Friday, July 10, 2020

TODD RUNDGREN AND UTOPIA, "RA"


RA- Todd Rundgren's Uopia
Todd Rundgren is one of those aggravating rock whiz kids who can dually amaze you with his music and make you ill with his lyrics, which carry tile theme of cosmic consciousness and hayseed mysticism to more pompous degrees than even Yes' Joe Anderson. Ra, a 1977 effort with an occasional  band, the ostensibly progressive rock and sometimes brilliantly kinetic Utopia, continued the Rundgren tragedy of good music with awful lyrics. When matters are at their best when the singing stops and the band is given the room to negotiate odd time signatures and reveal, in doing so, a remarkable, amazing in fact capacity to handle any style that strikes their collective fancy. The band (Roger Powell , Kisim Sulton, John Wilcox) proceeds towards some charging, frenetic, deliciously clever music.

But Rundgren, like, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, allows the lyrics to become full blown libretto. The merits of the extended narrative and the underlying bits of spiritualism is a debate left for those who seek truth in tea leaves and horoscopes, but the experience of having the words come at you , sun or recited in equal measure, makes this a record that does not rock you at all. Rather, it talks you into a fitful sleep, with dreams punctuated by agitated percussion.

 Most notable on side two's magnum opus "Singring and The Glass Guitar." It's an extensive parable that breaks up the music, and which is belabored at length in the narrative to make sure everyone gets the point Every time the band begins something interesting or when Rundgren is doing an impressive guitar exposition, the recited lyrics intrude again, and so on . Either Rundgren considers himself a wise fabulist, or he just employs this dreck to kill time, fleshing out and lending continuity to passages he could not otherwise connect. The discerning 'Rundgren fan will throw away the lyric sheet and let the music mitigate the intellectual vacuity. Taking his world view seriously is like reading between the lines on a blank page.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

YES, JACK WEBB WAS A FILM DIRECTOR. A GOOD ONE

RIP Los Angles: Celebrity Grave: "Dragnet" Actor & Producer Jack ...For Jack Webb, the man was a right wing law and order probable homophobic anti commie racist scum- slinger, but he had chops as a film maker, as someone capable of telling a compelling, compulsively watchable bit of propaganda. 

I wrote a paper on him in college which compared him to classic auteur hero Sam Fulller, mainly for the purpose that Webb, in his movies, met and exceeded the quantification required to be a a film "AUTHOR" and hence the single creator of a movie. 

He had a world view, he had an stylistically identifiable visible style that he a applied to specific genre conventions, his characters were variations on a number of types that serve to make the plot move along, the narratives contained a set of values that were threatened and needed to be protected, and there was an obvious morality that was never far under the surface in his story-lines.

 I chose Webb because I always found Fuller a bit arch and melodramatic, so why compare him to someone who is bit cornball and stiff but with such a righteous since of self-confident style that you cannot help but watch is films over and over. 

I've said more than once that Webb is the auteur  critics never seemed to talk about. I wonder if anyone's done a study of his film work, IE, 30, The DI, Peter Kelley's Blues, the Last Time I Saw Archie, Dragnet, Dragnet 66, The LSD Story. Not a lot of feature films, but more than Norman Mailer, who got a hefty study from a film scholar a few years ago. 

And though one is never going to get past what is unintentionally comic in the films, there are times when I just shook my head after watching the DI or 30 realizing that I just watched a movie made by a man in full expressive control of his talent.

POUTY BOY, EMPTY PACKAGE

Andy Summers Dishes About Being an 'Asshole,' Sting and the ...
Despise Sting the solo artist; art-poseur whose only gravitas is his sense of self importance. The Police were a superb hit singles band buoyed by two other excellent musicians, Miles Copeland and Andy Summers , who were more to shape the band's sound than Sting, consigned, wisely, to lead vocals, which he did rather well, and lyrics, which were poetic without being arch. 

There is always something to take these guys to task but their records from the time are on a very short list of those releases that don't embarrass the fuck out of me. And they had a short life, leaving a mere 5 studio albums for fans and new fans to glory in.  

Their oeuvre is a nice, tight package of high quality rock and roll for middlebrows such as myself. Unconstrained by the other two in the band, Sting nee Gordon Sumner might have royally made their work of big ideas crushing cute by fragile pop concepts. 

They died young before they could turn into grotesque, U2-esque parodies of themselves, full of themselves and corn syrup in equal amounts. And with out the frameworks provided by Copeland and Summers, which is to say the limits his ego needed, Sting has the most flush-able body of work by a solo artist who was formerly in a great band, surpassing even Phil Collins. Collins, at least, was a good drummer and could play some intricate stuff. As a bassist, Sting played his parts like they  it was an interferring with his best moves with the microphone.


