Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Under The Sea

When I was growing up, Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) was the most famous undersea explorer in the world. I knew about him primarily through his films and TV programs, although he also wrote many books as well. He pioneered techniques used in underwater photography (he was a filmmaker as much as sea diver), exploring the world’s oceans aboard his base ship, the Calypso (eventually the subject of an homage song by John Denver). Beginning in 1968, he hosted the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a show which ran for several years, until the mid-70s. A few minutes of research on the web revealed that in 1959 he addressed the first World Oceanic Congress, which in turn led to his appearance on the March 28, 1960 cover of Time magazine. In April of 1961, he was awarded the National Geographic’s Gold Medal at a White House ceremony hosted by President John F. Kennedy. I don’t recall hearing of Jacques Cousteau before that time, but I certainly remember him from the Sixties on.

Among his very earliest films was Épaves (1945, available here), which captured the poetry of the undersea realm. The decaying wreckage of sunken ships resembles the ruins of undersea cathedrals, through which, like something from a Surrealist painting, we watch divers swim, like strange birds hovering in the air. His underwater photography captured sea creatures from all over the world, creatures rich and strange. Weird and occasionally nightmarish, they resembled things from another planet. Because of his keen sense of the delicate ecology of the ocean, he was like a crusader, a Naturalist capturing through his poetic films all the beauty, awe, and mystery of nature. His films took us out of our dreary, quotidian reality and daily routine, and provided an escape into a world serene and delicate, a pure realm uncontaminated by humans and their machines. I choose to think that Jacques Cousteau influenced popular culture as well, including its music. Most certainly songs about the sea (and songs about being under the sea) are a venerable subgenre of folk and popular music; “under the sea” songs are popular among schoolchildren as well. In the Sixties, though, songs about being under the sea were really the equivalent of a psychedelic trip, thanks to films of Jacques Cousteau. Some dream of flying, but when I was a child I dreamed of being a fish, not a bird, able to swim underwater indefinitely. One of the very earliest dreams I remember in my life was set underwater, in a vast river with a powerful current, and I was struggling to find sunken treasure. Fish swam by me lazily. Surprisingly, I saw a door on the bottom of the river, perfect in every way, so I swam for it. I reached out for the knob, pulled, opened it—and woke up, a bit like Dorothy opening the door to the world of Oz, which perhaps I had recently seen, I don’t know.

Or, perhaps my dream was influenced by those poetic and hauntingly memorable films made by Jacques Cousteau, as some of the following songs may have been as well.

Bobby Bare – The Mermaid
The Beatles – Octopus’s Garden
Jimmy Buffett – A Pirate Looks At Forty
John Denver – Calypso
Donovan – Atlantis
Jimi Hendrix – 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)
Roy Orbison – Leah
Marty Robbins – Devil Woman
Squirrel Nut Zippers – Under the Sea
The Verlaines – Cathedrals Under the Sea
Patrick Watson – Man Under the Sea
XTC – Mermaid Smiled


Trains have figured prominently in the cinema since its inception—think of the Lumière brothers’ early film, Arrivée d’un train à Perrache (1896), or Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). If you think about it long enough and seriously enough, you’ll realize how many great films, encompassing all film genres, have had either a key sequence involving a train, or are actually set on a train—where does one begin? Many early Hollywood Westerns, Ella Cinders (1926), Laurel and Hardy’s Berth Marks (1929), Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North By Northwest (1959); Fritz Lang’s Western Union (1941); Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944); Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1969); Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; Murder on the Orient Express (1974); Silver Streak (1976); The Cassandra Crossing (1976); Terror Train (1980); Runaway Train (1985); Atomic Train (1999), and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Of course, I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of the subject: one could go on and on about the fact that there’s scarcely been a bad film when set on a train. At the very least, films in which a train makes an appearance are always interesting. Try asking the question sometime at a party as a form of parlor game, and you’ll be surprised at how many titles people begin listing.

