Joseph Failla, my movie-going pal from the late 1960s on, and a sometime DVD reviewer for Premiere back in the early aughts, wrote me with some reminiscences and observations on the late Christopher Lee, which I reproduce below:
Joseph Failla, my movie-going pal from the late 1960s on, and a sometime DVD reviewer for Premiere back in the early aughts, wrote me with some reminiscences and observations on the late Christopher Lee, which I reproduce below:
I don't know why I took the news of Sir Christopher Lee's death so hard this morning. It's not as if his face and his voice have been crucially intertwined with all the reasons I love movies, or anything. Oh, wait. it is that. But, you know, he WAS 93. Maybe I thought he was going to live forever.
One of the greatest pleasures of my professional life, hell, maybe of my life, period, was an hour-long interview I conducted with Lee in late 1994. I don't even remember what the occasion was, but it was for a column I had at TV Guide so I guess he had a special or some sort of hosting gig. In any event, I had been told that Lee could be a prickly interview subject, but that absolutely turned out not to be the case when I spoke with him. Perhaps he was in a terrific mood. Maybe I had good questions. All I know is that at a certain point I thought, "I'm not going to be able to get him off the phone." This observation was not a complaint.
The most moving and surprising portion of the conversation was when Lee was recalling his friend Peter Cushing, who had just passed away in the summer of that year. Lee missed his friend terribly but also delighted in telling me the way the two would keep each other entertained in the down time during the shoots of the many films they worked in together. Apparently they were both keen Looney Tunes fans, and used to conduct entire conversations in the voices of their favorite characters. To demonstrate, Lee actually laid his Foghorn Leghorn impersonation on me.
I'll let that sink in for a second.
I also asked Lee about his occasionally misbegotten work with microbudget auteur Jesus "Jess" Franco, and elicited a rather amusing backhanded compliment from Lee about the filmmaker: "Not an untalented man, by the way." There was more, quite a bit of it, too much for a 500-word column in TV Guide (which my editor, cheekily and to my great delight, headlined "Christopher And His Kind") and I thought that when I could get around to it, I'd whip up a complete transcript and give it to my friend-who-I've-still-never-met-in-person Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog.
I bet you know what happens next. I lost the tape, and have never been able to find it. To this day, whenever I come upon an unmarked audio cassette in the bottom of some drawer and file cabinet, I pop it in my recorder with the small mad hope that it might be the Lee conversation. It never is. But I still remember. And I'll never forget.
The above shot of Richard is from 1974. I purloined it from Film Comment magazine. You almost wanna say "Look at the you-know-what hipster," don't you? I didn't meet Richard until, oh, well over twenty years after this picture was taken, and his mode for dealing with younger film critics was quite a bit more avuncular than anything this shot suggests. I still love this shot of him because he has this air of both confidence and poetic dreaminess, and also of potential extreme volubility. These qualities are always is present in his writing, and were always present in his conversation. I think everybody who knew Richard even slightly, as I did, is heartbroken today...but also feels very lucky to have known him at all, because in addition to being a really terrific critic and journalist he was also BOTH a mensch and a prince.
If you weren't lucky enough to have known him, well, there's a lot to read, but I'd actually start with the wonderful interview he did with David Thomson for the above-mentioned Film Comment, which captures his voice and his erudition and enthusiasm wonderfully. Then buy his BFI Film Classics monograph on Lolita, and mourn that he didn't do more stuff along these lines. Then curse the gods, or rather the devils, that have somehow conspired to keep from you from accessing "Afternoon With An Obsession," Richard's late-'70s Village Voice profile of Carole Laure, perhaps the only male-written "I'm smitten with this film star" piece that will not inspire instantaneous projectile vomiting (Anthony Lane ought to have looked it up before meeting Scarlett Johansson). Richard Zoglin's reminiscence of him at Time's site is also very good. But mainly read Richard, always a delight. And you know, he wasn't really wrong about Speed Racer either.
I was recently recollecting the bad old days when I thought I was some kind of Internet Film Criticism policeman, and I got into it with not Some Dude™ but a guy I've come to have a reasonable relationship with, and one of the points he tried to make was that I had some nerve giving another writer TMI grief when I myself posted vacation pictures on my blog. Well. It was/is MY blog, and they were, you know, vacation pictures. And now, as I begin outlining a hopefully brief piece concerning the critical reputation of Woody Allen, I relax by sharing with you a last few treasures from my late mom's seemingly bottomless photo stash.
