BACK ON TRACK…MEANING SCARY AGAIN…BUT ONLY IF YOU’RE PAYING STRICT ATTENTION: HOMELAND SEASON 6

Homeland: Season 6

In Season 6, Homeland pulls off a miracle. In the past, including the anemic Season 5, the show has always worked best when Carrie Mathison is off her meds. That’s because Carrie has always been best at her job–keeping herself both interested and alive (she’ll settle for the second part if it comes to the rest of us, as it periodically must, in order for us to be interested as well)–when she’s gone full manic-depressive. How people who actually have the condition feel about it I don’t know nor can I judge how “realistic” this portrayal of mental illness is. But, up to now, and strictly in a narrative sense, Crazy Carrie has been interesting Carrie. More to the point, Crazy Carrie has been best adapted to deal with the cauldron around her, which only involves the security of the free world.

In Season 6, Crazy Carrie is kept firmly on the sidelines. It’s the stories that  count…and they all work.

Of course this comes with caveats. Stable Carrie is still way less stable than most people, even the monsters who surround her (and who feed and are fed by her) in the Homeland universe. And it should go without saying that not every scene works in a 12-episode arc. Maybe Shakespeare or Henry James could have kept everything boiling without wandering too far afield. But that’s too much to expect from teams of anyone, let alone teams of Hollywood moderns. Master Narrative has turned out to be a solitary art after all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand amazed at what Homeland does do–which is continue to poke a stick in the eye of the Security State’s own principal Narrative.

The Security State, however named, insists on one message: You need us.

If they were ever pressed to elaborate (as they never are) they might expand that a bit:

You KNOW you need us.

That’s their message and it is relentless.

You can tune in the broadcast channel of your choice, read the newspaper you like best (or least), or listen to talk radio, and have this message reinforced and underlined twenty-four hours a day. I doubt even Alex Jones or Michael Savage (Jones is parodied but not really captured here by the usually reliable Jake Weber, loaded up with a Texas accent Jones, a Texan, doesn’t have, and a Manchurian Candidate subplot that works pretty well in context but doesn’t score any points for originality–the idea of the rabble-rousing flamethrower being in bed with the enemy he publicly despises was old and tired when Joe McCarthy was in diapers) would really contest the idea that the CIA (or NSA or FBI or any other alphabet agency) perform useful functions if/when they are managed properly. No one else who could be called mainstream even questions the absolute necessity of the Security State’s existence.

Well no one else but whoever is responsible for Homeland.

That none of our intelligence services have ever done any demonstrable good–and have done much demonstrable harm (even the FBI, even in the operation of their one legitimate law enforcement function, which is the pursuit of criminals operating across state lines), has mattered little to the overarching public narrative.

That’s how it is with Security States. Once you permit one to exist, it will have a single, unalterable goal: It’s own survival.

This is what Homeland has done an even more brilliant job of portraying than its popcorn predecessor, 24.

One thing it hasn’t done at all well–something 24 didn’t do well either except in Seasons 1 and 5–is integrate the Personal stories with the Political and Spy stories.

This has been more disappointing in Homeland because Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are much better actors than Keifer Sutherland–and they are playing much more interesting characters.

I’m not quite prepared to call them three-dimensional. That’s a tall ask on television. But that such a question can even be considered is extraordinary.

Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson do, after all, have inner lives. And those inner lives impact how they do the jobs that keep them, and us, interested. The principal dynamic from the beginning has been Carrie’s hope/belief that she can somehow walk away from it all running into, around and (occasionally–she did try to have him killed) over Saul, who knows she can’t and knows he can never let her know. Not unless he wants to lose his best agent/asset, which she remains, always, even when, as here, she’s not working for him. In his mind, letting her go would be the same as losing himself, which–also in his mind–would be the same as losing the world.

One reason Homeland, especially Season 6, works so well, is that very little of this is foregrounded. Despite the occasional blunt, obligatory confrontation scenes–most of them intelligent though hardly deep or even clever–most of this seeps out of the air. It’s walking around inside the characters and the less they talk about it, the more undeniable its presence becomes.

The other reason Season 6 is the best since the first is that everything else finally links up with this half-buried dynamic.

Yes, Carrie’s now a full-time a mom, but that just means the State has another especially creepy and suffocating weapon to use against her. Among other things she can’ t go off her meds. At least not until the State makes a mistake and actually takes the child away–then makes clear how contingent seeing her daughter is on Carrie behaving herself before (in a twist that may or may not be revealing…is it really a mistake? or just one of those glitches even the most rigorous police state cannot avoid?) pushing their advantage too far. In an especially deft move, we don’t see Carrie’s full response. We only see Saul, in her house, staring at the signature handiwork of her manic phase that we’re familiar with from earlier seasons.

