of the charts in 1981.  America had spoken, and it was tired of the shaggy, macrame-festooned 70s and ready to catapult into the clean, brightly lit, angular 80s.

If you need an example to see the contrast, compare Carnes' icy cool rendition of the song to the rollicking, country rockish version first cut by Jackie De Shannon in 1974.  The woman described in this song is more ribald than anything else, in the Kim Carnes version, she is dangerous.  The hard-edged 80s, where getting ahead mattered above all else, is very much apparent here, as well as the backlash against feminism, which meant that women who used their sexuality to get what they wanted were no longer sympathetic or seen as empowered.

Despite all this, the song has elements that elevate well beyond the usual 80s FM radio fare.  Most important is Carnes' raspy voice, containing a grainy, earthy quality that cuts against the metallic sheen of synths and drum machines.  Her voice sounds perilously close to cracking at a couple points, the kind of thing you'd expect on say, a punk rock or Bob Dylan record.  Take a look at some of the other huge hits of '81 -"Endless Love," "Lady," "Morning Train," "Kiss On My List"- and it's pretty easy to see why this song has had a stronger afterlife than the other ones.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Star Wars Film I'd Like To See

The film podcast The Projection Booth is a must-listen for me, and they've termed this month "maudit May."  They have been discussing films so snakebitten or unfortunate that they cannot be seen, such as Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, which the master never completed.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that Star Wars is their film this week.  Wasn't the world saturated with Star Wars, and DVD copies easy to find?  After that initial thought, I remembered the reason: Star Wars cannot be seen in its original 1977 version, which George Lucas has kept under lock and key, and which he has even claimed no longer exists.  (I call shenanigans on that one.)  Instead we are stuck with constant revisions of the original film, which I can only see now with cheesy add-ons made with low-grade 1990s CGI.  This great film now has a completely clunky, idiotic scene with Jabba the Hutt jammed in where Han is forced to step on Jabba's tail to account for the gratuitous retrofitting of a fake-looking CGI slug, in addition to all kinds of silly crap happening during the trip into Mos Eisley spaceport.

The new sequels make me mildly excited.  You know what would make me truly elated?  Seeing a restored, remastered, 70mm version of the 1977 original in stereo sound on the big screen.  This would still technically be a "special edition" because the original, first release of the film in May of 1977 had multiple sound mixes, both mono and stereo.  The stereo mix was a bit of a rush job, and Lucas actually preferred the mono mix because it was more refined.  (Little known fact, the sound mix was still being put together just days before the film hit theaters.)

Seeing the original film with cleaned up sound fit for modern theater speakers in glorious 70mm would truly be something else.  I saw the 1997 special edition at the now demolished Indian Hills theater in Omaha in 70mm on a towering, concave screen built for Cinerama.  Despite the annoying additions to the film, it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life.  Please Disney, get this right and give the people what they want: the movie they fell in love with (or at least the closest we can come to it) looking fantastic and sounding great in glorious analog film.  There are a lot of people who will put cash on the barrelhead for this.  If that isn't motivation enough, at least bring back one of the most culturally significant films ever made and stop allowing it to be suppressed in favor of a far inferior version.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Letterman, Mad Men, and TV's Future

In 1982 Andy Kaufmann and Jerry "the King" Lawler did their legendary wrestling feud on Letterman's show

It’s an interesting coincidence that Mad Men and The Late Show With David Letterman both had their last episodes this week.  Both are shows that radically challenged venerable genres, and their trip into the sunset ought to prompt questions about those genres’ futures.

Mad Men was the first “new TV” show to hook me in.  I didn’t have HBO during the heyday of The Sopranos and The Wire, but when Mad Men came on I was working my first job, and at least had the dough for basic cable.  While there have always been aspects about Mad Men that bug me (especially the smugness about how far we’ve come as a society), I think it’s a great show, and more importantly, a pathbreaking one.  It introduced a drama of true complexity and characters of great depth, qualities absent in the television landscape at the time.  It felt less like older dramas like NYPD Blue or thirtysomething and more like European art cinema.  It allowed space for the equally important and morally complex Breaking Bad to appear on AMC.

The finale showed just how vital and inspiring Mad Men could be.  With this show gone and Breaking Bad before it, I feel a real emptiness.  Sure, there’s plenty of good television out there, but nothing that really MATTERS like Mad Men did in its earlier days.  To put it another way, current television drama lives in world created by that show, but does not seem poised to generate a program as revolutionary for the foreseeable future.  (Adam Kotsko puts it better than I can.)  In terms of narrative television, it's the satirical comedy shows that I make time for like Veep and Silicon Valley.