I sometimes tell close friends that as a baby, I was so fat that my parents could pretty much leave me alone anywhere and be assured that, unless I was kidnapped, I'd be at the spot at which they left me when they returned, because I literally could not move. (And as for kidnapping, no one save a cannibal wants to snatch a fat baby.) Anyway, I didn't have any actual recollection of this state, but now I have photographic proof.
My sister and I had an often fractious relationship in our childhood and teens, so this mid-60s snapshot inspired lots of oohs and aaahs from older relatives, "Look how nice they can be together," that sort of thing. I'd like to say that whatever cinematic allusion attaches to my costume—Rules of the Game, for sure!— was entirely deliberate, but of course it was not.
I include this shot not to mark the beginning of my younger brother's brief but powerful Jodie Foster phase, but to again provide a form of photographic proof: Yes, those long shirt collars in Goodfellas were a thing.
Eighth Grade Yearbook photo, 1972. Glenn Kenny, The Awkward Years, Part II, a saga which I believe is still ongoing.
Two things about this photo: One, how is it that nobody in New Jersey with a cheap camera between the years 1962 and 1985 knew how to properly compose a shot? Even the most headroom-batty among us would have to cop to the overabundance of negative, no make that useless, space in this photo, which I have declined to crop out of respect for verisimilitude. Actually, the culprit might be yours truly: that Ken Follett book is from 1982, the asphalt beneath the beach chair is a driveway; this places the shot at Katz Avenue in West Paterson, where my mom and I (and sometimes my brother) lived for a few years until I finally up and moved to the Big City full-time in '86.
Two, I don't want to slog Ken Follett, but it's doubtful that whatever my mom was thinking when I, or whoever took the shot, took the shot, was spurred by that thriller. I don't know if it's me or if today's atmosphere of cultural discourse is so inflamed or what but I feel weirdly compelled to defend my mom's reading habits here. Hell, I kind of liked Forsyth's Day of the Jackal myself. Yep, my mom liked potboiler thrillers but she also loved Rex Stout, who really is the V.S.O.P. of what he did, and it's due to her influence that I got into him—and to Conan Doyle as well. When she saw me reading a biography of Oscar Levant, she asked to borrow it when I was done, and she enjoyed that. And my mom adored Simenon—when she died, she was halfway through a new translation of The Late Monsieur Gallet that I brought her at the hospital. She liked the Silvina Ocampa poem I read her in the days before her operation, too...but she liked the Eliot cat poems I read to her from Kingsley Amis' collection of light verse a little better. Thank you T.S. Eliot and Kingsley Amis. Love you mom. Miss you every day.
The first movie I’m reputed to have set eyes upon was Psycho, which my parents saw at a drive-in when I was barely one. The first movie I remember seeing a portion of was North by Northwest—the portion being the one in which Roger Thornhill almost drunkenly drives “Laura’s Mercedes” over a cliff—also at a drive-in with my parents. Part of an early-60s double bill, I guess. The first movie I remember sitting all the way through was The Haunting, which my mom asked me to stay up and watch with her during its network television premiere—was it 1966, 1967? this is one factoid I have found resistant to my Googling chops—on an evening when my dad was working his second job parking cars. We were both plenty scared by it. I don’t remember if my mom held me hand or not. Even then though I found it kind of funny that she was asking a not-even ten-year-old boy to help her not get overly spooked by what she had heard was a pretty effective horror movie (and even with commercials it was pretty potent).
And that was it: I was hooked on images and their synchronization with sound just as hard as the Beatles had hooked me on music. Looking through old pictures this week I came across a shot from Christmas 1970—good grief, did my parents actually buy my brother a drum kit?—and I’m sitting there with my hair holding a record album with the curving letters “OCKER” the only visible clue to its title, and it took me a minute before I figured out it was the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs And Englishman double LP. My dad mostly liked Chet Baker (well, he’d tell me that, years after we hadn’t shared the same roof) and my mom’s favorite was Tony Bennett so, yes, I must have driven them crazy, but they were always indulgent—even got me the picture sleeve single of “The Ballad of John And Yoko” when it came out.
