Autumn Shuffle

“Jambalaya” – Hank Williams. Classic. That steel guitar wandering around in the background. My old friend Pat McCurdy used to play this song at his shows (I’m sure he still does). There was something so charming about being in a bar packed with drunk Chicago people, all of us singing the lyrics to “Jambalaya” at top volume. Harmonizing. GO, HANK.

“That’s All Right” – Elvis. Live on the Louisiana Hayride radio broadcast, January 15, 1955. He had recorded the song that shook the world in July of 1954. It is almost inconceivable how quickly everything moved after that. Here he is, on the big stage in Shreveport, introducing the song – “We’d like to do for you our very first release.” His accent is still strong. Real strong. You can hear how raucous it is in that auditorium. Girls start screaming after the first line. It sounds like there’s boogie-woogie piano going on back there too (the sound isn’t too great). We are so lucky to have these recordings.

“I’m a Rover” – The Dubliners. I love how the first three songs on this shuffle all pre-date my own birth.

“Old Shep” – Elvis. Okay. So this song is pretty difficult to get through. I admit it. But there is something charming about it, merely because Elvis loved the song so much, he had sung it at the State Fair when he was 9 or 10 years old, and so had a soft spot for it. He chose to record it once he became a star, and that’s very touching to me. He wasn’t just going with the flow and doing what he was told (although that’s the common narrative). He also suggested songs. I can’t imagine that anyone at RCA was like, “Oh my God, Elvis, please sing this sentimental snooze-fest about a boy and his dog!” But he wanted to do it because to him the song represented how he got his start. He always remembered where he came from.

“Jump Jack Jump” – Wynona Carr. I will always be sorry that this wonderful singer did not record more. She died in obscurity. She did this one album, had cut her teeth on the gospel circuit (knew Sam Cooke very well), before transitioning to “secular”, following the lead of Cooke. She’s got a rough voice, gritty, earthy, that great gospel sound. There’s also a compilation of her gospel stuff, and you can hear how that style segued perfectly into pop music. Hell, it CREATED pop music.

“A Thing Called Love” – Jerry Reed. Oh, how I love the Alabama Wild Man. This is a beautiful gospel song. Elvis’ version is great, but this one is too. With that unmistakeable Jerry Reed guitar going on underneath.

“All Over Me” – Charlie Rich. Oh, Charlie, what do you do to me every time I hear your voice? Sexy sexy sexy. Yearning. Bluesy as hell. What a voice.

“Eleanor Rigby” – The Beatles. I have such vivid memories of discovering this song during the Beatles craze that swept my 5th grade class. This was long after the Beatles broke up. My parents had their albums, but 5th grade was when I really DISCOVERED them. (I learned how to sing harmony by practicing with their songs. “Love Me Do” is a great song to learn how to harmonize.) But “Eleanor Rigby” haunted me. I was 9, 10 years old. I could not understand the lyrics but they cracked open the adult world to me, a world filled with such sadness that it created a mood of anticipatory dread. His face in a jar by the door? “Nobody came.” That was the saddest thing I ever heard. The song was too “grownup” for me, but it was a glimpse … a glimpse of the way things are. It really disturbed me.

“Overture” – Bleu. I love this man. This is the first track on his latest album, To Hell With You. And it’s a real overture. Like something out of Disney, with sopranos singing. It sounds Danny Elfman-ish at points. I saw him in 2012. He’s one of my favorites. And welcome to the Shuffle List, first contemporary song of the bunch!

“Little by Little” – The Rolling Stones. It’s a jam. A rough jam that still leaps out of the speakers. 1964. They’re on fire.

“Naked” – Tracy Bonham. She’s a favorite. Great songwriter. Great singer.

“One Night” – Elvis, August 11, 1970, midnight show, Vegas. His history with this song is fascinating. It’s fun to hear him sing it as a full-grown man, filled with blues and sex and that careless sense of fun that he had at his best. He really goes there in this performance. Nothing, of course, can compete with his version of the song during the 1968 comeback special which is One for the Ages.

“Snowbird” – Elvis. From his wonderful country album, basically thrown together during a recording spurt for another album. Some great stuff on that album. I love it when Elvis goes country. This is pretty mild: after all, it’s mainly known as an Anne Murray song. It’s got no teeth. But he – and his gentle performance – is perfect.

“Almost Always True” – Elvis, from Blue Hawaii. That album is so good. Crazy. But totally entertaining. Elvis at top form. Everything looks fun. Everything looks easy. You think what he does was easy just because it LOOKS easy? Think again!

“Wishing” – Buddy Holly. The harmonies (he harmonizes with himself, doubly pleasing). The major-to-minor chord progression: so satisfying. And I love the arrangement. This was released posthumously.

“Then We Are Decided” – from Jesus Christ Superstar. “He’s just another Scripture-thumping hack from Galilee!” “The difference is they call him King. The difference frightens me!”

“Turn on a Dream” – The Box Tops. I love these guys. Where the great Alex Chilton – still a teenager – cut his teeth. Funky, doo-wop, bluesy Memphis boys. Memphis, man.

“Finale” – from Hello Dolly the movie. Walter Matthau. The stories of this overblown and unpleasant shoot are legendary. Plus how hugely it bombed, how it was the death of the big Hollywood musical, and all the rest. But I don’t care. I grew up on this movie. Mitchell and I quote it constantly. “You salt your beets, I’ll salt mine.”

“Take Me or Leave Me” – Idina Menzel, from Rent. I don’t know, girl, maybe you need to learn how to compromise, too. Maybe stop focusing so much on how awesome you are? Just a tip.

“Bullys Pt. 2” – Eminem. His lyrics and rhyme schemes are insane. It’s very complex, what he’s doing. Daunting. I love it when he sings, too.

“Life Story” – Lynne Wintersteller, from Closer Than Ever, the white-yuppie-30something-Baby-Boomer musical. Some wonderful songs in that musical, and I was very very into it in college. I grew past it. I see some the material as actually abhorrent now. The self-involved-ness of these people, their self-satisfaction about their political activity in the 60s (as though they are the only generation ever to give a shit), and their baffled reaction when the world didn’t turn out to be a Utopia. Now, granted, I’m Gen-X, and we are known for our cynicism. (I like to call it REALISM, but never mind.) Who the hell promised you people a Utopia? You took too many drugs in the 60s. Utopias don’t exist. Only dictators have the power to create a Utopia, so you can keep your Utopia. What the hell am I talking about. It’s a dumb musical. This is a beautiful song, a disappointed feminist anthem. A woman who gave up personal happiness for her career. And then looks out the window and wonders what she has done with her life. There is one great line about trying to get a job at age 49: “And those sweet young things who hire me now, those MBAs making 50 thou, who smile and ask what I have done, when they got their jobs from the fights I won …”

“All I Want for Christmas is You” – Michael Buble, covering the Mariah Carey classic. He does a lovely job. But it just shows that whatever happened with Mimi’s version: it can’t be recreated. What happened in her version was magic, eternal magic.

“Little by Little” – Nappy Brown. I love Nappy Brown, and all his Savoy stuff. I have a whole compilation.

“Candle: Coventry Carol” – Tori Amos. I love her. She also drives me crazy. Here, she drives me crazy. Lighten up, Tori.

“Woman Without Love” – Elvis Presley. Recorded in 1975. He sounds pretty damn good for a guy supposedly in a downward spiral. His voice is gentle and yet full. I love it when the huge chorus comes in.

“Right String Wrong Yo Yo” – Carl Perkins. This one MOVES. Well, they all move. This was recorded at Sun. Super sexy.

“The Impossible Dream” – Elvis, live in Las Vegas. It’s this kind of stuff that drives some Elvis fans crazy. WHY is he singing power ballads and show tunes? What happened?? But THIS is just as sincere as “Hound Dog”. And you have to accept that if you want to fully understand the man. Elvis lived the “impossible dream” and he KNEW it. It’s here in his voice, how he throws himself around in the song, up and up. Also, let’s not forget: a song like this allows Elvis to show off his pipes. The final note, he goes up the octave. It’s the “extra mile.” It’s a LEAP upward. He knows he can do it. But he’s got to take a big breath to get there. This is representative of pure guts, stamina, and heart. That’s why he was Elvis.

“(They Call It) Stormy Monday” – Lou Rawls. Man, he swings. His voice is so smooth, so beautiful. In the middle of swinging around, he’ll settle on a note for a second … and out comes his rich vibrato … but he doesn’t linger. He swings on into the song. The opposite of self-indulgent. The other thing I love about him is he is a storyteller. Every song is an inner monologue. A story he wants to share.

“Season of the Witch” – Donovan. My parents had one of his albums when I was a kid. I loved “Mellow Yellow” but it also scared me a little bit for some reason. It felt very grownup. I have a couple of Donovan tunes. This is my favorite. It still sounds fresh, no wonder it was picked as background for a recent commercial, although I’m not remembering which one. It’s very “90s-grunge” sounding, although 30 years before.

“It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right” – Dolly Parton. This has been a pretty boy-heavy Shuffle thus far, so Dolly is welcome. She’s always welcome.

