“OH WHAT TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE…(What We Should Expect From Critics: Nineteenth Maxim)

…When first we practice to deceive

(Walter Scott, 1808)

“Dolly Parton’s “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” released as a single in 1969 and included on Parton’s The RCA Years 1967-1986 (RCA), is best heard on the hard-to-find A Real Live Dolly Parton, a 1970 RCA LP recorded at Sevier County High School, Parton’s alma mater, which also features “Bloody Bones,” a ditty about orphans who burn down their orphanage.”

(Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, “Notes and Discographies,” 2008 edition, p. 360, emphasis mine)

“But Warren Smith (1933-80) had no real affinity for the black rhythms rockabilly took off from (though Smith, in his heart an Appalachian balladeer, can be heard for the quirky delight he was on his Classic Recordings: 1956-59, Bear Family, an ideal Sun retrospective that includes the devastating “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache,” “Ubangi Stomp”–one of the only rockabilly records with the word ‘nigger’ in it–“Black Jack David,” and “So Long I’m Gone.”)”

(Ibid, pp. 368, 369, emphasis mine)

I always wonder. Are they delusional or do they just lie?

I finally got hold of that “hard-to-find” Dolly Parton LP this week, based entirely on Marcus’s recommendation which had been floating around in my head since I read the 1984 edition of Mystery Train. It’s a good album (everything she did in that period was at least good). I didn’t worry too much that the LP’s version of “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” was no patch on the studio recording and cut in half to boot, that this clearly wasn’t the best place to hear it. Such things are a legitimate matter of opinion.

But imagine my surprise when, after all these years, “Bloody Bones” which I had never even listened to on YouTube because I wanted to hear it the first time in the full context of Dolly singing it live in front of her home town crowd, turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with orphans or orphanages or burning anything down. By all means listen, because I could never convey with mere words just how far from the reality Marcus strayed.

While I was reconfirming his account of “Bloody Bones” I read around in the other “Notes” and came across the assertion that Warren Smith, recording for Sam Phillips’ Sun label in the 50’s had actually used the word “nigger” in “Ubangi Stomp” which was his followup to the regional hit “Rock and Roll Ruby” and an obvious attempt to break him nationally.

I’d heard “Ubangi Stomp” a dozen or so times over the years and two or three times very recently and this allegation had me scratching my head. So I listened to the song three more times last night and also looked up the lyrics on the internet.

No one who follows along here will be surprised to learn that Warren Smith did not say “nigger” on “Ubangi Stomp”–a song that is actually about being so caught up by the native music of Africa that the white boy decides to abandon ship and maybe, just maybe, take up with a local girl.

One thing this particular encounter with classic Crit-Illuminati tactics brought to light was a possible reason Marcus, among many others, have treated Bill Clinton like an untouchable hero instead of the snake oil scumbag he so obviously was and remains.

When the reality is too discomforting to confront…make things up.

Unfortunately, per Philip K. Dick, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Hence the Nineteenth Maxim:

Pay attention and don’t lie. And if you fail to follow this, don’t be surprised to find yourself living in a world you despise.

SHE MAY WANT TO GO THERE WHEN SHE DIES…BUT SHE WASN’T RAISED THERE (What We Should Expect From Critics: Eighteenth Maxim)

Rolling Stone has chosen its’ “40 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2019.” I can’t wait to hear their #1, Tanya Tucker’s While I’m Livin’, which David Cantwell, my favorite country music critic, has already called one of the best albums of her career.

But Joseph Hudak, with whom I was not previously familiar, wrote the text for Tanya’s album in RS and….Must it always be so?

“Mustang Ridge” and “The Wheels of Laredo” nodded to her Texas raising,

Look it’s an easy mistake to make. Tanya was born in Texas and is strongly identified with the state for a number of reasons (see below for one of them). But her family moved to Arizona before she was two years old and she spent the rest of her pre-Nashville childhood there, in Utah and in Nevada. There may have been some family visits but there was no “Texas raising.”

Hence, we arrive at the 18th Maxim:

If you are writing an opinion piece and are only called upon to assert one fact, the odds of your opinion being respected will increase exponentially if you don’t muff it.

