Friday, October 31, 2014

A Dance With The King

I've read three Stephen King novels. Not because I wanted to, but because, at three separate times, I had friends who insisted I read one of his titles because it was so great.  After checking out these highly popular books, I can say he's very good at what he does, but what he doesn't isn't necessarily the kind of thing I want to read.

On the other hand, a few years back I read On Writing, his excellent little book that was part autobiography, part advice on a craft at which he's made millions.  Then I saw some of his writing on pop culture in a column in Entertainment Weekly, and found it entertaining. So when I spied Danse Macabre--a 1981 survey by King on the world of horror over the past 30 years--in my local library, I checked it out.

It's a mixed bag.  He certainly had some insights--if he doesn't, who would?--but not enough to sustain 400 pages.

The reason it goes back, for the most part, 30 years is because it's really a review of the world of horror in the life of King, who was born in 1947.  Yet, after he starts with a bit of autobiography, he goes a little further back, looking at three books that helped create modern horror: Dracula, Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (this chapter was adapted from an earlier essay, which might explain its inclusion).  According to King, these works live not just because of countless adaptations, but because there's something there to begin with.  Each represent a part of the world of horror, and did it in a definitive way: Dracula has the monster outside us, Frankenstein, the monster we create, and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, the monster within.

King also see three levels in his field.  The highest reaction is terror, the next is horror, and the lowest is revulsion.  Not that he's against revulsion--King is in favor of whatever works.

King then survey the past thirty years of horror in radio, movies, TV and literature.  Radio is almost a footnote, since King was raised after its golden age, but he can still remember listening to scary stories as a kid.  Radio's advantage over TV and movies is simple--the horror is envisioned by the listener, and each can come up with the worst they can imagine.  There's often a letdown in the visual arts when you throw open the door and show the monster--radio never has to deal with that. (And King is a big believer in showing the monster.  Yes, you can spend a lot of time hinting at it, but if you don't finally open the door, at least a bit, you're cheating.)

As for TV, King mostly gives it the back of his hand. Movies are bad enough, but TV is a compromise on top of a compromise. He certainly watches it--the title of the chapter is taken from Harlan Ellison--"The Glass Teat," and has some things to say about shows such as Thriller, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone (which he doesn't like as much as you'd think), Dark Shadows and even Kolchak: The Night Stalker, but you feel his heart isn't in it.

Movies are a bit better, and there are classics, like The Thing, Night Of The Living Dead and The Exorcist and a number of others, but he shows surprising enthusiasm for some titles such as The Amityville Horror, Prophecy, The Stepford Wives and X--The Man With The X-Ray Eyes.

He finally gets to modern books and you can tell this is what he really cares about.  King was, and is, famously prolific, but he's already read widely and deeply--I'm guessing he sets aside several hours a day to read, not necessarily for his craft, but because he can't help himself.

He discusses a bunch of modern horror novels at great length, including Ghost Story, The Haunting Of Hill House, Rosemary's Baby, The Body Snatchers, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Shrinking Man. I haven't read any of these books--as you might have guessed, I don't generally read horror--but I know all these titles from their movie adaptations.

While King certainly cares about these books (in general he's unhappy with the lack of respect horror writers get), he could have cut this chapter in half and made it twice as strong.  Too often he goes off on tangents, quotes authors at great length (some of whom have written him personally for the book) and repeats ideas we've already heard.  Though I'm guessing if you're a fan of horror, and have read these books, this section will be of great interest. (I don't read much horror, and yet I find I've seen hundreds of horror films.  This may be because I have different standards in literature and cinema, or it might I've seen so many movies I couldn't help but see a bunch of horror titles, even though it's one of my least favorite genres.  Whereas with a novel, you've got to decide to read it--you don't passively catch one in a few hours.)

One thing you notice about King--he's a story man.  He may appreciate style, but the plot has to be there first.  Aristotle wrote that story comes first, even above character, and King agrees.  The trouble with a lot of reviewers, according to King, is they downplay plot as the part the unwashed masses love. Critics go over a piece again and again until there's no surprises left, so the character, the style, the tone, the symbolism, matter more.  As far as King is concerned, everything is subservient to story--without it, you've got a car with no engine.

Ultimately, he asks, why do we consume so much horror? And why do people like him write it?  He doesn't believe in a pop psychology "I was scared by something at three" explanation.  But he does believe we're attracted to the genre because it helps us face insanity--we see the worst, and survive (even if the characters in the book don't always).  Horror often starts with a rational, Apollonian world only to have it invaded by an uncontrollable Dionysian craziness that we can't always hold down.  It happens enough in the reality--to deal with it in fiction can be exciting, but also, finally, make us feel safer (in some cases).

It's been over thirty years since he first wrote this. Maybe it's time for a follow-up.  Not sure what he thinks of the literary horror field (which he has dominated), but I bet he'd be more impressed with what TV's up to.  So Steve, take off a few months between your latest bestseller and write something I might read.

Have A Fun Orange And Black Day

It's that spooky time of year again.  No, not the election. You know what.

So let's have our annual collection of spooky songs.





Thursday, October 30, 2014

News of the recursive

Google’s New Computer With Human-Like Learning Abilities Will Program Itself

Big deal. I've been doing this for decades.

Now, when Brin and what's his name sell their controlling shares to a computer, I'll be impressed.

Jimmy, We Hardly Knew Ye

I'm a big fan of Jimmy Stewart so when I saw a new biography of him at the library--Michael Munn's Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind The Legend--I checked it out.

It's quite a career.  After appearing on Broadway in a number of shows, he signed a contract with MGM in the mid-30s.  He learned his craft doing supporting work in a fair number of films--often interesting ones like Wife vs. Secretary, Born To Dance and After The Thin Man. But from the start you could see he had something.  He wasn't shockingly handsome, like Gary Cooper or Cary Grant, or impossibly masculine, like Clark Gable, but he managed to be both an average guy and someone special at the same time.  A pretty good trick.

In a few years he was a lead, doing fine work in titles like Vivacious Lady, The Shopworn Angel, You Can't Take It With You, Made For Each Other and It's A Wonderful World.  By the late 30s he was a major star, and I think in this period he made his greatest films--Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Destry Rides Again, the unsurpassable The Shop Around The Corner and The Philadelphia Story (for which he won an Oscar).

The came the war and, like so many Stewart men before him, he enlisted, even as Louis B. Mayer begged him to stick around.  He flew many mission and rose high in the ranks.  When he returned to movies four years later there were plenty of new stars and it wasn't clear if there was still a place for him. Yet somehow he managed to do more challenging work than any other big name from the pre-war era. (He also became, with the help of agent Lew Wasserman, the first actor to demand a percentage of his films, changing Hollywood forever.)

To begin with, there was It's A Wonderful Life.  Done with his early favorite director Frank Capra, it's probably his best performance.  But though it's now a classic, it flopped in 1946. For a few years he had trouble finding his footing--he even went back to Broadway to take over the lead in the hit comedy Harvey.  There was also his first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock--the experimental Rope--which didn't work.  Still, this was a new Stewart, and he was starting to show a darker side on screen than we'd seen before.

