Someone with a knowledge of Minnesota politics can disabuse me of pieties, I trust. I…really have nothing bad to say about Walter Mondale. He was often right when fighting Jimmy Carter, who selected him as a running mate, empowered him like no other vice president in our history (and set the standard for every successor save Dan Quayle), and listened to him except when it upset his ego. He didn’t lie to his constituents about the good of liberalism. He didn’t pander to Democrats in 1984 — he told them he would raise taxes! A decision whose obstinacy showed his debt to Carter after all. He had no chance against Ronald Reagan anyway yet defeat didn’t embitter him. Continue reading
Rereading Miami this morning, I underlined Joan Didion passage about the Office of Public Diplomacy, a knee-slapper of an org name given little of its business was public, let alone diplomatic. Although “under the aegis” of the State Department, Didion writes, the NSC and White House pulled the strings. Explaining how men in power tell underlings the stories the latter want to believe and that the men in power come to believe in themselves is one of Didion’s fascinations; the enchanters enchant themselves: Continue reading
He wasn’t a great actor, actually. Infatuated with false notions of posh that include even mid-Atlantic accents deployed by Democrats, we Americans tend to think every Canadian or British who lived ever could play Cleon or Lear, or, worse, tend to consider the playing of Cleon or Lear signifies greatness. What the British, or, well, Canadians like Plummer do better than Americans is insouciance. Continue reading
A particular 1970s humor depended on the late Cloris Leachman’s adaptability. Flitting from film to TV with an élan many contemporaries lacked, the actress had a rare talent for using comic chops to build the long, meticulously designed arc of a dramatic performance. Continue reading
The death of David Bowie in January 2016 tolled the bell on lives lived, personae affected, boys swung, stations stationed. It augured a twelve-month period when Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, George Michael, and closest rival Prince let their legacies breathe on when they no longer could. Worse, our experiment as a republic suffered a perhaps mortal blow on Election Day. In an oeuvre fascinated with apocalypse, first as a grotesquerie in itself that is a function of ahh-youth, then as a manifestation of a restlessness immune to cocaine and a happy marriage, Bowie’s albums taught me how a species of wanderlust keeps despair at bay and is itself despair. As much a so-called confessional songwriter as Lennon, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, Bowie used his image manipulations as peeks into a psyche about as interesting as yours and mine. Above all else, I learned how The Real Me comprises the gestures, sentences, and obsessions thrown away or fussed over; the rest isn’t worth consideration. The young aesthete who sang “Planet Earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do” was not indulging an echt-gloom: he stated a truth. Twenty-five studio albums set aflame a century’s worth of self-help pieties. Continue reading
After my first listen to Operation: Doomsday in years last November, I realized I’d done a disservice to my brain by denying it frequent revisiting to a rap album of astonishing mellifluence. Word drink without succumbing to logorrhea, MF DOOM kept his promise to treat rhymes like dimes: exact change when required. Doomsday, the label-quashed KMD album Deluxe Edition, the Danger Doom collab The Mouse and the Mask, and, of course, Madvillainy — the imaginative reach of the samples (SOS Band! “Bungalow Bill”!) complements the words. He hadn’t released an official studio album since 2009’s excellent Born Like This. We needed a decade-plus to catch up with his fecundity, which, with his appetites and penchant for alter egos, made him hip-hop’s Prince.
Even during an era when Rosanne Cash scored several #1s, K.T. Oslin stood out for her crisp stories about women reluctant to call themselves feminists but want explanations for feeling unpretty, being ignored by husbands, and the isolation of an empty house. With a sympathetic label the Oslin of 2020 might’ve recorded so-called Americana, not country. Maybe. Hits like “Do Ya'” and “This Woman” needed the keyboard chimes and icepick-sharp guitar lines common to late eighties productions; the plushness matched Oslin’s predilection for the florid gesture. No doubt her struggles with depression gave her additional insight into the women she created with such an exacting eye.
