(Mary Badham and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird)

I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird for forty years and tracking lit-crit theory on it for thirty. I’ve read volumes of praise and damnation in about equal measure. I’ve read what is likely to be Lee’s definitive biography (by Charles Shields and quite good). I’ve seen the movie ten or twelve times, most recently a couple of weeks back in Birmingham’s restored movie palace, the Alabama Theater, with an enthusiastic full house on Father’s Day.

I’ve read reams of speculation about Lee’s personal life, numerous theories on why the book is so popular and its author so reticent, seen the relevant documentaries about book, film and Lee herself.

I’ve read an awful lot about why she never published again (until this week, of course), including her own theories, which were mostly what you’d expect (pressure of expectations, nowhere to go but down, etc.) and mostly interesting because, even coming from her, they were clearly never more than theories.

One thing I’ve never read is anything remotely intelligent about the book itself.

That lack of intelligence–the willingness to let emotion rule every single mindset, for or against, over half a century, bridging every conceivable cultural or political divide–is par for the course when an enormously popular, era-defining book touches the Race Nerve.

If you can’t explain it, put gauze on it. Kick the can down the road. That’s the American way.

It happened with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (better to fight one of history’s bloodiest wars than get at the root of the problem). It happened with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which was finally bound to be turned into a tract for Good-Liberals-Who-Love-Them-Some-Negroes-and-Rednecks, no matter how many times Huck sold Jim down the river). It happened with Gone With the Wind (an insider’s thorough damnation of Confederate folly which naturally became the lasting touchstone for Lost Cause nostalgia).

And it happened, most intensely of all, with To Kill a Mockingbird, a warning shot across the bow of the then-ascending Civil Rights movement. That movement crested with a series of legal victories that had begun with Brown vs. Board of Education, several years before Lee took an editor’s advice/command to heart and started revising the book now being released (Go Set a Watchman), and would end with Lyndon Johnson signing a Voting Rights Act and a Civil Rights Act which, between them, amounted to the Federal Government’s century-in-coming solemn promise to finally start enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s a measure of both our collective reading comprehension and how little we expect of ourselves that Atticus Finch came to be regarded (by worshippers and skeptics alike) as “saintly.” Evidently, the mere presence of a conscience is enough to give a man such qualities, because the Atticus of the book certainly possesses no others that could be called extraordinary and, despite some previous reservations, after having finally seen the movie the way it was meant to be seen, I have to say, neither does Gregory Peck’s film Atticus.

It’s true that Peck’s Atticus is loftier than Lee’s original conception. He’s Gregory Peck. How could he not be? But the nuance he brought to the role is a lot more evident when his face is writ larger than life. Make him thirty feet tall and the human element emerges. The movie is, in every respect then, excellent. There’s a reason I’ve watched it a lot. A reason I was willing to drive five hours to finally see it the right way.

But the movie still misses the book’s essence. Narratively, it doesn’t change anything vital, but, in pursuing a necessarily streamlined narrative, it does leave something else out.

What it leaves out was defined in another context before the sixties were done.

What it leaves out are hearts and minds.

It’s hard to change the law, Harper Lee essentially said, over and over, as she gave matchless dimension to the small town Alabama she meant, in her own words, “to be the Jane Austen of.”

It’s a lot harder to change people.

That message went missing from fifty years of snark and praise.

It’s still missing.

Fifty million people read her “children’s book.” A few hundred literati took occasion, year by year, to sneer at it for its “obviousness” and simple-mindedness.

But I keep wondering.

If it was all so obvious and all so simple, how was it we failed so thoroughly to look under its New Testament message and heed its Old Testament warning?

I have no idea whether an aging, infirm Harper Lee knew what she was about when she approved the release of Go Set a Watchman (with what all the folks who misread the first novel for half a century are assuring us is a very different Atticus). I ordered the book today so I’ll find out soon enough whether it’s worth writing about.

But whatever its worth is, it won’t change the long-misidentified import of Mockingbird itself.

Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had a better handle on the future than any of her celebrated southern colleagues who have Library of America volumes dedicated to them.

Despite the disappointment she later expressed over the failure of the Civil Rights era to finally do much more than put yet another band aid on America’s festering wound, (a failure some of her friends have speculated was perhaps another reason for her writer’s block), she wasn’t really Atticus, looking up from his paper for a moment and wondering aloud if maybe some day we’d get it right, if maybe the trial he’d lost was a small stepping stone in the right direction.

She knew better.

She knew Atticus hadn’t changed a thing.

Then, of course, she had an advantage. Believe it or not, the writer always does.

She already knew the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, a fact that seems to have been lost in the “what’s-this-now!” hornet’s nest the book’s fifty-something-years-in-coming release has now stirred up as we sit and watch some more cities burn.

And which kind of hornet’s nest might that be?

Oh, you know.

The kind the chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, church-going Methodist lady from Monroeville always did such a fine job of avoiding herself.

What else are you gonna do, when you’re surrounded by the very fools who set the world on fire just so they could watch it burn?


…Okay, I better quit now. Before I get all emotional.


So this week I got kicked in the head by what I can now say was a far-too-long-in-coming re-visit with John Sayles’ 1983 film Baby It’s You. I’ll be writing in depth about it as soon as I get my new computer updated with the software I need for providing my own screen caps. (UPDATE: I eventually wrote about it here, sans caps.)

