HERE WE ARE (Track-By-Track)

Here We Are (1982)
The Jive Five

NOTE: I’m taking a little break from my slow progress through my twenty favorite vocal albums for this one. It could have easily been in that group anyway (such lists are always subject to the whims of the day they were compiled) and, since I missed lead singer/auteur Eugene Pitt’s passing in 2018, I offer this as tribute and R.I.P.

The Jive Five were one of the more successful doo wop groups (two-hit wonders!–double the usual!…but they did hang on through the 60’s) and Pitt was one of the genre’s greatest singer/songwriters. He kept some form of the Five alive for decades and this LP, recorded for Ambient Sound as part of a series the label produced in an attempt to revive and modernize classic doo wop, was the pinnacle of that series (which included the Harptones and Randy and the Rainbows) and of Pitt’s career.

It knocked my socks off in 1982.

It still does.

Here I Am”–A perfect updating of Pitt’s signature sound, a lugubrious predecessor of soul now translated for a post-soul generation. Pitt was one of the few singers of any era who was a serious collector of his style But his greatest influence was himself.

“Never, Never Lie”–This isn’t just an update but a sequel to “My True Story,” one of the group’s early hits. Remarkably, Pitt takes the opposite take from most singers recalling past glory and turns in a model of restraint, going off only at the end. Perfect.

“Don’t Believe Him Donna”–A call-and-response with “Arlene Smith’s Chantels” (not sure if Arlene was actually present or not, but the associations are powerful anyway). Any easy ride but it accomplishes its goal: I believe Donna should pick Eugene!

“Hey Nineteen”–A complete re-imagining of Steely Dan’s hit and worth their entire career. No shame in that. It’s worth a lot of careers. The loss of 60’s idealism and optimism was bound to be more painful for Black America than White. One need only glance around, in 1982 or now. One of the greatest vocals ever waxed and one of the greatest arrangements.

“Hey Sam”–1958 with a lightning volt running through it. Then it goes insane.

“Never, Never Change”–A nice change of pace. No showing off, just a nice ride in a gentle stream that, if you pay strict attention, takes you a little further than you thought it might.

“Chains”–A remake of the Cookie’s fine hit, lifted to another sphere by Pitt’s choice to arrange it as a baritone/tenor showcase for himself and a chorale/falsetto showcase for the group.

“Magic Maker, Music Maker”–Another ace arrangement using every trick in the doo wop ballad book with Pitt rising to the chorus like a man who hadn’t forgotten anything that happened in the decades since.

“Oh Baby”–Back to uptempo with glorious results. The most fun to sing along with.

“Say You’ll Be There”–Smooth. Very smooth.

“He’s Just a Lucky Man”–One last rocker, the greatest celebration by a loser you ever heard. Until the last verse calls losing into question…Sounds like the man just might be able to dance his way out of it!

“Baby You’re My Only Love”–Well, how would you close it down other than with a final plea? I believe him. Really.

Here We Are was, with the Persuasions’ Chirpin’ and the Belmonts’ Cigars Acapella Candy, one of the three great post doo wop albums that pointed to the path not taken–what might have been if other styles had not emerged (mostly from doo wop itself) and subsumed the founders. Eugene Pitt had a vision as clear and forceful as anyone’s and he remained true to it to the end. His passing means as much to me as Little Richard’s and I’m sorry it took until now to pay tribute.

UPDATE…

I just want to let everyone know that I’ve now fully migrated my site to an updated version. Everything should still work the same way but if you have problems commenting or doing anything else let me know via email at jwr1960@gmail.com and I will look into it as soon as possible.

Message to foxguy….Your last comment was the only thing lost in the migration so feel free to resubmit it (it was a link to Yes We Can Can) and I’ll respond accordingly.

Thanks as always to all who read me. You make it worthwhile!

 

 

POE THE SATIRIST (Great Quotations)

The frauds of the banks I can’t, of course, help. Their infamous suspension has put me to ruinous inconvenience. These, however, are not individuals, but corporations, and corporations, it is very well known, have neither posteriors to be kicked, nor souls to be damned.

