Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Concert Review: Phish at the Nutter Center 7-18-2017

The eclectic rock band Phish put their musicianship on full display at the Nutter Center in Dayton, Ohio last night. I went into the concert being mostly unfamiliar with their music and history.  I was aware they have a fervent following akin to The Grateful Dead.  Fans follow them around on tour and create a festive atmosphere at the venue. One of the most heralded American Jam Bands, known for extended improvisational music, Phish draws upon a wide range of musical influences.

Fronted by lead guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio, Phish played two full sets, each about 90 minutes long. Anastasio was supported by Mike Gordon on bass, Jon Fishman on percussion, and Page McConnell on keyboards.  They opened the show with some rockers like "Tuesday" and "Peaches En Regalia," and "Free." These songs are more rooted in the classic rock tradition of The Rolling Stones. Other songs displayed a funk influence with bass driven extended jams. "Crazy Sometimes," clearly a crowd pleaser.  They closed the first set with "Runaway Jim," a song that reminded me of The Grateful Dead in their heyday.

The second set was dominated by improvisational jams.  The opener "Down With Disease" clocked in at 23 minutes.  There's a definite Frank Zappa quality to Phish as well, showing off their quirky side with "Wombat." The band hold their own with any arena rock band from the 1970s, with hints of Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers. At times, Anastasio sounds identical to Jerry Garcia, at other times a Zappa delivery, but he can also be soulful and melodic. All four musicians are excellent showmen, each putting their distinct personality into the performance.  While phones were visible everywhere in the arena, the crowd seemed to be genuinely into the music.

Before saying farewell, Phish are off to Madison Square Garden where they will perform a "baker's dozen" worth of shows, they closed the concert with "The Squirming Coil," a meditative song from their 1990 album Lawn Boy.

What was my impression of Phish as a newcomer? They employed an impressive range of styles, much rooted in rock of the 1970s and 1980s, with some free form jazz and classical thrown into the mix.  When they want to - they can rock with the best of them. Much depends on your tolerance for extended jam music. It can test your patience if you are not accustomed to it.  Phish is known for making each concert a unique event with vastly different set lists from show to show, and they accomplished just that - an experience.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: Radio On by Sarah Vowell

Recent I picked up Radio On by Sarah Vowell, NPR impresario and hipster historian. In 1995 Vowell decided to keep a journal on her radio listening habits and record her observations, offering reflections on one of the least written about mediums.  Radio On offers a nervy trip back to 1995, replete with foreshadowing of what was to come.

Vowell listened to a wide range of what is now called terrestrial radio: FM Rock, AM Talk Radio, and tons of NPR. Many figures from 1995 appear; some are gone, and some are still around.  The death of Kurt Cobain was still raw in that year and his ghost looms heavily over the book.  Vowell wrote of Cobain as the conscious of the early 1990s:

It was a relief to know someone like him that was on the radio, part of American public life. . . To some of the people who grieve him, Kurt Cobain was a great artist, to others he was the medicine man of the rock and roll tribe, but, finally, he was simply a friend (5-6).

Vowell relates much on what she admires and detests about America. For 1995 saw a resurgence of the right (many more to come), in 1994 the GOP won both houses of congress back after 50 years out of power.  Once in power they gleefully acted as the wrecking crew to Bill Clinton's liberal agenda. Newt Gingrich gets much of Vowell's vitriol, along with crony Rush Limbaugh who dominated the air waves. Rhetoric from the right in 1995 has many echoes for today, fanaticism over gun rights topping the list.  The Oklahoma City bombing revealed how much some on the right despised their society, the Unabomber (extreme left) also entered the cultural parlance.

It's always fun to hear the young go after a sacred cow and few do it better that Vowell. Deadheads are almost as annoying as Rush's legion of dittoheads, chastising her peers for being trapped in the amber of counterculture nostalgia. She prefers P.J. Harvey to Alanis Morisette, ambivalent towards Courtney Love. She writes of her exhaustion with male voices dominating the discourse on music, most of pop  culture for that matter:

I seem to have spent my whole life listening to boys talk about music. And sometimes, no matter how smart or untrivial or meaningful the boy might be, the sheer aesthetic presence of a masculine voice engaged in record talk can get on my nerves (168).

The rise of the internet looms as well, still more of a novelty in 1995.  At one point Vowell ponders the possibilities, in the future everyone can be their own radio station, predicting the rise of podcasts.  The absence of social media makes itself known: in order to communicate people still had to call each other or write notes.  Seems much longer than 20 years.