From that foundation, the story builds out. The Peter Quinn angle is finally strong and has a powerful conclusion–one that links into the fates of two characters played by actors who are given enough space to compete with Claire/Carrie and Mandy/Saul and are more than up to the task. That  F. Murray Abraham’s  Dar Adal is all that isn’t surprising. He and his character have been strong since first appearing and Abraham’s qualities as an actor are well established. But Elizabeth Marvel, saddled with the show creators’ assumption that Hilary Clinton would be President as this season unfolded, is a revelation.

My only impression of Marvel going in was as the older Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers fine version of True Grit, where she was the only weak link.

Here, she’s all presence. It’s like seeing a real-life Mattie become President, with all the terror that implies (a Mattie who wanted to avenge her father’s blood was terrifying only to his killer–a Mattie who wants to be President should scare everyone).

Of course the show cheats a bit. Whether they were caught completely off-guard and had to go with a contingency plan or simply had the foresight to have such a contingency in case Clinton lost I’m sure no one will ever credibly explain. (Someone may explain. They may have already done so. But I credit these same people with schooling me on the perils of trusting anyone.) Either way, they were caught with the prospect of an obvious Hilary stand-in. So they did the only thing they could and turned her into Donald Trump. And not the actual Trump but the Trump of liberal nightmare. Marvel’s Elizabeth Keane has Trump’s foreign policy (or at least his public campaign strategy) of curtailing the empire (i.e., the part that has him at war with the Security State in the first place). She has mobs in the street yelling death threats and “Not my President.” She’s being shivved from every side.

And she’s merciless.

Had she even (unimaginably) given it a go, the real life Hilary could never have pulled this off.

But Elizabeth Marvel does. Among other things, she does for the idea of a woman President what Hillary couldn’t do (and I’d of said the same if she won), which is what Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer did for the idea of a black president in 24.

Makes it seem as natural as breathing. So much so that I can easily imagine this performance changing the outcome of the election if it had happened two years earlier.

The Hillary-as-the-real-Trump–whether planned all along, or conjured on the fly–works better than even those of us who believe any stick is good enough to beat the Security State with could have hoped. The shadow war Trump has played out with our Stasi wannabes in the “real” world bursts into the open in Season 6 of Homeland.

And I won’t give the ending away. But if the show’s creators really did plan this all along, and really did think Hillary was going to be elected President in 2016, they’re even braver than I thought.

Which is going some.

*NOTE: Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes: Homeland delivers introspective comfort food with a satisfyingly strong leading female character and story lines that continue to surprise.

Introspective comfort food?

See what I mean about the Security State controlling the Narrative?

TO DEVIN NUNES AND ADAM SCHIFF (Late Night Dedication–Special Double Dedication Edition)

Bearing in mind that, if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee in 2016 (as well might have happened had the system not been inoculated against him) and then beaten the Republican nominee (say, Jeb Bush, as well might have happened had the system been as inoculated against Donald Trump as, down to the last toady and boot-licker, it believed itself to be), who had been granted a 90-plus percent guarantee of victory by the “independent” press and their reliable pollsters (as he would have been), then Nunes and Schiff would, with the fierce conviction of true believers, be making each other’s arguments right now, while everyone who has taken a side in the Twitter-verse along the way (for or against Security State corruption, which must be either believed or disbelieved, rooted out or abetted, according to the needs of the moment, with everyone granting themselves the right to switch sides at a moment’s notice should party loyalty demand it) would be taking the other side with the same vehemence they now hold their current position.

We may have ditched Christianity, but we’ll never ditch Puritanism…or whatever it is in human nature that causes us to believe with all our hearts and minds that anyone who opposes our most carefully guided opinions (the kind Security States specialize in shaping) must be evil or stupid or both.

In that spirit, here’s a couple of dedications from just before the Frozen Silence descended…I’ll let you decide which should be dedicated to who. It’s more fun that way, especially when all the tragedies have turned to farce.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (At the Multiplex: January, 2018)

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
D: Denis Villenueve

 

[NOTE: For more advanced and detailed thoughts than I’d be willing/able to provide without re-watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and/or re-reading Philip K. DIck’s source novel (both terrific…I just lack the time), you can go here, for Noel Vera’s review. I should probably have this site in my blogroll anyway. Soon, I promise. Spoilers in Noel’s review, but, since he’s doing the heavy lifting, none here.]

At least on a first viewing, I had the impression (it can’t be more than that on such brief acquaintance) that Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049 has surpassed Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (to which it is a sequel), as the best adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s world-view. It might even stretch that view a inch or two, which would be about as far as such a view can ever be stretched. All Dick’s big themes are there. Madness vs. sanity. Reality vs “reality.” Man’ s relationship to technology. The precise point at which one thing turns into another (man into machine, sanity into madness, “reality” into reality….or vice versa).

