GETTIN’ BUSY IN HERE (Quarterly Book Report: January through March, 2015)

Okay, I might have to go back to monthly reports. Suddenly I have time to read again…Meanwhile, a quarter’s worth of grab-bag:

Breakheart Pass (Alistair MacLean–1974)

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By the seventies, MacLean was transferring his well-honed thriller formula to more and more exotic settings with (according to a consensus of those who plowed through his later novels at least) less and less success. This “western” version is a pretty good one, though. It’s not The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare by any means, but it moves along crisply and builds some real tension and surprise along the way. What you’d expect from an expert romanticist who was tired but not yet quite worn out.

A Game For the Living (Patricia Highsmith–1958)

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A bit of a tease–rather like A Tremor of Forgery, the only other Highsmith I’ve read that lacked a distinctly American flavor. Even the Ripley novels, with their European settings, feel like a coming to terms with Highsmith’s homeland but here, the flavor and setting are strictly Mexico.

Still, she knew the place well, and, if you read a line like this, early on…

“Theodore did not want to get into a discussion of the Catholic versus the Protestant conscience or, what was worse, the Catholic conscience versus Ramon’s idea of ‘Existentialist’s conscience,’ which was no conscience at all to Ramon. Just because he did not torture himself, as Ramon did, for having an affair out of wedlock!”

…you might expect a narrative where souls are at stake, if not lives. But it turns out she doesn’t drum up much interest in either. Maybe she needed America and Americans more than she thought.

Anyway the novel is best when it’s searching for the soul of its setting.

“The police arrived, two ordinary policeman in uniform, and in a somewhat bored manner went over the house and listed the items Theodore said were missing and their value. Theodore knew he would never see them again. One almost never saw stolen things again in Mexico, and the POLICIA accepted robberies–little house robberies like this–with a resigned shrug. It was no doubt their conviction that people with so much money ought to be robbed now and then, that it did no harm and did the poor possibly some good. And Theodore, too, felt rather the same way.”

The POLICIA do, of course, investigate a little further than Theodore expects, but only because a murder is involved. As with all her novels, nothing much happens. Even murder feels ordinary. Unlike most of her novels, in this one, the nothingness behind the central murder never quite materializes into that moment of existential dread which was her specialty. What you do get a philosophy of life, which I suspect is pretty close to the author’s own unique combination of not-quite-nihilism and not-quite-not-nihilism:

“If the earth became a hunk of metal, or disintegrated and vanished in particles too small for scientists’ eyes or even their microscopes to find, wasn’t there some beauty in that, beauty in the idea, if nothing else? It seemed quite as beautiful as three billion sweating or freezing human beings creeping around on a globe.”

Highsmith’s basic idea was that murder lay in the hearts of practically everyone–perhaps more deeply in the hearts of the mundane spirits than in anyone else. Since neither of her main characters here ever seems remotely capable of murder and since no one else is developed enough for the reader to have an interest, the dread never comes.

The Dark Lady is always interesting and I always approach her with extra care, but this time she didn’t leave a mark.

Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of The Mamas & The Papas (Matthew Greenwald–2002)

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First let me say (and I doubt this was the author’s fault), that this is the most incompetently produced book I’ve ever seen from a reputedly professional publisher. Spelling errors, grammatical glitches and/or malapropisms abound on nearly every page.

That being said, you should still read it if you have any interest in the group or their times. It’s not like there’s a really serious study out there and hearing this basic history in the words of the people who made it is fascinating…not least because you know you can’t trust a single one of them as far as you can throw one of those mountains you can supposedly see from the ocean California is supposed to slide into some day.

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Sharyn McCrumb–1990)

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The first McCrumb I’ve read. The mystery/thriller part is standard enough, but the book is immensely valuable for its quietly effective and realistic depiction of small-town America in general and Appalachia in particular, a people and region who are rarely well-served by either fiction or life. On nearly every page you can find a little gem like this:

“Jeff McCullough found out a lot of things just because people stopped him in the street and asked about them, thinking that the local newspaperman would know more about it than they did.”

