Saturday, March 31, 2007

Top Ten Times Two....

In the beginning there were "lists." Primitive mail order catalogs that were typed, full of typos, shrunk and photocopied and folded and mailed and this was how collectors of rare private press and obscure psychedelic and related records communicated back in the last century, in the dark times before the internet.

Lists were followed by the earliest attempts at guide books, The Acid Trip, Flashback and a few I'm just not recalling at the moment; horribly incomplete and filled with misinformation. The BIG BANG was the 4th Edition of the Goldmine Magazine Record Collector Price Guide, the first official book to contain the titles and information (and values) for these obscure LPs. This was, for many of us, a tragedy beyond comprehension. Record stores and dealers who had previously put these records out for $1 when they found them suddenly understood what they had. Damn their eyes.

Fast forward to 2007 and the state of the art for guide books is a new book out of Sweden called The Acid Achives: The Ultimate Guide to Underground Sounds 1965-1982. The book limits its content to records released in the United States and Canada (bypassing Europe, Asia and South America which represent content for another 5 volumes) but manages to offer a huge catalog of information nonetheless. Reviews were written by a group of people and I contributed a small pile to the mix (in the name of full disclosure I also was involved in the reissue of a few of the records from the first list below and I've marked those with a * after the name). I also compiled two "Top Ten" lists of records in the style or spirit of those compiled in the book. One list represents a favorite stack of ten records that are not reviewed in the book, the other lists ten which are. All twenty are worth sticking on a list for future research if you don't recognize some of them. First, the top ten from LPs that are contained in the Archives.

Peter Grudzien "The Unicorn" – The people who list it under “so bad it’s good” completely miss the fact that it’s actually just good, probably great. The most focused and unique vision I’ve ever encountered on a record album. The record has been reissued on CD. Original copies are very rare and expensive.

Bobb Trimble "Harvest of Dreams" – As thick and multi-layered as the first Snoop Dog record; a genuinely psychedelic LP from a closeted New England musician. You'll find it hard to believe. His first record Iron Curtain Innocence is rarer but this is the better one. There is a Parallel World CD reissue that collects tracks from both albums, and a UK Radioactive label bootleg CD of this one.

Plastic Cloud – Same – This and the first Country Joe and The Fish are the records to pull out when asked “So, what’s this psychedelic music I keep hearing about?” Had they been from San Francisco they’d be a household name. A Canadian band whose one record has been reissued on LP and CD; originals now selling for over a grand.

McKay "Into You"* – The best description, “Jerry Garcia jamming with Neil Young on Tonight’s The Night” really isn’t very close. Great songwriting (a rarity on private-press records) and a loose feel that just works magic. The original LP was a pressing of 300 copies and has never had the respect it really deserves so it's $400-$600 price tag is actually a bargain if you're into original LPs. The 1993 LP reissue is all analog from masters and also a 300 press that's hard to find but worthwhile. The CD reissue is also from the masters and has 16 non-LP bonus tracks that are really good.

Perry Leopold "Experiments in Metaphysics" – If the question is “How can a solo acoustic and voice record be psychedelic?” then this is the answer. Philadelphia singer/songwriter pressed this LP in a bronze sleeve without a title and gave them away on street corners. Originals are very expensive today but a CD reissue is very affordable.

Rayne- Same* – Completely lost in time and the one record I can play for friends who don’t like “psych music.” Originals are $1,000+, the 1994 reissue LP is gorgeous and a new LP reissue is just out now on the German Shadoks label. Never on CD for some reason.

Anonymous "Inside the Shadow"* – Like Rayne, just not of a particular time, and like McKay, a record of nothing but great songs. Check the lengthy review at the Acid Archives site for all you need to know about this amazing record.

Numbers Band "Jimmy Bell's Back In Town" – Maybe the most underrated record in the book, surely the most undervalued. And hey, if you “don’t like horns” then give me your copy of Forever Changes or shut up. From Kent, Ohio. Fantastic. Well under $100 as an original and well worth it. A CD is out and not too hard to find.

Lazy Smoke "Corridor of Faces" – So the lead singer swears he wasn’t trying to sound like John Lennon, I’ve lied too. The garage version of Magical Mystery Tour. Boston-area I believe, LP and CD reissues are around but the strangest thing is that NONE of them actually reproduce the original, very simple, black and white sleeve.

Brigade "Last Laugh" – There is an earnestness here that just will not be contained. Can’t so much recommend it as not live without it. I hated this record for years and one day, stuck in traffic in Pittsburgh, it just opened up to me. Amateurish, hell yeah, but wonderful.

Now for the ten from the general population. these are the records I suppose that would go to the desert island if push came to shove.

Bob Dylan "Freewheelin'" – The first (of 8 as I count them) museum quality masterworks by the greatest writer of his generation. A blend of Woody Guthrie, Buddy Holly, James Dean and, well, everything.

Jimi Hendrix "Axis: Bold As Love" – His guitar is as strong as on the debut, but it’s his songwriting that’s the focus here. “Little Wing” is as good a song as any ever written.

Forever Amber “Love Cycle” – David Wells said that if this had been a major label LP it’d be remembered as one of the best of the era; the fact that it was made by some UK art school students who then vanished makes it an accomplishment of epic proportions. More memorable melodic hooks per inch than any other record, ever. A multi-thousand dollar rarity, only 99 copies were pressed in 1969. But it is as good as Pet Sounds. There's a US LP reissue that sounds awful and a European one that sounds great. Also a CD that's out of print but perfect.

Tim Hardin "3 Live" – The LP ends with “Lenny’s Tune” for Lenny Bruce and the sound of one junkie singing to another without pretense is as heartbreaking as the best Hank Williams.

Van Morrison "Moondance" – All his best records are a battle between R and B and mysticism and it’s here that the two meet for some pints in the local pub.

The Beatles “The Beatles’ Second Album” – The very record that introduced an entire generation of white American kids to black American music; after this, there was no going back. Also has "She Loves You" which is the best song about an orgasm this side of Beefheart's "White Jam."

Phil Ochs "Pleasures of the Harbor" – The best of his electric catalog and “The Crucifixion” is his greatest moment.

Paul Butterfield Blues Band "East West" – Next to Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield was the greatest blues-based rock guitarist of the 1960s and his playing here will stop any argument to that in its tracks.

Grateful Dead "Blues for Allah" – Unlike many of his peers, Garcia occasionally makes these jumps in his understanding of the guitar and it’s never more evident than here.

Bob Dylan “Love and Theft” – On Dylan’s hands-down best record of all he’s finally grown up to be the character he was playing at being in 1965-66. Maybe the best record I own.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Greatest Guitar Player, Ever.


"He is one of the true geniuses of the guitar. I suppose he is a musician's musician. His knowledge of the instrument and the music is so vast, and I think that's what knocks people out about him. But he's such a tasty player too. I think if Chopin had played guitar, he would have sounded like Lenny Breau." -Chet Atkins

"Lenny Breau played more great stuff at one time than anybody on the planet... with feeling and tone. He was the best that ever lived, bar none." - Danny Gatton


The guitar has, for various reasons, been the most popular instrument in the US for over a couple hundred years now. Unlike other stringed instruments like the violin or cello, it is fretted and easy to learn the fundamentals which will pretty quickly allow you to amuse yourself and not annoy those around you. Unlike the piano, it is portable and relatively easy to haul around with you. Unlike brass and reed instruments, you can play and sing along at the same time. The great acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke was asked just what it is about the guitar that makes it so unique and he explained that there is no other instrument on which the most casual player can suddenly stumble upon some odd combination of right and left hand technique that’s both interesting and never been done before. That’s a big part of the fascination as well.

I have a number of friends who teach guitar both here in Indianapolis and around the country and they have students who run the gamut from 12 year olds who want to sound like Eddie Van Halen to corporate attorneys who want to play jazz standards (or vice versa). I have spent hours on occasion in friendly arguments over which names belong on the list of the truly great guitar players. The early innovators in various styles like Segovia (who single handedly took the guitar from the gutter to the concert halls), Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian (and Carl Kress and George Barnes for that matter) who invented the single-note lead lines that have dominated guitar music forever. There is no one playing electric guitar in a rock context who doesn’t owe a debt to Jimi Hendrix. My own list would add names like Wes Montgomery, Larry Coryell, Joe Pass, Michael Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Davy Graham, Ralph Towner, Robbie Basho, Michael Hedges, and, if I don’t just pick this as an arbitrary stopping point, the rest of this article will be comprised of nothing but names and commas.

While I certainly listen to as many guitarists as I can – just this morning I’ve listened to records by Attila Zoller, Peter Finger, Chris Proctor, John Fahey, and Gene Bertoncini while I’ve been working on this – I have never hesitated when I’ve been asked “Who’s the best guitar player you’ve ever heard?”

While often referred to as a Canadian guitarist, Lenny Breau was born August 5, 1941 in Auburn, Maine. His parents, Hal "Lone Pine" Breau and Betty Cody were country and western performers who were active together as a live and recording act from the mid 1940's to the late 1950's. In 1957 the family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada and formed a band to perform regularly on CKY Radio's live broadcast of the show “Caravan.” The majority of Lenny’s career was in the jazz clubs of Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Like the two other players who might well be the answer to this question if Lenny had never been born, Joe Pass and Michael Bloomfield, Lenny also struggled with heroin addiction for a long portion of his adult life. The last period of Lenny's life (1981-84) was spent primarily teaching and playing in Los Angeles where, on August 12, 1984, he was found dead in the swimming pool of his apartment complex. Although his death was originally thought to be an accidental drowning, the Los Angeles Coroner report determined that Lenny had been strangled. The case remains unsolved to this date.

