1) Music Without Words Is Kind Of Inherently Lame, No?
In 1967, after the death of his Orchestra's vital composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn (who succumbed to cancer at the age of 51), grief-stricken bandleader Duke Ellington and his musicians recorded the tribute album ...and his mother called him Bill, an arguably well-chosen selection of some of Strayhorn's best-liked tunes, including of course his melodic directions to Harlem, "Take The A Train." After the session proper, while musicians folded chairs and discussed plans for their evenings, Ellington himself sat at the piano and played a gorgeous, and plainly tortured-with-loss version of Strayhorn's ostensibly exquisite ballad "Lotus Blossom." Listening to it, Ellington's personal sense of loss is palpable. Still. One can't help but think how much strongly The Duke could have sold the tune with some lyrics. Maybe something along the lines of "I'm really sad/that you're dead/Billy Strayhorn./You played piano/but you /didn't play horn." Just give a listen and see if you don't agree.
2) So Many Kinds Of Music Gets Categorized As Jazz That People Don't Even Really Know What The Hell Jazz Is. What's Up With That?
Like, a couple of months ago, I was listening to some stuff by The Boswell Sisters, a New-Orleans-originating trio of white women (sisters, just like the group name says) who did all sorts of synthesizing-and-innovative things with harmony and syncopation and tone, vocal wise, that no less an expert than Donald Fagen (noted old white jazzbo who managed to have a few hit records in the '70s) has compared their body of work, significance-wise, to that of the aforementioned Duke Ellington. And their material is pretty peppy, despite it sounding kinda tinny and not being in stereo because most of the best of it is derived from ancient transcriptions of ancient radio recordings. Not long after that, I listened to a record by an outfit that calls itself The Apophonics. Another trio, this one all guys, and not related, one of whom plays bass, okay that's a real instrument, the other of whom plays saxophone, or saxophones, because he switches them on occasion I guess. And then there's the third guy, who plays, get this, "energised surfaces & synth." "Energised" because they're a British outfit I guess. So anyways, while The Boswell Sisters' disc I'd had on, Airshots And Rarities 1930-1935 features twenty nifty ditties, from "Here Comes The Sun" (not the Beatles' tune, but they're lame too, but that's for a different post) to "Lullaby Of Broadway" (is that gay, you think?), On Air by The Apophonics features three "pieces," and while the Boswell Sisters sing peppily, the Apophonics's "pieces" are made up of them rubbing and scraping their traditional instruments, such as they are, and whatever the hell the energized (screw you, limey, I'm using the American spelling) surfaces are. AND YET. In the liner notes to On Air is is revealed that these pieces were originally heard on "the BBC programme [Christ this British spelling again] 'Jazz on 3'." JAZZ on 3. How is this scraping and bowing and blatting and silence any relation to the "jazz" that is practiced by the peppy Boswell Sisters? Some musicologist might venture that, well, the breakdowns to which the Boswell Sisters subjected the material they chose is the most crucial proponent of their music, and that, as dissimilar to the Boswell Sisters as, say, Thelonious Monk might sound, his project of musical deconstruction was not inherently too far away from the Boswell Sisters' project. Of course the aim might be hugely different relative to potential audiences, but let's put that aside for the moment. In any event, what a combo like the Apophonics is doing is conducting an inquiry into the nature of music itself, that is, taking a proposed sound world that has been even more dismantled of certain particulars than either the Boswells or Monk necessarily dreamed of, or consciously dreamed of, and subjecting it to a kind of improvisational stress test.
Maybe that's so, but Jesus. How pretentious.
Anyway, Washington Post editorial person and part-time post-punk musician Justin Moyer put it much more elegantly in his recent op-ed piece when he pronounced: "Charlie Parker and John Zorn do not seem to occupy the same sonic universe, let alone belong in the same record bin or iTunes menu."
As my old pal Lex G. might say, "YEP YEP." Here's alto saxophonist John Zorn playing with the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet:
3) I Don't "Get" Your Aesthetic, And If You Don't Understand How That Invalidates Your Whole Project, I Feel Bad For You, Son, But That's No Reason For You To Become Unpleasant
In the aforementioned Washington Post piece, Moyer recalls studying jazz with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Pheeroan akLaff, and Jay Hoggard. "I appreciated that these generous African American men deigned to share their art at a quite white New England liberal-arts school," Moyers allows, and as you see there is not a trace of racist condescension in his nevertheless quite white reminiscence. Like he said, he appreciated it, but "I just didn’t get their aesthetic." And for an aesthetic to be valid, a white boy has to get it. In case you're interested in the aesthetic Moyer gets, well, here's the website for his band, which has a cute name. Also, in the words of Mark E. Smith, "You are working on a video project." Why doesn't this kind of stuff get grants? And also, you don't have to get so shirty, Amiri Baraka, or do I mean LeRoi Jones? I mean, really.
