Sunday, November 28, 2004

Modigliani: Beyond The Myth

My wife and I drove down to the AGO to see this highly-praised collection of Modigliani works - some 85 pieces, with scant few narrative interruptions from the show's producers. Highly recommended from the Prajer point of view as well. I left with my brain a-swim in Modigliani-mode, which is what I was after. The display did a good job of showcasing the artist's development from the reckless but fiercely talented youth who scribbled portraits on lousy paper (with a 2H pencil, I'm guessing) for his drink and food, painted on cardboard and, when he could afford it, canvas for bigger coin.

One of the first plaques to greet the viewer claims this show is devoted to "moving beyond the myth." Too bad for me - Philistine that I am, I was familiar only with his nudes and knew nothing about the cad who painted them. Now I'd love to get into the myth, because I found his work compelling and the bits of personal history so vague (except when indicating who had committed suicide, when) that I thirsted for more tangible stuff: who was this guy? Bald facts: Italian Jew, fully immersed in Parisian bohemian life, versed in artistic modes of the time (african elongation of form), proud of his jewish heritage, fascinated by the occult, indulgent, defiant, consumptive, prodigious. As presented, the show's minimalism winds up buttressing the myth, not "going beyond it." But then I couldn't quite bring myself to spend another fifty bones on the (Yale) catalogue, which might have pulled off that feat, so I'll have to do a little time in the public library.

Two overheard comments that sum it up for me:

"His sketches are so ... inspirational." Yes! They have a disarming simplicity that is naturally appealing. You are keen to identify with them, and you are keen to go home and try your own hand at it.

"How does he manage to bring out unique character in each of his portraits, while limiting his details?" How, indeed? In an odd bit of kismet, I think part of the answer lies in Jonathan Franzen's recent New Yorker meditation on the art of Charles M. Schulz, here. You might be weary of Franzen, and completely tapped-out by Schulz, but it is a rewarding read. Here's Franzen talking about Schulz's style:

Scott McCloud, in his cartoon treatise “Understanding Comics,” argues that the image you have of yourself when you’re conversing is very different from your image of the person you’re conversing with. Your interlocutor may produce universal smiles and universal frowns, and they may help you to identify with him emotionally, but he also has a particular nose and particular skin and particular hair that continually remind you that he’s an Other. The image you have of your own face, by contrast, is highly cartoonish. When you feel yourself smile, you imagine a cartoon of smiling, not the complete skin-and-nose-and-hair package. It’s precisely the simplicity and universality of cartoon faces, the absence of Otherly particulars, that invite us to love them as we love ourselves. The most widely loved (and profitable) faces in the modern world tend to be exceptionally basic and abstract cartoons: Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Tintin, and, simplest of all—barely more than a circle, two dots, and a horizontal line — Charlie Brown.

Modigliani works in the same mode: an invitational simplicity for the viewer to enter into. And yet Modigliani managed to capture such a diversity of yourself in his work...

Not to be missed.

So Many Books, So Little Time...

James Wood has savaged some of my favorite authors - and I love him for it! Then, when he finally gets a novel he loves, he falls for it heart and soul. Such is the case with Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Gilead, which he reviews for the NYT Book Review, here (the site also includes a wonderful illustration by Ed Lam). Gilead now joins my ever-growing list of novels I dearly hope to read in the not-too-distant future, which includes Wood's own The Book Against God.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The Incredibles' Achilles' Heel

It's been amusing to see some of the "controversy" provoked by The Incredibles. Rabble has been roused, thanks to this bit of "family entertainment," and the response has by no means been a unified chorus. Depending on your perspective, The Incredibles stirs the pot by being pro-Bush, Post - 9/11, anti-Affirmative Action, etc etc. A reasonable cross-section of these differing opinions can be read here (scroll down to "More Mail"). At the conclusion of this collection, we have a nameless Pixar employee patting himself on the back for producing "a complex, compelling piece of storytelling."

Well, that sort of self-congratulation naturally grates on a mere mortal like myself, and it prompted me to step back and devote a little more thought to this slight film.

The Incredibles is fabulous entertainment, which needs to be recognized, because the ability to conjure the fictive dream is what finally provokes people to make moral claims on behalf of the film. Charming an audience is serious power, folks. And to quote Peter Parker's late Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

I think what prevents The Incredibles from being a great film, however, are those moments where the viewer is distracted from the story. My friend Scott put his finger on just one such moment, here, when Helen Par/"Elastigirl" tells her children, "Remember the bad guys you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys are not like those guys. They won't exercise restraint because you're children. They will kill you if they get the chance." I remember my own discomfort at this grim pep-talk from the mother - replace "Elastigirl" with the ethnicity of your choice and see where the image takes you. But there it is: it didn't distract my girls (the film's ultimate audience), but it distracted me. And I think it highlights a serious narrative and moral flaw in the film.

