Friday, June 13, 2014

The ‘Star Wars’ saga: a running commentary by my 4-year-old son

Right up top, let me say my wife and I aren’t those parents who foist all their old childhood favorites on their kids in the interest of nostalgia. Yes, Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood. I was an American boy in the 1980s, so how could it not be? But I swear our son came by his fascination with Star Wars organically, mainly by browsing books in his preschool library. The Lucasfilm marketing juggernaut is an unavoidable force, and its target audience begins pretty much in the womb. He started picking out Star Wars books every time we went to the library, asking to play various kid-oriented Star Wars games on the computer and generally geeking out as much as someone who hasn’t seen the source material possibly could.

Last month we decided he was finally capable of handling the movies – he knew every plot point of them already – and thus we all settled onto the couch for a family trip through the Lucasverse. The films didn’t disappoint, but they did inspire a lot of questions and commentary from the boy. I’ve trimmed down his more or less nonstop verbal barrage to a few pertinent points that I think capture the Star Wars experience through my son’s 4-year-old eyes.

"When will Governor Tarkin be in this?"
Having read up on the Star Wars universe extensively, the boy was excited to finally meet all the classic characters he'd grown to love from a distance – Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2D2, and every kid’s favorite, Grand Moff Tarkin. I don't know why Peter Cushing's evil bureaucrat made such a pre-screening impression, but the boy spent much of the film's first 20 minutes wondering about his whereabouts. But hey, if he digs Peter Cushing, he and I have a whole lot of low-grade monster movies ahead of us.

"It's weird that Jabba the Hutt is in this."
Jabba the Hutt was, oddly enough, the boy's gateway to Star Wars. His preschool library contains a Clone Wars tie-in book called Watch Out for Jabba the Hutt. Minus the context of Jabba's villainy, the boy deemed him "cute and cuddly." By the time we watched Star Wars, he knew enough of the series' continuity to understand that Jabba was not supposed to make an appearance until Return of the Jedi. Of course, George Lucas changed all that when he slapped a digitized Jabba on top of the actor who played the cruel crime boss and inserted a long-deleted scene back into the 1997 special edition. It's a wholly extraneous scene that functions mainly as fan service – it’s patently obvious that Harrison Ford is meant to be talking to a human being. I was happy that its incongruity stood out even to a first-time, pre-adolescent viewer.

"Is that a Light-Sider or a Dark-Sider?"
The Force splits the universe into a pretty clear-cut dichotomy of good and evil. That seems to be a comforting concept for a four-year-old just starting to appreciate that life traffics mostly in scary shades of grey. Hence, he required near-constant confirmation of every minor character's allegiance.

"Biggs will be OK, because he will become Lando."
A while back at an antique shop we picked up a Star Wars picture novelization that included a story thread that got deleted from the movie, in which Luke has a philosophical conversation with his childhood friend Biggs, who is leaving Tatooine to join the Rebellion. Biggs eventually dies while flanking Luke in the attack on the Death Star, but the boy was unconcerned by his passing. See, in his first appearance in the book, Biggs wears a cape and has a dark moustache. When we meet Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, he also wears a cape and has a dark moustache. That's enough of a resemblance for the boy to chalk it up to what I assume is some manner of Force-related reincarnation. I choose to think that's a refreshingly colorblind point of view.

"What did Yoda say?"
The boy came into the series with a pre-abiding love for all of the iconic Star Wars characters, but one of the biggies didn't live up to his expectations. My son is not a Yoda fan, largely because he usually has no idea what the heck the diminutive Jedi Master is saying. Turns out "guttural Grover with inverted syntax" is not a universal language, at least not for 4-year-olds.

"Yes! That will teach you!"
This was the boy's exuberant response as Boba Fett went flailing to his ignoble demise in the Sarlac pit. He did not take kindly to Mr. Fett facilitating Han Solo being frozen in carbonite. I was actually a little unnerved by how upset he got with the Dark Side, sometimes openly rooting for their deaths. The kid just hates evil, I reckon.

"That Ewok is having fun!"
Y'know, grown-up nerds can bag on the Ewoks all they like, but so long as kids' eyes light up at the sight of a furry little warrior whooping his way through the forest while barely clinging to a hijacked speeder bike, they're OK in my book. While I'm at it, the conventional wisdom that Return of the Jedi is a lackluster final chapter to the series is hogwash. That movie is fantastic.

"Why do so many people get their hands cut off?"
Obviously I was aware of the parallels between Luke and Anakin Skywalker each losing a hand, but until I watched all of these movies in a compressed time frame I never noticed just how many hands get chopped off over the run of the series. Luke, Anakin, Count Dooku, the Hoth Wampa, General Grievous, that dude in the cantina – it has to be an average of at least two hands per movie. George Lucas's severed-hand fetish is even more pronounced – and more unsettling – than Quentin Tarantino's foot thing.

"Jar-Jar Binks is always so silly."
This is one point of divergence for us. The boy had generally positive reactions to Jar-Jar Binks, adolescent Anakin Skywalker and The Phantom Menace as a whole. I suspected going in that I –along with most of the movie-going public – might have been too harsh on Episode I when it came out, but I quickly learned that if anything, I'd been too easy on it. That movie is garbage and there is no good thing about it. Still, the Star Wars marketing folks have done a good job of cementing it in the canon. For younger viewers, characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar-Jar Binks are every bit as much a part of the saga as are, say, Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett.

"Anakin has really nice hair!"
That's the nicest thing anyone has ever said about Hayden Christiansen's performance.

OK, that's the easy joke, but I'll admit I was actually rather impressed with Christiansen's Anakin Skywalker on this viewing. Sure, he's over the top a lot of the time, but no more so than the role demands. On the whole, it's a nicely old-fashioned performance filled with the kind of outsized intensity and emoting that would be right at home in the serialized space operas that inspired Star Wars in the first place. I'd chalk up Christiansen's truly egregious moments – and there are a number of them – mainly to George Lucas's writing and directing.

