Friday, April 26, 2013

"If I Could Play The Blues Like They're Playing Me" - Wayne Hancock's Wild RIDE

Spring is taking its cussed time, up north of the 44 at least. It's been too cold and rainy to do a proper cleaning of the car, but when that day finally arrives I expect I'll still be listening to this year's Car Wash Soundtrack: Ride by Wayne Hancock.

Hancock is new to me, but it sounds like he's been around forever. Part of this is due to his sound, which hews to an earlier, considerably less processed iteration of country music — honky-tonk, or juke-joint music, really. Hank Williams' grandson, Hank III, claims “Hancock has more Hank Sr. in him than either I or Hank Williams Jr.” an appraisal that is not entirely disingenuous. Hancock's songs of heartbreak have a similar disconcerting candour that leaves you wondering how delivery so muscular can be so unabashedly fragile as well.

That muscularity, force and confidence is the engine of the project, and it's fuelled with high-octane licks from some mighty fine guitarists. A number of songs have three of them trading rockabilly jams. I'm a sucker for the style, and this is the sweetest I've heard it played in many years.

“If I could play the blues like they're playing me,” moans Hancock early in the record. He might not have the upper hand on 'em, but he sure does give 'em a ride. As soon as the weather warms, I'll be rolling down the windows to Wayne for sure.

The album site (Bloodshot Records) is here, and I think the snippet from The Big Takeover review* is spot-on. Hancock's own site is here.

* “It doesn't hurt either that each song is filled with instrumental breaks from three guitarists who let loose and trade off in styles that are at once respectful of the vintage music and as demented as any rock guitar breaks…Despite the fact that there's no drummer on this record** it has the energy of the first Rolling Stones record but taking on rockabilly rather than American blues.”

** Huh. Hadn't really noticed the absence of drummer until it was pointed out to me. Had you asked, I probably would've sworn there was someone smacking the trap behind these fellas. Goes to show ya.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Congrats, RUSH

I was going to let the occasion slip by without comment — if getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame was a non-starter for RUSH, I figured it was a non-starter for me, too. But Geddy Lee says it makes his mother happy, and that makes me happy, too. Congratulations, Mrs. W. You must be very proud.

"So now we're, like, famous rockers, eh?"

The CBC and various FM radio hold-outs saw fit to celebrate the day by putting “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit Of Radio” on constant rotation. I got a little tired of that, even if I understood the reasoning. Those are the songs that have reached near-universal ear-worm status. Up here, it's common practice to hear their opening bars before the puck gets dropped at NHL games.

Also, those two songs probably signify, more than any other, the “a-ha!” moment for most RUSH fans — that moment when it first occurred to the listener that rock 'n' roll could be so much more, and still rock. And, more to the point, that these three guys had something incredible going on, and were capable of rewarding decades' worth of attention.

Still, singling out two songs from such a massive catalogue strikes me as a shame, especially when Clockwork Angels, their most recent album, is one of their very best. Were I a DJ I'd have played “The Garden” a time or two. It strikes me as a retrospective mission statement, and a loving summary of the forces that sustain us.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Of Indeterminate Legacy

If someone leads a literary profile with, “The Greatest Novelist You Haven't Read” I'm already on the defensive. If said novelist turns out to be someone I have in fact read, defensiveness turns to scorn.

Dear Literary Critics and your Editors -- just . . . please, for one nano-second, consider the day we live in: the task of becoming “well read,” never mind “deeply read,” is by any measure impossible. So if I, a near-anonymous blogger of scant ambition in the hinterlands of Canada, have read James Salter (three books and counting), what accounts then for your prestige press blanket assessment that the 88-year-old Man Of Letters, is “underappreciated” (Alex Heimbach); “revered” but, alas, not “famous” (Nick Paumgarten); “has not been widely embraced as a great writer,” whose “books have never quite caught on” (Katie Roiphe), etc.

"Maybe if I hang with movie stars I'll be appreciated, and widely embraced."

To me it reads as a lazy way of giving the old man a sentimental send-off.

If, in the movie business, it is true that “Nobody knows anything,” the corollary for the publishing business is surely, “Nobody gets what they deserve.” And precisely what accolades and attention Salter's material “deserves” is a matter of more debate than the laurels above might suggest. Just for starters, both Vivian Gornick and Jonathan Dee cautiously express some reservations.

