Monday, October 28, 2013

A Legendary Heart

The music world would be a very different place today without Lou Reed. He wasn't the only one who made rock music "grow up" and liberate it from an endless succession of songs about school, girls and teenage fun. The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson all played important roles in that but none of them went to the dark side quite like Reed did.

In the Velvet Underground alongside John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker with Andy Warhol and Nico helping out, he told tales of junkies, sexual deviants and God knows what through scary feedback-laden music contrasting that with some of the most delicate and beautiful love songs anyone ever wrote like "Here She Comes Now" and "Sunday Morning". On the later Velvets albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, Warhol and Cale were gone and the mood lightened a bit. However each record still contained a number of great songs including two masterpieces "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Sweet Jane".

His solo work tended to be more divisive. I actually bought his first few solo albums at the time they came out. I wasn't all that impressed with the first two (though I'm now a lot older and wiser about Transformer) but Berlin floored me from the first listen. He took a sad little tale about expatriate junkies in Berlin and transformed it into grand romantic tragedy.  Some subsequent material wasn't all that good (See Sally Can't Dance) but just when you'd write him off, you'd hear a tune like "Coney Island Baby" and say "Hey, maybe Lou's still got something."

I didn't pay rapt attention to him in the 80's and 90's but I did have a few favorite songs like "Legendary Hearts", "Street Hassle", "Dirty Boulevard" and a kickass version of "September Song" he did on a Kurt Weill tribute CD. As time went on I began to appreciate his dogged, take-no-prisoners impulse to experiment. In his younger days he collaborated with the likes of Warhol and David Bowie. Later years found him working with artists from other realms like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Jimmy Scott, Anthony Hegarty, John Zorn and his wife, Laurie Anderson. Not only was he a great writer and performer he was a musical experimenter going back to the white noise days of "European Son" and "Sister Ray".  In recent years he was doing improv concerts with Zorn and Anderson and playing as a featured soloist with an ensemble that performed his infamous "Metal Machine Music" live.

I particularly like some of the later recordings that haven't been mentioned much in the tributes I've read so far: The Raven, his ambitious song cycle on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the sludgy but passionate Ecstasy, mostly a group of contented love songs with the pointed exception of "Like A Possum",  an 18-minute epic of sex, drugs, rage and warped sound loops. Then there was his last, Lulu, his obscene, blood-soaked summit meeting with Metallica. To me this work was quintessential Lou Reed, foul-mouthed curses and threats alternating with pleas for love set to a torrential musical thunderstorm that ends in soothing strings on the closing "Junior Dad".

Without Reed's immense body of work there would be no examples of "the other" for glam rock to aspire to, nothing to inspire the more intellectual of the original New Wave gang like Talking Heads and Television not to mention everyone that came after them. I've heard a supposed quote by Michael Stipe that only 10,000 people bought The Velvet Underground and Nico when it came out but every one of them started a band. I read a column on Grantland today where supposedly Brian Eno  gave the quote but said 30,000 people. It could have been David Bowie talking about 50,000 people and they would all be right. The point is that Lou Reed's influence was enormous and his music is iconic. The man was proof that rock music can produce artists. No one else was as good at taking us to Hell but still showing us the light. R.I.P. Lou.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed (1942 - 2013)

I felt a little sick writing the above headline. I'll have more to say about Lou once I get my thoughts together but for now from YouTube, this is a live performance of "Dirty Boulevard":

Movie Roundup #22: The Good

High And Low: Mifune, Nakadai and company talk it out.

High And Low (1963)

As compelling as the deepening moral abyss of Breaking Bad is (I'm now three episodes away from the end of what's available on Netflix and as they say, the sh*t done got real.) it's refreshing to watch this classic film by Akira Kurosawa, a crime story that turns on someone doing the honorable and right thing.

The film centers on Gondo, a shoe company executive played by Toshiro Mifune. He is plotting strategy in a struggle with some of his partners for control of the company when he gets a phone call telling him that his 8-year-old son has been kidnapped for a 30 million yen ransom. He frantically agrees to pay even though it would mean his financial ruin but then his son walks in the room completely unharmed. It turns out that the kidnappers mistakenly grabbed the son of Gondo's chauffeur, with whom his own boy had been playing but even when they realize their error, their demands don't change, 30 million yen or the kids dies. The question then becomes will Gondo pay the ransom money to save another man's child.

This story originated as one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, King's Ransom.  In that story the executive cannot bring himself to pay the ransom. Kurosawa flips that response and, in keeping with the self-sacrifice theme of some of his other films, Gondo, after a lot of soul-searching, pays the money. Much of the rest of the film is police procedural stuff of the police painstakingly tracking down the kidnappers while Gondo is forced out of his company and forced to start over while in middle-age.

The early part of the movie is laid out like a play. Set almost totally in Gondo's living room, the characters move through the scene's space often turning their backs to him in embarrassment as he rages about how he cannot pay while his wife and chauffeur plead with him. Later on as the focus moves to the cops' manhunt the movie starts to resemble Dragnet without narration, long scenes of conferences, interviews and suspect tracking that move through the differing levels of Japanese society. The scenes shift from open air markets to night clubs and finally, dope dens, far away from the rich man's house where the movie started. In the last scene Gondo confronts the kidnapper, now captured and on death row. He turns out to be a Raskolnikov-like medical intern who had never even met Gondo but just hated him because he was rich and lived in a big house on a hill. At the end Gondo, the ruined man, sits composed and at peace with his life while the kidnapper screams in denial of where he is and what's become of him.