"I wonder what Obi-Wan is up to."
This was probably my favorite comment of the series, delivered in the middle of yet another interminable exchange of purple passion between Anakin and Padme. I really liked Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith this time around, the former especially, but the general contempt for George Lucas's attempts at romantic dialogue is well deserved. The boy was right – no matter what Obi-Wan was engaged with at that moment, it had to be more interesting than that.

“Oh no.”
A quiet, pained whimper at the moment when Anakin officially switches allegiance from the Jedi to the Dark Side. A cool thing about watching movies with a kid is bearing witness to pure, visceral reactions that we old folks have been trained to suppress. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking to see a melodramatic movie moment warm and/or break someone’s heart.

"I'm happy that Darth Vader turned good again because he didn't want to fight his son."
On second thought, this was probably my favorite comment of the series. The boy is young enough to get excited about stories where good wins out in the end, and the added sheen of a restored parent-son relationship seemed to make him particularly happy. Granted, that puts a lot of pressure on me not to become a universally recognized embodiment of evil, but I knew going in that parenthood would involve some sacrifices.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The mistrial of Lou Reed's "The Original Wrapper"

No one can say Lou Reed didn’t provide his critics with plenty of easy targets. I’m the kind of fanboy who can give you at least a half-hearted defense for every punching bag from Metal Machine Music to Lulu (although I’d have to strain myself a bit to rally for Hudson River Wind Meditations). One point where I’ve always rolled over and admitted defeat, though, is the much-maligned “The Original Wrapper” from the equally spurned Mistrial album.

If you don’t know “The Original Wrapper” by title you might know it as “that Lou Reed rap song.” That’s an accurate description on the surface. It was 1986, and hip-hop had the zeitgeist by the throat, especially in Lou’s New York. America was starting to see the first wave of weird and cynical rap cash-ins: advertisements playing on the inherent “hilarity” of unhip white people trying to rap, Super Bowl champions gleefully looking like hip-hop dweebs, whatever the hell Dee Dee Ramone thought he was doing. In that context, Lou Reed jumping onto the rap bandwagon makes a certain amount of sense.

But I don’t think that’s quite what Lou was doing. Sure, taken at face value, “The Original Wrapper” looks like an unwieldy attempt by a middle-aged white guy to either ride the latest trend or mock it. The Guardian called it “a gob-smacking misfire from a man occasionally seen to be the epitome of art-rock cool.” A Dangerous Minds blog takes it as Lou laughably and semi-defensively laying claim to the title of “one of music’s original rappers.” The AV Club’s Jason Heller hyperbolically calls it a "complete annulment of everything that ever made [Lou] cool" and accuses him of "making fun of rap while he's trying to ride on its coattails." Even a comparatively charitable observer like City Pages' Nate Patrin calls out Lou’s "half-assed rhyming" and "a beat that sounds like public-domain music you'd hear at the beginning of an infomercial for exercise equipment." No less a cultural titan than myself once mildly lambasted the song in print, griping that "Reed delivers a monotone ramble on AIDS, yuppies, Jerry Falwell and other hot-button issues of 1986, all the while employing waffle-making as some sort of inscrutable metaphor."

Now, though, I think all of us were selling “The Original Wrapper” short. There’s simply no precedent for presuming that an artist as savvy and iconoclastic as Lou Reed was just surfing trends, selling out or being generally clueless. Show me even one other example from the man’s artistic career of that happening and I’ll concede your point. (His weirdly infamous Honda commercial would only count if he’d written an original song for it.) On the other hand, there is plenty of precedent for Lou mocking the state of the arts via expert – and often misinterpreted – mimickery. Look at his notorious “I Wanna Be Black,” a scathing satire of the type of white “fucked-up middle-class college student” who idolized black culture yet limited his view of it to what he saw in Blaxploitation films and heard on R&B records. Lord knows that profile could fit plenty of Lou’s musical contemporaries, particularly the British blues kids who mined a romanticized culture for derivative sounds. That song makes a lot of listeners uneasy because the satire cuts so cleanly that it’s hard to hear that Lou is mocking the commodification and media packaging of black culture, not the culture itself. He does the same thing more subtly with the iconic “Colored Girls” of “Walk on the Wild Side.” I’d say that their inclusion, and especially Lou calling attention to their race, is a dig at bands like the Rolling Stones trying to pump up their soul cred by occasionally employing Bona-Fide Black People.

Maybe the most direct parallel with “The Original Wrapper” is “Disco Mystic” from The Bells. It’s a fairly straightforward disco track, although decidedly darker-toned than most of the genre. For more than four minutes, Lou’s band throws together saccharine string riffs and an almost sarcastic guitar, with Lou occasionally jumping in to grumble, “Disco…Disco mystic.” I’ve heard people dismiss it as a weird attempt at making an actual disco-punk track, which makes zero sense in the context of the wildly non-commercial environs of The Bells. For me, this is Lou commenting on the creative bankruptcy and numbing repetitiveness of the current trend, all while cockily showing everybody that he could do it too if he ever wanted to.

There’s some of that in play in “The Original Wrapper,” but the target is different. Rather than rap music itself, Lou is mocking the eagerness of the media to co-opt this hip new trend. The lyrics are layered with the hypocrisies and evil banalities of politicians and media types who see hip-hop as a way to raise some revenue or score political points. As I see it, the song’s title and refrain (“Hey pitcher, better check that batter / Make sure the candy’s in the original wrapper”) make for a conveniently punny warning not to be sucked in by corporate repackaging of hip-hop culture.

As for the content, this isn’t exactly Public Enemy, but it’s an overtly political song that presages the social commentary of Lou’s universally heralded New York. It’s not a coincidence that Lou released this song as a single alongside “Video Violence.” Both songs condemn the crass packaging and marketing of violence by Reagan-era greedheads who simultaneously painted themselves as moral guardians (“Classic, original, the same old story / The politics of hate in a new surrounding”) and skewer the supposed high ground taken by religious conservatives (“Reagan says abortion’s murder / while he’s looking at Cardinal O’Connor / Look at Jerry Falwell, Louis Farrakhan / Both talk religion and the brotherhood of man / They both sound like they belong in Tehran”). The rhymes are clunky and the message preachy, sure, but I could point you to half a dozen KRS-ONE songs from the era that fit the same bill.