“Peter Pendulum, The Business Man” (1840)

(From The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe, Running Press, 1983 Edition)

Actually, “Peter Pendulum” is some sort of double or triple satire, since Poe’s titular narrator is himself a horse’s ass who inadvertently reveals the truth about himself while still being very acute with the truth about the world in general. More and more, my later-in-life reading has led me to the conclusion that, between them,  Cooper, Irving and Poe either invented or refined everything American writers have ever been good at. Everything since has just been a refinement of style.

ALMOST A FAIRY TALE (Bonnie Pointer, R.I.P.)

Bonnie Pointer left her sisters in 1977 (just before they made the jump to major stardom) and had the usual solo career: strong start, long fade. Her sister Anita was the distinctive lead on most of the Sisters’ iconic hits before and after the split.

But Bonnie left her own large impact on the culture just the same, co-writing several of the group’s early hits, one of which “Fairytale,” became a Grammy-winning crossover hit.

What it crossed over to first was the country chart. What the Grammy was for was Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for the year 1974, the year they also became to first female vocal group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

If you don’t think that was a big deal in 1974, or yesterday, you haven’t been paying attention. No one–no one–represented the aspirtaional aspects of Rock and Roll America better than the Pointer Sisters, who never did anything but make great records in any style they tried. After her solo career petered out, Bonnie had her share of troubles, sourced in drugs as usual. I hope she’s found the peace she deserved tonight.

You know what we do here. Strive to not forget.

And keep asking: “How long…will this game go on?”

DEVIL’S DOUBLE DICTIONARY: fascist

Another rare triple entry!

fascist: follower of fascism, i.e., (per the Cambridge Dictionary) a political system based on a very powerful leader, state control, and being extremely proud of country and race, and in which political opposition is not allowed

Lefty: Righty

Righty: Lefty (often preceded by “the real”

Everybody else: All of the above. More so if I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Alternatively: whoever my social circle disapproves of at the moment.

All entries in the Devil’s Double Dictionary at RPM will be accompanied by this photograph of Ambrose Bierce, author of the original Devil's Dictionary.

All entries in the Devil’s Double Dictionary at RPM will be accompanied by this photograph of Ambrose Bierce, author of the original Devil’s Dictionary.

JUST AN OCCASIONAL FRIENDLY REMINDER…

…as memes circulate on social media comparing Antifa and BLM to the Sons of Liberty and the Allied soldiers at Normandy, and a few more of Bobby Lee’s statues are pulled down, that none of this is about the Confederacy. And none of it is about statues…

(In case you can’t tell–and it would be easy to see why not–this is the statue of Abraham Lincoln in London, as of yesterday. Remember, if the governments of nominally free people cannot defend even the smallest public space, there will be tyranny. Else there will be chaos…and then tyranny.)

And now back to our regular programming!

THE LAST TEN FILM NOIRS I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (May, 2020)

[NOTE: Except for Body Heat and The Maltese Falcon, all of these films can be found on the three box sets put out by Turner Classic Movies, entitled Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I, II and III. Get them all if you can.]

Okay, I didn’t do one for March…or April…or May. But I haven’t fallen too much further behind so let’s get going!

April 10-Murder By Contract (1958, d. Irving Lerner, 2nd Viewing)

In all honesty I watched nearly every film on this list because they were part of my numerous Film Noir box sets and when I watched them the first time they kind of all ran together. That happened again, but I can remember certain details. In this, the big detail I remember is Vince Edwards’ contract killer moving up and up the ladders, showing no emotions whatever….until he realizes his next victim is a woman. He’s got a thing about killing women, but there’s no big scene where he explains it all so instead of the usual mush we just get a tension snake coiling ever tighter and not a trace of sentiment. Wheeeee!

April 11-The Burglar (1957, d. Paul Wendkos, 2nd Viewing)

Okay, why I might watch it again: Jayne Mansfield, proving she really could have been the next Marilyn Monroe with the right support. Plus Dan Duryea in a rare non-villain role and an able cast of crime faces, blending with the night.