Meantime I went looking around the internet for any thoughts that others might have had about the film in general and Rosanna Arquette’s remarkable performance in particular and found this little gem (which isn’t about Baby It’s You but that’s how things go when the old net-surfing impulse kicks in):

“Ellison’s shots of Rosanna Arquette (taken before, to use Greil Marcus’ phrase, “the black hole of ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’ ” that numbskull movie that effectively ended her career)”

(Charles Taylor: “Way Back When” March 15, 2002,

And yes, Greil Marcus (who lavishly praised Baby It’s You), did say that about Desperately Seeking Susan (which came out two years later).

And he did sort of mean that it killed his idea of what Rosanna Arquette’s career should have been.

But what about her actual career? The one to which Taylor makes it really clear he’s referring?


I saw Desperately Seeking Susan when it came out in the theaters in 1985. I remember moderately enjoying it, though not so much I’ve gotten around to seeing it again. I remember that Pauline Kael took a strong dislike to it…and that she was a generally reliable barometer of what the intelligentsia felt comfortable smacking down in those days.

None of which matters a whit to how and why Taylor could feel comfortable saying that particular movie “effectively ended” Arquette’s career.

What’s interesting is his definition of career. That is, his particular abuse of the language, rote and familiar as it may be.

Because what he means is: “Before Desperately Seeking Susan, Rosanna Arquette was somebody me and my fellow members of the crit-illuminati considered worthy of our attention. And after Desperately Seeking Susan, this was no longer the case.” (2nd UPDATE: Which is probably how so many people missed what happened here.)

In a way Taylor was just being more honest than Marcus. Letting the cat out of the bag so to speak by giving the illuminati’s starkest warning.

Don’t let us down!

Else we’ll write you and your silly “career” (actually one of the busiest of her generation and hardly without subsequent high points–a fair number, even, considering how few opportunities to do something more than stay busy Hollywood has offered to any actress in the last forty years) out of history.

I mean this must be what Taylor meant….because otherwise we’d have to assume Desperately Seeking Susan, a big hit that won Arquette a BAFTA and, well, put her on the cover of Rolling Stone, killed her career. You know…”effectively.”


So let’s ask the Charles Taylors of the world to think a little less of the joys of sweatily embracing Stalin-esque memory dumps that others have merely hinted at and a little more of themselves.

And, yes, let’s lay down the Twelfth Maxim:

Bootstrappers beware!

(NOTE: You can link to Taylor’s full piece, about a book of photos by Nancy Ellison, here. And speaking of “sweatily,” I decided to stay classy and not get into the creepy part about Arquette’s “lovely breasts” and “wide, generous mouth.” That seems beyond the scope of our strictly spiritual and intellectual pursuits here, though it does lead one to wonder if, in being written out of her own history, Arquette has merely joined many another comely female in paying a high price for being the intense object of some future critic’s inevitably frustrated college dorm fantasies.)

Happy Easter ya’ll.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Notes on Narrative in True Grit and the Breathlessly Awaited Eleventh Maxim!)

[NOTE: This is an update of a piece I roughed out for my own amusement back when the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit reached theaters in 2010. I love both film versions and think the novel is a masterpiece. But, for the sake of this piece, that’s actually neither here nor there…I was more fascinated by two other, not entirely unrelated elements. First, the Coens’ ability to hoodwink the media in much the same fashion that politicians do, namely by relying on a mindset that is both lazy and servile. Second, by just how hard true narrative is to really master….Since it fits some themes I frequently visit here, I finally got around to putting it in shape….Well, good enough for a blog post anyway!]

First….True Grit, in whatever form, is Mattie Ross’ story. so here she is, saying her piece in three voices:

First voice:


“He (Rooster Cogburn) directed LaBoeuf to take his horse and find a position up on the north slope about midway along one stroke of the V, and explained that he would take up a corresponding position on the south slope. Nothing was said about me with regard to the plan and I elected to stay with Rooster.”–from Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit.

Second voice:


“I go where Rooster goes.”–Kim Darby, from the 1969 film version.

Third voice:


“I picked the wrong man.”–Hailee Steinfeld, from the 2010 film version (choosing LaBoeuf over Cogburn).

That is, she picked this guy:


Over this guy:


Not for a date mind you, but to kill the bad men.

As Hailee Steinfeld’s folks might say: Oy vey.

And so, with all that in mind for starters…a little rumination:

It’s a testimony to just how great a character Mattie Ross is, and how many valid interpretations she might be able to bear, that the choice Hailee Steinfeld’s “Third Voice” Mattie makes in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit does not sink their very fine film.

By all rights it should.

Having already violated the impeccable narrative structure of their source considerably by, among other things, having Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf leave the scene once (to be brought back by some not overly reasonable coincidence), the Coens have him not only leave it a second time (for no better reasons and to be brought back under a circumstance that is, if anything, even less likely than the first), but leave it with Mattie begging to be taken along!

That’s about as far from “I elected to stay with Rooster,” or “I go where Rooster goes,” as anyone can get.

Naturally, the chorus of those who insisted the Coens were “truer” to the book, in form, spirit or both, was loud and long–not merely an echo of what the Coens’ themselves had been very publicly insisting ever since it got about they were re-making True Grit, but, by the time the film was released, a rising crescendo.