Then with Winchester '73 he started his famous series of Westerns with director Anthony Mann.  The films revolutionized the genre and revitalized his career.  Others in the series include Bend Of The RiverThe Naked Spur and The Far Country. Mann also directed him in other movies, such as The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command. Unfortunately they had a falling out and never worked again after The Man From Laramie in 1955. (On the other hand, he became good friends with Henry Fonda again around this time after falling out during the HUAC era--Stewart was Right, Fonda was Left.)

Stewart also worked with other major directors, above all Hitchcock.  Though Rope had been an unpleasant experience, the next film--equally experimental--was Rear Window, much more satisfying and a hit.  Then they made The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo, the latter a flop but today well-regarded (or I'd say insanely well-regarded, since it's recently been voted the greatest film of all time and I don't even think it's that good).

There was also Call Northside 777 with Henry Hathaway, The Greatest Show On Earth (winner of the Best Picture Oscar for some reason) with Cecil B. DeMille, The Spirit Of St. Louis (a huge flop about Lindbergh that some now like) with Billy Wilder, Anatomy Of A Murder with Otto Preminger and The Flight Of The Phoenix with Robert Aldrich.  Then there were three films he made with John Ford, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In addition, he made hits like The Stratton Story, Broken Arrow and Harvey.  But starting around the 60s, Stewart was getting older and found himself passed over for top roles.  Some of the films he made then did alright, and it's always nice to see him on screen, but he wasn't quite the star he'd been.  By the 70s he started working regularly in TV and in the 80s and 90s was mostly retired from show business.

That's the story, and Munn gets it across, and that's about the best you can say for the book.  He puts the basic facts out there, and has some inside information, but the book is poorly written--or should I say compiled, since he relies on so many lengthy quotes that it's closer to an oral history.

Munn is a British writer who's done quite a few actors' biographies, though his reputation is not of the highest order--he allegedly fills his books with rumors, though I couldn't say.  At least it's true as a young man on the entertainment beat he got to know Stewart and his wife Gloria in the 70s, so he had many lengthy interviews to refer to.

This book came out in America recently but it was released over there in 2006.  You might think the British angle wouldn't matter, but it shows up every now and then in odd ways.  For instance, Munn mentions more than once that Stewart was sort of racist.  He doesn't actually prove it so much as have people suggest it, but his discussion seems lacking.  Perhaps the charge of racism doesn't sting so much in Britain, so he can bring it up casually, rather than doing the proper research to say something more definitive.

And then you get those different spellings.  You may not think it would make much difference, but when a great flier like Jimmy Stewart is taking his first trip in an "aeroplane" it feels weird. And when someone is talking about how African-Americans used to be referred to as "coloureds" it's weird squared.  Then there's Munn quoting Stewart saying that John Ford lost interest in movies and instead "liked to talk about his days in the navy, or about sport." I guess I should be lucky that when Munn talks about Stewart's weaknesses as a schoolboy he doesn't quote Stewart as saying "I was never good at maths."

There are other potentially British-flavored moments, such as when Munn feels it necessary to note that Stewart's college Princeton is highly prestigious.  And sometimes there are mistakes, such as when Ed Sullivan is spelled "Sullavan"--an error an American entertainment writer probably wouldn't make.  Though in general there's poor editing--at one point Stewart's character in Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd, is given the first name "Howard."

Munn starts with a bit of family history, and Stewart's early days, which are interesting (and I assume correct).  Turns out Jimmy was a lady killer even before he was famous.  There was just something that drew them in--almost seemed like he couldn't help it.  In his early acting days, he worked closely with best friend Henry Fonda, Joshua Logan and Margaret Sullavan.  He fell in love with Sullavan and she with him, but they never married.  Munn theorizes she put her career first and knew a marriage wouldn't work out (and it didn't with future husbands).  She was the great love of his life (with the possible exception of his wife Gloria), and she haunts the book, all the way up to her death--a likely suicide, in 1960.  She would go on to marry Fonda, and soon after divorce him.  Munn believes Stewart wouldn't marry her after that because it would have hurt their friendship.  In any case, Sullavan was the first of the group to make it in Hollywood, and she'd go on to star in four films with Stewart, helping him out in his early days.

Stewart never thought much about acting as a career in his early days. He studied to be an architect.  But he was an entertaining sort of guy--who could play the accordion, which somehow helped--and he backed into it. Even back then, in his smallest roles, he had a presence.  He and Fonda roomed together in New York trying to make it on Broadway. Once again, the women were all over them.  And then when Stewart became a star, he had affairs with several of his leading ladies, including Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers and Marlene Dietrich.  He didn't settle down until he was in his forties, marrying beautiful socialite Gloria Hatrick.  She had two boys from a previous marriage whom he helped raise (one died in Vietnam) and she bore him two daughters as well.

Munn's "truth behind the legend" is often the least interesting part of the book--much of it deals with Jimmy's secret work with the FBI.  Stewart hated gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, wanting them run out of Hollywood, and as a patriotic American who'd fought bravely in the war, was happy to work with J. Edgar Hoover and vice versa.  But Hoover was fighting against communists, and left organized crime alone. Munn's theory (presented as fact) was that the mafia had proof of Hoover's homosexuality, so the FBI looked the other way when it came to the mob.  Perhaps this is true, but then Munn also implies that the Mafia was involved in the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, so I'm not sure if he can be trusted.

Another "truth" behind the legend is that Stewart could get tremendously angry.  Usually he was good-natured, but when pushed too far he could get volcanic.  I believe this, since anyone who's seen his post-War movies knows the dark and bitter side he could show. Yet another "truth" I already knew was that Stewart worked hard at making his character seem artless.  He believed acting was a craft, something one should always be working on.  Many called him a natural actor, and believed he was just playing himself.  He had natural talent, yes, and rarely played outside a certain zone (didn't do accents, for example), but that "natural" style was developed through years of hard work.

If I had read other books on Stewart, I'd tell you which ones to check out.  But my advice, if you want to know about him, is to try someone else before you try Michael Munn's book.  It's not terrible, but I have to believe there's something better out there.

Somebody To Love

Grace Slick turns 75 today.  She was a voice that, once heard, you couldn't forget.  (She also went to the same finishing school as Tricia Nixon and was invited to tea at the White House.  She planned to attend with Abbie Hoffman and spike the tea with acid, but the security wouldn't let them in.)










Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Safety first

Sleeping with more than 20 women protects men against prostate cancer, a study has suggested

Do I have to do it all at once?

Dead Or Lame?

Something just occurred to me and I don't think I've seen anyone write about it.  Some Senate races will have runoffs if no one gets a majority.  Imagine if the Senate is hanging in the balance, and we've got to wait till December to find out who wins in Louisiana, and January to see who wins in Georgia.

Okay, people are talking about that, but are they talking about how it might affect a lame-duck session?  There's talk that the White House and Congress might try to pass (perhaps with the help of outgoing Republicans in the House) all sorts of otherwise unpalatable deals, especially on immigration, when they see this is their last chance to get their licks in.  There are also rumors of the President planning on trying out some unpopular executive orders.

But what happens if it's not clear who'll take back the Senate, and the Dems need to win a late race or two to hold on.  Will President Obama and Harry Reid hold back so as not to damage their party's candidates?  It'll be interesting to see if we're put in this situation.

