ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take Four: Love and Mercy)

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Brian Wilson owes me. Big time.

In 1979 he cost me The One.

Compared to that, having my first car wreck, in 1981, while trying to remember the lyrics to “Caroline, No,” is chicken scratch.

For some of us, car wrecks come and go. ’71 Mavericks come and go. But you only get one chance at The One.

Oh sure, other factors were definitely involved. Maybe he just “helped” cost me The One.

The One had a boyfriend after all. And they were engaged. So that made two mighty impediments. My honor and hers.

Plus it was summer and summers are short, and I wasn’t the sort to make short work of pursuing anyone, let alone The One.

Especially if she had a boyfriend and they were engaged.

Which I didn’t yet know they were on the second night of my summer–not, as it happened, the second night of her summer or the boyfriend’s, me being a late arrival to the Southern Baptist Conference Center due to Florida’s Junior College system, exactly one year away from reform, still being the only college system in the entire south that was on a different schedule from the rest.

So the second night–my second night–it was.

The night of the Talent Show.

I’d already met The One by then. Lobby of the Girls’ Dorm. Rainy day. She noodling on the piano and singing “You Light Up My Life,” me politely inquiring for the person the front desk had told me would assign me a room in the Boys’ Dorm.

I didn’t know she was The One by virtue of her being good-looking or singing “You Light Up My Life.” In 1979, whatever degree of interest the first factor drummed up was bound to be mitigated by the second.

In 1979, the ubiquitous presence of “You Light Up My Life” in the Air of Everywhere, was one of many, many factors that had me regularly contemplating slitting my wrists.

No, she didn’t become The One until our eyes met, ever so briefly, and I saw somebody who was in the same kind of trouble I was in.

Which meant I immediately started thinking of her as The One who could get me out. And of me as the one who could get her out.

And I didn’t give up hope when I saw her walking around with some guy the next day.

Hey, it didn’t mean they were engaged!

I even got my hopes up that evening when we all showed up for the Talent Show and filed into the auditorium from opposite ends and in a crowd of maybe two hundred I found myself walking down the fourth aisle straight toward The One, who was, I immediately noticed, sans boyfriend.

So how much of a boyfriend he could be (me not knowing they were engaged) huh? How much of a boyfriend could he be if he wasn’t even willing to accompany her to the Talent Show?

We sat next to each other and while there was little chance for actual conversation, we both laughed at all the same things. How could we not, she being The One and all? Others may have laughed, too. Probably did. Probably at the same things we did. But who cared? What was important was the building of the first small bond.

All that serendipity. I couldn’t possibly have asked for more, two days in.

Then, to close the show, the Elvis Impersonator came on.

Guy named Eddie.

He had the sideburns (permanent fixture). He had the rhinestone cape (borrowed for the occasion, God knows where). He had the screaming girls patting down his forehead (all in good fun). He had the scarves (proving he meant business).

He was clearly taking it seriously even if nobody else was and I was prepared to be generous.

And, yeah, interested to see how The One would take it.

Now, I already knew Eddie was the only guy in the Boys’ Dorm who had brought a record player with him (he might have been the only one who knew they were allowed). I also knew that one of the records he had with him was this one:

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What I didn’t know–what I don’t think too many people knew–was that this was the only record he had with him.

So when the scarves had been distributed among the faithful and the faux-screams had all died down and one of the girls on the stage went over to Eddie’s record player, which had us all wondering why it was there as the previous acts came and went, and, after carefully checking that Eddie was ready for his cue, prepared to drop the needle, I sort of expected a young man who had taken due care with all those other facets of Elvis Impersonation to, you know, sing–or at least lip-synch–an Elvis song.

Which he might have, if he had actually possessed an Elvis record.

Instead of, say, Endless Summer.

Call me immature. Call me crazy. Call me unprepared to be generous.

But even at the all-in-fun Talent Show for the 1979 summer staff of the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, I wasn’t ready for an Elvis Impersonator to lip-synch to the Beach Boys.

And, even if I had been somehow ready for something of the sort in theory, I certainly wasn’t ready for the Elvis Impersonator to, in fact, start lip-synching to “I Get Around.”

Everybody else laughed. Including The One.

Which was okay. I was raised in church. I knew man was born in sin and nobody was perfect. There was nothing to forgive. It was between her and God.

Well, her and God and everybody else in the place, who did what you naturally do when “I Get Around” comes on (whether an Elvis Impersonator is involved or not) and started bopping in their seats. You know, bop a little to the left, bop a little to the right.

Clap your hands.

Let your body sway.

In time with the music.

Everybody, including The One.

Everybody except me.

In that moment I was a Clanton at the OK Corral.

Yes, I was in what turned out to be my rather brief “rock snob” phase, but I was only in the early stages of my Elvis fandom, still not quite sure how far that thing would go.

I could have stood Elvis being mocked.

But the Beach Boys?

No. That was too much.

“Surfin’ Safari” maybe. “Catch a Wave?”….maybe.

“I Get Around?”

No way.

Elvis was one thing.

Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al?

Those were my brothers.

Being desecrated.

I stayed stock still. The literal stick in the mud.

The One noticed.

After about the third bop to the right she didn’t bop quite as far, presumably because she didn’t want to keep bopping into my cold rock of a shoulder.

