Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

Legendary movie star Paul Newman died Friday at his home near Westport, Connecticut, after a long battle with cancer. He was 83. The fascinating obituary written by Lynn Smith and published in the Los Angeles Times this morning quotes director Arthur Penn, who said, “He’s a majestic figure in the world of acting . . . He did everything and did it well.” By “everything” I think Penn means that Newman excelled in both comic and dramatic roles, and that is true. He did it all, and he did it well, and that’s perhaps one of the finest compliments one could make to an actor. Paul Newman was a great actor who also happened to be a great movie star.

There are very few feature films in which Paul Newman appeared that are not worth watching; I suspect that I’ve seen them all, and several of them many times. I’ve always admired his films because of the offbeat characters he chose to play, quirky, if charming, misfits who always seemed to have an immense inner reserve, a resilience and self-reliance that made them irresistibly compelling. The scene, so wonderfully understated, in Cool Hand Luke when his, Luke’s, dying mother—brilliantly played by Jo Van Fleet—comes to visit him at the rural prison where he’s being held is, in my view, one of the finest moments in the history of American cinema. I have watched that scene over and over, and never tire of it.

Cool Hand Luke is, in a way, exemplary of the significant contribution he made to American cinema, the image of the American anti-hero. Beginning with his sympathetic portrayal of Billy the Kid in The Left-Handed Gun (1958), he continued to develop the anti-hero image in classics such as The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), and, of course, the immensely popular Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Hud and Cool Hand Luke are two of the finest films of the 1960s; Hud, a compelling morality play, is one of my favorite films of all time. He continued into the 1970s playing unusual characters in some very interesting films, including WUSA (1970), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Sting (1973), Slap Shot (1977), and two films for Robert Altman, Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and the unaccountably neglected Quintet (1979).

He was nominated for Best Actor ten times, winning for The Color of Money (1986), ironically, one of his lesser efforts. The award was long overdue, of course, although Newman apparently was uncomfortable with honors and awards, referring to them as “honorrhea.” His off-screen life, consisting of car racing beginning in the 1970s, and the formation of charitable organizations in the 1980s funded through the salad dressing that bears his name, is explored in Lynn Smith’s obituary, which I strongly encourage everyone to read (just click on the link provided above). The obit contains a quotation from his friend Stewart Stern that I’m compelled to reproduce here:

“The most Paul moment,” Stern said, “is [in Nobody’s Fool] when he sees the crazy lady down the street and offers his arm and walks her back home as if she were a queen. That’s how I’ll always remember Paul: dignifying other people.”

"There but for fortune" seems to be an idea of which Paul Newman was keenly aware. In any case, his contribution to the American cinema was a significant one, making him as legendary as other actors of his generation such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Charlton Heston. His family suggests donations in his name to the Assn. of Hole in the Wall Camps, designed for children with life-threatening diseases. Information is available at:

Friday, September 26, 2008


The cultural practice known as “cruising”—defined by Phil Patton as “to drive without purpose”—is largely a post-World War II phenomenon, the consequence of several factors, among them, the automobile industry’s promotion of the automobile as a symbolic form of cultural capital, particularly of individuality; making the car radio standard equipment; the installation of sumptuous interiors; increased interior leg room, especially in the back seat; and, of course, inexpensive fuel. Iconic motor vehicles, such as James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder, Elvis’s pink Cadillac, Kerouac’s ’49 Hudson, and the Big Bopper’s ’59 white Eldorado, collectively contributed to American teenagers’ fascination with the powerful automobile. Patton writes:

To drive without purpose—to “cruise”—is the central trope not only of Kerouac but of a hundred popular songs, in country music and rock and roll. Just driving without goal or purpose, surrendering the mind totally to the mechanical functions of steering wheel and gas pedal, figures in such songs as solace. (Open Road, 250)

Suspended in space and time—an effect of motion—cruising links thought with mechanical function. Cruising is an attempt to defamiliarize one’s perception of an all-too-familiar geography. It represents an attempt to introduce disequilibrium (“novelty”) into a stable system, to set oneself free—to get “unstuck”—from boredom. In other words, again to quote from Patton, “The open road . . . [ministers] to the American flight from self.” As it turns out, songs about cruising (the automobile, the road, and subjective interiority) are much more heterogeneous than it might seem:

To drive without purpose (no particular place to go):
The Beach Boys – I Get Around
Chuck Berry – No Particular Place to Go

Motion as speed, speed as conducive to hyper-suggestibility:
The Doobie Brothers – Rockin’ Down The Highway
Golden Earring – Radar Love
Sniff ‘n’ the Tears – Driver’s Seat

Motion as ever-shifting space, as magical space of possibilities:
The Modern Lovers – Roadrunner

Acute hermetic isolation, car as despotic comfort:
Gary Numan – Cars

“Baby Boom” growth and the cementing over of the landscape:
Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi
The Pretenders – My City Was Gone

