MY FAVORITE POST-MILLENNIAL TELEVISION SHOW (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Medium (2005-2011)

…or, as I like to call it, Purgatorio.

I mentioned a while back that my favorite television show is The Rockford Files and there’s no real second. On an All-Time basis, that will always be true.

On the narrow basis of the new millennium though, my favorite show is Medium. And, again, there’s no real second.

It should be pretty obvious from those selections that I’m not especially enamored of the “narrative” shows that have come to dominate critically approved television since the dawn of The Sopranos.

Never fear. I’m used to being at odds with my fellow Earthlings. And if there’s one element that lifts Medium well above other recent shows I like, follow and write about (mostly Homeland and The Americans), it’s the unusual and serious degree to which is does not take Civilization for granted.

Even so, Medium should not work. It shouldn’t work in general and it really shouldn’t work on me.

It’s a mix of genres to which, taken individually, I’ve shown a lifetime of indifference, and, taken as a whole, tend to mutually repel each other–horror, paranormal, law and order, family drama, kitchen sink humor. Many of the elements within those genres that normally send me off to do the laundry or plot grisly murders are present in force: holes in logic, normalization of gore, the long-suffering teenager, the inquisitive child, the bickering couple.

And yet….

This time, on this show, it all works.

Some of it is the lead actress, who I prefer to call by her right title: The Unimpeachable Patricia Arquette. I watched a few shows with a friend of mine once and, in about Season One, Episode Three, he pointed at her on the screen and said “She’s frustrating!”

Exactly.

You know, like a real person in your life.

I could have looked at my friend (or any friend) and said “I often feel the same way about you.” And all of my friends could say the same of me. This is the only show I’ve ever watched where the cast (as opposed to a likeable lead, James Garner maybe) feel like friends. Sofia Vassilieva, twelve-playing-ten when the show began, eighteen-playing-sixteen when it ended, got both the teen wannabe and the actual teenager just right. Jake Weber got the put-upon husband just right (and boy, it’s hard to be more put-upon than having three daughters who are all psychics and the mom they got it from constantly awakened by nightmares of brutal murders which she feels compelled to solve in a manner that relies more on relentless will than careful detection). Maria Lark was a flat-out miracle as the inquisitive child. The rest of the cast was spot on as well. High profile guest stars like Arliss Howard and Anjelica Huston (in recurring roles), or Rosanna Arquette and Kelsey Grammer (in inspired one-offs) never felt like stunt casting.

It all worked and it all worked from the first episode.

Throw in better-than-good writing and the consummation of an idea which has dominated television for a decade-and-a-half now–a crazy white woman is what stands between us and chaos!–and you have high quality entertainment guaranteed as a baseline.

But Medium goes a bit beyond that. It poses–by accident or intent I can’t say–interesting questions.

What does it say about us that the best depiction of modern American normalcy on television in the new century, if not the history of the medium (no pun intended), shows a family of psychics (based on a real life model), where Mom spends her nights dreaming of horrible death and her days stalking the killers, while her daughters work out whether its ethical to pick the answers to homework math problems from normal Dad’s temptingly available head?

Nothing entirely good I suspect. But nothing entirely bad either. And a post-millennial show that offers some sort of hope in the madness is no small thing. After all, what really makes Homeland and The Americans (and, I suppose all those other quality shows I’m always hearing about) compelling is that, under all the effort at preservation on display, it’s the real message that resonates.

We’re screwed.

With Medium it’s….more complicated.

Hence Purgatorio.

In this show, the focus is on the living. But the drama resides with the dead.

And what the dead are seeking when they seek out Allison DuBois, is, if not redemption, then at least resolution. She doesn’t get visited by those who pass quietly in their beds. She gets visited by murder victims. And there are an awful lot of them.

Underneath the occasional bows to formula (even this premise can’t be endlessly inventive in an episodic format), and the pressing concerns of every day life, accurately, annoyingly, joyfully portrayed, what never wears smooth over seven seasons is the constant presence of violent death in the most ordinary suburban setting. Allison DuBois’s head is a war-zone.

Phoenix, with it’s built-in dynamics of immigration, drugs, sunlight, desert air, is an inspired setting even if it’s just by virtue of being the real Allison Dubois’s hometown. It’s normalcy with an edge, the kind of edge that has always existed in border towns when the border is in dispute as our southern border has periodically been and certainly is now.