“Gimme Shelter” – The Rolling Stones. I don’t care how many times I’ve heard it. It’s still terrifying. I can’t say anything new about it. A song that tapped into – or, expressed – or ran from/embraced – the mood out there in the world that was dark and wild and terrible … in a moment when nobody really wanted to hear it, or at least didn’t understand the message, couldn’t hear it, there was still belief in that final chorus with the change-up: “It’s just a kiss away …” but in the song even Mick sounds like he’s not sure if that’s true, if that was ever true. After what they all just unleashed, “it’s just a kiss away” sounds like whistling in the dark. That’s not a criticism. It’s human to not want to face the darkness. It’s human to want to find hope.

“Drinkin’ In My Sunday Dress” – Maria McKee. I love her. What a voice, man. Have you seen the movies she’s made with her husband, Jim Akin? I recommend both: After the Triumph of Your Birth (my review here) and The Ocean of Helena Lee (my review here).

“Long Long Way From Home” – Foreigner. It’s so melodramatically macho.

“Good Time” – The Beach Boys. “Maybe it won’t last but what do we care? My baby and I just want a good time.” The arrangement, the progression … it seems so simple. IT IS NOT.

“Jailhouse Rock” – Jerry Lee Lewis. I am currently re-reading Nick Tosches’ dauntingly brilliant biography of Lewis, Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story.

“Norwegian Wood” – Waylon Jennings. Sigh. So so good.

“Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” – Maren Morris. She is a recent discovery. I like her a lot. A tough-talking country song. “Girl, you gotta know when to clean house and throw his shit out in the yard.”

“Starstruck” – Robbie Williams. He has a new album coming out! I’m so excited. It’s been three years. I loved this recent interview with Williams on the Graham Norton Show. I love Justin Timberlake roaring with laughter.

“Taking Over Me” – Evanescence. I love her voice. It’s quite epic. A great rock ‘n’ roll voice. I love the heaviness of the arrangements, too. This is some dark shit.

“Borderline / Open Your Heart” – the Glee cast, in their Madonna episode. I like the harmonies they add in in their arrangement. I’ve heard both of these songs so many times it’s difficult to even HEAR them anymore. That’s part of the fun of some of these Glee songs. I’m not saying they’re better than the original, just that they breathe new life into an over-played song.

“Just a Little Talk with Jesus” – Elvis and Carl Perkins. Part of the so-called “Million Dollar Quartet” … my favorite part. Elvis and Carl just go OFF. Elvis and Carl harmonizing. Elvis taking the lead. He so rarely sang with OTHER people, it’s so awesome to hear this. Elvis also plays conductor, saying at one point, “Slow it down, Carl …” Elvis continues on with the lead, and Carl does the echo behind him. Thrilling. Country boys. Pentecostal boys. With pompadours and shiny shoes.

“Mama Told Me Not to Come” – Tom Jones absolutely KILLING the Three Dog Night song. He KILLS.

“Suspended in Time” – Olivia Newton-John. From the Xanadu soundtrack. Because of course. She has such a perfect voice. It can be soft and whispery, but she can also open up her throat into a thrilling belt. I love her.

“Your Lovin’ Man” – Vernon Taylor. A Sun Records artist. My favorite parts: the bass line. The simple little guitar solo. Everything is in them: country/blues/gospel.

“Honkin’ Down the Highway” – The Beach Boys. I can’t wait to read Brian Wilson’s book, as well as Mike Love’s book. The Mozart/Salieri comparison is probably unfair! But still: I need to read both, and I need to read them back to back.

“Bones” – The Killers. I love them. What’s the consensus out there about them? I don’t care, because I’ll love them anyway, but I’m curious and too lazy to Google. I love Brandon Flowers’ voice.

“Survival” – Eminem. From his latest double-album The Marshall Mathers LP2. Along with “Legacy,” this is my favorite track on the album (which is back-to-back great).

“Thorn Within” – Metallica, from the generally-reviled Load, an album I really like. Yes, it’s different from their normal fare, and maybe it doesn’t “go” with their image. Strike that: it definitely doesn’t “go”. But I think it’s entertaining.

“They Won’t Go When I Go” – George Michael. A stunning vocal performance.

“Can’t Fight This Feeling” – REO Speedwagon. Oh, for God’s sake.

“Key to the Highway” – Big Bill Broonzy. The best. I grew up hearing that name around the house. My dad’s name was Bill. Mum occasionally called him “Big Bill Broonzy.” I totally accepted it, and didn’t really put it together as referencing something else. I come from a musical family. Not just The Clancy Brothers. But Big Bill Broonzy too.

“Still Doing Time” – George Jones. One of my favorite voices in country music. I realize that this does not make me in any way/shape/form unique.

“Tutti Frutti” – Queen, live at Wembley. Thrilling. This whole concert is incredible.

“Needles and Pins” – Del Shannon. “Runaway” might be my favorite pop song ever written. A Del Shannon fan from the first time I heard it. And I was probably 8 years old when I first heard it.

“Creep” – Radiohead. Bands go through entire decades-spanning careers without writing a song that strikes an emotional chord like “Creep.”

“Wildcat Tamer” – Dale Hawkins. Primal. “I’m a wild cat tamer …” The wild taming the wild. A match made in rockabilly heaven.

“My Baby Likes Western Guys” – Brenda Lee. You might want to look for another boyfriend, Brenda. One who likes girls. Just a suggestion!

“Farewell to Carlingford” – The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. My entire childhood is in this sound. The harmonies here make me want to cry.

“Hoy Hoy” – The Collins Kids. Rockabilly heaven.

“Don’t Put It Down” – the cast of Hair, the Broadway revival. Great ensemble. Some good songs. But I have a problem taking this hippie-dippie shit seriously. It’s a character flaw, I admit that. Or maybe it’s that those in my family who were in that generation – those who were in their teens and 20s in the 1960s – were not flower-children, doing drugs and chanting in a commune and “checking out” and all the rest. My family wasn’t protesting the war. They were fighting IN the war. And they weren’t drafted, they signed up. I’m not saying it was a good war. If I sound snotty about this, well it’s a reaction to the snottiness of the other side who feel that going to muddy outdoor concerts represented some kind of enlightenment. So all the Utopia-Uplift stuff … it’s just not in my heritage. I’ve always had suspicion for it. As you can imagine, this attitude makes me a ton of friends!

“It’s Over” – Roy Orbison. I was fascinated to read about Orbison’s journey at Sun Records and his relationship with Sam Phillips in Peter Guralnick’s recent biography of Phillips. Roy Orbison had been radicalized (as so many people were) after seeing Elvis play live. He immediately changed his life-goals, his inspirations, who he wanted to be. But Orbison had different gifts, and one of them was his stupendous voice, which he loved showing off in these melodramatic ballads. Sam Phillips didn’t care for it. It wasn’t the kind of music he was interested in. Additionally, Phillips got so swept up in the Jerry Lee Lewis fervor that the other Sun artists (Johnny Cash and Orbison, primarily) felt neglected. Orbison was his own kind of artist, and he was fenced in at Sun. He finally found his way but (if I recall correctly) there was a fair amount of bitterness at how Phillips had treated him.

“New York State of Mind” – the Billy Joel song as performed by Lea Michele and Melissa Benoit on Glee. I was such a huge Billy Joel fan as a teen that – honestly – I can’t listen to him anymore. I feel a little bit bad about that. That’s one of the fun things about these Glee covers: they can re-ignite interest in a song I have listened to one or twenty too many times. This is a beautiful duet by two talented singers.

“Pop, Let Me Have the Car” – Carl Perkins. The innovator. The guy who put it all together. He’s on fire here. He wants – he needs – to get laid. He needs that car.

“Roadrunners G Jam” – Humble Pie. So hot. There’s a blues-jam-session feeling to it, but it’s got some funk elements too, that crazy keyboard, like what the hell. This is off the first album they put out after Peter Frampton fled for greener pastures.

“Take Cover” – Bleu. What a voice. He can do anything. He DOES do anything. Great song-writer. He has this whole other career writing songs for Pop Princesses. I can see why. He’s a hit-maker. A star. But his own stuff, his performing, his voice … he’s just the best thing going right now.

“(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” – Sam Cooke. He was just a perfect performer. The whole package.

“You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” – Judas Priest. You promise?

“Dust” – Eli Young Band. Pretty “stock” contemporary country, but I like it. He’s no Eric Church. But who is.

“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” – Kenny Rogers. Oh hell yes.

“Bass For My Birthday” – The Troggs. Hilarious. I love these guys. Probably the best thing written about them is Lester Bangs’ frighteningly-titled “James Taylor Marked For Death.”

“Hungover and Hard Up” – Eric Church. Speaking of Eric Church …

“Yup” – E-40. J’adore so hard.

“I Fought the Law” – The Stray Cats. You know, they were huge when I was in high school. There was this weird mix of New Wave and post-punk and rockabilly going on. People were actually wearing poodle skirts at one point. I had one. Plus Madonna and Prince. It was a rich time. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

“I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down” – Buddy Holly. I love it when he gets pissed off. The sweet love songs are good, too, but I think something interesting and exciting comes out when he gets fed up. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.

“Diamond Head” – The Beach Boys. Nice lazy Hawaiian beat. Soporific instrumental.