Mifune, as usual, is excellent, raging and bellowing at the beginning but shifting to a controlled, philosophical resignation. In one beautiful scene the police have the suitcases to be used for the ransom money and are discussing where to put signal devices that would alert them if the cases are burned or dumped in the river. Mifune calmly gets out his shoe making tools and starts carving pockets into the cases to hide the devices. Tatsuya Nakadai, Mifune's nemesis in films like Yojimbo, plays the lead police detective while there are also plenty of faces from Kurosawa's regular stock company in small roles whom I don't know by name, with the exception of the great Takashi Shimura who shows up as a police official.

Akria Kurosawa made two of my all-time favorite films, The Seven Samurai and Ikiru. High and Low doesn't quite belong in that select company but it's damn close. Beneath the crime elements it has a respect for the decency and honesty of the individual that few filmmakers pulled off quite as well as him.

Carson Corners:  J'accuse - The janitor did it (or did he?)

"The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners" (1954)

Television drama was in a very different place than today in the early 50's.  There were no likable serial killers, sexy vampires, suburban drug lords, crime bosses with emotional problems, or psychotic government agents back then. Significant stories were still told. The best of them just worked on a lower keyed and more subtle level. Rod Serling's "Requiem For A Heavyweight" and "Patterns" are two of the more well-known examples of the period but the lesser-known "The Remarkable Incident At Carson Corners" written by Reginald Rose has something to say as well.

This drama was part of the Westinghouse Studio One anthology series and it told a very simple story. The kids of a small town called Carson Corners invite their parents to a special school project. When everyone has assembled in jolly "What are the little tykes planning?" good humor, the kids unveil their surprise. They are holding a mock trial and accusing the school janitor of the murder of one of their classmates.

Rose's most famous work was another Studio One play, "12 Angry Men" and you can see elements of that story here as some of the parents turn into an angry mob out for the janitor's blood while a few cooler heads try to get at the truth.  It turns out the kids are mistaken but as all the adults in the room are forced to reconsider the circumstances of the boy's death. The story follows one of Breaking Bad's (that show again!) guiding principles, The Law Of Unintended Consequences. Things done or not done that seemed harmless at the moment turn out to have contributed to the tragedy.

The show quietly puts out the message that we are all responsible for one another and if we neglect that responsibility something bad could happen, not a terrorist bombing or a drug cartel shootout, but something tragic all the same. The point is made well here without over-the-top histrionics or preachy dialogue. There are not any famous actors in early roles here as you sometimes get in these old shows, just a few faces recognizable to hardcore old TV fans like Frank Overton and Harry Townes. The relative anonymity of the cast keeps the message out front, not that the message is still that relevant. After all it's sixty years later and we all recognize the value of looking out for one another...right?

Virtue (1932) 

If you're an old movie fan and I were to tell you that this pre-Code film starred Pat O'Brien and Carole Lombard you'd be all set for a fast-paced, wise-cracking big city story and you'd be partially wrong. Virtue was made at Columbia not O'Brien's long time studio, Warner Brothers and O'Brien is not the fast-talking sharpie he usually was in Warners films even though the plot here could have been prime Warners material.

O'Brien plays a New York City cabdriver who meets and falls in love with Lombard who he thinks is an out of work stenographer. In reality she is a prostitute who just skipped out on a trip to an upstate work farm but that makes no difference and the two falls in love and get married. Things go along well for them even after O'Brien finds out the truth.  Then Lombard gives a sick friend $200 that O'Brien was saving to invest in a gas station and in the ensuing complications, he walks out and she gets charged with a murder.

Again this is a more subdued Lombard and O'Brien than you see in the fast-moving razzle dazzle of their signature movies and Lombard in particular shows a tough, dramatic edge worthy of a Stanwyck or Crawford, a side of her not apparent in My Man Godfrey or Nothing Sacred. The movie goes by fast, wrapping up in just over an hour without any overdone sentiment or annoying "comic relief" and showing some visual flair in a montage of a trip to Coney Island. It's a surprisingly likable little programmer.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


I know that most of the world has already found out the final fates of Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and the other people in their world but I'm still slowly making my way through Breaking Bad. Some people seem to like to watch TV shows in one big gulp now, devouring entire seasons either on DVD or online in one or two days. Not me. This show, in particular, deserves to be savored one episode at a time. Getting into a rhythm of no more than one a day gives me the opportunity to reflect on the plot twists and overall majesty of the series. This thing is shaping up to be a Shakespearean-style tragedy and I just hope the end lives up to the buildup.

One thing I'm particularly appreciating now is how all the supporting characters are turning out to have many facets beyond what they initially show.  Hank, Walt's blowhard DEA agent brother-in-law, has turned out to be a dogged cop with great reasoning skill. Skyler, Walt's wife, becomes chillingly pragmatic when faced with the facts about her husband's drug activities. Then, there's Gus, Walt's drug kingpin boss. His back story is still being revealed but it's become very clear that he can be monstrously cold-blooded and vengeful on one side and quietly practical on the other.

I've managed to stay clear of most spoilers, outside of the fact that Walt and Jessie do seem to live at least into the last episode, which lessens the tension whenever they get into a potentially deadly situation now.  I do know that Marty Robbins' song "El Paso" shows up in the final episode and provides it with its title, "Felina" and that Badfinger's "Baby Blue" comes up over the closing credits performing the function "Don't Stop Believin''" did in The Sopranos. I'm also intrigued by the vague references everywhere to how evil Walt becomes since I'm really not at that point yet. Where I've left off he has just had an emomtrinal talk with his son while recovering from the beatdown Jesse gave him at the same time that Gus, Mike and Jesse are escaping from the Mexican drug cartel. There would seem to still be a lot of fun times ahead of me.