The intent of Helen Par's admonition is to up the emotional ante by insisting this is not a Saturday morning cartoon - this is real. And for a good stretch of the movie, that is the delightful conceit of the story: what if superheros with superpowers were real? How would they negotiate life with ordinary folk? Could they even succeed at the enterprise - or is this the mission that finally does them in?

I enjoyed the film's light touch on the subject matter. To my eyes, this was a refreshing change from the heavy-handed comic books devoted to this exact same theme in the 80s. Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was probably the most entertaining example of this genre, but a great deal of The Incredibles was lifted right off the pages of Alan Moore's grotty and depressing Watchmen, including Edna Mode's lecture on the perils of cape-wear. But where Moore took a Dickian turn to the left (then left again - and again) to consider the emotional turmoil and understandable psychoses of his god-like characters, Pixar chose to focus on family dynamics.

This is where The Incredibles demonstrates its greatest strength. The Par family provides compelling material, appealing to our own tendency to think our family is surely the most misunderstood in the world, that our kids are, in Garrison Keillor's words, "all above average," and that the world would be a better place if we could exert not just our influence but our complete control over it. When the Pars experience the frustrations of the real world, we laugh, groan, cheer - we're there. And The Incredibles might indeed have amounted to complex story-telling if it had fully fleshed-out this concept.

Unfortunately, The Incredibles abandons the real world shortly after the halfway mark, and performs the cheap moral slight-of-hand we've come to expect from Hollywood. Its answer to the problems it raises is, So long as there are super-villains, the world needs super-heroes. The "normal" problems in the film's first act are immaterial in light of the second act's "super-problems." In effect, Helen Par's speech is the movie's antithesis: The Incredibles is a Saturday morning cartoon - end of story. Making anything more of it is the result of Pixar's half-conceived complications, and the wasted energies of the film's more critical viewers.

What a lost opportunity! Here we are in the real world, with real super-problems that are the result of a great deal of ordinary muddling and malice. We could use a super approach to the ordinary, something we get in the Toy Story movies, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo - but not, alas, in The Incredibles. That still amounts to an "incredible" record from a film studio, however, and perhaps the next Pixar offering will amount to something more than a finely-tuned action movie. In the meantime, I believe I'll join Scott's quest for worthwhile adult cinema (Kinsey, perhaps?).

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Rules of Engagement, by Catherine Bush

It's the end of the 20th Century. Arcadia Hearne is in self-imposed exile in London. In her own modest (dare I say, Canadian?) way, she is reckless with her love. She is drawn toward men with secrets, particularly men with third-world ties and third-world secrets. And she has secrets of her own, which burden her attempts at love.

Her darkest secret is articulated at the story's outset: when she was a younger woman living with her family in Toronto, she was party to a duel. Over her. Pistols at dawn, sort of thing - literally. Over her.

If that doesn't make you stop and scratch your head - if that compels you to click over to Amazon and buy now - go to: you'll love it. As for me, I'm definitely in the head-scratching category. But I will say Catherine Bush's The Rules Of Engagement engaged me. And Bush's weird choice of artistic material (what would a duel look like? how would it affect its protagonists?) works surprisingly well in highlighting larger, seemingly more complex problems.

Bush's concern turns out to be, well, world peace. Using a duel as a plot-device seems a bit wingy on the face of it, but as her narrator points out, until very recent times duels were a common practice in Europe and North America. Respectable citizens of the state engaged in them without a moment's hesitation. Now they seem outlandish. Why? Is it at all conceivable that war itself might someday be thought of as similarly absurd?

Bush's prose is understated, shining an eerie and discomfiting light on an ambitious narrative that could (and sometimes does) lapse into outright melodrama. Melodrama is clearly appealing to both the narrator and the author. Why?

As a reader, I have two inner bookshelves. I like melodrama as much as the next person, and I stock that bookshelf with comics, spec-fic, crime novels, etc. I stock my other shelf with what I’d like to think is less histrionic material: ideas, memoirs, some litter-at-choor. And yet are the two bookshelves so separate? Don't they bleed over with indiscrimate frequency? Why does the ego find itself continually drawn to melodramatic confrontation, like duels – be they intellectual or physical? It's almost as if the ego prefers risking extinction to accepting alienation, a dis-ease which every one of the book's characters suffers: with their geography, each other and themselves. They reach out, they smother, they lash out, they retreat.

