Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Another Plea For Help

I'm sure you've probably noticed I haven't had much chance to post these past couple months. So, for the nonce, Pick Your Pop Culture shall be a retired spot in web-land. Maybe someday I'll get the urge and the time to get back into the blogging thing. In the meantime, just read all the great people I've linked to.

And, while you're looking for something to do, consider giving some bucks to these guys:

www.nsalamerica.org

The disaster in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama is beyond belief, and there are a million ways we can help. I'm sure you've seen dozens of pleas for the people of New Orleans, and I urge you to help them, if you can. But, don't forget the animals.

Monday, August 22, 2005

New Memories of Stardust Memories

Do you ever think it might be interesting to go back 25 years and re-live your adult life again? I mean, take the blueprint that was you as a child and teen, and avoid any mistakes you made after that? Or maybe, just appreciate the possibilities you had which have since passed by?

Nah, I don’t get that way very often, and for the most part, I’m one heck of a happy guy. But, I just watched “Stardust Memories,” the 1980 Woody Allen movie, and I wondered what my 21-year-old self would have done with it back when it was new. At the time, I had no real understanding that women were as human as I was, or to be more precise, I didn’t understand why they acted the way they did even though they were clearly as human as I was. So, I think I would have accepted all of Woody Allen’s views of women as being a lot more profound than they might actually have been.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Allen is a profound observer of the human condition, but all his profundity is in relationship to himself. He knows what it feels like to be a filmmaker looking for deeper meaning than a simple laugh, while his public wants him to stay the clown he once was. He understands the demands of stardom, and the ways the public can intrude on real life. He certainly knows his desires for women, and the mysterious pulls they can have on him, especially when they are being inscrutable, which they mostly are because he looks at them as something he can obtain, rather than as a person as fallible as he is.

I felt a strange twinge of nostalgia watching this movie. I hadn’t seen it before, so the feeling that came over me had to do with who I was when movies like this were common enough to make money in theatres. Obviously, Allen was paying tribute here and there to Bergman and Fellini, moving in and out of storytelling mode and playing around with symbolism, making fun of it by overstating it. And, back when meta-fiction was far more rare than it is today, when it seems as if everybody on any screen knows he or she is being filmed, the fact that the actors and audience are shown commenting on the film itself was charmingly fresh. I would have loved this movie when I was 21, looking to break with convention, dreaming about the nature of women, wanting to be thinking deep thoughts every day of my life.

Remember Me?

Cat and I drove down to rural Missouri yesterday. I think it was Herculaneum, but I always get confused down there. She knows where she’s going, so I never bothered to learn.

Anyway, what’s happening down there? We went to Buckheit, which used to be a cool department store with some fun things to see. Like, they used to have the coolest toy collection in America, all these little die-cast farm machines and animals, and farm houses. Now, I think they had like two half-shelves full of little toy trucks. They used to have tons of cheap and interesting food products, jars of jellies and jams, and bags and bags of candy guaranteed to rot your teeth into a gapped-up smile. Now, there was only one small display of this sort of thing. Buckheit still sells horse gear, but there wasn’t much else to distinguish it from a pricier and less well-stocked Walmart.

That’s okay, I figured. We could salvage the trip by stopping at the giant Pevely flea market. (Oh, I guess that means we were in Pevely, doesn’t it?) Not only did we have the sticker shock of paying $1.00 admission when it used to be free, but I swear, there were half as many booths and twice as much garbage as I’ve ever seen there. This place used to give me hours of digging through old books and magazines and comic books. Now, we spent fifteen minutes desperately looking for anything that interested us.

The people watching wasn’t all that interesting, either. There was one guy wearing a t-shirt that said, “Hunt Like You Got A Pair,” which I admired in a completely ironic hipster fashion. But, otherwise, the whole trip was a disappointment. I mean, we had fun, but that was the pleasure of each other’s company, rather than anything we happened upon when we got there.

I’m afraid rural America is slowly but surely losing its distinctiveness.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

An Update on Many Things

Returning to the blog world after an absence of nine days is a little scary. I’ve got lots of ideas, of course, so many that I’m terrified of the blank Microsoft Word document. (Unlike in my youth, when typewriter pages truly were white and empty, the Word document always has those little icons at the top, which somehow makes me feel less alone. Doesn’t make it any easier to get started, though.)

