Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XIX

Comedian Lenny Bruce, who died fifty years ago, once wrote, "People should be taught what is, not what should be. All my humour is based on destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing in the breadline  right back of J. Edgar Hoover." I was first introduced to Bruce in 1970 while in high school where we were learning 'what should be.' Standing around in gym after class, where getting hassled by hyper-masculine athletic jocks comprised 'what is,' a long haired soul who appeared equally big and intimidating named Tony Sloggett handed me a book The Essential Lenny Bruce – and said, "You might like this." Then he walked away.

The Essential Lenny Bruce was a collection of this equal opportunity offender's best routines and many of them made me laugh  if not uneasily  because they didn't exactly provide comfort for my own views. At times, they weren't entirely understandable, either. In satirizing the straight world, Bruce employed both the argon of the hip and (since he was Jewish) Yiddish. Many of the hip words were pretty clear, but Yiddish was way out of my league. That left me chasing down the only Jewish guy I knew at my school, the straight arrow Mel Raskin, who was also a daily victim of the thugs in gym class. I'm still trying to imagine what must have been going through his mind as I followed him down the street asking things like, "Mel, what does shtup and putz mean?" (Mel has since, in a twisted irony known only to God, become a radio broadcaster of Oshawa Generals hockey games.)

When Bruce began to build his reputation as the "King of the Sick Comics," he took on everyone – from the Pope to Jimmy Hoffa. When he was a guest on Hugh Hefner's after-hours TV talk show, Playboy Penthouse, he did a television first  he blew his nose on camera. Bruce satirized and tested the prudishness of the audience. His daring wasn't in the romantic portrait Dustin Hoffman provided in Bob Fosse's Lenny (1974), where he was seen as the misunderstood rebel, but in his fearless approach of all that was sacred  even to liberals  and combining with that the performer's fervor in getting a rise out of the audience. We were as much the butt of his jokes as we were participants in them. One such example, which was one of the first routines I read in The Essential Lenny Bruce, was his outrageous "Christ and Moses" below in The Carnegie Hall Concert.

When I bought my first Pioneer stereo system in 1974 (which, by the way, still works and plays my vinyl in the bedroom/den), the clerk offered me a free record if I bought it. He first handed me an album of those prog rock yodelers, Focus, but I passed. He then reached for Lou Reed's Berlin, but the opening track had me wanting to open my veins (which was likely Lou's point). Then I spotted this album by Leadbelly hidden in a rack in the corner. I only knew his work from countless covers of "Goodnight Irene," Creedence Clearwater's "The Midnight Special" and "Rock Island Line," but his serene face on the cover painting where he appeared lost in the notes seemingly coming forth from his strummed guitar simply captivated me. So did the record when I got it home. It was called Huddie Ledbetter's Best...His Guitar...His Voice...His Piano on Capitol Records and I couldn't stop playing it for days. The track that most got my attention was a piano rag that streaked by at under three minutes in both its vocal and instrumental versions. Given that Leadbelly knew some pretty horrific nightmares in some of his songs (such as "In the Pines") from his days in prison, "Eagle Rock Rag" was more the sound of chains snapping and the singer breaking free.

There are some songs that get forever identified with a moment in time. The La's' infectious 1990 hit "There She Goes" (which I could easily imagine covered by R.E.M.) calls back a moment on CBC Radio's Prime Time when we were doing an interview with the darkly sexy Amanda Donohoe (The Lair of the White Worm). After Geoff Pevere finished the interview with her, I accompanied Donohoe from the studio out to the car with her publicist. And I never heard the end of it from fellow producer Greig Dymond who teased me saying, "Yeah, Courrier, just like you always follow Rob Wilson (our advert critic) out to his car." When the item finally ran on the show, music producer Dianne Collins was looking for a song to follow the Donohoe interview. When she heard the tale of my peripatetic adventure into the parking lot, this is what she chose.

This terrific duet of Louis Armstrong with Johnny Cash on Jimmie Rodger's "Blue Yodel No. 9" is more than just a genre crossover. It's about the kind of shared sympathies that also include an instinctual attraction to sensual appetites. My mother just happened to be one of the lucky ones in the audience that evening.

