Saturday, August 16, 2008

Down Inside the Gold Mine

For almost forty years, Jim Morrison—memorably christened by Lester Bangs as “Bozo Dionysus” in an article published in 1981—has remained a seductive, if dangerous, teen icon. In order to understand the way Morrison’s artistic reputation has been cultivated and maintained over the years, one need only to acknowledge the role of the mass media. The first step cementing Jim Morrison’s immortality occurred about a decade after his death, at age 27, with Jerry Hopkins’ and Daniel Sugarman’s 1980 biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, which also served to rekindle interest in the Doors’ music. At about the same time, Francis Ford Coppola used the Doors’ “The End” on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now (1979), which, combined with the subsequent biography, implied that the Doors, the debacle of Vietnam, and the 1960s were all inextricably linked, in some dark, self-indulgent, and death-worshiping way. The fact is, certain rock stars associated with the so-called Sixties “counterculture,” such as Jimi Hendrix, were not at all opposed to the Vietnam War. Whether Jim Morrison was opposed to the Vietnam War, or cared a jot whether it was happening or not, is a question I cannot answer. I’ve read the biography, and I conclude that he was most interested in his career (although that might have been as a poet and not as a rock god).

A decade later, Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), while if not precisely about the Doors, served to renew interest in the so-called “Lizard King” for yet another, younger, generation. Despite the fact that Hopkin’s and Sugarman’s biography demonstrated, as Lester Bangs observed, “that Jim Morrison was apparently a nigh compleat asshole from the instant he popped out of the womb until he died in a bathtub in Paris….” (216), Stone’s bio-pic managed to transform Jim Morrison—whose life, suggested Bangs, amounted “to one huge alcoholic exhibitionistic joke” (218)—into the seductive, Romantic image of the self-destructive artist. The Doors is a movie that Hollywood would call “high concept”: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (& Satanism). The question remains as to why anybody born after 1970 should care in the least about Jim Morrison; to enjoy the music of the Doors is another issue entirely.

Despite my skepticism, the reissue of Oliver Stone’s The Doors this week on Blu-ray Disc (Lionsgate) is yet another indication of the film’s resilience and remarkable durability over the past seventeen years. The question for me, when watching the movie last evening—which looks spectacular in high definition, incidentally—is what it is actually about. What, precisely, is the putative attraction of the film? What's the story? Is it about Jim Morrison, or about the 1960s? Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s? Clearly it is not about the Doors as such, as a rock band, although the members of the Doors are featured in it. The movie is clearly about Jim Morrison, but only insofar as he embodies the pagan impulse of the 1960s. In the film’s first extended scene, Morrison is shown as a small boy witnessing an accident involving Native American Indians. We are encouraged to believe that the spirit of an elderly, dying Indian lodged itself, however remarkably or improbably—mystically—in the body of the young white boy who serendipitously witnessed the man’s dying moment. (By the way, I have severe doubts whether the biographical incident, mentioned in the Hopkins and Sugarman biography, ever actually occurred, but that is another issue.) The premise of the film is that Jim Morrison, as an emblem of the turbulent 1960s, is in fact a pagan: not anti-Christian so much as non-Christian. That’s the thesis of the film as I see it: the 60s was a moment of pagan resurgence, of paganism. (From the lyrics to Hair: “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.”)

But there’s a problem with this idea: don’t confuse historical processes with individual, idiosyncratic, and perhaps dubious biography. Here’s Lester Bangs:

In a way, Jim Morrison’s life and death could be written off as simply one of the more pathetic episodes in the history of the star system, or that offensive myth we all persist in believing which holds that artists are somehow a race apart and thus entitled to piss on my wife, throw you out the window, smash up the joint, and generally do whatever they want. I’ve seen a lot of this over the years, and what’s most ironic is that it always goes under the assumption that to deny them these outbursts would somehow be curbing their creativity, when the reality, as far as I can see, is that it’s exactly such insane tolerance of another insanity that also contributes to them drying up as artists.... this system is . . . why we’ve seen almost all our rock ‘n’ roll heroes who, unlike Morrison, did manage to survive the Sixties, end up having nothing to say. Just imagine if he was still around today, 37 years old; no way he could still be singing about chaos and revolution. (218-19)