But what makes the show compelling for me whenever I revisit it at length (as I’ve been doing recently) is the nagging conscience of Civilization, the search for order that seems to lean Catholic (I have no idea whether DuBois or the show’s creators are religious, only that religion’s concerns are, for once, represented as human concerns) but can’t quite get a grip in the modern sunlight.

Nor can it be dismissed. Every day in Medium, like every day in the “real” world, the sun goes down. Allison’s crazy dreams haunt a present that has been designed to dispel them. The character’s dogged will is that of a Crusader, a will that could only be produced by a religious impulse–when it annoys us, we call it fanaticism, when it frightens us, we burn people at stakes–even if no particular faith is espoused.

So underneath all the lovely writing and wonderful acting and skillful appropriation of ancient dread for a modern setting, the real heartbeat of Medium is the nagging, frustrating truth that animates all worthwhile art, serious or popular:

Without Meaning, there is no Life.

[NOTE: I have no idea whether the real life Allison Dubois is an actual physic or whether psychics really exist. I also have no interest in knowing. The key to any good show is whether it works on its own terms. By that measure, Medium works wonderfully well.]

MY FAVORITE “ANYTIME” MOVIES….BY DECADE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Some time in the distant past when I used to listen to sports talk radio (and boy is that time getting to be distant), I heard a segment where a bunch of junior noncoms in the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade opined about movies they could literally sit down and watch anytime.

The DBCCB being what it is, Die Hard came up a lot.

Nothing against Die Hard, which I like, but I always thought I could do better ….so, being, as they say, snobby but not runny snobby:

The Thirties:

Carefree (1939, D. Mark Sandrich)

As many have noted, more a screwball comedy than a musical. As not enough have noted, a first class screwball comedy. And while it may not be a musical, strictly speaking, it does have Ginger doing “The Yam,” my favorite five minutes of film. My second favorite five minutes is Ginger, hypnotized, running loose with a shotgun, muttering “Shoot him down like a dirty dog!” while Luella Gear explains to Jack Carson that  “It’s probably one of the silly rules.”

The Forties:

Colorado Territory (1949, D. Raoul Walsh)

Walsh’s superior remake of his own High Sierra, the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star. It’s easier to have sympathy for a western outlaw than a modern sociopath (even if the sociopath has had the rough edges smoothed away for the box office). Joel McCrea’s at his very best as a man looking for a second chance in the same wrong place he lost the first one, and VIrginia Mayo makes for one fetching half-breed. Plus it’s a heist flick, always a plus in my book.

The Fifties:

Rear Window (1954, D. Alfred Hitchcock)

Top drawer Hitchcock of course. It’s not so much remembered now, but this sat in the vaults for decades before being restored and re-released to theaters in the eighties. I took my mom to see it and, every time Grace Kelly came on the screen she would murmur, “Isn’t she so-o-o-o-o-o beautiful!” I could hardly disagree, but I thought I would go back a week or two later and watch it by myself, just to see what it was like without the sound effects. Met a girl from work in the lobby and, since we were both there by ourselves, it would have been rude not to sit together. First time Grace Kelly came on the screen: “Isn’t she so-o-o–o-o beautiful!” Interestingly enough, we spent the time before the movie mostly talking about a girl in our office who actually was the only woman I’ve ever known who was as beautiful as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and had just quit to move back to Orlando. I found out a year or so later that she had wanted to date me, in part because I was the kind of guy who took his mother to the movies….Oh, wait. You thought I was gonna talk about the movie? Come on. You know about the movie. Hitchcock’s serious side and his comic side, perfectly married. That’s the movie.

The Sixties:

El Dorado (1967, D. Howard Hawks)

This is probably my all-time “anytime” movie. It’s a not-that-loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which everybody, including me, knows is “superior.” But there’s nothing in Rio Bravo I’d trade for the hour in the middle when John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are just a couple of roughnecks trying to keep law and order in a cowtown while Wayne keeps seizing up from the effects of a bullet in his back and Mitchum–with so little polish on him you can smell the whiskey, if not the vomit–is trying to dry out in time to dodge the next bullet. And if that’s not entertaining enough, I can always sit and ponder the mysteries of a universe where Michele Carey could smoke that many holes in the screen and fail to become a star.