David Letterman's been on TV so long that it is very hard to remember just how revolutionary he was in his early days.  Since moving to CBS in an earlier time slot, his show has gotten glitzier and his guests higher caliber.  As a child in the 80s I was rarely awake late enough to see Letterman's show, but the times I did I was struck by just how DIFFERENT it was.  I was the kind of strange kid who idolized Johnny Carson (I was a very old soul in my youth), and was thrown by Letterman's deliberate amateurishness. There were jokes beneath and between the jokes I didn't quite get.  Once the early 90s rolled around my sense of humor had matured, and started to "get" it.  Thinking back on my youth in the televisual dark ages, when network TV aimed for the lowest common denominator and cable was reruns and cast offs, Letterman was providing the one outlet for truly edgy humor and an out of the mainstream sensibility.  Until shows like In Living Color and The Simpsons came on the scene, you'd have to stay up real late to get a dose of comedy that wasn't just overcooked sitcom gags or glib Carson-esque joking.  (Keep in mind I still loved Carson, though.)

The "guy in a suit who tells a monologue then interviews guests with a comedian or musician thrown in" genre of late was perfected by Carson in its original form; Letterman made it more responsive to the 1970s revolution in stand-up comedy.  Hosts who've come later, from Conan to Fallon to Kimmel have followed in Letterman's footsteps, not Leno's.  Leno got the plumb gig at the Tonight Show, but lost out to Letterman when it comes to respect and influence.  The current late night landscape has become rather calcified, however.  None of the current hosts seem willing or able to break the basic mode that Carson made and that Lettermen altered.  This isn't to say that I don't enjoy watching the occasional Fallon episode, but that the genre of late night, like that of TV drama after Mad Men, doesn't seem poised to outdo that which has come before.  I hope someone is out there to prove me wrong.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Iraq Returns To American Politics

The first part of The Power of Nightmares, still relevant as an examination of how the neocon invasion of Iraq came to be

I have been taken aback at how the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has suddenly become a political issue again.  Republican candidates have been made to say whether they would have made the same decision Bush did, and have been memorably maladroit in their desire to say what people want to hear while not admitting that the whole enterprise was a massive failure.  The main dodge so far has been to say that "we went to war based on false intelligence."

Of course, anyone with a brain and a memory knows that this is the usual political bullshit.  The crummy, doctored intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq was created to give public support for a decision that the Bush administration had already made.  Hell, Donald Rumsfeld was talking about the invasion of Iraq on 9/11.  Most people in this country were either too nationalistic, too desirous of post-9/11 revenge, or just too damn lazy to see the truth back in 2003.  Polls at the time showed that most Americans thought that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 attacks.

Twelve years later, things have changed.  The invasion of Iraq has turned out to be an even bigger catastrophe than I predicted at the time.  I figured that the war would create a fake democratic American puppet state and embroil the United States in a whole host of "regime change" in the region for the forseeable future.  I did not predict that American troops would watch while the country was looted, that armed resistance to occupation would continue for years, that civil war between different factions would erupt, and certainly not that an institution like ISIS would rise from the ashes of conflict.  Basically, the absolute worst case scenario actually happened, and it's a long way from "we will be greeted as liberators."  It is now the majority opinion that the invasion was a mistake, something blindingly obvious even to the biggest nimrods drooling their way across this land of ours.

I feel a big part of Iraq's comeback in political discourse isn't just because of ISIS, but due to a major miscalculation by Republicans.  They know that the economy is improving, and thus need to steer towards foreign policy in the 2016 election.  Conservatives have long painted liberals as "weak" and themselves as "strong," but seem to have forgotten what their "strong" neocon policies have wrought.  When they try to tell the electorate that they will keep them same from ISIS, members of the electorate reasonably ask them where ISIS came from in the first place.

Republican presidential candidates have also been pretty brazen in continuing the neocon foreign policy and even taking advice from architects of the Iraq invasion. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, is an advisor to Jeb Bush.  Chris Christie has vigorously defended the NSA, employing the kind of "give up your freedom or the terrorist boogie men will get you" rhetoric favored by Dick Cheney at the height of the 2001-2005 neocon fever dream.  Lindsey Graham has jumped in the ring, declaring his love of drone strikes on anyone who even THINKS of joining ISIS.  Only Rand Paul has only questioned this, and even he is pretty limited.