Perhaps its the mid 90s milieu and all the talk of REM, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana it got me thinking of David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest would be published the next year (probably because the film The End of the Tour takes place at roughly the same time.)  I imagine Wallace and Vowell running into each other and she being annoyed with his writing style and obsessions with tennis and the pursuit of happiness. But Wallace did listen to Nirvana while writing so maybe they would talk about Cobain. Past is prologue, and the 90s were a prologue decade.

But back to radio, Vowell is fairly critical of NPR for being too middle of the road, in other words out of touch. Well someone listened at NPR, Vowell herself became a fixture of This American Life. Since the 90s radio hasn't changed much, mostly zombie radio these days. Satellite radio does excellent work, but with a price. And consumers can access music in myriads of different ways - that's a good thing.

Vowell's at her best when writing about patriotism in a time when conservatives act like they own it, she relates her patriotism more in the spirit of Neil Young (nothing like a Canadian to be the exemplar of good citizenry). Not without surprise, religion and national identity would preoccupy her future writing. 

Vowell channels the spirit of a perceptive road novel - from a specific time and place.






Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: Buckley and Mailer: The DIfficult Friendship That Shaped The Sixties


The 2015 book Buckley and Mailer by Kevin Schultz examines the friendship/rivalry between novelist Norman Mailer and Conservative writer William F. Buckley.  Both were consummate critics of the prevailing liberalism of the decade, Mailer critiqued from the Left and Buckley from the Right. On September 22, 1962 they held a debate in New York City and became friends afterwards, corresponding throughout the decade.  As their cultural influence waned the deep fissures within American they tried to transcend became ever more apparent.

With privileged backgrounds and Ivy League Educations, both spoke with a suave self-assurance.  Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead, based on his own experiences in the Philippines during the Second World War, established him as new voice in America literature.  His 1959 book Advertisements For Myself helped launched New Journalism, a style that made the writer a part of their own story.

Buckley also came to a prominence through a book, God and Man At Yale , a satiric look at the modern university.  In 1955 he founded National Review, which became the bible of the Conservative Movement.  Like Mailer, Buckley felt stagnated by the Eisenhower years and worried about the direction of the country.

Their debate was promoted as the “forceful philosopher of THE NEW CONSERVATISM . . . AGAINST . . . America’s angry young man and Leading Radical” (17).  The debate proved a jocular affair with both men finding common ground in their fears about technology threatening the individual. Buckley’s conservatism looked to the past for wisdom and guidance on how to move forward – read the “Great Books” and champion Judeo-Christian values as the path to Enlightenment.  Mailer evangelized for a new individuality that would reward creativity and advocated for a new value system to unlock the shackles of the past.

Both took the controversies of the decade head on. Mailer covered the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco that nominated Barry Goldwater and detected a whiff of Fascism.  Johnson’s landslide win over Goldwater failed to produce a consensus.  The left and right were drifting further apart. LBJ’s escalation of the war in Vietnam would fuel the New Left – and energize Mailer.

Schultz credits Buckley with driving out the wacko right wing groups such as the John Birch Society and the KKK.  His long running talk show Firing Line looks more like a placid cocktail party than the predictable rage at Fox News. As time went on Buckley’s aristocratic view of politics alienated him from the forces that would  shape modern conservatism – white working class resentment.

As well educated white men there views on race and gender betrayed their privilege.   Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro” expressed his admiration for black culture, specifically the sexual openness that terrified middle class whites. James Baldwin, a friend of Mailer’s, called out the racism of the article because of its simplistic view of black culture.  Buckley opposed the Civil Rights Movement and his statements on race are now outmoded, sometimes painfully racist.  In 1965 Baldwin humiliated Buckley at the Oxford Union debate they held.

Mailer’s reputation as a male chauvinist also put him in opposition to Women’s Liberation. In 1971 Mailer debated a group of feminists including Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer and came off as clownish. In a later essay, Greer dismissed Mailer as aging and no longer relevant – echoing the Boomer animus towards Mailer.

Mailer continued to write in the 1960s, writing an experimental novel An American Dream, and two works of non-fiction about protests he participated in Armies of the Night and Miami and The Siege of Chicago.  Realizing film was poised to displace literature Mailer made several experimental movies. In 1968 he ran for mayor of New York City with Jimmy Breslin in a splendidly Quixotic campaign that pledged to make NYC the 51st state.

Today literature lacks anyone approaching the panache of Mailer, while conservatism reduced itself to angry bloggers, talk radio rants, and Fox News (with a few exceptions – National Review soldiers on more weary than ever in the Trump era). Our fragmented culture tends to separate people into something resembling tribes, a development that would appall both Mailer and Buckley.