The Seventies:

The Rockford Files: Season Four, Episode 8, “Irving the Explainer” (1977, D. James Coburn)

Not a movie. Okay, but there’s enough plot for three movies and it never gets resolved or leaves you wishing it would. People ask me what my favorite television series is and I say The Rockford Files. People ask me what my second favorite television series is and I say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”  Pick to click:  “Let me get this straight: You have a client who has the same name as Herman Goering’s house?”

The Eighties:

Midnight Run (1988, D. Martin Brest)

Way funnier than Die Hard, and the action sequences are no sillier. I’m not sold on Robert De Niro’s serious mode. (The whole Brando school leaves me…bemused.) But there’s never been a better comic actor. Not even Cary Grant. Matched here by the entire cast, including Charles Grodin, who I can usually take only in the smallest doses.

The Nineties:

Wag the Dog (1997, D. Barry Levinson)

Preston Sturges for the Age of the Security State and a road movie to boot. We forget. That’s the only explanation for a world where this movie exists and you still have people running around crediting the CIA–or, better yet, “the intelligence community”–as a reliable source. Comic genius from Dustin Hoffman, the aforementioned Mr. De Niro and Anne Heche, as the Girl Friday from both Heaven (oh, the efficiency) and Hell (she doesn’t care the job or the master, she just wants to serve someone and, buddy, you better be it).

The Current Millenia:

I know we are in the second decade of the new millennia, but it hasn’t been the sort of millennia that produces a lot of things worth revisiting. Forget two, I’m surprised there’s one.

Knight and Day (2010 D. James Mangold)

That’s the whole movie right there. Two people who are amazed by each other. One’s a superspy and the other likes to work on cars. Guess which is which? This is almost enough to make me forgive James Mangold for his wretched remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Almost.

MY FAVORITE WESTERN THEME (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Movies only…we’ll leave this, by a long ways the best TV western theme, aside…

..and stick to the cinema entries.

First, a little history:

Narration: Though High Noon opened to universal praise in late July, 1952, one of its early previews has proved disastrous. 

Fred Zinneman, Jr.: What was wrong with the preview was that there was wall-to-wall music in it and what people were responding to was the amount of music. After it was over, people–all the executives–were forming into little groups, whispering, and I just went into the bathroom, where two other executives were, and I heard one of them say to the other, “Well, what does a European Jew know about making westerns anyway?”

From Inside High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Frank Langella, narration)

Stanley Kramer:  He (Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn) said “What difference does it make? So I ran it. It’s a piece of junk anyway”

Narration: Now, in fairness to Harry Cohn, the print that he saw of High Noon was missing a crucial element: music. You don’t have to be an expert to know how much music can add to a movie. But in this case the music was so unusual, so revolutionary, in fact, for its time, it added a whole dimension to the picture. Most movies of the 1950s opened with a fanfare, a big orchestra. Here’s what you heard at the beginning of High Noon…as spare and low-key as the film itself:

(From The Making of High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Leonard Maltin, narration)

Not that those sometimes fanfares went away entirely….either from not so famous movies…

or extremely famous ones…

Or that you couldn’t split the difference:

Still, the makers of High Noon–having gone with too little music and too much–were onto something when they found the right mix. In the western, at least, vocals added something.

But there were only a few great ones. Some spare and low-key, some operatic.

And some of them didn’t make it to the movie. Well, one of them anyway:

Sometimes, a shoulda’ been didn’t make the movie either…

…that’s from the cutting floor of Rio Bravo, which, if it’s missed, is not as missed as it might have been, thanks to what is there.

This couldn’t have been a theme, exactly….

But this actually was…(well, a piece of it was, anyway)

So you can see (or hear), where they might have had a hard time choosing. And why they had a high bar to meet when they “remade” it (fanfare and all)…

And, by the late sixties, there was even at least one instance of a theme that blossomed out into a soundtrack (i.e., an ongoing ballad that ran through the whole movie, with endlessly witty variations, the gist of which are barely hinted at up front):

But, really, when it’s all said and done, there are three that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

One has the advantage of being from the greatest movie ever made:

One has the advantage of being both the greatest vocal and the best song ever recorded for a western theme.

