Saturday, November 29, 2008

Make It Stop

I've been trying to figure out why IBM's TV commercials are so bad, and have been so bad ever since they started using those blue letterboxing bands on them. There is an air of humorless unreality about them, as if some 62-year-old in a gray suit was trying to think of ways to present business as irreverent fun. I have yet to see one that had a believable moment in it, that evinced any familiarity at all with the human condition.

The ones that are airing right now - with some young chin-haired techie explaining the benefits of going green - are among the better ones in the series, rising to the level of the merely bad, rather than train-wreck awful, with their mock-Disney music and at least a halfhearted attempt at justifying greenness in financial terms, when you know that's all that real businesspeople will end up caring about. The acting isn't as annoying as in some of the other spots, like the one when two guys are sitting in desks facing each other and sinking in quicksand while repeating an inneffectual parody of Aaron Sorkin hypertheatrical dialogue, which in its original form was only an ineffectual parody of David Mamet.

That wasn't the worst one, though; the worst one was when a bunch of 24-year-olds in gray suits talking on cell phones at European outdoor cafes attempted to show, through their smug acting, that working for IBM in a bunch of foreign capitals was the coolest thing in the world. No, wait: That wasn't nearly as bad as the one with the short, white, middle-aged middle-management superhero in Malcom X glasses. Lord help the sinners.

I don't buy mainframes, so I am not IBM's target audience (although since I watch hardly any new television other than sports, I get to see these ads a lot). Sometimes I wonder if that target audience, like me, watches these commercials and thinks that IBM is run by a bunch of preening idiots.

Friday, November 28, 2008

You and Julio

One thing I mean to do one of these days is pick up the new hardbound collection of Paul Simon lyrics (and I mean "pick up" literally - I will open it up at a bookstore and check out my concerns but it is wholly unlikely that I would actually buy it) and read the official lyrics to "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard." I have always heard the crucial line in the chorus as "See me and Julio down by the schoolyard," but recently, on several unofficial lyrics site, I've seen the line presented as "See you, me and Julio down by the schoolyard."

Now, it's true that Paul says something like "See-ya me and Julio down by the schoolyard," but I always thought the interpolated syllable was just a little singer's trick, a way to separate the "see" and the "me," much as in the Platters' "Only You." But arguing against it, I get:

* At no other point in the song does Simon slip into the second person.
* The song is called "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," not "You, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard."
* "You, me and Julio" isn't very idiomatic; "me, you and Julio" would be the more common phrasing.
* The "you" is never enunciated clearly at all, not even once.

(As an aside, "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" is one of only two songs I can think of with a whistling solo, the other being "Dock of the Bay." Am I missing any?)

Simon made a video for the song on the occasion of one of his greatest-hits packages in the 1980s, rather bizarrely featuring Mickey Mantle and John Madden, among others. Inexplicably, Mantle, who was of course a switch-hitter, bats lefthanded against the southpaw Simon in their stickball showdown, adding to the surreality. Check it out:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Waiting for Consideration

Is it just me, or is Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman pretty much the same movie as his later For Your Consideration? They're both about a group of marginally talented people - Parker Posey, Catherine O'Hara, etc. - who are trying to put on an unexceptional piece of entertainment when it's disrupted by an unwarranted bit of outside attention. In Guffman, it's a talent scout from New York, while in For it's rumors of Oscar buzz.

There are significant differences, beginning with the fact that Guffman is funny. Since Guffman is about ordinary people, we're much more willing to root for them than the peripheral Hollywood actors in For. The minor characters in Guffman are more indelible, especially David Cross and the too-little-seen Linda Kash as Eugene Levy's wife. And while it's ridiculous to think that some sort of talent agent would descend on a community-theater show in small-town Missouri, that might actually be more realistic than the notion that a Hollywood film would start to get some Oscar talk while it was still being shot.

Still, both films benefit greatly from the presence of Parker Posey. I don't think I've seen a bad movie with Parker Posey in it, although that's probably more of a testament to the number of movies I've seen.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Too Bad He Never Got the Chance to Do One for the Soup Dragons

I was reminded over the weekend that the cover art for Billy Squier's 1982 album Emotions in Motion (great title, eh?) was done by none other than Andy Warhol. This was at the suggestion of Billy himself, who obviously recognized how nice it was that one of America's most important artists was always willing to do anything for a buck.

