Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Wiseacre Duos: Steely Dan, Part IV

By 1976, Steely Dan had established itself as the snarky provacateurs of pop. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had steadily built an intriguing beast of an idea-a round robin of L.A. and NYC's ripest talent to express their piquant musings to the masses. Several genres had been explored: rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, country and Western, and of course, jazz, baby. The latter style had dominated the record collections of our maestros stretching back to their misanthropic youths. During a 2002 interview with Marian McPartland on her NPR program Piano Jazz, Becker described the many nights of listening to the great jazz DJ Mort Fega in NYC as he spun the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Grant Green, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis. Fagen had done much the same during the 1960s, assuring the lifelong bond to come between him and his future musical partner in crime.

Jazz stylings had been the backbone of much of SD's music from its inception (and earlier), but one had to be a bit more musically literate to discern such. For many listeners, it was just good 'ol rock and roll. This was about to change in a very big way with 1977's Aja.

Over one year in the making, Aja was to become a landmark of musicianship, and not just in the world of pop. The mind bogglingly complex arrangements were legendary, often requiring several music stands just to support the charts for a few bars of each song! Longtime SD cohort Denny Dias recalled that his guitar solo for the title track was almost impossible to play, as it had more notes per measure than his fingers could track. Ah, the spirit is Mozart is evoked yet again.

"Aja" is the centerpiece of the album-a sprawling eight minute opus which is actually a suite constructed of musical ideas that dated back to the late 1960s. The middle section of the tune was cribbed from an old instrumental known as "Stand By the Seawall." The Asian flavored percussion by Victor Feldman is a repeated theme throughout this mysterious piece, but the truly breathtaking elements belong to drummer Steve Gadd and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Gadd's explosive performance during the bridge has become quite famous. The drum part as written was polyrhythmic to begin with; Gadd (in one take!) transformed it into something even more extraordinary with his ad lib. The songwriters had instructed the drummer to "play like hell" during this part, and that about scratches the surface.

Shorter, then busy with the fusion group Weather Report, dropped by the Hollywood studio to record his emotionally resonant saxophone part, a perfect counterpoint to the ripping drum solo. Hearing Gadd and Shorter's parts together is just something else. Nothing Steely Dan had done before had prepared listeners for such a wildly ambitious and thundering display.

The rest of the album isn't too bad, either. The opener, "Black Cow", concerns a lovelorn narrator, bemoaning his wayward girlfriend. Feldman's vibes provide a contemplative touch. "Deacon Blues" is one of the few Dan songs not drenched in acid. This narrator rather sadly describes his choice in life to become an artist, a choice that ensures an unbearable loneliness. But the artist can have it no other way. "They've got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose", Fagen sings. The song is an emotional powerhouse. Could it be that the Masters of Sardonica penned a lyric that says "I cried when I wrote this song"???

"Peg" and "Josie" became Top 40 hits as well. The former is a readymade pop funhouse that is a true earworm, totally infectious. While Michael McDonald's background singing is a little too up front in the mix for my taste, I have to admit it seems to work well enough. The central guitar solo was attempted by several musicians before Jay Graydon nailed it to Fagen and Becker's satisfaction. A discussion of this can be heard on the highly entertaining Classic Album series episode, available on DVD. Fagen and Becker sit at a mixing board and isolate each of the failed solos. Becker, in his usual cutting manner, dismisses the solos ("they speak for themselves") before playing the eventual winner. Don't feel too badly for the anonymous musician whose work was decimated, though; the solos Becker criticizes are his own attempts! See? They're not such bad guys!

"Josie" is another phenomenal track. The ominous opening, the stark vocal, and the lacerating guitar work create a really stunning song. Becker has stated how much he enjoys playing this one live. It is a standard blues, opened up quite a bit to allow for some serious jamming. Check out Chuck Rainey's swell bassline, too. "Home at Last" features almost ragtime-ish piano, a great Becker guitar solo, and a loose vocal. Its Greek mythological imagery again reveals the artists' taste for all things literary. Lastly, "I Got the News" thumps along like a jukebox ditty. Throwing jazzy chords every which way in the midst of lyrics which are best not to be examined too closely, this song had originally been conceived a few years earlier, with different lyrics (which seemed to be rife with inside jokes). The new lyrics, uh, seem fairly smutty. But, what did we say about lyrics.....

Aja's lyrics, oddly, aren't quite as venomous or elusive as they had been on previous albums. The words are clearly not the strength here. What is here isn't bad or throwaway. They're just, not as colorful. More serious, less cheeky. But it illustrates an opinion I have. Music, to me, is never worthy or great because of lyrics. Lyrics are like frosting on a cake. You have to build the cake (i.e., the composition) before you worry about the frosting. Yes, lyrics can be fascinating, clever, emotionally draining, and even profound. Sometimes they are just plain ridiculous or even insulting. Either way, if the music itself isn't good, it's basically a lost cause. If I am to judge the lyrics themselves, I'll peruse them in print. Steely Dan always seemed to understand this, in spades.

To say that Aja was a success is a huge undertstatement. Nearly every song was played relentlessly on AM and FM radio in the late 70s. It quickly went platinum, on both sides of the pond, I believe. It became a "fern bar" standard. Every hip eatery in L.A., Marin County, and all of the heirs to such a throne were playing the heck out of it. It also earned Grammy nominations, with a win for Roger Nichols, who again lent his engineering expertise, creating a shimmering production that is still an industry yardstick for sonic excellence.

