Record Store Day

As mcbrennan and The New York Times remind me, today is Record Store Day in the US.

I offer three anecdotes:

1. Back in the day, there used to be a whole district of radio-repair shops in lower Manhattan. It was a thriving district, but by the late 60s it was thriving with cranky old men who gathered in musty shops arguing about arcana. Then David Rockefeller got the idea to wipe the district off the face of the earth and put the World Trade Center there instead. Overnight, a dying, outmoded business disappeared, and the World Trade Center stood in that spot, triumphant and unmovable, 110 stories tall and proud, for, um, 28 years. Well, all things must pass, and pride goeth before a fall, and substitute “record stores” for “radio-repair” and “iTunes” for “World Trade Center” and maybe, perhaps, you won’t feel so bad about the passing of this particular dusty institution.

2. I have spent more time in used record stores than probably any other kind of store in my life. I have, literally, thousands of used-record-store stories, of which only three or so are of interest to anyone but me. Suffice to say, when I was a teenager, living in an unheated trailer in southern Illinois in March of 1980, literally starving to death, living on a 25-cent can of store-brand spaghetti a day and a 33-cent frozen chicken-pot-pie on Sundays, a friend sent me 20 dollars in a letter. Fifteen dollars of that 20 dollars I spent on food, five I spent on a copy of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!

3. When I moved to New York in the autumn of 1983, ground zero of my existence was Tower Records at Broadway and 4th St. Tower was a five-minute walk from St. Mark’s Place, which held Sounds, St. Mark’s Books, Venus Records and a few other choice used-record stores. My goal for being a New Yorker was to live within a block of Broadway and 4th St. I lived in New York for 22 years and by 1999 I achieved my goal, living in a loft at Broadway and Washington Place, finally within walking distance of all the places I considered the lifeblood of my creative imagination. Any given Tuesday afternoon I could be found making the trek from Tower to St. Mark’s to the Strand and back. Including Tuesday, September 11, 2001, upon which morning I watched the World Trade Center burn on my TV, 1.5 miles away from the site, then walk downstairs and head over to Tower. The sidewalks were filled with refugees fleeing the financial district and Tower was filled with sobbing, distraught New Yorkers watching the TV monitors. I took all this in, and then bought Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” and Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs and went back home.

Support your local record store today! I will be at Amoeba in Hollywood this evening. (And let me just note that it was only a couple of years ago that the opening of Amoeba, which is a great store, forced the closing of several worthy Hollywood used record stores. Plus ca change.

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eBay item of the week: the recordings of Leonard Nimoy

The great interpretive singer Leonard Nimoy exploded upon the popular-music scene with his first album, the curiously-titled Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space (1967). Still an unknown quantity, he nevertheless took a daring stance and adopted a distinct, recognizable “persona” for his performances, an alien space man named “Mr. Spock.” This interpretive strategy, designed to create an air of mystique around the singer, was at the same time being adopted by The Beatles, who copied Nimoy for their groundbreaking work Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Much later, David Bowie would grab this idea and run with it all the way to the bank, but it should be noted that Nimoy did it first.

The song titles on Mr. Spock are intriguing and otherworldly: “Theme from Star Trek,” “Music to Watch Space Girls By”, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Earth” and the immortal “Visit to a Sad Planet.” The album caught the “space” craze of the mid-sixties, was a huge hit and Nimoy’s label, Dot Records, was soon clamoring for more.

The “Mr. Spock” persona had made Nimoy a household word among lovers of song, and Nimoy was under great pressure from his label to deliver more of the same. But Nimoy, a formidable artist with incredible powers of persuasion, already felt that he had “done” the Mr. Spock thing. Like Dylan, Nimoy is an ever-changing chameleon who cannot be constrained by the demands of the marketplace. But commercial pressure at the time was intense, and Nimoy was forced to create at least half an album with the “Mr. Spock” persona intact.

The result of all this conflict was 1968’s Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, a bifurcated whatsit that, in the hands of a lesser artist, would have stank of bitter compromise. Instead, it is a blazing triumph and perhaps Nimoy’s masterpiece. It was 1968, there were riots in the streets, change was in the air, and Nimoy was right in the middle of it. “Mr. Spock” handles Side 1, singing “Highly Illogical,” a stinging rebuke of the entire human race on the level of “Desolation Row” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” Later he sings “Spock Thoughts,” practically a philosophical treatise in song. The side closes with “Amphibious Assault,” which the liner notes describes thusly: “A surrealistic battle of the future. Will war come to this?”