As Slavoj Zizek has observed, in a typical Hollywood film, the film’s historical background most often serves as the excuse for what the film is really about. He says:

In Reds, the October Revolution is the background for the reconciliation of the lovers in a passionate sex act; in Deep Impact, the gigantic wave that inundates the entire east coast of the US is a background for the incestuous reunification of the daughter with her father; in The War of the Worlds, the alien invasion is the background for Tom Cruise to reassert his paternal role....

Employing the same logic, The Doors uses the turbulent 1960s as a background for Val Kilmer to allow the alien soul within him to be reclaimed by the old Indian he witnessed, as a child, to be dying on the edge of the highway. I know that to suggest that this is the actual plot of The Doors sounds ludicrous, but most certainly it is more accurate than to say that The Doors is “about” the 1960s—a discursive site, but not, as portrayed in this movie as in many others—a period of recent "history."

Friday, August 15, 2008

“That Cat Shaft Is A Bad Mother—”

As a follow-up to my earlier post on Isaac Hayes (and the earlier post on the wah-wah pedal), I thought I’d mention Film Score Monthly’s/Screen Archives Entertainment’s forthcoming release Shaft Anthology: His Big Score and More! (click on the title for additional information). Although not planned as such, the anthology is a fitting tribute to Isaac Hayes in the form of one of his most famous film scores, which features the unheard original score by the musical legend. The forthcoming release is not an attempt to exploit the musician’s recent death: as FSM/SAE’s website indicates, the anthology had been in preparation for years and its release by Film Score Monthly days after Hayes’ untimely death is sheer serendipity. I reproduce the following from FSM’s website:

From FSM and SAE: This anthology has been in the works for three years and its release is coincidental to the untimely passing of the great Isaac Hayes. In fact, it was sent to the pressing plant for manufacturing three weeks prior to his death. Mr. Hayes, we salute you!

Yes, they’re talking about Shaft! On the famous record album, the lyric is “that cat Shaft is a bad mother—.” However, the name “Shaft” is omitted above because this is the film version of the legendary score—not the familiar record album—and this is one of many differences, both subtle and large, in the two versions of Isaac Hayes’s seminal work. This pioneering 3CD set features the previously unreleased original soundtrack to the 1971
Shaft along with music from the sequel, Shaft’s Big Score!, and 1973-74 TV series. It is the Shaft Anthology: His Big Score and More!

Shaft is one of the landmark characters and films not just of 1970s “blaxploitation” cinema but all of pop culture. For the first time, a black leading man (provocatively named and dynamically played by Richard Roundtree) talked back to white authority and acted like a cool James Bond who did whatever he wanted...and he was the hero. The character starred in seven novels, three feature films (with a fourth in recent years) and a TV series. FSM has compiled the best of Shaft’s 1970s previously unreleased-on-CD soundtracks as follows:

The original 1971 Shaft was one of the seminal films of “blaxploitation” movement, as Shaft gets involved in the Harlem rescue effort of a gangster’s kidnapped daughter. The score by Isaac Hayes not only set trends in film music but pop and R&B, with its spoken/sung lyrics, disco-era wah-wah guitar and high-hat cymbals, and lush, soulful orchestrations. The soundtrack was widely distributed on a 2LP set (later a CD) by Enterprise (Hayes’s personal label on Stax Records) but that was a re-recording done in Memphis. For the first time, this CD presents the original Hollywood-recorded film score featuring primordial versions of the source cues as well as all of the dramatic underscoring (little of which was adapted for the LP). It is a fascinating glimpse into Hayes’s creativity and an important archiving of this legendary work. As a bonus, disc one of this collection adds Hayes’s two singles released in 1972 related to M-G-M productions: “Theme From The Men” (a TV theme) and “Type Thang” (used in Shaft’s Big Score!).