The most egregious example of that crescendo was probably Dana Stevens at, who, a whole day after admitting in one of the website’s podcasts that she had never read the book or seen the original film, blithely wrote:

“…this version of True Grit hews more closely to the cult novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne.”

Granting that anyone who uses the word “cult” to describe a million-copy bestseller (which has subsequently inspired two major hit movies, one of which merely won that obscure cult figure, Mr. Wayne, an Oscar, plus a sequel and a network television movie, all before becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller again upon the release of the second movie) probably cannot be considered an intellectual titan, there’s no reason to pick on Stevens.

Allen Barra (writing for the Daily Beast), after noting how “surprising” it was that so few reviewers actually knew Portis’ novel, then gave an example of how closely the Coen brothers had stuck to the source:

“The Coens’ script preserves the thumbnail description of the marshals available to her:

‘The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear does not enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings in his prisoners alive….Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best that they have.’

‘Where,’ Mattie wants to know, ‘can I find this Rooster?’”

Well, actually, the description of Cogburn, and Mattie’s response, were preserved in the Coens’ version. But the description of Quinn is considerably altered…enough that it deflates the clear punch of Portis’ prose, a mistake the original film never made once and which the Coens made, if not frequently, then at least far more than they needed to.

Incidentally Barra, having declared himself a fan of both Portis and this newer version of the film, is no fan of the original, which he describes as “sloppily made.”

Detailing the sloppiness of Barra’s own review would require a small essay of it’s own (that described above is the least of it), but at least he’s not Tom Shone.

Shone, a former film critic of the London Sunday Times who did not have a paid outlet at the time, but perhaps merely wanted to give Dana Stevens a full run for her money, wrote about the film on his website. He complained of a “plot robbed of forward thrust by fidelity to the meandering byways of Portis’ plot (is there a limit to the number of times Le Boeuf can change his mind about whether he wants to be with the other two or not?)”

Gee, if he had left out the specifics of his complaint, I might have been able to conclude he had actually read the novel and just wasn’t very perceptive.

But, no, he needed to go the last mile and prove himself something worse (because, of course, the “meandering” to which he so disapprovingly refers is all the Coens and none of Portis).

If only I could believe that the Sunday Times had sacked him for such.

As it is, I’m stuck leaving my faith in human virtue to the side yet again and am thrown back on purely philosophical questions such as whether Mattie Ross would have any more truck with me than with thee?

See, I’ve never been too sure.

My first acquaintance with Mattie was in the first film. I saw some piece of it on television some time in the vaguely remembered seventies. My viewing was in black and white, on a 19-inch rolling screen (there used to be a thing called vertical hold, children, and in your poorer households, it did not always “hold”). I remember being struck by how little Mattie, and the actress playing her, cared for whether she was liked.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never encountered anyone in life or (discounting villains) the movies, who cared so little.

Brave choice by Ms. Darby and she’s still paying the price.

John Wayne, thankfully, will always have defenders, and so opinion was fairly evenly divided among reviewers. the blogosphere and the general public, as to the worth of his performance as Rooster Cogburn. But in the wake of the Coens’ version, I didn’t find a single mainstream defender of Darby (who was instead retrospectively slagged and slandered for being “perky,” “adorable” and “crush-worthy,” not to mention far too old to be playing a fourteen-year-old and a pain in Henry Hathaway’s neck).

As I’ve written elsewhere, I rate Darby’s performance in the original True Grit as the second best ever given by a woman in a western (just behind Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…don’t worry she never got the credit she deserved either).

You don’t have to agree with me or even think Darby was any good at all to attend further. Such things are purely subjective. But If you found her “adorable,” please check yourself into some government facility. I’m depressed enough as it is. I don’t need to see my tax dollars being further wasted not helping you.

There’s no such thing as an “adorable” Mattie and no such thing as an intelligent actress, writer or director who would ever want to see her portrayed that way. Whatever one thinks about the people playing those various roles in the versions of True Grit that now exist for the world’s perusal, none of them were or are stupid.

And that gets to the heart of what’s really, really good (I’d even say great) about the newer version…and also what’s rather problematic about it.

It gives us not only a Rooster Cogburn who is vastly different than the original film (but still perfectly valid in terms of the novel’s structure and themes), but a vastly different Mattie.

These differences have been variously noted–Cogburn more than Mattie, if only because John Wayne cannot be readily dismissed even by a brain-dead intelligentsia (which I believe I have fairly represented above). But because no one took Darby seriously, the only thing that has been left to say about Steinfeld is that (take breathless pause here) she really is the age Mattie is recalling in the novel (narrated from old age), and she’s not Kim Darby.

Bad luck her, I thought after seeing the ubiquitous trailer in the months leading up the Coen version’s release.

But you know what? Breathless reviews aside, Steinfeld’s Mattie quickly won me over and she did it the only way (given my history with both the book and the earlier film) she could have.

That’s by giving a performance that ranks high on the list of women in westerns all by itself (just off-hand, I’d say top ten and pushing for a spot in that top five I listed).

This is perhaps even more than usually impressive because she’s got so much working against her at the start.

She might have been thirteen (only a year younger than the Mattie of the novel’s principal action and eight years younger than Darby had been, though it should be noted Darby was not really playing fourteen but probably more like sixteen or seventeen, an age for which she was more than credible and which, unlike having LaBoeuf ride off a couple of times for no good reason, does no damage to the story), but she was also a lot of other things.


(Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld)

First off, tall (5’8″ according to the publicity at the time and you can believe it when she stands next to the sheriff Barra refers to above and I can’t be the only one who found myself thinking she could take him three falls out of five) where Mattie was short (“no bigger than a corn nubbin” according to Rooster in all versions including, rather incongruously, this one).

Also drop-dead gorgeous where Mattie was plain (in the book) or at least not gorgeous (in Darby’s case);

Not to mention an arrow-straight force of nature with no hint of sorrow touching her face outside one very brief (and well-played) scene when she is given her murdered father’s possessions, and no feminine quaver touching her voice (Darby made quietly and deeply effective use of both).

And, oh yeah, Steinfeld was in a Coen brothers movie and not just any Coen brothers movie but one where they’ve made a reach for the brass ring and invested themselves emotionally and narratively to a very high degree.

Somehow, Steinfeld–and, to be fair, the Coens as well–made all that work for the character.

I never quite bought the Coens’ repeated story (always couched as supremely ironic serendipity) that they scoured the country in general and the south in particular and, at the last possible moment, miraculously found the one girl in America who could, in their oft-repeated phrase, “handle the language.” Let’s just say I’m not surprised that when two Jewish guys from Minnesota who have spent most of their adult lives making movies decided to re-invent Mattie Ross, they searched the world over and finally settled for a tall, gorgeous, Jewish kid from the movie capital of the world.

And nothing wrong with that by the way.

As I say, Steinfeld really is all that. Nothing much resembling Charles Portis’ Mattie Ross, maybe, but the sort of humdinger who makes it very easy to think she could have got the job done her own way had she by chance been set down in Fort Smith in the 1870s!

The Coens deserve credit for more than a slick marketing campaign, though. They made a relatively complex narrative film (brave enough) and, for once, laid their own joke-ridden quasi-nihilism largely to one side (all but unheard of for anyone as invested in po-mo cynicism as they are).

Of course, such things take practice and whenever they left Portis to one side and struck out on their own, they tended to get lost.

Steinfeld’s Mattie, for instance, is an accomplished rider and horse-trader, but is strangely ignorant of a pony’s eating habits. Having been told by a young hand who is as confused by her ignorance as the viewer might be, that a horse likes apples (who knew!), she steals a supply of them from a bowl at the boarding house where she is staying (an action Portis’ Mattie would never contemplate and the Coens’ Mattie, still capable of telling Rooster, “It’s all stealing” in a later scene, is not sufficiently re-imagined to accommodate).

These are small things but they demonstrate how easy it is to lose track of narrative essence if you don’t have the requisite habits of mind and are rather accustomed to using bits of business and cheap “irony” for connective tissue instead of meaningful human behavior.

Even more problematic, the Coens’ needless departures from Portis’ structure, are not fully fleshed out. Hence we have Mattie, not LaBoeuf, questioning Rooster Cogburn’s morals when he announces his intention to shoot one of Ned Pepper’s gang in the back. And Rooster putting Mattie, not LaBoeuf, in danger when they encounter their first bandits (something Portis’ Rooster would never have done). The reason Mattie has to behave thusly, against her own grain, is that the Coens’ re-imagined story has LaBoeuf elsewhere. Unfortunately, for all the changes they’ve rung in Mattie’s character, there’s nothing to indicate their Mattie would be likely to have a moral–as opposed to practical–qualm as to whether vicious outlaws were shot in the back or that their Rooster would put Mattie in unnecessary danger (at least not while he’s sober).

Again, these are small things, but annoying because needless–and probably a mistake the Coens could have avoided reflexively by this point in their careers if they had spent the last twenty-five years making films worthy of their considerable talents instead of the modestly amusing (or modestly disturbing) time-killers which they have chosen to produce instead.

But I digress. If you can either ignore these sort of things or leave them to one side–and I confess I saw the movie five times in the theater and have seen it at least as many more on DVD, so yes, I have to admit it is certainly possible–this is at least within shouting distance of being a great western and the most worthy addition to the form’s screen-canon since the original Lonesome Dove miniseries (which in turn was the most worthy addition since 1962, the year of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ride the High Country, though there were certainly some good ones in between).

I don’t think it rates quite as high as those landmarks but that’s no shame. John Ford was film’s greatest narrative master and Valance was the decades-long culmination of habits the Coens were trying out for the first time. Ride the High Country was one of the few times Peckinpah would ever keep things simple enough to make an emotionally complicated film that didn’t actually require a more than basic narrative. So coming only a little short of those marks still ranks as a fine achievement.

As impressive as their actual film was, though, it could never hold a candle to the Coens ability to control the other narrative….the narrative the intelligentsia (such as it is) would be bound to accept and perpetuate unless they wanted to go completely off-script and do something besides carry water for the cool people.

Fat chance, that. Hence, the one thing the Coens most assuredly didn’t do–stay true to the book–was bound to be the thing they most consistently got credit for doing.

Just like they planned it.

And, maybe not surprisingly, the next time I caught up with them they were doing this. Nothing to do with developing any more complex narrative then, and small wonder.

So for an Eleventh Maxim, I suggest borrowing a simple rule from politics (one which we mere citizens need not cast aside in our quest to understand either politics or art merely because virtually all political “journalists” do), and suggest to critics that they resist their own worst instincts and insist on treating artists thus:

Never listen to what they say. Only watch what they do!