Not To Be Confused With Penny

Denny Laine, the only Wing not named McCartney anyone has heard of, turns 70 today.  He actually wrote some decent tunes in that band--it wasn't all Paul--and, of course, had a significant career outside the band.








Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mend It To End It

Every now and then I see a piece about how Obamacare has become inevitable as more and more (have no choice but to) sign up.  This is nonsense.

True, it's hard in general to get rid of big legislation, but we've rarely passed a huge law like this along partisan lines, and I don't think we've ever had a huge law like this passed against the will of the American public.  If this country can repeal a Constitutional Amendment that was in place over a decade, it can certainly repeal Obamacare.  It's still unpopular, and with the President holding off a lot of the worst parts till after the election--looks like businesses may be kicking millions off their plans--it's likely to remain unpopular for some time to come.

The main question (which I answer in the negative) is can the Republicans take over Congress and the Presidency.  The former is actually more important*, since Harry Reid has refused to consider any bills which might cause the President to worry.  If Congress could start sending popular laws to the President's desk, eventually even a Democratic White House might have to cave (or perhaps be overridden).

In other words, if the GOP can control the agenda, all it takes is a little political will to end Obamacare.  That's because the essence of Obamacare is a government takeover of health care insurance (and I'm not sure if I need that qualifying "insurance"), and the plan can't work without denying freedom of choice. Sooner or later everyone will have to go on plans the government has approved--and if they're in certain categories, they'll be required to overpay, while in other categories, they'll be heavily subsidized.

So you don't have to officially "repeal" the law to repeal it.  You simply free yourself from it. Offer an opt out.  And that would be the end of it. If people are free to choose, and go into some other market outside the government's control (and force the government itself to compete), they'll abandon Obamacare in large enough numbers that the program would implode.

And how would politicians fight against that?  "We're not destroying health care for anyone, we're giving people more choice.  I thought you were pro-choice."

So ignore all the babble about how Obamacare can't be gotten rid of.  If it isn't, it'll be because the Republicans failed, not because the Democrats succeeded.

*Though there is an argument, with the White House determining what the law actually means, that the President alone could stop it.

In A Melle Tone

Composer Gil Melle died exactly ten years ago.  For years I knew him best as the man who composed the odd theme song for Night Gallery, but he did a lot more than that, both in jazz and soundtracks.









Monday, October 27, 2014

Proper usage

John Kasich is showing up every so often as a presidential contender, inevitably. It's important that reporters know the proper way to refer to him:

"Unlike Ohio Gov. John Kasich —who is cruising to re-election after betraying his own collective-bargaining reforms and caving to liberal pressure to expand Medicaid—Mr. Brownback has stuck to his conservative principles. . . . If Mr. Brownback loses, it will be because he’s not a charlatan or crank."

Done Raging

It's the centennial of Dylan Thomas.  I would have guessed he was born earlier, but he died fairly young--at 39--so perhaps that's why he seems a figure from long ago.

He did have very memorable last words:  "I've had 18 straight whiskies......I think that's the record."


White Noise

Lester Lanin died ten years ago today, but while alive he represented a type of music that you were surprised was still around. He was a bandleader famous for his medleys of pre-rock standards, played in strict time so white people could cut a rug.

He had such a standard sound that Frank Zappa had a signal to his band if he wanted them to play a la Lanin.  I liked the sound.  These are good tunes, why mess with them?  I once was at a wedding where his band played and I was honored to see him live.







Sunday, October 26, 2014

JB

Let's say goodbye to Jack Bruce, bassist of Cream.  When you've only got three instruments, you've got to do a lot.  He was a pretty good singer and songwriter, too.








Keith Time

Happy birthday, Keith Strickland. He's The B-52s utility player, starting on drums, moving to guitar, and occasionally playing bass, keyboards and even singing.






The Girl With The Giggle In Her Voice

Singer Alma Cogan never meant anything in America, but she was a huge star in Britain.  Alas, she died tragically young, age 34 on October 26, 1966.









Saturday, October 25, 2014

Now We're Cooking

Happy birthday, Barbara Cook, the great Broadway musical star.









Sorry, CB

I can't believe I forgot Chuck Berry's birthday a week ago.  It should be a national holiday.














Friday, October 24, 2014

It's been a rough year--but things are looking up!

So LAGuy's recent musings led me to wonder how Christopher Lloyd was doing,
and I was shocked to find out how much money he's made. I'm happy for him.

Then today I wondered how Timothy Hutton was doing, and that led me to Timothy Olyphant, another favorite, and come to find out he's doing pretty well, too.

All I can say is, I'm looking forward to the election. I get the feeling we're all going to be happy. (If you can't read the text, both have been selected as People's 2014 Highest Paid Actor, both have had a rough year, both can take comfort in their millions, and both of them seemed to have careers that were dead until a surprise turn around. And their closest competitor is tens of millions behind them in income. What I most want to know is, is the cover picture automated?)

Mama, Look, A Boo Boo

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo may not be renewed by TLC as June Shannon, the mother in the reality show, is allegedly involved with a convicted child molester.

I was taken aback.  I've never watched the show, but, as it's become part of our culture, I'm vaguely familiar with it.  If I'm not mistaken, it's about the adventures of a trashy southern family.  And the trashier it gets, the more TLC likes it.  (TLC stands for The Learning Channel--it's come a long way.)

So what's the problem?  Can't the mom date who she wants?  And if he's got a checkered past, doesn't that fit the concept even better?  What's more, the guy's done his time.  Will he and everyone who associates with him continue to be punished?

I won't be watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in any case, but my guess is after several seasons the ratings are on a downward slope, and this is either a negotiating tactic or a way of easing the show off the air.

PS  It's official, the show has been canceled.

TT

Happy 70th, Ted Templeman, who started as a musician and singer and then become one of the top record producers around.










Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hi Time

It's the autumnal equinox.  That seems as good a day as any to enjoy some music from The Hi-Lo's.





Back To Black

Could it be? Yes, it's the birthday of Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter.








Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Furious Reaction

Amy Nicholson, in her review of the WWII film Fury, writes this (minor spoilers):

In trying to say that death is both noble and pointless, Fury makes the fatal mistake of so many war movies: It divides up the battlefield so that our deaths are lofty and the enemies' deaths mean nothing.

1)  War films, and indeed any action films, can choose to have antagonists such that you don't mind that much when they die.  Or not. It's an artistic choice.  It's not a mistake, much less a fatal one, that we care more about the main characters than others.

2)  This is World War II.  Pardon me for not being post-modern enough to think the death of a Nazi is as bad as the death of an American.  Yes, I know, they loved their families, they listened to music, they had dogs, etc.  So what?

3)  It's weird that Nicholson would attack this film for this "flaw" since it goes out of its way to deal with the question.  There's a lot of stuff about how you have to harden your heart and kill mercilessly or people on your side will die.  Then there are scenes of sympathy for the situation the Germans are in, forced by leaders to fight even when they know it's over.  The movie even makes us feel bad about how some of the Germans die.  So what did Nicholson want?  For writer-director David Ayer to give us thirty minutes of background scenes showing the life stories of the German soldiers who march in during the final act so we'll care as much about them as we do about the characters we've been following the whole way through?

I'm Not That Sleepy

Today is the birthday of Christopher Lloyd (the actor), so let's talk about him.