But however much the glassy surfaces on This Woman and 80s Ladies reflect the anxieties of grown folks learning how expectations don’t predict consequences, Oslin did not wallow. She wasn’t above growling on “This Woman” or hooting on the glorious “Younger Men.” The latter opens with “”Women peak at forty, and men at nineteen/I remember laughing my head off when I read that in a magazine” over a slithery rhythm and doesn’t quit, peaking with the promise, “Younger men are starting to catch my eye.” And it has a spoken-word section that Shania Twain must’ve known about before recording “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Go, girl!
In a 2013 interview with Jewly Hight, she admitted:
It’s funny. I decided to do some outside material once for an album. I started getting songs pitched to me. And I would get cardboard boxes filled with cassette tapes. Every one of them started out with crying. I said, “Is this all we [women] do? Cry?” And I thought, “Oh, this is really, really boring.” But as it got younger, you know, it’s about the cute boys. And the girls, if they’re not writers, they’re at the mercy of the guys that do. And they think you sit around crying all day.
This is a singer-songwriter who titled an album My Roots are Showing.
Although four singles during her 1987-1990 heyday topped the country chart, the one that didn’t will remain her anthem and now her epitaph. To write and sing an effective anthem requires talent enough to suppress the schmaltz; to write and sing a poignant and funny anthem adduces the singularity of Oslin’s “80s Ladies,” up there alongside Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man), Tammy Wynette’s “Run, Woman, Run,” and Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache” — songs that, unafraid of being a little cruel, doubled as advice to and conversations between women. Over pedal steel and a rolling piano line, Oslin chronicles the development of three women who survived three decades of tumult; those expectations changed to consequences mighty quick, summed up by the perfect line “We burned our bras like we burned our dinners.” She doesn’t ask “What happened?” so much as “Where are we headed?” If the tinkling non-entities on her studio albums bore you — I’d argue the filler isn’t worse than what you’d find on a, say, Clint Black album — then Greatest Hits: Songs from an Aging Sex Bomb (1993) will serve as prime one-stop shopping. Her warm unaffected screen presence in the “80s Ladies” video might’ve persuaded Peter Bogdanovich to cast her as the club owner/talent scout in the misbegotten The Thing Called Love (1993), River Phoenix’s last film.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s years ago, Oslin, alas, may have succumbed to the year’s deadliest killer. COVID, as the grieving families of Adam Schlesinger, John Prine, and Harold Budd know, demonstrated it cares little about genre distinctions. Listeners who with some merit mourn contemporary Nashville’s reluctance to promote female artists can look to K.T. Oslin’s too brief ascendancy — times were rough for women in 1989 too, even with Dolly Parton’s White Limozeen proving a smash. Oslin didn’t deal with improbabilities; her talent was to regard life as it was. Flexible but not up to cutting corners, manipulating her sexuality with a politician’s eye for whom it matters in a crowd, she should’ve been a model for songwriters who don’t confuse “adult” with “staid.”