Let me tell you what I’ve been up to. I thought I was gonna get a full-time job, but I didn’t. I was working for six weeks at Prison Performing Arts, a wonderful non-profit organization that brings the arts into jail. I didn’t actually go to jail myself. I was sitting in an office, learning new software, developing grant-writing and editing skills, and doing all kinds of interesting (and sometimes mundane) things. But, they chose to hire somebody else full time, and that’s the way that cookie crumbled.

I was going to write a post called “People Who Died” because that’s what seemed to be happening last week. One friend lost his mother, another lost her brother, and a whole lot of us lost a guy named Toast, who was one of those scene-making dudes who seemed likely to be a permanent fixture on the widest periphery of my life. I didn’t really have a clear idea how I was going to do that, though it was going to be based around the old Jim Carroll song and the fact that his birthday was last week.

I didn’t write about going to see Elvis Costello last Tuesday night, or about catching Bruce Springsteen on Saturday. (Or for that matter, about seeing the Bottle Rockets on Friday, or the very end of Sonny Landreth’s set after the Springsteen show.) Sometimes, my mind starts racing after I hear music, and I want to try to explain what I experienced. Other times, I simply enjoy it, as I did all this stuff, and words don’t come to paper.

I’ve seen some movies lately. Buster Keaton in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and Marion Davies in “The Patsy,” both from the late 1920s, and both full of laughs with lots of magnificent physical comedy and facial mannerisms. The Keaton is his masterpiece, and it contains that scene we’ve all seen a million times in documentaries, when the building falls on him but he stands unscathed, having placed himself directly in the center of the empty upstairs window. I also caught a Frank Sinatra/Groucho Marx/Jane Russell piece of fluff called “Double Dynamite” that showed how the mighty had yet to achieve, or the mighty had fallen, or the mighty was posed as provocatively as the mores of 1951 would allow, depending on which mighty star you’re talking about.

I picked up some new CDs today. (For those of you worrying about my frugality in the face of unemployment, I’ve been trading out some old, unloved music for brand new stuff, figuring out that if I started playing all my albums, CDs, and cassettes tomorrow, at an average rate of say ten per day, it would probably take me a couple years to hear them all.) These I can recommend after one quick listen: The Flamin’ Groovies “Shake Some Action” reissue sounds even more amazing than I remember it, sticking true to the original production while somehow eliminating the murk of the record. Bobby Purify, “Better to Have It,” is a brand new old-school soul gem. Bill Frisell has a two-disc live masterpiece of trio stuff called “East/West” that absolutely blew me away. And Daniel Lanois has a new instrumental album of luscious, barely graspable beauty called “Belladonna.”

I read a great book called “Lost Delta Found” by John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams, Jr. Ever wonder what the contemporary researchers from Fisk University thought about the blues and sacred music and performers they studied back in 1941 when the whiter and thus more famous Alan Lomax was taking all the credit? This is what they wrote back then, left unpublished for 65 years, and it’s fascinating. I wish I had written something more in depth about it, because this is important new information helping to put that music back into its original context, before any of the people, including Muddy Water (before he was pluralized), became famous.

I’m working on some writing stuff for pay, too. And, I’ve got an opening into a part-time research job. So, while I still look for real work, I’m at least bringing in some money, and learning a lot, and figuring out what can happen next. And, I’ll be blogging more often. Seems like every time I pick up a few new readers, I go through a dry spell.

Monday, August 01, 2005

A Few Paragraphs, Unrelated

To keep my blogging feet in the door, I’m gonna post a few random thoughts and episodes regarding my weekend. Really, there are book reviews and music reviews and movie reviews coming up, but not today. Nope, today, it’s just detritus, some of it pretty, some of it about as useless as I can imagine.

1) Did y’all see “Six Feet Under” last night? Okay, I don’t usually worry about spoilers, but as this was one of the most unexpected plot developments I’ve ever seen on a major television series, I’m not gonna reveal anything to you. I will tell you that the last three weeks have seen a major return to form for this show, which had been mired in some seemingly hopeless levels of misery for the first part of this season (and, frankly, much of the last one). If you’ve ever enjoyed the show, even if you abandoned it a year or three ago, I think you’ll find this episode to be devastating.