When I was a little kid, poring through a library book or the Arts and Leisure section of the Times, I asked my mother—with no real clue why I should have any expectation that she would have a ready answer to the question—“Why do you think Jean-Luc Godard wears sunglasses all the time?” And my mother answered, “Maybe it’s an affectation.” And I asked her what “an affectation” was, and she told me.
My sister and I recall my parents going once again to the drive-in to see David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter with the expectation that my sister and I would be sleeping in the fold-down back seat of the family’s Ford Country Squire station wagon. But we did not, and my sister recalls my mom telling her to put her head down during the forest love scene between Sarah Miles and Christopher Jones. I remember no such thing; I just remember the scene—Miles’ rather self-consciously artily-depicted nudity amidst all that green, on a gargantuan screen framed by a soft warm New Jersey night, and the silhouettes of my parent’s heads immediately in front of me.
Lest I give the impression that my parents’ drive-in choices were unfailingly discriminating, I should add that If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, and Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell are also reasonably vivid memories from that time.
After my parents split up, I watched a lot of movies with my mom. Her favorite star was Paul Newman; her second favorite was Robert Wagner. But she didn’t rate The Towering Inferno particularly high despite the fact that “R.J.” and Newman were both in it. We saw Raging Bull together some time late in its release—I think it was something like my ninth viewing—and that’s not really a comfortable movie to sit through with one’s mom but coming out of the theater with her I felt a shared tacit acknowledgement of the film’s painstakingly accurate and painful depiction of the sacred and profane within Italian-American working class milieus—we both looked at each other with what would come to be known as the “well, that happened” expression. For all that, my mom still kept a crucifix not very much unlike the one seen in Jake La Motta’s familial home among her effects. (She was born Amelia Teresa Petrosino, and graduated from St. Joseph’s, a Catholic high school in or around Fort Lee.) One time, for lack of anything better to do, we even went to the local multiplex for pot luck and ended up seeing Gotcha!, which elicited a “what the hell was that” from me; Mom, wanting to be optimistic, shrugged that parts of it were kind of cute.
Long before being a loser who lived in his mother’s basement was a thing, I was a loser who lived in his mother’s basement. As I put it in “Going Through The Motions,” a piece of my writing that appeared in Black Clock last fall: “After my parents were divorced in the early 1980s, my mother got an apartment in West Paterson. The place was a two-story house and the unit my mom rented encompassed both the ground floor and the basement, and it was determined I could have the basement for a fee of $250 a month that I would never pay.” The bit was somewhat funnier when my mom was around to read it. There were all sorts of ways in which I was a hardship to my mom—even up until the last days of her life, I tell myself, and then concerned and kind friends and family members pull me back from that—but I do know that she got some satisfaction from the fact that during the time that I spent dicking around “honing my craft” or “trying to find a vocation” or whatever the hell it was I was doing, she was the only person who never said to me, “get a job.” Because she really did believe that someday I would make good as a writer. So I roosted there, and the little victories started coming my way: a piece I submitted on spec seeing print in Musician magazine, a how-the-hell-did-that-happen monthly music column in a girlie mag, and, finally, after what felt to me like a tortured bout of argumentative correspondence, an invitation from Robert Christgau to write a piece for the Village Voice’s Riffs section. That was it: I knew then that I had it made. I soon heard from another “jerk from Jersey” (her phrase) who’d gotten into the Voice, Rosemary Passantino, and after an initial antipathy (I found her as humorless as I’d expected any English Lit grad student to be, while she thought the bowling shirt I wore on our first in-person meeting to be unforgivably louche) we got to be thick as thieves. Last week RP wrote to me: “I will always remember your mom, happy to have us and not caring a bit that we were way too old to be lying around for hours pretentiously commiserating over comic books and French philosophy in her basement!” In fucking deed.
I did move out eventually and my mom moved to western Jersey to manage one of several video rental stores my uncle owned. One of her regular customers was Keith Jarrett. I loaned him, by proxy, a laser disc of Roger Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons ’60, which he was keen to see because Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers actually appeared in the film. I got to take my mom to see Jarrett’s trio for her birthday in December of 2013. It was a great show. I also took her to see Yves Montand at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1982—how the hell I pulled that off I have no idea—and Sinatra at one of his Meadowlands shows, not the really bad one thank God but one where he got sufficiently bored with his material that he sang “Love was just a glance away/a warm pair of panties away” or some such thing. Mom rolled her eyes at that but was otherwise largely delighted with the show. I don’t know that she had ever been a bobby-soxer for real but I could see her in the part.