Listening to Lenny Breau on the guitar is more like listening to Art Tatum on the piano than anything else I’ve ever heard. For me, there are three qualities that all the greatest musicians I’ve heard seem to share [look back to my David Bromberg post for the first appearence of this idea]. First, there is an intellectual element. The player understands music theory, harmony, chord substitutions, scales, modes, etc. These represent the grammar and vocabulary of the musical language. It is, for example, impossible to imagine someone writing a great novel with a working vocabulary of 100 words. Second, there is a physical dimension to playing an instrument. Most players understand some things that they cannot get their fingers to actually do. I know what an A Minor scale is, and I know what 16th notes are, but I simply cannot play that fast even though I’ve heard others play much faster. I lack the physical ability to realize those ideas. Third, and this is the tricky one, in addition to the body and the mind there is the heart. The element that will always separate the great players from the technically proficient ones is the ability to instantly access their emotional lives. That is, to pour something of themselves, their soul if you will, into the music. What I mean by this is that there are perhaps thousands or even tens of thousands of singers with a far greater range than Billie Holliday ever had, and not a single one can sing “Strange Fruit” and leave me so devastated.

Lenny Breau’s discography is pretty varied and, as with Art Tatum and Joe Pass, I find the non-group recordings the most rewarding. The style that Lenny developed involved using the guitar as a polyphonic instrument. This is what classical players do, where the bass, middle and treble strings represent different sections of the orchestra. Lenny was able to play a complex bass line, play complex chords on top of that, and add fluid single note solos on top of that, all done in real time with no special effects. There are two CDs I’ll specifically recommend as the best places to begin if you’d like to explore the music of Lenny Breau. Cabin Fever is a solo album on the Guitarchives label (owned by B.T.O. guitarist, Randy Bachman). Lenny’s friend, Glen McDonald, bailed a despondent Lenny out of jail and took him to a cabin deep in the Canadian forest. The cabin had no electricity or running water; McDonald brought a small reel-to-reel recorder and a gasoline-powered generator and left Lenny there with a borrowed Ramirez classical guitar. If you turn the lights down when you listen it can be like having Lenny in the room with you; as intimate a recording as any I’ve ever heard.

The other CD is a double-disc set, Live at Bourbon Street, which pairs Lenny with bassist Dave Young at a Toronto jazz club. This features Lenny performing with his custom 7-string electric Kirk Sand guitar. Unlike other 7-string players, Lenny adds an extra high string rather than extending the bass. These 17 tracks recorded on June 14th, 1983, are the most impressive guitar music I think I have ever encountered and, as with most great art, every time I return to this I come away with new observations.

Other players have picked up the torch of Lenny Breau’s phenomenal style. I’d heartily recommend the series of “Beatling” CDs by Steven King on which he plays solo acoustic arrangements of Beatles’ tunes with a skill that borders on the frightening. Bay-area Blue Note recording artist, Charlie Hunter, has taken the bass/treble approach to new places with a hybrid instrument that combines bass and guitar strings. Regardless of technical innovations and all sorts of contemporary flash however, "Lenny Breau" remains my answer to the question, “So, who’s the best guitar player ever?”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Christina Aguilera Haunts My Dreams....

Well, OK. May be that's overstating it a bit. In fact I suppose I never really think much one way or the other about Christina Aguilera. Sometime back, on the Bob Dylan forum, Expecting Rain, I posted in response to something someone said about something - you know how those forms are - and rewrote the lyrics of Dylan's "Sara" to

Christina Aguilera, Christina Aguilera
What ever made you want to change your mind?
Christina Aguilera, Christina Aguilera
So easy to look at, so hard to define

And that was pretty much the beginning and end of my Christina Aguilera phase, what it was.

I've been doing some freelance writing for a Cleveland paper, The Cleveland Scene. This morning I found an email from the music editor asking if anyone had any ideas for a semi-comic feature on Christina Aguilera, who has a show coming up when her current tour hits Cleveland.

Mornings are a great time to write because the cloud of semi-and-sub-conscious thoughts and images are still floating a bit around your head until maybe eleven, eleven thirty, and its possible to do whatever the literary equivalent of "catch a wave" might be.

I started thinking about Christina Aguilera.

And I remembered an interview I saw with Prince and that he was asked if he remembered the early 80s when Michael Jackson was the clean cut kid and Prince was the freak, the pop-funk werido.

If you can remember that, try to hold that memory when you think about the early careers of slut-next-door Christina Aguilera and good-girl-gone-only-very-slightly-naughty Britney Spears. Now fast forward to a more recent Britney history of bad underwear decisions, lost weekends with bad heiress-slash-crack whore companions, and more-information-than-any-of-us-needed all-body shaving (think of it as Britney's mime version of The Vagina Monologues).

And at the same time, miles away from the set of the next white-trash Behind the Music installment, Christina Aguilera, in a ball gown complete with knickers (OK, I’m assuming some stuff here) trips the light fantastic with Tony Bennett (possibly the coolest white man of the past century) to the sounds of a swing band and with nary a tattoo or piercing in sight.

Here’s what I’m wondering as I think about Christina Aguilera: How has the very existence of Britney Spears managed to interfere with, to pollute in fact, any thoughts I may attempt to have about Christina? Fame and celebrity, things that as I get older I really don’t wish on anyone I like, now wear on Spears and Co. like notoriety and wealth wear on the poor tweaked stars of a special “Lottery Winner” episode of COPS.

I don’t listen to Christina Aguilera, and, with a global fan base that crosses generational, racial and gender lines who’ve lined up to buy over 25 million albums I have to think that Christina Aguilera loses no sleep over this. But these juxtaposed images of Britney’s chemo-survival-chrome-dome and Christina belting out a duet with Bennett, while not causing me any sleepless nights either, have, I will admit, given me pause.

I don’t have any immediate plans to buy the new Christina Aguilera album (or “download” it, which I believe means giving money to someone to confirm that my computer is incapable of doing pretty much anything) but from what I can gather that album, Back To Back, explores a throwback hip-hop blend of beats and jazz orchestra that aims at a sort of Billie-Holiday-backed-up-by-The-Roots-conducted-by-Nelson-Riddle territory that, all things considered, seems a better way to spend your time than pummeling your ex-husband’s SUV with an umbrella while making "Here's Johnny!" faces with your ugly bald-ass head at the assembled paparazzi.

I’ve never seen an interview with Christina Aguilera so I have no idea how articulate she is. But, if I imagine an articulate Christina Aguilera, I imagine her explaining that people of Irish and Ecuadoran heritage brought up in a military family in the blue-collar confines of Staten Island and Pittsburgh, PA (think Cleveland but with a mess of rivers instead of the lake) tend to grow up centered in a way that the $50,000 per rehab stay kids aren’t.

Anyway... that's the pitch I made my editor. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Peter Grudzien's Vision....

In 1974, working alone in his New York apartment, Peter Grudzien released his album The Unicorn in a pressing of 500 copies.

Fast forward somewhere around 10-12 years later and rare record collector/dealer, Paul Major, arrives home from a day of record hunting the likes of which simply can no longer be done in 21st Century New York and begins to listen to some of the unknown records he’s brought home. In a catalog Paul used to write up and mail out called Sound Effects, in one salmon-colored issue with a photocopy of the cover of an LP by the band Companion on the front, I remember his description of doing a spit-take with a mouthful of beer right after dropping the needle on the Grudzien LP for the first time.

I have that list here, somewhere, but the act of looking for anything specific in the chaos and clutter of this room immediately causes whatever it might be to don a fake moustache and pair of glasses and hide behind one of the record crates. But what I remember is that the essence of Paul Major’s description set the tone for pretty much all the descriptions I’ve read since, those that really understand the record. The Unicorn presents a viewpoint as, if not more, unique and singular than any other I’ve ever encountered.

Once people got the whole story, the one about Grudzien’s Nashville aspirations in the 50s and his meeting with Johnny Cash and his homosexuality and his involvement in the original Stonewall Riots (the big bang of the Gay Rights movement in the US) all those details worked more to cloud the character of the album, more than to suss out anything important about it.

The people who are genuinely clueless are those who think the point of the record is in the “so bad it’s good” realm with records by The Shaggs or The High Hopes. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

With the help of Mike Ascherman, a friend of Paul Major’s and another New York collector who was among the album’s first fans, I sat down a while back and transcribed the lyrics of what I think is the album’s masterpiece, “Kentucky Candy.”

I’ve just spent the better part of the morning looking in vain for a download of the song – I suspect it’s archived in a WFMU show somewhere but you’re going to have to go on without me and find it on your own. Or you could just buy the CD reissue, it’s been done twice, once with Peter’s involvement on the Parallel World label (with bonus material) and again as a bootleg on the UK Radioactive label (without bonus, but with the original cover art, a plus).