And as the song neared an end and the bopping gradually ceased, she leaned over and whispered something to her girlfriend (truly gorgeous and the one girl in the place everybody but me thought was better looking than The One, and they were inseparable right up until one particularly high social occasion in the middle of the summer when The One decided to, just once, and ever so casually, let everybody know otherwise, after which I never saw them together again, but that’s another story for another day).

In the moment, her girlfriend whispered back, at which point the music stopped entirely and I heard every word.

“Maybe he doesn’t know who they are,” she said.

Did I mention that I spent a lot of time in those days contemplating blades and wrists?

I didn’t really contemplate them less as the summer wore on.

And the funny thing was, it was otherwise a great experience.

You know, otherwise than having my best chance at really bonding with The One totally blown, and having her walk around thinking I must be the jerk of jerks, and an ignoramus to boot on the one subject where I wasn’t, because Brian Wilson had produced a piece of music that put me past reason, put me on my honor to defend him as best I could in the strangest and most inconvenient conceivable circumstance.

But, of course, she did not stop being The One.

Not when I found out a day or two later that she was engaged (these things get broken off, don’t they?). Not when I barely saw her for weeks on end and found no chance whatsoever to speak with her at any length beyond hi-and-bye. Not when I joined the choir because I heard she was in it and it turned out I couldn’t get next to her because we were rehearsing a cantata and she had a speaking part and so was always at the front of the stage, separate and apart, even at practice.

Not when I found myself sitting next to her boyfriend on the bench at a softball game between innings, just past Summer’s midpoint, and somebody came up to him and asked him if it was true he and The One broke up and the boyfriend said yeah and I said, “Wow, you guys had been going together a long time hadn’t you?” and he said “Naw, I just met her the first week we got here.”

You know.

The week I was still back in Florida. Attending classes at the only college or ju-co system in the entire south that let out a week late.

Just in case you think this absurdist story has some sort of resolution or happy ending, or even an unhappy ending, you may rest easy.

The story that began with me believing The One was engaged, and therefore off-limits, even if the whole “I Get Around” episode hadn’t made things indisputably awkward, had no ending.

Too close to the end of the summer, I said, there on the bench, just past Summer’s midpoint.

Too much chance she, now on the rebound, would shoot me down for too little reward, I said (don’t forget the “I Get Around” incident).

Besides, hey, I only just left home for the first time. I’m all of eighteen. There’s lots of time.

Probably once you get away from home this happens on a pretty regular basis. I said.

The One. Hah!

I said.

So there was no ending, really. Just me watching her the rest of the summer. Watching her go through the motions. Watch her start skipping choir practice even though she was one of the key performers, while, I, of course, kept going, kept watching through windows and seeing her pop up in the distance, kept watching her wear, from that distance, the same mask of careful reserve, the same absolute determination to let no one know just how much trouble she was in, that I was wearing.

Watching her prove beyond all doubt that I wasn’t wrong that very first day when I looked her in the eyes and knew what we shared.

Watching her, knowing we could save each other if I made a move, if I dared to reveal myself. And then wondering if what we would really do was destroy each other, knowing what we shared.

I said.

So yes. I talked myself out of it–out of even approaching her.

But the one remaining time I got close to her by accident, I didn’t walk away. I didn’t leave.

Which was why the story never really ended.

Because all we ended up doing was sitting at a breakfast table, with maybe six other kids, maybe two weeks from Summer’s end and she said something and somebody else said something and she said something back and I, as I periodically did in those days, thought of something clever to say and went ahead and said it and everybody laughed really loud.

Everybody except The One.

The One’s head snapped around and she stared at me and what it sure looked like was the stare of somebody who knew she was looking at someone who was in the same kind of trouble she was in.

Somebody who could save her.

Or go down with her.

Two weeks to go in Summer.

It took me three whole days to talk myself out of going anywhere near her again.

Though if she had showed up at one more choir practice? If we’d still been having choir practice?

Then….maybe?

Maybe.

But probably not.

I was running scared by then. And time was short.

Maybe she wasn’t The One after all.

She never did get that thing about “I Get Around,” did she?

You could say I was very romantic and you’d probably be right. You could say it was no big deal. You could say it was kid’s stuff.

You could say you could never really know, on the basis of such thin reasoning and thinner experience, that she was The One.

You could say that.

But then I’d have to say this.

I never dated her, barely even spoke to her. I never married. And I never forgot her, the way I forgot everybody else.

And I never stopped hoping that she, too, somehow got past the trouble she was in. That she didn’t go down.

After which, I’d also have to say something like:

“You want to know how you know The One was The One?”

All of that happens. All of that I just described.

That’s how you know.

So, yeah, Brian Wilson owes me.

Big time.

I owe him more.

*   *   *   *

Maybe not my life. Maybe not quite.

It wasn’t his music I was listening to in 1984 when the clouds finally rolled away and I knew I was going to survive. It was somebody else.

Somebody he inspired pretty directly as it happened and maybe I’ll write about that some other day, too. But the point is, it could have been almost anybody who made music after a certain point because after a certain point almost everybody was inspired by him pretty directly.

Just going through my usual, general listening the day after I saw Love and Mercy in the theaters fpr the first time, I heard him in Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, the Beatles’ Revolver, all over Fleetwood Mac’s classic period, where, listening to acolyte Lindsey Buckingham’s version of “Farmer’s Daughter” on the disc of outtakes for Tusk, I was especially struck by how naturally it fit in with everything the band had done since Buckingham joined.