Of course, it's not like the Democrats have a much better track record.  Many of them voted for the invasion, and president Obama has unleashed American air power in what amounts to a third American war in Iraq.  While Iraq has become an issue again, it won't actually lead to any true reckoning with America's global role, just a lot of finger pointing.  Republicans will use the old scare tactics, and Democrats will continue military interventions lite.  For all the talk about Iraq, little will change, I fear.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Track of the Week: Genesis "Misunderstanding"

The 80s were a very, very strange time.  Every now and again I try to explore the true heart of that decade by looking at YouTube videos compiling TV commercials, that era's truest cultural artifacts.  That time contained a reaction against the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, but at the same time was motivated by such a destructive neo-liberal ideology that pervaded (and changed) everything.  A lot of popular musicians from the 60s and 70s suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the line.  Neil Young spent the decade in the wilderness, jumping from rockabilly to country to electronica, never really finding his feet until "Keep On Rocking In The Free World."  Paul McCartney started things off with Tug of War, but soon devolved into the likes of "No More Lonely Nights."  The Rolling Stones began their now seemingly permanent reign as the supreme oldies act.  Bob Dylan put out a wave of dreck.  None of these acts maintained their old levels of popularity and artistic credibility.

Not all artists from the past failed to prosper in the spandex decade, however.  Prog-rock band Genesis dropped the art and added some hooks, putting several songs in the charts.  Member Phil Collins became the unlikeliest of pop idols, a short stocky middle-aged balding drummer with a penchant for wearing patterned shirts and matching white sneakers with suits.  He would have innumerable hits, both solo and with Genesis, having mastered the formula for 80s chart success.

Genesis' first 80s hit, 1980's "Misunderstanding", fit the Zeitgeist well.  The song's "rocking chair" rhythm was reminiscence of 1950s R&B, rather than the pumped up beats heard in the discos of the era.  After all, the conservative revolution led by Reagan promised a return to old values, and the 1950s had come to symbolize a certain kind of utopia in some people's minds.  The guitar and piano shine brightly, and subtle synths gently amp up the wattage.  Although this is a melancholy song about getting stood up, the sour gets subsumed by the sweet, making it a kind of pop music lemon tart.  If 80s culture was about anything, it was the pervasive attempt to drown out the crushed dreams of the time with escapism and a kind of creepy inability to face reality.

Like lemon tarts, I like this song.  Genesis' musicians really knew how to play, the hooks are delightfully catchy, and I do certainly dig that R&B rhythm.  Collins and co. would get less subtle and less interesting later in the decade ("Invisible Touch" anyone?) and a lot more bombastic.  Judge all you want, but since the neoliberal onslaught continues unabated, I need a little escapist entertainment to get myself through.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Are You A Kurt Or Are You An Axl?

I was watching the fine but disturbing Kurt Cobain documentary A Montage of Heck last night, and something dawned on me during home video footage of Kurt Cobain mocking Axl Rose.  Just as English rock fans in the mid-1960s could be divided into "mods" and "rockers," Gen X rock fans in the early 1990s could just as easily be divided into Axls and Kurts.  There was plenty of crossover of course; I owned both Use Your Illusion II and Nevermind.  GNR was a hard rock/metal band with a distinct punk influence, while Nirvana was a punk band that borrowed heavily from metal.  That being said, there was no doubt that I truly loved Nirvana and idolized Kurt Cobain, and merely liked some of the Guns' songs while finding Rose himself repugnant.

If you aren't sure if you're a Kurt or an Axl, take the following quiz below:

1.  Should a rock front man wear a dress in concert and videos?
A. Yes
B. No

2.  Your stage act includes:
A. Smashing your guitar
B. Dancing like a snake

3.  Your ideal guitar solo is:
A. A junk-sick, feedback howling squall of noise
B. A virtuosic, searing experience bursting forth like the hammer of the gods

4.  If you are interviewed by Rolling Stone you:
A. Wear a t-shirt saying "Corporate Rock Magazines Still Suck"
B. Make paranoid demands to be able to copy edit your interview transcript

5.  Your ideal life partner is:
A. A fellow musician
B. A model

6.  If you get slagged by members of the media you:
A. Write a hand-written letter to the offenders calling them out
B. You write an unhinged song about how you want to "get in the ring" and beat them up

7.  You stop playing during a show because:
A. You see a young woman in the audience being harassed, and you call on security to remove her tormentors
B. Someone is taking a picture of you, leading you to storm out in anger

8.  You're super-excited that ______ is touring with you
A. The Melvins
B. Metallica

9.  When MTV plays a live cover version by your band, the song is:
A. David Bowie's "Man Who Sold The World"
B. Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door"

10.  Your band's album art is banned/restricted because it depicts:
A.  Fetuses
B.  A woman being sexually assaulted by a robot

