Friday, February 26, 2010

I've Got the Pork Chops, She's Got the Pie

An occasional look at the filthiest lyrics in rock and roll.

Today's filthmonger: Big Joe Turner

The song: "Shake, Rattle and Roll"

The year: 1954

The filth: After imploring his woman to get out of bed and make some noise with the pots and pans, then admonishing her for wearing dresses so sheer as to allow the sun to come shining through ("I can't believe all that mess belongs to you"), Big Joe imparts this . . . well, I guess it's a simile:

"Like a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store / I can look at you till you ain't no child no more."

Ponder it. Gets dirtier and dirtier the more you think about it.

They Call Me the Old Man

Antoine "Fats" Domino turns 82 years old today. I have him listed as five-foot-five, weighing well over 200 pounds, which doesn't seem like a formula for longevity. It must be all that great New Orleans food; one reason Fats stopped touring was that he couldn't find anything to eat anywhere else than in New Orleans.

How many pioneering rock & roll stars have made it as far as Fats? Not many. Here's a partial list of those who are still alive past the age of 80:

Pete Seeger is 90
B.B. King is 84
Chuck Berry is 83
Hal Blaine is 81
Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows is 80

That's not very many, is it? And I'm stretching things to refer to Pete Seeger as a rock & roll pioneer, although he is in the R&R Hall of Fame. Did I miss anyone?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

We Tease Him a Lot

At another blog I used to write, the much-valued commenter Scraps once mentioned that the worst musical performance he'd seen on Saturday Night Live was the one by John Sebastian in that show's first season. I hadn't seen that performance until today, but now I can tell you that Scraps didn't even allude to the most pathetic part: Sebastian began playing "Welcome Back," and there was a little squib of feedback, which caused Sebastian to look over at no one in particular and ask, "Can I start again?" He kept going for a few bars, singing the wrong opening lines, then finally gave up. Then he turned to the band and launched into the opening again.

You watch it thinking it must be some kind of bit - hoping for Sebastian's sake that it was some kind of bit - but he was serious. My nine-year-old son watched it too, and turned to me and said, "He ain't so good." I guess live TV is no match for the intricacies of "Welcome Back."

Then, as Scraps noticed, Sebastian tried to get the audience to sing along on "Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back," but they were having none of it. The whole thing was very lame, but it's also possible that the crowd just wasn't that familiar with the song. In one sense, the timing was very good: "Welcome Back" had reached the Top Forty on April 10, 1976, and the show (with Raquel Welch hosting) aired two weeks later, on April 24. Saturday Night caught the song on its upward trajectory, and "Welcome Back" would hit Number One on May 8th, not only John Sebastian's only Number One solo hit but his only solo Top Forty hit.

As a side note, does that timing strike anyone else as unusual? "Welcome Back" was, of course, the theme song to a sitcom about a Brooklyn high school teacher who fleeced all his students at poker. The show debuted in September 1975, and was an immediate hit. I'm not sure why someone waited to release the theme song as a single till the following spring.

Like Sebastian's performance, the Raquel Welch show itself was notably weak; the most memorable moment was when Lorne Michaels offered the Beatles $3,000 to reunite on Saturday Night. Legend has it that John and Paul were watching the show together in New York City that night, and considered taking a cab down to Studio 8H; had they followed through, that would have changed this episode from one of the most forgettable in SNL history to one of the most unforgettable. C'est la vie.

As for John Sebastian, even though his song was still on its way to Number One, his career was just about over on that night. His followup single, "Hideaway," topped out at Number 95 on the Hot 100, and he never released another major-label album. The Lovin' Spoonful, which Sebastian had founded in 1965, briefly reunited in 1980 for an appearance in the Paul Simon vehicle One-Trick Pony; I haven't seen it, although it is one of my fellow Debris Slider Joe Levy's favorite films. Sebastian then went on to release a bunch of instructional harmonica tapes.

Plus, his godmother is Vivian Vance. Swear to God.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Plimpton's Moment in the Sun

You know how Saturday Night Live used to go to commercial by showing random people in the audience with humorous captions underneath? When Anthony Perkins hosted, back on March 13, 1976, at one point they showed a dude in the audience, over the caption ROOMED WITH WENDY YOSHIMURA - and it was our old friend George Plimpton.

That couldn't have been coincidence, could it? I doubt it. Lorne Michaels was always too invested in having celebrity friends, and Plimpton too concerned about being seen in all the proper New York spots, for it to be happenstance. I'm pretty sure they would have set it up beforehand.

This little incident does not merit a mention either in Live From New York or in George, Being George, the Plimpton oral biography. I guess I'm the only one who cares, which wouldn't be the first time.