Creating a visual equivalent of Dick’s flat but evocative prose (except in his ability to place dreams next to nightmares with disarmingly casual ease, he was no stylist…when you can do that, who needs style?), has never been easy. Steven Spielberg tried it in Minority Report and didn’t come close. But Scott got pretty close in the original Blade Runner (is there such a thing as pedestrian grandeur?) and I think Villeneuve (with Scott producing) got even closer here, in a film that toys with the original humans vs replicants (or humans using replicants, unless, of course, it’s really the other way round) concept with just enough verve and nerve to touch something new. Seeing 2049 on a big screen (to be fair, I’ve only caught the original on tape and disc) I felt myself getting a touch emotional on a couple of occasions.

But was it me…or some spiritual simulacrum I conjured for the purpose of reclaiming a younger self who might have responded even more strongly, which was certainly more appropriate than my current self, who kept threatening not to respond at all?

Those are the kind of questions Dick’s novels always asked of me (I wouldn’t presume to speak for others, as I can imagine interpretations sufficiently different to make mine seem as incomprehensible to others as theirs would be to me), and Blade Runner (at least in its “director’s cut” version) almost asked as well. It was both refreshing and disturbing to feel those emotions watching 2049. Which I guess means it made me feel a bit more alive–not something I often experience watching movies made this millennia.

This is made a bit more interesting–to me and my simulacra anyhow–by how little I was taken with the first twenty minutes or so, when Ryan Gosling seemed even flatter than usual and the beauty Villenueve and his team would bring to some of the later scenes had yet to manifest itself fully. Whether the movie got better as it went along or simply took over my senses I can’t say. (I’d hate to say it overwhelmed my mind,. That would be creepy and I’d hardly feel comfortable recommending it to others–which I very much want to do–if I admitted all that. But I did catch myself observing myself once or twice. Only from the next seat over. I don’t want you to think I was having some kind of episode.)

Once the film did take hold, though, it was riveting, and remained so, no matter how often I replicated and re-converged. There were times when I wanted to be in this film’s world. And, when you’ve seen it, as you really should, you’ll know just how crazy that is.

Curse you Denis Villenueve. You’ve made me irrational. You’ve made me think I could accept being Ryan Gosling! Harrison Ford was one thing but this smacks of evil.

And curse you Philip K. Dick. You’ve blurred the distinction between Dystopia and Utopia yet again–and without contributing a word. Years after I swore I was past all this, I now spend part of every day looking over my shoulder and around corners. Maybe only metaphorically, but still….I came out of the theater wishing I lived in a land where Donald Trump was president despite everything the FBI could do.

That will never happen, of course. Walking out next to me, my simulacra-self at least reassured me of that!

And I believed.

In other words, it’s a trip.

BROKEN RECORD….

The open question that bled through most of last year was whether Donald Trump was willing/able to wage war against the enforcement arm of Security State tasked (by Democrats, Never Trump Republicans, the Media, the Permanent Bureaucracy, etc.) with waging war against him.

We now have the answer. He’s willing. He’s able. And he has, for the first time, significant allies.

Oh, the other side is still fighting on. My favorite moment of this week was when the media (well, CNN anyway) briefly toyed with the idea of tagging Devin Nunes as a Russian agent (as in, anyone who’s not specifically working to remove Donald Trump from office must be with the Russians too!). It’s true that the events of the last few months, culminating in the release of “the Nunes Memo” today, would be head-spinning–and deeply disturbing–if we actually lived in one of those “constitutional republics” or “liberal democracies” that prize the rule of law and such.

I mean, if there were such a thing, and Donald Trump was the only thing standing between us and its dissolution, there would be cause for concern.

Of course, my loyal readers should, by now, be inoculated against such illusions or the news of any given day, but, just in case you need a reminder, you can go here for a refresher.

And, if you need a dedication?

Well, Gene’s always here…

And so’s Eddie…

Goodbye us.

WHEN LIFE–OR AT LEAST POLITICS–IS LIKE A PATRICIA HIGHSMITH NOVEL….(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #127)

…at the moment when the doppelganger decides to become the object of his affection.**

To play him (Donald Trump) right, Reines would have to study not just Trump’s mannerisms but his platform and his style of thinking. Got it, Reines assured Klain, “I understand that this is not a Saturday Night Live character imitation.” Then he went to work on becoming Trump.

First stop: the men’s department at Nordstrom. “I need to look like Donald Trump,’ he told his suit guy. “But not like Halloween.” A week later, he’d have a slightly baggy blue suit with high cuffs–just like the Donald’s. He ordered dress shoes with three-and-a-quarter lifts, a backboard for his posture, and knee braces to combat his tendency to sway. He concluded that acquiring Trump’s carrot skin tone would be too much of a distraction–but only after covering half his face in self tanner one day to try it out. He bought Trump cuff links on Amazon and a Trump watch on eBay–for about $175. Reines even shelled out money for four podiums–two apiece for his apartment  and an office at Clinton campaign lawyer Marc Elias’s firm so that he could do mock debate sessions with friends before he faced off with Hillary. And then there was the “shackle.” Worried about leaving his supersecret prep materials in an Uber, Reines bought a heavy duty tether so that he could lock his briefcase to his wrist. He actually acquired two different versions–one of which was originally designed for bondage enthusiasts. 

