Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Don't Cry for Me (or My Wife), Argentina

Governor Sanford gave a press conference today where he called his Argentinian mistress his "soul mate", but said he'd try to fall back in love with his wife. What a guy!

Monday, June 29, 2009

RIP Billy Mays

America's incredible pop culture, our greatest commodity, took another blow to the gut with the death of pitchman extraordinaire Billy Mays, 50. Maybe Farrah Fawcett needed to clean something that Michael Jackson spilled while Ed McMahan regaled him with an amusing Tonight Show reminiscence, triggered by Fred Travalena's quirky Carson impersonation.

Who really knows what goes on in that great TV set in the sky?

Michael Jackson's Second Line

Photo by Jennifer Zdon, © Times- Picayune

Even though I live in Washington DC, the newspaper I read is The Times- Picayune out of New Orleans, America's Greatest City. I think it's important to know what's going on in AGC, to know who played where, what artist is having a show, who killed whom, what the mayor has done right (apparently nothing) and what the mayor has done wrong (apparently everything), and the T-P covers it all.

There's a link to the right of this column, in case you too want to know what's going on in AGC.

This morning there was video and still coverage of a semi- spontaneous second- line in honor of Gary, Indiana native Michael Jackson. Second- line parades are given as a form of highest respect, usually to prominent New Orleanians, mostly of the musician variety. In fact, I don't know of any ever given to a non- resident of AGC.

Amazingly, no one was hurt, and the entire event was very uplifting. The video carries a soundtrack that is pure New Orleans' second- line: brass bands, percussion, great dancing and general parading, a tradition not to be scoffed at, especially in AGC. In fact, it's one of the main reasons it is America's Greatest City.

Many of the participants held signs and wore articles of clothing pertaining to Michael Jackson: T-shirts, sequined gloves, album covers. There was lots of dancing, on houses even, and in the streets. It was a huge, great celebration markedly devoid of all the things I complained about in my last post. No artificial music, no posturing, no celebrity pretentiousness.

Once again, AGC has forced me to re-consider my thinking (slightly) because it has not been influenced in the slightest by the tawdrier aspects of Michael Jackson's life.

It's just Michael Jackson's second line. And if the good people of New Orleans, La, decree that he earned it, who am I to argue?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson- So Many Thoughts, Some Not Good

No pictures this time. No need- everyone has seen them all. The plastic- surgery ravaged face, the pasty skin, like a modern day Dick Tracy villain come to life- MaskFace.

And let's get this out of the way: I think he was touched by genius. I think he made huge contributions, to civil rights, music, late 20th century pop culture. He broke a color barrier on MTV, which shouldn't have had a color barrier in the first place, but did, and he went in and owned them all.

And he certainly changed popular music forever. Unfortunately. His over- produced (sorry, Quincy, but I guess after producing Lesley Gore you had to have some outlet for your embarassing proclivity toward saccharine), sonically dense recordings opened the door to everything that is horribly bad in music right now. And incredibly popular.

Music today seems very appropriate for a new depression era- it's all- singing, all- dancing and all crap, like Busby Berkeley on some really bad coke. You can blame Michael for that. They say he idolized James Brown when the Jackson Five began, but he never got the truly visceral aspect of King James' approach- the repititious guitar figures, the crackerjack band with two drummers locked in a precise funk contest (winner takes all in the fried chicken dinner after the show) that propelled Maceo's solos into the stratosphere; the crotch grinding, stand-up- fuck- dancing- one chord- beat- driven groove in a hot sweaty room filled with men and women boogie-ing their butts off.

No, Michael picked up on one or two dance moves he could do by himself. Not a team player, I guess. The crotch you grab may be your own. When others danced with him, as in his videos, they stood slightly behind him and replicated his moves. There was no Ginger to Michael's Fred.

This is the template for everything now, from Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake to Beyonce and Miley Cyrus. Who cares who plays in Hannah Montana's band?