On the “Leonard Nimoy” side, the mask comes off and the warm, tender humanism of Nimoy bursts through. The results are intoxicating as he sings “Bilbo Baggins,” a jocular celebration of “the bravest little Hobbit of them all,” Glenn Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” No elitist, Nimoy closes the album with the touching parable “Love of the Common People.”

Obviously chafing from the compromise of Two Sides, Nimoy ditched the “Mr. Spock” persona once and for all with 1968’s The Way I Feel. Creating a soft pocket of sensitive peace amid a world gone crazy and turned upside-down, this album of delightful love songs and quirky portraits is a small triumph on the level of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. The titles say it all: “I’d Love Making Love To You,” “Please Don’t Try to Change My Mind” and Joni Mitchell’s poignant “Both Sides Now” — this is an album of love and its consequences. But social commentary also raises its triumphant head; the LP’s highlight is “If I Had a Hammer,” not to be confused with Two Sides’ “If I Were a Carpenter.” Intended as a “little”, transitional album, The Way I Feel was a huge hit, its sales bigger than those of Nimoy’s first two albums combined, and Dot, ever the raging capitalists, demanded more of the same. This time, luckily for the music world, Nimoy was happy to comply.

Who would not want to feel The Touch of Leonard Nimoy? Almost a sequel to Feel, 1969’s Touch expands upon that album’s greatest themes and then goes further, including Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and the jazz standard “Nature Boy.” Nimoy then, unexpectedly, brilliantly, brings his career full circle with “Contact,” a song about contact with aliens.

No one knew it at the time, but Nimoy was, in fact, saying good bye with the inclusion of a “Spock”-themed song on the otherwise tender Touch. He abruptly withdrew from the marketplace of song, retired to his mountain retreat in Massachusetts and has since disappeared. The Salinger of Song, he has not issued an album of new material in almost 40 years. Why this happened is one of the great mysteries of popular music. Maybe the pressures of the pop-star world proved to be too much for this sensitive artist, maybe he’d decided he’d had enough, or maybe he felt he’d said everything there was to be said. Who knows? But we have these albums and that is treasure enough.

Sensitive to the demands of a marketplace starved for greatness, the prestigious label Famous Twinsets released a two-LP set of choice cuts called Outer Space/Inner Mind. For a new generation of listeners, this was a gold mine of delight. Strangely, Famous Twinsets didn’t think to put a photo of Nimoy on the cover, instead focusing the packaging on the model spaceship the “Mr. Spock” character is shown fondling on Nimoy’s first album. I guess they were trying to preserve the mystique of their reclusive star, or perhaps Nimoy demanded that his picture not be used in order that he be able to move through the world unrecognized. We may never know. In any case, Outer/Inner provides an excellent overview of this vital artist, even though it does, for some inexplicable reason, completely ignore songs from Touch.

DID YOU KNOW? Nimoy has also worked as an actor.


Stones kick continues in Alcott household.

I know that Shine a Light is good because my wife came up to me the other day and asked, apropos of nothing, “So, like, are people as interested in the Rolling Stones as they are in the Beatles?” This is my wife who, generally, would rather gouge out her own eyes than talk about musicology. The question was so out of the blue that I thought for a moment she was talking about eBay sales. To which she said “No, I mean, do people, you know, talk about them the way they talk about the Beatles?” I said “You mean, do people generally recognize the scope of their musical statement the way they do with the Beatles?” To which she replied “Yeah, I guess.” Anyway, she was really impressed with Shine a Light, although she wanted Scorsese to pull back a little every once in a while to see the whole stage picture. And it’s true, the sheer relentlessness of the movie tends to make it an exhilarating and exhausting experience. Watching Mick Jagger leap and dance about for two hours feels like a workout.

My wife’s question got me curious, so I started surfing around the ‘net to see if there were any more-or-less serious musicological analyses of Stones music out there beyond, you know, “man, they’re awesome.” This seems to be a fairly typical site — highly opinionated, musicology-free, utterly enthusiastic. Keno’s list of Stones albums in order of preference, however, made me just about fall down and twitch on the floor. How could someone with such an obvious ardor for the band list Exile on Main St. at #10? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Anyway, his list got me thinking about my list. And so, at the request of absolutely no one, here is my list of Rolling Stones albums in order of preference. And, as I am not a musicologist, this list is analytically useless.