(From Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, 2017)

This little tidbit is on page 325 (and concerns the Clinton campaign’s general election debate preparation). It’s the first sign of life in what was promising to be 400 of the deadest pages ever printed on dead tree pulp. Trust Donald Trump to pump life into the thing, just by being.

**NOTE–Patricia Highsmith, known round here as The Dark Lady, was the author of Strangers on a Train and the Ripley novels, among others. She is the only author I’ve read who understood sociopaths well enough to make them (as opposed to their effect on the normal people with whom they interact, which is often called a “plot”) interesting. Doppelgangers and false identities were her main thing. When she started, she looked like this…

When she finished, like this…

Understanding sociopathy at the level of real empathy wears on you. She’d have loved Donald Trump.

Better yet, she’d have understood him…and understood why (sociopath or not, and who’s to say?) his opponents (the sort of people who have substituted “bondage enthusiasts” for “the whips and chains crowd” in the name of post-Christian tolerance) continually underestimate him.

Because they’re just what he took them for.

Morons.

I KNOW….LET’S DEDICATE A SONG TO FUTURE POSSIBILITIES….

…In this case, the possibility that one of the two major American political parties will find itself on the verge of extinction in the coming year. Sure, there have been promises of such for decades. The party in ascendance is always confident they’ve put the dormant party away for good!

And it never happens.

But this year has begun filled with promise. Heck it’s not even completely out of the question that both parties could be taking on water by November.

And, should that happen, I will renew this dedication with glee.

But just in case these yahoos let met down yet again, I want them to know how I’ll feel, no matter who’s sitting under the gallows come next week or next fall…Trump, Clinton, Mueller…I’m doin’ fine now, without you baby, or any poor sod who had faith in you….whoever you are.

 

 

‘TIS THE SEASON….OF TRUMP (At the Multiplex: December, 2017)

I ventured out more than usual in December…mostly I just didn’t feel like staying home. But–and this is my idea of cheerful–you can learn things from watching the world die.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
D. Rian Johnson

I don’t remember this shot from the movie, so it might be a publicity still. Either way, I’d say it’s a problem when the Wookie has more charisma than the human. Doubly so if the human is supposed to be the center of the new galaxy far-far-away’s multi-culti dynamic.

Given the size of that central problem–assuming any under-forties can still radiate star power (I don’t get out nearly enough to make a final judgment but, based on what I have seen, the signs aren’t good), it isn’t the under-forties who are now expected to carry the central franchise of the modern world, the one which, imagination having gone the way of all flesh, all others must extend or debunk the way mold either feeds on or destroys what it attaches to–it’s amazing that the Star Wars franchise still entertains, even if I can’t imagine wanting to see anything but the original trilogy again before I die.

And it does entertain. At least if you’ve become as good at turning your brain off as I have.

Since this is the only movie here that isn’t specifically about Donald Trump–or at very least Trumpism–I blame him for lowering our expectations. Seems to be the going thing.

Catch it in the theaters. On the small screen the effects won’t be nearly as overwhelming and you’ll be stuck with the actors, none of whom are named Harrison Ford (for that, you’ll need to catch the Blade Runner update, which is incomprehensible and fantastic). Carrie Fisher, in her last role, is reduced to Earth Mother status, the very ethos she shook off like dead skin in her life and the original Star Wars movies. Mark Hamill is fine and, except for a brief appearance by Benecio Del Toro, the only point of strictly human contact to be found. Laura Dern, playing Earth Mother to the thousandth power, and against whom I held no previous grudge, actually performs a miracle of physics by creating film history’s first Black Hole right there on the screen where her character should be.

Make that to the minus thousandth power.

If only I could make myself believe anyone involved took the whole “long time ago” part seriously and was issuing this as a warning….

Like I say, catch it in the theater if you can. Unless you have more money than Donald Trump, your television’s not big enough to overpower the senses and achieve the benumbed state where this works just fine.

The Greatest Showman (2017)
D. Michael Gracey

Featuring P.T. Barnum as…..Donald Trump.

Whenever I see Michelle Williams’ name in the credits of a mainstream movie, I hold out hope that she’ll find a way to blitz the thing, the way she does with nearly all her indie performances.

