He lived on the sofas of late night talk shows as comfortably as the late John McCain, from which he told jokes on himself and mused on the roles he wished Hollywood would offer him if he didn’t waste time on late night talk show sofas telling jokes on himself. That circular reasoning makes assessing Burt Reynolds’ career difficult. A Cary Grant aspirant, he turned into a punch line that the movie biz turned on itself. For a few years he was the top box office star in America. Continue reading
Yesterday, Splinter News published Paul Blest, who wrote the best John McCain obit I’ve read to date. This afternoon, Splinter News published Peggy Noonan’s latest slash fiction: a masterpiece of unintended comedy, failed poesy, tolerance for sexism, and self-pity. Classic Noonan, but more. This is, after all, the writer who praised the beauty of Ronald Reagan’s foot. Well, Beaut Foot popped up in again, a resident of the Valhalla to which McCain’s unsullied soul traveled.
The senior senator from Arizona’s career has been a long con game convincing the media that he opposed what they most wanted: a bipartisan don’t-criticize-the-prez foreign policy, indifference to the economic effects of the political class’ policies on the poor and working class, and a conviction that there is no division that you couldn’t settle in a Sunday morning talk show green room. Continue reading
A novelist with a capacious talent for scorn, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul popped up on my screens when I started working at Miami’s oldest independent bookstore in 2001 and he won the Nobel. Continue reading
Wrong about Barack Obama. Wrong about “identity politics.” Wrong, most infamously and disgustingly, about Iraq. Men and women are dead because of Charles Krauthammer’s columns. They’re dead because Very Serious People in the Bush II White House read his bellicose columns in the aftermath of 9-11 and felt an ideological kinship. When Iraq was collapsing after the so-called “cakewalk” of the administration’s direst masturbatory fantasies, he offered a moist towel and balm in The Washington Post. Continue reading
His most infamous book paid for the adventures of ensuing decades, but it remains the book most recognized by the general public, and why not? Released during the same period as Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckingridge and John Updike’s Couples, Philip Roth’s 1968 Portnoy’s Complaint marked a significant stylistic shift from the poised rhythms of his earlier prose, in part to match the shift in material: Roth replaced Henry James with Lenny Bruce as forebear. In the same way that bits of her Joan Crawford forever marked Faye Dunaway’s other roles, even forced audience to look for traces in earlier performances, traces of Portnoy‘s peepee jokes were never far from Roth’s subsequent fiction. Continue reading
Besides her adult, chain smoking, fully sexualized Lois Lane in the 1978 Superman and even better sequel Superman II – quite different from the male comic writer’s idea of a career woman – the late Margot Kidder gave a couple of other performances for which she should be remembered. I still haven’t watched Black Christmas. Besides the title role in Brian de Palma’s 1973 Sisters, the Canadian played an eccentric young woman who seemed to have walked out of a Deborah Eisenberg story in the long-forgotten 1981 Heartaches. Thanks to a terrific cast (Annie Potts! David Carradine!), Heartaches has a pleasing scrappiness. I don’t think it’s gotten a DVD release; I saw it on crappy VHS in the mid-nineties (the cover was the size of a billboard). Willie & Phil, Paul Mazursky’s neutered 1980 re-imagining of Jules et Jim, needed lovers and tormentors worth of her (to be fair, the original suffers from the same ailment). Much later, after her brief period of Hollywood stardom, she played Alexis Arquette’s mother in Never Met Picasso (1996), once again a welcome sardonic presence in a movie that was one of my first experiences watching homosex.
The last twenty years of her life were not pleasant; the film business is not kind to pros dealing with bipolar disorder. But she became a courageous liberal activist.
As readers know, I came of political age during the Poppy Bush years, and it was bizarre even then to watch handlers, insofar as the president gave a damn about them, try to turn them into Ron ‘n’ Nancy Part II. Her frizzy white hair and penchant for blue dresses suggested an amiable grandma type, albeit a grandma who didn’t mind calling Geraldine Ferraro a bitch and, in the only time she enraged me besides refusing to hide under the bed when her son became president, assuring us that black families housed in Houston’s Astrodome were living in better conditions than they ever enjoyed in Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina. Still, I can’t blame a mother for realizing she’s joined Abigail Adams in a likely unsurpassed historical quirk and feeling damn proud. Mothers indulge sons. Had Dorothy “Doro” Bush Koch run for president, I suspect we’d hear about the ways in which she sullied her father’s legacy. Already the Michael Beschlosses of the world mourn the end of a generation of “political wives” who at best ignored or at worst encouraged their husband’s basest instincts. George Bush submitted to those several times, most grotesquely during the 1988 campaign — the one whose emphasis on the cynical one-upping and the racist attacks prepared us for Donald Trump twenty-eight years later.