I don't know how much the label paid for the cover art, but Billy bought the two originals - one for the front cover and a slightly different one for the back cover - directly from Warhol for $40,000 apiece. It's hard to believe, but Billy was really very savvy about money. Despite the fact that his time as a star lasted about two years, Billy parlayed that into an apartment in New York's fabled San Remo building on Central Park West, where Bono also lives. A Warhol portrait of Conrad Black sold earlier this year for 185,000 pounds, which is about $280,000 - and who wants a picture of Conrad Black? Wouldn't you rather have a picture of Billy Squier?

Warhol was pretty busy with album covers during the 1980s. He did Love You Live for the Rolling Stones, Silk Electric for Diana Ross and Koo Koo for Debbie Harry, among others. Most of those looked to me more like Andy Warhol knockoffs than works of art by the great man himself, but what do I know?

Ode to Bobbie

Speaking of people who dropped off the face of the earth, Bobbie Gentry released her last album in 1970, when she was only 26. She continued knocking around show business for a while, without a great deal of visibility; her final appearance in the public eye was on "The Tonight Show" on Christmas Night, 1978.

I wonder if they had a hard time finding guests to appear on "The Tonight Show" on Christmas. I'd bet money that Johnny turned the desk over to a guest host that night, which means that Bobbie Gentry's showbiz farewell would have come at the hands of Joe Garagiola or Roy Clark. If anyone has the means to figure out who was hosting that night, please let me know.

Bobbie did marry Jim "Spiders and Snakes" Stafford in 1979, but that lasted about as long as Stafford's hitmaking career.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Light in Your Head and Dead on Your Feet

Gerry Rafferty fell into obscurity pretty quickly after "Baker Street" was followed by "Home and Dry," "Right Down the Line," "Get It Right Next Time" - that's more hits than you thought he had, isn't it? And we didn't even mention Stealer's Wheel. Anyway, by the turn of the Eighties, Rafferty stopped having hits, and more or less stopped making albums after 1982's Sleepwalking.

Heavy drinking apparently didn't help the matter either. This past summer, Rafferty checked into a London hotel, whose other guests started complaining that Mr. Baker Street was relieving himself wherever he pleased, and it didn't always please him to use the loo. When he checked out, the maids discovered an enormous cleaning job: Rafferty had left the room literally soaked with both blood and urine. You probably suspect that I'm making this up, but I couldn't make up such a thing.

Rafferty then checked himself into a hospital to deal with liver damage, which seems like a pretty good idea. But on August 1st, he walked out, leaving all his stuff behind in his hospital room. He hasn't been seen since. Well, he's probably been seen by someone, but you know what I mean.

My, that was unpleasant, wasn't it? Let's end on a happier note: The indelible sax break in "Baker Street" was played by a gentleman with the Harry Potterish name of Raphael Ravenscroft. Rafferty has always maintained that he wrote that sax riff, but Ravenscroft claims that Rafferty handed him the song and asked him to fill in a sax part. "Most of what I played was an old blues riff," Ravenscroft has said. "If you're asking me: 'Did Gerry hand me a piece of music to play?' then no, he didn't." Instead of a songwriting credit, Ravenscroft got a check (or cheque, as they like to say in England) for 27 pounds. It bounced. Come to think of it, that's not much more pleasant than the sad saga of Gerry Rafferty.

Many thanks to Rob for the idea behind this post

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bang! Bang!

Neil Aspinall died earlier this year, but whatever happened to his old running mate Mal Evans? Aspinall and Evans were roadies and gofers for the Beatles in the early days, and Evans showed up on organ in "You Won't See Me" and anvil on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and, most famously, on alarm clock for "A Day in the Life."

Aspinall became the head of Apple after the Beatles broke up, but Evans was more or less left adrift. He claimed to have had a hand in writing a few of the Beatles songs, which would have earned him fabulous royalties, but of course Lennon-McCartney didn't need a third wheel in the credits. (Evans supposedly wrote some if not all of the lyrics for "Fixing a Hole," and apparently really did help suggest the title for Sgt. Pepper by asking Paul what the S & P on those little pots stood for.)