But, down at the end, there’s something about the ground-breaker…Tex Ritter’s proudest moment, and one which he knew how to deliver more ways than one. My favorite is the one I played first, but this is a great variation. And there’s no more elegant or mysterious phrase in the English language than…”Wait along.”

 

MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.

MY FAVORITE HAIRCUT (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

jfonda1It was called a “shag.” Some prefer “hairstyle” but don’t worry. Either way it’s nothing I ever had. This is not about me. Just about what I like.

There having been only three famous women who ever truly rocked it above and beyond the call of duty, I was just going to post some pictures of them. (I’m sure some of the many men who wore it, David Cassidy, Rod Stewart, et al, touched the souls of those of other persuasions, male and female. If so, peace be upon you. As for me, I am what I am and make no apologies.) But, in doing a little research, I found out my favorite haircut had a specific and pretty inspiring history.

To the extent such things can be spiritually copyrighted, it was invented by a Hollywood hairdresser named Paul McGregor for Jane Fonda’s character in 1971’s Klute. I encourage you to read the full story at the link, where, among other things, I learned that Warren Beatty, much to McGregor’s bemusement, claimed he modeled the lead character in Shampoo after him.

That might be another story for another day when I write about movies that defined the seventies. Klute and Shampoo will definitely be on the short list for consideration.

(And whether that was really where the shag began I don’t profess to know. Not my bailiwick. You got other ideas, feel free to share.)

For now, the part that interests me most is Fonda’s own reaction to the cut. Again, you can read the whole thing at the link, but basically, she saw it as a path to freedom, specifically freedom from her super-controlling husband/director Roger Vadim, who liked for her to wear hairstyles he approved.

I’ll buy that.

And, if so, it was not just mine and a lot of other people’s favorite haircut but maybe one of the more important cultural statements in modern history.

The Fonda who was perpetually cowed by men like Vadim could never have become Hanoi Jane. which, in itself, might have been a blessing. However pure her intentions, she did no worthy cause any favors in the role. And the less said about her eighties-era aerobics empire, the better. (Okay, I’ll say this much: those workout videos were as emblematic of Reagan-era ethics as visiting Hanoi was of counterculture ethics half a generation earlier–once unleashed, Jane got around.)

But she also never could have become, for a decade or so, starting with Klute itself, the bravest actress in Hollywood, a place where genuine bravery is always in short supply. She didn’t keep it up, but, while she was in flight, she went places nobody went before, at least not in big Hollywood productions that reached far outside the art-house circuit.

(For how far outside that circuit a Hollywood star can have an impact, I’ll just repeat something my mother told a woman on the phone who was going on about Jane’s political shortcomings right after we had seen 1978’s California Suite: “Well honey that may be true, but I’ll tell you one thing. She’s forty years old and she came out wearing a bikini and there was not one ounce of fat on her.” In our world, you always got credit for being a trouper. Next to that, being a commie didn’t seem so bad.)

For all the best and worst of it, out of Fonda’s own mouth, we can thank the shag.

Which leaves the real question hanging.

Did she who rocked it first rock it best?

Well….

Let me first say that, when it comes to haircuts, “shag” has developed a very fluid definition. So fluid it basically includes every shoulder length hairstyle you can think of, including the most famous post-shag hairstyle of ’em all “The Rachel.”

Nothing against the Rachel, but no matter how many millions donned it, it only ever really belonged to one person–and she hated it. Too much trouble. I’ve expressed my admiration for Jennifer Aniston plenty here before, but the Rachel is not a shag, let alone the shag.

The true shag, as befitting its source and inspiration, was both bold and democratic. If I’m giving it the strictest definition, I’m saying if I didn’t see it in the halls of my high school, circa 1974, it ain’t a shag.

Which brings me to Fonda’s competition.

Until recently (meaning this week) I always considered this competition to consist of one woman and one woman only–a woman who was really famous in England in 1974, but was completely unknown in my rural southern high school until she showed up on Happy Days a few years later.