There was never a chance of that happening here. Though Wiliams gets to display her warm and lovely side this is strictly a showcase for Hugh Jackman’s Barnum. He’s in fine form and the movie’s theme is hardly without contemporary relevance. This is a shallow but effective portrait of a man’s dream and a land where bunkum is all. Master it, and it will get you all: women, money, fame, the love of the common people. Really, you could walk out of this and contemplate the century-and-a-half between our consummate national huckster’s prime and the new occupant of the White House’s ascendance and be truly bedazzled that it took so long for someone to take the final, logical step.

Big drawback: They went with period music.

Our period.

(NOTE: For an odd but possibly compelling double-bill, I recommend pairing this with Jackman and Williams’ other outing, an interesting little thriller called Deception, where he plays a manipulative terrorizer of women (and others) whose hand is bigger than her head. You don’t notice until he has to drop the mask of mere avarice and actually take hold of her. Ewan McGregor’s around, but, even at the center of the thing as the yob we’re supposed to identify with, he’s not too terrible a distraction.)

All the Money in the World (2017)
D. Ridley Scott

Christopher Plummer’s gotten most of the attention for stepping in to play J. Paul Getty, the oiliest oily capitalist in the history of oily capitalism, a part Ridley Scott supposedly wanted him for the begin with, when Kevin Spacey–for whom the part was clearly made and which it’s hardly a stretch to imagine he was born to play–was instantly Stalinized for being an accused pederast in this moment when any gambit that might bring down Donald Trump (no pederast, but he has bragged–on tape no less–about “pussy grabbing”….or hadn’t you heard?) is deemed worth deploying and talent be damned.

It’s not  a disaster. Plummer’s fine even though you can literally hear the lines he sort of mumbles snapping out of Spacey’s absent mouth and smile your way through the whole thing.

The real problem–and it’s not insurmountable either–is that the other actors, especially Michelle Williams, had to re-shoot scenes which had clearly been written with Spacey’s particular charm (the oiliest actorly smarm in the history of smarm…or acting) in mind. Worse, they likely didn’t re-shoot scenes where the Getty character isn’t present. So you have to assume that Williams (and others) spent half the movie we actually see acting against the absence of Kevin Spacey’s J. Paul Getty and half acting with Plummer’s bound to be antithetical take on the same man (or, if you prefer, character).

It shows.

But you know….it still works–as both thriller and character study.

The real tension isn’t in whether Getty’s kidnapped grandson is finally freed (and I was one of the millions who didn’t have a memory of how that all worked out, so the ending was news to me), but in whether Williams’ character (Getty’s estranged ex-daughter-in-law and the kidnap victim’s mother) will ever act out.

This is Michelle Williams, after all, the only working actor who knows what to do with that very kind of scene, or at least the only one who is willing to risk going there, time and again. And I was a coiled spring, waiting to see if she would, just once, get to turn the anger she usually directs at herself (and whether it’s the characters self-immolating, time and again, or the actress herself, time and again, is a mystery that wants solving), against an object worthy of her disgust.

And….

Well, it’s worth seeing the movie to find out, so I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say watching Michelle Williams work these kind of things out for two hours is never going to be a waste of time, even if it leaves you wondering if she will ever achieve the kind of stardom that would prove the world is better than me, Donald Trump or J. Paul Getty think it can be.

Darkest Hour (2017)
D. Joe Wright

In which Gary Oldman plays an aging, crotchety leader of a fractured party, out of step with his colleagues and every aspect of their shrewd statesman-like sense of decorum, but with an uncommon feel for the common man they can but envy and behold.

Winston Churchill keeps getting mentioned, along with contemporary phenomena like abdicating kings and Dunkirk and what not. But this is clearly the first high class movie (maybe the first period, I don’t do a good job of keeping up) about Donald Trump. I mean it could be a little bit about Harvey Weinstein–old Winnie did like to go about in his bathrobe and little else whilst dictating to comely young secretaries. But Harvey’s old news now, just another of Trump’s useful footwipes and hardly better off than Kevin Spacey or J. Paul Getty (who probably finds being dead and consumed by hell fire only a slight disadvantage over having to endure the presence of humans).

It’s a fine performance. If you accept that it’s this historical fellow Churchill Oldman is after, he’s got him dead to rights. He’s the spitting image. Sounds like him too. Nothing like Richard Burton on television way back, neither looking nor sounding much like the historical fellow at all.

Odd thing, though. You could watch and listen to Burton and imagine a despondent country hearing him say “Our policy will be to WAGE WAR!” and committing on the spot to doing just that, even, as actually happened, to the point of self-extinction. And you could imagine him–and them–understanding that the only choice left was already not between survival in any meaningful sense and extinction, but between extinction with honor or subservience in disgrace.

None of that here. The England this barely worthy Trump stand-in speaks to and for is hardly worth saving and it’s an even bet whether the filmmakers meant this England to stand for 1940 or 2017.

Fine job by the makeup department, though. And good work on the accent. Who needs thunder and lighting when you’ve got all that going for you?

Bravo!