Yeah, I'm a musician, so of course I'm going to like a band more than a single with back-up, but hey- I like Tony Bennett, I like Sinatra, Astaire and Billie Holiday. I like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Frankilin. I have no idea who's in their bands these days. I don't mind personality- driven acts- they're fine. I think stars are fine.

But I hate pop music right now. I just hate it, and I blame Michael Jackson and I blame all 61 million people who bought a copy of Thriller (and I was one- on cassette even, for my kids!) for buying into this shitty, shitty excuse for music.

Please don't misunderstand- I'm very sorry about Michael. He probably never had a chance. Or at least never recognised that he had a chance. At this point he's to be pitied, not reviled. That will probably come later, from the tabloid press he courted and stroked with his sequined glove. They'll take good care of Michael.

One last thought: what happened to Bubbles the chimp? Did he die? Did Michael and his chauffeur bury the chimp in an arcane ceremony like Gloria Swanson and Eric Von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard? The parrallel is almost too good to be true. Which it probably isn't.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lord Buckley, Eventually

Every morning I check out Mar De Cortes Baja, Lloyd Fonvielle's excellent blog. Lloyd writes about his interests in an intelligent and insightful way, covering subjects from Annie Oakley to L'Inconnue de la Seine (a subject about which I knew nothing.)

I have an unusual connection with Lloyd, whom I do not know. Lloyd, like me, attended St. Albans School in Washington DC, and he hung out with two equally gifted fellow students, who took time off in their summers to make movies way before the term "student film" ever existed. This was during their seventh and eighth grade years. After Lloyd left to attend another prestigious prep school, I essentially replaced him. If he hadn't left, I may never have become friends with these two. Thanks, Lloyd!

The two other students, one of whom, Mr. Freeland- Archer, is already familiar to followers of this blog, and Mr. John Zhon (not their real names), a thoughful man of the cloth, remain my friends to this day. And Mar de Cortes Baja is my inspiration for writing this blog.

Lately, Mar has commented extensively on the situation in Iran. Lloyd brings his sensitive eye and ear to bear on the turmoil, and I urge all the readers of this blog to check out Mar de Cortes Baja.

Mr. Freeland- Archer sent me a great picture of the immortal Lord Buckley, who, though only a Lord in his own court, is, in mine, the King of the White Hipsters.

The Dapper Lord

I really don't have to provide a biography here, as I'm sure there's plenty online. Oddly enough, Lord Buckley was a big pal of Ed Sullivan's, an otherwise prickly conservative personality. I've seen three different Sullivan Show kinescopes of Buckley performing a kind of literal "talking heads" routine from his vaudeville act, where he takes volunteers, lines them up, and has them move their mouths as he provides the dialog in a variety of voices. In all of the films I've seen, he uses Sullivan and three or four of his guests as the volunteers. It's a corny bit, racist even, but it does show his energy and timing.

Sullivan let his Lordship on the show, but he didn't let him do current material like his Shakespeare pastiche, "Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-popping Daddies" or the "Nazz", his interpretation of the life of Jesus. How complicated he was!

My old college roommate John Hostetter worked up a one man show of Buckley that he would perform at conventions and odd Buckley- inspired events. I remember him memorizing "Hipsters/ Flipsters" (as he always called it) when we lived in Ithaca back in 1971. This last November I visited John and made this short film.

John is currently a musician, painter and all- around hipster in Florida. I'm currently a musician, father, photographer, writer and all- around hipster in Washington DC and Mr. Freeland- Archer (n.h.r.n.) is a video producer, art collector and all- around hipster in New Orleans. Coincidence? I think not!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Harmonica Camp

The Levittown Harmonica Orchestra

I wish there were a soundtrack with this picture. What are they playing? When I first began playing the harmonica, the kindly Hohner people packed a little sheet of paper with easy- to- play songs charted out. Was one "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain"? I can't remember.

These kids look like they mean business. Dig the girl on our left, with her hand warble. Or the boy with the the chord harp in the second row. Not to mention how cool the hats look until about the second- to- last row. After that it's strictly mandatory harmonica 101.