The rules of engagement between lovers, cultures, and nation states are difficult to articulate, nevermind abide by; exceptions can always be made. Just when, finally, can we ask the ego to step aside, in aide of survival, or some more sublime, deeply engaged way of being?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Birnbaum Interviews Pelecanos

Identity Theory's Robert Birnbaum interviews my current favorite crime writer, George P. Pelecanos, here. Pelecanos comes across pretty much the way a fan of his might expect. We already know the guy has some kind of work ethic - 12 books in 12 years, producer of independent films, script-writer, etc. He's almost Dickensian that way.

GP clearly won't take crap from critics, either. Responding to his own critics is beneath him; responding to critics of his friends, however ... look out!

And check this out: when you read this exchange -

RB: What does your first draft of a book look like? 900 pages?

GP: My first draft is the draft that goes out the door.

RB: No kidding?

- you can actually hear Birnbaum swallow his teeth! No, wait. That was me...

Friday, November 19, 2004

Rock (Magazines) In A Hard Place

Why does America have (most of) the good rock bands, and the UK all the good rock magazines? Rock-wise, there's precious little entertainment emerging from the British Isles (and don't get me started on U2 - I'd rather hear you drag your toenails over a blackboard while strangling a cat than listen to yet another offering from "the world's last Rock Band"). The current giants of rock mostly reside in the US, if they didn't originate there. But is there a single US rock magazine worth a nickel, or five minutes of your precious bathroom time?

Rolling Stone seems to exist for the sole purpose of holding down the magazine stand. I can't remember the last time I purchased an issue, but it's been well over ten years now. The blurb in my daughter's magazine-drive package said SPIN was "devoted to covering all aspects of youth culture." Youth culture?! I doubt I could think of a better way to alienate two demographics at one go! Blender? By kids, for kids.

Further up the rack we have the relative newcomer, Tracks magazine. "Music Built To Last" is their masthead, which is a larger claim than you can make for the magazine. Imagine Oprah's "O" magazine devoting an issue to rock. Now imagine paying money for it - every month.

Paste Magazine has its heart in the right place. But the writing needs a little more vinegar, or mustard, or ... whisky? Something to up the testosterone level, because the prose is just too kind.

The one American music rag that I still pick up from time to time is Revolver. The writing stable seems to be filled with guys who write as if they're peeved because the editor just interrupted their daily dose of Suicide Girls. People magazine, written by punks.

For the good material, the real deal, the enchilada with the suicide sauce, you have to cross the puddle. Mojo, Q, Uncut ... these publications get it. They implicitly understand that rock has become a nostalgia vehicle, but that rock's most avid consumers don't want to be lumped in with the Beatlemania crowd. Every issue devotes nearly a quarter of its pages to some past chapter in rock, covering familiar ground while throwing in a few salacious details which might have escaped notice at the time, and scanning it all with a narrative eye that's just jaundiced enough to let you off the hook for getting soft in the head. It's a little wink at the aging hipster, telling him, "Aah, you know and I know it wasn't really as good as all that - but it was, wasn't it?" In the meantime, they throw in some contemporary stuff that might stick to the wall, might not. Doesn't matter, so long as you can say "Free The Bees" over a pint glass, and sound like you know what you're talking about.

Too bad those magazines are so bloody expensive. You buy one or two and you've got no money left for that smashing new music they're on about....

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Shake Hands With The Menno

Congratulations to Miriam Toews for winning the Governor General's Award for fiction, with her novel A Complicated Kindness. Here I am, thoroughly mired in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and yet I hear some nameless imp beckon: "Buy and read!"

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Oversights, I've Had A Few...

But then again...?

I've already been taken to task by DarkoVader for not including any Canadian content (which led my wife to wonder if he wasn't moonlighting for the CRTC). My New Testament Scholar Buddy asked if John Prine's Jesus, The Missing Years didn't rate mention (it did, and should probably have dislodged the David Lindley tune).

I'm confident I've missed others as well. There's the "comments" button: name them and claim them, folks!

P.S.: if you're late to the conversation and you'd like to catch up, it's best to start at Song #10.