“Fairytale” – Elvis covering The Pointer Sisters. I love their version, but I love his too. Great country song. And he’s pissed. He’s outta there. “You used me. You deceived me. And you never seem to need me. But I bet you won’t forget me when I go.” We won’t, Elvis.

“John Wayne” – Lady Gaga. This is from her album that just dropped – her country-ish album – so I haven’t had a chance to absorb it yet. This is an excellent dance track. Leave it to John Wayne to continue to be cool.

“Quiet” – from Matilda, the Musical. Never seen the show. Love the music though! The kids are excellent, some of this music is very challenging! Like this one.

“Metal Militia” – Metallica. Is anyone faster than them? It’s overwhelming.

“Ride the Lightning” – Metallica. One of my favorites of theirs. Exhilarating.

“Rehab” – Amy Winehouse. It still sounds brand-new, alarmingly so. You stop in your tracks when the song starts. It’s audacious. You can’t believe it exists. I miss her.

“Who Do You Love?” – The Band. A crazy jam. One of the best things about their stuff is that you never forget that it’s PEOPLE making that sound. You feel their humanity, even when you don’t SEE them.

“A Flat” – Black Violin. I love these guys. I got into them – as I think a lot of people did – when their video for “Stereotypes” went viral (and maybe there was an NPR spot about them too.)

“The Adams Administration” – the Hamilton soundtrack. Poor John Adams. He’s not even IN the musical. Great song, though, about Hamilton going after John Adams. It was the beginning of the end for Hamilton. Political suicide.

“Something Inside of Me” – the great Elmore James. The blues can be Pure Heaven. Like this.

“Love and Peace Or Else” – U2. Shut up, Bono.

“Shake That” – Eminem and Nate Dogg. Oh hell yeah. Sex that shit up, Slim. Great dance track from the Gloomy Recluse.

“Man In a Suitcase” – The Police. Wow, I forgot about this song. I love that album, Zenyatta Mondattta. I was such an enormous Police fan in high school and that love has faded. Not sure why. Just one of those things I grew out of. But I’m still happy when they come up.

“Ol’ Man River” – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. If an alien came to earth, and listened to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the alien would turn to us humans and say, “How do you explain this? What is this? How do I classify this?” The only valid answer is: “There is no explanation. Sometimes something comes along that cannot be sufficiently explained. The only thing to do is listen and enjoy and be thankful that geniuses sometimes choose to walk on the earth. But don’t expect to find a similar make and model among the rest of us. Can’t be done.” LISTEN TO THIS TRACK.

“25 Minutes to Go” – Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. What an incredible moment. Listen to that crowd. You feel like at any second a riot’s going to break out. He gets them worked up. He’s singing about their lives. Not to mention the BEAT of that song: its insistent “rhythm of the tracks” (as defined by Keith Richards).

“Somethin’ About You Baby I Like” – Jerry Reed. I love when the girls come in in the background. I love how he’s basically stalking this woman down the sidewalk (“peekaboo”) because he’s too tongue-tied to talk to her. Creepy? Whatever, it’s JERRY REED.

“Boycott” – Brendan Benson. He’s been quietly doing his rock/folk thing for years. His main moment of stardom was when one of his songs played in one of the first iPod commercials. A total anomaly in his career. But I have Mac to thank for introducing me to him. He’s become one of my favorite singer/songwriters working today. He’s incapable of writing a boring song. He wears his influences (The Beatles, ELO) on his sleeve. Love him.

“Knives of New Orleans” – Eric Church. I’ve tried to write about why his music and attitude touches/excites me too much. He’s got the “I’m just a good ol’ boy” thing going on because he’s a country star. That’s the deal. But somehow it feels more genuine with him (than it did with, say, Garth Brooks), maybe because he’s honest about his dark side (one of his song titles), his feelings about Nashville (“she’s a bitch, a slut, a tramp, a mutt …”), his contempt for what he calls “soccer Mom Christians”, the main audience country stars have been gunning for for decades. He’s a party-hound. He’s a stoner and has written multiple songs about smoking pot. He’s a sex-pot. He’s a bad boy. His songs are peppered with references to Elvis, Hank Williams, Waylon … Those guys are rock ‘n’ roll to him. He wants country to stop being goody-goody. He’s definitely got his chip-on-the-shoulder Southern attitude (“I got my pick-up truck and I’m happier than you with all your money and your penthouse …” as though there’s not a middle-ground, people living in regular houses and driving Honda civics. Nope. It’s country boys wearing shit-kickers or elites at cocktail parties. Okay, Eric. You gotta speak to your culturally resentful base. I get it. But you’re a multi-millionaire now. How are you not in the elite of our society now?) Whatever. Whatever he does seems sincere to me. He’s pissed a lot of people off. But he’s embraced the audience that has been ignored by mainstream country: the outlaws, the boys, the Nascar fans, the party-hounds. A POWERFUL demographic.

“American Middle Class” – Angaleena Presley. I love her voice. This song is brutal. There’s a lot of anger in America right now.


The mood is extremely volatile. It’s a terrible time for our country. I have contempt for the racism and xenophobia and misogyny in politics right now. But the economic situation – especially for those in country areas, places not on the coast – places who have been decimated by the closing of factories and coal-mines, the decimation that things like Walmart can wrought – the forgotten and hated “rednecks” – well, what the hell are we going to DO about that demographic? SOMETHING’S got to be done. Job creation, education incentives, whatEVER. I’m not saying “Yes, let’s listen to racism and xenophobia and empathize with where that’s come from.” But I AM saying that ignoring these people – and their economic distress – has CLEARLY NOT WORKED. Anyway, that’s what this song is about.

“P.S. I Love You” – Bobby Vinton. An emanation from an America that died a long time ago.

“She-Bop” – Cyndi Lauper. Talk about songs from my high school years. She’s amazing. It was whispered amongst my friends that this was about masturbation. We listened agog, and felt like we were in on the secret.

“Temptation” – The Everly Brothers. “It would be thrilling if you were willing …” That’s the crux of it, ain’t it.

“I’m Gonna Stay” – Mary Wells. Motown’s first big star. She helped create that Motown sound, or at least she was one of the first expressions of it. Her hairdos were extraordinary.

“Hot as Ice” – Brit-Brit. This was from the horrifyingly-titled Blackout, recorded during the period of her life where she was having an extended breakdown, lovingly recorded by the tabloid press, who – if she had committed suicide – would have blood on their hands, as far as I’m concerned. There are some good tracks on this album, all things considered. Poor Britney. I am glad she is still with us.

“Chicago Shake” The Bruce Fowler Big Band. This is from the Public Enemies soundtrack. Bruce Fowler is on almost every Frank Zappa album. Captain Beefheart used him all the time too. Trombonist!

“Working on the Building” – Elvis, one of his gospel tunes. He recorded so much gospel, and I love all of it: the jumping up and down hand-clapping variety (like this one), the holy-man at the organ variety, and every style in-between. He could do it all. But this one … this one … This one is in my Top 5 Elvis Gospel list. Because it’s very important to have such a list.

“When Irish Eyes are Smiling” – The Irish Tenors. Give me a break.

“Function at the Junction” – Little Richard. What a MADMAN. From him, all good things spring. I love how he goes OFF, and the background music/background singers/everything keeps up the beat, on repeat, full energy, until he “comes back” and they can continue. Classic blues style.

“Solitaire” – Elvis Presley. Devastating. There are a couple of tracks near the end where his pain is so evident it’s difficult to listen to. “It’s Still Here” is another one. But his voice is able to EXPRESS that stuff. It’s full and rich and evocative. He sounds amazing here.

“The Fightin’ Side of Me” – Merle Haggard. Okay, Merle, okay, I know. I can’t imagine what the 60s/70s looked like to you. I know you’re pissed. And I actually agree with a lot of your sentiments here. But “If you don’t love it, leave it …” Well, that’s not how we do it here in ‘Murrica. We are allowed to be pissed off at our government and still live here in peace. We are allowed to be angry at government policies and not fear a firing squad or imprisonment. It is our RIGHT to criticize our country if we see fit. That kind of criticism is ALSO a form of patriotism. But still: I feel your pain, Merle. And I will always love you.

“Time” – Sly & The Family Stone. Delicious. So sexy. It starts sexy and then it gets sexier and the whole thing is unbearably hot. And coming from a very real place.

“Stray Heart” – Green Day. It was so exciting when they quickly – and overnight – came out with 3 albums. What on earth …. This is one of my favorite tracks off of the three. Classic Green Day pop-sound.

“Reviewing the Situation” – Ron Moody, as Fagin in Oliver! A GREAT vocal performance. (Great acting performance, too. But the STUFF he can do with his voice … the variety, the intonation, the CONTROL he has … breath-taking.)

“I Wonder” – The Ronettes. That Phil Spector wall of sound. Rather amazing. The sound is so huge it sounds like they’re in a warehouse. And still the voices of the women are highlighted. They’re not lost in all that sound. Amazing balance found.

“Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day” – Cab Calloway. The BEST. I have his Greatest Hits. Always happy when he shows up.

“All Things Must Pass” – The Beatles. Working it out in 1969. A demo. Rough. Near the end of the road.