April 11-The Mob (1951, d. Robert Parish, 2nd Viewing)

Can you buy Broderick Crawford as the good guy? You can if he has to go undercover and pretend to be the toughest of the bad guys in order to haul them in. Memorable tension between Crawford and Neville Brand’s genuine, soul-of-evil-down-to-his-toes, bad guy. You watch enough of these in a row and you begin to understand why a Monroe or a Mansfield stick out. Without the bombshell figure and platinum blonde do, it’s hard to make an impression! I mean, I don’t even remember if this had any women in it at all.

April 12-Drive a Crooked Road (1954, d. Richard Quine, 2nd Viewing)

This has a woman or two, but the real reason to watch is for Mickey Rooney’s one of a kind performance as the schlub who falls for one of them…falls so hard that he ends up being roped into a scheme to drive the getaway car for her bank robbing boyfriend. Complications ensue. The Mick handles them all without a trace of his trademark manic energy but with a lot of understanding of what makes such a man tick. This one I remembered. The ending is almost as desolate as In a Lonely Place, with which I imagine it would make a fine double bill, if anyone could take that much tragedy in one night.

April 14-City of Fear (1959, d. Irving Lerner, 2nd Viewing)

Vince Edwards is back as another ice pick…but this time he’s a thousand times more dangerous because the heroin (or is it diamonds? honestly I forget, but anyway its a lotta dough on the hoof) he thinks he’s heisted is actually a sealed container filled with a deadly radioactive substance called Cobalt-60. Plus he’s a sociopath. Fun times in the Naked City! Did I mention that these are all quite good? They are, but it takes a Jayne Mansfield or a Mickey Rooney to etch them in the memory.

April 15-Nightfall (1956, d. Jacques Tourneur, 2nd Viewing)

Jacques Tourneur, Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith plus a David Goodis source novel…You can bet I had high hopes for this one and it delivered. I don’t exactly remember how it delivered, but I think they ended up in the snowy woods somewhere which was a refreshing break from all the urban grime. Really, that cast, I’d go anywhere with them. Did you know Anne Bancroft could fill a sweater as good as anybody? I didn’t. I didn’t even remember that from the first time I watched. It’s like I’m getting old or something.

April 16-Pushover (1954, d. Richard Quine, 2nd Viewing)

Kim Novak. Boy could Hollywood dream up those bombshells! Plus Fred MacMurray playing both sides of that fence only he ever seemed to know even existed. More twists and turns than a rattlesnake in a leaf pile. And Kim Novak. How come that never happens anymore?

April 17-Body Heat (1981, d. Lawrence Kasdan, 4th Viewing)

Okay, there had to be one “neo” in here. Why not the best? Poor Lawrence Kasdan. From here there was nowhere to go but down and, despite some fine subsequent films, down he went. I mean “You’re not very bright. I like that in a man.” Where can you go from there? In the running with Key Largo for the best Florida movie ever. (Helps if you shoot it here folks. Really it does.) Kathleen Turner smoked so many holes in so many screens she immediately turned to comedy (at which she also excelled) to save her career. I mean, she saw what happened to Gloria Grahame, right?

April 19-The Maltese Falcon (1941, d. John Huston, Umpteenth Viewing)

Okay, there had to be one “proto” in here. Why not the best?

May 2-Human Desire (1954, d. Fritz Lang, 2nd Viewing)

This is part of another project I have in mind centered around Gloria Grahame so I’ll keep my powder dry for now. Suffice it to say, GG was the real reason films like this demanded a name and this was one of her finest, most complex, performances. The French did a version first (Renoir even). I haven’t seen it. I’m sure it was wonderful. But it didn’t have Gloria Grahame, who didn’t need tight sweaters to strike deep into the heart of man.

…Til next time

I’LL GO SARDONICUS LATER…

…And won’t that be fun!

But, for now, I’ll just beat the old drum.

We walked away from 1812 and 1865 and 1929 and 1941.

We never walked away from 1968. No matter how far away it seems one day, it will always come back the next…It’s not that I’m any sort of prophet. It’s just that I always pay attention to the guy who has a deal with the Devil. Because he always knows.