The stylistic shift of the music was positively seismic. It wasn't jazz, exactly, but it certainly wasn't only rock and roll anymore. Steely Dan was now being deemed as fusion, a label which did not necessarily please the duo. It would be the first time that listeners would start to accuse them of smoothing things out. The modals of "Home at Last" were a revealing contrast to the swirling, dirty sounding keyboards on older tracks like "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More (from Katy Lied in '75). Shorter and his Weather Report cohorts had created a similiar brouhaha with their Heavy Weather album the same year. Many considered it the birth of "smooth jazz", which irked the trueblue jazz aficienados, just as Aja baffled the fans who wanted to merely rock out.

Nonetheless, Fagen and Becker had now achieved what they had been attempting for over seven years. A musically rich tapestry of compositions that paid homage to the giants of the jazz world as filtered through their post-Beatnik melancholia. It worked swimmingly, by all accounts. So, where does one go from here?

A "Greatest Hits" album, naturally! In 1978, ABC collected many of SD's most memorable to create another blockbuster hit. Included was the previously deleted outtake from the Royal Scam sessions, "Here at the Western World." This is another of my favorites, a midtempo tune which rather craftily uses a brothel as a metaphor for our free society.

Historically, "Greatest Hits" albums often signal the kiss of death for an artist. It usually means that the artist is running out of steam, past their prime, or just merely summating their first act. Sometimes, it means that the musicians are about to call it a day. Was this the case for Steely Dan? Hmmm, yes and no.........

to be continued

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Brother Theodore

Lately I've been recalling the late, great German monologist Theodore Gottlieb, far better known to mankind as Brother Theodore. His disorganized speech, stream-of-consiousness, and overall indescribable rambles made many an entertaining evening on Late Night with David Letterman back in the days when Letterman himself was actually funny. After my first exposure to this one-of-a-kind raconteur's shtick, I became a huge fan, always scanning the listings in the hopes of catching another of his appearances.

I never got to see him live, unfortunately. He performed his grimly funny one-man show every Saturday night at NYC's 13th Street Theater through his later years, after having performed since the 1930s. None too shabby for someone who described his act as "stand-up tragedy."

Here's a particularly uproarious Letterman clip:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Wiseacre Duos: Steely Dan, Part III

By the end of 1974, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to burn it all down. They fired their manager, dismantled their original group, and stopped touring. After the satisfying experience of Pretzel Logic, during the recording of which saw an impressive array of highly sought after studio players, Fagen and Becker knew there was no looking back. Witnessing the skills of seasoned musicians like Hugh McCracken, Chuck Rainey, and Michael Omartian, the duo began to realize their original "vision." With each album, they were seemingly getting closer to what they were aspiring.

Like many geniuses, Fagen and Becker were able to conceive their art mentally before it was performed. Not just a general idea, but a note for note chart, played end to end in their cortices. Mozart was reputed to have had this ability. I imagine the film director Stanley Kubrick had storyboarded film scenes much this way. Fagen and Becker also had something else in common with Kubrick-an alarming obessiveness with getting just the right take. Over the next several albums, the Steely Dan masterminds would subject their musicians, producers, and engineers to the painstaking process of finding perfection. Subjective perfection, of course. Perfection being a relative term, and only the songwriters were able to discern what "perfection" was in regards to their output.

Katy Lied was to be SD's next album. What is most noticeable about this batch is how much darker the lyrics became. Steely Dan had always shoehorned collections of wry words into their melodies, but this time it got a wee bit more lurid. It has been said that Fagen & Becker's songs are like little pieces of cinema; if that's the case, Katy Lied is akin to a film festival of highbrow sleaze. "Rose Darling" seems to be a loving song about masturbation. "Bad Sneakers" is narrated by an insane asylum inmate. "Chain Lightning" is a recollection of two guys who once attended a fascist rally. "Doctor Wu" quite abstractly describes a love triangle: guy, girl, and drugs. "Black Friday" details the flight of a guy who absconds with quite a bit of money after a major stock market crash. The most strikingly dark song, however, is a calypso ditty called "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" which tells of a dirty old man who shows pornographic films to underage teens, and exclaims how excited he will be when his charges turn 18.

As mentioned earlier, all of these interpretations are just that, interpretations. We seem to want a hard and fast definition to everything in our lives, even our art. But then I remember that rather famous e.e. cummings quote:

"I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing than to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance."

Excellent advice, particularly when attempting the slippery task of trying to decode the writings of one D. Fagen and W. Becker. My above summations would doubtless be taken to task by the legions of Steely Dan lovers out there. I'm certain many an argument as to just what in the hell Fagen is singing about in 'Throw Back the Little Ones" raged over a bottle of Muscatel back in the day. The songwriters were tickled by all of the interest, but often admitted that the lyrics were only utilized for their musical compatibility. How a word rhymed, how it made harmonic sense, how it fit a time signature-these were the criteria. As a result, sometimes the narratives suffered. As Fagen stated more that once, "they come out like stories with a few pieces missing."