WP's #1 Song That Still Gets Him Laughing: New Frontier by Donald Fagen

I confess I've heard this song so many times now that I don't chuckle so much as I smile whenever it's played (and at our house, that is at least a weekly occurrence). But as with most songs from Donald Fagen's first solo album, The Nightfly, it shimmers with numerous light moments that had me giggling when I first played it, and it has a depth of perception that holds up to repeated spins. The entire album is sustained by the larger force of laughter - joy - and continues to cultivate within me that peculiar garden of delight.

New Frontier and the album’s title song sit at the center, operating as its yin and yang. And while “Lester the Nightfly” appears as a caustic, emotionally-wounded man whose only consolation is his all-night jazz show, New Frontier introduces us to a much younger Romeo, an unnamed pup who affects a hipster persona to cover his obvious lack of experience. He cheerfully announces “Yes, we’re gonna have a wing-ding/A summer smoker underground” in his father’s bomb shelter, which provides the evening’s theme, and Fagen’s successively artful punch-lines: “We’ve got provisions and lots of beer/The key word is survival on the new frontier.

The anticipated post-apocalyptic landscape looks cheerier by the moment, particularly when an attractive blonde walks in. “She loves to limbo, that much is clear/She’s got the right dynamic for the new frontier.” The singer makes clumsy conversational forays - “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes, I like him too” - returning twice to the song’s bridge where he confesses a heady desire for independence, held in check by crippling indecisiveness.

Incredibly, the blonde sticks around for further advances. He finally proposes spending the night in the bomb shelter, every sci-fi geek’s hokiest fantasy come true. And now the hipster fa├žade begins to fade in the intensity of this encounter, to be replaced by something completely unexpected. “Confess your passion, your secret fear/Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier.” The “new frontier” turns out to be not nuclear holocaust, but something equally unimaginable to our protagonist: intimacy.

It’s anybody’s guess how our protagonist fares. Considering how this song leads into Lester’s blues, it’s not unreasonable to think he’s headed for heartbreak. Indeed, the entire album is a navigation toward, around, and through various forms of heartbreak, and yet it remains remarkably sunny, concluding with Walk Between Raindrops – a tune that, by Fagen’s standards, is uncommonly cheerful. The album’s lyrical heft has the added weight of life’s circumstances. Shortly after the album was released Fagen publicly stated, “I’ve got no more music in me,” and sank into a clinical depression. Fortunately for us all, his claim was somewhat off the mark. One arduous recovery and three albums later, his most recent effort, Steely Dan’s Everything Must Go, has moments that are every bit the equal to this album, giving the listening public what we need to walk between raindrops.

Chuckle-Head: Redux

Friday, November 12, 2004

Chuckle Song 2: Last Chance To Dance Trance (Perhaps), by Medeski, Martin & Wood

I'm probably breaking an unspoken pact with my readers by introducing an instrumental piece at #2 (of dubious genre - just what kind of group are MM&W, anyway?), but the plain fact is this song from Friday Afternoon In The Universe inspires joy and laughter. It doesn't just walk the highwire: it mounts it, then performs slapstick comedy on it. When I first played it for my friend, a virtuoso drummer (and no, he doesn't deliver pizza for a living; he writes code), he burst out laughing, then said, "You can't get away with that unless you're an incredible musician!"

My musical skills are amateurish at best, but here's how I think the song (like so many of MM&W's) works - or "gets away with it." It begins in circus-like fashion by announcing peril: a fudged-up A-minor chord, held open, repeated three times. The groove begins with percussionist Billy Martin and keyboardist John Medeski holding down a rambunctious 4/4 pattern (clearly the triple-minor-threat we were introduced to will have to be resolved), while Chris Wood bumbles around A-minor with his accoustic bass. It's infectious, it's danceable, then without warning Medeski turns on the cheese, laying out a brilliant B-3 organ lounge sound that rings of something you might have heard played between periods of a hockey game, or in your uncle's cluttered basement.

After that, it's all drunken, Chaplinesque excess: a piano solo that spills over, picks up, barks like a dog; percussion that searches out every clattering surface in the room; and a bass line that dances around like a kid in a jumping-castle, but miraculously staying upright until the song's triumphant conclusion: Medeski landing on a properly executed E-minor chord, three times.

But enough of my yakking. Depart for your nearest legal download venue, and pay these guys to perform for your aural pleasure. And if you find I'm wrong on any of the details, by all means, comment. In the words of Homer J. Simpson, "Self-improvement is a passion of mine!"

Chuckle-Head Song #1!