Also like KRS, Lou challenges the critics who’d class hip-hop as lowest common denominator vulgarity and overstuffs some verses with polysyllabic verbosity. “Don't mean to come on sanctimonious / But life's got me nervous and little pugnacious / Lugubrious, so I give a salutation / And rock on out to beat really stupid” doesn’t really roll off the tongue, nor is it especially solid rhyming, but it serves its tongue-in-cheek purpose.

The production on the single version really is as bad as its reputation, a dorky, cheap-sounding collision of tinny beats and amateurish scratching. It's interesting, though, that the song improves markedly in most of its other incarnations, including the rockier version featured on the Mistrial album. Take a listen to that or to any of the live renditions I've linked here. Different production doesn't transform "The Original Wrapper" into a great song, but it at least elevates it to mediocrity. Heck, the 10-minute live version above turns into a pretty sweet jam that one could almost call Velvet Underground-esque.

I’m not going to pretend that "The Original Wrapper" is some kind of unfairly slighted masterpiece. It’s too broad and goofy to be especially effective satire. I’m not sure I’d even know it was aiming for hip-hop if not for the title. The production is hopelessly dated in a uniquely ‘80s way and the lyrics sometimes dissolve into gibberish. It’s probably best described as a not particularly successful experiment that’s very much of its era. Yet still I feel compelled to defend it, because it’s neither the colossal misstep nor the tone-deaf trend-hopping it’s made out to be. It’s a weird, misunderstood song that happens to be not that great but at least takes a stab at doing something interesting. As with most things in the Lou Reed canon, that’s more than enough for me.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How to mourn a celebrity death correctly

If you've been a resident of the internet for any amount of time, you know the standard social media routine for a celebrity death:
  1. The news breaks.
  2. Commenters express shock and hold out hope that it's a hoax
  3. The news is confirmed
  4. Commenters begin expressing grief and sharing memories
  5. Second wave of commenters begins scolding the first wave for mourning incorrectly
What interests me most is step number five. Try as I might, I can't understand the mindset of someone who feels a need to chasten others for the way they're affected by a death. I figure it might help me sort it out if I address the most common complaints I see pop up on comment boards and Twitter feeds.

You didn't know the deceased personally, so it's stupid to be sad about it.

Whenever I see this line of argument, I pity the person making it. How sad it must be to go through life with so little connection to art that the deaths of the artists* who make it don't feel like a personal blow. I don't think anyone would make the case that the death of a favorite actor or songwriter evokes exactly the same sense of loss that the death of a friend or loved one does, but it's still a genuinely painful experience. How can you not be shaken when a font of art that has nourished you for years suddenly goes dry? Maybe I'm just more fragile about my creative icons than most, but it still makes my heart ache when I think I'll never hear another new Warren Zevon album, and Warren's been dead for more than a decade. Which brings me to the next complaint...

You're making this death all about yourself.

Well, yeah. That's how art works. It's a subjective experience that affects each of its patrons differently. That's a beautiful thing. When an artist dies, it's only natural that people who loved his or her art will want to share what it meant to them. This is in no way a dishonor to the deceased. On the contrary, it's exactly what any artist would want. What greater honor could a creative person hope for than to have a chorus of strangers give testimony about how his or her creations made an impact on their lives? Heck, I've had musician friends geek out because I included their songs on a party mix. How much cooler to have a stranger from Australia telling the world that your song was the soundtrack to her first kiss?

And really, if each of us is to some degree the sum of his or her greatest influences, then the death of one of those influences is about us. I may not have figured in the narrative of Lou Reed's life, but he sure as hell figured in the narrative of mine. Understanding and articulating my relationship to the art that's molded me is a huge element of my own artistic purview. For me not to have eulogized Lou as visibly as possible would have been a betrayal of both my art and my identity. His story is part of my story and I see no point in pretending otherwise.

What makes this famous person more worthy of mourning than the homeless guy who just froze to death in my neighborhood or a kid killed in a drone strike in Pakistan?

Nothing, obviously. If anything, those deaths are far worthier of media coverage than that of even the world's greatest novelist or director. But it's also an apples and oranges situation. While I don't have the sociopolitical expertise to lay out the particulars, I think it's plain that the death of a public figure with a familiar body of work has a fundamentally different impact on the public than the death of a person who, however unfairly, is most recognizable as a symbol of systemic failure.

I'll admit I'm a bit conflicted on this point. There's no question that the media have always ignored matters of dire import in favor of celebrity-gawking. There are certainly some misplaced priorities here, but it's also silly to claim that the horrors of daily existence should preclude us from commemorating people who helped to shape the culture we all share. Celebrity culture is bloated and gross, but at its heart it's largely rooted in a celebration of the arts, and that's something to cherish.

I didn't think the deceased's work was all that great and I'm annoyed that other people are making a big deal about it.

Hey, good for you, sunshine. Now shut up and sit this one out. Let other people grieve how they grieve and we'll do the same for you when someone you do like dies.

* Someone pointed out that celebrity extends beyond art, which is true, obviously. I travel mostly in artistic circles, so that's where my head tends to go, but I think the same points hold true for the deaths of politicians, athletes, business leaders, etc.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Examining 10 covers of "Abraham, Martin and John"

1968's "Abraham, Martin and John" was a departure for Dion DiMucci. The faded doo-wop superstar was the king of a passé genre and in need of a career shakeup. The unlikely solution came in the form of a mournful look at America's assassination culture penned by Dick Holler, the guy who wrote "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron" for the Royal Guardsmen. The song's weary simplicity paired well with Dion's earnest, emotional delivery and made it a major hit. Today the whole thing sounds a bit sentimental and maybe even a little goulish, but according to my mom it was pretty striking to an audience still shaken by the Kennedy and King shootings. (At the very least, it's aged better than Tommy Cash's similarly themed country hit "Six White Horses.")

"Abraham, Martin and John" also spawned a multitude of covers. In an era of loose copyrights where pop songs were routinely cannibalized as soon as they hit the AM waves, zeitgeist-bait like Dion's track was guaranteed to make the rounds. I've spent a fair bit of time digging through as many covers as the internet has to offer. Many are bad, most are bland and a few are kind of nuts. I've picked out a few of the more notable renditions for an exercise in contrasts.