I have a strange habit of looking at old group shots to see if I'm in them. Actually I think a lot of people do this. Remember Jack Nicholson toward the end of The Shining? So far, I've never found myself in any of them and, sadly, this pic is no exception.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What a band!

Mr. Winwood and Mr. Clapton of "Blind Faith"

Every time I see a rock band on TV these days, there's a front line of celebrity musicians (read personalities) and a backline of support musicians (read anonymous actual musicians.) Take those awful jams at the Rock and Roll Hall o' Fame broadcasts, or anything involving Paul Schaeffer when he's not playing on David Letterman's show. If you go to see the Beach Boys there's maybe one Beach Boy and twenty session guys onstage. The only time I saw Bruce Springsteen there were 240 people in his band. At least, I think there were that many. And most of them were guitar players.

I think that Paul McCartney has 50 people in his band now, and nobody has any idea who is even in a band like, say, Guns n' Roses. Or cares.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't even dwell on this, because rock music is not my thing. I'm a blues guy. I have a blues band, an extensive collection of blues recordings, and I'm a really obnoxious snob about the whole thing. But I'm also a man of many theories, and one is that the best of anything cuts across all categories and is, by virtue of being the best, worthy of anyone's, even the most snobbish person's, attention.

Last night I saw Blind Faith, the best rock band I've ever seen. It had Chris Stainton on keyboards, Willie Weeks on bass, Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums, Steve Winwood, whom you may remember from the Spencer Davis Group, on guitar, keys and vocals and Eric Clapton from the Yardbirds on guitar and vocals. There was also some wonderful back-up singing from two lovely ladies, Michelle John and Sharon White.

Mr. Winwood, second from right, in The Spencer Davis Group

Mr. Clapton, second from left in The Yardbirds

That's it- just five musicians, rocking all night, two solid hours plus change, great hits, excellent sound, incredible vocals, no jive. What more could you ask for? Made me remember why I started listening to music on the radio in the first place.

Happy Birthday, Cliff Edwards

Cliff Edwards, AKA Ukulele Ike, June 14th, 1895- July 14th, 1971. The first man to sing "Singin' in the Rain" in an MGM musical. One of the first, if not THE first, white jazz and scat singers.

A not- so- secret hipster, a gambler, an alcoholic, a virtuoso uke player, a great voice artist in cartoons, a man who squandered millions of dollars (so the sources I consulted say) and the voice of Jiminy Cricket, who taught me to have a conscience and how to spell encyclopedia.

There's plenty of info about Mr. Edwards on the interweb, so I'll keep this one short, and give him the last word. Thanks, Cliff.

Here, then, is Mr. Edwards' shining moment.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts about Orson

Orson Welles by Cecil Beaton

There are a many sites about Orson Welles. http://www.wellesnet.com is a great place to start, and a has lots of links, etc., for Welles-o-philes.

This is not a Welles site. I just like him. That's all, really. And I often think about him, especially as regards his approach to creativity.

This morning I was briefly watching It's All True, the re-cut version made from so-called "lost" footage. Welles himself never completed the film, therefore never cut it. In fact, I don't think the footage was ever shown outside the RKO studios.

For those of you unfamiliar with the whole story, let me (probably inaccurately) summarize: after Citizen Kane, Welles began two feature films, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Journey Into Fear. At approximately the same time, Nelson Rockefeller approached Orson about making a documentary on our Latin neighbors. Rockefeller represented the Good Neighbor Policy, which was concerned about Nazi ties within the Latin Americas, most specifically Brazil.

Orson had always been interested in liberal politics, so he accepted and added the third project to his list. He sent a 2nd unit crew to Mexico and began filming, and, back at RKO, combined his schedule for the two other movies he had planned to shoot.

He had completed Ambersons, but hadn't cut it, and finished photography on Journey when he flew to Rio in time for Carnival. His concept of the film centered on the Carnival and, subsequently, the Samba.