That would be this woman:

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..who did not even cause a buzz in my part of the world when she made the cover of Rolling Stone in January, 1975. Believe me, if anybody had seen this, word would have gotten all the way around:

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So if nobody liked Jane, nobody had heard of Suzi, and nobody else wore the cut with sufficient flair to inspire imitation, why were so many girls sporting one? Utility maybe, but, in high school, that ain’t enough. In high school, at least for it to spread like that, somebody has to make it cool.

And, until this week, when I was searching around Pinterest on an unrelated topic, I had somehow completely forgotten who made the shag cool in my part of world in 1974. Then I happened across a few key photos that unlocked the memory gate.

Everybody in my high school knew who this woman was. And everybody liked her. Girls especially. Working class girls most especially. There was a reason she was the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1974. Country girls were her first major audience. And they didn’t just like her music.

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For the record: The girls in my part of the world kept on copying Olivia Newton-John’s hairstyles for the rest of the seventies.

Farrah Fawcett’s soon-to-be legendary do?

Never saw one anywhere but on television.

Now, as to who was the absolute best?

Come on. You think I’m gonna make that pick?

I’m country. Sort of.

I’m a lot of things. Sort of.

I ain’t stupid.

Kudos, though, to Suzi, for pretty much sticking with it, decade after decade.

And for always being a reminder that a thing of joy is beautiful forever.

NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE COMEDY HEIST FLICK

MY FAVORITE TRULY OBSCURE B-SIDE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Easy Part: Define “B-Side.”

“The side of a 45 that was not meant for primary radio promotion…at least until some enterprising dee-jay turned the boring A-Side over and his audience started lighting up the switchboard.”

The most famous case of this was probably the process that, by means I can’t seem to track down in precise detail, led to this UK release…

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Being turned into this US release….

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and leading (many years after “To Sir With Love” failed to chart in Britain and was the number one American record for the year 1967 in Billboard) to the Scottish Lass’s priceless quote re American dee-jays: “Bless their cotton socks.”

Now here’s a trick.

Define “obscure.”

Then define “truly obscure.”

You’re liable to get deep in the weeds before you find any real agreement on that last. Your gem of obscurity, held close to the heart (or, if you’re a little paranoid, the vest, right next to your pearl-handled revolver), and heard by only a precious few in the History of Man, will be somebody else’s “Pfah! I’ve got five copies of that in my basement and I didn’t even start looking until I was twelve!”

But I’m a sucker for punishment so I’ll have a go.

First Rule: It can’t be anything by the B-Side kings: Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. They all routinely turned out B-sides that would have been career makers for anybody else. But even their worst or scarcest material isn’t obscure. So “I’m Down” and “Kiss Me Baby” don’t qualify. And neither does anything that doesn’t reek of genius.

Second Rule: It can’t be anything by a popular artist which has been given extensive exposure by cover versions or inclusion on “best of” compilations. None of this, then:

Third Rule: It can’t have been talked about so much or praised by so many critics that any reasonably aware record collector knows it backwards and forwards.

None of this…

Or this…

Fourth Rule: It can’t be mentioned in some well-known bible of taste like Greil Marcus’ “Desert Island” section at the end of Stranded or Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Which is really too bad…

Fifth Rule: Of course to be really, truly obscure, the fifth rule is, if not a must, at least the first sub-rule of tie-breakers:

No official release on CD.

It’s not that hard to find B-Sides never released on CD. Way harder than it used to be, but still not beyond the pale.

What’s a little harder is to find something I really love that’s never been released on CD.

I thought I might have to settle for something that at least hasn’t been released often. Something like this…

or this…

…both of which lead straight into the second sub-rule of tiebreakers...

A record gets a leg up if I actually first experienced it as a B-Side, something that put a smile on my face once upon a time when I got home from the record store and played through the stack and realized I had gotten two for one.

What for instance, might have lain on the other side of this….?

Not another big hit because the Poppy Family, despite making a number of distinctively elegiac records, didn’t have any other big hits outside their native Canada, (though “That’s Where I Went Wrong” made the top thirty…and Greil Marcus’s “Island”).

Also not a record that’s ever been released on CD.

And not a record that was even released on a vinyl album.

Now we’re getting pretty close to “truly obscure.” You can go deeper–the way your average troll defines it, obscurity really is a bottomless concept–but probably not with somebody who had at least as much success as the Poppy Family.