TRACK-BY-TRACK: Hot Rocks 1964-71

Hot Rocks 1964-71
The Rolling Stones (1971)

Starting something new…

[NOTE: The links below are a mix of studio and live cuts….I just picked a version that conveyed the mood.]

As my long-time readers will have guessed by now, I’m not fond of doing straight up record reviews. I’ve done a few, but not as many as might be expected given the concerns of this blog. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, and unlike movies and books, traditional record reviews seem to lack easy connections to the broader context I prefer.

But more of my free time is spent listening to music than anything else so it makes sense for me to find a way to comment more on individual records.

I’m not giving up on highlighting singles in the How Much Can One Record Mean category (“Brown Sugar” really is due), or singers in the Vocalist of the Month category. But those essays require maximum effort and concentration. Any writer only has so much of that to give.

Especially with a large part of mine going to fiction (and a fifty-hour-a-week job  on the side to pay bills and such), I’ve been looking for a way to get more music writing on here in a focused, album-oriented form. Upshot is a new category called Track-by-Track, whereby I just roll out the tracks from some classic album and say whatever comes to mind during a latest listen.

Unfiltered, I hope….

History: Hot Rocks 1964-71 is by far the biggest selling album in the Rolling Stones’ catalog, moving twelve million copies to date. The album was meant to grab money and did. The Stones had just fallen out with their manager, Allen Klein, who had reportedly duped them out of their early catalog. Mick’s deal with Beelzebub evidently didn’t prepare him for Business Mangers.

Knowing he wouldn’t have access to the band’s future material, Klein’s label (ABKCO) released Hot Rocks to cash in on the moment .

I’m sure the mercenary nature of the release was well known to the rock press of the time, and I assume it helps explain the opinions ranging from a decided coolness (see Dave Marsh in the Rolling Stone Record Guide) to outright hostility (see Robert Christgau’s contemporary B- review in the Village Voice, since collected in Christgau’s Record Guide to Rock Albums of the 70s).

Whatever their real objections, the basic stated objections to the album as a Rolling Stones’ record, was that it was both too skimpy to convey the Stones’ real significance and too obvious to be of any use to those who already understood that significance.

Well, maybe.

But Hot Rocks, while not everything it might have been, is still an essential album. All these years later, you can learn things from it.

In the “not perfect” column:

-A pedestrian front cover. The picture on the back–a Dark Angel surrounded by Cro-Magnons–is the essence of the early and mid-period Stones represented on the tracks within. As a front cover it would have been one of the best ever. The Five Haircuts look that’s there instead is neither here nor there. Not terrible but certainly not memorable. Mostly, it’s appropo of nothing. That’s something no album cover–let alone one representing the cream of a great band’s greatest period–should ever be.

-Track selection: Though it was a big hit, I’d of dropped the atypical “As Tears Go By” (done better by Marianne Faithfull anyway) and added “It’s All Over Now.” “Play With Fire,” “Ruby Tuesday”  and “Wild Horses” are all great and plenty enough to represent Mick’s ballad singing.

-And a bit of bad luck: The band co-owned the Sticky Fingers tracks with Klein/ABKCO, so “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” were available to close out the album. But one more album (Exile on Main Street) and one more year and this could have closed with “Tumbling Dice”….which would have been perfect in every way. That not being an option, whoever was making the track selection and sequencing decisions for ABKCO should have reversed the final two tracks and concluded with “Brown Sugar.” The greatest side opener in the history of albums would have made an even greater closer here…and a perfect capstone on the themes the Stones had explored from the beginning and were to become trapped by in the long years to come.

Like I say, it needs it own essay…

But against all that, there’s this. Far from being inessential to people who loved the Stones (because, per Christgau, it offered nothing not already available on their great albums), Hot Rocks had much to offer even the acolyte, then and now. “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Honky Tonk Women”–all huge hits and three of their (or anyone’s) most essential–weren’t on any original album. “Mother’s Little Helper” hadn’t been on any original US album. The live version of “Midnight Rambler” was stronger than the (still great) studio version on Let It Bleed and only available on a live album Christgau did not recommend. That meant nearly twenty percent of what Hot Rocks placed in the company of the band’s greatest and most iconic music was, at the time, either not available on albums of similar quality…or any album at all.

Sounds like a bargain to me.

It’s still a bargain.

1st Disc:

“Time Is On My Side”–Perfect. The Stones’ first American top ten. Irma Thomas still claims they swiped it from her and that it was her big chance for a pop hit. That’s nonsense. It was her B-side of an A-Side that went #52 Pop. Anyway, she had swiped it from Kai Winding, the whiter-than-white big band leader who recorded the original the previous year. Her version was fine, (love the spoken word part). But even if they’d gone head-to-head, the Stones would have won the old-fashioned way–by being better. Especially great here, because you don’t have to hold your breath waiting to find out if it’s one of Mick’s epic fails–which were not infrequent in the days when he was learning Black American English phonetically.