Moms Mabley
I have no idea how a conventionally arranged rendition of "Abraham, Martin and John" sung by a gravel-voiced, 75-year-old comedienne cracked the U.S. Top 40 in 1969, but it's pretty neat that it did. As a black, openly gay, defiantly vulgar woman born in 1895, Moms Mabley had borne witness to just about every form of prejudice the Civil Rights movement sought to combat. Hearing Moms croak out Holler's ode to some of the movement's lost leaders is simply a more poignant experience than hearing the same words crooned by a good-looking Italian guy from the Bronx - no disrespect to Dion. (For added coolness, Moms is still the oldest Top 40 artist ever.)

Kenny Rogers
Sincerity is key to pulling off a song like "Abraham, Martin and John." Kenny Rogers is well known as one of the ten least sincere humans ever to set foot in a recording studio. You don't need to listen to this cover to know that it's a heaping mound of Nutri-Sweet brimming with oversung verses, tinkling chimes and forced sentiment. Kenny even wraps up the track with a sing-along refrain of "Precious Memories," which isn't a descriptor most sane folks would apply to a string of political assassinations.

Andy Williams
It's a bit ironic that Andy Williams, a man nearly synonymous with schmaltz, delivered one of the most genuinely affecting renditions of "Abraham, Martin and John." Williams was apparently a close friend of Robert Kennedy's, which adds another layer of sadness to what's obviously a sad song no matter how you look at it. The arrangement is appropriately sparse, just Williams' voice accompanied by quiet acoustic strumming. When he hits the bridge, though, the guitar breaks into a nervous skitttering that captures the aching uncertainty of Holler's lyrics and invests Williams' haunted vocal with a visceral sense of loss. The guitar drops out entirely just as Williams sings the word "Bobby" with heartbreaking clarity. It's a performance as personal as it is universal, and it might just be the best treatment the song ever received.

Marvin Gaye
If Marvin Gaye had recorded this cover even a year later, I suspect it would have been a masterpiece. As it is, this track catches him in his transition between the swinging party-soul of his early work and the darker reflection of his post What's Going On career. It's a cool tune, smooth and string-filled, sad but hopeful, tied together by Marvin's inimitable voice, but it's a little too in line with the Motown house sound for it to stand with his classics. That may also have something to do with Holler's lyrics, which just don't pack the ragged emotion of Marvin's best social commentary.

Tom Clay
This is just weird. Tom Clay, a journeyman radio DJ and scandal magnet (he lost jobs for accepting payola and bilking kids with a fraudulent Beatles fan club, among other things) mashed up "Abraham, Martin and John" and Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now" as sung by The Blackberries with audio samples of speeches by Martin Luther King and the Kennedys and news broadcasts of their assassinations. If that wasn't pandering enough, the track is bookended by obviously scripted clips of an interviewer asking children questions about prejudice and hatred and receiving blissfully oblivious responses complete with adorable mispronunciations. While the sampled content itself is undeniably compelling – I can't hear Andrew West exhorting Bobby Kennedy's entourage to "take a hold of [Sirhan Sirhan's] thumb and break it if you have to" without getting chills – presented like this it's more than a little gross, especially in the context of Clay's career of cynical cash-ins. Still, this was somehow a major hit that sold more than a million records. So it goes.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
This is easily the most fun version of "Abraham, Martin and John" that I've heard. I'm not sure if that's a good thing. On the one hand, investing the song with some actual rhythm and energy is far preferable to putting it through the paces of over-earnest pathos yet again. On the other hand, it's sort of odd to hear a dirge for the Civil Rights era transformed into a dance track. Either way, Smokey's in fine vocal form and it's a pretty happening tune.

The Denison Hilltoppers
Here's a college acapella group that mashes up "Abraham, Martin and John" with snippets of military-themed fight songs like "Anchors Aweigh" and "The Halls of Montezuma." I'm not sure what to make of that.

Leonard Nimoy
I came into this cover expecting it to be a standout of bad taste, but I'm guilty of painting my Star Trekkers with too broad a brush. Although he tends to get bundled in with William Shatner's famously flamboyant crimes against music, '70s Nimoy actually had a pleasant singing voice and solid production. This rendition is just fine, which is weirdly disappointing.

Wilson Pickett
Pickett opens his semi-cover of "Abraham, Martin and John" with a tribute to Moms Mabley's rendition. It's noteworthy that he doesn't extend the same recognition to Dick Holler, as Pickett jettisons Holler's lyrics all together and turns the song into a tribute to "Cole, Cooke and Redding." (That'd be Nat King, Sam and Otis, if you somehow couldn't figure that out.) In this incarnation, it's a moving, deeply personal song about departed friends. Pickett even includes a verse looking ahead to the day when he'll join his comrades in the beyond. Still, something feels off about substituting singers, no matter how legendary, for some of the most towering figures in the country's struggle for equal rights. Factor in that the original honorees were all felled by assassin's bullets while Pickett's buddies were lost to lung cancer, a plane crash and a sketchy flophouse homicide, and this take seems perilously close to trivialization.

Bon Jovi
Exactly as inventive, entertaining and necessary as you'd expect.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My son's top 10 things of 2013

My son turned four earlier this month. Like most modern kids, he's already cultivated a savvier, more sophisticated appreciation of pop-culture than my generation possibly could have attained at that age. I'm kind of bored with year-end best-of lists compiled by grown-ups, so I thought I'd attempt to pull together some of his favorite discoveries of 2013. These aren't necessarily new releases, and they're in no particular order. They're just things that helped color the boy's world in his third year of existence.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
He already dug Judy Barrett’s books (especially the rather dry Pickles to Pittsburgh, for some reason), but when we rented the excellent movie adaptation it took things to a different level, and the sequel made him a full-on fanboy. It was the first film he saw in a theater. He went in worried that the burger spider and taco monster in the commercial would be too scary, but he left declaring them his favorite parts of the movie. The taco monster in particular has been a staple of playtime for months now. He has good taste – the movies are really kind of great. Another landmark: left alone with my phone for three minutes one morning, the boy managed to download the e-novelization of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, which then became the first chapter book we read together. 

