Saturday, October 25, 2008

Memento Mori

I may have missed it, but Bill Wyman’s website made no mention of his birthday yesterday—his 72nd. The former Rolling Stone didn’t acknowledge his latest mile marker, preferring to let it go unremarked. Perhaps he no longer finds it worthy of mention, age being an aspect of our lives that seems to have only a slight connection to our subjective, lived experience. Born 24 October 1936, he was born only about a year and ten months after Elvis Presley, who had he lived would have turned 73 years old this year, and roughly three months from his 74th birthday. According to this interesting blog entry, Bill Wyman “has the distinction of being one of the last of the Sixties rock and rollers to do national service in Britain.” And as the author points out, the last American rock 'n' roller of historic significance who was conscripted was Jimi Hendrix. Had he lived, Hendrix would have turned 66 years old next month (born 27 November 1942).

Perhaps as a consequence of Bill Wyman’s age, I woke up today think of my father, who at age 72 had full-blown leukemia, and died about a month and a half after his 73rd birthday. Subsequently, my thoughts turned to the written epilogue at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, which despite its specific historic reference contains an insight I think we’d all do well to remember:

It was in the age of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled. Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.

Memento mori

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 9

I went ahead and posted nine more aphorisms today, so as to make the number I’ve posted on this blog at this point total an even 70. Several readers have written to me encouraging me to collect my aphorisms into book form, and I thank them very much for the vote of confidence. I’m currently pursuing the possibility of a book of aphorisms, but for such a book to be feasible (with an accompanying “Aphorism-A-Day” tear-off calendar as a possible product tie-in), I’ll need to write 365 of them (and one for leap year), meaning that after this particular posting I’ll have only 295 to go (plus another for leap year). They have been very popular, and I thank everyone for checking in from time to time for new additions, but whether I can write (well) about 300 more aphorisms to make a book remains to be seen. Ars longa vita brevis.

1. John Wayne was a great movie star because no matter the part, he was always John Wayne; his lesson was not lost on those pop singers who also became movie stars—Elvis, for instance—because they knew always to play themselves.

2. MTV Cribs—a show based on a fundamental contradiction, that one can present as ordinary the lives of individuals whose lives are extraordinary; the television equivalent of the Hollywood fan magazine.

3. The massive success of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is demonstrable proof that the most successful pop songs always have been sentimental.

4. When popularizing rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis faced the problem of being perceived as lowbrow; what is known as “art rock” or “prog rock” at least succeeded in making rock music middlebrow.

5. The Beatles did collectively what they could not have done—did not do—individually, revealing that collaboration gives artists a better shot a success than artists working alone: Dylan, for instance, found The Band; outsiders such as Scott Walker weren’t as fortunate, explaining why his career has been so fraught with frustrations.

6. The musical career of Elvis Costello is an illustration of what happens to a generalist lost in a world of specialization.

7. The best rock bands understood the value of the name: imagine if the Rolling Stones were known as the Bongo Beatniks, or Black Sabbath as the Yellow Rosaries: bands that chose names such as The Chocolate Watchband or The Peanut Butter Conspiracy were far too fatuous ever to be taken seriously.

8. One need look no further for the politics of pop than in the so-called “answer song”: neither sequel nor remake, the answer song is an attempt to impinge upon and then supersede the discursive force of the target song.

9. To lift a phrase from Harold Bloom, popular music is, and always has been, a hopelessly overcrowded field, which explains why the “one-hit wonder” ought to be considered the rule rather than the exception.

Pop Aphorisms: 8

1. Concerts once were performed for the purpose of being recorded, but now concerts occur for the purpose of promoting a record.

2. There’s a very good reason why lists comprised of “the best rock (or pop) records (singles, etc.) ever made” are frequently published while “the worst rock (or pop) records ever made” never are: the latter requires one to put forth artistically defensible reasons for the choices made.

3. No music critic should be allowed to use the word “brilliant” in a review or article for the next 15 years, thereby allowing words such as “good,” “ordinary,” and perhaps even “banal” to regain their rightful place in the critical vocabulary.

4. No band or artist in the history of popular music has ever been able to overcome one daunting, fundamental ambiguity: is it art, or is it commerce? Of course, neither have the movies.

5. The fact that studios, and studio technology, are utterly essential to rock music is openly acknowledged by the elevation of the recording engineer to the status of a band member—as true for Elvis in the ‘50s as it is now.

6. The reason albums contain credits attributing a specific instrument to a specific individual is simply an acknowledgment of the specialization and division of labor that has been a feature of the industrial revolution since its inception.

7. Psychedelic rock—the aural equivalent of a hallucinogenic trip—is not simply the result of distorted amplification, but also of the first rock generation growing up spending Saturdays at the movie theater, with its astonishing array of cinematic genres, styles, periods, and budgetary quality.