“Heart Of Stone”–The Great Theme arrives, best summed up as: Just Try It Bitch. With a searing guitar break, of course. Those were already the band’s other great theme.

“Play With Fire”–Did I mention a Theme? The boy’s quick, too. Only took him a heart-of-stone beat to move up from Street Lollies to the Aristocracy. Minor Aristocracy maybe, but still. He hates her worse, too. Just like a poor boy should. Especially if the poor part was faux.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The great leap, especially the vocal. Servants to the Blues no longer. From now on, they would play master. Or, if they felt like it, “Massa.” Just try and stop them. And, of course, they did it with a lyric that pretended they weren’t getting what everybody knew you weren’t getting, even if you made it with three chicks the week they (or was it their chick?) were on a losing streak. Didn’t tell any of your chicks not to play with fire, did you? No matter how bad you wanted to? Didn’t think so.

“As Tears Go By”–The closest thing to a weak track. Not really weak, but no aspect of it–lyrics, music, vocal–fit the Stones’ ethos and that makes it a drag on any album, even it it always sounded okay on the radio.

“Get Off Of My Cloud”–Lethal. Just Try It Bitch switched out for hare-brained politics. Just Try It World! I’ll make you feel so-o-o-o-o bad. And who lives on the ninety-ninth floor anyway? Surely not the Aristocracy.

“Mother’s Little Helper”–Their side-wipe at Middle Class Hypocrisy. Mom whines about the kids and everything else, but is on her way to OD’ing on Tranquilizers. Ha, ha, ha!. A touch obvious and nothing Shaw hadn’t done better decades before. But they sounded exactly like an addled American garage band catching their one moment of inspiration and that was a huge part of their cachet.  Also a neat sideways bend into the folk rock that would define them in ’66 and ’67 as Brian Jones set out to prove that you didn’t have to be a hypocrite to wind up in the bottom of the swimming pool, not breathing.

“19th Nervous Breakdown”–A perfect fusion of their purely musical R&B roots and their lyrical misogyny, which was just left-field enough for those who needed them to be something other than louts to project as irony…or, better yet, “irony.” You know, the kind no one gets but you. But they really did walk a fine line between empathy and assault….for a while.

“Paint It Black”–A whisper-to-a-scream call to the stalker lurking inside Everyman. Shaded by the possibility that, in 1966, Everyman was, like as not, a nineteen-year-old clearing a rice paddy with an M-16.

“Under My Thumb”–The Aristocracy nailed. Then ruled. Not by you….but you could dream, if you were so inclined. This is probably what Harvey Weinstein–fourteen in the summer of ’66–meant when he said things were different when he was growing up.

“Ruby Tuesday”–A rare and beautiful exception to the rule, perhaps because Keith wrote the lyrics about someone (a Show Biz kid named Linda Keith) for whom he had enough affection to alert her English actor dad when she was on the verge of disappearing forever. Into the underbelly of New York city and the arms of Jimi Hendrix as it happened. A rescue operation was launched. She was saved. Whether it was written before, during or after, this is about the hope that she–and the thousands like her who were a new phenomenon of the culture that enabled the Stones, and which they enabled in turn–would be. That’s still what it’s about.

“Let’s Spend The Night Together”–Ode to a one night stand with someone who is probably not Ruby Tuesday. Back on track, back on the sly, and a perfect close–musically, lyrically, spiritually–to the first period.

2nd Disc:

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”–The end draws near for the Brian Jones era with (coincidentally or not) the first entry in the Stones’ advanced efforts to find (or was it create? and from what?) the perfect rock and roll record by fusing straight up rape-and-pillage music with a stance on the era’s politics that had something for everyone. You could be one with them (by pretending they were merely being “ironic”) or you could be appalled by them (by believing they meant what they said, even if they remained at arm’s length from everyone, including themselves). But good luck trying to ignore them.

“Street Fighting Man”–And then they doubled down…Worth remembering they turned the sixties back on themselves before Altamont.

“Sympathy For The Devil”–Brian Jones now reduced to “backing vocalist.” On Wikipedia, this is referred to as “samba rock.” Of course it is. Is that why I can still hear Satan laughing? Then again, if ever a record could constitute its own category….

“Honky Tonk Women”–MIck Taylor introduces himself, and, unbelievably, a harder edge, abetted here by Reparata and the Delrons, among others. The Shangri-Las, alas, were not available. Just as well. If they had been, the world might have cracked open. Not especially memorable in its “Country Honk” incarnation on Let It Bleed (where it didn’t bleed a bit). Here it bleeds. And, for those counting that’s four “most perfect ever rock and roll records in a row”…and, for once, just possibly ironic, no matter how often MIck and/or Keith had ever met a gin-soaked barroom queen, in Memphis or anywhere else.