In 1995 or so my work appeared in book form for I think the first time, or so, in the first and only edition of Leonard Maltin’s Film Encyclopedia, which did not become the franchise that Leonard’s Home Video Guide did. Here is what I wrote in the copy I gave my mom:
Mom—This will provide you with many amusing hours trying to figure out which entries I wrote. Here’s a hint: I’d like to get my hands on the editorial assistant who introduced a grievous error into the Godard entry (it was Macha Meril who starred in ‘Une Femme Marieé,’ not Anna Karina). Only in the exciting world of book publishing can you get it right the first time, only to have some intern get it wrong. But that’s my sole complaint. Enjoy…
Love, your son, Glenn”
Pretty insufferable, yes. But my mom was gracious enough to be amused. I think my inscription of her copy of my De Niro book had a little more humility, and definitely more gratitude. I’m also very glad I dedicated the book to her and to my dad.
On March 7, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see a screening of the five-hour director’s cut of Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World, which my friend the screenwriter and essayist Larry Gross had kind of insisted I discover. That Sunday was kind of my first day “off” in quite some time. In early February, my mom had been admitted to the hospital after a fainting spell in the Fort Lee apartment building into which she had moved the prior August. She hadn’t been herself in a while, and we had some appointments scheduled to look into the problem; her faint was just two days before a scheduled date with a doctor. Some scary hours ensued as doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with her. It happened that she had a benign meningioma. You have never seen anyone so excited and happy to be diagnosed with a tumor, ever. Because, for one thing, it meant that she didn’t have dementia. Yes, the operation to get rid of the tumor was a real bear, and various complications were possible/likely. But. This was a hurdle she could see her way to clearing. And yes, Schwarzenegger impersonations were proffered, and “It’s not brain surgery…oh, wait, it IS brain surgery” was uttered more than once.
And Mom came through the operation like a champ, as they say. And suddenly her friends and family saw how much of her spirit and personality had been subsumed by her condition, because her spirit and personality came roaring back. My sister was on the phone with my father one afternoon and gave the phone to my mom to say hello, and mom practically roared “Your first wife is still alive!” with a big grin.
I had not been entirely aware that the condition had been making it impossible for my mom to read anything much beyond a restaurant menu. Now here I was, bringing her a Maigret mystery by her beloved Simenon, The Late Monsieur Gallet it was, and she was tearing through it. I had gone to visit her in the hospital, and then in her rehab facility, most days of the week, and she was always super-solicitous, worrying about the weather in which my wife Claire and I would be taking the bus, and so on. And when we’d leave her to take the bus back home, I’d roll my eyes when we pulled into the Port Authority and see she was calling, to make sure we’d made it back into the city okay
Anyway, I was particularly moved by the Wenders film, because one of its big plot hooks involved William Hurt’s character gathering images to present, via a new technology, to his blind mother, played by Jeanne Moreau. Moreau’s portrayal of a frail/strong woman for whom a certain veil of consciousness is lifted via technology and love resonated strongly for obvious reasons. I was terribly excited by the gift my mom had received, and looking so forward to the ways she’d use it, and how her family and other loved ones would share it with her.
There are, when you come down to it, two kinds of “you can’t make this up” stories: the kind that are just remarkably absurd and silly, and then the kind you would not want to make up even if you could. The story of my mom’s death falls into the latter category, I think.
It was March 10, the day she was scheduled to come out of rehab. I took the bus out to Jersey, carrying with me a canvas bag where I had her new dish drainer and dish pan. I also had some tennis balls that I was gonna cut apart and put on the back legs of her walker. (It turns out the walker they were giving her was sufficiently snazzed-out that it wouldn’t have needed the upgrade.) On the bus I got a phone call from my aunt. Seemed that my mom had complained of chest pains earlier in the morning, there was some concern among the staff as to what it meant. They were going to take her to the hospital up the block and have her checked out. She’d have to stay another night in the rehab, at least. Well, okay. So I wouldn’t be helping bring her home today; instead I’d be reconciling her to staying one more night, and going with her to the hospital for some tests.