Riot away suckers!

       

INDISPENSABLE (Betty Wright, R.I.P.)

Like not a few young women before her–Carla Thomas at Stax was another prime example–Betty Wright was instrumental in establishing a scene/label/genre which proceeded to drop her by the wayside on the way to bigger things. In Wright’s case her decidedly un-hip 1968 hit “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” was a foundation record for the burgeoning Miami scene which, following her 1971 monster hit “Clean Up Woman,” became a major player in 70’s funk, soul and disco. Her label, Alston Records, spun off TK (home of the McCraes–whom the teenage Wright discovered–and KC and the Sunshine Band) and the rest was history. In funk central’s move from Memphis to Miami, Wright was a major player.

She never had another hit as big, but it wasn’t for a lack of making great records, a fate she shared with a lot of fantastic R&B female singers who were her contemporaries: Stacy Lattisaw, Ann Peebles, Candi Staton. One or two shots at the mainstream, then back to the modern chitlin circuit or the gospel highway or a bit of both.

Twenty-five years ago I came up with a home-made mix-taping concept called Radio Free America that eventually turned into about forty home tapes (later reconstructed for CD). The idea was to compile records from every conceivable rock ‘n’ roll genre, as long as they had the beat, the beat, the beat. Those mix-tapes ended up providing me with about as good a definition of rock ‘n’ roll as I’ve ever come up with–whatever the girls on Shindig and Hullabaloo could dance to. Of course, any concept needs to start somewhere and after about two minutes, I knew where those forty tapes had to start:

Betty Wright passed away from cancer on May 10 at the age of 66, mostly forgotten everywhere except Black America…and my house.

..And maybe Rock and Roll Heaven.

STUDIES IN COMMAND ON FILM (A Handy Ten)

These were harder to choose than I thought. I could easily have come up with another ten and covered several new angles. But I wanted a mix of good commanders and bad, intimate situations and world-shaping ones–or sometimes both. If you watch these ten, you can get a good sense of just how difficult it is to lead under pressure…and perhaps intuit why we are no longer good at it. It might even be a decent guide to answering whether we ever will be good at it again.

Me, I dunno. When we no longer have actors who can even imagine how to play these parts in a movie, I would say the signs aren’t good…but history exists to surprise us. I left aside such magnificent portraits as Herbert Lom’s definitive Napoleon in King Vidor’s War and Peace and George C. Scott’s Patton to focus on small unit command: the ship’s crew, the wagon train, the cavalry patrol, the lonely outpost. Mastery of such things is the root of Western Civilization’s military success and relentless civilizational advance for three thousand years. Any other sort of progress, real or imagined, that has been made the meanwhile is because people like these won the space for it when they succeeded and were punished by God and the courts of law when they failed.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
D. Frank Lloyd

Like most of the films here Bounty‘s story was based on a real incident. Pure fictions involving small unit command are usually adventure stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, wonderful films that alas, can do no more than reflect the qualities that shape the real world. The Nordhoff-Hall novel upon which this and the several remakes are based was already famous. But if we ponder the miracle of its two iconic characters–the able but sadistic sea captain William Bligh and the reluctant leader of his crew’s resistance, Fletcher Christian–being so definitively portrayed in the same movie, it becomes a little less miraculous when we consider that, at least outside Great Britain, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable helped make them iconic. The Bligh/Christian template–a vicious leader driving his men to the brink of mutiny by insisting on the letter of the law transcending its spirit to appease his own cramped soul–has found its way into a lot more than Bounty remakes…as we shall see. In any case, this is the exemplar in how not to lead free men. The refusal of the British Admiralty’s judges to shake Bligh’s hand after they, too, have followed the letter of the law and upheld his conduct, is a great lesson in the power of unspoken honor codes to rule men’s thoughts, irrespective of what the law demands of their actions.