Making matters worse, I have no opinion regarding all their early work from England’s Newest Hitmakers to Between the Buttons — I have all the records and enjoy them when they turn up on iTunes, but I honestly couldn’t tell you if “Little Red Rooster” is on 12×5 or Now! or if “Route 66” is on December’s Children or Out of Our Heads. This should probably disqualify me from making a list like thisat all.

1. Exile on Main St. — The high-water mark of their mature style and still their most complex, intriguing artistic statement.

2. Sticky Fingers — Almost as good as Exile on Main St.

3. Some Girls — Not as good as the first two, but twice as much fun as either.

4. Emotional Rescue — Almost as good as Some Girls — a hugely underrated album. Including the ridiculous title song.

5. A Bigger BangKind of a cross between Exile and Some Girls — as considered as the former and as fun as the latter.

6. Black and Blue — The Stones most underrated album. I like everything on it except “Fool to Cry.”

7. Beggar’s Banquet — A great album, but I can’t stand “Jigsaw Puzzle.”

8. Let it Bleed — another great album, but I can’t stand “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which is twice as long as “Jigsaw Puzzle.”

9. Dirty Work — No wait, this is the most underrated Stones album.

10. Tattoo You — Side 1 is absolutely killer. Side 2 tends to bore me.

11. Undercover — A perfectly decent Stones record, but I can’t stand “Too Much Blood.”

12. Steel Wheels — While there’s nothing I can’t stand on this record, there’s only a handful of songs I’m completely nuts for.

13. Goats Head Soup — Better than people give it credit for, but I can’t stand “Winter” and “Can You Hear the Music.”

14. It’s Only Rock n Roll — Not as good as Goats Head Soup. I can’t stand “Till the Next Time We Say Goodbye” and “Time Waits for No One.” Or “If You Really Want to Be My Friend.”  What is it with the long titles on this album?

15. Aftermath — a perfectly decent album I can think of nothing in particular to say about.

16. Voodoo Lounge — Wow, out of 15 songs, I only really like 5 of them, and there are a stunning 5 I absolutely can’t stand.

17. Bridges to Babylon — Not as good as Voodoo Lounge. Wow, did I just say that?

18. Their Satanic Majesties Request — Well, what did you expect?



Some thoughts on Shine a Light

Shine a Light presents such a dazzling, complex array of signifiers that it can be an overwhelming, even exhausting viewing experience. It is also, of course, a very well-shot concert movie documenting a show by a very good rock-n-roll band. So there’s that. Either way it’s worth the $11.

First there is the fact of the Rolling Stones. They’re not just old at this point, they’re really quite old. Like, painful-to-look-at old. You watch them shambling around before the show, greeting dignitaries and dickering about details, creases and canyons in their decrepit faces, and you want to turn away in embarrassment. They don’t just look too old to be playing rock-n-roll, they look too old to leave the house. Then they launch into “Jumping Jack Flash” and, in the space of a guitar riff and a dance move, your embarrassment transmutes into awe. They’re simply flabbergasting to watch. Mick Jagger works harder in any given five minutes on stage than I have in thirty years. And he is propelled forward by Charlie Watts, who works just as hard and receives not half the credit. This band ran out of things to prove about ten thousand shows ago, and yet there they are, still doing it, still blowing away any and all comers. I cannot imagine a performer alive who could watch this band perform and not feel like they had frittered away their life with cautious half-measures. Of performers of their generation still out there, only Bob Dylan has better songs and a comparable list of hits, but he, to my knowledge, has never danced a step in his life and has certainly never succeed in keeping an ensemble of this quality together.

I’m going to come right out and say that the Rolling Stones are, right now, the best they’ve ever been. I don’t know how they pulled that trick off, but that’s what’s happened. Songs that, by all rights, should have been hung out to dry thirty years ago not only sound better than ever, they feel more lived in and more authentic.