Sometimes reruns of older shows will cut bits to make more room for commercials.  I don't like it in any case, but I really hate it when they cut something I remember and was hoping to see. Case in point, "Elegant Iggy" from Taxi, one of my favorite episodes, and, as it happens, a fan favorite as well.

Here's how it now appears:



I wasn't the only one to notice something missing. Here's a comment on YouTube from a "Jeffrey Sundwall":

I remember seeing this episode (I think) and at the very end Jim, Elaine, and perhaps the hostess of the party are standing around the piano singing something like "too tired to sleep and too much in love to go home". Am I dreaming or is this from a different episode.

You are correct, Jeffrey.  After the Chopin, the show cuts to later, with everyone more informal, standing around the piano and having a good time.  Jim is playing "Two Sleepy People" and, if I recall, the woman who earlier tried to steal him from Elaine is coming on hard.  He sings "and too much in love to say goodnight" and then looks at her and says goodnight.

Okay, the point is made that Iggy surprises Elaine and helps her out, but that extra bit, that grace note, works for both comedy and plot reasons.  Cut the catheter commercial instead.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fortnight

Two weeks to go till the election.  Have things changes since l last looked?

Yes, but oddly, in both directions.  For instance, a few weeks ago I thought it looked like three easy pickups in open states for the GOP, but now that seems to be two.  On the other hand, New Hampshire, which seemed unlikely for Republicans, now seems possible. The big questions are still turnout and trends.  At this point it's unlikely the polls will change much (and there's so much early voting anyway), but so many states are close that a percentage or two in either direction could make the difference.

So the question becomes how accurate are the polls.  In the past couple elections, they've been overrating Republican chances.  The question is have pollsters taken their mistakes into account. (One improvement they allegedly need to make is in who they call--it used to be all landlines, which favors conservatives.)

Here's what conventional wisdom is saying (and even CW admits most of these are close): Republicans pick up seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.  The fail to pick them up in Michigan, North Carolina and North Dakota. They hold on to Kentucky and Mississippi but may lose Georgia and Kansas.

That would mean the GOP takes back the Senate.  But if they underperform (which is the same as the Democrats overperforming--and the real question may be how well the Dems get out the vote), as they have been lately, they won't take it back.  Which is why I still find it hard to give the Republicans a better than even chance to do it.

So I put the odds of the GOP winning the Senate at just below 50%. Isn't that great?  It means whatever happens, I pretty much called it.

They Don't Sing 'Em Like That Any More

Happy birthday, Harry Stewart, better known as Yogi Yorgesson.  He was a performer in an age when comic dialects were widespread, and I think he was the best comic Swede out there.








Monday, October 20, 2014

OK OG

Happy birthday Calvin Broadus, Jr., aka Snoop Doggy Dogg aka Snoop Dogg aka Snoop Lion.





(I'm sorry, but "my mind on my money and my money on my mind" is a stupid line.)

Transferred

Let's say goodbye to Tim Hauser, founder of the Manhattan Transfer.










Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taking The Black

Even with a new TV season upon us, I've been binge-watching old shows. For instance, just caught up with the first two seasons of Orphan Black. For a while I've been hearing critics say it's an outrage that star Tatiana Maslany has not been nominated for best lead actress in a drama, and now I understand.  No matter what else you think of the show, it's a real tour de force for her.

Orphan Black starts with protagonist Sarah Manning seeing a woman who looks just like her at a train station--and then having the woman jump in front of a train.  Sarah steals her purse and the mystery begins. She discovers her doppelganger is a detectivbe, and hopes to make some much-needed money by taking her place, but soon finds herself involved in a world where she has numerous clones.  The more she discovers, the more the conspiracy grows, and the more dangerous it becomes.

The show, then, is a mystery-thriller, with a sci-fi bent and some farce thrown in built around all those clones. Maslany plays numerous characters, including troubled Sarah Manning, button-down suburban housewife Alison, scientist Cosima and crazed killer Helena.  Sometimes these characters even impersonate one another, yet Maslany makes each character a separate creation.  For that matter, they often interact, and Maslany is believable on both ends.

There are other characters, or course, such as Felix, Sarah's foster brother (they're both British and the show is from BBC America, so it took a while for me to understand it takes place in America (and is shot in Canada)), Art, the partner of the one who killed herself, Paul, an ex-mercenary who lived with Beth, Delphine, Cosima's co-worker and many others.

The show is fun, though I liked the first season better than the second.  Discovering what's going on was fun, but in the second season, though plenty is still not known, things are more out in the open, and the characters have a better understanding of what's happening.  Thus the show turned from a fascinating mystery to a more by-the-books thriller.  Also, I find Helena one of the more tiresome characters, but she won't seem to go away.

Anyway, the third season is starting next year, and I'll be watching.

Double Day

Today is the 70th birthday of Peter Tosh and the 80th birthday of Dave Guard, founding member of the Kingston Trio. Neither are around to celebrate--both died young, in fact--but we are, so let's enjoy it.







Saturday, October 18, 2014

Believe It Or Not, I Am Still Talking About Fight Club

Joshua Rothman has an essay in The New Yorker about the real meaning of Gone Girl.  It's not much of a piece so I wouldn't worry about it. But there was one bit that got my attention. He compares Gone Girl to another David Fincher film, Fight Club.  Then he starts a paragraph with this:

There’s a reason, of course, why the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club.

This got me excited.  The way he puts it, I figured it's not just a "a" reason, but "the" reason.  Here it is:

It’s that the lurid core of our imaginative lives is best kept secret.

Oh.  This is the kind of aesthetic/psychological cliché that makes his piece weak to begin with. Sure, if you want to write a term paper on the movie, and force symbolism and deeper meaning on everything in it, you can conclude this and a thousand other things.

But if you want to know the real reason you do not talk about Fight Club, I'll tell you. It's because Fight Club is extremely illegal, and if word gets around, you and the others participating will be thrown in jail.

For A Song

I recently watched a rerun of an old comedy which featured a World War I veteran.  With World War II so far in the past, we hardly ever talk about WWI.  This year was the 100th anniversary, and I don't remember too much discussion (while anniversaries of D-Day are still a big deal).

So let's stop a bit and think about The Great War, which as much as anything created the world we live in.





Friday, October 17, 2014

It's Le Mans World

I just got back from seeing the Steve McQueen 1971 film Le Mans in a local cinema.  It was a flop and I can see why.   There's about fifteen minutes of plot and the rest is just cars driving around--I can see that on the freeway.  I can also see why McQueen took the role--he got to spend a month driving fast cars and only had to learn six lines of dialogue.

But what surprised me was how his character Michael Delaney did in the film.  In the previous year Delaney was in a crash at Le Mans so he's back to prove he can do it right.  And in this new race, he gets in another crash--his own fault, in fact.  Didn't expect that. But we see the film isn't quite over, so he gets another chance to race (in a plot development I didn't understand) and...finishes second!

Impossible today.  A modern Hollywood film has a protagonist who's has superhero powers and keeps winning despite greater and greater obstacles, until the end when he has to work against impossible odds and through some miracle comes through.

Of course in those days the cinema loved beautiful losers.  In Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid they get shot in the end.  In Easy Rider they get shot in the end.  Back then filmgoers were probably surprised McQueen escaped with his life.

