Saturday, December 7, 2013

For a Song - Linda Ronstadt: Simple Dreams

This is the season of artists’ autobiographies. Just in time for Christmas we’ve seen books by and about Graham Nash, Donald Fagen, The Kinks’ Ray Davies and more. But by far, whatever pleasures are inherent in the rest, the sweetest, most poetic reminiscence has to be Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams. Isn’t that the way it should be? She doesn’t pull the rug out from underneath anyone, she doesn‘t confess to a lifetime as a heroin addict, or give us any startling revelations about her sex life, but her fine crisp prose tells us just enough details of her climb to the top (and devotion to her craft) to keep us loving the girl singer we grew up with. That’s right, grew up with.

Those of us of a certain age remember the barefoot girl sitting in the dirt with the hogs on Silk Purse, and the sexpot in the red camisole on the front of Rolling Stone magazine. Aah, how that strap slipped off the shoulder! We remember the albums fondly, and the powerful voice held captive in that delicate frame. How could she sing with such gusto? The bands backing her were always fine, one became The Eagles. Her song choices were flawless, and the production by Peter Asher captured the essence of those songs, and still left room for Linda to shine even when the guitar parts were as memorable as on “You’re No Good.” Linda introduced us to a whole generation of songwriters. Warren Zevon, JD Souther, Jackson Browne among others; but she was also on the cusp of the New Wave melding it with her California-rock ethos on an album called Mad Love. Perhaps it wasn’t the grittiest approach to new wave rock, but I assure you it led many listeners (who hadn't gone there yet) to try out Elvis Costello.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Ripped From the Headlines: The Crime Novels of Robert Rotenberg

When I taught Canadian criminal law several years ago to secondary school students, they frequently made references to American law which they had derived from American films and television shows. There were Canadian television shows that portrayed with general accuracy Canadian law – Street Legal in the 1980s and more recently Wonderland on the CBC and The Associates on CTV – but none of them carried much cache for my students. And I could not recall a Canadian legal novel that would have gripped their imagination. But four novels in the last five years by a former magazine editor and a Toronto practicing lawyer for over twenty years, Robert Rotenberg, might have done the trick. Simply put, his police investigations/courtroom novels, that may remind some readers of the structure of the Law and Order series and the courtroom dramas of John Grisham, are a romp: fast-paced and highly entertaining, beginning with a murder, with several police officers and lawyers reappearing throughout. Perhaps the most important character is Toronto itself and its denizens: at one point in Stray Bullets, a character mentions that one of the largest firms in the country is Miller Ford.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hard to Kill: Dallas Buyers' Club

Dallas Buyers’ Club, based-on-a-true-story directed by Jean-Marc Vallee from a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, has a few big things going for it, right from the start. For one thing, it’s based on a true story that hasn’t already been well-aired on TV and in magazines. The principal published source of information about its hero—Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas good ol’ boy and sometime drug dealer, with a rowdy, low-rent social life (and the homophobia that goes with the good ol’ boy territory who contracted HIV in 1985)—is an article that appeared in the Dallas Morning News in 1992, the same year Woodroof died. (The doctor who diagnoses his condition tells him that he has thirty days to get his affairs in order.) The screenwriters actually did some reporting of their own flesh out Woodroof’s story, and this gives the movie some of the fresh-ink feel of investigative journalism.

When Woodroof gets the bad news, he sinks into drugs and drink, though getting sunk there was already a big part of his usual routine. Then he shakes it off and starts buying AZT, which is being used in clinical trials, from a hospital orderly who sneaks it to him on the sly. When the orderly cuts him off, he lights out for Mexico, where he wakes up in a Third World hellhole presided over by an unlicensed American expatriate (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that the AZT helped trigger full-blown AIDS by shutting down his immunity system. Dunne plies him with vitamins and drugs that aren’t legally available in the States, and Woodroof returns to Texas transformed into a man with a mission. He doesn’t shed his homophobia overnight. (A split-second flashback to Woodroof banging a woman with track marks on her arms—the moment, he realizes, that he contracted the disease—seems meant just to take the possibility that he’s a closet case who’s had a secret life on the down-low off the table.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Zappa 101 - A Primer

Marking the 20th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s death, I continue to be inspired and entertained by his work and the rich musical legacy he left the world so I've selected ten essential albums (and Kevin Courrier provides an eleventh).  John Corcelli

On one of his many appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, Frank Zappa talked about his “personal relationship with his fans.” He was responding to Letterman’s question regarding the explanatory liner notes to the London Symphony Orchestra release of 1983. In one short answer, Zappa perfectly expressed the unique character of his work and the personal way it had evolved over the years. For me, the strength of Zappa’s music is completely about how I relate to it; the jokes I get and the particular subjects of his songs. Frank Zappa is certainly not for everyone, but if you’re looking for one of the most creative, challenging and rewarding composers of the 20th Century, then the following albums will do the trick:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