One of my favourite contemporary artists, St. Vincent, began her music career with the Polyphonic Spree. In a sense, that group name helps describe her talents as a composer and performer. If you heard her cover of John Lennon's "Dig a Pony," she creates a counter-melody on the guitar that answers and sometimes jabs back at the song's sentiments as she sings it. "I like when things come out of nowhere and blindside you a little bit," she once said describing the unpredictable nature of her work. "I think any person who gets panic attacks or has an anxiety disorder can understand how things can all of a sudden turn very quickly. I think I'm sublimating that into the music." You can hear elements of that sublimation In "Cruel," from her 2011 album Strange Mercy, where anything seems possible. (In the video for "Cruel," she is kidnapped by a motherless family and forced to be a wife in the family and ultimately buried alive.) St. Vincent has said that she listens every day to David Bowie's wildly discordant "It's No Game (Part One)" from Scary Monsters. Upon reflection, that might just be the perfect skeleton key used to open up her own songs.

While there are many who feel that Heaven's Gate is some misunderstood masterpiece, or a flawed visionary work, the picture I saw back in 1981 remains an amorphous mess  in short, megalomania on the march. Its ambition and epic sweep was always dramatically thin despite director Michael Cimino's keen eye for detail. Critic Michael Sragow wrote in Rolling Stone that Heaven's Gate "subverts not only movie history  filching images from films as different as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Dovzhenko's Earth  but also American history, rendering meaningless the Johnson County War of 1892...Heaven's Gate reduces the conflict to entrenched cattlemen bullying ragged, starving immigrant-settlers who look as if they got off the boat and walked West." An episode of political injustice ended up being inflated into an American catastrophe.

Much of Heaven's Gate's current stature, I think, is due to an acceptance of its themes  a crude quasi-Marxist view that the lower classes are always fated to be destroyed by the ruling class and also its hangover of post-Sixties guilt over the failure of the American promise. That failed promise though could also be interpreted as a lamentation over the death of American independent cinema in the Seventies which both Stars Wars and Heaven's Gate ironically finished off in their own different ways. But since I'm prone to not speak ill of the dead (Micheal Cimino passed away recently), I'd like to add that his best instincts were reserved for David Mansfield's elegiac score. While the spectral beauty of Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography cocooned the characters and trapped them in foggy introspection, Mansfield's poignant melodies matched the vast landscape with its spacious beauty and opened up a possible dream of the country that the characters both fought and failed to preserve.

When On the Corner came out in 1972, it was universally despised even by some of its participants. Jazz critics especially crucified it. But I could hear the same percolating dissonances in black culture that Sly Stone caught when he made There's a Riot Goin' On a year earlier (and that record, at the time, also caught grief). Drawing on funk, rock, and electronic production, On the Corner boogies on breathlessly with the spacious swing that jazz has always promised. With his nose to the ground, Davis here anticipates hip-hop, funk and electronica coming down the pike.The earlier Bitches Brew often gets cited as the fusion masterwork, but that was more of a producer's album (fragments cut together by Ted Maceo). On the Corner feels more alive and organic and Davis's expanded group sound is attuned to the sounds of the street and they're moving in rhythm to its hot tempo.

When President Obama spoke at the 2016 Democratic Convention, he drew a full circle back to the young and slightly brash idealist who in 2004 talked about the rich and diverse country he saw before him. At that time, he even carefully mapped out that land  a United States rather than a black America, a white America, a Latino America  as if surprised that nobody else saw what he did. But twelve years later, having endured as President mass shootings, stingy Republican gridlock, Clint Eastwood's empty chair stunt, Donald Trump's ridiculous demands for a birth certificate, he stood worn, but not beaten  not even bitter. Instead he laid claim to the legacy he diligently fought for national health care, providing better employment, and even killing Osama Bin Laden  as he passed it on to the more than qualified Hillary Clinton. He looked older, but also wiser, as if he realized now that the vision he had in 2004 required first a quest to fully grasp its paradoxes. Unlike Trump, who can only see the nation as a mirror for him to strut and preen before and one that reflects back his own fears and hatred, Obama continually looked past himself, to those outside who both fought him and carried him. The passion he reaches towards the end is that of a man grateful for the calling and ultimately fulfilled by the weight he chose to carry.

While still on the Democratic Convention, Paul Simon's painfully off-key performance of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" sounded like a leaky boat over torrential floods. I sat wishing both Laura Nyro and Duane Allman had been alive to perform instead the exultant "Beads of Sweat" from her 1970 masterpiece, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Without the histrionics that Simon's anthem often falls victim to, Nyro dives quietly and bravely into the cold devastation that isolation brings until Duane Allman gives her the breathing room needed to embrace the thorny freedom the song finally offers her.