“Authenticity”, of course, is the thing that’s haunted the Rolling Stones since the beginning. When they were in their twenties, it was embarrassing to watch them play the blues. They were obviously enthusiasts, but the language of the songs was not theirs — it belonged to another generation. They looked like kids dressing up in their parents’ clothes. Then, as the 60s moved on, they injected more pop and psychedelic elements into their work, and their take on the blues became more ironic, almost a goof. No one believed that Mick Jagger could get no satisfaction, nor could they realistically be expected to believe that he was born in a crossfire hurricane. By augmenting their worship of the blues with a hip, ironic stance (and some pretty damn good songwriting) the Rolling Stones made the blues go pop. In the 70s their sophistication grew to the point where they could meet the blues head-on, fusing pop and the blues into a powerful new form that could include everything from “Brown Sugar” to “Tumbling Dice” to “Angie” to “Beast of Burden.” This era is where the Stones connected with the world and made their mark. As the 80s marched onward, the Stones seemed a little desperate to “keep up,” to remain hip. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it much more embarrassing to watch Mick simper and strut through the 1983 video for “She Was Hot” than to watch any of the moves he pulls in Shine a Light.

(The 80s, it should be noted, beginning as they did with the murder of John Lennon, weren’t good for any 60s act, and the Stones records from that decade hold up better than those of any of their contemporaries, Dirty Work included.)

Anyway, here we are in 2008 and somehow all those layers of irony that the Stones piled on top of the blues have been transformed, through time and experience, into something like authenticity. And in the process of witnessing this, both through decades of listening to the Stones and watching Shine a Light, I find myself questioning the whole idea of authenticity itself.

Take a song like “Far Away Eyes.” This is a goof on country songs, openly disparaging and sarcastic, if lovingly so. I don’t think it would ever become a genuine country hit for anyone, and yet, somehow, over time, its central message, that there is such a thing as a companion whom you can always depend on despite your faults, seems more genuine than it did in 1977. Watching Shine a Light, with a 62-year-old Jagger shouting his way through the song, suddenly the song took on a different meaning for me. Tying together the bleary, worse-for-wear floozy of the chorus with the cynical gospel radio station of the verses, out of nowhere, makes dramatic sense. The narrator prays to the radio station that tells him the Lord is always by his side for a girl who will always be by his side. And perhaps the girl is the Lord, and perhaps the narrator is merely forging the same sex-and-God link that singers (and preachers) have hammered at for a century. Of course, we never find out if the narrator’s prayer is answered — Mick Jagger’s career is, after all, built on unanswered prayers.

Or take “Shine a Light” itself — how could Mick Jagger, ultra cynical, ultra-calculating, jet-set rock star, mean this lyric of humility and redemption? On Exile on Main St., “Shine a Light” feels arch, almost cruel — it’s one thing to make fun of country music, but why pick on gospel? And yet in the context of Shine a Light, “Shine a Light” comes off as, impossibly, genuine and heartfelt. What changed, apart from the singer acquiring the years and wisdom it would take to sing such a lyric?

(Or maybe Scorsese includes the song as a pun — the show, after all, is set at the Beacon Theater.)

So I find myself thinking about the blues and this whole notion of authenticity. Who is to say, at the end of the day, that an ironic goof on the blues form, by a bunch of English guys barely in their thirties, is a less “authentic” presentation of the blues than, say, Robert Johnson?

(Notions of authenticity and authority run throughout Shine a Light, I think intentionally so.  The Stones bring on Jack White, whom I find very authentic if not very authoritative, at least not standing next to Mick Jagger, Buddy Guy, whom I find authoritative but not especially authentic, and Christian Aquilara, who is technically proficient but neither authoritative nor authentic.)

And while we’re on the subject of Robert Johnson, there’s this: I read an article a while back about how Robert Johnson, composer of “Hellhound On My Tail,” did not only sing the blues. There is evidence, the article said, that Johnson preferred to play standards and show tunes in his live sets, but played the blues because, well, that was what was popular at the time.

This takes nothing away from the achievements of Robert Johnson, but the article blew my mind. If Robert Johnson — Robert Johnson — was not sincere, did not “mean it,” was merely performing what the marketplace demanded, was not “authentic,” then who is? And what, then, is the difference between “Stop Breaking Down Blues” and “Honky Tonk Women?” How is one “authentic” and one a cynical goof calculated to exploit the marketplace?