Is it any wonder, then, that Elvis, who worked as an usher in a movie theater, and who had memorized all of James Dean’s lines in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), would record “Mystery Train”? Songs about trains are as varied emotionally as the many associations with the train; as Raymond Durgnat observed, “…their whistles are cries of anger, joy, malevolence, jubilation, or, on the prairie, forlorn and lonely, or, in the blues, the consoling thought of escape” (Films and Feelings, p. 233). To which we could add, the thrill of mystery, as in Elvis’s interpretation of “Mystery Train”: I don’t know where this train his headed, but wherever it’s going, I’m staying on for the ride. Trains have had a distinguished place in popular music as well, as the following list attests. There are many lists of train songs available on the web, but here’s my playlist of choice:

A Few Train Songs:
Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues
Guy Clark – Texas, 1947
Tommy Dorsey – On the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – Take the ‘A’ Train
Elvis – Mystery Train
Jimmy Forrest – Night Train
Steve Goodman – City of New Orleans
The Grateful Dead – Casey Jones
Tom T. Hall – The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five – Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
Gladys Knight & The Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia
Alison Krauss – Steel Rails
K. D. Lang – Ridin’ the Rails
John Mayall – Crawling Up A Hill
Jim and Jesse McReynolds – Bringin’ in the Georgia Mail
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra – Chattanooga Choo Choo (from Sun Valley Serenade, 1941)
Willie Nelson – Railroad Lady
Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train
Rank and File – The Conductor Wore Black
Jimmy Rogers – Same Train, Different Time
Doc Watson – Freight Train Boogie
Mary Wells – Soul Train
Hank Williams – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

Monday, September 28, 2009


Although the origin of the word is contested, some suggest the word carnival is derived from the Latin carnem levare or the Italian carnelevare, “removal of meat,” thus making the carnival celebration related to religious fasting, just as Mardi Gras is to Lent. It has also been interpreted to mean “carne vale,” or “farewell to meat” in the alimentary sense, or “farewell to the flesh” in the erotic sense. “Farewell to the flesh” has been interpreted by some as referring to those festivities that encourage the letting go of your everyday self and embracing the carefree nature of the carnival or festival atmosphere—the indulgence of your hidden aspirations. Whatever the word’s origin, for theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, the carnival disrupts the rigid hierarchies that make up our quotidian life and allows for indulgence and excess. Carnival allows for a multiplicity of voices and meanings—for laughter—and allows for impulse and instinct and expressions of caprice and desire. Social roles can be cast aside, allowing us to show our “real” selves to the world. For Bakhtin, music and song create a highly flexible realm of meaning that holds socially transformative potential. Music, therefore, is essential to carnival.

Carnival Time:
The Band – Life Is A Carnival (Cahoots)
Jimmy Buffett – Carnival World (Off to See the Lizard)
The Cardigans – Carnival (Life)
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Carnival (The Assassination of Jesse James soundtrack)
Frank Churchill – When I See An Elephant Fly (Dumbo soundtrack)
Elvis – It’s Carnival Time (Roustabout soundtrack)
Norah Jones – Carnival Town (Feels Like Home)
Paul McCartney and Wings – Letting Go (Venus and Mars)
Natalie Merchant – Carnival (Tigerlily)
Pere Ubu – Waiting For Mary (Cloudland)
Bruce Springsteen – 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) (The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle)
Bruce Springsteen – The Last Carnival (Working On a Dream)
Sun Ra & His Arkestra – Pink Elephants on Parade (Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films)

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Among the vast repertoire of symbols available to the lyricists of popular music, one of the most frequently used is blindness. A famous use of blindness, in the oft-recorded “Amazing Grace”—I was blind but now I see—corresponds to the dramatic moment named by Aristotle anagnorisis, recognition, the movement from ignorance to knowledge, a moment of sudden, acute insight. Hence blindness more often figurative than it is literal, and this figurative use listeners understand without even thinking about its status as poetry. Moreover, blindness is not only, figuratively speaking, a state of ignorance, but also signals a state of crippling self-absorption or self-preoccupation, leading to selfish, insensitive behavior. However, when writing about the symbolic use of blindness in films, Raymond Durgnat observed:

Terrible as this fate is felt to be, a sentimental style easily transforms it into something almost voluptuous, a kind of graceful helplessness (Chaplin’s City Lights, 1931; Mark Robson’s Lights Out, 1951). Because of our impulsive pity, a barking, aggressive blind person, brutally rejecting it, is not only admirable (for his courage, like Rochester) but frightening, almost magical (Anna Massey’s witch-mother in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). Blindness is, strangely enough, associated with the all-seeing eye. . . . The Peeping Tom, with his apparatus for seeing (camera, mirror) and his spiked tripod is ‘seen through’ by the blind woman. (Films and Feelings, p. 229)