2) I have now officially joined the modern world. This morning, I burned my first CD. Yesterday, I signed up for a downloading service – check it out at www.emusic.com – and I’ve been sampling all kinds of cool indie records at a ridiculously cheap price. Considering they’ve got the entire OJC catalogue, the jazz alone makes the $9.95 monthly fee for 40 downloads pretty reasonable. (And remember, a 15 minute live Sonny Rollins masterpiece costs the same as a 2-minute punk song.) So, this morning, I created an itunes playlist, and am now enjoying a CD containing the Animals with Sonny Boy Williamson, Skip James, the Posies, the Kinks, the dB’s (actually, I downloaded that one from the web site I told you about last week), Bob Mould, the Decemberists, and Sonny Rollins.

3) Saturday, Cat and I got sunburned. Apparently, if you skip two weeks of hanging out at the pool, you lose the immunity you’d gained to the sun. Man, I’ve got new respect for George Hamilton and Zonker Harris.

4) I watched most of the Cardinals game yesterday, and I’m appalled at the strange decisions of Tony LaRussa. I mean, yeah, they won, but why all the bunts? Why take the bat out of the hands of John Rodriguez? Why insist on taking out Julian Tavarez when he was throwing the ball great? Why, Tony, why?

5) We’ve been watching episodes of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” from the season 4 DVD box (loaned to us by our most excellent friend John Wendland). On this show, even when they pushed the death toll to absurd limits – there was a serial killer who was driving from Florida to Baltimore and killing every few hours when he needed gas – the human foibles and qualities of the detectives were never forgotten. One of these days, I’ll have more to say on this subject, but I just want to acknowledge right now that this show was one of the all-time high points of television history.

6) I’ve got to go make lunch now and head in to work. Tomorrow is my second interview at the place I’ve been working for five weeks now. Will they hire me for real, or will the job go to a guy who hasn’t worked there yet? Stay tuned, folks. The soap opera never ends.

Monday, July 25, 2005

You've Got to Hear This

Click here and check out the brand new mp3 from the dB’s, a typically catchy new :Peter Holsapple ditty. Nothing is more exciting this year than the reunion of the original dB’s line-up – guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter Holsapple and lead guitarist extraordinare/songwriter Chris Stamey, along with bassist Gene Holder and drummer Will Rigby. If you missed them in the 80s, when they were the best band in the United States of America, there’s a new chance to get in on the action. I envy those of you in Hoboken, NJ and Chicago, IL who will get to see the only live shows the band will do this year.

Hey, I'm Back

I gotta tell you, the best way to hear live music is to sit in somebody’s kitchen/family room, and let the musicians set up in the corner. Thursday morning, nobody in town thought for one second they’d be seeing Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell play Sunday night, but thanks to Marie Arsenault, John Wendland, Roy Kasten, and especially Rick and Nancy Wood, who hosted the event, a house concert was put together on very short notice. I believe the proper phrase here is: “A good time was had by all.”

First, let me just say that Caitlin and Thad are two great singers who sound greater together. Cary came out of Whiskeytown, the Uncle Tupelo tribute band once led by Ryan Adams – and to be fair, which released some pretty good songs back in its heyday. To be honest, I know next to nothing about Cockrell, but the songs I’ve heard from their month-old duet release, “Begonias,” have been enough to convince me he’s got talent.

And now, a digression on alt-country itself. Can we just get over the phrase and acknowledge that something happened fifteen years ago to make it possible for young musicians raised on rock to embrace country music forms and tropes, thus freshening up a tradition that no longer had much of a hold at all on the working class and rural audiences that had loved it for so long? There are a million things you can do with country, just as there are a million things you can do with blues. These forms are intrinsic to the American character, and I have no problem with anybody who wants to come along and play around with them, as long as the end result turns out to be worth my while. There aren’t really any more incompetent alt-country artists running around the world than there are incompetent practitioners of any other genre you’d care to name.