Mom wasn’t into it. “How’s your aunt going to get off work tomorrow?” she asked. Well of course she could get off work tomorrow. Don’t worry about it, Mom. For now you should just relax, because we need to take you up the street and get checked out. I left her room and went to speak to the head of the nursing department. There were some concerns about Mom’s hemoglobin count that needed addressing. Then I needed to make some calls: to my sister, to my aunt. I went back to my mom’s room and the patient with whom she shared a room was out in the hall, in her wheelchair: “You better get in there,” she said. My mom was on the floor, having tripped and fallen, face first, after having gotten up from her bed to go to the bathroom. She was bleeding from the nose. She was lifted up, and sat down into a chair; her blood pressure was taken. It was fine. “How do you feel?” “Awful.” Well, that was to be expected. So now she was going to have to be checked out for a broken nose, too, when we got her to the hospital. But for now we had to lay her down. Once in bed, she complained of not being able to breathe. She was hooked up to a small oxygen supply. I sat at the side of her bed and held her hand. “I can’t breathe,” she said.
“It’s gonna be okay, mom. You ARE breathing. Breathe through your mouth. There.”
I squeezed her hand. Even though she was breathing, she clearly felt that she could not. I said to a nurse, “She says she can’t breathe.”
“That’s why we gave her the oxygen.”
“Something else is happening. Get someone in here.”
And then I kept saying “It’s gonna be okay, Mom,” and after a little while she exhaled deeply, shut her eyes, rolled a little to the side, and she was gone. And I knew she was gone. Efforts to resuscitate, in the rehab facility and then the hospital, went on for an hour after that. I’ve consulted with her neurosurgeons, who did an amazing job with her and are understandably kind of angry now, and it would appear that what took her was a pulmonary embolism.
My mom was my first love, and she taught me what it meant to be loved. I may have not treated that gift so carefully as I ought to have, through many too-long stretches of my life, but I never lost it, and I cling to it now ever more fiercely...or at least I try to, or tell myself that I try to, I don’t know. My mom had a hard life—more than one of her friends has told me that in the past week, and frankly in some cases I haven’t been sure how to take the information, not that it’s news to me or anything—but she also had a life full of event and eventually adventure. And she knew that she was loved, and she took a lot of delight in the people around her who gave her that love. You can see, in the picture above, the genuine joy she’s experiencing as she holds up that mewling jowly infant who was I at six months (as opposed—I might as well beat anybody else to it—to the mewling jowly infant I am today).
I feel kind of lucky that I’m not more of a Loudon Wainwright III adept than I already am, because if his song “Homeless” had been wired into me back when he first sang it, I’d be more of a wreck now than I already am. “When you were alive, I was never alone,” it opens; “somewhere in the world, there was always a home.” It goes on: “And I feel like I faked all that I ever did,” oh dear. “They say in the end, your good friends pull you through/but everyone knows, my best friend was you.” I am more fortunate than Loudon here, because I found another best friend, Claire, who will have been my wife for nine years this coming June. God knows I’ve put her through it, but I do think I’ve been able to make her happy sometimes, though not as happy as she’s made me. And while it’s never going to be possible for me to truly accept a world that my mom isn’t in, I guess I will someday be able to recognize what so many people have been telling me these past few days, which is that I somehow did make her proud, not just in the end, but always.
Against Jerry Lewis in Hollywood Or Bust, Frank Tashlin, 1956.
Ekberg, who died yesterday at age 83, is the first of Bob Dylan's "Country'll Grow" trinity to shuffle off this mortal coil. To call her the poster girl for the Male Gaze is both somewhat apt and entirely reductive. Nevertheless, here is a rendering of her mouth as it appears on a giant advertisement for Call Me Bwana in From Russia With Love.
In Zabriskie Point, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970. With G.D. Spradlin and an unknown actress.
Actors as a rule don't get to choose their directors but Taylor had the appeal, talent, and luck to get him chosen by a bunch of the greatest: George Stevens (Taylor's in Giant, briefly); John Ford/Jack Cardiff, then Cardiff solo; Hitchcock, Tashlin, M.A., and...Generally Quite Good director Quentin Tarantino eventually. Richard Quine, Burt Kennedy, and Edward Dmytryk were no slouches either, and Taylor worked for them as well. I sought him out for an interview in my Premiere days and was told he didn't see or talk to anybody, so was both gratified and slightly professionally miffed to see him turn up in Inglourious Basterds years later. His entirely honorable and memorable career in cinema had one of its oddest highlights when he played John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee in Darker Than Amber, the same year as Zabriskie Point. Directed by future Enter The Dragon man Robert Clouse, it features one of the most insane fight scenes ever committed to celluloid, a ship's cabin battle with a bizarrely coiffed and VERY amped up William Smith. If you can find it you need to see it.