Rivaling the late Max Von Sydow as the oldest youngest man in Hollywood, Thomas Sean Connery of Edinburgh looked as if he’d lived several lives onscreen. Cary Grant thirty years earlier figured out the essential component of screen stardom: withhold; keep your secrets. Connery’s reticence made him an ideal James Bond for the JFK generation: courtly, at ease with malevolence, patronizing. Continue reading
“You all look like semi-educated cows chewing intellectual cuds,” the dome-headed sexagenarian remarked, not unkindly. We hovered over an Entenmann’s Danish ring that looked fresher ten days earlier when opened and not exposed to the faculty lounge’s also unfresh cigarette reek. Male students at a Catholic high school didn’t understand dishwashing or hygiene. We didn’t know what cuds were. Few fifteen-year-olds do. Br. Eugene didn’t explain; finding answers was our duty, our problem. The dozen sophomores and juniors crammed in that lounge had their own reasons for taking a six-week summer course on Greek literature: college board ambition, parental pressure, curiosity. After a tenth grade honors English course in which we crunched on the dialectical subtleties of Clive Cussler and Dean Koontz, understanding Aeschylus’ concept of justice in Prometheus Bound gnarled our brains at 8:30 a.m. Continue reading
He would’ve scoffed at the next verb: we “met” on ILX in the summer or fall of 2005, sparring over Michael Haneke films but most explicitly about Brokeback Mountain. Smitten for extracurricular reasons, I put aside the movie’s flaws. With Bill, he could scoff at you for many things: sentimentality; the folly of praising anyone you met online as a “friend”; fawning over repressed gay romances played by actors who weren’t Dennis Quaid and Jeff Bridges. Bill called me out on them. His love affair with film was inspiring and a burr: thanks to Bill, I knew I had to find this silent John Ford or that Abbot & Costello comedy. I could never surpass him for a one-sentence quip, which adduced his stand-up ambitions. Impressed, I asked him if he wanted to write for Stylus Magazine, for which I served as an editor. After a Robert Altman retrospective, he showed his command of a prose style he’d spent twenty years honing: every review showed no slackening, quite the contrary; he knew this was his moment, though if you reminded him he’d tell you to fuck off. He wrote for Slant Magazine for several years, each review demonstrating his wit and erudition, going as far as one could go in those days of paid or feebly paid movie journalism.
I can hear his death’s-head cackle when we met in person, twelve years after ILX sparrin’, in Miami, for a baseball tournament. Bill wasn’t the kind of person who asked questions about your personal life, or, indeed, any questions. He was always on. Yet after several hours of eating and drinking I exploited what I loved about him after a dozen years’ acquaintance. I called him a cynic to his face and he said “Fuck you” and laughed. He knew. He was a sentimentalist. He was pissed off the world wasn’t as good as he wanted it to be. A Catholic in the best sense, he presented without your permission a dialectical grace: fight tooth and nail over fundamental principles and bullshit; offer words of comfort you wouldn’t think are possible.
Essential to understanding Bill was his coming of age in every sense at the dawn of the Reagan era. The Democratic Party he read about and experienced — the union-strong FDR coalition — was in its death throes. Then AIDS happened. There’s no way around the fact that he came across as a irascible curmudgeon because he grew tired of having to repeat himself as the consequences of those death throes and Reagan’s influence spiraled past the GOP and into younger Dems and liberals. That’s why I keep coming back to my definition of a cynic: a closet sentimentalist frustrated by the stubbornness with which life doesn’t match one’s ideals. Lord knows we fought in person and on this board: we shared a sensibility but not taste. But I know he respected and loved me, and part of those things means annoyance that I couldn’t see things his way.
To his immense credit, Bill’s passion for film and baseball kept him alive in every sense until his body couldn’t anymore. When I last saw him in July 2019, he asked if I’d seen The Love Parade, Ernest Lubitsch’s 1930 musical starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. I hadn’t. He scoffed — not because he had something on me, but because he knew I could do better. I should’ve watched it by now. A genuine radical, Bill loathed what moviegoing and the Democratic Party had become; he accepted no compromises because in the New York City in which he lived compromises got you killed: with AIDS, the cops, or Clinton-inspired austerity Democrats. Living under these circumstances means you take shit from no one, not least a bony-assed Cuban-American dude who defended Brokeback Mountain. But cynics are sentimentalists because they want their friends to meet what they’re capable of; Bill wanted it for me, for everyone who knew him, and he was humble enough to accept he could accept a little grace too.
Thanks to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, millions of women gained access to safe abortions and were no longer considered “secondary breadwinners,” gay men and women could marry, extended the statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit, and all-male admission practices in military colleges were unconstitutional. I could go on. Continue reading
Freedom Rider. Leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Along with Bayard Rustin one of the organizers of the 1962 March on Washington. The victim of a skull fracture at Bloody Selma three years later. Pioneer in the practice of “redemptive suffering.” Thirty-four years representing parts of Atlanta in the House. Continue reading