So I was at the gym this morning and I put on TCM, as one does, and it took me just two shots to figure out the channel was showing Le Feu Follet, Louis Malle's 1963 proto-mumblecore movie (not really) and it's the dinner party scene before the blunt/sad ending, and Henre Serre, best known from Jules et Jim, shows up in a bit part and I think, "Whoa, he looks like someone."
And I remembered this photo, which was e-mailed to me yesterday by my frenemy Jeff "Captain Cockatoo" Wells, presumably to ride me because I don't much like the new movie that Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass co-star in (point of fact, I called it "yuppie puke" in an exchange with Jeff, which was more just to rile him up than anything else; that said, no, don't like the movie), and I thought, "That's kinda funny, I should do a blog post on that."
Because that's what it's come to at this blog, I guess.
Since I got you here I'll tell you my one meager Louis Malle story. It's sometime between 1986 and 1988, and I'm hanging out in Tower Video on Lafayette and West 4 in Manhattan. And one of the floor guys, a stout young African American fellow, is walking about in the laserdisc section, holding a copy of the laser of Atlantic City. And trailing behind him is an older gentleman, white, distinguished, short of stature, with salt-and-pepper hair and a bemused look on his face. The Tower employee says to another Tower employee, "This gentleman is looking for all of the movies on laser disc directed by a Lewis Mal."
A cinephile, I think, and I consider intervening. I then notice the older gentleman is wearing a brown leather quasi-aviator jacket, on the back of which is sewn on a large decal, bearing the logo of "FYI," the fictional television program on which the fictional sitcom character Murphy Brown worked. And then it hit me—the guy actually WAS Malle. Because he was married to Candice Bergen and all. At which point I got all sorta starstruck and didn't intervene after all.
Lest you infer that Malle was on some sorta ego trip, remember that in this period home video was only just becoming a really big thing, and prior to this the idea of the "director approved" video version of a movie was only forming. So I suspect that what Malle was up to was some catch-up.
While John Michael McDonagh's Calvary opens with the words of St. Augustine, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy opens with the sounds of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." Now 10cc is arguably some kind of art-rock outfit, so maybe the distinction isn't as enormous as what I'm positing here. But it probably is. I liked both movies (guess which one the above image is from!), and review them at RogerEbert.com.
Today is the official publication day of my book Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor. I'd be much obliged if you purchased a copy. If you'd like to preview it first, my friends at both Vulture and RogerEbert.com have published excerpts, from the chapters on Midnight Run and Mean Streets respectively. And soon Vanity Fair.com will publish something from the King of Comedy chapter. I'll update when that happens. The book is available from the usual suspect, but Barnes and Noble.com will ship it faster. And your friendly neighborhood bookstore provides a more personal experience.
Last night's event at Book Court went wonderfully, and I'm really grateful to everyone who turned out. On Thursday night at 7:30 at Videology I'll be presenting both myself and the book with excerpts from some of the films. It should be fun. Come say hi if you're able. Thanks.
In a week and a day, my book for Cahiers du Cinema/Phaidon, Robert De Niro: Anatomy Of An Actor, sees publication. It is only right and fitting, I am told, to use this blog, which is my own, as a vehicle for its promotion. And so.
Two events celebrating the book are happening next week. The first is its official launch party, on Monday, July 28, at my favorite local bookstore Book Court, on 163 Court Street in Brooklyn. I thought it would make the event more festive if I had along my buddy Dan Callahan, who recently penned a first-rate critical biography of Vanessa Redgrave, a book rightly praised by no less a personage as David Thomson. Dan and I will read from our respective works and kick around a little talk about the iconography of screen acting and stuff. It should be fun. The link to the event is here.
Then, on Thursday the 31st of July, I'll be doing an event at the Williamsburg venue Videology. This one is me solo, with a moderator perhaps, and since it's at Videology, I'll be talking about the book and its subject with the accompaniment of pertinent clips from some of the films I discuss in the book. That, too, should be fun. The link is here.
My publisher and I are eager to book more events, so if you're interested, give me a holler via e-mail (email@example.com is my preferred address nowadays).
The first review of the book is up, over at Slant/The House Next Door, and I have to say I'm pleased with it. If eery notice I get is this thoughtful, I'll be delighted. I'll be posting links to other reviews as they appear. But as I am a firm believer in Fussell's Law (which I've elaborated on before, more than once), I won't comment on the negative ones, merely note their existence. It's a slippery slope in the world of the INTERNET, right people?