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

O'Connor

File:Robie with Flannery 1947.jpg
photo: Charles Cameron Macauley
Paul Elie has an essay on Flannery O'Connor in The New Yorker that asks the pertinent question as to how racist the late writer happened to be. It's a matter worth investigating and doing quality speculation about, since O'Connor, a certified icon of 20th Century American literature, died young, at ate 39, and had published only three books in her lifetime, Wise Blood ,A Good Man is Hard to Find, and Everything That Rises Must Converge.  An interesting and illuminating read on a brilliant writer who died much, much too young.  As it turns out, scholars have uncovered , is that Flannery O'Connor is a problematic writer for her fans due to racist attitudes that appeared in her juvenilia , and for detectable traces of bigotry through out her life as novelist, short story writer and essayist. There's a limit to the amount of shock one ought to have because of these unpleasant facts about her, and anyone recoiling with disgust because O'Connor proves to be very human despite very great talent , with very human prejudices are, I think, not lovers of literature at all. 

I resist and oppose on principle the idea of regarding poets, novelists, playwrights or any artist at all as saints, philosophers or messengers of moral instruction; beyond the work itself, I regard their lives as subject to the same slings and arrows we all face and have to surmount, and regard their creation of art as having the sole duty of expressing their experience in the world with metaphors, symbols, whatever means and style it requires to make that expression memorable. It's a good idea to judge artists on what they share with the rest of the world, that they are part of the vaguely defined mass of "suffering humanity", but it's unwise, stupid even, to use what offends one's sense of moral order , the sins of the bohemian , as grounds to condemn and dismiss. Doing just that makes me ponder why many would bother reading literature at all.

What is the writer, the poet, the painter, the musician has to express is always imperfect and contains things and issues that reveal the creator's skull contains ideas, whims and notions that are , in fact , ugly. O'Connor, a Southerner, a spiritually restless fallen Catholic who doubted the perfected the redemption of humanity through any measure of grace, and more than likely politically conservative, is , as the saying goes, a product of her time and the surrounding cultural and regional connections around her as she developed as a person and as a writer. 

To refer back to Flaubert, we need to trust the tale, not the teller, more or less because the facts of a writer's life prevents too many readers, struggling with their own issues, from reading the work and getting the benefit literature provides. I bear in mind is that O'Connor died when she was 39, had published only three books before her death; we were robbed of the chance to read a longer lifetime of books that would have revealed, more than likely, an increasingly broadened and nuanced way of investigating fictional territories. By all means examine the life and investigate the real energies in a person's life that a scribe brings to their narratives, but we ought to examine to understand the problems of genius, not to condemn it.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

A PRETTY FINE BASKET BALL MOVIE

The Way Back review: Ben Affleck finds redemption in sobering ...A pleasant surprise, I watched THE WAY BACK starring Ben Affleck last night. Turned out to be solid film, a story of a grieving father with a drinking problem presented with a chance to redeem himself by becoming head coach for his old high school basket ball team. All the expected moves are here given that alcoholism is the basis for the fiction-- scenes of the gloom and despair and ruinous drinking, the lies, the family squabbles, the bitter meetings with the former wife, the chance for a new leaf, the encouraging progress on all the characters' issues, the Fall,the climb back up. The director does not glorify the gloom, wallow in the despair, preach about the cure as one might expect given the creaky cliches that threaten to capsize this film, but rather maintains a sturdy hand in developing characters, filming some excellent game sequences (that brought a smile to my face when the fictional team started winning), and allowing a certain amount of space between lines of dialogue or interactions to have scenes have a naturally laconic, realistic edge. The cast is universally strong, though one should look for any deep diving into character analysis; matters of the heart and soul are sufficiently laid out on the surface , more than adequately diving us pretext and context for this well handled drama. It's not giving anything major away to mention that the wayfaring coach and problem drinker is shown here getting a handle on his sobriety and commences to live a life with guarded optimism and realistic expectations--remember, genre movies behave in predictable ways--but I do find it a relief that the film makers side step the whole support group element--AA sharing, the God talk stuff--and stay with the narrative at hand. Though the story isn't as efficient as it could be, it is wisely lean in the telling, which is not to say it's skimpy. Especially for a film with a Catholic School and priests figuring largely through out, all the spiritual awakening issues, if there are any , are off screen. There is a quibble with some inconsistency with the narrative pace and flow, though, as the film gets distracted with scenes that are not needed, or followed up upon, but Ben Affleck's performance, sullen, gloomy, melancholic with convincing bits of better moods and motivations , is rather masterful and cumulatively powerful, one of his career best.  Worth a watch.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

WEASELS RIP MY FLESH --The Mothers of Invention

Weasels Ripped My Flesh - WikipediaFrank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, along with King Crimson, are my two favorite bands from the "prog rock" school of making things busy, although my appreciation of both bands is that they are both outliers from the form. Before anyone was aware of it, there seemed to be a dozen bands that sounded like Yes, ELP and Genesis, so many of them with similar riffs, oddly regimented time signatures, fantasy, sci-fi or cosmic muffin levels of grandiose lyric baiting. I admit the truly committed prog partisans could tell the difference, as could I in most blindfold tests, but the really issue was what exactly the point of all that repetition of effort was. 