“Bo Diddley” – by none other than Bo Diddley. Keith Richards again: “the rhythm of the tracks.” Thrilling. It SOUNDS dangerous. Because it is. The culture is about to crack apart.

“Bad Example” – The Pistol Annies. “Somebody has to set a bad example, teach all the prim and propers what not to do …” I love these broads. They keep it real. “I’m a third-generation bartender …”

“Make You Feel My Love” – the new Nobel Prize winner. Who is currently refusing to even acknowledge that he just won the Nobel Prize. Like, he’s not even answering the Nobel committee’s phone calls/emails. Which is, honestly, the most rock ‘n’ roll thing he could ever do. It’s brilliant.

“Better Off” – Foo Fighters. Sometimes a song hits my sweet spot. Well, my musical sweet spot. This is one of those songs.

“Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Going)” – The Rolling Stones. The whole thing is great, but it’s fun to “isolate” Keith and listen to what he’s doing back there.

“Hell on the Heart” – Eric Church. “Every bit as funny as she is smart …” I like your taste in women, Eric. This song works best blasted in the car with the windows down.

“Ricky Ticky Toc” – Eminem. A sort of rapprochement song. Trying to find common ground with his rivals. It’s one long monologue. Not a chorus-verse structure. Just one long stream of thought.

“Angel of the Morning” – Nina Simone. What she does with this song is literally mind-blowing. It’s completely transformed. It’s hers. She makes you feel like this is the way the song needs to be sung. Her deep-dive into the lyrics, her burrowing into the psychology … There is literally nobody like her. Her interpretive powers are stunning. Otherworldly, almost, but also always attached to the earth: coming from HER, everything she did was personal.

“Run For Your Life” – The Beatles. One of their scariest songs.

“Be Still” – The Beach Boys. Another track off of Friends, released in 1969. One of the craziest awful-est years in American history. This is haunting. And so quiet it’s almost not there. A retreat from the chaos?

“Boogie Woogie Teenage Girl” – Dale Hawkins. I love how he just keeps repeating it, I also love how he makes “sugar and spice and everything nice” sound totally dirty.

“Busted” – Ray Charles. Hahahaha. He’s so awesome. And those horns. So snarky.

“Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man” – Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. This literally could not be more country.

“Charlie’s Soliloquy” – the marvelous Stark Sands, from Inside Llewyn Davis.

“Roi” – The Breeders. Ah, the good old days when girls could be rock stars and not have to be sex-pots.

“Memphis Exorcism” – The Squirrel Nut Zippers. Recently, my friend Jordan said on Twitter that he sure hoped the Squirrel Nut Zippers created a “diversified stock portfolio” in the 90s, cause they’d need it now. That made me laugh.

“That’s What You Get For Loving Me” – Waylon Jennings. What a song. I’m so glad so many of my favorites have covered it. I mean, you can’t get more truth-talking than that: Listen, you knew what I was going into this, so that’s WHAT YOU GET, ma’am.

“The Question of U” – Prince. Shit.

On that note …

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Review: In a Valley of Violence (2016)


A Western starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. It’s not perfect, but God, when it works, it works.

Here’s my review at Ebert.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Happy Birthday, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“These are the pure Magic. These are the clear vision. The rest is only poetry.” – Rudyard Kipling on John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

William Hazlitt, friend to Coleridge, wrote:

Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his voice met with no collateral interruption.

I’ll start with a personal anecdote because Coleridge entered my life early. When I was a kid, 9, 10 years old, I loved a book called The Boyhood of Grace Jones, by Jane Langton (one of my favorite authors as a kid, she wrote one of my favorite books ever (still) called The Diamond in the Window). The Boyhood of Grace Jones takes place in 1939, and tells the story of a young girl named Grace Jones who is about to start middle school and has taken to wearing her father’s Navy middy blouse. She has cut her hair short, and decides to behave like a boy. She is obsessed with all things sea-worthy, and has a couple of imaginary friends from a book she has read, Captain Nancy and Captain John, sailors both, who follow her around, give her advice, support her, or scorn her. She tries to live up to their expectations of her.

Meanwhile, in the world of middle school, suddenly boys become boys, and girls girls – and the girls are all in a state of apoplexy and sexual frenzy over Rhett Butler (Gone With the Wind had just premiered), and Grace refuses to buy into ANY of it, much to the consternation of her mother and some of her teachers, who wonders why Grace is so ODD. Why does she dress like a boy? Why does she swagger through the hallways shouting, “Ahoy there, matey?” Grace is a terrific character. I was in love with her. She follows her obsessions to extremes. I knew a little something about that. And then, in an English class, the teacher assigns a poem for them to read overnight. It is “Kubla Khan”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

And something happens to Grace Jones when she reads it.

Dizzy with incantation, intoxicated with rhythm, Grace almost fell out of the tree. She had discovered poetry and nature in one fell swoop. “Beware,” she whispered to herself, “Beware! Beware! Weave a circle round him thrice …” Then her eyes raced back to the beginning of the poem, and she started to read the whole thing aloud once more, mumbling and whispering at first, then ranting and shouting …

By the time Grace noticed her dog Whitey at the bottom of the tree, sniffling and whining a doggy greeting, the two mimeographed pages in her hand were a damp smudge of purple ink. She never discovered the questions Mrs. Humminger had typed up on the second page, but she wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway, they were so blurred by now. But she knew the whole poem by heart. She slipped and fumbled down the tree, fondled Whitey, staggered home, burst into the kitchen door, struck a pose, and cried, “Beware! Beware! My flashing eyes! My floating hair!”

This was a heroine I could recognize. I did that kind of stuff too. I would read something and get so excited that I immediately needed to play make-believe with it. I always wanted to LIVE in the books I loved. I had never heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was 10 years old, but The Boyhood of Grace Jones introduced me to him.

Grace’s obsession becomes even more intense when the class is assigned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

The Ancient Mariner was even more staggering than Kubla Khan. There wasn’t the slightest breeze moving in the top of the white pine tree, but Grace had to hang on with both arms to the branches on either side of her to keep from losing her balance, as Coleridge’s verses reeled and throbbed, ebbed and flowed across the pages of the book wedged open in her lap. The ancient mariner had shot a lucky bird, an albatross, with his crossbow, and ever since then his ship has been doomed with a curse. And what a curse! All the other sailors died, one by one, and after that he was alone.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!

There was something about the rhythm. It burned and froze. It beat and pulsed. It surged and dragged. It made Grace want to laugh and cry …

Grace began to learn this poem by heart too. It was easy. The verses beat themselves into her brain like hammerblows, leaving deep dents in her memory. By the time she was ready to climb down from the top of the tree and stumble home, stiff with cold, the dry grass of the field, like a dull mirror, was giving back the tawny color of the sunset sky. She had memorized forty-two stanzas. And that night at home she learned forty more while she was eating her supper and washing the dishes.

Later that night, Grace is so worked up about the Ancient Mariner that she can’t sleep.

She lay looking up at the cold moon, which was sailing high in the night sky, sucking the summer warmth from the ground, casting a cold, bald light on the floor beside the bed. The radiator hissed and knocked. The powerful rhythms of The Ancient Mariner were still tumbling and racing through her head. She couldn’t stop them. After the third time through all of the eighty-four stanzas she had learned that day she sat up warily, turning away from the window, and stared wide-eyed at the darkest corner of her room, where the open door into the hall cast a dense shadow. What if an angel should appear there, writing in a book of gold? Was it true that someone was keeping track? Watching her? Writing it all down on the good or bad side of the page? That would be terrible. It would be much worse to have an angel watching her than Captain Nancy or Captain John, because Nancy and John were her friends, after all, and they weren’t writing it all down like that and holding a lot of things against her forever after.

Grace kept her eyes pricked open, staring as hard as she could at the dark corner, trying by sheer force of will to materialize an angel writing in a book of gold. But she couldn’t do it, and she slumped back under the covers.

Was it true? Were angels true? Was God true? Grace wondered about God for the thousandth time. Her father didn’t believe in religion. He scoffed at the Sunday morning preachers on the radio. He always said the word “God” sarcastically, so that it came out “Gawd“. But Grace didn’t know whether he was right or not. What if he were wrong? Somebody in the family should take some responsibility about religion. Just in case it was true. Somebody, somebody, should pray for everybody. Grace shut her eyes and put her folded hands under her chin, and prayed for them all (just in case), ending up with a line from The Ancient Mariner, ” ‘O, shrive me, shrive me, holy man! Amen.”

BANG! exploded the radiator. Bubblety-gurglety-poppety-BANG!

Jane Langton is a great writer.

In the back of this magic little book is the entirety of the texts of the two Coleridge poems referenced in the book, Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, which I, a child, caught up in Grace’s enthusiasm, read over and over and over again. Grace’s obsessions are free-range, her intelligence susceptible to suggestion. All she wants is to be inspired. Over the course of the book, things shift for her. It is the beginning of adolescence, and she finds herself caught up, almost against her will, in the Gone With the Wind mania. Clark Gable and Coleridge, competing for her affections. It’s a wonderful book. I highly recommend it!

I had to share that story because that was my introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and it was almost like a master-class in HOW to read him. We read “Kubla Khan” in high school, and all I could think about was Grace Jones. I already felt like an expert in that poem because of The Boyhood of Grace Jones.