I very much enjoyed seeing the Rolling Stones live a while back, from the other side of a baseball stadium — they didn’t just put on a show, they presented an argument for how life can be lived. But Shine a Light both confirmed my suspicions and shattered (sorry) my preconceptions. The Rolling Stones, somehow, now command the kind of respect and authority they used to confer upon elder bluesmen. The fact that they can accomplish this and remain a stunning, thrilling live act is something indeed.


iTunes Catch of the Day: The Raconteurs

I first became aware of Jack White when his band The White Stripes were garnering praise for their 2001 album White Blood Cells. Back in those carefree and innocent days, the White Stripes were grouped by lazy critics with a then-emerging bunch of white-guys-playing-electric-guitars bands that I liked to call “The Silent-E Bands” because they all, mysteriously, had names ending in a silent E: The White Stripes, the Hives, the Vines, the Strokes. I bought all the records by all those bands because, well, I like to hear music by white guys playing electric guitars and that thing was at the time becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

(A big spark for my interest in the White Stripes in particular was this video for “Fell in Love with a Girl.”)

Here it is seven years later and I’ve sold all those CDs by all those bands back to the used-CD store, except for the White Stripes. The Vines? I couldn’t even tell you what they sounded like, and they made it to the cover of Rolling Stone. But the White Stripes? As far as I can tell they just get better and better, with no upper limit in sight that I can detect.

Jack White, I have found, is what I like to call “the real thing,” a serious, long-term artist exploding with a kind of talent that I think still hasn’t been adequately measured yet. As a songwriter he has a comprehensive understanding of popular music forms to stand beside that of Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello (two anchors of my collection), plus he can play guitar like nobody’s business and sing better than either of those two guys. That, in my book, is quite a formidable package.

A couple of years ago he announced a side project, The Raconteurs, a band with him a bunch of other guys I’ve never heard of but who I am sure are all talented musicians. Their first record I bought and enjoyed but there was something a little pale about it, like the elements weren’t quite gelling somehow. It was a side project and it sounded like a side project. This is not the case with their new album, Consolers of the Lonely which appeared out of nowhere a few days ago (it had no advance publicity) and has not left my attention since. It is dense, loud, poppy, bluesy, rootsy and irresistible. They sound like a real band, mixing together more influences than I can accurately name. It is not a side project, or it doesn’t sound like one at any rate. It sounds like a major release from a major band and I unreservedly recommend this record to the musically inclined.

UPDATE: I thought the Beatles references on this record might have been accidental or unintentional, but check out the vest Jack White wears in this video and compare it to the one worn by McCartney in Magical Mystery Tour. I knew Jack was the cute one.hitcounter

iTunes catch of the day: Cassandra’s Dream and “The River in Reverse”

Few have ventured to see the new Woody Allen movie, so most are unaware that Allen has, for one of the few times in his career, commissioned a score for his soundtrack, from an actual living composer, Philip Glass, no less. And what a corker! I buy all of Glass’s soundtracks whether I’ve seen the movies they’re in or not, and this one has quickly vaulted to the top of my list of favorites. Stormy, melancholy, brooding and propulsive. If you like Glass or have an abiding interest in soundtrack music, this is a real treat. Can’t say I like the cover. You can listen to little bits of it either at iTunes or Amazon.

Meanwhile, Elvis Costello has knocked off a handful of his songs in solo settings for the iTunes market. I enjoy all of these renditions, they are some of my favorites of his songs, but the new recording of “The River in Reverse” is just stunning. I enjoyed the album of the same title when it came out, but to hear Costello snarl his way through this searing, scathing reading is a remarkable experience, even coming from this longtime snarler. His insistent, plangent solo guitar sets lyrics like “In the name of the father and the son/in the name of gasoline and a gun” in bold relief and elevates this song to a classic to stand with “Pills and Soap” in its withering social criticism.

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Diary of a Country Priest

So I’m watching Robert Bresson’s 1951 classic Diary of a Country Priest, which is a wonderful movie, but I can’t get over the fact that the protagonist, a soft-spoken, painfully sensitive young man, bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Johnny Cash.

And while it doesn’t exactly interfere with my enjoyment of the movie (both men have health problems, struggle with issues of faith, and wear black all the time) I have to admit that every once in a while I find myself imagining the young priest, while struggling to counsel some troubled parishioner, picking up a guitar and launching into “Get Rhythm.” Which is probably not the effect the filmmaker intends.

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A teeny bit more about The Lady Eve

Where does hyper-literate punker Elvis Costello get his vicious, intricate hyper-literacy? Why, from Preston Sturges, of course. There is a line from his 1981 song “White Knuckles” (from the album Trust) that had always baffled me, and, before Al Gore invented the internet, it was impossible to verify just what the hell he was singing, what with his strangled delivery and the clattering racket behind him. The song is about (what else) a couple with marital problems and for years I could have sworn there was a line in the bridge that went “She needs a lock, the ass needs a turn-key,” which seemed to make enough sense, even though it seemed like kind of a lame line from such a, you know, hyper-literate lyricist.

