Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Rat Pack of Bubblegum

The greatest joy of having a college radio show was that you were allowed, nay, encouraged, to play whatever you want. At least that was the case at WHRW, SUNY-Binghamton, in the early '80's. Proudly I re-introduced Annette Funicello to my listening audience, "Secret Surfin' Spot" being the track of choice.

Another album I was drawn to was Dino, Desi and Billy's I'm a Fool. I'm going on the assumption that most readers would guess there are higher show biz forces at work. Yes, Dino was Dean Martin's son. Sure, Desi was the spawn of Lucy and Desi Arnaz. The real one, not Little Ricky. Billy? Son of joey Bishop perhaps. Nephew of Buddy Hackett maybe? No and no. Billy was Billy Hinche. Who, you are no doubt asking, was this Hinche boy? He was the son of a real estate hawker whose top shelf clients included Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

The story goes that the boys, fellow classmates at Beverly Hills Catholic School, were rehearsing up in young Martin's room when Uncle Frank came by. As Billy's dad would say, "location, location, location." Suitably impressed, or terribly drunk, Frank thought the trio should be recording for his Reprise label and pronto. Off they went, to the studio where they would be produced by Lee Hazlewood, arranged by Hazlewood and Jack Nitzsche and accompanied by guitar god James Burton and future Derek and The Dominoes drummer and committer of matricide, Jim Gordon.

The album, I'm a Fool, is to my ears, good clean fun and, if you approach it the right way, pretty darn good. Interestingly, the boys taste is Dylan and The Byrds, not British Invasion. Covers of both artists abound. The originals are not. "I'm a Fool" is "Hang On Sloopy" set to different words. "The Rebel Kind" could be an outtake from the Stones Out of Our Head. These folk-rock manques do a passable Byrds imitation. They could have been playing at a local bar. It's only at the end of the last cut, "Seventh Son," that their youth is fully on display. Some immature gibberish about which of the fortunate sons is "the one" as per the song's lyrics, reveals how young they are. Dino and Desi were only 11, Billy 13. Pretty ballsy to take on "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Chimes of Freedom."

What I enjoyed listening to the album today was the innocence of the era, when the sons of the powerful sought to become pop stars, not president.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Vinyl Revival and the Definition of Ownership

For those who have been keeping up with Katz Komments, from Kansas City to Peru (not Peru, Kansas - I reach further than that), you've no doubt picked up on the fact that records mean a lot to me. See posts from 1/5 and 1/11 to refresh your memory if you're not aware of that.

A few days ago I saw yet another article on the vinyl revival. Nearly 2 million LPs were sold last year, the largest amount since the beginning of the long lost 1990's. I can't say I approve of the 180-gram, high quality pressing new release at a price tag of $18. That smacks of gauging and I doubt that the resurgence of vinyl love is from dedicated audiophiles. So, what makes the record so newly appealing?

In the New York Times, a college student mentioned that playing a record was an event. The placing of the disc on the turntable, the reading of the liner notes and album cover. True enough, There's more emotional investment in a record than a CD. More than that, the LP is the direct opposite of the download. I try to avoid generational judgments. I'm not down on IM'ing, per se, I just rail against the amount of time wasted. I have never understood why video games are supposed to be intrinsically bad compared to board games. I can assure you I spent hours playing various baseball dice games as a kid. When I play Rock Band, I can't see why it's worse. Downloads put me in a metaphysical quandary. Can you own something that has no substance? It's there all right, but what is it? You can't touch it, it has no physical manifestation at all. It's like paying for a radio song (which I do with XM anyway).

To get around that, any downloads I've bought I burn to CD, print the covers and, voila!, I have something tangible. Ah, that's better. So, I wonder, for kids who have grown up with music downloads as their sole source of music ownership, it must be nice to be able to spin a solid black disc of sound. It's real in a world of the ethereal.

Plus, nothing beats unfolding Sgt. Pepper to reveal the large Beatles portrait inside.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A reappreciation of Guy Ritchie

One of my strengths, or glaring weaknesses, as a parent is that I rarely if ever screen content for my kids. The overarching premise is that if exposed to all movies and music with a mature adult present (or, in actuality, me), they will grow as people and understand life a bit better. One caveat - they are not to share what they see or hear with others, since many other parents don't particularly want their kids to get a copy of Reasonable Doubt by Jay-Z.

Now that Guy Ritchie is free of Madonna and can go back to being a movie director instead of a gossip column item, it's time to rewatch some of his films. Not Swept Away mind you. I'll steer clear of that pig. Not only do I want to avoid that on its own lack of merits, but I fear it will mar my happy memories of the original.