Durgnat might also have included the figure of the blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn in the suspense thriller Wait Until Dark (1967). Of course, he wrote these observations some years before the 1972 debut of Kung Fu on American television as well, a series prominently featuring the blind sage, Master Po (Keye Luke), imbued with a magical, if not superhuman, power of sight, at the continual amazement of Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine). In the western world, the model for the blind but all-seeing sage can be traced back to the poet Homer, generally considered to have been blind, then Tiresias, the blind hermaphroditic prophet of Greek mythology, then John Milton, who claimed that because the ordinary way of seeing was prohibited him, his blindness was compensated by an inner “celestial light”—hence his strong identification with the figure of the blinded Samson in his great poem, Samson Agonistes. (Samson’s figurative return was in the form of the Who’s Tommy.) But one can also be blinded by the light of sudden insight—“knocked cold,” stunned—as the Biblical story of Saul of Tarsus reveals. Struck blind, he could then see, an experience leading to his spiritual conversion by which he became the foremost Christian apologist, Paul.

Ten Songs Of The Blind and Blinded:
Tim Buckley – I Must Have Been Blind
Thomas Dolby – She Blinded Me With Science
Everlast – Blinded by the Sun
Lefty Frizzell – Blind Street Singer
Korn – Blind
Johnny Nash – I Can See Clearly Now
Bruce Springsteen – Blinded By the Light (Manfred Mann’s cover is more famous)
Talking Heads - Blind
The Who – Pinball Wizard
Johnny Winter – Blinded By Love

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Musical Box

The musical box — a novelty toy that produces music mechanically. The crucial parts of a musical box are the cylinder and the comb. The cylinder is the programming device, the equivalent of the punched card used with early computers. It is studded with tiny pins at the correct spacing to produce music by displacing the teeth of the comb at the proper time. The comb is a flat piece of metal with many dozens (or possibly hundreds) of teeth of different lengths. The tines of the comb “chime,” or sound, as they slip off the pins of the cylinder. There are some musical boxes that have a flat disc rather than a cylinder, but the disc is still the equivalent of the operating program of the cylinder.

Although intricate, the musical box is merely a cold, unfeeling mechanism, yet it nonetheless has come to express nostalgia, delicacy, and lost innocence. British film critic Raymond Durgnat observed that musical boxes, like pianolas and barrel organs, hold a fascination for children, and “together with their ‘period’ feel, outweighs any adult diffidence about their banal ‘pop’ tunes and canned quality. As so often, the popular poetic sense of a symbol is derived [from] its meaning for children. The music comes from long ago and faraway, the popular tunes of yesterday have the charm of memory” (Films and Feelings, p. 231). He means that since the tunes musical boxes are frequently designed to play are gentle or sentimental ones from an earlier era (“lullabies”), they evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia—“lost innocence.”

On the other hand, the “too” sweet, saccharine blandness of musical boxes can make them overly or creepily sentimental, and their unsavory social origins (they were associated with the vice of snuff) allow them to be associated with crime as well. Durgnat uses Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] as an example, in which an aristocrat “expresses his basic spontaneity of soul by enthusing over the latest acquisition to his collection of musical boxes: a huge elaborate Dutch street organ. But its sound acts as background to an attempted crime passionnel, as, again, in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train the carousel organ plays, ‘And the band played on . . .’ as a brutal strangling takes place” (p. 231). Hence in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there is a sinister musical box that can induce eternal sleep when its music is played. In The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2), the Max character played by Mel Gibson uses a musical box to become friends with a strange, seemingly mute child referred to as the Feral Kid. A past crime is signaled by musical boxes in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, in which a murderer betrays his identity by having a pocket watch that is also a musical box that plays a distinctive tune. In Luis Buñuel’s Ensayo de un Crimen [The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz], a musical box also plays a crucial role. An ornate musical box in the form of a monkey with Persian robes playing the cymbals is featured prominently in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. In Japan, where musical boxes are quite popular, the Sankyo Seiki company has specialized in the manufacture of musical boxes which are extremely intricate (there is an entire “Music Box Collection” from Japan consisting of several CDs, generically referred to as “J-Pop,” available on iTunes).