The answer was clear, which was sales of  records and tickets, no less than the disco movement. It wasn't all mercenary , as it's unlikely anyone begins to play music of any kind without a love of making instruments produce sweet sounds, but the idea was that prog rock was selling and that despite the protests that maintain that it was a new art form, or a natural expression from musicians who'd grown up listening to the ref ined stuff, which  it was in both cases, choosing to be in a prog band was a commercial move, not an artistic one. Zappa and KC, though, had other things in mind, a certain kind of monomania that made the music, morphing, argumentative, diverse and truly "out there" in both bands, than anything else. Weasels Rip my Flesh is my favorite Mothers/Zappa release simply because it pretty highlights the leader's astounding range, from gritty atonal classicism, free jazz cacophony, old school rhythm and blues, electronic skroinksterism  and a good amount of Zappa's flying dagger guitar improvisation. 

 It's a resume album, you might say, a release of what had not made it yet to album release, outtakes they used to call them, music from both studio sessions and live dates sublimely edited together in such a way that it becomes a jaw dropping realization that the styles and moods this record masterfully presents, the crankiest avant garde experimentation coexisting with humdinger fanfares,  an obstacle course of rapid and bizarre meter changes, the sustained scream of a deranged arrangement for reed instruments, you begin, perhaps, to appreciate the genius Frank Zappa was. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue, My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, Oh No--these titles provide a good idea as to the peculiar landscape that is Zappa's imagination, which is satirical, vulgar, entirely surreal using the commodities of consumer capitalism rather than the convenient mythos of  psychology to poke a sharp sick into the vulnerable and obese sides of  our collective American fetishism for gadgets, fads and trends. An admirable facet of Zappa's work as a librettist is that he has no interest in creating poetic/philosophical/spiritual constructs that operate as Fire Exits for the consumer who wants a safe space for his psyche to believe, however fleetingly, that everything is okay and that he's doing just fine. No such luck, as Brother Zappa distorts the chaos you're already in and aware of and makes it his goal to give you the shock of recognition. That is , what am I laughing at?  With the disconcerting variety and collision-course eclecticism  the Mothers of Invention so brilliantly maintained, it would seem to have been Zappa's goal to shame a few folks in his audience, at least, to recognize the softness of their thinking , turn off the TV and get a library card.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK --King Crimson

Revisiting King Crimson's Sorta Live 'Starless and Bible Black'Historical revisionism is a wonderful thing in matters that don't involve public policy or the fate of humanity, and the last few years has emerged a movement among able-voiced factions of the 70s music audience, fan and writer alike, who have become emboldened to say great things about Progressive Rock. I won't argue the point, although I was not the most enthusiastic listener of the stuff. As a sucker for instrumental competence leading all the way up to virtuosity, tricky time signatures, dissonance and bold eclecticism appealed to me greatly, although my tastes have changed course significantly toward jazz improvisation, a wider, less calcified field were virtuosity is put to the service of improvisation, an area where you do something unique , your own and the likes of which cannot be exactly duplicated by any means. Prog, in the brief time it owned the FM radio band and record charts, soon became self parody --everyone sounded like everyone else playing overly arranged music , although adherents will claim the immediately distinguish-ability of Yes from ELP from Hatfield in the North from ...--and much of the lyrics were so much mush, Tolkien by way of Dungeons and Dragons. But Starless and Bible Black by King Crimson?  Though starting at the beginning of the Prog Rock ordeal, KC never really sounded like anyone, and anyone trying to sound like them did so at the risk of being ridiculed, reviled, rejected. This record is densely layered, putting forth fetching, entrancing segments of gamelan percussive improvisations, a rather angular approach to Heavy Metal atonality, atmospherics for processed electric guitar and violin, breakneck Mahavishnu temps and firestorm soloing. Robert Fripp, who I would consider the Miles Davis of Rock as he is the only constant member of this band in its fifty plus years of existence and who made sure that the contributions of new members changed the sound and direction of KC--leads an outstanding troupe this period, especially Bill Buford on drums, David Cross on violin and John Whetton on bass and vocals . Whetton, I believe, is one of the forgotten bass heroes in the rock domain. Atmosphere, frenetic ensemble playing, exploring texturing. What more does one need, And the lyrics by Robert Palmer James are first rate, a real poetry that does not embarrass your senses or offend your more entrenched notion of how an effective set of rhymes should be composed and presented. James  merits a longer discussion.