Monday, August 22, 2005

Gently down the stream...

As I have said before, I am not particularly good at sharing personal details. Though I have thought about creating a blog that would deal more directly with my own life (and actually even started one a long time ago – it’s out there somewhere if you look for it), I have to admit that I’m not all that comfortable with the idea. But my friend Jessica, who has a very open and direct blog about her life here, has thrown down the gauntlet for a series of What-I’m-Into-Right-Now lists. Fine, I’ll bite. (Beware the mixed metaphor or you might end up biting a gauntlet. Ouch.) Here are a few of the things I’ve been interested in lately. Nothing all that new, by the way, but see if you can follow the path of associations.

1. Bruce Campbell

Okay, this was kind of forced upon me by circumstances. I just wrote a small piece about the actor which will be appearing later this week. And by the way, is there anything quite as intimidating as being told by an editor to “just make it light and funny”? And having just watched “Bubba Ho-Tep”, you can see where that might lead to ….

2. Elvis

Okay, granted, there’s never really a time when Elvis isn’t part of the cultural landscape, like it or not, And the current interest actually predates my viewing of “Bubba Ho-Tep”. I was listening to recordings of the 1969 concert appearances recorded for the documentary “That’s the Way it Is” and have an increased respect for the much-derided final part of Elvis’ career, the white-jumpsuit performer of his final six or seven years. This was the period that produced his best movie (the 1972 “Elvis on Tour”) and what are, in my opinion, his two best recordings, “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love”. What’s interesting about the “That’s the Way it Is” performances is that they show Elvis at a crossroad. . The movies of the 1960s had brought in large paychecks, but you could sense that the cycle of increasingly bad vehicles like “Easy Come, Easy Go’ and “Stay Away Joe” was just going to get worse. The music industry had changed. As the FM vs. AM chasm widened, one thing was pretty much certain; Elvis didn’t have a “Sgt. Pepper” in him. While he would still find a place on the top 40 charts from time to time on the strength of his name alone, making records wasn’t something that particularly interested him. His management and handlers had made the process so difficult and conflicting that studio time was regarded mostly as a dull obligation. What else could he do? So he returned to live performances and created the Vegas persona that would dominate the remainder of his public life. On “That’s the Way It Is”, it hasn’t solidified yet. No “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, no “American Trilogy”, no karate moves. And while the hipper-than-thou crowd would deride his song selection and the whole Vegas showroom ambience, Elvis’ playlist – everything from current hits of the day like “Sweet Caroline” to torch song standards like “Love Letters” - is perhaps most interesting for it’s absences. When he performs his own hits like “Love Me Tender” or “Hound Dog”, it’s almost out of a combined sense of duty and embarrassment, as if he suspects that both he and his audience have outgrown the hysteria of the 1950s. Listening to him work his way through familiar numbers, you sense that Elvis is less interested in establishing or living up to his own legend and is simply trying to function as a professional singer, subtly leading the band and actually trying to sell the songs as sincerely as possible. Given the essentially tragic and chaotic nature of his personal life, the stage became the one place where he still had some kind of control.

3. Billboard yearly Top 100 lists

I’ve been downloading collections of “Billboard’s Top 100” for various past years, and reading over the lists, especially those prior to 1975, a few things stand out. First, of course, is the great sense of variety that Top 40 radio once offered. It was a format where Bob Dylan could sit alongside Perry Como, as did Jerry Butler and the Ohio Express, the Rolling Stones and the Singing Nun. Of course, there was a lot of garbage: If ever a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law could be found, it’s in these charts. But there’s also a sense of openness and experimentation that today’s overly formatted radio could certainly use.

4. Simon Pegg and “Spaced”

I finally got around to watching “Shaun of the Dead” a few weeks ago and discovered that it really was as good as everyone had told me. So I became interested in “Spaced”, a short-lived British tv series from the same source and featuring many of the same players. The premise of the show is that two people pretend to be married in order to get a decent apartment. But f that sounds a little too “Three’s Company”, the real premise of “Spaced” is no premise at all. The apartment and the pretense are just centering points for episodes that cover everything from alien invaders to performance art. Evidently many jokes in “Shaun” are references to “Spaced” episodes (my favorite is when Pegg and his zombie-hunting team run into an identical team headed by his former roommate) – but don’t that let that dissuade you from checking it out. Alas, I’ve only been able to find the first season of “Spaced” (I think there were only two…) and am hungry for more.

5. CS Blues

I’m being polite and using only the truncated version of the title of photographer Robert Frank’s fascinating documentary about the Rolling Stones’ 1972 America tour. The film faced immediate distribution problems and has generally only been available for screening when Frank was actually present. (In the late 70s, the Stones attempted to suppress it altogether, concerned that its relentless depiction of sex, drugs and rock and roll would work hurt Keith Richards’ defense against drug charges in Canada Frank, who also shot the cover photos for “Exiles on Main Street”, was evidently given free access to every part of the tour, (– and one could just as easily ask why, after “Gimme Shelter”, would they even give a filmmaker such a free rein in recording ttheir backstage behavior?) and while this is by no means a conventional concert film, it provides a pretty strong portrait of all of the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. As the tour progresses, a sense of decadence-for-it’s-own-sake takes over, and Frank’s unrecoiling camera records it all not only as a testament to access, but as a parallel to the dark vision of Nixon’s re-election, which provides a backdrop as seen through tv news reports.

6. Sigur Ros
Okay, I have to admit that 18 months ago I had never heard of Sigur Ros until about a year and a half ago when I went to a Kronos Quartet concert that featured an arrangement of one of their songs. , After that, I started running across references to them everywhere, They’re an Icelandic band with an ethereal quality that sounds something like a cross between the ambient albums Brian Eno made in the 1980s and Radiohead. Of course, the songs are all in Icelandic, so I have no idea what any of them are about, but the music is simultaneously scary and majestic. Their new album is called “Takk” and is well worth a listen.

7. Wong Kar-Wai’s “2046”
Wong Kar-wai’s films are hard to explain, hard to absorb in a single viewing and far too melancholy for all tastes. Fine. But “2046” , while probably not in the same league as “In the Mood For Love”, is a haunting footnote/appendix to the earlier film, a disturbingly believable look at failed love and other misunderstandings….

8. Sugar Free Popsicles

Do I really have to explain?

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