Happy 90th Birthday to Mel Brooks. While most fans of this unbridled comedian can easily quote the lyrics to his "Springtime for Hitler," or chortle like kids in a schoolyard over his farting-around-the-campfire scene in Blazing Saddles, I draw attention instead to his Spanish Inquisition number from History of the World, Part One as his most inspired  and offensive  musical number. Brooks appears as the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada ("Ya can't Torquemada anything!"), who sings and dances as he tortures Jews while cheerfully invoking the elaborate and kaleidoscopic patterns of Busby Berkeley (even drawing on the stylized aquatic ballet of Esther Williams  only this time with swimming nuns). Shrewdly playing the role of the untrustworthy narrator, Brooks deftly draws the connection between Jewish persecution and their ultimate contribution to musical theatre in America.

In his book The Haunted Smile, Lawrence J. Epstein talks about Jewish comedy as if it were perched at the edge of an abyss. "Their stage style is tinged with sadness," Epstein writes. "It is haunted by the Jewish past, by the deep strains in American Jewish life to be strained – the desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing – by the centuries of Jewish life too frequently interrupted by hate, and by the knowledge that too often for Jewish audiences a laugh masked a shudder." The shudder is so evident in Brooks's outrageous satirical piece that many Jews are horribly offended by it. But that's what gives it such vitality.

After leaving The Band and then producing a number of soundtracks for Martin Scorsese films, Robbie Robertson began delving into his Mohawk heritage. Some of the fruits of that quest came through on his first solo album in the late Eighties, but it found a more direct expression in 1994 with his soundtrack for the television documentary, The Native Americans, where he wrote and compiled a stirring tapestry that became something more than just a chronicle of a peoples. With the help of his band the Red Road Ensemble, along with Kashtin, Rita Coolidge, Jim Wilson, Dave Pickell, his two kids Delphine and Sebastian, and the group, Ulali, Robbie Robertson in Music for The Native Americans casts a light on the part of the country he and The Band never got to see. While the music tells some of that story, the performances carry more the bottomless beauty and pain of finding your place in that history. With Ulali, Robbie Robertson & the Red Road Ensemble perform "Ghost Dance" and "Mahk Jchi (Heartbeat Drum Song)" on BBC. Robertson describes "Ghost Dance" as a prophecy by Kicking Bear which "spread across the badlands like a prairie fire from tribe to tribe." The government would soon deem the ghost dance illegal, but when tribes refused to stop this form of worship, the calvary was sent in 1890 to slaughter 300 Sioux, including women and children, at Wounded Knee. The follow-up, "Mahk Jchi," feels as much a ghostly prayer for the dead as it does an elegy for the living.

                           Imagine Roy Orbison after his dreams don't come true on Blue Bayou.

Many folks wrote off The Kinks once they began a litany of concept albums in the Seventies and solidified their role as a cult band. Maybe that's why I'm particularly moved by Ray Davies in "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" (from Misfits). He doesn't just reflect wistfully on his ambivalent emotions concerning the band's impact on its fans, but also on his own role in creating that impact. Davies has never been comfortable living in the contemporary world, but he can't comfortably take refuge in nostalgia either. "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" negotiates with tender delicacy the irresolvable conflict at the heart of that dilemma.

Tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler (who celebrates his 80th birthday this year) once said of his 1964 album, Spiritual Unity, that the band wasn't really playing together. "We were listening to each other," he remarked. Maybe that's why  despite the title  unity is arrived at through a process of dialogue that's filled with tension and counterpoint. Whether anyone else cared to listen was up to the ears of the beholder. One thing I do know, it was music of this nature that got me and my stereo banished to the basement by my parents. No dialogue.

Sometimes the most indelible music comes out of life's silliest moments. Imagine watching John Boorman's outrageous Zardoz (1974), with flying stone-heads, a planet of brainy women in need of sexual heat, and then you add Sean Connery in a loincloth. Out of all this madness comes Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92. Composed while he was improving his health in a Bohemian spa, the second movement, Allegretto, became so popular it was usually encored, if not performed on its own. While I prefer Beethoven's string quartets to his symphonies, the seventh is majestically stirring even when it inspires Zed (Connery) and Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) in getting it on to provide mankind with a future.

                                                                  Walken. Dancin'.

                                                               Der Socket der Natur.

One of the significant aspects of pop music in the Sixties was its unbridled romantic optimism heard especially in girl group songs like "Be My Baby," "Just for Tonight" and "One Fine Day." You can feel that same pleasure principle bubbling over in The Byrds' "It Won't Be Wrong" from their Turn! Turn! Turn! album. The aching harmonies Roger McGuinn reaches for with Gene Clark and David Crosby cascade beautifully on the jet stream of his Rickenbacker.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial 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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