One could go on.

There are a lot of books on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, plus a number of documentaries. I haven’t read or seen every single one. But I’ve read and seen my share. All of those combined don’t come close to telling how much it cost to make that soul-saving music as Love and Mercy does.

That’s the film’s great achievement.

You could nitpick it as art, maybe even as craft.

When I saw it the first time, in my local theater, the sound system wasn’t working properly. The dialogue seemed to be coming out of one speaker, which was working fine, and the music was coming out of a second, damaged speaker, and barely audible.

Pretty big handicap that. Not being able to hear the music too well in a musical biopic about a man whose particular genius was hearing the world slightly differently than everyone else and whose life story was the struggle to both mediate and communicate that difference.

It didn’t matter, though. Not in the least.

That’s how good Love and Mercy is. With the foreground music (mostly by the Beach Boys themselves) almost inaudible, the background music completely so (as I found out a day later when I had a chance to see it in Birmingham, with a sound system that worked, and could actually hear the period music that lent depth and scope to several key scenes), and me wondering whether it was a stylistic choice meant to reflect Wilson’s near-deafness in one ear, the movie still left me overwhelmed, staggered even, unable to leave my seat until the ushers finally came through sweeping the trash.

So maybe Paul Giamatti’s evil psychiatrist is a little over the top, even for Eugene Landy. Maybe I wish the other band members (besides Mike Love, generally regarded as a heavy, who is well and sensitively represented here) could have played a slightly bigger role. Maybe the balance between Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, and his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter (played with a wonderful style of good old American can-do optimism by Elizabeth Banks), could have been a little more even. Maybe a few of the more conventional scenes do look a bit awkwardly expository and pedestrian sprinkled here and there amongst the sheer lyricism of the recording studio bits, the jolt of Wilson’s famous airplane breakdown (where Paul Dano manages to communicate real terror, the genuine spectre of death, in a circumstance where we know, as Brian Wilson did not in that moment, he’s going to survive and a moment the rest of Dano’s astounding performance has to measure itself against), or the dream-like disorientation of the late scenes where Dano’s baby-faced Boy-Man and John Cusack’s ravaged Man-Boy, finally fuse as one with a power and immediacy that’s only achievable on film, that, for once, uses the medium to go beyond the capacity of page or stage.

Like I say. Take all those maybes and throw them away.

Nit-picking.

And irrelevant.

The movie could be less good than it is–and, frankly, it’s remarkably good by even the usual standard–and still retain its power, as long as it kept its main ingredient, which is the triangulation of Dano, Cusack and Wilson himself, into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its considerable parts.

Yeah, I know how that sounds.

A movie that ain’t gonna clear 20 mil at the box office made Brian Wilson larger?

Brian Wilson!

Come on.

I’ll get to that.

But first, I better offer some assurance that I know at least a little bit…..

I know who the Beach Boys were/are (yeah, that really sets me apart).

I know they have a fan base that is even more curiously divided than the Beatles’ fan base when it comes to which version of the band matters most. (Shorthand–“I Get Around” or Pet Sounds).

And I know if you put a gun to my head, which side I come down on.

Not the side Love and Mercy celebrates as it happens. Those marvelous studio scenes involve Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” and not much else. My least favorite Beach Boys as it happens, which doesn’t mean I don’t love them, too.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter.

Because I also know these choices are pretty silly. Maybe the sillier the more intensely they are felt. I don’t know too many people who really love early “fun” Beach Boys (or Beatles) to the exclusion of what came later, or vice versa. And, if you really do put that gun to my head, I might just go ahead take Wild Honey over Pet Sounds or “I Get Around.”

Heck, on a given day, I might take, oh this:

or this

or this:

…All of which I now know are pieces of Brian’s story, written and sung, respectively, by Carl, Dennis and Carl again before those particular parts of that story actually came to pass and if they are pieces of Dennis’ and Carl’s stories, too, well, maybe that’s one of the things brothers are for and maybe sharing an abusive dad creates bonds that defy easy exegisis.

So I might indeed take any one of those, or any of a few dozen others, over any of what’s more generally and justly celebrated, in Love and Mercy or elsewhere.

On a given day.

Which goes to show just how underwhelming these debates can be.

Because me and pretty much every other real Beach Boys’ fan would fight you to the last breath before we gave up any of it and feel a hole in our departed souls forever if we lost even one song that doesn’t mean a rip to us personally.

So far so good. We’d do what any lovers would do for the art that sustained them. Good for us.

And I know a few things. Good for me.

But the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson also belong to that rare group of artists who matter far beyond any personal reaction to/relationship with you or I might have.

Which obvious statement having been made, it may now be worth reviewing just how their particular relevance came to pass.

It came to pass, in short, because between about the summer of 1962 and some time around the end of 1967, Brian Wilson had a run of creative and commercial success matched by few American artists in any medium before, during or since.

In five years, working with a series of collaborators, not one of whom ever came near matching the achievements they had with him in any other context, he wrote and/or produced (sometimes uncredited) thirteen studio albums (about half of which now routinely and deservedly rank with somebody or other’s version of the greatest ever) that yielded twenty-eight chart hits (most of which became instant and permanent radio staples).