“Christgau is the last true-blue record critic on earth. [He’s] pretty much who I make my records for..” —Questlove (leader of The Roots)

This is a quote from the blurb section at Harper Collins’ page for Robert Christgau’s new memoir. Given Questlove’s position as a kind of eminent statesman in the rap/hip hop world, it gives us one explanation for how we’ve reached a day when popular music is in roughly the position it was in 1954. On the sidelines. Irrelevant. Nerveless. Unheeded.

In some ways it’s worse now. Because the white music often dominating the hip hop charts these days is spiritually descended from the Crew Cuts/Pat Boone aesthetic, not the Elvis Presley/Carl Perkins aesthetic (which led the charge the last time this happened).

So no I’m not going to start a new category, because if I did it would just be this and nothing else (and nothing, incidentally, to do with Christgau personally):

Please, please, please do not make your art for a critic. Any critic. Ever.

Because nobody who has mattered ever, ever did.

And nobody who will matter ever, ever will.

You don’t need to listen to me. But you should listen to those who laid the cornerstones.


A little addenda to Lesley Gore’s passing….dedicated to the inner workings of the illuminati:

“‘It’s My Party’ not only put Gore into the spotlight, but also jump started the career of Quincy Jones, who would go on to be one of the most celebrated and prolific producers of all time. ‘Party’ was one of Jones’ first big hits, and it would lead to him being one of the most sought-after producers in the industry. He wound up composing all four of Gore’s top ten hits, as well as dozens of other memorable tunes. Some of his more famous works include Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (still one of the best-selling single albums of all time), as well as records and singles for everyone from Donna Summer to Frank Sinatra. [italics mine]

(Hugh McIntyre, Forbes on-line, Feb. 16, 2015)

As it happens Quincy Jones did not “compose” any of Lesley Gore’s four top ten hits. And, yeah, I know nobody goes to Forbes magazine for accuracy-in-media regarding anything, let alone rock and roll.

But this stuff doesn’t just come from nowhere. A young-turk-trying-to-make-a-living doing quick hits on a blog for Forbes doesn’t just dream up the idea that Quincy Jones must have written all of Gore’s hits…and then consider it a given beyond fact-checking….all on his own. He does it because Quincy’s the big, powerful name attached to those hits whom even Forbes’ audience might recognize.

And that comes from a mind set.

I think it’s worth mentioning that this particular mind set, the one that predetermines the relationship between male svengali (even if, God forbid, he’s black) and female puppet (in the course of making rock and roll records at least), was established by a crit-illuminati made up almost entirely of Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate.

We should not be surprised when the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve play merrily along with their spiritual collaborators.

Still, I reserve the right to plead, as the Tenth Maxim:

Don’t just go making stuff up!

Anyway, here’s Lesley, big heart that she was, being more forgiving of the “Hugh McIntyre”‘s of the world than the maxims allow:

WHAT IS ART?…OH, THAT AGAIN (Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Lesson #12)

Terry Teachout had a piece a couple of weeks back, basically lamenting the state of the Kennedy Center honors and the falling standards at the Library of America. The full piece is behind a firewall, but the part I’m getting ready to complain about is here.

So it’s the barbarians at the gate again. Well-l-l-l…

I’m for standards, too. But I think their maintenance is a lot trickier than Terry lets on here (at least in this part I have access to, which does seem to correlate with other things he’s written…I”ll leave aside the time he specifically complained about the Kennedy Center not putting in enough country singers, because I took it for granted he was just scoring ideological points).

I’m reading the Elmore Leonard volume for review now, so I’ll wait a while to say a word about the Library of America’s choices for inclusion.

As to the Kennedy Center:

Well, I love this:

And, I really love this:

But they aren’t better, or “higher” than this….because nothing is:

If honoring Sting, say, (or Tom Hanks, or Lily Tomlin, who’s worthy anyway) is the price for making sure the tent is big enough for Al Green, then so be it.



I’m still debating whether to do a full review of Greil Marcus’ latest, which I posted about here. If/when I do, I’ll doubtless be speaking yet again of the good and the bad.

For the good….

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs has a lot of the best sustained writing Marcus has done in years. The piece on Buddy Holly and the Beatles ranks with his best ever. The essay on “Money/Money Changes Everything” had me hearing new things in Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual after years of obsessive listening (and deepening my long-held conviction that it was the finest album released in the eighties and likely the greatest debut released by a solo artist in the rock and roll era). It turned me on to John Kaye’s The Dead Circus, which is the most fun I’ve had reading a modern novel in I don’t know how long.

He even admitted to now knowing Marge Ganser was long dead when he and Robert Christgau slandered her a few years back (see the link above) in the notes for a fine essay on Amy Winehouse and the Shangri-Las.

Then, for the rest….

Following up on my George Goldner post, there’s this:

“There would have been no rock & roll without him,” Phil Spector said when Goldner died, in 1970. Just months before, Goldner told the Rolling Stone writer Langdon Winner the story of how he got Arlene Smith, the seventeen-year-old lead singer of the Bronx quintet the Chantels, to do what she did–to go into the depths of doo-wop ballads like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods. Winner had published a retrospective review of The Chantels, issued on Goldner’s End label in 1958, raving about Arlene Smith: “What’s so great about her voice? Well, to be frank, it starts where all the other voices in rock stop…When she reaches for a high note she just keeps going. There is never a hint of strain. Nothing drops out. Her tone expands in breadth to match the requirements of high pitch…Like a three-thousand dollar stereo system playing Beethoven’s Ninth, the highs, lows and mid range extend into infinity.”