So, as The Lady Eve unspooled last night, imagine my surprise when, out of nowhere, the great Barbara Stanwyck suddenly announces, regarding Henry Fonda, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey,” which Costello adapted (slightly) to “He needs her like the axe needs a turkey.”  And yet another mystery of my youth was solved.

Is this a common phrase that Costello picked up, or was he inspired to thieve from Sturges?  A cursory Google search could unearth no other occurrence of the phrase, and I can imagine the young Costello at a revival house somewhere in London, or camped out in front of the telly, watching The Lady Eve with a pen and paper in his lap, furiously scribbling down the dense wit that flies thick and fast in Sturges’s masterpiece.

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Control is a bio-pic about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the seminal British post-punk band Joy Division. I recommend it highly to those interested in the world of British post-punk music, gorgeous black-and-white photography, excellence in acting.  I also recommend it to students of the bio-pic genre. 

Many reviewers more qualified than myself have made the case for this movie, so I will keep this brief, but there were a few things of which I’d like to take special note.

1. The bio-pic genre has special demands upon it, the musical bio-pic genre more than others. Most bio-pics resort to cliche, compression and distortion in order to give their stories shape and dramatic thrust: Lincoln knows from the time he’s a boy that slavery is a great injustice and, one day, by god, he will do something about it, Salieri is rabidly jealous of the genius of Mozart, Johnny Cash sees a shoe-shine boy snapping his rag on the street on the way to the recording studio and vows to immortalize the boy in song. Control falls victim to this tendency only once, when we see Ian Curtis struck by the death of an epileptic girl and moved to write “She’s Lost Control.” We see him get the news, look stricken, sit down, pick up a pad of paper, and literally write the words “She’s Lost Control.” Apart from that moment however, Control utterly shuns the conventions of the bio-pic genre. We don’t know where Ian Curtis’s life is going because Ian Curtis doesn’t know where his life is going. Because we don’t know where our own lives are going. (Curtis’s discomfort with the direction of his life, of course, is a key component of the movie and provides its title.) The conventional bio-pic imposes a narrative shape upon life because it generally makes for a “better story,” but always rings false. Lincoln got around to freeing the slaves when all other possibilities for ending the war failed, Salieri was not rabidly jealous of Mozart, and whether or not Johnny Cash literally saw an actual shoe-shine boy snapping a specific rag on a particular street-corner is not the stuff ofdrama.

The problem with correcting these cliches of the form is that audiences crave plot. Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s brilliant movie about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, is one of the greatest biographical dramas you will ever see, but is not a popular favorite. The conventional bio-pic, Walk the Line for instance, conceives of its narrative (“talented hick singer strikes it rich and has trouble adjusting to fame and wealth”) and then tailors all its scenes to serve the narrative. It takes messy, surprising, disorganized life and retro-fits it into mere “plot.” The result is more commercially viable but also dramatically false. The rise to fame of Johnny Cash is not a surprise to us, because we already know Johnny Cash was famous. We know this because we’ve heard of him.

The creators of Control offer very little cultural context for the creation of Joy Division’s music. There are no fights between band members over the guitar solo that would later go on to become famous, there is no scene where the young songwriter takes in the whole of northern British culture and, at the end of the pier on a stormy night, vows to his girlfriend that one day he will shape the anxiety and alienation of his generation into a sound that set the world on fire, there are no scenes of young men being lured by the temptations of the road (scene in Walk the Line: Johnny Cash: “Gosh, that Elvis Presley has so much energy — how does he do it?” Other Guy: “He ingests illegal drugs — be careful about that, Johnny Cash.“)  There is no scene where a smug, supercilious label head says “Songs about William S. Burroughs novels are on their way out, Mr. Curtis.”  There is no scene where Curtis has a fight with his wife, during which he says “I love you” and then she screams, “Ian, love will tear us apart!” and then he says “Wait!  Say that again!”  There is little in the way of delineating the band’s struggle to get to the top — no humiliating failed auditions, no intra-band intrigue, no duplicitous management. There’s this guy, Ian Curtis, he joins this band, they’re good, they play live and excite people, they go on tour. The movie neither promotes nor judges, it merely records, secure that what it records is interesting and compelling by itself.

