“When I woke up this mornin’/Things were lookin’ bad,” he sang on the first song on his eponymous debut album in 1972 over basic chords. Many songwriters would’ve stopped right there. In the next line, however, comes the kicker: a bowl of oatmeal tries to stare him down — and wins! To be a successful absurdist is to observe a monotheistic faith in precision. On John Prine (1971), the late singer-songwriter got away with zingers less talented artists would’ve pulled their eyeballs out for, couched in melodies as homespun and casual as the prose Prine chiseled as accompaniment. Who else besides perhaps Loudon Wainwright III in the seventies would’ve summed up the depredations into which a heroin addict had sunk with the line, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” in “Sam Stone”? Perfection and inevitability are synonymous — among songwriters Prine made it so. Continue reading
No popular singer-songwriter wrote so many good songs about friendship as Bill Withers. “Might be that we have, different views sometimes/But that’s alright, you’re still a friend of mine,” he sang on “Friend of Mine.” Less than a decade later Duran Duran mangled the sentiment; in 1985 Jackson Browne and Clarence Clemons put too fierce a smiley face on it. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the pop top five that made the thirty-six-year-old William Harrison Withers Jr. a star, is specific about its pronouns, whom it’s addressing; so is “Lean On Me,” the #1 about the kind of relations for which “brother” shimmers as unspoken shorthand. Continue reading
It was Adam Schlesinger’s gift to plumb the notes of blessed youth. A few years shy of forty the songwriter-singer of Fountains of Wayne released their third album Welcome Interstate Managers, a song suite about blighted young people for whom Chris Collingwood’s articulate tenor showed no signs of contempt: the executive nimrod in “Bright Future in Sales,” the football dude in “All Kinds of Time” who grows up to be Dennis Quad in Everybody’s All-American. He and co-songwriter Collingwood titled a song “The Valley of Malls” on 1999’s Utopia Parkway that sensibilities less curdled than Schlesinger’s would’ve turned into what the New York Times or something would’ve called A Stinging Satire on the Homogenizing of Our Times. About “Stacy’s Mom” I don’t even have to comment.
Don’t let that paragraph fool you. Acquainted with their work enough to mention my benign curious respect, I’ll let colleagues address Schlesinger’s melodic smarts. At their best, though, Fountains of Wayne attained the buoyancy of prime Squeeze, meeting their standard of writing the equivalent of smart poignant short stories set to music, with verse-chorus-verse as bam-bam-bam inevitable as Tin Pan Alley. “That Thing You Do” is the kind of expert pastiche that surpasses its originals. To drift into one’s fifties unsure about health care and level of medical attention is an indictment of a system fifty years committed to killing people for the sake of an inconsistently followed and malevolently applied ideology.
Insensate to music whose demands on this listener went no further than guaranteeing deepening impatience in car service waiting areas, I’ve turned to Kenny Rogers in the last forty-eight hours with the fervor the late country idol channeled into his Dolly Parton duet. Spring in South Florida means watching scolds of jays compete with mockingbirds for telephone wire bragging rights; the chaos of trills and screeches interferes with my hamhanded attempt to record my first class lecture, but otherwise I’m grateful for the reminder that, as Sting once averred, there is a deeper world than this.
Before “The Gambler,” “Islands in the Stream,” and Roasters, Kenny Rogers applied bearded fervor to material by The First Edition, for whom he sang and played bass. Those early hits still sound refreshing. “But You Know I Love You” has the faintest of swings that fans of The Guess Who’s “These Eyes” would tap their toes to (Dolly Parton took her own version to #1 on the country charts in 1981). Even better was a cover of Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” in which the Houston-born vocalist’s sexy burr gets its most attractive setting. Note the pause between “Ruby” and the rest of the phrase; he knew what he was doing. For listeners rustling in their seats, run toward “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a psychedelic shack of a song in which Rogers watches his mind fall out of his head while his bandmates pinch distorted riffs out of their guitars — you’ll swear you’re listening to Lou Reed’s solo in “I Heard Her Call My Name” or mid sixties Stones — and get hysterical with the organ washes. An anti-drug number, “Just Dropped In” of course descends into camp, but go back to the bearded fervor: Rogers is having too much fun to play George C. Scott in Hardcore. With “I Found a Reason” the band revealed themselves as expert magpies — tune out the vocals and the horn chart will evoke The Kinks. Continue reading
A scion of what used to be called world cinema, Max von Sydow was one of those actors whom one could not catch “acting.” He looked like a jagged cliff and spoke like a truck. In role after role for Ingmar Bergman, von Sydow showed how versatility is a small matter when an artist can fill those roles with recognizable human gestures: the knight in The Seventh Seal (1957) and the father in The Virgin Spring (1960), for example, but also The Passion of Anna (1968) and, in one of his most empathetic performances, as the doomed husband to Liv Ullmann in Shame‘s war-torn wasteland. For a generation of cineastes his soft eyes and round face were as recognizable as Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Anouk Aimée, and Yves Montand.
Hollywood came a-knocking, and soon he was playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), kindly Fr. Merrin in The Exorcist (1973), and a chilly villain in Three Days of the Condor (1975).Even in gobbling turkeys like Hawaii, von Sydow filled the roles to capacity. Cast as the dour painter who assumes smug monologues on the state of American culture keep Barbara Hershey sexually excited in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), he played a parody of the Nordic angst he had come to personify. Happily, he was also in Flash Gordon, Never Say Never, and, in his last decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens as if to remind audiences he liked a bit of fun. He earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination, his second after 1988’s Pelle the Conqueror, as the near mute renter in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011). Continue reading
A star of overwhelming physical presence, often a gratuitously physical one; an actor capable of quiet sardonicism, the Hollywood avatar born as Issur Danielovitch Demsky died at 103 today able to look back on his deathbed at an estimable career straddling both obligations. He wore a tuxedo well, and his cheeks were ghoulish enough to lend unintended malice opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Ann Sothern in A Letter to Three Wives (1950); between them he found his metier as the smiling dapper villain in Out of the Past. But he shed the coat and tie after 1949’s Champion, unveiling a commitment to using his body for every end rivaled only by close friend Burt Lancaster. Continue reading