Okay- now here's where everything begins to unravel. The studio cut Ambersons miserably, reportedly chopping off 45 minutes and reshooting significantly. The crew in South America was plagued with mishaps, Orson was partly responsible for the death of one of his main subjects, a national hero named Jacare, and RKO withdrew funding, as did Rockefeller.

After the RKO failure, Welles was unable to get financing for other projects. Prior to this point, he had known nothing but success. He was a wunderkind at his prep school, had acted in Ireland at the age of 17, starred in radio, and was a hot director on Broadway. Everything he touched turned to platinum. And let's not forget Kane. Not only is it a major achievement, but it's entertaining! Fun to watch, mesmerizing, even. Very cool movie.

After all that, he was reduced to hiring out as an actor, perhaps his weakest talent, to make a living. He directed a bad pic called The Stranger, an interesting pic called Macbeth, and a good pic called Lady From Shanghai. The worst things about them are his acting.

Then a great acting turn in The Third Man, directed by Carroll Reed, and he made a few more films, some good, at least one excellent, and some more famous for having never been finished than anything else.

Nowadays he's remembered for his commercial work, especially a bootleg audio tape for a British ad firm. "You people are such... pests," he says peevishly.

In the introduction to the It's All True, Orson implies that he was under a Voodou curse, much like the great Jazz composer and performer Jelly Roll Morton. Morton thought he was cursed because he had not fulfilled a bargain he had made early in life with a Voodou- man. The parallels are striking. Huge early success and bursts of genius- like creativity, combined with tremendous charisma, virtuosity and Herculean self- confidence lead, ultimately, to ruin and failure, inability to complete projects and relative poverty.

Hmmm... Voodou. Who knows?

I think the problem has more to do with personality. Casting Jelly Roll aside (maybe for another blog), let's just consider Orson. Why was he working on so many projects? Did he need all this activity to keep his energy going? Is there an ADD problem?

I sometimes wonder if I have an ADD. (It would certainly explain a lot!) Oftentimes, I feel myself filled with creative energy and I have to be very careful about which project I pursue, because it's easy to start things, but it can very hard to finish them.

I put that in italics because it's so important. The next part is it's very important to finish creative projects. Why? Because the path to unfinished ideas is strewn with failure. Failure of energy, failure of the ego. Unfinished projects can strip you of the self- confidence you need just to get through the day. And by you, I mean me.

Creativity is a terrible trap. I'm a creative person and I feel trapped a lot. I don't feel as if I'm particularly good at it, it's just what I can do. I can't do anything else. And the only times I'm successful are the times I can focus on the project at hand. Therefore, I have to pick my non- commercial projects carefully, lest they linger like a bad fish smell. By the way, these are the things I learned in art school. Not prep school, but art school. Don't pick a project that will cost too much. Don't miss deadlines. Don't count on others to help you. Stay focused on the project at hand.

Somewhere Orson lost the pinprick focus he needed. Somewhere down the line he became Orson Welles, and it took up all his time.

Of course, it may have been the Voodou.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I want to go to Veronica Lake

The first time I really looked at Veronica Lake was when I was maybe 18 years old. I Married a Witch with Frederick March and the aforementioned Ms. Lake was the name of the pic. I knew who she was, she of the "peek-a-boo" hairstyle, through caricatures, mostly in Warner Bros. cartoons. What I didn't realize was how complete the whole VL package was: not just the hair, or the face, or the body (all spectacular in that WWII pin-up sense, where the women were mostly clothed and yet radiated sex), but that amazing voice, like a cup of hot chocolate flavored with a drop of creme de cacao.

Eschewing the peek-a-boo look

Then in a college film class I saw Sullivan's Travels, with Joel McCrea and VL, a mid-period Preston Sturges masterpiece, where Ms. Lake does a little light comedy and impersonates a hobo. A male hobo, for that matter. It doesn't matter that she radiates femininity even in bad drag, she's still great.Then This Gun for Hire, and The Black Dahlia (as flawed a film as was ever made). There are others, The Glass Key, for instance, but I've never seen them. In all of the films I have seen, I can't take my eyes off of her. She is literally mesmerizing. What was she like? I think. And I'm thinking sexually. I can't help it, she's just incredible to me.