Reading the book, one can understand their flaws and yet appreciate their willingness to jump into the maelstrom of ideas.  Schultz paints a panoramic portrait of the 1960s that deeply resonates for the current moment.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sgt Pepper: Utopian Visions


This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  Most commentators have written on whether it was the "greatest" Beatle album and then smugly tell you it's the most overrated music ever made. Let's not even go there.

To quote Peter Fonda from The Limey (1999):

Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. *That* was the sixties. (Pause)

No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all there was.

By that logic, and a fine logic it is, the release of Pepper marked the end of the 1960s, prophecy of some new age.  Certainly not the age that followed, nor the one we are in now, but someday maybe.

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote of how systems destroy radical ideas by making them banal.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's happened.  The Beatles, those mop top rascals who sent shockwaves of fear into nascent red America, are now about as offensive as a Friends rerun.

But Pepper survives as a Utopian vision, as Ian MacDonald's brilliant study of the Beatles Revolution in the Head pointed out, the album created a civilizational "contact high." 

So listen to Sgt. Pepper. Step into the time machine. Enjoy the philosophical interplay between John and Paul on "Getting Better" or George's jaunty guitar on "Fixing a Hole." Picture the imaginative characters Mr. Kite, Lovely Rita, Billy Shears, or Lucy in the Sky. "Within You, Without You" stands alongside anything in the New Testament. 

The first twelve tracks are mere rehearsal for the magisterial conclusion of "A Day in the Life." MacDonald wrote of the song:

The message is that life is a dream and we have the power, as dreamers, to make it beautiful (230).

Listening to Sgt. Pepper in 2017 cannot be experienced the way it was in 1967, yet the magic remains.  As the Beatles themselves said on the opening track, "they've going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile."

Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday Night Paranoia

Watching the 1978 Phillip Kaufmann remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  At one point Brooke Adams says to Donald Sutherland, "'I've lived in this city all my life, but somehow today I felt everything had changed."  And then that actually happened on 11/9/16 (maybe sooner).  So are the pod people are winning????  The issue lingers and we are in it for the long haul, the slow burn, moving through history's cunning passages and feeling ghosts breathing down our neck . . .




Sunday, April 16, 2017

TV Review: Wiseguy (1987-1990)

Wiseguy may be the Rosetta Stone of the modern TV landscape.  It aired on CBS from 1987-1990 to mediocre ratings and was mostly forgotten after going off the air.  The show followed undercover FBI agent Vinnie Terranova, ably played by Ken Wahl , whose job was to infiltrate and disrupt various criminal enterprises.  Also starring was Jonathan Banks as John McPike, Vinny's key contact with the FBI.  "Lifeguard" played by Jim Byrnes stood on call if Vinny got into a serious fix.

What makes Wiseguy historically important was that it went against conventional episodic television: stories played out over several episodes.  Neither did each arc exist in isolation, they were of part an even larger arc as the events in each story brought consequences for the next one. Unfortunately the realities of 1980s television prevented Wiseguy from developing even more complex stories.

Season One packed a wallop with two engrossing narratives featuring larger than life villains. Terranova's first assignment was to infiltrate the Atlantic City mob.  Sonny Steelgrave, played with gusto by character actor Ray Sharkey, wanted to take over the city. His persona combined Donald Trump and Tony Soprano.  Sonny took Vinnie under his wing and they form a close bond, causing serious loyalty conflicts for Terranova.

The second arc showed even more ambition with Vinnie fronting as a bodyguard for international arms dealer siblings Mel and Laura Profitt.  Kevin Spacey got his first big break and its fascinating to see him use acting rhythms he would bring to his future roles.  Mel's a drug attic who's prone to bouts of megalomania and paranoia.  Another major character Roger Loccocco (William Russ), a hired gun for the Profitt siblings, also became a recurring character.

The second season continued to emphasize character. Vinnie, dejected after the chaotic conclusion to the Mel Profitt case, sulks at home until he discovers white nationalists are starting trouble in his Brooklyn neighborhood.  Don't miss Fred Thompson as their titular leader, eventually revealed to be a huckster.

Next came the "Garment Trade Storyline" which featured Jerry Lewis in a rare dramatic role as garment trade business owner who gets in trouble with a mobster, a menacing Stanley Tucci. During filming Wahl was injured and briefly replaced by a veteran undercover agent John Henry Raglin, played by Anthony Denison from Crime Story.

Unfortunately the last part of season two remains unavailable on DVD and syndication, due to copyright  issues.  The story featured Vinnie taking on corruption in the record industry.

