Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On 'Toys,' Robin Williams and the birth of a cinephile

1993 was the year I decided to become a cinephile. I’d always loved watching movies with my family like any kid, but now I was a teenager and a regular reader of Roger Ebert’s column in the Thursday newspaper. I made up my mind that I was going to start seeking out movies that challenged me and gave me insights into truly appreciating film. That wasn’t the easiest thing to do in Sparta, Wisconsin in the mid-‘90s. We had three decent video shops and the usual array of gas station and supermarket video sections, but classics and under-the-radar titles were hard to come by. In lieu of critic-approved, capital-A “Art Films,” I made do with whatever offbeat or indie flicks (Miramax productions, mainly) made it to my local shelves. Early in high school I claimed Spike Lee’s Crooklyn as my favorite film. I’d go to bat for Mixed Nuts as the most underrated film in the Steve Martin canon. I was almost certainly the only 15-year-old boy in Wisconsin who went to sleep beneath a poster of the Ted Danson coming-of-age dramedy Pontiac Moon every night.

But before any of that, there was Toys. Toys wasn’t an indie movie by any means. It was intended to be a holiday blockbuster for the whole family. In that regard it was every bit the failure it was always doomed to be. It’s just too damn weird an endeavor to have been embraced by the public at large. It’s borderline unthinkable that a day-glo story of a manic man-child and his cognitively disabled sister fighting to save a toy factory from a military takeover would even make it past a table read, let alone be granted the budget to realize a litany of massive, surrealist sets and a cast of top-tier stars, but such was the power of Barry Levinson in the early ‘90s. The result was a ludicrous mélange of lunatic designs and ideas with the unhinged energy of Terry Gilliam, the unlimited budget of Steven Spielberg and the unfortunate sentimentality of Chris Columbus.

It also had LL Cool J disguised as a sofa.

I first saw Toys at my pal Nathan’s house, viewed on his parents' dying VCR. The tracking was shot and the color faded in and out, no way at all to watch a movie that depends so heavily on a striking color palette. Nonetheless, I was mesmerized. It felt like something that shouldn’t exist, and I was delighted that it did. I watched it again with my own family at my first opportunity and was again enthralled with the churning, multicolored gears; the indoor roller coaster hallways; the life-sized dollhouses and mechanical duck crossings and endless, billowing fields of grass. It wasn’t like anything else, and where I came from anything that wasn’t like anything else was something worth loving.

And the cast. The cast of Toys is something else. Michael Gambon. Joan Cusack. (Never better – I had such a pubescent crush on her in this movie.) LL Cool J. Donald O’Connor. Jack Warden. Robin Wright. Yeardley Smith. Debi Mazar. (Remember Debi Mazar?) Shelley Desai. Jamie Foxx. Wendy from Wendy and Lisa. And of course, at the core of it, Robin Williams. How could the motor-mouthed man-child heir to the world’s most whimsical toy company have been played by anyone but Robin Williams?

Late 1992 was pretty close to peak Robin Williams. He’d redefined Disney movies earlier that year with Aladdin and had already cemented himself as a dramatic actor with Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. He’d anchored a high-profile flop with Hook, sure, but he was only a year away from the zeitgeist-smasher of Mrs. Doubtfire. America was on the back end of a solid 10-year stretch wherein Robin Williams was comedy. I was a little too young to have memories of his coke-fueled standup heyday but I’d grown up loving him as a movie star. It was the early ‘90s. Who hadn’t? For as out-there as the movie is conceptually, Toys finds him giving a quintessentially Robin Williams performance, all funny voices and rapid-fire babble sprinkled with earnest monologues. Somehow Williams never overpowers the movie the way he could at his most unfettered (although he does cross over into irritation at times - when he manages to wedge in both his Michael Jackson and his Gandhi impressions, for instance). Maybe it’s because Levinson is throwing just as much brain candy at the walls as Williams is and the two creative forces balance each other out. Any which way, I count Toys as one of the best uses of Robin Williams ever.

For whatever reason I’d always glommed onto Williams’ least-loved roles. If you’d asked me in 1993 to name my three favorite Robin Williams movies, I’d have told you Toys, Popeye and The Survivors. It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen The Survivors so I can’t tell you if that one holds up – although it’s hard for me to imagine that Robin Williams and Walter Matthau as hapless survivalists circa 1983 would be anything but funny – but the other two are still at the top of my list. Robert Altman’s Popeye has undergone a critical redemption in recent years and finally gets some of the praise it so richly deserves – seriously, Williams as Popeye is some of the finest casting in Hollywood history. Poor Toys, on the other hand, is remembered primarily as Barry Levinson’s greatest folly, to the extent that it’s remembered at all.

