Sunday, September 6, 2015

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XV

In the recent issue of Pitchfork, Dhani Harrison describes a conversation he had with his late father about his guitar playing. “My father once said to me, ‘I play the notes you never hear,’” he remembers. “He focused on touch and control partly because he never thought he was any good, really. He knew he was good at smaller things: not hitting any off notes, not making strings buzz, not playing anything that would jar you. ‘Everyone else has played all the other bullshit,’ he would say. ‘I just play what's left.’”

I started to think about what song might illustrate best for me the notion of playing 'what's left.' On Beatles for Sale (or Beatles VI  if you grew up like me in North America), "What You're Doing" has a solo that's quite economical in that George Harrison style. The notes he plays (over-top George Martin's rumbling piano) are picked at with a brightness that gives the song some of its shimmering texture. Yet it still harmonizes with the song's melodic line even when it briefly breaks free from it. Heard here best in mono, rather than stereo, the pieces are always designed to fit the whole.

In Neil Jordan's sprawling 2005 fantasia Breakfast on Pluto, Patrick "Kitten" Braden (Cillian Murphy) is a sensitive transvestite who is trying to find happiness. Born to Father Bernard (Liam Neeson) and his housekeeper, Patrick is hauled off to an uncaring foster family, but soon becomes obsessed with finding his mother who had abandoned him on the doorstep of Father Bernard's church. Braden's quest for his sexual identity is set against the backdrop of the violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties. While there are few directors with a gift for the uncanny and the ephemeral as Jordan (Mona Lisa, In Dreams, The Good Thief), Breakfast on Pluto has a cluttered narrative despite the crisp work by cinematographer Declan Quinn and many of the actors (including singer Bryan Ferry in a creepy cameo as a sexual psychopath). What sometimes threads the disparate parts together, though, is the soundtrack which features as much diversity as the story being told with songs that range from Bobby Goldsboro to T-Rex.The opening scene as "Kitten" strolls happily down the street is scored to The Rubettes' 1974 hit "Sugar Baby Love." Despite the fact that this British pop band dressed like the Bay City Rollers and sounded like The Archies performing doo-wop, their harmonies are completely irresistible. We often walk the streets to the tunes in our head (or in our headphones) that make our body sway as we stroll. Cillian Murphy's "Kitten" comes in on the breeze of The Rubettes' high falsettos and rides them in full bliss like a kite caught up in the wind through the neighbourhood.

The Animals' version of this tragic and traditional folk song is still as hair-raising as it was when I first heard it shattering the speakers of my little transistor radio in 1964. By changing the song's original story from the point of view of a woman being led into a life of degradation, to that of a man, whose father was now a gambler and drunkard, "House of the Rising Sun" remains a horror story (complete with an appropriate organ accompaniment) about inheriting the sins of our parents – and Eric Burdon sings like he's inherited more than a few. No song has come close to touching it except for perhaps Bruce Springsteen's "Adam Raised a Cain" which likely wouldn't have been conceived without it.

When Nico (who died on this date back in 1988) sang "All Tomorrow's Parties" on the Velvet Underground's debut album, she was the ideal vocalist for it. If songwriter Lou Reed had sung it, he would have likely sounded put out by "Thursday's child" becoming "Sunday's clown" when she had no sharp threads to wear. But Nico's flattened voice, as if she wilfully drove all the colour out of it, tells you that not only were tomorrow's parties out of her grasp, but yesterday's gatherings were no laughing matter either.

Louisiana bluesman Buddy Guy celebrates his 79th birthday this year. I would be remiss to let it go by without paying tribute with one of my favourite tracks, "Man of Many Words," from his collaboration with Junior Wells on the 1972 Play the Blues. Eric Clapton said it best, "No matter how great the song, or performance, my ear would always find him out. He stood out in the mix. Simply by virtue of the originality and vitality of his playing." That originality and the bold attitude in Buddy Guy's playing was first and foremost commanding. He strut like a peacock but without the empty vanity of being a showman. Guy put some cayenne pepper in his tasty licks and they could snap you to attention like a whip cracking in the still air of night.

I have a vague memory of this film adaptation, but it's so vague I can't recall whether it was any good. But looking at Steve McQueen's face here, far removed from the features that made him a romantic star, I was struck by the notion that movie stars who die young  like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean - end up fixed in time so their dramatic features in our imagination never change. While others who live longer, like Brando, morph into a gallery of iconic images  each one begging comparison with the previous as if testing its longevity. McQueen's image, whether recalled from The Great Escape, or The Thomas Crown Affair, conveys something else, perhaps that of the star as a private man who finds himself suddenly caught in the public glare and needing sunglasses. Since Ibsen doesn't invite shades, maybe the beard and hair will do fine.