The second Shaft film, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), was scored by the director of the first two installments, Gordon Parks, when Hayes was unavailable. Parks was a multitalented musician, poet, author and photographer, in addition to filmmaker, who had scored his directorial debut, 1969’s The Learning Tree, and was technically assisted on his film scores (as was Hayes on Shaft) by Tom McIntosh. The Shaft’s Big Score! soundtrack called upon an earlier, Duke Ellington-style of sophisticated jazz compared to Hayes’s Memphis-style R&B, with a bravura climactic chase (“Symphony for Shafted Souls”) that has long made the soundtrack LP a treasured collectible. The complete soundtrack is presented here.

The third Shaft film, Shaft in Africa (1973), is not presented here for licensing reasons (though most of it was included on a 1999 compilation, The Best of Shaft). That film’s composer, Johnny Pate—the brilliant arranger for Curtis Mayfield on Superfly and other projects—returned for the short-lived Shaft TV series in 1973-74 (starring Roundtree), which had seven 90-minute episodes produced for CBS. Pate provided inventive adaptation of Hayes’s “Theme From Shaft” as well as his own groovy and suspenseful scoring—from an era in which most TV crime music sounded like Shaft, this is, delightfully, the real thing. Pate provided three full scores and two partial scores for the Shaft series (with the rest tracked with earlier cues), almost—but not all—of which are presented at the end of disc two and all of disc three of this set.

This entire collection is in excellent stereo sound, meticulously remixed from the first-generation M-G-M session masters. There are lots of afros in Joe Sikoryak’s art direction. The comprehensive liner notes are by Lukas Kendall.

I've pre-ordered my copy, how about you?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chickens' Hits

There are lots of songs about food, but I suspect that of this group a large number of them have to do with the chicken. “Anyone seeking an understanding of American music,” writes Michael Jarrett, “could start by pondering the chicken” (287). If you stop to think about, the chicken is ubiquitous. Besides all the songs about the chicken, musical groups have named themselves after the chicken as well (Chicken Shack, Christine Perfect’s—aka Christine McVie’s—first band; The Dixie Chicks), and the chicken frequently shows up in the movies, on television, in old minstrelsy jokes (“Why did the chicken cross the road?”), and as a figure of poetic justice (“The chickens have finally come home to roost”). A few years ago, a hit movie starred chickens: Chicken Run (2000). And none of us who love ‘toons could fail to mention that great Southern star of Warner Brothers cartoons, Foghorn Leghorn. Speaking of roosters, the French, who when pondering anything think first about how they might cook and eat it, have even managed to make use of an old, tough rooster, and in doing so transformed the method into a world famous dish—Coq au Vin. But why does one need to ponder the chicken to understand American music and film? Because surrounding the chicken are several issues, including sex, race, class, and—of course—rhythm.

For your aural pleasure, here’s a 16-piece variety big box meal of chickens’ hits. Bon appetite!

Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack (Back at the Chicken Shack)
Cab Calloway – Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird (Are You Hep to the Jive? 22 Sensational Tracks)
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers – Chicken an’ Dumplins (At the Jazz Corner of the World)
Charles Mingus – Eat That Chicken (Oh Yeah)
Mel Brown – Chicken Fat (Chicken Fat)
Little Feat – Dixie Chicken (Dixie Chicken)
Steve Goodman – Chicken Cordon Bleus (Somebody Else’s Troubles)
Ry Cooder – Chicken Skin Music (1976)
The Beastie Boys – Finger Lickin’ Good (Check Your Head)
Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow, Chicken (Songs With Legs)
The Meters, Chicken Strut (Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology)
Rufus Thomas – Do the Funky Chicken (The Best of Rufus Thomas: Do the Funky Somethin’)
Little Jimmy Dickens – Take an Old Cold ‘Tater (and Wait) (I’m Little, But I’m Loud: The Little Jimmy Dickens Collection)
Southern Culture on the Skids – Eight Piece Box (Peckin’ Party)
Big Joe Turner – The Chicken and the Hawk (Up, Up and Away) (Big, Bad & Blue: The Big Joe Turner Anthology)
Link Wray – Run Chicken Run (Rumble! The Best of Link Wray)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Soulsville USA