The ultimate goal of an excellent bio-pic, it seems to me, is to give the impression that your characters are living their lives, and your camera just happens to be in the room at the time. The temptation of the conventional bio-pic script is to have each character live out the thrust of their life story in each scene, so that a movie featuring Thomas Jefferson as a minor character must have him pine for the unfulfilled rights of men and lust after a Negro maiden. (David Mamet sums up this tendency in biographical drama as “Hello, because I am the King of France.”) In real life, people who go around announcing who they are and what they stand for are the most suspicious and false people of all.  People don’t go around acting out the arc of their lives; people wake up and eat and hang out and argue with one another and watch TV and fart and make love and think about things, and those are the scenes that make up the bulk of Control.

2. The casting and acting in Control is extraordinary, down to quite minor roles. I knew nothing about the Manchester music scene of the late 70s, but after seeing the movie I went online to look some of these people up and all I can say is that the movie appears to get them all exactly right. Special creditgoes to the young men playing the band, who not only convincingly impersonate Joy Division in performance but also appear to be actual people in their own right. When I think of a movie like, say, Back Beat, about the Beatles days in Hamburg, what I remember is the Beatles boiled down and reduced to types; Control presents the members of Joy Division as bright, talented, slightly sullen young men with not much to say apart from their music. We’re on the outside of these young men; even in an interview scene, they don’t seem to have much to say for themselves. “Restraint” seems to have been a watchword for the producers of Control, and the fact that this is director Anton Corbijn’s first narrative feature makes it all the more impressive.

3. I can’t help think that the people releasing Control missed a marketing opportunity by not putting the movie out in mid-June. would have made an excellent Father’s Day movie. Dad’s in their 40s could reminisce about their youths, bond with their teenage emo kids, and best of all, end up feeling really good about themselves, because, let’s face it, there were few fathers or husbands more irresponsible or screwed up than Ian Curtis. Married in his teens, a father by 21, Curtis seems to have been opaque to his wife, horrified by his child, remote, withdrawn, passive, secretive and incommunicative to the point of robotic. Some of America’s worst dads could leave Control and feel like Father of the Year. I can see a generation of sullen teens watching Control and then sending their dads heartfelt cards of thanks for not hanging themselves in the kitchen for their moms to discover.

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iTunes Catch of the Day: John Zorn

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We’ve seen which songs, for whatever reason, I’ve played the most in the last three years, but what actually takes up the most real estate in the sprawling fairgrounds of my iPod?

The winner, the greediest, most space-hungry artist in my library, hands down, is John Zorn, with over 1400 songs on 110 different albums. Zorn is, in fact, a primary reason why I jumped from the 40GB iPod to the 80GB — to include not just my favorites, but to include every god-damned blast, squeak, skronk and squiggle I own from Mr. John Zorn.

Zorn is a true American original — a distinctive sax player, a flamboyantly avant-garde composer, an incredible bandleader and a master of all he surveys. He’s also made himself a legend in the music wars by creating his own label, releasing hundreds of first-class albums in what would ordinarily be a marketing man’s nightmare and insisting upon absolute control of his career. If that were not enough, he’s also acted as mentor and presenter of a whole host of musical outlaws on his Tzadik label.

I came to Zorn through his 1990 album Naked City, which was handed to me by a mentor of my own who had been trying to get me to listen to folks like Sonny Rollins to no avail. It was a good choice for my mentor, who knew that I needed something immediate and demanding to get me interested in a whole new genre of music. Naked City is more than jazz, it’s an encyclopedic engulfing of a century of American music (with some Europeans thrown in for good measure) chewed up in the fevered New York mind of Zorn, played with the intensity of hardcore punk by a crack band of some of the greatest jazz musicians alive. Naked City hit my brain like the Hindenburg at Lakehurst and remains one of my top ten albums of all time. I worked from Naked City (and the seven or so subsequent albums by the same team) to The Big Gundown, his chopping and splicing of the film music of Ennio Morricone, and Spillane, his sprawling, half-hour musical film noir (which he has since expanded into a full-length CD). From there I investigated his game pieces, where large ensembles participate in structured, spirited improvisations, his jittery, menacing, occasionally terrifying classical pieces, his stunning film soundtracks (he is my number one choice for composer when I make my first feature) and his career-in-themselves Masada albums, 17 or so and counting, where, for the first time to my knowledge, a composer has succeeded in wedding jazz to the Jewish musical tradition.

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