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Chuckle Song #3: Gimme Three Steps, by Lynyrd Skynyrd

The last three songs on this list are the toughest to write about – their pleasures aren’t as easy to articulate as the infectious punch-line guffaw. These three have amorphous qualities that swim in and out of each other’s borders; putting them in order is almost as cruel as naming a favorite child. Nevertheless, Song #1 is my clear fave, while songs #3 and #2 do in fact rest uneasily on a slightly lower plain.

Lynyrd Skynyrd has itself become something of a cultural punch-line, due only to its inescapable and entirely unchosen anthem, Sweet Home Alabama. The recent movie 8 Mile (a questionable, if cleverly-staged Eminem apologia) delivered a back-handed compliment to LS by staging a rap-along to SHA as the song was pouring out the hero’s screen door, into the trailer park. The white hero and his black friend substitute “I Live In A Trailer” to SHA, and take it from there.

The viewer can interpret this scene any number of ways. The most generous take on it might be this is an apt demonstration of and homage to the inherently subversive work of LS, which starts with what seems like a position of self-ridicule, only to highlight the weakness of the original critic. For the moment, all I’ll say to that interpretation is, I have my doubts, but hey: thanks for the olive branch.

Singer, guitar-player, lyricist Ronnie Van Zant mastered a form of rock & roll that we’ve seen precious little of since: the court jester, bubbling over with morbid humor and, in the words of Johnny Rotten, “a sense of distaff” that highlights humanity’s fundamental absurdities. In his short, violently truncated career in the jester’s court, Van Zant punched out one hilarious dispatch after another. Gimme Three Steps was his calling card, originally released on LS’s first album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd. The text is straight-forward enough: set to infectious Southern juke-joint rock & roll, the singer relates an incident when a dance with a girl was interrupted by her gun-totin’ boyfriend. The singer (a “fella with (his) hair colored yella”) wets his pants, the girl and the boyfriend exchange words, and the singer flees. End of story. Except the sub-text is the standard technique of the jester, a rollicking laugh at the singer’s own expense; the pronouncement: “Man, I am such a total loser, don’t you worry about a thing I say!”

And so you listen and laugh at your own expense – because you find you can afford to.

Chuckle-Head Song #2!

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Chuckle Song #4: I Can Tell By The Way You Smell, by Ry Cooder

Blood is slowly returning to the head, but for those unfortunate folks whose blood is frozen in the brain, watching the goings-on of people with flow is an endless torment. I Can Tell By The Way You Smell, written by Walter Davis and performed by Ry Cooder on Get Rhythm, is the lament of just such a person, and it’s filled with the precise observations of the obsessed.

I have to digress, though. I don’t understand why Ry Cooder’s Get Rhythm is savagely disparaged by most Cooderites. I’m as fond of Cooder’s early stuff as anyone else (my all-time favorite is Chicken Skin Music) – for most of his productive career, Cooder’s signature was slowing down the tempo, the better to savor a song’s deliciousness. He rarely “dirties” his guitar sound, keeping the tone high and undistorted, so that his slide solos remain articulately languid, or tense.

Perhaps that’s his unforgivable sin in Get Rhythm (having one track abused by the Tom Cruise yuppies-on-parade vehicle, Cocktail, probably didn’t salve Cooderite anxiety, either). He recorded the disc in the throes of mid-life, driving his slide genius through muddy electric fuzz, while holding back a relentless beat. He capitalized on the new digital recording techniques of the time, threw caution to the wind, and cooked up an album that out-and-out rocks.

ICTBTWYS is the raunchiest song of the bunch, beginning with a goosed-up slide solo that squawks and chirps with indignation, before descending into the thunderously grumpy stomp that drives this roar of high dudgeon. The singer starts by confronting his significant other, who appears before him in very rough shape indeed. “You’ve been doing something wrong,” he declares: “I can tell by the way you smell.”

He eventually implicates the household’s youngsters (“It’s a-run here, mama!/Just look at little sis’”), but before he does, we get a picture of the root of the problem:

And there's grandma and grandpa out on the porches
Must be kidding 'bout her ninety years
Ain't too old, God almighty, just keep shifting them gears
Well, you ain't too old ... doin' the boogie, you ain't too old
I can tell by the way they smell

Usually what grandma and grandpa are up to is their own business, and bully for them, but clearly this is a man who can’t get the blood to leave his brain. We have here a pre-Viagra howl, folks, and if you can’t “do the boogie”, you will at least be able to kick up your heels to this infectious moralistic rant.

Post-note: if Amazon's customer notes are any indication, it seems the critical tide for this disc has turned.

Chuckle-Head Song #3!