Here’s a glimpse of Peter’s world:

When they point their twisted fingers
And say that I must bow
And thank them all for nothing
For that’s all they will allow
When the pieces of my nerve ends
Come crawling up your stairs

But you take me in and you place your smile
Upon my venom eyes
You read me, and you know I’m crushed
and I’ll confess
I’ve been out a-crusin’ for the young and pretty Gods

Then your fingertips touch mine
And I see Him in the sky
Who’ll tell me of His garments
Are they new and clean and white
And tell me how He suffered
And take me to your bed
Beat upon the pillow till it’s fluffed to greet my head

You’re the one who calms the angry sounds
You’re the one who bathes my lips in brandy
Let me ride upon your back tonight
Fly me to the surf that’s warm and sandy
You’re the one who guides me through the light
And you’re the one who feeds me

Kentucky candy

When they crawl upon each other
And squeeze out each others eyes
Because they have no time left
To remember what they were
And in unison they turn to me
That I participate

And I taste the serpent’s tongue
And I freeze in all my frights
Can you tell them for me now
That theirs is not my fight
I’m busy building heaven
Upon the shifting sands

Then He who walked on water
Said ye not be turned
And why is this so hard
For them to understand
That a piece of molten iron never learned
The soul of man will someday have to burn and

You’re the one who calms the angry sounds
You’re the one who bathes my lips in brandy
Let me ride upon your back tonight and
Fly me to the surf that’s warm and sandy
You’re the one who guides me through the light
You’re the one who feeds me

Kentucky candy

Now they’ve given you a warning
And all the world is dead
It’s on the upper level
Where they’ll unscrew your head
The monkey people have begun to carry things

They’ll roll out an oriental
Through a corridor that’s dark
And you will see nothing
But the purple bowl that shines
And there you meet all your childhood toys

And someone who looks just like you
Will strap you to your throne
And with a rusty mallet
He’ll beat your every thought
Until your mind is drained from all it knows
And then perhaps he’ll give you back your clothes

And you’ll hear them all beneath you
Oh witches scream and laugh
As they throw disgusting objects into a boiling pot
And you’ll beg your name is not upon their lips

And then you’ll remember Jesus
For there’s nothing he can do
You’ll search your mind for prayers
That you can’t recall
You should have given all of them your shoes

Just when you think it’s over
Friendly lightning then reminds
You of the crawling serpent
Whose body’s still on flames and
Go crawl through the streets now
They’ll all look the other way

There’s no one there to climb inside your dreams and

You’re the one who calms the angry sounds
You’re the one who bathes my lips in brandy
Let me ride upon your back tonight and
Fly me to the surf that’s warm and sandy
You’re the one who guides me through the light
And you’re the one who feeds me

Kentucky candy

(guitar break)

Ah but now it is the Summer
And the sun surrounds the trees
I’ll take you to the town
Where white houses kiss the sun
And you’ll smell the grass that’s damp beneath your feet

And there’s the friendly farmer
With his hair so white and clean
He says that he remembers
But he just wants to talk
He’s tending to the things his hands have grown

They’ve taken the old warehouse
That stood beneath the town
And now it is a theatre
They didn’t tear it down
But most of it has little changed at all

So it’s out to picking mushrooms
And then dry them in the sun
And it’s off to Devil’s Hopyard
To spark and laugh for fun
And I wish that we might live here
But our money won’t afford
So we pack our things for going home again and

You’re the one who calms the angry sounds
You’re the one who bathes my lips in brandy
Let me ride upon your back tonight and
Fly me to the surf that’s warm and sandy
You’re the one who guides me through the light
And you’re the one who feeds me
Kentucky candy
Kentucky candy

Saturday, March 24, 2007

So, I Used To Look For Records….

Throughout the mid-1980s and into the mid-1990s I used to spend two or three (sometimes five or six) days a week cruising a circuit of thrift stores, junk shops, flea markets, antique malls and used book and record stores looking for old LPs. Put in romantic terms, I was on a quest for the Holy Grail. Every record collector is on a similar quest. People who collect movie soundtracks have this tiny fire burning in them that whispers that the next yard sale, the next record show, stuck in the back of a box will be that clean copy of The Caine Mutiny. The Beatles collector picks up every copy of Yesterday and Today hoping for the tell-tale outline of Ringo’s black turtle-neck showing through the white of the pasted over slick. The Elvis collector knows the next copy of Speedway will be a mono one. And so on.

There are some odd little records I’d looked for forever. Twenty years after I saw that a friend’s copy of Bob Weir’s album, Ace, had a different back cover photograph I finally found my copy in a Pittsburgh shop. I must have made an involuntary noise, I rmember the clerk jerked his head in my direction.

Currently I have filed in my head the cover of the very first pressing of Chad and Jeremy’s LP The Ark on which the title is misspelled “Arc.”

Even though I haven’t gone out and searched in earnest for the impossible object for many years now I still have some memories that make me smile.

At a flea market that’s long gone now, out of the E-Z Listening section I pulled a stone mint in the shrink copy of Relatively Clean Rivers, a very rare 70s California private pressing by a band whose leader still lives on a goat farm and is the father of the kid who has replaced John Walker Lindh as “the American Taliban,” tops the US Justice Department’s “Most Wanted” list, and is believed to be living with Bin Laden in the mountains of Pakistan. How’s that for six degrees of separation?

At the Disabled American Veterans thrift store I found a run of a half dozen rare German progressive LPs in perfect shape, wedged among the regular Jimmy Swaggart and Ray Conniff albums. Who among you can stop yourself from wondering how they ever ended up there?

Behind that shop is a flea market that’s dead to the world today but about 10 years ago had a record dealing truck driving husband and wife pair in whose stall I found my clear vinyl copy of Blows Against the Empire (a record that Paul Kantner claims is an urban legend).

More recently, after abandoning the thrift store circuit – many have shut down, eliminated vinyl, or moved what they have into places where it actually physically hurts to look through them (I’d have taken photos of my knees but I thought I’d always have them….) – I have had some luck in finding the occasionally badly described rare record on eBay and putting in a low-ball bid in the last few seconds in the hopes that no one else has noticed. Most recently I was able to find the second set I’ve ever had of Will Jima’s records this way.

Will Jima was this guy who, back in the 70s was abducted from a dock in Florida by a UFO and briefly held while the aliens taught him the UFO message – the secret meaning of the Book of Revelations. He was then returned to preach the “UFO Message” which is the title of his first record. His second album (and I love the fact that these are also out there, somewhere, on 8-track tape) is called Revelation 666 and has one of the most amazing LP sleeves of all time (featured on the cover of the Acid Archives book).

I first came across these records on the wall of a shop in Chicago in the late 80s. After holding onto them for a while I sold the second one for about $200 and traded the first one to a New York collector who’d had the second one for years. The second album has a picture of the first album on the back and looking at it had nearly made him mad. I was able to use his desire for that bit of long-sought vinyl closure to nab an upgrade copy of Peter Grudzien’s The Unicorn, maybe the best “lost” record of all time.

I saw a description for an eBay auction that read something like “STRANGE UFO RECORD.” It was being sold by someone who didn’t normally sell records; sometimes it’s these guys who will describe a record as in “OK condition” that more often than not turns out to be a dusty M- LP. What was odd about this was the description of the “gatefold cover” and the condition of the “records.” Jima didn’t make an album in a gatefold, nor did he have a multiple LP set. I won the auction for the minimum bid of something like $3 plus $4 for shipping and what I received was this:

Someone had taken the two Jima LPs and some scotch tape and taped the two covers together into a make-shift gatefold. The tape was old and dried out and easy to remove leaving only minor stains on the edges of the second album (see the photo at the front of this post). Both discs were dusty and cleaned up to a nice M-. I auctioned the second one and got $150 and kept the first one.

But I digress.

Earlier today I went to the post office and, on the way back, I stopped at a local antique shop that has a record section in the back, by the stacks of old Playboys. The shop is run by a guy who (1) has some recent LP price guide and (2) has no idea that the condition effects the value. This means he has bins with VG- copies of records priced at $35 that would probably sell for $30 if they were M-. But there are always exceptions.

I passed up a just-too-beat copy of the third Mandrake Memorial LP. I remember seeing those guys at The Second Fret on Sansom Street in Philadelphia back in the late 1960s. Their unique sound was built around an electric harpsichord and their first album is what they sounded like live in a small club.

I found a nice first pressing of The Bee Gees’ Odessa LP in the red “velvet” cover in near mint shape for $10. Better still, a clean white label promotional copy of The GTOs Permanent Damage on the Straight label, a record that has sold for $300 on eBay, for $15. But best of all, for $20 I found an original “6 eye” mono pressing of Miles Davis Kind of Blue in beautiful shape. The best sounding record I own is a pressing of Kind Of Blue done by Classics Records in a set of four 12-inch 1-sided discs that play at 45 rpm. I can't wait to compare these.

This post was inspired by a comment Ted Barron left on my earlier post about record collectors. Ted’s blog, Boogie Woogie Flu, is always worth checking out.

Friday, March 23, 2007

David Bromberg - Try Me One More Time

My favorite memories of David Bromberg are from the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the early 1970s. Bromberg would play every year and, at the festival's end on Sunday night on the big stage, he would always put together David Bromberg's Philadelphia Folk Festival All Stars comprised of his band and a smattering of the weekend's performers.

One year the All Stars did a version of "Sharon," a song about a carnival hootchie-cootchie dancer with a chorus that went, "Oh Sharon, what do you do to these men? You know the same rowdy crowd that was here last night is back again." His back-up singers were Bonnie Raitt, Diane Davidson and Maria Muldaur and Maria, in green toreador pants and an electric orange halter top, did the "dance of Sharon" during the instrumental break. Definitely a memory for cold winter nights.

One sunny festival afternoon I was walking across a field just outside the fence that separated off a small performers' area from the rest of the crowd. Just on the performers' side of the fence I saw Bromberg walking and suddenly I heard someone calling "David! David!" To my right a young couple came running up as he stopped. As they ran over to him, the young long-haired guy stopped about 12 feet short, as his blonde girlfriend ran up to Bromberg and handed him a cardboard sign and stood next to him. He looked down at the sign he was now holding (which said "Hello Donna") and then looked up just as the guy snapped his picture. The girl grabbed the sign back and they ran off, laughing. I looked at him, the only witness to the event, and smiled. Bromberg shook his head and walked away.