Cautious reservation strikes me as entirely appropriate. It's easy to get a little giddy when reading Salter: The sex! The glamour! The ennui! With Salter the first blush is always the loveliest — best to acknowledge that observation and move along. It is the return — to the memory, and to Salter's prose — that provokes doubts.

Consider just one quote that Heimbach admires: “The great chandeliers hang silent.” Evocative, or absurd? Honestly, I thought “evocative” the first time I read it, then “absurd” when I returned to it. One might argue that Salter was “slumming it” in People magazine, but how about, “They made love like it was a violent crime” (a favourite of Roiphe's)? Best to move on (to Fagen and Becker, perhaps).

Or how about this line, from Salter's memoir, Burning The Days: “The great engines of the world do not run on fidelity”? There are many ways to read a line like that, the most complimentary being, perhaps, as a Salterian mission statement: “What do the 'great engines of the world' run on?” Another might be, “The great engines of the world run on infidelity.” Huh. Okay, now I'm wondering how we should go about defining these “great engines of the world,” whether they're something that invite any sort of definition at all, or if they're just a metaphor, or vague phantom enticing our writer to make bold declarations.

The line could also just be Salter's poncey way of proclaiming “I been a baaaaaaaaad widdow boy!” That's a simpler, perhaps simple-minded, reading. But the fact that Salter proceeds to queue up accounts of screwing around on the wife (sex! glamour! ennui!) does little to discourage this reading.

So this reader never quite shakes the notion that Salter's books finally amount to advertisements for himself: “I'm James Salter — and you're not.” Not that that's a bad thing. He's done a magnificent job of being James Salter — much better than I would have. I just happen to prefer, say, Richard Hell's straightforward astonishment at his capacity for self-indulgence over Salter's ennui and innumerable light metaphors. Somehow Hell just reads more honestly — and sometimes a slim volume of blunt honesty goes further in establishing a legacy than might an entire library of well-turned phrases.


When it comes to literary legacies, I defy anyone to conjure up one weirder than H.P. Lovecraft's. The man's prose is awful: florid, overwritten, wildly off-key. And yet it inspires its own occult orders, blockbuster movies, and cultural memes galore. And now: serious philosophical consideration. The brute power of a well-conceived idea, it seems, can overcome its spectacularly inept expression.

If you haven't yet read any Lovecraft, I strongly urge you to head straight for SelfMadeHero's comic books. Lovecraft anthologies Vol 1 and 2 and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are terrific adaptations vastly superior to the work that they draw from.

And yet, and yet . . . there is something about a reader conjuring the inconjurable that makes the experience so much more unsettling. Here's an idea: read 'em both, and decide for yourself which is more disturbing.


Roger Ebert is gone, but his legacy is likely to grow, for a bit longer at any rate. His written meditations on movies are likely to be referred to for as long as the applicable movies remain of interest. As for his not-exclusively-devoted-to-the-movies material, it's anybody's guess.

That was the stuff I most enjoyed reading, though. His blog, especially in the years after he lost his voice, was as vigorous and wide-ranging as you'd expect: movies and life-around-the-movies of course, but also childhood memories, ruminations on passing eras, and plenty of thoughts on religion, politics, and anything else that mattered to him. The politics got him a heap of “Stick to the movies, Roger” snark. As if. You didn't have to be a close reader to see that even his movie reviews couldn't “stick to the movies.”

I've sometimes thought he embodied the best of the '60s: he always seemed up for a good “happening.” He sat at the feet of Pauline Kael, played chess with The Duke, gamely followed Lee Marvin around when he was stinking drunk, and later when he sobered up. But he was far too impressively invested in-the-moment to be a '60s artifact. Al Gore might have invented the internet, but Roger Ebert mastered it. His club and the “far flung correspondents” he attracted kept the Happening very much alive.

“Invested in the moment,” though, that's the quality that kept me coming back, even to exuberant reviews of mediocre movies. That guy was alive to possibilities in a way that seemed attainable, and well worth emulating. I can't imagine a day when I won't silently ask, “I wonder what Roger would think?”

“Roger” now that's a legacy.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

If You See It, You Might As Well Admit It: Spring Breakers

1942-2013: Thanks, Roger. God love you.

“The only American movie that matters right now,” sez The Globe & Mail's Sarah Nicole Prickett, of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. I'd followed enough of the pre-release hoo-ha to think this claim might actually have some substance to it. So, without reading beyond the headline,* I bid the ladies of the house farewell, then hopped into the car and took off for the nearest multiplex to check it out for myself.