Yellow Submarine
This one is actually a triple threat, as the Yellow Submarine movie, album and song all qualified for his 2013 hot list. The boy generally avoids any entertainment featuring what he deems “mean guys,” but somehow he made an exception for the Blue Meanies. There was a long stretch where I was called on to recount the entire plot of the movie on a daily basis, and lord help me if I skipped over a single beastie from the Sea of Monsters. To this day, no matter what album I put on, he invariably asks if we can listen to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack when it’s over (skipping “Eleanor Rigby,” of course, because that one is “too sad”). Just last week the boy asked if we could invite George Harrison to his birthday party. I couldn’t bring myself to explain exactly why that wasn’t going to happen.

The boy had had sushi before 2013, but this year it was firmly established as his favorite food, tekka maki (tuna rolls) specifically. His favorite place is Sushi Station, a small chain in the western suburbs of Chicago that offers self-service sushi on an endlessly scrolling conveyor belt, but he'll settle for Sakana, a pleasant little Saint Paul place that recently moved into a vacated KFC on Cleveland Avenue. He even requested sushi for his fourth birthday party. When we told him that some of the other kids might not care for raw fish, he suggested we order pizza and sushi. And so we did.

The Cat in the Hat's Learning Library
The death of Dr. Seuss paved the way for a lot of disheartening officially licensed knock-offs, from Danny DeVito pimping SUVs to Martin Short's shrieks of terrifying whimsy to Mike Myers disappearing under a death mask of face paint and latex. At least one good thing has come of the doctor posthumously passing the mantle. This engaging series of educational books employs the Cat in the Hat and Things One and Two to impart lessons on nature, anatomy, cartography, even rocket science. Author Trish Rabe makes marvelous use of the familiar Seussian meter for a rhyming, learning experience that's pretty much unmatched.  Sure, there are occasional clunky verses, but I'd like to see anyone describe the embryonic development of a bean seed in rhymed, grade-school-level vocabulary with perfect poetic grace. The boy loves to hear these books almost as much as I love to read them, and he can quote every scientific fact by heart. I'd say he even prefers them to the original Seuss books.

Things that eat other things (in theory)
It's a common little boy trait to be fascinated by carnivores, from sharks to dinosaurs to jungle cats to venus flytraps (the boy is nuts about a book on carnivorous plants we found at the library). Something about the intersection of power, fear and cool-looking teeth makes killer animals a source of endless excitement. But he'd prefer not to be reminded of the flesh-tearing, blood-dripping specifics of animals eating animals. He loves watching nature documentaries until the carnage begins. Then the nervous, high-pitched squealing starts and he buries his face in blankets until we fast forward or turn it off. There's probably some commentary here about the hypocrisy of human carnivorism but I don't want to make it a whole thing.

Fishtronaut and Lunar Jim
The boy's television tastes are nothing if not mercurial. He picks up all-encompassing obsessions that dissipate within a week and are never spoken of again. One week it's Busytown Mysteries, the next it's Bubbleguppies, the week after that old episodes of the Mr. Men show. Some of his friends have single-subject fixations that would drive me loony, so I'm glad he's inherited some eclecticism from my wife and I. Probably his longest-running favorites of the year were these two curious imports.

Fishtronaut is a Brazilian cartoon about a spacesuit-wearing fish who regularly visits the surface to help a little girl and a monkey solve environmental mysteries. Lunar Jim is Canadian stop-motion animation set at a research station on a distant moon populated with a variety of alien life. It's kind of like a pre-school Star Trek minus fighting and danger. I wouldn't call either show groundbreaking children's programming, but they're both gentle and clever and weird enough that I can find plenty to dig in them. The boy could definitely do worse.

Not Kevin and Micah
The boy is now at an age where he's cultivating actual friendships based on specific qualities and personalities of the kids around him. He has a few close friends who are very important to him. He also has a couple of enemies who are even more important. When we asked who he wanted to invite to his birthday party, he named one friend and followed immediately with "NOT Kevin and Micah." I don't know if a 3-year-old can really be classified as a bully, but these were the boys in his old class most likely to hit, kick and, in his words, "do bad things." These guys were a major source of stress for him in 2013. In any number of situations, the absence of Kevin and Micah* was more important to him than the presence of people he liked. We've recently moved him to a different school, but he still occasionally voices concern that Kevin and Micah are being mean to his old friends. Bad news, that Kevin and Micah.

*Names changed because I don't want to get into slandering pre-schoolers.

Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm
Alice and Martin Provensen would be in my hall of fame even if they'd never done anything but illustrate The Color Kittens. As it stands, they collaborated on dozens of classic kids' books, including this soft-spoken masterpiece. The inscription on our copy indicates that I got it as a sixth birthday gift from my aunt Char. I'd forgotten all about it until my mom passed it along to the boy and a thousand deep-seated memories came flooding back. It's a simple story, more an illustrated tour of the Provensen's hobby farm than an actual narrative, but it's so serenely straightforward and evocative. The final pages, where the Provensens quietly remember the animals who've died over the years, brings me near tears every time. The boy took to the book immediately. I couldn't be more delighted about that. It's the most reliable tool in my literary arsenal, the one book that will always get both of us to sit down and immerse ourselves for an enthralling half-hour or so.

Russian Tea House
It isn't just the half-block proximity to our house that makes it the boy's favorite restaurant. It isn't just the friendly in-house accordion player who gave the boy a now-treasured copy of his CD. It isn't just the piping hot pelmeni (meat dumplings) in chicken broth or the tangy, beet-heavy potato salad that the boy reliably devours with gusto. It isn't just the cup of Jelly Bellies the amiable owners always have waiting for him when we walk in the door. OK, that last one has a lot to do with it. But it's all of those things together.

