Saturday, March 31, 2012

Headlining the New York City Scuzz Festival

The other night I watched a film called Jennifer on My Mind, which was so bad it should have been introduced by Leonard Pinth-Garnell. Softheaded in its conception, amateurish in its execution, it told the story of a doomed young couple in Manhattan in the early 1970s. Jennifer is a rich young heroin addict, Marcus is a wealthy young grandson of a Jewish mobster, and that’s the sum and substance of their characterizations. She dies of a heroin overdose – which isn’t a spoiler, since she’s dead in the opening scene - and the film flashes back and forth between Marcus' attempt to dispose of her body and the tragic tale of their courtship. Why Marcus thinks it would be less suspicious to be discovered with a dead body in his car trunk than to have a girl OD in his apartment is never explained.

Maybe the thing that drove me most crazy was that neither Jennifer nor Marcus had anything else going on in their lives, nothing that would either get in the way of their love story or turn them into actual human beings. They’re both rich enough to not need to work, old enough to not need to go to school, and blissfully free of parental involvement – his are dead, hers are absent. Al Pacino didn’t have a job in The Panic in Needle Park, either, but he also didn’t have food much of the time. Jennifer and Marcus are so free of constraints of any kind that they meet in Venice, hang out in New York for a while, then decide to go back to Venice, for no real reason. The whole setup struck me as incredibly lazy.

That kind of fuzzy thinking was matched by the ineptness of the filmmakers. There’s a scene where Marcus is running with a friend through Central Park and discussing how to get rid of Jennifer’s corpse, still moldering in his apartment while he takes timeout for a jog. Hey, removing dead bodies is important, but so’s staying in good shape. The whole scene is dubbed so poorly that it’s often hard to tell which character is talking. It’s like watching a cheapo Italian horror movie.

The film is most notable for an early appearance by Robert De Niro as a speed-freak gypsy cabdriver. He’s in the movie for about two minutes, and is the closest the film ever comes to a recognizable human being. (Incidentally, while I saw this thing on Netflix Streaming, the whole movie appears to be available on YouTube as well. Help yourself.)

It’s all my own fault, of course. I am a sucker for any movie shot in New York City in the early to mid-1970s, roughly from Midnight Cowboy to Taxi Driver. Not only do I have an unhealthy interest in and great affection for the culture of the early 1970s, but I love seeing the city in all its filthy glory, with the dirty blocks of nothing but bodegas and wig shops, all encased in metal bars. (The French Connection is especially good with this kind of scene.)

Jennifer on My Mind
does not skimp on these things, with that scene of a lovely, unkempt Central Park. Plus at one point Marcus decides to move across the Hudson to a high-rise in Union City – no, it doesn’t make sense, since he was living in a huge Manhattan apartment all by himself before - and there’s a gorgeous vista of the West Side from his balcony.

So I’ve had kind of a long-running New York City Scuzzfest going on, with another heroin-facing obscurity cued up for me on Netflix Streaming: Born to Win, from 1971, with George Segal, Paula Prentiss, and the inescapable Robert De Niro. Drug/crime movies tend to work best for this sort of thing, since they want to portray the city in all its unruly grime, not unlike the opening titles to "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Here’s a list of the movies I’ve seen over the past few years that fall into this category; Marshall tells me The Hot Rock belongs here as well. Feel free to add your own choices to the festival:

Midnight Cowboy
The Landlord
The Panic in Needle Park
The French Connection
Mean Streets
The Godfather
Across 110th Street
Death Wish
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Dog Day Afternoon
Marathon Man
Taxi Driver

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bad Lyric of the Week

My sister got lucky
Married a yuppie

- from "Yer So Bad," by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne

Hey, Tom, I bet that yuppie makes like ten percent of your annual income, you old populist, you.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

For Every Hung-Up Person in the Whole Wide Universe

Bob Dylan came out 50 years ago today, launching the most remarkable career in modern music history. The recently released Chimes of Freedom four-CD set, featuring nearly 80 Dylan covers by fans, friends, acolytes and people I've never heard of, pays tribute to the breadth of that career.

As a measure of the rise and fall of Dylan's songwriting muse, I've made note of the album that each of those songs represent, to see when Dylan was writing his most fabled compositions. This is the first appearance on an official Dylan LP for each, so that "The Mighty Quinn" is not listed on The Basement Tapes, when it was first recorded, but on Self-Portrait, which is always nice to stick up for. Albums without any songs on Chimes of Freedom aren't listed; sorry, Knocked Out Loaded.

The biggest upset is that there are more songs from Street-Legal (3) than from Highway 61 Revisited (2). There's even one song that's never been released on a Dylan album - or even recorded by Dylan, I don't think. But we'll get to that.