CC

Happy birthday, Cozy Cole. Let's keep those jazz beats going.







Thursday, October 16, 2014

Paul Alone

It's said when Alexander the Great, as a young man (he never got to be an old man), saw the breadth of his empire he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.  Paul McCartney must have felt the same way in late 1969, at 27 years old.  The Beatles had conquered the world half a decade before and had only solidified their grip since, and Paul, from humble beginnings, had lived more during those years than most do in a lifetime.

But the band was breaking apart and Paul didn't know what to do.  Could he start all over again?  Daunting, to say the least.  He was almost catatonic. He retreated to an unfinished home in Scotland, his confidence shattered, and wondered what to do next. If his wife Linda hadn't been by him, puffing him up, he may have become a recluse.

That's just the start of Tom Doyle's book Man On The Run: Paul McCartney In The 1970s.  When I picked it up, I wondered why?  There are tons of books about the Beatles and about Paul, so why one that concentrates on this decade.  While Doyle never fully answers the question, it is true that Paul's first decade after the Beatles is his most interesting, and most artistically satisfying.

Paul had suggested, as a last measure, that the Beatles go out on the road anonymously and play small venues. John thought he was daft.  By late 1969, the band was a going concern only as a money-making venture--they weren't making any more music together.  And the big fight was who would represent them.  John, George and Ringo went with Allen Klein, an alleged tough guy who would fight to get as much money for them as possible.  But Paul was wary, and went with his father-in-law Lee Eastman.  The Beatles were already fighting, but this was the final straw, and Paul was now the official bad guy.  Later Klein would go to jail for various questionable activities, so Paul was probably right, but for now the three Beatles were suing the Cute One.

While it was clear they were breaking up, Paul became the first to officially acknowledge it 1970 in a self-interview he included in his first solo album, McCartney.  It was a small, simple homemade album with some beautiful tunes and some oddities.  It included "Maybe I'm Amazed," which has gone on to achieve classic status.  One thing about Paul--even on his weakest work, there was always something special.  And another thing (starting with "Another Day")--beginning in 1971, no matter how spotty his musical record was, he always managed to release at least one top ten single a year throughout the decade, often a #1.

Next came Ram, another mixed effort.  While John was releasing raw, powerful work, and George was finally free to put out whole albums of his songs, many of which he'd stored up, Paul still seemed to be messing around.  Nevertheless, he had a #1 hit with "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" as well as a vague shot at Lennon with "Too Many People." It wasn't long before Lennon responded, scathingly, in both interviews and songs.

Paul decided to start a new band, Wings.  The truth is, it was always Paul and whoever backed him--which included the not especially musical Linda.  As it was, the Wings changed the roster several times through the decade.  Paul was just Paul, and Linda was more wife than Wing.  The only true Wing who stayed in the lineup (through the 70s anyway) was ever-faithful Denny Laine, an old friend who sang for the Moody Blues back in the day.

Wings' 1971 debut, Wild Life, was probably the weakest effort of Paul's that decade. But Macca was just starting to come back to life.  He and the band traveled in a van through England, following his old plan for the Beatles.  They'd come to a town, locate the local college and tell them they'd put on a show (even if the band barely had enough material).  Word started to spread and the crowds showed up, but the important thing was Paul was getting what he'd wanted for years.

In 1972, no album, but three singles.  First the apolitical Beatle put out "Give Ireland Back To The Irish."  Next there was their version of "Mary Had A Little Lamb."  He finally returned to form with "Hi, Hi, Hi."

Meanwhile, Wings got a double decker bus and toured Europe (along with the McCartney kids, who must have had quite a childhood, as mom and dad generally took them everywhere).  This was still not a grand tour, but the venues were bigger.  Paul was also busted for pot--the first time, but it was the beginning of a series of such busts, ultimately leading at the end of the decade to being held in jail in Japan and sent back before he could tour there.  Apparently life without pot was unimaginable to him. (While this may not be the greatest thing, it was the harder stuff throughout the decade that really damaged the band.)

Wings' next album, Red Rose Speedway, was another weak outing, though it sold decently on the strength of the dreary #1 hit "My Love." But Paul was about to get on a streak of solid albums that showed the world he hadn't lost it. In fact, he was, chart-wise, one of the most successful acts of the 70s.

First, and most important, was Band On The Run, recorded by Paul, Linda and Denny (the rest of the band quit) in dangerous Lagos.  Paul thought it would be fun, and EMI had a studio there.  It's probably his best album and certainly his best-selling.  He followed it up with three original albums that showed off his revitalized songwriting: Venus And Mars, Wings At The Speed Of Sound and London Town. In-between he did a huge, highly successful tour of America--turned into the successful live album Wings Over America.  (Paul also did "Mull Of Kintyre" around this time, the biggest-selling single ever in Britain and a ridiculous misfire in America.)

During this period, he made up with John. John was going through a tough time, living a wild life in Los Angeles, separated from Yoko. Paul came out west and actually gave John a message from his wife about how she'd take him back if he proved himself.  John did as told and the couple reunited.  A bit later, the couples--Paul and Linda and John and Yoko--hung out in the Dakota.  They actually watched the famous SNL bit in the mid-70s where producer Lorne Michaels promised to pay the Beatles $3000 if they'd come together.  This was being taped only a mile or so away, and the duo joked about showing up, but nothing came of it.

John became a bit more reclusive soon and start bad-mouthing Paul once again. It's not entirely clear why. John was always the moody type, and it's also possible he was envious of Paul's new prominence.

Paul had nothing left to prove, but he always had a strong work ethic (and need to perform) and put out some solo albums as Wings petered out and died by the early 80s.  His next two albums, Back To The Egg and McCartney II, didn't compare to his recent run (luckily he'd signed a major contract just before Egg), but they have their moments. And, good or bad, Paul was always trying out new sounds, as demonstrated by "Goodnight Tonight," "Wonderful Christmastime" and "Coming Up."

Then John was murdered in late 1980 and Paul was devastated.  The killing closed out the 70s as surely as the Beatles breaking up had closed out the 60s.  At least Paul got to find out in that in John's final days he had been saying nice things about his erstwhile partner. The Beatles, after their tempers cooled down, had actually played with each other in almost every combination throughout the 70s--there'd always been rumors all four would finally get back together, but now the dream was over.

Paul continued to be a successful performer, but I'm not sure if he ever mattered again. He still goes out on major tours, but he's now a nostalgia act. Back in the 70s, the audience wanted to hear his recent hits (though they also loved Beatles numbers); now if he plays anything from the last twenty years, it's time for a bathroom break.  But Paul is probably the greatest living songwriter, and that can't be bad.

The Middle Letter

Happy birthday, Fred Turner.  He's a bass player, singer and songwriter, best known as the Turner of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, or B.T.O.






Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Do you mean in ready cash?

Life Is Strange

Happy birthday, MacHouston Baker, a blues guitarist better known as the male half of Mickey & Sylvia.  He was doing a lot of session work when he teamed up with his guitar student Sylvia Robinson and the rest is R&B history.





Feverish

Happy birthday, Little Willie John.  He didn't spend too much time being big, dying at age 30, but he laid down some tracks before he left.