David Bowie's "Memory of a Free Festival"
I've been singing the boy to sleep with my favorite David Bowie song since the day he was born. He still asks for it every time he lays down for a nap. I will never, ever tire of singing it to him.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Lou Reed tribute album: My best-case scenario

The Lou Reed tribute albums are coming. I know it, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I actually tend to like tribute albums. I'm fond of cover songs and watching artists put their own unique spins on other artists' work. Heck, I've even curated a lengthy playlist of existing Lou Reed cover songs on Grooveshark, and it gets fairly regular play. On the other hand, the post-mortem tribute album tends to be tacky and hacky, full of overly reverent renditions by artists who simply aren't suited to the songs they're covering.

That got me thinking idly about who I'd put on my personal dream tribute to Lou Reed, which as usual led to me thinking obsessively about it, which led to me writing it all down and foisting it on you. I know full well that there's no way anyone would ever be able to pull together a lineup this expansive, but that's why I call it a dream. This is my money-is-no-object list. The only real requirement is being alive at the time of writing. (I know a few of the groups I included are on hiatus, but it's not unheard of for bands to reunite for a good cause.)

I selected artists who either had a connection to Lou or who I just think would sound great. Most importantly, I picked artists who I thought were specifically suited to each song. I didn't include all of my favorite Lou Reed songs. As much as I love, say, "Like a Possum" or "Street Hassle," I couldn't imagine anyone doing a cover of either that would trump any of the songs that made the cut. I did include some songs that aren't among my favorites, either because they're especially significant in the Lou Reed canon ("Perfect Day") or because I thought of a way to cover them that I felt was especially kick-ass ("What Becomes a Legend Most"). Like I said, I've put way too much thought into this.

For those who are already wondering why they've read this far, I'll plug in the list of songs and artists. (I've arranged this as a double-CD, because I came up in the '90s and that's how we rolled.) Those who aren't bored or annoyed after that can keep on reading for my reasoning behind each pick. Just keep in mind that this album will never exist, though lord knows I'm dying to hear it.

Something Flickered for a Minute: A Tribute to Lou Reed
Disc 1
1.      Romeo Had Juliette – Patti Smith
2.      Rock & Roll – Prince
3.      Sally Can't Dance – Of Montreal
4.      Caroline Says Part II & Part I – Cat Power
5.      Who Am I? – David Bowie
6.      Perfect Day – Blind Boys of Alabama
7.      Don't Talk to Me About Work – Mo Tucker
8.      Waves of Fear – Antony & Metallica
9.      Men of Good Fortune  - Merle Haggard
10.  Doin' the Things That We Want To – Fear
11.  Paranoia Key of E – The Hold Steady
12.  Walk on the Wild Side – Outkast, Goodie Mob and RZA
13.  What Becomes a Legend Most? – Sutton Foster
14.  My Name is Mok – Iggy Pop
15.  Sister Ray – Janelle Monae
16.  Magic and Loss – John Cale

Disc 2
1.      All Tomorrow's Parties – Björk
2.      Why Can't I Be Good? – Eels
3.      Stupid Man – Mark Mallman
4.      How Do You Speak to an Angel? – Joanna Newsom
5.      Wild Child – Jonathan Richman
6.      How Do You Think It Feels? – Beck
7.      NYC Man – They Might Be Giants
8.      Lady Godiva's Operation – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
9.      I'm Waiting for the Man – Gorillaz
10.  The Chooser and the Chosen One – Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders and Tony Smith featuring Ornette Coleman
11.  The Original Wrapper – Beastie Boys feat. Biz Markie
12.  Women – Shane MacGowan
13.  Sword of Damocles – TV On The Radio
14.  Teach the Gifted Children – Victoria Williams
15.  Sweet Jane – Bruce Springsteen
16.  I Love You – Laurie Anderson

Something Flickered for a Minute: A Tribute to Lou Reed

Romeo Had Juliette – Patti Smith
Any Lou Reed tribute has to lead off with the opening track from New York, my pick for the peak of Lou's lyrical career. Likewise, any Lou Reed tribute requires the participation of fellow New York rock poet Patti Smith. They were friends and cohorts who lived their art the way few people have the talent or privilege to. I can think of plenty of people who could sing "Romeo Had Juliette" and nail it, but I don't believe there's anyone who could embody and understand Lou's bittersweet story of love and squalor in the pre-Giuliani Big Apple better than Patti.

Rock & Roll – Prince
If there's one human alive who can sell the story of Jeannie and her life-saving discovery of rock & roll as well as Lou himself, it's Prince. He could take it the funk route, but I'd rather hear him in full-on jam mode with his rocked-out 3rdEyeGirl backing band. I can't imagine a better embodiment of the transformative power of rock music than hearing this song fade out behind a blistering Prince guitar solo.

Sally Can't Dance – Of Montreal
Maybe Kevin Barnes would exist without Lou Reed, but I doubt he'd be quite the same Kevin Barnes. They exude such a similar combination of sleaze, sexuality and intellect that Of Montreal has to be included here. "Sally Can't Dance" also incorporates a campy sheen that plays directly to Barnes' strengths. The guy was born to sneer "She danced with Picasso's illegitimate mistress and wore Kenneth Lane jewelry."

Caroline Says II & I – Cat Power
The two sides of Chan Marshall mesh nicely with the two sides of Caroline (well, to the extent that anything related to Berlin happens "nicely"). Transpose parts one and two and the songs make a perfect medley, moving from the haunting whisper of early Cat Power to her bolder, more boisterous current sound. I don't think anything would be lost by switching the songs' order – Caroline's tale is a pretty bleak one no matter the sequence.

Lou and Bowie are forever intertwined in the public perception, so it might make sense to pair the latter up with one of the former's best-known songs. Twenty or even ten years ago I'd have thought the same thing, but this soft-spoken, self-explorative cut from The Raven could scarcely be a better fit for Bowie's current sensibilities. This cover wouldn't feel out of place on Bowie's excellent The Next Day. Both that album and this song find renowned artists taking a long, not always uplifting, look at their lives and what they'll mean to the world.