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Chuckle Song #5: Girls Got Rhythm, by AC/DC

There’s no formula for genius, which Bon Scott and the Young brothers had in spades. One look at Scott’s lyrics provides ample evidence of cleverness, but as anyone who’s seen This Is Spinal Tap will attest, there is indeed "such a fine line between clever and stupid." AC/DC is about as stoo-pid as you can get, but with their persistence and amplitude, their music finally amounts to a sort of comic genius, akin to the poetic belligerence of Sir Toby Belch.

You could argue that Whole Lotta Rosie is a funnier song, with the title character “weighing in at 19 stone” and taking the mesmerized singer by storm. Girls Got Rhythm gets the laughs from me, however. I won’t bother with any of the lyrics (stupid, stupid, stupid), except the opening line. When Scott sings, “I been around the world,” he swings up on “a-round” in a weird, nursery-song way that makes this head-banging material strangely whimsical. After that, it’s just a matter of inevitable course, as Angus Young pulls out one of his better blues-based solos, bending the strings, and taking his time behind the beat, while drummer Phil Rudd (is there a better name for a rock drummer?) nails down his trademark cymbal template – just give the song a spin and see if the growing cascade of witless cymbal-smashing doesn’t get you giggling, too.

Chuckle-Head Song #4!

Chuckle Song #6: Tu-ber-cu-lucas & The Sinus Blues, by David Lindley

Yikes. Not only is the weekend upon me, it’s nearly done. Time to resort to the brainless chuckles, the yuck-yucks, the “gawrsh, ga-hyuk!” But be forewarned: the blood won't be anywhere near the brain for the next two songs.

David Lindley’s Tu-ber-cu-lucas And The Sinus Blues paints the singer as an inveterate pussy-hound who seems to think every woman in sight is eager to “ball” him. Thankfully for us, he is stricken by the titular ailment, and can only bemoan his fated state of abstinence. Lindley, who looks like Jack Nicholson’s younger, polyester-clad, no-account brother, sings in his usual squeaky, nasal manner, thus contributing to a grand tradition of white trash Shakespearean comedians, a la Hank Williams (uh...when he’s being funny, of course). Cheerful, and danceable fun.

Chuckle-Head Song #5!

Friday, November 05, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #7: Pulled Up, by Talking Heads

Actually, I tend to giggle more when listening to the dope-de-dope "I'm just ordinary folks like you, developing the Neutron Bomb" sentiments of Don't Worry About The Government. But since I've already blogged about that song, I'll take some direction from my friend, the Governor General’s Award-winning New Testament scholar, and devote slot #7 to his personal favorite: Pulled Up.

I've only heard the live version of this song, on The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, and I don't think it could be improved. It's one of David Byrne & Co.'s earlier songs, and has the same XTC-like sing-songy quality of DWATG - set somewhat off-kilter by stacatto, machinegun-like attacks on dualing electric guitars. It all starts innocently enough, though, as a tribute to parents:

Mommy, Daddy come and look at me now
I'm a big man in a great big town
Years ago who would believe it's true
Goes to show what a little faith can do

Alright, let's hear it for good parenting! The cheery sentiment of the music and the opening words starts to come under suspicion, however, when we reach the chorus:

I was complaining, I was down in the dumps
I feel so strong now that you pulled me up
Pulled me up up up up....

...and now Byrne's voice is moving precipitously up the scale, until he's shrieking "UP! UP! UP! UP!" then settling softly back at the bottom, where he murmurs the word some more: "upupup-uuu-up-uuu-up..."

Seems the big man isn't quite as steady on his feet as we might have thought. The second verse finds him grandly considering "all the things I might like to be/I see my name go down in history." Uh-oh. Sure enough, in the final verse the singer is caught in what could either be a Charlie Brown "Being And Nothingness" moment, or the early onset of a psychotic episode (I see the song follows Psycho Killer on 77):

I cast a shadow on the living room wall
Dark and savage with a profile so sharp

In an aside, he again acknowledges the presence of his parents, "Keep all that wonderful food on the table," then squawks, "Don't be in a hurry/I'll eat in a while," before returning to his spastic-man-on-a-balancing-ladder routine. And so it goes: the job of parenting never completely finished....

Chuckle-Head Song #6!

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #8: Haitian Divorce, by Steely Dan

Steely Dan – these guys provoke so many chuckles from me, I just might resort to a “Top 10 Dan” at some future point (which might well alienate my fledgling audience). It’s tough to single out which Dan song tickles my funny-bone most, but a quick survey of song titles off The Royal Scam pretty much guarantees I’ll have to settle on one from that disc.