Camille Paglia, in her book Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems, writes about “Kubla Khan”:

Sensitive about the poem’s eccentric structure, Coleridge attached a preface whose peculiar claims were accepted as fact by early readers and critics. In it he says that, while recuperating from “a slight indisposition” in the countryside, he was lulled asleep by an “anodyne” (laudanum, an opiate to which he was addicted) just as he was reading a passage in a seventeenth-century travelogue describing the lavish palace of the Chinese emperor Kubla Khan. Awaking from three hours of “profound sleep”, he began to write out the “two to three hundred lines” that had somehow coalesced during his dream. But a knock on the door suddenly called him away. Returning little more than an hour later, he found “to his no small surprise and mortification” that the rest of the poem had faded from memory.

The fifty-four line text of “Kubla Khan” is therefore to be understood, according to the subtitle, as a “fragment”. Was Coleridge’s defense strategy aimed at shadowy carpers or at his own festering doubts? The poem certainly does not feel incomplete to us, whose looser standards of form descend from the radical innovations of Romanticism and nineteenth-century realism. We no longer expect perfection, symmetry, or sharp closure in works of art. Indeed, modernist plays and dance pieces can end so ambiguously that raised house-lights must signal the end of a performance. “Kubla Khan” anticipates the fractures and fragmentation in Western culture that would be registered in collage, the jigsaw medium invented by Picasso on the eve of World War I and applied by T.S. Eliot to the shards of literature shifted from rubble in The Waste Land (1922).

Perhaps, Mr. Coleridge, it would have been better to NOT answer the door while in the throes of inspiration.

However, the whole anecdote is a wonderful metaphor for the elusive nature of creativity, of the dream-palace erected in our heads: the perfect work of art, emerging fully realized. But then most often everything falls short of that imagined paradise.

The wonderful Anne Fadiman wrote a gorgeous essay about a biography of Coleridge, included in her book At Large and At Small. Here is an excerpt. At one point Fadiman writes:

I half-woke one morning recently with an obscure sense of dread, nagged by the feeling that someone close to me was in trouble. I knew that soon I would be sufficiently alert to remember who it was and to start making plans to help him, plans that I feared would be difficult and complex and likely to swallow up my day. I turned over in bed and saw volume 2 of Coleridge on my bedside table. It was open to page 240. When I had left him at midnight, Coleridge was lying in a sweat-soaked bed at the Grey Hound Inn in Bath, in December 1813, having argued with two housemates and fled into the night. He was nearly penniless; had missed the last stagecoach and walked five miles in a rainstorm, dragging a bag of books and old clothes; had a terrible cold; and was hallucinating from an opium overdose.

I was relieved. The runaway was someone else’s responsibility. Nevertheless, I was unable to settle down to work until I had read far enough ahead to assure myself that Coleridge would be properly taken care of.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes:

Along with Doctor Johnson, Coleridge is the great critical intelligence among English poets, but a very different kind of intelligence from the Doctor’s. His interests extend beyond poetry to society, philosophy and religion, but poetry is the heart of wider concerns with language and the power of imagination and ideas. Unlike Johnson, he had no settled opinions; he was a man in search of truth, perplexed by personal, philosophical, political and aesthetic indecisions. We find consistency of principle, uncertainty of application. His mature political thought is lucid, but he cannot – for example in On the Constitution of Church and State – bridge the gap between idea and implementation in practical, institutional forms. Yet Hazlitt is wrong: Coleridge does not indulge in casuistry to get out of an intellectual corner.

Uncertainty has aesthetic consequences. Unlike other Romantic poets, he never establishes a personal mode. He writes Augustan verse of little distinction, discursive poems, then the handful of meditations and nature poems in which he is most himself, and finally three great poems that defy classification: “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Of these poems, two are ostensibly unfinished. Throughout his work there are fragments, including “The Destiny of Nations”. Other poems he worked on for years and remained dissatisfied. His “Dejection: An Ode” adopts a fragmentary form, juxtaposing verse paragraphs that are thematically but not logically sequential. Formal fragmentation reflects the theme: like a modernist, he breaks it to make it whole. He did not complete his vast projected philosophical work. His attempt to schematize transcendental philosophy distorted the ideas imagination could apply but analysis unraveled.

Coleridge started taking opium because of a toothache, and it became a lifelong addiction. He went to Cambridge. He was not particularly ambitious. He didn’t get a degree. He got swept up by the French Revolution, and had all kinds of idealistic Utopian plans/hopes, like a lot of people then who somehow (?) missed the Terror. He started publishing poems, his marriage was bad, he met Wordsworth, one of the most important friendships of his life. They collaborated, and the publication of their Lyrical Ballads marks the beginning of the new Romantic era. The collaboration pushed Coleridge to produce more. He was invigorated, despite his other circumstances (opium, terrible marriage, a melancholy disposition). He wrote a lot and Wordsworth was his main audience. He traveled to Germany, and was swept away by the philosophical revolution occurring there. Schmidt writes:

After visiting Germany in 1798-99, he returned to England and settled near Wordsworth in Cumberland to continue his studies. He fell hopelessly in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, but he was already married. He wrote journalism, lectured, traveled, suffered further financial hardship and grew increasingly dependent on opium. In 1810 he quarreled openly – conflict had been brewing – with Wordsworth. It was one of the great losses of his life. They were reconciled, but the original friendship was over. His reputation grew as his powers declined. In 1817 his prose masterpiece Biographia Literaria was published. His mature political writing is the quintessence of that English Toryism rooted in Sir Robert Filmer and Richard Hooker, adhered to by Swift, Johnson and Goldsmith, and richly proclaimed by Edmund Burke. Its expression is elegiac: that moment in English history was over. Coleridge died in 1834.

In writing of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Schmidt writes (echoing Grace Jones’ experience of the poem):

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” achieves what no other literary ballad of the period did: the tone of folk ballad. In an impersonal ballad singer’s voice, Coleridge explores in dramatic ways a theme developed in the discursive poems. The Mariner chooses one of three young men bound for a wedding feast. He tells his story: his ship, ice-bound near the pole, the albatross of good omen, his gratuitous act of slaying it, the punishment wrought on the whole crew; his individual penance and regeneration when in his heart he blessed the creatures about the becalmed ship. Released, he travels the world teaching reverence, love of God and his creatures. For six hundred and twenty-five lines Coleridge touches our deepest interests. The poem works on us like a dream: questions of belief or disbelief never arise: we attend. Passages have entered common language; the images draw back to consciousness folk elements and hermetic symbolism. Wordsworth wrote privately to the publisher urging that the poem be dropped from future editions of Lyrical Ballads as being out of key with the other poems in the book. He was uncomfortable with its dimensions and themes: Did he sense, too, how much more powerful, durable and inevitable it was than the other poems in the book?

One more personal anecdote. When I was in high school, Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit the airwaves. “Relax” was, of course, the big hit. I bought the album, and there was another song included called “Welcome To the Pleasure-Dome”, which also eventually got radio play. I felt like the smartest person in the world because I immediately knew it was referencing Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”.

It had, by that point, entered into my personal lexicon because of Grace Jones. So often when you read literature, especially as a kid, it stays outside of you. It may make an impression but it doesn’t enter into your experience and your language and your thought process. But Coleridge did. His language … It’s got such REVERB.

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

That one phrase alone starts off a series of images, crazy and untrammeled. I picture the “measureless” caverns, and that image brings a shiver of dread and awe (like, I beg you, please … measure them. Because I can’t deal with the thought of a cavern that is “measureless”) and then there’s the “sunless sea”, terrifying to contemplate. A sea deep beneath the earth. Untouched by sun. There are also complex and specific language elements here, the alliteration which gives those lines a sibilant sound, adding to the creepiness. It’s all “s”s.

Schmidt observes:

What the poem means is inseparable from the words and rhythms it uses. Paraphrase hardly gets a toehold. It is not until the second half of the poem that the “I” appears: “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw …” … The first half of the poem evokes the “stately pleasure dome”. In the second half the “I” wishes to retrieve it. Could he hear the music he once heard in a vision, he could re-create in air “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” He would be like Kubla Khan, himself sacred and exalted. The dulcimer recalls the harps we hear elsewhere in Coleridge’s work, instruments that harmonize the world of ideas and the world of the senses, and liberate imagination from the constraints of literal vision. In “Kubla Khan” the poetry achieves an intensity unprecedented in the discursive poems. The dulcimer’s sound would recreate not things perceived but imagined. Contemplation authenticates it; it can even transform and generate objects of contemplation, as in “Frost at Midnight”. “Could I revive within me”: it is a conditional clause. In face he cannot. He cannot even “complete” the poem. If he could, he could complete himself, become one with “flashing eye” and “floating hair”. Yet from its partial disclosure we can infer the vision. The poem is about desire, not the failure of desire. In this thwarted hope resides its power.

And so, let’s read the whole thing, once more, in honor of the Birthday Boy.

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments

Supernatural, Season 12, Episode 2


Have at it!

Posted in Television | Tagged | 168 Comments

Gotham Awards 2016: Our Nominations for Best Breakthrough Performance

It’s that time of year again: one of (if not the?) first awards shows of the season: The Gotham Independent Film Awards!