Such is the book news of the moment. More to come, and thanks for indulging me. You can just make the whole thing a lot easier by buying a copy yourself, either online or at your local and preferably independent book venue.
With Lawrence Montaigne, Gordon Jackson, and David MacCallum in The Great Escape, John Sturges, 1963.
Garner's screen work gently rebuffs hard analysis. It isn't that what he did lacked complexity or sophistication. But he had a way of relaxing into whatever character he was playing that only made you want to be by the character's side, rather than "understand" the character. Strain, either visible or subtextual, was not part of his performing vocabulary. This could have the almost paradoxical effect of bringing an unusual depth to less-than-fully-conceived persons. While Charlie Madison in 1964's The Americanization of Emily has righteousness on his side, scripter Paddy Chayefsky's writing, eloquent as it is, has an unrelenting stridency that, coming out of pretty much any other actor's mouth, would have made him a scolding drag. Garner's voice, the set of his jaw and brow, his gait, make you warm to the character even at his most uptight. Similarly, part of what makes The Great Escape such a great sit is the fact that you'd follow Garner's Hendley anywhere, any time.
He clearly had an innate sense of his limitations. No, he was not Stanley Kowalski, nor was meant to be, and he did not waste his or his audience's time pursuing such feats. Which didn't mean he couldn't swing a little; to watch him run a near-full gamut of sexual confusion in Blake Edwards' 1982 Victor/Victoria is to witness as acute (but compassionate) a critique of machismo as Hollywood could muster at the time. By the same token, his work in later pictures such as Murphy's Romance provided little object lessons that "masculine" and "gentle" need not be mutually exclusive terms.
He worked an awful lot, and whatever he was in, good or bad, you were always glad to see him in it. If that doesn't constitute a laudable performing career, I don't know what does.
Channing Pollock is, I think, pretty great in Georges Franju's Judex. In the segments in which he appears unmasked, he's got a stolid near-blank affect that is, I think, entirely apropos to the unusual revised conception Franju applied to the character—a somewhat puritanical, stiff avenger, and hardly an omnipotent hero. Pollock's mien is often attributed to the fact that he was, indeed, a stage magician and not an actor. But an effective performance is an effective performance, and Pollock deserves credit. As I write in my piece for the Criterion Collection's Current blog, Pollock never achieved international cinematic fame but he was a VERY big deal in the worlds of magic and nightclub showbiz. I've always been fascinated by this disparity, and the recent Criterion release of a beautiful edition of Franju's film gave the the pretext to explore it further. Check out my findings here.
Below, Pollock as a jewel thief, and another iconic character in French pop culture of the time, in Rocambole, released the same year as Judex.
I was saddened, like so many music lovers, to hear last week of the death of the very great bassist and composer Charlie Haden. He was one of my favorite musicians and a person I considered not just an artistic giant but a moral hero. (I met him once and had a brief chat with him, at the Village Vanguard after a Liberation Music Orchestra gig in the '90s; he was quiet, and gentle, and kind, and he was the only person I've ever met who could refer to another person as a "cat" with complete unselfconsciousness.) In the latter part of his career his work was often cited for its plain, gorgeous, unfussy lyricism; that quality was always there—but since his passing I've also been listening to the revolutionary work that he did, as one among equals, in Ornette Coleman's quartet. Particularly the 1961 masterpiece This Is Our Music, a statement album if there ever was one, a raucous, deeply joyful, deeply serious vision. Now Ornette himself is the sole surviving member of that quartet: Ed Blackwell, Don Cherry, and Haden are now gone. While Coleman is arguably the originator of the "harmolodic" idea of group improvisation, the whole point of it is to create a band of equals, and this informs the music, making each of the players as monumental a figure as the ostensible leader. The music hasn't dated a second.
A lot of artists, particularly musicians, who have their origins in the avant-garde and/or experimental, will refer to those origins with some disdain or distaste after finding some kind of mainstream respect or commercial success with more conventional fare. It's worth remembering that Charlie Haden never did this. His love for Ornette, reverence even, is tied to the story he recounts in Rambling Boy, the excellent 2009 documentary about Haden directed by Reto Caduff, about hearing Ornette play for the first time, his immediate love for the keening sound of his plastic alto, and how a week after that, he followed Ornette home from a bandstand and the two played through the dawn and into the day, speaking entirely through music. You can hear perhaps a reprise of that interaction on the splendid album of Coleman/Haden duets, Soapsuds, Soapsuds.