No, I have no idea who Wendy Yoshimura was.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Okey Dokey, Smokey

Happy birthday to Smokey Robinson, who was born 70 years ago today in Detroit as William Robinson Jr. Smokey met Berry Gordy in 1958, when he was 18, and the two of them wrote a little song called "Shop Around," which in the fall of 1960 became Motown's first Number One R&B hit and first Top Five pop hit (it peaked at Number Two). The B-side was "Who's Lovin' You," later made famous by the Jackson 5. The following year, at the age of 21, Smokey became Motown's vice-president, a position he held till Berry Gordy sold the company in 1988.

Also born on this date in 1940, in the very same hospital as Smokey Robinson, was future Miracle Bobby Rogers. They didn't meet till they were both 15. Bobby Rogers remains a member of the Miracles to this day, along with his cousin Claudette Robinson, who was married to Smokey from 1959 to 1986.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Paul Stanley Has No Ears

This is not a snarky comment on the musical acumen of the Kiss loverman: It is merely a statement of fact. The Fearsome Foursome's frontman suffers from a condition called microtia, in which the outer cartilaginous part of the ear is extremely small, if not absent altogether.

Fortunately, Paul entered a profession where wearing his hair long was not a drawback, and was indeed a bonus in some ways. This does not in any way explain "Love Gun," though.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thumbs Up

A short while back, I tried to persuade a magazine to let me write a profile of Roger Ebert, and in retrospect, it's a good thing they turned me down, because Chris Jones of Esquire was already in the process of writing the story I wanted to write. Ebert, you probably know, can't speak, can't eat or drink either, yet he seems more active than ever with his copious blog posts and incessant Twittering in addition to his customary full load of movie reviews and book writing.

And he seems remarkably cheerful for someone who has suffered so much. I wouldn't care all that much if I couldn't speak any more, but I do like to eat food, and drink liquids of various colors and flavors. And I am in full possession of my jawbone, which is a plus. "There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am."

It's a remarkable story, about a truly remarkable man, and a great and inspirational American. As Mark Evanier says, Go read it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Doug Fieger, 1952-2010

Doug Fieger, the brains, such as they were, behind the power-pop band the Knack, dead at the age of 57. You younger folks might find this hard to believe, but the Knack more or less presented themselves as the new Beatles, starting with the Meet the Beatles knockoff Get the Knack in 1979. "My Sharona," which spent six weeks at Number One in that magical summer of '79, nearly pulled it off, but that proved to be just about the only bullet in the Knack holster.

Fieger was a native of (suburban) Detroit who had fled for L.A. when he formed the Knack via the un-Beatlesque method of putting an ad in the paper. By the time the Knack made their first album, Fieger was as old as George Harrison was when the Beatles broke up. They weren't a one-hit wonder: "Good Girls Don't," the second single from Get the Knack, went to Number Eleven in that less-than-magical autumn of '79. Their unfortunate second album, But the Little Girls Understand, spawned the enervated "Baby Talks Dirty," which squeaked into the Top Forty for two weeks in March 1980, but that was it. Round Trip, the Knack's Revolver, went nowhere in 1981, and the Knack broke up, except for the inevtiable reunions, in 1982.

I don't mean to slight Fieger's gifts; coming up with a single as indelible as "My Sharona" is a lot more than most of us will accomplish. Here they are, making the world safe for the Romantics, on some kind of German TV show:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

RIP Dick Francis

If nothing else, Dick Francis is a nice reminder that it's never too late to try a second career. This clip used to be a mainstay on those Greatest Sports Bloopers programs that antedated ESPN, but if you've never seen Francis on the Queen's horse, Devon Loch, as the horse belly-flops a furlong from glory in the 1956 Grand National, it's worth a look. Most exciting 7:00 in sports (the horse gives it up around the 6-minute mark, after the last fence).

Friday, February 12, 2010

You are wondering . . .

You are wondering, "What is the best book about rock & roll I have never read?" The answer:

Sway, by Zachary Lazar. Themes: Magic, Manson, Keith & Anita, Scorpio Rising, and Mick Jagger in thrall to the power of a devil that does not live in his pants. Also: The way that the past, present and future are unfolding at the same time, or as the Rolling Stones put in the opening line of the song from which this novel takes its name: "Did you ever wake up to find a day that broke up your mind and destroyed your notion of circular time?" Who among us would answer no?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Soo Line

On the DVD extras for the film Flower Drum Song, one of the crew members tells the story of a young comic named Jack Suzuki who was spotted by the producers of that Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as it was headed to Broadway. They wanted Jack to be in the show, but - as you undoubtedly know - it is concerned with Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and Suzuki was not a Chinese name. So he was offered a part as long as he agreed to change his name to something more Chinese-sounding. "Call me Jack Soo," he said, and henceforth he was.