“Shortly after the review appeared,” Winner wrote me in 2013, “I received a telephone call from George Goldner, legendary New York City record producer and businessman who’d recorded a number of early R&B, doo-wop and rock groups including the Chantels. He said he was coming to San Francisco on business and invited me to dinner. During a two-hour conversation, Goldner told a number of marvelous stories about Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Crows, the Flamingos, and other groups he’d produced over the years. It was clear that he was happy to be getting some notice in the pages of Rolling Stone and wanted to make sure he was receiving sufficient credit for his contributions to rock and roll. At one point, for example, he proudly explained that the ‘boy’ celebrated in the Ad Libs 1965 hit ‘The Boy from New York City’ was actually he himself.

“Eventually,” Winner went on, “I asked Goldner about the extraordinary intensity in Arlene Smith’s vocals. ‘Obviously, she has great natural ability and control of her voice,’ I said. ‘But she sings in a way that often seems right on the brink of emotional break down. Where did that come from?’ ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the Chantels were always very well prepared and sang beautifully. The first take of any of their songs was usually just about perfect. But I realized what a phenomenal talent Arlene Smith was. I wanted to push her to reach for something more. My strategy was to record two or three takes of a song and then storm out of the booth and start ranting. “This is horrible! Your singing today is lifeless, sloppy. Haven’t you been rehearsing? We’re just wasting our time here! What the hell’s the matter with you?” I’d look Arlene right in the eye and yell at her until she was nearly in tears, and then finally say, “OK, I give up. Let’s try it again.” The next cut was always the one I was looking for. The edge you hear in her voice, the tone of desperation approaching hysteria is what I was trying to pull out of her. And sometimes I succeeded.”

Marcus seems to swallow this version of events whole and–to some extent at least–view it with some approval.

That Arlene Smith herself might have a different view (as evinced in the link I provided in my last post, which has an hour-long interview with her from 2009 where, among other things, she goes to some lengths to stress that, while Goldner was sometimes present at her sessions, Richard Barrett discovered her, actually ran the sessions and approved final takes), seems to have never occurred to either Marcus or Langdon Winner.

Later in the book, Marcus says that Shadow Morton’s later history with the Shangri-Las sounds srikingly similar:

In the obituary (Morton’s) “Yeah, Well I Hear He’s Bad…” the journalist David Kamp recalled a conversation with Morton in the 1990s. “He kept talking about ‘the Ba-CAH-di’ that did him in…[He] seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them”–to my mind, the kind of things George Goldner did to Arlene Smith.

If, as seems likely, Goldner was feeding Langdon Winner a lot of hooey in 1970–doing what a lot of record producers (and movie directors) have done when a young woman is involved and transferring most of the credit for any magical results to himself–then, of course, it is not impossible that he patterned his memory after what he observed going on between Morton and Weiss (which Weiss, incidentally, has pushed back on to some degree on other occasions–not so much as to what happened [she did cry in the studio] as to why–personal pain, not harassment).

But what’s key here is that Marcus swallows the narrative he finds most appealing–does not question it or do due diligence in finding out whether this version of the story might be false, or at very least, incomplete. It’s not the first time he’s been guilty of same (I wrote about another instance here). But this time, it’s springing from a mind set that’s uncomfortably close to the one he evinces in the next quote– a sort of dark continuum from Goldner to his most famous protégé, Phil Spector:

Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actress, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Phil Spector has been serving nineteen years to life at a division of Corcoran State Prison. Amy Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears’ record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.

Now we’ve gone from the dubious to the unconscionable. From swallowing George Goldner’s brag about making Arlene Smith cry (for her own good of course–isn’t it always?), to Lana Clarkson being the cause of a tragedy that belongs not to her, a murder victim, but to her murderer–who wouldn’t have been a tragedy either if he hadn’t made such great records.

And, of course, to “hating” Amy Winehouse, for what “she withheld from the world.”

Bear in mind that this is what passes for serious discourse–and it’s nested rather casually inside writing that actually is serious discourse, like a snake hiding in the garden. The two things become indistinguishable, redolent of a spirit that is searching for some sort of emotional high and doesn’t care where it finds it.

If it can be found in the mystical link between Buddy Holly and the Beatles that’s wonderful.

If it can be found by de facto blaming Lana Clarkson for her own murder, because she was “unsuccessful” and did a bad Little Richard imitation, or hating Amy Winehouse for her suicide, while reserving the word “tragedy” for Phil Spector’s fate….well, evidently, that will do just as well.

All of which leads us, in a rather roundabout way, to the Ninth Maxim:


No, not even if the murderer once lived the rock and roll dream so transcendently that he transformed himself from this…


to this…


And, no, not even if, in the last moment before his genius gave way to his monstrous demons, he was responsible for this:




“My own hope is that it somehow moves the mountain and convinces the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that if it can sacralize de facto one-hit wonder Percy Sledge and the noble yet overrated Stanley fave Del Shannon, perhaps it can conquer its own hidebound chauvinism and make room for the Cure, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys.”