All Those Years Ago - Mark Lewisohn's Tune In The Beatles: All These Years (Vol. 1)

Reading Philip Norman’s Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation in 1982, I was slightly disoriented, yet nonetheless taken, by its references to a British youth and Beatles fan named Mark Lewisohn—disoriented because I, like most Americans, hadn’t heard of him. First glimpsed as an eight-year-old in the summer of 1967, dancing in the back yard to Sgt. Pepper “while trying not to dislodge the cardboard mustache clenched under his nose,” he was last seen as “a serious young man of twenty-two who holds the title ‘Beatle Brain of Britain,’ so labyrinthine is his knowledge of their music and history.”

But within a decade of Norman’s book, the “serious young man” had achieved broad renown as the acknowledged world authority on All Things Beatle. Today, the mustache beneath Mark Lewisohn’s nose is all his own. Among his works of Fab Four scholarship—all venerated for their precision, depth, and integrity—are The Beatles Live! (1986); The Beatles Recording Sessions (1988); The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992); and The Beatles’ London (1994). He’s written liner notes for numerous Beatles reissues, and was intimately involved in the 1994-95 Anthology project. His work on the Recording Sessions book alone—for which he listened to every piece of Beatles tape in their record company’s vault—gives him a depth of archival insight undreamt of by other fans or historians.

And his magnum opus is finally upon us. Close to a decade in preparation, its publication twice delayed, Tune In (Crown Archetype; 932 pp.) is the first installment of a three-volume Beatles biography with the corporate title All These Years. The book both looks and weighs important, and the hefty mass-market version is dwarfed by the “Extended Special Edition”—two equally thick volumes in a box, with nearly twice the page count and many more photographs, incorporating quantities of ancillary research that must have been removed from the mass version with a shovel. Lewisohn tells us the project has not been authorized or in any way controlled by the surviving Beatles, the deceased Beatles’ estates, or the group’s joint company, Apple Corps. Unauthorized Tune In may be, but clearly Lewisohn earned the trust of at least three of his subjects (he never met John Lennon) over his decades of research into the Beatles’ daily lives and guarded archives; and it’s largely because Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr deign not to obstruct his work that we have this book, and the three-part whole it heralds.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Southern Gothic: Beth Henley's The Jacksonian

The plot of Beth Henley's new play The Jacksonian, set in a motel in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964, is so crammed with incident that it feels a little like a flea market for ideas left over from other plays she hasn’t got around to writing. The main character, Bill Perch (Ed Harris), is a dentist with a taste for his own nitrous oxide and a lackadaisical practice. He’s living at the Jackson while he tries to patch things up with his wife Susan (Amy Madigan), who threw him out for beating her up – hurting her “more than usual,” according to their adolescent daughter Rosy (Juliet Brett) – though Susan’s paranoia where Bill’s concerned mostly stems from his having allowed the doctor to perform a hysterectomy when she was discovered to have an ovarian cyst. Rosy, who narrates the story, is a highly imaginative teenager who ferries back and forth between her parents and campaigns against their getting a divorce. Bill is an object of romantic interest to a motel chambermaid named Eva White (Glenne Headly) when the bartender, Fred Weber (Bill Pullman), calls off their engagement: she wants someone to marry her. She’s miffed that it can’t be Fred, since she gave false testimony to alibi him for a convenience store robbery and murder for which an innocent black man is sitting on death row. But then, she doesn’t think too much of African Americans; she’s rabidly anti-integration, unlike Bill, who deplores his father’s politics (he’s a Klansman) but, out of necessity, continues to live off his checks.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Chasing Phantoms - From Del Shannon to Neil Young: "Runaway" and "Like a Hurricane"

When I was six and driving in the car with my parents, the radio often provided comfort either by giving me voices in the larger world beyond the roads we travelled, or music that could take me inside the world of the singer. For myself, the rock & roll I heard in 1960 was about finding a place, to paraphrase John Lennon, where I could go when I felt low. The songs of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly could reach out to the friendless and disenfranchised and invite us to to be part of something larger than ourselves. Even if their tunes were about heartache and loss, the mere sharing of that pain gave credence to the idea that one could transcend it because the music was about giving pleasure. In one of his last recorded songs, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," Buddy Holly playfully teases himself about how foolish he was to be driven crazy by the woman who abandons him. Not only does the singer survive the loss, he understands the price he was willing to pay in the process so he could move on. (It was only in real life, unlike in the nowhere land of the song, that Buddy Holly could lose his life in a plane crash he couldn't control.)