One theory as to why the lyrics had become so tantalizingly grim was how L.A. was affecting our narrators. Here you had two dyed in the wool New Yorkers, dropped into the spacious, sunny "wasteland" of Los Angeles (think Woody Allen in ANNIE HALL). It has been said that some of the best art is derived from suffering, and perhaps that was the case. The ennui and cultural barrenness weighed on the musicians from Day One. It was as if they were returning gunfire (lyrically at least) against their laid back environment. This theory is food for thought, but a bit simplistic. There is plenty of evidence that Fagen and Becker were already predisposed to a sarcastic point of view. I'll bet they would have composed a string of twisted tales even if they had settled in Bettendorf, Iowa. It would have been an interesting "heredity vs. environment" experiment to be sure. Was the predilection for gallows humor innate? A defense mechanism? Or a response to a slaughterhouse of a world?

The music itself was also transforming. The army of musicians, while under the strict direction of Fagen and Becker, were still often allowed to add their own fluorishes to written parts. Drummer Jeff Porcaro, hired during the Pretzel Logic dates, would take the basic drum track and supplement with 16th note patterns (in 2 bar phrases), among other stylistics. Each of his fills were precise. It seemed there was a reason why this 19 year old player was already a veteran of the industry.

The most stunning work on Katy Lied, to me, is Phil Woods' otherworldly sax solo on "Doctor Wu". It is so amazing that I remember rewinding my old cassette tape just to hear it again. Fagen and Becker were so stunned by it that they did not ask Woods to play it again (a rarity). He had nailed it on the first take.

All of the ingredients were there for a new Steely Dan classic. However, the (re) emergence of the SD gremlin was to plague the post-production. Said gremelin seemed to dog every SD album in some way. During recording on a previous record, it was discovered during playback that a particular guitar section would not record properly on a 3M tape, no matter how many times it was "punched in." After a modification, the track recorded properly. The defective tape was sent to 3M headquarters, where it was discovered after analysis that the tape had a tiny bubble that was filled with mustard. A tech had brought his sandwich into the room where the mylar sheets were coated with oxide. Evidently, when the tech bit into the sandwich, the mustard landed, as the Fagen & Becker describe, "on the exact spot where we were going to put (the) guitar part."

Good intentions abounded when engineer Roger "The Immortal" Nichols and his team acquired the then brand- new Dolby DBX noise reduction units for the mastering process of Katy Lied. To everyone's horror, every aspect of the recording sounded distressingly flat. After several abortive mixes and a lack of understanding of why everything sounded so poor, Nichols and company flew to the DBX headquarters in Boston to get some assistance/advice. Specially designed equipment with external controls that allowed simultaneous control of mixing and playback was provided by the firm. It did not help. So disappointed were producer Gary Katz, Nichols, Becker, and Fagen that Katy Lied was very nearly shelved. Nonetheless, the crew relented and the artists' 4th album was released in 1975 to general critical acclaim and respectable sales.

The following year, Steely Dan would produce their most sneering, nasty effort. The Royal Scam is the first Dan album with which I became familiar, and perhaps because of that, it remains my personal favorite. I think it also has something to do with how unrepentedly funky the whole affair is. Fagen and Becker have long been accused of being the authors of elevator music, smooth jazz, souless code. I disagree, especially when you consider Scam. How can one listen to Larry Carlton's scorching guitar solos on "Kid Charlamagne" or "Don't Take Me Alive" and call the music vanilla or white bread? Scam is often referred to as the "guitar album", and with good reason. Carlton's work positively blisters throughout.

Also lending support was the flamboyant dummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, who had lent his sticks to all manner of superstars in years past: Sinatra, Nina Simone, the Beatles, and so on. So confident and cocky was Purdie that he carried around a neon sign which read ANOTHER HIT BEING MADE. His shuffles were memorable foundations of kickin' rhythm sections that were supplanted by Chuck Rainey or Becker on bass.

We spoke of the corrosive lyrics on Katy Lied. That was just a warm up. The bitter tales on Scam play like a grotesque parade of many of the social and political ills plaguing the day (and still). We are treated to songs about out of favor drug dealers, apologetic jewel theives, quickie island divorces, interplanatary havens for ex-cons, mistreated immigrants, fetishism, highly pissed off cuckolds, and a murderous criminal who barricades himself with a case of dynamite during a stand-off with the police. Never were the tunes so scathing, or intriguing.

I listen to The Royal Scam probably more than any other Steely Dan album. Why? Does that say something about me? After an episode involving a nutcase who held a busload of hostages at gunpoint a few years after this album was released, Fagen conjectured that the gunman "probably had 67 scratched copies of The Royal Scam." Is it truly the sociopath's musical manifesto? Nah, it's too danceable for that. In fact, the Dan even does a disco song ("The Fez") this time out. "Haitian Divorce", with its gnarly fuzz box effects and faux raggae beats, is another sublimely boppable tune.

I could easily post a separate entry on this album, dedicating the space to some commentary of each of the songs. So dense, these tunes. I would raise an eyebrow over "The Caves of Altamira" the compact jazzer that curiously details a young boy's experiences taking in ancient cave murals. What about Paul Griffin's gorgeous piano in "Sign In Stranger", a nod to Fagen & Becker's sci-fi geekery? I would need to describe the potentous title track, its storyline of displaced Puerto Rican aliens and their eventual exploitation, all set to some of the most dissonant, goosebump inducing trumpet breaks you'll ever hear. And surely I would speak of the most blatant track, "Everything You Did", with its narrator running down the score once he discovers his wife's infidelity. Nothing enigmatic about that tune, and nothing pretty, either. The punchline at the end is vintage Steely Dan in its pungency.