Pop songs incorporating the musical box are rare, but when its used is it is often memorable. The musical box has also been used as inspiration for a few songs as well, e.g., Genesis’ “The Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme (1971). Here are a few songs inspired by the musical box, or incorporating it into the music.

Björk – Frosti
Mariah Carey – Music Box
The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde [Robert Cobert] – Josette’s Music Box [used in the TV series Dark Shadows]
Philip Glass – Music Box (“Candyman Theme”)
Genesis – The Musical Box
Korn – Dead Bodies Everywhere
Bobby McFerrin – Music Box
Panic! at the Disco – This Is Halloween [cover of the song from The Nightmare Before Christmas]
Rammstein – Spieluhr [Music Box]
Thrice – Music Box

Monday, September 21, 2009


I’ve blogged in the past about the figure of Orpheus in popular music, but I’ve yet to explore how the music has employed the mythic hero or heroine. A mythic hero is usually defined as a character from myth or legend that is of divine descent and endowed with great strength or ability. The term therefore encompasses demigods as well as gods and goddesses. I should note that my use of the word ability here is broad, since mythological figures such as Cassandra and Io are afflicted by madness as a consequence of the Olympian gods’ capriciousness. The cursed prophetess Cassandra, for instance, who has the gift of prophecy but is never to be believed, is an especially tragic figure. Likewise, Hera transforms poor Io into a cow because Zeus develops an erotic passion for her. Io is thus like Cassandra in that she can never articulate her tragic insight. Venus, the mythical Goddess of Love (of the erotic kind), enthralls the legendary knight Tannhäuser. In his poem Laus Veneris, Swinburne explores the tension between an older, pagan ideal as it comes into clash with the new, Christian religion. Swinburne’s Venus, with whom the young knight Tannhäuser falls in love and with whom he lives in her subterranean home, represents the life of the old religion. Tannhäuser is wracked with remorse and guilt because of his passion for her. Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” invokes the legend of “La belle dame sans merci,” the beautiful woman without pity, which the Tannhäuser legend also employs. And Fleetwood Mac’s famous song, written by Stevie Nicks, “Rhiannon,” was apparently inspired not by the Welsh myth about Rhiannon, a horse goddess, but by Mary Leader’s novel Triad. For years when performing the song live Nicks would introduce the song as being about a “Welsh witch,” but that’s not quite correct, either. At any rate, here are a few pop songs that use the figure of the mythic hero or heroine to interesting effect. They reveal how vibrant and alive these ancient myths and legends still are, even if the figure is encountered without the songwriter ever actually having read the actual source text.

Abba – Cassandra
Jimmy Clanton – Venus In Blue Jeans
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Crosby, Stills and Nash – Guinevere
Donovan – Guinevere
Bob Dylan – As I Went Out One Morning
Bob Dylan – Isis
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand
Boz Scaggs – Hercules
The Shocking Blue – Venus
Al Stewart – Merlin’s Time
Steely Dan
Home At Last
Suzanne Vega – Calypso
Rick Wakeman – The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table [album]

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bang The Drum All Day

Apparently, Marlon Brando once wanted to be a jazz drummer, and was a big fan of Gene Krupa. Widely considered to have been the first drum soloist, Gene Krupa interacted with his fellow band members in such a way as to introduce into jazz music the extended drum solo. His flamboyant performances are preserved in movies such as Hollywood Hotel (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), Beat the Band (1947), and The Glen Miller Story (1953). Watching Krupa in these movies, flailing away with his sticks as he performs his sexuality and masculinity, was clearly an influence on many of the first generation of rock drummers (check out Krupa’s performance in this youtube video).