That’s the life of a small town journalist in thirty-three words and McCrumb offers up a town full of the same.

Naturally, when it came time for somebody to use this general setting for one of those “realistic” television shows that give the intelligentsia such a thrill, they picked Elmore Leonard, who couldn’t tell it from Detroit or Miami, to set the agenda.

Of course they did.

Growing Up Patton (Benjamin Patton with Jennifer Scruby–2012)

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Multi-generational memoir from the grandson of the legendary WWII general and son of his highly successful namesake (also a general who served with distinction in Viet Nam). Benjamin Patton picked a different path and became a documentary filmmaker, a journey which led him to, among other things, develop a program where soldiers with PTSD (the kind his grandfather once famously slapped) document their experiences.

It’s not a “gotcha” memoir by any means, though. Rather the opposite. The grandson writes from a perspective of understanding what was valuable about his family’s military tradition and the enormous service both his father and grandfather rendered. Hence, along with stories of the many individuals they impacted, there are reams of good advice from both men, none of which is likely to be heeded by anyone conducting our present or future wars. Too bad. We’ll probably need to relearn the lessons they taught if we ever have to win one again. And we probably won’t.

For all that, the best anecdote, concerning the elder Patton, comes early on and confirms everything his admirers and critics ever dreamed or dreaded about him:

“Once when he was rehearsing his young daughter for a horse show, he berated her constantly, criticizing and cussing her, finding everything wrong, her posture, the way she handled her horse, her method of taking the jumps. He finally shouted in anger, ‘Get off that goddamn horse and let me show you how to do it.’ Meekly she climbed down, a chubby twelve-year-old, and he took her place. Resplendent and supremely self-confident in his horsemanship, he prepared to jump. As he spurred toward the obstacle, she was heard to say, ‘Dear God, please let that son of a bitch break his neck.'”

Such is love.

Garnethill (Denise Mina–1998)

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A highly praised, 400-page snigger at the expense of rape, incest and abuse victims. It’s dressed up as empathy of course, complete with an improbably off-the-cuff revenge fanstasy and wrapped in a whodunit plot so transparent even I (notoriously bad at the game) guessed who the baddie was. The edition I bought has, as an addenda, a featured interview with the author, who reveals that she loves Glasgow (her adopted home and the novel’s setting) for its poverty and crime. Keeps it real and all.

Let me say that, having just finished her novel, I was not surprised. She does have one moment of honesty at the end of the book when the wee adorable lassies she has so fervently wished us to love and cherish throughout turn out, not as surprisingly as I suspect Mina intended, to be what they would call “pricks.”

In Glasgow slang that’s now apparently the worst thing you can call a woman. Bet you won’t need three guesses to know the worst thing you can call a man. (Hint, it starts with a c.) Ha ha ha. If this really is modern Scotland, I’m glad my ancestors got out.

[NOTE: Besides all that, I finished a Kennedy assassination book which I’m planning to review for BWW shortly. And I’m still pondering how to handle Devin McKinney’s book on the Beatles but I’ll definitely address it further in one venue or the other…I’ll also probably do a separate post on Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, which I’m currently reading and is certainly worth some extra attention…Til then.]

 

JENNIFER ANISTON DOES RIGHT BY THE SEVENTIES….WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THE BELLAMY BROTHERS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #37)

Sometime in the hurly-burly of the last few weeks I managed to catch America’s Last-Girl-Next-Door-To-Whom-We-Are-Clinging-With-All-Our-Might in her two latest.

Horrible Bosses 2 is at the multiplex, devoid of whatever spark of wit or originality the original had (not over much, admittedly, but pretty good by modern standards). This time around, Our Jen’s character has been transformed from a serial sex abuser to a comic rapist.

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And, hey, who doesn’t find that amusing?