This is a wonderful little anecdote, whose only drawback is that it doesn't appear to be true. In the film You Don't Know Jack, a documentary on the life of Jack Soo that I have not seen but have read about, the story is told that a young comic named Goro Suzuki, plying his trade in the Midwest just after getting out of an internment camp during World War II, decided that his very Japanese-sounding name wouldn't go over well with those patriotic heartlanders. So he shortened it to a more generic Asian (they would have said Oriental at the time) name, Jack Soo. (One of his fellow comics out there on the nightclub circuit, but the way, was a future television producer named Danny Arnold.) I suspect that over time, Jack got to telling the first version of the story, which doesn't involve as much icky racism, and is a lot funnier.

Jack Soo went to Broadway and played a nightclub comic in the stage version of Flower Drum Song. By the time the movie was made, in 1961, he had graduated to the much bigger role of the nightclub owner, a Dean Martin-style hipster with the swinging name of Sammy Fong. He had his own sitcom for a brief while, and recorded the original version of "For Once in My Life," later made famous by Stevie Wonder, for Motown Records in 1965. I know, it's hard to believe, but it's really true. I don't think Jack ever cut "Living for the City," though.

He played a Chinese wrestler by the name of Chuck Chin in a memorable episode of The Odd Couple before his old friend Danny Arnold cast him as the hard-gambling, laconic Nick Yemana in Barney Miller. At last, Jack Soo was Japanese again.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Float On!

It's not Mardi Gras, and it ain't Carnival Rio-style, but Köln--that's Cologne to you rubes--has its own way of celebrating the run up to Lent, with its own parade with floats (pictured below) and everything. I'm still trying to figure out the iconography of Lady Liberty and what she's up to here. I can figure out though why Berlusconi is smiling (courtesy Der Spiegel).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Getting Cross

David Cross' I Drink for a Reason is the first book I have ever read which had more laffs in the jacket blurbs than in the text contained within. This is probably not fair to Cross, since I only made it about two-thirds of the way through the book, but I read the entire jacket. ("One of the funniest books I've ever skimmed!" - Paul Rudd. Not bad, eh?)

I liked Cross a lot on Mr. Show, although you could tell even then that he was kind of an unlikable guy, prickly and ungenerous. That persona comes through in spades in his book, in which he seems determined in every chapter to talk about how much he hates Mormons. None of that would matter, of course, if the book were funny, but it's not.

One reason that personality is so vivid is that it appears Cross dictated the whole book, right off the dome. In fact, it's tremendously sloppy - every time Cross wants to attack Whoopi Goldberg, which is often, he spells her name "Whoopie." In one chapter, A Free List of Quirks for Aspiring Independent Filmmakers, he includes the line "Legally tried to have their astrology sign changed,which went all the way to federal court." That's pretty funny, right? You can't change your astrological sign! Then, two chapters later, in one called Didja Know?, he writes "In China, it is illegal to try to change your astrology sign." Wait a second - that's the same joke! At least it's better cast here, but once would have been enough, David.

Oh, well. He's still a funny guy. Not everyone is cut out to write a book.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sit a Spell

Tom Tancredo, who used to be my congressman until a couple of years ago, said the other night, "People who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House."

I, a Barack Obama voter, am hereby challenging Tom Tancredo to a public spelling bee.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Day After the Music Died

Fifty-one years ago yesterday was the Day the Music Died, which means that fifty-one years ago today was the Day the Music Was Forced to Soldier On, Somehow. Although the three headlining acts of the Winter Dance Party would not be appearing on February 4th, 1959, in Moorhead, Minnesota, someone decided that the tour should continue, with Dion and the Belmonts moving up the totem pole to become the headliners. (The lesser acts on the tour weren't even told about the loss of Holly et al. until they arrived in Moorhead and saw the news on TV.)

A kid named Jim Stillman from nearby Fargo, North Dakota, sensing this was his big chance, called up the armory in Moorhead and asked if his band could help fill in at the show. Desperate, the promoters let them come on, not realizing they had only been playing together for two weeks. Driving to the gig, the stopped at JC Penney and got some uniform-looking duds, and decided to call themselves the Shadows.

The Shadows played a handful of songs, some of them instrumentals and some of them featuring 15-year-old lead vocalist Bobby Vee. They didn't get paid. The next night, the Winter Dance Tour moved on to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with hastily recruited teen stars Frankie Avalon and Jimmy Clanton joining the show. The Shadows stayed in Fargo.

When the Winter Dance Tour had stopped in Duluth a few nights earlier, on January 31st, there was a kid in the audience named Bobby Zimmerman - I say "kid," but he was actually two years older than Bobby Vee. Later that summer, Vee and the Shadows had a regional hit called "Suzie Baby," and Zimmy hitchhiked over to Fargo to check out the band. He talked them into letting him join the band as a piano player, changing his name to Elston Gunn, but it didn't take, both the piano job and the name.