Joe G

Happy birthday, Joe Genaro, aka Joe Jack Talcum, aka Jasper Thread, aka Butterfly Fairweather, aka Jonk Provuc, guitarist, songwriter and occasional vocalist for the Dead Milkmen.









Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The answer is 'yes'

Coherent or incoherent?

So I've received two interesting offers obviously based on some deep data somewhere.

The first, which I'm quite interested in, is the Dyson hand held vacuum. If it had been the stick version, they'd have sold me on the spot.

The second has a subject line, "Leave 20 somethings in the dust."

I have to admit, that has its attractions too. Though I'm not sure for which reason, spite or glory.

Leftover Vanity Plates Of The Month

On a Pontiac: REYNALA.  So either she's the Queen of the city or Yiddish.

TRST GUT.  The car was pretty old, so maybe this is a mistake.

DIOS ABE.  Two heroes?

DOTCOM 8. In the future we'll all be Dotcoms.

HEY EMS.  Hey what?  Express mail service?

ITZTYM4.  For what?

Footman

Happy birthday to R&B man Robert Parker.





Monday, October 13, 2014

Time Marches On

Here's a quota-filling piece by Joe Klein in Time.  (Yes, like you, I'm surprised Time still exists.)  It's called "A Troubled American Moment." Since this moment isn't more troubled than plenty of other moments in the past several decades, and since nothing Klein mentions in the piece is unusual or alarming, I have to assume what's Troubling to Klein is an election coming up where the Democrats look like they're in trouble.

He talks about how a lot of people on the right believe in non-existent conspiracies, but gives no evidence they believe in these things more than usual--and takes no notice that Democrats believe in conspiracies as much as Republicans do. On top of which, half the stuff he mentions is actually happening.

For instance, he notes that he hears talk about how people on food stamps buy T-bones steaks and soda.  (SNAP!)  Well, don't they?  I mean that's nothing--thanks to food stamps, a lot of people can get alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets that they might have forgone otherwise.  I think Joe is just mad that some people are unhappy about multiple billions spent on the program, not that these people didn't personally see someone purchase these products like they claim.  Well fine, Joe, let's leave behind urban legends and look at the facts. For instance, we have quadrupled the amount we spend on food stamps in the past 14 years.  Tell me Joe, do you honestly believe anyone would have starved if we'd only tripled the amount?

He goes on:

The food-stamp stories mix with more purposeful fantasies spread by interest groups, like the National Rifle Association’s constant spew that the government wants to “take away” your guns rather than merely regulate their use.

Thanks for the clarification.  I have an idea, let's prevent Joe Klein from criticizing the NRA, and we'll explain we're not taking away his freedom of speech, we're merely regulating how he uses it.

So what does Joe think we should be worried about? Here's his idea of reasonable people going against the fear-mongering.

[A guy Joe Klein likes] tried to take the conversation “in a different direction,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty concerned that the top 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth in this country.”

So that sort of pointless statistic is what Joe thinks we should really be talking about. (And don't ever mention the bottom 99% are richer on average than almost any top 10% of any group in history.) These are actually the kinds of numbers that have launched a thousand conspiracy theories--don't forget to check for the Koch Brothers under your bed before you go to sleep--but Joe believes this is the rational discourse we need to prevent discussions of welfare and gun laws and such.

One last selection:

Democrats are swimming against the prevailing cynicism as they attempt to retain the Senate this yearAcross the South, their candidates are placing a heavy bet on women’s issues, especially equal pay, and education.

The first sentence is good enough.  Yes, it's always bad for people to be cynical about leadership when the Democrats control the Senate. But that second sentence is the punchline. To fight cynicism, the Dems are rolling out "women's issues," the most cynical ploy of all.

Time is still around, but it's become a humor magazine.

Not The Senator

Happy birthday, Paul Simon.  One of the top songwriters of the past fifty years, and not a bad performer, either.  (Here's a fascinating blog discussing every song of his.)











Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rex Wrecks

Why do I bother?  I just looked at Rex Reed's review of the hit film Gone Girl.  He pans it in his inimitable style, where you wonder if he actually watched it all the way through.  Here's how he starts:

Preposterous, illogical, senselessly over-plotted and artificial as a ceramic artichoke, David Fincher’s Gone Girl is another splatterfest disguised as a psychological thriller about the disintegration of a murderous marriage that I find one of the year’s grossest disappointments. At one point, I turned to the woman next to me—a distinguished lady film critic—and asked, “Does any of this make sense to you?” “Not a word of it,” she replied. So why is it being drooled over by gushing websites as a “sensational hit”? The applause at the end of the screening I attended was tepid, and the reviews I’ve read are grudgingly mixed.

Spoilers ahead.

1) The film is no splatterfest.  There's practically no gore until well into the movie when Amy slits Desi's throat. In fact, that seems to be what director David Fincher was going for--after a fairly clean, non-violent movie, about two hours in suddenly we see a very bloody scene, so it's shocking.

2) I don't know how many times I've had to tell critics this: Rex, I barely care what you think of the movie.  I don't care at all what you say other think of it.  Assuming this anonymous "lady film critic" actually exists, and she wasn't just humoring you, why should I be concerned that someone else was as clueless as you?

3) He notes the reviews he's read are grudgingly mixed. (Hmm, "grudgingly"--so the critics were unhappy that they were writing something mixed, and wished it could either be a rave or a pan.) I'm not responsible for the cherry picking Rex does when he reads reviews, but I can guarantee him it's not hard to find positive reviews of Gone Girl. In fact, they considerably outnumber the thumbs down.

Rex later writes:

An innocent, naïve ex-boyfriend shows up to help [missing wife Amy] and she slits his throat with a box cutter. I offer this revelation not as a spoiler (there are more shocks to come), but to illustrate how none of this excessive plotting makes one lick of sense. It is never clear why Amy would frame Nick for her abduction and no reason why she would later lure a man to rape her violently.

1)  Innocent and naïve?  Neil Patrick Harris's character is creepy and obsessed, and he in essence kidnaps Amy.  This is pretty hard to miss, even if you snoozed through most of the screening.

2)  Reed may not offer the throat slitting as a spoiler, but it's still a pretty major one.  Of course, he earlier noted Amy is still alive and didn't even treat it as a spoiler, though it's arguably the biggest spoiler of them all.

3)  Reed's favorite phrase is "lick of sense." It's rare he writes a negative review without it.  Even if it didn't generally demonstrate he doesn't understand the plot, he should stop using it.

4)  It's never clear why Amy would frame Nick for her abduction?  She doesn't.  She tries to frame him for her murder.

5) It's never clear why she lured Desi to rape her?  First, it wasn't rape, since she insisted he do it.  Second, it's part of her scheme to slit his throat.  Third--and this is a pretty basic plot point--she can't go back to her husband without some sort of explanation.  If she just shows up, it'll be clear she tried to frame him.  So she makes it appear that Desi kidnaped her and raped her, and she was able to escape by killing him.  If you don't understand this, you shouldn't be reviewing the film.

He makes a bunch of other mistakes.  For instance, he claims Lola Kirke and Scoot McNairy play a trailer trash couple.  Actually, McNairy plays a former boyfriend that Amy framed.  But, as I said at the start, why do I bother?