Perfect Day – Blind Boys of Alabama
To be honest, I'm kinda sick of "Perfect Day." Ever since it was used so brilliantly in Trainspotting, its cultural presence has been slowly swelling, until now it's arguably eclipsed "Walk on the Wild Side" as Lou's signature song for casual appreciators. (I saw at least one headline announcing the death of "Perfect Day Singer Lou Reed.") It's cropping up in new commercials every few months and getting covered by all sorts of folks who I'd rather hadn't. Still, it would be unforgivable to exclude it here. Of course it's still a beautiful, brilliant song at heart. It just needs some experienced hands to steer it in the right direction. There are few musical hands more weathered than the Blind Boys of Alabama's. The venerable haunted-gospel group backed Lou on one of The Raven's best tracks, and I reckon they'd know how to steal the soul of "Perfect Day" back from the Susan Boyles of the world.

Mo retired from music for the second time more than a decade ago and shows no inclination toward picking it up again. But if anything is going to get her back in a studio, if not behind a drum kit, it's a tribute to Lou Reed. This track from Legendary Hearts is right in line with the choppy rhythms and blue collar themes of her criminally underrated solo albums. Mo's weirdly evocative monotone yap would mesh marvelously with this playful paean to creative ennui.

Waves of Fear – Antony & Metallica
I'm pretty sure that for the last decade or so Antony just traveled everywhere as a piece of Lou's luggage. He's guested on all sorts of live Lou performances and contributed eerie, countertenor interpretations of a number of Lou's classic songs. In keeping with his vocal stylings, most of those are slow and somber numbers like "Perfect Day" and "Candy Says." I'd like to see what Antony could do with something as rough and muscular as "Waves of Fear." Metallica, of course, is inextricably linked to Lou Reed due to Lulu. They'd be ideal for infusing even more metal into what's already one of the heaviest slabs of rock in the Lou Reed canon.  Keep the towering guitars and throat-grabbing drumbeats of the original in place and I think you'd have an ethereal delight.

Men of Good Fortune  - Merle Haggard
This bitter screed from the have-not protagonist of Berlin could translate pretty easily into a stripped-down country ballad. It's not the type of thing you want in the hands of an amateur, though, so I'm giving it to one of the most inveterate veterans in the country game. Waylon Jennings would be my first pick, as I think his voice matches these lyrics incredibly well, but he was discourteous enough to die. So Merle it is!

Given Lou's standing as a godfather of punk rock, this album has to feature at least one good hardcore track. I feel a little bad not working in someone from the New York scene, but Lee Ving's raging cover of "Hoochie Coochie Man" in the marvelous rock show movie Get Crazy (co-starring, not coincidentally, Lou Reed) convinces me that he's just the guy to trash up Lou's stirring salute to Martin Scorcese, Sam Shepard and the other film and theater artists who made him smile and think.

Paranoia Key of E – The Hold Steady 
Craig Finn covering Lou Reed just sounds right, doesn't it? This sleazily literate account of infidelity and finger-pointing from Ecstasy should be right in his wheelhouse.

Walk on the Wild Side – Outkast, Goodie Mob and RZA
As probably Lou's best known song, this one demands a unique treatment. I think it has to be hip-hop, not just because the rhyme scheme lends itself to that form, but also to wash out the taste of that awful Marky Mark treatment. RZA strikes me as just the right producer to chop up the original Transformer mix and coat that famous bass line with grime. With RZA at the controls, it would make sense to put the Wu-Tang Clan on MC duties. I probably would do just that if Ol' Dirty Bastard was alive, but imagine Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo trading verses about Warhol's Factory crew? (Plus Big Boi, Cool Breeze and the other Dirty Southers, of course.) I'm not entirely sure how to handle the "colored girls" on the chorus, but I imagine these guys could swing something intriguing.

What Becomes a Legend Most? – Sutton Foster
I can't imagine much more dreadful than seeing Lou Reed's body of work turned into one of those posthumous stage musicals the folks on Broadway love to crank out. That said, Lou did dig a good musical, as evidenced by his Time Rocker collaboration with Robert Wilson and his contributions to two different Kurt Weill tributes. I think this semi-sequel to the Velvets' "New Age" cries out to be reborn as a show tune. It's got a Norma Desmond-esque faded star, a singalong chorus and plenty of showy flourishes. I'm not up on my Broadway stars, so maybe there are song-and-dance folks who could handle this better than Sutton Foster. I'm giving it to her anyway because I really miss Bunheads.

My Name is Mok – Iggy Pop
Lou's '70s glam persona positioned him somewhere between the slick shimmer of David Bowie and the feral ferocity of Iggy Pop. Let's embrace the latter and let Iggy snarl his way through this kick-ass obscurity. This was originally the theme song of a sexy, dog-faced, Mick Jagger-inspired super villain in an animated headache called Rock & Rule. That movie also featured the briefest snippet of an Iggy Pop song, so there's your tie-in if for some reason you need one.

Sister Ray – Janelle Monae
It struck me recently that "Sister Ray" would sound amazing with its original instrumentation and a genuine R&B singer on vocals – think Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. Unfortunately, two of those guys are dead and I'm dubious about Ben at 75 being willing or able to sustain his youthful energy for a 17-minute lyrical orgy of sex and violence. That brings us to the current Funkiest Being on Earth, Janelle Monae. Janelle could slaughter "Sister Ray." There's no question that she could keep the electricity flowing for the duration. I would expect this track to be the highlight of this tribute album. It actually upsets me that I'm not listening to Janelle croon about Cecil and his new piece right this second.

Magic and Loss – John Cale
Lou's most overt exploration of the meaning of death is also one of his greatest artistic achievements. Not only was John Cale Lou's longest-tenured collaborator, he's also exactly the right kind of performer to do this song justice. Set to a gentle piano arrangement, his broken-hearted baritone and gentle Welsh accent would make a beautiful evocation of Lou's passing through fire.


I swear I'm not giving this to Björk just because I know how great Lou's lyrics sound coming from a strong-voiced woman with a European accent. But sure, the Nico factor is in play here. Beyond that, imagine the orchestration and sheer power Björk would invest in this. If she could re-access the towering eccentricity of the Post era, this could be a classic.

Mark Oliver Everett is another artist whose existence seems unlikely without Lou Reed. His witty cynicism and engrossing explorations of how death reflects life are right in concert with Lou's defining themes. Also, he knows how to rock. He'd be able to mine all the self-deprecatory cleverness from this inexplicably obscure gem, Lou's contribution to Wim Wenders' Far Away, So Close soundtrack.