JUST HOW SLIGHT IS OUR HOLD ON CIVILIZATION ANYWAY? (What We Should Expect From Critics: Seventeenth Maxim)

One of the delights of reading “The Big Sleep” again is being reminded of all the ways in which it differs from the mystery/crime pulp culture it helped bring into the American mainstream. For instance, the trench coat. Bogart made it iconic in Howard Hawks’ film version of “The Big Sleep”; he seems to have worn the same one in “Casablanca.” But the annotators note that the Marlowe of the book wore it “not for fashion but because it’s raining.” There’s no mention of the famous fedora and, unlike the legion of private eyes who followed him, Marlowe was smart enough not to carry a gun (he did keep one in the glove box of his car).  

(Allen Barra “Raymond Chandler: American Hard-Boiled Truthdig, Dec. 30, 2018)

Is there anything more annoying than sharing a passion with a doofus?

Barra clearly loves Raymond Chandler. Enough to overrate him, which, in my book, is hard to do.

But Jesus H. Christ.

Literally nobody, ever, thinks The Big Sleep was the film where Humphrey Bogart made the trench coat “iconic.”

Just in case somebody might be tempted to think, Hmmm, wonder if he could be right about that?--think maybe The Big Sleep (1946) was released before Casablanca (1943)–Barra promptly, without drawing a breath or, more characteristically, cluttering things up with a stray clause, sets us straight with one of those lazy constructions that pass for wit among the junior ranks of the Crit-Illuminati.

He seems to have worn the same one in Casablanca.

You know, the film where Bogart did make the trench coat iconic, three years before The Big Sleep was released to a high level of acclaim, popular success and influence which came nowhere near the levels achieved by Casablanca.

Then he approvingly cites the authors of the book he’s reviewing: the Marlowe of the book wore it “not for fashion but because it’s raining.”

Here’s a funny thing.

Every time Bogart’s Marlowe appears in a trench coat in The Big Sleep, it’s raining.

I know, I just made myself watch it for the umpteenth time, something Barra, an avowed fan of the movie and its director, Howard Hawks, may or may not have done. As with most film critics, watching it doesn’t necessarily mean he saw what was there. I mean, which one of these truly iconic images did he think came from The Big Sleep?

I haven’t read the just-published The Annotated Big Sleep (I’m not even sure how I feel about such a thing existing), so I don’t know whether Barra is giving the book’s notation proper context or not.  I suppose it’s possible that Annotated‘s annotators are to blame for the error. And I’m not even going to entertain the idea that the annotators didn’t know a trench coat from a top coat.

If so, it was Barra’s task to catch them out, even in a positive review. But whether he merely fell down on the job or completely misrepresented their views, he still qualifies as the poster child for the Seventeenth Maxim:

Lest you be taken for a doofus, never forget the name of the movie where Bogart made the trench coat iconic.

MUST OF GOT LOST (What We Should Expect From Critics: Sixteenth Maxim)

Every once in a while some mild-mannered critic lets a carefully sustained mask slip. This type is having special trouble keeping up these days, when the rules are changing at lightning speed. With no principles to guide them (until yesterday it wasn’t a matter of Who needs them?, but of Don’t those just get in the way?) it’s easier than ever to get lost.

Which brings us to David Edelstein using the death of director Bernardo Bertolucci–an indisputable World Figure–to get one past the editors and make a joke about the scene I discussed here.

You can understand why a toady of Edelstein’s caliber, left alone on social media, bereft of oversight, would get confused. In the world he lives and works in, what could possibly go wrong with simply making a tasteless joke about simulated rape (which, in order to be simulated properly, had to brought as close to the real thing as possible while avoiding criminal charges)?

Let’s face it. He probably still doesn’t know what he did wrong and why all his old friends aren’t calling.

Honestly, given the world he lived in, I don’t either.

Seventeenth Maxim: If you want to be edgy, and get away with it (maybe even be celebrated for it) be sure to establish Brando/Bertolucci type cred beforehand.

Else just be the kind of person who never thinks rape jokes are funny.

SERENDIPITY, YES….BUT TO WHAT END? (What We Should Expect From Critics: Fifteenth Maxim)

Weird coincidence. In January, 2018, I posted what I believe is the longest, most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee (whose photo has been the banner for this blog since its inception in February of 2012) anywhere outside her autobiography. In February, 2018, Rolling Stone tried to catch up.