So what we have with Scam is quintessential Dan: immaculate, yet groovy arrangements and twisted lyrics. It is a look into the shadows, an overturn of a rock with all sorts of frightening matter underneath, and ultimately, a violent shaking of the tacky shag carpet of the 70s, revealing despair and woundedness. So naked an examination of "the dreary architecture of (one's) soul", as described in a much later SD song, had not graced the record bins in years.

Yeah, sure. I bet Fagen and Becker would laugh themselves silly over that.........

to be continued

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Wiseacre Duos: Steely Dan, Part II

The surprising success of Can't Buy a Thrill delighted and baffled Donald Fagen and Walter Becker as they headed into 1973. They knew they would eventually compose something that clicked with audiences, but hardly expected such an out-of-the-box home run. They also did not expect the urgency with which to follow-up their hit debut would occur. ABC Records was rabid for another blockbuster.

Steely Dan was now back to a five man unit. As Fagen & Becker write in the (1999 reissue) liner notes for their sophomore effort Countdown to Ecstacy, "(this album) is unique amongst the Steely Dan albums in that it is the only one written and arranged for a working ensemble." It would prove to be a short-lived concept, as we will discover later.

Countdown proved to be a much more sophisticated batch of tunes. Instead of writing catchy hooks, the artists revealed more of their jazz influence/leanings by composing lengthy jams that often clocked in at longer than 5 minutes-a death knell for radio airplay. It was no surprise that Countdown did not deliver a Top 40 single, nor did it sell as well as its predecessor. Palpable disappointment was in the air after a pre-release audition of the album for the studio brass. The icing on the cake was the duo's use of the f-word in one of the potential singles ("Show Biz Kids").

It took me some time to warm up to Countdown to Ecstacy, but I find I appreciate more and more. The lengthy bridges allow the musicians to really hone their chops. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's pedal steel is signature stuff, and still impressive. The sound he creates is emblematic of the SD style of the earlier period. His playing often adds a country flavor to the proceedings ("Pearl of the Quarter"). The real stomper, however, is "My Old School", an infectious sing-a-long which rather loosely describes the time Fagen & Becker were arrested during a massive drug bust at Bard College. How this song was not a hit is quite a mystery to me.

In between recording sessions, Steely Dan was again called to tour the nation. And again, a variety of circumstances cosnpired to make the experience an absolute nightmare for the duo. For artists so finicky about sonic quality, it was inevitable that many venues (some outdoor) would not be up to standard. But mainly, Fagen and Becker were just not suited to life on the road. The antics of roadies and the general backstage atmosphere greatly depressed them.

In 1974, Steely Dan returned to the studio to cut Pretzel Logic, a return to shorter, less complex offerings. That is not to say that the music wasn't as accomplished. The songwriters were continuing to mature, paring away the elements that they feel did not gel. One of those was the skinsmanship of drummer Jim Hodder. While a very competent player, Hodder was not steady enough to provide the precision Fagen & Becker were now demanding. Similarly, Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter found themselves relegated to fewer and fewer solos, and virtually no input to the songwriting process. Instead, Steely Dan began to transform into less of a band and more of an, idea.

Session players were now called upon to provide the level of musicianship that Fagen & Becker had always imagined. They were in quiet awe of these crack guitarists, vibesmen, keyboardists, percussionists, etc. as they even expanded the possibilities of what Steely Dan could sound like. It was never really the intention to have a stable band, one which allowed time to create a comfortable style, a familiarity among musicians. With rotating groups of ace players, Steely Dan became a mysterious concept, a dynamic animal that encompassed an increasingly definable style, yet with the sort of sophistication not to be found in other major label acts.

Pretzel Logic spawned a hit single, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", a bittersweet tune of May-December romance. Or not. As always, Fagen & Becker's lyricism was the source of much deabte among fans. Part of the intrigue of this act was the often inpenetrability of the lyrics (see the "Fever Dreams" archived web site for various interpretations and "shared delusions"). One interesting theory about this album was that it was a collection of tunes about the late Charlie Parker, who was hugely influential on the songwriters. To wit, one of the tracks (and one of my fave SD songs) is the enthusiastic "Parker's Band," a vivid ode to the eras of swing and bop. The haunting "Charlie Freak" laments the tragic death of...well, that's up to the listener. When quizzed about song meanings, our sardonic duo would typically deflect attention to virtually any other topic, usually something completely unrelated.

Even though the aforementioned sessions players did the bulk of the playing on the album, Dias, Baxter, and Hodder still played the concert dates. It would prove to be the last Steely Dan tour for quite a long time. After the tour ended, Becker and Fagen finally dismantled the original personnel. The unpleasantness of touring finally took its toll, prompting Fagen and Becker to spend the remainder of the 70s holed up in dark studios, demanding take after take to get the cleanest sound possible for each successive album.........

to be continued

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Woody Cunundrum

It's a question (sometimes rhetorical) I've asked quite a bit this decade:

What has happened to Woody Allen?