The mysterious stranger:
David Allan Coe – The Ride
The Ides of March – Vehicle

The hitchhiker, Kerouac’s and Cassady’s “open road”:
Kris Kristofferson – Me and Bobby McGee
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Sweet Hitch-Hiker

Vehicular isolation as meditative space, knowing (certainty) reduced to feeling:
Patty Loveless – Nothing But the Wheel

The road as a means of flight or escape:
The Eagles - Take It Easy

Recommended reading:
Phil Patton, Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway (Simon and Schuster, 1986).
Ronald Primeau, Romance of the Road: The Literature of the American Highway (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One-Hit Wonderdom

The existence of the one-hit wonder—a designation used within the music industry to refer to a musician or band known almost exclusively for one hugely popular hit single—undermines the (Romantic) image of the artistic genius, supplanting it with the image of the idiot savant, an individual with an extraordinarily narrow area of expertise or brilliance. Hence, the existence of the one-hit wonder is a postmodern phenomenon, destabilizing the traditional understanding of what constitutes genius, (re)defining it by the vagaries of consumer culture. While some one-hit wonders are “novelty songs,” most of them are not, the latter often characterized by their tendentiousness, that is, by being an occasional song recorded to raise money for a certain charity (1985’s “We Are the World,” recorded in order to raise funds for famine-relief efforts in Ethiopia), or by its effort to capitalize on a current consumer fad or craze (C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” (1975), exploiting the then current popularity of citizen’s band—CB—radio).

If we consider only those one-hit wonders that cannot be considered novelty songs—those that do not overtly display any occasional or ad hoc characteristics—then one-hit wonders have no identifiable characteristics other than they must conform to the material requirements of the 7” 45 rpm single—that is, the time restriction. In its more pejorative formulation, one-hit wonders are characterized as “flukes,” that is, anomalies, the evidence being an empirical one: the individual musician or band was unable to reiterate (repeat) its success subsequently. Hence one would like to say Time is the final judge, but certain one-hit wonders have shown a remarkable durability, remaining as popular as songs by bands whose work consumers have endorsed repeated times. The late, lauded auteur Ingmar Bergman—always uneasy with his fame—once remarked, “No one remembers those who built Chartres,” by which he meant, among other things, the thing that endures is the art, not the artist, and while the names of the artisans who built that grand cathedral are not remembered, their artwork is, a testament to their resilience, their commitment, and their dedication to an idea greater than themselves. One-hit wonders are proof of the same idea, that the work remains long after the artist is forgotten.

“Best of” lists are essentially an expression of individual taste and aesthetic judgment, and as such they cannot appeal to any sort of empirical verification. As the old adage says, non disputandum de gustibus est: It is not possible to make disputations about taste. The keyword here is taste, and with that in mind, here’s my list of the best, and worst, one-hit wonders, confined, arbitrarily and capriciously, to hits in the United States during the years 1960-82. Ask me to repeat this exercise six months from now, my list most likely will be different. As Emerson said, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The Best (with my current #1):
10. The Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces Sometimes (1971)
9. King Harvest – Dancing in the Moonlight (1972)
8. Danny O’Keefe – Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues (1972)
7. John Fred & His Playboy Band – Lucy in Disguise (With Glasses) (1968)
6. The Seeds – Pushin’ Too Hard (1966)
5. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – Last Kiss (1964)
4. Jonathan King – Everyone’s Gone to the Moon (1965)
3. Sanford Townsend Band – Smoke From a Distant Fire (1977)
2. Wall of Voodoo – Mexican Radio (1982)
1. David Essex – Rock On (1973)

The Worst (but not forgotten):
10. Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods – Billy Don’t Be A Hero (1974)
9. Melanie – Brand New Key (1971)
8. Van McCoy – The Hustle (1975)
7. Alan O’Day – Undercover Angel (1977)
6. Climax – Precious and Few (1972)
5. Charlene – I’ve Never Been To Me (1982)
4. Debby Boone – You Light Up My Life (1977)
3. The Singing Nun – Dominique (1963)
2. Starland Vocal Band – Afternoon Delight (1976)
1. Millie Small – My Boy Lollipop (1964)

Recommended Reading:
Wayne Jancik, The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders. Revised and Expanded. 1998.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: I

1. Tennyson might say that the special agony of the “Baby Boom” generation is that it must watch its rock gods grow old and gray and beyond desire

2. Elton John is the Liberace of pop, while Keith Emerson is the Liberace of rock

3. The Grammy Awards are to the pop music industry what the Academy Awards are to the film industry: the attempt to resolve the irreconcilable tension between art and commerce on the side of art, and thereby assuage its guilt

4. To lift a phrase from Voltaire, “if Neil Young did not exist, it would be necessary for rock culture to invent him”

5. It is impossible to determine whether the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It),” is an unironic revision, addressed to the rock culture, of Marx’s insight, “religion is the opiate of the masses”

6. The special genius behind the invention of Top 40 radio was to employ the 7”, 45 rpm single as the means to fill the space between commercials

7. Elvis in ’56 was the cultural equivalent of a tsunami: the many who have followed are fellaheen—those who live off the ruins of a dead civilization

Monday, September 22, 2008

What's In A Name?