When Lennon went out to Los Angeles for his Lost Weekend in the early '70s, Evans went too. Stuck without much to do, he flailed around a bit, getting himself intoxicated. Finally, in 1976, Evans was living in an apartment in L.A. and fighting with his girlfriend when he pulled out an air rifle. Cops were called, and when they saw Mal waving a gun around, they opened fire. Mal was dead at forty.

Evans was cremated and his ashes were sent home to England for disposal. Somewhere along the way, they got lost in the mail. I am not making that up. John Lennon suggested they look for them in the dead letter office.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Poor George

In this week's New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter pens the following on participatory journalist George Plimpton:

George would often complain that because of the review and the need to make money, he never got around to writing the Big Book, to enter the Pantheon of greats the way Mailer and Styron had. “I could have been a contender,” Maggie Paley remembers him saying. “If I hadn’t done The Paris Review, I could have been a major writer.”

This is presented approvingly, or at least without an audible clucking of the tongue, and I have to say I find it personally offensive. George Plimpton was born to comfortable wealth, ran off to Paris after college, and eventually settled in a spacious apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. (Carter's review is even titled "Lucky George.") There is no evidence that he ever had what the rest of us would call a real job. The Paris Review was a literary quarterly; I can't imagine it took George Plimpton's nights and weekends away from him. He certainly had he time to write a Big Book (he had the time to write several nonfiction books), and he certainly had the money. It is highly doubtful that George Plimpton ever had corn flakes for dinner because there was no real food in the house and his paycheck wouldn't arrive until Thursday.

Even if he had, he could have persevered in his writing. Philip Roth wrote Goodbye, Columbus while he was in the army. William Burroughs worked as an exterminator. Georges Perec worked days as an archivist at a research laboratory, and still managed to crank out an entire novel - A Void - that never once used the letter "e." Plimpton had his entire lifetime and the entire alphabet at his disposal; if he failed to become a major writer, which is undeniably the case, it is solely his fault.

Plimpton was a socialite. There is a panoramic picture accompanying Carter's review showing one of his famous cocktail parties; I recognized Capote, but not Styron or Vidal or Puzo or the several other noted authors who are present. (Just the idea that there could be a panoramic view of his Manhattan apartment should tell you how flimsy his "need to make money" was.) I wonder if Plimpton ever stood up, around 8:15 one evening, and cried "Enough! Everybody out! I need to get a couple of hours of work in on my novel." I bet not.

George Plimpton's entire life was more privileged than that of 99.9 percent of all Americans. He could do whatever he chose, and it is to is credit that he accomplished what he did, which was to edit a literary magazine and write articles and books (he did even publish one novel, the whimsical Curious Case of Sidd Finch, which apparently didn't tap his potential as a writer). But this notion that he wasn't quite privileged enough to do all he was capable of, I think, is pretty disgusting.

The Safety Dance

I was traveling yesterday, and circumstances forced my to carry some but not all of my grooming materials with me. As I was laying my backpack on the conveyor belt, the lady asked me if there were any toiletries in there, and I answered, with some trepidation, that there was a razor in there. She asked if there was any shaving cream, and I said no; I would never be foolish enough to try to bring shaving cream onto a commercial airplane flight.

Of course, were I so inclined, I probably could have done a little damage with that razor - given someone a good scratch on the back of the arm, at least. I'm not sure what havoc I could wreak with a can of shaving cream, although I supposed if I sprayed it up someone's nose, it would be temporarily difficult for them to breathe. Not to mention good for a laugh.

At any rate, I am freshly groomed this morning, and the skies are safe, at least from Barbasol-wielding maniacs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Beautifully Mysterious Thing

On Chicago's best song, "Questions 67 and 68," the singer asks, by my count, just eight questions, and that's counting the sole question in the song's chorus - "Can you tell me?" - three separate times. So what were the first 66 questions? And which of the song's questions constitute the next two?

It turns out we're approaching this problem wrongly. The song's writer, Robert Lamm, dated a girl for two years, 1967 and 1968, during which she fostered many questions for him to think about, as girls tend to do. The year after their breakup, he had crystallized some of these questions into a song, and the song charted in Billboard's Hot 100 at Number 71.

Two years later, when "67 and 68" no longer so obviously referred to a pair of years, the single was re-released, and went all the way to Number Twenty-Four in the fall of 1971. Incidentally, my friend Gavin Edwards was discussing on his web site a while back songs in which the title doesn't appear until the final line; here's a sterling example of that.