And, even if you did go deeper, I bet you wouldn’t find a classic cover, in this case of a 1958 hit by Jody Reynolds, that doesn’t so much rewrite a great original as restore its initial meaning.

In the fifties, Reynolds was forced to rewrite the lyrics to a song he had called “Endless Sleep” before his record company would release it.

They wanted him to rewrite it because they wanted a happy ending….to a record called “Endless Sleep.”

So they could release it on Demon Records.

I mean, any time they try to tell you the fifties weren’t weird….

Hey, he made it work anyway. But I was a little shocked when I finally heard Jody’s version. It didn’t jibe at first. How could it? I’d already absorbed this version…which does not end happily.

As far as I know, everything else the Poppy Family recorded was on one of their two albums. I assume this was a consummate throwaway, a true B-Side done up on the spot to get the wannabe, gonnabe hit–which turned out to be a monster–out the door.

Not the sort of thing that happens anymore, as we’re all too busy making those other plans the old B-Side King John Lennon used to talk about.

Thin gruel this brave new world has turned out to be.

But I remember how crazy and full life, love and the recording industry used to be.

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MY FAVORITE SHANGRI-LAS RECORD…NOT BY THE SHANGRI-LAS (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Without even going into if-you’re-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail mode, it’s not difficult to hear the Shangri-La Effect seeping into the subsequent history of rock and roll. Almost anything that smacks of emotional extremism (especially extremism validated) owes them some sort of debt. That’s why large swathes of metal, punk, gangsta rap et al are hard to imagine without them even if few in those genres ever put as much of themselves at stake as Mary Weiss on an actual record…let alone one record after another.

But I’m actually going to ignore most of that–and most of the straight rips, parodies and inevitable posturing as well. I’m going to stick with the records I think actually lived up to the Shangri-Las ethos, those they might have been proud to call their own. And since even that list could get pretty long, I’ll stick to the very top where even a handful of selections amount to a shadow history of the world mostly hidden in plain sight. As ever, most to mostest:

“Love Child” Diana Ross and the Supremes (1968): A little obvious, but it’s worth noting that even Motown–hip to everything–took nearly half a decade to catch up to the implications of pretty much every song recorded by the group which was hurt most by the absence of Motown style management.

“I’m Eighteen” Alice Cooper (1970): This would have been really liberating for Weiss, who often sang as though she didn’t expect to reach eighteen. This would have needed a transfer from the first person (“he’s eighteen” for “i’m eighteen”). No problem. Weiss was all about empathy. And in case you think the Shangs weren’t adept at gender re-writes, you should check their version of Jay and the Americans’ “She Cried” and remember that Jay Traynor (the first “Jay”) was a much better singer than Alice. Well, except for maybe just this once.

“Wish You Were Here” Pink Floyd (1975): David Gilmour has acknowledged his Shangs’ influence (well, Shadow Morton’s anyway). This was the one record where the debt  turned from visceral to spiritual. I never heard it, oddly, until Fred Durst sang it at the memorial concert for the victims of 9/11. Since then, I’ve never been able to unhear it, or ever wanted to.

“Because the Night” Patti Smith Group (1978): A song Weiss expressed specific regret about (“God I would have loved to sing that song”) when she finally emerged from exile decades later. She heard her own influence–or felt her own hidden presence–even if nobody else did.

“The Coldest Days of My Life” The Chi-Lites (1972): The Shangri-Las were the basic girl group ethos in extremis. Coming from far left field, reaching for the same space, this is the Shangs’ own ethos in extremis.

“Independence Day” Martina McBride (1994): Just in case you thought country Gothic was a horse of a different color.

“Papa Don’t Preach” Madonna (1986): Certainly the greatest Shangs’ tribute record ever made, even if it was never acknowledged as such.Featuring Madonna’s greatest vocal, it even quotes “Give Us Your Blessings” directly. Apropos from the woman who benefited the most from the space the Shangri-Las opened up. Eventually, she turned that space into her own personal joke on the world, something along the lines of “Fooled ya’!” But for a brief, shining moment there, she stood on the highest mountain.

But it wasn’t quite the greatest Shangri-Las’ record not made by the Shangri-Las.