Which is to say, goodness, what is there to complain about when Cary and Cockrell stare into each others eyes and sing these songs of heartbreak and devotion? Cockrell has a high, wispy voice; Cary has a husky, dominating alto. Over the course of twenty or so songs, they explored every way of mixing their respective vocals one could imagine. Blended together into one close, sibling-like harmony; alternating passages as a dynamic tool; belting out individual vocal lines until you couldn’t tell who was singing what anymore. It was all gorgeous, whether on their original material or on incredibly well chosen cover songs such as Percy Sledge’s “Warm and Tender Love” or Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson.”

The backing band was magnificent. The rhythm section, a bassist and a drummer (who looked like he was 15, but turned out to be 25), could move from gentle pulses to r’n’b propulsion. Cary’s fiddle and Cockrell’s subtle acoustic guitar playing were treats, too. But, most of all, Cary and Cockrell turned out to be the latest beneficiaries of one of America’s best kept musical secrets, the very talented Rich Gilbert playing pedal steel guitar. Gilbert, who is equally great on guitar and who once was in Human Sexual Response and the Zulus, now lives in Nashville and signs on with a series of talented people to provide tasty and incendiary playing in a variety of settings. I realized last night that much of the best music being made these days isn’t being recorded, because people are going out on tour with amazing hired hands like Gilbert. Not that there’s anything wrong with Cary and Cockrell’s own record, but I’d love to be able to recreate the experience I heard last night.

The sound in Rick and Nancy’s family room was impeccable. The audience was quiet and respectful. There was no smoking indoors. There was a pot-luck buffet spread that was incredible. Beer, soda, wine, and water flowed copiously. Really, this is now my favorite venue, and while I understand that Rick and Nancy probably would prefer to keep their home to themselves and their two kids – who were sent away for the night – I have a very selfish side that wants a whole lot more musical events held at their house. This was truly a fun time.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Warring Worlds at the Drive-In

I don’t know from video games, but it seems to me that if you keep on surviving all the levels, and then ultimately win the game because it’s rigged that you can’t lose, you’re gonna think you’ve been cheated. Because, really, where is the challenge?

We went to the drive-in last night to catch “War of the Worlds” and a second screening of “Batman Begins.” I only want to mention that “Batman Begins” holds up a lot better on second viewing than I would have thought. The montage jump cuts while maintaining dialogue during Bruce Wayne’s training sequences with Ra’s Al Ghul were especially impressive. I still have problems with the overall shape of the movie, but the technique is so strong that it carried me along for the ride, especially knowing exactly what was going to happen next.

Anyway, “War of the Worlds” is pretty much exactly like a video game. There is the obligatory modern-day blockbuster action pic ten-to-fifteen minute opening to establish characters, and then we’re off to the races, as the heroes run and jump over a seemingly endless parade of CGI-created frights. The catch is, if you’re playing the role of Tom Cruise in this game, you’ve got nothing to worry about because through no particular effort or strength on his part, save an overwhelming desire to keep his daughter safe, Cruise is incapable of being harmed.

Here’s the set-up. Cruise is a divorced dad with a teen-age son and a pre-pubescent daughter. The son’s character is virtually an afterthought. They figured he should be rebellious, should hate the father for abandoning his family, and yet should be incredibly gentle and aware and loving when it comes to his little sister. Not so gentle and aware that he can’t abandon her from time to time when the writers felt like taking him off screen, but certainly close enough to her that he is the only one who can calm her down – through some sort of family therapy method of finding a safe place – when the situation warrants.

Tom’s ex-wife is pregnant, and she has a new husband, so we’re not going to have a family reunion in this flick. The little girl is alternately wide-eyed Spielbergian innocence and prototypical wise-beyond-her-years smart kid who can analyze her father’s mis-steps in trying to establish a closer relationship with her brother. Then, the aliens attack, so let’s roll.

Metaphorically, it’s impossible to avoid any 9/11 comparisons for this movie. When H.G. Wells wrote the original novel some 100 years back, he was trying to dredge up some nightmare scenario far removed from reality. It was impossible for attacks on civilization to come from out of nowhere. Then, when Orson Welles updated it for his famous 1939 radio broadcast, he wisely moved the story to New Jersey, because America seemed far more impervious to attack at that time than England. Guess what? Now, we don’t feel so invulnerable. So, when we see an army of giant tripods blowing up buildings and frying frightened humans, it’s only natural to ask if this is an act of terrorism. We don’t need to consider sources from off-planet to frighten us. We’ve got our own boogey-men right here, thank you very much.