Friday, November 14, 2008

And When I Die

OPC reader Doug from Denver writes in to comment on this week's demise of onetime Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, noting that Mitchell's death means that the whole Experience is now in rock & roll heaven. Bassist Noel Redding died on May 11, 2003, while Jimi, ahead of his time as always, shuffled off his mortal coil on September 18, 1970.

Doug brings up an excellent question: Is this the first significant rock band to have lost all of its members? I haven't been able to think of another, although we've lost half the Beatles, half the Who, forty percent of the Beach Boys and a full three quarters of the Ramones.

Of the original Temptations, four of them are now dead, and that doesn't even include David Ruffin, who came in late but quickly became the leader of sorts for the group, and who died in 1991. (Ruffin hailed from, swear to God, Whynot, Mississippi.) Even though the Tempts have been through many lineup changes, there isn't any one permutation in which all the members are deceased, because founding member Otis Williams has been with the group since its inception and is still going strong at age 67.

I feel like I must be missing someone, but I can't imagine who. Anyone?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Marvin Gaye for the Block

I'm finishing up David Ritz' Divided Soul, his biography of Marvin Gaye, and while Ritz was very long on access - much of the book is made up of Gaye's discursive and revealing although heavily edited quotes - the book is frustratingly short on facts. If you want to know the date on which Gaye got married, for either of his weddings, this is not the book for you.

But there are a few luscious nuggets in there, like the fact that Marvin once appeared on Hollywood Squares. It's too bad Ritz couldn't find out what sort of questions the writing staff prepared for Gaye: "Mercy, mercy me..... I have to got to disagree..."

The late 1970s were a time when Marvin was perennially short on cash - and also a boom time for celebrity game shows, which means it's disappointing that he didn't pursue this avenue more often. It seems like it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Gaye to knock off a week's worth of Celebrity Sweepstakes or Cross-Wits and pocket a few thousand bucks.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Redemptive Power of Baseball

The year 1968 was a tumultous and difficult time for America, and for Marvin Gaye as well. "The world was coming down around me," he told his biographer David Ritz. "Dr. King's death confirmed my instincts about this country. ... Suddenly everyone was going nuts. The riots in Detroit hit close to home. ... For a while, when Bobby Kennedy was shot and the cops ran over the kids at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, it looked hopeless. I felt despair. I felt misunderstood and very unloved.

"The only bright spot in my life," Gaye concluded, "was when the Tigers came back to beat the Cards in the 1968 World Series."

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Church Bell Chimed Till It Rang Twenty-Nine Times

It was thirty-three years ago today that the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald went down in the big lake they call Gitchegumee. You can see some cool pictures of the fabled freighter here. Edmund Fitzgerald, by the way, was at the time the president of Northwestern Mutual Life. Why they named a cargo ship after him, I could not tell you.

In the 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, Mark Coleman wrote: "By picking an event from the year before rather than a history book, [Lightfoot] reasserted folk music's original, communicative function." But that sort of instant history hadn't fallen so out of fashion by then, had it? Neil Young wrote "Ohio" immediately after the Kent State shootings, and Crosby, Stills, Nash etc. recorded it exactly eleven days after the incident. Joni Mitchell first performed "Woodstock" at the Big Sur Music Festival a month after Woodstock. Carl Douglas wrote and recorded "Kung Fu Fighting" even as people were still actually kung fu fighting.

I'm sure there are other examples of folk-rock acting as the white CNN and talking about current events. Not everything has to be "Tom Dooley."

Oops, I Said It Again

Back when we were counting up the recurrence of certain phrases in pop songs, I deliberately left out the tallying of one-word phrases, because that would have been silly, even sillier than what we were actually doing. But I was very impressed this morning to hear Britney Spears' new single, "Womanizer" - actually, I should probably saw I say Britney's new single, because the video is at least as much of the art form for a work like this as the song itself.

Anyway, "womanizer" is a word that is not especially easy to pronounce, and, let's face it, Britney has never been the most facile of vocalists. But she fights through it like a champ on this song and by my count, she says "womanizer" a whopping 39 times. (Feeling charitable this morning, I gave Britney credit for three "womanizers" for that point in the chorus when she sings "womanizer, woman, womanizer.")