For that, you need to go back to the beginning, the one moment when the direct competition measured up in the moment.

“I’m Nobody’s Baby Now” Reparata and the Delrons (1966)

…Did I mention that summer was here? The summer of our discontent no less. Should be fun!

NEXT UP: My Favorite Truly Obscure B-Side

MY FAVORITE BO DIDDLEY COVER (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

One Bo Diddley cover?

I need to have my head checked.

I’m excluding Bo Diddley covers that weren’t actually Bo Diddley covers, all those hundreds of songs (some as improbable as the Byrds’ cover of Jackie DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” some as obvious as half of George Thorogood’s career, about which more later) built around the beat associated with his name. Bo may or may not have originated that beat but he certainly inserted it into the American bloodstream, where it has done all manner of good.

From a list of thousands, then, most to mostest, favorite at the bottom, with a little comment on what makes each of these stand out a little:

Warren Zevon “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” (1981)

From Zevon’s monumental live album Stand In the Fire. It’s unleashed at the end, where it reveals Bo as the secret force hiding in the shadows of the album itself and perhaps in the shadows of the performer’s entire persona. Zevon didn’t even have to sing the one that said “I’m just twenty-two and I don’t mind dyin’.” to get the message across. Don’t let his managing to see 56 fool you. He lived that line if anybody did…

The Gants “Crackin’ Up” (1966)

The secret, unholy post-war pact between the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners played out as deadpan comedy, right down to the disturbingly accurate soul scream at the top of the bridge. Just a little Mississippi frat-boy humor ya’ll.

Mike Henderson and the Bluebloods “Pay Bo Diddley” (1996)

Henderson was a cult figure who probably had some experience at not getting paid. He sounds even sorrier about Bo being shafted than Bo did. His guitar, on the other hand, sounds like it has come to collect.

The Yardbirds “I’m a Man” (Live on Shindig, 1965)

I might have put the studio version in the top five anyway, just on the basis of Jeff Beck’s famous string-bending (and mind-bending). But on this live version, everything–especially Keith Relf’s harp playing–is on fire. Which just means Beck’s soloing has to rise even higher to keep from being incinerated.

George Thorogood and the Destroyers “Ride On Josephine” (1977)

Leave it to a keep-it-simple sort like George to best understand the aesthetic that underpinned every element of Bo’s deceptively sinuous sound and his serio-comic faux resignation and thus produce my very favorite Bo Diddley cover.

And what was that aesthetic called?

What else.

Stomp!

NEXT UP: My Favorite Shangri-Las Record…Not By the Shangri-Las

MY FAVORITE ONE-HIT WONDER (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Aww, come on. Nobody who knows the heart of rock and roll has one single all time once and forever favorite one-hit wonder. You think it’s remotely possible? Take a look at, say, 1961:

That’s just a sampling of the vocal groups. In 1961 It doesn’t even include the all time homage to the vocal groups…In 1961

And it doesn’t include (from 1961) something like this…

Which, believe me, actually would put this otherwise impossible argument to an end, except Dick and Dee Dee actually had other hits (not that you’d know this by listening to your average oldies’ station or probably even a really great oldies’ station, for the last fifty years and counting).

That’s just a glimpse into one aspect of a single year, a year that, according to many a certified crit-illuminati scribe was rock and roll’s nadir from which we never would have been saved if the British hadn’t invaded a few years later. And I’m not even saying I love every one of those records up there enough to put them in a serious competition for the title of my favorite one-hit wonder (though I’d certainly include a few of them).

Start counting surf instrumentals or Troy Shondell doing “This Time” or Freddie King doing “Hideaway” or Ernie K-Doe doing “Mother-In-Law” or any of a few dozen others that I could imagine being somebody’s favorite even if they wouldn’t quite be mine (well, maybe “Mother-In-Law”) and you begin to see the pure ridiculousness of the exercise.

Like I said. Impossible. Crazy. Even to pick a favorite, forget a best or greatest. Just for 1961 (well, maybe “Mother-In-Law).

So I just have to go with the first record that popped into my head when I thought of the category and I couldn’t quite manage to dislodge no matter how long and hard I thought about it.

Okay, I didn’t really think about it all that long and hard. Because the second record I thought of was this one….