As a producer, he was a legitimate rival of Phil Spector and the Motown giants. As a vocal arranger, his only peers were Smokey Robinson and John Phillips. As a falsetto tenor, he was in a league with Robinson and Frankie Valli. As a songwriter/composer he drew comparisons to everyone from Benjamin Britten to Duke Ellington all whilst being the main American push-back against John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with whom he managed a close run despite never having any collaborator who could do for him what they could do for each other.

He did all that while carrying the scars of severe parental abuse (from his father), deafness in one ear (which may or may not have been caused by that abuse), auditory hallucinations which wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for decades, the predilection for drug addiction that could probably be deemed inevitable with such a background, and, oh yeah, the likelihood that the already tenuous aspects of this little psychic collective would be made manifest when an accident of geography and the sheer enormity of his talent placed him in a spot his basic personality was spectacularly unsuited to deal with, i.e., at the epicenter of “Los Angeles in the Sixties.”

Not to mention a band that wanted to keep having hits while he was pursuing his ever more elusive muse. Hits they could play in front of the live audiences who would pay the bills, call the radio stations, keep the legacy alive.

You want to make a movie that enlarges that legacy, you have to go some.

Love and Mercy goes some.

It escapes the boundaries of whatever might have been rationally excepted , because, using two actors who look nothing alike, jumping back and forth in time from the eighties to the sixties in a style that certainly flirts with incoherence, it turns Brian Wilson into something no version of his real self ever quite managed, which is to say a Character.

However close they remain to the facts–and Love and Mercy is, by most accounts, pretty darn faithful–bio-narratives, be they film or some other fiction, are never really about those facts. They’re about the story. They’re about the story the same way Brian Wilson’s music is about the sound.

Not the lyrics (or the dialogue), however relevant they are. Not the music (or the plot), no matter how idiosyncratically brilliant, or transcendently familiar, it may be.

The SOUND…and the Story.

Love and Mercy is what it is because it gets the supreme relevance of its story the same way the man it’s about got the supreme relevance of his sound.

And what the film makes abundantly clear, finally unmissable, is that the music Brian Wilson once made did indeed define certain aspects of our cultural psyche that would otherwise beg definition. Yes, the Southern California division of the American Dream. Yes, the “California Myth.”

Yes, Summer.

All of that.

But not just that.

Any Beach Boys’ fan who ever listened at all closely (and it’s one measure of Wilson’s genius that you could genuinely love the band without doing so, that the experience of smiling every time they come on the radio and leaving it at that, is no less valid, no less definitive, than dropping acid while you listen to your bootleg copy of Smile, or, if you like SMiLE), knows that summer, as Brian Wilson defined it, was really two seasons.

Summer…and End of Summer.

He didn’t take forever to lay down the distinction.

His first top ten hit was this…where it’s always the first of June:

His second top ten was this…

…Where it’s always the first of October.

Over time, certainly over the entire stretch of the Beach Boys’ ride at the top, Summer and End of Summer would bleed into each other, become almost inextricable in the collective imagination.

And, because Brian Wilson was who he was–because his End of Summer was bound to finally dominate his Summer, hit after hit, permanant radio classic after permanent radio classic–his End of Summer became our End of Summer.

Love and Mercy catches that quality like nothing else I’ve read or seen. Like nothing except Wilson’s own music, which this movie really does makes larger because, consciously or otherwise, it places his life and work–a life and work that were hardly unfamiliar to those most eager to see this movie–in that larger context, leaves him not just any Character, but a Character in a story that’s bigger than either artist or audience could ever be while that Character (which is, finally, related to, but not bound by, Wilson’s actual life) was yet undefined.

There’s no way I can overstate the improbability of this.

The director, Bill Pohlad, is no proven auteur. It’s his second feature as director (he’s an accomplished producer). His first, two decades back, was a flop. Paul Dano was evidently previously known for playing heavies (as someone who doesn’t see a lot of modern movies, I confess I’d never heard of him). John Cusack has, by all accounts and every piece of evidence I’ve seen, been coasting for years. Brian Wilson himself has been written and talked about, endlessly, obsessively, some might say far beyond the normal constraints of mere sycophancy, going all the way back to the Sixties, without ever being remotely pinned down or having his edges truly defined.

And without all those people somehow landing on the same page at once, none of the movie’s other strengths–a uniformly excellent cast (just because Giamatti’s over the top doesn’t mean he isn’t genuinely scary, though nowhere near as scary as Bill Camp’s finely wrought banality as Murry Wilson, the father who would rather choke on a thousand bones than accept that his son is better than he is at the only thing he himself was ever any good at), a strong, poignant script, a deep feel for the physical and emotional details of two periods that, in the real world, were actually made for the express purpose of rejecting each other and forcing a choice between Summer and False Summer, a choice we’ve never quite been up to making–would really matter.

As it lays, with the essentials firmly in place, everything in Love and Mercy reinforces everything else. The memory of the movie’s flaws, whatever I think they are, are already, after two viewings, flowing around and through and over the overwhelming memory of its strengths, in the same way a cut that would never work on its own suits a great album because it simply….fits.

As to what no filmmaker–and no genius seeking form for his life, even in an era he helped define–could ever arrange?

That’s easy.

We live in America.

In America, the Sixties one day became the Eighties.

And, in America, the Eighties never ended.