Given that early rock culture was so influenced, if not outright imitative, of jazz culture, especially in its emphasis on individualism, it is not surprising that rock drummers eventually incorporated the extended solo. The Who’s Keith Moon, perhaps the most overtly imitative of all rock drummers of Gene Krupa’s flamboyant style, no doubt contributed to the popularity of the drums. The popularity of drum solos seems to have grown during the 60s, peaking around 1968-69, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts once remarked, “I don’t like drum solos, to be honest with you, but if anybody ever told me he didn’t like Buddy Rich I’d right away say go and see him, at least the once.” I happen to agree with him: I’ve never particularly liked drum solos. I think they are boring. But if you twisted my arm, though, I’d probably say that Ron Bushy’s drum solo in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” as the one I dislike the least, primarily because of his use of the Leslie speaker. Nonetheless, there are more than a few drum solos worth mentioning.

12 Songs With Drum Solos:
Ron Wilson – “Wipe Out” (Wipe Out, 1963)
Hughie Flint – “What’d I Say” (Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, 1966)
Keith Moon – “Cobwebs and Strange” (A Quick One, 1966)
Fito de la Parra – “Fried Hockey Boogie” (Boogie With Canned Heat, 1968)
Ginger Baker – “Toad” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)
Ron Bushy – “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, 1968)
Bobby Colomby – “Blues, Pt. 2” (Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1968)
Danny Seraphine – “I’m A Man” (The Chicago Transit Authority, 1969)
Ginger Baker – “Do What You Like” (Blind Faith, 1969)
John Bonham – “Moby Dick” (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)
Michael Shrieve – “Soul Sacrifice” (Woodstock, 1970)
Bill Ward – “Rat Salad” (Paranoid, 1970)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Teen Idol

Teen Idol – the term is ambiguous. Does the term mean the idol in question is a teenager, or someone widely admired by teenagers? According to several reputable sources, the term “teen idol” was first used by Life magazine in its 1 December 1958 issue—to refer to Ricky Nelson, at the time eighteen years old. So I’ve come to the conclusion that for someone actually to be a legitimate “teen idol,” he or she must be a teenager idolized by other teenagers. Hence Elvis was never a teen idol, because by the time he burst onto the national (as opposed to regional) stage in January 1956, he was already twenty-one years old. Tommy Sands may also be considered as having been a teen idol, although his reign was very short, because seven months after he became nationally known as a result of the Kraft Television Theatre program, “The Singin’ Idol,” he turned twenty. So indeed, the first true “teen idol” was Ricky Nelson, whose first LP, Ricky, was released in November 1957, at which time Nelson was seventeen years old. Technically, given the fact that his first hit, “I’m Walkin’,” was released in April 1957, he was actually sixteen years old. Thus Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Rydell can all be legitimately considered teen idols as well, although I accept the assertion that the encomium was first applied to Ricky Nelson (has to be, as these other figures were only emerging as stars at the time). As for Elvis, he was never formally a teen idol, but there would have been no teen idols without him. Like Moses, he led the way for others, but never participated in the experience himself.

Timeline: The Rise of the Teen Idol


27 January – Season 4: Ep. 16, “The Car Mix-Up,” of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (ABC). Ricky Nelson is 15 years old.

28 January – Elvis’s first national TV appearance on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show (CBS). Elvis is 21 years old (barely).

17 February – Elvis is awarded his first gold record, for Elvis.

1 April – Elvis does a screen test for Paramount. He’s quickly signed to a contract.

8 May – Ricky Nelson turns 16 years old.

22 August – Elvis begins shooting his first movie, Love Me Tender.

16 NovemberLove Me Tender opens to massive box office.

31 DecemberThe Wall Street Journal reports Elvis’ gross 1956 income near $22 million.


21 January – Elvis begins filming his second movie, Loving You. He is 22 years old.

30 January – Tommy Sands, a Colonel Tom Parker discovery (like Elvis), appears in “The Singin’ Idol” episode of Kraft Television Theatre. He is 19 years old. About a week later, “Teenage Crush” is released as a single and becomes an immediate hit.

10 April – Season 5: Ep. 28, “Ricky, the Drummer,” of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. Also around this date, Ricky Nelson releases the single “I’m Walkin’,” which becomes a hit.

8 May – Ricky Nelson turns 17 years old.

13 May – Elvis begins his third movie, Jailhouse Rock.

27 August – Tommy Sands turns 20 years old—no longer a teenager.

2 October – First episode of Season 6 of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.

ca. 1 NovemberRicky, Ricky Nelson’s first LP, is released.


