Friday, June 25, 2010

Summertime Blues

Far be it from me to contradict the wisdom of the great Rob Sheffield, but I can't understand why anyone would want Katy Perry's "California Gurls" to turn into the song that rules the summer. That song gets played on the radio out here at least once an hour, but the song is so uncatchy, and Katy Perry's voice is so unmemorable, that I never even recognize it till they get to the chorus. Snoop Dogg always sounds good, though.

Maybe it's just that I don't get the whole Katy Perry thing. Usually I can understand why someone has their share of hits, even if I don't like the music; I know why Justin Bieber got big, or Slipknot. But Katy Perry seems to be a mediocre-looking woman with a mediocre voice, in service of mediocre material. She even has a mediocre name. I can't for the life of me understand why the pop-music gods summoned her for stardom.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

One Hot Manute

Manute Bol, dead at the age of 47. He was always a fascinating character, not just for his ridiculous height but for the inquistiveness of his mind. Charles Barkley once said that Manute kept asking him about milk: "You know what he was talking about the other day? Milk. He was saying that he grew up on milk straight from the cow. Squeezed it himself. Milk. He says, 'Charlie, what's this lo-fat milk, this two percent milk, and all this other milk? Cows don't give lo-fat milk, two percent milk. We shouldn't drink it."

Eventually, after his NBA career had ended, we learned that Manute was also one of the great humanitarians of his time. See this story, which offers up more tribute to Bol than I possibly could.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Head Games

You know, you watch the Monkees' movie, Head, and you wonder who exactly was putting on whom. It opens with a mayor trying to dedicate a bridge (there aren't even any opening titles), before Micky Dolenz runs on and jumps off into the water below, whence he is rescued by mermaids to the strains of the gorgeous "Porpoise Song," which would later resurface on the soundtrack to the terrible Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky. And everything thereafter is pretty much about the Monkees' attempt to kill off their image, their fan base, their entire career; they spend much of the movie trying to escape from an enormous metal box. Hmm, I wonder what that could be a metaphor for.

It was directed by Bob Rafelson, who put together the TV series that ended just before the movie began filming, and would later direct, with much success, Five Easy Pieces, as well as, with less success, Man Trouble. The four Monkees themselves also contributed ideas for sketches. So in a sense, with the whole Monkees creative team onboard, it's 90 minutes worth of self-loathing, exemplified by the sequence in which Davy Jones gets his beautiful face bruised and beaten in by Sonny Liston (!).

Rafelson brought in a struggling actor by the name of Jack Nicholson to help with the screenplay. Nicholson loved the movie - he makes a cameo appearance, and he claims to have seen it "like, 158 million times." But I also notice that his talents as a screenwriter have since gone untapped, with the sole exception of the script for Drive, He Said, which Nicholson also directed in 1971.

It's not even so much that it's bad, although it's plotless, and dreary at times - do we really need to see videotape of that South Vietnamese police chief shooting a guy in the head on the street? The surrealism and occasional shots of humor keep your attention, and Toni Basil dances a lovely duet in Davy's big Broadway-style production number. But you can't believe anyone thought this was a good idea for the Monkees, even the people who were starting to hate being the Monkees. If this trippy, cynical movie had starred the Jimi Hendrix Experience or the Strawberry Alarm Clock, it would have made a lot more sense. But the Monkees were madcap, carefree, too busy singing to put anybody down. Their presence just makes the movie a little more sad.

At the end, they all plunge from a helicopter - photographed falling in slow motion as if they were the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night - into that selfsame water Micky Dolenz jumped into, with the same gorgeous "Porpoise Song" playing behind them, and although they get to frolic in psychedelic colors for a while, this time there's no rescue. They end the movie trapped inside a water-filled box, screaming for their lives.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Young and Old Alike

I always assumed that Marvin Gaye held some kind of record for the disparate age of his spouses - his first wife Anna Gordy (who was Berry's older sister) was seventeen years his senior, and his second wife, Janis Hunter, was sixteen years his junior. But the playwright Garson Kanin made a run at the record. He married the great actress Ruth Gordon, who was 16 years older than he, in 1942, then married the great actress Marian Seldes, who was 16 years younger than he, in 1990, after Miss Gordon's death.

Now, I am aware that there are probably several rich dudes with trophy wives who have married people with an age difference of greater than 33 years. That's not what I'm talking about; I'm talking about people who married two people with a decade or more of distance on either side of their own age.