Summer became End of Summer. And since End of Summer never ended, Spring isn’t going to come around anymore.

Neither is Summer.

So this Summer, you can sit in a movie theater and watch Paul Dano define the spirit of the young man who is terrified, more than anything else, of becoming the older, irreparably damaged man John Cusack finally knows, in a climactic scene that’s genuinely heartbreaking and somehow simultaneously cathartic, as though he’s finally accepted he’s taken the world’s last punch and is still standing, can never re-capture what he once was.

All he can do is face the worst and live his life.

Maybe with the help of The One who found him in a car dealership.

Which is, of course, how it worked out in “real life.” (And, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I don’t know what Melinda Ledbetter looked like in the eighties, but if she looked anything like Elizabeth Banks in tan jeans and an uber-coordinated sweater, she might have given anybody second thoughts about having The One be anyone but her.)

All great for Brian Wilson.

No one could be other than terrifically relieved and genuinely happy that he, too, made it through. That against very long odds–odds that took so many of his contemporaries and both of his brothers–he got to live his life.

But that’s not why Love and Mercy is a great movie. Not because it shows that, too, and let’s us share that happiness and relief.

It’s a great movie because, in its bones, it knows what the scared kid who ruled L.A., the loci of our last great romance with ourselves, at the last moment when that was worth anything, knew all along.

Summer is short.

The End of Summer, when it comes, is forever.

So no, I haven’t forgotten what happened in the Summer of 1979.

I haven’t forgotten that Brian Wilson owes me.

But, there’s something else Love and Mercy helped me remember.

It helped me remember that he warned me, too.

He warned all of us. And assured us the storm could be endured.

Eventually, some of us, even me, learned to listen. And most of us survived the trouble we were in.

You can’t put a price on that.

 

LAST GENTLEMAN STANDING (Patrick MacNee, R.I.P.)

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Even when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, it was no longer given that there would always be an England.

I had a sneaking suspicion there might always be a Patrick MacNee.

Now that he really is gone it is, of course, a sad day for his family and friends. But it’s also a bit of a sad day for anyone who cherished the existence of a certain sense of style.

Not that it was any way common back when, but the sort of ease McNee carried around in his bones isn’t merely uncommon now. It’s gone.

He did other things, naturally, including a Bond movie where they had to kill him as quickly as possible to keep any semblance of order and both Holmes and Watson (the latter opposite the lately departed Christopher Lee in a couple of TV movies). But  he was John Steed before and after he was anything else and no actor has ever been more identified with a single part.

And of course it wasn’t really him. Hard to imagine Steed being tossed out of Eton for making book and selling dirty pictures, as MacNee was.

But there was a piece of him in it somewhere. Steed’s knowing air and flexible, but finally impenetrable, mix of charm and distance might well have belonged to a man who missed D-Day because of a bout of bronchitis to be  later informed that everyone else in his unit was lost.

Somehow, out of that, he forged a genuinely memorable and iconic character, more English than James Bond could ever be, and more modern than even the most brilliant reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes imaginable.

And his most remarkable gift on screen (who knows if it carried to “real” life), was his easy chemistry with an astonishing string of lovelies who got younger and younger while he stayed…out of reach.

We’re used to a different sort of leading man now. Fine actors, sure. Likeable presences, sure. But George Clooney has achieved the kind of chemistry MacNee had, week after week, with Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Joanna Lumley, exactly once and that was because Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight burned so hot she could have put a twinkle in a pair of eyes painted on a rubber plant. Russell Crowe got it once, too, in Proof of Life, but it took a ruinous method-style affair with Meg Ryan to get there. Brad Pitt? Well he had it once, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I think we all know how that turned out and he’s been walking about with a glazed look on his face ever since.

One could go on. And one could argue that MacNee, as Steed, never had to actually consummate those longing, corner-of-the-eye looks his leading ladies were forever throwing at his genial profile or perfectly-tailored back.

But that’s the hardest kind of electricity to generate, let alone sustain across nearly two decades on television with four very different women.

And if you can’t make it look easy, you can’t do it at all.

How improbable was the achievement?

Well, pick the leading man of your choice, born after, say, 1960.

Then ask if they could ever, in a thousand years, pull this off. Or if future-Dame Diana (to say nothing of Emma Peel), would have really stood it from anybody else:

PATRICKMCNEE2

For him, it was just another day at the office.

So yeah, I joke around here some times and say, “Goodbye us.” Well, half-joke anyway.

But today, at least, I can say with a perfectly straight face that it really is goodbye to a little piece of us.

Here’s hoping it won’t be too badly missed next time D-Day rolls around.

“FOR US, RECORDING WAS CHURCH” (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #49)

It’s been a week straight from the hot place so I apologize for the slow posting. Kidney stone, car’s AC went out (Florida, June, most fun you can have, etc.), behind at work…life’s usual rewards.

Short version of the weekend: The trip to Birmingham was long and tiresome but well worth it. I’ll have plenty to say about Love and Mercy (which I got to see a second time, this time in a theater which took me an hour and half to find but, unlike the one back here at home, did have a working sound system) and To Kill a Mockingbird (which I had seen a dozen or more times on VHS and DVD over the years and, as it turned out, never really seen at all) at some point or other.