Funny thing, though. Like pretty much anything, she’s good at it–by which I mean comic rape and winning people over. Believe me, long before this was half-done, I definitely wanted to see her do something to that same crew I was sort of rooting for the first time around.

So, yeah, I’d probably go see a Horrible Bosses 3–but only if the advance buzz has her off-ing the lot.

Better, though, when she’s given something to do, which she definitely is in Life of Crime, the festival bait (based on Elmore Leonard’s Switch) which was shown around last year, slipped into a few dozen theaters a few months back and then sent straight to video.

You know things have come to a pretty pass when a faithful Elmore Leonard adaptation, set in crapulent seventies-era Detroit, serves as a palate cleanser.

But the juxtaposition was instructive, a vivid reminder that “the seventies” are another country in a way that no subsequent decade is…the last nervous moment before the Great American Stupor–of which Horrible Bosses 2 is such a splendid example–set in.

And that juxtaposition is all down to Aniston. I’ve said it before, but it’s a shame she missed the decade she would have been most at home in. Everybody else in the movie is playing it as though 1980 had already come and gone and nothing has changed since so it might as well be yesterday.

Not this womanl. She gets that the distinction is more than a change of hairstyles:

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I wouldn’t want to post any footage from the movie. YouTube has the evil eye on me right now and, anyway, the North Koreans might not like it. But those stills convey the starting point–the core of a performance that starts brittle and ends free, a true transformation that’s way too subtle to attract raves or nominations for anything. Just another brick in the wall.

Too bad. It’s by far the best thing in a good-not-great movie and it’s about ten times as good as “it” girl Jennifer Lawrence’s much lauded, Oscar-nominated walk-through in American Hustle (another take on a period trophy wife which is truly timeless–it doesn’t owe a thing to a thing, certainly not to any possible distinctions between then and now, though I grant if Lawrence was trying to carry the Method to the logical extreme of making her own obvious boredom palpable,she succeeded brilliantly).

And in a movie with an exceptionally fine soundtrack (the period stuff is, for once, seamlessly interpolated with the modern mood music–naturally its not available on CD), the big-smile moment comes when Aniston’s character gets high with her former kidnapper (yeah, it’s an Elmore Leonard story alright) and the just-right music is playing:

 

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.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Sometimes, the Western Really Does Go Everywhere)

Captain Phillips (2013) channels 3:10 to Yuma (1957)

(WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen either film)

I’m careful about proclaiming just any old American (or Americanized) narrative a “western” (“noir” is the other catchall descriptive that gets around, often after being recognized as a subset, or extension, or consummation, of, well, westerns–these notions, like some who perpetuate them, can get tricky).

However….

In 2007, James Mangold remade 3:10 to Yuma, the classic Glenn Ford/Van Heflin western based on an Elmore Leonard short story and directed by the estimable and too-oft overlooked Delmer Daves. Mangold (a fairly estimable director himself–Walk the Line is first-rate) and his talented cast (Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, et al) made such a hash of things that it was possible to walk out of the theater thinking westerns can’t really be at the heart of everything when they aren’t even at the heart of westerns anymore.

But then Mangold’s version wasn’t really a remake, or even a re-imagining of either Leonard’s original story or Daves’ film. Whatever the intent, it ended up being a cartoon. And, no, not one of those cartoons which are rooted in westerns.

The real remake arrived in theaters a few weeks ago, disguised as Tom Hanks’ worthy (one might almost say tiresomely worthy) bid for a third Oscar, Captain Phillips.

Oh, I know Captain Phillips is based on a true story. I even have a pretty good sense that, for once, the movie may actually adhere pretty closely to the events it is based upon. But that doesn’t disprove my theory. Life wouldn’t know what to do with itself if it didn’t have art to imitate.