I can still recall that night back in 2000. I was sitting in the lobby of the Regal Cinemas in Royal Palm Beach. I glanced over to see a poster for something called SMALL TIME CROOKS. A silhouette of a figure clad in a trenchcoat was taking a bite out of a cookie. It reminded me of one of those old posters for THE PINK PANTHER films. I got up and scanned the credits. I read them again. Yep, "written and directed by Woody Allen." And it was distributed by Dreamworks?! It didn't make sense. These elements did not add up. Something was amiss.

Of course, Woody had always made the occasional madcap comedy, even as late as the 90s with MIGHTY APHRODITE. But it was something else. The poster smacked of marketing, no doubt concocted by some dimwits at this new studio who didn't know about the austerity of a bona-fide Woody Allen film. Sure, former home studio Orion had gone belly-up, but it felt just, wrong. I got this notion that Woody had finally sold out.

CROOKS turned out to be a nice little piece of whimsy. Harmless fun in the vein of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY or BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, even MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY. Fine. Then came THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION, then HOLLYWOOD ENDING, then, well, I gave up. I was getting weary of waiting for the comeback.

Then, it came. 2005's MATCH POINT was a return to form. The familiar themes of justice, fate, divine intervention (or lack of), guilt; it was all there in a tight, grim little package. I breathed a sigh of relief. He's still got it. Apparently though, after the last few years, I've changed that opinion to Maybe he got lucky.

Such a shame. Woody Allen has carved out a most fascinating place in film history. He began with goofy laugh riots like WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY and BANANAS, segued into more highbrow comedy like ANNIE HALL, and even tread Ingmar Bergman (one of Woody's idols) territory with INTERIORS. The best Woodys, to me, are the ones that deftly blend the hilarity and pathos. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS is such an example. One minute Woody's character is tossing off gems like "the last time I was inside a woman was when I visted the Statue of Liberty", the next, he is exploring the moral quandary of a physician who ponders the offing of his mistress. This quandary develops into quite a philosphical treatise on morality. Why does Ben, the moral and righteous rabbi go blind while the physician, who has engineered a murder, go scot free?

HUSBANDS AND WIVES is another stunner. It was 1992, Woody's relationship with actress Mia Farrow (the female lead in every film of his for 10 years) crashed to pieces in the midst of a rather tawdry family affair. Even though the film was completed prior to the break-up, you can see the pain through the performances. This was Woody Unbound. A raw, wounded, patently adult drama with realistic dialogue. I had always enjoyed the wit spouted by all of the urban sophisticates which populated Woody's New York, but it was refreshing to finally hear characters just scream their frustrations. It was draining, cathartic. For him, too, I would think.

I count ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, HANNAH & HER SISTERS, CRIMES..., and HUSBANDS... as Woody's A-listers, his top films. But there's one more: THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. I was entirely expecting this to be a pleasant "in between the big ones" trifle, ala RADIO DAYS or ZELIG. I was wrong. PURPLE ROSE is one of the most literate, clever, and ultimately heartbreaking works in Woody's oeuvre. The story follows a Depression era housewife who escapes societal and homelife gloom at the local bijou. She becomes captivated with the hero of the latest melodrama. She drinks in the luxurious world portrayed onscreen. Over, and over. Finally, the hero decides to literally walk off the screen and join the housewife in the Real World. Needless to say, this causes all manner of complication in the real world AND back onscreen. Allen quite brilliantly examines the entire filmmaking mythos, how it defines individuals, creates paper thin svengalis, and ultimate leads to...nope. You just have to see it. But that ending is one of the most shattering I've ever seen. It takes a lot to make this viewer weep, but even my teenage self was reduced to a misty mess when the familiar credits flashed.

That was the Woody of decades past. No longer. The 00s has been the decade when the seams finally showed. Or, maybe the prolific mantra just doesn't work anymore; the law of averages has finally turned, and not favorably. He just cranks them out. Year after year. I keep wondering why.

Last week, I got my answer. In the latest Newsweek, Jennie Yabroff profiles the reclusive, workaholic auteur. It says it all, really.

At 72, he says he still lies awake at night,
terrified of the void. He cannot reconcile
his strident atheism with his superstition
about the banana, but he knows why he makes
movies: not because he has any grand state-
ment to offer, but simply to take his mind off
the existential horror of being alive. Movies
are a great diversion, he says, "because it's
much more pleasant to be obsessed over how the
hero gets out of his predicament than it is
over how I get out of mine."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Wiseacre Duos: Steely Dan, Part I

If you were to ask me about the musical artists with whom I log the most listening hours, I find that a number of them are comprised of a pair of hyper-literate, often sardonic geniuses who know how to turn, bend, and otherwise metamorphasize a lyric and a chord. Three separate acts of wiseacre duos (one of which has not one but two such pairings) will be profiled in a series of posts over the coming weeks. My first examination, and possibly favorite musical outfit of all time, is of the above pictured gents known as Steely Dan.