21 February – Tommy Sands’ Sing Boy Sing, loosely based on Elvis’s story, opens.

8 May – Ricky Nelson turns 18.

2 JulyKing Creole, Elvis’s fourth film, opens. Ricky Nelson, Ricky Nelson’s second LP, is released about this time.

4 AugustBillboard introduces the Hot 100 chart. Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” becomes the first song to earn the No. 1 position on that chart.

1 October – Elvis arrives in Bremerhaven, West Germany. He will be stationed in the town of Friedburg for the next year and a half.

1 December – Ricky Nelson appears on the cover of Life magazine and is billed as “The Teen-Agers Top Throb” on the cover. In the article, he is referred to as a “teen idol” - a teen idolized by other teens.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stephen Weeks' Ghost Story

I’m pleased to announce that next month, on 26 October, Nucleus Films (UK) will issue Stephen Weeks’ 1974 chiller Ghost Story as a special edition double DVD set. Three years ago next month, Stephen visited Becky and me here in Kearney for several days and I managed to get him to sit down and watch Ghost Story with me and do an audio commentary, on the assumption that someday someone might want to use it. Happily, earlier this year, Marc Morris, head honcho at UK’s Nucleus Films, emailed me asking for Stephen’s contact information, and I used the opportunity to mention to him that I had Stephen’s commentary on Ghost Story as well and that he was welcome to use it. I’m pleased to say that he decided to use that commentary on the forthcoming DVD set. Stephen did a splendid job, and my task was an easy one, as I simply had to provide him with a prompt now and then. Here is the text of the official announcement released yesterday from Nucleus Films:

Revered, misunderstood and oft-discussed, Stephen Weeks’ rarely seen 1974 dreamlike chiller is the very definition of a cult British Horror film. Set in 1930s England, it tells of three former public schoolmates, Larry Dann (The Bill), Murray Melvin (The Devils) and the enigmatic Vivian Mackerrell (the inspiration for Bruce Robinson’s creation Withnail, of Withnail and I, seen here in his only major screen role), who reunite in a country mansion haunted by the spirit of insane former resident Marianne Faithfull. The haunting transports them to a surreal world of demonic dolls, sadistic doctors, incest and murder. Hammer fans will see Barbara Shelley (Dracula Prince of Darkness) and Leigh Lawson (Hammer House of Horror), among the cast, cult TV enthusiasts will recognize Anthony Bate (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Beasts), and sitcom lovers will enjoy a cameo from Penelope Keith (The Good Life; To The Manor Born).

This combination of 1970s Britsploitation and 1930s quaintness, realized perfectly by Weeks and soundtracked by Pink Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin, have made Ghost Story legendary. Now, for the first time on DVD, Nucleus Films proudly presents this pristine 2-disc collectors edition including “Ghost Stories,” an in-depth featurette about the curious tale about the making of the film, an audio commentary, a trailer and a selection of Weeks’ fascinating early shorts and commercials including the rarely seen Tigon film 1917. This latter film, set in the trenches of World War I, led to Stephen being offered the chance to direct his first feature film at the age of twenty-one, I, Monster, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

2 DISC COLLECTOR’S EDITION – with booklet and essay by Darius Drew Shimmon

DVD Extras include:

  • Ghost Stories – an all-new 60-minute featurette including interviews with Director/Producer Stephen Weeks, Actors Larry Dann and Murray Melvin, British Horror Icon Barbara Shelley, composer (and Pink Floyd collaborator) Ron Geesin, with comments from UK critic Kim Newman
  • Audio Commentary with Stephen Weeks, moderated by Sam Umland
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • The Chelsea Cobbler store commercial
  • Alternate opening credits sequence
  • Stephen Weeks' The Making of Ghost Story (.pdf)
  • 7 early previously unseen short Stephen Weeks films:
  • Owen’s War (1965 / b&w / 10m)
  • Deserted Station (1965 / b&w / 7m)
  • The Camp (1965 / b&w / 4m)
  • Moods of a Victorian Church (1967 / Color / 9m)
  • Two At Thursday (1968 / b&w / 10m)
  • 1917 (Tigon, 1968 / Color / 35m)
  • Flesh (1969 / Color / 3m)
Additional information can be found at Nucleus Films’ website.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Don’t Take Your Trips on LSD

Among all forms of popular music, one generally thinks of country & western when one is asked to think of songs proclaiming conservative values—Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” for instance, or Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” If these songs, lyrically speaking, express conservative values, what might constitute a conservative rock song? Strong support for family values? Opposition to pre-marital sex? Strong anti-abortion sentiment? Fear and distrust of government? The right of the people to keep and bear arms? If all of the above constitute what we could call “conservative values,” then here’s a selection of conservative rock songs that also celebrates the virtues of diversity.