Northwest Passage (1940)
D: King Vidor

A fictionalized account of Rogers’ Rangers, the famous militia who performed miracles on the frontier during the French and Indian War. Robert Rogers had a checkered career afterwards, descending into alcoholism, fighting for England in the American Revolution he had done as much as any man to make possible if not inevitable, and being exiled for his troubles. But, as portrayed by Spencer Tracy during the Rangers’ glory days, this is a finely etched character study of the kind of man needed to both drive and inspire men to the very limits of their capacities and perhaps a bit beyond. By the end, you can understand why such a man comes to need conflict and why, so often, only his kind can ensure victory. Always assuming they don’t turn into Captain Bligh. Vidor was one of the great, under-sung period directors who, especially with the aid of glorious Technicolor, can make you feel the sheer physical effort and sacrifice required of anyone who served under a man like Rogers and why those who survived took exceptional pride in being one of his men. It wouldn’t surprise me if George C. Scott, or George Patton himself, learned a thing or two by studying Rogers or Tracy or both.

Wing and a Prayer (1944)
D. Henry Hathaway

Of course, World War II brought many studies in command to the screen. Few were better than this relatively forgotten film which loosely re-creates the Bounty triad on an aircraft carrier preparing for Midway, with Charles Bickford’s captain serving as a stand-in for English sea law, Don Ameche’s second-in-command serving as Bligh and Dana Andrews serving as Christian. Except Ameche, in the performance of his career, is a better man than Bligh, able to play the hard-ass who stands between order and chaos, make the brutally hard decisions about life and death that are required for the mission to succeed, and take the slings and arrows that come with it, without losing himself. His satisfying but lonely walk in the rain at film’s end speaks quiet volumes about the emotional cost of middle command. (A good companion piece is 1948’s Twelve O’Clock High, with Gregory Peck playing a similar role to perfection.)

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Of course John Ford made a career of studying small group command. His films could make up the whole Handy Ten and then some. But I’ll confine myself to this one and the next as they represent the extremes of effective and ineffective leadership. The quality of the times brought out a new level of seriousness in actors usually associated with lighter fare. Like Don Ameche in Wing and a Prayer, Robert Montgomery, who had served as a naval officer, gave the performance of a lifetime in Ford’s even greater film, perhaps the finest ever made on the subject and certainly the best-titled. He’s bolstered by an excellent John Wayne, bringing unusual depth to the standard role of the hot-headed second, and Ford’s usual superb stock company, some playing men who are forced into command themselves as Montgomery’s PT unit is whittled down, down and further down under the withering Japanese assault on the Philippines in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this film is that it captures the demands of leadership in war–most of which are boring and mundane and as likely to be made in the service of managing defeat as of procuring victory–as opposed to combat, where heroes are made.

Fort Apache (1948)
D. John Ford

And on the flip side, there’s Henry Fonda as the disgruntled, glory-seeking colonel of an outpost contending with renegade Apaches in the desolate southwest of the late nineteenth century. His unwillingness to learn from more experienced, but lower-ranking (and, as he sees it, ethnically inferior) men, ultimately dooms himself and his command. It might be Fonda’s very best performance as a man who is thoroughly professional, a loving father (to a luminous, teenage Shirley Temple), brave to a fault…and completely unlikeable. The ending is still controversial. Has John Wayne, again playing a strong second, except this time he’s the level-headed one, accepted Fonda’s example…or only seemed to? I’ll tackle all that some day when I write about the film in the depth it deserves, but as a study in how to destroy your command despite doing everything “by the book” this could hardy be bettered.

Little Big Horn (1951)
D. Charles Marquis Warren

This one features Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland leading, and competing for the heart of, a small squadron assigned to ride through Indian Country and warn George Armstrong Custer that he is about to be ambushed at the Little Big Horn. Of course you know going in their mission will fail–but just how it fails is compelling from beginning to end and holds up on repeated viewings. Bridges and Ireland were outstanding second-line stars who rarely got the chance to shine as they do here, playing tough men who are learning on the job while carrying out what they don’t know is a doomed mission. The film’s claim to historical accuracy may be dubious but as a study in not just command–but the competition the desire for command is bound to engender (especially when the ghost of Marie Windsor is lurking in the shadows)–this is one of a kind.