In one of the most famous scenes in all of dramatic literature, Juliet, one of the two very young star-cross’d lovers in Shakespeare’s tragedy, asks, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without that title.” So is one’s name incidental to one’s identity, as Juliet avers, or, on the contrary, is there a sort of destiny bequeathed by it? Does one’s proper name carry one’s Fate within it? Would John Wayne have become an iconic Hollywood star had he retained his birth name, Marion Michael Morrison? The actress born with the name Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford because her last name reminded a studio boss of the word “sewer.” Frederic Austerlitz, Jr. became Fred Astaire. Joe Yule, Jr. became Mickey Rooney. The iconic rock figure Iggy Pop was born James Newell Osterberg, Jr. Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman. Don Van Vliet became Captain Beefheart.

So what’s in a band name? Why weren’t The Beatles content with their earlier name, “The Quarrymen”? What if they had remained named The Quarrymen? Or The Silver Beetles? There have been bands named after the group’s leader (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band), last names (Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates), colors (Deep Purple, Pink Floyd), novels (Ted Nugent and The Amboy Dukes), movies (Black Sabbath), anonymous occupants of a street address (The Residents), generic motor vehicles (The Cars), and an existential moment (Free, Nirvana).

The more imaginative names of bands invite us to explore the latent possibilities of meaning inherent in them. For instance:

QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE – Quicksilver is another name for the element mercury. The word comes from hydrargyrum, a Latinized form of the Greek word hydrargyros, meaning watery or liquid silver, which happens to serve as an apt description of the appearance of the Pacific Ocean in and around the Bay Area of San Francisco, where the band had its beginning. The element was named after the Roman god Mercury, a courier or messenger known for his speed (quickness); mercury is also the name of a neighboring planet. By the late medieval and early Renaissance period, to discover a woman was “quick” meant that she was “full of life,” that is, pregnant. The poet Walt Whitman associated the ocean with the womb (“out of the cradle endlessly rocking”), suggesting that the sound of the ocean gives us peace because it reminds us of our fetal, utopian existence within our mother's womb. Subsequent metaphorical elaborations of the word “service” came to mean a sexual partner’s dutiful obligation to provide sexual satisfaction to one’s lover. Alchemists once believed that mercury was the fundamental element from which all metals could be derived, and the purest of all metals was gold. Hence the derivation of one of Quicksilver’s songs, “Gold and Silver.” And the name of one of their compilations on CD is titled “Sons of Mercury.”

THE DOOBIE BROTHERS – “Doobie” is a slang term for a joint (marijuana inhaled in the form of a cigarette), possibly a pun derived from “Doob grass,” a perennial, creeping grass (Cynodon dactylon). “Grass,” of course, is slang for marijuana. The name seems, vaguely, to invoke the widely accepted view (at the time) of Native American cultures, which were thought to have included some form of drugs during religious rituals. It suggests the existence of a drug subculture on the order of those that flourished in Paris in the 1840s such as the Club des Haschischins, whose members included Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Gerald de Nerval, and Thèophile Gautier. The word “brothers,” in this context, is vaguely subversive of brothers in the monastic sense, a group of men devoted to an ascetic ideal and religious devotion. Given this later connotation, the collocation “doobie brothers” is something of an oxymoron, or at least suggests the existence of a brotherhood based on the ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs, as a shared form of mystical experience. The band’s biggest hit, “Listen to the Music,” suggests the existence of a widespread, if anonymous, grass roots brotherhood (comprised of both brothers and sisters).

THE MEKONS – Widely believed to have been named after the Mekon, a green-headed, evil alien intelligence featured in The Eagle, a 1950s British comic strip, the name has other latent meanings. For Michael Jarrett, the word mekon “conflates dope and shit: Rock ‘n’ roll is the opiate of the people; it’s the fecal matter of popular culture” (144). He’s right: “mekon” is the Greek word for poppy, and meconium—from the Greek mēkōnion, dim. of mēkōn, poppy; akin to Old High German mago, poppy—is the substance that comprises the first bowel movement of a newborn baby, black-greenish in color and consisting of epithelial cells, mucus, and bile. The word meconium derives from meconiumarion, meaning “opium-like,” possibly a reference to the tarry appearance of a newborn’s excrement, or possibly to Aristotle’s speculation that the substance induced sleep in the fetus. The lyrics to the band’s song, “Brutal” (on The Curse of the Mekons), about the nineteenth-century Chinese Opium Wars, explicitly reference the poppy, suggesting the band members’ awareness of the latent meaning of the word “mekon.” “Cocaine Lil” (The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll) is another instance.