I learned this tidbit about Garson Kanin in the midst of a wonderful story in this morning's New York Times Magazine about Marian Seldes, who was honored on the Tony Awards tonight. Miss Seldes comes across as a down-to-earth, likable, even plucky character, despite the fact that she is one of the most astonishing performers I've ever seen. I had the privilege of seeing her in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women in 1992 at New York's Beacon Theatre. There were times when Miss Seldes would be sitting quietly, doing nothing but listening to another character speak, and you still couldn't take your eyes off her. No one listens like Marian Seldes. I'm sure Garson Kanin appreciated it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Old Buck

Of the many remarkable aspects of the career of the doo-wop legend Buck Ram, perhaps the most remarkable was that his name was really Buck Ram. Well, not exactly, but he was born Samuel Ram to Jewish immigrant parents in Chicago. He was an overachiever who graduated from high school at the age of 15 and eventually finished law school as well, but his heart was in the music business. Although young Buck couldn't sing and could barely play an instrument, he found his niche as a songwriter and manager. He wrote a poem called "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which later became a massive hit for Bing Crosby.

Or maybe not. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was recorded in time for the 1943 holiday season, and credited to Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, but once it hit big, Buck Ram claimed he had actually written the lyrics. He said that sometime earlier, he had shown the lyrics (supposedly written when he was a teenager) to some guys in a bar, then was shocked when those lyrics turned out to be the basis of Der Bingle's single. Ram had indeed copyrighted the lyrics to a song called "I'll Be Home for Christmas (Tho' Just in Memory)" back in 1942, but according to Wikipedia, it bore little resemblance to the standard we know today. Honestly, I have no idea what the truth is, but Buck's story sounds a little fishy to me. Whatever happened there, Ram ended up with a songwriting credit on later pressings.

Note what year we're in here: Buck Ram was already 36 years old in 1943. He claims to have arranged charts for the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but his primary business seems to have been managing C&W and R&B vocal groups. Then, in 1951, Ram decided to merge his songwriting and managerial talents by organizing a group for the express purpose of performing his songs. The Platters existed before Ram took their reins, but he ordered several personnel changes and hired new lead singer Tony Williams. They cut seven singles for the L.A. label Federal Records, but they all stiffed. Federal considered one of Ram's songs, "Only You," not good enough to release.

But because of Ram's managerial skills, the Platters were a successful, profitable group on the touring circuit, and the Penguins, coming off their smash "Earth Angel," asked Ram to manage them as well. Since Ram now had an actual hitmaking group on his hands, he got both them and the Platters signed to Mercury, and had the Platters re-record "Only You" (with something called "Bark, Battle and Ball" on the B side). The new version, which came out in the summer of 1955, was a huge hit, going to Number One on the R&B charts and Number Six on the Hot 100. Their follow-up single, "The Great Pretender," also written by Buck Ram (in the bathroom at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, no less), went all the way to Number One in February of 1956. Buck Ram was 48 years old.

It astonishes me that someone that old could have been so deeply involved in creating rock & roll. I've done this coming from the other side, but consider: Buck Ram was older than Benny Goodman. He was older than Perry Como. He was older than Louis Prima. The man was born in ought-seven, for pity's sake. While Frank Sinatra, who was eight years his junior, was busy denouncing rock & roll and music for cretins, Buck Ram was busy inventing it.

Ram would go on to write "Twilight Time," "The Magic Touch," and several other hits. In the first 50 years of BMI, he was one of the top five songwriters in terms of airplay, alongside Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson, and Jimmy Webb. (Kris Kristofferson? Really? I would never had guessed he had that many hits.) He also got involved in many lawsuits over the ownership of the Platters name, resulting in a group calling itself the Buck Ram Platters, and frankly, I'm not interested in that.

Buck Ram died on the first day of 1991, at the age of 83. Of all the people involved in the creation of rock & roll, he was almost certainly the oldest.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Carbon, Monoxide, Etc.

Paul Simon, in "Papa Hobo," from Paul Simon:

It's carbon and monoxide
The ole Detroit perfume
And it hangs on the highways
In the morning
And it lays you down by noon

Cf. Hall and Oates, "She's Gone":

I spend eternity in the city
Let the carbon and monoxide choke my thoughts away

Now I am not any sort of chemist, but it's my understanding that when you have carbon monoxide, it's not like you have a bunch of carbon and a bunch of monoxide and you mix them together. You can't really have carbon and monoxide any more than you can have green and beans.

So the question is: Were people unaware of this in the early 1970s?