Many people don't "get" David Bromberg. In an interview once he argued that he was part of a real but unrecognized genre that emerged during the early to mid-1960s - he called it the Jewish kid in his room in his parent's upper middle-class house in the suburbs listening to Son House genre. One reason I believe it's never been given official status has to do with a notion of authenticity in music, a notion that is impenetrably tangled (and even more confused) that I may devote some time to in the future but just don't have the time for just now.

Like Stephan Grossman, Jorma Kaukonen and a handful of other "folk revival" acoustic guitar players, David Bromberg spent some time with folk/blues legend, Reverend Gary Davis, taking lessons when they were offered and doing some odd jobs. But, and this is a real key to understanding Bromberg I think, where Grossman became the #1 restorationist of his generation of folk guitarists, Bromberg - much like Gary Davis before him - took influences from all over the place and eventually developed his own voice.

Look at almost any Stephan Grossman album and the notes that accompany every track will tell you how impressed you should be that he is able to play this piece exactly like [fill in the blank with any Delta bluesman]. Like the members of Early Music Ensembles, Grossman seeks to become invisible, to suppress any identity of his own under layers of studied technique. The problem is, however, that, unlike the music of the 15th Century of which no actual recordings exist, Skip James, Fred McDowell, and Mance Lipscomb did record and there isn't a Mississippi John Hurt song that Grossman performs I wouldn't rather listen to Mississippi John Hurt perform.

Anyone who knows David Bromberg's music also knows that he stepped away from his recording and touring career almost twenty years ago and has spent that time studying violin making and repair (and, in the process, has become a leading US dealer and authority on violins). A few years back he was lured away from his long-time home in Chicago (Bromberg, like me, is a Philadelphia native) by the city of Wilmington, Delaware, and has set up his violin shop in an old building in a part of the city that has undergone significant restoration and has become the center for the arts in Wilmington.

Bromberg and band still play a handful of shows each year, mostly on the East Coast. A couple years ago I saw him at the Keswick Theatre, a small 1300 seat venue in Glenside, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. The theatre, originally a combination vaudeville/movie house first opened in 1928 and hosted such legends as Stepin' Fetchit, Paul Robeson and Ina Ray Hutton with her all-girl band. Designed by the architect Horace Trumbauer (who also created the Philadelphia Museum of Art), if you ever have an opportunity to see a show there, take it.

Bromberg has played with a long list of artists over the years; a whole crate of records that he’s a featured sideman on sits behind me as I write this. The title of his last studio album, 1990’s Sideman Serenade, was in recognition of just that very thing. Fans of unreleased Bob Dylan still hope for the eventual official release of the legendary Bromberg Sessions of which a handful of tracks have surfaced among collectors.

For a long time Bromberg was lead acoustic guitarist in a duo with Jerry Jeff Walker and a regular on the club and coffeehouse circuit in the early 70s. When I saw him at the Keswick he did a beautiful version of Walker’s “Mister Bojangles” about which he told this story:

Jerry Jeff liked to think he was able to hold his liquor but such was not the case. The song is about an encounter with the famous dancer in a drunk tank in New Orleans in the early 1960s. However, Bromberg explained, there are some problems with that story. First, the real “Mister Bojangles,” Bill Robinson, was a refined and elegant gentleman who had most likely never seen the inside of a drunk tank. Second, the jails of New Orleans were segregated at the time of the story and Jerry Jeff would not have been housed with black prisoners. New Orleans had ten thousand street performers and one of every three street dancers went by the name “Mister Bojangles” so Jerry Jeff was most likely writing about an encounter with a drunken white street dancer of unknown ability.

None of this makes the song any less impressive however.

But I digress.

Try Me One More Time (on the Appleseed label out of West Chester, PA) is what a David Bromberg album would sound like if it was produced by Rick Rubin using the same minimalist approach he took with Johnny Cash and The American Recordings. Just voice and one acoustic guitar – in fact, the guitar that David uses on every track is his Martin M-42 David Bromberg Signature Edition, a rosewood bodied guitar with specification similar to the Martin OOO and OM models of the 1930s.

The album collects 16 blues and folk tunes; one original, several traditional, and the rest by writers like Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, and two by Reverend Gary Davis.
The most distinct impression I am left with after playing this record a half dozen times or so now is that it is the sound of a man who is comfortable in his own skin, someone who knows who he is. These are enviable and powerful traits.

I’ve always argued that there are three dimensions that musicians (and all artists) must struggle to find a balance among. First, there is an intellectual ability – knowledge of music theory, harmony, chord construction, substitution; the vocabulary you bring to your playing. A novelist who is enormously creative, but has a vocabulary of fewer than 100 words will be as limited as a creative musician who knows 4 or 5 chords. Second are the physical skills necessary to actually play the complex progressions you understand. In an interview Bromberg was asked about learning to flat-pick complex jigs and reels. “Each one you learn from scratch, starting slowly and building speed. I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t.”

Lastly, there is an emotional dimension, the immediate access to one’s emotional life. This is the feeling in the music, the heart, the injection of personality.

The jazz fusion guitarist, Al Dimeola, had enormous skills and ability in the first two areas. But Chet Atkins, normally a very kind man, once described him as “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”

Not so with David, and in particular not so on this album.

The material here is presented with a great sense of confidence. It is never flashy for the sake of flash, yet his finger-style work and slide are both played with an enviable mastery. As a guitarist, Bromberg plays with both a fluidity and assuredness, never afraid to add his own stylistic touches to the traditional tunes or interject his sense of humor wherever he sees fit. On the songs where he shouts, he shouts as if he wants to raise the roof; a booming and surprisingly loud bellow of a voice.

Bromberg reworks Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry” into more of a straight-ahead blues, slowing it down ever-so-slightly and changing it enough in the process that it takes a moment before you’ll recognize the song.

It may be a tired metaphor but it just seems appropriate – the overall feel of this album is like a really comfortable and really well made suit of clothes. Like that, this is a record I don’t think I will tire of putting on.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Heavy Metal Thunder

It sounds odd today, but for a brief moment in the 1990s I was very fond of heavy metal music. More specifically, a variant of metal called N.W.O.B.H.M. (pronounced as a word, new-WOBE-um) which stands for New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. This has a somewhat sparser, cleaner sound. Still aggressive and definitely guitar-based, N.W.O.B.H.M. had a slight overlap with psychedelic record collectors who were drawn by the omni-present guitar riffs and the promise of a new set of impossible objects. There were some of the very early N.W.O.B.H.M. titles that were issued privately in small pressings, and the better bands recorded for small indie labels which, and these are pre-internet days, were often difficult to track down.

At this point there is literally only one record I still keep in my vinyl collection, a 3-track 10-inch e.p. by the UK band Fireclown on which the side-long track is just kind of perfect (for what it is).

But I bring this up because I went on a sudden cleaning jag in one upstairs closet that still holds a few thousand LPs or more. I hadn't been more than halfway back for a few years and, on a quest for some things to throw up on eBay, I dove in. I came up with about 2 boxes of the last of the heavy metal, records I'd forgotten were still there.

About three or four years ago, maybe longer, I took the bulk of the N.W.O.B.H.M. I'd collected and put together an auction that I ran in Goldmine Magazine, the record collector magazine that was on top before the arrival of eBay. I remember that one metal dealer contacted me and bought the whole listing, every single record. I gave him a nice price recognizing that, mixed in with the really good titles, were some very common records I'd never find buyers for.

Anyway, I thought that was the last of it until I found those crates. The best thing about eBay is that, as long as you know how to word a description, you never have to know what a record is "worth" before you list it. I'd been out of this scene for a long time and had no idea if anything was worth much, so I started all the auctions at .99 cents which turned out to work pretty well. I sold all but 2 or 3 of the 100+ titles with some going for $20-$30.

But not only that - I also found a crate full of records that I forgot I still owned. Records that, if I found them for a couple bucks, I would have bought today. So there's now a crate full of "new records" by the turntable.

This reminds me of a Christmas years and years ago when I knew someone with a shrink wrap machine and for one Christmas, when I was too broke to buy any new records, I took out about 50-75 albums I hadn't ever listened to - just stuff I'd found in thrift shops or got from radio stations when the program director wasn't looking - and resealed them all in new shrink wrap and wrapped them all up as presents to myself.

I know. Look back at the 3rd or 4th post in March for the entry in which I explain in some depth how pathetic record collectors can be.

Anyway, I hope these people will pay for the things they won; so far they have been and about half of the crate has been hauled away.

I was thinking about these things for a number of reasons. One is that I'm hung up at the moment trying to finish the post I thought would be here by now - a review of David Bromberg's new album. Two is that I'm almost finished a very nice little book about Led Zeppelin, specifically about their untitled fourth album, though it really covers everything leading up to that record. It's a refreshing book as well because it has nothing to say about their legendary debauchery or anything that smacks of the narration for a Behind the Music episode. Just the music, and some nice observations on how some songs are constructed. The book is Led Zeppelin IV by Barney Hoskyns (US, Rodale 2006).

It sent me to my Led Zep box set and had me wishing I had copies of the individual albums (something I just may break down and get). During the day I can just BLAST this stuff and it was fun to sit and listen to "Black Dog" and read about its origins.

A good part of the 3rd and 4th albums were written in rural Wales and reading about it reminded me of a trip Cheryl and I took in 1999, renting a car in Oxford and driving all the way to the northern tip of Wales. We stayed at roadside Inns and spent the days exploring old castles and warming ourselves in local pubs.

But I digress.

One pretty strong argument put forth in the book is that it is, in the end, a misnomer to describe Led Zeppelin as heavy metal or "proto-heavy metal" because they swung too much and their sound is too complicated and diverse. What's odd is that, when I think about the band, what I hear in my memory are Page's monster riffs, Bonham's enormous drums and Plant's screeching vocals. But, when I actually listen and pay closer attention, I hear a thousand other elements as well.