Offscreen, evidently, she was a mess. Raymond Chandler called her "Moronica" Lake, and Eddie Bracken referred to her as "a bitch". After a bad miscarriage during a movie where she played a Nazi sympathizer, The Hour Before the Dawn, her career spiralled downward and she was, aside from The Blue Dahlia, essentially finished. Alcoholism and mental illness dogged her final years.

But that's real life for you. Not everyone gets the breaks, like our friend Delores Del Rio, another crush of mine profiled in an earlier blog. Not everyone gets the happy ending they deserve.

I visited Virginia Mayo one time at her home in her Thousand Oaks, California, when she was in her mid- seventies. She was still beautiful, very regal and even serene. She had a bag full of fan mail from just that week, and invited my friend George Ferris and me to watch A Song Is Born on her VCR.

On the TV screen I thought she looked like this:
As I sat next to her on her bed she looked like this:
Which is to say, simply, great. However, it was also very surreal to connect this lovely grandmother with the imaginary siren on the television screen.

Veronica Lake was never allowed to become a lovely grandmother. That was not a role she was offered by the cosmic forces that govern our lives, a role Virginia embraced beautitfully. Veronica can best remain the protypical imaginary siren, peeking through her universe- class- hair, looking at us through her impossible lashes, and promising the boys impossible dreams.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

RIP Sam Butera

Sam Butera died yesterday. He was born on August 17th, 1927 in New Orleans. Best known for his tenure with Louis Prima, he held his own after Prima's death in 1975, and continued to play with his band, The Wildest, mostly in casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Reno and Mississippi.

He music career began auspiciously in New Orleans where his father owned a grocery store. By the time he was eighteen he had won a contest, "Outstanding Teenage Musician in America", sponsored by Look Magazine. He was playing in Leon Prima's Bourbon Street club, The 500, when Louis Prima offered him the gig in Vegas. Butera was reportedly making $700 a week playing jazz and backing strippers, most notably Lily (or Lili) Christine the Cat Girl. Prima offered him $250, and Butera flew west, no doubt sensing greater opportunites, despite the pay cut.
Pictures of Lily

He arranged Prima's hits, including "Just a Gigolo" and "Jump. Jive, and Wail", and was known for his over- the- top stage antics and indefatigable tenor sax playing.

He was also a connoisseur of New Orleans' black R n' B scene, and according to Irving Banister, Danny White's guitarist, used to frequent Danny's performances at the Safari Club. "Danny saw him in Vegas," says Irving, " and Butera had all Danny's stage moves."

Here's a video from Daily Motion featuring Louis Prima, a deadpan Keely Smith and Sam. I believe that's Nick Tosches introducing it. If it's not, please let me know.

Louis Prima - Sam Butera - Night Train

A true son of the Big Easy, Butera was one of those only- in- New- Orleans Italian soul men, like his long time partner Louis Prima, who brought a native two- step beat to his R n' B, idolized Louis Armstrong, hated David Lee Roth and swung like a crazy man right to the end.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Happy Birthday, Tom Brown

Elsewhere in this blog we published a photograph of Mrs. Agnes Brown, wife of jazzman Tom Brown.

Today is Tom Brown's birthday. He was born in New Orleans in 1888 and was among the first wave of white jazz musicians like Papa Jack Laine, with whom he played before 1910 when he organized his own band. His brother Steve was a noted bass player.

He played violin, bass and trombone, was a successful musician in Chicago and New York, then returned to New Orleans and had continued success there. Eventually he opened a radio repair shop on Magazine and enjoyed a second career of sorts playing traditional jazz during the revival in the late '50's.

Here's another great picture from the Brown archives:

Alcide "Yellow" Nunez, Tom Brown, and Frank Christian

Perhaps Brown's greatest legacy is coining the word "Jass" to describe the type of music his bands played. This was corrupted into jazz and there you have it.

Happy birthday, Tom Brown!