Thursday, February 19, 2015

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XII

It would be tempting to call Hampton Sides' Hellhound On His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt In American History (Doubleday Anchor) a thriller – as many did in their reviews – but that assessment doesn't come close to describing its power. His 2011 account of the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, its investigation, and the assassin's escape and eventual capture, is what Sides calls a requiem for an era that's passed. But Hellhound on His Trail also opens up room for a more unnerving and contemporary context – a context that in the Obama era is unshakable even if the events he depicts happened almost fifty years ago. Borrowing his title from Robert Johnson's haunting "Hellhound on my Trail" (but written in the mood of "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day"), Sides illuminates the country that Johnson mapped out in his songs, a land that Greil Marcus called in his essay on Johnson in Mystery Train, "a world without salvation, redemption, or rest." It's a book where an assassin, James Earl Ray, passes (as most assassins do) into anonymity. He becomes a construct who continually recreates himself in a country that invites its citizens to do just that – only to eventually step into the light and snuff out a prophetic voice, a man who made demands on his country to live up to its founding ideals.

Sides deliberately borrows the fictional style of historian Shelby Foote who "employ[ed] the novelist's methods without his license." But unlike, for instance, the documentary films of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) that aestheticize reality, Sides enhances and enlarges the drama instead and makes the familiar seem strange, the obvious feel more mysterious, and the events of 1968 more vividly real and heartbreaking. Creating a number of narrative paths that begin with James Earl Ray (as alias Eric Starvo Galt) breaking out of a Missouri prison in 1967 that runs parallel to Martin Luther King, Jr. breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and planning a Poor People's March on Washington, Sides sets up a convergence that paves a road to King's inevitable and tragic death in Memphis. Yet even as we know the events to happen are inescapable and that history will change irrevocably that year, you're always at war with the chapters, with time itself, and with your desire to step back into history to alter its pull. Sides doesn't flinch from that pull either. Like a great detective, he realizes that looking for clues can uncover yet more mysteries, so he thankfully doesn't succumb to the helpless paranoia and safety of conspiracy theories, or take refuge in irony. Hellhound on His Trail takes stock of loss, and like Robert Johnson watching his baby's train disappear in the distance in "Love in Vain," considers its cost.

The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, which packed the biggest names in rock 'n' roll, pop and soul at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, featured The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Leslie Gore, who died this week at 68. Nobody got to the wounded, yet dedicated, heart of the jilted girlfriend quite like Gore. Whether she claimed every right to weep at her own party when boyfriend Johnny set his sights on Judy ("It's My Party") and even getting her own back in the song's sequel ("Judy's Turn to Cry"), Gore kept her dignity. Though many gravitate to "You Don't Own Me," an anthem that leaves little room for ambiguity, I prefer the ambiguous "Maybe I Know." Once again, Gore has been the victim of a cheating boyfriend, but you'd never know it from the buoyancy of her performance. She sees past her boyfriend's infidelities, perhaps even looking through to the fears that drive him desperately into the arms of other women when she is the one he truly loves. Here on The T.A.M.I. Show, introduced by Jan & Dean, Gore sings her tale of romantic woe with sheer confidence without once succumbing to the song's inherent masochism.

Last year, in Critics at Large, critic John Corcelli described Rosanne Cash's 2014 album The River and The Thread rightly as "a beautiful, unadorned album that is more than just a traveler's diary. It’s a geographic and spiritual road map." Although that road is personal, the path it opens up takes in worlds of experience, both past and present, that cuts to the wounded and rootless sources of country music. "The Long Way Home" could be about Rosanne Cash's own life, about what she calls "excursions back to yourself." But it could just as easily be about the listener's life suddenly being uncorked and revealed, or maybe even the ghostly sound of someone forever lost to you becoming once again a voice in your ear.

While I love the pop side of Nat King Cole with songs like "Mona Lisa" and "Ramblin' Rose," I have a deeper affection for the earlier jazz combo of The Nat King Cole Trio. This sharp and tight band not only demonstrated how nimble Nat could be on the keyboards, but the unsung guitarist Oscar Moore (who deserves honorable mention along with Django and Les Paul) provided some breathtaking fills. This footage from Clint Eastwood's documentary, Piano Blues, shows the group live in action on "Better to be By Yourself" where they make quick work of this track just as The Rolling Stones would do years later with Larry Williams's "She Said Yeah!" As Ray Charles says in the end, "That's really tasty stuff."