Stupid Man – Mark Mallman
The least-known name on this list, Minnesotan art-glam icon Mark Mallman deserves to be way more famous. I have to believe that the aching intensity he'd bring to the piano-driven opener from The Bells would help prove that to the world.

OK, I'll admit I like the cheesiness of pairing an artist known for her harp-playing with a song about an angel. But my main reason for giving this defiantly wordy, self-satirizing song to Joanna is her penchant for multisyllabic lyrical verbosity. I'd love to hear her distinctive warble deliver a line like "What do you do with your pragmatic passions / With your classically neurotic style / What do you do with your vague self-comprehension / What can you say when they lie?"

Wild Child – Jonathan Richman
Legend has it that Richman was a Velvet Underground fanatic right from the start, going back to the band's infamous club gigs. The early Modern Lovers sound would seem to bear out that influence. He'd be great tapping into the amphetamine-fueled craziness of this raucous run-through of Lou's rogue's gallery.

It wouldn't have occurred to me that Beck's a big Lou Reed fan, but it makes sense. I couldn't decide whether to let him pull off one of his insane rave-ups or keep him in mournful Sea Change mode (the latter being my personal Beck preference). Here's a song that allows him to indulge both sides, a phenomenal, bitter slow-burner from Berlin.

NYC Man – They Might Be Giants
While far too many people dismiss TMBG as a novelty act, those in the know understand that the two Johns are brilliant songsmiths with real versatility. Rather than hand them one of Lou's more out-there numbers, I'd love to see them sink their teeth into this heartfelt exploration of manhood and the city that they and Lou all loved so dearly.

Lady Godiva's Operation – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
I'll admit I'm toeing the novelty line here, but I genuinely think the Velvets' deeply creepy duet would sound amazing as a haunted bluegrass tune. You can decide for yourself whether she'd be game for tackling a nightmare story of surgery gone wrong, but there's no denying that when Dolly goes dark she can be spooky as hell. Putting her on the John Cale parts and her old "Islands in the Stream" mate Kenny on the intentionally discordant Lou lines would be amusing on the first listen and increasingly unsettling with every subsequent spin.

The Gorillaz/Lou Reed collaboration "Some Kind of Nature" was a neat surprise, a smooth melding of sensibilities that somehow made both acts sound even hipper. "I'm Waiting for the Man" is another Lou song that's been covered to death, but I think Gorillaz dark-but-bouncy electronic sensibilities could shine a new light on things. A breathy Damon Albarn vocal is never a bad thing either.

The Chooser and the Chosen One – Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders and Tony Smith featuring Ornette Coleman
Lou's band members were the unsung heroes of his recent output, although they weren't unsung by Lou himself. His always made sure to give them their props during live gigs, even including a solo song by bassist Fernando Saunders on the Animal Serenade CD. Saunders, guitarist Mike Rathke and drummer Tony Smith backed Lou for the better part of two decades, so it seems only fitting to give them their due with a cover of this instrumental deep cut from Rock & Roll Heart. Free jazz legend Ornette Coleman collaborated with Lou a number of times, so let's put him on sax and see how weird we can get with it.

The Original Wrapper – Beastie Boys feat. Biz Markie
One of the most widely derided songs Lou ever recorded, this deeply odd ode to hip-hop takes a lot of flak for its dorky rhymes and curiously waffle-centric imagery. Y'know who else likes rapping about non-sequiturs and food? Yes, yes, Weird Al, but y'know who else? The Beastie Boys, that's who. What's more, they're fellow New York icons with roots in punk rock. Get longtime Beastie collaborator Biz Markie to sit in for the dearly departed MCA and we might just have a reassessment of Lou's hip-hop prowess.

Women – Shane MacGowan
This isn't one of the best songs in Lou's repertoire – its goofy satire of masculinity borders on annoying – but Shane MacGowan's whiskey-strangled slur would breathe new, sleazy life into it. It'd be worth it just to hear him rasp out "I... love... WOMEN!" as the music swells.

Sword of Damocles – TV On The Radio
As far as I know TV On The Radio has no direct connection to Lou Reed, but they're a band who can do no wrong in my book. Their powerful, flawlessly produced sound manages to be both expansive and introspective, which makes them an ideal fit for this sad, sweeping rumination on the inevitability of death.

Teach the Gifted Children – Victoria Williams
Lou's fondness for Victoria Williams always warmed my heart. Stylistically they're miles apart, but they complemented each other surprisingly well. Lou's rendition of "Tarbelly and Featherfoot" is one of the peaks of Sweet Relief, the benefit covers album that brought Victoria to the attention of the alt-rock world in the early '90s, and he contributed guitar and backing vocals to her "Crazy Mary" on a number of live appearances. Victoria opened for Lou the one time I saw him play live, and she just about stole the show, her sweetness and light playing as a welcome contrast to Lou's grumpy stoicism. Of all the songs in Lou's catalog, the hopeful, gospel-tinged "Teach the Gifted Children" sounds most like it could've been written by Victoria Williams. I'm not sure where Victoria's battle with MS stands – the dearth of new music over the last decade makes me fear it's not going well – but if she was up to singing it, think she'd nail this one with trademark steely sweet folkitude.

Sweet Jane – Bruce Springsteen
I'm almost tempted to have Bruce do "Street Hassle" just for the novelty of him reprising his cameo on the original recording, but when it comes down to it I can't think of another performer better suited to mine the joy and sheer rockingness out of this song. It's been over-covered and redefined so many times over (as lovely as that Cowboy Junkies version is, it bugs me that it's  eclipsed the original for a lot of people (also that the Junkies get too much credit for their "re-imagining," as they're pretty closely covering a live arrangement from late-period Velvet Underground concerts)), it would be beautiful to hear Springsteen belt it back to its former glory. It makes a perfect almost-closing track to be capped off by a sweet little coda.

I Love You – Laurie Anderson
Tell me you wouldn't cry. Heck, I'm tearing up just thinking about it.