So once more, a decent, hard-working, put-upon family man sets off to accomplish a dangerous mission for the sake of an earnest monetary reward. Once more, he finds himself trapped in a small space, trading wits with a charismatic, psychologically adroit villain. Once more the “villain”–ruthless enough in each case to kill a member of his own criminal enterprise without a second thought*–turns out to have both an honor code and a human side that very much includes a growing soft spot for the good man. In each case, the bad man ends up on the way to prison and the good man goes home to his family. And in each case there is a strong hint that the good man has what the bad man truly wants–call it the emotional security which only home and family can provide.

To be sure there are many differences as well. There’s even a crucial twist on the basic theme–in the bobbing, claustrophobic, nodulized life-boat of Captain Phillips, the bad man has hold of the good man (which means the cavalry, here played a U.S. Navy which is never more safely anonymous and faceless than when one of them is given some screen time–Ford’s Ben Wade would be able to teach them nothing about cold-blooded efficiency) is on the way, while in the shadow-striped, still-as-death hotel room of 3:10 to Yuma, the good man has hold of the bad man, and it’s the bad man’s outlaw band (led by Richard Jaeckel at high tide, so one need not worry about facelessness or anonymity) who are riding to the rescue.

And the differences do tell us something. For instance, in 3:10, Ford and Heflin may be from opposite sides of the law, but they are from the same world. In Captain Phillips, Hanks and the mesmerizing Barkhad Abdi (playing the Somali pirate leader Muse) may as well be from different planets. (Their deepest connection, in fact, comes in the harrowing action sequence when Muse and his little band are taking over Phillips’ ship. It’s the moment when, as skilled commanders of ships in battle, they have the most in common, even if one ship is a tiny but lethal motor boat and the other a massive but vulnerable and unarmed freighter.)

What impressed me, though, is not so much a difference as a yawning chasm: namely, why 3:10 to Yuma is a movie I’ll watch as long as I have eyes and I could miss seeing Captain Phillips a second time without my life feeling in any way diminished. And why I suspect the case would never be the other way around for anybody, though many could dismiss either and many more could simply enjoy both and let it go at that.

Both movies are made with consummate skill and, honestly, that superlative sequence where Abdi’s pirates take over Hanks’ boat–done as well as an action scene can be–has no equivalent whatsoever in 3:10 to Yuma. There’s tension in the western, but not much action. In Captain Phillips the new, post-western narrative model holds sway–there’s action without much tension.

I can’t say the absence of real tension was simply because I knew the ending going in. If anything, 3:10 to Yuma, which I’ve been watching regularly for years, gets more tense every time I see it, because the more I watch it, the more I feel the weight of what’s really at stake. And, believe me, Tom Hanks emotes at the end of Captain Phillips like nobody’s business. You can feel his relief at being rescued gush out of him.

He’s very, very present.

What’s not present is a sense of something bigger than himself. Some moment that offers the equivalent of Van Heflin’s Dan Evans explaining to his wife why he can’t back down from the task of walking Ben Wade to the train station, even though the reason for his taking on the job in the first place–two hundred dollars–has long since become irrelevant.

He can’t back down because, if he did, there would be nothing left inside of him.

In Captain Phillips, Richard Phillips and Muse really are no more than ships in the night. They happened to collide–a point that is too fully realized by the utter inability of anyone but the two leads to make an impression, while Yuma is filled with faces that matter. The solid direction by Paul Greengrass, the fine performance by Hanks and the riveting one by Abdi–none of it can quite mask that fundamental absence of belonging to something that is worth belonging to.

So the events of 3:10 to Yuma’s fictional story change everyone they touch and it’s possible to imagine they would change you if they happened to you.

There’s no sense that the events of Captain Phillips actually change even the real life characters who lived it–that Richard Phillips’ future will be much altered beyond the residual effects of the inevitable book and movie contract or that Muse’s future in an American prison will be much different than the quasi-prison piracy had already put him in. And there’s no sense these events would change you either except that–much like a car accident or any other random event–you’d be happy you survived.