One thing that happened on the way back was I had a chance to listen to the Beach Boys’ old box set from the nineties straight through and was struck, even more forcefully than usual, by how much R&B there was in their sound from beginning to end, and how good they were at incorporating it into a lot of other things and coming out with something uniquely their own.

I was also struck, during my wanderings on the internet of late in pursuit of whatever’s being said about Brian’s lovely biopic, just how little this gets mentioned.

So I was especially glad to come across this eighties’ era interview with Carl Wilson, where, despite a less than ideal setting or interviewer, he had a lot of intriguing things to say, including a great deal about just how much 50’s R&B in particular impacted the Wilson boys when they were growing up. It’s by far the longest, most in-depth interview I’ve ever seen with him..

And in case you want to hear how easily he incorporated all that, here’s the first important lead vocal he recorded on the way to becoming the finest singer any harmony group was ever blessed to call its own.

There’s always going to be a piece of me that will never accept him being gone:

 

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Short Take: Love and Mercy)

I don’t have time right now to write about the new Brian Wilson biopic at length. On the basis of several raves on the internet from people I trust, I had made up my mind to see it in a theater and that decision tipped me into a weekend trip to Birmingham (where I knew it was playing) tomorrow and Sunday.

Of course, since I went ahead and planned the trip (don’t worry, there’s a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Alabama Theater just ahead of Harper Lee’s upcoming “prequel” which already had me leaning that direction…I don’t go off entirely half-cocked) Love and Mercy showed up in Tallahassee today.

I went to see it in order to save myself the trouble of searching out the theater in Birmingham.

Let’s just say I’m going to be searching out that theater anyway.

I’ll also be writing about the movie–and my history with the Beach Boys–at length. Maybe some time next week, when I can get my head at least partially around the experience I already had and the one I hope to repeat tomorrow evening.

One thing I can say off the cuff, though.

I’ve held a theory for about thirty years that a certain song was Brian’s version of “Hellhound on My Trail,” and I’m happy to report that I now have the best new movie I’ve seen in a theater in I don’t even know how long to back me up.

Nice to know, even if, in the context of the movie itself, it’s just part of a much, much larger narrative. So, meanwhile, for laughs…sort of:

 

THE WOUNDS STILL BLEED…(Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #14)

My town’s local R&B station features America’s greatest dee-jay, Joe Bullard. That’s 96.1 Jamz in Tallahassee, FL, in case anyone ever wants to check him out.

Days like today he’s part minister, though, even on a day like today, I’ve never once heard him preach. He let’s the subtlest shift of tone in his usual patter do some of the work.

He let’s the music do the rest.

So, driving around doing errands this morning, the first piece of music I heard after I heard the news from Charleston was from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

Bear in mind there was a time when Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed and others crossed over the American Pop Charts. Then hear me when I say this is the deepest blues singing to ever crease those charts, however briefly.

Triple deep in fact because it’s a collective.

The wordless, knife-in-the-heart falsetto is by Lloyd Parks, the long monologue by Melvin himself.

The lead is Teddy Pendergrass, about whom I had this to say a little while back.

And here as there, it’s not the words (which are about something else entirely). It’s not even the music.

It’s the sound. The sound of mourning and, today, there was no sound to match it. Certainly not the babble coming from talk and news stations. It made a difference.

But you do have to wonder how long we can go on healing and patching before we bleed out.

 

HEY, THERE’S ACTUAL PROOF I DIDN’T JUST START DEFENDING POP YESTERDAY (Memory Lane: 2006)

Terry Teachout (who can be followed on the “About Last Night” link in the blogroll) has a feature he calls Lookback, wherein he revisits posts of yesteryear. A day or so ago, he re-posted something from 2006 which can be found here.

If you follow the link inside the link you can read the whole piece from back when. Just FYI, the reader he is quoting is yours truly (which gives me a  feeling akin to something Steven Rubio–who can also be followed in the blogroll–has written about lately, wherein one goes looking for references or simply starts looking around….and runs into oneself).

Regarding Terry’s piece, I think any regular reader of this blog knows where I stand on the high/low/middlebrow thing. As in, I don’t think it means anything at all. It happens the song in question, Abba’s “SOS,” has always reached me. It reached me even in the days when I didn’t like much of anything else they did and it was probably the reason I kept coming back to them until quite a bit more actually sank in.

And it reaches me now. I like Terry’s picks for other not-so-guilty pleasures and really appreciate his thoughtful respons, but I’m not sure he got my main point (my fault, because I sort of danced around the subject).

What I really should have said was that I thought “SOS” was great and didn’t need even the slightest qualification or apology.

I still don’t.

And I swear on a stack of bibles I don’t care what Aggy’s wearing. No need to take my eye Lord. With me, it’s all about the music!

 

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #7: The Impressions–The Vintage Years, 1976)

vintageimpressions2

Modernity brings us a lot of nice things and preserves a lot of other nice things.

It doesn’t preserve everything…or get everything just right all the time.

That picture above is the best I could find on the net of the classic compilation released on vinyl in 1976 by Sire Records (who did similar comps on a number of other acts around that time).

Most record junkies and list makers have their “go to” album. Call it the greatest, the best, your favorite, your “desert island” disc, the “one you’d save if the house caught on fire.” Whatever.

This one’s mine and neither it nor any close equivalent has been released on CD.

Like I say, lots of nice things are preserved. But not everything.