I first came to Steely Dan quite some time after they’d officially called it quits; still being young and excitable (I was 15 when they released Hey, Nineteen), I devoured their entire oeuvre in a single, hallucinatory Saturday. Their genius seemed uncontestable, so when I opened Citizen Steely Dan and read in the enclosed book all the nasty reviews they’d snickered at and collected over the years, I was gobsmacked. Ten years and countless listening hours later, I can kind of understand where the critical nastiness came from, even if I think it’s ultimately wrong-headed.

It can be disconcerting for rock critics to encounter a musical form that, while clearly produced by rock’s claimed instruments of choice, has more in common with Broadway musicals of the 1940s than it does with the young and earnest rebels of the day. It's not uncommon to see statements like, “Donald Fagan and Walter Becker are the heart and soul of Steely Dan.” Actually, it’s more accurate to say that Fagan and Becker are dueling imps, joined at the brain. If Steely Dan is anything, it’s their commercial brainchild, a musical forum where, against all odds, their carnies, goons, misfits, addicts, losers and deluded freaks come to life via the breath of Fagan & Becker’s combined cleverness (or don’t, if you remain unconverted).

Haitian Divorce was a throw-away, penned in the studio when Fagan and Becker learned that their producer had just come back from a weekend in Mexico with his wife, the sole purpose of which was to procure a cheap divorce. It’s cruel fun to think of the look on this hapless guy’s face, when he first heard lyrics like,

Babs and Clean Willie were in love they said
So in love the preacher's face turned red
Soon everybody knew the thing was dead
He shouts, she bites, they wrangle through the night

In the course of this casual, giddy song, things go from bad to worse for the stormy lovers/quarrelers. Babs flees to some remote (we assume Haitian) hotel, “drinks the zombie from the cocoa shell,” and engages in increasingly ill-advised behavior. When the song’s first bridge emerges, we’re:

At the Grotto
In the greasy chair
Sits the Charlie with the lotion and the kinky hair
When she smiled, she said it all

There follows one of rock’s most remarkable guitar solos, which tracks a dirty, “waa-waa” sound through five chord changes before landing back on its feet. The outcome?

Tearful reunion in the USA
Day by day those memories fade away
Some babies grow in a peculiar way
It changed, it grew, and everybody knew
Who's this kinky so-and-so?

This is your Haitian Divorce

Hmm. Just looking at the naked lyrics doesn't exactly put me in stitches, but I doubt anyone who's heard the song can keep from grinning. Donald Fagan's singing is a queasy admixture of lisping, ironic detachment combined with a nasal projection of genuine emoting. Fagan takes a sort of MAD Magazine pleasure in the discomfort of his characters, and it's impossible not to giggle along. To slip into Alfred E. Newman's vernacular for a moment, you feel like grabbing "Clean Willie" by the polyester lapels and hooting, "Why'd you marry her to begin with - you clod!" And when all is said and done, isn’t laughter the best, most unexpected gift upon completion of one’s divorce?

Chuckle-Head Song #7!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #9: Ain’t That A Kick In The Head, by Dean Martin

There’s an old Robin Williams shtick where God creates Adam, then tells him, “I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news is I’ve given you a brain and a penis. The bad news is I’ve only given you enough blood to run one of them at a time.”

Terrifically funny things happen when the blood leaves a man’s brain and he starts writing lyrics – then sings them. Ain’t That A Kick In The Head, written in 1960 by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy VanHeusen, is lyrically tame by today’s standards, but when sung by Dean Martin, there is absolutely no mistaking the driving force behind it. When Capitol Records first heard it, they nearly put the kybosh on its radio play. Yessirree, the man’s blood is leaving his brain at such a velocity, it’s a miracle he can even form words – and by song’s end, he’s scarcely able!

Exclamation marks! The song begins with one! Before Dino can punctuate the very first line, the snare drum beats him to it: thwap! “How lucky can one guy be?!/I kissed her and she kissed me!” Within seconds, the singer is scrambling for a more potent form of punctuation. The tune barely makes the two-minute mark, but still fits in two bridges and eight bars of musical interlude that seesaw from the dreamy to the wow-wheee! Meanwhile Martin, whose usual singing style was smug insouciance, moves inexorably to a conclusion where all composure must be abandoned. When the song reaches its tumbling, shrieking climax, the cheese-eating grin on Dino’s face gets so wide he can scarcely articulate the words:

She’s telling me we’ll be wed!
She’s picked out a king-size bed!!
I couldn’t feel any better or I’d be sick!!!
Tell me quick!
Boy, ain’t love a kick!!
Tell me quick
Ain’t love a kick ... iiiiiin the heaaaaaaad....