Willy Boy To Hear

Happy birthday Willy Hess, Swiss composer.  He's of the 20th century, but wrote in a classical style.






Saturday, October 11, 2014

It Ain't The Motion Either

According to recent research, the only female orgasm is a clitoral orgasm.  I don't think this is a big surprise.  In fact, I thought it was common knowledge.

But here's the part I found most interesting:

The review, published in the journal Clinical Anatomy, comes after a U.S. study published earlier this year found that the size of a woman’s clitoris can impact their ability to have an orgasm.

In women who have orgasm problems, the clitoris is smaller and located farther from the vagina, the study found.
 
So for years men have been worried about size.  Turns out the women have to worry as well.  I don't know why, but it makes me feel less lonely.

Music Hall

Happy birthday, Daryl Hall, you finally make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.







Friday, October 10, 2014

Getting to know you

So I came across an usually aggressive and jerky driver yesterday, truly three standard deviations above the mean. I mean, I think I passed her four times in 20 miles.

Borrowing from LAGuy, her license plate was "I know 01".

Not sure if she's into epistemology or epidemiology.

Anyway, I watched the "Unknown Known" when I got home to relax.

(The box cover defines it as something you think you know but find out later you did not. While I don't doubt Rumsfeld defined it that way once (and of course that's the validation liberals are after--there! you see!), he contradicts himself when he does a better job of defining it on the spot: Something you know, but you don't know you know it. All very interesting, how we have to fill in the grid.)

Jan

Let's say goodbye to Jan Hooks.  I always thought along with a few others--Gilda Radner, Kristen Wiig--that she was one of the greatest women ever on Saturday Night Live.

She was a cast member in the 80s and 90s and always managed to do something special with her character any time she appeared.  SNL won't let most of their stuff appear on YouTube, so I won't embed anything here, but you can go to their website to see old sketches.

 
 
 

Wholaney?

After years of Animation Domination on Sunday nights, Fox now splits its cartoons, such as The Simpsons and Family Guy, with sitcoms starring actual humans.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine, one of the best comedies on TV, is in there, and so is a new show, Mulaney.

The title gives you the impression that the star, John Mulaney, is someone we should know. But though he's a standup and former Saturday Night Live writer, I'd never heard of him, so my main reaction was why did this guy get a sitcom.

The show is produced by SNL guru Lorne Michaels, and also features Nasim Pedrad, who's done great work at the sketch show for the last five years, but really the feeling is more an updated version of Seinfeld.  And just like Black-ish would like to be the new Cosby Show, I'm sure they wouldn't mind the comparison.  (The reason the show isn't on Michael's home network NBC is that they rejected it.  It was reworked for Fox.)

Mulaney plays a young comedian named John Mulaney who's trying to make it.  The pilot, in fact, started with Mulaney doing some standup, just like Seinfeld did in his early episodes.   Mulaney shares his place with Pedrad, playing personal trainer Jane (only Mulaney gets to keep his name), and also hangs out with two friends, Motif and Andre.  They tend to do riffs on what life is like, not unlike Seinfeld, and most other sitcoms out there now featuring unmarried people in their 20s or 30s living in a big city.

But there's more.  Following a different tack many sitcoms have followed, Mulaney gets a job with a successful but jerky mentor.  It's legendary (in his own mind) comedian and game show host Lou Cannon, played by Martin Short.

Another big name in a supporting role is Elliott Gould as a bizarre neighbor who dispenses gnomic advice.  Not quite sure where they're going with this, but the bizarre neighbor is always a safe standby, I guess.

While the actors are reasonably appealing, the show isn't much.  Not yet, anyway.  Though with such a lackluster opening I'm not sure how many more chances it'll get.  So if you want to check it out, I'd suggest you do it soon.

Missing The T

Happy birthday, Michael Giacchino.  One of the top composers of our day, he's already got an Emmy, a Grammy and an Oscar.  Time to write a Broadway musical, Mike.









Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Boys

The Beatles' story has been told so many times you'd think there's no room for another book.  But Mark Lewisohn's The Beatles: All These Years, the first in the Tune In trilogy, isn't just another book. In fact, if may end up being the Beatles book.  Certainly this volume is as good as anything that's been written on their early years.

At 900+ pages, it better be.  It may be lengthy, but it never feels overlong, or padded.  There are revelations on practically every page.  Lewisohn, a recognized expert on the Beatles, puts to rest some myths (young John having to choose between his mom and dad, Pete Best being fired for being too handsome and about a hundred others) and puts things in a wider context than ever before.  As he says, "Let's scrub what we know, or think we know, and start over."

The four Beatles, in the years before worldwide fame, come to life.  And while John, Paul and George get most of the attention, this books keeps us apprised of Ringo's action along the way--every other book I've ever read tends to only catch up with his story when he's chosen for the band, years after the other three had been performing together.

Looking back at it all, the Beatles may seem inevitable, but, as All These Years demonstrates, there were numerous points where it could have fallen apart.  First, of course, you have them as kids hearing this amazing thing called rock and roll, and deciding along the way this will be their life. Lewisohn is good describing when each new record came out, and how the boys responded.  John started a band with his friends, and, slowly, the rest happened.  The big question at first was should John bring aboard this kid Paul--he's a better musician than John, so does John want to remain top dog, or have the band be better? The same urge to improve the band also had him force out members, including close friends. And then Paul brings in an even younger kid, George, but he's got the chops.  Then, years later, they already loved Ringo, especially George, and so at the last possible second he was Beatlized.

In fact, in early 1960, when John, Paul and George and whoever else they might have were scrambling to get any gig, Ringo was one of the top drummers in Liverpool.  And yet even he didn't think there was much of a future in this business--no one thought there was a future in rock and roll then.  Each of the four had to decide for themselves to voluntarily leave the race for a conventional job and go with the unknown.  Even in the years when they were making better money than their parents, but before the recording contract, it was touch and go.

One big turning point is when John, Paul and George got booked in Hamburg.  Not that they were such a hot band then, but there was a connection established where Liverpool would send rockers over to play in the rough St. Pauli district.  The trio couldn't go without a drummer, and there was Pete Best, who had a set, and who had a mom, Mona, who booked them at her club, so that was good enough--especially since no one else was available.

The band played long and hard in Hamburg.  Their talents were being honed, and when they come back to Liverpool, they were the best band around.  Pete, however, was only a so-so drummer, and not really one of the guys--he was shy and kept to himself.  They always knew they'd replace him, but they didn't have another drummer handy and Pete and Mona still got them bookings, so nothing was done due to inertia and cowardice. (The Beatles often come across as pretty cold in this book, and that's probably right.  They were dynamic, fresh and charming, but they could be cutting, and freeze you out if they didn't like you. For that matter, John was such a troublemaker that the parents of almost everyone who came into his orbit in the early days warned their kids to stay away.)