I’m not crying. If I really want to, I can collect up all the music on this record from various digital sources, load them on my computer and put them on a disc myself with the running order preserved. Not quite the same, of course, but at least the purely musical part of the experience can be recreated at home.

The only thing that would be lost is the psychic experience. The connection to my own past and the role this or any record with it’s own history plays in it.

Hardly the biggest deal in the world in and of itself. But I wonder if the small things (and I’d hardly call this the smallest), aren’t representative of something larger.

The Vintage Years isn’t on CD. No big deal

The record store where I bought it moved. No big deal.

The record store where I bought it moved from a hole in the wall next to a bowling alley (circa 1981) to bigger hole in the wall halfway across town (next to a hole in the wall book store, circa 1985) then moved to a giant warehouse down the street (the book store moved to a still bigger hole in wall halfway across town in the other direction, circa some time in the 1990’s). No big deal.

The record store went out of business five or six years back. No big deal.

The book store went out of business last year. No big deal.

They haven’t been replaced. And they won’t be.

No big deal.

We still got the internet. Better deals anyway. Amazon, E-Bay, Gemm.com.

Time moves on. Heck, if you read about something now, say the way I read about The Vintage Years in 1980 (in Dave Marsh and John Swenson’s original Rolling Stone Record Guide, the one with the red cover as it happens), you don’t have to spend three or four (or ten or twenty) years looking for a playable, affordable copy. You can just look it up. If somebody in the world doesn’t have it this week, somebody in the world will probably have it next week.

In any case, it’s not really likely you’ll have to wait three or four years.

Or flip through piles of used record bins.

Or wonder if what you’ll hear when you finally do track it down will really be worth  the wait.

If it will hit you like this when you do whatever the modern equivalent of dropping the needle is:

And then take you on a journey from this:

to this…

to this…

to this…

to this…

Because, of course, now you can just go on YouTube, or come to somebody’s clever little website. If you’re really interested you can probably pull up every single song and sample it for free.

Take the mystery out of the thing.

Believe me, this is not entirely a bad thing. It’s probably not even mostly a bad thing.

But it’s not entirely a good thing either.

Because there’s no way you can surf the net and re-create what it’s like to walk out of grocery store and see somebody has opened a little hole in the wall record shop in the Winn Dixie strip mall, in a space about as big as your efficiency apartment, and walk in there and realize the guy is not only selling stuff you’ve only heard about but selling it for three, four, five bucks apiece.

And you can’t therefore know what it’s like to have one of the very first things you find in that store be The Impressions: The Vintage Years, an album which, when you get it home and slide it on your cheap-o turntable, will discover crosses fifteen years and five distinct phases of three brilliant careers (not just the doo-wop and soul years of the Impressions, but the two major phases of Jerry Butler’s solo career and the beginning of Curtis Mayfield’s) so seamlessly they constitute a mind-blowing journey from the street corner where Mayfield,  Butler, and their mates, figuratively if not literally, conceived both “Your Precious Love” and a way out of the lives History had assigned for them in the late fifties, to a doomed junkie running scared in the seventies as Mayfield, now alone, literally if not figuratively, sings “Freddie’s on the corner now, you want to be a junkie wow, remember Freddie’s dead,” and first circumscribes, then transports, the pain and fear from a life that might have easily been his if he hadn’t once upon a time happened to find his own genius on that same street corner or one so much like it the difference hardly matters.

In the New Gilded Age that came after (soon accompanied by the New Jim Corw, the New Puritanism, the New Dada, et al), all this music is far more readily available, the world over. There are better and fuller compilations of any one of those five “phases” I mentioned. I’ve got them. I listen to them. I even wrote about one of them at length. And, to tell the truth, my very favorite Impressions’ record isn’t even on this particular album:

But there’s no single shared experience that’s quite the same as this vinyl comp that’s unlikely to ever be reproduced for the modern age…Nothing, for my money, quite as satisfying, quite as simultaneously uplifting and gut-wrenching as The Impressions: The Vintage Years.

I’m mostly glad I don’t have to spend years tracking things down. Really I am.

But there are some experiences I wouldn’t trade.

LONERS (Monthly Book Report: May, 2015)

[NOTE: There was actually a good bit more May reading. I’ve already posted my review of Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues. I also read the sixth book in the Travis McGee series thinking it was the fifth so I’ll review both next month. Also working my way through the Library of America’s Ross MacDonald volume which I hope to review for BWW later in the month. With all that, the regular book report is a little slim but a couple of worthwhile entries nonetheless.]

Shane (Jack Schaefer, 1949)

SHANE

“His past was fenced as tightly as our pasture.”

I read this as a teenager, long before I first saw the classic film it inspired and was duly impressed. As someone who went away for a while and “came back” to the western years later (I always watched some films, but not nearly enough to understand the genre properly, and stopped reading them almost entirely), I’m more impressed now.

Even more than that very great movie (which, remarkably, improved it in some ways) Shaefer’s finely wrought novel is an elegant blend of cowboy, homesteader and gunfighter history and mythology, told sparingly and without fuss by one of those adult-narrators-recalling-childhood who, like Scout Finch or Mattie Ross, is entirely, even disarmingly, honest, but, at such a distance, perhaps not entirely reliable.