Bobby Vee would go on to have a Number One hit, 1961's "Take Good Care of My Baby." Bob Dylan never had one, although he reached Number Two twice, with "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35."

I Got the Blues

I've been watching Blues Brothers 2000 (for work-related reasons, if you can believe that), and it occurs to me that I've never seen another movie that had so little reason to exist. There was never any chance that Blues Brothers 2000 was going be any good, was going to have any sort of artistic or critical success. There was never any chance that it was going to make money: It came 18 years after the original, and the second banana was now the star. Who greenlighted this thing?

So far, it has lived down to my expectations, not least of which because it aspires to be exactly the same movie as The Blues Brothers. At the outset, a Blues Brother gets out of prison and goes back to the orphanage where he grew up. He decides to get the old band back together, which means going to round them up at their current jobs, and having Aretha Franklin object to Matt "Guitar" Murphy leaving their family business to go back to the band, at which point she sings an R&B classic about a million times better than the Blues Brothers can sing. Then the band gets booked into a venue for a bunch of rednecks and has to bust out some classic C&W. They cross swords with a racist group that vows revenge. Dozens of cop cars pile up on each other. And so on.

John Belushi, you might have heard, died in 1983. He's replaced here by John Goodman, who doesn't sing all that well - neither did Belushi, for that matter, but at least he had stage presence to burn. Compounding matters, Dan Aykroyd hasn't bothered to write any sort of character for Goodman; he just wears the suit and hat and shades, and glowers. I've heard that in those classic samurai sketches, there wasn't really any sort of script other than "Belushi does some samurai shtick." That appears to be what happened here: "Goodman does some Belushi shtick."

It's as if Chris Farley decided to make another Blues Brothers movie: "Remember when all those police cars kept crashing into each other? That was awesome. Let's have even more police cars crash into each other!" Why was this movie made?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Magic of 'Popeye' Lives On

Speaking of Robert Altman, the biggest budget he ever had for a movie, by far, was for 1980's Popeye, a property that producer Dino de Laurentiis had been trying to get off the ground for a long time before Altman signed on. I'm not sure whose idea it was to film on the island of Malta, but crew members worked for seven months building the town of Sweethaven for the movie - one problem is that there is no indigenous wood on Malta, so timber had to be shipped in all the way from Holland in the course of constructing the hotel, tavern, post office, and a dozen or so other buildings.

If you've seen the movie, the sets look fantastic, and you'd almost say they were worth the expense, except that toward the end of filming, Altman ran out of money. Screenwriter Jules Feiffer had written all sorts of exciting, expensive concluding scenes, such as one with Popeye and Bluto sword-fighting on a boat, breaking off planks of wood from the ship to battle with as it slowly sank into the ocean. They couldn't afford that, so instead, in the climactic chase, we're treated to shots of Popeye on a boat, followed by Bluto on a boat, followed by Olive Oyl on a boat, and you're never sure where they are in relation to one another, or even if they're on the same boat. Altman is not exactly a skilled director of action anyway. The first hour and a half or so of the movie is quite good, but if you fall asleep at that point, you won't miss anything.

After filming concluded, the nation of Malta decided to leave all those fantastic wooden buildings as a tourist attraction. I can't imagine who would go to Malta in search of Popeye memorabilia, but then again, I can't imagine who would go to Malta in the first place - other than my fellow Debris Slider Eric Banks, who has actually been to not just Malta but Sweethaven and describes it as "the most depressing and deserted roadside attraction I've ever had the pleasure of spending an afternoon at."

But hey, you can judge for yourself right here, wherein you can discover that Popeye Village boasts a nine-hole minigolf course - because who wants to play a full 18 holes of minigolf? Nine is plenty!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Nothing phony about the fake Rockefeller...

Talk about burying the lede... Toward the tail end of "A Recluse? Well, Not To His Neighbors" (aka "Cornish Journal") in today's New York Times is this weird little reported factoid:

Peter Burling, a Cornish resident and former state senator, grew up near Mr. Salinger’s home and remembers him as a friendly neighbor quick with a hello.

Years ago Mr. Burling built his young son a red, painted bus stop at the bottom of their hill. Web sites instructed those looking for Mr. Salinger’s house to turn at the stop. Mr. Burling later sold the bus stop to another resident, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German who passed himself off as a Rockefeller and was later convicted of custodial kidnapping. The curious would instead end up at Mr. Gerhartsreiter’s home, Mr. Burling said.

“People would turn into his driveway, demanding to meet J. D. Salinger,” Mr. Burling said.

Sometimes, Who Knew? is the only appropriate response...