25 February 2008

Turner Classic Movies: Films Through the Decades

Tampa Theatre

Theatrical trailer (1989 restoration, Sir David Lean's Masterwork
Lawrence of Arabia

In the 1920's, films were silent and only learning to walk as an art form in America (while running well in Russia). During The Great Depression, movie palaces and small town theaters provided an escape from the harsh realities of day to day life. By 1939, in the height Hollywood's Golden Age, the abundance of great films released was staggering -- Gone With The Wind, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, and The Wizard of Oz, all released in 1939. And in each decade since, the world's film industry has continued to mature, both technically and artistically. But it was only with the advent of VCR, cable, and DVD technology that enjoying these great films at home became practical. Basic cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM) takes access to great film another step forward.

If you want to be a student of American film, with enough British work to fill out your education, TCM is your cable channel, and their websites' full days' movie schedule is a page to have handy. All this month, TCM conducting it's annual 31 Days of Oscar festival. Every film shown on TCM this February is either an Academy Award winner or nominee. While the Oscars are far from a perfect gauge of film quality, it certainly helps folks like me who want to learn to separate the wheat from the chafe. Bottom line: I've seen a lot of great movies so far this month on TCM.

The TCM film database is also a handy online tool. Not only does it contain a quite comprehensive catalog of the vital information on films both in and outside the TCM library, it's a handy tool to have while watching or discussing almost any film -- and certainly comprehensive when it comes to learning about older films. One of my favorite uses of the database goes as follows: you're watching a film and wondering who directed it, or who a particular actor is. The film database contains an overview page, with a link to the full cast and crew of the film. Mystery solved -- film information at your fingertips. Used in conjunction with Wikipedia, you database becomes even more powerful.

So if you a classic movie fan, keep an eye on what TCM has to offer. And speaking of classics, it appears a modern classic was born last night with No Country For Old Men winning Best Picture at this year's Oscars. Congratulations to long-time favorites of mine, the Coen Brothers, and their team.

20 February 2008

2008 Grammy Album of the Year: Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters"

Shocking the pundits, Herbie Hancock's win recently for Album of the Year at this years' Grammys marked a substantial tip-of-the-hat by Grammy voters to some much ignored musical excellence. The album is a multi-artist collaboration brought off by Hancock, inspired by Joni Mitchell's lyrics (check out a sampler of the record, including Hancock discussing his inspiration, here).

In Hancock's acceptance speech, not only did he thank Joni, profusely, he also eloquently acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of giants, naming Miles Davis and John Coltrane in particular.

I snatched one track from the album off YouTube to give you a taste: it's the title track from Joni's groundbreaking 1974 album Court and Spark. This cut features one of the great young vocalists of the last decade, Norah Jones, as well as Weather Report alumnus Wayne Shorter on saxophone.


Exploring the earlier work of any of the artists named above is a fine investment of your time.

15 February 2008

Leon Russell From His Session Musician Days: "Roll Over Beethoven"

Years before he took America by storm as band leader for Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, years before he blew me out of my theater seat with his Jumpin' Jack Flash / Youngblood medley in the Concert for Bangladesh, years before his flowing white beard and hair, his raspy voice, and his piano skills made him an American rock n' roll icon -- "The Master of Time and Space" -- in the early '70's, Leon Russell was an accomplished session musician working with, among others, Phil Spector on his unparalleled "wall of sound" recordings.

I didn't know until last week, however, that he was performing the same musical magic in solo performances in the mid-sixties. Whiteray, the man behind the great Echoes in the Wind blog, found this jumpin' Leon Russell clip from a 1964 esipode of Shindig, a well-groomed-and-dressed Leon covering Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven:

As with his Stones covers, including the somewhat obscure cover of Wild Horses, found on Russell's Gimme Shelter!: The Best of Leon Russell, he always seems to add a little something extra to the great original versions.

10 February 2008

"In Love and Art and Rock n' Roll, the Whole Had Better Equal Much More Than the Sum of the Parts"

In 2005, U2 was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. I remember hearing the induction speech by Bruce Springsteen during a broadcast of the ceremonies to this day. It's one of the best essays on the meaning of rock n' roll I've ever heard, succinctly covering the essence of both U2 and also rock n' roll generally as an artistic force.

The speech captured just how cosmic the reach of great rock n' roll can, should, and arguably must, be. The speech is also brilliant, as my brother noted, in its simplicity. Further, Springsteen makes it personal. And I'm sure every reflective rock fan can tell you how they relate on a personal level to their favorite artists -- how this music touches their lives.

My mid-Atlantic correspondent, the Paullinator, recently found a transcript of the speech on The U2 Station News Blog. Though I here break my rule about the maximum length of a post, judge for yourself whether or not I made a good call. (For clarity, I've added a several links on one song and a few of the record industry folks referred to.)

Bruce Springsteen Inducts U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

(text by Bruce Springsteen)

Uno, dos, tres, catorce. That translates as one, two, three, fourteen. That is the correct math for a rock and roll band. For in art and love and rock and roll, the whole had better equal much more than the sum of its parts, or else you're just rubbing two sticks together searching for fire. A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire. You want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out.