A Few Con Rock Classics:
Paul Anka – (You’re) Having My Baby
The Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice
The Beatles – Taxman
Bob Dylan – Neighborhood Bully
Sheena Easton – Morning Train (Nine to Five)
Grand Funk Railroad – Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun
The Kinks – 20th Century Man
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama (Response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”)
John Mellencamp – Small Town
Ted Nugent – I Am The NRA
Elvis Presley – U. S. Male
Marrilee Rush and the Turnabouts – Angel of the Morning
The Sex Pistols – Bodies
The Spokesmen – Dawn of Correction (Response song to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

T For Teen

09.09.09: “No. 9” indeed. It’s as if the date was predestined, its significance anticipated over four decades ago on The Beatles, aka the “white album.” Today is the day of The Beatles on Rock Band, coinciding with the (re)release of remastered versions of Beatles’ albums on CD. In addition, there has been widespread speculation that today may see the announcement that the Beatles catalog shall finally be available on iTunes, even though all four of the band members have solo material in the store available for download already. The marketing apparatus has attributed to the date a significance as profound as occultists do the date 2012, as if the human calendar, for the past few hundred years comprised of twelve months and 365 days—save when leap year makes it 366—is linked to events in nature—indeed, all across the universe. Hence today is to feel “historic,” a momentous day that occurs only once in a lifetime, nature and culture coinciding with all the awe and mystery of a planetary alignment: the Beatles remastered, on Rock Band, and perhaps, God willing, even on iTunes. All of this on a Wednesday, too, even though new releases typically occur on Tuesdays: presumably, the event is so unique that it must occur outside a normal routine, a predictable and banal cycle, and be set aside on a singular day and date, a calendar event so fraught with the aura of magic (and the mnemonic properties of an incantation) - 9.9.09 - that only something utterly singular and profound may occur.

Of course, despite all the media hype, what today’s event really marks, or rather reveals, is something Marshall McLuhan observed decades ago: The content of the new media is the old. It also reveals something about the nature of the commodity that Marx observed over a century ago, that the commodity appears initially as an obvious, trivial thing, “but its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Remember that the media loves singular dates as much as it loves anniversaries: it provides ready-made content that can be repackaged as “news,” as novelty. The 40th anniversary of Woodstock came and went; this day, too, shall pass, with neither bang nor whimper.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Search For Philip K. Dick

Anne Dick, third wife of the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (the couple is pictured at left, early 1960s), sent me the link to an interview with her conducted in conjunction with the re-issue of her revised biography of the great author, Search For Philip K. Dick, first published by Mellen Press in 1993. Anne still lives in the house she shared with Philip K. Dick, located in Point Reyes Station, California, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Her book is a fascinating, and I think candid glimpse into the domestic life of the writer, to whom she was married from 1959 to 1965 (Dick left Anne, his and Anne’s daughter Laura, and his three stepdaughters in early 1964; the divorce was finalized in 1965). The period from 1959-64, that is, the period during which he was married to Anne, was a tremendously prolific period for the writer, and Anne was there to see it all. During the period 1958-64, Dick wrote many of his most celebrated novels, among them The Man in the High Castle (1962, for which he won the Hugo Award in 1963), We Can Build You (written 1961, immediately after Man in the High Castle; eventually published 1972), The Penultimate Truth (1964), Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Simulacra (1964), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), and Dr. Bloodmoney (1965, in which the house in which Anne still lives is depicted). His great “mainstream” novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was also written while he was married to Anne, but remained unpublished until 1975. Note that this is not all of the work Dick published during this period, merely a representative sample of several of the noted works, but in any case The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is, in my view, among his greatest works, and Anne’s portrait of the author before, during, and after the writing of this novel is utterly engrossing reading.