Bob Dylan: 1 ("Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," by Marianne Faithfull [!])
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: 5
The Times They Are a-Changin': 7 (That's seven out of ten total.)
Another Side of Bob Dylan: 3
Bringing It All Back Home: 7
Highway 61 Revisited: 2
Blonde on Blonde: 6
John Wesley Harding: 2
Nashville Skyline: 2
Self-Portrait: 1
New Morning: 1
Greatest Hits Vol. 2: 3
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: 1
Planet Waves: 1
Blood on the Tracks: 4
The Basement Tapes: 1 (Other songs from The Basement Tapes appear on the package, but the only one that got its first release on a Dylan LP here was "This Wheel's on Fire.")
Desire: 1
Street-Legal: 3
Slow Train Coming: 1
Shot of Love: 2
Infidels: 2
Empire Burlesque: 1
Biograph: 2
Oh Mercy: 3
Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3: 4
MTV Unplugged: 1 ("John Brown." Believe it or not.)
Time Out of Mind: 4
Never released: 1

That never-released song is "I'd Have You Anytime," which Dylan wrote with George Harrison and appeared as the opening track on All Things Must Pass.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Come, Mr. Yossarian, Tally Me Bananas

Alan Arkin, longtime actor and Academy Award winner for Little Miss Sunshine, is often credited as the coauthor of Harry Belafonte's classic hit "Banana Boat (Day-O)," which was a huge hit back in 1957. See, for instance, here. Alan Arkin, right? It seems too good to be true.

And it isn't - true, that is. Arkin was a member of a folk trio called the Tarriers, alongside Erik Darling, who was later in both the Weavers and the Rooftop Singers of "Walk Right In" fame. The Tarriers also recorded "Banana Boat," and even had a hit with it. In fact their version went to Number Four, while Belafonte's only went to Number Five, in what seems to have been a Pat Boone/Fats Domino kind of thing. But the song had been around for a while; it's often described as a Jamaican folk song, and had been recorded as early as 1952 by a Trinidadian singer named Edric O'Connor. All the sources I can find say that the Tarriers got the song from the folk singer Bob Gibson.

Nevertheless, the label of the Tarriers' single does credit them with writing the song. Here, see for yourself:

Weird, right? I can think of three reasons why this would happen:

* The Tarriers would get more money if they claimed they wrote the song, as opposed to just crediting it to Trad.
* Songwriting credits in those days were subject to notoriously unscrupulous factors.
* The Tarriers' version also interpolated part of another tune, a traditional Jamaican folk song called "Hill and Gully Rider." So in one sense, it was an original creation.

I can't find a copy of the label of Harry Belafonte's single, but I have seen a piece of sheet music that credits the song to Irving Burgie and William Attaway. And who knows, they may have had something to do with the creation of the song as well. But they ain't Alan Arkin.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Game of Clue

If you don’t do word puzzles on a regular basis, you probably don’t appreciate what a skill cluing is, and you may not realize that Mike Shenk is currently the best cluer in the business. Shenk edits the word puzzles in the Wall Street Journal, and constructs several of the puzzles as well, including the Acrostic, as appeared today. I’ve always enjoyed acrostic puzzles, but Shenk’s acrostics leave my jaw dropped in wonder at the brilliance of his cluing.

A good acrostic clue is like a good trivia question: The answer should not be well-known or obvious, but you should be able to suss it out, or at least home in on a possible answer. That’s the way Shenk’s clues are, and they often have the added benefit of teaching you something about the answer. (You can find and solve the puzzle for yourself here; there are no out-and-out spoilers in this post, although there are several hints. If you've never done an acrostic because you find them too daunting, this post might help you get started.)

Let’s look at some of the clues Shenk used in today’s puzzle:

• The first one I got was “U. Popular name for the Queen’s Yeomen Warders.” Ten letters. I’d never heard the term "Yeomen Warders" before, but that didn’t deter me. In fact, this was the first answer I filled in. What group does the Queen have, known by a nickname, who do something that could be construed as yeomen warding? C’mon, this isn’t hard.

• "Q. 1955 courtroom drama with a title taken from Proverbs 11:29 (3 wds.)” This shows how the seeming minutia around the meat of a clue are often the key signal to what the answer is. If it had said, “Drama with a title taken from Proverbs 11:29,” I would have had no idea. I’d have had to crack open the Bible. But a courtroom drama from the 1950s with a three-word biblical-sounding title? Once I assumed it wasn’t “Twelve Angry Man,” it was a snap.

• “T. Her first novel was 1920’s ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles.'” Again, if the clue had been “Author of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles,'” I would have been utterly lost. But we know it’s a woman, who started her writing career in the 1920s, and wrote more than one novel, at least one of which dealt with mystery. The title of that first novel, which appears on first glance to be the crux of the clue, is almost irrelevant. Another gimme.

• “L. Prime minister whose education secretary was Margaret Thatcher.” “British prime minister from 19whatever to 19whatever” would have been perfectly acceptable, but look how much more this clue does for us. We now know that it’s a prime minister prior to Mrs. Thatcher – probably not immediately prior, since it presumably takes a while to rise from education secretary to the Big Cheddar, but no more than a decade or two prior, either. Plus we learn that Mrs. Thatcher was someone’s education secretary, which I didn’t know. (Note too that Shenk never has to use the word “British.”)