“Gimme Shelter”–Make that five in a row….irony grows distant. It can’t keep company with dread. If it’s not really a celebration of rape (and the destruction of everything)–or at least of the victim learning to want what the rapist wants (which is one way for everything to end)–it’s not really scary is it? But at least they hired a woman to talk back.

“Midnight Rambler (Live)”–Longer, looser and tougher than the excellent version on Let It Bleed. And if “I’ll stick my knife right down your throat” has ever sounded “ironic” anywhere, it certainly isn’t here. The theme seems fully formed by now….As though there could be no further developments. There were to be further developments.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”–Donald Trump’s theme song, from Day One of his campaign to date. It’s now obvious they wrote it for him…and only him. Steve Bannon he sent packing. Not this. There are those who believe its selection could only have been focus-grouped. They’re the same people who have spent thirty straight months getting their teeth kicked in and promising tomorrow will be different. Somewhere or other, somebody once said “Childhood living is easy to do…” I’ll keep listening. It’ll come to me.

“Brown Sugar”–Further developments. Slave rape. The irresistible joy of it no less. Top Five all over the English-speaking world in 1971. #1 in the U.S. (I have no idea what this says about them, or us). And, if irony, meaningless. I still expect them to play it with gusto at Trump’s second inaugural. Not only that, it has a good beat and you can dance to it! This probably should have closed…but it sounds great coming from the fade of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” as if they were re-purposing themselves for one last great thrust.

“Wild Horses”–And, finally, the rapist wants what the victim wants…”Now you’ve decided to show me the same.” Lolly? Aristocrat? Super model? Royalty? I still wonder.

Maybe it’s just as well it closes here.

WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY? POWER CORRUPTS?

Who knew?

On the surface, he was his usual imperturbable, confident, genial self. In reality, however, he was shaken, resentful, angry, and determined to get even. Francis Biddle, who served as solicitor general and attorney general under Roosevelt, once described him as “an Old Testament Christian, who believed that his friends should be rewarded and retribution visited on his enemies, for….once his will was marshaled behind a defined vision, it became sinful for others to interfere with its fruition.”

According to the journalists Joseph Alsop and Turner Catledge, FDR “had made up his mind that if he had to suffer, the men in Congress whom he held responsible would suffer doubly later on.” Urged on by his closest advisers, he decided to lead an effort in the 1938 congressional primaries to defeat a select group of conservative Democratic senators and congressmen who had opposed the court-packing proposal. (Wheeler [the Montana senator who had led the opposition], who was not up for reelection that year, had his income tax return audited for the first time in his life.)

(Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941, Lynne Olson, 2013)

Franklin Roosevelt earned his monument in Washington. But there’s a reason the Founders put checks and balances in their system…and a reason the Creator put limits on a man’s lifespan.

I mean, if I had played a game and substituted Donald Trump’s name for FDR’s….hahahahaha!

GOODBYE TO 2017….

Interesting year. No idea what lies ahead….But.

Like a lot of people, I took a real hit from Google changing their search parameters (or whatever it is they do) in June. Up to that point, this blog had steady quarter-by-quarter growth for five years. In the last six months of 2017, views and visits dropped off about 25 percent, making this the first year I didn’t improve over the previous one (I was down about eight percent for the year).

On the other hand, the comments increased dramatically, so I traded some quantity for a lot of quality. That’s a deal I’ll take any day, though I hope things will get cracking in the new year so it’s not a choice I have to make!

Anyway, that’s one of the main reasons I slacked off considerably in December, hoping to recharge the batteries and hit the ground running in 2018.

The other reason is I ran up against a sort of existential spiritual dilemma (I hesitate to call it a crisis) which is going to require me to make some serious decisions about my personal life and goals in the next few months…Don’t worry, if anything major happens, I’m sure I’ll be blogging about it!

Meanwhile, here are posts I have in the hopper, just waiting a moment of inspiration for me to finish them…

-A continuation of my meditations on John Ford’s People (beginning with the latest on The Searchers)

-Vocalist of the Month features on Brenda Lee (pretty far along) and Sandy Denny (nascent but promising)

-The revelation of My Favorite Book of Movie Criticism

-A new category called Track-By-Track where I break down some classic albums with what I hope will be a fresh approach to record reviewing.

-Nothing specific, but I’ll step in on the Trump Era when a moment of clarity arrives. Just FYI, my gut had him a slight favorite to win the election throughout 2016 (which put my gut in a very small minority). My gut has him a slight favorite to emerge the winner in his war with the Security State which will almost certainly come to a head in 2018. Stay tuned….

-Plus a continuation of my other new category of Handy Tens and all the other usual ongoing features.

Meanwhile, I’m gonna keep listening to Gene…

and Eddie…

And hoping for good things in a Happy New Year!