As Anne indicates in the interview, she was compelled to write the book after Phil’s death at age 53 in March 1982, as an attempt to try and come to a complete understanding of her relationship with him, which ended unpleasantly and strangely in March 1964. (The novel for which he is perhaps best known, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was not written until 1966, while he was married to Nancy Hackett, but draws on some material he first explored in We Can Build You, unpublished at the time he wrote the later novel.) I’m not sure Anne has ever received the proper acknowledgment she deserves for writing Search for Philip K. Dick, as it remained in manuscript form for many years, during which it was used as a source of information for Dick’s biographers—she did them a great service in tracking down a number of the author’s friends and acquaintances from the Berkeley years, as well as providing a rather candid and detailed account of her years married to the author. I’ve spent many delightful hours with Anne, although I haven’t had the opportunity to visit her at her Point Reyes Station home in several years. At a remarkably robust 82 years of age, she reveals in the interview that she is as articulate, candid, and insightful as ever, and explains her reasons for writing the memoir/biography in greater detail. She has always been extremely generous with her time to those like myself who are fascinated by Philip Dick’s remarkable body of work, and so I’m extraordinarily pleased that Anne was able to revise and re-issue her valuable and important book. If you have any interest at all in one of the greatest and most important American authors in the second half of the twentieth century, then I would strongly encourage you to purchase a copy. Order information is available here, and the link to the interview with Anne (also provided above) is available here.

Congratulations, Anne, on the publication of the revised edition of your important book!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cowlicked Doughboys

The first thing I did this morning, as I started running around using the car to do banal errands (e.g., recycling, purchasing stamps, etc.), was to turn on the radio. First up after the commercial break was the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” a song that time has proved to be as dull as the errands I was performing: Nothing dates faster than lyrics intended to shock. The album American Woman was released in 1970, i.e., during the Vietnam War Era. I was in high school. There are some good songs on the album, but “American Woman” isn’t one of them. The song’s political “message,” with its references to “war machines” and “ghetto scenes,” was so painfully obvious that even a sophomore in high school could “get it,” thus proving the fact that when you take up politics and seek to be politically correct, you end up making forgettable music. Indeed, most politically correct music is bad: John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey” is musically quite powerful; “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” is quite the opposite. So is “Give Peace a Chance,” now nothing more than a quaint museum piece, a historical artifact. The lesson? John Lennon assumed that his ideas were more important than his music.

By way of analogy, think of the movies Jean-Luc Godard made under the auspices of “The Dziga Vertov Group,” e.g., La gai savoir (1969), Wind from the East (1970), British Sounds (1970). These films were then, as they are now, tedious and boring, and the only ones interested in screening them at all are Godard scholars, obligated to watch everything. The irony is, when he paid attention to his art, to aesthetics, Godard was far more subversive—think of the “revolution” in cinema caused by Breathless (1960), historically important, still watchable, and a film that altered the course of world cinema. It’s far more memorable than anything he made during the Dziga Vertov period.

Well over thirty years ago, in 1975, Lester Bangs wrote an article lamenting the rather undistinguished careers of the individual Beatles in the 1970s, and he pinpointed what happened to them quite well. He wrote:

What made the Beatles initially so exciting and sustained them for so long was that they seemed to carry themselves with a good humored sense of style which was (or appeared to be) almost totally unselfconscious. They didn’t seem to realize that they were in the process of becoming institutionalized, and that was refreshing. By the time they realized it the ball game was over. In this sense, Rubber Soul (in packaging) and Revolver (in content as well) can be seen as the transitional albums. They doped it up and widened their scopes through the various other tools they had access to at the time just like everybody else down to the lowliest fringe-dripping cowlicked doughboy in the Oh Wow regiment, and the result was that they saw their clear responsibility as cultural avatars in what started out as a virtual vacuum (nice and clean, though), which of course ruined them. (Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, p. 45)

In other words, acute self-consciousness is the enemy of any artist, but what’s worse is taking yourself too seriously and over-estimating your cultural significance. When the music is no longer as important as the message, it’s all over.