8. A rock song that “says something” is the aural equivalent of a 1950s “problem picture,” explaining why both the songs and the movies are now largely forgotten.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Neal Hefti, 1922-2008

I learned today that Neal Hefti, former big band trumpeter, arranger, and composer who worked with that era's illustrious band leaders such as Count Basie and Woody Herman, and who later became famous to Baby Boomers for his theme to the 1960s TV series Batman, died on October 11 at age 85. He passed away at his home in Toluca Lake, California, slightly over two weeks before his 86th birthday.

I have a special sentiment for Neal Hefti for two reasons. One reason is that he was born in my neck of the woods, in Hastings, Nebraska, on 29 October 1922. He was a small town kid from a poor family who became one of the most influential big band arrangers of the 1940s and 1950s. After his distinguished career as a big band arranger, he went on to score many successful motion pictures. His film score credits include Sex and the Single Girl (1964), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Harlow (1965), Boeing Boeing (1965), Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Odd Couple (1968), A New Leaf (1971), and, significantly, Lord Love a Duck (1966)—this latter film the second reason I’ve a special spot for Neal Hefti.

Despite its occasional misogyny which audiences today may find hopelessly déclassé, Lord Love a Duck, directed and adapted for the screen by George Axelrod (playwright of the Broadway hit The Seven Year Itch) and starring Tuesday Weld, Roddy McDowall, Ruth Gordon, and Harvey Korman, is one of the most audacious American films of the 1960s, and also one of the best. It is now widely considered a cult film, but its rewards are many, and the film is more accessible than generally perceived. I love Hefti’s score to the film—incidentally, the one written either immediately before or immediately after the composition of the Batman theme—as it is slightly irreverent of pop music, suitably appropriate to the iconoclastic themes in the film. Anticipating the themes of The Graduate (1967) by almost two years, Lord Love a Duck is a satire of the American “Plastic Society” of the 1960s (think of Frank Zappa's “Plastic People” from 1967's Absolutely Free) with particular emphasis on three types of American women: the vacuous teenage girl (Tuesday Weld), the middle-aged, promiscuous divorcee (Lola Albright), and the monstrous, domineering mother (Ruth Gordon). But the film’s satirical targets are many, among them the empty rituals of teen culture, the preoccupation for material acquisition and fame, religious hypocrisy (the drive-in church sequence is wonderful), and, yes, even AIP Beach movies. In a wonderful sequence, a film producer, T. Harrison Belmont (Martin Gabel—pastiching Sam Arkoff?), presented as the producer of such Beach movie "classics" as The Thing that Ate Bikini Beach, Cold War Bikini, and Bikini Countdown, is seeking a fresh starlet for his latest picture, titled, we eventually learn, Bikini Widow. Arguably influenced in its aesthetics by the French New Wave, I strongly recommend Lord Love a Duck, although I realize its sense of humor may not appeal to everyone. I, for one, watch the film two to three times a year.

Now hard to find (available only on vinyl LP), Neal Hefti’s score for the film is well worth a listen, as are most of his film scores, widely available from various sources. The comprehensive obituary of Neal Hefti in the Los Angeles Times can be found here, while more information about his career, as well as his extensive discography, can be easily found by conducting a web search.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 7

1. An old adage advises not to judge a book by its cover; it is therefore the height of folly to judge an album’s greatness by the album cover. As always, the exception proves the rule.

2. The emergence of Rolling Stone magazine in the late 60s is historic only in the sense that its publication openly acknowledged the dependency rock and pop had on the institution of criticism that validated—attributed importance to—the music.

3. The reason why most rock critics are so uncomfortable with the “one-hit wonder” is that it contradicts one of the sustaining myths of rock criticism: the concept of a career, that is, of a musician’s so-called “artistic development.”

4. It is a profound distortion of history to say that Punk rock was music written and played by amateurs.

5. The best lyricists in popular music intuitively understood Sartre’s dictum that one’s brilliance is not a result of having said certain things, “but for having chosen to say them in a certain way”—too bad most critics haven’t understood it.

6. One would very much like to say the difference between a fan and a critic is that the former has an uncritical identification with a particular band’s music.

7. Fanzine: same thing as a slick magazine on the newsstand, except it is printed on the photocopy machine, the writing is even more unpolished, and the vocabulary isn’t as impressive.

8. Ambrose Bierce observed about “destiny” that it allowed a tyrant to defend his crimes, while it gave a fool an excuse for failure: within the institution of entertainment, the concept is referred to as either “producer interference” or, occasionally, “lack of publicity.”

9. The surest guarantee a band has of having made a classic record is that it fails commercially when first released: initial failure is a guarantee of greatness.

10. Desert Island Discs: a game music critics invented when up against the deadline for an expected article. As an indulgence, it is possible only when having way too many albums to listen to within a single lifetime.