The video's director, getting into the spirit of things, includes as part of the set a board in which the word "womanizer" is printed several dozen times. I can't embed the video, but you can see it here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Brown-Eyed Handsome Man

Before he landed in Motown, Washington, D.C., native Marvin Gaye was briefly in Chicago as a member of Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows. What was happening in Chicago at the time was, of course, Chess Records, and Fuqua got his people some gigs there. Most notably, Gaye sang backup on Chuck Berry's "Living in the U.S.A."

I don't know. I can't hear him in there.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Quote of the Day

Rivers Cuomo, on why he doesn't own a car even though he lives in notoriously auto-centric Los Angeles: "I don't have a parking space."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wedding Bell News

Is the Fifth Dimension's "Wedding Bell Blues" autobiographical? Not in the strictest sense, since it was written by Laura Nyro, but it does feature Marilyn McCoo pleading "Will you marry me, Bill," and she did end up marrying fellow Dimensioner Billy Davis Jr. (The Fifth Dimension, I'm sure you know, were originally signed by none other than Johnny Rivers to his new Soul City label.)

But Nyro didn't write it for the Fifth Dimension; she wrote and cut it herself at the age of 18 in 1966. Three years later, Fifth Dimension producer Bones Howe suggested the song to the group, knowing that McCoo and Davis were indeed engaged at the time, but hadn't set a date yet. McCoo began acting out the lines about "Bill," which were in Nyro's original, in 5D's stage act, and the song took off, reaching Number One on November 8, 1969, and staying there for three weeks.

But by then, the song had already worked its magic. McCoo and Davis were married on July 26, 1969, and they remain so today. So in that sense at least, by the time the song was a hit, it was no longer autobiographical; she had married him, Bill.

Here they are, camping it up from late 1969 (I wish I knew which show this was from):

Land of a Thousand Stinkbombs

Two of the most misbegotten movies of all time were the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Blues Brothers 2000, in which the eighteen-years-dead John Belushi was replaced by John Goodman, a black guy and a little kid. I haven't seen the film, but I assume that wasn't enough.

Do you know who had the misfortune of appearing in both of those stinkers? Wilson Pickett, the Wicked Mr. Pickett. Good thing he had a singing career to fall back on.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

New York City

Tonight in the West Village, I sat in a restaurant with some friends of mine and watched the election returns on a sole TV placed on a shelf behind the bar. When the network called the election for Obama, the entire population of the restaurant erupted in a standing ovation. Then the waitress brought around shots for everyone, on the house.

Shortly thereafter, walking to the subway train, I heard shouts and cheering coming from around every corner. Taxi drivers honked their horns randomly as they drove down Seventh Avenue South. An elderly woman walking her dog tunred to me and said, "It sounds like we just won the World Series."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

My Little Duo

A while back I wrote about a situation where there were back-to-back Paul McCartney songs in the Top Forty. I heard a similar setup today, from November of 1975, when Art Garfunkel's "I Only Have Eyes for You" was at Number Twenty-Five, while Simon and Garfunkel's "My Little Town" sat at Number Twenty-Four. ("Born to Run" was at Number Twenty-Three.)

The McCartney situation was from the summer of 1976, and Casey claimed that it was the first time a singer had back-to-back songs in the countdown with two different groups, but he should have at least footnoted Artie's accomplishment from the year before. Both songs can be found on Garfunkel's finest solo album, the brilliant Breakaway, but you can't have my copy. (In case I forget to mention it, Artie's birthday is on Wednesday.)

"My Little Town" represented the first of several Simon and Garfunkel reunions after they broke up in 1970 (not counting an appearance at a 1972 benefit concert for George McGovern). In addition to the single, the song also appeared on an EP backed with Simon's "You're Kind" and Garfunkel's great "Rag Doll." The pair also appeared on the second episode of NBC's Saturday Night, as it was called at the time, hosted by Simon, on which they sang "My Little Town."

They also teamed up on the single "Wonderful World," along with James Taylor, in 1977, and then there was the famed 1981 concert in Central Park, which spawned a hit single in "Wake Up Little Susie," followed by a massive tour. The two then attempted a studio reunion on an album tentatively called Think Too Much. They fought, naturally, and eventually Simon wiped all of Garfunkel's vocals off the tracks and released it as a Simon solo album called Hearts and Bones. It flopped, which seems fitting somehow, and that was it for S&G for a long, long time.