I was on the committee to nominate the category of Breakthrough Actor Performance, along with Bilge Ebiri of the Village Voice, David Ehrlich of Indiewire, Tim Grierson, VP of LA Film Critis, and Katie Walsh, critic for LA Times and other outlets. It was a HELL of a year for brand-new actors giving unbelievably memorable performances and we had quite a task, narrowing the field down. There were some clear front-runners from the get-go, but after that, a free-for-all of opinion. Finally, though, we narrowed it down to 5 nominees that we all could agree on – and happily, I might add.

And they are:

Sasha Lane, “American Honey,” directed by Andrea Arnold

Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Ana Taylor-Joy, “The Witch,” directed by Robert Eggers

Royalty Hightower, “The Fits,” directed by Anna Rose Holmer

Lily Gladstone, “Certain Women,” directed by Kelly Reichardt

Congratulations to all of the very worthy nominees. It’s a pleasure to acknowledge you!

The full list of Gotham Awards nominations here.

Posted in Actors, Movies | 4 Comments

Happy Birthday to Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly

Here’s a post I wrote awhile back after seeing the great and legendary Wanda Jackson play a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. She was 74 years old. She opened for Adele at the age of 73. LEGEND.

The Queen of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson, age 74, played Maxwell’s in Hoboken last Friday night (she tours constantly) and Jen, Charlie and I were there. It was a gloomy night with intermittent rainfall, and I wondered what the crowd would be like. I assumed it would be an older crowd mostly, with a couple of rockabilly types mixed in. I thought for sure I would be one of the youngest ones there. But the club was packed – packed – and the age range was 60-something to 20-something, the majority being 20-somethings, which warmed my heart no end. Wanda Jackson got her start in the mid-50s, and here she still is today. Jack White produced her latest album (which is kick-ass), and I imagine the fact that there were so many young people in the audience has something to do with him, bless his heart.

Maxwell’s is a small joint, no seats, a true rock club (reminds me of Lounge Ax in Chicago a bit, may it rest in peace). We scored a spot over to the side. People were pouring in.

The Saddle Tones opened for her, and they were awesome. I love any band that incorporates a stand-up bass, but the whole ensemble was great. The sound in Maxwell’s is great, it’ll blow your ears out, the room is so close. The Saddle Tones got the room rocking. People were dancing. You could feel the excitement. Wanda!! A legend!

After The Saddletones, Wanda’s band took the stage. It’s a small stage. These were some burly big men. We all were screaming in anticipation. There’s no backstage area, so I wasn’t sure where she would appear from, but then there she was, being led through the crowd up to the stage. She is so tiny (as my friend Caitlin would say: “Minz”. She’s so minz.) The excited crowd parted to let her come through, and then she was helped up onto the stage. She looked fantastic and we all just exploded at our first full sight of her. She was wearing a red fringed blazer (she must have a ton in her closet, all different colors), and her hair was jet-black, and swooped up high. She wore sparkly dangling diamond earrings, and a sparkly necklace, bracelet and rings. She picked up the light, and sparkled all over like a damn disco ball. I was very taken with her hands. Her fingers are long and tapering and she uses them brilliantly in all of her gestures, which were simple and eloquent.

And that VOICE. You can’t believe it when you hear it in person. It’s a growly voice, and yet 100% feminine at the same time. She started off by saying, in that raspy lived-in voice, “We are going to go on a musical journey tonight.” And I flashed 50 years into our future, suddenly, and I wondered who, of our young stars today, will still be going at age 74, playing small clubs, and touring constantly, who can command a room swiftly and suddenly with a simple statement like, “We are going to go on a musical journey tonight”? Who will still be standing? Who loves it that much, is basically the question. It’s an open question, that’s the best part about it.

There is something so, well, hot, about seeing a minz old lady backed by these giant guys, all of whom are in their 30s and 40s. It gives such a sense of history, of celebration, of continuity. These guys were poker-faced geniuses, and they are playing for the coolest lady in the world, and the sound they gave her … the giant rocking sound … was worthy of her. They’re playing for Wanda Jackson, after all. Life is good.

Of course, I saw her last Friday, which was the end of Elvis Week. It all seemed rather perfect since, of course, Wanda and Elvis dated (here’s Wanda telling the story), and they started out together.

Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, 1955

I hoped she might say something about him, and she did, but it far surpassed what I had hoped. I had thought she might reference Elvis Week, say she knew him, and then move on, but no, it was much much better than that.

She said:

“The first person I toured with was Elvis. We dated. Went to the movies, dinner. I was a country singer then, but Elvis encouraged me to try rock, although we didn’t really have a word for it. He pushed me, ‘Wanda, you’ll be great, do it, do it…’ So I did. He is one of the reasons I am standing here today, so at every show I do, anywhere, I always pay tribute to the King.”

I looked over at Charlie, and he looked back, nodding, like, “I know.”

I realize everyone loves Elvis, but I feel like he’s mine. I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes Elvis fans. We personalize him, we feel like we own him. He is ours, he speaks directly to us, it is a one-way track from him to us. It’s unique. Only a few stars have that.

After her beautiful words of tribute to Elvis, she went even further, and sang ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. (Here’s a clip of Wanda and Jack White performing “Heartbreak Hotel” live.)

I am not even sure I have ever heard that song played live. It’s one of those songs that is so much a part of our cultural landscape that I absorbed it by osmosis as a child. It was only when I decided to “rediscover Elvis” (and that far pre-dated all of the Elvis essays on my site) that that song emerged as the groundbreaker that it really was. But to hear it live. To hear its movements, its change-ups, its soft boozy burlesque open, to its grinding-sex guitar blasts … when Elvis would rotate his shoulder for his live audiences like a floozy and the girls would go wild… to hear it live made it sound like a whole other song. Wanda Jackson rocked it out, and on the line “cry there in the gloom”, she mimed tears falling down her cheek with her beautiful sparkly-ringed tapering fingers, and Jen (an acting teacher, and obsessed with gesture), grasped my hand and whispered, “Oh God, the gesture.”) It’s difficult to explain why something so simple and perhaps even cliche works. It’s because it is truthful, beautiful, and is not trying to be anything other than itself. Gestures like that are hard to come by, and you have to come by them honestly.

I looked around at the club at one point during ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and the entire place was in a ZONE with the song, swaying and grinding, singing along in unison, arms pumping in the air. I got goosebumps. I glanced at Charlie and said, “The song still works.” It is still a thrilling piece of music and to hear it on Elvis Week, and to witness and feel how much it still works an audience, was a profound moment.

She sang many of her old hits, treating us to some of her yodeling (off the charts!). She talked about how she started writing her own stuff, because she was really out there on her own back then, a woman singing this type of music. The Boys weren’t writing stuff for her. There weren’t any songs from the girl’s point of view, so she went ahead and wrote them.

Here she is performing on television in 1958, singing “Hard Headed Woman.”

I think my favorite anecdote she told at the Maxwell’s show was one involving Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen has talked often about Wanda, and how much he loves her and how inspired he has been by her career. Jackson said:

“I was playing in Asbury Park and I look out and there’s Bruce Springsteen and his wife. I was playing in a bowling alley. There wasn’t even a real stage. But there they were.”

If you are not moved by that moment, if you don’t get why Jen and I held hands with tears in our eyes picturing Springsteen and his wife going out to a bowling alley to see Wanda Jackson the legend … then I certainly can’t (and won’t) explain it to you. You’re on your own.

She spoke about how she invited Jesus into her heart in 1971. She spoke in a simple and beautiful way about how every day she thanks the Lord that it happened: “Wherever I sing in this world, I want the world to know that I thank the Lord for that day, when I Saw the Light.”

And then, of course, she sang Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw the Light’, which she also recorded. It starts slow and churchy, and then explodes.

Jackson talked about how Jack White came into her life, wanting to produce a new album (as he had done with Loretta Lynn to monumental success).

Wanda Jackson and Jack White

Jackson said she had some hesitation about him but he said, “Wanda, I don’t want to change you. I want you to do your thing, but I just want you to have new fresh material.” She was IN from that moment forward. (She laughed, “And so far, it has been my most successful album. It actually cracked the Top 100.”) They worked together on the lineup. He suggested songs, he talked with her about what she wanted to do, he was very prepared. He was also flexible. For example, one song he brought to her she loved but she also felt that some of the lyrics were not “age-appropriate” for her. Jack White could have tried to twist her arm, he could have forced her into something she did not feel comfortable with, but instead, he sat down, took out a pencil, and edited out the lines she felt embarrassed about. I love him for that.

Jack White suggested Amy Winehouse’s “I’m No Good”, which Jackson did record. Jackson spoke to us of her sadness when she heard of Winehouse’s death: “I had hoped to meet her.” She performed “I’m No Good” at Maxwell’s, and listen to that growl, man.

Jack White also asked her in one of their preliminary conversations, “What is a song you have always wanted to cover but never did?” She thought a bit and said it was a song Elvis did that she had always loved, called “Like a Baby”. “Like a Baby” is not one of his better known songs, but it is certainly one of his sexiest performances. So Jack White was like, “Okay, let’s do that one.”