Much has been written about these rather complex individuals. Many of us know that Donald Fagen (lead vocals, piano, keyboard, police whistle) and Walter Becker (bass, guitar, occasional vocal) met at Bard College in the late 1960s. They shared an affinity for jazz, science fiction, and a peculiar sense of humor. They were also both exacting musicians who had decided that they would take a crack at exploiting their talents for a career. Initially, they auditioned their tunes around NYC. Their obtuse lyrics and intricate melodies proved unpopular with producers, until the day they hawked their wares to the home office of 60s popmeisters Jay & the Americans in the famous Brill Building. Group member Kenny Vance was impressed with their music, if not their wrinkled, hipster appearance ("they looked like insects").

Vance got Fagen and Becker some after hours studio time, the results of which were a collection of demos that....still did not open any doors for them. This was despite the obvious creativity and ingenuity evidenced in these tunes, odd as they were. Some 15-20 years later, after Fagen and Becker called it quits as Steely Dan, these demos were released (much to the authors' dismay) on a series of low rent record labels. Indeed, some pretty obtuse stuff, songs with titles like "Let George Do It", "Soul Ram", "Yellow Peril", and "Android Warehouse." One of the even more curious pieces was a take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland called "Mock Turtle Song", a very catchy number with a rare lead vocal by a teenaged Becker.

Our duo also became backing musicians for JATA in the late 60s/early 70s, and their experiences began to form the foundation of their disdain for the touring life. Playing everything from "mafia toilets in Staten Island" to Madison Square Garden, Fagen and Becker's disgust with "the jock atmosphere" of the road would only grow as their fame did likewise.

At about the same time, Vance hooked up the songwriters with a producer named Gary Kannon. It proved to be a fateful meeting; within a few years (after reverting to his surname of Katz), the producer got Fagen and Becker jobs as staff songwriters at ABC Records in Los Angeles. It was the break they were looking for, or at least the first domino to get things moving. Fagen and Becker's songs were still too bizarre for the roster of pop acts (Three Dog Night, et al.) at ABC, but the writers managed to fashion a few more traditional, pop type arrangements, even if they held their noses while doing so. At the very least, some small measure of success was achieved.

The move to ABC was more prescient, however, as an opportunity for the boys to realize their actual m.o.-to form their own band. After the daily 9-5 of staff songwriting, Fagen and Becker quite covertly would use an empty office to rehearse with their hand picked musicians from back East. Guitarists Denny Dias (a former bandmate from an earlier venture called Demian) and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter joined drummer Jim Hooder to round out the inaugural Steely Dan line-up. Things were progressing quickly. ABC caught on to the plot, and decided to gamble on this new outfit. They bankrolled studio time for an album.

Meanwhile, Fagen was struggling with his role as lead singer. "Nobody wants to hear a Jew sing", he lamented, quite wrongly. Everyone who heard his unique register agreed it was the correct tone to match the wry lyricism. Fagen was not convinced, and concomitant stage fright lead the way for one David Palmer, another acquaintance from New York, to become lead singer.

Can't Buy a Thrill, Steely Dan's first record, on the strength of two smash singles, "Do it Again" and "Reeling in the Years", became a runaway success. It is an unusually confident first album, with a strong sense of rhythm and melody. far beyond the usual 3 chord progressions and predictable harmonies, Steely Dan employed the use of sitars to make "Do it Again" so distinguished. The lyrics throughout the record deal with an assortment of topics not often heard in contemporary rock: overthrown monarchies, the plight of stoop-dwelling Brooklynites, mafioso "promises", reflective jazz icons. Of course, the timeless themes of fate, fidelity, and aging were also there. Thrill's popularity with audiences and critics alike was far beyond what anyone expected in 1972. Naturally, ABC was extremely pleased, and expecting a mega tour to follow. Fagen and Becker, realizing they had little choice, hit the metropolii and backwater alike.

While many who attended these shows cited them as some of the most energetic they had seen, critics were often harsh. After a gig at L.A.'s Whisky A Go Go, one wag described the lack of stage presence, their apparent discomfort with performing. He called Steely Dan "the ugliest band I've ever seen." Additionally, a series of technical snafus would plague several dates. To top it off, drafted lead singer Palmer was not really making the grade with Msrs Fagen and Becker. His sweaty, aggressive posturing and static singing seemed more suited to any number of the rock acts of the day. Fagen decided to swallow his anxiety (or "work around my yellow stripe" as he sang in "Fire in the Hole" from Thrill), and reluctantly assume the lead. Palmer was dismissed after only a few months with the band, the first casualty. Eventually, more were to come.

But for now, the remaining 5 man outfit forged ahead, ready to record their next masterpiece..........

to be continued

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tropic Thunder

A number of years back I was standing in line somewhere (for a movie, most likely) when I heard two senior ladies behind me:

Senior #1: Did you see that commercial? It was terrible!
Senior #2: Which one?
#1: The one with that little girl saying 'when I grow up I wanna work in a cubicle', or something like that.
#2: Oh yes. All those people, saying they wanted to be this and that. 'I want to be underappreciated'. Yeah. Terrible.

I laughed out loud. I couldn't help it. The commercial to which they were referring was for the web job site If you've never seen it, take a gander:

Anyway, what made me laugh was the realization that often people just don't get it. There really are people who are that clueless. Clearly this ad was not marketed to the demographic of our retirees, but still. Perhaps irony wasn't in the drinking water for the "greatest generation" like it was for the Boomers, Xers, and the subsequent.