To recap: * A box of "new" records to listen to. * A crate of metal LPs sold on eBay. * Led Zeppelin isn't a heavy metal band.

OK then.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Top Ten (With a Bullet): The Top Ten Anti-War Songs

There hasn’t been a day since the invention of the phonograph record when the world has not been at war someplace.

Now, as bullets cut through the air of the green zone and troops mass on the borders of the 21st Century, instead of a fallout shelter I’m building a list of the 10 best anti-war songs ever. Starting at number ten we have....

10. The Ballad of Penny Evans – Steve Goodman

The best "one guy with a guitar" performer who ever lived, Goodman's music was primarily in the "good times & more beer" zone peppered with moments of genuine pathos but rarely political. On a 1973 album on the Buddha label he included a powerful a cappella treatment of a song sung by a 21 year-old woman whose husband has been killed in Vietnam and whose rage against the government who sent him there can barely be contained: “And now every month I get a check from an Army bureaucrat / And it's every month I tear it up and I mail the damn thing back / Do you think that makes it all right, do you think I'd fall for that?” In his clear voice, loud with anger, it's an amazing performance. Watch it here.

9. Jimmy Newman – Tom Paxton

Paxton's "Talking Vietnam Pot Luck Blues" about a young soldier's discovery that everyone on both sides is smoking dynamite dope is almost as funny as this song about a hospitalized soldier's slow realization that his friend has died during the night before they are scheduled to be shipped back home is emotionally devastating. "Get up damn it Jimmy! They're loading us next, and you've only to open your eyes." It's well worth tracking down if you haven't heard it. To tide you over, here's his "George W Told the Nation." Nobody can rhyme "Falujah" with "screwed ya'" like Tom.

8. And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda – Eric Bogle

An Irish songwriter's story about a soldier returning home from the battle of Galipoli in 1915. The song is in the voice of a soldier whose legs have been blown off ("I never knew there were worse things than dying.") who watches as all the people who've come to greet the returning soldiers turn away in silence as the injured are brought off the boat. There are a million or more ways to ruin this kind of song and Bogle avoids every one. The song's been done by many people. This version is beautiful and heartbreaking.

7. Machine Gun – Jimi Hendrix

All the elements of a great screenplay are here. New York City, New Year’s Eve, hours from the end of the 1960s, The Fillmore East and the greatest electric rock guitarist in history is a black man, a former US Army paratrooper. Pressured by a growing black militancy, he’s fired his white British backing band and has formed his “Band of Gypsys” with Billy Cox (bass), and Buddy Miles (drums). He knows he has to address Vietnam somehow, and in the twelve minutes and thirty-nine seconds of “Machine Gun” Jimi says as much about the war as John Coltrane said about God in “A Love Supreme.” Here's some footage I never knew existed from the NY eve Fillmore show. Here's a shortened version he played on the old Dick Cavett Show.

6. Universal Soldier – Buffy Saint-Marie

This is the anti-war song that speaks an awful truth that we would really prefer to ignore: while we can point fingers at the presidents and generals all we want, it is the individual soldiers who feed the war machine. The fact that these are our sons and brothers and sisters and daughters (and fathers and mothers) makes it a horrible and ugly truth (and, who knows, maybe some truths are best turned away from) but the Lysistrata solution offered here is a hard one to ignore. This is an amazing version.

5. Between the Wars – Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg was to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s what Phil Ochs was to Richard Nixon in the 1960s. Far from his most vitriolic political song, "Between the Wars" examines the British working-class experience with verses like "I kept the faith and I kept voting / Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand / For theirs is a land with a wall around it / And mine is a faith in my fellow man / Mine is the green field and the factory floor / Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers / And mine is the peace we knew / Between the wars."

4. I Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die – Country Joe & The Fish

The archetypal 1967-San Francisco-LSD-hippie-band led by a psychedelicized & politicized US army vet, "Country Joe” McDonald. I remember in 1968 or 1969 sitting behind a row of guys in Navy uniforms either on their way to or back from Viet Nam at a Country Joe & The Fish show in Philadelphia as they played this song ("Be the first one on your block to have his boy come home in a box."). Watching them cheer every line was around the time I began to suspect that the world was, well… complicated. Bring back the draft and we'd have this again in twenty minutes, half hour tops.

3. Masters of War – Bob Dylan

The studio version from 1963 is brilliant, but the live-in-Italy version on 1984’s “Real Live” with former Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Mick Taylor, on a distorted, almost heavy metal, lead guitar is 1,000 times angrier than Johnny Rotten ever was or will be. There's a talk that the critic Griel Marcus gave to the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley called "Stories of a Bad Song" that is really worth reading. Here's Kirk Douglas of The Roots doing the song at a recent Dylan tribute. At first he sings the lyrics of "Masters of War" to the tune of the National Anthem. Worth your time.

2. What’s Going On? – Marvin Gaye

“Father, father, father we don’t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate” wasn’t the kind of rhyme one expected to hear in 1971 from a million-selling soul artist who had earned the title “Prince of Motown.” The title track from an album his label flatly refused to release at first, calling it commercial suicide, became the crown jewel in what Smokey Robinson still calls “the greatest album of all time.” This version is all the evidence of his incredible power over audiences anyone should require.

1. I Ain't Marching Anymore – Phil Ochs

In 1976 Phil Ochs, the best "protest folk" songwriter of his (or maybe any) generation, hung himself at his sister's home. The victim of the sort of clinical depression we now have the drugs to treat and feelings of despair in the aftermath of Watergate, the rise of disco and the failure of the 1960's to live up to its grand promises of social change (let’s face it, if the 60's had succeeded Nixon would have died in prison and Kissenger would be awaiting trial as you read this). Put simply, any top-whatever-list of anti-war songs that doesn't start with Phil isn't worth the ether it’s printed on. The solo acoustic version on the 1965 album of the same name remains the finest two minute and thirty-two second lesson in the history of international conflict ever recorded on to a roll of magnetic tape. This one's not bad either.

To be honest, “best of” lists are almost always a bit of a sham and Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, The Clash, R.E.M., Edwin Starr, The Dead Kennedys, Sun Ra, Fred Small, Richie Havens, Neil Young and, OK, even the Sex Pistols are all absent here. But these ten songs collectively represent a diverse body of response to our shared history and any one you may not be familiar with is deserving of your time and attention.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Waist deep in Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen's "folk big band" has been touring the globe playing rousingly sloppy arrangements of the music Pete Seeger brought to the stage well over a half century ago.

The album is fine. It's not one I play often, but it is fun and I've always admired Springsteen for, if not not repeating himself, then not repeating himself anywhere near as often as any other artist of his stature. And the record sounds like it was great fun to record, to corral all that energy without squelching it was a real accomplishment.

But there's one thing that's been bugging me since the record was announced, and it's been bugging me even more the longer the tour rolls on and his fans dutifully post each night's set list on the internet.

Given Springsteen's politics and the current debacle that is the War in Iraq it just puzzles me why he has chosen not to add one of Seeger's most timely and powerful originals.

Blacklisted from television in the US in 1963, Seeger was finally brought back for a performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, but it wasn't until a return appearance in 1968 that he was permitted to sing this song, and sing it he did.

Until recently there was a clip from the 1968 performance on YouTube but it's now been pulled for "copyright violation" (another blog waiting to happen). This video uses Seeger's recording and is pretty good if you're not familiar with the music.

Look at the lyrics and, if you have Bruce's cell phone number, drop a dime and ask him what gives? Why isn't this part of every night's encore?

It was back in nineteen forty-two,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in-a Loozianna,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That's how it all begun.
We were -- knee deep in the Big Muddy,
But the big fool said to push on.

The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure,
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
'Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

The Sergeant said, "Sir, with all this equipment
No man will be able to swim."
"Sergeant, don't be a Nervous Nellie,"
The Captain said to him.
"All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I'll lead on."
We were -- neck deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

All at once, the moon clouded over,
We heard a gurgling cry.
A few seconds later, the captain's helmet
Was all that floated by.
The Sergeant said, "Turn around men!
I'm in charge from now on."
And we just made it out of the Big Muddy
With the captain dead and gone.

We stripped and dived and found his body
Stuck in the old quicksand.
I guess he didn't know that the water was deeper
Than the place he'd once before been.
Another stream had joined the Big Muddy
'Bout a half mile from where we'd gone.
We were lucky to escape from the Big Muddy
When the big fool said to push on.

Well, I'm not going to point any moral;
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep! Neck deep!
Soon even a Tall man'll be over his head, we're
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!

The Case of the Naked Ambassador....

In today's BBC News of the Middle East, Israel has recalled its ambassador to El Salvador "after he was found drunk and naked apart from bondage gear."

I don't mean to be self-depreciating but I really don't believe that, given a weekend and a bottle of good Irish whiskey, I could come up with this next sentence all by myself.

"Reports say he was able to identify himself to police only after a rubber ball had been removed from his mouth."

Given the growing tendency of contemporary media to play fast and loose with the facts, I tried that. I took one of the rubber balls my dogs play with, washed it off, stuck it in my mouth and tried to say "Tzuriel Refael."

The best I could muster was something like "Cawoooo cacawaoooo."

I tried to say "Diplomatic immunity" but it came out sounding pretty much the same.

The BBC story continued: "Haaretz website reports that police found Mr Refael in the Israeli embassy compound where he had been found bound, gagged and naked apart from sado-masochistic sex accessories." In training for the 2008 Summer Understatement Olympics, a foreign ministry official described Ambassador Tzuriel Refael's behaviour as an "unprecedented embarrassment."