1: First time I saw Jack Bruce play was at the performing arts center at William Paterson College, in 1980, most likely the fall, leading an outfit called Jack Bruce and Friends. I hadn't heard a whole lot of his post-Cream output at the time, and a good deal of what I knew of seemed kind of intimidating to me. But I was also wary of holding him in the reflexive contempt that I still sometimes thought my post-punk aesthetic demanded. Having developed a taste for the astringent progressivism of Henry Cow and Art Bears and such a couple of years earlier, I was definitely an art-rocker in training, and Bruce's presentation hit a relaxed sweet spot with me. He and his band were relaxed, coming off like journeymen virtuosos—Robert Christgau described Bruce's music as "dense and dissonant and throbbing," and it was/is, but the players—Clem Clemson on guitar, David Sancious on keyboards, Bruce of course on bass, and man-mountain Billy Cobham (whose constant grin was the only indication that he wasn't just on the verge of casually destroying his kit) on drums—ere sufficiently relaxed and assured that this might have been the regular Thursday night gig for a bar band that was very attached to its bar. I was impressed, and then when they came back for the encore to repave the campus parking lot with a very heavy rolling rendition of "Politician," kind of awestruck.
2: In the largely first rate biography of Bruce by Harry Shapiro, Jack Bruce: Composing Himself, the musician recollects his brief tenure with the then-carnivalesque Golden Palominos, beginning in 1986. "That was a completely mad band," Bruce says. "[Founder and drummer] Anton Fier was completely drunk all the time. I remember Anton sitting in the first class lounge in Paris Airport with a bottle of brandy and drinking it in the twenty minutes between flights."
I do not doubt this. The profile I wrote of Fier and the Palominos, which ran in the February 1987 issue of Spin, is for the most part an account of the writer getting nearly blind drunk on a variety of Chinese wines with Fier and Peter Blegvad. At the time, which seems in my mind to have been by an eternity from the feckless collegiate fall of 1980, feckless freelance rock critic and consumer electronics magazine Associate Editor me had become a potential Boswell to the GoPals, as they were referred to on the scene. I did not really ride to any unprecedented career heights in this endeavor but I heard a lot of great music and got royally fucked up with a bunch of wonderful artists. Singer Syd Straw used to marvel at touring with a bunch of guys who actually played chess in the van, and yeah, eavesdrop on a conversation between Blegvad and Jody Harris and you were likely to hear them comparing notes on Thom Gunn, but good God those guys liked their drink, and when he was touring with them between '86 and '87, so too did Bruce. I remember a show at Webster Hall at which Harris, with both his standard deadpan detachment and a dollop of genuine irritation, told me of a Bostn show the night before at which Jack had gotten so blitzed that he futzed the words to most of the songs he had to sing. "I'm really sorry, I'll never do it again," Jody reported as Jack's apology, and we both smirked. "I'm sure no one who's ever worked with him has ever heard that before, ever," I observed.
Whatever his damage had been the night prior, he bounced back strongly that evening, and the set was a remarkable pageant of raucous, unself-conscious eclecticism. Slapp Happy and Funkadelic are not two bands one generally thinks of in the space of a single 24-hour or even two-week period, and yet here's a stage featuring founding members of both (Bernie Worrell and, later, Mike Hampton played that night) as well as Jack Bruce, and it all meshes, and rocks, and pushes. I got to go to what is commonly referred to these days as "the after party" (I think back then it was called "a party") and everyone was so wired that it was once more off to the races, and that's when I had my most significant personal interaction with Jack Bruce. I was waiting in a short line to use the facilities, and Bruce scurried over to me, hunched over a bit, and manically requested permission to cut in. "I have to go really bad," he said. Well, who was I to deny Jack Bruce. I said go ahead, and when the bathroom door opened, Bruce scurried in, and held the door open to let in another guy. Feeling slightly burnt, I said, "What he gonna do, hold your dick for you?" Jack Bruce thought this was hilarious. He was still laughing as he closed the door.