The problem is, Spielberg doesn’t want to do anything with the metaphor. He has to know he’s tapping into the zeitgeist of Us vs. Them, but he wants to pretend this is just an old-fashioned scary movie, where all we have to do is root for the hero. (And to make sure we root our hardest, the hero has to protect the innocence of his ten-year-old daughter. At least twice, maybe more, he makes sure to cover her eyes so she can pretend something particularly horrible isn’t happening. One of those horrors just might be Cruise’s character killing another human. Of course, Spielberg makes us close our eyes, too, keeping that action off screen as he concentrates his camera on the blindfolded little girl pushing her hands tightly against her ears.)

As Cruise frantically huffs and puffs his way in front of the CGI screen displaying streets falling apart behind him, cars turning to ashes, and really huge alien technology chortling along with some minor key leitmotif, the viewer has to understand this much. Steven Spielberg isn’t going to set up a little girl as the single most perfect representation of humanity without making sure she pulls out of this scrape in one piece, nor is he going to bump off her father. So, all suspense is completely lost once the aliens attack. All we will see is what happens around Cruise, and he will always be just far enough out of range of destruction to keep himself scratch-free. I kept expecting him to pull out a Maxwell Smart line like “Missed me by that much.”

I’ll give Spielberg this. He makes the little girl be a big whiner, and she screams like the dickens every time the blue screen comes up behind her. Cruise redeems himself as a father figure when she asks him to sing a lullabye and all he can come up with is “Little Deuce Coupe.” What? They don’t have “Rock a Bye Baby” in scientology?

Some of the special effects look pretty cool. But, there’s never any convincing reason as to why Cruise and his kids should survive, except that they are the focus of the film. Eventually, the boy decides he has to go with the army to help fight the creatures, but that just means we don’t get to see how he makes his way back to Mom’s house for the happy reunion at the end. (Like I’m spoiling that for you!? This particular Odyssey is all about the trip, folks; the last five minutes is perhaps the most anti-climactic sequence in movie history.)

Hey, speaking of the army, I noticed that a) there were enough troops in America not shipped over to Iraq or Afghanistan, which was probably lucky; b) the army troops were all completely committed to fighting and keeping order, with absolutely no hint of fear or loss of discipline; and c) the troops were, as far as I can remember, 100% white males. In fact, I can’t remember too many African-American, and absolutely no Asian or Hispanic faces in the whole film.

All blockbuster movies are automatically more fun if you see them at the drive-in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t quibble a bit. “War of the Worlds” bugged me on a lot of fronts. I didn’t like the idea that we were supposed to feel good at the end because Cruise and his entire family escaped completely unharmed while millions, perhaps billions of other people were dead and half the world was destroyed. I didn’t like the fact that Spielberg did nothing to update the original microbe destruction of the aliens; Wells was wrong that humanity was immune to all microbes but the aliens wouldn’t be. Why couldn’t the aliens have turned out to die as a result of ingesting, I don’t know, humans who had been taking the AIDS cocktail? This movie could have used an ironic conclusion like that.

I did actually like the idea of avoiding any official explanations for events. The way that people throughout the movie gave contradictory reports of what was going on was nicely ambivalent, and reflected the fact that Spielberg really wasn’t interested in the plot as much as in creating enough video game thrills to get to the end of the picture. He did that, alright. But, I’ve hated this guy since 1977. He’s never struck me as capable of understanding the admittedly nicely composed images he puts on the screen, and he’s not starting at this late date. “War of the Worlds” isn’t devoid of entertainment value, but oh, how much better it could have been with a little bit of thought.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Oh, Daddy

Can I possibly say anything sensible about a book I finished reading eleven days ago? That’s ancient history, as I’ve finished another one and I’m about one fifth of the way through a third since then.