We started by renting Rocknrolla, a legitimate return to form from 2008. Joey, 13, loved it. At his age, he's ready to watch a movie laced with profanity, violence and drug abuse, as long as it's in the name of fun. It was worthwhile, but made me hungry to see Snatch again. I just knew Robbie at 16 would eat this one up.

Snatch, surprisingly, didn't get great reviews, but it is truly fantastic, with one of the standout performances ever. A multi-plot caper film, it pulls together Jewish diamond dealers, man eating pigs, bare knuckle fighters, and sly humor. Jason Statham, who plays the lead character-adjective Turkish, is at the center of it all and he is as hard as the boxers he promotes, while always seeing the black humor around him. He sporadic citing of "zee Germans," a catch-all term for any and all dangers is alone worth the watch.

Ritchie makes many bold moves in Snatch. One that stands out to me is making the three black pawn shop owners/thieves comically bumbling. It is rare that African-Americans are made a point of derision in films like this, perhaps out of fear of being tagged as racist. The trio are inept, yet determined and as a comedy troupe provide highlights throughout.

Benicio Del Toro steals the first part of the flick as a Hasidic Jew, but the singularly amazing, life-changing performance is by Brad Pitt as Mickey the Pikey. Stealing an idea from Del Toro's role in The Usual Suspects, Pitt plays the muscular gypsy as an incoherent and unintelligible mumbler. Pitt is alternatingly hysterical and haunting, mirthful and menacing and boy does he pack a wallop. It is on my list of top performances ever.
One more thing. Something was in the air, strangely, in 2001 when Snatch came out. That year the sequel to Silence of the Lambs came out. Hannibal, like Snatch, featured pigs that enjoyed the occasional meal of human flesh. While I can't possibly explain why I think about that often, I do. Wonder what forces were at work to cause a rash of anti-porcine propaganda?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

No Use Crying Over Spilt Drugs

Just a brief note. I am perversely happy about the revelations in the forthcoming Sports Illustrated that claim Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003. Not for the reasons A-Rod haters are. They're merely thrilled that the object of their scorn can now be tarred with the same performance-enhancing brush that has marred Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, et al.

A-Rod, who I genuinely root for and marvel at, was going to be the one who would wipe the tarnish off Bonds' home run record. Alex looked clean, didn't have the cartoonish biceps or Elephant Man sized head of the previous poster children for the evil steroids era.

Now, let it be clear. Everyone is suspect in this era. Everyone. Sluggers, pitchers, everyone. As we saw years later, the 1960's were an era when players thought "greenies," amphetamines, were the magical performance enhancers. Bowls of pills were standard in clubhouses. When Willie Mays joined the Mets in mid-1972, John "The Hammer" Milner spied the "Say Hey Kid's" bottle of liquid amphetamine. It was standard. So it seems with steroids. It's the norm.

Now that being said, let's climb down from the soapbox and get back to a real argument.The argument of who is and who isn't a Hall of Famer. Judged against their peers in a drug prone era, McGwire, Bonds, Clemens and, yes I admit sadly, A-Rod, are all lead pipe cinch Cooperstown candidates. They should be under no more scrutiny than their '60's predecessors. You could apply the same steroids argument to the players of that golden era. Who took "greenies?" I would bet nearly all the enshrined players who played from 1955-75. Are all the anti-Bonds, soon to be anti-A-Rod critics ready to pull Mays from the Hall? He did, if one believes Milner take performance enhancing narcotics.

Did they work? Who knows. That's not even part of the argument. When you have people like Randy Velarde known as steroids users whose level of play remained Randy Velarde-like, it's awfully hard to make the case that steroids universally lift performance. Just like "speed" in the 1960's.

So I'll see you all at Roger Clemens Induction, and Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez' and....

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hypocrisy You Can Believe In

What was, at its core, the problem with Rod Blagojevich's demand for compensation, in some form or other, in return for appointing Obama's Senatorial replacement? The uncomfortable sensation was that a deal had to be made, was expected to be made, in order to get the "right" person in the job. Old, dirty politics out in the open. No one really wants to look under that rock.

Obama is set to name New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg to be Secretary of Commerce. Fine. I have my qualms, as frequent readers know, about contorting oneself to the degree the President has in the interest of bi-partisanship, especially when the other party is playing you like a fool. That Gregg is replacing just one of three embarrassing Cabinet picks (this one the scandal tainted Bill Richardson, the other two, Geithner and Daschle, who are just discovering how taxes work), is also fine.

