Friday, November 14, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. IX

A couple of years ago, I started included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with various critics, performers, writers and friends about social and cultural matters. (Some have described it as a salon.) Here is even more of the same. As before, it includes borrowings of songs and photos that sometimes others have posted and that I've commented on:

Tom Verlaine's elegiac epic "Words From the Front" (from the 1982 album of the same title) unfolds as if a series of newly discovered WWI letters from the front are being read after they've been found in some attic lingering in a box piled away with other long, lost items. Verlaine initially reads the letters with that familiar and flat American stoicism while his guitar delivers the urgency that his voice seems to lack. But, by the end, as the letters begin to rain terror and uncertainty, his voice reaches the same pitch as his guitar until the sheets of lava from the concluding solo bring the war home.

With the recent and sad news of former Cream bassist Jack Bruce's death, I'm thinking not so much of his nimble and busy bass lines that always seemed to keep up with drummer Ginger Baker's jazz time, but of his lilting vocals, heard here in the wistful "Those Were the Days" from the 1968 Wheels of Fire, that had more than a trace of the beautiful melancholy of Skip James.


One very early morning, I went into Jet Fuel, one of my favourite coffee shop haunts in Toronto, and they were playing Marvin Gaye's infectiously sexy 1977 single, "Got to Give it Up," where for ten minutes Gaye provided his own response to the growing disco music scene (much to the chagrin of Motown even though the song justly topped three different Billboard charts). What was particularly fun that day in Jet Fuel was watching the baristas making their lattes in sway to the music as the customers shifted their hips sensually around the person in line that they passed. No dance floor ever looked so appealing. No coffee shop looked so appetizing. As Frank Zappa would say, just use your imagination.

I know some friends (and a few colleagues) who have always found it easy to disparage Robin Williams for his 'saintly' roles in Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, or Dead Poets Society. (Robert de Niro has also had his share of bummer performances. But does he get the same grief?) What they are conveniently forgetting is that Williams was one of those quick-witted comic geniuses who ingested the rapid shifts in popular culture and helped revitalize American movies in the Eighties along with Steve Martin and Billy Murray. Like them, he also developed into a remarkable actor who possessed astonishing versatility. When you take into account his devastatingly funny portrait of a budding survivalist in The Survivors, his poignantly sweet Russian defector in Moscow on the Hudson, his madcap portrait of the former football player who wishes to replay the game where he cost his team the championship in The Best of Times, his sparkling duet with Jeff Bridges in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King, and his recent gentle underplaying as President Dwight Eisenhower in The Butler, they add up to a significantly brazen body of work. (And I didn't even get around to mentioning his voice-over in animated films like Happy Feet, or his startling portrait of a grieving widow and father in the Homicide episode "Bop Gun.") At his best, Williams demonstrated lightening reflexes that gave his comic attributes an emerged quality while sputtering out of the pinball precision of his teeming thought processes.

Singer/songwriter Lowell George was largely known as the founder of the funky little outfit Little Feat, for whom he wrote the trucker's lament "Willin'," the saucy "Dixie Chicken," the sexy "Roll 'Em Easy," introduced listeners to the concept of a cocaine tree in "Sailin' Shoes," and expressed his political frustrations to an equally displeased Chairman Mao ("Apolitical Blues"). But just before he brought a romantic absurdism to popular genres of music in Little Feat, he was a member of the completely absurdist Mothers of Invention under the baton of Frank Zappa.

In his last year with the Mothers, where he was brought on board to replace their r&b vocalist Ray Collins, George shows perhaps why he was hired when during that tour he performed live one of the spookiest murder songs about sexual jealousy ever written. "Here Lies Love" (originally known as "Here Lies My Love") was originally performed by The 4 Deuces, an American R&B vocal quartet, formed by Luther McDaniel in the mid-1950s in Salinas, California. The band was made up of a group of army friends originally schooled in gospel music, but very quickly gravitated to rhythm and blues. With a melody as foreboding as "St. James Infirmary," Lowell George on this cover seems to be preparing his own grave as he sings about the one his former loved is now lying in. ("Here lies love/In a grave caused by jealousy/Hate was a pall bearer/And on the tombstone was written misery"). For those who still harbour the notion that Zappa was all about yellow snow, "Here Lies Love" gives the lie to the illusion.

When his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966 forced him into semi-retirement, it was as if Bob Dylan had also retired from the violent battles with his audience to pull back from redefining himself. So he retreated not only into domesticity, but into one of the benefits that domesticity provides: your own record collection. In the safety of his own living room, he became the audience rather than the performer facing one. Among other things, Self Portrait (1970) suffered from the sense that Dylan was playing the songs to himself rather than to the listener. But on Another Self Portrait (2013), which contains session material from that original 1970 album as well as its follow-up, New Morning, listening to Eric Anderson's "Thirsty Boots," Tom Paxton's "Annie's Gonna Sing Her Song," and the gorgeous "Pretty Saro," you actually feel him reaching out to an audience. You can hear the threads of what not only came to define the musical territory Dylan had already been mining to that point, but also what would later become the Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour on satellite radio. On that program Dylan, as the host, took us on musical journeys through the history of American music – blues, jazz, show-tunes, rock and folk – using a theme like 'the weather' as the clothes line on which he hung the songs. On Another Self Portrait, he extends to his listeners the country sound he was immersed in with his previous album, Nashville Skyline, by reminding us (as he had on the irreplaceable The Basement Tapes) that his music was not narrowed by the social protests of the topical song. In his mind, the American songbook is an evolving and expanding catalogue tracing a map of the nation's struggles and triumphs.

                                                                 A Saucerful of Secrets.

Kevin Courrier is currently doing a lecture series at the Toronto JCC Miles Nadal on The Beatles on Monday evenings at 7pm. Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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