I thought of this while listening to an NPR interview with Special Olympics chair Tim Shriver this week. He was on the air to denounce the new comedy TROPIC THUNDER, for its caricatures of developmentally and cognitively delayed (the most PC terms I can muster at this time) individuals. "The word 'retard' is used 17 times," exclaimed Shriver, who was planning to picket the opening night showings. He and others (who have not seen the movie) are calling for boycotts. When I heard this, it cemented my desire to see this film. Publicity such as this is pure gold for a film like TROPIC THUNDER, a cheerfully obscene, no-holds-barred Hollywood satire.

After watching the movie tonight, I can only conclude that Mr. Shirver is an unfortunate member of the irony deficient club, those anemic souls who wouldn't recognize a lampoon if it clocked them in the mandible. If he had seen the entire film, he would (hopefully) understand that the filmmakers clearly were not intending to merely stand back and laugh at those with disabilities. But I digress. This film was a mostly dead-on take of the business of acting and filmmaking. Director Ben Stiller has taken the correct approach: loud, chaotic, vulgar, and even violent means to parody the sort of self-absorption that does not allow for real human contact, or behavior. Virtually every charcter in this film is so enmeshed in Hollywood nonsense that they are unable to relate to anyone or anything in a productive way. No one is spared, not the writers, directors, special effects guys. But the brunt of this trenchant satire is placed on the actors, agents, and studio chiefs.

Vietnam vet Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte, doing his best growly alpha male bit) is about to see his memoir Tropic Thunder become a major motion picture. Once underway, the shoot doesn't go well. Diva behavior by the actors is causing expensive disruptions. Tayback decides that the actors need to "live" their roles as weary soldiers. He masterminds a sort of boot camp (the kind actors on the real film PLATOON underwent) in which the pampered stars will be stripped of their ecoutrements and live like dogs in foxholes, eat cold c-rations, the whole bit. Things turn very, very bad.

The actors: Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a fading action hero trying for yet another comeback. His recent attempt to do a prestigious drama, SIMPLE JACK, was a notrious failure. You see, Jack is a "retard", and Speedman overdid it a bit. "You went 'full retard'", says fellow actor Kirk Lazerus (Robert Downey Jr.), "and that don't work. You didn't see Dustin Hoffman or Tom Hanks or Sean Penn overdo it like that." Lazerus himself (a multiple Oscar winning Australian) goes over the line in his own offensive way, so dedicated to his thespianism that he decides to play an African-American soldier named Osiris and undergoes a surgical procedure which tints his skin dark. He goes all Method and stays in charcter between takes. He speaks in a stereotyped accent and spouts the kind of street talk mainly heard in 70s blaxploitation pictures. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comedy star whose humor centers on flatulence. As the film opens, we are treated to uproarious fake trailers featuring these and other characters.

As I stated, TROPIC THUNDER is a big, noisy spectacle spoofing big noisy spectacles. There is always the danger of becoming the very thing which you are satirizing (see NATURAL BORN KILLERS, for one), but here it makes complete sense. There's just no other way. Stiller and company took Mel Brooks' old advice: sometimes you have to rise below vulgarity. And make no mistake, this is a seriously profane movie, especially when we get to meet one of the other film's main targets, a corpulent nightmare of a man named Les Grossman. Grossman is a studio head who chomps cigars, threatens and demeans subordinates, screams for Diet Cokes, and punctuates every sentence with some amazingly creative obscenity. He'll decimate anyone, at any time to save his picture. It seems that this character is based on people like Harvey Weinstein and enfant terrible producer Scott Rudin (who was known to shout demands of "string cheese!" to his staff). You may have heard that Tom Cruise, clad in a bald wig and fat suit, plays this cretin. He has a whale of a time with the part. It has to be seen to be believed.

The ham comes in huge doses. Most comedies showcase one cut-up; this film has a whole cast of 'em. Stiller, Black, Matthew McConaughey, Cruise, and others all get multiple chances to shine. But this film belongs to Downey Jr. ASTONISHING performance. Talk about disappearing into a character! As an Aussie playing a black man, well, you just have to see it. He plays broad, as you would expect. But what stunned me was the multitude of subtleties he brough to his expressions, his pauses; it was like watching a master class in acting. His timing and nuance was so good it reminded me of Your Show of Shows, that 50s chestnut with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. That show is the yardstick against what any comedic material worth its salt should be measured. Downey transforms what could've been a cheap, offensive idea into comedic perfection. His performance will become part of some Pantheon.

Will the film itself join such ranks? Probably not, as it is too varaible to be a complete success. It does get to be a bit much at times. After a smashing opening, the film loses momentum for a good while before hitting its stride again somewhere around the mid-section. The ideas finally gel at about the time Stiller's character is kidnapped by real soldiers, an army of minions protecting a heroin factory in the jungle. The hit-miss gag ratio is favorable, but there are still a number of duds. In any event, I expect TROPIC THUNDER will be quoted for years to come.