We didn’t want her to leave the stage at the end of the night, and there was this strangely touching moment, piercing even, when she had “exited” after her last song – only there was nowhere for her to go, there being no backstage, so she just huddled over to the side of the stage, in full view, as her band kept playing and we all screamed for an encore. There she was, huge smile on her face, and of course, she waited as we whipped ourselves into a frenzy (and we could SEE her, we knew she was coming back because she hadn’t gone anywhere), until finally she knew when the time was right and she came back on and sang”Let’s Have a Party”, and nearly blew the top of the roof off. But it was the vision of her, a “minz” 74 year old woman with a black swoopy pompadour, red fringe shimmying jacket, and sparkling jewelry reflecting and refracting the light, a freakin’ legend, a Hall of Famer, huddled over to the side of a tiny stage in a small club in Hoboken New Jersey … that nearly did me in completely. Because it was how she started in her career, too. Playing at school fairs and gymnasiums and picnics, where there would be no big celebratory opening, no real backstage, you just walked up there with your guitar and started. You either had star quality or you didn’t. You couldn’t rely on a light show or a big fanfare to pump up the crowd. You walked out there COLD.

And there she was last Friday night at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, 74 years young and 50 years into her career, but loving every second of it. Not caring, not caring that there was no backstage, not caring that we could still see her as we screamed for an encore … not caring at all, because she knows that what is important is not the trappings of success, but the immediate energy ricocheting around that particular room of 100 people.

She was responsible for that energy. She nurtured it and fed off of it.She created it. She will never stop doing so.

That’s a rock star.

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Announcement: Editor Anne Coates: Lifetime Achievement Oscar


I suppose I can mention this now, since my draft is in and there have been conference calls with the Dudes in Charge, and the train has most definitely left the station:

I have been asked to write the narration for the tribute reel that will play for editor Anne Coates at the Lifetime Achievement Oscars awards ceremony in November. You can see a list of the recipients here. (I also wrote the narration two years ago for Gena Rowlands’ Lifetime Achievement Oscar, which was read by Angelina Jolie.) The Oscar video dudes like my work and I was so pleased to be asked to pay tribute to Anne Coates!

Coates is a 90-year-old artist whose first job as editor, the first time she got full screen credit, was in 1952 with Pickwick Papers (although she had been second editor on the legendary The Red Shoes) and just last year she edited 50 Shades of Gray. (In her opinion, that last one should have been “raunchier.” She’s not wrong.) Of course she is most known for what is one of the most famous and celebrated cuts in cinema history in Lawrence of Arabia: going from a closeup of Peter O’Toole blowing out a match to the sun coming up over the desert. I have seen Lawrence on the big screen, and that cut – so breath-taking and so audacious at any size (TV screen, laptop, whatever) – is quite literally mind-blowing on the big screen. It’s RADICAL. How do you even begin to make the choice to do a cut like that? (Incidentally, they initially cut it like that because of a technological issue: they wanted it to be a dissolve but they had to wait a bit to see the result of that, due to the technology of the day. In the meantime, though, Lean and Coates both looked at that super blunt cut and thought: “Huh. It works really well like that, too, though, doesn’t it?”)

Editors go through entire careers without creating a cut that becomes as famous as that one.


In real time:

Along the way, she has edited Becket, The Horses’ Mouth, Murder on the Orient Express, The Elephant Man, Chaplin, In the Line of Fire, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Unfaithful … and What About Bob?, and the inclusion of that film in that list makes me love her all the more. She has worked with legendary directors: Powell and Pressburger, John Ford, Jack Cardiff, Richard Attenborough, Peter Glenville, Wolfgang Petersen, Sidney Lumet. She loves working with younger directors, new names, those bringing energy and risk-taking into the profession. David Lynch. Steven Soderbergh. The seduction scene in Out of Sight is a masterpiece, and that is due in part to how Coates and Soderbergh decided to put it together, not to mention the choice to do these little freeze-frames. Sexy!










But of course, Anne Coates will go down in the history books for her Oscar-winning edit of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The director David Lean was an editor himself, and he took a look at one of the first scenes she edited and said that she was the only editor he worked with where he saw what she did on her first pass and thought to himself: “That’s exactly how I would have done it.” It was a tremendously challenging job, with – literally – miles of footage of camels crossing the desert.

Another famous scene is the entrance of Ali (Omar Sharif), one of the most memorable character introductions in cinema history.

Coates is a rare one in that she believes that if you don’t need to cut, then don’t freaking cut: let a scene play out in one if it works. Initially they were going to cut away from Ali a couple of times during his legendary approach but then they saw how well it worked to just have him materialize, over an excruciatingly long period of time. You do not know if he is benign or malevolent. Maurice Jarre did the famous sweeping score of Lawrence, but there is no music playing beneath the scene. Nothing. We sit. And watch. And wait. Again: bold. Audacious. Radical. And RIGHT.

Speaking of her belief that if a scene CAN play out in one, then LET it play out in one: witness the slow push-in to Anthony Hopkins’ face when he first sees The Elephant Man. Lynch/Coates had talked a lot about how to “reveal” the Elephant Man, and this is a key moment. But instead of showing us the Elephant Man fully, Lynch stays on Hopkins, moving in closer, closer, closer, and at the closest point, a tear falls down his cheek. (THAT is acting technique, my friends.) Lynch was smart enough to know that the entire thing is about Hopkins’ reaction. Everything we need to know is on his face. And Coates – known as an “actor’s editor” for how well she takes care of performances (leaving them alone, for the most part, if they’re good), loved that choice. Look how beautiful.


I am thrilled to have been asked to pay tribute to this genius. So far there has been no word on who will read the script I’ve written, but the actress they have approached is an exciting prospect for me. Hopefully I will have given her something beautiful to read.

Congratulations to Anne Coates!

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“What If Elvis Had Lived?” My entry in Annie West’s What If? A Chronicle of What Might Have Been


My copy of What If? A Chronicle of What Might Have Been, edited and illustrated by Sligo illustrator Annie West, arrived a couple of days ago and what a gorgeous and funny book it is, and I’m not just saying that because I’m one of the contributors! The majority of the contributors are Irish writers and so there’s a lot of Irish history “What Ifs”, for example one involving Éamon de Valera and one involving Michael Collins. But there are some pop culture ones too. I was excited to see that someone had written a Robert Johnson “What If”.

Months ago, she reached out and asked for my pitches of what I wanted to write about. I had a bunch of ideas, sent them all to her. She picked the one that ended up appearing in the book. The one she picked feels like it was meant to be.

And her ILLUSTRATION for it. I can’t get over it.



But you’ll have to buy the book to find out what happened if Elvis had lived.

Purchase What If? A Chronicle of What Might Have Been here.

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Today In History: October 19, 1781: The Surrender at Yorktown


The surrender at Yorktown, which ended the American Revolutionary War.

The day before:

General Lord Charles Cornwallis to General George Washington, October 18, 1781

I agree to open a treaty of capitulation upon the basis of the garrisons of York and Gloucester, including seamen, being prisoners of war, without annexing the condition of their being sent to Europe; but I expect to receive a compensation in the articles of capitulation for the surrender of Gloucester in its present state of defence.

I shall, in particular, desire, that the Bonetta sloop of war may be left entirely at my disposal, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an aid-de-camp to carry my dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton. Such soldiers as I may think proper to send as passengers in her, to be manned with fifty men of her own crew, and to be permitted to sail without examination, when my dispatches are ready: engaging, on my part, that the ship shall be brought back and delivered to you, if she escapes the dangers of the sea, that the crew and soldiers shall be accounted for in future exchanges, that she shall carry off no officer without your consent, nor public property of any kind; and I shall likewise desire, that the traders and inhabitants may preserve their property, and that no person may be punished or molested for having joined the British troops.

If you choose to proceed to negociation on these grounds, I shall appoint two field officers of my army to meet two officers from you, at any time and place that you think proper, to digest the articles of capitulation.

(Check out the full correspondence in the days leading up to the 19th)

Cornwallis realized that aid would not come in time, and after two days of bombardment he sent a drummer out into view, who apparently was beating the rhythm of: “STOP! LET’S TALK!!!” A British officer high in rank came forward, was blindfolded and taken to George Washington (who was on his last legs himself).

The surrender document had already been drawn up, with Washington dictating the terms. Here are the Articles of Capitulation.

Over 7,000 soldiers surrendered at Yorktown.


The story goes that as the defeated army marched away, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down”. I did a quick Google search and found a lot of defensive impassioned people out there who feel the need to shout out into the wilds of the Internet with such comments as: “There is NO evidence that ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ was played …” I love nerds who take sides in meaningless historical debates like this. I adore them. I’m a nerd like that. But still. Whether or not it happened, it’s a good story. There are a couple of versions of said song (which has, by itself, a long interesting history). Here is one of the versions:

If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

Dr. James Thacher, who served in the Continental Army, is one of our eyewitnesses of the capitulation, and he published his version of events a couple of years later, the relevant passage being:

“At about twelve o’clock, the combined army was arranged and drawn up in two lines extending more than a mile in length. The Americans were drawn up in a line on the right side of the road, and the French occupied the left. At the head of the former, the great American commander [George Washington], mounted on his noble courser, took his station, attended by his aides. At the head of the latter was posted the excellent Count Rochambeau and his suite. The French troops, in complete uniform, displayed a martial and noble appearance; their bands of music, of which the timbrel formed a part, is a delightful novelty, and produced while marching to the ground a most enchanting effect.