The last time I looked, the top rated TV series in the US was the original C.S.I. Las Vegas. I can't remember who or where but one critic I read in reference to the series made an observation I think fits well here. The critic said that there was no more appropriate program to sit at the top of the ratings during the Bush Administration.

If you're at all familiar with the series you understand that the consistant moral lesson underpinning all the various crimes and misdemeanors is this: Step outside Traditional American Family Values and you will end up extanguinated in a dark alley with a pair of pantyhose stuffed in your mouth.

Why is it that our interest in a middle-aged Jewish man's fascination for vibrating butt plugs will always trump our interest in stories of actual corruption? An Israeli Ambassador caught selling secrets to Iran is page 6 unless it involves a relationship with a seductive Iranian spy, then it's page one. Make that a seductive male spy and the story goes above the fold.

Perhaps it's driven by the same need that seems to drive most everything, the need to know that we're not alone.

Of course the pastor did lines of coke off the breasts of the exotic dancer because to NOT do lines of coke off the breasts of the exotic dancer when its offered to you, with a straw lodged conveniently between them, would be the most unnatural act of all.

Ray Davies is a genius.

cause he gets up in the morning,
And he goes to work at nine,
And he comes back home at five-thirty,
Gets the same train every time.
cause his world is built round punctuality,
It never fails.

And he's oh, so good,
And he's oh, so fine,
And he's oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He's a well respected man about town,
Doing the best things so conservatively.

And his mother goes to meetings,
While his father pulls the maid,
And she stirs the tea with councilors,
While discussing foreign trade,
And she passes looks, as well as bills
At every suave young man

cause he's oh, so good,
And he's oh, so fine,
And he's oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He's a well respected man about town,
Doing the best things so conservatively.

And he likes his own backyard,
And he likes his fags the best,
cause he's better than the rest,
And his own sweat smells the best,
And he hopes to grab his fathers loot,
When pater passes on.

cause he's oh, so good,
And he's oh, so fine,
And he's oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He's a well respected man about town,
Doing the best things so conservatively.

And he plays at stocks and shares,
And he goes to the regatta,
And he adores the girl next door,
cause he's dying to get at her,
But his mother knows the best about
The matrimonial stakes.

cause he's oh, so good,
And he's oh, so fine,
And he's oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He's a well respected man about town,

Doing the best things so conservatively.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Finally... The present that looks like the future!

I can't speak for you, I know that. But I can say, for myself, growing up, the future, when it finally becomes the present, is always mundane, banal.

In fact, it is the act of the future becoming the present that creates the opportunity to use words like "mundane" and "banal."

Think for a minute.

When we watched the original Star Trek those little flip-open "communicators" seemed every bit as exciting as the phasers and the warp drive. But the cell phones that look ten times as sexy and sleek; the phones people wear on their ears or the ones that are thin little cords that dangle down - the ones that have made it impossible to identify the actual schizophrenics any more - these seem so ordinary. So mundane. So banal.

The cars hurt the most.

The cars that zoomed across every version of "The City of Tomorrow!" eventually became the Ford Taurus. Every year every carmaker rolls out another exciting "concept car" that, every year ends up looking pretty much like the Ford Taurus. Mundane. Banal.

This was Kubrick's genius in 2001: A Space Odyssey, his ability to reach forward and bring the future back into the present as it will appear when it becomes today. Space phones and space toilets. Mundane. Everyday.

But look at this image.

It is the city of tomorrow, right here and now.

By joining itself with the Grand Canyon and ancient tribal people it also folds the past into itself. It manages to simultaneously look like an illustration from Johnny Quest, and call up that African tribe who use plates to extend their lower lips.

Doesn’t it?

It also brings back my own memory of the Italian Pavilion at the 1967 World Expo and a large domed area with a clear glass floor underneath which was a long drop to a desert floor. I can remember the feeling in the bottom of my stomach as I write this.

It’s probably just me, but this is the most compelling image I’ve come across in quite a while. And, even if it is just me, it’s my blog.

The Top 100... Part Four

I wasn't thinking clearly when I started into this. I saw the list and thought... Hey! There's some stuff that should be on there and isn't! Why, somebody ought to DO something!

I think what I was really thinking about was that I wanted to say somethings about film; I used to write quite a bit about movies and haven't for some time. I think perhaps I was missing it a bit, but jeeze.... I really didn't need to go though all this to do it I suppose. But, I also suppose there's no reason to stop now so let me finish up. I believe I've managed to find places for most of my alternates, and, although one effect has been to increase the representation of more contemporary films, I think the end result is pretty sound.

Here’s the home stretch, the end of the line. Here’s the last of this exercise in revisionist history. From the original list:

76. CITY LIGHTS (1931)
77. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)
78. ROCKY (1976)
79. THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
80. THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

Chaplin is already represented earlier on, so are The Marx Brothers, but neither Laurel & Hardy nor W.C. Fields is anywhere to be found. Laurel & Hardy’s strengths were more in their early shorts rather than their features. Much was the same for Fields, but with one exception, THE BANK DICK (1940), a genuinely hilarious film comedy that belongs, and now is, here.

AMERICAN GRAFFITI is the only film about the 1960s that isn’t an unwatchable costume freak show – mostly because it has the sense to set itself early enough to avoid that.

ROCKY is a kind of quintessential American film and only seems somehow less than what it is now because its memory has become contaminated by it’s mediocre to nightmarishly bad sequels.

THE DEER HUNTER is as close to flawless as movies can really get. And, although I really hate THE WILD BUNCH, as I explained, this list is not about me.

81. MODERN TIMES (1936)
82. GIANT (1956)
83. PLATOON (1986)
84. FARGO (1996)
85. DUCK SOUP (1933)

Woody Allen’s favorite of his own films is 1990’s ALICE. It has a tone unlike any other of his films, or any other film for that matter. It also has Mia Farrow’s best performance (from a long list of good ones). GIANT is a big, sprawling movie. So is Martin Scorsese’s THE AVIATOR (2004) which may well be recognized as his best film 2o years from now.

PLATOON is a decent film, but also overrated and I’ve stuck Stone in earlier with his real masterpiece, NATURAL BORN KILLERS. One other director not present on the AFI’s list but genuinely deserving of a place at the table is John Sayles and any number of his films would fit well here. I've selected THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET because it has a perfect performance by Joe Morton and is an independent science fiction film about race in the US that has a budget of no more than $27.50 for all of its effects shots.

I think FARGO is pretty far down on a list of the best Cohen Brothers films. It is a series of bleak landscapes and lifeless characters shot in long takes with long lenses that helps it pass for something more than it is. RAISING ARIZONA (1987) however, is a masterpiece of contemporary American cinema and there’s no other film on my list of alternates more deserving of a place on this list. So, the revised list looks like this:
76. THE BANK DICK (1940)
77. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)
78. ROCKY (1976)
79. THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
80. THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
81. ALICE (1990)
82. THE AVIATOR (2004)
83. THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984)
84. RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
85. DUCK SOUP (1933)

I went to a luncheon some years back and the Mayor of Indianapolis introduced a number of people who were present. As he said the name the person would come forward, shake the mayor’s hand, and then stand behind him. Muhammad Ali was there, and he really did look like an African King in a perfect blue suit. You could read the paper in a dark room just from the light of his charisma. The actress Cicely Tyson was there too.

When the mayor introduced Spike Lee as “the finest black director in Hollywood” Spike came forward, shook the mayor’s hand, but then grabbed the goose neck microphone and said “Finest director, period.” The luncheon crowd loved it.

Maybe not the “best director, period” but Lee’s MALCOLM X is as good a film as most on this list and a better film than MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY.

EASY RIDER is far more than the biker exploitation movie it started out to be, but doesn’t really make the A list either. HEAT (1995) however is perhaps the finest American film of the past 15 years.

THE JAZZ SINGER belongs high on a list of “historically important American films” but I need a space for Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES (1974) which is the epitome of the kind of film that will never receive proper recognition on stuffed-shirt lists like this one.

For the final five films it is the last three that I wish to revise. THE UNFORGIVEN is a fine film, but it’s also impossibly dreary and difficult to sit through a second time. The Cohen Brothers’ THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) is simply a better film all around, and I’ll stand on Clint Eastwood’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and shout that if need be.

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER was an important film when it was released but it has not aged well. There are so many better Hepburn and Tracy films, just as there are many far better Sidney Poitier films as well. In 1963 Stanley Kramer (also with Spencer Tracy) took a break from making heavy “message” films and made the first big budget film comedy ever; IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD also turned out to be a great film comedy that, for all its expensive casts, locations and effects, ends with the greatest banana peel gag in history.

And finally, while it’s impossible to construct a list of the greatest American films that doesn’t have a slot for Jimmy Cagney, it isn’t YANKEE DOODLE DANDY that belongs here. It’s WHITE HEAT.

“Made it Ma! Top of the world!”