That’s the new triumph of civilization, what the modern non-culture can still give us at the movies and pretty much everywhere else: Survival is the new emptiness and emptiness is the new fulfillment and, heck, we should all be grateful for it.

There’s cool stuff at the multiplex.

Lucky us.

What more could we ask for?

(*NOTE–It was unclear, to me at least, whether Abdi’s Muse actually kills a rival pirate during an early scene in Captain Phillips. Since he cold-cocks him with a heavy metal object, it’s reasonable to assume he was willing to kill him, which makes the point even if he doesn’t go about it anywhere near as cold-bloodedly as Ben Wade does in 3:10 to Yuma.)

NOT THAT HE WOULD WANT MY SYMPATHY GOD LOVE HIM (Elmore Leonard, R.I.P.)

Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of his crime writing.

Too much of the Cain/Thompson/Ellroy school in his approach I’m afraid.

I’ve never really been interested in the quandary of an amoral man walking through an amoral universe. And, if the writer starts pretending his amoral man isn’t really amoral–Leonard’s more usual approach–so much the worse.

So what he was best known for always left me a touch cold. I never completely warmed to it even though his prose was every bit as swift and effective as his legion of admirers profess and his source story for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was evidently strong enough to impose narrative discipline even in the desolate space between that wunderkind’s ears (with a very good movie resulting for once).

However…

If there often seemed to be just a little more to Leonard than to Cain or Thompson (who really were pretty close to being nihilists and that “pretty close,” especially in Thompson’s case, may be kind) or to noise machines like Ellroy who came along afterwards, then it was probably attributable to his background in westerns, where he did some genuinely fine things.

Some of those fine things got made into even finer things when the movies got hold of them. I’d point particularly to Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, the former one of the great westerns of the form’s golden age, the latter one of the greatest films ever made irrespective of era or genre. Even in such capable hands, it’s not likely either would have been quite as good without the cant-free strengths of their common source.

Once Leonard broke free of the moral constraints imposed by audience expectations in the last age of the pulp western’s cultural ascendance, however, he was basically on his own, bereft of even the most basic sorting devices. That’s a place no writer should ever be and he didn’t respond any better than anybody had a right to expect.

No, he didn’t turn into a genuine bomb-thrower. He wasn’t James Ellroy, forever calling for a police state and using his own novels as the evidence for how badly we need one. Nothing like that.

He just kind of drifted. You know, morally speaking. He got his ethics from his professionalism–the safe ground that isn’t safe at all.

The end result was that his prose got better and better…and covered less and less.

In his latter days, he was responsible, albeit indirectly, for Justified, which is one of those takes on southern white trash that makes it possible, for just a moment, for southern whites to get a small taste of what black people must feel when yet another Hollywood version of ghetto life springs forth.

In other words, he wasn’t entirely harmless just because he had emptied himself out.

I mention this because it was easy to be fooled. Appearances could be deceiving.

By the time he passed away today, he was, image-wise at least, a rather gentle curmudgeon, forever offering up writing tips to people who thought he was a stone cold genius. I give him enormous credit for never giving the appearance of believing the hype himself, or pretending to be anything but the solid, ethical pro he was. And I won’t worry too much about the rest. He wasn’t the sort of writer who can hurt us too much from the beyond. And if there’s anything that needs to be sorted out between him and the universe, then it’s nothing to do with me.

I will say that the chance he might have turned into a better version of Larry McMurtry (not saying the actual version is less than very good) will always be an intriguing one.

But that chance got lost along the way. It was gone a long time before “Dutch” went on to face whatever state of judgment or oblivion is really waiting.

So I’ll celebrate the best of what he did do, which was basically writing a thick volume of very good western stories and inspiring a raft of good-to-great movies.

Hombre, Out of Sight, Valdez is Coming, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma.

The Complete Western Stories.

That’s a worthy legacy for any writer. Especially for one who lost his way and kept being assured otherwise.

Usually by people I’ll always prefer to believe he was too smart to trust.

