Saturday, March 20, 2010

Soul Deep: In Consideration of Alex Chilton

“Sometimes failure is more rewarding,” wrote Bill Reynolds in The Globe and Mail yesterday in concluding his obituary remembering Alex Chilton, who died last Wednesday of a heart attack in New Orleans at the age of 59. Chilton, the former lead singer of the ‘60s pop group The Box Tops ("The Letter," "Soul Deep") and co-founder of the influential 70s power pop band Big Star ("September Gurls," "In the Street"), was certainly no stranger to both failure and reward in his short life. In a sense, he took both extremes and created what critic Jason Anheny called “a poignantly beautiful sound which recaptured the spirit of pop’s past even as it pointed the way toward the music’s future.” Chilton was part of pop’s past and future in ways that became as much paradoxical as he became largely influential on later groups like The Replacements and (especially) R.E.M.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Wonders of Ruth

One of the most vibrant and skilled percussionists in Frank Zappa's early '70s version of the Mothers of Invention was Ruth Underwood. Ruth had auditioned for Zappa in the late '60s after seeing the Mothers play their Absolutely Free revue at the Garrick Theatre in New York. "Sometimes there were more people on stage than there were in the audience," she told the BBC. "And because of that Frank even got to know some of us by name…there were so few hard core Mothers freaks back then that we were all very noticeable to him...I remember droning music going on for ages. It shocked me… how such beautiful music could come out of such strange looking people.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Under Fire

When I pulled Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire off the shelf recently to see how it stood up, it had been 15 years since I'd last seen it. In the interim, I'd owned it on video (which I never watched) and when DVDs came along, I replaced the video with the DVD. Yet, again it sat on my shelf for another nine years until finally this past weekend I rewatched it. Does it still stand up as the thought provoking, well-made political thriller I took it for when I saw it originally in 1983? Yes and no. The problem is that when it came out in 1983, a scant four short years after the film's events - the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 - it was close enough to the events of that violent and bloody tumult to be a perfect example of the first draft of history. And first drafts always need a rewrite.

Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman and Joanna Cassidy play American journalists (photo journalist in Nolte's case) who are as rootless as gypsies as they move from crisis to crisis in search of a great story or image. Nolte is crafted very much in the Humphrey Bogart mold from Casablanca: a neutral observer who refuses to take any sides; Hackman is the old veteran who is ready to move behind the news anchor's desk after one more foreign assignment; and Cassidy is the woman in love with both of them. They find themselves in Nicaragua as it blows apart from a revolution that, for all intents and purposes, had begun in the 1930s. As their objectivity drops away, they find themselves starting to take the revolutionaries' side in the chaotic events. Nolte in particular has his journalistic ethics hugely tested when he's asked by the revolutionaries to take a certain photograph that could turn the tide of the revolution.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dystopian Dreams: Larry Kirwan's Liverpool Fantasy

In my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream, I was trying to answer a question: How did a group like The Beatles, who wrote songs about love and helped to build a popular culture based on pleasure and inclusion, also attract hate and murder. To do so, I realized that I'd have to answer another key question: Was The Beatles' utopian dream worth it?

Given that the state of the world, in the wake of the band's demise, is not the one they sung about - and hoped for - in "All You Need is Love," it was tempting to ask whether or not The Beatles truly mattered. I thought I was going to have to justify the group solely on the strength of their music until I came across, quite by chance, a book by Larry Kirwan called Liverpool Fantasy (2003). In his book, Kirwan (who was the lead singer of a New York-based Irish rock group called Black 47), imagines England without the emergence of The Beatles. Liverpool Fantasy is a dystopian, yet comical, look at the absence of The Beatles from history. It doesn't spare the reader, but it doesn't ridicule the dream the band created either.

In Liverpool Fantasy, Kirwan asks what might have happened had The Beatles broken up before their thunderbolt song "Please Please Me" had not hit the airwaves and broke them in England in 1962. Their manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin believe that their cover of the quiet ballad "Till There Was You" will do better. While Lennon balks at the suggestion, McCartney is happy to go along (after all, he sings on it). At which point, Lennon storms out of the studio taking George and Ringo with him. The Beatles are no more. Kirwan next cuts to 1987 where the picture of England isn't an artistic renaissance, but a fascist state where the National Front, bearing the slogans of the ultraright Enoch Powell, has struck a coalition with the Tory government. Unemployment is high. Racism is pervasive. And The Beatles never happened.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Two Actors, One Man: Albert Finney & Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill has been portrayed hundreds of times in various films and television shows, yet he still remains, in the visual medium anyway, very much an enigma. Here's a man who was not trusted nor respected (he had a tendency to change political parties seemingly on a whim and then change back again), yet it is not overstating it that without him we would not have won World War II. To defeat someone like Hitler you needed somebody as single-minded and stubborn as he was. No one else in England's power elite, except Churchill, could have achieved that. Lord Halifax -- who was considered Neville Chamberlain's replacement when he stepped down -- was passed over in favour of Churchill to become PM. Based on Halifax's desire to offer further accommodations to Hitler, thank God that Churchill was chosen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Whaling Blues of Robin Trower: Procol Harum's In Held T'Was In I

Although they became widely known, and defined by their 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum has a long musical history dating back to the days of the British Invasion when they were known as the R&B band The Paramounts. Nevertheless, with a classical baroque sound, they took up the piano/organ combination made popular by Bob Dylan on Blonde on Blonde (1966) and released a succession of albums filled with cryptic tales of sea journeys, death and conquistadors.

On their second album, Shine on Brightly (1968), they attempted an epic cantata called “In Held T’Was In I” (an acronym that uses the first word of each movement's lyrics in order to create the title) that chronicled a descent into madness and its affirmative resolution. While Bach was the presiding spirit here, the wild card in the band (dating back to The Paramounts) was guitarist Robin Trower. In the concluding section, where the narrator affirms his quest for salvation, Trower’s guitar reminds you of salvation’s price. In the cantata's finale, his solo sounding, as critic Paul Williams once accurately described it, like “a banshee trapped in Hell but vainly crying for release,” Trower introduces the whaling blues of Albert King to the stately measure of Bach.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dead End: Paul Greengrass's Green Zone

In his sane and sobering book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (2005), The New Yorker’s political correspondent George Packer opened up one’s perspective on the Bush Administration’s argument for invading Iraq on the danger of their using weapons of mass destruction:

“[Bush’s] 'axis of evil’ speech, coming just weeks after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, signaled the next stage in the war on terrorism and the basis for further action. The speech dramatically expanded the theatre of war, but it also did so on relatively narrow grounds. As [Paul] Wolfowitz told an interviewer after the fall of Baghdad, WMD was the least common denominator: ‘The truth is that reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction.’ Wolfowitz suggested that he himself had bigger ideas – a realignment of American power and influence in the Middle East, away from theocratic Saudi Arabia (home to so many of the 9/11 hijackers), and toward a democratic Iraq, as the beginning of an effort to cleanse the whole region of murderous regimes and ideologues…Resting on a complex and abstract theory, it would also have been much harder to sell to the public.”

It’s a shame that Paul Greengrass in his new film Green Zone also resists such complexity because the movie turns out to be as single-minded in its approach to the Iraq War as the Bush Administration’s.