They fail, of course. In 1969, Rolling Stone had writers worthy of giving Brenda her due, but no interest. Now they have the interest, but no writers. This writer’s conclusion is that Brenda should be remembered because she once sold a lot of records and other famous people say nice things about her.

That’s it.

The two photographs above are included in the article and they say more about why Brenda Lee matters than the 4,000 words that accompany them. Unlike these photos, the accompanying words convey no heart, no guts, no insight, no trace of why anyone, including the writer, should care. They’re a perfect incorporation of modern media formula and they offer no reason whatsoever that we should take Brenda Lee any more seriously than does the anonymous horde from which the writer fails to distance himself.

My 4,000 words hardly did her justice either–4,000 words never could–but at least I tried. In the face of half-a-century of crit-illuminati indifference, I consider that better than nothing, which, except for these historic photographs (neither of which I had seen and each of which is nearly as great as my banner photo–they tell a bigger story side by side because, outside of Rock and Roll America, they don’t look like they could have come from the same world, let alone the same life), the Rolling Stone piece is not.

(FWIW: I’m also a better headline writer: There’s no crucible better, it seems, than the back room of the Chipola Junior College journalism building, circa 1979. Me and a kid named Rusty used to bang ’em out. He joined the Navy that summer and died after taking three in the chest a year later in a dispute following an Orlando traffic accident. Don’t worry brother. If we ever do get beat, it won’t be by Rolling Stone.)

All of which leads me to the Fifteenth Maxim: Do not bury what you came to praise and do not exemplify what you claim to dispute.

But, better than all that, you could just listen again:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czb6X3C1Y0E

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?

KEEPING THAT *&#% CHRISSIE HYNDE IN HER PLACE (What We Should Expect From Critics: Fourteenth Maxim)

Greil Marcus’ website has become one of the livelier, more interesting places on the internet. And he’s been most gracious in responding on the two occasions I’ve submitted a question/comment to his mailbag.

But Jesus H. Christ.

From 1980, in the midst of a recently linked, and otherwise fine, dissertation on the demise of the Summer Record (centered around the Jamies’ “Summertime, Summertime”):

And that means that when the battle of the giant radios takes place on the beaches this summer, the music just isn’t going to be appropriate. You’re going to hear Van Halen groaning about how the cradle will rock, Chrissie Hynde getting gang-banged, Bob Seger feeling sorry for himself and, for the sixth month in a row, Pink Floyd chanting “We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control.”

(Greil Marcus: New West, “Real LIfe Rock” 7/28/80)

Chrissie Hynde getting gang-banged?

Chrissie Hynde?

Given 1980 was the summer Marcus was referring to, the only records Hynde (i.e. the Pretenders) could have had on the radio were these:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANaP26V1tFw

Not that even one record she’s released since would justify imagining her–or any woman–gang-banged, assuming anything ever could.

I’ve spent the last two days turning this over in my mind, trying to see it from all conceivable angles. And I haven’t been able to see it any way but the bookish male’s standard desire to see all women humiliated in both theory and practice while suggesting she asked for it.

I’d really like to hear from anyone who sees it some other way.

There are things one could say about Chrissie Hynde. She thinks animals are the same as humans, for instance–and I mean really the same–whereas I lean towards Chesterton’s warning that people who start by worshiping animals invariably end by sacrificing humans.

But I’ve never found my disagreements over such minor issues tempting me to imagine her needing to be taught a lesson for daring to first assemble the greatest rock and roll band in the world (even if neither she, Marcus nor anyone else could have known she would watch it disintegrate into a whirl of deadly drug abuse in less than an eye-blink) and then lead it.

Meanwhile I think this is as good a place as any to assert the Fourteenth Maxim:

Always practice your craft in such a manner that no one ever need wonder–in even the most distant of futures–whether at long last you have no decency.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM INTELLECTUALS….

Nothing.

Here’s one I ran across today:

“Every one of the great charismatic leaders of this century ended up a maniac. He destroyed everything and finally himself—in Stalin’s purges; in Hitler’s ‘final solution’; in Mao’s ‘Revolution.’”

Peter F. Drucker, The New Realities (1989)

I confess Peter Drucker’s name only rang a tiny bell. I had to look him up. Turned out he wasn’t a village idiot but one of those free market thinkers from the Austrian school who spent the better part of the post-WWII era getting us into this mess and wouldn’t have known freedom if it left it’s foot up his crack.