Watching it again two decades later, on the day that Robin Williams died, I can understand some of the animosity. It’s sometimes mawkish, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes outright annoying. The blending of childlike wonder and adult themes is uneasy and occasionally a little creepy. But by god, it’s just as weird a beast as it was in 1993. There’s nothing safe about it. It’s visually creative and stimulating to an insane degree, especially for a pre-CGI movie. The story goes surprisingly dark but never sacrifices a genuine spirit of whimsy. The sets are astonishing. Joan Cusack is still a revelation. And Robin Williams is a force of nature, bouncing off the walls both figuratively and literally in a performance that seriously could not have been given by any other human. It’s a movie that failed at so many of the things it set out to do but succeeded in teaching me the power of a beautiful failure. For all its flaws, Toys was essential in making me a lover of cinema.

Plus the soundtrack features a pretty cool Thomas Dolby song. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Putting Weird Al's "Word Crimes" on trial

Weird Al Yankovic clearly struck a chord with the nation's English majors when he released his "Blurred Lines" parody video "Word Crimes" earlier this month. The deftly worded excoriation of people who use poor grammar and punctuation on the internet racked up nearly five million YouTube views in its first two days and was disseminated by high-profile sites from Pitchfork to the Washington Post. A lot of the song's leverage also came from self-proclaimed "grammar nerds" sharing it in their Facebook and Twitter feeds, often (in my experience, at least) accompanied by a comment about the poster's own frustration with dimbulbs who don't know when to add an apostrophe to "its."

Decrying the decline of spelling and grammar is a refrain as old as the internet, or at least the social components thereof. Online defense of the King's English is swift and frequently vicious. Any slight typo that slips into a publication is met with a flurry of "Don't you people employ a copy editor?" comments. A simple "there/their" mix-up is grounds for dismissing a poster's entire thesis, however cogent it may otherwise be. Even in a character-restrained environment like Twitter, using texting-inspired space-savers like "ur" or "thx" can be enough to earn a block from certain folks.

The disciples of "Word Crimes" no doubt see themselves as important gatekeepers, a bulwark against the dumbing down of our collective discourse. But are online displays of bad grammar really symptoms of creeping stupidity? Or is it just that everybody has a different skill set? Sure, there are plenty of lazy or willfully ignorant writers on the internet, but there are also scads of legitimate excuses for having poor grammar, including reading disorders, English as a secondary language, lack of access to quality writing instruction, or just plain not having a knack for words. 

Given the choice, a lot of those people probably wouldn't put their writing on public display, but in the social age that's often the only viable way for them to stay connected to their friends and family. It isn't necessarily that language skills have declined so drastically in recent years. It's just that we're seeing more language from people who used to have the option of keeping that particular shortcoming to themselves. I personally know a number of very intelligent but grammar-challenged people who are reluctant to post anything online for fear of the mockery that will inevitably come the first time they confuse their plural and possessive forms.

If Weird Al had made a video shaming folks who don't get trigonometry or who have a poor understanding of personal finance, would it have gone as smugly viral as "Word Crimes"? If so, an awful lot of grammar nerds would find themselves on the receiving end of the same condescension now being heaped on people who struggle with the rules of writing. I count myself among the fortunate folks who have a natural aptitude for the written word, but I'm the first to admit that I have grievous failings in plenty of other areas of scholarship and communication. That doesn't make me stupid, and the same goes for people who don't grasp the function of quotation marks.

I don't want to bag on Weird Al too hard here. "Word Crimes" seems generally good-natured and spotlights some of the sharpest wordplay of Mr. Yankovic's career. What's more concerning is how the song has validated and brought to the forefront a mean-spirited strain of privilege-dripping pedantry. Sure, there's some merit to the grammarians' hullabaloo - it's hard to think of a valid reason to use textspeak outside the confines of texting or Twitter, for instance - but for the most part it's an argument that places form above function. Heck, I've known storytellers who can bring a room to tears with a piece that barely resembles English on paper, and I've edited essays by award-winning authors who still begin every paragraph with a superfluous "So." I've also edited more than a few technically perfect pieces that wound up being too godawful dull to publish. If writing can be both imperfect and effective, what's the benefit in punishing every minor infraction?

Besides, do those of us who excel at writing really want everybody else climbing into the same boat? We're lucky enough to have a fairly rare skill that gives us an edge in many facets of life. Why not take pride in that rather than scorning those who don't? When I go out to a nice restaurant, the chef doesn't come to my table and belittle me for not being able to cook as well as he does, nor does he follow me home to mock my meager attempts at preparing my own dinner. There's a silent contract in place that I appreciate his artistry on its own terms and he respects that I'll do the best I can with what I've got. Nobody needs to accuse anybody of food crimes (which, come to think of it, sounds like it should be a Weird Al song title).

Let's all lay off the grammar-shaming and appreciate "Word Crimes" as Weird Al's cleverly written poke at an eminently pokable Robin Thicke song, not some sort of manifesto for folks who know their plurals from their possessives. Or better still we could skip ahead to "Foil." Mocking conspiracy theorists via a Lorde parody is the kind of shaming everybody can get behind.

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.