The thing was, whatever Bruce was doing at any given time, there was never a trace of genuine-rock-superstar-condescension in the way he carried himself,and there was never a minute of doubt relative to the music to which he chose to commit himself. Coming out of Cream and into Tony Williams' Lifetime, Bruce came off as if it was Williams who was doing him a favor. Listen to him with Carla Bley, with Mike Mantler, with Kip Hanrahan; his discipline, his passion (anyone with doubts of that ought to listen to Cream's "Spoonful" quick fast and in a hurry), his almost offhand sense of adventure all come through like a-ringing a bell. And in the Golden Palominos, Bruce gave the most convincing reading, pace the wongwriter himself, of Peter Blegvad's dread-laden "Something Else (Is Working Harder)." "People work hard to keep a lid on their anger./To see that justice will prevail,/to no avail, their efforts fail—/something else is working harder."
3) In June of 2012, I went to B.B. King's Blues Club And Grill to see Spectrum Road, a band—what they used to call a supergroup, maybe—dedicated to the music of the aforementioned Tony Williams. I couldn't swing the Cream reunion, but this I could, and I had been pretty impressed by the attendant album by the group, which seemed a genuine band effort. The other members were guitarist Vernon Reid, who'd flirted with rock superstardom in Living Colour and of late has been, among other things, conducting a productive collaboration with James "Blood" Ulmer; keyboardist John Medeski, whose combo Medeski, Martin, and Wood has made significant inroads with jam-band fans while remaining steadfast to its John-Zorn-affiliated roots; and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, whose dynamism as a percussionist had not, I think, been so fully represented on any record prior to this one. In any event, throughout the selections, the music flows and pummels beautifully with no sense of it being led in any traditional sense; not to sound trite or anything, but it's one of those tribute records on which is seems that the spirit of the honored musician really is in charge of the whole thing.
Live, it was like that, and a little more. Almost, or perhaps more than, a century of assured musicianship had come to play, and as Bruce had the main microphone, he was the de facto frontman (although Blackman did vocalize on one tune, and quite well). He had turned 69 in May. In 2003 he had undergone a liver transplant. On stage, he had a not-terribly large bottle of Poland Spring water nearby, and at the stage read there was a standing-stool sort of contraption on which he could rest while playing if need be.
He didn't use it that often, if at all. First among equals with his bandmates, he commanded the stage for the entirety of a nearly two-hour set, stepping out only during Blackman's drum solo feature. His bass playing was, as ever, astonishing. Jaco Pastorious and Jamaladeen Tacuma get a lot of credit for reinventing electric bass playing from within a certain generic framework, and they were/are great players, to be sure. But there is/was something sui generis about the simultaneous muscularity and delicacy of Bruce's touch. Something working hard, and succeeding.
At the encore, I thought, "I wonder if they're going to trot out 'Politician.'" They did, either before or after "Sunshine Of Your Love." Why not. They crushed both.
Bacall with a few mugs, Humphrey Bogart among them, in the exemplary anti-fascist film To Have And Have Not, Howard Hawks, 1944.
Here's the thing with Lauren Bacall: she turned up on screen and there she was. Like Venus on that half-shell, she was fully formed and all that from frame one. It didn't matter if she could act or not. There she was. I mean, look at her. In her very first movie. There's a Warner Bros. cartoon from a couple years after this, Bacall To Arms, that depicts a big goofy zoot-suited wolf reacting to Lauren on screen; my favorite part is when he silently flops over a seat in the row on front of him, emitting a soft, hapless "woof."
And of course she could act. Though plucked from modeldom, she took it seriously and did it well, and seemingly effortlessly.
Great movies in which she is great include the above, and The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo, The Cobweb (THE COBWEB!), Written on the Wind, The Shootist, Birth. She wasn't actually IN Howl's Moving Castle, but hell, why not, that counts. Good movies in which she is great include Young Man With A Horn, How To Marry A Millionaire (c'mon, it isn't that bad), Blood Alley, Designing Woman, Sex and the Single Girl, Harper, Murder on the Orient Express, Health, Misery, The Walker. It's your call on Manderlay, Dogville, Pret a Porter, The Fan, and sundry. What can one say about her? She had a life full of rough patches that she bore with grace, and in her later years she impressed and sometimes terrified as an interview subject who brooked no bullshit and told it like she saw it, even to the extent of tattling a bit on her discoverer Mr. Hawks. And she was also Lauren Bacall, for heaven's sake. She made being Lauren Bacall look pretty...heavy, actually. But also fun. How could it not have been, even if only a little bit?