Apart from Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry, with his after hours lounge crooning, did a number of popular songbook albums (These Foolish Things, Another Time, Another Place) that brought out the underlying reverence that resides in camp - even when it involved songs that seemed too sacred to parody. In that spirit, any pop song could be game, a torch to light up, which is why (with Ferry) The Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" could snuggle comfortably next to The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" without pause. His 1993 album, Taxi, which was largely passed over by critics and listeners, was another matter. Taking on Screamin' Jay Hawkins' (or Nina Simone's) "I Put a Spell On You," or Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," Doris Troy's "Just One Look," and the gospel standard "Amazing Grace," this wasn't another genial plunge into kitsch fetish. On Taxi, Ferry with sublime empathy feels his way into the sources of pop magic, and a song's ability to hook us and forever stay in our mind. By cleverly avoiding the familiar hooks in each tune, he actually finds new roads into the timeless source of their drawing power. With guitarist Robin Trower providing beguiling clothes lines that link the verses, Ferry glides into the melodies and lets their shimmering alchemy become reborn.

I always thought The Yardbirds, in the beginning, were a pretty bad British blues band. Singing the blues, as Sonny Boy Williamson once said, they couldn't have sounded more white. But once they embraced pop with "For Your Love," which is where Eric Clapton left and Jeff Beck jumped on board, they caught a blues influenced pop sound that was truly their own. I loved "Over, Under, Sideways, Down" from the moment it jumped out of my transistor radio at public school. While many groups in the late Sixties made explicit attempts to fuse Eastern music into their work, The Yardbirds did it here implicitly and Jeff Beck magically turns his guitar into the Indian shenai.

The late Lowell George, one of the founders of Little Feat, always had a beautiful bite to his voice. His love songs ("Roll 'Em Easy" comes to mind) often cried for you. With his roots in gospel blues and soul, George always composed a call and response in his music where his slide guitar, equally pining and poignant, would answer the longing in his voice. While "China White," recorded during his sessions for his solo album (Thanks I'll Eat it Here) and the original demo included on Hoy! Hoy!, seems to be merely a sketch of what might have later become a fuller song, it has an unearthly quality that Skip James might have lovingly approved.

In David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988), Jeremy Irons plays doctors who are twin brothers suffering through symbiosis. The cold, clinical study of their neurosis by Cronenberg may show the precision of a scientist, but the picture desperately needed the lyricism of a poet. One look at their terrifying gynaecological equipment also sent my girlfriend into profound disbelief telling me that no woman she knew would let those implements within five feet of her.

But sometimes within frustrating movies there lies, as my late friend (and Critics at Large co-founder) David Churchill used to remind me, mini-masterpieces. For me, the scene I still can't get out of my head from Dead Ringers is the one where the brothers share a dance with a woman to the strains of The Five Satins' timeless Fifties doo-wop number, "In the Still of the Nite." At the time I reviewed the picture, I tried to explain why this scene mattered to me more than any other in the picture - but I couldn't find the right words. The movie, at that moment, seemed to pull me into an inchoate sense of how beautifully dreamy pop songs can provide - as it does for the three dancers holding each other close - a connectedness that becomes as ephemeral as the momentary pleasure offered by the song itself. That's as close as I got.

So I was very happy when recently reading Greil Marcus's lively and probing The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs (which includes "In the Still of the Nite" as one of those songs) that he also remembered its use in Dead Ringers. In an interview he did with Bomb Magazine, I think he found the words that eluded me and still continue to. "The fact that David Cronenberg used the Five Satins’ 'In the Still of the Night' for a scene in Dead Ringers doesn't say anything definitive about that song. It’s a testament to the suggestiveness of the song, the way it can add to and take away from things, the way it can dramatize what people want, what they can never have, and what they've lost." That was it exactly. And that scene has never lost its bite.

– Kevin 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. 

1 comment:

  1. You sure cover a lot of ground, Mr. Courrier. Always impressive.