The Americans, though not all in uniform, nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy. The concourse of spectators from the country was prodigious, in point of numbers was probably equal to the military, but universal silence and order prevailed.

It was about two o’clock when the captive army advanced through the line formed for their reception. Every eye was prepared to gaze on Lord Cornwallis, the object of peculiar interest and solicitude; but he disappointed our anxious expectations; pretending indisposition, he made General O’Hara his substitute as the leader of his army. This officer was followed by the conquered troops in a slow and solemn step, with shouldered arms, colors cased and drums beating a British march. Having arrived at the head of the line, General O’Hara, elegantly mounted, advanced to his excellency the commander-in-chief, taking off his hat, and apologized for the non-appearance of Earl Cornwallis. With his usual dignity and politeness, his excellency pointed to Major-General Lincoln for directions, by whom the British army was conducted into a spacious field, where it was intended they should ground their arms.

The royal troops, while marching through the line formed by the allied army, exhibited a decent and neat appearance, as respects arms and clothing, for their commander opened his store and directed every soldier to be furnished with a new suit complete, prior to the capitulation. But in their line of march we remarked a disorderly and unsoldierly conduct, their step was irregular, and their ranks frequently broken.

But it was in the field, when they came to the last act of the drama, that the spirit and pride of the British soldier was put to the severest test: here their mortification could not be concealed. Some of the platoon officers appeared to be exceedingly chagrined when giving the word “ground arms,” and I am a witness that they performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner; and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper, throwing their arms on the pile with violence, as if determined to render them useless. This irregularity, however, was checked by the authority of General Lincoln. After having grounded their arms and divested themselves of their accoutrements, the captive troops were conducted back to Yorktown and guarded by our troops till they could be removed to the place of their destination.”

One of my favorite sites, Boston 1775, describes the blame-game that ensued, following the capitulation, between the British generals.

Here is a strategic military map from 1781.


Map found here in this awesome collection (I could get lost in there forever.)

On the map you can see the positions of the British Army commanded by Cornwallis, and you can see the American and French forces commanded by Washington. And check out the French fleet (under Count de Grasse) comin’ down the pike!

And finally: here is a story I love. Again, perhaps it’s apocryphal, or even an out-and-out fabrication, but I love it nonetheless.

Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time of the surrender at Yorktown. He was there as a diplomat, and a walking-talking advertisement of Teh Awesome Colonies. He played chess, he drank, he socialized, he wore fur-lined hats, he was a great storyteller, and France went wild for him. One of the first international celebrities.

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”


I would like to point out that I first wrote this piece in 2008, long before Hamilton came along. I’ve been an American Revolutionary War buff since … well, I was born into it. My family is a Boston family. It’s the air we breathed. But also my Irish immigrant family had absorbed the story into their bones and hearts. “John and Abigail” (no last names) were discussed in such a casual familiar way that when I was a kid I thought they were members of our family. So I just need to point this out. When I sat there in the audience at Hamilton (hands down, the most exciting night I’ve ever had in the theatre), and the Battle of Yorktown commenced, I felt a thrill of connection. I loved so much that Lin Manuel Miranda had incorporated the legend/myth/apocryphal-who-cares story about the British soldiers singing the old drinking song “The World Turned Upside Down,” as they marched off. The end of the song, the end of the war.

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“Am I Too Loud For You?” Happy Birthday, Eminem

A re-post for Marshall Mathers’ birthday, which is today. So psyched I finally got to see him perform.

WARNING: If, by some amazing circumstance, you have never heard “Kim” before, please know that it is completely unsafe for work, frankly psychotic, horrifying, awful, and contains more triggers than a gun-range.

Eminem gives one of the all-time great acting performances in this blistering screed named after his two-time (and two-timing) wife, “Kim”. Consider the creation of this song: He stands alone in the studio, and – like all great actors – imagines himself into a fictional circumstance, and – and this is key – he believes in it 100%. He’s not acting. He’s living it out. There it is: that’s the job of the actor. There are some A-List actors who haven’t gone as far as MM does here. It’s one of the most honest love songs ever written/performed. And with that comment, many people recoil from me in disgust. (‘Sokay. I’m used to it.)

Eminem creates the fantasy and then throws himself into all aspects of the fantasy, which is what makes the song unique and terrifying. He does not leave anything out. He does not only fantasize about anger and violence (which would be self-congratulatory, making him look righteous and tough), but he also fantasizes about other emotional elements that would also be present in such a situation, elements like adrenaline and insecurity, wild mood swings (“I hate you! I swear to God, I hate you!” – starting to sob – “Oh my God, I love you …”), attempts to stop the event (“Get a grip, Marshall!”), pathos and terror. “Kim” feels, actually, like: this is how such a horrible event often goes. That’s why it makes for such unbearable listening.

Listen to how he screams, “You can’t run from me, Kim!” A million things are going on in that moment. But more than the emotion, what I hear is his objective: Don’t let her get away from me. When he screams like that, I see that moment unfurling before me, her crawling away, him erupting after her, and the reason I can see it is because of the strength of his belief in the objective. And again: he the artist is standing alone in a studio, living it out, and it’s as real to him as if it were actually happening in the moment. All good acting has a strong objective as its engine. That’s why the moment is so bone-chilling: not because of what he is feeling, but because of his OBJECTIVE. You want her to get away. You know she won’t. It’s phenomenal acting.

Other people writing/performing such a song would have chosen to highlight the rage, because then they would seem like a tough guy, he’s getting imaginary revenge, he’s really “showing her”, isn’t he.

Eminem doesn’t go that route. Throughout the course of the song, he sobs, he pleads, he pulls himself together again, he goes snively pathetic (“You think I’m ugly, don’t you?”), he feverishly reminisces, trying to call back the good times, and then snaps again. The rage fights with a panic-filled sorrow.

In the midst of the emotional maelstrom, he keeps it specific: it’s not just one-note constant screaming. There’s a lot of subtlety in what he is doing. The way he yells at the other car on the highway, for example, is completely different from how he yells at his wife. What he does with his voice there is perfectly evocative of free-floating road rage. The roar of a helpless beaten man. Asserting himself, but totally impotent. Again: this is how such things often go … in real life. He also plays his wife Kim in the song, he plays her screaming for her life, begging for mercy, giving the performance a psychotic glee that is completely deranged.

There’s never been anything else like this performance.

I think what many people mostly remember about “Kim” is the rage (and, perhaps, how “inappropriate” the song is in the first place. I know it’s rude but my response to that is, seriously, “Whatever. Take it up with the PTA.”) There is a hell of a lot more going on in the song than rage, or anger at women, or whatever else. People call it misogynistic. I suppose. Anger at women has been the source of a lot of great art. (The same goes for every ugly emotion.) I wouldn’t want to be MARRIED to August Strindberg, but I love his plays. Besides, “Kim” is not free-floating unspecified MRA rage. It is rage and hurt at one very specific woman: Kim Mathers. “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO MEEEEEEEEE?” screams Marshall. It’s HER he has the beef with. (Eminem long ago renounced the song. He rarely tours, but when he does, he never performs “Kim.” He and Kim get along fine now, rather incredible considering …. this song.)

The song is a fantasy. Last time I checked Kim Mathers is still walking among the living. Fantasies aren’t just unicorns and rainbows. Fantasies are often ugly and pathetic, which is why we hesitate to share them. We will be judged for our inner lives, our private dreamspaces. A lot of great art involves the artist attempting to live out a personal fantasy. And if you’re GONNA live out a fantasy, you might as well REALLY live it, in all its complexity, like MM does here. Who wants to fantasize about sobbing “I love you, God, I love you …” at your wife as you careen your car along a highway? Why would you willingly put yourself into a position where you imagine yourself in such circumstances and then decide to share it? Well, that’s art. That’s Eminem. That’s what it’s about. This is not a wish-fulfillment song. If it were only about wish-fulfillment it would involve more self-righteousness, a little bit more “Watch how I showed this bitch who’s boss.” That is NOT what is happening in “Kim” at all.

Eminem is interested in how this would go if it were actually to happen. It’s a work of imagination, a perfect example of Stanislavsky’s “magic What if”. What IF this were true, what IF something like this happened … Asking “what if” is the start of all imaginative and creative work. “What If” doesn’t just lead to pretty sunsets and Happily Ever After. “What If” leads you into the darkness, too.

And so Eminem’s imagination takes him into the personal, the traumatic, his whiny yet dangerous sense of victimization, his complete and utter instability as a man, his course-corrections back to ugly rage because the pain is too much, his childish begging/pleading … why why why would you do this to me? Whyyy would you do this to meeeee?

The song insists that I go where he goes. It is a prison for the listener. You are put in a tiny dark box with this screaming lunatic, nowhere to escape. Cramped, trapped, forced to listen to this man lose his fucking mind.

Is “Kim” sick? Yes. Is it deranged? Yes.

It is also a work of art.

Posted in Actors, Music, On This Day | Tagged | 9 Comments