• “J. Networking service launched July 15, 2006.” “Networking service” is pretty nebulous, but the key here is that it’s some kind of connecting thing that has been operational for less than six years, but in that time has grown famous enough to be used as the answer in a Wall Street Journal acrostic. In retrospect, I should have gotten this a lot quicker than I did. When you know the answer, you can see that Shenk could have gone a hundred different ways with this one, but I can't say that any other way would have been better.

There’s lots more, 23 clues and answers in all. A crossword puzzle can’t have this kind of involved cluing, since there are three or four times as many clues. Only an acrostic or other kind of puzzle with fewer, longer answers calls for cluing this elegant and indirect, and Mike Shenk shows, time after time, that he’s up to the challenge. Well done, Mr. Shenk.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

They've Never Heard of Me, Either

No, I'd never heard of Lana Del Rey or Karmin before they made their appearance as Saturday Night Live's musical guest. But they're hardly the most obscure acts on SNL, either. Every once in a while, the show will peg its reputation on naming little-known talent, and sometimes it gets away with it: Natalie Imbruglia was on before she had a record out in the U.S. (March 7, 1998; Scott Wolf was the host), and of course "Torn" went on to be one of the biggest hit of the 1990s and is still somewhat inescapable on the radio today.

But sometimes they aren't so lucky:

Harlan Collins and Joyce Everson (May 29, 1976; Elliott Gould was the host) Folkie duo who, best as I can tell, never released an album or even a single. Collins was the longtime author of the syndicated newspaper feature "Today's Chuckle." No, I'm not making that up.

Richard Baskin (March 12, 1977; Sissy Spacek) Hot because he was the key arranger and sideman for Robert Altman's Nashville, he never released a record of his own. Spacek was making 3 Women with Altman at the time. Brother of staff photographer Edie Baskin, which probably didn't hurt.

Alan Price
(April 23, 1977; Eric Idle) Former keyboardist for the Animals who had launched a solo career. His biggest American solo hit had been a cover of "I Put a Spell on You," which went to Number 80 on the Hot 100 back in 1966. Gets extra credit here because his performance was a godawful, lounge-worthy mess.

Libby Titus (October 15, 1977; Hugh Hefner) Another boring folkie. Wikipedia says she released "several solo albums," although the only one I can find evidence of is 1977's Libby Titus. Very well-connected in the music business; Carly Simon wrote a song about her, Donald Fagen married her, and Levon Helm had a son with her. [EDIT: As has been helpfully noted in the comments, it's actually a daughter, Amy.]

The Spanic Boys (May 12, 1990; Andrew Dice Clay) One of the fill-ins when Sinead O'Connor suddenly announced she wouldn't appear with Dice Clay, supposedly because of his misogyny but also, I hope, because he wasn't funny. Father-son roots band from Wisconsin; I actually saw them open once for the BoDeans. Opening acts for the BoDeans generally don't get to go on SNL.

The Tragically Hip
(March 25, 1995; John Goodman) Huge in Canada, their biggest splash in the U.S. came with the 1996 album Trouble at the Henhouse, which peaked at Number 134 on the Billboard album charts. Fellow Canadian Dan Aykroyd is apparently a big fan; he introduced them on the show, among several guest spots he did that evening. So thoroughly Canadian they have both a "Gordon" and a "Gord" in the band.

Friday, March 2, 2012

This Logic Will Self-Destruct in Five Seconds

Most people remember two things and two things only about the classic series Mission: Impossible, which ran from 1966 to 1973 on the CBS television network. First is the pounding theme music, in 11/4 time, by Lalo Schifrin, which is pretty much the only thing to survive from the TV series into the Tom Cruise movie franchise. And the second is the instructions given to the chief operative (Jim Phelps as portrayed by Peter Graves for most of the series run) in some out-of-the-way locale where there was a tape recording set to self-destruct in five seconds.

I now seem to be watching every episode of this show, in chronological order, and it strikes me that there is something quite odd about those instructions from headquarters. For instance, in the episode I'm watching now ("Operation Heart," episode 7 from season 2), Jim goes to some sort of photo booth on what looks like a desolate side street in urban Los Angeles. Inside the booth, he inserts one key that starts up the photography mechanism, then unlocks a metal drawer with another key - or maybe the same key, who knows - wherein lies the tape recorder.

At some point, Jim had to be sent those keys and given the directions to that photo booth. Within the photo booth, all there was was a 60-second recording and two photographs. So wouldn't it have been just as easy to relay that information to him as it was to get him the location of the photo booth and the key?

It's not as if there were a limited number of drop points where Jim could retrieve his self-destructing tapes, so that the secretary could just send him to Drop Point B this week. As Christopher Bennett, who has much greater patience for this sort of thing than I do, counts it up, Jim went to 12 distinct locations for the 21 missions the team undertook in season two. So more than half the time, they have to send Jim a MapQuest for a new dropoff point. Why not just send the tape and photos directly to his apartment as well? All those fancy tape recorders cost money, not to mention all that ruined high-tech tape, and remember, it's all being paid for by you, the American taxpayer.

Maybe at some point during the third season the secretary will wise up, and in one of the elaborate drop boxes, the message will say, "Mr, Phelps, all this tape stuff is silly. From now on, your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to sign for the FedEx delivery when we send the briefing to your home."