(Source: “Anti-Rockism’s Hall of Fame” Robert Christgau,, July 24, 2014)

“‘I love to sing a tearjerker,’ he (Sledge) told annotator David Gorman. ‘Like them ol’ country ballads.’ And that sums up this child of nature, who was country not as in Acuff-Rose, but as in going to town means picking up provisions at the general store. Saddled with a classic that transcends soul itself, Mr. Miserable never equaled ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ But neither did Mr. Pitiful, whose own songbook could have accommodated half these selections. The reason Otis Redding is an artist while Percy Sledge is a phenomenon is that Redding would have made ‘Out of Left Field’ sound happy, which is how it reads–a trick Sledge couldn’t have conceived with ‘Happy Song.’”

(Source: Robert Christgau “Consumer Guide Reviews,” Village Voice, 1998)

For the purposes of this post, I’m gonna leave Del Shannon and the Cure and New Order and the Pet Shop Boys out of this and concentrate on Robert Christgau and Percy Sledge (with a little bit of Otis Redding thrown in).

The first quote above is from Christgau’s recent, mostly laudatory, review of Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyonce (which evidently proffers yet another take on the tired old Rock/Pop argument which has been irrelevant since Elvis backed up “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” with “Love Me Tender” and spent four months at the top of the “Pop” chart in the summer/fall of 1956 and exploded the whole false paradigm, but, hey, the crit-illuminati are nothing if not persistent).

The second quote is from his review of Rhino’s single-disc The Very Best of Percy Sledge.

I confess I got to the second quote from the first. One nice thing about Christgau is that he’s been so prolific for so long, you can just about bet he’s commented on whatever he’s commenting on now somewhere before, even if–as here–it’s only indirectly.

Which means if you’re of a mind to disagree with him, you can always dig down and find something else to disagree with. (Same for agreement, by the way, but where’s the fun in that?)

What got me fired up in the first quote was the abuse of language–which isn’t nearly as routine for Christgau as it is for most critics who write way too much.

Sorry, but there’s no such thing a “de facto” hit. Hence there is no such thing as a “defacto one-hit wonder.” I mean, a record is either a hit or it’s not. And the artist who has it has either had more than one or he hasn’t.

Percy Sledge had more than one hit.

If white oldies’ stations and rock critics’ memories can’t accommodate anything beyond “When a Man Loves a Woman,” that’s their loss.

But, however many hits Sledge had (14 in the Hot 100 and 4 in the top twenty–if you want to know how impressive that last number was for a southern soul singer, consider that Otis Redding himself only reached the top twenty once and that was posthumously) calling him a one-hit wonder (de facto or otherwise) isn’t nearly as nonsensical or far afield as insisting he’s not an artist.

Because you can come short of Otis Redding–which I’m not even sure Percy Sledge does–and still be that.

Percy’s problem–which I know is a problem because this is hardly the first time he’s been one of the first names mentioned when someone wants to run down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being “hidebound” in its unwillingness to induct yet another group of white boy “faves” (the fundamental wrongheadedness of which I discussed at length here)–was that he traded in subtlety and specialized in ballad singing.

These are not qualities that tend to get you admired at the top of the critical food chain, where the demand for novelty is forever outstripping the supply, not to mention all other artistic virtues.

Here below, we’ve all got our own definitions of what makes an “artist.” The biggest part of mine is this: An artist should have a vision of the world that’s worth living up to.

On the fourth disc of Rhino’s Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, a distance at which plenty of great artists start showing some real strain, there’s a run that includes Percy’s covers of Dolly Parton (another artist who could tell you how falsely conceived that neat distinction between “Acuff-Rose” and “picking up provisions at the general store” really is), Gordon Lightfoot, Swammp Dogg and the O’Jays. He adds a little something at each stop along the Countrypolitan/Canadian Folk/Wild-Ass Soul/Philly International journey–and coaxes them all into a singular world-view that, if you decide to listen close, can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Sounds like an “artist” to me.

And, lest that be considered some kind of fluke, the next batch of songs are from a live show that has him out-stomping Eddie Floyd on “Knock On Wood” and out-crooning the mighty Fleetwods on “Come Softly to Me.”

In Johannesburg.

In 1970.

In Johannesburg, they got the message.

I can’t help wondering if the world might be a better place today had the rest of us done the same.

And that leads me to Maxim #8:

“Never look down when you really should be looking up.”

And here’s Percy, being all visionary….owning Buffalo Springfield in a style Acuff and Rose would have very much approved if he had been another color, and looking forward to the day when “corner store” types–who hadn’t been as worried about his skin color as some might have hoped–would welcome him with open arms on the oldies’ circuit:



No maxim–just an excuse to rub my hands and cackle with life-affirming glee!

I guess it’s one of human nature’s moderately perverse traits: The satisfaction to be had from finding a perfect example of a pet peeve. (My just-found example of this one can be read here, if you have sufficient patience.)

One of my very major pet peeves happens to be book reviewers who insert their own opinions about the subject of a book in place of what they are presumably being paid for, which is their opinion of the book itself. (This happens a lot with biographies in particular: i.e., “I’m a huge fan of Olivier (or Churchill, or whoever) and here’s what I know and love about him. Oh, by the way, so-and-so has just written a book on the subject, which makes me very happy because it gives me a chance to share with you what I, myself, happen to think about the eminent significance of this very book-worthy subject.”)