These days it’s also striking in part for how much was taken for granted in 1948 that now seems sufficiently ancient as to be biblical:

 “They had the stump way up at a high angle. They were down in the hole, one on each side of it, pushing up and forward with hands flat on the under part reared before them higher than their heads. You would have thought the stump was ready to topple over clear of its ancient foundation. But there it stuck. They could not quite push it the final inches.

“Mother watched them battling with it. ‘Joe,’ she called, ‘why don’t you use some sense? Hitch up the team. Horses will have it out in no time at all.’

“Father braced himself to hold the stump still. He turned his head to look at her. ‘Horses!’ he shouted. All the pent silence of the two of them that long afternoon through was being shattered in the one wonderful shout. ‘Horses! Great jumping Jehosephat! No! We stared this with manpower, and by Godfrey, we’ll finish it with manpower.'”

Not to mention the simple description of the quintessential American…

“Nobody’ll push him around or scare him away.”

Now vanished of course. Good riddance to some, and maybe he never really existed. It’s a fable after all. But it may be worth remembering that the idea of him once existed. And that it’s only very lately we’ve convinced ourselves he’s no longer necessary….

Shaefer’s narrator, speaking from a point somewhere between the novel’s publication date and the age of its setting, seems already well aware of the distinction between myth and memory and the ways in which each anticipates the other:

“A haze of thinning smoke was by the ceiling over them all, floating in involved streamers around the hanging lamps. This was Grafton’s saloon in the flush of a banner evening’s business. But something was wrong, was missing. The hum of activity, the whirr of voices, that should have risen from the scene, been part of it, was stilled in a hush more impressive than any noise could be. The attention of everyone in the room, like a single sense, was centered on that dark figure just inside the swinging doors, back to them and touching them.

“This was the Shane of the adventures I had dreamed for him…”

That last is a nice corrective for those who think those old guys who translated western myth and, yes, western history, for the new and improved twentieth century didn’t know what they were about.

The Quick Red Fox (John D. MacDonald–1964)

QUICKREDFOX

Fourth in the Travis McGee series, which I’m planning to reread in its entirety in the coming months.

Remarkably, this was MacDonald’s fourth McGee book in the space of a year and, knowing him, he probably had a couple of others out as well. The pace tells a bit here. There are certain things you have to leave by the wayside if you type that fast.

That said, so far, these books have all been rewarding well beyond the already considerable pleasures of top level pulp aesthetics that make them hum right along.

This one puts McGee among the Hollywood elite, searching for a blackmailer who has photos of a famous actress (Liz Taylor famous apparently, though the character doesn’t seem based on anyone in particular) taking part in an orgy.

No big deal now, of course, when the only problem would be managing the roll-out and the publicity leaks. But, 1964 being almost as long ago as 1864 in psychic time, that sort of thing was, in those days, still a scandal that could have wrecked a career.

McGee, though, is certainly done with all that “Shane” stuff. Having a series to maintain, more books to sell, a new mythology to peddle, he scoffs at the notion that a man who can’t or won’t fit into ordinary life may be missing out on something:

“I am not a nine to five animal. I cannot swallow the myths which say nine to five is a Good Thing because that’s the way nearly everybody else gets stuck.”

Four books in and I already know that when McGee starts talking like that–like he’s left the “myths” behind–he’s a few chapters away from being in love with “the one.”

In this case it’s the actress’s secretary and this time he swears (repeatedly, to himself and to us) it’s not just sex therapy.

Of course, I also know it’s not going to work out somehow or other and the way it doesn’t work out in this one isn’t quite as effective as the way it didn’t work out in The Deep Blue Good-by. It works well enough but not so well I didn’t start wishing he (or his creator) would leave well enough alone.

Too bad, because the plot is otherwise lean and tough, the social insights sharp as usual. There’s an especially nice paean to San Francisco, in 1964, already “lost” as it has continued to be for somebody or other every few years since.

And there’s this, an ode to the future we now inhabit:

“Our dear Uncle owns over 23,000 polygraphs. Lie detectors. God alone knows how many industry owns. Not satisfied anymore with giving you the whole series of Multiphasic Personality Inventory tests, they want to make damn well certain you are not merely giving them the answers you think they want.”

And, okay, I have to admit, even the romance isn’t without its familiar charms:

“I liked Dana’s delight….I knew I had to watch it, or I would be trapped into the hopeless project of trying to find ways to delight her.”

So even the least of these so far (replete I should add, with the contempt for the bourgeoisie shared by every thriller writer I know except Ross MacDonald and, I suspect, the true reason “crime” fiction is held in so much higher regard than its “western” equivalent), is satisfying on multiple levels.

All that, plus a theory of “the one percent” that beats anything Occupy Wall Street came up with.

Can’t wait for 1965 to get here!

BOOK REPORT SPECIAL EDITION (Outlaw Blues)

Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:

OUTLAWBLUES

Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)

If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.

Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.

It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:

“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)

to incisive:

“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)

to self-deprecating:

“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.

“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)

to fervent:

“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)

or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:

“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)

Now, If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, well he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.

I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.

That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.

You might call that seeing around the corner.

In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh from the front line, takes.

I also found hindsight even more than usually useful.

I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation, probably affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.

Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.

In one sense those piece were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.

All that said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.

Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.

Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting himself.

Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.

But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:

“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”

Believe me, few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.

Nobody writes like that now.

Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.