Sharp boys they were.

For the record, Roosevelt and Churchill were pretty charismatic. Also for the record, Stalin and Mao died in bed and in power, old men worshiped by at least as many millions as they slaughtered. Unless Satan was waiting for them on the other side, neither man need have harbored a single regret or gone to his reward any way but smiling.

Only a professional intellectual–petted and paid for–could blind himself to all that in the space of two sentences.

Me, if I wanted to tie present circumstances to past disasters (as the blogger who posted the quote surely did), I’d avoid cults of personality and be more direct. As in, “Won’t be water, be fire next time…”

Suckers.

 

WHAT WOULD ELVIS DO?

I think “What would Elvis do?” has become a handy substitute for “What would Jesus do?” the difference being Jesus (or at least his followers) left a well-defined set of instructions to guide our speculation, while Elvis was as obscure as any person can be who achieves enough fame to make wondering what they would do occur to anyone in the first place.

Over at Greil Marcus’ website, he just received the inevitable question “Would Elvis have voted for Trump?”

Marcus took it for granted that the question referred to Elvis Presley (perhaps Elvis Costello is not, per Steven Van Zandt, the “real” Elvis after all) and answered at length. You can read his answer under the May 29, 2017 mailbag at his site (link available on my blogroll at the right–sorry, I can’t link to individual questions inside the mailbag itself).

In summary, it’s the usual mishmash: The Elvis who died in 1977 “probably… would have” voted for Trump, but if he had lived another forty years he might have turned into a good person, unlike the millions who actually voted for Trump because he represents the kind of evil country they want to live in. I’ll just point out that Marcus does not address the key demographic of the 2016 election, the several million people–many of them concentrated in the industrial swing states which crumbled the Blue Wall and decided the election–who voted for Trump after voting for Obama twice.

Did they suddenly change their minds about which kind of country they wanted to live in? Did Obama simply fail to deliver the evil country they thought he had promised? Or was Trump seen as more likely than Hillary Clinton to maintain the country they wanted to live in when they voted for Obama?

I encourage you to read Marcus’ response, but, in short, he doesn’t say.

What I really want to do though is answer the question.

Would Elvis have voted for Trump?

I wonder why we only wonder who Elvis would have voted for? Does anybody (well, any white boy critic or wannabe) ask themselves whether Ray Charles or James Brown–both much further to the right on the public record than Elvis ever was–would have voted for Trump? If they don’t, why not? I’m sure it’s not because they don’t think Mr. Charles or Mr. Brown lacked moral or intellectual agency. I mean, that would be sorta racist wouldn’t it?

Comes to that, why don’t we wonder who the more-or-less still living “Johnny Rotten” would have voted for if he were an American? Is it because all the cool people might not like the answer? (Just an aside: Marcus was recently asked about this one as well and basically gave Lydon a pass–and not because Trump is as an inevitable part of Lydon’s legacy as he is a rejection of the real Elvis’.)

I don’t have the least clue who the real Elvis–who at least tacitly endorsed both Adlai Stevenson and George Wallace whilst he was living–would have voted for.

Neither do you. Neither does anyone.

I know what he did when it mattered. When it mattered he sang “If I Can Dream” into the teeth of the anti-Enlightenment forces, Left and Right, that were dismantling the Dream he had done as much as any man to make real. And he put more pure anger into it than anyone has ever conveyed on a record that reached the Top 40. (Listen again, with headphones and your eyes closed if you can. You’ll hear it, right there from the heart of ’68.) When it mattered, he did things like this.

There were reasons why James Brown, who, like many an ornery American liable to vote for Obama one time and Trump the next, preferred dying on his feet to living on his knees, wept over Elvis’ coffin. Seeing around the corner, where the Dream would shatter, and the post-Carter political class–yes, all of them–would crawl from the wreckage, was no doubt foremost among them.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS….

…Well, nothing really. But I present this as a reminder that Donald Trump’s Twitter feed–and Donald Trump’s America–did not spring from a vacuum. And that culture is the tail that wags the political dog:

Cass Elliot–Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore [RCA Victor, 1973]
How about Fatso? D

(Source: Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Consumer Guide, originally printed in The Village Voice…and, not by accident, a long way from Naomi Cohen’s face. She was known for giving better than she got.)