"It's good to bear witness to life's blessings, big and small," critic and author Mikal Gilmore writes. "One blessing for me was being in the audience at the taping for Frank Sinatra's 80th Birthday Tribute, in December 1995." On that occasion, titled Sinatra: 80 Years My Way, Gilmore heard and witnessed Bob Dylan pay tribute to the singer with his own "Restless Farewell" almost twenty years before Dylan would record an album of standards (Shadows in the Night) that Sinatra had himself perfected into a distinctly romantic style with a sexiness borne out of both heartbreak and despair. (In his long career, Frank Sinatra played out the role of the lonely guy at the bar, nursing his glass of scotch, and then imparting a lasting story of regret to you alone. In doing so, Sinatra could keep alive a slight flicker of romantic desire, hushed yearning or grievous moment that became more deeply intoxicating with every line he sang.)

"Restless Farewell," which Dylan wrote and first released on his 1963 The Times They Are a-Changin', an album introduced with unmistakable prescience into the world right in the aftermath of the assassination of JFK, took its cue from the traditional 16th Century ballad "The Parting Glass," which is often sung at the end of a gathering of friends. On this night, Dylan's quiet plaintive voice obliterated the sentimental bluster of a track like Paul Anka's "My Way" which Sinatra turned into a signature song late in his career. When Dylan sings, "Oh ev’ry foe that ever I faced/The cause was there before we came/And ev’ry cause that ever I fought/I fought it full without regret or shame/But the dark does die/As the curtain is drawn and somebody’s eyes/Must meet the dawn/And if I see the day/I’d only have to stay/So I’ll bid farewell in the night and be gone," he delivers a measured and moving account of life's victories and defeats which gets thoughtfully rendered without a shred of masochism or despair. It might be the best happy birthday song anyone of Sinatra's stature ever received in concert and he might have known it would be, too. After all, he requested it.

The best pop songs always leave a pang that can echo through the decades whenever you hear it. For me, Rick Nelson's 1961 "Hello Mary Lou" (written by the incomparable Gene Pitney) has a number of lasting pangs beginning with that opening cowbell which provides a confident swagger riding under the grain of Nelson's joyful voice. "Hello Mary Lou" captures perfectly that bright optimism of first love with a series of lightning bolt impressions that later get emphasized by James Burton's dazzling guitar break.That solo would for Burton trace its own line to Elvis where "Suspicious Minds" came to reflect the other side of the coin to the innocence of "Hello Mary Lou." John Fogerty, whose nobody's fool, would come up with Burton influenced riffs his entire career. But when he tried to copy "Hello Mary Lou" on CCR's final record, Mardis Gras, he came a cropper.

On The Band's final album that was aptly titled, Jubilation, the opening track, Rick Danko's "Book Faded Brown," is a fine conclusion to their storied career. Heard here in its rare stripped down demo version, the song stirs some of the same affection that I have for John Ford's My Darling Clementine, where the longing for home is not conjured up out of simple nostalgia, but out of a treasured remembrance and love of what home actually can come to mean. 

There was a time when it was seen as cool, and definitely hip, to disparage The Monkees. Perceived by some as the Justin Biebers of their time, they were even called "The Pre-Fab Four," cheap imitations of The Beatles and defined as teeny-bopper fodder. Yet despite the crass commercial packaging and their faux A Hard Day's Night-style TV show, The Monkees (who early on had seasoned session men playing their instruments) were more than just a marketing executive's idea of a wet dream. They were essentially a volley shot that unwittingly reached back to the American Revolution and aimed a cannon blast towards a series of British Invasion bands, led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Were they simply a fad? Maybe they were conceived that way, but The Monkees turned out to be the revenge and resurrection of Tin Pan Alley. Where The Beatles had momentarily finished off the pop composers of the American songbook by writing their own material, The Monkees in 1966 (once The Beatles retreated from the road) brought them roaring back.

With pop impresario Don Kirshner at the helm, he put his stable to work providing the group songs for their TV show – Gerry Goffin and Carole King ("Take a Giant Step"), Neil Diamond ("Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)," "I'm a Believer"), Neil Sedaka ("When Love Comes Knocking at Your Door"), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill ("Love is Only Sleeping") – bringing them back into the spotlight. Mike Nesmith (who could write his own songs) often balked and mostly tried to compose his own music, or select his own tracks. One of my personal favourites, "The Door Into Summer," the title taken from a Robert Heinlein SF novel, is a lilting love ballad written by Bill Martin and the group's producer Chip Douglas. Nesmith, who sang this track in the RCA studio bathroom stall with a microphone hanging over the door, cared little for it. You can't tell from the performance. Those with keen ears will also pick up Harry Nilsson's voice on the harmony vocals.

You have to imagine Allen Ginsberg encountering Blind Willie Johnson.

Once there was a way...

– 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.  

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