One of my other very major pet peeves is book reviewers who simply recite information they have gleaned from the book itself as filler in place of actual analysis concerning the general value of this information or the manner in which it has been presented by the author of the book in question.

Now, Philip French’s recent review of Mark Harris’ Five Came Back (which I found while I was scouring the net for general opinion after my own review was published at Broadway World) may not be a truly “perfect” example of these two peeves: He does mention Harris’ name three times in a 1,000 word review and I suppose real perfection would involve reaching a point where absolutely no mention of the author is deemed necessary at all. This name-dropping (in a review of an author’s own book) is no doubt a sacrifice for French’s sort. After all, there are at least three words here he could have used putting forth his own views of the whole affair had he not felt obligated to mention the book’s mere author a time or three.

Still, I think it’s likely as close to this kind of peeve-fulfillment as one can hope to get. (Just for comparison’s sake, incidentally, I counted up my own stats and found I mentioned Harris sixteen times in 2,300 words, which I think means I can, at least this once–and laying aside my pet peeve concerning those who investigate themselves!–absolve myself of blatant hypocrisy….Okay, I better move on. I suddenly feel like a government agency.)

However, French has gone the usual nonsense one better.

He turned up yet another major pet peeve–one which I didn’t even know I had because I had not previously run across such a glaring example of it.

This involves inserting one’s own opinions on the book’s subject by supplying a quote which is not actually in the book and pretending that it is–and doing so to make a false point.

To wit:

“None, however, made a real success as an independent producer, and this excellent book is ultimately a tale of disappointment and disillusionment. But there is a heartening moment in 1950 at the height of the McCarthy era, as vindictive rightwing investigators descended on Hollywood. The deeply conservative Cecil B DeMille and his reactionary cronies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals attempted to depose the liberal Joseph L Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Writers Guild and impose a loyalty oath on all members. Wyler, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Capra came together in a grand reunion to oppose the move and they carried the day. This was the famous meeting at which Ford stood up and began by identifying himself: ‘My name is John Ford and I make westerns. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B DeMille–and he certainly knows how to give it to them… But I don’t like you, CB, I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.’

“None made a more direct and subtle statement about the prospects before them.”

[NOTE: I’ll refrain from twisting my fragile mind and spirit in knots trying to suss out the possibilities of a single statement being both direct (which Ford’s statement certainly was) and subtle (which it certainly was not). There’s a lot of that sort of evil genius at work in this review, but I’ve got more important fish to fry just now. So….]

To put it bluntly, the Ford quote–quite famous in its own right–is not in Harris’ book.

Maybe it should have been. French certainly seems to think so. But to pretend that it is, so that one can also pretend that the five directors Harris wrote about, in his “excellent book” concerning their war experiences, came back to lead lives of “disappointment and disillusionment,” in which the only really memorable event was not any of the numerous Oscars they subsequently won or classic, era-defining films they subsequently made, but a single political meeting which Harris mentions only in passing and does not quote from at all (as French clearly implies), or attach any singular importance to (as French also implies), is, well….




A quote–on Howard Hawks, as it happens, the irrelevance of which is parsed below:

A filmmaker of such varied skills also affected the outcome of a game played by my friends and me while waiting for our Film 101 course to start. We’d ask: “What was the best private eye movie ever made?” and “What was the best gangster film?” And so on till we had covered every genre from westerns to science fiction to screwball comedy. Then we’d vote and total up the score. The final list usually included these titles:

Best gangster film: “The Godfather,” “The Godfather II,” “Scarface” (the original).

Best private eye film: “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep.”

Best western: “Red River,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Rio Bravo.”

Best screwball comedy: “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Lady Eve.”

Best comedy: “Duck Soup,” “His Girl Friday,” “A Night at the Opera.”

Best science fiction: “The Thing” (the original). (We could never decide if “2001” qualified.)

Six categories, 13 titles; six of the films belong to Hawks, who also directed our list’s fourth-best Hollywood musical, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

(Source: Allen Barra, “Deep Shallow Enigma” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1997)

Now, this is nothing to do with Howard Hawks* or movies generally because I’d say the same about any list a bunch of college kids came up with regarding pretty much any subject.

But, please, critics everywhere–including those who don’t share pure delusions like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” being the “fourth-best Hollywood musical,”** or Barra’s “six categories” covering “every genre,”***–do remember this, the Seventh Maxim:

“What happens in college should stay in college.”

*(Another silly game people like to play is the “What movie can you sit down and watch any time?” Mine is El Dorado. Like I say, this isn’t about Howard Hawks.)

**(Though I do love it and actually prefer it to “Singin’ In the Rain,” which is regarded as the best by general consensus. But fourth best?….Uh, no.)

***(Barra’s categories are pretty much the ones regarded as important by collegiate sensibilities. Especially male collegiate sensibilities which tend to automatically reduce everything to the level of sports statistics. As someone who used to be trotted out in the pre-internet age if somebody wanted, say, to know who won the World Series in 1912 or the American League batting title in 1926, believe me, I know. Among the categories Barra and his friends left out: Horror, Women’s Pictures, Swashbucklers, Social Melodramas, Epics (Biblical and otherwise), Thrillers, Noir and War Movies. Not to mention that, as with other art forms, really great movies tend to defy genre anyway. Which is doubtless why, for instance, that most transcendent of all collegiate movies Citizen Kane is conveniently missing.)