And I figured if that couldn’t knock the song Lyndon Johnson should have listened to before he sent any more troops into Viet Nam (and the American Experiment straight to Hell right along with them), out of my head, then nothing could.

I’m sure our sunny present day circumstances had nothing to do with it coming to mind…or refusing to leave…

Here comes summer!

Again.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Bo Diddley Cover)

MY FAVORITE MUSIC TO BREAK RULERS BY…(Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

….By which I mean the kind of rulers you can use for drumsticks if you don’t have real drumsticks….or drums.

I’ve heard there is such a thing as “air-drumming” which I guess is kin to air guitar, but, while I used to play occasional air guitar (like everybody, I hope, who doesn’t play actual guitar), I never could get the point of air drumming. I honestly hope it was all a misunderstanding and it’s never really been a thing.

And, just to be clear, I don’t do much “drumming” of any kind anymore and by “not much” I mean I can’t remember the last time I even held a ruler, let alone broke one.

But I used to do it a lot. I liked to play steady rhythm on the parts of the legs that are just above the knees, though I usually tried to keep a shelf or a wall or a chair handy for the rolls and flourishes.

Because of the knee-and-thigh element, a heavy wooden ruler was not really a good option. I imagine it would have been the same for an actual drumstick (which I wouldn’t have wanted to risk breaking anyway). I wasn’t a masochist, so beating myself black and blue held no appeal. Light plastic rulers were generally useless because they broke too easily. One good session with any of the acts I’m about to mention and, boom, crack, shatter, it was time for a replacement.

That left hard plastic. Something like this…

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Handy. Because, back in my impetuous youth, just singing, or shouting, along wasn’t always quite enough, and the pain and pleasure (i.e., the amount of damage done to me and the ruler respectively) had to be kept in a sensible balance even if I was temporarily out of my fantasy drumming head.

And, so (with apologies to Keith Moon and the Surfaris, who I could never keep up with though I sure had a lot of fun trying, and to Dino Danelli, who always lost me at the twirl), my top six ruler-breakers–the six that couldn’t be left off–in reverse order.

Drum roll, please….

#6 Artist: The Rolling Stones (1969)
Song: “Gimme Shelter”

drummer1Drummer: Charlie Watts (Honestly, I never cared whether Mick or Merry won the famous battle between Heaven and Hell at the end. I was always too busy trying to keep that weird time….no chance of breaking anything if you lost that!)

#5 Artist: The Righteous Brothers (1964)
Song: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”

DRUMMER2Drummer: Earl Palmer (For the distant thunder at the beginning of the bridge and the explosion on top of your head at the end of it…and for being Earl Palmer.)

#4 Artist: The Clash (1979)
Song: “Death Or Glory”

At the Tribal Stomp II concert.

Drummer: Topper Headon (Surely the greatest licks ever played by a functioning heroin addict..and the other great whisper-to-scream bridge.)

#3 Artist: The 4 Seasons (1964)
Song: “Dawn (Go Away)”

drummer4Drummer: Buddy Saltzman (“Instead of throwing a plate at somebody, I took it out on the drums. You had to get it out of your system.”)

#2 Artist: Sam and Dave
Song: “I Thank You”

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Drummer: Al Jackson, Jr. (Really the entire Stax catalog,  where he used to anchor Booker T and the MGs, the Memphis Horns and the world’s greatest soul singers…all at once. But if I had to pick one…)

#1 Artist: The Go-Go’s (1981)
Song: “Can’t Stop the World”

drummer6Drummer: Gina Schock (I should probably mention that all of these numbers used to gain traction by their company on the really great albums I liked to hear them on. Closing an album (as opposed to opening one, like “Gimme Shelter”), was definitely an advantage in this little mind game. Beauty and the Beat made all kinds of breakthroughs for all kinds of reasons, none of which were more important than what I used to say under my breath, with a smile between every cut, as the second side rolled by….”Turn It Up.” I wasn’t referring to volume, just channeling Ms. Schock’s vibe as the leader of the last truly great rock and roll rhythm section….This was the closer. Every time I would bet her fastball couldn’t really get any higher and harder after “You Can’t Walk In Your Sleep” and “Skidmarks On My Heart.” And every time I would be wrong.)