But in the end I have nothing terrible to say about Barbara Bush. Like so many GOP wives (Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, her own daughter in law), she was more liberal than her spouse and might’ve made a fascinating senator in her own right. She liked a good one-liner and a drink. She wasn’t Nancy Reagan. The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear treated her unfairly (I laughed). The pearls she wore were obviously fake. I would’ve kicked it with her.
Be ready, though: the sentimentality that will congeal around the memory of Poppy Bush when he exhales his last breath will be as awful as the drool over Reagan’s death.
As predictable a choice as it might look, Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” toyed with by Cecil Taylor is the magnificent pianist’s epitaph. But I’m seeping in fourteen minutes of “Omli Parte 1” at the moment.
Julie Phillips’ 2016 New Yorker profile of the late Ursula K. Le Guin noted how unseriously sci-fi writers — a female sci-fi writer in her case! — were taken in a literary scene dominated by male aspirants to the canon:
She felt her way tentatively forward, unsure of her direction, lacking models. American literature was still under the spell of Hemingway, Faulkner, Richard Wright; realism held sway, and there was little interest in play or fantasy. “I was going in another direction than the critically approved culture was,” Le Guin has said. “I was never going to be Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow. I didn’t know who my fellow-writers were. There didn’t seem to be anybody doing what I wanted to do.” She was alarmed by the literary rivalries of the period; she remembers thinking, “I’m not competing with all these guys and their empires and territories. I just want to write my stories and dig my own garden.”
The last quote will be familiar to Candide devotees and, with its hinting toward the importance for women having rooms of their own, her idol Virginia Woolf, mentioned in the profile.
Twenty years ago, awash in Faulkner and Mann, I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness . In its story of a native of the planet Terra stranded on an ice planet whose closest companion is a being of polymorphous sexuality I thought I’d found a parable that spoke to a self whose contours I recognized in the shades but had yet to greet. I would soon enough. The Earthsea series was if anything better, for within the conventions of children’s literature it coaxed readers into imagining the tints and shapes of her creations. Le Guin’s talent was to be plainspoken about fantasy; not for her the ornateness of Tolkien, the kindly and rather fusty talking down of Lewis. She approached fantasy like a Mailer or Bellow but with a richer color scheme. The Beginning Place is another marvel: a slim, slender, and fulsomely detailed twist on the Adam and Eve story. Maybe you had the pleasure of reading “The Rule of Names” in junior high English class.
To call her a science fiction writer suggests she dwelt in the laws of the earth when Le Guin concerned herself with situating the strange in familiar landscapes that only happened to be, say, a planet of archipelagos. I never read enough of her. Now she joins the canon that once seemed as inaccessible as Earthsea and Terra to the rest of us.
The variety show star as teen phenomenon, without the talent to make the leap into pop that reflected contemporary values until I remember that Terry Jacks and The Carpenters reflected the Nixon seventies as surely as CSNY and Alice Cooper. I was too young for The Partridge Family, the only episode of which I remember is when the kids are sprayed by a skunk, but “I Think I Love You” was in the ether, like refrigerator exhaust. Cassidy sung it with the conviction of a Broadway kid playing a greaser. That was all I knew until in 1990 he emerged with a pop metal song called “Lyin’ to Myself,” for which he got songwriting credit, presumably for the apostrophe/contraction; at best it sounds like solo Lou Gramm. This is the Forgotten Eighties — the eighties of Boogie Nights‘ Dirk Diggler recording “You Got the Touch” in a studio that looks like a karaoke bar after 6 p.m. Cassidy’s kind of idolatry soothed; no libido was necessary.
The thing is, there was always a good Tom Petty song. Casual listening is easy these days. In the same way you’d satisfy your curiosity about an old friend by visiting her Facebook page, or how you’d say hello to a neighbor whom you’ve never befriended, you may have given 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, 2002’s The Last DJ, or 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) a couple listens on Spotify. Get to “Faultlines,” “You and Me,” and the title track, respectively. I guarantee you’ll hum a chorus, silently mouth an intro, marvel, on another track, at the inexhaustible variations on Byrds chords that Mike Campbell coaxes from his twelve-string, or the feel that Stan Lynch got from his drum kit on the material before 1994. The Last DJ‘s “You and Me” I discovered thanks to the ILM obituary thread. If Lindsey Buckingham had donated this song to Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac, it would have sailed into the top ten; instead, Petty buried it on a concept album about how MTV and the radio play Britney instead of Tom Petty records.
That was the other side of Tom Petty too, perhaps borne of the stubbornness with which he willed himself out of the mephitic heat of Gainesville, Florida, a hundred miles from the nearest beach. He had a reactionary side. His songs boasted more angels, gypsies, and bad girls than Hélène Cixous and Adrienne Rich would know what to do with. When he sang “It’s such a drag when you live in the past” on 1979’s “Even the Losers,” I considered it aspirational, not an admission. “Footloose by habit and not what you’d call a ladies’ man,” Robert Christgau wrote in praise of jukebox perennial and diamond-certified Greatest Hits, “he often feels confused or put upon, and though he wishes the world were a better place, try to take what he thinks is his and he won’t back down.”