A comment left by fred in connection with yesterday's Issac Hayes post reminded me that I neglected to provide a link to Memphis' great Stax Museum, "Soulsville USA." As I mentioned yesterday, Hayes got his start as a session musician at Stax back in the early 1960s. We visited Memphis three summers ago with the explicit purpose of visiting Graceland--a visit which we thoroughly enjoyed--but while we were installed at the Peabody Hotel there I also used the opportunity to visit a number of Memphis' historic sites, including the Stax Museum. Visiting the Stax Museum was not only a great educational experience, but a great thrill for me as well, as so many legendary musicians recorded at Stax's studios, among them Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and in a series of sessions in 1973, Elvis Presley. While the numbers of visitors who trek to Memphis every year in order to visit Graceland numbers in the millions, the Stax Museum is one of Memphis great treasures, and I urge anyone planning a visit to Memphis to schedule a visit there also.

Perhaps because of the Scientology connection, Isaac Hayes and Lisa Marie Presley were close friends; I was going to post a picture of the two together, but given everything surrounding Elvis's image is so heavily guarded and copyrighted, I have posted the following link instead. Hayes happened to pass away at the beginning of Elvis Week 2008, a celebration of Elvis and the culture from which he came. I strongly suspect that Elvis, were he alive, would give "Soulsville USA" a strong endorsement.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes: Soul Man, 1942-2008

By sheer serendipity, a few blog entries ago I wrote about Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" as being one of the more famous instances of rock songs that used the wah-wah pedal. Thus I was saddened to hear the news that Hayes died today at the age of 65. Apparently a family member found Hayes unresponsive near a treadmill and he was pronounced dead an hour or so later at a Memphis hospital. While the cause of death was not released to the media, my guess is that it was caused by a heart attack. A session pianist for Stax Records in Memphis beginning in the early 60s, he began co-writing songs with David Porter, composing hits for Sam and Dave such as "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "Soul Man." But before achieving fame in the 1960s, apparently he held down a number of low-paying jobs, including shining shoes on Memphis's famous Beale Street.

Isaac Hayes anticipated the cool romanticism of crooners such as Barry White by virtue of his sensuous, laid-back records like Hot Buttered Soul (1969), the jacket cover for which consisted, memorably, of the top of Hayes' bald head. As a black musician, he struck a powerful image, looking rather like an Egyptian pharaoh with his shaven head and ornate, vaguely oriental multiple gold chains regally draped around his neck. At the 1972 Oscar ceremony, Hayes performed the "Theme From Shaft" decked out in lots of gold, subsequently receiving a standing ovation. According to the Los Angeles Times obituary, TV Guide "later chose it as No. 18 in its list of television's 25 most memorable moments." He also won a Grammy that year for his 1971 album Black Moses, next to Shaft one of his best known works and perhaps his best.

But it was the "Theme From Shaft," which became a #1 hit in 1971, that cemented his fame and made him a household name. A few years ago we visited Memphis--the primary purpose for which was to visit Graceland--and stayed at the Memphis Peabody Hotel in order to see the famous "Peabody ducks." While staying there, a member of the hotel staff told us that Isaac Hayes' restaurant was within short walking distance of the Hotel, so we thought we would try it out. Our dinner at his establishment became one of the highlights of our trip--a soul food extravaganza.

It is easy to forget that Hayes also had an extensive film career--for me, one of his more memorable roles being that of "The Duke" in John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981)--and in 1997 he became the voice of Chef on TV's South Park. He quit the show in 2006 after an episode of the show apparently mocked Scientology, his religion. "There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins," he said. Apparently a subsequent episode of the show killed off his character, suggesting there was a degree of animosity between him and the show's creators.

Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, Isaac Hayes was an influential figure in rock music, the co-creator of several R&B hits and sole (soul) creator of a handful of significant records in the late 60s and early 70s. Ironically, his death occurred at the beginning of this year's annual "Elvis Week," reminding us that Memphis has lost another of its famous sons.