Westward the Women (1951)
D. William Wellman

A unique film on every level. This one isn’t based on any specific event but on a plausible summary of an aspect of frontier experience dreamed up by Frank Capra. When Capra himself, post-war, was deemed insufficiently credible or commercially viable to be entrusted with directing it, he passed it to his good friend, Wild Bill Wellman, who toughened the script and made a masterpiece. As a wagon train movie it might be matched by John Ford’s Wagon Master or Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River. But as a study in the vicissitudes of running a wagon train it has no equals. That it involves Robert Taylor reluctantly accepting the job of leading a hundred and fifty mail order brides through the toughest part of the American frontier, and then seeing it through, is an unusual twist that puts the icing on the cake. Not recommended for anyone who accepts the modern idea that men and women don’t really need or want each other. For everyone else, a great film waiting to be rediscovered.

Zulu (1964)
D. Cy Endfield

Less than three years after George Custer’s cavalry command was wiped out at Little Big Horn in the American west, a couple of green lieutenants were faced with similar odds at a mission post they had little choice but to defend in South Africa at a place called Rorke’s Drift. They were leading about a hundred and fifty men, nearly a third of them sick or wounded, against four thousand Zulus who had broken off from an even larger force which had annihilated 1,300 British troops at Islawanda earlier in the day. While it’s superb on every level, with some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, Zulu rises highest when viewed as a study in improvisation of the sort that western armies have excelled at for several millennia. As a heroic military feat, the stand at Rorke’s Drift is on a par with the Spartans’ delaying action against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a tactical defeat that may have nonetheless prevented Western Civilization from being snuffed in the cradle. And if you think the Brits losing the land they fought for to the Boers a few decades later, and the Boers losing it back to the natives within a century, makes the historical importance of Rorke’s Drift less monumental, you might be right. Then again, if you accept that the spirit of Rorke’s Drift had more than a little to do with the spirit of the Battle of Britain, fought sixty years hence and without which the history of everything would probably look very different today, you might be righter. In any case Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (in his star-making role) give unbeatable performances as men who don’t particularly like each other showing grace under pressure over a twenty-four-hour period in 1879 when nearly one man of every ten they commanded earned a Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

I’ve sung the praises of Ron Maxwell’s film about the most important battle ever fought on American soil several times here. But, in addition to being one of the great war films, and, in my opinion, the greatest battle film ever made, it’s also a detailed portrait of several levels of command: watch it for Martin Sheen’s Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger’s James Longstreet, Stephen Lang’s George Pickett, Richard Jordan’s Lo Armisted, Andrew Prine’s stinging, poignant cameo as Dick Garnett, Sam Elliot’s John Buford (who may have saved the war on the battle’s first day) and, especially, Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain (who almost certainly saved the Union army on the second day). There may have been a few better films on small unit command and a very few better films on command at Robert E. Lee’s level. But there has never been a film to equal it as a study in command at all levels during an existential battle in an existential war. Please don’t call yourself informed about American history if you haven’t seen this one.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
D. Kelly Reichardt

Not strictly speaking a film about command but a great look at how force of personality can trump all previous presumptions about who is fit to lead when everyone’s life is at stake. Michelle Williams gives another of her eerily natural performances as Emily Tetherow, a woman travelling with Stephen Meek’s half of a wagon train that has split in two along the Oregon Trail in 1845, who gradually takes on the role of leader and decision maker as the group loses confidence in Meek himself. Calling this film nuanced is an understatement. It moves at a glacial pace and Reichardt takes “realism” to such extremes it is often hard to follow the muffled talk or read the characters’ expressions in night scenes lit only by the tiny flames of candlelight available to pioneers of the period. And the film reaches no conclusions on the wisdom (or lack thereof) in transferring allegiance from Meek to Tetherow. But it makes you understand why the switch takes place–and why you might have cast aside your own assumptions in their place. The underlying message is that humans gravitate towards natural leaders and if the circumstances are desperate enough, all other presumptions grounded in nature will be cast aside. You make enough right decisions and people will follow you anywhere. Whether in war, commerce or adventure, it’s the first lesson of command: The strongest lead. Whether to success or disaster depends on what else they bring.