 

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #4)

First two songs that feed each other:

The O’Jays “Love Train” (Television Performance)

The O’Jays “Backstabbers” (Television Performance)

Then on to things that feed only themselves:

I have to confess that what is now called “serious” television tends to leave me cold. I’ve taken various, multiple shots at letting The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Breaking Bad, among others, into my brain and basically come up with some version of “life’s too short” after half an hour or so each and every time.

The one show of this high-falutin’ sort that I have occasionally managed to sit through entire episodes of is Justified. No idea why. I’m not a hater–like I said, life’s too short–so I only have three basic, if rather wide-ranging, reactions to any sort of art and those are basically as follows:

“This is great!”

“This is fun.”

“Meh.”

Somehow, Justified, like a lot of things Elmore Leonard has been involved in since he left westerns (where he was sometimes great and nearly always fun–or at least unpretentious), occasionally nudges over the line from the upper reaches of “meh” to the lowest level of “fun.” And Justified manages to do that even though its white trash chic (an approach that usually has my one and only deeply felt, bound-to-take-it-somewhat-personally version of “meh” encoded in its DNA–ask anybody who has ever lived among “white trash” and we/they will tell you “yeah I/we know somebody like that,” all the while wondering–like every other tramped-on “out” group–why it’s only the fools the rest of ya’ll are interested in).

So once in a while when I’m clicking around and nothing else is on I find myself watching all or part of an episode and this week the one I stopped on featured one of those “hey, let’s play a cool tune everybody knows as the soundtrack for some gruesome violence” scenes. In this case it involved the O’Jays’ “Love Train” playing behind a scenario where an assassin was trying to beat some information out of a dopey-looking deputy sheriff who was (surprise, surprise!) tougher than he looked and (shock and awe!) somehow managed to get hold of a weapon and slay his deadly tormentor.

To be fair, at this stage of civilization’s devolution it’s pretty hard to write scenes the world hasn’t seen a hundred times before and this one was done about as well as a complete non-surprise can be. But it was the choice of music that woke me up enough to start me thinking.

I have no idea what thought process went into having “Love Train” play behind the scene and I honestly didn’t even catch whether the music was actually being experienced by the characters (on the radio perhaps) or was being used as background “scoring.”

Perhaps it was meant ironically. Watch the meanie beat the tough little deputy’s teeth in while “People all over the world, join hands” sings along. That sort of thing.

Or possibly it just fit the rhythm of the beat down.

Or maybe it was just catch-as-catch-can on somebody’s Ipod and seemed like it would get the job done.

Who knows?

I certainly don’t. But I found myself caring a little bit because the song took me out of the scene. And if I had to explain why, I’d probably say it was because every other scenario in which I’ve ever been likely to hear the song–on the radio in some free-form oldies’ or R&B format where America always seems like a very big place indeed; on the O’Jay’s own great Backstabbers LP; on the various AM Gold or Gamble and Huff comps that are scattered through my record collection–is part of a bigger, better, living, breathing, world than the one Justified’s creators keep trying to convince me they have a real handle on.

I made it through the rest of the episode, but the game was up. Either deliberately or otherwise (one problem with the nihilism-is-the-coolest-thing-going game is that you never can tell what’s deliberate–even the creators themselves aren’t that far inside) the show’s decision makers had made the mistake of pointing up their own phoniness.

I’m not saying I won’t watch Justified again. If it gets late enough and my brain has been reduced to crawling I’m sure there will be some night or other when it’s still the best thing on. It ain’t that hard to beat Erotic Shop commercials and CNN.

But there had been moments previously when the night-crawler part of my brain thought it might actually turn into real fun.

To quote another vintage prophet who had to compete with folks like Gamble and Huff on the radio back in the day and therefore didn’t have the option of wallowing in his own occasional tendency to make music that could be played without irony during a teeth-kicking if he wanted to keep up:

“Won’t get fooled again.”