Yet, the whole time I was reading “Lot’s Daughters: Sex, Redemption, and Women’s Quest for Authority,” written by Robert M. Polhemus, I was thinking this was something I wanted to talk about. Because, basically, he’s found a way to turn the Oedipus Complex on its head, and discovered an equally potent mythological tale that’s wound its way through our society for thousands of years. Polhemus is talking about what he calls the Lot Complex, which is to say the tendency for older men and younger women to get it on.

I have to say, when I was growing up in the Church, I never really heard the whole story of Lot and his family. Somehow, the way I learned it, all I knew was Lot was a good man who was saved when Sodom (and Gomorrah) was destroyed, and that his wife couldn’t resist the urge to look back and thus was turned into a pillar of salt.

Here’s the nitty gritty of the tale that they left out in Sunday School classes. See, Lot was hanging in Sodom, and two angels stopped in for a visit. Of course, they didn’t tell anybody they were angels, but Lot was properly hospitable to strangers, so he invited them in and tried to make them comfortable. Now, it wasn’t easy to be comfortable, when apparently every man in the town was gathered outside Lot’s house demanding for these two newcomers to step outside and let everybody fuck them.

As I said, Lot was a good host, and he didn’t think it would be good for his guests to take it up the ass from however many men there were in Sodom. So, he offered up his virginal daughters to the crowd, saying they could be had for the taking if these men would just leave his guests alone. Silly Lot. In a town like Sodom, where apparently debauchery was the rule of the day, nobody got to remain virginal unless very specifically nobody else wanted anything to do with said virgins. So, of course the people of the town said no to the girls, and give us the new guys.

That’s when the angels said, “Okay, you guys are in trouble now, because we’re here from God, and He said we get to destroy your whole town.” (Presumably, there was some roughly similar tale taking place in Gomorrah, but that destruction is relegated to very deep background in the Bible, only being mentioned as happening at the same time, shorn of detail.) The angels were proud of Lot’s very nice gesture of offering his daughters in their place, so they told him he and his family could take off before the holocaust.

Well, sir, Lot, his wife, and his two daughters packed their things and got out of town before the sun rained down and blew up Sodom. The wife couldn’t resist a backwards glance at the life she was leaving behind, which makes sense because it clearly must have been great for this one Godly family to live in such a disgusting place. God, not being one to mess around with those who didn’t stick to the letter of his commands, turned the wife into a pillar of salt.

Believe it or not, now comes the weird part. When next we see Lot and company, it’s a day or so later, and they’re hanging out in a cave, believing themselves to be the only survivors of the human race. (Apparently, the angels didn’t fill anybody in on all the details about Sodom and Gomorrah being the only two truly wicked cities in the whole world.) The daughters get to thinking, “You know, it’s up to us to regenerate the human race, and there are no other men but Daddy.” So, they take turns getting him drunk and “laying naked” with him. It only took one time each for them to get pregnant, and their descendents turned into the races of the Moabites and the Ammonites.

Check this out, though. The Moabites begat and begat until they begat Ruth, who begat some more until begetting King David, who begat and begat until finally we reached the birth of Jesus. So, ultimately, Jesus was a result of this incest. Why did they never tell us this stuff?

The story itself is plenty weird for modern readers to get their heads around, but what Polhemus does so brilliantly is use it as an archetype for the history of women actually moving on to take some power back from men. I’m not saying there aren’t places in this book when I wasn’t a little bit confused as to how he thought that was a powerful thing, but starting from the very thought that the daughters made their own decision to carry on the race while Lot himself needed to be ploughed with liquor to stiffen up and do it, Polhemus actually does have a way of making you think about what he’s saying.

Onward through art, literature, film, and politics, Polhemus puts a new spin on everything from Lewis Carroll to Shirley Temple to the Bronte sisters and on to Monica Lewinsky. Obviously, he’s mostly dealing with symbolic incest, or simply the Daddy/Daughter concept of inter-generational sexuality (which doesn’t even always turn out to include sex). Here’s where the time lapse between reading this and writing about it fails me, because I really can’t give you enough specifics to show what I’m talking about. I can, however, point out that Polhemus is an astoundingly witty and perceptive critic of all sorts of things, and he will make you notice stuff you’ve never noticed before. Read it, folks, and prepare to have your minds blown.