Sunday, January 31, 2010

Facts for the Day

Robert Altman's first job, after he got out of the army following World War II, was as a dog tattooer.

His first movie, an industrial film made for the Calvin Company in Kansas City, was something called Modern Football. I have not seen it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Must Kill Kingsley!

In honor of Rip Torn's most recent TMZ moment, I happily revisited 9:58 of the greatest cinematic moment since Al Jolson threw those big white eyeballs upward: to wit, Rip breaking down the fourth wall along with Norman Mailer's apparently very thick pate in the latter's ill-fated 1970 directorial effort, Maidstone. Fight fans still debate who won, Torn's weak roundhouse with the hammer matched by Mailer biting off a chunk of Rip's ear. But Torn at least gets in the best line: "It was just a scene, in a Hollywood whorehouse movie. Okay, Baby?"

Good luck in the pokie, Rip.

The Times, They Aren't a-Changin' Fast Enough, Stevie

Back in the summer of 1966, Stevie Wonder took his cover of "Blowin' in the Wind" to Number Nine on the pop charts and to Number One on the R&B charts. (For the record, Peter, Paul and Mary's version went to Number Two in 1963; Dylan's version did not chart.) Stevie was 16 at the time, and he's backed on the single by another, older-sounding male voice, echoing his lines gospel-style.

After a while, it becomes less of a backing vocal than a duet. When Stevie sings the line "How many years can a man exist before he's allowed to be free," the other voice chimes in, "Too many years have gone by already now, Stevie." It's a brilliant line, but the "Stevie" is what really makes it poetry.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

For J.D., With Love and Squalor

I could tell The Catcher in the Rye was a good book because when I finished it, I wanted to call you up on the phone and talk to you about it. Now I'll never have the chance.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Just a Little Bit Tighter

I had always considered "Tighter, Tighter," the 1970 single from the band Alive and Kicking, to be the world's greatest hommage to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snubbee Tommy James and the Shondells, finishing just ahead of "Hitchin' a Ride" by Vanity Fare. But that's not really the case. Here's how it happened:

Alive and Kicking was a little band out of Brooklyn that recorded a duet with a singer named Sandra Toder, who just happened to be good friends with Tommy James' wife. Toder was able to convince Tommy to come see the band play, and they hit it off. Keyboardist Bruce Sudano and bassist Woody Wilson sat down with James and wrote a song called "Ball of Fire," which would later become a minor hit for the Shondells, reaching Number 19 in 1969.

Tommy vowed to write a song for Alive and Kicking in return, and one day he showed up with a little number called "Crystal Blue Persuasion." Tommy worked up "Crystal Blue Persuasion" with the band, and Alive and Kicking were preparing to record it, when Tommy told them, "Guys, I'm really sorry but I decided to record that song myself. I'm gonna put it on my album. But I'll write you another song."

Six months later, he came back with "Tighter, Tighter," which he also produced for A&K and which was released on Tommy's label, Roulette. It went to Number Seven in the summer of 1970. Tommy James had broken up the Shondells in the interim and gone solo. Alive and Kicking might as well have broken up at that point too, since they had no more hits and have been playing weddings for the last couple of decades. At least Bruce Sudano ended up marrying Donna Summer, which is nice for him.

Hey, do you know who took the cover shot for the Shondells' second album, 1966's It's Only Love? Linda Eastman! It was her first studio assignment.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

You're Face to Face With the Man With Klaus Nomi

Back in 1979, David Bowie was spending a lot of time hanging out at downtown New York hotspots like the Mudd Club (which was named for the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth). It was upstairs at the Mudd Club one night that Bowie ran into the drag artist Joey Arias and the cabaret singer Klaus Nomi (right). To hear Arias tell the story, Bowie was as excited to see Nomi as Nomi and Arias were to see Bowie. Nomi, a native of Bavaria, was working as a pastry chef at the World Trade Center by day but carving out a unique niche for himself in the clubs at night, decked out in whiteface, rocking his widow’s peak and singing everything from ariettas to Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes” in his otherworldly falsetto.

Bowie was slated to perform on Saturday Night Live for the first time ever that December, early in that show’s ill-starred fifth season. Martin Sheen was the host. Bowie asked Arias and Nomi if they would appear with him, and they cobbled together a little act in which the two of them would carry Bowie, stiff as a board, out to the front of the stage, then sing with him. Bowie’s latest album was Lodger, which had already been out for seven months and which nobody much liked at that point, so he decided to haul out “The Man Who Sold the World” for this unholy trio to sing, despite the fact that it was nine years old. Nomi wore his customary black and white makeup; Arias was all in red; Bowie wore a plastic dickie and a bowtie the size of a clown's shoe.

Bowie did two more songs that night, the three-year-old “TVC 15” in a Chinese stewardess’ dress, and “Boys Keep Swinging” with a marionette in a box poised just under his chin. Nomi reappeared during “TVC 15,” pulling around a toy stuffed poodle with a TV in its mouth – which was playing the live performance of “TVC 15.” So meta. “Boys Keep Swinging,” which Bowie did at about 12:50 a.m., was the first single from Lodger, but it had already flopped by then anyway.

Bowie never saw Nomi and Arias again. Well, that’s not literally true, but it’s close enough.

Nomi was a fascinating cat. His heavily mannered, operatic cabaret shows must have been the most German act ever – the Weimar Republic comes to Danceteria, except with spaceships. (The name Nomi is an anagram of Omni, Klaus’ favorite magazine.) It’s no wonder that Bowie, in the midst of his transition from setting trends to jumping onto them, latched onto him. Nomi recorded several albums in New York, became a fixture of the cognoscenti and even appeared in Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, which I have not seen but would very much like to. "I wear black lipstick and black nail polish," Nomi said. "I like things unnatural. I think a man without makeup is like a cake without icing."

Nomi died, an early victim of AIDS, in 1983, but his legend was only beginning to grow. A couple years ago, a film called The Nomi Song was released, containing many of Nomi’s most memorable performances, interviews with people who knew him, and of course his appearance on Saturday Night Live. You can watch the whole movie right here, but it you just want to see Nomi and Bowie, have at it:

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Best Art Is Business Art, Redux

paging Billy Squier? (courtesy Jenny Eklund, via Betsy "The Knickerbocker" Bradley)

Adult Education

In Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender," the Boss opines, "We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school."

Bruce, you're a rock star. Of course you learned everything you know from listening to records. But let's hope that the accountants and endocrinologists in the audience continued their education beyond "Seasons in the Sun."