Blood, oxygen, sense all gone. Nothing but the exhausted echoes of a delirious, hilarious song.

Chuckle-Head Song #8!

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #10: A**holes On Parade, by Timbuk3

Full disclosure: in today’s election I am not a voter (read: US citizen), and I’ve heard little from either candidate to compel me to pick a side and beat the drum. Except, except ... nothing gets me cross-eyed faster than rhetoric from the so-called Religious Right. To my mind, W.’s got more in common with Ozzy Osbourne than Jesus Christ: the words issuing from his mouth are either confused, contradictory or profane. Which maybe is as accurate an indicator of the true mettle of presidential material as we're likely to get. People who get that high in the crazed arena of political celebrity aren’t saints, or even “Men of God” - they’re incredible a**holes.

But feel free to write that sentiment off as the brain-damaged ravings of a former headbanger. Lately I’ve been playing the music from the glory of my adolescence and young adulthood – punk, heavy metal, grunge – and the one thought that keeps recurring is, “Some of this stuff sure could stand an injection of humor.” Re: heavy metal, you could argue the genre is inherently humorous, but you’re only going to find one metal song on this list. And despite a sentiment that, on the face of it, converges with metal nihilism, this is not that song, and Timbuk3 is not that band. But the first time I heard them play A**holes On Parade, I laughed, and I’m laughing still.

Timbuk3 was a band pretty much doomed from its inception. They billed themselves as, “A man, a woman, and a rhythm machine,” which, although rife with pornographic possibilities, was in fact literally the case. This husband-and-wife team’s electric violin/guitar/drum machine formula achieved one-hit-wonder status with The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades, a song dripping with venomous Southern irony, but embraced by the same cheerful yahoos who thought Springsteen’s Born In The USA was an anthem of nationalist triumph and pride. Hubby/wife acts sometimes survive if they churn out sunny love songs (Captain & Tenille), but almost inevitably end in disaster if they choose the road of caustic social commentary.

Timbuk3 were not to be dissuaded from their cause, however, even if it meant scant airplay. For most of Timbuk3’s career, A**holes On Parade was strictly live material. In fact, I first heard it at a Bob Dylan concert. Timbuk3 opened, chiefly singing stuff from the newly released Eden Alley. The stage seemed to be lit for someone else, and the duo were having trouble winning over the crowd. They finally lit into a song they guaranteed would never become the next I Gotta Wear Shades, and with that, the audience became theirs. The laughs began with the first line, and got louder as the song progressed. When they finally proclaimed, “A**holes get elected/Because a**holes get to vote,” my friend and I exchanged one of those looks of completely unexpected joy.

That particular line has become one of my cris de couer. I think it offers a surprisingly forgiving perspective. No-one is exempted from this parade, especially if you’re prone to name-calling. Heck, that’s the doctrine of fallen humanity right there! So, returning to my brothers (and sisters) among the Religious Right, I should gently offer that I might be less prone to ballistics if their spittle-laden morality rhetoric contained a modicum of (preferably humorous) self-recognition. From this perspective, the widely-reported “Mr. President, I finally feel that God is in the White House” comment from a Republican supporter could be amended from the potentially idolatrous to the more theologically astute, “Mr. President, I would like to publicly acknowledge that you are, like myself, a first-class a**hole, but here, tonight, I am tremendously grateful to you for publicly acknowledging the value of my vote.” Such a sentiment rings with a truth that might convert even me.

Complete lyrics are viewable here.

Chuckle-Head Song #9!

My First Top 10 List

Is there a better day than November 2, 2004, to inaugurate this blog’s first Top 10 List? I think not. Out here in Whisky-land, it’s gray and rainy, while due south the rhetorical sludge is flying fast and furious, as emotions, hopes and fears are invested in a vote that seems the embodiment of ambiguity and confusion. To counter the attendant fury and despair, I begin counting down my Top 10 Songs That Still Get A Laugh Out Of Me.
Hold onto your sides...
Late Readers: For those who enjoy the fabricated suspense of Top-10 Countdowns, I link to the next song at the end of every entry. If you're like me, and are disinclined to exacerbate your repetitive strain woes, just click here, and scroll right to the bottom. Cheers!

Chuckle-Head Song #10!