Here's what is not fine and not clean at all. Gregg is a Republican (the third one in the Cabinet if approved). John Lynch, Democratic Governor of The Granite State, has the legal right to choose whoever he wants to fill the vacant slot. Gregg, though, mindful that another Democrat gets the Senatorial count up to 60, has laid down the law: I will not accept Commerce if the Governor picks a Democrat or Independent. It must be a Republican.

Of course, the Obama administration bristled at this. We don't make deals, that's old politics. We stood against Blago and we will stand against Gregg. There are other people who would be equal or better than Judd at Commerce.

Ah, not exactly. Obama agreed with Gregg and Lynch has confirmed an "understanding" of sorts. So what gives? Is it OK for Obama to play this game because we all know he's different? Or is it rotten behavior and politics is politics in the end?

The weird thing is, I love the guy. Watching Obama talk about his Blackberry turning into a car, or his deep interest in sports, just solidifies that he is a normal, intelligent and highly qualified person. I'm glad he's President. But with each day I get a little bit queasier. I probably just ate some bad hope.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Not your usual post-Super Bowl topic

Greatest Super Bowl ever? No doubt. Most exciting halftime show? It was, indeed, "Boss time." But what I want to talk about, which ties in to Springsteen nicely, is the time we met Max Weinberg at a wedding.

It was four summers ago and the son of a good friend from Chicago was getting married in Rhode Island. Word came that the bride's Uncle was Springsteen drummer, Mighty Max Weinberg. Joey, then 10, was very excited. I had just taken him to see Springsteen in Albany during the Devils & Dust solo tour.

The wedding was outdoors on a beautiful sunny day and it was moments after we arrived that we saw Max. I told Joey to go up to him, it was a wedding and mingling with the fellow guests was expected, even if one of the guests was pretty famous. But he was too shy, so I brought him over.

Max was very kind and asked Joey if he played any instruments. When Joey told him he played piano, Weinberg was pleased and told him to keep at it. Then Joey said, "I saw Springsteen." Everything you think about Bruce and the Band, that they are normal guys and genuinely good people, came out in Max's response. With a smile he said, "Isn't he the greatest?" We both agreed. Now at ease, Joey started throwing all his concerts out, especially Brian Wilson. That was the key that unlocked the conversational door. Max admitted to being a huge Beach Boys fan and that he'd played with them. He also volunteered that he had played with every Beatle at some point, save John Lennon.

Later, as the evening wore down and the kids were getting tired, we hung out outside planning our exit. From the wedding hall came the recognizable sound of Glory Days. Pretty ballsy, I thought, to play a Springsteen tune with Max Weinberg in attendance. We all strolled in and what we saw was a shocker - Max sitting in with the wedding band.
How many times was this band approached by the bride and asked, "Would you mind if my Uncle Max sat in? He plays drums." On this night, the relative could rock.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The True Heir to the Throne

I spent a great deal of my college and post-college life scanning through TV listings to find every Marlon Brando film. It was not easy. Even thought the VHS era was full throttle, there were plenty of titles not available and only to be found on late night television. No TCM, or AMC, FMC either. For New Yorkers, the places to look for old films were WOR, WPIX or Channel 5 (what were their call letters?).

But I saw them all, some real stinkers too. Even stinking turds like Morituri, a submarine flick with Yul Brynner, there would be a scene of undeniable brilliance. For The Formula, dedication was required as Brando's moment came at movie's end. There he was, fat and bald, waddling through the scene like a clown. But when he genially, and oddly, offers George C. Scott Milk Duds, it's a moment of pure transcendence.

For a good while it looked like Robert DeNiro could be the new Brando. Dangerous territory, that "new" tag. Just look at every "new Dylan" from Donovan to Conor Oberst. But DeNiro had it, that amazing vacuous quality of having no personality of his own, allowing complete submergence into his character. I was willing to put Bobby on nearly the same level, but glad I didn't. For a decade now, DeNiro has been constantly worthless to watch and I blame Billy Crystal. Analyze This was DeNiro's unmaking. He did lampoon his own thug persona well, but the transformation into a comedic actor has ruined him. Unlike Marlon, who took on his Corleone character in The Freshman and turned into a funny but real figure, DeNiro has become a mugging joke.

Ah, but Edward Norton, this man is the real deal. He is shape-shifting Trickster which allows for pure character development. There is no one but Norton who can make believable white supremacists and Incredible Hulks. Watching Pride and Glory last night, a pretty weak cop drama, was well worth it observe Norton's deep, thoughtful portrayal of a man torn between duty to right and loyalty to family. He's a marvel.

There are many must sees in the Norton canon - Fight Club, 25th Hour and, importantly, The Illusionist. Just see them all. He'll make it worth your time. And to see all three - Brando, DeNiro and Norton, see The Score. It's not good, but the trio make it a sight to see.