Not that I admitted to anyone what I was about to see. Caution before disclosure seemed a prudent strategy. And, sure enough, about 15 minutes after the lights went down I was mentally scrolling over the list of movies playing around me, considering plausible alternatives to the flick I was actually watching. The important thing to remember, I thought, is that no-one should ever, ever know I have seen this movie.

At that early point in the movie Korine is splashing every possible “Spring Break” fantasy (or nightmare, depending on your POV) across the big screen in super-bright, super-garish pastels. Boobs, bottoms and bongs. Girls drinking hooch by the bucket, girls fellating popsicles, girls doubling down on the glass pipe. So far, so very grade 9 — minus the violent vomiting fits, of course, and those anxious shuddering crying jags that take over once you've crossed seven or eight borders you didn't know were there.

Korine seemed to be re-fetishizing already over-fetishized objects for the YouTube generation — an aesthetic I found rough, prurient and unpleasant. On the ride down I had silently joked with myself that what this movie probably needed was a middle-aged guy in the audience, to complete the creepy vibe. Now I wondered if I'd get so much as a second glance had I worn a trench coat and left my pants at home.

I stayed put, though, because Korine had dropped — like anvils from a balloon — plenty of signifiers that this film was SERIOUS, man. It starts in a college classroom where the prof speaks earnestly of how the Greatest Generation took on the challenge of the American Civil Rights Movement. Next we witness a youth group of Holy Rollers worshipping Jesus, with one of the girls reluctantly participating. She's also the first to bail when things get a little scary — and her name is Faith! Etc., etc.

What finally mesmerized me beyond the images was the dialogue, which from the git-go seemed a little off-sync with what was happening on-screen. Every utterance is earnest, and skirts (like everything else in the movie) dangerously close to camp. The talk about how beautiful it all is, and “How much I love you Mom/Grandmom” and how there are “good changes taking place inside” all seems like it might fit with the action (if the characters are, in fact, as impermeably deranged as they appear to be), but also seems off-puttingly incongruous to it. It's like riding a bicycle with a chain that can't quite find the gear it's supposed to be on, then realizing that's how this bicycle has been built. It makes for a weird, discombobulating ride, lemme tell you.

When the show was over the four young fellas** down the aisle from me loudly declared this, “The lamest movie ever.” But they liked James Franco's character, Alien, and certainly weren't complaining during the titty-shots. They also clapped and hooted when Alien boasted of having Scarface play on constant repeat, 24/7, so I'm guessing they were hoping for a movie more like DePalma's, only with lots and lots of super-hot babes.

The movie's conclusion, though, is the studied antithesis of Scarface, so here's the obligatory SPOILER ALERT: rather than holing up, getting high and waiting for the inevitable siege, the girls goad Alien into taking the action to the drug-lord he's been inconveniencing. When they show up at the lair, Alien takes a bullet in the face before he can fire a single shot, while the babes in bikinis and balaclavas pad about and dispatch one (very large, very black, very well-armed) enforcer after the next, before locating the gangsta in question and shooting him, too — all with a single clip of bullets in their guns. END SPOILER.

It's all framed in a matter-of-fact style, with all the tension of a video game on cheat code. In other words, if you came to this movie hoping your jones for Redemptive-Cathartic Violence might get stroked and put to bed, well . . . dude — you are being mocked. Lest there be any doubt, the girls phone home and, in dreamy tones, talk about how they're “ready to get serious about their studies, now.”

Such a withering excoriation of that particular trope could not come at a better time. And there are so many others Korine and his girls tuck into — and plenty of interpretations as to what it all means. It's all snotty, brash, bright and loud, making Tarantino's late indulgences look like something from Clint Eastwood's declining years. Some viewers might have fun, some might be perplexed, sooner or later most will feel insulted.

As for me, it's been years since I last left a movie and puzzled this much over “why this and not that?” questions. And darned if I'm not thinking Spring Breakers really might be “the only American movie that matters right now.”

*Prickett's essay is very good. Bonus: if you read it, and skip the movie, you'll feel no shame.

**After the preview for the Jackie Robinson biopic was over, I heard, “Ima see that one, yo.” Sincerely said, so far as I could tell. Need I add that these guys were as white as the driven snow?