The confusion and put-uponness, together with ace marketing, made Tom Petty and his magnificent, protean backing band the Heartbreakers “New Wave” during the Carter era; you might say that New Wave existed to taxonomize and market bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Especially in the early material there was no mush. With Lynch’s walloping beat and Ron Blair’s unassuming bass lines on the one, the thin hard pungency of Petty’s own underrated rhythm guitar could do what it pleased – appreciate as he pushes against the beat in “Listen to Your Heart,” as relentless as a neurotic on the cocaine that has wooed the singer’s lover/girlfriend away from him. When Petty, flush after his triumphant Wilbury-curated solo debut Full Moon Fever in 1989, thought Jeff Lynne and the Heartbreakers would get on peachy-keen for Into the Great Wide Open (1991), the result was mixed: discussing the project on the Peter Bogdanovich-directed doc Runnin’ Down a Dream, Petty sounds like a whistleblower bound by a gag order. But, again, no mush. Just the other day at a CVS I heard that album’s “Out in the Cold,” a track serviced to AOR radio that garnered considerable airplay that summer, and understood why weird old Greil Marcus appreciated it — I mean, it fucking rocks. Not one, but two ace Campbell solos, excellent Lynne call-and-response harmonies, and an urgency in search of a subject.
An urgency in search of a subject. He filled songs with more gypsies, hearts, and angels than a Hallmark store, and it stuck in this gay man’s craw. Complacency suggested he wasn’t moved to try because he liked the tropes inherited from three dozen referents — and Tom Petty was using them in his twenties. My theory: he developed that characteristic warble-whine to refresh these tropes, modernize them even — the rock era validates the instinct to sing this stuff “badly,” after all. But it reduces some of his famous material. I may be alone in thinking 1985’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” a sound in search of a song. A helluva sound, no doubt: it would take boomers several years to approximate Petty and co-producer David Stewart’s amalgam of sixties mysticism at its most vacuous (i.e. the Coral Sitar) and eighties will-to-bigness at its most stentorian (i.e. the backing vocals, echo, and synth strings). Failing to emulsify the material is Petty, whining like the Texas delegation at the 1984 Republican National Convention. “You tangle my emotions,” he wrests from his larynx; it’s not all that’s tangled. Yelling “STOP” was better, illustrative — the William F. Buckley, Jr. mission statement for National Review for the boomer crowd. As the Moody Blues, the Grateful Dead, and fucking Steve Winwood scored their requisite comebacks, it was easy to be fifteen, watching VH-1 and thinking these people were standing athwart rock yelling “stop.” Fortunately, the Traveling Wilburys, formed by George Harrison as an excuse to barbecue with friends who happened to be world-class songwriters, made middle age look fun if MTV still played your records.
But here’s the thing: Petty was beloved by the MTV crowd anyway. Through 1996 he could count on heavy blanket rotation for the most minor of hits. You’d be forgiven for thinking “Into the Great Wide Open” rode the pop top forty for months in the autumn of 1991 — it didn’t get past #92. You’d be forgiven for thinking 1987’s “Jammin’ Me,” the first (superior) draft of “I Won’t Back Down,” got higher than #18. You’d have thought “Walls,” released during the Beck and Cibo Matto era, didn’t compete with The Wallflowers on Y-100. Making watchable videos didn’t explain it – Cutting Crew made watchable video. (His first top ten? Not “Refugee” or “American Girl.” It’s “Don’t Do Me Like That.” His highest charting hit? The #3 Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”). Key is the Petty persona, an older brother out of step with the times but not a dick about it, ready to listen if your argument amuses him, and even during the most vicious fights he’s convinced, in the words of one of his most fragile ballads, it’ll all work out.
As the number of dead rocker obits accumulates, the critic must fight the sentimental temptation to praise the obit subject’s uniqueness. Save the noun for the deserved ones – like Tom Petty. As committed to the rock and roll canon as Harold Bloom is to the Western canon, a fanatic about music’s power to mitigate what would otherwise be a revanchist attachment to the pieties of youth, Petty kept reeling in new fans snared by his hooks and moved by the folk art simplicities of his lyrics (here’s a future Trivial Pursuit question: which rock and roller do Sam Smith and the 2008 John McCain presidential campaign have in common?). Now that he’s dead, we’ll never see his likes again because we don’t respond to music the same way he did, nor were we shaped by the same cultural politics. Dull? Sometimes. Embarrassing? Never for a full album. And even if I haven’t succeeded in demonstrating the depth of his catalog, there isn’t a single bar jukebox in America at which Greatest Hits isn’t spitting “American Girl” and “Free Fallin” for the tenth or hundredth time this week – enough to make one skeptical of bar culture, yeah, but so was Tom Petty. Few rockers so complicated the Everyman persona. Even a loser from Gainesville could get lucky.