You'd think they were on their way to success, but they still didn't have a manager--at least not one they could work with--and their "screw you" attitude turned off a lot of bookers.  But just in time (everything always happens just in timy) Brian Epstein, a troubled man who owned a successful store--where the Beatles would hang out and listen to records--heard about them and saw them perform at their regular gig in the nearby Cavern.  He was wowed, and decided to manage them (and not simply because he was attracted to John, as some books have reported), though he had no experience in that field.  Not that the Beatles were pushovers. He had to convince them, and even after he signed them, they'd regularly make their complaints known.  He was the perfect man for the job.  The music business in England then (like everywhere else at all times) was filled with opportunists who'd squeeze a band dry and then go on to exploit another act, but Brian did it because he loved the band and wanted them to go places. At the start, he'd often lose money covering expenses, but it didn't matter because he saw the big picture.  He also was high class (compared to most of Liverpool), and his store, one of the biggest record-sellers around, meant he'd be taken seriously in London, the center of the British entertainment world.

But even then, it could have fallen apart.  The Beatles soaked up influences and moved ahead at a regular pace, but they got tired of doing the same thing, and Brian booking them one place after another wasn't enough--they needed a recording contract.  Not that records were considered big money--conventional contracts gave you pretty small royalties--but a record on the charts would mean better gigs with higher pay.

Brian got the back of the hand from EMI, the label he thought fit them best, but he managed to get them an audition at the other big British label, Decca.  They came down to London and recorded a demo in fairly uncomfortable circumstances (and still hadn't gotten around to cutting Pete). They were rejected.  And then were rejected at every small label after that.

This is a band that's got a huge following in Liverpool, and has a new and exciting sound--even writes some of their own numbers, unheard of at the time.  So why the rejection?  First, of course, the Decca tape isn't them at their best.  Also, down in London, Liverpool meant nothing.  Then, of course, no one wants to take chances, and their sound was different.  Weren't guitar groups on their way out, anyway?  Then there's that creepy name.  Plus, when you said "group" in those days, people would ask "instrumental or vocal?" Acts were usually solo, or a lead singer with a backup band. The Beatles had three lead singers, did a wide variety of music, and played their own instruments.  It was hard to know what to make of them.

Once again, this could have been the end. But Brian had a last-chance opportunity back at EMI.  While there, he also met with some publishers associated with EMI (it wasn't a planned meeting, but someone suggested it).  They liked the original songs and thought they could push them.  (In those days, publishers made money selling sheet music, and having other artists performs the same songs--this would change soon. In fact, the Beatles would change everything about the music business.)  Brian also saw George Martin, probably the most creative producer at EMI.  He was in charge of the relatively minor Parlophone label, but he put out quite a few imaginative pieces there, including a lot of comedy bits with members of the Goons.  Martin, however, wasn't impressed with the acetate made from the Decca audition.

So how did they get the contract?  This is a story I believe Lewisohn breaks.  The song pluggers Epstein met convinced EMI to take a flier on the band, figuring they could get publishing rights and make some money from Lennon and McCartney.  (Ironically, the Beatles went with another publishing company when they hit, on the advice of George Martin.)  And it would take almost nothing from EMI.  The company's contract promised their artists very little--only a few recordings and minuscule royalties. Why not? After they got the contract, that's when they fired Pete and convinced Ringo to join.  Of course, the professionals at Decca and EMI had noted Pete was no good, so even if they'd stuck with him, he wouldn't have been used in the studio.

So in June 1962 the boys went down to London and recorded a few sides--Lennon and McCartney originals "Love Me Do," "P.S. I Love You" and "Ask Me Why" as well as a club favorite, the cha-cha-boom number "Besame Mucho." The question is why did they record so many originals?  The regular procedure was the producer would find a song, an artist who fits, make the arrangement and put out the record.  Artists didn't write their own stuff, and Martin think much of their songs to begin with.  The answer to this mystery is, once again, the publishers convinced EMI to put out an original.

The session wasn't a big deal to Martin.  He wasn't at the board and showed up late.  And when he got there and heard the results, he wasn't impressed.  But then the Beatles came up to the booth. Martin explained, rather brusquely, how things would go.  When he was done, he asked the band if there was anything they didn't like.  Harrison responded he didn't like Martin's tie. That broke the ice.  They started talking, and, like so many others, Martin found them uncommonly charming--the kind of people you want to hang out with.

Though it was unusual, he wanted them to come back and give it another shot. He found a song he thought had hit written all over it--"How Do You Do It?" The Beatles dutifully learned it, but hated it--it was a soft sort of tune that embarrassed them.  They recorded it in the next session, and also had another bash at "Love Me Do." Ringo had been a bit erratic at first in their previous session, and to his horror, Martin had brought in his own professional drummer--was this how things were to be?  In fact, it took Ringo years to get over it, and even when they became the biggest band in the world, he'd still occasionally bring it up with Martin.

The Beatles wanted "Love Me Do" to be the release--and the push by the music publishers helped guarantee it, over George Martin's wishes. Because Mitch Murray, the songwriter of "How Do You Do It?" wasn't willing to see his hit be wasted in a weak version on a B-side, that recording was never released and "P.S. I Love You" was used. (Martin was right about "How Do You Do It?"--he gave it to Gerry And The Pacemakers for their debut single in 1963 and it went to #1 in Britain.) 

Martin didn't figure "Love Me Do" would do anything--and if it hadn't, that would have probably been the end of their recording career, since EMI didn't owe them anything more.  But thanks to the Beatles tremendous popularity in the North, it sold fairly well, staying on the charts for months and making the top twenty. (Lewisohn puts to rest the rumor than Brian ordered so many copies of the single that it charted). Martin was surprised, and started to take this new band seriously.  Thus, something entirely new began--a band that wrote its own singles.  It's doubtful another producer would have allowed it, or worked so well with the group, giving them the freedom to grow (and not taking partial or full credit for songwriting royalties, as was common then).

John had a new Roy Orbison-style song called "Please Please Me." Martin suggested they speed it up.  They recorded it in November.  Everyone was sure this was a #1 hit--and they were right.  But it wouldn't be released until January, so they were sitting on it, trying to figure out how best to exploit it.  One idea that Martin had--make an LP.  This might seem the normal thing to do, but back then pop music was about singles.  Albums were for serious music, stuff adults bought.  Sure, if you had a few hits, maybe you'd record some filler and put out an album, but the singles were what kids bought, and what you concentrated on.

He considered taping them live in the Cavern since the Beatles said they were best live.  But that was based on their early studio experiences.  They hit the sweet spot with "Please Please Me" and from then on were a true studio band.  Anyway, the sound was lousy down in the Cavern, so Martin suggested they pick some numbers from their ever-evolving stage show (the Beatles always stayed ahead of the competition) and write some new numbers, and they'd record ten songs in one day.

So it's late 1962, the word is spreading.  It looks like they'll conquer England in 1963, and, what they probably didn't guess, they'd conquer America and the world in 1964. (EMI mailed its hit records each week to America, but a jerk named Dave Dexter, Jr., who loved jazz, rejected just about every pop record they sent. Amazingly high-handed, considering EMI owned Capitol.  The Beatles early singles were shunted off to minor labels such as Swan and Vee-Jay, until the pressure became too great and they broke in America.  Dexter would go on to rip apart their British albums, which generally included 14 songs, and create special American versions which featured only 11 songs--even less on soundtrack albums--in the order he determined.)

Anyway, as 1962 ends, so does the book.  And even though it's over 900 pages, I wanted more.  The rest of their story will be the Beatles the world knew.  But somehow I think Lewisohn has plenty to tell us that we don't know.

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