There's no reference in Rambling Boy to the crippling heroin addiction that plagued Haden in the early 1960s, and that's fine; Haden deserved to be commemorated for his music and his conscience, and the doc could have been three times its 90 minute length and not needed to mention his struggle. Haden did, however, speak to the great writer Rafi Zabor about it for a detailed, painstaking, and terribly moving two-part profile for Musician magazine in the '80s. The piece has been anthologized in a now out-of-print but accessible collection of pieces from that magazine. I don't have the article at hand myself, but I remember one passage from it in which Haden looks at the cover photo of This Is Our Music, a photo that finds the lean, angular Haden in a dark place. Haden speaks to Zabor about his recollection of junk-sickness at that photo session, and the now-healthy musician seems to regard his younger self with a combination of horror and compassion that many recovering addicts become familar with over the years.
In the early '60s, Haden went for treatment to Synanon, the not-yet-controversial rehab facility founded in the late '50s by Chuck Dederich. Around the same time, the director Richard Quine, who himself struggled with alcoholism for much of his life (which he eventually took in 1989), coming off a run of relatively frothy comedies (Paris When It Sizzles, Sex And The Single Girl, the monumental How To Murder Your Wife), cashed in some of his commercial clout to try something different: a fictionalized story of Synanon, with actors playing some real-life characters (Edmond O'Brien, at his most evangelical, plays Dederich), and shooting the film at actual Synanon facilities in Santa Monica and San Francisco, and using actual residents as extras and in bit parts.
This is a story I've only heard third-hand, so if anyone has a more accurate version, holler in the comments or send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org is my main address). Anyway, the story is that Quine's shoot coincided with Haden's stay at Synanon. The recovery model there had a lot of emphasis on what some would call "tough love," not to mention forcing the humility issue; I believe the idea of making celebrities scrub toilets with toothbrushes and all that other stuff you hear about from Betty Ford Center alums originated at Synanon. So my recollection is that Haden, while hardly superstar-level world famous at the time, had some janitorial duties and may or may not have been part of whatever house band the facility ran. In any event, Quine liked his manner, and wanted him to participate in the shoot, and apparently this was something residents were encouraged to do. So, Haden would be in the house band that played in certain scenes in the film.
One problem: the ordinarly astute Quine didn't like the way Haden looked playing his actual instrument, the bass. So he put him behind a drum kit. There he is, below, between Edmond O'Brien and Earth Kitt. Barzini, I mean Richard Conte, is to O'Brien's right.
Like many jazz musicians, Haden had a working knowledge of the instruments other than his own, and as you can see from the below shot, he could hold a pair of sticks in a convincing fashion.
Haden's participation in the movie is sufficiently obscure as to not be cited in the Internet Movie Database entry on the musician, nor anywhere else as far as I can tell. Upon leaving Synanon, Haden married for the first time and sired four of his children, including Tanya, Petra, and Rachel, The Haden Triplets. Their recent Ry Cooder-produced album is superb, a Songs Our Daddy Taught Us for our time. Haden's son Josh is also a first-rate musician. As far as I know Haden stayed clean, and it's 100% verifiable that he stayed away from film acting, even though his love of movies informed his late music with his Quartet West (by all means seek out their Haunted Heart, a film noir for the ears).
UPDATE: Commenter Rebekah states below that the man behind the drums is not Haden but Bill Crawford, who actually DID drum with Synanon's house band. Related photographic evidence (e.g. shots of Crawford one may Google—there aren't many, but they're clear) proves persuasive. While I'm ordinarily a fan of the "print the legend" adage, I'm also disinclined to dishonor Crawford. I scoured my copy of Synanon this morning looking for Haden elsewhere and didn't come up with much. Anybody got any clues? Is this a piece of lore in which truth got muddled in the retelling? Chime in in comments, or drop me an e-mail.
Maybe this should be headed "Movies You Ought To Contemplate Seeing Once You Find Out Boyhood Is Sold Out." One such picture is Land Ho!, starring the above-seen Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhorn. Good times in Iceland. Another worthwhile, albeit extremely understated, movies is The Empty Hours. Under no circumstances except those of extreme perversity, though, ought you subject yourself to Rage, a Nicolas Cage starrer devoid of even devoidness. All reviews are for RogerEbert.com, which also features a loving review of the aforementioned Boyhood by my friend Matt Zoller Seitz.
In other news, I've long considered Wondering Sound one of the best contemprary music websites around anywhere, so I'm delighted to publish my first piece for them, a personal essay about culling my physical media. Hope you like it.