It's embarrassing to want so much, and to expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens -- the Sun Sessions, Highway 61, Sgt. Peppers, the Band, Robert Johnson, Exile on Main Street, Born to Run -- whoops, I meant to leave that one out (laughter) -- the Sex Pistols, Aretha Franklin, the Clash, James Brown...the proud and public enemies it takes a nation of millions to hold back. This is music meant to take on not only the powers that be, but on a good day, the universe and God himself -- if He was listening. It's man's accountability, and U2 belongs on this list.

It was the early '80s. I went with Pete Townshend, who always wanted to catch the first whiff of those about to unseat us, to a club in London. There they were: A young Bono -- single-handedly pioneering the Irish mullet; (laughter) the Edge -- what kind of name was that?; Adam and Larry. I was listening to the last band of whom I would be able to name all of its members. They had an exciting show and a big, beautiful sound. They lifted the roof.

We met afterwards and they were nice young men. They were Irish. Irish! Now, this would play an enormous part in their success in the States. For what the English occasionally have the refined sensibilities to overcome, we Irish and Italians have no such problem. We come through the door fists and hearts first. U2, with the dark, chiming sound of heaven at their command -- which, of course, is the sound of unrequited love and longing, their greatest theme -- their search for God intact. This was a band that wanted to lay claim to not only this world but had their eyes on the next one, too.

Now, they're a real band; each member plays a vital part. I believe they actually practice some form of democracy -- toxic poison in a band's head. In Iraq, maybe. In rock, no! Yet they survive. They have harnessed the time bomb that exists in the heart of every great rock and roll band that usually explodes, as we see regularly from this stage. But they seemed to have innately understood the primary rule of rock band job security: "Hey, asshole, the other guy is more important than you think he is!" They are both a step forward and direct descendants of the great bands who believed rock music could shake things up in the world, who dared to have faith in their audience, who believed if they played their best it would bring out the best in you. They believed in pop stardom and the big time. Now this requires foolishness and a calculating mind. It also requires a deeply held faith in the work you're doing and in its powers to transform. U2 hungered for it all, and built a sound, and they wrote the songs that demanded it. They're keepers of some of the most beautiful sonic architecture in rock and roll.

The Edge. The Edge. The Edge. The Edge. (applause) He is a rare and true guitar original and one of the subtlest guitar heroes of all time. He's dedicated to ensemble playing and he subsumes his guitar ego in the group. But do not be fooled. Take Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Neil Young, Pete Townshend -- guitarists who defined the sound of their band and their times. If you play like them, you sound like them. If you are playing those rhythmic two-note sustained fourths, drenched in echo, you are going to sound like the Edge, my son. Go back to the drawing board and chances are you won't have much luck. There are only a handful of guitar stylists who can create a world with their instruments, and he's one of them. The Edge's guitar playing creates enormous space and vast landscapes. It is a thrilling and a heartbreaking sound that hangs over you like the unsettled sky. In the turf it stakes out, it is inherently spiritual. It is grace and it is a gift.

Now, all of this has to be held down by something. The deep sureness of Adam Clayton's bass and the rhythms of Larry Mullen's elegant drumming hold the band down while propelling it forward. It's in U2's great rhythm section that the band finds its sexuality and its dangerousness. Listen to "Desire," "She Moves in Mysterious Ways," [sic] the pulse of "With or Without You." Together Larry and Adam create the element that suggests the ecstatic possibilities of that other kingdom -- the one below the earth and below the belt -- that no great rock band can lay claim to the title without.

Now Adam always strikes me as the professorial one, the sophisticated member. He creates not only the musical but physical stability on his side of the stage. The tone and depth of his bass playing has allowed the band to move from rock to dance music and beyond. One of the first things I noticed about U2 was that underneath the guitar and the bass, they have these very modern rhythms going on. Rather than a straight 2 and 4, Larry often plays with a lot of syncopation, and that connects the band to modern dance textures. The drums often sounded high and tight and he was swinging down there, and this gave the band a unique profile and allowed their rock textures to soar above on a bed of his rhythm.

Now Larry, of course, besides being an incredible drummer, bears the burden of being the band's requisite "good-looking member," (laughter) something we somehow overlooked in the E Street Band. (laughter) We have to settle for "charismatic." Girls love on Larry Mullen! I have a female assistant that would like to sit on Larry's drum stool. A male one, too. We all have our crosses to bear.

Bono...where do I begin? Jeans designer, soon-to-be World Bank operator, just plain operator, seller of the Brooklyn Bridge -- oh hold up, he played under the Brooklyn Bridge, that's right. Soon-to-be mastermind operator of the Bono burger franchise, where more than one million stories will be told by a crazy Irishman. Now I realize that it's a dirty job and somebody has to do it, but don't quit your day job yet, my friend. You're pretty good at it, and a sound this big needs somebody to ride herd over it.