1. CITIZEN KANE (1941)
2. CASABLANCA (1942)
3. THE GODFATHER (1972)
4. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
5. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
6. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
7. THE GRADUATE (1967)
8. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)
9. CABARET (1972)
10. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952)
11. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
12. STALAG 17 (1953)
13. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
14. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
15. STAR WARS (1977)
16. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)
17. THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)
18. PSYCHO (1960)
19. CHINATOWN (1974)
20. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)
21. THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
22. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
23. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
24. RAGING BULL (1980)
25. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
26. DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)
27. BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
28. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
29. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)
30. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)
31. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
32. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
33. HIGH NOON (1952)
34. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
35. THE PRODUCERS (1968)
36. MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)
37. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)
38. BIG TROUBLE (1986)
39. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)
40. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
41. WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
42. REAR WINDOW (1954)
43. KING KONG (1933)
44. THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)
45. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)
46. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
47. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
48. JAWS (1975)
49. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)
50. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
51. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)
52. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
53. THIEF (1981)
54. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)
55. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
56. NASHVILLE (1976)
57. HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)
58. FANTASIA (1940)
59. REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955)
60. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
61. VERTIGO (1958)
62. TOOTSIE (1982)
63. STAGECOACH (1939)
64. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
65. WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (1966)
66. NETWORK (1976)
67. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
68. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
69. SHANE (1953)
70. THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
71. PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985)
72. EL CID (1961)
73. CHOOSE ME (1984)
74. THE GOLD RUSH (1925)
75. CASINO (1995)
76. THE BANK DICK (1940)
77. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)
78. ROCKY (1976)
79. THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
80. THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
81. ALICE (1990)
82. THE AVIATOR (2004)
83. THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984)
84. RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
85. DUCK SOUP (1933)
86. MALCOLM X (1992)
87. FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
88. HEAT (1995)
89. PATTON (1970)
90. BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
91. MY FAIR LADY (1964)
92. A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)
93. THE APARTMENT (1960)
94. GOODFELLAS (1990)
95. PULP FICTION (1994)
96. THE SEARCHERS (1956)
97. BRINGING UP BABY (1938)
98. THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
99. IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963)
100. WHITE HEAT (1949)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Top 100... Part Three

We approach the middle of the pack and hit a streak of fifteen straight films – numbers 36 through 50 – I would not want to take issue with (and most of these I’d love to watch today). Just look... the 30’s, 40’s 50, 60’s, 70s and teens are represented – it’s exactly what a list like this is supposed to be. It’s pretty white, but so was American film for most of the 20th Century.

Well… OK, I do have an issue; a couple actually. One is the enormous disrespect shown to film comedy on lists like this. I’m still angry that Gandhi won Best Picture while Ghostbusters – a superior film in all respects – didn’t even get a nomination, but that’s another blog.

A second issue I have is with the absence of John Cassavetes from a list that includes Kevin Costner. And I think I see a solution to all of it (two solutions if you count removing Costner). Even though most people may not be familiar with it (and confuse it with a film by John Carpenter with a similar title) Cassavetes made a minor masterpiece in 1986 by teaming Peter Falk and Alan Arkin (whose earlier film The In-Laws belongs here too) in a comedic remake of Double Indemnity called BIG TROUBLE. Add Beverly D’Angelo, Charles Durning, Robert Stack and Richard Libertini and you get a movie that is considerably funnier than TOOTSIE. So, substituting for DOUBLE INDEMNITY at number 38 is BIG TROUBLE (1986) and that streak now looks like this:

MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) BIG TROUBLE (1986) DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965) NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) WEST SIDE STORY (1961) REAR WINDOW (1954) KING KONG (1933) THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) TAXI DRIVER (1976) JAWS (1975) SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)

Moving right along….

Mozart’s place in history is secure already and “biopics” are an abomination unto the Lord. Michael Mann is the best American filmmaker alive today and in addition to MANUNTER being superior to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (and Brian Cox creating a far scarier Hannibal Lechter), his two masterworks are THIEF and HEAT. THIEF is the more economical and has the best performance of James Caan’s career. Out with Wolfgang, in with Jimmy.

51. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)
52. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
53. THIEF (1981)
54. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)
55. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)

M*A*S*H is a fine film, but if Altman is going to be represented by any single film it has to be NASHVILLE so let’s switch these at #56. Further, at #57 THE THIRD MAN is quite wonderful AND quite British. I’m sorry but this is a list of the 100 greatest American movies. We’ve already allowed Kubrick in on a technicality; if we let this in we have to start looking at Michael Powell and Lindsey Anderson and the thought just makes my head hurt. In its place I will put David Mammet’s HOUSE OF GAMES (1987) which is as smart a mystery film as has ever been written.

56. NASHVILLE (1976)
57. HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)
58. FANTASIA (1940)
59. REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955)
60. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

Many people find THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS deserving for inclusion here. I’m not one of them however and I want to substitute the far scarier Mike Nichols film WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) which both gives Nichols a second spot on the list, something he richly deserves, and - just as finding a slot for THE BIG SLEEP opened a place for Bogart and Bacall - also finds a space for Taylor and Burton. And it just feels better, doesn’t it?

Now 61-65 looks like this:

61. VERTIGO (1958)
62. TOOTSIE (1982)
63. STAGECOACH (1939)
64. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
65. WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)

And 66-70 can stay just like it is (even if the remake of The Manchurian Candidate did manage to point out problems with the plot of the original that had never previously occurred to me).

66. NETWORK (1976)
67. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
68. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
69. SHANE (1953)
70. THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

Ah, but now we have some work to do.

71. FORREST GUMP (1994)
72. BEN-HUR (1959)
73. WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)
74. THE GOLD RUSH (1925)
75. DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)

Personally I am of a mind to scrap all but Chaplin. EL CID (1961) is a better epic. It also stars Heston and allows Sophia Loren entry to the list. The danger if FOREST GUMP gets a place at the table is that it makes it impossible to turn away THE BIG CHILL and that danger is just too great. The same can be said for WUTHERING HEIGHTS and Bruce Willis’ ARMAGEDDON which are emotionally identical twins. Finally, DANCES WITH WOLVES beat GOODFELLAS (for picture AND director) so there must be some sort of nod to the law of karma. The revised list looks like this:

71. PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985)
72. EL CID (1961)
73. CHOOSE ME (1984)
74. THE GOLD RUSH (1925)
75. CASINO (1995)

Much better.

PRIZZI'S HONOR gets Jack Nicholson another slot while also giving another nod to William Hickey (the reptilian Don Prizzi) whose other spot is in a small part in THE PRODUCERS.

CHOOSE ME may be unknown to many reading this, but that's a mistake correctable by seeking out a copy of the DVD. One of the two great films by Altman-apprentice, Alan Rudolph (the other is TROUBLE IN MIND).

CASINO both reeks vengence on Kevin Costner and allows Sharon Stone her rightful place in the top 100.

The final 25 coming up is a bit. Stay tuned.

O Captain! My Captain!

O captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the stead keel, the vessel grim and daring.

Marvel Comics was always more subversive than D.C. They had to be. How else do you battle the combined power of Superman and truth, justice and the American way with anything BUT improvised explosive devices?

Killing Captain America with an IED would have been too much though. Having him gunned down on the steps of the courthouse by a sniper hired by an ex-girlfriend is just so much more… American.

O captain! my captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up! for you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills:
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths, for you the shores a-crowding:
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning.

But let’s be clear. Just like it wasn’t the bi-planes that killed Kong, ‘twas Bush and Cheney killed the Captain. ‘twas the pundits pulled the trigger and, if the Captain now morphs into the Christ, gleefully grabbed the pieces of silver. ‘twas the neo-cons standing watch on the deck who told the Captain, “Iceberg? Why, that’s not an iceberg! Don’t worry. Just stay the course due East into the setting sun.”

My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will.
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done:
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won!

Dick Cheney, the evil twin of the Energizer Bunny, the guy whose heart, as Dennis Miller said before his head injury, “has more skips than Richards Simmons on his way to a Ricky Martin concert,” leans down and tells the corpse of America it was all worth it. Look at all these successes.

The Top 100... Part Two


Welcome to Part Two in a revision of the “AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies” list. Now we’re looking at numbers 16 through 20 and the first thing I’ll say is that there are better John Houston films, and better Bogart films, than THE AFRICAN QUEEN, but it’s a fine film nonetheless and does offer the Bogart/Hepburn pairing that has burned a place in the collective memory (and on this list). My first real BIG objection is to ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. It is a brilliant, a near-perfect novel, and a genuinely vile and nasty film. Here’s why I think that:

It is clear that the character of McMurphy is the Christ figure, and it is through his death and sacrifice that the Big Indian is saved at the end. The novel is narrated by the Big Indian and it is made very clear that the Big Indian is stark raving mad. I understand the difficulties of adapting the page to the screen, I understand the compromises that must be made to accommodate the medium – hell, my favorite character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil, is cut entirely from Peter Jackson’s films and I never complained. But there is no reason for inserting the little scene in which the Big Indian lets on to McMurphy that he’s faking it – a scene that removes the crucifixion metaphor from the narrative and reduces everything to little more than the nihilistic romp of the loonies. No reason other than sheer meanness. Kesey hated the film for that. I do too. It’s gone.

16. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)
17. THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)
18. PSYCHO (1960)
19. CHINATOWN (1974)
20. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

In its place I’ve stuck another (much better) film about madness from my list of 30 alternates – Oliver Stone’s one real masterpiece, NATURAL BORN KILLERS. I’ve never made feature films but I do know something about how they’re made. There’s no other film on this list I can’t imagine making, but this one is just unfathomable to me. I don’t know any other film like it. It also opens a hole at #83 because there’s really no reason for Oliver Stone to be on the list more than once, and APOCALYPSE NOW is so much better than PLATOON anyway. Moving on….

21. THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)
22. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
23. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
24. RAGING BULL (1980)
25. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)

My first question here is whether or not Spielberg’s E.T. meets the one big criterion here – that the film reward repeated viewings with new insights. I am suspicious in that regard, but I also haven’t seen the film for years so I’ll reserve judgment. Where I won’t reserve judgment however is in regards to John Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH. The novel is one of the two or three best novels I’ve ever read. Ford’s film always reminds me of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotation: “Only someone with a heart of stone could look upon the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

Its heavy-handed maudlin melodrama does nothing but disgrace the novel. I understand I am a voice crying in the wilderness; I know that no one less than Pauline Kael considered it one of the few examples of a film being better than the book, but I don’t care. I can’t even think of Ma Joad without laughing. Off the list, and I’ll replace it with the film from closest to its own time, THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and replace Steinbeck with that combination of Raymond Chandler (who wrote the novel) and William Faulkner (who wrote the screenplay). This also allows Bogart & Bacall to assume their rightful place on the list. A veritable pile of dead birds now lie by the one stone. Moving on….

26. DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)
27. BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
28. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
29. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)
30. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)

The last time we went to the shooting range I told my wife “Nice grouping.” I can say the same for these five films. I have nothing but praise for all of them.

31. ANNIE HALL (1977)
32. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
33. HIGH NOON (1952)
34. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
35. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

Now I have a few issues here. ANNIE HALL has not aged as well as you may think if you haven’t actually sat through it recently. I think Woody Allen more than deserves multiple places on the list, but I also think that HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, ALICE, MANHATTAN, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY are better movies. Of these MANHATTAN is the most similar replacement, but I’ve got to go with HANNAH, what I think is the strongest film he’s ever made.

So now the list looks like this:

31. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
32. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
33. HIGH NOON (1952)
34. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
35. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

I’m not a fan of either HIGH NOON or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but it isn’t my intent to rework this into a list of “my favorite movies” so that doesn’t matter. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT however, which is a film that I like quite a lot, is one I am going to remove because (1) Capra is already well-represented here, and (2) while it is a fine example of classic film comedy, Mel Brooks, the finest comedy filmmaker, well… ever, is not represented at all. Brooks has three great films, THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Of these, it is THE PRODUCERS which is a better film than either IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT or, dare I say it, DUCK SOUP. For my money it is the greatest film comedy of all time.

Now the list looks like this…

31. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
32. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
33. HIGH NOON (1952)
34. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
35. THE PRODUCERS (1968)

…and I’ve managed to replace six of the top 35. I’m also sort of wishing now that I hadn’t started into this as it is going to take way more time than I thought, but without explaining my reasons all we have is a list, and I hate lists. We’ll call this the end of part two.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Top 100 American Films


The American Film Institute spent a considerable amount of time and effort arriving at their list of the “100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.” Here’s the complete list:

1. CITIZEN KANE (1941)
2. CASABLANCA (1942)
3. THE GODFATHER (1972)
4. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
5. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
6. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
7. THE GRADUATE (1967)
8. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)
9. SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993)
10. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952)
11. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
12. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
13. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
14. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
15. STAR WARS (1977)
16. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)
17. THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)
18. PSYCHO (1960)
19. CHINATOWN (1974)
20. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975)
21. THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)
22. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
23. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
24. RAGING BULL (1980)
25. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
26. DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)
27. BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
28. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
29. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)
30. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)
31. ANNIE HALL (1977)
32. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
33. HIGH NOON (1952)
34. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
35. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
36. MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)
37. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)
38. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
39. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)
40. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
41. WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
42. REAR WINDOW (1954)
43. KING KONG (1933)
44. THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)
45. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)
46. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
47. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
48. JAWS (1975)
49. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)
50. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
51. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)
52. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
53. AMADEUS (1984)
54. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)
55. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
56. M*A*S*H (1970)
57. THE THIRD MAN (1949)
58. FANTASIA (1940)
59. REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955)
60. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
61. VERTIGO (1958)
62. TOOTSIE (1982)
63. STAGECOACH (1939)
64. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
65. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
66. NETWORK (1976)
67. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
68. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
69. SHANE (1953)
70. THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
71. FORREST GUMP (1994)
72. BEN-HUR (1959)
73. WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)
74. THE GOLD RUSH (1925)
75. DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)
76. CITY LIGHTS (1931)
77. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)
78. ROCKY (1976)
79. THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
80. THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
81. MODERN TIMES (1936)
82. GIANT (1956)
83. PLATOON (1986)
84. FARGO (1996)
85. DUCK SOUP (1933)
86. MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)
87. FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
88. EASY RIDER (1969)
89. PATTON (1970)
90. THE JAZZ SINGER (1927)
91. MY FAIR LADY (1964)
92. A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)
93. THE APARTMENT (1960)
94. GOODFELLAS (1990)
95. PULP FICTION (1994)
96. THE SEARCHERS (1956)
97. BRINGING UP BABY (1938)
98. UNFORGIVEN (1992)
99. GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (1967)
100. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942)

I recognize nitpicking lists like this one is silly and I don’t really intend to do that. What I do want to do is to use it as a foundation for a discussion of film history. I do this by offering a list of my own: “The 30 Great American Films That Didn’t Make The AFI List.” These are:

1. CABERET (1972)
2. STALAG 17 (1953)
3. NASHVILLE (1975)
4. IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963)
5. WHITE HEAT (1949)
6. EL CID (1961)
7. BULL DURHAM (1988)
8. THE PRODUCERS (1968)
9. THE AVIATOR (2004)
10. CASINO (1995)
11. SLAPSHOT (1977)
12. THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
13. WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
14. HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)
15. THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984)
16. HEAT (1995)
17. BASIC INSTINCT (1992)
18. RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
19. THE BANK DICK (1940)
20. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)
21. PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986)
22. HANNAH & HER SISTERS (1986)
23. MANHATTAN (1979)
24. BIG TROUBLE (1986)
25. ALICE (1990)
26. MALCOLM X (1992)
27. THIEF (1981)
28. PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985)
29. CHOOSE ME (1984)
30. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

Let’s start at the top and go through these five at a time. The exercise is to see how many of these alternates can find a spot replacing AFI films on the list.

The top of the list seems pretty stable to me, no problems here, and all deserving films in many respects. One thing I should mention is that the only way a list like this makes any sense to me is if I assume that the order is random. I think it is meaningless to engage in arguments over whether CASABLANCA, at number 2, is really “better” than THE GRADUATE at number 7. So there’ll be none of that. They both belong on the list – they’re equal.

1. CITIZEN KANE (1941)
2. CASABLANCA (1942)
3. THE GODFATHER (1972)
4. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
5. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

The second five are also very strong. My only suggestion might be read as heretical – remove SCHINDLER’S LIST. It isn’t the best film on the Holocaust (SHOAH is) and it isn’t Spielberg’s best film either. Nor is it as good a film as SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982) or CABERET (1972) which are both along similar themes. Of these two, CABARET is the better film. I say that for one moment in particular which I think is unique in the history of film as far as I know. Here’s what happens….

The scene is an outdoor cafĂ© where the three principles sit having a drink. An oompah band plays on a bandstand, the tables are full. Suddenly our attention is drawn to a boy, maybe 15, 16 years old, standing and singing a song. The boy is beautiful, his hair is beautiful, his skin is beautiful, his eyes are beautiful, his voice is beautiful. The song he sings is beautiful. It is about the Rhine giving “its gold to the sea…. Tomorrow belongs to me!”

All the people at the tables stop and stare at the beautiful boy with the beautiful voice singing the beautiful song. They start to sing the beautiful song with him. They rise up. In the theatre I was rising up. Tomorrow belongs to me!

Then the camera, which has been on a fairly tight close-up of the head and shoulders of the beautiful boy begins to slowly pull back.

The camera is now history.

The beautiful boy is wearing a beautiful brown shirt and has a beautiful armband with a beautiful swastika…..

Wait.

No.

And just then – CUT – to Joel Grey, a transgendered deity behind a piece of wavy glass, distorted, looking into the camera, mouthing the words, “You too” and smiling.

I’ve never been more devastated by a film, not ever.

It goes on the list.

So let’s stick it in there at number 9.

6. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
7. THE GRADUATE (1967)
8. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)
9. CABARET (1972)
10. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952)

The next five are interesting:

11. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
12. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
13. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
14. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
15. STAR WARS (1977)

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was a flop at the box office when it was originally released, and a critical flop as well. It sat abandoned on the shelf for years – this was before films had any life beyond the theatre, no secondary markets, no TV, cable, video. The window in which the film’s owners could renew the film’s copyright protection came and went and the film quietly entered into the public domain. Some years later small independent TV stations looking for cheap programming, especially around the holidays, stumbled upon it. It cost nothing, it filled time, perfect.

Eventually it underwent a critical re-evaluation and a surge in popularity. The film became interwoven with the culture. It is one of the best arguments for not extending copyright protection I’ve ever heard. For my money Capra’s best film is the throw away one he shot to raise a little money for his family to live on when he went into the Army to make propaganda films during the Second World War, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944), but we’ll leave IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE ALONE as it’s quite good and its impact far greater.

STAR WARS is an interesting pick. Its brilliance is in two decisions it makes early on. First, it is the first film to depict the futuristic technology of science fiction as rusted, jury-rigged, and prone to break downs. The Millennium Falcon is a bit like a 1963 Ford Falcon – say a prayer, turn the key. Second – and this is SO brilliant – it sets itself “long, long ago…. In a galaxy far, far away.” By setting itself in the distant past and impossibly far away it can get away with almost anything without raising the eyebrows of the audience. It also has a terrific sense of humor, something extremely rare for the genre.

Since Lucas’ better film, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, is also on the list, we’ll leave STAR WARS where it is.

SOME LIKE IT HOT is a masterpiece. But SUNSET BOULEVARD…. This one makes me a bit uneasy. Wilder has other, better films and they’re also on the list. But STALAG 17 (1953) isn’t. It also stars William Holden and it is, I believe, a better, more entertaining, more successful movie. So I’m going to swap them. Now we have:

11. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
12. STALAG 17 (1953)
13. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
14. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
15. STAR WARS (1977)

Having made it through the top 15 we will pause here and pick this up later in Part Two.