11.  One of your songs is included in the soundtrack for:
A.  Beavis and Butthead
B.  Terminator 2

12. After your first hugely successful album your next major release is:
A.  A less poppy more edgy collection of songs made with an underground producer
B.  Two separate, indulgent sprawling albums with songs and genres ranging all over the place

13.  When you discuss your influences, you are more likely to mention:
A.  The Pixies
B.  Thin Lizzy

14.  Your biggest music video features:
A.  Students rioting and destroying a school
B.  A celebrity wedding and mysteriously deadly thunderstorm

15.  After your original drummer is out of the band, his replacement comes from:
A.  A hardcore punk band called Scream
B.  Hard rock band The Cult

16.  You take the stage wearing:
A. A tattered cardigan
B.  A white leather jacket

17.  Your drug of choice is:
A.  Heroin
B.  Heroin

If you answered 10 or more questions with "A" you are a Kurt.  If you answered 10 or more questions with "B" you are an Axl.  If you did not answer 10 or more with either "A" or "B" your are the lead singer kid from Silverchair.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Pleasures and Pitfalls of May Baseball

Cy Williams hit a whopping 44 RBI in May of 1923 for the Philadelphia Athletics 

In my years of watching baseball, I've tended to divide the seasons into thirds.  April and May are when hope springs eternal, and fans can get a little too excited by their team if they happen to be overachieving.  June and July are the proving ground, usually the moment when the real contenders start to separate themselves from the pack.  August and September, after the trade deadline, are when the pennant races get real in the tight divisions, or when the leading teams put themselves into a dominant position.

May is a dangerous time for fans of mediocre or struggling baseball teams.  If your team is good in April, you might not get drawn in or your hopes too high, but if the team still keeps wining in May, it is hard, if not impossible, to start believing.  Of course, there’s a reason that “swoon” rhymes with “June.”  Many a baseball fan has raised their expectations in May, only to have them melt away in the harsh summer sun.  The Mets, for example, are still in first place after their 11 game wining streak at the end of April, but the team has faltered, and the dreaded Nationals are quickly gaining ground.  Part of me thinks I need to enjoy the Mets as much as a I can now, since I doubt they'll still be in first place after Memorial Day.

When it comes to my other favorite team, the White Sox, I am having the opposite problem.  They spent the off season acquiring a lot of first rate players to compliment the likes of Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, and so far the team has been a mess of hot garbage.  When you expect your team to do well, and they still suck at the end of May, it's easy to give up hope on the season.  I'm much more likely to watch a Mets game than a Sox game at this stage of the season for that very reason.

At any rate, May is when you begin the feel that the games really COUNT, with April being a kind of mulligan for a team that does poorly, and a lucky break for a winning team.  This is why I am having a harder and harder time exulting in the Mets' April winning streak.  The team now seems poised to settle back into a more competent mediocrity than they have shown in recent years, but nothing more.

But baseball starts feeling real in more pleasurable ways.  Going to April games sometimes means braving a cold snap, while a May day game with spring in full swing might be the optimal time for baseball.  The weather gives pleasure even outside the stadium.  Last night I was driving around running errands with the game on the radio, feeling the cool of the air through my open windows.  It certainly won't be like that in July.

While we're a long way off from October, May has brought some great baseball moments.  Here are a few:

May 6, 1998: Kerry Wood strikes out 20 in a game

Wood was an unknown rookie when he tied the single game record for strikeouts in one of the greatest pitching performances of all time.  It is sad that Wood never reached his full potential due to injury, but he can always look back to this game.

May 25, 1935: Babe Ruth Hits His Last Three Home Runs

The great Yankee slugger finished out his career in the National League with the Boston Braves, eventually calling it quits in early June, 1935.  Before he did that, Ruth had one last moment of glory, hitting three homers in one game, the last ones he'd ever hit.

May 25, 1959: Harvey Haddix Pitches 12 Perfect Innings And Loses

No other pitcher has managed to go twelve innings in a game without letting a man on base, but Haddix's Pirates couldn't score a run to beat the Braves.  Finally, in the unlucky 13th, Haddix succumbed and lost the game in what might be the biggest hard luck story in baseball history.

May 1, 1974: Dock Ellis Goes After The Reds

Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis has become a kind of folk hero for having pitched a no hitter while high on LSD.  So much attention is paid to that moment, that people forget that he also did another highly erratic act.  During a game in May of 1974, he decided to hit each and every Cincinnati Reds batter in an attempt to show the rival team who was boss.  This decision ended up getting him pulled from the game early.