And ride herd over it he does. His voice, big-hearted and open, thoroughly decent no matter how hard he tries. Now he's a great frontman. Against the odds, he is not your mom's standard skinny, ex-junkie archetype. He has the physique of a rugby player...well, an ex-rugby player. Shaman, shyster, one of the greatest and most endearingly naked messianic complexes in rock and roll. (laughter) God bless you, man! It takes one to know one, of course.

You see, every good Irish and Italian-Irish front man knows that before James Brown there was Jesus. So hold the McDonald arches on the stage set, boys, we are not ironists. We are creations of the heart and of the earth and of the stations of the cross -- there's no getting out of it. He is gifted with an operatic voice and a beautiful falsetto rare among strong rock singers. But most important, his is a voice shot through with self-doubt. That's what makes that big sound work. It is this element of Bono's talent -- along with his beautiful lyric writing -- that gives the often-celestial music of U2 its fragility and its realness. It is the questioning, the constant questioning in Bono's voice, where the band stakes its claim to its humanity and declares its commonality with us.

Now Bono's voice often sounds like it's shouting not over top of the band but from deep within it. "Here we are, Lord, this mess, in your image." He delivers all of this with great drama and an occasional smirk that says, "Kiss me, I'm Irish." He's one of the great front men of the past twenty years. He is also one of the only musicians to devote his personal faith and the ideals of his band into the real world in a way that remains true to rock's earliest implications of freedom and connection and the possibility of something better.

Now the band's beautiful songwriting -- "Pride (In The Name of Love)," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "One," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Beautiful Day" -- reminds us of the stakes that the band always plays for. It's an incredible songbook. In their music you hear the spirituality as home and as quest. How do you find God unless he's in your heart? In your desire? In your feet? I believe this is a big part of what's kept their band together all of these years.

See, bands get formed by accident, but they don't survive by accident. It takes will, intent, a sense of shared purpose, and a tolerance for your friends' fallibilities...and they of yours. And that only evens the odds. U2 has not only evened the odds but they've beaten them by continuing to do their finest work and remaining at the top of their game and the charts for 25 years. I feel a great affinity for these guys as people as well as musicians.

Well...there I was sitting down on the couch in my pajamas with my eldest son. He was watching TV. I was doing one of my favorite things -- I was tallying up all the money I passed up in endorsements over the years (laughter) and thinking of all the fun I could have had with it. Suddenly I hear "Uno, dos, tres, catorce!" I look up. But instead of the silhouettes of the hippie wannabes bouncing around in the iPod commercial, I see my boys!

Oh, my God! They sold out!

Now...what I know about the iPod is this: It is a device that plays music. Of course their new song sounded great, my guys are doing great, but methinks I hear the footsteps of my old tape operator Jimmy Iovine somewhere. Wily. Smart. Now, personally, I live an insanely expensive lifestyle that my wife barely tolerates. I burn money, and that calls for huge amounts of cash flow. But I also have a ludicrous image of myself that keeps me from truly cashing in. (laughter) You can see my problem. Woe is me.

So the next morning, I call up Jon Landau -- or as I refer to him, "the American Paul McGuinness" -- and I say, "Did you see that iPod thing?" And he says, "Yes." And he says, "And I hear they didn't take any money." And I said, "They didn't take any money?!" And he says, "No." I said, "Smart, wily Irish guys." (laughter) Anybody...anybody...can do an ad and take the money. But to do the ad and not take the money...that's smart. That's wily. I say, "Jon, I want you to call up Bill Gates or whoever is behind this thing and float this: A red, white, and blue iPod signed by Bruce "the Boss" Springsteen. Now remember, no matter how much money he offers, don't take it!" (laughter)

At any rate...at any rate, after that evening, for the next month or so, I hear emanating from my lovely 14-year-old son's room, day after day, down the hall calling out in a voice that has recently dropped very low: Uno, dos, tres, catorce. The correct math for rock and roll. Thank you, boys.


This band...this band has carried their faith in the great inspirational and resurrective power of rock and roll. It never faltered, only a little bit. They believed in themselves, but more importantly, they believed in "you, too." Thank you Bono, the Edge, Adam, and Larry. Please welcome U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

© Bruce Springsteen, 2005

05 February 2008

Derek and the Dominoes, Jam V, "The Layla Sessions"

Jam V from Derek and the Dominoes' The Layla Sessions box set is where Duane Allman really shows his stuff -- it's the best of the five jams in the set.

The box set liner notes describe the track this way: ".... Jam V ... is nuanced with sudden dynamic turns, throttled into high gear by Duane's daredevil bottleneck as it skids up the fretboard until it digs in somewhere over the pickups ...." Jam V is also a showcase for Eric Clapton's rhythm guitar skills, much ignored due to his prowess at playing lead.

At the end of Jam V below, as a bonus, is an assortment of classic Duane and Eric tracks. So, for your listening pleasure, per referral from the Florida Cracker:



This is one of my very favorite pieces of music, letting us all in on how the 1970 recording sessions in Miami at Criteria Studios produced one of the greatest rock albums ever: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. What a band!