One of the best parts of my THUNDER experience, however, was the audience with which I saw the movie. I was expecting a gallery of buffoons. To my surprise, the theater turned out tonight to be filled with literate, knowing patrons. Sure, there's plenty of crass humor in the movie for the masses, but my audience also laughed at even the most subtle touches. How refreshing. They GOT IT. Somehow, they understood that the barbs were directed at inward looking narcissists and not an ethnic groups or the handicapped. There's indeed hope for mankind yet.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Ice Harvest

Have you ever heard critics, or even your filmgoing cohorts, say "I felt like I needed a shower after watching that movie!"? Perhaps you've even said it. I have, on occasion. After all I'd read about THE ICE HARVEST, what with its potentially tawdry ingredients of mobster lawyers, strip clubs, and grifters, I expected to start my review (provided I wasn't too lazy to write one, clearly the case of latter days) with that very sentence.


"Well," my response would be, "sort of..."

The plot: Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) is a hotshot, yet thoroughly weary attorney for a local mobster (Randy Quaid). One Christmas Eve, he decides to relieve his boss of 2 million and change. Aiding and abetting is Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), a cool as a cucumber egotist who you just know is the very definition of clandestine duplicity. He just doesn't wear it on his sleeve. The duo plans to blow town with the dough, but they have to have a "normal" Eve first. Doing things like visiting ex-wives and kids, listening to drunken pals ruminate on their pathetic lives, buying last minute gifts. These things occur, but so do quite a few other things......

Strange thing about this film, director Harold Ramis' and screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton's adaptation of Scott Phillips' rather nasty novel. Despite all manner of sleazy goings and a really bleak, neo-Nietzche worldview, this film doesn't quite achieve the sort of discomforting griminess it is reaching for. At least, not while I was watching it or even immediately afterward.

Perhaps that has something to do with the location in which the action takes place. Witchita, KS. That's right. Not your usual setting. It's Christmas Eve. And it's icy and rainy. It looks so, well, pretty. We follow Charlie through luxurious homes and upscale saloons, yes, but even the strip clubs in this movie look immaculate. It's odd. Additionally, the crisp cinematography by Alar Kivilo adds a sheen of elegance, of slickness. The vivid uses of primary colors don't provide the expected neon sleazery, but rather shiny elan to this larcenous tale. Ah, but underneath the shiny wrapping and bow is a rather foul surprise!

The film was actually shot in the suburbs of Chicago, which are also quite immaculate, and I guess could easily double for Wichita. On the commentary track, Ramis deadpans that no one even knows what Wichita looks like. "I couldn't even find any pictures of it," he quips.

Of course, the incongruity of the locale and screenplay is probably by design. Having the ugliness occur on Christmas Eve in a town supposedly dominated by good, decent folk ("half of whom are in [this bar] tonight to get laid," Charlie remarks at one point) makes an effective contrast. Yet, the film feels too produced to completely be effective. I never felt the sort of unease the filmmakers wanted to convey. It was all too handsomely designed. Lots of horrible things play out, and there is some pitch black humor, and again it felt a bit antiseptic. I guess I was also supposed to be offended, as this screenplay is rife with more salty dialogue than your average R-rated feature, not to mention a plethora of nude pole dancers (mostly background and quite asexual, IMO) and the aforementioned point of view that is rather optimistically deemed, nihilist. Yet, I just felt numb.

Thinking on it, though, it all does seem more disturbing. THE ICE HARVEST is very similiar to other neo noirs like THE LAST SEDUCTION, SHALLOW GRAVE, and BLOOD SIMPLE, yet, upond some reflection right now (I'm winging this review), the ice cold attitude does create a sort of despairing aftertaste, perhaps souring some of the "fun." Just desserts can be tasty, but the barren landscape which remains really prevents too much grim satisfaction. Maybe that shower isn't a bad idea after all.

The Chain

This past Sunday I began volunteering as a member of the prayer team at my church. My spirit leapt at this opportunity when the need was announced during the most recent Volunteer Fair. I still struggle with my prayer life. So often I feel that the entire process is by rote, just a memorized script devoid of relevance. My requests are urgent and genuine, but they seem to be born of a spiritual slouch, if you will. Autopilot.

Our church meets in a building that began as a church many decades ago, and has since become a venue for concerts and other events. A few years back I attended a Tierney Sutton show there. Each Sunday, the Harriet Himmel Theater is holy ground, its very foundation turned over to provide spiritual healing for the believer and doubter alike. Behind the stage is a labyrinth of cubby-like rooms, one of which is used for the purpose of coming together for intercessory prayer. During each service, two or more cry out verbally to God for requests and praises of increasing promiximity, i.e., we begin by praying for the service in progress, then gradually work away from the church out out to the most remote missionary, the most clandestine soul, far removed (in sundry ways) from our holy confine.

My first meeting was a true blessing. My words were surely not my own. I was concerned that I would try to sound like a polished, seasoned saint with my piety. Didn't happen, praise the Lord. Myself and three others brought forth impassioned pleas, prayers that are still with me. At one point, a folder of prayer requests was handed out; we were to pick three and specifically lift up each person's need(s). As I sifted through, I was shocked at how candid were the words of my fellow church members. These were real needs. Situations that in some cases were heartbreaking, unimaginable. Many did not hold back-people are dealing with some seriously destructive environments, attitudes. It may not sound surprising to you as you read this, but to see these needs on paper, right there, caused me to really ponder. At the very least, I realized that I have no room to whine about anything in my life.

The church is indeed a refuge for the sick, and there are very real needs. I am not excluded from this. I anticipate my experience in this group. It will most certainly quench my narcisstic tendencies