By season three the stories grew more erratic. The first arc returned to another mob themed story line involving Vinnie's stepfather.  Next came a brilliant four episode story on power plays in Washington D.C., centering on a scheme to launch a trade war with Japan that came straight out of a Tom Clancy novel, starring Norman Lloyd as a duplicitous general.

Then the setting moved to rural Washington, foreshadowing Twin Peaks which would air the following season on ABC. Vinnie discovers shady behavior and bizarre locals while investigating a serial killer case in what began as a simple investigation into small town corruption. The case caused Vinnie to experience a nervous breakdown and he went AWOL. The season ended with Terranova stumbling upon a toxic waste conspiracy in Seattle as his mental state continued to worsen.  Unfortunately the character never got a proper exit from the show's mythology.

Wahl did not return for season 4 over creative differences and the show quickly faded.  Wiseguy continued on for a short season with Steven Bauer taking over as the lead.  An inferior made for TV movie with Wahl aired in 1996.


So many of the most heralded shows of the 21st Century including The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Homeland, all owe something to Wiseguy. Jonathan Banks went on to star in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul brought a welcomed renewed interest in the show.  Wiseguy's pulpy writing style and retro film noir look are well worth revisiting.


Book Review: Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman

Jason Zinoman's history of 1970s horror is a welcome companion piece to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, only Zinoman has genuine affection toward his subjects. There are no heroes or villains in the book, just some creative people who burnt out a little too fast.  Published in 2011, Shock Value focuses primarily on John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero.  Others known for their work outside the genre also appear, namely, William Friedkin and Brian De Palma.

The story begins in the 1960s, a period when few took horror movies seriously.  Mainstream society considered them a bad influence on the youth.  But for a generation the Vincent Price movies and William Castle extravaganzas were unforgettable experiences. Then came Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho which opened new possibilities for horror, proof the pubic had an appetite for dark and lurid subject matter and that such films could be taken seriously as art.

Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby raised the bar even higher, using film techniques to keep audiences unsettled. Polanski intentionally obscured what happened in his compositions and the location shooting in Manhattan brought a sense of realism, making the audience paranoid along with Mia Farrow.

Meanwhile a new generation of filmmakers brought a DIY attitude to the genre.  George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was shot in low budget black and white like a cinema verite documentary. Romero broke taboos and tapped into the social anxieties of the 1960s.

Wes Craven, the most prolific of the group, was raised by devout Christians and was not allowed to watch movies as a child.  In rebellion against his family's values, Craven made The Last House on the Left, a shockingly violent film with scenes of graphic torture and rape, forcing audiences to confront the violence within themselves.  Critics dismissed the film as crude exploitation, but Craven's anti-violent message was lost on most.

Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was designed as an assault on the audience.  A group of college students run out of gas in the Texas backcountry and are terrorized by a family of unemployed cannibals.  In a savage twist Hooper invites the audience to sympathize with the psycho-killer Leatherface, just another lost child no one understands.

Horror went mainstream and became cultural phenomenon with the 1973 release of The Exorcist. Based on the bestselling William Peter Blatty novel, the film galvanized audiences. Detractors saw it tasteless exploitation, a misogynist film less about demonic possession and more about male fear of female sexuality.  Others saw it as sobering exploration evil and faith. The Exorcist received 10 Oscar nominations, unprecedented for a horror film.

The central relationship in Shock Value is between John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon.  Classmates at UCLA in the early 1970s they collaborated on the 1975 cult film Dark Star, a slight parody of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  O'Bannon resented Carpenter getting director's credit and the two feuded (O'Bannon wrote the script, acted, and designed the special effects for Dark Star).  Zinoman presents a Mozart/Salieri dynamic between them: Carpenter went on become an auteur in horror and sci-fi, while O'Bannon struggled to get studios to read his screenplays. He wrote the original Alien, only to be upstaged by the director yet again.

Zinoman argues the 1970s were a golden age for the horror genre - setting a high bar yet to be crossed. While the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other social upheavals had a tangential influence, the lowering of the production code allowed directors to push the envelope further than ever before. All outsiders in their own way, their movies reflected the dark side of American life. Proof of their enduring legacy exists in the flood of reboots and remakes their movies inspired - most of which failed to measure up to the originals.

Horror went mainstream in the 1980s, but the genre lost its edge. People want a fun roller coaster ride, the Paranormal Activity franchise being an example. Straight up gore fests attracted audiences, social commentary not so much.  Purists believe true horror should leave the audience confused and disturbed.  Zinoman wrote:

The most unpleasant thing possible is what Wes Craven and Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter were trying to put on screen.  That was the point.

As a work of film history, Shock Value is great way to revisit a pivotal decade in American cinema.